Saturday, April 30, 2022

A Little Grey Rabbit's Tale... Alison Uttley and Margaret Tempest.

I never outgrew my overwhelming childhood penchant for a certain type of picture, generally representing petite furry mammals quaintly dressed in frills, finery and friperie. I am still irresistibly - and now wholly unashamedly - drawn to the illustrations of Beatrix Potter, Beshlie and Margaret Tempest, much in the same manner as I was all those years ago when I was introduced to them in book form, on birthdays and at Christmas time in the 70s. The only difference in my appreciation today is that it has now acquired a warm patina of nostalgia for those decidedly distant childhood years as I relive their highlights with what is surely excessive adult sentimentality. Having recently tracked down some of my earliest drawings - all largely inspired by but mostly just plain copied from the Little Grey Rabbit series - I wanted a little more insight into its creation. In so doing, however, I stumbled into that creative quandary that can never be satisfactorily exited; who to consider to be the creator of characters in a children’s ‘picture’ book when writer and illustrator are not the same person.
The personal and professional resentment that such unresolved creative questions could give rise to is shockingly apparent in the case of children’s author Alison Uttley and the artist who gave furry form to her fictive universe; Margaret Tempest. The tales of Little Grey Rabbit, Hare, Squirrel and Fuzzypeg the Hedgehog which had charmed children from the 1930s onwards suddenly appeared a little less charming with the final publication of Uttley’s private diaries in 2009. To the relish of millennial literary critics, the safe and savoury animal world that these grandes dames had crafted decades earlier revealed itself to be somewhat feral, edgy and ugly as the fur flew across the pages with the petty details of their periodic catfight.
Newspapers ready for a scoop pounced on this image of Uttley, red in tooth and claw, backing it up with the other accounts of spats and skirmishes that invariably arose when the path of this prickly character was crossed by some hapless individual - be that friend, family or foe. Through her wry and even wicked protestations against the authors of any supposed slights or faux pas, this prodigious diarist had unwittingly penned a portrait of herself that dealt a fatal blow to her own persona, some 40 odd years after her actual death. The barbs that had been sealed in private paragraphs, hidden from view, were now released and redirected back to source, as venomous darts, guided along by literary critics to reach damning conclusions. Thus, a choice selection of Uttley’s snipish remarks and long-held grudges that spared nothing and no one were exposed to the world. Held up to the light as a "stream of bile" these were then linked, rightly or wrongly, to the far darker facts of her life. Thus private words which had never been written for public airing appeared to be incriminating evidence with which to condemn the perpetrator, not just as a "prize cow" with a "vicious heart", but far worse still. Granted, Uttley’s literary gifts and remaining personal qualities were also clearly highlighted, but not until damning associations had effectively carried out a hachet job on her name. For indeed, no amount of the magical, flowery images of Uttley’s creation could ever counter the weight of these ghastly charges ; if accusations of bullying, baiting and incest were bad enough, the implication that she effectively drove both husband and son to suicide is final.
Whilst much blame appears to have been laid firmly at Uttley’s feet, the biographical study Alison Uttley – Creator of Little Grey Rabbit by Denis Judd (written in 1986, reprinted by Sutton Publishing in 2003), offers a fairer view of this complex, largely contradictory character that helps redress the balance. Through his writings, it is clear that Alison Uttley spun stories and images that enchanted her as much as they ensnared her through a life-long desire to recreate aspects of the country haven from the bygone rural era of her early years. Her long life was one beset with troubles, trauma and tragedy of which she was surely not the sole author or in the case of her guilt, mitigating circumstances could conceivably be presented in her defence. From a modest existence on a farmhouse in Derbyshire, this inquisitive child grew into an intelligent young woman who finally flew the nest. Despite her later fame as the spinner of an idyllic literary web of country existence, Uttley was formally trained as a scientist in her youth. Graduating from Manchester University, she was one of the first pioneering female physicists of her time and herself remarked on the irony of a scientific mind couched within a free-flowing spirit that believed in fairies and fantasy, the power of dreams and the imagination. Where both universes combine is in her unfailing love and utter enthralment to the natural world and its order.
It seems, however, that Uttley never quite found the ‘natural order’ that she sought in her own life and for all her worldly success and personal achievements, she appears to have been left frustrated if not periodically infuriated that something essential had evaded her all along. I did wonder if her glowing accounts of childhood spring in fact from a vital need to compensate some unspoken shortcomings in her own experience as a child or, conversely, was she genuinely (and bitterly) disappointed that the components of her adult life could never match the supposed perfection of her country upbringing ? Either way, something seems to be at odds, as she was left somehow unable to find the lasting security, comfort and contentment that her harmonious rural visions tantalised and somehow tormented her with. If her childhood, albeit materially modest, had indeed provided her with such a solid emotional bedrock, surely this would have kept her pyschologically grounded in life. Why then was her existence punctuated by bouts of insecurity, loneliness and depression, that in turn gave rise to resentful feelings, vindictive behaviour and meanness ? These would seem to be in response to unformulated misgivings, bitter disappointments, exacting standards and unmet expectations that were surely already in place well before the tragic events of her adult life as wife and mother. Why did she cling to her son throughout his entire life, smothering him in maternal love that stifled his emotional and psychological growth, pitting herself against any female competition seeking to obtain his affections ? Interestingly, she was not at her parents’ bedside for their respective deaths, and nor did her son, John, choose to be by hers yet he went on to kill himself two years later. Was Uttley’s inappropriate behaviour towards her son incestuous in the most extreme form and if so, was she was replicating acts committed against her as a child ? So much for idyllic childhoods…
Why is she said to have nagged her husband to death – quite literally – haranguing him with household finances and domestic demands if their marriage had been so sound, even if cash-strapped ? Uttley herself presumably had no answers to any of these questions but from hardship she wove art throughout her entire life, with her celebrated children’s books borne out of necessity in the aftermath of her husband’s suicide. But here too, we can only wonder at the deep-rooted disatisfaction and lasting anxiety she experienced over her creative acclaim and the monetary reward this garnered. Why was she so defensive towards previous or contemporary children’s writers – and how could their renown represent an affront to her own name and self-esteem ? Why did her pecunary obsession cause her to fret and fuss over every single penny, leading to acts of the most appaling stinginess, even as an extremely wealthy woman ? Repeated amendments to Uttley’s will were matched by the stubborn refusal to allow Margaret Tempest to receive the same earnings as herself for Little Grey Rabbit & Co.
I certainly have no concrete explanation to any of the above, yet Alison Uttley’s strange foibles, flaws and failings seems to make her all the more human and considerably less like the creatures of the animal kingdom she so admired or created in her books. Ultimately, she could not make real life as safe and flawless as her literary one, for herself or anybody else, thus underlining universal human weaknesses we all share, but should we really punish her posthumously for this ? Perhaps Uttley spun so many threads around herself and her work that we can no longer tell where one begins and another ends and to judge her in any context is futile since she caught herself in a web of her own making. It was also Professor Judd who edited the published Uttley diairies of 2009 and I wonder if he later had misgivings over opening this particular Pandora’s box, in view of the journalistic nastiness its contents unintentionally unleashed. Either way, the title of more recent prints of his biographical study, refers to Uttley as ‘Spinner of Tales’ rather than ‘The Creator of Little Grey Rabbit’, as written on the cover of the version I have just read. In so doing, the chicken-or-egg creative controversy that has shadowed Little Grey Rabbit is tactfully avoided , and the words inscribed on Alison Uttley’s gravestone in Buckinghamshire are respectfully taken up. I hope the books about Little Grey Rabbit, Hare and their country companions are still part of children’s learning experience today - I noticed that my battered old Heinemann copy of The Story of Fuzzypeg the Hedgehog dates back to April 1952 – 70 years old to the month ! Apparently the stories were televised some time ago but I wonder if these screen adaptations have the same appeal. I loved Professor Judd’s wistful (2001) yet accurate comment in the introduction of his biography about how Uttley’s writing could prove to be an "irresistible tonic" to "jaded, over-stimulated, computer-zapped imaginations". Finally, on the hazards of artistic creation, I am about to read the The Children’s Book by A.S Byatt, published in the same year as Alison Uttley’s diaries…

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Tulip Time... Again !

Try as I might, I just can't resist admiring these beautiful flowers and so here we are again as another tulip season has opened here !
The varieties of tulip available never cease to amaze me these days, although I certainly don't remember paying any particular attention to them when I was younger - apart from the Parrot tulip, that is...
The displays in the various flower beds around town last year had such an effect on me that even ended up going to Amsterdam, albeit out of tulip season !
I just wanted to see the city that fired the greatest desire for these precious blooms in its citizens.
The colours and shapes of the petals alone are fascinating...
But then there are the oddly-shaped stamens exposed within...
Of course I understand that many of the hybrids are man-made, specifically cross-bred to provide such a wide range...
But what a vast variety!
I can't even decide which one I find the most impressive because they all have such incredible features with colours and textures that explore every possibility.
Even the 'classic' red tulips look stunning in the Spring sunlight, with their dark interiors and bright stamens exposed to any eager pollinator.
This effect is surely taken to its extreme in the gorgeous Parrot tulip, although I have aadly only seen one specimen so far this year.
What wouldn't I do to see a whole collection of those in bloom !
But while I wait for that day, I can certainly content myself with all of these different types...
For even the most simple, modestly hidden in the shade, is very far from plain...

Sunday, April 17, 2022

A Quiet Morning in a Medieval Town... Troyes!

A few weeks ago, I returned to the beautiful Medieval town of Troyes, having kept such pleasant memories of this incredible site.
Unlike my last visit, on a Summer's day a number of years ago, this one took place on an early Spring day...
There was one common element however; both trips being made in order to admire the art of painter Jean Marrel. More about that in another post...
Whereas my first visit had led me through the relatively busy streets and alleyways of the town, this time I found myself wandering through the virtually deserted roads and walkways that meander along and around the old town.
The vibrant blue skies brought out all the timber details on the architecture that seemed to tower above.
Despite a radiant light, the Sunday-morning air was bracing ! Hardly surprising then that I initially encountered so few people...
In fact, that suited me perfectly as I wanted to imagine life as it may have been in centuries past, and in the historical heart of the town this is almost possible to achieve.
Over the last few decades, the town municipality has taken measures to protect and preserve the historic buildings and monuments that reflect the former importance of Troyes.
The cash dispenser in the bank above is fairly discreet, and generally speaking the shops and services likewise tend to respect the cultural heritage of the sites that they occupy.
However little indicates the degree of commercial exchange in the town during the foires de Champagne of the Middle Ages or the size and significance of its textile industry of Troyes over the centuries.
The wealth of Troyes today is largely dependant on tourism, accommodating and catering for those drawn to the town. Restaurants and cafés flourish, of course, and some serve the incomparable local meat dish - andouillette de Troyes.
Many visitors come to purchase big brand clothes and other goods at the factory outlet stores outside town, but others converge on the historical centre and wonder at the architecture and negotiate those impossibly narrow alleys.
The Medieval half-timbered buildings - à colombage - with their variety of colours contrast against the striking blue sky and the 19th century architecture that cohabits this space ...
I couldn't help but wonder who lived in all these buildings, what stories lie behind any one of these amazing façades or within the many courtyards beyond. Not to mention the lives of those who commissioned or carried out the building of such archicture and its decoration...
The merman below has to be one of my favourite carved figures. What was his exact meaning?
Forms of man, beast and flower adorn beams, cornices and corners, peering out at us in our 21st century ignorance !
Many, of course, are symbols of the Christian faith and appear on private buildings in addition to the numerous churches of Troyes. I suspect that for the most part, their meaning is lost on us too as we are no longer able to 'read' them.
On this latest trip to Troyes, I soon realized that the town is deceptively big. It may appear light and accessible on first impression yet is as dense and complex as the wooden structures that hold up its 16th century architecture.
I will surely have to return to visit the other magical places of this town - one of these to be found behind this impressive wall - Le Musée de Vauluisant .