Monday, 13 March 2017

Early Spring in Chichester

Blooming rushes on apace now, but three weeks ago in mid-February, this scene by Chichester city walls was a novelty and the day was a one-off glory, the first on which we had the chance to sit outside for lunch with friends Eben and Themy and their young organist friend Tim Ravalde in the Cathedral Close.

A weekend excursion to Edinburgh had been called off when Neeme Järvi cancelled what would have been a Tchaikovsky spectacular (Hamlet Overture and Manfred Symphony). 80 this year, he's been having trouble with his knees and as yet won't sit to conduct (I'm only glad it's nothing worse). So a Saturday excursion was in order. Having met Pallant House Gallery CEO Simon Martin and learnt that this was the last weekend to catch the exhibition he'd curated, The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950, it seemed like a good opportunity to visit the much-praised gallery and see friends at the same time. Illustrated below, Meredith Frampton's Still Life (1932).

The Pallant is a kind of self-contained village in Chichester's South-East Quadrant, with several grand 18th century houses. Pallant House of 1712 is easily the most imposing.

It had the nickname of 'Dodo House' from the stone birds atop the gatepiers (bad shots, Nairn and Pevsner tell us in the Sussex volume of The Buildings of England, at ostriches which feature on the family crest of the architect, Henry Peckham).

The Mythic Method, housed in five rooms of the new wing, was a fine show, though the quality of the artists proved variable. Bloomsburyite work was good, William Roberts' from the late 1920s somewhat repulsive, but curious in its depiction of scenes like this Judgment of Paris (© Estate of John David Roberts).

There was a room tenuously linked to Venus recumbent, but the best was probably in the last two rooms: curious photographs of society women as Greek and Roman goddesses etc by Madame Yevonde with this Edward Burra, Santa Maria in Aracoeli (© Estate of the Artist c/o Lefevre Fine Art Ltd, London) having a wall to itself

and some excellent Henry Moores just beyond, The Three Fates of 1948 possibly best of all, with a good Ceri Richards, The Rape of the Sabines (Saudade).

The main collection didn't take long, though it's well displayed and Graham Sutherland's portrait of that dedicated collector and Chichester Dean Walter Hussey reminded us why the gallery came into being with his bequest as its centrepiece.

What took me by surprise was stumbling across a travelling show mounted by the Sidney Nolan Trust to mark the centenary in the great Australian artist's birth, Transferences: Sidney Nolan in Britain. This turned out to be its first day at Pallant House and the serendipitous highlight, connecting strangely with Anselm Kiefer's Walhalla at the White Cube Bermondsey. Nolan takes semi-mythic Australian figures and stories and makes something haunting out of them. There were no complete series, but enough Ned Kellys to give that thread a kick - a rusty suit

as well as quite a few versions of Nolan's - sorry, I have to use the word - iconic painted Kelly, which made art critics start at his first show in 1955,

and a haunting framework for Kelly's death mask, Death of a Poet, seen through the glass case featuring the costume design for the Chosen One in Kenneth MacMillan's Royal Ballet Rite of Spring

Burke and Hare's journey through the middle of Australia is imagined with one or t'other of the explorers stripped naked

and the curious tale of the escaped convict who liberated the shipwrecked Mrs Fraser from her ordeal on what is now called Fraser Island off the Queensland Coast - she later shopped her lover in London and made money at a fair recounting her story - represented by three canvases, the first two of which immediately showed me something special was afoot when I walked into the central reception room of the house with the staircase beyond. Not sure about the frieze or the pine cones on seats, though.

The one on the right is Convict in a Billabong (University of York, © Sidney Nolan Trust), the Nolan which had the strongest impact on me.

There's also a surprise homage to Britten, who became a friend, in a painting of John the drowned apprentice in Peter Grimes.

Nolan often used spray paint, too, strikingly so in a self-portrait, Myself of 1955, which is slightly hidden, almost under the stairs.

St John's Church, an elongated octagonal building of 1812-13, is only a few streets away.

Pevsner/Nairn is harsh: 'Neither beautiful nor lovable, but almost unique in its unaltered extreme Low Church plan'. It's been restored by the Churches Conservation Trust, and looks good inside, except for the pictureboard they've used to represent the organ (not sure whether that's been taken away for restoration or isn't due to reappear at all).

The finest feature is the 'huge free-standing three-decker pulpit' of American black birch.

The lower desk was for the clerk; the Minister would conduct the service from the middle desk and ascend to the upper pulpit for his sermon. Hogarth's The Sleeping Congregation shows us two tiers in operation.

As the late afternoon light was still good, I decided to do a full circuit of the city walls. There's a walk, but little wall, on the edge of the South-East Quadrant, covered in crocuses.

Charming little gatehouse at the end with more birds on pillars - you could be in a village at this point.

Then you cross the main north-south street and find excellent views of the Cathedral circumnavigating the South-West Quadrant.

On the west side, parallel with a noisy by-pass, the cathedral's detached bell tower also comes into view.

Leaving the road behind, and passing the site of the house where Eric Gill lived and worked for many years, you reach the most striking part of the walk, in that you're now following the ramparts. Snowdrops were here in modest clumps on the banks

and the first daffodils were making their appearance.

Crossing North Street, the wall girding the North-East quadrant overlooks the backs of 19th century terraced houses.

Then you're in Priory Park, with Greyfriars a 'very noble fragment' (Pevsner/Nairn) of the refounded Friary, completed in 1282.

Called the Old Guildhall and used for wedding receptions and other functions, it was locked, but the west front looked rather splendid, catching shadows of the trees in the sun like the walls themselves.

There's a promising looking cafe in the park with an aviary in front full of demented budgies, but it was closed by 5 so I walked back into town for tea and then on for evensong. The choir was small (12 trebles, two voices per each lower part) but absolutely superb - finer, it has to be said, than Gloucester Cathedral's choir which I've just heard when down there for a talk on Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil. The main difference was in the delivery of the Psalm - meaningful, with one especially interesting chant, in Chichester, lacklustre and dutiful in Gloucester.  'Wood in F' was a Mag&Nunc we always enjoyed singing in All Saints Banstead, but I'd never observed its skillful touches, what, as Tim said afterwards, gives a sudden twist to Victorian business as usual. The Glorias are, well, glorious, and brought a tear to my eye both times. And it's always a pleasure to sit within sight of the Piper reredos (better make clear this was an after-'show' shot; I wouldn't take photos during a service).

I had a chance to examine some of the misericords in the vicinity of where I was sitting. 'Vivid and varied enough,' declares Pevsner/Nairn, but not of the highest standard. Not really the point with misericords, is it? One's looking for eccentricity and grotesquerie and these deliver.

Afterwards there was just time to take a quick walk around the building I'd spent longer looking at when we were last here. Pevsner and Nairn are right - 'without any doubt it is one of the most lovable English cathedrals...It is a well-worn, well-loved, comfortable fireside chair of a cathedral - St Francis, not St Bernard: St Augustine of Hippo, not St Augustine of Canterbury'.

One final bonus - there was even a nice little independent cafe in the station, still open at 7pm, while I waited for the train back to London. The perfect city day out.


Willym said...

Thank you for the weekend jaunt. I love the misericords - always a source of amusement and amazement.

David said...

More anon of those, from Gloucester Cathedral which has a VERY artistic set of 52 (though I think some of the shinier ones were replacements by George Gilbert Scott). I always think it's a privilege to be allowed to sit regally below the canopies in the back row for that best of all services/meditations, sermon-free Evensong, and then tip up one's own and neighbouring seats to get a good look.

Susan said...

Well, it's all magnificent. Lovely to see the first signs of spring--particularly as frigid air has returned where we are, with a major snow storm expected tomorrow. Is it totally bizarre for me to see leeks in Nolan's Convict in a Billabong? (You needn't deign to answer such a silly question.) Culture is what saves us, don't you think? Or at least keeps us afloat. We've decided a short stateside trip is in order, so we cast around to see what was on in Philadelphia, and discovered Britten's War Requiem is on next week. So off we go, that is, after I see Idomeneo at the Met.

David said...

I know what you mean. I think they're eucalyptus trees.

Culture didn't save me on Saturday, when Kasper Holten's new Royal Opera production - if one may so describe it - of Wagner's Meistersinger so overwhelmed the excellence of the musical side that I wanted to run away after Act 2, the biggest mess I think I've ever seen on an operatic stage. If I hadn't had to review it, I would have gone. 3 was marginally better, but still - hard to convey the apoplexy into which I found myself falling.

Britten's War Requiem will be more timely than ever, and undeniably harrowing, but it should pull you through to some sort of catharsis. Is the fabulous Nezet-Seguin conducting?

Susan said...

Dutoit is conducting. The soloists are Tatiana Pavlovskaya, John Mark Ainsley, and Matthias Goerne.

David Damant said...

I went to the world premiere of the War Requiem at Coventry....Britten conducting, Dieskau for Germany Pears for UK and Heather Harper in place of Vishnevskaya who was not allowed out. As we ( group from Cambridge) left the Cathedral it was said that very clearly this was not a performance that would often be put on,in view of the forces involved..... !!!!

David Damant said...

Dear David, you should adopt the Damant approach to operatic productions. Take your sun glasses. This allows one, if the production turns out to be bizarre, to see the broad movements on the stage as the singing progresses, but little more. Then one can listen to the music undistracted by the goings on on the stage. Difficult if you are reviewing the piece, I would agree. Renee Fleming said the other day that in opera the production and the acting have now risen in importance, with the musical side no longer in the prime position it used to hold. I think my prize for the biggest mess was years ago at the ROH when in the last act of Idomeneo there were corpses being thrown into lime pits in the ruins of a bombed city.

David said...

Sue - interesting Russian sop/English tenor/German baritone disposition. I don't think you will get John Mark, though, as he has (we hope temporarily) retired from singing due to health issues. Unusual choice for Dutoit.

But the Damant approach would mean me becoming an old reactionary, Sir David. I happen to have admired Johannes Schaaf's production of Idomeneo. You may have hated the approach, but it wasn't a mess. But in any case the director's attitude infects the singers to the extent, in this case, of not giving the warm and generous performances they would have done under a director confident of the work, like Richard Jones. I have never experienced an operatic performance where directorial ineptitude so crushed fine musical values.

Excellent that you were at such a significant premiere. And the only danger with War Requiem performances these days is which to select, and how often to hear such a very special piece (I'd say once every five years would be about right). Last one I heard was Rattle's in Berlin, with Goerne, and it was a bitter disappointment. But do you have a word for anything Chichesterial?

David Damant said...

My Chichesterial comment is that Bishop Bell's views - on the conduct of the war and the British attitude to such resistance to Hitler as there was in Germany - were on the whole naive. I hardly ever said so ( to my one contact at the Cathedral) and now it is even more of a delicate subject in view of the personal accusations made against him

David said...

Well, that has nothing to do with the post, and is obscure to me.

Deborah vdB said...

Thank you for alerting me to those Nolans. Your pictures confirmed that we must try and make the effort to go. And as a Grimes fan I am also surprised by that one.
I recently gave Paul Sonabend the Peter Carey book, which he loved and has done a couple of new Ned Kelly pictures. I had to describe the armour over the phone as he has no access to computer.

David said...

Nolan also painted a portrait of Britten, which I haven't seen.

Paul Sonabend, for readers of this blog who haven't read the entry on him some way back, is a genius (and so is Deborah, who has done wonderful Ned Kelly sculptures).