Art and Spectacle
until 3rd May, 2020
George IV anticipated all the recent scandals of the House of Windsor, with the exception of those of the Duke of York. He had a very full sex life, not least because he couldn’t marry the woman he loved. The woman he did marry became a lifelong enemy and the beloved of the nation. He moved into a cottage in Windsor Park which he had done up with the greatest extravagance. And he meddled in politics, with little effect though he claimed that he was instrumental in bringing together the grand coalition against Napoleon. Fortunately, ‘Prinny’ was not able to exercise in the field his fascination with military matters. In later life he was so carried away by enthusiasm for the Battle of Waterloo that he spoke as if he had been there. The course of history would have been very different had he come up against Napoleon.
The wonder of it is that George survived. At a time when the French monarchy was being guillotined he spent and spent like a monarch of the old school. But the old school was over, witnessed in England by the press’ satirical and often unfair treatment of George as Prince Regent. It says something for Prinny’s largeness of heart that when was pictured as a bloated Paris ogling three duchesses – none of whom he had sexual relations with – that he was quite flattered by the print and wished it were true to life.
Joseph Haydn, always kind-hearted, thought George the handsomest man on earth and genuinely knowledgeable about music. Since monarchs are always flattered it’s difficult to know how true that was. Certainly, George liked all kinds of performance and there are splendid portraits in the show of Haydn (by Hoppner) and Garrick in various poses, notably Reynolds’ weird and extraordinarily brown and green tinted portrait.
Of course, George’s favourite performance was that of the monarchy. He created settings for royal display at Carlton House – in effect a forerunner of the Royal Pavilion – and at Windsor and in great events. In this he found a kindred spirit in Sir Walter Scott whose splendid portrait by Lawrence is part of this show. Scott and the King devised a royal visit to Scotland which involved much tartan and much whiskey and much parading about.
However, it was his coronation which was the literally crowning event of George’s life. In the show there is the large, specially printed guide to the event, a sort of ‘Pictures of the English Liturgy’ crossed with the Almanach de Saxe Gotha. Alongside it the royal stole of heavy gold thread would pique the envy of a seminarian. This is showcased alongside crowns and swords commissioned for the great day, notably the Diamond (1,333 of them) Diadem, worn today by Her Majesty on coins and stamps.
There’s no getting away from this bling but it’s the hope of the curators that visitors to the exhibition will see that George was a great collector of art, especially paintings. He has usually been considered the finest British royal collector after Charles 1st and he was very interested in his forebear. This is witnessed by a rather dull Rubens ‘St George and the dragon’ featuring Charles as St George.
As a collector George bought fashionably – most people do – which means lots of seventeenth century Dutch peasants. And he liked detail in a painting. He had to rely on agents to buy for him because monarchs did, and because his father wouldn’t let him out of the country. There is a series of St Peter’s Square over the course of a day which poignantly suggests how much George would have loved to have made the grand tour.
But even if he couldn’t travel George was able to commission artists and he did so successfully. A Stubbs of the Regent on horseback might not be the painter’s finest work but it captures the essence of the Regency and the horse is excellent. However, it’s the Waterloo Chamber portraits which dominate the show. The two finest are Lawrence’s pictures of Pope Pius VII and Cardinal Consalvi, considered by the artist to be amongst his best work. These pictures combine technique – the wonderful capture of fabrics and the convincing foreshortening – with dramatic personalities. The two clerics are every inch what ecclesiastical diplomats should be.
George’s biggest individual purchase was of the equally bravura though more domestic work, Rembrandt’s ‘The shipbuilder and his wife.’ The gallery has hung this alongside Rembrandt’s portrait of Agatha Bas. Both are very fine examples of the artist’s middle period. The Bas picture is particularly eye-catching. The sitter’s stomacher and white linen are treated with passion and made into things of great beauty. Her pose is a throwback to the early sixteenth century as an arm leans out of the canvas and her fan lies across a lintel. Agatha Bas’ face is not conventionally beautiful but it is lively and charming and very engaging.
Around these great paintings the gallery displays excellent porcelain, furniture, knives and swords. Inevitably there’s cartoons by Rowlandson but there’s also delicate sketches of the royal family. The great paintings stand out but they are only part of an exhibition which shows a sybarite and gastronome struggling with conflicting expectations in a time of revolution, and winning through.
Dear Evan Hansen
and Teenage Dick
Three years ago, an outrageously talented young duo called Benj Pasek and Justin Paul won the Best Original Song Oscar for ‘City of Stars’ in the film La La Land. This profile boost gave studio bosses a reminder that another Pasek & Paul project was on a number of LA desks, an odd biopic with songs about the circus man PT Barnum, and it had only just gone intro production. The Greatest Showman was released at the end of 2017 and became a sleeper hit. The critics hated it; the public absolutely loved it, keeping the film in the charts (and cinemas) for months. Anyone who’s had contact with a child under 12 will be aware how Showman has a genuine following.
Before both these works was Dear Evan Hansen, the 2016 Broadway hit which swept the board at the Tony Awards the following year, winning six of the nine categories in which it was nominated. Canny Cameron Mackintosh picked it up and the UK production opened in London last November. A number of questions hang over the show and how well it works here. It’s distinctly American in tone, it deals with teen suicide and social media, and its overall thrust is intense to the point of painful. There’s no doubting its authenticity, as written by Steven Levenson.
Set in a high school, the plot is simple. An introverted boy fancies a girl. Her angsty brother has a couple of encounters with the introvert Evan but then commits suicide. His devastated family, grieving and shocked they didn’t see the death coming, seize upon a confusion and believe Evan was Connor’s only friend before he took his own life. The family starts to take Evan in, seeing him as some sort of amanuensis to chart a way through their loss, and he obliges. He spends more time with his crush (the grieving sister) and less time with his own work-harried single mother. Then a groundswell in school decides Connor’s memory must be honoured (if only to help anyone else feeling suicidal) and Evan becomes the unwitting poster boy for the whole campaign in a social media feeding frenzy. The contrasts are all there, pitted against one another: rich and poor, young and old, virtual and real, honest and untrue. It must all unravel, and it does.
Perhaps the most surprising element is the tight cast — eight of them, with a band on a platform in the back corner. They can all sing and act. Sam Tutty is playing Evan but the preview I saw had the ‘alternate Evan’ on stage, Marcus Harman, and he was pitch perfect. They’re all strong and believable. Rebecca McKinnis is Evan’s mother, Doug Colling the suicidal Connor, Lauren Ward and Rupert Young his parents, Lucy Anderson the sister, Jack Loxton and Nicole Racquel Dennis the classmates. Not a weak link among them. Michael Greif’s clear direction keeps it zipping along and always coherent. The score is not quite the saccharine hit factory of Showman, but it’s complex and moving; the American Songbook is alive and well in Pasek & Paul. The design of Peter Nigrini and David Korins has social media as the ninth character, underscoring how it’s become an integral and regrettable part of everyday life. There are implications in how we use it, how it uses us, and the mental health or social isolation factors. DEH is not just a show about suicide and grief, or communication and self-discovery. It succeeds because a very human story is told credibly and carefully with the opportunity to empathise with each character as we spend time in their company. It’s almost a chamber piece, offering focus and clarity on tough issues which we must address. A timely piece, it reaffirms both the vitality of hope and the value of shared humanity.
Alas a “too late to see” (because it ran between ND issues and closed on 1st February) was Teenage Dick at the Donmar. Another high school show from the US (but not musical), it takes Shakespeare’s Richard III as inspiration for a college council power struggle. This originality is compounded by having two disabled actors in lead roles (Richard has hemiplegia and Buck is in a wheelchair). It’s a disruptive play that asks serious questions. Why rely on any actor’s ‘performative version’ of disability when plenty of disabled actors can bring that authenticity as they are? The recent A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at the Trafalgar cast a disabled actor in role, and it’s relevant where Shakespeare’s most famous disabled character is concerned. He refers to being ‘deformed’ but we need new and better insight into how we respond as audiences, similar in a way to Othello. Neither disabled character nor actor asks for special treatment or sympathy so the whole thing starts to feel more real. Helped along by Mike Lew’s cracking script which fuses the Bard with student patois and youth speak, the six-strong cast were utterly brilliant and deftly directed by Michael Longhurst. Daniel Monks as Richard Gloucester deserves an award for showing how to do this, and why we need more of it. Authentic — back to that again.
The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin
The mid-Victorian vicarage at St Andrew’s, Holborn, overlooks Shoe Lane to the rear. Straight ahead and to the right, the view is dominated by the vast, newly erected Goldman Sachs building, home to nine thousand city workers. On a clear day the tower of St Andrew’s, marking a site of Christian worship for over a thousand years, can be seen reflected in the plate-glass of its new neighbour, a cathedral dedicated in the service of mammon. Geoffrey Hill might have something to say about this, were he alive to see it. Shoe Lane does receive more than a mention in this book. Hill recalls Len Rosoman, the British artist whose painting A House Collapsing on Two Fireman, Shoe Lane, London EC4 depicts an incident on the night of 29/30 December 1940, when a young fireman, who had just relieved Rosoman (who, like him, was serving in the Auxiliary Fire Service) at his post was killed as a building fell upon him. Hill writes, every monosyllable a hammer blow, ‘One man pressed flat as a skate: even his tin hat.’ The fate of the City churches, damaged or destroyed in the Blitz, is one of the recurring themes of the first third, at least, of The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, Hill’s remarkable 269 stanza (paragraph?) prose-poem, intentionally composed for posthumous publication. ‘St Lawrence Jewry, fat organ pipes aroast, bells falling and bawling, gave up the ghost, evanesced on the spot.’ Or, tying the destruction of the churches more explicitly with cultural and literary history as well as moral rectitude:
‘In St Giles, Cripplegate (‘tower without a steeple’) itself a blitz-cripple with random bits remaining (‘few fittings survived the war’), Milton’s bust came well out of the blast.
God bless us, everyone; save us from idolatry and false pride.’
Cripplegate/blitz-cripple; bust/blast. Half-rhymes and off-rhymes, so that we constantly hear echoes and allusions, the sound of a single word or longer phrase being picked up and handed on like a baton down the line: this is the verbal music of the whole work, by turns mesmerising and startling. Mostly, you want to applaud; occasionally, groan. Biblically, it can at times feel as if one is reading a literary or cultural rewrite of the Book of Proverbs: every line becomes epigrammatic, every line (as the first-time visitor to Hamlet said) a quotation. But back to the City churches. Yes, their consumption in the flames of the Blitz is iconic of a deeper cultural disintegration, but the collapsing masonry does not quite equal a complete and irreversible fall: ‘If St Paul’s had gone…would that have finished us, however much the Old Man admonished us? No. We were then a spiritual people revering a spirited Wren steeple albeit in a downcast thumbs-up way. Unsteepled if need be.’
‘We were then a spiritual people.’ ‘Spiritual’ here is almost interchangeable with ‘serious,’ and the phrase came back to my mind right at the end of the poem by way of contrast with Hill’s Little Britain-esque vision of ‘big-bummed Britannia in her tracksuit’ slouching into a post-Brexit future. ‘Serious,’ is a much more helpful starting point (I would suggest) for engaging with the poem than ‘difficult,’ which is the term frequently (and carelessly) reached for in discussions of Geoffrey Hill’s later work. Actually, this is not a ‘difficult’ poem, in the sense of impenetrable syntax or vocabulary; all but the most polymath reader will need to look up at least some of the references – although that, apparently (reading his work while googling) is something Hill fundamentally disliked.
There is certainly spiritual seriousness here; spiritual chastity, austerity you could say, despite the description of the Gospel of Mark as ‘unreasonably stark.’ ‘The imposition of ashes’ is ‘not one of the spurious fetishes.’ Three pages are given over to Holbein’s Dance of Death. ‘Byrd almost always preferred to set the lamenting or the protesting Word.’ The shallow, the superficial and the glib are unsparingly exposed. ‘The Church of England today is a near-bankrupt holding company for things sacrosanct.’ Hill is unimpressed by the reference to duck pâté in the oration at Lady Thatcher’s funeral – a tad unfair to our former Bishop of London, surely, who gave a magisterial address. But then there are moments of spiritual and cultural reference which grope for the ecstatic:
‘I bless the marvellous ‘Five Mystical Songs:’ although strong music cannot even begin to mend wrongs, it is, in some way I wish I could well relate, analogous to the Pentecostal tongues.’
What about this for an apprehension of martyrdom, honed to precision:
‘…Father Southwell, that saint of courteous but steely dissent, whose soul was ever at the knife-point of self-attaint…’
And what about this endorsement of a line from Richard Rolle, deeply felt, surely, despite the casual pay-off:
‘ ‘Swet Jhesu, thy body is lyke a boke written al with red ynke’ – that’s pretty good, I think.’
Serious, yes, but on no account should this review leave the reader with the impression that the poem is po-faced. Not a bit of it. It is full of jokes, knowing asides, the nod and the wink of vaudeville. The first line sets the tone: ‘Cute, my arse.’ This is a poem which rhymes chlamydia with media and devotes an entire section to theological and literary giants (Arius, Luther, Coleridge, Waugh) finished off by constipation. Who else could come up with this as a description of Bishop Berkeley:
‘ideal intellectual boy replaced by moony-faced Ordinary of Cloyne – too soon, / I feel, but I may be unreal.’
What else? A comprehensive conspectus of the English poetic tradition from medieval to modern times; an inquiry into the nature of poetry itself; a poignant, lyrical meditation on ageing and decaying; some beautiful, breathtaking descriptions of nature and place. Oh and Peaky Blinders and The Likely Lads (readers aged under 50: look it up.) Reviewing this poem is impossible, really; it’s simply unique. I could spend the rest of my life getting inside it.
Neither Bomb nor Bullet
Benjamin Kwashi – Archbishop on the Front Line
Monarch Books 2019, £10.19
ASIN: B07MVMPD5, 336pp
‘Why should the church be any less passionate than Islam? Why is the church not preaching the gospel of holiness, righteousness, and justice? The Muslims have their loudspeakers everywhere, waking people at 4am to pray. Meanwhile, the Christians are sleeping! What’s stopping us from praying? What’s keeping us from our devotional life to God? Before a Muslim can lead a mosque, he must be able to recite at least sixty chapters of the Koran. But we Christians are ordaining people who cannot recite a single chapter of the Bible. We should learn from them.’
So writes Nigerian Archbishop Ben Kwashi quoted in Andrew Boyd’s biography that reads autobiographically to capture the passion of a great contemporary servant of God currently General Secretary of GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference). It was my privilege to work with him briefly during the 1998 Lambeth Conference when hundreds gathered to hear him speak at an evangelistic service outside Holy Trinity, Tottenham presided over by the then Bishop of Edmonton, Brian Masters. As Bishop Brian’s Missioner I was well aware of how Nigerian Anglicans vitalise the Diocese of London, and Bishop Ben gave us sight of the spiritual leadership behind this. ‘Neither Bomb nor Bullet’ filled out the picture for me. ‘The aim of this, my story, is to ignite a passion within each of us to wake up and do something, instead of merely believing and hoping that someone else will get around to it and we will all be OK. Look around: we are not OK. Everybody must rise up to play his own unique and special part, if this world is to change.’
Bishop Ben and his wife Gloria have suffered. They keep in their living room a mock coffin containing the ashes of their house burned down by extremist Muslims in 1987. ‘They remind me and my children that every day that I live is a bonus. I am living on extra time’. As Archbishop of Jos, Ben presides over part of central Nigeria which has a perilous autonomy between the Muslim north and Christian south. A native, he was brought up with Muslims for whom he retains great respect despite his conviction their faith in God is incomplete. Every morning he accepts the Muslim call to prayer as invitation to keep his own quiet time following a discipline encouraged by the Church Missionary Society evangelists who built on the foundation of first African Bishop, Nigerian Samuel Crowther (1809-1891). ‘This same gospel that we preach today in Nigeria was brought to us by missionaries from the United Kingdom at their own cost. For this, I am forever indebted to Britain. I will never forget what these Englishmen did for us. I am the third generation to benefit from them. The English I now speak and write, my father taught me, because Christian missionaries had taught him. Because of them, I can today communicate and preach the gospel.’
The Archbishop has survived three assassination attempts and his wife, Gloria, suffered an assault tantamount to rape. His story of how brutal persecution has driven him again and again to kneel in prayer live in forgiveness is profoundly moving. Islamic terrorists have made Nigeria a war zone making him, as the book’s subtitle states, ‘The Archbishop on the Front Line’. The kidnapping of hundreds of Christian schoolgirls is one incident that reached world media, but ongoing attacks turning churches into besieged fortresses get less coverage. He conducts more funerals than weddings and baptisms put together. Yet neither bomb nor bullet is to deter; he writes, ‘Christians never get desperate – they just get determined. Get determined to lay hold of God and lay hold of his promises, and to never settle for less.’
Andrew Boyd’s presentation of Ben Kwashi is thrilling. Such determination shown in courageous leadership within the tumult in Nigeria, as well as that within his beloved Anglican Church. I warmed to his description of how churches grow assisted by Christian confidence and humility among priests and people. His and Gloria’s gifts in evangelism are coupled to sympathetic hearts, demonstrated by their extended family of orphans. ‘If I had only a single life lesson to pass on to others, the most important lesson of my life would be to pick one child, who would never ordinarily have had an opportunity in life, and struggle through bringing up that child for God. That life is God-given, and nobody can tell what their future will be. It is a great privilege to have an opportunity to be a blessing to another person’s life’.
This is a Bishop whose sense of the Church and track record in reconciling Christians and Muslims might help steer Anglicanism towards its best future. His message for us in the United Kingdom is direct. We must ‘get on our knees to pray. And then get up, courageously, ready to live the gospel and preach it by our lives and by all that we do… As you reach out to Jesus in faith, he will come into your heart and live with you, and you with him. As you place your faith, belief and trust in him, he will respond.’ So be it!
Book of the month
The Oxford History of Anglicanism Volume IV
Global Western Anglicanism, c.1910-present
Jeremy Morris (ed.)
Oxford University Press 2019(pbk) ISBN 978-0-19-882233-2 £30
The title makes clear the scope of this contribution to the multi-volume study of Anglicanism from Oxford University Press. A group of well-informed scholars deals here with the influences and events which have affected members of the Western Anglican Communion in the Twentieth Century. Readers will turn to those aspects of that history which most interest them, as I am doing, but the overall standard of the contributions is both high and stimulating.
First of all, though, the book itself. This paperback edition is blessed with a clear typeface and a mostly trouble-free text. Furthermore, OUP earns gold stars for giving us essays whose footnotes are in the correct place at the foot of the page, thereby saving time and temper on the part of readers who wish to consult them. The greater pity, then, that the book is let down by an inadequate index which is mostly a list of names and page numbers.
It is striking that the perspectives which have guided the writers are frequently moral and political ones, such as global poverty, war and peace, nationalism, class and ethnicity, and gender. Has an overview of a century of Anglican affairs ever before required a chapter on the Church and sexuality? Yet these concerns are inevitable, given that the authors must deal first with fifty years which saw appalling conflict, and then decades when increased means of communication faced the world and the Church with realities previously unknown or ignored. Also, in the nineteen-sixties many dragons’ teeth were sown which would generate problems and divisions in the succeeding years, both in the Church and in society.
Take, for example, the issues surrounding sexuality, especially homosexuality. Those desiring reform of received opinions and prejudices frequently complain of the slowness of change in Anglican teaching, given the speed with which viewpoints have changed socially. It is that speed, in this and other areas, which has caught the Church unprepared, and uncertain how to react clearly yet compassionately, therefore frequently opting for responses which have proved ineffective, and incomprehensible to the changing social order. Hence the situation in the Church of England, where the publication Issues in Human Sexuality was mysteriously transformed from a discussion document into almost a credal statement. Is it still being waved before prospective ordinands with a demand for their consent to its statements, now almost thirty years old?
If views on sex have changed almost beyond recognition during the twentieth century, so has the pressing issue of war and peace. The relevant chapter gives a clear picture of the impact of two world wars, especially in Britain, and the overnight transformation of the ethical terrain with the arrival of atomic and nuclear weapons. The Church’s response to the wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 has been much criticised in recent years, and the review here corrects a number of misunderstandings on this matter. It is welcome to see the conduct of Bishop Winnington Ingram during WWI rescued from some of the obloquy which has been unjustly fixed on it, and even more welcome to be reminded of the total personal integrity of the great Bishop George Bell, who denounced area bombing of Germany in 1942. (His outstanding contribution to ecumenism, and his breadth of vision, reaching far beyond Britain, receive proper appreciation in this book.) War, and the danger of nuclear annihilation, had an impact on Anglican thought worldwide which went beyond moral debate, and still confronts us with unresolved (perhaps unresolvable) issues.
And what of theology? No book on twentieth century Anglicanism can ignore Honest to God, though hindsight reveals it to have been more a flash in the pan than a radical rocket. It was neither original nor creative, but it contributed to an atmosphere of unsettlement which persisted throughout the remaining decades of the century, and not just in Britain. If this country produced Cupitt’s ‘Sea of Faith’ approach, America was briefly distracted by the gospel of Christian atheism, trends which proved to have little lasting significance. Nonetheless, the loss of confidence in a distinctively Anglican approach to theology has not departed from us, something which helps in understanding the resurgence of assured Evangelicalism in the English Church.
History also casts new light on Anglican leaders. In the main, the Church of England has been fortunate in its Archbishops of Canterbury since 1910. If William Temple’s achievement (though not the man) appears perhaps less significant than his contemporaries thought, his successor, Geoffrey Fisher, was the person chiefly responsible for creating the Anglican Communion we recognize today. It is correct to say that ‘his appointment marked the end of the Davidson-Lang tradition which reached back to 1878.’ One of the more surprising features of this volume is to see Randall Davidson, so frequently portrayed as an over-cautious Establishment figure, revealed as an Archbishop of conviction, shrewdness and courage. It is time for Bell’s magisterial and irreplaceable biography of Davidson to be supplemented by a new evaluation of the man and his legacy, resting upon a longer historical perspective.
On a positive note, the twentieth century saw the Second Vatican Council, which affected Christianity worldwide, particularly in the impetus it gave to the search for Christian Unity. A notable contribution was the work of ARCIC I and II, bringing together Anglican and Roman Catholic scholars to examine the divisions between the two communions. Progress seemed remarkable and hopes were high, yet the rigidity of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith eventually frustrated such optimism. How matters might be moved forward now is not easy to predict, especially given the fact of the ordination of women. Whether one approves or disapproves of the step taken by Anglicans, this is unquestionably a new barrier to greater harmony with Rome and with Orthodoxy. On the other hand, relations with the Reformed churches improved, despite the fiasco of the Anglican-Methodist scheme of 1972. Yet the most important aspect of last century’s ecumenical endeavours is made clear in this volume’s essay on Christian Unity: ‘Local ecumenism is often the engine of Christian unity. The transformation of attitudes from those dominated by ignorance, fear, and hostility to those marked by awareness, attraction, and friendship, was the main achievement of ecumenism.’
There is valuable discussion of the place of the Lambeth Conferences in dealing with the problems of a global Church. Their significance has varied from that of the 1920 Conference, with its impressive call to the reunion of Christendom; the 1988 gathering under Robert Runcie, which looked to the option for the poor and also at environmental issues; and the disastrous 1998 Conference which, in its mishandled dealings with human sexuality and failure to engage in adequate discussion of the nature of communion, ‘combined to make the conference one of the contributory causes of the crisis which engulfed the Communion in the next decade,’
The essays presented in this book provide valuable information, but more than that, they provoke thought about the present and future path for Anglicanism. The chapter on Liturgical Renewal poses the most disturbing question of all – what is it that holds the Anglican Communion together? Anglicanism, like Western society, faces an unpredictable century which may see more rapid cultural changes than any experienced yet, and while some received ecclesiastical boundaries and opinions are clearly shifting, divisions are deepening between those who wish to work fruitfully with the new situation and those who are entrenching themselves in fundamentalisms, mostly about scripture and morality.
According to your outlook, the situation is either fearful or charged with promise. One thing is clear, however. If Anglicanism, and specially the Church of England, wishes to engage with the future it will have to become better acquainted with its historic traditions. Anglican history must be moved to the front of studies for those training for ordination, otherwise the coming generations will have no ground on which to stand while they try to pray, worship, do theology and proclaim the Gospel with an Anglican voice. The essays in this book provide excellent material for understanding where we Anglicans have come from, and where we have been recently.
Barry A. Orford