Screen Test

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Ask nicely, or take along a student with a library card, and you might be able to get into the Radcliffe Science Library on Parks Road. This is very much a working part of Oxford University and tourists are not encouraged, but this building, as well as housing a remarkable collection of scientific tomes, is also the home of a rather special work of 20th century art.

On the first floor, you will find two screens forming the original sliding doors to the Rare Book Room. These screens, composed of six panels carved in low relief of scientists with a strong Oxford connection, were designed and carved by Eric Gill and his assistant Donald Potter in 1935.

Carved front and back from a single piece of wood, each of the oak panels is pierced with the original intention that they should be looked through, like a grill, to the Rare Books Room beyond. However, time marched on and those rare books were moved to a safer location and the room beyond the grill became the office of the Chief Librarian who also goes by the illustrious title of Keeper of Scientific Books.

Five of the six panels portray almost household names when it comes to science. At the top, we are shown Roger Bacon, the Franciscan Friar who was a student and then a master at the University and an early European advocate of the scientific method. We also have William Harvey who is shown holding a human heart to remind us that he discovered and documented the circulation of blood. On the left hand door we also have the two Oxford Roberts—Hooke and Boyle—with their microscope and laboratory glassware respectively. And on the right, we have Sir Christopher Wren with the mighty dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background and his telescope in front. Remember, he was the Professor of Astronomy in Oxford before he was an architect. But, who is the sixth Oxford scientist in the bottom panel? All the portraits are highly stylised and are identified only by the initials of their subject. The last is ‘JJD’. I pondered over this one, but the carving of the wigged man in 18th century garb, with his sunflower did not help. After surrendering to the typed up key, on the wall to the right of the screens, I discovered this to be Johann Jakob Dillenius. I was, I regret to say, none the wiser.

It turns out that the man with the sunflower was an 18th century German botanist who was appointed as the first Sherardian Professor of Botany at the University of Oxford. He was highly regarded by the likes of Linnaeus, who even named a genus of tropical tree after him. But, it’s hardly the dome of a cathedral or a law of physics is it? It does rather smack of desperation, I thought, that after the usual scientific suspects had been rounded up and immortalised in oak, one that few have heard of was included, just to make up the numbers.

Thinking this, I suddenly felt sorry for Dillenius having to share the screens with five legends, and having to endure the ignominy that must sting every time someone who admires these panels gets to his portrait and mutters, ‘who?’

Who else could have been chosen? In 1935, Dorothy Hodgkin had still to win her Nobel Prize in Chemistry—indeed she had just arrived in Oxford the year before to take up a post-doctoral research fellowship. Florey and Chain were five years away from purifying penicillin, Erwin Schrödinger, the physicist with a fondness for cats, had arrived the year or two before the doors were carved but was only briefly a Fellow of Magdalen, while Tim Berners-Lee, who would give us the world wide web, and Stephen Hawking, his thoughts on the History of Time, were still to be born.

But what of the likes of Edmund Halley, the 18th century Astronomer Royal of comet fame or even Jethro Tull, the pioneering agriculturalist and inventor? Both had strong Oxford connections and might have stood the test of time a little more robustly than Dillenius.

However, the reason I had blagged my way into the library was not because of the subjects of the screen, but because of its creator. The artist Eric Gill is now known mostly through his font design—look on any word-processing package and you will likely find his eponymous typeface, Gill Sans, as an option. And, you will find Perpetua, which he also designed. As well as being a typographer, he was a graphic artist, sculptor and printmaker, designing such diverse commissions as the statuary outside the old BBC building in London and the definitive stamps of King George VI. He has countless war memorials and signage to his name in Oxford, London and beyond.

His religious fervour was perhaps the reason he was involved in so many ecclesiastical projects, and his sexual proclivities the explanation for his abundant erotica. His personal sex life was exuberant as well as incestuous and he scandalised even the bohemian society in which he lived. Indeed, his sexuality has for many overshadowed and sullied his body of work. If you like his work, as I do, it becomes necessary to separate the artistry before you and the man who created it. You do not need to admire, or even like, the latter to love the former.

And it is this notion of separation, which is important here. Although the screen commemorates six (or at least five) legendary scientists, it is really their work that is being celebrated, not the men themselves. Just as Gill’s work should not be viewed through a filter of moral judgement about his personal life, we should be able to marvel at Wren’s architecture free from any concern about his freemasonry, or feel a pulse without having to think about Harvey’s obsessive bird-watching.

We live in a society much affected by the cult of celebrity—a cult that relies on the personification of achievement. This is bad enough, but becomes particularly inane when the ‘achievement’ in question is simply being famous itself. Think of the pseudo-celebrities and game show contestants who fill the pages of pulp magazines. It is important to separate the work from the person, and to judge the work in distinction from the worker. If we do this it may quickly become apparent that there is no work to celebrate.

Here, Gill focussed on the people and portrayed them with an example of their greatest work. Perhaps he could have let the work stand for itself, but he chose not to. There is celebrity in science, just as in any other sphere of human endeavour, and although we should be more interested in the idea than the thinker, the provenance of the thought may influence how much credence we give it. After all, if I had not known that Eric Gill had designed these screens would I have made the effort to see them?

© Allan Gaw 2014

This is an extract from my newly published book, ‘Tales from an Oxford Bench’ now available for Kindle download from amazon.

My books available on kindle:

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Rebellion or Revolution?


I set my alarm for 5.30 am this morning as I was eager to find out which country I was now living in.  The campaign had been long, but in the last couple of weeks it had risen to a crescendo.  The flags had been unfurled and voices raised on both sides.  George Square, in Glasgow’s city centre, had become a rallying point for the YES campaign. Walking through it on the eve of the poll, the passion of the crowd was clear, but it was transforming into something more than passion.  There was a fervour in the air that I had only seen at major sporting events, but this ‘football’ crowd was roaring not over a game, but politics.

Despite the debates and the steady stream of leaflets from both sides dropping through my letterbox there was still not a single hard fact I could cling to in the storm of rhetoric.  Hearts were being stirred, but heads were left unsatisfied.  I had been an early advocate of staying together, as I saw the alternative as a long, unpleasant and, ultimately expensive, divorce.  And I think it was the years of disorder and expense that I could see ahead that persuaded me we would be ‘better together’.  Simultaneously, I also had no doubt that Scotland could ultimately run its own affairs and do a very good job of it, but I could see the process of disentanglement from the UK as one of disintegration, at least in the short term.  In a generation or two, Scotland would be Norway, but what were we and my children and maybe even their children going to have to live through to get there?

The other strand that was binding me to the status quo was my level of comfort.  Other nationalist causes around the world are built on the premise of oppression.  I simply didn’t feel oppressed.  On the contrary, I have always felt as a Scot in the UK rather valued and readily able to contribute to the daily debate that is life in Britain.  As a doctor and a scientist I have always felt the equal of my counterparts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Maybe, secretly, I have sometimes even felt superior.  But, what I have never felt is downtrodden.

The problem with all this, is that this morning I, as a NO voter, found myself feeling slightly disappointed.  The YES campaign, like the NO campaign, was not built on facts because there were no facts available to either side.  But, it was built on a dream and dreams are attractive.  It is undoubtedly more aspirational to say YES, and step into the unknown, rather than shake your head and hold back.  Some voted YES to protest against years of unwanted Conservative rule from Westminster, some because they simply wanted to do the opposite of what England wished and some because they were deluded by the romanticism portrayed in anthems like Flower of Scotland or by blue-faced Australian actors in Hollywood movies.  But some voted YES because they were courageous.  Courage is very compelling when viewed up close.  These people were not fearless—the brave are always frightened for they know what is at stake—yet they can look beyond their fear.

In the voting booth, I knew I would place my cross in the NO box, but for just a moment the pen hovered over the YES and I wondered, what if?

I am told by commentators this morning that in this referendum I was offered a choice, not between independence and the status quo, but between rebellion and revolution—between the dramatic wrenching apart of a country and the considered reappraisal and redesign of a constitution.  I chose the latter; I am thus a revolutionary.  That makes me feel a little better, but there is still a sneaking doubt that I might be something else—a coward. Others voted NO because of the strongest of convictions and today they are rejoicing while being suitably gracious in their victory speeches. I’m not entirely sure what I feel—relief perhaps—but I certainly don’t feel victorious. Time will tell if this was the right decision or if it was just a lack of courage.

© Allan Gaw 2014

My books available on kindle:

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The mindfulness of the unfinished line


As we unpeeled the masking tape tabs and unwalled our work, the studio began to grow in size, to become once again the cavernous white space it had been on our first day. Just a week ago we were strangers embarking on a ‘Drawing Expedition’ at the Glasgow School of Art—now we were friends going home.

On those first days the walls of the top floor of the brand new Reid Building were high and white and as bare as the paper on our easels. Like all blank pages, the studio walls were daunting, but in just five days we had filled them with line and tone, colour and imagination.

I came to the class unsure of what to expect. As we relaxed into each other’s company over the first two or three days I was to learn that everyone had felt the same. We had all gone home from that first day relieved, excited and exhausted, having been on our best behaviour with each other for longer than most were accustomed. I think we attributed our fatigue to the standing and the concentration, but in fact it had been the nervous energy that always accompanies the new.

Most of the relief we felt after that first day was not because we had discovered that we could draw after all, but because of our teacher. Our tutor was a Fife woman, a teacher, a mother but most of all a wonderful, passionate artist. But her passion was conveyed with a smile and softened with humour. Passion can be frightening up close, but not Cathy’s brand. As a working artist, she was consumed with her craft and lived, so it seemed, in the moment of her drawing. And she wanted others to experience that moment too.

Her hair tied back and wearing a pink apron decorated with cupcakes, Cathy looked at the objects before her and engaged with them. She seemed to enter the objects and feel their shape from their insides or to touch them in some virtual way through the charcoal in her hand. The softness of her lines, the flow, the economy of her touch allowed the paper to yield up an image. What we were trying to learn was how to do the same.

I had expected a fruit bowl, the vase of flowers, perhaps the awkwardness of a model, but instead we were taken on an expedition, with our tutor as our guide. We were challenged with exercises, all of which we ran at like toddlers. The class was diverse in age, in experience and in our reasons for being there, but what we had in common was a willingness to follow our guide into an unknown world. Like all great teachers, she knew just how long to hold our hands and to let go just before we felt completely safe. She watched as we flailed and then found our footings; never too far away but far enough that we could feel we were doing it on our own. She bonded our group and made us laugh together as we travelled on our ‘expedition’, which we soon realised was to be an expedition of the mind rather than any art field trip.

We found the confidence to make our marks and were given the freedom to experiment. At first I looked for the rules—what was permissible in this field, what could and could not be done, where were the limits?—only to discover that those were all the wrong questions in this class, for any limits would be of my own making. Art has no limits, just as the human mind has none. And what I was exploring on my expedition was my own mind and the world around me, both physical and emotional.

Of all the things we did, one stands out for me as the most fundamental. We were asked to take a piece of paper and something with which to draw—something that would allow us to draw continuously without having to recharge it by dipping it into ink or paint—something like a pencil, or a piece of charcoal or a felt tip pen. We were asked to place the pen or pencil on the paper and begin to draw, the only rule being that we should not lift the pen from the paper. What we were to produce would, in effect, be a continuous unbroken line. If we stopped, we must not lift the pen; if we were interrupted, we must not lift the pen. If our arm was to tire or if we should get cramp in our drawing hand, we must not lift the pen, but we could briefly pass it without lifting it from the paper to our other hand. If we wished to move from one part of the paper to another to focus on another part of our drawing, there would be a line joining the two for, remember, we could lift the pen from the paper.

Why? Because, next we were asked not to look at our drawing but to draw blindly, only by looking at our subject. A necessary prerequisite of such blind drawing is being able to draw continuously. If drawing is really about looking, why not simplify the whole process by removing the need to edit or censor your creative line, and force yourself to focus only on the object in front of you? If the ‘process’ is what is important, if the ‘product’ of your drawing is only a by product of the process, why not channel all your energies into the observation and allow the drawing to take care of itself?

This we did, at first skeptically and then with relish as we saw what this liberation could produce. It is always surprising just how creativity bubbles to the surface of the human mind and many look for ways to facilitate the process. One way is surely this kind of exercise where our freedom of expression is allowed to dominate, uncoupled from the restraints of logic or the straight-jacket of our self-consciousness.

Our week’s drawings now packed away and the pencils and charcoals boxed, we left our great white studio, but we went home with much more than we had come. We had been taught not so much to draw, but to look. We had been taught to study our world and not to take line and form for granted. We had been taught to live in our moment, to be mindful of our observations and to shift gear from the logic of restraint to a new form of creative liberty. We had been taught to look slowly and to draw quickly.

The world, it seemed, might never be quite the same again.

© Allan Gaw 2014

Blind drawing has a lot in common, I believe, with free writing and you can read about that in my book WriteEasy.

My books available on kindle:

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