Friday, 7 March 2014

A tour through the battlefields of Clontarf

The tide was out at the Bull Island and Clontarf at mid-day today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I am working throughout the weekend with students who are on a residential weekend, and I had spent time with my GP on Thursday evening, going through the results of a blood tests and a hospital check-up and receiving another injection for my B12 deficiency.

When my B12 levels run down and my sarcoidosis symptoms play up as I face tough working demands, no matter how pleasant, the physical symptoms can be quite demanding and trying. So it was good to get the opportunity to head off after this morning’s service in the institute chapel, and to spend some time taking photographs for a magazine feature I am writing for next month, marking the 1,000th anniversary of the Battle of Clontarf on Good Friday 1014.

There are many questions to ask about the Battle of Clontarf and the myths that surround out, including why it has come to be regarded as an Irish victory over the Vikings when Brian Boru was slain on the battlefield, the O’Brien dynasty eventually lost its grip on the Irish monarchy, and the Vikings prospered, seeing Dublin prosper as a city and staging a major invasion of England.

The towers and turrets of Clontarf Castle under blue skies today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Indeed, the battle was fought on a far wider landscape than Clontarf, and my photographic tour took me through Phibsboro, Glasnevin, Finglas, Drumcondra, Fairview, Clontarf and Dollymount.

It was a beautiful sunny, spring morning, with clear blue skies, and an ideal day for concentrating on photography. The tide was out at Fairview, Clontarf and Dollymount, but it all added to the beauty of the locations for my photographs.

Later two of us headed further north to Howth, which is still associated with King Sitric, the Viking King of Dublin. We walked along the West Pier before having lunch in Il Panorama, a crowded and delightful Italian-style café and bistro.

By the time it came to returning to work, I felt refreshed and ready to go again.

When Mozart’s friend
and a great artist lived
in a quiet corner of

Lyncroft House, now the Hedgehog on Stafford Road, was home to great composers, artists and clergy in Victorian Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

By Patrick Comerford

During my many return visits to Lichfield, I sometimes stay at the Hedgehog on Stafford Road. It is just a stroll from the centre of Lichfield, yet has rural charm and rustic character.

Behind the imposing portico is a Georgian house that was once known as Lyncroft House, and throughout the 19th century it was home to some of the most interesting characters in Lichfield, including a friend of Mozart, a charitable vicar, a speculative doctor and once-famous painter.

Lyncroft House was built in 1797. A few decades later, the house was home to Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), a celebrated composer, piano-maker, conductor and music publisher.

Muzio Clementi, who lived at Lyncroft House in 1830, was a contemporary of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn (Portrait Alexander Orlowski, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Clementi was born in Rome, and in his day he was considered second only to Joseph Haydn as a composer. He was a friend of Mozart and it is said he had a notable influence on Beethoven. In pre-revolutionary Paris, he played with great success for Marie Antoinette, and later played for the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II in Vienna.

He played in a contest which Mozart won, but they later become friends, and the influence of Clementi’s sonatas is evident in the youthful Beethoven.

Critics in the 19th century enthusiastic praised Clementi as “the father of the pianoforte,” the “father of modern piano technique,” and the “father of Romantic pianistic virtuosity.” He also wrote four symphonies.

For much of this career, the Italian-born composer lived and worked in England. When he retired in 1830, he moved to Lyncroft House in Lichfield in 1830. However, he never performed publicly in Lichfield, and when he died two years later in Evesham, Worcestershire, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The grounds of the Hedgehog have commanding views across the city and across the countryside (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After Clementi moved out, Lyncroft House became the home of the Revd Henry Gylby Lonsdale (1791-1851) when he became Vicar of Saint Mary’s in 1830 – at the time there was no vicarage for Saint Mary’s. Lonsdale came from a well-known clerical family that had Anglican clergy in at least four successive generations.

While he was Vicar of Saint Mary’s, his brother, John Lonsdale (1788-1867), was Bishop of Lichfield (1843-1867). Bishop Lonsdale was the founder of Lichfield Theological College, a supporter of the abolitionist Wilberforce and a friend of the radical theologian FD Maurice. It was said at the time of his death that he was the best bishop the Diocese of Lichfield had ever had, the “perfect model of justice, kindness, humility and shrewd sense.”

The former walled gardens of Lyncroft House at the Hedgehog (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

While he was living at Lyncroft House, Henry Lonsdale proposed rebuilding Saint Mary’s in a Victorian Gothic style. The new church would serve as his memorial, and when Henry Lonsdale died at Lyncroft House on 31 January 1851, he was buried beneath the west tower of Saint Mary’s.

Saint Mary’s Church … Henry Lonsdale was buried under the West Tower after he died at Lyncroft House in 1851 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

His nephew, Canon John Gylby Lonsdale (1818-1907), later became Vicar of Saint Mary’s (1866-1878), and oversaw the completion of the building programme. He was the father of Sophia Lonsdale, one of Lichfield’s great Victorian social reformers. In the 1880s, she declared that Lichfield’s slums were worse than anything she had seen in London. She was an active in demands for poor law reforms and her outspoken criticism eventually led to a slum clearance programme in Lichfield from the 1890s on.

When she died in 1936 at the age of 82, Sophia Lonsdale was described in an obituary in The Times as “remarkable in her generation … She was absolutely fearless and disinterested.” It added: “Her strong sense of religion was the directing star of all her activities.”

The Lonsdale family is still remembered in the name of Lonsdale, a house on Beacon Street.

The name of Lonsdale on Beacon Street recalls a former vicar who lived in Lyncroft House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, in the 1850s, Dr Charles Holland lived in Lyncroft House. But he moved again when the Lichfield bank owned by Richard Greene collapsed in 1855. Dr Holland bought Stowe House in 1856, moved in, changed the name of the house to Saint Chad’s House and lived there until his death in 1876.

After Dr Holland moved out, the artist Henry Gastineau moved into Lyncroft House and lived there for a short time in 1863-1864.

Henry Gastineau (1791-1876) was an English engraver and water-colour painter. He was born in London in 1791 into a family descended from Huguenots who had fled from the Poitou region in France a century earlier. He studied at the Royal Academy, training first as an engraver but quickly changing to painting in oils and water-colours. He first exhibited in 1818, and he continued to exhibit for 58 years without a break, showing 11 paintings when 85.

Gastineau was very prolific, and went on several tours of the West Country and Wales, as well as Switzerland and Italy. He also spent time as a teacher. He died in Camberwell in 1876 at the age of 85.

In the art world, Gastineau is one of those famous artists whose paintings can attract substantial bids and prices at auction houses like Christie’s and Bonhams. He was strongly influenced by Turner. But how many buyers know that he once lived in Lichfield?

Lyncroft House has been beautifully restored in recent years at a cost of £1 million. It stands in its own grounds, with large gardens and commanding views across Lichfield and the Staffordshire countryside, and more hidden stories of its residents and guests behind its doors.

The Hedgehog is just a stroll from the centre of Lichfield, yet has rural charm and rustic character (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This essay and these photographs were published as a double-page feature in the March 2014 edition of the Lichfield Gazette, pp 44-45.

Art for Lent (3): ‘The Importunate Neighbour’
(1895), by William Holman Hunt

‘The Importunate Neighbour’ (1895), by William Holman Hunt

Patrick Comerford

My choice of a work of art for meditation this morning [7 March 2014] is The Importunate Neighbour (1895) by the English Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). This small painting in oil on canvas measures 51.7 cm x 36.4 cm, and is in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

This painting is one of several works prompted by Holman Hunt’s fourth and last visit to the Middle East in 1893. In this painting, he illustrates the parable in Luke 11: 5-10:

5 And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” 7 And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Thirty years before Holman Hunt painted The Importunate Neighbour, another leading Pre-Raphaelite, John Everett Millais, illustrated the same parable in The Parables of Our Lord (1864). Unlike Hunt, however, Millais shows the friend handing the importunate neighbour the bread he asked for.

Hunt was working on this painting by 1893, when a photographic image of his work in progress on this painting was included in Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of the World, or The Great Consummation. By the summer of 1894, Hunt had largely completed The Importunate Neighbour. This is his last entirely new religious subject, and it relates in interesting ways to his other works, including The Light of the World, Christ the Pilot and The Awakening Conscience.

The Importunate Neighbour presents an image of humanity trying to return to our divine father and our divine homeland, and it relates to Hunt’s The Light of the World, providing an obvious companion image or complement to his most popular and successful painting.

The Light of the World shows Christ knocking on the door of the human heart, and presents the way in which God in his grace awakens the human heart and conscience. On the other hand, The Importunate Neighbour represents humanity seeking God, and God welcoming the seeker. For, as Christ tells his disciples in this parable: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Luke 11: 9).

Both paintings, then, create images of divine grace. In The Importunate Neighbour, humanity is the active agent, the seeker; in The Light of the World, Christ is the seeker.

Together, the two paintings represent sequential stages in our journey to God. In The Light of the World, Hunt records his own visionary experience of conversion, depicting the first instant when an individual awakens to God; in The Importunate Neighbour, he shows the awakened conscience, the convert, in search of his God and salvation.

Although The Light of the World employs a vertical format and this morning’s painting is in a horizontal format, both paintings are night paintings in which single male figures are depicted knocking at closed doors in settings in which vegetation plays an important part.

Why did Hunt decide to paint a parable that had to be represented as a night scene?

He once told his friend John L. Tupper of Rugby that he found night scenes far easier to paint than scenes set in the full light of day. In a letter dated 20 June 1878, Hunt told Tupper: “If The Light of the World had required sunlight, I should have had the difficulties of my task increased immensely.”

At this time, his vision was giving Hunt severe trouble, so that working with colour was increasingly difficult. But he also believed that works set as night scenes took less effort and caused less strain than a sunlight picture. Therefore, he could preserve his failing sight for major large-scale projects, including the large version of The Light of the World and The Lady of Shalott.

Nonetheless, Hunt’s choice of a night scene that contains a single male figure knocking on a closed door owes a great deal to the fact that his chosen subject demands comparison with The Light of the World. At this time, Hunt was concerned with his first great popular success, which had been bought by his friend and financial adviser Thomas Combe of Oxford.

Hunt was frustrated when the public no longer had adequate access to the original version of The Light of the World. After an interval of half a century, he began painting a replica or second version of the painting. Then, on the day of Combe’s funeral, his widow, who was deeply interested in the approaching opening of Keble College, Oxford, decided to present the original painting to the new college.

The painting was hung in the Library at Keble College, but it suffered severe but unnoticed damage because of it was too near a hot flue. When it was lent for an exhibition of Hunt’s work in 1886, it was said to have been “virtually destroyed.”

Hunt spent some weeks re-painting the ruined parts and trying to restore it to its original state. On its return to Keble College it was again hung in the library. Unhappy with this arrangement, Combe’s widow provided in her will for a special chapel that would be home to the painting. However, when the chapel was built and the painting was placed there, it was in a new frame, without the title, and bearing a text.

Feeling his work was permanently hidden from the world, Hunt decided to paint a larger replica, which is now on display in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London.

The extent to which The Light of the World was then in Hunt’s mind explains to some degree why he echoed its composition and central ideas in this morning’s painting, The Importunate Neighbour.

In The Importunate Neighbour, Hunt recapitulates his earlier themes, subject, and pictorial techniques although he is trying to create a very different kind of work from his earlier paintings. And so, The Importunate Neighbour, therefore, provides an obvious companion or complement to The Light of the World, Hunt’s first great popular success.

Tomorrow: Art for Lent (4): ‘Still Life with Bible,’ by Vincent van Gogh.