Sunday, January 24, 2010

An inquiring doctor, two fine artists and a classic account of a ravaged Anglo-Irish family

I always liked the story of Robin Warren, the Australian hospital doctor who shared the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2005 for his work on the pathology of gastric ulcers. It appealed to me that someone based for far outside the big centers of learning could make such a big impact on science. Samuel Black was of a similar ilk: a physician in Newry, Co. Down from 1788 on, he began to report on cases that he encountered of angina pectoris, which had been first described in 1772, publishing details of 21 cases in all, 18 of which were accompanied by dissections that he conducted. He noted that clogging of the arteries - he called it "ossification" - was the visible feature that connected his patients, and predicted, correctly, that the "application of chemical principles" might permit the removal of these "deposits". (Others, including the English vaccination pioneer Edward Jenner, made similar observations independently of Black.) Black also became interested in the epedemiology of coronary disease, and was the first to comment on what became known, much later, as the "French paradox" - the fact that ischaemic heart disease - was comparatively rare in France. He believed that lifestyle, climate and stress conditions could explain this. There's a plaque commemorating Black over the Oxfam shop in Marcus Square, Newry, where he lived until his death in 1832.

Dorothy Blackham was a Dublin-born artist who exhibited constantly from the 1920s until her death in 1975. She worked on posters, linocuts, book illustrations and paintings, while teaching in Dublin schools. Her principal subjects were Irish landscapes, such as the illustrated Blossoming Chestnuts, first exhibited in Dublin in 1939. I'm descovering so many Irish artists through the DIB, particularly women. I've probably seen Blackham works at some time - they're apparently at the Dublin City Gallery and the Hugh Lane - but they're never previously registered with me. Even reproduced, you can see that she was a very fine artist and her work is worth seeking out, which I will.

Another fine discovery: Edith Blake - Lady Edith to the deferentially inclined - who eloped with her policeman husband and ended up in Canada with him where be was governor of Newfoundland. She had quite outstanding gifts as a scientific illustrator, such as this study of the sphinx moth, made in 1892. She also wrote plays and spoke nine languages. It's claimed that while in the Bahamas, she painted with a pet snake draped around her waist. A large collection of her work is in the Natural History Museum in London; her notebooks are at Myrtle Grove, near Youghal, the 16th century house built by Walter Raleigh in which she died in 1926.

Caroline Blackwood's Irish connections were both thorough and attenuated. Her father was the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, descended from 17th century Scottish planters in Co. Down. Her mother's family were Guinnesses. She was born in London, and raised by nannies on the family estate near Belfast, after which her homes were in England, France and the USA. Instead, and more significantly, she became first muse to others, than a considerable artist in her own right. Her first husband, the painter Lucian Freud, painted her. Her third, the poet Robert Lowell, apostrophized her - "I love you every minute of the day; / you gone is hollow, bored, unbearable" (They divorced and Lowell remarried, but when he died in a New York taxi, he was holding a picture of her, done by Freud.) Lowell's mania distressed and ultimately defeated her, but it was during this marriage that she bloomed as a writer, including of Great Granny Webster, that fantastic account of life in a lunatic Anglo-Irish family. The description of Big House Irish life is marvellous: a ludicrous recreation of the English aristocratic grandeur in a landscape that can't support it, where the roof leaks perpetually and the servants wear wellington boots, where the menus are written in French by Ulster cooks who can't cook and where the narrator's grandfather never reads the Irish papers and refuses to hire catholics. It has something of the English comic gothic of Stella Gibbons and Mervyn Peake. but it depends for much on the madness - sometimes, literal madness - of being transplanted for generations to this unwelcoming place. She describes a ravaged family, and ultimately became ravaged herself although you sense that for her, like the suicidal Aunt Lavinia she describes in Great Granny Webster, that spiritual and emotional extravagance  was her way of staving off death, while she could.

No comments:

Post a Comment