Archive for the ‘John Stammers Page’ Category

Girl In A Green Gown, The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait.Girl In A Green Gown, The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait. By Carola Hicks, Chatto and Windus, 2011.

This is an excellent book by art historian Carola Hicks. It has the added bonus of a Preface by Greyson Perry. It also carries its own  tragedy, though: this is the writer’s last book, she died as she was completing the last stages.

The writer gives a thorough investigation of every aspect of the portrait, from each article of clothing the subjects wear, to background articles, settings, to the portraits’ provenance.

Jan Van Eyck’s painting became a much valued source of trade for royal favours, passing to Marguerite of Austria, where it was catalogued as Harnoul-le-fin. We also see herein the exchange of owners, the changes in the weather of the relationship between the Spanish Netherlands, and Spain proper.

The green gown of the title: it is in the style of a generation previous to the time of the portrait. Coded here are reputation, permissible display, social status. The young woman’s headdress, for example is of a simple material, folded several times for the effect. The painter was at pains to convey, probably through negotiation with the commissioner, the degree of humility of the woman of the family, and hence of the family unit’s claim on level of status. The style at the time, especially among court circles, was for greater display, flamboyance.

Was she carrying a baby? Or was this the convention for conveying fruitfulness, fecundity, and promise, of the young woman. The belt is high, as had been the fashion previously; that was the fashion, and not necessarily a depiction of pregnancy. This is a depiction of a marriage bond based on providing wealth, vigour and unlimited descendents for carrying forward the family name.



Earthworms, and… things.

Posted: January 8, 2018 in John Stammers Page

According to an online source, one of the 25 words common to all seven global language groups is the word for ‘worms’.
That is, as in earthworms.
The source calls this a random word in the list. Obviously it is not. Anyone who knows their plant and soil ecology will know how essential earthworms are to maintaining a healthy soil. And we all know a healthy soil means healthy crops and vegetation.

That all 7 language groups agree on this… is not so surprising. This is list of all basics that are needed for people, cultures, civilisations. Basic knowledge.

Revere thy earthworms, o ye peoples of the earth.
‘Ye’, and ‘thy’ are also on that list.

Recently we have noticed an influence of orange bastards into our area. What are they? Are they flatworms? Reputedly they were accidentally imported into Garden Centres, and from there, via sales, to… all over the place.

What of it?

They destroy earthworms. That’s what. They wrap around them, and… do horrible things. Any attacked worm rarely survives.
They have no known enemies. And so they proliferate, and destroy your/our soil gardeners. They can organise themselves to hunt in groups.

We have not yet found any weather/natural conditions that affect them. They are even out in the freezing temperatures, hunting. Using water can help wash them off the worms they are attacking, but rain does not deter them. So, does heat? Do very dry conditions? We’ll have to wait and see for that one.

They get to know where a worm hole is, and lie in wait. Cunning, like most hunters.
And the earthworms?
Also cunning – we have noticed recently that when they retreat into their holes they drag a grass stalk etc down with them to block the entrance, because, oh yes, the orange bastards will go down and attack, too.
Such cunning. Such reasoning, too, because that cannot be any random-accident scenario: it happens too often. To work what to do, what works – that takes some measure of mentation.

So, tell me about the mental activity of earthworms. Tell me about reasoning. Tell me about creatures, without eyes, that know their environment so well they can not only traverse it to escape, to chase, but also to manipulate objects to use for their own protection.
And then tell me these creatures have no mental faculties.

from my Kindle book, Parameters:

A Gregorian Peace

What were settings in the early poems, now become things in their own right; the world has been stripped down to its constituents. It is interesting to see how far Kopland has travelled when we compare this poem from 1993 with his earlier work:

                                  AMONG CATTLE

                      And when the summer had come back again after all
                     And so we were sitting once more, drinking by the river.
                   …………………………………………….., but the sun went down the same.

                   And he went to sleep. Because the world went to sleep.
                   Black he sat by the river, black hole in the prospect.

Now deeply versed in our human myths of living, our hopes, fears, equivocations and failures to measure up: the tonal and emotional ranges these lines weave, and weave between, are immense. The language and imagery now is scrupulously placed.

The human being becomes as much an object of the world as any other of its constituents parts. And as such just as subject to its laws of natural science.

Kopland uses the image of a ‘patient instrument’: “we were made by an impartial attentive/patient instrument, the same/ that breaks us down again.” (: YOUR BACK). It is also an image for language, and by extension, our ability to comprehend everything, whether by reason or instinct. He examines with it the human dimension. Patient, in that it enables him, by the complex employment of the medium, to look calmly at our extremis: dementia, ageing, death. He sees an aged one’s back, he wants to see the person, not just his own response, or his version of that person; his instrument shows him, not love: “love is a word for something other /than what I was seeking…” (ibid), it shows him the commonplace that everyone ages; he also sees, through his training, profession, a medical anatomy chart. All these have their part, all are acknowledged.

Language, our distinguishing feature, also distances us from that of which we speak or write. Can it also bring the world to us:

                         there must be something now the word morning
                         slowly lights up and it becomes morning
                        that held us together and lets us go
                        as we lie here like this.

( from IN THE MORNING)  ?

His instrument‘s distancing effect allows him to see fables in our existence. His Message from the Isle of Chaos (1997) sits very well amongst Seamus Heaney’s fables in The Haw Lantern, and their background in the east European writers (Holub, Herbert in particular).

These examinations of ways and means, of what language allows us, bears extraordinary fruit in THE LATEST FINDINGS:

                      have searched in human brains
                     they recorded:

                   “Night fell through the windows of our institute
                    moonlight stroked across the young breasts
                    of our female experimental person
                    We are still searching feverishly for formulae.”

Desire, human warmth, love, still escape the limits of our study.

More pertinently, the most important human apprehensions continue to fall outside the scope of our microscopes:

                    because happiness is a memory
                    it exists…………………….
                    the reverse is also true

                   I mean this: because happiness
                   reminds us of happiness it pursues
                   us and therefore we flee from it

                  must exist somewhere at some time because
                 we remember it and it reminds us.

: WHAT IS HAPPINESS? For a fuller discussion of this poem, see:

Richard Pool, reviewing for ‘Poetry Wales’ wrote of Kopland’s “existentialist poetry”. I find the writing more Phenomenological. Based on Husserl’s work, the present-day Phenomenologists present the experience of mind as a series of recursive mental events: echoes of echoes looping back and forth through our brain’s maps of world and body, that create an impression of one’s self. It is as though we continually restructure our maps on a daily basis, as the pattern at play in the brain changes.

The extra ingredient, the rider, is a sense of on-going pattern making.

Here we have Kopland’s exploratory template as he explores and objectifies in his writing. There is an increasing sense of wonder, openness, what Belgian critic Herman de Coninck called the “Gregorian peace” of the later work (timeless rivalries: how the Catholic south never forgave the north ‘s breaking away, or abandonment of them… the wry dig of allotting a Gregorian peace to a Calvanistic northerner).

We now encounter titles like, Until it Lets Us Go (1997), even the title of the Harvill collection, Memories of the Unknown, or the recent book, What Water Leaves Behind. All of these exhibit, I would argue, a Phenomenologist sense of numinous wonder, where the world of objects is found to be the one reality, and our response to it is the possibility of happiness, love, desire, all the human responses. These objects are, as Phenomenologist professor Dan Lloyd called, ‘the insensible dimensions that constitute reality.’

In one of his last poems he wrote:

                                         She gave me a questioning look
                                         you’re so quiet she says and what about

                                        I’d  like to say I am quiet
                                        about myself as I don’t know
                                        who that is.

Here is Husserl, and Sartre: consciousness is interaction, thought is in intention, movement. The ‘mind’ does not exist, except when in involvement with the world.
This is all belief, of course; this is all proposition.

It is always best to let the writer have last say:


                 Things are happening here and I am the only
                 one who knows which
               and what you don’t hear and don’t see – the places
               where we dug holes
               and filled them up again, weeping

              I tell you this because I do not want to be alone
              before I am.


The story goes that ‘Rutger Kopland’ .was involved in a bad car crash in 2005: night driving, a tree, a write-off.  He acquired a bad head injury; so much so he was unable to speak for a while, became frustrated, violent even. The story continues he ended up for a period in one of his own locked wards.
His doctor prescribed plenty of exercise, so he bought a bicycle: but, You don’t realise how often it rains here, he said.

Rutger Kopland died in 2012

For further and more modern work by Rutger Kopland, see:

There is a translation facility.


from my Kindle book, Parameters:

On Thursday 9th March it was announced Howard Hodgkin had died. He was 84.

In memory, I am re-posting my blog on his work:

Howard Hodgkin (1933-2017)

To view a Howard Hodgkin painting is like being in on some event, but with the sound turned off. Everything is happening at once, but there’s this gap.

His paintings are visual ‘events’; you feel the churn of intensities.

It works by being so tightly contained. Most of his paintings are comparatively small: 37×38 cm (Still Life), 26x30cm (Venice Sunset). It’s only in later works he takes on size: 196x269cm (When Did We Go To Morocco?); but these are the exception.

The fierce overpainting objectifies emotional responses. The technically assured range of brushstrokes persuades us into seeing the harmonics of the piece.

So what soundtrack would we put here, then?

Harrison Birtwistle (Sir), for his layered textures and sense of theatre? Because Hodgkin is dramatic, his “emotional responses” (ie his paintings) lift and shape, throw into relief, subjective experience onto an objective plane.

But also for both their idiosyncratic Englishness. Unmistakable. Hodgkin’s focus is mostly domestic, the interior: we, the public, look either into frames into the picture, or out of an interior. Our sense of perspective is jeapordised to such an extent whichever way we look, that Hodgkin’s intensity becomes ours.

The unmistakable overpainting of the frame, and the painted frame within the painting (see Snapshot) is to “protect from the world” the at times fleeting emotion of the painting.
SNAPSHOT, 1984-93


His paintings are deeply figurative; witness the quantity of portraits. At their heart (the canvas level, or, as he uses mostly board, the wood level) is generally a figurative leitmotif, before arpeggios of response, a polyphony of tonal qualities, describe their way out.

Ok, joke over, but you get the idea.

Painting for Hodgkin is about creating “illusionistic spaces” through the use of a specific vocabulary: colour is to create depth, the richly textured surfaces that allow underpainting to show through create counterpoint; patternings and obliquities help suggest space, while other techniques defeat space, keeping our eyes on the surface of the painting.

He has learned, surprisingly, from Sickert: “one way to make a painting exciting is the intimation of a human drama through psychological and sexual innuendo”. He does this through his tightly controlled focus, an almost keyhole perspective. Hodgkin himself writes: “I paint representational pictures of emotional situations”, that is, not emotions themselves. He also writes: “Pictures result from the accretion of many decisions, some are worked on for years, to find the exact thickness of a feeling.” (to Susan Sontag).

But is the Sickert so surprising? Hodgkin studied at Camberwell School of Art 1949 to 1954. Camberwell at that time was very influenced by the Euston Road School, in reaction to avant-garde’s pure abstractionism, and Surrealism. The Euston Road School (William Coldstream, Graham Bell, Victor Pasmore) was all about disciplined realism, observation, everyday life. And deeply influenced by Sickert and the Camden Town Group.

You also need to consider early Vuillard for the mood and interior scenes. Later, of course Hodgkin’s peers, Matisse, Derain, and who were to become fellow travellers: the neo expressionists.

His focus has always been intimacy, the understated; his figuration cubist, similar to de Kooning. Hodgkin’s observation is very much a consideration of remembered moments, his disciplined realism the veracity of the self.

Of It Can’t Be True (1987-90)


Michael Auping writes, it is “echo-like in its composition. It is composed of tilting frames jostling each other for position within the whole.” So, a constant tension set up by structural elements: the bright yellow frame in the centre is stopped short by a series of abrupt brush strokes that “violate its containment”.

And the title: what can’t be true? I question the need to know. The painting stands, for us; it emerges out of the personal life of the painter. As with all creative works there are always the unknowable elements: the subjective self’s containment is challenged, maybe compromised, but never wholly claimed. The titles are at times oblique because they are commentaries, jokes even, on the self, the legislated life, the legislators of life.

Auping comments, on Snapshot (1984-93), “We are given an inside view…  how the artist allows the marks to show through other marks, how he half buries and obliterates, leaving only what is necessary to re-engage his memory of the subject, though that memory and its relation to the title remains mysterious.”

As with all things, we have to learn to read paintings, their vocabularies, their aesthetics. Those who praise Old Masters for their perspicacity only see, in fact, a fraction of what they look at.

And so we begin to hear the soundtrack to these paintings (and it is not Birtwistle) in the dramatic tensions of the canvases, the emotional sweeps and uncoverings of colour, the personal chiaroscuro.

What has not yet been addressed is Hodgkin’s purpose in using the technique of the overpainted frames. It is a constant feature in his work, this bleeding out from the canvas onto walls, into the room’s light, but most importantly, into the viewer’s own existence.

There is something Derridean in this, how Derrida interrogates Kant and his logic of the parergon: “those things attached to the work of art but not part of its intrinsic form or meaning” eg the frame of the painting, the colonnades of a palace, drapery of statues…. The strict demarcation between one thing and another.

Derrida’s ‘indeterminacy’ informs Hodgkins’ sense of self; sexual orientation, and a sense of community are all implied here; hence a democracy of being, of being in the world. Hence, also, the personal quality, the familiarity, of some of his titles, implying a relationship with the viewer. Like all relationships it has to be worked at, constantly renewed, updated, changed.



William Shakespeare, Crime Scene Cleaner.
By F J McQueen. Urbane Publications, 2016.

Out now in paperback.

The best, most entertaining, gloriously funny, crazy, inventive, heart-warming, and well-written book, I have read for a long, long time.

Highly recommended.

William Shakespeare, but not as you know him: we meet him first as junior doctor, a whistle-blower on the health system’s use of divination in medicine.
His new career as crime-scene cleaner finds in strange yet familiar territory: two teens dead in a crypt, and a mysterious friar; a Scottish noble wife and husband in a grand house, surrounded by a strange forest…. The crimes begin to fill his order-book.
Who is the perpetrator?
We blend Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, modern fantasy, and the darkest of dark humour (South Park in the background).

And then, when what the three oracles in the hospital cupboard said starts to come true….What if you could clean so deep, if you could clean the whole world?What would that world be?

So, not a straight genre-novel, then?
Nope, but probably the most inventive, subversive fiction you’ll ever read.

WARNING: Contains big concept story-line, and huge metaphors.

 See here for more on  F J McQueen:


Posted: November 26, 2016 in John Stammers Page


Now available on Kindle!


Kindle book ready and waiting!
Roll up! Roll up!

So what’s it about?
It is about how stories, poems, texts, were structured in a certain way from early times, and to the present day. The structure works as a memory system. I investigate how this structure fits into the now well-known Arts of Memory. The book also looks at how the structuring works, and was passed down through time.

Great Xmas Present!


Posted: September 7, 2016 in John Stammers Page


Now available on Kindle!


Kindle book ready and waiting!
Roll up! Roll up!

So what’s it about?
It is about how stories, poems were structured in a certain way from early times. The structure works as a memory system. I investigate how this structure fits into the now well-known Arts of Memory. The book also looks at how the structure was passed down through time.