Thursday, 29 November 2012

GAVIN PARKINSON | Festival, or, First and Last of England


Festival, or, First and Last of England

 Written for the current Dominic Shepherd one person exhibition Jerusalem

‘What is now proved was once, only imagin’d.’
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c. 1790)
After the Olympics and in advance of Scottish independence (probably), we English are looking at England again: the things we thought and think it was; what we believe it became; what its futures might be. What constitutes England today? The question is instantly intimidating; it seems mired in difficulties to do with sentimentality, modernity, economics, and politics. In fact, it is all ‘politics’ of a kind: our dying, revived, beloved (of some) folk traditions might be just the creation of an affluent middle class (the Fakesong argument);[1] modern globalism might not allow space for independent, local, national cultures, which perhaps engender nationalism, parochialism, and racism anyway (the ‘little England’ argument);[2] capitalist consumerism and the mania for profit potentially crushes the life out of local events and rituals, reducing them to a set of saleable clichés by the very act of turning them into ‘culture’ (what could be more consumable?).[3] Might there be a set of activities and even a way of living – here in England and even in London – that is historically resonant and symbolically meaningful, permanent and transferable to a new generation yet carrying scope for development, pleasurable for all and not for profit, respected, admired by and inclusive of the non-English? Are we ready or willing, at the very least, to call ourselves English not British and feel that identification has some meaning beyond stereotypes? What does ‘England’ mean today? Is it – was it always – an illusion?

Well, yes: although no one would doubt that something like a geographical entity called ‘England’ exists (even though that, of course, was created by man not God), how ‘England’ signifies to the mind when the word is uttered is bound to be illusory in the sense of ‘not real,’ because it is a thing of the imagination and alters between individuals here and abroad. Say it to yourself and see what comes to mind. For England to mean something and not just ‘not America’ or ‘not France’ or ‘no foreigners’ or not whatever – even though it is precisely difference that we are getting at here: spirited yet cordial and civil independence – it is necessary to conjure a past of England that has some continuity today. This is not an academic or ‘cultural’ exercise, carried out to develop a career or to fill up the weekend. It is an act of daily pleasure, partly to do with taking in whatever buildings, weather, poetry, edgelands, dance, people, reservoirs, streets, music, beaches, suburbs, paintings, woodlands are available, and deciding what they mean here and now in England. It is an exercise of the imagination.[4]

The tondo or circular format for painting speaks directly towards certain cyclical ideas that have been a feature of life in England (and elsewhere in a different garb – the word derives from Italian) as long as historical memory. The most obvious is the cycle of the year, and the importance of regular rituals and festivals that once punctuated them. These helped people under often difficult conditions to alleviate austerity – the arrival of Christmas in the bleak midwinter being the obvious one, decked with holly, ivy, and rosemary to compensate for the lack of greenery – and rationalize and sustain passage through the seasons.[5] The form is reflected directly in the events themselves such as the dance around the Maypole and in circles of stones and ceremonial and occultist circles.

Dominic Shepherd’s use of the tondo for his painting The Well seems directly inspired by such symbolism, but it receives an extra spin of the wheel by means of its multiple references to the English past (the so-called ‘well of history’). These are looked down and back upon like liquefied, ungraspable events, here, though in evoking the incomplete past in the mind’s eye, notice that we are also looking in upon ourselves. Shepherd’s remark on history in The Well seems to be that it is analogous to the activity of the seer or medium seeking the future by making sense of the initially indistinct figures in a crystal ball. We divine the future by plumbing our own memories, biographical and historical; we look into the past by looking into ourselves and vice versa so that past and present, personal and collective, up or down (the tondo having neither) cease to be distinct. The circular form of The Well and the fluid and watery rendering of its paint also recall the connected activity of divination through reading tealeaves or coffee grounds.

Additionally, the tondo calls up a temporality that is not linearly progressivist, as has been the norm in the West from Renaissance humanism through to Enlightenment optimism and nineteenth century positivism, to subsequent theological, philosophical, and economic systems, scientific theories, and political positions that insist upon a history of the advancement of civilization as a backdrop and justification for aspiratory, accumulative, utilitarian ends.[6] Rather, the chronology that sections temporality into a past, present, and future is challenged by utopian ideas, which seek instead a Golden Age, Arcadia, or pastoral that exists through cyclical time. Working to overlap and interleave individuals, places, and events supposedly temporally distant, cyclical time aims at ‘creating connections to the past, establishing familial and locational ties,’ in Shepherd’s words.

His rejection of materialist progressivism and embrace of cyclical time and ritual gives onto an iconography of people involved in seasonal chores and bucolic undertakings in Shepherd’s paintings: ‘chopping wood, harvesting, riding horses, burning effigies, hanging out at festivals’ as he says. Beyond this, the collapse of linear time that brought about paintings like The Family allows encounters between Guy Fawkes and the Incredible String Band, Romantic poets and Morris Dancers, witches and hippies, William Blake and Pearly Kings and Queens, the New Model Army and the radical movements of the sixties, and, well, Levellers and the Levellers, at a metaphorical banquet or feast; or perhaps, better, a festival, in which the first and last of England meet in the imagination – where Shepherd himself meets his own predecessors Blake and Richard Dadd – though who is first and who last is impossible to say, depending always on the next spin of the tireless tondo.
Gavin Parkinson
5 November 2012

[1] Dave Harker, Fakesong: The Manufacture of British Folksong, 1700 to the Present Day, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1985; Bob Pegg, Folk, London: Wildwood House, 1976.
[2] Mark Perryman, Imagined Nation: England After Britain, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2008, 86-139.
[3] For a recent critique of the politics and rhetoric of ‘economic growth,’ see Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, How Much is Enough? The Love of Money and the Case for the Good Life, London: Allen Lane, 2012.
[4] For a meditation on England’s overlooked urban corners, see Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, London: Jonathan Cape, 2011.
[5] See Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
[6] For an analysis of some fatal consequences of progress, see Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress, Edinburgh: Canongate, 2005.

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