Saturday, November 07, 2020

William Taylor of Norwich - 'Kräftig, aber klappernd'.

Born in Norwich, William Taylor (7 November 1765 - 5 March 1836) was an essayist, scholar and translator of German Romantic literature. Along with Coleridge and Thomas De Quincey he was also a leading mediator in Anglo-German literary relations. Indeed, it was because of Taylor's early advocacy of German literature that the influential Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (Universal Literary Newspaper) could declare in 1796 -

'Incidentally, German literature has the greatest number of followers in Norwich, for understandable commercial reasons.' [1] 

In his lifetime Taylor was widely read. Importantly,  his translations of German poetry  bridged German Romanticism to English Romanticism. Taylor's translations influenced the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth to produce Lyrical Ballads (1798), a vanguard  literary work of Romanticism which, with its inclusion of Coleridge's long poem The rime of  the Ancient Mariner, changed the course of English poetry. 

More recently, Taylor's name and contribution to English appreciation of German literature is featured in Peter Watson's tour-de-force survey of German science and culture, The German Genius (2010) [2]

William Taylor's diverse  interests included - philology, etymology, chronology, topography, history sacred and profane, ancient and modern, political economy,  statistics, international law, municipal law, Talmudic legend, Muslim ethics, Biblical texts, churches and sects, parliamentary reform, slave trade and almost every category of modern European literature.  Among the thousands of reviews and essays which he wrote are those with titles such as, 'The Jews in England', 'Songs of the Negroes of Madagascar', 'Historic doubts concerning Joan of Arc', 'On the Sublime and Beautiful', an 'Ode in Praise of Tea' and, 'Of the Use of Ice as a Luxury'.

As the only child of a wealthy merchant who traded and exported Norwich goods to continental Europe, Taylor was fortunate in his education. He was taught by the English poet, essayist, literary critic, editor, and author of children's literature, Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743 - 1825) at her Palgrave Academy in Suffolk. 

Barbauld informed her former pupil of her reading aloud a poem translated by him at an Edinburgh literary soiree and of the reception it received -  

'Are you aware that you made Walter Scott a poet ? So he told me the other day I had the gratification of meeting him. It was, he says, your ballad of Leonora, and particularly the lines-

'Tramp, tramp across the land they speed: Splash, splash, across the sea'. [3]

Later, Taylor lauded Barbauld as, 'the mother of his mind'. Barbauld's own career as a poet ended abruptly in 1812, with the publication of her Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, in which she severely criticized Britain's participation in the Napoleonic Wars. Shocked by the vicious reviews it received, she published nothing more. 

Anna Barbauld can been in a group of three Muses, standing beside an easel with arm raised, in Richard Samuels' painting Nine Living Muses of Great Britain (1779). 

Devoted to his mother, Taylor never married, but did have a friendship unto the death, begun during  his schooldays when  meeting the serious-minded theologian and antiquarian Frank Sayers (1763-1817) at Barbauld's Palgrave Academy. A portrait of Sayers painted by John Opie dated 1800, hung for many years in William Taylor's library, and in all probability both men were homosexual. [2] 

For many years Taylor's daily routine consisted of rising early and studying until noon, swimming in the River Wensum from a bath house upstream from the city, followed by a long walk in the afternoon. In the evening he liked to drink (heavily) and discuss linguistics, literature and philosophy in society. 

In May 1790 Taylor visited France; arriving at Paris he declared himself to have ‘kissed the earth on the land of liberty.’ He spent nine days at the National Assembly, listening to its speakers debate upon the governance of the new, revolutionary France. The fever of the times are characteristically described by him thus-

'I am at length in that point of space where the mighty sea of truth is in constant agitation and every billow dashes into fragments some deep-rooted rock of prejudice or buries in a viewless gulph some institution of gothic barbarism and superstition. I am at length in the neighbourhood of the National Assembly, that well-head of philosophical legislation whose pure streams are now overflowing the fairest country on earth, and will soon be sluiced off into the other realms of Europe, fertilising all with the living energy of its waters.' [4]

Upon his return to Norwich Taylor translated some of the decrees of the National Assembly and read them at a meeting of the Revolutionary Society (which was named after the 1688 British revolution, not the recent French revolution). 

In 1802, during the Peace of Amiens, Taylor embarked on another tour of Europe, visiting France, Italy and Germany, partly on business for his father. In Paris he met the Norfolk-born political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary, Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man (1791) 

In 1792, while visiting the Norfolk market-town of Alysham, the English satirical novelist and playwright Frances Burney, (1752-1840) noted of Norwich's political life -

'I am truly amazed to find this country filled with little revolution societies which transmit their notions to the larger committee at Norwich which communicates the whole to the reformists in London. I am told there is scarce a village in Norfolk free from these meetings'. [5] 

It was the British Prime Minister Pitt the Younger who called Norwich the Jacobin city after the clandestine French political movement which agitated for improved worker's rights and conditions. The historian E.P. Thompson in his groundbreaking work The Making of the English Working Classes sets the scene for the radical politics of late 18th century Norwich.  

Norwich, an ancient stronghold of Dissent, with an abundance of small masters and artisans with strong traditions of independence, many have even surpassed Sheffield as the leading provincial centre of Jacobinism......... In August 1792, when the Norwich Revolution Society sponsored a cheap edition of Rights Of Man, it claimed to have forty-eight associated clubs. By October it claimed that the 'associated brethren' were not fewer than 2,000.

But Norwich, was, in other respects, by far the most impressive provincial city. Nineteen divisions of the Patriotic Society were active in September, and, in addition to the weavers, cordswainers, artisans, and shopkeepers who made up the society, it still carried the cautious support of the patrician merchant families, the Gurneys and the Taylors. Moreover, Norwich owned a gifted group of professional people, who published throughout 1795 a periodical - The Cabinet - which was perhaps the most impressive of the quasi-Jacobin intellectual publications of the period. Its articles ranged from close analysis of European affairs and the conduct of the a war, through poetic effusions, to disquisitions upon Machiavelli, Rousseau, the Rights of Women and Godwinian Socialism. Despite the many different degrees of emphasis, Norwich displayed a most remarkable consensus of anti-Ministerial feeling, from the Baptist chapels to the aspiring philosophes of The Cabinet from the 'Weavers Arms' (the headquarters of the patriotic Society) to the House of Gurney, from the Foxite Coke of Holkham to the labourers in the villages near the city. The organisation extended from Norwich to Yarmouth, Lynn, Wisbech and Lowestoft. [6]

Throughout his life William Taylor was a Unitarian, attending the newly-built Octagon chapel which was completed in 1756 in the Neo-Palladian style by architect Thomas Ivory (above). Classified  as  'liberal'  in the family of churches, Unitarians place emphasis on reason when interpreting scripture. Freedom of conscience and the pulpit are core values of its tradition. Unitarianism is also known for rejecting several orthodox Christian doctrines, including original sin, predestination, and the infallibility of the Bible. The Unitarian's tolerant creed catered well for the liberal beliefs of several leading Norwich citizens including William Taylor from the year of the Octagon Chapel's completion in 1756 to the present day. [7]

In Taylor's day, the late 18th and early 19th century, the Octagon congregation included most of Norwich's principal Whig families - the William Taylors and John Taylors (unrelated one to the other, the Marsh family (the carriers), several leading medical families, the Aldersons, Dalrymples and Martineaus, beside Alderman Elias Norgate, the Alderman John Green Basely, the Bolingbrokes, some of the Barnards and J.E. Smith the botanist.  [8]

Taylor's great literary protégé without doubt was George Borrow (1803-1881) who lived at Willow Lane while attending Norwich Grammar School during his teenage years. In many ways Norwich's connection to the Romantic movement is embodied in  George Borrow who was of a dashing, Byronic-like appearance, of athletic build, over 6 feet tall with a shock of white, not blonde, hair.  A pugilist with a fiery temper, holding strong opinions including being a fervent anti-Papist, he was  keen to study the culture and language of the Romany people who he first encountered on Mousehold Heath. As a young man Borrow roamed the length and breadth of Britain as a tinker, while also studying the Romany language and its culture. 

Its in Borrow's Lavengro: The Scholar, the Gypsy, the Priest (1851) a literary work which hovers somewhere between the genres of memoir and novel, and which has long been considered a classic of 19th-century English literature, that a conversation between an old man and a young man is recollected. Taylor speaks first,- 

‘Suicide is not a national habit in Germany as it is in England.’

‘But that poor creature, Werther, who committed suicide, was a German.’

'Werther is a fictitious character, and by no means a felicitous one; I am no admirer either of Werther or his author.  But I should say that, if there ever was a Werther in Germany, he did not smoke.  Werther, as you very justly observe, was a poor creature. He is a fool who breaks his heart on any account; but it is good to be a German, the Germans are the most philosophic people in the world, and the greatest smokers: now I trace their philosophy to their smoking......[9] 

In the sequel to Lavengro, the equally unclassifiable The Romany Rye, (1857) Borrow refers to his mentor as -  

'a real character, the founder of the Anglo-German school in England, and the cleverest Englishman who ever talked or wrote encomiastic nonsense about Germany and the Germans'. [10] 

With Taylor's encouragement, George Borrow embarked on his first translation, Klinger's version of the Faust legend, entitled Faustus, his Life, Death and Descent into Hell which was first published in St Petersburg in 1791. Borrow, in his translation however, changed the name of one city, making one passage read:

'They found the people of the place modeled after so unsightly a pattern, with such ugly figures and flat features that the devil owned he had never seen them equaled, except by the inhabitants of an English town, called Norwich, when dressed in their Sunday's best'.

For his ridiculing of Norwich society, the Norwich public subscription library burned Borrow's first publication. The ultimate harsh review.

Above - The artist Alfred Munnings' depiction of George Borrow with his gypsy companion Jasper Petulengro  at the summit of St. James Hill with its panoramic view of Norwich. Petulengro says - 'There's a wind on the heath brother, who would wish to die?'

Taylor made his name translating Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise, the themes and subject-matter of Lessing's drama greatly appealing to his radical and progressive convictions.

Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Lessing (1729-81) is set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade. It describes how the wise Jewish merchant Nathan, the enlightened sultan Saladin, and a Templar knight resolve the misunderstandings between Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Its major themes are friendship, tolerance, relativism of God, a rejection of miracles and a need for communication. Primarily an appeal for religious tolerance, its performance was banned by the church, and was not performed until 1783, after Lessing's death. 

Far more problematic is the relationship between the German giant of literature,  Johann Goethe (1749-1832) to Taylor. Henry Crabb Robinson, who was a classmate of Taylor's at Barbauld's Academy, informed Goethe in 1829, 'Taylor’s Iphigenia in Tauris, as it was the first, so it remains the best, version of any of your larger poems'. 

Taylor sent his translation to Goethe in Weimar; but he never heard whether the poet received it, and for this perceived snub he became hostile in his judgement of Goethe in his last years. A statement in Goethe's Tages und Jahreshefte suggests the fault and negligence lay with Goethe himself, for he stated-  'A translation of the Iphigenia appeared in England; Unger reprinted it, but I retained neither the original nor the copy'.
But in fact, not only is the original edition and Unger’s reprint recorded as once in Goethe's library, but also Taylor’s Historic Survey of German Poetry, which includes the complete Iphigenia in its third volume. 

Goethe also wrote about Taylor erroneously, and of his monumental work he rather dismissively stated, on 20 August 1831 to Carl Friedrich Zelter -

“I received 'A Survey of German Poetry’ from England, written by W. Taylor, who studied 40 years ago in Göttingen, and who lets loose the teachings, opinions, and phrases that already vexed me 60 years ago.”

But in fact Taylor never studied at Gottingen.  Worse harsh criticism was to come for Taylor in 1831 when Thomas Carlyle published a review of hisHistoric Survey of German Literature. Carlyle's scathing review  seriously damaged Taylor’s literary reputation to the present-day and his hostility and intolerance towards Taylor is also evident in Sartor Resartus (1836) with its pun-like Latin title of 'The tailor retailored'. There may even be intentional word-play upon the proper name of Taylor and the lowly occupation of tailor in its title. Carlyle's novel also includes sharp and critical remarks upon Taylor's creed, that of Utilitarianism, as well as repeated mocking of the excesses of German philosophy and idealism. 

During Norwich's 'Golden Age' in literary and artistic life (circa 1760-1832), William Taylor became acquainted with several of the Norwich School Painters and gave lectures to the Norwich Philosophical Society on art. In a lecture of 1814 he advocated architecture and Urban settings to be higher artistic subjects than those of rural life. His comment may well have been directed towards leading artist of the Norwich movement, John Crome (1768-1821) who produced a number of urban Norwich riverscapes, some of which are set almost on his doorstep, including  Back of New Mills (below) dated circa 1814 -17. 

There's the distinct possibility that Taylor's  influence upon the aesthetics of theNorwich School of Painters may be far greater than hitherto  has been acknowledged. 

One genre of literature which Taylor shared an interest with Anna Barbauld and the poet Southey, was children's literature, in particular, the fairy-tale. Southey is credited as being the author of the original version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in 1837, a year after Taylor's death, while Taylor himself wrote a version of Bluebeard and Cinderella.

William Taylor's friendship with Robert Southey (above, circa 1795) began in 1798 when Southey visited Norwich as Taylor's guest; the poet revisited him at Norwich in February 1802. In correspondence to Taylor, Southey asks him-

'Can you not visit Creswick next summer ? Coleridge will talk German with you; he is desirous of knowing you; and he is a sufficient wonder of nature to repay the journey'.  [11]

'I wish you could mountaineer it with us for a few weeks, and I would press the point if Coleridge also were here: but even without him we could make your time pass pleasantly; and here is Wordsworth to be seen, one of the wildest of all wild beasts, who is very desirous of seeing you'. [12]

Its testimony to their long friendship that the poet Southey (1774 -1843) who was Poet Laureate from 1813 until his death thirty years later, (Walter Scott having declined the post) could criticize Taylor's literary style yet their friendship remain intact, after writing to him, firstly-

' you too often (like your admirable old townsman Sir Thomas Browne) go to your Greek and Latin for words when plain English might serve as well'.

Perhaps influenced by his German reading, Taylor was fond of introducing newly coined words, most of which were as incomprehensible to the average reader as his ideas. The editors of the periodicals to which he contributed objected about his neologisms, his friends pleaded with him to abandon the habit. Sir James Mackintosh however, remarked of Taylor's idiosyncratic style, 'He does not speak any language but the Taylorian; but I am so fond of his vigour and originality that... I have studied and learned his language'. [13] 

Southey persisted in his pleas-

'How are plain Norfolk farmers - and such will read the Iris - to understand words which they never heard before, and which are so foreign as not to be even in Johnson's farrago of a dictionary ? I have read Cowper's Odyssey and to cure my poetry of its wheyishness; let me prescribe the Vulgar Errors of Sir Thomas Browne to you for a likely remedy.'  [14] 

Ignoring Southey's advice, the poet now severely admonished the Norwich scholar-  

'Now I will say what for a long while what I have thought. That you have ruined your style by Germanisms, Latinisms and Greekisms, that you are sick of a surfeit of knowledge, that your learning breaks out like scabs and blotches upon a beautiful face.......Wordsworth, who admires and reverences the intellectual power and the knowledge which you everywhere and always display, and who wishes to see you here [in the Lake District] as much as I do, frets over your barbarisms of language, which I labour to excuse, because there is no cure for them.' [15]

Taylor defended his literary style thus-

'Were I reviewing my own reviewals, I should say, This man's style has an ambitious singularity which like chewing ginseng, which displeases at first and attaches at last'.

'And yet my theory of good writing is, to condense everything into a nutshell: I grow and clip with rival rage, and produce a sort of yew-hedge, tangled with luxuriance and sheared with spruceness. The desire of being neat precludes ease, of being strong precludes grace, of being armed at points than being impervious at any'. [16]

Southey repeatedly invited Taylor to stay with him, along with Coleridge and Wordsworth at the Lake district, but Taylor repeatedly declined.  It may in fact have been far livelier at the Creswick cottage in the Lake District than Taylor could imagine. Government spies were sent to watch the comings and goings of the poet's residence, for Wordsworth and Coleridge were both known to the authorities for their radical political views, while in 1799 Coleridge and Southey were involved with early experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) supervised by the scientist Humphrey Davy.  

Taylor's aesthetic preference of the urban over the rural is trenchantly expressed in correspondence with Southey thus - 

'How can you delight in mountain scenery ? The eye walks on broken flints; not a hill tolerant of the plough, not a stream that will float a canoe; in the roads every ascent is the toil of Sisyphus, every descent the punishment of Vulcan: barrenness with her lichens cowers on the mountain-top, yawning among mists that irrigate in vain; the cottage of a man, like the aerie of an eagle, is the home of a savage subsisting by rapacity in stink and intemperance: the village is but a coalition of pig-sties; where there might be pasture, glares a lake; the very cataract falls in vain,- there are not customers enough for a water-mill. Give me the spot where victories have been won over the inutilities of nature by the effort of human art, - where mind has moved the massy, everlasting rock, and arrayed into convenient dwellings and stately palaces, into theatres and cathedrals, and quays and docks and warehouses, wherein the primeval troglodyte has learned to convoke the productions of the antipodes'. [17]

To which the poet Robert Southey parried -

'You undervalue lakes and mountains; they make me happier and wiser and better, and enable me to think and feel with a quicker and healthier intellect. Cities are as poisonous to genius and virtue in their best sense, as to the flower of the valley or the oak of the forest. Men of talent may and will be gregarious, men of genius will not; handicraft-men work together, but discoveries must be the work of individuals. Neither are men to be studied in cities, except indeed, as students walk into hospitals, you go to see all the modifications of the disease'. [18]

In his lifetime William Taylor (above) attracted considerable hostility for his radical religious and political views.  Nicknamed  'godless Billy' by fellow Octagon Chapel member, Harriet Martineau (1802-76) who petulantly reminisced of him:

'his habits of intemperance kept him out of the sight of ladies, and he got round him a set of ignorant and conceited young men, who thought they could set the whole world right by their destructive propensities'.  [19]

Taylor was not without a stochastic ability either. As early as 1804 he made the suggestion that ships could be powered with steam before the world’s first commercial steamboat, the North River Steamboat, began operating out of New York in 1807. In 1824 he introduced the idea of cutting through the isthmus of Panama when the first attempt to construct a canal through what was then a  province of Colombia at Panama, did not begin until 1881. [20] 

Both Taylor's life and writings offer a few cautionary lessons to writers, especially those not living at the hub and centre of either conventional society or London, the literary capital of England. Just as Taylor's contemporaries, the various painters associated with the 'Norwich School' discovered, Norwich, with its rural hinterland  of Norfolk and its North Sea coast-line was inspirational for creating art, but its patronage was thin. Art sales and advancement were facilitated far easier in London than Norwich. Likewise, the damage inflicted from a single malignant review can unjustly ruin a writer's reputation, sometimes long after their death.  One possible reason for unjust and critical hostility against Taylor would be prejudice against his sexual orientation.  At one time Taylor considered a vacancy at the British Museum, but it was taken before he applied. One suspects that he loved the familiar charms of Norwich far too much to ever leave the 'Do different' City.  There's more than a hint of humorous self deprecation in his stating- 

'Contented mediocrity is always the ultimate destiny of us provincials'.

But, as his words quoted here hopefully demonstrate, William Taylor was a highly expressive writer, a Vulcan-like wordsmith who wrote thousands of literary reviews and articles on an extraordinary range of topics in his lifetime.

In the late nineteenth century the German literary critic George Herzfelde considered Taylor's translation of Iphigenie auf Tauris to be 'Kräftig, aber klappernd' ('Powerful but Clattering') [21]. Herzfelde's pithy observation seems apt of much of Taylor's idiosyncratic writings and translations.

A single sentence suffices to highlight Taylor's Classical learning, aesthetic sensibility and subtle wit -

'Those who can die of a rose in aromatic pain have not grief in reserve for Medea's last embrace of her children'.


* William Taylor of Norwich: A Study of the Influence of Modern German Literature in England (1897) by Georg Herzfeld 

* C.B. Jewson -The Jacobin City 1975 Highly Recommended

* The Making of the English Working Class - E.P. Thompson 1963 reprinted in 1980 Pelican

*John Warden Robberds A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich (1843).
*Review from The Quarterly (1843-44).


[1] In the original - Uebrigens hat die deutsche Literatur aus sehr begreiflichen mercantilischen Gründen die zahlreichsten Anhänger in Norwich'.  

[2] Peter Watson -  The German Genius (2010) pub.Simon and Shuster page 314

[3] Chandler, David "Taylor, William" in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) speculates upon Taylor's sexuality. 

[4] John Warden Robberds - A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich (1843).

[5] The Making of the English Working Class - E.P. Thompson 1963 reprinted in 1980 Pelican

[6] C.B. Jewson -The Jacobin City 1975

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Appendix III Romany Rye

[11] Robberds

[12] - [18] Ibid.

[19] The Life of George Borrow by Herbert Jenkins

[20] Perhaps from his reading Sir Thomas Browne's speculation that - 'some Isthmus have been eat through by the Sea, and others cut by the spade: And if policy would permit, that of Panama in America were most worthy the attempt: it being but few miles over, and would open a shorter cut unto the East Indies and China'.

[21] William Taylor of Norwich: A Study of the Influence of Modern German Literature in England by Georg Herzfeld (1897)

Monday, October 19, 2020

Lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing.

Although long recognized as a work of World literature, for many Urn-Burial (1658) is neither easy or comfortable to read. With its melancholic meditations on the uncertainty of life, the unknowingness of the human condition, the fragility of  our mortality and  the certainty of death, all couched in splendid flourishes of Baroque oratory, Thomas Browne's philosophical discourse will never be everyone's favourite bedtime reading. 

In addition to its ornate literary style and to modern sensibilities near taboo subject-matter, another stumbling block hindering appreciation of Urn-Burial is that it frequently shifts focus, giving expression to quite different facets of its author. This results in surprising changes of perspective, alternating from the viewpoint of pioneering scholar of comparative religion to that of local historian, to scientist and archaeologist, to antiquarian and Christian moralist, often without any warning to the reader, other than beginning a new paragraph.

In modern times Urn-Burial  has been recognized as closely corresponding to the Nigredo of alchemy. The black despair and melancholy experienced by the adept beginning their quest is encapsulated in  Browne's succinct phrase lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing an expression apt for the suffering of millions world-wide today, anxious about income and future, grieving, ill or depressed in the wake of the current pandemic.

Thomas Browne began his medical career in Norwich in 1637, just a few years before English society was sufficiently polarized to engage in Civil war (1642-49) resulting in an estimated 100,000 deaths. Never one for political controversy, Browne occupied himself with establishing his medical practice in Norwich and in 'snatches of time, medical vacations' with compiling and revising his encyclopedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646),  first published during the English Civil war. 

The very title of Browne's colossal endeavour depicts superstition and erroneous beliefs as if a disease.(Lt. Pseudo false, Doxia Truth, Epidemica widespread occurrence of an infectious disease). The prescription for curing such epidemics of 'vulgar errors' for Browne is the combined medicine of -consultation of the Classical authors of antiquity, empirical experiment, inductive reasoning and collaborative debate with contemporaries. Often engaging in all of these methods in order to ascertain truth, Browne is credited as one of the first to introduce up-to-date scientific journalism to the English reading public as well as examples of scientific hypothesis in the pages of Pseudodoxia Epidemica.

It's in a chapter of Pseudodoxia Epidemica which discusses whether the mythic creature known as  the Basilisk is capable of emitting deadly rays from its eyes that Browne engages in a medical speculation of great importance to our times-

'if Plagues or pestilential Atoms have been conveyed in the Air from distant Regions, if men at a distance have infected each other,........there may proceed from subtler seeds, more agile emanations, which contemn those Laws, and invade at distance unexpected'. [2] 

As a doctor Thomas Browne (1605-82) naturally took an interest in disease. Along with his interest in ancient Greek medicine, primarily the writings of Hippocrates. He also took an interest in ancient Greek mythology. In his medical essay A Letter to a Friend (circa 1656) Browne alludes to the Greek myth of the origin of disease, Pandora and her Box. The Greek myth recounts how Pandora was given the gift of a sealed jar which held within it all the misfortunes for humanity. Her great curiosity overcame her fear of what the jar contained and breaking its seal she released disease, sorrow, conflict and war with only hope remaining inside the jar. The name Pandora means 'All Gifts' both good and bad gifts being bestowed upon Humanity. 

Its whilst alluding to the Greek myth of Pandora and theorizing upon the origin of disease in his A Letter to a Friend that Browne introduces the word 'Pathology' into the English language.

'New Discoveries of the Earth discover new Diseases: for besides the common swarm, there are endemial and local Infirmities proper unto certain Regions, which in the whole Earth make no small number: and if Asia, Africa, and America should bring in their List, Pandora's Box would swell, and there must be a strange Pathology'.

Whether Browne, during his travels in Continental Europe from 1629-32 attending the Universities of Padua in Italy, Montpelier in France and Leiden in Holland, upon hearing of an outbreak of the plague in Milan, steered well clear of visiting the Italian city, or, alternatively, viewed the column erected in Milan informing of the crime and punishment of those believed to have started the outbreak, is not known. However, the Milan plague was still in Browne's memory in his old age, its mentioned in his bizarre inventory of lost, rumoured and imaginary books, paintings and objects known as Museum Clausum (c. 1675) in the sinister fantasy item of -

* Pyxis Pandoræ, or a Box which held the Unguentum Pestiferum, which by anointing the Garments of several persons begat the great and horrible Plague of Milan. [3]

As a Royalist Browne must have been under intense psychological distress during the years of the Protectorate of Cromwell (1650-59) and his Urn-Burial has been described as a threnody to the waste of human life during the English civil war. Prompted by the accidental unearthing of several burial urns in a Norfolk field just as its secondary title A Discourse upon the supulchrall urnes lately found in Norfolk, informs, Urn-Burial opens with dazzling literary showmanship  naming the main themes of the discourse, notably Time and Memory, Death and the after-life. 

In his scientific, spiritual and mystical analysis of death and the after-life, Browne first surveys the burial rites and customs of various nations throughout history. His early comparative religion skills references the Chinese, Persian, Roman, Greek and Egyptian civilizations, the Moslem, Hindi and Judaic religions, as well as making one of the very earliest references to the Zoroastrian religion in Western literature. 

Like his near contemporary, Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Browne recognized the syncretic nature of religious symbols, but just like Kircher, he was often misguided in his comparative religion studies.

The unknowingness of the human condition is illustrated in striking medical imagery thus- 

'A Dialogue between two Infants in the womb concerning the state of this world, might handsomely illustrate our ignorance of the next, whereof methinks we yet discourse in Plato's den, and are but Embryon Philosophers'.

Closely related to Browne's medical imagery, there is also what might be termed opiate imagery in Urn-Burial. Widely in use since the sixteenth century, the Swiss alchemist-physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) was among the earliest advocates of opium. Such was its widespread usage in the seventeenth century that the so-called 'Father of English medicine' Dr. Thomas Sydenham (1624-89) whose books are well-represented in Browne’s library,  once declared- 

'Among the remedies which has pleased the Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.'

Observations upon dosage and effects of opium can be found in Browne's commonplace notebooks whilst  knowledge of its recreational usage with sex can be found in Pseudodoxia Epidemica 

'since Opium it self is conceived to extimulate unto venery, and the intent and effect of eating Opium, is not so much to invigorate themselves in coition, as to prolong the Act, and spin out the motions of carnality'. [4]

In Urn-Burial the poppy flower, Opium and Oblivion are invariably interconnected. 'But the iniquity of Oblivion blindly shaketh her poppy' for example. In a heady fusion of philosophical stoicism, medical imagery and empirical observation, Browne declares of the human condition and also perhaps of the psychological effects of opium -

'There is no antidote against the Opium of Time, which temporally considereth all things.'

Its  been proposed that one reason why the prose of Urn-Burial  and its twin The Garden of Cyrus, in particular the transcendent prose of the fifth and last chapter of each Discourse is unlike any other seventeenth century English literature, may have been from Browne writing under the influence of opium. As a physician Browne was licenced to obtain Opium, the only available painkiller available in his day. During the decade of the Protectorate of Cromwell (1650-59) and the highly uncertain days which it engendered, it may have been very tempting for Royalist supporters, particularly those of an empirical nature such as Browne, to reach into the medicine cabinet.

Urn-Burial also features a short, but detailed description of Browne's single, credited scientific discovery, the formation of the waxy substance which coagulates upon the body fat of a corpse, named as adipocere. 

'In a Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castile-soap: whereof part remaineth with us'.

Burial, putrefaction and interment are all synonymous with the Nigredo stage of alchemy defined by C.G. Jung thus - 

'the original half animal state of unconsciousness was known to the adept as the Nigredo, chaos, confused mass, as inextricable interweaving of the soul with the body'. [5] 

 According to Jung-

'the nigredo not only brought decay, suffering, death, and the torments of hell visibly before the eyes of the alchemist, it also cast the shadow of melancholy over his solitary soul. In the blackness of his despair he experienced.. grotesque images which reflect the conflict of opposites into which the researcher's curiosity had led him. His work began with a katabasis, a journey to the underworld as Dante also experienced it'. [6] 

Urn-Burial alludes to several Soul journeys of classical literature including Homer's Odyssey in which the wily hero Ulysses descends into the Underworld, Macrobius's commentary on the planetary Soul journey Scipio's Dream and the Greek philosopher Plato's myth of Er, as well as Dante's Inferno. The religious mystic in Browne knew that each one of us from birth, conscious or not of the fact, embarks upon a soul-journey with Death as a final port of call.

The Swiss psychologist C.G.Jung (1875-1961) freed modern-day scholarship from many of the prejudices and misunderstandings which have hindered study of western esoteric traditions. Today, the thematic concerns of Urn-Burial can confidently be identified as matching the nigredo of alchemy and may even be the template upon which Browne modeled his discourse upon. Urn-Burial's counterpart, The Garden of Cyrus reinforces this interpretation for its opening pages muse upon paradise, a frequent symbol of the albedo or whitening in the alchemical opus succeeding the Nigredo.

C.G. Jung  states- 'As we all know, science began with the stars, and mankind discovered in them the dominants of the unconscious, the "gods," as well as the curious psychological qualities of the zodiac: a complete projected theory of human character'.  [7]   

As the most remote planet known to the ancients, Saturn was believed to be a cold, heavy planet, qualities which were confirmed millennia later by modern science. In the western esoteric traditions of alchemy and astrology, Saturn is associated with restriction, contraction, limitation and melancholy. As the ruler of isolation and quarantine, Saturn is the god of lock-down par excellence.  'Old Father Time' depicted with his scythe as the Grim Reaper is a variant upon symbolism associated with Saturn.

Originally an Italian agricultural god, other implements associated with Saturn include the pruning-hook,  spade and the hour-glass, as well as the oar for its slow, regular strokes which, like the ticking of a clock,  propel a boat through time.

Positive aspects of Saturn's symbolic attributes include the highest insight of the scholar, spiritual revelation and the crystallization of ideas. 
Interest and knowledge of astrology and alchemy along with planetary symbolism advanced considerably during the Renaissance. Browne's era, the seventeenth century is considered to be the Golden Age of alchemy, its long decline beginning at the century's close. 

In his spiritual testament Religio Medici (1643) Thomas Browne candidly confesses-

‘If there be any truth in Astrology, I may outlive a Jubilee, as yet I have not seen one revolution of Saturn, nor hath my pulse beat thirty years’. [8]

Like many thinkers and artists during the Renaissance, Thomas Browne was able to identify with the psychological aspects of planetary symbolism, stating in Religio Medici - 

'I was born in the planetary hour of Saturn and I think I have a piece of that leaden planet in me'. [9] 

Although often associated with melancholy, Saturn like Mercury, was also associated with transformation, and the two alchemical 'gods' are frequently linked together in western esoteric tradition literature and iconography. Because of its powers of transformation Saturn was also considered by alchemist and hermetic philosopher alike, to be a touchstone of the alchemical art as much as Mercury or Hermes, the more commonly associated 'deity' of alchemy. Hermetic themes preoccupy much of Urn-Burial's counterpart, The Garden of Cyrus, a literary work which is replete with planetary symbolism. 

Its interesting to note in passing that Browne's Saturnine characteristics seem to have appealed to the German author, translator and UEA academic, W. G Sebald (1944-2001). Meditations about Browne and his prose weave throughout W.G. Sebald's much admired hybrid work The Rings of Saturn (1995 English translation 1998).

The woodcut reproduced in the Theatrum Chemicum (above) is a symbolic illustration of the Nigredo of alchemy. The adept, seen encased within a bubble has the two great luminaries, the Sun and Moon, along with the five planets above him. He is depicted as under the influence of the black star, Saturn. A raven, of the Corvid family of birds, alights upon his stomach while two angels keep watch over him. 

Consisting of five folio volumes the Theatrum Chemicum (1613) was the most comprehensive anthology of alchemical writings in the seventeenth century and the handbook of many a would-be hermetic philosopher. Both C.G. Jung and Thomas Browne owned an edition of the Theatrum Chemicum. Isaac Newton filled the margins of his copy with annotations. [10]

The woodcut illustration of the Nigredo was copied and reproduced in countless editions of alchemy until the 18th century. It must have fascinated C.G.Jung for he reproduced it in his collected works twice. Highly apt as lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing, it wouldn't have been totally out of place as a frontispiece for Urn-Burial.  

The first volume of the Theatrum Chemicum  (Theatre of Chemistry) features over 400 pages of writings by the Belgian physician Gerhard Dorn (c. 1530 - c. 1584). The foremost promoter of Paracelsian alchemy, Dorn devised his own planetary symbolism in order to express his psychological insights, including that of an  'invisible sun'. We can be confident that Browne read the Theatrum Chemicum closely, he appropriated Dorn's planetary symbolism of an 'invisible Sun' for his own purposes, featuring it at the apotheosis of Urn-Burial as the mysterious life-force we each possess. In a high flourish of Baroque oratory Browne declaims- 

'But man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnizing Nativities and Deaths with equal lustre, nor omitting Ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature. Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us'....

A major theme of Urn-Burial is the futility of the endeavour to be remembered after death, especially through funerary monuments, including the earliest and most spectacular, the pyramids of ancient Egypt. Thomas Browne did not need to look far from his doorstep for ostentatious displays of vain-glory or 'pompous in the grave' monuments. 

Though little known, the city of Norwich is home to one of the world's largest and finest collections of funerary monuments. Erected by various civic dignitaries, Norwich's surviving monuments are evidence of the great wealth which it once generated as an important European trading City. Browne would have had opportunity to see these extravagant and costly monuments, mostly sculpted from marble stone, some of which are adorned to saturation point with obscure and learned religious symbols which the City's merchant mayors loaded onto them, seemingly in competition with each other. But it is just as Browne repeatedly stresses in Urn-Burial, the dignitaries who wanted their names to be remembered and their monuments admired, are now long forgotten and their monuments are housed behind locked or restricted access doors of  mainly disused or redundant churches. It was only as recently as 2012 that the source of the Layer monument's (below) iconography was identified. A wealth of religious symbolism, some of which is esoteric, remains to be studied on the funerary monuments of the medieval churches of Norwich. Photographs and details of Norwich funerary monuments are featured throughout this essay.


As great a religious mystic as Julian of Norwich or Meister Eckhart, Thomas Browne was well-aware of altered states of spiritual consciousness, naming several at the conclusion of  Urn-Burial thus-

'And if any have been so happy as truly to understand Christian annihilation, extasis, exolution, liquefaction, transformation, the kiss of the Spouse, gustation of God, and ingression into the divine shadow, they have already had an handsome anticipation of heaven; the glory of the world is surely over, and the earth in ashes unto them'.

Much of Browne's mysticism rests in his highly original proper name symbolism along with the plexiformed construction and relationship of his two 1658 discourses. Although appearing identical, each being prefaced with a dedicatory epistle and consisting of five chapters, Browne's twin Discourses, not unlike two side-by-side white, crystalline substances, once tasted are found to differ sharply; Urn-Burial is discovered to be the bitter salt of  Stoicism, a sprinkling of which is essential for spiritual well-being in the face of illness or disease, death and the grave.  In complete contrast, the sweetness of The Garden of Cyrus with its playful delight in nature, is written in a literary style not unlike a hyperactive sugar rush.  

A large part of esoteric schemata involves correspondences and polarities or opposites. Together the diptych discourses display polarity in theme, imagery and style. (Browne is credited as introducing the very word 'Polarity' into the English language). It was Frank Huntley who first advanced the interpretation that Browne's Discourses simultaneously progress in sequence from the Grave to the Garden, mirror each other in imagery, such as darkness and light, and are circular with Cyrus concluding Oroboros-like returning to night, sleep and darkness. [11]

A plethora of opposites exist between the two Discourses including and this list is far from exhaustive - Earth and Heaven, Grave and Garden, Accident and Design, Darkness and Light, Doubt and Certainty, Death and Life, Ephemeral and Eternal, Time and Space, Microcosm and Macrocosm.  

Contemplation of the body and soul in Urn-Burial gives way to a preoccupation with ideas associated with the mind and Spirit in The Garden of Cyrus. In terms of planetary symbolism Urn-Burial is strongly Saturnine with its theme of Time while The Garden of Cyrus has Space as its template and is utterly Mercurial in its communication of esoteric revelations. Even stylistically the two Discourse differ, the slow-paced, Baroque oratory of Urn-Burial's primary appeal is to ear its sonorous prose is best appreciated read aloud. In complete contrast the sensory organ of the eye and the visual in design, pattern and shape is prominent throughout the hasty, excited prose of Cyrus. 

Given Browne's deep interest in the esoteric we cannot overlook C.G.Jung's observation that the opposites and their union was the chief preoccupation of alchemists. Jung's study of alchemy led him to believe that the opposites are one of the most fruitful sources of psychic energy and for him their union played a decisive role in the alchemical process stating -'the "alchemystical" philosophers made the opposites and their union one of the chiefest objects of their work'. [12] The resultant synergy and unconscious associations for the reader between the two Discourses may well be Browne's literary concept of the Philosopher's Stone.

The psychological element in Browne's writings was admired by the poet Coleridge who declared of him that he, 'added to the consciousness hidden worlds within worlds' The Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung when introduced to Browne's declaration in his Religio Medici that- There is all Africa and her prodigies in us was deeply moved and immediately wrote it down. Understanding of the relationship between the two doctors Browne and Jung, is a rich, yet little explored field. Both naturally held a deep understanding of the human condition acquired from their profession, and both knew that with suffering comes spiritual growth.  Browne's Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus as well as his A Letter to a Friend were all written as condolences for bereaved patrons. 

Browne describes the blessings of not knowing the future and the relationship between memory, suffering and self-preservation  in Urn-Burial thus -

'Afflictions induce callosities, miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of evils past, is a merciful provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil days, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions'.

Writing currently at a time of great sorrow and potentially in the near future of great anger, strife and conflict if the consequences of the Pandemic and the socio-economic inequalities it has highlighted throughout the world are not resolved, C.G. Jung reminds us that -

'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'. [13] 

The dark, sombre and gloomy half of Browne's literary diptych speaks for our times and for all times. The worthy doctor gently draws to our attention to the fact that - 'the certainty of death is attended with uncertainties, in time, manner, places', and of how little we know of ourselves, and how unlikely it is we will be remembered beyond a generation or two at most. Our days are finite and numbered and the inescapable port of call on our soul-journey is death he reminds us, in ornate, baroque prose. 

Browne's Urn-Burial is a high watermark in English prose. Acknowledged as a work of World Literature, its pages, as countless readers throughout generations have discovered, are a valuable source of wisdom.  Reading Urn-Burial today is a timely reminder of how vulnerable we are to the invisible and unseen, and of how temporal our lives are; something which the devout Norwich physician seldom, if ever, needed reminding of.


[1 ] The great plague of Milan in 1630 was alleged to have been started by a Milanese barber and the Commissioner of Public Health. They were executed and a column was erected in Milan in August 1630 informing of their crime.  

[2] Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book 3 chapter 7 of  'On the Basilisk'.

[3] Miscellaneous tract 13  item 24 of Antiquities and Rarities of several sorts in Museum Clausum (circa 1675)

[4] Pseudodoxia Epidemica Book 8 chapter 7

[5] Collected Works  Vol. 14:696

[6] C. W.  Vol.14: 93

[7] C.W. Vol. 12:346. 

[8] Religio Medici Part 2 :11

[9] Religio Medici Part 2 :6 

[10] The Theatrum Chemicum is listed in the 1711 Sales Catalogue of Browne Library on page 25 no. 124  as 5 vols. Strasbourg 1613

[11] Frank Huntley Sir Thomas Browne: A Biographical and Critical Study, pub. Ann Arbour 1962 

[12] CW 8:414 and CW 12: 557 and CW.  vol. 14 Foreword 

[13] C.W 14: 330

Books consulted 

* Reid Barbour - Sir Thomas Browne A Life pub. Oxford University Press 2013

* Thomas Browne: Selected Writings edited and with an introduction by Kevin Killeen pub.Oxford          University Press 2014


*Top - Woodcut, the Nigredo Vol. 4 Theatrum Chemicum (1613) 

* Death wearing a Crown (Corona) Joseph Paine Monument (1673), St. Gregory's, Norwich 

* Detail of allegorical figure of Time from the Sotherton Monument (1611), Saint Andrew's, Norwich.

*  Woodcut, the Nigredo Vol. 4 Theatrum Chemicum (1613)

* The Layer Monument (1608) St.John the Baptist, Maddermarket, Norwich

* SCIOLTA  (Freed) Allegorical image of the soul released from the cage of the body.  Suckling Monument  (1616) St. Andrew's Norwich 

* 4th edition of Pseudodoxia Epidemica with first publication of Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus appended.

Recommended Listening

Icelandic composer Johann Johannson (1968-2018) is still missed in the music world. 

His song 'The Sky's gone dim and the Sun is Black' could not be more nigredo in mood.

The English composer William Alwyn (1905-85) was a prolific film-score composer who had a life-long love of the writings of Sir Thomas Browne. His 5th Symphony entitled Hydriotaphia is based upon his reading of Browne  and was first performed in Norwich in 1973.

Stevie Wonder's  Saturn (1976) with lyrics  -  
We can't trust you when you take a stand/
With a gun and bible in your hand/ 
Saying, Give us all we want or we'll destroy.

Links to Wikipedia entries on  Nigredo -  Theatrum Chemicum - Gerhard Dorn

This essay with thanks to Dr. E. Player.

 In Memoriam  Richard Paul Faulkner (1958-2020)

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The River, the City, and the Artist.

One of Europe's oldest cities, Norwich has a long and illustrious history. Like many great cities, it was founded on the banks of a river. Vital to Norwich's development and growth in trade and commerce, transport and culture, in the nineteenth century the river Wensum became a popular setting for artists of the Norwich School of Painters. 

In the briefest, highly selective sketch of Norwich's history - 

Norwich's  origins can be traced back to three Danish-Saxon fishing communities which once dwelt upon the terraced shingle banks of the Wensum known as Conesford, Westwic and Norwic which unified under the name of of Norwic (North port or settlement)  to become Norwich. Fully established as a town by the 10th century CE Norwich had its own mint which issued coins with the word NORVIC inscribed upon them. Following the Norman conquest of 1066, stone quarried from Caen in Normandy was transported across the North Sea and river to build and construct the City's two Norman architectural jewels, its Castle and Cathedral. 

The City's independence and trading status were enhanced under a Charter granted by King Richard I (the Lion heart) in 1194 for an annual payment to the King which freed the City and its citizens from all rents, tolls and taxes previously paid and permitted them to elect their own Reeve, (the senior official responsible under the Crown who often acted as chief magistrate). King Richard's Charter, granted in reward for Norwich's contribution to his ransom when kidnapped whilst returning from the Crusades, effectively allowed the City to be self governing, giving Norwich the same rights as London.

From the 13th century onward Norwich became a manufacturing city, exporting a wide variety of goods including pottery, wool and textiles, via the river Wensum. The river effectively connected the City to trade as far afield as Scandinavia and Russia, Germany and the Baltic North Sea cities as well as the Netherlands and Flanders. 

Norwich's trade and commerce with the Netherlands and Flanders in particular was vigorous throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Dutch and Flemish (modern-day Belgium) influences in fields as diverse as horticulture, architecture, textiles in particular wool, painting, religious denomination, civic social policy and not least, migration over the centuries have all been significant in contributing to Norwich's economic well-being and cultural heritage. 


Like many cities in medieval Europe, Norwich built a wall around itself for defense, taxation of goods and control of entry to trade in the City. The city walls were built circa 1280 to 1340. At around 4 kilometres in length they enclosed an area larger than the city of London. Norwich's city walls were supplemented by Cow tower and Bishop gate bridge strengthening defenses at its weakest point, the exposed bend of the river which  semi-circles around the Cathedral. The Wensum was integral to the defense of medieval Norwich. Its semi-circular bend from New Mills at the north of the City to Carrow south-east of the City effectively functioning as a wall. 

The medieval river-gate at Carrow is unique to European city defenses. Consisting of two 'Boom' towers'  one standing on each side of the river, by placing either a timber 'boom' or chains between them, effectively prevented any vessel from sailing further upstream. Their ruins at Carrow bridge, along with a long stretch of the city's medieval walls nearby, survive to the present-day.  


It would have been after passing between the 'Boom-towers' water-gate at Carrow (historical photo above) that visitors by river to Norwich would have seen the city's many churches towers, (Norwich has the large number of  medieval churches in Northern Europe).  The city's two largest architectural structures, the  Castle  perched upon earthwork mound and Cathedral with flying buttresses and spire pointing heavenwards would have been visible many miles from the low viewpoint of water before arriving at the walled city.   

A spectacular section of the old city wall  survives to this day. It  rises sharp up the valley with the Black Tower at its summit. The  surviving section  is a remarkable display of medieval engineering skill and dramatic to view. Poorly signed, this section of the City's medieval walls remains unknown to many locals even.

Tragically, shortly after the completion of the City wall, Norwich, like almost every other city in Europe suffered from the pandemic of the Black Death which peaked from 1347 to 1351. The Black Death was the second disaster affecting Europe during the 14th century, the Great Famine occurring 1315–1317. The Black Death plague is estimated to have killed between 30% to 60% of Europe's population. Norwich was not exempt from this death-toll with over half its population dying from the disease. It was against the background of the Black Death that the city's Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (1343–c.1416) wrote her Revelations of divine Love, the first book to be written by a woman in English,which continues to grow in popularity for its spiritual message. 

A major contributing factor to Norwich's identity occurred during the Elizabethan era when Protestant refugees from the Spanish Netherlands were invited to settle in Norwich to invigorate the City's declining textile industry. In 1565 some 30 households of master weavers and their families, 300 people in total, traveled from the Netherlands to Norwich seeking refuge from Spanish Catholic persecution. Reports of the City's religious tolerance resulted in many more religious refugees migrating from the Netherlands and contributing to Norwich's manufacturing industries of weaving and wool. At one time almost one third of Norwich's population consisted of skilled artisan refugees, a crucial factor in shaping the City's identity. 'The Strangers' as they were known, brought with them their pet Canary birds. Fancy breeds of the Canary bird were  bred in in the city  and in the early 20th century  they became emblematic of Norwich football team. The Canaries holds claim to having the world's oldest football supporter's song, On the ball, City. 

England's first provincial newspaper the Norwich Post was printed in Norwich in 1701. Succeeded by the Norwich Mercury in 1737,  its reflective of the city's high literacy rate as well as its radical politics. Support for the French revolution was initially high in Norwich, its leading intellectual William Taylor even visiting Paris in order to  kiss the soil of Liberty. Norwich's radical and sane politics continues to the present-day. In the 2016 advisory Referendum it voted for the UK to Remain in the European Union. 

Its been said that prosperity and literacy were the two factors which were the driving forces between 1750-1850 which contributed to Norwich's theatrical, artistic, philosophical and musical life. Together, they cross-fertilised Norwich's cultural life in a way that was unique outside London. 

In contrast to its close continental connections Norwich was, and still is, geographically remote from any other English town in transport links, a situation which was not improved until the mid-nineteenth century with the advent of the railway. Indeed, its been said  that it was sometimes quicker for a Norwich citizen to travel via river, sea and canal to Amsterdam than to London until the arrival of the railway. Travelling to London involved traversing marsh and forest on poor roads with the risk of robbery and overnight hostelry and rest for horses. In contrast, travelling to Amsterdam involved transportation via tidal river, sea and canal, its primary hazard being crossing the North Sea.

Whether because of its radical politics or more likely a received perception of the City as a 'back-water', Norwich was not officially recognized  as a seat of learning until 1963 when elected as the host city to the University of East Anglia. The University was named  'East Anglia' as representative of the region as a whole rather than its host city, resulting in few even today knowing its location. The University  didn't however hesitate to adopt Norwich City's  'Do Different' motto as its own. 

Currently teaching over 17,000 students statistically UEA is the British University with the highest percentage of students nationwide who choose to settle in the city of their graduation, a major contributing factor to the City's 9% population growth in the past decade. Prestigious UEA alumni include the geneticist, Paul Nurse, awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Medicine and novelist, Kazou Ishiguru, awarded the Nobel prize for Literature in 2017.  

With its many continental connections and influences its not too surprising that Norwich is one of the most European influenced of all English cities. The City's 'Do different' mindset is in evidence today in its growth as a regional retail centre, as a place of academic excellence and as a place which has a unique blend of international and local artistic life. 

2. Norwich School of Painters

John Thirtle's (1777-1839) watercolour Rainbow effect, King Street, (40 x 63 cm) depicts the City's busy river. The low eye-level of Thirtle's water-colour creates the effect of the viewer as part of the river-traffic. A rainbow, reflected in water following an evening downpour makes for a dramatic moment.  Observation of Nature, including atmospheric effects such as weather and changes of daylight being of particular interest to the Norwich School of artists.

In the foreground of Thirtle's water-colour there can be seen the river vessel most commonly associated with Norfolk, the wherry, a low draught, single sail craft capable of transporting heavy loads. In the background can be seen  a segment of the city wall rising steep up the  wooded valley with the Black tower at its summit. This section of the old city wall as previously discussed, survives to the present-day. 

John Thirtle was one of a number of Norwich artists  associated with The Norwich Society of Artists  which was established by the two friends who married sisters, John Crome (1768-1821) and Robert Ladbrooke (1768 –1842). The Society was formed in 1803 in order to hold regular meetings and discussions to establish 'An enquiry into the Rise, Progress and Present state of Painting, Architecture and Sculpture, with a view to point out the Best Methods of study to attain the Greater Perfection in these Arts'.

The clear-cut world of Classical representation of form and content is finely balanced with Romanticism in many artworks of the Norwich School, not least in the bold and skillfully executed water-colours of J.S. Cotman (1769-1842) including his Trowse Hythe (Below). Trowse, on Norwich's outskirts, is where the smaller river Yare joins the Wensum and where the river Wensum mysteriously ends.  

Its the sheer modernity of J.S. Cotman's art, in particular his water-colours which arrests the viewer today. Unsurprisingly Cotman's art received a mixed reception in his life-time. Curator and expert on the Norwich School of Painters Ms. Giorgia Bottinelli assesses J.S. Cotman thus- 

'One of the most original watercolourists of the nineteenth century, John Sell Cotman never achieved fame as an artist in his lifetime, something he so desperately craved and which fleetingly appeared to be within his grasp early in his career. On the whole his work did not appeal to the 19th century taste for the romantic and the picturesque: it was often controlled and unsentimental, with a focus on abstracted shape and inherent structure. It was not until the early 20th century and the rise of modernism that his work finally achieved the recognition it rightfully deserved'. [1] 


Several of John Crome's greatest art-works are set within only a short walk from his doorstep, the Colgate region of Norwich, including his late work Norwich river: Afternoon (above). 

Usually considered to be the leading light of the Norwich School of artists, John Crome was a shrewd, self-taught artist who survived the perils of bankruptcy, debt, imprisonment, madness, early death from disease, alcoholism and lack of patronage which others in the Norwich School suffered in their precarious careers as artists. In 1816, following Napoleon's defeat when  it was once more safe to visit France Crome did so, exhibiting and selling his paintings in Paris as well as purchasing paintings there.

John Crome studied the works of 17th Dutch masters closely in particular those by Hobbema, Cuyp, and Ruisdael to create art which celebrated the beauty of the Norfolk landscape. Far from merely imitating Dutch painting styles Crome learnt from the Dutch masters to develop his own unique style and today his paintings are ranked alongside Turner and Constable as amongst the finest in nineteenth century British art.  

The bright colouration and highly-polished finish of John Crome's Norwich river:Late Afternoon has often been commented upon. Its title reflects the close attention Norwich School artists played to qualities of light. 

Scientific analysis of  the canvas of Norwich river:Late Afternoon revealed that it was not in fact canvas but mattress ticking, a cotton or linen textile tightly woven for durability and to prevent feathers poking through the fabric. It was used to cover mattresses. Whether Crome's usage of mattress ticking was from necessity or experiment is not known. 

It was whilst working on a painting entitled A view of the Water Frolic, Wroxham Broad in mid-April 1821 that John Crome contracted a fever, dying later in the month. His last words were reputed to be, 'Oh Hobbema, my dear Hobbema, how I have loved you !'   

 Joseph Stannard's  Thorpe Water Frolic, Afternoon
(Height 109.8 x Width 175.8 cm. dated 1824). 

Joseph Stannard (born Norwich September 13th 1797 - died Norwich 6th December 1830) began exhibiting his paintings in 1811 when aged just 14. Like his younger brother Alfred, he was keen oarsman. He was also an  accomplished ice-skater who entertained Norwich folk with his skating skills during cold winters. Often in financial difficulties and/or poor health, Stannard's growing years were dominated by the Napoleonic wars which were prohibitive to travel in mainland Europe. When stability did return to Europe with the victory of Waterloo, he took the opportunity to visit Holland where  he viewed paintings by seventeenth century Dutch landscape masters Ruisdael, Berchem and Hobbema which deepened his interest in marine and seascape subjects; the marine artist Van de Velde in particular influenced him.

 In 1824 Joseph Stannard's fortune changed when the Norwich manufacturer, art collector and patron, John Harvey commissioned him to paint Thorpe Water Frolic:Afternoon.

Harvey was inspired with the idea of having a festivity on the river at Thorpe, just outside Norwich, from his witnessing water-festivities at Venice while on the Grand tour of Europe. The first water-frolic at Thorpe in 1824 attracted crowds of over 30,000 when the population of Norwich was little more than 10,000. Harvey's agenda was to establish Norwich as a sea-port for the export of his merchandise. 
Like all good sailors particular attention is paid to weather conditions and a vigorous cloudscape frames Stannard's water-frolic.There's an interesting inter-play between Stannard the sailor who has depicted the rigging and canvas sails of boats with every rope in its correct place and the medium of canvas on which he painted. The canvas of Thorpe Water Frolic, Afternoon is dominated by a large canvas, a sail catching the breeze.  Stannard's own boat The Cytherea is on the extreme right and was described in a contemporary newspaper report of the event -

'its colour is purple; the inside is adorned with an elegant gilt scroll, which completely encircles it; on the back-board where the coxswain sits, is a beautiful and spirited sea-piece, representing a stiff breeze at sea, with vessels sailing in various directions, painted in oils, and the spoons of the oars are neatly covered with gilt dolphins'.

Art historian Trevor Fawcett speculated- 'If the Thorpe water frolics were really great pageants, as the Norwich Mercury suggested, and if the multitudes who attended were all actors, then Stannard played his part thoroughly...[2]

Although there is a judicious amount of poetic licence in Stannard's Thorpe Water Frolic its also an important social document. Norwich's textile and loom workers, courting couples and rugged seamen all enjoying a care-free day on the river away from cramped working conditions are all depicted. They, along with Stannard in red, shielding his eyes to view his patron, are on the right bank of the river. Thomas Harvey standing in a gondola, the growing middle-class, civic dignitaries, naval officers and the aristocracy of Georgian England are on the left bank of the river. 

Joseph Stannard never became an official member of the Norwich School but nevertheless he clearly admired  and was influenced by John Crome and an enigmatic relationship exists between the two artists. As a precocious artist, Stannard's family requested Crome to teach young Joseph, but Crome quoted an astronomical fee which was seen as a blank refusal by the Stannard family. 

Curiously,  Stannard's Thorpe Water Frolic shares two details with John Crome's late work Norwich river:Afternoon firstly, of a small boy at the stern of a boat trailing a toy, and secondly of a woman dressed in bright yellow apparel, also at boat's stern. (The first recorded use of chrome yellow as a colour name in English was in 1818).

Norwich surely lost a great artist with Joseph Stannard's early death from tuberculosis aged just 33. However, his masterpiece, the river-scene Thorpe Water-Frolic:Afternoon remains a jewel in the crown of Norwich Castle Museum's extensive collection of paintings by the Norwich School.

Joseph Stannard has been assessed thus-

'As a draughtsman Joseph Stannard stands out as a major figure, there being almost a majestic grace and simplicity about his work. Whilst most of the Norwich School painters specialised in landscape, he retained an interest in seascape painting and achieved a quality which not only outrivalled most of his fellow painters, but most of the painters of the 19th century. The late Major boswell, whose family had dealt in the Norwich School paintings for generations, maintained that Joseph Stannard was the greatest genius of the School'. [3]
The Norwich School of Artists great achievement was that a small group of self-taught working class artists were able to feature urban Norwich with its churches, court-yards and cityscapes and rural Norfolk with its windmills, heath, marsh, woodlands and waterways as settings for their art.  Undaunted by meagre local patronage, together, leading artists Crome and Cotman, along with Joseph Stannard, established a school of landscape which continues to grow in reputation and stature.
The art historian Nikolaus Pevsner claimed that the picturesque was England's greatest contribution to European visual culture. Defined as visually attractive, especially in a quaint or charming way, English picturesque art is now, largely through the pioneering achievements of the Norwich School of artists, can now be recognised as Norwich's greatest contribution to European painting.

3. Just a little Browne and Norwich's future

According to the church historian Thomas Fuller (1608-61)  17th century Norwich was, 'either a city in an orchard, or an orchard in a city, so equal are houses and trees blended in it' . This blending of the urban with leaf continues in present-day Norwich with its reputation as one of greenest of English cities. Thomas Browne, the city's first botanist, natural historian, archaeologist and literary figure of significance, was a contemporary of  the historian Thomas Fuller, and indeed a book by Fuller is listed as once in Browne's vast library. 

In many ways Thomas Browne (1605-82) is one of most dazzling and valuable jewels in the crown of Norwich's cultural heritage. Known of world-wide, contributing to diverse fields of knowledge Browne's star is currently in the ascendent with a resurgence of interest in the physician-philosopher and his diverse literary works. Browne was also, as the archaeologist Alan Carter noted, one of the first to speculate upon Norwich's origins. In Urn-Burial  (1658) he alludes to coins minted in Norwich (the earliest with  the inscription name Norvic is dated 850 CE), to the city being established sometime after the Roman occupation of Britain, and to it being a place of size before  destruction by fire following a Viking raid by King Swen Forkbeard in 1004 CE-

'Vulgar Chronology will have Norwich Castle as old as Julius Caesar; but his distance from these parts, and its Gothick form of structure, abridgeth such Antiquity. The British Coins afford conjecture of early habitation in these parts, though the City of Norwich arose from the ruins of Venta, and though perhaps not without some habitation before, was enlarged, builded, and nominated by the Saxons. In what bulk or populosity it stood in the old East-angle Monarchy, tradition and history are silent. Considerable it was in the Danish Eruptions, when Sueno burnt Thetford and Norwich', [4]

More often than not Thomas Browne refers to the Wensum simply as 'the Norwich river'. Its been speculated that the word 'Wensum' is a corruption of the old English of 'wendsome' meaning winding, and this, as almost all old rivers, the Wensum certainly is, as can be seen in the photo below of the river Wensum at Drayton, a few miles north-west of Norwich. 

Geographically speaking, the Wensum is an old or senile river, that is a river with a low gradient and low erosive power and with having flood-plains. Today the Wensum is listed as a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest and as a Special Area of Conservation. Nevertheless it is under threat of environmental damage from a proposed Western Link Road (WLR) which will seriously damage river wildlife and its immediate environment with little, if any benefit to the easing of  traffic in the region whatsoever.[5]

On several occasions in his Natural History notes Thomas Browne refers to the network of shallow lakes in the north-east quarter of Norfolk as 'broad waters' . In all probability its from his description that the nomenclature of these shallow lakes  originated from to become  known as the Norfolk Broads. Today, the Norfolk Broads have National Park status and protection 'however it was not until the 1960's that aerial photography determined the Norfolk Broads were in fact not natural but man-made, the product of many years of digging for peat as a source of heat which following flood and inundation from the sea, formed the present-day Broads. 

On the river upstream between New Mills to Hellesdon Mills its possible to often spot the iridescent blue plumage and bullet-like flight of the kingfisher zipping low over the water. As a keen ornithologist who at one time or another kept an eagle, cormorant, bittern, owl and ostrich to study, Browne noted of Norfolk -

The number of rivulets becks & streams whose banks are beset with willows & Alders which give occasion of easier fishing & slooping to the water makes that handsome coloured bird abound which is called Alcedo Ispida or the King fisher. They build in holes about gravel pits.. their nests wherein is to bee found great quantity of small fish bones. & lay very handsome round & as it were polished eggs.

Browne was a keen botanist and noted of the aquatic plant Acorus Calamus  known as Sweet Flag (photo below).


'This elegant plant groweth very plentifully and beareth its Julus yearly by the banks of Norwich river  chiefly about Claxton and Surlingham. & also between norwich & Hellsden bridge so that I have known Heigham Church in the suburbs of Norwich strewed all over with it, it hath been transplanted and set on the sides of Marish ponds in several places of the country where it thrives and beareth ye Julus yearly. [6]

The Sweet Briar bridge to Hellesdon (photo above) is a great example of the legacy from the 1930's. Constructed in 1932, Sweet Briar bridge, along with the acres of landscaped parks of Eaton and Wensum, innovative social housing at Mile Cross, libraries, and urban regeneration in general, were all constructed and achieved through the collective work-force of the unemployed of Norwich during the Great Depression of the 1930's era.

The river Wensum upstream of New Mills is navigable only to light, non-powered vessels and is at turns scenic, neglected and wild. Its only with one's eye at water level that one gains a perspective of  the sheer size and abundance of mature trees growing near the river. Approaching Hellesdon Mill two varieties of willow can be seen growing together. (above). 

The weeping willow is a naturally occurring mutation of Salix babylonica which was introduced to England from China in the early 17th century during a time of fascination with all things Chinese ts cultivated for it's beautiful appearance. The more common willow Salix fragilis, 'crack willow', is named for the loud noise it makes when it breaks.  Grown on the river-bank so that its binding roots protect the bank from erosion its used for commercial willow farming (withey beds) and is managed by pollarding. Some of humans' earliest manufactured items may have been made from willow. A fishing net made from willow discovered by archaeologists dates back to 8300 BCE and basic crafts, such as baskets, fish traps, wattle fences and wattle and daub house walls, were often woven from osiers or withies (rod-like willow shoots, often grown in coppices). [7]

The Dictionary of British Place-names states that the name Hellesdon comes from Hægelisdun (the spelling of the location 985 CE), meaning 'hill of a man named Hægel', with the spelling changed to Hailesduna by 1086. Hægelisdun is recorded  traditionally, as the place where King Edmund was killed by Viking invaders in 869 CE, although there remains no agreement on exactly where King Edmund died.

Its intriguing to think that momentous history such as King Edmund dying in battle near Norwich remains ultimately unknown, such speculation returns our far from exhaustive essay where it began, the remote in time origins of the city, whilst also  exploring the fascinating relationship between city, river and artist.

At the current time of writing, Norwich faces the same challenge as many cities throughout the world in the wake of the Pandemic (2020 - ?) how to make the city, in particular its centre, a safe place to visit, work, socialise and be entertained.  Norwich,  having survived war, plague, flood, fire, famine, rebellion and riot in its thousand plus year history, will surely become a busy, enterprising city, proud to 'Do Different'  once more in the near future.


The Wensum river at 'The Willows', five minutes from my doorstep.


* The Anglo-Saxon origins of Norwich: the problems and approaches by Alan Carter Anglo-Saxon England Vol. 7 (1978), pp. 175-204  pub. Cambridge University Press
* The Norwich Knowledge: An A-Z of Norwich - the Superlative City Pub. 2011
by Michael Loveday. Highly recommended
* Norwich, the growth of a city.  Green and Young Norfolk museums Service 1981

* The Norwich School of Painters -  Harold Day pub. Eastbourne Fine Art 1979
* The Norwich School of Artists - Andrew Moore pub. HMSO Norfolk Museum Services 1985
*Romantic Landscape:The Norwich School of Painters -Brown/Hemingway/Lyles pub. Trustees of the Tate Gallery 2000
* A Vision of England : Paintings of the Norwich School ed. Bottinelli pub. Norfolk Museums 2013


[1] EDP May 20th The artist they called too colourful
[2] from article by Trevor Fawcett-Roper in Norfolk Archaeology 1976
[3] The Norwich School of Painters -  Harold Day pub. Eastbourne Fine Art 1979
[4] Urn-Burial (1658)
[6] Notes on Natural history of Norfolk especially its birds and fishes pub. Jarrolds 1905.
[7]  Info on Willow by Nik Thomson with thanks.

Archaeological maps of the development of early Norwich.

*All text identical to the Wikipedia entry on the Norwich School of Artists was penned by myself in 2003.

* Essay dedicated to the memory of the Norwich artist Joseph Stannard, b. Norwich, 13th September 1797 - 1830. Stannard's premature death surely lost the City a great artist.

Also in memory of Jennifer Carrier, long-time friend and Norwich 'old girl'.