Picture c. Tom Arran
In an interview on Radio 4’s Today Programme, Anna Farthing, the curator of ‘New Eyes Each Year’ said that she had set out to produce an exhibition about a poet without using words, and this, undoubtedly, was a major factor behind its extraordinary success.. By choosing to focus on Larkin the man, and the personal possessions he left behind, all of which we might assume had some kind of significance in his life, Anna was able to create a refreshingly different, powerful and thought-provoking experience for the visitor irrespective of whether or not they are already familiar with the life and work of Philip Larkin. Over a 15 week run, the exhibition attracted almost 12,000 visitors to the fabulous new exhibition space in the Brynmor Jones Library, including many alumni
Along with Graham Chesters, Deputy Chair of the Philip Larkin Society, I count myself lucky to have been one of the Society’s main contributors to the planning and development of the exhibition, produced in partnership between The Larkin Society, Hull University, Hull History Centre and the Hull 2017 City of Culture team. Helping to implement the exhibition led me on a personal journey into Larkin, with quite a few surprising discoveries en route. Even though I thought I knew the ground pretty well, I found myself constantly making new and different connections and assessments of Larkin as a person (and perhaps, at the same time, even of myself) in similar way to that experienced by so many visitors to the exhibition, judging from the very positive evaluations they have left behind. If artistic exhibitions are there to make one think, ask questions and come away with new perspectives, then this one worked ten times over.
One of the vital factors behind the exhibition’s undoubted success is the freedom the partnership steering group gave to Anna Farthing in curating the exhibition. This was not always an easy thing to do, particularly for those of us who perhaps held passionate, ‘insider’ views on Larkin and who might have wished for particular aspects to be emphasised at the expense, perhaps, of others. Ultimately, however, it was absolutely right not to seek to intervene and to leave the overall direction, content and ‘message’ entirely up to the curator.
Anna’s approach was to display the man in a truly three dimensional manner, not shying away from any aspect of his life, public or private, but, also, leaving judgements entirely to others. Whether or not this can ever be totally achieved of course, is debateable. The very way that content is selected and displayed; the choices over what goes in and what is left out; which photographic angle is displayed, what size it is and so on is bound to both create and shape potential meaning and interpretation. Nevertheless, this exhibition certainly did not go out of its way to ‘tell the story’ from any particular perspective or to arrive at any kind of definitive statement about Philip Larkin. We were clear, from the outset, that this should not be a biographical exhibition. Predictably, as a glance at the very high level of media coverage would suggest, the reactions and responses have themselves been very broad, ranging from a few lazy journalistic reproductions of familiar stereotypical views of Larkin, to much more nuanced positions that should hopefully encourage a fresh desire to seek out, or revisit, Larkin’s life and work. This is exactly what we had hoped for.
In terms of content, what was particularly striking was the enormous range and variety of objects on display and their colourful nature. If there had been a prevailing notion of Larkin as a dull and dark one-dimensional person it has been well and truly debunked. This was an exhibition awash with colour – pink especially (said to be Larkin’s favourite). The viewing journey began with an astonishing tapestry covering an entire wall as one entered the exhibition space, a blown up photographic reproduction of the print of one of Monica Jones’s summer dresses (the dress itself being displayed in another part of the exhibition). It carried over into Larkin’s own clothing – his red shirt and colourful array of ties, some of them reflective of the ‘flower power’ era of the later 1960s. The display of Larkin’s private library, recovered from his home at 105 Newland Park after Monica Jones’s death, was an array of colourful dust jackets and even more colourful literary taste, full of surprises. Almost every visitor, it seems, as made an astonishing connection with something in his library (for me it was a 1975 cricket album and Hunter Davies’ biography of The Beatles). The expression, ‘I’ve got that one!’ must have been heard a thousand times over this summer, quickly followed by the words: ‘Well I’m surprised he had that in his collection!’
The objects themselves, some 600 in total, recovered from his house in Newland Park on the death of Monica Jones in 2001, revealed elements of the day-to-day ordinariness in the life of this very extraordinary man and some of them were not a million miles away from the poetry itself. The lawnmower hanging on the wall, for instance, was the very machine that accidentally mauled the ‘unobtrusive world’ of that poor hedgehog in Larkin’s poem, ‘The Mower’, and one was left to surmise that a vase displayed next to a photograph of Larkin’s maternal grandparents might just be the one that inspired ‘Home Is So Sad.’
‘That vase’? c. Philip Pullen
In some cases, the objects uncovered the absolute physicality of the person in a highly intimate, almost painful manner. Self’s the man, a perspex box located at the centre of the exhibition, contained almost everything but the body itself, including Larkin’s outsize clothing, a pair of his spectacles, an ear piece and a set of scales (given to him by his secretary, Betty Mackereth). Viewed alongside books on how to correct a stammer and how to lose weight, the objects highlighted sharply so many of Larkin’s anxieties about his self image and the physical conditions that affected it. Faced with these items, and the life size reproduction of a doodle he drew of himself looking into a mirror, we were invited to reflect on what makes up our own self-image.
The collection of family letters contained in display cases were also presented principally as objects that mattered to Larkin. Some of the envelopes containing letters written by his mother, Eva, had scribbled writing and doodles on the back, indicating that he often carried them about his person. An ancient shoebox full of letters indicates how carefully Larkin, ever the librarian, stored them, neatly bundled into years. He never threw any of them away. Fittingly, among the many highly amusing Larkin quotations dotted around the exhibition on pink bookends was one in which read: “‘To destroy letters is repugnant to me – it’s like destroying a bit of life. Yet they mount up so.”
Of all the objects on display perhaps one stood out in its biographical fame and notoriety – the small figurine of Hitler which Philip’s father, Sydney, brought back from Germany in the 1930s and which once, allegedly, adorned the Larkin family mantelpiece. Over the years, this item had literally been blown out of all proportion. One biographer, Richard Bradford, creatively elevated it to 12 inches in height and Larkin’s first biographer, Andrew Motion, claimed that, at the press of a button the right arm lifted in salute. In reality, the statue, displayed in a small perspex cube, stood less than four inches, and there was no button to press. Nevertheless, its very presence, next to a photograph of Sydney Larkin, remained a chilling reminder of unanswered questions and suppositions.
While this was principally an exhibition without words, the visitor still had plenty of opportunity to seek them out. The clever installation of two, very comfortable. park benches in the middle of the exhibition space, alongside book trolleys containing a good range of Larkin texts, biographies and associated materials prompted many visitors to sit and browse and discover more about the man and his literary legacy. In fact, many found themselves making more than one visit, their appetites whetted to discover more. In addition, a background sound track of Larkin’s favourite jazz recordings helped to generate an atmosphere in which people felt free to speak and chat and engage with the excellent Hull 2017 volunteers who acted as ‘library guides’.
Finally, the exhibition’s designer, Craig Oldham, is to be congratulated for creating the opportunity for visitors to write their own letter to Philip Larkin on high quality embossed paper designed especially for the exhibition. So many visitors took hold of this invitation and the responses, displayed on a wall at the end of the exhibition, were frequently amusing and often emotionally powerful. They included poems and drawings (sometimes mirroring Larkin’s own doodles) and personal recollections of having met the man himself. These responses (all of which are being carefully retained in the Philip Larkin Archive at Hull History Centre) suggest that many visitors have discovered a surprising empathy with the life of Philip Larkin and, above all, a real desire to discover more about what made him such a great writer.
There is no doubt that this has been an outstanding Larkin exhibition, and probably the most successful ever, particularly in terms of attracting new interest in the man and his writing. As a literary society, we are keen to build on this success and have several plans to do so, over and above our usual yearly round of events and publication of the journal About Larkin . Firstly, with the kind support of Michelle Anderson, the University Librarian, we have been able to relocate the Larkin artefacts, many of which were previously kept in a scattered fashion in various Society member’s homes, with an intention to securing proper conservation if sufficient funds can be obtained. And in the longer term, attention is already turning to 2022, the centenary of Larkin’s birth. There is no doubt that the lessons learned from ‘New Eyes Each Year’ can then be put to work in producing something equally spectacular. Watch this space!