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The Actors

the-actors-1942Next day I encountered one of the astonishments of my journey; perhaps of my gallery-going life. We’d gone up to the Harvard Art Museum because Michael wanted to show me a painting: Gabrielle in a Red Dress (1908) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a portrait of his housekeeper, maid and companion, Gabrielle Renard, whom he painted more than two hundred times. My astonishment occurred before we found this work: it was a view, through a square high opening, on the far wall of the adjoining room, of Max Beckmann’s triptych The Actors. A riot of green, gold, pink, orange, red and grey made somehow incandescent by the deep ebonies against which the painter staged this particular drama. It was the colour that struck me: its intensity and strangeness, its radical glow; its emanation, as it were, like a chromatic cloud, from that flat surface into the air about us.

I knew the work already. The year before I tried to write an ekphrastic piece considering in detail each of Beckmann’s nine triptychs. I gathered images of all of them, from Departure (1932-5) to The Argonauts (1949-50) but, in so far as I recall, I only managed to write a page and a half about the first one. It was, perhaps, unnecessary to attempt; I think the sheer richness, the wonder, of the works themselves defeated me: what could words possibly add to the grandeur they already possessed? The Actors, however, was the first of the triptychs I had seen in the flesh; and it was a revelation. It struck me, as I said, like a blow. I walked towards its immensity as towards a blazing fire.

Beckmann painted it in Amsterdam during World War Two; between 1941 and 1942, in the old tobacco warehouse he used as a studio. Its central figure, in the central panel, a self portrait, is a king dressed in a green suit, with red high boots, wearing a golden crown and a long golden cloak; and holding a dagger to his breast so that blood spills like insignia down his jacket front. His queen, in pink, blindfolded and holding a piece of sheet music in her hand, stands before him; while behind them courtiers gather and beneath the stage, rude mechanicals contend as if brawling in a ratskeller. There is a young blond girl, in a blue coat and orange tights, holding a spotted cat, bent below the blinded queen, a grey theatrical mask behind her. When I look at the painting in reproduction now I cannot recapture half of what I saw when I was standing before it: the surpassing sweetness of this girl’s face, for instance, her luminous innocence and her simple charm.

The two side panels are theatrical in different ways: a woman with a mirror before a classical bust; musicians playing horns; a telegraph boy; two girls with flowers; a midget waving. Or, in the left hand panel, some plot being hatched between a soldier, a prophet and a woman in a white headscarf; while a crouching man reads a New York newspaper and yet another figure from antiquity looms behind; and down below the boards are five legs with golden bands about their ankles, but who those feet belong to isn’t clear. And maybe after all this is why I want to write about the triptychs: each of them encodes a different enigma, which might turn out to be explicable in words. Or not: in the face of visual imagery, language cannot help but approximate, reducing unspoken or unwritten mysteries to the banalities of sense. Fail better? The problem is, I think, without solution.

Oddly enough, standing before The Actors, I fell into conversation with a fellow who turned out to have designed the Bosch show I’d seen at the Noordbrabants. He was giving a lecture that afternoon and invited us to attend; but we had other things to do and didn’t go. We found the Renoir portrait: I said to Michael that it looked like his wife, and it was his turn to be astonished: the resemblance had not occurred to him. We wandered past extraordinary paintings: by Max Ernst, Kandinsky, Matisse, van Gogh, Gauguin and many more. There were two other Beckmann works: the famous Self Portrait in Tuxedo (1927) in which the cigarette, up close, is just a stroke of white with a red dab at the tip; which transforms into an image of the veritable smoking tube as you move away; and a small still life called The Fire (1945), memorialising the freestanding circular brazier Beckmann acquired to keep himself warm in winter in the tobacco warehouse where he painted The Actors.

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The Street of Green Windows

Temptation_of_Saint_AnthonyI always imagined Lisbon to be a place where it rains a lot but Isaac said that isn’t really so. Only in this part of the year, he said. The rest of the time it earns its sobriquet: The White City. Next morning heavy showers were sweeping in over the city from the Atlantic. I looked out the window of my hotel room and there, on the sill of the room opposite, stood a red, white and blue Dutch clog, slowly filling up with water and then overflowing. Isaac came round again later; we were going to take one of the old-fashioned yellow trams out west to visit the National Museum of Ancient Art—so-called because it only holds works made before 1850. Much of their collection was confiscated from the Catholic Church or came from the estates of disestablished aristocratic families. It is housed in a seventeenth century palace colloquially called Janelas Verdes, after the street in which it stands: Rua das Janelas Verdes, the Street of Green Windows.

At the tram stop I bought for a few Euros an umbrella from an old gypsy woman but, the first time I opened it, one of the ribs bent and broke so, whenever I had to use it after that, it felt like a crippled bat hovering malevolently over my head. Lisbon was full of umbrella sellers, and just as full of broken umbrellas; they seemed designed to disintegrate immediately upon purchase. This one did keep my upper body halfway sheltered but, when it rained, it rained so hard it was impossible to keep my feet dry as well. By the time we got to the Street of Green Windows my socks were squelching inside my shoes. Isaac had a better umbrella and more sensible footware; he was a local after all. He seemed sympathetic to my plight but I thought I detected in his manner the mild derision of the young towards the incompetence of the old.

Janelas Verdes was actually done out in the same colours as the Carlos Lopes Pavilion: white stone, pale ochre panelling, red tile roof. The collection, naturally, features Portuguese art from medieval times forward; also a fine selection of European painting, including works by Memling, Cranach the Elder, Holbein the Elder, Durer, Velazquez, Zurbarán, Poussin and many more. We wandered damply through gallery after gallery of mostly religious art, seeing many splendid things, while looking for the one work that motivated this perhaps redundant quest: Hieronymus Bosch’s The Temptation of St Anthony, the painting the Portuguese had declined to send to the show at the Noordbrabants because it was too vital a tourist attraction to lose for the six months or so it would have been gone from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.

I don’t know exactly what I expected but it turned out to be an entirely different viewing experience from the one at Den Bosch. The triptych was free-standing, alone at the narrow end of a rectangular gallery towards the back of the building, and entirely unattended by any security apparatus; nor audience either. Whereas, at the Noordbrabants, you had to find a place amongst a crowd of people peering at the works through perspex, here you could see the painting naked, as it were; better still, you could walk around the back and have a look there as well.

There was something reassuring about the massive wooden construction of the artefact. The grisaille paintings on the reverse of the right and left wings, used to close the centre panel unless it happened to be a holy day, were visible too. One, an ochre-ish grey, showed the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane; the other, which was a bluer grey, Christ carrying the cross up to Golgotha. Both were crowded paintings which seemed somehow more terrifying for their monochromatic detachment. The brutality of Peter cutting Malchus’ ear off with his sword; Judas fleeing in righteousness and despair; the unrepentant defiance of the thief who would be damned.

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The three front panels all feature a translucent aqua sky in which strangely morphous craft fly: fish, lizards, birds, a ship, an egg with wings ridden upon by a toad carrying a sputtering light on a pole. The saint appears in all of the panels: twice in the left, praying on his back upon an amphibious flying monstrosity; and, down below, having fallen, hauled unconscious to safety by three men, one of whom is recognisably the Wayfarer and therefore, most likely, another Bosch self portrait. In the centre panel, surrounded by corrupted clergy, corrupt nuns, grotesquely altered humans, he points to a grotto where Christ is being crucified; while, on the right panel, he sits hunched in his cloak over his Bible, looking past, rather than at, the manifold temptations that surround him. There is a city burning in the back of the centre panel; in the right hand panel a gladiatorial contest proceeds in a coliseum outside of which armies are marching; in the left, a brothel or a temple is built out of a bent-over human form whose arsehole shadows its entrance. Under that luminescent aqua sky, this world is darkly red, darkly brown, yet threaded through with the gorgeous pink the painter loved so much.

I was looking for the kiwi which, improbably, appears in the right hand panel of one of the triptychs: alas, not this one, but The Hay Wain, which I had seen in den Bosch without, however, remembering to seek out the Apteryx. How is it even there? Is it really a kiwi? When The Hay Wain was painted (1516 according to dendrochronologic analysis of the wood it is upon) Abel Tasman’s ‘discovery’ of New Zealand was still a century and a quarter in the future. Even if you accept that the Spanish or the Portuguese may have arrived sooner in the Antipodes, no pre-1516 date for European discovery is credible. The ‘kiwi’ then, must have been the product of a vision or a dream; but one which may yet have been based upon news from beyond the European sphere, for Bosch was certainly one of those whose attention was focussed upon the fantastical creatures world exploration was then bringing to the West’s notice: the giraffe in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights is proof of that.

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Two further points: The Temptation of St Anthony clarified a feeling I had looking at the works in Holland: space in a Bosch painting is singularly composed, as if each of his constructions, whether human, animal, avian, amphibious, piscatorial, demonic, architectural or some combination of the above, exists in a dimension of its own, making his work particularly responsive to the reproduction of detail and, inter alia, extremely satisfying to view on zoom on a computer screen. The second point is more specific to this painting, perhaps, but has larger implications. Anthony was the patron saint of those who suffered from ergot poisoning, aka Saint Anthony’s Fire: caused by eating bread made from grain upon which the ergot fungus flourished. Ergot poisoning was common in Europe in the Middle Ages; its effects resemble those of LSD intoxication. Indeed, there is a chemical relationship between ergot and lysergic.

Ignis sacer, then, the holy fire, or at least its effects, seems to be a part of the subject matter of Bosch’s Temptation. More generally, his own intoxications with ergot, if indeed they occurred, might have contributed something to the astonishing, recombinant, fecundity of his visions. Mind you, if we did know that, what is it then that we would know? What does it mean? It is one of those causes which does not banish, nor really explain, its effects. The tree person, holding a swaddled babe in its arms while saddled up and riding upon a field mouse, will not go away; nor the bodiless bird-winged figure with a burr for a head, a thistle for a hat, and a falcon upon his wrist; nor any of those fish-demons flying in the aqua sky; nor the pig-headed man with a dulcimer under his arm; nor even the one whose head is a bugle farting air. Wherever those visions came from, however they came, they retain a sense of actuality which makes them, once seen, veritable things of the world. You cannot fully comprehend the inventions of Hieronymus Bosch; but you cannot unsee them either.

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The Wayfarer

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The exhibition space was in half-darkness, lit only by lozenges of golden light disposed along the walls or else, free-standing, in the centre of the one or other of the several rooms: these were in fact light-boxes, designed especially for the show, within which the paintings were at once exhibited, illumined and protected. The place was full of people, a murmuring, indistinct crowd, like pilgrims, passing reverently from lozenge to lozenge. They were well-dressed, well-heeled, middle-class, middle-aged or older; some in wheelchairs.

It was both intimate and estranging; you had to wait until a gap opened up into which you could insert your head, as it were, and thereby feast your eyes upon a painting. And you didn’t have long, either, because other bodies, other heads, were crowding in behind you, awaiting their turn. Sometimes the faces around me, with their bulbous eyes, their intent gazes, their unmistakeably Dutch caste, resembled those in the crowd scenes of the late medieval paintings we were looking at. I would glance from painting to spectators and back again, feeling five hundred or more years collapse in that simple act.

The first painting I saw, and the first in the show, was a small round work on a wooden panel showing a whey-faced man looking back as he walked away from a ramshackle building. I cannot improve upon Ingrid D Rowland’s description: Clad in rags and mismatched shoes, the peddler bows under the weight of his pack, a wooden spoon and a catskin hanging from a loop, perhaps to advertise the wares he has to offer. His left hand clutches a traveler’s hat with a spool and bodkin stuck into it—he can double as a tailor if need be. With his right hand, he wards off a yapping dog with a cudgel-like walking stick; his bandaged left leg suggests that he has already been bitten.

The road ahead is blocked by a wooden gate; opening it represents some kind of deliberate choice. The dilapidated house behind him is evidently a brothel, with its long johns hanging in a window to dry, its symbolic broken clay pot on a pole, its pigs feasting at the trough, and its sign ‘The Swan’ (male swans are rare among fowl for having penises). A woman in the door of the Swan is being fondled by a mercenary soldier who has left his long pike leaning against the run-down façade, while another customer urinates against an outside wall. Another woman gazes out from an upstairs window. Has the peddler just left her company or did he pass her by? Did she buy something from him? Did he buy something from her? In the spindly tree above the peddler’s hooded head, an owl eyes a titmouse; just behind the gate, an ox and a magpie stand guard.

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Some people think the eponymous Wayfarer in this painting—a thin man with bright intelligent eyes—is a self-portrait of its maker, Joen van Aken, better known to the world as Hieronymus Bosch. He was a member of a family of painters who moved from Aachen (= Aken) to Den Bosch in the 1420s and established themselves as artists and artisans there. Joen probably lived his whole life (1450-1516) in the town from which he took his professional name. When he was a child he saw a wildfire, which seems to have formed a memory trace, or image, that stayed with him and recurs often in his work: the conflagrations of Hell. Aged about thirty, he married a woman of property, Aleid van de Meervenne, and they moved into a large house (still there) on the north side of Market Square, where he set up a studio.

Subsequently, like his father and his grandfather before him, he joined The Brotherhood of Our Lady, signing its books in 1487. The next year he became a sworn brother, one of an elite of eighty, a role which obliged him from time to time to feast the whole fraternity. In 1489 he bought twenty-four pounds of beef, presumably for a banquet of this kind. His wife continued to deal in real estate and, childless, their wealth and status continued to grow. Joen pre-deceased Aleid, dying of plague in 1616; she followed six years later. This, then, is some of the little we know about the burgher, artisan and upstanding citizen who created the astonishing visions of the painter Hieronymus Bosch.

The exhibition at the Noordbrabants gathered together nineteen of the twenty-five known drawings, and twenty of the twenty-five attested paintings, for a show commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of the death of the artist. There were also some works by the School of Bosch: imitations or copies or formerly misattributed paintings. All the big ones were there save The Garden of Earthly Delights, which the Prado in Madrid would not allow to travel because it is too fragile (they sent The Hay Wain instead); and The Temptation of Saint Anthony, in Lisbon, which the Portuguese declined to lend, apparently because it is such a major tourist attraction.

It’s not my intention to attempt a review of the exhibition, just to make a few points. The first is that you can only understand the quality of a truly great painter by seeing their actual works: nothing could have prepared me for the sheer sensuous delight there was to be had in looking at these paintings, which have a glitter and a glow, an active scintillation of light, built in to their very material: some of it accomplished by a superb and judicious use of white highlights. These spirited, swarming surfaces were to me more enticing, and even more remarkable, than the paintings’ famed and splendid grotesquery.

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A second, related point, is that Bosch was a magnificent colourist. When I think back on that show now, a year later, I see particularly the pinkish red he was so fond of using, which seemed to migrate from painting to painting, so that it was as if swathed around us in the half-dark. It is the pink of the curtains in Death and the Miser; of the dress worn by Saint Julia (and the colour of the robes of her mourners and tormentors) in the picture of her crucifixion; of the clothes of God no less than the outré palaces and fountains in The Garden of Earthly Delights. (There was a replica of the left panel of this in the show, its ornate pink urn in the pond like an eerie prefiguration of the Mandelbrot Set.)

The third point relates to the drawings: among them were some sheets of fairly obsessive studies of people Joen apparently encountered on the streets of Den Bosch. Among them were cripples, beggars, soldiers wounded or maimed in war, old women whose hard lives had turned them into semblances of witches or crones. These were realistic drawings which nevertheless inclined vertiginously towards the fantastic and made me wonder if the extraordinary composite and often distorted beings we see in a typical Bosch painting were not simply exaggerations of tendencies he had observed in the lives going on around him? In a similar fashion, his observation of birds and animals—both domestic and wild—was acute to an almost hallucinatory degree; and, again, his habit of combining the human and the animal in the one being seemed more like the elaboration of an affinity—don’t we all resemble some bird or dog or fish or pig?—than the inventions of diabolism or intoxication.

One last remark: of all my many responses to this wonderful show—full of works you could look and look and look at, and never exhaust—the strongest, and the least predictable, was the tremendous feeling of uplift, of grace abounding, that came when I saw the four last works, pictures of heaven and hell, and especially the last one of all, which shows human souls at the ends of their earthly lives entering into eternity. To quote Ms Rowland again: we are destined to move through life as weary, wounded wayfarers, a few of whom, in another of Bosch’s indelible visions, will be led by angels through a luminous heavenly tunnel before we leap naked into a burst of absolute light. 

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York

NY_YAG_YORAG_1257.jpgIt took longer to drive from Hull to York than I thought that it would, mostly because of delays occasioned by road works. I had the constant sense that I was driving up a U-shaped valley scoured out by a glacier aeons ago; remembering the schematic drawings from a geography textbook we had at Kuranui College. The word moraine recurred in my mind: what is a moraine? The compacted debris left behind by a glacier. Anything from gravel and sand to great boulders. Later I found out that I was indeed traversing a glaciated landscape. There had been at least three big freezes during which the ice advanced over the last two million years; that is, during the Quaternary, or the Fourth Age.

I drove straight into the heart of York without really knowing what I might find there. The streets became narrower, the traffic slower, the congestion worse. I passed through Monk Bar Gate—where a portcullis was still in use only a few decades ago—into the old city. It was a maze without a centre, a labyrinth of crooked streets in which the houses on either side leaned out towards each other as if intending to touch foreheads. Tiny though. In no time at all I was through to the other side and crossing the Ouse Bridge (not the one Lycett painted, its successor) into that part of the town on the other bank of the river. Clearly the only way to deal with the place was on foot. I turned the car around, dived once more into the maze and found a park in a cobbled square. Saint Sampson’s, it was called. Some Welsh divine I believe, not the strong man of the Bible. I was still early for my appointment; and along the way had glimpsed a prodigy.

And indeed I do not really know how to write about York Minster. Or, to give its full title, the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter. It seemed both monstrous and sublime; at once an act of supreme arrogance and supreme piety; a spectacular example of hubris as well as of loving devotion. Like something out of a nightmare or a dream, I could not comprehend it and, as in a dream, it provoked mingled fascination and alarm. Dread, almost. How did it exist? Who built it? Why? In truth, it did not seem as if men and women alone could have made this thing. There had to have been some larger power guiding them: scaffolding upwards / towards the glory of god. And I say this as one who does not believe.

Gothic cathedrals like York Minster took centuries to build. This one was begun, over the site of a Roman fort called Eboracum (the Place of the Yew Tree), in 1220 but was not completed, or consecrated, until 1472. Two hundred and fifty-two years, then. And in fact work upon it is going on still. Down one side, under blue tarpaulins, masons were working at their benches, carving out replacement pieces for those parts of the building where the stone has rotted or fallen. I could hear the tintinnabulation of their hammers and chisels as I wandered around the outside of the Minster, trying to grasp its aweful majesty. The gargoyles grimacing down derisive of my attempt.

Inside was revelatory in another way: like frozen music, perhaps, the image of a Bach organ fugue, say, bodied forth in stone. The multi-facetted, multi-hued light falling through stained glass windows onto the buttery gold-coloured stone gave a heavenly cast to the shining air. It was impossible not to feel awed and yet somehow abased at the same time. Your humiliation in the face of such grandeur was an intrinsic part of the experience. I even thought I could hear angelic choirs singing, though the actual sounds were just those of tourists satisfying their vague curiosities. And I didn’t even go properly inside: there was a charge, fifteen pounds I think, but that wasn’t why. I didn’t have time, because I was due over at the art gallery for my rendezvous with Joseph Lycett.

I was met there in reception by a young woman called Fiona Green and she took me upstairs and into the stock room. The big metal doors had to be locked behind us in case I turned out to be a thief. The painting was on a large easel, looking small and unassuming. And small it is: only 17.8 x 23 cm. It is painted on a wooden panel and—something not apparent in the reproductions—the panel is cracked. A vertical line ran almost all the way from top to bottom. Fiona let me hold it briefly in my hands so I could look at the back, where the crack was more obvious. It was signed there too. It is a very odd feeling to hold in your hands an artefact made two hundred years before by someone about whom you know as much as anyone else on this earth does.

The Old Ouse Bridge was built in 1566, after its predecessor collapsed and fell into the river, drowning a dozen people. It featured what was said to be the fairest arch in England and became one of the sights of the king—or queen—dom. The ubiquitous Daniel Defoe wrote that it was vastly strong, and has one arch which, they tell me, was near 70 foot in diameter; it is, without exception, the greatest in England, some say it’s as large as the Rialto at Venice, though I think not. There was a chapel on the nether side, with council chambers adjoining and the notoriously damp city gaol below; but after the Reformation the chapel was turned into apartments. This Tudor incarnation of the ancient crossing was demolished around the same time Lycett painted it: probably not from life, but after a print of some kind.

The view he took is from the south-west, with the former chapel, the council chambers and the gaol looming balefully on the right of the image. Their rooves are sprouting weeds, suggesting dereliction; in the immediate foreground is a low tree on the river bank, spreading its leaves over the water where reeds also grow. In the middle ground we see half of the main arch of the bridge, bent like an elbow, with the semi-circular image of its curved underside partially reflected in the blue-green, rippling river below; which seems to rise, in an uncanny fashion, towards a skewed vanishing point, suffused with yellow light, at the back of the picture.

On the other bank a line of sandy brown brick buildings, diminishing in size along the river bank as the row recedes, drinks the late sun; though these buildings are not red, they leave a peculiarly rubicund after-image in the mind. In the foreground two boats, one with human figures standing therein, are moored beneath the walls of the tallest of the structures on that further shore. The sky, which takes up nearly half the picture, is a premonition of one of Lycett’s Australian skies: grey clouds giving way to white cumulus and then to a blue which itself becomes suffused with yellow at that unseen point where river joins sky.

The strangeness of the picture is in part an effect of the starkness of that receding line of buildings, their black windows and blank anonymity before the gloaming water and under the luminous sky: like prison walls, within which there can be nothing except confinement. Meanwhile the river itself, which flows upwards and at a diagonal to the natural line of sight, takes us away from all this into a golden haze where, perhaps, felicity may be found. The last glimpse of this lost horizon comes at the far right back of the picture, through a minor arch which stands below the point where that dank, slimy prison was. Whether Lycett is commenting upon his own imprisonment isn’t clear however: he may not even have known this was the site of a gaol.

After leaving the gallery I wandered round in a daze. Looking at art can have that effect upon you, and I had looked at a lot this day. I had a bite to eat in the Kings Manor, so-called, actually a medieval abbot’s house, and then went back to the Minster. Round the side, unnoticed before, was a white Roman column, leaning ancient in the cold blue air. Two emperors died at Eboracum, including Constantius, the father of Constantine the Great, who brought the Empire to the church. He, the son, was proclaimed here by the Sixth Legion; there was a statue of him too, with his sword, outside the south transept of the Minster. Somewhere else I came across the ruins of Saint Mary’s Abbey, the grey stones, like decayed teeth, protruding out of the green sward before the north and west walls which are all that remain.

Nowhere in England, wrote artist E Ridsdale Tate in 1929, is there another spot so full of charm as York and where in York is there a more charming spot than the Gardens of the Philosophical Society, in which stand the beautiful fragments of that once powerful and noble monastery of St. Mary’s. Here we must leave the venerable pile in the evening of its glory. I too left it there. Avoiding the temptation of having a drink in the wonderfully named House of the Trembling Madness (rare Belgium beers) I found my way back to the car which, happily, did not have a ticket under the windscreen wipers. And then, not without losing my way couple of times, I drove back to Hull. There, in the Royal Suite at the hotel, the Hull Literary and Philosophical Society, founded in 1822, was meeting to hear a lecture about J Arthur Rank, the film mogul; he was the son of a Hull flour merchant. But I was too tired and did not attend. I ate then went up to my room and fell into bed. Tomorrow I had to drive to Essex.

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The Man Who Never Was

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At the appointed hour, I sought out the office of art historian Jennifer Montagu, where we were to be joined by her colleague, Medieval historian David Chambers. The winter light outside was fading fast and the darkening, south-facing room—a simulacrum, almost to the point of parody, of an absent-minded professor’s cluttered, untidy yet richly populated nest of obsessions—was extremely, not to say soporifically, well-heated. I felt as if I had somehow entered the mind of an owl (owls are opportunistic nesters): an impression augmented by Jennifer’s large, humorous brown eyes behind the lenses of her thickly-glassed spectacles.

She was something of an iconoclast herself; with a paradoxical and distinguished family history. Her father was Ewen Montagu, lawyer, judge, writer and, as the naval representative on the Twenty (XX or Double Cross) Committee during the war, had, with the secretary to the Committee, an eccentric RAF officer called Charles Cholmondeley, conceived Operation Mincemeat. Ewen’s book about the operation, The Man Who Never Was, came out in 1953. Acting on the basis of the famous Trout Memo—likening organised deception in wartime to fly fishing—written in 1939 by Ian Fleming, the British in 1943 arranged to have a dead man dressed as an officer in the Royal Marines and dropped into the sea from a submarine, HMS Seraph, so as to wash ashore near Huelva on the Atlantic coast of southern Spain.

He had a packet of official papers in a briefcase chained to the belt of his trench coat. The papers included references to plans for the imminent, though fictional, Allied invasion of Greece, the Balkans, Corsica and Sardinia—as opposed to Sicily, where the actual invasion would and did in fact take place. In the briefcase there were also proof copies of a (real) official booklet—Combined Operations, 1940-42—to which General Eisenhower was asked, for the American edition, to write a preface. In the fiction, the dead man was a courier carrying these things from London command to Allied generals in North Africa—Mountbatten to Eisenhower—and a passenger in a plane which had been shot down somewhere over the ocean. His papers identified him as Captain, acting Major, William Martin, a name and rank chosen for their plausibility, their ordinariness. There was a single black eyelash affixed to the envelope of official papers, so that, when it was returned to the British by the neutral Spaniards, they would know if it had been opened or not.

In the so-called pocket litter—a photograph of his fiancé, two love letters, a receipt for the purchase of a diamond ring, a letter from his father, bills, stamps, theatre ticket stubs, a silver cross, cash, a St Christopher, cigarettes and matches—given the dead man, Montagu manufactured an entire life history for the mythical Major; whose body was in fact that of a Welsh itinerant called Glyndwr Michael who had died of liver failure in St Pancras hospital on January 28 that year and been kept in a freezer for three months or more. He had been living rough, sleeping in an abandoned warehouse, where he got so hungry he ate crusts of bread baited with toxic paste and placed there to kill rats; and succumbed to liver failure consequent upon phosphorous poisoning.

Phosphorous, unlike arsenic, decays in the body; the corpse, even after a post mortem, could plausibly be thought to be that of a man drowned after the aircraft carrying him had crashed into the sea. Major Martin’s body was duly recovered by a local fisherman on the Atlantic shore, the German secret service, the Abwehr, was informed, the contents of the briefcase, the packet and the pocket litter read, scanned and evaluated by them in Cadiz or Seville or Madrid before being returned to the British. The Major, a Roman Catholic, was buried with full military honours in the local cemetery. This improbable deception, which reached up the Nazi chain of command as far as Hitler himself, was entirely successful.

Ewen’s younger brother, Jennifer’s uncle, was also a distinguished, if eccentric character. He was the film maker, communist, table tennis champion, wild life conservator and spy, Ivor Montagu, who in 1959 was awarded the Lenin Prize for services to socialism; but is probably better remembered as an innovative and dedicated worker towards the establishment of a genuine British film culture. He was variously a movie critic, a screen-writer, and Alfred Hitchcock’s producer in the 1930s. Both Montagu boys were members of an exceedingly wealthy family of Jewish bankers, awarded the Baronetcy of Swaythling in 1907.

Jennifer had studied political science at Oxford after the war but, because of her interest in sculpture, gravitated towards the Courtauld, where she became a protégé of Ernst Gombrich, who pointed her in the direction of French artist Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), about whom she wrote her dissertation. Did you know, Gombrich asked her, sounding very Warburgian, that there is a history of facial expressions? Le Brun had lectured in Paris on the subject. I am very unfaithful to my artists, Jennifer said, but I always keep them as friendsI like lesser-known artists, those who raise interesting problems, more so than the famous or popular ones. I am the sole survivor of the Society of the Enemies of Bernini, which I founded with Anthony Blunt. I liked her immediately. She made me laugh.

David Chambers, meanwhile, was a quiet, civilized, modest man with a razor wit which he kept mostly hidden. He had come to the Warburg as a reader in 1968: a tall figure sped into the Reading Room and bore down on me. He introduced himself as the librarian and said that he had liked my book—a slim volume boiled down from a thesis. I was struck dumb, first to meet a librarian who read books, and second to meet one who had noticed my book and could bother to come and find a mere new reader to say something nice to him. David went on to remember Joe’s abiding love of Italy; and recalled times he spent there traipsing alone by train with an empty suitcase, making personal contacts and collecting rare publications or periodicals to exchange for the Journal. He was, as the Italians say, un uomo generoso.

After David left, Jennifer and I talked on, about all sorts of things, including her father and her uncle. Ivor, she said, was definitely a spy. As for her father, she said that his book was not as good as the recent one by Ben McIntyre, Operation Mincemeat. She was one of those people with whom conversation flows in an intensely pleasurable manner which does not necessarily leave substantial memory traces behind. It was almost as if, over the twenty odd years that separated us, we were flirting, albeit decorously, with one another. I would have liked to have stayed for longer, but the room was so hot it was starting to make me yawn. I stood up, ready to go. And then I made what might have been a faux pas.

I knew someone in Wellington was writing a biography of Ivor Montagu. Russell Campbell, researching Montagu’s intelligence activities in London during the war, had sent me a few snippets of information about John Platts-Mills, who in 1943 had acted, unsuccessfully, on behalf of Dave Springhall, a communist journalist and editor tried and convicted of spying for the Russians. For some reason, I felt obliged to mention Russell’s project to Jennifer; why, I don’t quite know. After all, what could she say? She blinked behind her spectacles. Yes, she said, I have had an email from him; and that was that.

It’s a curiosity, perhaps a perversity, of biographical research that, when you come across someone who has little or no interest in discussing family matters, it is impossible not to admire them for it. We shook hands; and Jennifer gestured towards the now dark window. I think, she said, I will go out and smoke a cheroot in the car park. And after that? I asked. After that I will come back here and work until late. I do my best writing at night. She was 84, almost 85, years old. I kept thinking of her, puffing away down there in the car park, or writing in longhand in a tiny space cleared on that magnificently cluttered desk, as I made my slow way, in the cold evening air, back to Lisson Grove.

brian norton

images : cover of the 1953 edition; Glyndwr Michael before he was tipped into the sea.

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Trust Deed

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The Warburg Institute is housed in a squat, square, five storey purpose built structure on Woburn Square in Bloomsbury. It’s been there since 1957 and, although many people have complained about its ugliness, I liked its graceful and capacious proportions. I was early, of course, so I wandered around outside for a bit, trying to pick up a trace of something, I’m not sure what. Virginia Woolf’s perfume perhaps. Leonard’s aftershave. I hadn’t been in Bloomsbury before. A fine rain drifted down from a grey sky but it wasn’t really cold. The grass in the small rectangular park was wet, though, there were muddy puddles everywhere, the trees were bare, yellow and purple crocuses, far too soon, were trying to push their way up into the February air. Most of those passing looked like students heading for class—the Warburg, like the Courtauld, like King’s College, is part of the University of London.

My meeting at ten was with Jill Kraye. An American, Chicago born, but in manner more like a New Yorker, she had studied at Colombia University before joined the Institute in 1974 as Assistant Librarian and has been there, in various capacities, including Librarian, ever since. Most recently, as Professor of the History of Renaissance Philosophy.  She was intense, engaging, immediate, as she took me from reception up a wide, generously proportioned marble staircase with polished wooden banisters and along a corridor to a small office on the right at the end: not hers, but that of Charles Hope, a former Director, whom she thought I might like to meet as well. He was a suave fellow, an Englishman, with impeccable manners; inadvertently, or perhaps advertently (how do you tell?) intimidating. I spent about an hour with them, listening rather than talking, as they held a conversation, for my benefit, about Joe Trapp.

And much else besides. The Warburg has been in crisis over the last few years, because the university, allegedly, was attempting to sell it; or rather, sell the building it is housed in, after merging its collection—350,000 books, a like number of photographs, a unique, hundred year old archive—with that of the Senate House library in nearby Malet Street off Russell Square. In this scenario, the Institute as a home for scholars and students would, presumably, have gradually disappeared. The plans, whatever they actually involved—the UOL denied any intention to sell—were greeted with outrage. Petitions were drawn up and signed; letters were written; there were editorials and news articles published. Charles Hope explained that he had abandoned his scholarly work and dedicated himself, over a period of years, to coming to a precise understanding of the legal position of the Warburg vis à vis the University of London.

The Institute and the UOL ended up, in 2010, going to court to seek a determination upon the legalities of the relationship. Money was of the essence: the proximate cause of the dispute had been the university’s decision, in 2007-08, to more than double the so-called estates charge on the Institute. They said this ‘space charge’—which somehow rose from about £8,000 in 2006-07 to £643,000 in 2007-08—was in line with normal full-economic cost principles used by other universities. In other words, the UOL was massively inflating the rent they charged the Institute for the use of its own building—the construction of which they had committed to many years before in the founding Trust Deed. Along with concurrent funding cuts, this would have left the Warburg in serious financial difficulty. That, too, in the way of such things, would most likely have been used against it: see, it’s not economically viable, we need to do something about that.

The Trust Deed was signed in November 1944 by the UOL and Eric Warburg, then a major in the US army, on behalf of his family. Viscount Lee of Fareham, he who was there at the founding of the Courtauld, was also a party to this agreement (he is the ‘Another’, above). It was typed up—courier not pica—on a single sheet of cheap wartime paper, using both sides of the page, and listed the contents of library as about eighty thousand books and a large collection of photographs (no mention of the archive); and stated that the University will maintain and preserve the Warburg Library in perpetuity in accordance with this Deed  . . . and will keep it adequately equipped and staffed as an independent unit.

What could be clearer than that? The High Court, in its wisdom, ruled that the university did indeed have an obligation to keep the Institute equipped and staffed. Mrs Justice Proudman (that name!) further said that the levying of space charges is not, to my mind, permissible. The imposition of university-wide space charges flies in the face of this provision as it merely treats the Institute as a constituent part of UOL without regard to its special character or its position as an independent unit. The UOL was, however, given leave to appeal certain elements of the judgment; which, inter alia, it claimed as a victory. Why a university might choose to levy ‘space charges’ on one of its own colleges or other bodies is a conundrum. It looks very like another creative accountant’s method of cutting costs.

Charles said that, although the Institute seemed to have successfully fought off this attempt to vary the terms of the Trust Deed (the judgment was brought down in November, 2014), he wasn’t confident it was the end of the matter. Further efforts would likely be made to undermine the Institute which, people say, will probably end up crossing the Atlantic to find a safer home at some American institution. There is talk, for instance, of re-locating it to the Getty Centre in Los Angeles. Others have speculated it might return to Germany, perhaps even to Hamburg itself. Wouldn’t that be peculiar? The Deed was signed while V1s and V2s were exploding into the streets of London; now, the UOL seemed determined to accomplish what the Nazis could not: destruction of the Warburg.

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Strand Lane Baths

drawing_of_roman_bath_in_the_strand_1841Predictably, I lingered too long at the Courtauld. By the time I left, I was short of time; and so, feeling a bit like the white rabbit in Alice in WonderlandI’m late, I’m late / For a very important date—I scooted down the stairs and out and back up the road to that green glass fronted building. I remember a big room full of students milling about, a reception desk where they phoned ahead to say I was coming, a lift, stairs and corridors, most of all a sense of aged creaky structures concealed behind that ultra-modern facade—and then, towards the end of the last corridor, there I was shaking hands with Michael Trapp, Professor of Greek Literature and Thought, and being ushered into his long narrow book-lined office with its single window looking out over The Strand below.

Michael is the elder son of Joseph Burney Trapp and his wife Elayne, née Falla; New Zealanders who moved to England in the early fifties and lived on a boat on the Thames near Reading, where Joe had a job teaching English at the university. He was a librarian at heart, however, and in 1953 took up a position at the Warburg Institute in London; and gradually rose through the ranks until, in 1976, he became its director, succeeding the eminent Ernst Gombrich. He retired in 1990 but continued to write and publish until his death in 2005. His area of expertise was the early Renaissance. He was an authority on the English Humanists, particularly Thomas More; upon the history of the book, especially pre-Gutenburg; and on representations of the Italian poet, Francesco Petrarch. After his death one of his colleagues described him as the nicest man I ever knew. I asked Michael what he thought about that.

He smiled. The niceness was—discretionary, he said. My father did not always show what he felt or thought, because it was often not politic so to do. That reticence was of long standing, it may have gone back to his childhood, and was certainly apparent in his early days at Reading, where he would hesitate to deliver an opinion for fear of making an error or being taken for a fool. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have strong opinions—he did. He was just careful about how he expressed them. If you are going to come from an obscure town like Carterton, on the other side of the world, and penetrate to the very heart of the British scholarly establishment, as Joe did, you would need to show a bit of discretion, wouldn’t you?

Michael, an exceptionally nice man himself, brought up a couple of photographs on his laptop screen. The first was of a children’s Christmas party at the Warburg in 1958, I think. There was a long table where a straggle of kids sat wearing paper hats and crepe streamers before plates of jelly and cream. Joe was bending over solicitously to the far left of the image and, near the centre, a woman—perhaps Gertrud Bing—held two babes in arms. The one on the right was Michael. The other photograph was a solo shot of Joe Trapp the same age as I am now—Michael said. That is, about 60. He is sitting at a desk, turning in his chair to look at the camera. Thick black-rimmed glasses, a big nose, slightly bulging eyes; a formidable presence. The look is challenging, perhaps even suspicious: what do you want? Or even: what are you looking at? The image, emblematically, faded slowly to grey as our conversation proceeded.

As it did, a more complex picture emerged. A man of great learning and prodigious memory who was nevertheless uninterested in, or actively sceptical of, theoretical considerations; one who did not have a grand over-arching hypothesis to prove and was not engaged in the writing of a big book; who preferred to follow certain individual threads to see where they led and how they got to where they were going. His interest in visual representations of Petrarch, for example, was of this kind. He was an able administrator as well as a consummate scholar, and managed to satisfy his own intellectual needs despite the busy public career he followed. He was not, Michael said, a disappointed man.

In politics he remained, all his life, an egalitarian socialist. This wasn’t just an ideal. Part of what sustained him through all those years at the Warburg—effectively half a century, because he continued to work there after his retirement—was a belief in community. The basis of the Warburg’s collection was assembled by its founder, Aby Warburg (1866-1929), art historian and independent scholar, in Hamburg in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His interests were eclectic and esoteric and, once the Nazis came to power in Germany, the library, the institute and its scholars, many of whom were also Jewish, were all under imminent threat. The collection, and the scholars, were transported to London; the books, the shelving, even some boxes of pen nibs, crossed the North Sea in two little steamers. The institute has remained in England ever since; and, despite vicissitudes, survives today. Much of what Joe and Elayne did, Michael said, especially in the early days, involved looking after these aging and increasingly frail German scholars; but they were also intimately engaged in the work of ensuring that unique community had a future.

There’s always a point in these conversations, which are also interviews, where I feel called upon to explain myself. I said that this was precisely my interest in his father: as a conservator of culture, as one of those often obscure or unsung people who labour to do the work that must be done to keep a fine old tradition alive. In that sense, I said, I was just as interested in the Warburg as I was in Joe. The Warburg, I said, warming to my theme, seems to me to be about tracing continuities and identifying methods of change, especially in visual symbology, as a means of recording, maintaining and extending traditions founded in antiquity, persistent until today and viable in the future too—if we have one.

Michael agreed; but he was looking a bit alarmed. Yes, I had become too ardent. We changed the subject. He had spent the afternoon engaged in an ongoing project which is attempting to secure the preservation of an ancient site on university land: the Strand Lane Baths, allegedly a Roman survival but actually the remains of a cistern built in 1612 to feed a fountain in the gardens of the old Somerset House, then a Royal palace; the domain of Anne of Denmark, wife to James I. The cistern, after a period of neglect, had been brought back into use in 1770 as a public bath; the Roman speculation seems to have begun in the 1820s, as an advertising gimmick.

The Baths’ real fascination, says Wikipedia, lies in the changes of identity that have ensured their survival, from utilitarian infrastructure to publicly protected monument, and from cistern to cold bath to Roman relic. But even if they are not Roman, the fact that so many people have passionately wanted them to be is now as real a part of their history as their actual origins. That sounds very like something that would have interested your father, I said. Wasn’t he also concerned with tracing the history of misunderstandings, or misattributions? The curious way in which the past is as much an invention or a fiction as it is a record of fact? Yes.

Michael had another relic to show me. It was a Greek grammar, a small soft-back, which had belonged to Joe’s older sister Phyllis, and then to him. Both of their names were in the front, first hers, then his. There were annotations to some of the exercises therein; and a date: 1943. Phyllis, who was herself fluent, had taught Joe Greek while he was a pupil at Dannevirke High, where she was a staff member for a time. In 1943 he was turning eighteen and about to go down to Victoria University in Wellington to study. My father didn’t think his Greek and Latin were good enough to embark on a scholarly career, Michael remarked. But he did find himself teaching Latin grammar to students at the Warburg in the early days (Latin was and is compulsory there). They were evening classes, and when he came home afterwards, he would invariably say that he had been setting people on the wrong path again. That, too, was entirely characteristic: a genuine modesty expressed as ironic self-deprecation.

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