Saturday, 19 December 2015

How the ghost got his rattle.

Last weeks blog was about the illustrators of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, and especially about the pictures they did of the scene of Marley's ghost.  There are probably hundreds of such illustrations of Marley, both pretty old and more recent as the book is so famous, it is constantly in print somewhere.  And they all show Marley in chains, because, of course, that's how Dickens described him.  He wears a long winding chain riveted around his waist from which hangs -

. . .cash boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.

These items are all to do with Marley's past, his mistaken pursuit of wealth for wealth's sake, his obsession with business over people; in fact, they represent all his sins in visible form.  Dickens obviously wanted to suggest that he is also imprisoned by his past, which is constantly with him, reminding him of his misdeeds.  He reveals to Scrooge that he also has a chain about him that he can't see - a chain of sins which is expanding ever longer, the longer he lives.

'Or would you know,' persued the Ghost, 'the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?  It was as full as heavy and as long as this seven Christmas Eves ago.  You have laboured on it since.  It is a ponderous chain!'

Dickens is of course using the iconography of a century before, when criminals, highwaymen, pirates and murderers were hung in chains after execution or in an iron cage so that their bodies would act as a warning to others.  But the criminals of his day would have worn leg irons and manacles, and in the eighteenth century some prison inmates were still chained to the wall or floor.  The insane would also have been chained up in the days before a more enlightened approach to mental illness was adopted.

The body of Captain Kidd hangs in a iron cage.
We've all heard that ghosts rattle chains of course, and Dickens makes much of Marley rattling and shaking his chains.  So if we looked back over the woodcuts and engravings of the supernatural over the last three hundred years, we'd be sure in finding an image of a ghost wrapped in chains.  Actually in these days of the Internet I can make a good attempt at finding such images, and after a twenty -  minute search, have found only one.  Of course there are plenty of pictures from film and television, and also from stage performances of  - Marleys ghost.  But no others that I can find.

But if anyone mentions ghosts, especially in a jocular tone they always mention them rattling chains.  Does it all come from Dickens?  Is the description of Marley's ghost the source of it all?  A little internet research reveals the medieval ghost of a man who refused to leave his cloak to the poor, and is condemned in purgatory to wear the same cloak, but now as heavy as a church door.  This seems a little like Marley who wears his sins about him as a heavy chain which he has worked on since his death.  A kind of punishment that he must wear.

Charles Dickens.  Yes, he was young once.
But it's just possible that Dickens drew his description for Marley's ghost from a very ancient source.  Some time back I loaded down from Project Gutenberg a Kindle version of an old out of print book about ghost stories from the classical world.  Entitled 'Greek And Roman Ghost Stories' by Lacy Collison-Morley, formerly scholar of St John's College Oxford, it retells a tale that the Roman writer Pliny recounts in a letter.

In his letter to Sura, Pliny tells the story of a terribly haunted house in Athens that no one would live in because of it's awfully haunted reputation.   The philosopher Athenodoros saw it to be let or sold at a very cheap price so he inquires.  He is suspicious at first but on hearing the reason for the low price he takes the property for a month.  He has his bed placed in the front court yard of the house, and then spends the evening writing to keep himself occupied.  At length he hears at some distance a rattling of metal, which comes closer and closer.

Then the noise is inside the house, and soon in one of the nearby rooms.  He continues writing until a shape looms nearby.  Its of an old man, in tattered rags.  Around his body, arms and legs he has great chains.  It is the ghost, and the apparition beckons to him to follow.  But, although shaken, Athenodoros pretends not to see the ghost and carries on writing.  At last the apparition comes forward and shakes his chains over Athenododrus' head.  At last the philosopher puts down his pen, takes up the lamp and follows the ghost outside into the grounds of the house.

The ghost leads him to a spot, and then vanishes, vapour-like into the ground.  Athenodoros marks the place, and then returns the next day with a magistrate and a team of workmen with picks.  They dig up the earth and find the skeleton of a man in chains.  Athenododrus then pays to give the remains proper burial, and the ghost is never heard of again.

Apart for being the template for all haunted house stories, I think that Dickens was aware of the tale and used it in part for the description of Marley.  I may be wrong for I don't have an encyclopaedic knowledge of all stories of the supernatural throughout history, but the Greek story prominently emerges as the only one I can find with chained ghosts.

Athenodoros and the ghost
So, I leave you with the only picture of a chained ghost (apart from Marley) that I could find - Its Athenodoros himself, and his chain rattling ghost.

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Saturday, 12 December 2015

This Ghostly little book


As Christmas appears head and shoulders above the horizon, that hardy perennial of the season, A Christmas Carol will no doubt also appear in some form or other.  And that's no bad thing, for there's some fine writing in it, and it can claim to have shaped our present conception of the holiday like no other book.  We have had a hundred and seventy two years to form our thinking about the characters in the novel, and that has been helped along by the vision of illustrators who worked on the book and its re-issues in Dickens's life and after his death.  Charles Dickens was apparently somewhat ambivalent about having his work illustrated, probably because he felt it detracted from the seriousness of the writing, but as his publishers insisted throughout his career that his work have pictures he then tried to take as much control over the process as he was able.

It was not that he disliked the illustrations, or the artists themselves, many of whom were close friends.   It's more that he felt the illustrations were another tool of his writing it was his right to take control of, just as he took control of every word in his novels.  Anyone who tried to keep him out of that decision process was a problem.  This is understandable to an extent, but he seems, like many other writers of the day, to have derived ideas about character from the pictures, often asking for sketches to be forwarded to him so as to gain a clearer idea of the characters during the ongoing work.  And so I think, the ambivalence; on the one hand the pictures were facile but on the other a source of inspiration.

Artists of 'A Christmas Carol'.  Top left - John Leech.  Top Right - Fred Barnard.  Bottom Left - Harry Furniss.  Bottom Right - Arthur Rackham.
His illustrators were often given rigid written or verbal instructions on how a picture should look, and many found themselves doing multiple versions of the same picture before the author was finally satisfied.  He was often fulsome in his praise for an artists work when he felt it was successful but sometimes the publishers must have used their veto on particular pictures and blocked Dickens's influence over them.   So even the illustrator most often associated with his work, H. K. Browne, could sometimes fall a little short of Dickens's standards.  In a letter to his friend John Forster, Dickens wrote of a plate by Browne:

I am really distressed by the illustration of Mrs Pipchin and Paul (Dombey and Son).  It is so frightfully and wildly wide of the mark.  Good heavens!  In the commonest and most literal construction of the text it is all wrong.....I can't say what pain and vexation it is to be so utterly misrepresented.  I would cheerfully have given a hundred pounds to have kept this illustration out of this book.

The artist who first illustrated A Christmas Carol was John Leech (1817 - 1864) a Londoner of Irish decent, who completed four plates for the novel, and Dickens must have been happy with them as all subsequent depictions of the characters have usually drawn something from them.  I don't think Leech illustrated more of Dickens novels, but then, he was heavily involved in work for the publication Punch, and may have found little time.  I was looking at the quartet of images he produced for A Christmas Carol, and especially the one of Marley's ghost.  This is a pivotal scene in the story, it is filled with atmosphere and really sticks in the mind.   Anyone who wishes to illustrate it would have to get this right, and I feel Leech's effort is a bit stiff and cramped, and although it is the first to realise a scene that other artists drew from, it is maybe not the most effective.

The original.  John Leech's version of Scrooge meeting Marley's ghost.
Another notable artist who tackled the story was Fred Barnard (1846 - 1896) who started illustrating Dickens beginning in 1871, the year after the author's death.  In his version of the Marley's Ghost scene, although his depiction of Scrooge could be sharper I think his version is pretty good, the ghost being impressive and a little comic which I think Dickens actually intended.  He is also possibly the first to include the detail of the ghost existing in its own infernal atmosphere, which causes his hair and clothing to seem to move.  In Barnard's version we see the ghost looking as if he's standing in a gale, but there's a good detail of the candle on the table with a long still flaring flame obviously unaffected by even the slightest draft.

Fred Barnard's version.
Next up there's Harry Furniss (1854 - 1925), born of an English father and a Scottish mother in Ireland.  Like Leech before him, he did a great deal of work for Punch magazine, and didn't start his work on A Christmas Carol until 1910, quite late in his career.  His picture of Marley's ghost is not bad, but is very strongly influenced by Leech's drawing, and looks almost like a re-tread of the same ideas.  Marley is shown in the same position, and posture, Scrooge is slightly more lively but in the same place in the composition, so, a reasonable effort, and a small improvement on John Leech's version.

Harry Furniss's version
Then lastly there's the great Arthur Rackham (1867 - 1939) who did his version of the story in 1915.  And surprisingly, as a lifetime fan of Rackham, I'm not hugely impressed by his version of the Marley scene.  It still seems static, with little response from Scrooge, the ghost, which should have greatly appealed to Rackham's sense of the grotesque, just seems ordinary, standing in a semi-threatening stance over a seated Scrooge.  I can only imagine that it illustrates the line: -

'How now!' said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever.  'What do you want with me?'

Arthur Rackhams version.
This is the only way to explain the calm and considered expression on Scrooge's face.  But both Leech and later Furniss seem also to have chosen that exact moment for their drawings too.  It got me thinking.  Modern illustrators would almost always choose the moment where the ghost removes the bandage that holds his mouth closed, (presumably placed around his head by the undertaker) and lets his lower jaw fall down onto his chest, a moment exploited wonderfully by Richard Williams in his fantastic 1970's animated version of the story.  To us it has more dramatic impact, but I think it must have been deemed too vulgar for inclusion in illustrations of the past.

So in the end, who gets my vote for the best Marleys Ghost?  Step forward Mr Fred Barnard.

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Saturday, 28 November 2015

The anger in the ink.

This blog seems to have generated a little theme about art, artists and the mentally unbalanced, although it wasn't planned, similar subjects keep presenting themselves and so I duly take up the challenge.  Although I believe most artists are sane, they often are the least interesting in themselves, and as we as a species have an unquenchable taste for drama, those who behave strangely while being artistic geniuses are always going to catch our attention.  While the rest plod away at their work (even those we account as geniuses) and live very ordinary lives, the slightest strangeness makes them seem a bit more interesting and glamorous.  Those that are touched by the bizarre really stand out.

James Gillray was just such a one, a man who must have had some inner anger that had to have some outlet and which he sometimes unleashed onto the subjects of his political caricatures.  He was prolific, and did all sorts of subjects, often commenting on the outlandish garments and fashions adopted by his contemporaries which are funny and grotesque, but he kept his real venom for politicians, the French and Napoleon Bonaparte.

The history of the period is complex and detailed, just as the politics of our own age is difficult to follow in all of its winding threads, but to see a Gillray cartoon is often to be confronted by a confusing image that at the same time is so intriguing, perplexing and of such a violent and challenging nature that we feel driven to discover what its about, to read the often  intricate and hard to read captions and try to gain some sense from it.  Not that it wouldn't have made perfect sense to his contemporaries, but today a deep knowledge of British and European politics of the late eighteenth century is required to understand it fully.
James Gillray (1756 - 1815  Tales of Wonder 1802.  Captioned 'This attempt to describe the effects of the sublime & wonderful, is dedicated to M. G. Lewis Esq MP.'  M.G Lewis was Matthew Lewis the author of the early Gothic horror success 'The Monk'.
For example, the man burning in flames at the top of the page is Charles James Fox.  He was the MP for Midhurst, West Sussex and the great rival of William Pitt, the First Lord of the Treasury or Prime Minister in today's language.  Fox was a great radical and member of the Liberal party, a supporter of the American and later the French revolutions and a hater of George lll.  In turn, he seems to have been hated and distrusted by James Gillray.  But Gillray seems to have had an almost innate dislike of politicians in general, a sometimes supporter of Pitt, a Conservative, he could turn on them in a moment and depict them in the basest of terms.

The top of page image is from a larger print entitled Doublures of Characters; - Or striking Resemblances in Phisiognomy -"If you would know mens hearts, look in their faces"  It is an anti-Jacobin cartoon published in November 1798 illustrating seven individuals, members of the Liberal party and all supposed or actual radical supporters of the French revolution and the downfall of King George.  That quote, "If you would know mens hearts. . ."  is from the writings of Johann Kasper Lavater, the man who started the pseudo science of Phisiognomy - the reading of the bumps on a persons head.  He believed that everything about a person could be construed from the shape of their skull and the form of their faces.

James Gillray (1756 - 1815)  Doublures of Characters; - Or striking Resemblances in Phisiognomy
The cartoon is actually quite mild by Gillrays standards, but encapsulates what he must privately have thought about almost all politicians.  It purports to display each mans 'inner soul' in a double portrait that stands behind them.  The print reads from left to right along the top and doesn't name them but with a little research they are  1) Charles James Fox as 'A patron of liberty or The Arch Fiend' :  2) Richard Brinsley Sheriden as 'A friend of his country or Judas betraying his master' :  3) The Duke of Norfolk as a Character of high birth or Silenus debauching:  4) Charles Tierney as 'A finished patriot or The lowest Spirit of Hell' :  5) Sir Francis Burdett as Arbitur Elegantiarium or Sixteen string Jack  6) Lord Derby as 'Strong sense or a baboon' : 7) The Duke of Bedford as 'A pillar of the state or a Newmarket jockey'.

Many of Gillrays cartoons go much much further than this in their attacks on the character and reputations of the politicians of the day, and the Royal Family also took the brunt of much of the flack.  He also hated the French revolutionaries over the channel and when the details of their excesses are examined I can understand that.  To him it must have seemed that animals had taken over the government of the country, rather as we would feel if Daesh had taken over the whole of Paris instead of limiting their activity to merely killing a number of the cities innocent people.  Gillrays reaction to the French revolution is one of great fear and anger, and probably reflects how his contemporaries truly felt; it shows itself in horrible scenes of revolutionaries devouring people, chewing on severed arms and eating eyeballs from a spoon.  He hammers home time and again the results of not doing enough to suppress those that tacitly supported the revolution.
James Gillray.  A famous cartoon Of William Pitt entitled 'An Excresence; A fungus; Alias - A Toadstool upon a Dunghill'.  1791

 In his later career the Conservative William Pitt hired Gillray to make a number of cartoons that showed him and his party in a good light, but this didn't last for long.  Gillray continually depicted Pitt in excessive even scatological terms and obviously liked to give his shot the widest possible field.  To come back to the beginning - I mentioned that this thread had a touch of madness, and sadly Gillray succumbed to ill health, depression brought about because of his failing eyesight, and eventually tried suicide by attempting to throw himself from a window.  He fell into a bewildered insanity while working on his last print in 1811, and was nursed by Miss Hannah Humphrey who had owned and successfully run the print shop where Gillray had lived for decades.  His work had made her rich, and she saw him right in the end.

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Saturday, 21 November 2015

In the bleak midwinter..

One of my favourite paintings is Pieter Bruegel's 'Hunters in the Snow', a wonderful evocation of winter and one of the coldest works of art that exist.  So cold, in fact, that you can almost feel the cold air folding out from it into the room.  Not much is known about the painter, his date of birth is unknown; he is mentioned in a list of members of the painters guild in 1551, his first son was born in 1564, his second in 1568 and he died the following year.

The types of painting he produced are mysterious, strange, metaphysical and have informed the modern view of the late medieval world probably too strongly for accuracy's sake.  When you look at his paintings together it is hard not to assume that the painter was a little disturbed.  Paintings such as 'Dulle Griet', and 'The Triumph of Death' have a strong impact and their obsessive tiny details (as seen in Dadd's 'The Fairy Fellers Masterstroke') suggest madness.  But I don't think Bruegel was mad.  You just need a degree in medieval art history to tease out the meanings of the details and interpret them.  So sorry, can't help you there. 

Hunters in the Snow.  Detail of the mountain range.

 But when you look at 'Hunters in the Snow', although I'm sure it's jam-packed with hidden meaning, it's the basic representation that we can all understand and appreciate.  It's apparently one of the most popular medieval images to appear on secular style Christmas cards.  It's a beautifully realised image of three men as they make their way through a snow covered - landscape on a hunting trip.  It's unclear if they are coming back or starting out, they have no animal carcasses with them so they might be starting out, but on the other hand maybe they've been unsuccessful and are returning empty-handed.  The figures are framed between three thin stark tree trunks, and following behind them are about thirteen hounds.  They pass by houses, an inn on their left where the people are burning something outside their door.

The hunters are on the peak of a hill, and are starting their decent.  Below there are a number of large frozen-over fish ponds, offshoots from the nearby river visible in the background, and at the bottom of this hill stands another red brick house, complete with a raised brick arch conveying a road over the pond.  At one side of this house, is a large brick structure that may possibly be a boathouse with a tall arched opening from which hangs a thick mass of icicles.

An Artist with his Patron.  Possibly the main figure is a self portrait by Bruegel.
 I remember these kinds of winters, although the UK doesn't have them any more; when I was a child between the ages of one and ten, the UK had real winters with real bite, the last such winters the country had in the twentieth century.  I remember it would snow in early December, a good fall, and then instead of melting the next day as it always did after about 1970 (global warming deniers take note) it would stay on the ground, freezing hard until a few days later a second fall would cover it.  The temperature would remain constant and there would be a third fall of glittering white snow, frequently with the clear blue sky that always accompanies really cold days.  Its these sorts of memories that come back to me when I see this painting.  Bruegel's painting however has a grey green sky, a great colour choice for representing a certain kind of cloudy sky.

Yes, I remember the kinds of days Bruegel is depicting, although I suspect his winter was harsher than any I ever experienced, the air so cold, it seems to attack you, makes your skin sting and toes and fingers ache, even though the air is still, with no wind.  Bruegal's painting is wonderfully detailed, you need to see it for real or have a very high quality print reproduction to see it all.  It is one of the best landscapes I know, receding back - and back again and filled with lively activity and incident.  Beyond the frozen ponds on which tiny figures skate and play there are more houses and trees, a church and beyond them more tinier figures are hurrying across a bridge over the river, carrying a ladder - the reason?

Hunters in the Snow.  Pieter Bruegel  A painting of space, cold and silence.

On the other side of the river is their house, and other people are in the process of climbing another ladder on to the thatched roof - because the chimney is on fire.  (See top of page)  A little drama all played out in miniature in the background of this painting.  But the painting goes back further, more trees, copses of trees, hamlets, a profusion of churches and to the right a large mountain range projects upwards towards the green sky.  To the left is the distant coast, and some large town, maybe a busy harbour or fishing community with a prominent church steeple.

I suppose if it has a meaning it's something to do with the smallness of human endeavour and the hugeness of the world; although we are close to the hunters and see them looming large in the landscape, all the life around them is there to be seen, so much in fact that they begin to dwindle in importance in their own picture, they become part of the landscape, merely compositional marks on the white.

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Saturday, 14 November 2015

Sons of the desert.

It's interesting to reflect on the influence that past archaeological investigations have had on our modern way of seeing the world.  Before the military campaigns of Napolean people in the west had heard of Egypt, but just had a general sense of it being a hot country far away.   In medieval times they knew the country was Moslem and therefore the opposite of good Christians, and very likely the kind of people the crusades were being fought against.  But as for having a good solid well formed picture of Egypt and its people the western idea was as a fanciful but rather indistinct place where magic might be real and possible, as in Mozart's The Magic Flute.

But it could be said that our present picture of Egypt is still the pyramids first, and the people second.  It's the impact that the discovery of the actual remains of this past civilisation had on the west, its artists, thinkers and scientists that still colours our thinking today.  The strangeness of Egyptian art for people who had based their vision on that of the renaissance which in turn was derived from the classical Greeks and Romans, must have been profound.  They couldn't dismiss it  (Though I'm sure some must have done) as being crude and without value, for any contemplation of the best sculpture and architecture from ancient Egypt shows that they were extremely sophisticated.  And wasn't there a Roman connection?  Hadn't the Romans conquered the place?  Hadn't Julius Caesar and Cleopatra got it on together?  They must be alright then.

The West's 'discovery' of Egypt fed into its art ever since and influenced more strongly than many other cultures.  But there were a few others that had an effect, and although they might not be as recognisable as Egyptian cultural heritage they have been acknowledged as very influential.  When I was a kid I was very interested in history but remember when I looked through a history textbook, I found certain parts of it less interesting than others.  I found chapters about the Assyrians difficult to get along with, as at the time I didn't 'get' their art, or dress or their inexplicable liking for long curly beards.  It wasn't until I was about twenty- nine that I finally got the Assyrians.

Gloomy nineteenth century engraving of John Martins 'Fall of Nineveh'
I read a book by an American named Arnold C Brackman called 'The Luck of Nineveh' and found it engrossing; an account of the discovery of a whole lost culture from top to bottom.  In the 1820s the Assyrians were people who appeared in the Bible, and nowhere else.  The Bible refers to the capital city of Nineveh as 'that great city', but there wasn't a single brick, a single line of writing, not one sculpture or wall painting, not one thing that could serve as evidence of its existence.  Historians talked about them as being a Biblical metaphor, not real in any other sense, just there to point a moral.  The Old Testament of the Bible tells how various vassal states of the Assyrian Empire got tired of being under Assyrian control and at last came together and marched a huge army on Nineveh.

 The cities dissipated emperor, Ashurbanipal (aka Sardanapalus) realising that the jig was up, created a massive funeral pyre inside his palace where he died alongside all his concubines and eunuchs (who had no choice) in one massive conflagration which ended the 800 year old empire.  The Bible has no good word to say about Assyria, it being in the minds of the writers of the Old Testament the very home of evil, and this is why historians believed it to be a Biblical metaphor for all bad things.  The Israelite prophet Nahum writing about Nineveh says 'Woe to the bloody city, it is all lies and wickedness!'  And later, after the destruction, 'Shattered is Nineveh, who shall pity her?'.  But all this comes from one book, with nothing in the way of real evidence.  The prophet Ezekiel said about the cities long standing greatness,  'Behold, the Assyrian is a cedar of Lebanon, and under his shadow dwell all great nations.'   So where were they, why, if the Bible account was correct were there no ruins, no artefacts ?

Drawing of Austen Henry Layard drawing at Kuyunjik, the site of Nineveh.
Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817 - 1894) was the son of a merchant and diplomat of French Huguenot decent, and from an early age he displayed an aptitude for languages and adventure.  By the time he started out across Europe in 1839 with a friend heading for Ceylon to take up a post with the civil service he already spoke fluent French and Italian, and had seen at the British Museum (but unknown to him or anyone else at the time) an actual piece of Assyrian writing on a tablet - writing that we now call cuneiform.  Layards companion Edward Mitford decided to take the cross- land route because he disliked sea travel and because it gave them both a chance to study more of the antiquities along the way.  They intended to go through Europe, Asia Minor, Central Asia, down the Indian subcontinent and then across Adam's bridge, a chain of dangerous sandbanks which separated India from Ceylon.  But it didn't quite work out that way.  Layard and Mitford detoured into Mesopotamia (Now modern Iraq) and Layard became interested in the surrounding culture and languages.  Here Layard met an Italian born French researcher named Paolo Emilio Botta who had been digging in strange earthen mounds that stood in the deserts of northern Iraq.  Today we know these mounds, called tells, are the remains of very ancient cities made of mud bricks that have eroded into dust.
The removal of the giant 'Lamassu' sculptures from the Kuyunjik mound.
Botta had the idea that there might be something of value in them, and even had a few tiles like the one Layard had seen in the British Museum.  Suddenly Layard saw the sense of the digging and became inspired to do some himself, just as Botta became discouraged from continuing.  From the moment he made his decision Layard entered in to the world of the thousand and one nights, he had adventure, some within the diplomatic service, romance, learnt languages by the handful and also managed to rediscover an entire civilization.  Although Europeans were a novelty to the people of Iraq at that time (They spoke of Europeans as 'the Franks', harking back to French crusaders) Layard could speak their language well, dressed like them and was charming and likeable.  He had problems from time to time but never any lack of co-operation.  Digging into a particular tell called Kuyunjik near the small town of Mosul he uncovered perhaps his finest contribution to world archaeology, the ruins of the city of Nineveh.  The mound twenty or thirty feet deep from top to ground level was once the large mud brick palaces of the Assyrian kings, each unfired brick that made up the walls had crumbled and formed a vast pile of dirt that had been seeded with grass and flowers over centuries and so the mounds had grown.  The mound had been known for thousands of years, the Greek general Xenophon had marched troops past it two hundred years after its collapse and had noted ; We marched one stage, six parasangs, to the great stronghold, deserted and lying in ruins'. 

Layards own reconstruction of the interior of a palace throne room.
Inside the mound although the brick and plaster structure had completely degraded, the shape of the walls could still be discerned because the builders had lined the walls with beautiful alabaster carvings of hunting scenes, battles, scenes of fishing, feasting and depictions of the gods.  And at the site of each gate into the palace complex were the most famous Assyrian sculptures of all, the winged 'Lamassu', giant stone sculptures depicting winged bulls with men's heads.  They were gate guardians, spirits seen throughout Babylonian, Assyrian and Persian art.  Layard discovered the very first seen by the western world.  They also discovered the 'cedar works' mentioned in the Bible, the huge wooden beams that had once supported the roofs, some badly burnt in the final destruction.  And maybe more importantly, they discovered libraries of clay tablets with the unknown arrow headed lettering, great rooms filled with tablets which were carefully taken and recorded.  This writing wasn't deciphered until about 1855, and the real mass of this work was done by an Irish clergyman named Dr Edward Hincks.  It helped to identify all of the Assyrian kings mentioned in the Bible and formed a chronology that gave a better understanding of their time and place in history.

Photograph from the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, showing part of the Assyrian court.
 Layard had discovered Nineveh and the Assyrian empire when still a young man, but its study filled the rest of his life and the impact of the artefacts he discovered was felt all around the world.  At the 1851 exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London there were arcades of reconstructed historical periods, and as well as a Greek, Roman, medieval and Egyptian arcade, there was an Assyrian arcade, complete with a gate and painted Lamassu.  The great museums of the world competed to aquire Lamassu and other assyrian sculpture for their own collections and Layard was knighted in 1878.  He served in the Liberal party in various government posts, but found himself gradually sidelined from archaeology by changes at the British Museum which was a great frustration and disappointment to him.  His position in the history of archaeology has suffered over time because he made his discovery when young and then spent the rest of his life in the less than riveting arena of politics, unlike Heinrich Schliemann who made a big splash after he had become a multi millionaire and had all that business behind him.

Brackman's Luck of Nineveh was written between 1976 and 78, but as good as it is, it doesn't seem that Layard is any bigger in the public consciousness.  His life would make a great film or TV series, but whether that happens or not its certainly time for Layard to be more generally known.



Saturday, 31 October 2015

A little bit of madness.

 Over the past month or so, I've written about a series of artists who might be considered distinctly odd.  Last week there was Géricault with his paintings of severed heads and other medical bits and pieces.  Then there was Girodet with his strange and humourless ideas about what constituted 'painting in the grand manner'.  Girodet insisted on painting at night, by the light of specially constructed lanterns, because he preferred nighttime to work in.  Most artists do their night scenes by day, using curtains etc so they can control the darkness and light, needing lantern light only as a necessary prop to a night scene.  Eccentric.  Arnold Böcklin was next, he seemed a little saner than the last two, but showed signs he was living under stress the older he got.  Then, closer to our own time there was Robert Lenkiewicz, who's lifestyle could certainly be summed up as eccentric.  They all produced work of a high standard but were they actually mad?

This is a question that's hovering in the ether at the moment, is artistic talent, skill,  that catch all word 'creativity', some kind of evolutionary buffer against mental illness - or even a sign of possible mental illness.  If we consider being a wild-eyed bohemian, dressed in rags, hair in disarray while mumbling over your work is a sign of  'creativity' then I suppose we might agree with the premise.  Doing outrageous things, drinking excessively, taking drugs are all things that today are sited as the kind of approach 'creative' people have to life.  Some of them like to pose as strange, 'it's my artistic freedom that makes me a little mad'.  They never want to be seen as completely mad, just touched by madness as if it were the latest fashion accessory.

Richard Dadd.  (1817 - 1886)  Self portrait.
 Of course we do have one case of a mad artist that gives us some insights into the question of whether artistic creativity is a buffer to mental illness, a sign of it or a cause of it.  This artist and his case are well known.  Richard Dadd.   Born in 1817 in Chatham Kent, he was one of seven children.  His family moved to London in 1834 when he was eighteen and his father gained work as a bronze sculptor and woodcarver, and it seems that Dadd met some of his fathers artist associates and gained some instruction in drawing from them.  At twenty he entered the Royal Academy schools where he made contact with a number of artists who later became stalwarts of the Victorian art world such as Augustus Egg, William Powell Frith, and William Bell Scott, and in their student days formed themselves into a group nicknamed 'The Clique'.  If all had gone well, Dadd would have joined them in their success.

 The details of what happened once he had left the schools are fairly well known, he took a job with his patron Sir Thomas Phillips to accompany him on what amounted to one of the last 'Grande Tours' of Europe and the Middle East.  During their time in Europe all seemed well, they travelled down to Greece, Turkey and then on to Cyprus and Beirut.  They took an extended tour of the Holy land before moving onto Egypt.  Here things started to go badly wrong.  Dadd, began to have headaches, behave erratically and become violent.  They began to retrace their journey and by the time they reached Italy, Dadd was worse, feeling an uncontrollable urge to attack the pope when he saw him make a personal appearance.  He was having delusions about being followed and spied on and it was all put down to exhaustion and sunstroke.
Insignificance.  A watercolour image summing up Dadd's view of an artists life painted in Bethlem Hospital.
He had become obsessed with the Egyptian god Osiris who he believed was talking to him, and giving him instructions to fight the Devil, who could take on any form.  He apparently took to staring at the sun for long periods of time because he associated it with Osiris.  They arrived in Paris and Dadd crossed over to England leaving Phillips and the rest of the group in France.  In England Dadd went directly to his studio in Newman Street  and continued to live for a while,  on an almost exclusive diet of hard boiled eggs and ale.  Because there were signs of mental illness in Dadd's brother George, (and subsequently three of his other brothers) his father took him to see a doctor in Harley Street who pronounced him insane.  His father agreed to accompany Dadd on a trip to Cobham (in spite of the diagnosis) on the 28th of August 1843, and after they had eaten, went for a walk in the surrounding countryside.   During this walk Dadd attacked his father with a knife, stabbing him to death, and then immediately left Cobham and went to Dover, boarding a ship for France.
The Fairy Fellers Master-Stroke By Richard Dadd

 He attacked a man in France with a razor, and was detained by the police.   In the meantime the Police in London had found the body of his father and had investigated his studio at Newman Street and discovered a number of sketches of his friends and family all with their throats cut.  In France the police had discovered on Dadd a list of 'people who must die', his father's name being the first on the list.  He was placed in five different asylums while in France and eventually taken back to Britain.  Obviously insane he was sent to the Royal Betham Hospital where he spent the next twenty years and under the auspices of Dr William Hood he did most of his well known work here.  The most famous of these paintings is 'The Fairy Fellers Master-Stroke' a complex painting made for Dr Hood's family, which took about eight years to mostly finish but not complete.  It is a 'fairy painting' of a type that became popular in Victorian Britain, inspired by Dadd's love of Shakespeare.  He drew numerous sketches and watercolour paintings throughout his life, and a handful of fully finished oil paintings which are all notable for their strange other worldly atmosphere.

So did painting and creativity save Dadd?  It certainly didn't warn anyone of impending mental illness as he'd been painting for years before the first signs appeared.  Did it act as a buffer against the encroachment of the illness.  Obviously not, but who knows, it may have slowed it down.  Probably Dadd suffered an acute emotional pain throughout his illness and possibly his painting helped him remain calm and occupied, and Dr Hood was a fairly far sighted person to have understood this so early in the study of mental illness.  In an essay on the painter  and 'The Fairy Fellers Master-Stroke', by writer Neil Gaiman he makes the point that in a series of photographs taken of the inmates of Bethlem Hospital in the 1850's only one is actually doing something - it's of Dadd, and he's painting.  Today patients are encouraged to paint pictures and this work is often shown in exhibitions of so called 'outsider art' and praised for its particular qualities.  Does the ability to paint have any effect on the life of a person like Dadd?  Apart from helping him get through the forty or so years of his life after the murder I don't think so.  Mental illness was just something that was going to happen to the Dadd boys, even the one's who weren't creative, and madness didn't effect all those creative friends Dadd made in the Royal Academy schools.  

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Saturday, 24 October 2015

Raft of Terror! - Or how to fan the flames of scandal with one gigantic painting.

 In the 1820's and 30's if you had visited the studios of artists across Britain and Europe, amongst the various casts and other studio props you might very likely have seen hung on the wall, a reproduction death mask.  It would have been of a very gaunt face, almost skull like and with a straggly beard, the face of a man who has died after a long drawn out and debilitating illness.  Those artists of the time who had the mask on their walls, or near their easel used it almost as an icon, a talisman of good luck and a symbol of their artistic aspirations.  The thin worn face was that of Théodore Géricault.

Born in Rouen in 1791, the son of a lawyer, he was an early Romantic painter inspiring such artists as Delacroix and Chassériau, and was seen as representing great promise, and yet also unfulfilled ambition.  He was trained in the studio of Pierre Narcisse Guérin, but did a great deal of study on his own account, copying in the Louvre artists such as Rubens, Velázquez, Titian and others.  Like so many other French artists of this period he seems to have rebelled against his masters approach to art, who in turn held a disparaging opinion of him as an artist, and in this he was similar to Girodet who I wrote about recently.  In fact in some respects he might be considered as Girodet with taste.

The actual Raft of the Medusa.  A lithograph based on the carpenters drawings of the raft he built.  Wikipedia Commons.

He didn't have any contact with the painters of the Neo-Classic 'old brigade' such as David and Ingres, but he would have been only too well aware of their work and influence; he turned away from them and had the touch of genius to turn the progress of French painting along a different route.  His first major painting to be exhibited in 1812 was Chasseur on Horseback followed by The Wounded Chasseur, both of which were popular at the salon but which left the artist dissatisfied.  Above all Géricault was indecisive about what projects he wanted to pursue, often setting himself a task and then abandoning it while half finished or only in the preliminary stages.

Maybe he was undecided about being a painter at all, a pretty unpredictable profession at the best of times.  He decided to join the army and for a short time was garrisoned at Versailles.  After a failed love affair he left for Rome, (how he got out of the army I don't know ) to study the great Italian masters.  He started a large canvas of the Barbari Horses, but never finished it, starting a trend of unfinished projects.

Théodore Géricault. (1791 - 1824)  Wikipedia Commons 
His most famous painting (because finished?) is the canvas, The Raft of the Medusa, which follows in the tradition of French historical painting by being Gigantic.  Painted between 1818 and 1819 It is sixteen feet one inch by twenty-three feet six inches, and the figures are larger than life size.  The paintings subject derives from a scandal that took place about a year previously in which a French ship was wrecked and the captain abandoned ship, leaving the passengers and most of the crew to their fate.

As the ship was slowly sinking the ships carpenter was able to quickly make a raft from the ships timbers and ropes, and everyone on board was able to take to the raft, setting out on rough seas with just a few barrels of water and wine and little food.  There were one hundred and forty seven people at the start of the perilous voyage, only fifteen survived after thirteen days on the raft.  There had been fighting between groups armed with knives and cutlasses, barrels of precious water had been lost to the waves in the tumult of violence, the weak had been killed and thrown overboard, others had been swept away in stormy seas and eventually the canibalism the people had been forced to resort to to stay alive helped project the story to the forefront of public attention.  The failings of incompetent public servants was held to blame, who were percived as ancien régime placeholders, merely in office because they were favoured by the returned monarchy.  And so the scandal flared,

When preparing himself for the work Géricault approached the task like a journalist, finding and interviewing two of the survivors, getting the carpenter who had survived to make a model of the raft from memory and reading any accounts he could find about the tragedy, finally resorting to studying corpses at the local morgue to get the 'look' of death correct.   This went to even creepier lengths, where Géricault, shaven headed (to prevent him leaving the studio on self indulgent nights out) obtained the guillotined head of a criminal and painted studies from it.  These and a number of studies of severed arms and legs are, however unpleasant, really powerful works.   Whether he was successful in capturing the look of death is debatable.  Like Girodet before him, his palette is dominated by greens, greys and muddy browns, and subsequently all the figures look deathly.  Perhaps he painted corpses to get into a state of mind, to conjure the atmosphere that reigned on the raft itself.

Théodore Géricault.  The Raft of the Medusa.  The figure lying face down with arm extended in the centre of the painting was modelled by Eugéne Delacroix.
 He used friends and assistants as models for the figures on the raft, most notably the young Eugéne Delacroix and painted the whole thing in about eight months.  The finished result impressed Delacroix when he first saw it, causing him to run back to his studio to begin work with new inspiration.  However, such works, that criticise establishment faults and seem to have a political content always cause controversy and fan the flames of existing scandal.  Conservatives hated the picture, although it also had many supporters.  It had the effect of keeping a scandal that the government had hoped would fade away with time, alive and before the public gaze.
A bronze reproduction of the death mask.  The mask has been altered during the mould making stage to include the open eyes.  Wikipedia Commons.

 Although Géricault made attempts to paint another large canvas they all came to nothing.  The 'Raft' had made money in a travelling show in England, but the artist had gone through bouts of depression and ill health.  Back in Paris he indulged his love of riding fast horses, and one evening as he was waiting for the city gate to be opened as he returned from the country, his horse threw him and he landed on his back.  The art critic Kenneth Clark suggests the injuries he received caused a cancer of the spine, but others have suggested that the illness that killed him was tuberculosis.   That gaunt sunken face of the death mask gives us no clues, for either illness could have been the cause, but the mask went on not just to represent Géricault but the actual ambition of subsequent artists, it was a kind of Romantic manifesto in the shape of a death mask.

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