A PASSION FOR THEATRE

A memorial to Sarah Vernon compiled by her closest friends.

Sarah in 2008

Sarah Vernon had, to use her own phrase, “a passion for theatre”.

Like many actors’ children, she could never be sure if she would have gone into the entertainment industry if her parents, Richard Vernon and Benedicta Leigh, had not been in the profession.

It wasn’t an industry or a job for Sarah: it was a romance and a calling. Being an actor was her body and soul, an act of love uniting emotional longing with technical accomplishment, a child’s dream of perfection made real.

Her performing career was cut short by the progression of a rare autoimmune disease. Her contribution to promoting the importance, and fun, of theatre in everyday life was far more than a list of credits could represent.

She trained, and made lasting friendships, at Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art from 1975-78. Her professional work was predominantly in Repertory and touring theatre, and on the London Fringe. She also gave characteristically intelligent and sensitive performances on television, such as Janet Nowt in Paradise Postponed, and Jean Gaunt in The Bill.

Studio headshot of Sarah Vernon c.1985-88

Her impressive height and voice, a beautifully modulated instrument, deep, rich and melodious, gave her authority and an aura of raffish grandeur, redolent of great players of the past, belying her vulnerability.

Her unaffected refinement, gentle, quizzical expression and understated emotion made her natural casting for period plays, though she had misgivings about her suitability for one part early in her career, as the passive victim in Gas Light.

As Sarah herself recounted: ‘“You would have called the gas board a long time before,” said my mother after seeing me as Bella Manningham…It was a piece of miscasting that could only have happened in weekly rep.’

Sarah claimed she was thankful when it was over, but she relished the challenges and spontaneity of weekly rep, the traditional apprenticeship of stage actors, especially her happy summer season at Folkestone in 1983, working in the Art Deco Leas Pavilion.

She was completely at ease in one of her last stage appearances, the sophisticated, fun-loving and witty Dona Lucia in Charley’s Aunt at The Shaw Theatre, in 1997.

Sarah – “this beautiful lady” and “amazing lady” recalled by her peers – was a lady in the classic sense, with impeccable manners on and off-stage, thoughtful and kind to other people, sharing her sense of humour in every company.

The written word was as important to her as the spoken word. She was an enthusiastic member and organizer of the Hammersmith Actors and Writers Group in the 1990s.

Sarah was proud to have been “born in a trunk”. She believed acting was her destiny. She grew up learning from her parents and other actors; by watching and listening and asking questions she became a discriminating critic of the best techniques and styles in her early teenage years, while she prepared for her vocation.

When limited cutaneous systemic sclerosis forced her to retire from stage work, she reinvented herself online as the custodian of great acting traditions which she believed should be passed on to new generations of performers. From 2001 she sacrificed time and money to her Rogues & Vagabonds website, a constantly updated online magazine about theatre and acting, publishing reviews, interviews and anecdotes.

She was a naturally gifted writer and scrupulous editor, who gave opportunities to many other aspiring writers as well as established authors and academics.

She was encouraging and exacting, charming everyone into producing their best work and coaxing talents out of other people that they didn’t know they had. Good writing delighted her; grammatical errors and untidy sentences upset her well-ordered mind.

Sarah never stopped looking, learning and working. Every time she changed location, she embraced and contributed to the community. She was at home on islands, preferably in a warm climate, but she was always part of the main.

Sarah, at her happiest by the sea in a hot climate, while she was living on Crete, 2014

Sarah was proud of old-fashioned virtues, and her yearning to commune with the past was as strong as her passion for theatre. Her mind was too sharp, too inquiring, to dwell anywhere but in the present.

She was always well-informed about current events, and engaged with political and humanitarian causes. Her life’s work was to bring the best of the past to enlighten the present. “How can we improve our future if we don’t understand the past?” The current state of Britain angered and grieved her.

In her friendships she showed a similar, whole-hearted commitment to the truth. She was caring, affectionate and loyal, and, in the biggest demonstration of love, did not shrink from criticizing when necessary. Most of the time, she wanted to share “the joy of friendship”.

Photo of Sarah Vernon with her greatest friend, Helen Pearson, in the 1990s.
“We set the world to rights, gave each other advice,
lifted each other’s spirits and laughed…I can face the day”.
(Sarah Vernon commenting on Facebook, after a telephone conversation with Helen on 9 June 2017.)

She conquered social media with her humour, wit and visual flair. In the last decade of her life, the actress and writer turned herself into an equally dedicated and admired digital designer. Her taste was vintage; her techniques were modern. Defying her disabilities, she managed, edited and contributed to her First Night Design website, her three blogs and online newspapers devoted to “Art, Design, Theatre, Literature, History, Food, Laughter”.

Her focus on working, day and night, on her computer could appear obsessive to her friends and companions, concerned about her health; it is clear in retrospect that she was afraid she would run out of time.

She was haunted by her adolescence, as “a girl who’s been emotionally abandoned by her mother and whose father doesn’t know how to interact with his daughter and can’t be disturbed anyway because of learning lines.” (Sarah commenting on Facebook, 31 January, 2018.) The measure of Sarah was that instead of resenting her parents, she strove to understand them. She admired their achievements and honoured their memory.

Sarah, the child of the stage, could have been a casualty of the devil’s profession, but she was saved by self-determination. She cultivated her many literary and artistic talents and preserved her life-enhancing sense of humour. She addressed the past and present with equal intellectual force, she was computer and internet savvy, she was an entrepreneur, she was a sweet friend and she was brave, till the end.

She was still designing, still writing, during her last illness. Her mind could not stay still. She was inspired and burdened by heritage and history. She deplored bigotry and cruelty, and a mis-apostrophized word, as much as she loved laughter and beauty in an often painful life.

She died in hospital on the Isle of Wight on 13th January, 2021, aged sixty-four.

SARAH BENEDICTA VERNON
25th November 1956 – 13th January 2021

Bertel Thorvaldsen ‘Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy’, c. 1836,
Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen

 

Pippa Rathborne © 2021

The comfort of dogs

Wright of Derby, Joseph, 1734-1797; Maria, from SterneHeartbroken Maria, with her beloved dog, Sylvio, from Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768) by the great Joseph Wright of Derby.
Ferens Art Gallery. Image source: All Things Georgian an essential online guide to the society and culture of the British 18th century.

“Her goat had been as faithless as her lover; and she had got a little dog in lieu of him, which she had kept tied by a string to her girdle: as I looked at her dog, she drew him towards her with the string.—“Thou shalt not leave me, Sylvio,” said she. I look’d in Maria’s eyes and saw she was thinking more of her father than of her lover, or her little goat; for, as she utter’d them, the tears trickled down her cheeks.” From ‘Maria’, in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne (1768)

Maria is another casualty in the line of emotionally abandoned girls, like Ophelia, driven out of her mind by grief from a lover’s desertion and a father’s death, and Marianne Dashwood, whose excess of 18th century sensibility is the same as a major depressive disorder today, and real-life sisters, Sally and Maria Siddons.

Rose tiara

Rose Tiara, Me Too Era © PJR

This ghostly exuberance, this rose-pink nostalgia, pink, the colour of ironic femininity and about-to-be-lost illusions, knowing and sweet; this decaying crown of experience in the benighted, bee-endangered, Brexit semi-coma is the last shout of beauty on the edge of dying.

On the edge of good taste, too, some would say. Such overt flirtation and florid excess, such abandonment to the moment, such tender voluptuousness, too fragile to touch; their éclat is not for all seasons.

Performance at this level is exhausting. Tomorrow, or the day after, their lovely faces will shrivel, shrink from their reflections, and shed fragrant tears, little pink silk sheets littering the floor, until they are bald.  I owe them the courtesy of hiding them before anyone else sees them like that.

On my last English mantelpiece, the flush of full-blown roses looks dimmed, as if an interfering prig has veiled a group of over-dressed, over-scented, over-the-top fifty-something women at a party long ago, their magnificent defiance muted into memory – 

nah, old pink roses will be back screaming and shouting at you from somewhere next year.

Flaming June

Flaming June by Frederic Leighton, 1895.

“Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul
When hot for certainties in this our life!”
George Meredith, Modern Love, 1891

Here is art for art’s sake, feminine beauty celebrated for aesthetics, not individual rights; sensual delight enjoyed at the expense of reason; a revelling in red and yellow, the apotheosis of orange; amoral, superficial, cheesy and good enough to eat; the taste of strawberries and cream or the touch of hot sun on your neck while you drowse on a hot summer’s day. All that, and a picture that will immortalize her, but not enough to make her happy. When she wakes up, the world will disappoint her.

A woman thinking outside her box

Circle of Robert Peake, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1619
Adopting the conventional Renaissance pose of melancholic meditation, the young woman rests her head on her left hand.
At the same time, she rebels against the constrictions of mortality, and expectations of how young women should behave and think.
Her right hand reaches out of the frame, in the style of Baroque trompe l’oeil, challenging the observer’s perceptions of reality, and testing the limits of her own and the artist’s power.
She is forever in transition between two states, dabbling her fingers in eternity.
It’s only a game, a flirtation, a harmless trick to beguile us all – or is it? Though she appears so prim and proper, purse-lipped and passive, her gaze is directed out at you and me, not inwards.
She’s reflecting melancholically about us, not herself.
“Don’t tell me what to do. Don’t tell me what to feel and think. You don’t know me, though you think you do. I’m coming out of this frame you’ve put me in. There’s lots to do in the world out there. What about you? What are you doing? What have you done? Take my hand, and I’ll be with you, now and always”.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Shakespeare, Sonnet 18 Written between 1593 and 1601, published in 1609.

The Autonomous Woman

I’m still looking at her. I lied in the previous post about ambivalence. I know very well that she is informed, not defined, by other people’s abuse.  This post is too long for comfort, but if you want to see Artemisia Gentileschi meet Jane Austen, read on.

marymagdaleneArtemesiaG The Penitent Mary Magdalen 1620-25
Oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Image: WGA

“Till this moment I never knew myself”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813

Of all women, why should the Magdalene repent? As a composite of erotic and spiritual love, a triumphant victim of patriarchy who earned her own living, became a player in global religion, and a legendary heroine of romance, we should be honest enough to celebrate, not patronize her.

Whatever the true source of her anguish, the distraught Magdalen is looking into the darkest shadows of her psyche. She is examining her own actions, thoughts and feelings, holding herself to account. We are looking at her at the moment she knows herself.

Gentileschi also cast Mary Magdalene, the sinning woman, as the personification of  Melancholy, an ambivalent attribute.

ArtemisiaGentileschiMaryMagdaleneMelancholy

Artemisia Gentileschi, Maria Maddalena come la Malinconia 1621 -25.
Oil on canvas. Museo del Soumaya, Mexico City. Image: Wikipedia.

The Renaissance began the modern cultivation of melancholy, or predisposition to depression, as a desirable creative condition, on the dubious premise that the more you suffer, the better your art. This has been proved true only in cases where there is pre-existing talent and a strong technique. Intensity of feeling alone never wrote a good book or painted a great picture. greatest struggle is to transmute personal experience into art

Gentileschi’s interpretation of a passive Temperament is characteristically unromantic: the sensual, dishevelled Magdalene is slumped in her chair, looking like a lethargic and sulky teenager, the opposite of her usually dynamic heroines.

Gentileschi (the daughter, not the father, the overshadowed Orazio, a dutiful father and fine painter in his own right) is a colussus straddling art and gender history. Continue reading

Ambivalence

Artemisia Gentileschi Susanna and the Elders 1610 Oil on canvas Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden.
Image: WGA
The first known work of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c. 1653) is a classic study of sexual harassment. Other painters often portrayed Susanna looking coy, sometimes willing, a starlet enjoying the attention of producers at the pool.
This Susanna is unambivalently saying NO

Some male painters visualized Susanna leading her old, fat, powerful voyeurs on to commit a completely consensual act of physical contact.

  Alessandro Allori Susanna and The Elders 1561 Oil on canvas, Musée Magnin, Dijon. Image: WGA.
No ambiguity here, jusr a compliant girl and a cute dog in a male abuser’s fantasy.

“I have been bullied by men and women, but the first to bully me were women.” Noelle Mackay #NotMeToo

hecate or the three fates blakeHecate or the Three Fates by William Blake, c. 1795. Tate Gallery London.
Image source: WGA

Hecate, sometimes on her own, sometimes three-headed, a triple deity, incarnates the ambivalence of all female power, from witchcraft to motherhood.

Artemisia Gentileschi The Penitent Mary Magdalen 1620-25
Oil on canvas, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence. Image: WGA

Of all women, why should the Magdalen repent? As a composite of erotic and spiritual love, a victim of patriarchy who earned her own living and became a player in global religion, we should be honest enough to celebrate, not punish her.

Whatever the true source of her anguish, the distraught Magdalen is looking into the darkest shadows of her psyche. She is examining her own actions, thoughts and feelings, holding herself to account.

In 1611, when she was about 21, Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by her art teacher (Tassi). She and her father were not afraid of disclosure. During the trial, as part of checks on her virginity, Artemisia was tortured.

The abused women in her mature paintings are strong, introspective, assertive, independent.

Nothing frivolous intrudes on the monumental composition of her paintings, where a constant battle for light and dark is played out with unforgiving realism.

She painted women in moments of terrifying self-knowledge, finding reserves of violent, sometimes murderous, passion they had never guessed before. Her subjects are not victims or martyrs, projecting self-pity or self-promotion. They take responsibility for their actions and emotions. They are heroines, avengers and fighters for justice; they are autonomous women.

“We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”
Jane Austen Mansfield Park 1814

 

 

Give them back their future

If you were young, how would you be feeling about your future, decided by your elders in a badly informed opinion poll last year?

Past and Present, No. 2 1858 by Augustus Leopold Egg 1816-1863Augustus Leopold Egg Past and Present, No 2 1858. Image: Tate

Two orphaned sisters are reduced to poverty and despair because of the actions of their parents. The elder girl is now responsible for both their fates, and neither she nor we see any hope for her as she looks yearningly at the moon.

On Saturday’s Unite For Europe march, the intelligence and passion of three speakers (Ismaeel Yaqoob, Elin Smith, Felix Milbank) representing Students for EU moved the crowd in Parliament Square and along Whitehall as in turn they pleaded eloquently for isolationist, zenophobic Brexit to be reversed so they can have their futures back.

The New Cosette, marching to Unite for Europe on 25 March, 2017 © Martin Hübscher

In 1858, Egg told another tale of an older generation’s betrayal of the young. A whole family, father, mother and two children, are victims of unfair, unnatural social rules designed by patriarchy to benefit itself.

Continue reading

The Epistolary Problem

“I made this [letter] very long, because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter.”
(Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.)
Blaise Pascal, apologizing to his correspondents in Letter XVI, Provincial Letters, 1656.

metsuman

Metsu, Man Writing a Letter 1662-65 Oil on panel. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Image: WGA

Surfing the net for versions of this quote, you come across English criticism of Pascal for not making his aphorism shorter. Translators improved on the original, which is spread in stately baroque fashion over two sentences, into variants of:

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter

This is pithier and therefore sounds wittier to English ears. It omits the rich caress of the word “loisir”and the grace notes of irony and politesse. Maybe the literal translation should only be said with a French shrug to make the rest of us appreciate its élan.

Pascal was not writing an Oscar Wilde play; les lettres provinciales are not a bourgeois comedy of manners. Pascal was engaged in intellectual battle with the powerful Jesuits, laying waste to their methods of ethical reasoning with impregnable arguments of his own.

Brevity is the soul of wit, but it is very difficult to be truthful, and fair to your casuistic opponent, in a few words.

No-one likes receiving a letter of complaint, of any length, and finding the time to read it is a chore.

It is easy to write a short love letter, which the recipient would be happy to find leisure to read again and again. Anyone looking at them would think they were wasting time:

metsuwomanreading

Metsu, Woman Reading a Letter 1662-65 Oil on panel. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Image: WGA

Some letters are too personally important to be read in front of witnesses; their content penetrates your mind so deeply that you feel your axis shift. The minutes you spent physically reading a letter like that are preserved in your mind for ever. You will never be quite the same again. Till this moment I never knew myself.

vermeerwomanVermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter 1663-4. Oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Image: WGA
While she reads her letter, time stands still. Vermeer painted the silent gaps in time.