Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dracula Arrives in Whitby

On a recent holiday in North Yorkshire I found myself in Whitby. And what's not to love about Whitby: Captain Cook, Dracula, Whitby Museum with its Hand of Glory, renowned fish and chips and scampi, a ruined gothic abbey... the list goes on.

And whilst I was there I managed to buy two books from a series of collections of photography by the Victorian pioneer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe who was based in the town. He is best known outside Whitby for his  photograph "Water Rats" and a couple of similar ones where local urchins were posed naked on the sea shore as though about to enjoy a frolic in the hypothermia-inducing North Sea. But Sutcliffe's photography is far more important than some mildly salacious snaps. His portraits of working people and their lives in and around his Whitby home are some of the best and more emotionally invested images seen in Victorian photography anywhere. Though often posed, they were done so with an empathy and understanding of his subjects and their lives that means even posed photographs had an air of the naturalistic about them.

This photograph above doesn't fall into that category but is a dramatic image nonetheless of a shipwreck at Whitby in 1885. It is a stirring tale of daring-do. The Estonian (though reported as Russian at the time) ship Dmitry was seen approaching the harbour in a strong gale. One ship had already been lost that night and a lifeboat was got ready in case the same should happen. There were thousands of spectators on the shore and for a time it looked like the ship would be blown onto the treacherous rocks to either side of Whitby harbour. In fact, through sheer good seamanship she was steered into the harbour. The crowds cheered and went home to their warm suppers and the ship was beached on Collier's Hope which is a small slice of beach inside the harbour and directly beneath the winding steps that lead up to the great abbey on the cliff above. It was thought that the ship would be safe there but when the tide rose again the next day the seas were still so rough that even within the harbour walls the waves pushed her over and essentially beat the ship to its death on the beach. It was a sad end to a heroic tale. So that is what we see in the photo above. The post-storm and, by the look of it, post some salvage disposition of the wreck.

But of course, those familiar with Whitby's literary heritage will recognise elements of this story from their reading. The arrival in a storm of the Dmitry from Narva was dramatised yet further by one Bram Stoker. The ship became the Demeter from Varna and it is on this ship that, towards the beginning of the novel, Dracula arrives in the UK. The ship fights valiantly against the weather and eventually makes it way into the harbour only to be found to be empty of life, the steersman has lashed himself to the wheel with a rosary and hangs from it dead. A black dog is seen to leap from the ship and scurry away up the steps towards the Abbey. The height of gothic, for sure, but nice to know that it at least begins in fact and images of real events.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Children of Love by Harold Monro

Harold Monro is perhaps a more influential character when it comes to early 20th century poetry than he is given credit for. He was the founder of The Poetry Bookshop and editor of The Poetry Review. The Bookshop was also a publishing concern, although usually from his own pocket and only occasionally for profit. From his position as publisher and editor he had a significant influence on the way that poetry developed into the modern era, mostly by being open minded and without literary prejudice.

For his own part, death and loss seem to have played an overly large part in his life and therefore colour his poetry. He lost his father when he was just 9 years old and WW1 took too many members of his family, as well as his very close friend Basil Watt. In this collection, first published by Monro himself from The Poetry Bookshop the year before Watt's death, he writes a quartet called "Youth in Arms" which is clearly written with his friend in mind. In the first part he compares a young soldier to the Biblical David, an approach which might have been used by a lesser writer to offer jingoistic platitudes but Monro is far subtler.

Happy boy, happy boy,
David the immortal-willed,   
Youth a thousand thousand times 
Slain, but not once killed,
Swaggering again today  
In the old contemptuous way;

Leaning backward from your thigh  
Up against the tinselled bar —  
Dust and ashes! is it you?  
Laughing, boasting, there you are!  
First we hardly recognized you
In your modern avatar.

Soldier, rifle, brown khaki —  
Is your blood as happy so?  
Where’s your sling or painted shield, 
Helmet, pike or bow?  
Well, you’re going to the wars —
That is all you need to know.

Graybeards plotted. They were sad.  
Death was in their wrinkled eyes.
At their tables—with their maps,
Plans and calculations—wise
They all seemed; for well they knew  
How ungrudgingly Youth dies.

At their green official baize
They debated all the night  
Plans for your adventurous days
Which you followed with delight,
Youth in all your wanderings,
David of a thousand slings.

War records show that when Basil was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915 at the age of 33 he was buried first in a smaller cemetery and later exhumed and moved. He was identified by "fragments of officers tunic with one regimtl button. One boot. Fragment of Kilt" and his 'effects' forwarded to base were one button and a shaving brush marked with his name. The devastation to Monro caused by his friend's death, only three years his junior, is heartbreakingly laid out in his later poem "Lament in 1915", a simple but awful monologue which can be read here.

Along with a certain cynicism about the war comes also another element of the poetic arsenal from the first decades of the 20th century, a playful nod to paganism at a time when the certainties that used to be provided by the established church were being rapidly torn away in the face of mass extinction on the battlefield. Monro's title poem for this collection is both charming and peculiar in the directness with which he confronts this tension.

Children of Love

The holy boy
Went from his mother out in the cool of the day
Over the sun-parched fields
And in among the olives shining green and shining grey.

There was no sound,
No smallest voice of any shivering stream.
Poor sinless little boy.
He desired to play, and to sing; he could only sigh and dream.

Suddenly came
Running along to him naked, with curly hair,
That rogue of the lovely world,
That other beautiful child whom the virgin Venus bare.

The holy boy
Gazed with those sad blue eyes that all men know.
Impudent Cupid stood
Panting, holding an arrow and pointing his bow.

(Will you not play?
Jesus, run to him, run to him, swift for our joy.
Is he not holy, like you?
Are you afraid of his arrows, O beautiful dreaming boy?)

And now they stand
Watching one another with timid gaze;
Youth had met youth in the wood,
But holiness will not change its melancholy ways.

Cupid at last
Draws his bow and softly lets fly a dart.
Smile for a moment, sad world! - 
It has grazed the white skin and drawn blood from the sorrowful heart.

Now, for delight,
Cupid tosses his locks and goes wantonly near;
But the child that was born to the cross
Has let fall on his cheek, for the sadness of life, a compassionate tear.

Marvellous dream!
Cupid has offered his arrows for Jesus to try; 
He has offered his bow for the game.
But Jesus went weeping away, and left him there wondering why.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Stig Blomberg. Sculptor

Well, the rather long absence from the blog has been occasioned by, among other things, a happy holiday on the North Yorkshire Moors. So, shall we just pretend like I've not been away and get back to it? The silver plated clip above was a very happy find the other day in an antiques market. The rather lithe figure sang out to me with his lyre and I was glad to see a name on the piece too which always adds a little interest. Sure enough, the name Stig Blomberg (1901-1970) took me on a little trip around the internet collecting images of his rather fine works. A Swedish sculptor, he holds the strange distinction of winning a bronze medal at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games for, well, sculpture. (It is only in recent years the Olympic Games have lost their art and literature competitions.) His career appears to have been quiet and uneventful but productive, he taught for many years at the same institute in which he was originally a pupil. His subject is often youth and often in pairs showing an interaction between figures which has a narrative underpinning. Also, he sculpted mythological subjects. His style was varied over his career and it seems he moved from a pared down naturalism into the somewhat more stylized forms of the 50s and 60s. 

The Swedish wiki page about him tells me that he also illustrated books under the name T Arvidsson, but I have yet to uncover any of those.

As for my little clip above... I cannot find other examples of miniature work like this, nor can I find the same image in larger form. I have to imagine that a nude classical-ish figure with a lyre is going to be either Apollo or Orpheus. We know that Apollo has featured in his work elsewhere and perhaps those are laurels in the background to clinch it.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Jesters in Earnest: Czech Political Cartoons in WW2

In 1944, the Czechoslovak Institute in London, together with the Czech newspaper for exiles in Britain presented an exhibition of the work of Czech political cartoonists. They published this book with John Murray to commemorate the show. The exhibition and the book contain the work of five political cartoonists all in exile in either the UK or the US during the war and they are striking and powerful images. It is entirely accidental that the images I chose to scan here are from two artists only, simply a matter of what appealed to me: Adolf Hoffmeister and Antonin Pelc. The two were friends and were living and working in the US when the exhibition was put together. Both left Prage in the face of the Nazi occupation and Hoffmeister published a humorous and illustrated account of his wanderings between Prague and New York published in the US as The Animals are in Cages and in the UK by The Bodley Head as Unwilling Tourist. In 1937 both Hoffmeister and Pelc put together an exhibition of their cartoons in Prague but it was so vehemently anti-Nazi that the German minister in Prague complained on behalf of Hitler and the exhibition was closed. Once they reached the US, of course, it was easier to exhibit and together, the year before this British show, they held an exhibition at MOMA in New York which then went on a tour of the US. 

The cover of the book is very effectively decorated by another Hoffmeister cartoon from the book titled, 'The Red Death'.

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