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.

#VolunteersWeek

The past week has seen #VolunteersWeek trending on social media. This is an annual celebration of volunteering of all kinds around the country. Over the years, I’ve volunteered in quite a few different roles and I can genuinely say that vounteering has given me some great experiences, both personally and professionally. So here’s a few of my thoughts on why volunteering is a great thing to do:

Meeting new people – and often people from different walks of life. When I moved to Manchester, for example, I became a volunteer guide at the Manchester Art Gallery (inspired by previous roles on a summer project at Erfurt Cathedral in Germany, and at the V&A); this gave me an opportunity to meet people outside of the university bubble. Many of the other volunteer guides are retired so it’s meant that I’ve got to know a different segment of Mancunians from fellow PhD students. It’s also interesting meeting the visitors who come on the tours — we have some regulars, as well as visitors to the city, and it’s always interesting talking to people.

Learning new things – both knowledge and skills. In my various guiding roles for example, I’ve learned about buildings and artworks that I knew little or nothing about before. Again, I think it’s healthy to have other intellectual interests beyond a PhD and I’ve really enjoyed learning about new things over the years and then sharing this knowledge with others. And through volunteering I’ve acquired or developed skills from cataloguing to public speaking to cleaning taxidermy!

Professional development. Yawn. But following on from the previous point, the skills I’ve developed through volunteering have boosted my CV and have undoubedtly helped me when applying for paid roles.

[Advance warning of ‘buzzwords’] ‘Social Responsibility’. This partly relates to the previous point in that ‘Public Engagement’ is now seen as an important aspect of an academic’s portfolio. One of the underlying reasons for this move is that universities receive large amounts of funding from the public purse and have realised that they should be ‘giving something back’. Some of my volunteering has directly arisen from my PhD research, such as my various activities relating to the exhibition ‘Burning Bright’ at the John Rylands Library. CV points was definitely a motivating factor but because I’ve been lucky enough to receive public money for my PhD research I also believe that the public should have the chance to hear about what I’m up to (and hopefully some are actually interested in it!).

All of the above add up to great experiences, which may sound a very vague and general point, but it’s a sincere one. The tick list above is really an indequate representation of why I volunteer; it’s the overall experiences that matter most to me, and some of the stories that I’ve taken with me: stories attached to objects I’ve encountered, stories told by people I’ve met through volunteering, and stories of my own experiences. From standing inside the world’s largest free-swinging bell to sharing a car with a stuffed fox, I can safely say that I have some memories to treasure from volunteering, and they’re worth more than any of the above!

Laden with Blakean fruit

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, Blake’s ‘To Autumn‘ is a favourite of mine.

Here in America, the season is of course, known as Fall, and glorious it is too – parks resplendent with deep, fiery hues, and skies crisp and clear; here’s a shot taken at Yale’s Cross Campus:

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I think Blake would have enjoyed the intensity of Fall colour – lovely as Autumn is, there is a different quality to the colours here.

I haven’t come across many trees ‘laden with fruit‘, but I’ve been able to see much fruit of the Blakean kind (i.e. Blake works), both at the Yale Center for British Art where I’m based, and on a long weekend in to New York, where I took in works at the Metropolitan Museum and the Morgan Library.

It’s wonderful to be able to see so many works in person, and I’m looking not only at works that I’ve already done quite a lot of research on, but also at things that I might not otherwise be because they are on hand – both works by Blake himself and by his contemporaries. Whilst I’m here, I’m giving the business of writing up a bit of distance – I’m taking stock of what I’ve written so far and thinking about what I need to write to fill in the gaps, but not writing or editing in earnest. I’m sure when I get back to working on the script more intensely on my return, it will be the richer for spending time with the works themselves.

Beyond the walls of museums, Blake’s habit of cropping up all over the place confronted me twice during my ‘off-duty’ time in New York.

First, I was staying near Columbia University, and therefore had the chance to take in Corpus Christi Church (see picture below), where in a seemingly unlikely combination of life events, Thomas Merton became a Catholic whilst writing his Masters’ dissertation on Blake!

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Second, and more well-known, was Lee Lawrie’s ‘Wisdom’ above the entrance to the GE Building at the Rockefeller Center, inspired by Blake’s ‘Ancient of Days.’

10422138_10153572063845961_1645421751290256258_nLike Paolozzi’s (rather later) fellow compass*-bearing ‘Newton’ at the British Library, this figure towers over a place where large numbers of people pass every day. Both of these monumental sculptures seem to incite the beholder away from the tyrannical, short-sighted worldview which the plates that inspired them symbolise (at least, that’s the standard readings of the figures in both Blake plates, although both have been read in alternative ways, but that’s a matter better saved for discussion elsewhere) to a ‘wiser’ take on the world.

At more or less the halfway point in my time at the YCBA, the compasses can also serve as a metaphor of pointing two ways: a cause to reflect on my time here thus far, and to look forward to making the most of the fruits available for the remainder of my time.

* Last week during a talk on Blake, I was corrected by a mathematician than Newton and the Ancient of Days are in fact holding dividers, rather than compasses. This is of course a fair point, but ‘compasses’ is rather too ingrained in Blake scholarship for me to give up the habit of using the term.

Some Favourite London Paintings

This week I spotted Time Out’s ‘100 best paintings in London‘ doing the rounds on twitter.

 

Ask my brother what response you’ll get if you ask me what ‘the best’ or ‘my favourite’ is, and he’ll tell you (because he’s seen it frequently) that I’ll roll my eyes and give an equivocal response along the lines of “Well I like this about X and that about Y.”

 

So I couldn’t expect to agree with Time Out’s pick because I don’t really see how you can rank Piero della Francesca’s 1450 Baptism of Christ (which clocks in at #5, National Gallery) against Richard Dadd’s 1855 The Fairy-Feller’s Masterstroke (at #21, Tate). I was also, of course, interested to see where, if at all, any of Blake’s works were placed – in case you’re interested, Tate’s Ghost of a Flea (c.1819-20) clock in at #42, just about JMW Turner’s 1839 The Fighting Temeraire (National Gallery), which was once voted the Nation’s favourite painting and seemed to be the only Turner work many visitors to Turner Contemporary wanted to see when I worked there (but had failed to check whether it was actually on loan there, which it wasn’t; cue lots of of disappointed/angry visitors).

 

Nevertheless, this did get me thinking about my favourite London paintings, so here it goes. First, a few disclaimers. As a resident of the North, I should add that London doesn’t have a monopoly on great paintings, and perhaps I’ll get round to writing about a few of my Manchester favourites at some point, but as a sometime Londoner, this is my take on Time Out’s survey. These are in no particular order – just numbered for sake of knowing how many I’ve got up to. It’s a highly personal selection – these are all paintings that have stayed with me in some way. I’ve also limited myself to one work per artist per collection, and I haven’t included any works on paper. Apologies for hyperlinks rather than illustrations; chasing permissions for reproductions is rather involved!

 

1. Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27, Tate). Oddly enough, it was this rather than a Blake work that first popped into my head as missing from Time Out’s list. This is a monumental painting, which always stops me in my tracks when I see it.

 

2. William Blake’s The Agony in the Garden (c.1799-1800, Tate). This is Blake at his most innovative – handling a popular subject in Christian art in an idiosyncratic way.

 

3. Blake’s The Christ Child Asleep on a Wooden Cross (c.1799-1800, V&A). Like The Agony in the Garden, this is one of about fifty tempera paintings illustrating the Bible which Blake produced for the Civil Servant Thomas Butts, one of Blake’s most important patrons. I wrote about this work in a piece of coursework when I was an undergraduate, which was the starting point of my fascination with Blake’s pictorial works. I also used to include it in tours when I was a volunteer guide at the V&A.

 

4. Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (1450, National Gallery; see above). I have to agree with Time Out putting this among the top picks. A masterpiece in composition and symbolism. Although there’s no way Blake could have known this work, I find it a helpful pendant for reading his version of this subject in his watercolour illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Regained (c.1816-20, Fitzwilliam Museum).

 

5. I also agree that Dadd’s The Fairy-Feller’s Masterstroke (1855, Tate; see above) is a top pick. I’d like to learn more about Dadd, but this is another work that I always stop at when I’m wandering around the Tate (though in contrast to Spencer’s Resurrection, this is a work to be viewed at close-quarters).

 

6. The Wilton Diptych (c.1395-99, National Gallery) came somewhere near the bottom of  Time Out’s 100. This is an English masterpiece, whose importance is enormous, in spite of its small size. I remember an engaging lecture about this work when I was an undergraduate, as well as looking at it during my MA.

 

7. Henri Rousseau’s Surprised! (1891, National Gallery). One of the first paintings I can remember learning about – aged about eight, when our teacher gave us a potted history of art, got us to create our own versions of masterpieces (including this one, which might still be somewhere are my parents’ house), and took us on a trip to the National Gallery to see some of them. I wonder if he knew Blake’s Tyger.

 

8. Albrecht Dürer, Saint Jerome (c.1496, National Gallery). This is a work I wrote an essay on for my Master’s at King’s College London, which was taught in collaboration with the National Gallery. It’s a little devotional panel which depicts St. Jerome in the wilderness on one side and a fiery vision on the other. There’s a great article on this painting by Andrew Graham Dixon for the Independent, available here.

 

9. JMW Turner, The New Moon; or, ‘I’ve lost My Boat, You shan’t have Your Hoop’ (exhibited 1840, Tate). There had to be a Turner picture given the many hours I spent with Turner pictures during my stint as a Gallery Assistant at Turner Contemporary. This one was the headline image for the big Turner show that was on whilst I was there, ‘Turner and the Elements‘ so in a way it stands for the exhibition as a whole. This image was a favourite among visitors and staff alike, with its charming subject and its location near to the site of the gallery in Margate. I don’t know if it was cleaned at some point in recent years, but the image on the exhibition website is closer to my memory of the colours than that on the Tate’s website.

 

10. Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus (1601, National Gallery). Another well-known favourite which came somewhere fairly high in Time Out’s list. It’s another of those pictures that grabs you as soon as you enter the gallery it’s in (fortunately it’s hung high enough that it can easily be seen over the inevitable crowd hovering around it) with its extraordinary vividness and drama. It’s also here because mention of Caravaggio always brings to mind my brother doing an impression of one of our school teacher who was a particular fan of the artist.

 

11. Pietro Gerini, The Baptism of Christ (1387, National Gallery). This is another work which brings back memories of my MA. This work was included in the exhibitonDevotion by Design’ which ran the summer at the end of my MA, prior to which it underwent a year and a half’s conservation (you can hear/read about the conservation here). One of the courses on the MA taught at the National Gallery focused on altarpieces and the other on John the Baptist and this work encompasses both themes. Why it really sticks in the memory is that we got to visit the conservation studio during the cleaning process and got to see some bonus fish in the river which had been added by a later hand and were subsequently removed to restore the work closer to its original state.

 

12. John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1919, Imperial War Museum). This iconic image from the First World War reminds me of taking A-Level English Literature for which our synoptic unit was literature from and about the First World War, so we were encouraged to read and see as much material as possible on that theme. I took myself off to the Imperial War Museum, where this painting hangs, on the way to a university open day (which is actually the first time I can remember making a solo excursion to a museum or gallery). Like Spencer’s Resurrection, this work has special resonance in this anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War and it’s re-entered my consciousness via John Keane’s 1991 Ecstasy of Fumbling which is currently in the exhibition ‘Sensory War’ at Manchester Art Gallery. Keane was an official war artist in the Gulf War; this is a self-portrait of the artist during a gas alert taking its title from a line in Wilfred Owen’s First World War Poem Dulce et Decorum est which describes a gas attack. A postcard of Sargent’s painting is among the collage elements of Keane’s work.

 

13. William Hogarth, A Rake’s Progress (1733, Sir John Soane’s Museum). This is actually a set of eight paintings which were the basis for a set of prints which tell the rise and fall of the fictional character Tom Rakewell (you can read about the narrative by following the link). They’re in here largely because of the experience of visiting them at the Soane’s Museum (which I only got around to doing this summer), where they’re hung in a room eccentrically, but ingeniously, containing a series of panels hidden behind the wall panels – a design which both increases hanging space and protects works on the inner layers from the light. A Rake’s Progress has inspired some brilliant re-workings of Hogarth’s moral tale, including Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences tapestries, which we had at Manchester Art Gallery earlier this year and were fun to discuss with visitors. I also ended up seeing them again at the Foundling Museum in the summer, where I ended up getting into conversation with some other visitors to impart my MAG guide knowledge.

 

14. John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3, Tate). John Martin’s paintings are awesome in the true sense of the word. Some years younger than Blake, they’re sometimes compared as religious eccentrics, although their careers took rather different paths – John Martin was far more (commercially) successful in his lifetime (although he is less well-known now). They also handled their subjects in very different ways; to make a gross generalisation, their modes of composition were: Blake = dominate a small canvas/piece of paper with figures and go easy on the scenery; Martin = dwarf a few tiny figures in a vast, dramatic landscape with brooding sky on a large canvas.

 

15. Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond (1899), or ‘The Bridge’, as I think of it. Another seemingly unimaginative choice, perhaps, but this is another work that takes me back to primary school, when another teacher got us to create out own version of the painting, no doubt destroying numerous paintings making all the ‘dots’. Mine still hangs over the fireplace in my parents’ living room.

 

16. The Triumph of Orthodoxy Icon (c.1400, British Museum). This icon celebrates the end of the Iconoclast Controversy in Byzantium in 843 – a subject I wrote essays on during both my undergraduate and Masters’ degrees. This work sort of stands for Byzantine icons in general, which I find interesting for the rich theology behind them and the sheer ancientness of some extant examples (although this icon is from several centuries after the end of the iconoclast controversy).

 

So there’s sixteen works off the top of my head; I’ll probably realise I’ve forgotten some others I love before to long, but if nothing else, I’m glad this has set me thinking about pictures other than Blake’s!

Heaven in a Wild Flower

Blake’s Auguries of Innocence begins with the famous lines:

 

To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

 

Here, Blake expresses a sacramental worldview – encountering and celebrating the divine in the everyday, and particularly here in the natural environment.

 

I’m prompted to think about sacramental worldviews after a day in the Lakes which took in various sites of such interest.

 

First, driving along Ullswater, we came across A host, of golden daffodils; | Beside the lake, beneath the trees, |Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

 

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Wordsworth isn’t being explicitly sacramental in these famous lines, but in comparing the wild flowers to “the stars that shine | And twinkle on the milky way” and describing them flashing upon his “inward eye” he seems to expressing that they have a deeper significance than their superficial loveliness. Anyway, it’s another Wordsworthian site ticked off the list.

 

Next stop was the primary destination of the day’s drive: St Mary’s Church, Wreay – an extraordinary little church made somewhat famous recently by Jenny Uglow’s book The Pinecone, which is an account of the building and its creator, Sarah Losh. The church is remarkable for its carvings which chiefly draw on imagery from the natural world, much of which is also imbued with symbolism from both Christian and pagan traditions. There are also a good number of angels, which might have pleased Blake – I wonder if Sarah Losh saw angels in the trees around Wreay:

 

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Finally, we took in the town of Keswick and the nearby Castlerigg Stone Circle, presumably some kind of place of worship, set in a particularly stunning setting and surely a site where people have reflected upon the relationship between the world and the sacred over the millennia:

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All of these encounters of the sacramental resonate nicely with the themes of two conference I’m involved in which have both been launched this week (please do have a look and spread the word):

 

First up, in September is “Religions, Environments and Popular Culture” which will, as the title suggests, deal with the intersections between the world (natural, built, and imaginary) and the sacred.

 

A few months later, in January 2015, we will be hosting the Society for the Study of Theology’s annual postgraduate conference on the theme of “Images, Icons and Idols” which aims to encompass a broad range of theological topics, not least explorations of the sacramental. Indeed, partly prompted by re-reading David Jones’s essay Art and Sacrament, I’ve recently been thinking a bit about the inter-relationship(s) of sacrament, art, theology and sign.

 

Sarah Losh’s creation, for instance, can be said to be art as (sacramental) sign-making, inspired by a sacramental worldview. The same could be said of Auguries of Innocence.

Grayson Perry at the Manchester Art Gallery

Manchester Art Gallery is currently showing Perry’s tapestries The Vanity of Small Differences, created as part of a series of three programmes for Channel 4, In the Best Possible Taste, which explored notions of class and taste in England.

The tapestries are a modern take on Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, a series of paintings and engravings which tell the story of Tom Rakewell who inherits a fortune at the death of his father, squanders it on wine, women and song, is thrown into debtor’s prison, and ends up insane the Bethlehem Hospital. Perry’s narrative charts the story of Tim Rakewell from his birth on a council estate in Sunderland, to becoming a middle-class businessman in Tunbridge Wells, a millionaire in the Cotswolds, and his death in a gutter.

The tapestries are as densely packed with symbolism as the Gallery’s famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings (Ford Maddox Brown’s Work and Holman Hunt’s Shadow of Death are particular highlights) – layers of references to Old Master paintings (explicit in the titles of five out of six of the works), cameo appearances by public figures and people Perry met when making the Channel 4 series.

Perry expertly combines craft, social commentary and humour in his work. He is a kind of artist-prophet – a role Blake also saw himself inhabiting but unlike Perry, who has recently expounded his thoughts on the art world from the establishment platform of the BBC’s Reith Lectures, Blake’s prophecy was not well-received in his lifetime. Blake also didn’t think much of Hogarth.

I wonder what Perry thinks of Blake and what Blake would make of Perry.