Perspectives on Love @ Stanley Spencer Gallery

“Every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.”

These lines from the gospel of John are inscribed on Stanley Spencer’s gravestone in Cookham cemetery and are the central thread of the current exhibition at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham.

Stanley Spencer's gravestone, Cookham churchyard

Stanley Spencer’s gravestone, Cookham churchyard

Spencer was born at Fernlea, a Victorian house in Cookham High Street, the tenth child of eleven children born to William Spencer, an organist and music teacher, and his wife, Annie. From these fairly humble beginnings the short, odd, intensely religious boy went on to become one of Britain’s most famous painters, a fellow of the Royal Academy and knighted shortly before his death in 1959.

His early talent was fostered by a local artist, followed by a year at Maidenhead Technical Institute, then in 1908 he went to study at Slade Art School in London where he was one of the “Crisis of Brilliance” generation described in a 2009 book by David Boyd Haycock and at the recent exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

Although he didn’t live there all his life (apart from service in the Great War he had spells in Hampstead, near Burghclere chapel in Hamshire, in Dorset and so on) Spencer did spend most of his life in his home village which, from his earliest years, had an intense artistic, emotional and religious significance for him. He was a lifelong devout and visionary Christian.

The Stanley Spencer Gallery fittingly occupies the Victorian Methodist chapel where Stan was taken to worship as a child. It holds a large number of paintings, drawings, letters and memorabilia including the battered pram Stanley packed with his paints and brushes and wheeled around the village to his latest location. It’s open every day from 10.30 to 5.30 and admission is £5. (Interior view of the Stanley Spencer Gallery). It consists of one large room hung with paintings and drawings, with a staircase lined with more artworks up one wall to a small gallery. A few cases show objects and mementoes.

Every year the Gallery organises their collection into a themed exhibition. The current exhibition is Perspectives on Love and uses 41 art works to demonstrate the different kinds of love Spencer – and by extension all of us – are capable of. (For the sake of extending the argument I’ve included paintings not in the exhibition; those in the exhibition are in bold.)

Four Loves

Love of God A lifelong and visionary Christian, Spencer notoriously set scenes from the life of Christ in his native Cookham, making the serious point that, if there is a God, he is as much in Cookham High Street as anywhere else; that he is as likely to send his angels to help an old lady who’s slipped on the pavement as to Ezekiel; and, conversely, that the most banal incidents of the everyday contain the seeds of the divine. In one of his essays CS Lewis asks, What is the most holy object in a church? Answer: the person sitting next to you with their immortal soul. It is in this homely Anglican spirit that Spencer painted works like Christ Carrying the Cross (1920), The Last Supper (1920), Veronica Unmasking Christ (1921), The Resurrection, Cookham (1926) or Christ Preaching At Cookham Regatta (unfinished) which dominates one wall of the Spencer Gallery. The more you are in contact with Spencer’s very English Christianity – akin to Blake’s visions of Ezekiel in Lambeth – the more appealing, the more reasonable, and the more loving it becomes.

Sexual Love According to Boyd Haycock the discovery of sex when Spencer married Hilda Carline, aged 33, came as a thunderbolt. His nudes are often grotesque, florid, platefuls of blotchy livid flesh which anticipate Lucien Freud: as in Nude (1935), Double Nude (1937), Patricia Preece (1935), Self Portrait with Patricia Preece (1937) . In the exhibition is the rather repellent Beatitudes of Love: Sociableness (1938), an uncomfortably distorted image which nonetheless, for Spencer obviously represents an ideal of physical and mental intimacy.

Love of People “The greatest of these is Charity…” Sarah Tubb and the Heavenly Visitors (1933) records the old lady who thought the appearance of Halley’s comet in 1911 portended the end of the world. It captures Spencer’s charity, his love of really ordinary people, the old ladies of village life. there’s a fine pencil drawing of Mr Francis the Cookham baker, along with a sequence of pencil drawings of ordinary domestic scenes with titles like Shopping, Patricia and Gramophone, Cutting Nails by a Bed. Neighbours (1936) records his sister handing a bunch of tulips over the garden hedge to their next door neighbour. Crossing The Road (1936) records the village tradition of an old man who each day bought a bone from the butchers and was helped by a girl across the High Street to give it to a dog who lived opposite. If you consider what was happening in Spain and Germany in 1936, then a painting like this is a statement about morality, about Christian charity, and about what an ideal world, what Heaven, will look like, a place where people are kind to each other. and, by loving each other, worship their Creator.

Love of Nature The exhibition focuses on people but Spencer painted plenty of landscapes and pictures of the flowers and gardens of Cookham. These tend to be much more naturalistic in style than most of the others; Boyd Hancock calls them potboilers, that Spencer disliked making but which were easier to sell than the more personal religious works. The only work in the exhibition that captures his brilliance at Nature is Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill (1935) where, although the figure in the foreground is subject to characteristic Spencerian distortion, the landscape of yarrow, thistles and (hawthorn?) hedges is faithfully conveyed.

Spencer’s Styles: Distortion and anti-Naturalism

What is most disconcerting to the casual approacher to Spencer is his use of distortion: all his paintings are figurative – he is not an abstract painter – but almost always with a high degree of stylisation and mannerism.

More than the theme of love, what struck me about these 41 works is what I can categorise as Spencer’s four styles: Naturalistic, Shipbuilding-style social realism, Religious vision, and Grotesque.

1. Naturalistic – When he wanted to (or when he needed to, to make money) Spencer could paint truly marvellous portraits like that of Eric Williams (1954), or of Mr and Mrs Baggett (1956), or the wonderful pencil portrait of his daughter, Shirin Spencer (1947). He could do wonderful scenes like Turk’s Boatyard, Cookham (1931)  which looks like a photo,  or the famous images of Southwold (1937).

And then there’s the loads of paintings he made of flowers, country views and the gardens and buildings of Cookham, the lots and lots of paintings he made of flowers in the countryside or in the gardens of Cookham – Cookham Rise (1935), or the flowers of Bellrope Meadow (1936), or any of the flowery villagescapes on this blog page,

I didn’t know about  the landscape and flower aspect of his oeuvre until visiting the exhibition and discovered there is a whole book – Stanley Spencer and the English Garden – dedicated to it. But these were his potboilers. Paintings he made to sell for large amounts. Brilliant though they are, they weren’t where his heart, his creativity lay. It was an official or public style.

2. Socially acceptable distortion – what I call his Shipbuilding style after the marvellous paintings of shipbuilders on the Clyde he did during the Second World War. Here the figures are stylised, ignoring post renaissance understanding of human anatomy, bodies are arranged into tubular puppets or dolls, generally bending like toys rather than articulated human bodies. But they are generally set in highly detailed backdrops: in the exhibition exemplified by The Garage (1929) – a commission from the Empire Marketing Board – a wonderful picture travelling a long way to see in the flesh; and by the detailed backdrop of Hilda and I at Pond Street (1954) – note the precise clear decorative detail of the carpeting, the sofa, the bookshelves, of the male figures odd harlequin suit. It is the hyper-reality of the background detail which led some critics to say Spencer was continuing the tradition of the pre-Raphaelites.

3. Religious distortion – Most of the paintings people associate with Spencer are probably of the religious and visionary subjects –  Christ Carrying the Cross (1920), The Last Supper (1920), The Resurrection, Cookham (1926) or Christ Preaching At Cookham Regatta (unfinished) , paintings which wonderfully combine profound religious conviction with an almost cartoonish simplification of the human form. People in these look like nativity figures made out of cardboard; there is a strange fascination to the way their bodies incline at impossible angles, devoid of all the usual human joints and articulations to become stiff hieratic figures. Spencer loved Giotto. You can see these figures as attempts to paint people as if the Renaissance had never happened. In this exhibition The Last Supper is an example: look at the patterning of the disciples’ legs sticking out from under the table, at the stiffly painted folds of material and the jumble of pale feet.

In fact I would place the Resurrection and Christ Preaching in the Shipbuilding category because of their attention to fine detail. The real religious visions – Christ carrying the Cross, the Last Supper, Veronica – are distinguished by their deliberate absence of detailing, by the post-impressionist use of simple blocks of colour, by stylised wedges of light and shade.

4. Grotesques – Finally, there is a definite category of grotesques: the glaring example in the exhibition is Toasting (1937), subtitled the Beatitudes of Love. Is it a portrait of intimacy? The exhibition guide speculates that the couple have just had sex which makes it even more punishing a picture. Why is the woman’s neck so distorted and elongated? What is happening to the man’s left leg? Or head? Similarly in the would-be cosy At The Chest of Drawers (1936) what is going on with the woman’s shoulders? Or back? Or in Sunbathers at Odney (1935). If we weren’t familiar with Spencer’s loving mentality we could see the naked grotesques as on the way towards Francis Bacon.

We know Spencer could paint a portrait of Eric Williams or his daughter if he wanted to: clearly he doesn’t want to in a whole set of paintings which combine heavily distorted human bodies with, more often than not, very frank nudity. This is his vision; or one of his visions; or one of his styles.

The Prussian Officer and other stories by DH Lawrence (1914)

Someone asked me about DH Lawrence and I said he was a writer in limbo, in no man’s land between his time and ours: his vivid depiction of the animal life of humans scandalised the Georgians and drove him into exile – yet in the era of 50 Shades of Grey, his sex writings seem old-fashioned and puritan; in our cynical ‘whatevz’ days he seems embarrassingly earnest: so he finds himself neither flesh nor fowl. Explains why it’s hard to get so many of his books now. But I’d completely forgotten how rivetingly intense his writing is…

The Prussian Officer and other stories was published in 1914. 12 stories in all. Lawrence had already published three novels, The White Peacock (1911), The Trespasser (1912), Sons & Lovers (1913). Why the Prussian Officer? In 1912 Lawrence had eloped with Frieda, the wife of his German tutor at University College, Nottingham, travelling to her home town of Metz on the German/French border. This becomes the setting for the first two stories in the collection.

A wind was running, so that occasionally the poplars whitened as if a flame flew up them. The sky was broken and blue among moving clouds. Patches of sunshine lay on the level fields, and shadows on the rye and the vineyards. In the distance, very blue, the cathedral bristled against the sky, and the houses of the city of Metz clustered vaguely below, like a hill. (The Thorn in the Flesh)

Must have been a confusing book to address on its publication because:

a) all the other stories take place in the coalmining Nottinghamshire of his novels and background and are, up to a point, reassuringly English and rural. The two opening stories are exceptions not only in their setting of Germany, but by both being about German soldiers, and exceptionally harsh and unforgiving in tone. Why?

b) The book was published in November 1914. Britain had been at war with Germany since August and was still in the first flood of fierce anti-German propaganda. Were Lawrence’s two brutal German soldiers stories caught up in that? What did his first readers make of an English author writing sympathetically about German soldiers? Did these stories contribute to the later persecution Lawrence suffered in the War?

Worldview – Events of a sort do take place in the stories but their real point is repeatedly to convey Lawrence’s troubled, angular, deeply introspective view of human nature. In the first few stories the male characters are overcome with anxiety, dread, self doubt, humiliation. Nothing could be further from the English traditions of stiff-upper-lippery, of upper class Oxbridge irony, Oscar Wilde’s fin-de-siecle witticisms – or the broad tradition of jovial good humour from Dickens to Three Men In A Boat.

His turn came. He knew intuitively that nobody knew his condition. The officer just saw him as a mechanical thing. He tried to keep it up, to carry it through on the face of things. His inside gripped tight, as yet under control, he took the ladder and went along under the wall. He placed his ladder with quick success, and wild, quivering hope possessed him. Then blindly he began to climb. But the ladder was not very firm, and at every hitch a great, sick, melting feeling took hold of him. He clung on fast. If only he could keep that grip on himself, he would get through. He knew this, in agony. What he could not understand was the blind gush of white-hot fear, that came with great force whenever the ladder swerved, and which almost melted his belly and all his joints, and left him powerless. If once it melted all his joints and his belly, he was done. He clung desperately to himself. He knew the fear, he knew what it did when it came, he knew he had only to keep a firm hold. He knew all this. Yet, when the ladder swerved, and his foot missed, there was the great blast of fear blowing on his heart and bowels, and he was melting weaker and weaker, in a horror of fear and lack of control, melting to fall.

There is almost no humour in Lawrence. Just different shades of blistering intensity.

Style – psychological And so a lot of the prose is dedicated to conveying the abrupt, intense emotions of the characters. There is no mannerliness, no English deprecation separating the characters from the overwhelming power of their feelings and perceptions. Each moment they are shaken by new revelations and insights and perceptions.

Within his own flesh burned and smouldered the restless shame. He could not gather himself together. There was a gap in his soul. The shame within him seemed to displace his strength and his manhood. He sat down on his chair. The shame, the roused feeling of exposure acted on his brain, made him heavy, unutterably heavy.

Couldn’t be further from the social games of etiquette and good manners in Georgian England, the humour of HG Wells’ social novels (Tono-Bungay, 1909, Ann Veronica, 1909, The History of Mr Polly, 1910) or EM Foster (A Room with a View, 1908, Howards End, 1910) or Galsworthy. Instead his characters are raw helpless animals, trammeled by successions of violent feelings.

The moment she entered the room where the man sat alone, waiting intensely, the thrill passed through her, she died in terror, and after the death, a great flame gushed up, obliterating her.

Style – prose Lawrence’s characters are more like the stricken solitaries of Conrad’s fictions, Almayer or Willems. But Lawrence’s prose is completely different from Conrad’s. Whereas Conrad writes like a Frenchman with long lugubrious sentences festooning the page like tropical creepers, Lawrence’s sentences are often short, blunt, flamingly intense. Where Conrad is opulent and repetitive, lulling you with multiple clauses, piled high with drowsy fin-de-siecle sonorities, Lawrence’s prose is more harsh, abrupt, stabby:

It was difficult for her to endure his presence, for he would interfere with her. She could not recover her life. She rose stiffly and went down. She could neither eat nor talk during the meal. She sat absent, torn, without any being of her own. He tried to go on as if nothing were the matter. But at last he became silent with fury. As soon as it was possible, she went upstairs again, and locked the bedroom door. She must be alone. He went with his pipe into the garden. All his suppressed anger against her who held herself superior to him filled and blackened his heart. Though he had not know it, yet he had never really won her, she had never loved him. She had taken him on sufference. This had foiled him. He was only a labouring electrician in the mine, she was superior to him. He had always given way to her. But all the while, the injury and ignominy had been working in his soul because she did not hold him seriously. And now all his rage came up against her. (The Shadow in the Rose Garden)

She he, she he, bang bang, the sentences like angry lines scored into a canvas, not seeking to convey an external scene but to express discordant inner emotions. When Lawrence is painting a scene it becomes even more obvious that the comparison shouldn’t be with other English prose writers so much as with the angular, abrupt transitions of contemporary European painters, Cezanne in France or Die Brucke expressionists in Germany. Bright and vivid and abrupt.

She went across the lawn towards the garden, through an arch of crimson ramblers, a gate of colour. There beyond lay the soft blue sea with the bay, misty with morning, and the farthest headland of black rock jutting dimly out between blue and blue of the sky and water. Her face began to shine, transfigured with pain and joy. At her feet the garden fell steeply, all a confusion of flowers, and away below was the darkness of tree-tops covering the beck. (The Shadow in the Rose Garden)

There was silence. The common, with its sere, blonde-headed thistles, its heaps of silent bramble, its brown-husked gorse in the glare of sunshine, seemed visionary. Across the brook began the immense pattern of agriculture, white chequering of barley stubble, brown squares of wheat, khaki patches of pasture, red stripes of fallow, with the woodland and the tiny village dark like ornaments, leading away to the distance, right to the hills, where the check-pattern grew smaller and smaller, till, in the blackish haze of heat, far off, only the tiny white squares of barley stubble showed distinct. (Second Best)

Expressionism The more I read the more the vividness of the word descriptions and the abrupt intensity of the emotions reminds me of European expressionism in art and music: for example, Schoenberg’s strident Erwartung (1909), ‘…a single second of maximum spiritual excitement…’, or Mahler’s songs combining excesses of joy with hysterias of death; in art the French movement of Les Fauves (1904-08) and especially the German Expressionist movements, Die Brucke (1905-13) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911-14):

Die Brücke is sometimes compared to the Fauves. Both movements shared interests in primitivist art. Both shared an interest in the expressing of extreme emotion through high-keyed color that was very often non-naturalistic. Both movements employed a drawing technique that was crude, and both groups shared an antipathy to complete abstraction. The Die Brücke artists’ [portrayed] emotionally agitated paintings of city streets and sexually charged events…’ (Wikipedia article)

Sounds like Lawrence’s prose, no?

  • Fascinated by the primitive human beneath all the superficial trappings of ‘society’, ‘civilisation’.
  • Depiction of extreme emotion.
  • High-keyed colour ie phraseology, that is often non-naturalistic
  • Deliberately crude technique ie Lawrence’s rejection of smooth cadences in favour of short, clipped, abrupt, often repetitive. Instead of spending time finding the melliflous Latinate word he was happy to put down the blunter Anglo-Saxon word and then repeat it, and repeat it again, scoring it into the canvas, so to speak.
  • Antipathy to complete abstraction – Lawrence never went as far as Joyce or Woolf in depicting pure internal monologue and psychological states. There is always an external reference point; no matter how extreme the emotions they are always anchored in real situations with other people.
  • ‘Agitated and sexually charged’. Yes, Lawrence.
Die Brucke poster by Otto Muller

Die Brucke poster by Otto Muller

The Prussian Officer A sadistic and sexually repressed German officer goads his valet beyond endurance until he murders him in a dark forest, before wandering deranged and himself dying of exposure
The Thorn in the Flesh A German soldier overcome by fear at an exercise to climb a siege ladder, accidentally knocks his sergeant off the wall, goes into hiding with his girlfriend in a farmhouse hoping to escape to France but soldiers come to arrest him.
Daughters of the Vicar A long story in which we are introduced to the two daughters of the down-at-heel vicar of Aldecross, Miss Mary and Miss Louisa: Miss Mary out of financial necessity marries a dwarfish vicar but Louisa rebels and marries a fine handsome miner.
A Fragment of Stained Glass An odd short one in which the narrator visits a friend who’s an antiquary who’s written a fragment purporting to describe a man and woman in medieval England who flee their homes and stumble into an isolated monastery.
The Shades of Spring Syson returns to the countryside of his birth stumbling into the new gamekeeper who, it turns out, is now dating his old sweetheart Hilda Millership; after the male confrontation he talks to Hilda who tells him she was married ie had sex, the same day he was.
Second Best Two sisters out in the country, Anne and Francis, discussing boys: Anne lets slip that Jimmy who Frances has admired for years, is engaged to a servant girl; walking back to the village they encounter Tom the farm worker and Francis reflects she’ll have to settle for him, second best.
The Shadow in the Rose Garden A married couple holiday in the west country. He discovers that she has slipped out to meet an old lover. But the lover has gone mad.
Goose Fair A bourgeois young woman, Lois, awaits her man, Jack a collier, but there is tension, a rumour the hands will set fire to the factory and, indeed the factory is fired, and jack comes home late with other louts. but they have been drunkenly tormenting a goose girl at the fair.
The White Stocking A married couple, he realises she has been receiving gifts from her old employer at the factory, Sam Adams, who once danced with her all night at a ball where he husband sat impotent with rage. She goads him in his jealousy to hit her in the face.
A Sick Collier A short sliver of prose, a woman marries beneath her, a decent miner. One day he is brought home having ruptured himself, moaning with pain and goes out of his mind with pain threatening to kill her.
The Christening A scrawny vicar is called to perform a christening of an illegitimate baby in the cramped house of an ill old miner whose daughter shamed them all. In the middle her brother, a miner, returns and undermines the ceremony.
Odour of Chrysanthemums A miner’s wife waits at home for her husband to return from work, complaining to her children and to neighbours; then news comes that he has died in a freak accident in the mine and she and his mother have to strip, wash and dress the corpse in a room smelling of the chrysanthemums she picked earlier that day.

A Crisis of Brilliance by David Boyd Haycock (2009)

A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War  by David Boyd Haycock (2009) is the book which led to the lovely exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The artists in question all attended Slade Art school in the years just before WWI and this group biography – weaving together their family stories, their love affairs, their letters and diaries and works of art – gives a wonderful sense of what it was to be young (very young in some cases, 16, 17) and dedicated to Art at a great turning point in history. The five are:

Paul Nash (1889-1946) at Slade 1910-11. Parents artists, but his unstable mother had a nervous breakdown and went into a mental asylum in 1910. Served with the Artists’ Rifles 1914–17; appointed Official War Artist as a result of his exhibition Ypres Salient at the Goupil Gallery 1917.

CRW (Christopher) Nevinson (1889-1946) at Slade 1910-11, from an artistic middle class family, Nevinson was a loud bombastic man who joined the Futurists, was briefly allied to Ezra Pound’s Vorticists, before achieving his height of fame as a war artist during the Great War with a series of wonderful Modernist depictions of the conflict, most famously La Mitrailleuse.

Mark Gertler (1891-1939) at Slade 1908. From very poor Jewish immigrant family struggling to survive in the East End, popular and famous in his day he is best known for the harshly Modernist the Merry-go-round.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) at Slade 1908-12. From a populous family of a come-down-in-the-world middle class family living in Cookham, Berkshire, which Spencer came to idolise. Served with the R.A.M.C. and the Royal Berkshire Regiment, mainly in Macedonia, 1915–18, and was commissioned to paint a war picture for the Imperial War Museum

Dora Carrington (1893-1932) at Slade  . From a smart, professional and arty middle class family but with a spectacularly repressed Victorian mother who passed on her sexual ignorance to Dora who spent her entire life trying to break free until she ended up in a very Bloomsbury menage with the gay writer Lytton Strachey.

The book falls into two halves: the first half where a selection of promising art students arrive at Slade, in slightly different years, at different ages, from different backgrounds, and set about trying to make careers in London’s difficult and treacherous art and literary world; and the second half when, quite by surprise, the First World War begins and all of them (except the only woman, Dora Carrington) find themselves dragged into it. Although it brings out the artistic best in Nevinson above all, but also in Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer, the War destroys their innocence and optimism and neither the world nor they are the same afterwards.

This book more than anything I’ve ever read conveys the way the Great war smashed lives. It creates such a compelling sense of the group, the gang of friends and hangers-on and aquaintances, all living their rather self-obsessed literary or artistic lives, squabbling and falling in love and issuing little manifestoes – and then, BANG! Horror and terror. Never before have I shared the fear and anxiety these young men and their brothers felt about whether or not to enlist and then, as conscription spread like a plague, how or if they could escape being conscripted and being forcibly sent like sausage fodder in trains to the Front to be murdered in their millions.

The book begins with the light airiness of Cookham by the Thames but by the time it draws to a conclusion at the same beauty spot 50 years later too much has happened, too many lives been lost and cultures been broken and hopes been dashed for it not to be shadowed and riven. This is a wonderful book and at the end I was nearly crying.

A marvellous nude by Dora Carrington aged 19, the varieties of flesh tone set against an impenetrable black from Fuseli.

Nude Woman 1912 by Dora Carrington (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nude Woman 1912 by Dora Carrington (source: Wikimedia Commons)

A few years later the sensuous comfort, based on centuries of realistic painting, of Carrington’s nude, was swept away by faceless masses, by the semi automatons which were created by war on a hitherto unimaginable scale, captured by one of Nevinson’s wonderfully evocative war paintings, Column on the March.

Column on the March by CRW Nevinson (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

Column on the March by CRW Nevinson (copyright Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

A Crisis of Brilliance @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

To the small and beautifully formed Dulwich Picture Gallery for a typically petite and poignant exhibition, “A Crisis of Brilliance“, bringing together 70 or so paintings by C.R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, David Bomberg and Paul Nash who all studied at the Slade in the years leading up to the Great War. The exhibition stems from a book, David Boyd Haycock’s group biography of these artists, ‘A Crisis of Brilliance‘, published in 2009, so this is the exhibition of the book:

Mark Gertler developed a stylised way with chunky figures (eg the strange and wonderful The Fruit Sorters) and blocky landscapes (The Pool at Garsington) – though he’s probably best known for the highly stylised Merry-go-round, currently hanging in Tate Britain. Paintings by Mark Gertler on Google images.

Dora Carrington is the most elusive of the bunch: a note on the exhibition wall claims the patriarchal sexism of the Georgian art world undermined her confidence. It is telling that the images Google images bring together for her are a) not particularly distinctive b) feature lots of photos of her with men including the Love of her Life, Lytton Strachey. The show features some striking pencil drawings of heads and wonderful female nudes (the powerful Female Figure Lying on Her Back, 1912) testament to Slade’s insistence on teaching its students draughtmanship. She married the writer Lytton Strachey and moved to rural Berkshire, where she painted local scenery eg The River Pang above Tidmarsh, in stark contrast to the urban and/or modernist approach of the five men.

David Bomberg was, apparently, one of the first painters to experiment with pure abstraction in 1913 and 1914, in paintings like The Mud Bath or In The Hold (1914), below, painted when he was just 22!

David Bomberg, In the Hold, 1913-14, oil on canvas, 196.2 x 231.1 cm, © Tate, London 2012

David Bomberg, In the Hold, 1913-14, oil on canvas, 196.2 x 231.1 cm, © Tate, London 2012

But Bomberg seems to have capitalised on this breakthrough in relatively few paintings and after the War relapsed into a sub-Cezanne murkiness. He became a respected teacher but was erased from art history.”He was in his lifetime the most brutally excluded artist in Britain. Having lived for years on the earnings of his second wife Lilian Holt and remittances from his sister Kitty, he died in absolute poverty.” (Wikipedia)

Paul Nash had a long and successful career developing his early knack for landscape into a particularly surreal vision of an essentially quiet pastoral England. Throughout his career he produced vivid and strange images, of the Great War (The Menin Road), of the South Downs in the 30s (Landscape from a Dream), and then haunting depictions of the Second World War in the 1940s (Totes Meer). Paintings by Paul Nash on Google images.

Paul Nash, The Void, 1918, Oil on canvas, 75 x 95.7 cm, Photo © MBAC

Paul Nash, The Void, 1918, Oil on canvas, 75 x 95.7 cm, Photo © MBAC

C.R.W. Nevinson quickly took to the Futurist/Vorticist style in with its dynamic angles, bright colours and sense of boundless energy bursting out the confines of the picture frame. I liked The Towpath, an early example of industrial impressionism which reminded me of the Paul Valette painting I saw at the Lowry exhibition: it was done in 1912 but only a year later he had moved beyond this into the modernism of Dance Hall Scene, below, or the Le Vieux Port, both 1913.

C.R.W. Nevinson, Dance Hall Scene, c.1913-14, chalk, gouache and watercolour, 22.2 x 19.7 cm, ©Tate, London 2012

C.R.W. Nevinson, Dance Hall Scene, c.1913-14, chalk, gouache and watercolour, 22.2 x 19.7 cm, ©Tate, London 2012

Nevinson found the subject to match his angular, vibrant style in the Great War, working in the Ambulance Corps and producing unforgettable images of which maybe the most famous is La Mitrailleuse. Everything Nevinson did in these few hectic years is excellent, virile, lucid, alive, like the darkly vivid Column on the March, or the grim scene in a field hospital,La Patrie. He did a series of paintings of airplanes in the Great War and there is a perfect, exquisite example here – Spiral descent – a sliver of blue heaven with a tiny matchstick airplane swooping down the metal curve of the sky – breathtaking. Paintings by CRW Nevinson on Google images.

Stanley Spencer was to become the most successful of the group, going on to fame and a knighthood, all very odd for the shy visionary from Cookham. The early works in the exhibition show the quirky naive style Spencer was developing, the Christian subject matter embedded in his native Berkshire village and the awkward angular handling of the human figure (John Donne arriving in heaven) – but they seem like apprentice works, none of them have the finished, oiled richness of his amazing shipbuilding paintings from the Second World War or the mature Cookham paintings. Paintings by Stanley Spencer on Google images.

The last room, detailing the fates of the six artists after the Great War, is sad: Nevinson never recovered the swashbuckling style or intense subject matter of the War, reverting to a more figurative style, sinking into despair by the mid-20s and dying unknown in the 1940s. Gertler gassed himself in 1936. Dora Carrington shot herself in 1932 shortly after Lytton Strachey died. Bomberg, though a brilliant teacher, sank into critical obscurity. Only Nash and Spencer went on to unquestioned success.

This is a wonderfully intimate exhibition, showing early and minor and experimental works from six very interesting artists, as they found their feet and navigated through the hectic style wars of the experimental 1910s and the brutal War Years.

The exhibition continues until 22 September at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

List of Crisis of Brilliance artworks (PDF)

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On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain by Gildas

“Alas! the subject of my complaint is the general destruction of every thing that is good, and the general growth of evil throughout the land.”

The 6th century Welsh monk Gildas is the patron saint of all those well-educated people who think the country’s going to the dogs. He is the first Daily Mail leader writer, 1,400 years before the Daily Mail was founded. He even blames the immigrants for bringing the country to its knees – though for him it isn’t blacks or Asians or Poles – it’s the damn Angles and Saxons and Jutes.

And I thought to myself, ‘If God’s peculiar people, chosen from all the people of the world, the royal seed, and holy nation, to whom he had said, “My first begotten Israel,” its priests, prophets, and kings, throughout so many ages, his servant and apostle, and the members of his primitive church, were not spared when they deviated from the right path, what will he do to the darkness of this our age, in which, besides all the huge and heinous sins, which it has common with all the wicked of the world committed, is found an innate, indelible, and irremediable load of folly and inconstancy?’

These quotes are from his best-known work, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain) in which he bemoans everything. The work is in 110 paragraphs which are conventionally divided into three parts: the background or history (the bit we’re interested in); a short condemnation of three contemporary kings followed by a long sequence of extensive quotes from Old Testament prophets to back Gildas up; and then condemnation of his fellow religious, priests and monks – all are to blame for the dire state of affairs in sub-Roman Britain.

Despite its slavish, often obscure and extremely lengthy references to Scripture and its convoluted style, the De Excidio is the only significant source for the period written by a near contemporary of the people and events described – and as such is invaluable.

But it is, alas, not a history:

To my mind, it is a grave mistake to call Gildas a ‘historian’: neither Columbanus, writing about forty years after his death, nor Alcuin, in the last quarter of the eighth century, regard him in this light… Gildas would never have regarded himself as a ‘historian’: he is a preacher, a revivalist, who will ‘attempt to state a few facts’ (pauca dicere conamur), by way of illustrating his message, that divine anger must visit with punishment a sinning people and priesthood. (Hugh Williams).

It is a sermon against unjust rulers, a Tract for the Times, a warning and a harrowing blast against ungodliness. The brief history it contains is just an introduction to the lengthy diatribe.

Choice of editions

I am aware of three web locations for the text:

Summary

Preface Paragraphs 1-2 – Preface and motives for writing

Part I Paragraphs 3-26 Description of Britain and a history from the Romans to Gildas’ time. His account of the 400 year Roman occupation seems garbled: he thinks the Romans only stayed periodically, arriving to put down incursions by the Picts and Scots or Boadicea and promptly departing. Very wrong. He skips several centuries from Boadicea to arrive at the crowning of Maximus emperor who takes the Roman legions with him to claim his throne on the continent in the 400s. It is in this section that we have our only reference to the letter supposedly written to Aetius the Roman by the Britons once they’d been abandoned to their fate by the departed legions:

Therefore, the wretched remnant, sending to Aetius, a powerful Roman citizen, address him as follow:—”To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons.” And again a little further, thus:—”The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned.” The Romans, however, could not assist them…

For Gildas the greatest catastrophe was to invite the Saxons to come help us against the raids of the Picts and the Scots in the North:

Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations. Nothing was ever so pernicious to our country, nothing was ever so unlucky. What palpable darkness must have enveloped their minds-darkness desperate and cruel!

The Saxons ask for more and more pay until open hostility breaks out with their British hosts and, as the Saxons recruit more and more reinforcements from across the North Sea, the Britons are forced to retreat in their own land:

Some therefore, of the miserable remnant, being taken in the mountains, were murdered in great numbers; others, constrained by famine, came and yielded themselves to be slaves for ever to their foes, running the risk of being instantly slain… some others passed beyond the seas with loud lamentations instead of the voice of exhortation… Others, committing the safeguard of their lives, which were in continual jeopardy, to the mountains, precipices, thickly wooded forests, and to the rocks of the seas (albeit with trembling hearts), remained still in their country.

But the remnant is led by one Ambrosius Aurelianus who leads the Britons to victory against the Saxons at the battle of Mons Badonicus, and a period of peace ensues, though a peace among the ruins.

But not even at the present day are the cities of our country inhabited as formerly; deserted and dismantled, they lie neglected until now, because, although wars with foreigners have ceased, domestic wars continue.

These three – the begging letter, the invitation to the Saxons, the battle of Mons Badonicus – occur in no other source and are taken up by all succeeding historians down to our own time.

Part II Paragraphs 27-37 form the Denunciation of the Five Kings for their various sins, a list which includes utterly obscure figures and relatively well-documented ones:

  • Constantine, the tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia: charged with murdering two royal youths in a church – murder and sacrilege – putting away his first wife – adultery & fornication
  • thou lion’s whelp (as the prophet saith), Aurelius Conanus, a pagan, charged with murder, fornication, adultery
  • Vortipore, thou foolish tyrant of the Demetians – growing old and rich in murder and adulteries and the practices of a shameless daughter
  • Cuneglasse who has rejected his wife and married her sister
  • Maglocune who killed his uncle, the king, converted to become a monk, but then abandoned his vows to revert to being a dissolute licentious king, murdering his nephew and first wife. Gildas says his sin is all the worse because he had the most eloquent master in Britain as tutor. Who?

How useful it would have been to have their family trees explained, their achievements listed and their supposed crimes explained; instead Gildas resorts to lengthy biblical quotes and exegeses which bury the reality of historic individuals under tonnes of second hand verbiage:

And here, indeed, if not before, was this lamentable history of the miseries of our time to have been brought to a conclusion, that I might no further discourse of the deeds of men; but that I may not be thought timid or weary, whereby I might the less carefully avoid that saying of Isaiah, “Woe be to them who call good evil, and evil good placing darkness for light, and light for darkness, bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter, who seeing see not, and hearing hear not, whose hearts are overshadowed with a thick and black cloud of vices; “I will briefly set down the threatenings which are denounced against these five aforesaid lascivious horses, the frantic followers of Pharaoh, through whom his army is wilfully urged forward to their utter destruction in the Red Sea, and also against such others, by the sacred oracles, with whose holy testimonies the frame of this our little work is, as it were, roofed in, that it may not be subject to the showers of the envious, which otherwise would be poured thereon.

BUT, Gildas’s learning and sense of design is to be noted a) the five princes chosen for vilification are described with the same adjectives as the beast in the Book of revelation b) the long section in which Gildas quotes the authority of the prophets to back up his condemnation of the kings follows the same order of the source books in the Old Testament.

He was known as Gildas Sapiens, Gildas the Wise, and is referred to in letters of St Columbanus to the Pope around 600, and by Alcuin in the later 700s. He was clearly a name, a big man, in his time.

Part III Paragraphs 38-63 Extensive quotations from Scripture against wicked kings. Gildas works systematically and in order through the books of the Old Testament taking quotes which rail against unjust kings and how they will be sent to Hell.

What then shall unhappy leaders do now? Those few who have abandoned the broad way and are finding the narrow, are forbidden by God to pour out prayers for you, who persist in evil and tempt Him so greatly: upon whom, on the contrary, if you return with your heart unto God, they could not bring vengeance, because God is unwilling that the soul of man should perish, but calls it back, lest he who is cast away should utterly perish. Because, not even Jonas the prophet, and that when he greatly desired it, could bring vengeance on the Ninevites. But putting aside, meanwhile, our own words, let us rather hear what sound the prophetic trumpet gives: And if thou say this in thy heart, wherefore are these evils come? They come for the greatness of thy iniquity. If the Ethiop can change his skin, or the leopard his spots, ye also can do good, who have learnt to do evil.

Part IV Paragraphs 64-110 a similar attack upon the British clergy of the age which holds up to them lengthy examples of self-sacrifice and holiness from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Lives of the Saints and Martyrs.

Priests Britain has, but foolish ones; a great number of ministers, but shameless; clergy, but crafty plunderers; pastors, so to say, but wolves ready for the slaughter of souls, certainly not providing what is of benefit for the people, but seeking the filling of their own belly. They have church edifices, but enter them for the sake of filthy lucre; they teach the people, but by furnishing the worst examples, teach vice and evil morals; they seldom sacrifice, and never stand among the altars with pure heart; they do not reprove the people on account of their sins, nay, in fact, they commit the same; they despise the commandments of Christ, and are careful to satisfy their own lusts with all their prayers: they get possession of the seat of the apostle Peter with unclean feet, but, by the desert of cupidity, fall into the unwholesome chair of the traitor Judas.

Regret

The De Excidio is a fascinating insight into the mindset of a 6th century Welsh monk, a very educated man living in difficult times whose entire mental outlook, whose intellectual framework, is completely determined by Christian Scripture and teaching, its slightly hysterical millennial sense of the nearness of Doomsday and the burning urgency of repentance and prostration before God. Compared to the suave ironies of the pagan Tacitus, this is the new verbose, florid and emotional voice of the Christian Middle Ages.

But oh oh oh if only he had made fewer tedious references to the Old Testament we all know too well and had elaborated just a little on the pagan Britons’ religious beliefs and rituals of which we know virtually nothing:

I shall, therefore, omit those ancient errors common to all the nations of the earth, in which, before Christ came in the flesh, all mankind were bound; nor shall I enumerate those diabolical idols of my country, which almost surpassed in number those of Egypt, and of which we still see some mouldering away within or without the deserted temples, with stiff and deformed features as was customary. Nor will I call out upon the mountains, fountains, or hills, or upon the rivers, which now are subservient to the use of men, but once were an abomination and destruction to them, and to which the blind people paid divine honour.

What diabolical idols? Where were these temples, what were they like, what ceremonies were carried out there? Why were the idols features stiff and deformed? How did the people pay honour to the mountains, fountains, hills and rivers?

So tantalisingly close – and yet so frustratingly far.

More about Gildas

1638 translation of Gildas into English

1638 translation of Gildas into English

Lowry and the painting of modern life @ Tate Britain

Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887–1976) was born and worked all his life in Lancashire. He had a thorough academic art training, studying under the French painter Pierre Valette who conveyed the impressionist requirement to paint the reality of Modern Life. But whereas Valette’s scenes combine impressionism with something more, a symbolist pregnancy of meaning (see ‘York Street leading to Charles Street’, below), Lowry abandoned both the European modernist tradition he had been exposed to and the academic realism he had been trained in, to forge the ‘naive’ and provincial art which became his brand.

Lowry and the painting of modern life at Tate Britain is the biggest exhibition of his painting since his death, bringing together some 60 Lowries as well as paintings by European influences (van Gogh, Pissarro), relevant books, newspaper, magazine cuttings and short clips from black and white footage of Salford and the industrial north.

It is a bleak, depressing experience to stand in front of painting after painting depicting grim terraced streets, populated by anonymous splinter-thin, clumsy figures, all following their pointless lives under an unforgiving grey sky. When it dawned on me that grim, grey, overcast skies characterise them all, I went back and checked and, sure enough, their isn’t a shred of blue sky in any of his paintings.

For me this began to indicate the formulaic, monotonous and ultimately unrealist nature of his work because, even in Lancashire, the sun did occasionally shine in the 50 years between 1926 and 1976. People did go fishing, cycling out to the country, got married, drove around in cars, fitted new kitchens, bought radios and TVs, sang in choirs, fell in love, had parties.

But not in Lowry: in Lowry there is only one mood, looking down from a great height or distance the artist obsessively paints the same view of heartless back-to-back terraces, smokey chimney stacks against grey lowering skies and hordes of skittle-like anonymous figures hurrying here and there on what the paintings insist are pointless and futile little lives.

Much is made of the fact that Lowry took a job as a rent collector and so was very familiar with the day-to-day struggles of the working classes he ‘depicts’. Maybe so, but there are no individuals anywhere in his art, only depressingly faceless crowds often attracted to the scenes of accidents or sickness which he painted in his early career.

L.S. Lowry The Fever Van, 1935

L.S. Lowry The Fever Van (1935) Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool, UK)

The sixth and final room in the exhibition brings together some very big landscapes he painted in the 1950s and 60s, some commissioned, ironically enough, for the optimistic 1951 Festival of Britain. Revealingly, they are imaginary landscapes: that is, Lowry’s stylisation of industrial urban landscape is so stereotyped that the same handful of elements – the red brick terraced houses, the chimney stacks, the smutty white sky, the dirty white ground (no grass, no trees) – can be recombined endlessly, with little or no relation to ‘reality’.

L S Lowry Industrial Landscape, 1955

L S Lowry Industrial Landscape (1955) Tate © The estate of L.S. Lowry

By the 1960s his style had gotten a little lighter, a bit more lively. This painting of Piccadilly Circus is uncharacterstically colourful but still retains the trademark dirty white sky, the improbably white pavement and road. Pavements and roads are not white. This is an unrealistic stylisation, a cartoon effect.

L S Lowry Piccadilly Circus, London 1960

L S Lowry Piccadilly Circus, London (1960) Private collection © The Estate of LS Lowry © Christie’s Images Limited / The Bridgeman Art Library

Lowry never married, never had children, never enjoyed family life. Apparently, aged 88 he confessed he had ‘never had a woman’. For me this comes as no surprise. His paintings are about a cold detachment from life and from its visual possibilities: sunshine, walking, riding, cycling, running, playing football, the life of the body and the life of the mind, sex, jazz, parties, books, poetry, radio, film, TV, sport, politics, just about everything which makes up human life is absent from these relentlessly repetitive reworkings of faceless crowds in heartless urban landscapes under the same Lowry-ing sky.

‘Were it not for my painting, I couldn’t live. It helps me forget that I am alone.’

Miserable bastard.

The standout painting in the exhibition was this impressionist/symbolist masterpiece by Lowry’s teacher, Pierre Valette who painted numerous impressionist-style works depicting foggy rainy Manchester. There is also a van Gogh of the northern outskirts of Paris in the 1870s and a Pissaro of Norwood when he was living over here to escape the Franco-Prussian War. All of these French paintings, unromantic though their subjects are, nonetheless have a vibrancy and intensity and life which the Lowries entirely lack. Choose life.

York Street leading to Charles Street, Manchester by Pierre Valette

York Street leading to Charles Street, Manchester by Pierre Valette

Related links

A Dark Age Chronology

Inspired by Robert Ferguson’s brilliant book, The Hammer and The Cross, I collated key dates from the so-called Dark Ages (let’s say from the departure of the Romans from Britain in 410 to the Norman Conquest of 1066). Why? Why not?

An at-a-glance overview of the period would be:
400 Romans leave England – Angles and Saxons invade Christian Britain
500 Anglo-Saxon kingdoms exist all across Britain, the Heptarchy
600 St Augustine comes as missionary to the pagan Anglo-Saxons
800 Vikings attack Lindisfarne, going on to colonise east and north England: a century of battles
900 Alfred the Great and successors unify the Anglo-Saxons against the Danes, creating ‘England’
1000 Aethelred the Unready fails to deal with repeated Viking attacks

5th century
410 Traditional date for the Romans quitting Britain. In fact it was a gradual process: 407 the army elects Constantine III emperor and he takes a lot of the Roman army to Gaul to attack Honorius: how many? was a military commander left or ever reappointed? 408 A Saxon attack repelled by Britons. 409 Zosimus records the natives expelled the Roman administration. 410 the rescript of Honorius – apparently the emperor Honorius telling the Britons they are on their own facing barbarian attacks.
449 (a retrospectively written section of) the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Hengest and Horsa lead Saxons, Jutes and Angles to Kent at King Vortigern’s request to protect from marauding Picts, and decide to stay: the official start of Anglo-Saxon England. The venerable Bede attributes the date of 449. Their names mean stallion and horse: were they real people or legendary symbols?

6th century
500 Beowulf born, according to JRR Tolkien’s chronology. Welsh monk & historian Gildas born.
520s Beowulf fights Grendel
525 King Hygelac of the Geats killed fighting the Franks
550 Gildas writes the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae
597 Saint Augustine arrives to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons

7th century
A blank

8th century
732 The Venerable Bede‘s Ecclesiastical History of the English People
772 Charlemagne comes to the throne
782 massacre of Saxon pagans at Verden
793 Vikings attack Lindisfarne

9th century
800 Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor
814 Charlemagne dies
820 13 Viking ships attack north of the Seine
825 kingdom of Wessex absorbs Sussex and Essex
830 Nennius’s history Historia Brittonum
835 Viking attack on Isle of Sheppey
849 Alfred the Great born
857 Vikings attack Paris, take Rouen
865 Grand Heathen Army invades the east and establishes the Viking kingdom of York
868 the GHA takes Nottingham. Alfred marries the Mercian princess Ealswith
870 the GHA led by Ivar the Boneless defeat the army of and kill Edmund, king of East Anglia, soon to be canonised
870s the settlement of Iceland begins
871 the Saxons fight nine big battles against the GHA: Ethelred dies and is succeeded by king Alfred who makes peace with the Danes
876 the GHA conquers Northumbria
877 the GHA occupies Wrexham and attacks Exeter
878 Alfred hides in the Somerset marshes around Athelney; emerges to defeat Guthrum and make peace at the Treaty of Wedmore and baptise him
886 final peace made with Guthrum and establishment of the Danelaw
889 Alfred’s daughter Ethelfled marries Aethelred aldorman of Mercia
892 dues to his alliances and military reforms Alfred defeats a Viking invasion fleet of 250 ships
899 Alfred dies and is succeeded by his son Edward
890-910 intense period of settlement of Iceland caused by the unification campaign of Norway’s king Harald Finehair

10th century
903 the Vikings driven out of Dublin by Caerball
910-20 Ethelred and Ethelfled build 28 fortified burhs along the border with the Danelaw to defend Mercia and Wessex
911 Rollo founds the Duchy of Normandy
911 death of King Louis the Child ends the Carolingian dynasty in the east
911 Edward son of Alfred annexes Oxford and London
914 Brittany-based Vikings raid south Wales
917 Ethelfled drives the Danes from Derby
918 Ethelfled dies, leaving a daughter, Elfwyn. Within a year she disappears from the record, probably forced into a convent, marking the End of the independent kingdom of Wessex
919 dukes elect Henry the Fowler king
920 Edward son of Alfred is king of all England south of the Mersey and Humber
924 Edward son of Alfred dies, succeeded by his brother Athelstan
927 Athelstan drives Olaf viking out of York
930 settlement of Iceland largely complete
930 Ganger Rolf / Rollo dies and is succeeded by his son William Longsword
934 Constantine king of the Scots challenges Athelstan
935 rule of Gorm the Old ends
936 Henry the Fowler’s successor, Otto the Great, symbolically crowned at Aachen Charlemagne’s capital
936 Haakon the Good of Norway drives out his brother Erik Bloodaxe
937 Athelstan and his brother march north and defeat the Irish-Norse Scots and Northumbrian Norwegians at the battle of Brunanburh, commemorated in an Anglo-Saxon poem
939 Athelstan dies: Olaf returns and retakes York
940 death of Harald Finehair king of Norway
941 Olaf dies: York passes to Olaf Sihtricsson
944 the Danes reject him: Erik Bloodaxe, an exile fromt he Norwegian court, in some versions is baptised by Athelstan and given York. But his wife is unpopular…
954 Eric Bloodaxe expelled from York by king Edred ending the Scandinavian kingdom of York: 100 years after the Danelaw was defined, all of its territories are in English hands once more
955 king Eadwig crowned at Kingston
957 his brother Edgar rises against him
959 Eadwig dies and king Edgar reigns
960s Harald Bluetooth erects the Jelling stones in memory of his parents, celebrating his conquest of Denmark and Norway, and his conversion of the Danes to Christianity
962 in exchange for his military support the Pope crowns Otto Holy Roman Emperor, a title which is to dog central Europe for the next thousand years
973 Harald Bluetooth attacks Otto from Denmark but is repelled
975 Edgar dies, is succeeded by his son Edward
978 Edward murdered to clear the succession for the 10 year old Ethelred; a cult grows around Edward the martyr undermining all Ethelred’s subsequent attempts to rally the English against the Danes
980s settlement of Greenland led by Erik the Red
983 Harald Bluetooth successfully expels Otto from Denmark
987 Harald Bluetooth overthrown by his son Sweyn/Sven Forkbeard, exiled, dies of an arrow wound, in some versions fired by a child
991 Vikings raid along the east coast and win the Battle of Maldon, commemorated in the Anglo Saxon poem
992 Ethelred raises a fleet to attack the Vikings but some Anglos on his own side betray him
993 Vikings sack Bamburgh
994 Olaf Trygvasson and Sweyn Forkbeard attack London with 94 ships
995 bishops approach Olaf and he agrees to be confirmed, sponsored by Ethelred, and to leave England
996 Olaf returns to Norway, defeats and beheads king Hakon and embarks on a violent campaign of Christianisation
998 Viking army in Dorsey
999 Viking army sails up the Thames to Rochester
999 conversion of Iceland to Christianity under threat from Olaf Trygvasson

11th century
1001 Vikings burn and pillage up the river Exe
1002 Ethelred orders the St Brice’s Day massacre of all Danes in England
1003 Sven returns and burns Exeter
1004 Sven’s Vikings burn Norwich
1005 famine drives the Vikings home
1006 Sven’s Vikings base themselves on the Isle of Wight, march through Reading to loot Winchester
1007 Ethelred offers 36,000 pounds of silver as Danegeld
1008 Ethelred orders a massive fleet built but is betrayed by his own side, the fleet is destroyed in storms, never engages the enemy
1009 Canterbury buys off Thorkell the Tall with Danegeld
1011 Thorkell’s Vikings back in Canterbury kidnap the archbishop, Alphege then, bored and drunk, stone him to death
1013 Sweyn/Sven Forkbeard arrives from Denmark and travels round the country being acclaimed king wherever he goes in the Danelaw. Ethelred flees to Normandy
1014 having conquered England and established a kingdom which includes Denmark and Norway, Sven dies. The Danes and Anglo-Danes elect his son Cnut king, but Ethelred returns, raises a fleet and army, and drives Cnut out.
1015 Cnut returns with a massive fleet and ravages the West Country. Æthelred’s son, Edmund Ironside, had revolted against his father and established himself in the Danelaw. Over the next months, Canute conquered most of England, and Edmund had rejoined Æthelred to defend London when Æthelred died on 23 April 1016. The subsequent war between Edmund and Canute ended in a decisive victory for Canute at the Battle of Ashingdon on 18 October 1016. Edmund’s reputation as a warrior was such that Canute nevertheless agreed to divide England, Edmund taking Wessex and Canute the whole of the country beyond the Thames. However, Edmund died on 30 November and Canute became king of the whole country aged 20.
1017 Cnut formally crowned and receives 72,000 pounds Danegeld. Cnut executes high level traitors, parcels out land to his followers, marries Ethelred’s widow, Emma, and takes a Christian name.
1020s Cnut supports the rebuilding of Chartres cathedral, issues laws against heathenism
1019 upon the death of Cnut’s childless older brother Harald, Cnut becomes king of Denmark
1027 Cnut undertakes a pilgrimae to Rome to attend the coronation of the Emperor Conrad II
1035 Cnut dies intending his son by Emma, Harthacnut, to succeed. Harthacanut has to go to Norway to sort out problems there giving his half-brother, Cnut’s illegitimate son by Aelfgifu, Harold Harefoot, chance to seize the throne.
1040 Harthacnut is preparing a fleet to sail back to take Britain when Harold Harefoot dies
1042 Harthacnut proves himself a cruel king, imposing high taxes, burning Worcester to punish the citizens, before dropping dead after drinking heavily at a wedding.
1066 Harald Hardrada invades from Norway. Harold Godwinson defeats him at the battle of Stamford Bridge. William of Normandy invades. Harold loses to him at the battle of Hastings.

For a light-hearted Danish point of view see this web page.

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