Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Tree of Life by Godfrey Blount

A comment on my last post got me thinking about the “swallows and rose tree” below.  What is the panel supposed to mean?  What is that tree?  Should it have a name more inspiring than the Victoria and Albert Museum's name of 'hanging'?  So I have decided to rename it!  The tree is a recurring symbol for Blount's work.

Tree of Life by Godfrey Blount, 1896
Victoria and Albert Museum
I had thought that the tree was a tree…but upon closer inspection, the thorns going up the trunk would suggest that this is a ‘rose tree’.  However rose trees do not really have thorny trunks, or multi-coloured rose flowers (at least not in 1896!).  Reading through some of Blount’s books, he advocates designing fantasy trees, and I believe that is what he was doing here:
“If you want to introduce more than one sort of leaf into your spiral, there is no objection to your doing so, so long as your stalks and leaves are not too much like real stalks and real leaves.  We should certainly be shocked if we found figs and thistles growing on the same bough, because we know they grow on different plants.  If we do not want the gardener to criticise our design we must plant trees that never grew in his garden; then perhaps he may learn to admire even if he cannot understand
Sursum Corda ("Lift up your hearts") by Godfrey Blount
from The Studio, vol 29

"…The liberty we may take with… whether we may put a thing in a position or attitude it cannot maintain in Nature, depends on its relative importance to the whole design, and the use that design is to be put to.  It would be absurd to plant an image of the Tree of Life upside down in the centre of a design, but we may allow some eccentricity of shape and attitude in the more conventional border round it; and so long as the freaks of our fancy remain subordinate to the whole scheme of decoration, we must not criticise them too scientifically."

In all three examples of peasant tapestries depicting trees, the roots of the trees are shown differently.  In the V&A's hanging, the roots are curved underneath the tree (as in the illustration of the vase from Arbor Vitae below), in Sursum Corda (above) the roots are angels wings, and in the tapestries on the Blount bed (below) they are splayed out.  Blount continues by saying "…The realist is more attracted to Nature’s results than to her means, to the flower more than the leaf or bud, to the satisfaction of desire more than to the anticipation of it…What a poor sort of compromise with Nature your modern artist thinks of such trees, with their stiff stem, their pair of stubborn branches, and half a dozen leaves!  …How could we find a better natural illustration of that characteristic of traditional Art on which I like to lay so much stress: that infinity within finite limits: that tree of ancient pedigree whose every branch is rooted in the centre of the universe, and carries a host of leaves and the seeds of a thousand generations!” 
Detail of Godfrey Blount bed hanging
from Artist, vol XX, 1897

So here Blount appears to be advocating a mixture of art and nature to produce a more inspiring tree: "All undertakings which are firmly rooted in deep soils of security and truth become trees of life, pillars of strength and support, an issue in wide-spreading shelter of praise and aspiration.  The tree, with its ubiquitous illustration of these thoughts, has naturally become their lasting symbol…Look at a forest tree, and see the single sweep of outline that gathers all it contains in one huge oval, and says to the aspiring and final twig on every branch, “Thus far, and no farther.”  If you will prune your arabesques in the same gardener-like way, you will feel how necessary this severity is to bring out the force and contrast of their essentially meandering character.

from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, Arthur Fifield, 1899

"...The tree is a source of myth and decoration that has been universally accepted, from its frequency and obvious analogy, not only to our life, but to every religion and institution in which mankind has been interested
from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, Arthur Fifield, 1899

"...We can never divorce the history and practice of Art from the idea of the growth of some living thing, and it is the tree which has been throughout this essay a type, in my mind, of the way in which Art has grown and flourished, and of the way also in which every one of us may cultivate the Art instincts in himself.  Whether it is regarded then, as the symbol of our own or of other life and work, or as a type of that inner existence which is just as real to us, our faiths and our thoughts, the tree, if it is a stout one, is rooted in the soil of solid facts, that is to say, material necessities, popular demands, or, if you will have it so, the will of God or the inevitableness of fate.  Soon its fibres are welded together in co-operative unity to lift its hope out of the dark and mysterious chambers of its birth, to cope with its storm and rain and sunshine.
from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, Arthur Fifield, 1899
Illustrating that an inverted tree is like a vase

"...If we turn the tree...upside down, we shall obtain a simple form of bottle or vase which is itself the root of a vast family of traditionally decorative ideas, whose chief significance is seen when flowers or a plant grow out of it.  It is then evidently the earth obedient to God’s command on the third day, bringing forth her verdant offspring

"...On the main facts of life we cannot quarrel, because we must always submit to them.  We must take this as the first meaning of the tree symbol.
from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, Arthur Fifield, 1899

“...its central head and laterally uplifted arms suggest the figure most associated in our minds with the Christian religion – the attitude of crucifixation, or of supplication and submission to the All-Father’s will…their accidental imitation or suggestion of other tricks and actions which in more organic life are full of significance and meaning.”

The rose or creeper climbing up the tree evokes the serpent in the garden of Eden.  In other trees designed by Blount, the climber is ivy or snake-like as in the illustration above.  Blount says “the ivy, twisting round the trunk, is the serpent, genius of the soil, earth spirit, symbol of cunning craft, dividing spiral, promising us wisdom, rewarding us with dust; tempting us to taste, to be as gods, and to suffer with them."
from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, Arthur Fifield, 1899

At the conclusion of Arbor Vitae Blount states:  “We cannot any longer separate religion from Art.  What we believe, what we love, what, even, we should like to believe and love, we must put into some sort of shape, make some sort of creed or confession of, however loosely worded.  And if we have nothing at first to say, let us waste no time in vain regret, but try and throw ourselves open to every natural influence we can – bird and beast and creeping thing, wind and rain and sun, mountain, river and forest, and crown ourselves laureates to Nature, Poets of the Poor.  We cannot paint till we can feel ; when we can feel, we can paint or sing with ease.”
from Blount, Godfrey, Arbor Vitae, Arthur Fifield, 1899
Dove formation similar to the V&A's hanging

Following in this religious vein, in Science of Symbols (Blount, Godfrey, Arthur Fifield, 1905) Blount states "It is useless to kick against the pricks, against the overwhelming evidence of God.  If Nature reminds us of God, then indeed is Nature the symbol of God.  The Tree, the Stone, the Animal, the roughly hewn idol, image, or totem

"..So far from closing our eyes to facts because all facts are wicked, we must open our enlarged eyes to them because they have become symbols.  Christ has brought about a new dispensation by bringing life into the world an d making what was dead before, alive.  Now, sun and air and cloud and tree and stone and stream cry, “Hosannah to the Highest.  Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”

Saturday, 18 June 2011

A Peasant Rest?

Having now understood the meaning behind Godfrey Blount's piece in the Victoria and Albert Museum, 'The Spies', it is clear to me that the other piece in the Victoria and Albert Museum that is referred to as The Spies elsewhere (and I have called The Spies on my blog!) should not be called so.  It appears much more similar to other Blount tapestry pieces that were used in bedroom furnishings.

The Victoria and Albert Museum have informed me that the hanging was purchased from Sotheby's Belgravia in April 1978.  It is 210cm x 180cm.

Hanging by Godfrey Blount, 1896
Victoria & Albert Museum

Linda Parry explains the evolution of bedroom style of the 1890s in the Textiles of the Arts & Crafts Movement (Thames & Hudson, 2005): "Printed cottons with white and pale grounds were increasingly used throughout the house, and more attention was given to bedrooms.  Heal's, famed for its hygienic mattresses, sold a range of suitable bedroom furnishings including printed cotton and silk bedcovers.  They also sold applique hangings from Haslemere which were acceptable hygienically because they were made from washable linen."  At the Paris Exhibition in 1900 (Exposition Universelle), Heal's exhibited a pair of oak bedsteads with the "covers and hangings of Haslemere 'Peasant Tapestries'" (Parry, 2005).  
Godfrey Blount bedcovers and hangings, exhibited by Heal's at 1900 Paris Exhibition,
 Parry, Linda, 
Textiles of the Arts & Crafts Movement, Thames & Hudson, 2005
In 1897 the Artist (vol. XX) published a picture of an oak bedstead designed by Ethel Blount with tapestries designed by Godfrey Blount.  The similarity between the tree and bird design in this picture and the Victoria and Albert Museum's hanging is striking.  In later years there is no mention of beds being made by the Peasant Arts Industries. 

Oak bedstead designed by Ethel Blount, head, foot and quilt peasant tapestry
designed by Godfrey Blount from
The Artist, November 1897
The Godfrey Blount tapestry held by the Haslemere Educational Museum is a bed hanging donated by Mrs Helena Gertrude King's (Joseph King's second wife's) housekeeper, Mrs Tuffs in 1999.

Godfrey Blount Drapery.
Reproduced courtesy of Haslemere Educational Museum

Presumably the Victoria and Albert Museum's hanging at 210cm x 180cm would be too big to have formed a headboard, but perhaps it could have been for a bedspread?  Or maybe it was just designed for a hanging.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

The V&A's Peasant Industries panel c.1900

Having recently read Linda Parry's excellent Textiles of the Arts & Crafts Movement (Thames & Hudson, 2005), I have been looking at what the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) call The Spies, more closely.  Confusingly both of the V&A's Godfrey Blount pieces are called The Spies in various literature.

Blount, Godfrey, The Spies, c.1900 at the Victoria & Albert Museum

The V&A describe the panel as representing "a biblical story in which spies were sent to Canaan to look for the Promised Land and came back laden with huge grapes".  The lettering at the bottom of the panel reads "Confortamini et afferte nobis de fructibus terræ" which is taken from The Old Testament's Book of Numbers 13:21.  Having read the passage from the bible this sheds light onto the items in the panel.
Detail from Blount, Godfrey, The Spies, c.1900

The story describes God telling Moses to "send men to view the land of Chanaan, which I will give to the children of Israel, one of every tribe, of the rulers.  Moses did what the Lord had commanded, sending from the desert of Pharan, principal men...And Moses sent them to view that land of Chanaan, and said to them: Go you up by the south side. And when you shall come to the mountains, view the land, of what sort it is, and the people that are the inhabitants thereof, whether they be strong or weak: few in number or many:  The land itself, whether it be good or bad: what manner of cities, walled or without walls: The ground, fat or barren, woody or without trees. Be of good courage, and bring us of the fruits of the land." (New Advent Bible)
Detail from Blount, Godfrey, The Spies, c.1900

"Confortamini et afferte nobis de fructibus terræ" translates as "Be of good courage, and bring us the fruits of the land".

The story continues "Now it was the time when the firstripe grapes are fit to be eaten. And when they had gone up, they viewed the land from the desert of Sin, unto Rohob as you enter into Emath.  And they went up at the south side, and came to Hebron, where were Achiman and Sisai and Tholmai the sons of Enac. For Hebron was built seven years before Tanis the city of Egypt.  And forward as far as the torrent of the cluster of grapes, they cut off a branch with its cluster of grapes, which two men carried upon a lever. They took also of the pomegranates and of the figs of that place: Which was called Nehelescol, that is to say, the torrent of the cluster of grapes, because from thence the children of Israel had carried a cluster of grapes.  And they that went to spy out the land returned after forty days, having gone round all the country, and came to Moses and Aaron and to all the assembly of the children of Israel to the desert of Pharan, which is in Cades. And speaking to them and to all the multitude, they showed them the fruits of the land:  And they related and said: We came into the land to which you sent us, which in very deed flows with milk and honey as may be known by these fruits."
Detail from Blount, Godfrey, The Spies, c.1900

Hence we have an enormous cluster of grapes being carried by two men upon a lever.  The man on the left is carrying figs and on the right pomegranates.  There is no mention of the pineapple in this section of the bible!  It had sounded like this was one of a number of panels illustrating a story, if so, I can only think that the other panels would be illustrating different bible stories, as this panel seems to encapsulate the most illustrative element of Numbers 13.
Detail from Blount, Godfrey, The Spies, c.1900

Detail from Blount, Godfrey,
The Spies, c.1900
The V&A have told me that this panel "was given to the V&A as a gift from a Mrs. Joseph King in 1953", this would have been upon Joseph King's death.  Presumably the panel was a gift from King's brother and sister-in-law, Godfrey and Ethel Blount. Perhaps the panel was actually a gift to King's first wife, Maude Egerton King, Ethel's sister.  The date of the panel's creation was such an important time for the creation of the Peasant Arts movement with the Kings and the Blounts developing their workshops, at the height of the Arts and Craft interest in the Haslemere peasant workshops.  It is interesting that the panel was given to the V&A, and not to Haslemere Educational Museum with whom Joseph King had such a long relationship through his curatorship.

Ethel's Dolls

A final post for a while on toys!  It is poignant, that now after reading Ethel's book Gifts of St. Nicholas I am reminded of discovering a painting last December of one of the younger Hine sisters, by their elder sister Esther Hine, and that I had guessed that the painting was of Ethel.  The girl is playing with a doll.  Ethel would have been 8 years old at the time of the painting.

Esther Hine, Interior of Hine Family House, 1872
Some years after playing with her doll in the Hine family home, Ethel mused “Toys are not real to children.  The child loves her doll, will work for it, is proud of it, and yet knows all the while that it is a doll, and no baby.  To the cynic who says that at heart every woman is a rake I would assert that, at her heart’s heart, every woman is a Madonna, and capable of the devotion that asks for no visible or material return.  The truest motherhood is the spiritual motherhood, and the woman who perceives and adores the mystery of Incarnation is the true mother, though she may have no physical children to rise up and call her blessed…the child who understands this and lavishes a passion of tenderness on a rag doll in a tattered shawl, is a Madonna in bud.” (Gifts of St. Nicholas)


Whilst going through a whole 'box' of toys, Ethel goes on to describe "This next is a sacred thing - a doll.  In shape it is like a half ninepin cut vertically; it has black hair, a flushed complexion, blue eyes and a scarlet body; no more features, and no limbs at all! Ah, but this poor chip of wood, this irreducible minimum of human similitude, comes from a land where babes, wrapped in swaddling bands, have no visible limbs, and are little more than human tadpoles to look at, all heads and tails.

I have many dolls here, but there is one type which has no type in my little pantheon.  I refer to "the best doll," that object which is no real doll at all.  It is a monstrosity, the invention of governesses and nurses and other people who have shut the door on that other world of which we were speaking just now.  The true child could no more have a “best doll,” which came out in fine clothes on “treat days” and lived otherwise in a drawer in silver-papered retirement, than a mother could have a “best baby” and treat it in the same way.  No, these things with features flattened by use and affection, these limbless objects with benign faces in quaint dresses made by children’s hands, these are the real things which shared life and experience with their owners, and are frankly symbolic. Symbolic to the child, never real.  See, this gentle-faced, limbless, old wooden image, dressed in a fashion which reflects the mode of bygone decades, came home to her little owner, many years ago, in fullest possession of legs and arms.  But it was not be for long.  The little possessor retired to a corner and twisted off the limbs, and then, and then only, felt that she could love her.  The same hands that twisted off the excrescences sewed clothes for the remaining portion, and cherished it with tenderness for ever after.  There is more poetry than prose here, of a surety.

I rejoice to think of the child for whom this next doll was made; she must have had a truly rustic soul to appreciate this little wooden thing with arms akimbo, crimson skirt and ornate apron, and a large green wooden bonnet." (Blount, Ethel, Gifts of St. Nicholas)
All illustrations by Ethel Blount from
Gifts of St Nicholas: A Study of Toys

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Assorted Toys from the John Ruskin School

Ethel Blount describes a number of toys in Gifts of St Nicholas which must surely have been produced by the John Ruskin School.  Below are a number of them.

“This “warship” again, with sails of figured paper and a row of marines who stand at “attention” on her deck, has green wheels to move on instead of waves

...that Cracker, with scarlet coat and vast jaws which open and shut as you raise his tail-coat

...The Ark itself must have a wavy, red-tiled roof with dove and olive branch painted on it; Noah and family must be clad in robes of yellow, purple, and magenta, and the beasts be grey or brown as fancy suggests.  In toys shape is important but colour quite essential.

...this cousin of Dobbin’s, who has large blue and red spots to do duty for dappling on flank and neck

...Shall we go with this line of solemn geese, who quiver on their wires as they go, “schnattering,” before their little herd?  They have come from the land of “once upon a time,” and are traveling to the England of “some day.”  Shall we go with them?"

Friday, 3 June 2011

More of Ethel's Toys

Ethel Blount has so much to say on toys in Gifts of St. Nicholas and with many a toy underfoot myself I have found her writing on the subject fascinating.  It is such a shame that seemingly none of the toys made by the John Ruskin School (and which presumably Ethel is mostly describing in her writing and drawings) have survived:  

"The toys of early years must be coloured and trimmed.  A cricket ball has to look real, and so wears a sober murrey dress; but who would want a drab shuttlecock?  No, that child of earth and air is gay with a red velvet body a cincture of gold braid, and a glory of blue and white feathers..."Let’s pretend" covers all discrepancies; it is childhood’s own frmula to which every child responds…One is sometimes told of boy or girl who does not like fairy tales!  That cannot be.  Such a child would be a monster, an impossibility.  It is the mother or nurse who does not like fairy tales or does not know how to tell them aright.

Here is another cart, a musical one, which goes tink-a-tink, tink-a-tink as it is drawn along.  It is a cart to fill with one’s treasures, and give them a ride.  Here, Pussy, sitting on your squeaker, get in, and make room for this woolly lamb on rockers!  Here, Punch, with your grinning face, into that corner with you, and be polite to this well-brought-up, flat-packed, wooden lady with the rakish feather in her hat!  Now for the whip with the whistle in the handle – and then good Dobbin with black mane, and the red paper star blazing on his faithful breast, shall draw us half round the universe and all round the room."

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