The Brightest Heaven of Invention

Originally posted on the ACW “More than Writers” blog.
We all know who ascends the brightest heaven of invention.

SHAKESPEARE'S NEW PLACE photo credit Abigail Robinson
SHAKESPEARE’S NEW PLACE photo credit Abigail Robinson
Yes, it’s a muse of fire, which Shakespeare wished for in his Prologue to Henry V, as if the power of creativity were indeed a separate being, in this case from Greek mythology.
And I believe that it may sometimes be helpful to visualise our source of inspiration as a separate being – maybe an angel, if not a muse.
As writers, we love and work with metaphor and figurative language all the time, and one of the most loved devices is of course personification, which can often be highly effective in, for instance, comic writing.
A couple of years ago I went to a special event in the garden at New Place, site of Shakespeare’s former family home in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire: an event which stands out as my most imaginative and inspiring experience in that town, even with its rich supply of Shakespeare properties.
It was known as The Garden of Curious Amusements, and presented by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The central idea of catching the muse was sparked off by the fact that Shakespeare researchers believe the Bard wrote his play The Tempest in his home during 1610/1611.
Can specific geographical locations of this earth hold an inspirational power? Does the muse reside there? Can we be infused with that muse by standing in that very place where a genius caught his or her most world-changing idea?
This notion was the launching pad for a group of  creative people who called themselves the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (UNBOSI for short), and through the medium of art, acrobatics, invention and acting, entertained the visitors who flocked to this attraction. Our purpose: each to take a marble and catch in it some of that muse which inspired Shakespeare, through the four elements of earth, air, fire and water.
The journey itself was full of fun, laughter and delight – and at the centre of this fanciful Art Happening may be found a profound question: is there a correlation between place, time and light-bulb moments? That may sound eccentric and zany; but through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found inspiration and ideas that have changed the world.
We can only imaginatively reconstruct what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No house currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens where we embarked on a hilarious but also ingeniously thought-provoking journey of “Muse Catching”.
Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished in 1759 in a fit of spite by a character Shakespeare himself might have created: the Reverend Francis Gastrell, the impetuous priest who owned the property and got so fed up with the Shakespeare tourists, he decided to burn the house down. At that time property owners could do what they liked with their properties and the idea that the authorities could step in and save a historically-important heritage building against the will of the owner was unthinkable.
But even a senseless, devastating act like this can sometimes bring unlooked-for benefits in the future. I feel that what I brought away from this entertainment in the garden was in its way more profound than the experience of looking round a carefully presented fifteenth century property and being told that he was born here and trying to feel some sense of awe and connection with the great poet.
So where is inspiration to be found? Is it present in the air, or does it lie hidden in the fabric of a special place? Or does it perhaps emanate from the ground? These and other ideas were played with at New Place on the day of my visit.
Upon entering the garden through the site of the original gatehouse, visitors cross an area which would formerly have been the service range, and where you may listen to an illustrated talk about the history of New Place. Then you will approach a circular area which delineates the space formerly occupied by “the heart of the house”, where there would have been a large medieval open hall with a fireplace in the centre of the room and a vent to let the smoke out.
Close to the centre you will find a bronze replica of a chair and desk which represents researchers’ best estimate of where Shakespeare himself may have sat writing his later plays during those final years up until 1613.
Near to the desk, a bronze tree appears, its branches bent to one side by the force of Shakespeare’s creativity; and beside it a bronze globe is worn smooth by that same force. The rough side of the globe symbolises a visualisation of white noise in outer space – which, the guide suggested to visitors, represents the idea that Shakespeare’s genius may help us make sense of the universe.
In “the heart of the house” during the special UNBOSI event, several information boards explored the idea that many world-renowned geniuses had their light-bulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.
So let us be inspired by the creative, quirky and silly – for along that path there may flare up that muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

Inspiration from JRR Tolkien in Oxford

My recent visit to Oxford to see the exhibition of Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth was a revelation to me and full of inspiration.Tolkien-maker of middle-earth

You may find the exhibition in the  ST Lee Gallery, Weston Library, next to Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street. It’s packed with fascinating objects and letters, and drawings: Tolkien’s own exquisite illustrations for The Hobbit and  The Lord of the Rings, plenty of original letters giving intriguing biographical information about him, authentic items and furnishings from his own home, a magnificent  projection of a 3D model of the map of Middle-earth and many other  delights for all those who love Tolkien and the fantasy world which flowered from his creative genius.

I love The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion: I first came to The Lord of the Rings when I was at university in Lancaster; and for many of us then it was a cult book; the world of Middle-earth so absorbed us that Tolkien’s characters, and situations from Frodo and Sam’s epic journey, would appear in our conversations without any need for explanation or context. Over the years I have been moved and enchanted by the  powerful illustrations of places in Middle-earth such as Rivendell, but until I came to this exhibition in Oxford I confess I had no idea that Tolkien was himself such a gifted artist and had actually himself drawn and hand-coloured much of the artwork with which I have been captivated.

These are just a few of the many gems I discovered from the exhibition:

Tolkien spent twelve years writing The Lord of the Rings, in order to provide his publisher George Allen & Unwin with “something more about hobbits” as a sequel to The Hobbit – his publishers were hoping for a lucrative series like Swallows and Amazons

He squeezed that writing into his evenings, after full days spent on academic work in his role as English professor at the University, family life, and socialising, etc.

The words In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…. came to him while he was doing some marking of student papers, and he scrawled those words in an empty space on a paper he was marking. He did nothing with that idea for several years, it just lay in his mind, waiting its time (just like the ring itself lay waiting…)

His first concept of Treebeard was as an evil character but eventually he transformed the Ent into a good character

The village near Birmingham where he lived as a young child inspired him for Hobbiton.

He kept having wonderful ideas for additions to The Lord of the Rings, such as an exquisitely-rendered facsimile of a seriously war-damaged and bloodstained ancient manuscript, and a fascinating epilogue, a letter from Aragorn to Sam Gangee years after the events of The Lord of the Rings, but his publishers would decide against incorporating them for various reasons including because they thought it cost too much…

After the Tolkien exhibition we spent a considerable amount of time in Blackwell’s, losing ourselves among the special Harry Potter displays and Tolkien and CS Lewis sections not to mention among the pages of the Paddington Bear London pop-up book…

Then we enjoyed a fascinating tour of the Oxford Colleges, as you’ll see from some of the photos here.

Oxford is the city of dreaming spires and has a rich and complex history,  a tapestry of darkness and light, which perhaps suggests just a few reasons why it is also, for creative people, a city of lightbulb moments…

A Diversity of Spiritual Outlooks Through Time at the British Museum in London

The Great Court, British Museum, London
The Great Court, British Museum, London

On Saturday 23rd December 2017  I went to see the exhibition “Living with Gods:  peoples, places and worlds beyond” at the British Museum in London. The exhibition curator Jill Cook had set out to show the development of religious symbols through physical objects which people in widely diverse cultures and historical periods have used to denote their relationships with a spiritual reality beyond nature.

 

The exhibition ranged from a 40,000 year old sculpture of a lion man, through a Buddhist wheel of life held in the claws of the god of death, via a Japanese Shinto household shrine, to a Soviet communist poster of an astronaut with a rather inane grin on his face floating in space and declaring “There is no God.” On the Buddhist wheel of life the artist had depicted instances of human and animal suffering and wickedness of all types, which I must confess reminded me of Dan Brown’s description of Dante’s Inferno…

I was also interested to learn that the image of the many-armed creator/destroyer god Lord Shiva is on display outside CERN in Switzerland, as a symbol of the atom.

However, inevitably much was missing from the exhibition. For instance, I found no reference to the aboriginal image of the Rainbow Serpent said to be one of earliest of religious symbols, in this case symbolising Creation. Neither did I find the spirituality of the North American Indians, nor the mystical system of the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching.

The whole tapestry and landscape of humankind’s attempts to build and sustain a relationship with spiritual reality beyond the observed world is so vast and complex, this exhibition inevitably could give just a small representative taste alongside a dispassionate commentary. In reality each religious outlook and philosophical system deserves its own special in-depth study in order to do anything like justice to it – and the curious investigator can find many books to help.

But one of the most moving parts of the exhibition for me was the display about the Japanese persecution of Christianity in the 17th century, during the time of the Portuguese Jesuit mission to Japan, a story told in the brilliant novel Silence by Shusako Endo, upon which was based the 2016 film starring Andrew Garfield.

I remember the impact the book made on me, when those being persecuted were ordered to trample the fumi-e – a bronze plaque showing Christ on the cross. I found myself gazing in awe at an authentic  fumi-e and thought again of the powerful end to the novel Silence.

One of the most interesting things about that novel was the way it showed how Christianity may be introduced into what may seem an alien culture and how those within that culture may take on the Christian faith and understand it within their own cultural terms. I remember a scene in the novel where Japanese Christians were being tortured by being tied to stakes on a beach while the tide rolled in and out around them. They gained the stength to endure by continually singing, We are going to the temple, going to the temple of God.

If there is any lesson at all to be learned from an exhibition of this type, perhaps it is that we have the challenge ahead of us to communicate what we believe to be the truth, whilst also respecting other human beings and where they are in terms of their own worldview.

 

 

Garden of Significant Inspiration and Curious A-MUSE-ments at Shakespeare’s New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon

O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

So wrote William Shakespeare in the Prologue to Henry V –  and a few days ago we were in the garden at New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, site of Shakespeare’s former family home – infusing marbles with the power of that same muse.new-place-stratford-upon-avon

In case you’re thinking that sounds eccentric and zany, you’re right – and through the path of the eccentric many of the greatest minds have found both inspiration  and ideas that have changed the world.  Below is an approximation of what Shakespeare’s family home would have looked like. No picture-of-an-approximation-of-shakespeares-new-place-his-own-family-homehouse currently exists at New Place, but is instead represented by a series of gardens is where we embarked on a “Muse Catching” journey with the United Nations Board of Significant Inspiration (otherwise possibly understood as a group of artists / creators / thinkers / acrobats / inventors / actors whose goal is to awake the imagination, fill the mind and heart with fresh possibilities, and raise up the muse for members of the public who choose to visit).

Our purpose: to each take a marble and catch in it some of that muse Shakespeare wrote about, through the four elements of earth, fire, water and air.

The journey itself is full of fun, wonder, laughter inspiration and delight – and at the bottom of this wonderful, quirky, fanciful Art Happening, is a profound question and a fascinating subject for research: is there a correlation between place, time and lightbulb moments?

Shakespeare’s family home no longer exists because it was demolished by a character Shakespeare himself might have created. This “Art Happening” as I like to describe it, was based upon the idea that “the muse” is somehow present in the location where Shakespeare lived and wrote.  Many of us are familiar with the idea of certain places having a high level of inspiration. Often it seems to be present in the air, or lie hidden in the fabric of a special building, or within a natural phenomenon or feature of the landscape. But does it perhaps emanate from the ground? This is the idea played with and embodied by the UNBOSI at New Place this Christmas.  In the roundel at New Place, several information boards explored this, noting that many world-renowned geniuses had their lightbulb moment by doing very silly things – or by having very silly things happen to them.

So let us be inspired by the fanciful, creative, quirky and even silly… for along that path may lie greatness.

 

 

 

Antithesis to HRH’s Quirky Garden Rooms Full of Curiosities: Compton Verney Capability Brown Landscape

Isn’t it lovely how many different moods and themes can be captured by garden designers and landscape architects?

The parkland surrounding Compton Verney house, Warwickshire
The parkland surrounding Compton Verney house, Warwickshire

A week ago I was speaking to the guide who led our tour around Highgrove Gardens about how HRH The Prince of Wales viewed Capability Brown. And the answer was that he realises in some contexts the ideas of that great eighteenth century garden designer might be appropriate, but personally it’s not his “sort of thing”. For when Capability Brown was brought in to transform the surroundings of a stately home, he would be thinking of sweeping lawns flowing seamlessly into the extensive parklands via the ha-ha, dotted with majestic parkland trees, and would of course throw in a cunningly-situated lake, which would create a perfect vista from the house.  This is a profoundly different  approach to that of the sequence of interconnected rooms full of  quirky and unexpected things, which is itself a very popular style of garden design among the great gardeners (such as Vita Sackville West with Sissinghurst Castle Garden, of course).

View across the new wildflower meadow to the chapel at Compton Verney
View across the new wildflower meadow to the chapel at Compton Verney

However yesterday I was in one of my favourite Capability Brown landscapes at Compton Verney in Warwickshire

And again I thought how calming and uplifting it is to be in this spacious parkland, which wraps around the house perfectly, providing an ideal setting.

But there’s now a new feature in the landscape, of which HRH the Prince of Wales would wholeheartedly approve: a new wildflower meadow on the West Lawn, with mown paths running through it corresponding to a William Morris design, relating directly to the theme of the excellent Arts and Crafts exhibition currently showing inside the house.

As we visited it on the last day of August the wildflowers were long past their best; apart from a single patch which gave some idea of what the entire meadow will look like next May:

Wildflower meadow at Compton Verney
Wildflower meadow at Compton Verney

Believing in Dreams

It is a dream… of what has never been… true, it has never been, and therefore, since the world is alive, and moving yet, my hope is the greater that it one day will be… dreams have before now come about of things so good… we scarcely think of them more than the daylight, though once people had to live without them, without even the hope of them.

William Morris Strawberry Thief design
William Morris Strawberry Thief design

These words are from William Morris the great Victorian designer. His dream was that everyone would “have his share of the best”; he longed to see art at the centre of everyone’s lives so that they might “always  have pleasure in the things that they use.”

Right now (June-September 2015), there is an exhibition of the work of William Morris and his contemporaries at Compton Verney, an art gallery very close to where I live in Warwick, a place I love visiting.

I love William Morris designs (as you’ll see from a former post on this blog) and have just bought a tapestry shoulder-bag with the Strawberry Thief design on it.. True, art and design in our lives often has a monetary value; this seems to be the nature of human life.

But to me, William Morris’s dream of everyone having his or her “share of the best” is the ultimate democracy, the democracy of ‘value’ and quality of life, above all else, whatever our circumstances. As we know this dream is very far from being realised in our world. But how inspiring William Morris’s words are, and how encouraging his vision, for those of us who dream, and have high ideals.

Witty Insight into the London Art World

For all those who’ve wondered how one starts to get noticed as an artist in London, and is in the mood for a light-hearted approach to the subject I can recommend a book which might have escaped my notice if I hadn’t recently met the author at a conference.

witty look at the London art world by Emily Benet
witty look at the London art world by Emily Benet

Emily Benet first posted her book chapter by chapter on Wattpad and had such a good response from readers that she came to the attention of Harper Impulse, who published the book as “The Temp”.

I bought the book after listening to Emily talking about social media for authors at the recent conference at the University of Leicester. Emily certainly incorporates her knowledge of social media into this novel.

I learned from her that the book was originally called “Spray Painted Bananas”, and I believe that was a much more original title. Purely from the cover design and title that Harper Impulse have given this novel I would have identified it as generic chick-lit and probably not have picked it out in a book shop.

And yet, reading the novel, I find it much more than chick-lit. It gives a delightful and witty insight into the London art world, and I found myself thinking of the main protagonist, Amber, as a budding Tracy Emin.

It’s so easy to look at installations in the Tate Modern and think, Oh I could do that. But the reality of getting yourself known as an artist is far more complex and challenging. Emily Benet has great fun, not only with the motivations and behaviour of those who visit art galleries for private views, but also with the ways in which an artist may start to become known, particularly in London.

I loved this story, found the characters engaging and entertaining, especially Amber’s flatmate Egg, and enjoyed the rom com element as well. Highly recommended for a fun read.

For some of my previous posts on the contemporary art world, see https://scskillman.com/2013/10/09/what-do-we-do-about-art-theres-always-a-little-shop-at-the-end/ and http://ezinearticles.com/?Inspiration-for-Creative-Writers-From-Artists&id=6783241

200 Years of Australian Art at the Royal Academy: Connections Between Painting and the Spiritual Realm

From indigenous art through to ‘discovery’ by European explorers, this exhibition of Australian paintings at the Royal Academy, London, in November 2013 took me on a journey through the spiritual heart of Australia.

AUSTRALIA EXHIBITION, Royal Academy of Arts
AUSTRALIA EXHIBITION, Royal Academy of Arts

As Russell Drysdale said, “In Australia there is a quality of strangeness that you do not find … anywhere else.”

Reviews of the exhibition  were mixed, with a lot of  criticism levelled at it in the UK. But from the first painting of a  convict settlement, neat, well spaced out and idealized, through to the contemporary paintings struggling to reconcile the wounded history of cruelty, misunderstanding and conflict between aboriginal people and European colonial settlers, the exhibition created, for me, a strong sense of connection to my own experience of four and a half years living in this great continent.

There was no painting of Sydney Opera House, my favourite of  all buildings; but there was one by Grace Cossington Smith of Sydney Harbour Bridge being built, (“The Bridge in Building”, 1929) viewed from below,  demonstrating pride, hope, creative enterprise, ingenuity, and above, beyond and around it a distinctly spiritual resonance.

The indigenous artworks were particularly moving, with their distinctive cross hatched patterns characteristic of aboriginal artists, as they depict rain running down dunes, undulating landscapes, waterholes and trees and spirit ancestors, believing that we tread the earth for a while then come out of it and become part of the ancestral realm again.

But in addition to the aboriginal artworks, there were others which touched me deeply. In particular a swirling picture by Kenneth McQueen, a Queensland artist, of the rainforest-clad mountains reflected my own experience of this majestic landscape. I felt connected, then, to one of my former favourite haunts, Mount Glorious, which is part of the Great Dividing Range, forming the backdrop to the city of Brisbane.  As soon as I saw his painting I thought “Yes! Maiala Rainforest” – conveyed just as I remembered it, in swirling patterns of movement.

The indigenous people of Australia  are the ones who fully understand and imbue the earth with sacred forces. They are the ones who gave this continent its air of mystery and spiritual power. But I can be thankful, too, to those eighteenth century European settlers, because they prepared the way so that I,and many others, might have access to this sublime scenery.

What Do We Do About Art? There’s Always a Little Shop At The End

What do we do about art  when we wander around great art galleries and museums?

How I integrate art into my own life, on the wall of my writing space (photo credit Jamie Robinson)
How I integrate art into my own life, on the wall of my writing space (photo credit Jamie Robinson)

We see wonderful things on the walls and maybe we’re overwhelmed.

These great art works are distanced from us, somehow, by the awesome spaces and dimensions of the gallery.

We could never have these original art works on the walls of our own homes.

But they speak to us. There’s something in them we want to take away, something we want to claim for our own lives. Something that tells us about ourselves, our own hearts and souls.

So what do we do?

As David Tennant’s Doctor said to his  assistant Donna in the Doctor Who episode Silence in The Library, “Quick! The shop! There’s always a little shop at the end!”

On BBC Radio 4 Today programme at 8.20am on Wed 9 Oct 2013, two writers with new books out, Desmond Morris (author of The Artistic Ape and Alain de Botton (author of Art as Therapy) discussed art and how it affects our lives. And one of the things they said struck me: “If we did not have art in our lives, the world  would be very drab. We need it in our lives. But what do we do about art? We go to the gift shop, and we buy postcards. That way we can integrate the art into our daily lives.”

Desmond Morris made this point:

Art is not to be confined to museums but is part of something much bigger in life….. we do like to surround ourselves with objects that  make our lives less drab.

Alain de Botton said what he proposes is that  We treat the whole museum much more like the gift shop.

I now say that to my teenage son and daughter whenever we’re in an attraction. Ah-ha. The shop. There’s always a little shop at the end.

Why did  I find this striking? Because of what I do, at home, in my space where I write.

I cover the wall with brochures, leaflets, postcards from art exhibitions.  Bear in mind that the room needs redecorating, which is why I’ve stuck those images directly onto the wall!

No way can I afford to display original Rembrandt, David Hockney, Verneer on the walls of my home.

But I still integrate art into my life.

I have invited art into my writing space. Each of the images I’ve stuck onto the wall, is a window. A window into another world, another artist’s imagination, another dimension.

In this way, no matter how humble, I integrate something of the artist’s spirit into my own working space.

Without art life would be very drab indeed.