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Category: Europe

THE PAIN THAT NEVER PASSED

Milan, 11 November 2018

Exactly a hundred years ago today, the First World War ended. Some 10 million soldiers and 6 million civilians had been killed by the time the guns fell silent. May they rest in peace wherever they lie, in marked graves which circle the battlefields, or in some spot “known only to God”.

On previous anniversaries, I have written about the soldiers who fought and died in this war. Today, though, it seems more appropriate to commemorate those for whom the pain did not end on that 11th day of November in 1918, for whom the pain never ended.

23 million soldiers were wounded in the war.

For many their wounds healed, leaving only scars to carry to the grave. As Robert Graves wrote in the opening lines of his poem Recalling War, written some twenty years after the war ended,

Entrance and exit wounds are silvered clean,
The track aches only when the rain reminds.

But some men were so badly mutilated that they could never lead a normal life again. The German artist Otto Dix turned his unflinching gaze on these smashed men, forcefully reminding his viewers of their shattered existence and challenging them (challenging us all) not to turn away.


But turn away they – we – did, forcing these men to eke out an existence on the edges of society, like this match seller drawn by Dix.

Or like the barrow puller memorialized by the French poet Marcel Sauvage in his poem Le châtiment, The Punishment. (I give here my modest efforts at translation)

In the street
Cars
On the cobbles, like hard rattles
Taxis flying by
Red, their backs smoking
Heavy lorries
Houses trembling.
Tram lines under trolley wheels
Screeching …
On the pavements
Passersby moving, moving
The city screams
The city: Paris

A car raced along
Rich.
A barrow
Pulled by a pack animal
A man
A man in sweat
Barred its road
A Gentleman leaned out
Of that rich car,
A rich old man.
He shouted at the poor man
Poor devil caught up
In the swirl of the street:
“Idiot
You deserve to be run over …”

I looked at the man
Who dragged the barrow
He said nothing, did nothing.
He had a peg leg
Was dragging a heavy barrow
Was sweating
Pinned on the lapel of his dirty jacket
A military cross
A war medal.
He was yesterday’s hero
A martyr who was sweating
Frightened, resigned
In the swirl of the street
A pack animal
In the swirl of the street
The rich man should have run him over
That poor man –
– there

Some 65 million troops were mobilized for the war. Many may not have been wounded but they carried home psychological scars from the horrors they had witnessed, suffering from what today we wrap up in the scientific-sounding term Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. My grandmother would often tell me of her cousin Ernest. He came out of three years of fighting on the Western Front physically unscathed. But his mind was shot. He couldn’t hold a job down, he began drinking heavily, he quarreled with everyone. He died at the age of 44. Some descended even further into a hell they could never escape from.

Wilfred Owen caught those who were quite smashed in the mind in his poem Mental Cases.

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jays that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,- but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

-These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
-Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
-Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

But the lives of many non-combatants were broken too, by the death of a son or husband or lover or father, leaving inside of them a void that was never to be filled. The poet Vera Brittain expressed this never-ending sorrow in her poem Perhaps, in which she talks to her fiancé, killed in 1915 at the age of 20 by a sniper.

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of you.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though you have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although you are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although you cannot hear.

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of you
Was broken, long ago.

The German artist Käthe Kollwitz captured the desperation of parents who lost a son in the war in this woodcut. They lost their son Peter in the early months of the war, in October 1914, in Flanders.

Her desperation passed but not the pain. Some twenty years after the war she carved two kneeling statues, of her husband Karl and herself, which are now in the German military cemetery of Vladslo, in Belgium, where Peter is buried.

Karl is holding himself tight, as if afraid of showing too much emotion, sorrowfully gazing down at the tomb holding the remains of his son and 19 other soldiers.

Käthe is bowed over, holding her hand to her face, grief stricken.

Another statue she made, of a Pietà, became the model for the statue which now adorns the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship, in the Neue Wache in Berlin. Here, we see the mother cradling her boy, who seems, almost childlike, to be retreating into the comfort of her embrace.

This statue sits in the bare space of the Neue Wache. It is one of the most moving monuments to those who have died in war that I know.

Brittain and Kollwitz could use their art to voice their grief. A multitude of others were tongue-tied, because they could not give form to their grief or because their upbringing barred them from showing it. My great uncle and his wife lost their son Max in April 1915, during an attack on German positions near Ypres. He was just 23. His body was never found. My grandmother used to tell me that Max’s parents never recovered from his death. Yet, in the printed family history that we all received, all that my great uncle could write of this terrible blow to him and his wife was “He is much missed by his family and by Catherine Peake, to whom he was engaged. A fine looking young man, with a pleasant and charming manner, Maxwell showed promise of a brilliant future.”

The same bottled-up grief comes through on this simple plaque which we saw on our visit to Verdun. It was set up on the side of the road known as the Chemin des Dames, which was at the centre of a huge French offensive in 1917.

It reads, “Jean Dauly, 350th Infantry Regiment. Killed on 6 May 1917 in the little wood across the way, aged 20. Missed by his mother, by all his family, and by his friends. Pray for him”. Again that word “missed” … such a small word for such a terrible agony, especially if the body could not be found so there was no grave to mourn over. As the sister of Private Richard Pick wrote in her brother’s In Memoriam printed in the Grantham Journal in 1917,

The unknown grave is the bitterest blow,
None but an aching heart can know.

Sometimes the agony of loss was so great that minds became unhinged. In his book Goodbye to All That, about his experiences of fighting on the Western Front, Robert Graves recounts how he went down to Kent to visit a wounded friend of his who was staying in the family home while recovering. He writes, “His elder brother had been killed in the Dardanelles, and his mother kept his bedroom exactly as he had left it, with the sheets aired, his linen always freshly laundered, and flowers and cigarettes by his bedside.” Although Graves does not say it explicitly, one is led to understand that the mother spent her evenings trying to connect with her son through scéances with the spirits.

Violet, Viscountess Milner lost her beloved son George at the age of 18. He was killed during the retreat from Mons in September 1914. She coped by erecting a monument near where he fell and making annual visits to his grave, and befriending the local villagers.

But her grief was endless. As she noted in her diary on the twentieth anniversary of George’s death: “the sorrow, the loss, the pain, are as great today as in 1914.”

I pray – I pray – that my wife and I will never have to face the agony of losing our son – or daughter – to a war.

I leave readers with an excerpt from the poem Antwerp by Ford Madox Ford.

This is Charing Cross;
It is midnight;
There is a great crowd
And no light.
A great crowd, all black that hardly whispers aloud.
Surely, that is a dead woman – a dead mother!
She has a dead face;
She is dressed all in black;
She wanders to the bookstall and back,
At the back of the crowd;
And back again and again back,
She sways and wanders.

This is Charing Cross;
It is one o’clock.
There is still a great cloud, and very little light;
Immense shafts of shadows over the black crowd
That hardly whispers aloud. . .
And now! . . That is another dead mother,
And there is another and another and another. . .
And little children, all in black,
All with dead faces, waiting in all the waiting-places,
Wandering from the doors of the waiting-room
In the dim gloom.
These are the women of Flanders.
They await the lost.
They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;
They await the lost that shall never again come by the train
To the embraces of all these women with dead faces;
They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,
In the dark of the night.
This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;
There is very little light.

There is so much pain.

_____________________

Walking wounded: http://elsovh.hu/english/page/20/
Otto Dix, Two Soldiers: https://hanslodge.com/file/two-soldiers-by-Otto-Dix.htm
Otto Dix, Prostitute and disabled war veteran: http://www.trebuchet-magazine.com/aftermath-art-in-troubled-times/
Otto Dix, The Match Seller: http://www.germanexpressionismleicester.org/leicesters-collection/artists-and-artworks/otto-dix/match-seller/
Shell shock victim: http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/body-and-mind/shell-shock-on-film/
Käthe Kollwitz Pietà, Berlin: http://blogueresdesantmarti.net/index.php/etiqueta/dones-escultores/
Neue Wache: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/545991154801328984/
Monument to Jean Dauly: http://www.mairie-chateau-thierry.net/1418/labase/dosmonumEpineChevregnymai17.pdf
Monument to George Cecil: http://www.webmatters.net/cwgc/guards_villerscotterets.htm

MUSINGS ON BRAMBLES

Kyoto, 15 October 2018

As I struggle with jet lag on our annual trip to Kyoto and watch the night sky pale into day, my mind wanders to a previous post that I wrote about stinging nettles. I mentioned there in passing that brambles are also a bitch because of their thorns. And now my tired brain latches onto brambles.

Wicked little bastards those thorns are, capable of slicing with ease through clothing, never mind more delicate tissues like your skin. Look at the damned things!

Talking of which, there was a story doing the rounds of Medieval England which offered an intriguing alternative to the standard narrative of the start of the universal war between Good and Evil. As we all know, that war started with Satan daring to claim that he was the equal of God. Thereupon, in majestic rage, God, through the good offices of his Archangel Michael, threw Satan and his horde out of Heaven – a most dramatic rendition of which scene my wife and I recently came across in Antwerp Cathedral.

The standard story has Satan and his devils all falling into Hell. As John Milton put it so memorably in his opening lines of Paradise Lost

                             Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.

In Medieval England instead, they had the poor devils land in bramble bushes, presumably as a pit stop on their way down to their eventual hellish destination. The pain was such that every year, on Michaelmas Day, the feast day of their nemesis the Archangel Michael, the devils would go round all the bramble bushes in England and spit, pee, and fart on the blackberries. I sense that on their satanic rounds, the devils would have looked something like this.

Now, there was actually a moral to this story, to whit: one should not eat blackberries off the bush after Michaelmas Day. A very sensible suggestion, I would say; who would want to pick and eat blackberries after they had been so treated? The precise date when this interdict should come into effect is the subject of some confusion. When the story started on its rounds, England followed the old Julian calendar, in which Michaelmas Day fell on 10th October (in today’s Gregorian calendar). In the Gregorian calendar, though, Michaelmas Day falls on 27th September. The key question is: have the devils continued to follow the Julian calendar or did they switch to the Gregorian calendar like everyone else? While my readers ponder over this conundrum, I should note that, like many fanciful stories from our past, a good scientific reason exists for eschewing blackberry eating after end-September, early-October: the damper autumnal weather encourages the growth of molds on blackberries, grey botrytis cinerea in particular, the eating of which could be perilous for the health of the eater.

It’s typical of devils that they would try to spoil the one fun thing there is about brambles, which is collecting ripe blackberries. Luckily, this is done – or should be done – late-August, early-September, before the devils get around to their nasty business. This summer, when my wife and I were walking the Vienna woods,we got few occasions to pick blackberries; there simply weren’t that many growing along the paths we took. But I still remember my siblings and I going blackberrying some fifty years ago. We would head out to the bramble bushes lining the small country lane which passed by my French grandmother’s house, each of us with a container, slowly moving down the bushes and picking the darkest, juiciest berries. This young girl epitomizes that perilous and sometimes painful search for juicy goodness among the thorns.

She at least managed to come home, with purple fingers (and probably purple mouth), with her finds.

We never seemed to come home with any; eating them on the spot was simply too irresistible, and we would troop home with nothing to show for our work but purple mouths and hands, much to the irritation of our grandmother who had been planning to conserve our blackberries for the winter. My memory fails me at this point but no doubt we would be sent off to the bramble bushes again, with strict orders to bring back the blackberries this time.

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel Laureate for literature, captured well the joys of blackberrying in his poem Blackberry picking, although he speaks too of the heartbreak of his treasured finds going moldy, no doubt with the help of the devils.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Luckily, by the beginning of last century the terrors of the supernatural had been tamed by science, so that Cicely Mary Barker, in her collection of seasonal flower fairies, was able to transform the nasty devils of the past into this very twee Bramble Fairy.

The fairy was accompanied by an equally twee little poem.

My berries cluster black and thick
For rich and poor alike to pick.

I’ll tear your dress and cling, and tease,
And scratch your hands and arms and knees.

I’ll stain your fingers and your face,
And then I’ll laugh at your disgrace

But when the bramble-jelly’s made
You’ll find your troubles well repaid.

Twee it might be, but the poem’s last lines point us to the next step in the blackberry adventure, namely the eating of them in various yummy forms.

In my opinion, one can do no better than eat blackberries fresh with a dollop or two – or three – of whipped cream.

I’m sure my wife would agree. She once spent a Wimbledon championship selling strawberries and whipped cream to those going in to watch the tennis, and since she no doubt scarfed down a portion of her product when the manager wasn’t looking she will testify to the deliciousness of the cream-berry combination.

The English, however, also swear by the blackberry-apple combination, cooked together in a pie. The ideal is to use windfall apples, so slightly tart, with fully ripe blackberries; the tart-sweet combination which results cannot be beaten, I am assured in article after article.

I’m moved to throw in here a brief recipe for this delicious dish. Start by making the dough for the pie. Put 250g of plain flour into a large mixing bowl with a small pinch of salt. Cut 75g of butter and 75g of lard into small chunks and rub into the flour using thumb and fingertips. Add no more than a couple of tablespoons of cold water. You want a dough that is firm enough to roll but soft enough to demand careful lifting. Set aside in the fridge, covered with a tea towel, for 30 minutes.

In the meantime, preheat the oven to 180°C. Peel, core and quarter 6 Bramley apples, cutting them into thick slices or chunks. Put 20g butter and 100g caster sugar into a saucepan and, when the butter has melted, add the apples. Slowly cook for 15 minutes with a lid on. Then add 150g blackberries, stir and cook for 5 more minutes with the lid off.

Meanwhile, remove the pastry from the fridge. Cut the pastry in half and roll one of the pieces out until it’s just under 1cm thick. Butter a shallow 25cm pie dish and line with the pastry, trimming off any excess round the edges.

Tip the cooled apples and blackberries into a sieve, reserving all the juices, then put the fruit into the lined pie dish, mounding it in the middle. Spoon over half the reserved juices. Roll out the second piece of pastry and lay it over the top of the pie. Trim the edges as before and crimp them together with your fingers. Make a couple of slashes in the top of the pastry. Place the pie on the bottom of the preheated oven for 55 to 60 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.

In these troubled times of Brexit, when there are those Little Englanders who would question the UK’s belonging to a wider European culture, I feel that I should point out that this pie is not uniquely English. Already some 450-500 years ago, the Dutch painter Willem Heda lovingly painted a half-eaten apple and blackberry pie (unfortunately, my wife and I did not see this particular painting during our trip this summer to the Netherlands).

I feel I must include here a variation on the pie theme, the blackberry-apple crumble, only because my Aunt Frances used to make the most sublime crumble, whose magnificence I remember even now, more than half a century after the fact.

Once again, pre-heat the oven to 180°C. To make the crumble, tip 120g plain flour and 60g caster sugar into a large bowl. Cut 60g unsalted butter into chunks, then rub into the flour using your thumb and fingertips to make a light breadcrumb texture. Do not overwork it or the crumble will become heavy. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over a baking sheet and bake for 15 mins or until lightly coloured. Meanwhile, prepare and cook the apple-blackberry compote as before. Spoon the warm fruit into an ovenproof gratin dish, top with the crumble mix, then reheat in the oven for 5-10 mins.

Since the Bramble Fairy speaks about bramble jelly, and since something like it was the reason my grandmother sent us out to collect blackberries, I feel I should mention this preserve too.

Staying with the apple-blackberry combination, I give here a recipe which contains apples. But the purpose of the apples is different. It is to naturally add pectin to the mix so as to make a firmer jelly.

Put 1.3kg, 2 cooking apples, washed, cored, and diced, and 450ml of water in a large saucepan. Bring to the boil, then simmer over a low heat for 20-25 minutes or until the fruit is completely soft. Tip the soft fruit and juice into a jelly bag (which has been previously boiled to sterilize) and leave to drip for 8 hours or until all the juice has been released. Prepare the jam jars by washing in hot soapy water and leaving to dry and warm in a cool oven for 10-15 minutes. Measure the juice. For every 600ml weigh out 450g sugar. Put the juice and sugar back into the clean pan, heat over a low heat until all the sugar has dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes or until setting point is reached. Skim away any scum from the top of the jelly and fill the jam jars to the brim. Cover, seal and label. Store in a cool, dark place until required.

It goes without saying that the juice of blackberries can be drunk too, in many forms. I will only mention one of these, blackberry wine, and only because I once made the closely related elderberry wine at school, with a couple of friends. More on this later. Let me focus first on the making of blackberry wine. If any of my readers want to try this, they can use the following recipe which I lifted from Wikihow.

To make 6 bottles of wine:
– 4½-6 lbs of fresh blackberries
– 2½ lbs of sugar
– 7 pints water
– 1 package yeast (red wine yeast is recommended)

Crush the berries by hand in a sterile plastic bucket. Pour in 2 pints of cooled distilled water and mix well. Leave the mixture for two hours.

Boil ⅓ of the sugar with 3 pints water for one minute. Allow the syrup to cool. Add the yeast to 4 oz of warm (not boiling) water and let it stand for 10 minutes. Pour the cooled syrup into the berries. Add the yeast. Make sure the mixture has properly cooled, as a hot temperature will kill the yeast. Cover the bucket with a clean cloth and leave in a warm place for seven days.

Strain the pulp through fine muslin or another fine straining device, wringing the material dry. Pour the strained liquid into a gallon jug. Boil a second ⅓ of the sugar in 1 pint water. Allow it to cool before adding it to the jug. Plug the top of jug with cotton wool and stretch a pin-pricked balloon to the neck. This allows CO2 to escape and protects the wine from oxidization and outside contamination (the demijohn in the photo has a much more sophisticated stopper for the same purpose).

Let the wine sit for ten days. Siphon or rack the wine to a container. Sterilize the jug, then return the wine. Boil the remaining ⅓ of the sugar in the last pint of water, allowing to cool before adding to the wine. Plug the jug with the cotton wool and balloon and leave until the wine has stopped fermenting. The wine will stop bubbling when fermentation has stopped.

Siphon the wine as before. Sterilize the wine bottles and add a funnel. Pour the wine into the bottles, filling each bottle to the neck. Cork and store the bottles.

Cheers!

Reading this, I realize why our attempt at making elderberry wine fifty years ago was such a miserable failure. Readers should first understand that what we were doing – making an alcoholic drink – was strictly prohibited, so we were exceedingly furtive in everything we did. With this premise, let me describe the steps we went through. As I recall, we mashed the elderberries with water and yeast, a packet of which we bought down in the village (Lord knows what the lady behind the counter thought we were doing with the yeast; she was too polite to ask). I don’t remember parking the resulting liquid somewhere warm to ferment, we simply put the mash into (unsterilized) bottles that we purloined from somewhere; did we even strain out the solids? I have my doubts. Our most pressing problem was where to hide the bottles while the juice was fermenting into (we dreamed) wine. Our first idea was to put them in a sack and haul this to the top of a leafy tree where it was well hidden. But we had forgotten that trees lose their leaves in Autumn. So readers can imagine our horror when our sack became increasingly visible – from the Housemaster’s room, no less – as the leaves dropped off. We hastily brought the sack down one evening and buried it in a little wood behind our House. Later, when we reckoned the fermentation must be over, we furtively dug up the sack. Two out of the three bottles had exploded. We took the remaining bottle into the toilet and drank it. Of course, we pretended to be drunk, although in truth the potion we had concocted had little if any effect on us; the levels of alcohol in it must have been miserably low. And the taste was distinctly blah. I’ve had it in for elderberries ever since.

Unsurprisingly, we humans have been eating blackberries for thousands of years. Swiss archaeologists have discovered the presence of blackberries in a site 5,000 years old while the Haralskaer woman was found to have eaten blackberries before she was ceremonially strangled and dumped in a Danish peat bog 2,500 years ago.

As usual, our ancestors not only ate the fruit but believed that the rest of the plant had medicinal properties of one form or another. As a son of the scientific revolution, I have grave doubts about the purported therapeutic value of berries (ripe or unripe), leaves, and flowers, when no rigorous scientific testing has ever been carried out to support the claims. However, there is one medicinal property which I will report, simply because two widely divergent sources, who could not possibly have known of each other’s existence, mention it. The first is a book of herbal remedies, the Juliana Anicia Codex, prepared in the early 6th Century in Constantinople by the Greek Dioscorides, and which is now – through the twists and turns of fate that make up history – lodged in Austria’s National Library in Vienna. This is the page in the book dedicated to the bramble.

The text relates, among other things: “The leaves are chewed to strengthen the gums ”. For their part, the Cherokee Indians in North America would chew on fresh bramble leaves to treat bleeding gums. The same claim by Byzantine Greeks and Cherokee Indians? That seems too much to be a mere coincidence. When the world has gone to hell in a handbasket because we were not able to control our emissions of greenhouse gases, and when my gums begin to bleed because there will be no more dentists to go to for my annual check-ups, I will remember this claim and chew on bramble leaves.

On that pessimistic note, I will take my leave of my readers with a poem by the Chinese poet Li Qingzhao. She lived through a period of societal breakdown, when the Song Dynasty was defeated by the nomadic Jurchens in the early 12th Century and retreated southward to create an impoverished rump of its empire around Hangzhou, known to us as the Southern Song. Li Qingzhao reflected on this period of decline and decay in her later poems. I choose this particular poem, her Tz’u Song No. 1, because it happens to mention blackberry flowers and blackberry wine.

Fragrant grass beside the pond
green shade over the hall
a clear cold comes through
the window curtains
crescent moon beyond the golden bars
and a flute sounds
as if someone were coming
but alone on my mat with a cup
gazing sadly into nothingness
I want to call back
the blackberry flowers
that have fallen
though pear blossoms remain
for in that distant year
I came to love their fresh fragrance
scenting my sleeve
as we culled petals over the fire
when as far as the eye could see
were dragon boats on the river
graceful horses and gay carts
when I did not fear the mad winds
and violent rain
as we drank to good fortune
with warm blackberry wine
now I cannot conceive
how to retrieve that time.

_______________________

Blackberry thorns: http://iuniana.hangdrum.info
Frans Floris, “Fall of the Rebel Angels”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Fall_of_rebel_Angels_(Frans_Floris)_September_2015-1a.jpg
Devil: https://www.etsy.com/sg-en/listing/517991225/the-devil-ceramic-decal-devil-ceramic
Blackberry fairy: https://flowerfairies.com/the-blackberry-fairy/
Blackberry picking: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Jug of blackberries: https://spiralspun.com/2013/10/29/blackberry-picking-one-of-lifes-simple-pleasures/
Blackberries with whipped cream: https://depositphotos.com/80606340/stock-photo-fresh-blackberries-with-whipped-cream.html
Apple and blackberry pie: https://www.thespruceeats.com/british-apple-and-blackberry-pie-recipe-434894
Willem Claesz. Heda, Still Life with a Fruit Pie: https://www.masterart.com/artworks/502/willem-heda-still-life-with-a-blackberry-pie
Apple and blackberry crumble: https://www.taste.com.au/recipes/apple-blackberry-crumble/837e5613-3708-42f2-8835-dcd9dd3b3876
Blackberry jelly: https://www.bbc.com/food/recipes/bramblejelly_13698
Demijohn of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/371476669246000245/
Bottled blackberry wine: http://justintadlock.com/archives/2018/01/27/bottled-blackberry-wine
Glass of blackberry wine: https://www.pinterest.pt/pin/573294227542445354/
Haraldskaer woman: http://legendsandlore.blogspot.com/2006/01/haraldskaer-woman.html

NETTLES

Vienna, 25 September 2018

On the walks which my wife I have been enjoying this summer in the Wiener Wald, Vienna’s woods, we have from time to time come across nettles along the side of the path. Here’s a picture of one large patch which we came across recently.

Whenever I see nettles, I instinctively move to one side and slow to a deliberate pace to make sure that I don’t get stung by the little bastards. I suppose that those of us who live in parts of the world where stinging nettles flourish – and that’s pretty much everywhere except sub-Saharan Africa – have learned the necessary defensive tactics to adopt in order to avoid being stung, probably learned the hard way after ill-fated encounters with the plant when we were young and innocent of the evil ways of the world. To be fair to the nettle, I should note in passing that not all nettles sting; there is one species, the fen nettle, which is stingless. I read that it is a European species. I suppose I have never been to those parts of Europe where it grows, which is a great pity.

The stinging sensation comes from the plant lathering biochemical irritants on your skin, such as histamine, serotonin, and choline, and from its tiny sharp hairs piercing your skin – look at those nasty little buggers, glitteringly evil and just waiting to slice into you!

The result is, of course, those horribly itchy, hot, blotches on your skin.

Poor kid, I feel so much for him! I say this because I have a particularly painful memory from when I was a Boy Scout; I must have been 11 or 12. We had gone off on our annual week’s camp, and two groups of us found ourselves one afternoon at the bottom of a hill thickly covered with bushes, long grass, brambles – and large swathes of nettles. We made a bet as to who could arrive at the top first. For some reason, I found myself at the head of our group and so had the task of hacking a path through the wilderness. At some point, taken by a sort of frenzy, I charged ahead with minimal covering of my exposed limbs. We arrived first at the top, but by then my arms were covered with nettle welts. At first, the congratulations of my group members made up for the pain, but after a while the pain dominated my thinking. I stiffened my trembling upper lip, though, and carried on. I was a Boy Scout, after all. But the memory of the pain has lingered on all these years.

Well, I was a boy then and my behaviour can be put down to juvenility. But in preparing this post I have learned that there are actually adults who run through nettles! There is a race in the UK, called the Tough Guy Nettle Warrior contest, where the contestants not only run through nettle patches but also through fire, and through wires delivering electric shocks. They also do more mundane things like race up and down steep hillsides, run in and out of muddy ditches, clamber up 15ft rope nets, and worm their way under barbed wire perilously close to their face. Here we have them running through the nettles.

Well, all I can say is, there is one born every day.

The nettle doesn’t even have a nice flower or yummy fruit to offset its nasty stinging habits. The bramble, for instance, which is also a mean son-of-a-bitch to fall into or to traverse, has both. Does the nettle have any redeeming features? Well, it seems it does have one or two, none of which, I have to say, I have experienced personally. So I can only pass on what I’ve read.

You can eat nettles. If you’re a masochist, you can eat them by entering the World Nettle Eating Championships, another competition held annually in the UK. Competitors are served 2-foot long stalks of stinging nettles from which they pluck and eat the leaves. After an hour the bare stalks are measured and the winner is the competitor with the greatest accumulated length of stripped nettle stalks. Here we see the competitors at work.

The men’s champion in 2017 munched his way through 70 feet of nettles …

It takes all sorts to make the world, they say.

If, like me, you are not into self-harm, you can cook the nettles first; that takes their sting away. I’ve often heard of nettle soup, although not only have I never tried it but I’ve never met anyone who has. Here is a Swedish recipe for this soup (nässelsoppa in Swedish, in case readers visiting the country want to ask for it). For some reason, I sense that the Swedes make a “purer” version of it than others; I mean, isn’t Noma, the Michelin-starred restaurant where you are served pickings from field and forest, just across the waters, in Copenhagen? (and they serve nettles in various forms, according to one blogger who ate there)

  1. Pick the nettle leaves – WITH GLOVES! Pick the top four or six leaves on each spear, they are the most tender.
  2. Clean the leaves well of any grass and beasties which you might have unintentionally picked up as well.
  3. Blanch the nettle leaves, and then strain them from the liquid. Don’t throw away the liquid!
  4. Make a roux with butter and flour. Pour the water in which the nettles were blanched onto the roux.
  5. Chop the blanched nettle leaves very finely, along with the other ingredients, which typically include chives (or ramson or garlic), and chervil or fennel. Or you purée them, although this must be a modern alternative, born with the advent of mechanical blenders.
  6. Put the chopped (or puréed) nettles and herbs into the nettle water-roux mixture. Bring to a boil and then leave to simmer for a few minutes.
  7. Serve, with a sliced boiled egg and/or a dollop of fresh cream.

The result should look something like this.

Njut av! (which, if Google Translate got it right, is the Swedish for “Enjoy!” – although if Bergman’s films are anything to go by, the Swedes don’t enjoy much of anything)

I read that nettle leaves can also be consumed as a spinach-like vegetable, puréed, or added to things like frittate or vegetable and herb tarts (the latter being a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe; not a word about nettles in Jamie Oliver’s recipes). It is also an ingredient in herbal teas. And of course – but here we are drifting into Medieval beliefs (literally) – nettles have been used as traditional medicine to treat a wide spectrum of disorders: disorders of the kidneys and urinary tract, gastrointestinal tract, locomotor system, skin, cardiovascular system, hemorrhage, influenza, and gout. Take your pick. Or if you have rheumatism you can have someone flog you with nettles. In preparing this post, I came across a report by someone in the UK who had himself flogged with nettles for his bad back.

Whatever takes your fancy … (my country is full of some really strange people – no wonder it voted for Brexit).

You can also make a linen-like textile with nettles; the plant’s fibres have very similar properties to flax and hemp (and I need hardly mention that the processing of nettles into textiles eliminates their stinging properties). In fact, in Europe, our ancestors were making nettle textiles at least 2,800 years ago. A piece of textile from a Bronze Age burial in Denmark, a photo of which I insert here, has been identified as made of nettles.

The clever scientists involved in the research have gone one step further and figured out that these particular nettles came from Steiermark, which in today’s political geography is in southern Austria, just down the road from where I am sitting writing this. They argue, with some justification it seems to me, that if this textile made its way from southern Austria to Denmark it must mean that nettle textiles were considered a luxury item in the Bronze Age. Quite why this is so is not clear to me, however. Nettles grow in Denmark too, so what was so extraordinary about nettle textiles made in southern Austria? I guess we will never know.

After the advent of cotton, nettles fell out of favour, along with flax and hemp. There were moments, when wars made access to cotton difficult, when the use of nettle textiles was revived. It seems that one such moment was in France during the Napoleonic wars, when the UK’s maritime blockade meant that France’s access to cotton was restricted. So perhaps La Vieille Garde, Napoleon’s elite troops, about which we heard so much during our visit to the battlefield of Waterloo, wore uniforms made from nettles?

The Germans too, it seems, made use of nettle textiles in their soldiers’ uniforms during World War I, again because the UK’s blockade cut off the country’s supplies of cotton.

Nowadays, it’s niche designers who are making clothes from nettles, promoting their greenness and sustainability. Here are a couple photos of such clothes which I found during a random surf of the web.


There seems to be a whiff of the alternative lifestyle here. We appear to still be a long way from mainstream clothes being made of nettles. But the EU, I read, is deadly serious about trying to promote a greater use of nettles, as well as of flax and hemp, as an alternative to cotton, both as a stab at greater sustainability and as a way of getting farmers to grow more non-agricultural crops, thus reducing Europe’s over-production of food while still maintaining farmers’ incomes. Perhaps fields of nettles like this will soon become common.

As an environmentalist, I of course would welcome this move towards more local production – but I would agitate for a law making signs like this a legal requirement, upon pain of the farmer being flogged with his produce if he fails to put them up.

28/9/2108: POSTSCRIPTUM

After I had posted this, an old friend of mine quickly reminded me that nettles also play a very important role in supporting butterflies, or rather the caterpillars which will become butterflies; these critters will happily feed on the leaves. Suitably chastened, I did a quick search and found a page on the Woodland Trust site which explained this important nettle-butterfly nexus. To make amends, I add here pictures of those butterflies most commonly associated with nettles.

The small tortoiseshell:

The peacock:

The red admiral:

The comma:

The painted lady:

The Woodland Trust exhorts gardeners to keep that patch of nettles which they have in their gardens, to help the butterflies. Hmm, I wonder if the fen nettle would support these butterflies? If yes, I’m all in favour of it. We would have a win-win situation here: supporting our beleaguered butterfly populations but not risking getting stung in our own gardens.
_______________________

Nettles on our walks: my pic
Nettle hairs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urtica_dioica
Nettle rash: http://blog.shopprice.co.nz/10-health-benefits-of-stinging-nettle/
Running though nettles: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2021411/Tough-Guy-Nettle-Warrior-4-000-endure-cross-country-hell-Britains-bizarre-races.html
Nettle eating championship: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/world-nettle-eating-championships-held-8246974
Nettle soup: http://www.swedishfood.com/swedish-food-recipes-starters/92-nettle-soup
Flogging with nettles: https://wildfoxwildfire.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/how-i-fixed-my-bad-back-using-stinging-nettles/
Bronze Age textile from Denmark: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3460533/
Member of the Vieille Garde: http://www.wikiwand.com/hr/Grenadir
German soldier WWI: https://www.quora.com/Why-were-Germans-called-Jerry-in-WWI
Nettle wrap: https://www.etsy.com/listing/590489032/grounding-nettle-wrap?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=nettle%20clothing&ref=sr_gallery-1-7
Nettle man’s vest: https://www.etsy.com/listing/280624084/mens-vest-handwoven-nettle-fabric?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=nettle%20clothing&ref=sr_gallery-1-13
Field of nettles: https://herbaloo.org/experimence/the-nettles-experiment/
Stinging nettle sign: https://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/21/nettle-dandelion-greens-mint-soup-recipe-nettle-tea/
Butterflies: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2016/05/butterflies-need-nettles/

BATTLE OF VIENNA, 1683

Vienna, 23 September 2018

My wife and I have spent much of the summer crisscrossing the Wiener Wald, that mantle of woods draped over the hills to the north and west of Vienna, sampling the myriad paths that meander through the cool green of its beech and oak trees.

But one place I’ve tended to avoid if at all possible in our wanderings is Kahlenberg. For those of my readers who are not familiar with Vienna, this is a spot on the northern ridge of the hills where you get a magnificent view over Vienna.

But precisely because of that, and because it is easy to access by car, Kahlenberg is often very crowded with urbanites who can’t be assed to walk (here speaks the militant walker) as well as with tourists brought there by the busload to gawp at the view. If that weren’t enough, the place is imbued with a rather nasty form of nationalism, due to its role in the Battle of Vienna, fought on 12 September 1683. In this battle, a combined force of Austrians, Germans and Poles, under the overall command of Jan III Sobieski, King of Poland, comprehensively trounced the Ottoman army which was besieging Vienna. In these days of anti-Islamic feeling in Europe, the place has become a magnet for far-right groups extolling the virtues of a Europe in which Islam pointedly does not have a place. Here, for instance, is a picture of a march by a group calling itself the Identitarian Movement, which took place last year on Kahlenberg a few days before the battle’s anniversary date.
Given the role which the Poles played in the battle, and the fact that Sobieski, a national hero in Poland, had overall command, Kahlenberg is also the setting for a specifically Polish form of nationalism. The Polishness of the place was given a big boost in 1983, when on the 300th anniversary of the battle the Polish Pope John Paul II met there with what were then exiles from Communist Poland. In that same year, a plaque was unveiled on the side of the church at Kahlenberg to commemorate Sobieski. Although modest in size and design, the plaque contains inflammatory words: “To the commander-in-chief of the allied army on the 300th anniversary of the relief of Vienna for the salvation of Christendom, his grateful compatriots with the congregation of the Resurrectionists” [the latter own the church]. Salvation of Christendom … big words!
It seems that this was not enough, so at the instigation of the Poles the Vienna Municipal Council decided some years ago that a more glorious monument to Sobieski should be placed on Kahlenberg. The monument, designed and executed by a Polish sculptor, would have looked like this.

It was meant to have been unveiled this September on the anniversary of the battle.  Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and the project was cancelled at the last minute, leaving just the base. But of course this led to much gnashing of teeth in the far-right media, especially the electronic media. In this time of European history, I must say that I find this xenophobic nationalism, which we see everywhere in Europe but is the official government line in Poland, really distasteful.

So, for all these reasons, I have, as I said, been avoiding Kahlenberg on our walks. Nevertheless, it just so happened that we were walking through it on 11 September, on a walk towards Klosterneuberg. When I noticed that we there the day before the battle’s anniversary date, I began to be intrigued by this battle, about which, it must be said, I knew very little, other than its outcome and what seemed to me the strange claim that the relief forces came down from Kahlenberg to give battle. I say strange because what has always struck me at Kahlenberg is how steep the drop is down towards Vienna and how far the old city seems to be. I simply could not imagine troops careering down the hill and catching the Ottoman troops unawares. There was nothing for it, I decided; I was going to have to do some reading. Now, after a few weeks of desultory consultation of whatever I could find online. I am ready to report back (in passing, I should note that I am particularly indebted to Ludwig H. Dyck’s article on the topic which I suggest battle buffs read if they want to know more).

Vienna had been under siege since July, and by September the situation was looking increasingly desperate for the defenders. This painting gives a rather fanciful view of the besieging forces, with Vienna in the distance. Readers will note some camels in the foreground.

Readers should also note two other things in this picture: the hills to the left, and the small river passing to the right of Vienna, the Vienna River. These will play an important role in the upcoming drama.

Luckily for Vienna, help was on the way. On 6th September, the Polish forces under Sobieski crossed the Danube at Tulln, some 35 km upstream of Vienna, and linked up with the Austrian and German contingents. To give readers an idea of the multinationalism of this army, the Austrians, naturally enough, made up the largest contingent, with 20,000 men, under the command of Duke Charles V of Lorraine. The Poles came a close second, with 18,000 men, the great majority of whom were cavalry. Then came troops from a number of the German states: 11,000 Bavarians, under the command of their Elector Max Emanuel, 9,000 Saxons, under the command of their Elector John George III, and finally 8,000 Franconians and Swabians, under the command of Prince George Friedrich von Waldeck. With a sprinkling of other troops from here and there, the relief force was composed of close to 70,000 men. What I want to emphasize here is that the Poles were by no means in the majority on the battlefield despite their modern proclamations that it was they who saved Vienna.

The army commanders’ first order of business was deciding who should have overall command. With all these aristocratic primadonnas around, one could imagine that reaching agreement on this would have been an almost impossible task. But the Duke of Lorraine managed, through tact, diplomacy, and a certain amount of abnegation (he was well qualified to do the job himself and he was commanding the Austrians, after all), to get everyone to agree to Sobieski being given overall command. Being a King, he could pull rank on everyone else, he had charisma, and he had beaten the Ottomans in battle ten years earlier. I throw in here a Polish painting of Sobieski, which I would say falls into the realm of propaganda, painted in the days when Poland no longer existed and Poles dreamed of having a country once more.

In truth, Sobieski was well past his physical prime by this time; he was so fat that he couldn’t get into his saddle without help. But luckily his mind was still sharp. This painting from an earlier era probably gives a more faithful rendering of what he looked like, although I doubt his horses did much prancing.

In order to soothe any ruffled aristocratic feathers, it was agreed that each Prince, Elector and Duke would nevertheless lead their own men while respecting the overall battle plan. A potential recipe for disaster, I would have thought, but one which in the circumstances actually worked.

Where was the Austrian Emperor Leopold I, readers might wonder? Should he not have been leading the army on its way to relieve his capital?

Well, at the first sign of danger he had scarpered from Vienna, along with his whole court, to the safety of Passau far in the west of Austria and a long way from the Ottoman forces. Which was probably just as well, because he was a useless soldier and had an aptitude for quarreling with all and sundry, as we shall see. Since the Duke of Lorraine played such an important role in the planning and execution of the upcoming battle, I feel it is only fair to also throw in a picture of him.

Now that the issue of command structure had been sorted out, agreement was needed on the plan of battle. The Duke of Lorraine had come up with a plan, which can be understood from this old map below.

Lorraine’s idea was to have the relief force appear on the ridge of hills to the north of Vienna (to the right of this map) and give battle on the plain below, forcing the Ottomans to have at their back the Vienna River (that rather weedy stream passing to the south (left) of Vienna), the city of Vienna itself, and the Danube beyond that: caught in a vice, as it were. It was a good plan, and in the end all agreed to it. But it carried a big risk. As this next map shows, the roads from Tulln (just off to the left of this map) to Vienna all pass through the hilly country that lies to the north-west of Vienna.

This meant that the army, all 70,000, plus all the horses of the cavalry as well as the lumbering cannons of the artillery and the baggage trains, had to cross heavily wooded, steeply hilly country intersected by numerous gullies and stream beds, along roads that were probably little more than forest roads. During walks which my wife and I have done behind Kahlenberg over the last week or so, after I had mugged up on the battle a little, I have kept marveling that the relief force had made it through this rough and rugged terrain. Here are some photos which might help readers appreciate its ruggedness.


I don’t want to pass for an armchair general but I also find it incredible that the commander of the Ottoman forces, Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, didn’t take any steps to block their passage. He knew the Poles had crossed the Danube at Tulln and had linked up with the Austrians and Germans (I use this as a shorthand for all those troops from the German states). His scouts would surely have told him which way the relief forces were heading. It would have been easy enough to block the few roads which they would have had to take. A few well-placed cannon would have kept the relief force at bay for a considerable time. But no, no significant moves were made on the Ottoman side to bar their passage. One book I read suggests that Ottoman commanders had no experience of laying siege to a city while having a relief force threatening their rear. Well, let’s accept that. But this inactivity on the part of the Ottomans was strange indeed and was one of the factors which cost them the battle.

In any event, the relief force did make it through, although it does seem that a fair amount of muskets, cannons, and other baggage were abandoned along the way and that a good number of stragglers only managed to rejoin their regiments a few hours before the battle started.

And so it was that on 11 September, as their troops were still struggling up the flanks of the final range of hills to reach the ridge, Sobieski and his army commanders congregated on Kahlenberg to review the battlefield below them and make final arrangements. I suppose that is why Kahlenberg is host to memorials to the battle. That, plus the fact that the first inkling which the Viennese had that help was on the way was bonfires lit on Kahlenberg by an advance party.

It would be nice to think that the assembled commanders soberly reviewed plans and calmly agreed to next steps. But actually, Sobieski got into a terrible snit because he saw that the terrain below the ridge was much rougher and steeper than he had been led to believe from the rather crappy maps he had been given. He wanted to put off the attack to have more time to get his troops in position. In the event, the other commanders persuaded him to keep to the plan of attacking the next day, although at the cost of their agreeing to transfer a certain number of German regiments to his wing to screen his cavalry as they picked their way down the hill.

So it was that on 12 September the Austro-German-Polish army gave battle. I do not plan to go into excruciating detail about what happened. A brief summary will suffice, and this map should help in general understanding.

The forces under the Duke of Lorraine kicked things off on the left wing (GLW on the map) with an attack at sunrise on the village of Nussdorf, a village which I have had cause to write about in an earlier post concerning a walk we did in the Wiener Wald. The Germans in the centre (GRW) followed suit. An eyewitness on the Ottoman side, describing the soldiers coming down from the ridge, wrote that it seemed “as if an all-consuming flood of black pitch was flowing down the hills.” An arresting simile I find. This painting of the battle, while somewhat confused, does at least show this human flood down the hills (to the left).

The Ottomans fought hard and the battle went back and forth, but by noon the Turkish right wing was destroyed. Meanwhile the Poles (PLW, PC, PRW on the map) were still struggling to get down from the ridge and out of the forest. They only got in line on the right wing by about 4 in the afternoon.

By this time,the Austro-Germans were well rested from their morning exertions and eager to advance on the centre of the Ottoman line. Specifically, they wanted to capture the Ottomans’ Holy Banner, which was flying on what is now called the Türkenschanz (and where we lived for a number of years on a street called, appropriately enough, Waldeckgasse). At more or less the same time, after a few initial cavalry skirmishes, Sobieski, his armour covered by a blue, luxurious semi-oriental garb, personally led his whole cavalry in what was one of the biggest cavalry charges in history: some 14,000 cavalrymen were involved. Here’s a modern take on what the leading line of these Polish cavalrymen looked like. Readers will note those strange wing-like attachments on the riders. They were the so-called winged hussars, and were the elite of the Polish cavalry.

The Polish cavalry charge on one side and the renewed attacks by the Austro-Germans on the other side, broke the Ottoman forces, who took to their heels. The usual cutting down of fleeing soldiers took place. There was also wanton butchery. Before fleeing, the Ottomans had massacred hundreds of their captives. In retaliation, the commander of what remained of the Vienna garrison burned alive 3,000 sick and wounded Ottoman soldiers found in the Ottoman camp.

One would think that after such a great victory, all would be sweetness and light between the victors. Not a bit of it! By happenstance, the Poles stopped their advance right in the middle of the Ottoman encampment. An orgy of looting followed, the lion’s share of which went to Sobieski himself. The other commanders didn’t object to the looting per se – that was acceptable behaviour in those days – but they were really pissed off that the Poles hadn’t given them a chance to take part in the looting. After all, as far as they were concerned they had been as responsible as the Poles for the victory, and I can’t say I disagree with that. Then on the next day, on 13 September, Sobieski decided on holding a triumphal entry into Vienna, casting himself in the role of savior of the city. We have here a take on this event by a Polish artist from the late 1890s: another romanticized view with strong propaganda overtones.

I doubt it was quite as joyous an affair, because Sobieski once more seriously pissed off all the Austrian and German grandees. They felt – quite rightly – that they had been as much saviors of Vienna as Sobieski, and should have had a strong presence in the entry into Vienna. The Austrians were also angered by what they saw as an insulting breach of protocol. In their view, it should have been Leopold I as Emperor to have headed such a triumphal entry. And the Duke of Lorraine was highly irritated that Sobieski had preferred this display of narcissism to the more sensible military objective of pursuing the demoralized Ottoman forces (to be fair, Sobieski did eventually get around to going after the Ottomans, and some two weeks later he and the Duke of Lorraine annihilated an Ottoman corps).

The next day, 14 September, Leopold I arrived back from his hiding place in Passau. He was furious when he heard about Sobieski’s triumphal entry into Vienna. He was so agitated about it that he refused to pay attention to the Duke of Lorraine’s pressing problems of how to provision the relief force. He also brushed aside the Elector of Saxony, who as a devout Protestant wanted to discuss the matter of Leopold’s treatment of Protestant Hungarians. Fed up, the Elector marched his troops back to Saxony. As Protestants, they hadn’t been well treated well anyway by the other, Catholic troops.

Then, on 15 September Leopold finally got around to visiting Sobieski in his camp. The meeting did not go well. Leopold ignored the presence of Jakob, Sobieski’s son, whom Sobieski had hoped to marry off to Leopold’s daughter. Sobieski, egged on by his Francophile aristocrats (France and the Hapsburg Empire were perennially at loggerheads), took umbrage to such a degree that his relations with Leopold were strained for evermore.

So a great victory, though less because of tactical brilliance on the part of the relief force than because of stupid mistakes on the part of the Ottoman commander. I’ve already mentioned his inaction in blocking the routes through the Wiener Wald. There was also his decision to leave 15,000 crack Janissary troops in the trenches around Vienna to continue the siege. And a victory, whatever Polish propagandists might proclaim, that was due as much to the Austrian and German troops as it was to the Polish troops.

In retrospect, the battle of Vienna was the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire, although I doubt any observers of the time saw it that way. A great victory over the Turk for sure, the greatest since Lepanto a hundred years before. But the end of the Turk? The immediate aftermath instead showed up glaringly the fissures between Catholics and Protestants, fissures which would only really heal when most of Europe simply dechristianized last century. And contrary to what one might expect, relations between Poland and the Holy Roman Empire actually got worse rather than better, just because of the childishness of the rulers involved.

So I don’t think chest-thumping memorials on Kahlenberg are really what we need. The Municipality of Vienna have in my opinion struck the right tone by having inscribed on the pediment which was meant to hold the triumphalist monument to Sobieski the following words:

“The battle of Vienna at Kahlenberg Mountain on 12 September 1683 was the culmination and turning point of the struggle between two Empires, the Ottoman Empire striving to expand to the west, and the Hapsburg Empire forced onto the defensive. A coalition army formed to protect Cracow and Vienna, led by John III Sobieski, King of Poland, came to Vienna’s aid.

More than 50,000 men from many nations lost their lives in the battles fought to break the siege.

May this historical event be a reminder for the people of Europe to live together peacefully!”

____________________________

view of the woods: our pic
View from Kahlenberg: http://ourviewfromwien.blogspot.com/2011/05/stadtwanderweg-1.html
Far-right march on Kahlenberg: https://www.gettyimages.fr/detail/photo-d’actualit%C3%A9/some-250-members-of-the-far-right-identitarian-photo-dactualit%C3%A9/844970164#some-250-members-of-the-farright-identitarian-movement-attend-a-on-picture-id844970164
Plaque to Sobieski: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-wien-vienna-commemorative-table-for-the-polish-king-jan-iii-sobieski-130947975.html
Planned memorial to Sobieski: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Planned_John_III_Sobieski_Monument_in_Vienna,_Kahlenberg_01.jpg
Siege of Vienna: https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/the-1683-battle-of-vienna-islam-at-viennas-gates/
Jan III Sobieski on his horse: https://ludwigheinrichdyck.wordpress.com/2016/03/26/the-1683-battle-of-vienna-islam-at-viennas-gates/
Jan III Sobieski: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georg_Philipp_Rugendas
Leopold I: https://www.giantbomb.com/leopold-i-holy-roman-emperor/3005-11949/
Charles Duke of Lorraine: http://backgroundimgfer.pw/Election-of-Stanisaw-August-Poniatowski-as-King-of-Polanddetail.html
Old map of Vienna and surroundings: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/turkish-siege-of-vienna.html
View of the woods: our pics
Battle plan: https://ludwigheinrichdyck.wordpress.com/2016/03/26/the-1683-battle-of-vienna-islam-at-viennas-gates/
Battle of Vienna: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Vienna
Polish cavalry charge: https://about-history.com/the-battle-of-vienna-1683-and-europes-counter-attack/
Sobieski entering Vienna: https://culture.pl/en/artist/juliusz-kossak

ART TOUR OF THE NETHERLANDS

Vienna, 9 August 2018

My wife and I have just finished a little holiday in the Netherlands. It was a birthday present for me, so we spent most of the time in art museums. A veritable smorgasbord of art my wife offered me! The Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum of contemporary art, all in Amsterdam; the Kröller-Müller Museum and sculpture park in Otterlo, close to Arnhem; the Mauritshuis and the Gemeente Museum in The Hague. The art we saw spanned some five centuries, from Rogier Van der Weyden’s Lamentation of Christ from about 1460

to Steven Aalders’s Phi Painting of 2016.

What this sensory overload has confirmed to me is that if I were asked the question “what of all this stuff would you want to hang on your walls?”, my very personal answer would be “pieces produced between about 1885 and the beginning of World War I”.

Don’t get me wrong, the paintings the Dutch produced during their Golden Age of the 17th Century, the kind of paintings which constitute the highlights of the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis, are marvels of technique, of drama, of light effects, and I know not of what else. I mean, as you wander through the Rijksmuseum how can you not admire creations such as Rembrandt’s The Night Watch

or Jan Vermeer’s The Milkmaid

or Frans Hals’s Militiaman holding a Berkemeyer


or Adriaen Coorte’s Still Life with Asparagus?

And over at the Mauritshuis, how can you not murmur approvingly before Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

or Vermeer’s View of Delft

or Rubens’s Old Woman and Boy with Candles?

Yes, all very impressive.

BUT, when push comes to shove I can’t say I would want any of these paintings on my wall. They just don’t make me vibrate internally. Not so with the best Van Goghs that we saw, bursting with colour and intensity! So what if the perspective wasn’t perfect, if the figures were not necessarily well-proportioned, if the finishing was rough. His paintings spoke to my soul. One of his many self-portraits, for instance, from the Van Gogh Museum, would be welcome on my wall

as would be this painting of his from the Kröller-Müller museum, of the café at Arles where he no doubt whiled away a good few hours

or this one of an olive grove somewhere around Arles, hanging in the same museum

or of this wonderful landscape hanging in the Van Gogh Museum, which he painted in the last few months of his life in Auvers-sur-Oise.

Younger painters were dazzled by Van Gogh’s use of colour and pushed through the door he opened, with some wonderful results. I could joyously put this lovely seascape on my wall; it’s Gale from the East, by Théo van Rysselberghe, and hangs in the Kröller-Müller museum

I would also willingly take this luminous Still Life with Fruits, by Leo Gestel, in the same museum

or this wonderfully brooding work by Kandinsky, exhibited in the Stedenlijk; he painted it before he went and spoiled everything by becoming an abstract artist.

I could even welcome this painting by the Russian Constructivist artist Kazimir Malevich, from the Stedenlijk (and titled, rather bizarrely, An Englishman in Moscow).

There is even a period in Mondrian’s long life when he turned out paintings which I would gladly hang on my walls. The Gemeente Museum has a particularly rich collection of Mondrians, running from his very first works like this Basket with Apples

to his very last works like this Victory Boogie-Woogie.

His very first paintings are quite standard and should be disregarded, while his last paintings – all those abstract works he is so famous for – should equally, in my humble opinion, be ignored. It is works like these that I would hang on my wall:
Trees on the Gein: Moonrise

Dunes near Domburg

Arum, Blue Flower

Mill in Sunlight

Yes, it is that period, when artists discovered pure undiluted colour and before they tumbled into meaningless abstraction, which would have pride of place on my wall. It is a relatively narrow window of time – only thirty years or so – but many jewels of paintings were created. I could have added many other paintings which we saw in our whirlwind tour of the Netherlands, but I shall desist otherwise I risk losing my readers. I will, though, in a later post take up another theme which I am very fond of and about which I have written an earlier post: the human face in art. I think that I would have to expand my answer to the question I posed myself at the beginning of this post, to say that in addition at least one of my walls would have to be devoted to portraits. I will give my readers a taste of the art of portraiture we came across in our six-day art blitz of the Netherlands.

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Roger Van der Weyden, “Descent from the Cross”: http://www.twgram.me/tag/lamentation/
Steven Aalders, “Phi Painting”: https://www.stedelijk.nl/en/collection/99578-steven-aalders-phi-painting-%28ryb%29
Rembrandt, “The Night Watch”: http://www.dutchamsterdam.nl/139-rembrandt-night-watch
Jan Vermeer, “The Milkmaid”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Milkmaid_(Vermeer)
Frans Hals, “Militiaman holding a Berkemeyer”: http://www.jiekley.com/product/a-militiaman-holding-a-berkemeyer-known-as-the-%C2%91merry-drinker%C2%92-karya-frans-hals-1628-1630/
Adriaen Coorte, “Still Life with Asparagus”: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-A-2099
Rembrandt, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”: https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/explore/the-collection/artworks/the-anatomy-lesson-of-dr-nicolaes-tulp-146/#
Jan Vermeer, “View of Delft”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_of_Delft
Peter Paul Rubens, “Old Woman and Boy with Candles”: https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/explore/the-collection/artworks/old-woman-and-boy-with-candles-1150/
Van Gogh, “Self Portrait with a Grey Felt Hat”: https://vangoghmuseum.nl/en/search/collection?q=&artist=Vincent%20van%20Gogh&genre=self-portrait&_ga=2.88217629.705702266.1533842349-1924679497.1533842349
Van Gogh, “Place du Forum”: https://krollermuller.nl/en/vincent-van-gogh-terrace-of-a-cafe-at-night-place-du-forum-1
Van Gogh, “Olive Grove”: https://krollermuller.nl/en/vincent-van-gogh-olive-grove
Van Gogh, “Wheatfield under Thunderclouds”: https://vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0106V1962
Theo van Rysselberghe: https://krollermuller.nl/en/theo-van-rysselberghe-gale-from-the-east
Leo Gestel, “Still Life with Fruits”: https://krollermuller.nl/en/leo-gestel-still-life-with-fruits
Wassily Kandinsky, “Painting of Houses”: https://www.stedelijk.nl/en/collection/4540-wassily-kandinsky-bild-mit-hausern
Kazimir Malevich, “Englishman in Moscow”: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/malevich/malevich-room-guide/malevich-room-4
Piet Mondrian, “Basket with Apples”: https://www.gemeentemuseum.nl/en/collection/basket-apples?origin=gm
Piet Mondrian, “Victory Boogie-Woogie”: https://www.piet-mondrian.org/victory-boogie-woogie.jsp
Piet Mondrian, “Trees on the Gein: Moonrise”: https://www.wikiart.org/en/piet-mondrian/trees-by-the-gein-at-moonrise-1908
Piet Mondrian, “Dunes near Domburg”: https://www.worldgallery.co.uk/art-print/piet-mondrian-dunes-near-domburg-1910-436728
Piet Mondrian, “Arum, Blue Flower”: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/424534702365855604/
Piet Mondrian, “Mill in Sunlight”: https://www.gemeentemuseum.nl/en/collection/molen-mill-mill-sunlight?origin=gm

GUILDS AND THEIR PAINTINGS

Vienna, 14 July 2018

In our recent rapid tour of Belgium, our little group (my wife and I, a cousin of mine and his wife) visited Antwerp’s cathedral.

I suppose I could go on about it being “a masterpiece of Gothic architecture”, about its tower, “jewel of the monument, light, thin and beautifully sculpted”, about its “exceptionally large” interior whose “majestic coldness is warmed gently by numerous works of art”.

But that’s not really what caught my eye during the visit. That distinction goes to an exhibition which the cathedral was hosting of paintings from the late 16th-early 17th centuries. These paintings had for the most part been commissioned by Antwerp’s guilds and were to be mounted in side-chapels of the cathedral dedicated to these guilds. For obvious reasons, the painters had chosen scenes from the Bible that in some way reflected the work of the guilds. A straightforward example is the “Multiplication of the Loaves”, by Ambrosius Francken, commissioned by the city’s Guild of Bakers and Millers.
Here, obviously, the loaves – the backbone of the bakers’ and millers’ business – play a star role in this story from the New Testament. Guild members must have been proud to bathe in the reflected glory of the Lord through their humble product, the loaf of bread.

The same can be said of the “Miraculous Draught of Fishes”, by Hans van Elburcht, commissioned by the Guild of Fishmongers.
Here, too, the fishmongers’ product plays a star role in another story from the New Testament. No doubt, guild members were pleased to remind non-guild members of the holiness of their product because of its close relationship to the Lord.

A rather straightforward, though more racy, connection between guild and subject matter is also made in the “Wedding at Cana”, by Maerten de Vos.
The commissioning guild in this case was the Guild of Innkeepers, who of course would be selling large quantities of wine (and other alcoholic drinks) on their premises (just to remind those readers who may not be too familiar with biblical stories, this is the story where Jesus turned water into wine). Perhaps this was a way for inn-keepers to gently suggest that their business was nothing if not holy.

A pretty straightforward relationship also exists between the subject and the commissioning guild in the next painting, the “Fall of the Rebel Angels” by Frans Floris.
Look at that mass of writhing flesh! So thrilling. It must have been very difficult for church goers to concentrate on the mass with this painting to look at. It was commissioned by the Guild of Fencers, whose job it was to maintain public order and defend the city. So the painter has chosen as his subject the Archangel Michael and his men, arch-defender of Good, beating back the arch-representatives of Evil, Satan and his hordes, using, of course, the arms which the fencers themselves would be using. In this case, the painter had to stray from the Old and New Testaments into the Book of Revelation for his subject matter; no matter, it was part of the accepted Canon. I mean, didn’t Milton use this story for his poem “Paradise Lost”?

The painting by Frans Francken, “Christ among the scribes”, highlights another issue: what to do if you wanted a painter to paint a nice painting for your guild but you weren’t rich enough to afford him, and you weren’t rich enough to support a side-chapel? The answer, obviously, was for a couple of guilds to share the costs. This is exactly what the Guilds of Schoolmasters and Soap Makers did. They shared a side-chapel in the cathedral and they shared the cost of the painting. To make sure that each guild was represented in the painting, they had a triptych painted.  Since the schoolmasters were willing to pay a greater share of the painter’s fee, they got more square centimetres of painted surface for their subject matter.
More specifically, the schoolmasters got the centre panel and the right-hand panel, while the soap makers only got the left-hand panel. The scene in the centre panel is Jesus as a young boy instructing the teachers in the temple – no doubt the dream of every schoolboy and girl, and a rather strange subject for schoolmasters I have to say, unless Antwerp’s schoolmasters were a very humble lot. The scene in the right-hand panel is Saint Ambrose, patron saint of teachers and one of the Doctors of the Church (doctor as in PhD rather than in MD), baptising Saint Augustine, another of the Doctors of the Church.

The poor old soap makers had to make do with a very obscure story from the First Book of Kings (obscure at least to me). It has to do with the prophet Elijah, who miraculously ensured that the poor widow Sarepta was able to fill numerous pitchers of oil from the small jar that she had, thus allowing her to pay off her debts. For those of my readers who may not immediately see the connection to soap making, I should remind them that soap is made from boiling lye with oil (at least, it used to; God knows how chemists make it nowadays).

After that, the relationship between the subject of the paintings we saw in the cathedral and the guild commissioning it got a little more tenuous. For instance, we have the “Adoration of the Magi”, by Artus Wolffort.
This was commissioned by the Guild of Tailors. What does this subject have to do with tailors, readers may be asking.  Well, through the expensive clothes that the painter can have the Magi wearing! Viewers could be reminded of the wonderful (and expensive) clothes the city’s tailors could make. And perhaps the tailors, admiring the painting during a particularly boring mass, could find in it a confirmation of their skills.

A painting with what seems to me an even more tenuous connection between subject matter and commissioning guild is the “Lamentation” by Quinten Metsijs.
The painting was commissioned by the Guild of Carpenters. I puzzled over this one for a while, and concluded that the only connection with carpentry and wood working were the three crosses far away in the background. I guess it is a carpenter who have sawed the wood from which the crosses were made. But why not simply a painting of Saint Joseph? He was a carpenter. Maybe that was too banal a topic. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t even seem to have been the patron saint of the guild. That honour went Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, who are the subjects of the two side-panels.

Having done the tour of the exhibition, I wondered out loud to my cousin what could have been a suitable biblical theme for the guild he would have been a member of had he lived and worked in Antwerp in the 16th-17th Centuries. I should explain that until he retired my cousin had worked for many years for a company that makes trucks like these.

Of course, this particular mode of transport did not exist in biblical times (or indeed even in 16th century Antwerp) but I think we can all agree that the equivalent would have been the cart, rather like the one we have in that famous Constable painting, the “Hay Wain”.

And I’m sure there was a guild for cart-makers (or maybe carriage and cart makers).

Nothing came to our minds on the spot, but in my spare moments in Vienna I have returned to the question. What biblical scene has carts in it, which could have been a suitable subject for some famous Antwerp painter to paint? Not knowing the bible by heart, I have done the next best thing, which is to search on-line versions of it put there by various Christian associations earnestly hoping that you will dip into the Good Book. Dip I did, using “cart” as the search word. And I came up trumps! Not in the New Testament, where the word cart doesn’t appear once (no doubt a reflection of Jesus’s poverty; he walked everywhere and owned nothing to speak of), but in the Old Testament, specifically in the First Book of Samuel. The story is part of the eternal wars between the Israelites and the Philistines. The Philistines have captured the Ark of the Covenant and have borne it back in triumph to the temple of their god Dagon. But strange things happen in the temple, horrible diseases and other calamities strike the Philistines. The Philistine rulers decide to send the Ark back to the Israelites. Their diviners tell them to put the Ark on a cart drawn by two cows, add a chest of treasure as a guilt offering, and let the cows go free. If the cows go back towards Israelite territory, then all their troubles have indeed been caused by the Israelites’ God. And of course that is exactly what the cows do. The story more or less finishes as follows (I quote this for reasons which will become clear in a minute): “Now the people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley, and when they looked up and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight. The cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock. The people chopped up the wood of the cart and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord [poor cows!]. The Levites took down the ark of the Lord, together with the chest containing the gold objects, and placed them on the large rock. The large rock on which the Levites set the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh.”

Unfortunately, I could find no painter of the 16th or 17th centuries who depicted this scene. The best I could come up with was this depiction by a 19th century American folk artist who goes by the wonderful name of Erastus Salisbury Field.

From the short piece of text I cited above, I think readers will immediately see that Erastus was depicting the moment when the cart arrived in Beth Shemeth.

Well, after this success at finding a painting to fit my cousin’s presumed guild, what about me? First of all, what could have been my guild? Well, my last job was for the UN, and that certainly didn’t exist in the golden age of guilds, so that couldn’t be an entry point for me. I suppose UN work could be associated to government work. But government workers didn’t get a guild either – they did (and still do) nothing practical, just write and file documents of one form or another. My job before that – as a consultant – doesn’t help either. Consultants just advise, with the real work being done by others. As I wrote in my home page, I suppose the one thing which has run like a thread through all my jobs is that I had to write. So maybe I could have been a member of the Guild of Scriveners!

So now the question is, what could have been a suitable biblical scene to have painted for this guild? Scriveners are the same as scribes, and the New Testament is full of stories of scribes. But they are all negative stories, scribes being depicted as nasty people on the same level as the Pharisees. I don’t want negative publicity for my guild! So I turned once more to the on-line bible and did a search in the Old Testament. The best I could come up with is another obscure story in the Second Book of Kings involving King Josiah. Josiah instructs that the money which has been collected in the Temple be used for the Temple’s maintenance. While gathering the money, the High Priest finds the Book of Law (presumably the book had fallen out of use and this particular copy was gathering dust in some corner of the Temple). He gives it to Shaphan the scribe along with a report on how much money has been given to the maintenance crew. Shaphan comes before Joshua and reads the report but also reads him the Book of Law. Josiah tears his clothes because he realises that the Israelites haven’t been following the Law and “great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book by doing according to all that is written concerning us.” I presume Josiah does something about this but I didn’t read any further. As my painting, I came up with this one, painted by the 17th Century Dutch painter Leonaert Bramer, showing Shaphan humbly reading the Book to a rather concerned-looking Josiah.
Well, this painting certainly fits with the period in which the other paintings in Antwerp cathedral were painted. Frankly, though, I prefer the painting I found for my cousin. But there you go.

Oh, and the rest of Antwerp was very nice.

POSTSCRIPT, 22 July 2018

After reading this post, a good friend of mine gave me some excellent suggestions for alternative paintings, both for my cousin’s guild as well as for my own. He was kind enough not to say it, but the key was to “think out of the box”, to put aside the straitjacket of finding a story in the Bible and to allow more creative ideas in. His suggestion for my cousin was Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Haywain Triptych”.
Pride of place in this triptych goes to a magnificent cart full of hay, the haywain, in the centre panel. The whole work is a rather delirious take – typical of Bosch – on the rather sad story of Man. On the left, after the rebel angels have been cast out of heaven (also the subject of that muscular painting above for the Guild of Fencers) we have Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with them eventually being thrown out for having disobeyed God’s instructions. Then, in the middle, as the haywain of our lives trundles inexorably along towards death on the right, we have people enacting out every possible sin of which we are capable, busily ignoring Christ our Saviour up in the clouds. The result of all this is shown on the right, where we are all burning in Hell. I suppose you could say that this is the Medieval version of “Life’s a bitch and then you die”. I will leave it to my cousin to decide if he wants his guild to be represented by such a pessimistic vision of life.

As to my guild, my friend suggested Dürer’s “St. Jerome in his Study”.

This is an excellent suggestion! St. Jerome’s main claim to fame these days is his translation of the Bible into Latin, which he spent years over in the Holy Land, busily scribbling away. I think I can definitely live with Dürer’s vision of learned and saintly paper scratching in a library-like environment as the image that my guild would want to project in its side-chapel in Antwerp cathedral. It’s a pity that Dürer only did an engraving, a painting would have been better. I could of course go for one of the hundreds of paintings on this theme which litter every self-respecting museum, but they all rather irritatingly show St. Jerome half-naked. I understand this is due to a confusion: this Saint Jerome has been conflated with another saint of the same name who did indeed go around half naked and who spent his time beating himself as penitence. To show what I’m talking about, I show a take by on the topic by Caravaggio, where the painter at least had the decency to pretty much cover Saint Jerome up.

But writing semi-naked is definitely not my style.

This mention of Caravaggio has suddenly made me think of another exciting possibility! I had quite forgotten that there are other very saintly acts of writing in the Christian Story, namely the writing of the four gospels by the Evangelists Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Caravaggio did an excellent painting of St. Matthew writing his gospel. Actually, he did two. The first was unfortunately destroyed in Berlin during the Second World War.

The patrons who commissioned the painting rejected it because it made St. Matthew look too stupid. It is certainly true that the St. Matthew in this painting looks completely befuddled as the young angel pretty much takes his hand and writes the story for him. So Caravaggio painted another version, still to be seen in all its glory in the chapel dedicated to Saint Matthew in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

As a caravaggiophile, I would love to have a Caravaggio represent my Guild of Scriveners! I have a feeling that my guild would have chosen the second Caravaggio for the same reasons as the original patrons, although personally I would have preferred the first. I love that completely confused look on St. Matthew’s face – writing is such a difficult task, you never know where your hand (left hand in my case) will lead you.
_____________________

Antwerp cathedral exterior: http://www.visitflanders.com/en/things-to-do/attractions/top/the-cathedral-of-our-lady.jsp
Antwerp cathedral interior: http://www.medievalists.net/2011/01/medieval-origins-of-the-cathedral-of-our-lady-in-antwerp-belgium/
Ambrosius Francken, “Multiplication of the Loaves”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Multiplication_of_the_Loaves_(Ambrosius_Francken)_July_2015-1a.jpg
Hans van Elburcht and School of Ambrosius Francken, “Miraculous Draught of Fishes”: https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-antwerp-belgium-paint-miracle-fishing-scene-hans-van-elburcht-abbrosius-francken-year-september-cathedral-image77028241
Maerten de Vos, “Wedding at Cana”: https://www.gettyimages.at/detail/nachrichtenfoto/the-wedding-at-cana-oil-on-canvas-after-maarten-de-vos-nachrichtenfoto/526962934#/the-wedding-at-cana-oil-on-canvas-after-maarten-de-vos-kadriorg-art-picture-id526962934
Frans Floris, “Fall of the Rebel Angels”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Fall_of_rebel_Angels_(Frans_Floris)_September_2015-1a.jpg
Frans Francken, “Christ among the scribes”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Christ_among_scribes_(Frans_Francken)_September_2015-5.jpg
Artus Wolffort, “Adoration of the Magi”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Adoration_of_the_Magi_(Artus_Wolffort)_July_2015-1a.jpg
Quinten Metsijs, “Lamentation”: https://www.kmska.be/en/collectie/highlights/Schrijnwerkers.html
Truck: https://www.abrbuzz.co.za/mobility-beat/5689-volvo-trucks-retains-top-position-in-sales-service-and-parts-according-to-q4-scott-byers-results
John Constable, “The Hay Wain”: https://www.planet-puzzles.com/grafika-john-constable-la-charette-de-foin-1821-puzzle-1000-pieces.p46141.html
Erastus Salisbury Field, “The Ark of the Covenant”: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/ark-of-the-covenant-erastus-salisbury-field.html
Leonaert Bramer, “The Scribe Shaphan Reading the Book of Law to King Josiah”: https://www.passionforpaintings.com/en/art-gallery/leonaert-bramer-painter/the-scribe-shaphan-reading-the-book-of-law-to-king-josiah-oil-painting-reproduction

POSTSCRIPT
Hieronymus Bosch, “the Haywain Triptych”: https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-haywain-triptych/7673843a-d2b6-497a-ac80-16242b36c3ce
Albrecht Dürer, “St. Jerome in his Study”: https://www.pinterest.at/pin/208995238931007942/?lp=true
Caravaggio, “St. Jerome writing”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Jerome_Writing-Caravaggio_(1605-6).jpg
Caravaggio, “Saint Matthew and the Angel”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Matthew_and_the_Angel#/media/File:Caravaggio_MatthewAndTheAngel_byMikeyAngels.jpg
Caravaggio, “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=136502

BRUGES AND BRICKS

Vienna, 5 July 2018

My wife and I have just returned from a whirlwind tour of Belgium with a cousin of mine and his wife – the battlefield of Waterloo, Tournai, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Louvain (or Brugge, Gent, Antwerpen, Leuven, to give them their Flemish names), all in a mere six days. (in case any reader asks himself or herself, we left Brussels out because we had all been there before). I think the next couple of posts will be about various aspects of our trip (the exact number depending on how strongly my creative juices flow).

In this post, I want to focus on bricks. These became a source of fascination for me in Bruges. For those of my readers who haven’t yet been to Bruges, I should state that Bruges is a brick city par excellence. Much of it has been built in what is called the brick Gothic style, of which this – a picture of some street in Bruges – is a typical example.

Actually, I would call it the Dutch style. I know I’m entering a minefield here, since many Flemings would be indignant at having something of theirs called Dutch, but I’m afraid to say that I visited Amsterdam before I visited the lands of Flanders so for me the style is indelibly linked with the Netherlands. Perhaps, to try to avoid landing myself in the middle of local quarrels, I could call the style the Hanseatic style since our brief forays into other Hanseatic towns suggest that this is a style common to them all. (In passing, I should say that I was surprised to learn that Bruges was part of the Hanseatic league. I hadn’t known that it had extended this far south. I have made a mental note to buy myself a book on the Hanseatic league).

But actually it’s not the style of brick building that fascinated me in Bruges. It was the colour of the bricks. To put this in context, I should say that my feelings about brick colour have been very much shaped by the brick buildings in the UK, where bricks first impinged themselves on my retinae. Although it’s no doubt a gross exaggeration, I would classify British brick colours as pleasant, unpleasant, and frankly awful. In the pleasant category, I would put the country’s older brick buildings. Christchurch Mansion near Ipswich in Suffolk is a fine example.

Readers will note that the brick is not too red, you could almost say it has pink overtones, and the colour is pleasingly non-uniform.

In the unpleasant category, I would put just about every brick building put up in the UK since the Industrial Revolution. This picture of an old brick chimney – icon, I would say, of the industrial revolution – can stand in for this type of brick.

To make the point even more strongly, though, I also throw in a picture of an old factory

of one of the buildings in the original red brick universities (in this case Sheffield)

and of a row of normal houses.

Readers will note that the red is harsh, strong, crude, and that the bricks are much more uniform in colour than the older bricks. As far as I can make out, the much stronger red colour comes mainly from the bricks having been fired at higher temperatures, although it could also be due to the original clay holding more haematite (the iron mineral which mostly turn bricks red, although nowadays dyes – rather depressingly – are increasingly being used). As I understand from the little bit of technical literature I have boned up on, higher firing temperatures were used to make the bricks stronger and so more usable in larger structures. But I also read – though can scarce believe it – that at least in London redder bricks were used to make the buildings more visible in the fog (Peter Ackroyd’s Biography of London is given as the source of this nugget of information. I shall check it in my copy in Milan).

As for the frankly awful category, I would put all those bricks which are an unpleasant off-white. My grandmother’s old house in London can stand in for the genre.

But this brick was used extensively throughout London. Here’s a part of Waterloo Station.

It’s not just yesteryear that they used this brick. I throw in a picture of a modern use of bricks with this sickly colour.

I know there are readers out there who will indignantly tell me that it’s a beautiful colour, but as they say, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and in my eye that’s sick colour.

Now, after my trip to Bruges, I can add another brick hue to my pleasant category – indeed, perhaps I should create a new category, “very pleasant”, for this hue. This picture is an example of the type.

As I hope readers can see, the buildings in this case give off a very definite orange “glow”. A somewhat hasty study of such buildings as we moved from one place to another has led me to conclude that the colouring comes from a brick which indeed has more orange than pink hues but also from a savant mix of this brick with bricks of the hideous sick colour the effect of which is to give rise to a paler orange than might otherwise be the case. I throw in pictures which I took of some other buildings with the same light orange hue.



Very nice …

And oh, by the way, Bruges is a very pleasant place to visit. A bit overrun by tourists, perhaps, but at least in June still acceptable. Don’t be fooled by such idiot titles as “the Venice of Flanders”. The place has a few canals but in no way do they compare to Venice.

___________________

Bruges street: https://www.gettyimages.at/detail/foto/old-street-with-crow-stepped-gable-houses-in-bruges-stock-fotografie/578469816
Christchurch mansion: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g190725-d1575683-i74779233-Christchurch_Mansion-Ipswich_Suffolk_East_Anglia_England.html
Old factory chimney: https://www.istockphoto.com/at/foto/alte-industrielle-gemauerten-schornstein-gm932649592-255603992
Old factory: http://www.antiqueslink.com/antiques/antique-archaeology-492420.html
Firth Court, University of Sheffield: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2889648
Brick houses: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accrington_brick
My grandmother’s house: https://www.buildington.co.uk/london-sw7/40-montpelier-square/40-montpelier-square/id/3544
Waterloo station: By Alex.muller – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4350988
modern use of london yellow stock: https://wienerberger.co.uk/inspiration/tower-bridge
Bruges houses: my photos

HEIDI HORTEN’S COLLECTION

Vienna, 20 June 2018

This is the second posting where I write with wistful envy about a person who was rich enough to build up an art collection and who had enough taste to build up a great art collection. The first posting was about Ms. Kröller-Müller, whose museum we will visit in a few weeks’ time when we go to the Netherlands. This second posting is about Ms. Heidi Horten, a selection of whose collection my wife and I recently visited at Vienna’s Leopold Museum. (In passing, Mr and Mrs Leopold are another couple who used their riches to build up a ravishing collection now housed in this same museum.)

A few words about Ms Horten. As a 19 year-old, this Austrian girl married the much older Mr Helmut Horten, a German who had made his fortune after the war with a chain of department stores (I will skitter delicately over the fact that the start of his business empire was his purchase – I would assume on the cheap – of a department store owned by two Jewish partners who were forced to give it up in the wake of the Nazis’ antisemitic policies and prior to their emigration to the US). Here, we have the Horten couple.

As a couple, they did some collecting but nothing major. The serious collecting only really started when Mr Horten went the way of all flesh in 1987 and Ms Horten inherited the bulk of his fortune – some $ 1 billion, it is reported. Here is a photo of her in those years: quite a glamorous lady, I would say.

And what a collection Ms Horten has amassed! Like Ms Kröller-Müller and the Leopolds, she has focused her purchases on modern and contemporary art. I presume that the exhibition at the Leopold Museum is only a portion of her collection, but what they are showing is impressive. After doing a round of the exhibition, I went around again, taking pictures of the pieces which had particularly struck me. I post them below, in the order of their creation.

Lyonel Feininger’s The Honeymooners, from 1908.

Wonderful expression of the happiness of two honeymooners, dressed in bright clothes and towering over their surroundings.

Egon Schiele’s aquarelle of Seated Male Nude from Behind, painted in 1910.

Schiele painted a whole series of these aquarelles, a number of which I was fortunate enough to see several years ago on one of my periodic visits back to Vienna from China.

Emile Nolde’s Red Evening Sun, painted in 1913.

My wife was particularly struck by the painting’s dark, dark sea.

Gustav Klimt’s Church in Unterach am Attersee, painted in 1916.

Klimt painted a number of these views, which he saw, it is said, through a telescope to get that foreshortening effect.

Kees van Dongen’s Commedia (Montparnasse Blues), painted in 1925.


Emile Nolde again, Summer Day with Hay Cart, painted in 1926, more than ten years after the earlier painting.

Chaim Soutine’s Doorkeeper – Woman in Blue, from 1935.


Soutine captured perfectly the sour look which all the French doorkeepers of my youth constantly displayed.

After that, things begin to get grim. I’ve often complained (the latest time last December) that as Western modern art gets ever more modern it slips off into irrelevance and silliness. I feel that the rest of the exhibition demonstrates this pattern all too well. Nevertheless, I show here pictures of some of these later pieces, often for no better reason than they amused me.

Alexander Calder’s Untitled (Toy Train) from around 1946. A fine way to reuse old tins and cans.


Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Nurse and Girl from 1965.

What, I wonder, were the two discussing?

Pablo Picasso’s Bust of a Man, from 1969.

As I’ve commented elsewhere, among the dreariness of abstract art Picasso shines out as having stayed true to representational art.

Another Alexander Calder, Critter with Peaked Head, from 1974.

Funny title, and interesting change of view as one goes around the critter and as one of her three legs disappears (I assume the critter is feminine since she is wearing high heels; but perhaps male critters also wear heels).

Roy Lichtenstein’s Forest Scene, painted in 1980.


Andy Warhol’s Lenin, from 1986.

Normally, I find Warhol’s portraits wearisome and repetitive, but I found these two portraits of Lenin quite arresting.

Keith Haring’s Untitled, painted in the same year as Warhol’s Lenins.

Untitled, but I presume a commentary on the AIDS epidemic that was then sweeping through the US’s gay community and which counted him as one of its victims four years after he completed this painting.

Not Vital’s Untitled (Fuck You), from 1991-2.

I don’t know if this is what Vital intended, but I see this piece as a commentary on those awful collections of deer antlers which you see in many conservative Austrian homes, testimony to the enthusiasm with which the home owner and his ancestors have hunted deer.

If I were a deer, I too would want to have those seven letters dangling from my horns as I faced my hunter.

Maurizio Cattelan’s Untitled (Zorro) from 1997.

I’m assuming that Cattelan was taking the piss out of Lucio Fontana, he of the cut canvases. I feel this ever more strongly given that this painting was hung beside some four or five Fontanas.

Cattelan, by the way, is the same artist who sculpted that hand with its finger raised in front of Milan’s stock exchange; it was the subject of an earlier posting of mine. He seems to be quite a joker.

And finally, Erwin Wurm’s Kastenmann, or Box Man, from 2010.

I don’t know what Mr. Wurm is trying to tell us, it just looks amusing.

I now invite my readers to scroll through all these pictures again. Did something not go wrong with the art we produced in the developed countries some time after the Second World War? Is all that’s left to our art is whether it’s a good joke or not?

_______________________________

Pictures: all mine except:
Horten couple: https://www.falter.at/archiv/wp/das-maerchen-von-helmut-und-heidi
Heidi Horten: https://www.vindobona.org/article/heidi-horten-collection-leopold-museum-vienna
Deer antlers: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-trophies-of-deer-hanging-on-a-wall-in-a-hunting-lodge-styria-austria-18704002.html

BIKERS AND CENTAURS

Milan, 26 May 2018

A week or so ago, my wife and I were at our place at the seaside near Genova; my next to last post was about one of the walks we did in the hills while we were there. One morning, being sore of leg from our walks and uncertain as to what walk to do next, we decided to go down into the village centre instead to have ourselves our morning cappuccino. Being in no hurry, we dawdled along looking in shop windows and at anything else that caught our attention. One such thing was the door of the local police station, which was festooned with various notices about Important Local Things. As I idly scanned the notices, one caught my attention in particular. It stated, in Italian of course, something to the effect that the part of the main road lying between km X and km Y was particularly risky for centaurs, and that the public authorities were devoting their attention to how to minimize the risks.

Centaurs??

Puzzled, I turned to my wife to ask for elucidations, and she informed me that this was a term used in Italian to describe motorcyclists. What a wonderful idea! What, I wondered, had led an Italian at some point in recent history to make this connection? I mean, early motorcyclists didn’t really much look like centaurs, although with a bit of poetic fancy once could sort of see a human torso on top of a beast on wheels.

For once, the internet was not of great help. One thread suggested that it had to do with the huge amounts of horsepower in the engines, allowing the rider to roar off much as a horseman could gallop off. Another thread claimed it had to do with fanatical motorcyclists hardly ever getting off their bikes and thus being seemingly welded to them much as centaurs were human torsos welded to a horse’s body.

Of course, either or both of these explanations could be correct. I can think of another, which has to do with the Bad Boy reputation of both motorcyclists and centaurs. For most Ancient Greeks, who invented centaurs, these creatures were the epitome of barbarism. They were wild, lusty, overly indulgent drinkers and carousers, violent when intoxicated, and generally uncultured delinquents, living on the edges of the civilized world and needing to be kept under control. Greek myths were replete with stories of heroic warriors taking on centaurs and beating the shit out of them. Greek sculpture and painting naturally followed suit. Here, from a pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia, we have a representation of the story of the centaurs fighting with the Lapiths (a popular story in which centaurs are invited to a wedding, get drunk, and one of them tries to rape the bride, with – as may be expected – mayhem ensuing). The calm fellow in the middle is the god Apollo.

Here, we see the right hand part of the pediment showing more clearly the naughty centaur carrying off a woman and a noble Greek warrior about to make him pay for it.

Here, to equal things up a bit, we have the same story from a frieze at the temple of Apollo in Bassae, with the centaur seemingly the one winning.

Here, we have a more humble piece of Ancient Greek art, a painting on a vase, showing the same story.

Here again, to equal things up, is a painting on another vase where the centaur seems to be besting his opponent.

Just in case readers are thinking that the fight between centaurs and the Lapiths is the only Greek story about the centaurs, I throw in here a picture of a vase painting showing Hercules fighting with a centaur (the centaur was a certain Nessus, who carried away Hercules’s wife Deianeira, and Hercules killed him).

In any event, whatever the medium, I think we can all agree that the centaurs are made to look fairly rough types. The centaurs’ bad reputation and the need to beat the shit out of them pursued the poor beasts into the Roman period and on into Europe’s medieval period and beyond. This sculpture from the early 1800s by Antonio Canova greets us every time my wife and I climb up the grand staircase at Vienna’s Kunst Historisches Museum. It shows Theseus about to brain a centaur – for some reason, Theseus was at the Lapith wedding feast.

This sculpture, on the other hand, depicts Hercules about to brain Nessus.

It was sculpted in 1599 by the Flemish Jean Boulogne, known to the world as Giambologna. It graces the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence.

Painting also got into the act. Here, we have a painting by Sebastiano Ricci from 1705 showing the brawl at the Lapith wedding.

Perhaps some classics-loving Italian saw similarities between these badly behaved centaurs and the badly behaving modern bikers – at least as they were often represented in popular culture. Think of the 1953 film “The Wild One”, in which Marlon Brando is the leader of a motorcycle gang terrorizing a small town.

Or consider the 1966 film “The Wild Angels”, in which Peter Fonda is the nihilistic leader of a chapter of the Hell’s Angels causing mayhem in some small town.

Or more extremely, we have the 1973 film “Psychomania”, where a gang of bikers kill themselves, only to become alive again as zombies and go around wreaking havoc on the living.

Personally, and without a shred of evidence to back me up, I prefer to think that the Italian who gave bikers the new title of centaurs made quite another connection between the two: the fact that both are gentle, peaceful souls. On the centaur side, there was a view, an admittedly minority view, in Classical times that centaurs – at least some of them – were wise and noble creatures. The centaur Chiron was particularly famous in this regard. It was said that he was so wise that had taught great heroes like Achilles, Ajax, and Jason. This fresco from Hercolaneum, destroyed like Pompeii by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, shows him teaching Achilles how to play the lyre.

This strand of thinking which saw centaurs as wise and gentle beasts was taken up with enthusiasm by C.S. Lewis in his children’s books about Narnia, and it was in my reading of these books as a child that I first got to know of centaurs. I still remember with fondness the wise and noble centaurs which peppered the Narnia books. Here, for instance, is Roonwit, who graces the pages of “The Last Battle”, talking strategy with Prince Tirian and the unicorn Jewel.

Given my age, I think it no shame to admit that I have never read any of the Harry Potter books (although I did accompany my daughter to a few of the films when she was young). I understand, though, that J.K. Rowling also included wise and gentle centaurs in her books (confirmed through WhatsApp by my daughter). This is the centaur Firenze with Harry in (I think) the Forbidden Forest.


As for bikers, there are those who argue forcefully for a gentle, peaceful, soulful side to motorcycling. Many is the motorcycling writer who has written lyrically about the joy of being out on the open road, with the wind in your hair and your thoughts your only company. My most recent read in this vein was Oliver Sack’s autobiography, “On The Move: A Life”, where he writes about the long motorcycle rides he took in the American West in his early days in California. Appropriately enough, the cover photo is the author on his beloved bike.

There is even a semi-serious book of philosophy, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” which, according to Wikipedia, “is a fictionalized autobiography of a 17-day journey the narrator made on a motorcycle from Minnesota to Northern California along with his son. … The trip is punctuated by numerous philosophical discussions on topics including epistemology, ethical emotivism and the philosophy of science”.

(I must confess that although I have started the book a couple of times I have never finished it).

Films, too, have played their part in depicting the lyrical side of motorbiking. We have the 1969 film “Easy Rider”, in which Peter Fonda stars once again, but this time accompanied by Dennis Hopper. The two set out from Los Angeles to New Orleans on Harley Davidsons to discover America (and get killed by rednecks in the process).


Or there is the 2004 film “The Motorcycle Diaries”, about the bike journey which Che Guevara and a friend made in the 1950s across Latin America, and which opened his eyes to the poverty, hardship, and political oppression experienced by many on that continent.

As I said, I have not a shred of evidence that gentleness, nobility, peacefulness, wisdom, etc. etc. were the common threads that some Italian of yesteryear saw between bikers and mythical centaurs. But it pleases my contrarian spirit for it to be so, and so it shall be.

_________________

Early biker: https://rocket-garage.blogspot.com/2011/08/pionieri-del-xx-secolo.html
Centaur fighting Lapith – Bassae: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Bassai_sculptures,_marble_block_from_the_frieze_of_the_Temple_of_Apollo_Epikourios_at_Bassae_(Greece),_Lapiths_fight_Centaurs,_about_420-400_BC,_British_Museum_(14073581678).jpg
Centaur fighting Lapith – Olympia: http://dtcox.com/report-on-ancient-corinth-ancient-olympia-ancient-sparta-byzantine-mystra-monemvasia-greece-oct-30-2015/centaur-lapith-woman-west-pediment-temple-of-zeus-battle-be/
Centaur fighting Lapith – Olympia-2: https://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/farberas/arth/arth200/politics/images_authority_2_greek.html
Centaur fighting Lapith-vase-1: https://www.myartprints.co.uk/a/red-figurevasedepictingth.html
Centaur fighting Lapith-vase-2: http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/O12.10.html
Hercules fighting Centaur: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/423268064950273744/
Canova-Theseus fighting the centaur: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Canova_-_Theseus_defeats_the_centaur_-_close.jpg
Giambologna-Hercules fighting Nessus: https://www.tuttartpitturasculturapoesiamusica.com/2015/09/Giambologna-Sculpture.html
Sebastiano Ricci-Lapiths and Centaurs: By The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=158347
“The Wild One”: https://www.jpcycles.com/product/712-685/the-wild-one-fight-poster
“The Wild Angels”: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/112308584430632278/
“Psychomania”: http://theggtmc.blogspot.it/2011/09/psychomania-1972.html
Chiron and Achilles: By upload by muesse – http://www.focus.de, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8328492
Roonwit: http://narnia.wikia.com/wiki/File:Tirian,_Jewel_and_Roonwit.jpg
Firenze: http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/File:Firenze_harry_ps.jpg
Oliver Sacks, “On the Move; A Life”: https://medium.com/@PunkChameleon/book-review-on-the-move-a-life-by-oliver-sacks-93bb828fb85b
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780061907999/zen-and-the-art-of-motorcycle-maintenance
“Easy Rider”: http://flavorwire.com/472622/boomer-audit-despite-the-self-indulgence-and-the-cliches-easy-rider-retains-its-pulse
“The Motorcycle Diaries”: http://www.moviepostershop.com/the-motorcycle-diaries-movie-poster-2004

GERANIUMS – SORRY, PELARGONIUMS

Sori, 14 May 2018

I’ve written about cacti in an earlier post. In that case it was in a plug for more cactus growing in LA. The micro (really micro) climate on the balcony of our apartment at the sea, coupled with the long periods when no-one is here to water plants, also makes this an ideal space for cactus growing. My mother-in-law introduced cacti to the balcony several decades ago, and my wife expanded the collection by borrowing a few cacti from our next-door neighbour. However, I am saddened to report that a particularly harsh winter this year, when Jack Frost managed to lay his bony fingers on the balcony, has put paid to some of the cacti. We were faced with blackened cacti corpses when we arrived a few days ago and have been mournfully wondering what to do ever since. As part of this wondering, we visited the local flower shop, to see if they had any suggestions about how we might be able to breathe some life back into our blackened cacti – and to see if they sold any cacti should we decide that there was nothing for it but to replace them. The answer was negative in both cases.

In any event, as is usual in these cases the discussion went off on several tangents. For reasons which I can no longer remember now, one of these tangents was geraniums. I’m rather fond of geraniums. My mother had large beds (or what I remember as large beds) of geraniums in her garden in Eritrea, which the memory bank of my mind suggests looked something like this.

The bright red of the flowers pleased me no end – I suppose bright primary colours appeal to five and six year-olds – and I really liked the scent which emanated from broken leaves and stems. I must confess to having been a terror in the garden. I was not above decapitating flowers or casually tearing off leaves and stems. I must have driven my mother wild with my antics.

But coming back to our local flower shop: the lady in charge said that geraniums had a hard time in this climate because it was too humid. This rather surprised me, I thought that all geraniums needed was a lot of sun. I started looking around, and I discovered that it was indeed rare to see geraniums around here. Her comments also got me to engage in my favourite pastime: surfing the web to find out more about geraniums. I am ready to report back.

The first thing I discovered is that geraniums should not actually be called geraniums. Their correct name is pelargoniums. It seems that when the first pelargoniums were brought back to Europe in the 17th Century, gardeners thought they were cousins to the geraniums already present here. By the time botanists realized their mistake, it was too late. The name geranium has stuck. To make up for this mistake, let me throw in a picture here of one of the many real geraniums, the Geranium platypetalum.

The introduction of pelargoniums to Europe is the story of European colonization of the rest of the world. It was the Dutch who first brought pelargoniums back to Europe, after they had established themselves in what was to become Cape Town.

They, like European colonizers everywhere, looked around to see what plants they could find that might have a utility back home – and this included selling them to wealthy individuals who cultivated large gardens full of exotic plants. Over the years, they and the English who came after them found many different species of pelargonium in South Africa – some 90% of the 300 or so species in the family are to be found in South Africa. But I will concentrate here on the three pelargoniums which are the ancestors of pretty much all the pelargoniums we grow today.

There is Pelargonium inquinans, seen here in the wild

and here somewhat closer up.

There is Pelargonium zonale.

These two, hybridized together, have formed all the “common geraniums” or “zonal geraniums” which you will find in flower beds. My mother’s geraniums must have been of this type.

Then there is Pelargonium peltatum

which is the ancestor of all those “ivy-leaved geraniums” which trail delightfully from balconies such as the ones we shall shortly be seeing in Vienna and in every Austrian town and village.

As I said earlier, it was wealthy individuals with a passion for gardening who in the early decades of European colonization drove the domestication and spread of the myriad foreign plants which poured into Europe from every corner of the globe. In the pelargonium story, two in particular stand out. The first is the Right Reverend Henry Compton, Bishop of London.

Compton was born in 1632 into an aristocratic family, being the sixth and youngest son of the 2nd Earl of Northampton. At the age of 43 he was appointed, in short order, Lord Bishop of London, Dean of the Chapel Royal, and member of the Privy Council, and he was entrusted with the education of the two royal princesses, Mary and Anne, nieces of the King, Charles II. He clearly moved in high circles! His career suffered a dip when, ten years later, Charles’s brother, James II, acceded to the throne. Compton was strongly opposed to Roman Catholicism. Consequently, James, a Catholic convert, relieved him of all his political positions. Luckily for him, James II lasted a mere six years before being ousted during the “Glorious Revolution” by James’s daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange (great-grandson of William the Silent, Prince of Orange, whom I mentioned in an earlier post). As might be expected, Compton fervently embraced the cause of William and Mary; in fact, he was one of the “Immortal Seven” who invited William to invade England. In recognition of his support, he got to perform the ceremony of their coronation (normally, this duty falls to the Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the-then Archbishop refused to take the oath to the new monarchs, so he was “deprived of his office”, i.e., was kicked out). The new monarchs also restored Compton to all his old political positions. And so Compton lived out the remaining 24 years of his life holding high religious and political offices (although, to his bitter disappointment, his hopes to become the Archbishop Canterbury were twice dashed). He died in 1713 at the ripe old age of 81.

Throughout all this political ferment, Compton managed to maintain a 36-acre garden at Fulham Palace, the country home of the Bishops of London, which stood on the edges of the Thames River.

The building still exists. The garden also still exists, though much reduced, and is a lovely corner of London.

Compton was an avid plant collector and was the first in Britain to grow many imported species. Because his diocese included the American colonies, his focus was very much on North America. He used his parish priests and missionaries in the colonies to send home seeds. Among other North American plants, he was the first in Europe to grow the Virginia Magnolia

the jacaranda

and the catalpa.

But Compton also built up a large collection of the-then rare pelargoniums, including Pelargonium inquinans pictured above. He probably was able to do this because through his support for William and Mary he had built up a good network of contacts in the Netherlands – remember that it was the Dutch, first settlers in Cape Town, who had sent the first pelargonium species back to Europe.

The second important early cultivator of pelargoniums was Mary Capell, daughter of Sir Arthur Capell, 1st Baron Capell of Hadham, who through marriage became first Mary Seymour, Lady Beauchamp, and then, after her husband’s death and her remarriage, Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort. She was born two years before Henry Compton, in 1630. Here we have her with her sister Elizabeth – Mary is on the left of the painting.

Mary’s political vicissitudes started somewhat earlier than Henry Compton’s. Her father supported Charles I and lost his head for it, while her first husband, also a Royalist, was imprisoned. Her second husband successfully navigated the politically choppy waters of Cromwell’s Protectorate, during which he lost his titles, and ended up supporting the successful restoration of Charles II. The King eventually rewarded him with a Dukedom. He loyally supported James II but managed to avoid exile for this when William and Mary took the throne. He died in 1700 with his head still on his shoulders and none of his estates forfeited, which was pretty good going for a highly political man such as he. Mary was a loyal wife throughout all this, following him through all the twists and turns of his political fortunes and all the while bearing him six children. She survived her husband by fifteen years, dying in 1715 at the seriously old age of 84.

Mary began serious plant collection some ten years before her second husband died, and her interest in gardening intensified in her widowhood. She gradually accumulated one of the largest collections of exotic plants in England, with the support, it must be said, of some well-known gardeners. Through her aristocratic circles she traded and swapped in seeds (much like I did, in far less hallowed circles at primary school, in stamps). For instance, Compton sent specimens to his sister-in-law, Mary Compton, Countess of Dorset, who passed them on to Mary. But she also managed to have seeds sent to her from all the corners of Britain’s growing empire and trading interests: the West Indies, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, China, Japan. In the specific case of pelargoniums, she too, like Compton, built up a large collection of them. She is credited with introducing into British gardens the other two pelargoniums of major interest which I mentioned above, Pelargonium zonale and Pelargonium peltatum. She did her plantings in the gardens of two houses owned by the Duke, Badminton House in Gloucestershire and Beaufort House in Chelsea. The Duke was rich enough and high enough in the aristocratic hierarchy to have Badminton House painted by Canaletto

although this more humble picture shows the all-important gardens as well as the house.

Badminton House still exists. Beaufort House does not. It was a large property in Chelsea, right on the Thames River – no doubt Mary could have gone to visit Henry’s garden by boat if she had wanted to (and maybe she did, for all I know).

Later urban developments wiped out the house and gardens, although Mary might be pleased to know that the Chelsea flower show takes place not too far from where she was – with the help of her gardeners – busily growing wondrous plants come from far and wide.

Well, while I have been whiling away my time researching this post, my wife has been busy and pulled out the dead cacti which started this post. We now have to decide what to put in the gaping holes which have been left. Not geraniums –  sorry, pelargoniums – dear! It’s too damp.

_____________________________

Red “geraniums”: http://www.parkswholesaleplants.com/spring-plants/annuals-ai/geranium-zonal-americana-dark-red/
Geranium platypetalum: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geranium#/media/File:Geranium_platypetalum1.jpg
Cape Town 1790s: http://www.artvalue.com/auctionresult–english-school-18-united-kingd-view-of-cape-town-with-table-m-1538907.htm
Pelargonium inquinans: http://natureswow2.blogspot.it/2013/10/scarlet-pelargonium-pelargonium.html
Pelargonium zonale: http://www.africanbulbs.com/page67.html
Pelargonium peltatum: https://kumbulanursery.co.za/plants/pelargonium-peltatum
Ivy-leaf “geraniums”: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/226094843769770841/
Henry Compton: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Compton_(bishop)
Fulham Palace: http://www.fulhampalace.org/palace/history/
Fulham Palace Gardens: https://sequinsandcherryblossom.com/2016/05/15/five-fabulous-london-gardens-to-visit-this-spring/
Virginia Magnolia: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/413627547007792612/
Jacaranda: https://www.pinterest.com/royaljewel36/jacaranda-trees/
Catalpa: http://www.7arth.com/?product=50-%D8%A8%D8%B0%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%B4%D8%AC%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%83%D8%AA%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%A7
Mary and Elizabeth Capell: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peter_Lely_portrait_of_Mary_and_Elizabeth_Capel.jpg
Badminton House by Canaletto: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Canaletto_-_Badminton_House,_Gloucestershire.jpg
Badminton House: https://landscapenotes.com/2015/10/31/book-review-a-natural-history-of-english-gardening-by-mark-laird/
Beaufort House: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/463518986626622713/