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)



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 – 



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:



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

of the Whole Earth


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.




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


Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Trollope’s Area Steps

In the weeks since Lockdown began my wife and I have walked, to our amazement, considerably more than 500 miles in and around Cheltenham: main roads, side roads, avenues of lime trees – I had never realised before this year how strong and sweet the scent of Tilia platyphyllos (broad-leaved linden) can be – and footpaths through woods, through fields or along ancient tracks such as the Salt Way across Cleeve Hill or the wooded walks on top of Crickley Hill. Ivor Gurney, writing from France during the First World War, remembered both: 

 You hills of home, woodlands, white roads and inns 
That star and line our darling land, still keep 
 Memory of us; for when first day begins 
We think of you and yours – 
 Trees, bare rock, flowers 
Daring the blast on Crickley’s distant steep. (Crickley Hill

Gurney’s ‘darling land’ was always Gloucestershire. 

One of the delights of these walks has been exploring lanes and footpaths we’d never found before, some quite close to home. Opposite Cheltenham College Chapel is a walled passageway I’m particularly pleased to have discovered: Olio Lane. As you enter it from Sandford Road there is a white gate, bearing a name I first misread as Bone House. Could there really be an ossuary behind the wall? I wondered nervously. In fact, it read Boyne House – one of the College boarding houses, and possibly (according to the College itself) the earliest school boarding house of the Victorian era. 

I like to think that the novelist Anthony Trollope would have known Olio Lane: he once rented a house in
Paragon Buildings, the other side of the wall. Did he know that ‘olio’ means ‘a medley or hotch-potch’ (according to Dr. Johnson) and comes from ‘Ollo’, the Spanish for a hot-pot or stew? Probably. Trollope enjoyed both words and food, his 47 novels proclaiming the former and his generous girth the latter. Why isn't there a blue plaque for Trollope in Cheltenham? There should be: his novels tell us a lot about the social nuances of the town in the mid 19th century. Chapter 15 of Can You Forgive Her? (1864-5) is entitled ‘Paramount Crescent’, and in Trollope’s day, the paramount crescent in Cheltenham was Royal Crescent, where the young Princess Victoria had stayed briefly in 1830. 

Like so much of Cheltenham built in the last twenty years of the 18th century and the first twenty of the 19th, the houses of Royal Crescent were not intended to be private houses; they were designed as lodgings rented by people coming to the town for a few weeks, or for a season, to take the Spa waters that had become a major tourist attraction, ever since the visit of King George III in 1788. At No. 3, Paramount Crescent, in Trollope’s novel, lived the widowed Lady Macleod who ‘occupied a very handsome first-floor drawing room, with a bedroom behind it, looking over a stable yard.’ All the details here count; the first floor, the piano nobile, has the largest reception room with tall windows opening onto a balcony. Such a room would certainly have been (in the language of lettings agents of the 1860s) ‘very handsome’. On the other hand, Trollope is clear that Lady Macleod has had to make sacrifices: 
The vicinity of the stable-yard was not regarded by the tenant as among the attractions of the house, but it had the effect of lowering the rent, and Lady Macleod was a woman who regarded such matters. So she pinched herself, and inhaled the effluvia of the stables …. 

 Cheltenham was evidently on Trollope’s mind at this time. In the same year that he published Can You Forgive Her?, he produced Miss Mackenzie, a novel about ‘a very unattractive old maid, who was overwhelmed with money troubles’ (his own words) even though she was only thirty five and by no means as unattractive as his dismissive comment suggested. At the start of the novel, Margaret Mackenzie comes unexpectedly into some money, and with this new-found (but short-lived) independence she decides to move to Cheltenham – now called by Trollope Littlebath. She takes furnished lodgings in the Paragon, but this is not the same Paragon Buildings in which Trollope himself had lodged with his family a dozen years earlier: 

 It is a long row of houses with two short rows abutting from the ends of the long row, and every house in it looks out upon the Montpelier [sic] gardens. If not built of stone, these houses are built of such stucco* that the Margaret Mackenzies of the world do not know the difference. Six steps, which are of undoubted stone, lead up to each door. The areas are grand with high railings. 

 Six steps because the ground floors are raised above street level to allow room for a basement below. The more steps, the more elevated the ground floor and the more light that can seep down into the area (the narrow space at the foot of the area steps leading to the servants’ entrance into the kitchen and staff quarters) and through the basement windows. These days, though, the area steps more often lead to the front doors of what are euphemistically called Garden Flats. 

Social distancing – though the phrase of course not then current – was understood rather differently in Trollope’s time: going up the steps to the front door or down into the area below street level was the physical expression of the idea of living and working above or below stairs. Tempora mutantur: words and expressions likewise change with the times. One street I had never walked down before Lockdown was Eldorado Road, its name reminding me of nothing so much as ice cream or the ill-fated TV soap opera of the early 1990s. But the reality was very different: sober redbrick late-Victorian villas, standing well back from the road and guarding their privacy behind high privet hedges – a perfect architectural statement of social distancing. 

© Adrian Barlow 

*Stucco is a cement render, covering external brick walls on buildings all over Cheltenham, which can be painted or sculpted to look like stone. The houses of Royal Crescent, illustrated above, are all decorated using this technique. 


(fig.1) The area steps and railings of No.1 Royal Crescent, the house where Princess Victoria stayed in 1830, seven years before her accession.
(fig.2) Anthony Trollope 
(fig.3) Royal Crescent, Cheltenham, a photograph from the Francis Frith archive, Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum. NB The oil streetlamp with a miniature chimney pot on top. 

 I have blogged about Anthony Trollope before: 

 My book Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning (Lutterworth Press 2012) contains a chapter about Trollope’s Barchester Novels: ‘Trollope and Religious Controversy’, pp.64-80.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Reading Stained Glass: Corpus Christi and the Pelican

A wonderful bird is the pelican …’* Anyone who only knew about pelicans from this celebrated limerick might be forgiven for smiling at the mere thought of these rather bizarre birds. But the pelican, along with the dove and the eagle, is one of the most important symbols in Christian iconography. I believe his earliest appearance in stained glass - though from now on I must say ‘her’, not ‘his’ – is in Chartres Cathedral (fig.ii) in the 13th century ‘Redemption window’ where a pelican, with wings outstretched, pecks at her breast to allow her chicks to feed on her blood. The seated king, looking on, is David, and in his hand he holds a long scroll with the inscription ‘Similis factus sum pellicamo’ (from Psalm 102: ‘I am become like the pelican in the wilderness’). So this one image both looks back to the Old Testament, foreshadowing of the loneliness of Jesus in the wilderness, and forward to the crucifixion and the redemptive shedding of Christ’s own blood. The pelican becomes established as the symbol of Corpus Christi, the body [and blood] of Christ. The feast of
Corpus Christi is always observed on the second Thursday after Whit Sunday. In the later middle ages, this was an important public holiday, celebrated with processions, pageants and mystery plays performed by members of the different Guilds. All long gone, now, but the pelican remains.


From then until now, the elements of the symbol – the bird, the blood, the chicks and the nest –

hardly change. They appear throughout Europe not only in stained glass but in stone and wood carving too, for instance on a 15th century misericord in Cartmel Priory (Cumberland; fig. iii).


Oxford and Cambridge each have a Corpus Christi College, and an heraldic pelican appears on the arms of both. At Cambridge the college was founded in 1352 jointly by the Guild of Corpus Christi and the Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary, hence the shield is quartered between the pelican and the lilies that are the symbol of Mary. At Oxford, Corpus Christi was founded in 1517 by Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester, whose own crest was a golden pelican. There is a splendid 16th century sundial in the College quad, surmounted by a pelican in her piety.


The pelican is one of the very few pre-Reformation religious symbols to have survived the upheavals in English church life during the 16th and 17th centuries. Later, indeed, she enjoyed a dramatic revival in stained glass during the 19th century. A remarkable image in an early (1864) window by  Morris & Co at Bradford Cathedral depicts the pelican in graphic, almost comical, close-up (fig.iv:) staring – or glaring? –  down her beak at the first rubber-necked chick, she struggles to steer a glob of blood towards his gaping mouth while the other two wait eagerly for their turn. 


The range of textures and patterns in this image is worth our attention. At the base flowers and grass reach up around the neatly woven wicker basket of a nest in which the downy chicks appear half submerged in hay. The dark blue background is an intricate pattern of tiny quatrefoils created out of a lattice work of black lines and dashes, all painted on by hand. Looking carefully, you can see one or two places where the design goes wrong. At the top the wavy grey-green clouds are actually the only indication that this is a religious symbol at all: clouds represented like this, though rather less freehand than here, always denoted in medieval glass the clouds of heaven and William Morris was careful to follow that precedent. The artist who designed this window was Morris’s close friend, Philip Webb.  


At Much Marcle in Herefordshire she appears above the Crucifixion scene in the church’s East

window (fig.v), designed in 1877 for Charles Eamer Kempe by Wyndham Hope Hughes. This design clearly shows Kempe’s debt to the Chartres pelican, but with the rather neat added touch that the nest is drawn as the cup of an acorn and the bird perches on a branch of oak leaves.  


No artist in the 19th century paid more attention to the pelican than Kempe, for whom the bird had a special significance. That Kempe often signed his windows with a wheatsheaf – one of the elements of his family’s coat of arms – is well known; much less well known is that the crest on top of the Kempe shield depicts a pelican pecking at a wheatsheaf. For Kempe, this image had a key symbolic significance. He had originally hoped to be ordained as an Anglican priest, but a severe stammer prevented this and after leaving university he decided to develop a career in church decoration and stained glass. Throughout his career he believed that he had a special vocation to teach and indeed to preach through his windows. What he could not say from the pulpit because of his stammer, he could express though stained glass.  It is no surprise that the poet George Herbert meant a great deal to him:


Doctrine and life, colours and light, in one

            When they combine and mingle, bring

A strong regard and awe; but speech alone

            Doth vanish like a flaring thing …. (‘The Windows’)


He came indeed to see the wheatsheaf and the pelican, his personal crest, ( as an endorsement of his vocation, for together they are emblematic of the Eucharist – the wheatsheaf representing the bread and the pelican, the wine. No other stained glass designer invested the pelican with greater presence, nor saw the bird so clearly as the embodiment of Christ. Whenever you see a pelican in a window, look also for the text accompanying it. If this reads ‘Ihesus pelicanus noster’ (Jesus our Pelican; fig.i - see above) the window is by Kempe.


© Adrian Barlow


*A wonderful bird is the pelican: 

His bill can hold more than his belly can.

He can keep in his beak

Enough food for a week

But I’m blowed if I know how the hell he can!

              Dixon Lanier Merritt (1910)


You can read more about the significance of the pelican in my book, Kempe: the Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe (2018)



Fig. i:  Pelican in her Piety by John Carter for C.E. Kempe, in St Botolph’s Church, Cambridge, 1889

Fig. ii: King David and the Pelican in her Piety, Chartres Cathedral, 13th century

Fig. iii: Pelican in her Piety, carved misericord seat in Cartmel Priory, 15th century

Fig.iv: Pelican in her Piety (by Philip Webb, for Morris & Co.) Bradford Cathedral, 1864

Fig v: Pelican in her Piety, by Wyndham Hope Hughes for C.E. Kempe, St Bartholomew’s Church, Much Marcle, 1877 Kempe’s Bookplate, depicting the Pelican and the Wheatsheaf


All photographs © the author.