Virtual Knowledge

Now that The End may be in sight (touching wood, not counting my chickens, not jinxing it by booking holidays, etc. etc.), I’ve been pondering what, if anything, about life in lockdown I might actually miss. It is of course much easier to think of things that I won’t miss, notably backache from crouching over my laptop computer in a very non-ergonomic posture, and cooking – in the Old Normal, I was by myself Monday to Thursday and tended to graze on pasta and salads, but for a year now I have been churning out more-or-less proper (but incredibly repetitive) meals all week.

But after some consideration, I think the great gain from the last twelve months has been the online talk, lecture, course or seminar. In many ways, obviously, it’s not as good as being in a lecture hall (or indeed being post-prandially talked to at Him Indoors’s club), but it has meant that I don’t have to make the effort to get out and go any distance, which saves the regular conversation with self: ‘That would be really brilliant!’ ‘Yes, but you’ll have to get down to London.’ ‘Yes, but I could arrange to do other things on the same day?’ ‘Yes, but then you’ll be so tired on the way back.’ ‘Yes, but I could stay over and see the grandchildren too.’ ‘Yes, but then you’ll have to dash back early for work/appointment/whatever.’ ‘Yes, but the grandchildren will wake me up early in any case …’. This usually ends with my going anyway, and having a lovely time, but there’s a lot to be said for not coming home on a late train – and, I regret to say, even more to be said for being able to eat and drink during the event without being critically observed by the people sitting on either side.

The one location where no effort at all on my part is involved is of course Cambridge University Botanic Garden, where I used to go regularly for talks and workshops organised by the Learning department, which are now continuing online. Indeed, I have just ‘returned’ from a terrific morning, being guided though all aspects of the daffodil (or narcissus, primrose peerless, affodel, affrodile, daffy-down-dilly, belle-blome, cencleffe, lent-lily, gracy-day) by the most excellent and knowledgeable garden historian Dr Twigs Way. I have previously enjoyed several face-to-face talks in the Botanics with Twigs, most notably her wonderful exploration of the life and works of Mrs Delany, one of my great heroines. (Twigs is currently researching a book on the history of the daffodil, which will soon be available alongside her Carnation and Chrysanthemum, as well many other informative and entertaining books on garden history.)

One of the great things about such lectures is that one is always learning new Stuff – consider, for example, this picture of a daffodil, aquilegias and acorns, from the Mira calligraphiae monumenta, or Marvellous Works of Calligraphy, which was illustrated for the Emperor Rudolf II between 1591 and 1596 by Joris Hoefnagel (about whom I am always telling myself I must find out more).

Hoefnagel adorned the 129 pages of Bocskay’s calligraphy with flowers, fruit and insects. (Credit: the J. Paul Getty Museum)

The examples of calligraphy had been written by the Hungarian scribe Georg Bocskay (c.1510–75), thirty years before, and Hoefnagel has filled in the space on each page exquisitely, though in this case one might feel that the image does not quite match the text, which is from Psalm 38, beginning at v. 9: I am feeble and sore broken: I have roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart’, as the KJV has it.

Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover (1802–96), portrayed in the Welsh costume which she revived and advocated, by C.A. Mornewicke. (Private collection)

Or consider the startling idea that the daffodil became the flower of Wales only in the nineteenth century: as far as Twigs has been able to trace, the first daffodil as a national symbol appeared on a harp created for Lady Llanover (another Delany connection!) in the mid-century, along with a leek (and it has to be admitted that it wasn’t a daffodil that Fluellen was forced to eat after the battle of Agincourt). And in spite of various suggested cures in early herbals, all parts of the daffodil are toxic (though they do contain galantamine (see also snowdrops), now being used to reduce cognitive decline in sufferers from Alzheimer’s disease).

Thomas Birch Freeman, Methodist minister, missionary and botanist.

Other talks at which I have been in virtual attendance recently have included Professor Jordan Goodman on Sir Joseph Banks at the Gardens Trust; Advolly Richmond at the Garden Museum on the African-British missionary Thomas Birch Freeman (I’m ashamed to say that I republished his book, but had no idea he was also a botanist); Professor Matteo Casini at the Warburg Institute on Festivals in Venice (lots of lovely Carpaccios); Dr Cathy Ross on ‘The Charterhouse from Restoration to Revolution’; and the indefatigable Twigs (again) on the flowers of Shakespeare.

The coat of arms of Charles II at the Charterhouse.

Upcoming are several events during the Cambridge Festival, including two from the Cambridge University Herbarium (another Eden from which Covid has barred me for a year); a curatorial talk on the much-postponed but eagerly awaited The Human Touch, from our own dear Fitzwilliam; and a preview of the coming (in November) Dürer exhibition at the National Gallery (the last Dürer exhibition I went to was at the Diocesan Museum in Venice, many years ago …).

Clasped hands in a gimmel ring in the forthcoming The Human Touch exhibition. (Credit: the Fitzwilliam Museum)

But there will be more: for example, the SPAB ‘news and events’ email has just popped up, and I learn that (inter multa alia) there will be a virtual tea party on 24 March in honour of William Morris; a talk on the restoration of Brixton windmill; and a Historic England webinar on the pitfalls in mortar analysis (on which I may pass …). Moreover, it gives a link to wonderful Gresham College, which has Professor Simon Thurley on the duke of Monmouth’s estates next week, and many more must-sees, including William Cecil as spy-master, Dickens’s last decade, and the South Sea Bubble, on which I ought to know more. (This latter is on one of my working days, but I can take a long lunch hour …) To say nothing of the seductive messages from the Querini Stampalia museum in Venice and the FAI (the Italian equivalent of the National Trust) – though I doubt that my Italian would be adequate to these challenges …

So between all the talks and all the thoughts and follow-ups provoked by the talks, it is possible to envisage being far too busy to come out of lockdown at all – though somehow I doubt if that viewpoint will prevail for very long.


This entry was posted in Art, Bibliography, Biography, Botany, Cambridge, Gardens, History, London, Museums and Galleries, Natural history, Venice and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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