The recent ruling by the Supreme Court in relation to rights of access to Lissadell House highlights the deep-rooted ambiguity that lies at the heart of attitudes to Anglo-Irish relations/heritage.  Lissadell House, former home to Constance Gore-Booth or Constance Markievicz as she later became following her marriage to the Polish Count, Casimir Markievicz, was built in the 1830s and inhabited by the Gore-Booth family until 2003, when the then owner Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth offered the house for sale to the Irish Government for 3M. 

The government of the day showed little enthusiasm for the project however – cost of refurbishment being estimated at between 30 and 40M – and though several expressed interest  in buying the house initially the interest quickly evaporated and the house eventually was purchased by two Dublin barristers, Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy for upwards of 4M.  Walsh and Cassidy  also offered to purchase the contents of the house  but  Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth having struggled with the upkeep for so long opted for the contents to be sold by public auction. The auction which took place on 23rd November 2003 raised 2M.

Harry Keaney, writing in the Sligo Champion on the 26th November 2003 gave details of the 636 Lots auctioned off.  These included seventeen paintings by Constance Markievicz,  paintings by her husband Casimir, her daughter Maeve and her sister Eva Gore-Booth. Other items  sold included a famine painting by Danial McDonald which fetched 9,400 Euro, an ancient Irish harp 11,000 Euro and the children’s doll’s house  27,000 Euro, plus toys, lanterns and music that belonged to the children not to mention furniture and fittings from the house which consists of the hall, billiard room, gallery, bow window, sitting-room where Constance’s signature is etched on the window-pane, a downstairs bedroom, drawing-room, ante room, dining-room, bedrooms, the sale of lace and textiles, object d’art, jewellery, wine from the cellars and many rich and rare books from the library at Lissadell.

The Chairman of the Constance Markievicz Memorial Committee wrote a letter in reply to Harry Keaney’s article stating that he (Keaney) had ‘fallen into the journalistic trap of quoting letters out of context’ and described the auction of items from the house as nothing more than ‘the trappings of decadent wealth from a vulgar and oppressive past’  Mr McGowan castigates Josslyn Gore-Booth for selling off items with any connection to Constance Markievicz, her  sister Eva and her daughter Maeve saying ‘it almost seems to have been done on purpose’.  Ignoring the insult to the Gore-Booth family, Mr McGowan goes on to extend a hearty welcome to the new owners Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy, wishing them every success in their new home whilst stating  ‘the real villain of the piece in this instance is not the Irish Government but Josslyn Gore-Booth’. 

Mr McGowan is wrong. The Supreme Court ruling indicates that if the Irish Government had stepped in and purchased Lissadell House from Sir Josslyn at the time  it was offered the present debacle regarding rights of access would not have come about and Sligo County Council would not now be facing a legal bill of 7M Euro – enough, as one commentator stated, to buy two Lissadells.

In 2010  I travelled to Sligo  with some other interested friends to visit the newly refurbished Lissadell House. I have to say my feeling at the time was that the new owners had done a marvellous job having spent over 9M on refurbishment. It was a pleasure to go on a walking tour of the house and to visit the converted stables and view the paintings and other memorabilia associated with Constance Markievicz,  W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory et al and to wander in the beautifully restored walled gardens  and sit in the sun afterwards enjoying a coffee purchased from the newly established cafe/restaurant.

I look back  on that visit to Lissadell with a wonderful sense of nostalgia for times gone by and what Anglo-Irish heritage has given to this country and it makes me sad now to think back to that day and to witness the squabbling that is taking place as a result of the court case.  I am very glad that the court found in favour of Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy. They are to be congratulated on the way  they  managed the restoration of Lissadell House and the grounds but I do not agree with their stance when it comes to rights of access.  The Irish people have a right to walk the land of Ireland  just as they did in generations gone by and no court ruling should be allowed to prohibit this.

Yesterday, Kinsealy, the former home of Charles J. Haughey was sold at auction to someone from outside Ireland for 5.5M Euro.  Whatever one thinks of the Haughey era it too is part of our history and it too should be recognized as such. In times to come the failure of the Irish Government to purchase Kinsealy for the nation will be seen as yet another instance of the scant regard it has for  heritage in this country  – the loss of Lissadell  and of Kinsealy and all of the other great houses of Ireland is a grave error on the part of the Irish Government and the failure of Sligo County Council to win rights of access to Lissadell House can only be seen now as a last ditch attempt to hold onto the pot of gold that it so casually threw away.



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The writer Jean Rhys was born in Roseau in Dominica.  Her father, a doctor, hailed originally from Wales and her mother, a West Indian, was a creole.  Rhys came  to England during World War I when she was sixteen where she met and fell in love with a poet from Holland. They travelled the Continent together, living for long periods in Paris and Vienna.

Jean Rhys first book ‘The Left Bank’ was published in 1927.  Containing sketches of life lived on the Left Bank in Paris the book has a preface by her mentor and possible lover, Ford Maddox Ford.  Ford, author of ‘The Good Soldier’, was quick to spot what he refers to in his preface as Rhys ‘singular instinct for form.’ It’s likely that he was  more than just a patron since in her next book ‘Quartet’, Rhys’ portrait of the dilettante H.J. Heidler would appear to be based on Ford and the novels that Rhys wrote following this publication, ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’, ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ and ‘A Voyage In The Dark’ contain portraits of women caught between circumstances as it were – women who drift into relationships with men and drift out again and then find themselves on the margins dependent on alcohol or prostitution or, worse, abortion.

In Rhys’ novels, women are continually hostages to fortune usually for monetary reasons either because they have no money of their own or because they are dependent on some man or other to keep them.  Usually they fall foul of the law through ignorance and end up drinking too much or prostituting themselves to make the money needed to pay the rent.

In one of Rhys’ best short stories ‘Let Them Call It Jazz’ the protagonist arrives into England and rents a room only to find herself held to ransom by the landlord who asks her for a month’s rent in advance – something that she is only told about after she moves in.  When she tells him she doesn’t have the money, she is told she has to move out again.  Subsequently picked up she finds herself dependent on charity and spending what money she has on alcohol to blot out the reality of her circumstances –  all that she has is a song and even that is taken from her at the end.

Rhys’ novels are a learning curve for the women who inhabit them and mostly they learn the hard way that money does indeed matter and that without it women are totally dependent on others for their existence.  Rhys’ renderings of women who drift through life without any foundations are brilliantly realized by a writer who introduces the reader to the complex world of women who have no place in society or who only manage to survive by allowing themselves to be put upon by others who would deny them a status in life.

Despite the fact that most of Rhys’ novels were written in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, they still manage to retain a contemporary feel.  Women who depend on men for a living and women whose only escape from enslavement is through sex, alcohol or drugs.  Jean Rhys’ psychological insight into the turmoil experienced by women is pivotal to the way her stories are told.  In Jean Rhys’ novels when women suffer, they tend to suffer in isolation.

After Jean Rhys wrote these novels she disappeared and was for the most part forgotten. It was not until ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ was broadcast by the BBC in 1958 that she came to the public’s attention once more when she was ‘rediscovered’ living in Cornwall writing a collection of short stories and working on a novel.

Rhys was resurrected in the 1960s after she wrote ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ – the Sargasso of the title refers to the weed that grows beneath the Atlantic  where things that pass through become entangled in much the same way as the women in Rhys’ books become entangled. ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ is Jean Rhys exploration  of what happened to the first Mrs Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s novel ‘Jane Eyre’.  Rhys’ narrative shows a fantastic flight of the imagination when it comes to painting a portrait of a woman who is destroyed by  marriage to the man who seeks to control her. In the novel Rhys brings together all of the powerful imagery that pervades her earlier work.

Jean Rhys’ work makes for a disturbing read for it challenges all of the reader’s sensibilities and confronts him/her with the reality of a woman’s situation where the miseries endured tend for the most part to go unnoticed.

Jean Rhys died in 1979. Her going was not easy.  Old and fueled by alcohol, she became uncertain and suspicious about others at the end but it is that very quality in her work – that uncertainty and suspicion and insight into the human condition that makes Jean Rhys one of the finest women writers of this or any other century.

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Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.  Let’s ask it a few questions instead of ignoring it in the hope that it will go away.  The elephant might well feel that it has as much right to be there as the rest of the elephants – because let’s face it remaining silent doesn’t help.

And that’s the interesting thing about it because there are a lot of people out there who talk about speaking out but who aren’t too keen to speak out themselves and so the elephant gets bigger and bigger until the likelihood is it will explode leaving a lot of detritus behind.

Of course, the thing about life is that people like to pretend – it’s so much easier to evade the issue than to face it head on but behind closed doors you may be sure that people work mighty hard when it comes to keeping things secret.

Mind you, there are times when keeping things secret is important because sometimes it’s another way of protecting people and making sure that their livelihoods are not affected.

So then it’s a good thing.  When it ceases to be a good thing is when people want to cover up something because it means  they won’t benefit in the same way after the elephant is uncovered. That’s why millionaires pay accountants to find ways for them to avoid paying taxes while fraudsters find ways to fiddle the system.  Whatever way you look at it the millionaire and the fraudster are one and the same – both of them want something for nothing.

So that’s a big elephant – particularly if you don’t want someone to know how much you are being paid because then they might begin to question why they are only getting half that amount for doing twice the amount of work.

That’s why we have Socialists and Communists and Liberals and Conservatives – the former want what the latter has, while the latter has what it has by keeping the former uninformed.  You see, once people start to play the elephant card, there’s no easy way out.

The elephant in the room makes everyone on the inside feel uncomfortable – they’d prefer to keep the elephant outside where they can keep an eye on it so that it doesn’t blow its trumpet too loudly and start a riot.

That’s because no-one is willing to confront the beast. That’s the problem – no-one who is prepared to say ‘Now look, elephant, you can’t keep turning up and spoiling the party.’

But the elephant doesn’t know it’s spoiling the party – it thinks it has as much right to be there as the rest and that’s because no-one has taken it aside and told it the honest truth or, better still, no-one has  told it to its face ‘Listen, buddy, you’re not wanted here.’

Which raises the question – why isn’t it wanted?  Well, we don’t know why and that’s the problem. Because nobody is prepared to speak out.

Maybe the elephant said something it wasn’t supposed to say at one time or another but since nobody told it how is it supposed to find out? By noticing the way everyone moves away when it enters the room – well, let’s face it, the elephant is a large mammal and you wouldn’t want to argue with it because it might look you in the eye and tell you to mind your own trumpet!

It’s a funny old world  – nobody wants anyone to speak out because it causes problems.  On the other hand, if nobody speaks out then bad things happen; people get trampled on.

Silence can be golden but silence can also be bad for only a very wise person or a very foolish one would be prepared to stand in an elephant’s way.

Next time let’s ask the elephant – you never know – the answer it gives might surprise us!


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The fact that Elizabeth Bishop wrote The Bight on her 37th birthday is significant.  In the poem, the poet looks out to sea and searches for symbols that have significance in her own life.  She takes soundings from the sea, diving deep into her  subconscious in order to examine what those soundings mean.

The metaphors Bishop employs in The Bight would appear to be representative of her own work.  The ‘crumbling ribs of marl’ with clay and lime deposits indicate the poet’s preoccupation with time and what time represents in terms of the work.

Bishop tells us ‘the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches’ – the pilings being the piles of  poems that lie stacked and unfinished on her desk.  The Bight is the poem the poet is presently working on.

The ‘gas flame’ of the sea suggests the poem will burst into flame depending on the intensity of the heat applied.  The poet  working on  combustible material  and  reasons that if one were Baudelaire it’s possible the heat applied would turn the words into ‘marimba music’.

The ‘flowsy sponge boats’ keep ‘coming in with the obliging air of retrievers’  as the poet searches for meaning. Sometimes she finds music, sometimes only words.  Sometimes ‘the birds (the words)are ‘outsize’  like ‘Pelicans’, that ‘crash into this peculiar gas’ or lodge ‘like pickaxes’ until they are ready to take off and soar ‘like man-of-war birds’ on ‘impalpable drafts’.  Then the drafts ‘open their tails like sissors on the curves’ or ‘tense….like wishbones’ showing what might yet be achieved.  Then the poet waits tense and trembling on the age waiting to discover what  the ‘correspondences’ may contain.  Meantime, the other  ‘little white boats’ (the many drafts) are ‘piled up against each other’ waiting to be ‘salvaged’ the poet is only too well aware that life is always littered with old correspondences.  Nevertheless, she gathers strength from this knowledge – it allows her to move forward so that all the ‘untidy activity continues, awful but cheerful’.

The Bight is a beautifully conceived poem and demonstrates Elizbeth Bishop’s ability to think and write on several levels. The imagery is powerful.  The poet at this stage finds the poem is ‘absorbing rather than being absorbed’ and can ‘smell it turning to gas’. The poem  floats on the sea for the moment but it may be some time before the tide washes it ashore.   In the meantime the ‘little ochre dredge’ is at work playing the ‘off-beat claves’.  The word ‘claves’  is clever and infers much,  the poet  is keeping in touch with the poem’s rhythm as she chisels her way through  lines and images, sculpts her way through to produce the final draft. She is fully engaged.  The ‘tails’, ‘scissors’, ‘curves’ are all coming together but the ‘wishbone’  has yet to be achieved.  Nevertheless, the boats are ‘bristling’ with ‘gaffs’  and ‘hooks’ and ‘decorated’ with ‘bobbles of sponges’ – soon a wire fence will be erected where the many drafts can be ‘hung out to dry’.

The unfinished work meanwhile, the ‘little white boats’ (the dry pilings) are still ‘piled up’ and ‘not yet salvaged’. The poet adds a cautionary note ‘if they ever will be’, since ‘the last great storm’ previous attempts may have ended in failure. For now the ‘boats’ remain like ‘torn-open, unanswered letters’. The poet tells us ‘the bight is littered with old correspondences’.  Nevertheless, the dredge continues ‘Click. Click.’ and brings up another ‘jawful of marl’ – more clay and lime deposits.  All this ‘untidy activity’ is nevertheless ‘awful but cheerful’ work.

Bishop may have had Baudelaire’s Correspondences in mind when writing The Bight.  Correspondences is a fourteen line sonnet and the lines seem to correspond with Bishop’s thinking.


‘Nature’s a temple where the pilasters speak sometimes in their mystic languages; man reaches it through symbols dense as trees, that watch him with a gaze familiar.  As far-off echoes from a distance sound in unity profound and recondite, boundless as night itself and as the light, sounds, fragrances and colours correspond. Some perfumes are, like children, innocent, as sweet as oboes, green as meadow sward – and others, complex, rich and jubilant, the vastness of infinity afford, like musk and amber, incense, bergamot, which sing the senses’ and the soul’s delight.’

Charles Baudelaire

What Bishop achieves in The Bight on a number of levels is not just the power of the sea, but also the vast infinity that Baudelaire speaks of  where the poet works, writes and rewrites to create the best possible imagery for the poem. Bishop referred to The Bight on a number of occasions.  In a letter to Dr. Anny Baumann  she added a P.S.

‘I wrote it last year but I still think if I can just keep the last line in mind (‘all the untidy activity continues, awful but cheerful’), everything may still turn out all right.’

David Kalstone in his book Becoming A Poet – Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell – mentions another letter in which Bishop refers to Key West where ‘the harbour is always a mess…… reminds me a little of my desk.’  The Bight, Kalstone states, is one of Bishop’s best poems. It is one of Bishop’s best poems because it is life affirming and shows that nomatter what the sea throws up in the flotsam and jetsom of life there is always something of value to be found there.




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Some writers stay with us forever.  The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn is one such writer.  Whenever I read his prose poem ‘Freedom to Breathe’ I find myself renewed both in mind and spirit.

And since I cannot do justice to it in my own words I will let Solzhenitsyn speak for himself:

Freedom to Breathe

A shower fell in the night and now dark clouds drift across the sky, occasionally sprinkling a fine film of rain.

I stand under an apple-tree in blossom and I breathe.  Not only the apple-tree but the grass round it glistens with moisture; words cannot describe the sweet fragrance that pervades the air. Inhaling as deeply as I can, the aroma invades my whole being; I breathe with my eyes open, I breathe with my eyes closed – I cannot say which gives me the greater pleasure.

This, I believe is the single most precious freedom that prison takes away from us: the freedom to breathe freely, as I now can.  No food on earth, no wine, not even a woman’s kiss is sweeter to me than this air steeped in the fragrance of flowers, of moisture and freshness.

No matter that this is only a tiny garden, hemmed in by five-storey houses like cages in a zoo. I cease to hear the motorcycles backfiring, the radios whining, the burble of loudspeakers. As long as there is fresh air to breathe under an apple-tree after a shower, we may survive a little longer.

(From: Solzhenitsyn: Stories and Prose Poems: Penguin 1973).

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I’ve always loved Elizabeth Bishop’s poem The Fish not just because it’s so technically well-crafted, but also because in the poem Bishop supplies us with a totally different perspective on what it means to go fishing.

In Bishop’s poem, the initial reaction of the poet (fisherman) to catching the fish is one of surprise.  The fish is a ‘tremendous’ fish, so extraordinary in fact that the poet holds him ‘beside the boat, half out of water’.  She notices that ‘he didn’t fight. He hadn’t fought at all’ – most unusual for a fish not to struggle or, at least, try to get away.

The poet begins to examine the fish more closely and discovers that his skin looks like ‘ancient wallpaper’ with a pattern of ‘shapes like full-blown roses stained and lost through age’; he is ‘speckled with barnacles’ and ‘lime’ and ‘infested with sea lice.’  He has ‘frightening gills, fresh and crisp with blood that can cut so badly’.  The sight of this blood makes the poet imagine ‘the dramatic reds and blacks of his shiny entrails’. 

At this point the poet becomes aware of her power over the fish, realising she is the arbiter of its fate.  She tells us that she ‘held him with my hook fast in the corner of his mouth’ until gradually he earns her respect because ‘he hung like a grunting weight, battered and venerable and homely’ – in other words, like an old prize-fighter who has had one fight too many, a war veteran who has fought long and hard for survival with ‘five old pieces of fish line hanging from his lip’ like ‘medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering’. 

When she looks into the fish’s eyes ‘larger than mine but shallower’ she notes the way in which they resemble ‘old scratched isinglass’ (isinglass is a semi-transparent gelatine substance used for windows).  The eyes being the windows of the soul, when the poet looks deeper she finds ‘they shifted a little… like the tipping of an object towards the light’, as if the fish sensed that he might be looking at the light for the last time.

The more the poet examines the fish the more she sees, until by the end she tells us ‘I stared and stared and victory filled up the little rented boat’ and then, suddenly, ‘everything was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!  And I let the fish go!’  Bishop’s final line strikes at the very heart of the reader – not in a sentimental way – more because the reader realises along with the poet that letting the fish go transcends the very notion of fishing as a sport, or simply as a means of passing the time.

Elizabeth Bishop described her poem The Fish as ‘a trifle’‘if not like Robert Frost perhaps like Ernest Hemingway’. Ernest Hemingway was renowned for his macho image as a deep sea fisherman.  We find numerous photographs of Hemingway smiling out as he sports his prize catch, usually an enormous shark or some  giant cuttlefish.  It is this image of Hemingway most readers remember when they read his fiction.  Today we know that image to be entirely false, one that was generated to promote sales of Hemingway’s books.

Many of the summer months of my childhood were spent fishing on the Lakes of Killarney in County Kerry in Ireland.  When I was aged about ten years or so I went to stay with a family who lived at the top of Killarney town.  During that time I spent many a tranquil summer evening fishing for trout on the lakes. The father and four sons were all avid fisherman.  The fish were not caught for sport but caught to sell and make a living.  Each evening after work father and sons would head for the lakeshore where they had a boat moored and I was allowed to straggle along behind.

It was, in fact, on the Lower Lakes of Killarney that I first learned to fish.  I learned how to spin and reel in tackle, how to send a line spinning out into a loop above the lake and watch it hang momentarily suspended in air before landing into the lake. The water would ripple and bubble up as the fly skimmed the surface before landing into the depths below.

No worms or bait was used, only flies with coloured feathers and sharp angular hooks that sank like anchors into the mouths of fish and would not let go nomatter how hard the fish struggled or pulled at the end of the line.  All that was needed then was to sit back and wait for the fish to bite which they inevitably did and which they inevitably will continue to do until the end of time – just so long as the fish stocks last of course.

Fishing for trout I quickly learned how to reel in my catch, dislodge the wriggling specimen from the hook, then leave it to hop and skip about at the bottom of the boat.  There the fish would flip and flop for a time before exhausting itself in the effort before finally giving  up the ghost.  There were a number of methods available to ensure instant despatch.  One was to hold the fish firmly in the hand then give a short swift tap to its head against the side of the boat which would, hopefully, render the fish instantly lifeless.  Another method was to place the forefinger into the fish’s mouth and snap the filament formed at the base of its gullet.

After a time I became something of an expert.  Indeed, the more successful I became, the more I was congratulated on my prowess as a fisherwoman. It wasn’t long before the desire grew to show off in this regard – which is probably one of the reasons Ernest Hemingway struggled so hard to maintain his image all those years ago.  The moment you show you can’t do it anymore that’s the moment you’re done for!

Ten years have passed since I last went out fishing on the Lakes of Killarney.  On that occasion it was once again a fishing trip rather than a pleasure cruise.  I didn’t catch any fish – instead, I watched others cast lines out over the lake while the water lapped against the side of the boat.  The men I went fishing with that day were hauling in rainbow trout.  I still like to eat trout whenever the opportunity presents itself and somewhere at the back of my mind I still like to savour the memory of how I once caught fresh trout in order to eat them later.

I don’t recall exactly when or at what stage my attitude to fishing changed.  I have never objected to fish being caught for  food.  Indeed, nothing  tastes sweeter to the palate than eating a trout smothered in good Irish dairy butter and cooked in a hot pan over a hot stove and garnished with a leaf or two of crispy lettuce.  And we all know the parable of the loaves and fishes which illustrates perfectly the difference between a feast and a famine.  I also think that if tomorrow I were presented with the necessity of needing to catch  a fish for the purposes of food I have no doubt the lessons once learned would again rise again to the surface.  So why then should I mourn for the loss of a single fish?

Recently I read the writer Sean O’Faolain’s Introduction to his book on the Irish short story.  In it O’Faolain recalled those who participated in the Civil War in Ireland. ‘It’s a terrible and lovely thing to look at the face of Death when you are young, but it unfits a man for the long humiliations of life.’  Immediately I realised the reason that lay behind my sudden change of heart on the subject of fishing – it wasn’t the fish I mourned for so much as the loss of life.  To see any creature alive is far more inspiring than to look at it dead.  Once you have looked into the jaws of death you never again want to see anything die.  Indeed, there is something altogether distasteful in the killing of any creature, whatever the species, and yet mankind seems to be able to kill with very little thought given over to what the act of killing actually means.

Of course we know that life is hard and that we must harden ourselves in order to survive – too much sentiment and we leave ourselves open to the accusation of not facing up to the realities of life – too little, and we are in danger of regressing to acts of barbarism.  It is a fine line of course and one always has to ask oneself where one draws the line.

But perhaps the best way to illustrate the feeling I am trying to come to terms with is to return once again to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem which is what led me to begin this fishy tale in the first place!

Thursday, 16th September 2010.

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I first wrote this piece in February 2007 and re-reading it I see no cause to alter it except to comment that since I wrote it the price for paintings by well-known artists has risen to record-high levels in recent times.  What this says about us as art lovers is something that may require another essay but perhaps I am not the person to write it. 

I’ve been pleased in recent months to discover that comments of various kinds have been left by those who have come across the hecubapublishing blog either by accident or design and I would hope to write more in the future.  I apologise for the lack of links – this is due to lack of technical know-how but I would hope to get this sorted eventually. Until then all comments (rude or otherwise) are welcome.

Visual art is hugely influential in the world of literature.  We cannot open a book without being confronted by a description of one kind or another.  The effect of this is that it immediatey creates a picture in the mind. We read and as we read we visualize, or try to visualize, what the writer is describing; the greater the writer the better the picture.  This has an enormous impact on how we come to view the world.

If we look at a painting on the other hand what we see is what we first describe to ourselves. Two people standing in front of a Still Life may appreciate it but do they see the same thing?  Obviously, the answer must be yes since there is universal agreement that certain paintings are revered by many millions of people around the world.   Yet how can we be certain that a painting is loved for what it represents?  Take, for example, Leonardo’s cartoon of The Virgin And The Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist.  Its fame, as John Berger points out, seems to rest solely on the fact that an American wanted to buy it some years ago for two and a half million pounds.  Now, as Berger says, it hangs in a room by itself surrounded by a bullet-proof perspex box and has become ‘impressive’ and ‘mysterious’ because of its market value.

Of course, we have art critics who will show us how to ‘read’ a painting, but if we come to it fresh, without preconceptions, it is we who must do the work.  Quite often we hear people say ‘Oh, I had no idea that was the artist’s intention’ or, ‘Oh, I would never have thought that’ in relation to a poem, a painting or a novel.  And again, when you ask someone to describe what it is they see, or what they think they see when they look at a sketch or a painting, the answer they give is often surprising.  Similarly, when people read books opinions differ.  This is perhaps one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of art.  And yet, when we speak of great works of art, what do we mean?  What is it that makes a work of art great?  Well, one could say that to anyone with eyes in their head great art speaks for itself instantly.  But does it? Surely it takes a long time for great art to become established and accepted by the public, or accepted by connoisseurs of art more the point. So what makes a work of art speak to us?  Is it the fact of its composition?  The fact that the whole in great art seems to come together in perfect harmony. And yet, if we look at some works of art we might be hard put to say why they are great.

If we look at a painting by Van Gogh or Picasso or Bacon, we might be hard put to say what it is about the composition that makes it work. We would perhaps need the vocabulary and the knowledge of an expert to give us an in-depth analysis or an adequate reading of what it is we are looking at or what the artist’s intentions were when s/he first set out to create the work of art.  In many cases, they may have been no such an intention.  We might say that it was more a case that the composition and the art fused to spectacular effect.

What we look for in literature then is the same thing that we look for in painting, the composition, the pulling together of all the parts that go towards the whole so that the work has the same kind of seamless quality a great work of art possesses. Great art is always influenced by what has gone before it, and all artists are influenced in one way or another by the work of the Old Masters.  Some artists however, like Van Gogh, Picasso and Bacon, were innovators insofar as they looked to the artists of the past in order to create works of art in the present.

Many people walking into a gallery today might look at a painting such as Jan Van Eyck’s The Betrothal of the Arnolfini (1434) and might see nothing more than a painting of a medieval couple standing there with the man holding the hand of a rather pregnant looking woman.  What they might fail to notice is the convex mirror on the wall at the back of the painting where Van Eyck shows what is happening directly in front of the couple where we are shown the artist and others entering through a door into the room.

The artist Hans Holbein expanded on this idea in his painting of The Ambassadors (1533).  Here, however, Holbein includes a great deal more.  In this case the mirror is shown as oval and the image contained therein is that of a distorted skull.  One theory as to why Holbein included this is that he meant it to be a kind of memento mori, a reminder of the presence of death in life.  The symbolism Holbein employed however takes on even more significance when we realise the painting contains images of weavers, embroiderers, carpet makers, goldsmiths, leather workers, mosaic makers, furriers, tailors and jewellers.

Another artist who used the mirror image to great effect was Diego Velazquaz.  In Velazquaz’s painting Les Meninas (1656), this time we are shown the artist in front of the canvas painting while the mirror in the background shows us his subjects, the Spanish King and Queen.  In the painting the young Infanta is the important figure where she is shown being attended to by Les Meninas (the Maids of Honour) of the painting’s title.  Many other figures are included, a dwarf-like woman, a child kicking what looks like a sleeping dog, with other figures seemingly involved in the background.

In 1959, Pablo Picasso took this painting by Velazquez and transformed it to produce his own version of Les Meninas.  Picasso’s painting presents us with a double image of Velazquez in that the artist is represented as two-faced surrounded by a gathering of weird and wonderful loyal subjects/objects.

The painter Francis Bacon was another artist whose work engaged with allusive imagery.  For instance, if we know that Bacon’s painting of Three Figues at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) represents three versions of the human mouth does this help to further our understanding of the nature of Bacon’s work? In 1935, while living in Paris, Bacon came across a secondhand book that contained illustrations of diseases of the mouth.  The fact that Bacon underwent an operation on the roof of his mouth in his early twenties might help to explain why he felt drawn to that particular subject matter. A film that also engaged his attention at the time was Eisensteins’s The Battleship Potemkin.  The film has a scene where a nurse stands screaming on the steps of the Odessa. The scream was an image Bacon would apply to great effect in his later work.  Bacon also went on to produce a series of images after Velazquez’s paintings, including Velaquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1649-50).  Instead of the magnficent scarlet cap and gown worn by Velazquez’s subject however, Bacon’s Head VI (1946) shows us a Pope-like figure with his head in a glass case with the mouth wide open and screaming.  In Bacon’s study, the Pope is dressed in purple, not scarlet. Bacon painted a number of these Studies, including one he later described as ‘a head folded in on itself like the folds of a curtain.’

One could say that all of these paintings contain metaphysical images that lead us to ponder the nature of existence or truth and knowledge.  Some might consider this mere theory but the fact that these paintings make us think at all is surely the point when it comes to the influence of art in literature – what we see in paintings helps us put thought into words.

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