Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Truly, a well-wrought urn

High summer in early Spring: on a day that will set records for March, we drive across the Cotswolds in search of Whichford Pottery. We have come to inspect an urn that has been commissioned to stand in a corner of the gardens at Madingley Hall, where I used to work. The new urn will replace one that had stood in this same corner ever since the Topiary Garden, at the western end of the north terrace, was laid out around the time of the First World War. The old urn had succumbed to frost and was in danger of collapsing. 

Whichford Pottery is a joy, and so is the new urn. Standing side by side with the old, it has the same dimensions and form but is not simply a copy. Its height (nearly a metre) and girth match the urn it will replace; but whereas the new urn was thrown on a wheel, the old urn was formed by the ancient coil method.  It was made in the pottery of Montelupo near Florence: the name is stamped on that side of the urn which for a century has been hidden by the enveloping hedge.

Adam Keeling, who has made the new urn, tells us how a coil pot was made. Walking backwards (he explains) the potter will have coiled a long rope of clay upwards from the base of the pot, each new loop slightly wider than the one beneath to create the gentle swell of the urn up first to the shoulder and then in towards its neck and throat. Not until the approximate shape was established would the surface of the clay have been smoothed and wrought into its final elegant form. Next the old urn would have stood in the Tuscan sun and only when, finally, the clay was dry would it have gone into the kiln.

Now, under the Cotswold sun and with two pairs of great buzzards coiling overhead, the new urn glows. It turns heads: visitors to the Pottery pause and admire its rich terracotta (‘cooked earth’, of course). They are struck by how beautifully it has been made and how well it compares with its predecessor. ‘Stunning’ is the word used by Paula, who has shown us round and introduced us to the potters, and she is right.  Indeed, it more than deserves that celebrated phrase of John Donne’s: truly, it is ‘a well-wrought urn’.

But wait. Is this pot, destined for Madingley Hall, strictly speaking an urn at all?

When Donne wrote ‘The Canonization’ he had a particular kind of urn in mind. The poem starts with the poet telling someone to shut up: ‘For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love’:

Wee can dye by it, if not live by love,
   And if unfit for tombes and hearse
   Our legend bee, it will be fit for verse;
And if no peece of Chronicle wee prove,
      We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms;
       As well a well wrought urne becomes
The greatest ashes, as halfe-acre tombes,
   And by these hymnes, all shall approve
   Us canoniz’d for Love ….

It’s a cinerary urn of which Donne speaks, praising the craftsmanship of the anonymous potter who fashioned (‘wrought’) it on the wheel. This is the same kind of urn that prompted Sir Thomas Browne’s meditation on death and memory in Urn Burial (1658):

In a field of Old Walsingham, not many months past, were digged up between forty and fifty urns, deposited in a dry and sandy soil, not a yard deep, nor far from one another — not all strictly of one figure, but most answering these described; some containing two pounds of bones, and teeth, with fresh impressions of their combustion; …. The present urns were not of one capacity, the largest containing above a gallon, some not much above half that measure. (Ch.II)

The Madingley urns are far larger than these. The old one, made by a potter whose half-decipherable name stamped into the clay may have been Vincente, was presumably intended for storage, perhaps of oil: the inner surface retains traces of a shiny black glaze. But it’s not an amphora: it does not have the characteristic pointed base, elongated neck or prominent handles. Indeed, the handles of these storage jars are little more than arched flanges below the shoulders of the pot. They would be useless for lifting one of these when full of grain or wine: the pots are heavy enough when empty. The nearest Latin names for pots of this size and shape would probably have been orca or dollum, but in the end I think it’s best to disregard historical or geographical accuracy and simply call them Ali Baba jars.

Such a label lacks seriousness, I admit. So it’s a relief to find that by the end of the eighteenth century ‘urn’ was being used to describe pots with functions other than to hold ashes:

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups,
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.

Thus William Cowper in The Task of 1785, extolling the virtues of the samovar. And a little later, Keats’s Grecian Urn (1819) is simply a decorated pot. It’s probably not long after this that the Madingley urns – four in total, and let’s continue to call them urns; after all, whatever their original functional their standing in the Topiary Garden is decorative and ceremonious rather than practical – were first made in Montelupo. When and how they found their way to Madingley, I have no idea. But I’m pleased to think the Whichford urn will now take its place alongside the other three, especially since Jim Keeling, who founded the Pottery over thirty years ago, incised the urn fittingly with a verse by William Blake. The last word of this poem is ‘sunrise’, and the new urn will stand in the only corner of the Topiary Garden to catch the sun – but only in midsummer, and very early in the morning, as I have seen it do.

[photo; the old and new Madingley urns at Whichford Pottery, 27 March 2012

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My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, has now been published by Lutterworth Press. For details and first reviews, click here.

For an American account of the launch of Extramural at the UALL Conference at Clare College, Cambridge, last week, click here. This account is written by Dr James Shaeffer, President of UPCEA, who gave the keynote speech at the Conference.

Monday, 5 March 2012

George Herbert’s ‘brittle crazie glasse’

The other day I went to Beverley, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, to give a lecture on the stained glass of Charles Eamer Kempe. The lecture was entitled ‘Espying Heaven’ and the title derives from George Herbert’s poem, ‘The Elixir’:

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav'n espy.

It was a happy chance that just outside Beverley, in the village church of Bishop Burton, I came across an intriguing stained glass window by Kempe depicting George Herbert (1593-1633). It’s a good portrait, owing something to the only known  engraving of him. The poet stands holding a book which carries the neatly inscribed text, ‘Lord I have loved the habitation of thine house’, and it is as if Herbert himself has just written these words with the quill pen held in his right hand. In fact they come from Psalm 26 but they are absolutely appropriate to Herbert, whose chief book was his collection of poems published posthumously as The Temple.

The quotation, though, is puzzling: ‘the habitation of thy [it is ‘thy’ not ‘thine’ in both the King James Bible and the Prayer Book] house’ sounds tautologous, unless either ‘house’ here means family (as in ‘House of David’) or ‘habitation’ means the act of inhabiting a house rather than the house itself. This is actually the first meaning of ‘habitation’ given in the OED, and you could well imagine Herbert agreeing, ‘I have loved inhabiting the house of the Lord’. However, though in his own poetry he frequently uses ‘habitation’ he always means a place to live in:

My God, I heard this day
That none doth build a stately habitation
         But he that means to dwell therein. (‘Man’)

In the Bishop Burton window Herbert is portrayed alongside Archbishop Laud, and perhaps Kempe (or the patron who paid for the window) wanted to suggest that Herbert shared Laud’s views on liturgy and doctrine. Which he may have done – though only so far, as Archbishop Rowan Williams has pointed out. Herbert’s own notion of church ceremonial gave greater emphasis to preaching than Laud’s ever did: his church at Leighton Bromswold in Huntingdonshire was re-ordered during his time as rector in absentia with not one but two pulpits. It is not for nothing that the nearest we have to a contemporary portrait of Herbert shows him wearing a Geneva gown of the kind usually worn by post-reformation preachers. For conducting services he may have worn a surplice and stole, as in this window, but he certainly would not have worn a purple cassock underneath, as he does here: look at his left sleeve peeping out. In other windows where Kempe* has depicted Herbert (there are at least five) he is always shown begowned. At All Saints, Jesus Lane, Cambridge, he stands, an austere black-gowned figure, in front of the Great Court of Trinity, his old college. The inscription for this window is also taken from Herbert’s poem ‘Man’:

Oh mighty love! Man is one world, and hath
                Another to attend him.

Sad to say, someone in the East Riding has taken a pot shot at Herbert, the airgun pellet narrowly missing his shoulder but leaving a nasty crack across his face. It reminds us just how fragile stained glass is – as Herbert knew only too well. In his poem ‘The Windows’ he speaks of ‘brittle crazie glasse’, which puts it perfectly. He weaves a powerful conceit around stained glass:

LORD, how can man preach thy eternall word ?
        He is a brittle crazie glasse :
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
        This glorious and transcendent place,
        To be a window, through thy grace.

But when thou dost anneal in glasse thy storie,
        Making thy life to shine within
The holy Preachers, then the light and glorie
        More rev'rend grows, and more doth win ;
        Which else shows watrish, bleak, and thin.

Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one
        When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and aw :  but speech alone
        Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
        And in the eare, not conscience ring.

A preacher, says Herbert (and he is, as always, talking to and about himself), has the great privilege of being a window through which his congregation may ‘the Heav’n espy’.  But this will be possible only if the Christian story is ‘anneal’d’ - that is, sealed inside the preacher so that he speaks with genuine conviction just as the sacred images and stories are captured in a stained glass window through the glazier’s skill in firing the glass. But if that job is not done properly, the colour fades, the detail disappears and the window does indeed look ‘watrish, bleak and thin’.

It’s a telling conceit, metaphysical in both philosophical and literary senses. And the final stanza, with its appositional phrasing, completes the conceit perfectly: as stained glass needs light to animate the images in the window, so doctrine is lifeless unless the preacher of that doctrine lives – practises – what he preaches. If not, if it’s just ‘speech alone’, then it is merely ‘a flaring thing’ and not the ‘colour and light’ which Herbert so admires in a beautiful window.

It’s therefore fitting that in the earliest and, as I think, the finest of Kempe’s George Herbert windows (West Kirby in Cheshire), the inscription beneath the portrait of the poet should be the first verse of the best poem ever written about stained glass, ‘The Windows’.

* ‘Kempe’ here indicates the work of the Kempe Studios, up to the time of Charles Kempe’s death in 1907; thereafter the work of C.E. Kempe and Co. until the eventual closure of the firm in 1934.

[illustrations:   (i)  George Herbert in a window at Bishop Burton
                       (ii) George Herbert in a window at West Kirby  (photo by Philip Collins)

For information about the Kempe Society, click here.

My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, has now been published by the Lutterworth Press. I am now working on a book about the stained glass of Charles Eamer Kempe, to be entitled Espying Heaven.