Remembering Jack

A couple of years ago we made our first trip to Ty Isaf. As we drove through the sublime Cambrian Mountains (Dr. Syntax would understand), with red kites wheeling overhead, the anticipation was palpable. We had recently bought our first painting of Clive’s, and we were on our way to collect it. “Hold”, “Hervé and the Wolf”, two titles, twice the allure.

Herve and the Wolf

Inevitably sat-nav let us down in the last mile, and we foundered on the brink, knocking doors, searching vainly for the white house on the hill. At last we found the turn, drove down the narrow track, and met a car coming towards us. As our paths crossed we caught our first glimpse of Peter. He welcomed us like long-lost friends, though we’d never met. “Off to collect the vegetables … see you soon.” And away he went.

As we drove through the gate and approached the house our gaze was met with a perceptive but welcoming stare. There, on the window seat in the bay he sat. It was Jack, silent sentinel, bright of eye, salon savvy guardian of this place. Clive opened the door, but it was Jack who greeted us first; generously, enthusiastically, unreservedly.

When Peter returned, laden with fresh greens, we pulled on our boots and headed for the woods. First Clive and Maggie, then Peter and I, and then Jack, the mercurial shifter, leading, following, darting, catching, always delighting.

That evening the conversation ran freely, the fire burned brightly, our welcome to this most welcoming of homes was complete. My companion for much of the time was Jack. Snuggled close to me on the sofa, his warmth on my leg, I played subconsciously with the velvet nap of his ear. Kindest soul.

The following morning he joined us at breakfast, taking his place assuredly behind one, then another of us, on our chairs.

As a parting gift that day Maggie gave Clive and Peter a diminutive felted figure of Jack she had made. Having met him now it seemed to have caught his glorious joie de vivre.

Felt Jack

A year or so later we returned to Ty Isaf; another trip, another painting. On our first visit we had been seduced by a stunning painting in Clive and Peter’s own collection. There it hung on the first-floor landing, “The Rapture” a glorious interpretation of the story of Tobias and the Angel. It was beyond the scale of anything we had bought before, but oh what a picture. I am eternally grateful for Clive’s generosity in letting us take it home; I know how much it meant to him.

The Rapture 2

But we had devious deeds to do that day too. Unbeknown to Maggie I had bought her another painting, which was to be her Christmas present. But how to smuggle it into the van without her knowing? Jack was to be the lynchpin in this masquerade. Whilst he and Clive masterfully diverted Maggie’s attention, Peter and I slipped out of the rear door and squirreled-away the offending picture in the van. The subterfuge worked like a dream.

So why do I write this, so long after the event?

Dear Jack left us yesterday. Left Clive and Peter with an unfathomable loss, yet hearts brim-full of love and joy.

When guests come to stay with us they wake each morning to The Rapture. It fills the wall with its sensuous colour, its vivid symbolism, its gloriously skewed landscapes, and at its heart the most tender of portraits … dear Jack.

Jack close up

I look upon this little soul every day, and as I recall that soft velvet nap between finger and thumb, I cannot help but smile.

A Cathedral Miscellany


Image courtesy of Dean and Chapter Worcester Cathedral

During the closed season at Compton Verney I revert back to volunteering at the Cathedral Library in Worcester (UK). Once a week I return to the magnificent “new” library (new because the books were moved from their former repository to their present room some time in the mid fourteenth century!). And here I indulge myself wholeheartedly, but with a purpose, believe me!

As volunteers in this magnificent place we are encouraged to research into the peculiarities, vagaries, and wonders of the collection. The cathedral library houses the second largest collection of medieval manuscripts in any UK cathedral (second only to Durham). Here, among the Saxon, Norman, medieval, and early-modern manuscripts, and the incunabula and early printed books, we roam free, searching for tales untold, reviving long lost memories. Our aim is to unlock some of the secrets of the place, and share them as best we can on the Cathedral Library’s blog site.

The cathedral librarian’s trust and generosity is such that some of us are free to follow our chosen lines of research, or merely let serendipity lead us by the hand. And in so doing the most revealing and intoxicating gems come to life.

Since December 2016 I’ve written three blogs for the library, ranging from the mysteries of fifteenth century printing, to the curious spectacles of the audit feasts at the cathedral. Here are links to my pieces (below), and there will be others over the next few weeks.

A Tale of Types: William Caxton in Worcester Cathedral Library

Worcester to York: A Road Much Travelled

Feasting and Finance: The Curious History of Audit Feasts at Worcester Cathedral

Please find the time to browse the other blogs too, and you too can wander through the marvellous world of Worcester Cathedral Library.

My thanks go to Dr. David Morrison, Librarian of Worcester Cathedral Library, for his generosity and support.


(c) Richard Woodward (nephew); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Leaf-lamp black, wooded heights
Corvid cry that plants the seed
Latent ardour, simmering need
Ruffles the accepted creed

Step out lightly, charting ways
Through possibility’s wild dance
Punctuate passage with fervent glance
Faltering steps towards blind chance

Shaded corner, solitary seat
Twisted wire, ring of blue
Yearning’s symbols, varied hue
Designed to hold, preserve the view

Turn one leaf, text on text
Fan through passions, displace air
Perfect draught, my love is there
Sighs, breaths, brief despair



Craven girl
Gossamer fine
Fearful eyed
Shaded voice
Reed flute timbre
Sour lip bruise
Claw feet rip
Yearning cut

Bloody mine
Gut scrape
Embalming kiss
Beauty scourge
Loving flinch
Ashen soul
Wounding touch
Bestial crawl

Chastened child
Finger slight
Breathing touch
Guileful scent
Slick limbed
Dew dripped
Tight inside
Measured kill

One Autumn Day







To live again that longed-for day
That came and passed too soon
Damn time that draws out hope yet steals the moment
That drags deep yearning in its wake
And parts me from my sleep

To wander past mellifluous stone, and stroll the garden’s gravel
And dance around what cannot be
Share scents and quiet confessions
Tell tales of fathers, sisters, lovers
That tested, tempted, and delighted
To share the sun, and pain and hurt, and lighten loads so few can see
This autumn day that is, and yet can never be
And close our eyes and wish the hand could hold the one that craves it

To talk of Shelley’s Plant, and Music Rooms, and Hawks, and Black Eyed Dogs
Scale stairs, scan shelves, seek books to share
Brush arms and feel the frisson there
A gift … read this one dearest

And still you doubt your beauty
And so I stand you there,
And tell you so, your back against the museum wall
And if, and if … know this my sweet
Had fate but dealt another hand
That I’d be kneeling at your feet

And so I touch your seat, look back, then drive
Missing, hurting, longing, loving
And now another autumn day
Yet that day lives in me

Save Our Libraries

Library 2To borrow John Lennon’s timeless lyric “I read the news today, oh boy”. Although if the truth be known, I “saw” the news, and the news was bad. There the familiar story went, of financial constraints, the seeming necessity to adapt to changing demands, the dubious (I’m being kind here) rationale that I should accept the fact that the old ways are changing, the old ways are redundant, the old ways are so much romanticism, so much cant. And the source of all this questionable wisdom? An economist; a young economist; a young economist brim-full of the simplistic, sterile, humanity crushing logic of the radicalised acolyte. And the object of her spleen? Our libraries.

So let me lay my cards on the table, I admit it, I have a vested interest here. And why? Because I took my degree in librarianship, and spent the first seven years of my career in academic libraries. You might say I’m a professional then, or was. But that’s not the real reason. Hell no! The real reason I have a vested interest is that I’m a citizen of this country; a citizen with rights and aspirations, brim full with tradition and experience. I once had what I want others to have too. I once enjoyed a privilege, nay – a right, to a public service, a longstanding provision, which helped shape the man I am today. And it galls me beyond reason that that universal right should be taken away from us all, as a matter of economic (and political) expediency.

So who do I think I am to care so much? I’ll tell you who … a boy brought up in a humble but fiercely proud working class family that nonetheless held dear to the principles of lifetime-learning and personal enrichment. We read, we questioned, we learnt, and we staunchly applied that learning to our lives, and brought it to bear on our interactions with others. Books were always in our home; some we bought, and some we borrowed. And those we borrowed came from the local public library.

Did you get that? “Public” library. You know the thing – libraries for the people; libraries as a democratic right; libraries that democratised too the provision of learning and entertainment materials. Libraries for all people, of all ages, from all backgrounds, that were local to your community, and free at the point of provision. Proud and valuable places run by proud and valuable people.

But what of them now, in our modern (what a chill that word sends down your spine) world? Are they to go the way of the costermonger, the chimney sweep, the bobby on the beat, not least the government of the people for the people? It would seem so.

But why all the fuss? What have libraries ever done for us? We’ve got the internet at our fingertips, what more could we want? I’ll tell you what. We want a place that is truly open and accessible to all, that is free at the point of enrichment, and that requires no investment in expensive technology to access it (and yes Ms. Economist, that investment is all too real and all too prohibitive for many poor people – remember them?). We want to embrace the opportunity to delight and benefit from the marvellous serendipity of browsing the shelves, discovering new authors, new ideas, new opportunities; stumbling across that inspiring reference work when you thought you wanted a novel. Delighting in the marvellously skewed world of “Winnie the Pooh” or “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”, when you know Dad has been made redundant, and Mum is on a zero-hours contract, and they can’t afford to buy you a copy of your own, bless them. And bless the philanthropists too, men like Carnegie who made their money, and cherished the opportunity to give something back (a sadly rare impulse amongst our contemporary financial and political elite).

And while we’re here, let’s spare a quick thought for the children of the poor. Go on, just try for a moment Ms. Economist. Spare a thought for how hard it was to kindle (no pun intended) their desire to read, to learn, to discover. Then think on how easy it is for you to extinguish that opportunity, to impoverish them, to watch that light gutter and die.

So I say, without reservation or fear of censure, damn the tunnel-visioned, long-term economic view, when it comes at the cost of our cultural identity, heart and soul. A metaphoric pox on the impoverished, academy-driven sweat-shop mentality, where the politically-cloned mathematicians, scientists, and financiers sneer down from their self-constructed pedestals, held aloft by self-interest and cultural myopia, at the arts for their “negligible” value.

How is it that our impoverished little Britain, once the proud exporter of taste, culture, design and vision, prefers now to export the very source of those things, rather than export their outcomes? How is it that we come to build a future upon the unstable foundations of finance, and let the fruits of our genius as a nation wither? The British car industry is gone forever. Our manufacturing industry is gone forever. Our healthcare, free at the point of delivery is in terminal decline. Rural public transport too, is gone forever. And libraries…remember them?

Since retirement I now waste my days (indeed – no financier I) in the worthless pursuit of cultural satisfaction. I work in an art gallery, and I write. As a self-published author I reluctantly embraced the allure of the electronic book. To many like me, the ubiquitous Kindle is a boon. But I tell you this, I would sacrifice it in a heartbeat for a volume or two on the library shelves.

So for pity’s sake … our public libraries …  let’s shout their praise, not sing their requiem


Worcester Priory’s Visitations

Wolsey Injunctions

Wolsey’s Injunctions. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been at the cathedral library in Worcester, researching the pre-Reformation visitations to the priory of Worcester, in preparation for my latest blog.

Having been married to a teacher for 30-odd years, the raw anticipation of an impending OFSTED visit was usually an emotionally draining event. So spare a thought for Prior More who saw three major visitations during the latter part of his priority. The findings, and subsequent injunctions issued, may seem harsh; however, it must be said, given the contemporary evidence (and allowing even for the occasional personal axe to grind), he really should have seen it coming!

To read my full blog about Cardinal Wolsey’s, Archibishop Cranmer’s, and Bishop Latimer’s withering reports, just click the link here: Worcester Visitations



Fold the year back, blind upon itself
Layer darkness over shade
Shun time’s fluctuations, and cast light’s
Insinuations to the inky fissure’s depths

Damn glimmer and glisten, snuff-out glow
Draw close enfolding, perpetual night
And drive out sullied day
To die extinguished in the silvered eye

Cast clouded gaze on wasted lands,
Sketch pewter shades of fractured walls,
And dirty mustard straw,
On each fading day’s sullied page

Bend the tree’s back to blight and blast
Clothe branch and bark in death’s pale hue
Twist fibres taught and sinews shred
Glimpse bud-free fingers stab the bloodied sky

Hear cloven, bristled or rough shod foot
Tread fractured, slivered glass strewn low
And skid scant progress
On, ever on, towards Spring’s beguiling dawn

*  *  *  *  *

And yet, and yet
Pray, let me stay
Drag me no further
It suits me here

Shade and Shine – Discovering Compton Verney’s Suggested Forms

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

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

And so to China …

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

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

And then to Northern Europe …

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

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

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

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

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

Sebastian Cox Cropped 2

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

The Winged Serpent and the Art of Seduction

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

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

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

*  *  *  *  *

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

Comton Verney 39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lot's Daughter

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