DURING THE LAST YEAR or longer, we have visited plenty of ‘stately homes’ in England. Many of them are very fine works of architecture.Today, we visited Blenheim Palace for the second time in 12 months., It was built for the first Duke of Marlborough and is still home to some of his descendants.
Of the many grand homes that we have seen during our travels, Blenheim impressed me far, far less than many of the others. It is impressive in its bulkiness but, for me, it lacks the finesse that characterises so many of the other aristocratic homes we have visited.
PS: To be fair, Blenheim was not completed as originally planned because at some stage the funds for its construction became dramatically reduced.
I LOVE GARDENS BUT I am not, and never have been, a great gardener. As a child, I used to mow the lawn and cut parts of the privet hedge surrounding our garden in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Neither of these activities endeared me to gardening. In 1983, I became a homeowner in Gillingham, Kent. My house had a 180-foot-long garden which was about 30 feet wide. About 120 feet of it was lawn bordered by narrow beds and the rest of it was, I imagine, once dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables. On taking possession of my new home, I was determined to make a success of the garden.
For a few weeks, I dug up weeds, hoping to clear a space to plant potatoes and onions. Day after day, I would return home from a session of pulling out teeth and other dental activities and then get down to pulling up weeds. It was disheartening to discover that a patch, which I had cleared a day earlier, was already becoming refilled with weeds. What I did not know at the time was that my garden was infested with a weed that was extremely difficult to eradicate manually or even with chemicals. The smallest fragment of this horrendous plant was enough to ensure its rapid and thorough propagation.
After a while, I abandoned my grand ground clearance plans and lowered my ambitions. I decided to clear a small patch to grow some parsley, a herb that was only available in local shops at Christmas time. I planted the seeds as instructed on the packet, watered them as required, and inspected the parsley patch every day. Soon, tiny green shoots began appearing. I was horrified. I thought that once again the weeds were beginning to defeat me. So, I plucked them out to clear the ground for my parsley to have the best chance of its survival. It was only later that I realised that what I had regarded as weeds was in fact the parsley I was hoping to grow.
My solution to managing my garden was simple and effective. I began visiting garden centres to buy fast-growing shrubs. I had decided to let them compete with the weeds instead of me. This plan was successful. Soon, I had plenty of attractive plants that were growing larger in height and volume at high speed.
The long lawn proved problematic after a while. I bought an electric mowing machine that trimmed the grass nicely. However, it was not long before I began sneezing violently whilst mowing the lawn or even driving past a lawn that was being mowed. I tried mowing while wearing a paper face mask such as is commonly seen today during the covid19 pandemic. The mask proved to be useless even though it covered nose and mouth. My solution was to abandon mowing and just to let the grass do ‘its own thing’.
My neighbours were not happy about my wild looking garden, which, incidentally, became a haven for butterflies. They complained to me. My solution was to mow a winding path, the width of the mowing machine, through the savannah that was developing on my lawn. I explained to my neighbours that this was a carefully conceived plan to create a wildlife garden. I am not sure that this convinced them, but the level of complaining diminished. My neighbours were not so keen on wildlife as the following will demonstrate. One evening, someone living in my neighbourhood rang my doorbell. He asked me whether I wanted to contribute some money to help pay for the hire of a professional gun man to shoot the local foxes. I sent him away empty handed.
One evening, I returned from dinner with friends and as it was a pleasant night, I stepped out into my garden. I was surprised to smell burning but could see no fire. On the next morning, I met one of my neighbours and mentioned the burning to him. He told me that he had extinguished the fire before it reached my house. He said that the elderly lady who lived on the other side of my house had become fed up with the state of my garden and had set fire to it hoping that might prevent the spread of weeds from my garden to hers.
What is interesting is that when I came to sell my house back in 1995, at a time when the property market in the area was sluggish, it was the garden that appealed to the buyers. Apart from the fact that the house was the kind that they were seeking, it was the prospect of taming the garden, which the estate agent had described as being “in its natural state”, that appealed to the buyers. Sometime after the purchase was over, we dropped in to say hello to the new buyers. They showed us the garden. It looked as if it had been sprayed with a strong herbicide. The grass had gone, so had the atmosphere of wildness; the garden seemed sterile. However, I noted that all my shrubs had been preserved.
Now, I do not want you to get the impression that I have something against gardening. I do not like doing it, but I admire those who do it. Gardening is a complex art form in which human beings have to harmonise with nature to produce aesthetically pleasing results. Not only does the geometry of the laying out of plants have to look good, but garden planning must take into consideration the passage of time, the seasons, meteorology, the behaviour of pests and weeds, and ecology. In addition, there is also the distribution of form, colour, and odour that must be planned. And above all, the maintenance of healthy growth adds to the complexity of gardening successfully. A successful garden is multi-dimensional artform involving all the six senses as well as the relentless passage of time and the endless changes in the weather.
Rather like music, which I enjoy listening but cannot perform, I gain great pleasure from gardens, but prefer others to create and maintain them.
In 1973, the economist EF Schumacher coined the phrase ‘small is beautiful‘. But, is small always beautiful?
The Mini, made by the British Motor Corporation, was first available for drivers to purchase in 1959. This compact, low-priced car, designed by Alec Issigonis, remained popular until 1986 when production ceased. I was not upset by this as the original Mini was extremely uncomfortable to sit in. Small the car was, but beautiful it was not.
In 1994, the German car manufacturer, BMW, bought the right to make cars bearing the trade name ‘Mini’. Models made from the year 2000 onwards faintly resemble the old-style Mini models, but contain many more up-to-date features. However, the BMW models look like bloated versions of the original versions. The new models look like Minis on steroids. They are not so small, and definitely not so beautiful.
The picture of the blue, old style Mini, was sourced from Flickr via Wikipedia
People are naturally quite exacting about the appearance of their front teeth. Apart from self-esteem, people judge others by the state of the teeth in their smiles and while speaking. As a dentist, I was often challenged by my patients’ desires to have a smile which looked good.
On one occasion, a young girl in her teens came to me with a loose denture, which she wore to replace a missing upper incisor. I suggested to her that she could get rid of the cumbersome dental prosthesis if I replaced her missing tooth with a barely invasive adhesive bridge attached to a tooth neighbouring the gap. She agreed, and the bridge was prepared. I fitted the new replacement tooth, which looked very realistic to me. Repeatedly, I asked the young girl whether she wanted have a look in a mirror to see the new tooth in place . Repeatedly, she refused, saying:
“I’ll look at it when I get home.”
I never heard from her again. So, I can only assume that either she loved the bridge or she was so disappointed that she visited another dentist. I have come across this behaviour several times since then especially with patients who have been supplied with a denture bearing a complete set of teeth. However, most patients prefer to see what they are getting.
Many years later, I prepared two crowns (‘caps’) to restore a lady’s two upper central incisors, the most noticeable teeth in most people’s smiles. When the crowns arrived back from the laboratory, I removed the temporary crowns that had been protecting the prepared teeth. Then, without using cement (‘dental adhesive’) I placed the new crowns on the patient’s teeth so that she could say whether or not she approved of their shape and appearance. I noticed that the pocelain on the crowns had a pale greenish tinge. I looked up at my dental nurse. From her expression, I realised that she had also noticed the less than desirable dicolouration. I was fully prepared to sent the crowns back to the laboratory to have their colour improved when the patient exclaimed:
“Oooh! These are lovely. They’re so beautiful. Oh, thank you, doctor!“
Hearing this, and seeing the smile on her face, I felt that it would be foolish to have the crowns remade. So, I cemented them. She was a regular patient and never made any adverse comments about these crowns on subsequent visits to my surgery.
This only goes to show that there is no accounting for taste.
This evening, I attended a performance of A Musical Offering by JS Bach (opus BWV 1079) at the Royal College of Music in Kensington. Each of the sections of this work was introduced by the conductor, Joe Parks, who explained what was musically interesting about them.
The whole piece is based on a theme composed by King Frederick II of Prussia. He gave it to Bach on the 7th of May 1747, and challenged the composer to do something interesting with it. A Musical Offering is what Bach did with the King’s theme. I am no musician, so can hardly explain the compositional procedures with which Bach exploited the King’s somewhat dull theme. For example, in one of the sections improvisations on the theme are played with musicians simultaneously playing the modified theme both forwards and in reverse. In another section, the theme is improvised in a range of different keys. In brief, this piece by Bach is both intriguing and challenging for musicians. Although this aspect of the music is lost on me, my enjoyment of the work was not impaired.
What fascinates me is that a piece of music so full of compositional twists and turns is a delight to hear. Bach has not only satisfied his desires to hone his compositinal technique in this piece, but also he has created a work that is highly satisfying to the listener.
Great music like great paintings reach into the the inner subconscious of the listener or viewer and thereby evoke an almost visceral sensation of joy. It does not matter that the music is full of compositional magic or the painting might be impressionistic or abstract because the great artist knows how to produce a work that reaches those hidden parts of the body that evoke feelings we call emotion. Without doubt, A Musical Offering did that for me.
What makes for a great work of art? Well, people differ on the answer to this question. Seeing one special painting in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palermo (Sicily) helped me formulate my answer.
The painting that literally caught my eye and grabbed my full attention is “The Virgin Annunciate”. It was painted sometime between 1474 and ’77 by the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-79). It depicts a woman in a blue veil seated at a small wooden desk on which there is an open book. The fingers of her right hand spread forwards towards the viewer. Her left hand holds her veil closed. She appears to be gazing towards her right. Simple, really, if described like this, but it is not.
The painting grabbed my attention long before my brain had time to analyse what was reaching my eyes’ retinas. It was an intense visceral attraction to the image that made me stop and look at it carefully, an attraction that few other works of art have had for me.
When I had recovered from the initial pleasurable shock of seeing such beauty, I began to notice its subject matter, and with the help of an explanatory note next to the painting, I learnt some of the artist’s deeper intentions.
For example, there is a sharp crease in the cloth of the veil just above the mid-point of the lady’s forehead. This tells the informed viewer that the Virgin is wearing a special treasured, rarely worn, veil that is usually kept neatly folded in a closet or wardrobe. No doubt, art historians would be able to point out many other meaningful details that the artist has depicted. Despite these aspects of symbolic meaning, despite its subject matter and context, this picture is primarily an object of enormous beauty and graciousness that appeals greatly to something in the deep recesses of my subconscious.
For me, a work of art must first seize the seat, the very source of my emotions in a positive way. If it can do that, then whether or not the artist has imbued it with layers of meaning, the work is in my view a great one. Lest you think that it is only the works of long dead masters that fall into my definition of ‘great art’, let me refer to someone who created more recently, Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957). Some of his sculptures depict birds or humans as simple, almost abstract, forms, almost devoid of detail. These works evoke the same deep sensations of visceral attraction as the painting by Da Messina, yet they could hardly be more different in all respects from that.
A work by Brancusi [Source: bookdepository.com]
I am unable to formulate why the Da Messina and Brancusi works chime (and even some extremely abstract works such as those by Modriaan or Sean Scully) with my deepest emotional chords, when others, undoubtedly masterful in many ways like the works of Caravaggio and Barbara Hepworth, do not. I suppose this is what folk call ‘taste’. And, tastes differ greatly.
For me, a great work of art must first appeal to me emotionally, viscerally if you like, rather than intellectually. If I can only begin to appreciate a work of art after it has been explained, as is the case with much so-called ‘conceptual art’, then, for me, it is not ‘great art’.