A Brief History of Teeth in Art

From the Dabbler’s rich archives, Toby Ferris examines the place of teeth in the art of fifteenth century Italy and Northern Europe…

I have come to realise that if I am to make any real progress on my much anticipated, much delayed History of Whistling, I will first have to address the associated history of teeth.

I can do no more here than break a little ground, and think for a moment about teeth in art – specifically, the art of fifteenth century Italy and Northern Europe; for this is a world, seemingly, without teeth. The fifteenth century did not paint teeth, and I am forced to document, and speculatively account for, an absence (with a handful of telling exceptions, which I will come to).

It should be noticed first of all that the absence of teeth is not merely determined by whether mouths are painted open or closed, although there is a statistically significant predominance of closed mouths both in quattrocento and also Flemish art. Open mouths are represented as empty caverns, as though painters had no paradigm on which to draw and teeth were simply not in their repertoire.

How to explain this? In part, of course, it is just a question of the pose and its associated history – who could grin through a sitting? But it is a also matter, clearly, of decorum. The mouth parts are one of the portals to the inside of the body, the warm, clammy and damp interior. When Mikhail Bakhtin, discussing Rabelais and the carnivalesque, locates comedy in the ‘material bodily lower stratum’ – the stomach and digestive tract, the genitalia – he might have added that the mouth, the teeth and tongue, are the outermost precincts of this system. The teeth are an emblem of carnality, and to display them a contravention of decorum.

Which brings me to the exceptions. The damned in last judgements, wedded in life to their mortal flesh, have teeth, and they gnash them. So do all manner of animals and devils. So, of course, do skulls, teeth bared in death. And so, not strangely in all these connections, does the dead Christ, in paintings for example by van der Weyden and by Giovanni Bellini.

A dead Christ is an emblem of the fully incarnate god. To look on the face of a dead god is to see him as a man. And if Christ is fully man, then he must have a full set of teeth.

By the sixteenth century the gawping peasants who are finding their way on to panels and canvases also have teeth, plenty of them, wonky and yellow and gapped and hilarious, a trope anticipated by a very few Netherlandish paintings of the fifteenth century, such as the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes which so astonished Florence when it was displayed there in 1483.

And in fact, properly sensitised, if we look back at quattrocento art, we do find examples of painted teeth which do not fit the pattern of rule and exception, as though an arcane painterly language is being spoken which we are only now tuning in to, the subtleties of which we have not yet fully penetrated; as though our thoughts on carnality and death were in fact over-determined, and the concern of painters in fact lay elsewhere.

It comes as something of a shock, then, to switch to something from a more comfortably demotic age and culture, and see teeth painted with unabashed and uncryptic glee, as here by Frans Hals:

But this picture still falls, if my instinct is correct, fully within the accepted visual code of teeth. Bared teeth suggest carnality and death and this piece, like so much Dutch art of the seventeenth century, is about transience considered not as a boon of providence but as a mortal sadness.

And, to come full circle, it is no more shocking, I think, than this:

This is Masaccio, of course, the great progenitor of the Florentine Renaissance, and these are Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise. In spite of whatever I may have said about the inherited decorum, about the general absence of represented teeth, in this case the absence is almost the focus of the painting; not so much because these individuals are so clearly ill-fitted for the rigours of the world, which is going to demand among other things a strong set of teeth; but rather because the absence of teeth suggests that coming thus abruptly into the mortal state is not a dispossession, but more like the taking possession of a ransacked house; and the only form of protest available is a speechless, voiceless grief.

Atlas of Norbiton was a fortnightly bulletin from Norbiton: Ideal City of the Failed Life. Unlike its more comprehensive, detailed and discursive mother site, the Anatomy of Norbiton – the Atlas was intended as a pocket guide to the Failed Life for Failed or Failing Individuals on the move.

The Meaning of Size

Lost in reproduction: a tiny Venus meets a colossal Samson.

I was recently in Frankfurt for a few hours and visited the Städel gallery, where I reacquainted myself with Lucas Cranach’s Venus (1532), the painting used as the poster image for the Royal Academy Cranach show of 2008.

Fig-1

She is an unforgettable creation, a lightly-modelled snaky gothic lady with a diaphanous and entirely fictitious veil, standing on a heap of lunar rubble.

The poster hangs on a wall in a corner of my house. I have, over the years, spent a lot of time looking at it, thinking about late Northern Gothic, and other things. The poster is, needless to say but also crucially, poster-sized; however, I never thought in all this time to check the dimensions of the painting itself. I was knocked back, therefore, to discover (or rediscover) in the Städel that the panel is only 37.4 by 24.5 cm. Venus is just a few inches high; you are forced to bend in and inspect her, pruriently, as though she were a homunculus summoned in a bottle.

She hangs, moreover, in a corner of a vast room of large compositions – other Cranachs and Dürers and Holbeins, and I don’t recall what else. And through the door at the end, I think I remember, you can see Rembrandt’s Blinding of Samson (1636).

fig-2

The Rembrandt, in contrast with the Cranach, is a colossal composition, not just in size (206 x 302cm) but in manner – the paint is slapped on in violent gouts and streaks and approximate dollops (in particular on the highlights on the armour and manicles, and on Delilah’s pearls and skirt); both the vividness and vigour of the painting, you begin to understand, and the acuteness of the depicted light penetrating the chamber, do not so much re-enact the violence of the scene, as oppose it: the blinding is realised as a bacchanal of clear and visceral seeing, and the protest would not be so impassioned on a diminished scale.

Size and meaning are intimately linked. Or perhaps meaning is the wrong word. Size is linked to what a painting does. Rothko knew this – he painted radioactive fields of colour big enough to blot out all other visual stimuli, so that you are perceptually aswim in the vast implied non-space – but so did generations of miniaturists and illuminators, who counter-intuitively multiplied detail at the microscopical level at which they worked, so that the eye is anchored to increasingly, insanely, tiny things.

Partly for this reason, none of the Rembrandt’s visceral power is available in reproduction. You have to stand in front of it. But the same is true of the Cranach. Its scale and proportion are a crucial part of what it means – it an intimate, almost devotional object, originally forming a contrastive pendent (probably) with a similar painting of Lucretia; it is a meditative binary system. The manner in which you approach it is very different from the manner in which you approach the Rembrandt.

Fig-3

Reproductions aid memory in many ways, but they do not aid and can in fact confuse memory of scale. We hold our images in a universal card-file index of various standardised sizes – thumbnails, postcards, wallpaper, posters, and so on, and make them available online in high resolutions; but they remain no more than two-dimensional maps of a landscape you once visited, or might one day visit.

Going to see the image doesn’t help much. When you stand in front of a painting, you are unanchored, at large on the ocean of real experience. You move about, you move backwards and forwards, side to side, in and out, from various angles. There is no straightforward procedure for viewing it, as there is with listening to music or reading a book. You are just pitched into the middle of the object and left to paddle or flail about. You will never be able to take a series of calibrated mental snapshots of the object in question; as with most experience in life, you do not really know what it is you are storing up.

In short, presence offers us a certain sort of knowing; memory, quite another. Unfortunately the world -whether of paintings or otherwise – is characterised for us mostly by absence; it is a closed cupboard of concepts and things and people which we can access voluntarily, but never in their entirety, never all at once. And of course, in that cupboard, the objects of memory fade, change, distort, etiolate, as memory plays on one aspect rather than another – we remember the content of a painting, the figures, some anecdote surrounding our visit to it; we recall it to our mind’s eye, but it is hazy, blurry, inaccurate; and one thing we never remember correctly is its size.

Atlas of Norbiton is an occasional bulletin from Norbiton: Ideal City of the Failed Life. Unlike its more comprehensive, detailed and discursive mother site, the Anatomy of Norbiton – the Atlas is intended as a pocket guide to the Failed Life for Failed or Failing Individuals on the move.

The Rector of Stiffkey, unclothed.

Today we recall a Christian who threw himself to the lions.

It is a very terrible thing to be “framed up” and cruelly punished when one is entirely innocent. … I always call mine a clerical Dreyfus case. Still, I feel sure things will eventually right themselves, for “though the Mills of God grind slowly, they grind exceeding sure[sic]”.

Harold Davidson, in a letter to Lady Weigall, 1st January 1937

In 1937 the former Rector of Stiffkey, Harold Davidson, was killed by a lion called Freddie.

fig 1
The defrocked and disgraced prelate had been appearing in an entertainment in Skegness as Daniel in the Lion’s Den, with Freddie and a lioness called Toto. He would stand in the cage with the somnolent lions and give a little talk to the onlookers about the various injustices which he (Davidson, not Daniel) had suffered, for about ten minutes. On this particular occasion, he tripped on Toto’s tail and Freddie, startled to action, mauled the old man fatally about the neck.

It was not Davidson’s first dismemberment. Five years previously, following his conviction in Consistory Court on various counts of immorality, the Rector had been defrocked in a ceremony in Norwich Cathedral. Ironically it was the emergence of a photograph of Davidson posing with a literally defrocked would-be actress (and daughter of a friend) called Estelle Douglas which finally put the mockers on his defence.

Fig 2
I do not know whether he was present at the ceremony, which can be perfectly well conducted in absentia and unlike cashiering (I find, to my disappointment) does not involve an actual disrobing. It is merely a reading of the judgement of the appropriate authority framed by some prayers and hymns.

Nevertheless, the end of priesthood is a symbolical disrobing of the priest. A priest is a priest by dint of the clothes he (or she) wears. The analogies of enrobing run deep in the spiritual mind. What was the incarnated Christ, after all, if not a spirit-being dressed up in the weeds of humanity? Creation itself was an adornment of matter: twelfth century philosophers, building with gay abandon on some hints of St. Augustine, had developed the complex theory of exornation which explained how creation had taken place in two stages – first the summoning of inform matter (chaos); then the ornamentation of that matter (cosmos = cosmetics).

Of course this was supposed to be a logical, and not a dramatic, distinction; creation stories – whether of the adorning or finger-pointing variety – are for minds less rigorous. Nevertheless, the controlling metaphor both of creation and incarnation was one of investiture. The invisible was made visible by being clothed; a sheet was thrown over the ghost.

And then summarily whipped off again, if you were the Rector of Stiffkey. In the years following his disinvestiture, plain old Harold starred in various threadbare entertainments in Blackpool and Skegness, more or less as himself. To begin with he made appearances fasting in a barrel, a Diogenes of forbearance. Extraordinarily, and inexplicably to us, he drew crowds so vast a public order injunction had to be brought against the impresario of the show.

fig 3
After that he developed his act to include a tableau vivant of himself in an oven, being prodded with a pitchfork by a sidekick dressed as a devil. And finally he stepped into the lions’ den, with tragicomic consequences.

It seems that the Rector of Stiffkey used to be proverbial. I had not heard of him until I visited Blakeney a few weeks ago, and passed through the village of Stiffkey. My source on that trip, a friend called Timothy Feakins whose powers of recall are admittedly variable, assures me that as late as the 1950s he (the Rector, not Feakins) was sometimes dragged out in double-page spreads in The Express as a paragon of moral turpitude. Davidson’s descendants have subsequently made efforts to show that he was the victim of persecution, originating in local grudges and village suspicions and subsequently amplified by the ponderous investigative machinery of the church and the reverberations of the gutter press.

Like a confused old Lear, however, the extent of his culpability is no longer of central interest. There remains to us only the carnivalesque spectacle of a man fragmenting: the uncloaked priest was no more than a shocking tittle of bit-parts and rumours, self-justification and self-abasement, so that it is difficult to see where persecuted Daniel ends and cigar-smoking Harold begins. Unaccommodated man, we might reflect, is no more but such a poor bare forked animal as Harold Davidson was (“off you lendings! Come, unbutton here [tearing off his clothes]”).

Fig 4

Atlas of Norbiton is an occasional bulletin from Norbiton: Ideal City of the Failed Life. Unlike its more comprehensive, detailed and discursive mother site, the Anatomy of Norbiton – the Atlas is intended as a pocket guide to the Failed Life for Failed or Failing Individuals on the move.

Wagner and the Contraption

The unexpected pleasures of the technical glitch.

2013 is Richard Wagner’s bicentenary, and I notice there will be a concert performances of several of his operas at the Proms in July, including a complete Ring cycle.

I’ve seen concert performances of Wagner before and they are exhilarating, effective, moving, what you will; but in the end they lack that properly Wagnerian ingredient, the inevitable technical glitch.

Last year I attended the Ring cycle at Covent Garden, and in scene 4 of Das Rheingold, Erda’s chair juddered to a unscripted halt as it descended through the stage. The goddess was forced to hop off and squeeze her way back down the hole between the chair and the edge of the stage; then the ransomed Freia had to make the opposite journey – a bit of a clamber, by the look of it.

Fig-1

It was an enjoyable moment of pantomime in its way, the sort of unfortunate but enlivening technical mishap to which all theatre is heir but which in Wagner is always lurking in the wings, often quite literally: my brother was present at a performance of Parsifal in which, at the point that the hero semi-miraculously catches Klingsor’s spear, the dimmed lights came on prematurely to reveal him groping for the weapon in the curtains.

Wagner had a childish and not-unsympathetic gusto for big effects. His theatrical imagination, in contrast to his musical or even dramatic imagination, was one of wonders and marvels, of ropes, pulleys, papier-mache dragons, smoke and trapdoors; a contraption-bound stagecraft very much in line, I suppose, with nineteenth century vogues of illusionism and magic, but rooted ultimately in a medieval theatre which had learnt that crude mechanical marvels could happily stand duty for the miraculous.

Fig-2
In 1439 a Russian Orthodox bishop present at the Council of Florence wrote a detailed account of the annual sacra rapresentazione which took place at the Church of the Carmine on the Feast of the Assumption. He took particularly careful note of the mechanics of the performance. Christ, having exited a model of Jerusalem built on and around the rood screen, made his perilous ascent on a rickety cloud which had come down from a tower representing heaven, some eight metres high; over this tower God the Father was suspended with a troupe of dancing angels. The cloud came down roughly half way from heaven on a system of cables and pulleys which seems to have worked not unlike a modern elevator, and Christ rose to meet it by the same means. The Russian notes that there were seven cables, and it all worked very smoothly with very little juddering.

But there was no doubt considerable room for mishap. The whole assemblage must have teetered invitingly on the edge of catastrophe, especially given that the same machinery was wheeled out year after year for a hundred and more years. I like to think there was a rich and hilarious folklore handed down through the generations, about angels pitching down from the roof or catching their wings on fire on one of the many hundred lanterns of the empyrean, about the risen Christ giving himself rope burn sliding down the cables or getting his smock caught in the pulleys.

And so the theatre was in Wagner’s day and remains an ancient and gouty art form; its marvels creak at the joints. Covent Garden is now blessed with the most extensive mechanical arrays. There are wings the size of aircraft hangers, revolving stages, trapdoors (inevitably), pyrotechnical explosions (and on night we saw Die Walküre, there was considerable trouble getting Loge’s fires started; it started up in the end with a belch like an old gas stove).Wagner’s theatrical effects, you would think, would by now have been perfected. But this is not the case. It seems that no matter how advanced the mechanical apparatus, all it can ever do is elicit something between a snigger and a gasp. We are never going to be scared of the dragon, or mesmerised by the floating mermaids, just as, I am sure, by the early sixteenth century when the sacre rapresentazioni fell into desuetude, the populace were no more convinced than they ever had been that they had witnessed a miracle: we are asked only to marvel at the fact of it, register it, or enjoy it, emblematically; not be fooled or convinced by it.

fig-3

Atlas of Norbiton is an occasional bulletin from Norbiton: Ideal City of the Failed Life. Unlike its more comprehensive, detailed and discursive mother site, the Anatomy of Norbiton – the Atlas is intended as a pocket guide to the Failed Life for Failed or Failing Individuals on the move.

Bench Life

Prepare to be re-oriented – we welcome back the Atlas of Norbiton, which today maps out benches and their historical ramifications.

Years ago when I was teaching English in Rome I had an American colleague – William Smith III of Colombia, South Carolina – who one month, with still some days to go until payday, laid it out his last ten-thousand-lire note in the world on twenty cigarettes, a newspaper and an ice-cream, and spent a sunny afternoon sitting on the shady stone bench at the base of the Palazzo Farnese.

Fig-1
This apparently cavalier gesture was, I like to think, underpinned by a certain precision, in part because of the jigsaw nature of Bill’s calculation – those three items would have come to almost exactly ten thousand lire at the time – and in part because of the spot he chose. That bench is not just anywhere; at the risk of sounding fanciful, it marks a precise boundary between the zone of pure idleness and the theatre of civic engagement, a boundary which Bill – with his ice-cream, cigarettes, and newspaper – very emblematically straddled.

Fig-2
Al-fresco bench-sitting in general has a history rooted in the classical civilisations, but Bill’s particularly ambiguous brand it is perhaps more accurately tracked to the Renaissance, because benches running around the base of Renaissance palazzi were both an aesthetic and a political gesture: the benches were made not only to enhance the structural cohesion of the classical facades – paralleling the other horizontal courses (frieze, cornice etc.) and rooting the pilasters and columns – but to gather the clan.
Benches are where suitors and clients sit and wait, retainers pick their teeth and scowl at visitors; a bench or network of benches draws people to you. And where before they might have skulked or shivered in the courtyard of your inward-looking fortress, they were now draped around the exterior like a billboard.

The pioneering building in this respect was the Palazzo Medici in Florence, built for Cosimo de’ Medici by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo between 1445 and 1460.

Fig-3
The bench which skirted the Palazzo Medici (and penetrated it – it lines the entrance way and parts of the courtyard) deliberately mimicked those of the main civic centre of Florence, the Piazza della Signoria, which had tiered stone benches on three sides and was conceived as a theatre of state: elders would be ranged on benches during the great public celebrations, themselves a visible emblem of order and dispersed power in the burgeoning republic.

In stealing the idea, the Medici were clearly trying to establish another centre of gravity along the via Larga – the street that connected their new palace with the monastery complex of San Marco which Cosimo heavily patronised. But other new palazzi quickly copied the Medici pattern – the Rucellai, the Pitti, the Stozzi; and in short order the patrician palace bench became a universal feature both in Florence and elsewhere, and so lost its political bite; it was sucked into the commonplace background of the city and could revert to the seat of idleness it had always, in truth, been.

Because bench sitting, however clever the political manoeuvre, is proverbially associated with idleness. A park bench is where the retired, the unemployed, the failed in general go to run out their time. Similarly in the fifteenth century, to say that someone couldn’t get himself off the bench (non si potere levare al panca) meant that they were not only impecunious but had no recourse, no hope of betterment. Ghirlandaio, in the background of one of the frescos in the Sassetti chapel in Santa Trinità, shows the Piazza Signoria as it really was, with loungers and gangly youths sprawled over the sacrosanct seating (to the left is the so-called ringheria around the leading edge of the palazzo; straight ahead is the Loggia dei Lanzi, which still has its benches today):

Fig-4
The Italian Renaissance city was never exactly a city turned inside out – real power still kept indoors. But, like Uncle Feedle’s house in Bagpuss, which only stood up when stuffed with cotton wool and had all its furniture on the outside, its major buildings had now institutionalised idle or disgruntled hanging about, and re-imagined them as a form of action.

Thus while Bill on the bench was not quite a stone-broke retainer picking his teeth with a knife and waiting for something to turn up, he was nevertheless not merely hanging around; he was a man of about 30 in a poorly-paid job with aspirations which had drawn him to Europe but which he had not yet fulfilled; and at that low ebb he had put together his little theatre of wry defiance – he had an ice-cream, this was Rome – and planted himself stolidly on the brink of, well, some other thing.

Atlas of Norbiton is an occasional bulletin from Norbiton: Ideal City of the Failed Life. Unlike its more comprehensive, detailed and discursive mother site, the Anatomy of Norbiton – the Atlas is intended as a pocket guide to the Failed Life for Failed or Failing Individuals on the move.

Archaeoacoustics and the life unwhistled

If we listen at the tombs of the ancients what can we hear?

In the suburbs of the small town of Tarquinia in Northern Lazio there is a necropolis of the former Etruscan inhabitants. Etruscan necropolises vary in form depending on local custom, rock-type, age and so on. The necropolis at Cerveteri, for instance, is built to the plan of a city, with streets of monumental tombs in the form of round huts and terrace fronts, mirroring the town of the living.

The Necropolis of Tarquinia, by contast, is an inverted city of the dead: single or multiple chambers are cut into the soft volcanic tufo rock and surmounted with tumuli; all that is visible of them so many hummocks on the level hillcrest, with their various concrete entry-ports.

The walls of roughly two hundred of these Tarquinian tombs are painted with scenes of hunting and fishing, banqueting, orgies, games and swimming, dancing, music. According to D.H. Lawrence, who, shortly before his own death, viewed the tombs by acetylene lamp ‘death, to the Etruscans, was a pleasant continuance of life, with jewels and wine and flutes playing for the dance.’

While the painting is both extraordinary and famous, Tarquinia is sufficiently out of the way that, on a weekday morning in February, say, there will be no one but you and a guard or two up there on the windy hill top.

The chambers are approached down steep passages, now cut with steps. You sit on the bottom step of a given tomb, the air heavy and musty and immobile, peering through the toughened glass that seals off the chamber, looking at these vivid scenes, and you rapidly become aware of the peculiar sensory profile of the experience; in particular, the odd acoustical properties of the tombs. The tombs are humid and still, but above all they are silent.

There is, as I recall, a very low hum of electrical circuitry – lights, which come on automatically as you approach, and dehumidifiers. There is the sound of your breathing, disconcertingly loud; and of your booming voice if you happen to speak. Other than that your ear drums are left to grope in the aural darkness.

There is a branch of archaeology called archaeoacoustics, which occupies itself with the aural world of antiquity. It is a minor branch, given that archaeology typically entertains itself with the material culture, but I like to suppose that it is actuated by important questions such as, did the armies of Alexander whistle as they marched? Or indeed, did the ancients whistle tunes at all?

One of the early stimuli in the field of archaeoacoustics was the claim made by Richard G. Woodbridge III in 1969, in an article in Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers which referred to some subsequently unverified and unrepeated experimental success, that sounds of ancient life might have been encoded in artefacts such as pottery, through vibrations transmitted by the hands of the potter; or in the plaster of walls by plasterers. We might, with adequate technology, reconstitute the voice of Masaccio’s workmen, or the workshop chatter of Exekias, or, less ambitiously, the sound of a dog barking, or someone whistling.

In truth, it is much more likely that sounds are not accidentally encoded in this way. Recording to a soft medium demands a refinement of the means of inscription, in order both to amplify and clean the input – requires, in other words, proper technology and intent.

This not only makes me a little sad – most of what we do in life is, so to speak, a whistling of the spirit; it is not etched into the world, so much as vaguely doodled with a mental finger in the warm muddy canals of the brain – but also has implications for my magnum opus, the history of whistling, which seeks in part to recover what cannot ordinarily be recovered – the sound of ancient worlds.

In the tomb of the Leopards in Tarquinia, there is a pair of musicians, one playing a lyre and the other a double flute.

‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ are sweeter’ says Keats, musing on the acoustical properties of a Greek pot. Perhaps only to the more empirical mind, then, does the active, almost aggressive silence of the tombs at Tarquinia, seem disturbing. Tombs are meant to be quiet, of course, but in that silent dance with flute and lyre, in that most aurally undifferentiated of places, we are acutely aware that a whole dataset is now irrecoverable. All the soft matter of life, including, not incidentally, that of the tombs’ former inhabitants, and their whole intricate civilisation, has been entirely erased.

And who can say that this is not how the Etruscans represented death to themselves: as a silent town, as flutes played in a vacuum, as tantalising grapes; an exclusively visual world, then, unsupported by any sense of taste, smell or touch. Or hearing. Perhaps what they painted was not life-in-death, as D.H. Lawrence surmises, but life shorn of complex sensory interaction and dimension. A life, so to speak, unwhistled.

Atlas of Norbiton is a weekly bulletin from Norbiton: Ideal City of the Failed Life. Unlike its more comprehensive, detailed and discursive mother site, the Anatomy of Norbiton – the Atlas is intended as a pocket guide to the Failed Life for Failed or Failing Individuals on the move.

A Brief History of Teeth

In this bulletin from Norbiton, Toby examines the place of teeth in the art of fifteenth century Italy and Northern Europe…

I have come to realise that if I am to make any real progress on my much anticipated, much delayed History of Whistling, I will first have to address the associated history of teeth.

I can do no more here than break a little ground, and think for a moment about teeth in art – specifically, the art of fifteenth century Italy and Northern Europe; for this is a world, seemingly, without teeth. The fifteenth century did not paint teeth, and I am forced to document, and speculatively account for, an absence (with a handful of telling exceptions, which I will come to).

It should be noticed first of all that the absence of teeth is not merely determined by whether mouths are painted open or closed, although there is a statistically significant predominance of closed mouths both in quattrocento and also Flemish art. Open mouths are represented as empty caverns, as though painters had no paradigm on which to draw and teeth were simply not in their repertoire.

How to explain this? In part, of course, it is just a question of the pose and its associated history – who could grin through a sitting? But it is a also matter, clearly, of decorum. The mouth parts are one of the portals to the inside of the body, the warm, clammy and damp interior. When Mikhail Bakhtin, discussing Rabelais and the carnivalesque, locates comedy in the ‘material bodily lower stratum’ – the stomach and digestive tract, the genitalia – he might have added that the mouth, the teeth and tongue, are the outermost precincts of this system. The teeth are an emblem of carnality, and to display them a contravention of decorum.

Which brings me to the exceptions. The damned in last judgements, wedded in life to their mortal flesh, have teeth, and they gnash them. So do all manner of animals and devils. So, of course, do skulls, teeth bared in death. And so, not strangely in all these connections, does the dead Christ, in paintings for example by van der Weyden and by Continue reading

The Norbiton Charabanc

The country house as shipwreck…

The location of artworks around the world is a form of historical record. You could if you wished read the flows of trade and money and power and financial clout over the ages by studying the bills of sale of oil paintings, statuettes, antiquities, in much the same way as you might follow Phoenician trade routes across the Mediterranean by correlating finds and dates of pottery and bronze votives.

So for example you might intuit, by reading their roster of artworks, that the country houses of England were once important places. These were houses and tracts of land so obscenely large that in their day they were able to attract art and artists and architects like Renaissance towns, and while I am as much a Bolshevik as the next man, I will admit to a mild fascination with their quiddity, a fascination just sufficient to offset the natural and healthy desire to run amok with a cudgel and a pitchfork.

Proust describes his first encounters with ‘the quality’ in terms of the submerged and otherworldly; when he sees the Princess de Guermantes and her retinues at the Opera, he likens them to naiads and coral gods at home in their grottoes, inaccessible and strange. So too country houses have something of the shipwreck about them, craggy, ghostlike, and frequented by hoi polloi interlopers, wide-eyed and moving slowly like so many fish. And, like a good Mediterranean wreck – a Phoenician bireme, for instance – they will if you are lucky be spilling over with encrusted treasures.

It was consequently somewhat in the spirit of a marine archaeologist that I visited two such houses in Oxfordshire one day this summer: Rousham for its gardens (designed by William Kent) and Upton House for its art collection.

Upton House has unfortunately been turned into a rather unimpressive 1930s theme park, presumably by the National Trust, keen to sweat its assets. Thus you are invited to handle various objects, play the piano, or have a crack at billiards; it stops short for now at animatronics, but you can overhear recordings of ‘typical’ drawing room conversation as you walk from room to room.

No one can be drawn here by all this. It elucidates nothing. But by comparison, the art on its walls of the old house is peculiarly alive, even if it does not represent, in the modern sense, an experience. And while many of its former confident attributions, chiselled into the gold frames (Rembrandt, Filipino Lippi) are now questioned or rubbished (not least by my travelling companion, the Norbitonian Ray Bartley, who both questions and rubbishes in a loud and irascible sotto voce – he is particularly scathing about the ‘Crivelli’) it remains a great collection: eclectic, rough around the edges, frequently spectacular, and grandly informal – the sort of place where they will lend you a torch to inspect the grisaille front panels of their Bosch (follower of) triptych.

If Upton House suffers from its National Trust branding (the regulation restaurant, gift shop, plant stand and second-hand bookshop, all very studied and gentile) then Rousham contrasts favourably. It is a private house. There are no visitor facilities whatever. You park next to the muddy Landrovers, get a ticket from an automatic dispenser, are advised that no children under 15 are allowed, and left to get on with it. You can visit the house by prior arrangement only (and I hereby courteously extend the reverse privilege to the owners of Rousham; they are also welcome to inspect my garden, but it will cost them a fiver. No pushchairs).

But who would want to visit the house? The gardens are the thing, an early essay in the English landscape style by William Kent in a very extraordinary state of preservation (of course gardens have a way of preserving themselves, called growing; but the arrangement of the gardens has scarcely altered in almost 300 years). Here, for the curious, is Monty Don looning around in them, like a lone deep sea diver.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hii4NToIVq4&feature=youtu.be[/youtube]

At Rousham, away from the Kent gardens, there is a pigeon house. Ray Bartley, putting his head inside and puzzled by its purpose, remarked that it was like a library of pigeons.


And it occurs to me that my objection to these houses, or rather my unease with them, is quite as much taxonomical as sociological. I can usefully group no one house with any other. Visiting one does not confirm or consolidate any greater sphere of knowledge. To know country houses, it is necessary to know each of them in turn, as an object almost entire unto itself. They are, culturally speaking, odd murky underwater loomings, lonely, disenfranchised, rusted anchors in a spatial system that has long since faded to drovers’ tracks and memories of paths and ancient inimical patterns of tenure. And thus to burn them to the ground and appropriate their treasures would be, above all, an epistemological comfort, a way of reducing the world to more general and wieldy concepts, such as National Gallery. Which means, I suppose, that they are redeemed, provisionally, by their irreducible peculiarity.

Atlas of Norbiton is a weekly bulletin from Norbiton: Ideal City of the Failed Life. Unlike its more comprehensive, detailed and discursive mother site, the Anatomy of Norbiton – the Atlas is intended as a pocket guide to the Failed Life for Failed or Failing Individuals on the move.

Flinders Petrie and the Museum of Everything

In which Toby at last discovers the acme of museums…

I have finally located the Museum of Everything. It is in London, on Malet Place, and it is called the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

Museums, as we know, are compendiums of objects. But the further you travel – physically or conceptually – from the great national collections, the more compendious they become. Thus, to take some examples at random, the Museum of London has a place for mammoth bones; Norwich Castle Museum has an extensive display of stuffed animals, including a polar bear; and the museum of naval history in Chania, Crete, in amongst the model ships and uniforms and accounts of battles, has a room of sea shells, fanatically arranged by size.

When I was a boy, my brother and I started a museum of this sort in our attic; we never had a single visitor, of course, but our collection was a model of eclecticism: animal skulls – a cow, a sheep, several mice – old bottles, coins, box brownies, whatever we could find that there was more than one of; as though we had picked a corner of creation to arrange, in size order.

We were no doubt aping what we supposed a museum must be like, but, by a circular intuition, a museum to me now is a proper museum insofar as it approximates to this museum in the attic. A museum, in short, should be an arrangement of Everything, not a selection from it. And the Petrie Museum is, in that sense, the acme of museums.

Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) was among the founding fathers of modern archaeological practice. He pioneered stratigraphic techniques of excavation by which he documented and fixed the location of every morsel in the desert which was not actually sand; and developed standards of seriation in pottery which enabled sites to be accurately dated. ‘I believe’, he said, ‘the true line of research lies in the careful noting and comparison of the smallest detail’. Or, as he might have said, in the careful noting and comparison of Everything.

Most of the important objects which emerged from his many digs he handed over to the relevant Great Museums, but he also built up a personal hoard of some 80,000 things, and these he eventually sold to University College London, which now holds the most interesting bits and pieces in what they describe as open storage.

Where do you start to look, in a museum of Everything? They thrust a map of the collection into your hands as you go in (they being the students who I suppose staff the museum in their off hours), but you may as well thrust a map of the cosmos into the hands of a newborn. The whole exhibited collection is compressed into a couple of largish rooms, through which, and around which, and along which and on the walls of which run (and hang) glass-cabinets like the canals of the brain; you squeeze yourself in narrowly among the artefacts as best you can, peering, up, and down, and through, trying to settle to the compacted rhythm of the dense old-fashioned organisation, resistant as it is to contemporary notions of accessibility.

Not that it is wholly inaccessible. The labyrinth is way-marked with hand-typed cards, propped and strewn and skewed and dog-eared, which are for the most part neither descriptive nor discursive, but curt, accurate and informative. Locally, with regard to what is in front of your face, you know precisely where you are.

You do not, however, know where you have just been or where you are about to go. The chronological underpinning is itself a span so broad it tends to cultural infinity. Petrie was not only interested in dynastic Egypt – there are Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic finds, the detritus of pre-dynastic civilisations, and the cultural spore of the Arabs who swept the remnant Byzantine civilisation away. And the organisation is never merely chronological. It is also by type (cabinets of stele, of amulets, of bead jewellery, of glass; a particularly rich collection of mummy portraits) and by site or by tomb.

The collection strongly favours the everyday. There is a rat trap from the town dump, a pair of two-toed socks, several extraordinarily preserved Continue reading

Arrows of Norbiton

What does the flight of an arrow describe for us today?

In my last post, speaking of horses, I concluded that we were losing a certain collective mental shape, and I now find the same to be true of the flight of an arrow.

I was a spectator at the Olympic women’s team archery a week or so ago, and, an archery novitiate, was surprised to discover that I could clearly see the arrow in the air, arcing away towards the target. It was a strangely logical sight – a Renaissance philosopher might have concluded that the bow must necessarily release energy in the form of a bow – but it was also a thing of beauty: rapid, precise, and, with the barely audible sequence of pluck, flutter and thud, softly musical. And, for piquancy, a little bit deadly.

It was a beauty, moreover, that was once commonplace. The bow was the weapon of Apollo and of Artemis. You might need to spear a boar or a lion, but the gods loosed arrows at bucks and hinds, animals which were emblems in their own right of mechanical motion realised as liquid flow.


Around this thin line of beauty there is a familiar if vanishing cultural and metaphorical accretion. The arrow is a ubiquitous image of directness and swiftness, of unerring aim and lethal flight; of power operating at a distance. It lodges in Harold’s eye (perhaps), or hangs in Assyrian stone, a mark of kingly power and unfailing retribution.

Archers are lithe, graceful, elegant; or they are brutal, impassive. The archers in various martyrdoms – of Saint Sebastian, for instance, or Ursula – are conduits of tyrannical power. The barbarity of the twinned Pollaiuolo bowmen and crossbowmen in the National Gallery (below) is in part generated by their use of crossbows, which are cranked machines compared with the traditional bow; and in part by the fact of their taking point blank aim. The compression of the trajectory is an aesthetic affront, translating the visible unfolding of intention and judgement inherent to a shot with a bow into an invisible and instantaneous assault.

The key to the beauty of an arrow flight, to repeat, is the fleeting but visible arc. In this it is unlike its modern analogue, the bullet, which makes its passage like a jittery electron, jumping from point to point. We struggle to comprehend that a bullet dropped from shoulder height and a bullet simultaneously fired parallel to the ground will land at the same time, just as we struggle to understand superposition, the multiplicity of quantum states. The flight of a bullet has, in a sense, passed beyond a perceptual threshold. We need to figure it to ourselves in other terms.

Not that bullets do not have their trajectory. My father, who was a gunner-navigator in the fleet air arm towards the end of World War II, said that, given the contrary motion of planes, the vagaries of wind and fear, and the difficulty of calculating for bullet drop over ranges that were hard to distinguish against cloud, a gunner would do well to splatter his target with four or five rounds in a thousand, a strike rate which would leave a Mongol horseman smirking with incredulity, but which testifies, like wandering tracer rounds, to a wilful and impetuous arc.

This arc is susceptible to the same drama of violent compression as in the Pollaiuolo canvas. In Manet’s Execution of Maximilian, the victims of the firing squad stand at the end of an arc so short it tends to a flat line, even to a point in space, an instantaneous all-comprehending explosion.

The rifle, of course, has its epiphanies of marksmanship and cool-headedness, just as the bow does; Yul Brynner or James Coburn allow their shooting to unfold across space and a fragment of time. Thus just as there is a gulf of grace between Artemis hunting deer and the archers shooting Saint Sebastian, so is there a gulf between Manet’s firing squad and Steve McQueen protecting Mexican villagers from tyranny.

The archers that I saw in action last weekend, were of a different, less carefree breed. Their discipline demand a metronomic, and you might say bureaucratic repetitiveness; one of the Chinese archers has a pressure mark running down her face, across her lips and chin from the countless thousands of precise draws she has made. They are sporting bureaucrats: diligent, methodical, unflappable, mildly sinister, like secretarial assassins. But I am sure that they take pleasure in the arrow flight and its easy perfection, in an ideal form realised unerringly, again and again.

Atlas of Norbiton is a weekly bulletin from Norbiton: Ideal City of the Failed Life. Unlike its more comprehensive, detailed and discursive mother site, the Anatomy of Norbiton – the Atlas is intended as a pocket guide to the Failed Life for Failed or Failing Individuals on the move.