The poor Actress’s Christmas Dinner – Martineau

ashmolean entrance
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Jonah, our intrepid and occasionally illustrious blogsworth, is a restless old soul, always anxious for new experiences, especially ones that might yield fresh material for the blog. So a couple of Sundays ago, with a weather-eye on the weather, he hopped onto a train in Paddington which in due course carried him back to his old alma mater amid the dreaming spires of Oxford. There was a chill nip in the air, but Jonah remained undeterred, and for most of the day the rain held off.

First port of call in that learned city, was the old Ashmolean Museum in Beaumont Street, opposite the Randolph Hotel and adjacent to the notorious Taylorian Institute [where Jonah had in his salad days skipped many a Modern Languages lectures, enough said]. Meanwhile, the Ashmolean, home to the University’s extensive collections of art and archaeology, was founded in 1683 and was the world’s first university museum. Its first building was erected in 1678–1683 to house the cabinet of curiosities that Elias Ashmole donated to the University in 1677.


 

Martineau
The poor Actress’s Christmas Dinner, by Robert Braithwaite Martineau (1860)

On this occasion, Jonah’s focus was on the museum’s collection of 19th century paintings and for today’s post he has chosen to feature something seasonal: The poor Actress’s Christmas Dinner, by Robert Braithwaite Martineau (1826–1869), which dates from around 1860.  The artist initially trained as a lawyer but later entered the Royal Academy where he was awarded a silver medal. He studied under the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt and once shared a studio with him. The painting in question, although unfinished, provides poignant example of mid-Victorian pathos. The stylised, melancholy portrait of the actress is beautifully executed, although she appears to be marooned in the emptiness of the canvas. It is pointless to speculate why Martineau abandoned this particular study, but it does indicate something of the manner in which the artist intended to build up his composition, working from the centre outwards.


After a major redevelopment, the Ashmolean Museum reopened in 2009. In November 2011, new galleries focusing on Egypt and Nubia were also unveiled. The Ashmolean’s collections are extraordinarily diverse, representing most of the world’s great civilisations, with objects dating from 8000 BC to the present day. Among its many riches the Ashmolean houses the world’s greatest collection of Raphael drawings, the most important collection of Egyptian pre-Dynastic sculpture and ceramics outside Cairo, the only great Minoan collection in Britain, outstanding Anglo-Saxon treasures, and the foremost collection of modern Chinese painting in the Western world. If you are ever in Oxford, a visit to the Ashmolean is a must. For a full programme of events and exhibitions see http://www.ashmolean.org

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The poor are always with us

Henley Wetherspoon
Henley Wetherspoon

Jonah, our indestructible blogsworth, is sitting in The Catherine Wheel, the charming Wetherspoon in Henley-on-Thames, on a bright autumn afternoon. He’s just had a brisk stroll down by the river. Trees turning to gold and brown and copper; seen a few herons, some geese, and more swans than he could shake a stick at; then a quick gander at the grave of poor old Dusty Springfield and he’s popped into the pub to kill the massive appetite he’s been carrying around all morning.

So he’s ordered his meal deal: a pint of what he likes and the fish and chips with mushy peas. Now he’s sitting there, sipping his drink, waiting for his grub to arrive, looking around the gaff and generally minding everyone’s business till he catches the drift of two old codgers lunching at an adjacent table:


Tom More: You been reading about tax credit cuts?
Erasmus: Alice in Wonderland?
Tom More:
Just about. Only worse. No laughs in this one; plenty of mad hatters, though.
Erasmus:
You British, I dunno. You have an uncanny talent for political disasters. There’s gonna be trouble over this, mark my words.
Tom More:
Whatcha mean?
Erasmus:
Poll tax and now tax credit cuts. Political bloody disaster. You people vote in these governments that then proceed to clobber part of the population to death. It don’t add up, sunshine. On the one hand it’s sadism and on the other its masochism. Fifty bloody shades of I dunno what.
Tom More:
But the deficit, the national debt. Something’s gotta be done.
Erasmus:
But at whose expense, laddee? Not the working poor, surely?
Tom More puts down his knife and fork, wipes his lips with his serviette, coughs to clear his throat and looks Erasmus in the eye.
Tom More: No, you’re right. Makes my blood boil.
Erasmus:
What sort of a country is this? I mean the very notion of working poor is an abomination. It’s a bad joke. Who does these jobs? Teaching assistants, social workers, so I’ve been told, but loads of other keyworkers too.
Tom More:
Keyworkers.
Erasmus:
So what does that mean, keyworkers? Key to what? Key to whom, if you don’t mind my pompous grammar? Are these jobs not important enough to deserve a living wage?
Tom More:
Yeah, you’re right. It’s all wrong. Millions of families on or just below the breadline. . .
Erasmus:
About to be clobbered. So many of this once proud nation’s kids growing up in poverty.
It goes quiet as the two old men take a breather and dip into their drinks. And Jonah’s meal arrives. Lovely golden batter on the fish, and the taste, so fresh.
Erasmus: You know, a country that doesn’t care for its young doesn’t deserve to be called a country. It’s a bloody disgrace. Children in need! It’s a bad joke! No wonder the Scots want out.
Tom More:
You’re right, you’re dead right, mate.
Erasmus:
Poverty is a social construct, you know that. Nobody’s born poor, it’s not genetic. People are born into poverty or they fall into poverty, but it’s not in their DNA. It’s structured. You take the total wealth of a country, or the total wealth earned by a country in one year and you parcel it up, you decide who gets lucky and who has to struggle. I’m all for the ‘work should pay’ philosophy, but work should pay. These tax credits they want to cut, they’re not charity, they’re really nothing more than subsidies to the employers of the working poor. So to cut them is more than a bit like Alice in bloody Wonderland, “Off with their heads”.
Tom More has a faraway look in his eyes; maybe the beer has gone to his head which he now begins to shake slowly.
Tom More: One nation. . . The party of the family. . . Jesus wept.
Erasmus:
Exactly! Suffer little children. . . !