A visit to the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham, brought this to mind. We had booked a time slot which gave me enough time to stand outside Specsavers on the meandering Main Street of the town, and have a photo taken, as a futile reminder of the Dominic Cummings ‘affair’ – just one of many which have damned the Conservative government since lockdown began.
For those innocent of the ‘affair’, this senior adviser to Prime Minister Johnson broke lockdown rules by driving the near 300 miles from London to his parents’ home near Durham. He misjudged the wakefulness of the local populace, who spotted and photographed him in Barnard Castle, and tried to cover his tracks by saying that he had visited the town to ‘test his eyesight’ before driving back to London. Why couldn’t his wife have driven? A national disgrace which piled more trouble on the Government. Mostly everyone else in the country was doing their bit, so why couldn’t he??
The Bowes Museum is most famous for its Silver Swan automaton (it’s brilliant, look to up if you don’t know of it), made even more brilliant by the fact that it was made in the late 18th century. If it had been made last year, the design and manufacturing team would be nominated for prizes.
Its walls are also lined with many excellent paintings from across the ages to the present day. All very rewarding to view and marvel at the artists’ skill, care, love and attention. My efforts at painting fall far short of these, even though I do have to say that the sky which I painted recently over the Glenelg Jetty, just outside Adelaide, is as near to perfection as I am likely to achieve.
Nevertheless, I didn’t find these consummate works of art to be affecting. In other words, they didn’t make me well up inside or out. My heart didn’t beat faster and no tears sprung to my eyes. There was no real sense of wonder and ecstasy, just admiration.
So, you’ll be thinking that the broad world of physical art just doesn’t hit my personal spot, and you’ll be right – enjoyment and admiration, yes, but no more.
By a strange and unconnected coincidence, which walking through one of the galleries, Elgar’s Nimrod, from his orchestral suite “Variations on a Theme – Enigma”, was playing quietly through the tannoy system. I made a sharp intake of breath and the telltale signs of being truly affected by something, made themselves instantly known. Straight to the heart, in the same way that the smell of linseed oil on cricket bats coupled with new mown grass has the same effect. Paintings or sculpture can never do that for me.
I can even remember back in my youth, when the Kinks brought out a new single or album, what sheer unalloyed joy I felt in my heart. And these new releases fortunately always appeared on the promised dates, and I arrived at either Oxley’s in Great Malvern or Wilson Peck’s in Sheffield to collect my trophies. Joys that I was fortunate to find in my life.
So, it’s music that does it for me mainly. No other art form comes anywhere near, nor, I suppose, ever will.
Whilst also being able to knock out a few chords and write a few decent songs, the experience of singing in a choir can have the same effect, whilst being aware that emotions have to be kept in check whilst singing – I have been very near the edge sometimes singing Bass One with up to seven other harmony lines on pieces such as Eric Whitacre’s Sleep, or Morton Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, and perhaps most memorably Gustav Holst’s Nunc Dimittis in a sparsely filled Cathédrale de Saint-Denis in Paris, when the singing stops just before the ‘Gloria Patri’, and also at the very end. The layered sound rang and rang around the vast space – maybe the sound of Heaven to many…
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