Sunday, 23 September 2012

Tolkien's Grave

For the eight years of his undergraduate and postgraduate studies at Oxford, my son Justin and I have been planning to visit J.R.R. Tolkien’s grave in Wolvercote cemetery; and this weekend, accompanied by my wife, we have at last done so. And very evidently we were by no means the only Tolkien fans to have visited it this year. A birthday card with some messages in Elvish had survived the English weather since early January; a beautiful drawing of a romantic Elvish couple – Tolkien and his wife as Beren and Luthien? – was wrapped in polythene to protect it from the elements; various foreign coins had been left as tokens of devotion around the stonework; and on the rosebush growing in the centre all sorts of bracelets and trinkets were dangling. It all added up to an extraordinary celebration of Tolkien’s mythological vision; and as we quietly left, the next small group of literary pilgrims was making its way across the Catholic section of the churchyard to pay respects to Tolkien too.

Wolvercote cemetery in North Oxford is much more accessible than Morris’s grave in Kelmscott, but could we imagine the Philip Webb tombstone for the Morris family as festooned as the Tolkien grave was? With red flags and bunting attached by socialist and communist admirers, perhaps, and a collective March 24th birthday card with tributes written in the curiously archaic English of the late romances - not to mention many small arts-and-crafts artefacts strewn around as tokens of devotion, and even a Pre-Raphaelite sketch of Morris and Jane as Arthur and Guenevere in a plastic jacket to ensure its survival. Tolkienian celebrations at Wolvercote may at times verge on the eccentric (one hears rumours of fullblooded recitations in Elvish there during the annual TolkienMoot), but still, the assorted decorations at the grave made of it, not Andrew Marvell’s ‘fine and private place’, but rather a locus of collective Morrisian ‘fellowship’ that it would be good to see paralleled at Kelmscott too.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Kelmscott Calendar

Browsing through Morris’s Collected Letters again, I picked out a few genial month-by-month highlights across the range of his pleasures and activities at Kelmscott manor. If they don’t coincide with your own favourites, do feel free to add yours as Comments below. There are plenty more where these came from, certainly.

January: ‘violets out, and acconites, and the snowdrops are showering all about’ (1876).

February: ‘Edgar got 3 smallish pikes ... Ellis captured a monster under the Berkshire side of the Old-Weir pool; he weighed 17 lbs’ (1878).

March: ‘the rooks and lambs both singing around me’ (1889).

April: ‘The Fritillaries are coming up fairly well’ (1890); ‘The beautiful hepatica, which I used to love so when I was quite a little boy, in full bloom’ (1895).

May: ‘lots of tulips out looking beautiful: the white blue-bells & some blue ones ... that cherry-tree near the arbour opposite my window is a mass of blooms’ (1892).

June: ‘Raspberries any amount’ (1889).

July: ‘fruit-picking-jam-making, great fun’ (1892).

August: ‘the kingfishers very busy. One ducked down into the water before me and came out again with a little fish’ (1888).

September: ‘that delightful quickening of perception by which everything gets emphasized and brightened, and the commonest landscape looks lovely; anxieties and worrits, though remembered, yet no weight on one’s spirits’ (1887).

October: ‘robins hopping and singing all about the garden. The fieldfares, which are a winter bird and come from Norway are chattering all about the berry trees now, and the starlings ... collect in great flocks about sunset’ (1872).

November: ‘out on the flooded river ... the wind right in one’s teeth and the eddies going like a Japanese tea-tray: I must say it was delightful, almost as good as Iceland on a small scale’ (1875).

December: ‘2 fine but very cold days: this morning brilliant but white-frosty ... & I caught two good pike’ (1877).

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Thames: Our Only English River

My wife Makiko and I had a wonderfully sunny afternoon at John Ruskin’s Brantwood, where we had gone to see George Rowlett’s fine series of paintings entitled ‘Time and Tide: The Thames at Work’. Rowlett’s river isn’t the dark, turbid, drowned-body-ridden Thames of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, nor the redeemed, salmon-rich, holiday river of News from Nowhere, nor again the Thames of vacuous Jubilee and Olympic pageantry, of which we have seen so much this year. It is, rather, as it claims to be, a river of everyday work, of gravel barges being unloaded and so on, and the paint is applied so thickly with a palette knife that the artist’s own very palpable labour in his medium is a kind of mimesis of the work that is actually taking place on the river itself.

If you stand well off from the canvas, you can make out the representational detail well enough: London Eye, Greenwich Naval Hospital, Thames Barrier. But if you go up close, it is the drama of the paint itself that mesmerises you, as it actively writhes off the surface towards the viewer, so that the painting becomes a three-dimensional sculpture rather than a flat surface. There is then a tension between form and content here. In terms of representational content, the Thames goes about its drab, profit-orientated, capitalist business; but at the level of form, the extraordinary Expressionist dynamism of the paint at times conveys marvellous effects of sunlight breaking through, a utopian or Wordsworthian light that never was on land or sea. So where Morris in News from Nowhere could simply depict a utopian Thames, George Rowlett gives us the world of work on the river (content) and utopia (form), and he in these vivid paintings – like our own contemporary politics – cannot bring the two realms together.