FAC­ING THE SCULP­TURES, I FELT A RUSH OF TEARS

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Life Lifestyle -

ave you ever been moved to tears by a paint­ing?” asked an art dealer friend of mine. I con­fessed that, much as I love cer­tain paint­ings and the work of cer­tain artists, none had ever made me cry. I felt some­what re­lieved when he ad­mit­ted that the same was true of him­self. But I did con­fess to him that I had been moved to tears by sculp­ture. Many years ago, hav­ing seen nu­mer­ous pic­tures of the horses of St Mark’s Basil­ica in Venice, I found my­self climb­ing the stairs to the cham­ber of the tower to see the stat­ues. It was an early morn­ing in May and few tourists had risen to be­gin their pil­grim­age to the fa­mous sights. The morn­ing bells rang from the tower as I climbed the curv­ing stone steps and turned, at the top of the last flight, into the cham­ber that con­tained the four horses. They were lit dra­mat­i­cally from be­low and their hooves, raised in equine salute, tow­ered above me. Dull bronze and high­lighted with the green patina that comes with age, they leapt into the air over my head, manes flow­ing and nos­trils flared. They and I were quite alone, and I felt a rush of tears. I have no doubt that many things were re­spon­si­ble for my moist eyes: it was my first visit to a place that I had long read about, cour­tesy of Jan Mor­ris’s ex­cel­lent book, Venice; I felt a ro­man­tic affin­ity with the city; and it held artis­tic and ar­chi­tec­tural riches in abun­dance. I of­fer these ex­pla­na­tions as ex­cuses, al­though I sus­pect that a love and re­spect for horses had more to do with it than any­thing: the suc­cess of War Horse must be due, in some mea­sure, to man’s spe­cial re­la­tion­ship with that par­tic­u­lar an­i­mal. Ei­ther way, it is a mo­ment that re­mains en­graved upon my mind; 30 years on, I can still re­call it with clar­ity. But have pic­tures touched me in this way? Not so far. I won­der why this should be: a breath­tak­ing view can move us to tears, so why not a twodi­men­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tion on paper or can­vas? Or have I just hit the nail on the head? Is it that the rep­re­sen­ta­tion is, in­deed, twodi­men­sional, rather than three? Do our vis­ual senses baulk at such a flat de­pic­tion, sens­ing that it is un­real and warn­ing us not to let go? It is not some­thing that our au­ral senses are shy of. My wife is moved to tears ev­ery time she hears Tchaikovsky’s Rose Ada­gio from The Sleep­ing Beauty (mem­o­ries of a sen­sa­tional per­for­mance by Mar­got Fonteyn must con­trib­ute), and I can think of sev­eral pieces of mu­sic that al­ways leave me damp-eyed – Richard Rodgers’s over­ture to Carousel is one. But then, as Noël Coward re­marked: “Strange how po­tent cheap mu­sic is.” As I get older I am con­vinced that I am be­com­ing more sen­ti­men­tal. Nowa­days it only takes an episode of Call the Mid­wife to fin­ish me off. Ever since my daugh­ters were born I have found it im­pos­si­ble to sit through that scene in The Rail­way Chil­dren when Roberta’s fa­ther re­turns and she sees him through the smoke on the plat­form, and runs to­wards him shout­ing… but no, I can­not even bring my­self to re­peat it. One thing more than any other gives rise to un­bid­den tears and that is good­ness and kind­ness in all their many man­i­fes­ta­tions. The in­domitable hu­man spirit, when viewed in oth­ers who have bat­tled through con­di­tions and cir­cum­stances that most of us be­lieve we would find in­sur­mount­able – of­ten self­lessly and for the ben­e­fit of oth­ers – is es­pe­cially mov­ing. But I am stray­ing into an area where tears are an un­der­stand­able re­ac­tion. As well as mu­sic, the spo­ken word can move to tears, but then the hu­man voice is a fine in­stru­ment, ca­pa­ble of play­ing on the hu­man heart. It mat­ters not that we know the lines have been writ­ten and, in plays, are re­peated night af­ter night; the emo­tion re­mains as raw on the last night of a run as on the first night, if the ac­tors are up to the job. So I will keep on look­ing at pic­tures with an inquiring and in­no­cent mind, ready to be moved should the oc­ca­sion arise. If it has hap­pened to you, do let me know. My art dealer friend might find such in­for­ma­tion en­light­en­ing. Af­ter 50 years of gar­den­ing I was as­ton­ished – and per­haps a lit­tle flat­tered – when the Gar­den Mu­seum, housed in the church of St Mary-at-Lambeth near Lambeth Palace in Lon­don, asked me to cu­rate an ex­hi­bi­tion en­ti­tled A His­tory of Gar­den­ing in 100 Ob­jects, by way of cel­e­brat­ing my own half-century with the spade. It was hard pick­ing out 100 items that show how far we have come over the past 50 years, and only when I had pieced it to­gether did I re­alise just how much progress has been made since the mid-Six­ties. From glass cloches to the in­sec­ti­cide DDT, the jour­ney has been fas­ci­nat­ing. This ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes such trea­sures as my grand­fa­ther’s spade and the knife I was given on my first day at work, and might also awaken a few of your own mem­o­ries. Drop in if you can. The Gar­den Mu­seum (gar­den­mu­seum.org.uk) is one of Lon­don’s hid­den trea­sures, eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble, friendly and with a good book­shop and café. It’s the per­fect place to spend an hour or two. The last ex­hi­bi­tion was about fash­ion in the gar­den. How my grand­fa­ther’s spade can com­pete with a Vivi­enne West­wood frock I have no idea, but there we go… For Alan’s favourite ob­jects, see www.tele­graph.co.uk/gar­den­ing

Not a dry eye in the house: an emo­tional early-morn­ing en­counter with the horses of St Mark’s Basil­ica in Venice will be for­ever en­graved on Alan’s mind

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