Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Saturday 26 December 2015

Quiz solution

'Patricia Preece', by Stanley Spencer, 1933
I asked: what is the connection between Stanley Spencer's painting 'Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill' and Gilbert and Sullivan.

In 1911 Ruby Preece, 17 years old, and Winifred Emery, her teacher despite being only 21, went for a swimming lesson with W.S. Gilbert in the lake in the grounds of his house, Grim's Dyke, Harrow Weald, then in Middlesex (north-west London). Gilbert, then 74, was a friend of the Emery family. 

Preece and Emery entered the water before Gilbert, and Preece, getting out of her depth too quickly, called out in alarm. Gilbert dived in to rescue her, but had a heart attack and died.

Some time after this Ruby changed her name to Patricia, and met the woman who was to be her lifelong companion and lover, Dorothy Hepworth, at the Slade School of Fine Art. In 1928 they moved to a cottage in Cookham, Berks, where Stanley and Hilda Spencer and their two daughters were living. Spencer became infatuated with Preece, lavishing her with expensive gifts and painting her many times (including 'Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill'), and eventually divorced his wife and married her in 1937. 

However, it seems that she never had any intention of being his wife in anything other than a financial sense. They never spent a single night together after the wedding, but she persuaded him to make over his house (in which Hilda and their daughters were still living) to her, and to put all his business affairs in her hands. This was, naturally enough, financially and emotionally ruinous for Spencer, not to mention his wife and children.

So you could say that Patricia Preece was the downfall of two important artists.

Financially and emotionally ruinous, but not, thankfully for posterity, artistically ruinous. Out of this disastrous relationship came masterpieces such as the famous nude portraits, and had Spencer's life not gone careering out of control then we wouldn't have such intensely meditative and troubled paintings like the Christ in the Wilderness series.

'Double Nude Portrait: The Artist and his Second Wife, (The Leg of Mutton Nude)', by Stanley Spencer, 1937

'Self-Portrait with Patricia Preese', by Stanley Spencer, 1936
'Consider the Lilies', from the Christ in the Wilderness series, by Stanley Spencer, 1939
The photo above is of the happy couple, standing in the centre, with Dorothy Hepworth on the left and Spencer's best man, Jas Wood, on the right, after the wedding in Maidenhead. A novel could be written about the emotional implications of this picture (and perhaps it already has). Spencer looks pleased with himself, but although he's obviously dressed himself up in a suit his lack of height, goggly glasses and, most of all, shapeless sunhat all conspire to make him look horribly, almost comically, out of place and out of his depth. Preece's left arm, and indeed her whole body, is doing its best to keep as far away from him as possible, and as for Hepworth, the phrase 'if looks could kill' might have been coined especially for this moment. Only Wood looks at ease. What on earth was going through his mind?

It's said that Hepworth was too shy to try to sell her paintings under her own name, and that Preece often signed them and sold them as her own. There are nine oil paintings attributed to Preece in British public collections (see here), some of which are pretty good; I wonder though if they're actually by Hepworth. 

I used to play second alto in a big band, and we once had a gig at Grim's Dyke (now a hotel). I made a point of going to see the lake where Gilbert died, but it's disappointingly not much more than a muddy pond now.

Thursday 24 December 2015

Quiz question - Stanley Spencer and Gilbert and Sullivan

Here's a question to puzzle and amuse any readers this blog might have.

The picture above is by Stanley Spencer. It's called 'Patricia at Cockmarsh Hill', and dates from 1935.

What is the connection between this picture and Gilbert and Sullivan? Here's something to listen to while you ponder; it's 'The Sun, whose rays' from The Mikado. It doesn't have to be this specific piece (I just happen to like it); it could be anything by Gilbert and Sullivan. However, it couldn't be any picture by Spencer.

Monday 21 December 2015

Wyddial church, Herts - Passion and puns: 16th century stained glass, 17th century monuments, part two

This is part two; you can read part one here.

At some time in the early 17th century the church was partly refurnished, and a new door was added on the north, squeezed uncomfortably between two windows, presumably to make access easier for the inhabitants of Wyddial Hall, which lies just to the north of the churchyard. 

The door, together with the two flanking windows, provides an interesting lesson in design from the late medieval period into the English Renaissance. (Well, I find it interesting, and if you don't, dear reader, you're reading the wrong blog.) The window to the right of the door is 15th century, and has been reused (presumably from the original north wall of the nave). The two arches are pointed (though not very) and cusped. The window to the left is of 1532, the arches are still pointed, though if anything even less so than that of the first window, and the cusps have disappeared, showing the beginnings of a classicising spirit. Brick was a relatively modern material. The door, on the other hand, is once again of stone (brick wouldn't have suited the dignity of the minor aristocrats who entered it) and austerely, assertively classical. The family who commissioned it would have been keen to advertise their keeping up to date with the latest styles. 

Round about the same time as the door was built, screens and box pews were installed in the north aisle, turning it more or less into a private family chapel. 

As you can see, the screens are a fantastically fecund display of Jacobean inventiveness. (The one under the tower is an extremely convincing late Victorian or Edwardian pastiche.) However, the box pews, which were definitely there in 1953 when Pevsner visited, and perhaps still there when Bridget Cherry revised the Herts Pevsner in 1977 (can we assume she visited every building? Probably not) were equally definitely gone by the time I first visited in 1992. 

Typically murky early Pevsner photo from the 2nd edition (1977)
How could this have been allowed to happen? As I understand it, the addition or removal of fittings in churches is subject to strict overview and regulations. The loss of the Wyddial box pews is a serious blemish on the record of the Diocese of St Albans.

By the later 17th century the family living in the Bury were the Goulestons (the exact spelling varied); I'm not sure exactly when they arrived and if they were responsible for the door, screen and pews. The similarity of their name to mine interests me (though in this case I'll entirely understand if it fails to interest anyone else). There are three wall monuments, and several brasses and ledger stones, commemorating them in the north chapel.

This is the grandest monument in the church, to Sir William Goulston, who died in 1687.

A pair of putti loll languidly at the top, looking as if they're on sun loungers by a pool. The busts are somewhat characterless, but the overall effect is impressive, as of course it's meant to be.

Easily overlooked details are the two armorial cartouches at the bottom, which morph into Mannerist grotesque faces. Everything else about the monument is standard for its date, but these faces are quite extraordinary.

The monument above is to Richard Goulston, (though his name is spelt Gouleston on the accompanying brass), who died in 1686. It's lost its surmounting heraldic device, but has a painted (now faded) additional background on the surrounding wall. I don't remember seeing something like this elsewhere, though I can't believe that this example is unique. The monument must have been very expensive, but presumably the painted background was an attempt to make it seem even grander at minimal cost. I like the cheek of these Goulestons.

This is the brass on the floor. The first four lines are a Latin poem; my Latin isn't up to much, I'm afraid, but I recognise the word 'lapis', stone, as in lapis lazuli (a blue semi-precious stone) and lapidary (noun: one who works in stone, adjective: carved in stone). With a little help from Google Translate it's possible to work out a rough and partial English version; the key bit is 'only the second syllable, stone, remains now', punning on Gouleston[e]'s name. Furthermore, the word 'lugeo', I mourn, which features in the poem and is repeated at the end of the inscription, is an anagram of Goule, the first syllable of his name. It seems that the Goulestons, as well as being partial to grandeur on the cheap, were early crossword puzzlers, a trait I can sympathise with as I enjoy a tussle with the Torygraph and Guardian setters myself.

Now the church is happily open to visitors after decades of inaccessibility, greetings cards are on sale, a pound for a pack of four: outstanding value. Of the four cards, one is a good picture of the (not very interesting) south side of the church, two are excellent pictures of the stained glass, and the last I reproduce above. When deciding what to portray on the fourth card, whoever made the choice ignored the claims of the other six windows, the north aisle, the screens and the monuments (including others I haven't mentioned) and plumped for this view instead. A decision almost as bizarre as the decision to throw out the Jacobean box pews.

Sunday 20 December 2015

A Phrygian cap and a policeman's cat in Chichester

I spent a day in Chichester, Sussex, earlier this week. My main objective was the David Jones exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery, but of course I took the opportunity to visit the cathedral and other sites too. I could try to say something original and profound about some of these, but I think my chances of success are slim. Instead, I'll share two little details I noticed and enjoyed, in the hope that any readers this blog might have will enjoy them too.

The first was the Butter Market, originally known as the Market House, built in North Street by John Nash in 1807. (The upper storey is an excellent addition of 1900.)

In particular, my eye was drawn to the coat of arms on the balcony; (it doesn't feature on Nash's original plans: see here).

It's made, I believe, of Coade stone*; I like the toy fort architectural backdrop. The shield is, as you'd expect, that of Chichester, but I can't find any information about the two staffs, or one sceptre and one staff, crossed at the bottom. The one on the left has a Phrygian cap hanging on it, realistic enough to momentarily deceive the eye into believing that some Chichestonian merrymaker has hurled his hat into the air, perhaps while celebrating a cricketing victory over local rivals Hampshire, and that it's been dangling there for decades, perhaps centuries.

Phrygian caps have of course been symbols of liberty since the French Revolution; they're often known as liberty caps. Why Chichester deems itself to be worthy of this accolade I don't know. Nevertheless, this one gives a welcome whiff of whimsicality to the town centre.

Chichester's main museum is newly constructed and called the Novium; it's well designed and the exhibits well displayed, and it's worth a visit if you're in the city, though there aren't enough top quality artefacts on view to make it worth a detour. One little object that caught my eye, however, is this photograph of the Chichester police force in about 1880.

The policeman on the left in the back row was apparently once (one hopes it was only once) found drunk on duty. A contrite but not entirely literate letter from him accompanies the photo. (Might my, or, dear reader, your misdemeanours be the subject of public scrutiny and amusement in a century and a half?) And what a magnificent spectacle their facial hair makes; enough to make a modern hipster give up in despair.

His colleague standing next to him is holding a not particularly impressed looking tabby cat. No doubt he or she was employed to police the rodent population of their station, but I like to think that the bearded chap has picked up his tabby, while the photographer set up his equipment, out of affection. 

* Coade stone was an artificial stone (in fact it's more like a ceramic) manufactured in the last decades of the 18th century and the first of the 19th. It's named after Eleanor Coade, who ran the business which manufactured it. It was particularly suitable for finely moulded objects intended to be displayed outdoors, and there are at least 650 Coade stone objects still in existence.

Wyddial church, Herts: Passion and puns - 16th century stained glass, 17th century monuments, part one

Some Hertfordshire churches used to be generally open but are now difficult to get into: Bengeo, Bygrave, Flamstead*, Hunsdon, Kings Walden, Knebworth, Offley and Walkern, to name a few. Happily, Wyddial has reversed this trend. I managed to gain access once in 1992 (after some quite lengthy amateur detective work to hunt down a key), but since then, despite stopping while passing at least half a dozen times over the intervening years, I didn't get in again until early this summer. And it was no fluke, as I've been back since and it was once again open. Its custodians have evidently decided to share their church with the wider world. I thank them, and hope others follow their example.

Wyddial (pronounced, I believe, WID-dee-uhl) is a tiny village of only about thirty-five houses - some of them admittedly quite grand - set in the rich, rippling farmland of the Quinn valley east of Ermine Street (now rather more prosaically known as the A10). Many of the lanes here have unexpected sudden right-angled bends, presumably inherited from ancient (perhaps Saxon) field boundaries; there are two in quick succession as you leave the village for Buntingford to the south-west, a razor-sharp left followed by an almost as keen right. Reed church, just a few miles to the north, preserves some late Anglo-Saxon architectural features from roughly the same period, but Wyddial church is no older than the 15th century. And, like a lot of Hertfordshire churches, at first sight it seems even newer, being built mostly of flint, which doesn't weather and age, and having been restored (or largely rebuilt) in the 1850s. 

To pass it by because of this initial impression would, however, be a mistake. Most of the considerable interest of the church is to be found on the north side, invisible from the road. The brick aisle and chapel date from 1532, and thus must be among the last church buildings to be erected before the Dissolution of the Monasteries began just four years later. (Church building slowed down drastically for the next sixty or seventy years, though it never completely died out, before picking up again in the early 17th century.) 

The Royal Commission on Historical Monuments volume on Herts (1911) speculates that the demi-hexagonal brickwork projecting from the west end of the north aisle is the remains of a stair-turret. Given its position, and the absence of any other evidence, this doesn't seem very convincing, but it's hard to think what else it might have been. An unusually large banner stave locker, for storing processional banners and crosses? There's nothing inside the church to suggest this might be the case. The west window is earlier than the aisle and has been reused.
Brick church buildings in Herts are a rarity; the only other one of the same period is the porch at nearby Meesden. The aisle at Wyddial is a treat, the warm red colour a hundred times more attractive than that of anaemic modern bricks. Inside, there are brick columns and arches, a grand display of shaped brickwork (though I'm not fond of the black mortar).

The north windows of the aisle contain eight panels of Flemish glass, probably a few decades later, depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ. They're faded and abraded, in places to illegibility, but there's still plenty to enjoy. They were restored in 2008. The day I was there with a camera, screens with a display about the history of the village were positioned in front of the windows, and I had to move them in order to see the glass. While of course it's good that such information is provided for visitors, it's odd that one of the main attractions of the church should be thus obscured.

The narrative begins with the arrest of Jesus. Jesus is placed centrally; the artist has tried to make him look holy, but has succeeded only in making him appear a bit dopey. He's wearing the purple robe that he'll only later be given by the soldiers as part of their mockery of him, thus telescoping together two parts of the story. Judas is on his right (from our perspective) and is either about to or has just kissed him in order to identify him to the guards. Judas is elaborately dressed and clutches his thirty pieces of silver; his face is tender despite his duplicitous little smile. On his right one of the guards, with sword or club upraised, is poised very dramatically to make the arrest. He's dressed in stylish Renaissance costume and armour, and at his feet a lantern and club have evidently just dropped to the ground, bringing immediacy to the scene.

The right half of the panel is very much better preserved than the left. Behind Jesus and on his left another guard lurks (identified by his helmet). Peter is depicted as an action hero with sword about to cut off the ear of Malchus, the high priest's servant. Sadly, he isn't well preserved, but you can make out that his head is shown upside down as he sprawls bottom left.

The next picture in the sequence shows Jesus (his hands probably bound) before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court, being examined by either Caiaphas, the high priest, or Annas, his father-in-law (depending on which gospel you rely on). The judge sits on an imposing throne and holds a sceptre. The three soldiers don't look especially threatening despite their halberd and spear; one of them even seems to be giving Jesus a friendly pat on the bottom rather than brutally pushing him forward. I do like the soldier's boots, which make him seem like one of Robin Hood's Merry Men. The architectural details are depicted in unusual detail: even the wall panelling behind the judge can be clearly seen.

Jesus, now wearing a white rather than purple robe and with hands visibly bound, is taken before Pilate, the Roman prefect. Pilate has a fur-trimmed cloak and an elaborate headdress; his expression is concerned. Below him there's a very well preserved figure of a soldier with his back to us; the details of his armour and the decoration on his tunic are remarkable. He points to Jesus, who now looks dignified; his bare feet make him seem vulnerable. Through the arch top left there's a glimpse of landscape.

I think this scene depicts Jesus before Herod, who looks suitably villainous; his headdress is even more imposing than Pilate's, and he's sneering; this is perhaps the best characterised face in the whole sequence. Jesus is half-kneeling and has a rope tied around his waist, the other end of which is held by a faded but gormless soldier. The central soldier is wearing splendid Renaissance armour, but what is he holding over Christ's head? I assume it's something related to the mocking of Christ, but I can't make out exactly what. This scene takes place in a gloomy interior, which makes it seem all the more sinister.

Jesus, back in purple, is now once more before Pilate, who washes his hands to signify that he will no longer be involved. Jesus, wearing a crown of thorns, turns away as if resigned to his fate. Pilate's servant, pouring water into the basin, seems to be affected and steals a glance at Jesus.

When I saw this flagellation scene in 1992 I noted that Jesus's face was faded almost to invisibility; its present appearance must be the result of the recent restoration. He is almost naked, his eyes are stoically closed and he certainly arouses our sympathy. The soldier on the left doesn't seem very fierce, and his legs are unconvincingly depicted. The figure on the right is apparently dressed in high status civilian clothes and looks much more sinister; he's standing contrapposto with his weight on his left leg as he vigorously lashes Christ.

Both the assailants have red details on their predominantly blue costumes; the figure on the right for example has slashes on his sleeve to display the bright red material beneath. I'm not sure how the makers of the glass accomplished this; could it be by enamelling or flashing? Neither of these explanations seems convincing.

I'm not sure exactly where this panel comes in the narrative sequence. My first thought was that it shows the road to Calvary, but I don't think that can be the case as Jesus is still wearing his robe - he would be naked - and he's not carrying the cross. Presumably it shows him being taken to one of his inquisitors, probably Herod. The scene is open country (there's a glimpse of a tree on the left) and Jesus is being beaten by a civilian and a soldier, who's painted meticulously. A third figure behind him is pointing.

I can't identify the subject of this panel. Three men - the face of the one in the middle has badly faded, though his headdress remains - confer. They're all expensively dressed, and the one on the left sits on a throne. The outer two are leaning in as if speaking urgently, and the central figure has his arms around the man on the right; perhaps he's restraining him as the argument is getting heated. The two visible faces, and especially the one on the right, are beautifully characterised. I assume this scene shows Jewish elders discussing what should be done with Jesus.

I think this glass deserves to be better known. Neither of the modern guides to stained glass in Britain (by Painton Cowen and June Osborne) give it more than a very brief mention. (Being hidden away for many years in a locked church didn't help.)

How did the glass come to be in Wyddial? It's unlikely that it's in situ (authorities disagree on its exact date, but if it's mid to late 16th century it can't have been installed when the aisle was built in 1532). Probably it was bought by a local gentleman - perhaps the inhabitant of nearby Wyddial Hall - on his Grand Tour. There was a large supply of continental stained glass available in the first decades of the 19th century, as a result of the Napoleonic wars and their aftermath, and this is the likeliest time for its arrival in Wyddial. But more research would be needed to make this more than an educated guess.

You can read part two of this post here.

* To be fair, the last time I visited Flamstead key holders were listed, and someone arrived to open up minutes after I phoned. But all the others I've mentioned were, on my most recent visit or visits, impenetrably locked.

Friday 4 December 2015

T. H. White's 'The Sword in the Stone': 1st edition (1938) versus 'The Once and Future King' version (1958)

First edition dust jacket

In 1977 or 78, in my second year at Sheffield University, I decided early one evening to cook chilli con carne for my flatmate and myself. (This was when I was a carnivore and an inexperienced cook.) The kidney beans I used were dried and needed soaking and perhaps lengthy cooking too. In my haste and ignorance I didn't soak or cook them long enough (or at least, in the light of subsequent events, I assume I didn't). Nevertheless the meal seemed palatable, and having eaten we caught the bus to the Crucible Theatre where we had tickets to see Gogol's The Government Inspector.

Most of the first half passed unremarkably; I can't remember anything about the play. But as the interval loomed I began to realise that all was not well, not on the stage but in my stomach. I started to feel not exactly ill, but rather strange. In the interval I had a drink, hoping this would settle things down, but had to resort to going outside where perhaps the fresh air would restore me.

On the contrary, things rapidly went from bad to worse, and suddenly I was being horribly sick in a concrete flower bed. (I might add that, while I'm thankfully very rarely sick, I find being so not at all easy, as most people seem to, but extremely difficult and painful, as if my viscera are attempting to hack their way free.) That was only the start. Suffice to say that it was very nasty. 

Eventually I managed to get home (after having initially caught the wrong bus in my confusion and distress, and finding myself in an unknown area of the city). The next day I was still shaken and delicate, and there was no possibility of my going out to lectures or anywhere else. I sat by my bright blue bookshelves feeling very sorry for myself, and looked for something comforting to read. I had a secondhand paperback of The Sword in the Stone (I must have bought it because I'd heard it was a classic) which I hadn't yet read, and, not really knowing what to expect, opened it.

Before I'd reached the end of the first paragraph I'd forgotten my food-poisoned reality and was bewitched by White's fantasy world.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology. The governess was always getting muddled with her astrolabe, and when she got specially muddled she would take it out of the Wart by rapping his knuckles. She did not rap Kay's knuckles because when Kay grew older he would be Sir Kay, and the master of the estate. The Wart was called the Wart because it rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name. Kay had given him the nickname. Kay was not called anything but Kay, because he was too dignified to have a nickname and would have flown into a passion if anyone had tried to give him one. The governess had red hair and some mysterious wound from which she derived a lot of prestige by showing it to all the women of the castle, behind closed doors. It was believed to be where she sat down, and to have been caused by sitting on a broken bottle at a picnic by mistake. Eventually she offered to show it to Sir Ector, who was Kay's father, had hysterics and was sent away. They found out afterwards that she had been in a lunatic hospital for three years.

I had no idea what most of the things mentioned in the first sentence meant, but it didn't seem to matter; they sounded romantically exotic. At once we are transported to a beguiling vision of the Middle Ages, with castles and estates and knights, but with hints of the games that White will later play with his readers. He entertains us by introducing anachronisms, such as the picnic, and slapstick humour, for example the unfortunate governess's scar. (The last sentence of the paragraph is perhaps a portent of the cruelty that surfaces in the book every now and then.)

White creates a delightful and charming world, whimsical and serious by turns, inhabited by vivid characters, full of high adventure and low comedy (as well as the more sophisticated kind - it's a very funny book), inspired by the later Middle Ages with what sound like accurate details of falconry, hunting and other aspects of life, but with magical embellishments, all of which are treated as if they're everyday and unremarkable. So for example, quite early on in the book, when the tone is still being established, we're told that 'There were even a few dragons, though they were rather small ones, which lived under stones and could hiss like a kettle.' The book also has one foot, or at least a toe or two, in 1938 (when the book was published), and, perhaps even more so, in the world of the late Victorian and Edwardian country house, with its reassuring hierarchies and routines. I think this is one of the reasons why I love it so much, despite the fact that the fantasy genre as a whole leaves me cold. It is in some ways grounded in realism, despite the strong element of fantasy, and seduces you into wanting to live in Sir Ector's castle (or a large country house at the turn of the 20th century) and join in with the hay-making, however unjust and tough you know such a life must have been. Surely even the sternest republican can't read the end of the penultimate chapter, where the Wart, having just become King of England, is knelt to by Sir Ector and Kay, without a lump in their throat?

The book was a big success both in Britain and the US. He continued the story of Arthur in The Witch in the Wood* (1939) and The Ill-Made Knight (1940). Presumably he also wrote The Candle in the Wind soon after, though it wasn't published until 1958 when all four books appeared together as The Once and Future King. The fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, was written in 1941 but not published until 1977, after White's death.

White substantially revised The Sword in the Stone for the omnibus version; it was clear to him that The Book of Merlyn wasn't going to be published, so he took two of the key episodes from it and transplanted them into the first book of the tetralogy. This has been common knowledge since the publication of the last book of the pentalogy (as we have to call it in this context). I've compared the two versions** (not word by word or even page by page, but closely enough to pick up the major differences and a representative sample of the minor) and I was surprised to find how many other changes White made.

Some of them are apparently intended to make the 1958 version slightly more formal in tone, so some contractions used in 1938, such as 'he's' and 'wasn't', become 'he is' and 'was not'. In '38 when King Neptune makes a brief appearance he has a 'tummy', which by '58 has become a 'stomach'. In '38 King Pellinore says 'deah, deah', the idiomatic spelling emphasising his comical upper class accent, while in '58 he merely says 'oh, dear'. All these changes seem to me to diminish the playful child-like charm of the book.

Some other changes hardly seem to have been worth making at all. Compare, for example, in '38: 'the unfortunate brachet trailing and howling behind him at the other end of the string', with '58: 'the unfortunate brachet trailing behind him at the other end of the cord'. The removal of 'howling' lightens the tone, but why bother changing 'string' to 'cord'? There are numerous little alterations like this.

In the first chapter, while the reader is still assessing the nature of the book, White mentions Eton and drinking port; in '38 it's left to the intelligence of the reader to smile at the anachronisms, but in '58 White feels it necessary to give a ponderous and po-faced explanation, which spoils the joke a little and changes the nature of the compact between author and audience. In '38 he gives us the tiniest of nudges and the briefest of winks and takes us into his confidence, but in '58 he stands behind his lectern and lectures us.

The first major change occurs in chapter 6. In '58 the chapter ends very feebly after a mere couple of pages with the statement 'It was a witch.' In the original version, however, a further 19 pages follow, containing the exciting and funny (and a bit gruesome) episode of Merlyn's shapeshifting battle with Madame Mim. I can't see why White would have wanted to cut this episode, and it's a grievous loss to the omnibus edition.

The next major change come in chapter 10. In '38 there's an archery contest between Robin Wood and Little John (cut completely in '58), and then they go off to ambush the Anthropophagi. In '58 the enemy becomes Morgan le Fay, and the two versions of chapter 11 are different, except Robin's speech and the journey to the enemy are substantially the same. At the end of chapter 11 in '38 the Wart shoots a Sciopod; in '58 he shoots a griffin at the beginning of chapter 12 instead. According to Professor Wikipedia, White admitted to feeling 'uncomfortable' about the Anthropophagi, and I share his misgivings. The Anthropophagi are described as cannibals; they've captured, sacrificed and eaten humans. Yet they're not human, or at best are semi-human; they're drawn from medieval bestiaries, strange beings conjured up from goodness knows what dark corners of the mind (not all of which seem to be cannibals outside White's pages).  The Sciopdes, for example, 'had only one foot, but this was so huge that they could use it as a sunshade to protect themselves when they were sleeping.' The episode in which they are attacked by Robin's men is grotesque rather than simply fantastical, and sits rather unhappily in the book.

'58's Morgan le Fay episode has a touch of the grotesque too, ('Morgan le Fay herself lay stretched upon her bed of glorious lard. She was a fat, dowdy middle-aged woman with black hair and a slight moustache, but she was made of human flesh'), but a little is required to create a sense of peril, and there are redeeming touches of humour.

Both versions have a cruel or even sadistic streak. In '38 the Wart shoots an arrow at a Sciopod: 'He had often longed to hear the noise that these gay, true, clean and deadly missiles of the air would make in solid flesh. He heard it.' In '58 the target is a griffin rather than a semi-human, which makes it a little less murderous, and the writing is toned down slightly: 'He had often longed to hear the noise that these clean and deadly missiles would make in solid flesh. He heard it.' Either way, it's hard to square this with the pacifist message of the sequence as a whole.

In '38 the Wart becomes a snake in chapter 13 and hears a story about the evolution of reptiles (and the ferociousness of mankind, which is to become a major theme of the sequence), while in '58 the ant episode from The Book of Merlyn is inserted. The ant episode is powerful and brilliant, an acute analysis of totalitarianism, yet it's too darkly political to fit comfortably into The Sword in the Stone.

The original version has in chapter 18 the Wart becoming an owl and meeting the goddess Athene. He talks to the trees and sees a vision of the history of the universe. This ends: 'In the ultimate twinkling of an eye, far tinier in time than the last millimetre on a six-foot rule, there came a man. He split up the one pebble which remained of all that mountain with blows; then made an arrowhead of it, and slew his brother.'

In chapter 19 Merlyn and the Wart visit the cruel giant Galapas. 'Rubber truncheons' and 'concentration camps' are mentioned; for once White uses anachronisms for serious rather than comic purposes, reminding us that cruelty exists in the modern age as well as in the fantasy past of the book.

In the omnibus version chapters 18 and 19 are replaced by a slightly shorter version of the geese episode from The Book of Merlyn. This is a fine piece of writing, but it's a shame to lose Athene and Galapas.

The '58 version of chapter 21 has an extra page at the end in which the Wart and the badger discuss man and war; this sounds as if it's from The Book of Merlyn, but as far as I can see it's not.

Another small addition in '58 appears at the end of the first paragraph of the last chapter: 'the people of England . . . were sick of the anarchy which had been their portion under Uther Pendragon; sick of overlords and feudal giants, of knights who did what they pleased, of racial discrimination, and of the rule of Might as Right.' White is obviously looking back at the Second World War, and inviting us to read the sequence as to some extent an allegory.

Some modern editions of The Once and Future King include all five books, which renders redundant most of the revisions White made to The Sword in the Stone (as he made them in the belief that the last book wouldn't be published). All the omnibus editions I've looked at, however, have the '58 version rather than the original, which makes no sense. It means that the ant and geese episodes are included twice, in the first and last books, and the Madame Mim, snake, owl and Galapas episodes are cut, along with many other minor changes, most of which seem to me to be detrimental. So, if you're going to read the sequence (and I thoroughly recommend that you do), read the first volume in its first version (as far as I know all standalone editions reprint the first edition).

And if at all possible, read it in the first edition, published by Collins. A first edition, first impression in dust jacket will cost you more than a thousand pounds, but jacketless subsequent impressions can be found on Abebooks for less than a tenner. The advantage of the original publication is that it's illustrated by White himself, and these cartoony sketches don't ever seem to have been reprinted in any later edition. Every chapter has a headpiece, and most have a tailpiece too, so that amounts to over forty drawings. I've included scans of a few, and as you can see they're idiosyncratic and rather cute.

* Revised and called The Queen of Air and Darkness for the omnibus edition, but I've not read the earlier version.

** White also revised the book for publication in the US, cutting the chapters about the Anthropophagi and substituting chapters about griffins and wyverns; I assume they're the same as or at least similar to chapters 10 and 11 in the 1958 omnibus version. However, I've not read the US version.