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Lost and Found

Not indigenous to London, I am one of those visitors who scrutinise the map pillars dotted along the capital’s street corners. I spend my time desperately looking ahead for that red and blue underground halo, so that I can escape to a subterranean network of smooth rail tracks that mechanically deliver me to my desired location.

Last time I visited London was no different. Except on this occasion, I was not looking for the obvious. I was not meandering in the perplexing hiatus between the Piccadilly underground station and Trafalgar Square to immerse myself in our national painting collection, nor pottering steadily along the Southbank, a path punctuated with its many artsy venues. This time, I was searching for somewhere a little bit more specialised. In a leafy corner of Brunswick Square, I finally found my spot. What I had been looking for all this time was The Foundling Museum, a place that celebrates the work of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity established in 1739. Built on the hospital’s original site, I was met with the view of a pleasant red-brick regency facade. Relieved that I was no longer lost, its appeal was all the greater.

The Foundling Museum

The Foundling Museum

What had drawn me to this special place was not simply an interest in learning more about the establishment as a humanitarian venture. Philanthropist Thomas Coram founded the charity as ‘a hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’, children who were struggling in London’s urban squalor.

Hogarth's Gin Lane, depicting London's ills

Hogarth’s Gin Lane, depicting London’s ills

Of course, this in itself is enough to captivate anyone, but what was particularly intriguing to me was the fundamental role of art in securing the success of Coram’s work. Instrumental to the start-up of the hospital was Coram’s collaboration with Hogarth and Handel. Hogarth donated his own work and persuaded his artist contemporaries to assist in gifts to the hospital in order to support it, and they were rewarded with governorships. Not only was this Britain’s first home for abandoned and destitute children, a hospital in the traditional sense of being a place of care, but it was also the first public art gallery in the UK. And Coram took things further. His alliance with Handel led to the donation of an organ to the chapel and beneficiary performances of his famous Messiah. For a blogger like myself who loves to explore the ways that the arts can better us and who believes that the arts should open doors for everyone, there is no better place than The Foundling Museum, triumphing what it terms the hospital’s ‘creative philanthropy’.

Thomas Coram

Thomas Coram

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel

William Hogarth

William Hogarth

As I was led up the original staircase from the boy’s wing, I enjoyed a fresco-like display of original pieces from Hogarth and friends and was shown the rococo Court Room with the original marble over-mantle by John Michael Rysbrack and William Wilton plasterwork. Small children ran past in white curly 18th century wigs, full of half-term glee at their trip back in time. As they frolicked, visually and aurally evocative of those young people for whom the hospital had originally been built, I was reminded of the museum’s first room, which comprised of real-life photographs, letters and stories of foundling children who had benefitted from the hospital’s kindness up to its closure in the 1950s. As well as the paintings, sculptures, clocks and furniture by the likes of Reynolds, Gainsborough and Hudson, the museum also displays cabinets full of foundling children’s tokens, trinkets passed from parent to child to mark their farewell and promise the chance for reunion in a better future.

A touching reminder of familial ties

A touching reminder of familial ties

This works powerfully in tandem with grander spectacle elsewhere. A stunning Hogarth painting, Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter (1746), adorns the Court Room, unveiled at a public dinner on 1 April 1747. Its messages are clear; Moses as a foundling child is given a new life, his pining mother a sorrowful presence in the background as a touching reminder of the sacrifices parents made to better their offspring.

Hogarth's Moses Brought Before Pharaoh's Daughter

Hogarth’s Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter

Having received criticism at the time for its anti-Christian encouragement of promiscuity, by offering sanctuary for illegitimate children, Coram and his associates were keen to stress the Christian legitimacy and benevolence of their mission through Biblical allegory with dazzling aesthetic effect. And that effect remains as we view the picture today. The founders of the original hospital and the curators of the museum collaborate in their efforts across time. They celebrate, then and now, the way that art heightens our sense of our own humanity and acts as a powerful social tool of beneficence.

As I walked through the rooms, the art and artefacts showcased around me of all shapes and sizes were not just a way for me to open a door on the past, but had once been a way for foundling children to open a door onto their own futures too. Although a glimpse of an opulent world that these children never would experience, the artwork that supported their hospital gave them an escape from the festering gutters of London, the chance for shelter, the chance to develop skills for a new start. The museum’s art collection acts, therefore, as an imaginative portal to another world for us in the present, and an actual portal to a new life for children in the past, and that is where its power lies.

On the top floor is the Handel room, where visitors can sit back in the so-called ‘Handel chairs’ against a backdrop of the composer’s greatest works. Close your eyes and you are in the audience of one of his beneficiary concerts; open them and you see the original copy of his will across the room leaving his assets to the hopsital. The past and present are perfectly bridged. Indeed, the Foundling Hospital lives on today in the children’s charity, Coram, named after the original figurehead himself. By visiting The Foundling Museum and engaging with its displays, we continue the imaginative and emotive connection with the plight of the foundling children that Coram, Handel and Hogarth put in place over 270 years ago in 1739. What moves me is not that it is art for art’s sake, but art for humanity’s sake.

Rococo splendour in the Court Room

Rococo splendour in the Court Room

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‘Gatsby? What Gatsby?’

A new film is upon us from the man who visualised Shakespeare’s Mercutio cross-dressed and gyrating on the sweeping Capulet staircase to ‘Young Hearts, Run Free’ in a white diamante bra and choker. Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ has burst onto our screens with much the same panache and beat as his 1996 ‘Romeo and Juliet’. As Luhrmann revealed in an interview for Sky Movies, he first envisaged creating a film out of Fitzgerald’s classic as he travelled on the Trans-Siberian railway after filming ‘The Moulin Rouge’, enjoying the novel in audio book format as he dozed off with a glass of red wine. Just like the fantastical ‘blue gardens’ and ‘yellow cocktail music’ of Fitzgerald’s imagined world, Luhrmann has conjured up a vision of ‘The Great Gatsby’ that cavorts as if it is haunted by the cancan dancers and clownish entertainers of that infamous Parisian nightclub, born out of train journey slumbers and wine-fed dreaming.

gatsby 1

Luhrmann’s inspiration is apt, as the novel really is all about dreaming. Nick’s dream of Gatsby, Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, Gatsby’s dream of Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s dream of  Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s dream, or perhaps nightmare, of America. Hemingway claimed that Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda used to encourage her husband to drink whilst writing. Perhaps, much like the stumbling narrator Nick , who sits ‘within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life’, Fitzgerald wrote his novel through a haze of ethanol, in a state of wakeful dreaming. He shaped the black ink on the page with a mind blurred and fluid at the edges, at liberty to fantasise, to fashion the synaesthetic party scenes in which the senses queasily intermingle. Even after all the bloodshed, the smashing up, the loss, there is a small place within Fitzgerald’s imagination still enchanted by a faith in dreaming that he has shown to be futile. He is in part charmed by the ‘orgastic future’ that we ‘stretch out our arms farther’ to reach, despite its eluding us ‘year by year’. It is Fitzgerald’s ambivalence that defines Gatsby’s ‘greatness’. Like the sublime, he is a figure who unnerves as much as he attracts, just as his dream is as romantic as it is dangerous.

Gatsby himself, with Luhrmann's flamboyant touch

Gatsby himself, with Luhrmann’s flamboyant touch

It is this instability that Luhrmann fails to capture. He dreams with the carelessness of the party- goers and the wild romanticism of Gatsby himself, and doing so, the caution and nuance of the author’s craft is lost. The word author is etymologically related to authority, seen in the close relationship between the medieval words ‘auctor’ and ‘auctoritee’. The hold of an author over their work has always been problematic from literature’s foundations, with writers such as Chaucer struggling to establish clear power. He prefaced his works with vocalisations of modesty which instructed readers didactically as much as they apologised for any shortcomings and shook off culpability for dangerous misinterpretation. With the invention of the printing press in the 1450s, private manuscripts became available for public readership. Popular anthologies such as Tottel’s Miscellany encouraged a collaborative authorship, with readers actively taking to the page with quills and amending sonnets, circulating new versions and subverting the original poet’s power. Clearly the authority of authorship has always been contentious, but it is difficult to lose ourselves in the film’s contrived and off-piste opening, as a washed-up, bearded and morose Nick talks softly to a psychiatrist as snowflakes dust around the sanatorium. Luhrmann’s portrayal of the story’s narrator provides a painfully unsubtle metatextual experience, as Nick’s words clunkily etch themselves across the screen in typewriter font. Suddenly, the famously unreliable voice careers off with such autonomy that even as Fitzgerald’s powerful cadence draws the film to a close, Nick must wrap it all up in a ring binder and in a moment of casual afterthought asterix ‘the great’ onto the title of his manuscript, ‘Gatsby’. Giving such deliberate power to a narrator who oscillates so infamously between repulsion and attraction in the novel, Luhrmann re-shapes Fitzgerald’s tale with a carthartic neatness, a ‘once upon a time’ frame that counters its original sense of emptiness, negating the force of the ‘foul dust’ and ash that swirls through its pages and drains away any prospect of redemption.

The original 1925 book sleeve, rather less sparkling

The original 1925 book sleeve, rather less sparkling

Of course, it is important to recognise that a film is a work of art in its own right. But for dedicated Fitzgerald fans, Luhrmann’s emphasis seems to usurp the ultimate dreamer, the author. The novel’s greatest moment of loss is given a sense of rose-tinted fatefulness in the film. Gatsby’s death is romanticised by his desperate belief that Daisy is the one at the end of the trilling receiver, a point in the plot that Fitzgerald fashions with devastating sparseness. Nick can only imagine that Gatsby looks up at the ‘unfamiliar sky’, detached from the ‘new world, material without being real’, a man who had ‘paid a high price for living too long with a single dream’. Lying not far away is Wilson’s body and ‘the holocaust was complete’.

Nick is a man who is glad to compliment Gatsby before he dies as better than the ‘rotten crowd’ he associates with. But in all the glitz and glamour, we must not forget that he is also a man who freely admits in the same sentence that ‘I disapproved of him from beginning to end’. Dreams are not always beautiful, but they are always enigmatic. This is what Gatsby is, how Fitzgerald writes, how Nick observes. It doesn’t seem to be how Luhrmann directs.

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The 2013 Vintage

‘Definitely something you could wear on a winter’s day at the races’.

These were the words my boyfriend said to me as I pirouetted in front of the speckled mirror of a vintage shop last weekend, balancing a felt trilby poked with a pheasant feather upon my head. I dismissed his enthusiasm with some comment about frivolity and expense as I ran my hands over and through the whirligig of silk scarves near the counter. The shop had that very vintage feel, brown carpets, brown clutter, brown counters, an array of brown leather bags and tortoiseshell aviators. The shopkeeper had done very well to make it say ‘old’. The only thing that was missing was some schmaltzy jazz crackling on a gramophone and perhaps I would have been endeared to purchase my trilby and step boldly from the door, ready to turn heads.

A typical vintage array

A typical vintage array

‘Vintage’ is a term that we have adopted to cover a loose range of essentially bric-a-brac concepts. Clothing, quaint tea rooms, Bakelite kitchen appliances, cars, cake stands, jewellery, notelets, cosmetics. The Victorian chemist in Haworth, Yorkshire is one particular example. Beautiful and frou-frouey as it is, lit with soft light and staffed by ladies in crisp white petticoats, it is difficult to imagine Emily Brontë popping her head round the door at the peak of her consumption for a scoopful of lavender bath salts. ‘Vintage’, like any other word, is drained of signification when overused, a process not too distant from economic hyperinflation. As its value has been manipulated, it is increasingly becoming an equivalent term for ‘shabby-chic’, ‘pre-loved’ or simply, ‘second hand’. ‘Vintage’ in the sense of something being an old model or style, particularly of a vehicle, was first coined in 1920s. Surely then its proper application as a term should be to art deco items and beyond. And yet we seem to appropriate it to a much greater timeline.

Writing my dissertation this last term on Thomas Hardy’s ‘Poems of 1912-13’, an elegiac sequence written to commemorate his wife, my thoughts have been deeply preoccupied by how we process memory, time and time’s passing. It is interesting how much a moment in the past can mutate with each day. In retrospect, memories seem to change, to become resurfaced with a gloss, with a strange new emphasis. For Hardy, this emphasis is disturbing, awakening feelings of guilt and remorse, a failure to value and understand the then present when his wife was living. In a vintage shop however, the effects of looking back only seem positive. As we hold a pair of 70s sunglasses we are flooded with feelings of nostalgia. Putting a felt trilby on your head gives a rose tinted reflection in the mirror. Drinking tea from an ornate teacup as you sit in your lounge done up with chintz seems to transform the little ordinary details of our lives into something romantic, golden, perfected. Or does it? Originally coined for a year’s crop of wine, one of ‘good or outstanding quality’, ‘vintage’ is meant to label the very best of the best. But we have absorbed it as the buzzword to talk about anything pre 2000, be it sparkling or shabby.

The real vintage?

The real vintage?

I attended a talk recently at Pembroke College by Martin Rowson, a political Cartoonist for The Guardian and The Independent. As an English alumnus, he had ploughed his way through my syllabus, digesting the greatest works of literature week by week. It is what he did with all that he had read later however, that I found most intriguing. As well as his work on newspaper cartoons, he has spent considerable time transforming Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Eliot’s The Wasteland into graphic form, dredging up the famous narratives of the past and sketching them with the same thick black lines of a modern day political satire cartoon. As a satirist, Rowson said his job was to break things up into smaller particles in order for us to process them more easily. The awful was in this way made more bearable. What was remarkable was how well the graphic form suited Sterne’s rambling and boisterous tale. Perhaps the people of the past that we look back at with dewy eyes didn’t think very differently to us. Sterne and Rowson certainly seem to have the same sense of humour. Through Rowson’s adaptation, a satirist of the present and a novelist of the past work in symbiosis to create something utterly novel. It seems that the past should not endlessly impose itself upon the present in the form of dress shops stuffed with fur, pearls, beads and Bakelite and old fashioned tea rooms decorated like a scene from a home front documentary. Instead, we should work to see how the present can enter and redefine the world of the past, be it through modern film adaptation, theatre or graphic novels.

Martin Rowson's book cover

Martin Rowson’s book cover

On my coffee table sits a chunky graphic edition of Vanity Fair, a Christmas gift that I am yet to fully peruse. But as I flick through the pages, the story is punctuated with punchy black and white illustrations drawn in the style of a superhero comic. Personally, I feel this manner of delivery suits the novel’s intrigue perfectly without marring, changing or romanticising the original story. In this way, unlike the somewhat synthetic concept of ‘vintage’, past and present can collaborate so that re-visioning the past works as a ‘seeing again’ but not a ‘seeing again’ that manipulates what was ordinary and everyday then into a false ideal now.

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From Russia with love?

‘You can’t ask why about love’.

This is the catchphrase for Joe Wright’s new vision ‘Anna Karenina’, which is his third collaboration following ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Atonement’ with Academy Award nominee Keira Knightley. Much like the velvet hues, sombre snowfall and shadowy onion domes that embellish the website, the film is a visual and textural delight. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran’s work is masterful. A dazzling array of sumptuous furs, crushed satin, marble ballrooms, Siberian hay meadows and pristine topiary mazes collide to create the rich canvas behind Tolstoy’s famous love story, carrying moments along when the young actors seem overwhelmed by the gravitas of their tragic roles. The film effectively condenses the epic into 130 minutes of Imperial Russian glamour and decadence, conveying the stifling duties of the multitude of society’s ‘princesses’ to glitter more brightly than any other.

Yet whilst we may not be able to ask ‘why’ about Anna’s tragic decisions, we can certainly ask ‘why’ about the choices Wright made with set. Perhaps the most interesting and ultimately most impactful aspect of the film is its unfolding within the confines of a theatre. Actions develop both on stage and off stage. The claustrophobia of shadowy corridors and tangled ropes builds on the crucible-like feel of the plot, culminating in Anna’s dismounting a train before her final tragic performance onto a platform that becomes the rafters of a theatre full of waxwork models. It is not just setting that is theatrical, but gestures also. The opening moments in which Oblonsky has his face shaved has a farcical Sweeney Todd-like ambiance. Such absurdities continue; Levin and Kitty’s love declarations are played out between them as a game of painted children’s alphabet blocks. Princess Betsy’s party with the tableau shots of seated belles and tightly choreographed fanning seems more like a musical or pantomime than a pivotal scene for the lovers. To an extent, the omnipresence of the theatre infuses the film with melodrama that has the potential to make the final moments all the more devastating. There is something inauthentic about the theatricality that cleverly evokes the insincere and shifting nature of the society that Anna must find acceptance in.

The glamorous heroine

Yet for me it is the innovation of the setting that ultimately proves to be the film’s undoing. The sense of fantasy as the plot evolves detaches the spectator from the true significance of specific moments. The first dance between Vronsky and Anna plays out in a tightly choreographed crowd contorting with a ballerina-like elegance. Yet the effect of this is that the sense of scandal surrounding their ballroom frolicking, as well as Kitty’s overt pain and chagrin, is lost. Similarly, Vronsky’s tumble from his horse as it races across the wooden stage,  coupled with Anna’s shrieking from her plush box left me feeling more bewildered than it did empathetic. The issue lies in the layering of perspectives; film and theatre are both forms of artifice and both require the audience to suspend disbelief. The problem with Wright’s ‘Anna Karenina’ is that we are continually detached by our awareness that not only are we watching a film, but within this performance we must also respond to theatrical display. Unlike similar works that make use of the dynamics of theatre, such as ‘Moulin Rouge!’, the characters are not aware that they are actors in a production. Theatre is their only reality.

Vronsky’s horse race amidst the theatre setting

Thinking about Brecht’s theories on theatre seems appropriate at this moment. His ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ promoted overly self conscious theatre to divorce the spectator from feeling empathy, whilst encouraging them to remain critically engaged so that the experience becomes more thought-provoking. Alongside this, Gestus, meaning gestures, something Wright’s production is particularly rich in, were emphasised as important in the process of alienating the audience and increasing cynicism. Perhaps Wright desired a more unusual way in to Tolstoy, and whilst we should celebrate films that are willing to experiment, the effects the theatrical setting had on my empathy was surprising. Anna’s death in its backstage and clinical waxwork surround seemed so surreal that for a moment I wondered if what we were seeing was merely the product of her bruised and paranoid mind. Her death is of course foreshadowed by the gruesome loss of a random rail worker testing the wheels of a train at the start of the film, and yet perhaps a more natural setting of ice, coal and clanking metal would have pervaded the moment of Anna’s death, the tragic climax of the film, with what it needed to move me instantly. As Peter Bradshaw in his Guardian review points out, creativity has affected the film’s pathos.

Kitty spells out her emotions through childhood games

The film certainly entertains. However, its promise to explore the capacities for love and feeling in our hearts is unfulfilled, as it left my own more cold and detached than I expected or desired. Perhaps we can ask ‘why’ of love in Anna Karenina’s world, and the film is certainly worth seeing if not just to explore spectator psychology and ask ‘why’ of our own emotional response.  With just a bit more snow and ice, this would have been a much warmer film.

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