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Elegy in a Cup and Saucer - Ali Smith

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Elegy in a cup and saucer

Where've you been, in your dreams, in lockdown? Wandering the sunlit streets of an impossible city? Sitting in a pub with pals? Bagging a Monroe or two? Or just, you know, having a cup of coffee or tea as you sit in a cafe and wait for a train in a busy station? Sitting on a crowded train with other people, and all of us breathing together without having to think about it, I mean unselfconsciously, openly. It's a dream now. Will that ever be possible again? Of course, it will. In time. But what will have changed for us, by then? How will we be seeing things?

Maybe you dream of going to visit family, going straight up to someone you love and giving them the biggest tightest hug and kiss, then sitting down together at the table and someone unthinkingly getting a clatter of cups and plates out, scattering them over it, reaching to put a kettle on.

I've dreamed versions of all of these things. (Well, okay, except the Monroes.) But in one of my many lockdown reveries I also found myself unexpectedly wandering the painting galleries of the venerable Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, just me, on my own, loping along past picture after picture on my way to one particular picture.

I mean, imagine. A whole painting gallery all to myself. Before covid that's the kind of thing that would've sounded like a paradise, a gallery all to yourself, the kind of thing only kings and queens and sultans and popes and rich chairpeople on the boards of galleries have.

And of course the cleaners of and the security people working in those galleries and museums, in other words all the people who form the real infrastructure of this country, the people coronavirus has made more visible than they were before to everybody, and more demonstrably necessary.

Why the Fitzwilliam? I think probably because it belongs to a time when I wasn't quite myself, when I was still learning who I might be. When I first arrived in the city as a postgrad in 1985 I had a room in a tiny cottage down a very small street about 30 seconds walk from the surreal hugeness, the palatial frontage of the Fitzwilliam, and it was a place which was free to visit, so I'd go there a lot, and when my older sister, who still lives in the Highlands near Inverness where we're from, came to stay with me in the first few weeks of me living down there in England, she and I went to the Fitzwilliam together, spent a Sunday wandering the painting galleries, her saying enlightened clever things about the colours of the walls on which the paintings were hung and commenting on the happy face of the baby in one of the Madonna and Child paintings, look, that baby's just been fed, she said.

Anyway, that was the reality then. Realities change. The reality now is that my sister lives at the other end of the country, up there in Scotland, so we won't see each other in person for some time.

Back to the dream, then, and what was I looking for, running from room to art-filled room? Not the suits of armour. I'd run right past them. Nothing in Egyptology stopped me. Not the beautiful ceramics. No, I was up among the paintings; I'd stopped for breath in front of some billowing fleshy horses and men, Rubens, The Death of Hippolytus, a man unseated by a monster as he drove his chariot along a beach, and I was standing feeling my own dream lungs, thinking about crowds on a beach, shaking my dream head.

Above all, God, how unexpectedly miserable, to be the only person ricocheting round a huge museum. What I was wishing for was a roomful of people, what I longed for was something of the old world, something jostlingly alive, folk wandering and chatting amongst the pictures and the artefacts, all traversing the same space randomly together, I mean, what a luxury, to be rubbing shoulders in our old glorious messy way up against each other and the art. Who knew how fine that had been? Well, we did, now.

Okay, maybe by the time I'd got to the end of the dream I'd find more people. Maybe that's what I was looking for. On I went. I surprised myself by breezing right past things I love, like the cool perfection in Veneziano's Annunciation, and look, I was also passing without stopping, how was that possible, one of my favourite paintings ever, the small bright golden panel by Giovanni di Paulo of St Bartholomew standing in golden light graciously holding his book and his knife, he holds these things symbolically because he's the patron saint of leather workers and bookbinders, having been skinned alive as his martyrdom, that's how the story goes.

Which reminds me of another time back in real life when my partner Sarah and I were wandering these galleries, it was a Saturday and it was crowded with people, students, families with kids, and as we passed a crucifixion painting we also passed a man with a toddler in his arms maybe 3 years old and the child was shouting, but WHY did the people do that to him, WHY did they do it to him? and we all smiled, we all exchanged a look, he raised his eyebrows, the full weight of that innocence in his arms, the heft of every impossible explanation he'd ever have to try to give, about the strangeness of the world and the way humans can act to one another, and whether gods come into it or not, all of that, in his eyes, all in a casual weekend visit to the gallery.

But back in my dream, I passed the Cezanne trees, blue-green, blowing in a summer breeze, no, not even them I was here to see.

No. Look. There. That's what I'd chosen to visit in my dream.

This very small painting. Less than a foot wide, between 7 or 8 inches high. It's of a cup on a saucer with a teaspoon placed on the saucer at the side of the cup.

That's it? That's what I'd worked my way through this maze of a dream museum to see?

No mythology? No gods? No flourish of art? No beautiful colourful intricate painted vase? No protective suit of armour the size of a giant?

No.

I looked hard at a cup and saucer picture in my dream. That picture finally woke me.

What? What just happened? What's happening?

I lay in the dark for a bit. Then I got up, put the light on, opened my computer and looked the picture up online to have a less dreamlike look at it.

It's night time in the painting, or dark, or the table is dark and the cup is bright. In this it's a marriage of dark and light, it's a picture of light in the dark and vice versa, about the forms light and dark can take when they come together, and of a kind of night vision, a way of seeing that lights up and darkens the smallness and the hugeness of our lives.

And literally all it is is a picture of a cup. On a saucer. Silver teaspoon, all in the dark. But light is coming from somewhere, enough light to catch in a couple of places on the metal of the spoon, light that makes the porcelain glow as if the cup and the saucer are a kind of ghost vision. Ghostly but not ghoulish, more like a spirit, a serious spirit. A very ordinary everyday metaphysic.

The cup looks both delicate and sturdy; it has a handle that gestures, in the mundane elegance of its curve, to something slightly more decorative than the cup actually is. In fact, when you spend a bit of time with it, you notice the cup's curve holds something angular that suggests it's not simply or smoothly curved after all, it's more faceted, more unusual, than that. Shadow plays across the surfaces of it and of the saucer turning what looks like their colourlessness into greys and silvers, into something nearer sepia, even a hint of umber.

And look. Though the cup seems to be placed at the centre of the saucer, something about the geometry of the painting makes it look as if it's floating, or off centre. impossibly balanced. Sure enough everything in the picture is slightly offset, pulling towards the left of the frame. The light is offset by the dark, the dark by the light. And when you pay a little more attention to that spoon there too, it looks as if its metal might actually be visibly bending as you watch, or in the process of melting, an impossibility, but happening all the same.

White cup and saucer. Henri Fantin-Latour. 1864. Fantin-Latour, as my waking self knows, specialised in and made a lot of money choosing to paint pictures unlike this one, popular and comforting colourful still lives which gestured to art of the past at a time when art was shifting and changing beyond recognition. He did it splendidly, painted wildly vibrant overflows of flowers in vases; he's particularly famous for roses in baskets, blooms falling over each other so brilliantly fulsome and simultaneously falling apart, shedding petals as they open, that it's as if his flowers are conversing with each other about their own process.

He painted plates of fruit with perfect near-photographic fuzz-blushes on the peaches. He also liked to paint his fellow artists all grouped round each other examining one of their pals' paintings, like a reassurance of peership. He liked to paint the occasional naked nymph or some consciously cliched classical scene, something gently titillating, in a recognisable mode, comforting. And he could, in his repertoire, also paint a charming picture of a woman sitting happily alone deep in a book.

In other words, he was an artist who understood comforts. He understood colourfulness and vibrancy. He understood solitude and sociability.

He understood, too, the unexpected narratives that a still-life can hold and pretty much subconsciously, subterraneanly, express.

And then he goes and paints a nocturne still life or two like the one my dream self had gone for. The kind of picture quite unlike his other work. Where light and dark create something so ordinary-looking and yet so blastingly uncanny that it's like a prophecy in itself, a reminder to everyone who sees it of the strangeness all through our lives, and of how fragile and tough and surreal, everything that's everyday to us can be. That realities are mutable, mysterious, that the fixed and familiar things of our lives might well, if we pay them the right attention, reveal themselves to be on the one hand spiritually lit, and on the other already in meltdown.

It lets us see more clearly what they really mean to us.

I sat on the edge of my bed and thought of the way that this tiny glowing and haunting painting, ostensibly of a momentary nothing in life, was really an everything.

I thought about how it had surfaced for me now as a work at the heart of a grand and renowned collection. It sits there, black and white and all grey area, quiet and simple and haunting beyond belief, on the wall of the grandest edifice full of the artefacts and trappings of centuries of history and money and culture and gain and loss and mythmaking and imperialism. It haunts, it overturns everything in the museum, even the place itself, with its quiet demand that we pay attention to the detail of our lives, that we meditatively evaluate what matters. It asks that in our encounter with the dark, the light, our own uncanny everyday, we come to understand how a reseeing of the familiar, from a new perspective, say the perspective of this unlikely and changed world we never thought to find ourselves in, might unsettle us richly as well as strangely, and let us re-evaluate what's worth what.

In my lockdown dream. In our lockdown lives.

The suit of armour? a cup on its saucer. The hope? that we'll sit down soon with each other, cup of coffee, tea, a how-are-you. The knowledge? that in the dark things still go together, they fit each other and they give out light. The spirit? a cup, on a saucer. The finds dug up from the ancient tombs? A cup, saucer, spoon. The mythical story of monsters and heroes? a teaspoon catching light in the dark. The annunciation? The things on our tables shining in front of us, day and night. The saints and martyrs of this dream museum? all the thousands of folk we've lost to covid. Every single individual standing shining like a saint in gold leaf paint. Every single person gone dark, what are they holding, what are they showing us?

A simple, unexpectedly bright, porcelain cup on its saucer.

Author, playwright, academic and journalist Ali Smith reads “Elegy in a Cup and Saucer”. 

She begins by asking us “Where have you been in your dreams in lockdown?” 

Her dream takes us through the Fitzwilliam’s galleries, pausing at paintings she has known since she first visited the Museum as a postgrad in 1985.  Finally she reaches a “tiny, glowing and haunting painting” – White Cup and Saucer by Henri Fantin-Latour.  Luke Syson, Director, then discusses the painting with Jane Munro, Keeper of Paintings, Drawings and Prints, who describes it as “…a painting that draws people in.”

Podcast transcript

This transcript was generated using Amazon Speech Recognition; there maybe errors in this text. Please do point any errors that you find out using the feedback widget at the bottom corner of this page.

  1. 00:00:02 - 00:00:06
    Carmen Pryce Hi, I'm Carmen Pryce, and this is “In my mind's eye: The museum explored”
  2. 00:00:07 - 00:00:18
    Carmen Pryce a podcast where I talked to artists and writers during lock down about their memories of the Fitzwilliam Museum, part of the University of Cambridge. At the outset of this project, we sent each contributor a brief
  3. 00:00:19 - 00:00:32
    Carmen Pryce author, playwright, academic and journalist. Ali Smith, who is a regular visitor to the museum, got the concept so quickly she'd written, recorded and, delivered the piece you're about to hear before I'd managed to set up the remote recording
  4. 00:00:34 - 00:00:44
    Carmen Pryce Ali’s memories, take her on an imaginary tour of the museum and lead her to a small painting by French 19th century artists Henri Fantin Latour in Gallery five.
  5. 00:00:45 - 00:00:51
    Carmen Pryce After Ali's reading, we get the curator’s reaction with keeper of paintings, drawings and prints, Jane Munro
  6. 00:00:51 - 00:00:54
    Carmen Pryce and Luke Syson director of the Fitzwilliam Museum.
  7. 00:00:55 - 00:01:12
    Carmen Pryce Now at the time, UK social distancing guidelines prohibit the meeting off various household indoors. So even though the distance between all of us is a five minute cycle ride and I could have done the interview over the garden gate. The recording takes place online to comply with the rules.
  8. 00:01:14 - 00:01:17
    Carmen Pryce Here's what Ali Smith sees “in her mind's eye”
  9. 00:01:19 - 00:01:21
    Ali Smith Elegy in a cup and saucer.
  10. 00:01:23 - 00:01:26
    Ali Smith Where have you been in your dreams in lockdown,
  11. 00:01:27 - 00:01:30
    Ali Smith wandering the sunlit streets of an impossible city
  12. 00:01:31 - 00:01:32
    Ali Smith sitting in a pub with pals,

  1. 00:01:33 - 00:01:41
    Ali Smith bagging a Monroe or two, or just, you know, having a cup of coffee or tea as you sit in a cafe and wait for a train in a busy station,
  2. 00:01:42 - 00:01:50
    Ali Smith sitting on a crowded train with other people and all of us breathing together without having to think about it. I mean, I'm self consciously, openly.
  3. 00:01:51 - 00:01:53
    Ali Smith It's a dream. Now
  4. 00:01:53 - 00:01:55
    Ali Smith Will that ever be possible again?
  5. 00:01:55 - 00:01:56
    Ali Smith Of course it will
  6. 00:01:57 - 00:01:58
    Ali Smith in time.
  7. 00:01:59 - 00:02:01
    Ali Smith But what will it change for us by then?
  8. 00:02:02 - 00:02:04
    Ali Smith How will we be seeing things?
  9. 00:02:06 - 00:02:08
    Ali Smith Maybe you dream of going to visit family,
  10. 00:02:08 - 00:02:21
    Ali Smith going straight up to someone you love and giving them the biggest, tightest hug and kiss and sitting down together at the table and someone unthinkingly getting a clatter of cups and plates out, scattering them over it reaching to put a kettle on.
  11. 00:02:22 - 00:02:26
    Ali Smith I've dreamed versions of all these things well, okay, except the Monroes.
  12. 00:02:27 - 00:02:37
    Ali Smith But in one of my many lock down reveries, I also find myself unexpectedly wandering the painting galleries of the venerable Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
  13. 00:02:38 - 00:02:44
    Ali Smith Just me on my own, loping along past picture after picture on the way to one particular picture.
  14. 00:02:45 - 00:02:47
    Ali Smith I mean, imagine
  15. 00:02:48 - 00:03:02
    Ali Smith the whole painting gallery all to myself before covid. That's the kind of thing that would have sounded like a paradise, a gallery all to yourself A kind of thing. Only kings and queens and sultans and Popes and rich chair people on the boards of galleries have.
  16. 00:03:03 - 00:03:14
    Ali Smith And, of course, the cleaners of and the security people working in those galleries and museums. In other words, all the people who form the real infrastructure of this country.
  17. 00:03:14 - 00:03:20
    Ali Smith The people coronavirus has made more visible than they were before to anybody and more demonstrably necessary.
  18. 00:03:23 - 00:03:24
    Ali Smith Why the Fitzwilliam?
  19. 00:03:24 - 00:03:30
    Ali Smith I think probably because it belongs to a time when I wasn't quite myself when I was still learning who I might be.
  20. 00:03:31 - 00:03:34
    Ali Smith When I first arrived in the city as a post grad. In 1985
  21. 00:03:35 - 00:03:43
    Ali Smith I had a room in a tiny cottage down a very small street, about 30 seconds walk from the surreal hugeness, the palatial frontage of the Fitzwilliam
  22. 00:03:44 - 00:04:12
    Ali Smith and it was a place which was free to visit. So I go there a lot when my older sister, who still lives in the highlands near Inverness, where we're from, came to stay with me in the first few weeks of me living down there in England, she and I went to the Fitzwilliam together, spent a Sunday wandering the painting galleries, her seeing enlightened, clever things about the colours of the walls on which the paintings were hung and commenting on the happy face of the baby in one of the Madonna and child paintings. Look that babies just been fed, she said.
  23. 00:04:13 - 00:04:15
    Ali Smith Anyway, that was the reality. Then
  24. 00:04:16 - 00:04:17
    Ali Smith realities change.
  25. 00:04:18 - 00:04:25
    Ali Smith The reality now is that my sister lives at the other end of the country up there in Scotland, so we won't see each other in person for some time.
  26. 00:04:28 - 00:04:29
    Ali Smith Back to the dream. Then
  27. 00:04:29 - 00:04:56
    Ali Smith what was there looking for a running from room to art filled room, not the suits of armour I’d run right past them. Nothing in Egyptology stopped me, not the beautiful ceramics. No, I was up among the paintings I had stopped for breath in front of some billowing fleshy horses and men Rubens. The Death of Hippolytus. A man unseated by a monster as he drove his chariot along the beach and I was standing feeling my own dream lungs thinking about crowds on the beach, shaking my dream head
  28. 00:04:57 - 00:05:05
    Ali Smith above all God, how unexpectedly miserable to be the only person ricocheting around a huge museum.
  29. 00:05:06 - 00:05:27
    Ali Smith What I was wishing for was a room full of people. What I longed for was for something of the old world something jostlingly alive folk wandering and chatting amongst the pictures and the artefacts, all traversing the same space randomly together. I mean, what a luxury to be rubbing shoulders in our old, glorious, messy way up against each other in the art. Who knew how fine that had been.
  30. 00:05:28 - 00:05:29
    Ali Smith Well, we did now,
  31. 00:05:31 - 00:06:25
    Ali Smith Okay, maybe by the time and got to the end of the dream, I'd find more people. Maybe that's what I was looking for on I went I surprised myself by breezing right past things I love like the cool perfection in minutes Domiziano’s Annunciation and look. I was also passing without stopping. How was that possible? One of my favourite paintings ever. The small, bright golden panel by Giovanni Di Paolo of St Bartholomew, standing in Golden Light, graciously holding his book and his knife. He holds these things symbolically because he's the patron saint of leather workers and bookbinders having been skinned alive as his martyrdom. That's how the storey goes, which reminds me of another time back in real life when my partner, Sarah and I were wondering these galleries. It was a Saturday, and it was crowded with people, students, families with kids. And as we passed a crucifixion painting, we also passed a man with a toddler in his arms, maybe three years old,
  32. 00:06:25 - 00:06:29
    Ali Smith and the child was shouting. But why did the people do that to him?
  33. 00:06:30 - 00:06:30
    Ali Smith Why did they
  34. 00:06:30 - 00:06:51
    Ali Smith do it to him? And we all smiled. We all exchanged a look. He raised his eyebrows, the full weight of that innocence in his arms, the heft of every impossible explanation you'd ever have to try to give about the strangeness of the world and the way humans connect to one another on whether gods come into it or not. All of that in his eyes, all in a casual we can visit to the gallery,
  35. 00:06:53 - 00:07:00
    Ali Smith but back in my dream I passed the Cezanne trees blue green blowing in the summer breeze. No, not even them. I was here to see.
  36. 00:07:01 - 00:07:01
    Ali Smith No,
  37. 00:07:02 - 00:07:03
    Ali Smith look
  38. 00:07:03 - 00:07:04
    Ali Smith there
  39. 00:07:05 - 00:07:08
    Ali Smith that what had chosen to visit in my dream,
  40. 00:07:09 - 00:07:11
    Ali Smith this very small painting.
  41. 00:07:12 - 00:07:15
    Ali Smith Less than a foot wide between seven or eight inches high.
  42. 00:07:16 - 00:07:22
    Ali Smith It's of a cup on a saucer with a teaspoon placed on the saucer at the side of the cup.
  43. 00:07:23 - 00:07:24
    Ali Smith That's it.
  44. 00:07:25 - 00:07:28
    Ali Smith That's what I worked my way through this maze of a dream museum to see.
  45. 00:07:29 - 00:07:37
    Ali Smith No mythology, no gods, no flourish of art, no beautiful, colourful, intricate painted vase no, protective suit of armour the size of a giant.
  46. 00:07:38 - 00:07:38
    Ali Smith No,
  47. 00:07:39 - 00:07:43
    Ali Smith I looked hard at a cup and saucer picture. In my dream.
  48. 00:07:44 - 00:07:47
    Ali Smith That picture finally woke me.
  49. 00:07:48 - 00:07:51
    Ali Smith What what just happened? What's happening
  50. 00:07:52 - 00:08:00
    Ali Smith early in the dark for a bit. Then I got up. Put the light on, open my computer and looked the picture up online to have a less dreamlike look at it.
  51. 00:08:02 - 00:08:05
    Ali Smith It's nighttime in the painting or dark,
  52. 00:08:05 - 00:08:13
    Ali Smith or the table is dark and the cup is bright. In this, it's a marriage of dark and light. It's a picture of light in the dark and vice versa
  53. 00:08:14 - 00:08:25
    Ali Smith about the forms light and dark can take when they come together and have a kind of night vision, a way of seeing that lights up and darkens the smallness and the hugeness of our lives
  54. 00:08:27 - 00:08:29
    Ali Smith and literally. All it is is a picture of a cup
  55. 00:08:30 - 00:08:31
    Ali Smith on a saucer
  56. 00:08:31 - 00:08:34
    Ali Smith silver teaspoon, all in the dark
  57. 00:08:35 - 00:08:48
    Ali Smith but latest coming from somewhere enough. Light to catch in a couple of places on the metal of the spoon, light that makes the porcelain glow as if the cup and the saucer or a kind of ghost vision. Ghostly but not ghoulish. More like a spirit,
  58. 00:08:49 - 00:08:50
    Ali Smith a serious spirit
  59. 00:08:51 - 00:08:54
    Ali Smith of very ordinary everyday metaphysics.
  60. 00:08:55 - 00:09:16
    Ali Smith The cup looks both delicate and sturdy. It has a handle that gestures in the mundane elegance of its curve to something slightly more decorative than the cup actually is. In fact, when you spend a bit of time with it, you notice the cup's curve. Hold something angular that suggests it's not simply or smoothly curved. After all, it's more faceted, more unusual than that.
  61. 00:09:17 - 00:09:28
    Ali Smith Shadow, please, across the surfaces of it and of the saucer turning what looks like they're colourlessness into greys and silvers into something nearer sepia, even a hint of umber.
  62. 00:09:29 - 00:09:30
    Ali Smith Look,
  63. 00:09:30 - 00:09:57
    Ali Smith though the cup seems to be placed at the centre of the saucer or something about the geometry of the painting makes it look as if it's floating or off centre, impossibly balanced. Sure enough, everything in the picture is slightly offset, pulling towards the left of the frame. The light is offset by the dark, the dark by the light, and when you pay a little more attention to that spoon there, too, it looks as if it's metal might actually be visibly bending as you watch
  64. 00:09:57 - 00:09:59
    Ali Smith or in the process of melting
  65. 00:09:59 - 00:10:02
    Ali Smith an impossibility but happening all the same.
  66. 00:10:05 - 00:10:06
    Ali Smith White Cup and saucer
  67. 00:10:07 - 00:10:10
    Ali Smith Henri Fantin Latour 1864
  68. 00:10:11 - 00:10:45
    Ali Smith Fantin Latour as my waking self knows specialised in and made a lot of money, choosing to paint pictures. Unlike this one, popular and comforting colourful still lives, which gestured to art of the past. At a time when art was shifting and changing beyond recognition, he did it splendidly painted wildly vibrant overflows of flowers and vases. He's particularly famous for roses in baskets, blooms falling over each other so brilliantly fulsome and simultaneously falling apart, shedding petals as they open that it's as if his flowers are conversing with each other about their own process.
  69. 00:10:46 - 00:10:51
    Ali Smith He painted plates of fruit with perfect near photographic fuzz blushes on the peaches.
  70. 00:10:51 - 00:10:59
    Ali Smith He also liked to paint his fellow artists, all grouped around each other, examining one of their pals paintings like a reassurance of peer ship.
  71. 00:10:59 - 00:11:08
    Ali Smith He liked to paint the occasional naked nymph for some consciously cliched. Classical seen something gently titillating in a recognisable mood, comforting.
  72. 00:11:09 - 00:11:15
    Ali Smith And he could, in his repertoire, also paint a charming picture of a woman sitting happily alone
  73. 00:11:15 - 00:11:16
    Ali Smith deep in a book.
  74. 00:11:17 - 00:11:24
    Ali Smith In other words, he was an artist who understood comforts. He understood colourfulness and vibrancy.
  75. 00:11:24 - 00:11:27
    Ali Smith He understood solitude and sociability.
  76. 00:11:28 - 00:11:32
    Ali Smith He understood to be unexpected narratives that a still life can hold
  77. 00:11:33 - 00:11:37
    Ali Smith and pretty much subconsciously subterraneanly Express.
  78. 00:11:39 - 00:11:43
    Ali Smith And then he goes and paints a nocturne Still life or two like the one My Dream Self had gone for
  79. 00:11:44 - 00:11:52
    Ali Smith what kind of picture? Quite unlike his other work, where light and dark create something so ordinary looking and yet so blastingly uncanny.
  80. 00:11:53 - 00:12:04
    Ali Smith This is like a prophecy in itself, a reminder to everyone who sees it of the strangeness all through our lives and off her fragile and tough and surreal. Everything that's everyday to us can be.
  81. 00:12:06 - 00:12:14
    Ali Smith The realities are immutable, mysterious that the fixed and familiar things of our lives might well, if we pay them the right attention,
  82. 00:12:14 - 00:12:20
    Ali Smith reveal themselves to be on the one hand spiritually lit and then the other already in melt down,
  83. 00:12:22 - 00:12:25
    Ali Smith I'd like to see more clearly what they really mean to us.
  84. 00:12:26 - 00:12:35
    Ali Smith I sat on the edge of my bed and thought of the way that this tiny, glowing and haunting painting, ostensibly of a momentary nothing in life was really on everything
  85. 00:12:37 - 00:13:01
    Ali Smith I thought about how it had surfaced for me. Now, as a worker at the heart of a grand and renowned collection, it sits there black and white and all grey area, quiet and simple and haunting beyond belief on the wall of the grandest edifice, full of the artefacts and trappings of centuries of history and money and culture, and gain and loss and myth making and imperialism
  86. 00:13:01 - 00:13:15
    Ali Smith it haunts. It overturns everything in the museum, even the place itself, with its quiet demand that we pay attention to the detail of our lives that we meditatively evaluate what matters.
  87. 00:13:16 - 00:13:21
    Ali Smith It asks in our encounter with the dark the light. Our own, uncanny every day
  88. 00:13:22 - 00:13:32
    Ali Smith we come to understand, have a re seeing of the familiar from a new perspective. See the perspective of this unlikely and changed world we never thought to find yourselves in
  89. 00:13:32 - 00:13:36
    Ali Smith might unsettle us richly as well as strangely,
  90. 00:13:36 - 00:13:39
    Ali Smith and let us re evaluate what's worth what
  91. 00:13:40 - 00:13:41
    Ali Smith in my lockdown dream
  92. 00:13:43 - 00:13:44
    Ali Smith in our lockdown lives
  93. 00:13:46 - 00:13:46
    Ali Smith the suit of armour
  94. 00:13:47 - 00:13:48
    Ali Smith a cup on it's saucer,
  95. 00:13:49 - 00:13:50
    Ali Smith the hope
  96. 00:13:51 - 00:13:55
    Ali Smith that we'll sit down soon with each other cup of coffee tea. How are you?
  97. 00:13:56 - 00:13:56
    Ali Smith The knowledge
  98. 00:13:57 - 00:14:02
    Ali Smith that in the dark things still go together, they fit each other and they give out light.
  99. 00:14:03 - 00:14:03
    Ali Smith A spirit.
  100. 00:14:04 - 00:14:06
    Ali Smith A cup on a saucer,
  101. 00:14:06 - 00:14:17
    Ali Smith The finds dug up from the ancient tombs. A cup saucer spoon the mythical story of monsters and heroes, a teaspoon catching light in the dark,
  102. 00:14:18 - 00:14:19
    Ali Smith the annunciation,
  103. 00:14:20 - 00:14:23
    Ali Smith the things on our tables shining in front of us day and night.
  104. 00:14:24 - 00:14:27
    Ali Smith The saints and martyrs of this dream museum
  105. 00:14:28 - 00:14:35
    Ali Smith all the thousands of folk we've lost, to covid, every single individual standing shining like a saint in gold leaf paint.
  106. 00:14:36 - 00:14:39
    Ali Smith Every single person gone dark. What are they holding?
  107. 00:14:40 - 00:14:41
    Ali Smith What are they showing us
  108. 00:14:42 - 00:14:46
    Ali Smith an unexpectedly bright porcelain cup
  109. 00:14:46 - 00:14:47
    Ali Smith on it’s saucer.
  110. 00:14:49 - 00:14:50
    Carmen Pryce Luke, Jane,
  111. 00:14:51 - 00:14:56
    Carmen Pryce/Jane Munro thank you for joining me on this remote recording. Really thrilled to be here. Thank you.
  112. 00:14:56 - 00:14:56
    Luke Syson Very nice to be here.
  113. 00:14:57 - 00:15:03
    Carmen Pryce Luke, first, how do you respond to Ali's choice of the cup and saucer?
  114. 00:15:04 - 00:15:04
    Luke Syson Well, you
  115. 00:15:04 - 00:15:11
    Luke Syson know, it's fascinating that she saw it as the, end of, ah, journey as a destination,
  116. 00:15:12 - 00:15:18
    Luke Syson a picture to arrive at in this extraordinary dream and then to be investigated. I
  117. 00:15:18 - 00:15:18
    Luke Syson suppose, in a
  118. 00:15:18 - 00:15:22
    Luke Syson way, I have thought of it rather rather same rather the same way.
  119. 00:15:23 - 00:15:29
    Luke Syson When I was appointed director the Fitzwilliam, I actually posted this
  120. 00:15:30 - 00:15:32
    Luke Syson picture on Instagram
  121. 00:15:33 - 00:15:34
    Luke Syson and talked about my
  122. 00:15:35 - 00:15:49
    Luke Syson journey, My arrival in Cambridge, my departure from from New York, where I had been looking after ceramics and how in a way that painting represented the the place I was going.
  123. 00:15:49 - 00:16:08
    Luke Syson And I think it does have that quality. There's a wonderful story that I was once told about another novelist, Anita Brookner, who met somebody at Liverpool Street Station and when she was asked where she was going she said. I'm going to Cambridge to see Fantin Latour’s Cup and Saucer
  124. 00:16:09 - 00:16:12
    Luke Syson Ond, they said, And then what? And then she said, I'm going to come home
  125. 00:16:13 - 00:16:21
    Luke Syson So it's a sort of sense somehow that it's a very complete experience of, ah, picture that that
  126. 00:16:22 - 00:16:28
    Luke Syson imprints itself on our memories on that somehow stands for much more
  127. 00:16:28 - 00:16:30
    Luke Syson than it is. And I think that's what
  128. 00:16:31 - 00:16:41
    Luke Syson Smith has so brilliantly encapsulated. My space. That's what this picture has been for me as I thought about coming to Cambridge, and now that I'm there,
  129. 00:16:41 - 00:16:52
    Carmen Pryce/ Jane Munro Jane, as curator, Do you have anything to add to that? It's a painting I've known for virtually all my curatorial life and again and again. It's a painting that
  130. 00:16:53 - 00:17:06
    Jane Munro less seduces people but draws people in and draws of narratives. It's understated. That's unassuming, but it's got the song with sort of hypnotic, great white greyish whiteness that
  131. 00:17:06 - 00:17:27
    Jane Munro/ Carmen Pryce invites you into this sort of say crawl, light and ambience that it exudes. And, like Ali Smith takes us on a journey. It leaves room for the imagination to grow in so many ways in so many directions. How do you feel about the reading? What seems to me brilliant in her selection, and in her reading
  132. 00:17:28 - 00:17:29
    Jane Munro is that she
  133. 00:17:30 - 00:17:37
    Jane Munro brings out through the sort of unfussyness and the elemental simplicity of this painting, the brilliant way it's being painted,
  134. 00:17:38 - 00:17:44
    Jane Munro that she brings out something that we've all been feeling to some degree during the pandemic.
  135. 00:17:45 - 00:17:53
    Jane Munro And that is a strange sense of isolation at the same time as being in the presence ofthe
  136. 00:17:54 - 00:18:11
    Jane Munro other people, other objects, other stories. She talks at one point about Fantin’s solitude and sociability, and these two things go really very well. Hand and hand in her piece, she takes us wandering through the museum
  137. 00:18:11 - 00:18:14
    Jane Munro and actually what I find personally
  138. 00:18:14 - 00:18:33
    Jane Munro extremely moving was the way she talks about being separated from people and places that she cares about and means a great deal to her. And that may be because I'm from the same part of the world, is her.
  139. 00:18:33 - 00:18:50
    Jane Munro I can see it as a place that's far away and has been unreachable when I most want to be near it in this period, and I think a feeling that a lot of us will have had in the last few weeks and months.
  140. 00:18:50 - 00:18:54
    Luke Syson There's something too about the the cup, the painting
  141. 00:18:55 - 00:19:09
    Luke Syson of a cup that makes it so much more than a cup and saucer. Also, I think the other thing that's marvellous about how Ali Smith’s piece and about the painting itself is that it implies the presence of somebody.
  142. 00:19:10 - 00:19:20
    Luke Syson The cup can be filled and it's ready to be used because that spoon is there. So it implies, as Jane says, a kind of
  143. 00:19:21 - 00:19:22
    Luke Syson social function,
  144. 00:19:23 - 00:19:24
    Luke Syson but that is
  145. 00:19:26 - 00:19:37
    Luke Syson very mysterious because there's no context for the cart. There's no descriptive detail around it. No cloth, no flowers. The cake, No tea indeed, on and. so it's
  146. 00:19:37 - 00:19:38
    Luke Syson sort of
  147. 00:19:38 - 00:19:58
    Luke Syson waiting for something to happen on. You wait with it. It has that expectant quality, and it has that sense that that a human being, well, several human beings are involved in some form of transaction that Fantin is controlling. It makes it into a kind of cup that
  148. 00:19:59 - 00:20:19
    Luke Syson is, as I think, Janey just used the word elemental, but it's the sort of essence of cup. Fantin creates a cup that has that sense of being an absolute truth that the idea of the cup as well as a real thing. That's a very powerful
  149. 00:20:19 - 00:20:26
    Luke Syson idea because it is, as it were, encapsulated all that is a cup
  150. 00:20:27 - 00:20:33
    Luke Syson And all the association's we have with that simple, mundane object
  151. 00:20:33 - 00:20:39
    Jane Munro think that's absolutely true. And I guess one of the things that have also fascinated me about
  152. 00:20:40 - 00:20:48
    Jane Munro well, about the very fascination that this painting holes is that there's another picture in the Fitzwilliam of, a white candle stick
  153. 00:20:48 - 00:20:52
    Jane Munro which hasn't generated nearly there, amount of
  154. 00:20:53 - 00:21:13
    Jane Munro engagement. In some ways, it's a beautiful thing. It's the same sort of palette. It's white colour that Fantin excels and whether it's in in the dress off one of his sitters in the portrait's whether it's in any number of flowers that he paints. Lily's narcissi poppies lilacs larkspurs
  155. 00:21:14 - 00:21:18
    Jane Munro um, but But it's somehow it somehow is. Less
  156. 00:21:19 - 00:21:22
    Jane Munro lends itself less to the sort of creation off.
  157. 00:21:23 - 00:21:35
    Jane Munro It was sort of lyricism in a way and poetic reading on another. Another thing, which is all false, very interesting about the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is more to do with painting itself, and this picture
  158. 00:21:36 - 00:21:41
    Jane Munro is that we are, we’re a museum where there is an entire gallery of ceramics
  159. 00:21:41 - 00:22:03
    Jane Munro And a lot of cups and saucers, and it invites you to ask, What's the magic off the painting that speaks more of sort of eloquently and evocatively and suggestively in many ways than the object itself? And I think that's the kind of journey that Ali Smith takes us on with the same sort of
  160. 00:22:03 - 00:22:07
    Jane Munro woven evocations of feelings and of memory.
  161. 00:22:08 - 00:22:28
    Carmen Pryce For images of Henri Fantin Latour's white Cup and saucer, where to find the painting on display in the museum or to listen to Ali Smith’s piece again, go to the Fitzwilliam Museum website. You'll also find in my mind's eye details and transcripts. Join me next week for another episode or subscribe to Fitzwilliam Museum podcasts
  162. 00:22:28 - 00:22:42
    Carmen Pryce In My Mind's eyes made possible by the support of the Belvedere Trust, the series was produced by me Carmen Pryce Audio production by Nick Harris. The background Music is Call to Adventure by Kevin McCloud and is licenced under the Creative Commons Agreement

Object in focus

Elegy in a Cup and Saucer - Ali Smith

About the object

Mrs. Edwin Edwards; bequeathed to the donor by Mrs. Edwards, 1907

Acquisition and important dates

  • Method of acquisition: Given
  • Dates: 1920

Dating

  • Production date: AD 1864

Maker(s)

Identification number

Ali Smith (Photograph by Sarah Woods)
Ali Smith (Photograph by Sarah Woods)

Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962. She is the author of novels including Autumn, How to be both, Artful, The Accidental, and Hotel World. She has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize and the Orwell Prize. How to be both won the Bailey's Prize and the Costa Novel of the Year Award. Ali Smith lives in Cambridge and collaborated with the Fitzwilliam Museum, writing in response to the Treasured Possessions exhibition (2015).

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