Wednesday, 27 June 2007

The Mass of St Giles -- The Master of St Giles

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What a thing! And what a thing that I should see it!

There’s the king, stuttering and sighing – can’t get the words, can’t say ‘Forgive me, Father.’ And down comes… well, I’d have hardly believed it if I hadn’t seen it.

Of course, we were all dying to know what the king’s sin was – but Abbot Giles read the note, nodded once and pronounced the king forgiven. Not a smile at the king, not a glance at someone in the congregation, not a gasp at an unspeakable deed. Just a nod, and a piece of bread and a sip of wine for the king.

If I had ever imagined such a thing might happen, I would expect a roll of thunder, some flames, maybe a voice. I caught sight of the note – just from behind, where the ink had smudged through the paper. It was just an ordinary page as I might use to reckon my accounts. The Hand of God was unremarkable, too – tall black letters carefully formed as if scribed by a diligent clerk.

I couldn’t see that it said: I suppose some things are secret between kings, abbots and God.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

The Capel Family -- Cornelius Johnson

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I am looking at the artist, whom we called Master Cornelius – I remember him in his smock peering round his picture to look at us. Sometimes he would race forwards to look closely a detail on our clothes and then he scuttled back like a mouse heading for its hole.

Most of the time, there was nothing to see however, because the canvas was in the way. Tiz is giving Baby a rose, so she’s watching him. I don’t know what sort of rose it is – I think perhaps Master Cornelius must have drawn it from memory, because it doesn’t look like any variety I know.

Charles is happy because Dad is holding him. I remember Dad making a joke about how he had to hold Charlie. If he let go, Charlie would wriggle so much that Master Cornelius would paint three of him.

Arthur on the edge has his hand on Dad’s chair. It looks like Dad is so cross with him that he is not looking at him, but he’s not.

Mama was so proud of this picture. She used to show people and tell them that Master Cornelius – she called him Master Cornelis van Ceulen Janssens – that Master Cornelis van Ceulen Janssens himself, the Dutch painter, had made this portrait in exactly the way he made the portraits of the King’s (this was King Charles) children, with the curtain and bit of landscape in the background. ‘And do you know,’ I once heard her say ‘he told me twice that Princess Mary was not one iota prettier than my own Mary.’

Of course, children aren’t supposed to hear things like that, but I couldn’t help feeling pleased with myself.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

A Concert -- Lorenzo Costa

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At first we arranged ourselves in the middle of the room in our usual semi-circle, but Himself said: ‘No, no, I need you all facing me. Stand behind this table… there we are.’

Luca said: ‘But we need to see each…’

‘Never mind, never mind. I don’t care what it sounds like.’

We started with The Castle of Fair Welcome. Then there was silence apart from Himself scratching away. Then he looked round the board and said: ‘Carry on, don’t stop now.’

So I glanced at Luca and Servio glanced at me and I said: ‘The Garden of Zephyrus?’ It’s a woman’s song – one for me only. Servio joins in the chorus, and Luca plays the lute and never sings at all.

When it finished, even before the last note had stopped, Himself said: ‘I’d rather you all sung. Makes it easier for me.’

We did Apples on the Water next – it’s a long one, so we thought that would keep him happy. But he said: ‘Young man, can you try to keep your arm still? It is very hard for me to see how your hand lies if you keep moving.’

Servio tried to stop beating time and got lost – Apples has long notes that we all hold for different times. Himself didn’t seem to notice.

So we tried Three Crows, which Servio doesn’t sing. But Himself looked round the board and I stopped singing, and Luca stopped playing.

Himself asked Servio why he wasn’t singing.

‘Sir, I can’t sing and not beat time,’

I added ‘So we’re singing something that Servio doesn’t need to beat time to because he doesn’t sing.’

Himself looked confused, and then said: ‘Very well, carry on.’

We started My Love lies in the Woods, but Himself popped his head round the board again. ‘Not that old dirge. Give me something joyful about goats and flutes and…’ Luca reached for his recorder. ‘No, don’t play the flute,’ the artist said, ‘I’m drawing you on that… that thing with strings.’

‘The lute, sir.’

We thought Goatherd’s Song would be the sort of thing he meant. It made Himself send the boy grinding colours in the corner out on an errand to another part of the house.

We were about to start The Golden Ass, when Himself spoke to us again. ‘You in the middle with the… the…’

‘Lute, sir.’

‘You with the lute. What’s your name?’

‘Luca, sir.’

‘Luca, why don’t you sing?’

‘I play the lute, sir.’

‘I can see that, but I want you to sing. I need you to be singing. I don’t give a… I don’t care what you sound like.’

So Luca ah-aaa-aah’d along with his playing. He hasn’t wanted to sing much since he was ill last winter. He can’t always hit the notes he wants. I could tell he was unhappy about it – he went very stiff. I put my hand on his shoulder to remind him to soften up. Himself said: ‘That’s a lovely pose, Mistress… Mistress er… don’t move.’

We tried Mother’s Lament which has just has an ‘ahhh ahhh-ah’ part for Luca and Servio. Ah-ah-ahing is easier for Luca. He has no memory for words, but lots of memory for notes. Himself didn’t comment – just kept scratching away.

The next song was Wine is Beautiful. I know that Luca has the words committed to memory because I’ve heard him singing it when he’s… after he’s been appreciating the beauty of wine. It’s about the only time he does sing these days.

Then we did Lovers at the Windows – it’s a duet about a boy and girl in two towers. Luca and I sing… used to sing it before last winter. Luca propped our book open so he could follow the lyrics. Servio’s part has no words – it’s supposed to mimic the swifts swooping around the towers. Then we stopped.

Himself put his head round the board. ‘Keep going. I’m starting to enjoy it. If I could afford it, I would hire you to entertain me while I paint every day.’

‘We’ve done ten songs, sir,’ said Luca. ‘We’re tired, and that’s all you paid us for.’

‘God bless me, ten songs already… you’ve counted that one about the body in the woods that you didn’t finish. Give me one more and we’ll part as friends. What about that lullaby with the boats…’

‘Lullaby with boats… what’s he talking about?’ Luca muttered into my ear.

‘My mother used to sing it to me,’ Himself added, as if that might help. ‘Ships, not boats. With the masts rocking?’

‘Ships … Oh Ships of the Moon! My mother used to sing it to me, too,’ said Luca.

‘I don’t know that one,’ I said. ‘Servio?’

Servio doesn’t remember his mother.

So Luca sang a lullaby for the artist. Himself came right forward and sat on a chair to listen. I saw tears in his eyes. Fancy Luca’s cracked voice bringing someone to tears.

When the song was done, there was that moment of silence, and then the artist said: ‘Thank you very much.’ His face had lost some of its sharpness, but none of the observantness. He said, as if he wasn’t quite sure: ‘Want to see what I’ve done so far? I don’t usually… but you’re not the clients, and I thought since…’

So we filed round the back of the board. And there, among a muddle of scribbles, was us. Luca singing the wine song; Servio being a swift round a tower and me being a lovesick goosegirl floating apples downstream.

‘I look like one of them angels,’ said Servio, touching his curls.

Luca said: ‘You’ve caught milady here just perfectly. It’s like a mirror that reflects back all the good things about her. How can you know her as well as I do?’

I felt a blush rising; and Himself looked pleased. ‘But does it look musical?’

‘Yes,’ said Luca. ‘Yes it does.’

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

The Virgin and Child -- Workshop of Albrecht Dürer

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‘Well it’s not quite what I expected, I must say. I asked for a ruin in a garden, not a building site in a piece of wasteland.

‘I’m not so sure about the iris. I didn’t ask for that, but the artist (not the man himself, one of his assistants) said it was very fashionable.

‘Our Lady is pretty enough – her hair is a marvel. Perhaps the man himself, you know, helped whoever painted it.

‘I’m going to save up and have the man himself to do the landscape through the arch. And perhaps I’ll have him put some carving on the stones – make them look a bit more classical.

‘But I’m glad I got a look at it before it was finished. I actually asked him to put in that cloak to hide the wall. It’s just planks and stakes – see what I mean about the building site? So that cloak was my idea. It does make me feel as if the painting is really mine.’