The Shoemakers’ Holiday, or The Gentle Craft by Thomas Dekker (1599)

Nothing is purposed but mirth. (Preface to The Shoemaker’s Holiday)

This is a city comedy. City comedy was a sub-genre of comic plays which developed right at the end of the reign of Elizabeth I (died 1603) and flourished into the first decade of the reign of her successor, James I.

City comedy rejects all the magical and supernatural elements which characterise many of Shakespeare’s bourgeois comedies, most of which are set abroad, and instead portrays the gritty realities of contemporary London life, with large casts of rascals and fools who are often portrayed with quite harsh satire.

During Elizabeth’s reign London had boomed, becoming the chief port of northern Europe, and its population had exploded from an estimated 50,000 in 1530 to about 225,000 in 1605. In its over-populated, filthy streets, crime and vice, crooks and con-men of every kind flourished, and these were the kinds of people city comedies set out to depict.

Two caveats: One, after emphasising that The Shoemaker’s Holiday is a city comedy, it has to be pointed out that it’s also something of a history play, since the Lord Mayor who is the central character, Simon Eyres, was a real historical figure who was appointed Sheriff in 1434 and Lord Mayor in 1445 in the reign of Henry VI.

Two, the editor of the Mermaid edition of the play, D.J. Palmer, makes the simple but important point that plays like this should not be taken as documentary evidence of London life, far from it. Palmer explains how Dekker used narratives and characters from several printed sources, and cast them into a parallel series of fairly stereotyped storylines in order to create this ‘genial and light-hearted comedy’.

The plot

Three plotlines are interwoven:

  1. Lacy loves Rose
  2. Simon Eyre becomes Lord Mayor
  3. Hammon tries to seduce Jane

The current Lord Mayor of London, Sir Roger Oatley, dispatches troops raised in London to the wars in France. The Earl of Lincoln, by his side, discusses his nephew, Rowland Lacy, who disgraced himself by burning through his inheritance and learned the shoemaker’s craft in Wittenberg, before returning to England. Now he is meant to be going off to the wars with everyone else. But both men know that Lacy is madly in love with the Lord Mayor’s daughter, Rose. Lincoln disapproves of this because his nephew is an aristocrat and the Lord Mayor is simply a puffed-up greengrocer; the Lord Mayor disapproves of Lacy because he is a wastrel, and so has dispatched Rose to an out-of-the-way house out in Bow where she is being minded by Sybil, a maid.

Enter the dominating figure of the play, Simon Eyres – a ‘madcap fellow’ with a light heart – a master shoemaker with a phenomenally bombastic way with language, his much-put-upon wife Margery, and his entourage of journeymen – Hodge, Firk and Ralph. The backchat among this crew is wonderfully colourful, stuffed with Elizabethan slang, double entendres, technical terms of the shoemaker’s trade,

Where be these boys, these girls, these drabs, these scoundrels? They wallow in the fat brewiss of my bounty, and lick up the crumbs of my table, yet will not rise to see my walks cleansed. Come out, you powder-beef queans! What, Nan! what, Madge Mumble-crust. Come out, you fat midriff-swag-belly-whores, and sweep me these kennels that the noisome stench offend not the noses of my neighbours.

Where ‘brewiss’ means ‘broth’, ‘queans’ means ‘prostitutes’, ‘kennels’ means ‘gutters’. It is great fun to sit back and listen to him and his employees swap great hunks of exuberant vituperation. They are all lamenting because young Ralph, one of his shoemakers, has been conscripted for the wars, lamenting most is his brand-new wife Jane, amid much bawdy humour about pricking of honour etc.

One fine morning a Dutch itinerant shoemaker turns up at their shop and asks for work. Simon is for turning him away but Hodge and Firk say they need an extra pair of hands and so the man, who says he’s named Hans Meulter, is hired. But Hans is in fact none other than Rowland Lacy, who’s skived off his army unit and taken on a disguise in order to find out where his beloved Rose is, to find and woo and wed her.

Meanwhile Rose and Sybil are out walking when some aristocrats ride up in pursuit of an escaping deer. One of them, Hammon, falls in love with Rose in the process of a flirtatious dialogue. The Lord Mayor (Rose’s father) rides up and welcomes the two hunters to his nearby lodge, and then soliloquises to the audience that this Hammon would make a fine husband for his daughter.

Hans/Lacy fixes up a deal with a Dutch skipper for Simon to buy a cargo of exotic goods at a bargain price, using the money Lincoln gave him to go to the wars. The deal makes Simon very wealthy.

The Earl of Lincoln had sent a spy, Dodger, to keep tabs on Lacy at the wars. Now Dodger returns and tells Lincoln of a famous battle with the French but that Lacy was not there. His place was taken by his cousin Askew while Lacy snuck back to England. Lincoln immediately realises Lacy has bunked off the war in order to marry the ‘puling girl’ Rose, the Lord Mayor’s daughter. Well, he’ll put an end to that if it’s the last thing he does.

The Lord Mayor comes to supervise Hammon and Rose’s betrothal but she rejects him, saying her heart is given to another. Irritated, Hammon says he’ll go look up an old girlfriend at the Exchange. The Lord Mayor dismisses his daughter at which point Dodger arrives with a message from Lincoln that Lacy never went to France but is in hiding or disguise somewhere in London. Simon has arrived to see the Lord Mayor who says he will make Simon a Lord Sheriff.

Cut to Margery and the journeymen i.e. Firk, Hodge and Hans-in-disguise. Enter Ralph from the French wars. He is in terrible shape. He was obviously wounded, his legs are permanently damaged and he is walking on crutches. Once he’s been welcomed by his friends he is distraught to learn that, soon after he left, Jane left the household and they don’t know where she is.

These lamentations are interrupted by the startling news that Simon has been elected Sheriff of London and makes a grand entrance. He swaggers and swells over his wife and the apprentices, then says they’re all invited to the Lord Mayor’s house out in Bow.

Cut to the Lord Mayor’s house in Bow where the Lord Mayor welcomes Simon, wife and journeyman, introduces them to Rose and laments that she wouldn’t marry a fine aristocratic suitor. At this moment Simon’s crew arrive dressed as morris men and dance. Rose notices how like Lacy ‘Hans’ looks. Lacy is desperate to talk to her but has to stay in character. The Lord Mayor gives the dancers money and says he has to return to London

Rose admits to Sybil that Hans is none other than her love, Lacy. Sybil says she’ll help Rose get into London and elope with him.

Act 4 Meanwhile Hammon approaches the Exchange in disguise and his old girlfriend turns out to be none other than Jane, Ralph’s new wife who absconded from Simon’s household. Hammon puts in a sustained barrage of wooing, refusing to take no for an answer and as his masterstroke, when he learns Jane is married to one Ralph Damport, he pulls out a report of the recent wars and shows that Ralph’s name is on the list of the dead. Jane is distraught, Hammon keeps on trying to take advantage of the fact she is free to hammer her into marrying him.

Act 4 scene 2 Cut to Simon’s workshop with Firk, Hodge, Ralph and Hans all singing and working. Enter Sybil who, after some bawdy chat, tells them her mistress Rose requires Hans to come and fit her shoes.

Act 4 scene 3 In a separate scene a servant arrives at the shop and finds Ralph answering and gives him an order: his master requires a pair of new shoes like the ones he hands over, for a wedding first thing the next morning of a woman to his master, Hammon. Ralph is astonished because this is the very shoe he gave his wife Jane before he set off to the wars! Exit the servant and enter Firk, who Ralph tells the amazing story. Firk is dismissive, but Ralph says he’ll assemble a crew of shoemakers to attend this wedding and find out whether the bride really is his wife.

Act 4 scene 4 Lacy and Rose are together, and tell each other their love. Lacy casually lets slip that, because of the abrupt death of several aldermen, Simon has been voted Mayor. He tells her to meet him at Simon’s house and they’ll be married. Enter the Lord Mayor (Rose’s father) and Lacy just remembers to pretend to be Hans fitting a shoe. The Lord Mayor approves then calls Rose away because the Earl of Lincoln has arrived. Lacy’s uncle!? What the devil does he want here? Panicking, Rose suggests they flee immediately.

Act 4 scene 5 Lincoln apologises to the Lord Mayor saying he thought perhaps he was deliberately harbouring the fugitive Lacy. Why of course not, replies the LM, my respect for your honour would forbid. At that moment Sybil comes running in to announce that Rose has just run off out of the house with a shoemaker!

Lord Mayor Oatley is just cursing and ranting that he will disinherit her for marrying a commoner, when Firk enters bearing shows as if for Rose. Firk is a sarcastic tricky customer. His role here are to 1. spin an elaborate yarn and delay the two men from chasing after the couple 2. mislead them into thinking the couple are planning to get married at St Faith’s church tomorrow morning. In fact it is Hammon and Jane who are planning to get married at St Faith’s – and Ralph is organising a posse of shoemakers to interrupt them – while Lacy and Rose are planning to marry at the faraway Savoy chapel.

If it wasn’t obvious before this is the scene which really brings out the so-called ‘class war’ of the play i.e. in which the ‘knave’ Firk thoroughly enjoys tricking and deceiving two higher-ranking men who had, at his first arrival, dismissed him as a lowly servant.

Act 5 scene 1 At Simon Eyre’s house. He is lording it as Lord Mayor. Lacy has revealed he is not Hans but Rowland Lacy. Eyre is, typically, amused by the disguise and fully approves of Lacy and Rose getting married, not least because he owes to Lacy-Hans the deal with the Dutch skipper that made him a fortune and paid for the fine clothes he is wearing! He promises to arrange everything, and in addition give a grand feast to all shoemakers in the city since it is Shrove Tuesday.

Act 5 scene 2 The journeymen are assembled, Hodge, Firk, Ralph and others. Only that morning Ralph fitted the new shoe he’d been commissioned onto Jane’s feet but he was so changed by the wars that she didn’t recognise him, and he didn’t want to make himself known in a stranger’s house.

Now Hammon enters with Jane and his entourage. The shoemakers intervene, take hold of Jane – at which Hammon defies them and his entourage threaten to fight – but when they present her with Ralph, admittedly sunburnt and lame, nonetheless he is her true love and she declares he is her real husband and contemptuously asks Hammon why he lied about Ralph’s death.

She does, of course, prefer humble honesty to dressed-up deceit. Some critics spin this out into ‘class war’ but in fact it’s a conceit which goes back to ancient times, that true love is worth more than wealth.

JANE. Whom should I choose? Whom should my thoughts affect
But him whom Heaven hath made to be my love?
Thou art my husband, and these humble weeds
Make thee more beautiful than all his wealth.

Still it is not over, though, because Hammon – egged on by his supporters – now offers to buy Jane from Ralph for twenty pounds in gold. Hodge and Firk cry Fie Fie and, indeed, good Ralph spurns the offer with contempt. Utterly beaten (again – remember his attempt to woo Rose on Bow), Hammon gives them the money anyway and withdraws with his entourage.

At this moment the Lord Mayor and Earl of Lincoln enter. They address Firk and accuse him of deceiving them when he told them that Lacy and Rose would be married at St Faith’s church. Now Jane had, before her wedding, been wearing a mask or visor. At the two men’s approach Firk had told her to put it back on. Firk is thoroughly enjoying himself and now tells the men that here are Lacy and Jane in disguise, Lacy pretending to be a lame shoemaker, Jane wearing a mask (it is only at this moment that we learn from the text that Ralph has all this time been using a crutch, maybe a pair of crutches, as he now threatens to hit anyone who touches his wife with it).

When Jane takes off her mask and Ralph really continues hobbling Oatley and Lincoln realise they have been thoroughly conned and turn on Firk, calling him a ‘base crafty varlet’. But here, as throughout the play, Firk begs to differ, calling himself a member of the Gentle Craft – and by the stage in the play, we have heard references to the Gentle Craft so often that it has acquired a real sense of class solidarity or the camaraderie of the craft.

FIRK: O eternal credit to us of the gentle craft! March fair, my hearts! Oh rare!

At this point the spy Dodger appears to inform Lincoln and Oatley that their children have got married at the Savoy Chapel and that the new Lord Mayor – Simon – vows to stand in their defence. Lincoln says they’ll go petition the king about this.

Our crew are planning to go to feast with the new Lord Mayor when the pancake bell rings and Firk delivers a long paean of praise to all the fine food they’re going to eat.

FIRK: O musical bell, still! O Hodge, O my brethren! There’s cheer for the heavens: venison-pasties walk up and down piping hot, like sergeants; beef and brewess comes marching in dry-vats, fritters and pancakes comes trowling in in wheel-barrows; hens and oranges hopping in porters’—baskets, collops and eggs in scuttles, 11 and tarts and custards comes quavering in in malt-shovels.

Other prentices rush out of their buildings and tell them the new Lord Mayor has invited all the city’s apprentices to a grand feast. Hooray! Hooray!

Act 5 scene 3 A brief scene in which advisers tell the king the new Lord Mayor – Eyres – is a madcap. The king says he wants to see this eccentric.

Act 5 scene 4 Eyres is in a heightened mood even for him, as he commands some four hundred prentices to be fed! When he is told the king is on his way, he becomes even more faluting. When his wife Margaret warns him to mind his language with the king, this is his response:

EYRE. Away, you Islington whitepot!  hence, you barley-pudding, full of maggots! you broiled carbonado! avaunt, avaunt, avoid, Mephistophiles! Shall Sim Eyre learn to speak of you, Lady Madgy? Vanish, Mother Miniver-cap; vanish go, trip and go; meddle with your partlets and your pishery-pashery, your flewes and your whirligigs; go, rub, out of mine alley! Sim Eyre knows how to speak to a Pope, to Sultan Soliman, to Tamburlaine, an he were here, and shall I melt, shall I droop before my sovereign? No, come, my Lady Madgy! Follow me, Hans! About your business, my frolic freebooters! Firk, frisk about, and about, and about, for the honour of mad Simon Eyre, lord mayor of London.

Act 5 scene 5 The king forgives Lacy for going absent without leave to pursue his love and is thoroughly amused by Eyres’ mad way of talking. Then Otley and Lincoln arrive who first of all claim Lacy is a traitor – having abandoned the king’s army – only to be told the king has pardoned him. And then beg to prevent the pair marrying. But it is too late, they are wed. But she is so beneath him, wails Lincoln, at which the king reads him one of the first rules of romantic comedy:

KING: Lincoln, no more.
Dost thou not know that love respects no blood,
Cares not for difference of birth or state?
The maid is young, well born, fair, virtuous,
A worthy bride for any gentleman.
Besides, your nephew for her sake did stoop
To bare necessity, and, as I hear,
Forgetting honours and all courtly pleasures,
To gain her love, became a shoemaker.
As for the honour which he lost in France,
Thus I redeem it: Lacy, kneel thee down!—
Arise, Sir Rowland Lacy! Tell me now,
Tell me in earnest, Oateley, canst thou chide,
Seeing thy Rose a lady and a bride?

He is a fairy tale king. The actual king the real Simon Eyres served as Lord Mayor under was Henry VI but Dekker is careful not to name him, thus making the play feel contemporary, but – with its repeated mention of wars against the French – invoking the presence of Henry V.

The shoemakers all shout their loyalty. The king declares the new hall built near the Exchange shall be called Leadenhall because they discovered the lead in the foundations which they will use to roof it. Eyres kneels and begs the shoemakers may have the honour to sell leather there two days a week which the king agrees. And then one boon more, he invites the king to join them at their feast. Which the king agrees. In fact the very last lines of the play are suddenly and a bit surprisingly belligerent, for the king declares he’ll feast this day, but then continue with his plans to war with France.

KING: Eyre, I will taste of thy banquet, and will say,
I have not met more pleasure on a day.
Friends of the gentle craft, thanks to you all,
Thanks, my kind lady mayoress, for our cheer.—
Come, lords, a while let’s revel it at home!
When all our sports and banquetings are done,
Wars must right wrongs which Frenchmen have begun.

But maybe the idea is to really emphasise the loyalty and the readiness to fight of the loyal company of shoemakers.

Commentary

The Shoemakers’ Holiday has no very great intellectual themes, its passages of poetry are pretty run-of-the-mill, the most vibrant sections come whenever Simon Eyres appears on stage with his hyper-charged language and, to a lesser extent, the jolly roistering prose of his journeymen, Hodges and, especially, Firk. And yet I found it hugely enjoyable.

In his introduction, D.J. Palmer makes a distinction between two types of comedy. The first is the high-minded, moralising comedy described by Sir Philip Sidney in his Apologie for Poetry (1595):

an imitation of the common errors of our life, which he [the poet] represents in the most ridiculous and scornful sort that may be, so as it is impossible that any beholder can be content to be such a one.

This is designed to embarrass and shame viewers by holding up exaggerated versions of the follies and vices we are all prone to. It is meant to be a corrective. This is the tough-minded theory embodied in the prefaces and plays of Ben Jonson.

To define the second type, Palmer quotes from a much earlier play, one of the earliest imitations in English of the Roman comic playwright, Plautus, Nicholas Udall’s Ralph Roster Doister (c.1552). The prologue reads:

What Creature is in health, eyther yong or olde,
But som mirth with modestie wil be glad to vse
As we in thys Enterlude shall now vnfolde,
Wherin all scurilitie we vtterly refuse,
Auoiding such mirth wherin is abuse:

‘Avoiding such mirth wherein is abuse’, is a crystal clear indication that the play will avoid precisely what Sidney, and especially Jonson, thought plays should do which is cruelly mock the follies and vices of the age. Instead, Udall proposes a completely different idea of comedy based on this key word Mirth:

Knowing nothing more comendable for a mans recreation
Than Mirth which is vsed in an honest fashion:
For Myrth prolongeth lyfe, and causeth health.
Mirth recreates our spirites and voydeth pensiuenesse,
Mirth increaseth amitie, not hindring our wealth,
Mirth is to be vsed both of more and lesse,
Being mixed with vertue in decent comlynesse.

Mirth promotes good health, leads to long life, refreshes our spirits, drives off depression, increases friendship. Mirth has therapeutic properties and a social function.

At the end of a Jonson comedy the criminals are punished, often by a very severe judge. At the end of a mirth comedy, the king joins in the conviviality and merry-making. It is festive comedy, associated with popular festivals and, as in this play, with actual holidays, days on which workers cease work and join together in feasting and drinking and celebrating their solidarity.

If the shoemakers, on their festive day, kick over traditional restraint, so, in their ways, do other characters. Lacy and Rose defy parental authority and class barriers to insist on their love. Jane is liberated by the physical threat of the shoemakers from the hold Hammon has over her. The rise of Simon Eyres from master shoemaker, through sheriff to Lord Mayor symbolises this escape from class barriers, and his madcap prose is a deliberate contrast with the poised, blank verse of the snobs Oatley and Lincoln.

In a comparable way, Firk is the trickster of the play, but he operates not only on the level of action but of language, too. Not only are his lies and fibs (to Lincoln and Oatley) a key moment in the plot, but throughout the play Firk is addicted to turning everything almost anyone says into a bawdy double entendre. As Palmer points out, he liberates the secondary and tertiary meanings of words and phrases said in all seriousness which he reveals to have a bawdy and disreputable side. To continue the class war theme, Firk undermines the bourgeois respectability of language with his working class puns and dirty laugh.

All this ‘subversion’ and liberation may sound good, but if you started assessing the characters with the serious Morality of a Jonson, you would begin to get into trouble. Lacy may be the romantic hero but there is no doubt he is a deserter from the army, able to skip free in sharp contrast to poor Ralph who is pressed into the army with no escape and returns badly injured. Lacy then uses the money given him by Lincoln to raise and supply troops instead to pay for a dubious business deal with a Dutch skipper which makes Eyres rich.

What all this suggests to me is that the Jonsonian theory of comedy – that by putting egregious examples of folly and vice onstage you force the audience to confront it in themselves and so ‘reform’ them – is exactly wrong. Palmer doesn’t draw the conclusion but he provides plenty of the evidence to suggest that Mirth arises from release, release from the usual laws and regulations and restrictions we all live under.

Mirth does the audience good, it is liberating and mentally uplifting and creates a sense of social solidarity among an audience united by laughing at the scrapes and cons and scams of the rogues onstage. Thus I don’t think anyone ‘judges’ Lacy for deserting from the army because a) all his behaviour is justified by him being a stereotypical stage lover who will go to any lengths for his lady love, aaaah, and b) his scam of pretending to be a Dutchman is, quite simply, funny and life-affirming: in the many scenes where he appears with his fellow shoemakers he brings life and banter and humour, plus he buys everyone drinks!

In a phrase: festive celebration (love, food, beer and scams) trump narrow definitions of ‘morality’.

This, I think, is the downfall of Jonsonian comedy. In theory, the more outrageously characters like Volpone and Mosca behave, the more we should despise and condemn them. But the reality is that – although, admittedly, they are not exactly likeable – nonetheless, their cons and scams are thrilling, they have a tremendous verbal and theatrical energy which the audience, far from finding disgusting and repellent, finds energising and enlivening.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

  • The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare (1597)
  • Every Man in His Humour by Ben Jonson (1598)
  • The Shoemakers’ Holiday, or The Gentle Craft by Thomas Dekker (1599)
  • Eastward Ho! by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston (1605)
  • Volpone by Ben Jonson (1606)
  • The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (1607)
  • The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (1607)
  • Epicoene, or the Silent Woman by Ben Jonson (1609)
  • The Alchemist by Ben Jonson (1610)
  • A Chaste Maid in Cheapside by Thomas Middleton (1613)
  • Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson (1614)

Jacobean history

Restoration comedies

Rewards and Fairies by Rudyard Kipling (1910)

Take of English earth as much
As either hand may rightly clutch.
In the taking of it breathe
Prayer for all who lie beneath —
Not the great nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.
Lay that earth upon thy heart,
And thy sickness shall depart!

(A Charm)

Introduction

The book This is the sequel to the classic children’s book, Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906). Both consist of short stories in which Shakespeare’s Puck, last of ‘the People of the Hills’, introduces two nice young children, Dan and Una, to figures from English history, personages who tend to gossip and witter on before eventually getting round to telling a, by and large rather hard-to-follow, ‘story’. There are ten such tales in Rewards – which Kipling worked on from 1906 to 1910 – as well as 24 poems which are, frankly, much more accessible and, as a result, much more enjoyable.

The era The Edwardian era (1901-1910) saw a flourishing of children’s literature – Beatrix Potter published the first of her tales, about Peter Rabbit, in 1902; Peter Pan first appeared in a 1904 play; The Wind In the Willows 1908; E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet in 1904, The Railway Children in 1906. After the heady Imperialist rhetoric surrounding the Boer War, the post-war years saw a retreat into fantasy, children’s and rural writing, all trends epitomised in the Puck books.

The title is taken from a poem by Richard Corbet (1582-1635), which laments the passage of the fairy people out of England, scared by the religious strife under Queen Elizabeth I and especially James I (1603 – 1625), namely the rise of the disruptive Puritans.

Witness those rings and roundelays
Of theirs, which yet remain,
Were footed in Queen Mary’s days
On many a grassy plain;
But since of late, Elizabeth,
And later, James came in,
They never danced on any heath
As when the time hath been.

(Kipling had described this flight of the fairies out of England in the penultimate story in Puck of Pook’s Hill, ‘Dymchurch Flit’ – where it was wonderfully illustrated by Arthur Rackham.)

The stories

1. Cold Iron – Dan and Una are older than in the previous book – symbolised by the fact that they are now boots!, boots which have iron nails in them. Puck explains that the fairy folk can’t abide ‘cold iron’ and tells the story of how he stole a human child and gave it to the fairy people – Sir Huon and his wife Lady Esclairmonde – to raise. As he grew, Puck took the growing lad roistering until they got into so much trouble that Sir Huon and his wife forbade him the boy’s company, soon after which the boy picks up a slave’s collar made and left in his path deliberately to snare him by old Thor, the blacksmith. By touching it the boy becomes doomed to becoming a servant to the humans. Eerie and strange. I enjoy Kipling’s evocations of the pagan/Saxon/Norse gods.

2. Gloriana – Dan and Una go up to their secret base in the woods and bump into Gloriana, Queen Elizabeth I, who tells them a story about being hosted at a nearby country house where a fight breaks out between two brothers who she forces to make peace and then offers a mission to Virginia, in America, to forestall what she thinks might be an attack by forces of King Philip of Spain. The boys and their fleet are never heard of again: did she do right? The characterisation of Elizabth is beguiling and strange, an uncertain but decisive woman trapped by her duties.

She took off her cloak slowly, and stood forth in dove-coloured satin, worked over with pearls that trembled like running water in the running shadows of the trees. Still talking — more to herself than to the children — she swam into a majestical dance of the stateliest balancings, the naughtiest wheelings and turnings aside, the most dignified sinkings, the gravest risings, all joined together by the elaboratest interlacing steps and circles. They leaned forward breathlessly to watch the splendid acting.

3. The Wrong Thing – Dan is carving a model boat in the workshop of the village handyman, Mr Springett, when both are surprised by the arrival of Hal o’ the Draft, the draughtsman and artist we met in the story of the same name in the first volume. As in most Kipling stories the two old blokes fall to yarning and shaking their heads about the modern world – in this instance lamenting the rise of ‘unions’ with their damn-fool insistence that a man be a specialist and not a Jack-of-all-trades.

Only after a lot of this yarning do we get to Hal’s story, in which he is apprenticed to a demanding Italian master of Works in Oxford, Torrigiano. He is commissioned by an employee of the king’s to design a relief for the bow of a new ship, all Neptunes and dolphins – a warship which his foreign girlfriend, Catherine of Castile, wants the king to give her as a pleasure boat.

But Hal is not very happy with his design and Torrigiano mocks it to pieces. So when he’s called along to a local tavern to meet a more senior king’s official to discuss it, Hal says it would cost a good £30 to create and gild, and criticises his own design, adding that in any case it won’t stand up to hard wear at sea. The official is persuaded to scrap it, laughs in relief that Hal has saved him some thirty pound in expense, picks up a nearby rusty sword and, to Hal’s amazement, knights him. For it is the king, Henry VII, himself! Who then exits, leaving Hal stunned.

And moprtified that the king knighted him – not for the excellent chapel and carvings and statues he’s building for him – but for saving him £30 and (also) helping him get one over on a woman he obviously doesn’t like. For the wrong thing!

Meanwhile, Hal had an enemy among the other architects and designers, a vengeful man named Benedetto whose work Hal had criticised once or twice and who had taken it very personally. This Benedetto has crept up behind Hal in the king’s chamber, and now seizes him and puts his knife to his throat, insisting that Hal tell his story before he kills him. So Hal tells him the story of the bad Neptune design for the ship and how he talked the official out of using it and how the official turned out to be the king – and Benedetto bursts out laughing and is so overcome with mirth that he puts his knife away, puts his arm round Hal’s shoulders, and the two become best friends ever since.

Back in ‘the present’, in the frame story, Hal and Mr Springett laugh long and hard at this, and then old Mr Springett tells his own story of how he built an elaborate blue-brick stables for a local lord of the manor. When the rich man’s hoity-toity wife – fresh down from ‘Lunnon’ – asked Springett if he could create a ha-ha (i.e. a ditch) across the main lawn Springett said, ‘Aw no, me lady, there be so any springs around here you’d end up flooding the park.’ Which wasn’t true but he didn’t want to go to the bother of digging it. So the wife dropped the idea and, later, the Lord of the Manor came round and paid Springett a tenner in gratitude – he didn’t want a ha-ha and is delighted that Springett put the kibosh on it. But no mention of the beautiful tiled stables which Springett has laboured so long over.

Thus both Hal and old Springett were rewarded for ‘the wrong thing’, not the thing they thought was important – chapel, stables – but what their masters thought was important – saving £30 and abandoning the ha-ha idea. Both, as it happens, also involved helping the lords get one over on their womenfolk…

‘Stories’ like this seem to come from a sense of human nature and shared values that is so alien to our 21st century sensibilities that they are difficult to relate to.

4. Marklake Witches – Una is learning how to milk cows with Mrs Vincey, the farmer’s wife at Little Lindens, when out of nowhere appears an imperious young lady in historical outfit who calls herself Miss Philadelphia and starts prattling on at length about everything and nothing like so many Kipling characters. Eventually her prattle about her mother and her father and her nurse, Old Cissie, settles down into the time Cissie stole three silver spoons and gave them to Jerry Gamm, the Witchmaster on the Green, and Miss Philly went to get them back. Jerry Gamm returned them readily enough, but gave her a stick of maple wood and told her to prop her window open with it and say prayers five times a day to get rid of her spitting cough, which the ‘proper’ doctor, Dr Break, can’t seem to do anything about.

There’s also a French prisoner of war, René staying locally, who is himself training to be a doctor and after curing the Lord of the manor, is given more freedom than most of the prisoners. Miss Philly climbs into an oak tree overlooking Jerry’s garden and is surprised to find Jerry and René chatting away like old friends and trying out a kind of trumpet which René has whittled, putting it against each others’ chests and listening. (It is in fact an early version of the stethoscope.) In the middle of this scene, fat Dr Break and a deputation of drunk villagers arrive, claiming Jerry has been bewitching them, putting the trumpet against their chests and leaving a ‘bewitched’ red mark.

René leaps to his feet and exchanges hard words with Dr Break, who replies in kind, which prompts the hot-blooded Frenchman to challenge him to a duel. The villagers run off in a fright, and just as René is wrestling Dr Break to the ground up ride Philly’s father and Arthur Wellesly, head of the garrison at nearby Hastings (and, we the readers know, the future Duke of Wellington). Startled by their appearance Philly falls out of the tree at the adults’ feet and they all burst into laughter.

The Duke is invited by Philly’s father to dinner that evening at the Hall, along with René and Dr Break, and here Miss Philly sings them a sad song about a man who falls in love with a fading flower although he knows that it will die and leave him pining. To her surprise all four men present are reduced to sobs and tears. What she doesn’t realise, but the alert reader has come to understand from her persistent coughing and from some remarks of René and Jerry which she overheard but didn’t understand – is that all the adults know she is dying of incurable tuberculosis. Hence these four strong men breaking down as she sings such a soulful song about death.

This simple technique – the fallible narrator not realising what the adults are talking about – is a rare touch of ‘literary effect’ among Kipling’s stories.

5. The Knife and the Naked Chalk – Una and Dan go on holiday to a cottage on the South Downs. They get to know an old shepherd, called Mr Dudeney, and his dogs Old Jim and Young Jim. There is a bit of banter with him singing the praises of the Sussex Downland, with the children preferring the woods and streams of the Weald. In his excellent biography of Kipling, Charles Carrington often refers to the pre-Raphaelite brilliance of his framing, i.e. the initial descriptions which set the scene in which his various characters then yarn away. And so it is here, with a lovely description of the Sussex Downs on a hot summer’s day.

The air trembled a little as though it could not make up its mind whether to slide into the Pit or move across the open. But it seemed easiest to go downhill, and the children felt one soft puff after another slip and sidle down the slope in fragrant breaths that baffed on their eyelids. The little whisper of the sea by the cliffs joined with the whisper of the wind over the grass, the hum of insects in the thyme, the ruffle and rustle of the flock below, and a thickish mutter deep in the very chalk beneath them. Mr Dudeney stopped explaining, and went on with his knitting. They were roused by voices. The shadow had crept halfway down the steep side of Norton Pit, and on the edge of it, his back to them, Puck sat beside a half-naked man who seemed busy at some work. The wind had dropped, and in that funnel of ground every least noise and movement reached them like whispers up a water-Pipe.

The half-naked man is carving flints. He is a Stone Age man. He sings his titles to Puck:

‘I am of the People of the Worked Flint. I am the one son of the Priestess who sells the Winds to the Men of the Sea. I am the Buyer of the Knife — the Keeper of the People.’

Then he tells Puck how he lost his eye; how as a man of the sheep people who used sharpened flints as cutting tools, he saw one of the wood people use a ‘knife’ to kill one of the ever-threatening Beasts (the wolves who were widespread and dangerous back in those days). So he went on a pilgrimage into the Forest and there met the Knife People and their Holy Woman, who said the Gods demanded that he must lose an eye to gain a knife. And so he let her put out his eye and was given a ‘knife’, and his people given many knives, and the Beasts knew it and kept away.

And so his people came to think he was a God, the god Tyr, and asked him judgements and a young man asked permission to marry his woman, and so he gave his people everything and freed them from the Beasts, but lost his eye and his woman and his peace of mind.

6. Brother Square-Toes – Puck appears with a local, nicknamed ‘Pharaoh’, who lived during the 1790s. He was a smuggler and Kipling lays on a lot of information and slang about Sussex smuggling families, techniques and so on. One night he’s out on a smuggling run, when his ship is run over by a French ship bound for the States, which he manages to scramble aboard before  his own vessel sinks.

And so he’s taken all the way to Philadelphia where he finds crowds protesting in the streets and follows a Red Indian – Red Jacket – into a house where he falls in with a white trader named Toby (Apothecary Tobias Hirte). All three go up into the hills to meet another Indian, Cornplanter, and Pharaoh spends enough time with them that he becomes adopted as a fellow Red Indian. More facts and info about Native Americans.

The main scene in this convoluted ‘story’ comes when the Indians and Pharaoh go back to Philadelphia to hear George Washington give his decision about the Big Issue of the Day: should or shouldn’t America join the French in war against the British? Washington, or ‘Big Hand’, as he’s known to the Indians, says No.

Washington is depicted as a special friend of the Indians, and shares with the Indians the knowledge that being a leader is tough, when you’re surrounded by ambassadors (the French ambassador in this instance) and other special interests (businessmen, jingo politicians) all trying to jockey you into their point of view.

And it’s in this context – Washington being a firm, clear-sighted leader – that Kipling ends the story with by far his most famous poem, If.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;
If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

7. ‘A Priest in spite of himself’ – Follows on from the previous story. Pharaoh Lee, back in Philadelphia, meets a battered French émigré begging in the street. Pharaoh rescues him from an angry mob and takes him back to Toby’s place where, over a few drinks, the battered man unwinds and gives indications of being more educated, grand and noble than he seems. Pharaoh sees him on subsequent occasions – comes across him gambling with loaded dice – and learns that he is Count Talleyrand, former Ambassador from the French King to Britain, who managed the feat of becoming Ambassador to the new, revolutionary French regime to Britain, until the disgusted Brits chucked him out.

Talleyrand hears that Pharaoh heard what George Washington told the Red Indians in the previous story and is desperate to find out what Washington told the French ambassador, Genêt, about the possibility of the Americans coming in on the French side in the war. This information would be gold dust; if he could take it back to the revolutionary regime it would restore his position. But Pharaoh refuses to disclose what he has heard despite the offer of a massive 500 dollars. As so often, what counts for Kipling is fidelity, loyalty, honour.

After returning from a sojourn with his Indian friends up country, Pharaoh learns that Talleyrand left him the 500 dollars anyway. He invests in horses, then buys a cargo of tobacco and a sailing ship to take it to Britain – starved of baccy by a French blockade. But Pharaoh’s ship is seized by a French ship. It is confiscated in a french harbour and the cargo of baccy shipped to Paris for the authorities to dispose of. Pharaoh, with all his worldly goods invested in the cargo of baccy, follows it to Paris where – by an extraordinary coincidence – he once again encounters Talleyrand, now restored to favour and riding in a carriage with none other than Napoleon Bonaparte!

This allows Kipling to give us a pen portrait of the little Corsican general, as he is invited into their palace, observes the relationship between the little emperor and the canny diplomat, and the story ends with the surprising twist that Talleyrand makes Napoleon give Pharaoh back his ship and double the price of his confiscated cargo.

In case it wasn’t obvious before, by this stage it is clear that there is little or no magic and no fairies whatsoever in this ‘fairy’ book. Instead it is a fairly thorough rummage through Great Figures from History.

8. The Conversion of St Wilfrid The children are in the village church while local craftsmen fix the bells, particularly ‘Old Mr Kidbrooke’ (it’s noticeable how many of the locals are ‘old’ so-and-so, giving a kind of insistent sense of their antiquity and venerableness). An old lady is practicing the organ giving a thread which underpins the ‘frame’. A shadowy figure at the altar stands and reveals himself to be Wilfrid, Saint of Sussex, and Archbishop of York (633-709), chaperoned – as all these historical personages are – by Puck. There is a great deal of detail – as usual – about different hymn tunes, how they sound to the children, about old memorials in the church and so on – before we get anywhere near a ‘story’.

This is: Wilfred, his chaplain Eddi, and a well-educated pagan named Meon, go out in Meon’s boat a-fishing. A storm comes up and wrecks them on a rock off the coast. After surviving a day and a night on the rock, Meon’s tame seal, Padda, finds them, brings them fish to eat, then swims to the mainland and attracts some of Meon’s people out to the rock to rescue them. While they were out on the rock shivering, Meon asked Wilfred whether he should abandon his pagan gods and call on the Christian god for help. Wilfred said, ‘No, cleave to the faith of your ancestors’. And, after they’re rescued, Meon is so impressed by this example of Wilfred’s integrity under duress, that he – Meon – chooses, of his own free will, to convert to Christianity.

I tell you now that a faith which takes care that every man shall keep faith, even though he may save his soul by breaking faith, is the faith for a man to believe in. So I believe in the Christian God, and in Wilfrid His Bishop, and in the Church that Wilfrid rules.

And then – Wilfred is gone in a flash! – like all the personages Puck presents, and the children – having, as usual, been administered the leaves which make them forget the ‘magic’ incident – forget the whole ting, and end the ‘story’ enjoying the thrilling sound of the organ playing a grand tune in the dark and atmospheric church.

Convoluted and overstuffed with detail as most of the stories are, Kipling excels at the gentle introduction and then gentle postlude to each tale. He himself referred to them as the ‘frames’ for the yarns, and they’re often the most accessible and therefore enjoyable bits.

9. A Doctor of Medicine The children are playing hide-and-seek with bicycle lamps after dark when Puck arrives with the Jacobean herbalist and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper (1616 – 1654). Culpeper is portrayed as a comic figure, proud of his ‘exquisite knowledge’ but in reality full of outrageously tendentious twaddle about ailments being caused by elements loyal to Mars and combated by plants loyal to Venus, and so on. As usual the description in the ‘framing’, the setting of the story, is much the best thing.

Their shadows jumped and slid on the fruit-tree walls. They filed out of the garden by the snoring pig-pound and the crooning hen-house, to the shed where Middenboro the old lawn-mower pony lives. His friendly eyes showed green in the light as they set their lamps down on the chickens’ drinking-trough outside, and pushed past to the hay-mow. Mr Culpeper stooped at the door.

We learn that Culpeper was a strong Puritan, very much against the King during the Civil War. There is a lot of confusing detail about who has loaned the King what, which Culpeper discovers, or overhears, when he’s shot and taken prisoner at the King’s stronghold of Oxford. Once healed, Culpeper is released and goes with a friend to his village nearby which they discover to be in the grip of the plague. Here, through a series of preposterous and deluded calculations based on ancient lore about Mars and Venus, Culpeper suggests a policy of killing all the rats (creatures of the Moon) which is, in fact, the key to quelling the plague. Thus through completely bogus medieval superstitious reasoning, he stumbles on the true remedy, the villager kill the rats and cleanse and block up all their hidey-holes, and the plague abates.

10. Simple Simon The children go to watch half-a-dozen men and a team of horses extracting a forty-foot oak log from a muddy hollow. Suddenly Puck is among them and introducing a stranger, Simon Cheyneys, shipbuilder of Rye Port. Through a blizzard of circumstantial detail, local dialect and references back to a story in Puck of Pook’s Hill, a story of sorts emerges.

It transpires that Simon knew young Francis Drake when he was learning sailing in Kent and round the coast to Sussex; that they were both in a boat which came under half-hearted attack from a Spanish ship which they met in the channel, that ‘Frankie’ carried the wounded Simon ashore and to his aunt’s house to be treated for a wound received.

Then their paths diverge and Drake circumnavigates the world and goes on to become a famous man. Then the story jumps twenty years to the year of the Armada (1588) when Simon and his aunt hear that Drake is commanding the English fleet opposing the Spanish. He realises that, by the time the English ships get to the Sussex coast, chances are they’ll be low on ammunition. So Simon and his Aunt load up his ship –

We was ballasted on cannon-shot of all three sizes; and iron rods and straps for his carpenters; and a nice passel of clean three-inch oak planking and hide breech-ropes for his cannon, and gubs of good oakum, and bolts o’ canvas, and all the sound rope in the yard.

… and sail out into the English fleet. Simon and his Aunt ignore – and I think this is the point of the story – they ignore requests and then threats from all the other ships and senior admirals they sail past to give them these supplies, and hold out until they find Drake’s ship and hand over all the goods in person to him. Drake swings down into Simon’s schooner and kisses him in front of all his men.

“Here’s a friend that sticketh closer than a brother!” he says.

These provisions, it is implied, will give the impetus Drake needs to drive the Spanish fleet into harbour in the Low Country and then send in fireships to devastate it. Loyalty is not only a moral virtue in itself – it saves the day. It is Simon’s loyalty to a comrade which saves England and freedom.

11. The Tree of Justice This is quite an intense and moving story, told in Kipling’s usual convoluted manner. The children are introduced again to Sir Richard Dalyngridge who tells a story involving Hugh the Saxon – both familiar from a set of three stories in Puck of Pook’s Hill.

It is the reign of King Henry I (1100 to 1135) and he is in the woods hunting, with local Saxon villagers acting as beaters. One among the beaters is a lot older and, apparently, deranged and calls out threats against the king. The story focuses on the way the King’s jester, Rahere, establishes his ascendancy over the king and then explains to a cowed assembly of nobles that the white-haired, one-eyed old man is none other than Harold Godwinson, the former King Harold, supposed killed at the Battle of Hastings, but who survived and has been wandering his lost kingdom for nigh on forty years, berating himself for all his failures.

In the final pages Rahere is able to show to the old man that the current king and his nobles do not mock him nor blame him.

‘“Hearken,” said Rahere, his arm round Harold’s neck. “The King — his bishops — the knights — all the world’s crazy chessboard neither mock nor judge thee. Take that comfort with thee, Harold of England!”

And Harold is able to die a happy man, supported by the loyal Hugh the Saxon, one of the first historical personages we met back in the first story of Puck, who now rounds the whole series off as an exemplar of the virtue which all these stories promote with growing emphasis – loyalty unto death.


Where are the fairies?

The cover of the Penguin Children’s Classic edition of Puck of Pook’s Hill features a detail from a late Victorian painting of fairies. After all, Rewards and Fairies has the word ‘fairies’ in the title. And yet there are no fairies at all in either book. What there is is lots of people – people from historical times, it’s true, but very flesh-and-blood people whose stories contain barely a shred of magic, focusing instead on all-too-human incidents and concerns.

In fact, the average reader might tend to associate fairies with lightness and deftness, whereas the stories come over as incredibly heavy in at least four respects:

  1. Jargon They are packed to overflowing with Kipling’s delight in the slang, historic speech, technical terms and specialist knowledge of whichever period the character is from.
  2. Gossip The first half of all of them is generally chat and banter and gossip and yarning with Puck about this and that incident from the past – before they get anywhere near an actual ‘story’.
  3. Convoluted The stories themselves are often so convoluted as to be hard to follow – the story of Pharaoh’s smuggling activities, wreck aboard a French warship, arrival in America, adoption by a Red Indian tribe and climactic scene with George Washington, is enough material for a novel and feels very compressed.
  4. Moralising Last and most important – all the stories point a moral. The Puck books are extremely moralising – they preach the virtues of comradeship and loyalty, whether to one’s fellow centurions, to the friends one makes in dangerous times, or to the old gods. Over and again Kipling rams home the message that it is vital, it is the only thing in life, to stay loyal and to stay true.

Related links

A big thank you to the University of Adelaide for making most of Kipling’s works available online in such a stylish design, and to the comprehensive notes on The Kipling Society’s website.

Other Kipling reviews

Every room in Tate Britain (part one)

Tate Britain is dedicated to exhibiting British art from 1500 to the present day.

It is housed in a beautiful neo-classical building facing onto the river Thames. To the left a ramp and steps lead to the lower floor with a large exhibition space (currently showing Artist and Empire). To the right of the main building is the Clore Galleries (opened 1987), nine rooms on the ground floor housing the gallery’s big collection of JMW Turner paintings, watercolours, sketches etc, along with a room of Constable and, upstairs, a room of pre-Raphaelite drawings/paintings, and a room of William Blake engravings and paintings.

If you enter up the grand steps through the main entrance you arrive at a long central hall, home to changing displays and currently housing Susan Philipsz’ War Damaged Musical Instruments, an entirely audio display, tannoy speakers emitting the mournful sound of brass music played by instruments damaged in war, which she has rescued and refurbished. Sweet haunting sounds drift through the galleries as you saunter through the history of British art.

The west wing contains ten rooms covering British art from 1540 to 1910. Then you cross the entrance hall to the east wing and pick up the story in 1930, walk through another ten rooms containing the twentieth century exhibits.

Off to the side of these chronological sequences are single rooms dedicated to ad hoc displays of art ancient or bang up to date.

The rooms

1540

  • Full length portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Steven van der Meulen. I like the still-medieval feel, the flatness, the compaction, and the gorgeousness of the detail, the tremendously patterned gold background to the left, but also the idealised plants, flowers and fruit to the right.
  • Sir Peter Lely Two Ladies of the Lake Family (c.1660) I love the stylised round-cheeked cherub look of all Lely’s women. He was Dutch and emigrated here to become the principal portrait-painter at the court of Charles II, filling the position Sir Anthony van Dyck held for Charles I.

1730

  • Samuel Richardson, the Novelist, Seated, Surrounded by his Second Family 1740–1 by Francis Hayman. This isn’t a particularly good painting, I’m just surprised to learn of its existence. Richardson was a printer whose long epistolary novel about a 15-year-old serving girl named Pamela who writes letters to her parents about fighting off the ‘attentions’ of her country landowner master, Mr B, became the first bestseller and prompted a flood of merchandising and imitations. I enjoyed the attention paid to the silk of the dresses and the detail of the leaves on the trees.
  • William Hogarth The Painter and his Pug (1745) embodying a certain kind of pugnacious bully-boy philistinism. I’ve always enjoyed his O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) which is a pictorial list of reasons why the French are rubbish.
  • Hogarth’s crudity is highlighted by comparison with Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen (1773). Here the focus not now on the depiction of static fabric, as in the Hayman painting of 30 years earlier, but on the effect of the overall composition, the diagonal made by the three women, and the softening effect of light and shade on the numerous decorative details, flowers, rug, plinth, jug and so on.
  • Sir William Beechey Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy (exhibited 1793) reflecting the later 18th century fashion for ‘sentiment’, for subjects depicting finer feelings.
  • Henry Fuseli Titania and Bottom (c.1790) stands out from the other 18th century works, mainly portraits in the country, for its dark fantasy, note the tiny old man with the long white beard at the end of a lady’s leash in the bottom right.

Foreign painters in England

À propos Fuseli, it’s worth pointing out how many of these ‘British’ painters are foreign. Not featured at all here is the great Hans Holbein (German Swiss painter to the court of Henry VIII), but other foreign painters ‘incorporated’ into the British tradition include van Dyck (Flemish), Rubens (Flemish), Lely (Dutch), Fuseli (Swiss), James Tissot (French), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Netherlands), John Singer Sergeant (American), Percy Wyndham Lewis (Canadian).

  • I liked George Stubbs’ Reapers (1785) rather than the several dramatic horse pictures on display because it is unusual and it shows a very human, almost Dutch landscape-type scene.
  • Next to Reynolds the other great genius of the 18th century is of course Thomas Gainsborough, represented here by half a dozen enormous portraits and a few landscapes. I liked Henry Bate-Dudley: it is not a magnificent picture, the opposite, it has a quiet, a calm superiority or confidence. Note Gainsborough’s distinctively loose brushstrokes on coat, silver birch bark and among the leaves, but somehow coinciding with precise detail.

Looking back down the long 1780 room to compare them, you can see that Gainsborough is dainty and Reynolds is stately.

No religion

After five rooms I noticed a striking contrast with the National Gallery with its in-depth collection of European paintings from the same period – the lack of religious paintings. Overwhelmingly, the works here are portraits, with some landscapes. I counted only two religious paintings in these rooms:

  • Henry Thomson The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (exhibited 1820) with the stagey Poussinesque figures to the right but the rather haunting central figure of the dead daughter.
  • William Dyce’s Madonna and Child (c.1827–30) a sport, a freak, a careful pastiche of a Raphael painting and completely unlike anything else being painted at the time.

Our British tradition of painting may be thin until the time of Reynolds (1770s) but I think it is typical of the national culture that it focuses on real people and places, and very often on touching and moving personal stories, rather than the tearful Maries and crucified Jesuses of the continental tradition.

All of that, the heavy earnestness of the Baroque tradition of languishing saints, weeping Madonnas and annunciating angels, is completely absent from these displays. For me the religion is in the attention to ordinary life, the valuing of people and their feelings, the same emphasis on psychology and the human scale which saw the English pioneer the novel, the art form which more than any other penetrates the human mind. This sensitivity and refinement of everyday human feeling is exemplified in:

  • George Romney Mrs Johnstone and her Son (?) (c.1775–80) Sure they’re rich, sure it’s partly to show off the sumptuousness of the fabric. But it also shows real love.
  • It’s actually at the National Gallery, but Gainsborough’s unfinished portrait of his young daughters, The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (1761) epitomises the English ability to capture love and affection, not Holy Love for a Martyred Saint, but real human love, and childishness and innocence and intimacy and aliveness.

Even when we do intense and visionary, rather than angels floating round the heads of saints, it is embodied in people and real landscapes:

  • Take Samuel Palmer’s paintings strange, vivid, jewelled depictions of the landscape around Shoreham in Kent, eg The Gleaning Field (c.1833)
  • And striking because it is so unlike Constable and Turner and his other contemporaries is William Etty’s Standing Female Nude (c.1835–40), very modern in its frankness, not trying to be Greek or statuesque.

The Turner Collection

There is so much Turner. Enough to fill eight good size rooms in the Clore Gallery off to the east of the main building, and this is only a small selection of what Tate owns. Turner’s history paintings, Turner’s classical landscapes, Turner’s mountains, Turner’s figures, Turner’s watercolours. And in all states of finish, from vast formal commissions to sketches to unfinished canvases to the wispiest watercolours. Despite trying hard I find Turner difficult to really like, and the task is not helped by the sheer volume of material. There is a room here dedicated to ‘Turner and the human figure’ which proves conclusively how bad he was at it:

He went on the Grand Tour and I find the resulting huge Roman landscapes strained, pretentious, overblown, bad in a number of ways:

Senses blunted by the vast Roman landscapes, I perked up when I saw the much more modest, and therefore impactful:

All in all, I preferred the one room dedicated to Constable, which is hidden away in a corner of the Clore Gallery, to the eight preceding Turner rooms:

  • Fen Lane, East Bergholt (?1817) Like gently sloping farmland I’ve seen in my walks around Kent.
  • Glebe Farm (c.1830) the church nestling among trees, the solitary cow at the pond, the thoughtful little girl, all artfully composed to create a stock feeling, but a feeling I like.

Pre-Raphaelite Works on Paper

In the far corner of the Clore gallery is stairs up to the smallish room displaying pre-Raphaelite works on paper, lots of sketches but some oils as well. A wall label reminds me that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) only lasted from 1848 to 1853. I liked the strange, visionary, angular, amateurish but atmospheric work of early Rossetti, like Arthur’s Tomb (1860). Technically not as innovatory as Constable or Turner, but these small works convey an experimental psychology, using medieval motifs for very modern reasons, to convey the troubled inter-personal relationships of the Brotherhood and their various muses, anticipating the tensions of, say, the Viennese Expressionists fifty years later.

But there are also examples of Rossetti in his smooth, glowing, bosomy phase: Monna Pomona (1864). I liked the wall label’s description of the medievalising tendency in PRB work, its use of: ‘shallow space, tight interlocking composition and rich colour of medieval manuscripts’. A handy description of what I like about medieval art.

I liked Ford Madox Brown’s Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–6) the oddities of composition riffing off medieval ideas of space to create a very modern psychology.

The glory years

Although the earlier rooms contain many good paintings, in my opinion British art explodes into a glory of masterpieces between the mid 1880s and the Great War, the period which saw Victorian academic art reach its height of verisimilitude before being swept away by the exhilarating eruption of the new Modernism. Rooms 1840, 1890 and 1900 contain painting after painting of pure visual pleasure, greatest hits which make everything before them pale by comparison.

  • James Tissot The Ball on Shipboard (c.1874) Illustration of a Trollope novel.
  • John Singer Sargent Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–6) Barely a century after Reynolds, and how far not only painting, but the understanding of mood and psychology, has expanded and deepened.
  • John William Waterhouse Saint Eulalia (exhibited 1885) Exotic realism.
  • William Logsdail St Martin-in-the-Fields (1888) The figures, hmm, but the depiction of the church itself is amazing, conveying the cold and drizzle…
  • John William Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott (1888) Late Victorian Arthurianism.
  • Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Silent Greeting (1889) A fantasy of the classical world.
  • Stanhope Alexander Forbes The Health of the Bride (1889) Illustration for a Tomas Hardy novel.
  • Anna Lea Merritt Love Locked Out (1890)
  • Sir George Clausen Brown Eyes (1891) Haunting the way strangers glimpsed in a crowd sometimes are.
  • Henry Scott Tuke August Blue (1893–4) Why is it always naked women? Why not some beautiful boys for a change?
  • Thomas Cooper Gotch Alleluia (exhibited 1896) Peculiar, odd, immaculate in some ways, but look at their lips.
  • John Singer Sargent Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer (1901) The figures are impressive but it’s the vase that takes my breath away. Close up to the painting in the flesh you can see the casual mastery of oil with which it’s done.

And then, suddenly, bang! It is the Modernists with their Futurism and Vorticism and Fauvism and fancy European ways:

In the 1910 room are works for well after the Great War, like Eric Gill sculptures or Stanley Spencer or Alfred Wallis, but I’ll leave them for part two.

One-off rooms

  • One room contains three big bright double portraits by David Hockney. Hockney’s art has always seemed to me bright and empty, and also badly drawn, but I know I am in a minority.
  • Jo Spence Feminist artist-activist in the 1970s and 80s, member of the Hackney Flashers who spent a lot of time interrogating traditions, exploring issues, situating their practices. This seemed to involve quite a few photos of herself naked or topless, especially after being diagnosed with breast cancer. No doubt making serious feminist points, but also a treat for admirers of the larger woman.
  • Art and Alcohol Half a dozen historical paintings on the subject of the English and alcohol, one wall dominated by Cruickshank’s famous panorama of a pissed society (at one stage place in a room by itself with lengthy commentary). The highlight is the series of b&w photos Gilbert and George took in the 1970s of them and others getting pissed in a pub in the East End, the photos treated with various effects, blurring and distortion conveying a sense of the evening degenerating.
  • Anwar Jalal Shemza (1928–1985) Never heard of him, a leading artist, novelist, playwright and poet born in north-west India, which then became Pakistan, where he made a reputation before moving to England in 1962 – presumably he’s represented here because Tate bought his works thereafter. The wall label explained that he used Islamic texts as the basis for his abstract-looking paintings, but I was caught by some of the images which reminded me powerfully of Paul Klee, one of my heroes.

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