Wasteland

Over the Bank Holiday weekend, I visited Turner Contemporary’s current exhibition ‘Journeys with The Wasteland‘ – a community-curated exhibition that responds to T. S. Eliot’s poem, which was influenced by the poet’s time in Margate.

As our party included my toddler nephew, I didn’t spend as much time in the exhibition as I might otherwise have done, with Margate Sands beckoning for getting wet feet and broken fingernails. So I did not really take in the narrative of the exhibition, but I did enjoy looking at some works by some of my favourite artists (a list of artists included in the exhibition is at the bottom of the webpage linked above; Blake is, alas, not represented in original, but 1922 facsimiles of some of his Dante designs).

The visit also gave me occasion to remember another installation at Turner Contemporary that responded to The Wasteland, which I had previously written about on a page in a now redundant section of this site, so I am taking this opportunity to re-post it.

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On Margate Sands, I can connect nothing with nothing 

T. S. Eliot – The Wasteland

During my brief period outside the academy, one of the pieces of my patchwork of occupations was working as a Gallery Assistant at Turner Contemporary in Margate. Over the summer months of 2012, we had an installation on the promenade outside the gallery by Mark Wallinger — it was a ‘Sinema Amnesia’ (a concept Wallinger had previously used in Canakkale in Turkey) showing “Wasteland.” The film was a constantly changing picture of Margate Sands, showing the scene from the previous day – there was a camera inside the Sinema, filming the view outside, which replayed on a 24-hour time delay. Sometimes, to a casual observer who entered the Sinema, it would appear at first that it was simply showing the view outside, but there were always differences to notice in the clouds or current of the waves, and on other occasions, there would be dramatic differences in the weather or the activity taking place outside.

‘Wasteland’ of course, is after T. S. Eliot, who spent time convalescing in Margate whilst he was writing the poem — part of my spiel was pointing out to visitors the wind shelter where he sat writing, and the film played on the notion of disconnection in the poem. It also resonated with Turner’s interest in the changing sea and sky in Margate — the gallery is built on the site where Turner lived with his mistress, Mrs. Booth, and he is reported to have said that the skies in Margate were ‘the loveliest in Europe’ (its location at the tip of the Kent coast, straight onto the North Sea, makes for big skies and dramatic weather).

It was a treat to get out of the galleries — especially on sunny days — and it was generally better for talking to visitors (it’s no wonder many Gallery Assistants the world round look bored stiff — days go very slowly when visitors don’t want to ask questions): being in a small box meant they were a captive audience, and the work needed explaining unless people had read up on it in advance.

On the very last day of the installation, I was really given a run for my money, as not only were there more visitors in that day than there had normally been in a week, but Mark Wallinger himself along with various friends, was around, so I had to explain the work to visitors in front of him. There was also a very curious ‘visitor’ who kept asking me questions who turned out to be part of Wallinger’s entourage! I think I passed the test, but it was quite a surreal experience.

I saw some brilliant things on the film — people soon caught on that they could appear on the film when the tide was out, and there were some great (and mischievous) interventions; there were also some interesting wildlife moments — my favourite were the spiders dancing over the lens of the camera.

There were also times where little happened on the film and no visitors came. I used this time to get to know T. S. Eliot’s poem, and was struck by some remarkable resonances with other aspects of the work of and working at Turner Contemporary. I scribbled down my responses to various lines of Eliot’s poem; here they are, along with the lines that prompted them (Eliot’s lines are italicised).

Summer surprised us…with a shower of rain

We stopped in a promenade, finding a booth where we could stay

Fear death by water

Engulfed under its great weight, pushing down, pressing down;

A fragile figure beneath

I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring

Around a pool

What shall we do tomorrow?

Return and recall today

It rains

We stay, and watch the past unfold

Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest;

Knowing what had passed

I too awaited the expected guest

Who appeared, as clockwork, from a time past.

She is bored and tired

Standing sentinel

The broken fingernails of dirty hands

That wrote in the sand

My people humble people who expect nothing

Of art nowadays

But not all

The cry of gulls and the deep sea swell

Above and beneath this place

A current under sea

Sweeping away

Prison and place and reverberation of thunder

Resounds in here, and there

Here us no water but only rock

Rock and no water and the sandy road

Down there, up here, over there

The road winding above among the mountains

Sharp, grey mountains, rising above the sea

And the chalky cliffs beyond

In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust,

Bringing rain

Once more, outside, creeping in, cold

Memories draped by the beneficent spider

Who danced for us

The boat responded

Passing by

Fishing

Shrimping in the sands; seeking crabs among the rocks

This arid plain

This scene; this stage

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Accidental Romant(i)ourism

The weekend before last, I broke a trip down to London for a week’s research by stopping to visit a friend in Olney, Buckinghamshire.

Amid country walks and good food, it actually turned out to be something of a Romanticist tourist trail (suggestions for alternative terms for such activity that avoid confusion with visitors to Roman sites welcome).

Olney was sometime home to the poet William Cowper (1731-1800). Less well-known now than some of his contemporaries, he was very successful in his lifetime, and had sufficient following to ensure that many of his possessions were preserved by his admirers when he died, so that the Cowper and Newton Museum in Cowper’s house in the town has a remarkable collection of his effects (having visited a good number of literary houses over the years, I can’t recall encountering such an extensive collection of items actually belonging to the writer in question).

There were even some unexpected Blakean connections. The museum was founded in 1900, largely thanks to Thomas Wright, local school-master and author, whose passions aside from Olney’s heritage included Blake – he even served as Honorary Secretary of the William Blake Society (a precursor to, rather than continuous with, the present Blake Society) for many years.

I knew that Blake had produced some engravings for William Hayley’s Life and Posthumous Writings of Cowper (1803), but I did not expect to find Blake’s original portrait miniature of Cowper in the museum. And this was actually one of two Blake miniatures in the collection, with another of Revd. John Johnson, Cowper’s second cousin and guardian, who visited Felpham in connection with Hayley’s Life and sat for Blake in January 1802. Two more updates have been duly made in my copy of Butlin’s catalogue raisonnée of Blake’s paintings and drawings.

These portrait miniatures are two of a handful of such works by Blake, which have a curious status within his oeuvre. The Cowper portrait was actually a study for Blake’s engraving of the poet for Hayley’s Life, after a portrait by George Romney, but usually such works were painted from life as keepsakes for loved ones (an equivalent these days is having a photo of loved ones as wallpaper on a mobile phone). Portraiture was not the sort of work that Blake relished; he complained that William Hayley gave him too much of such work, as the patron had for Romney. For Blake, such work was mundane, merely representing the superficial appearance of things.

On a side note, one important thing such works do show us is that Blake could do straightforward representation if he wanted to. So when we see figures with elongated limbs or contorted poses that commonly appear in the sorts of pictures that I work on, it’s not because Blake was a clumsy draughtsman: he broke the rules deliberately to make symbolic points.

But back to Olney.

The Newton of the museum’s name is Cowper’s friend and fellow Olney resident, Revd. John Newton (1725-1807). Newton was an abolitionist and hymn-writer, whose most famous lyric is Amazing Grace. A small section of the museum is devoted to his work. There is also a section on the local art of lace making, and another with general local social history collections. Outside are charming gardens, and Cowper’s summer house, which he used as a writing room. Today the visitor can only peer in to the little hut, to prevent us from adding to the graffiti from previous generations of visitors.

Cowper’s Summer House

Graffiti in the summer house

The weekend also saw a walk from Olney to nearby Weston Underwood, where another of Cowper’s residences was; that house remains a private home, but the Romantiourist can eat and drink at the Cowper’s Oak pub a few doors down, and visit Cowper’s Alcove, which looks out across fields – another of the poet’s favourite spots.

Cowper’s Alcove

Cowper’s Lodge

Cowper’s Oak

All in all, I had a lovely weekend catching up with a good friend also turned out to be a bit of a busman’s holiday for a Romanticist. But would an academic have it any other way?

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.