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.

Visions of London

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William Blake, ‘London’ from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Copy F. Relief etching, 1974. The Yale Center for British Art.

 

Visiting London always strikes Blakean chords; even making the short walk between Euston and St Pancras when I visit my parents in Canterbury involves walking past the British Library, where Paolozzi’s Newton. after Blake looms over the courtyard (see a previous post on London) and Blake’s Notebook is guarded by the librarians.

 

This week I have been able to spend a few days among the “charter’d streets” for a conference organised by the Art and Christianity Enquiry and King’s College London on “The Sacred City: London, art and the religious imaginary.” It’s given me more food for thought than I’m able to digest at the moment, so for now I’m just posting a fairly brief record of the week’s perambulations (mental and physical).

 

On Tuesday we explored “architecture and multiculturalism” – spaces and the people who use them in relation to a number of religious traditions. We were hosted by LSE’s new Faith Centre, against the backdrop of Christopher le Brun’s windows. The day began with a conversation between le Brun and the chaplain at LSE, James Walters which was broad-ranging from the challenges surrounding creating a space for interfaith use to the practicalities of making stained glass to the role(s) of the artist.  Several papers explored the theme further through various historical and faith lenses, then the afternoon saw us exploring various places of worship in East London. A highlight for me was the unexpected gem of St. Benet’s Chaplaincy at Queen Mary’s, University of London which is decorated by ‘sgraffito murals by Adam Kossowski. Finally, an evening lecture at from Sam Wells, rector of St. Martin in the Fields, examined the topic of “Arts and the Renewal of St Martin-in-the-Fields.” The lecture was held at St. Giles Cripplegate, a church I knew of from visiting the Barbican, but had never actually been inside before. Of interest for a Blakean is the fact that John Milton – a great influence on Blake – is buried there.

 

Yesterday we had a morning of papers at St. Giles in the Fields, an elegant, early eighteenth-century church which Blake may well have known and indeed Blake’s friend John Flaxman is buried there.  The day’s theme was “Medieval to Victorian Cities and focused on architectural visions of London. At lunchtime I dipped out of the scheduled activities to visit the Tate. I couldn’t resist another look at their Blake room, but my main reason for visiting was to see works by his contemporaries which were not on display when I last visited.

 

First, Henry Thomson’s Raising of Jairas’ Daughter (exh. 1820) which is utterly different from Blake’s version of this subject from twenty years previously. Second, a display entitled “Bodies of Nature” which focuses on representations of nymphs in late eighteenth-century art – a treat which combined scholarly research with playful subject matter. En route up to the Blake room, I was stopped in my tracks by Stanley Spencer’s monumental The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27), a work which is not new to me but which is so overwhelmingly powerful that I couldn’t not but stop for a few minutes in front of it. Upstairs in the Blake room, I had fun seeing some of my favourite Blakes again. I am always struck by how quiet this little room seems to be – not devoid of visitors, but audibly quiet, with people speaking only in very hushed tones. Perhaps it is the smallness and darkness of this room (necessary because of the fragile nature of Blake’s works) which lend the room a chapel-like quality which perhaps encourage (deliberately or otherwise) a special kind of reverence in this space. Or maybe people are simply self-conscious of being overheard  in a smaller space – I love eavesdropping on other people’s conversations in galleries, but there wasn’t much chance of that in the Blake room. Adjacent to the Blake room is a display which makes a striking juxtaposition: “The Nature of Common Life” opens by citing the artist and writer William Henry Pyne‘s 1806 statement that the artist should not make “an imaginary nature his model, or any other nature, but the nature of common life” – an utterly different attitude to Blake’s belief that “This World Is a World of Imagination and Vision.” I wonder if this is this another necessity of displaying works on paper in a suitable space, or a curatorial joke?

 

In the evening we were taken on a journey through London through the lens of Dante and in a fantastic lecture by Alison Milbank. We were shown who various artists have re-envisioned London via Dante and Milbank proposed that we can re-envision London today (and the world around us more broadly) as Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Our venue was the wonderful space of St. James’ Piccadilly, where Blake was baptised.

 

On Thursday we were back at St. Giles in the Fields to explore “Pilgrims and Holy Places,” including my own paper on Blake’s Magdalen, and also journeying to nineteenth-century Paris, Mecca via the British Museum’s Hajj exhibition and Willesden in North West London. I then made a couple of pilgrimages of my own to explore a bit of eighteenth-century London – the Foundling Museum and Sir John Soane’s Museum. I came away from the latter with an unexpected gem of a purchase in a teatowel which reproduces Blake’s title-page to Robert Blair’s poem The Grave. The evening saw a celebratory atmosphere with the award of ACE’s book prize and a closing dinner.

 

Finally, on Friday we were at Cheyneygates, Westminster Abbey – another site of Blakean interest, since the apprentice engraver William spent time drawing the monuments of the Abbey (see that previous London post again). The theme for the day was “contemporary art and the city” which took us from Florence, to Minneapolis, New York and sites in London, and mediums ranging from stained glass, to photography, cartoons, poetry, sculpture and light. A highlight was an in situ paper in the Abbey itself in which Emily Guerry shared her research about the wall paintings in what is now Poets’ Corner.

 

It was a treat to explore London in such multi-layered ways but a couple of days away from big cities in quiet Canterbury are now welcome!

More Musical Blake

One of the treats of Christmas in Canterbury is the service of lessons and carols in the Cathedral on Christmas Eve.

Marking the death of John Taverner this November, one of the choral pieces was the late composer’s setting of Blake’s ‘The Lamb,‘ a piece also featured in the most famous Christmas Eve service, King’s College Cambridge’s Nine Lessons and Carols this year. In fact, Blake was doubly honoured at King’s, with their new  commission for this year’s service being a setting of ‘Hear the voice of the Bard‘ by Thea Musgrave. (Incidentally, King’s is home to Copy W of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, from which both poems come; this copy is generally considered to be one of the finest printed by Blake and is among the most widely reproduced and therefore familiar.)

‘The Lamb’ is a somewhat fitting, if unusual, piece for Christmas, in that it can be read as a reflection on Christ as the Lamb who, as stated in the poem “became a little child.’

‘Hear the voice of the Bard’ is a less well known poem and was apparently one of a long list of suggestions made by the director of music at King’s, Stephen Cleobury. On her website, Musgrave writes that ‘Hear the Voice of the Bard’ “jumped right off the page” when she read the list; she states that she was “drawn to this poem because it reaches out for the larger beauty and mystery of our existence on earth independent of specific religious affiliation…Blake finds our ‘lapsed’ human souls in need of the refreshment and constancy of nature’s magical cycles — and also of the artist’s role in the musical ‘voice of the Bard.'”

It is not the most obvious Blakean poem for Christmas, but it can be read in Incarnational terms, speaking of ‘The Holy Word’ and of the Earth’s renewal. Its place in the service, between the first (God tells sinful Adam that he has lost the life of Paradise and that his seed will bruise the serpent’s head – Genesis 3) and second (God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed – Genesis 22) lessons reflected the prophetic nature of Blake’s bardic voice (although Blake of course thought that the advent of Christ was not received as it should have been and that the world had slumbered for eighteen-hundred years until he came along).

As for the settings themselves, Taverner’s was familiar, Musgrave’s of course was new. I found both perfectly nice pieces of music but there is an inherent strangeness in Blake’s words being sung in such an establishment styles and settings as by the choirs of Canterbury and King’s (notwithstanding Hubert Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’), so that they end up not feeling very Blakean.

There was, however, a truly (proto-)Blakean treat at Canterbury – a marvellous setting of Robert Southwell’s ‘The Burning Babe‘  by Jonathan Wikeley. I’m not the first to notice that Southwell’s poem could almost be a description of Blake’s painting The Nativity, although it seems unlikely that Blake might have known it, but they could be drawing on shared older sources. Anyway, the poem was a new discovery for me and the setting was full of the drama and energy in Southwell’s words. This doesn’t seem to have yet made it to the realm of the internet, but I will be keeping my eyes and ears out for a recording.

Happy Christmastide!

Just a quick update

Today is the start of the Easter break, but my next few weeks are set to be busy rather than relaxing.

Besides trying to keep on track with my research plan for the chapter I’m working on at the moment (which is on Blake’s depictions of Christ’s public ministry), I am preparing for two conferences at which I am speaking in April (details on my academia page). This also means I’ll be travelling around a bit, which is exciting — home to Canterbury for Easter (Mum says we should go and check out “the new boy”), then to Leeds and Cambridge for the conferences.

This week I’ve been tied in knots by Mary Magdalene — even putting aside debates about the appropriate spelling (regrettably, Blake himself spells it without the second “e”) and pronunciation of her name (I favour “mag-da-len” and “maudlin” only for the College), there is the confusion between various women in the Gospels who have been conflated into the personality of Mary M and assumed to be “adulterous.” As an alumna of Magdalene, it’s a minor bugbear of mine that various figures are conflated and confused with Mary M; Blake seems to do this to an extent but there are a couple of inconsistencies to cause me problems.

In other news, I have added a new section to my site, “Ephemera”, which will be a place for me to deposit various eclectic items. The inaugural item is Wasteland, which is a reflection on Margate, Turner and T S Eliot, which came out of my time working with a film installation of the same title by Mark Wallinger at Turner Contemporary.