Always Read The Label.

Life  This is not the blog post I was planning to write and if your blogger had any sense, he'd just go off and do something else.  But I'm here now so I might as well post something.

This time last week, I'd just arrived in Stratford-Upon-Avon after a brutal overnight stay at the budget Ibis hotel in Birmingham.  By budget, they mean cheap.  The bed is a futon mattress on some glorified pallets.  The wash basin is in that room.  The shower makes a periodic groaning sound which I can only attribute to being in sympathy with the rest of the plumbing when someone flushes a toilet.  The breakfast is "continental" meaning lots of bakery products, catering fruit and yoghurt and two small mounds of reformed pork and ham.  There's no kettle in the room.  Instead you have to pay £1.50 for a paper cup to be used in a coffee machine.

When I was last in Stratford, the RST was still being refurbished so I was keen to see what it looked like now and so booked myself on a tour.  As it turned out, this was mostly a look at the building were costumes and some props are made, which was still fascinating but did also mean we didn't get to see inside the auditorium (which was apparently closed for rehearsals).  The tour did however include a five minute glance through the on-site permanent exhibition, currently closed to the public due to continuing refurbishment work in the Swan Threatre below.  It acts as a good finale for this tour because it includes costumes from across the history of RSC productions.

At the start of the exhibition is a Folio and so you can imagine my excitement.  With just minutes to spare, I quickly took a photo of the book and the label pleased that I'd unexpectedly been able to tick another one off the list.  It also looks extremely pretty with the reflection of a stained glass window shining across its display case.

Later I consulted the Eric Rasmussen (et al) book listing the first folios and assumed it must be (39) The Theatre Copy from The Shakespeare Centre with its interesting story about the Pope and a misunderstanding.  In 1964, three members of the RSC, Dorothy Tutin, Derek Godfrey, and Tony Church visited Rome to give a recital of Shakespeare's plays at the Palazzo Pio in front of the pontiff and a couple of thousand guests.  They took their folio along for it to be bless by the Pope at the conclusion of the performance.  Unfortunately something was lost in translation and he took it as a gift.  After some diplomatic shenanigans, the folio was eventually returned.

All of which hilarious pot pourri, sorry, popery would have made for a decent blog post.  Except when I just sat down to write, I read the label which accompanied the folio (something which I'd not had time for during the tour).

As you can see, this is not that First Folio.  It is a Second Folio.  The Second Folio has its own publication history and by rights should be greeted with just the same awe as the first edition.  As the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust explains, it's the first attempt at "editing" the existing text, with 1700 corrections and the additions of far more stage directions.  It has the first work of John Milton to see print, "An Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet W. Shakespeare", written when he was 22 and part of an extra page of effigies for this edition.  There are only 250 copies of the Second Folio in existence which is only a few more than the first.

But this tickylist project is not about the Second Folio, it is about the First Folio and so this is not the blog post I was planning to write.  When and if I do clasp eyes on  (39) The Theatre Copy from The Shakespeare Centre, there'll no doubt be something quite similar to this with some extra material about the provenance and a few other oddities.

Always read the label.

The Shakespeare Memorial Library Folio (2)

Literature   Currently running at the Library of Birmingham is the exhibition Everything To Everybody: Your Shakespeare, Your Culture and last Tuesday, I made the pilgrimage to have a look at the First Folio which is part of the display.  Curated by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the exhibition is based on the collection of the Shakespeare Memorial Library which was suggested and funded by the local fan club (yes, really) in 1864 with an aim to collect "every edition and every translation of Shakespeare; all the commentators, good, bad and indifferent; in short, every book connected with the life and works of out great poet" as well as images and illustrations.

This is not the first First Folio owned by the collection.  As Eric Rasmussen et al reveal in their descriptive catalogue of the folios, the first was a "made-up" volume containing 300 original leaves augmented by facsimiles.  But the library was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1879, and although around five hundred volumes were saved (of which about two thirds were German publications) many thousands were lost including that book.  I shiver to think what else was lost, if there were any unique or irreplaceable items.  There is what looks like a handwritten copy of Two Noble Kinsmen with singed pages in the show.

The library and its collection was subsequently rebuilt through donations from private citizens including the current Folio which was purchased from the bookseller Bernard Quaritch for £240 in 1881.  Given how grandly most of the Folios I've seen have been displayed, it's surprising to see such a valuable book sitting in a pretty non-descript display case with a few other items.  The rather silly accompanying label says that this "is the only one in the world bought with the visionary aim of giving all citizens access to great culture.  The city bought the volume in 1881, making it available to all."  Tell that to the other libraries.

The label ends with "It is proudly stamped with the inscription "Free libraries of Birmingham"."  It certainly is (sort of) and according to Rasmussen that stamp appears eight times throughout the text which shows that in the late nineteenth century the book was considered important not so much as valuable object but for what it contained.  I'll admit to an audible gasp on seeing that library mark on the final page of Twelfth Night.  Of course now, because it is in a display case, the paradigm has shifted, it's impossible to see any of the other pages so it is now more of an object (with a million pound plus valuation).

As you can see I've decided to go ahead with tickylisting the First Folios and armed with a library copy of Eric Rasmussen's book I'll actually have a list to work from.  Mostly I'm going to endeavour to see in real life, but I'll also be covering any which appear in other contexts like television documentaries and writing on here about the context in which they're shown.  That adds a certain element of discovery.  Has the folio at the University of Pennsylvania ever been put on camera?  How about the one in the Paul G. Allen Family Collection?  Let's see now.

JMW Turner and Lamina Fifana: Dark Waters at Tate Liverpool.

Art  This morning I attended Tate Liverpool for the press viewing of their new paid exhibition, JMW Turner and Lamina Fifana: Dark Waters.  I could pretend that I was in completely the right mind for this.  As you'll probably gather from the scarcity of writing here this past few months, I've not been in the best places mentally.  The grief of losing Mum last year still lingers and I've never quiet felt the same since catching COVID earlier in this year.  Plus anxiety continues to thrum away in the background every now and then turning to into a full blown rock concert but sadly more Woodstock '99 than Glastonbury '99 (which at least had REM headlining)

All of which made me rather nervous about a press day at Tate, something I've really enjoyed in the past, but having not put my name down since before the pandemic or indeed been to many exhibitions in general, it felt like it was going to be a lot.  Pre-pandemic, one of these events involved reception desks and noise, lots of bodies in the space, a curator led tour at certain time making me feel need to rush around the show beforehand, followed by a meal with all the inherent low self esteem issues of being sat at a table with professional journalists when you're a blogger who's mainly doing this sort of thing as a lark.

But the format has changed, or at least it had for Turner and Fifana.  The space was just open for a couple of hours this morning.  On entering I was offered some brief directions by the press person pointing to some notable items and then I was left to fend for myself.  Perfect.  It's also not a huge show.  The fourth floor is currently being prepared for this year's Turner Prize exhibition, so T&F are inhabiting one side of the fourth floor, quality rather than quality, large oil paintings punctuated by watercolours and drawings, a conscious decision, perhaps, to recreate the feel of the Turner rooms at Tate Britain.

Well, I relaxed.  I becalmed.  I began to enjoy myself.  I also had questions.  Why was Tate Liverpool, which has generally been on the cutting edge of contemporary art hosting a Turner show?  That should not be seen a complaint.  Over the years, I've hoped they would diversify the types of work they display to before the 1900 cut off which seems to have been the general rule and cheered on the occasions when they have, for Turner Monet Twombly: Later Paintings (ten years ago folks) and Alice in Wonderland (even longer).  It's also interesting that this is a paid exhibition when it's entirely sourced from Tate's own collection.

The most numerous selection of Turners are of his Whaling Scenes, depictions of one of the industries which developed in the 1700s out of the same docks which can be seen from the windows of this Tate (see above).  However abhorrent we might find the practice now, when these were originally painted it was a way for the public to envision how many household items such as oil for lamps. soap and lubricants were provided in the years before fossil fuels were properly harnessed.  Almost everything here was accepted by the nation at part of the Turner bequest in 1856.

Not that Turner's work doesn't take some creative license with Whalers Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves (1846) showing the boiling of whale blubber on board ship, something which would usually have happened back in port but allows the artist to contrast the deep red of the flames against the muted grey backdrop.  In many of these later works, the objects become less important than Turner's experimentation with colour leading to near abstraction and how light interacts with the canvas to the point that the image almost "shimmers".

The centrepiece of the exhibition is A Disaster at Sea (1835) which was inspired by the loss of the Amphitrite, a slave ship which left Liverpool in 1799 and capsized off Nigeria the following January.  Unlike other depictions of sea tragedies, like The Raft of the Medusa (painted a few decades earlier) which show the anguish and fear of the sea farers against an otherwise quite static background, Turner loses the sense of individuality amid the hellish swirl of the ocean and chaotic skies with the pieces of ship and fragments of people almost indistinguishable.

Lamina Fofana's sound installations are inspired by another tragedy at sea in which the crew of the Zong massacred over a hundred and thirty slaves and threw them overboard near the Caribbean (by doing so the ship's owners could make an insurance claim).  Of the three, the most prominent and certainly the most recognisable is Life and Death by Water (2021) which mainly consists of the hummed section of Boney M's Rivers of Babylon repeated on a loop for twenty minutes like an ancient chant.  

Originally recorded by the Jamaican Reggae group The Melodians for the 1972 film The Harder They Come, the lyrics, based on Psalm 137, although originally about the Jewish exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, could equally be applied to the souls lost on board the Zong, "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion ... They carried us away in captivity requiring of us a song ... Now how shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?"

For about five or ten minutes at the end of my visit I sat listening to Fofana's piece.  Potentially it's a distraction from the Turner paintings, especially as your ears twig a familiarity with the melody in the other room and then try to identify it like a human version of the Shazam app.  The repetition does make it inherently irritating and I fear for the invigilators who're going to have to be in the space and will collectively develop it as an earwig on mass.  But just sat listening, once again I relaxed, I becalmed and I began to enjoy myself.  

On reflection the opening paragraph to this was a bit gloomy so I wanted to say I am fine, really, and in this past week I've been on an overnight city break to Birmingham and Stratford-Upon-Avon (more on that in the next couple of days) and a day trip for Blackpool for my Dad's 80th birthday (and that) (maybe) so it's not like I've been a complete emotional wreck.  I just wanted to show that you can't approach any exhibition with a clear, neutral mind.  And at least I didn't try to make some tenuous connection between my mental state and the chaos of Turner's paintings.  I'd never have forgiven myself.