25 March 2011
Adrian Stokes: an aesthete in Hyde Park
JONATHAN RABAN’S 1974 book Soft City was an influential work of popular sociology examining the rootlessness of life in the modern city. In it, Raban quotes from Inside Out: An Essay in the Psychology and Aesthetic Appeal of Space, written in 1945 by the art critic and painter Adrian Stokes.
Raban was brought up in Norfolk and his writing occasionally has the pugnaciousness of the newcomer who thinks he’s more vital and authentic than the native-born Londoner. When Stokes describes his early memory of how ‘a street became informed for me by the sounds of a barrel organ’, Raban pounces on it as an example of the egocentric synaesthesia he thinks is typical of city-bred children – this little townie went me-me-me all the way home.
London is like a vortex cartwheeling across time and it draws energy from the life-force of young immigrants like Raban, who moved there in his late twenties. Adrian Stokes, however, was reared in the wealthy neighbourhood of Bayswater, near Hyde Park and inside the airless dead calm of the storm’s centre.
From his descriptions of Edwardian-era Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens we can imagine a solemn-faced little boy in a sailor suit being led around by his governess. Unlike Iris Murdoch, who enthused about the Round Pond being the joyous spiritual navel or ‘omphalos’ of London, Stokes’s memories of the parks are almost wholly negative. Even the mechanism forcing the fountains doesn’t intrigue him much:
The machine house of the fountains, for instance, had an ominous air. A scour of mysterious steam hung over a sunken tank at the back of the engine house and was apprehended at the same time as the smell of oil and the clanking of the lethal cylinders. The cold and grinding mechanism was housed in Portland stone of a late Victorian style, both white and darkened.
Stokes mentions some features which have vanished from the auditory scenes of Hyde Park, including a herd of sheep (there presumably to keep the grass short), and park-keepers armed with whistles:
The keepers had boxes scattered in the park, so that their emergence could have something of the suddenness associated with the paratroop whose landing has not been observed. The keepers carried whistles. Emergence from a telephone booth is always associated by me with the fingering of something tucked away on one side of the chest, a cold, punishing little organ that it was a positive duty to handle. When a park whistle was blown near the fountains, the shrill sound seemed to travel on an eagle journey, piercing the water pellets whose clattering was considerable. In fact, you had to shout to make yourself heard near the fountains.
Military bands playing on bandstands also disappeared from the central parks after the IRA bomb in 1982 killed seven bandsmen and injured dozens of bystanders. The Magazine in Kensington Gardens by the Serpentine was used to store explosives until around 50 years ago. In the early 1900s it was guarded by a sentry:
The best epitome of massive, meticulous incoherence provided by the Park, was the Magazine at the end of the Serpentine Bridge. Explosive powder stood stored in this building of grey brick. A sentry always marched outside, and for all I know, does so to this day. Potential murder and death were guarded with careful pageantry. Except for the sentry’s footfall there was a silence about the place, the seat of the greatest potential noise.
Stokes recalls how a police account of the dead body of a suicide recovered from the Serpentine ‘exactly expressed my predominant impression of the Park as a whole’. The following lines are reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s descriptions of London in The Secret Agent as like a dank and scummy fishtank:
The walk home was marked by the passage underneath the Serpentine bridge. The dirty echoing tunnel with its lingering airs was cold at all times of the year. It was as if the passage lay beneath the dark water, here at its deepest according to a notice of warning. A dog would be barking like Cereberus. In view of the thunderous echoes, additional heads would have been in keeping.
Raban saw theatricality as an inevitable feature of the behaviour of city dwellers, a strategy to avoid isolation. Stokes the aesthete found the architecture and layout of Edwardian London to be suffocating with its ‘shamelessness of pretence’. He would escape the eye of the vortex to have his moment of enlightenment in Italy when he was nineteen:
As the train came out of the Mont Cenis tunnel, the sun shone, the sky was a deep, deep, bold blue. I had half-forgotten about my table for more than ten years. At once I saw it everywhere, on either side of the train, purple earth, terraces of vine and olive, bright rectangular houses free of atmosphere, of the passage of time, of impediment, of all the qualities which steep and massive roofs connote in the north. The hills belonged to man in this his moment. The two thousand years of Virgilian past that carved and habituated the hillsides, did not oppress: they were gathered in the present aspect. At the stations before Turin, the pure note of the guard’s horn but sustained and reinforced the process by which time was here laid out as ever-present space.
Elsewhere in Inside Out, Stokes considers the role of sound in how we form our impressions of city life:
It is noticeable that not only were these fantasies provoked by sound but contain in them the projection of a great deal of noise. Even the scenes of my early childhood sustained their life through movement, the circulation of traffic. Where there is movement there is noise, and from the noise we fashion images of movement. In our urban life, sound qualifies visually scenes which otherwise are confusing and meaningless to the eye. What the eye alone might perceive is inhuman to a degree. [. . .] We are entire strangers to Oxford Street in the two minutes’ silence. Plastic interplay of noise and movement gives some meaning to contemporary environment.
A full reading of Inside Out (which doesn’t take long) shows Raban’s criticisms to be opportunistic. He just wants ammunition with which to launch a more general argument. Stokes’s ideas on sound perception show the limitations of the introspective method, but they amount to more than a stoned fascination with sounds rendered as shapes and colours, Fantasia-style.
This website, perhaps run by one of his descendants, has a collection of essays about Adrian Stokes. The Wikipedia entry on him quotes Richard Read acknowledging his ‘phenomenological precision’. Inside Out has a good example of this about sound which can round off the post:
Trains, shunting, trains. How the trucks knock, knob and jostle one another. I lie high up, in a hot bath: the vast window is open. I feel this experience acutely, the shunting and re-arrangement of trains in the early morning, particularly while I myself am immobile, attentive: the rearrangement, re-shuffle of passenger and freight for further long striding journeys, impinges deeply on the mind. It is a residue, an echo, this shunting, in the concrete or physical form of externality down there in the cold, clear air. To me an echo, it might be taking place in the sky which is all I can see from the bath: a strange yet characteristic inversion. The echo intimates something solid, definite - I don’t watch to catch my fingers between the buffers – while the original is a fantasy buried deep in the mind.