Paul Nash and a classical education

Yesterday – actually last week now, but it's school holidays… – I was fortunate enough to visit the Paul Nash exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, originally at The Tate. It was a fabulous exhibition. Many thoughts occurred to me while perusing, but the most pertinent to this blog was to do with, unsurprisingly, the Classics.

Several of Nash's works allude to classical mythology. Lares (1929-30), for example, depicts a twentieth century fireplace. I wonder how many visitors would know without reading the text alongside the picture that the lares were Roman gods of hearth and home? I hope it goes without saying that hearth was once upon a time central to home; also, fascinatingly, our word focus is in fact a direct lifting of the Latin word for hearth.

Paul Nash, Lares (1929-30), Tate.

Knowing a little about the lares adds layers of meaning to this picture. The hearth, here, is overlaid with several objects of Nash's work – notably a set square, presumably to help him with the angles and parallel lines that pervade so much of his work. These items of Nash's everyday when placed in front of a fireplace burning with stylised fire make, arguably, quite a nice picture. The architectural elements incorporated into the picture are engaging and the design of the fire surround is attractive and interesting. The layers of the images are interesting too as Nash has created a trompe l'oeuil with some of the objects, the set square being partially transparent.

However, consider the name of the painting, Lares, and the composition takes on new resonances. The fireplace is transformed into the ancient hearth or figuratively the lararium at which the paterfamilias would leave daily offerings to the lares and penates to keep the family safe. Prayers were said daily and offerings were left, usually some food from the family meal, but given the superstition of ancient romans it is safe to assume that any object could be sanctified at the lararium. Nash's tools of his trade, then, placed in juxtaposition with the hearth and together entitled Lares, have become a kind of sacred offering to the household gods, or perhaps have received the blessing of the household to enable him to be a better artist. Given Nash's interest in mythology and mysticism which pervades the whole exhibition, this interpretation seems, to me at least, to be highly likely. How much richer do we become in appreciation of the art for some classical knowledge.

Image of a lararium from the House of the Vetii, Pompeii

Roman statue of a lar, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

I was going to write more, but as I said earlier, it's school holidays and I have small people to drag me away from pleasing myself at my iPad. I shall end with a gentle reminder that society is richer for art, for learning for learning's sake, and for those who strive to learn, to understand and to share their knowledge with others.

The exhibition ends this week, but you can buy the excellent catalogue here, and see the captions that go with the exhibitions here.

PS I wanted to write about Leda and swans, but even as my kids totally unreasonably nag me for lunch, I can't resist this image from the Nash exhibition. It's by John Armstrong, a friend of Paul Nash, and usually resides in the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.

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Sketching the classics, or, I want to be a stone mason

Today I spent an hour or so sketching in the Cast Gallery at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, which is just one of Cambridge University’s many fabulous free museums. Part of the Faculty of Classics, the gallery contains casts of statues and friezes from all over the classical world and is an amazing asset for Cambridge. I love to sketch, but in all honesty have done so only twice in the last twenty years or so that I can recall… What motivated this little excursion from my daily routine of teaching/ school runs/ wondering what to make for supper/ buying stuff to cook for supper/ laundry/ more laundry/ feeding kids their supper etc was that I am going to learn to be a stone mason!!

Or more truthfully, I am attending a long weekend course in September at which I will learn the techniques of stone carving and (hopefully) carve something half decent myself. The course was a Christmas present from my husband, so back in the early spring time I contacted the teacher, Lucy Churchill, and asked her advice on what I should be doing to prepare myself for learning to carve stone. She said ‘look at as much sculpture as you can’ and recommends sketching it too, thinking about what shape block you would need to start with and ‘how you would go about taking away the unnecessary stone in slices and checks’. She has a lot more information in her 15 page document for prospective carvers, but I am tantalised just by these comments.

What initially sparked my desire to become a stone mason wasn’t actually classical statues or friezes, but rather the incredibly intricate carvings found in the churches and cathedrals of England. Regular readers of my blog (are you out there?) might recall that I have been visiting cathedrals with my family with the aim of visiting all the Anglican cathedrals in England, but we have made a few other non-cathedral visits recently too, notably to St Mary’s, Beverley, and to Romsey Abbey which both contain stonework fascinating in itself and historically significant for Britain. For me, the showstopper so far, however, has been Southwell Minster. The attendant there could see my delight at the carvings and took time out from greeting at the door to show me some of the intricacies of the Chapter House — the hidden beasts lurking under stone fronds of oak, the hollow space behind more leaf work extending for several yards over the arched doorway, the master mason himself with his special master mason’s hat atop the serene face of one who knows he has overseen a job well done. I was left speechless and ecstatic by my visit to Southwell.

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The master mason in the Chapter House at Southwell Minster, identifiable by his hat

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The entrance to the Chapter House, Southwell. It’s hard to make out without a torch held under it, but the leaf work around these arches is hollow behind. Much of the stonework in Southwell Minster is too intricate to be adequately restored, despite being in grave need of restoration after water damage

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From underneath you can make out these two pigs snuffling for acorns in the Chapter House, Southwell Minster; they are hidden at eye level by the oak leaves

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The White Rabbit at St Mary’s, Beverley, was apparently inspiration for John Tenniel’s illustration to Alice in Wonderland

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Fabulous faces overseeing entry to St Mary’s, Beverley

But Southwell and Beverley are both a bit too far away to nip off to for a quick sketch, so I returned to the cast gallery in Cambridge. Then I had to decide what to sketch — so much choice! Not a human face — too tricky, certainly not a god’s face — too hubristic, not a frieze — too flat, aha! A lovely deer!

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Detail from Diana of Versailles

This young deer, apparently a companion to Diana, surely not an imminent victim (in her hand above its head is the remnant of a bow; her other hand reaches for an arrow, presumably for a different prey somewhere in the direction of her gaze), has all the serenity in its face, it is so graceful, and yet is so full of flow and movement in keeping with the whole composition. It is so slender of feature, so beautiful. I will not do it justice, but I will try!

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Diana of Versailles. The original in the Louvre, a Roman work from the 1st or 2nd century AD, is believed to be a copy of a Greek bronze by Leochares from the 4th century BC. A bronze copy was given to Charles I and is now in Windsor Castle

This being my first attempt at sketching in a lot of years, and never having done any art seriously at school, I found it fascinating to note how I looked at the sculpture, and how wrong I was in interpreting what I saw. I would look, then I would make a mark on the paper, then I would look again and wonder why what I had done looked so wrong. My line would, I realised, be going in the opposite direction from where it should have been going. I had looked and perceived all wrong! I did this a lot of times. Not to mention scale, proportion, perspective… However, I had a good go at it, but my time was up all too quickly and I had to leave to pick up my youngest from pre school. Looking at it later with fresh eyes I was pleasantly surprised to see what resembled a deer on my page. None of the serenity and flow of my sitter, granted, but a deer nonetheless, recognisable!

Next task, to carve it in stone with a weekend’s tuition under my belt!

I am grateful for the advice to go and look at sculpture in order to figure out how to carve it, but the best advice in order to really look is definitely to sketch. Now, school holidays start tomorrow — do you think I will be able to get my kids to sit still and sketch with me, just for an hour or so?

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I forgot to take a rubber with me

I am also grateful to the Classics Faculty at Cambridge University for having such a wonderful and free museum.

My photos don’t begin to do justice to the incredible carvings both in stone and wood at all the places I have mentioned in this piece. I urge you to go and visit them for yourself:

St Mary’s, Beverley

Southwell Minster (it is properly a cathedral, but the name ‘Minster’ has stuck)

Romsey Abbey with its Saxon carvings and especially its rood

Should you wish to learn to carve stone with Lucy Churchill, her courses are booked nearly a year ahead. I will aim to write about my experience when I have something to show for it.

Here are some more images from Southwell:

And some more from St Mary’s Beverley:

Control, Fear, and Rage: Ovid on Linguistic Isolation

This excellent post from Peter Kruschwitz resonates with me on several levels. I too have been deeply saddened by the referendum fall out (though I am unlikely to be a victim of racist abuse myself). I too love languages for all their diversity; reading Peter’s selections from Ovid talking about his exile on the Black Sea reminded me of my own linguistic experiences on the Black Sea coast in Bulgaria several years ago.

I was travelling with a boyfriend, about whom I had had some misgivings, but we had agreed to go on holiday together. On the plane over I had spent a little bit of time reading my guide book’s notes on the language – and the Cyrillic alphabet – so that I could attempt conversation with the locals, read street signs and so on. Arriving in a small seaside resort one evening, my boyfriend was tired and anxious that we wouldn’t be able to find where we were staying. I started to read the street names, which being in the Cyrillic alphabet my boyfriend clearly couldn’t make head nor tail of. He expressed his discomfort with me by shouting at me in the street. I thought this was bizarre, but Peter’s post and references to Ovid very neatly explore and go some way to explaining some people’s fear of the spoken word and have crystallised my own experience for me.

I still embrace the foreign in my everyday life and have as little as possible to do with that particular ex.

Peter’s posts have also had the unexpected result of making me see my own country in a more interesting light. Admittedly I haven’t been to Reading in some time, but his blog makes me want to explore, makes me want to look more closely at often overlooked local sights, makes me want to appreciate towns in my own country more. It has taken a German to make me feel this way. Thank you, Peter!

The Petrified Muse

I moved from Germany to Britain in September 2005. I have made this island my home – I work here, I live here, I have my friends here. I don’t put my beach towel over chairs in the library, I do not wear socks with my sandals. I still can’t bring myself to enjoy real ale, I regret to say, but I try to make up for that by drinking cider instead. In complete denial of my identity as a Berliner, I apologise when someone inconveniences me, and I join queues whenever there is an opportunity. I’ve been working on my English, too, improving it from marks in the C/D range at school to at least a B- now. I live in Reading, a beautifully multicultural community, in which I very much feel at home, for all its faults and oddities.

Yesterday, however, on my way to work – I…

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Mycenopoly

I haven’t blogged on anything particularly teaching related recently, but this post is too good not pass on – a Bronze Age version of Monopoly!

Should you be so keen as to get your hands on one, dear reader, then read on to the end of the post.

It's All Greek To Me

It’s been an unashamedly nerdy ambition of mine for quite a long time to make a Bronze Age version of Monopoly, themed around the Mycenaean palaces of Bronze Age Greece – so now that I’m PhD-less, I thought I’d finally give it a go. Allow me to present: Mycenopoly – or, in Linear B, mu-ke-no-po-ru:

Mycenopoly

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Maximum grammar geekery, or What on earth is a gerund, anyway?!

Has it ever occurred to you that lots of the terminology for Latin grammar is what it does? It’s really helpful when trying to explain it.

Consider the Present Participle. The word ‘present’ is itself formed from a present participle in Latin, praesens, meaning present, at hand, prompt etc. And the present participle means something that is happening now, in the present, promptly if you will. Brilliant! But what I really like is that it looks like the Latin form – it’s last three letters, at least. The -ent of ‘present’ resembles the -ens of the Latin form, which corresponds in turn to the -ing of the English form, eg doing – they all have ‘n’ in the middle of the three letters! Am I taking this a bit far? I usually draw my students a little memorial diagram to highlight the ‘n’ thing, like this:

 

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The present participle: does what it is! (Also, one of the more dull images of all time, but this is a post about Latin grammatical terminology. There’s a funny image further down.)

Let us consider next the Perfect tense. The word ‘perfect’ is itself formed from a perfect participle, perfectus, which means finished, ie the meaning of the perfect tense, an action finished, by definition, in the past. Genius!

And the Imperfect tense? Well, that means ‘not perfect’, an action that was ongoing in the past, not finished  – she was doing her homework (imperfect tense; as yet unfinished) when the dog ate it (perfect tense; it’s finished now, isn’t it?).

How about tricksier stuff, like the Gerund. ‘The whaaaaa?’ I hear you cry. Don’t panic! It’s a verbal noun — a noun formed from a verb, like the words running or swimming and so on when used in sentences like ‘running is my passion’, ‘swimming makes me happy’. The word gerund comes from the Latin verb gero (in its gerund form, of course) which  is essentially a verb of doing stuff, getting on with things. One of its meanings is to wage war. That’s getting on with stuff if ever anything was. And what does the gerund mean? Well, it generally expresses the idea of getting on with something. There are some eminent examples of gerunds in mottos, such as the Pope’s own motto, miserando atque eligendo, but also the commonly used phrase modus operandi, meaning a method of doing something, getting something done, if you will.

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Geoffrey Willans’ and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth’s imagining of the Gerund and Gerundive; image from here

Its partner in grammar crimes against student comprehension is the much maligned Gerundive. I always feel quite sorry for the gerundive. A colleague once made a matching fluffy gerund and gerundive pair of little creatures for her classroom to cheer her pupils up. Now I think of it, the gerundive always looked by far the more mischievous of the two. It essentially means the same thing as the gerund but is more adjectival and passive, bless it – though only in a grammatical sense, as it usually has an even stronger sense of something needing to be got on with. Take one of my favourite examples, nunc est bibendum. This means ‘now is the time for drinking needing to be done‘. See how this cheeky little adjective is not actually describing anything, and despite being passive, translates better here as active. In fact, it usually translates better into English as active, so much so that teachers and students alike often ignore its passivity altogether, or confuse it with its fluffy gerund sibling. So many reasons for students to feel aggrieved towards it, now I come to think of it…. To explain its form, ‘gerundive’ has the Latin adjectival ending -ivum (which you can also see in the word ‘adjective’. I love this stuff!), so it is an adjective itself. Like I say, I love this stuff!

Here are some more of my favourite gerundives from everyday life:

  1. My own middle name, Amanda, she who ought to be loved;
  2. The marvellous Miranda, she who ought to be marvelled at (not to be confused with verandah, something which ought to be sat on when it’s sunny. I used to confuse these words when I was little);
  3. Agenda, (usually boring) things which ought to be done.

As usual, I could go on and on with all this — I haven’t even touched on the cases! — but I will leave it there for now. Happy grammaring!

 

Church Latin? It’s, ahem, all Greek to me…

My husband and I decided a couple of years ago that we would challenge ourselves to visit every Anglican cathedral in England. I like church history, and churches, and my husband likes that churches are pretty good places for small children to explore safely. We have subsequently visited some of the most beautiful places and buildings in the country and both developed a pedantry around use of the word aisle when nave is meant. As well as the splendour of the buildings, there is plenty of opportunity for exploring language since the church is a vast repository of fascinating and arcane words.

When is a cathedral not a cathedral? When it’s a chair!

First word on my list, then, is Cathedral. We tend to think of Latin as being the language of the church, but this word came into Latin from Greek, as you might have guessed from the very un-Latin presence of a ‘th’ in its middle. Greek — and Latin —  ‘cathedra’ means simply ‘chair’. Lewis and Short (my wonderful Latin dictionary) gives a bit more detail: ‘a chair, a stool, esp. one furnished with cushions and supports for women, an arm chair‘, and then goes on to mention it as a bishop’s chair, amongst other definitions. The chair itself is central to the cathedral since the cathedral is the ‘seat’ of the bishop. My marvellous guide book, The Cathedrals of England, by Batsford and Fry, describes Southwell before it was elevated to cathedral status as ‘the bishop of York’s footstool’, back when it was merely a lowly Minster.

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In some cathedrals you are hard pushed to spot the cathedra amongst all the other fascinating paraphernalia, but Chelmsford makes much of its beautiful greenish chair of Westmorland slate. Picture from here.

More see, bishop?

The cathedral is also in English home to the ‘see’ of the bishop, which sounds a bit like seat, but refers more to the job of the bishop.

Bishop sounds English, doesn’t it? What could be more English than taking tea with a bishop? Well, it is a very anglicised word, that’s for sure, but its roots are again Greek. Episcopos is the Greek for bishop, and it means ‘the one who looks out’ — like in periscope or telescope. One of the earliest English christian church leaders was a chap called Benedict Biscop. His name gives us a clue as to how the Greek word episcopos became English bishop. It lost its initial ‘e’, hardened its new initial ‘p’ to ‘b’ and softened its ‘sc’ to ‘sh’. Obvious, really.

But what does a bishop do? Looks out from their seat (cathedra!) over their see — which sounds a lot like seat! — but is to do with looking! — onto their diocese. Whoa, there! What’s a diocese?

What’s a Diocese, sis?

This word also comes to Latin via Greek. Cicero used ‘dioecesis’ to mean an area under a governor’s jurisdiction (I know this from its dictionary entry in Lewis and Short rather than an encyclopaedic knowledge of Cicero, I’m sorry to have to admit). It became an area under a bishop’s jurisdiction with the advent of Christianity. In case you are interested, its Greek roots are ‘di’ (preposition meaning ‘through’) + ‘oikos’ (noun meaning ‘house’), creating ‘dioikein’ meaning ‘to keep house’ or ‘administer’. Why it is pronounced to rhyme with sis is anyone’s guess! Fascinatingly, ‘oikos’ also crops up in the English word ‘economy’, which is also all about keeping your house in order.

Ship ahoy!

Ely, one of the most splendid cathedrals in the country, rising ineffably on its improbable hill from the murky flats of East Anglia, is known as the Ship of the Fens. This word, ship, crops up again in church terminology in the word nave. As I said at the beginning, aficionados of church architecture get a little sweaty about the word nave, because it is not an aisle!! The nave is the main central space up the length of a church. It comes from the Latin ‘navis’, which means ‘ship’. Clearly all churches are ships of faith, steering a course through high seas of unbelievers and allegory, disembarking souls of faithful parishioners at their heavenly destination. The tradition of seeing the Church as a ship is as ancient as the Church itself, as far as I can tell from a quick Google.

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The Ship of the Fens: Ely Cathedral on its improbable hill. Photo credit P. Wood.

Aisle have two of those flying ships!

If the nave is not an aisle, then what is? Well, there are usually two aisles in a church, one to the north and one to the south of the nave. They are the wings of the ship! Aisle comes via French from the Latin for wing, ‘ala’. My Shorter OED (Volume 1) tells me (via the abbreviation ‘conf.’) that it is spelt funny on account of someone once upon a time having confused it with with the word ‘isle’, island, whilst simultaneously thinking about the French world ‘aile’, meaning ‘wing’.

I really could go on and on with this subject — there’s the font (Latin ‘fons’, a spring), the altar (Latin ‘altus’, high), the transept, the triforium and clerestory and the word church itself to name a few, but I think I might save those for another fascinating instalment of ‘Charlie Loves Dictionaries!’