Still Life of Claudia

It’s a rainy Sunday morning and we just finished a breakfast of freshly brewed coffee – from beans R ground by hand and which came in a package with a short piece of product fiction involving monsoons and exotic places; scrambled Welsh eggs and Bara Planc toast we picked up at Swansea Market the day before. On the radio the announcer says “And this was the most beautiful recording of any movement I know of”; I was inclined to agree and, yet, I only vaguely notice the fading voice of the announcer listing the name of the piece and the name of the performer as I turn my attention to R. suddenly reading to me from a book about art and american food that he is browsing. I think to myself that that’s perfectly fine because most attempts at reproducing unexpected remarkable musical experiences usually fail anyway, and I’d rather have the unspoiled memory of a soothing melancholy cello. Thanksgiving has been appropriated by conservatives as integration propaganda in times of heavy influx of immigrants, he says. It was originally proposed by a lady who wanted church collections on that day to be used to free slaves. It is a holiday of reconciliation with a past of slavery. The mallards are flying high today and landing in the pond underneath my window seat with that ungraceful, duckish splash. There is a lonely, season-blind rose blooming in the bushes of the downstairs neighbour’s terrace. I imagine someone paints this domestic scene and iconographers of the future look at it and see a dining room in a converted 18th century mill as a symbol of the decay of industry in England. The abandoned stained dining table we picked up on a sidewalk and carried back home through London street years ago – wondering later if it was really rubbish or were we stealing it – as some sort of evidence of thrift or a sign of a fashion for patina povera. Maybe I would be a symbol of the unrepentant nation who invented transatlantic slavery trade. I try to avoid the unresolved – in my own conscience – subject of whether my accident of birth should make me feel guilty of crimes against humanity perpetrated by unidentified ancestors. I look at R. and suddenly I see that he is on the opposite pole of the ethical spectrum: the child of immigrants from a nation plundered and raped by Conquistadores. Maybe we are ourselves an allegory of reconciliation.


Finding Francis Urquhart and Michael Sadleir

Years ago, through the marvellous “Florence 1900” by Bernd Roeck, I found out about the Gabinetto Vieusseux in Florence – a private, subscription-only reading room and also a mandatory pitstop for the civilised, turn of the century traveller. I found their old registry books online recently and once in a while I randomly pick a month and year and go through the page to try to find anyone I might have heard of.

Papini at Vieusseux

©Gabinetto Vieusseux, original here.
Giovani Papini’s address and 3 month subscription, October 1910

(I have found Giovani Papini!)

Urquhart and Sadler in the Gabinetto Vieusseux Regisitry book

©Gabinetto Vieusseux, original here.
Urquhart and Sadler from Balliol, Oxford, September 1910

Possibly because it reminded me of the eponymous character – an academic as well -in  “The Cornish Trilogy” by Robertson Davies, reading the name of a Urquhart from Balliol, Oxford gave me pause. The two turned out to be unrelated but what an interesting character this real life Urquhart was. Francis Fortescue Urquhart lived most of his life at Balliol College, eventually becoming a Dean, and “his main role… was social rather than pedagogical”[1]. I imagine him as the larger than life academic type you see in old Evelyn Waugh-ish English movies set in Universities, throwing parties and elegant soirées in his rooms for both pleasure and edification. His main interests were in art and architecture and he would take a few chosen students to tour Europe with him in the summer. He owned a chalet in the Alps where he held reading and swimming vacations for Oxford students. He loved beautiful boys and took many photographs of them but “was celibate” -which I am not sure what it means because ever since learning that MR James was also “celibate” but participated in groping parties in Cambridge where the boys would masturbate each other[2], I fear Bill Clinton wasn’t the first to try to get away with a narrow definition of sexual relations.

M.Sadler in Urquhart Photo Album

©Balliol Archives and Manuscripts on Flickr, original here.
M. Sadler in one of Urquhart’s Photo Albums

So, I presumed this MTH Sadler from Balliol who was with Urquhart (his name is written in the same handwriting) was probably a Balliol favourite of his. It was a bit hard to track him down because he changed his name later on to Michael Sadleir. His father was also Michael Sadler, a university chancellor and education theorist, and he was probably not keen on being mistaken for his son who became a novelist writing shocking stories involving prostitutes and the Victorian underworld. Well, Sadleir was himself quite a multi faceted and learned man so it is no wonder Urquhart chose him as a touring companion to the Florentine sights. Sadleir was an art lover and, with his father, amassed a collection of German expressionist paintings in the early 20th century and was the first translator of Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”. He assisted John Middleton Murry in editing the modernist magazine Rhythm in 1911 and wrote articles on ground breaking art for the same magazine. Maybe Urquhart was taking Sadleir into the heart of the Renaissance to get his mind off the abstract, modernist rubbish.

©Modernist Journals Project, original here. Sadleir's article on the first issue of Rhythm, Summer 1911

©Modernist Journals Project, original here.
Sadleir’s article on the first issue of Rhythm, Summer 1911

In 1912, soon after leaving college, Sadleir became a publisher at Constable, a job he held until he retired. Among other literary interventions and discoveries, he made Jean Rhys cry because he insisted on her changing the ending of “Voyage in the Dark” – he wanted the heroine to survive the abortion rather than die. There seems to be endless feminist literary theory writing about the significance of this event.

He was a learned book collector – he became President of the Bibliographical Society and director of The Book Collector magazine – and had one of the most impressive collections of gothic literature in the country. Instead of aiming to buy famous, collectable editions, he was a curiosity hunter and was the first one to prove that the Gothic novels mentioned in Northanger Abbey were not just dramatic titles invented by Jane Austen but real ones – copies of which he unearthed. He specialised also in Victorian fiction and was possibly responsible for a revival of interest in Anthony Trollope – for which I am eternally grateful and in total agreement with Alec Guinness[3].

And, coincidence of coincidences, Michael Sadleir had a house not far from where I live and was buried in a cemetery only a few miles away. As if I needed a better excuse to go grave hunting once again.

Michael Sadleir's grave at Bisley Cemetery. ("Bibliographer and Author, died greatly loved")

Michael Sadleir’s grave at Bisley Cemetery. (“Bibliographer and Author, died greatly loved”)

Througham Court, a Jacobean farm house owned by Sadleir in the outskirts of Bisley, Gloucestershire.

Througham Court, a Jacobean farm house owned by Sadleir in the outskirts of Bisley, Gloucestershire.

The things you can discover these days without moving your behind from a sofa – except that the interior of the cemetery isn’t on Google street view and nobody has entered Sadleir into, otherwise…


(click on footnote number to return to post)

[1] From Urquhart’s short bio at Balliol College. Source.
[2] Blame Mark Gatiss and his MR James documentary on the BBC for this prurient bit of trivia. Source.
[3] Quoted in the Trollope Society website, Sir Alec Guinness wrote:

“A wise man told me I would learn more about life from a great novelist than from any other source. I did not believe him. Now I wouldn’t dream of going on holiday without a Trollope. He has enlarged my world.”

Autumnal Gubbinal


We went for a walk in Ruskin Mill’s valley, a sort of Zen garden transplanted into the English countryside – certainly landscaped by a meditation enthusiast. There is a touch of intentional beauty in the most prosaic functional objects, from the stone spiral fountains which unnecessarily swirl the water feeding the fish ponds to the wooden cottages topped with biodiversity roofs where classes are held. I am almost sure the one lonely crane that is always gazing wistfully at the safety net protecting the fish ponds is illustrating some haiku I haven’t read yet. Most leaves have now turned the colour of rust and many more are now a brown mush on the ground as Autumn drizzles. A few bright, fiery red maple-ish leaves survived and I obviously had to rescue them. And then I felt vaguely guilty for not being that sort of character the occasion and location demanded: someone who can recite by heart some rhyming Wordsworth or Keats that would elegantly describe the strangely comforting pleasure these colours give me. Instead, I thought of wheelbarrows in the rain but mostly of gubbinals, savages of fire, tufts of jungle feathers and sides of peaches and dusky pears and, yet, I also had learned that these colours are too much as they are to be changed by metaphor, “so far beyond the rhetorician’s touch”. All this doesn’t make any sense but Wallace Stevens (among a few other Americans) has practically the monopoly of the Poetry region of my brain and no dead English poet will ever be able to reclaim it.


Thanks to a good friend who brought a gift of Library of America poetry, now I am looking forward to finding more about the Paiute.

The Earthquake

In that land, in that land,
In that glittering land;
Far away, far away,
The mountain was shaken with pain.

A Paradox

The crest of the mountain
Forever remains,
Forever remains,
Though the rocks continually fall.

(American Poetry – The 19th century, Native American, Southern Paiute )