Dovecote studios Caulfield Pause on the Landing tapestry
Patrick Caulfield, The British Library and Tristram Shandy including works by John Hoyland, Tom Phillips, Martin Rowson, Anthony Whishaw and students from the University of Teesside.
The Old Granary Gallery, Shandy Hall, May 6th to June 24th 2005
The centrepiece of this exhibition was the design for a tapestry. It was conceived by the artist Patrick Caulfield for the British Library, St.Pancras, but had not yet been realised. We were proud to exhibit the design for the first time, along with a sample of the tapestry created for this exhibition by the Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh, at the instigation of the architect of the British Library, Sir Colin St John Wilson.
The landing on the British Library steps, where the finished tapestry would finally hang, was recreated in the Shandy Hall gallery, by John Oldham Woodworking.
Section of Caulfield Pause on the landing tapestry at Shandy Hall Gallery
Patrick Caulfield chose to illustrate Volume 4 chapters 8 – 12 of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and intended the tapestry to hang on the ‘Shandy Hall Landing’ in the Conference Centre. A generous sponsor has been found and it was learned, just before this exhibition opened, that the whole tapestry is now being woven.
The subject is a comic episode in which Walter and Toby Shandy, engrossed in conversation on their way down a flight of stairs, pause for a considerable time on the landing. Walter several times extends his foot on to the next step downwards, only to withdraw it each time he warms to his next topic of conversation.
So difficult does Sterne find it to get his characters off the stairs that he eventually employs a hack writer to come into his novel to do it for him, and when later in the book a conversation again ensues on a staircase, Sterne has to reassure the reader: ‘Do not be terrified, Madam, this staircase conversation is not so long as the last.’ (Chapter 30)
The episode begins with a Chapter of chances – how do we equip ourselves to deal with the many misfortunes that chance throws at us? Toby suggests religion. Walter thinks we can counterbalance evil with good, and that by naming his son Trismegistus, (“Thrice great”) he will arm him against further troubles.
“WE shall bring all things to rights, said my father, setting his foot upon the first step from the landing — This Trismegistus, continued my father, drawing his leg back, and turning to my uncle Toby — was the greatest (Toby) of all earthly beings – ”
Tristram, poor boy, instead of being thrice great, suffers three crushing blows: one with the squashing of his nose by Dr Slop’s forceps; another by his being misnamed Tristram and a third with the unfortunate premature closing of the sash window.
The pause on the landing – on the very stairs where stands the clock that entered Mrs Shandy’s head, with such unfortunate results, at the crucial point of Tristram’s conception – is a moment out of time in which Toby and Walter Shandy discuss chance, the misfortunes of life, and ponder how to deal with them. The episode is not just comic, but a meditation on change, chaos, and much else besides, and it gives rich scope for the artists who have taken up the challenge for this exhibition.
The clock, symbol and measure of the passing of time, has a central role in Caulfield’s tapestry. It is the clock which is depicted in the sample woven by Dovecot studios and which forms the centrepiece over the ‘landing’ at the far end of the gallery (modelled on the British Library stairs). Consciousness of the speed of passing time shows everywhere in Tristram Shandy – often with comic effect – as in this passage of the impossibility of recording a life in detail while living it at the same time:
‘I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my fourth volume — and no farther than to my first day’s life — ’tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out ; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it — on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back– was every day of my life to be as busy a day as this — And why not ? — at this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write — It must follow, an’ please your worships, that the more I write, the more I shall have to write — and consequently, the more your worships read, the more your worships will have to read. Will this be good for your worships’ eyes?’
Underlying the comedy is a serious consciousness that life is short, and we must live it to the full:
‘Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen: the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more– every thing presses on–whilst thou art twisting that lock,–see! it grows grey’ Vol 4 67
Sterne’s ‘live the moment’ attitude springs perhaps from his knowledge that he was ill and that his life would not be long. The energy and speed of ‘Tristram Shandy’ is driven by his consciousness of having to live life to the full, with death at his heels he resolves to live life at a gallop!
‘had I not better, Eugenius, fly for my life? ‘Tis my advice my dear Tristram, said Eugenius – Then by heaven! I will lead him a dance he little thinks of – …’
The ‘curious vehicle’ which is man, is constantly jolted and jostled by misfortunes, but Walter talks of the ‘secret spring within us’ which ‘sets all things to rights’. For Sterne, this secret spring is high spirits and laughter. As he writes in the dedication to Tristram Shandy:
‘..it is written in a bye corner of the kingdom, and in a retir’d thatch’d house, where I live in a constant endeavour to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles, — but much more so, when he laughs, it adds something to this Fragment of Life.