Shade and Shine – Discovering Compton Verney’s Suggested Forms

It takes but a moment to cast a fleeting glimpse into light’s depths and dalliances, to achieve a brief refocusing on suggested form, to recognise the suggestion of permanence in the impermanence of shadow and shade. Or maybe it takes more than that; an altered perspective perhaps, a receptiveness to other ways of seeing.

Whatever the key, whatever the impetus, the experience richly rewards the effort. An eye trained to look beyond and below perceives a world of suggested space and hidden meaning, not least a translation of corporeal into insubstantial art. Works viewed thus gift freely an understanding of their latent moods, their concealed energies and tensions. They reveal the warp and weft of their inner meaning, one not necessarily invested by their creator, but just as freely nurtured by our imagination.

And so to China …

IMG_2041The Heavenly Horse stands proudly, lips curled, nostrils flared. See the shaded wake of one hoof trailing through light. In that wake we hear the shadow bell toll, and see in its impermanence a silhouette of its physical brothers displayed close by. Shade shifts to substance; archaic bronze stands ready to receive the mallet’s blow. Now look again. Look at the suggestion of shape, and see sister to the stupa held aloft in the Heavenly Guardian’s hand. This proud creature does more than stand inertly, but in the shade it casts leads us to a better understanding of distant ritual and belief.

IMG_2048Now turn. Neither sun nor moon tracks the heavens of these spaces, and yet, bathed in the artificiality of engineered light, these galleries offer a life of sorts to those receptive to seeing it. A dozen horses and riders stand silent sentinel, gripped in ceramic inertia, as if still constrained by the ancient moulds that once gave them form. No hint of movement gives clue to their hidden purpose, or so it seems. But look beyond and recognise what shadow invests; movement and living presence, the once inert now blessed with an ethereal spirit, a living, animated, approaching presence. We strain our ears to validate the conceit; to detect the muffled approach we think we see. Hoof treading softly on ground, on air, on light itself.

And then to Northern Europe …

Here light and shade do more than gift life to the inanimate. Here, through light or the lack of it, we shift time. We see forwards from the perspective of centuries long gone, to years more recently passed, and days we may have known ourselves. We see, through a curious alchemy of reflection, projection and starvation, light’s ability to suggest new meaning, to transcend style. Styles deemed incongruous by period and tradition, here now invested in a single work; artists separated by geography and time, united in curious kinship.

Cranach BaconI step to the left, let through the natural light from Naples, and Lucas Cranach’s portrait mutates and transforms before me. The patrician’s features, once so benign, surrender now to the violence of light. Cranach’s subtle palette is brutally vanquished by sterile illumination. And at this instant two voices converse, two styles merge. Francis Bacon tears a fissure across the centuries, and through it daubs a screaming white smear across Cranach’s incredulous face.

IMG_2063And whilst we’re at it, let’s effect another introduction. Two souls born centuries apart; two souls born to similar afflictions, each consumed by the desire, not least the compulsion, to reveal nature from nature. Him? His chosen medium is wood. Her? Stone and plaster, but wood and metal too. His hands guided chisel and mallet, hers too. His fingers caressed limewood, hers marble and bronze. His language, archaic and foreign; hers, northern accented, modern.  But shadow reveals to us the lie. Shadow proves the commonality of their tongue. Shadow reveals in its depths the universality of their vision, the subtlety of their shared craft. In shaping the Female Saint’s drapery Tilman Riemenschneider pre-empts Barbara Hepworth’s sinuous curves by centuries, and in so doing reveals their true relationship; brother and sister in the sculptor’s art.

IMG_2059In the next-door room a curious illusion awaits. Shift your eye for a second. Shift it from the Madonna, shift it from the frame; train it on the colour-drenched wall alongside. And where then? Where to focus now? Ignore the Perspex surround that aims to confuse the eye, but consider the perverse dimensions of its shadow. In alarming contradiction it both plumbs the depth of colour, down to the ruddy pits of deepest red, and yet thrusts forward the image it holds in its embrace, urging us to step back and admire. In an alarming shift of dimension it both threatens to consume and propel the unwitting image. And our dilemma? Knowing how best to react; intervention or observation? I step back, look on, then walk away.

I walk back to my memory of recent exhibitions. Back to the memory of latticed light and shade. Back to where illumination braided shadow with radiance. Back to that place where the tide of light flowed out and drew me in. Back to the galleries, back to the shade and shine. Back to alternative ways of seeing.

Sebastian Cox Cropped 2

Images: All images are courtesy and copyright of Compton Verney.

The Winged Serpent and the Art of Seduction

The fearful consequences of the serpent’s temptation of the biblical Eve come down to us from the King James Bible, in graphic and stirring prose:

And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life

Such are the wages of seduction; brought to bear, generation upon generation, upon those that both promote and practice its shameful guile.

*  *  *  *  *

Now walk with me for a moment. Follow me into the Northern European gallery at Compton Verney. Stand with me before Venus and Cupid, and wonder. Wonder at the hand that painted, and the mind that conceived. Wonder at the meaning and the method. Not least wonder at the consequence, for viewer and artist alike.

Comton Verney 39

Venus and Cupid. Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1525 © Compton Verney

Lucas Cranach the Elder painted this image of Venus and Cupid around 1525. Consummate artist and businessman, he was in all likelihood responding to the dual impulses of man’s earthly weaknesses, conjoined in the single word desire; desire of the senses, and desire of money. One exchanged for the other; an artistic, entrepreneurial, and sensual  consummation of different men’s needs. For one the  gratified longing, for the other a heavy purse.

During Cranach’s lifetime the Protestant Reformation precipitated great change in Northern Europe, both social and artistic. In particular the accepted wisdom around the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image….” was reassessed by Luther, whose new interpretation proclaimed that if anyone revered art more than was deserved, the fault lay with the viewer and not the art or artist. Cranach, a friend of Luther’s, embraced this reinterpretation, if not with impunity, then with alacrity, enabling a previously unseen boldness and eroticism in his paintings; and satisfying a lucrative market for his works amongst a broadly sympathetic and wealthy clientèle.

So let us return to Venus and Cupid. Here she stands, at first glance an embodiment of womanly beauty, and object of male desire. She, or rather should we say Cranach, presents an image laden with the symbolism of the erotic. Venus is naked; well yes, but not quite. Whilst retaining little dignity, she nonetheless retains sufficient embellishments to fan the flames. The jewelled collar, the strategically positioned diaphanous veil, the vestigial traces of a painted-over hat, do no more than heighten the tension, and serve to animate the senses. Meanwhile Cupid, with transparent intent, strategically points his arrow.

But Cranach employs greater subtlety yet in his portrayal of the figure. The elongated, somewhat mannerist, yet strangely androgynous figure, serves to enliven our curiosity, and thereby feed our fascination. The purchaser, and now the later viewer, is invited to admire and desire. And yet Venus’ expression seems to belie this sentiment. Her face reveals a certain sweetness, if not innocence, although her eyes confidently meet ours. She engages our stare with no hint of coyness, yet her demeanour is self-effacing. And whilst the painting bears no caption, it barely conceals an implicit Noli me tangere (touch me not). We stand here observing the intangible, the desirable, but perhaps most significantly, the unattainable. And upon Cupid’s plinth we see, though barely, Cranach’s cipher, diminutive though significant.

In 1508 Cranach was awarded by the Elector the heraldic device of a winged serpent, and used it as his device on all subsequent paintings. Yet in this picture the winged serpent is reduced to a diminutive squiggle on Cupid’s plinth; an emasculated emblem, symbolic of the observer’s denial of any tangible satisfaction. This may be a perversion of Cranach’s intent perhaps, but to me a compelling suggestion nevertheless of Venus’ power over man, and his inevitable sensual and physical subjugation. Noli me tangere indeed.

CVCSC 0332.N Cranach, Lucas the Elder - Lot and his Daughters © Compton Verney

Lot and his Daughters. Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1530 © Compton Verney

Now pause a while. Take a moment to look upon Venus’ sister picture that hangs alongside. Lucas Cranach’s Lot and His Daughters tells the Old Testament tale of Lot and his daughters fleeing from the burning city of Sodom and Gomorrah. We witness the moment when Lot’s daughters attempt to intoxicate and seduce their father, through a heady mix of wine and wiles, in an attempt to ensure the continuation of his male line.

But look closely for a moment at the seated daughter, holding her father in her embrace. Is not her face the face of Venus? Are her eyes not lit with the lustful vigour of the burning city behind her? Is she not the living embodiment of seduction? Does not Venus seem the more innocent of the two?

We do not know whether the women Cranach portrayed were one and the same; whether they represented the same model, or merely a common ideal. But what seems evident to me is that Lot’s daughter presents the greater danger. It is she that is steeped in the dangerous knowledge of the hedonistic world that burns behind her; she that possesses the guile, the capacity for sensual entrapment. It is she, as I look again at her sister Venus, that provokes unease, who confronts me with knowing intent. I cannot stand here without the uncomfortable suspicion that it is not Job who is the object of her seduction. And as her gaze engages mine I turn back, with not a little unease, to the impassive yet welcoming sanctuary of Venus’ face.

Lot's Daughter

Detail from Lot and his Daughters. Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1530 © Compton Verney

Small Dogs and Partridge Whistles

A Compton Verney Day

“Radio check….Steve….over”

“Steve receiving….out”

And with that I’m flying solo; my first duty as a Gallery Assistant at Compton Verney. Here I stand; comfortable shoes, irrepressible smile, a barely discernible hint of adrenalin, and Canaletto for company.

CanalettoAnd oh what company. I’ve often felt that secret resentment, that desire to stand alone in galleries. It’s a perverse rationale that dictates visual pleasure should be a primarily solitary experience. It’s a wholly selfish impulse that strives to protect private indulgence at the expense of the enjoyment of others. Yet as I stand, watching, listening, I feel the heady transition from observer to participant; an irresistible participant in the human emotion of shared experience.

There’s a tangible energy at play here, a synaptic spark of wonder, incredulity, humour even. And whatever the personal response to these pictures, be it unalloyed delight, or incompatibility of personal taste, reactions are provoked nonetheless, and infuse the rooms with a collective engagement.

And the beauty of that engagement, the heart-warming humanity of it, is our desire to share. Friend talks to friend, child to parent; gestures beckon, seeking a shared response; fingers point, and hands mimic the graceful rhythm of brushstroke, wave and cloud. The forensic examiner of minutiae rubs welcome shoulders with the lover of the grand effect, the “step back” appreciator of the grander view.

And inevitably that humanity, that subconscious desire to share a welcome experience, percolates up, and breaks the surface. Here it is, the reason why we do this, the payback we each desire; the shared confidence, the irrepressible passion, the search for a deeper meaning, a desire to get closer to the curious genesis of a work of art. The visitor’s question, comment, or conversation is a marvellous litmus test of their reaction to, and engagement with, the works on display. And what insights we get into that engagement; what wonderful opportunities to unlock for a moment an understanding, a memory, a snap-shot of empathy or stimulation.

Martin ParrAs I move on from the Canaletto exhibition rooms to the gloriously evocative exhibition of Martin Parr’s photographs, I become conscious of a beguiling mix of emotions stirred. True, there’s much humour here; this exhibition, like no other, provokes the most smiles; each with its own reason, born of fond memory, perceived incongruities, or self-conscious recognition of shared human experience. But there’s melancholy here too. A deep-rooted sadness for the passing of “simpler” times, for lives lived at a steadier pace. But is that really true? Is there not private stress and shared frustration at play here? If the eye truly is the window to the soul, then the camera lens exposes here its manifest shades and colours; each in turn provoking thoughts of longings and yearnings, frustrations and delights. And so, through these compellingly evocative images comes an unexpected re-evaluation of our own humanity, a brief and unexpected moment of self examination.

One lady confides in me that she can’t look at these images without feeling sad, and turns to leave. I urge her to take a fresh look, to see the humour alongside the pathos. She tries briefly, then succumbs to the melancholy once more, and makes back to the Canaletto exhibition in search of his little dog; a vital antidote, she says, to her present mood. We part with a laugh.

PartridgeIn the Folk Art gallery I come across a man stooped over two wooden partridges, blowing for all his worth. His partner looks slightly embarrassed I’ve caught him in the act.

“Trying to make them whistle” he says, and grins broadly. And that’s what they are for, lovingly fashioned to capture the wind, tangible representations of the partridge’s voice. We speculate on the true nature of their call, and again part laughing; the joy of this place.

Up the steps and into the Folk Art paintings gallery, and here another lady longs to share with me her delight in the curious geometry and proportion of a particularly square sheep. More laughter, and then a welcome discussion on the particularly personal insight these untrained artists bring to their work; a vivacity and vitality often lost on the more “academic” artists. She goes her way with welcome comments on the accessibility of the collection. She goes her way with a smile; a vital connection forged.

As my day comes to a close I make my way down through the galleries, musing on a wonderful insight from a school child, written in the Martin Parr comments book. The beauty of the photographs struck a chord it would seem, and stimulated in him or her a greater understanding of what it was like to live in “the olden times”. The late nineteen seventies, the time of my teenage! I can’t help but smile as I descend the stairs; contemplating my state as living embodiment of those olden times.

My way back to the staff room takes me through the gallery shop, and there at the counter is the lady I met in Martin Parr.

“I found the little dog” she says, a broad grin on her face. “But thank you for making me look at the photographs”.

“My pleasure” I say, “but I’m pleased you found the dog. We wouldn’t want you going home feeling sad”.

One more laugh, and the day comes to a close. One more laugh, one more happy engagement. What more could we wish for?

Images: All images are courtesy and copyright of Compton Verney.

The Other Side of the Mirror

The Re-display of Chinese Bronzes at Compton Verney


Two Guardians. Gilt bronze, Ming dynasty, 1400-1500

Look closely, the iconography is strangely familiar. The spread legs, the feet firmly planted; the passively aggressive stance that conveys infallibility, authority and awe. The gaze is challenging, an impenetrable stare that both welcomes and warns.

But this is no Holbein portrait, no Tudor tool of power and subjugation; Henry VIII plays no part in this drama, Wolf Hall seems of another world. And so we enter the room, past the two guardians, representatives of the Four Heavenly Kings or Guardians of the Four Quarters; these gilt bronze figures of impeccable Daoist pedigree. Their role today is strangely inverted, no longer is their charge to protect against evil spirits, or deter the Barbarian invasion, but now they offer a renewed challenge, and a direct one, to the visitor. “Look upon us” they seem to say, “look deeper into our craft, trace the lines, catch a glimpse in the mirror.”

Compton Verney’s Chinese collection of ancient bronzes is of international significance, and one of the three finest collections in Europe. Until last season these enigmatic bronzes were displayed in broad chronological order. It was a fascinating, stimulating, but oddly impenetrable collection; one that unwittingly hid its light under a bushel. The visitor left with curiosity renewed, but a sense of unfulfilled promise, as if the covers of the book had been glimpsed, yet the pages of the story left unread.

During the closed winter season the gallery has been working on a major re-display of the Chinese collection, and visitors in March 2015 will have the opportunity to re-discover these stunning artefacts. Great care and attention has been given to both the physical and contextual display of items. The palette upon which they are displayed is a joy; gone is the slightly garish yellow hue, replaced by a warm grey, imbued with a depth of suggested colours. Against this the new display cabinets have been designed for both accessibility (visibility is greatly improved for both children and wheelchair users), and for greater engagement. The innovative positioning of objects, and their greatly improved state-of-the-art lighting, enables new ways of seeing. Colour and detail, once seemingly missing amongst this “sea of green vessels”, is now startlingly present, and brings a new vibrancy and vitality to the pieces. In some cases under-lighting adds a refreshing new dimension to familiar objects.

But the most welcome change, and the most positive step towards improved engagement and understanding, is the adoption of thematic displays and greatly enhanced labelling. We no longer tread a timeline of seemingly unrelated artefacts, but inhabit a world of food and drink, ritual and symbolism, horses, mirrors, and strange mythical beasts. Through this narrative we come to understand a people, distant both in terms of geography and time, though strangely familiar to us through their shared human frailties, their superstitions, beliefs and traditions.

A lobed mirror detail ®Compton-Verney photo by Jamie Woodley-

Detail of mirror with coiled dragon. Bronze, Tang dynasty (AD 618-906)

The re-display also makes great leaps towards greater accessibility and engagement for the young. As the National Curriculum now embraces the history of China amongst its various options, this collection provides a vibrant and stimulating learning opportunity for younger visitors. What child can resist the allure of dragons, monsters, and the mythical taotie? Indeed, who can resist staring into a polished bronze disc and dreaming of what might have been? In the adjoining learning rooms we can also see the influence of ancient Chinese culture upon later generations, through the media of 20th century posters. What better way than through such early engagement, for younger visitors to reach an understanding of our diverse cultures, and shared humanity?

Just as importantly, objects in the collection are de-coded for the first time, and we start to understand what our eyes previously just saw. We begin to comprehend the significance of ritual objects in the honouring and remembering of the dead, and of their place in both the afterlife and the here-and-now. Above all, we start to see the people behind the objects in a way that’s not been possible before. The collection holds out a hand to us, and craves our understanding. The tension between symbolism and utility is slowly resolved in our minds.

A Lobed mirror -®Compton Verney, photo by Jamie Woodley Photography

Mirror with coiled dragon. Bronze, Tang dynasty (AD 618-906)

And so, as my time to leave these rooms comes, I return once more to the display of mirrors. One in particular holds my attention, and draws me closer. “Mirror with coiled dragon. Bronze, Tang dynasty (AD 618-906)” the caption informs me. The sinuous dragon, a potent symbol of the Emperor himself, writhes amongst floating clouds, and as I look at him I imagine the polished bronze reverse, the burnished disc into which distant eyes once stared. I picture the owner looking back at me, his or her face softly illuminated in the reflected glow. And it seems to me that we stand beyond their gaze, the other side of the mirror, and yet in some way it’s we who are the reflection, we who shine back to them across time, living embodiment of what would become. A continuum of humanity, linked across time by shared experience and imagination; brothers and sisters, each interpreting a bewildering world, finding our way, telling our tales. And through these bronzes those tales are passed on, and on.


I’m grateful to Annelise Hone and Morgan Jones of Compton Verney for the opportunity to witness the re-construction of the galleries in progress, and for an insight into the re-interpretation of the Chinese Bronzes collection.

All images are courtesy and copyright of Compton Verney.

Enlistment Day

When war was declared in 1914 many young men in Britain were eager to enlist. This was the war to end all wars, the war that would be over by Christmas, the great adventure not to be missed. Some slipped through the net, and convinced the authorities they were of age, but most had to wait until their nineteenth birthday. Arthur, my paternal grandfather, eager to play his part, was one of those. He passed nineteen on 29th October 1914, and successfully enlisted one hundred years ago to this day, on 18th January 1915.

Grandad Hobbs 1916

He spent his first few months in the British Expeditionary Force in Egypt, visiting Alexandria and Port Said, and returning with his head filled with romantic visions of Egypt and its people. But before long, and with bitter inevitability, the dark clouds loomed, and he was recalled to the main theatre of war, in northern France. Here he joined the Royal Field Artillery, and spent much time with the horses that pulled the guns. I cannot watch Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse without bittersweet memories of my grandfather’s recollections of those days, and his empathy for the poor creatures’ suffering. To this day we have his spurs, and this empathy rings true when I hold them, for on each he has replaced the spiked rowels with silver French coins. Amongst all that slaughter, horses had feelings too.

At some stage, and certainly by April 1917, he joined the Royal Engineers’ Corps of Signals, initially as a Signalman, and eventually as a Sapper. It was in this regiment that he spent the majority of the conflict, hunkered down in squalid conditions on France’s western front.

Grandad Hobbs 1917 Aged 22As with many men who endured the conflict, my grandfather spoke little of his experiences. But when he did he was inevitably drawn to fond reminiscences, and light-hearted anecdotes. We never learnt of the suffering and the pain, the unspeakable anguish of those young men. No. What I listened to, in my early years, were tales of him lying on his back in the sunshine of one calm afternoon, and watching a German red-painted tri-pane weaving overhead like a curious moth in search of nectar; or of the particular sound a shell makes as it streaks overhead. And my favourite tale of all, when, having cooked a pan of porridge in the board-lined dugout, he and his friends were intrigued to find lengths of string in their bowls as they ate, only to discover some time afterwards that their scant supply of candles had rolled from the shelf above, and fallen into the steaming pan. “Wax never did anyone any harm little man; it kept us insulated from the cold.” Always humour, always good grace, always humanity. He was always that way.

By God’s grace, or whatever providence looked over him, he came through the conflict, and married my grandmother in 1919. The same year he was stationed as part of the Army of Occupation in Germany. For a while he was billeted in Ramersdorf, in what he told us was Baron von Oppenheim’s castle. My father has a photographic postcard he sent to my grandmother, picturing the castle above the Rhine, and a pencilled arrow indicating “My room”.

Grandad Hobbs GermanyFrom Ramersdorf he was re-assigned to Köln, where he was billeted with a German family. For the rest of his life he spoke fondly of them, and never failed to express his gratitude for the friendliness and kindness with which the German people treated him, particularly his host family. We have a photograph of him from this time, sitting in his room in Köln. It’s a somewhat faded and indistinct image, but a compelling one nonetheless. What strikes me most when I look at it is the beguiling light in his eyes; eyes lit by optimism, by the prospect of a future life to be savoured. And the symbol of that optimism stands alongside him, in the framed photograph of my grandmother on his table; a photograph we still have.

My memories of my grandfather are wholly benign. Each image I conjure belies the nature of the man. I see him perched high up on a ladder, painting the interior of his church. I see him mending clocks and watches for friends and family, a legacy of his father’s skills. I see him sitting at his table, watercolour painting; returning to images of the east, of Alexandria and the desert.

And certain phrases summon the memories like few others; act as a curious catalyst for fond reminiscences. Rise Up Like the Sun by the Albion Band is one of my favourite albums, and each time I listen to it my grandfather’s memory comes flooding back. The song Poor Old Horse not only re-awakens that empathy he had for the plight of the poor working horse, but contains one of the most evocative lines I know.

He’s as dead as a nail in the lamp room floor” it goes, and each time I hear it the involuntary impulse drives me back, back to my childhood, back to a way of life long gone, back to him. The words are in all probability lost on many. But to me the lamp room floor is a compellingly evocative image. After the war my grandfather, newly married, relocated from his native Isle of Wight to Yorkshire, the county of my grandmother’s birth. For those men that survived the war, the collieries promised a trade, a livelihood, which exerted an irresistible attraction. And so his life played out, amidst the grime, the danger, but significantly the fiercely proud companionship of the collieries. He remained there for the rest of his working life. When I was a small child I remember being taken to see him at Ackton Hall colliery in Featherstone. And my two lasting memories of that visit were of the leviathan of a winding engine, and the curiously Victorian ambiance of the lamp room, where the miners’ lamps were maintained and re-primed.

As dead as a nail in the lamp room floor; I’ve trod those ancient boards. And in my imagination I still do, with Arthur at my side.


KintsugiAnything? Anything at all?

What redeeming scraps endure the passage? What slick trail of affirmation survives this slithering, ponderous tragedy, dragged out over time’s bleak passing, played out across this wasted land?

This fractured life; this broken, little life; this wreck of once-sweet promise.

For wasted time, unconsummated experience, shames the living for having lived so low.

The spark un-lit, consumed in apathy, lives not to light another day.

And yet…

And yet through quiet reflection we may come to gild the fractures. Grace and favour, however briefly gifted, perform the craft. Life’s bitter vicissitudes, now conjoined with veins of gold, create the whole upon which hope’s foundations lie.

These enduring staples, forged of life’s brief loves and treasures, bind the shards

And this life is no more; that life it now becomes

And when we focus on the inner light

This mind, this heart, this abandoned goal; through life’s treasured moments, becomes now whole

See no more the broken vessel, but the glinting fissures within a worthy soul


King John’s Christmas Court – Worcester 1214

King John - detail from his funerary effigy in Worcester Cathedral. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

King John – detail from his funerary effigy in Worcester Cathedral. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

As we move into Advent, many of us turn our minds to planning for the forthcoming Christmas festivities. There’s much to do; food to order and prepare, the house to tidy and decorate, family and friends to consider, not least the thorny question of just what to wear! It was ever thus.

In 1214 (800 years ago, to the year) King John’s mind was similarly engaged. That year he held his Christmas Court in Worcester.

In my latest blog for Worcester Cathedral Library I tell the story of King John’s visit to the city, the preparations he made, the clothes he wore, and not least the unrest and troubles he endured.

To read the blog, and discover more about this fascinating monarch, click here – King John’s Christmas Court

The Limewood Master and the Female Saint

In late 2010 Andrew Graham-Dixon introduced his BBC4 series on The Art of Germany thus, “Maybe I am wrong, but how many people watching at home will already be aware of the great limewood carvings of Tilman Riemenschneider (the greatest artist who ever set out to carve a piece of wood)…?”

Those of us who know Compton Verney can allow ourselves a little smug satisfaction here, and admit that we are indeed aware, for Riemenschneider’s glorious Female Saint has stood at the heart of Compton Verney’s permanent collection since its foundation ten years ago.

Tilman Riemenschneider  A Female Saint © Compton Verney

Tilman Riemenschneider
A Female Saint
© Compton Verney

Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531), was arguably the finest medieval German sculptor, and the leading proponent of the Late Gothic style in Germany. His name first appears in the Würzburg town records before 1479. He married there in 1483, and around the same time achieved the status of Meister. Riemenschneider established himself as a prominent and respected member of the town’s elite, and was subsequently elected to the City and then Upper Council in Würzburg, eventually attaining the position of the town’s mayor in 1520-21.

His carving of a Female Saint sits proudly at the core of Compton Verney’s permanent collection. The sculpture, carved from limewood in around 1515-20, is an outstanding example of his later, and more naturalistic style. Sadly we are unable to identify her with any certainty, as her attribute (formerly held in her right hand) is now missing. Some scholars claim, however, that she is a portrayal of St. Barbara, who traditionally carried a book, symbolic of her study of the scriptures when she was confined to the tower by her father.

What strikes the visitor most, especially on first viewing, is the ethereal grace and serenity of the figure. This sculpture, whilst undoubtedly a religious icon, is imbued with an overwhelming human presence. Sotheby’s sale catalogue describes this beautifully:

“The Female Saint’s posture is elegant, enhanced by the elongated s-curve of her stance created by her slender limbs and by the balance of a variety of compositional details including: her hair falling in long tresses down her right shoulder, the swathe of drapery from her turban curving outward from that same side and the shift of weight from her left leg and hip to the right. Her facial features with almond-shaped, downturned eyes, straight nose, diminutive pursed lips and dimpled, pointed chin combined with the precise and authentic treatment of the skin on her neck and hands are all signatures of Riemenschneider’s distinctive style of carving.”

Signatures, certainly, of Riemenschneider’s later sculptural style; one that evolved out of “the lyrical Schöne Madonnen (beautiful Madonna) style, popular in the early 15th century” where we witness a shift of emphasis to “a distinct natural observation of the body and a decreased idealism.”

This “humanist” approach to his carving lends Riemenschneider’s later pieces a simplicity of form that exudes an almost transcendental serenity. His use of elaborate punched decoration to enhance the sculpture’s surfaces is also evidence that he may have intended this piece to remain monochromatic, unlike many painted pieces of the time.

Some years earlier, in 1495, Riemenschneider had created the statue of Mary with Child which now resides in the Pfarrkirche St Bernard in Würzburg. The writer Hermann Hesse described it as follows:

Dreamily she gazes out from her glass case, far away from our world […] in her gracefulness and distinction she is refined to a degree of perfection far above that of mankind today

In much the same way the Compton Verney Female Saint’s appearance is transcendent. In her serenity she wears an expression peculiarly of her time, and yet of all time. Hers is a face that speaks to us of a faded history, of experience teased over time into indistinguishable strands, and yet she looks out beyond past experience, and offers us a deeper understanding of the contemporary human condition.

Tilman Riemenschneider  A Female Saint © Compton Verney

Tilman Riemenschneider
A Female Saint
© Compton Verney

As a student I remember reading Herman Hesse’s novel Narziss and Goldmund, where the character Goldmund, having left the sanctuary of his monastery, travels far and wide across Germany on a fugitive pilgrimage of the senses. At a crucial point in his wanderings Goldmund first sees the statue of the Blessed Mother of God,

Then a shaft of sunlight streamed through the window into a side-chapel, and he saw a statue, which seemed to speak to his heart and call him to it, that he turned as though to greet a love, and stood, struck to the heart, and full of reverence.”

He subsequently speaks to the Pater, and enquires of the master who carved her. The priest tells him that Master Nicholas is “… a carver in wood, who lives in our bishop’s city […] and has great fame at his craft […] certainly a fine and gifted man.

Goldmund’s quest subsequently refocuses on a search for this Master. He eventually becomes informally apprenticed to Master Nicholas, a master wood carver and sculptor who is socially prominent in the town where he worked, and whose character appears to be loosely based on that of Riemenschneider. Hesse uses Master Nicholas as a source of artistic inspiration for Goldmund, but also as foil for the younger man’s wayward temperament.

When Goldmund comes to ponder on what uniquely differentiates Master Nicholas’ work from that of other masters, whose works, though clearly faultless, utterly displeased him, we read that:

Their bitterest deception lay in this: that they roused men’s longing for beauty, and left it unsatisfied, since in themselves, they lacked its essence – a secret. Dreams and the greatest works both had their mystery.”

Riemenschneider’s Female Saint exudes that elusive, quintessential mystery; she holds unfathomable secrets to her heart, and as a consequence beguiles and delights. She stands unwittingly, almost unnervingly, as the very embodiment of beauty in both mind and soul, not least in body.

When I look upon the Female Saint I sense an almost tangible presence. Standing before her is, for me, existing for a moment in her consciousness. Her contemplation becomes my own, and together we seem to experience a singular state of calm. And in that calm it is painful to ponder on Riemenschneider’s ultimate fate. In 1525, during Germany’s own Peasant’s Revolt, he and fellow Council members refused to vote in support of military force against the peasants. On brutal suppression of the revolt he, along with the rest of the Council, was imprisoned and tortured by supporters of the Prince-Bishop. Although he returned to Würzburg the same year, he was a greatly impoverished man and produced little work during the remaining six years of his life. Legend has it that during his incarceration he had both his hands broken, effectively ending his artistic career. If it were true, then what a bitter irony that the Master who created such a personification of grace should suffer such violent indifference to his craft. But what better legacy could this Master of Limewood have left us to ponder, than Compton Verney’s Female Saint, this indelible embodiment of peace.


Compton Verney Logo

I am grateful to Flora Cranmer-Perrier and Annelise Hone of Compton Verney for their kind assistance during my research for this piece.

Other Ways of Seeing – The Subtle Art of John Maltby

John MaltbyI define my being by a deep-seated and necessary connection to my past; my ancient, and significantly, my English past. Much of my life I have been unable to walk alone, but have carried with me the most welcome and treasured burden of belonging; a belonging to this place, this land, this immutable continuation of history and tradition.

I tend to look upon myself as a child of the Fifties, and in many ways I feel defined by that. But it’s a poor definition; it fails to describe the essential the core; it falls short of a true understanding of who I feel I really am. For that I need to look back further through time; back to when the foundations of my true belonging were established. As I walk this place, seemingly clothed in modernity, I feel nonetheless written through with a lasting tradition. And that core of tradition is the true defining lode-stone of my existence. It enriches and nourishes my awareness, and my sense of being. It informs my eye and ear. It interprets my experience and enables ways of seeing.

A year ago I bought a beguiling ceramic sculpture by the English artist John Maltby. The piece was to be a gift for my wife. Entitled Bird Man Fish, it seemed at first sight to be imbued with experience; it spoke eloquently to me of an ancient and innate British history. But this was no faux archaic piece; no historical pastiche. What was so illuminating for me was the genuine expression of unity and equality in the relationship between Bird, Man and Fish; and not least the balance Maltby had achieved between them and their position in the broader scheme of things. This was contemporary sculpture addressing questions of fundamental balance and harmony; a place where man is not being seen as dominant, but plays his part in an equal balance; a trinity of mutual importance; a form of spiritual symbiosis.

Maltby, uniquely in my experience, understands that a certain digression from “reality” has to take place if his message is to be understood by a wider audience. His work seems like an unconscious reaction to our contemporary situation, but one guided by a well of centuries of experience in his English soul. His sculptures appear cloaked in a vision of timelessness, innate and ancient, concerned with fable, history and tradition. And though the accusation could be cast, this is no obsession with our English past, but more a concern with, and articulation of, our contemporary situation.

John Maltby’s ceramic sculptures have long since captivated and moved me. But not until acquiring Bird Man Fish did I start to understand the reason why. In the past I have used my own writing to articulate my own contemporary experiences, but informed by a vision that is fed by centuries of our history. And so I felt strangely compelled to try and express in words the intrinsic reliance and dependence upon each other I sensed so strongly when first seeing the piece. Through the telling of the sacrifice of a life, and its rebirth in a stricken soul through the giving of food, I hoped to achieve just that balance, that perpetual and vital sense (so often lacking, sadly) of a necessary need we all have for each other.

The resulting short story opened my eyes still further; opened them to John Maltby’s other ways of seeing.

NB: To read the story select the Short Stories link from the Other Writing menu option (top right of the page).

Treason and Plot: The Deadly Perjury of Titus Oates

Titus Oates' Manifesto. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Titus Oates’ Manifesto. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Maybe it is appropriate at this time of year that the English turn their minds to gunpowder, treason and plot. Most of us are familiar with the threat posed against King James I and his government by Catesby, Fawkes and their fellow conspirators on 5th November 1605. Perhaps fewer of us though, are aware of the threats, real or supposed, against James’ grandson, King Charles II.

In my latest blog for Worcester Cathedral Library I take a closer look at the murderous intentions of Titus Oates.

Read the full blog here: Treason and Plot