I was back in Arizona for a while, starting the end of July. My mother coming home from the library stumbled in the road just at the corner of her apartment — and in dropping the books dropped this book, Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Somehow she thinks she tread on it awkwardly and turned her foot — breaking one of her bones in her left foot, and fell, breaking one of the bones in her left wrist and twisting badly her right knee. A very frail and elderly neighbour with Parkinsons found her sitting there in the road, and brought her a chair that she somehow, and god knows how, used to get herself inside. She finally managed to finally call my brother. Poor Dan. She ended up in hospital for a week and a rehab clinic for 2 at the height of Arizona’s Covid-19 emergency. For all facebook’s evils, its helped me reach ancient highschool and work networks to find out where was safe. She read this in the rehab clinic while I was quarantining in her apartment. She kept telling me I should read it.
I came home to take care of her. After much stressed back and forth with family. Made it safely – it felt quite alright, the traveling thing, except for Manchester aiport and the two European flights between Manchester and Munich. Everything about those was apalling. I couldn’t help myself, I was furious with hordes of people acting as if nothing were happening and their holidays — multigenerational families as much as young people off to party in Ibiza — were more important than lives. Putting at risk those of us who travelled for necessity and the loved ones we cared for. I stayed 6 weeks, starting days at 5 or 6 am to acomodate meetings and interviews in the UK. As if just getting through pandemic under the apalling demands of higher education for more work, more hours, more blood to keep student fees flowing weren’t quite enough.
I read it evenings, sitting out on the little porch with the sun setting. Skies often filled with ash from California fires. Temperatures still often above 100 because this was the hottest damn summer on record. My single glass of chilled white wine a small reward and and buffer against climate change and a multitude of disasters.
I really liked it. I wanted more of course, but I liked it for what it was, for the limited things it could do and did, for the way it hopefully opened doors to a multitude of people who may just go through them to learn more, get angrier and ever more critical. But two things I liked particularly, just because they resonated so much with things I’ve been thinking about for a while. The first, the power and nature of machine politics, its necessary closeness with the everyday concerns of people of colour, immigrants, the poor. Its ability to get small, but quite important, things done. Its larger costs. Cayton and Drake’s Black Metropolis on Chicago really got me started thinking about this, as did a book I read long ago on Tammany Hall and its ability to get 200 Irish immigrants made citizens a day, but it was fascinating to come across this aside on Fraser Robinson III’s role with the Democratic party:
He’d held the post for years, in part because loyal service to the party machine was more or less expected of city employees. Even if he’d been half forced into it, though, my dad loved the job, which baffled my mother given the amount of time it demanded. He paid weekend visits to a nearby neighborhood to check in on his constituents, often with me reluctantly in tow. We’d park the car and walk along streets of modest bungalows, landing on a door-step to find a hunched-over widow or a big-bellied factory worker with a can of Michelob peering through the screen door. Often, these people were delighted by the sight of my father smiling broadly on their porch, propped up by his cane.
“Well, Fraser!” they’d say. “What a surprise. Get on in here.”
For me, this was never good news. It meant we were going inside. It meant that my whole Saturday afternoon would now get sucked up as I got parked on a musty sofa or with a 7UP at a kitchen table while my dad fielded feedback—complaints, really—that he’d then pass on to the elected alderman who controlled the ward. When somebody had problems with garbage pickup or snow plowing or was irritated by a pothole, my dad was there to listen. His purpose was to help people feel cared for by the Democrats—and to vote accordingly when elections rolled around. To my dismay, he never rushed anyone along. Time, as far as my father was concerned, was a gift you gave to other people. He clucked approvingly at pictures of cute grandkids, patiently endured gossip and long litanies of health woes, and nodded knowingly at stories about how money was tight. He hugged the old ladies as we finally left their houses, assuring them he’d do his best to be useful—to get the fixable issues fixed. (33-34)
A second aside was just on the changing nature of her Chicago neighbourhood growing up and the impact of white flight. As someone who has written about this, it feels in a way that these school photographs show it more effectively than anything I’ve ever said.
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio (1571-1610) is very good, very long, full of wonderful detail about everyday life and a great deal of analysis of Caravaggio’s work which I found interesting, without agreeing with all of his interpretations.
It still sits with me days after finishing it, the life of Caravaggio. The explosive talent. The extreme physical violence of his life in a society permissive of extreme violence, winking at it when patronage was high and powerful enough. The violence of poverty, and the violence of painting only by commission rather than by desire, to please and to flatter the rich. To be paid only if they approved of your work — and a number of Caravaggio’s patrons refused his work. To be constantly judged by criteria you do not believe in.
A quote to set the scene in terms of sources:
Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. The majority of his recorded acts — apart from those involved in painting — are crimes and misdemeanors.
He always looks troubled and angry, but in some ways the extent to which he was allowed to explore his own art was only possible because of his time’s changing social ideas of it. Graham-Dixon describes these changes occurring only a generation before Caravaggio’s:
Previously the profession of art had been ranked low because it involved work with the hands and was therefore classed as a form of manual labour, a craft rather than a liberal art.
This changed to a view of greatest artists as ‘men of true genius’ — though men still much at the mercy of their patrons — through Giorgio Vasari’s anthology of artist biographies The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). Caravaggio would not prove to be a prodigy from an early age, like most. But like other artists he would leave home (he is actually one Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio — but the town he was born in has become the name he was, and is, known by) for Milan, and then Rome.
As Florence had been during the fifteenth century, and as Paris would be at the peak of Louis XIV’s power, Rome under Clement VIII was the artistic capital of Europe.
Graham-Dixon notes the slightly more fluid medieval aristocratic structures in Italy as compared to Northern Europe, as well as the idea that ‘an increasingly urbanized society … led to the blurring of social distinctions.’ There is so much fascinating detail in here on life in Rome itself in here, and given my interests, what I most enjoyed apart from the art itself. An early version of the surveillance state, for example. I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but it did:
Religious observance was not a matter of choice. At Easter everyone living in Rome was obliged to take communion and procure a ticket of evidence from the priest who administered the sacrament. Procuring the ticket — proof of orthodoxy, and necessary to pass muster with the police — was itself part of a system of surveillance and involved a separate visit to the priest, who was obliged to write down the name and address of each communicant. But he also had to write down other details…
Another fun fact about the Rome of this time was the way in which the discovery of the Christian catacombs (the ones I thought everyone in Rome had surely always known about — how were they forgotten?) under Rome led to ‘a boom in the field of what might be called sacred archaeology.’ In the late 15 and early 1600s. I hope to read some of these — I quite love archaeology and am rather fascinated by such a ‘discovery’ but to return to art.
After several years of apprenticeships and poverty, Caravaggio won the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte, a man of learning with a love of the arts, apart from having his own pharmaceutical distillery (a fad of the time), he was also a patron of music (the first opera was written in 1600 by a friend, Emilio de’ Cavalieri). Slowly through the book you watch Caravaggio’s characteristic style develop.
One of Caravaggio’s early, extraordinary paintings, Boy Bitten By a Lizard (c1596)
It is quite wonderful to make this journey through his work, just as it is to note the small touches — like the fact that the music in The Rest on the Flight To Egypt is identifiable, the four-voiced Quam Pulchra es et quam decora, by Noel Bauldewyn (c1480-1520) — hear it. I love the internet, imagine being able to listen to this today as you stare at the painting itself.
More descriptions of Caravaggio, dark hair, dark eyes, great dark brows, disorderly, Bellori (one of his biographer’s) writes:
We cannot fail to mention his behaviour and his choice of clothes, since he wore only the finest materials and princely velvets; but once he put on a suit of clothes he changed only when it had fallen to rags.
Little could tell you more about someone in a way, and I love that clothing in various states of disrepair is to be found everywhere in his paintings. The poverty of his models and subjects is never hidden. Nor is his own suffering, in 1596 he painted this shield to be held and passed around, a portrait of medusa as a gift for the Medici using his own face as the model, distorted in a round mirror that appears in others paintings as well.
A shocking image of himself. A note on materials, on toxicity and poison like that of the serpents in Medusa’s coils:
Some ascribed the fiery temperament of painters to the toxic qualities of the materials that they used. Lead white and vermilion were particularly poisonous. The mere touch or smell of either might cause a variety of symptoms including depression, anxiety, and increased aggressiveness. Those suffering from ‘Painter’s Colic’, as it was called, also tended to drink heavily.
Not vermilion! What a word, what a color. There seems to be a great deal in Caravaggio’s work, one great red sheet of fabric that wraps saints round being the most obvious one. I like to think it is always the same one. Returning to his style, Bellori writes
The painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature and look on his work as miracles.
Evidence of its development can be seen in Martha and Mary Magdalen (c. 1598) — and also here is to be seen Fillide Melandroni, a famous courtesan in several of Caravaggio’s paintings.
Here she is again as St Catharine of Alexandria (c. 1598)– I wish I had seen this earlier, when I worked at the Foundation. More shadows.
There is the story of Fillide’s arrest for threatening another woman, testimony of her screaming out ‘I want to cut her face!’ The ultimate insult. Graham-Dixon notes that the world of painters and poets is also that of prostitutes and pimps, and the probability of Caravaggio’s being a pimp — controlling women for both modelling and for incomes, explains the many times he is arrested late at night or early in the morning, much of the violence, the carrying of an illegal sword and dagger under the protection of powerful patronage, and the source of the long-running conflict that would eventually lead to the murder of Tomassoni for which he was exiled.
Violence fills his paintings, Judith Behading Holofernes (c. 1598), David with the head of Goliath (1599). I am not so enamoured of these, though they are powerful and skillful. Artemisia Gentileschi, of course, also painted Judith holding the head of a Holofornes based on the face of her rapist — she was the daughter of a friend of Caravaggio’s and a most wonderful painter in much the same style. But I am looking forward to exploring her life and art separately, yet her story cannot be forgotten in this accounting of the terrible violence inflicted on women in this period more broadly.
This painting I love, the Calling of St Matthew (1600):
Another one — The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601)
Graham-Dixon writes that:
The presence of these coarsely posed, unmistakably low-brow figures underscored Caravaggio’s total rejection of High Renaissance and Mannerist elegance.
The fact that everyone in his paintings has bare feet has great meaning, and in fact Caragvaggio becoming famous as the painter of feet — Graham-Dixon quotes Niccolo Lorini del Monte:
In sum, feet may be taken by the holy Church as symbolising the poor and the humble.
Many among the upper classes hated their appearance in his paintings, along with the poor and humble subjects in their everyday torn clothes and positions of work and suffering. Graham-Dixon persuasively argues that this was closely tied with the counter-reformation leanings of the pauperist wing of the Catholic church, and the preaching exactly along these lines of the famous Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, whose words Caravaggio would have grown up with. This also helps define Caravaggio’s focus on Christ and the martyr’s intimate and personal suffering that was praised as a subject for religious meditation. There is also an argument for some form of class identification, some anger over poverty and privilege, although clearly nothing about Caravaggio is straightforward and he exploited his own privileges fairly ruthlessly.
When Caravaggio painted the saints and martyrs with bare feet, he was firmly allying himself with pauperist wing of the Catholic Church. Not only was he explicitly welcoming the poor into his pictures, making them feel part of the same impoverished family as that of Christ and his followers, he was also implicitly calling on the rich to follow the example of those such as St Francis … The message would not always be well received.
It was very different from the rising countercurrent of
a newly triumphalist Church… It did not welcome the poor and the meek or make them feel that they, ultimately, were the inheritors of the earth. It was there to awe, daunt, and stupefy them, to impress them with visions of a force so powerful it could not be resisted — and must, therefore, be obeyed.
Graham-Dixon describes this is as a new Baroque sensibility — one with no room for Caravaggio. It seems to me that all these paintings of the poor might also be a kind of revenge against the rich to whom Caravaggio must look for all things — money for paints and canvasses, clothes, a roof over his head. He was one of the few to try to renegotiate commissions (more on that later)… this world seems so distant from my modern sensibilities, yet it seems so clear how galling this system of patronage was to Caravaggio, if only through the amount of time he spent doing what he could to sabotage it all through gambling, drink, brawling, prostitutes and constant rumours of boys. Graham-Dixon notes his probable relationship with Cecco, his servant and model, but there is little deeper exploration of what his queerness might mean (and some of these paintings are ridiculously queer).
Caravaggio leaves the house of Cardinal de Monte for that of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei. Again, the connections between time, money and influence, and the city form is brought to the fore:
They lived in a honeycomb complex of houses and palaces built over the ruins of the Ancient Roman Teatro di Balbo… The adjoining residence of the various branches of the family formed an entire block, known as the Isola dei Mattei.
It is a whole network of palaces and residences, worthy of Kafka. Yet another protector was Vincenzo Giustiani. It is probably he who ensured that Caravaggio was allowed a second attempt at fulfilling his commission for a painting of St Matthew as the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel. When the first was rejected scornfully, Giustiani bought it for himself.
Why rejected? Because Matthew is represented as too unlearned, too peasant-like. Barefoot. An old man painfully scribing, and needing help in it. I love this picture.
WWII bombs destroyed it in Berlin.
The second painting was accepted and still rests in the chapel, a capitulation to be sure, but a rather fine one, and Caravaggio insists on the bare feet:
His work continues to be extraordinary. Here, a picture of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c. 1602), testing grotesquely Christ’s wound, experiencing in full Christ’s suffering (familiar old men as well…).
And always, always, this work sits alongside an incredible violence in the dark streets of Rome. There is the verbal/written kind — the tradition in Rome of insult, connected to a statue in the corner of Palazzo Braschi to the western side of Piazza Novena, known as the Pasquino.
It had long been the custom to attach squibs, scurrilous pieces of grafitti and outbursts of defamatory rage to the wall next to the statue, under the cover of darkness. There was a collective noun for these libeles: pasquinate…
That sounds rather safe, a rather curious and interesting method of venting anger in a unique city space, until you read the contents. Caravaggio and his friends posted their defamatory verses about Baglione here, with much use of words like cock and fucking…juvenile, nasty. There were arrests, trials. Caravaggio’s testimony is sullen, stupid. For all that, I rather like the concept of the valent’huomo, in Caravaggio’s words (Graham-Dixon notes that to be considered a valent’huomo both in society and the art-world was always Caravaggio’s possibly fugutive goal):
By the term ‘valent’huomo’ I mean he who knows how to do well, that is, he who knows how to do his art well.
Most of the testimony, however, is a bunch of lies to praise artists in official favour and distance himself from friends involved and pretend utmost ignorance so they can all get off free. They do. Probably through patronage. Everything runs on it.
On 24 April 1604 Caravaggio got into an argument with a waiter at one of his local restaurants, the Osteria del Moro, or ‘Tavern of the Blackamoor’. In the course of an altercation concerning artichokes, he smashed a plate against the man’s face.
The tavern of the Blackamoor (interesting the number of references to slaves). I laughed at the artichokes, but it’s not really funny. This arrest is one of series. In his testimony Caravaggio claims the policeman has a grudge against him, in Graham-Dixon’s description:
The policeman was hostile and insulting whenever he bumped into him… but he stoutly denied having called the arresting officer a ‘cocksucker’ on the night in question.
That, actually, was just funny.
More on the particularities of the papal state.
Rome was a turbulent city at the best of times, but it was doubly unstable whenever the papal throne was empty. During this interregnum, normal government was effectively suspended. According to long tradition, a blanket amnesty was given to the inmates of the city’s jails.
Blanket amnesty! Returning to the thin line between curious and awful…there is this:
There was a crime of deturpatio portae, or defacing doors for which Caravaggio was charged by a mother and daughter. … a specific legal term that can be translated as ‘house-scorning’. …
Amazing you think. House-scorning. But read on:
Housescorners generally operated in the dead of night,,, They often made a lot of noise, shouting insults or singing lewd songs as a prelude to the vengeful assault itself. Then they would throw stones, damaging shutters and blinds.
They threw ink, blood, excrement, drew cocks. Most often, houses were scorned by a man when a woman had refused his advances, or perhaps somehow insulted him. It loses all hilarity.
It becomes the dirty behaviour of a pimp. An abuser. Who still paints…look, just look at what he paints.
This depicts so beautifully the crazy story of The Madonna of Loreto (1604), the miraculous event in which the house of Mary and Joseph flew (flew?) from Nazareth to Italy in the middle ages. Crikey, best myth ever. It’s quite a house as Caravaggio imagines it, but I love that the pilgrims are poor who have summoned the virgin to the door through their faith, their feet dirty and tired.
No other artist had ever given such prominence, in a major religious altarpiece, to two such nakedly proletarian figures as the pair of kneeling figures.
Caravaggio inserted no patrons into his paintings, but the poor, the courtesan, the servant, and every now and then himself. Despite this, his paintings were in ever greater demand. One of my favourite threads that runs through much of Caravaggio’s story is that:
…his movements were being carefully tracked by Fabio Masetti, an agent in Rome working for Cesare d’Este, Duke of Modena.
Masetti gives Caravaggio money, on more than one occasion, but no painting is produced. Masetti tracks him for years, like a faithful shadow. We will meet him again.
And still Caravaggio is brawling, cutting people, getting arrested. He is forced to apologise to one of his victims to get a pardon from the governor — for coming up a clerk of the Vicar’s court named Messer Mariano late one night and striking him, scarring his face. Like the house-scorning, this is a public insult. The apology is hilarious, like one of those forced things a mother exhorts from her son (well, like my mum exacted from my brother Chewy) expurgated of all loopholes:
I am very sorry for what I did, and if I had not done it yet, I would not do it.
He continues to say that Mariano is worthy of facing in the daylight in a duel. It is a return of honor to him.
It feels like the violence is escalating, though in the book it is oddly sandwiched between paintings and their analyses. Graham-Dixon notes that thus seemed Caravaggio’s life, intense periods of work surrounded by growing periods of nightwalking and brawling and thuggery. Pimping. This brings us to the moment of murder, in what was almost certainly a duel between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni, between whom there had long existed violence and accusation — Tomassoni was the pimp of Fillide, and if Caravaggio were also a pimp (who had clearly stolen Fillide) this makes more sense of much of his behaviour.
Initial reports, though, seemed to describe this as an accidental brawl over a late-night game of tennis. That was rather funny.
Mesetti the agent reported hopefully back to d’Este after the incident that Caravaggio had fled Rome badly wounded and was heading to Florence — which meant he might well swing through Modena and paint as he had promised.
This really is the beginning of the end for Caravaggio. His sentence:
…indefinite exile from Rome, he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence’. This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so.
A brilliant drawing from a policeman’s report drawing the offending weapons that Caravaggio carried in defiance of the law.
And so Caravaggio flees. First to Naples, a centre of trade of goods and people. He also notes the many communities there, Pisans, Catalands, Ragusans… Ragusans? Once the Republic of Ragusa, now known as Dubrovnik.
Once arrived in Naples, Caravaggio was deluged with work. He receives a commission from the Pio Monte della Misericordia, probably led by Giovanni Battista Manso (who was a friend of Galileo, who hosted Milton — it is hard to imagine them all contemporaries). Caravaggio painted the Seven Acts of Mercy for them. Not my favourite. But then there was The Flagellation:
Pictures such as the Seven Acts and TheFlagellation were greeted with stunned admiration, bordering on bewilderment. They created a sensation and transformed Neopolitan painting virtually overnight. Caravaggio’s extreme chiaroscuro and his brutal sense of reality were the catalyst for a new school of tenebristic painting in Naples. And through this city at the crossroad between Italian and Spanish art, Caravaggoio’s starkly powerful new style was transmitted to Spain Itself.
But Caravaggio had bigger plans, which would soon send him to Malta — which is in part why I have read this, because I love Caravaggio’s art but also, guess what you guys? I am going to Malta! So more on Malta in a separate post. This one is enormous, and I give you my apologies.
Another exploration of the East End, and so much a better one. This is beautifully written, candid, and by one of the young men who for Harkness probably ‘looked as most young men of his class look, until one has time to recognise their individuality’ (39). Written about a period a just a little later than Harkness to be sure, this opens a window onto the thoughts and dreams and intense individuality seething behind what to middle class eyes apparently looks all the same. How could we all look the same?
Until I was sixteen I lived in the East London borough of Bethnal Green, in a small street that is now just a name on a map. Almost every house in it has gone and it exists, if at all, only in the pages of this book. It was a part of a district populated by persecuted Jews from the Russian empire and transformed into a crowded East European ghetto full of synagogues, backroom factories and little grocery stores reeking of pickled herring, garlic sausage and onion bread. The vitality compressed into that one square mile of overcrowded slums generated explosive tensions. We were all dreamers, each convinced it was his destiny to grow rich, or famous, or change the world into a marvellous place of freedom and justice. No wonder so many of us were haunted by bitterness, failure, despair (9).
He returns to it as a much older man, finds it completely changed, can no longer see himself in the tenement room he grew up in. Who cannot identify with his sense of loss?
I felt indescribably bereaved, a ghost haunting the irrecoverable past (10).
and so he began writing this…
So much resonated, it is a wonderful coming of age story of a smart kid facing a very hard life — and facing the blossoming panic in his stomach that he is trapped in a working poverty for the rest of it. There is love and friendship and violence, along with a couple of evocative sections on what it means to live in a packed tenement block full of Jewish immigrant families, the closeness of the world:
In as close a community as ours, each newcomer added a new complexity, changing us all a little and sometimes even influencing the whole pattern of our fate. For Mendel Shaffer, the arrival of Kramer’s sister, Freda, was momentous (52).
And I loved this passage so evocative of the streets — and one of the things that changes over time as customs and culture and people change, one of the things that is lost forever once it is lost, and that we can only find again through the pages of books:
A further disagreeable surprise awaited. The Welfare Officer chose to deliver me to my new lodgings in person. Even blindfolded, I’d have known where we were by the smell of the different streets — reek of rotten fruit: Spitalfields; scent of tobacco warehouses: Commercial Street; the suffocating airless stench of the Cambridge Picture Palace; Hanbury Street and the pungency of beer from Charrington’s brewery. Then Brick Lane with half the women from our street jostling among the market stalls (115).
A book this size (810 pages!) is always daunting to start, long to finish, but it feels like you’ve really accomplished something by the end of it. Of course there is no way to condense or summarise the contents. Morris was born in 1834 in Walthamstow, near Epping Forest, went to Cambridge, studied medieval history and wrote poetry. Ruskin was the great influence of that period and throughout Morris’ life, but he’s on my list of things to read so I won’t discuss him too much here. This is also the period he met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, became introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, believed Rosetti when he said to paint was the thing, and so he painted. Romance was also the thing, romance and authenticity, and somehow Morris was given the nickname of Topsy which he never lost amongst his friends from these days. There was revolt of a kind in his life and art, but a revolt of what? Thompson pulls out key phrases:
‘Truth to Nature.’ ‘Stern facts.’ ‘Flight of little souls in bright flames.’ ‘Maisons damnees.’ ‘Mystery–the main thing required for the surprise of the imagination’ (54).
When an artist has really a very keen sense of beauty, I venture to think that he can not literally represent an event that takes place in modern life. He must add something or other to qualify or soften the ugliness and sordidness of the surroundings of life in our generation (56).
He was to meet his wife Jane Burden here in this circle, a model for Dante Rossetti and daughter of a stable worker. She’s someone I want to read more about — as in this tale as it is told, her last name is particularly apt for their relationship. E.P. Thompson isn’t the best on gender issues, and it is certainly clear that they were not very compatible together and in a rational world would have split, but there is little sense of her here apart from a woman firmly committed to her own comfort and distant from any of Morris interests. He seems to have fallen in love with the ideal that he wrote in his romances, the same ideal that Rossetti painted, all surface and yielding and mystery, no living breathing woman (for an interesting view on this from another model, see Will the Real Jane Morris Please Stand Up). They seemed to have come to an open-marriage arrangement over the years, Morris seems to have had a very practical and what I think of as a modern view of it — in a society where there can be no divorce. This is echoed in views from his fiction, like News From Nowhere, and important in shaping his views on ideal gender roles and relationships under socialism. But it’s hard to tell what the reality was, Jane’s own biographies beckon. What is certain is that Rossetti remained very much in her life long after he and Morris ceased to agree on anything. The William Morris gallery has an exhibit devoted to her image and what they call Rossetti’s obsession with her until January 2015.
But meanwhile Morris was embarking on a revival of the decorative arts — and the relation of arts to society remained central to his thinking throughout his life. In my own ignorance, I associated his wonderful designs with the Victorian era — which of course they are — but were in fact part of a revolt against so much of what characterises the Victorian. I love the distinction between the superficialities of gothic style and feature employed by so many Victorian architects, and Morris own focus on process, the way in which medieval workers created and crafted and the materials and tools that they used. This would become the essence of Morris’ own craft. He consulted archives, interviewed old craftsmen, experimented with his own weaving, synthesised his own natural dyes. I’m much more fascinated by that stuff than Thompson was I’m afraid. I was surprised just how much of the book tries to come to grips with his poetry and prose instead. His poetry isn’t really stuff I like much, the book opens with a discussion of Keats as an influence — whose work I really don’t like either. But it’s a good reminder of how important his poetry continued to be, so much that Thompson writes that the weakness of his middle period ‘reveals much of the change of attitude from revolt to disillusion in his personal outlook during these years. And it marks a stage in the degeneration of the English Romantic movement’ (114). Harsh, but I am inclined to agree.
It was a slow movement to socialism, and he never left behind this love of the medieval past, the goodness of the country and the evil of the big city, the value of work and craftsmanship. Part of the journey was the foundation of ‘Anti-Scrape’, a society to protect and preserve old buildings from demolition or ‘restoration’ into something essentially new. Of course any work to put alternative values or aesthetics above profit or desire to make a show of wealth will bring you ‘directly into conflict with the property sanctions of capitalist society (231).’ I think a lot of things will do this, but the work around the preservation of ancient properties is also very tied up in conservatism, in the maintenance of the past, feudal, inequalities and oppressions that created these buildings. Ruskin, for example, writes
It is…no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings pf past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong, partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead still have their right to them…What we have ourselves built we are at liberty to throw down, but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death… (234 – from the Seven Lamps of Architecture)
But if we do not have the right, than who? How does society grow, improve, change? This seems a bit mad, pushing to an extreme this veneration for what has come before. I much prefer Morris’s approach, and how he believed that ancient architecture:
bears witness to the development of man’s ideas, to the continuity of history, and, so doing, affords never-ceasing instruction, nay education, to the passing generations, not only telling us what were the aspirations of men passed away, but also what he may hope for in the time to come (236).
In the end Morris becomes an important voice for socialism, Thompson writes of it as almost beginning a new life at the age of 50. He leaves the disillusionment and depression behind to enter wholeheartedly into this cause he believes can transform the world. Thompson writes:
The Socialist propaganda brought to such people as these exactly what it had brought to William Morris–hope. Wherever the aspirations for life stirred among the workers–the clear-headed hatred of capitalism, the thirst for knowledge, beauty and fellowship–the Socialist converts might be won (300).
His commitment to it was as total as it had been to relearning ancient weaving techniques, and I am full of admiration at his hating public speaking and yet forcing himself too it, knowing that his fame would bring people and that would be his greatest contribution to the movement. George Bernard Shaw wrote:
He had escaped middle age, passing quite suddenly from a circle of artistic revolutionists, mostly university men gone Agnostic or Bohemian or both, who knew all about him and saw him as much younger and less important than he really was, into a proletarian movement in which, so far as he was known at all, he was venerated as an Elder…Once or twice some tactless ghost from his past wandered into the Socialist world and spoke of him and even to him as Topsy…. (302)
They were quickly sent on their way. These were the days of speeches and more speeches, the tours by key left figures talking up how to change the world in homes and halls and on street corners. They were also days of meeting in pubs and over pubs and next to pubs, the old guard from the Chartists and the 1848 uprisings and workingman’s international still around linking past to present (but cantankerously sometimes), the anarchists infiltrated by agents provocateurs, the Paris Commune, liberals disillusioned with Gladstone, the ‘Land Question’ the question of the 1870s and 1880s (with the rise of Henry George and the Irish Land League), though nationalism of land was not specifically a socialist demand (way-hey!), as Thompson argues it distracted from robbery of the people through land as opposed to robbery through ownership of the means of production. But Socialism was on the rise, 1881 saw the rise of the Labour Emancipation League under Joseph Lane. H.M. Hyndman had read Capital by 1880, introduced himself to Marx, and formed the Democratic Federation in 1881 as well. I like that Thompson notes that despite their belief in socialism, many middle class socialists/marxists still feared the proletariat and the ‘mob’ more than loved them — Hyndman believed their revolution was simply inevitable ‘whether we like it or not’ (294). Nor for Hyndman did his views of socialism conflict with belief in Empire, the strength of Anglo-Saxon blood, or the ‘presentation of the Colonies as the special heritage of the English working-class’ (293).
William Morris on the other hand, spoke out against those who have ‘ruined India, starved and gagged Ireland, and tortured Egypt…’ (326). This was just one of the issues that would work to fracture and split the new Socialist movement in a long and complicated and more than frustrating history with which I shall come to grips a little more in part 2. Eleanor Marx’s biography deals with it, as does the history of the Labour Party I’m reading at the moment…hopefully with all of them together and whatever else the future holds I can get a more clear idea of what is important to remember about this period, because I’ve had more than enough fracture and in-fighting in today’s left politics to last me a lifetime… my eyes glazed over at times I confess.