Monday, June 29, 2009

In Stratford--Shakespeare Found--and the Cotswolds

Sunday, June 28, 2009
Stratford-on-Avon and Chipping Norton

I had no intentions to returning to Stratford-on-Avon while I was in Oxford. After all, I had been there the weekend of Shakespeare’s birthday (April 23) with Stephanie and would not have wanted to waste a day in the same venue. But just a couple of weeks after my return from Stratford, my colleague Karen began talking about a new Shakespeare Portrait that has just been unearthed and which is of supreme significance both for the literary and art worlds as it is suspected to be the only portrait for which Shakespeare ever posed during his lifetime. She told me that seeing it with her husband Douglas (who is a Renaissance scholar) was one of the highlights of her year in the UK--and I figured that if it is so special, I ought not to leave the UK without seeing it. I don’t believe that it was on display when I was in Stratford with Stephanie in April—maybe it was, maybe not. But in any case, since I was only 40 miles from Stratford here in Oxford, it made sense for me to take public transport to get there and have my own peek at this portrait.

And so I had ear marked today for this trip. I awoke about 7. 00, read Harry Potter for about 40 minutes, then left my bedroom to wash and get dressed for the 8 am Mass at The Oratory (a Jesuit-run church) on Woodstock Road near St. Giles. When I had passed by yesterday, I had discovered that there was a Mass at 8 am—a Mass that was described as “Old Rite”. I had no idea what this meant but I decided to find out since breakfast on Sunday is only served at 9 am. This left me time to attend Mass and get back in time for breakfast.

Old Rite Mass at The Oratory:
The Oratory is a very historic Catholic church in Oxford. It was established in 1845 which doesn’t make it old by Oxford standards, but it was the venue in which the famous Cardinal John Newman began his Ministry about the same time. I do not know enough about his Ministry (and the internet is not working efficiently enough here for me to get online and find out) but I do know that he initiated a chaplaincy that has resulted in Catholic ministry on every college campus world-wide—all of which are named after him. For example, the Catholic Center at the University of Hawai’i in Manoa, Honolulu, where I had spent a summer and attended Mass, is named the Cardinal Newman Center. These centers usually conduct masses for the Catholics on campus and provide ministerial support. Cardinal Newman was known to be an extraordinarily fine preacher and, no doubt, the pulpit in this oratory was the platform from which he gave his sermons.

The Oratory is famous for another reason: the early 20th century poet Gerald Manley Hopkins who was a Jesuit priest was a Curate in this church. Having studied his poems as an undergraduate student in India, I do remember reading that he was a Catholic priest and one who was especially drawn to Nature in attempting to find his way to God.

So I was very pleased to arrive at the church only to find that it had a strikingly beautiful interior. It isn’t very much to look at from the outside, but the inside is gorgeous, especially in the many beautifully carved saints that adorn the altar. But what amazed me about the church, more than anything else, was the congregation. I thought I had been whisked away in a Time Machine to the early 1960s (before Vatican II) when I used to attend Sunday masses in India with a veil in one hand and a Children’s Missal in the other. Upon entering the church, I would wear the veil on my head which my mother would often pin up as my hair is so silky and it would never stay put.

Well, most of the women in the congregation had veils on—in white or in black! I was stunned. It has been years since I have seen such a sight. Not only that, but the children in the church had missals in their hands and were actually following the service with the aid of these books. I was so struck by their good behavior. I saw no toys, no Cheerios, no books or anything of the kind to distract them (as I see in the churches in America where attending Mass is more playtime than anything else for a majority of the kids. These were old-fashioned children raised with old-fashioned parenting techniques that have gone with the wind. Needless to say, the Mass was in Latin, the priest facing the altar. Communion was distributed the traditional way at the Communion rails (you kneeled down to receive) and it was placed on your tongue and not in your hand! My God, I simply could not believe it! Seriously, one of the things I never thought I would take home with me to the States after my year in the UK was the variety of Christian forms of worship that I have experienced as I have gone to different churches every Sunday, representing various denominations of Christianity and conducted in vastly unique ways. As my stay here comes to an end, I am glad I had decided early in my stay here to do this: to try to attend Mass at a different church each Sunday. It has left me with fascinating observations and experiences and for those I am truly grateful.

Sunday Breakfast at Norham Road and Journey to Stratford:
My three fellow lodgers were already at table when I joined them for Breakfast this morning. Sunday breakfast meant hard boiled eggs (two for each of us). I toasted white sliced bread and make myself tasty sandwiches with my eggs—the sort my mother used to make for me when I was in school! I also ate cereal and drank two glasses of orange juice as I had a long way to go on the bus and wanted to get a hearty meal inside me.

I left my place at 9.45 to catch the 9. 55 bus (Stagecoach S3) to Chipping Norton (via Woodstock). I had found out that a Daypass offered unlimited travel on the bus for 7 pounds which was really a bargain. The bus rolled in about 10 minutes later (at 10. 05) and then we were off. Luckily, the day was gorgeous once again—lovely blue skies and bright sunshine—in fact, it turned a little too warm by the afternoon and I heard on the TV that tomorrow will be even warmer—28 degrees which is close to 86 Fahrenheit. The bus was crowded with teenagers, most of whom alighted at Blenheim Palace leaving the front seat wide open for me to enjoy.

The driver had told me that from Chipping Norton the bus S3 became the 50, so all I had to do was sit on the same bus. He also informed me that we would arrive in Stratford by 11. 20 am. The Daypass was really a bargain as the total distance was about 50 miles. We drove through beautiful bucolic Cotswold countryside passing charming little villages made of the typical honey-colored Cotswold stone for which this area is famed and the black slate roofs that give each village a marvelous uniformity but also a rural quaintness. Front and back gardens were full of summer blooms—dahlias brought vivid splashes of color to flower beds and tall hollyhocks and delphiniums were impressive in their stately height. I have to say that I am truly jealous of the enormous size and quality of the blooms that the English seem to be able to coax out of their soil without the use of expensive or damaging fertilizers. There is no way that we could produce the same results in the States—I am sure it has something to do with the presence of certain metals in the soil which provide those much-needed nutrients.

Arrival in Chipping Norton:

When we arrived in Chipping Norton, I recognized it at once as the little Cotswolds town in which Llew, Chriselle and I had once spent a night during our own tour of the Cotswold more than 10 years ago. Indeed, I even recognized The King’s Arms Hotel in which we had stayed and simply for old times’ sake, I decided that I would stop by there on my way back and explore the town on my own before catching the bus back to Oxford.

As we sailed on towards Stratford in the bus, I enjoyed the passing scenery. Mile after mile of field full of thriving plantings lent striking shades of green to the landscape. Sheep did dot the pastures and occasional farmhouses advertised themselves as being B&Bs while signs announced that “Afternoon Teas” were available in village churches. Next weekend, most of these villages will be having their annual summer fetes and I am sorry that I will be too far away to enjoy them, as I am seriously thinking of attending the sailing regatta at Henley-on-Thames with my friend Amy when she arrives from New York.

Arrival in Stratford-on-Avon:
When we did finally arrive in Stratford, I made a beeline straight away for Henley Street where Shakespeare’s birthplace is located. The Portrait Found Exhibit is in the Shakespeare Center right next door to his house. I was pleased that one could buy a ticket for just five pounds only to see the exhibit without needing to buy an expensive ticket to get into the Shakespearean houses—these I have seen several times before and did not think I needed to see them again.

The Shakespeare Portrait:
Ok, so here’s the reason why I made this pilgrimage to Stratford. In 2006, an Irishman named Alex Cobbe who lived in a grand mansion outside Dublin attended an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London entitled Portraits of Shakespeare. Upon looking at one of the portraits on display there, he was struck by the fact that it looked curiously similar to a portrait of an unknown gentleman that was hanging on the walls of one of the rooms in his house. He brought this fact to the notice of the powers-that-be and the painting in his house was examined and studied. Considerable scholarly opinion has come to the conclusion (led by a Prof. Stanley Wells) that this is a portrait of William Shakespeare and that indeed this might be the only one for which he ever posed during his lifetime!

This means, of course, that all of the portraits of Shakespeare that we have seen thus far were either created by people from memory after Shakespeare had passed away (in 1616 at the age of 54) or that they were copies of this one portrait for which he, Shakespeare, actually posed. One of the reasons why Wells and other scholars believe this to be an authentic posed portrait of Shakespeare is that Cobbe also has in his collection a portrait of another unknown Elizabethan whom he had thought to be a lady (based on her long hair that flows down one shoulder and her rather effeminate face). Scholars who have studied this portrait have come to the conclusion that this is not a woman at all but a rather feminine-looking man who was known to the world as Henry Wriosthesley, Earl of Southampton.

Now, not only is this Alex Cobbe a direct descendant of the Earl of Southampton (which is why the portrait has come down to him) but this Henry Wriosthesley was also Shakespeare’s fond patron and the one to whom, for a very long time and even today, his Sonnets are believed to have been dedicated (“To Mr. W.H.”)—the initials deliberately inverted by Shakespeare in order to keep his identity unknown.

Now, if we know (and it can be proved by genealogical data and records) that Alex Cobbe is a direct descendant of this Mr. W.H., then it is also easy to see the connection between Shakespeare and this newly ‘discovered’ portrait. For Mr. W.H. might well have paid the money to an unknown artist to have his dear friend’s portrait painted—a portrait that he wished to retain in his own possession. In his later years, Mr. W. H. fell badly out of royal favor for his involvement in a plot to destroy Elizabeth I and was imprisoned in the Tower of London. We do have another portrait of him created at this phase in his life (which is also at the exhibition) and when you look at the two together –of the younger Mr. W.H. (which is very decidedly androgynous) and the older one, you do see a distinct resemblance that leaves you in no doubt that the two portraits are of the same person made several decades apart.

When Mr. W.H. died in disgrace, his possessions (including his paintings) passed into the hands of his next-of-kin and all the way down into the hands of Alex Cobbe who simply did not know that the unknown Elizabethans whom he gazed at daily in his home were Shakespeare and his patron Mr. W.H. So the discovery of this portrait is significant because if Shakespeare had posed for it then it is the closest likeness we could ever have of Shakespeare—though of course, being dated as having been painted in 1606 (by X-rays, tree ring dating and based on the rich and very expensive garments he is wearing in the portrait, particularly the style of lace collar around his neck), we think that the artist flattered the poet who at the age of 46 years in 1606 could not have looked quite so young and unblemished of complexion as he appears in it.

The controversy (like so many associated with the life and times of Shakespeare) will continue endlessly until we can prove without any shadow of a doubt that it is actually Shakespeare--through some incontrovertible documentary evidence. Meanwhile, whether we are convinced that it is Shakespeare or not, we can all delight in the superb quality of the painting and its marvelous state of preservation. For the other portraits of Shakespeare (also in the same exhibition), supposedly based on this one original, newly unearthed portrait, are such poor imitations of the original as to seem almost amateurish.

For all of these reasons, I was glad I read everything about the exhibition and spoke at length to the guide who explained things to me in great detail. Since the two portraits (of the young Mr. W.H. and of Shakespeare) have been loaned to the Shakespeare Trust for only a limited period and since Mr. Alex Cobbe will be taking them back to his Irish estate in September, I was very pleased indeed that I had the chance to see it and to understand the complexity involved in its discovery and its provenance. So I am grateful to Karen who told me all about it.

Back to Oxford—and a Bad Fall in Chipping Norton:
I took the 2. 20 bus back towards Oxford (having spent quite a while lazing by the river and watching the world go by). On impulse, I got off at Chipping Norton and decided to walk around the town a little bit retracing my footsteps as I remembered them. It was here that I had a fall. I couldn’t make up my mind whether to stay on the bus to Oxford or get off and see the town. I needed to find out what times the buses run (as they are few and far between on Sunday) and while I was checking the timetable at the bus stop, the bus started to move. Attempting to run after it to board it, I fell over the pavement and hurt my knee badly where it made impact with the hard surface of the road.

Well, after I was able to get up, I decided to go out and find the church we had visited ten years ago and which I remembered clearly as well as the neighboring Alms Houses( all rather picturesque and reminiscent of illustrations in story books). Unfortunately, most shops had closed for the day and the town seemed rather deserted.

An hour later, I returned to the bus stop and took the 4. 10 bus back to Oxford but decided again on impulse to get off at Woodstock in order to return to Blenheim Palace to buy two postcards as I had left the ones I had bought a few days ago in the loo on my way out the other day! Well, I have to say that my knee seemed to be carrying me fine through the ten minute walk to the shop and the salesgirls were good enough to give me replacements postcards without my having to pay for them again—because they remembered me from the other day!
Then, I was boarding the 5. 30 pm bus back to Oxford. I got off near Bevington Road on Woodstock Road and it was only about 10 pm that my left knee started aching really badly. I got myself an ice pack (on Llew’s advice) and rubbed some Moov on it and after writing this blog, went to bed, hoping that I will not be completely incapacitated tomorrow.

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