Phillip Medhurst

Wisdom from a Gnostic Sage

Tag: vanity



The paintings were reproduced in “La Sainte Bible : Ancien Testament . . . / Compositions par J.-James Tissot” with preface by A. D. Sertillanges, introduction by M. de Brunoff and the French version of L. J. Lemaistre de Saci. (Sertillanges, Antonin Gilbert 1863-1948; Le Maistre de Sacy, Isaac-Louis, 1613-1684) 2 vols.: illus., plates: 4to. 40 plates, 360 illustrations to text, by James Tissot (Tissot, Jacques-Joseph, French, 1836-1902). Paris: M. de Brunoff & Cie, 1904.

The edition contains 360 mounted colour, b/w, and duo-tone illustrations in the text and 40 plates in three states, sepia-tone, partly hand-coloured, and finished coloured state. The plates are protected with captioned tissue-guards. The paper size is 15 3/4 x 13 ins; image size varies (c 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 ins).

Illustration was completed after Tissot’s death in 1902 by Henri Bellery-Desfontaines, Auguste François Gorguet, Charles Hoffbauer, Louis van Parys, Michel Simonidy and Georges Bertin Scott.

Of the 561 copies printed, the John Rylands Library (Manchester) copy is an “exemplaire unique”. As well as the triple set of the large plates in various states, and a series of proofs before letters of the illustrations appearing in the text, it contains a water colour drawing by Tissot (“Joseph presents his father Jacob to Pharaoh”), his original pen and ink sketches for this work, and an autograph letter by him.

Files created by Phillip Medhurst: Tissot in Brunoff at the John Rylands

Ida the Fossil (1)


Scientists have discovered an exquisitely preserved ancient primate fossil that they believe forms a crucial “missing link” between our own evolutionary branch of life and the rest of the animal kingdom.The 47million-year-old primate – named “Ida” – has been hailed as the fossil equivalent of a “Rosetta Stone” for understanding the critical early stages of primate evolution. The Guardian 2009


In this, the Sabbath vigil of my life, I found

Myself prostrate, all helpless on the ground,

For sin had made me blind. It was as though

Throughout my life I strayed, and did not know

Where I was going or from whence I came,

Just led by some ephemeral, dancing flame

Snuffed out once it was glimpsed, and dead to sight

Before it could be fixed – the moth’s mad flight

More full of rhyme and reason than my life,

Now so replete with grief and full of strife.


I’ve looked at ev’ry explanation that

There is of life, and none come near to sat-

Isfying all criteria of truth,

Or come up with the necessary proof

That they’re the answer. All require a leap

Into absurdity – alright for sheep

Who find their comfort in conformity,

But useless for all lone-wolves such as me.

There is a way to make it work, of course,

Which is: to put on blinkers like a horse


And go just where the drayman tells you to.

But in your heart you’ll know it to be true

That, even though you’re willing to work hard,

All roads end up inside the knacker’s yard.

“Arbeit macht frei” is true to a degree,

But not the way we wish that it could be.

A product of conception, you will be

From life aborted, howe’er belatedly.

Meanwhile, you strive where chance gives no reward:

Your feeble hand upturns an empty gourd.

And so our ends are like a jelly-fish:

Sans spine, sans brain, a wat’ry upturned dish

Borne on through vastness we cannot perceive,

Still less control enough to steer. Believe

We may, but proof of purpose or a plan

Revealed consistently denied, we can

Not fabricate from our own stuff, for we

Are empty, blind, insensate, falsely free,

Borne on by tides, by winds, by currents, all

Uncomprehended, landing where we fall.


The birds seem free; no wonder, then, the dove

Is symbol of God’s Spirit from above.

But what became of all the other kinds

Of beasts not taken to the ark? – They died.

So we: into oblivion. We: free

To die and be forgotten; the elect

Disclose God’s will to naturally select.

Just like a snail I leave a glistening train

To be erased by the first fall of rain;

Or, like the scarab, roll a ball of dung,

My pyramid for when I have no tongue

To extol my own deeds. For like that bird,

(Though it may seem unlikely and absurd)

The phœnix, from the ashes (I surmise)

Once fire is spent I presently will rise

To live again; although we know within

That in this legend ashes are the “fin”.


Lament (2)


We came. We paused. We went. We had our say.

And whether night or day, it makes no sense:

Our toil receives no lasting recompense.

The arbit’ry division of the days

As hours, minutes, seconds; and the ways

In which these segments must be spent; and how

We should be happy and fulfilled; who bow

To, who revere; and where we are consigned

To at our death: all these make chains that bind

Us. We embrace these shackles, since the free

Must for themselves define what they must be:

What “happy” is, and what should make them sad,

And wherein dwells the good, and where the bad.

Night brings no rest unless we lose ourselves

Inside a dream-world where our psyche delves

Into those wishes unfulfilled, beyond

The grasp of nightmare’s reach, a pond

Beneath whose surface deep desire thrives

Without diminishing our thwarted lives;

A magic chalice where all beauty lives,

Which takes from no-one, ever – only gives

To all, and none must beg: its grace

Wells up to all, and all can find a place.

But dawn’s cold light reveals it full of lies.

Best not to dream when we must close our eyes.



Lament (1)


If I knew what the living of this life

Obtained, I would obtain it. All that strife,

Anxiety and hurt would contribute

To some exchequer full of meaning’s loot

Which, plundered from the stinking hold

Of death, would help me to pay off, all told,

Those bitter creditors who lay in wait

At each day’s wakening – not to this state

Of ignorance, bankrupt, without defence,

To give up hope without a recompense.

For once I rose, then fell. Again I rose

And staggered to this path. This one I chose,

To leave a trail (which will be overgrown within

Another lifetime) – not that I begin

Anew: my marks and tracks haphazard fell

Throughout this forest floor, which scarcely tell

Of feet that trod this way. For no-one cares.

Each too in isolation, lost, each fares

Towards a light too briefly glimpsed, before

A rush of wind removes what we just saw –

If not imagined. Then, sometimes, we look

To see if we can scry within the brook

From which we drink an image of the stars.

Instead, the canopy of boughs, like bars,

Blots out the sky, an ever-growing lid

Built by our past mistakes – nor can we bid

It stop. It grows and grows. The image of

The light which we remember up above

Gets dimmer as we go. And so our trail

Bequeaths no thing of value, and we fail

To teach to those who follow a true way.