Monday, October 12, 2015
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
PLEASURE OF THE INCONGRUOUS
A couple of months back, I said something about a recent visit to the North of England in the northern summertime, and a gratifying discovery I made (see the posting Sweet and Bucolic Slavery).
Other interesting things happened on that same trip, which I may in due course record on this blog. But one of the most interesting was a matter of sheer incongruity – the discovery of something that seemed to be in quite the wrong place.
Our excellent daughter-in-law took us on a day-trip to the market town of Barnard Castle, about forty minutes from Durham, with the intention of leaving us there to see the castle itself, which is something of a magnet for antiquarian-minded tourists. First the three of us paid a visit to the ruins of Egglestone Abbey, one of those great centres smashed up in the Protestant Reformation and now left to grazing sheep and the odd picnicking couple, both of which were in evidence on the fine, sunny day we visited. The usual melancholy thoughts bubbled up, mixed with the usual reflections on the odd aesthetic power of ruins (see the posting On the Potency ofRuins).
We then headed for Barnard Castle, a mere two or three kilometres from the ruined abbey.
But as we were driven along the country road, we saw the incongruous thing. There, in the middle of the North of England, was this very large building in an undeniably French style. No – it did not look like a chateau (a term which I have subsequently found guidebooks using for it). It looked more like a distinctively French nineteenth century museum. What was it doing here?
As we passed it, our daughter-in-law explained that it had belonged to a very rich family called Bowes and now housed a museum and art collection.
We continued into the town of Barnard Castle, had tea and scones in a corner shop with our daughter-in-law, and then, after she had left us, decided how we would spend the afternoon. Would we first look at Barnard Castle itself, the entry to which was just across the road from the tea-shop? No. We resolved to walk back to the intriguing and incongruous Bowes Museum instead. For various reasons too detailed to explain here, we decided we had seen quite enough ruins recently, and we were pining for the museums and art galleries of Paris, which we had left a couple of weeks earlier.
Back a kilometre or so we walked, and we later agreed it was a good choice.
Some explanation. There is a reason for the great building’s Frenchness.
John Bowes was the son of an earl, but also a multi-millionaire in his own right and a great collector of art. Like quite a number of Victorians (including Charles Dickens), Bowes was very fond of French art and culture and the less constrained way of life that seemed available in France. He bought a theatre in Paris, the Theatre des Varietes, and dabbled in being a producer there. He also met, fell in love with, and married a French actress, Josephine Coffin-Chevalier. What better way to honour his wife than to take her back to England and use his millions to build a mansion worthy of her? He hired French architects and builders and, around about 1870 (a very bad year for France!), the great building began to rise. One priority was to house Bowes’ great art collection, but another was to create something that would ultimately be opened to the public. The Bowes Museum has been open to visitors since the 1890s.
Apart from the unexpectedness of finding this place, we were also taken with the huge variety of its contents.
We started on the ground floor – where the temporary exhibitions are held – and enjoyed a tour through nineteenth- and twentieth-century children’s toys.
We went up to the second floor and enjoyed rooms designed and furnished in the Second Empire (Napoleon III) style that would have been most congenial to Madame Bowes.
But it was in the upper floors that we most revelled.
One room features the expensive crafts of the eighteenth century.
There is silverware (and gold-ware) and household articles of the sort that only very wealthy people like John Bowes and his predecessors could possibly afford.
Of course there are elaborate clocks, some with designs drawn from classical mythology.
Pride of this part of the collection – and apparently the most popular exhibit with visitors – is an automaton. It is a silver swan made in 1773 by a London craftsman. Wind it up and its long neck moves, its wings open and an attached music-box makes a vaguely swan-like musical sound.
Personally, I was more beguiled by the exquisite small, silver statue of a very modest Sappho, bowing her head above her diaphanous drapery.
And then there are the galleries of paintings.
Bear in mind that John and Josephine Bowes were Victorians (or people of the Second Empire if you prefer). Of course their artistic tastes were of their age, so that not all exhibits in their collection of paintings are masterpieces. Some are so of their age that now we would now call them period pieces. Even so, the collection is impressive. In the largest gallery, the paintings are hung in the traditional fashion, three or four high, covering nearly every inch of wall so that some canvases are close to the high ceiling. As I waved my phone camera around excitedly, this fact made some paintings very difficult to photograph.
You do find old masters here. There is Anthony van Dyck’s portrait of Olive Porter, one of Queen Henrietta Maria’s ladies-in-waiting. (The painting was authenticated only a couple of years ago).
There are works by pupils and acolytes of Canaletto.
Oddly, though, I found myself more interested in the unknowns and the genre paintings.
That English landscape scene, so expressive of its country with its mud and its fat cattle.
That overwrought and dramatic painting of a pious, heavenward-turning Judith waving about the head of Holofernes. It’s too theatrical and contrived to be a masterpiece, but what period fun it is!
The early 16th century Spaniard Juan de Borgona (really the Frenchman, Jean de Bourgogne [Burgundy] who had settled in Spain), with his portraits of the Fathers of the Western Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory) painted on a golden background.
Some amiable mediocrity’s painting of Jerome in his cell, with memento mori before him and an amusingly anthropomorphic lion behind him.
A 16th century Flemish painting allegorising Innocence and Guile; and drawing upon Saint Matthews verse about being “as soft as doves and as cunning as vipers”.
And one painting, right up against the ceiling, in which I took particular delight for reasons that have little to do with the undistinguished piece of art it is. A painting done by the forgotten Etienne-Jean Delecluze for the Paris Salon of 1814, entitled “The Emperor Augustus Rebuking Cornelius Cinna for his Treachery”. It tries hard to have, but fails to have, the severity of a canvas by David. Though it ostensibly portrays an historical incident, all cultured Frenchmen would recognise it at once as illustrating a scene from Corneille’s best tragedy Cinna, which I remember crawling through all those years ago in Stage Three French, with the redoubtable Dickie West as our lecturer. (“O siecles! O memoire! Conservez a jamais ma derniere victoire” etc.)
I am sure this is one painting which John Bowes’ French wife would have urged him to add to their collection.
How very French. And how completely out of place here oop north.
Meanwhile my wife’s phone camera was busy capturing canvases quite different from the ones I recorded.
We were so taken with this French museum in the middle of England that we spent the whole afternoon there and barely made it back into the township in time for our ride home.
We never did get to see Barnard Castle itself.