Come back, baby Jesus
Being in the United States in December is almost enough to turn me into a raving religious fundamentalist. I have been assaulted (visually at least) by so many reindeer, sleighs, Santa Claus’s and snowmen that I would give anything for a half-tasteful trio of kings or even a baby Jesus. And I would swap all the piped versions of “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” quickly followed by “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer” for a few bars of some pre-pubescent chorister hamming up “Once in royal David’s city” (or even the ghastly “O little town of Bethlehem”).
The problem is that if you want to celebrate the festive season without offending any one else’s religious sensibilities, you are inevitably pushed into kitsch. That’s going to be true in the UK sooner than we know, with the onset of a guaranteed non-offensive, politically correct, one size fits all winter ritual.
It’s been years now since all those jolly hunting scenes that I remember from the Christmas cards of my childhood disappeared (blokes in pink chasing the poor fox on what was presumably meant to evoke the Boxing Day Meet). Soon it’ll be the turn of the birth of Jesus. The only way you can now safely send a standard nativity scene is if it’s taken from a medieval manuscript and sold in aid of a museum – “art” in other words.
Otherwise it’s much wiser to stick to children playing in the snow, holly or sub-Picasso doves of peace. Even I had an anxious qualm when the staff in my Faculty wanted to display a Christmas tree. Was that multi-cultural enough, I wondered. Don’t worry, I decided it was.
But all this has happened long ago in the States – as has been brought home to me by a weekend conference in Williamstown in West Massachusetts (where I’m now blogging this). The conference was on “spoliation” ancient and modern. I’ll catch you up on that later in the week. For now I’m more interested in the place itself.
Williamstown is one of those wonderfully remote, small, immensely affluent US college towns – and is currently looking gorgeous under a few inches of snow, despite those ubiquitous reindeer and with barely a tree not wrapped in fairy lights. It’s three hours drive from New York, and there’s no way to get there apart from driving. It doesn’t even have a mobile phone signal, which seems pretty amazing, given that you can talk to the world as clear as a bell from – say – the Sinai desert.
Nor does it appear to have any shops. When I needed a packet of Tampax, there was no choice but to snoozle up to the conference organizer, explain the predicament and get taken by car to a pharmacy. Just how organized must the women be in this place, I thought?
What Williamstown does have is a stunning art gallery, “the Clark”, endowed in one of those characteristic bits of US small town philanthropy by a Singer sewing machine billionaire. This has all sorts of surprises in store, from a major clutch of Impressionists to a very perky Maenad by Madame Vigée le Brun (and I would recommend that you visited if you were “passing”, but no-one “passes” Williamstown). For obvious reasons I was particularly taken by a stunning “classical” grand piano designed by Alma Tadema, and inlayed with the names of the Muses and incorporating a painted panel by Edward Poynter.
That’s the irony. It was a gob-smacking Piero della Francesca – of the Virgin and Child.