Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Month: June 2022

Saying Hello to Joan, Alfred, and Lowry

It was a Sunday afternoon of penetrating,  unrelenting, rain interspersed with  claps of thunder when, shivering as the chilly water trickled under my coat collar and down my neck, I took refuge in the  Wren Gallery in Burford. Here was warmth, light, and, magically appearing in front of me, a platter of smoked salmon sandwiches. Surprised but delighted I took a sandwich whereupon a tray appeared bearing glasses of white wine. “Please” said Gill Mitchell “eat as many as you can and have another glass of wine. Our exhibition is opening today but, in this weather, there won’t be anyone  to eat all these sandwiches.” Happy to oblige I munched and sipped my way around the gallery and there discovered the wonderful world of Joan Gillchrest. She was a member of the talented Gilbert Scott family of architects, and after studying art in Paris and London,  driving an ambulance during the war, and an exotic post war life as a model, she  settled in the Cornish town of Mousehole in the 1950s. Her captivating paintings reminded me of  the works of  Alfred Wallis and LS Lowry: small, bent people struggled against the winds outside grey Cornish chapels, mines, and engine houses; they  walked dogs on beaches and  attended  weddings and funerals under louring Cornish skies. Other paintings were  suffused with the sunlight of a golden summer’s day: there were lighthouses,  seabirds, ships in  Mousehole harbour, ladies drinking sherry in the Lobster Pot Hotel. Views of the sea seen through the glorious tangle of plants in Joan’s greenhouse  also featured  her succession of rescue cats who formed the Titus dynasty  peering through the foliage.

I returned to the gallery the following week  to buy two small paintings, promising myself that in the future I would  buy a larger canvas, but as my finances improved  so did the value of Gillchrest’s work. So instead, I have shamelessly  treated the Wren as though it were a public gallery where I have viewed  ever-changing exhibitions of Joan’s work, and when, after Joan’s death, Gill Mitchell published  Joan Gillchrest: a Life in Pictures   I enjoyed a wider range of the paintings.

In Paul churchyard above Mousehole a  rough-hewn granite stone marks Joan Gillchrest’s grave and sleeping at the base of it last time I visited lay a small, stone, black and white Titus concealed behind exotic blooms which I moved to one side for the photograph before tucking him back beneath them.

Joan and one of the Titus dynasty
Titus asleep
Joan Gillchrest

In her book  Gill Mitchell  comments that although Joan never knew Alfred Wallis she was open about his influence on her work and would visit his grave in St. Ives to “say hello to Alfred,” indeed  her painting “Saying Hello to Alfred” features the  grave at Barnoon cemetery overlooking Porthmeor beach and Tate St. Ives, home to some of his paintings. The Cornish fisherman  sold little in his lifetime. He began painting as he said “for company” after his wife died, painting his ships, harbours, and lighthouses  on old pieces of cardboard and grocery boxes. Even after Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood  and Jim Ede  discovered and promoted his work  he lived in poverty and died in Madron workhouse. The artistic community of St. Ives paid for his grave which is one of the loveliest I know, the tiles designed by Bernard Leach portraying a lighthouse, which Wallis might have painted himself using the same subdued colours, with a small figure clambering up the steps.

Barnoon Cemetery with Alfred’s grave in foreground
Grave of Alfred Wallis
Detail – Grave of Alfred Wallis

I have found no reference to any influence of Lowry on Joan Gillchrest but since her hunched figures  battling the elements reminded me of his, come north with me, far from the  lighthouses, rocks,  bays and boats of Cornwall . At the Manchester School of Art LS Lowry  studied under Adolphe Valette whose own large impressionist canvases of industrial Manchester seen through a smog- filled haze occupy a magical room in Manchester Art Gallery. Lowry  famously worked as a rent collector while caring for his widowed and bed ridden mother in Pendlebury, painting at night after she was asleep. Today  the largest collection of his work is  displayed at the Lowry Gallery in Salford Quays but to “say hello to Lowry,” I took the bus to Manchester’s Southern Cemetery in Chorlton-come-Hardy. At the largest municipal cemetery in the UK, I anticipated a daunting quest, but in the lodge the custodian supplied me with a plan and focused my search by pointing to a photograph on the wall of his own daughter standing beside Lowry’s grave. In the serried rows, a conventional white cross marks the grave of Lowry’s parents with his own name added inconspicuously on the side of the base. But I might have spotted it  without help, for in front of it, in lieu of the usual vase of flowers, was a pot full of paint brushes.

Lowry family grave
Lowry grave with paint brushes
The two small paintings by Joan Gillchrest which I bought from the Wren Gallery: Sherry Time and Magpie

Jenner, Jesty, Mary Wortley Montagu and Blossom

“ I have had my fifth Covid jab as I am immunocompromised,” read a text from my friend, “they can call me whatever they want as long as I am jabbed, jabbed, jabbed.” “ I had pneumonia with my flu jab last autumn,” I countered, but I was outclassed. “Doesn’t cut the mustard,” came the reply “fifth Covid trumps pneumonia.” My friend and I embrace our vaccinations; we belong to the fortunate generation who until recently took for granted the protection afforded to us throughout our lives by vaccines. I have no memory of receiving my smallpox, polio, and diphtheria inoculations but I remember  the sepia photograph on my grandparents’ bedroom wall of a seven-year-old boy in a sailor suit, their son who had died of diphtheria,  and the  two slightly older children in my primary school who wore callipers having contracted polio. Neither disease ever posed a threat to me. In our teenage years when my school friends and I received our BCG vaccinations we gave little thought to  tuberculosis but  speculated enthusiastically on whether our crocodiling from school to the clinic and back might involve missing maths or Latin. Personally, I hoped to miss games, but this was not a popular view. In adulthood  vaccinations  ensured my safety on holidays: typhoid, hepatitis and cholera became routine, immunisation against yellow fever spoke of exotic destinations.

The Covid pandemic  shook my complacency breaching the defences of my protected, inoculated western world, and I was afraid. When in December 2020 Margaret Keenan received the first licensed vaccine against Covid, developed by Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, I rejoiced. On a bitterly cold day in February 2021, I joined other exultant, albeit masked and socially distanced, individuals at Shepton  Mallet Social Services Hub where we thanked effusively the shivering but cheerful volunteers who told us where to park and those who managed the queue in the freezing hall with its doors and windows flung wide, reserving our most effusive thanks of all for those who administered our jabs.

Later, as the third lockdown passed, I made newly appreciative and grateful visits to early vaccinators.

A weathered slab beside the altar in the church of St. Mary the Virgin, Berkeley marks the grave of Edward Jenner along with his parents, wife, and son.

Grave of Edward Jenner

Having  noticed the immunity of milkmaids from smallpox, and linked this to their exposure to cowpox, which he believed protected them, in 1796 Jenner injected James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of his gardener, with pus scraped from the blisters of a milkmaid  who had contracted cowpox from a cow called Blossom. Six weeks later when he inoculated the boy with smallpox there were no ill effects. Jenner set up a hut in his garden, the Temple of Vaccinia,  offering free vaccinations to the poor.

The Temple of Vaccinia

Jenner’s discovery however was not universally welcomed: sections of the clergy  held it ungodly and unnatural to inoculate people with material from a diseased animal, others feared the effects. The cartoonist Gillray, who pictured people growing cows’ heads after having the vaccine, satirised the credulity of extreme opponents. When vaccination with the cowpox became compulsory in 1853 there were protest marches and calls for freedom of choice. It was not until 1980 that the World Health Organisation was able to declare that “smallpox is dead,” and today specimens remain in only two laboratories in the USA and Siberia for research purposes, held, it is said, with greater security than the nuclear bomb. An exhibition in Jenner’s house, next door to the church,  traces the horrible effects of smallpox and the history of the vaccine.

But Jenner was not  the first to inoculate with cowpox. In the graveyard of St. Nicholas in Worth Maltravers I visited the recently restored grave of Benjamin Jesty. Twenty-two years before Jenner, during  the smallpox epidemic in 1774, the Dorset farmer inoculated his wife and two children with a darning needle coated in pus drawn from lesions on an infected cow . Although his vaccine was widely used by country doctors and farmers,  Jesty  too had met with ridicule and hostility not least from  members of the medical establishment. He wrote his own epitaph  describing himself as “the first person that introduced the cowpox by inoculation.” His wife, fittingly commemorated in a grave alongside him, added the more cautious and modest “known” in parenthesis.

Grave of Benjamin Jesty, the first person (known) that introduced the cowpox by inoculation
Jesty’s wife, Elizabeth, first person (known) that received the cowpox by inoculation
Graves of the Jestys

 Before Jesty or Jenner the exotic Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had brought variolation,  inoculation with pus taken from someone with smallpox itself to produce a mild infection and then immunity in the recipient, to Europe in 1721. The practice was widespread in Africa and Asia, and after observing it in Constantinople where her husband was ambassador, she had her own children inoculated. Later she encouraged trials on Newgate prisoners: faced with execution they were offered the alternative of receiving the inoculation and their freedom if they survived. Happily, all survived. The practice was also trialled on orphans. Criticism of Montagu focused not on the dubious morality of these trials but on fears of the results  and a certain prejudice against oriental medicine. Controversial though the process was  the Straffords at Wentworth Castle  had their children treated. When their  son  inherited the estate he dedicated the Sun Monument, an obelisk  in the gardens of Wentworth, to Montagu. She is buried in the vault of Grosvenor Chapel  in London.

And Blossom? Jenner kept her hide and horns when she died. Today her hide hangs proudly in the library at  St. George’s Hospital Medical School where Jenner did his medical training, but they admit that her horns are wooden copies, a letter in their archives suggesting that an impecunious relative of Jenner’s may have sold the originals to an American university in the 1930s.

Blossom’s hide, St. George’s Hospital Medical School

The museum at Jenner’s House has in its possession no less than seven horns: one magnificent specimen lying on the desk in Jenner’s study bears a silver inscription attesting proudly that  Jenner himself polished it and gave it  as a gift; two others are on display in a glass case.

A horn on the desk in Jenner’s study, inscribed by Jenner
A pair of horns in a glass case in the Jenner museum may be those of Blossom

Rival claimants to the “true horns” include the George Marshall Medical Museum in Worcester which owns a pair; the Thackery Museum in Leeds has another two; the Science museum has one and so does the Old Operating Theatre. But Blossom’s finest memorial, and that of Jenner, Jesty and Montagu, is the protection bestowed on us  with every inoculation we receive.

Thank you, Blossom

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