Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Today is William Blake’s 250th birthday. Happy birthday, William.

The Chimney-Sweeper

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying ‘weep, weep’ in notes of woe!
‘Where are thy father and mother? Say!’
‘They are both gone up to the church to pray.

‘Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

‘And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.’

I always think of Blake as one of a triumvirate of great London writers, along with Dickens and Pepys. There are plenty of other poets with impeccable London connections: Chaucer, Donne, Pope, Keats and Browning, just to pick some of the obvious ones. Hell, you could throw in Shakespeare at a pinch.

A poet

And you could hardly claim Blake as a typical Londoner. I mean, the revolutionary politics was common enough at the time; as a matter of fact, in his day job as an engraver/printer, Blake did one of the illustrations for a book by another C18th poet and radical I wrote about recently, Erasmus Darwin. And London has had its fair share of esoteric and peculiar religions, so that’s not too unusual. But Blake saw visions; as a child, he saw the head of God outside an upper-storey window in Soho, and a tree full of angels on Peckham Rye.


It is that combination, though, which is the point: Blake walked the filthy, stinking, noisy streets of London, and found the transcendent. He saw it as a place of poverty, tyranny and oppression, of mind-forged manacles, but he also saw it as something more and stranger.

Hampstead, Highgate, Finchley, Hendon, Muswell Hill rage loud
Before Bromion’s iron tongs and glowing poker reddening fierce.
Hertfordshire glows with fierce vegetation; in the forests
The oak frowns terrible; the beech and ash and elm enroot
Among the spiritual fires. Loud the cornfields thunder along
The soldier’s fife, the harlot’s shriek, the virgin’s dismal groan,
The parent’s fear, the brother’s jealousy, the sister’s curse,
Beneath the storms of Theotormon; and the thund’ring bellows
Heaves in the hand of Palamabron, who in London’s darkness
Before the anvil watches the bellowing flames. Thundering
The hammer loud rages in Rintrah’s strong grasp, swinging loud
Round from heaven to earth, down falling with heavy blow
Dead on the anvil, where the red-hot wedge groans in pain.
He quenches it in the black trough of his forge. London’s river
Feeds the dread forge, trembling and shuddering along the valleys.

Three giants

That passage, and the illustration, are from Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. It’s hard to know what to make of these long prophetic poems. I can only take them in small doses, although they contain some brilliant moments. Is their strangeness best understood as a radical artistic statement, which would make them comparable to, say, Walt Whitman; or do they reflect Blake’s weakening grip on reality? Was he insane? Does it matter?

It is an odd thought that Blake published the first of his prophetic poems, The Book of Thel, in the year of the Regency Crisis, while George III was being confined in a strait-waistcoat and kept away from sharp objects a few miles up the river at Kew. Considering how the King was treated in his illness, Blake did well to keep out of the hands of the doctors.

King on lily flower

There is a famous story that one of his friends once arrived at Blake’s house in Lambeth to find him and his wife sitting naked in the garden reading Paradise Lost aloud to each other. The friend was embarrassed, but Blake called out, ‘Come in! It’s only Adam and Eve, you know!’ Perhaps the King would have envied such freedom.

» all the pictures are by Blake and are taken from the extraordinarily comprehensive William Blake Archive.


  • ‘The nevuo-cumbia juggernaut rolls on with this next entry in the bastard pop / cumbia mash genre, titled ‘Mash Piola 2′ – a new mixtape compiled by Pirate Pixie.’
    (tags: )

No Euro 2008 for us, then.

I had a bad feeling before the match, but I wasn’t expecting it to go quite the way it did. I was worried that playing a 4-5-1 and only needing a draw, England would defend deeper and deeper, as they so often have recently, only to be caught out by a goal too late to do anything about it.

And that was what happened, but only after we’d gone 2-0 down and clawed back to 2-2 again, so I’m not going to claim too much Mystic Meg kudos on the subject.

We can hardly say we deserved anything different, though: we just didn’t win enough football matches. And although they have looked pretty good in fits and spurts, they’ve also looked dreadful at times, especially last night. I appreciate that the Bridge-Lescott-Campbell-Richards back line was pretty much forced on McClaren, who was genuinely unlucky to have every one of his first choice strikers and defenders missing for such a crucial game, but geez they were crap.

So now we need a new manager. It’s a complete poisoned chalice of a job, of course, although the millions of pounds would help you grin and bear it.

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The Bible by Karen Armstrong

The full title is The Bible: The Biography, which at least clears up any possible implication that Karen Armstrong might be claiming authorship for the actual Bible.

I finished this last week sometime, but I’ve been putting off writing about it, mainly because reading a book by someone who knows vastly more about the subject than I do and then arguing with it seems like bad intellectual karma.

It traces the history of the Bible; both the accumulation and arrangement of the contents and the different ways people have read it. For these purposes ‘the Bible’ includes the Jewish version as well as the Christian one.

For me the most interesting part of it was the process by which the Bible was written and arranged; the various early religious traditions in Judah and Israel, the theological impact of the destruction of Temple first by Nebuchadnezzar and then later by the Romans, the religious and social context of the early Christian church and the various movements within early Chistianity. I did find it slightly unnerving, though, that Armstrong never gives any hint about how we come to know any of this stuff about what happened up to three thousand years ago. Obviously to explain every detail thoroughly would make the book much much less approachable, but a few examples of the kinds of sources being drawn on would have been interesting.

I suspect she was focussed on producing a popular account of what I imagine is a pretty dry field, and I can’t say I wanted to wade through too much in the way of textual criticism of obscure Assyrian chronicles, or whatever, but for me she whizzes through almost too quickly. The whole book is only just over 200 pages, which isn’t much for three millennia of history and theology (especially since it’s set in large, generously leaded type; unattractively large for my taste). So it’s a useful introduction to the subject but it’s hard to engage with properly. I suppose if I really wanted to know more I could check out the sources and biblical references listed in the endnotes, but I’d rather have a little more content in the actual text.

Once it gets to the point where the Bible is finalised and the book is concerned with the different ways people have read it, I found it less interesting. Partially that’s because I knew a little more about the subject already; not a huge amount more, but I’ve encountered the medieval exegetical tradition before, and I’ve read a certain amount about the Reformation. And to be honest, I tend to feel that when you’ve encountered a few different ways of finding ‘deeper’ significance in a text—Freudian analysis, various flavours of critical theory, different kinds of exegesis—they all start seeming rather similar.

But what made me uncomfortable was when she got onto modern practice. For most of the book she has presented an apparently detached, descriptive account. But once we get onto the nineteenth and twentieth centuries she starts making an argument, and it becomes apparent that there is an agenda to the whole book. The argument, basically, is that literal readings of scripture are a modern development, that in the past the Bible was always read as figurative, allegorical, and read in an open-ended way in search of spiritual, rather than literal, truth. And she goes so far as to recommend a return to these traditions.

Well, this is where my bad intellectual karma comes in, because despite my basic ignorance on the subject, I find myself deeply sceptical about her presentation of the tradition. Exegetical, allegorical, spiritual readings of scripture have obviously always existed and have always been part of the mainstream. It’s worth pointing out that the deeper spiritual truths found by exegesis can co-exist with a literal reading, but still, it’s clearly true, and a point well worth making, that most serious readings of the Bible throughout the tradition have been aimed at finding other kinds of truth than historical accuracy. Higher truths, deeper truths; pick your own spatial metaphor.

But still, I don’t believe that literal readings are new. It’s too obvious, simple and clear an idea. I just don’t believe that it never occurred to anyone to think “maybe this holy text is true”. My niggling suspicions aren’t quieted by the way Armstrong talks about modern life. Here’s the example which stuck out for me. I’ll quote at some length in an attempt to be fair:

Throughout this biography, we have considered the ways in which Jews and Christians have tried to cultivate a receptive, intuitive approach to scripture. This is difficult for us today. We are a talkative and opinionated society and not always good at listening. The discourse of politics, media and academe is essentially adversarial. While this is undoubtedly important in a democracy, it can mean that people are not really receptive to an opposing viewpoint. It is often apparent during a parliamentary debate or a panel discussion on television that while their opponents are speaking, participants are simply thinking up the next clever thing they are going to say. Biblical discourse is often conducted in the same confrontational spirit, very different from the ‘listening ear’ proposed by the Hasidic leader, Dov Ber. We also expect immediate answers to complex questions. The soundbite is all. In biblical times,some people feared that a written scripture encouraged a slick, superficial ‘knowing’. This is surely an even greater danger in the electronic age, when people are used to finding truth at the click of a mouse.

Now it must be true that, for various reasons, religion has changed in the past few hundred years. The intellectual, social and political context has changed, after all. But whenever people start claiming that modern society is uniquely awful in some way, I get suspicious, and this seems a classic example of why. Armstrong says that because we are a certain kind of society, ‘it can mean that people are not really receptive to an opposing viewpoint.’ With the implication that at some point in the past there was a moment when people were receptive to an opposing viewpoint. And that all theological debates in the past were conducted with a ‘listening ear’, something which would come as a surprise to those people burnt to death for heresy.

Or to give another example, when talking about American Rapture theology—the idea that the end of the world predicted in Revelations is coming soon—she writes

In line with the modern spirit, Darby’s theory was literal and democratic. There was no hidden truth, accessible only to a learned elite. The Bible meant exactly what it said.

Well, of course, the specific details of Rapture theology, like the association of the Antichrist with the United Nations, are modern and contingent. But the idea that the end of the world is nigh is not new. Millenarian heresies (i.e. people who believed that the Millennium, the thousand years of Christ’s rule on Earth, was coming soon) turned up pretty regularly in the medieval period. And this is part of my sense of unease with Armstrong’s presentation of modern theology as uniquely misguided; over the two thousand years of Christianity, the same ideas tended to pop up again and again. The key ideas of Protestantism, for example, were not new at the time of the Reformation; they had turned up periodically around Europe and the Catholic church had managed to crush them as heretical.

Anyway. It’s a pretty interesting book, but the fact that she’s clearly set out to make a particular case just makes it hard for me to take what she says at face value.

Renaissance Siena at the National Gallery

I went to the Renaissance Siena: Art for a City exhibition today. It’s late C15th and early C16th art. I gathered from the audio-guide that by then, Siena had already had its golden age, and was dropping behind places like Florence and Rome as an artistic centre.

The Story of Patient Griselda, Part I

So the artists in the show—Matteo di Giovanni, Francesco di Giorgio, Benvenuto di Giovanni, the Master of the Legend of Griselda, Signorelli, Pintoricchi, Beccafumi—aren’t household names. I hadn’t heard of any of them. And if someone who was a fan of the Italian Renaissance was passing through London for the first time and considering going to the exhibition, I’d recommend they bypass it and visit the National Gallery’s permanent collection, which has some superb Renaissance paintings.

Nonetheless, I did enjoy it. I find these early Renaissance works extremely likeable, although I couldn’t easily articulate why. There’s something very human about them, both in scale and style, which makes them more approachable than grander works by people like Michelangelo. They draw you in to look closely and enjoy the details.

Saint Dorothy and the Infant Christ

And I had a very nice lemon tart in the National Gallery café.

» the two details above are both from paintings which are in the Gallery’s permanent collection and are currently in the Siena show. The first is ‘The Story of Patient Griselda, Part I’ by the Master of the Story of Griselda; the other is ‘Saint Dorothy and the Infant Christ’ by Francesco di Giorgio.

George III and the Mad-Business by Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter

I highly recommend this fascinating book; it seems to be out of print, but there are lots of second-hand copies on Amazon. As the title suggests, it’s about poor mad George III. And even Americans, brought up to think of George III as a tyrant, might have a little sympathy for him after reading this.

detail of Hogarth

It starts with a detailed account of his illness—or his illnesses, really, since he initially suffered from relatively brief bouts, separated by long periods of good health. Having offered a diagnosis of porphyria, which is a hereditary condition, Macalpine and Hunter examine the medical histories of George II’s relatives and demonstrate that porphyria can be identified, with varying degrees of confidence, in a startling number of them; most notably perhaps in James I, Mary Queen of Scots and Frederick the Great of Prussia.

detail of Hogarth

The book then moves on to a survey of C18th psychiatry, both in terms of its theoretical basis and treatment, and looks at the way it developed. Not surprisingly, George’s illness had a huge impact on the mad-business because of the publicity surrounding it. The idea of a king being forcibly confined in a strait-waistcoat focussed people’s minds on the treatment of the insane. The book traces developments in the treatment of patients and the law surrounding insanity, both in terms of treatment and things like criminal responsibility. Finally it looks at the way developments in psychiatry have affected historians’ portrayal of George III.

mad ‘king’ in Bedlam

It is, as I say, fascinating. The account of his illness is remarkable, not least because of the political chaos around it. It was just the moment when, although Britain was increasingly recognisable as a modern democracy and decision-making increasingly rested with the Prime Minister and parliament, the king was still an important enough figure that his incapacity led to a crisis. And since the question of whether or not to establish a Regency depended on it, and a Regency would mean a change of government, his treatment was incredibly politicised. His doctors issued regular bulletins about his status, which were pored over by all concerned; his doctors themselves became associated with different political factions and found it very difficult to agree on anything.

Meanwhile the king was kept from his loved ones, frequently confined to a strait-waistcoat, and was subjected to a variety of unpleasant and intrusive treatments—bleeding, cupping, blistering, emetics—none of which, we now know, did him any good at all. And at least one aspect of his treatment, a ‘lowering’ diet without any meat in it, will have been actively making him worse.

detail of Hogarth

Still, interesting though all that is, it was starting to get a bit repetitive—thoroughness is a great quality in a historian, but doesn’t always make for riveting reading—and I was glad to get past the details of George’s case and onto the broader stuff, which I found fascinating. For example, as psychiatry increasingly worked under the theory that mental illnesses are self-contained and separate from physical illnesses, the king was retrospectively diagnosed with ‘manic-depressive psychosis’ , and all of his various and violent physical symptoms—pain, fast pulse, colic, sweating, hoarseness, stupor—were interpreted as hysterical, or even as invented by the Court to disguise the truth of his condition.

detail of Hogarth

And because it was assumed that he must always have been manic-depressive, the diagnosis colours historians’ portrayals of his whole personality:

Watson, in the standard Oxford history of the reign, writes : ‘He lacked the pliability and easy virtue of less highly strung people. When his obstinacy encountered an immovable obstacle, all his resources were at an end and the black humour claimed him… Madness was but this mood in an extreme form.’

The book quotes a whole series of similar descriptions. But the king’s early biographers presented a completely different picture, and in fact, we now know that between bouts of illness, sufferers from porphyria can be very healthy. Macalpine and Hunter are pretty scathing about psychiatry generally; the book was written in 1969, and it would be interesting to know whether they thought there had been any progress in the meantime.

» the pictures are details from ‘The Interior of Bedlam’, the final scene in Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. It predates the king’s first bout of madness, so the fact that one of the inmates thinks he is the king is not a jibe at George III. I got the picture from this site about the history of Missouri’s first state mental hospital.



  • via swissmiss: ‘Lipsticks’ is a series of large-scale photographs of lipsticks near the end of their lives as consumer products, worn away through use.

Just a little Memling

Do you like Memling? I don’t know, I’ve never tried it. [boom boom]

Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Barbara, by Hans Memling, 1479

Gotta love that Northern Renaissance.

I went to a lecture about fabric and fashion in art recently which used as an example a painting which I think wasn’t actually this one, but was very very similar. Possibly Memling painted various versions of it. Anyway, I can tell you that the black and gold cloth behind the Virgin and on the skirt of one the kneeling saints would have been made in Italy.

While I’m here posting about nothing in particular, I’ll throw in one of my occasional plugs for my photoblog, Clouded Drab. There’s a cute cat picture on the front page…

» The painting, Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Barbara, is in the Met, and this photo is from their website. It was painted in 1479 by the Netherlandish painter Hans Memling as an altarpiece.


A big-budget Hollywood version of Beowulf is obviously going to either be a travesty of the poem or commercial suicide.

When you hear that Angelina Jolie is embarrassed about her nude scenes in the movie, I think it’s pretty clear which one.

Georg Baselitz at the Royal Academy

Baselitz is a German painter and sculptor. I thought that I knew nothing about him at all, but when I got to the exhibition several of the paintings turned out to be familiar.

Baselitz was born in East Germany, his father had been a member of the Nazi party, and he was studying at an art college in West Berlin when the Berlin Wall went up and separated him from his family and home town. So it’s not surprising that a lot of history and politics gets into his paintings or that they tend to be a bit angry. In fact, his earlier paintings, which are figurative but distorted and blocky, are reminiscent of some of those similarly angry-looking Picassos.

The Woodmen

Later he developed a different quirk: upside-down paintings. They are, apparently, actually painted upside-down, but they look like they’ve just been hung that way. It’s a surprisingly effective way of transforming even quite mundane paintings into something more interesting, and the early examples are fairly mundane, as though the point of them is the upside-down-ness and so the paintings themselves are much more straightforward representational works than those he had been doing before. Interestingly, as the paintings then get more abstracted, they stay upside-down, but because the subject is less clear the upside-down-ness is also less obvious.

The Gleaner

More recently Baselitz has started producing ‘remix’ paintings: new versions of his early works. So, for example, there’s a painting, I think from the 60s, called ‘The Great Friends’ that depicts two people among ruins and in front of a fallen flag. The new version is the same design, but painted in different colours and with different technique; he’s taken to painting them on the floor, making much use of dripped paint. No doubt this is partially the normal looking back of an old man. It was noticeable in the Louise Bourgeois show at Tate Modern that she has also returned to motifs from her childhood as she gets older. But also it is surely related to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany stirring up the whole messy subject of C20th German history.

I got the audioguide for the exhibition, which was interesting if not exactly sparkling, and it included contributions from Baselitz. Rather admirably, he never made any attempt to tell you what the paintings were about, or explain their symbolism or even their personal significance for him. Everything he said was to do with how he painted them and what visual effect he wanted to create. For example, he said about one painting that he wanted as much of the canvas as possible left unpainted and he was pleased because he largely managed to get it right first time and didn’t need to do much overpainting. He didn’t provide any reason why he wanted the canvas left bare; presumably he thinks he paintings should speak for themselves.

» The exhibition website is short of useful pictures, so the two I’ve included are from other sources. They’re not really the examples I would have picked given a free choice, but I wanted some kind of pictures, so they’ll do. The top one, ‘Meissen Woodmen’, is from the National Gallery of Australia; the other is ‘The Gleaner’ from the Guggenheim in New York.