Thursday, June 06, 2019

Dame Ninette de Valois: Architect of British Ballet

The dancer, director, teacher and choreographer Dame Ninette De Valois (born June 6th 1898, died 2001 aged 102) had many honours bestowed upon her in her lifetime including a C.B.E. in 1947, Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur (1950), D.B.E.(1951), C.H. (1981) and O.M. (1992). But perhaps it is her being awarded the Erasmus Prize in 1974 for a contribution of particular importance to Europe in the cultural or social sphere which best reflects her greatest achievement. She effectively established a British National ballet company, (The Royal Ballet), as well as founding a national ballet company for Ireland and Turkey. The deep influence which de Valois exerted upon the ballet world continues to the present-day.

Ninette de Valois first danced professionally on the stage of the Palladium in 1915 and by 1919 she had achieved the status of premiere danseuse at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London.

De Valois in 1923
In her memoirs de Valois states that she studied for 4 years with the Italian dancer Enrico Cecchetti (1850-1925). Born in 1850 in the dressing room of the Apollo Theatre in Tordino, Italy, by 1888 Cecchetti was widely acknowledged  as the greatest male ballet virtuoso in the world. He created and performed the virtuoso role of the Blue Bird and the mime role of Carabosse in the premiere of Marius Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty in 1890. Later in life he restaged many ballets, including Petipa's definitive version of Coppélia in 1894, from which nearly all modern versions of the work are based. Indeed, de Valois' own choreography for the Royal Ballet's revival of Coppelia in 1954 is based upon Cecchetti's choreography. [1]

Enrico Cecchetti 1890
In addition to Cecchetti, de Valois was greatly influenced by the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929). De Valois considered Diaghilev's Ballet Russe company to be the most perfect ballet expression the theatre has ever known and Diaghilev himself to be an exemplary fusion  of  connoisseur, creative artist and scholar.

It was during de Valois' time with the Ballet Russe that Diaghilev assigned to Bronislava Nijinska the choreography of Stravinsky's Les Noces. The result combines elements of her brother's choreography for The Rite of Spring with traditional aspects of ballet, such as dancing en pointe. The following year Nijinska choreographed three new works for the company: Les biches, Les Fâcheux and Le train bleu. While attending rehearsals of Les Noces de Valois noted- 'From  this detailed study was to emerge a clear picture of the geometrical beauty of the inner structure and relationship between the music and choreography'. [2]

De Valois had the unique opportunity to learn many aspects of staging a ballet production while with the Ballet Russe. Artists of the calibre such as Picasso, Stravinsky and Matisse frequently visited the Company in rehearsal. She describes one surprise visitor during rehearsals, none other than Vaslav Nijinsky who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1919 and committed to a mental asylum. She describes him thus - 'Looking around that company where futures and pasts were stamped on features and actions, one felt the silent onlooker's present state spelt a peace that might be absent for ever from the understanding of his companions. It is important to stress the happiness that was in his face; it was as if the mind had departed in an effort to escape from the discord'. [3]

Vaslav Nijinsky with sister Bronislava 1912

In her Invitation to the Ballet (1937) Ninette de Valois informs her reader that, 'two English choreographers have served under Madame Nijinska, both in the classroom and on stage, i.e. Frederick Ashton and the present writer - the latter regarding Nijinska's tuition as the most vital influence and help in her career'. Elsewhere she states - 'I learnt far more from Nijinska than I ever did from Massine'. [4] She also states- 'The main effect of Diaghilev on my dormant creative mind was to arouse an intense interest in the ballet in relation to the theatre....I had come to one conclusion: the same should happen along the same lines, and with such an ultimate goal - in England'. [5]

Upon leaving Diaghilev's company in 1926, De Valois occasionally toured England, in particular performing at Cambridge Arts Theatre and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. In her Rout staged privately with her pupils at Cambridge in 1928, the influence of Bronislava Nijinska's Les Noches which de Valois had  danced while a member of Diaghilev's Ballet Russe  can be seen. 

Rout  Cambridge 1928 with de Valois in centre of group
Ninette de Valois performed at the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich on  Monday 1st December 1930. The Maddermarket Theatre was the first permanent recreation of an Elizabethan Theatre in England. It opened under the directorship of its founder Nugent Monck in 1921 and continues to be active today.  

In what appears to have been a full programme of dance, all of which was choreographed by de Valois, her small troupe of dancers performed the following - Prelude Orientale with music by Gliere, Rhythm a group dance with music by Beethoven, Russe Fantasie a group dance, Serenade a solo with music by Boccherini, Etude a pas de trio with music by Debussy, Fugue a group dance to the music of J.S. Bach's Fugue no. 5 from The Well-Tempered Klavier and The Tryst with specially commissioned music by the budding composer William Alwyn (1905-85). It was probably de Valois' solo dance in A Daughter of Eve which was the star performance of the night with de Valois dancing in a costume  consisting of a fluffy, white, calf-length skirt, a peasant apron, and a bonnet with coloured ribbons. 

'This became an immensely popular item, a demi-caractere miniature of a flirtatious young woman in silent dialogue with an unseen young man. At the end she offers him an apple, is refused, and then sits on the forestage steps, and bites into the apple. With a provocative smile, she leaves it on stage and walks away'  [6]

Its not improbable, given the fact that both Nugent Monck and de Valois were friends of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, that somehow a commendation, request or invitation to perform at the Maddermarket theatre at Norwich was made between these artists. In the same year as her Norwich performance de Valois danced in a production of the opera Carmen  at Covent Garden  in 1930.

In 1931 De Valois, through the help of theatre manager Lilian Baylis (1874-1937) established a permanent ballet company at Sadler's Wells. At first the Vic-Wells ballet had only six female dancers, with Ninette de Valois herself as lead dancer and choreographer. The company performed its first full ballet production on 5 May 1931 at the Old Vic, with Anton Dolin as guest star. Its first performance at Sadler’s Wells was a few days later, on 15 May 1931.

De Valois shares this amusing anecdote about her benefactress Lilian Baylis- 'The body beautiful was her great topic; on this point she had no inhibitions. I once stood with her at the back of the Old Vic circle during a ballet performance when she informed me, in clear loud tones, that a certain male dancer had a most beautiful behind'.  [7]

De Valois performed one last time as a dancer in 1935 in a production of Coppelia.  One critic noted-

'Her performance was characterised by superlative neatness and elegance but it was in her miming that she particularly excelled. In the second act especially she reflected to perfection every idea and fancy passing through the heroine's brain. Not only her face but all the movements of her body seemed to be called into play'.

Another ballet-critic claimed she was- 'something of a sensation as Swanilda. Her grace and charm; her precision and sense of rhythm; and her gaiety and perfect miming, went to the creation of a very fine performance.'

De Valois as Swanilda in Coppelia 1935
Under the Directorship of Ninette de Valois the Vic-Wells ballet company flourished during the 1930s to became one of the first Western dance companies to stage the classical ballet repertoire of the Imperial Russian Ballet. De Valois began to establish a British repertory, engaging Frederick Ashton as Principal Choreographer and Constant Lambert as Musical Director in 1935 and  choreographed several of her own ballets including Job (1931), The Rake’s Progress (1935) and Checkmate (1937). 

The Black Queen in a modern production of Checkmate

Eventually the dance company which de Valois established included many of the most famous ballet dancers in the world, including Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann, Moira Shearer, Beryl Grey, and Michael Somes. In 1949 the Sadler Wells Ballet was a sensation when they toured the United States with Margot Fonteyn instantly becoming an international celebrity.

In many ways de Valois' visionary genius lay in her ability to recognise, encourage, train and retain talent. Self-sacrificing for the benefit of the Company, forever considering the future, she was also a strict disciplinarian who earned the nickname of 'the Games mistress' by pupils and dancers. Set designer and artist Leslie Hurry (1909-78) typifies her influence, stating-

'She imposed a stern discipline upon my turbulent imagination. An incredibly brilliant woman -sympathetic, understanding, marvellous to work with'. [8]

Although she officially stepped-down as Director of The Royal Ballet in 1963, de Valois continued to teach and exert her sometimes formidable influence upon the Company for a further decade. De Valois herself stated of  choreography-

'Choreography is one of the most complex and exacting forms of creative work, demanding an abstraction and plasticity to be found in painting and sculpture. In this way its relation to space is coupled with its own function in time'.

De Valois (left) teaching a dancer

[1]   Delibes: Coppelia - Choreography Ninette de Valois 
       The Royal Ballet. Opus Arte/BBC (2010)
[2]  Ninette de Valois -Idealist without Illusions 
       Katherine Sorley Walker  pub. Hamish Hamilton 1987
[3]  Valois, Ninette de - Invitation to the Ballet. 
       London pub. Bodley Head 1937
[4]  Secret Muses: The life of Frederick Ashton 
       Julie Kavanagh  pub. Faber and Faber 2006
[5]  Invitation to the Ballet
[6]  Ninette de Valois -Idealist without Illusions 
[7]  Ibid.
[8] Walker citing Evening News 6 September 1943


*  Valois, Ninette de - Invitation to the Ballet. London: Bodley Head pub. 1937
*  Valois, Ninette de - Come Dance with Me; A Memoir, 1898-1956. London:           pub. Hamish Hamilton. 1957
*  The Royal Ballet 75 Years Zoe Anderson pub. Faber and Faber 2006
*  Ninette de Valois - Idealist without Illusions -Katherine Sorley Walker pub.           Hamish Hamilton 1987


* Delibes:Coppelia - Choreography Sergey Vikharev after Petipa and Cecchetti.     Ballet of the State Academic Bolshoi Theatre of Russia.  
   Belair Classiques: BAC463  (2019)

* Delibes: Coppelia - Choreography Ninette de Valois. 
   The Royal Ballet. Opus Arte/BBC (2010)

* Checkmate and The Rake's Progress Choreography De Valois  
    Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet  VAI  (1982)  

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Margot Fonteyn Centenary

Born on May 18th 1919, Margot Fonteyn was one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century. In addition to her dedication and technical skills, Fonteyn had the good luck to be coached firstly by the Russian dancer and ballet teacher Serafina Astafieva (1876-1934) then through joining the Vic-Wells company directed by its visionary founder Ninette de Valois (1898-2001) at a time when British ballet itself developed and came of age.  

Over the course of decades, Fonteyn, along with Irish-born Ninette de Valois, and choreographer Frederick Ashton (1904-88) established ballet as a popular and serious art-form for Britain audiences. It can even be said that the rapid development of ballet in Britain as an art-form from circa 1935-1960 was primarily through the talents of Fonteyn as prima ballerina , the high standards instilled in the Corps de ballet by company director de Valois and the 'in-house' choreographic skills of Frederick Ashton. These combined factors contributed towards making what was to become the Royal Ballet, a company equal in stature to long established  Russian ballet companies such as the Bolshoi and Kirov.
Fonteyn joined Ninette de Valois's Vic-Wells company (later Sadler Wells, later still, the Royal Ballet) in 1935 when precociously young. She soon found herself selected by de Valois for the highly responsible role of prima ballerina of the Company.

In her detailed biography of Fonteyn, author Meredith Danemann notes that it was also at this time that the ballerina had an on-and-off affair with the stage-conductor and composer Constant Lambert (1905-51). According to friends of Fonteyn, Lambert was the great love of her life and she despaired when she finally realised he would never marry her. Aspects of this relationship were symbolised in Lambert's astrologically-themed ballet Horoscope which was first performed on January 27th 1938. Tragically, Lambert was to die of alcoholism in 1951, only six weeks after his ballet Tiresias with its violent, sexual storyline had received hostile, damning reviews. Lambert's friends claim it was these reviews which  led to the composer drinking  even harder, effectively destroying himself at the age of 45.

Margot Fonteyn endeared herself to the British public by performing throughout the Blitz of the war-years. Undaunted by bombs, she refused to evacuate to a safer location and instead catered for the growing demand for ballet during the war, performing sometimes four or five times in a single day. After the war Fonteyn and the Sadler Wells Ballet company enjoyed worldwide fame following a rapturous reception in New York in 1949. They subsequently toured Australia to equally rave reviews. In 1956 Sadlers Wells was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth II and became the Royal Ballet.  

Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann in 'Sleeping Beauty' (1946)
In 1962 at an age when most ballerinas would be considering retirement, Fonteyn embarked upon a second career, partnering the charismatic dancer Rudolf Nureyev (1938-93) who had recently defected from the USSR. The ever-astute De Valois describes her first impressions of Nureyev during his curtain-calls after his first performance in London in 1961 thus-

'I saw an arm raised with a noble dignity, a hand expressively extended with that restrained discipline which is the product of great traditional schooling. Slowly the head turned from one side of the theatre to the other, and the Slav bone-structure of the face, so beautifully modelled, made me feel like an inspired sculptor rather than the director of the Royal Ballet. I could see him clearly and suddenly in one role - Albrecht in Giselle. Then and there I decided that when he first danced for us it must be with Fonteyn in that ballet', [1]

Others wrote more dramatically of Nureyev's performance, one dance critic stating it, 'produced the shock of seeing a wild animal let loose in a drawing-room'. [2]

In her book 'Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet' Judith Holman assesses Fonteyn and Nureyev's relationship and the reception of their first performance together in Giselle  on 21 February 1962 thus-

'At first glance, they seemed unlikely match: he was twenty-four and had a sweeping Soviet style, while she was forty-three and the paragon of English restraint. Yet together they created a potent mix of sex and celebrity that made them icons of the 1960s and "swinging" London's permissive scene:... It was pure populism, ballet for the youth generation and a mass consumer age,.. Fonteyn and Nureyev fashioned themselves into balletic rock superstars.

'How did they do it? The onstage chemistry between them has often been explained by sex: that they had it, wanted it, or suppressed it (they never told). But their partnership also stood for something much larger. In their dancing, East meets West: his campy sexuality and eroticism (heavy makeup with teased and lacquered hair) highlighted and offset her impeccable bourgeois taste. Nureyev played his role to perfection: even in the most classical of steps, he flirted with the image of the Asian potentate, and his unrestrained sensuality and tiger-like movements recalled a cliched Russian orientalism (first exploited by Diaghilev's Ballets Russe), which also linked to the escapist fantasies of 1960s middle-class youth: Eastern mysticism, revolution, sex, and drugs.

'The East was one thing; age was another. Nureyev had a gorgeous, youthful physique; Fonteyn was old enough to be her mother. And although her technique was still impressive, she looked her age. Indeed, as Fonteyn's proper 1950s woman fell into the arms of Nureyev's mod man, the generation gap seemed momentarily to close. .. Not everyone was happy with the result: the prominent American critic John Martin lamented that Fonteyn had  gone "to the grand ball with a gigolo". None of this meant , however that Nureyev was disrespectful. To the contrary, when he partnered Fonteyn he did so with supreme respect and perfect nineteenth century manners. To the British, this mattered: Fonteyn, after all, was still "like the Queen" and during the curtain-call of their first performance of Giselle, Nureyev accepted a rose from Fonteyn and then instinctively fell to his knee at her feet and covered her hand with kisses. The audience went wild'. [3]

Fonteyn spoke of Nureyev's gesture after their first performance together thus-

'It was his way of expressing genuine feelings, untainted by conventional words. Thereafter, a strange attachment formed between us which we have never been able to explain satisfactorily, and which, in a way, one could describe as a deep affection, or love, especially if one believes that love has many forms and degrees. But the fact remains that Rudolf was desperately in love with someone else at the time, and, for me, Tito is always the one with black eyes'. [4] 

More objectively, one dance-critic succinctly noted of the relationship -

'One unforeseen result of Nureyev's advent was a new lease of life for Fonteyn. Since Ulanova's retirement, she and Maya Plisetskaya of the Bolshoi shone above all rivals, but now there were sall signs of a possible end to her supremacy through declining technique and confidence. Nureyev changed all that. Responding to his highly charged stage presence, Fonteyn found a dramatic power that had previously eluded her. In place of the formerly reserved, carefully balanced dancer emerged a woman who threw herself impetuously into her roles. Consequently, she went on to many more years of recognition as a unique artist. [5]

Much has been written and speculated upon Fonteyn and Nureyev's relationship on and off-stage, Rudolf Nureyev is recorded as saying of Fonteyn - 'At the end of Lac des Cygnes (Swan Lake) when she left the stage in her great white tutu I would have followed her to the end of the world'. Nureyev later embarked upon a successful career as the director of the Paris Opera Ballet where he continued to dance and to promote younger dancers. He held this appointment as chief choreographer until 1989. Nureyev tested positive for HIV in 1984 and died tragically young from an AIDs related illness in 1993 aged just 54. 

Equally tragic, Fonteyn's husband Tito was shot during an assassination attempt in 1964 resulting in his becoming a quadriplegic, requiring nursing for the remainder of his life. In 1972, Fonteyn went into semi-retirement, although she continued to occasionally dance until late in her life, partly through a need to subsidise her paraplegic husband's medical bills.  

In 1979, as a gift for her 60th birthday, Fonteyn was fêted by the Royal Ballet and officially pronounced the prima ballerina assoluta of the company. The title was sanctioned by Queen Elizabeth II as patron of the company. Dame Fonteyn retired to Panama, where she spent her time writing books, raising cattle, and caring for her husband. She died from ovarian cancer on February 21st 1991, exactly 29 years to the day after her premiere with Nureyev in Giselle. 

The first global super-star ballerina, Margot Fonteyn placed English ballet on the world-stage. She remains inspirational to dancers and loved by balletomanes throughout the world, still alive in spirit, one hundred years old today.

                                           *   *  *  *

There is one role which Fonteyn identified with, the water-spirit Ondine, choreographed especially for her by Frederick Ashton.  Princess Aurora in Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty is another role she made her own. The 'Rose Adagio' in The Sleeping Beauty in which the ballerina remains balanced en pointe whilst receiving a rose from four suitors is considered to be a formidable technical achievement for a ballerina. 

This rare colour film of the first Act of 'Sleeping Beauty' was found in a disused Norfolk barn in the 1990's.  The 'Rose Adagio' starts at 12 minutes. 


Some of Fonteyn's greatest roles were filmed. Mostly inexpensive on DVD, they also reflect the technology of the era, filmed over half a century ago; nevertheless they remain valuable records of Fonteyn as a ballerina. 

* Swan Lake - Fonteyn and Nureyev  Philips 1966

* The Royal Ballet - Firebird (Fokine) and Ondine (Ashton) 1960 Network DVD

* Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet 1966 Network DVD. 
    Grainy colouration 

* Sleeping Beauty 1955 VAI  b/w

Recommended Books

*Margot Fonteyn- Meredith Daneman
  pub. Viking 2004  654pp.

*Apollo's Angels- A History of Ballet- Jennifer Homans
   pub. Granta Books 2010 643pp.

* Invitation to the Ballet -Ninette de Valois
   pub. Bodley Head 1937


[1] Ninette de Valois - Step by Step W. H. Allen 1977 cited by Daneman
[2] Alexander Bland Observer 5th November 1961 cited by Daneman
[3] Apollo's Angels- A History of Ballet-Jennifer Homans. Granta Books 2010 
[4] Fonteyn Autobiography cited by Daneman
[5] Modern Ballet - John Percival pub. The Herbert Press 1970 rev. 1980

Documentary/Biopic DVDs

* Fonteyn and Nureyev -The Perfect Partnership 1985
* Margot Fonteyn - A Portrait Arthaus 1989
* Margot - BBC 2009

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sir Thomas Browne and Japan

The physician-philosopher Thomas Browne (1605-82) can truly be said to have achieved worldwide fame with his inclusion in the Japanese author Natsume Sōseki’s novel Sanshirō (1908-09).

Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石, 1867 – 1916) is considered to be one of Japan's greatest writers. He studied at what was the Tokyo Imperial University and became Japan's first official English Literature scholar, spending two unhappy years resident in England circa 1900-2. Eventually Sōseki became a professor of English literature at Tokyo Imperial University. It would appear however, that no earlier English translation of Sanshirō was made before Jay Rubin's 2009 translation, perhaps due to negative historical/cultural reasons.

In Sōseki's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel, Sanshirō is a naive and dreaming student who discovers his rural upbringing to be a disadvantage in the metropolitan city of Tokyo. The early twentieth century witnessed a period of rapid industrialisation and adoption of Western ways in Japan. A photo dated circa 1905 (top) gives some indication of how rapid the industrialisation of Japan was, resulting in a certain amount of psychic dissonance, as indicated in the above photo, with both traditional costume and  modern electrification visible.

Sanshirō's class-mate Yojirō expresses the excitement of modern Tokyo when he exclaims to him - 'Get on the streetcar and ride around Tokyo ten or fifteen times. After a while it'll just happen -you'll become satisfied'.   

In what is a narrative of gentle awakening in matters of romance, sex and learning, Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia plays a small part in Sōseki's novel. It is the enigmatic scholar Professor Hiroto who makes psychological observations such as - 'Look at England. Egotism and altruism have been in perfect balance there for centuries. That's why she doesn't move. That's why she doesn't progress. The English are a pitiful lot - they have no Ibsen, no Nietzsche. They're  all puffed up like that, but look at them from the outside and you can see them hardening, turning into fossils'.

Professor Hiroto lends Sanshirō an edition of Hydriotaphia (Urn-Burial). Browne's philosophical discourse assists the youthful’s protagonist’s intellectual development, for during his meditation upon it, he witnesses a child’s funeral. The combination of Browne's stoical prose and child's funeral awakens in the dreaming student an acute awareness of his own mortality. Here's the full, relevant text, including a passage in which Browne's literary voice is likened to the lingering reverberation of a giant temple bell sounding faintly throughout the centuries, a particularly original homage.

 Buddhist  Bell Temple, Nara, Japan

'He read the concluding paragraph of Hydriotaphia as he ambled down the street toward Hakusan. According to Professor Hirota, this writer was a famous stylist, and this essay the best example of his style. ‘That’s not my opinion, of course,’ he had laughingly confided. And in fact Sanshirō could not see what was so remarkable about this style, The phrasing was bad, the diction outlandish, the flow of words sluggish. It gave him the feeling of looking at some old temple. In terms of walking distance, it had taken him three or four blocks to read, and still he was not very clear about what it said'.

'What he had gained from the paragraph wore a patina of age, as if someone had rung the bell of the Great Buddha in Nara and the lingering reverberation had faintly reached his ears in Tokyo. Rather than the meaning of the passage itself, Sanshirō took pleasure in the shadow of sentiment that crept over the meaning. He had never thought keenly about death; his youthful blood was still too warm for that. A fire leapt before his eyes so gigantic that it could singe his brows, and this feeling was his true self.........'

'As he glanced in through the gate, Sanshirō twice muttered the word hydriotaphia. Of all the foreign words he had learned thus far, hydriotaphia was one of the longest and hardest. He still did not know what it meant...... Just to learn hydriotaphia was a time-consuming effort, and saying it twice caused one’s pace to slacken. It sounded like a word the ancients had devised for Professor Hirota’s personal use'.

Tokyo 1905
Although Browne wrote on almost every topic under the sun,  little on the Land of the Rising Sun (Nippon) can be found in his writings, other than  mention of the Northeast passage to China and Japan, via the Arctic circle (Miscellaneous Tract 12). Browne's relative silence on Japan is reflective of Japanese insularity from Western missionaries, traders and explorers during his era. 

In May 2011, the University of East Anglia (UEA) which is located in Sir Thomas Browne's home-city of Norwich, established a new Centre for Japanese Studies. The University of East Anglia is also where the Nobel-laureate Sir Kazuo Ishiguro (b. Nagasaki, 1954) studied for his Master's degree in creative writing.  

A final connection between Japan and Sir Thomas Browne remains. One of the very first installations by the site specific installation artist Tatzu Nishi (西野達) (born 1960 Nagoya, Japan) was at the Art East International at Norwich in 1998. Using scaffolding, cladding, wood, and furniture, Nishi constructed a 'living-room' around Henry Pegram's 1905 statue of Thomas Browne, effectively allowing the Norwich philosopher-physician a brief respite from the season's weather to rest and philosophize indoors for a short while.

See also 

Kazuo Ishiguro

Sir Thomas Browne and China

Tatzu Nishi

Thursday, December 06, 2018

North Sea Magic Realism: The art of Guy Richardson

'In seventy or eighty years a Man may have a deep Gust of the World, Know what it is, what it can afford, and what ’tis to have been a Man'. [1]

Guy Richardson (b.1933) is a British artist and sculptor who has exhibited his art for over six decades. He continues to be active today as the senior member of the North Sea Magic Realism art-movement.

Early in his long and varied life, Guy attended Dartmouth Naval College and later studied at Chelsea School of Art for his National Diploma in Design, along with fellow-artist Prunella Clough and the sculptor Elizabeth Frink. He attended UEA as a mature student reading European Art History. For many years Guy combined art with puppetry including a one-man show of Orpheus in the Underworld which was performed at the National Theatre in London. Richardson's influence upon his contemporaries is reflected in the British puppeteer and environmental artist Meg Amsden's  (b. 1948) reminiscence -

'There were so many artists around that I knew and worked with that it was possible to learn things. With a little touring dance and education company we went into schools and did shows and through that I met someone called Guy Richardson, who did Punch and Judy shows on Yarmouth beach.' 

Guy showed Meg how to make masks for dance productions and, almost immediately, she started making puppets too. Amsden recollects on her apprenticeship with Richardson-

'Guy had a way of working that was experimental. All the time we were trying things out,” she says. “I think you learn by doing that. I have the sort of mind that likes problem solving so that worked well. I worked with him for four of five years altogether but gradually started setting up my own ideas too.' [2]

Richardson has held exhibitions of his art at Covent Garden and Hampstead in London, at Norwich, and Halesworth and Southwold in Suffolk. Three examples of his medallic work are currently held at the British Museum. 

Its beyond the confines of this post to recollect in detail Guy's long and extensive biography, besides, as C.G. Jung reminds us-  

'The personal life of the artist is at most a help or a hindrance, but is never essential to his creative task. He may go the way of the Philistine, a good citizen, a fool, or a criminal. His personal career may be interesting and inevitable, but it does not explain his art'. [3] 

Working mostly in ceramics, primarily in grogged clay, Richardson's pieces are painted or sponged with underglaze paints before biscuit firing, creating sculptures which are at turns humorous and erotic, often featuring people in unusual situations. His amusing and intriguing sculptures echo the humour and salaciousness of 'What the Butler Saw' peep-shows with a Jack-in-the-box inventiveness. With an extensive knowledge of world art, Richardson's 'Back-stage' (top of post) depicts the behind-the-scenes operations of stage-hands whilst an opera singer performs to an audience. His 'Shark-wrestler' (above) is influenced by the artist Rene Magritte, whilst his 'Bluebeard's Larder' (below) is inspired by Charles Perrault's sinister fairy-tale.

Richardson's art possesses all the sophistication of Czech animator Jan Svankmajer or the Brothers Quay with their imaginative automatons, while retaining his own quite unique vision.

The psychologist C.G. Jung reminds us that- 'Every creative person is a duality or a synthesis of contradictory qualities. On the one side he is a human being with a personal life, while on the other he is an impersonal creative process. As a human being he may be sound or morbid, and his personal psychology can and should be explained in personal terms. But he can be understood as an artist only in terms of his creative achievement'. [4]

Peter Rodulfo and Mark Burrell both acknowledge Richardson's influence upon  their own personal artistic development. Rodulfo recollects - 

'I first met Guy in 1980. At the time I was exhibiting at Norwich Castle Museum. Guy had  seen my work there and got in touch  with me so as to see more of my art. In due course Guy showed me his work which greatly impressed me. For some time I had been making ever more encrusted collages, and seeing Guy's work gave me the courage and inspiration to take my collages a big step forwards, in the form of three-dimensional constructions and assemblages,which in turn led on to free standing sculptures'. 

Mark Burrell, a Lowestoft neighbour of Richardson, states-

'I first saw Guy's work over 30 years ago when I was lucky enough to see a one man show by him. I was utterly spell bound by the sheer imagination of his 3D pieces, many were ornate boxes with spy-holes to peer into; within these he created great depth and all kind of imaginings. His themes over the years are many and varied, but his frank, honest and quirky depiction of human sexuality, playful and uncensored make me smile and think. 30 years later I still get a feeling of excitement when I pop round to see him and his unique work.'

Guy Richardson exhibited with Peter Rodulfo and Mark Burrell at the Tripp Gallery, London, in November 2017, attending the opening preview of the first collective North Sea Magical Realism exhibition. 


[1] Sir Thomas Browne Christian Morals Part 3:22
[2] The Puppet Master:Interview with Meg Amsden East Anglian Daily Times 8th July  2013
[3] CW 15:157
[4]  CW 15:162

Friday, October 19, 2018

Dr. Browne's Ethereal Salt

Once considered to be the 'ultimate oddity’ of Thomas Browne's collected writings, the miscellaneous tract Musaeum Clausum (Sealed Museum) is now seen as clear evidence of the physician-philosopher possessing a versatile imagination along with a sly sense of humour in his last years.

Ever the consummate literary showman, Browne announces to an unknown correspondent that his Musaeum Clausum consists of, ‘some remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living'. [1]

The first section of Musaeum Clausum is a scholastic wish-list of books rumoured to exist which Browne would like to read, such as the writings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius translated into Spanish. Browne's one-line inventory of book-titles anticipates the Argentinian magic realism author Jorge Luis Borges who declared that, 'to write vast books is a laborious nonsense. Much better is to offer a summary, as if those books actually existed.'

Musaeum Clausum's ‘Rarities of Pictures’ features exotic locations such as the Arctic and Desert, historical events, including sieges and sea-battles, physiognomic coincidences, random reproductions and optical art.

In 2016 the North Sea magic realism artists Peter Rodulfo and Mark Burrell each produced a highly-polished and original artwork from the skeletal sketches of  'Rarities of Pictures'.  [2]

In the final section, 'Antiquities and Rarities of several sorts' Browne lampoons some of the improbable artefacts of doubtful provenance collected by the undiscerning of his era. He also subtly mocks the outlandish claims of those engaged in alchemical experiments, with his own bizarre curio in the curtain-falling ‘rarity’ of-

'A Glass of Spirits made of Æthereal Salt, Hermetically sealed up, kept continually in quick-silver; of so volatile a nature that it will scarce endure the Light, and therefore only to be shown in Winter, or by the light of a Carbuncle, or Bononian Stone'.

Before revealing the medical nature of Dr. Browne’s ‘ethereal salt’ and exploring the labyrinthine symbolism of salt in alchemy, it's worthwhile looking a little closer at  Browne's curio, as it names the 'deity' synonymous with alchemy, the Egypto-Greek god Hermes and his Roman counterpart, Mercurius.

The term 'hermetically sealed up' is a great example of how the opaque language of the alchemystical philosophers metamorphosed into early chemistry terminology. The term originates from the Egypto-Greek god Hermes and his magic ability to seal treasure chests so that no-one could access their contents. In the early days of the chemical process of distillation, the ability to make an airtight seal was highly valued and the secret of the seal was a  closely guarded one.

Hermetic philosophers such as Browne believed in the wisdom of the mythic Hermes Trismegistus, even after it was proved the Corpus Hermeticum originated from the early Christian era, and was not penned by the legendary Hermes Trismegistus in ancient Egyptian times. Browne states his subscription to the tenets of Hermetic philosophy in  Religio Medici boldly declaring - ‘The severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes'.[3]

The very title Musaeum Clausum may itself allude to a Hermetic publication. As a keen bibliophile Browne kept up-to-date with forthcoming publications and may well have known that the alchemical anthology Musaeum Hermeticum, which first saw light in 1625 was reprinted in Latin in 1678.

'Glass' in Browne's curio is synonymous with the alchemical apparatus of the Vessel, Vas, or philosopher's egg. Its modern chemistry equivalent would be the distillation retort. [4]

The word clausum is closely associated with alchemy, C.G. Jung reminding us that - ‘The vas bene clausum (well-sealed vessel) is a precautionary measure very frequently mentioned in alchemy’. Jung also reminds us in words applicable to both the inner, psychic process within the alchemist (i.e. the mind/ vessel) as much as the outer, experimental process in the laboratory, stating - ‘The adept must always take care to keep the Hermetic vessel well sealed, in order to prevent what is in it from flying away'. [5]

Hermes lends his name not only to the solitary figure of the spiritual searcher, the hermit, but also to winged Mercury, the 'trickster-god' of communication, thieves and traders, who either assisted the adept with revelation or thwarted him in his search for gold. Known today as mercury, Quicksilver was so named from its seemingly living properties, ('quick' being an early English word for alive or living). Because of its peculiar properties, being a liquid metal which contracted and expanded when exposed to cold and heat, as capable of division as easily as reunifying itself, the chemical substance of mercury acted as play-dough upon the alchemical imagination. The alchemist's encounter with the numinous through unconscious psychological projection upon substances and processes when engaged in experiment are well-illustrated in Browne’s declaring in Religio Medici -

‘I have often beheld as a miracle, that artificial resurrection and revivification of Mercury, how being mortified into thousand shapes, it assumes again its own, and returns into its numerical self’. [6]

From the ancient Greek Pythagoreans who called the sea the 'tear of Kronos', because of its 'bitter saltness' to the late Renaissance chemist and alchemist Johannes Baptista Van Helmont (1579-1644) who believed that volatile salts composed the vital spirit or the breath of animals and plants, Salt has featured in the speculations of philosophers, alchemists and early modern chemists alike.  Indeed, it has been said that 'salt chymistry' is pivotal to the study of the inter-relationship between chemistry, natural history, physiology and medical sciences in the early modern period. [7]

Salt is the only mineral rock which is eaten by man. Its a substance which man valued enough to risk his life and labour in dangerous mining conditions in order to acquire.  One of the oldest and most ubiquitous of all food seasonings; salt has a dual nature—preserving and corrupting, its also a disinfectant, a component of ceremonial offerings, and was once a unit of value exchange. During the Roman era, salt was  used as a currency with the custom of paying soldiers in pieces of compressed salt (the word ‘salary’ originates from salārium, ‘salt money’) hence the phrase - ‘to be worth one’s salt’. Man’s relationship to salt has generated enormous poetic and mythic meanings, not least when promoted in  importance by the alchemist-physician Paracelsus.

Above all others, it was Paracelsus (1493-1541) with his advocating chemical-based alchemy who influenced the development of medicine during the Renaissance and beyond. Paracelsus urged physicians to investigate nature in order to discover new  properties in the mineral, botanical and animal kingdoms whose extracted ‘essences’ could be potentially useful for healing. In Paracelsus’s voluminous writings there can also be found a moralist and theologian as profound and radical as the Reformation figure of Martin Luther (1483-1546). Taking his cue from the Persian alchemist, Rhazes (854–925 CE) who suggested that metals contained a third, salty component, Paracelsus added to the alchemical duality of sulphur and mercury a third element, salt, perhaps in imitation of the Christian Trinity. Paracelsus maintained that everything is made of philosophical mercury, sulphur and salt, though without abandoning the ancient Greek schemata of the four elements, effectively giving alchemists two differing schemata to play, speculate and base their experiments upon.

Paracelsus stressed the importance of salt in the alchemical triad, which greatly influenced his followers for over a century after his death. Thomas Browne's edition of Paracelsus, entitled Opera Medico-Chimica, is dated Frankfurt 1603. The Paracelsian physician Martin Ruland's Dictionary of Alchemy (Lexicon Alchemiae 1612) also in his library, lists a bewildering number of salts, including Sal Sapientia, the salt of the wise. Ruland’s promotion of Salt states-

'Therefore, he that understands the Salt and its solution possesses the wisdom of the ancients. Therefore, place your whole reliance on the Salt. Count nothing else of importance. For Salt by itself is the most important secret which all the Wise have thought proper to conceal'. [8]

Astoundingly Ruland even asserts - 'The Salt of the Philosophers is the Stone of the Philosophers', as well as mentioning  a 'Salt of Universal Harmony'. [9]

Paracelsus’s promotion of salt, along with its multifaceted qualities and many symbolic associations, attracted various 'alchemystical' philosophers and early chemists to philosophize upon and experiment with salt, sometimes mixing philosophy, religious insight, medicine and laboratory work indeterminately, as in Johann Glauber's De Salium Natura (On the Nature of Salt, 1658).

In the alchemical anthology 'The Rose-Garden of the Philosophers' (Rosarium Philosophorum, c.1550) one reads-

'Who therefore knows the salt and its solution knows the hidden secret of the wise men of old. Therefore turn your mind upon the salt and think not of other things; for in it alone (i.e. the mind) is the science concealed and the most excellent and hidden secret of all the most excellent and most hidden secret of all the ancient philosophers’. [10]

C.G. Jung reminds us - 'Whenever an alchemist speaks of “salt”, he does not mean sodium chloride or any other salt, or only in a very limited sense. He could not get away from its symbolic substance, and therefore included the sal sapiente in the chemical substance.  [11]

'Salt was considered to be an arcane substance by the sixteenth and seventeenth-century alchemists, in ecclesiastical as well as alchemical usage, salt is the symbol for Sapientia and also for the distinguished or elect personality, as in 'Ye are the Salt of the earth'.  [12]

'Salt was associated with Christ through the sal sapientiae association. In antiquity salt denoted wit, good sense, good taste, etc., as well as spirit. Cicero for example remarks: “In wit [sale] and humour Caesar.....surpassed them all."  [13]

This philosophical aspect of Salt features in what is one of C.G. Jung’s most memorable sayings. Juxtaposing two of salt's primary attributes, namely, its bitterness with sal sapiente, the salt of the wise, to make the profound spiritual observation-

'Tears, sorrow, and disappointment are bitter, but wisdom is the comforter in all psychic suffering. Indeed, bitterness and wisdom form a pair of alternatives: where there is bitterness wisdom is lacking, and where wisdom is there can be no bitterness'. [14]

In one of the six door-step sized volumes of the alchemical anthology Theatrum Chemicum (The Chemical Theatre 1612) (one of Jung's favourite reads and in Browne's library) the physician-philosopher would have had his curiosity aroused when reading-

'But if Thales of Miletus chose to call that stone of Hercules, the magnet, an animate thing, because we see it attract and move iron, why shall we not likewise call salt, which in wonderous wise penetrates, purges, contracts, expands, hinders, and reduces a living thing?’  [15]

In Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) Browne notes the place of salt in folklore, in religious ceremonies and throughout the Bible. Salt is featured in Pseudodoxia in the chapter entitled Of Crystal as well as in several of Browne's 'chymical operations', including an experiment as to whether magnetism increases or decreases in fresh or saline water.

Its when speculating upon the origins of colour that Browne displays his familiarity with the Paracelsian triad of alchemy, stating - ‘The Chymists have laudably reduced their causes unto Sal, Sulphur, and Mercury'. [16]

As a medical doctor Browne knew, as he states in Pseudodoxia - 'there being in everything we eat, a natural and concealed salt, which is separated by digestions, and doth appear in our tears, sweat and urines, although we refrain all salt, or what doth seem to contain it’. [17]

Well-informed of events in the medical world, Browne certainly also knew of the success his contemporary Johann Glauber (1604-1670) had with salt. The German-Dutch alchemist and chemist Johann Glauber was the first to produce salt extracted from Hungarian spring water. This naturally occurring salt is water soluble, has a bitter taste, and is sometimes used in medicine as a mild laxative; it's also used in dyeing. Glauber's salt, the common name for sodium sulfate, occurs as white or colorless crystals which upon exposure to fairly dry air effloresces, forming a powdery  sodium sulfate. Glauber’s production of sodium sulfate, which he called sal mirabilis or "wonderful salt", was an effective but relatively safe laxative and a popular alternative to purging (emptying the digestive tract being a treatment for many diseases) which brought him fame and the honour of it being named "Glauber's salt".

Browne was aware of Glauber's Salts not only from his owning an edition of Glauber's De Salium Natura  but also from his eldest son Edward Browne (1644-1708) who visited 'old Glauber in Amsterdam in 1668, and dutifully informed his father of the fact in his travel correspondence. [18]

Alchemist-physicians such as Paracelsus and Glauber paved the way for future advances in medicine in their experimentation with the properties of salt. The medical world first began using saline around 1831. Today saline solution, a mixture of sodium chloride in water, has several uses. Applied to an affected area its used to clean wounds and to treat dehydration from illnesses such as gastroenteritis and diabetic ketoacidosis, as well as to dilute medications given by injection. In alternative medicine the light which is emitted by crystal rock lamps is believed to have therapeutic benefits. Its also known today that an excessive consumption of salt in one's diet can be the cause of many serious medical conditions, including high blood pressure.

Its in Pseudodoxia Epidemica that clues to the true nature of Dr. Browne's 'ethereal salt' can be found. Adhering to the Paracelsian principle of the three primary substances of nature, namely sulphur, mercury and salt, Browne writes-

'For beside the fixed and terrestrious Salt, there is in natural bodies a Sal niter referring unto Sulphur; there is also a volatile or Armoniack Salt, retaining unto Mercury; by which Salts the colours of bodies are sensibly qualified, and receive degrees of lustre or obscurity, superficiality or profundity, fixation or volatility. [19]

Dr. Browne's 'ethereal Salt' may well allude to none other than medicinal smelling salts for Sal volitalis, the alchemist's name for ammonium chloride named here by Browne as  'Armoniack Salt', is the main component of smelling salts. Chaucer knew of sal ammoniac, and mentions it  along with sublimed mercury, vitriol, saltpetre,  arsenic and brimstone in his Canon Yeoman's Tale.

An early form of smelling salts or sal ammoniac was known as Salt of hartshorn (ammonium carbonate). Hartshorn salt, or simply hartshorn, also known as baker's ammonia was used in the seventeenth century as a forerunner of baking powder, but there can be little doubt that Browne’s interest in a Sal Volitalis, would be of a medical nature and not for baking.  One can be confident that Dr. Browne's 'ethereal salt' is smelling salt, for in his commonplace notebooks there can be found a number of notes on how to prepare harthorn, the active ingredient for the manufacture of Sal Volitalis.

'As is observable in gums, hartshorn...... Wherein it is presumable the water may also imbibe some part of the volatile salt.... in half a pint of jelly of hartshorn there is not above two drachms......Much hartshorn is therefore lost in the usual decoction of hartshorn in shavings and raspings, where the greater part is cast away.......The calcination of hartshorn by vapour of water is a neat invention, but whether much of the virtue be not impaired, while the vapour insinuating into the horn hath carried away the tenacious parts and made it butter' [20]

Smelling salts release ammonia gas, which triggers an inhalation reflex, irritating the mucous membranes of the nose and lungs, effectively rousing someone who has fainted or suffered a shock, back into consciousness. In an age of violent social change and Civil War, when news of fortunes and lives lost was frequent, there'd have been call for Dr. Browne to revive those who had fainted from bad news, during pregnancy or even from excessive blood-letting.

In alchemy Volatilis, the Latin word for flying, was how the alchemists described the vaporous fumes rising from their distillation vessel. In alchemical symbolism the fixed and the volatile are depicted as a pair of birds, one wingless, the other with wings, that is, one bird able to fly, the other grounded and 'fixed'. Keeping the contents of the Vessel (i.e. the mind)  'fixed' was one of the alchemist's great challenges, and often disaster struck during their 'chymical operations' and their endeavours came to nothing.

C.G. Jung recognised that the inner, psychic process within the alchemist and the outer, ongoing experimental process in the laboratory often cross-referenced and transformed each other; the 'volatile essence'  being preserved in the vessel, i.e. the psyche and its precious content of individuation was vulnerable to 'flying away' -

‘The volatile essence so carefully shut up and preserved in the Hermetic vessel of the unio mentalis could not be left to itself for a moment, because this elusive Mercurius would then escape and return to its former nature, as, according to the testimony of the alchemists, not infrequently happened’. [21]

Browne’s fixation upon the Quincunx in The Garden of Cyrus (1658) may be interpreted psychologically as none other than a symbol of wholeness, the Unio mentalis or United Mind of the alchemists. The Quincunx assumes a spiritual significance in The Garden of Cyrus as if Browne's personal mandala, the symbol being an agent through which he was permitted divine revelation, a glimpse into Nature's highest arcana, through Unio mentalis or United Mind, which Jung defines as the union of spirit, stating - 'The quinarius or Quinio (in the form of 4 + 1 i.e. Quincunx) does occur as as symbol of wholeness (in China and occasionally in alchemy) but relatively rarely'. Astoundingly Jung even states of the Quincunx pattern - 'This is a symbol of the quinta essentia, which is identical with the Philosopher's Stone'. [22]

'An Alchemist being tempted by Luxury' c. 1580

It's possible that Thomas Browne had someone specific in mind when conjuring his image of a volatile and 'ethereal salt'. The alchemist Sir Robert Paston, resident at Oxnead Hall, some dozen miles north of Norwich (not quite Browne’s neighbour geographically) wrote to him about his laboratory experiments in April 1669 -

Honoured Sir,
On Saturday night last, going into my laboratory, I found some of the adrop (that had been run four or five times in the open air, and every time its aetherial attracted spirits drawn from it) congealed to a hard candied substance......Upon about half a pound of this I cohabated some of its aetherial spirit, which it notwithstanding tinged red, and I am now drawing it again, for I think I had better have exposed it in its consistence to the open air again.....and by grinding, exposing, and distilling, it may at last go a white and spiss water, such an one as philosophers look after, or at least be fit to receive, and to be actuated with (....) and saline parts of the aetherial spirit, when that operation comes in hand if  it affords us any that way. [23]

And again in September 1674-

'I have little leisure and less convenience to try anything here, yet my own salt will set me on work, having now arrived to this that I can with four drachmes of it dissolve a drachme of leaf gold...  I am going to seal up two glasses, one of the menstruum with gold dissolved in it, and another of the menstruum per se, and to put them in an athanor, to see if they will putrefy, or what alteration will happen. I have at Oxnead  seen this salt change black as ink, I must, at the lowest, have an excellent aurum potable, and if the signs we are to judge in Sendivogius’ description be true, I have the key which answers to what he says, that if a man has that which will dissolve gold as warm water doth ice, you have that which gold was first made in the earth'. [24]

In his brilliant study on the 17th century painting known as The Paston Treasure Spike Bucklow notes-

'Paston was assisted in his laboratory by Thomas Henshaw (1618–1700) (who used the pen-name "Halophilus" meaning ‘salt-lover’). Together they  attempted to discover a formula for the fabled "red elixir", another name for the philosopher's stone, which alchemists believed could transmute base metals into gold'. [25]

‘So, Sir Robert's recipe for 'Manna' was playing with extraordinary potent cosmic forces. It all hinged upon a mysterious salt that mediated between the 'fixed' and the 'volatile'. Clues to the exact identity of that salt lay hidden in the maze and opinions varied. Brickenden gave Sir Robert details of 'a salt for infinite health and riches' that could be gathered from drops of dew gathered in May. But many, including Charles II's alchemist, thought the 'universal salt' was gunpowder's key ingredient - saltpetre. Sir Robert's recipe for making salt,  Spiritus salis, was evidently important because he wrote it in Latin. [26]

Like Robert Paston who suffered a  'whirlpool of misfortunes’, Browne in his old age may, for want of a better description be described as a ‘disappointed alchemist’ that is, one who devoted less time on alchemical experiment and more time in prayer and meditation. As Spike Bucklow perceptively puts it-

'Alchemy was not suddenly found to be ‘wrong’, but the Norwich science of Arthur Dee, Thomas Browne and Robert Paston was quietly sidelined by the London science of the Royal Society. The differences were mainly social and political. The Norwich practitioners read signs, like Polynesian canoeists, Yarmouth fishermen and Navy tars, the London practitioners started to use instruments and charts, like naval officers'. [27]

The Paracelsian neologism 'Spagyrici' inscribed on Browne’s coffin-plate supplies the true nature of Browne’s alchemy. As ever, Martin Ruland, a physician who served the esoteric-loving Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, assists our enquiry.  Ruland's Lexicon Alchemiae (1612)  includes definitions of -

SPAGIRIA - 'The Spagyric Art, is that which treats of the separation of the pure from the impure, so that after the refuse matter has been rejected, the virtue which remains can operate. It is the Art of Distilling and Separating'.

and of the moral character of the spagyrist  -

SPAGIRUS– 'Any man who can separate the true from the false, set the good apart from the bad, and the pure from the impure, rejecting duality and cleaving to unity'. [28]

Technically speaking, Browne was a spagyricist, that is, one who believed that the calcined essences of plants could be useful in medicine. Historically speaking, the spagyrics were active just before the iatrochemists, the true beginning of purely chemical medicine, as opposed to those searching for hidden 'quintessences'  extracted from the natural world.

Browne’s continental medical education acclimatised him towards Paracelsian medicine to a far greater degree than many of his British contemporaries. Some have suggested  he was unsympathetic to Paracelsian medicine, but the long list of books by continental Paracelsian physicians, an edition of the complete works of the Swiss physician listed in Browne’s library, the Paracelsian neologism 'Spagyrici’ inscribed upon his coffin-plate, and the many references to the Swiss physician in Browne’s writings, all suggest otherwise. Although often critical of mystical aspects of Paracelsian thought, Browne was a follower of Paracelsus, a highly-critical follower, but follower nonetheless.

An even closer analogy to Browne's science than Paracelsus, can be found in the ideas of the Belgian chemist, alchemist and physician Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580-1644). Van Helmont, like Browne, is a transitional figure in the history of science. Though Van Helmont was skeptical of specific mystical theories, dismissing much of Paracelsian mysticism, nevertheless he refused to discount magical forces as a valid explanation for some natural phenomena. Van Helmont, like Browne regarded all science and wisdom to be a gift from God. Browne's estimate of Van Helmont along with Paracelsus, can be seen in his stating in his late work Christian Morals -

'many would be content that some would write like Helmont or Paracelsus; and be willing to endure the monstrosity of some opinions, for divers singular notions requiting such aberrations'. [29]

Evidence of Browne's joining the ranks of 'disappointed alchemists' can be gleaned from his late writings. Because of its alleged Egyptian origins alchemy was sometimes known as ‘Cleopatra’s Art’ amongst many other names. Browne concludes The Garden of Cyrus in disappointment at ever being unable to achieve the alchemical feat of palingenesis, that is, the revivification of a plant from it ashes.

'And though in the bed of Cleopatra can hardly with any delight, raise up the ghost of a Rose'.

Its interesting to note that the funeral ashes of Urn-Burial are 'answered' by an abundance of flowers in bloom in The Garden of Cyrus. 

Committed throughout his life to the Christian faith, Browne endorsed Christianity above alchemy as a philosophy for developing one’s inner self, when, making allusion to alchemy as 'Vulcan’s Art' he states in his late work Christian Morals-

Vulcan’s Art doth nothing in this internal Militia: wherein not the Armour of Achilles,  but the Armature of St. Paul,  gives the Glorious day. [30]

Browne's real alchemy is in the word, in particular the sonority, rhythm and symbolism of his 1658 discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus with their plexiform relationship in polarity, truth and imagery. Together they are Browne's literary philosopher's stone, of which one critic perceptively notes -

'Mystical symbolism (of this kind) is woven throughout the texture of Browne's work and adds, often subconsciously, to its associative power of impact....there is nothing vague or wooly about Browne's mysticism,...Every symbol is interrelated with the overall pattern'. [31]

Although the diptych discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus (1658) appear as if two identical, white, crystalline substances, when empirically sampled they differ sharply; Urn-Burial  is discovered to be the bitter salt of Christian Stoicism, a sprinkling of which is essential for spiritual well-being in the face of disease, suffering, death and the grave. (Indeed, Salt is mentioned in Urn-Burial in Browne's description of adipocere, or grave wax, his solitary credited scientific discovery). In complete contrast, the 'light' half of the diptych The Garden of Cyrus is fructose sugar, with its excited rush of ideas, playfulness and sweet delight in nature. 

Today we may be skeptical of the scientific credentials and achievements of alchemists such as Paracelsus, Sir Thomas Browne or Sir Robert Paston and take their science cum granis salis, with a pinch of salt; nevertheless, their collective spirit of enquiry paved the way for future generations of scientists; we may therefore agree with Virginia Woolf -

'Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those who do are the salt of the earth’.

 Part 2 to follow - Of the Carbuncle and  the Bononian Stone.


[1] 'Ultimate oddity' from C.A. Patrides 'Approaches to Sir Thomas Browne': The Ann Arbor Tercentenary Lectures and Essays edited by C.A. Patrides  pub. University of Missouri 1982.

A manuscript of Musaeum Clausum was found amongst the papers of the Collector and Natural philosopher Walter Charleton (1619-1707). It may have been written for him for his delivering the Harveian Oration at the Royal College of Physicians in the late 1670's.

[2] See    Four 'Rarities in pictures' from Dr. Browne's Musaeum Clausum

[3] Religio Medici  Part 1:12
[4]  Haeffner : Dictionary of Alchemy Aquarian Press 1999
[5] C. G. Jung Collected Works vol. 12:219 and  vol 14: paragraph 200
[6] Religio Medici 1:46

[7] ‘The Salt of the Earth: Natural Philosophy, Medicine, and Chymistry in England, 1650-1750 (History of Science and Medicine Library) Anna Marie Roos Brill 2007

[8] Ruland Lexicon Alchemiae. Listed in Browne's library p.22 no. 119

[9] Ibid. Other books by Paracelsian physicians in Browne's library include Theodore Turquet de Mayerne (S.C. page 25 no. 98, page 51 no. 103,104) Joseph Duchesne (S.C. page 33 no. 8 page 34 no. 63) Alexander Suchten (S.C. page 51 no. 128) Petrus Severinus (S.C. page 18 no. 50 page 20 no. 23, 24, 25, 26) John French (S.C. page 51 no. 118) Johann Glauber (S.C. page 43 no. 10) and Gerard Dorn (S.C. page 25 no. 118)

[10]  C.W  12: 359
[11]  C.W  9 ii : 247
[12]  C.W  9 i : 575
[13]  C.W  14 : 324
[14] C.W 14: 330 C.G. Jung's Mysterium Coniunctionis : An Inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy (1955-56) includes his most detailed writings on salt., in particular Chapter 5  p.183 - 239

[15] C.W 9 ii: 143 Jung quoting Chrysippus Theatrum Chemicum vol. 1 listed in Sales Auction Catalogue page 25 no.124

[16] Kevin Killeen's highly recommended paperback edition, the Selected writings of Thomas Browne (21st-Century Oxford Authors OUP paperback  edition 2018) has a great introduction. Its index lists over 30 references to salt in Browne's writings.

Browne's experiments with salt and snow Bk. 2 chapter 1 Of Crystall.  Experiment with magnetism and salt water Bk. 2 ch.2 Concerning the Loadstone.
[17]  P.E. Book 4 chapter 10
[18] Johann Glauber De Salium Natura S.C. page 43 no. 8 Amsterdam 1658 Keynes Selected correspondence letter no. 22  dated 22nd September 1668
[19]  P.E. Book 4 chapter 10
[20] Wilkins  1835 edition Commonplace notebook
[21]  C.W14:742
[22] C.W.  18: 1602 and C.W. 10:738 (in 'Flying Saucers a Modern Myth')
[23]  Wilkins 1835 edition
[24] Ibid

[25] The Anatomy of Riches:Sir Robert Paston's Treasure Spike Bucklow Reaktion Books 2018. Highly recommended.

[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28]  Martin Ruland's Lexicon Alchemiae  (1612) Sales Catalogue p. 22 no 119
[29] Christian Morals  Part 2:5
[30]  Christian Morals Part 1:24
[31] Peter Green  Sir Thomas Browne Writers and their work no. 108 Longmans, Green and Co. 1959

See also

Paracelsus and Browne

Carl Jung and Sir Thomas Browne

Notes on Pictures

*  Photo:  A Salt Crystal magnified
*  Alchemical symbols for Sulphur, Salt and Mercury.
*  Painting: -  'The unconscious Patient'.
Rembrandt's early oil painting, is one of a set of five depicting the senses completed c. 1624 or 1625. They are  among his earliest surviving works, and are identical in size. The Sense of Smell shows a physician reviving a swooning woman by placing a handkerchief soaked in a volatile salt under her nose, in order to rouse her into consciousness. It was reidentified in 2015. The whereabouts of the painting representing the sense of taste remains unknown.

*  Painting: 'An Alchemist  being tempted by Luxuria'  anon. circa 1580
* Photo - Alchemical flower Stand with four tubes and glowing flower of fern.       Dina Belenko Photography