Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery brings together a diverse selection of curious objects, artworks, archive material and unseen photographs to tell the story behind the creation of WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn
Not everybody who lives there has read it and of those who have, not all of them understand or even enjoy it, but there’s something about WG Sebald’s Rings of Saturn that seems ingrained into the minds of many East Anglians.
WG Sebald (1944 – 2001) – or Max to his friends – is one of the most revered authors of the late 20th century. His evocative and unclassifiable prose works: Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992), The Rings of Saturn (1995), and Austerlitz (2001) continue to attract an international following and a passionate devotion of readers that has grown significantly since his untimely death in 2001 in a car crash aged 57.
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The German author produced all of his published texts whilst living and teaching in Norfolk, he was a visiting lecturer at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and the distinctive character of the local landscape and the stories of those who have made a home there are elements that connect them all.
But it’s his meditative travelogue through the Norfolk and Suffolk landscape that has really left its mark in East Anglia. Part fiction, part history, part travel meditation suffused with a large slice of romantic melancholia and littered with enigmatic photographs, the Rings of Saturn is a cult classic.
“It’s a book that has got a very peculiar readership and fan base, because there’s lots of Sebald fans out there,” says Dr Nick Warr, who co-curated this homage to Sebald. “So it’s odd that it’s held in such high esteem academically and internationally because it’s a kind of a local book, it’s by a local author, and yet he’s a very strange local author.”
Warr is co-editor of Shadows of Reality: A Catalogue of WG Sebald’s Photographic Material (Norwich: Boiler House Press, 2019) and the Curator of Photographic Collections at the UEA, which holds many of Sebald’s photographs.
“Every time anybody starts work at the university it’s almost a kind of rite of passage to give them a copy [of Rings of Saturn],” he adds, “and it’s really peculiar to have a famous local writer who writes in a language that most people can’t read. And if they can read it, they can’t understand it.”
The exhibition which Warr curated with Dr Rosy Gray of Norwich Castle Museum is an aptly idiosyncratic homage to Sebald and his ‘local book’. And like the book it follows the traces of the author’s physical and metaphysical wanderings – taking in everything from the mystery of Sir Thomas Browne’s skull and the secret landscapes of the Cold War to the ghostly vessels of vanished herring fleets and intricate pattern books of the Norwich silk weavers.
It brings together many fascinating manuscripts and objects – from collections in Norwich Castle and other local museums across East Anglia that Sebald visited for his influential work. Together with manuscripts from the family and Sebald’s own photographs, the exhibition pulls together the threads of Sebald’s enigmatic text to present its own uniquely poetic visual portrait of East Anglia.
There are many elements to Sebald’s book, but for Weaver it’s the photographs that were the starting point. He remembers almost fifteen years ago discovering two boxes marked ‘Max’ when he was unpacking the university’s photographic collection of over one million photographs, which had been boxed during a refurbishment.
“There were just hundreds and hundreds of those green storage crates, and it took me two to three years to unpack them all and try and work out what they were. And then there were these couple of boxes kicking around that just had the word “Max” written on them.
“For ages I thought they were just referring to another photographer that I used to work with, but as I opened them up I started to recognise some of the pictures from The Rings of Saturn.”
After talking to colleagues who had worked with Sebald, they directed him to the photographer who used to work with the archive and with Sebald on his books, Michael Brandon-Jones.
“He’s like a curator of his own little exhibition of very odd objects and local history”
“I invited him over and we started to go through this box of photographs and I was told the story of how he collaborated with Sebald, how the photographs in the books were all made in the very office that is now my office in the Sainsbury Centre, and how it was all made very locally. So it’s been a case of trying to then hunt down all the rest of the photographs, which is where we’ve got to now.”
As anyone who has read Sebald will know, photographs are an integral part of the books, partly because Sebald always took a camera with him on his many wanderings and also because he was an habitual collector of old photographs.
“He haunted every junkshop and flea market in East Anglia,” says Warr, “and the books were a way of him trying to work out why he was interested in all these odd photographs – what he called ‘the strays’ – that he’d come across.
“The way he worked his way through it was to weave his own photographs in with them to try and build up these narratives and to tell the story of these found images and his own autobiography. He’s like a curator of his own little exhibition of very odd objects and local history.
“Including the photography is something that’s very peculiar to him, especially that type of photography. It’s photography of a different order, you’re never 100% if he took the photograph or not, or if he found it because the way he worked with Michael Brandon-Jones was that everything would be photographed and re-photographed.”
The result is that often Sebald’s own photographs look like the old antique ones that he’d found in the junk shops.
“It’s a process where he is almost erasing himself as a photographer” explains Warr, “It certainly challenges your notion of what a photographer does and is.”
Sebald also loved going to small out of the way museums and, as anyone from East Anglia knows, it is full of old airfield museums and places like Southwold Museum with fascinating little collections.
“When you start to think of the book as a kind of a small, little museum of peculiar objects from East Anglia you start to get the real idea behind it,” says Warr. “So we’re really using The Rings of Saturn as a kind of curatorial blueprint to do a show about the collection.
“The silk pattern book from Strangers Hall is a key object for us. It was one of his favourite places – he used to go there regularly and look at the pattern books. He loved that whole old folk museum feel about it.”
The silk pattern image adorned the beginning of The Rings of Saturn, but each image in Sebald’s work is testament to his fascination with the overlooked; the objects, places, people and events that have drifted to the margins of everyday life.
Following the Sebald trail deeper, curators went to Somerleyton Hall and to Southwold Museum to track down the objects that had fascinated him. Sebald talks about the Battle of Solebay and the painting of it, which the Royal Maritime Museum at Greenwich have loaned to the exhibition. Visitors will also see Thomas Brown’s replica skull from deep in Norwich Castle’s vaults.
Browne, a well-known local polymath who lived and wrote in Norwich during the seventeenth century, is buried in a vault in the Church of St Peter Mancroft in the city. At some point his skull was detached from its body by a workman and for many years it resided in the collection of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital Museum. Several casts of it now dwell in various collections in East Anglia and, considering Browne’s many interests, his love of drollery and penchant for melancholia, the skull offers a perfect starting point for some Sebaldian reflection.
“Sebald wrote in an antiquated way, his models were all kind of 19th century and he loved that romantic idea of the solitary writer roaming around thinking,” adds Warr. “ He was very much a product of romantic fiction and the style he wrote in avoided any contemporary terms, so there’s a kind of timelessness to it all. And the book itself features lots of Victorian writers and poets like Swinburne and Fitzgerald.”
But rather than just putting the book on the wall and recreating it, the objects from the collections and the places he visited together with his strange collection of photographs offer a window into the metaphysical moments of a writer working out his creative process – and how powerful objects can be when you tie them in with places and history.
“We’re keeping it kind of open to interpretation, we’re not over-interpreting it,” adds Warr. “So even if you don’t know anything about Sebald you can come in and think, well that’s peculiar.”
Lines of Sight: WG Sebald’s East Anglia is at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, May 10 2019 – January 5 2020
Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery
One of the city's most famous landmarks, Norwich Castle was built by the Normans as a Royal Palace 900 years ago. Now a museum and art gallery, the Castle is packed with treasures to inspire and intrigue visitors of all ages. The entire collection of this museum is a Designated…