Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Entries Tagged as '2010 Sean'

Day 3 – Norwich Beer Festival at Dragon Hall

May 7th, 2011 · No Comments

With only two full casks of beer and a variety of glass beers, we expected to receive a lot of disappointed customers, if we were to have any, that is. Again, I was relegated to the lowest position of the festival, that of keeping count of the number of people coming in.  Just kidding. Despite all forecasts, we actually received a great crowd. Plus, there were these two bands that came by and played for the entire afternoon. I thought they played the best music out of all the three days. Since it was really nice outside everybody eventually made their way to the garden, including the band. After an eventful night, day 3 of the beer festival was relaxing. Nearly everyone (the volunteers) was either lacking sleep or hungover.

Nathaniel Southwood, or as he goes by, Nate Dawgg (to differentiate himself from rapper, Nate Dogg), was the most hungover out of the crew. Nate is a very interesting guy. As a Brit, he is extremely intolerant toward his country (culture and politics) and praises all things American. He is a rabid 49ers fan even though he has never stepped foot in the state of California. The closest he got was Florida. Oh, and he loves hip hop music. His fascination with American does not stop at sports and music. He goes so far as to say that american beer is awesome and that it is underrated. 

Since the number of customers was relatively low, but by no means little (I think we matched the number of people from the 1st evening), I wasn’t really needed around the bar area.

It was a great weekend. I will never forget it. Maybe I will see Dodge at the next beer festival I attend, 10 years from now.

Date: 31 April 2011
Time: 11:30-16:30
Total Hours: 27
Location: Dragon Hall
Supervisor: Rachel M

Tags: 2010 Sean

Day 2 – Dragon Hall Beer Festival

May 4th, 2011 · No Comments


Pleased with yesterday’s turnout, the organizers expected an even bigger turnout. Unlike on Friday, Saturday would have two festival sessions, a short afternoon one and the longer evening one. The afternoon session, although quite, attracted about the same number of people as yesterday’s evening session. For me, it was a continuation of yesterday’s tasks: moving boxes and keeping count of the number of visitors. I was surprised by the number of foreigners (Americans, Portuguese, Italians) that came by. It attests to the strong cultural significance that beer festivals have. Aside from the local people of Norwich, there were several people from different breweries who came to have a taste.

I guess I should tell you how the festival works. The entrance fee is 5 pounds (4, if you are a CAMRA member) and you receive a pint glass with tokens. For the sake of efficiency, you buy tokens with which you buy a half pint or pint of whatever ale you want. This way, the bartenders (many of whom are inexperienced, including myself) do not have to worry about handling change. I believe the rate was something like 20pence for every token, so a pint glass would cost roughly (depending on the ale) $1.40 or 14 tokens. Oh, and you would get to keep the glass.

As a charity event, the beer festival relies on the goodwill of several ale companies to send in a cask of one of their own concoctions. So, for example, we received two ales from The Fat Cat called Honey and Cougar, both of which are light but delicious. I think in all, we had around 20 different types of beer plus two ciders and a variety of bottle beers.  The surprise ale for me was one called Jack’s Revenge. A fruity, chocolatey ale, Jack’s provided a hearty taste to the usual bitter and sweet palettes. There was also one called Porter’s which I had that was specifically made for the coffee lover. But if you are a lightweight you are probably better off having half a pint or less after a meal. Tipple’s Brewery is actually the main sponsor so they brewed an ale specifically for the event called Red Head. To be honest, though, I have had nearly the entire menu that it’s difficult to sit here and differentiate them. In any case, they were all ales I would not have had otherwise. After all, beer fests are all about trying something new for a change. The great thing about volunteering is that you get to drink all day. There is absolutely no limit, given you conduct yourself properly.

After handing out tokens at the voucher desk, Dodge asked me to take over for somebody at the bar. Unfortunately, we would begin to run out of beer by the time it was 7 or 8 o’clock. So by the time it was 9 and 10, and new people were coming in, we would have to deny them their first choices – and often, their second and third choices as well. By the end of the day, we had 2 casks left. Anyway, I was very nervous for the first drink I had to serve. The man asked for a half pint of Wizzard. I grabbed his cup, put the rim towards the spout of the cask and turned the knob until the liquid reached the half-pint mark. I carefully brought the glass over to the customer and asked for 7 tokens. It seemed fairly easy enough. Emma, one of the seasoned volunteers, pulled me aside, however, and pointed out the things that I did wrong. First, she told me, you want to hold the glass on the lower third of the glass. Typically, the lower third is for the bartender, the middle for the customer, and the top, obviously, for the customer’s lips. Second, when you are pouring the ale into the glass, you want to begin by tilting the bottom of the glass towards you so that you make sure that beer does not escape and  so that when the ale hits the cup, you can prevent too much foam from rising (or else, you rob the customer of ale). Emma assurred me that after a couple of drinks, I would get the hang of it. And I did. But the strange aspect of it was how much I began to enjoy serving drinks to the customers. The night reached the point in which we were all serving 2,3 customers per minute. I was a bit on nerves but I enjoyed the adrenaline rush. Indeed, whereas I spent a quite evening on the bottom floor arranging cups the first day, today, I was very much in the middle of the event. I don’t think you can duplicate this environment at a pub. Being a hall, there are not a lot of chairs and tables. Everyone is mostly standing, which adds to the mood and atmosphere. There’s a lot more freedom to move around and the high ceiling prevents the place from becoming too clausterphobic.

Much of what made bartending so enjoyable, I think, was because of the customers. Just that brief interaction with a stranger, whether it be a simple “thank you” or conversation, is a pleasurable thing. Everyone is smiling and conversing. I had a nice exchange with a man who you used to work at the INTO center. He asked me where I was from and what I was doing here. It was a short conversation, but I appreciated his warmth and candor. There wasn’t anything particularly amazing about the exchange, yet his kindness was the sort of thing that made the whole event worth my time.  

I wouldn’t mind volunteering for the next beer festival.

Date: 30 April 2011
Time: 11:00-24:00
Total Hours: 20
Location: Dragon Hall
Supervisor: Rachel M.

Tags: 2010 Sean

Day 1 – Dragon Hall Beer Festival

May 1st, 2011 · No Comments


I volunteered to help out at Dragon Hall’s  Norfolk Beer Festival. The event is sponsored by CAMRA (the Campaign for “Real Ale”) in the hopes of raising money for the upkeep of the historical building. CAMRA, incidentally, is the same organization that is responsible for the annual – and more grandoise and boisterous – Norwich Beer Festival. If you recall the Norwich tour early in the year, you may remember (you probably don’t) that in the 15th century, Dragon Hall was the nexus of trade and commerce in a city that was fluorishing due to business engagements with many countries in continental Europe. Anyway, today, it is both a museum and public space. With the Beer Fest, however, the Hall breaks from its institutional langour and becomes, once more, something of a medeival flea market.

Today I was told to work at the reception area, doing menial task, such as getting out the beer glasses out of boxes and handing them to the visitors. All you really had to do was smile and give directions as to how the festival circuit worked. What was interesting for me, though, was the particular vantage point that the job offered; namely, the opportunity to see how events are carefully constructed and organized. Not only had I never been to a beer festival, but I hardly recall ever participating in very many events, fundraisers, etc. (Spoiled, I know). In any case, I had a willing mind. A beer festival is an entirely foreign concept in Korea as it is in America (I think). Understanding that the Brits value good ale, I knew that, aside from learning how to “bartend,” I would be gaining insight into a distinct cultural phenomenon.

Part of this education, if you will, was from meeting many interesting people on the team. One is named Dodge, a stocky, Falstaffian  fellow. He sports a red mohawk, a kaleidoscopic robe/cape tagged with his favorite ale companies, ripped jean shorts (which, I believe, used to be regular long jeans) and black boots. He made a career of driving buses, taxis, and other uncommon forms of locomotion. As for beer festivals,  he has been volunteering at them for years and is a regular at the annuals ones in Cambridge and Norwich. According to him, he has 360 beer glasses in his house. Dodge is the de facto leader of the house, cape and all, traversing the spaces of the hall, striking conversation with strangers and making sure everybody has something in their glasses.

Also, just sitting around the entrance allows me to observe how the Brits interact and exchange pleasantries with one another. Having been in England for some time now, I thought my initial feeling of “foreigness” had dissipated altogether. Yet sitting there that night I realized how much of British culture is still very peculiar to me.

We received a lot more people on the first day than we had expected. Being the first time such an event was held at the Dragon hall, many of the organizers were unsure what the turnout would be. I think the total number was something upwards of 180. Fairly good, especially when you consider that the Hall is somewhat removed from the city centre.

Helas, I wasn’t able to serve drinks but would get the chance to do so tomorrow. It was a wonderful environment, no matter what I was doing. The steady beat of jazz music by the band jived well with the low-key ambient setting, even if I wasn’t up on the top floor to see it.

Date: 29 April 2011
Time: 17:00-24:00
Total Hours: 7
Location: Dragon Hall
Supervisor: Rachel M.

Tags: 2010 Sean

On Museums

September 22nd, 2010 · 1 Comment

I have a fondness for paintings, so its only natural that I gravitate towards museums such as the Tate Modern/Britain and the National Gallery. Some of the pieces I’ve seen from these particular museums have been no less than extraordinary. At the TM, I saw works by Monet and Pollock, discovering once again the beauty in blurred lily pads and splattered paint. But as the TM is also a purveyor of contemporary art, I was also able to see recent works that are – at times painfully – trying to subvert and re-express artistic theories. One of the more outstanding contemporary works I saw at the TM was a video installation by Carolee Schneemann. Made in 1964, Meatjoy is a manipulation of the filmic image as a veritable representation of reality into an exercise on sexual discourse that strives to create the notion that “sex” is in our own skin. Half naked men and women wrestle on the floor and arrange themselves in strange positions, as a hardly discernible voiceover of a woman is heard on the soundtrack. Gradually the cuts become more rapid, and people offscreen begin to throw meat and poultry at the “subjects.” Its shocking, even disgusting. But there is no nudity. Some images evoke sexual acts – but they are not sexual in and of themselves. Anyway, I didn’t particularly “like” the film, but it was interesting – and certainly shocking. You can view a short clip of it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6AK9TI3-LU

Since the Tate Modern is a global museum and most of its exhibitions are free, there were a lot of people. The escalators and large spaces reminded me of a shopping mall. Its quite a contrast with the Charles Dickens museum, yet both are museums, right?

At the Tate Britain, I was greeted with a smaller crowd. The day that I went to the Tate Modern I was tired, and trying to view the artworks with an open mind is hard to do when there are hordes of people blocking the works from all angles. TB had no such problems. It itself is an impressive museum with an emphasis on British art (duh) but with a respectable collection of international modern art. I even saw a Mondrian painting. I must’ve been sitting in front of it for nearly half an hour. The painting’s greatest virtue is precisely that it is straightforward and pure. In this sense, its somewhat ironic to call it a piece of abstract art. I like it very much, and was impressed at the evocative power of a most primordial form. The painting even looks like a tatami, a seeming reference to the qualities of humility and tranquility that are intrinsic to Japanese culture.

Mondrian: Composition C (No.III) with Red, Yellow and Blue

I saw advertisements about an exhibition at the TB exclusively on Eadweard Muybridge, arguably the first person to invent the ontological nature of the cinema. Enough said. The entrance fee was 10 pounds but I didn’t mind. The Muybridge was a fantastic exhibition, much more extensive that I had imagined; there must been at least six rooms. I also appreciated that there was a chronological order to the exhibition, beginning with Muybridge’s photographs from his early years to the prints from the zoetropes in his later. A proper tribute (and indeed, much deserving) to a pioneer who, although recognized in cinema history, unlike the Lumiere Brothers and Edison/Melies/Porter, is seldom talked about among academics and critics. Just looking at his prints, you realize how much of an influence he has had on the history of the medium. So grateful to have caught this. London has been good to me.  If anything, one perk of living in the city is, simply, the range and accessibility you have to the arts.

Print of Woman Descending the Stair - Duchamp may have taken inspiration from this...

Mondrian photo courtesy of Tate Britain
Muybridge courtesy of har-avantgarde.blogspot.com

Tags: 2010 Sean · Museums

On Parks

September 21st, 2010 · No Comments

Parks in Korea are absolute crap – now that I’ve seen the parks in this gorgeous city. The day I went to Hyde Park, I had some yummy Alfredo fettuccine and red wine in my stomach. It was great. I gave bread crumbs to the geese and watched the sun set over the Serpentine. Meanwhile, Dave, drunk, frolicked on the grass. The vast space of Hyde Park and the more secluded areas of it, provide people with a choice: do I want to sit outside in the sun, in the open, or do I want to find a spot in the shade, amongst the animals. The experience was an unusual one, if only because I was not used to finding nature in between streets. Like everybody else, I found it amazing how a natural ecosystem  could exist within the artificial confines of the city. It didn’t make any sense (still doesn’t). The fact that a fourth of London is green space is a reflection on the aims of the government in providing people a safe haven from the hustle and bustle. Indeed, one of the more interesting things I’ve observed from Hyde Park and the others parks I’ve visited (St. James, Regents, Holland), is the number of people in suits sitting on the bench or riding a bike (Barclays, of course). Plus, having parks as well constructed as the ones we’ve seen in London keeps people of the street and into safer zones (not necessarily just crime but cars and other hazards). The more I think about the park, I realize it fits the British temperament of being calm and unperturbed. I may be stereotyping a bit here, but this is something I’ve felt since the first day Emily and I went off into Marylebone to orient ourselves with the city; the people seemed so relaxed. In Korea, at least in Seoul, it is the norm to bump into people without receiving so much as an apology; people seem more tense, even apprehensive. Someone commented that they’ve seen a surprising lack of recreation in these parks. I don’t think it’s a mere coincidence. Whereas in America, we see the parks and beaches dominated by people playing volleyball, basketball, soccer, and a variety of other sports, over here, the Brits seem more inclined to take a stroll or sit on the bench and sip coffee.

While we can say that Hyde Park and St. James is very similar, we know that Hampstead is much different than Regents. Its been fun visiting these parks and noticing the small differences and peculiarities. St. James has a beautiful course that surpasses both Hyde Park (even though Hyde is still my favorite) and Regents, while Hampstead is probably the quietest park I’ve visited. It may not boast the friendly wildlife of St. James, but Hampstead was one of the most pleasurable walks I’ve had in London; the scenery was absolutely beautiful, prompting me to take photographs at every turn in the road.

Parks are reminders that urbanity needs mother nature.

Tags: 2010 Sean

On Churches & Cathedrals

September 21st, 2010 · 1 Comment

St. Paul’s Cathedral is beautiful. I prefer it to the Westminster Abbey, which is too firmly Gothic, and thus too intimidating – even disheartening – for me to enjoy. The Mandir was beautiful, but its opulence was too demanding. Rather, I found the short service we were able to see to be the most pleasant thing about the visit. The mosque was simple but I felt nothing. The exterior of the synagogue wasn’t impressive, but its main service hall was quite a spectacle. The church, or space in which worship is held, is where religion meets art and the two become intertwined, rendering contradictions obsolete. As much as the theological aspect of our religious sojourn in in London was important, I want to emphasize just as much the self-evident, formal beauty of the physical structures that provide a spiritual retreat from the material world. Pater tells us to use our eyes in a most bare and sensuous way, to indulge in the uniformity of lines and colors of such beauty, holding nothing back in the appreciation of the aesthetic object as if one was a child.

St. Paul's, exterior

While Westminster Abbey and the Mandir may have a more impressive exterior, I think the interior of St. Paul’s trumps all. I liked the presence of large, unstained windows bringing in natural light; a nice counter to the overall grandeur. (Of course, the Abbey doesn’t use clear glass so the interior is dark and gloomy, just as its exterior suggests). Furthermore, the light in St. Paul’s has the benefit of moving through an expansive space. When you step into St. Paul’s, a sense of liberation overwhelms you, a sentiment I think that has much to do with the way in which copious space and light are joined.

St. Paul's, Interior, Nave

There is the question, however, whether St. Paul’s, Westminster and even the Mandir is an ideal place for worship, when there is a strong emphasis on exterior beauty. I’m not a catholic nor a hindi, but having experienced small cross sections of these religions, the question persists. Can art and religion co-exist? As some people have noted, these religious institutions have become hot tourist spots, so much to the point that the spirituality has diminished. These “landmarks,” however, achieve a certain iconic status not just through its historical relevance, but through its aesthetic power. People go to see St. Paul’s because it looks so damn beautiful.

First Photo, courtesy of London Pass
Second Photo, courtesy of St. Paul’s Cathedral

Tags: 2010 Sean · Churches and Cathedrals

On Pubs

September 21st, 2010 · 2 Comments

If memory serves me correctly, most of my drinking escapades were never in formal settings. They took place under bridges, along the banks of a river, in empty parking lots, always with an intimate group of friends (this isn’t as sketchy as it sounds). So the bar/pub is fairly foreign to me. In any case, I’ve been pleased with the pubs I’ve visited so far. Most of them, like the Rising Sun and Marlborough Arms, were fairly crowded. I don’t mind a clustered environment, but it tends to grate on me after a while. Like Dave, I too prefer a more relaxed setting. One thing I’ve noticed is that pubs here aren’t the most ideal venue in which to meet new people. People either come alone or in groups, thus drawing the lines of social contact. I’ve never stayed long enough in an American bar to note, but from what I’ve seen, read, and heard, bars in America ARE ideal places for meeting people you don’t know; my friend the other day told me she met her boyfriend at a bar. The bar may not be the classiest place to meet your future wife, but the ease in which one can strike up a conversation with another person speaks to the relatively loose social barriers of Americans. I’ve hardly perceived this in Londoners.

As others have noted, its confusing where the queue for drinks begin. The bartender, however, always seems to know the order. So long as I have my drink, I’m fine.

Public drinking isn’t illegal in Korea, which may explain why I’ve been a bit uncomfortable in pubs. I much prefer sipping from a can of beer or trading shots of soju (korean staple alcohol) at a park rather than entering a pub. Yeah, I said I was pleased with the pubs here, but that doesn’t mean I like them. Perhaps the exception is the King’s Crown, a pub just off of Tottenham. Dave and I stumbled onto it and after a pint, found it to be quite exceptional. Quite and subdued, King’s Crown has none of the boisterousness of the more popular pubs. But that’s just me. Hopefully Norwich will have more pubs like King’s Crown.

George Orwell speaks of the pub of his dreams as having a garden, partitioned spaces, a warm fireside, and mellow atmosphere; a pub in which the oner knows his customers by name. In short, a personal pub. That is my type of pub, I think, as it seems to match my temperament. A place where you can retire into the night, warm and relaxed. Yes, such a pub may not exist, but if King’s Crown was any indication, there just may be one out there.

Tags: 2010 Sean · Pubs

Contemplative Theatre

September 20th, 2010 · 1 Comment

I’ve thought about it, and out of the three plays we’ve seen (or at least the ones we were required to have seen), Habit of the Art, is my favorite. Considering I fell asleep for twenty minutes during the play, I take it to be somewhat of an odd choice. But while the impression I had received afterwards from the other two plays (Merry Wives39 Steps) dissipated within hours of viewing, Habit, oddly enough, stuck with me for much longer. No, Habit does not have the seamless grace of dialogue and movement of the Shakespearian comedy,  nor the zest and technical splendor of the Hitchcock inspiration. What it does have, however, is a surprisingly powerful – if at a times tedious – meditation on the persistence of making art, making it despite the absence of a theatrical director or the lost prospect of an unremitting future.

I’ve seen very few plays in my life so I’m not able to judge the Alan Bennett piece from a holistic and comparative knowledge of the theatre, but I do know that I liked it, and that it offered something that the other two plays didn’t: the opportunity for thought, that is, a chance to immerse myself into the intricacies of the work, long after its performance. *Deep breath* Merry Wives, forgive me, is WEAK Shakespeare. You won’t find a critic who will champion it before Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night. It does its job though, and that is to give us a good laugh. 39 Steps, while somewhat entertaining, is much too vaudeville, too slapstick for me to take seriously (it was more of a treat listening to Mikey and Carol-Ann trade laughs). As a parody on the film of the same name, however, the play does its job in replacing suspense with comedy. But I do not like Habit because it is the seemingly least funniest of the two. (For the record, I think Wood Allen’s prose should have won him a Pulitzer). I like it because the play’s reflections on art and mortality, and ambition and creativity is invariably more interesting than seeing Falstaff duped by faeries (okay, I won’t go that far, but you take the point). Its a play that makes you think about yourself and the act of creation, whether it be some poetry you write on a napkin in a cafe or the 18 inch mural you have to complete by Friday. Someone wrote that the play was too “high-minded.” I fail to see how. What is so pretentious about a group of actors trying to get through a day’s rehearsal?

Habit, did not blow my mind by any measure. I disliked it upon viewing. But as I’ve been explaining, the play lingered with me, and eventually I came around. Much of the humor I did not understand, but that was most likely because of a cultural rift than anything else (as laughter from the native British folk was prevalent during the duration of the play). Yet the innovative, self-reflexive narrative intrigued me, and did much to compensate for the static mise en scene. I see myself watching it again – later, when I’ve the chance to read more Auden.

All in all, I’ve enjoyed the theatre I’ve experienced in London so far. In Korea, theatre culture is largely concentrated in one district of Seoul, a spot that specializes in more contemporary and avant-garde productions. Although you can catch traditional folk plays in the more rustic cities, as far as modern plays go, the options aren’t so many. What compounds the problem of availability is attendance – a relatively low number of people frequent the theatre (Koreans see more movies, and although that may be the case for just about any other country, Korea has the distinction of being one of the few countries that makes more money off of its domestic films than foreign ones, a fact that is even more compelling when you consider that the screen quota is much skewed in favor of imported films). Just the sheer number of programs that are billed here in London is a reminder that there is a population that demands them.   I’ve noticed that many people in the gray and distinguished demographic visit the theatre, at least judging from the three that I’ve gone. Considering that Habit deals with homosexuality so frankly, it is somewhat of a surprise to me that many elderly were in attendance. Maybe the seniors in this country are less conservative, less puritanical than in America? I’ve also seen plenty of children and teenagers at these events as well. Not to mention the vast number of students our age and men and women in their thirties and forties. The diverse population of theatre-goers is a testament to the strong cultural tradition in this city. Perhaps its time for other cities to follow suit.

Tags: 2010 Sean · Theatre

Charles Dickens House

September 9th, 2010 · No Comments

Taken from dickensmuseum.com

If you’re a fan of Dickens you must make your way to 48 Doughty Street (it’s only a fifteen minute walk from Arran), and visit the Dickens House Museum. And if you’re not, well, you still should if only because it isn’t everyday that you can see the working milieu of one of the greatest fiction writers ever to live. Evidently, the museum isn’t as large as the other ones we’ve  been too, but what it lacks in breadth it makes up for by its dedication in preserving many of Dickens’ possessions. If, however, you are looking for a contextual study of Dickens and London politics, you may be disappointed. Rather, those interested in the author’s biography would seem to be the ideal viewers. Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of the house is the presentation of the women in Dickens’ life, and how they affected his work. For instance, an entire room is devoted to his sister-in-law, Mary Hograth, who died prematurely at the age of seventeen in Dickens’ own arms. Apparently, Dickens had a bit of a crush. One of the notes describes how smitten Dickens was with Hograth (her death had impeded the serial publication of the next chapter in Pickwick Papers), how he had viewed her as his little sister, even calling her – very mawkishly – as the manifestation of an angel. If I recall correctly, other information cards described Dickens long love affair with a young woman. This may all sound conspiratorial. I thought so too. But a quick Google search will confirm the points. Besides, the museum is run by the Dickens fellowship, the largest organization committed to commemorating all things Dickens. There are even some attempts at amateur criticism, with some notes trying to draw parallels between Dickens’ life and his art, juxtaposing lines from the novels against real incidents. For an “institution” that is meant to honor the author, I found it commendable that the inclusion of such amorous, if you will, details were given proper exposure. It was clear to me that the museum wasn’t interested in providing another grandiloquent version of Dickens’ life. More precisely, there was an aim to be more objective and encompassing, and less inhibitive. I am no Dickens expert so there very well may be much scholarship on this already, but I thought it would be an interesting paper topic to reinterpret Dickens’ novels through a history of his sexuality (Paging Professor Moffat!).

Again, the museum is small in scope and clearly lacks the sumptuous settings of others. But if you find museums such as the Victoria and Albert exhausting, the Dickens House may prove to be a refreshing alternative.

Tags: 2010 Sean · Museums

My Day at the National Portrait Gallery

September 6th, 2010 · No Comments

My favorite painting from the gallery is a portrait of Ben Jonson. A playwright and poet of the Jacobean era, Jonson received some distinction with the works Bartholomew Fair and The Alchemist, both of which I have not read – and for good reason. Unlike his contemporary, Shakespeare, Jonson has completely fallen off the map, having none of the distinction and prestige of his fellow bard. Jonson, as it were, is not “canonical.” In any case, Jonson’s poor rep didn’t prevent me from enjoying his portrait. Indeed, an interesting point about portraiture is that there seems to be a sort of discrepancy between the the artist and the subject. Take for instance the portrait of Shakespeare. Our interest lies with the subject, Shakespeare, and not the artist. Conversely, in Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet we are interested in the fact that the painting’s author is Van Gogh, and less so by the fact that the painted figure was someone called Gachet. And of course other times, the interest is mutual – Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Its interesting to note how the discrepancy lessens as you go further through the timelines in the gallery. The Tudor, Stuart, and Jacobean rooms are very much indicative of the British brand of class system and ideology. But as you reached the portraiture of the early 20th century, you find friends drawing each other (i.e. Bloomsbury group).

© National Portrait Gallery, London

The artist who painted Ben Jonson’s portrait is Abraham van Blyenberch, a flemish artist of whom I know little about and care even less. Yet I found it to be one of the most original portraits in the gallery, rivaling that of the ones of Tennyson and Sir John Fieldings. Instead of the traditional rigidness we’ve come to expect from the Renaissance, Blyenberch’s Jonson is refreshingly relaxed. He looks slightly bemused, his head tilted just enough so that it conveys a sense of contentedness and ease. Even so, the portrait still relates to the viewer an august demeanor, probably due to the variations of bronze in the background, hair, and face. When I first looked at the work, I immediately thought of Rembrandt; Jonson’s beady, penetrating eyes echoes that of the psychic dimension of the Dutch master’s self portraits. Although Rembrandt would create his most famous pieces almost a generation later, the style we associate with that region seems to be diminutively intuited by  Blyenberch. Through this portrait of Jonson, we are able to look beyond the British stiff upper lip.

Tags: 2010 Sean · Museums