Sunday, 27 June 2010

Echoes of Talent in Art and War - Is Talent Genetic?

SIGNS AND SYMBOLS. by G.E. Pallant-Sidaway - my Grandfather

I am lucky and very proud to be able to look at my Grandad's work as an artist as he had this book published back in1953.  He wrote and illustrated this book amongst others to help children understand the origins of signs and symbols.  I say, lucky enough to have this copy - because thanks to the internet - I was able to find the book and buy it off Amazon some years ago.  I day dream about getting published myself and maybe have my books for sale on Amazon - but that day is a long way off.  I have my fingers in too many pies, each one of my projects are only half baked and if they were hoping for a splash of custard - then there's no chance - although there might be a little veggie gravy coming to the faux meat ones.

Guernica by Picasso (click for an interactive explanation of the picture)

The front cover of my Grandfather's book is beautifully illustrated, two of my old school teachers who were educated by him at Sir William Turner's Grammar School, Coatham both told me that he was an incredible man.  When teaching Geography - he was able to draw an accurate and detailed map of Great Britain, free hand on the black board using chalk.  That is quite something isn't it?  But as fabulous as that story is - and as wonderful as his illustrations are - it is still depicting a most atrocious and horrible thing.  


As a child in the 70s and 80s I was terrified that we might go in to battle.  Or someone in another country would just push a button and send a nuclear missile over to the UK.  How easy would it be to win a war like that?  With no word of warning the button is pressed and "boom" the whole of Britain is gone, there, that was easy - war won.  We wouldn't stand a chance.

I'm not so scared now...  We're pretty fortunate in the UK, many families around the world in places like  Sierra Leone and Iraq have had their lives wrecked and torn apart by war.  When I'm feeling sorry for myself because everything in my chaotic family life has got on top of me, I try to remind myself of these poor people and what those parents are going through which quickly helps me to get things into perspective.

In stark contrast to my Grandad's detailed almost romantic depiction of war with it's knights in shining armour and boldly draped brightly coloured horses is Picasso's Guernica.  This epic piece created by Picasso to represent the atrocities he witnessed during the Spanish Civil war 1936-1939 serves as an excellent understanding of just how disturbing the effects of war are.  Click on the link above for a fully interactive explanation of Guernica, a Spanish Basque town where 1600 innocent people were mercilessly killed by the Nazis in 1937.  The sharp piercing scream of the woman holding her dead baby leaps out at you for a moment of unpleasant empathy.  

Picasso deliberately chose greys and blacks for this painting to further depict the bleakness of what happened.  Picasso was a truly gifted talent - he was able to paint draw and sculpt in a number of different ways his neo-classical paintings were exquisite but he constantly reinvented his styles going from the red period, to the blue period to "Cubism" to a more "Classic" style and back to a more sophisticated style of "Cubism" again as well as purveing new ways of printing and sculpting -  he could have taught Madonna a thing or two about re-invention I tell thee.  This incredible ability  (and his love of the stripy Breton t-shirt)  is what makes Picasso stand out - there is something for art lovers of all genres in his immense collection.

So back to WAR, huh, good God y'all what is it good for....? Absolutely nothing.....  Say it again .  Yes,  Edwin Starr sums up my feelings on the subject of war.  But for my dear Grandfather artist, historian, heraldry expert, it was an integral part of his art and a fascinating aspect of his life's work.  Much of the history we learn is based around dates when wars took place.

C16th Century Knight By George Evelyn Pallant-Sidaway, just one of a collection of around thirty, three foot high soldiers and their horses.

His talent enabled him to craft a collection of amazing knights and their armour to show the development of their costumes and the heraldry that went with it.  He was tired of seeing films and plays where the costumes worn were inaccurate as film makers often chose any old hat and popped a shield in the hands of the actors when as far as my Grandfather was concerned. It just wan't good enough.  He would spend hours explaining the intricacies of each coat of arms, the shape of the shields and the style of helmets to me and boy was I bored.  I was okay at art.  but I wasn't particularly good at drawing and the subject of heraldry and ancient war was just not in my bag whatsoever.  I liked ballet and my friend's guinea pigs and writing stories about school girls.  I am a Jill-of-all-trades - mistress of none. (Those pies I have my fingers in are all luke warm by the way so there's no chance of them getting burnt.) I really wished I had paid more attention now though, because after spending some years at various museums, Grandad's Army is homeless and the notes have been lost - so nobody knows what order they go in or how all the pieces should be put together.  It's such a shame because Grandad passed away in 1994 aged 90, still going strong of course and working as an artist with all his faculties firmly in place and not one of his four remaining children or any of his grandchildren are able to continue his work. 

George Evelyn Pallant-Sidaway at Sir William Turners Grammar School in 1965

Bizarrely though, two generations later without any influence from my Grandfather but with plenty of influence from Tolkien's books and with just a little (more than is probably acceptable)  influence from strategy computer war games, came my son.  Who despite living in a world where the other boys like football and MSN and chasing pre-teen girls, has developed a remarkable talent for drawing very good knight and horses and medieval scenes of war.

Sir Lancelot by my son Aged 11

I am hoping that he will continue with his interest which began when he was around 6 or 7 years old and maybe one day, he will be able to look at Grandad's soldiers and piece them together on the correct time-line. 

His specialist subject is not heraldry though, it's  "The Roman's"  he knows an incredible amount of facts about them, some interesting some banal, which is quite remarkable when you listen to him talking.  Which has lead me to wonder if my Grandad's talent has skipped a few generations and manifested itself in my son's genes all these years later.

There's no way of knowing as we all share the same DNA and family traits will inevitably pass down.  My son also has a love of classical music, which he was introduced to by me and I in turn was introduced to by my Father.  While my daughter loves The Beatles, which she was introduced to by me and I was introduced to by my Mother.  So these are not genetic gifts these are influences of nurture.  Do you have anyone in your family who was particularly good at something which seems to be being replicated by someone else further down the line?  Perhaps I am just clutching at straws and finding coincidences and giving them meaning.  It could easily be the boy across the road or one of my friend's nephews who has a great talent for drawing knights.  At which point I would say.  "Isn't he clever," and merely marvel at the talent and not try to pinpoint some inner genetical meaning to it.  One thing is for sure, with the advent of the internet and digital photography, there are many more fooprints and images of our lives to be left behind for our future relatives to look at and examine in the evolution of man and our families.

Charles Darwin's own Grandfather Erasmus Darwin left Charles Darwin evidence of his interest in biology, genetics and evolution with an epic poem with philosophical notes that he wrote in 1903 The Temple of Nature  I will leave you with an extract on the natural history of human beings:

Imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd,
Of language, reason, and reflection proud,
With brow erect who scorns this earthly sod,
And styles himself the image of his God;
Arose from rudiments of form and sense,
An embryon point, or microscopic ens!

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