Monday, October 31, 2011

John Hoyland, R.A.

On behalf of the director, Amy Meyers, and the whole staff of the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, I come this morning as an emissary to pay our tribute to John Hoyland. We mourn the loss of such a distinguished Royal Academician, and, of course, we pay our respects to Beverley, to Jeremy, and to their family and many friends and colleagues. Last autumn John’s work was seen in abundance at Yale thanks to the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Lurie, who have for decades supported John, and acquired a great deal of his work. We were delighted not only that John and Beverley were with us then, and gave so generously of their time, above all for our students—he really was a trooper—but also that John was able to know and derive satisfaction from the decision reached by Mr. and Mrs. Lurie to present to Yale their entire collection of his work. John has been a presence in the United States since the mid-1960s when in New York he attained the recognition of the powerful critic Clement Greenberg—not, I think, an easy feat because with that recognition Greenberg was famously parsimonious—but thanks to this remarkable gift henceforth John will remain powerfully present with us for as long as earthly things endure. And for that we give hearty thanks.

As the Rector pointed out in the beginning, light is at the heart of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and there can be no color without light. If poetry is music set to words, as a colleague of mine suggested lately, then great paintings may be, can be, poems wrought by color. No doubt they are many other things too, but John’s work surely brings us in that direction. The death of a major painter, and a colorist as dazzling as he was, inevitably makes us wonder where that light came from, and what it means for talented individuals to harness and share it for the benefit of all who care to look. Though John has gone, the colors remain, reflecting the light—the sunlight of the Mediterranean and of tropical places: Jamaica and the waters of the Caribbean; the lush green hills of Bali; even the ocean beaches of southeastern Australia. But in a larger sense John’s work, his legacy, surely hints at what in this great parish church we call light perpetual. May it shine upon him.

St. James’s Church, Piccadilly
Thursday, October 27, 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Martin Postle’s exhibition Johan Zoffany, R.A.: Society Observed is taking shape here just now, and will open to the public next Wednesday evening. The process of unpacking and hanging the many loans is always exciting, and brings to mind what Brian Porter assures me Lady Woods once remarked to Miss Mountain at the conclusion of Speech Day at Merton Hall: “What a wonderful series of treats!”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


This week The Queen is visiting Australia for the sixteenth time since 1954. I have a vivid memory of the third of those official visits in 1970, to mark the bicentenary of the arrival of James Cook aboard H.M.S. Endeavour. I was five, and in the first grade at Grimwade House. Every schoolchild received a little medal to commemorate the event, and mine is somewhere. I must find it. Dad and Mum took me down to Port Melbourne to witness the arrival in Hobson’s Bay of the Royal Yacht Britannia. Not too far from Station Pier I waved my small Union flag with tremendous vigor, and was in every other respect beside myself with excitement. I have no recollection of seeing anything or anyone larger than a couple of brightly colored specks, descending the gangplank, and transferring to the snappy little tender that brought the sovereign, the Duke, Prince Charles (aged 21) and Princess Anne (19) all the way up the River Yarra, not I suspect an experience in those days that was ever likely to become etched upon their collective memory. Nevertheless, the drama created by the gradual approach of an ocean-going vessel as big, as sleek, and as glamorous as Britannia, and the certain knowledge that The Queen was definitely on board, these outshone anything that is now ever remotely feasible in the conveyor-belt desolation of a modern airport, even the patch of cement that is from time to time with pluck designated as the V.I.P. Apron. So to some extent when I think of The Queen, as I quite often do, I think also of that childhood vision of Britannia steaming up Port Phillip Bay. I think of the immense crowds, too, Maie Casey, Mr. Gorton, Jumbo Delacombe, Miss Mountain, Mrs. Woods, and the huge black Rolls Royce Phantom VI that I gather still lives in Canberra, and by no means in semi-retirement.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


I have just now had a childhood recollection of almost stupefying vividness. What do these mean, and where do they reside for so long in some backwater of the brain before they jump out and scare us silly? One afternoon more than thirty-five years ago I took the tram home from Grimwade House as usual, but became so absorbed in reading a book that I failed to notice that instead of turning left from Balaclava Road into Hawthorn Road, my tram continued straight ahead into the completely unknown territory of deepest Caulfield, where I had never before ventured. I had evidently taken the number 3 tram without realizing it, instead of the number 69 (as it was then known). It would be useful to know what book induced in me such complete absorption, possibly Finn Family Moomintroll or Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson? (I recall having a soft spot for the Hemulen.) I cannot remember what I did, other than to scramble off at the next tram stop, which was a considerable, panic-inducing distance farther ahead, and to run with my schoolbag slung over my little shoulder all the way back to the junction of Hawthorn and Balaclava Roads to wait patiently for the next 69. However, what I do remember with a shudder and much clamminess in the palms of my hands is the fright, the awful terror of looking up and out at a Melbourne streetscape that was completely alien to me—and the feeling, not entirely momentary either, of being horribly lost and alone. The afternoon was hot, dry, and dusty. There were no pedestrians, few cars on the road, and a couple of drunks lounging at the Balaclava junction. In a way, it now seems extraordinary that our parents entrusted us to the care of Melbourne public transportation when we were barely nine or ten, but nothing too dreadful ever seems to have happened to me whilst traveling on it other than this.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Before an all-male crowd impassively positioned in the granite loggia above, a white-bearded archpriest prepares to administer the solemn pagan midwinter rite of human sacrifice. Flanked by gold lions, weird, semi-hypnotized attendants, and a sacred tree, the facade of his temple sanctuary is sumptuously decorated with interlacing bas-relief traceries, and a polychrome sculpture depicting some terrifying Norse god with ruttish goat-headed supporters. Gloved trumpeters, horn-blowers, and frenzied blond dancing girls greet the victim, who, ecstatically discarding his wolf-skin cloak (though not his ceremonial gold diadem, armlets, and ring), enters, otherwise naked, on a massive gilded sacrificial sled. A detachment of four slaves drags this under heavily armed escort, attended by more temple prostitutes muttering over precious idols, while in the foreground, a flamen priest wearing a blood-red cloak reverently prepares to carry out the gruesome ritual with a single stroke of the gold-handled dagger he clasps in his right hand. Welcome to Sweden. This enormous mural by Carl Larsson is right at the top of the main staircase of the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, and contains much that is informative and useful for the first-time visitor, at least I found it so. Beautiful, arctic, nautical, Sweden carries her immensely long history with pride, certainly, but also with an air of burden, wearisome solemnity, almost resignation. There are more than seventy museums in Stockholm alone, and most if not all of them refer to the terrible things that routinely happened here before there was a Sweden—the dense pine forests that enclosed; gloomy seas that swallowed whole; ice floes that encased and engorged; bottomless lakes; sprites, trolls, wolves, and wicked magic; darkness that descends for months on end, and (as Fiona rightly points out) the sermons thundered by Pastor Bergman from his pulpit in the Hedvig Eleanora Kyrka, literally putting the fear of God into little Ingmar. In purely museological terms, lately in Stockholm I was again and again put in mind of P. G. Wodehouse, and observed by way of paraphrase that obviously there are few people in the world less elfin than a late nineteenth-century Swedish art collector.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


I cannot understand the disinclination of most air travelers to gaze down at remarkable sights. Once I flew right over Niagara Falls, having been alerted by the captain to the prospect of this awe-inspiring view out to starboard. Afterwards I looked around and every single portly window-seat traveler was impassively glued instead to the television mounted on the back of the seat in front. Yesterday’s transatlantic journey was far more amazing. The flight to New York from Stockholm took an especially northern route—I’m not sure why. At first we headed north-west and out over the Norwegian Sea, across the Arctic Circle, eventually leaving Iceland far to the south. After some hours we then hugged the coast of Greenland for quite a long time, then crossed the southern end of it, heading in due course right across the Labrador Sea, onwards over the vastnesses of mainland Newfoundland and Labrador, not all that far south of Nunavut, into darkest Québec, then more or less due south over the mighty St. Lawrence and essentially down the Hudson Valley into Newark, N.J.: only seven and a half hours. The view of Greenland was wholly unimpeded, and there is something mind-boggling about flying for an hour or so over seemingly endless glaciers of incomparable scale and power, enormous territories without the merest hint of human habitation. Having just spent some days sampling the material culture of the Vikings, I was struck by the contrast between what they managed to do with longboats and broadswords and hemp and runes and the effortlessness of modern travel by jet. It could not be starker. The least one can do is to be amazed and humbled by it, to harness imagination to the eye, be in thrall, and not watch television. Unfortunately at length an elderly Swedish flight attendant with glossy scarlet fingernails ordered me to close my blind, so that was that. In a way I suppose the Vikings are still with us—certainly I was not inclined to resist, for fear of being brained with a Champagne-bottle (business) as with a cudgel at, say, the Battle of Hjörungavágr.