Thursday 12 August 2010

Working Miracles in 1896

‘And so, incredible as it may seem, in the study of the little house behind the Congregational Chapel, on the evening of Sunday, Nov. 10, 1896, Mr. Fotheringay, egged on and inspired by Mr. Maydig, began to work miracles. The reader’s attention is specially and definitely called to the date’. Thus H.G. Wells, in his short story ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’.

What a pity, then, that on that particular evening, a mere one month after the death of William Morris, and in a story that is much concerned with the satisfaction of utopian wishes, George McWhirter Fotheringay did not think, among his other miracles, to bring Morris back to life again. After all, he had sent the village policeman to Hades, so it wouldn’t have been beyond his powers to restore Morris to us from wherever he might then have been!

Alternatively, matters might have worked the other way round: not a fictional character calling a real human being back into substance, but an actual human summoning fictional figures to his beck and call. At Morris’s funeral in Kelmscott on October 6th, R.B. Cunningham Graham found that ‘dust to dust fell idly on my ears, and in its stead a vision of the England which he dreamed of filled my mind’. If only Cunningham Graham had been possessed of the enviable power of Will, the ability to reconfigure the laws of causation and work spectacular miracles, of Wells’s Mr Fotheringay. Morris’s socialist realm of Nowhere might have then come into being around him all at once, with Dick Hammond, Clara and Ellen materialising bemusedly out of the far future into the Oxfordshire fields of 1896.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Volcanoes and the Sublime

Iceland speaks and modernity falls silent. Eyjafjallaj√∂kull throws up vast amounts of volcanic ash into the atmosphere, Europe’s air space is closed for weeks on end, and Londoners and other city dwellers can blessedly hear bird song again.

Iceland therefore features prominently in the Compton Verney art gallery’s exhibition devoted to ‘Volcano: Turner to Warhol’, though Mount Vesuvius is probably the single most depicted volcano in this spectacular show. The twentieth-century Icelandic painters on display here are particularly impressive. Finnur Jonsson’s bleak Lakagigar Craters (1940) is like an eerie landscape from Tolkien’s Mordor; Asgrimur Jonsson’s Flight from a Volcanic Eruption (1945) makes powerful use of the techniques of German Expressionism; and Gudmundr Einarsson’s Eruption of Grimsvoth (1934) has something of the horror of a nuclear mushroom cloud to it.

The sublime is, as one would expect, the dominant aesthetic category of this exhibition; its old counterpart, the beautiful, doesn’t get much of a look in. And this breathtaking exhibition can thus serve as a necessary rebalancing of our aesthetic responses to that great Icelandicist William Morris himself.

I feel that the Morris of ‘the beautiful’, of gentle Willow fabrics and genial upper Thames landscapes, is too easily, too cosily, available to us; and thus we need to remember that he is also a bold practitioner of the sublime, of the jagged, the disruptive, of that which terrifyingly jolts us out of our everyday certitudes. Dizzying precipices, razor-sharp lava-fields, raging rivers that might sweep all one’s pack-horses instantly away – all these, as in the Icelandic Journals or the late romances, are as much part of Morris as the chirruping reed-warblers of the Thames at Kelmscott.

Our own ecological predilections have produced too gently ‘English’ a Morris for us, so let us be sure, in the light of these tumultuous volcanic images at Compton Verney, that we also celebrate him as a dangerous and unsettling devotee of the sublime.