Wunderkammer: Barmy Art has solved all illnesses

While I was finishing my MA, I had a retail job in the centre of Cambridge. The shop no longer exists, thanks to the recession, but it was an exceedingly small space inside a lopsided Tudor building and could usually only house one member of staff at a time. This made it a lonely job, and therefore a magnet for other lonely people who would pop in for a chat about their heroin withdrawals, or try to convert me to Mormonism, or, once, rush in and sob all over the counter about the exam they failed and how their dad back in China was going to murder them.

So I wasn’t too surprised when my boss handed me a sheet of paper with what looked like Hebrew scribbled on it.

“A man came in the other day and pressed this into my hand, saying it was the key to eternal life. I thought ‘that’s Verity’s sort of thing’, so you can have it.”

She said the gentleman in question was tall, well dressed in a tweed suit, with red hair, and left immediately without another word. The key to eternal life, in case you’re interested, is this…


No, I can’t read it either.

If you’ve lived in Cambridge for a few years, you’ll recognise the handwriting. This is Barmy Art. He’s one of the city’s treasures, along with Man Playing Guitar In The Bin, and Heavy Metal Bicycle Guy. He graffitis what can only be described as profound nonsense, usually mathematical equations or ramblings about the cure for all illness, and, once “Education? You make me laugh”. You can go months without seeing his distinctive black markings, then several crop up all over the place. He’s moved onto canvasses, one of which I found this morning propped against some student accommodation.


He was in the papers a couple of years ago for improving the walls of Jamie Oliver’s restaurant with pi symbols and something about Beethoven, sparking a brief debate about art vs vandalism that probably only made him cackle. If his work at Jamie’s was anything like the five foot long “HAIL HORRORS HAIL” he left on a building site wall in Trinity Street, I commend him.

I like eccentrics, and I hope Barmy Art never vanishes. Allegedly, he was frequently spotted during the ’90s with a packet of Bombay mix strapped to his head, but that sounds a bit rum, even for Cambridge. There’s a Flickr pool dedicated to his delightful weirdness here.

Tributes of an old friend

It’s no secret that Fred Stephens has a special place in the hearts of Pre-Raphaelite acolytes. ‘Swoony Fred’ to the initiated, because, well…



Frederick George Stephens was one of two non-artistic members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Stephens tried his hand at painting and poetry, but, dissatisfied with his efforts, reportedly destroyed most of his paintings (a handful now hang in the Tate) and turned away from poetry:

Most sadly falls this life on me,
With noble purpose unwrought out:
The steeled soul rusteth thro’ the day;—
My life it flitteth fast away.

Poor Fred. He stuck instead to criticism, writing for the Athenaeum for forty years until his conservative views on British art and dislike of Impressionism caused friction. Despite the growing paranoia and grumpiness of his Pre-Raphaelite associates in their old age, he remained a steadfast friend and one of the most ‘sensible’ figures in the bunch.

I’ve got my hands on an original copy of Stephens’ ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti’, gifted at Christmas 1897 to a Miss Foster from Emma V. Roberts, who clearly knew how to spoil her friends.


Stephens was aware of the race to the publishing houses in the wake of Rossetti’s death. The outpouring of grief and praise (for a fee) from those who barely knew the man bothered him, as did the bickering of his former Brothers. While some placed Rossetti at the helm of the PR movement, other recalled him floating along in his own bizarre bubble, and others still – particularly an increasingly batty Holman Hunt – were unhappy with the cultish following Rossetti had accumulated (“Rossetti was the planet round which we revolved,” gushed Valentine Prinsep), and took pains to defend their own place in the movement’s history.

In 1894, Stephens published his own biography of his old friend. It’s a short, affectionate book with vivid, amusing descriptions of the early scenes of Rossetti’s life, including the “respectable, but dull” Charlotte Street with its “opposing lines of brick walls, with rectangular holes in them, which Londoners call houses”.

It also contains my favourite description of the student Rossetti in full-on self-conscious Romantic mode, by an anonymous ‘fellow student’ (possibly Fred himself) who had evidently been staring a bit too intently:

“Thick, beautiful, and closely curled masses of rich brown much-neglected hair, fell about an ample brow, and almost to the wearer’s shoulders; strong eyebrows marked with their dark shadows a pair of rather sunken eyes, in which a sort of fire, instinct of what may be called proud cynicism, burned with a furtive kind of energy, and was distinctly, if somewhat luridly, glowing. His rather high cheek-bones were the more observable because his cheeks were roseless and hollow enough to indicate the waste of life and midnight oil to which the youth was addicted; close shaving left bare his very full, not to say sensuous, lips and square-cut masculine chin. Rather below the middle height, and with a slightly rolling gait, Rossetti came forward among his fellows with a jerky step, tossed the falling hair back from his face, and, having both hands in his pockets, faced the student world with an insouciant air which savoured of defiance, mental pride and thorough self-reliance.”

I love that. Have you ever described one of your friends so minutely?

The book itself is rather fragile, one-hundred-and-twenty years on. The tissue paper over the illustrative plates feels like dried petals. Luckily, you can read the text in full at the Rossetti Archive.


Wunderkammer: The Street of Crocodiles

It’s hard to separate the writing and art of Bruno Schulz from the tragedies of his life and death. Schulz’ peculiar inner world was shaped by the traumas of WW1, the death of his father, and an almost pathological solitude that cut him off even from his fellow Jews in the ghetto. In the wake of his death at the hands of a Nazi officer in 1942, many of his drawings and his final literary work, The Messiah, were lost forever. Under cover of darkness, a friend carried his body from where it lay in the street to a nearby Jewish cemetery. No trace of his grave site remains.

brunoshultzI first became aware of Schulz through the Brothers Quay 1986 film of his short story collection, The Street of Crocodiles. Terry Gilliam called it one of the most beautiful films ever made, and he’s not wrong. The stuttering dolls and the clash of rusty machinery alongside throbbing organic matter stay with you long after the twenty minute film is over.

I only read the book recently, needing something brief after a massive Donna Tartt blowout. The Street of Crocodiles bears little literal resemblance to the film, but thrums with the same unsettling energy. Beginning in a stiflingly hot day in the Polish city of Drogobych where Schulz lived and died, the reader is introduced to the strange inhabitants of the city, wheeling about like beetles on the baking pavement. Then come the even more disconcerting denizens of the family home. A shy, thin young man, Schulz inserts himself as an unobtrusive narrator, watching the strange comings and goings of his family with little concern for the creeping madness of his father and the violence of the strangely powerful servant Adela.

Schulz is most commonly lumped in with Kafka and Proust. Having only read Crocodiles so far, he reminds me most of magical realists like Angela Carter and Mikhail Bulgakov; more introverted, like a quiet cousin of theirs, but just as poetic and hilarious.

With Schulz, everyday sights are loaded with meaningful life. The landscape he traipses each day with his mother becomes a character in itself, as much as any family member: “And over the fence the sheepskin of grass lifted in a hump, as if the garden had turned over in its sleep, its broad peasant back rising and falling as it breathed on the stillness of the earth.” His disturbed father shares this odd sensitivity, adopting tailors’ dummies and treating them as beings capable of pain: “Who dares to think that you can play with matter, that you can shape it for a joke, that the joke will not be built in, will to eat into it like fate, like destiny?”

Bruno_SchulzHe is sensitive without being sentimental, as if conscious that the rules of his world are not the same as his neighbours:

“In a way, these ‘stories’ are true; they represent my style of living, my particular lot. The dominant feature of that lot is profound solitude, a withdrawal from the cares of daily life. Solitude is the catalyst that brings reality to fermentation, to the precipitating out of figures and colours.”

Reality goes in. Imagination – distilled – comes out.

Schulz’ drawings remind me of those of his contemporary Mervyn Peake – probably the reason I warmed to him so quickly. Schulz’ hollow-cheeked Jews wouldn’t be out of place in The Hall of Bright Carvings; Peake’s Mister Flay would be quite at home in The Book of Idolatry. Sideways black comedy came naturally to them both, although it’s impossible to look at them side-by-side without the sad realisation that Peake documented the atrocities of the Holocaust as an official war artist while Schulz – and so much of his surreal, beautiful work – did not survive it.


Henry Darger and The Realms of The Unreal

To most who encountered him, Henry Darger was a quiet little man in an army overcoat. He lived alone in a one-room Chicago apartment, attended Mass daily, and swept the floors of the local hospital.

The old man appeared to have no family, no friends, and accepted help only from a select few neighbours who couldn’t agree on how to pronounce his name. But in the early 1970s, when Henry Darger became too frail to care for himself, his astonishing inner world was finally uncovered.

In his tiny apartment, Henry left an autobiography, hundreds of visionary paintings, and perhaps the world’s longest novel – over 15,000 pages. His landlords were astonished, and took the decision to preserve Henry’s room and its extraordinary contents. He is now considered one of the twentieth century’s greatest outsider artists.


With no artistic training, the reclusive Henry had taught himself how to trace, colour and enlarge the vast collection of ephemera he amassed since the early 1900s, turning sweet Americana into what he called The Realms of The Unreal. Violent, funny, optimistic and fatalistic at once, his is a world in which children live under the constant threat of evil, where little girls are as brave as grown men, and where supernatural creatures live to protect children – and often fail.


So what was Henry like as a child? His story is an unhappy one. Born in 1892, Henry was a socially-awkward little boy, pushed from institution to institution in an age when children with learning disabilities were even more vulnerable than they are today. Orphaned early, he saw how children fared in such environments without a caring adult hand.

“Never had a good Christmas in all my life, nor a good New Year. And now, resenting it, I am very bitter. But, fortunately, not revengeful.”

In his autobiography, Henry talks about a time he was lashed by the wrists to the back of a galloping horse as punishment for an escape attempt. Many of his artworks linger on the act of strangulation.

Henry went on to serve in the First World War. Though he never saw active combat, the military experience stayed with him, increasing the vividity of the imaginary conflict he called The Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm between the Christian nation of Abbieannia and the vicious Glandelinians who kidnapped and collected child slaves. In these fictional battles, Henry had the chance to fight back.

“One remarkable incident during the battle when heaven and earth seemed to be going to pieces was the bravery of General Darger. “The cowards! To pursue innocent children with that big number,” snarled Darger in a boiling rage. “I won’t spare a man.” Then he gave the signal to his men to blaze away.”


Henry wrote two endings to his epic: one in which the Abbieannian Christians save the children, and another in which evil triumphs.


In terms of imagination and detail, The Realms of The Unreal reminds me of Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme’s Fourth World, and the Brontë siblings’ Angria and Gondal. Interestingly, these private worlds featured the authors as deus ex machina called ‘genii’. Henry wrote himself into The Realms of The Unreal as the leader of ‘the gemini’, the elite protectors of children.

henrydarger3In reality, Henry longed for a child of his own. He petitioned the Catholic church to allow him to adopt, but his request was repeatedly refused. Henry didn’t have the $5 a month it would take to look after a dog.

After being taken from his home to the infirmary, the elderly Henry faded fast. His neighbours clubbed together to clean his apartment, whereupon they unearthed a life’s worth of work. No one had suspected the quiet man capable of such far-reaching vision and tenacity. Henry’s reaction to the discovery of his secret world: “Too late now.” He died on April the 13th, 1973.

If you take one thing away from the Henry Darger story, it’s the importance of creation. It doesn’t matter if you can’t draw to prize-winning standard, it doesn’t matter if your spelling is atrocious or you haven’t read the canon of Western literature. If you have something inside you, get it out. Let it flourish on your terms. As Rossetti said, it’s “fundamental brainwork”, not “academic frippery”, that wins in the end.

There is a touching documentary on Henry Darger by Oscar winner Jessica Yu, with music by one of my favourite composers, Jeff Beal. You can currently see the whole thing on Youtube:

Wend It Like William – The Morris Pilgrimage with Curiocity

MorrisBJChaucer2Whilst fully admitting it feels as if I left both my legs somewhere in Greenwich, this weekend’s Curiocity Pre-Raphaelite Pilgrimage was a great (and exhausting, oh good God, exhausting) way to spend a Saturday.

Beginning at Southwark at The George Inn, an original coaching inn close to the site where Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims would have set off, we embarked on a thirteen mile trek to William Morris’ Red House in Bexleyheath, an ‘escape from the city’ taking in the green spaces and lesser-travelled highways of the London Morris would have known.

Coffee in hand, we were packed off with a retelling of The Wife of Bath and the encouragement to tell stories and mingle along the way.


In th’ olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye,
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede.
This was the olde opinion, as I rede;
I speke of manye hundred yeres ago.
But now kan no man se none elves mo

The Pilgrim’s Passport

We wended our way across the city, thanks to chips and cider, a lot of laughter, and some wonderful sights on the way: the grave of Christopher Marlowe in Deptford (topped with a fresh-cut red rose), storytelling in the Queen’s Orchard following a sudden rainstorm, and seeing the brown guts of the Thames bared at low tide, where the mudlarks and toshers would once have rooted for valuables – the modernity Morris sought to flee, and the history that made up the landscape of his imagination.

(This got me thinking. An equivalent Rossetti pilgrimage might involve a nocturnal wander through Chelsea, the ransacking of a Whitechapel antique shop, and a good cry on the floor. Another Saturday, perhaps.)

Back at Red House in time for folk music and a further dose of cider, we had our polaroids taken by the front door as proof of survival. Yes, we all brought wombats. We are serious scholars.

prbpolaroid2 At the same time, across London, 300 people were arrested at an EDL rally. We were reminded that for every person generating cruelty and ugliness there is more than one devoted to beauty and equality.

“All we true people must make up our minds – if we don’t see – to feel each other – & never let go. Else the wicked ones will have it all their way.” – John Ruskin

Seeing those newly-uncovered murals for the first time was as exciting as we knew it would be. There’s what could well be Morris’ first repeating floral pattern, as well as two wombats (verified by John Simon, author of Rossetti’s Wombat and world authority on that most noble of marsupials) snuggled up at a wedding feast. To think, someone covered it all in white emulsion on purpose.

“I am too blind and sick to know what I am about,” wrote Lizzie Siddal, working on something within the house. Seeing these collaborative works in the flesh, you really feel what a joint effort the place was, and though, as our guide said, the wildly clashing patterns give the impression that the artists were cheerfully tonguing LSD, the excitement and the love of the time shines through.

“You realise they were all in their early twenties when they did this?” grinned the lovely lady who served us tea. “Sickening, isn’t it?”


Si je puis – ‘If I can’, or, paraphrased by Rossetti ‘as I can’t’.

Many thanks to Red House and the people at Curiocity for creating such a challenging and enjoyable day out.

Vote for your favourite on #PRBday

September the 8th is PRB Day – your annual chance to vote for your favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting. This year is extra-special, being The Pre-Raphaelite Society’s 25th anniversary.

Founded in September 1988 (I was two!), the Society’s Review remains a great source of information and discussion – keeping the PRB as fresh and relevant as the day half a dozen boys got together in Millais’ living room and wondered if ‘brotherhood’ would make them sound like the clergy.

Last year, I voted for the 1860 Regina Cordium. I love the way Lizzie’s red beads cascade over her sickly green flesh; the queen of hearts languishing in a respiratory clinic.


Tweet @PreRaphSoc with the hashtag #PRBDay and vote for your favourite Pre-Raphaelite painting. Last year’s winner was Millais’ Ophelia, but I think we can do better than that, don’t you? (Child genius = basically cheating, right?)

Sound the Important Artistic Discovery Klaxon

Excuse me while I let the Red House press release do the talking. I’m busy gnawing the furniture with excitement.

Remarkable wall painting by Pre-Raphaelite artists is uncovered at home of William Morris

For years, two figures painted on a wall and concealed behind a cupboard at the former home of William Morris were believed to have been the work of a single artist.

Now, major conservation work has uncovered an entire wall painting which experts believe is by William Morris and friends, all of whom were important Pre-Raphaelite artists.

Red House in Kent, owned by the National Trust, was the home of Morris between 1860 and 1865. Regular visitors were Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown.

At different times, the friends helped Morris to decorate walls, ceilings and items of furniture at the house with colourful wall paintings and decorative patterns inspired by their love of the medieval past.

After Morris left Red House, until the Trust acquired it in 2003, it remained in private ownership. As tastes changed, much of his original decoration was covered over with panelling, wallpaperor paint.

The bedroom wall painting had been hidden for years behind a fitted wardrobe and covered with wallpaper and until this year only two indistinct figures were visible.

Following generous funding, the Trust has been able to undertake conservation which has uncovered the complete painting, measuring six feet by eight feet. The painting, designed for what had been Morris and his wife Jane’s bedroom, depicts Biblical characters: the figures of Adam and Eve (with the serpent), Noah (holding a miniature ark), Rachel and Jacob (with a ladder) and is designed to resemble a hanging tapestry with the illusion of folds.


Before restoration and (nearly) after. Magic.

It is not known for certain which artist painted which figure, and further research and analysis will be undertaken.

Jan Marsh, author and President of the William Morris Society said: “The concept of the overall design was almost certainly by Morris. Our initial thoughts are that the figure of Jacob was by Morris, Rachel possibly by Elizabeth Siddal, Noah by Madox Brown. But who painted Adam and Eve? Maybe Rossetti or Burne-Jones?”


There’s even a wombat snuggled up under a chair.

James Breslin, House Manager at Red House said:

“The early years at Red House were a flowering of ideas and creativity for Morris, who encouraged his friends to help him design a home uniquely medieval in feel. To uncover such a remarkable example of this early decoration has been so exciting.

“As we uncover more and more of those original schemes, we have been delighted that our visitors today have been able to share in these discoveries, and see the conservation in action, every step of the way.”

If the thought of incredible collaborative artworks hiding behind wallpaper makes you foam at the mouth, there’s still time to reserve your place at the Pre-Raphaelite Pilgrimage on the 7th of September – a thirteen-mile Chaucerian trek from The George Inn on London’s Borough High Street to Red House. You don’t even have to walk it, and there will be beer. I, for one, might need it.

Wunderkammer: Cane Hill Asylum

The Internet, like the material world, offers places you’ll stumble across and never find again. An hour’s exploration can stay with you for years, long after the original site has disappeared, changed it’s name, or been wiped away by progress or neglect.

I came across photographer Mechanised’s images of Cane Hill Asylum on Livejournal years ago, and of all the teeming galleries of urban exploration you can trawl through online, this one left an impression. The photos struck a sensitive balance between the human narrative of the building’s original function and the beauty of the decay, and when I recently rediscovered the gallery’s new location – an accident – all the images packed their original punch.

Mechanised indulges in none of the pound-shop Halloween gimmickry you often get with urban exploration. The overflowing drawers of patient art are particularly poignant.

Epitaph for Happiness (and Audrey) There’s not one curse or evil deed, No spells or promises to heed, There is no equal power within the mind Yes! Love’s happiness was hard to find [April, 1969]

Epitaph for Happiness (and Audrey)
There’s not one curse or evil deed,
No spells or promises to heed,
There is no equal power within the mind
Love’s happiness was hard to find
[April, 1969]

Post-war, wards at Cane Hill were named after historical luminaries in an attempt to lighten the stigma of the asylum. Waiting in the pharmacy, this wheelchair is from Rossetti ward – named for Gabriel, not Christina. Considering his mental health, it’s an affecting image.

David Bowie’s half-brother Terry died on the railway tracks outside the hospital.

Charlie Chaplin’s mother was a patient here.

She looked pale and her lips were blue, and, although she recognised us, it was without enthusiasm; her old ebullience had gone. […] She sat listening and nodding, looking vague and preoccupied. I told her that she would soon get well. “Of course,” she said dolefully, “if only you had given me a cup of tea that afternoon, I would have been alright.” The doctor told Sydney afterwards that her mind was undoubtedly impaired by malnutrition, and that she required proper medical treatment, and although she had lucid moments, it would be months before she completely recovered. But for days I was haunted by her remark: “If only you had given me a cup of tea, I would have been alright.”


Cane Hill was demolished after arson and flood made it unwelcoming to prospective buyers. The land is now being offered up for flats.

As Mechanised says, London is a ruthless city.


Wunderkammer: Doctor Sayre’s Spines

Victorian medical photography often crosses the border into art. There’s a soft, fetishistic quality to even the most gruesome of images.

There’s something about spines in particular that catches my attention. Whether it’s the fact that I narrowly dodged the genetic scoliosis bullet, or that spines are anchored to our language of courage and stability, Lewis A. Sayre’s 1877 publication, Spinal Disease and Spinal Curvature (which you can download free at archive.org) stands out in terms of beauty and weirdness.

scoliosis rack
Sayre – shown above – recommended patients with spinal curvatures suspend themselves twice daily on a contraption resembling a tripod for flogging errant soldiers. The result were these strange photographs, with Sayre and his aides standing by like attendants to martyred saints.

scoliosis rack2
Many of Dr Sayre’s patients are described as working class labourers, ‘stout’ and ‘surprisingly’ healthy, including children whose parents attributed their deformities to heavy manual work; lugging pails of coal, bad school conditions, and the repeated trope of the severe fall in infancy.


After treatment, they are nearly all reported to be interacting with nature, paddling ‘stockings off’ in seaside rockpools, feeling ‘no fatigue’ on long country walks and rounds of croquet, as if transported from their working class lives into a J. M. Barrie fantasy. These images are the purgatory between those two stages.



David Bowie is… really rather good

The V&A have done it again.

‘David Bowie is’ was always going to be an immense undertaking, being a study of the evolution of earnest Davie Jones of The Society For The Prevention of Cruelty To Long Haired Men into…whatever this is…


But they pull it off. Beautifully.

Bowie has always been like a distantly freakish but much-loved uncle to me. I first got into his music by raiding other people’s parents’ record collections in the ’90s, and although I didn’t understand most of it, it stuck with me and shaped my tastes. I can’t claim to know much about him – I just enjoy the spectacle.

bowievandasignAnd spectacle is what the V&A provides, introducing you to the sensibly-suited Bromley boy who “just wanted to be known” all the way through to a cavern of screens displaying a gigantic gyrating Bowie flanked by mannequins displaying a career’s worth of costumes. The effect is like entering the temple of a strange, glamorous god, compounded by signs reading “David Bowie is watching you”. (We liked the less-worrying Warholian “David Bowie is thirsty – head to the cafe for orange juice or coffee!”) Would museum-goers accept such a gargantuan display from anyone else?

Laid out like the relics of saints, it’s thrilling to get within arm’s length of the tiny-waisted suits of The Thin White Duke and the dusty Regency pirate chic of Screaming Lord Byron. This collection of characters, each with a unique wardrobe, sound, and method of movement gives the impression of all the Bowies being present at once – a cast of personas that make you wonder who and where the actual David is. Or if he exists at all.

David Bowie Is Leaving Clues Everywhere

It was interesting to see evidence of Bowie’s consciousness that no art is fixed to its author’s intentions. Once it’s out there, it becomes a link in a chain of reactions, visualised in ‘The Periodic Table of Bowie’ by Paul Robertson  at the exhibition’s end, filing high-profile fans like Morrissey under “fly my pretties fly”.

We get tantalising scraps of Bowie’s multimedia consumption, of bits and pieces ransacked from culture modern and antique. He remarks he may well have ended up as a novelist, and you see the mingling of the musical/literary/cinematic in the storyboarding for Hunger City with its echoes of A Clockwork Orange and Todd Browning’s Freaks. The wordplay in Future Legend is decidedly Mervyn Peake:

Of course, my favourite was always going to be the frock-shot on The Man Who Sold The World. “Funnily enough, and you’ll never believe me, it was a parody of Gabriel Rossetti. Slightly askew, obviously.” Dinah Roe has written about the amusing homage here.



I usually hate tinny museum headphones, but the sound here was high-quality with a clever ‘spotlighting’ system sensing where you were standing. You could stand three feet away from someone having a totally different experience.

DAVID BOWIEThis knitted catsuit was apparently available in pattern form for early fans to copy. Sadly no photos of valiant DIY efforts.

Small children leaping about, playing air guitar – the chain reaction at work.

The Goblin King’s crystal alongside a handwritten letter from Jim Henson telling Bowie how perfect he’d be for the role.


The exhibition continues until August 11th 2013. All online tickets are currently sold out, but if you turn up the the V&A’s main desk when they open at 10am, you’re likely to get a ticket for later in the day.