Picturing Chaucer’s Pilgrims

One of the “things to do” for tourists to the city of Canterbury is a visitor attraction which tells selected stories from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A visit begins in a mock-up of the Tabard Inn, where the pilgrims begin their journey and decide to have a story-telling contest in Chaucer’s Prologue; the visitor then journeys through a series of rooms which stage five of the stories through scenery, smells, and an audio narrative.* By immersing the visitor into an evocation of the world of Chaucer’s stories, the experience invites him/her so to imagine him/herself as one of Chaucer’s party of pilgrims.

Last October, a new public sculpture was unveiled in Canterbury in which thirty twenty-first people (and two dogs) became the faces of Chaucer’s band of pilgrims in a more permanent way.

Commissioned by the Canterbury Commemoration Society, the piece consists of a sculpture of Chaucer by Kent-based Sam Holland, and a plinth with a frieze depicting the pilgrims by Yorkshire-based Lynne O’Dowd. The project was largely funded by individuals donating a sum of money to become the face of one of the pilgrims; the cast list is included on the plinth and is also on the project’s website, under ‘Funding’.

 

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The website states that the frieze is based on Thomas Stothard’s 1817 painting of the Canterbury pilgrims in the Beaney Museum, a few steps from the site of the sculpture. This little painting is a later version of a larger picture by Stothard of c.1806-7, commissioned by the publisher Robert Cromek as the design for a print, and now in the Tate collection. Stothard’s earlier painting was at the centre of a great argument between him and William Blake. Blake painted the same subject with a similar composition at about this time (now at Pollok House, Glasgow); he claimed that his painting had originally been commissioned by Cromek and that when the publisher turned to the other painter, Stothard had copied his design. What really happened remains unclear.

Plagiarised by Stothard or not, Blake’s take Canterbury pilgrims has resonances with O’Dowd’s frieze as an assemblage of portraits of contemporary figures. Blake exhibited his Canterbury Pilgrims painting at his one-man show in 1809, and in the same year produced two prospectuses for a self-published engraving based on the design (a copy of which also hangs in the Beaney). In both the exhibition catalogue, and the prospectuses, Blake describes Chaucer’s characters as universal types for the people of society. The catalogue states:

The characters of Chaucer’s Pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations: as one age falls, another rises, different to mortal sight, but to immortals only the same; for we see the same characters repeated again and again … Of Chaucer’s characters, as described in his Canterbury Tales, some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remain unaltered, and consequently they are the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps … As Newton numbered the stars, and as Linneus numbered the plants, so Chaucer numbered the classes of men.

Blake goes on to explicate the characters of the pilgrims, adding that he has ‘varied the heads and forms of his personages into all Nature’s varieties; the Horses he has also varied to accord to their Riders’. Blake’s character portraits explore how Chaucer’s characters hold a mirror to some of the age-old foibles of humanity. We can probably all recognise at least some of the characters in Chaucer’s tales, and in Blake’s descriptions of them.

The Canterbury Commemoration Society did not (as far as I know) have in mind such a moral motivation in its scheme to show the pilgrims as twenty-first century individuals; indeed, in many cases, being associated with the character of one of Chaucer’s pilgrims would be a rather dubious honour! The primary motivation was a high-end form of crowd-funding – the modern equivalent of the subscription system through which Blake sought to finance his engraving, as advertised in the prospectuses. In at least some cases, the allocation of the characters in O’Dowd’s frieze was apparently made carefully: the Good Parson and the Nun’s Priest are both clerics, and the Young Squire is none other than Orlando Bloom (a sometime resident of Canterbury). Thus, although the focus is different (character traits versus trades), the twentieth-century scheme is, like Blake’s account of the pilgrims, invoking Chaucer’s characters as types of contemporary humanity.

I happened to discover while writing this post that there is a tradition that it was on this very day (17 April) in 1387 that Chaucer told the first part of his story cycle; 620 years on, with or without attending the visitor attraction, we can still recognise Chaucer’s characters, and imagine ourselves in their company.

 

* It’s been some years since I visited the Canterbury Tales, so I will happily be corrected if the experience has changed significantly from that that I remember.

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