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