Tuesday, 5 January 2021

In Praise of Street Art

Street art created during recent Cheltenham Paint Festivals is starting to change the face of parts of the town. In the past nine months, when The Wilson has been closed, I have been glad to be challenged, amused, bemused and exhilarated by many of the artworks that now confront me on my daily lockdown walks. Much of the artwork created during these festivals, which last year took place over four days in early September, is located in and around the Station, Waitrose and St. Paul’s areas. Some of the best, though, can be found closer to the town centre. 

Just behind the Royal Crescent, for instance, the Bayshill inn occupies one corner of the St James’ Square carpark and in 2018 the long side wall of this inn was painted with a powerful (but to me rather ominous) mural. A great golden archer, of heroic stature, is poised to fire a giant arrow into a glittering target but his arm is becoming encased in tendrils of vegetation that suggest the arrow will never be fired. It’s an image of arrested motion, eye-catching every time I have passed it, but it has distracted me from noticing until recently another and much more discreet artwork in an altogether different idiom, this one created on an adjoining wall during the 2019 Paint Festival. When the car park is full, you could miss it altogether.

If you approach from the road what you see first is a grinning blue-spotted white horse with a green bridle and blue hooves. It looks like the sort of horse you might have seen in a children’s book a couple of generations ago. Behind the horse stands a small ginger-headed girl facing the wall and wielding in her left hand a spray can, apparently to paint the horse’s tail. Approach from the other side, though, and the back-turned girl strikes you first. No longer looking so small, but still a child, she wears black boots and odd stockings: left leg, ginger to match her hair; right leg, pale green to match her tee-shirt dress. The stockings are held up by snappy suspenders with blue buttons – blue to match not just the spots and hooves of the horse but (we now notice) the blue jacket of a tiny monkey perched on her left shoulder.

Come closer. At once we see that the girl is not herself spray painted. Unexpectedly, for a paint festival at least, she is created from a very precise assembly of ceramic tiles – 18 by my count. The effect is of a figure in low relief, glazed and standing out against the rough texture of the wall itself. For the wall is rough: red brick bearing traces of long-vanished coats of lime wash, black paint and (towards the ground) of patches of plaster, as if there had once been a dado. This is worth noting because whereas the painting of the archer on the Bayshill’s main wall completely obscures the brickwork (not to mention the guttering and down pipe) here the texture and blemishes of the wall have been incorporated into the picture: the patches of old dirty plaster could be puddles over which the horse is jumping, and the girl is instinctively lifting the heel of her right foot to avoid making her boot muddy. As a background, the reddish-brown bricks of the mottled wall play an important role in highlighting the whole picture – horse and girl together.

I like the reflexive way in which street artists sometimes incorporate the symbol of their profession – the spray can – into their work like this. I could point to several such examples around Cheltenham; but only here, on the Bayshill wall, does the spray-can hold the key to unlocking the whole picture.

On the label is the word LINDGREN, which points us to Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002), the celebrated Swedish children’s author whose 1945 novel, Pippi Långstrump , introduced the world to an unlikely nine-year-old superwoman. Here is the UK’s National Literacy Trust, in 2020, extolling her virtues: 

Pippi Longstocking has been an incredible role model for three quarters of a century. She’s a real advocate for justice, can sail a ship across the seven seas, carry a horse and beat the strongest man in the world …. We can all be inspired by Pippi Longstocking’s independence, kindness and love of exploration.

From her first appearance Pippi has been described and defined exactly as you can see her on the Bayshill Inn wall; the only thing you can’t see are her freckles. The monkey on her shoulder is her friend Mr Nillson. But who has brought her to this corner of Cheltenham? 

Well, on the spray can’s label is a signature, Chinagirl, with the word TILE in small print underneath. When I had deciphered the ‘handwriting’, the name stirred vague memories of a David Bowie song, ‘China Girl’, written in the 1970s – ‘I’m just a wreck without my little China girl’.  As it happens, however, Chinagirl Tile is the professional name of a young Austrian street artist with a worldwide reputation. Her work can be seen around the world – London, Berlin, Seoul, Tokyo, Auckland – and she has had a major one-woman show in her home city, Vienna, at the Wien Museum. Internationally, she is known for her support for, and encouragement of, women as artists – hence perhaps her enthusiasm for the indomitable little girl  who can be seen at any time, here in Cheltenham, putting art on a wall.

Finally, the spray can’s label carries the initials SSOSVA. I leave you to look this one up for yourself. Chinagirl is a gentle activist, but a serious one. In her manifesto, BRING A DINOSAUR, Rules for Girls who want to be Street Artists, she lists fourteen rules, among them these: 

9. The street is your canvas, a very powerful one too. Even small interventions will be seen.

10. Street art is a tool to send out messages. Use this power/burden wisely.

14. Be prepared to stand your ground.

Pippi Longstocking would agree.


Adrian Barlow 


Photographs © the author.

 

 

 

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Who is holding the baby?

Lecturing on Zoom is a poor substitute for speaking to a live audience, but it’s something I’ve got quite used to now. Just before lockdown I led a study day on Seamus Heaney: sixty students and I, all of us absorbed in shaping and sharing our responses to the language and life of a remarkable poet. I couldn’t have done that on Zoom. The subjects on which I have spoken since Lockdown #1 include Venice, stained glass, the pelican in art, a potted history of punting, and portraits in the collections of The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. In the run-up to Christmas I lectured twice on ‘Looking at the Nativity Anew’ in which I discussed representations of the Nativity story – broadly, from the Annunciation to the Flight into Egypt – in painting, sculpture and stained glass from the 14th century to the present day.

My favourite Christmas card received this year is one published by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. At first glance it’s a touching scene – humorous, even – found in the 15th century Besançon Book of Hours. Had it arrived while I was preparing my Nativity lecture I should certainly have included it. The title is ‘Nativity, Virgin Reading’ (Fitzwilliam Ms.69 f.48r) and indeed the chief surprise of the scene is that Mary is emphatically not nursing her newborn child:  she has delegated that job to Joseph while she sits comfortably in bed, propped up against a plump bolster, absorbed in a book. She wears an arresting canary-coloured kirtle (none of your traditional blue or red) and a white headdress tucked back carefully to reveal a neatly-curled blonde ringlet. The conventional Virgin Mother she isn’t.

Even more surprising than the clothes she wears is her scarlet, gold-spotted coverlet. This blanket steals the show. Did she and Joseph bring it with them, for use in just such an emergency? It’s almost possible: the hem of Joseph’s blue gown matches the hem of Mary’s red blanket. However, Joseph’s clothes (especially the homespun woollen cowl around his shoulders) are less sophisticated than his wife’s. So, apparently, are his manners: he hasn’t taken off his boots before planting his feet on the edge of Mary’s blanket.

It is difficult to identify the stable space as represented here: is it the modest wooden framework at the head of Mary’s bed? Is Joseph sitting on grass? What are we to make of the elaborate screen in the background, or the grey wall in front of it? Is the wattle-fenced enclosure, where the ox and ass1 have their ringside view of the holy family, the real stable? There is no sign of a manger: all the ass appears to be eating is Joseph’s halo.

These observations aren’t meant to be flippant. The more I study this picture the more puzzling it becomes. Beneath Mary’s bed is a scrubby little plant. There are of course flowers traditionally associated with Mary; but this apology for a lily seems an almost ironic comment on a scene where, frankly everything is turned on its head. Mary relaxes in the manner of an indulged wife able to leave childcare to others; she shows no interest in her newborn son or her husband, squatting as they are on the ground at the foot of her bed. Usually, images of the Nativity depict Mary as a mother absorbed in the baby to whom she has just given birth. But not here. Have you ever seen the Nativity depicted like this anywhere else?

Actually I have: at Magdeburg Cathedral in a carved panel on the end of a 14th century choir stall. (The guidebook dates it with surprising precision to 1363). Mary, sleeping centre-stage, dominates this scene both physically – she is more than twice the size of anyone else in this rather crowded image – and because she is fast asleep. Her head is propped comfortably against her right hand as she lies on an amply-draped couch, and her face betrays simple contentment: her child is born, she has fulfilled the task she was given; let someone else take over, for the time being at least. And someone else is, for a nurse maid (bottom left) is giving an apprehensive Jesus his first bath. 



Joseph, altogether upstaged, is also asleep. His head lies against his elbow which rests on a curious Gothic structure. Does this enclosure really indicate the manger? Here are the ox and ass – rather inexpertly carved, it must be said. I am sure the figure of Mary is the work of a master holzschnitzler: from head to toe she is clothed in loosely flowing garments which nevertheless suggest powerfully the physical presence of a body in repose. The other figures and animals look, frankly, like apprentice work: The scroll held by the three angels is crudely shaped2; so are the arms and hands of the angels themselves. Still, the two shepherds (on the left) have a certain vigour. The cowled figure being reassured by an angel3 has an expressive face and holds a staff that could easily double as a cudgel. I like the cross-legged fellow, so absorbed in playing his own music he appears oblivious to the song of the angels. Traditionally, one of the shepherds always carries a bagpipe: in a 16th century carol, Wat, the ‘gud herdés boy’, offers his to the child in the manger:


‘Jesu, I offer to thee here my pipe,

My skirt, my tar-box,4 and my scrip;

Home to my felowes now will I skip,

And also look unto my shepe.’

                        Ut hoy!

            For in his pipe he made so much joy.

'Jolly Wat' (Anon)5

I have to keep reminding myself it is all too easy to underestimate medieval artists and to be fooled by their apparent innocence. But I find the freshness of their vision, their ability to present scenes and situations in ways so strange to us, sometimes disconcerting. What have they seen that we, for all our self-assured sophistication, may have missed? A brief dismissive smile won’t do. We have to keep looking.

Adrian Barlow

 

Illustrations:(i) Christmas card from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (photo: the author) 

(ii) 14th century carved panel from Magdeburg Cathedral (postcard, purchased from Cathedral shop)

 

Footnotes

1)    The ox and ass are essential components of Nativity iconography, but they are never mentioned in New Testament descriptions of the birth of Christ. Different explanations of their significance can be found: my preference is for the argument that the ox is a ‘clean’ animal in Rabbinical tradition and teaching whereas the ass is ‘unclean’; hence side by side in the stable they represent Jew and Gentile together witnessing the birth of Salvator Mundi, [‘the saviour of the world’].

2)    The length of this scroll suggests that it would have contained the text Gloria in Excelsis Deo [‘Glory to God in the Highest’].

3)    The short scroll carried by the angel addressing the startled shepherd who has picked up his cudgel would have been inscribed Noli timere [‘Fear Not’]. In 2013, it was this Latin injunction that the poet Seamus Heaney  texted from his hospital bed to his wife, as his last words.

4)    Tar-box: a small container once carried by shepherds. It contained an ointment (‘tar’) made from the ash of pinewood mixed with pine sap. This was used as a salve for scratches or scabs on sheep.

5)    This carol, Jolly Wat, can be found in the Oxford Book of Ballads (edSir Arthur Quiller-Couch, 1910, p.439).  


My previous post,  A Christmas Card?, discusses a design for a card by the Arts & Crafts artist, Frederick Landseer Griggs. This is one of a series of discussions in which I have focused on works of Art in the collections of The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. To read any of these, click here.

A Christmas Card?

 

Don’t underestimate Frederick Landseer Griggs (1873-1938). The following description of him is not mine: 

While Griggs trained initially as an architect in the Arts & Crafts tradition under C. E. Mallows, it is as a draughtsman and printer-maker that he is best known. His unsurpassed contemporary reputation as an etcher was acknowledged by his election to the Royal Academy in 1931. Demonstrating an equal mastery of meticulous architectural detail and poetic effects of light and atmosphere, he created images of compelling visionary intensity. 

 

These are the Ashmolean Museum’s words (from the Introduction to a travelling exhibition, FL Griggs: Visions of England). They offer an impressive endorsement of an artist who was a significant figure in the Arts & Crafts movement 100 years ago; today, however, his is a less familiar name than the Whalls, Gimsons and Barnsleys who were his contemporaries. Something of Griggs’ ‘compelling visionary intensity’ can be seen in the strange Christmas card image* he engraved in the immediate aftermath of the Great War. It’s strange because it asks all sorts of questions: ‘Is this really a Christmas card at all?’, ‘Why so much Latin at the bottom of the picture?’, ‘Where is this odd-looking bridge and is there really a war memorial cross on top of it?’

 

Certainly it presents a winter scene: the artist makes full use of the black-and-white limitations of etching to highlight the snow lying on the bridge’s steps and parapets as well as on the plinth of the cross. The starry sky suggests a frosty night, but really only the blazing star at the apex of the framed image hints at Christmas – and even this is ambiguous because the beams of light from the star resolve themselves into a cross that hovers above the gabled crucifix. At the very least, you’d want to say this Christmas card almost perversely prefigures the Passion of Christ. 

 

To add to the complication, the Latin text below the frame of the etching – 

 

IN· FESTO· EPIPHANIÆ· DOMINI· NOSTRI· ANNO· SALUTIS· MCMXIX

On the Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord in the Year of Salvation 1919

 

– clearly implies that this is intended as an Epiphany card for 6th January, Twelfth night, the end of the Christmas period. Even this, however, is at odds with the framed Latin text:

 

REX PACIFICUS MAGNIFICATUS EST CUIUS VULTUM DESIDERAT UNIVERSA TERRA

The King of Peace is Glorified, the Sight of whose Face is the Desire 

of the Whole Earth

MAGNIFICATUS EST REX PACIFICUS SUPER OMNES REGES UNIVERSÆ TERRÆ

The King of Peace is Glorified Above All the Kings of the Whole Earth

 

These are the words of the first Antiphon traditionally sung in the pre-Reformation Church in England – as also, of course, throughout the Catholic Church worldwide – to inaugurate the Vigil of [i.e. the night leading up to] Christmas. In 1919, however, you would have been unlikely to recognise their particular relevance unless you were a devout Roman Catholic, as Griggs had recently become, or had an antiquarian interest in the Latin texts of Gregorian plainchant. But the idea of The King of Peace would have resonated powerfully with many people at the first Christmastide after the Armistice.

 

Griggs himself seems to be gesturing to the war and its aftermath, both with the houses reduced to ruins beyond the bridge and with what looks like a war memorial cross (though very few of these had yet been erected). The war memorial cross in Chipping Campden, where Griggs lived, was soon to be designed by him, though not without controversy: local voices were raised against the choice of an artist who had unpatriotically (so it must have seemed at the time) abandoned the Church of England. But the memorial Griggs created bears more than a passing resemblance to the Cross on the bridge on his Christmas (or Epiphany) card. It was unveiled in 1921 and stands in the High Street close to the Market Hall.

 

Which leaves the question, where is the odd-looking bridge that Griggs chose as the setting for the Cross? Certainly not in Chipping Campden; in fact, this is the unique three-way, triple-arched Trinity Bridge in  Crowland, the small fenland town famous for housing the ruins of Croyland Abbey, which had once been celebrated throughout Europe as a centre of learning and Benedictine monasticism. But why should Griggs have chosen Crowland? Well, for one thing he had recently been exploring south Lincolnshire, producing a series of illustrations for the Lincolnshire volume of the then very popular Highways and Byways of England travel guides; in the first edition (1926), his illustration of the bridge appears on page 490.

 

There is, I think, another reason. I began by quoting from FL Griggs: Visions of England. From the same source comes this:

 

His profound faith reinforced his deep-seated love of the countryside and medieval architecture. He increasingly lamented England’s lost identity as a result of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth, and the modern dissolution of community, accelerated by the horrors of the First World War in the twentieth.

 

Crowland, with its ancient bridge left high and dry when the River Welland was diverted away from the towncentre, and with its ruined Abbey that had embodied everything Catholic faith and culture once stood for, perfectly enshrines Griggs’ sense of an almost lost England. Far from a conventional Christmas card, therefore, the artist’s bleak midwinter scene evokes images and ideas of light and darkness, peace and war, Christmas and Crucifixion, memorial and loss. It speaks eloquently of his anxiety for the future even as he tries to recreate an image of the precious past. For Griggs knew something almost no one now knows: that once, in medieval times, there stood on top of Crowland’s bridge a tall wayside cross – which vanished long ago.

 

Adrian Barlow

 

*I first came across Griggs and this image when listening to a Zoom lecture last November on Arts & Crafts war memorials in the Cotswolds. I am grateful to Kirsty Hartsiotis, who gave that lecture to the Friends of The Wilson,  for information about FL Griggs and the background to this image, which is catalogued as item 1990.132 in The Wilson’s catalogue. The image is © Cheltenham Borough Council and The Cheltenham Trust.

Friday, 18 September 2020

Walking the Dog : (i) Staverton Pudding (ii) In the Valley of the Og

Staverton Pudding


‘Staverton? Oh, you mean the airport?’ Actually, no. Gloucestershire Airport – ‘Gateway to the south west’ as it proudly proclaims itself – is more than a mile from the village of Staverton (population 572) – essentially a straggle of houses along a country back road, with not a shop, pub, bus stop or school in sight. There was a school once and I’m pleased to say the rose-covered Old School House still stands. These days Dash the springer spaniel, my old friend and walking companion, lives there. Over her garden wall, what was once the official residence of the Bishops of Tewkesbury is still standing too and still called ‘Bishops House’ (the missing apostrophe a matter of regret, to me at least). Appropriately, it’s in Church Lane, and on our regular walks the churchyard of Staverton Church is always the first stop. Dash is a very good age now, and no longer romps, still less dashes, around.  Still, she enjoys sniffing around the gravestones and the ancient yew trees, and is careful to avoid trampling the cyclamen which grow wild here.

 

The past exerts a strong pull in Staverton: a nineteenth century obelisk marking the grave of Captain David Latimer St Clair proclaims that ‘he was of an ancient family’. Elsewhere in the churchyard another grave, a hundred years later, has as its epitaph ‘The last of his family’. Near the church porch, under the oldest of the yews, are a couple of 17th century headstones – rare in any churchyard. One has lost all its inscription but still has an opulently carved swag incorporating the arms of a Worshipful Company of the city of London:  


a field silver, a chevron sable (black) grailed and three compasses of the same.


It would good to know who it was in this remote Gloucestershire village who’d been a Liveryman of the Company of Carpenters.

 

Alongside, another headstone is still just legible. It records the death of John Drinkwater who ‘disliking all earthly vanities put off mortality Anno Dmi January 25th, 1675’. I wonder whether the poet and playwright John Drinkwater (1882-1937) ever found this headstone. One of his poems suggests he might have done. He loved Gloucestershire and knew this part of the county well, although he called himself a Warwickshire man:

 

Long time in some forgotten churchyard earth of Warwickshire,

My fathers in their generation lie beyond desire,

And nothing breaks the rest, I know, of John Drinkwater now,

Who left in sixteen-seventy his roan team at plough.

Who Were Before Me’ (1921)

 

Ars longa, vita brevis: that parenthesis, ‘I know’, is telling. For much of his career as a writer, Drinkwater was preoccupied by the transitoriness of individual life and the certainty that you’re a long time dead. One of my favourite poems of his, Passage, has for me more than a nod towards Yeats:

 

When you deliberate the page

Of Alexander’s pilgrimage,

Or say – “It is three years, or ten,

Since Easter slew Connolly’s men,”

Or prudently to judgment come

Of Antony or Absalom,

And think how duly are designed

Case and instruction for the mind,

Remember then that also we,

In a moon’s course, are history. (1919)

 

Though it has been locked during the time of Coronavirus, Staverton Church is normally open and when it is, the bell is still rung early each weekday morning, a village tradition dating back to who knows how long. Was this originally to signal the start of the working day or to sound the Angelus? I’ve no idea; but it always pleases me, when I am out early in the fields walking with Dash, to hear the bell’s ‘outrollings’ – that evocative word coined by Thomas Hardy in his poem Afterwards    and suggesting how the sound carries across the landscape. 

 

St Catherine’s is a church with a special treasure. Tucked into the tracery of the small east window is a surviving fragment of early 14th century glass. It shows the arms, head and torso of Christ Crucified, painted in colours of black and silver-grey, copper and gold, using the technique of silver-staining on a single piece of glass. The rictus of Christ’s left hand nailed to the Cross, the detailed representation of resignation on his face and the precise rendering of the bones beneath the skin of the dead body: all these details reveal a new realism that marks a decisive shift away from the earlier styles of 12th and 13th century French and British glass. Staverton is equidistant from Gloucester Cathedral and Tewkesbury Abbey, where you can see some of the finest mid-14th century glass in Europe, but you will find nothing in the windows of either magnificent building that presents more eloquently the agony of the Crucifixion.

 

A gate in the NW corner of the churchyard leads back onto Church Lane, which quickly becomes a farm track, hardly wide enough for the great tractors and trailers that now lumber up and down it. In earlier times, when Dash was up for anything, we would walk the full length of the lane and then across the fields towards Barrow or Down Hatherley. Nowadays, however, she prefers to enjoy a gentle wander and a prolonged sniffing session in the Orchard.

 

Strictly speaking, the Orchard is simply a large meadow with some twenty pear and a couple of apple trees dotted around. We enter through a kissing gate, and a right-of-way across the field leads to a style in the far corner over which I once saw three roe deer come vaulting. I love this place. The field still bears clear traces of medieval ridge and furrow cultivation; the fruit trees are tall and old, yet produce perry pears in profusion every year. There used to be over one hundred varieties of perry grown in Gloucestershire alone, and their names – Huffcap, Merrylegs, Oldfield, Green Horse and Judge Amphlett – remind me of Titania’s attendants in A Midsummer Night’s Dream  or the roll-call of country names in Edward Thomas’s poem Lob.

 

Truly, the earth brings forth her fruit in due season. In spring, soon after the cowslips have appeared, we gather elderflower from the hedgerows, then watch for the first signs of blackberries – will there be a good harvest this summer? A rhyme my grandmother taught me, before I was five, comes into my head:

 

So you’ve come to pay your bill, Berry?

Before it is due, Berry?

Your father, the elder Berry,

Was not such a goose, Berry.

But come, don’t look so black, Berry;

I don’t care a straw, Berry!

 

I’ve been disappointed by the blackberries around Staverton this year, but damsons and sloes have been splendid. Dash waits patiently while I pick all I can reach. At last we head back to the Old School House, where she and I say goodbye and I return to Cheltenham bearing gifts. Already our store-cupboard holds elderflower cordial and syrup, and the first bottles of sloe gin are beginning their year-long fermentation. From the kitchen, as I write this, comes the promising smell of damson jam under production. Autumn has arrived. By way of celebration, we sit down to a unique dessert: Staverton Pudding – a ramekin of baked custard flavoured with elderflower syrup and topped by damson gin jelly, served with a scoop of damson ice-cream and a small square of sponge cake soused in sloe gin. Our own harvest supper.

 

© Adrian Barlow

 

Illustrations: (i) St Catherine’s Church, Staverton, (ii) 14th century glass fragment in the E window of Staverton Church (copyright Alastair Carew-Cox), (iii) 'The Orchard’ showing the surviving rows of ridge and furrow 

Illustrations (i) and (iii) copyright author.


 

The first time I wrote about walking with Dash was in January 2010, when she was an irrepressible three-year-old, living in a village near Marlborough. This post appeared on World and Time, the blog I wrote while teaching at Madingley Hall, home of the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education. I’m republishing the post here with (as you’ll see) an updated final paragraph.

 

In the Valley of the Og (January 2010)


When the recent snow lay round about, at its deepest and crispest, I went walking in the valley of the Og. The Og is almost as short as its name: it rises near Draycot Foliat, a hamlet south of the M4 Swindon interchange, and approximately follows the A346 along a gap in the Downs, before feeding into the River Kennet at Marlborough. Barely ten miles, with very little ‘meandering with a mazy motion’  -  even though the last hamlet it passes en route to Marlborough is Ogbourne Maizey. It’s a marvellously resonant landscape. The valley itself is a convenient narrow fold in the Wiltshire Downs, through which passes the Roman Road that started from Winchester. Near Ogbourne St George it crosses the Ridgeway. 


From Ogbourne St Andrew you can walk over the downs to Avebury, with a view across to Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long Barrow. Following this route is like walking through a painting by Paul Nash: you keep thinking, ‘I’ve seen this view in one of his pictures.’  

 

 Edward Thomas, in his book The South Country (1909), described the valley of the Og like this:

 

Through the grey land goes a narrow and flat vale of grass and thatched cottages. The river winds among willows and makes a green world, out of which the Downs rise suddenly with their wheat. Here stands a farm with dormers in its high yellow roof and a square of beeches round about. There a village, even its walls thatched, flutters white linen and blue smoke against a huge chalk scoop in the Downs behind.

 

This village is Ogbourne St Andrew, and that ‘huge chalk scoop’ is where I went walking through the snow. I wasn’t alone: there were three of us and Dash, planting our footsteps carefully in those of the person in front, for the snow was often deep enough to submerge our wellingtons. Dash, a brown-and-white springer spaniel, lived up both to her name and her breed: she dashed all over the place, leapt over the tops of hedges that now just peeped up above the snow, chased birds and rabbits before returning to her owner, trotting obediently beside her for a few yards until the call of the wild became too strong again. As I watched Dash behaving as a spaniel should, a half-remembered phrase from Shakespeare nagged at me:

 

The hearts 

That spaniel’d me at heel, to whom I gave 

Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets 

On blossoming Caesar ….

 

It’s Antony, lamenting the collapse of his fortunes (Antony and Cleopatra IV.x.34ff) and feeling sorry that everyone has abandoned him for ‘blossoming’ Octavius, the coming man. This is the only time Shakespeare uses the word ‘spaniel'd’; indeed, this is the only recorded use of the word in English. He is also credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with the first recorded use of ‘discandy’, but this word seems to have enjoyed a brief popularity. Still, two new words in two lines ….

 

Suddenly Dash reappears with a twitching, half-dead rabbit in her mouth. She drops the creature at our feet, expecting praise which she does not get. It is left to me to wring the rabbit’s neck, a job I have never done before. It takes me two goes, and I feel terrible as I hear the irreversible snap. I can’t remember ever reading an account of killing a rabbit, but I expect there’s one in The Amateur Poacher (1879), by the once-popular Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies. Jefferies was born at Coate, a couple of miles from the source of Og. He was one of Edward Thomas’s heroes.

 

The Og is technically a winterbourne, a stream running through a chalk landscape and usually only full of water in winter. There are at least three Winterbournes in fiction: Giles Winterbourne in Hardy’s novel The Woodlanders, Daisy Miller’s suitor Frederick Winterbourne in Henry James’ 1878 eponymous novella, and George Winterbourne, the protagonist of Richard Aldington’s controversial First World War novel, Death of a Hero (1929). Each time, the name seems most apt.

 

Like Jefferies, Aldington is a writer who has somewhat disappeared from view; but in the years before and after the Great War he was a key figure in the literary landscape, first as poet, then as novelist and biographer. He deserves to be better remembered;* indeed, I was to be talking about him later that week at Madingley Hall during the course Report on Experience: The Great War and its Poets.  Not surprisingly then, Aldington’s fictional George Winterbourne (who gets killed on 4thNovember 1918 - the day Wilfred Owen actually died) was much on my mind as I walked amid the winter snow in the valley of my favourite winterbourne, the Og.

 

*Since I wrote ‘In the Valley of The Og’ in 2010, Aldington has been the subject of a significant two-volume biography by Vivien Whelpton, which has done much to restore interest in his life and work. To my astonishment, my own MA thesis, Imagism and After: the Poetry of Richard Aldington (Durham: 1975), written at a time when no one else in the UK was giving Aldington a second’s serious thought, appeared this year in the bibliography of a book which I plan to discuss in a future post, on life-writing: Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting (Faber, 2020).

 

© Adrian Barlow 2010, 2020; photographs by the author.

  

Monday, 17 August 2020

Paul Nash and the view from Queen Alexandra Mansions

Margaret Odeh, an old girl of Cheltenham Ladies College, was a prominent figure in the suffragist movement and a campaigner for social justice and women’s welfare. From school she went up to Oxford. Then, in 1913, aged 24, Margaret moved into Flat 176 of the newly-built Queen Alexandra Mansions (on the northern edge of Bloomsbury), fell in love with a young painter named Paul Nash, and married him in December 1914. Nash spent much of the next four years in France and Belgium, first as a soldier and latterly as an official War Artist. 

 

In the twenties and thirties, Margaret and Paul travelled much between various places both in England and abroad, but they kept their London flat as a pied à terre, where the view from their north-facing sitting room window fascinated Nash. This view was the subject of a series of oil paintings and drawings dating from 1927 until 1934, by which time their view of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s masterpiece – the Midland Grand Hotel that acts as a façade to the station behind – had been entirely blocked by the recently erected Camden Town Hall.

 

St. Pancras, London (1927), which belongs to The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, is probably the earliest and certainly the most intimate of these images. At first glimpse indeed it seems almost touchingly simple: a jaunty bunch of small flowers, though of rather muted colours, sits in an earthenware jug placed up against a sash window. Through the panes of this window can be seen, on the left, the entrance to the steps leading to the Midland Grand Hotel’s main entrance and, on the right, the sweep of the drive turning off the Euston Road towards the arch through which taxis could convey their fares up to the ticket office of the old station. The view is entirely devoid of people or vehicles. Only the flowers and the sash window stand between Paul Nash and all stations to Bedfordshire, though nowadays of course it is the London terminus for Eurostar.

 

The flowers themselves reflect all the colours used by the artist to paint the building across the road; or should that be vice versa, for what really is the subject of the painting? Its title suggests the station, but without the title, wouldn’t one call this a still life: jug of flowers, window, distant view? The building in the background is, frankly, only lightly sketched.

 

As Nash has painted this picture, you’d think the window of Flat 176 must have looked straight out across the Euston Road towards the entrance to the station forecourt. It is worth noting that the only architectural feature painted in any detail is the smallest but also the one closest to the artist: the carved stone finial on top of the single gatepost. You can tell from the slight angle of the window frame that Paul Nash was not standing exactly in front, but to the right, of the jug of flowers: as he looked out, he must have been standing square on to the gatepost.

 

But Queen Alexandra Mansions do not stand directly opposite St Pancras – and never did. When Nash and his wife gazed out of their window they looked across Bidborough Street, over the roof of an undertaker’s premises and down onto some small gardens which bordered Euston Road. But for Nash in 1927 it was as if none of that got in the way. 

 

Only in 1929 when the coffin shop was demolished and the gardens were cleared to make way for

hoardings to enclose the space where the new town hall was to be built, did Paul and Margaret Nash feel a sense of impending loss. In that year he abandoned the still life and the sash window. Instead he stared with growing dismay straight at the increasingly surreal scene unfolding before him: skeletal billboards being erected; high hoardings presenting a barrier between him and the architecture that had so fascinated him. Signs of decay began to appear – an outsize window from the hotel façade lying at a crazy angle, the footpath leading up to the arch now reimagined as a sleek silvery tongue; only the solitary gatepost with its trefoliated finial still standing as a reminder of how things used to be. Nash painted all this in Northern Adventure (1929), a picture that stands in stark opposition to St Pancras, London

 

Looked at another way, you could argue that the St Pancras building now looks like a flimsy stage set ready to be dismantled, its walls no more than painted canvas and the discarded window outside just one more prop to be stored away. Nash’s own window, the window of the flat he shared with his wife in Queen Alexandra Mansions, has also been discarded: in this picture, it simply doesn’t appear.

 

Eventually, when Camden Town Hall had risen to block their view of St Pancras entirely, it was time for Margaret and Paul to move. They gave up their flat in 1934. Today there is a blue plaque to commemorate Paul’s time living in Queen Alexandra Mansions, but of Margaret (whom Paul always called Bunty) there is no mention. Which is a shame, for she was a remarkable woman in her own right.

 

 

Footnote

I have never lived in London. I doubt if I have ever spent more than three consecutive nights in the city, but I know my way around some parts pretty well, especially the Euston Road, St Pancras and Kings Cross areas. These are the stations where – at different times of my life – I have arrived and departed from or to Birmingham, Durham, Bedfordshire, Cambridge and Paris. And, as it happens, I know Queen Alexandra Mansions well, too, because one of my oldest friends, Mary Whitty, lived there for many years. Like Margaret Odeh, Mary was a remarkable woman with wide interests, a strong sense of social justice and a love of art, literature and travel. She was always loyal to her friends. Had she and Paul Nash’s wife been neighbours in Queen Alexandra Mansions, I think they would have got on well. Mary died in 2018, and is much missed by many people.  

 

Adrian Barlow

 

 

This post is an expanded version of my account of Paul Nash’s painting, St. Pancras, London, which you can read on the website of the  Friends of The Wilson, Cheltenham Museum and Art Gallery.

 

I recommend an excellent blog, Inexpensive Progress, written by Robjn Cantus.  This includes a fully illustrated essay about Paul Nash and St. Pancras, which has provided some of the information I have included above.

 

I have written before about King’s Cross and St. Pancras:

King’s Cross in All Its Glory

King’s Cross and EM Forster