One Leaf Falling

phil-cooper-one-leaf-fallingOne leaf falls, black mote upon the breath of time. In melancholy’s dark dance it drifts and shifts. I lift my eyes and trace the eddies through its sinuous descent. From below all colour’s charred upon the dull furnace of the cloud-racked sky; beneath my feet autumn’s vibrant counterpane awaits.

I hold out a hand, adjust, step forward; hope consummated in the aerial flight.

Behind I sense the tower. Firmly rooted it soars, looming in scraperboard monochrome, jackdaw-crowned and cloud swaying, tipping me off kilter, reducing me to this. I place a hand upon the stone, trace a finger along the mortar line, and invite the infusion of time and place and wonder. What hands? I think, What rough caress shaped and set?

Above, bough and leaf speak the sea’s tongue, squalls counterpoint the sighing rush. Autumn’s siren song turns me again, as one leaf returns to earth. Emblazoned in ochre-red and glistening it rests, evading, un-captured.

The loss of a wish draws down like an anchor, and roots me in loam and turf. Boot toes darkened by yesterday’s rain. Spirits dulled in exquisite suffering. Self-pity a welcome mantle of the season, wrapped sensuously, enveloping.

Torn between living wood and dead stone I stand. One, testament to perpetual re-birth; one, raised in monumental death. And so I choose my path, and take death’s hand. Dark stone on skin. Dressed block upon soft palm. Soaring aspiration dwarfing searing doubt.

Then, with cries darker than the oak’s ancient heart they fly. Jackdaw black. Swirling amidst the new-stirred leaves. The tower draws my gaze upwards towards the rough-hewn blade that ploughs the clouds, and delivers its selfless gift.

I reach out my hand and catch her; sister to the one leaf falling. Dream’s fulfilment.

Make a wish.

Note: The beautiful painting, inspired by this piece, was commissioned and painted by Phil Cooper, December 2016.

A Journey Through Latium – Ellis Cornelia Knight in Italy

Ellis Cornelia Knight

Cornelia Knight by Angelica Kauffman. Image courtesy of and © Manchester City Galleries.

Amongst the many travel books in Worcester Cathedral Library’s collection, there is one that seems to be invested with a particularly personal affection for its subject. The book is Latium (full title A description of Latium or La Campagna Di Roma). It was published in London in 1805, and illustrated with 20 beautiful etchings by the author. Whilst the title page does not bear the author’s name, we know her to be Ellis Cornelia Knight.

Cornelia, the daughter of a Rear-Admiral, was well educated in Latin and several other European languages. Upon her father’s death she moved with her mother to Naples, where their modest income would stretch further. Here they moved in relatively exalted circles, and became part of the extended English court that centred on Sir William and Lady Hamilton. She was also acquainted with Nelson, and had become his unofficial poet laureate, writing verses celebrating his victories.

In my latest blog for Worcester Cathedral Library I take a closer look at this peculiarly personal view of early nineteenth century Italy, and reveal more about its beguiling author.

Read the full blog here: Worcester Cathedral Library Blog

Travels Through Mystery and Certainty

Chinese Bronzes at Compton Verney

When I stop to consider how or why we travel, I feel a need to define the origin of the impulse. What draws one towards the material shifting of place, or the drifting of the mind? What impetus drives the physical progress, or the sensory release? In particular, what unites each in their sense of purpose? That is, if purpose exists at all.

I believe, even in the fleeting moment of the subconscious desire, the incentive of purpose is present. We can interpret a single thought; or marshal a collection of thoughts, into a desire to wander. But in doing so, we need some sort of mental plan. We need to ascribe points of reference to our journey, to plan or steer our way. Not least we need a coalescence of places and names; a guide, a gazetteer, a map – some sort of spirit of place, a goal.

And when we travel, physically or spiritually, we do so with compass or map, we explore with guidebooks in hand, we orient ourselves, consciously or subconsciously, via these points of reference. But occasionally we drift, purposefully eschewing the signposts, the prescribed wisdom, the accepted way. We languish in a state of ignorance, alive to the intangible, the speculative, captivated by the suggestion of an unreachable truth.

Art Galleries posses their own landscapes, their own routes of passage; they require a physical and emotional investment on our behalf; a journey of both mind and body. And here, above all, those keys to senses of place and time and meaning, come to us through the eye. And when I pass through the Chinese Bronzes Gallery at Compton Verney it is the ubiquitous eye, the inscrutable ancient stare, which meets my own and holds me transfixed.

When I stand before these ancient vessels I relish the not knowing; I lose myself in the endless possibilities of meaning and function, of relevance and place. I prefer to speculate on their histories and timelines. I look into their eyes and let them tell me their stories. Perversely I shun the facts, and yet crave interpretation. Mystery and certainty fight a slow fight of attrition. I don’t want either to win.

CVCSC 0365.1-2.A (4C) Wine vessel and cover, fangjia

Late Shang Dynasty (about 1550-1050 BC): Wine vessel and cover, fangjia. Bronze. © Compton Verney, photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

So when I look at the glorious Compton Verney fangjia (see picture) I want to know more of its journey down the ages, from Anyang to Beijing; and on – to Berlin, to New York, and finally to Compton Verney. I want it to tell me of its history, to place itself in a time and culture of my understanding. And yet I guard my ignorance just as rigorously; I want to shun modern interpretations; I want to live in the imbalance of possibility and wonder. Fundamentally, I prefer not to know.

That said, when we study the map of the fangjia’s journey, we understand little of what remains. The greater part of the route is long obscured by the drifting sands of time, and the failed memories of countless generations. We know only of its discovery in Anyang, and subsequent purchase in Beijing by Otto Burchard in 1944. From there it finds its way to a private collection in New York and thence to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.

But what of the fangjia’s milestones along the way? What of its construction, its arrivals and departures; not least what of its owners, its aesthetic worth; in essence, its journey?

Let’s start at the end; let’s start with Otto Burchard. Burchard has been described as “a true mentor” who “made a significant contribution to the understanding of Chinese art.” In particular he “had the qualitative judgement which enabled him to recognise a superb piece at once.”

Otto Burchard (1892–1965) developed an interest in eastern Asia, and specifically its literature and art, at an early age. His father collected Japanese art, and at his school in Heidelberg he signed-up to visit Shanghai in order to cultivate his knowledge of the art world. By 1913–1914 he was selling an extensive collection of Chinese artefacts to the Museum of Folk Art in Leipzig; in total around 137 pieces acquired through acquaintances in China, or bought by him on personal visits.

In 1920 Burchard opened a gallery for old and modern art. Significantly, in his first year, his gallery hosted the first international Dada exhibition, displaying 174 works by, amongst others, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Ernst and Francis Picabia. In retrospect this turned out to be the peak of the Berlin Dada movement. Burchard’s personal investment ensured his place as “financier” in the annals of Dadaism.

In the early 1920s he began to make regular trips to China (travelling through Russia and Siberia). He took an interpreter with him on his visits to antique shops as he only had a limited command of the language. When his interpreter was sick, he took Charlotte, the 17 year old daughter of Werner Lu (the hotel manager), who had a good eye for art. She subsequently became his protégée.

In 1925 he was given a room in the Berlin State Museum to display his collection, and in May 1927 opened his art salon in Berlin, from where he dealt in East Asian art. His second and third exhibitions followed in 1928, where Burchard displayed “items that he has acquired in China, which Europe has not yet seen the likes of.”

The late 1920s and 1930s were the golden years for dealing in Chinese art, and perhaps the greatest time for excavations. Grave finds very quickly found their way to the big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.  At this time the most important Chinese dealer in Beijing was Huang Jun. Significantly for Burchard he spoke both English and German well.

The Compton Verney fangjia was reputedly found in Anyang shortly before 1944, and subsequently purchased by Burchard in Beijing. It dates from the late Shang dynasty (13th to 11th century BC), and is one of the rarest ritual vessels of the Bronze Age. A fangjia (literally “square vessel”) was made (we think) for use in ancestral worship or sacrificial ceremonies, and was intended to hold black millet wine that was poured directly into the ground. The Compton Verney example is particularly finely cast, and decorated with symbolic images of owls’ heads, along with other images of snakes, dragons and sun whorls. No other fangjia with this magnificent owl design appears to have been recorded. Its relatively modest size suggests a piece made for a high status individual; it appears not to be a royal or imperial piece, as these are mostly of a grander scale.

Today it sits at the centre of the Compton Verney Chinese Gallery, and silently watches as we file through, from exhibition room to exhibition room. And as we do, relatively few of us stop to look, to consider, not least to dream.

In 2015 the newly re-displayed Chinese gallery will be opened. This will enable a more inclusive view of the collection through greatly improved lighting and more accessible display. Greater care will be given to displaying the objects in context, by arranging them thematically rather than chronologically, and by providing improved interpretation. In particular the most significant objects (both historically and aesthetically) will be featured prominently, allowing those of us with limited time in the gallery to find something special and memorable. One more step on the journey will be accomplished.

But when we consider the fangjia’s long journey we lack the map that guided it; we lack any understanding of all but its final steps upon the road. Above all we lack any legend or key; those elusive pointers to the enriching truths of symbolism and meaning.

Maybe what we also miss is the fundamental truth that none of us wants to contemplate. That it is we who make the journey, we who pass through their time. These vessels witnessed our coming, and will witness our departure. We flit through their permanence like Bede’s sparrow through the banqueting hall of time into “the wintry world from which he came.”

Ultimately, all we do possess is an unwritten history, set out tantalisingly upon the blankest of pages. For the thread of memory is frayed and fragmented; the fibres decayed in the ceaseless passing of time. And whilst the stilled voice of history remains ever silent, the truth is, we may never know.

My own truth is….I never really want to.


I am grateful to Morgan Jones of Compton Verney for the benefit of his unending knowledge and enthusiasm, and for taking the time to introduce me to this outstanding collection.

And also to my daughter Phoebe, for translating the article on Otto Burchard.


Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ostasiatische Kunst, by Patrizia Jirka-Schnitz. Mitteilungen, Nr.12, Juni 1995. Pages 23–35.

A Writer’s Infidelity

I’ve been unfaithful.

This may not seem the place, but it feels like the time. And so it’s out, finally; my confession, my little shame.

Guilt lies heavily upon me, it always has. Guilt drapes its seductive embrace around me and clouds my conscience. She (for it surely is a she) pulls me determinedly from my intentions, and thrusts me forwards, down the slippery slope of scant resistance. I hesitate, consider, purge my weakness, hold steadfast. But acquiescence brings both relief and pain, in equal measure; and so I step forward, into the inevitability of my actions and thoughts.

Her name was Flora, and Simonetta, and Agnese too. And now Rosamund waits, demanding my time, promising….ever promising.

Flora seduced me, totally, shamelessly, and thrillingly. I loved her for a moment, a summer I suppose. Ours was a clandestine oneness, a body within a body sense of singularity, of cohesion; one mind, a shared delight in life. I dressed her, I sowed her thoughts, I steered her passions and her fears. She came to me in times of strength and uncertainty. She shared her vulnerability, her secret; and then she left me. Flora was cruel also. Without her I felt a loss so tangible I mourned her. Her loss was my loss uniquely, though others hurt too. And so I moved on.

There were two this time; Simonetta and Agnese. On Simonetta I lavished riches and grace, nurtured her sensuality, strengthened her resolve. To her I gave books and pictures, tuned her mind to learning and beauty.  I was there for her when her hand held out to me, though she seldom sensed it I fear. She taught me much about the complexities of human passion, of the iniquities of greed and despair, not least of the enduring human spirit. But she turned to another, Agnese, and she too I loved, though strangely. I loved her strength of purpose, and her frailty too. Hers was a uniquely human condition, a soul of contradictions; resolute and loyal, determined yet fragile. I stood by her through all, yet deserted her when she needed me most. Forgive me girl. Mea culpa.

And now Rosamund sits alone, and waits for me to guide her; though we both know it’s she that steers my thoughts.

Like many unfaithful before me, I claim weakness as my own. In my imperfection, my pitifully frail resolve, I take no responsibility for my actions, but lay just and right cause at the doors of those that seduce me. For seduce me they did, these women.

I started to write Stone Ties wholly from a man’s perspective; it was always my intention. The very first words that came to me, that strangely disembodied phrase “He pressed his face against it”, spoke uniquely of a man’s experience, and so I set out to reveal it.  But Flora walked into his world and mine, and shook both of us. She became the heart, the energy, the beguiling spirit of the tale. Flora wrote herself onto the page; she merely bid me follow.

The Lanese Print was different. Simonetta and Agnese were always to be at the heart of the action. It was after all their story, their experience. I simply had to look over their shoulders and write down what I saw; although in truth it was their hands that guided the pen.

I find it intriguing that my imagination should be drawn constantly to the complexities and curiosities of the woman’s experience in my books. My women (apologies for the possessive, but as author I make some claim); these women come to my world part-formed. I give them what I can along the way, but they demand much of me. Their self-determination draws me forward. I crave their strength, without which these stories would be impoverished. And my reward? These tales, above all else, are their seductive gifts to me.

I never could resist seduction. And so I hold out my arms, and wait for the next embrace.

I am unfaithful. I am fickle. I am weak.

I am a writer.

When Less Was More

Time was when a book cover called for an artist’s eye, a draughtsman’s pen, or a designer’s brush. Be it for a new-fangled paperback, or a traditional paper book-jacket, discerning publishers commissioned work of the highest order. Through economy of line and subtlety of colour, the essence of the text, factual or fictional, shone through the designer’s work; luminous, expressive, sometimes challenging. The book designer was an artist, the artist a book designer; the roles were not mutually exclusive, both were laudable, both worthy of respect.

Fraser 4

Eric Fraser

To be called a graphic artist was not a pejorative title, but one to be embraced. To be called upon to embellish and enhance a book was a commission as important, as relevant, as any commission for a portrait, landscape or mural. Book design became an applied art that many in the mainstream, and indeed the avant-garde, both sought and accepted.

For much of my reading life I’ve admired the work of three artists in particular. In each case their book-related designs stand proudly alongside their wider portfolio of work. I became a connoisseur of book design at a relatively early age. Connoisseur sounds rather grand (forgive me) although in this context I simply mean that subtle transformation from reader to a more conscious state of book lover. From a humble admirer of the words to a hopeless initiate into the seductive arts of the book beautiful.

The artists of the eighteen nineties, Beardsley and Ricketts perhaps foremost, paved the way. Their designs, usually in ink, described a new and startling economy of line. The initiated could read the influences, certainly, but the shock of modernity, rid of all unnecessary embellishment, lit a lamp so bright its influence still shines.


John Piper

During the heyday of the mass-produced book, both pre and post-war, the new wave of artists carried the torch. For me Eric Fraser, John Piper and David Gentleman stand at the forefront. Their book cover designs, now eminently collectible in their own right, swung the aesthetic compass needle towards work of subtle and compelling beauty. Pared down, sparse, seemingly simple – description can be deceptive, labelling no less so. But in their covers we can find honesty and integrity, fearless economy of style, singular and compelling vision. Their designs came to define the book, to capture its essence; an indelible image inseparable from the written work itself.

Each of these artists shares a particular but deep resonance for me.

As a child the Radio Times, excepting the occasional cover, was a thing of curious monochrome. The paper or magazine (it’s been called both in its time) meant different things to different people. To some it was a newspaper (albeit with a narrow world view of programming and entertainment), to others a ubiquitous guide to the what and when of radio, and later television.

But not least, it was a gallery of sorts. And on its cheap paper walls I first saw the work of Eric Fraser. His pen-and-ink illustrations, especially when seen in the original, share the clarity of line with the best of 20th century wood engravers. His is an expressive, stylised, and eloquent art; wonderfully suited to the classical connotations of many of his commissions. Each drawing possesses a startling immediacy, happily suited to the time criticality of weekly programming and publication.

My introduction to John Piper came as a consequence of my fascination with that school (I use the term loosely) of artists that included Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, and Paul and John Nash. The architectural and landscape elements of their work held sway; came to define the way I saw buildings and places; tutored my aesthetic eye. To this day I often see through Piper-tinted glasses; British landscapes imitating art; Piper’s places.


David Gentleman

David Gentleman’s ubiquitous designs similarly caught my imagination, and helped re-awaken in me the love of a deceptively immediate art. As Alan Bennet has written, there’s something of the spirit of Bawden and John Nash in David Gentleman. There are hints too of Joseph Crawhall’s enigmatic woodcuts. But Gentleman is his own gentleman, a great innovator of design, equally comfortable with a postage stamp or a London Underground platform mural. His beautiful designs for The New Penguin Shakespeare series, 1968-75, are indelibly imprinted on my schoolboy’s mind.

Recently there has been a welcome and long-overdue trend (albeit a slow one) towards a re-adoption of the artist’s book cover. Rarely, though happily, we can determine a conscious move away from the ubiquitous airbrushed images, the photographic montages of screen adaptations. A mindful step towards a more artistic interpretation. We need look no further than the beautiful covers designed by Ed Kluz in recent years to witness that.

Once-upon-a-time, in the misty monochrome of memory, less really was more.

Long may it remain so!

George Smart: Cat Manufacturer – Artist in Cloth and Velvet Figures

Appreciation, as with any journey, starts with a single step; with one conscious step, taken freely.

CVCSC 0057.F Old Man and Donkey, George Smart -® Compton Verney, photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

Old Man and Donkey by George Smart. Collage on paper, 1833. © Compton Verney, photograph by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

But appreciation is also born of our receptiveness; of our conscious or subconscious opening-up to the unfamiliar, to the beguiling, to the perplexing. It’s an aesthetic surrender to the tantalising possibilities of the unexpected; a hesitant or headlong immersion in the imagination of another. This new experience can be a revelation, a realisation of a shared vision, or an initiation into an alternative way of seeing.

Seeing, and telling, are actions fundamental to the Folk Art in Compton Verney, home to one of the outstanding Folk Art collections in Britain. These artists and crafts-people see primarily with a brother’s eye, with a sister’s understanding. They tell their stories of everyday life in a seemingly simple vocabulary, one readily accessible to us – we, the uninitiated, the receptive, the artistically immature. They don’t paint with a painter’s eye, or draw by the draughtsman’s convention. They depict the world around them, unencumbered by any debt to artistic principle or taste. Free from the shackles of accepted subject-matter or medium, they reveal an insight into real life and personal experience.

To me, Folk Art is raw, humanistic, and unpretentious. It may seem naive at first glance; but it’s wise too, touched with subtlety and nuance. It is a profoundly personal art, suffused with dignity and honesty. Above all it is an art, for all its apparent idiosyncrasies, with a deeply unerring eye.

It can also be an art of deep conviction, its practitioners prone occasionally to overweening pride and not a little self-belief. What do I mean? Come with me; let’s take a walk with George Smart for a while.

George Smart (c1775-1846), in his own words “Cat manufacturer” and “Artist in cloth and velvet figures” was a tailor in the East-Sussex village of Frant. Something of a local celebrity, references to him appear in various contemporary guidebooks from the early 1820s onwards. Contemporary prints show Smart’s house in the village, with a tantalising array of cloth figures displayed on the wall; Smart himself can be seen standing in the road, tempting the occupants of passing carriages with his wares.

Not one prone to self deprecation, Smart clearly had high regard for his talents, and lays them bare for all to see in a curious piece of self-promoting doggerel on a label occasionally found attached to the back of his pictures.

At Frant there dwells a Man of fame;

By trade a Tailor, SMART by name;

Whose studies gave me great delight,

For life resembled caught my sight.

There I beheld the Postman’s face,

His walking stick and letter case;

With Ass in hand, (to where he dwells,)

As he returns to TUNBRIDGE-WELLS.

A milestone also was in sight,

Which gave the work a natural light;

He bore a Letter in his hand,

Perhaps some favourable demand,

The same address’s to Mr Smart,

Professor of peculiar art,

Whose works appear by no means faint-

Sure Ruben’s there with brush and paint;

Or Aristotle is come back,

Who nature sought without respect.

There dogs and cats like life are seen,

The feather’d tribe of red and green.

He makes Old Maids of tempers mild,

And such as never have beguil’d;

They’re just like life, except the tongue,

From whence man’s great disquiet sprung:

Of Cloth and Velvet they’re prepar’d,

Appear as tho’ by nature rear’d.

His Camera Obscura too,

And Microscope to take the view

Of scenes, which gratify the mind;

And you may purchase if inclin’d.

The Postman he refers to (and depicted here in the Compton Verney picture) is Old Bright, a familiar sight at the time, often to be seen trudging the road between Tunbridge Wells and Frant, “in his black greatcoat and low crowned hat, satchel across his shoulder and leading his ass.”

As we look at his beguiling picture, we can forgive the man his genial self-comparison with Rubens and Aristotle, for despite its innocent appeal, there’s merit in his subtle rendering of sky, and trees and shadow. And if Aristotle was the father of Natural History, then there’s something of his understanding in Smart’s benign depiction of the ass’ face.

Maybe we can forgive him too for the oblique reference to the Old Maid’s tongue. By all accounts he was a genial and good humoured man; there’s no misogyny here.

The reference to his use of a microscope to take the view, though seemingly perverse (subsequent versions were corrected to telescope), reveals nonetheless a deeper insight into his work. His meticulous eye sees and depicts the minutiae of Frant life; be it the letter clutched in Old Bright’s hand, the inscribed milestone, or the gently rising smoke from the chimney pots. All is observed in microscopic detail, and served to us through the unerring lens of his imagination.

And if we look closely we can see, in the garden to the right of his house, the pitched roof and blue painted walls of his camera obscura, proudly labelled; no doubt a most curious sight for the time.

In Clifford’s Descriptive Guide of Tunbridge Wells of 1823, the writer tells us “The company from the Wells, in their rides through Frant, are agreeably attracted on entering the village by the nouvelle Exhibition of a tailor, who, out of cloth of divers colours, delineates animals and birds of various description, with a variety of grotesque characters, particularly old Bright, the Postman, many years sweeper of Tunbridge Wells’ Walks, which is considered a good likeness. He has many visitors to inspect this singular collection, who seldom leave his house without becoming purchasers.”

George Smart’s portrait of Old Bright never fails to capture my imagination when I visit Compton Verney, but no more so than the many other vivid depictions of Georgian and Victorian life that keep it company. All around, the many and fascinating functional objects on display exert a similar appeal, evoke a tangible sense of familiarity, or confound our imaginations. What was that used for? Didn’t my grandparents have one of those?

I return here often, and I’m glad to see many others do too; young and old. I’ve come to feel I know something of these artists and crafts-people. As I stroll through the Folk Art galleries at Compton Verney and look at their work I feel refreshingly liberated from the bonds of artistic merit and status, from the academic strictures of accepted style and convention. I feel a strange filial bond. I feel brother and sister standing before me; sharing their vision and experience; trusting me to read through their eyes. I travel with them, I share their conversations; significantly, I feel at home.


Compton Verney LogoYou can see the forthcoming exhibition dedicated to Folk Art at Compton Verney from 27th September to 14th December 2014.

For more information on Compton Verney’s glorious collections check out their website here: Compton Verney

I am indebted to Lucy West, Morgan Jones and Sam Skillings at Compton Verney for their valuable assistance during the writing of this piece.


Clifford’s Descriptive Guide of Tunbridge Wells. Tunbridge Wells, 1823.

Professor of Peculiar Art: A brief account of George Smart, Tailor of Frant. Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery. No Date.

From Walsingham to Nuremberg

Walsingham Abbey

In February 2012 we visited Walsingham in Norfolk. It was a gloriously cold and crisp day, with recent snow still lying upon the ground; the winter sun illuminating the silver-edged ruins of the abbey. In the icy chill of that day it was hard to conjure the image of early pilgrims to this place, barefoot and penitent, but filled with joyous apprehension nonetheless. Many walked the last mile (for walk they did from however far away) without shoes as a visible act of atonement, stopping to shed them at the 14th century Slipper Chapel nearby.

When Henry VIII made pilgrimage to this place in the early 16th century, according to Sir Henry Spelman, he reputedly walked barefoot from Barsham to the chapel of Our Lady, and offered a necklace of great value. Sad it was then, that he should be the final instrument of the shrine’s ruination in 1538, the image of Our Lady of Walsingham ultimately being carried away and burned at Chelsea.

Later that day, in a tiny antique shop in the village, I found a deeply evocative memento of those early days of pilgrimage. The Curiosity Shop is a delightful place, run by the engaging and welcoming Fr. Paul Kinsey. This is no ordinary antiques and bric-a-brac shop, but a place of compelling stories, sincere welcome, and beguiling goods. One wall of the shop is adorned with a magnificent 16th century wall painting, deeply symbolic of Walsingham’s suffering, and in particular the village’s reaction to the brutal destruction of the shrine. It speaks eloquently, though obtusely, of the people’s deep resentment and horror.

Amongst the familiar collections of ceramics, glass and silver to be found here are rare items of religious interest – “rosaries, statues, pictures, medals, and rare and important Christian items”. Two items wooed my purse that day, but only one was to leave with me.

My eye was first drawn to a leaf from the Nuremberg Chronicle. Printed in 1493, the Liber Chronicarum as it was also known was a compendium of history, geography and natural wonders. Published in a large folio of just over 300 leaves, it contains 1,809 illustrations from 645 woodcuts. Most of the cuts were executed by Michel Wohlgemuth and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff. Albrecht Dürer was one of Wohlgemuth’s apprentices from 1486-1489, and may have participated in the designing of some of the illustrations for the craftsmen who cut the blocks. Dürer subsequently painted Wohlgemuth’s portrait in 1516.

The leaf enticed me, but I moved on.

Ampulla 1Then in a small glass cabinet I saw an object of beguiling beauty, deeply resonant of this ancient and spiritual place. The small lead ampulla or pilgrim flask, dating from around the 14th to early 16th century, seduced me in a wholly irresistible way. One face was decorated with a large crown within scallop-like radiating ribs, the reverse bore the remains of the rounded base of a lily pot, the lily pot being an emblem of Our Lady and therefore possibly referring to the Holy House of Our Lady at Walsingham. As I held it in my hand I felt the connection, timeless and vital, to the hand that first held it, to the place of its first purchase, not least to the hand that let it fall. There was no doubt in my mind; this diminutive treasure was now mine.

With hearty thanks, and a sincere wish that we would call again one day, we left Fr. Kinsey and made to the pub for lunch, then back into the grounds of the Abbey to say our farewells. As we drove back towards Norwich that afternoon I luxuriated in the indulgent knowledge of possession, as the ampulla nestled safely in my pocket; and all the while mourned the loss of the Nuremberg leaf.

That summer my eldest daughter graduated MA, and as a token of thanks for our support during her years of study she bought my wife and I gifts. As my turn came to tear the paper I had no idea what the curiously large but slim package could be. I removed the wrapping and separated the protective cardboard covers. There lay the Nuremberg leaf.

Neuremburg 1I am looking at that leaf now, as I write, and my eye is drawn to a single word, Norwico. This word, the Latin variant of Norwich, could quite possibly be the first printed reference to that city. And so it completes the link; the link between the places of my daughter’s study, the county of the Holy pilgrimage, the disinterment of the ampulla, and the long road of imagination from Walsingham to Nuremberg.

Romanesquing the Stone

Kilpeck south door

Kilpeck south door

In the late spring of 1984 I visited an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. Entitled 1066 – English Romanesque Art 1066-1200, it saw the coming together of some of the great treasures of 12th century England.

The Romanesque style drew inspiration from the arts and crafts of England, Scandinavia, Normandy and other parts of Europe, whilst keeping its feet firmly grounded in the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic vernacular. The outcome, a heady synthesis of many styles, produced an artistic vocabulary that was both distinctive and yet, paradoxically perhaps, quintessentially English.

For me the jewel in that exhibition was The Becket Casket. Perhaps intended as a reliquary casket (or châsse), its inner core is of oak, with enamelled gilt copper panels mounted upon it. The front panel shows the standing figure of Archbishop Thomas Becket being attacked at the altar by three knights, whilst two priests stand to his left, their hands raised in horror.

The casket, made in Limoges around 1180-1190, is of rectangular architectural form, and is constructed of copper alloy, champlevé enamel, crystal and glass, with a wooden core. It is the earliest surviving example of Limoges enamel showing the act of Becket’s martyrdom, which took place in Canterbury Cathedral on the night of 29th December 1170.

Some ten years or so before the Hayward exhibition, when still a student, I bought a copy of Janet and Colin Bord’s fascinating book Mysterious Britain, an essential companion to Alfred Watkins’ seminal The Old Straight Track. In their introduction the Bords quote the author and antiquarian Harold Bayley thus:

It is, however, an Englishman’s peculiarity that possessing perhaps the most interesting history, and some of the most fascinating relics in the world, he is either too modest or too dull to take account of them”.

In writing, and illustrating with the most tantalising photographs, Mysterious Britain, the Bords achieved their goal of re-awakening in many, a passion for our “fascinating relics”.

One ancient church in particular stood out for me in that book. Kilpeck church, in Herefordshire, they describe as having a doorway that “…carries a variety of symbolic designs, possibly embodying pre-Christian ideas.”

In John Betjeman’s excellent A Pictorial History of English Architecture he describes Kilpeck in enthusiastic terms:

The far-ranging Normans were able to loot traditional cultures all the way from Northern Europe to Jerusalem, and even in the Herefordshire countryside the village church of Kilpeck (c. 1140) displays a bewildering internationalism in its sculpture. Influences range from Burgundian to North Italian in the figures, to the Viking Ringerike style and Celtic manuscripts in the vivaciously interlaced dragons.”

But it was in his description of another church, that of Barfreston in Devon, which he describes as “…richly wrought as an ivory casket” that he truly captures the essence of the place.

Kilpeck stands, a robust yet diminutive casket of carved stone, within the ancient Herefordshire countryside, and still astounds the eye with the vitality and vivacity of its remarkably well-preserved carvings. Here, cheek-by-jowl, stand carved corbels of the Agnus Dei, dancing musicians, Celtic knots, dogs and rabbits; a startling congregation of the Christian and pagan, the sacred and the profane.

The Green Man

The Green Man

The columns of the doorway proudly sport a vibrant Green Man, and the ingeniously interlaced serpents (tail of one in the mouth of the other) are most likely symbolic of the continuous cycle of life, and therefore true to Celtic belief. Some of the other figures, above the door and amongst the corbels, are taken from The Bestiary, the source of practically all the animal lore that was then available, and include carved images of the fearsome Mantichore and Basilisk.

Perhaps most startling of all is the corbel on the south side of the church, carved to depict the Sheelah-na-gig. To quote the church guidebook, the Sheelah is:

“…a fertility cult figure, a representation of the Great Earth Mother Goddess, a Celtic goddess of creation and destruction, an obscene hag, a sexual stimulant, a medieval Schandbild to castigate the sins of the flesh.”

That this Sheelah, this powerful pre-Christian figure, survived the subsequent purges of the later Christian church, and those fired especially by Victorian prudery, is a wonder and a blessing too.

The casket

The casket

When you step inside the church, as I did last weekend after so many years of waiting, you enter the body of the casket. There are no reliquaries here now, no rich jewels to fill this châsse, nor any core of oak. Here the heart is of local stone, its form of a pure simplicity and lacking any ostentation. The chancel arch and the rib vaulting of the apse alone show any sign of carving or decoration.

As I stood there in the short nave, looking down through the chancel arch to the vaulted apse, I thought on the Romanesque vivacity of its splendid exterior. I wondered what treasures it once contained, and felt saddened by their loss. And as I placed my hand on the cool stone I understood. I understood that the jewels within the casket are not, never were, of man’s creation; but were and still are born of our receptive spirit.

As Mysterious Britain awoke in me wonderment for our ancient places, so this place, this church, lit within me a deep and spiritual connection with our past. A connection not rooted in religion or superstition, but dredged up from a far deeper certainty; an unbroken, innate and passionate belonging to this land. And that light, which shines brightly from all that are touched by this place, is the lasting jewel within the casket.

See the Becket Casket here:

Reconciled with Dante Gabriel

RossettiI fell out with the Pre-Raphaelites once. We took a break from each other; an emotional sabbatical.

Throughout my student years in Birmingham, few months were complete without a visit to the Museum and Art Gallery, to stand in reverential awe before them. To wonder at Holman Hunt’s effusive skies, to empathise with Henry Wallis’ jewel-like The Death of Chatterton. The romanticized mist of youthful imagination; overly so perhaps, but glorious at the time; left me unwitting victim to their sensual allure. I bought the books, I bought the posters. Rossetti’s Proserpine, courtesy of Athena (no bare-bottomed Tennis Girl for me) hung on my student-room wall, as did two pages from Morris’ Kelmscott Chaucer.

For a while they held their own, in the face of stern competition; at first the Impressionists, then Klee and Modigliani. And then the rot set in. All things visionary, all things symbolic coloured my taste. I stood speechless before the works of William Blake and Samuel Palmer (I still do). I succumbed to the heady intoxication of Gustave Moreau and Fernand Khnopff. The attachment was emotional, heartfelt, cerebral, until…..

Until I stood before William Blake’s life mask at the Tate exhibition in 2000, and felt the spiritual jolt, the uncanny physical presence of the man. Notwithstanding the beguiling beauty and mystery of the works displayed, it was the raw corporeal embodiment that took my breath, stood the hairs up on my arms.

And then the reconciliation began, slowly but inevitably. We visited the Andrew Lloyd-Webber collection at the Royal Academy in 2003, and fell under the Pre-Raphaelite spell once more. Those earlier passions were awakened, and found more mature, reflective accommodation. Burne-Jones’ wonderfully wan figures were no longer insipid, but seemed to possess a little of the visionary insight of Blake, the symbolic energy of Moreau. Yet still their effect was intellectual, emotional; never physical.

Then Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, that spiritual home of my early Pre-Raphaelite awakening, came good. Between January and May 2011 they hosted The Poetry of Drawing: Pre-Raphaelite Designs, Studies and Watercolours. That exhibition laid me low. I walked from drawing to drawing, and stood speechless in admiration. Here it all was; romance, longing, yearning and devotion; intensity, sensitivity, obsession and lust.

This was to be a watershed experience for me, an object lesson in anticipation and overwhelming emotional response. I first spotted the drawing from across the room. I wanted to run to it, to shun the rest. I wanted to stand in front of it, to look upon it alone. I begrudged all other viewers. I coveted that space before it.

I trod the prescribed line, viewed each work in turn, paid due respect, moved on. And so it built, uncontrollably, wonderfully, slightly perversely; that anticipation of sensory consummation.

I turned the corner and finally stood before her. Study of Jane Morris for “Mnemosyne” – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, pastel on paper, 1876. Until that moment only music had ever precipitated an involuntary physical response; raised hairs, provoked tears. Never a painting or drawing. Never before. Never. I stood and fought back the tears. I stood and marvelled at this sublime drawing. I stood selfishly before her and battled vainly against my emotions.

She won. Welcome back Dante Gabriel.