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Esther Chadwick: Castaway

This article was previously published in Issue 20, ISLANDS (March 2019).

What better way to illuminate the theme of ‘islands’ than by re-enacting Desert Island Discs? Radio 4’s much-loved series has been entertaining the British public since 1945, and today it stands as a treasured tune-in across the country. My castaway is Dr Esther Chadwick, who kindly agreed to share her choice of eight discs, a book and a luxury item, along with some insights into her interests and ambitions. Her song choices, she states, are selected not only because she loves them deeply, but because they say something about her history.

Seated in the National Gallery, following our ‘Possibilities of Portraiture’ class, Esther began by describing her specialism:

I’m interested in the eighteenth century because of its paradoxes and contradictions. On one hand, it’s seen as a century of freedom, enlightenment and progress, but on the other, it is a century that witnesses, for example, the height of the transatlantic slave trade. It’s this dialectic I’m interested in, and I think nothing better illuminates it than art history.

In the past, I’ve worked on the relationship between portraiture and slavery, precisely as a site for negotiating this tension between civility, politeness, wealth, and the dark side of the Enlightenment. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” as Walter Benjamin said.

Song 1 - J. S. Bach, St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 (composed 1727) [Recording: John Eliot Gardiner, The Monteverdi Choir, 1989].

My first choice of music, in fact, was composed at the beginning of the eighteenth century by probably my favourite composer: J. S. Bach. This piece is incredibly meaningful to me. As a child I was a chorister – I sang in Leeds Parish Church Choir – and singing has always been with me. This is a piece that I first sang as a member of the so-called ripieno chorus, a children’s chorale that comes in on top of the main orchestral and choral texture. Singing a blazing, trumpet-like chorale over this stormy, very intense sound, I will never forget the experience of being in that ripieno choir for the first time.

How old were you when you first started singing?

I guess I’d always been singing, but when I joined the girls’ choir I was a founding member (of the course the boys had been going forever!), I must have been about twelve or thirteen.

Song 2 - Bach, Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (published 1741) [Recording: Glenn Gould, 1955].

The second track that I’ve chosen goes to show you how much I love Bach, but I discovered him as a child. I used to rifle through my parents’ collection and listen to these pieces of music over and over again. I always come back to these works as a kind of meditation whenever I’m feeling stressed out. They are oases of calm amidst the storm.

Illustration by Naomi Jennings - O'Toole

That’s great that your first two songs not only remind you of your childhood but of what piqued your interest in eighteenth-century art.

Yes! And it has to be said that part of being attracted to the eighteenth century is that it’s the period these pieces of music came from.

Song 3 - Bobby Short, ‘I’m in Love Again’ from Bobbie Short Loves Cole Porter (1971).

My third choice takes us into my present, and it’s Bobby Short. It’s a fantastically romantic, schmaltzy but brilliantly executed song. It’s witty and theatrical. And it reminds me of my partner – we love this song together.

Song 4 - Gustav Mahler, 5th Symphony, (composed 1901-2), [live recording: Klaus Tennstedt conducting the London Philharmonic in 1988].

This piece of music I remember hearing very vividly at Birmingham Symphony Hall when I was fourteen. I had made the choice to go to boarding school, but I really didn’t like it at all. There was a trip to go to Birmingham to see Simon Rattle conduct the BSO, and it was while listening to the Mahler that I realised I needed to change my course of action and go back to school in Leeds. The music made a connection to something much bigger than my present worries and it spurred me to action.

Song 5 - Georg Friedrich Handel, Messiah (composed 1741), bass aria in Part III, ‘Behold I tell you a Mystery’ and ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’ [Recording: Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and Clare College Cambridge, 2006].

So, my fifth track takes us up to my time studying art history at Cambridge. I always knew I wanted to study art history; I’d loved making art at school but also thinking about its historical context. While I was at university, I was also a choral scholar at Clare College. I was singing in the chapel choir alongside my degree most nights of the week so, for my fifth track, I’d like to choose a recording that I made with Clare Choir. The Messiah is a bit of a cliché – we hear the Hallelujah chorus and think, oh god, not that again! But there are some incredibly magical moments. It reminds me of singing with my fellow students at Cambridge, and we toured with this piece.

Where did you go?

All around Europe! We went to Athens, Rome, Paris, Brussels. It was intense, very hard to balance university work with that, but it was definitely worth it.

So, after Cambridge, you went to Yale. Moved all the way to America! Was it scary?

It was exhilarating, and massively mind-expanding. A friend of mine once described America as “the best and the worst”. America is so wonderful in lots of ways and there are so many possibilities there but, as we know, it has a darker side. But I had a marvellous time at Yale. I made some incredible friends, and experiencing art history there was, as I said, mind-blowing. Having been at Cambridge, where the curriculum was very conservative, I didn’t study anything beyond 1914, nothing except painting, architecture and maybe a bit of sculpture. At Yale, I realised art history could be so much more. I was very lucky to study with Tim Barringer, who allowed me to think about British art in new ways. Carol Armstrong, Chris Wood, David Joselit and Carol Jacobs (in Comp Lit) were influential teachers too. It was a liberating time.

Song 6 - Joni Mitchell, ‘Case of You’ from Blue (1971).

I’ve chosen for my sixth track a piece of music that takes me back to those years in America. The spirit of American folk rock got under my skin there, so I’d like this song from Mitchell’s classic album Blue. That will remind me of the music I encountered in New Haven, which took me away from Cambridge and the choral music.

Song 7 - Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes, (first performed June 1945), Grimes’ Act I aria ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’.

The seventh track takes us back in time. Well, I did hear it in New York at the Metropolitan Opera, but I’d sung already in the chorus while I was at Cambridge. Peter Grimes is the story of an ostracised fisherman and the relationship between him as an ambiguous, ambivalent individual to his small coastal community. Britten seems to have an enormous depth of humanity in his portrayal of this troubling figure, who is caught in the midst of the unclear circumstances of his apprentice’s death. There’s an extraordinary aria that Grimes sings at the end of Act I. This was first performed in June 1945 and I just think, at the end of the of the Second World War, this is a profoundly melancholy and complex piece.

I wanted to ask you about The Courtauld – what brought you to work here?

I knew I wanted to come back to England after America, so I worked for a while at the British Museum in the Prints and Drawings department. It was really eye-opening, and I gained a wonderful insight into how museums work – how crucial they are. They are the interface between us and the objects we study, and I have a much greater respect for people who work in this sector now. But I also knew that I really wanted to teach – I love teaching – so that’s why I applied to The Courtauld. I hope to keep engaged in the museum world too, though. My ideal would be to follow in the footsteps of my advisor, who has managed to curate exhibitions as well as teach and research.

You have curated some exhibitions yourself, haven’t you?

Yes, while I was at Yale, I curated a show called Figures of Empire: Slavery and Portraiture in Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Britain with my dear friend and colleague Meredith Gamer. Also, while at the British Museum, I curated a small show about Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, which built on my interests in the history of the Black Atlantic and art in the age of revolutions. I love the immediacy of exhibitions, the magic that happens when you put works together in physical space. You can write about works all you like, but when you put them together in the same room you can do very interesting things.

Song 8 - Nina Simone, ‘Why? (The King of Love is Dead)’ from ‘Nuff Said (live recording, April 7, 1968).

Simone recorded this track live in concert on 7th April 1968, a few days after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. This piece, which she dedicates to King, is full of sadness. And yet, what I find extraordinary about Simone is her utter composure as she sings through the immediate grief of King’s assassination. The energy that’s generated in this concert is palpable from the live recording. I think it gets to the heart of what all the tracks I have chosen point to: connecting us to something beyond the mundane.

Illustration by Naomi Jennings - O'Toole

I’d just like to ask you for: a luxury item and a book to take to your island, and of course, you may carry the traditional Bible and works of Shakespeare.

Well, I’m asking a little bit much here, but I’d like the island to be seasonal. I’d like there to be some snow on the ground for at least two weeks of the year. And I’d like to have some cross-country skis.

Do you go skiing a lot?

Not a lot but I love cross-country. I love journeying, on foot, I love walking, over long distances, under my own steam. So, a pair of cross-country skis for the winter on this island would be marvellous.

I found it hard to think about a single book that I would take, but I recently got given a copy of The Living Mountain by the Scottish author and poet Nan Shepherd, who was writing in the 1940s but didn’t publish this until 1977. It’s a book about her life walking in the Cairngorms. Usually, I hate nature writing; I love being in nature myself but dislike often the men who write about it. I think Nan Shepherd avoids that phallic, arrogant feeling. Instead of climbing to the top of mountains, she writes about walking into them. She is so sensorially aware of her body in nature, and would remind me, in my solitude on this island, of a good way to be in nature.

Concluding this castaway interview, Esther shared her aspirations at The Courtauld. Despite being a relatively recent addition to The Courtauld community, her drive and enthusiasm are entirely directed at inspiring her students.

What I’d like is to facilitate my students’ research in lots of new and imaginative directions, and to think about British art in broader ways. It’s about having students who take the field in new directions – that would be wonderful.

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