Friday 28 September 2018

Aesthetics of Stained Glass

Morris and Burne-Jones didn’t think much of Ely Cathedral on their 1855 visit to Cambridge – ‘so horribly spoilt with well meaning restorations, as they facetiously call them’ – but they might have enjoyed the Stained Glass Museum which the building has contained since 1972.  The museum contains a fine pair of Burne-Jones ‘Angel Musicians’ in his Italianate style of the 1870s, among a rich diversity of earlier and later specimens of stained glass.

A feathered ‘Angel Musician’ of c.1440-80 is a lively presence in the medieval exhibits, the panel being decorated with an ears of barley motif.  But from among these early examples it was particularly the homelier, rather than the noble and aristocratic, examples that caught my eye.  The Peasant Figure of c.1340-9 from the Lady Chapel at Ely, for instance, or the celebratory images of the ‘Labours of the Month’, which include Harvesting Corn in September and a labourer with an axe Killing a Hog in November.  In Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Victorian version of the latter scene, a bucket to catch the hog’s blood is thoughtfully added to the gory details of the panel.

The Museum’s collection ranges forward to the present and into European and American stained glass in addition to its many English specimens.  It’s good to move away from the mostly Christian iconography of Pre-Raphaelite and later glass into such mid- to late-twentieth-century non-representational examples as John Piper’s ‘Abstract Panel’ or Paul Casiani’s ‘Inner Space’, which builds its design from an electron photomicrograph of the hydra. 

What struck me as missing here, however, is the early twentieth century, the moment of modernism, where practitioners such as Braque, Matisse, Chagall and the German Expressionists transformed the possibilities of so many visual media, including stained glass.  I think, for example, of Bruno Taut’s memorable slogan ‘Buntes Glas zerstört den Hass’ (coloured glass destroys hate).  Well, Expressionist stained glass and glass architecture, such as Taut’s Glass Pavilion for the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition, would not alas prove able to stop emergent Nazism in its tracks, but it would still have been good to have some examples of it in this small but admirable Museum’s collection.

Friday 7 September 2018

David Blunkett and the Daily Telegraph

In his account of the socialist revolution in News from Nowhere, Morris mentions ‘one very violent reactionary newspaper (called The Daily Telegraph)’.  Editor David Leopold helpfully adds in a note that ‘what Morris refers to as “the ravings of the Telegraph” occasionally formed the subject of his journalism’.  Well, that newspaper certainly hasn’t changed its political spots since the 1890s and is as reactionary now as it was then; it will jump on any rumour, any story, any bandwagon to destroy the prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government.  So when former Labour Minister David Blunkett writes in The Telegraph about what he calls ‘the recent return to … bullying and thuggery’ in the Labour Party (31 August), we have to ask exactly what he’s up to.

What he actually means, of course, is that the Left is currently running the Party and that he, as a Blairite, is not at all happy about that fact – either the substantive political fact itself, or the tone in which some of the internal debate is allegedly being conducted.  Now if you said this at your local branch meeting or at a regional party conference or even at some national Labour gathering, then that might be an appropriate contribution to this important political debate.  There are many complex issues at stake at the moment – Brexit, anti-semitism, the Mediterranean migration crisis, and so on – on which all voices in the party need to be heard.

But when you publish your argument in that ‘very violent reactionary’ newpaper, and you also join in its ‘ravings’ by using incendiary phrasing like ‘return to … bullying and thuggery’, then you are doing something very different indeed.  You are lending your name, voice and reputation to the Daily Telegraph’s campaign to discredit Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum, and you implicitly announce that you too, like it, will now do or say anything that will destroy the possibility of a Corbyn-led government.  In a time of swiftly approaching change, Morris argues in News from Nowhere, ‘such an element was too dangerous for mere traitors and self-seekers, and one by one they were thrust out and mostly joined the declared reactionaries’.  You’ve taken one small but significant step towards those reactionaries by writing for their newspaper, Mr Blunkett.