The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace
15 April–9 October 2011 Admission £9, concessions available
THIS IS a small exhibition of 42 pictures and drawings from the Queen’s collection. They are landscapes and seascapes from the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ and show Holland at its political and economic zenith. The naval might of the small country which could so insouciantly burn Chatham – what a work of poetry we might have had if only some protoBetjeman had been able to prophesy the Medway town’s kinship with Slough – is painted with pride. The picturesque ruins which so often feature were a legacy of resistance to Spanish rule. And pre-industrial economic strength is shown in the routine scenes of linen bleaching or contented cattle set against the windmills and drainage systems which made farming possible on land claimed from the sea.
In this show political power is obliquely celebrated in a picture which shows Charles II’s return to England from Scheveningen. It is an appropriate picture for a royal collection, though artistically it is small beer alongside the Cuyps and Van der Veldes. In fact it is a good example of some of the less successful exhibits. Technically it verges on the naïve. There is a ‘Eurotrash’ sensibility in play as the spectators’ reactions to a cannonade vary from alarm to studied cool. A quick inspection didn’t show anybody or any animal defecating but unusually for an historical painting the picture is not that far from genre paintings of rustic inns and drunk peasants. However, the subject matter is unusual within this show because it is of a particular, historical event. Most of what is here is daily life and there are some good and choice examples of the great names of the time. There are also less well-known names and these put the great names into perspective and confirm their quality – no shame attaches if you have not heard of Paulus Potter whose absurd young bull is a prime example of how not to do it. Much better are careful setups of Cuyp, with calm, solid animals bathed in an early evening glow, with various travellers and peasants on hand, the eye moving effortlessly across the painting, drawn on by receding lines of dense woodland out to where the sun lies off canvas.
The other great landscape painters, Ruisdael and Hobbema, are shown in good, characteristic examples. Indeed, the strength of the show is its exemplary quality. Ruisdael gives us his lowering skies, flat fields and brief patches of sunlight. Hobbema takes us on an imaginative journey with paths leading through straggling woodlands, inhabited by lone figures besides streams and pools on their way to the slightly tumbledown rural buildings a makeover programme would drool over. In each case what attracts is the mood and emotion grounded in daily life, and the detail, something which has for a long time been very popular with British collectors.
Most of the seascapes are also calm and untroubled. The horizons are low. The skies have cloudy formations. Often water and sky seem to merge and in the centre of the canvas there are the gently moving sailing ships, their masts providing the horizontal accent, their sails a billowing, sharply defined curve to contrast with the clouds. Here the key works are by Van der Velde the Younger and taken together they are like a set of variations.
But is there just too little variety? In fact, where there is variety something interesting happens. At the end of the show there is a section of works by Dutch artists working in Italy. If you haven’t heard of them it’s very obvious why. They just don’t cut the mustard. Maybe the technique isn’t there. Maybe the greats who stayed at home knew their limitations and worked within them – and why not when you think of some of Turner’s failures. Bizzarely a Claude is included at this point. He was born near the Low Countries but the style is more overtly dramatic, bolder and classicized than the Dutchmen who stayed at home. It’s a very different proposition and one which overshadows the quieter works hanging alongside.
A couple of rooms beyond the exhibition, in a separate show which can be seen on the same ticket, is Rembrandt’s The Shipbuilder and his Wife. That’s a painting which could hold its own anywhere. The sobriety of colour mixed with drama, and the concern for humanity which is so much part of Rembrandt illustrate that in the greatest artists repetition and limitation are no barrier to achievement. But it’s unfair to compare the land- and seascapes to the Rembrandt. They are best seen on their own as charming reveries on the outdoors. Their artifice appealed to the great connoisseur the Prince Regent who bought them en masse. Today they show as varied as the sea and land they gently idealize.
TREASURES OF HEAVEN
Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe
23 June–9 October 2011 Admission £12
THIS SHOW begins with film footage of Walsingham and a procession of a Roman Catholic image. The film continues with a procession of the Buddha from the Monastery of the Yellow Hat in China. The processions and their images are eerily similar. The film then continues with a series of other pilgrimage sites – the Ganges and Mecca, and the rest – ending with St Theresa’s visit to Westminster Cathedral. To drive home the contextual History of Religions point the show ends with pictures of assorted Soviet dignitaries visiting Lenin’s tomb. This is the British Museum at its most Enlightenment. Its presentation is even-handed. The exhibits showcase its own ‘pre-eminent’ collection of reliquaries. And the next show in the series will feature the Hajj.t
Maybe that Enlightenment objectivity takes out of the show some of the heat, whether of devotion or scepticism, which relics generate. There are no jibes here about ‘pigges bones’. Instead, most of the rooms are bathed in a golden glow, broken at the end by the cool, harsh light of the Reformation room. Here there is a reliquary turned salt cellar to show what might happen to once prized and venerated artefacts. And there are the gloves of Charles, King and Martyr, which are probably the best attested relics on show.
In fact the home-grown relics come out quite well. Because it became a pilgrimage site immediately after St Thomas Becket’s death, the great English pilgrim centre of Canterbury should be a source for genuine relics. By comparison the other great medieval centres – Jerusalem with the Empress Helena’s True Cross, Cologne with the three kings, Compostela with St James, Rome with almost everybody – only got into the relic business some time after their saint had died. And as the guide wryly notes, relics of Our Lord were non-existent until the True Cross was found, after which it became possible for Our Lord’s Precious Blood and his breath to be venerated.
Most of the reliquaries on display are empty. Amongst those which are not, some are stuffed with fragments of bone and clothing, wrapped up neatly with a descriptive label in gothic script, rather like a naturalist’s bug collection. The most moving of the reliquaries are those of the earliest period. The Vatican Museum has generously lent sarcophagi and the sides of altars. One of these does look like a fireplace – you put your hand through the hole in the side to touch the relics – but generally the early items have a simplicity and modesty which is coolly compelling.
The cool is lost as the Middle Ages proceed. Here there are many examples of fine craftsmanship, especially of gold inlay and enamel. The reliquaries now come in all sorts of shapes – churches, portable altars, diptychs, bells. These latter are an Irish speciality. The chains attached to them are notably crude, not unlike the lavatory chains often used to repair thuribles. And there are genuine secondary relics like the crystal cups which St Hedwig drank from. Some of the pieces are real works of art, notably the Museum’s own reliquary of the Holy Thorn, made for Charles, Duc de Berry. Here enamelled angels trumpet from gilt battlements which uphold Christ who sits on the rainbow with
Our Lady and St John kneeling, and these are in turn surrounded by the Apostles above whom the Father reigns in glory.
By contrast the Speaking Relics are often cruder and simpler – St Blaise’s foot, a bone of St George, an arm of an Apostle. These look like what they once were and were especially important for healing and blessing. In a museum they look a little weird. Indeed, there is a sadness about the exhibition. So many reliquaries have had their jewels wrenched off them and their contents taken – a reliquary without a relic is an incomplete thing, rather like Canterbury Cathedral without Becket’s shrine.
The show is spacious but it feels intense in a way few exhibitions do. Something here is tapping into the human consciousness. I left it for the Confucian delights of the Sir Percival David ceramics collection, now a ‘Mecca’ for Oriental tourists. Ten minutes there was enough to remind me that the Word became flesh, and it is flesh and blood, not pots or paintings, which are blessed and sanctified by God and worthy of our pilgrimage.
According to the Book of Common Prayer Ensemble 1685
conductor Richard Jeffcoat
Prayer Book Society, £9.99
I AM a little too young to remember the time when, in churches up and down this land, the main Sunday service was the service of Matins. I am a somewhat distant product of the Parish Communion Movement and if not that certainly the Second Vatican Council. I did, in my teenage years, become someone who attended the 8am said Holy Communion Service (Book of Common Prayer of course!) before heading off to the Cathedral for Choral Matins. Indeed if I am away on holiday I relish the prospect of going to Choral Matins; some of the settings of the canticles are magnificent – you simply cannot beat Howells, Stanford or Vaughan Williams before a stiff gin and a good lunch.
This CD sets out to bring to the listener not the grand music of Cathedral Choral Matins but rather the more simple chants of the parish church; chants that were sung week in and week out, the canticles and psalms being set for the whole congregation to sing by those same great composers who wrote the grander settings. For example, Psalm 97 sung here to a chant by Stanford is very fine.
Indeed, all of the singing and music on this CD is very good and the range of the chants used is very wide. The CD also includes the speaking parts for Matins and so we are able to hear the rarely used State Prayers prayed in full. I was a little surprised to hear the priest say the Collects and not sing them. I am not sure if this is personal preference or something to do with the BCP rubrics. Personally I enjoy hearing the priest sing the collects and especially the choral ‘Amen’. Both the hymns sung at the service and the voluntaries and anthems come from solid Anglican stock. It is good to have a CD that is unashamedly Anglican, unashamedly BCP and unashamedly uses the King James Version of the Bible. With the 350th anniversary of the BCP next year I hope people will not only buy this CD but also get out there and experience Matins ‘live’, as it were.
This album, and indeed all of the Prayer Book movement, cannot simply be something to be used because of nostalgia but because it is a living and vibrant way to worship God. At a time when we are considering what it means to say that one is of the Anglican tradition, and what Anglican Liturgical Patrimony actually is, this CD makes interesting listening. Will we see a return of sung Matins in the future? I certainly hope so. The Holy Father has taken a clear interest in our Anglican Liturgy; perhaps the time has come for us all to rediscover the depth of its riches.
The service of Matins offers us a beautiful way to worship God, although for my own part I could only attend Matins according to the Book of Common Prayer on a Sunday were the Mass to prevent [sic] it or proceed from it. The Prayer Book Society is to be congratulated for producing this CD. I would encourage them to consider producing records of some of the other B CP services. I look forward to buying a CD of the Commination Service in the near future.
THE KEYS OF HEAVEN
The Life of Revd Charles Marson,
Socialist Priest and Folk Song Collector
Cockasnook Books, 323pp, pbk
978 0955746079, £11.99
CHARLES MARSON’S priestly ministry (1859–1914) was heroically sacrificial. He had 14 different jobs in 12 years, mostly living in slum conditions, and his last 19 years were spent as vicar of Hambridge, a small Somerset parish. None were adequately paid, so Marson supplemented his income with journalism and coaching private pupils. The congregations where he served loved him, especially the children whom he entertained with amusing sketches and fairy stories, but most of the vicars who employed him disapproved of his ardent promotion of Christian socialism and his High Church practices.
David Sutcliffe’s book is closely researched, and beautifully printed with many photographs and copies of sketches from Marson’s letters. There is a bibliography and index. Yet the unavoidable detail is bewildering, partly because the author includes information about a great many people with whom his subject had to do. Indeed, in the detail of Sutcliffe’s biography it is possible to miss the gifts and unusual grace of Charles Marson.
When Charles left Oxford he held Broad Church views. He gradually drifted towards Catholic faith and practice although in public services he kept to the Book of Common Prayer. In slum parishes in London’s East End he noticed that the poor liked colour and ceremonial. He became and remained a convinced Catholic in the Church of England. In 1905 he was investigated and wrote to the Secretary of the Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline complaining that a spy had reported on the Sunday High Mass. To correct errors in the report he described what took place.
His last paragraph is worth noting: ‘If the Commissioners wish for any further information as to our clothes, chandlery, or as to which of our joints we crook in worship, I shall be delighted to give them every information. But I beg leave to point out that the lives of Christ’s poor people are starved and stunted; that their wages are low, their houses often bad and insanitary and their minds full of darkness and despair. These are the real disorders of the Church and not any faults in my stage management, which is, perhaps, amateur.’
The Keys of Heaven is the title of a folk song. Sutcliffe says that he chose it because as well as indicating Marson’s important contribution to the recovery of English folk songs it also hints at his Christian Socialism. He often spoke of a new kingdom on earth, and on one occasion he observed, ‘It is not necessary for every churchman to join one of the socialist societies, because he has already done so in his baptism.’ Marson became a leading spirit in the Church Socialist League, and believed ‘that churchmen as such are bound to be politicians and social in their aims. Once it is admitted that we are our brother’s keeper the Rubicon is crossed. The terms of the Baptismal Covenant, the Lord’s Prayer itself, and the visibility of Heaven’s Kingdom, all coerce the mind by irresistible logic to accept an earthly expression for the heavenly vision, to accept a responsibility for all that can be moulded and remoulded nearer to the heart’s desire of God.’
Crispin Harrison CR
THE ELUSIVE FATHER BROWN
The life of Mgr John O’Connor
Gracewing, 221pp, pbk
978 0852446980, £12.99
THE TITLE might be taken to suggest that Fr Brown is a rather more significant personage than Mgr O’Connor. Indeed he might be to many readers, and if that is a ploy to attract readers it turns out to be a device that amply justifies itself for a variety of classes of reader, who will be glad to have read this sympathetic biography. I am a great admirer of Chesterton and find the activities of his circle interesting. I am also a devotee of the Fr Brown stories, not as whodunnits but as having something to teach about theology. The crime-novel-plus is a genre that includes a number of excellent authors.
O’Connor grew up a member of a well-to-do Irish family, from which he learnt to love the poor and to give freely. He was educated first where he was born, Clonmel, County Tipperary, and later at Douai Abbey (before and after it was compelled to move to England), where it appears he learnt reverence, fun, and pleasure in literature, drama, music and art. Much of the book is anecdotal and illustrates well how he became, and remained for the rest of his life, a parish priest in Bradford, well loved by his parishioners both rich and poor. In spite of witnessing a great deal of poverty, some of it extreme, and doing all he could to alleviate it, he persisted to the end of his life in regarding the world as a jolly’ one. Nonetheless he could at times bring a touch of asperity into his voice, as when he told an agnostic friend who doubted whether an all-powerful, merciful God could have invented Hell, that if he (the agnostic) had seen, as he (O’Connor) had seen some of the tricks that rich industrialists played against their competitors right there in that town he would give thanks to God for this thoughtful provision.
O’Connor had, we learn, an unerring gift of finding in salerooms valuable works of art and built up two extensive collections. The first he sold to build a new church for his parish. Then he gradually acquired a second collection. It was through this love of the arts that he built up also a remarkable circle of friends. He was, indeed, the model for G.K. Chesterton’s Fr Brown, and how that came about, with all its consequences, is told with fascinating detail. He was also friend of Belloc, George Bernard Shaw, and the sculptor, engraver and draughtsman, Eric Gill.
Gill, like O’Connor himself, became a Distributist, subscribing heartily to the doctrine that an artist/craftsman should own his own premises and tools, and he formed a small but highly influential guild of such men and women in Ditchling to work out and put into practice his own artistic philosophy: that art is not a luxury but a necessity of the spiritual life and a way of exploring the world of the spirit. His little community caused some scandal by its bohemianism, with naked cavortings and ‘sexually explicit’ art even in the representation of sacred subjects. The philosophy aimed to get at religious understanding through physical realism. Gill produced a set of Stations of the Cross for Westminster Cathedral and another for Fr O’Connor’s church in Bradford. Long after Gill’s death Cardinal Basil Hume was petitioned by a group of protestors against child abuse to remove the work of art from the cathedral and declined to do so because it was very beautiful and artistic value was not to be confused with the morals of the artist: a verdict without which we should have a considerable reduction in works of religious art and poetry both in churches and outside. I should add that the author is at pains to point out that O’Connor was not just his friend but also his confessor and spiritual adviser.
There is so much more in the book: about Mgr O’Connor’s distinctions, fine intellect and writings, for instance, and I have not said much about the fictional Fr Brown or why O’Connor should have been his prototype. He was not, of course, a detective (though he did once detect a villain at work in a rare-bookseller’s shop). However, if you approach the book with this interest in mind I think you will not be disappointed.
OUP, 688pp, hbk
978 0199601288, £35
READERS WILL probably know Ian Ker as the definitive biographer of John Henry Newman, and G.K. Chesterton primarily as the author of the Father Brown stories and the spiritual autobiography Orthodoxy. It is therefore of little surprise to discover that Ker makes a direct link between the subject who made his name and that of his most recent work: both Newman and Chesterton were ‘converts to and apologists for Catholicism; both were pre-eminently controversialists.
Chesterton was a professional journalist, but Newman edited two periodicals in his time.’ When we discover that Chesterton described Orthodoxy as ‘unavoidably autobiographical’ because, like Newman in his Apologia, he had been ‘forced to be egotistical only in order to be sincere,’ then the attraction for Ker in writing this biography becomes all the more clear.
The problem is that it is hard to get away from the conclusion that G.K. Chesterton is simply too long. It clocks in at 688 pages. The index entry for Chesterton himself runs to nine pages. In fact, I got most enjoyment out of this book by approaching it as a reference work, using the index to look up subjects such as ‘Chesterton, eccentricity of’, and relishing the three pages to which I was directed. This is clearly an academic tome rather than a popular biography. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but the very best biographies – Owen Chadwick on Michael Ramsey, for example – manage to combine the qualities of both. At times Ker is eminently readable – his discussion of Chesterton’s literary criticism of Charles Dickens, whilst assuming a deep knowledge of Dickens’ life and work, is a case in point. But at other times, the writing is almost painful. Ker’s analysis of Chesterton’s unsuccessful wedding night – ‘the young husband, who was as inexperienced as his wife, was no doubt clumsy, and Frances may well have shrunk away in embarrassment and panic’ – deserves to be nominated for a bad sex in literature award, and does little to dispel the claim by Chesterton’s sister-in-law that his wife was simply frigid.
Ker’s analysis of Orthodoxy is rewarding; but not as rewarding as reading Orthodoxy itself. He is somewhatdismissive of the Fr Brown stories, and gives relatively little space to them, despite acknowledging that ‘as highly readable short stories… they will no doubt continue to be the most popular of his writings.’ The story of Chesterton’s conversion to Roman Catholicism is well told; but here as in many other places, the narrative is bogged down by the sheer amount of detail. Chesterton was (and remains) a fascinating figure, and the reasons for that are described and explained in this book – but the reader has to work to find them.
In short, this is a curate’s egg of a book, which does not always portray its subject in the most attractive of lights, despite the strenuous efforts of the author. For Chesterton fans and those with time to browse, there is much to enjoy here. But it is not an easy read.
AS GOOD AS GOD, AS CLEVER AS THE DEVIL
The Impossible Life of Mary Benson
Atlantic Books, 400pp, hbk
978 1843548614, £22
THE BEST books take you on an enjoyable journey giving you sights and insights and landing you refreshed and wiser at the end. This chronicle gives sight of religious enthusiasm, Victorian and Edwardian England, same sex friendship and country life in Sussex, and leaves you wiser about the wellsprings of creativity. It is the life of Mary Benson (1841–1918), wife then widow of Archbishop Edward Benson, her loves, trials and family.
Religious enthusiasts are notorious for their failure to sympathize. Where sympathetic gifts are allied to a force of conviction, though, there can be a creative dynamic. This appears to have been the case in the extraordinary marriage of Edward and Mary, though the force of conviction was at Edward’s end and the pastoral sympathy at Mary’s. Headstrong Edward, loving yet exacting, proposes to Mary when she is only twelve. His helpmate eagerly sympathizes with him, his family and many others with such humour and wisdom as to make her a great subject for Rodney Bolt’s fascinating biography covering her life, loves and faith pilgrimage.
Edward’s career, founded in the muscular Christianity of Rugby and Wellington College, takes him to Lincoln Cathedral, then onward to be first Bishop of Truro and, as climax, to be Archbishop of Canterbury. His pioneering at Truro earns recognition for gifts of leadership a psychological that he carries with downside so that, twelve years older though he was than her, it was Mary who was destined to carry him through many a dark mood. Her support came from a series of same sex friendships compensating for the emotional shallowness of their marriage and helping her recover from the eventual loss of both Edward and the highsocial standing that fell from her at his death. As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil was the summary of one of her close friends, Ethel Smyth, adopted as the title of the biography, a phrase about her said to resonate with her contemporaries. Mary’s same sex friendships, especially the one with Archbishop Tait’s daughter Lucy that continued after Edward’s death, have been controversial. The biographer draws from Mary’s diaries the distinction she made between the love she held in mind and heart for these friends and the carnal expression of that love which she fought off. Her underlining of certain passages in her copy of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ illustrates the struggle she had with ‘carnal affection’. Her counsel against the same to her children is documented. Rodney Bolt is careful to honour these stated reservations, familiar within Christian ethics, but now rather unintelligible through the sexualizing of friendship in post- Christian society.
If Edward was head, Mary was heart of an extraordinarily creative family. Arthur wrote the words for Land of Hope and Glory and edited Queen Victoria’s papers. Fred became a highly successful author and Maggie a famous Egyptologist. Roman Catholic convert, Hugh gained fame as preacher and writer. All made their mark and all suffered great frustrations which, as writers, they document both indirectly and directly. Some of them blame their mental instability on their extraordinary parents. It seems that their living with unfulfilled longings – none married – became a crucible for creative expression. In one of Arthur’s inspirational images life can feel as two ladybirds might feel on the inside and outside of a window signalling to one another yet unable to find intimacy.
Arthur’s last word on his mother on her memorial in Horsted Keynes Church speaks of Mary’s eager sympathy, wise counsel, abundant humour and far-seeing love. These qualities are captured in Bolt’s very readable book that follows her life story whilst opening up the story of England past through many delightful anecdotes. I loved the absent-minded Truro parson whose sister had to secure him to the altar rail with a dog chain and padlock to prevent him wandering off before the service was over. Mary’s attempts to get Arthur to church in Horsted Keynes brings from him a similar image of the liturgy as people penned in rows like sheep intermittently crying out together like ducks in a pool. The book, like its subject, easily catches the imagination.
DANTE IN LOVE
Atlantic Books, 400pp, hbk
978 1848879485, £25
A.N. WILSON is a prodigious man of letters: novelist, social historian, theological commentator and biographer. Readers of New Directions who admire his work will know too that he is pitch perfect in capturing the tone and manners of English AngloCatholicism, from St Stephen’s House in the early 1970s in Unguarded Hours to the red-brick shrines of northwest London in My Name is Legion. The charm of his biographical work comes from an arch combination of gossipy intrusion into the human shortcomings of his subjects with a Chestertonian incisiveness about the value of their work. So when he writes about C.S. Lewis we hear all about the disastrous apparatus he used for dealing with his prostate troubles, but also remember just why he is still the best critic to introduce us to Spenser, and why too it is still worth tracking down his brother Warnie’s books about Versailles.
This book about Dante is different in three respects. Firstly, there simply isn’t enough of what Noel Annan called the ‘higher gossip’ about the poet to make this a biography in the author’s usual style. Secondly, Wilson’s admiration for Dante is uncharacteristically reverential, coming (so he explains initially) through the inspirational prism of Charles Williams’ vatic commentary on the Divine Comedy. Thirdly, instead of the social mores of donnish north Oxford and literary London which he is able to communicate so fluently, Wilson needs to convey to his readers here the daunting complexities of Italian political life at the turn of the fourteenth century.
This is in many ways a rather Victorian book. The cult of medieval Italy was a foundation myth for many Victorian intellectual projects, and the demands made of its devotees exacting, as any reader of Browning’s Sordello will know. Dante in Love is intended to give us the necessary knowledge of that very specific intellectual and political landscape, so that the perennial worth of the Comedy at the summit of the European cultural achievement is not obscured by our shakiness on the precise difference between Guelph and Ghibelline. In that sense it is not a work of literary criticism: the reader will not find here detailed textual analysis of the Comedy itself, just the context we need to do that work for ourselves. The theme of love which the title proposes allows the author to speculate about the invisibility of Dante’s wife and the crucial way in which the figure of Beatrice unlocks his imaginative ascent to the beatific vision itself, but in the end the love that matters is the Augustinian desire for God which has its consummation as the Comedy ends.
Does this book give us anything more than Barbara Reynolds’ magisterial Dante: the Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man, only published in 2006? Well, Wilson provides us with some droll asides – we are warned at one point not to confuse the poet with Madeline Bassett – and he is astute about the reception history of the Comedy, not least the transformation of English attitudes from Horace Walpole’s ‘Methodist parson in bedlam’ to the genuflexions of Gladstone. Wilson has written the book he intended: the book which the intelligent newcomer needs before embarking on reading Dante. If perhaps we miss some of the satirical penetration which characterizes his biographies of those whose rectitude is less daunting than Dante’s, then the reward is so much the greater in bringing us to the threshold of this astonishing poetry.