Bannockburn and the 2014 Referendum
Okay, I want to be honest with my readers. My students know me well, but many of you are not familiar with my agenda in life. I teach humanities at a university in the US. My favorite class is art history. Actually, I taught art history while I was an undergraduate at Muskingum College in my senior year, which was 1964-65. I was a teaching assistant to Louie Palmer.
Of all the paintings in the history of art, Joseph Mallord William Turner's The Fighting Téméraire is considered by the British to be their favorite painting. I have loved it since the first time that I took The Arts in college in my junior year. I have a print of it hanging in my home. In 2005, the British people voted The Fighting Téméraire their best painting.
A distant second was Constables' The Hay Wain, which I also like a great deal.
Both paintings are at the National Gallery in London, which is located interestingly in front of Trafalgar Square. The Battle of Trafalgar was the naval battle from which the Téméraire got all its glory while attempting to protect Lord Nelson and his flag ship, Victory. There I was at the beginning of last week in London, England to see this greatest of all paintings.
Therein lies my problem. Since 2010, when the Scots began the push seriously for what is called devolution or what we call independence, I have taken a keen interest in following these developments in Scotland. On September 18, 2014, the Scots are having a national referendum on whether to secede from the United Kingdom.
This would leave Great Britain radically changed from the height of her Empire...and empire upon which the sun never sets.
Today, this is the British Empire.
What now remains are England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, a part of Antarctica, and about a dozen little islands. That is a dramatic reduction of their greatest reach. I started researching Scotland's independence movement when I studied in Edinburgh 45-years ago. And during the more than 4-decades, I have hardly ever read or talked to a secessionist who wanted Scotland free from England. Some were nostalgic of the good old days of years long gone, but very few were into outright independence.
Having said that there is a strong movement in Scotland now to withdraw from the UK, I wanted to discover more. The referendum is scheduled for next year, the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn when the Scots got their independence again. Scotland had always been independent from the southern part of the island. Hadrian's Wall separated the two groups.
I weighed the advice that Sean Connery gave for leaving Scotland. He said that he would not go back to his home until the Scots were free again. My resolution was not to return to England until Scotland was free again. And therein lays the glitch.
I made plans to study and travel back in Scotland after nearly half a century of being away, but I wanted to see The Fighting Téméraire. Actually, after Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie in which The Fighting Téméraire had a brief cameo, I've wanted to talk with someone at the National Gallery. I wanted an employee to talk about the painting and tell my students how British people feel about the painting. Therefore, I was willing to make a deal with the devil. I'd fly to London late at night, and the next morning, I would go to the National Gallery for an interview. Then I would that evening fly directly to Edinburgh, Scotland, which means I spent less than a day in England.
Because of my teaching an art history class, I emailed several requests to speak with someone at the National Gallery. I got back only one reply with one suggestion that I should buy a book about Turner's painting. The issue wasn't about the history of the events and why Turner painted the picture...that I have known most of my adult life. I needed to talk with someone about how that person felt about The Fighting Téméraire being selected as the top painting in all of Britain. That I don't know, and my students would take that person's feeling and thought far more seriously than my personal opinion. However, I was told that everyone at the National Gallery was too busy to deal with these special requests.
Getting nowhere and hoping to talk with someone else, I actually called the National Gallery. Unfortunately, the same person answered the phone that suggested that I buy a book. And again, I explained my need and was told the same thing...too busy. I must have sounded most mournful. Then the person said that she would look into it. I was to come to the front desk when I arrived on Tuesday morning when the National Gallery opened and tell them my request of speaking with someone about The Fighting Téméraire.
I honestly thought that she understood my request...just 15-minutes was all I needed. I felt sheer joy that I would soon be experiencing 2-moments of supreme excitement: seeing The Fighting Téméraire and talking to a person from the UK about that painting being that country's greatest possession.
I booked a flight from Chicago to London, spent $150 to get from Heathrow Airport to the St. Georges Hotel near the National Gallery. That night at the hotel cost an additional $260. That was about $400 more than I really should have spent. However, I would have spent $1000 to see the painting and interview someone about it. They were all too busy for some American professor who teaches art history.
Therefore, I was there at the National Gallery bright and early Tuesday morning. I went directly to the main desk, introduced myself, and explained why I was there. I told the receptionist about my phone call and what the person from the National Gallery told me to do when I arrived.
The person at the main desk said that my contact wasn't working that day. My heart fell. Then I told the person at the desk what the absent contact told me about a curator to whom she had talked about my request. The person at the front desk seemed to appreciate my mix of great joy and great angst. She then went to see the curator to explain my case. Within less than 2-minutes, she returned with the actual two books suggested by the first email response. I explained to the person that I have read all the material; what I needed was the thoughts and feelings of a person from the National Galley about The Fighting Téméraire.
The person at the desk said that she was told that it is a policy of the National Gallery not to do special requests for even professors who teach art history at the university level. However, the curator suggested that I would go to see The Fighting Téméraire in Gallery 34.
There I was without an interview or even someone from the gallery taking time to tell me face to face that they were too busy. So Ann and I went to Gallery 34 housing several of Turner's paintings including The Fighting Téméraire. I would have gone without the suggestion of the curator. Duh.
I knew when we got to Gallery 34, because of the crowd of people who were going into the room. There were a couple hundred people that milled around the very large area containing about a dozen large paintings in that room. They would stand in front of a painting, admire it, think about it, and move on. I have done that dance many, many times in many, many museums both in the US and in Europe. Finally, they would arrive at The Fighting Téméraire...and stop.
I have never in all my life seen so many people in awe of one painting...ever. They stood in front of The Fighting Téméraire and thought. Finally, I could stand before what both the British and I consider the greatest painting. I stood and stared. Finally, I sat in front of the painting with Ann...and we sat and stared.
Then a most interesting thing occurred. While we did the ritual viewing in awe of Turner's painting, a group of about 3-dozen little kids came in following someone from the National Gallery. These children were either in 1st or 2nd grade. They sat on the floor in a semicircle in front of The Fighting Téméraire. The National Gallery person explained basically the story behind the painting...just about what I have said for nearly a half century. They were asked questions and the employee would make sure that the group understood the meaning and the message behind Turner's painting. After the instructor finished, the kids could just sit in awe of the painting for a few moments and then get up and moved onto another gallery.
I got up again and approached the painting. Other adults came up and stood beside me...stood, stared, and thought. The others quietly pondered the painting and they too moved on, but I remained standing there. What could I say, "Mr. Turner, that is a great painting"? So I just stood there looking at details that I had never seen...the sunset was very thick paint. The Téméraire looked almost ghostly real. There were other objects in the water that few even notice. There is another sailing ship in the background behind the Téméraire and the tug towing that great ship.
While in Gallery 34 that morning, several other groups of young children came into the gallery and some other employee instructed them about Turner's painting. It was interesting to me to see those groups of young children. When we think of London, England, we don't think of the racial, ethnic, and national differences that I saw that Tuesday morning...all learning about Turner and what the British consider their greatest painting.
I was amused by the great interest that the National Gallery has in helping students grasp the meaning and message of The Fighting Téméraire. The National Gallery is ensuring the next generation about the gallantry and valor of those who fought for their country on the Téméraire. However, it didn't amuse me that they couldn't spend 10 or 15-minutes with an American who teaches about this great painting to his own students back in the States. I have taught about this painting longer than most of the employees at the National Gallery have been alive.
As I left, I thought about the arrogance and hubris displayed by the National Gallery to my simple request. In the hour or so that I was in Gallery 34, the National Gallery had responded to several elementary teachers by granting them their special request but won't for another teacher from America who teaches his students about The Fighting Téméraire by Turner. I really expected more from the English, but others have been disappointed by them.
I had high hopes about talking to someone about the painting and learning about how they feel about this painting. Nevertheless, it proved to be a great learning experience about how some up in Scotland feel about the English and their treatment of the Scots. I am looking forward to September 18, 2014 when the Scots vote on the referendum on their independence. 2014 will be the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn when the English were defeated by the Scots. Maybe this time, the Scots will defeat the English again and begin again an independent country that even the Romans couldn't control.
I felt certain that First Minister Alex Salmond would have understood the time and money that I spent regarding that painting. I had made a deal with the devil...a costly deal but felt that Salmond and the Scottish National Party (SNP) would understand.
Visit the Scottish Independence page to read more about this topic.