Monday, April 24, 2017

So where he reigns in glory bright,
Above those starry skies of night,
Amid his paradise of light
Oh, why may I not be?

Oft when awake on Christmas morn,
In sleepless twilight laid forlorn,
Strange thoughts have o'er my mind been borne,
How He has died for me.

And oft within my chamber lying,
Have I awaked myself with crying
From dreams, where I beheld Him dying
Upon the accursed Tree.

And often has my mother said,
While on her lap I laid my head,
She feared for time I was not made,
But for Eternity.

So "I can read my title clear,
To mansions in the skies,
And let me bid farewell to fear,
And wipe my weeping eyes."

I'll lay me down on this marble stone,
And set the world aside,
To see upon her ebon throne
The Moon in glory ride.  

Branwell Brontë, August 13, 1836
These stanzas are the fragments included by Elizabeth Gaskell in her Life of Charlotte Brontë from a poem known as The Struggles of Flesh and Spirit by Branwell Brontë which he sent to William Wordsworth in his famous letter of 1837. He never received a reply from the Lake District but the poem and the letter are now at the very core of the Brontë Parsonage Museum exhibition celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Branwell Brontë.

The tragic figure of the Brontë brother has been much vilified and occasionally vindicated by his contemporaries (like J.B. Leyland or Francis Grundy) or modern biographical revisionism (Winnifred Gérin or Daphne DuMaurier's biographies). Not always his vindication has been in his best interest such as the times when he is attributed the writing of Wuthering Heights. These comments have worked towards creating the image of Branwell, the delusional fool rather than Branwell, the misunderstood genius.

Still under the influence of Sally Wainwright's To Walk Invisible production (which in a way has fixed an image of Branwell as a kind of tragic Deus ex-machina of the work of her sisters), the Brontë Parsonage has devoted this year's exhibition to not exactly vindicating Branwell Brontë but trying to restore his presence (achievements and delusions alike) in the Brontë canon. This is achieved through recreating Branwell's room in the Parsonage and by highlighting signifying Branwell items from the Parsonage collection.

Simon Armitage, a Yorkshire poet like Branwell, is the creative partner of the exhibition. He has curated several objects of the Parsonage collection and explores his personal response to the items through a series of poems which will be published shortly but that can already be read at the exhibition.

The recreation of Branwell's room in the late 1830s is particularly convincing. Grant Montgomery, production designer of To Walk Invisible and Simon Armitage have completely contributed to the recreate the ominous and dense atmosphere of the room and redesigned Branwell's Studio (the room that connects the original Parsonage with the Exhibition Room). An unmade bed, a bottle of ink (or maybe liquor?) is spilt on the floor. Poems in different stages of composition everywhere, a wide selection of Branwell's drawings (including his famous self-portrait) hang on the wall, a letter to J.B. Leyland, etc... The dim illumination and a reading of the poem sent to Wordsworth on loop as read by young students from Beckfoot Oakbank School. The room's chaos is particularly striking when compared when the neatness of the rest of the rooms, which is significant in more ways than one.

The rest of the exhibition is downstairs at the Bonnell Room. Eleven objects selected from the Brontë Parsonage collection and the Wordsworth letter (on loan from the Wordsworth Trust, only until August) are on display beside original poems-response by Simon Armitage(1). The walls of the room are a festival of reddish and bluish reproductions of manuscripts and drawings by Branwell. Oppressive but seducing at the same time and rather psychedelic, too.

Some of the items include the manuscript of The Politics of Verdopolis (1833) with the sketch of a tall building which has been used as the image of the exhibition; the 1840 Branwell caricature self-portrait (we loved the companion Self Portrait poem by Simon Armitage, by the way); a very curious masonic apron allegedly decorated by Branwell; a selection of manuscripts of poems by Branwell, including Lydia Gisborne (1846), all signed by Northangerland; the watercolour Gos Hawk (after Bewick's History of British Birds) with a very funny companion poem by Armitage; the 1833 manuscript of the newspaper The Monthly Intelligencer with its impressive minute writing and convincing imitation of a real newspaper; his wallet; the very fascinating Luddenden Foot notebook; The History and Adventures of Little Henry (1810), a paperback with seven cut-out card figures which was owned by the Brontës; the very famous 1848 drawing by Branwell depicting him summoned by Death.

The Branwell exhibition is complemented by an assorted selection of costumes worn in To Walk Invisible (designed by Tom Pye) distributed around the various rooms of the Parsonage. A selection of props, replicas and reproductions of manuscripts (including a copy of the original screenplay signed by the writer and actors) can be seen in the Exhibition Room. Finally, in the space between the Bonnell Room and the shop, a selection of beautiful stills by photographer Michael Prince documenting the production process: building the Parsonage replica or script reading by the actors.

This busy season at the Brontë Parsonage also includes Clare Twomey's project Wuthering Heights: A Manuscript, which we were told has had such an incredible reception that hours have had to be set in order to avoid finishing this 18-month-long project in a matter of a few weeks. We were lucky enough to take part in it.

The museum was bursting with visitors - crowded as we had never seen it before - and it was a delight to see. It's certainly a good time to visit: as a member of the staff told us, 'the parsonage has never looked better'.


(1) Including references to Paul Pogba's record fee, Facebook, coke, condoms and Branwell photo-bombing 
those darlings bitches witches sisters
in the Pillar portrait....


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