William Morris and Kelmscott Manor

20170518_142652It is surprising that I’ve never been to Kelmscott Manor before, but this week I went with a group from the Birmingham Midland Institute. I gave a lecture about William Morris while we were travelling, so I spent the preceding week deeply immersed in Morris’s life and work, and it has increased my passion for him. Visiting Kelmscott consequently felt like something of a pilgrimage. The Manor has an interesting history anyway, dating from 1600, and Morris felt that it was “the loveliest haunt of ancient peace”, which seemed to be rooted in the soil and the people who had lived there. The image of Kelmscott is particularly famous for its appearance as the frontispiece for Morris’s utopian novel News from Nowhere, and it was wonderful to see it in the stone, as it were, and to feel the deep peace which the place exudes.'Kelmscott Manor' 1893  (Frontispiece from 'News from Nowhere')

Morris was fascinated by the medieval period, ideas and ideals as well as aesthetics, since his childhood when he rode around on a pony in his suit of miniature armour and made up stories in the woods about knights, ladies and fairies. As he grew up, rejecting the Church as a profession in favour of architecture while he was at Oxford, his thoughts and ideas all seem to stem from this childhood interest. Books influenced him deeply; he’d apparently read all of Walter Scott’s novels by the age of nine, and at University he discovered Thomas Carlyle’s Past and Present, John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe. What these books all share, I think, is dissatisfaction with the industrial, self-seeking present, and a desire to revisit the past which is more than nostalgia, but a genuine desire to put right what they felt was wrong with the world. Like the modern-day knight of Yonge’s novel, Guy Morville, Morris’s life demonstrates how he lived out the ideals he developed as a young man.

Morris is mostly remembered as a designer, now, and of course there are many of his designs at Kelmscott Manor, which is perhaps more simply furnished than one might 20170518_144830expect, but in a distinctive style (I’ve now discovered why my parents painted all their furniture dark green) with natural, clear colours. Many of the fabrics and objects there were brought there after his death, but it’s wonderful to see his bed, with the poem he wrote for it embroidered by Jane around it, which begins:

The wind’s on the wold
And the night is a-cold,
And Thames runs chill
‘Twixt mead and hill.

Morris’s poetry, his Norse tales, his Socialist work and his designs all demonstrate a remarkable sense of unity. Though his Socialism developed after he encountered Marx’s Das Kapital, he was always anxious for opportunities for all, and for a fairer system to be achieved in Britain, for which he was quite prepared for violent anarchy – indeed, he felt it was probably the only way, and in News from Nowhere it is apparent that such a revolution had occurred. His desire was 20170518_144819not only for equality but for dignity and respect for all, and that comes in a very Marxist form in News from Nowhere, where all receive the same pay and love their work. The guiding principal of ‘The Firm’ which Morris set up to produce useful and beautiful household objects was that art should be handmade, using the skill of the craftspeople, and that all should have access to it. Of course these things may seem improbable or even impossible, and Morris is nothing if not an idealist, but there is something incredibly appealing about his beautiful, medievalized utopia in which all can share in the beauty of life through art, nature and love. The environment was an important part of this, too: how we connect to what is around us – buildings, places, the natural world – indicates who were are, and it is very clear what he thought of the pollution and destruction of the natural environment in the nineteenth century:

Is money to be gathered? cut down the pleasant trees among the houses, pull down ancient and venerable buildings for the money that a few square yards of London dirt will fetch; blacken rivers, hide the sun and poison the air with smoke and worse, and it’s nobody’s business to see to it or mend it: that is all that modern commerce, the counting-house forgetful of the workshop, will do for us herein.

He is remarkably prescient, I believe: I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate recently, and Morris’s views that we have lost connection with the environment, that we are wreaking havoc on the wo20170518_144014rld and there will be ecological payback, and that capitalism in the form of industrialised society is the main driver of climate destruction are echoed vividly in Klein’s arguments. Wandering the beautiful gardens at Kelmscott, and walking beside the Thames where Rossetti and Morris wandered, one can see why he felt so strongly about this, leaving behind the polluted rivers and skies of London.

Morris said that ‘History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.’ To be creative was the source of life for Morris, and Kelmscott Manor provided the peace that he needed for this. He wrote in the late 1870s of sitting in the tapestry room one evening, watching the sun set over the fields and hearing the cows lowing in the pasture; there are still cows there, and it is possible to feel very close to the past here.

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King Arthur and Tintagel

One of my abiding interests from childhood is the myths of King Arthur. I dragged my parents round places such as Glastonbury Abbey (the alleged burial site of Arthur – one of several) and Tintagel  Castle (revenge, perhaps, for all the churches and stately homes!) I read and reread the myths, from children’s retellings to Chretien de Troyes, Malory, Spenser, Geoffrey of Monmouth (I was once asked to leave a history class at school for reading this under the desk, ironically) and, latterly, Tennyson. The Pre-Raphaelites, with their love of medievalism (shared by the Victorians more widely), also painted some Arthurian myths, and I’m interested in those, too. I’m less concerned about the ‘real’ King Arthur, if there was such a person (and if there was, he certainly couldn’t have been the medieval king he is depicted as) and more interested in what the myths mean to us, and what we do with them. It seems fair to say that the myths of Arthur and his Round Table have been associated with either those interested in mysticism, or those with an overabundance of misguided patriotism, but there are plenty of serious scholars, too. The constant reinterpretation of the myths, in poetry, fiction, art, films and more, is an indication of the enduring nature of the legends, but the ways in which these stories are used tells us more about the society in which these interpretations were created than it does about Arthur himself.

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The stories are age-old, including chivalry, fighting, power, magic, love, adultery, faith, death and human fallibility. They come from all over the place – the stories we are now familiar with have been pieced together largely from Welsh, Cornish and French tales, and there is no ‘pure’ or ‘true’ version. But the stories of Arthur and his knights, their adventures, their search for the Holy Grail, the doomed love-triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot which brings down a kingdom, have resonances throughout history. Arthur, after his mortal wound, is taken to the mysterious Vale of Avalon; he was said to be ready to return when Britain needed him (and, interestingly, during WW1 some people apparently believed he would return). There are echoes of Christianity in this: as a good, pure man and leader, Arthur is figured in the myths as Christ’s representative on earth, whom death cannot kill and will one day return to save those in need. The chivalric code of Arthur’s court is set up as an idealised society in which all are welcome, all are brave, good, mutually supportive, and so on. (Actually the details of the stories indicate something more nuanced than this, though).

Places which are associated with Arthur are extremely popular. We visited Tintagel recently, which is known as the legendary place of Arthur’s birth to Ygraine and Uther; Merlin is said to have smuggled him away to live with another family (Sir Bors, I think). Tintagel Castle and village make much of this connection, and as we climbed up to the castle I told my small son some of the stories of Arthur (bowdlerised for children!) Surrounded by sea, high up on the cliffs, it’s an evocative place, despite the extremely tenuous Arthurian connections. I notice that another castle is being excavated near Tintagel, which is expected to arouse the interest of Arthurians (see here).

I was also curious to visit King Arthur’s Great Halls. In the 1930s, Frederick Thomas Glasscock acquired a Victorian house on the main street in Tintagel, and set about turning into how20160716_153528 he saw King Arthur’s court. This slightly barking idea has led to a fascinating place: the first room contains thrones on which one can sit and listen to a recording of Robert Powell reading the story of King Arthur, which is illustrated by some striking paintings by William Hatherall, which are very much period pieces. Each painting is lit up at the relevant moment in the story – my son loved it. Then one moves down a corridor which contains beautiful stained glass by Veronica Whall, loosely Pre-Raphaelite in style, featuring the coats of arms of the knights of the round table. The real destination, though, is the Great Hall itself: with 52 types of Cornish granite. There is a Round Table, along with thrones and suits of armour. It’s fascinating in a rather surreal way: remarkably kitsch, and indicative of the passion some people have for Arthur himself. You can find out more about the Halls here. There are various other places in the area, all which take equally seriously their position so close to the birthplace of King Arthur; perhaps we will visit those another time. Tintagel was fascinating, but I was happy to return home and read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.

Hidden treasures in the archive

Recently I seem to have had a lot of sneak previews of things I find exciting. Last week, I visited the Art & Design archives at Birmingham City University (where I work). The contents include the Birmingham School of Art archives, and the archivist had contacted me to say:

We have some 60+ historical studies, a large number of which are of medieval scenes with a strong Pre-Raphaelite influence. However, we also have examples of stained glass designs, designs for metalwork and jewellery, illustrated books, calligraphy and greetings card designs that show just how influential the Arts and Crafts tradition was at the School of Art in the late nineteenth century.

This was enough for me to be very keen, but the contents are broader than this:

Our largest collection is the School of Art’s own archive, which contains a significant number of student artworks in a wide variety of genres, including metalwork, jewellery and stained glass designs, mind and memory drawings, exercises in creating patterns, illustrated books, calligraphy, work produced by students of the School of Printing under the direction of Leonard Jay, fashion designs and botanical illustrations as well as examples of fine art – portraits, life drawings, historical studies featuring medieval legends, etc. The collection is strongest for the Arts and Crafts period, i.e. 1880-1920. We also have a large collection of London Transport posters which have already attracted the attention of colleagues from Visual Communication.

I was really struck by the amazing breadth of works by Florence Camm. Clearly a great deal of her work was preserved for some reason, and there were numerous sketches and cartoons for stained glass (for which she is most famous). A true daughter of the city, living in Smethwick throughout her long life (1874-1960), she was born into a family of stained-glass makers, and despite being a woman was encouraged to study, work and exhibit, which she did prolifically. The Birmingham Municipal School of Art, as it was then, was receptive to female students and permitted her more or less the same opportunities as the male students. The works of hers in the archives demonstrate her growing skills at draughtsmanship – you can see how she struggles with certain aspects of her drawings, for examples, and how over time she improves. Camm’s wonderful stained glass can be seen at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (see below: the Dante and Beatrice windows) as well as in churches across the West Midlands.

The strong Pre-Raphaelite influence on her work can be seen here, as in her other works, though some seem to be gesturing towards a more Modernist approach.

There are some wonderful calligraphic pieces by unknown students, with illuminated letters (annoyingly I don’t have images to share); many of the quotations are from Ruskin, Shelley and Tennyson, and the ornate borders, gold leaf overlaid for a 3-dimensional effect, are startling to see, their colours still strikingly bright. I’m also interested to know that there are photographs of student life in the early 20th century, including a wonderful common room (sketches of designs for the walls are also in the archive, and they are beautiful period pieces).

More information about the archives, including how to book a visit, can be found here. Do go and see them if you’re interested; there is so much scope for new research to be done here. There is also a brilliant blog about the different ways the archive has been used in teaching and research.

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Florence Camm, Preliminary drawing and colour scheme for stained glass design featuring the story of the Prodigal Son, 1901.

Exhibition Review: Enchanted Dreams

1915 P100The new exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, ‘Enchanted Dreams: The Pre-Raphaelite Art of E. R. Hughes’ is the first ever exhibition entirely focused on Hughes’s work. Though some of his paintings, especially ‘Night with her Train of Stars’ (1912), are reasonably well-known, his work tends to be overlooked. BMAG own quite a few, but many more have been assembled here from far and wide, and the exhibition draws out aspects of his work which are not always obvious from the few one usually sees. Not to be confused with Arthur Hughes (his uncle), Edward Robert Hughes was also associated with the Pre-Raphaelites, having been brought up among his uncle’s Pre-Raphaelite friends, and these associations have clear implications for his work which are evident in the exhibition. There is a good effort at providing some of this Pre-Raphaelite context in some of the other works included in the exhibition, by Arthur Hughes (‘The Long Engagement’) and Simeon Solomon (‘Bacchus’), for example. Hughes is perhaps most famous for his ‘tCanzianiwilight’ paintings, of which more later, but his earliest known work, ‘Evensong’, already indicates his interest in the effect of twinkling lights in painting, and the shadows cast by light. Though this domestic scene is perhaps a little sentimental, even immature, it is still beautiful, and shows the promise of his work.

Hughes’s early career as a portrait painter is explored, demonstrating how his works are considerably more than pot-boilers: the double portraits of the Gray Hills, for example, are rich in every sense, depicting a well-fed, middle-aged wealthy couple, and yet in their debts to earlier styles of work, the richness of colour used and the evident complexity of the relationship between the couple, the painter and the viewer, these suggest a psychological intensity which a jobbing painter doesn’t usually manage. Similarly, those of children, such as ‘Dolly Francis’, are unsentimentalised, managing to both respect the conventions of Victorian portraiture of children whilst permitting the child her individuality, staring unsmiling at the viewer. Hughes’s influence on Estella Canziani is mentioned, with the portrait of a woman in mourning costume (right) on display: her portraits of figures in folk dress made on her European travels are a fascinating example of the art of an intrepid woman of the period.

Hughes_OhWhatsThatintheHollow_highresHughes’s engagement with literature also interests me. ‘Study for a Picture: Fra Lippo Lippi’ is a wonderful, red chalk portrait with a remarkable life to it, inspired by Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘Fra Lippo Lippi’. The realistic style advocated in the poem is echoed in the portrait, and the idiosyncratic and dramatic character of Browning’s monk shines through the eyes of Hughes’s work. Similarly, ‘Oh What’s that in the Hollow’ (left) is based on Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Amor Mundi’, reminding the reader/viewer of the transience of life, and that to neglect the spiritual aspects of life is to risk eternal damnation. The painting is peculiarly macabre, the figure clearly corpse-like, and overgrown with brambles and briar roses, indicating the continuation of the world in the face of human mortality.

“Oh what is that glides quickly where velvet flowers grow thickly,
   Their scent comes rich and sickly?”—“A scaled and hooded worm.”
“Oh what’s that in the hollow, so pale I quake to follow?”
   “Oh that’s a thin dead body which waits the eternal term.”ERHughes_MidsummersEve_lores

For many the highlight of the exhibition will be the ‘Blue Room’ of late watercolours, containing not only ‘Night with her Train of Stars’ but also ‘Midsummer’s Eve’ (right). Here, the majority of the paintings are in beautiful blue tones, with Hughes’s signature spots of light giving a dreamy, twilight feel to the whole room. Mostly painted in the early days of the twentieth century, the aesthetic approach of the paintings suggests, nostalgically, a  lost innocence in the years before the First World War. Though a few are ‘fairy pictures’, the exhibition as a whole indicates that Hughes is much more than a painter of sentimental fairies; his technical and emotional as well as aesthetic accomplishment is manifest in this exhibition which, finally, does him credit as an artist.

Incidentally, I attended the exhibition this week with a large number of students (I’ll blog about this another time!) who were equally drawn to Hughes’s work, in very different ways; they are writing creative responses to some of the paintings, which I’ll share on here in a few weeks’ time. There is also a fun ‘Fairy Glen’ for children visiting the exhibition!

Exhibition Review: Swinburne at Balliol

Algernon Charles Swinbourne (1837-1909)At the weekend we visited a little exhibition at the Balliol College Historical Collections Centre, on Algernon Charles Swinburne, his time at Balliol and his life and work. It was only on for two days, but if you missed it you might like to get hold of a catalogue, which is very informative. If you don’t know much about Swinburne, or even if you do, it’s a great opportunity to find out more and see some wonderful documentation about his life. A poet and associate of the Pre-Raphaelites, I imagine he would be extremely shocked to find that he is now considered ‘one of Balliol’s most distinguished former students’; precocious and talented, the examinations register notes him as ‘Industrious but eccentric’ (which is definitely better than some of his peers, who bask in the glory of ‘Respectable but indolent’, ‘Weak, but satisfactory’ (really?!), and ‘Still very unsatisfactory’). I’m often struck by how many ‘great Victorians’ had rather uninteresting University careers, but Swinburne won prizes , founded ‘The Old Mortality Club’, and wrote many essays as well as beginning to write poetry. However, as he became increasingly interested in politics – he was later infamous for his republican and atheist views – his studies faltered, and eventually he went downfine_swinburne without taking his degree.

His associations with the Pre-Raphaelites included his close friendship with the painter William Bell Scott, who painted the portrait above, as well as William Morris, whom he met through mutual friends at Oxford, and later Burne-Jones and Rossetti. The exhibition explores these connections through manuscripts of poems (including one ‘To William Bell Scott’), and a copy of the wonderful Kelmscott Press edition of one of Swinburne’s most famous poems, ‘Atalanta in Calydon’, of which this exhibition marks the 150th anniversary. There are also copies of his collection A Century of Roundels with the roundels on the cover designed by Rossetti.

Swinburne-apeSwinburne remained attached to his tutor, Benjamin Jowett, reading over his work in draft form and eventually writing a fond essay in memorial of his tutor after Jowett’s death. Swinburne had holidayed with Jowett, and there are some fascinating letters (in illegible handwriting!) from Jowett to Florence Nightingale expressing concern about the quantities Swinburne was drinking. The exhibition makes a good case for the poet’s ongoing fondness for Oxford and Balliol despite the unsatisfactory conclusion of his degree, as well as indicating Swinburne’s poetic appropriations of the classical myths and forms he learned from Jowett. Swinburne became a highly successful poet, but he was seen as decadent (though, as the catalogue says, he perhaps write about ‘vice’ more than he practised it) and John Ruskin described ‘Atalanta at Calydon’ as ‘the grandest thing ever yet done by a youth – though he is a Demoniac youth’. His preoccupation with republicanism and the non-existence of God made him also a figure of suspicion, along with hints of other things even less acceptable to Victorian society, such as sex and flagellation (neither of which get much of a mention in the Balliol exhibition, for which I am thankful, as there is more than enough modern salaciousness about these aspects of his life). These nonconforming views were most apparent in his 1866 collection Poems and Ballads, dedicated to Burne-Jones, and the manuscripts of some of the poems which were on display were a delight.roundels

The Balliol collection leaves no doubt, then, that he was a genius, if an eccentric one. His ideas did not conform to their time, but his work still reads as radical, as well as beautiful, today. The final case shows some modern editions of Swinburne’s work, indicating an ongoing popularity not only with readers but with illustrators; these more recent works are works of art in themselves and a fitting legacy. The exhibition indicates Swinburne’s importance as a Victorian poet and his connectedness to Victorian public and literary life, as well as suggesting, rightly, how formative the Balliol years had been for him. The collection held by the College is remarkable and forms a wonderful resource for those working on Swinburne or certain aspects of Victorian poetry, and it was marvellous to have the opportunity to see so much of it on display. I’m shortly going to be reviewing the new Selected Swinburne edited by Alex Wong, and I will do so with a renewed enthusiasm for the poetry.

Before the beginning of years
There came to the making of man
Time with a gift of tears,
Grief with a glass that ran,
Pleasure with pain for leaven,
Summer with flowers that fell,
Remembrance fallen from heaven,
And Madness risen from hell,
Strength without hands to smite,
Love that endures for a breath;
Night, the shadow of light,
And Life, the shadow of death.

(From ‘Atalanta in Calydon’)

 

 

 

Victorian Gothic at Knightshayes

P1000886On the way back from holiday, we stopped at Knightshayes, a National Trust-owned house which appeals to me in every way. It’s a wonderful example of Gothic Revival architecture,designed by William Burges. The house has a complex history of design which makes it particularly interesting: Burges was commissioned to design the house in 1869 by Sir John Heathcoat Amory, and completed the exterior by 1874. Burges, inspired by Pugin’s work and writing, and eccentric friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, was deeply immersed in the medieval aesthetic, which manifested itself in a European-influenced form of Gothic in his Burgesbuildings. (As you can see from the photographs, he was so medievalised he even had the costume). He was friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who wrote of him:

There’s a babyish party named Burges,

Who from infancy scarcely emerges.

If you had not been told,

He’s disgracefully old,

You would offer a bull’s eye to Burges.

P1000892All this suggests that there was something unrestrained and perhaps difficult to work with about Burges, and certainly this seems to have been the case for the Heathcoat Amory family. Though the designs he made for the interior look marvellous to me, the high Victorian Gothic interiors were too much for the more conservative family, who consequently sacked Burges and brought in John Dibblee Crace,whose family worked with royalty (and on the Houses of Parliament) and were thus considered likely to be more respectable interior decorators. They were wrong; what Heathcoat Amory wanted was a solid, respectable, traditional house to establish himself as a country gentleman, and this fashionable, colourful (the less charitable mighP1000865t say garish) form of décor didn’t suit. From 1889 onwards, the house was transformed as patterned ceilings were covered up, fireplaces and panelling removed, and so on. Luckily, nothing was thrown away, but it was mostly chucked carelessly into cellars and basements. Eventually, the process of restoration of Gothic design (re-Gothicising?) began, and late in the 20th century was completed.

The house has had an interesting history: it has remarkable 20th century gardens, as well as having housed a family descended from a factory owner (apparently an excellent employer) who, along with his descendants, shaped the area in which they lived. It also served as a military hospital in the First World War and a rest home for servicemen in the Second. But to visit it now, P1000864with its remarkable woodcarvings, its quotations from Chaucer and inscriptions of different kinds, its stylised patterns on wallpaper and furnishings, it seems to echo William Morris’s home at Red House, built in 1860 by Philip Webb but with interiors by Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which is perhaps less Gothic but equally medieval and decorative, adhering to similar principals.P1000869P1000868

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