Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Shadows outside the window

“How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet … solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen”
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

If I cross Manchester with more than ten minutes to spare, I enter the City Art Gallery.  It must be one of the finest provincial galleries in the country.  I have my favourites there; the spaces where I can sit and stare at paintings I know quite well, hoping that they will reveal further secrets to me: some excellent pre-raphaelites, Mervyn Peake's stunning painting The Glassblower, and James Durden’s Summer in Cumberland.


The painting offers a bucolic scene of afternoon tea taken in a well-to-do country house.  The year is 1925.  The view of Derwent Water in the background with Catbells beyond indicates that the house is on the slopes above Keswick, perhaps it is near Latrigg.  The shadows across the carpet suggest that it is late afternoon. 
And yet there is something haunting about this picture; the young man in cricket whites seems poised on the edge of the group, excluded from the silver tea-tray, hovering long-limbed and awkwardly in the garden.  The colour of the sky hints of possible rain after tea. 
The painting captures in an oblique way that period bracketed by two wars, when the modernists wrestled with the search for understanding in the world, a promise that nothing so terrible could happen again.  1925 was the year in which T.S. Eliot wrote The Hollow Men (“This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper”) and Virginia Woolf published Mrs Dalloway.  It was the era of Eric Ravilious’ brief candle of a career, illuminating the landscape of English modernism, of his collaborations with David Jones and Edward Bawden.  At Capel-y-ffin, Eric Gill, nurturing his dreams of ideal communities away from the turmoil of the world, designed the Perpetua typeface.  In Paris, the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts brought Art Deco to the world.
In the drawing-rooms of country houses in Cumberland, meanwhile, tea was still served on silver platters.  Cricket matches may be briefly postponed for rain, or the village may struggle to find enough young men to raise a team,  but one could rely on the whites being freshly pressed for the weekend.  Durden’s picture may seem immune to the stirrings of the outside world, but we know in hindsight how the new promise of the 1920s contained the seeds of its own destruction.  There is something awful about to happen in the world beyond the window.  1925 also saw the publication of Mein Kampf.  The world would never be the same again.

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