One of my first tasks when I was appointed Writer in Residence at the Barber Institute was to choose a painting as the subject for a gallery talk in November. If I’d been choosing now I would probably have gone for something different because I’ve made more emotional connections with other works, but this, ‘An Allegorical Tomb of the First Duke of Devonshire’ has always intrigued me. Painted in the early eighteenth century by Venetian artists Sebastiano Ricci and his nephew Marco, it was part of a commission through which a bankrupt Irish impresario called Owen McSwinney strangely hoped to make some money by selling paintings commemorating notable Whigs – supporters of William and Mary. He employed many painters for this, including Canaletto. The Ricci had lived in England and worked with McSwinney, notably on painting scenery. They also seem to have been larger than life characters, with less than reputable pasts. Sebastiano, having got a girl pregnant, tried to poison her and was sent to prison. On his release he eventually married her, only to abandon her and run away with another woman. Marco had to flee Venice after murdering a gondolier.
I wrote three poems about the painting. What intrigues me most about it, though it was painted for a commission, is how the Ricci have played with the form and made it anything but orthodox, almost surreal, 200 years before that term was invented. The statues on the tomb seem to be coming to life, while the human mourners, rigidly posed, seem to be turning into statues. One of the stone figures is an angel which made me think of the Weeping Angels in ‘Doctor Who’, turned to stone when anyone looks at them, so the first poem is also a celebration of ‘Doctor Who’ for its fiftieth anniversary this week.
look don’t look look
look don’t look
look don’t stop don’t gaze
don’t close your eyes
don’t turn your glance from the glass
don’t primp your anguished hair
don’t stop to reflect
that your name and your time aren’t there
in the vacant cartouche
head first down that hole the worms
have gnawed avoid in the void
like snakes in the grass
unclasp the box make soup from stone
stir pigment into flesh
be prey to claws of angels sobbing
turn grizzled grisaille grey
stay don’t stay
toggle quick to extinct and flick it back
blink don’t think
think don’t blink
The second poem reflects on the artificiality of the scene, with various figures representing ideas, like art, music and history, seen from the point of view of a figure in the left foreground, who is supposed to be a painter.
Though I am not the painter
I believe I have deposited a palette in the shade
laid down pencils and a mahlstick, all
the better to enact this pose, opposing fingers,
pointing where I do not look, precisely sloped
away from the window towards the empty corner
it illuminates. There will be perhaps a folly,
a capriccio, a grotto or a tomb. The lutanist
will turn up later, sit on a tub, finger strings,
which is not his skill, but his legs
are pertinent. The climbing man is limbering up,
the general straddles a sack of straw. We all
are on the tariff: size, dress, complication. Later
barefoot, I will will wring my hands for nobody
I know, who has not died, will straighten up
and indicate again, my angle parallel,
the current void. I will be lower than
the firmament. I do not do gods. I serve
as I am and here am I on the surface,
on the edge, trying to grasp the frame,
as I wade in the darkness of something
he still has to conceive.
The first Duke of Devonshire was a notable politician given the rank of Duke because of his support of William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution. Perhaps ironically the Dukes of Devonshire, members of the Cavendish family, are not buried in grandiose tombs but in the churchyard at Edensor near Chatsworth. The Duke of Richmond bought the paintings for his dining room. The third poem is probably unkind to both dukes but I’m imagining that Richmond was far more concerned with what the painting says about him than any praise it offers Devonshire. This also gave me the opportunity finally to write a parody of what I think is one of the greatest poems ever written, so this comes with apologies to Robert Browning.
That’s William Cavendish hanging on the wall,
though not alive. Odd’s blood if I don’t call
that daub a marvel, hefty though the price
McSwinney charged. The truth is I’d pay twice
as much for such a work. The pretty leg
on that stone wench, the stag behind. I beg
to differ if I ever hear you say
that better painters play their trade today
or in the past. What, Lely? Or Van Dyck?
Both fair at faces but for spectacle I like
what these Venetians conjure up, so bold,
devoid of Art. Did I revere the old
Duke very much, you ask? No, I did not.
A blessed, jumped up earl. He never sought
our love or praise. Why then show off his tomb?
Oh sir, admit it looks well in thus room.