While Someone Else is Sleeping

Bruegel in Black and White: Three Grisailles Reunited (Courtauld Gallery, 4 February–8 May 2016)

I knew Pieter Bruegel the Elder from that W.H. Auden poem, about Icarus and life going on, and I went away and looked at reproductions of his extraordinary canvases back in the day to see what W.H. was on about. Most years I turn to Bruegel’s Battle of Carnival and Lent to illustrate Bakhtin’s ideas of carnival – or at least, the historical sweep.

The Courtauld Gallery has given us a unique chance – one of the works cannot leave the gallery – to look at his three authenticated grisailles for the first time.

No, I had no idea what they were either.

A grisaille is a painting more or less in black and white, although shades of grey seem possible. Sometimes, I gather, in brown. These can be used to extraordinary effect – the depiction of night and darkness, perhaps, or a three dimensional impact on a plane. One of the locations of such works is on the closed flaps of altarpieces in Dutch churches – and so a religious subject is often presupposed and Hieronymus Bosch had already produced some of these. What Bruegel seems to have done is to lay down an area of white on wood – compare L.S. Lowry’s use of white paint to prime his canvases – a drawing added in charcoal or red chalk, a thin black wash added to most of the canvas and then Bruegel painted on top of that, presumably mostly in greys. The grisailles seem to have been painted in a hurry, with alterations whilst the paint dried.

Until the mid-twentieth century, two examples were known: The Death of the Virgin and Three Soldiers, with a third, A Woman Taken in Adultery coming up for auction in 1952 and eventually being bequeathed to the Samuel Courtauld Trust collection. Two of these clearly have religious themes, and the existence both of prints of these and of a Resurrection suggests that there is at least one more yet to be found.

catThe Death of the Virgin is dated c. 1562-5 and is a nocturnal, almost chiaroscuro, depiction of the dying moments of the Virgin Mary surrounded by worshippers, partly lit by a candle in her hands, but also luminescent. Everyone is in (then) contemporary dress, of course – it is an extra-Biblical interpolation. Life goes on, too, of course, a cluttered table and chair are at the end of the bed, someone is asleep in the corner and, best of all, a cat is in the prime position by the fire. These details show up better in the 1574 print version by Philips Galle, where the light levels are considerably higher and some of the awkward perspectives of a chair are rectified. On the other hand, that chair perhaps nods to Van Gogh to come. One the other hand, that underplays the religious significance of the light of Mary set against the candles and the fire.

A Woman Taken in Adultery is taken from the He-that-is-without-sin bit of John (8.1-11) – although why Christ is writing this rather than saying it out loud eludes me. Christ is leaning over on the left hand side of the picture, scratching in the dust in Dutch, his head just overlapping the woman, and the Pharisees are on the right of the picture, stones to the ready on the paving. Note Christ is either on a lower step or (I can’t quite tell from the perspective) there is a gap between his paving and the Pharisees’. There is a crowd in the background – some passing by, others gawping. The fact that Christ is writing with his right hand suggests this was an original work rather than a preparation for prints.

Pieter’s son Jan sent the grisaille to patron Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan, but the latter felt this was too generous, had a copy made in about 1825, and sent it back. Pieter Perret made a print in 1579 – again this is much light, with a foreground text – and Jan had painted a copy roughly 1597, which brings us slightly closer to the foreground foursome and isolated the crowd more distinctly. None of these have the vitally of Bruegel’s original. Pieter’s son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger, also copied the painting, apparently several times, with a colour one on display here. The realism and the individuation of the figures is at the expense of the spiritual dimension – it feels less religious.

The Three Soldiers (1568) seem not to be a religious subject – there is a drummer and a fifer and in the background a soldier with a flag. The best guess is that these are Landsknechte, mercenaries, which could have fought for Spain or the Holy Roman Empire. My dim and distant history A Level reminds me of the ongoing wars in Europe – the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, the Holy Roman Empire – and the forces of Catholicism, various flavours of Protestantism and the counter-reformation. It is perhaps a plea for religious tolerance? At one point, the grisaille was owned by the future Charles I, although it briefly left the royal collections during the Commonwealth, it seems to have passed from William III to a private secretary, William van Huls.

Two more grisailles round out the exhibition — The Visit to the Far (c. 1600), attributed to Jan Brueghel the Elder, and Frans Pourbus the Elder’s The Last Supper (c. 1570). The former had been thought to be by Pieter, but is reckoned to be inferior – a series of figures in a farmhouse, with a nurse and baby in the foreground. It may be a copy of a lost Bruegel painting, it may be a pastiche. Again the absence of a religious subject must be noted – but of course non-religious examples may have been lost.

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Bard Timing

I don’t think I’ve had a love affair with Shakespeare.

To me Marlowe is always THE playwright. Although I’m ashamed to note how few of his plays I have seen live.

There’s someone about the Bard that has always felt overwhelming, too much baggage, too much Other People’s Property. There’s his centrality to English Literature — I don’t think you could do O Level (now GCSE) or A Level without him. He even showed up in my Drama O Level. The Bard seemed to induce in me a critical cringe – how can you say anything new about him? With Marlowe, on the other hand, I can see the way the plays sometimes clank, and the critical editions tend to be more honest about editorial and other interpolations.

It perhaps should be no surprise that my viewing of Shakespeare’s plays in the theatre has been impacted on by set texts. Continue reading →

No Place Like Holmes’s

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four (1890)

May contain spoilers

If I could bothered to stand up and move a pile of books and a chair, I could probably tell you when I bought or was bought my Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes — I suspect it would have been toward the start of the Jeremy Brett adaptations although I suspect I read The Hound of the Baskervilles from the library at around the time of the Tom Baker one. I associate reading the complete poems of William Blake with waiting for A Level Results; I suspect reading Holmes coincided with my O Levels, and I risked bringing with it the same degree of geekishness I had brought to reading Tolkien — I knew that Watson seemed to have had two wives, his wound was through his leg into his shoulder* and he even seemed to change names. The continuity of “The Final Problem”, “The Empty House” and The Hound of the Baskervilles cause problems as during the period of real people thinking him dead, the fictional characters would know Holmes was actually alive (and the dates of the novel don’t work for its year or … something).

I’m less clear when I bought a pile — I think two piles — of Oxford Sherlock Holmes volumes, which presumably were busting UK copyright. I’m not sure I have a complete set of these, but I did find the second novel that is set in September 1887.

This is possibly a problem. Continue reading →

London Peculiar

Israel Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People (1892)

May contain spoilers

And this, I confess, is a novel that I hadn’t heard of, set somewhat to the east of the Clerkenwell of The Nether World, but in an impoverished area. I hadn’t heard of Zangwill – although apparently his The Big Bow Mystery (1891) was the first locked room mystery novel. He was the author of the play The Melting Pot (1908), a term which came to stand for the ethnic homogenisation of American society.

Whilst there seemed to be no solutions to the problems of Clerkenwell in The Nether World, whether state, religious or charitable, in Zangwill’s East End ghetto the community and beliefs of the Jewish immigrants and their children at least provide a safety net. The focus is mostly on the area around Petticoat Lane and a thinly disguised Princelet Street (I wonder if the synagogue glimpsed here is the one in Iain Sinclair and Rachel Lichtenstein’s Rodinsky’s Room?), with excursions to the West End, the British Museum and Kensington.

Continue reading →

Why This Is Clerkenwell, Nor Am I Out of It

George Gissing, The Nether World (1889)

Here be spoilers

I’ve been too busy to write this up in a timely manner, but here we go. I note that the notes in my edition were a bit haphazard; I couldn’t spot the asterisk for some, some foreign phrases go untranslated.

The opening is straight out of Dickens but the similarities shift quickly. Dickens I guess is our shorthand for the stratified nineteenth-century London – the orphan left alone in the world, the indifferent or cruel officials, the adorable heroine, the grotesques whether outside the law or the criminal. The novel begins with a rich old man in search of his lost family: the Snowdons.

Michael Snowdon has been in Australia (Magwitch?) and has inherited money from his dead son – he is in search of his other son and finds a granddaughter, Jane, neglected by Mrs Peckover and more so by daughter Clem Peckover. Michael will give Jane the money if she proves virtuous, but for the benefit of others rather than herself. The Peckovers have an eye on this money, as does (obviously), Michael’s estranged son Joseph and machinations begin to deprive Jane of any inheritance. Meanwhile, Michael engages Jane’s friend Sidney Kirkwood in his plans – a potential suitor for Jane but who ends up married to Jane’s other friend, Clara.

There are myriad other characters, trying to get by, competing for work and trying to track down places to live. The closest we get to seeing how the other half live is in a trip to the countryside; otherwise the action is circumscribed by Clerkenwell and parts of Islington. There seems to be no sanctuary to be sought in religion and the social housing that is established is described as being like barracks. The slums turn into opportunities for further exploitation. Radical politics are no help whatsoever. The few escapes into pleasure lead to further degradation – pubs seem gateways to alcoholism and ruin. A day out to Crystal Palace turns into a near riot and a fracas. Good intentions evaporate with the inheritance. A character’s escape through theatre leads to her permanent disfigurement.

George Gissing (1857-1903) had been born in Wakefield, but was educated from the age of twelve at a school in Alderley Edge and attended Owens College, a precursor of the University of Manchester. His university career was ended by his relationship with Marianne Helen Harrison, usually called Nell and allegedly a prostitute. Gissing apparently stole to support her and was sent down. After a month in hard labour, he went to Boston and Chicago in 1876, returning to London the following year with Nell. He self-published Workers in the Dawn (1880) with an inheritance, having failed to sell this or Mrs Grundy’s Enemies (1882 – although to be fair he sold this but the publisher refused to print it). He was successful with The Unclassed (1884), Isabel Clarendon (1886), Demos (1886) and Thyrza (1887), all accounts of working class London life. His relationship with Nell disintegrated, although he paid her alimony until her death in 1888.

Gissing lived on the edge of the territory of his novel – 5 Hanover Street, now 60 Noel Road, Islington – at a space of refuge and failed promise for some of the characters in the novel, just on the other side of the canal. Like Dickens, Gissing had wandered round the city to absorb its character, Richard Pearson arguing that “Sociology, anthropology, and ethnography were, from an early period, the moving forces behind Gissing’s thought and practice” (Pearson 2004: 40). The Nether World is a product of and maintained by The Upper World, although we don’t see that world here (although Upper Street is in Islington). There are moments: “In the upper world a youth may ‘sow his wild oats’ and have done with it; in the nether, ‘to have your fling’ is almost necessarily to fall among criminals.”

Gissing apparently became increasingly anxious about which side of civilisation and savagery the two worlds lay on – the Nether World is repeatedly described as brutal. But the project to “civilise” that brutality results in the barracks-like accommodation. Gissing as omniscient narrator declares “Really, we shall soon be coming to a conclusion that the differences between the nether and the upper world are purely superficial.”

The ending of the novel offers no catharsis, no eucatastrophe. Jane and Sidney come, by chance one year and thereafter by tacit understanding, to Michael Snowdon’s grave at Abney Park Cemetery:

In each life little for congratulation. He with the ambitions of his youth frustrated; neither an artist, nor a leader of men in the battle for justice. She, no saviour of society by the force of a superb example; no daughter of the people, holding wealth in trust for the people’s needs. Yet to both was their work given. Unmarked, unencouraged save by their love of uprightness and mercy, they stood by the side of those more hapless, brought some comfort to hearts less courageous than their own. Where they abode it was not all dark. Sorrow certainly awaited them, perchance defeat in even the humble aims that they had set themselves; but at least their lives would remain a protest against those brute forces of society which fill with wreck the abysses of the nether world.

Their missions will fail them – but the missions sustain them.

Andrew Whitehead gives an account of The Nether World as hell, with a useful comparison of Gissing to Dante. (Nell is Beatrice?) He notes Gissing’s familiarity with all of London, but the focus here is tight on Clerkenwell, with London expanding around it. He notes that Clerkenwell had been paid particular attention by a Royal Commission and was a centre for radicalism for centuries. Lenin was to edit Iskra there. It was to go through a series of waves of revival and failure – now I’d say it’s on the edge of hipsterdom and the poles of Labour represented by Corbyn and Blair. I know Tysoe Street (“It is a short street, which, like so many in London, begins reputably and degenerates in its latter half. The cleaner end leads into Wilmington Square, which consists of decently depressing houses, occupied in the main, as the lower windows and front-doors indicate, by watchmakers, working jewellers, and craftsmen of allied pursuits.”) from visits to the Olde China Hand (which doesn’t seem to gain a mention). The book sets a tone for London as Hell – will this be followed through?

Bibliography


  • George Gissing (1992) The Nether World, edited by Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics).
  • Richard Pearson (2004) “George Gissing and the Ethnographer’s ‘I’: Civilisation in The Nether World and Eve’s Ransom“, Critical Survey 16(1): 35-51.
  • Andrew Whitehead (2013) “George Gissing The Nether World (1889)”, in Andrew Whitehead and Jerry White (eds) London Fictions (Nottingham: Five Leaves Publications).