A Ruskinian conversation: conference report

St Michael and All Angels Chapel, Marlborough College

Visual Theology‘s second two-day conference took place this month at Marlborough College, and in what follows I draw on the report penned by Madeleine Emerald Thiele. Madeleine and I have envisaged new places where art and theology might intersect, very much in a plane of contemporary relevance and interest. I was delighted that this weekend offered new ways to bring John Ruskin into conversation with worship, art history, and contemporary art practice. His words continue to inspire, and I’m prompted again to draw on what feels like a wisdom tradition of sorts that he started – one for modernism and arts in particular.

Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites: Sacre Conversazioni’ was part of the international John Ruskin bicentenary celebrations. The event was held in Marlborough College’s Chapel, overlooked by a series of Pre-Raphaelite paintings by the artist, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, and beneath an Edward Burne-Jones stained glass window. Amidst a tightly choreographed programme of 15 papers (from open submission and by select invitation), there were 2 keynotes, 1 ‘special conversation’, 1 installation of video art, 1 church service, 1 exhibition, and 1 musical concert. 

Our presenters delivered to an extremely high standard, thus reflecting the high calibre of their specialist knowledge and insight, and our carefully considered shaping and design of the event. The voices who contributed to our conversations represented leading academics in Art History, Literature, and Theology, church leaders from the Anglican tradition, curators, and an award-winning artist. Our speakers were international, with five being based Stateside, and the rest either Europe or UK based. 

The presentations and panels covered a range of subjects, including (for the full programme, see here) visions of church reflected in Edward Burne-Jones, the visual theology of angels in Pre-Raphaelite art, Dante Gabriel Rossetti in colour and sound, the sacred in social contexts for William Morris or Mary Watts, Ruskin’s reception on the continent, and theological reflection on icongraphies of leaves and dirt. We were delighted also to hear from Professor George P. Landow and Professor Colin Cruise as keynote presenters, and through a special conversation between curator Christopher Newall and the Bishop of Salisbury: all four brought questions about aesthetics to bear on responses of faith.

Day Two saw an intimate reimagining of the original 1886 Service of Dedication, with a video installation by Reverend Mark Dean. Visual Theology had commissioned Dean, and we were delighted with his impressive angelic themed visual and musical pieces which were in response to the opening theme of the original service: ‘This is a dreadful place’, and the Stanhope cycle. Dean had brought ideas about both worship and the practising or making of art into close contact with liturgical expression, in this case through a sensitive reflection of the building’s dedication and subsequent history.

Hosted here at Marlborough College, with a conference dinner at the town’s well-known Polly Tea Rooms, and including a private view of the Richard Sheridan exhibition for our delegates, we put considerable thought and planning into a level of ‘added value’ to the event. Our delegates had the opportunity to access a display of Marlborough College’s rare books with Dr. Simon McKeown. These included architectural books on Pugin, Millais etchings, and most significantly, a copy of William Morris’ Aeneid translation, signed by Morris himself and given as a gift to Burne-Jones’ son, Philip. We also invited three talented young musicians from Wiltshire, who played in the Chapel for our delegates prior to the Sheridan exhibition visit. Significantly for us, the holistic reach of the event was felt further afield, through well-received engagement online with our live Twitter feed #VTRuskin. Increasingly these expanding spheres of engagement are reflective of our hope that Visual Theology finds footing and connections with communities beyond church and academia.

We had a total of just over 50 people register across the event, with a heavier mix of academics than clergy or artists than we have had previously. We had a slightly greater number of women than men (both presenting and attending), but we achieved a broad range of ages from students to those in retirement. We continue to believe this is vital to both our own events, and to academia generally. We remain grateful to Marlborough College for underwriting some of the event: without their financial support we would not have been able to achieve what we did, nor allow our delegates to present in such an impressive and special venue.

We feel two aspects of the conference – the quality of the research in the paper presentations (which communicated across their panels, as well as being individually outstanding), and the specific engagement with the Chapel setting – were key in making this a successful event. Inevitably, as with any event, there were some difficulties – such as a power cut in the town and some audio issues. However, included in the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have now received were a number of comments that welcomed our sense of ambition, our shaping of a new style of academic event, our interdisciplinary conversations, and our overall achievement without institutional backing. We have received much generosity post the event both from those that attended and also those who were unable to. This event has been a complex one to organise, and we are grateful for such feedback and encouragement. 

Sounds of a summer visual theology

Millet’s ‘The Angelus’, 1857-59

On holiday in France this year, I am staying with my family in an old 3-storied house in the Loire.  It is full of beams, right next door to a church. The village is quiet, the houses silent, the shop fronts closed.  The summer air hangs over the place, people aren’t around.

But the bells.  The bells ring out on the hour and every quarter between 7am and 8pm.  And, quite differently, ring out the Angelus at 7am, 12pm, and 7pm.  It is rhapsodic, an astonishing compound, reverberating sound like Millet’s liquid light spreading over the furrows.  I must have heard this call before, I must have been near bells when they’re rung, but somehow this feels new, magnifying, overwhelming.  And this was the angel come to Mary, the angel touching earth with providence and grace and blessing.  It connects the touch of God with the ripple effect into human lives and souls, and I truly felt it.  As if the church tower were a lightning rod.  It was specifically the swinging pendulum in the rocking bell, its ratcheted momentum releasing a pealing, repeat, and reflection on downswing and upswing, and caught irregularly at the pitch of both.  Not the sharp hard sound of a striking hammer marking the triple invocations ‘Hail Mary’.

I hear and see this in Millet’s painting.  The two figures who have stopped to pray mark the moment (that’s where the villagers are!). The reverence is not token, is of a piece with the land, the soil, the light, the church – and it is all held together in sound.  But it is also embodied differently, felt differently, seen differently.  The man is nearly full frontal to us, and bears the facing directionality with our frame, our personhood.  The woman is in profile, and faces the sun, her frame is her creaturehood in the landscape.  He has the vertical, darkly-outlined thrust of the fork; she has the horizontal, illuminated load of the barrow. This reminds me of last month’s reach for a description of difference. For now, it’s enough to perceive a complementarity, if not harmony, pervaded by a context of sunshine and prayerfulness.

3 front lines when you ‘turn pro’ with art and motherhood

School sports day, June 2019

This month has been a month of recalibration, the long 8 weeks of this summer term (second half) feeling like a marathon. I’d sprinted to St Cyriac’s Day last month, a deadline for my latest project; and now somehow July has passed with my wondering where the solid ground is. Practitioner reflection brought about by 8 job/grant applications for next autumn, by my trilogy reading of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, Turning Pro, and The Artist’s Journey, and by my tuning in to Mark McGuinness’s podcast The 21st Century Creative. I’ve been reading/listening to quite a bit about motivation and productivity as a freelance, and there has been so much useful, insightful, fog-lifting, challenging counsel in the above. I could make a list of those gems, all very mindful and productive. But none of them came near to the particular circumstances of a working mum. In fact, I kept getting very annoyed. Annoyed at how disenfranchised I continue to feel at the creative party that is the modern day portfolio or freelance career. Annoyed at the lack of female voice, and the mother in particular. Annoyed at aspirational optimism without the reality checks of family needs.

So I asked myself to write this post, at least in part to try and articulate what I actually am up against, what is actually at stake with art and motherhood. And I came up with the idea of front lines. Actual front lines, not obstacles or challenges to be swept aside and overcome with neat assertion. By which I mean I have to negotiate the presenting differences in what I want to do, and what I can do, daily, over and over again. I HAVE to enter the fray with malleability and responsiveness and commitment, otherwise my sanity will be shredded. The issues are of identity, not just of management of a circumstance/situation, which to the external (usually male) eye view may simply be practically accommodated. They plumb deep cultural associations, and they mine sense of self.

So here we go:

  • Emotional labour.  Emotional labour or load has only recently been identified in the world of family life (in parent/child relations, and in marriage) as the concerted human effort behind a family’s daily arena of coordination and communication.  The carrier of the financial load in family life is unsurprisingly well-identified – whether the father or the mother, the breadwinner is a traditional keystone around which the needs of childcare, housework and sustenance are arranged.  But the carrier of the emotional load has arguably as central a place in the family home, a place where the demands of parenting are concentrated around one or more small dictators who change the rules/furniture every hour.  There is no simple dualism here, but if you are the person at home who carries most of the emotional load AND you are trying to work part-time as a creative, then the pressures you face are particularly emotionally intense and exhausting. I remain surprised at how little emotion features in any of Pressfield’s descriptions of ‘turning pro’ in the world of creative work.  He holds up child-birth (and noticeably not child-rearing) as a parallel exceptional achievement by women – commendable for its comparison with the warrior-pro mindset, as unhesitatingly committed to ‘do the work’ (= labour).  But the expression and experience of emotion is downplayed in what is a cool-headed levelling of human function and focus. Yet both child-birth and child-rearing are front lines of emotional labour through or alongside which women are encouraged to work – often without reckoning of the turbulent, shifting, alternatively myopic and magical stresses this involves.  The contradictions are many, but I’m looking for compounded benefits too.  It’s not enough to say that ‘turning pro’ requires the wholesale rejection of emotion, we need a richer way of talking about this kind of work.
  • Multi-directional responsibility.  I’ll also call this required selflessness.  There’s a prevalence of the self in the working practice of a self-employed creative.  The artist needs self-control, self-discipline, self-knowledge, self-doubt – and the exertion with self over self is undoubtedly a part of the road to maturity for all of us. For Pressfield it’s about getting to the real you. But in family practice, and in parenting practice most certainly, the dependence of children encroaches on this kind of self-introspection. ‘Normal’ adult social boundaries, conventions of communication, personal space, and relational signals are thoroughly challenged (WARNING – emotional labour reaches gigantic proportions here!), let alone ones that put a high value on solitude. The challenges of daily interaction with people who can’t yet dress themselves demand a grown-up response, a response which has to concern itself with the development of a new little person, not just the adult. It can be a long hard journey to self-responsibility, but it hits the ball out the park to learn multi-directional responsibility on the journey with children. It is nothing less than a full-frontal, direct assault on the ego, where the daily instinct of self-assertion (prized in creative practice) has to learn a different dance of side-steps, reaction, distraction, consolation, coercion – sometimes just to keep a room quiet and a child fed and/or clean. It naively misses the point to merely separate a world of adult work from a world of child development – though there are plenty of guidelines about how to do that, how to better ring-fence your ‘own’ time. This frontline is epic. It is where love does most of its real human shaping, in something relationally reflexive and multi-directional. That kind of unseating of the self needs a greater say in the focussing and articulation of creative practice.
  • Seasonal growth. I don’t find that my life and circumstances respect the idea of linear career progression or learning. In early parenthood, I well remember that most reassuring consolation from other parents, ‘It’s just a phase’ – at the confusion of growth spurts, the dropping of daytime naps, periods of teething etc. Now with young children, my months are defined by the school year, with weeks of activity across termly/holiday boundaries. These are also shaped through patterns of church liturgy and the church calendar, which in turn reflects seasonal changes such as the amount of light in my day, or whether it’s springtime or harvest. Not least, as a woman I experience a monthly cycle, a living embodied practice of variegation in mood, focus, and energy. These are real enough, and pressing enough, to insist on adjusted and constantly adjusting expectations of productivity. Models of career progression, even if shaped through understandings of portfolio careers, tend to assume a kind of consequential linearity. A logic of linearity informs descriptions of employment, we can draw lines from one position or project to another, and indeed trace life’s passing along time’s numerical calendar. We can apply ourselves to advancement along this calendar. Well of course that’s an obvious thing to do, and all very useful up to a point – but it’s also like a straight rod of iron applied to the measure of the human form. We work in curves. Life has circular rhythms. Our energy ebbs and flows. There’s a whole wisdom tradition about living in such as way as to cultivate these patterns, and to work with them. It’s a different paradigm from the conventional modern world of work, a world where the creative journey is otherwise grossly misrepresented by a linear work ethic – more often beholden to capitalist ideals and the production line. Seasonal growth is so devalued by first world culture that we experience guilt about periods of ‘fallow’ or slow or repetitive time – yet these are good and rich, even when they don’t pay with pound signs.

I wonder about this stuff a lot. I feel like some vocabulary, some sense of intuition, related to being female, is only barely being articulated here by me. Maybe there is more to come.

St Cyriac’s Day and the tale of the Lacock Cup

The replica Lacock Cup, made for St Cyriac’s Church, Lacock in 2019

Today, 16th June, is St Cyriac’s feast day in the church calendar. It hasn’t been particularly noted at St Cyriac’s Lacock in the recent past, but this year we had something to celebrate. In 2013, the Lacock Cup, the church’s medieval masterpiece, was sold to the British Museum and the Wiltshire Museum for £1.3m. Agreed as part of the sale was the commissioning of two replica cups to be made, one for Wiltshire Museum, and one for St Cyriac’s Church. Thanks to the expert craftsmanship of Mike Neilson at the British Museum, we received the replica about a month ago. Today it was used for the first time at our communion service.

Mike Neilson’s worktop, 2017; the replica Cup at St Cyriac’s, 2019

Standing at 35cm tall (with lid), the replica shares with the original its construction in two parts from 1kg of hammered silver, with gilt details. The original, an extremely rare piece of medieval silverware, was made in the fifteenth century initially for secular use as a communal drinking goblet at feasts. It was at some point given to St Cyriac’s, where it was used as a chalice for centuries, though no-one knows its original owner or donor – it has no markings or inscriptions. Its sale was a sensitive issue amongst the local community, with some opposition from those who strongly felt it should remain. It was sensitive enough to percolate through church discussions about how to celebrate the replica without causing further offence. For me, working on incorporating the Lacock Cup into a new church logo (as part of my recent project at the church working on design and interpretation) caused consternation for some, enthusiasm from others. Which gave a lot of pause for thought about the meaning of the Cup, and why we would want to celebrate it. I found myself wanting to champion what is its key, central, visual theology – the thing which centres not so much on its history, nor its design, but on its use.

The communion cup, this communion cup, stands for the truth of what Christ has done for his followers and for Lacock’s joining in with this truth. As a material object it is undeniably a unique and beautiful artefact, which yet becomes something relational and communicative at holy communion.  It is fundamentally not just a dead object solely of museum interest (though that is cultural capital that a church with high tourist footfall would be foolish to downplay), it is representative of life-giving sustenance through the gospel, through the commemorative words of Jesus at the Last Supper, and his death remembered in drinking wine from the chalice at communion.  St Cyriac’s has that living tradition, and is deeply centred on the purpose and the life that it represents.  In the middle of the National Trust village that is Lacock, the church community are in a perfect position to declare this USP in a world where history or heritage forgets the reasons why people worshipped, indeed who they worshipped and why they still do. There is something of a breaking frame mentality needed to identify this as a USP in connection with the Lacock Cup. It is, and should be, a positive reason for celebrating the replica. The fact that it hasn’t been for some has served to show me how deeply and how ingrained we can become stuck on particular interpretations about objects of visual art or literature (leading from particular feelings) because of past associations. But I’m passionate that this can change, that St Cyriac’s can remember its first love, that we found (almost literally) the pearl of great price – the great thing about that parable being how it transformed the person who found it with a contagious, fizzing excitement. Again and again, in my interpretation project, I find myself buzzing with that excitement. Not just about the Cup, but about all of our heritage as as worshipping community – more about that later this year. For now, I end with the manifesto I wrote for the church’s PCC report about my design work with the logo:

  • The Cup serves our community’s church by reminding us of sharing in the blood of Jesus.
  • The Cup serves our community’s village residents by owning our own history positively.
  • The Cup serves our community’s village businesses (NT, school, etc) by championing what we stand for amongst Lacock’s other ‘trades’.
  • The Cup serves our community’s worldwide visitors by sharing our beliefs regarding our heritage.

How a Victorian vicar used photographs to explain the Bible

From the 37th edition of Revd Alexander Keith’s publication in 1859

Earlier this year, my first journal article from my doctoral thesis on the Bible in photography was published in History of Photography. The journal itself has been a prompt many a time for my research – its articles shine so many lights into the past, with deeply attentive and close looking into histories that haven’t yet been told. It is the authoritative journal for close, peer-reviewed, study in the subject. So I’m naturally delighted that this article was accepted for publication.

‘Photographic and Prophetic Truth: Daguerreotypes, the Holy Land, and the Bible According to Reverend Alexander Keith’ (Vol 42, Number 4, 2018, also published here on my website) explores Keith’s bestseller publication and his use of engravings made from daguerreotypes to ‘prove’ that biblical prophecies about the landscape of Palestine had come true. Early ideas about photography’s ‘truth’ are commonly filtered through our modern understandings of science, objectivity, and experiment, which tend to present a blind spot when it comes to religion. Particularly in regard to Christianity and the Bible, religious reference is reduced to thematic illustration and (a nostalgic) art iconography. My essay presents an important challenge to reductionist simplifications of Christian thinking prevalent in early photography, revealing the intellectual sophistication of what is Keith’s photo-biblical apologetic. His highly articulate faith-based defence of photography’s superior documentary capacity reveals a more complex relation between science, visual culture, and religion than has typically been assumed.

For his book, Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion Derived from the Literal Fulfilment of Prophecy, Keith employed the services of his son George Keith to daguerreotype biblical sites on a tour of Palestine in 1844. The 18 engravings from daguerreotypes might look a bit dull, but they had the punch of truth-telling propaganda in their day: seeing was literally believing. This was more than armchair travel, more than seeing equating to the real experience of being there, because Keith linked the images to specific texts from the Prophets. In the above images, Ashdod (west of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean coast) shows that ‘the sea coast shall be dwellings and cottages for shepherds, and folds for flocks. Zeph II-6’, and the Temple at Jerash (east of the Jordon, a city not readily identified from Old Testament references) reveals that ‘in all your dwelling places the cities shall be laid waste, and the high places shall be desolate, &c. Ezek VI-6’. Keith made the record of the photograph synonymous with the record of the prophets. No other Palestine-religious guide (and many would follow in the nineteenth century) would hold photography and the Bible so determinatively together.

Ordinarily, it’s not a complicated connection, though it’s often missed because of common understandings of the Bible-as-myth today. The Bible is a record first-and-foremost. Its declared intent is overwhelmingly documentary, it purports to be historical about the Israelites in the Old Testament, and about Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament. Though it certainly has more lyrical and poetic books or sections, it is not as a whole a mythical account of a religion’s origins, nor a theological treatise. This is its ‘scandal of particularity’, as it has been called by theologian Alan Richardson. Keith, however, takes this one step further, because it is the predictions of the prophets that he takes as literal record, their foresight about the landscape’s destruction. And for his purposes, it is helpfully specific in the text about what the desolation will look like. Writing at time when British interest in Palestine was expanding on the tide of the Empire’s wealth, it was a land increasingly present to readers of the Bible too, and of concern particularly to Zionists. Keith had such concern in mind with other publications, notably Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews from the Church of Scotland (1842), which had first employed him in Palestine in 1839. What one was engaging with when one looked at photographs of the Holy Land was urgently related to religious convictions pressing through the literalness, and bound up with present feeling about who was entitled to the land (especially when it was so conveniently photographed as empty). It was nothing short of a symbolic reality: the Jewish Promised Land inviting ‘return’, as much image as word.

For writing about photography, I think it’s urgent work to recover such a religious conviction as Keith’s, or at least to give those who held it (he had thousands of readers at a time when over half the population went to church, his book running into over fifty editions) the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their intellectual capacity. We can attribute greater specificity to their intentionality, if not always circumspect to our eyes, in the name of a fairer, clearer, interpretation. If nothing else the biblical literacy of our ancestors in the West ought to be more fully reckoned with, and given its fine grain. In my article I expand on this through the idea of Keith’s telescoping across present feeling and original prophecy, and through photography’s quasi-supernatural promise as being made ‘without human hand’. If anyone reading this would like a hard copy of the article, let me know and I’d be happy to send you one.