A great schoolmaster

I have recently read, pretty much in one sitting, The Story of a Great Schoolmaster, by (you guessed) H.G. Wells.

(For those of you thinking I’m sitting a lot on my sabbatical, well, that’s by design. And sometimes I lie down instead, because I know sitting a lot is bad for you.)

Published in 1924, it is the story of F.W. Sanderson, and his role as headmaster at Oundle School, Northamptonshire, which he reformed in the 1890s:

The world is changing so rapidly that it may be well to say a few words about the type of school Sanderson was destined to renovate. Even in the seventies and eighties these smaller ‘classical’ schools had a quaint old-fashioned air amidst the surrounding landscape. They were staffed by the less vigorous men of the university-scholar type; men of the poorer educated classes in origin, not able enough to secure any of the prizes reserved for university successes, and not courageous enough to strike out into the great world on their own account. (p28)

(I know it’s presumptuous of me to mention it, but Wells seems to be sporting a superior attitude here, having himself won some scholarships and prizes in the 1880s, and being courageous enough to strike out on his own as soon as he could during his early years. By 1924, however, he was a successful author of fiction rather than a successful headmaster, so I find his approach here a bit condescending.)

Wells met Sanderson in 1914, when he was looking at Oundle School as a possibility for his own sons George Phillip (“Gip”) and Francis (known as Frank, I assume after H.G.’s brother). According to Wikipedia, Gip did attend Oundle, so I assume Frank did also. Certainly it’s evident that once their father saw what Sanderson had done with the school, he was filled with admiration for his modern views and methods. It was these methods I found most interesting (and also Sanderson’s death, which I’ll get to in a minute).

Sanderson developed what we would today call “active learning”, and group active learning at that. Most of it is described in Chapter III: The Replacement of Competition by Group Work. Having noted that Sanderson believed that boys should be doing active scientific work, and that they were more involved and interested when they did, Wells then shared a mini history of education. He claimed that “there have been three chief phases in the history of educational method in the past five centuries, the phase of compulsion, the phase of competition, and the phase of natural interest” (p46). These aren’t necessarily discrete, but he sees medieval teaching as motivated largely by compulsion, and balancing rote learning with corporal punishment. The second phase was the age of the class-list (that is, the lists of students passing exams — or not). He referred to this era as “slightly more enlightened” (p46):

The school of the rod gave place to the school of the class-list. An aristocracy of leading boys made the pace and the rest of the school found its compensation in games or misbehaviour. (pp46-47)

He noted that during this time the curriculum was Greek, Latin, and formal mathematics, none of which were of any intrinsic interest to a boy. By the end of the 18th century, there was a shift, and attention to subjects that were more interesting. He briefly mentions Pestalozzi and Froebel as pioneers of the third phase. Wells had written an essay on Froebel, which I have been unable to find, to earn the Doreck Prize, so he did know about these things. He had himself been a product of the class-list phase. Both the thrills and sorrows of competition, as he saw it at the Normal School of Science, appear in several of his novels.

Sanderson began his career at Oundle using the old class-list methods, but in mathematics he started to create instead “clusters of boys surrounding an attractive problem” (p48). A “Science Conversazione” developed of small groups of pupils working on a particular problem, at first in their free time. A surprisingly large number of students joined voluntarily, in focus groups of various scientific subjects. Experiments were assigned or developed, and as the “Speech Day” approached, class time was replaced by work time on the projects. The school would look chaotic at such times, but all the pupils were completely engaged in developing solutions to the problems emerging in their work:

Concurrently with this steady replacement of the instructional-exercise system by the group-activity system, the mathematical work became less and less a series of exercises in style and more and more an attack upon problems needing solution in the workshops and laboratories, with the solution as the real incentive to the work. (p52)

What do we call this now? Applied learning, constructivism, cooperative learning, maker spaces, design thinking, flipped classroom, growth mindset, scaffolding — it’s all there in 1898.

Sanderson’s success in science led to his application of the technique to literature and history, doing away with

…the lesson that was a third-rate lecture, the note-taking, the rehearsal of silly opinions about books unread and authors unknown, the horrible annotated editions, the still more horrible text-books of literature

and replacing them with plays, with the boys taking the parts, to teach literature, to bring the pupils “into the most active contact possible with the reality of the work they studied” (p54). For history the school library was the laboratory, with content divided among the groups, who prepared maps and quotations for presentation and argued with each other about historical approaches (pp54-55). (This all sounded so exciting that I began to mourn our old college library, with its many shelves of books that could be physically browsed. Now the books are in a small section, with most of the room taken over by computers. More information? Yes, indeed. A space for enthusiastic searching for information in noisy groups? No.)

Today Oundle School still exists (with boys and girls), and Sanderson is mentioned here as its most famous headmaster. It is now primarily a boarding school, although it has day students, with ages starting as young as 11 years old, although the usual is 13. I’m sure it’s a wonderful school, but I must admit to queasiness at the very idea of having a child that age live at a school. But that is neither here nor there.

I am these days wrestling with the idea of biography as history, and it helps that Wells didn’t mean to just write a biography — his work makes a point about Sanderson:

To tell his story is to reflect upon all the main educational ideas of the last half-century, and to revise our conception of the process and purpose of the modern community in relation to education. (p2)

Sounds like a good idea now as well as then.

I noted in the book a natural sympathy, as there often is between a biographer and his subject. Apparently, like Wells, Sanderson went round on a bicycle, but wasn’t great at outdoor games (Wells was asked to participate on cricket teams, but wouldn’t play even when he agreed to sign up). As a young man, like Wells, Sanderson was slender and serious. And he always went his own way.

Sanderson died in 1922 after completing a lecture where he was introduced by Wells. He suffered a heart attack during the Q&A which followed the talk, and Wells had to go tell his widow. Wells tells the story, and reprints the lecture in its entirety, for the last chapter.

A review of the book from the Journal of Education* claimed that Sanderson being the first subject to stir Wells into writing a biography would make “The Story of a Great Schoolmaster the most famous educational book of the decade, probably of a quarter of a century”. More effusiveness followed: “We have seen no book on education from Solomon, Socrates and Comenius to Edward Eggleston and William Hawley Smith whose every paragraph has a human touch that throbs.” I think that is perhaps overdoing it, but it’s a very good book, especially for those looking to support efforts toward enlivening curriculum.


*The Journal of Education, Vol. 99, No. 18 (2478) (May 1, 1924), p. 499, retrieved via JSTOR 15 Nov 2018.

(Clever readers will notice that I’ve counted this small review as Student Learning Outcome 5: cultural expression as evidence of a historical theme. This is because the book is a literary work, even though it is non-fiction, and such a book is a cultural expression of its time: 1924. It could be used to represent the interest in education, and/or the popularity of Wells’ writings, during that era. It isn’t as popular now, I think, since I purchased at good price what I just realized is a first edition.)



About Carlyle

In the mid-1880s, during his time at South Kensington, when he was supposed to be studying for his science examinations, H.G. Wells was instead educating himself. In his autobiography, he noted Thomas Carlyle as part of his self-required reading:

I was reading not only a voluminous literature of propaganda but discursively in history, sociology and economics. I was doing my best to find out what such exalted names as Goethe and Carlyle, Shelley and Tennyson, Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, Pope—or again Buddha, Mahomet and Confucius—had had to say about the world and what they mattered to me. I was learning the use of English prose and sharpening my mind against anyone’s with whom I could start a discussion.

Wells considered it a treat to read Carlyle’s book on the French Revolution, a break from his other reading. He also noted that England as a whole was influenced by Carlyle in a nationalism that was “consciously Teutonic”. Later on in the 1890s, Wells claimed, every writer was considered to be a “second” someone, and that at one time Wells himself was called a second Carlyle.

Although Wells was about twenty then and I am, shall we say, at least twice as old, I am also educating myself, in Victorian culture and literature as well as education. I cannot read all the things Wells read, but I did want to take a look at Carlyle, since I had only read Signs of the Times (then, in a move I have regretted more than once,  I assigned it to students). I bought a copy of Past and Present a couple of years ago, and tried to read it. I say “tried” because I never made it through – the prose seemed awful, like a combination of Wordsworth on drugs and Kipling on a very bad day (one more exclamation point and I would have crawled under the sofa).

So shopping at Skoob on my last trip to the UK, I picked up a short biography on Ruskin (for obvious reasons – readers know how much I both dislike him and am trying to understand his influence). Next to it, in the same paperbound series (Past Masters, by Oxford University Press), was one on Carlyle, by A.L. LeQuesne. I read the whole thing in one day (I won’t say “in one sitting” because I had to get up for tea and chocolate…ok, more than once).

It was brilliantly written. I’m not sure why I didn’t expect that. Biography can be quite dull, and Carlyle himself was hardly exciting. LeQuesne’s thesis (I didn’t expect a clear thesis either) was that Carlyle’s best work took place in only a few years of his very long career: 1837-1848. Before this, Carlyle wrote poorly (I am apparently not the only one to notice this), and afterward he was behind in worldview and no longer speaking to the current generation.

I do not like biographies that explain in detail the personal lives and clinical ailments of their subjects. Some things seem relevant to me (like Holmes’ noting in his biography of Wellington that the Duke put bars on the windows of Apsley House because he feared the rabble) and others do not (like the many biographies detailing Wells’ sexual proclivities, either known or imagined). LeQuesne had just the right amount of personal detail. It was important to know how witty and endearing Carlyle’s wife was, and how charming their marriage (at least to outsiders), to help explain why their house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea was appealing to many intellectuals as a place to meet and converse.  His dyspepsia and sensitivity to noise was mentioned a few times, mostly as a distraction to his writing that needed to be overcome, but not, thank goodness, in detail. Similarly, his religion was discussed only as it influenced his work.

Robert Tait, A Chelsea Interior (The Carlyles at Home with their Dog Nero at 5/24 Great Cheyne Row, London), 1857-58


Carlyle had roots in an agricultural family in Scotland, and lost some of his youthful religious beliefs when he left. As a young man, he wrote many reviews of books, and since Wells did some of this too it helped me understand the culture that had writers enter the market by writing such reviews. Rebelling against the Enlightenment emphasis, philosophically and intellectually, at university in Edinburgh, Carlyle began studying German romanticism. His Sartor Resartus is described as “a weird Romantic masterpiece which defies either classification or summary” (p19). His style was sometimes “rambling, turbulent, ejaculatory, vastly self-indulgent and metaphorical” (p21). In this work, he apparently developed a theme of the material expression of life requiring a spiritual or super-natural foundation. Earnest work, he thought, made possible the glimpsing of the spiritual beneath the material (Ruskin would have understood this, I think). The book apparently fit the Romantic idea, common among people like Wordsworth (duh) of the superiority of the imagination over the dullness of cold rationality.

Reading this sort of thing now, when rationality is so sorely missing in our culture, and imagination has gone awry into nightmares of duplicity and cruelty, is difficult. But as he continued, Carlyle turned himself into a historian, using that imagination to enliven deep primary research into the past, particularly the French Revolution and the English Civil War. LeQuesne claims he replaced a faith in religion with a faith in history (p33). This was not a faith in materialism, like that of Karl Marx, but of providential judgement. The horrors of the French Revolution seemed to be divine punishment of some sort, revealing God’s purpose. Carlyle thus opposed previous historians of the 1830s, who looked back on the revolution as a horrible deviation from the natural order and a warning about a possible uprising. Carlyle’s analysis instead provided a “cause of hope rather than fear; for it was a sentence of divine justice on a corrupt society” (p35, a page dog-eared by a previous reader of my copy).

Of even more interest to me was the analysis of Carlyle as a historian in professional terms. According to LeQuesne:

Carlyle did not believe that the historian’s function was to provide a smoothly flowing narrative for the entertainment of his readers, nor that history could be treated as an experimental science from which inductive laws of human behaviour could be derived, nor that rigid objectivity and detachment were either possible or desirable qualities in a historian.

This seems similar to the re-emergence in recent years of imaginative historical writing. Under what circumstances, I wonder, do historians appear who value the imaginative over the rational? Despite the rejection of narrative noted by LeQuesne, the passages quoted from Carlyle’s books show, as with Dickens, a deep-seated sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. And he showed it in such a way as to condemn beourgeois complacency, often in stirring prose (and prose that I could actually read). In one passage he makes the reader grieve for the dying Dauphin in prison, then jabs at a conscience which can lament this but ignore the conditions of “poor Factory Children” that perish while no one cares (p43).

The difference between mid-19th century social reformers and Carlyle was that as Carlyle’s career continued, he saw the answer to social inequities to be the rise of heroes, and sometimes a heroic nation-state. LeQuesne says several times in the book that Carlyle was “no democrat”. He claims that Carlyle’s work on the French Revolution won the “ears of a generation”, but that his work after 1850 lost it (p55). LeQuesne calls him a “prophet” (and spends a chapter or two attempting to prove that this title is appropriate) but his work became preachy and grumpy. By then people were actively involved in reform acts of many kinds, and Carlyle’s vision of providentially-guided history and heroic leadership seemed out of place. Moreover, his work began treating the downtrodden soldiers, colonials, and workers with derision rather than understanding. LeQuesne claims this transition is masked by his focus on hero-worship (p85), but the hero is needed to guide people precisely because people are so inadequate to the task.

Thus Carlyle lost his readership, and certainly my interest — it was this sort of writing I encountered in Past and Present. LeQuesne sees his later approach as a rejection of humanity and an increase in impatience with slow progress, but it also seems to me a good foundation for dictatorship and all sorts of other nasty mechanisms that don’t trust people even with a republican system, much less a democratic one.

So in this biography, if not in Carlyle’s own works, I have gotten an idea of what Carlyle had to say and why it mattered — the goals of H.G. Wells’ own reading of him. Unfortunately, I have found myself with little sympathy for any of his ideas except those designed to help readers understand the lives of those less fortunate. Much of the rest (including anti-rationalism, imaginative historical writing, and hero-worship) I find to be at the foundation of much that is wrong with society now, as well as then.


On this site

There is nothing more basic to history than the idea that things change. Buildings are torn down to make way for what society needs at the time, or what business decides it needs. In Britain, buildings can be saved by being “listed” as Grade I, II*, or II. Grade I is for places like Buckingham Palace. Listed buildings cannot be torn down or altered without permission, so people often complain when they want to make upgrades on their listed house. The idea goes back to a monument protection act in 1882.

Not all places that are lost were torn down, of course. The Great Fire of London in 1666 did a number on the whole city, destroying many buildings. Commemoration of these places is also part of history. Pudding Lane, where the Great Fire began in a bakery is commemorated on the site:

It’s almost as if the bakers themselves have taken responsibility. Around the corner is Christopher Wren’s enormous monument to the fire, somewhat hidden by modern buildings.


This always strikes me as a monument to the resilience of an extraordinary city. But in the Museum of London is the other part of the monument, a reminder of the ability of humans to blame each other for their differences.


Put up in 1681, it blames Catholics for the fire. Another example of how monuments are interpretive objects, not just memory, as I’ve written before about Confederate monuments in the American Civil War. The British get the idea of putting objectionable history in a museum so people can think about it, not just pass it on their way to work.

In my own research, removed and altered buildings are more of an issue. The University Correspondence College in Cambridge looked like this:

This trip I stopped by Parker’s Piece, which the College overlooked. It was, appropriately, Freshers’ Day on the Piece, with a festival to welcome incoming students to the University of Cambridge. And here, where the UCC used to stand, is the carpark I’d heard about.

Isn’t it lovely, with the cars hidden by white slats? When I mentioned to a Cambridge resident and distance education expert over coffee that it was a shame that one had to tear down such a beautiful building, his remark was, “for those who like that sort of thing”. We agreed it had been a Victorian monstrosity. I just happen to like Victorian monstrosities.

In other places, buildings remain but have been repurposed.

Up on Kilburn Road in London is the site of the old Henley House School. Here J.V. Milne was headmaster, and H.G. Wells was a schoolmaster. But it’s A.A. Milne, author of Winnie the Pooh, who gets the plaque. And the buildings are now flats.

The old site of the laboratories at South Kensington, where Wells learned biology with T.H. Huxley, has been absorbed into the Victoria and Albert Museum photographic archive and library which, unfortunately, has no photos of the original labs. These might be at what South Ken became, the Imperial College, but that’s a search for another trip. Outside, however, the building remains.

Sometimes historic sites are uncovered in the process of creating new sites. There are several rivers under the streets of London (the Fleet comes to mind). Walbrook River was the water supply for an ancient Roman site which included a temple to Mithras. According to the publicity, it was discovered in the 1960s and reconstructed hastily at a nearby site. I certainly never knew it was there, and I couldn’t find anything on the internet about its existence prior to now.

Michael Bloomberg, creating his European headquarters on the old site, had the temple moved back to near where it had been, and gifted the City with a tourist destination. You can now see the Mithraeum below his building. Extraordinary amounts of money have been spent. It is free, but timed tickets are required, and only 20 or so people are allowed in for a timed visit. The steps down to the temple mark the archaeological eras on the wall. Sound and lighting effects (wonderfully cheap LED lighting effects — I couldn’t have done better in my days as a theatrical lighting designer) make it an “experience”. 600 of the items they excavated are in a case in the waiting area.

Having spent a number of years in the theatre myself, it always intrigues me when history becomes theatre. Sometimes people’s imaginations need to be encouraged in order to engage the past at all, and of course Bloomberg and others employed archaeologists and historians, which is always a good thing. However, I remember being at a conference on visual history in Durham, and hearing a historian who had worked in Stratford-upon-Avon. They were creating Shakespeare’s schoolhouse as a tourist attraction, and had hired historians to verify the details. The trouble is, there is no evidence at all of which school Shakespeare attended, whether the school would still exist, or whether he even attended school there or elsewhere. This has not stopped it from becoming an attraction, refurbished as accurately as possible to the period.

As well as including things that may not have happened, artistic license for history can also leave things out. The Mithraeum, while noting the slaying of a bull as sacred to the proceedings there, does not mention the gay orgies that were an integral part of the religion. I suppose that would be a bit much for the tourists.


Too Wilde

I usually don’t do theatre reviews, but since I’m studying the Victorian era it seems appropriate to do so for a play by Oscar Wilde.

The Importance of Being Earnest, reputed to be Wilde’s funniest play and certainly his most performed, is now playing at the Vaudeville in London. Some interesting interpretive decisions have been made.

One of the main characters, Algernon, plays piano in the opening scene and gets a kiss from a character who looks like Wilde, who then dashes off-stage. No problem there. Wilde sometimes spoke at the end of his plays, and it was charming to have him appear, just for a moment. But then, throughout the first section, Algernon flirts with, touches, and shares cigarettes with his manservant, as if the two are in an intimate relationship.

I have no objection at all to gay relationships. I do object when class lines are crossed in a play which makes fun of such class distinctions, most often by having its central elitist characters make ongoing references to the unsuitability of the lower orders. It is not unlikely that Algernon would sleep with men. However, despite the fact that this sort of thing occasionally occurred, it is unlikely that he’d sleep with his own servant.

Wilde himself, of course, was the lower class participant in his love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. I know some of Wilde’s history and sympathized with the director’s efforts to get his story and his sexuality into the play. The problem is that it isn’t there. Even though “Earnest” was his last play before he was arrested for sodomy, and Alfred’s father was angry with him, the play is devoid of anything pertaining to his personal life. It is a brutal, straightforward critique of late Victorian class and manners, not gender or sexuality.

So it was disconcerting to have Algernon pinching Jack on the behind, or everyone engaging in stolen kisses (making sure to show two female servants doing so).

Even if one could find gaity within the subtext, a director trying to demonstrate it should bring it out in the text. Instead, the actors all spoke their lines at breakneck speed — the humor was there (Wilde will out) but the lines were declared loudly. There was no slyness or subtlety to the delivery. Algernon was consistently declaratory, Jack was consistently perturbed. It reminded me of Bialystock and Bloom in The Producers, but had less warmth to the relationship.

There are sexually-tinged moments in the text. The female characters clearly have sexual desires for their “Earnest” men, and both were delightful in this regard.

I understand that we live in a time when gender and sexuality are top political and social issues, and I also understand that plays need to be updated to appeal to contemporary audiences. But with this one, the central conflict is still very much present in today’s society. People still look down on others for various reasons, and Wilde’s wit about pretentiousness still applies. There is no need for an update.

The actors did a wonderful job with the direction they’d been given. Perhaps the director could have listened more to Wilde.

The balcony at the Vaudeville is called the “Grand Circle” — it’s still way up there

Oxford for an afternoon

I suppose one might wonder whether it is worth it to go on half-day trips like my six hours in Manchester, or this one: an afternoon in Oxford, out of London.

The short answer is YES.

I have posted about Oxford before, but usually I spend most of my visit in the Bodleian Library. This time my friend Jane and I went just for fun. Best deal was the X90 bus, at £16 return (that’s round-trip for Americans). Takes about 90 minutes, but the parts near Oxford are quite pretty, even from the road. The sight of the Grenfell Tower, blackened when I first saw it three days after the fire but now wrapped in white plastic, is eerie and horrible, and a reminder of human hubris and greed.

This visit was just to see a few sites again, places I knew I liked to go. Priority was the Natural History Museum and the attached Pitt Rivers Museum. The latter has a massive collection, naturally originating in the Victorian era, of items from around the world — it’s a huge cabinet of curiosities. I have said before that the curation emphasis is on the commonality of humankind. There are entire cabinets of looms, or amulets, or masks, from everywhere. They don’t have room for all of it. The spears, for example, are up on racks above your head.

As I looked around, I realized that despite categories as specific as “animal heads made of wood used for worship”, there was no collection of sexual aids. Where were the dildos? Well, of course I had to ask. I should have known, of course, that such a display might be inappropriate with all the children who come there for the Natural History Museum. Here, for example, children watch a museum worker feed a cricket to a stick bug.

Our society (most unfortunately, in my opinion) doesn’t talk about sexuality in the same way as everything else. But the guide I asked was willing to show us a couple of objects that one might not notice, the most interesting of which was this, which we all agreed was someone copulating with a lizard, for whatever reason.

The thing about museums is, however often you return, there’s always more to see and enjoy.

And the Oxford Natural History Museum I love just for the Victorian look and the insistence on pedagogy: it’s impossible not to learn something, even if it’s just what a fox feels like.

Other obligatory stops were to Blackwell, one of the best bookshops on the planet, and The Eagle and Child pub, where you go for the atmosphere and the fact that the Inklings (CS Lewis, JRR Tolkein, and Charles Williams, whose name I can never remember but whose books I like every bit as much as those of the other two) drank and worked there. It’s taken me three or four visits for it to occur to me that the food isn’t that good, and they often have nothing darker than Guinness, even in fall.

Yes, it’s a long drive and there isn’t enough time to see everything. But it’s still totally worth it.

More photos…


Six hours in Manchester (& notes on curation)

Manchester is a ways from where I’m staying, so the train takes awhile. But six hours was enough to know I like the city. It is so exciting, so youthful, so interesting.

Manchester City Art Gallery had several pre-Raphaelite paintings I wanted to see, the most important of which was this one:

Ford Maddox Brown, Work (1852-65)

I studied this work last year as part of a class I was auditing, and really took to it. So much so that when I was in Hampstead, I went to find the street:

There were other very interesting items, including several works by Millais (the one Ruskin’s wife ran off with). But there were artists of the era that I had never heard of. This one caught my eye because of its subject matter as well as its execution:

Eyre Crow, The Dinner House, Wigan (1874)

The curator card indicated that it is indeed unusual. [I find it’s a good idea to always take a picture of the card right after photographing the work itself.]

This helped explain why the scene reminded me of Bizet’s opera Carmen, with the cigar factory women coming out into the square.

The pre-Raphaelites enjoyed the symbolism of medieval Christian art. According to the curation card, this hired shepherd is neglecting his duties, so the sheep are “blown”. I can see they look ill, they’re lying about, but I didn’t really understand what was meant: overfed? poisoned somehow?

William Holman Hunt, The Hireling Shepherd (1851)

So, Google: “blown sheep eating corn” (because it said they’d gotten in to the corn). I got results on modern sheep raising. How about “blown sheep eating corn pre-Raphaelite”? Aha! A book called William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism, by George P. Landow (2013). Page 39 says that Hunt’s subject is “Hogarthian” and that he explained to a J.E. Pythian (not much result there from Google – he seems to have written books on art) that it was based on a Shakespeare’s King Lear about sheep, which in this case are “doomed to destruction from becoming what farmers call ‘blown’.” He also mentions that the girl is feeding the sheep sour apples.

I noticed the apples first, because to me it is also a painting about temptation and sex. They’re not just flirting — she has no shoes on. The moth is just a way for the lad to get closer to her, and the apples all over the place have something to do with Eve, tempting him from his work. This is mentioned briefly in Landow, to do with a Biblical interpretation by John Duncan Macmillan, but is dismissed.

Maybe I just interpret things differently. How about this one:

William Powell Frith, Claude Duval 1859-60

“Oh my!” (to quote books in various shades of grey).

The card says the painter was trying to show the lady as beautiful but terrified. I’d say he failed utterly. The lady looks, shall we say, erotically enchanted. She seems fascinated by the highwayman, even while her companion has swooned, criminals are running about with guns, and the older people are in states of heroic scorn or supplication. She’s ignored them all and is totally engaged, her eyes wide open. That’s why the man leaning on the chest is laughing. He’s seen this before.

Does this mean the curation is wrong? No, but it is curation. I could see both the Frith painting and the Hunt in an exhibition about lust (and not just because I’m reading the book by Simon Blackburn).

One painting actually fooled me. At the Manchester City Art Gallery, there is one anachronistic piece in each room. So, for example, there is a room full of 18th century Romneys and Reynolds, but there’s also a pot by artist and provocateur Greyson Perry. When I encountered this work by Leighton, I thought it was an anachronistic photograph with costumed actors at a fair or something — that’s how accurately it’s painted. Hard to see backlit online, but still.

Edmund Blair Leighton, Waiting for the Coach (1895)

Oh, and here’s a group of cows that looks more like a family than many families I’ve seen:

William Watson, Morning – Loch Goil (1893)

The art gallery wasn’t all we saw, of course.

Manchester Cathedral

Manchester Cathedral is fantastic, and also needs some curation because it’s been done and redone in so many different ways (partly because of the 1940 Blitz). One of the misimpressions I had about Manchester was that it really didn’t exist until industrialization brought droves of people. But it is actually quite old, and the cathedral’s base is 14th century.

The energy of Manchester is evident just walking the streets. It is a modern city, with an exciting vibe. See…

More photos…

O! The Lake District

In 1992, I went to the Lake District and was so unimpressed with the crowds of people and nowhere to park that I left within a few hours.

A few days ago my friend and brilliant tour guide Jenny took me to the Lake District, and I finally saw why everyone loves it so. The whole place looks like beautiful pictures from one of those calendars you can’t throw away when the year is over.

In addition to driving by Lake Windemere, so I could see a big lake, we went up to Tarn Hows. The drive was lovely, the lake (tarn) was lovely, so one must quote Wordsworth (I suspect Wordsworth came here thinking, “I must quote Wordsworth. Wait – that’s me!”). From Home at Grasmere:

…Thou art pleased, Pleased with thy crags and woody steeps, thy Lake, Its one green island and its winding shores; The multitude of little rocky hills, Thy Church and cottages of mountain stone Clustered like stars some few, but single most, And lurking dimly in their shy retreats, Or glancing at each other cheerful looks Like separated stars with clouds between.

Tarn Haws

The Lake District seems small, like nature in human size, in the same way that Renaissance churches are human-sized. The Alps are like Gothic cathedrals, overwhelming in size and majesty. Smaller is friendlier.

Jenny says the area even smells different, and I was fascinated by the light, that always seems to come through lacy trees. The feathery trees make the woodland seem friendly too, not dark like a forest. The light filters through green everywhere.

So I took pictures, but looking at them later I was very unhappy with them. While it seems that the technology of a photograph is best to capture “reality”, the reality may be more than what is seen in two dimensions. Like Durham, the Lake District really is best portrayed in art, not because it’s more precise, but because it’s more accurate in terms of how it seems to be there. So we need people like Turner.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, A View in the Lake District (1797-8)

My photo seems to capture far less of what I experienced as a viewer than does Turner’s painting, even though he wasn’t painting the same location. This seems ridiculous. Photography is supposed to capture “reality”, isn’t it?

But I have taught my students that it isn’t so — that every photograph is an interpretation of reality. We get into this idea with the photography of Jacob Riis and Dorothea Lange. These photographers did capture the “real” – their subjects are real people in real situations. But both photographers framed their shots a certain way, and often placed their subjects carefully. Both had a goal to create feeling in the viewer, a feeling of pity that might lead to action.

Jacob Riis, Children sleeping in Mulberry Street, New York City (1890)

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother (1936)

Painters also try to evoke emotion. For this reason, I have never been able to discern why people believed that the coming of photography would displace painting, as if the purpose of both was simply to record reality. Painting and photography are both interpretive.

But a painting is not a photograph. As Paul Emsley said about his portraits of Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge:

“There is a balance of realism and going beyond to something more mysterious.”

So painting seems to add something more. The purpose of the work is not mere representation (whether before or after the advent of photography). There must be value added. Some might say that landscape painting is more evocative than a photograph because it might capture how it feels to be in a place. Perhaps, but how could Turner and I both feel the same thing? I bring different expectations and a different appreciation for different reasons.

Turner’s work was much appreciated by John Ruskin, another Lake admirer. Unfortunately, since I do not like John Ruskin, I had trouble discovering whether he would agree with me about why a painting might be better than a photo (I don’t think he likes me either). In Modern Painters (1867), Ruskin wrote of the need to paint accurately, emphasizing that artists should paint with scientific precision the objects of nature. But Turner’s work doesn’t seem that precise — it’s more atmospheric. [Which means I do not understand what Ruskin means, nor whether he could help me understand the role of the painter and why my photos just don’t seem to reflect the full reality. Perhaps it’s just that I’m not a good photographer, and that a professional is needed to visually interpret my experience.]

But I do like the pre-Raphaelites, even if they were inspired by Ruskin. So we went to Jesus Church at Troutbeck. I had forgotten that was why were were there (I was just enjoying the scenery). But as I walked up to the east window, I recognized Jane Morris. Wife of William Morris and muse to Dante Gabrielle Rossetti, she has a distinctive look. The window was designed by Edward Burne-Jones with help from friends William Morris and Ford Madox Brown, in 1873.

Bourne-Jones/Morris window, Jesus Church, Troutbeck

Jane Morris in the east window, Jesus Church, Troutbeck

The pre-Raphaelites are fun because their aesthetic went back in time as well as forward, as they created a fantasy Middle Ages, a neo-Gothic vision combined with naturalistic detail, or stylized natural forms (as Morris liked to do). Their work is vivid, colorful, interesting.

As it happens, I am just as interested in what the pre-Raphaelites were rebelling against: mechanization and industrialization. We also visited Stott Bobbin Mill and took a tour. It’s the last Bobbin Mill still standing of the many that used to produce thread spools for cotton-spinning machines, households, loom shuttles, and more (even mallet heads and tool handles during the war). Industrial museums are fun because you can hear the machines (as I did last year in Bletchley Park).

So the Lake District has much to offer, which is no doubt why there were so many people there. Even in September there were plenty of walkers and families everywhere we went. But it seems that you only need to walk a little way to be on your own in the landscape. I expect that’s what both Turner and Ruskin liked about it.

More photos…

Newcastle upon Tyne

I’m not a very good northerner. Looked for the weather in advance on my phone. “Newcastle” – no entry. “Newcastle on Tyne” – no entry. Duh. It’s Newcastle upon Tyne. I didn’t bring coals there, but I did bring my historian’s tendencies, and was enchanted.

Those bridges over the Tyne! Each one is different.

Tyne Bridge (1928) and Swing Bridge (1876)

Walking underside of High Level railway bridge

(Being from California, I made sure to catch the palm tree in the Millennium Bridge shot. I have no idea what a palm tree is doing by the Tyne. Vacationing, I suppose.)

I expected an emphasis on industry in Newcastle, but didn’t realize the old city would be so beautiful. There has been a lot of attention given to the shopping district, emphasizing the commercial nature of the area. I just happened to stumble upon not one, but two, covered arcades.

Central Arcade

Grainger Market

Grainger Market

The architecture is that traditional-modern mix that I love so much in contemporary British cities. I am particularly partial to this view from  the bridge overlooking a much older area down below near Quayside:

Over old town rooftops

I discovered two local heroes. One I found in St Nicholas Cathedral: John Collingwood Bruce. He was easy to find, since there was a big sign next to his sarcophagus. He was a schoolmaster and local historian — an effigy of a schoolmaster is certainly special! Apparently it’s because of him that they knew how to restore the castle next to the cathedral (yes, it’s the New-Castle), and it’s because of him we know so much about what we now call Hadrian’s Wall. His book on the Roman Wall is here.

John Collingwood Bruce, Newcastle Cathedral

Rare lectern to have survived the Reformation — John Knox may have used it

Annunciation, St Nicholas Cathedral

I notice now as I post these that all my shots are leaning to the left, as, indeed, do I.

Which brings me to the other local hero, Charles Grey, who has a huge monument erected to him in the middle of the shopping district. He is lauded there as author of the Reform Act of 1832, although really he presided over its passage, since he was Prime Minister 1830-34. He also presided over the abolition of slavery (I didn’t realize till I looked it up that the government compensated slave owners).

But for those of us who drink tea, of major importance is that he is the Earl Grey. Surely Captain Picard was most politically correct in his choice of beverage!

I travelled, of course, on the bus. On the way up, I took route 21X from Durham – X trains are express, so some of it was by motorway. On the way back, though, I took Angel 21 local bus, which went right past the Angel of the North:

Angel of the North, seen from the Angel 21 local bus

This is a sculpture by Antony Gormley, installed in 1998 in Birtley, and it’s quite an attraction. People driving can pay to get close to it. I liked seeing it from the bus. But then, I like seeing most things from the bus….

More photos…

Durham. Always Durham.

What is it about Durham?

Stairs in castle

It certainly isn’t the 106 steps up to my room in Durham Castle, where I’ve always wanted to stay but could never get in (yay fall sabbatical!). It’s 106 steps down too.

It isn’t a connection with H.G. Wells. Despite the exhibit at the Palace Green Library in 2017, there is no connection between Durham and H.G. Wells, William Briggs, or anything else I’m working on. (That exhibit was created by Simon James of Durham University. He is an expert on Wells as a literary giant, but I cannot conceive of any justification that I could use to contact him.)

It’s not that Bill Bryson, an American writer, fell in the love with the place, made his home here, and even became chancellor of Durham University. I’m a fan, but not that big a fan.

So that’s not it.

Maybe it’s the look of the place, with the old town perched on a hill between two rivers, providing stunning views:

Palace Green

Classic view

Fulling mill

Maybe it’s the cathedral, burial place of St Cuthbert, comforting in its pre-Gothic design, and home to a cozy evensong in the choir stalls.

Evening in marketplace

Sunset near cathedral

Maybe it’s the fact that there was a fulling mill here. In fact, there were two. The weirs on the river are because of them. One of them was in a building that used to be an archaeological museum, and is now used to store objects. It’s on the river path, which you can walk, as I’ve done many times.

Maybe it’s the way I can go into The People’s Bookshop, as I chanced to do today, and spend an hour chatting with the seller about UK and American politics, H.G. Wells, and what the future holds.

Or that the Oxfam bookshop has the best selection in town. Or that the food here is excellent, with the variety one expects in a college town. Or that it has so many secrets, and boasts the third university in the country after Oxford and Cambridge. Or that there’s such a mix here of working class and university people. Or the way everyone asks if you’re alright. Or the way I can joke around, because they do too. Or the conversations I’ve overheard on buses and in cafes. The one where the kids talked about how they were afraid to come to America because of guns, or the one where the man on a new date with a woman was talking about whether he could discuss his past or not, or the many I’ve heard of older couples just sitting in the front window up top on the bus and talking about whatever they see:

“That’s a nice house, isn’t it?’

“Yes. Didn’t Mary have a house like that?”

“In Sunderland, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, I think so. Only hers was yellow.”

“Oh, yes, I remember.”

“It would be a lot of upkeep, though, wouldn’t it?”

Or the fact that the community theatre has the chutzpah to do Alan Bennett. (Yes, of course I went.)

Whatever it is, I come back.


More photos…



Traveling in the online era

The first time I came to England, my mother made reservations by post to let a small flat in Kensington. There were letters, back and forth, on onion skin paper, sent in airmail envelopes with blue and red dashes at the edges and lots of postage. She also sent letters to people there she knew, letting them know we were coming and arranging visits and tea.

Today, I decided that since I was early for my train from Midhurst to London, I’d have time to go to the British Library this afternoon. I paid for my train ticket by sliding my credit card into a machine, a card that does not charge a foreign transaction fee and has a chip so British machines can read it (we don’t have Contactless yet in America, as I explained to a Bus 60 driver). I got on the train, took out my laptop. I prepared to tether my Pixel so I could get a connection, but it wasn’t necessary – free wifi took a minute to connect. I went to the British Library website, logged in with my credentials, discovered that the book I want could be ready in 70 minutes, and made a request to see it today in Humanities Room 1.

I then texted my wonderful friend Jane using my international phone pass. Jane is teaching in London, and we arranged for dinner and late museum tonight.

I interrupt this story for a 20 minute lecture by HG Wells on how communication patterns are bringing the world together in 1931:

And throughout history with the development of roads and more efficient writing, with money as a means of commerce, the development of shipping also, you find the signs of communities increasing. And in the last hundred and fifty years there has been an enormous development in the facilities with which men can get at man. We have passed from the semaphore to the electric telegraph and the wireless. We have passed from the stage coach on the muddy high road to the aeroplane and the swift steamer.

And now we have passed into a world where communication is so fast that I can type a blog post about communication while on a train, put HG Wells himself in it, and have it public in minutes. (I can also ask that readers not be surprised by his voice – contemporaries noted it as “squeaky”, and I have decided — with help from my colleague Simon in Midhurst — that Wells’ speaking voice was not the source of his extraordinary appeal.)