Georgia O’Keeffe

Tate Modern until 30th October


This is Tate Modern’s first big exhibition since the opening of its new extension, the Switch House. The extra space which this provides, over and above the very popular viewing platform, exposes the Tate’s strengths and weaknesses. The strengths are the quality of the new space, with its chic black and scrubbed pine interior clad in a tricksy, amusing ziggurat-like brick exterior. Set beside the next door high-rise blocks you can see at once the quality of the architects, Herzog and De Meuron. The tearoom serves a very good Darjeeling, too – but to date the only architectural downside is the café terrace. It is at the end of a perfect wind tunnel sweeping up from Great Suffolk Street, and could do with a pot plant or two.

So, there is now plenty of room to expand the Tate’s collection, or at least to show some more of it. But metropolitan good taste doesn’t get away from the underlying problem that Tate Modern’s permanent collection is thin. In their defence, Tate argue that it is a mistake to think like that. They say that the collection shouldn’t be seen as individual great works, which provide the worshipping visitors with æsthetic pleasure; but as a conversation, a maelstrom of transgressive, frontier crossing concepts. And so the redesigned galleries – you couldn’t say “rehung” for things that sit on the floor – contain great works surrounded by all sorts of contemporary or post-contemporary pieces from across the globe, laid out to interact with each other and the visitor. The unreconstructed eye might reckon that these conversations are repetitive or derivative, and proof that the gallery can only afford poor-quality work.

As part of the consciousness-raising process the curators have one gallery of important works to encourage the timid visitor; and they have this impeccably curated show of works by Georgia O’Keeffe, which does everything the other galleries at Tate don’t do. It is a selection of works of æsthetic quality by an individual – works the viewer might enjoy – presented with the underlying theme that many of the modish conversations about O’Keeffe over the last eighty years have been plain wrong.

The argument here is twofold: there is a lot more to O’Keeffe than flowers, and it’s not just, if at all, about sex. The first point is made by the sizable majority of paintings which are not of flowers. There are deserts, adobes, skulls, landscapes with mountains and lakes, swirls, and Native American dolls. There are also views of New York. There are no people. But the case is proved: there is a lot more to O’Keeffe than flowers.

The sex angle is more interesting, though it is understandable that O’Keeffe became irritated with it, just as she became irritated with the suggestion that her skulls in the desert were surreal. As she put it, she painted skulls in the desert because she liked desert, she liked skulls, and skulls said more about the desert than plants. Her sexy plants of the 1920s and ’30s are a more complex case. They attracted public attention when her husband Alfred Stieglitz applied Freud’s newly minted theories of the subconscious and repression to them. And when you look at some of her flower paintings with suspicious eyes, it’s hard not to see pudenda. O’Keeffe denied that was what the paintings were about; but as the Freudians insinuate, she would say that, wouldn’t she?

Not that O’Keeffe was herself one for covering up – there can’t be too
many artists whose shows feature
photographs of themselves artistically but full frontally nude. Quite how this fits O’Keeffe into the feminist canon as devised by US critics in the 1970s is hard to say. Indeed, she was quite determined – even to the extent of changing her
subject matter – not to accept the critics’ analysis/invention of underlying sexual themes in her work. The irony here is that Tate Modern organises its other galleries according to the fluctuating
discourses and response theory which
so irritated O’Keeffe. But in this show they have the good manners to take the artist at her word, and to try to find what she thought was the point of her work.

That point is certainly shape, which may be rounded and curvy, or dead straight. It is also colour, which is often very bright and spare. She does abstract from her subject matter, but she never departs from it. She may paint flowers, but she doesn’t do cosy or soft – except in some rather disastrous cotton boles. The hardness of the ’20s and ’30s is part of O’Keeffe’s unvarnished, direct vision (so not very Freudian), and part of the physical tautness which we see in Stieglitz’s photos of her. But that hardness is not an urban brittleness, nor is it the technological strength of the machine. It is the hardness of the human animal in nature: if O’Keeffe is a feminist painter, then that is the essence of her feminism. And sometimes she captures the desert air and a mountain stream like no one else.


Epitaphs of the Great War

Sarah Wearne

Uniform. 123pp, £10.99

978 19105001


This year sees the centenary anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. It was one of the bloodiest in the nation’s history, and the loss of life was enormous. The graves of the Fallen, row upon row, still bear witness to those losses and still – despite the passage of time – evoke a sense of pity and horror.

The cemeteries are in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Although you can find Edwin Lutyen’s distinctive headstones dotted around churchyards and cemeteries in this country, the Commission took the view that the bodies of the Fallen should be buried where they fell, and should “speak of one voice of one death, one sacrifice, endured by Britain for the freedom of the nations and the freedom of man”. Not all families were content with the decision, and there was opposition. The families were, however, allowed to choose their own epitaph, to be encapsulated in a maximum of sixty-six characters (although a few longer sentiments slipped through the net).

These few words, touching in their brevity, often allusive and hinting at deeper emotions came from a variety of sources. The Bible: “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (2nd Lt Cyril Shepard, 39); “Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him” (Sgt William Holt, 39), “And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Capt Richard Hoare, 33). The Book of Common Prayer: “The noble army of martyrs praise Thee” (2nd Lt Robert Emison, 24). Shakespeare: “If we are marked to die we are enough to do our country loss” (Pte John Rayner, 23). Poetry, some of it long forgotten: “I will go forth […] when I fall it matters not so as God’s work is done”, the Scottish poet Alexander Smith (Lt Herbert Hitchcock, 22). Or allusions to verse: “Well played! Lad,” echoing Henry Newbolt’s Vitæ Lampada, “Play up! Play up! and play the game!” (Rifleman Samuel Gunn, 20), perhaps rather odd for an epitaph, but in its context personal and moving. Similarly those which hinted at an uncomprehending grief: “Did he die in vain” (Pte John Paul, 36), “Dear Happy Boy” (2nd Lt John Hodding, 17). Prose works: “This Happy-Starred full-blooded Spirit shoots into the Spiritual land’, Robert Louis Stevenson (Pte Frank Trotman, 33).

“Small time but in that small most greatly lived this star of England” was the inscription for the grave for Raymond Asquith, 37. When his father, the Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, was given the news by his wife Margot, Raymond’s step-mother, she recorded that he “put his head on his arms on the table and sobbed passionately.”

This book is part of a wider project. Between 27 August 2014 and 11 November 2018 Sarah Wearne is tweeting an epitaph daily, which is accompanied by a blog post with further details. Both there and in the book she has found sources for the epitaphs – some quite obscure –  and has tracked down allusions and paraphrases. She provides brief biographies, details from Commission records, and places each death in the context of the battle fought and the regiment involved. Here contemporaneous Battalion Diaries have proved invaluable, with their blandly factual prose providing a counterpoint to the mayhem and carnage they describe. These notes all help to bring the individuals into sharper focus, and remind us that they were flesh and blood and not merely statistics or depersonalised names chiseled into stone.

Both the wider project and this small, sombre, touching book are worthy commemorations of these who fell in the Great War. It was a bold statement that “their names will live for evermore” seen on many memorials; but it is imaginative work like this that will make it more, and not less, likely.

William Davage



Sources, Context and Doctrine within the Oxford Movement and beyond

Brian Douglas

Brill, 268pp, pbk

978 9004304574, £40


Edward Bouverie Pusey has been described by a former Bishop of Ebbsfleet as “a great man who missed an opportunity”. Of course the siren call of Rome sounds differently in each believer’s ear – every bit as much in our own day as in Pusey’s. One suspects that the good bishop was perhaps being deliberately controversial. If so, then he is in good company: Pusey has rarely been far from the battlefields of provocation and controversy, either in his own lifetime or since. In 1933 Geoffrey Faber declared that Pusey was either “a pervert or a saint”. Whilst hagiographical biographies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tended towards the latter view, more recent historians and theologians have found little to like about Pusey. John Webster memorably called him a “crackpot”. Colin Matthew accused him of deliberately leading Anglo-Catholicism into an intellectual dead end. Paul Avis described him as a “guilt-mongering penitent”. Much of this hostility has its roots in David Forrester’s book Young Doctor Pusey, which presents a convincing analysis of its subject’s early academic career, but a flawed account of his personal and family life in the years up until 1845. Compared to Newman, precious little has been written about Pusey. What the two erstwhile leaders of the Oxford Movement have in common is the way in which they continue to divide those who write about them.

Part of the problem in Pusey’s case is that he was such a prodigious polymath. To write a convincing biography of Pusey, one would have to be equally comfortable in the world of the Early Church Fathers (whose theological works Pusey did so much to bring back to the attention of English Christians), the slums of Leeds (where Pusey contributed substantial amounts of money to building new churches), the politics of nineteenth-century Oxford (where Pusey was banned by the University for preaching for two years after expounding unacceptably catholic views of the Eucharist from the pulpit), the semantics of ancient Hebrew (which was, after all, the academic discipline which gave Pusey his Regius Chair and his Canonry of Christ Church), Anglo-Catholicism, and a host of other disciplines and disputes with which Pusey became involved. It is therefore perhaps no surprise that two of the most useful books published about Pusey in recent decades have been collections of essays – Pusey Rediscovered, published in 1983, and Edward Bouverie Pusey and the Oxford Movement (2012), to which this reviewer made a modest contribution. In addition, relatively recent essays by David Brown and Timothy Larsen have offered appraisals of Pusey which are both more rigorous and more sympathetic than much that has gone before. There are signs that the tide of historiographical fortune is turning Pusey’s way once more.

Into this whirling maelstrom of competing critical commentaries drops The Eucharistic Theology of Edward Bouverie Pusey, by the Australian priest and academic Brian Douglas. The book is valuable for two reasons: it takes Pusey seriously as a man and as a scholar; and it presents to the reading public an account of a wide selection of his theological works, many of which will be virtually unheard of by all but the most hardened Pusey fanatics. Much of Pusey’s printed output consisted of new editions of classic works of theology, long forgotten or never heard of by the Church of England. There is therefore a pleasing symmetry to the fact that part of the value of Douglas’s book lies in its potential to make Pusey’s work available to new audiences. The central chapters of the book, which deal with the nuts and bolts of Pusey’s Eucharistic theology, provide a valuable introduction to aspects of his thought, whilst the opening and closing chapters give him his proper due as a priest and theologian of stature. Douglas does a valuable service in helping to restore Pusey’s reputation.

The book is not perfect. Specifically, it would have benefited from more ruthless editing. Sentences such as “[…] Pusey’s work was characterized by an awareness of the crises and discontinuity in Christian history that alerted Pusey, despite the possibility of a literalism and fundamentalism in Pusey, to the need to look deeper than a literalist and fundamentalist view of Scripture” are too common for comfort. Furthermore, in attempting to describe the kernel of Pusey’s Eucharistic theology, Douglas returns repeatedly to the concept of what he calls “moderate realism” – a real, but not carnal, presence in the consecrated elements – to encapsulate what Pusey taught. This concept ends up becoming a straitjacket into which everything has to be fitted, rather than a helpful method of explanation. Far simpler to say that Pusey (along with Keble and many others) believed firmly in the Real Presence, without wishing to define too closely the mystery of how it comes about.

Despite these reservations, this book deserves its place on the shelves of any student of the Oxford Movement, not least because of its part in the ongoing rehabilitation of its subject’s reputation. “A great man who missed an opportunity”? Readers may wish to debate the second part of that description of Edward Bouverie Pusey. But surely there should no longer be any doubt about the accuracy of the first.


Book of the month



A History of English Church Music

Andrew Gant

Profile Books, pp. 352,

978 1781252475


When he reviewed this book in The Spectator at the end of last year, Simon Heffer described Andrew Gant as being “on the spectrum somewhere between pub bore and pain in the arse”. Although it is true that Dr Gant’s prose is strewn with jokes that are at best only half-funny, and with excruciatingly casual turns of phrase that verge on the patronising – the second line of the book contains the phrase “the ref gives a free kick”, and he later describes the purpose of chantry masses as “to gain credits in the afterlife” – this seems a little harsh; but chacun à son goût.

Pace Dr Heffer, I really did try very hard to like this book. It is attractively presented and, after all, claims to lay out the history of a subject that is academically, professionally, and personally very close to my heart. Dr Gant knows a great deal about the performance of music in ecclesiastical settings: the book is well-furnished with entertaining anecdotes about musicians who have worked for the Church, and about the growth and development of their art.  

Unfortunately, Dr Gant does not seem to know as much about history as he does about music. For a book subtitled “A History of English Church Music”, this is something of a problem. His view of ecclesiastical music in the early-medieval period is breathtaking:


This is not for the man below the rood-screen, who can listen, but not take part. He wouldn’t expect to. He’s not going to notice for another five hundred years or so, never mind want to do anything about it. He would no more expect to understand and participate than he would expect his donkey to do so.  


There is so much wrong with this statement that I hardly know where to begin; and had I not been reviewing this book I would have discarded it here. Quite apart from the pseudo-Orwellian implication of “pre-Reformation bad; post-Reformation good”, Dr Gant seems to have ignored entirely a good deal of recent scholarship demonstrating that medieval laypeople – even the illiterate ones, which was most of them – were very much active participants in the liturgy.

To say that someone isn’t taking part in worship because they aren’t doing the same thing as another group of people in the course of a church service is patently nonsense. The illiterate peasant might not have been able to catch the precise words of the music; but he would have known where in the Church’s year he was, that whatever was being sung pertained somehow to the salvation of his soul, and that it was part of the means by which he could achieve heaven – which was very much something that his donkey could not.

Dr Gant soon moves on to his next theme: the idea that the whole of the history of ecclesiastical music is shot through with “clerical authorities trying to stop the music getting too much attention”. He provides as his example the attempted suppression of embellished plainsong by Pope John XXII; and – although he doesn’t give us the name of the bull – cites Docta Sanctorum Patrum of 1323/4, which also dealt with other issues relating to the chanting of the Divine Office.

Dr Gant describes the bull as “the old story of not wanting music to obscure the words”, but in fact quotes the section that shows it is actually about the Pope not wanting the ornamentation to obscure the tune. John XXII would have understood that the plainsong melodies had been delivered to the Church by his predecessor Gregory the Great, and in this context Docta Sanctorum Patrum is less about suppressing nice music than it is about recalling monastics to obedience.

There was a practical element to this: the Pope noted that sometimes the embellishment was so elaborate that it obscured the actual notes of the melody. As the melody was “how we can tell which tune we are listening to”, this was a pressing problem in an age of memorisation. In fact he was very keen on some sorts of innovation that did not obscure the melody, and particularly commended the use of organum on solemn feasts: “provided these harmonies are in the spirit and character of the melodies themselves”. This is hardly the ‘invective’ of a Philistine.

A few centuries later, Dr Gant’s identification of 1536 as a date after which it would be impossible for anyone to learn to sing the old monastic offices in England does not take into account the piecemeal way in which the monasteries were suppressed. The last of the larger houses – and therefore those with the most impressive musical resources – were suppressed in 1540. Meanwhile, he describes the practice in the larger churches of having “the organist adding a frilly little improvisation on the psalm tone in place of the even-numbered verses”, and concludes that


…half the words of any given psalm were missed out, which rather reduces the devotional point, as well as making something of a nonsense of meaning and grammar… Apparently this didn’t matter.  


Anywhere that possessed musicians and resources of this calibre did so because there would have been a community of clergy whose duty it was to pray the office corporately. The singers were not there to make a devotional point – although many of them may have been personally devout – but to sing the Office on behalf of others. Those others would have known the whole psalm and might well have been reciting it silently as the choir sang and the organ played; and so, no, within its proper context it probably didn’t matter.

The book continues in a similar vein. Perhaps Dr Gant’s two most outrageous statements come in his discussion of the Elizabethan period, with the idea that “English church music really became just that – English – at the moment when composers started setting their own language”; and that “the reformed style is plain, direct, and, at its best, has a simplicity and elegance which Latin Catholic music never achieved”.

What, then, of Dunstable, Fayrfax, Cornysh, and Sheppard; or of the composers of the Eton Choirbook and the Old Hall Manuscript? Were they somehow less English because they used the language in which the English Church prayed for over a thousand years? And could they not write with elegance and simplicity because they were Catholics, writing in Latin? Is Byrd’s Mass for Three Voices some kind of complicated choral carbuncle? Bizarrely, one of the examples Dr Gant uses of the kind of “simplicity and elegance which Latin Catholic music never achieved” is Thomas Tallis’s O Nata Lux: a motet written in Latin by a Catholic. At that point, I’m afraid I had to go and lie down.   

Serenhedd James