Workshop, 26th March 2019

Writing, it is said, is a solitary profession – perhaps that is why very little is written about the partners of poets. Who are these long-suffering spouses shivering in narrow beds in draughty garrets while their other halves are scribbling their restless lucubrations ? How patient must they be to put up the constant lyrical-waxing, metaphor-extending and witticism-pitting ? Perhaps they are positively turned-on by people who would rather compare them to a Summer’s day than use said day to get on with harvesting the barley.

Before the 20th Century, such wives were invisible (and back then, they invariably were wives). But then came the vogue for confessional verse, and suddenly they had a leading role as impossible muse who can only disappoint with their revealed only-humanness, uncomprehending dullard bent on frustrating the genius in their midst, or philandering chancer whose every betrayal is documented and whinged on at length.

Couples are always welcome at our Workshops, which this week was begun by Pat Francis whose best friend may be ‘cheating with charm’, but is best kept out of tight corners, while John Hurley has been thinking about the mass while daydreaming in the pews. Sara Cornejo has been listening to a woman who talks too much, but who has plenty to say, followed by Alan Chambers remembering the spirit of a fish. A smiley Doig Simmonds has been lit up by happy face, while it’s houseboats and towpaths that have been pleasing Anne Furneaux. Peter Francis has been keeping an eye on increasingly-bolshy slugs, and Nick Barth has been stuck on a train that seems to have shunted into a siding, while Martin Choules has been ranting at those trying to force the train to go in reverse.

Sir John wasn’t a poet himself, but clearly his love of the art rubbed off on his own endeavours, which explains the lack of any reference to his wife Eliza in his architecture. Nowhere do we find any mention of her in his arches and doorways, and search in vain for her silhouette in his ground plans. But one detail appears more promising – the caryatid ! This is where a classical column is replaced with a statue of a female draped about with a flimsy cloth quite unsuited to the British climate, especially when their breasts have a habit of popping out. Sir John erected many of these, including on the facade of his home in Lincoln Inn Field, often bashed out with the help of Mrs Coade’s all-weather artificial lithomorphs, but it is unclear if he had a direct hand in shaping their curves or if he picked them up off-the-shelf. The catalogues of the time would insist that they were not simply load-bearing lady-forms, but finest ancient Roman Palazzo Farnese 3rd Century load-bearing lady-forms. But did he sneak a likeness of Eliza above those perfect proportions and beneath those delicate curls ?

Now, readers familiar with Pitshanger Manor may be aware of the four stone ladies atop the porch, not technically caryatid ad they aren’t holding anything up, but definitely female and definitely put up there by Sir John. Identical in face and pose, it is unsurprising that the just-departed conservators referred to them as the Percival Sisters, but could it be Eliza’s fourfold vigilance keeping a wary eye on all those married poets who have been let out for the evening ?

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