Sargent, Lavishness, Girls and Herrings

Vernon Lee 1881 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925

(John Singer Sargent, Vernon Lee, 1881, Tate Gallery)

John Singer Sargent: American; born on 12 January 1856 in Florence; later lived in Paris and London, where he died in 1925. The novelist James Salter once told an interviewer: ‘Someone said that I write the way Sargent painted. Sargent based his style on direct observation and an economical use of paint—which is close to my own method.’[1]

Two of my strong likings may connect then, Sargent’s pictures and Salter’s prose. I have hugely pleasurable memories of the 2015 John Singer Sargent show at the National Portrait Gallery, Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends. Reviewing that show, Jackie Wullschlager wrote in the Financial Times that: ‘Virtuosity made Sargent’s fortune, but his formal portraiture, its grand manner and lavish brushwork derived from Velázquez and Frans Hals, never fully persuaded critical opinion.’

sargents

http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/sargent/home.php

I do recall that a few of the more formal portraits– mainly of American sitters – worked less well, when there seemed less reciprocal current between artist and subject. But the vast majority were superbly successful. When there are fewer restraints on what Sargent is obliged or moved to do, the technical mastery that is always there soars and sweeps. There are wonderful details, a finger, a buttonhole, the faintest touch of whiteness on a lip, and moments of dizzying poise as the brushstrokes, never losing their hold on the recognised and recognisable world, edge towards abstraction, in parts, fluid and swift.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885-6 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925

(John Singer Sargent, Carnation-Lily-Lily-Rose: Tate Britain)

Here are some lines from Hart Crane:

A goose, tobacco and cologne—
Three winged and gold-shod prophecies of heaven,
The lavish heart shall always have to leaven
And spread with bells and voices, and atone
The abating shadows of our conscript dust.[2]

hart-crane

Hmm, never a quick read. Or should it be? How to read. An Ezra Pound title. How to read Ezra Pound? For Hugh Kenner, that question was illuminated by hearing Pound talk, the speed (or slowness) and rhythms of his speech. Donald Davie wrote of reading the Cantos at two speeds, once fast and once slow: ‘so the verse-lines of the Cantos have to be read fast for their meanings, but slow for their sounds’.[3] That’s probably how best to read Ulysses too: once at a canter, not worrying about every word or phrase, just gorging on the language and laughing a lot. Then roll your sleeves up.

‘The lavish heart’, though. Lavish brushwork, lavish heart.

There used to be a regular feature in – was it The Guardian? – in which some notable person would be presented with a list of questions, one of which was ‘What is your favourite word?’ I used to run idly over a number of possibilities. My words of the moment varied, of course: resonance, tessellated, desolation, susurrate, imago, though I liked, always, the word ‘girl’, which I knew wouldn’t do at all, being immediately suspect in the twenty-first century, not to mention a chunk of the twentieth, though it seems to recur now in every other new book title.

Another choice for me would be ‘lavish’. ‘Après mot le deluge’, in James Joyce’s little poem for his friend Eugene Jolas, fits this, the old French lavasse meaning deluge of rain, the Latin lavare meaning to wash. Outpouring, then, but always with the sense of profusion, extravagance, overabundance. It also has a couple of positive literary links for me. First is Louis MacNeice’s wonderful ‘Bagpipe Music’, which I have, once again, managed to commit to memory (I think), having mislaid a few lines for a while:

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn’t count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it as a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

Farquharson, David, 1839-1907; The Herring Fleet Leaving the Dee, Aberdeen

(David Farquharson, The Herring Fleet Leaving the Dee, Aberdeen: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums)

‘Cran’ refers, apparently, to a measure of capacity for herrings just landed in port. Chambers Dictionary (of Edinburgh) specifies 37½ gallons, wonderfully specific. I assume this is because that, in turn, equals 300 pints.

Second is the phrase that William Maxwell employs in the introduction to his edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters, and which, in turn, provides the title of Michael Steinman’s edition of the letters between Warner and Maxwell: The Element of Lavishness. ‘The personal correspondence of writers feeds on left-over energy,’ Maxwell noted. ‘There is also the element of lavishness, of enjoying the fact that they are throwing away one of their better efforts, for the chances of any given letter’s surviving are fifty-fifty, at most. And there is the element of confidence–of the relaxed backhand stroke that can place the ball anywhere in the court that it pleases the writer to have it go.’

element-of-lavishness

This is still high among my favourite volumes of letters between two writers (along with Warner–Garnett, Maxwell–Welty, Garnett–White and even Davenport–Laughlin or Salter–Phelps, though completion of the Davenport-Kenner correspondence may shake up the league table). Warner to Maxwell, 4 October 1953: ‘My old friend, Jane Ann, died the week before, all in a flash, and though death cannot close an inn when there is not another within sixteen miles of it, I rang up her brother thinking I would put off, and only changed my mind when he said, She had everything planned for you. So not to go there would have been an impiety. Life has never seemed such a fleeting thing as it did in that house, the same chairs, the same cut glass dishes, the stuffed fox and the prize curling-stone in their old place, the same brand of matches in the bedroom candlesticks, the same voices in the tap-room, the same smell in the early morning of the hills and the river outside and porridge cooking inside. Everything was so familiar, I might have been dead myself.’

And once more, 26 March 1971: ‘I hope your cold is better and the kettle put by –though I have nothing against kettles. I remember many happy days with them in my childhood, with my father coming with story-books & champagne. Champagne for everything above the waist, brandy for anything below it, was the medicinal way; and I am still a credit to his theory.’[4]

An element of lavishness indeed.

 

References

[1] Salter, interview with Edward Hirsch, Paris Review, 127 (Summer 1993).

[2] Hart Crane, ‘For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen’, Complete Poems and Selected Letters, edited by Langdon Hammer (New York: Library of America, 2006), 23.

[3] Hugh Kenner, ‘Retrospect: 1985’, in The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951; Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1985), 3-4; Davie, Pound (London: Fontana, 1975), 90.

[4] William Maxwell, ‘Introduction’ to Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters  (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), viii; Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 44, 219.

 

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