Monday, May 08, 2017

Browne on Art and Paintings

Scattered throughout Sir Thomas Browne's collected writings there can be found various remarks and observations relating to aesthetics and the visual arts. Furthermore, a familiarity with the social circles frequented by Browne provides clues to identifying paintings which he personally may have seen.

Browne's life-time encompassed the 'Golden Age' of Dutch Art. It was an era in which painters of the genius of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Johannes Vermeer (1635-1675) flourished. Browne's life-time also witnessed a decline in Anglo-Dutch relations as the newly-established and independent Republic developed its own trading and commerce. No less than three naval wars between the Dutch and English occurred in his life-time, the last resulting in a tragedy for his family.

With its extensive coast-line the county of Norfolk, along with the city of Norwich have a close geographical and cultural proximity to the Netherlands. It should not therefore be too surprising that paintings by Dutch master artists were acquired by Norfolk and Norwich gentry throughout the seventeenth century.  A clue to Browne himself owning a Dutch painting occurs in a footnote in his little-explored commonplace notebooks

'Being in the country a few miles from Norwich, I observed a handsome bower of honeysuckle over the door of a cottage of a right good man; which bower I fancied to speak as follows' ........

There follows a Latin poem in which Browne in a rare example of his poetic skills gives voice to honeysuckle. The verse concludes with a footnote -

'Alluding to the fable in Ovid of Baucis and Philemon entertaining Jupiter and Mercury in their cottage; whereof hangs in my parlour from a draught of Rubens'. [1]

Peter Paul Rubens painting of the gods Jupiter and Mercurius visiting the house of Philemon and Baucis (c.1630) depicts the fable as told by the Roman poet Ovid in Metamorphoses of Baucis and Philemon who unwittingly entertain the gods Jupiter and Mercury in their cottage. The charitable act of hospitality, encouraged by all world religions for humanity towards strangers is endorsed in Christianity thus- ' Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. [2]

Its interesting to think that this painting may have been a constant reminder to Browne to live as far as possible in an hospitable way, no easy aspiration in an era which encompassing the English Civil war (1642-51) was often inhospitable in extreme.

Its quite possible that Browne’s painting may have originated from the studio of Rubens rather than by the hand of Rubens himself. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) made much use of sub-contracted artists as well as those of his own large workshop. Painters of the calibre of Van Dyke often studied in master-artist's work-shops.

It has been calculated that an estimated 1.3 million Dutch pictures were painted from 1640 -1660 alone, many of which originated from master-artist's work-shops. This volume of production meant that prices were fairly low, except for the best known artists.

Van Dyke became the chief assistant to Rubens, the dominant master of Antwerp, and the whole of Northern Europe. Ruben's influence on the young Van Dyke was immense; indeed, Rubens referred to the nineteen-year-old van Dyck as "the best of my pupils". When Van Dyke arrived in England to establish a successful career, he found, as the German composer Handel almost a century later, that while the English were wealthy and appreciative patrons of the arts, nonetheless they lacked many of the skills associated with nurturing and developing the arts.

In Browne's psychological self-portrait Religio Medici written after completing his medical studies in the Dutch University city of Leiden in 1629,  the recently qualified doctor wittily confesses  -

'I can look a whole day with delight upon a handsome picture, though it be but of an Horse'. [3]

Browne’s candid admission to delighting in contemplation of a painting exemplifies his refined appreciation of beauty, a  psychological feature of his which is often overlooked by critics and biographers. However, the rigours of establishing a medical practise in order to provide for his ever-growing family, along with his pursuing interests such as conducting ‘elaboratory’ experiments, bird-keeping, antiquarian studies, letter-writing and reading, along with living conditions in 17th century England in general, could hardly have permitted the learned doctor with the leisure-time to contemplate a painting a whole day. Such an expressed sentiment is more wishful thinking than any opportunity for doing so, yet also suggest Browne possessed a strong inclination to contemplate artistic beauty.

It's also in Religio Medici that one of the most popular of all Browne’s many quotes, now frequently cited as an internet meme can be found -

Nature hath made one world, and Art another. In brief, all things are artificial, for nature is the Art of God. [4]

Although the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of  Sir Thomas Browne and his son Edward’s libraries announces that, ‘Books of Painting and Sculpture’ are to be auctioned, no such books are listed in the Auction Catalogue. The 1711 Auction Sales Catalogue has been described as indispensable for understanding and appreciating Browne’s vast and omnivorous reading, book-collecting and erudition. However, the fifty-odd pages of the facsimile document, along with an introduction and indexing by Princeton professor of English literature Jeremiah Finch (1910-2005) was not published until as late as 1986.

Without a reliable record of art-books once owned by Browne one is left with only fleeting allusions to artists and art-books in his writings. In  Pseudodoxia Epidemica  for example, he tantalizingly alludes to owning a famous edition of  Michelangelo stating -

But this absurdity that eminent Artist Michael Angelo hath avoided, in the Pictures of the Cumean and Persian Sibyls, as they stand described from the printed sculptures of Adam Mantuanus. [5]

The bulk of Browne's art-criticism can be found  in his encyclopaedic endeavour Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646). Its fifth book, entitled,‘Of many things questionable as they are commonly described in Pictures’ includes criticism upon the veracity of depictions of mermaids, gryphons, unicorns and basilisks, as well as speculations upon colour and the causes of blackness in nature.

Defining painters as, 'the visible representers of things, and such as by the learned sense of the eye, endeavour to inform the understanding’. [6] Browne laments in his quest to ascertain truth, ‘nor is the hand of the Painter more restrainable than the pen of the Poet'. [7]

The  essence of Browne's art aesthetics occurs in his stating-

Art being but the imitator or secondary representor, it must not vary from the verity of the example; or describe things otherwise than they truly are or have been. For hereby introducing false Idea's of things it perverts and deforms the face and symmetry of truth. [8]

No less than three chapters of the encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica are devoted to the cause of Blackness. Firstly, in consideration of skin colour, the cause of so much irrational hatred, prejudice and suffering throughout centuries, then in relation to colour. Browne arrives at the conclusion that black is equal in beauty to any other colour.

Browne's deep interest in colour is evident in his regretting, ‘we remain imperfect in the general Theory of colours', whilst also speculating - 

Thus although a man understood the general nature of colours, yet were it no easy Problem to resolve, Why Grass is green? Why Garlick, Molyes, and Porrets have white roots, deep green leaves, and black seeds? Why several docks and sorts of Rhubarb with yellow roots, send forth purple flowers? Why also from Lactary or milky plants which have a white and lacteous juyce dispersed through every part, there arise flowers blew and yellow ? ...Why shall the marvel of Peru produce its flowers of different colours, and that not once, or constantly, but every day, and variously? Why Tulips of one colour produce some of another, and running through almost all, should still escape a blew? And lastly, Why some men, yea and they a mighty and considerable part of mankind, should first acquire and still retain the gloss and tincture of blackness ? [9]

Browne's sensitivity toward colour can be seen in the following extracts. Firstly, in notes taken from his 'elaboratory' experiments -

'And this is also apparent in Chymical preparations. So Cinnabar becomes red by the acid exhalation of sulphur, which otherwise presents a pure and niveous white. So spirits of Salt upon a blue paper make an orient red. So Tartar or vitriol upon an infusion of violets affords a delightful crimson. Thus it is wonderful what variety of colours the spirits of Saltpeter, and especially, if they be kept in a glass while they pierce the sides thereof; I say, what Orient greens they will project: from the like spirits in the earth the plants thereof perhaps acquire their verdure. And from such salary irradiations may those wondrous varieties arise, which are observable in Animals, as Mallards heads, and Peacocks feathers, receiving intention or alteration according as they are presented unto the light. [10]

Secondly, in a detailed description of a bird written for the ornithologist Christopher Merritt.

The head neck throat of a violet colour, the back upper parts of the wing of a russet yellow, the fore part of the wing azure succeeded downward by a greenish blue, the lower parts of the wing outwardly of a brown, inwardly of a merry blue, the belly a light faint blue, the back toward the tail of a purple blue, the tail eleven feathers of a greenish colour, the extremities of the outward feathers thereof white, with a eye of green. Garrulus Argentoratensis [11]

Finally, in a humorous description involving the colour green. Once more from his little-explored Commonplace notebooks-

The picture of Signor Verdero in a proper habit. A suit of a mandrake or nightshade Green. A cloak of a Thistle colour faced with Holly green. A Burdock green hat with an hat-band of poppy leaf vert, set with emeralds and Beryls and a plume of parrot green feathers. Stockings of an Ivy green with sage coloured garters. A Rue coloured sash or girdle with Brake green fringe. Pantoffles of cabbage colour laced with sea Holly or eryngo green. Ribbons all about of fig laurel and Box green. [12]

Visual imagery is integral to Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) in which a rapid procession of objects, patterns and botanical observations exemplary of the quincunx pattern are paraded before the reader. Browne's extraordinary free-ranging imagination cites evidence of the number five and quincunx pattern in art, nature and mystically in  diverse fields such as -

Biblical scholarship, Egyptology, comparative religion in particular the Bembine Tablet of Isis, mythology, ancient world gardening and plantations, geometry, including the Archimedean solids, sculpture, coins, architecture, paving-stones, battle-formations, optics including the camera obscura, zoology, ornithology, the kabbalah, astrology, astronomy and not least, botany,  including many 'occular' descriptions of cinque-foiled flowers and speculations which anticipate modern-day studies in genetics, germination, generation and heredity.

Quite appropriately, and in stark polarity to the serious and gloomy melancholy of Urn-Burial, The Garden of Cyrus is the playful and cheerful half of the literary diptych and as such mentions past-time games including Backgammon, Chess, Skittles, Knuckle Stone and Archery while remote out-of-orbit topics to orthodox learning touched upon in the discourse include - the healing power of music, 'celestial physiognomy', and 'the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell in his Starry Book of Heaven'.

Late in his life, circa 1675, Browne wrote the extraordinary tract Musaeum Clausum (The Closed Museum) an inventory of imagined, lost or rumoured books, pictures and objects, all of which are succinctly described in no more than a few sentences. The sub-section entitled Rarities in Pictures  features paintings which are either set in exotic locations such as moonlight, the polar regions or underwater or  else depicting historical events such as Hannibal crossing the alps with elephants.

Artists have responded well to Browne's visual imagery. The British artist Paul Nash (1889-1946) contributed no less than 32 illustrations for a new edition of Browne's discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus in 1932.

More recently, the two leading artists of North Sea Magical Realism, Peter Rodulfo and Mark Burrell  have each realized items taken from the gallery of Rarities in Pictures in Browne's  Museum Clausum.

13. An Elephant dancing upon the Ropes with a Negro Dwarf upon his Back. by Peter Rodulfo (above)

16. Draughts of Passionate Looks; .....Of Oedipus when he first came to know that he had killed his Father, and married his own Mother. by Mark Burrell (below).

Among Browne's many friends were the Bacon family who resided on the Norfolk/Suffolk border at Gillingham. Browne, by all accounts, socialized with the Bacon's to such an extent that in his dedicatory epistle to The Garden of Cyrus to Nicholas Bacon he was able to declare -

'You have wisely ordered your vegetable delights, beyond the reach of exception'.

A warning-note of the wide-ranging subject-matter to be encountered in the discourse is also sounded in the epistle -

'That in this Garden Discourse, we range into extraneous things, and many parts of Art and Nature, we follow herein the example of old and new Plantations, wherein noble spirits contented not themselves with Trees, but by the attendance of Aviaries, Fish Ponds, and all variety of Animals, they made their gardens the Epitome of the earth, and some resemblance of the secular shows of old'.

Royalist supporters kept a low profile during the days of Cromwell's Protectorate of England, occupying their time in harmless pursuits such as antiquities or gardening, while in the wider world England found itself in conflict with the newly-emerging Dutch Republic's economic power and global trade.

The conflict of the Anglo-Dutch wars and British resentment towards the new European power, in words strikingly prescient for present-day political events, such as British prejudice and hostility towards the European Project, and its near-obsession with ‘sovereignty’, are perceptively articulated by the art-historian Simon Schama, who noted of the Dutch Statesman Johan De Witt (1625 -1672) a chief negotiator for the peace treaty of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67).

‘British enmity, on the other hand, he knew to be chronic and rooted in the very nature of the Republic’s existence, or at least  its prosperity. The problem, he supposed in common with many of his compatriots, was that, in matters of trade, the British were poor losers. Unable to match the Dutch in resourcefulness, industry, or technical ingenuity, they were prepared to bludgeon their way to wealth by the assertion of deliberately bellicose principles and by interfering with the freedom of trade. Peevish envy had turned them into a gang of unscrupulous ruffians who would stop at nothing to burglarize the Dutch warehouse, pretending all the time that some cherished issue of sovereignty had been infringed. [13]

Sir Thomas Browne had particular reason to regret the war between the Dutch Republic and England. It was sometime during 1667 that the Browne family received news from the Admiralty that midshipman Thomas Browne (b.1646) who participated in the Naval sea-battle of Lowestoft in 1665  had been reported as lost and his whereabouts unknown, in all probability losing his life at sea following a naval battle.

Its quite possible that Browne once viewed The Supper at Emmaus by the artist Cornelis Engelsz (1575–1650). A combination of still-life and Biblical scene, it was painted when the artist was aged 37 and at full maturity and was probably acquired by Sir Nathaniel Bacon, the grandfather of Nicholas Bacon, during his European tour in 1613.

The Supper at Emmaus (c.1612) has three figures in its foreground who indulge in earthly pleasures, symbolised by the details of the fish, game, meat, vegetables, bread, wine flagon and dairy produce, all of which are painted with meticulous detail. In the background in an adjacent room the figure of Christ is seen breaking bread with two disciples. The viewer is simultaneously reminded of earthly pleasures and The Last Supper.

Another painting which Browne may have had the opportunity to view occurs through his association with Robert Paston (1631-1683) a scientist, politician and a member of Norfolk's gentry. In correspondence to the Norwich physician-philosopher, Robert Paston informed Browne of his alchemical experiments, doubtless to an eager ear-

I have at Oxnead seen this salt change black as ink, I must, at the lowest, have an excellent aurum potable, and if the signs we are to judge in Sendivogius’ description be true, I have the key which answers to what he says, that if a man has that which will dissolve gold as warm water doth ice, you have that which gold was first made in the earth. [14]

Its entirely possible that upon hearing this news Sir Thomas Browne could have made the short journey ten miles north of Norwich to Oxnead. He had done so before in 1668 when informed by Robert Paston of the unearthing of urns at nearby Buxton, part of the Paston's Estate.

The Paston Treasure (c.1675) was commissioned by the Paston family to record their collection of treasures. It was painted by an unknown Dutch artist who travelled to Norfolk for the commission.

The central message of  what is a sophisticated work of art, complete with its rich vanitas symbolism, depiction of collectable art-objects, musical instruments and exotic fruit from around the world, seems to be that the human figures in the painting, both girl and boy, are caught in the very moment of disruption from their respective activities, thus highlighting the uncertainty of this world. A parrot has alighted upon the page of the music-book which the young girl holds, thus preventing her from reading music and singing. Similarly, a pet monkey has sprung onto the shoulder of a startled negro servant, hindering him from his duty of pouring a flagon which he holds in one hand. It's more usual to see such imagery in the humour and morality of 'topsy-turvy' homes depicted by Jan Steen (1626-79).

The importance of The Paston Treasure lies in the international scope and interest of the objects which it portrays, reflecting both exotic nature and the skills of man, as well as the continents of  Africa, the New World of America and China. It has been described as a microcosm of the known world in the 17th century.

The Paston Treasure is the subject of a forthcoming book by senior research scientist, conservator and art-historian, Spike Bucklow. In his ground-breaking book The Alchemy of Paint: Art, Science and Secrets from the Middle Ages (2010) Bucklow highlights how, during the Middle Ages there existed a deep and intimate relationship between rare substances, pigments for painting, colour and the artist, which has now long been lost.

Paradoxically, as much a chemist as alchemist, Browne also took a deep interest in the properties of substances from nature. In Pseudodoxia he writes of a spermaceti whale stranded upon Norfolk's shallow beaches, noting of the extracted ambergris,  'it mixeth well with painting Colours, though hardly drieth at all. [15] A similar interest in materials useful for the painter can be seen in Browne's correspondence to his eldest son Edward, in which he advises, 'Enquire after smalt, a stone whereof they make blueing for painting and starch.' [16] A further interest in art materials occcurs in his requesting to Edward, 'I wish you would bring over some of the red marking stone for drawing, if any very good'. [17]

Smalt was an important pigment in European oil painting, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was popular because of its low cost and its manufacture became a specialty of the Dutch and Flemish during the 17th century. Smalt's origins lie in the blue pigment used by the ancient Egyptians, known as ‘Egyptian blue’ and  Cobalt blue used in colouring glass.

But perhaps the most solid contribution made by Browne to the visual arts occurs in his introducing new words into English language. The word 'caricature' being perhaps the most impressive of the art-related words which Browne is credited with first usage according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Other art-related neologisms introduced into English language by Browne include the words 'circumference' - 'colouring' - 'cylindrical' - 'illustrative'- 'irradiancy' - 'pictorial' - 'rectangularly' - 'reticulate' and 'rhombodial'.

All of which suggests Browne's interest and contribution to the visual arts may be far greater than previously imagined.


[1] Keynes : Collected works of Browne  Faber and Faber1964
[2] Hebrews 2:13
[3] R.M. Part 2:12
[4] R.M.  Part 1:16
[5] Pseudodoxia Epidemica  Book 1 chapter 9
[5] P.E. Book 5 chapter 11
[6] P.E. Book 1 chapter 9
[7] P.E. Book 5 chapter 19
[8] Ibid.
[9] P.E. Book 6 chapter 9
[10] P.E. Book 6 chapter 13
[11] The miscellaneous writings of Sir Thomas Browne.Faber and Faber 1936
[12] Commonplace notebooks Faber and Faber 1964
[13] The Embarrassment of Riches Simon Schama Fontana 1989
[14] Correspondence dated September 10th 1674 in Vol. 3 of the Collected works of Sir Thomas Browne ed. Simon Wilkins Pickering and Co. 1834
[15] P.E. book 3 chapter 26
[16] Correspondence dated April 28th 1669
[17]  Correspondence dated Sept 22th 1668

Books consulted

Notes on the Natural history of Norfolk. Jarrold and sons 1902
The Works of Sir Thomas Browne ed. Simon Wilkins 1842
The Art of the Dutch Republic 1585-1718  Mariet Westermann 1996
The Embarrassment of Riches Simon Schama Fontana 1989

Useful Wikilinks

The Dutch Republic

The Paston Treasure

The Paston Treasure::Microcosm of the known world

One for Peter R. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Museum Wormianum

The frontispiece engraving accompanying Ole Worm’s Museum Wormianum (1655) provides an abundance of clues to the contents of Sir Thomas Browne's own ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’. 

The Danish physician Ole Worm (1588-1654) like Browne, was a physician, a philosopher of Nature and antiquarian. In Worm's museum zoological, botanical and mineral items, as well as scientific instruments were exhibited. It even included a wheel-operated automaton with flexible limbs which reputedly could move around and pick up objects.

Worm’s objective in creating a collection of ‘the most varied and beautiful phenomena of nature‘ is explained  in a letter of his dating from 1639 -

‘As to the display of curiosities in my museum, I have not yet completed it. I have collected various things on my journeys abroad, and from India and other very remote places I have been brought various things […] that I conserve well with the goal of, along with a short presentation of the various things’ history, also being able to present my audience with the things themselves to touch with their own hands and to see with their own eyes, so that they may themselves … acquire a more intimate knowledge of them all.’ [1]

An example of Ole Worm’s modern, empirical thinking occurs in his asserting in 1638 that the unicorn did not exist and that alleged unicorn horns were simply those from the narwhal.

Sir Thomas Browne was also skeptical of the  existence of the unicorn and its horn and devoted a chapter in his encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) upon the topic. He acknowledges Worm's judgement and informs his reader that several other creatures other than the mythic unicorn possess a horn. [2] His eldest son, Edward Browne (1644-1708) recollecting a 'cabinet of curiosities' seen at a library in Amsterdam noted-

There are also three Unicorns Horns, little differing in length; the longest being five foot and a half:... These were of the Sea-Unicorn, or the Horn or long wreathed Tooth of some Sea-Animal much like it, taken in the Northern Seas; of which I have seen many, both in Public Repositories, and in Private Hands.  My honoured Father Sir T. B. hath also a piece of this sort of Unicorns Horn burnt black, out of the Emperor of Russia's Repository, given him by Dr. Arthur Dee, who was Son to Dr. John Dee, and also Physician to the Emperor of Russia, when his Chambers were burned, in which he preserved his Curiosities. [3]

Suspended from the ceiling of Worm’s museum there can be seen with its fearsome teeth, a Lupus Marinus or Sea-wolf fish. Like Worm, Browne lived close to the North Sea and took a great interest in the strange creatures of deep found there, writing in a letter -

'Lupus Marinus you mention upon a handsome experiment but I find it not in the catalogue. This Lupus Marinus or Lycostomus is often taken by our seamen which fish for cods. I have had divers brought me, they hang up in many houses in Yarmouth'. [4]

In discussion of stones found in the heads of toads Browne states that such stones were-

'found to be taken not out of Toads heads, but out of a Fishes mouth, being handsomely contrived out of the teeth of the Lupus Marinus, a Fish often taken in our Northern Seas, as was publicly declared by an eminent and Learned Physician. [5]

In all probability both the ‘Learned Physician’ and the catalogue  Browne alludes to are the Danish physician Ole Worm and the catalogue of Museum Wormianum. The 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Thomas Browne and his son Edward's libraries lists an edition of Worm’s Museum Wormianum (1655) as once in the learned Norwich physician's library. [6] Its tempting to speculate that an exchange of correspondence, now long lost may have existed between the two seventeenth century Natural Philosophers having so much in common with each other.

Ole Worm’s museum is mentioned in the introductory paragraph of Nrowne's extraordinary Museum Clausum (1684) an inventory of lost, rumoured and imagined books, paintings and objects and a Ur-text of Magical Realism. While the titles of its 'rare books' appeal primarily to the scholar, and those of 'rare paintings' many of exotic locations and dramatic events in the Bible and ancient world provide clues to Browne's taste and aesthetic in paintings, the objects listed in Museum Clausum are intriguing if not bizarre. Once more stones in creature's heads are encountered. Its only through a familiarity with alchemical symbolism that any interpretative sense whatsoever can be made of this curio-

Item 7: A noble stone or Quandros taken out of the head of a Vulture. [7]

Browne seems to be highly skeptical and even mocking claims made by some collectors of the contents of their  'Cabinet of Rarities' when including in his museum-

Item 21: 'A neat Crucifix made out of the cross Bone of  a Frog's Head'.

Item 23 : 'Batrachmyomachia, or the Homerican Battle between Frog's and Mice, neatly described upon the Chizel Bone of a large Pike's Jaw.

The distinguished Browne scholar C.A. Patrides concurs with and amplifies my apprehension of the artistic agenda of  Museum Clausum stating -

'Most of the items are so utterly and absolutely improbable that it is positively impossible to mistake their burden. It is more likely indeed, that Browne endeavoured not to obscure but to underline the inherent absurdity. In this respect, the context he provides for the collection argues an effort to call attention to yet another "vulgar error" of his time, the indiscriminate accumulation of "rarities" by scientists who should have displayed less virtuosity and more judgement.' [8]

Sadly, the fate of a large percentage of Browne’s museum, in particular its birds (he was a keen bird fancier and at one time or another kept an owl, Golden Eagle, Bittern and ostrich some of which were preserved through taxidermy) was sealed in 1667 when Norwich's civic authorities ordered their destruction. The act was justified as a precautionary measure, just in case its exhibits were a potential harbinger of disease in the wake of the Plague which had recently decimated the City's population.

Nevertheless, from scattered statements in Browne's collected 'Notes and Letters on the Natural history of Norfolk, more especially on the Birds and Fishes' (1902) its possible to identify a few items once on display in his museum. Like Worm’s museum, large-size creatures may have been suspended from its ceiling including a pelican, for Browne writes -

An onocrotalus, or pelican, shot upon Horsey Fen, May 22, 1663, which stuffed and cleansed, I yet retain'  and elsewhere,  'I have one hanged up in my house which was shot in a fen'. [9]

There may also have been a sword-fish's head on display in Browne's museum for he states- 

'Xiphias or gladius piscis or sword fish we have in our seas. I have the head of one which was taken not long ago entangled  in the Herring nets, the sword above 2 foot in length'. [10]

There is at present until the end of July this year, a free exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians in London of various artefacts associated with the life and times of Sir Thomas Browne, billed as his 'curious collection' and his 'curious approach to the world'.

The word 'curious' is often applied in descriptions of the physician-philosopher, however this may lead to some confusion if perceived to be exclusively a psychological or characteristic trait, when in his own account of himself he states- 

'I am of a constitution so general, that it consorts, and sympathizeth with all things; I have no antipathy, or rather Idiosyncrasy, in diet, humour, air, anything'.[11]

Not that Browne isn't curious of course, but because of the possibility of misrepresentation, the word 'curious' covering a wide spectrum, a preciser and less ambiguous word to describe Browne other than the currently hard-working word 'curious' to my mind is 'enquiring'.

By all reports the exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians doesn't have quite the same volume of artefacts or the meticulous attention to detail as the fantastic reconstruction by the American photographer and artist Rosamund Purcell (b. 1942). Such disparities reflect how great a widening gap there is between mainland Europe and Britain in the value and appreciation of cultural heritage. Sir Thomas Browne remains an undiscovered continent in the understanding of the British scientific revolution, not least to the British themselves. The Royal College of Physician's exhibition is to be applauded for going some way in amending this deficit.


[1] Victoria and Albert Museum blog entry May 13 2015
[2]  Of Unicorn's horn  Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book 3 chapter 23.
[3] An Account of several travels through a great part of Germany by Edward Browne 1677
[4] Notes and Letters on the Natural history of Norfolk Jarrold and Sons 1902
[5] Ibid.
[6] 1711 Sales Catalogue page 18 no. 55
[7]  Martin Ruland's Dictionary of Alchemy (1612), a book once owned by Browne (Sales Catalogue page 22 no.119) defines a Quandros as -  'a Stone or Jewel which is found in the brain and head of the Vulture, and is said to be of a bright white colour. It fills the breasts with milk, and is said to be a safeguard against dangerous accidents'.
[8] "The Best Part of Nothing", Sir Thomas Browne and the Strategy of Indirection. C.A. Patrides Included in 'Approaches to Sir Thomas Browne: the Ann Arbor Tercentenary Lectures and Essays edited C.A. Patrides University of Misouri Press 1982 
[9] Notes and Letters on the Natural history of Norfolk Jarrold and Sons 1902
[10] ibid.
[11] Religio Medici Part 2 :1

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Peter Rodulfo's 'Night Sea Voyage' triptych.

The British artist Peter Rodulfo's Testing the Water conjures a numinous moment. In a lugubrious twilight at a sea-side pier, a solitary saxophonist plays whilst a close encounter occurs. An ethereal, crab-faced creature raises a glass to the viewer whilst dipping its toe into water.

Testing the Water (oil on canvas) is one of a sequence of three paintings, technically known as a triptych, which Rodulfo completed during the late autumn/early winter of 2015. They are each connected in their imagery with the ‘Night Sea Voyage’ of ancient mythology and alchemy. Rodulfo’s Testing the Water may be interpreted as representing the embarkation point of a 'Night Sea Voyage’.

Testing the Water is set at a sea-side pier and fun-fair in twilight. The silhouetted figure of a solitary saxophonist stands high upon the pier. A sea-horse surfaces from the lapping waves, perhaps attracted by its sound. The pier's fore-shortened perspective draws the eye towards two fairground booths, both with brightly-lit interiors which intrigue upon the entertainment within. The pier terminates in a sloped ramp suitable for embarkation. In the background the architectural structure of a roller-coaster girder decorated in candy coloured peppermint and pink, along with a golden neon crab illumination, while in the foreground seaweed, a pair of menacing pincers and a herring can be seen. Centre-field, a convivial, but also slightly scary crab-faced creature stares with a penetrating gaze towards the viewer, while dipping a toe into water. Raising a wine glass, bubbles escape from its cavernous, rosy-red mouth.

Contrasting areas of colour tonality can be seen in each quarter of Rodulfo’s painting. Its top right features decorative peppermint green, light raspberry and golden hues. In its bottom right, primary colours are dominant. Its sea is mostly turquoise, while its sky consists of broad washes of very dark and muted tones. There are also some intriguing objects to view including a large rattle-like cog, horned tubing and a long strip in blue which unravels in a swirl from background into foreground.

With its square dimensions Testing the Water (90 x 90 cm) holds favourable comparison to well-designed 60's and 70's pop and rock album art-work which introduced artists of the calibre of Sir Peter Blake, Mati Klarwen and Storm Thorgerson, among others, to a wide and discerning audience. Music itself plays a big part in Rodulfo’s leisure-hours. After a long day spent in the studio he enjoys listening to music from a wide-variety of genres and performers, including Lou Reed, Dr John and the Argentinian composer Oswald Golijov, to name but a few.

The music instrument the saxophone is featured in Testing the Water. One of Belgium’s greatest gifts to music, Adolphe Sax’s 1846 invention of a hybrid woodwind and brass instrument is effectively a brass-instrument played with a wood-wind reed, producing a new aural tonality, powerful, sometimes slinky and velvety timbre, capable of great agility. The saxophone is commonly associated with, but not restricted to the genre of jazz. Notable recent works for saxophone include the American composer Philip Glass’s Concerto for Saxophone Quartet (1995) in which all four members of the saxophone family (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) can be heard weaving away in polyphonic minimalist delight with each other in music which is highly evocative in feelings associated with embarkation. [1] There's also a lively Concerto for Saxophone (1993) by the composer Michael Torke b. 1961 which is worth hearing as well.

Remembering all interpretations to be subjective, Testing the Water may be heard as an expressive aural soundscape to the receptive viewer’s inner ear. The sounds of a lapping tide, perhaps with a ship's fog-horn in the distance, a saxophone softly playing, the whirr and cries from fairground rides, even the menacing click of lobster claws and air-bubbles escaping from a vocal larynx can all be heard with an imaginative inner ear.

Another fitting musical back-drop to Rodulfo's canvas can be heard in the ambient electronic music of the composer Edgar Froese’s aptly entitled Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares. [2]

Because crustacean imagery occurs no less than three times in Testing the Water its worthwhile exploring symbolism relating to the crab in depth. There’s a certain frisson between the idealized fair-ground image of a golden neon crab and the stark reality of encountering a hard-gazing crab-faced creature, for example in Rodulfo’s painting, as well as a hint of a momento mori in the form of a  'Death's Head'  in its crab-face symbolism. Indeed the word 'cancer' has long been used to describe a malignant tumour affecting the body. But before embarking upon any analysis of cancerian symbolism in Testing the Water, its imperative to be mindful of what Rodulfo himself states of the crab-figure in his painting-

".... of course when the crab appeared I was aware someone would interpret it astrologically, that was not my intent; I have no interest in astrology. As with most of my imagery I simply arrived at a point in the painting when something crab shaped was required to balance the structure. For me when working on imaginative pieces, the paintings are abstract and I only consider the formal structure, tonal relationships, colour and so on.... The imagery is a bi product of that process. I am interested to see what imagery comes out of the process, but I do not whilst working attach any meaning to it. [3]

Although Rodulfo himself has no interest in astrology, nevertheless, poets, artists and composers when engaged in their exploration of the unconscious psyche invariably encounter archetypal imagery which can be elaborated upon; as the psychologist C.G. Jung recognised, succinctly noting of Cancer’s symbolism -

In astrology, Cancer is a feminine and watery sign, and the summer solstice takes place in it. In Propertius it makes a sinister appearance. ‘Fear thou the ill-omened back of the eight-footed crab'. De Grubernatis says, 'the crab... causes now the death of the solar hero and now that of the monster'. As De Grubernatis thinks, the crab stands now for the sun and now for the moon, according to whether it goes backwards or forwards. [4]

In ancient mythology the Greek  historian Callisthenes in his Alexander Romance relates how crabs dragged Alexander's ships down into the sea. In the folk-tales of the Indian Sanskrit known as the Panchatantra, written circa 300 BCE  there is a tale (Bk.V, 2) of how a mother in order to protect her son from evil and bad luck, gives him a crab which saves his life through killing a black snake. It was a giant crab which bit Heracles in his fight with the many-headed hydra monster. Hercules crushed the crab underfoot and continued with his labour. The goddess Hera placed the crab in the night-sky for its efforts.

Herakles and the Hydra. Etruscan Water Jar circa 525 BCE

Hubble Space Telescope mosaic image of the Crab Nebula

In astronomy the Crab nebula is the remnant of a super-nova star and pulsar wind nebula, first observed and recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054 CE.

In essence Testing the Water captures the numinous or transcendent moment, those not easily defined moments in the spiritual dimension of life in which an awareness of one's existence in space and time, the mystery of being, and the secret, internal workings within the psyche happen.

Just as avian imagery occurs in Rodulfo's As the Elephant Laughed, (one of the most beautiful and cheerful of all his paintings) in which a blackbird intrudes into the frame, allusive to the cyclical return of darkness, and the nigredo stage of alchemy, so too in the sombre atmosphere of Testing the Water, avian imagery is utilized to modulate the mood-music of the canvas. The head of a smiling duck appears apparition-like in its sunset cloudscape; and in completely polarised symbolism to the avian imagery of Laughing Elephant, it hints of an eventual return of  day, light and the albedo stage of alchemy.

Testing the Water is a painting capable of challenging its viewer as to how they personally respond whenever meeting an unfamiliar face in daily life, or in the momentary awareness of being in the presence of unknown psychic phenomenon; with its intense stare it provokes and challenges the dark mistrust, fear and even hatred of 'the other'  lurking asleep, deep within us all. Its a painting which can even stimulate thought in a receptive viewer as to how they personally would react if ever experiencing a close encounter with an alien or extra-terrestrial life-form.

Collectively, Rodulfo’s ‘Night Sea Voyage’ triptych corresponds on a mundane level to the nautical terminology of embarkation, passage and docking in a sea-voyage. Not only is each painting in the triptych artistically realised with seemingly casual, yet in fact consummate brushwork and draughtsmanship but also highlights different facets of Rodulfo’s artistic persona; in his Testing the Water  its the artist's well-disciplined mystical and esoteric inclinations which are given full expression. The persona of the imaginative inventor of bizarre contraptions and hybrid organic and inorganic forms is prominent in Night Passage, while the persona of the witty and jesting commentator is at large in Dry Dock, both of which are discussed in the following commentary. But first, its useful to elaborate upon the symbolic meaning of the 'Night Sea Voyage' itself.

In many accounts of the 'Night Sea Voyage' in world mythology, comparative religion and esoteric literature, the hero travels, often in the belly of a beast or in a vessel (a boat, an ark or casket) across a dark, primordial sea, following the unseen course of the sun after it sets in the west, and later magically reappears in the east.

The night-sea is a boundary which adventurers and heroes are usually reluctant to cross because it is dark and populated with all the monsters that the unconscious can conjure. Night sea voyages of mythology often involve a dragon or a giant fish, such as the Biblical story of Jonah and whale. In any case, those who embark upon the journey undergo a temporary death in anticipation of a rebirth or renewal. The night sea journey is said to take the individual back to their original self, into a sea of possibility and one’s greater and deeper being.

The 'Night Sea Voyage' involves the combination of two dynamic symbols of the unknown, namely, night and the sea. The sea remains a sometimes hostile, not totally explored and wild aspect of nature; its also one of the few expanses of total darkness left in urban lives. To go into the night is to return to a state of indeterminacy and to intermingle with nightmares, monsters and ‘black thoughts’. Night is a potent image of the unconscious and in the darkness of sleep the unconscious psyche is set free. Night is associated with danger and with the fear of the unknown, not least because darkness obstructs sight, a major sensory organ. Night-time is also associated with vulnerability and human physical survival, as well as dreams and the unexpected. Like all symbols, night contains near inexhaustible meanings.

The  starry night-sky has been described as the world’s oldest picture-book. An understanding of  the constellations of the night sky until relatively recent times, was essential to navigate seas and oceans in order to arrive at one's chosen destination. The reason why the night-sky is a picture-book crowded with stories representing the myths of gods and animals in its constellations is explained by C.G.Jung thus-

As we all know, science began with the stars, and mankind discovered in the dominants of the unconscious, the "gods", as well as the curious psychological qualities of the zodiac: a complete projected theory of human character. Astrology is a primordial experience similar to alchemy. Such projections repeat themselves whenever man tries to explore an empty darkness and involuntary fills it with living form.  [5]

According to the psychologist C.G. Jung the hero returns from the night sea-journey in better shape for the tasks of life. The night sea journey is a kind of descensus ad inferos -a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond this world, beyond consciousness, hence an immersion in the unconscious. [6] The importance of the moon as the ruling luminary of night and the significance of night is defined by C.G. Jung this-

Luna is really the mother of the sun, which means, psychologically, that the unconscious is pregnant with consciousness and gives birth to it. It is night, which is older than day.  [7]

Because it occurs during the night, its not so much the seeing and sighting of exotic lands or the viewing of weird creatures as much as hearing disturbing sounds such as the squeak and gibber of departed souls, or the cries and calls of luring sirens and unknown monsters on islands sailed past when on the Night Sea voyage. Strange sounds blown on the wind, sometimes heard across vast distances upon the open sea as mere whispers, at other times in deafening volume; in particular, when freak acoustics occur, heard sailing past cliff and rock formations, caves, eddies and whirl-pools, inducing fear, trembling and wonder in the sailor’s imagination.

Rodulfo’s Night Passage (80 x 100 cm) was begun in 2012 and completed in late 2015. In a silvery-blue moonlight, a Night Sea voyage is in full motion. The viewer is taken aboard an extraordinary form of transport, a hybrid combination of ferry, air-bus and taxi which abounds with organic and bizarre mechanical forms with some very curious travelling passengers, including an octopus and a giant shrimp. On its pod-like floor there's frozen, protozoan fossils. Large, grinning skates hover upon its ceiling vault. A pair of  late-night lovers can be seen in a wing-mirror. Night Passage exudes an unusual atmosphere, one which paradoxically floats somewhere between every-day commuting and a futuristic fantasy.

In  the third in sequence of Rodulfo’s 'Night Sea Voyage’ triptych, the night sea voyage  is high and dry, quite literally. In a humorous variation upon the ‘Ship of Fools’ allegory which originates from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato's The Republic (Book 6) where the allegory of a ship with a dysfunctional crew is discussed in relationship to government, Rodulfo's Dry Dock (51 x 76 cm) is a scene based upon the nautical dilemma of going aground.  A tattered and rusty ship is beached on dry land. An unconcerned atmosphere of 'Crisis, what crisis?’ pervades its crew members who carry on with their various preoccupations irregardless. But whether they're waiting for a rare, exceptional high tide in order to float and set sail once more, or simply carrying on with life, irregardless of setting sail once more, is not known. In the background a ship can be spotted which clearly is afloat, the wind billows its sails. Dry Dock is a painting best enjoyed for its typical Rodulphian humour, without intensely scrutinizing the canvas for any hidden, philosophical 'meanings'.

In conclusion, the night sea journey may be interpreted as none other than the fragile vessel of the psyche successfully navigating the uncharted waters of the unconscious imagination, and, if surviving the perils of the deep, returning to port with new insights and treasures. Rodulfo’s art is one such treasure. With their sophisticated technique, numinous subject-matter,  display of extraordinary imagination and humour, Peter Rodulfo’s Testing the Water and Night Passage are exemplary of the aesthetics of North Sea magical realism and significant navigational buoys which confirm the art-movement as well-worthy of continued admiration and study.

[1] Link to Philip Glass - Saxophone Quartet
[2] Link to Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares
[3] Email correspondence from the artist.
[4] Carl Jung Collected Works Vol. 9 Part 1 Para. 605:
Another translation of the Elegies of Propertius reads - 'Your dread must be the ominous sign of the eight-legged crab'.  Book 4:1: line 150
[5]  Carl Jung C. W. vol 14 para. 346
[6] CW 16 par. 455
[7] CW 14 : 219

 In Memorium of a Hawthorn and Redwood tree, long seen and enjoyed from my flat's window and now no more.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Thomas Browne and 'the Opium of Time'.

It was the literary critic Peter Green in 1959 who first speculated - ‘Did Browne possibly take laudanum? It seems very likely. He had free access to drugs, and used opiates in various experiments.'[1]

Green hypothesised that one possible reason why Sir Thomas Browne's prose is stylistically unlike any of his contemporaries may have been due to an empirical enquiry into the effects of drugs. He also noted that the two Discourses of 1658, Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus were penned by a Royalist who was under intense emotional and psychological distress during the Interregnum and Protectorate of Cromwell (1650-1660) and proposed that the rhapsodic fifth and final chapter of both Discourses may have been written in a trance-like condition.

It was during Browne's era, the seventeenth century, which saw the discovery of the tobacco-leaf and coffee-bean. Drugs which, along with alcohol, continue to be acceptable and widely consumed throughout the world today. As a physician Browne was licensed to obtain opium, the only available pain-killer and tranquilliser in the medicine of his era. Widely in use since the sixteenth century, the Swiss alchemist-physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) was amongst the earliest advocates of opium. Such was its widespread usage that by the seventeenth century Dr. Thomas Sydenham (1624-89) the so-called 'Father of English medicine' whose books are well-represented in Browne’s vast library, declared- 

'Among the remedies which has pleased the Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.'

Opium was used in the seventeenth century to relieve a variety of medical conditions, including disorders such as dysentery and respiratory ailments. There can be little doubt that in the course of his career  Browne had the opportunity to observe the physical and mental effects of opium. His commonplace notebooks even record various experiments of dosages of opium upon animals, a vital and necessary precaution before administering opium to his patients.  

'Three grains of opium works strongly upon a dog. Observe how much will take place with a horse....Fishes are quickly intoxicated with baits: in what quantity with opium ? What quantity will take, in birds and animals with little heads ? From two grains unto five we have given unto a cockerel, without any discernable sophition... four unto a crow without visible effect. Six and eight unto dogs making them dull not profoundly to sleep....Five grains we have also given unto turkeys without effect of sleep....Five grains unto a young kestrel, did seem the like vertiginous and a little more sleepy; not profoundly. Five unto a young heron did nothing. [2]

It's in Urn-Burial (1658) that Browne employs highly original medical-philosophical imagery, which must surely have been acquired from observing first-hand the psychological effects of opium,  declaring-

'There is no antidote against the Opium of Time which temporally considereth all things.' 

Browne also poetically links the botanical source of opium with his discourse’s theme of the unknowingness of the human condition when stating - 'The iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her Poppy'; while also declaiming - 'Oblivion is not to be hired.'

Although the popular image of Browne is that of the orthodox physician, he was in fact one of the earliest of English doctor's to know of the hedonistic cocktail of sex and drugs, writing of such indulgences that - 

'the effect of eating Opium is not so much as to invigorate themselves in coition, as to prolong the Act, and spin out the motions of carnality.'  [3]

Throughout the history of alchemy and early chemistry there was a considerable knowledge of substances, minerals and drugs. Today, there are laws prohibiting the recreational usage of drugs, laws which continue to be as ineffective as those of America’s Prohibition era, laws which do little more than sponsor crime by creating a lucrative black market, exposing the vulnerable to adulterated and potentially hazardous substances, without either protecting or educating consumers to the possible consequences upon health, and unfairly criminalizing people, thus seriously damaging and wasting skills and life-opportunities.

No matter how much some may object to Peter Green’s hypothesis that the unique literary style of the discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus with their thematic progression of a 'soul journey' from the Grave to Garden may have originated from experimentation with drugs, it nevertheless remains a curious coincidence that in the nineteenth century Browne's literary works were 'rediscovered' and admired by the early Romantic figures of Charles Lamb, Thomas De Quincey and Coleridge; all of whom frequently indulged in laudanum, the alcohol-based tincture of opium, which was widely available in the nineteenth century. 

The idea that a major literary figure who was a moralist, devout Christian and respectable doctor may have written sections of his 'deep, stately, majestic' prose (De Quincey), with its slow, sombre contemplation upon Death and the afterlife, under the influence of Opium, would have been acceptable to the English essayist Thomas De Quincey, who, in his Confessions of an English Opium-eater (1821) before a visit to the opera while under the influence of opium stated- 

‘I do not recollect more than one thing said adequately on the subject of music in all literature: it is a passage in Religio Medici of Sir T. Brown; and, though chiefly remarkable for its sublimity, has also a philosophical value; inasmuch as it points to the true theory of musical effects.' 

But perhaps the greatest portrait of opium's effects in music occurs in De Quincey and Coleridge's contemporary, the French composer Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (1830). Berlioz's 5 movement symphony introduced a radical and distinctly French approach to orchestration and melody, quite unlike the Viennese tradition, although also indebted to Beethoven's programmatic Pastoral symphony. In Berlioz's programmatic symphony, the romantic hero while under the influence of opium, conjures up a reverie of his beloved, catches a glimpse of her at a Ball, visits the countryside with her, and in a paroxysm of passion, murders her. He's sent to the guillotine for his crime, and in the symphony's 5th and final movement he dreams he attends a Witch's Sabbath, depicted in music with decidedly hallucinatory effects.

In complete contrast to Urn-Burial's 'vast undulations of sound' and declamatory 'full Organ-stop' baroque prose, Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus has predominately visual imagery. Frequently breathless and fractured in style, paragraph succeeds paragraph in a rapid procession of examples; firstly from gardens in antiquity, then art objects, followed by examples in nature in its long central chapter, and finally in mystical analogies involving astrology and the kabbalah. These examples in turn involve the inter-related symbols of the numbers five and ten, the quincunx pattern, along with its variants including lozenge-shape, the figure X, and criss-cross and network  patterns. All of which are all paraded before the reader as exemplary of  'how God geometrizes'. 

The distinguished Brunonian scholar and Dean Emeritus of Princeton University, USA, Jeremiah S. Finch (1910-2005) when examining a manuscript edition of The Garden of Cyrus described it as, 'a headlong scrawl, a quick hand and moving imagination, thinking quicker than his hand' with 'no less than 8 deletions occurring within 27 lines'. [4] Such uncharacteristic haste is suggestive of one who urgently wishes to impart a new insight. A fine example of Browne’s near stream-of-consciousness purple prose occurs in the paragraph -

In Chess-boards and Tables we yet find Pyramids and Squares, I wish we had their true and ancient description, far different from ours, or the Chet mat of the Persians, and might continue some elegant remarkables, as being an invention as High as Hermes the Secretary of Osyris, figuring the whole world, the motion of the Planets, with Eclipses of Sun and Moon.

One possible reason for the uncharacteristic composition of  The Garden of Cyrus may have been due to Browne's excitement at 'discovering' the quincunx pattern could be discerned throughout the universe. Such excitement is not dissimilar to those 'discovering' the meaning of life while under the influence of hallucinogens. Interestingly, the very word 'hallucination’ is recorded in the Oxford English dictionary as first used by Browne, one of hundred of words he introduced into the English language.

Empirical experimentation with drugs may have been the source of Browne's experiencing a 'Soul Journey' not unlike the legendary Hermes Trismegistus of Hermetic philosophy and his journey through the planetary spheres. Other 'Soul-journeys' of antiquity include Plato's Myth of Er and Cicero's 'Dream of Scipio', in which the cosmic voyager hears the heavenly music of the spheres. Alternatively, Browne may have read Iter Ecstaticum Kirceranium (1660) which describes how the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602-80) after listening to three lute-players, was led by the spirit Cosmiel in an ecstatic journey through the planetary spheres. Browne owned several books by Plato and Cicero, as well as several by Kircher, including Iter Ecstaticum (ed. Gaspar Schott)[5] 

For the empiricist, as for the alchemist, the self and its sensory impressions were the bed-rock of all experimentation. Whether Browne’s empirical nature ever included experimentation with drugs will never be truly known, however he may done so either accidentally, or as part of his medical studies, or even as part of a misguided alchemical quest. But as the Swiss psychologist C.G.Jung (1875-1961) long before sixties drug culture, stated -

One only has to think what it means if in the misery and incertitude of a moral or philosophical dilemma one has a quinta essentia, a lapis or a panacea so to say in one's pocket ! We can understand this deus ex machina the more easily when we remember with what passion people today believe that psychological complications can be made magically to disappear by means of hormones, narcotics, insulin shocks and convulsion therapy. The alchemists were as little able to perceive the symbolical nature of their ideas of the arcarnum as we to realise that the belief in hormones and shocks is a symbol. [6]

Nor is it impossible that Browne may have known of the hallucinogenic properties of psilocybin mushrooms. He took an interest in fungi, and in a letter consisting of several paragraphs upon fungus to Christopher Merritt,  makes mention of the highly toxic Deadly Nightcap -  

The fungi Phalloides I found not very far from Norwich, large and very fetid......I have a part of one dried still by me. Fungus rotundus major I have found about ten inches in diameter, and have half a dried one by me. [7]

Sir Thomas Browne was also aware that contaminated rye bread can produce extraordinary psychological effects. When digested contaminated rye bread can produce effects similar to that of the entheogen LSD. Ergot itself does not contain lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) but it does contain its precursor, ergotamine. Browne is not always credited with familiarity with the medical condition of ergotism, however he did introduce the word ‘ergotism', as in meaning the effects of ergot poisoning, into English language, stating in his advisory work Christian Morals (circa 1675)
'Natural parts and good Judgement rule the World.
 States are not governed by ergotisms.' [8]

Ergot poisoning has several names. These include St. Anthony's fire and St. Vitus dance. According to Wikipedia - 'Human poisoning due to the consumption of contaminated rye bread made from ergot-infected grain was common in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. It occurred primarily in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries and involved groups of people dancing erratically, sometimes thousands at a time. The mania affected men, women, and children who danced until they collapsed from exhaustion. One of the first major outbreaks was in Aachen, in 1374, and it quickly spread throughout Europe; one particular outbreak occurred in Strasbourg in 1518. Affecting thousands of people across several centuries, dancing mania was not an isolated event, and was well documented in contemporary reports. It was nevertheless poorly understood, and remedies were based on guesswork. Generally, musicians accompanied dancers, to help ward off the mania, but this tactic sometimes backfired by encouraging more people to join in. [9]

Dancing is a spontaneous and natural expression of ecstasy. The citizens of Strasbourg and elsewhere in Europe during the Middle Ages however would not have known they were under the influence of food which had chemically altered and would have attributed their ecstasy to religious emotions. Modern society is not immune from similar outbreaks of crowd hysteria, technically known as mass psychogenic illness. The population of the United States of America in particular seems to be vulnerable to such outbreaks. In 1931 wide-spread panic occurred when it was believed aliens from outer space had invaded America, following a radio broadcast of H.G.Well's 'War of the Worlds'. And at the present-time of writing an outbreak of  a craze involving threatening and creepy clowns has occurred in the USA, resulting in public hysteria. 

In conclusion, together Browne's diptych discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus may be defined as a work of transcendent synthesis; together their thematic concerns, imagery and literary style share a number of characteristics associated with altered states of consciousness. These include - an awareness of the paradox of time and space, a profound sense of the sacredness of creation, a heightened consciousness of one's own and other's personality, an intense, absorbed contemplation of art, in particular colour and sound, and a near overwhelming awareness of one's place in nature and the cosmos, allegedly. 

In the final analysis it hardly matters whether or not Browne ever took drugs. The complex combination of his deep religiosity,  rigorous scientific enquiry, his capacious and retentive memory, in conjunction with his omnivorous reading habits, along with his highly developed aesthetic sensibility involving all the senses, (he enjoyed viewing paintings, listening to music, good food and sweet odours), while also possessing a rich and fertile artistic imagination, guarantees Sir Thomas Browne will  forever be a perennial and paradoxical figure in the spheres of world literature, science and philosophy.

Possessing all the aforementioned gifts which he fully integrated in his spirituality, intellect, artistic imagination and character, there was hardly any need whatsoever for Sir Thomas Browne to take drugs !


[1]  Peter Green Writers and their Work no. 108 pub. Longmans and co. 1959

[2] The miscellaneous writings of Sir Thomas Browne ed. Geoffrey Keynes pub. Faber and Faber 1931

[3] Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book 8 Chapter 7

[4] Sir Thomas Browne: A Doctor's Life of Science and Faith by Jeremiah Finch New York 1950.

[5]  A Facsimile of the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Sir Thomas Browne and his son Edward's Libraries. Introduction, notes and index by J.S. Finch (E.J. Brill: Leiden, 1986) page 30. no. 52

[6] Collected Works of C.G. Jung Volume 14 paragraph 680

[7] Letter to Dr. Merritt August 18 1668

[8] Christian Morals Part 2 Section 4.

[9] Extract from Dancing Mania Wikipedia.

See also

Mass psychogenic illness

Peruvian bark
Obituary of J.S. Finch

Essay dedicated to autodidact, intrepid psychonaut, voracious reader and bon viveur, Tom Bombadil of Ecuador.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Mark Burrell's 'The Homing Ground' - All aboard the British transcendent locomotion.

Mark Burrell’s painting The Homing Ground sees the artist giving full expression to his technical and draughtsmanship skills, at a peak in imagination, and delighting in 'home-grown’ imagery which fairly crackles with cognitive dissonances. 

Painted in 1993, when the artist sometimes devoted 3 or 4 months to complete a single canvas, often in painstaking detail, its inspiration was sparked whilst Burrell, when travelling on a train from London returning to Lowestoft, read of the world’s oldest clock. However, not unlike when Dorothy realizes she's no longer in Kansas City, we're far, far away from Lowestoft when viewing this dream-like landscape.  

Measuring 36 x 25 inches and painted on board in the artist’s favoured medium of alkyd resin oils, The Homing Ground features a landscape in which a bizarre train consisting mostly of a staircase and wall trundles along a railway-track. At the bottom of the staircase an elderly gentleman sits in an arm-chair reading a newspaper. An androgynous-looking youth holding a candelabra sits half-way upstairs. An angel stands at the very top of the staircase. At the helm of this peculiar house or rail-carriage without either windows or roof, there’s a disproportionately large face contoured like a mask. On the left in the background there can be seen a landscape which has a junction, hinting of a landscape networked in rail-track. In the distant background a boy can be seen running towards, not from, a spooky-looking house. 

The background to The Homing Ground is fringed by a dark, wild woods, creating a tension by alluding to hidden, unknown contents. As often in Burrell's art, the sky is wholly alive and dramatically lit. Together sky and background provide a magical backdrop for the viewer to focus upon the main action. Meanwhile the passengers of Burrell's transcendent locomotion chug along oblivious to their oncoming destination, a quite literally, yawning tunnel. 

Burrell’s art encourages the viewer to look closely and look again. Its always best to see his paintings in the original and if given half the chance to do so, grab it ! Digital photography cannot be relied upon to faithfully reproduce the richness of an oil-painting in either detail, colouration or dimension. For example, it is only when attentive that one notices the gentleman sitting in an arm-chair reading a newspaper consists only of a head, and is body-less, seemingly sustained by various tubes feeding his skeletal frame.  

Interpretations are numerous, and ought to be always taken in a 'soft and flexible’ manner, without dogmatic insistence. Burrell’s gent who is sustained by tubes and wires could allude to either modern-day's relationship to medical science or prophetic of the close attachment millions now have to the computer network in their everyday lives. 

Another interesting association occurs in the depiction of a stair-case in The Homing-Ground. Like railway tracks, stairs are a construct which assist in transporting people to another space and dimension. One is encouraged in such an interpretation upon seeing at the top of Burrell's 'stairway to heaven' an angel who adds a spiritual mood to the scene. Ethereal and translucent she stands at the helm of Burrell’s transcendent locomotion sprinkling cut roses upon the track. Her presence reminds the viewer that every-day life is not always centred upon the material, or even always visible to the senses, and though often unacknowledged or denied, may include an unknown quantity of spiritual protection.   

The rail-track, along with its more archaic variants, the road and the river, may be viewed as a symbol of  life's journey and of Time, a prominent theme in The Homing-Ground.

One of the most frequently encountered of all artistic 'double symbols' in Renaissance and esoteric art used to symbolize Time occurs in representations of Youth and Aged. Technically known as Puer et Senex they are evident here in the form of a bald, and therefore presumably old man reading a newspaper, and a youthful character sitting on stairs wistfully holding a candelabra. 

Time-wise historically, the steam-engine and railway were important British technological inventions of the 19th century, and key components of the Industrial Revolution. By 1850 there was a network of over 7000 miles of rail-track covering the length and breath of England. The steam locomotion, along with rail-track, transformed every British town, city and village. Indeed, for those living at North Sea coastal towns such as Lowestoft, before the train, it was quicker and often more comfortable to travel via sea to English coastal towns or continental, main-land Europe than to London. The arrival of the railway in the mid-nineteenth century changed livelihoods too. It enabled the produce of fishing-towns to be transported swiftly to London and other urban centres. Fishing-towns such as Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft also became accessible destinations for holidays, health tourism and entertainment by a growing urban population with leisure-time.

The British love-affair with trains in the past and today can be seen in the popularity of Hornby model trains and children's animated characters such as Ivor the Engine and Thomas the Tank.

A fine example of Burrell's eye for exquisite detail and colouration can be seen in the tail-light of his transcendent locomotion. This extraordinary detail could almost stand alone and framed as a single work or art, being near Vermeer-like in its realization of light and detail. 


In an art-work delighting in cognitive dissonances, that is imagery which provokes unease and ambiguity through conjoined and improbable objects which never the less seemingly exist; the background of The Homing-Ground features a house which has a human face superimposed upon it and whose yawning mouth is also a tunnel. A bath with a sail is perched upon its chimney-top. The image is arresting, humorous and disturbing and also a superb example of the artist’s ability to create highly-original 'home-grown' imagery which induces cognitive dissonance. Such paradoxical and thought-provoking imagery is a hallmark of Burrell’s imaginative art.

As a symbol the tunnel has a number of  meanings. As a portal to the unknown it alludes to humanity’s deepest fear, namely death, but  also to transformation and change, as well as the narrow anatomical passage-way to birth. Tunnels are also a feature of sea-side fun-fairs including the Tunnel of Love and the Ghost-train, as well as the roller-coaster. 

Another example of cognitive dissonance occurs in the form of the home. The home is the one stable point in most lives. Nomadic life-styles apart it is usually a static location, providing stability in our daily comings and goings in the world around us, yet here it is seen, caravan-like, in motion and yet still seemingly in some kind of domestic tranquillity.

Incidentally, I cannot resist mention in a moment of roller-coaster association, of the historical figure of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) who was recently elected as honorary 'Great Grandfather’ of the art-movement known as North Sea Magical Realism, of which Mark Burrell is a leading member..

Thomas Browne not only introduced the words ‘locomotion’ and ‘network’ (as an artificial concept) into the English language, but also believed in the existence of angels [1]. Holding such seemingly contrary beliefs, namely scientific and religious, appears incompatible to modern-day sensibilities, but in Browne’s era it was possible to possess both an imaginative scientific mind which anticipated ‘locomotion’, as well as believing in the existence of angels. And in fact there’s no small similarity in the fantasy imagery of Burrell’s The Homing-Ground to an illustration originating in Sir Thomas Browne’s era. 

In an frontispiece illustration to a German 1618 manifesto believed to be by the elusive Rosicrucian fraternity, there can be seen another form of improbable transport  inducing a cognitive dissonance upon the viewer. A castle on wheels. Its improbability is heightened by two disproportionately large objects, a sword wielded by a giant arm, and an over-sized trumpet. Both Burrell's art and Theophilus Schweighardt's illustration are the products of deeply original imaginative minds. [2]

Long resident at England’s most easterly town, Lowestoft, there’s something quintessentially British about Burrell’s art, in humour, as well as its Spencer-like draughtsmanship and portraiture. Burrell himself berates those who mistakenly describe his favourite artist Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) as a parochial, Little Englander figure, (in all probability from a lack of familiarity with one of 20th century Britain's greatest painters) while totally misjudging the artistic stature of one who was ‘an outstanding draughtsman’ in Burrell’s view, amongst other accomplishments of Spencer’s art. [3]

Like Stanley Spencer, Burrell is an artist who does not shy from travelling less-travelled, often darker paths in his artistic observations upon human nature. This uncompromising ability to examine less-pleasant aspects of human nature can initially produce an uncomfortable viewing experience; and it is only when one acknowledges that life is not always sweetness and light, and that there remain taboo aspects of the human psyche that one begins to appreciate Burrell’s artistic integrity as he unflinchingly tackles the subject-matter of his art.

In many ways Burrell’s humorous yet perplexing painting, which is not without a philosophical element, may be considered as having a kinship to imaginative worlds similar to those of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass or those portrayed in the pythonesque animation of Terry Gilliam (b. 1940). Indeed, after seeing the film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnasssus’ (2010) Burrell lauded Gilliam’s fantasy as ‘mesmerising’.

In summary, Burrell’s The Homing-Ground has a number of themes, these include Time and the human condition, childhood innocence and the sacred, along with death and the unknown. These are all enhanced and heightened in emotional intensity through the artist’s distinctive mood-inducing tonal palette, most often involving a palette somewhat reminiscent of the dark and vivid tones of a Gothic stained-glass window, but uniquely Burrell's.

Painted over twenty years ago, The Homing-Ground may be viewed as a coming-of-age art-work, marking the artist's early maturity as he explores and successfully develops, a personal artistic language in style, home-grown symbolism and thematic concerns. Burrell continues to develop further. The Homing-Ground remains a significant work in a fascinating and expansive portfolio. 


[1] Part 1 paragraph 33 of Religio Medici has a whole paragraph discussing Angels. It includes a footnote which states- Thereby is meant our good angel appointed us from our nativity.’

[2] The Rosicrucian Enlightenment  Dame Frances Yates pub. RKP 1972

[3]  Stanley Spencer at Burghclere George Behrend pub. Macdonald and Co. 1965

See Also

Mark Burrell -North Sea Magical Realist artist extraordinaire

Mark Burrelll -Wikipedia entry

Mark Burrell discusses his artistic development in a video.