Monday, August 15, 2011

Curiouser and Curiouser

Among Europe’s oldest museums, those in university towns are also among the best. University museums can be as quirky and inspiring as national museums can be pompous and dull. They can be provocative in the better sense, of teasing out a response through scholarly presentation rather than through trying to offend and overthrow. Those like Uppsala’s Gustavianum and Oxford’s Ashmolean are still true to their 17th century origins as ‘cabinets of curiosities’, sparking connections as much as reducing knowledge to order.

The Ashmolean Museum started life in London, as the personal collection of the Tradescant family, who opened it to public viewing at their home in Lambeth. Fortunately, it got away when Elias Ashmole acquired the collection and presented it to Oxford University in 1677. Since the 19th century it has been housed in an imposing classical building just off St Giles. The galleries to the rear have recently undergone a massive rebuilding that was long overdue. I remember them as a warren of tiny rooms and twisting stairs loaded with treasures like some great-aunt’s attic, difficult to access and impossible to navigate or comprehend.

Rick Mather Associates have designed a white Modernist shell around an atrium that finally allows the Museum to display its collections as it would wish, in twice the former floorspace. The theme is ‘Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time’. Galleries flow out from introductory displays that emphasise contacts through trade and migration and are stacked above one another through time, like archæological stratigraphy, culminating in a rooftop restaurant with views out over Oxford. The basement floor addresses museology itself, housing displays on the collection’s origins and on cross-cutting themes like conservation and materials. These are not new ideas – the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery in the former King’s Library offers a precedent for the basement and the National Museum of Scotland for the stratigraphy – but the overall result is a constantly engaging museum that can be read and understood at a glance.

Can it be criticised? Of course. Where did all the money come from, and why? The atrium is not just an atrium; it is the ‘Zvi and Ofra Meitar Family Atrium’, in big letters. The retreat of the public sector offers immortality to any individual or corporation with enough to allow them the pretence of being cultured. There isn’t yet a Coca-Cola Wing or a McDonalds Gallery but the writing is clearly on the wall.

The Modernist look is just too crisply impartial to be fit for purpose. In the surviving older galleries, artworks appear in the period settings in which they were meant to appear. In the new galleries, clinically white, that sense of immersion is lost. The gallery devoted to the museum’s founders would gain immensely just from plain wood panelling on the walls to restore some of it. All the old favourites are there – Powhatan’s mantle, Guy Fawkes’ lantern – but some are tucked away so obscurely as to defeat the purpose of exhibiting them at all. John Bradshaw’s hat, worn by him at the trial of Charles I and iron-reinforced as a precaution against assassins, is in a case at foot level, with no indication higher up that it would be a good idea to kneel down and look for it. Some of the decisions on lighting too are perverse, with objects flooded and their captions in the shade.

The cross-cultural emphasis starts to verge on political correctness in presenting what is in effect a merchant’s-eye view of human history, in which it is the Silk Road that matters and not the political entities along it. A history of trade is one that conceals the reality for most people throughout most of time, which is that they spent their lives largely in one place. It is a difficult balance to get right. The gallery that presents the post-Roman Mediterranean in terms of the successor civilisations around its rim – Rome, Venice, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Cairo – is thought-provoking but it’s as well that others enable specific blocks of culture to be explored, such as ‘England 400-1600’ or ‘India from AD 600’. A lot of thought has clearly gone into how best to tell the stories the collection’s range allows to be told. Objects remain, thankfully, central. There are no stories told that cannot be illustrated, which would be a misuse of the space. Could it have been arranged better? It may be too early to say but the layout is the very best layout one would expect of 2011.

The trip to Oxford was another enterprise of the Friends of Stroud District Museum and co-incided with an exhibition of grave goods from the Macedonian royal necropolis at Aegae, modern Vergina in northern Greece. I, and others, left puzzled that more was not widely known about these discoveries, made mostly in the late 70’s and at least as important as Tutankhamun’s tomb, which was then all the rage following the 1972 London exhibition. The objects included two intricate gold wreaths to be worn as head ornaments and numerous pieces of jewellery, such as gold discs bearing the distinctive multi-rayed stars or ‘Vergina suns’ that have now become, controversially, a Macedonian national emblem. Intricately carved ivories and some very modern-looking silver vessels recalled the legendary Macedonian banquets. There were reproductions too of the wall-paintings from the tombs. Classical Greek sculpture is renowned but here was a chance to acknowledge classical Greek painting and even suggest the artists’ names. You won’t see better before the Renaissance.

The tombs excavated include those of Alexander the Great’s father and son. Here is Macedonian history that is also the history of much of the world. Alexander’s name, from the word meaning ‘to defend’, survives in various forms right across his empire, from Aléxandros in Greece to Sikander in India. The learned Wessex princess, St Margaret, born in Hungary, took it into renewed exile in Scotland, where three mediæval kings have inspired every Alastair, Alec and Sandy since. From Byzantium, the name became a favourite in Russia. It was another Alexander, the 7th Marquess of Bath, who founded the Wessex Regionalist Party. There is no better place than the Ashmolean to reflect on the ripples of history that radiate from the actions of a single will.

Dramatic Interventions

Last month I joined a trip to Warwickshire organised by the Friends of Stroud District Museum. The first stop was Compton Verney, a country house in a Capability Brown landscape and since mediæval times the ancestral pile of the Lords Willoughby de Broke. Until 1921. Years of emptiness and neglect followed before the estate was rescued by Sir Peter Moores, of the Littlewoods empire. His vision was to create an art gallery, somewhere central, in a rural setting. The result is a good use for the house, albeit with the obligatory Modernist carbuncle added on one side, though the collection inevitably feels thrown together by a quick dash round the auction rooms to pick up whatever good stuff happened to be for sale.

Many of the galleries were shut for an event, so I cannot say whether the idea works or not. One group of galleries that certainly does is devoted to folk art, mostly British, mostly 18th and 19th centuries. There are wonderfully naïve paintings of people, street scenes and prize animals, examples of quilting, and of those three-dimensional painted wooden signs that would hang outside inns and shops in a less literate age to denote the name or the trade carried on.

One of two temporary exhibitions was devoted to Stanley Spencer. The most striking contrast in Spencer’s paintings is always between the landscapes and those who sometimes inhabit them. Buildings and gardens are observed in minute detail, every shadow and reflection captured perfectly. Into these scenes, Spencer’s people and animals intrude like balloons, unbelievably comic characters that also form the inspiration for Beryl Cook’s fat ladies (as she herself acknowledged). Their transience seems magnified by the style: the only question is whether they will burst first or float away.

The second exhibition explored Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s work in the area, remodelling the landscape for a galaxy of aristocratic patrons. Or, more precisely, to quote the title, it explored his work in ‘Middle England’. Not quite Mercia but a step up from the Midlands, presumably in an attempt to appeal to the international audience.

With other galleries closed, I was lucky enough largely to have missed what was billed as a series of artistic ‘interventions’, where ‘artists’ dress up or reposition others’ works to create new ones in a bid to be ‘provocative’ and ‘surprising’. It sounds insufferably like a bunch of satirical comedians whose fount of material is drying up, leaving only giggles and sniggers to keep the audience awake until the curtain comes down. Most folk would probably call it stretching a point at best, pointless vandalism at worst, but it does seem to be a coming trend. All the more reason to shut down the arts business altogether and get these narcissistic misfits to try doing a real job.

The other stop on the tour was another intervention, architectural this time. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon is an inter-war classic, the work of Elisabeth Scott, cousin of the Scott who designed the red telephone kiosk. During the Second World War, plans were made to evacuate Parliament to Stratford in the event of invasion, the theatre housing debates and nearby Charlecote earmarked as accommodation for Mr Speaker.

The big problem with Scott’s design was that it never worked as a theatre. The acoustics were awful and attempts to cram in extra seating made it more and more uncomfortable. I sat through Coriolanus in 1981 and while I remember little of the play I do remember the experience of sitting with my knees under my chin gazing down at some tiny figures on a stage badly obscured by the proscenium arch.

At last the Scott auditorium has been scooped out and replaced by one that works. It has been done with great respect for the historic building, though patched brickwork is patched brickwork and little can conceal the fact. The new observation tower, like a long neck paying homage to the Swan of Avon, is an inspired touch. The building’s complex history is best viewed from the other side, where neo-Gothic, Art Deco, Postmodernism or the latest dash of Brick Expressionism all vie for attention. It would have been simpler to demolish and start again. Much simpler. But instead Stratford has created a textbook example of conservation in practice, showing how to ‘preserve the best and improve the rest’. Look and learn.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Common Ground

In the late 19th century, England’s growing industrial cities began to cast about for clean water in the uplands. Birmingham Corporation and the infant London County Council both coveted the resources of the Elan valley in Radnorshire and in 1892 it was Birmingham that succeeded in obtaining the powers to acquire it and build the first of what are now seven dams on the Elan and its neighbour, the Claerwen. By 1904, water was flowing, entirely by gravity, 73 miles to the Frankley reservoir on the city’s edge. The mountains of Radnorshire drain swiftly into Mercia. Beyond the county’s eastern limit at Hergest Ridge, no higher ground intervenes this side of the Urals.

Though London lost, its ambition can only be admired. From the Cambrian Mountains to the capital is twice as far as to Birmingham. Today, it still seeks additional sources of supply from the Severn and Wye. Bristol too, despite its network of local reservoirs to collect the waters of Mendip, takes half its supply from the Severn via the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal.

Other losers included the communities of the old Elan valley, some 100 inhabitants displaced by the rising waters. The landowners were compensated; the tenant farmers were not. Among the buildings drowned were two small country houses, shown in evocative photographs in the Elan Valley Visitor Centre. One was Cwm Elan, where the poet Shelley stayed after being sent down from Oxford for writing The Necessity of Atheism.

Birmingham became the owner of 45,000 acres of water gathering-grounds in Radnorshire and its three Welsh neighbours, upon which were constructed the dams, control towers, roads, bridges, workshops and all the paraphernalia the project demanded. Including a new settlement, Elan Village. Beginning as an encampment of wooden huts, it had by the First World War become a tiny garden suburb with homes that would not look out of place in Bournville. Birmingham’s most distant council housing came complete with a school (below), the city’s arms carved on the bell-tower and its motto, ‘Forward’, underneath.

All passed to Welsh control with local government reorganisation in 1974 and then in 1989 into private ownership. A group of councils, led by Birmingham, challenged the arrangements for water privatisation, pointing out that they had never been compensated for the loss of their assets because the original transfer had been made within the public sector. They ended up the victims of a very artful conjuring trick. The regional water authorities that were to be sold had first been constituted as bodies made up of councillors from across their areas, then slimmed down in 1983 to bodies with a tighter executive focus, appointed by the Secretary of State, until finally they were described by the Minister responsible as “Companies Act companies in all but name”. An astonishing description of what at that time were not just businesses but public bodies with most of the extensive regulatory powers over water that today are held by the Environment Agency. The judiciary, naturally, ruled that Parliament could do as it pleased and the councils went away empty-handed.

Birmingham ratepayers saw more than their investment in water wiped out. When the electricity and gas departments were nationalised in the 1940’s, the outstanding capital debt was bought out too but not the value of the assets. When the Birmingham Municipal Bank merged with the Trustee Savings Bank of the Midlands in 1976, Birmingham councillors continued to sit on the board of the merged bank. But regional TSBs then combined into one national bank which ultimately floated itself on the Stock Exchange to raise capital for expansion, and to resolve the so-called “problem” that technically no-one actually owned it. Like most privatisations and demutualisations, it was free money, built up over generations, given away in one. On top of all this, the sale of council housing at outrageous discounts created the expectation of political payback and tied millions into debt-based finance.

In contrast, private owners of capital have always been treated with grovelling respect. Almost all of the Attlee nationalisations were funded by issuing Government stock, the interest on which was to be paid from the profits of the industries acquired. Coal was the great exception. The pits were paid for in cash because the mineworkers refused to go on working, even at one remove, for those whose greed had cost so many lives. Elsewhere, the deal was a very good one for investors. The financial decline of British Railways that led to the Beeching report in 1963 was partly precipitated by the need to pay interest on British Transport 3% Stock even in years when losses were made. Shareholders would have had to go without a dividend. Stockholders benefited from a brave new world of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’.

Under Thatcher, a policy arose of attacking every safeguard that prevented nationally, municipally and mutually owned wealth being shovelled into the pockets of the regime’s best friends. As a despotic Parliament repeatedly told equally elected bodies how to organise their affairs, respect for property rights became shamelessly one-sided. The point is taken. Fairness dictates that, when the wheel of political fortune has turned full circle and the common wealth is taken back into common ownership, not a penny in compensation need be paid. Not one penny. It would be unforgivably rude even to think of asking.

Holy Men, Holy Books

Minehead has three fine churches. St Peter, on the quay, was converted from a 17th century former salt store in 1910. St Andrew, in the lower town, is an elegant Victorian design by G.E. Street (left). St Michael, on the hillside (where else?), is 14th century with an elaborate 15th century tower and serves the thatched village that crawls up to meet it. One of its treasures is an oak hutch-chest, carved with heraldry and a quaint calvary, given to the church by one of its vicars, Richard Fitzjames (1440-1522). Another is the 14th century illuminated Sarum rite missal he owned. This, after many wanderings, was presented in 1949 to the church and is now displayed in an illuminable wall-safe, right next to the oak chest that still serves as a piece of furniture.

Richard Fytz Jamys – as the board of former incumbents on the wall spells it – was a remarkable churchman. His father was from Redlynch in Somerset, his mother from East Lulworth in Dorset. He and his brother founded the Free School at Bruton. He became Prebendary of Taunton, Warden of Merton College, Oxford, Rector of Aller and Vicar of Minehead, and then like other Wessex folk before him (Dunstan springs to mind) went east. He was successively bishop of Rochester, Chichester and finally London and was buried in Old St Paul’s. As Bishop of Rochester, he helped welcome Catherine of Aragon to England in 1501 for her marriage to Prince Arthur.

The Fitzjames Missal was bequeathed to his successor at St Paul’s, Cuthbert Tunstall (1474-1559), whose handwriting is probably that to be found on the last page. Here was a man whose roots lay at the opposite end of the kingdom. Tunstall is a village in north Lancashire, Cuthbert the name of Northumbria’s greatest saint, whose shrine is nothing less than Durham Cathedral. (It is recorded that St Cuthbert appeared to King Alfred in a dream, a legend recalled at Wells, where the main parish church and a paper mill both take his name.) Cuthbert Tunstall was born in Yorkshire of a Lancashire family and travelled widely before taking up his London see. Not long afterwards, he exchanged it for the more important see of Durham, also becoming the first President of the revived Council of the North.

At Durham were preserved the treasures of St Cuthbert, a unique collection of items associated with the saint, who died in 687. It is difficult to think of any other figure from so early a date who can be understood through so many personal objects. Still to be seen at Durham are his portable altar and his pectoral cross, set with garnets, and an ivory comb that may also have been Cuddy’s own. His corporax, a linen cloth used in celebrating the Eucharist, was long cherished as the Holy Banner of St Cuthbert, carried into battle against the Scots and by those pilgrims of grace in 1536 who by querying the dissolution of the northern abbeys so incurred King Henry’s wrath. A framed account in St Cuthbert’s at Wells tells of the banner’s end when Dean Whittingham’s wife, the sister of Calvin, “did most despitefully burn the robe in the fire”.

One other item survives, not in Durham but in London. What may well be St Cuthbert’s own copy of the Gospel of St John. It is a small item, pocket-sized, and not to be confused with the great Lindisfarne Gospels, made after Cuthbert’s death and in his honour, which have also found their way to the wen. The book is still in its original 7th century decorated red goatskin binding, making it the oldest intact book of European origin. And now it’s for sale.

The sellers are the Jesuits, based at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, who have owned the book since 1769. Since 1979 it has been on loan to the British Library, who are now trying to find the £9 million asking price. To raise interest among the Northumbrians, they have even conceded that they will lend the book to Durham for six months in the year. Not an ideal solution. A 1,300-year-old book deserves some rest if it’s not to deteriorate. Rest in Durham, with the rest of the treasures.

Just what does it have to do with London? And how did it get separated in the first place? Legally, or illegally? Now that digital copies can be made of all the great manuscripts, the case for gathering them together in one place has gone. It’s time to think again about context, about where such things fit as historical objects that tell a stirring tale. And that way, we may hope, subject to the right conditions for conservation and security, many, many communities will get the chance to provide their greatest past with a greater future.


The West Somerset Railway is England’s longest heritage line, linking the busy resort of Minehead to the big trains at Taunton. Or almost. The track is intact to Taunton, which is how rail vehicles join and leave the WSR. But passengers have to find some other way to get to the start of the service at Bishops Lydeard (left), 6 miles north of Taunton by road. Daft. Absolutely. The WSR carries many more passengers today as a heritage line than it did under British Rail. But it could so easily be making a contribution to the real transport needs of the area. Who is responsible for this colossal lack of vision and why are they still in a job?

Back at the start of the month, I travelled on the line to Minehead, admiring the vast amount of work put in by the volunteers since the last train under BR auspices ran in 1971. Stations are themed to represent various GWR and BR period styles and a number house small museums. There’s even a Southern station at Washford – reactions from Paddington unprintable – accounted for by the presence of the Somerset & Dorset Railway Trust. There’ll be an opportunity for them to relocate to the real S&D in due course, naturally. Minehead was in a world of its own – the island of Sodor – as it played host to a ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ day. I could have filled in my Junior Engineer’s Certificate and had it signed by the Fat Controller himself (above). But I can’t really spare the wall space.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Devil’s Fire

“Not to know what happened before you were born is to be a child forever. For what is the time of a man, except it be interwoven with that memory of ancient things of a superior age?”
Marcus Tullius Cicero, 46 B.C.

Le Mont St Michel is indeed the wonder of the western world. Only the transept crossing of its great abbey church sits on the rock itself. The rest is built up on strongly pillared crypts. And more crypts. All rising up to the gilded St Michael atop the spire, brandishing the archangelic sword that acts as the abbey’s lightning conductor. Many times down the ages the abbey has been licked by ‘the devil’s fire’, as the monks named those conflagrations that tore through libraries and living quarters.

Attached to the north side of the church is a group of buildings known, rightly, as the Marvel. It rises up the side of the rock in three tiers of vast rooms one piled upon another. The Mont has all the features of a conventional monastery but here they have to be arranged vertically, not laterally.

The ascending rooms reflect the mediæval social order, with stores and an almonry for the poor at the bottom, guest accommodation for visiting aristocrats in the middle and the monks’ own refectory (left) and cloister at the top. The same three classes of ‘working men’, ‘fighting men’ and ‘praying men’ who appear in King Alfred’s commentaries four centuries earlier. The cloister (below) is a remarkable creation, the original roof garden, leading out from the side of the church with sweeping views across the blur of sea and sand from which the Mont erupts.

The Couesnon river, which formed the boundary between Brittany and Normandy, runs just to the west, or does today, and so the abbey’s history has been predominantly Norman rather than Breton. Come the Revolution and the abbey’s suppression, power passed to the authorities of the département of La Manche. The abbey’s illuminated manuscripts were carted off to the municipal library at Avranches, where those that survived further pilfering are now displayed in a spectacular new setting. The abbey’s more mundane records fared worse, burnt to ashes when the 3,000 files of the archives départementales at St Lô fell victim to Allied bombing in 1944.

Libraries and archives are always vulnerable to accidents but when conflict calls they can rarely be assured of complete safety. In the 20th century alone there were grievous losses in Louvain, Dublin, Naples, Warsaw, Dubrovnik and Sarajevo, all the result of bombing, shelling or simply inter-communal rage. In 1943 the Germans systematically destroyed the State archive of southern Italy – Europe’s second richest after the Vatican’s – as revenge for the Italians switching sides. Those they most disadvantaged included their own scholars, for whom the Naples record office was the first port of call for research on Friedrich von Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, who held cosmopolitan court at Palermo in the 13th century. Just how cosmopolitan can be seen from his coronation mantle, used at every imperial coronation thereafter and now displayed among the Habsburg treasures in Vienna. It is made of silk from Byzantium or Thebes and embroidered around the hem in Kufic script by a Mahometan craftsman in the royal workshop. The strangest of all the symbols of German unity.

At Naples, the royal archivist, Count Riccardo Filangieri, spent the post-war years reconstructing whatever he could, tracking down books, journals, unpublished notes, contemporary copies in other archives, and then publishing the results to minimise the risk of future loss. But mostly the essence of archives is that they house unique documents. The more that is destroyed, the bigger the holes in history become. A fresh start, a new dawn, liberation from the past, is often the rallying cry of revolutionaries, but their true motivation is always that to be found embedded in Cicero’s warning.


St Malo was from Wales, and supposedly a disciple of the Irish saint Brendan. But he ended up in Brittany, where a whole town is named after him. (So too are the Falkland Islands, las islas Malvinas.) During troubled times in the 1590’s, the town of St Malo declared itself independent of Brittany, though as the arms over the gate (above) show, it did return to the fold, four years later. The saying goes that a malouin is a man of St Malo first, a Breton, maybe, and a Frenchman if there’s anything left.

At the end of August 1944, there was little left of St Malo within the old walled town. The man in charge had planned another Stalingrad, insisting, “I am a German soldier and a German soldier does not surrender.” Eventually he did, after two weeks’ pounding that pulverised the mediæval cathedral and the elegant sea-captains’ houses that nestled within the ramparts.

The rebuilding deserves to win every award going. Guide books tell us that we have to look closely to spot what is new. Not quite so. There is restoration, there is reconstruction and there is replacement. The finesse goes down as the hierarchy proceeds. But the concern for honesty is matched by a concern for context and even the replacements respect the rules on height and massing and are finished in traditional materials. The cathedral spire is the one structure allowed to pierce the skyline. To wander the still-narrow lanes crammed with slate-roofed granite buildings is to forget, and certainly to forgive, their sleek post-war lines. Would that Exeter or Plymouth had shared the vision.

St Vincent’s Cathedral (left) is the high point of the rebuilding, a dark Gothic cavern lit by way of astonishing glass in reds and yellows and blues, set in patterns that seem to flicker like flames. In side chapels are the plain tombs of two famous malouins – Jacques Cartier, the explorer of Canada, and René Duguay-Trouin, the greatest of Louis XIV’s admirals. Nameless black slabs (below) set in the floor mark the graves of the unknown. Small incised crosses in the top left corner identify those known, presumably by their grave goods, to have been clerics. French conservation practice has a remarkably elegant ability to convey the absence of things – of information, of certainty, of what once was. Perhaps it began at the Restoration in 1814 when the Bourbons tried to piece together again the royal necropolis at St Denis, without trying to deny the comprehensive nature of the vandalism that had befallen it. (The very word ‘vandalism’ was first used in 1793.) Actions can often be reversed; history cannot. To undo without losing sight of what was done is a supremely subtle art.

In one bookshop I was able to find some histories of St Malo with photographs showing the devastation of war. In Britain, such books would be shelved beneath the title ‘Local Interest’. Here the shelves were labelled ‘Regionalism’, even though books on St Malo dominated the selection. There could hardly be a better example of the value to be placed on the region as the perceived protector of the particular. In Wessex, the term has been abused to mean an arm of central government, created to dismantle the particular. We should fight for it not only because it is ours by right but because it is a language we share with so many in our position throughout the continent of Europe.