The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’

<em>The Underground Railroad</em> by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, chronicles the life of a teenage slave named Cora, who flees the Georgia plantation where she was born, enduring unremitting hardship in search of freedom. The first time she had been approached by fellow-slave Caesar she had said no. Three weeks later they ran, pursued by a fanatical slave catcher named Ridgeway, determined to hunt them down and destroy the abolitionist network that has aided them. In flight, Whitehead’s narrative evolves into something both unexpected and surreal as he conjures scenes that fracture the distance between America’s past and its present. Continue reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’”

Public View: celebrating 300 years of the Bluecoat

<em>Public View:</em> celebrating 300 years of the Bluecoat

The Bluecoat is 300 years old. Miraculously, the oldest building in Liverpool city centre has twice survived the threat of destruction (post-war city planners thought it would be a great idea to replace it with an inner-city ring road) to become one of the UK’s oldest arts centres. Completed in 1725, after two centuries serving as a charity school, in 1907 the building was taken over by a group of artists determined to stimulate Liverpool’s artistic and intellectual life. Two years later they hosted the First Post-Impressionist exhibition that featured work by Matisse, Picasso and others. Today, the contemporary arts continue to be showcased in this Grade One listed building. I went down to have a look at Public View, the first in a series of events celebrating the Bluecoat’s first 300 years. Continue reading Public View: celebrating 300 years of the Bluecoat”

Marching down Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens

Marching down Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens

Once in a while there comes an album that is so musically perfect and so in tune with its times that you know on one listen that it is destined to be a classic. Such is Freedom Highway, the second collection that Rhiannon Giddens has released under her own name. Its songs are drenched in her country’s history while speaking directly to its troubled present. There is horror here, but inspiration too.

Continue reading “Marching down Freedom Highway with Rhiannon Giddens”

Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Ava DuVernay’s <em>13th</em>: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
–Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution

Ava DuVernay makes documentaries, though her most celebrated film is Selma, a dramatisation of the story of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery and their place in the struggle for black voting rights. Last night I watched her most recent film, a Netflix documentary about the American prison system that goes under the title, 13th.

The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole which continues to permit involuntary servitude when used as punishment for crime. In meticulous detail, DuVernay shows how this loophole was exploited in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War and continues to be abused to this day.

In Selma, Stephan James portrayed John Lewis, the SNCC activist whose skull was fractured by police who attacked the marchers on the Edmund Pettus bridge on ‘Bloody Sunday’, 7 March 1965.

That’s the same John Lewis whose reputation was besmirched in a tweet by Donald Trump the other day, and it’s the same Donald Trump to whom DuVernay devotes a powerful sequence in 13th. Continue reading “Ava DuVernay’s 13th: from slavery to the mass incarceration of African-Americans in privatised prisons”

The Quest for a Moral Compass: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings

<em>The Quest for a Moral Compass</em>: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings

It was one of those books that sit in the pending pile for quite a while, but I finally got round to reading Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass this autumn. Subtitled ‘A Global History of Ethics’ his book proved to be a rewarding, accessible (and actually quite gripping) three thousand year history of moral thought, not just in the West but across the globe. Reading it in the closing months of this awful year in which cherished assumptions about how we govern ourselves and relate to one another have been cast asunder was nothing if not timely. Continue reading The Quest for a Moral Compass: the moral tightrope we are condemned to walk as human beings”

The shame of the past we share and try to forget

The shame of the past we share and try to forget

In my last post I spoke of how I had not been able to get a scene in Roy Andersson’s latest film out of my head. In A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, a party of pith-helmeted British soldiers herd shackled and fearful African men, women and children into a giant rotating drum before setting alight a fire beneath it. As the agonised movements of those incarcerated turn the terrible machine, their cries are turned into haunted music for the edification of an elegantly-dressed crowd of wealthy folk watching the scene from the terrace of a nearby mansion as waiters pass among them serving champagne. Continue reading “The shame of the past we share and try to forget”

Contemplating the meaning of two portraits at Kenwood

Contemplating the meaning of two portraits at Kenwood

Rembrandt Self Portrait with Two Circles crop

Rembrandt, ‘Self Portrait with Two Circles’ (detail)

He was 59 yet looks, even by the standards of his time, very old. He would die four years later.  Standing before Rembrandt’s ‘Self Portrait with Circles’ in Kenwood House last Sunday afternoon as crowds jostled and surged around me, face to face with the intensity of the artist’s stare, I felt myself drawn into a zone of contemplative stillness. In this large self-portrait, Rembrandt the painter has a commanding presence, yet as the poet Elizabeth Jennings observes in ‘Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits‘, in the gentleness and melancholy of that stare there is ‘a humility at one with craft’:

There is no arrogance. Pride is apart
From this self-scrutiny. You make light drift
The way you want. Your face is bruised and hurt
But there is still love left.

Love of the art and others.  To the last
Experiment went on.  You stared beyond
Your age, the times…..

As in all of the late self portraits, Rembrandt looks out from the darkness. John Berger, in an essay in The Shape of a Pocket, wrote that ‘painting – particularly in the second half of his life – was… for him a search for an exit from the darkness.’

Kenwood House is open once again after renovation, and this was the painting I most wanted to see there. It shows the artist, looking toward us, holding the tools of his trade: a palette, brushes and a maulstick.   He’s wearing a simple linen painter’s cap whose brilliant white is depicted in slabs of paint slathered on the canvas thickly.  In Rembrandt’s Eyes, Simon Schama wrote of how Rembrandt had here:

produced a manifesto of painterly freedom: his cap built higher with lashings of thick lead white, crowning the face still sovereign of his own studio, if not the world, the grey cloudlets of hair still curly with vigour.

There is more evidence of that ‘manifesto of painterly freedom’ in the way in which Rembrandt has painted ‘his hands, rendered as a blurred whirl of paint, slathered and scribbled, with the brushes also crudely suggested with just a few summary lines’.

Rembrandt portrays himself at work in his studio, intently studying his reflection, before turning to the canvas whose edge we can just barely discern at the right side of the painting.  While Kenwood was closed, the painting went off to New York, to be exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum. In an essay for the New York Times, Roberta Smith wrote:

The work’s emotional gravity and psychic complexity underscore why Rembrandt is often likened to Shakespeare; no artist before him had painted human interiority in all its uneasy, ambivalent, conflicted glory. Again and again his portraits and self-portraits give us pictures of consciousness valiantly making its way through life. […]

The Kenwood painting is a superb example of Rembrandt’s late style, from a time when he had long forsaken the smooth-surfaced, so-called neat style of his earlier years and the Baroque compositional complexities of his middle period. The simple frontal pose and unadorned garb are about as Classical as Rembrandt gets; much of the surface exudes the painterly bravura of loose — or what the Dutch called rough — painting. The face is keenly real if still visibly textured; no one captures the play of light on ageing flesh like Rembrandt, but he abbreviated or omitted other details as needed, keeping the reality of paint and process and the reality of his subject equally before the viewer in a way that still feels innovative and even proto-modern.

Rembrandt Self Portrait with Two Circles

Rembrandt, ‘Self Portrait with Two Circles’

Jonathan Jones,writing on his Guardian blog as Kenwood reopened to the public after refurbishment, reckoned that ‘this is a supreme work of art, the best we have’:

Rembrandt, at the age of about 59, looks at us from the depth of his years, and with the authority of his craft. He has portrayed himself holding his brushes, maulstick and palette, in front of two circles drawn on a wall. Why the circles? Do they represent a sketch for a map of the world? Or is Rembrandt alluding, with this drawing on a brown surface, to stories that say the first picture was a drawing made with a stick in sand?

His eyes contain so much knowledge and melancholy that even looking at this painting on a computer screen, I get the eerie feeling that Rembrandt is looking back and weighing up my failures. You can deduce the power of the original.

He was a failure when he painted this, a proud man reduced to poverty by his enthusiastic spending – but here he throws it back on the burghers of Amsterdam. Art is not a business; it is a struggle with eternity. Rembrandt stands not proudly or arrogantly, but in the full consciousness of the heroic nature of his work.

First there is nothing, then there is a circle. The human hand, guided by the eye and the brain, makes a mark that only we can make – there are no other geometricians but us, no other animal that can draw or presumably conceive a circle.

Rembrandt was a famous man, but, living beyond his means in the decade after he had completed the commission to paint the ‘Night Watch’ in 1642, by the 1650s he was bankrupt. He had failed to pay off the debt on the house he had bought in 1639, had not accepted any commissions since 1642, and had spent large sums building his art collection.

There is a compelling, mysterious quality to Rembrandt’s later work that derives not just from the intensity of observation and the painterly execution, but from their remarkable stillness. John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, wrote that in the later paintings Rembrandt turned the traditional purpose of portraiture – to be an an advertisement for the sitter’s good fortune – against itself:

All has gone except a sense of the question of existence, of existence as a question. And the painter in him – who is both and less than the old man – has found the means to express just that, using a medium which has been traditionally developed to exclude any such question.

 ‘A Face To the World’ is a poem on Rembrandt’s self portraits written in Scottish dialect by Laura Cumming:

He kent as thae een lookt at his
Oot’e the dark he made in yon picter
He lookt on a man, himself, as on
A stane dish, or leaf fa’ in winter.
That calm was his strang sough.
But in that dark twa wee lichts,
Een that is hope like lit windaes
An in that hoose muckle business.

Kenwood

Arriving in London that lunchtime from a chilly Liverpool, it was as if we had skipped a season: the capital was basking in the warmth of a summer’s day under skies of uninterrupted blue.  The grounds of Kenwood were thronged with Londoners enjoying the sunshine after a winter of prolonged rain.  We joined them, making a leisurely circuit around the grounds, with the elegant house designed by Robert Adam always in sight.

The interior restoration of Robert Adam-designed rooms, and the redecoration of a further four rooms in the 18th century style, was recently completed, meaning that visitors can once again see the paintings once owned by Lord Iveagh, the last owner of the house who donated it to the nation, along with his art collection.

The house dates originally from the early 17th century. In 1754 it was bought by William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield who commissioned Robert Adam to remodel it.  This adds to the interest of the house for me, since I had been inspired by studying Lord Mansfield’s famous judgement in the Somersett Case for A-level History Special Paper back at school in the sixties.

Mansfield’s judgement in the Somersett Case came at a time when ships registered in Liverpool, Bristol and London carried more than half the slaves shipped in the world. James Somersett was a slave owned by Charles Stewart, an American customs officer who sailed to Britain for business, landing on 10 November 1769. A few days later Somersett attempted to escape. He was recaptured in November and imprisoned on the ship Ann and Mary, owned by Captain John Knowles and bound for the British colony of Jamaica. However, three people claiming to be Somersett’s godparents made an application before the Court of King’s Bench for a writ of habeas corpus to determine whether his imprisonment was legal.

On behalf of Somersett, it was argued that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England, nor any law made by Parliament recognised the existence of slavery, and slavery was therefore illegal. The arguments in court focused on legal details rather than humanitarian principles. Finally, on 22 June 1772 Mansfield gave his judgment, which ruled that a master could not carry his slave out of England by force, and concluded:

 The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the man must be discharged.

Mansfield’s judgement did not end the slave trade, but only confirmed that slavery was illegal in Britain. Although slavery was not completely abolished in the British Empire until 1834, Mansfield’s decision is considered to have been a significant step in recognising the illegality of slavery. As a result of Mansfield’s decision several thousand slaves were freed, some of whom remained with their masters as paid employees.

Back at school, I remember we were taught that Lord Mansfield declared in his ruling that ‘The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe’, but in fact no such words appear in the judgement. Instead, they were spoken in court by counsel for Somersett, citing a report of a case from 1569, in the reign of Elizabeth I, in which

One Cartwright brought a slave from Russia and would scourge him; for which he was questioned; and it was resolved, that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe in.

Dido Elizabeth Belle

Painting of Dido Belle with her cousin Elizabeth, attributed to Johann Zoffany

There’s an interesting personal twist to this case.  In Kenwood House there is a painting of Lord Mansfield’s great-niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle, illegitimate daughter of a captain in the Royal Navy, Sir John Lindsay, and an enslaved African woman known as Maria Belle. Mansfield was Lindsay’s uncle – and thus Dido’s great-uncle.

Lindsay sent the child Dido to live with his uncle at Kenwood. Mansfield and his wife were childless, but were already raising Lady Elizabeth Murray after her mother’s death. Both girls were about the same age. Dido lived at Kenwood for about thirty years, her position an unusual one, since she had been born the daughter of a slave, and as such would have been considered a slave outside England.

Dido was treated as a member of the family, though would not dine with the rest of the family if they had guests, only joining the ladies for coffee afterwards in the drawing-room. As she grew older, she took responsibility for the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood, and she also helped Mansfield with his correspondence – an indication that she was fairly well educated. The running of the dairy and poultry yard would have been a typical occupation for ladies of the gentry, but helping her uncle with his correspondence was less usual, since this was normally done by a male clerk. She  received an annual allowance of £30 10s, several times the wages of a domestic servant. By contrast, Elizabeth received around £100 – being an heiress in her own right.

When all is said and done, many in the social circles that Mansfield and wife moved in must have been appalled by the couple’s embrace of a woman who was both the daughter of a black slave, and illegitimate.  Certainly Mansfield was so worried for her future security that he specified in his will that his ‘mulatto’ great-niece was to be considered a free woman.

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