When Noakes cites the traits of “the picturesque style” as justification for his plans, Lady Croom (perhaps wilfully, perhaps ignorantly) misunderstands him, answering “but Sidley Park is already a picture, and a most amiable picture too.” After a brief description of Sidley Park, which would, today, be worthy of entry on a National Trust website, Lady Croom concludes, “I can say with the painter, ‘Et in Arcadia ego!’ ‘Here I am in Arcadia.’”
The joke, of course, is that Lady Croom appears to think she is simply asserting the alive and simple beauty of Sidley, and doing so by likening it to a work of art (most likely Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego, but possibly Guercino’s painting of the same name).
But what of all this?
Yesterday, my wife, mother-in-law, and I visited Eynsham Hall, in Oxfordshire. The site dates back to the seventeenth century, while the house that stands there today is a nineteenth-century work. Be that as it may, one feels on arrival as though one his entering an Elizabethan pastoral poem. The setting is of just the sort that one imagines a Lady Croom might admire, might actually believe is a distillation of the "quintessential" England.
Whether or not Stoppard’s memento mori joke is just clever wordplay (although I quite like clever wordplay, so I’m not entirely comfortable premodifying “wordplay” with the downtoner “just”), a dig at not-so-clever clever people, or a dig at not-so-clever aristocrats, I’m not sure. But I was tickled when, on entering this “real-life” Sidley Park, I saw this; it reminded me of Lady Croom:
Lord bless ‘em, the custodians of Eynsham have committed what, from now on, I will call a “Croomism.” Eynsham is a place that advertises itself as a business, conference, and, most especially, a wedding venue. Presumably, the intention was to communicate something along the lines of “here’s a nice slice of ‘true’ and traditional British paradise for you”; not, “congratulations on your wedding. Of course, Death is always and everywhere, so make sure It gets a glass of bubbly and a vol-au-vent, won’t you?” Of course, my presumption might be far too presumptuous. Perhaps, set against the backdrop of an almost-vanished rustic Albion, there could be nothing more British, and therefore nothing more salutary, than to be reminded of one’s mortality at those moments where one is in danger of sliding into primitive catchings of unbridled happiness.
The whole experience was capped off rather nicely by the fact that this nota bene of Death’s ubiquity and omniscience, misread and offered up as an assertion of eternal paradise, was scrawled in the hot neon pink: that colour and that medium seems to encapsulate so well the idea of an always already obsolete modernity, and the evanescence of so much of our cultural produce. One always expects at least one letter in a neon sign to have already fizzled out. Neon pink: the form and content of modernity’s memento mori.