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Book Review: Matilda: Empress. Queen. Warrior by Catherine Hanley

July 6, 2021
Front cover image

Catherine Hanley has written an interesting and highly readable re-evaluation of Matilda’s life which does much to tackle to inherent double-standards and unduly critical scholarship which has accumulated over the centuries since she fought for her place in the English royal succession.

Matilda was born into a turbulent age; daughter of an autocratic and ruthlessly determined king who displaced and imprisoned his older brother to seize the throne and during a period of English history where being at the right place at the right time seemed more likely to win you a crown than the laws of primogeniture.

Much of her life was decided for her by others – her father sent her across the sea to be married to the Holy Roman Emperor at just eight years of age; ensuring that she would very see her mother or brother again and having spent her whole adult life in Germany, had her recalled to England after her husband’s death and uprooted from her adopted culture, language and significant personal authority only to bend her to his will once more in the form of another arranged marriage to a teenager of lesser status. Matilda was expected to yield to his wishes and she complied under pressure but in the hope of becoming his elected heir and successor to the throne.

The loss of Matilda’s younger brother, William Aethling in the White Ship disaster had propelled Matilda forward from Countess of Anjou to prospective royal heir as all King Henry’s other sons were illegitimate. Although William the Conqueror had also been famously illegitimate, this seems to have become more of a bar to succession than being female at this point. Robert of Gloucester proved to be exceptionally loyal to his half-sister and her claim and there never seemed to be any serious consideration that he might become king anymore than his other illegitimate siblings.

Although the succession was fluid during this period and there was room for an opportunistic candidate to slip past the front-runner, Henry I did compel the barons to swear an oath of loyalty to Matilda, as his chosen heir. He might have been better placed if he had had her crowned during his life time as the French Capetian kings preferred to do as oath swearing didn’t seem to count for much when it came to honouring those obligations and before Matilda had even heard of her father’s death, she was supplanted in much the same way as Robert Curthose had been in the previous generation by her cousin Stephen of Blois.

King Stephen of Blois

Much has been made of her pregnancy and gender; of her lack of authority and slow reaction to events when Stephen rushed to be crowned, yet Robert Curthose had been returning from crusade and on honeymoon when he was usurped by her father. The divide of the English Channel had played a highly significant part in the course of events in the preceding period of English history and it did so again in this case; slowing the dissemination of news and hampering response times and further, despite the poor timing of the pregnancy and birth, Matilda was in the process of creating another male heir who would, if anything, strengthen her hand in the long-term.

Her father’s choice of husband has been used as another criticism of Matilda’s candidacy and yet she made the best of the situation that was handed to her. Geoffrey of Anjou was certainly not her preferred choice of spouse. He was almost a generation younger than her, immediately alienated her father and put her in an invidious position, caught between loyalty to her father and her husband and was of far less exalted status than her first husband. Their marriage floundered and she tried to break away from his control but was forced to return to her wifely duties and get male heirs, which she accomplished far more easily than her own father had managed. Matilda has been criticised for the rift that Geoffrey created with her father in his final years, yet it was none of her making and she tried to act in the traditional and accepted female role of intercessor between them. Henry made his own problems here by compelling her to join with Geoffrey and failing to see that he would flex his muscles once elevated by the marriage.

Henry also seems to have over-looked how the Anglo-Norman barons would view Matilda’s husband and the role he might play as consort to her once she was Queen of England thus creating another impediment to the smooth transition of the succession which seems at odds with his usually considered and cunning approach to statecraft. Other than providing Matilda with male heirs, Geoffrey seems to have been more of a hindrance to her ambitions than a helpmate and showed little interest in her campaign to assert her claim to the English throne; preferring to carve out an expanded role for himself in Anjou and Normandy where he achieved much military success and proved himself to be a very competent political operator.

So, Matilda reached the crisis moment of her life impeded by the male relatives around her who should have assisted her, except for her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester who rallied to her cause and was to be a loyal and steadfast supporter for the rest of his life.

When Matilda finally sailed for England, she had most of the cards stacked against her. Stephen was a newly anointed king. He held the treasury and the ports. Although he was not ‘born in the purple’ like Matilda had been, he had enough of the Conqueror’s blood in his veins to be a plausible Norman monarch and he was a proven warrior who could fight in the field. In comparison, Matilda was a Countess, she was lacking in funds and soldiers, dependent on a few relatives for support to gain a toehold on English soil and female.

However, Matilda used gender to her advantage from the off-set. Claiming that she was merely visiting her step-mother, she was able to land at Arundel and stay initially with the Queen Dowager, Adeliza of Louvain and her husband and use her gender to prevent Stephen from forcibly seizing her into his custody. He made the decision to allow her to join her half-brother, granting her safe passage through his lands. It is hard to imagine a similar encounter if William Clito, the son of Robert Curthose, had claimed to be ‘just a house guest’ returning to England in the hopes of claiming his place in the royal succession.

Now Matilda was in England, re-united with her greatest supporter and safe in the heartland of his powerbase and in a position to strike out at Stephen who was already torn in several directions trying to put down small scale rebellions.

The problem for both Matilda and Stephen and even more so for the people of England who were about to become embroiled in the long-drawn out agony of the Anarchy was that they were so evenly matched. Neither side could strike the killer blow and establish their authority to rule. Both suffered defeats and sudden reversals of fortune. Matilda managed to win over enough support to raise an army but Stephen countered her with his own supporting barons and their forces. Matilda captured Stephen and appeared to be in the ascendant then had to release him in a exchange for Robert of Gloucester who she could not continue to fight without. Matilda issued charters and minted coins, held councils and demanded fealty; Stephen did the same and all the while England bled with lawlessness and famine and the people suffered with no end in sight.

Matilda was very nearly almost crowned at Westminster but was driven out by a force of Londoners who remained loyal to Stephen, she suffered defeat and rout and was in turn cornered at Oxford but managed a daring escape over the frozen river with a few supporters and got away to safety yet again.

Matilda’s escape from Oxford Castle

Both were worn down by their long battle for control and ultimately time decided the issue where force of arms and oaths and military manoeuvring had not. Despite having an adult male heir to succeed him, Stephen lost his son Eustace which opened up the possibility of a compromise deal whereby Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress would become king after Stephen’s death.

Matilda had to face the bitter reality that she would never be recognised as Queen but could still exercise authority through her young son and Henry FitzEmpress relied on her advice and experience and her diplomatic skills during the early phase of his adulthood. She was to become a model for his own consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine of how a royal woman could administer huge tracts of land and act as a regent for a male relative, which medieval scholars and historians seemed to have no issue with; rather than appearing to rule her territories in her own right.

This is the crux of the issue concerning how Matilda was viewed in her own times and how, in turn, she has been evaluated ever since. Medieval men simply could not accept that a woman could rule in her own right. If she raised armies, laid sieges and defended against them, instructed scorched earth campaigns or instigated high-level diplomacy in the name of a male relative, they generally approved and praised her actions but as soon as she acted in her own name and sought to rule, then the same qualities they praised in a regent were condemned as unnatural and arrogant.

The ‘Gesta Stephani’ praises Stephen’s consort, Matilda of Boulogne for her rigorous actions in defence of her husband but castigated Matilda for exactly the same response to defending her own claims. There is a glaringly substantial double-standard at work here.

Queen Melisande of Jerusalem

The two contemporary female rulers in Christendom, Urracca of Leon and Melisande of Jerusalem were both compelled to marry so that their husbands could take nominal control as figureheads for their rule. They were urged to ‘act like men’ yet hampered from exercising full command and their personal achievements were veiled or actively subsumed in their husband’s actions.

Queen Urracca

Matilda’s training in Germany gave her vast experience of diplomacy and the exercise of power. Her first husband had been keen to train her for governance and entrusted her with huge authority when she was in her teenage years, acting as his regent in Italy. She had lived as an Empress and active consort to the most powerful man in Europe. She had travelled very widely and experienced the papal court in Rome; she had administered lands, governed and issued charters and been a patron and benefactor of the church. She had passed through the rigours of childbirth to ensure three healthy male heirs and achieved military victories which any contemporary male would have been praised for, yet she has been presented to posterity as an arrogant woman who was unsuited to rule England and failed in her attempts to oust the elected king.

I feel that Hanley is correct in her assessment that Matilda has been unfairly criticised and judged in away that her male contemporaries were not and that she is still suffering from those biased sources in the C21st. Whilst she was not without fault and clearly made errors of judgement, she did retain the loyal support of several key figures and ultimately she ensured that her direct bloodline would rule England for the next three centuries. England would have been far better off under her governance than it was under Stephen, despite being a very likeable personality. He would have made a very good lord under Matilda’s Queenship if he had not made the grab for power without having the necessary qualities to make a good king.

There could have been a more in-depth discussion about Matilda’s decision not to withdraw from Winchester when her forces came under attack from Stephen’s and also of why she refused to grant Eustace his estates which has been argued to have weakened her support from some of the barons.

In conclusion, I enjoyed reading this reassessment and would recommend Hanley’s biography which is well-researched and accessible. There is certainly room for more biographies of medieval women and I would like to read more about Stephen’s queen, Matilda of Boulogne, and think a dual assessment of both Matilda’s would be an interesting idea.

Book Review: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

June 22, 2021
The Midnight Library

Are we living our best lives? If we could choose another version of reality and hop into that other us, would we be happier or more fulfilled or successful or are we ultimately bound to continue in the life we have now and strive to make it into our best possible existence?

Living, as we do, in an age of self-obsession and introspective self-assessment; it isn’t hard to see why this book has received a lot of media coverage and has been chosen for so many book club lists recently. Lockdown forced many of us to re-evaluate where we are and what we do and whether we were happy with our lot or secretly craving another way of existing. There is also a huge mental health ‘crisis’ or awakening depending on your viewpoint sweeping through society which inter-connects with the themes in this book and makes it an interesting springboard for wider discussion.

Nora, the protagonist, is about to kill herself because her life seems devoid of anything worth living for. Between life and death, she discovers a library in her mind; stocked with an infinite number of books which represent all the other versions of herself that she could have been depending on the choices she made and all the other lives she could have lived in parallel realities.

Guided by her old school librarian, Mrs Elm, she must confront the ‘Book of Regrets’ which she has filled up during the course of her first thirty-five years and then by a process of experiencing the alternative realities in each book, she must learn to re-evaluate her regrets and find her best life before time runs out.

Nora’s regrets weigh her down to the point of atrophy because she has spent a lot of time alone or in dysfunctional relationships and has interpreted other people’s reactions as a judgement on her own abilities or worth – a sentiment that many of us can relate to! However, In order to really engage with Nora’s angst, we need to empathise with her but her character is also a cipher for exploring our own internal world. In many ways she is ‘Curley’s Wife’ in ‘Of Mice and Men – a plot device rather than a character and that can make it hard to engage with her enough care about the ultimate outcome of the storyline.

At some point, whilst reading Nora’s stream of consciousness, the reader will think ‘Is it really that bad?’ Nora’s life hasn’t been ravaged by war or destroyed by disease. She had a controlling parent who died when she was still very young so she was never able to resolve her relationship with them and suffered the usual losses that most of us encounter through our journey. Her long-term boyfriend turned out to be self-obsessed and indifferent to her own personal journey; her brother drifted away from her and her early dreams of either becoming an Olympic swimming champion or member of a rock band dissolved, as most people’s do, into the mundanity of earning a crust to keep a roof over our heads.

Perhaps Nora is symbolic of the faint ‘dis-ease’ of modern life – a nebulous unhappiness about what we might have achieved, given that we aren’t fighting the French in a hundred years war of attrition or facing famine because our crops failed again. We are burdened with ‘glorious purpose’, as Loki might say, but purpose to achieve what exactly?

Fame, fortune, financial security? To raise a family that stays together and nurture the next generation to become mentally resilient, compassionate, eco-friendly and productive units in society? Women, in particular, are told we can ‘have it all’ by the media yet for so many of us, there is a void when we try to fill that ‘ALL’ shaped box with something meaningful because we are overloaded and fatigued by the 24/7 rolling life that babbles away around us along with the relentless doom-filled news channel.

Apathy is as much a by-product of sensory and emotional overload as under-stimulation. Matt Haig asks us to empathise with Nora’s emptiness yet for many of us, her lifestyle feels full of room for the things we can’t do. Loneliness is crushing but so is the frantic struggle to balance too many duties and responsibilities and she can’t even make a one-hour a week piano lesson or get to her job on time when she’s only looking after a cat (badly, as it turns out).

The ‘Quantum Leap’ jumping between lives is interesting up to a point – here she is successful in her career but driven and lonely; here she is living her partner’s dream rather than her own or experiencing quasi-motherhood and beginning to feel what it might be like to care more about another living soul than herself but it starts to become rather predictable and repetitive – just like life – when you see that there are always downsides to every existence. You get fame but not personal fulfilment; you get money but no time to enjoy it or a family but there’s still a hole at the heart of you that they can’t fill.

Nora’s problem is that she takes herself into each new life – not the person she is in that other reality but just the same person who can’t cope with being alive and so the resolution to the climatic moment when we finally reach it feels rather anti-climatic and unresolved. Ultimately, we are who we are and must make the best of it and it is only through unrelenting toil and incremental personal growth that we can make our own ‘best life’ and aim for contentment.

It remains statistically unlikely that we will win the lottery or marry a film star or write a great novel or any of those other pipe dreams that people nurse to overcome the crushing realisation that when you said you wanted to become an astronaut at school and your teacher nodded, they were just nodding and not endorsing that as a genuine possibility!

The author repeats several times that we do not have to understand how to live, just to live. Experience is the thing rather than theorising about it or bullet journaling it or analysing it. Get in there and get messy while you are still a sentient, living organism that can feel and touch and use your senses to respond to the world. It reminds me of ‘Why Don’t You?’ the 70’s TV show that I used to watch as a bored kid during the holidays – the message was stop watching the show and go outside and do something more interesting instead – a challenging concept to sell to the programme commissioner at the time but if only they had glimpsed the future of childhood where so many hours would be spent creating avatars to act out virtual adventures on screen, they might have run screaming from the studios.

In comparison, the book’s message seems to be, stop the introspective navel-gazing and the psychoanalysis and get on with living while you can, which is of course good advice up to the point when you look back and see that you’ve filled up the void with stuff or experiences or work but still feel empty at your core.

Scientists say that you can fool yourself into feeling happy by smiling because it releases chemical endorphins in the brain that make us feel better. They are experimenting with giving laughing gas to patients suffering from depression because the human body can be fooled into a state of ‘happiness’ via external stimuli. There’s something deeply depressing about that! Like putting a mirror in the Budgie’s cage to prevent it feeling lonely or chewing your meals slowly to stop hunger cravings. I can’t help feeling that if you have to trick yourself into feeling happy that doesn’t say much for human existence which really brings us back to the meaning of life and all that.

Are we here to push our DNA one coil further up the beach before we die or to produce something beautiful that will out-live us? Are we here to make the planet a better place through our efforts or to fight for a cause or a nation or a god or a philosophy? What will any of it count for when our sun implodes and drags the whole universe with it back to the moment of the ‘big bang’ and everything we have ever learnt or made or felt is re-wound to a single point of energy?

Like many philosophical discussions, it’s all been great fun but you’ve come full-circle and still don’t know the answer to the question that was originally posed.

JOLOMO: John Lowrie Morrison

June 5, 2021
Jolomo scottish landscape with passing clouds and croft

Jolomo ‘Dawn Breaks over Isle of Gigha’ oil on canvas 25x46cm (10x16ins) Vivid landscapes saturated with rich colour and dotted with an impression of wild flowers. Passing storm clouds which brood over solitary crofts and distant, dramatic mountains fading into mist with the soft suggestion of a full moon. John Lowrie Morrison or JOLOMO, as he signs his paintings, is one of Scotland’s foremost landscape artists and his new work is always eagerly anticipated by those who have become addicted to his distinctive style and dramatic visual storytelling.

Seascape by Jolomo at Iona House Gallery

Jolomo ‘Big Breakers Mangersta Beach, Isle of Lewis 41x41cm (16x16ins)John’s paintings follow in the tradition of the Scottish Colourists – PeploeFergussonHunter and Cadell who drew inspiration from the revolution in art taking place in Paris in the early C20th and the influence of the Fauves in particular, in order to paint the Scottish landscape in a totally new way. Their use of colour and structure can be seen in John’s daring contrast of primary and complimentary pigments and vivid tones and his compositional framing of architectural and natural forms.  There is also a connection with their gestural approach and instinctive application of pigment and experimentation with colour which makes his work so striking and immediate. The Colourists were brave and sometimes considered ‘shocking’ in their choices and that confidence and fluidity of application is one of John’s great strengths as a painter and an intrinsic part of the appeal of his paintings. Painting directly from nature, absorbing the landscape and re-interpreting it in his own distinctive style; just as the Colourists learned to do from their experiences in France of painting ‘en plein air’, gives an immediacy and creates an emotionally charged response in the viewer.

Mull of Kintyre painting by Jolomo at Iona House Gallery

Jolomo ‘Eveninglight Over the Mull of Kintyre’ oil on canvas 41x41cms (16x16ins) Like the Colourists, John revels in the beauty of painting with pure pigments that bounce off each other and complement the subject matter to create visually stunning effects and celebrate the ever-changing landscape of his homeland.After completing training in drawing, painting and printmaking at The Glasgow School of Art, John spent many years teaching art in schools in Glasgow and Argyll. A visit to the Chagall  exhibition in Paris in 1969 proved to be influential on the development of John’s use of blue in his early work.  Chagall associated blue with The Virgin Mary and the colour of heaven – an expression of transcendence through pure colour. There is a very spiritual aspect to John’s paintings – the connection between the natural world and a deep human need for beauty and meaning in life and John is a lay preacher for the Church of Scotland, leading worship on a regular basis.

Croft scene with full moon by Jolomo at Iona HOuse Gallery

Jolomo ‘Moonlight on the Machair South Uist’ oil on canvas 30.5×30.5cms (12x12ins) The croft appears as a symbol of endurance against time and the elements; a metaphor for the human condition set against the backdrop of wild nature and eternal forces and this symbol re-occurs frequently in his work. Similarly, the full moon – like Turner’s red dot – has become a quintessential element of many of John’s paintings; a punctuation mark in the composition where the eye rests as it travels over the different elements of the work. The viewer is drawn onto the beach, through the tangled dune grasses and wild flowers by the diagonal line of the pathway and then across the sea to the distant mountains and up into the mass of cumulus clouds which echo the brightness of the sand and provide balance and contrast. The sea is calm and placid but ever-changing, reflecting the sky but also tinged with sea-greens and darker bands of midnight blue which compliment the shades in the grasses and softer, muted tones of the mountains.

Isle of Gigha with the Paps of Jura by Jolomo at Iona House Gallery

Jolomo ‘Summerlight Isle of Gigha, Looking to the Paps of Jura’ Oil on canvas 41x41cms (16x16ins) There is a great sense of energy in John’s painting technique – layers of smooth, rich oil paint contrasted with dots and thick impasto, quick mark-making and scratches made with the end of the brush. This style echoes the hurrying clouds and wind-tossed wildness of the Scottish Isles where the landscape is in a constant process of flux as it is buffeted by storms and changing light. These are rugged communities, set off the beaten track, lost in time and his work has an elemental quality which appeals so much to people. There is an other-worldliness to his pieces – both a real and imagined place of heightened colour and perception. John is painting what is and what we would like to be.  Sketching ‘en plein air’ and absorbing the natural energy of these locations and translating that for the viewer into a timeless composition gives his work both an authenticity and magical quality at the same time.

John’s new collection is now available to view on our website at John Lowrie Morrison OBE (Jolomo) – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

Book Review: Daughters of Chivalry: The Forgotten Children of Edward I by Kelcey Wilson-Lee

May 24, 2021

Having enjoyed ‘Blood Sisters’ and ‘Game of Queens’ by Sarah Gristwood and Helen Castor’s ‘She-Wolves’, I was interested to read this book on the daughters of Edward I and it is very much in-line with their re-evaluations of the lives of aristocratic medieval and renaissance women and their too-often overlooked contributions to statecraft and diplomacy.

It seems unnecessary in 2021 to point out that women’s lives are and have always been valuable, demanding and multi-faceted or that our female ancestors didn’t merely marry, breed and die yet these books are more than biographies of long dead humans. There is still a very real need to re-evaluate these women when the contemporary source material was so focused on their male relatives that ‘history’ has brought us little more than a vague impression of their personalities, drives and accomplishments and when we still regularly come across commentators who barely mention the other half of the population when studying the ‘deeds of great men.’ When medieval women emerge from the media blackout it is often with a large helping of negative baggage – they are ‘she-wolves’ or viragos, unnatural mothers or adulterous wives who are only mentioned because they dared to over-step the ‘natural’ obedience and reserve of their invisible sisters. Our C21st viewpoint on their characters and actions is already overlaid with a huge layer of accumulated interpretation and propaganda from contemporary source material and later commentary which must be painstakingly unravelled and cleaned up before we can really begin to assess them in any objective way.

Kelcey has found a window into the world of these medieval women through the wardrobe, patent and fine rolls which give a tantalising insight into the circuit of perpetual travel, private and public engagements and personal habits of these ‘daughters of the king’ which does something, at least, to make up for the sparsity of monastic chronicles or official documents and allows her to build a more evidenced picture of their lives based on their personal effects, household arrangements and medical care and how much was spent on their servants, tutors, gifts and betrothal arrangements.

Victorian impression of Eleanor of Castille – modelled on Queen Victoria

In the Introduction to the book, Kelcey explains how the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837, the first female monarch since Queen Anne some one hundred and twenty years earlier, led to an explosion of interest in female monarchs and queenship. Agnes Strickland in partnership with her sister Elizabeth, wrote an important book ‘Lives of the Queens of England’ three years after Victoria’s ascent to the throne followed by Mary Anne Everett Green’s ‘Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain’ which allowed the reading public an opportunity to hear the voices of these long dead women for the first time through the authorship of women.

Her subsequent ‘Lives of the Princesses of England, from the Norman Conquest’ which ran to an impressively well-researched six volumes gave even greater detail; drawing on her knowledge of Latin and medieval French and access to charters, letters and original source material to detail biographies of every princess from the C11th to the C19th.

However, the Victorian obsession with an idealised form of ‘medieval gothic’ culture and tendency to romanticise the past led to a re-affirmation of the medieval princess as a damsel in distress; usually under threat and in need of rescue by a strong and true Christian knight which not only reinforced the skewed monastic viewpoint on female agency but also added a further layer of infantilization and helplessness to public perceptions of medieval queenship.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

So, what was the reality of being a daughter of a ‘great and terrible king’ like Edward I? Kelcey’s book discusses the role models provided by Edward’s mother, Eleanor of Provence and his wife, Eleanor of Castille in shaping the early lives of his daughters and how their different queenships demonstrated that life for an aristocratic woman was far more nuanced and conflicted than many historical commentators have tended to present it.

Both these queens were adept at juggling the demands of being a consort – expected to travel long distances with their partners and undertake a constant round of public engagements, build a dynasty with their bodies and manage the grief of losing multiple children in infancy whilst simultaneously interceding on behalf of their birth family and their interests; their adopted family through marriage and their interests and numerous unrelated petitioners who might approach with a third set of grievances and demands. To survive and balance all these conflicting demands on their person must have taken a considerable toll of their physical and mental well-being.

Monastic chronicles, being written by monks who had very little experience or contact with women in the secular world and were writing from the vantage point of the cloister, may be forgiven for a lack of empathy for experiences they could never understand or the mysteries of the female body but because of their lack of basic understanding and familiarity with what it means to be female, they left a void in their accounts which needs to be recognised and re-assessed today.

There is still too little written about the personal tug-of-war that went on within the body and soul of these aristocratic women. They were raised in their respective homelands to be queen consorts in a distant land but with the understanding that their dynastic marriages were a means of them contributing to their families’ wealth, strategic security, economic interests and ambitions as well as promoting their place in the great houses of Europe. This meant that they would always be torn between their mission to advance their families and their duty to support and facilitate their husband’s personal and national agenda which often lay in the opposite direction. They were then castigated in the chronicles for bringing over foreign relatives who took key positions in the court and for disloyalty to their adopted nation and it’s pre-existing courtiers and great families. Their dower arrangements, personal wealth and the results of the diplomatic negotiations surrounding their marriages often led to accusations of extravagance, mis-management and loss of strategic territories which, despite the alliances they forged and the heirs they produced, seemed to outweigh their usefulness to their adopted country.

When things went wrong or they outlived their child bearing years, they were even further marginalised and often either sent home or consigned to a convent where you wonder whether they breathed a sigh of relief or pined for the world and secular influence they had left behind.

Eleanor of Provence, Queen to Henry III

Eleanor of Provence was to have a direct influence over the course of her grandchildren’s lives but most especially for Mary, the forth surviving daughter of Eleanor of Castille. Much against the queen’s personal wishes, the king agreed that Mary would be cloistered as a nun in training with her grandmother, Eleanor of Provence at the incredibly young age of six years old. The motivation behind his decision was no doubt due to multiple factors but his mother’s personal intervention seems to have been the critical impetus behind his decision. Eleanor wanted a grand-daughter to share her retirement at Amesbury and to have the opportunity of raise Mary to become an influential abbess in the fulness of time. Mary would pursue the family interests by praying for their souls to ease their time in purgatory but she would also one day administer vast estates for the church and perhaps become Abbess at the mother house of Fontevrault which would ever be associated with the legacy of their Angevin ancestors and her great great grand-mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Mary had no personal say in her fate and her mother, Eleanor of Castille, seems to have also been over-ruled as she was recorded as being reluctant to give her up at such a young age and stipulated various proviso’s to the arrangement which allowed Mary not only a very comfortable living but also unusual access to court and travel throughout her life as a nun. Both parents visited her regularly and she came to court frequently and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle within the constraints of her position.

Later in her life she undertook the education of her nieces and the two young boys, Thomas and Edmund, from her father’s re-marriage. She commissioned a history of her father’s reign and no doubt played an important role is praying for the souls of her mother and many siblings who died in early childhood.

Eleanor of Castille

Eleanor of Castille was the epitome of medieval queenship, as seen in the idealised effigy on her tomb at Westminster Abbey and she is probably more well-known than many other medieval consorts due to the enormous outpouring of grief after her death by Edward I which saw the construction of the Eleanor crosses marking the route that her body took to reach its final resting place. Eleanor had been a tireless life partner to Edward throughout their marriage. She was never far from his side; travelling with him on crusade and extended diplomatic missions in Europe to further their interests and influencing policy decisions both at home and in the wider theatre of European politics. Despite the problems of succession caused by the tragic early deaths of several princes and princesses, she gave birth to an impressive number of healthy children who ensured the continuation of their dynasty and could be used to further strategic alliances across Europe. Her surviving daughters, Eleanora, Joanna, Margaret, Mary and Elizabeth were all influenced and moulded by their mother despite long periods of absence and her fairly early death at the age of 49.

Eleanora, Countess of Bar

Eleanora spent the greatest amount of time under her mother’s instruction and is thought to have shared her interest in reading and chivalric culture. She seemed personally committed and enthusiastic about her betrothal to Alphonso of Aragon and ready for the role that she would fulfil in her mother’s homeland and fully educated by the age of twelve to undertake such a daunting prospect.

‘Far from being a passive pawn of her father’s diplomatic ambitions, she plainly wishes to play an active role in the arrangement of her marriage.’ (p.34-5)

Eleanora was to be denied the fulfilment of this betrothal and took a different road, marrying Henri of Bar and later having to defend her adopted country from French attack and negotiate a random for her husband while he languished in prison. Despite petitioning her father for money, he seemed to have diverted his attention elsewhere and she was left with small children and isolated, far from home, to manage as best she could with only a modest contribution towards the ransom. Reality for this princess, like so many others, was trying to manage competing warring factions, frequent childbirth, semi-autonomy without the ability to exercise full power and a desperate long-term fight to protect her children’s inheritance. Far from romantic tournaments and rescue, these women rescued themselves and their spouses and protected their lands through their own agency and efforts and for the benefit of their children with a single-minded focus and determination that should be appreciated in its own right.

Joan of Acre, or Joanna from a later manuscript

Joanna comes across as a very independently minded princess who was prepared to openly defy her father on more than one occasion in order to follow her own path. Married to the powerful marcher lord Gilbert de Clare, she carved out an influential role in the lawless Welsh marches, enjoying great wealth and localised power away from court until his death and then secretly married for love; a man considered her social inferior which brought down the wrath of her father, who also happened to be her feudal overlord and to whom she owed obedience. He was even more incensed as he was negotiating another dynastic marriage for her, quite possibly without her knowledge or consent, when she admitted not only to the secret marriage but also being pregnant. Joanna managed to negotiate her way out of a very sticky situation and to retain nearly all her holdings and to see her new husband elevated and accepted by the king which speaks volumes for her ability to intercede and manage her property rights, raise men-at-arms to fight in her father’s wars and demonstrate her independence of will over her choice of husband which is pretty impressive considered the established norms for most aristocratic women and their ability to retain autonomy within the feudal system. She also offered her brother Edward financial assistance and shelter when he fell foul of his father, effectively undermining the power of the king, and seemed unconcerned that her actions might result in some fairly dire consequences for offending such an autocratic father.

Maybe Joanna was able to use her personal relationship with her father to act in a way that a male relative could not have managed and maybe she was fiercely independent and willing to risk the fall-out for pushing hard against the conventions of her age but she certainly demonstrated great spirit and personal courage in standing for what she believed in and was able to argue her cause effectively.

Women had been feudal vassals in previous generations despite diagrams of the feudal system air-brushing them out completely; Nicola de la Haye famously inherited the role of Constable of Lincoln Castle and defended it against two sieges, being gratefully rewarded by King John and Henry III and only retiring from the role due to old age. Aristocratic women were at the heart of the feudal structure; cementing alliances, acting as patrons and also administrators of huge estates but also taking control of the defence of property and withstanding sieges and military attacks across Europe and in the Holy Land as loyal vassals and Christian defenders of the holy places in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Margaret, the third surviving daughter of Eleanor of Castille became Duchess of Brabant but delayed her departure to her new home for several years. Kelcey speculates that she may not have wished for the life that awaited her there and quotes a passage from Tristan and Isolde on the fears of young princesses, bound in marriage to a far-off country

‘You must take heart! You had much better be a queen in a strange land than humble and obscure at home. Honour and ease abroad, and shame in your father’s kingdom have a very different flavour.’ (p.127)

This was the stark reality of being born the daughter of a king. To be uprooted and transported on dangerous roads and separated by seas far away and perhaps never to see your home or family again; to learn a new language and settle into the rhythms of an alien culture with so much expectation on young shoulders.

Elizabeth of Rhuddlan

Elizabeth, the baby of the family comes out of the shadows in the final chapters of the book. Having spent most of her childhood with her brother, Edward of Caernarvon, at the royal nursery at Langley which her mother made a comfortable home for her youngest children; Elizabeth, like her elder sister Margaret delayed leaving England after her marriage to John, Count of Holland and her father was so enraged by her unwillingness that he reportedly threw her ceremonial crown into a fire, damaging several of the precious stones which had to be hastily repaired by Adam, the royal goldsmith. This episode shows the nature of the relationship between royal parent and child during this period when the stakes were so high and the royal word was law. Much as Edward seems to have lavished goods and attention on his offspring, he expected unquestioning obedience and wasn’t above ‘bullying’ his daughters into doing their duty.

In Elizabeth’s case, her fears were well founded as she was catapulted into a very dangerous situation were her husband was manipulated by an older advisor and possible lover who abducted him. It was Elizabeth who galvanised support to free her husband and his advisor ended up being ripped apart by a mob but she was still left a young widow after John died suddenly of dysentery though he was most likely poisoned. There were passing similarities to her little brother’s episodes with favourites and the events that would propel her sister-in-law, Isabella of France into the role of ‘she-wolf’ a little later on.

Although queens and duchesses were supposed to defer and obey their husbands, it was often their strength in moments of national crisis that turned the course of history and their intervention, for good or ill, that was to have the most wide-reaching consequences. They often had to exercise power through a male figurehead – as regents for a male relative or by proxy but nevertheless, they were the actors and agents of their times as much as their male counterparts.

Inevitably, with such a scant amount of documented material to draw on, Kelcey has to speculate about what the records suggest about the lives of these royal women and how they viewed their roles as wives and mothers but also as active partners in the business of statecraft. They were raised to sit at the apex of society; to be great landowners and administrators, diplomats and champions of causes. Aristocratic women influenced policy making and judgements, they literally saved lives through their intercessions and shaped dynastic alliances. They were powerful patrons of art and culture and through the lavish decoration of their homes and bodies and the ceremonial display of court, they were important consumers and influencers of elite culture which should not be under-estimated.

As Kelcey says at the end of the book, these women may lack physical monuments and have been largely forgotten in the historical record; they may live on in the bloodlines of their descendants and in a few written documents which detail the everyday consumption and movements of their lives on Earth but her book represents a new memorial and does something to re-introduce their voices to the world. So much has been written about their father and brother in comparison that it feels only fitting that these women should have a light shone upon them and receive the attention they deserve.

Beyond that, of course, lies the great silence that surrounds the countless ordinary women throughout history whose lives have gone by completely unrecorded or remembered. The millions of female babies who died without their names being recorded or who never survived the perils of childhood. The women who toiled in the fields and kept the farmsteads, who brewed and spun and carried the water from the river, who nursed the sick and the dying, made the remedies and sat through long nights battling with death to save their children. These women have no memorials and are the unsung heroines of life. They struggled against oppression and abuse, fought against unjust laws and were burdened with the responsibilities of child-rearing and endless labour without even the recognition that their male counterparts received as workers, guildsmen, soldiers and businessmen though none of them could have practiced their trades, gone to war or built their fortunes without the women who stood beside them, in the shadows, and made it happen.

..

In Remembrance of Things Past: Mike Hall and Pete Gilbert

May 16, 2021

Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life.”― Marcel Proust

Mike Hall and Pete Gilbert’s paintings share three essential elements: the importance of light, a deep sense of place and an emotional response to memory. Their artwork transports us to a setting that we long to return to, even if we’ve never actually been there or allows us to anticipate finding it for ourselves in the future. Their compositions record and distil an expression of a particular moment in time; ‘bottling it’ for us all to enjoy over and over again every time we step into it with them and view it through their eyes.

Mike Hall’s airy landscapes are full of light; dappled through leaves, strongly contrasted between deep shadow and bright sunlight or scintillating off water. His paintings take us back to family holidays and hot summer days or show us a window on a world; somewhere we may have never been, yet seem to know.

Comparison of artwork by Mike Hall and Pete Gilbert at Iona House Gallery during the Spring Exhibition 2021

Mike spends much of the year in France, sketching and painting the landscape and culture that he loves in clear layers of acrylic on board which gives a vibrant freshness to his palette. Mike trained at the Manchester College of Art and the Royal College of Arts in London. His work is full of local atmosphere; caught at a specific moment in time and often framed by a window. The viewer is placed in an interior setting or seated at a table, looking out on hot sunshine or a rural square lined with cafes and shaded by trees. 

Cafe scene by Mike Hall at Iona House Gallery

The pleasure of experiencing his artwork is like the anticipation of the first sip of wine or of resting under a shady umbrella after a long walk on dusty roads. There is a deep sense of relaxation which appeals to a deep need to sit and look at the sky; for time spent in the sunshine watching the world go by or the shifting patterns of light on a green lawn is never wasted. Hanging a Mike Hall painting on your wall not only evokes happy memories of warm days in the garden or by the sea but also encourages you to unwind and slip into the composition. 

Mike Hall view of sunlit garden at Iona House Gallery

The moving sun-shapes on the spray,
The sparkles where the brook was flowing,
Pink faces, plightings, moonlit May,
These were the things we wished would stay;
But they were going‘- Thomas Hardy

By contrast, Pete Gilbert’s work, inspired by his home in the New Forest, invites us to walk in cool dells, shady bluebell woods and under softly layered foliage. Pete’s style is impressionistic, organic and authentic and he was voted one of the Top 50 UK artists in the ‘National 50 over 50 Exhibition’.  He captures the essence of ancient woodland; the unchanging wildness and natural beauty of a timeless landscape. His mark making is quick and energetic and full of his passion for the subject matter and the movement of water and leaves in the breeze. If Mike’s paintings evoke the smell of lavender and fresh bread, then Pete’s suggest the tang of wild garlic and aroma of damp soil underfoot.

Dappled light  on a path through bluebells by Pete Gilbert at Iona House Gallery

Pete uses handmade, textured papers which give a subtle life and movement to his compositions. Light is filtered through branches and dappled across pathways which lead the eye into the work and invite the viewer to take a walk in the wild.

Pathway through a dell in the New Forest by Pete Gilbert at Iona House Gallery

There is a feeling of freedom and connection in Pete’s work. The freedom of nature, left to her own devices and a connection with the rhythms of the seasons and our relationship to the natural world. The creative process allows us to see their unique and individual interpretations of a particular place and what it means to them and to experience it with them through their artwork.

Gentle study of a river flowing in the New Forest by Pete Gilbert at Iona House Gallery

Both artists have also produced books which provide further context for their collections. Mike’s book ‘Choosing the Light’ illustrates the evolution of his style and subject matter and includes many examples of his work – not only of French scenes but also Dorset, Cornwall and Scotland. He also talks about the influence of painters like Bonnard, Vuillard and Matisse on his approach to creating dream-like compositions with soft light and interest in pattern and creating a narrative. The viewer feels that someone may have just left the composition for a moment and that there is a story behind the scene.

Mike Hall book 'Choosing the Light' at Iona House Gallery
Pete Gilbert and Hugh Lohan 'On the Test' book at Iona House Gallery

Pete’s book ‘On the River Test’, which is co-authored with Hugh Lohan, takes the reader on a journey along the river Test in Hampshire and provides a visual journal of his experiences of the waterway and surrounding landscape which is full of the life and movement of water and the landscape he observes along the way. Both collections are available to browse online at www.ionahousegallery.org and feature in our current Spring Exhibition at the gallery which continues until Sunday, 30 May 2021.

Trevor Price at Iona House Gallery

April 25, 2021
Gentle woodland study by Trevor Price at Iona House Gallery

Spring Exhibition 2021

Trevor Price is exhibiting a new collection of intricately detailed handmade and hand printed drypoint and engraved relief prints as well as exquisite watercolour studies of the natural world. The extra-ordinary detailed and painstaking nature of his creative process, which focuses attention on line and form, allows the viewer to stop and draw breath as they take in the mark making and abstraction within these compositions and then step back and see the landscapes form in almost photographic detail. Trevor uses a polycarbonate 2mm sheet which he carves and scrapes into with a drypoint needle and dremmel to create the web of marks and incisions that form the image plate. He then inks the plate and sends it through an etching press with damp paper to produce the print.

Monochrome study of trees and woodland foliage by Trevor Price at Iona House Gallery

The process is both time consuming and unforgiving should a mistake occur. It speaks of patience and meticulous attention to detail and an investment of time and creative energy. It is a slow, meditative process of creation that changes your breathing patterns and requires an inner stillness and relationship with the medium and the subject matter, plus a keen eye for observation as fingers interpret what the eye sees and balance light, form and pattern to create a harmonious composition.Like so many of us during the last year, Trevor is drawn to nature and quiet spaces and takes inspiration from natural forms and patterns; whether that be the dappled light falling on tree trunks and the floor of a beech wood or shifting currents and glinting light on moving water as the storm waves rush to shore.

Dramatic wave study by Trevor Price at Iona House Gallery

The monochromatic colouration of the works suggest a sense of nostalgia, like sepia photographs which capture a moment in time; a deep connection with the rhythms of the Earth and ever-changing seasons and our desire to be still in the moment and experience it before it is lost to us forever. 

www.ionahousegallery.org

Bob Crooks: Master Glassmaker

January 30, 2021

Bob Crooks: Master Glassmaker

 ‘Bob Crooks draws inspiration from the process itself.  He enjoys striving for perfection and the only way of achieving this is by repetitive making whilst trying for a better result each time.  There is always room for just that little bit of something extra, more expression, more fluidity, more colour control.  Every artist looks for inspiration.  Bob Crooks finds it in shifting imagery and distortion.’ Dan Klein

Fruits de Verre glass form by Bob Crooks for sale to buy at Iona House Gallery in store or online

Bob Crooks ‘Fruits de Verre’ glass H28cm W84cm D47cm – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

Bob Crooks is one of our most collected and well-loved glass makers, having exhibited with Iona House Gallery for many years. We are delighted to be showcasing a collection of Bob’s stunning one-off and limited production forms in our new Winter Exhibition as well as a variety of his production pieces. 

After studying at Humberside College of Higher Education and West Surrey College of Art, Bob spent a year assisting Ronnie Wilkinson, former Master Glassmaker at the Whitefriars Glassworks based at the Glasshouse, Covent Garden.

Bob then moved to Glassworks (London) Ltd as the Workshop Manager where he honed his craft further, working with Simon Moore, Catherine Hough and Steven Newell.

In 1990 he set up First Glass in Newent, Gloucestershire and subsequently First Glass, London in 1994 before relocating to Devon.

Lineweaver series glass forms by Bob Crooks for sale at Iona House Gallery

Bob Crooks ‘Lineweaver Trio: The Blueberry Shuffle’ glass length 55cm – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

Bob is highly innovative; constantly designing dynamic new pieces which drive him to overcome technical challenges and express his creativity and eye for detail in an array of gloriously rich colours and intricate patterns which ‘speak’ to each other as they are viewed from different angles.

Pi Spectrum Vase by Bob Crooks available to buy at Iona House Gallery in store or online

Bob Crooks ‘π Bowl Spectrum’ glass H29cm x W37cm x D8cm – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

Drawing his inspiration from architecture, geometry and the intrinsic qualities of the medium itself, Bob designs, creates and hand-finishes every piece ensuring a unique three-dimensional form and is increasingly working at larger scale to achieve stunning one-off showpieces.

His work features in many prestigious collections including the V&A, LondonThe Fitzwilliam Collection, Cambridge and the Ruskin Glass Centre, Stourbridge and he has exhibited internationally in many countries including Italy, China, Scandinavia, the USA and Australia.

Arran Ryder recently interviewed Bob for Iona House Gallery to find out more about his work and inspirations:

– How long have you been a glassmaker and how did you start your career?

I started the business then known as First Glass 30 years ago. My first experience of glass was on my Foundation course, where I was lucky enough to experience building a basic furnace and blow a basic form: “I was hooked!”

Glass Jester Vase by Bob Crooks at Iona House Gallery

Iona House Gallery – Bob Crooks ‘Jester vase’

– Where do you start when creating a piece of glass?

Sometimes I start an idea on paper then translate this into glass ‘sketches’ – experiments that lead me to the end result I am looking for. Over the years I have mastered many techniques and am able to harness them, metamorphosing several of them into a hybrid to create something completely different and the result I am looking for. The challenge is stretching the material and my ability each time I create a new piece.

Large Venetian glass jugs by Bob Crooks at Iona House Gallery

Bob Crooks ‘Large Round Venetian Jug’ glass H21cm x L26cm x W 18cm – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

– What are the artistic hurdles you face when creating your glass art?

For a skilled glassmaker it can often be the limitations of the facilities themselves that might create the hurdles, to find ways to create objects and pieces that are potentially complex and skilled in technique but also the scale and form that you desire. Creating ‘Glass Art’ is often a journey as there are so many elements that can be challenging, some you have control over, others you do not.

Glass Voyage bowl by Bob Crooks at Iona House Gallery

Voyage – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

– You’ve been described as a colourist through the medium of glass? How do you respond to this, and how do you use colour in your work?

This I believe is part of a quote by well respected glass critic Dan Klein. I think this is absolutely true. Colour has always been central to my work, the techniques I use are multiple and cross the spectrum of both colour and technique, playing with transparency and opacity, line and pattern created using both traditional techniques such as threading, Murini and cane work to cutting and polishing exploiting the refractive qualities of the glass.

Hula Scent bottles by Bob Crooks at Iona House Gallery

hula – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

– In creating your Pi bowls you use Pythagorus theorem; did you discover this when experimenting with glass? 

These pieces are called Pi as they are inspired by the natural spirals we find in nature. I use cane work in many aspects of my one-off works but wanted the simplicity of the two perfect spirals with the way the colours create secondary colours that are not really there, to be the focus that one is drawn to.

Pi Vase by Bob Crooks at Iona House Gallery

Bob Crooks ‘π Bowl’ glass H29cm x W37cm x D8cm – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

– What effect did you hope to create when designing your one-off lineweaver series? Tell us more about these 3D pieces and techniques you have utilised.

The Lineweaver Series came about as I wanted to create a series of thought-provoking still life groups; addressing the use of colour and form, looking at the relationship that could exist between multiple forms. I am particularly interested in form, pattern and colour and by developing groups, I hope to bring all of these elements together harmoniously. Lineweavers are made in sections, the axis of the glass is changed several times before the threaded trails of hot glass are added. The subsequent forms suggest a ‘conversation’ and a still-life group is created.

Lineweaver peach melba glass by Bob Crooks at Iona House Gallery

Bob Crooks ‘Lineweaver Pair: Peach Melba’ glass – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

– You constantly push the boundaries of glass making; what pieces were the most difficult to create and what have you been most proud of to date?

I often get asked the question ‘how long does it take you to make this one-off piece’ – actual time varies depending on the piece, but the short answer is 30 years, and however long I’ve been sat in the bench this morning.

All of my one-off pieces are complex to make. All of them encompass more than one technique, and often they are very different to each other.

The Flower pieces in comparison to the Lineweavers or the Pi Bowls to the large scale pieces you have today vary greatly in technique, scale and use of colour within a form to create the overall piece. I enjoy all of the pieces I have made but as with most masters or artists you always see where you can develop further, push yourself and the material in a variety of directions, so the journey continues and with it you continue to learn.

Bob Crooks purple flower bowl at Iona House Gallery

Purple Flower Bowl – Available to order

– Where do you draw your inspiration from? How do you see yourself within the glassmakers world?

Both the natural and man-made worlds around us; from cityscapes to the landscape around me today in Devon; from music genres to fashion. I also draw inspiration greatly from the techniques themselves and as I combine them, the overall effects that I can achieve. Mark making and colour are centre stage in every piece.

Glass Energy bowl by Bob Crooks at Iona House Gallery

Iona House Gallery – Bob Crooks ‘Energy Bowl’

– Who are the people in the public eye who have collected your work?

I am fortunate to have been collected by many famous collections around the world in the last thirty years in both public and private collections. By having your work in a public collection you know the longevity of its presence is there for all future generations to be inspired by, enjoy and discuss.  No matter what their background, it’s for all. However, it is also due to loyal collectors and individuals purchasing the work over the years that creates an opportunity to continue and to have reached the position we are in as artists today, and for that I am appreciative. The support an artist gets from the sale of their work enables them to continue pushing the boundaries and create future ranges or creations.

Showpiece glass object by Bob Crooks at Iona House Gallery

Bob Crooks ‘Confiserie du Verre’ glass H105cm x D28cm – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

 Can your work be scaled up? What are the most ambitious pieces you have made?

Some of the pieces I create can be scaled up or down but often some pieces do not necessarily work in the same way, They can lose an intensity or quality. Sometimes something completely different happens; not better or worse just different. Some of the most ambitious projects would be a large series of wall installations to work as individuals as well as one collective; similarly with lighting.

Turquoise glass chandelier by Bob Crooks at Iona House Gallery

Turquoise chandelier – commissions available

Many thanks to Bob Crooks for his time in sharing insights into his processes and inspirations with the team at Iona House Gallery

Glass candlesticks by Bob Crooks for sale at Iona House Gallery

Iona House Gallery: Winter Exhibition 23rd January – 28th February 2021

January 27, 2021

 ‘The Snowdrop and the Primrose our woodlands adorn and violets bathe in the wet o’ the morn’ Robert Burns

Delicate snowdrops in mixed media by Anna Perlin at Iona House Gallery

Anna Perlin ‘Snowdrops’ mixed media 15x15cm – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

Snowdrops are a symbol of hope in the darkness of midwinter. Associated with the festival of Candlemas in early February and named ‘Candlemas Bells’ for their purity, they are also linked to the ancient Celtic celebration of Imbolc. The snowdrops arrive at the turning point of the year when winter starts to give way to the spring and the promise of new life quickens in the earth as lambing season begins. 

We have never needed the symbol of the snowdrop more than now as we battle the challenges of this particular winter and endure another lockdown through the worst of the winter. 

Art is a powerful tool for expressing hope and our Winter Exhibition brings together a collection of art which aims to throw off the bleak midwinter and let in the light.

Magnolia blooms against a blue sky by Anna Perlin at Iona House Gallery

Anna Perlin ‘Magnolia’ mixed media 76x60cm – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

Anna Perlin’s delicate spring flowers and studies of blossom trees are quintessentially English. They capture the promise of a world waking up from its long dormant sleep and bursting into colour and life once more. The first flowers must weather floods and frost but they are tenacious and refuse to be beaten down by the winter storms. They endure and return year after year despite the struggle to survive.

Scintillating light on water and moored boats by Mike Hall at Iona House Gallery

Mike Hall ‘View of Mooring’ acrylic on board 36x30cm – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

Remember the warmth of the sun on your skin and glittering light on water? Mike Hall’s lucid paintings of France take you far away from the gloom of January to a world of open windows and soft breezes, relaxation and the simple contentment of sitting outdoors in a chair in the sunshine.

Birds and flowers in soft green tones by Este MacLeod at Iona House Gallery

Celebrate the joy of birdsong in the hedgerows and the complex patterns woven as sunlight filters through branches and flowers peep out between the leaves. Este’s work seems to glow with an inner warmth and to embody the qualities of poetry in her subtle layering of imagery and hidden forms.

Soft dappled light on water by Pete Gilbert at Iona House Gallery

Pete Gilbert ‘Riverbank Reflections’ acrylic 56x50cm – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

Stand, for a moment, by still water and watch the reflections of blossom trees in the cool surface. Pete Gilbert’s scintillating studies of the natural world seem to dance with light and gentle beauty. Inspired by the gorgeous landscape of his beloved New Forest, his work encapsulates the timelessness of this ancient corner of England.

Creativity is an act of hope because it invests in the future and gives permanent life to a moment in time or to something that we hold dear. Unlike the delicate snowdrops which bloom and fade back into the earth, art is a permanent record of beauty which allows the viewer to re-live many times over the pleasure of a particular experience; the light on a specific day, the little bubble of joy that rises when the sun comes out from behind a cloud and lifts our mood or a sense of a deep connection with nature.

We hope that you find joy in our collection and that art gives you hope in the weeks ahead. Spring will come again!

From the team at Iona House Gallery.

Winter Exhibition 23rd January – 28th February 2021 – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

Blog post by Katherine Newman

Thoughts flexible working and the connection to training and leadership

September 5, 2018

Couldn’t agree more as a working mother with aspirations to be treated equally with men but frustrated by the lockdown in opportunity due to limited and over priced childcare, inflexible training options and assumptions that I will be content to bump along without hope of progression due to my gender.

zaramuseums

Unequal pay, low pay, low diversity, a female dominated workforce – I believe these issues are all connected, and that one way to address this is through access not only to flexible working it is also through equal access to training and development, applying the principles of flexible working to open up leadership and governance opportunities.

I am the typical middle-age, middle class, well-educated, white woman now dominating the middle tier of the sector.  For me the lack of flexible working practices is limiting; I see a key challenge for our sector in how to push forward with equal access to leadership and career development across the board.  Working in museums can often feel like a glass cabinet,  but none of us exist in isolation, all the fears, responsibilities and pressures that affect our daily lives can feel magnified when we try to push ourselves to open the doors, rise…

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The Miniaturist: A defence of gender roles and inter-racial characterisation in the novel.

February 2, 2018

TheMiniaturist

 

I recently watched the TV adaptation of Jesse Burton’s ‘The Miniaturist’ over Christmas which spurred me on to devour the book in the first weeks of January.

Both the book and the adaptation came in for some criticism from reviewers, notably in The Guardian and The Chicago Tribune, who took exception to the portrayal of the main characters in relation to their perceptions of gender politics in C17th Holland and the issue of racism.

Nella is too modern in her outlook and expectations for these critics. She is trying too hard to be a feminist icon and was written to appeal to modern C21st female readers rather than reflecting the mores of her age.

Similarly, the acceptance within the household of a black ex-slave, is incompatible with their view of Dutch attitudes to a man like Otto and how he would have been treated in contemporary society.

I found this interesting and wanted to think more about why modern readers engage with literary creations and whether our perception of the past is a true one.

Every writer is a product of their age to some extent. Writers are raised and influenced by the society in which they operate and by their understanding of the earlier worlds in which they set their works. Many writers spend years researching historical contexts and absorbing details from historical sources and artwork, museum artifacts – like the infamous doll’s house which inspired ‘The Miniaturist’ which is housed in the Rijksmusem in Amsterdam and contemporary writing and letters. Small details are pieced together about what their characters were likely to have worn, the food they ate, the houses they lived in, the streets and industries which surrounded them and the religious teachings which were so influential on how they conducted their relationships.

Miniaturist doll's house

Family life and interaction are slowly built up and reconstructed in the mind of the author, filling in the back story of each character and plumping out the scenes until the reader feels they are a part of that fictional world as it might have existed in the past.

The exciting part for a writer and the most difficult bit to ‘pull off’ successfully in terms of historical literary writing is getting inside the head of the characters and bringing them to life as three-dimensional, breathing people who we can empathise with and care for.

How can we imagine what an eighteen year old girl really thought about being sold off in marriage to a stranger and being cast adrift in a new world for which she was inadequately prepared? Do we assume that she must be naïve, hopeful, stricken with home sickness, afraid of her new role and how she would carve out a niche for herself and what her husband would be like. So much of her future happiness must depend on this key factor.

I think Nella does demonstrate all those thoughts and uncertainties. The supporting characters of Marin and Cornelia and her interaction with Agnes allow the writer to draw out her inner feelings and thought processes. She is as conflicted and unsure as we might assume a person in her position would have been.

Is Nella too modern? Well that depends on what you think a C17th woman would have thought and whether you think Nella has to stick to that convention either. People living at the same time, in the same society and social class, with similar backgrounds would still have thought and felt and reacted in a multitude of different ways to any given situation after all. Just because women had very little political power or legal rights, does that mean that they were content to be chattels? Women’s future security and that of their offspring depended on the success of their family business so even if they were not usually seen as equal partners in business, they were still inextricably bound up in the family interest and often personally involved in that business – as negotiators, networkers, diplomats, persuaders and facilitators. This seems to be written out of much social history.

Women were business people throughout history, they were just not paid for their labours, accepted into guilds or acknowledged for the role they played much of the time.

The fact that Nella takes on the responsibility of selling the sugar when Johannnes is arrested seems perfectly rational in the circumstances. This is not so much a contrived plot device in order to demonstrate her commercial capabilities as a means of survival. What else could she do in the circumstances to keep the household afloat and try to mitigate the tension between Johannes and Frans, which might even save her husband’s life?

The tensions between Johannes and Marin over the business reflect that very real disparity between men and women within a household. Johannes resents Marin’s interference in his business and thinks that she has no idea of the burdens he shoulders when he is off travelling. This is true but how could she be aware of them if she has never been allowed to experience these things first hand and had the study door shut in her face. He forgets that she has run the household while he has been away and made decisions for them all too.

Like one of the doll’s in the miniature house, Johannes wants to put his women back in their boxes when he’s finished with them, expecting them to live in suspended animation until such time as he is with them again.

I think the book is also accurate in its depiction of Nella’s financial insecurity. She is dependent on her husband for everything from the clothes on her back to the food she eats and the disposable income which pays for her ‘hobby’ of furnishing the doll’s house. She must think whether it is acceptable to her husband before she can spend money on anything at all. This financial dependence is completely realistic and underpinned much of the gender inequality throughout history.

Women often brought lands, resources, businesses and material goods with them on their marriage, yet they had no formal control over any aspect of their personal wealth which could then be disposed of as their husbands saw fit without any consultation.

The imagery of cages and freedom re-occurs in the novel from the caged and released parrot, to the miniature cage in the doll’s house and the discussion of ‘freedoms’ enjoyed by the women of Amsterdam compared to their French or English counterparts. Otto is freed from his slavery but Johannes is caged for his sexuality.

Nella comes from a good family who have fallen on hard times financially so she is totally dependent on her husband’s fortunes, as is his sister and the rest of the household.

Everyone is financially insecure, including Johannes himself, but only he is able to actively pursue business opportunities and speculate on his fortunes until he is arrested. This plays out in the backstories of each of the characters within the household.

Cornelia, the maid, is an orphan. She knows what it is to be cast out in a harsh world and fight for survival. She grew up without a home or family, without material comforts or emotional ones so insecurity will eat away at her very core. She depends on the family for the roof over her head, the food in her belly and the clothes on her back. To leave without a good reference would spell ruin for her.

Otto was a possession. As a slave, he lost family, home and even control over his body and future as a young man. He is dependent on Johannes as his liberator both financially and psychologically. The household is his whole world as he is viewed with suspicion or as an exotic object outside the house. He is thousands of miles from his culture and homeland and as misplaced as Nella parrot, Pebo and similarly caged.

Marin rejected the offer of marriage in order to retain some quasi-form of independence which takes on a financial aspect as well as a social one. The tensions between Marin and Johannes are complex and multi-layered but contain within them a financial aspect as well as a moral one. She wants recognition as a sister within the family legacy but Johannes sees no role for her beyond keeping the house together while he’s off trading and exploring.

By the time I was sixteen, I didn’t want to give up who I was and what I had’ Marin says quietly. ‘I had a household already. When Johannes was away, I was the head.’   She goes on to say that no woman had that kind of responsibility or freedom unless they were a widow.

This is played out in the marginal characters of Agnes and Frans Meermans too. It’s her inheritance that brings them the sugar fortune yet she is only able to exercise any power as a married woman through her husband, despite his lack of judgement and inferred incompetence as a trader and soldier.

Another theme which runs through the characterisation of the book is bodily control. Who does what to whom and who controls this action.

Nella is understandably nervous abut the duties of a new wife. She expects to sleep with her new husband and has ambivalent feeling about when this might occur and what her internal response should be.

As a wife, she has no control over her body. Her husband can force her to have sex or ignore her completely. He could beat her, if he wished to, and the law would uphold his right to chastise her. She has no control over whether she will carry a child or not or how often, even if it kills her, like it does so many other women.

Nella is passive in all this – waiting to hear Johannes return home on her first night in the house, wondering whether he will come to her room and leaving the door open or even tentatively trying to initiate some intimacy between them which backfires spectacularly.

Again, I feel that Burton is perfectly in context here in terms of C17th views on marital relations and mores. Women were supposed to be chaste and innocent before marriage and to accept the role their husband chose for them in bed. They were also expected to shoulder the burdens of pregnancy and repeated childbirth with its attendant perils as part of their lot in life. Nella has the vague longing for motherhood, as seen from the eyes of a young girl who has yet to experience the reality of the actual process. She is rightly expectant of what her role should be, as mistress of the household, only to find that position already taken by her sister-in-law and finds herself thrown off course by the peculiarities of her new family.

None of this seems in any way too ‘modern’ in its approach or anachronistic. Young women were often given little detail before marriage but they witnessed their own mother’s giving birth and the trials and benefits of motherhood as they were growing up. They had some expectation of what lay ahead for them and how society would expect them to behave.

It is really desperation that leads Nella to initiate some intimacy with Johannes and there is little she can do when he clearly repulses her advances but retreat back to her room and cry. That is hardly the stock response of a rampant modern day feminist to the situation.

When she discovers the reason why Johannes has no sexual interest in her – his homosexuality – she reacts with horror and disbelief and also with a Christian revulsion which would have been totally in keeping with contemporary religious teachings about homosexuality as a grave sin which we see play out in the last section of the book.

Critics who suggest that Nella is not that disturbed by the revelation seem to gloss over the fact that she is forcibly sedated for three days after she discovers the truth about Johannes and Jack and is almost physically sick at the time of the actual encounter.

The fact that Marin and Nella seem to come to terms with Johannes’s sexuality fairly quickly and try to conceal it for the sake of the family and their regard for him may seem unlikely given the general societal bias against homosexuality, but can be explained by their intense personal relationships with Johannes and affection for him.

On a more expedient level,  they are all tied to each other’s fortunes and therefore any scandal will impact on them all so it is in their own interests to hide his secret away and pretend they are a ‘normal’ household, especially considering the watchfulness of their neighbours and pronouncements from the pulpit against this type of ‘sin’.

Many families concealed moral sins from wider society in order to protect individual members and to prevent scandals which would have undermined the whole family structure and standing within the community.

This streak of ‘liberalism’ or unconventionality within the family can also be used to defend the accusations of a ‘modern’ take on the treatment of Otto in the story.

Otto, is a black former slave, liberated by Johannes whilst on one of his trading trips to Surinam and brought back as a servant to Amsterdam.

Otto is unquestioningly loyal to Johannes and protective of his master’s interests and property. He remains an enigmatic figure in the story and the reader is left to surmise what his deeper thoughts and feelings might be and exactly what the relationship is between Otto and Johannes, Marin and Cornelia who all connect on several levels.

Johannes is an unconventional man, who has seen more of the world than most of his contemporaries and clearly lives outside of the normal mores of his society. It is, therefore, not unsurprising that Johannes would view Otto as more than a commodity and that he would reward faithfulness and good service with kind treatment. There is an unwritten contract between the two men which has existed for years before Nella arrives in the household.

Cornelia and Otto have much in common – both having lost family and home in different circumstances and both being servants together and dependent on their master and mistress for security and future success. Whereas some would see Otto as a threat, Cornelia accepts him and bonds with him as a daily companion who she can interact with in a perfectly natural way.

Casual racism is alluded to in the book, in terms of how Otto is regarded when he is walking about Amsterdam by passers by and by Agnes, who views him like an exotic animal or specimen. People resent him taking a job that might have been given to a Dutchman and the reader perceives a vague air of threat to his person, just because he is a man of colour in an overwhelmingly white society.

This threat is intensified when Otto stabs Jack in self defence and goes on the run. Nella, Marin and Cornelia are fearful for him because he is unlikely to receive justice under the law due to his ethnicity so the book is reflective of contemporary prejudices towards different ethnic groups and sensitive to how a man like Otto would be viewed in C17th Dutch society though it doesn’t dwell on the exploitation of the native populations who were caught up in the slave trade and sugar industry.

The relationship between Otto and Marin is the most controversial aspect of the book’s treatment of ethnicity. Would a wealth white woman have conducted an affair with a black servant and borne his child?

I think this can be explained in the context of the particular characters and set-up within the household in this case to give this storyline sufficient plausibility.

Marin is unusual enough to have taken some measure of control over her own destiny and rejected the offer of marriage to Franz long before the events of the book take place. She had her childhood moment of romantic attachment but was mature enough to see that it would not live up to her expectations in reality. She chose to be a spinster and to live a solitary life.

The reality of that solitude bears down on Marin though as the years go by. The consolations of religion do not appear to satisfy her and despite the church’s teachings, she puts family first. If she can accept Johannes’s homosexuality, then she can also turn a bling eye to the sin of fornication when she falls in love with Otto.

Although we know very little about Otto, we might imagine that Marin is drawn to his quiet strength and ability to survive. She is fascinated by his ‘otherness’, as seen in her collection of strange objects and maps of exotic places. He fits into that part of her mind which is free and untrammelled by the constraints of her sex and position and that other part of her that secretly enjoys sweet meats and luxury under the cover of a puritanical exterior or obedience and respectful domesticity.

It doesn’t seem such a leap to see Marin and Otto together. Although he has as much to lose as Marin if they were found out, Otto could also be drawn to her strength of purpose and character too. He seeks to protect her when Jack forces his way into the house and perhaps Otto needs a guilty pleasure too in a life that has dealt him some poor cards. His need for self expression and love outweigh his caution and desire to keep out of trouble.

In summary, I think the accusations against the writer are unfair and that Nella’s actions and outlook are perfectly consistent with the historical context of the book. Nella is great character because she is uncertain and frightened and doubtful about what to do but she is also strong and capable when she is called on to dig deep within herself and that is in no way unlikely for a C17th Dutch woman as it would be for a C21st one.

Similarly, I don’t view the characterisation of Otto as incongruous when seen in the context of the particular family in which he find himself living with. He would not have acted in this way if he had been a servant in the Meermans household but he is given a certain degree of licence due to the specific characters and natures of the Brandt family dynamic.

Critics find it implausible that one household could contain so many secrets and scandals yet we know that most families do contain just such a heady mixture throughout history. That these are condensed into a book or a play has never seemed to bother fans of Dickens or Shakespeare!

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/29/the-miniaturist-jessie-burton-review

http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-miniaturist-jessie-burton-20140829-story.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/10987736/The-Miniaturist-by-Jessie-Burton-review-gripping-and-gorgeous.html

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/04/the-miniaturist-review-jessie-burton