February 14th, 2019

The Heart Shrine At Horsted Keynes

Effigies of armoured knights, cross-legged, with their feet on some animal or other, are common. This one is well-abraded by time. There are plenty of better examples.

Only this one is tiny- the size of a large doll- and that is very unusual.

The explanation is that it's a heart shrine. The knight died abroad- probably while off on the crusades- and his heart was preserved and shipped home to be buried in his parish church. There was no full sized coffin, just a casket, and the effigy was made to its measure. It occupies a wall niche in the chancel, to the left of the altar.

We don't know who the knight was but almost certainly one of the De Cahagnes family- who were given the village of Horsted by William the Conqueror- and whose name (in a variant spelling) eventually got attached to it.

The Sackville Monument, Withyham

St Michael and All Angels, Withyham is another church that got itself wiped out by a lightning strike. The rebuild, though it looks plausibly medieval, was accomplished in the 1670s. It's a big, gloomy building, with a capacious private chapel tacked onto its north side- the burying place of the Sackville family- who were variously Earls of Dorset and Lords de la Warr and stuff like that. The ashes of the writer Vita Sackville West are tucked in under the floor, there are pleasing neo-classical tablets mounted on the wall- and the space is dominated by the tremendous- in all senses of the word- monument to Thomas Sackville who died aged 13 in 1677.

The sculptor was Caius Gabriel Cibber, father of the more famous Colley (the actor-manager, playwright and poet laureate who had the misfortune to get up the noses of Alexander Pope and his Tory friends.) Cibber pere was a leading artist of his day (he worked with Christopher Wren) and the Sackville monument is his masterpiece. Young Thomas reclines on a pallet, clutching a skull, while his parents- and this is the really original touch- lean against either side of his catafalque. Dad is in armour and wig, Mum is in Restoration finery. Everything life-sized.

What Is There Left To Do But Praise?

Criticism thrives on flaws. To get a grip on an artist's work you need to find something you can pick at. But occasionally you come across an artist you love so much they seem flawless- and what is there left to do then but praise?

I feel this way about Karen Blixen- aka Isak Dinesen- through whose short stories I am currently working my way. Slowly because they're too good not to savour. I recently finished her Seven Gothic Tales (Gothic is misleading because there's strangeness but very little supernaturalism or gore) and am part way through her Winter's Tales. Seven Gothic Tales is currently my favourite book of all time (and how odd that one should be saying that about a recent discovery and not about something from one's formative years) and if I like the Winter's Tales less it's because they're shorter and slighter- written as cramped acts of resistance during the German occupation of Denmark- but still packed tight with ambiguity, wisdom and beauty.

Blixen liked to nest stories within other stories. One of her very best- "The Dreamers"- has an English adventurer entertaining his compadres with a yarn about a woman he once knew- and as a matter of course his yarn takes in three other yarns told by three other men who met the same woman under different names and bearing very different characters. Which of the four women was the real woman- and is that even a question worth asking?

One doesn't need to dig deep to understand why the director of Citizen Kane and Mr Arkadin was drawn to this. Orson Welles had plans to film several of Blixen's stories- including The Dreamers- but managed to complete only one- The Immortal Story. His love of Blixen is obvious in the fidelity that movie bears to her tone and texture. When Welles was not wholly in sympathy with an author- Kafka for instance- he was happy to take liberties. When he was in perfect sympathy- as he was with Shakespeare and Blixen- he was their very humble, faithful servant.

Welles is another artist whom I love so much that I'm blind to their flaws.