Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Monthly Archives: September 2012

Moppets, muffets and the perpetuation of Penelope Boothby

“… kitsch is the distorted copy, or brilliant shadow, of a unique original that it transforms while replicating … Deprived of supernatural immunity, the shaken-down aura falls prey to the vicissitudes of earth bound things: it can be touched, traded, copied and tampered with; it is but a fragment of its former existence. It is kitsch.”

(Celeste Olalquiaga, The Artificial Kingdom: a Treasury of the Kitsch Experience.)

In among all the Georgian and Victorian lumber, sorry – legacy, on display at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, there is at least a good big Fuseli. Meaning Henry Fuseli, painter of extremes, connoisseur of fetishistic coiffures and prolific purveyor of mad stuff to the gentry of the Enlightenment.

It’s not Fuseli’s finest moment by a long chalk, but any Fuseli is better than none, and this one has particular interest for its part within a cultural narrative of tragedy, morbidity and sentiment that takes us from the Age of Reason to the Age of Kitsch and beyond …

Sir Brooke Boothby, Bart (1744-1824), was very much Enlightenment Man – landowner, poet, Lichfield intellectual and a mate of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Here is the Nature Boy himself, as portrayed by Joseph Wright of Derby, pretending to browse Rousseau and looking natty but philosophical in a sylvan setting – both noble and savage, in fact. (Is it just me, or is this one of the most absurd images ever conveyed to canvas?)

But Nature turned very savage on Sir Brooke when in 1791 his only child Penelope died at the age of five, a tragedy from which he never recovered. His wife left to live permanently with her parents, he neglected his estate and his financial situation went into terminal decline. He died in Boulogne as a genteel but impoverished ex-pat.

Boothby’s grief was inconsolable, and Reason succumbed to Sensibility’s iron grip. In 1796 he published a collection of 24 sonnets, Sorrows: Sacred to the Memory of Penelope, more notable for the intensity of their emotion than for the quality of the verse. He commissioned from Fuseli the painting now at Wolverhampton, and from the sculptor Thomas Banks (a member of the “Fuseli circle” in 1770’s Rome) a marble memorial which was installed in St Oswald’s church in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Its plinth is inscribed, heart-breakingly: “She was in form and intellect most exquisite. The unfortunate parents ventured their all on this frail bark. And the wreck was total.” Boothby is said to have interrupted Banks’ carving of the effigy frequently, sitting weeping in his studio.

Fuseli’s The Apotheosis of Penelope Boothby shows the dead girl’s spirit hoisted skywards by an angelic figure towards a non-specific, Deist eternity. As her father versified it:

Lo, the mild angel to receive her bends!
From the dark disk of this terraqueous ball,
The spotless shade to her own heaven ascends.
The towering Day-star, smiling points the way
To glorious regions, bright with cloudless ray!

The angel’s wings do not fit accurately on her back, the five year old is presented unconvincingly as a species of miniaturised adult, the broken urn and butterfly at the base are pedestrian, and the puckish features of the cherubic “Day-star”, though typically Fuseli, strike the wrong note here. On the credit side, Fuseli breaks all the rules by using a risky vertical composition similar to his ground-breaking The Death of Dido of ten years earlier, successfully relying on dramatic and technically demanding foreshortening. But the toning down for the occasion of Fuseli’s normal theatrical strenuosity has drained the work of conviction. The painter of a thousand bloody murders was unable to visualise effectively the death of a small child.

Hugely more successful was Banks’ sculpture, in which the life sized figure, beautifully carved with remarkable virtuosity, appears to be sleeping. It combines romantic sensibility with a quite modern directness, and notoriously affects visitors to the church even today. (A later lithograph fails outrageously to do it justice. As it happens, the theme of dead daughters, a little disturbingly, is continued in St Oswald’s by a fine window of 1905 by stained glass artist Christopher Whall, in late Arts and Crafts style, commemorating the three young Turnbull sisters, killed in a fire.)

An engraving of Fuseli’s Apotheosis and an image of Banks’ sculpture were bound into Boothby’s Sorrows. Also reproduced there was an existing portrait of Penelope, aged four, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. This was most definitely not Sir Sloshua’s sharpest effort: the child’s face does not sit well within her curls, nor her head on her shoulders. The hands are almost entirely hidden and the legs buried under a shapeless lump of frock. Even so, this modest little portrait came to take on a life of its own that even Sir Brooke could not have anticipated.

Recycled and commodified through numerous print versions, the image seems to have acquired and accumulated a new currency through the Victorian period. It may have merged in the public mind with similar (though superior) Reynolds portraits of little girls – Simplicity and Innocence – and seems sometimes to have been known popularly as “The Mob-cap”.

     
     

It clearly had recognised potency as an icon of sentimentalised innocence when Lewis Carroll used it in the late 1870’s as a point of reference for photographs of Xie Kitchin (pronounced Exie, and short for Alexandra), a “young friend” whom he photographed repeatedly – obsessively, even – throughout her childhood years in assorted costumes. In the “Boothby” poses the sitter is specifically described as impersonating Penelope; the costume is a little approximate, but the mob-cap and gloves are clearly the identifying features.

Even when they don’t topple over, Carroll’s photos of children always wobble on the edge of uncomfortable. On this occasion, there is, thankfully, nothing even subliminally sexualised; Miss Kitchin merely looks well bored with the repeated indignity of posing in stupid costumes for this annoying family friend, though by virtue of the situation Carroll exercises a degree of fantasised ownership that we would certainly want to question. But did he use the Boothby reference with full conscious knowledge of the premature death of the original Penelope? That would add a whole extra layer of creepy oddness … Propping up a dead family member for a “post-mortem” photograph was a common Victorian practice, as documented on numerous websites.

But in any case, distance alone was enough to grant the image a measure of morbidity. The Victorian era, that age of mourning, multiplied and commodified memories as souvenirs at the same time as a “progressive” sense of discontinuity with the past redefined all its inhabitants as separate in their deadness. Divorced from actual, personal grief, such an image of “Penelope Boothby” embodied, as a false or appropriated memory, as a kitsch object, a thinned and generalised version of that sentiment.

Carroll was not the only Victorian retailer of images of childhood who was alert to the value of this one, and shortly afterwards in 1879 it was cleverly recycled by John Everett Millais, who had long since sold out on his earlier Pre-Raphaelite values. He had already used the mob-cap and gloves in his Early Days of 1873, which kept something of the matter-of-factness of the original. This time Millais retained and amplified the core values of the image, while astutely addressing the limitations of the Reynolds by unfolding the legs, feet and gloved forearms. He also replaced the open and direct gaze of the original with a subtly downcast coyness, which has, to my mind, an unpleasant hint of adult guilt and guile. Millais plonked the child on a log next to a few cherries and titled the finished article Cherry Ripe. He was onto a winner here, and the image achieved popularity alongside Bubbles on merchandising for Pear’s Soap, where it presumably served within the Victorian mind-set as a signifier of purity.

     
   

A few years later Millais cranked out a Little Miss Muffet, in which the child wears a bonnet rather than a mob-cap. But at this point a strange conflation seems to have occurred, with the majority of stock images of Ms Muffet thereafter featuring mob-caps and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Penelope Boothby and/or Cherry Ripe. Many still do, over a century on, and in the fancy dress trade, a mob-cap is known today as a “muffet hat”. (As Google-image will bear out, this is even true of some of today’s mildly pornographised adult-ironic costume versions, which serve to reinforce the disturbing notion that there is something sexy about a frightened girl. But this may be as far as we want to go in that direction …)

   

There is an uncanny appropriateness about the conflation of Penelope Boothby and Miss Muffet, given that the spider – unexpected, dark, descending, perceived as deadly – is a clear symbol of sudden death. In a thousand modern nursery rhyme images, mob-capped shades of Penelope confront the announcement of their imminent decease; this moment of knowing, perpetually re-lived, confirms with hindsight the invisible but tragic irony of Reynolds’ original image. And yet, in an extraordinary kind of inversion, this happened precisely at the historical point where the original Boothby identity, mediated via Millais, became lost to public awareness. It is as if the image of the dead child has taken on a life of its own, one of purely private self-awareness concealed within a public, but ignorant, visibility. Or rather as if the unbearable truth could only be released within the unconscious life of the image.

Meanwhile, hovering above the minimalist furnishings of phantom penthouses in digitally generated mock-ups on Chinese “custom oil painting” websites, Penelope Boothby continues to replicate herself, a revenante exiled in a post-modern afterlife of diminishing quality, perpetually in search of new meaning.

     
   
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“Poets without Appointments”: at home with Christopher Logue and Burns Singer

A new unscrolling page above – The Transparent Prisoner 2 – has yet another glimpse of bad boy poet Burns Singer, this time from the Daily Express of 1961, no less, and in equally bad company with Christopher Logue. (Many thanks to Roger Allen for helping track this down, in response to my previous post, now deleted, where I wondered if the “Christopher” of the article was Christopher Fry. But not so.) For good measure, I’ve also copied onto this page the earlier post about Singer and Colin Wilson.

“Poets without Appointments” is a rollicking read, and is kind to Singer: “He may never set the world on fire, or earn much money. But Jimmy has looked deeper into the river than most of us.” Amen to that.

The ghost of Lou Reed

Rediscovered this in an old folder this morning – a drawing in red biro from about 1972 by my good friend at the time, Teresa Loftus, who I have not seen for many years.

The face at the right is definitely meant for Lou Reed, the Velvets being large then in the soundtrack of our lives. The character at the left in the loopy hat was one she drew repeatedly at the time. She was much admiring of Paul Klee, and heavily into cross-hatching. What the little shapes along the bottom are, I’ve no idea. Dogs?

I don’t keep up with Lou much these last few years. Lulu? Pass. Maybe later. The Raven? Major turkey.

But anyway, there we are. A flickering transmission from the Satellite of Love …

Burn as the singer burns his song

A little more on the death of Burns Singer. (To be transferred to the unscrolling pages above after a while.)

Singer died in September 1964. In the Times Literary Supplement of December 17 appeared a poem, “In memoriam: Burns Singer”, by W S Graham. But this was not submitted by Graham, who later wrote to regret its publication. (Was it sent in by Marie, Singer’s widow?) Graham’s letter was printed in the January 21 1965 edition. His objection that this rhymed sonnet was not representative of his work seems fair, but at this distance he sounds too dismissive, maybe, of this piece of “fun”. The last three lines of the second stanza are as good as anything he wrote.

The letter has been reprinted in The Nightfisherman: Selected Letters of W S Graham (Carcanet 1999), but I can’t see the poem anywhere else, so here it is, along with the letter.

Nor can I see in Burns’ Collected the corresponding piece for Graham. And did Graham ever write an “adequate” piece in memory of Singer, as he hoped to? Nothing in his New Collected seems to fit …


In memoriam: Burns Singer

Burn as the singer burns his song, and sing
Your signs around you and yourself toward
The best, I say. One singer burnt his tongue
And gave to tears what his grief could ill afford.

Always and always night enamours me more
Than ever. So here we are, you and I,
Thought up out of silence for an instant here
Under the ancient hardware of the sky.

O engineer, evangelist, jailed among
The bastards of the lions of your pride.
The dead are beckoning bright and clear
Yet undiminished by the surrounding tear.

Burn as the singer burns in the half of grief.
You scald the face of silence when you laugh.

                                        W. S. GRAHAM.

 

“IN MEMORIAM – BURNS SINGER”

 Sir, – I have just returned from Greece to find in the TLS a poem – “In Memoriam – Burns Singer”, by W. S. Graham. I wish to state that this was not submitted by me.

These words were written for fun ten years ago in an Aberdeen pub. Jimmy (Singer) wrote one for me too and we both decided they were impossible. I saw Burns Singer about three months before his death and he suggested it was worth publishing. I disagreed completely.

The thing is that this poem is not representative of any work I have done or do now, and, as such, will give a wrong idea of the kind of poet I am.

I hope sometime to write a poem for Burns Singer which will be adequate.

                         W. S. GRAHAM.
Woodfield, Gulval, Penzance, Cornwall.

Dreaming to a questionable purpose: Colin Wilson’s hazy day with Burns Singer

As an impressionable teenager I was quite impressed by Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Since those distant days, of course, Wilson has slid from existentialism to murder mysteries to the mystical-wystical; in support of his busy publishing schedule he hasn’t, it seems, allowed either a degree of repetition or the uncertainties of memory to hinder a good story.

The Outsider had a mixed reception at the time. One prominent review, in the Times Literary Supplement, was written by the poet Burns Singer (subject of my last but one post and of the “Transparent Prisoner” page above). Singer was clearly troubled by impostor syndrome all his life, and would have had a ready interest in anything claiming to deal with outsidership. The TLS had published only a few poems by him, and this was his first chance as its reviewer, courtesy of G S Fraser. Shortly before The Outsider appeared, Wilson happened to run into Singer; his brief report of this encounter appeared in 1997 in issue 4 of Rain Taxi review:

“I was at a party and met a young Scotsman who said he’d read The Outsider and thought it was a wonderful book; I said, how did you manage to read it, and he said he’d got hold of a proof. His name was James Burns Singer and he was a poet, and he invited me the next day to go with him when he went down to the magazine Encounter to pick up a check, which he then cashed, and he went out on a binge taking me with him. It was the first time I’d seen the Scots’ capacity for consuming alcohol. He was a brilliant poet but died a few years later.”

The stereotyping of “the Scots” is bit casual, but the final sentence is generous enough: Singer is “a brilliant poet”, and his early death is presented as a regrettable fact. (No mention of the review, oddly.) But when this anecdote is re-run (shortly after?) in issue 13 of Abraxas (the Wilson mouthpiece magazine), not only has the “wonderful” Outsider become “a masterpiece” in Burns’ eyes, but, more worryingly, Wilson conflates Singer’s early death with the payday binge to come up with the creative assertion that the poet “was to die of alcoholism”.

By the time we reach “A day with Burns Singer” in chapter 8 of Wilson’s 2004 autobiography, Dreaming to Some Purpose, the story is well fleshed out:

“Two weeks before publication day, I went to another party … and there met a young, good-looking Scot named James Burns Singer, whose fine blond hair and delicate features gave him a girlish appearance. To my surprise, he had read The Outsider in proof, and told me had had reviewed it for The Times Literary Supplement. He mentioned that he had written an article about the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and intended to collect his fee from the Encounter office the next day. He invited me to join him and have a drink afterwards.

I met him at eleven, and we went to the office of Encounter in Panton Street, where he got an open cheque for £40, then went to a bank around the corner and cashed it. And as it was nearly midday, he dragged me into the nearest pub, and there proceeded to drink the money. This carried on through most of the afternoon, although I took care to drink less than he did, and to eat sandwiches to soak up the whisky.

Although a poet, Burns Singer claimed he was able to make a great deal of money from his work. The secret, he said, was simply to write enough. He explained he had just sold a sequence of a hundred sonnets to a literary magazine called Bottega Oscura [sic], edited by an Italian millionairess, and after his fourth whisky, he proceed to recite some of them. (I was to note in the coming years that this is a habit that seems to be common to Scottish poets.)

That evening I had been invited to the flat of Maurice Cowling … John Wain … was to be there. And since Burns Singer wanted to meet Wain, he came too. But by that time he could scarcely speak, and before Wain arrived, he had fallen asleep on the settee, and only grunted when our host tried to wake him.

… I left Burns Singer asleep on the settee – he was quite unwakable … (In due course, Burns Singer would drink himself to death – he was found dead in bed in September 1964.)”

Shelley lookalike Burns Singer

Wilson carefully tells us that he meets Singer not at ten thirty or ten forty-five, but at eleven. (I’m disappointed he doesn’t tell us what was in the sandwiches with which he soaked up the alcohol.) This level of clarity might encourage us to trust his statement that Singer “drank himself to death”. Clearly, anyone who (a) drinks and (b) dies in bed should be suspect in that regard.

Singer’s “Sonnets for a Dying Man” contained fifty poems, not a hundred. Was Marguerite Caetani a millionairess? Didn’t the magazine fold partly for financial reasons? Singer had an income from reviewing, but “a great deal of money” from poetry? The Scots (poets specifically this time) are generalised again. The phrase “girlish appearance” strikes a bizarre note too; is Wilson implying that Singer was gay? (He wasn’t.)

But the pub crawl continues. Staggering on to The Angry Years: A Literary Chronicle of 2007, we find our host settled back in the full confidence of rehearsal, and get the whole story again with additional dramatic detail. Wilson is now “astonished” to learn that Singer has read a proof of his book, Singer consumes “an incredible amount” of whisky, recites “all his own poetry” by heart as well as “most of Hugh M’Diarmid and W S Graham”, is not only taciturn by evening but “hardly able to stand”, and is finished off by yet another “large” whisky provided at the flat.

John Wain turns out to be “aggressive … prickly, possibly with a touch of paranoia”, and looks “contemptuously” at Singer – not surprising, given that he is said to “detest drunken Scots”. The poet sleeps on, “looking rather like Shelley with his long blond hair and girlish features”.

Elsewhere in The Angry Years Wilson mentions again the periodical “Botteghe Obscura [sic], which paid top rates (and to which Burns Singer also contributed).” Botteghe Oscure was not an especially obscure literary periodical, but neither Wilson nor his proof readers seem to have found it necessary to check the spelling of the Italian.

Significantly, Wilson has by now dropped the unfortunate statement that Singer boozed himself into an early grave, though the Shelley imagery subtly provides a compensatory hint of premature and tragic demise for a doomed and “girlish” poet. (Was Wilson also thinking loosely of Henry Wallis’ painting of the Death of Chatterton?) It’s by no means self-evident that drinking contributed to the heart disease that killed Singer. But there are other missing elephants in the room.

We have it on good authority (Dr Eric Corner, Singer’s colleague at Plymouth, cited by Walter Keir) that in the last year of his life Singer visited several other writers in the South West, including the Cornish poet Charles Causley – and Colin Wilson, who had moved to Cornwall in 1957. If so, it’s strange that this second meeting is not mentioned.

Young Colin plays it safe with a mug of tea

Singer’s review of The Outsider, under the title “Chosen Few”, appeared on June 8 1956, but Wilson doesn’t say another word about it. A prominent review in the prestigious TLS by a reviewer who said he thought The Outsider “a masterpiece”? Modesty? Oversight?

In fact, Singer’s review hit the nail firmly on the head. A bag full of nails, in fact. Loftily casting Wilson (aged 24 at the time) as “a very young man who has written … a very ambitious book,” Singer (aged 27) faintly praises The Outsider as an honest, intelligent and “very interesting” but “desperate attempt to make sense of the conflicting views of life that have been thrown at [Wilson] by an immense variety of books.” About the best he can find to say is that “the charm of the book arises from its faults,” that it is “less portentous” than what it sets out to be, and “more human”.

“Mr Wilson’s reading has not been systematic enough, does not have sufficient structure, to bear the weight of awful generalizations that he seeks to impose on it.”

“… we have only a list of personalities … There is no obvious reason why a completely different assortment of writers, thinkers and artists should not be dragged together and forced to express the same concepts about the nature of the Outsider. Poor William Blake, in particular, is reduced to the status of a ventriloquist’s doll by the repetition of such remarks as: ‘The symbolism here is plain enough,’ and ‘In other words,’ and even ‘This is obvious.’ Whatever Blake was, he was never obvious in the sense that Mr Wilson means.”

And whatever Burns Singer was, he was never obvious in the sense that Mr Wilson means, either. He may have been a long haired poet, talking incessantly one half of the time and in a drunken torpor the other, but he had The Outsider down to a tee.

My own devices

Nuther pome flung upon the arrogant atmosphere (audio link below,  can’t seem to embed it somehow) …

My own devices

These bent and breaking implements you see around me
are my own devices, and I have been left to them.
Now pitted and spotted, puckered by astringency,
they curl like snippets of accumulating hair.

A paper thin intention flutters, colonised by ants.
Nearby, a positive expression looking a bit the worse for wear.
There, a remaindered ambition corroded by arrogance,
and some act of forgiveness, scheduled for a later year.

Now, yet again, is the time for intervention –
now, the portentous moment you should come to me,
when I should make the customary, elaborated invocation –
but you are already here.

Pull up a cushion, push aside that wreckage, sit with me.
Don’t speak. It isn’t necessary. There’s not a thing
you can say to improve the situation, nothing
I particularly want to hear.

Come close. Just muddle down among the nonsense.
Let us be aimless, free to sit and hum and stare. You will dispel
my anxiety purely by virtue of your accompaniment.
Your huddled symmetry will dissipate my fear.

[audio http://chirb.it/rPxp3C]

Copyright my good self etc etc

Burns Singer, forgotten bad boy of British poetry

I’ve been meaning to do something on Burns Singer, aka Jimmy Singer, blond boy wonder / bad boy of the ‘fifties poetry scene, ever since the late Gordon Wharton confessed to me that he’d hit Singer with a bottle of wine at a literary party in 1955. Singer’s attack in Encounter on the poetry of William Empson is now on my Empson page, and I had thought of putting Singer on the W S Graham page, given that he was very much an acolyte of Graham’s. But Singer seems significant and interesting enough to deserve a page of his own, so here it is (or use the final tab above). So far, I’ve focused on his life, death and larger-than-life persona. For someone so universally and fiercely unpopular, he seems to have inspired an equally fierce affection in some. A look at the poetry will come later – it’s well worth looking at.

Remarkable that Singer links so many personalities peppered across this blog: Empson, Graham, Wharton, Dylan Thomas, the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde, Benjamin Creme, and George Barker … Though I guess the ‘fifties bohemian scene was something of a small world.

This is the world’s starvation centre.
I sit with Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde
Listening to letters Sydney Graham once sent or
Barker shook down when words stuck in his side.