Van Gogh and Britain

Tate Britain until 11 August.

Booking advisable.


There are three reasons to see this show. The first is to see in one place some very fine paintings which have been lent by galleries from all over the world. If that is your reason to come you will not be disappointed. The second reason is to answer the question, is Van Gogh that great? The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ And so much greater than the reproductions suggest or the assumption that he is a sad man who painted happy pictures. The third reason is to explore the relationship between Van Gogh and Britain. It’s really Van Gogh and London and the works of art he saw in London, the British artists who influenced him and the artists he influenced. If this is your reason to come you may be disappointed.

Happily for him, Van Gogh had as good a time in London as many other places. He spoke good English, enjoyed his work (at least to begin with) and was able to visit the National Gallery and buy prints. Sometimes the influence of what he saw in his three London years is very clear. He owned and copied the prints of Gustave Doré, notably the famous ‘Over London by Rail’ and ‘Newgate Prison Exercise Yard.’ The latter he translated into oils, the 1890 ‘Prisoners exercising.’ At the same time he also copied Daumier and Millet and Delacroix, so his working method was not solely London-centric.

The show also gives examples of paintings derived from works which Van Gogh saw in London. There are two paintings of avenues of trees inspired by Hobbema’s ‘The Avenue at Middelharnis’ (which has been loaned by the National Gallery). The Hobbema is much better than the Van Goghs. Indeed, there are a number of dull paintings in the show, dull in their originals and dull in Van Gogh’s version of them—country house gates were not his thing.

One way contemporary London life did influence Van Gogh—and one of the strengths of the show is it brings this out—was it helped him to see that the poverty of the poor was a fitting subject for artists. He knew the poor because he was poor most of his life, and the Tate shows us a painting of apples which was one of the first of his works to come to this country—the apples had to be bought for him by his dealer. But the prints of London based-artists and the novels of Charles Dickens confirmed to Van Gogh that the poor were in themselves a fitting subject for an artist.

Dickens was in the background to another important thematic influence, that of the empty chair. When he was in London, Van Gogh saw Luke Fildes’ ‘Empty Chair,’ a painting which used an empty chair to refer to the death of Dickens. The empty chair sequences of Van Gogh’s Provençal lodgings were to be emblematic of his own and Gauguin’s absence from Arles.

These themes are persuasively presented at the Tate. The curators have more work to do to make the case that one of the jewels of the exhibition, ‘Starry Night over the Rhone,’ was inspired by Van Gogh’s Thameside strolls. A Whistler scene of the Chelsea embankment is hung next to ‘Starry Night’ and the arc of the Rhone embankment does have a sense of the Whistler, but Van Gogh’s vivid yellows and the slabs of Prussian blue are dramatically different from Whistler’s muted, boho tones. So, case not proven, though who cares if it means one of the Musée D’Orsay’s finest paintings has been lent to the Tate.

That middle class aesthetic of Whistler literally pales besides the Van Gogh in a way which is typical for many of the British artists who were inspired by Van Gogh. Even painters of the calibre of Sickert look lightweight besides the intensity of Van Gogh’s late works. One particularly disastrous room features the National Gallery’s ‘Sunflowers.’ ‘Sunflowers’ was originally part of the Tate collection and it’s clear that the Tate would dearly love to have it back. Around the masterwork the curators have placed other men and women’s sunflowers. These are much, much lesser works. As Roger Fry rightly saw, there is something very unflowery about a Van Gogh sunflower. His painting is a symphony of paint and harsh surfaces. It has nothing of the softness of petals or even the actual colour of sunflowers.

A similar harshness is found in the Kröller-Müller’s small picture of pollarded willows at sunset. The spikiness of the trees and the primary colours of the light might anticipate the agonised post-war work of Graham Sutherland. Some of the mise-en-scéne could be linked back to Constable and some of Van Gogh’s explorations of tree bark seem to bear that influence, hence the loan of ‘Trunk of an old yew tree’ (1888) from a private collection. But even in those works the intensity of feeling is something very much of Van Gogh.

The last room of Van Gogh’s own works (there’s a final room of reactive artists afterwards) shows one of works the artist was working on at his death. The rural scene, grey under the dull skies of the Île-de-France, reminds us how skilful Van Gogh was in the composition of his paintings—the rhythms and shapes of which provide the setting for his strong colours and stabs of brushwork. And then in the same room there is the great Washington self-portrait, and it’s not just the daring use of paint which makes this so special. The eyes are some of the most intense in Western art. The skull from which they look out is both precisely observed and emblematic of terrible stress. There was no one anywhere, let alone in London, who could use paint like this in 1890.

Owen Higgs




From Fire by Water

My Journey to the Catholic Faith

Sohrab Ahmari

Ignatius Press 2019 £13.30 hardback

ISBN: 978-1621642022 240pp


In the first part of his powerful and compelling memoir, the New York Post journalist Sohrab Ahmari recounts his childhood, spent in Iran under the regime of the Ayatollahs, of which he gives a fascinating inside view.  Influenced by his fairly secular family, he none the less sees ‘good and beauty in Islam’ and writes writes movingly of the death of Hussein ibn Ali at Karbala at the inception of the Sunni-Shiite schism in the seventh century.  But, in general, the Islam of Khomeini and his followers offers little to attract him: it is, he writes, ‘a religion that never proposes but only imposes – and that by the sword or the suicide bomber’.  

So it was good news for the thirteen-year-old Sohrab when an uncle living in the U.S. managed to arrange for him and his newly divorced mother to emigrate there.  It was less good news that this uncle lived in deepest Mormon country and the young, middle-class Iranian found himself living in a trailer park in Logan, Utah. ‘That’s not who we are’, he rages against his mother Niloofar, ‘we have to move out!’  Increasingly rebellious, Ahmari finds himself intoxicated by Nietzshe in Thus Spake Zarathustra, fixated ‘on what he could achieve within the bounds of his own reason, creativity, love and will to power’.  At university he is further influenced by the nihilism and existentialism of Camus and Sartre, and he joins the Trotskyite Workers’ Alliance, seeking in Marxism a secular salvation in which ‘History would wipe away every tear’. Academically a high achiever, he recounts during this period becoming habitually rude, arrogant and drunk.  

In a rather wonderful anecdote he baits two roommates at Utah State University by leaving out for them William S. Burroughs’s obscene and debauched Naked Lunch in the communal living room.  They never read it but leave out for him in return the King James Bible and he finds himself engrossed in Matthew’s gospel, transfixed by the evangelist’s account of the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus.  From this point, Ahmari, schooled in the New Testament by works such as Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth becomes progressively more attracted by the person of Jesus and by the beauty and truth of the Christian faith.  

A risky journalistic escapade sees him accompanying a group of migrants being taken by an Afghan smuggling ring from Istanbul to the Greek islands.  His mother’s illness means that he does not complete the final crossing, but the time spent with these people gives him a vision of the hell that is both within and around him and ultimately leads him to Christ and reception into the Catholic Church: ‘There was only one escape hatch that led out of the infernal prison in which my soul was trapped, and it happened to be cruciform in shape.  The only way out was through the One who so loved the world that he descended from the austere heights of Sinai down to these lowest depths, who called slaves friends, who allowed himself to be degraded and lifted up again as the Paschal Victim for all ages.’

Ahmari reminds us how important it is that modern Christians in a pluralistic context should be able to contend for Christianity’s intellectual and philosophical coherence; to speak persuasively about the compelling and satisfying account that orthodox, Catholic Christianity gives of God and the world, and our place within it.  His journey reflects that of St Justin Martyr who, in his mid-second century Apology, recounts that, whilst he has investigated a number of different philosophies ‘this (Christian) philosophy alone was true and profitable’.  Ahmari shows us how, for this voraciously intelligent young man, the Catholic faith easily surpasses both the inflexible and rebarbative Islam of his native country, just as it does the secularised western advice to ‘be yourself’, first articulated to the young Sohrab by his somewhat dissolute father.  

It was not only the intellectual coherence of the faith that attracted him.  Moving to London in 2014, Ahmari becomes friends with a group of evangelical Christians who are supporting persecuted Christians in the Middle East.  In their company he finds his way to Holy Trinity Brompton, but light-touch sermons and hearty renditions of My God is a Great Big God, together with actions, unsurprisingly don’t do it for him. He finds his way next door to High Mass at the Brompton Oratory.  His new Catholic friends don’t text him and invite him to services, unlike those at HTB, and a snooty young man sitting next to Ahmari winces when he makes the sign of the cross with his left hand. But none the less, he is entranced by the beauty and the dignity of the worship that he finds in this holy place ‘set apart from the banality and corruption of human affairs’: a beauty that enhances and pays homage to the true theology that inspires and precedes it.

Edward Dowler



The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe

Adrian Barlow

The Lutterworth Press, 2018.

ISBN: 978 0 7188 9463 4 £25


The study of church architecture in Nineteenth Century Britain is firmly established. Its leading architects, Bodley, Pearson, Butterfield, and their successors, Temple Moore, Comper and Dykes Bower, have all received substantial studies. How strange, then, that Charles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907), whose work in stained glass can be found in churches the length and breadth of this country, as well as in some buildings overseas, has been neglected. Margaret Stavridi’s well-illustrated Master of Glass (1988) was a valuable reminder of Kempe’s importance, but we have had to wait until now for a major assessment of his career and output. The present book rewards the waiting in full measure, acknowledging Stavridi’s contribution but surpassing it in research and, in important respects, correcting it.

The first part of Adrian Barlow’s work is an account of Kempe’s life and personality. Mr Barlow has done painstaking research, yet Kempe the man remains elusive. Perhaps that was his wish. A photograph of him in his maturity (Stavridi gives others) shows him looking a prosperous country squire, with his bowler hat, his pointed beard and his meticulously neat clothes. The impression, though, is of someone literally buttoned-up. The appearance seems designed to hide the man rather than reveal him, just as Elgar concealed his almost morbid sensitivity behind a stiff, nearly military exterior. On first meeting Kempe, Lady Louisa Wolseley, wife of Viscount Garnet, recorded that he was “very well turned out for an ‘artistic’ man.”

We learn of Kempe’s comfortable family background, and of the disabling stammer which prevented the young man from seeking ordination. His Oxford Movement sympathies were a departure from his domestic tradition, yet the family’s historical roots meant much to him. This strong sense of links with the past informed everything which he did, and his fascination with church architecture and ritual emerged in his teens. In the early 1860s he came under the influence of Bodley, and his future path was established. He never married, and the author demonstrates a laudable refusal to speculate on Kempe’s emotional life, where evidence is almost non-existent.

Kempe was a more than competent artist, and he acquired a wide knowledge of stained glass throughout Europe which gave him a remarkable ability to compose the contents of windows. In addition, as this study reminds us, his abilities extended beyond glass to church decoration and fabrics, to garden design and architecture. His genius, however, lay in the building up of his glass making studio. He was untiring in networking. He sought clients who included royalty, the titled and the rich. His wide social circle included such notable people as the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Lord Halifax, Henry James, A. C. Benson, M. R. James and even the controversial Lord Ronald Gower. These, and many others, became the privileged guests at Kempe’s House Beautiful, the Old Place at Lindfield, which he bought and extended, making it a monument to his personal tastes.

Kempe’s other outstanding gift lay in recognizing and encouraging young artists of real ability and fostering their development. They were the ones who developed the “Kempe style” in glass, under the Master’s supervision but with freedom to follow their own bent. To his credit, Kempe was prepared to trust young men with important commissions, and their achievements fully justified his trust.

Following the biographical portion of this book, there are valuable chapters on Kempe’s approach to designing windows, as well as on his patrons and how he responded to their requirements. We read of his imaginative work creating Old Place and his generous hospitality there to friends and neighbours, and of his successor, Walter Tower, who headed the firm (as Kempe’s studio had become) until the decision to close it in 1934. The First World War dealt a blow to the production of stained glass, and when the inevitable commissions for memorial windows after the war dried up there were fewer opportunities for large-scale stained-glass projects. Also, by this time the Kempe style was being seen as out of touch with changing fashion.

A final chapter deals with Kempe’s reputation. Given the hostility to Victorian art and architecture which prevailed in this country for much of the Twentieth Century, and which led to the vandalism and loss of fine buildings and churches in the name of “progress”, it would be surprising had Kempe’s output emerged unscathed. Even in his lifetime there were critical voices raised about his studio’s work. A friend like Arthur Benson had little liking for Kempe’s glass while he remained devoted to the man. Later reservations, sometimes ill-informed, by Comper, John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner did not assist fair treatment of Kempe.  Individual preference inevitably plays a large part in artistic evaluation, but it is safe to say that Kempe is at last receiving the appreciation which is his due, and Mr Barlow’s work gives us the necessary materials for understanding Kempe’s aims and the background from which he worked.

Adrian Barlow writes uncommonly well. His style is fluent and clear and carries the reader along effortlessly; indeed, it is so absorbing that several times I have almost been taken past my destination on the underground. Appropriately enough, a book which deals with fine art has been handsomely produced. The illustrations are well chosen, and the colour pictures are excellent. Stained glass is tricky to photograph, and the quality of the coloured examples here is outstandingly good and detailed. More would have been welcome, but no doubt this would have made the book prohibitively expensive.

This rewarding volume leaves me with only one complaint, which is that the Lutterworth Press has followed the bad example of too many other publishers and lumped all the explanatory notes together at the back of the book. The notes here are many and informative, and it is extremely irritating for the reader constantly to be going backwards and forwards to check a reference. In a future edition this should be put right, and the notes placed at the foot of the pages.

Finally, if the coloured illustrations here leave one thirsting for more, a second volume on Kempe by Adrian Barlow, Espying Heaven, has recently been published, and this will supply the coloured examples which are essential for a full appreciation of Kempe’s work. Watch this review space.

Perhaps I ought to end with a warning. Readers who are captivated by this study may find, as I have, that they will be planning their holidays so that they can travel to view Kempe windows in situ. But what finer tribute could there be to an artist, his workers, and the author of a book about them?

Barry A. Orford


John Duns Scotus

Introduction to His Fundamental Positions

E Gilson, trans. J Colbert

T&T Clark, ISBN 9780567678683, £130


Bl. John Duns Scotus (1265/6-1308) may well be the most criminally treated of all the major figures in the intellectual life of the Church. Despite offering many valuable theological ideas, amongst them the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, Scotus’ many and various detractors have wanted to see him as undermining the Church’s great moral and theological traditions. However, much work is being put into understanding Scotus’ positions sympathetically, particularly in the wake of the publication of the critical edition of the Ordinatio, Scotus’ major work, and in light of an attempt by Franciscan thinkers like Fr. Philotheus Boehner and Fr. Allan Wolter to reclaim their intellectual tradition from the dominance of the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas.

Scotus has suffered in recent scholarship from two disadvantages First, he has been treated pretty badly throughout history, with the English ‘dunce’, for example, coming from a mispronunciation of his name ‘Duns’; certainly, Scotus did not come out of the English Reformation very well, which perhaps makes sense given his precise understanding of marriage and divorce. The second is the focus on Aquinas as the prime representative of Catholic theology. That Aquinas is so dominant – certainly when compared to his fellow Medieval, at least – is not entirely surprising. St. Thomas left us with an elegant theological system largely accessible in the Summa Theologica, making him an incredibly usable thinker; it is no surprise that the papacy has done so much to support him.

Gilson’s project in John Duns Scotus seems to be to defend Scotus both from his opponents and his over enthusiastic Franciscan supporters. Gilson is clearly trying to make the confusing landscape of the Ordinatio – Scotus’ magnum opus – into something as useful as the Summa, at least, insofar that that is possible without the critical edition of Scotus’ work (more on this later). Gilson seems to be following on from his L’espirt de la philosophie médiéval, in which he claims that all Medieval Philosophy, and not just Aquinas, is valuable to the Church, because all Medieval philosophy is ultimately Christian philosophy.

Gilson’s reading of Scotus, whilst certainly not as clear as many more contemporary readings, does at least treat Scotus as someone with something valuable to say to the Church. The book is leavened with citations to Scotus’ text, a testament in itself to the quality of Gilson as a scholar, although, perhaps he  jumps between Scotus’ earlier and later works a little too freely. I would certainly advise any serious and professional Scotus scholar to get themselves a copy of this book, not least because it covers a lot of ground I have not seen covered elsewhere; Gilson devotes many pages to both Scotus’ angelology and his understanding of the reason/revelation distinction.

But, there are problems with Gilson’s reading. The best example of this is the rather confused way in which Gilson treats Scotus’ famous and controversial doctrine of the univocity of being. Scotus claims that “I designate that concept univocal which possess sufficient unity in itself, so that to affirm and deny it of one and the same thing would be a contradiction” (Ordinatio, d. III, q. 2, nn. 26). The idea here is that when I say that God is ‘good’, and I say that St. Francis is ‘good’, even though God’s goodness is necessary and infinite, and St. Francis’ is contingent and finite, we understand them as being the same thing; both things are called goodness. We have a broad concept of ‘goodness’ that is the same in all cases, even if real good people are good in very different ways.

Univocity is a way of talking about and understanding some things about God, that, so far as Scotus is concerned, allows us to formulate deductive arguments that claim things about God. This much is clear in the structure of the Ordinatio, with the discussion of univocity coming in Distinction III, after the demonstration of God’s existence in Distinction II; Scotus must show that all the work of Distinction II is not in vain, given that God is mysterious to us. Gilson, however, seems to commit to an older and erroneous belief that Scotus is talking about things, rather than words, which is a worry, since we do not want to make God the same as creatures, even if we understand both of them in the same way. At one point Gilson claims that “a term is univocal when it really means the same thing in all uses of it” (p. 67), grasping the semantic nature of this doctrine, and at another “metaphysics does not have the concept of univocal being as its object, but univocal being” (p. 86), with Gilson slipping from talking about words to things; Boehner – a friend of Gilson – had already argued against this in 1946.

It is, however, hard to say that this mistake and others like it are a matter of Gilson’s being a bad scholar; quite the opposite seems to be the case. The core problem with this text is simply the date of its publication in French: 1952. It was only in 1950 that we received the critical edition of Ordinatio I, with the final part being published in 2013. Gilson works with the uncritical Wadding edition in a time when little Scotus scholarship was shifting from a focus on Scotus’ strictly theological ideas – including the Immaculate Conception and some Christology that influenced the Tractarians – to Scotus’ metaphysics. Even by 1947, Wolter was putting out readings of Scotus’ metaphysics that strongly clashed with that of Gilson and that were more familiar with the historical Scotist literature.

By 2019, 67 years later, far more work has been put into systematising Scotus – something Gilson claimed would take a genius – than was ever available for Gilson. Herein lies the problem with this book: by 2019, Gilson is dated, even whilst leaving in some interesting ideas and readings for the expert. Given the lack of critical scholarship at the time, it is not surprising that throughout the text, Gilson uses Aquinas as a touchstone, even whilst Scotus’ contemporaries Henry of Ghent and Giles of Rome would be a wiser choice. Since 1952, writers like Adams, Wolter (whose Philosophical Writings of Duns Scotus remains some of the best beginner primary literature on Scotus, for the brave among my readers), and Ingham (whose Duns Scotus: The Subtle Doctor – available on Amazon as an audiobook – is perhaps the best popular introduction to Scotus) have worked to make Scotus a clearer and more systematic thinker. It is certainly a shame that it took so long to get Gilson into English, as had it been accessible in English from the ‘50s, Scotus scholarship would be much further ahead than it currently is. I can only hope that the late translation still has good work to do in the Anglophone world.

Jack Allen


Stations of the Resurrection

from Easter to Pentecost

Richard Q. Greatrex

Redemptorist Publications


I vividly recall, during my time ministering at the Shrine, letting out a groan on the Monday of Easter Week as the strains of the Stabat Mater drifted through the open window of the Administrator’s Cottage. The Stations of the Cross are, of course, a hugely loved feature of a pilgrimage to the Shrine, and of course the challenge for any pilgrim leader is what would you replace them with during Eastertide?

Over the years various publications have attempted to offer a solution, from the appearance of the Via Lucis or Way of Light in the late 1980’s through to a suggestion for no fewer than nineteen Stations of the Resurrection in Common Worship: Times and Seasons.

Richard Greatrex’s excellent Stations of the Resurrection is a welcome addition to the devotional material available for the Easter Season, and offers sixteen meditations starting with the sealed tomb and leading to the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. His reflections are striking for the manner in which they convey something of the way in which the implications of the resurrection slowly dawn upon the disciples. We are taken from the sense of wonder at what has occurred at the tomb, through to the realisation that we are “to be the next chapter in your resurrection story” in the Upper Room of Pentecost.

Greatrex suggests that his book might be used by individuals for private contemplation during Eastertide, and the thoughtful illustrations would provide material for devotion in the home –perhaps replacing the now completed Lent books! He also suggests that they could form a devotion for parish communities.

My own thought would be that the meditations are rather lengthy, and they would take much longer to ‘walk’ than the Stations of the Cross – we need something a little more succinct in order to wean pilgrim groups from using the Stations of the Cross in Eastertide. But they would provide the basis for a good Quiet Morning or a prayer walk, and perhaps could be used by parishes as part of their corporate prayer during the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ Novena of Prayer for which this imaginative book of devotions would be an enriching experience.

Phillip Barnes