Friday, 2 December 2022

Own work: 'Gate after Hendrik de Keyser'

 Finally, a new painting to share with you all. It's been a long hiatus, and I feel better for having started making art again. Here, then, is my latest offering: 'Gate after Hendrik de Keyser', 27x28 cms, mixed media on 300msg watercolour paper. It is a variation of a design reproduced in 'Architectura Moderna', 1631, the artist and architect Salomon Brays' tribute to de Keyser.

De Keyser, (1565 -1621), was an interesting character: architect, sculptor and merchant. He was resident mainly in Amsterdam, though he did visit England at the behest of Amsterdam city magistrates in 1607. His, work, as far as I can tell, blends the native Netherlandish tradition with Italian Mannerism. He was the son of a cabinet maker, and father of Pieter de Keyser, architect and sculptor; Thomas painter and architect; and Willem, architect and sculptor. Quite a talented family.

Thursday, 1 December 2022

Sir John Ninian Comper III

 A shopping to trip to Cardiff the other week and quick visit to the church of St John the Baptist, Cardiff's remaining Medieval church. Nestling in the broad south aisle is this rather splendid altarpiece, the work of Sir John Ninian Comper. It dates from the second phase of his career when Comper blended Classical with the Gothic - this synthesis he called 'Unity by Inclusion'. It is a sort of a sublimation, a conclusion to the so called 'Battle of the Styles', that contest between Classical and Gothic that dominated the Mid Nineteen Century British architectural scene. This desire for a reconciliation in the sometimes-conflicting elements of Western culture is, I think, to be found also in the work of the Oxford Inklings: Tolkien, Lewis and Williams. It also occurs in the work of John Masefield and in particular in his evocative children's novel 'The Box of Delights', which I am currently reading during Advent, and in which Christianity is reconciled with the Pagan Gothic North. Anyway, this a rather a fine design, a little austere perhaps, a triptych with folding wings, the classical details being rathe Jacobean in quality. One feels that Comper was amongst so many other things attempting to create the sort of church furnishing that would have existed in Britain had the Reformation not veered so strongly towards the Reformed as it did under Edward VI. All this, however, is all somewhat spoiled by the lamentable absence of altar frontal. The current altar candlesticks are by George Pace - 'nough said.

Saturday, 24 September 2022

Dune III The Wyrd of the Atreides and the Planet Arrakis


'God created Arrakis to train the faithful.'

'We live on sufferance down here....Arrakis is our enemy.'

III The Wyrd of the Atreides & the Planet Arrakis


   Nobility of purpose, then, is something largely lacking in the Dune Imperium, but it is to be found within the House of Atreides (from the Greek: 'The Sons of Atreus'), being embodied in the person of Duke Leto. There is mention of the 'Code of the Atreides', but - alas -  we only see the Ducal Household at a moment of dissolution.  These early chapters are all too peremptory, and I would have liked to have a bit more of that household and its whole cultural and political context. Perhaps that is a criticism that can be levelled at 'Dune' in general: Herbert is in a hurry to tell his story. We do however meet four members of the Ducal court and that is enough, one supposes, to establish something of the dynamic of court life of the Atreides and its (necessarily) military culture.  Of the four it is only necessary in this extended essay/post to make note of the charismatic paladin Duncan Idaho - 'Duncan the Moral', the swordmaster of the Ginaz. And I think that this is where the Arthurian element rests - and from there it is a quick and easy thing to do to make parallels between Leto and Arthur, Jessica and Guinevere, Duncan and Lancelot and the Mentat Thurfit Hawat and Merlin. Like Arthur, Leto is fated to be betrayed.

   As with The Lord of the Rings, the opening chapters of Dune are somehow out of rhythm, a little awkward. They don't quite convince. They are not quite 'other' enough. In addition I found the staccato rhythms of Herbert's prose style difficult to adjust to at times. The imaginative creation falters just a little at times and the court life of the Atreides is perhaps too much like Middle Class Suburban America of the early 1960s translated into space - I'm particularly thinking here of the dinner party scene on Arrakis. But then maybe that dinner party is an attempt to maintain standards in the face of overwhelming odds, rather like characters in a Conrad novel miles up-river dressing for dinner every night. There is, perhaps, also an attempt to draw a strong contrast between Paul's early comfortable life and his messianic destiny, which takes place not on the planet of his birth, Caladan, but on the implacably hostile desert planet Arrakis, colloquially known as 'Dune', the governance of which the Emperor, in collusion with House Harkonnen, has 'bestowed' upon the House of Atreides. It is, of course, a plot against the Atreides Duke, an offer that cannot be refused, but like an Heroic Age warrior chief and his war-band, such as you might find described in the epic poems 'Y Gododdin', or 'Beowulf', the Duke, his family & household, and his army go forth 'with solemn face to meet the darkness on the deep'.

There be dragons

   Crucial to the plot and Paul's political, cultural and religious revolution are the interaction between the politics of the Imperium and the ecology of Dune.  Arrakis is a frontier world, by which I don't mean that it stands at the very edge of the Imperium, but that humanity has a very limited and precarious position there; large areas of the planet are apparently uninhabited, barren and waterless.  It is a place of mystery, a place of secrets and immense dangers -  is often referred to as 'Hell' - where the majority of the population is huddled together in the mountainous terrain surrounding the N pole, while the southern hemisphere is a true Terra Incognita; which, for climatic and economic reasons is barely ever visited, let alone surveyed. An abandoned place. A Terra Nullius. Though things on Arrakis, and indeed everything in this book, are never quite what they seem.
   Arrakis however has one major (its only?) export: Spice aka Melange. A drug. It occurs naturally in the limitless dune seas of the northern hemisphere of the planet - 'an ocean in which no oar has dipped' - requiring little processing, though the harvesting is fraught with dangers - not only the implacably hostile environment, but the desert is home to the giant sandworm, which - rather like the monster in a B movie 'Creature Feature' - consumes everything in its path. The southern hemisphere appears is not so blessed, for spice mining does not occur there.
  Both the Spice, and its derivatives, are apparently consumed in vast quantities across the Known Universe, and it could be said to be the engine of the Imperial economy. All that said it appears not to have been consumed in the Ducal Court of Caladan.  Apart from turning the eyes of heavy users dark blue, Spice has geriatric properties, and there are other uses too, some ethnogenic, some purely utilitarian, that only become apparent as the novel progresses. The licence to harvest the spice is highly lucrative thing to possess, and House Atreides as a result would wax in wealth and power. But this, alas, is not to be.   

   Excluding the small groups of smugglers based on the planet, there are two settler communities on Arrakis 'village and seitch'; the smaller group 'the people of the garben, the sink and the pan' live in the far north of planet and are essentially there to service the spice mining industry. The larger group are a tribal society called the Fremen, the Freemen - that is they are outside the overarching Imperial class system. The relationship between both groups is complex, sometimes strained, sometimes intimate. There is some evidence that the Fremen have influenced the religious life of the northern communities. And there is inter-marriage, and some Fremen leave the desert and join the 'graben' like the 'Shadout Mapes', the housekeeper of the Ducal residence in Arrakeen who acts as a sort of contact between the Fremen of the desert - well, some of them at least - and the Atreides. And Dune, like the Lord of the Rings, only takes off when the main protagonists, Paul and Jessica fleeing into the dessert to escape their enemies, are fully immersed in a different, intense and spiritualised culture, that of the Fremen.

   It is never stated when the Fremen arrived on Arrakis, though with the establishment of the Imperial Botanical Testing Stations 'before the discovery of the Spice' there has been a human presence on the planet for at least ten thousand years, perhaps even from some time before the Butlerian Jihad. There is mention of a 'Botanical Testing Station period' in the history of the planet. The Dune Encyclopaedia (of disputed canonical status) gives the date of the Fremen arrival some seven millennia after the foundation of the Spacing Guild. When, by then, one presumes the 'people of the graben and sink' were firmly established. The Fremen are seen as the 'Zensunni Wanderers', the secretive inhabitants of the planet, who unwilling to escape their bitter history are caught in a cycle of victimhood and revenge. "Never forget, never forgive." A people eternally sojourning in the wilderness, consuming - well, not manna, but that other divinely attributed nutriment, the Spice. Exiles among a universe of exiles. Waiting. 
   All that said the Fremen have a remarkable and complex material and spiritual culture (more of that in a later post). They have successfully colonised a uniquely hostile environment, but in doing so have had to adapt their social structures to survive. The result of this evolutionary change is a society that we would find harsh, perhaps even barbaric. It is structured to resemble, say, ancient Sparta or Republican Rome, where the individual is subsumed into the collective endeavour of a society organised along military lines, a society demanding, and receiving in turn, a high level of social conformity. To give an example: a Fremen who has become blind is sent out into the desert to die; and from that it might be possible to surmise that the Fremen also practice exposure of infants. A society that is distrustful of outsiders; 'offworld strangers' are killed for their water. 
   On the internet there is quite a debate about how Islamic/Arabic the Fremen are. In the case of the status of women it is definitely not. Neither do the Fremen speak Arabic except liturgically, and then it could be argued without any real understanding of the language (more of that later). At this point it is enough to note also that some of the Arabic terms used come from the Greater Iranian cultural area. Neither are the Fremen, as is widely said on-line & in the media, nomadic. Fremen live in settled, troglodytic communities called sietch - some of which, such as Sietch Tabr are really small towns with thousands of inhabitants. The Tau of the tribal or sietch is help maintained via the Tau Orgy, which cements the unity of the tribe/sietch but allows for the dissipation of potential disruptive energy.  Fremen pattern of settlement and land holding is structured around a reliable water supply, for Dune is not entirely desert: there are small polar ice caps and when the geology allows there are springs and oases. In geological basins that are disconnected from the open desert plants grow. Plants, that is, that have been introduced from elsewhere, off-planet. Terranic plants (i.e. from the Earth) do particularly well. As becomes clear in the novel there is water on the planet but is mainly trapped in the underlying strata. Though it is never overtly stated the Fremen must practice some form of cultivation. Otherwise how could the isolated sietch communities possibly survive? Perhaps surprisingly these communities possess a skilled manufacturing base, producing those items, such as stillsuits and stilltents, that are essential to desert living. And they are not so alienated that they don't trade with the other inhabitants of Dune, or with the wider Imperium.


A short discursion: Arrakis and the Golden Flower 

   In the decades prior to Paul's arrival on Arrakis, the Fremen embarked on a remarkable undertaking: the greening of large areas of the planet, a multi-generational task. This however was not the first time this was attempted. As I showed above some time before the 'discovery of the Spice' Terranic desert species were introduced into the ecology of Arrakis. This attempt was subsequently abandoned pushing the terraforming of the planet into the realm of 'indefinitely postponed parousia'. All this changed with appointment of Pardot Kynes as Imperial Ecologist, in doing so probably making some form of future conflict inevitable on Arrakis.

The arrival of the Atreides merely realigned Fremen priorities, for Paul's adventus on the planet immediately opened the way to violent Jihad - that is a parousia achieved by conflict. Not that the greening of the Arrakis was abandoned - it was too late for that, for the process had already been imprinted on the ritual and spiritual life of the Fremen. This is how it was explained years later by Farok, himself a former Jihadi, in 'Dune Messiah';

 'The Atreides came [....] the one we named Usul in our seitch, his private name among us. Our Maud'dib, our Mahdi! And when he called for the Jihad, I was one of those who asked: 'Why should I go to fight there? I have no relatives there.' But the other men went - young men, friends, companions of my childhood. When they returned, they spoke of wizardry, of the power of this Atreides saviour. He fought our enemy the Harkonnens. Liet-Kynes who promised us paradise upon our planet, blessed him. It was said this Atreides came to change our world and the our universe, that he was the man to make the golden flower blossom in the night.'

An interesting term that. Golden Flower. It is a Taoist term occurring in 'The Secret of the Golden Flower' the classic Neidan text. Neidan is a Chinese form of meditation and inner alchemy that derives ultimately from Indian Tantric thought. For Jung the Golden Flower represented the state of being a fully integrated person. The promise of the Atreides is that by following him into Jihad the Fremen can, as individuals first, transcend their ancestral trauma, expanding their scope of cognition and reality. Herbert by using this vegetative analogy implies that Leit-Kynes offers the same thing but over a much longer time scale, one in pace with the societal changes in Fremen culture that the greening would entail.

Friday, 23 September 2022

The Tomb of Lars Porsena and the Tower of Orthanc

    The imaginations of architects, artists and historians are haunted by buildings, both real and imaginary. Perhaps this is true for us all to some extent, but it is most acute for those, like myself, whose creative life rotates around architecture.  One of these buildings which have continually stimulated the creative imagination is the almost certainly legendary Tomb of Lars Porsena, the Etruscan king. Various architects including Filarete and Alberti have attempted, on paper at least, to reconstruct it. The tomb fascinated Wren and Hawksmoor, providing Wren with the inspiration for the catafalque for the funeral of Queen Mary, in Westminster Abbey, 1695. However  reconstructing the tomb, even on paper, cannot be an easy thing for the description left to us from Antiquity is somewhat confusing; here it is described by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder quoting an earlier writer, Marcus Varro:

   'For it is proper to use the term 'Italian' for that [labyrinth] that Porsena, the King of Eturia, built for himself as a tomb, in order to show at the same time how even the vanity of foreign kings is exceeding by those of Italy. But since the fabulous nature of the description exceeds all bounds, I shall make use make use of the words of Varro in presenting it:

'He [Porsena] was buried just outside the city of Clusium in the place where he had built a square monument of dressed stones. Each side was three hundred feet in length and fifty in height, and beneath the base there was an inextricable labyrinth into which, if any-body entered without a clue of thread, he could never discover his way out. Above this square building there stand five pyramids, one at each corner and one in the centre, seventy-five feet broad at the base and one hundred and fifty feet high. These pyramids so taper in shape that upon the top of all of them together there is supported a brazen globe, and upon that again a petasus from which bells are suspended by chains. These make a tinkling sound when blown about by the wind, as was done in bygone times at Dodona. Upon this globe there are four more pyramids, each a hundred feet in height, and above them is a platform on which are five more pyramids.'

    As to the height of these last, Varro was too embarrassed to give it, but the Etruscan fables hold that it was equal to the total height of the work up to the level of these five pyramids - insane madness.'

   Madness indeed. Here is a reconstruction (one of the less outlandish ones) by John Greaves (1602-52), the Antiquary, in his book 'Pyramidion: or a description of the Pyramids of Aegypt' of 1646

   I want to contrast this with Tolkien's description of the great tower of Orthanc in the Lord of the Rings, another imaginary building of great and haunting power:

   'There stood a tower of marvellous shape. It was fashioned by the builders of old, [] and yet it seemed a thing not made by the craft of men, but riven from the bones of the earth in the ancient torment of the hills. A peak and an isle of rock it was, black and gleaming hard; four mighty pillars of many-sided stone were wielded into one, but near the summit they opened into gapping horns, their pinnacles as sharp as the points of spears, keen-edged as knifes.  Between them was a narrow space, and there upon a floor of polished stone, written with strange signs, a man might stand five hundred feet above the plain.' 

  Was Tolkien, I wonder, under the influence of not only the great donjon towers of late Medieval France and England, but also the tomb Lars Porsena when he conjured up the Tower of Orthanc? As both a pupil at King Edward's School in Birmingham and Exeter College, Oxford, (where, for a year, he studied Classics), he would have come across the work of both Pliny and Varro. He might even have seen the drawing produced by John Greaves, but that is to speculate.

   It appears from the drawings Tolkien produced, that he originally conceived Orthanc as a singular circular structure: one design looking as though it was constructed from a set of diminishing circular Roman Mausolea such as the Tomb of Cecilia Metella (even down to the rustication); in an another it looks as though it was influenced in part by the Qutub Minar in Delhi. His final idea for the tower seems an altogether more complex structure where the four corner towers of a donjon such as the Chateau de Vincennes, or, here in England, Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire have grown and swelled to enormous proportion. The corner towers at Tattershall were originally crowned by blunt spires of wood and lead and in the final, published, description of Orthanc these have been exaggerated into blade-like pinnacles. And it is this arrangement of pinnacles and platform that remined me of the upper section of John Greaves's reconstruction of the Tomb of Lars Posrsena. It all, I suppose, may be just coincidental. Alas.


St Peter, Elmsett

   Just returned from a short visit in London, which took in the Queen's funeral. More of that, though, in a subsequent post. On Wednesday we took the train into Suffolk to visit friends in their new house. It was a deeply welcome return to East Anglia; my first visit since moving to Wales. It felt very remote there among the great wide fields and vast skies. The silence was palpable.

  The nearest church to our friends' house was St Peter in Elmsett, almost alone in the fields at a distance from the actual village; a simple structure of flint rubble and stone dressings - a tower, nave and chancel. A hurried visit it was, and a few snatched photographs. And, oh, how melancholy those photographs appear today. The tower rather gaunt. External textures were fantastic, with an excellent e window. Victorian porch on s side sheltering scant remains of Medieval wooden predecessor.  Inside was the usual translucent E Anglian space with lots of clear glass, though the nave too crowded with stuff - that usual Anglican distraction from the divine. Interior thankfully not too heavily gone over by the Victorians. Plaster ceilings. Lovely pamment flooring and old ledgerstones. And a rarity - three sided communion rails. Damson jam for sale near the four-square Norman font and cooking apples in a cardboard box in the porch. What more could one ask for?

   Opposite, on the other side of the road the Tithe Memorial of 1935.

I thought I'd add, 14.10.22, that travelling by train we passed through Stratford. From the train, at least, the Olympic site look utterly dreadful; the ArcelorMittal Orbit, by Sir Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond worse than mediocre. The Infernal City is ubiquitous.

Saturday, 3 September 2022

'The English Country House - A Grand Tour'

   This book has been loitering on my bookshelves for a while now expectant of a post on here. I say a while when it's been about three years to be almost exact. Which post-Lockdown seems a very long time ago indeed.  Anyway it was one of those lucky charity shop finds one comes across occasionally. One that has spurred me to return to the shop in question every time we head over to Carmarthen - just in case.

   Now to the book - and it is a sumptuous effort, with some ravishing photography by James Pipkin - a photographer I know little, if anything, about. The blurb on the duct jacket says, in so many words, he's American. The text is by the architectural historian Gervase Jackson-Stops (1947-1995), 'the most excellent of fellows, worth a guinea a minute', who must have been an inspiration for the 'Bachelor Folly' character in Alexandra Artley and John Martin Robinson's 'Official New Georgian Handbook' of 1985. He was educated at Christ Church Oxford and the V&A, in 1972 he joined the staff of the National Trust and in 1975 was appointed one of its architectural advisors. In addition to 'The English Country House' Jackson-Stops and Pipkin collaborated on at least two other books: 'The Country House Garden - A Grand Tour' (Pavillion Books in association with Michael Joseph, 1987) and the catalogue to the 'Treasure Houses of Britain' exhibition which Jackson-Stops curated for The National Gallery of Art in Washington  (1985-6). It was the highlight of his curatorial career. He wrote quite a number of other books, many for the National Trust, and was a regular contributor to 'Country Life' magazine.  

   He is perhaps best remembered in British aesthetic circles not only for 'The English Country House' but the restoration of 'The Menagerie' a folly in Northamptonshire designed in the 1750s by architect/astronomer Thomas Wright of Durham for the then Lord Halifax. Jackson-Stops bought the then near ruin in 1972 for £500, and restoration was apparently completed in 1976. Restoration of the elaborate rococo plasterwork was undertaken with the help of the sculptor Christopher Hobbs and the furnishing by Melissa Wyndham. Judging by the photographs the interior very much in the grand style, like a country house only in miniature. Jackson-stops and the Menagerie are included in my recent blog-post on Alvilde Lees-Milne's 'The Englishman's Room'. It also featured in Lucinda Lambton's wonderfully eccentric '40 Minutes' documentary 'Animal Crackers'  

   In all a gilded life one might expect, but it was not to be. He died at the age of 48 from HIV Aids. 


Monday, 29 August 2022

Habitat 1976

   Well, I have to admit that I've had this vintage Habitat catalogue for a while now, and only now have I got round to actually posting it. To be honest I found it a little bit of a disappointment when it arrived in the post, it being not quite as stylish as I had hoped. Anyway my collection of vintage Habitat catalogue quietly grows. Still there are some nice images - some of which were photographed at Terence Conran's own country house, Barton Court. I particularly like the Deco-ish sofa that graces the front cover.