Monday, April 29, 2019

The Cats About Town....

The odd occasion that I encounter a cat out and about the city centre is not usually a happy event since invariably the poor creature in question has escaped from some building and got lost in the streets. However, there are a few other feline forms to be encountered around town.

I wonder who commissioned these features in the reconstruction years after World War 1 and why we no longer see anything even vaguely comparable today.

The majority of these beautiful details are well above the eyeline so it really is worth looking up as you wander around the streets and notice the Art Déco architecture.

Not only are there sculpted forms to decorate building façades, a wide variety of mozaics serve the same purpose. You just have to know where to find them, but it is not always that easy!

These mozaics just capture the antics of prowling cats perfectly...

I wonder whose cats were the inspiration for these works....

And if the individual who ordered such architectural features chose cats out of personal preference...

These days, there are a few feline references to be found around town in the form of street art. The following is the work of C215, a French artist who also held an exhibition here in 2016.

C215 in Reims

All of these mischievous cats remind me of the poem my Dad used to read us...


Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town by T. S. Eliot

Bustopher Jones is not skin and bones--
In fact, he's remarkably fat.
He doesn't haunt pubs--he has eight or nine clubs,
For he's the St. James's Street Cat!
He's the Cat we all greet as he walks down the street
In his coat of fastidious black:
No commonplace mousers have such well-cut trousers
Or such an impreccable back.
In the whole of St. James's the smartest of names is
The name of this Brummell of Cats;
And we're all of us proud to be nodded or bowed to
By Bustopher Jones in white spats!

His visits are occasional to the Senior Educational
And it is against the rules
For any one Cat to belong both to that
And the Joint Superior Schools.

For a similar reason, when game is in season
He is found, not at Fox's, but Blimpy's;
He is frequently seen at the gay Stage and Screen
Which is famous for winkles and shrimps.
In the season of venison he gives his ben'son
To the Pothunter's succulent bones;
And just before noon's not a moment too soon
To drop in for a drink at the Drones.
When he's seen in a hurry there's probably curry
At the Siamese--or at the Glutton;
If he looks full of gloom then he's lunched at the Tomb
On cabbage, rice pudding and mutton.

So, much in this way, passes Bustopher's day-
At one club or another he's found.
It can be no surprise that under our eyes
He has grown unmistakably round.
He's a twenty-five pounder, or I am a bounder,
And he's putting on weight every day:
But he's so well preserved because he's observed
All his life a routine, so he'll say.
Or, to put it in rhyme: "I shall last out my time"
Is the word of this stoutest of Cats.
It must and it shall be Spring in Pall Mall
While Bustopher Jones wears white spats!

From the exhibition of C215

The Lady and The Unicorn - Musée de Cluny

La Dame à la Iicorne: Sight

I recently went back to one of my favourite places in Paris; le Musée de Cluny. I finally saw the newly finished entrance and reception area that are able to cater to the needs of a wide range of visitors and therefore meet the demand for accessibility for all.

There were certainly many people queuing to enter – far more than I can recall when the public were plunged into one of the last vestiges of medieval Paris the moment they had purchased their ticket in the former hôtel particulier.
The edifice had originally been constructed to house the abbots of Cluny at the end of the 15th century, thus bridging the Gothic and Renaissance period. Needless to say, it was ill-adapted to hosting visits some 6OO years later and some modernisation work was vital.

However, I was very sad to see that a hideous bronze carapace has defaced the site outside. Inside, ugly modern functionality seems to have taken precedence over any attempt at aesthetic harmonisation and has obliterated the calm, unique atmosphere of the setting.

Climbing the new steps, my heart sank; I could have been in the atrium of any other uninspiring 21st century building, that probably will not make 60 years, let alone 600. Nothing I laid my eyes upon appeared even vaguely noble, attractive, lovingly or artfully crafted, but then that’s my opinion. I couldn't face including a photo here.

Now, at least, absolutely anybody can enjoy the treasures of Musée de Cluny and one of the most renowned of these must surely be the tapestries of the Late Middle Ages, La Dame à la Licorne. Having been cleaned and restored in 2012 – requiring some 2,3OO hours of painstaking work – the six tapestries are now hung on flat wall surfaces, as opposed to the curved forms in the old arrangement. Furthermore, visitors are now able to take photos, without flash, and so can prolong the pleasure of seeing these magnificent works after the initial visit.

A Mon Seul Désir: Love
With the multitude of details that feature in all six pieces, it is a privilege to pour over these at leisure – discovering new aspects and trying to find their symbolic meaning within the whole or simply appreciating the fine observations.

The Letter: Tapestry from the Southern Netherlands 
These tapestries stem from the long-established custom of suspending vast wall hangings to provide insulation in cold, draughty buildings such as castles and churches, in addition to offering rich illustrations of stories, fables, myths, moralistic tales of religious and/or historical significance.

Whilst such works were once the preserve of royalty and the church, in Gothic and Renaissance times these tapestries, art forms in their own right, were used by the nobility and the merchant classes too in order to express both material wealth and personal values to affirm status. The Lady and the Unicorn collection is thought to have been a private commission, simply intended for display to the select few, and without a direct ecclesiastic function.

The Unicorn tapestries here display many of the characteristics of other works of the same period – both in France and in the southern Netherlands, with special attention given to foliage, fruits, flowers, animals and the feminine form. A millefleur background, with its profusion of delicate intricate flora and fauna, was common from end of the 15th century, but was rarely of a red colour as is the case here.

I love all the expressive animal forms – going from the relatively commonplace creatures (dog, rabbit, lamb, fox, duck, magpie, bird of prey, heron) to the rather more exotic species (monkey, lion, genet).

The body language and quizzical regards of all these creatures seem to be so familiar to any viewer today, despite the centuries that separate us from them.

The unicorn and a banner-bearing lion take centre stage alongside their lady. Both beasts were often used in common imagery. The mythical figure of the unicorn was frequently used in allegorical representations from antiquity onwards, lending itself to different symbolic interpretations; purety, chastity, Christ, the Virgin Mary, untamed nature, ferocity. The exact meaning of the unicorn’s role in the Cluny tapestries is unclear, as is the final message conveyed by the overall work. Nevertheless, the core theme of the Senses is manifest throughout each separate tapestry.

The symbolic importance of the five senses was not the preserve of the Middle Ages nor solely of the Christian faith. It was, in fact, part of a philosophical tradition with roots in classical thought from Antiquity. The Greek philosophers Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Galenus (129-200), had long before developed their theories of perception and intelligence. Later, the ‘father of modern medicine’ the Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna (980 – 1037) had argued that just as there are the five external senses—vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell—so there were five internal senses; common sense, retentive imagination, compositive imagination, estimative power, and memory.

Virtue and perfection could be reached through the appropriate use of the bodily senses, leading to an understanding of God, which was the highest level of knowledge, and the attainment of the righteous self and soul. In this manner, to the learned and clerical body of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, the five senses were the connecting link between human form and soul.

The external senses could thus represent the keys to unlock the door to Knowledge or could, conversely, obstruct this entrance by acting as tempting lures to sin and damnation. With their unique power to sweep the being to a higher, spiritual level, or plunge him into an abyss, the senses needed to navigated carefully. It was deemed that the senses were not of equal importance and as such, should be classified in accordance with an established hierarchy to guide the individual through this perillous terrain. There were numerous reminders of such dangers. Representations of the Seven Deadly Sins were widely available - pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth were portrayed in order to warn the weak of such peril. 

The five senses were thought to correspond to the four elements. In this framework, earth was correlated to touch; water to taste; air – smell and hearing; fire – sight. Touch was considered to be the lowest, basest sense that was integral to the carnal, physical world. Likewise, taste could lead to sinful pleasure. Smell, however, pointed towards the spiritual over the material as it stimulated the imagination, whilst sight and hearing were the noblest senses that marked the transition towards a transcendental realm and the Divine. The ability to see and hear, the highest gift, was vital to learning, contemplation and knowledge (interestingly, encyclopedias were often referred to as ‘mirrors’).

A harmony of the senses could enable the soul to free itself from its base constraints, to transcend an animalistic state. Indeed, at the very top of the hierarchy was the sixth sense – governed by the heart. Unlike the lesser senses, that lead outward onto the material world, the sixth sense offered a profound, interior meaning and understanding ; spiritual love. The Italian philosopher, Ficino (1433-1499) argued that Reason was indeed the sixth sense and was set in the heart. Likewise, the French scholar Jean Gerson (1363-1429) cited the heart as the only inner sense « Et je parlerai des six sens, cinq dehors et un dedans qui est le cœur ».

The themes of temptation and redemption, linked to the senses and and their bodily organs, were primarily spiritual concerns. Nevertheless they were also associated with notions of courtly love in the 12th century and were treated in secular, allegorical representations too. The Lady and the Unicorn, is a case in point as the beautifully attired, noble lady attends to occupations or rituals that exemplify the power of touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight in this jardin d’amour. The scenes appear to demonstrate acts of preparation for love, and to lead to the final tapestry.

A Mon Seul Désir
This piece,‘A Mon Seul Désir, seems to play on a certain ambiguity. Is this woman preparing for her chivalrous knight-errant or getting ready to renounce this world of earthly pleasures for the spiritual ? Is she awaiting the purity of amour courtois or the pure love of God? There are references to quests and hunting (the birds of prey and dogs), power and domination (the lion), virginity and innocence (the unicorn). Viewers from the Middle Ages would have been fully acquainted with such symbols since Medieval bestiaries traditionally linked the quirks and failings of the animal kingdom to reflect the weaknesses of the human one.

Here, the monkey mimics some of the gestures of his mistress as it eats in Taste, and sniffs a rose in Smell. whilst the unicorn gazes at itself in a mirror in Sight. In the sixth tapestry, A Mon Seul Désir, the lion and unicorn hold open the awning for their lady as she prepares to leave their company. Whilst the first tapestry, Touch, sees her and the beasts around her tied and chained to material objects – perhaps governed and grounded by lesser instincts – in the final tapestry she seems to hand over her jewellery and thus free herself of material wealth.

No one will know the definitive meaning of the Lady and the Unicorn, if indeed there is just one. However, far more people will now be able to observe the work and try to come to their own conclusions – or simply enjoy it for its own sake, as a beautiful piece of art.

When I was there, an old couple were visiting, commenting in great detail on the tapestries that were on display. They seemed to take real pleasure observing and discussing the work and that added to my pleasure as I eavesdropped on the talk. Monsieur was in a wheelchair, pushed around by his wife, but were able to move around the exhibition rooms relatively freely, something that would have been most problematic a few years ago.

Mind you, I still can’t help but miss the old entrance to the museum, at the heart of the ancient courtyard, with the rich architecture towering above, where you stepped out of the streets of 21st century Paris into the Middle Ages.

A Mon Seul Désir

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Nora Barlow Columbine

Having taken photos of these beautiful flowers at the garden centre, I later realised that I had not paid a great deal of attention to their name and was left wondering which plant family they belonged to. Little did I think that these would in fact be linked to one of the greatest families of the intellectual elite of 19th and 20th century Britain.

Learning that this flowering ranunculaceae plant was named after a certain Nora Barlow, I had images of an unassuming horticulturist busying herself around the potting shed in order to come up with this pretty columbine hybrid. I was therefore quite taken aback to discover that Emma Nora Barlow (1885 – 1989), who had studied botany and genetics at Cambridge university at a time when women were largely barred from higher education, was in fact the granddaughter of Charles Darwin.

Nora Barlow’s very long life – over a hundred years –  encompassed the most dramatic events that have shaped our world, remodeled our role therein and revolutionized our world view. She must have witnessed many of the vast sea changes in every possible domain of life. The civilized and natural worlds were transformed throughout the latter years of the Industrial Revolution, shattered and restructured by the ravages of world war, fractured by geopolitics, metamorphosed and dwarfed by blinding technological and scientific breakthroughs with space exploration, nuclear fission and fusion. Her death came just a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was to herald the demise of the Soviet bloc and Communist systems of Eastern Europe. She died just before the rise of one of the ultimate game changers; the internet.

Nora Barlow was not yet born when Charles Darwin published his On the Origins of Species in 1859, yet the aftershock from this explosive work continued to reverberate well into her life. His theories of evolution had undermined the Creationist beliefs that had been the basis of the understanding of the world and its making. Not surprisingly, to many people Darwin’s theories were and perhaps still are anathema and the man himself an abomination.

This Darwinian thirst for study and knowledge and this trait of intellectual distinction seem to have been carried down from generation to generation, along the branches of the Darwin family tree in the same manner as the most resilient genetic code. Nora’s interest in botany and natural history had grown from her own mother’s love , later leading this young woman to carry out research on the primrose family in the early years of the 20th century and her papers on this genetics study drew on Darwin’s own work - The Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the Same Species – that had been published in 1877.

She also wrote biographical works on her grandfather and his second cousin, Francis Galton – the ‘father’ of eugenics and in 1933 edited The diary of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. In this manner, Nora founded what has been termed the ‘Darwin industry’, and through four works she ensured that Darwin has been handed down to posterity through his own unadulterated expression.
On the publication of her re-edited version of Darwin’s autobiography in 1958, Nora stated that « The great figures must be seen in their own setting and their own words must be heard, cleared of the posthumous growth of later dogma ». Thus this definitive edition of the autobiography reinstated the sections of text that had been taken out of the first version, edited by Darwin’s son, Francis, in 1887.

Freed from the constraints that had forced Francis to edit in order to present a palatable version of a text that could be deemed pithy at best and heretic at worst, Nora restored the lost passages, and hence undid this ‘unnatural selection’, so to speak. Unlike her uncle, she feared no family feuds over the representation of religious beliefs or lack of them and so her grandfather’s incisive mind and spirit speak to us today via uncensored words. Beyond this role as Darwin’s literary guardian, Nora Barlow’s own existence was taken up with full academic and professional occupations, a married life with a busy household of six children.

And finally, as for the columbine flower in question…. The Nora Barlow is a double-petalled, unspurred variety of the genus aquilegia, a word derived from the Latin for eagle (aquila), because of the shape of the petals, whose spurs are said to resemble an eagle's claw. That sounds rather ominous for something so delicate, in which case perhaps the common name from the Latin for dove is preferable – likening the inverted flower to five doves drawn close together.