Sunday, 29 September 2013

'Stained glass by Kempe'

Wakehurst Place, in Sussex, is the most disappointing National Trust property I have ever visited. Of course, people tend not to go there for the pleasure of wandering from room to room of this once splendid Elizabethan mansion: Wakehurst is all about the spectacular gardens and the National Seed Bank.  Indeed, you are hardly aware as you walk round and look respectfully up at the tallest Christmas tree in England that the NT has anything to do with the estate at all; it seems to be only the partnership with Kew Gardens that counts here.

At least, though, the house is open – even if it lacks furniture and atmosphere. There are a few rooms reserved for wedding receptions and others apparently available for school groups on field trips. The ground floor has the feel of a one-time prep school waiting to be put to new use. There’s even a chapel, or there was: stripped now not only of its altar but of every other furnishing, the only thing left is the important stained glass. And even this is under threat.

I want to focus on the Crucifixion window, which was commissioned from the Studio of Charles Eamer Kempe in 1905. At first glance it is conventional enough: a ‘Stabat Mater’ scene with St Mary and St. John, the beloved disciple, standing either side of the Cross. The depiction of the dying Christ is conventional too: the crown of grotesque thorns is powerfully drawn, but the loincloth lacks the billowing defiance that is a distinctive feature of earlier Kempe Crucifixion windows. Why, then, do I call this window important?

Well, for a start the figures of Mary and John are finely drawn, St John particularly. Far from abject, he stares fixedly at his dying friend, and his pose suggests a firmness of purpose: only the whites of his knuckles as he grasps the hem of his cloak suggest the horror of the event.

Then the background to the scene is remarkable. Often such windows were designed with lozenge-shaped quarries to fill the space behind the central image and the accompanying figures. (A good example is the chancel window of Llandinabo Church, 1893, in Herefordshire, which has several features in common with the Wakehurst window.) Here, though, Kempe has chosen to depict an open sky with naturalistic clouds gathering on the horizon. Such expansive whiteness is rare in stained glass of any period and would be arresting enough, but it is the vista in front of the horizon that demands our close scrutiny.

In the foreground, the summit of Calvary is depicted as a dark and fertile meadow: harebells, gentians
and daisies grow among the grass and ferns. But the distant view beyond and below the Green Hill is what draws the eye: across all three lights – the narrow tall central light and the wider lower outer lights – Kempe’s chief draughtsman, John Lisle, has produced an extraordinary fantasy roofscape: a medieval city of cloud-capped towers, streaming pennants, bartizans, pantiles and buttressed walls. Some of the spires are topped with crosses, yet on the road down from Calvary towards the gateway into Jerusalem, Roman soldiers stand and chat at the city’s gatehouse, where the portcullis is raised.

Anachronism, even historical and cultural confusion on this heroic scale, has always been a feature of stained glass representation of biblical events. What is so arresting here, however, is the dramatic and exclusive use of silver staining for the whole composition of the distant city: black and white, silver and grey, ochre and umber, lemon and gold – these are the colours characteristically created by silver staining. And indeed they dominate the entire window and unify the whole design: the cross is silver stained, so are the great wedges hammered into the ground at its base. So, too, the capacious cloaks worn by Mary and John, and likewise the architectural framework of each light, where pairs of rather mannered classical columns support round-headed arches topped by chubby cherubs, from whose necks green foliate swags loop down to either side of the arches.

Extensive and exquisite use of silver staining is an absolute hallmark of Kempe glass, both sacred and secular - see for instance the panel originally made for Kempe’s own home, Old Place, Lindfield (not far from Wakehurst) - but now at the National Trust’s Wightwick Manor near Wolverhampton . But I can point to no other window that employs silver staining with such bizarre bravura as at Wakehurst.

To judge the strangeness of this window, compare it with a window
in Rendcomb Church, Gloucestershire. This, dating from a little earlier (1895), depicts the Supper at Emmaus, on the evening of the Resurrection. Again the roofs and towers of Jerusalem form a backdrop to the scene, but this time our viewpoint is not looking up to the face of Christ and then to the top of the cross and the bowed head of the dying Christ; now we are looking at him at eye-level across the table. So we look down onto the rather crudely drawn cottage loaf, from which Jesus has pulled the top-knot in the act of breaking bread. (We’ll overlook the fact that the bread should have been unleavened.) In the distance, blue-grey Jerusalem is silhouetted against the hills in the background: no silver staining there.  And the whole scene is framed by a kind of pergola supporting a vine dripping with huge pendulous bunches of grapes. One has only to contrast the range of colours in the Rendcomb window with the austerity of the Wakehurst palette, to see how striking this endangered window is.

It’s endangered because the architectural consultants who are advising the National Trust on what to do about Wakehurst Place want to take the Kempe windows out of the Chapel, so that the space can be (dread word!) ‘re-purposed’. They don’t like the fact that below the stained glass, the lower part of the three-light window has been blanked out with a stone infill, which, from the outside, looks rather clumsy. This was hardly Kempe’s fault: I assume that the infilling had been done originally to accommodate a tall reredos behind the altar and that the window, when designed by the Kempe Studio, was intended to come to the top of the reredos, and no lower. The reredos has disappeared, of course, along with everything else that once gave the Chapel meaning – except the stained glass. So to remove the glass would be absolutely the wrong thing to do. It should stay.

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: (i and ii) East window, Wakehurst Place, Sussex, by the Kempe Studio, 1905; (iii) Annunciation roundel, formerly at Old Place, Lindfield, and now at Wightwick Manor (courtesy, the National Trust); (iv) The Supper at Emmaus window, Rendcomb Church, Gloucestershire, Kempe, 1895. Photographs © the author.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Seamus Heaney full face

A week ago I turned on the TV, anxious for the latest news about Syria. Instead, I heard Seamus Heaney had died. In the week since, I have thought hard about whether to write about his work. In my teaching, reading and writing very few poets have meant as much as Heaney has. Certainly no living poet comes close. But now what, as a friend asked a couple of days ago, is there to add? Much that has appeared in print so far has been heartfelt, mourning the loss of a great poet and a benign and humble man who lived a private life in public. Some of it, though, has been too self-regarding: ‘me and my friend Seamus’ has become a tedious trope.

I have noted a tendency for people to adopt a Heaneyesque turn of phrase. Matthew Hollis, for instance, poet and poetry editor at Faber, described him in the Guardian as ‘a man of hearthside … showing countless readers what was possible in language, encouraging us to dig a little deeper, to break the skin of our consciousness and our articulacy.’ Had Hollis just been re-reading ‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’?

                        ... a spade-plate slid and soughed and plied
            At my buried ear, and the levered sod
            Got lifted up; then once I felt the air
I was like turned turf in the breath of God ….

Heaney himself sometimes wrote for the Guardian. In 2007, he described his own first close encounter with a photograph of the head of the Tollund Man:

No representation of the human face, before or since, not Veronica’s napkin or Rembrandt’s self-portraits, has had such a profound effect on me. No better example exists of how flesh and blood life can be transformed into the otherness of an image with the power, in Yeats’s words, “to engross the present and dominate memory.”  (Guardian Review, 24.11.07, p.6).

I remember discussing with the students I was then teaching how Yeats’s explanation of the power of an image ‘to engross the present and dominate memory’ gave an accurate and precise account of Heaney’s own poetry. A powerful demonstration too – ‘to engross’ suggests not only ‘to captivate’ but also ‘to add together, to give greater weight’. Such concentration of meaning in a single word (which itself seems to expand as you say it) is evident everywhere you look in Heaney’s writing.

Actually, the whole paragraph encapsulates Heaney the individual as well as the scholar and poet. It begins rhetorically, withholding the object of the first sentence (the poet himself) until the very end. Three negatives – No … not … [n]or – introduce an explosively positive affirmation. There is a glancing nod towards his Catholic childhood (Veronica’s napkin) while his reference to Rembrandt’s self-portraits reminds us of Heaney’s own unflinching self-scrutiny. It reminds us too that he admires this in other poets. Writing in the Irish Times in 1978 about Robert Lowell’s last volume of poems, Day by Day, and just after Lowell’s death, Heaney concluded:

His death makes us read this book with a new tenderness towards the fulfilments and sufferings of the life that lies behind it, and with renewed gratitude for the art that he could not and would not separate from that life. It is not as braced and profiled as, say, Life Studies; rather the profile has turned to us, full face, close, kindly, anxious, testing – a husband’s face, a father’s, a child’s, a patient’s, above all a poet’s.

Surely one could, with absolute accuracy, say precisely the same about Heaney and his own final volume, Human Chain?

 There’s more to mention about Heaney’s encounter with the image of the Tollund man. That anaphoric opening of the second sentence –  ‘No better example’ – introduces an assertion of the two-way commerce between life and the image of life: flesh and blood into art and vice versa. The dead head is nevertheless alive as an image that moves and troubles us now. But Heaney isn’t claiming this insight for himself. More and more in the latter part of his career, he shared with his readers the words of other poets, making us aware through translation and quotation of what others had already spoken that he wanted us to hear for ourselves. And in quoting here from Yeats, one Irishman coming after another, he reminds us of his own debts and inheritances.

While I was still watching the news last Friday evening, an email arrived from a good friend. It was the first of several messages  from pupils, students and colleagues, each one wanting to tell me how much reading and reflecting on Heaney’s poetry has meant to them. This first message read:

It's pleasing, at least, that [Heaney’s death] is making headlines …. I hope the focus remains on his extraordinary contribution as an original poet, and a champion of old poetic texts, not on the minor excursions into Irish politics.

Our times together reading, discussing and studying his poetry remain amongst my strongest and fondest memories of our adventures in literature.

Heaney’s poems, allusive and rich in their references to other times and other writers, are themselves adventures in literature.  I’m unsure, though, about the ‘minor excursions into Irish politics’. For Heaney, the impact in 1969 of ‘the original heraldic murderous encounter between Protestant yeoman and Catholic rebel’ was a watershed:

From that moment the problems of poetry moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament …. I felt it imperative to discover a field of force in which, without abandoning fidelity to the processes and experience of poetry as I have outlined them, it would be possible to encompass the perspectives of a humane reason and at the same time to grant the religious intensity of the violence its deplorable authenticity and complexity. ('Feeling into Verse')

This balancing act became a burden. In ‘Weighing In’, a poem written at a time when the Irish Troubles seemed more intractable than ever, he confessed:

Two sides to every question, yes, yes, yes …
But every now and then, just weighing in
Is what it must come down to ….

He condemned himself for having once ‘held back when I should have drawn blood’, concluding that his hesitation betrayed

A deep mistaken chivalry, old friend.
At this stage only foul play cleans the slate.

But here Heaney was, for once, wrong. His chivalry was not mistaken. As the playwright Frank McGuinness has said, ‘During the darkest days of the Northern Ireland conflict he was our conscience: a conscience that was accurate and precise in what it articulated’. 

 As with his conscience, so with his poetry.  Heaney was, to use a phrase from the Anglo-Saxon poem 'Deor', a leoðcræftig monn, which phrase he himself rendered as ‘master of verse-craft’. Indeed, now he has, like Yeats in Auden’s memorable words, ‘become his admirers’, it seems to me his own words are his best memorial:

Full face, foursquare, eyelevel, carved in stone.

Adrian Barlow

[illustration: a page from Guardian, 31.8.13,  plus copies of Heaney’s first and last collections of poetry.

[references: quotations from Matthew Hollis and Frank McGuinness are taken from the Guardian, cited above .‘The Tollund Man in Springtime’ is in Heaney’s collection District and Circle (2006); ‘Weighing In’ is in The Spirit Level (1996) and the line ‘Full face, foursquare …’ opens the poem ‘The Pattern’ in Human Chain (2010). The essays ‘Full Face’ (about Robert Lowell) and ‘Feeling into Words’ are to be found in Heaney’s Preoccupations, Faber, 1984 edition.

I have written about Heaney before: