Sweet Thames, run softly

Callow, William, 1812-1908; The Rialto Bridge, Venice

(William Callow, Rialto Bridge, Venice. Photo credit: Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead)

Sunday. Slower breakfast, slower survey of the morning’s paper, just to see how hugely 2018 is improving on the previous year. Alas, alas. There seem to be remarkable numbers of people that our rich, highly developed democracy is failing in its basic duty of care. Taking in, among others, the very young, the very old, the poor, the sick, the mentally unwell, the homeless and, oh, women, we appear to be looking at the larger part of the population. Clearly, I must have miscalculated. Then a glance at the foreign news prompts the reflection that, were someone to announce in my hearing that he was a stable genius, I would be simultaneously checking the exits, counting the spoons and making very sure that I didn’t turn my back on him. But again, others clearly take a different view.

Still on the subject of floods and deluges. . . Ninety years ago, I was reading just recently, in the early hours of 7 January 1928, the River Thames flooded, as a result of a storm in the North Sea, which ‘created a tidal surge that raised the waters of the river to their highest recorded level.’[1]

‘As the river wall opposite Tate Britain collapsed the water surged across the road flooding the nine lower ground floor galleries and the basement.’ As for the artworks stored there, 18 were ‘damaged beyond repair, 226 oil paintings were badly damaged and a further 67 slightly damaged. The J. M. W. Turner works on paper stored in the basement were saturated and covered in mud although fortunately their colours hadn’t run. Incredibly, the newly completed Whistler mural in the Tate Restaurant remained undamaged although it too had been completely submerged.’
http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/blogs/day-thames-broke-its-banks-and-flooded-tate-britain

Tate Britain after flood of 1928

© Tate Archive, 2003

Thomas Dilworth mentions that Jim Ede (H. S. Ede), then assistant curator at the Tate—subsequently an early biographer of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and founder of the wonderful Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge—was keeping some of David Jones’s watercolours in that basement, as well as the drawings and watercolours by Turner. They were ‘submerged but kept dry by ark-tight carpentry of a set of cabinets.’ Jones, he adds, ‘appreciated the feat of carpentry as only a poor carpenter can.’

In this context, Dilworth also discusses Jones’s commission for The Chester Play of the Deluge—‘one of the great illustrated books but not as printed in 1927’—asserting that Jones ‘cannot have worked on these engravings for half a year without associating the biblical flood with the Thames flood’—but he then gives the date of the flood as January 1926, which I take to be a simple error.[2]

The Golden Cockerel Press edition appeared in 1927 but it was 1977 before Clover Hill Editions ‘for the first time printed Jones’s wood engravings with the care they should have received (and did not) in the Golden Cockerel edition of 50 years earlier.’[3]

david-jones-animals-going-to-the-ark

(David Jones, engraving number 5, ‘Animals going into the Ark’, via https://chesterculture.wordpress.com/ )

The casualties were not, of course, only among artworks. The Houses of Parliament and the Tower of London were also swamped, as were ‘many of the crowded basement dwellings into which the city’s poorest families were crammed.’
(Jon Kelly, ‘The great 1928 flood of London’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26153241 )

An estimated four thousand people were left homeless and, as Sylvia Townsend noted in her diary the following day: ‘Fourteen people were drowned in basements, poor souls, and a fish was caught in the kitchen of Battersea police-station. The basement of the Tate Gallery was filled, which may help to settle the question of the 20,000 Turner sketches. In the basement also were some Rowlandsons, and I suspect my Callow of Venice. Very watery and homelike for it.’[4]

Flood-1928-rescue-via-Guardian

(Flood of 1928 via The Guardian)

‘My Callow of Venice’ puzzled me a little. William Callow was a watercolour painter who died in 1908. The Tate now shows only an 1880 ‘Grand Canal Venice’, watercolour and graphite on paper, ‘presented by the artist’s widow’ in 1909. There is, though, a letter from Sylvia to David Garnett, which elucidates ‘my Callow’:

‘Talking of slighted works of art, have you ever been in the underground of the Tate? A long time ago I lent the Tate a small William Callow, and in 1964 I felt it my duty to see how it was getting on. So I wrote to the Curator and was given an appointment. There was a proper person, who took me down in a lift, and led me through this extraordinary graveyard, crammed with marble nudes wrapped in sheets of cellophane, great furry seascapes and lowering landscapes, portraits of pop-eyed children, blessed damozels, Derby winners; and paused in front of a very incompetent late Victorian nymph clutching some shred of muslin and made entirely of vinolia soap, saying, This, I think, is yours. There was a moment of black panic when I thought I should find myself obliged to make her mine. But in the end my William Callow was found in excellent condition, and quietly on show.
‘If you should ever feel inclined for a little Mortality, behold and fear, do go to the Tate underground.’[5]

 

 

References

[1] Peter Ackroyd, Thames: sacred river (London: Chatto and Windus, 2007), 227.

[2] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 97-98.

[3] Roderick Cave, The Private Press, Second Edition (New York: R. R. Bowker, 1983), 227; see Arianne Bankes and Paul Hills, The Art of David Jones: Vision and Memory (Farnham: Lund Humphries, 2015), 34-37.

[4] The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman (London: Virago Press, 1995), 10.

[5] Letter of 3 March 1968: Richard Garnett, editor, Sylvia and David: The Townsend Warner/ Garnett Letters (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994), 139.

 

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