Imagined Worlds ‘Kubla Khan’ project report

During 2016 and 2017 the Friends of Coleridge celebrated the bicentenary of the publication in 1816 of the visionary poem ‘Kubla Khan’.

The Arts Council supported this innovative project after receiving our initial application for funding, which showed a substantial number of organisations working in partnership with us to arrange a programme of poetry, art, walks, talks, film and competitions.

After the completion of the project I thought you might be interested in seeing the illustrated report that we submitted to the Arts Council, summarising the various activities we ran. Visit ‘News’ on the Friends of Coleridge website to view it
(ww.friendsofcoleridge.com).

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A Tale of Two Bridges – a story

My train was late, but that’s Italy for you.

I was following in the painter Henry Holiday’s footsteps. Had he taken the train? Was there a train to Florence to catch in 1881?

When I arrived at the hotel they’d given my room away. I waved my online booking, tried to sound assertive. They found me a poky room overlooking a rubbish yard where I was serenaded all night by brawling Florentine cats.

Things didn’t take long to get worse. I was standing on the Ponte San Trinita over the Arno looking down at the Ponte Vecchio, cigarette in one hand, a bag with my passport and money in the other. My mind on Dante, I tossed what I thought was the cigarette in the river, but threw my bag over the parapet instead. There was nowhere to hide, and what seemed like the whole of Florence cheered as I fished it out with a borrowed oar. Thank God the Arno was kind with its currents.

It’s raining, and judging from Holiday’s painting with its pale skies and gilded light, definitely not Dante and Beatrice weather.

Already things are out of kilter.

Henry Holiday’s ‘Dante and Beatrice’, a Victorian painting of unrequited love, and a favourite of mine. No, not a favourite, an obsession. When I stand in front of it I dream a different time. It starts happily, but by the end I’m heavy and morose, wishing things had turned out differently in my own love life—or the lack of it. If only I’d had a girl to court in a slow, formal manner when I was twenty-four, like Dante in Holiday’s painting. I wouldn’t have let her get away like he did. But it wouldn’t have been up to me—girls could tell straightaway I was happier in the library than on the dance floor.

Maybe that’s why I lecture. I practice in front of a mirror, project my voice, sound authoritative—I know my subject.

Be porous, I tell my students when they stand in front of Holiday’s painting. Let the colours, the deft brushwork, the luminescent light, the mood he’s conjured, seep into you. Feel the painting, grasp it intellectually, aesthetically, emotionally. Think why he’s conveyed the subject the way he has.

But today as I stand at the precise point over the Arno where Holiday stood over a century ago, I can’t say I’m receiving much of his painting’s tranquillity. My Lungarno riverside is noisy and congested, and I’m jostled by belligerent Italian youths on Vespas, darting in and out of the commuting Florentines.

So why am I here in Florence when I give the impression to my students I already know all there is to know about Holiday’s ‘Dante and Beatrice’? I’m here to search for him, just as I believe he came here with his palette and brushes searching for Dante. Was Holiday a fellow sufferer—unhappy, thwarted in life and love? Like me?

Standing here on the Ponte San Trinita I can see what Holiday actually saw rather than what he painted, and I’m aiming at getting closer to him than he got to Dante. With the start I’ve made I don’t feel particularly encouraged, but I’ll take my time, hope for a discovery, fresh insights.

How did this obsession begin, Holiday? Your obsession. Mine. Ours.

I was lecturing at the Walker, where your painting of the meeting of Dante and Beatrice hangs.

And there she was, one of a group of sixth-form students gathered around me, scribbling my pearls of art history wisdom in her notebook. Lecturing’s when I feel at my most secure, treading a well-worn path through a tried and trusted script.

Be porous, I was telling them, like the old ham actor I am. Imagine you’re back in 14th-century Italy. Absorb the harsh brilliance, see how Holiday’s colours float, shining and lustrous, spilling out of their containing frame like molten metal.

This is where students with a feeling for paint perk up. At their tender age I’m afraid they’re all feeling and precious little intellect.

I scan their faces. That one’s woken up all right. My Beatrice is on tiptoe, peering first at the painting, then at me. There’s feeling for paint there. With my tired old eyes fixed firmly on her I tell them to study the figures in the painting one by one. Are they connecting? Or do they seem strangers, disconnected? Are we witnessing a meeting, and if so, what sort?

I beckon the group closer, gather them around until we’re a yard from the canvas. Study the faces, I say. Notice how Holiday’s posed them, their eyes focused on a confusion of disparate points. I risk a glance. Is my Beatrice still with me? Yes! Her eyes bright, wide open. Most definitely porous! So, are any two relating? I address all twenty, but my appeal is to her.

I watch her bite her lip, then look at me and smile. She’s pointing, gingerly lifting a finger. Yes, my darling, exactly there! A secret intimacy, vivid, intense, as if the two share an understanding, something secret from the others. Like our secret, my little flame-haired darling!

She seems transfixed—by me, a balding fifty-five year-old. My own Beata Beatrix! I feel buoyed up, elated. I burn as I feel her eyes on me, her red hair tumbling to her shoulders, skin pure Pre-Raphaelite white, eyes an intense Holman Hunt blue—too much eye liner, of course, but that’s the young of today—nose broad and straight in true Rossetti style, lips full and pink with a distinct pout. She’s hanging on my every word, as if some profound insight has just been granted her.

But back to Florence and Holiday’s painting. I imagine I’m Dante, standing on the corner of the Ponte San Trinita, with the Ponte Vecchio in the distance. Three women stroll lazily towards him along the Lungarno (one with red hair like you, my darling!). They can’t be more than a few yards away, and Dante’s staring hard at them. The street’s empty so they know he’s watching. The woman in white clutching a red rose to her breast has turned her head away. It’s Beatrice, the woman Dante loves with mystic fervour.

What strikes me straightaway as I study my postcard print is how quiet the scene was in 1284. Today countless tourist cameras point down the Arno taking the same snap of the distant Ponte Vecchio. And that’s the first thing I notice you got wrong, Holiday. You painted the bridges too close together.

Does it matter?

It does. You made a point of coming all the way to Florence to get things right. Accuracy was an obsession with you, as it was with all pre-Raphaelites—think of your friend Holman Hunt trudging a thousand miles to the Dead Sea to set up his easel, then insisting on a real scapegoat to paint.

How did you put it, Holiday? ‘I wanted to get on the spot the general lie of the lines—the perspective, in fact, of the buildings and still more the sense of colour, and as far as possible to collect such fragments as remain of the buildings of Dante’s time, so as to be able to alter the details to the character of the period.’

If you exercised artistic licence with the bridges you tried hard to get everything else right. You’d read that the riverside path was paved with herring-bone bricks in Dante’s time, so you travelled all the way to Sienna where an original medieval brick pavement was still on the ground in the 1880s. Rigorous, laudable.

But the bricks aren’t what the painting’s about, are they? It’s about the celebrated meeting of Dante and Beatrice.

I’m finding it hard to swallow the received art history line that Dante is contemplating Beatrice with a spiritual longing. In fact, I’m not sure he’s contemplating Beatrice at all as she walks on. Is that what you wondered, Holiday, as you imagined the scene, standing where I’m standing now? Surely the poet’s looking at the woman in red?

Flesh against purity. We all know what usually triumphs.

The Walker has it that Beatrice is refusing to acknowledge Dante because of gossip that’s reached her that he’s been free in his affections with another woman. Dante said this was simply a ploy, that he was laying a false trail, reluctant to embarrass Beatrice by having his love for her made public.

But is Beatrice acknowledging him? According to Dante’s poem ‘Vita Nuova’ she is:
‘She was once more revealed to me, arrayed in the purest white, between two noble ladies, older than herself; and, as she passed along the street, she turned her eyes towards the spot where I, thrilled through and through with awe, was standing; and, in her ineffable courtesy, which now hath its guerdon in everlasting life, she saluted me in such gracious wise that I seemed in that moment to behold the utmost bounds of bliss.’

But if it did happen the moment has passed in Holiday’s painting, for Beatrice looks resolutely ahead. As my own moment of bliss had passed, when my red-headed beauty moved on to the Walker café with her friends.

So what did Dante do after this all too brief encounter with his life-long love? He went back to his room, the salutation he believed he’d received from Beatrice filling him with a profound bliss.

Ditto me, back to my flat, cat, and gas fire?

This time, no. I followed my own Beatrice into the cafe and sat in a shadowed corner with an espresso. A man in love clings to the faintest hope.

But back to the painting. Holiday seems to go with the Walker Gallery’s interpretation. Beatrice deliberately shuns Dante, and no wonder, if he was carrying on with her best friend.

I’m calling Beatrice a woman. Yet at the time of their meeting in 1284 she was just sixteen (just a year or two younger than my own red-headed love), and Dante a year older.

Another puzzle, Holiday. You’ve painted a Beatrice who looks in her late twenties. And Dante looks closer to my age, his expression the one I’m sure I wear much of my life—sad, hopeless.

Well, here’s my theory for what it’s worth: Beatrice didn’t acknowledge Dante because she had no earthly idea who he was. They’d met just once, when Beatrice was eight and Dante nine. Hardly much chance to build up a deep longing, spiritual or physical.

Did my little red-head see me watching her in the cafe? She did. I got looks, first from her friends and then from her, a look of first anxiety and then pure disgust.

I’m beginning to wonder whether your whole painting is a ludicrous fiction, Holiday. Did you scurry home to Hampstead armed with a bulging sketchbook, still fired by Dante’s ethereal vision of holy love? Or was your research overcome by lustful thoughts of young girls like mine?

If Beatrice is refusing to acknowledge the poet, Monna Vanna’s certainly showing an interest. She flaunts herself in your picture, her rich red dress hugging her sumptuous curves, poking out her breasts and glancing across at Dante with a lascivious look behind Beatrice’s back.

It’s on record that when you got home, Holiday, you straightaway modelled Beatrice and her sensuous friend in red on Eleanor Butcher and Milly Hughes, two lovely young girls. In your journal you say you just drew their heads. But we know that the clay models of them you sculpted were naked. Very courtly, very spiritual! I bet you enjoyed pressing and moulding wet gauze and plaster around the buxom breasts of Monna Vanna, our woman in red. You added the medieval gowns afterwards.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Odd, isn’t it, this Pre-Raphaelite obession with courtly purity? The whole crew of you were sex-obsessed, languidly sharing each others’ wives and girlfriends. Were you tired of bedding your embroiderer wife, Catherine? Maybe she had been getting into fleshly clinches with that animal Rossetti? Perhaps you hoped your Florentine painting would be a way of extricating yourself from a bitter marriage, sickened by the entire sexual merry-go-round?

So what’s left for me here in Florence in my quest for truth and verisimilitude? I run my fingers over the warm stones of the Ponte San Trinita, standing in the self-same position where Dante stood seven centuries before. At least that’s real.

Isn’t it?

No, Hitler blew the bridge up out of spite when he invaded Italy. What I’m standing on isn’t medieval, it’s a copy, a fake.

Is anything left here that’s not?

A girl edges in front of me. She’s leaning against the parapet. Seventeen, eighteen, no older. Someone jostles me and I fight for my balance, stumble, then inadvertently grab her shoulder, fall to my knees, brush her thigh, clutch her leg.

I lie on the paving breathing heavily, waiting for a slap, a kick. I clamber to my feet, terrified, my mind on the polizia, the infinite shame, a probable spell in a Florentine prison. I look up. Is this beauty grinding her teeth in anger at my sexual assault? No, she grants me a sweet smile—nothing enigmatic and Beatrice-like about that.

I study her face, she’s a painting already, with freckled arms and shoulders, a bare mid-riff, and smallish breasts. I back ignominiously away into the crowd.

My thoughts as I make my way back to the hotel? Ashamed, I can think only of her young body and the breasts I clumsily brushed. And, of course, a welter of lustful thoughts about my girl with red hair from the Walker.

Henry Holiday, his painting, Dante, Beatrice, courtly conventions, mystical love—all tossed like dry dust into the waters of the Arno.

I should have come in winter when the girls don’t go so undressed. An overcoat can be the saviour of a sad old man’s life.

Pigeons flutter on the herring-bone brick pavement, exactly as they do in Holiday’s painting. There’s nothing for me here. Time to go home, feed the cat, sit in front of the gas fire, plan my next lecture.

Beatrice went on to marry a banker, not a holy man or poet.

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In pursuit of Wordsworth

I visited Tintern again recently. I looked at the abbey ruins, but the real reason I went was because I had been re-reading Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’. For me it is a potent evocation of spirit of place. I first read the poem when I was very young and it still speaks to me.

As I wandered the ruins I imagined Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy standing alongside me, giving themselves over to a powerful experience of the Sublime. Ruins were sources of inspiration to the Romantic poets, and inspired by the teachings of Rousseau they deliberately sought out wild landscapes and ecclesiastical ruins.

The ruins of Tintern abbey have been structurally secured and spruced up by Cadw. Much of this work is vital for interpretation and health and safety reasons, but I’m afraid for me the abbey ‘experience’ failed and the ruins were devoid of atmosphere and life. Wordsworth would have experienced them very differently when he visited. Remote, hemmed in by the heavy woods around the Wye, they would have been deeply atmospheric, with ivy smothering the toppling masonry.

Both incarnations, though, conjure false pictures of antiquity. Medieval buildings were miracles of architectural vision and fine craftsmanship, and the abbey the monks knew was a new build, its stone work brightly painted and decorated.

I failed to find Wordsworth at the abbey. I couldn’t find him in the shop either, which ignored literary influences, its books and leaflets preoccupied with the building’s historical and archaeological significance.

I shouldn’t have been surprised: reading the poem again back at home I see that Wordsworth doesn’t mention the abbey at all. In fact it wasn’t written at Tintern but ‘composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ during a walk in 1798 along the River Wye. Wordsworth’s sights were set firmly upstream on settlements alongside the Wye, with their simple ‘plots of cottage-ground’ and ‘orchard-tufts’. He and Dorothy must have passed through the village, but had they been smitten by the Sublime at the abbey ruins their experience would surely have been recorded in the poem.

In pursuing poets into antiquity are we hankering in vain after fragments of ancient Gothic? Was I chasing shadows? Was it Wordsworth’s Tintern I visited or somewhere completely different? Was the poet still there to track down? I doubt he would recognize Tintern if he saw it today with its chocolate box cottages and proliferation of cafes and gift shops. No longer remote, it’s now a short drive from Chepstow and the M4 motorway. I came away disappointed.

I’m wondering how much restoration and change a building or place can take before it stops being what it was. Maybe it’s like the ship Theseus sailed home in from Crete. Repaired repeatedly, in the end there wasn’t much left of the original. Was it still the same ship or an entirely different one? It’s likely Theseus would have gone it by without a second glance. Possibly it’s the same with Wordsworth’s Tintern.

In pursuing poets into the past we make the error of looking back in time to experience the ‘old’. Wordsworth, to the contrary, was preoccupied with life in the present and had a passion for experiencing the ‘new’. Isn’t it this unstinting and courageous engagement with change and innovation that made the Romantic poets the visionaries we admire so much today?

I suspect that visiting sites with literary associations is never a satisfactory way of tracking down writers and poets. Nor if we seek out locks of their hair or gobbets of their ear wax. Think of the leather-bound volumes we pore through, their covers worn and their spines torn. In the poets’ time these same books were fresh off the presses. Wearing white gloves we gingerly handle poets’ manuscripts and letters as if they are icons, with the magical power to whisk us back in time. We may feel a frisson, but it is surely no more than that.

Maybe it is better to stick to the text. Is a poem any different if we read it in a Penguin paperback or a leather-bound first edition? It shouldn’t be (yet I confess I have just bought an 1803 edition of Robert Bloomfield’s ‘The Farmer’s Boy’, complete with a set of Bewick-style engravings. We never learn).

We can blame a lot of it on the current obsession with reading biographies. We plough through 500-page volumes revealing the most intimate biographical details about our favourite writers’ lives. Somehow we believe that if we know about a writer’s sexual preferences, and where he slept and if he smoked a pipe, it will bring us more penetrating insights into his poetry. I am not so sure. Would it not be healthier if we stuck to the text, allowing the words themselves to speak to us, as the poet intended?

Heritage bodies tend to treat writers’ houses in a similar fashion. Stylists and decorators are let loose, introducing bought-in period furniture and Farrow and Ball paints. The result is too often artifice, a false confection. Maybe writers’ houses should simply be left empty. This at least would allow us to let our imaginations loose.

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Imagists

I like the poet Amy Lowell. She was a key member of the Imagist movement, established by Ezra Pound in 1912. Its objectives were simple: write in free verse; make it musical rather than metronomic; steer clear of the flabby emotion and reflection characteristic of the Georgian poets; aim at clear, precise language; and choose the exact word rather than a contrived poetic equivalent.

Amy Lowell’s prose poem ‘Spring Day’, describing her observations of a day in the city, is a perfect example. Below is an extract:

‘Swirl of crowded streets. Shock and recoil of traffic. The stock-still brick façade of an old church, against which the waves of people lurch and withdraw. Flare of sunshine down side-streets. Eddies of light in the windows of chemists’ shops, with their blue, gold, purple jars, darting colours far into the crowd. Loud bangs and tremors, murmurings out of high windows, whirring of machine belts, blurring of horses and motors. A quick spin and shudder of brakes on an electric car, and the jar of a church-bell knocking against the metal blue of the sky. I am a piece of the town, a bit of blown dust, thrust along with the crowd. Proud to feel the pavement under me, reeling with feet. Feet tripping, skipping, lagging, dragging, plodding doggedly, or springing up and advancing on firm elastic insteps. A boy is selling papers, I smell them clean and new from the press. They are fresh like the air, and pungent as tulips and narcissus.’

The piece is richly descriptive, packed with arresting verbs and nouns suggesting movement and activity (swirl, recoil, flare, darting, whirring, spin, shudder, jar, blown, thrust, dragging, springing). There are no ‘like’ analogies to divert the reader’s attention away from the observation in hand. Lowell records things that are happening now, precisely as she sees them, making no attempt to re-shape or recast her observations in ‘poetic’ language. We imagine her eyes flicking back and forth along the city street, stimulated by the almost overwhelming welter of movement and activity. And, critically for the Imagists, she makes no judgement on the things she describes, ends with no moral message.

I opened an anthology of early Chinese literature at random yesterday and came upon the following poem below by the 8th-century poet Tu Fu. It reveals a similar aim to that of the Imagists. Like Lowells’ ‘Spring Day’, it too describes what the poet sees but has a totally different effect on the reader. ‘Spring Day’ is rich fare – frenetic, wired, with events coming at the reader thick and fast. Tu Fu’s poem is pared down and sparse, conjuring an atmosphere of stillness and calm.

Looking out over the plains
Clear autumn, sight has no bounds;
High in the distance piling shadows rise.
The farthest waters merge in the sky unsullied;
A neglected town hides deep in the mist.
Sparse leaves, which the wind still sheds,
Far hills, where the sun sinks down.
How late the solitary crane returns!
But the twilight crows already fill the forest.

Translated by A C Graham

What a difference in tone to Amy Lowell’s ‘Spring Day’! Both are concerned with precise observation. Lowell’s poem concerns itself purely with what is happening now in the foreground in this city street. Tu Fu observes what is happening far away in the distance. Are his observations occurring in rapid succession as in ‘Spring Day’? Or separated by seconds, minutes, hours? It is impossible to say, as the poet offers us no clues.

Incidentally, Amy Lowell was a translator of early Chinese poems. Her efforts, though, are considered by scholars to be over-worked. She tries too hard to turn their inherent stillness into vibrant poetry.

I find both poems immensely pleasing. The language in early Chinese poetry can be rich in symbol. For instance, the crane traditionally represents immortality. Do we need to know that to enjoy Tu Fu’s poem and gain something out of it? Would knowing it alter the poem’s impact? If we did it would make us start to think, to ponder significance, to search for a hidden message. We would be reflecting and internalising, allowing ourselves to be carried away from the poem. Surely the joy of Chinese poetry like Tu Fu’s is in the experience of simply allowing the words to sink in, to have their play with us.

Two poems employing the same process, with very different results.

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A hard night’s nesting

Below is a fascinating account of child labour that reveals an unusual link between rural and city life in the mid-Victorian era. It was written by Henry Mayhew, who observed, documented, and described the state of working people in the 1840s for a series of articles later compiled into book form. The illustration comes from the picture library of Victorian engravings I run with my wife (ww.victorianpicturelibrary.com).

From London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew, 1851

The young gypsy-looking lad, who gave me the following account of the sale of birds-nests in the streets, was particularly picturesque in his appearance. He carried in one hand his basket of nests, dotted with their many-coloured eggs; in the other he held a live snake, that writhed and twisted as its metallic-looking skin glistened in the sun; now over, and now round, the thick knotty bough of a tree that he used for a stick

He said: ‘I am a seller of birds-nesties, snakes, slow-worms, adders, effets [lizards], hedgehogs (for killing black beetles); frogs (for the French – they eats ’em); snails (for birds); that’s all I sell in the summer-time. In the winter I get all kinds of wild flowers and roots. I gather bulrushes in the summer-time. Some buys bulrushes for ‘stuffing’, that is, for showing off the birds as is stuffed, and make ’em seem as if they was alive in their cases.

I sell the birds-nesties in the streets. The linnets has mostly four eggs, they’re for putting under canaries, and being hatched by them. The thrushes are merely for cur’osity – glass cases or anything like that. Moor-hens has from eight to nine eggs, and is 1d a-piece; they’re for hatching under a bantam fowl, the same as partridges. [He goes on to list many kinds of bird, including the sparrow hawk, horned owl, woodpecker, and kingfisher – sold for ‘cur’osity’, and for putting in glass cases] …

‘I take all the cross country roads across fields and into the woods. I start between one and two in the morning and walk all night – for the coolness – you see the weather’s so hot you can’t do it in the daytimes. When I get down I go to sleep for a couple of hours. I ‘skipper it’ – turn in under a hedge or anywhere. After I’ve had my sleep I start off to get my nests. I climb the trees, often I go up a dozen in the day, and many a time there’s nothing in the nest when I get up.

After I take a bird’s nest, the old bird comes dancing over it, chirupping and crying, and flying all about. When they lose their nest they wander about, and don’t know where to go. Oftentimes I wouldn’t take them if it wasn’t for the want of the victuals, it seems such a pity to disturb ’em after they’ve made their little bits of places.

‘There’s one gentleman I sells to has a hobby for them. He puts ’em into glass cases, and makes presents of ’em to his friends. I’ve sold him a hundred nesties, I’m sure. The most of my customers is stray ones in the streets. They’re generally boys. The boys of twelve to fifteen years of age is my best friends. They buy ’em only for cur’osity.’

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The English Cartier-Bresson

I find it hard to believe that the the photographer James Ravilious died almost seventeen years ago. The son of the artist Eric Ravilious, he moved to North Devon in the early 1970s to live in a cottage owned by his wife, Robin. She is the daughter of the actress Jill Furse and the glass engraver and poet Laurence Whistler.

Trained as an artist and art historian, Ravilious found it daunting forging a path as a painter in the shadow of his illustrious father. He became enthused by the possibilities of photography, and spent many years photographing the landscapes and people of the agricultural lands of North Devon for the Beaford Archive. It is on this extraordinary legacy of black and white photographs that his reputation rests.

Ravilious was rigorous in his approach. He used old Leicas with even older uncoated lenses. He would never countenance cropping an image – what he saw was exactly what you got. If a subject attempted a pose he would wait until it had disappeared before pressing the shutter. He would talk animatedly with his subjects, engaging them in conversation, taking a series of rapid shots whilst they were unaware. As a result, his images have the quality of total honesty, and reveal a deep respect for the people he photographed. There is nothing contrived or bucolic about them, and he made no attempt to stylise or alter what he saw.

Last week a packed audience at St Luke’s church at Simonsbath enjoyed an illustrated talk by James’s wife, Robin. I have known and loved Ravilious’s photographs for many years, and it was wonderful to gain insights into the extraordinary characters James photographed – including Archie Parkhouse (see the image above), Ivor Brock, Alf Pugsley, Olive Bennett, and a cavalcade of others. We learned how James worked, and how the people and communities he photographed gradually came to accept him, inviting him to witness and record their daily tasks – including hedging and ditching, delivering lambs, harvesting – as well as photographing a whole range of village events and celebrations.

It is always difficult forging a reputation when your work is focussed on a small geographical area. What relevance do his Devon images have to a Londoner or a Yorkshireman? Yet I firmly believe that Ravilious is as important as Bill Brandt in the canon of British photography. Many of his photographs approach the genius of Cartier-Bresson – see the one below showing the Exmoor family watching the Cup Final.

I urge you to search out his images, many of which are online at the Beaford Archive. Read his books, too. Below is a short list.

An English Eye: The Photographs of James Ravilious,1998
A Corner of England: North Devon Landscapes and People, 1996
Down the Deep Lanes, 2001
Heart of the Country, 1980

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5-star review for ‘Riven’

I am delighted to have received a second 5-star review below for my novel ‘Riven’. It is available on Amazon as a Kindle book.

“This is a spell binding, haunting tale. What would you do if your wife died in childbirth, leaving you to care for twin baby girls joined at the hip and shoulder? What if this trauma tumbled you into a nervous breakdown, recovering only to learn that a famous surgeon is eager to operate on the girls to separate them?

The year is 1849 and surgery is in its infancy, the operation has never been performed successfully, and anaesthesia is a hit and miss affair.

We meet Thomas Tait Genoa, as he is about to embark on a desperate flight around the West Country seeking sanctuary, not knowing whom he can trust. He disguises himself as a topographer travelling with horse and cart with the girls in the back. Mixed with the fear for his daughters’ future is an overwhelming appreciation of the countryside from an artist’s perspective, taking the reader on the journey with him.

He meets many interesting characters on the way: there are depictions of the casual brutality of country dwelling worthy of Zola.

The book is a wonderfully woven tapestry of information about early photography and historic painting methods: how the countryside was captured on paper by various means and devices, bringing the countryside to town dwellers.

There are many twists and turns before the book ends, finishing with a thrilling chase at the climax.

What will happen to father and babes? Read this book and all will be revealed.”

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