The Making of a Master
Victoria and Albert Museum
20 September 2014–11 January 2015
Admission £14, concessions available
This show is about how Constable mixed his innovative direct observation of nature with the great tradition of landscape painting. It is not a retrospective but an argument about techniques and influences with works drawn primarily from the great London collections. You can normally see these works for free but resist the temptation not to bother – the show stands on its own merits.
The rooms show successively watercolourists such as Girtin whom Constable greatly admired, open air oil sketches primarily by Constable but also by contemporaries, some of his small oils, a selection of the prints which hung in the artist’s rooms, plus a room of paintings by other artists and the copies Constable made of them. That is all by way of preparation for two rooms which show some of the great six footers alongside paintings which influenced them and large-scale preparatory sketches for the finished works. Finally there is a room of prints of Constable’s work plus the Study of the Trunk of an Elm with the Claude which influenced it and a copy of the Constable by Lucian Freud.
So there is a lot of copying and influencing in this show. But before he was influenced by past masters Constable had to see their work or at least prints of their work. Since most of the work which he drew from was in private hands, that meant buying prints or relying on the good offices of private patrons. And then copying them as the best way to ingest their secrets.
Constable’s copies of other artists’ works are not great works in themselves. A copy of a copy of Uccello is quite unrecognizable. There is a Ruisdael snow scene where the original is crude and crass, and the crudeness and the crassness is well caught, indeed seems to be part of some of Constable’s bigger sketches, notably that of The Hay Wain. But the same crass painting provides an early example of a little splash of red at the centre of the picture, so often used by Constable and not, pace Mike Leigh, just by J.M.W. Turner.
More startling is just how close the designs of Constable’s pictures are to those of Claude or Poussin or Rubens. Brandon Hill Pond, Hampstead is set beside Rubens’ Summer: Peasants Going to Market and the topography of the Low Countries creates how we see Hampstead. The great Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows is set beside Ruisdael’s Jewish Cemetery, Amsterdam and the pattern and shape of the painting is almost exactly the same. Indeed, by this stage in the show we might wonder if Constable ever painted what he saw, especially when we see how trees and foliage were so often moved about between the last sketch and final version. Even The Hay Wain, the quintessential biscuit tin realist picture, is shown to be modelled on Rubens’ View of Het Steen in Early May, the original view altered in typical Constable fashion to make the viewer’s right of the picture less cluttered and softer.
But Constable did not set out to make precise reproductions of what he saw in his large-scale works. By contrast, his sketches were very precise when it came to clouds and atmosphere. The same precision is found in one of his earliest works, the lovely Water Meadows near Salisbury which was rejected by the Academy for being just too green and unadorned. It was the kind of work the Impressionists admired but more art was needed in the large paintings if Constable was to sell to his contemporaries.
A late example of how precise observation combined with classical shape is The Cornfield. The composition is strikingly similar to Poussin’s Road to Rome. There is a strong vertical provided by a path/road with tall trees on either side. These are topped off by patches of sky and the eye is led on by buildings in the middle-to-far distance. But Poussin is painting Italy and Constable is painting England and here is where his meticulous outdoors work comes into play. Constable’s trees are observed in a way Poussin’s are not. The clouds are real. They might have been carefully placed but they are not decorative genre designs. And the greens and the browns have a freshness and variety which Poussin’s more schematically dark colour and dusty colours lack.
Constable’s vision of the English landscape has made him unfashionable. He is not gritty partly because we don’t recognize the rural industry and decay in his precisely painted landscape. We don’t understand the heartfelt loss in his ruins. And the sublime which was so much part of his vision was neutered by his public – the original idea for Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Ground had a sky similar to El Greco’s Toledo but the Bishop as patron and arbiter of taste preferred something blander. That is sad because it is the clouds which are often the starting point for Constable’s pictures and which save him from mere sterile copying of the masters of the past. However much he adored his predecessors, with Constable observation came first. This often technical show helps us to see this and so gives us a sense of the truth of his vision.
GOD IS WITH US
Advent and Christmas Music Sung by 8ctave
8ctave, conducted by Simon Lumby Divinyl Recordings
£9, available from
To the Christian soul, Christmas music has the power to move the emotions as much, if not more, than any other kind. There are so many angles from which to approach: from the joy of the angels to the aweful wonder and devotion of Mary; from the extraordinary truth that God is with us to the humbling fact that he comes as a baby, as fragile and vulnerable and beautiful as any other newborn. Christmas music offers vocal ensembles a wonderful opportunity – but a challenge also, because much of it is so familiar.
This collection of music for Advent and Christmas is the second album of choral music from 8ctave, who describe themselves as ‘Britain’s only fully Ordained Vocal Ensemble’. The cover notes make things clearer: ‘8ctave is a choir made up exclusively of Anglican Clergy from the Diocese of Leicester’. They are conducted by Fr Simon Lumby SSC and, on this recording, accompanied ably by Thomas Keogh at the organ.
This CD contains a pleasingly wide and varied selection of Christmas choral music, with a good range both chronologically and geographically. One of the newest pieces of music in terms of composition date – the title track, ‘God is with us’, by John Tavener – is also among the oldest in terms of the sources it uses, being based on the Orthodox tradition of choral singing, and taking words from the prophet Isaiah as its text. Geographically, composers from America, Ukraine, Germany and the UK are represented here. I would have welcomed more information on some of these composers and their music from the interesting, but brief, sleeve notes.
The music offered here, as well as being a mix of old and new, is also a mix of familiar and unfamiliar – to me, at least. There are some old favourites – Boris Ord’s ‘Adam lay ybounden’, for example, sung here quickly, vigorously, and enjoyably. Warlock’s ‘Bethlehem Down’ receives the sensitivity and gentleness that it deserves. Entirely new to me was Becky McGlade’s haunting setting of ‘In the bleak midwinter’.
Throughout the disc, the singing is neat and tight, the acoustic dry, the organ accompaniment sensitive. 8ctave embrace the opportunity of Christmas, and rise well to its challenge. Recommended this Advent and Christmas.
Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer
SPCK, 96pp, pbk
978 0281071715 £7.99
This book on Christian basics is simple, clear and deep. It will serve to guide seekers into the way of Christ or lead Christians to see afresh the profundity of their faith. The author, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has written many books mainly accessible to theologians but this one is one of his best shots at the wider public. His choice of Christian basics is typically imaginative. To prayer, Bible reading and Eucharist many would add service and reflection, but he deals with the latter under baptism and prayer respectively. He actually starts with service through his Christocentric interpretation of baptism as ‘openness to human need (and) the Holy Spirit’.
To Rowan Williams Christianity is ‘a certain way of being human’. It is humanity in its right mind as God intended it which Jesus came to restore. To be baptized is to live close to painful chaos around us and within us. It is ‘to be where Jesus is’, just as prayer and Eucharist are to enter his passion for God and humanity.
I liked his invitation to ‘Christ-centred reading of the Bible that tells you exactly how to relate all the different bits to the centre… how that bit in Leviticus and that bit in Ezekiel come alive when you relate it to Jesus… the whole massive history of Christian commentary on the Bible is just an ever-expanding exercise in that reality: that of relating different bits to the centre’. The Bible offers law, history and poetry and we must respect that diversity avoiding both over-poetic (Cavalier) interpretation and literalism.
The section on prayer reiterates the Christian invitation to growth in humanity and his examples of miracles – forgiving others and giving away your possessions – have the same human emphasis which runs throughout the book. Christians have solidarity with humanity, not status above it, just like Jesus. Ours like his is to be a listening and insightful life. The Eucharist schools us in seeing God in creation, the best clue to a healthy service of the environment, and takes us with the Lord’s Prayer into his passion for cosmic transformation.
Some memorable quotations: ‘Prayer…is like…sneezing – there comes a point where you can’t not do it’. ‘The diversity of the Bible is as great as if you had within the same two covers, for example, Shakespeare’s sonnets, the law reports of 1910, the introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the letters of St Anselm and a fragment of the Canterbury Tales. All within the same two covers.’ ‘Queen Victoria did not like going to Holy Communion on Easter Sunday, because, she said, she could not understand why you had to interrupt a joyful day with such a sad service.’
It is said that the best teachers can put awesome things in ordinary words for the unschooled. I think this book captures that gift in Rowan Williams by his provision in it of a simple, clear, yet profound taster of Christianity.
A User’s Guide
Volume 1: Process
DLT, 256pp, pbk
978 0232531480, £14.99
‘To do the work of silence; to re-centre in the depths; to become undistracted from beholding Jesus as the Undistracted; to realize the deification of our being in him and he in us (John 17:20–23) requires full commitment to kenosis (self-emptying) in the work of silence: a person cannot realize this incarnation-transfiguration-resurrection without such commitment and perseverance through both joy and despair.’ In those words Anglican
Solitary Maggie Ross states the aspiration behind her guide to silence which is affirming, challenging and more than a little ruthless.
The spiritual discipline of silence can help relocate energy from the superficial mind to the deep mind. If we regularly go beyond our noisy self-conscious thinking and wait silently and receptively, we find cleansing and empowerment as the mind rests centred in the heart. Maggie writes enthusiastically of this experience, its joys and pitfalls, and how inner silence will be the saving of the world.
The author affirms the ethics of silence that ‘require greater strength than the attitudes of selfishness and power. They are kenotic, that is, they arise from a wellspring of silence that has manifested itself by pouring through those who have made themselves available to it’. In plainer language she talks of this as à free-fall in the love of God’. As an experienced contemplative Ross has wisdom about the experience of God – distrust it! This wisdom is set forth in an illuminating glossary of so-called problem-words of which ‘experience’ is one.
The book is affirming but very challenging and not just to institutional religion, deemed to promote clericalism, suppress contemplatives and allow self-selected spiritual directors. The New Testament is said to be barely historical and the creeds created ‘in subservience to demands of secular imperial governments are especially in conflict, not only with the message of Jesus, but also with those who understand that diversity of interpretation is necessary to understand that message’. There is a plea elsewhere for same-sex marriage.
Solitaries are a prophetic gift to the Church, as is this book, despite its anomalies. I found it hard to swallow the painting of early monks and hermits as totally countercultural church-wise. There is evidence, for example in the Orthodox Philokalia, that they held themselves, within indeed a culture of silent physical isolation, to basic Christian disciplines of spiritual direction and participation in the sacraments.
Maggie Ross has some invaluable images of transformative silence. The Inuit hunters live by it, essential to their hunting. Berber nomads call themselves Free People because they have not been tricked into losing it, along with life under an open sky with the sun, moon and rain. How interesting, she notes, that nature films are so popular in our noisy culture with viewers riveted by the beauty and silent attentiveness of wild animals?
In his foreword Rowan Williams, custodian of her vows, praises Maggie’s penetrating insight while confirming her independence and ruthlessness. An interesting choice – with Archbishop Tutu – for commending a book so hard-hitting when it comes to the teaching and institution of the Church!
Or How I went from Pop to Pulpit
Weidenfield & Nicolson, 288pp, hbk
978 0297870302, £20
The Revd Richard Coles has certainly led an unusually full life. From the delights and pressures of pop stardom (his group the Communards had the biggest-selling single of 1986 with ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’) to the delights and pressures of priesthood in the Church of England, via a ‘classic Protestant conversion’ at St Alban’s Holborn, a brief spell in the Roman Catholic Church, and formation for priestly ministry at the College of the Resurrection at Mirfield, Richard Coles has seen and done a lot.
It would be easy to split his life into two halves – pre-conversion and post-conversion. And indeed, Coles is candid about the difficulties many of his pop-world friends had in coming to terms with his faith and his vocation. He is also strikingly honest – at times wincingly so – about both the excesses of his former world, and the idiosyncrasies of his present one. But, so far as the reader can tell, he is as piercingly honest with and about himself (‘I am a sinner’) as he is about others. Nonetheless, I do wonder quite how Communards fans will receive his account of life in the Church; and equally I wonder how little old ladies sat in the pews will receive his account of his pre-conversion pop-star and celebrity lifestyle. For example, Coles does not pull any punches in his telling of what it was like to be a part of the gay scene at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And while this is not a bad thing in this context, it does make me wonder at times precisely who this book is for. Reader discretion is advised, as the saying goes.
Having said all of that, I do think that Coles is trying to do something quite important in this book. He is attempting not only to make sense of his own life, but to show others (on both sides of the fence) how a genuine conversion is not only possible but also God-given and life-enhancing. I am a long way from agreeing with everything that Coles says in his book (despite his flirting with various forms of Anglo-Catholicism, he is not always kind about the tradition), but I admire his attempt to bring two different worlds together – because of course what he is really doing in attempting this is making the point that there is no part of human existence which is beyond redemption by God. There is no element of humanity that is not capable of being converted and transfigured into something beautiful and glorious. The journey will not always be an easy one, but that does not mean that we should never try. And if at times Fathomless Riches is perhaps a little more graphic than it needs to be, then there are also times when it is funny, humbling, sad and profound.
I like the fact that Coles begins and ends his book with the Christian faith. He begins by quoting from the letter to the Ephesians – ‘Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given to me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the fathomless riches of Christ …’. And he ends his narrative at the reception following his ordination, where a man comes up to him and asks, ‘Aren’t you Richard Coles?’ The man is a fan of the Communards and a conversation ensues. Afterwards, ‘As I went back into the party I realised that he had made no reference at all to my dog collar or asked why I was there’.
Perhaps there is, after all, a unity to this life of two halves. Perhaps we sinners should be quicker to let God do the judging, and slower to decide for ourselves who is and is not worthy of his love. And perhaps in that (unwritten) conclusion lies the real value of this
BOETHIUS AS A PARADIGM OF LATE ANCIENT THOUGHT
Edited by Andrea Kirchner et al
de Gruyter, 270pp, hbk
978 3110310580, £99.95
This is, I acknowledge, at the limit of what may reasonably be reviewed in the pages of ND. A collection of academic essays on an under-appreciated philosopher of the sixth century, half of which are in German; oh, and most of the Latin and Greek in the original texts and the French of commentators is left untranslated. It is, however, a book that deserves to be commended and, if you
can persuade your university library to stock it, to be read.
Boethius came from a Roman patrician family and grew up in the decades that followed the fall of the Roman empire of the west, that held to the remnants of the classical culture as the barbarian armies fought over the spoils, or re-energized the fragments from such outposts as Ravenna and Milan, before the gathering darkness of the truly dark ages.
A man of immense intellectual ability, he began his adult life as a prolific writer and teacher, before being raised to the highest political echelons and a pillar of the establishment, until he fell foul of the Emperor Theodoric, was imprisoned, and was executed at the age of 45. Thanks to the range of his interests (he was at one time asked to construct water clocks for the royal court), he was one of the most important conduits of classical learning to the Middle Ages. It was he who established theology as a science, who provided the foundation of philosophical logic for later Scholasticism, and who gave a vision of Christian humanism in his final masterpiece, written in prison, The Consolation of Philosophy, later translated by King Alfred himself, as part of his ambitious educational programme, and later still by Chaucer and then Elizabeth I.
What the writers here are seeking to show is that Boethius was far more than a mere conduit. He was a philosopher and theologian of real originality. In other words, he deserves to be remembered and then studied far more than at present. If this proves the case a decade hence, then this book will have done its work in re-establishing a true Christian hero.
My favourite essay was by John Marenbon. He shows how Boethius, in his increasing interest in philosophical logic, developed an unexpected but passionate bias towards Aristotelian arguments and away from the more popular Platonic forms. As later developments proved, he had picked the right path. Which went on to influence the twelfth-century philosophers who superseded his work. Without his own intellectual obsession, it is possible that the great Scholastic triumphs would
never have come about. I read this essay on a long train journey, lost in ancient disputes and mental struggles, humbled by the what he achieved under such constraints; as I got out and gathered my thoughts for a London meeting, I was struck by how amazingly irrelevant it was, how quickly I would forget all the detail, but also how wonderfully moving and inspiring.
Christianity in England 1526–1829
Academica Press, 253pp, hbk
978 1936320394, £48.95
It might be as well to note at the start that this book is a history of Christianity in England – it is not about politics and it is not about Britain. As for period, three hundred years is a substantial chunk of history, difficult for an author to cover or for a reader to grasp or retain, even if, like me, he worked in the sixth form under a good history teacher!
Of course it is completely impossible to effect much of a separation between religion and politics: not only in the reign of Henry VIII, who asserted pretty plainly by word and deed that an offence against religion must also be an offence against the State, since he was the absolute and supreme head of both; but also while the Tudors remained in power after him and continued in his cunning and bullying ways.
The combination of this inheritance with Scottish descent in the case of the Stuarts did not mend matters much. They were largely mistrusted by both Protestants and Catholics, the one suspecting that the policy of Mary Tudor would make a return and the other jealous for both its religious and its civil liberties and old loyalties.
The author does give us a mass of detail and reference for these turbulent times. In fact a large proportion of the book is taken up with disputes and barbarisms of Anglicans and Catholics – eminently sad but nevertheless readable; so that one might, as a reader, have chosen to be given rather more information about the origin and growth of other churches and sects until the end of the chosen period. Still, the book has to end somewhere, and it does so at the Catholic Emancipation Act, though with hints of further excitements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and with the implicit hope that the toleration and liberalism of succeeding times might put an end to divisions and at last see more of men and women at least respecting their neighbours, if not actually learning to love them.
Some of the horrors of the period under review are, according to the author, often overstated, bad as they were. Cromwell, for example, left Prayer Book use largely undisturbed, three-quarters of parishes being left alone in their regular worship; Christmas being widely kept in spite of its abolition by enactment.
There is much of interest in this book. Parliament, we are informed, had enough gunpowder under it to ‘blow it sky-high’. The author holds to the belief that James II’s leaving the country was not a de facto abdication. That it might be understood as such she believes to have been a ‘myth’ created to facilitate a deposition. Bounty hunters continued (though not in great numbers) their sneaking spying on decent Christian people into the eighteenth century.
I also found Southern’s lengthy literary quotations interesting: Milton, Herbert, Marvell and others. Indeed there could have been more: Trollope and Dickens come to mind. All in all, this is a stirring telling of the history of a long and troubled sector of England’s past – one that isn’t finished yet. The author might have ventured a little more across borders, where Protestant and Catholic divisions spread into England’s nearest neighbours – even into sport – and linger even now. It is not many years since a visiting Pope was insulted as Antichrist in an English church.
But perhaps we should ponder on the title of this American-published book.