Wednesday, 30 January 2008

And When Did You Last See Your Father?

When? Twelve days ago, just three days before he died. I'm so glad I did. And I told him that I loved him. How lucky I am: so many people are not able to and regret it. And many say that they wished, too late, that they had spoken to their parents more about their lives: probed into their pasts.

But, researching A Little Blue Jacket, I spent many hours recording my parent's memories, winkling out buried facts. And it's often surprising what rises to the surface. Blake Morrison's book, And When Did You last See Your Father? examined his – and probably everybody's - inability to stand back from events or see our parents as individuals. And it really highlighted how there are so many inconsistencies in 'memory'(see my blog archive 'Memories', 3 Feb, 2007).

My father reached a grand old age and was only seriously ill for weeks but knew that his time was finally up, that his body was just about worn out. But his will was so strong that he held on until he was ready. He was so proud of his family: he could still introduce us to the nurses - this is my younger daughter, this is my eldest son – he would apologise for 'messing up your plans' (as if), and he could still flash an illuminating smile when something amusing was said.

I knew he was proud of me: not for my achievements which, let's face it, are pretty thin on the ground, but simply because I was his daughter and he loved me. And I'm very proud of him: not just for his achievements, which were many, but for his ambition, his dogged determination to succeed against all the odds, for his will, his application and his talent.

I've inherited none of his scientific talent – my eldest brother has that – but I have inherited some of his other abilities: I'm able to 'visualize' spaces, can think creatively and solve problems. And I have his ability to stick at something until I get as far as I can, as well as I can, with it. And like him I can be equally happy alone or in company: have a love of gardens and landscape, an appreciation of food and wine. And, yes, (whisper this) I have inherited quite a few of his less attractive characteristics that I'm not so quick to admit to and definitely don't intend to broadcast.

He was no saint, my father, definitely not, but as an adult I can understand the reasons behind many things that happened in the past: can understand how complex relationships are. As a spouse and parent I know how easy it is to get things wrong, how difficult it is to get them right. And how one can only hope to do one's best hampered as we all are to some extent with emotional baggage, economic constraints or conflicting characters. It may be obvious why there are many mixed up people in this world but, equally, it's quite amazing there are so many well rounded, happy and successful ones!

And I loved – love - him because he was my Dad: for tickling me when I was a tot till I begged him to stop, for his interest in my interests when I was a teen, for - when the chips were down as a young adult - saying the right thing at the right time which made me feel that I had his respect and support. And I admire his love of life, his humour and his charm. I'm having trouble putting this into the past tense, aren't I: I still feel he's here, or there, at 'home', sitting beside Mum watching the television.

A parent's love for their child is unconditional – it should be, it usually is – and a child's love for their parent is often the same. I know mine is. I knew my Dad's faults but I loved him in spite of them; sometimes because of them. And I shall miss him forever.


Monday, 21 January 2008

An American's Passion for British Art

I did wonder what British art would be on show in the exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts: I mean, there's an awful lot of it to choose from so where would they start and where would it end. As it happens the choice was made long ago when the American collector and philanthropist, Paul Mellon (1907-1999), started collecting British paintings he liked.

There were a few things that got him going: his father was already a great collector, his mother was English, he loved horses, he started collecting before many of the artist's works became unaffordable but he had pots of money if he took a fancy to something that was.

So here it was, a really diverse collection of paintings but with a bias towards subjects and artists Mellon particularly admired. For example, being horse mad, sporting art formed a large part of Mellon's collection. The exhibition starts with some of George Stubbs' (1724-1806) superb paintings of horses.

The horse is always the star in his paintings and the background very sparse but in the same room there is also a wonderful painting of the first zebra ever seen in Britain with a very busy background: it was sent over from the Cape of Good Hope in 1763. The zebra is quite beautifully executed but quite incongruously it stands in an English wood!

I liked the painting of Mellon atop his horse, Dublin, which is not hanging in the exhibition but outside of it in the Fine Rooms: it does have a setting which literally gives us a background to the subject whereas Stubbs' paintings don't. Mellon obviously loved the countryside and collected landscape paintings too and in the exhibition there are finished works and sketches that chart the change in British landscape painting.

We Brits started by copying the idealized painting style of French seventeenth century artists - Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin – and we copied them too in our landscapes. John Robert Cozens' 'The Lake Albano and Castel Gondolfo' 1779, is such a painting – the subject in the foreground surrounded by trees with hills, ruins, a lit sky and a view in the background – the idealized sort of landscape certain to appeal to those doing the Grand Tour.

Mellon's collection exhibits a slow but steady progression in landscape painting, starting with Thomas Gainsbrough and Robert Wilson through to Turner and Constable all of whom also show the influence that Dutch paintings had on their style. This is followed by a landscape studies section: the sketches that these same artists did in the landscape in order to paint their watercolours later.

One of the most amazing things about these is their timelessness: a pencil sketch of a tree by Wilson, some more trees in watercolour and pencil by Cozens, rocks and vegetation by the river by Turner. It would be easy to believe that these were only drawn yesterday, the simplicity of them is so unexpected.

I liked the section on Topography and the Picturesque with the literal depictions of buildings and views, too. My favourite here was a small painting by Francis Towne, 'Ambleside', 1786. It's a small landscape view done in watercolour with pen and brown and grey ink, but it's styalized and simple, so much so that it could be mistaken for a late 20th century work.

The exhibition also covers some paintings done in Italy (with a lovely one by Richard Parkes Bonnington, 1802-1828, of the perfect skies and reflective waters of Venice) and other Europen scenes but it is to views of England that Mellon comes back to collecting.

William Blake was one of those amazingly all round talented individuals - artist, engraver, writer, printer – and Mellon particularly liked his work and began collecting it before it was fashionable. He also collected a few 19th century works by less famous artists of family groups, the style of which we know well with Mr and Mrs Rich and their family set in a landscape to reflect their social importance.

It was a really interesting collection. But sad that so many British paintings are no longer here although, as Mellon donated his collection to Yale, it does mean that it can be seen as a collection, viewed by many including those of us lucky enough to see it in London. Perhaps we need more collectors who have An American Passion for British Art.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Plough Sunday & Plough Monday

Plough Sunday is the first Sunday after Twelfth Night, Epiphany, in other words the Sunday that falls between 7 January and 13 January: Plough Monday is the following day when work was supposed to resume on the farm after the Christmas holiday. I say, supposed, because Tuesday was usually spent recovering from the festivities and work often didn’t start until Wednesday!

Plough Sunday is one of the four agricultural festivals (after this is Rogationtide, Lammas and, finally, Harvest Thanksgiving) that date from pagan times. When ploughing was undertaken in the new year, the Christmas holiday was an extended one. As the fields were too frozen to work, the wooden plough would be kept indoors until Plough Sunday.

The Christian church embraced and adapted this pagan festival and on Plough Sunday the plough, or part of it, would be dragged to the church. There (where in Catholic times a ploughman’s candle was kept alight before an image throughout the year to obtain blessing for their labour) the plough would be blessed, prayers said and hymns sung: “Plough the fields an scatter, the good seed on the ground,” is still heard in churches throughout England today.

On the following Monday celebrations would be held - and these vary from county to county – but central to all was the need to raise funds for the ‘plough light’. Although the Reformation did away with these candles it couldn’t do away with the festival. Instead funds were raised for the working lads and lasses – often spent at the inn.

The young farm labourers would rise early and dress in clean white shirts. With bright bows and bunches of ribbons on their shirts and hats they would gather in the village. In some areas their faces would be blackened – so they couldn’t be recognized – but the white shirt and hobnailed boot of the labourer were universal.

There would be a Fool, dressed in animal skins and carrying a bladder, and a Betsy (sometimes Bessy, Ossy or Molly), a boy dressed as a woman often with a large nose and a tall hat. The lads would form a file and each take a rope attached to a well scrubbed, beribboned and decorated plough. The leader took the shafts and they proceeded through the village blowing cow-horns, whilst the fiddle and drum played and the Fool ran about and Betsy shook her box for pennies.

Any well-to-do householder too mean to stump up a ‘plough penny’ was likely to find a furrow cut through their front garden when they woke the next morning. When the procession reached the centre of the village they formed a circle and sword dancers stepped in. Similar in some respects to a Mummer’s Play of the North Country, many Foresters’ Plays or The Reversby Play of Lincolnshire, for example, the circular dance was derived from a prehistoric fertility rite.

When the dance reached its climax, the Fool kneels in its midst: the swords are locked and lowered over his head and the dancers, holding the swords still, whirl around. A shout, and suddenly they release the swords and the Fool lies dead. Everyone who took part had a very merry time and gained refreshment where they could – either offered by householders or at the local inn.

Over the last half century Plough Sunday and Plough Monday are enjoying a small revival: churches often have Plough Sunday services where, in the medieval manner, ploughs are blessed and with it the farm worker’s labour. And in many towns at festivals, or outside crowded pubs, Morris dancers, Molly dancers or sword dancers entertain the crowds and, although there may be no ploughing in the offing, the men dance and drink with the same skill and enthusiasm as did those young swains of years ago.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Twelfth Day

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas my true love gave to me……an ultimatum: the Christmas tree must come down. In the Christian church January 6th, today, is Twelfth Day, celebrated as Epiphany and known also as the day that The Three Kings or wise men brought gifts to Jesus. The last day of The Twelve Days of Christmas.

But in our house there is some confusion as to which is Twelfth Night: the night that the Christmas decorations must be down before midnight in token of the end of the Twelve Days. And, if you're superstitious, so as not to bring bad luck. I think it's tonight – my Best Beloved thinks it's January 5th. Fortunately we could both be right.

According to some religious sources The Twelve Days are counted from the evening of the 25th December, which makes the 5th January Twelfth Night and January 6th the Twelfth Day. According to others, only the full days are counted which means that the 5th January is the eleventh day and the 6th January therefore the Twelfth Day and Twelfth Night.

In the 1600's the Christmas holiday lasted throughout January, and the evergreens would be renewed not taken down. But in the 1700's children would be out on Twelfth Day playing tricks on passers by. In the 1800's, as daylight faded in London, everyone would be drawn to the pastry cooks shops to admire the glittering windows: framed by evergreens and filled with candles reflected in mirrors and cakes covered in snow white icing sugar.

In many European countries children still dress up as Kings on January 6th and, carrying a large star, go from house to house singing carols and receiving treats. In some there are childrens' parties on Twelfth Night with a rich, dark, iced fruit cake and perhaps a game to choose the King and Queen and all their attendants for the night.

Not so long ago, on Twelfth Night, the shrivelled ivy leaves and dead tree would come down to be put on the bonfire: the burning of Christmas. In the USA some still remember the Christmas tree bonfire on 6th January and the family parties where treats from the tree and Stollen cake were eaten, washed down with warming Gluhwein: it's easy to see how this ritual must have travelled there from Teutonic Europe.

In some cider making areas of England the primitive ritual of Wassailing on Twelfth Night is still celebrated, ostensibly to ensure a good crop of apples for the coming season. Men and women – previously these would have been farm workers – go out to the orchards with a pail of warm cider: each takes a drink of the cider and throws the remains of their cup over the roots of an apple tree. A piece of cake soaked in cider is left in a fork of the branches for 'the robin' and sticks beaten against the branches or guns banged to wake up the sleepy spirit.

This Saxon ritual differed from place to place but the laughter and merriment that is part of it, still includes the toast of Middle English: "Waes hail!" (be in good health!).

I hope your trees will bear and bow
Apples and pears and plums, I do vow,
Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full,
All under the trees, hooray, hooray!
And a little heap under the stairs.)

Songs like this were used to serenade the tree spirits and the ritual celebrated New Year not the nativity.

I'm afraid that January is now better known for its Bargain Sales than its wassails. Shame. But carols and good wishes still survive: "Good health to you, and to you and you and you, and we wish you a merry New Year, New Year, New Year, and we wish you a Merry New Year!"