Today's ShukerNature Picture of the Day dates back to 15 January 2013. That was when longstanding Facebook friend Kristian Lander from Nottingham, England, posted on my Facebook wall the above photograph snapped by him of a very unusual painting that he had recently encountered inside a local public house, because he was particularly intrigued by the mauve but mysterious winged beast lurking in its bottom left-hand corner, and wondered if I knew anything about it.
Sadly, I didn't, but it certainly elicited my curiosity, and when Kristian's post containing his photo reappeared recently in my Facebook's Memories section, I decided to document on ShukerNature the sparse details that have come my way during the intervening years concerning it. So here they are, exactly eight years after Kristian first brought this perplexing painting to my attention, in the hope that someone who reads them will be able to provide further data.
Kristian informed me that the painting was hanging high above an archway inside a pub at Bulwell, Nottingham, named the William Peverel (which had opened in 2012 and is currently part of the famous JD Weatherspoon chain). Consequently, he'd had to use the zoom attachment on his camera in order to obtain his close-up photo of it, but there was no signature visible, nor was there any artist information available.
However, Kristian had noticed that there was a description of the painting on a nearby wall plaque. This stated that it was a picture of the man after whom the pub had been named, one William Peverel, apparently giving homage to the Green Man – a longstanding symbol of fertility and rebirth in English folkloric tradition, and usually represented as a human figure covered in green, leafy foliage. As for the purple winged creature beside Peverel, however, its identity was merely referred to in the description as "unknown".
Now for some interesting facts concerning the real-life person after whom this pub is named – William Peverel. It turns out that he was a Norman knight who was a favourite of William the Conqueror, i.e. King William I of England, who famously defeated the Saxons' King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and thus founded the Norman dynasty in England. Peverel was specifically listed in the Domesday Book as a builder of castles, and also owned several, including Nottingham Castle. Before he died in 1114, he had sired two sons, both of whom were also named William.
The JD Wetherspoon website includes a page of details for Nottingham's William Peverel pub (there is actually more than one pub in England with this same name), which can be accessed here. Sadly, however, they contain no mention of this painting (though they do include one interior photo that shows it in place upon one of the walls), but what they do state is that this pub's namesake was a son of William the Conqueror. Yet according to lineages for William I that I have checked, only one of his ten children was named William, and he became King William II following his father's death, so he was certainly not William Peverel. Moreover, according to The Royal Bastards of Medieval England (1984) by Chris Given-Wilson and Alice Curteis, William I is not credited as having any illegitimate children. Ditto for his entry by Charles Cawley in the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy, Medieval Lands Database – click here to access it. So I'm not sure where the Wetherspoon claim regarding Peverel being William I's son originates.
Peverel's parentage contradictions notwithstanding, let's turn now to the painting itself. As commented upon by another Facebook friend, Scott Wood, the face of William Perceval as depicted in it is unmistakably based upon a much earlier but very famous, and decidedly idiosyncratic, painting entitled 'Vertumnus' (Vertumnus being the Roman god of seasons, plant growth, and change), which was produced in 1591 by Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526/27-1593). Here it is:
As can be readily seen, his subject's face is actually composed of various fruits, flowers, vegetables and other botanical offerings, which is nothing if not apt, given that Vertumnus was a plant-associated deity. Yet in spite of the name that he gave to this painting, Arcimboldo did not actually intend it to be a depiction of Vertumnus, but rather a portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II.
Moreover, this phytologically-influenced illustration was not an artistic sui generis either – on the contrary, Arcimboldo was well known for this highly imaginative, albeit decidedly quirky, mode of depiction, having painted a number of other portraits in which its subjects are composed of intricate, exquisitely-arranged collections of horticultural produce as well as fishes and even books. Having said that, Arcimboldo did also prepare many far more conventional artistic works too (including the self-portrait presented at the end of this ShukerNature blog article), but his unique botanically-themed portraits are his most familiar paintings nowadays.
As for whether the clear similarity between the face of William Peverel in the pub's 'green man' painting of him and Arcimboldo's 'Vertumnus' painting indicates that the former is definitely a modern-day painting, or merely one that was painted at some undetermined time within the 400+ years that have passed since Arcimboldo painted the latter, this is of course impossible to determine without the Peverel painting being subjected to a rigorous examination by expert art historians.
Incidentally, despite the descriptive plaque alongside the William Peverel painting in Nottingham's eponymous pub stating that it depicts Peverel apparently giving homage to the Green Man (albeit with a suit of armour protruding very visibly beneath his Green Man attire!), it is possible that there is an entirely different explanation for what - and even who – this painting depicts. My first clue to this unexpected yet undeniably plausible possibility came from a seemingly source-less but thought-provoking quote made known to me by another Facebook friend, Caitlin Warrior, and when I pursued it to discover its origin, this is what I uncovered.
In the compendium Medieval Outlaws: Twelve Tales In Modern English Translation, edited by Thomas H. Ohlgren and published as a revised, expanded edition in 2005 by Parlor Press, there is a Romance story entitled 'Fouke le Fitz Waryn', which is known from a single manuscript in the British Library that dates from c.1330 and is written in Anglo-Norman prose. How much of its content is based upon real events and real people and how much is folklore and heroic fantasy, however, is difficult to determine.
Translated by Thomas E. Kelly, and beginning not too long after William the Conqueror has become England's monarch, it tells of how William Peverel proclaims a tournament at which the knight who performs best and wins the tournament shall receive as his prize the hand of William's beautiful niece, Melette of the White Tower. Waryn de Metz (Metz being in Lorraine, France), a valiant but unmarried, childless nobleman, decides to take part, attended by a company of knights sent by his cousin John, Duke of Brittany, to assist him. When they arrive in England, Waryn and his company pitch their tents in the forest near to where the tournament is to be held.
What interests me, however, is not the tournament itself, nor even Waryn's participation in it. Instead, I am very intrigued by the following short but very tantalizing excerpt from the story's description of the tournament's second day (and which turned out to my delight to be the hitherto source-less quote to which Caitlin had previously alerted me):
The following day a joust was proclaimed throughout the land. Thereupon Waryn came out of the forest and went to the joust clad all in green with ivy leaves, like an adventurous knight, unrecognized by anyone.
Waryn went on to win the tournament and marry the fair Melette, so could it be that the figure in the pub's Peverel painting is not Peverel at all, and has nothing to do with the Green Man either? That in reality it is actually a depiction of that portion of the early story 'Fouke le Fitz Waryn' when Waryn de Metz steps forth "clad all in green with ivy leaves" at the tournament of William Peverel, and that somehow this has all become confused, until the figure in the painting is now wrongly thought to be Peverel himself?
After all, why should William Peverel dress up as and give homage to the Green Man anyway? I've always found that supposed explanation of the painting to be as baffling as the painting itself. Also, his outfit looks far more like a leafy modern-day jacket than the full head-to-foot traditional costume normally worn by Green Man impersonators or personifiers - and isn't that a black bow-tie at his neck? Plus, as noted earlier, a suit of armour is clearly visible protruding below the jacket. Hardly typical Green Man accoutrements! In fact, the more I look at it, the less inclined I am to believe that this ambiguous artwork has anything to do with either William Peverel or Waryn de Metz – more an original work of fantasy or even satire, in fact, created by the artist's own imagination, in which he has combined elements from a number of different sources or inspirations. Curioser and curiouser, as Alice would surely have said if she'd encountered anything so abtruse during her dream journeys through Wonderland and Looking-Glass World.
Yet as if all of this is not bewildering and contentious enough, we now turn to the painting's biggest mystery of all. Namely, what on earth is that bizarre creature squatting alongside Peverel (or Waryn de Metz?) in the painting, and why is it even there?
Inevitably, when the photograph of this painting is enlarged, the creature becomes decidedly blurred as it only occupies a small portion of it. From what I can discern, however, it resembles a cat, with dark purple fur, and a pair of large white wings, as revealed above.
As loyal readers of my writings will know, winged cats really do exist, and I have documented many examples in various of my books and articles. Moreover, many years ago I discovered the explanation behind their bizarre appendages. In fact, such cats suffer from a rare genetic condition known as feline cutaneous asthenia (FCA), in which the skin on their body is abnormally stretchable (or friable, to use the strict scientific term). Consequently, if they rub their shoulders against an object, for instance, or stroke themselves with their paws, their skin readily stretches to yield fur-covered wing-like extensions, which can even be raised or lowered if they contain muscle fibres (click here for more details regarding winged cats on ShukerNature).
However, the wings of the anomalous animal in this painting are not furry but feathery, composed of typical avian plumes, thereby rendering it a zoological impossibility. Yet it does not call to mind any known form of mythological beast either. So is it meant to be entirely fictitious, perhaps nothing more than a most peculiar product of the imagination of this painting's unknown artist?
But why should the artist choose to include such an exceedingly odd yet also indisputably eyecatching creature in a depiction of a real, and very eminent, figure from English – and particularly Nottingham's – history? Wondering if it could conceivably represent some heraldic device associated with the Peverel lineage, I have explored this possibility in depth, but have been unable to trace any such representation. Worth noting, however, is that I did discover that the colour purple just so happens to be linked in a heraldic context to the wife of none other than a certain Waryn de Metz. Merely a coincidence…?
So there is the information that I currently have concerning this most enigmatic yet fascinating painting and its depicted subjects, but there is so much more that at present I do not have.
I know who the human figure is supposed to be (although whether this identity is actually the correct one remains unclear), but not why his face should have been based upon a decidedly bizarre, grotesque portrait by a 16th-Century Italian artist. I have not the faintest idea what the magenta-furred, moggie-like creature with feathered wings that has also been included in this painting is meant to be, nor even why it has been included in the first place. And I do not know who the artist is who produced the painting, nor how it came to be on display at the William Peverel pub in Nottingham.
Consequently, gentle readers, I am turning to you now, in the earnest hope that some of you may have additional details that can provide answers to the above questions, ultimately yielding the missing pieces vitally needed if this veritable jigsaw of a mystifying illustration is ever to be satisfactorily completed.
My sincere thanks to Kristian Lander for making this extremely interesting painting known to me and for so kindly sharing with me his photograph of it.
Finally: while on the subject of the folkloric Green Man, there is a second mysterious depiction that has intrigued me for even longer than the Nottingham painting investigated here. Back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, during the early days of my writing career, I was planning to prepare an article dealing with the Green Man (three decades later, and I'm still planning to do so...some day), and among the illustrations that I was very much hoping to include within it was a photograph of a sign outside a London pub named Green Man. This was because the Green Man depicted on that particular sign was totally unlike any representation of this entity that I'd ever seen (and still is today). Ditto for the latter's less foliate version, known as Jack-in-the-Green. In fact, what it did closely resemble was a bizarre humanoid insect!
I've only ever seen this particular photograph in a large hardback book entitled Mysterious Monsters, written by Daniel Farson and Angus Hall, and published by Aldus Books in 1978. Unfortunately, however, despite writing to both the authors and the publisher of this book, requesting permission to include the photo in my article and also for any information concerning which particular pub owned the sign in the photo (30-odd years ago, there were a fair few London pubs named (the) Green Man!), I never received any responses. Moreover, even numerous subsequent searches online and elsewhere have all failed to trace any details concerning it.
With pubs all over Britain closing down in great numbers during the past decade or so, it is very likely that this pub is no more, or has at least changed ownership and name – in either case meaning that the highly unusual insect-like Green Man representation on its sign has gone too. Nevertheless, just in case anyone does know which Green Man pub this sign belonged to, I'm including the photo of it below (on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only), and would greatly welcome any information regarding it. Who knows – I may even get around to writing my Green Man article one day!
Not your usual kind of entry, Dr. K, but fascinating nonetheless. As for your Green Man article, I'd enjoy reading one of your movie reviews on the Albert Finney BBC TV adaptation from 1990. Who'd have thought Finney and the supernatural would go together?ReplyDelete
Glad you enjoyed it. I've never seen The Green Man series that you mention, so I'll have to keep a look out for it, sounds interesting.Delete