22 June 2024

My good people

 Wise people who frequent the exquisite little Penlee Gallery in Penzance will be familiar with one of its prize exhibits: The rain it raineth every day (1889); by the Irish artist Norman Garstin (1847-1926). It shows the rain-swept Promenade at Penzance.  But in 2003, another of his pictures passed through the London Sale Rooms, and here is part of the Christie's Catalogue entry, quoting the artist's letter to his artist daughter Alethea.

"In 1912 Garstin held a summer sketching party at Guemene sur Scorff in Brittany. One Sunday in early July, the party 'suddenly came upon a tiny church by a couple of farmhouses, very primitive and simple. Just as we arrived the procession started, all peasants, some men and women carrying banners, and a few little red acolytes attending a priest in a yellow cape ... it was all wonderfully pictorial. Then they filed back again ... and came to the back of the church, where there was a great pile of brush wood. The people stood in a circle and the yellow robed priest set fire to the great pile ... the effect was really delightful and pagan. It was St. John's Eve and these fires came down from the Druids, tho' the good people did not know it ...'"

Frankly, I dislike the tone of this. Presumably 'yellow cape' means he was wearing a golden cope. Garstin has little interest in the meaning of it all: "it was all wonderfully pictorial". And "the effect was really delightful and pagan". 

I doubt if modern academics would glibly drag the Druids into it. 

But worst of all, the phrase "the good people". The adjective 'good' so commonly expresses the disdain of people who stoke up their own self-esteem by ... disdaining those upon whom they look down. 

The word safely avoids being overtly disrespectful ... but we are left in no doubt who are, culturally, the Great and the Grand Spectators; the superior Well-Informed Outsiders with the aloof certainties. 

And, equally, we make clear who are the poor simple folk whose actions we understand so very much better than they do themselves.