Paul Nash at Tate Britain: searching for a different angle of vision

Paul Nash at Tate Britain: searching for a different angle of vision

Paul Nash first discovered Wittenham Clumps, two ‘dome-like hills’ in Oxfordshire with a ‘curiously symmetrical sculptural form’  in 1911. Between 1912 and 1946 he would paint them repeatedly as he sought to encapsulate there and in other places (such as the South Downs and the stone circles of Aylesbury) the idea of a ‘spirit of place’. Yet his engagement with the mystery and magic he found in certain landscapes was only one strand in the rich legacy of work left by Paul Nash. In his time he was official war artist in two world wars, and a pioneering figure at the heart of a group of artists who brought surrealism into British art, a painter who utilised photography, collage and assemblage in pursuit of his vision.

All of these aspects of Paul Nash’s work are explored in depth in Tate Britain’s vast and definitive exhibition which we saw while in London. It is a huge show of more than 160 works which convincingly presents Nash as not only a war artist of great importance, and a pioneering figure of the British avant-garde in the 1930s, but also as a romantic in the tradition of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, who, like them, created visionary landscapes drenched in symbolism and painted as if in a dream. Continue reading “Paul Nash at Tate Britain: searching for a different angle of vision”


Jim Al-Khalili ponders the beginning and the end of the universe

Jim Al-Khalili ponders the beginning and the end of the universe

Phew! Topics can’t get any bigger than this. On BBC Four this past fortnight, in The Beginning and the End of the Universe, the ever-lucid Jim Al-Khalili tackled two cosmic questions: how did the universe begin, and how will it end? I’ve written here before about my admiration for Al-Khalili’s ability to explain clearly and with elegance very difficult, abstract concepts (at least for a non-scientist) without ever dumbing-down. In these two documentaries he told the very human – and gripping – story of the scientists, both men and women, who in the last hundred years have succeeded in boggling our minds with concepts like the Big Bang, dark matter, and dark energy, as well as scientific tools such as redshift, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, and gravitational lensing. Continue reading “Jim Al-Khalili ponders the beginning and the end of the universe”

A walk beneath the Thames and a song that will play forever

A walk beneath the Thames and a song that will play forever

Greenwich 1

The view from the north bank of the Thames

Heading for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, we decided to take the Docklands Light Railway, past the improbably named Mudchute, to Island Gardens, the last stop on the north bank of the Thames. We wanted to take advantage of the excellent views across the river to the complex of elegant 17th century buildings at Greenwich – Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House, and the Royal Observatory and the Greenwich Hospital for injured and disabled seamen designed by Christopher Wren.

Greenwich 2

The Cutty Sark at Greenwich with the glazed dome of the foot tunnel entrance on the right

Another attraction is that from Island Gardens you can walk to Greenwich under the Thames using the Greenwich Foot Tunnel.  The tunnel was opened in 1902 to allow workers living on the south side of the Thames to reach their workplaces in the London docks and shipyards then located in or near the Isle of Dogs.

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Entering the tunnel

The cast-iron tunnel is 1,215 feet long and burrows 50 feet below the river bed.  Its cast-iron rings are lined with concrete which has been surfaced with some 200,000 white glazed tiles.  At each end, access to the tunnel is by means of a round entrance hall with a glazed dome.  There are lifts as well as steps!

Greenwich foot tunnel entrancea

The tunnel entrance at Greenwich

We emerged from the tunnel on the south side to what was originally the site of Greenwich Palace, built by Henry VII and the birthplace of the Tudor queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. Having fallen into disrepair during the Civil War, the palace was demolished and replaced in 1692 by the Royal Hospital for Seamen, a permanent home and healthcare facility for disabled sailors of the Royal Navy which operated until 1869. The building was designed by Christopher Wren, who was also the architect responsible for the Royal Greenwich Observatory up the hill beyond.

Our main purpose in coming here was to see the current exhibition at the National Maritime Musuem – Turner and the Sea (to be the subject of the next post), housed in The Queen’s House, designed by Inigo Jones for Anne of Denmark, wife of James I.  Jones had recently spent three years in Italy studying Roman and Renaissance architecture. It was his first important commission and the first fully Classical building built in England.  The building was completed in 1619.

Queen House colonnade

The Queen’s House colonnade, a 19th century addition

After seeing the Turner exhibition, we climbed the hill to the Greenwich Observatory, commissioned in 1675 by King Charles II who also created the position of Astronomer Royal to serve as the director of the observatory and to

Apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying of the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation.

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The Greenwich Observatory

The Observatory was the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain and played a major part in the history of astronomy, especially in solving problems of navigation and timekeeping. Both were critical to the development of colonisation and overseas trade in the 17th century, and representative of the Enlightenment focus on scientific method and knowledge.  The Observatory is probably best known as the location of the prime meridian, and on the day we were there groups of schoolchildren were excitedly photographing other standing astride the meridian.

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Astride the Greenwich meridian

If you climb the winding stairs to the upper section of the observatory, you emerge inside the onion dome which houses the 28-inch Greenwich refracting telescope; completed in 1893, it’s the largest of its kind in the UK and the seventh largest in the world.  We were here for something less astronomical though, but inspired nevertheless by similar questions of time and space.

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The 28-inch Greenwich refracting telescope

Entering the dome, you slowly become aware that you are hearing music of an ethereal beauty: ringing tones, bells and unearthly vibrations.  This is Longplayer, a piece of music designed to last for one thousand years. It started to play at the start of the millennium in 1999, and if all goes to plan it will continue without repetition until 31 December 2999. Then it will start over again.

Longplayer was designed and composed by Jem Finer, formerly of The Pogues (he co-wrote several of the band’s songs, including ‘Fairytale of New York’, with Shane MacGowan).  We had wanted to visit Longplayer ever since encountering another Jem Finer sound installation – Score for a Hole in the Ground – while walking in a wood in Kent.

Longplayer is a piece of music designed to last 1000 years without ever repeating itself, and currently exists in both online and live versions (at the Royal Observatory, inside a 19th century lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London Docklands, and at the Science Museum. Longplayer is based on an existing piece of music, 20 minutes and 20 seconds in length, which is processed by computer using a simple algorithm. This gives a large number of variations, which, when played consecutively, gives a total expected runtime of 1000 years. The music was composed using Tibetan singing bowls and gongs, which are able to create a range of sounds by either striking or rolling pieces of wood around the rims. This source music was recorded in December 1999.

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Longplayer reflects several of Jem Finer’s concerns, particularly relating to systems, long-duration processes and extremes of scale in time and space. Finer explains on his website that:

Longplayer grew out of a conceptual concern with problems of representing and understanding the fluidity and expansiveness of time. While it found form as a musical composition, it can also be understood as a living, 1000-year-long process – an artificial life form programmed to seek its own survival strategies. More than a piece of music, Longplayer is a social organism, depending on people – and the communication between people – for its continuation, and existing as a community of listeners across centuries.

An important stage in the development of the project was the establishment of the Longplayer Trust, a lineage of present and future custodians invested with the responsibility to research and implement strategies for Longplayer’s survival, to ask questions as to how it might keep playing, and to seek solutions for an unknown future.

As to how the long duration of the piece has been achieved, Finer says:

Longplayer is composed in such a way that the character of its music changes from day to day and – though it is beyond the reach of any one person’s experience – from century to century. It works in a way somewhat akin to a system of planets, which are aligned only once every thousand years, and whose orbits meanwhile move in and out of phase with each other in constantly shifting configurations. In a similar way, Longplayer is predetermined from beginning to end – its movements are calculable, but are occurring on a scale so vast as to be all but unknowable.

Longplayer has been playing since 1999 and will continue to play till 2999. On the 12 September 2009, 1000 minutes was performed live at The Roundhouse in London:

Leaving the Observatory, we walked back down the hill.  Along the way there is a dramatic view of the City skyline, its steel and glass towers dwarfing the classically-proportioned buildings on the near bank of the Thames.

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I found the view deeply depressing; it provoked the thought that here, in concentrated form, was an image that spoke of the contrast between an age of enlightenment, distinguished by scientific enquiry and the pursuit of human dignity, and one in thrall to the pursuit of wealth and the power of financial institutions (see their names emblazoned there on the towers!); between an architecture whose proportions were in tune with the human scale, and one with no humanity which subjugates humans to little more than ants.  I thought of Blake’s ‘London’:

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. 
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

See also

Crepuscular rays

Crepuscular rays

I took these photos looking out over Cardigan Bay in the early evening while we were staying with Annie in Harlech. My cloud book tells me the phenomena captured here are crepuscular rays.

Crepuscular rays

They are rays of sunlight that appear to radiate from a single point in the sky. These rays, streaming through gaps in clouds are parallel columns of sunlit air separated by darker cloud shadowed regions. The rays appear to diverge because of perspective effects, like the parallel furrows of freshly ploughed fields or a road apparently narrowing with distance. Airborne dust, inorganic salts, organic aerosols, small water droplets and the air molecules themselves scatter the sunlight and make the rays visible.

The variety seen here, streaming downwards from the sun, is sometimes known as ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, taking its name from the episode in Genesis in which Jacob dreams of a ladder connecting earth to heaven, on which hosts of angels could be seen ascending and descending. Depicted here by William Blake:

William Blake, Jacob's Ladder, c 1799
William Blake, Jacob’s Ladder, c 1799

Bruce Springsteen & The Seeger Sessions Band: Jacob’s Ladder

We are climbing, Jacob’s ladder…
Every rung goes higher and higher
We are brothers, sisters, all…


Malorie Blackman: My Life in Verse

The BBC Poetry season ended tonight with another engrossing  film presented by children’s author Malorie Blackman. It’s been a wonderful season – all praise to whoever came up with the concept at the BBC.  And let’s have more of this kind of TV!

Malorie described how poetry had been important to her at different times in her life. The daughter of migrants from Barbados, Malorie was born in London in 1962 and in her childhood and teens she struggled to find her own way in the face of preconceptions about what a black girl from South London could and could not do in life. ‘Basically,’ she says, ‘we were considered factory fodder.’

She was always drawn to poetry and sought it out – in all its diverse forms. ‘It was always one of the first things I would reach for,’ she says. As a teenager struggling with racism she was inspired by ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil’ from Myles Coverdale’s translation of Psalm 23 from the 1611 King James Bible, by Blake’s Jerusalem, and by the lyrics of Marvin Gaye (What’s Goin’ On). The flowering of black British poetry in the 1980s came as a revelation, setting her on the road to becoming a novelist herself.

Myles Coverdale (trans), Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

William Blake, Jerusalem

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Benjamin Zephaniah, The British (serves 60 million)

Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.

Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.

Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans,
Trinidadians and Bajans with some Ethiopians, Chinese,
Vietnamese and Sudanese.

Then take a blend of Somalians, Sri Lankans, Nigerians
And Pakistanis,
Combine with some Guyanese
And turn up the heat.

Sprinkle some fresh Indians, Malaysians, Bosnians,
Iraqis and Bangladeshis together with some
Afghans, Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese
And Palestinians
Then add to the melting pot.

Leave the ingredients to simmer.

As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish
Binding them together with English.

Allow time to be cool.

Add some unity, understanding, and respect for the future,
Serve with justice
And enjoy.

Note: All the ingredients are equally important. Treating one ingredient better than another will leave a bitter unpleasant taste.

Warning: An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all.

Grace Nichols, Wherever I Hang

I leave me people, me land, me home
For reasons I not too sure
I forsake de sun
And de humming-bird splendour
Had big rats in de floorboard
So I pick up me new-world-self
And come to this place call England
At first I feeling like I in a dream –
De misty greyness
I touching the walls to see if they real
They solid to de seam
And de people pouring from de underground system
Like beans
And when I look up to de sky
I see Lord Nelson high – too high to lie.

And is so I sending home photos of myself
Among de pigeons and de snow
And is so I warding off de cold
And is so, little by little
I begin to change my calypso ways
Never visiting nobody
Before giving them clear warning
And waiting me turn in queue
Now, after all this time
I get accustom to de English life
But I still miss back-home side
To tell you de truth
I don’t know really where I belaang
Yes, divided to de ocean
Divided to de bone
Wherever I hang me knickers – that’s my home.

James Berry, Benediction

Thanks to the ear
that someone may hear

Thanks to seeing
that someone may see

Thanks to feeling
that someone may feel

Thanks to touch
that one may be touched

Thanks to flowering of white moon
and spreading shawl of black night
holding villages and cities together

James Berry, Fantasy of an African Boy

Such a peculiar lot
we are, we people
without money, in daylong
yearlong sunlight, knowing
money is somewhere, somewhere.

Everybody says it’s big
bigger brain bother now,
money. Such millions and millions
of us don’t manage at all
without it, like war going on.

And we can’t eat it. Yet
without it our heads alone
stay big, as lots and lots do,
coming from nowhere joyful,
going nowhere happy.

We can’t drink it up. Yet
without it we shrivel when small
and stop forever
where we stopped, as lots and lots do.

We can’t read money for books.
Yet without it we don’t
read, don’t write numbers,
don’t open gates in other countries,
as lots and lots never do.

We can’t use money to bandage
sores, can’t pound it
to powder for sick eyes
and sick bellies. Yet without
it, flesh melts from our bones.

Such walled-round gentlemen
overseas minding money! Such
bigtime gentlemen, body guarded
because of too much respect
and too many wishes on them:

too many wishes, everywhere,
wanting them to let go
magic of money, and let it fly
away, everywhere, day and night,
just like dropped leaves in wind!

(winner of the Poetry Society National Poetry Competition in 1981)

Jackie Kay, Old Tongue

When I was eight, I was forced south.
Not long after, when I opened
my mouth, a strange thing happened.
I lost my Scottish accent.
Words fell off my tongue:
Eedyit, dreich, wabbit, crabbit
Strummer, teuchter, heidbanger,
So you are, so am ur, see you, see ma ma,
Shut yer geggie or I’ll gie you the malkie!

My own vowels start to stretch like my bones
And I turn my back on Scotland.
Words disappeared like the dead of the night,
New words marched in: ghastly, awful,
Quite dreadful, scones said like stones.
Pokey hats into ice-cream cones.
Oh where did all my words go –
my old words, my lost words?
Did you ever feel sad when you lost a word,
did you ever try to call it back
Like calling in the sea?
If I could have found my words wandering,
I swear I would have taken them in,
Swallowed them whole, knocked them back.

Out in the English soil, my old words
buried themselves. It made my mother’s blood boil
I cried one day with the wrong sound in my mouth;
I wanted them back; I wanted my old accent back,
my old tongue. My dour soor Scottish tongue.
Sing-songy. I wanted to gie it laldie.

Jackie Kay, Darling

You might forget the exact sound of her voice
Or how her face looked when sleeping.
You might forget the sound of her quiet weeping
Curled into the shape of a half moon,

When smaller than her self, she seemed already to be leaving
Before she left, when the blossom was on the trees
And the sun was out, and all seemed good in the world.
I held her hand and sang a song from when I was a girl –

Heil Ya Ho Boys, Let her go Boys
And when I stopped singing she had slipped away,
Already a slip of a girl again, skipping off,
Her heart light, her face almost smiling.

And what I didn’t know or couldn’t see then
Was that she hadn’t really gone.
The dead don’t go till you do, loved ones.
The dead are still here holding our hands.

Hurricane Hits England read by Grace Nichols

It took a hurricane, to bring her closer
To the landscape
Half the night she lay awake,
The howling ship of the wind
Its gathering rage,
Like some dark ancestral spectre,
Fearful and reassuring:
Talk to me Huracan
Talk to me Oya
Talk to me Shango
And Hattie,
My sweeping, back-home cousin.
Tell me why you visit.
An English coast?
What is the meaning
Of old tongues
Reaping havoc
In new places?
The blinding illumination,
Even as you short-
Circuit us
Into further darkness?
What is the meaning of trees
Falling heavy as whales
Their crusted roots
Their cratered graves?
O Why is my heart unchained?
Tropical Oya of the Weather,
I am aligning myself to you,
I am following the movement of your winds,
I am riding the mystery of your storm.
Ah, sweet mystery;
Come to break the frozen lake in me,
Shaking the foundations of the very trees within me,
That the earth is the earth is the earth.


William Blake: The River of Life

I visited a small exhibition down at the Tate today – William Blake: The River of Life.  The exhibition explores the themes that pervaded Blake’s work throughout his life – childhood and innocence and death, resurrection and the afterlife. The images selected are overwhelmingly religious.  I found it difficult to become engaged with the material.

From the exhibition notes:

Blake’s work expresses a singular and personal mythology that draws upon narratives and themes from Biblical subjects and classical poetry. For Blake, creative inspiration and religious belief were inseparable. In his most dazzling works he expresses almost limitless imaginative ambition. His intent was ‘To see a world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wildflower’.

Blake held radical religious and political convictions. Believing in the importance of a spiritual art in a materialistic age, he became convinced that there existed a richer spiritual world beyond physical existence. This display presents Blake’s preoccupation with the life cycle, not as a predetermined journey but rather as part of a totality within which life, death and resurrection belong to a single spiritual realm.

The first section of the exhibition, ‘Paradise Lost: Innocence and Childhood’, takes Blake’s The River of Life (c.1805, top) as its point of departure:

Here Christ is depicted leading children through the stream of time, which flows between innocence and experience separated on opposing riverbanks. Blake’s view of Man’s creation by God offers insight into his philosophies. He regarded each man a freespirit.  Our loss of Paradise occurs not in the Garden of Eden, but at our moment of birth, with man dragged from the spiritual realm and enslaved by being given material form. Blake equated the childhood state with divinity.

Age Teaching Youth (c.1785-90) meditates on the relationship between innocence and experience. The image of a seated adult with children or youths reading occurs in a number of Blake’s works from the 1780s, including the title page to Songs of Innocence.   It has been suggested that the leaf and tendril motif on the dress of the youth in the foreground (who seems to be drawing) identifies him as representative of a mind limited to nature and its imitation. The old man might represent the law, which is contradicted by the girl who, gesturing heavenwards towards the infinite, might represent imagination.

The next section of the exhibition, ‘Experience and Wisdom’, explores Blake’s perception of wisdom and his rejection of rationalism:

In Blake’s view exposure to a material world where corruption and adherence to religious dogma prevail over mercy brings loss of innocence. Wisdom, he felt, could only be gained through our own liberty and self-discovery. Art, he felt, provided insight into the metaphysical world and was potentially redemptive for humanity. In his search for wisdom Blake rejected mere scientific and artistic speculation, but instead sought the demanding spiritual surety available from the imaginative spirit. Blake’s depiction of Isaac Newton, the personification of reason, expresses Blake’s rejection of scientific rationalism. Through the accidental nature of the colours and texture of the rock  Blake asserts his belief in the supremacy of the creative imagination. Likewise, Los and Orc (c.1792-3) is pure visionary mysticism, the two figures representing disparate aspects of the human mind, embattled in attempted reconciliation.

The section ‘Death and the Afterlife’ explores Blake’s visions of the afterlife:

Through visionary experience he claimed to converse with the Archangels. He wrote: ‘heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates…voices of Celestial inhabitants are. . . distinctly heard, & their forms more distinctly seen’. At the very end of his own life he told his wife Catherine that they would never be parted. As well as expressing his affection for his Iife-Iong companion, the sentiment confirms Blake’s belief in a heightened metaphysical realm. Throughout his work the Bible provides Blake’s intellectual foundation, and many of his works concern Christ’s Crucifixion and  Resurrection.