All these he sings beneath an oak tree, not knowing where his flock is feeding, or their number, or even where the earth is.
The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair
And there on the landing’s the light in your hair.
John Betjeman, ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’
This spring I’ve been teaching a group of first-year BA art history students at the University of Essex about a small number of the infinite ways that philosophy and the history of ideas have impacted our own studies of art, architecture, and visual culture. Recently I explored Philostratus the Elder’s Imagines in my seminar, and we then went to the National Gallery to put some of his poetically ekphrastic utterances to work in an entirely different context. Philostratus invited his readers into the pictorial worlds he saw unfolding around him in a gallery in Naples. Descriptions are rich with smell, touch, symbolism, allegory, and a sense of movement as though the artworks would come to life the moment one turned away, if only to prove the viewer right about their energetic details and composition. I don’t know how often Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s 1991 Sainsbury Wing extension for the National Gallery in London has been discussed in relation to the Imagines, but it turns out that they can be in exceedingly productive conversation with one another. Playing on classical architectural vocabulary and the art historical canon, the Sainsbury Wing’s interior features include a list of names of the Great and the Good of the Renaissance art world. The last of these, leading visitors up the stairs and into the galleries of glowing altarpieces, is Raphael.
While teaching undergraduates has put me in a thoroughly ekphrastic mood, I’ve been researching John Ruskin and John Betjeman’s architectural writing for a lecture I’m giving for the Betjeman Society at the magnificent Two Temple Place on 17 March. All are welcome, and the building really is one of the most architecturally exciting places in London. My intention is to demonstrate the common goals of these two giants in British cultural history, drawing on their prose and poetry in relation to some of the items currently on display in the Cotton to Gold exhibition. J. M. W. Turner, William Morris, and John Everett Millais are in play alongside my interwoven stories of Betjeman and Ruskin’s reactions to the preciousness of art and architecture. It is that sense of preciousness – that the legacies of human creativity are all too often so vulnerable and frail, even when buildings or paintings may have a confident sense of permanence about them – which unites Ruskin and Betjeman as ‘fighters for beauty’ across generations. Both were lauded, both were respected, both are counter-culturally on or off the syllabus (they’re usually on mine, of course), and both are all too often misunderstood and appropriated by audiences who force these people’s words and ideas to serve agendas that might have surprised and dismayed them.
Through the heavy door whose bronze network closes the place of his rest, let us enter the church itself. It is lost in still deeper twilight, to which the eye must be accustomed for some moments before the form of the building can be traced; and then there opens before us a vast cave, hewn out into the form of a Cross, and divided into shadowy aisles by many pillars. Round the domes of its roof the light enters only through narrow apertures like large stars; and here and there a ray or two from some far-away casement wanders into the darkness and casts a narrow stream upon the waves of marble that heave and fall in a thousand colours along the floor. What else there is of light is from torches, or silver lamps, burning ceaselessly in the recesses of the chapel; the roof sheeted with gold, and the polished walls covered with alabaster, give back at every curve and angle some feeble gleaming of the flames; and the glories round the heads of the sculpted saints flash out upon us as we pass them, and sink again in to the gloom. Under foot and over head, a continual succession of crowded imagery, one picture passing into another, as in a dream; forms beautiful and terrible mixed together; dragons and serpents, and ravening beasts of prey, and graceful birds that in the midst of them drink from running fountains and feed from vases of crystal; the passions and the pleasures of human life symbolised together, and the mystery of its redemption, for the mazes of interwoven lines and changeful pictures lead always at last to the Cross, lifted and carved in every place and upon every stone; sometimes with the serpent of eternity wrapt round it, sometimes with doves beneath its arms, and sweet herbage growing forth from its feet; but conspicuous most of all on the great rood that crosses the church before the altar, raised in bright blazonry against the shadow of the apse.
John Ruksin, The Stones of Venice, Vol II, Ch IV, London, 1853, 18.
But can we still see it in isolation? Is not the popularity it once enjoyed, and our own reaction against it, a disturbing element? I may confess to you that, when I approached the Palazzo Pitti this autumn to study the picture in preparation for this lecture, my heart sank as I saw the coloured postcards, box lids, and souvenirs displayed on the stalls in front of the Gallery. Should I really inflict this on you? A fresh encounter with the original removed my doubts. My doubts but not my difficulties. For, after all, you have only my word for it that the painting looks different from those baneful reproductions, that the very brushwork shows a freshness and boldness which banishes all thought of the sugar-box, and that the colours, under old varnish, have a mellowness and richness which no print and no copy can bring out. I remember in particular the warm golden brown yellow of the Christ-child’s garment, as it stands out against the deep blue of the Virgin’s skirt, the dark red of her sleeve and the gold-embroidered back of the chair, and, most of all, the blending into harmony of that daring green scarf which so easily brings a cheap and discordant note into prints. There are some patches of repair and over-painting over cracks affecting St John and the fringe on the Christ-child’s face; but by and large the condition of the picture seems to be good, and the enamel-like finish of the Virgin’s head, the spirited, fresco-like treatment of the drapery and the chair with its impasto highlights all appear to me to betoken the master’s own handiwork. It is true that even in the Pitti Gallery it is not easy to come to terms with the picture. The vast golden eighteenth-century frame produces a dazzle that all but kills the subtle gradations of tone on which Raphael relied. As soon as you screen it off with your hands the picture comes to life.
E. H. Gombrich,‘Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia’ (1955), in Norm and Form, London, 1966, 64-65.