Thurifer dances to the music of time
For almost thirty years I paid an annual visit to Edinburgh for the International Festival and the ever-burgeoning Fringe. One of my traditions was to visit the Scottish National Gallery to see the series of paintings ‘The Seven Sacraments’ by Nicolas Poussin. It is unquestionably one of the great sets of paintings in the Western tradition. They were hung in a remote upper gallery, but were later spectacularly re-hung in an octagonal room on the ground floor, at the epicentre of the gallery. Poussin originated the classical tradition in French painting and meticulously planned his compositions, using wax models in his planning. He achieves a classical nobility, a restrained palette and composition yet dramatic in its light, shade, tonal variations and gesture. The set is infused with learning and theological reflection.
One of the Wallace Collection glories is Poussin’s magnificent, ‘Dance to the Music of Time.’ Technically and visually stunning—a painting that can stop you in your tracks—it represents the inevitable passage of time. In classical form, echoing Graeco-Roman friezes, their stylized movements and gestures frozen in time, it illustrates not merely the whirligig of time but the medieval concept of the Wheel of Fortune. Figures represent the passing seasons and poverty, labour, wealth and pleasure, hands joined in the dance. Although the dancer representing pleasure has something of a self-satisfied grin, the dance comes full circle, and pleasure gives way again to poverty. Commissioned by the future Pope Clement IX (Giulio Rospigliosi), he may have intended it to depict the cycle of seasons. The onset of Romanticism overshadowed Poussin for some considerable time but opinion turned, aided by the advocacy of the post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne and the scholarship of Anthony Blunt. Poussin deserves to be more popular with gallery aficionados as one of the greatest masters in the Western tradition.
‘Dance to the Music of Time’ is also the title of the sequence of twelve novels by Anthony Powell. It is an extended social comedy published between 1951 and 1975 anatomizing the nexus between high society and literary and artistic bohemia, somewhere between Mayfair and Fitzrovia. It was highly regarded by many influential voices, including Evelyn Waugh (whose son Auberon, however, savaged it). I did not read the novels as they appeared but saved them for retirement, alongside Henry James. I have now read the first three books in the sequence and feel a sense of disappointment and anxiety. Have I missed something? What am I missing? They do not seem to stand up to the lavish praise they once received and I am tending towards the view of the younger Waugh. I shall persevere, however, a least for a few more, but even having read the excellent biography of Powell by Hilary Spurling I am not sure I shall stay the course to the end.
A clerical friend has told me that the religious press has an increasing number of ‘House for Duty’ advertisements for priests. He wondered when we shall see ‘Episcopal Palace for Duty’ appearing. We may have to wait for hell to freeze over and the pews to be completely empty.
Kelham Hall is situated a few miles from Newark in Nottinghamshire. The present structure is the third house, the Jacobean and the eighteenth-century house both succumbing to fire. It was built in 1863 for the Manners-Sutton family (connected to the Dukes of Rutland) by George Gilbert Scott. It is a Gothic masterpiece, if not quite as fantastical as St Pancras. Some of the internal stonework in the brick-built house is heavy and sturdy rather than graceful, but the proportions of the public rooms on the ground floor are very fine. Some of the internal decoration is unfinished, missing marble pillars, for example, as money ran out. There was insufficient money to pay for the clock in the tower for which it was designed and it was never installed. It was delivered to Kelham Hall but as there was no payment forthcoming it was taken away again. The house was sold to the Society of the Sacred Mission in 1903 and became a theological college until the early 1970s. Many will have fond memories of it. A pleasant accommodation building was added in something of an Arts and Crafts style in 1939, just in time for its military occupation in World War II as the building had been occupied in the previous war. An idiosyncratic masterpiece in its own right, the enormous chapel was built between 1927 and 1929 designed in a quasi-Byzantine style by P.H. Currey and C.C. Thompson with its dominant feature the central dome. It is now used for wedding receptions and a dozen tables were set on the day of my visit in white with large red ribbons on the chairs. They sat uneasily in the setting, but there were no religious features remaining apart from an incongruous set of choir stalls along one wall. The ‘Kelham Rood’ by C.S. Jagger is in St John the Divine, Kennington. To my eye the chapel sits rather incongruously next to Scott’s Gothic realization, but it is fascinating in itself. Occupied by the local council for some years, the house has now been converted into a luxury hotel. On a misty and sharp winter’s day both Kelham Hall and the SSM graveyard of the adjacent (locked) parish church seemed forlorn, a monument to glories past.