We’ve spent the last three days in London, a town we live near to but which we never get enough time to explore on a day trip. I lived here years ago, in both poverty and wealth, and it’s fascinating to see which things stay the same, and which change.
I needed some pigments for my fresco experiment and collected them from Cornellisens on Great Russell Street; unlike the internet companies which arrive, get bought out, change their name, get sold on, and then vanish, these craftsmen have been there since 1855. I have every expectation they’ll still be there next year too. All the wooden cabinets must be the same ones artists came to browse through around the time of the Crimean War, a turf war between the Russian and the European gangsters for what was left of the Ottoman Empire.
Louis Cornelissen, the founder of the business, is said to have been a Belgian lithographer living in Paris who left following the 1848 revolution, setting up in Drury Lane, initially dealing in lithographic colours and supplies, and reputedly moving to Great Queen St in 1855.
It’s interesting that the Hussar jacket Jimi Hendrix found in the King’s Road boutique I was Lord Kitchener’s Valet in 1967 dated from the Crimean war. And interesting also to note that in 1855 there was a public demonstration against the war by 1500 people in Trafalgar Square; it was called the snowball riot, because the crowd pelted buses, taxis and the police with snowballs to draw attention to the anti-war protest.
The Crimean exposed some severe weaknesses in the British army via fiascos like the Charge of the Light Brigade. A big problem was the “sale of commissions” in which the wealthy jumped to the top after military school, without any experience, or any feeling for the men beneath them, who they treated like expendable cannon fodder. This era saw an important leap in compassion for the wounded; Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole introduced more modern and humane ways of treating the injured in these terrible conflicts. The modern arguists immediately bring up massacres as if they were prized religious artefacts, like Pavlov’s dogs drooling at the bell, but if you’ve ever been to a hospital – and who hasn’t? – you’ve benefited from Nightingale’s religious instinct.
Interestingly, Nightingale was born to a privileged family but felt nursing was a call from God. She resisted wealthy and handsome suitors’ attempts to marry, feeling this would distract from her calling. And her family seems to have been engaged in humane efforts at least as far back as her maternal grandfather, a noted abolitionist. Perhaps there is a genetic link from morality to genius which can persist across two generations, not one as I had always supposed. She resisted intense pressure from society and the spite of her mother and sister in order to devote herself to learning as much medical science as possible. Sailing the Nile in 1850 she reveals her intense sensitivity to other-worldly ideas on seeing the Abu Simbel temple:
“I don’t think I ever saw anything which affected me much more than this. Sublime in the highest style of intellectual beauty, intellect without effort, without suffering… not a feature is correct – but the whole effect is more expressive of spiritual grandeur than anything I could have imagined.
It makes the impression upon one that thousands of voices do, uniting in one unanimous simultaneous feeling of enthusiasm or emotion, which is said to overcome the strongest man.”
At Thebes she wrote of being “called to God” while a week later near Cairo she wrote in her diary “God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for him alone without reputation.” Later in 1850, she visited the Lutheran religious community at Kaiserswerth-am-Rhein in Germany, where she observed Pastor Theodor Fliedner and the deaconesses working for the sick and the deprived. She regarded the experience as a turning point in her life, and issued her findings anonymously in 1851. [Wikipedia]
How fascinating to observe her modesty and hunger to serve others, her fluent self-expression, her willingness to renounce a life of ease within the aristocracy, and the inner convictions which gave her strength.
After my Cornelissen’s trip I visited the British Museum a few yards east on Great Russell Street. If you haven’t been there, nothing I say can convey the sight of some truly colossal statues, some of which have survived more than three thousand years. Especially interesting to me were the friezes from the Parthenon; as is well known, around 1800 Lord Elgin proposed to the British government that these marvellous sculptures be purchased from the Ottoman Empire and preserved in London, and received a reply which was “entirely negative in every respect.” This unimaginative group of cretins would have been almost the same ones finding fault in Babbage’s computer, three decades later. You see, some things remain the same, and the unimaginative intellect holds back progress in every generation.
Elgin was not out for personal gain; he realised the problem with the marble statues was that they were held in contempt by their disinterested Ottoman caretakers, and were being sold off to foreign dignitaries as fast as they could be chipped and hacked into manageable pieces. Some still turn up at auction here and there today, always with a slightly incomplete provenance. But nobody much appreciates what they see every day. Michelangelo’s David not only lost an arm to a hurled bench during a local riot in post-Renaissance Rome, but in the 1970’s hardly anyone among the tourist crowds paid it any attention at all, in its decrepit and fungal state. It had been abandoned to the elements by the local officials, themselves as self important and stupid as the ones in London who so appalled Elgin nearly two hundred years before. Art is not something well-paid tax collectors are particularly interested in, perhaps because it, and the affection it generates, tends to stand completely outside their control, a permanent monument to their insignificance.
Elgin therefore paid for them and had them shipped to London at his own expense – all told around £75,000 – and installed them in his Scottish mansion; later, hitting financial trouble he was offered only around half this sum by the British Museum, but made up the shortfall through the ingenious ploy of suing his wife’s, lover! He later divorced Mary and married Elizabeth, with whom he had four sons and three daughters, one of whom, James, was to become Governor-in-Chief of British North America, and Viceroy of India.
In previous times, the Greek reverence for the Parthenon went beyond all bounds. When the Turks occupied it around 400 BC and ran out of ammunition defending themselves against the irate Greek army, the only possible sources for new metal were the cores of the Parthenon’s columns. On hearing about their plan the Greeks actually sent them supplies of new ones to prevent this desecration, protecting something more important to them than life itself.
Having been to Athens many times, I agree that the new Acropolis museum, which offers climate control and the attention of dedicated restorers, should have these back. It would be a wonderful international gesture of goodwill, akin in a way to France’s gift of the Statue of Liberty to a young United States of America. Elgin’s attempts at securing them were not the acts of piracy they were later claimed to be; had they stayed where they were, it’s likely they would have ended up in a hundred different places and those remaining decimated by Athens’ terrible air pollution of the last 30 years. Beautiful though they are, I’m sure it’s time they went home.
The same day at the Royal Academy I was fortunate to see an impressive Impressionist private art collection, along with the original invoices, showing a Renoir purchased in 1945 for $100,000 ! This guy had serious money. And these pictures – perhaps 70 or more – have not been seen in international galleries before, making them all the more striking. Who he was, we’ve already forgotten. But the art remains.
While there I met a jovial Italian architect and his wife; purely by chance it turns out during his recent restoration of a church he found a hidden wall which held a 300 year old fresco. He explained how he had to restore the images and what he had learned about its construction. What a fluke to hear this! And what a wonderful town, in which one can meet people from such varied walks of life; he promised to visit to see my completed mural.
Speaking of which, a walk down Charing Cross Road took me to Henry Pordes Books, a world renowned second hand book store that my mother knew well during her time as a nurse at Guys’ Hospital in the 1940’s. See how these threads are coming together? Bear with me! Anyway, I knew the late Henry Pordes as a client of my travel agency in the 1980’s; a fascinating chap full of stories, as you would expect. The new proprietor was not much impressed with me when I asked for books on fresco. He shrugged. It was then I spotted a massive two volume limited edition print produced by the crew who restored the Sistine Chapel and asked if he could take it down for me to have a look. He glared at me with a suspicion cultivated from years of experience. “Before I do, I have to tell you it’s not cheap.” Anyway, I bought it and somehow it removed all the obstacles to an eternal friendship. Some things don’t change!
It was my trip to the V&A which moved me the most. All these tours, by the way, are free of charge, which seems so incredible that I’m several hundred feet into each building before I felings of guilt are left behind. In summary, this is a collection of religious artefacts from every period in recorded history, and some of the most beautiful statues ever wrought from solid marble. Each one is a miracle.
There is a monumental Koran from 1400 Egypt, and a similarly sized early copy of the Bible, all with lovingly created illuminations and vast protective binders. These were no throaway chiclits or arguist treatises, but works for generations, each easily the size of four drawing boards! Owning a book was once a very special thing indeed. And now? Meh.
I found eventually what I was looking for, a 1539 fresco entitled the Raising of Lazarus, by Perino del Vaga; the first fresco I have ever seen in real life. I could see that his pigments had been laid on especially thick, no doubt a secco,so that this was really just a painting on a stone background, but interesting nevertheless. Compare this to Michelangelo’s thin, decisive washes which became part of the stone; restorers say this subtle technique saved the pigments from salts which wanted to travel through the limestone. Where Michelangelo used heavier colours, in the shaded areas, you see more pronounced angry cracks as the salts wreaked havoc. But the highlighted areas of flesh are as bright as the day they were painted.
Next up were Rafael’s cartoons for the Vatican; it had never occurred to me that these full size preparatory drawings would be done in colour. Of course! The same pigments could be used, mixed with water as a binder, and worked into the paper, to be later incised and transferred to plaster.
All in all my conclusion is that the longest lasting, most awe inspiring works of man have been produced by his idea that he has a spiritual life whose dimensions dwarf the physical world. This feeling of grandeur is transmitted somehow through stone, marble, wood, plaster, paint, in words; lifeless materials which, when the mind of man impresses itself on them, can become things of beauty, outliving even the civilisations which spawned them. From where does that beauty come from? Only from the mind of man. If we find those things beautiful, we must also find the mind which created them equally beautiful, and from there, we could find their motivations and compare the difference between those creative, energetic and resourceful souls, and ourselves.
I don’t see much, if anything, in today’s society that will outlive us. Our electronics, our databases, our paperbacks, CDs and pre-fab buildings will be dust by the end of this century. All today’s critics so eager to vanquish fresh enemies will be forgotten, along with their immaculate point-by-point reasoning, their infallible logic, all lost to history. Who will want to preserve it? Nobody, because it has no beauty. Our works, at least, shall not condemn us in centuries to come, unless by a conspicuous absence.
What we can say is that we at least preserved these miraculous ancient monuments, from a time when people believed in something beyond themselves and that’s something to be proud of. For I think these works from the hands of long-dead craftsmen sacrificing their time for higher things will still be here in centuries to come, simply because people will want them to be, and take care of them accordingly just as they have up until now. Some things don’t change, and I find that very beautiful indeed.