Tate Britain until 2 February 2020
This is so huge an exhibition that the catalogue isn’t a catalogue—it can’t fit in 300 exhibits, some of which need a magnifying glass to read. But the show is a very good overview of Blake’s work. There are his largest paintings in which the human figure is as badly done as it is by Turner or Claude (at least Claude didn’t charge for his figures). There is the poetry by the ream, in small, hard to read and hard to understand text, though when concise Blake is a better poet than Constable. And then there are the copies and engravings of other artists such as Hogarth, the day job which kept the Blake family going financially. And finally, and above all, there are the illustrations. Blake is a master illustrator, of Dante and Bunyan and the Bible, and of his own idiosyncratic and obscure mythology.
Wisely the show makes little attempt to untangle what feels like a cross between Gnosticism and primitive socialism. Instead it gives us an enhanced role for Catherine Blake who coloured some of the more delicate works and finished off others after William’s death. Catherine understood her husband better than the commentator who thought it odd that Blake should put Oxford Street in Jerusalem, something the Romantics of the Oxford Movement would have found perfectly sensible (even today you can now find Heaven’s Gate in Pimlico). Her comment, ‘I have very little of Mr Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise,’ is one of the wittiest in the show, and reveals Blake the not very woke radical.
The curators also highlight Blake’s circumstances. The economics of the Blakes’ lives are remorselessly recounted with the sums paid for each picture totted up and the recreation of the room where he held his first exhibition. That exhibition sold nothing and no surprise if it was as dim and impenetrable as the room in Tate Britain.
And the pity of that is that Blake was a luminous painter. Sadly, many of his hand-coloured prints have faded over time. So, the version of the glorious Albion rising in glory, which is the first picture in the show, has lost some of its original lustre. Compare it with the final work of the show, the equally quintessential Blakean The Ancient of Days, in a version which has retained its vivid, striking colouring.
The two works sum up many of Blake’s themes. Apart from his curious, flipper-like hands Albion could be Vitruvian man, encircled by a rainbow sunburst rather the geometrically precise circle. He has doll-like red cheeks, curly yellow hair and a godlike body. And yet his head is at a slightly coquettish angle, the eyes are cornflower blue, the lips a small red pout, and the pose a histrionic ‘look at me.’ Even when the imagery is traditional, Blake is off-centre.
The Ancient of Days, recte Urizen, is an altogether more compact figure, his compasses harking again to early Renaissance geometry, his craggy face highlighted by long, windswept locks, the body defined by Blake’s curious rendition of musculature, and the whole surrounded by some of the artist’s best storm clouds, all suggestive of strength and deep meaning, though what the meaning might be remains obscure.
The Ancient of Days is just one of the apocalyptic images which Blake seized on for its outsized drama and for the casting down of the rich and powerful. The most impressive of those pictures in the show is the large coloured print of Nebuchadnezzar reduced to madness. Blake’s other male characters are splendidly muscular and often go through terrible suffering—Job and his boils especially. By contrast his women are drippy: witness Our Lady in an Assumption which we are primly told is not a story from the Bible, though one often depicted by artists.
Alongside the heroic humans there are the angels. Blake found angels in Peckham. His good angels are usually decorative as in David Delivered out of Many Waters or æthereal as in the beautifully symmetrical, Canova-like Angels hovering over the body of Christ. But the best angels are the fallen angels. These are not frightening or horrific, more what Dr Who might aspire to. Amongst them the archetypal The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea is on show in crisp good colour. It’s a picture which nags at the mind without the burden of Surrealist self-consciousness or intellectual pretension. And there’s Cerberus and all sorts of folk from Dante, characterful folk in Hell, bland folk in beautifully coloured settings upwards from Purgatory. And The Symbolic Figure of the Course of Human History Described by Virgil, not a snappy title but the Statute of Liberty avant la lettre.
Good but hard work.
Thomas Cromwell: A Life
Allen Lane, 2018, (paperback 2019)
Thomas Cromwell is one of the marmite figures of English history: the architect of the first (1530s) Brexit is either loved as a hero who freed England from the ‘fetters’ of Roman domination, setting her on the path to parliamentary democracy and imperial greatness; or loathed as a greedy power-grabbing vandal, the destroyer of England’s monasteries and much of our religious heritage (including, in 1538, the first image of Our Lady of Walsingham) and the architect of England’s tragic breach from the rest of Western Christendom.
I must confess that, until reading MacCulloch’s magisterial six-hundred page biography, I (perhaps unsurprisingly) fell decidedly into the second camp. In spite of MacCulloch’s evident, though sneaking, admiration for Cromwell, I have not entirely changed my view, but I now feel I have a more nuanced picture and am more hesitant about passing judgement, especially since MacCulloch makes clear how Cromwell’s detractors have had an unfair advantage in the 479 years since his untimely death in 1540. Cromwell’s fall from Henry VIII’s favour and brutal execution, immediately gave the upper hand to his enemies, notably the Duke of Norfolk’s faction, to determine how he would be remembered. Moreover, as MacCulloch discusses in his introduction, the loss and perhaps deliberate destruction of almost all of Cromwell’s letters, perhaps in an attempt by his household to save his reputation, has left a large archival gap for historians attempting to determine his motivations. So, was Cromwell an opportunistic, manipulative and cynical power grabber, or a politician of principle (even a pious Christian seeking to reform and renew the church)?
The answer, of course, as MacCulloch lays out in great detail, was that Cromwell was both; or rather that, as with all powerful people who have influenced the course of history, the interplay of circumstance, character and principle in determining the course of his career is subtle and complex, a subtlety which is so often lost in hindsight. What is clear is that although many historians have presented the political and religious history of the 1530s as a comprehensive revolution, spearheaded by a ‘Reformation Parliament’ and with Cromwell as its chief architect, Cromwell’s most controversial actions were not schemed out years in advance but evolved through short term circumstance. Nonetheless, there were recurring themes, even obsessions, particularly in his parliamentary work, such as his work to control enclosures and his determination to remove weirs placed by landowners on many rivers, (as they impeded both the flow of water traffic and the ability of the poor to fish). Both these aspects of Cromwell’s work are almost unknown, and both are attractive to modern ideas of social justice.
The whole question of Cromwell and the Reformation, probably the issue of most interest to readers of this magazine, is a case in point in considering the evolution of Cromwell’s views and aims. He was privately committed to the cause of religious reform from an early age. Yet, in the years before the break with Rome, like many others, Cromwell was attracted to the reformed Catholicism advocated by Erasmus, rather than to continental Protestantism. Cromwell remained a trusted adviser to Cardinal Wolsey right until the Cardinal’s death in 1530; and it would seem that the combined tragedies of the death of his wife, two of his daughters and of his friend Wolsey in 1529-30 actually shook Cromwell’s commitment to the cause of reform for a while, at least as evidenced in the provisions and tone of his will, drafted at this time. Only later, perhaps once he had entered the king’s service in 1532, did Cromwell come to see how the annulment of the Aragon marriage, and parliamentary legislation to secure the both break with Rome and the crown’s control of the church’s jurisdiction, could together be used to advance a reforming agenda; as could alliances with Protestant princes abroad (mainly of a Calvinist or Zwinglian rather than Lutheran persuasion).
The programme of the monastic dissolutions follows a similar pattern. Cromwell had early experience of small scale monastic suppressions whilst working for Wolsey: he was involved in securing the suppression of several small scale houses so that their revenues could be used to fund Wolsey’s pet legacy project of twin ‘Cardinal Colleges’ in Ipswich and in Oxford, (the latter surviving today as Christ Church). But there is no suggestion that Cromwell planned a large scale dissolution of monastic life almost until it happened: as late as the early 1530s Cromwell had warm friendships with several key figures in the Benedictine tradition whose houses he hoped to use as centres and advocates of the new learning (not least of his pet project of an English Bible). And whilst the suppression of the smaller houses in 1536 seems to be have been motivated by a genuine belief in their laxity, no scheme to suppress the larger houses seems to have been hatched until the winter of 1539-40, at which time there were plans to convert many into cathedrals of new dioceses, keeping their revenues in the church.
Cromwell’s loyalty to Wolsey, even after Wolsey’s arrest and downfall, is an important reminder that though he was ambitious and could be manipulative, he was not cynically self-obsessed as has sometimes been claimed. Friendship mattered to Cromwell. Whilst he was a constant enemy to some: the Norfolk faction for example, including his fellow-Protestant Ann Boleyn, he was a constant friend to many others in good times and bad — Wolsey, Cranmer, the King himself. Perhaps it was the depth of his friendship with Henry that ensured that when the rift did come, its consequences were so vindictive and bloody. MacCulloch is to be congratulated on a meticulously researched and lavishly illustrated account which resets the balance of our understanding of this intriguing and still elusive personality.
Studies in Medieval
Translate by James G. Colbert
Cascade Books, pp282
It is perhaps not inaccurate to say that philosophers only discovered that there were Middle Ages in the 1950s. There had been rumours of such a time circulating for some time, not least in Hobbes’ and Hume’s warnings of a mysterious and shadowy set of ‘school-men’, who peddled a strange metaphysics, or in Luther’s warnings of an ignorance of the Bible and a love of pagan thought. Such rumours were confirmed only recently, confusing those historians of philosophy who skipped from St. Augustine to St. Anselm – but only one chapter of one book – to St. Thomas Aquinas and then onto Descartes. Something had to be done about this embarrassing lack. A number of strategies were devised.
Some Thomists decided to run the theory that Aquinas was entirely representative of the Middle Ages, but that didn’t really wash with those Thomists who wanted to see Aquinas as a more radical thinker. Etienne Gilson was one of this latter group. This strategy has pretty much failed nowadays, with it being pretty clear that Aquinas was doing his own brilliant thing. Some religious – particularly Franciscans like Fr. Alan Wolter and Fr. Philotheus Boehner – tried to push the distinctive theology of their orders as being an important part of the history of philosophy. Ultimately, it is this second group that was victorious, with truly thrilling work now being done on non-household names like Scotus, Ockham, Buridan, and Giles of Rome.
But there was a third group too, which were the philosophers themselves. This group attempted to make sense of these newfound Middle Ages in light of what they understood the history of philosophy to be. Their angle was to show that writers like Descartes, Newton, and Hobbes created a new modern philosophy. This strategy too ultimately failed, because it went the wrong way around; you cannot read someone from the 12th Century through the lens of their 17th Century critics, since the earlier thinker influenced the latter, and not the other way around.
Gilson – being a smarter man than almost all others – falls somewhere between the first and third groups. Gilson wants to emphasise the brilliance of Aquinas whilst also reading the Middle Ages in light of modern philosophy. The problem here, of course, is that those are the two losing strategies.
This book is less a book than a broad collection of papers about the Middle Ages. Now, collections of papers connected by a loose theme is not itself strange in the world of academic philosophy, so the issue isn’t there. The issue is that what we have here is not so much an attempt to grasp medieval thought objectively so much as an attempt to fit it into Gilson’s philosophical system.
Now, the problem here is not that Gilson is – perhaps – not being the most honest of historians; such is also very common in philosophy, as is proved by Nietzsche’s adoption by people on almost every part of the political spectrum. Or, to be more accurate, this is the problem, but only sometimes. For example, if you are very keen on Gilson and the way he views the world, his takes on characters as diverse as John Scotus Eriugena and William Harvey will no doubt be fascinating. The problem here is that I, dear reader, am not that sort of person. I agree with Gilson that medieval philosophy is Christian philosophy, and thus that the good Christian scholar ought to beg, borrow, and steal from any Scholastic who dares drop his guard. But, I also take from 21st Century historians of philosophy a wish to have each figure in the canon speak for themselves. What this means is that I should not read any other thinker through any lens but their own.
Gilson’s way of doing things leads to some interesting and some strange claims. For example, the central essay in the book is a comparison between how Aquinas and Descartes understand how we understand God. On the one hand, these are both important thinkers with very different takes on this important issue. But, on the other hand, a good four-hundred years of history is skipped to put this essay together. Likewise, Gilson reads St. Anselm and Eriugena as opposing forces in some sort of major dialectical battle, which is perhaps unlikely, since St. Anselm lived some 200 years after Eriugena, and seems never to have referenced the latter in his work. It is certainly a strange approach to the history of ideas.
I think the problem now becomes less with the book than with the reviewer. See, I am a quite proud member of the school of history of philosophy that comes out of Wolter and Boehner: my belief is that we must carefully turn through the work of Medieval thinkers to discover the lost philosophical heritage of the Church Catholic. Now, Gilson would here agree with me, famously claiming that all Medieval philosophy is fundamentally Christian philosophy, but there is an important difference between me and Gilson. You see, whilst it is possible that philosophy itself never really advances, the history of philosophy most certainly does; we get better critical editions and new books are discovered. Gilson retired in 1968, and I started studying philosophy in 2015, 47 years later. What this means is that any Medievalist nowadays has an extra 50 or so years of knowledge at their fingertips that Gilson never had; Gilson may well be smarter than me, but I have the advantage of being able to read everyone who has come after and corrected him.
Ultimately, this is the problem with this book. Whilst a real Gilson scholar might be able to get a great deal out of it, someone like me who wants to read Scotus and Ockham as honest defenders of the Catholic Faith will struggle to see how Gilson is useful to their project. I wouldn’t swear anyone off this book, but I would definitely suggest other literature for the budding medievalist.
THE COWLEY FATHERS
A History of the English Congregation of the Society of St John the Evangelist
Canterbury Press, pbk, 554pp
978 1786221834, £45
The Society of St John the Evangelist was founded on St John’s Day 1866, the first stable Religious Community for men to be founded in the post-Reformation English Church. Popularly known as the Cowley Fathers (from the location in east Oxford of the mother house), SSJE went on to work in Africa, North America and India as well as the UK, and left an indelible mark on the Anglican Communion. Now, with only two members still living at the time of publication, the English congregation of SSJE receives the definitive account of its life work in this superb volume by Serenhedd James. The Cowley Fathers will take its place alongside Alan Wilkinson’s history of the Community of the Resurrection and Alistair Mason’s history of the Society of the Sacred Mission, as single volume histories of the three great sui generis Anglican religious communities for men.
SSJE was founded by Richard Meux Benson. Unlike the entertaining but ephemeral eccentrics who had tried before him, Benson had the standing and gravitas to ensure that this new community was built on rock, not sand. An experienced priest, from a wealthy family, a Student of Christ Church; Benson was able not only to attract others to his side, but also to persuade Bishop Wilberforce of Oxford that there was nothing to prevent him from lending his support to this new venture. So it was that on 27th December 1866 Benson, Charles Grafton and Simeon Wilbeforce O’Neill witnessed each other’s vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience (in itself a remarkable achievement given Wilberforce’s hitherto violent objection to vows) in a house on the Iffley Road. Cowley was to remain the centre of the Society’s life until 1980, yet the Society also grew exponentially, both in numbers and in the scope of its work. By the 1880s, Cowley Fathers were working in India, Canada, South Africa and the USA (where the brethren split from Cowley in difficult circumstances in 1882). By the turn of the century, SSJE also had a substantial presence in London, which became the Society’s home after Cowley was handed to St Stephen’s House in 1980.
The breadth and variety of the Society’s work and accomplishments is staggering, and Dr James is a reliable and entertaining guide. The Cowley Fathers is a large and detailed book, running to over 500 pages, including an excellent index, copious footnotes (not endnotes – hurrah!), and a good selection of black and white photographs. It will be required reading for anyone with an interest in the history of anglo-catholicism, not just those with an interest in the minutiae of the religious life. The author combines his eye for detail with an equally acute sense of the humorous or even absurd – a young Samuel Wilberforce resolving to live an ascetic life before yielding to a dish of turbot with lobster sauce, for example.
More significantly, much of James’s writing sheds light on the Church beyond the cloister. His prefatory account of previous attempts to establish the religious life in the Church of England, and the formation of the first female communities from the 1840s onwards, is an excellent introduction to the subject. At the other end of the timescale, the history of the final years of SSJE’s life could stand as a microcosm for much that was going on in the religious life – and indeed the Church – in general. The rapid decline in vocations, the wrestling with what might be the Society’s place in the modern world, the (over) simplification of life and liturgy, and the deliberate destruction of beauty and distinctiveness in an ultimately fruitless quest for ‘relevance’ are all chronicled here. Mostly, the author records this dispassionately, but at times his frustration seeps through. At Cowley, the liturgical revisions of the 1960s culminated in the removal of the high altar, designed (as was the Church itself) by G. F. Bodley. “Its enormous and richly-carved alabaster gradine was demolished, and its soaring fittings discarded. In one fell swoop the sightlines and architectural unity of the entire building … were destroyed.” It was to take the Community of the Resurrection another forty years or so to smash the high altar at Mirfield. In its decline, just as in its foundation, growth, and work, the Society of St John the Evangelist was pioneering.