Saturday, 6 February 2016

Has the British Museum lost its charm?

Ira Gershwin was only joking when he wrote the lyrics for “A Foggy Day in London Town” in 1937.  The Clean Air Act of 1956 gradually got rid of most of the pea-soup fogs but, thankfully, the museum remains.  Does it, however, retain its charm?  After a visit to The Celts exhibition (which ran until the end of January), I was somewhat disenchanted. 

I’ve been to several major exhibitions at the museum in recent years and had the same experience each time: missing some of the exhibits because of the random layout and having to wait ages to see the most popular ones because there is no control or even advice on how to approach them.  Some people come from the left, others from the right, still more from behind.  If you are British (i.e. not pushy) and short, you don’t have much chance of getting there within a reasonable time.  And some people are very slow readers…

“The Celts” was a particularly disappointing exhibition, beginning with the false premise that there is no connection whatsoever between the Celtic fringes of Britain and France and the “keltoi” identified by the ancient Greeks.  The curators seem to think that the Celts in Wales and the rest of mainland Britain did not convert to Christianity until the Romans had left and stopped imposing Christianity on them, which would be an extremely odd thing for them to have done at that point.  A disproportionate amount of space and attention is given to the Celtic revival – presumably because they ran out of prehistoric exhibits - with little explanation of the development and meaning of modern traditions; druidry, apparently, is a completely new invention; no mention, as far as I could see, of Suetonius Paulinus's campaign to root them out of Anglesey.

In case you haven't guessed by now, this is just a personal rant. If you are wondering what the exhibition has to do with Sassoon, any connections are very tenuous.  Let’s start with the BM itself.  It was founded in 1753.  It is a 15-minute walk from Raymond Buildings, Siegfried’s first London lodgings, and he certainly visited it.  In 1933 he even gave the museum £100 to assist in the purchase of some manuscripts of Wilfred Owen’s work.  The British Library was of course part of the museum then; in fact, the present exhibition area is located in the famous former reading room, once a gathering-place for the likes of Shaw, Wilde and Lenin.

Between 1950 and 1959, the Director of the BM was Sir Thomas Kendrick, whose daughter Frances was a close friend of the novelist Barbara Pym (regular readers of this blog, if there are any, will know of my interest in Pym).  Only recently did researches into the Pym archive reveal that Barbara herself had a long-running personal relationship with Sir Thomas, the exact nature of which remains unknown.  Sir Thomas Kendrick had served in the First World War, in the course of which he attained the rank of captain.   Unknown to me when I started writing this, his published works included a book on the history of Druidism.  Another of his interests was Victorian art, and his notable collaborators in this field included the poet John Betjeman, who was too young to have served in the first war but famously spied for the British government when working in Dublin during the Second World War.  Unlike the rampantly heterosexual Kendrick, Betjeman is believed to have had homosexual tendencies although, like Siegfried, he was attracted to members of the opposite sex, was married and had children.  

Whether Siegfried ever met Thomas Kendrick I have no idea, but he certainly knew Betjeman. The latter favourably reviewed Sassoon’s one full-length foray into biography, Meredith. The Cambridge Sassoon archive contains a letter Betjeman wrote him in 1957, after news of his conversion to Catholicism became public.  When the two men met at Alan Lascelles’ house in 1960, Betjeman declared, “I am nothing. You are a great poet.”

What about Sassoon’s Celtic connections? Are there any? Admittedly we are on slightly shakier ground with this. One cannot really count his association with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. However, in view of the concentration on the Celtic "revival" in the exhibition, it seems fair to mention W B Yeats, whom Sassoon knew well from visits to Garsington. Yeats was one of the prime movers in the revival also known as the “Celtic Twilight” movement, which thrived in the late 19thand early 20th century and in which Wilfred Owen also dabbled. Edinburgh, at the time Sassoon and Owen resided there, was a hotbed of the revival, led by figures like Patrick Geddes (whose son Alasdair was killed in action in 1917) and the artist Anna Traquair, whose work can be seen all over the city.

We are drawing further away from my ostensible subject and I have obviously run out of useful things to say.  But who knows what unexpected connections may turn up at some future date?

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