bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

‘Sagacity’ Middlemore, the man who gave us Burckhardt

Posted in Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 1 February, 2015

Mention to an English-speaking Renaissance scholar the name of Middlemore and you are assured at least a flicker of recognition. Many – if not without some brain-wracking – will identify him as the translator of Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Some might be able to provide his initials but few could add further details. It has recently been noted on-line that little information about him is easily available. The only recent, brief discussion is by Ben Kohl in a valuable essay which sadly appeared only after his own death in the important collection edited by John Law and Bernadette Paton, Communes and Despots in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. As will be seen, Kohl’s brief discussion can be supplemented and corrected in certain respects. Beyond his paragraphs, there is a notable silence : S. G. C. Middlemore does not gain an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, or in the on-line Dictionary of Art Historians, or on the encyclopaedia du jour, Wikipedia – as yet. The man who introduced the Anglophone world to Burckhardt’s ‘essay’ – a foundational work that society is still struggling to forget – surely deserves more attention: it is through his eyes that Burckhardt’s vision is reflected for the crowd of scholars who first encountered Civilization in translation as an undergraduate and who have not later felt the need to compare it to the other versions, either in the original German or (for instance) in Italian, that exist. I myself have done that only briefly, in preparation for a paper given five years ago at a symposium organised by Oren Margolis in celebration of the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Burckhardt’s work. One outcome of that event was a recognition of how personal Middlemore’s choices as a translator were – where ‘personal’ might be, at times, a euphemism for ‘misleading’. This is a point Kohl also makes in his article, and our appreciation of this essential insight should make us all the more interested in knowing the man who has shaped for so many scholars their understanding of Burckhardt and, thus, of ‘the Renaissance’.
We might add to this the remarkable fact that the sole English translation of Civilization was published in 1878 when Middlemore was only thirty, and also throw in the nugget that it was not his only foray into Renaissance studies, for he wrote a short survey, The Great Age of Italian Painting, which appeared in print in the last days of 1889 – weeks before Middlemore’s early death. This, I hope, will be sufficient to persuade you that a brief rehearsal of his biography is a worthwhile addition to the treasure-trove of information which is the internet. I will admit, at once, that what follows is a work-in-progress, based to date on ‘soft’ research, drawn partly from what is available on-line but more substantially from a single printed source, the privately printed Some Account of the Family of Middlemore of Warwickshire and Worcestershire of 1901, by W. P. W. Phillimore assisted by W. F. Carter. This work is the origin of the synopses provided by the Visitation of England and Wales, vol. viii (it is to this that Kohl refers) and by the Biographical Register of Christ’s College [Cambridge], with both having some omissions and minor errors. I have supplemented this information with my own reading of Middlemore’s Great Age.
Samuel George Chetwynd Middlemore was born on 16th November 1848 into a large Birmingham family. His father, William (1802-87), inherited and directed the saddlers’ company of Middlemores on which the family’s wealth was based. He was also a Baptist, a philanthropist and a Liberal city councillor. One of Samuel’s elder brothers, John Throgmorton Middlemore (1844-1924), followed his father into politics, though in loyalty to Birmingham’s mayor, Joseph Chamberlain, when he entered Parliament in 1899, it was as a Liberal Unionist. Of Samuel’s own politics I am not yet aware but, as we will see, in religion he moved away from his family’s non-conformist commitment.
Samuel, like John, was educated at Edgbaston Proprietary School. In October 1866, he went up to Merton, Oxford, but his higher education was to be dogged by illness. It seems that he spent only a few terms in Oxford and, presumably for health reasons, travelled to the Continent and became an educational tourist: he attended Heidelberg, Zürich and Dresden, and would later mentioned in The Great Age hearing lectures from ‘one of the most eminent living specialists in historical studies in Germany’ on universal history. It is not clear whether during this trip he either ventured further south into Italy or came to know the work of Jacob Burckhardt. He returned to England and matriculated at Christ’s, Cambridge in early 1871; he was elected to a scholarship the following year but, in September 1873, again left university due to ill health. ‘Thenceforward his life was spent in literature and travel’, according to Phillimore’s Account. ‘He had a perfect knowledge of German and Italian, spoke and wrote French fluently, and had a fair literary knowledge of Spanish, besides being acquainted with some of the Swiss and Italian patois’.
It was in the following years that Middlemore came to work on Burckhardt’s Civilization. It was on 20th December 1875 that he wrote, in German and from Birmingham, to ‘Herr Professor’, expressing his hope that Burckhardt would give his blessing to an English translation. The work, as is well known, appeared three years later, published in two volumes by Kegan Paul, who described it as an ‘authorised translation’. Around this time, Middlemore seems to have moved to London: he was a correspondent for The Saturday Review and became a member of the Savile Club. One of his acquaintances was Robert Louis Stevenson who, as a play on his initials, nicknamed him Sagacity Middlemore, saying ‘it suits his type, his eye, his character’.
I do not yet know where or when Middlemore met his future wife – it was in Florence on 18 April 1881 that he married Maria Trinidad Howard Sturgis (known as Nina, to her friend Emma Lazarus). She had been born in the Philippines on 26 July 1846, the daughter of the American consul there. Like her husband, she was a traveller and an author, translating from Spanish Round a Posada Fire (1883), Spanish Legendary Tales (1885) and Songs of the Pyrenees (1887). She was Roman Catholic and Samuel entered the communion, in London, in December 1886; soon after, they moved to Malvern and a house called ‘Sunnyside’. Their move may partly have been encouraged by the opening of the town’s School of Art where Samuel was to give the lectures which formed the basis of The Great Age of Italian Painting. The preface of that book is dated ‘November 1889’ but soon after the author was, once again, back in Italy. Whether he travelled ill and in the hope of recovery or was taken sick in Rome is unclear, but on 27th January 1890, he died of pneumonia at the Hotel Bristol. His wife, back in Malvern, was not to be a widow for long: on 11th February 1890 she too died. It is a sad end to our tale.
There is, patently, more to be discovered. As yet, I do not know what happened to Middlemore’s library, let alone his letters or papers – and I would, of course, welcome any information. I certainly wish to consider more the light his lectures shed on his reading of Burckhardt and on his knowledge of Italian art. There is (to confine myself for now to a single comment) a story to be told about how his interest in the German’s works – both the Cicerone and Civilization – was part of an English reaction against the fashions promoted by the pre-Raphaelites. On that, more another time and in another place.

The Cult of the Renaissance in modern Britain

Posted in British Renaissance interest by bonaelitterae on 1 January, 2010

I share with that simpatico scholar, John Law, a hobby of collecting signs of late modern British interest in the Renaissance. Littered in our nation’s churches, often autonomous or, if signed, by amateur female artists, are paintings, tapestries and other pieces which attempt to recreate the style of Renaissance art. Some can be quite accomplished, others much less so. As I singularly failed to send out Christmas cards this year, what follows is by way of a belated substitute, intended for John’s enjoyment.

A couple of months ago I visited the church of St Michael’s, Steeple Claydon, Buckinghamshire. It is one of those churches where nineteenth-century restoration has obscured much of its medieval character: for instance, it is clear that there was once a side chapel in what is now the south transept, since visible in the chancel is one end of a squint, through which the chapel celebrant would have been able to spy the high altar as mass was being performed. It is now blocked in and there is no sign of it from the transept. But what there is, on the west wall, is a small canvas, depicting the Madonna and Child.

Madonna and Child

This, as you can see, does not fall into the accomplished category; perhaps it is best that, in this instance, there is no evidence for its creator. There is no information in the church to enlighten us of its origins; to guess from its appearance, it is surely from the first half of the twentieth century.  What interests me is that its arrangement of the main figures, with a standing red-head child Christ held by His blue-caped mother, suggests a familiarity with the treatments of that theme by Giovanni Bellini (as, for instance, in The Madonna of the Trees in the Accademia), a style which found an earlier northern imitator in Albrecht Durer. However, the gathering of the angels in the background around the two figures suggest that a major or additional influence might have been Andrea Mantegna’s painting of this subject, now in the Brera. If you, though, can think of any other source, I would be most grateful for advice.

What seems most likely, though, is that this painting, like some others I have seen, suggests an interest in Renaissance art which focuses not on the Florentine tradition but instead turns for inspiration to north-east Italy and to the Veneto. Let me cite just one other example: there is an imitation of Perugino’s Certosa Altarpiece (National Gallery, London) close to the Atlantic coastline in the church of St. Materiana, Tintagel; its artist is one of those women to whom I alluded above: her name is recorded as Miss Laura Dickinson. But, so that I do not create the impression that the art of Florence was entirely forgotten by these British imitators, I should add that the same church of Tintagel includes another painting by another woman artist (noted as ‘Miss Florence Cooper’) — it is a lunette depicting the Virgin breast-feeding, based on the image by Botticelli.

Finally, let me add another image, intended to remind us that it is not just in paint that modern imitations occur. The thirteenth-century church of North Moreton in south Oxfordshire includes a remarkable high altar, added in 1867. It is formed with two outsize marble slabs, one on each side of a central panel which is itself a mosaic, depicting the Crucifixion. Precisely which Renaissance depictions the creator of this altarpiece had in mind, I am not sure — Masaccio might provide the inspiration for the general layout (perhaps with a nod to Fra Angelico?), though the body of Christ might suggest the influence (once more) of Perugino. But I leave you with this image and, John, wish you all the best for a 2010 full of hunting for more remnants of Britain’s former love for the Renaissance.

High Altar, All Saints, North Moreton