Recently I read a piece in which someone talked about the joy and benefit of visiting museums and being taken to museums as a child and growing teenager. You and your family may be living in reduced circumstances or you may even be poor, but most museums are free and your cultural life doesn’t necessarily have to suffer. It can still be rich and stimulating.
What happens if by nature you are a visitor to museums and galleries, hungry for art and worlds that open in books, a lonely child inclined to cultivate your imagination? But your environment is inimical to your needs and instincts and no-one has any particular interest to show you other possibilities. Is it any wonder something becomes skewed and out-of-kilter? The danger that your imagination might become more real to you than the ‘real’ world is all too real.
And if you are not obedient to suggestions of what you might or should become, how will you find your way alone, come to no harm? In other words, what is your compass?
One journey will almost certainly lead (or stray?!) into the realm of Romanticism, that fruitful shadowy land of the darker side of the Imagination.
An early precursor: Sir Thomas Browne wrote, among other treatises, Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial or A Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk.
“What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entered the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide solution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above Antiquarism”
Its strange musings, its occupation with the state of mortality and its often melancholy tone (which invited comparisons with Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy) led Virginia Woolf to comment:
“..while the Bible has a gospel to impart, who can be quite sure what Sir Thomas Browne himself believed? The last chapters of Urn Burial beat up on wings of extraordinary sweep and power, yet towards what goal?… Decidedly [Browne's] is the voice of a strange preacher, of a man filled with doubts and subtleties and suddenly swept away by surprising imaginations.”
In the Musaeum Clausum Browne pictured “An Elephant dancing upon the Ropes with a Negro Dwarf upon his Back” and saw in his mind’s eye a ‘quandros’, a Stone taken out of a Vulture’s head, said to have miraculous properties.
All artwork by Erik Desmazières