Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Der Tod als Freund

Another coincidence regarding a recent addition to the art collection (I collect Whistler's friends and pupils, can't afford the master): Music (pencil and india ink) by George du Maurier (image above is another version), who first met Whistler at the atelier of Charles Gleyre in Paris in 1856.  From the Leonee Ormond biography (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969):

'He had some facility as a translator, and his English version of Sully Prudhomme's L'Agonie was later chosen for the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse under the title 'Music'.  Du Maurier originally published  it in the English Illustrated Magazine for June 1884, without a title, accompanied by a drawing of a death-bed scene.  The first, third and fourth stanzas of the original more or less correspond to Du Maurier's, but he has taken general themes from the whole French lyric.' [pp.373-374]

In the latest issue of Folklore Gail Nina-Anderson has written an essay entitled 'Artlore; An Introduction to Recurring Motifs Generated by the Study of Art' [Folklore 125 August 2014 145-160].  In the section 'Subject and Artistic Personality' she mentions two wood engravings by the German artist Alfred Rethel (1816-1859) Der Tod als Erwurger [Death as Avenger] and Der Tod als Freund [Death as a Friend] - the latter appears on the wall behind the figure playing the keyboard instrument in Du Maurier's image.

Death as Avenger was inspired by Heinrich Heine's account of a cholera epidemic during the Paris carnival season of 1831.  A robed skeleton plays fiddle with a pair of bones while those costumed revellers not already dead flee in terror.  Its companion piece Death as a Friend similarly depicts the skeleton of Death tolling the bell for the elderly sacristan who has just died.  According to Nina-Anderson 'Details such as a crucifix, keys, bread and wine, and a pilgrim's hat and staff add to the message that this is a hallowed "good death", while a stylized sunset seen through the window of the bell tower creates a mood of fulfilment.' [p.151]

The story goes that Rethel's friends, on being shown Death as Avenger were so disturbed by the image that it haunted their dreams, so as an act of expiation Rethel produced Death as a Friend.  Both prints were published in Dresden in 1851:  'apparently intended to be a pair, the story (although in this case feasible) can hardly be true.  It not only communicates a (less supernatural) variant of the 'cursed artwork' trope, but adds a concomitant antidote in the form of a companion image designed to counteract the effect of the first.'  Rethel suffered from severe mental illness that contributed to his comparatively early death.  Another interesting example Nina-Anderson uses of a 'cursed painting' is The Hands Resist Him by Bill Stoneham, about which much can be found online.

William Burroughs in London

Preparing for Friday's walk I'm reading chunks of Barry Miles' hefty William Burroughs A Life, which came out this year for the centenary.  There's a lot of information in here that's new to me and, as usual with Burroughs, a whole new group of people I'd never heard of before, even in the London years, which is the period covered by the walk.  The book is based on a massive amount of research undertaken by James Grauerholz, who couldn't finish the writing and asked Miles to take over. It's very thorough and probably the best Burroughs biography I've read - Miles also knew many of the main players.  He is supposed to be mounting an exhibition based on his archive at Westminster Reference Library next year and hopefully a talk will also be arranged.

As is often the case, unexpected intersections occur, such as Burroughs' visit to Chelsea to see Christopher Gibbs (see the posts on Blow Up Locations and Whistler below - it was Gibbs' flat that was the location for the party scene - see the photo above):

'Bill and Christopher first met in Tangier, when Mikey [Portman] took Christopher around to see Bill at the Muniria, but it was in London that they became friends, and Bill would visit Christopher at Lindsey House at 100 Cheyne Walk, a mansion dating from 1674, remodeled from an even older building.  Bill appeared very at home, lounging on the sofa smoking hashish in front of the huge bay window with its magnificent view of the Thames (James McNeill Whistler, who did many studies of the Thames in the 1870s, had lived next door), attended by his smartly turned-out boys.  The room was dominated by an enormous painting by Il Pordenone that had previously belonged to the duc d'Orleans.  A huge Moroccan chandelier cast a thousand pinpoints of light over Eastern hangings and silk carpets.  In the summer, afternoon tea was taken under the mulberry tree in a garden designed by Lutyens.' [pp.409-410]

Another intersection takes place with Mikey Portman (boyfriend of WSB in his early West London years) and Michael Wishart, the latter an artist who today is almost totally forgotten.  His autobiography High Diver is worth reading - he seemed to meet almost everyone who was anyone in twentieth century art and letters (and dance) and also slept with most of them.  I was annoyed by the usual privileged complaint of poverty ('we didn't have a bean, my dear') while swanning around the south of France swigging champagne and taking copious amounts of drugs.  Portman was one of his many boyfriends - who also included the notorious Denham Fouts and Nicky Haslam:

'He is far more beautiful, capricious and unpredictable than any of the monkeys and marmosets I have entertained and been obliged to dispose of in despair.  Michael's years in the Medina of Tangier, where he was William Burroughs' naked lunch, had hardly equipped him for terra firma.  During his occupation of my house, gramophone records became ashtrays, sheets tourniquets.  The house became a rallying ground for le tout Marseillaise (quartier Arabe).'[p.168]

Burroughs also visited, in the company of Francis Bacon, the Watermans Arms on the Isle of Dogs owned by Soho and Fitzrovia chronicler Dan Farson, who had also enticed, on separate occasions, Jacques Tati, Clint Eastwood and Judy Garland.  I've seen film of this pub (most recently in Paul Kelly's film How We Used to Live) but can't find it on YouTube

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Fort Process

To Newhaven last Saturday, an uphill climb to the fort for the music/culture event Fort Process.  Having to work in London that morning, I didn't arrive until the middle of the afternoon (it kicked off at 12:00).  On the way from the station to the fort I was latterly engaged in conversation with a middle-aged man who looked like he might be a performer and asked him who he was.  He didn't say, but told me that he was playing with the headline act Peter Brotzmann - I later discovered he was Steve Noble, a legend of the free improv scene - oops - it's an area of music I've occasionally dipped my toe into over the years, but I'm no expert.

The main reason I went was because two of my friends English Heretic and Haunted Shoreline were giving talks in the 'School Room' (both of which I missed because of aforesaid late arrival).  I was intrigued by the location and the few acts that I'd heard of and it was reasonably local to Hastings.  Walking around, I was hugely impressed by the venue.  In the 1960s and 1970s Newhaven was our regular family holiday destination and we stayed on a caravan site close to the fort - in those days it was dilapidated, dangerous and strictly off limits, surrounded with barbed wire and deep ditches, but to a teenage boy it had a massive mysterious appeal - it was not that long since the end of WW2 and perhaps my interest in underground sites and tunnels was already festering.  Before entering I wandered up the road to the caravan site, only to discover that it's been completely built over, as are the fields opposite where we used to watch horses graze.

I had no idea of the size of the fort and was shocked when I gained access - it's very large (and deep) and I'm not sure I managed to see all the parts of it over the course of the afternoon and evening.  I'm sure I'll regret not making more of an effort to see everything that was going on (and there was a lot), but performances were taking place all over the site, some in tunnels and subterranean spaces, others in bunkers looking out over the sea, or in former barrack rooms or storerooms.  A large nissan hut in the considerable open space in the centre of the fort was home to many of the more 'well-known' performers and was where Peter Brotzmann chose to play at the end of proceedings.  An inflatable stage had been erected in the central space, but there was lots of room to wander round, and tables and chairs to sit at.  The good weather really benefitted the event - you could stand or lie on the ramparts and watch the sun set, look dreamily out to sea, while a cacophonous noise was taking place behind you or wander in and out of other events in the central area.

I really liked the fact that there was no heavy security whatsoever - ie. thuggish men searching bags for bottles of water and sandwiches to be wastefully confiscated, or telling you where you could and couldn't go - you could wander around wherever you wanted - some events took place in a really deep cellar down a massive steep staircase - quite a hippyish vibe actually.  Some of the musical installations were a highlight for me: the glass harmonica; motorized plastic strips flailing against a wall sounding like a fountain etc.  The audience was surprisingly young - the Brighton contingent? - many of the usual suspects with huge Hoxton beards and tattoos.

From the small amount of music I heard the band I enjoyed most was Ex-Easter Island Head, who were probably the most conventionally 'rock' of all the musicians there - an invigorating propulsive mix of Steve Reich and Glenn Branca, with obvious memories of Sonic Youth concerts in the 1980s - they hit electric guitars on tables with mallets and have a powerful drummer - go see.  A real contrast with the Artaud Beats who seemed too studiedly precious and anti-rock for my tastes - sad, as they featured a number of ex-members of Henry Cow.  Other highlights were John Butcher who summoned up unbelievable sounds from a saxophone and Peter Brotzmann and Steve Noble (a formidable drummer) - I have to say that Brotzman sounded exactly as I expected him to, but even so it was impressive to witness - it started on a climax and built up from there, as they say.  It was also lovely to meet up with Haunted Shoreline again.  A really great event.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Brede Ogre

To Brede earlier this week, just a few miles outside Hastings, to do a little bit of research into a local legend.  The lovely church of St George's is a fascinating place to visit and contains in the Lady Chapel a recumbent monument to a local worthy from a noble family residing at nearby Brede Place.

Sir Goddard Oxenbridge of Brede (d.1537) in local legend has been transformed into a fearsome giant who roamed the countryside, carrying off children to devour them.  Jacqueline Simpson in her Folklore of Sussex tells us more (pp.29-30):

'Nobody could get at him to kill him, partly because of his great strength, and partly because a crow which was his familiar, always brought him warning.  Moreover, he was proof against all normal weapons, though it had been foretold that a wooden saw would be his death.  Meanwhile he was still unharmed and every day he ate one child for supper.

So at length, all the children of Sussex gathered together, and in great secrecy they brewed an enormous vat of beer (a drink previously unknown in the district), and fashioned a huge wooden saw.  They brought the vat to Groaning Bridge, at the entrance to Brede Park, where Sir Goddard could not fail to see it, and they lay in ambush near the bridge.  Sure enough, the giant saw the beer, smelled it and began to drink; in next to no time he had drained the vat, and was lying helplessly drunk on the bridge.  Then the children brought out their saw and laid it across him , as if across a fallen free.  Those from East Sussex rode on one end of it, and those from West Sussex upon the other, and so they sawed Sir Goddard Oxenbridge in half.  Long afterwards, his ghost was still said to haunt both the house and the bridge, in the form of a severed trunk.'

According to the church's guide book Sir Goddard 'is reputed to have been a man of unusually large stature' and is remembered locally as 'The Brede Giant'  In the 19th century the local pottery even produced plaques portraying the "Brede Ogre"'.  However, it regards this gruesome story as a 'monstrous calumny on a pious and generous benefactor.'  Simpson suggests that the reason for this hostile depiction was that Sir Goddard, together with other Sussex ogres and cannibals (such as 'Wild Darrell' of Scotney Castle) were Roman Catholics and that 'these legends reflect the deep religious and political hatreds of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries' and I would tend to agree.  More here.

Reading old guidebooks it's clear that Brede Place had a beautiful interior and was open to the public.  Sadly a serious fire in 1979 resulted in it's rebuilding and closure to visitors.  In earlier days one visitor was the playwright J M Barrie who is said to have based the character of Captain Hook in Peter Pan on a rector of the church (1841-1851) John William Maher, who had travelled extensively and was reputed to have been associated with pirates.

More from the guidebook: 'On the east side of the early sixteenth century oak screen that separates the Lady Chapel from the chancel is a stone capital bearing a version of the arms of Sir Goddard Oxenbridge, irregularly quartered with those of his wife Elizabeth nee Echingham.  The outsize 'supporters' portray a man of the woods and his wife both clothed in skins.  As well as the heraldic shield, they also hold up a typical early 16th century helm; the small head, half concealed by the mantling, is popularly thought to be the woodfolk's baby.'  These figures were repainted c.1980.  All photos by me.