A MINOR COINCIDENCE: reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, I was struck by the moment when Clarissa looks into the window of Hatchards’ bookshop and reads from an open volume lines from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline:
The lines of poetry are from a song in the fourth act of Cymbeline. They are alluded to a number of other times in Mrs Dalloway, becoming a sort of motif in the book:
‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages
Thou thy worldy task hast done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers , come to dust’.
They seem to underline the theme of of death that runs through the novel, and the importance of grasping time before it runs through one’s fingers.
Quite by chance I read Mrs Dalloway while writing about the paintings of the artist Glenn Brown. One of his paintings, titled Come to Dust, made a strong impression on me hanging in an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery (just up the road from Hatchards’, off Berkeley Square) a few years ago.
Come to Dust is an eyecatching, unsettling image of St Catherine, using as a source a seventeenth-century painting by Bernardo Cavallino in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.
Brown takes older paintings, from Rembrandt to Auerbach, and makes his own versions of them, distorting them, altering the colours, and rendering the brushmarks in his distinctively flat, illusionistic style.
Brown also used the words from Shakespeare’s song for his title, Come to Dust. The theme of death and decay, of a troubled relationship with the past (in his case with the history of art), runs throughout his paintings. I began to wonder (particularly because it was Dalloway day) how you might draw, if at all, a connection between these two very different artists, Brown and Woolf.
I do not know if Brown reads or likes Virginia Woolf. What would Woolf have thought of Brown’s paintings? Perhaps she would have appreciated his quotations, his refined technique, and often highly emotional subject matter, as well as his literary titles. Perhaps not.
Beyond that it is all just a coincidence, but of a type that seems fitting for Mrs Dalloway, as if the writer and artist had collided for a moment on the corner of a street in Marylebone. One moment in Mrs Dalloway, at least, seems to mark a sort of imaginative convergence between the two: the famous description of the elderly woman Peter Walsh sees outside Regent’s Park Station, singing of love:
‘As the ancient song bubbled up opposite Regent’s Park Tube station still the earth seemed green and flowery; still, though it issued from so rude a mouth, a mere hole in the earth, muddy too, matted with root fibres and tangled grasses, still the old bubbling burbling song, soaking through the knotted roots of infinite ages, and skeletons and treasures, streamed away in rivulets over the pavement and all along the Marylebone Road, and down towards Euston, fertilising, leaving a damp stain’.
Woolf’s description doesn’t make me think of any particularly painting by Brown. It is more that her description of the old, bedraggled woman, both elegant and putrid, singing of love on the Euston Road, seems so close to the ‘Come to Dust’ atmosphere of Brown’s paintings.