We would like to express our gratitude to the Choir of Royal Holloway, Royal Holloway Art Collections (especially Laura MacCullogh, Curator), and the Department of Music at Royal Holloway University of London for their permissions and support in this web project. Click on all the images to find out more about them, then click on the source pictures to enlarge them. The photograph on the right, immediately below, is a detail from Count Gleichen's statue of Thomas and Jane Holloway, situated in the Founders' Quadrangle. Thomas invites his wife to "gaze" at the fruition of her ideas for the College. Note that Gleichen shows her holding the plans. — Robert Fraser and the editors of the Victorian Web
Grief is a great builder. Think of the Taj Mahal in Agra in India; think of the Albert Memorial off Kensington Gore in London. The first is a mausoleum commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to commemorate his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal; the second a monument unveiled in 1872 by Victoria, soon-to-be Empress of India, in memory of her husband Albert. Thenceforth, the Victorians were to create something of a cult around grief. A late instance is Royal Holloway College opened southwest of London by the aforesaid Queen and Empress in 1886, named both after her regal status and the college’s widowed benefactor Thomas Holloway (1800-1883). By then Holloway himself had died, eight years after the woman who had inspired and part-planned the institution with him, his wife Jane (1814-1875). An important aspect of the place was the gallery filled with recent pictures housed in the northwest wing of the Founder’s Building. I have known these since 1980, and visited them on several occasions while teaching at the college over the following decade. After my own wife died in 2014, I was pleased to receive an invitation from the acting curator to write a sequence of poems around thirty-three of the seventy-seven paintings. I called it The Founders’ Gift, insisting the apostrophe be moved outside the “s”. The paintings, it seemed to me, breathed the spirit of Jane as surely as they did her husband’s.
Ekphrasis is an old word for a recurrent convention: a way of interpreting, and maybe accounting for, images through words. The classic, Homeric instance is the description of Achilles’ shield in lines 478-608 of the eighteenth book of The Iliad. The subtlest example in Greek literature I know is the Imagines of Philostratus of Lemnos, addressed to the ten-year-old son of a friend, in which that third-century AD author (or his father-in- law, it is not quite clear which) depicts sixty-five paintings he had recently seen in Naples. Examples abound in the modern period; W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” is among the most prominent. My opportunity – and my challenge – was to write a sequence of poems around a quite coherent collection of pictures brought together over a short period (1882-3) by one man, Thomas Holloway, and held together in one spacious, and gracious, room.
The pictures had been acquired piecemeal: quite a lot of them through the auctioneers Christies. Certain priorities, though, had manifestly prevailed. Royal Holloway was purposely set up for women, initially with an exclusively female staff and student body, and designed as a memorial to Jane. Bearing in mind the background, it is little wonder that women predominate as subjects in the gallery, as do a preoccupation, explicit or implicit, with the condition of bereavement and the airing of certain philanthropic concerns. Some of the paintings have biographical significance. Holloway was a successful business man who had made a fortune selling slightly suspect medicinal pills. Early in his career, though, he had struggled, and for a few months in 1839 had been incarcerated for debt in Whitecross Street Prison in Islington. Four decades later, in May 1882, one of the first pictures he purchased was Frank Holl’s Newgate: Committed for Trial (1878), set in London’s notorious debtor’s jail. Imprisonment for debt is a frequent theme in Victorian art and literature: one only has to think of certain scenes in Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop and Little Dorrit to appreciate the pall it cast in a society with almost no social or economic safety net.
How important is it for us to know these facts? There is, I believe, a crucial difference between the art historian and the ekphrastic poet. The art historian’s task, much like the art curator’s, is to master the background to any given work, then to bring the salient facts to attention of an audience, be they the readership of a relevant publication, or visitors to a gallery. Observe the guides in any of our great museums and you will recognize this is the case: arriving with a motley group, positioning them in front of the canvas and talking knowledgeably while indicating points of interest along the way. The duty of the ekphrastic poet by contrast is to look into the facts behind a work of visual art, to ingest them, and then to pass on. There are certain factors such a person should never overlook. The first is the impression that a work makes on its viewers before they know anything about it (though knowing about it is also one of the poet’s hidden tricks). The second is the personal appeal that the work makes in the present moment, and has made in the past: call it the “gut reaction”. Since the poet exists in the present, and is also trying against all the odds to project back into the cultural space originally occupied by the work in question, one’s reactions – and the intimated reactions, both of the work’s earliest viewers and of one’s readers - are central to what one does, and should never be set aside in the interests of a supposed impartiality. Nor do I think one should disregard pathways of suggestion prompted by private association, provided these relate intelligibly to the picture itself.
As I came to see Holl’s Committed for Trial (1878), it evokes a pervasive sensation of shame which, in a manner characteristic of the Victorians, was part-social, part-moral. The medium of this sensation is the gaze, both active and passive: looking at others and being looked at in turn. To appreciate the ethos of this composition, is suffices to follow the eyes. On the outside of the cage a wife confronts her disgraced husband through the bars: “why have you done this to us?” From the other side he returns her accusing look with a sullen, reproachful frown. Their daughters cling to her hips: the younger on the left appealing across to her sister to make sense of the situation, while her sister, face half hidden in the folds of her mother’s dress, peers shyly outwards towards us, almost as if we were looking at her, which of course we are. Next to them on a chair sits a second woman clutching a baby, and unable to raise her eyes from the floor; they are being frantically waived to by another prisoner, presumably her husband, crouching and demented, to the right of the first. Standing at attention between the double grill lours an immobile officer, stern but embarrassed. It is the group in semi-darkness to the far right that are the most fascinating because the most mysterious. The woman in furs may be another spouse who has come down in the world, but she is more likely to be a visitor, even a tourist (there were such people) who has come to gawp rather to console. She is confronting, maybe trading rank with, the officer in front of her.
There is one almost constant factor to this depressing scene. With the exception of the prisoners, who have in effect been emasculated, it is the men who possess the power, while the women possess the understanding. Now this is very interesting, because Holl was not supposed to be much good at portraying women. This is a topic that was debated at some length in 2013 in the catalogue to an exhibition of his work at the Watts Gallery, in which the art historian Jane Sellars confronted the critical consensus by asserting that “Women play a significant part in the art of Frank Holl. They are central in his subject pictures which deal almost exclusively with aspects of women’s suffering in Victorian society” (Sellars, qtd. in Bills 75). I did not know Sellars’ essay when I wrote The Founders’ Gift, but I could see quite clearly - in this picture at least - that, while the men control the scene, it is the women - young and old - who provide it with nuance and depth. My ekphrastic poem became a dialogue between the sisters:
“Why do you look away, sister?
Sister, why look away?
It’s father’s turn at the grille now, sister.
We’ve little hint of day,
Let’s look on him, dear, now while we may.”
“I’m looking instead at the watchers, sister,
Gazing at us from outside.
They’re staring and judging us harshly
With a sorrow I cannot abide.
Are we two to blame for our poor mother’s pain?”
“The beggar clutching her baby, sister,
Is staring floorwards in rage.
Why doesn’t she greet the crazy man
Who’s hailing them both from his cage,
Waving and shouting as loud as he can?”
“That lady in finest clothes, sister,
Is fixing the fiercest of warders
With eyes that are blazing and bold.
Is she the one giving orders?
Do jewels and the thickest of furs turn you cold?”
“The bearded guard with bright buttons, sister,
Wears a face that is wilting with fear.
Can he in his belt and his uniform
And we in our rags share the same:
This stifling blanket of guilt and of shame?”
In The Departure of the Diligence, Biarritz (1862) a stagecoach is about to set out, and the passengers are busy preparing. A notice board in the upper right hand corner tells you the likely destination. These are the early days of the Second Empire in France, and they are bound for the imperial capital, Paris. Next to the vehicle, the coachman is checking his fob watch. A few passengers, including a nun, have already boarded; others are standing about in groups with the relatives and friends here to see them off. These include another nun - bound for the same convent? - who is using the last few remaining minutes to bid farewell to her married sister. In the mid-distance an imperious looking woman accompanied by a porter is pointing with a cane to her luggage which is bulky and carefully corded: will there still be room for it on the top of the coach? A naively excited young girl to her right is taking advice from her mother. A mature lady, perhaps in her thirties, is trying her luck with a gypsy trader, and probably being gulled. All of these people are absorbed in the coming journey, and gossiping away. I wanted someone to speak out of the picture, and I chose the one individual whom you might at first not notice. She is the little girl on the left clutching the sleeve of the second nun, whom I reckoned to be her aunt. She is staring up at the scene through the tangles of her aunt’s bouquet of flowers, and alone among the whole garrulous gaggle is not gabbing away. She speaks, though, through my poem:
“Life goes on above my head.
Why is my aunt dressed in a wimple
Like a nun? And why is my mama
Clutching my baby sister like a doll?
There’s another lady with a wimple in the cart.
Take those flowers out of my eyes.
When will this groaning vehicle depart?
Why don’t they start? There’s every kind
Of baggage here, but will it fit?
That lady in the bonnet seems to
Own the lot. She’s pointing at it with her cane.
The woman with the reticule looks kind.
The gipsy with the basket is cheating her.
People are happiest when they stay behind.
The man who did this painting is
Suffering from a condition of the heart.
Much though I care. I’m little.
And where is Paris anyway, and why this fuss?
The pale girl with the green hat-box
Is pretending to listen to her mum.
I think she dreams of lovers
These stones are hard and I can’t see the sky.
I don’t want to be a gypsy or a horse.
And who’s this Emperor? And what’s the time?
These people have all gone, and so have I,
Up the hillside, out of the town.
Soon they’ll be lighting the gas lamps, one by one.
Saying farewell is one way to die.”
Both of these paintings seem historical to us, though they are not of course history paintings as such, since they depict contemporary scenes. Two time zones are involved: the painter’s and our own. Further along the south wall, though, we come to a sequence of canvases that envisage incidents occurring at periods distant from the painters themselves. Because of this, a third and remoter age is added. Each of these paintings has been “researched” by the artist; the question therefore arises of how much background we require in order to enjoy and understand them. In some cases, such knowledge appears to be essential, though even here the message I desired to extract was often a product of a minor detail that could be observed independently of any scholarly commentary. Two paintings by Edward Long on the south wall of the gallery illustrate this process perfectly.
In The Suppliants: Expulsion of the Gypsies from Spain (1872) a cardinal and a high-ranking official, seemingly a King, are in energetic conversation. They are descending a carpeted flight of church steps, at the foot of which huddle a gaggle of what look like Romany gypsies with gestures of ramshackle supplication. Behind them runs a cloister, through the arches of which we can he observe a great lady sweeping past, attended by her servants. As she goes, she glances down at the confrontation outside. The position of the figures is sculptural and yet manages to suggest vigorous movement on all sides: the downward momentum of the monarch and priest, the jostling of the gypsies, the stately procession through the cloister. What does history tell us? The church is Santa Annunciata in Valladolid, the king is Philip III of Spain (1578-1621), and the period one of ethnic and religious purge. In 1609, at the urging of the Inquisition, Philip had issued a decree banishing the Moriscos – former Muslims who had converted to Christianity – from his Kingdom (Ferdinand and Isabella had already expelled the Jews). Ten years later he was urged by one Cardinal Gonzales to do the same to the long-standing, and largely despised, Romany community, and would have done so, had it not been for the intercession of his Queen, Margaret of Austria. Long had studied these facts in the writings of Pachero, Secretary to the Inquisition, held in the archives of Sarmancas (Long to Carey, September 14, 1887, Chapel 107). To get the figures right, he had studied portraits of the key figures in the Prado. The result, though, is very far from being an academic painting. What he has so vividly brought to life is a delicate balance between different species of power: the ecclesiastical bullying of the Church, the sovereign discretion of the king, the moral plea of the suppliants, and the intervention of the consort. To my mind, it was the last of these that had proved the deciding factor. Once again, follow the eyes. The Queen is looking downwards towards the gypsy hoard. What does her glance convey: contempt, pity, condescending curiosity? Maybe all of these, but there is something else too. Examine the postures of the principal protagonists: the awkward and embarrassed face-to-face of the king and cardinal, the upright and stuffy bearing of Queen Margaret, shut off by the cloister, hemmed in by protocol and servants. By contrast, the gypsies are spontaneous and creative. Look at the girl in the foreground: she has cast her tambourine aside to join in the general supplication, but she will soon pick it up and start playing again. In my interpretation of the painting the governing motive is envy: not of the powerless for the powerful, but the other way round. Thus in my poem I urge the gypsy girl to play on with her message of freedom (which the Queen’s intervention secures.) I begin by echoing the Bob Dylan song from 1964, “Hey, Mister Tambourine Man”, which if you remember is about being released from dire routine by an embodied spirit of liberty:
Hey, Miss Tambourine Girl,
Play a song for me:
Of how a King, urged by compulsion,
Determined on the dire expulsion
Of Carmen and her kind
And left his mind behind,
Then how a lofty Queen,
Sweeping by unseen
Glimpsed the might have been,
And made it true.
And of her look which seems to say:
Free to leave, or free to stay,
Which freedom is the better way?
Who’d swap a lofty Queen
For a damsel with a tambourine?
This painting says:
Maybe the Queen.
As in so much Victorian history painting, three time levels are superimposed here: the present in which the viewer (and, in the case of ekphrastic verse, both the writer and the reader) reside, the period in which the painting was created, and the period it explicitly portrays. In several cases, that spectrum embraces several centuries, even millennia. Half way along the south wall of the gallery, hangs an extensive painting (68 x 120 inches), also by Long, set in ancient Assyria, with provocatively implied parallels to modern London. The hangings on the far wall serve to identify the first of these periods, as they draw on friezes displayed, then as now, in the Assyrian collection in the British Museum. But Victorians visitors would also instantly have recognized the scene depicted as the interior of an auction hall:
Long’s The Babylonian Marriage Market (1875) is among the most frequently discussed of all Victorian paintings; as a result, it has inevitably attracted a series of labels – "Orientalist” “Imperialist” - that readily appeal to the postcolonial mind. It is the prerogative of the ekphrastic poet, I believe, to absorb such descriptions and go beyond them. What do we see? The auction has just begun: to the left, the auctioneer is gesturing towards the lot currently on offer: a lightly dressed young woman with her back to us. Beyond her, a jostling crowd of punters are vying for the right to purchase her, while running along the front of the picture sits a row of girls who are about to be offered for sale, in order of supposed attractiveness. Today’s visitors are likely to notice the placing of the girls as colour-coded: the paler to the left, the duskier to the right. This must have been deliberate on Long’s part. If they are accompanied by a guide (either live or recorded), they are also likely to be informed as to Long’s source. It is in the Historiai of Herodotus, who however describes the prospective husbands surrounding their human merchandise in a ring. In the English translation by George Rawlinson published in 1875, the year in which the painting was executed, the relevant passage runs thus:
Once a year in each village the maidens of age to marry were collected all together in one place, while the men stood round in a circle. Then a herald called up the damsels one by one, and offered them for sale. He began with the most beautiful. When she was sold for no small amount of money, he offered for sale the one who came next to her in beauty. All of them were sold to be wives. The richest of the Babylonians who wished to wed bid against one another for the loveliest maidens, while the humbler wife-seekers, who were indifferent about beauty, took the more homely damsels with marriage-portions. For the custom was that, when the herald had gone through the whole number of the beautiful damsels, he should then call up the ugliest – a cripple, if there chanced to be one – and offered her to the men, asking who would agree to take her with the smallest money-portion. And the man who offered to take the smallest sum had her assigned to him. The marriage-portions were furnished by the money paid for the beautiful damsels, and thus the fairer maidens portioned out the uglier. [Herodotus 1.196, Rawlinson, 320-21]
Along with many a visitor, I was struck by the array of potential brides waiting their turn at the front. They are twelve, if you include the one to the far right who is rising in preparation for being presented. Most of them are chatting with their neighbors, though one to the extreme left is checking her complexion in a hand mirror. Her bashful neighbor is shyly peering out at us, but the only woman who submits us to the full measure of her gaze is the girl in the centre with arms folded across her knees (a posture I myself sometimes adopt when feeling resolute.) It was she I wanted to speak my poem, so what was my surprise when, consulting Herodotus, I found she was not there. She is, however, present in a commentary on Herodotus published in 1870, five years before Rawlinson’s translation, by the Oxford scholar George Carless Swayne (1818-1892), who adds, and maybe invents — one extra detail. The auction, Swayne tells us, proceeded until all of the beautiful girls had been sold off. Before proceeding to the next stage, when dowries were offered with the less glamorous, attention turned to “the damsel equidistant between beauty and plainness, who was given away gratis” (Swayne 36). Long had clearly read Swayne (Chapel 108); he placed this half-and-half lady in the middle.
Swayne is an interesting man, a classicist with a side-interest in the then nascent subject of anthropology. Three of his children were to work in, and write about, Somalia; his Herodotus commentary, one might add, appeared one year before Edward Burnett Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871), a work that would prove seminal in the development of this new discipline. It is Swayne who points out the parallel between the Babylonian custom and the modern marriage market (Swayne 37). What impressed him, and also it seems the artist, about the girl in the centre is that she is only candidate for marriage who, being free of any price tag, claims no advantage, pecuniary or sexual, over the others. She is there purely and simply in her own right.
I wanted her to speak the poem, but to whom? One interesting fact about this painting is that its subject mirrors the circumstances of its acquisition. Along with the Suppliants it was offered for auction at Christie’s on 13 May 1882, when it was acquired for Holloway for £6,615. Ten days later Long wrote to him “to say how gratified I feel at the very handsome way in which you have purchased my two pictures, and that they are to be placed in your noble collection” (Holloway Archives, Long to Holloway, 23 May 1882; Chapel 108). We can only speculate as to the reasons for Holloway’s purchase of any given item. Suffice it to say that he had lost his wife seven years previously. A fair number of the paintings he chose for his gallery concern bereavement, and an almost equal number feature young women in extremis. Founded in Jane’s honour, their college was set up specifically for women. With incidental allusions to Victorian economics and biology, my poem ran:
If Christie’s had auctioned women instead of oils,
You might have bought yourself a second wife,
Companion for a second life:
Lovely Lucasta, or Plain Jane again.
But somehow Jane doubts you would.
Rather than lissom you liked them good.
Old Herodotus thought this custom just:
The Survival of the Fairest serves the needs of lust.
He described it in his Histories. Except for me:
The gloss the painter drew on conjured me
From nothing. Transcending time,
I’m a dream of equity.
To your right, regard the wrongs of girls:
One dusky maiden hides her face behind her curls.
But disregarded corners are the core of art,
And disregarded produce of the marriage mart.
I’m sitting in the middle, and my Trade is Free.
I talk nice Greek as well, Tom. Might you fancy me?
As well as the three time periods involved in the appreciation of these Victorian history paintings, there exists in the finest examples, I would further claim, a fourth ingredient that strikes across all the others: an act of protest of perennial significance. To the east of Long’s Babylonian Marriage market, again along the south wall, two outstanding examples of such protest hang side by side. Both are by John Everett Millais (1829–1896), both depict imprisoned children, and both derive from different phases of English regal history: The Princes in the Tower from the late fifteenth-, and Prince Elizabeth Imprisoned in Saint James’s (1879) from the mid-seventeenth century. The first is better known. I actually wrote about both, but it was Princess Elizabeth whom I found the more absorbing.
What does the viewer see? A pale and slender young girl is seated at a desk. Her gown is long and sable with lace at its sleeves and collar (a “piccadill” collar apparently, such as you can see in several portraits of John Milton). Her left arm rests against her cheek, and her right arm carries a quill pen lowered onto her left knee, having just finished inscribing a letter that rests on top of the desk beside a wax candle in a simple brass holder. On the floor to her right lie two tomes, one of which lies open, while behind her rises an intricately carved oak cabinet. The room is dark, too dark maybe to read easily, so that, beneath her lace cap, the girl is staring upwards to the lone source of light, which seems to be a window high up to her right. Distress and disappointment are written on her face.
Millais would have wanted us to look into the background. The month is December, 1643, and the girl is eight-year-old Elizabeth Stuart (1635-1650), second daughter of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, who had been detained in Saint James’ Palace on the orders of parliament during the continuing Civil War. That month she intrepidly wrote to the House of Lords complaining that her Laudian servants had been replaced by puritans of a parliamentary persuasion. The letter was presented to both Houses on December 16, and rejected by the Commons (Lords Journal, 343; Commons Journal, 341). Millais had read the text of the letter in Lives of the Last Four Princesses of the Royal House of Stewart by the royalist historian Agnes Strickland (1796-1874), who had copied it from the parliamentary proceedings and quotes it on page 163. After Charles’s execution the princess was removed to Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, where she died of a chill on 8 December, 1650, aged not quite fifteen. Between 1845 and 1851 Victoria and Albert built a summer retreat on the island; when the queen found out that the seventeenth-century princess, a royalist martyr like her dad, had been unceremoniously buried in St Thomas’s church, Newport under a simple monogrammed slab, she ordered that it be replaced with a marble effigy by Carlo Marochetti (who also made her own and Albert’s likenesses for the Frogmore Mausoleum). The effigy gave rise to a minor cult around the princess, on which Strickland’s book, and Millais’ painting, evidently draw.
Young as she was, the princess had acquired a formidable reputation for learning (according to the Biblical scholar William Greenhill, she knew at least some Latin, Greek and Hebrew.) Hence the open books lying on the floor. Millais wanted to stress her erudition, but he also wanted to highlight her plight. For profound biographical reasons he possessed quite a lot of empathy with female entrapment. Twenty-five years previously he had saved his wife Effie from a loveless marriage to John Ruskin; she and Millais were to have eight children. But he also needed a credible model for his painting. He chose his second daughter Sophie, then aged twelve, whom he positioned in his Kensington studio in front of the oaken cabinet, which he owned and which was one of his regular props. In my poem I wanted to stress this multiple affinity: the complicated relationship between two fathers, separated by a couple of centuries, and two daughters of much the same age. But I also wanted Elizabeth to speak for herself, and hence I quoted her letter verbatim. The princess was appealing in more than one sense. The message, or cry, that I picked up from the picture was much the same as that expressed in the princess’s request to parliament, and perhaps also in the moving history of Millais and his wife: “Rescue me!”:
Caught in the gorgeous pathos
Of calculated Victorian baroque,
The painter’s daughter follows the flight
Of floating figments of light.
The studio smells of linseed.
Her father dreams of Caravaggio’s
Chiaroscuro, he ponders Rembrandt’s
Careful balance of face and arm.
He says: “Rearrange your lace.
Remember you are an
Enemy of state, formidable
As the feather that you hold.”
The girl behind the girl lifts
Her quill to write these dangerous words:
“My Lords, I account myself very miserable that you have my
Servants taken from me, and strangers put
To me. You promised me
That you would have a care of me,
And I hope you will show it in preventing
So great a grief….”
There is sobbing behind the wainscot.
In a chamber dark as blood,
The girl behind the girl
Lowers her quill.
Beyond the easel and the dust-filled
Props, she follows a father in flight,
Wiping his eyes between
Fading fragments of light.
Is this great art or just good art? Is it major, or is it minor? One of the firm merits of the Royal Holloway collection, it seems to me, is that it collapses any such distinctions. High up on the south wall, about two-thirds of the way down the gallery, is a painting that catches the eye of many a visitor, but about which even the official catalogue has little to say. Joshua Hargrave Sams Mann (1826–1886), it tells us, was a “little-known” painter who often derived his subjects from the works of British poets; the Grove Dictionary of Art expands on this description only to tell us that he specialized in “genre scenes, flowers and fruit.” Certainly he did a strong line in little girls; “sentimental” some would call him. The very fact that we have to place these adjectives between scare quotes implies the insecurity, and the frequent if lazy use, to such labels: often as a substitute for thought, or in this case for looking.
Mann’s reputation as a purveyor of cozy domestic scenes has damned him in the eyes of posterity. There is nothing in the least cozy or domestic, however, about The Cauld Blast. On a bleak mountain side an old man and a young girl huddle together against a driving storm. The old man is wearing a greenish plaid with which he is attempting to protect the girl. He looks to the left, haggard and haunted; she looks at us with a winsome appeal. Nothing in the picture tells us with any degree of definiteness that he is her grandfather, and yet we know it must be so. The setting is Scottish: lowlands or highlands we cannot be sure. One thing is obvious: a generation is missing. Where are her father and mother? If the setting is a highlands one, their absence may be a comment on the drastic effect of the clearances (I owe this insight to the gallery’s present curator, Laura MacCulloch). In that case the cold blast is as much the wind of adverse circumstances and political insensitivity as an inclement day.
This is Mann’s most commonly reproduced image, and with good reason. What distinguishes it, I think, and pulls at the heart-strings, is a vulnerability which these tender beings share, a mutual protectiveness, fragile and for that reason the more to be cherished. There is one more clue, and it lies in the painting’s title. "The cauld blast" is a phrase that memorably occurs in a poem by Burns:
O wert thou in the cauld blast,
On yonder lea, on yonder lea,
My plaidie to the angry airt,
I'd shelter thee, I'd shelter thee;
Or did Misfortune's bitter storms
Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,
Thy bield should be my bosom,
To share it a', to share it a'.
Or were I in the wildest waste,
Sae black and bare, sae black and bare,
The desert were a Paradise,
If thou wert there, if thou wert there;
Or were I Monarch o' the globe,
Wi' thee to reign, wi' thee to reign,
The brightest jewel in my Crown
Wad be my Queen, wad be my Queen.
That Mann had this poem in mind cannot be asserted with certainty, but the mood fits. Burns’s poem is in lowland Scots: “beilt”, for example, is a shelter such as a bothie in a remote glen. This is also a love poem: affectionate and nurturing: “Misfortune’s bitter storms” include death, among other threats. I count it a mercy that, apart from the Burns quote, we know so little about this painting. The picture itself tells us most of what we need to know. For all of these reasons, I wanted the picture to address us in the words of its most vulnerable inhabitant, the granddaughter. I chose a lowland setting in conformity both with my own family memories and with the Burns poem. The moment depicted is the sort of unrepeatably precious experience that gets enshrined in our memories as we age. And, since the girl’s gaze seems to be informed both with dependency and a prescient knowingness, I wanted her to speak in retrospect, as an aging woman looking back, possibly at the age of her grandfather was when he cuddled her on that cold mountainside:
“You ask me, have I ever known peace?
December, and a sharp wind
Whipping the Pentland Hills:
As long as it blew, my granda held me there,
His large hand over my small hand,
His plaid across my shoulders,
His glance askance and fey,
Striving to calm us, sighing all the while:
‘My plaidie to the angry airt, my love,
I’ll shelter thee, I’ll shelter thee.’
Yet somehow I knew all along
It was he who was afraid,
With his glance askance and fey.
It was no province of a child
To comfort the comforter,
But were he ever to come again,
Wrapped in that cauld, cauld blast,
I’d shelter him, I’d shelter him.
His bielt should be my bosom,
To share it a’, to share it a’.”
“Fey”, of course, I meant in the Scottish sense of mystically foreseeing death. The picture has a sort of humming serenity about it I tried to capture in the poem. It was echoed too in a setting of these words for a cappella choir made by the composer Mollie Carlyle (1999-), performed in the gallery on 15 January 2020 in a series of concerts showcasing six poems from The Founders' Gift alongside the talents of a group of young musicians:
Mollie extracted the first line of the poem and deployed it as a refrain against to a curling quasi-ecclesiastical polyphony that perfectly evoked the human holiness of the scene. Not surprisingly, the performance was followed by a hush.
Lastly, some more remarks about ekphrasis. It was the paintings that I wanted my readers or listeners to hear, not me. The problem with art criticism, as with so much academical discourse, is that it tends to get trapped in the skin of an expert who stands beyond the subject of his or her recital and comments on it from without. But the strength of all art worthy of the name is that it carries us beyond ourselves. The ekphrastic poet, I believe, should aim to reproduce this transportation from the limits of the self. A lot of Victorian painting is about power, and the limitations of power. The burden they carry is that this power is so often shown to be destructive. To that extent many of these paintings undermine, or at least interrogate, themselves from within. One way of reflecting this destabilizing perspective is to select a speaker from inside the frame who addresses us with the authority of her weakness. In many cases, this is a woman, and in many cases a child. The adult men in these paintings often seem to know nothing because they own too much. The children by contrast own nothing apart from themselves. Officially they know nothing; for that very reason, they know everything. The poem should take upon itself the majesty of that knowing.
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Created 10 June 2020