Virginia Barton

Art for art’s sake, art for God’s sake

 

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Catholic Herald, 14 April 1989

 

img-909171151-0001The picture accompanying the Chronicle this week shows a stone sculpture in my parish church. It is the work of Anthony Foster, a pupil of Eric Gill. As you can see it is the crucified Christ, portrayed with this difference – everything lives: tree, leaves and springing figure. The influence of the teacher is very clear.

Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of Eric Gill continues to make waves. Not the breakers associated with The Satanic Verses, but more than a polite ripple. I have read neither, but must be aware of succumbing to the notion that I have – simply because I’ve read so much about them!

Quite one of the best reflections on Gill, man and artist, was written by Bernard Levin in the Times (March 13). Unfortunately there is insufficient space here to quote from it at length, but an sae to the Times would no doubt secure you a copy if you missed it. It’s vintage Levin. Galling too – he said everything one would have liked to have said oneself, only better!

Nearly half of Mr Levin’s article is a lengthy scold. The object of his perceptive dissection is the review of the Gill biography published in the Tablet.

 

Levin legs

Now I know that the Tablet has a fine reputation for attracting distinguished contributions to its book and other pages. Nonetheless I am intrigued to discover that Mr Levin is a Tablet reader. I hope he reads the Catholic Herald as well.

The very first book I reviewed for this newspaper was by Bernard Levin. I fear I was rather dismissive of his legs. The book was Hannibal’s Footsteps. In it the author fleetingly refers to “brushing the dust off a box marked Transubstantiation” or words to that effect.

The intention was obviously to take the lid off the subject at some future date. To speculate on Mr Levin’s spiritual life would be even ruder than discussing his legs. But now that I know he reads the Tablet, I can’t help wondering if he’s got his duster out yet?

His observations on Transubstantiation would be at least as interesting as his views on flawed human-beings, or “tout pardonner monocular morality”. 1 hope he will choose to reveal all.

 

No platitude

Last November’s issue of the Chesterton Review contains several illustrations of Gill’s work, including a charming Madonna, knitting. (An aside: what I dislike about Gill’s figures is that they are all so bendy; as if the skeleton was not bones but pipe-cleaners).

The Review bubbles with the excitement of a new Chesterton “find”. Peter Stanford wrote about it in the Catholic Herald last September but 1 will remind you that the find is an obscure book by Holbrook Jackson, published in 1911, called Platitudes in the Making. The copy that turned up in the possession of an American in Paris is Chesterton’s own.

What makes it so remarkable is that GK annotated every Platitude with aphorisms in his own hand and inimitable style. Which transforms a clever set of precepts into a brand-new example of Chestertonian wit and insight.

More than 50 years have passed since the great writer’s death and one might have thought that the gold mine was exhausted. Far from it. Every issue of the quarterly Review unveils some fresh angle, or publishes new material either by, or associated with, Chesterton and his circle.

Every issue has about 150 pages of first-rate material beautifully printed on creamy paper. At £3 a copy, I would suggest, it is far better value than most of the porridge-coloured paperbacks of similar price that one flips through at the railway station.

 

Ninety boots

GK must have been one of the most prolific writers ever: words flooded from his pen. But the aphorisms in the Holbrook Jackson book are succinct, almost spare. GK’s extraordinary ability to tease out yet another idea from a seemingly cut-and-dried sentence is well illustrated in this example. Jackson writes: “Familiarity breeds not contempt, but indifference”. Chesterton notes, in his bold hand and green pencil; “but can breed surprise, try saying ‘Boots’ ninety times”. See what I mean?

The editor of the Review, Fr Ian Boyd CSB, is now preparing a facsimile edition. Can’t wait.

 

Sobell’s skills

Waited rather too long to view an unusual Exhibition the other day – dismantling was about to begin. It was an exhibition of art and craft by the patients and staff at Sir Michael Sobell House in Oxford. Many of you will know that Sobell Houses provide care, treatment and support for the terminally ill. The house in Oxford was built in 1976. It provides accommodation for 25 in-patients, and day centre facilities for 12-15 out-patients, five days a week.

That bald outline gives no ideal of the real spirit of the place. Loving, individual care is the hallmark of the work there. The low-level building of stone and timber is set in its own garden on the side of a hill. A feeling of intimacy has not been sacrificed in the interests of efficiency.

The exhibition was held in the newly-opened study centre. Here Sobell House’s skills in pain and symptom control are passed on to medical and nursing staff from Britain and many other countries around the world. Diana Rivers showed me the exhibits. She is an occupational therapist and a fine advertisement for the sort of staff Sobell House attracts.

The catalogue of works on show opened with the words of a patient: “Just because you have been diagnosed terminally ill, you don’t have to stop being creative”. This was amply demonstrated.

There were paintings, collages, metalware and embroidery. A splendid dolls house, made by one of the many volunteer workers, was flanked by a beautiful quilt. There were poems, photographs, knitwear and robust wooden toys.

A tapestry Tree of Life, stitched by a patient, perhaps exemplified best the positive atmosphere that fills Sobell House. Many of the exhibits were made in the Day Centre. Here, apart from creative pursuits, the patients can visit the hairdresser, receive treatment, enjoy a good lunch or a concert, or simply nap in peace and quiet.

It’s a wonderfully tranquil place. I only wish it could be multiplied a thousand-fold to include not just the terminally but also the terminally old.

 

Tokyo toys

The wooden toys at Sobell House would provide hours of happy play anywhere. Their robust construction makes them very suitable for a toy library. On the other side of the globe, in probably the most expensive city in the world, a free toy library has just opened in Tokyo’s baptist church.

“Free” and “play” are not words one immediately associates with a capital where nearly everything costs thousands of yen and work is the norm. Even primary school children are competitively studious. The toy library is run by Tokyo International Learning Community. TILC opened a school in 1987 for children with special needs: and a pre-school development programme for handicapped children.

Play is a well-recognised area of child learning, and for handicapped children in particular, the benefits of special, therapeutic toys are very rewarding. The toy library keeps a selection of these, and other toys, for any child aged 0-6 to borrow free of charge.

It is an ideal place for children – and parents, Japanese and foreign – to meet and swop ideas. They might extend the scheme to include lending prams, playpens, pushchairs and cots. Does any group do this over here I wonder?

Thirty years ago you could hire a pram for a few shillings a week; now not only are there no pram shops, the word itself has been edged out in favour of buggy or stroller.

One nagging doubt about a toy library; what happens if Junior absolutely refuses to give back that super wooden train he borrowed?

 

 

 

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