On 27 July 1890, Vincent Van Gogh walked into a wheat field behind the chateau in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise, a few miles north of Paris, and shot himself in the chest. For 18 months he had been suffering from mental illness, ever since he had sliced off his left ear with a razor one December night in 1888, while living in Arles in Provence.
In the aftermath of that notorious incident of self-harm, he continued to experience sporadic and debilitating attacks that left him confused or incoherent for days or weeks at a time. In between these breakdowns, though, he enjoyed spells of calmness and lucidity in which he was able to paint. Indeed, his time in Auvers, where he arrived in May 1890, after leaving a psychiatric institution just outside Saint-Remy-de-Provence, north-east of Arles, was the most productive period of his career: in 70 days, he finished 75 paintings and more than 100 drawings and sketches.
Despite this, though, he felt increasingly lonely and anxious, and became convinced that his life was a failure. Eventually, he got hold of a small revolver that belonged to the owner of his lodging house in Auvers. This was the weapon he took into the fields on that climactic Sunday afternoon in late July. However, the gun was only a pocket revolver, with limited firepower, and so when he pulled the trigger, the bullet ricocheted off a rib, and failed to pierce his heart. Van Gogh lost consciousness and collapsed. When evening fell, he came back round and looked for the pistol, in order to finish the job. Unable to find it, he staggered back to the inn, where a doctor was summoned. So was Vincent’s loyal brother Theo, who arrived the next day. For a brief while, Theo believed that Vincent would rally. But in the end, though, nothing could be done – and, that night, the artist died, aged 37. “I didn’t leave his side until it was all over,” Theo wrote to his wife, Jo. “One of his last words was: ‘this is how I wanted to go’ and it took a few moments and then it was over and he found the peace he hadn’t been able to find on earth.”
On the Verge of Insanity, a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, provides a meticulous and balanced account of the final year-and-a-half of the artist’s life. Although it does not offer a definitive diagnosis of Van Gogh’s illness – over the decades, a number of causes have been suggested, from epilepsy and schizophrenia to alcohol abuse, psychopathy and borderline personality disorder – it does contain a severely corroded handgun that was discovered in the fields behind the chateau in Auvers around 1960. Analysis suggests that the pistol, which was fired, had been in the ground for between 50 and 80 years. In other words, it is probably the very one that Van Gogh used.
The exhibition also features a recently discovered letter, which has been extensively reported in the media. Written by the doctor who treated Van Gogh in Arles, Felix Rey, it contains a diagram illustrating precisely which part of his ear the artist removed. For years, biographers have debated whether Van Gogh sliced off the whole of his left ear or just its lobe. This letter, which was found by the independent researcher Bernadette Murphy, who has written about her discovery in a new book, Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, proves without doubt that the artist cut off his entire ear.
The letter, of course, is the revelation of the show at the Van Gogh Museum. When I visited recently, though, something else caught my attention: an unfinished painting, a metre across, called Tree Roots (1890). Van Gogh worked on it during the morning of 27 July, a few hours before he tried to kill himself. It is the last painting he ever made.
Tree Roots anticipates later developments of modern art, such as abstraction
At first glance, this dense picture appears almost abstract. How are we supposed to ‘read’ its thicket of blue, green and yellow brushstrokes, all vigorously applied to the canvas, which remains visible in various places? Gradually, the image resolves itself into a landscape depicting bare roots and the lower parts of trees seen against light-coloured sandy soil on a steep limestone slope. A small patch of sky is visible in the picture’s upper left-hand corner.
Aside from this, though, the entire canvas is devoted to a compact tangle of gnarled roots, trunks, branches and massed vegetation. As Martin Bailey, the art historian and author of the forthcoming book Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence, points out, “The upper parts of the trees are cut off in the unusual composition – rather as one might find in Japanese prints, which Van Gogh so admired.”
Van Gogh painted in spite of his illness, not because of it – Nienke Bakker
Indeed, in many ways, Tree Roots is an extraordinary image: an innovative, ‘all-over’ composition, without a single focal point. Arguably it anticipates later developments of modern art, such as abstraction. Yet, at the same time, it is impossible not to view the painting retrospectively – through the prism of our knowledge that, shortly after it was made, Van Gogh attempted to commit suicide. What does it tell us about his state of mind?
Goodbye to all that?
Certainly, the painting appears agitated, as though fraught with emotional turbulence. “It is one of those pictures in which you can feel Van Gogh’s sometimes tortured mental state,” says Bailey. Moreover, its subject matter seems significant. Years earlier, Van Gogh had made a study of tree roots that was meant to express, as he put it in a letter to Theo, something of life’s struggles. Shortly before his death, in another letter to Theo, Van Gogh wrote that his life was “attacked at the very root”. Could it be, then, that Van Gogh painted Tree Roots as a farewell?
When I put this to the curator Nienke Bakker, who is responsible for the collection of paintings at the Van Gogh Museum, she urges caution. “There is a lot of emotional agitation in works from the last weeks of Van Gogh’s life, such as Wheatfield with Crows and Wheatfield under Thunderclouds,” she says. “It’s clear he was trying to express his own emotional state of mind. Yet Tree Roots is also very vigorous and full of life. It’s very adventurous. It’s hard to believe that somebody who painted this in the morning would take his own life at the end of the day. For me, it’s hard to say that Van Gogh painted it intentionally as a farewell – that would be too rational.”
Ultimately, Bakker is keen to scotch the idea that Van Gogh’s illness was the cause of his greatness as an artist. “All of these tortured, gnarled roots make Tree Roots a very hectic, emotional painting,” she says. “But it’s not a painting created by a crazy mind. He knew very well what he was doing. Until the end, Van Gogh painted in spite of his illness, not because of it. It’s important to remember that.”
Ever since antiquity, mankind has been fretfully besotted with strange creatures from the oceans’ depths. A terrible sea monster called Leviathan is mentioned in the Old Testament. The prophet Jonah is famously swallowed by an enormous whale-like fish. Watery behemoths feature in the creation myths of many cultures. The Loch Ness Monster still generates headlines today. So it is no surprise that artists have frequently attempted to depict awe-inspiring deep-sea beasts, which, of course, they could never have seen in reality.
In the ancient world, fantastical and threatening sea creatures embodied the many dangers of maritime trade
In the ancient world, fantastical and threatening sea creatures embodied the many dangers of maritime trade upon which so many Mediterranean societies depended. Homer’s Odyssey described two sea monsters called Scylla and Charybdis that lurked on either side of a narrow channel of water (perhaps the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily).
In a natural grotto near the coastal Italian town of Sperlonga, where he had a seaside villa, the Roman Emperor Tiberius displayed several dramatic marble sculptures – including a terrifying vision of Scylla, set on an “island” within a pool in the middle of this enormous cave, devouring Odysseus’s companions. Although only fragments of the sculpture survive, Scylla’s top half took the form of a gigantic, bare-breasted woman, while her nether regions consisted of several vicious dogs, emerging from her genitals, clawing at Odysseus’s crew.
Intriguingly, one of the fragments is inscribed with the names of the artists who carved the sculpture. It turns out that they were the same trio, from the island of Rhodes, credited by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder as the artists responsible for the famous Laocoön, now in the Vatican. This impressive marble group, which Pliny praised as “a work to be preferred above all others”, also contains sea monsters: two sharp-fanged sea serpents that writhe around the agonised Trojan priest Laocoön and his innocent sons.
In Book II of the Aeneid, Virgil offers a chilling account of the death of Laocoön, who was eliminated by Minerva because he realised that the Trojan Horse was a trick. (It is Virgil’s Laocoön who coins the famous saying about not trusting Greeks who bear gifts.) Two immense serpents, with fiery eyes, flickering tongues, hissing mouths and blood-red crests, suddenly emerge from the waves, before wreathing Laocoön and his sons in massive coils and devouring their wretched limbs. What a spectacularly gruesome way to go.
Beware the Kraken
By the Renaissance, during the great age of maritime exploration, improbable sea monsters commonly decorated maps. Most were frightening – a colossal squid-like creature known as the Kraken terrorised seafarers for centuries – but many were whimsical too. For instance, strange-looking whales, with improbably large teeth and lupine faces, as well as waterspouts, can be seen in the Carta marina (“Sea Map”) of the Nordic countries of Northern Europe, drawn by the Swedish ecclesiastic Olaus Magnus in the early 16th Century. At the same time, there was a new desire to make accurate studies of these much-mythologised cetaceans whenever possible.
In 1520, the German artist Albrecht Dürer, who was capable of extraordinary realism, travelled to Zeeland in the hope of seeing a stranded whale. “It is much more than 100 fathoms long and no man living in Zeeland has seen one even a third as long as this is,” he wrote in his diary. However, when Dürer arrived, the “great fish” was gone, carried off by the tide. For his troubles, Dürer fell ill with a fever. It is possible that he contracted a malarial infection, which eventually finished him off in 1528.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, stranded whales were significant events in Northern Europe. “Sometimes, they were taken as omens of God’s ill will,” explains Philip Hoare, whose brilliant book Leviathan (2008), a memoir-cum-history about his obsession with whales, won the prestigious Samuel Johnson non-fiction prize. “In 1658, a white whale swam up the Thames as far as John Evelyn the diarist’s estate in Deptford. It was hacked to death, but its appearance was seen as an augury of the death of [Oliver] Cromwell.”
Hoare continues: “But stranded sperm whales also offered good fortune, because, of course, they represented food and money – something we would never think about today.” During the 17th Century, in particular, there were many reports of beached whales in the Netherlands. As a result, dramatic scenes of stranded whales became a staple of art in the region. Two years ago, for instance, a conservator in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge discovered a beached whale beneath layers of overpainting in Dutch marine artist Hendrick van Anthonissen’s View of Scheveningen Sands (c 1641).
‘Alien and unconquerable’
By the 19th Century, the whaling industry was big business. “It oiled and lubricated the Industrial Revolution,” explains Hoare, whose most recent travelogue, The Sea Inside, was published in 2013. “The streets of New York, Berlin, Paris, London were lit by whale oil, which was America’s second-biggest export after timber. The Millennium Dome in London sits on the site of a whale-rendering plant.” Hunting sperm whales on the open ocean was dangerous and dirty – adult males can weigh up to 60 tonnes (60,000kg) – but, for the general public, the practice seemed exciting.
In part, this explains why JMW Turner, the British landscapist and marine painter par excellence, created a quartet of pictures on the theme of whaling during the 1840s. For the first time, an ongoing exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York unites these four seascapes, which were first shown at the Royal Academy in 1845 and 1846.
Turner wished to imagine whaling as an elemental struggle between man and the sublime power of nature
It is likely that Turner chose whaling as a subject because he hoped to please his patron Elhanan Bicknell, who had made his fortune in the whale-oil business. As a source for his paintings, Turner drew upon The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), an authoritative treatise written by the former whale-ship surgeon Thomas Beale. However, a glance at Turner’s pictures suggests that he wasn’t interested in precisely rendering a sperm whale’s form, which he probably never encountered in reality. Instead, he wished to imagine whaling as an elemental struggle between man and the sublime power of nature.
This was especially true of Turner’s earlier pair of whaling paintings. The Met’s Whalers, which the museum purchased in 1896 (the other three pictures are in the collection of the Tate), contains the dark, ominous form of a hunted sperm whale in the foreground, rearing and thrashing amid a maelstrom of foam, spray, spuming blood and churning surf. In the words of the English novelist William Thackeray, who saw the painting at the Royal Academy, “That is not a smear of purple you see yonder, but a beautiful whale, whose tail has just slapped a half-dozen whale-boats into perdition.” Turner’s whales boast the capricious ferocity of the sea monsters that bedevilled the imaginations of sailors in the ancient world.
According to Alison Hokanson, who organised the Met’s exhibition, it is even possible that Turner’s whaling paintings influenced Herman Melville when he was writing Moby-Dick. Melville’s masterpiece was published in 1851, a few months before the artist’s death. Its third chapter contains a passage describing a large oil painting of a whaling scene in a Massachusetts hostelry called the Spouter-Inn: “A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted,” says the narrator, Ishmael. “Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it.” This sounds like one of Turner’s paintings, which were notorious for their perilously free brushwork and lack of traditional finish.
“Look at Turner’s Sunrise with Sea Monsters [an unfinished canvas from c 1845 with an ambiguous pink form in the middle],” says Hoare. “There’s all this bubbling, strange stuff going on underneath. It’s psychologically uncanny. It’s about what’s below, what’s underneath the relentless movement towards progress in the 19th Century: the wilderness.”
He pauses. “Below the ocean’s skin, as Melville put it, everything is other – alien and unconquerable. I’m not sure what Turner really knew about whales. He just went for the symbol.”
To look at a Georgia O’Keeffe painting is to see America. Throughout her career, from her first show in 1916 to the late 1970s, the indomitable artist was concerned with what it meant to paint her country – and she became captivated by the wide plains, rocky outcrops and bold blue skies of New Mexico, her adopted home.
O’Keeffe’s first show was at the 291 Gallery in New York, 100 years ago this May – a fact that is being celebrated in a major retrospective of her work at Tate Modern in London from 6 July. Alfred Stieglitz, the gallerist and photographer, was shown her charcoal work by a mutual friend in 1916, and, impressed, included it in a group show without asking O’Keeffe’s permission. She wrote to ask him to take it down, he refused; a lively, flirtatious correspondence began.
By 1918, he’d tempted a sickly O’Keeffe away from a teaching job in Texas, with the offer of a flat financed by him in New York; within a month, he’d left his wife and moved in with her. There followed a creatively fertile period in both their lives, with O’Keeffe painting the city and their summer residence at Lake George in upstate New York, and Stieglitz taking hundreds of pictures of the woman who would become his wife in 1924.
But it wasn’t until their relationship wobbled, and O’Keeffe took off west, that she really found her own distinct vision of the US landscape. Recently, I visited New Mexico to explore what’s now known as ‘O’Keeffe country’ – the area around Santa Fe, home to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and research centre.
The air crackles with static. Every shadow seems laser-cut
It’s easy to imagine how inspiring it must have been for the artist. The high altitude and dry climate result in a crystalline light that seems to bring out astonishing colours: the chalky ochre and smoked-chilli red of the rocks and the sun-bleached grey-gold of the prairie grasses flicker against the famous New Mexico skies, whose dark, rich blueness it would be easy to become addicted to. The air crackles with static. Every shadow seems laser-cut.
O’Keeffe first visited northern New Mexico in 1929, staying in the tiny town of Taos with friends. She needed to get away from Stieglitz, who was in the midst of an affair with the heiress Dorothy Norman. The trip proved a good idea creatively as well as emotionally: O’Keeffe was revitalised by the landscape, and fascinated by the Pueblo culture and architecture of the Native American tribes of the area.
She had found her place. O’Keeffe began to spend her summers alone in New Mexico, renting remote properties and ‘tramping’ around the countryside, taking her paints with her; in 1940 she bought an Adobe house called Ghost Ranch, and in 1945, another in the little village of Abiquiú, 48 miles north of Santa Fe. Strikingly, Stieglitz never visited: New Mexico remained hers alone.
She had also found her own form of Modernism. In the 1920s, living in New York and hanging out with Stieglitz’s masculine art crowd – Paul Strand, John Marin, Arthur Dove, Edward Steichen – she complained that the US lagged behind Europe, because American Modernists failed to engage with their own country. No wonder no-one was writing ‘the Great American Novel’ or painting the ‘Great American Vision’. “I was excited over our country [but] I knew that at that time almost any of those great minds would have been in Europe if it was possible for them,” she commented. “They didn’t even want to live in New York – how was the Great American Thing going to happen?”
O’Keeffe grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, which is “why the landscape is important to her, becomes symbolic for her,” says Tanya Barson, curator of the Tate show. But it was when she went Southwest and discovered New Mexico, that O’Keeffe found her Great American Thing. Like her more famous close-up paintings of flowers, her vision of the Southern skies and mountains wavers between figurative and abstract; she crops in on a view, like a photographer, finding the abstract shapes and simplifying line and form, heightening colour until it has an emotive effect.
Showing many landscapes within a chronological survey of her work, the Tate aims to move on from the clichéd perception of O’Keeffe as ‘that famous female artist who painted swirling vagina flowers’. Such a Freudian reading was encouraged by Stieglitz from her earliest exhibitions, and later enthusiastically taken up by 1970s feminist critics – but O’Keeffe “consistently denied” such gendered interpretations throughout her entire career, says Barson.
Still, her close-up flowers images are beloved the world over – Jimson Weed, which features in the show, fetched the highest price ever for a work by a female artist in 2014: $44.4 million (£33.45 million). But her smooth painting style and huge popularity has seen O’Keeffe often reduced and sneered at by critics; she’s too easy.
Her smooth painting style and huge popularity has seen O’Keeffe often reduced and sneered at by critics
“Many of her works visually seem very simple; they’re approachable,” acknowledges Cody Hartley, Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. “They also reproduce very well; they make good posters. The work appeals to a lot of people – it has an accessibility that a Jackson Pollock does not have. But actually to paint that way, so there’s not a lot of evidence of the labour involved, is very difficult. Her technique is amazing – long, continuous, smooth brushstrokes - but it’s hard to appreciate how much work and thought went into her paintings because they don’t make that obvious.”
Brits might think they know her work well, but chances are they’ve only seen reproductions: astonishingly, there are no O’Keeffe’s in public collections in the UK, and there hasn’t been a major show of her work here since 1993. This big blockbuster exhibition remedies that, bringing over 100 works to London.
A room with a view
Many of these take New Mexico as their subject. O’Keeffe moved there permanently in 1949, following Stieglitz’s death. She painted the distinctive, indigenous Adobe architecture of the region: low buildings of wide, softly curved walls made of straw and mud, that bake hard into a bright, distinctive red-brown finish. Both her homes were in this style, although she put in huge, plate-glass windows too.
O’Keeffe’s chic, minimalist house in Abiquiú is open to the public, and while visiting, I met Agapita Lopez, a local girl who became the artist’s companion and secretary from 1974 until her death in 1986. O’Keeffe was a fiercely independent woman, but in later years needed help around the house. Lopez talks shyly and respectfully of her former employer who – despite all those years together – she still calls “Miss O’Keeffe”.
“When she came [to Abiquiú], people didn’t know what to make of her, she was so odd: a single woman who always wore black,” Lopez says. “But we always had a good relationship, we got on; we were both really quiet. I came from a Hispanic family where women did not have a career, and working with her widened my horizon.”
What was it about New Mexico that O’Keeffe loved? “She loved the landscape, and she loved the light. She was still extremely independent [but] one of my jobs was to take a walk with her [so she could paint]… Miss O’Keeffe always knew what she wanted.”
From her bedroom, you can see the White Place, eight miles away: a valley sided by astonishing craggy white cliffs and spires of semi-eroded rock, brilliantly pale against the bluest sky I’ve ever seen sky. Today, it’s a popular hiking spot, but as I scramble up layers of rock for views right down the valley, I think how alien and remote it must have been in the 1940s. Intrepid woman that she was, O’Keeffe used to camp out there.
She converted a car into a mobile studio so she could work in the landscape - as well as painting from memory back in her studios. She painted several pictures of the White Place, softly flattening out the jagged fingers of rocks, white-on-blue. Her form of abstraction is about “colour and composition” suggests Caroline Kastner, curator of the O’Keeffe Museum: “she’s rejecting perspective… reducing and editing what you’re seeing in the landscape to the flat surface of a painting.”
There was one image she never grew tired of: the Pedernal mountain
15 miles north of Abiquiú, we visited O’Keeffe’s other home, Ghost Ranch. The house is not open to the public, but guided tours of the area from a nearby visitor’s centre reveal the views she painted. She painted many pictures here, with names like My Front Yard and My Back Yard, names which comically bely the grandeur of the scene. Her ‘front yard’ stretched far across ghost-grey brush and flat cracked earth, punctuated with low green juniper trees, to faraway red hills and the looming, distinctively flat-topped Pedernal mountain, smoky-blue in the distance.
Her ‘back yard’, meanwhile, looks towards striking cliffs where the different strata of rock - some dating back 200 million years – make a pastel layer-cake of colours, with improbable spires and spindly chimneys of stone jutting up towards the sky. O’Keeffe captured their varied tones, in sweeping landscapes and abstracted close-ups: elephantine mauve lumps, creamy yellow cliffs, braiding slopes of peach and pistachio, red-raw streaked rock-faces.
Her many paintings of these views seem smoothly stylised, exaggerated, too bright – but visiting, you can see how the contrasts do come from the land itself. These views also form a backdrop for her 1930s still lives of skulls and bones, sometimes floating – Surrealist-fashion – in the air; critics have suggested the morbid symbols against the desert landscape symbolise the Dust Bowl and the Depression, while for others they simply represent frontier country, O’Keeffe’s Modernist vision of the American West.
O’Keeffe painted what Barson calls “the chromatic landscape of Ghost Ranch” enough to fill a whole room of the Tate’s exhibition. Usually, she painted a subject – say, horse skulls - for around a decade, then moved on. But there was one image she never grew tired of: the Pedernal mountain. She just kept painting it, with later paintings framing the summit through the holes in sun-bleached pelvis bones.
O’Keeffe felt a profound emotional and artistic attachment to this landscape; after her death in 1986, the Pedernal was where her ashes were scattered. Not long before she died, she deemed the distant, blue-hazed summit her private mountain: “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
When we say a work of art is ‘uplifting’, what do we really mean? A photograph taken this week from a solar-powered plane invites us to reflect on how great images propel our spirits. Extending outwards along the tapering length of the aircraft’s wing, the photo’s line of vision is as aspirational as it is vertigo-inducing. By appearing to take the world under its outstretched wing, the plane is emotionally transformed into a symbol of aerial salvation. The photo’s daring above-it-all perspective calls to mind the dizzying vantage of one of the most exhilarating paintings of the 20th Century – an image that likewise sought to assuage the existential anxieties of its own age.
Where do you seek refuge from the world? Religion? Family? Sport? Images circulating in the news and on social media in recent days of a controversial structure that opened to the public this week in northern Kentucky demonstrate the extraordinary lengths to which some people will go to protect themselves from unwanted cultural pressures. Photographs of an enormous $100 million (£77 million) replica of Noah’s Ark, built by the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis, call to mind the obsessive brilliance of an American folk artist from the 19th Century, whose own vision of the Bible’s apocalyptic vessel sheds intriguing light on mankind’s unquenchable quest to construct a sanctuary for the soul.
“Your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor.”
Old Mrs Rabbit’s frightful warning to her children Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter appears on the opening page of Beatrix Potter’s first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Aside from featuring perhaps the most dramatic use of a semicolon in children’s literature, it sets the tone for her work from the start: that horrors abound in a world of Darwinian struggle, but that these must be faced calmly. Your parents, and perhaps your children, may be devoured by a vengeful property owner, or sold for tobacco; you may have your tail ripped off by an angry owl; an invading rat might tie you up in string and include you as the key ingredient in a pudding. But life goes on – disappointments must be faced and tragedies overcome.
Potter’s tales have been consistently popular with adults, as well as children, since The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902 when she was 36 years old. This is not just because they feature adorable creatures in harrowing situations; her talking-animal stories also comment on the era’s class politics, gender roles, economics and domestic life. Did she examine British society through animals because she spent more time with animals than children, aside from her brother Bertram, when she was young? Because she wanted to rebel against the bourgeois values and morals of her wealthy middle class family – which had made its money in the textile industry – but only dared do so through furry surrogates? Because she could only publish children’s stories since her true passion, science, was a career field closed to women in the late 19th Century? Because she had a German tutor who introduced her to the back-to-nature ethos of the Romantics?
The one thing we do know for a certainty is that when Potter depicts mice wearing aprons or rabbits smoking pipes, her stories inevitably reveal as much about human virtues and follies as they do the natural world. As M Daphne Kutzer writes in Beatrix Potter: Writing in Code, “She never attempted to write a novel, but it is fair to say that a number of her small children’s books are in fact novels: their characters and their plots are as complex and open to interpretation as any novel published at that time.”
Of mice and manners
Commentary on British social relations of the early 20th Century appears everywhere in Potter’s work. Her writing style has a tone of observational detachment, as if she were a journalist profiling these animals. (In The Tale of Ginger and Pickles she writes of the cat Ginger, following his financial bankruptcy, “I do not know what occupation he pursues,” as if she were reporting this story rather than making it up.) She rarely focuses on the very rich, nor the very poor; her characters work for a living. Like Kenneth Grahame’s anthropomorphic animals in The Wind in the Willows, published six years after Peter Rabbit, Potter’s characters have been shaped by the transfer of power in British life from the landed aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, the class from which Potter herself had sprung. “Nearly all of [the stories] are preoccupied with hierarchy and power,” writes Kutzer – and they reflect and embody middle-class values. Industriousness is a cardinal virtue in Potter’s characters – whether it’s the lovable tailor of Gloucester, the domestic goddess Thomasina Tittlemouse, or the squirrels who diligently gather nuts on Owl Island and whose ingenuity the author clearly admires.
Indolence is the greatest sin, whether from the upper class or the lower. Samuel Whiskers wears the jacket and waistcoat of a landed gentleman but mostly sits around all day snorting snuff, while his wife waits on him. Squirrel Nutkin lets his more mature peers collect nuts while he plays “ninepins with a crab-apple and green fir cones”. The Flopsy Bunnies are stolen by Mr McGregor because of their gluttony: they fall asleep after eating too much.
Potter regards stupidity with similar contempt. In the celebration of laissez faire capitalism that is The Tale of Ginger and Pickles, she approves of the market forces that ruin the title characters’ shop, because they didn’t run their business with intelligence – they decided to grant unlimited credit to all their customers. She also disapproves of those who would take advantage of the stupidity of others, such as Mr John Dormouse, who sells defective candles to his neighbors: “And when Mr John Dormouse was complained to, he stayed in bed, and would say nothing but ‘very snug;’ which is not the way to carry on a retail business.” However, she approves of the savvy businesswoman Tabitha Twitchit, who raises her prices when her competition is eliminated by Ginger and Pickles going bust. Twitchit has three kittens to raise, yes, but it’s also just good business. Potter’s vision is that nature may be Darwinian chaos but one can survive through hard work and good sense.
Rebel with a causeFor Potter, the gradual shift from landed wealth to trade and industry is inevitable and sensible. But she opposes violence against individuals, even if she depicts it. However, she can revel in violence against symbols of widely accepted social conventions. Critic Humphrey Carpenter writes in his essay Excessively Impertinent Bunnies that she displays a “most vigorous contempt for the most accepted of Victorian social values” and is “definitely on the side of the transgressor”. Potter is positively gleeful in her description of how vandal mice Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca destroy a doll-house. The doll Lucinda lives there with her cook, Jane. For most of the story, Potter depicts the dolls as having nothing to do but sit around, pose and look pretty in their tiny red-brick abode. They’re not only indolent, they lack common sense: after the dolls leave the house the mice find “the door was not fast”.
The proletarian mice try to eat the food the dolls left behind, but the ham and fish are actually made of plaster: they are an ornamental frippery of the rich. So the mice proceed to destroy the meal with fire tongs – it’s flavourless, lacking in nutrition, rigid and easily shattered – then rip up much of the rest of the dollhouse. The destruction of an artificial replica of a Victorian household suggests that, for Potter, Victorian domestic life is just as artificial. The mice emerge as the good guys when they compensate Lucinda and Jane Doll-Cook for the damage, and Hunca Munca goes so far as to sneak into the dollhouse each morning and tidy up, without the dolls’ awareness – “the kind of hyperreal turn Umberto Eco would have appreciated,” writes Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian. Like the working class, the mice are still driven by needs while the upper class that controls their destiny is driven by wants.
Patty-pans and patriarchy
When Lucinda and Jane Doll-Cook are away, they’re out driving in a perambulator. It’s hard to see that mode of transport as anything but Potter’s commentary on the infantilisation of women by proper society at the turn of the 20th Century. Another story, The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan may feature the strongest critique of women’s roles at that time. The two lead female characters conceal the truth from each other – that they both have reservations about their upcoming party. Duchess, a dog, tries to replace a pie baked by Ribby, a cat, with one of her own, since she thinks Ribby’s will be a mouse pie. It’s a complicated comedy of errors that climaxes when Duchess chokes on what she assumes is a “patty-pan” baked into her pie; she’s gagging on a symbol of female servitude. But it turns out she was actually served the mouse pie after all, with no patty-pan. Her choking is the response of a hypochondriac – an act symbolic of how something non-existent in the physical world, such as man-made social conventions, can still constrain to the point of gagging and hysteria. And how proper society forces women to lie to each other, and to themselves, to avoid giving offense.
How much of this commentary on class, politics, business and etiquette came directly from Potter’s own experience? Biographical accounts of her life suggest a great deal. Her home life with her parents was a heightened version of the stereotypical Victorian household: her father spent his days at the club, her mother was expected to do nothing and both of them objected to Beatrix’s engagement – at age 39 – to her publisher Norman Warne because he was ‘in a trade’, even though they had made their money in the same way. After Warne died before their wedding, they objected again when she finally did marry William Heelis at the age of 47 – it was unbecoming, because her husband was a lawyer. In Beatrix Potter it seems the personal and the political, the private and the public are perfectly joined. Perhaps that’s why her animals don’t just talk, they have something to say.
Yvonne Morris had three minutes to get to work at the start of her shift. Any longer between phoning through her secret code at the perimeter gate and descending a set of stairs and she would have been arrested, at the very least. Morris was one of the first female crew commanders of a Titan 2 nuclear missile silo. Stationed with the 390th Strategic Missile Wing in Tucson, Arizona between 1980 and 1984, she was responsible for three other crew members and a nine-megaton nuclear weapon. “Even though our primary mission was peace through deterrence by preventing World War Three,” she says, “in the event we failed, we had to be ready to launch at all times in retaliation.”
In his book The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy mentions research carried out in a hospital in the 1980s. Architecture professor Roger Ulrich studied the medical records of patients recovering from gallbladder surgery. “The ward where they came after their operations looked out on one side to an open space full of trees, and on the other side onto a brick wall,” McCarthy tells BBC Culture. “Over a number of years, there was no doubt that the people who had the view of the trees recovered more quickly, needed fewer drugs and had fewer post-operative complications than the people with the view of the brick wall.”
McCarthy’s own story is one of healing. In 1954, when he was seven, his mother had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a mental asylum. McCarthy responded with what he describes as “a coping strategy”: indifference. “At seven years old, I was not in the least bit concerned that I had lost my mother,” he writes. Instead, he kept watch on a neighbour’s garden – filled with butterflies. “Every morning in that hot but fading summer, as my mother suffered silently and my brother cried out, I ran to check on them, never tiring of watching these free-flying spirits with wings as bright as flags… Electrifying, they were. Filling the space where my feelings should have been.”
“Man is least himself”, Oscar Wilde wrote 125 years ago, “when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” But what if the truth that the mask helps us realise is that there is nothing beneath our masks but more masks, until we reach that most terrifying mask of all? “Masks beneath masks”, as Salmon Rushdie eerily imagined in his novel The Satanic Verses, “until suddenly the bare bloodless skull.”
After days of political tumult in Westminster, a single image of calm suddenly emerged on Wednesday evening from the inner sanctum of royal authority: The Queen granting private audience to a genuflecting Theresa May, who has succeeded David Cameron as prime minister of the United Kingdom. Easily dismissed as nothing more than a shiny scrap of pageantry, the photograph of the newly selected leader of the governing Conservative Party and the monarch who invited her to form a new government is, in truth, a fascinating cultural document.
On its surface, the image reaffirms that democracy in Britain, at least symbolically, is still subservient to inherited power. Though the photo may be accented with smiles and the glamour of designer fashions, a stony silence entombs this week’s image. It divulges nothing of what was actually discussed between the queen and the new PM.