Orchards – from a distance

(Clarence Hudson White, The Ring Toss: Yale Visual Resources Collection; William Merritt Chase, The Ring Toss)

I noticed that today is the birthday of the photographer Clarence Hudson White, born in Ohio in 1871 (he died early, aged 54, in Mexico City). He became close friends with Alfred Stieglitz. I’d barely heard of White but, in a brief gallery of his photographs, my eye snagged on ‘The Ring Toss’ because I knew of the 1896 painting by William Merritt Chase, ‘The Ring Toss’. A lot of Chase’s paintings are very reminiscent of John Singer Sargent – who painted a portrait of Chase in 1902 (Museum of Modern Art).[1]

Clarence_White-The_Orchard.1902

(Clarence Hudson White, The Orchard)

This very evocative Clarence White photograph was published in 1905 (Camerawork, 9). Should the women seem to be practising social distancing, that’s probably mere happenstance.

Orchards are certainly evocative for artists and writers, perhaps because of their seeming to balance on the threshold of imposed order and unchecked nature, perhaps because they’re often associated with childhood, a lost paradise, or at least with a rural or semi-rural peace – and thus standing in stark contrast to the destructive forces of war. Edmund Blunden’s classic memoir, Undertones of War, refers to them often.

Early on in his ‘education’, in a chapter called ‘The Cherry Orchard’, he writes: ‘The joyful path away from the line, on that glittering summer morning, was full of pictures for my infant war-mind. History and nature were beginning to harmonize in the quiet of that sector. In the orchard through we passed immediately, waggons had been dragged together once with casks and farm gear to form barricades; I felt that they should never be disturbed again, and the memorial raised near them to the dead of 1915 implied a closed chapter.’ And of Englebelmer, ‘a sweet village scarcely yet spoiled’: ‘Its green turf under trees loaded with apples was daily gouged out by heavy shells; its comfortable houses were struck and shattered, and the paths and entrances gagged with rubble, plaster and woodwork.’[2]

Katherine Mansfield would also borrow the title of Chekhov’s last play, writing to John Middleton Murry from Menton two years after the war’s end: ‘You see it’s too late to beat about the bush any longer. They are cutting down the cherry tree; the orchard is sold—that is really the atmosphere I want.’[3]

In the midst of that war (22 March 1916), Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott, from near Tidworth, in Wiltshire, of his beloved home county, ‘Glostershire where Spring sends greetings before other less happy counties have forgotten Winter and the snow. Where the talk is men’s talk, and eyes of folk are as soft as the kind airs. The best roads in England, the finest cider, the richest blossom in the most magical orchards, beauty content in security, strength quiet in confidence controlled, blood mixed of plain and hill, Welsh and English; are not these only of my county, my home?’[4]

Wilfred Owen never did see the war’s end – though he planned for it, writing in 1917 to his brother Colin, then working on a farm: ‘In my walk this afternoon, considering at leisure the sunshine and the appearance of peace (I don’t mean from the news) I determined what I should do after the war [ . . . ] I should like to take a cottage and orchard in Kent Surrey or Sussex, and give my afternoon to the care of pigs.’[5]

In May 1962, Guy Davenport wrote, in a letter to Hugh Kenner, ‘You see, my ambition is to put down roots and have a real library and workshop, a hearth & orchard, and STAY PUT.’[6]

GD-Balthus-Notebook

(The Balthus painting on the jacket is the 1940 The Cherry Tree)

Apples – and pears – were of central and lasting importance to Davenport: ‘Apple and pear, brother and sister’, he writes in the novel-length title story.[7] In Objects on a Table, he stated that: ‘Pear symbolizes a harmony between human and divine; apple an encounter between human and divine. The forbidden fruit in Eden became an apple through linguistic accident, punning on evil and apple. But the inevitability of the accident was ensured by centuries of Greek and Latin pastoral poetry in which the apple was eroticized.’[8] In A Balthus Notebook, he discussed the painter’s Balthus’s use of apples and pears—‘In Christian iconography, a pear symbolizes the Redemption, and apple and pear are frequently together in Madonnas, Mary being the redemption of Eve, Christ of Adam’—noting that apple and pear appeared together for the first time in the 1981 Painter and His Model.[9]

And in ‘Shaker Light’, he tells the story of a pear tree and an apple tree ‘that had grown around each other in a double spiral’ and had stood for over fifty years around the corner from Davenport’s house. Walking past them daily for twenty years, they got into his thoughts ‘and always benignly.’ He saw them as husband and wife, as in Ovid’s poem. ‘They generated in my imagination a curiosity about the myths our culture has told itself about apples and pears. Apple is the symbol of the Fall, pear of Redemption. Apple is the world, pear heaven. Apple is tragic. A golden one given first as a false wedding gift and later presented by a shepherd to a goddess began the Trojan War and all that Homer recorded in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The apple that fell at Newton’s feet also fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is right now embedded in thousands of bombs mounted in the heads of rockets, glowing with elemental fire that is, like Adam and Eve’s apple, an innocent detail of creation if untouched and all the evil of which man is capable if plucked.’ Finally, the trees were cut down by a developer, ‘in full bloom, with a power saw, the whining growl of which is surely the language of devils at their business, which is to cancel creation.’[10]

The painting that Stanley Spencer would later call his first ambitious one was called The Apple Gatherers. Spencer was one of that famous generation taught at the Slade by Henry Tonks – other Tonks pupils included Mark Gertler, Harold Gilman, Gwen John, Isaac Rosenberg, Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg, William Orpen, Wyndham Lewis and Winifred Knights. Tonks himself was clearly not immune to the lure of the orchard.

Tonks, Henry, 1862-1937; The Orchard

(Henry Tonks, The Orchard: Birmingham Museums Trust)

And I remember too one of the most memorable and thought-provoking moments in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, when the narrator John Dowell says: ‘For I can’t conceal from myself the fact that I loved Edward Ashburnham—and that I love him because he was just myself. If I had had the courage and virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did. He seems to me like a large elder brother who took me out on several excursions and did many dashing things whilst I just watched him robbing the orchards, from a distance.’[11]

Next time you feel the need to do a dashing thing, then, you might well look out for an orchard. It it won’t be for a good while yet, of course. Best stay safely indoors and read about it for the present, watching from a distance.

 
Notes

[1] See Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent. The Later Portraits. Complete Paintings Volume III (Yale: Yale University Press, 2003), 81-84.

[2] Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928; edited by John Greening, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 25, 81.

[3] Quoted by Antony Alpers, The Life of Katherine Mansfield (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980), 327.

[4] Ivor Gurney, Collected Letters, edited by R. K. R. Thornton (Mid Northumberland Arts Group & Carcanet Press 1991), 75.

[5] Quoted by Jon Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 174.

[6] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 121.

[7] Guy Davenport, Apples and Pears (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 77.

[8] Guy Davenport, Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Washington: Counterpoint, 1998), 63.

[9] Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook (New York: Norton, 1989), 53.

[10] Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 59.

[11] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915; edited by Max Saunders, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 191-192.

 

Boors carousing

van Heemskerck II, Egbert, 1634/1635-1704; Boors Carousing and Playing Cards

(Egbert van Heemskerck II, Boors Carousing and Playing Cards: The Bowes Museum)

‘It takes reckless resolution now, to admit that one has known a more civilised age than the present’, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to Ian Parsons at Chatto and Windus, sympathising with the ‘inadequacy of the reviews’ of their recent Letters of Marcel Proust, translated and edited by Mina Curtiss. ‘It is painful to admit it to oneself, and apparently shameful to mention it to others.’ She went on: ‘At the time when we first knew each other there were the usual number of fools about, I think—but at least those fools did not feel it incumbent on them to be boors too.’[1]

Boor: a rough and bad-mannered person, my concise dictionary says, a bit thinly. Try another: a countryman, a peasant; a Dutch colonial in South Africa; a coarse or awkward person. Derived from the Dutch, boer, ‘perhaps partly from Old English, būr, gebūr, farmer.’ Better. Surely ‘rough’ together with ‘a countryman or peasant’ will serve for all those paintings, almost exclusively Dutch genre pictures of the seventeenth century, entitled Boors Carousing, occasionally preceded by ‘Interior with’ or followed by ‘and Playing Cards’.

In Warner’s case, of course, this use of the word is nicely placed midway between her short story, ‘Boors Carousing’, included in her 1947 collection, The Museum Of Cheats, and her 1954 novel, The Flint Anchor. In that novel’s early pages, the fourth generation of the Barnard family in Loseby has a thriving business; Joseph Barnard has married his second wife, bought Anchor House and ‘laid down a cellar of port wine, for he intended to get more than daughters in his second match.’ Then: ‘One cannot manage a business without becoming literate, one cannot become literate without exposing oneself to the culture of one’s day. Joseph Barnard read Burke on the Sublime, bought a Dutch canvas of Boors Carousing, installed Rumford grates, and sent his elder son to Harrow and Cambridge.’[2]

Dorset-Stories

The story, ‘Boors Carousing’, concerns Kinloch, a writer—‘“studied from myself”, according to Sylvia’, her biographer notes[3]—who has the house to himself for a while and has, apparently, ‘found it almost impossible to get on with the novel’ while his sister and her children have been staying; he has, rather, ‘written short stories, a prey to human nature – which is poison and dram-drinking to the serious artist.’ Choosing to put off writing a little longer, he is reading in his library half an hour later while the rain pours down when there is an unwelcome knock at the door. It is Miss Metcalf, daughter of the late rector, who had, Kinloch reflects, ‘drunk himself and his fortune out of existence’. She is asking for help to lift a rabbit hutch on to an outside table since the river is rising. He takes a strong liking to her house: ‘a charming place to live, if one did not object to being flooded from time to time’. The view from the Metcalf house ‘was better than his own; for one thing it included his house, and at exactly the right distance to be seen at its best.’ Then too, ‘No one was likely to come knocking at her door.’

Invited inside for a drink, he finds himself drinking pre-war whisky, ‘strong and smooth as silk’, then another, ‘to keep the cold out’. Miss Metcalf has poured herself ‘a little one too, to keep him company.’ He imagines himself here, where one could be ‘uncommonly cosy’, a house totally unrestored but which, with modest expenditure, could be made a very desirable property. And then, ‘No one would come to stay in such a house as this. They could not. He would turn the second bedroom into a bathroom.’ Miss Metcalf ‘also was keeping the cold out, and it had greatly improved her.’ She draws his attention to a picture above the mantelpiece: ‘It was a large steel-plate engraving, Luridly brilliant. Kermesse, perhaps, or possibly Boors Carousing.’ She informs him that it’s ‘a very fine specimen. And very valuable.’ She’s sometimes thought of taking it down but doesn’t know what she’d put in its place. And, if there were nothing, the patch on the wallpaper would always be there to remind her. True, Kinloch thinks. ‘Absent or present, the boors would always be carousing.’ Reminding her of her father, who had left her ‘stupefied and penniless. Absent or present, it would taunt her with an inherited alcoholism, a desperate maidenly desire for strong drink.’

Walking home, he imagines possible futures, imagines her brief obituary, then himself as attentive neighbour, taking her the odd bottle, sitting in her father’s chair and tippling with her. ‘What a story she would make!’ And, of course, he is already writing it, has already written it. Returned to his house, he enters the library and commences to write it down.[4]

These characters are not boors; nor do they actually carouse—‘to drink freely and noisily’. Yet the picture with that title (perhaps with that title), even if removed from the wall, will remind Miss Metcalf of what her life has become and how it came to be so, and how it has shaped what her life will continue to be; Kinloch is reminded, should he need reminding, that such figures as those in the painting, enjoying themselves, are also the source of enjoyment and satisfaction in others: observed, interpreted, recalled, presented.

‘“You to the life!” he said aloud. “Do nothing for her, but put her into a story.” The admission released him.’ He will, he does, he has, put her into a story. And the ‘admission’, that he will not, in fact, be that attentive neighbour, with cheering visits and bottles to share, does release him, does free him from that merely human response, enabling the artistic one, which always requires a little distance, a touch of iron in the soul, a sliver of glass in the heart.

So Kinloch to Miss Metcalf; so Warner to Kinloch; so the reader to Warner, a fruitful and extended line.

 
Notes

[1] Sylvia Townsend Warner to Ian Parsons, 26 December 1950: Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 124.

[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Flint Anchor (London: Chatto & Windus, 1954), 9.

[3] Claire Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 1989), 214.

[4] Sylvia Townsend Warner, Dorset Stories, illustrations by Reynolds Stone (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2006), 191-200.

 

Not outrunning the Constable

Cottage-Cornfield-VandA

(John Constable, The Cottage in a Cornfield: V & A)

(To outrun the constable: to go too fast or too far—Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English)

What might we have recourse to, after a week of prime ministerial rabble-rousing and incitement to violence and the continued, programmatic fracturing of a nation? Le vin, ça va sans dire—or a visit to Bristol Old Vic, to see six talented women play twenty-one roles in Pride and Prejudice* (Sort of)*, at which I laughed like a lunatic—perhaps even a slightly morose thinking about Englishness—‘“Englishness”, however, is a term that has no fixed meaning but is instead made and re-made in and through history’.[1]

I was browsing through art books and looking at the pictures of John Constable. The combative Geoffrey Grigson once asserted that Constable ‘remains the artist the English have most reason to be proud of and thankful for, without reservation.’[2]

Constable, in his quietly revolutionary way, painted what was in front of his eyes, usually in localities that he knew intimately and loved greatly. And the local, to a greater or larger extent, containing the universal is a familiar enough theme, from Gilbert White through Thomas Hardy to William Faulkner and William Carlos Williams.

‘How much I wish I had been with you on your fishing excursion in the New Forest!’ Constable wrote in 1831 to his close friend, John Fisher. ‘What river can it be? But the sound of water escaping from mill-dams, etc., willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts, and brickwork, I love such things. Shakespeare could make everything poetical; he tells us of poor Tom’s haunts among “sheep cotes and mills” [King Lear]. As long as I do paint, I shall never cease to paint such places. They have always been my delight [ . . . ] Still, I should paint my own places best; painting is with me but another word for feeling, and I associate “my careless boyhood” with all that lies on the banks of the Stour’.[3]

Born in the village of East Bergholt, on the River Stour in Suffolk, son of a prosperous corn merchant, who owned Flatford Mill in East Bergholt and, later, Dedham Mill, Constable painted many pictures of East Bergholt and of Dedham Vale, pictures too of mills, clouds, cottages, cornfields, Hampstead, Brighton, Salisbury Cathedral, and even clouds above cottages in cornfields. He was a great student of clouds.

Constable-Seascape-Raincloud

(John Constable, Seascape Study with Raincloud: Royal Academy of Arts)

During his lifetime, Constable had no great success, not, at least, with an English audience. As late as the last decade of his life, he wrote to his future biographer: ‘Varley, the astrologer, has just called on me, and I have bought a little drawing of him. He told me how to “do landscape,” and was so kind as to point out all my defects. The price of the drawing was “a guinea and a half to a gentleman, and a guinea only to an artist,” but I insisted on his taking the larger sum, as he had clearly proved to me that I was no artist’.[4] Still, though unsold at the 1821 Royal Academy show, The Hay Wain (shown together with View on the Stour Near Dedham and one of Constable’s views of Yarmouth Jetty) was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Salon of 1824, presented by Charles X. The Hay Wain hugely impressed Théodore Géricault and influenced Eugène Delacroix.[5] Originally called Landscape: Noon and produced over a relatively short space of time to meet an exhibition deadline, it has permeated the national consciousness to the extent that a 2005 BBC poll to determine the most popular painting in any British gallery placed it second behind Turner’s Fighting Temeraire.

Constable has certainly suffered more than most from over-familiarity with what are regarded in his work as a quintessential Englishness and scenes of a timeless and untroubled rural world. Peter Kennard’s famous Hay Wain with Cruise Missiles (Chromolithograph and photographs on paper, 1980: Tate) derived much of its power from precisely those perceived qualities. Inevitably, such popularity had its negative effects. In ‘Going to the Pictures’, Alan Bennett remembered that, ‘Besides the Dutch landscapes, which I was exposed to too young, there were other casualties of inept or promiscuous reproduction. I don’t like The Hay Wain because it featured on a table mat at home.’[6]

The Hay Wain

(John Constable, The Hay Wain: National Gallery)

‘The first time I met him was in the year 1844 at the Academy on one of the varnishing days. I am enabled to fix the date because of the picture he exhibited that year, which was that entitled “Rain, Steam and Speed.” I watched him working on this picture. He used rather short brushes, a very messy palette, and, standing very close up to the canvas, appeared to paint with his eyes and nose as well as his hand. Of course he repeatedly walked back to study the effect. Turner must, I think, have been fond of boys, for he did not seem to mind my looking on at him; on the contrary, he talked to me every now and then, and pointed out the little hare running for its life in front of the locomotive on the viaduct. This hare, and not the train, I have no doubt he intended to represent the “Speed” of his title; the word must have been in his mind when he was painting the hare, for close to it, on the plain below the viaduct, he introduced the figure of a man ploughing, “Speed the plough” (the name of an old country dance) probably passing through his brain.’[7]

Turner-Rain-Steam-NG

(J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed: National Gallery)

This is George Dunlop Leslie, RA, genre painter and illustrator—son of Constable’s biographer Charles Robert Leslie—nine years old at the time of which he writes. In fact, the National Gallery website notes that: ‘Turner lightly brushed in a hare roughly midway along the rail track to represent the speed of the natural world in contrast to the mechanised speed of the engine. The animal is now invisible as the paint has become transparent with age, but it can be seen in an 1859 engraving of the painting.’
https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/joseph-mallord-william-turner-rain-steam-and-speed-the-great-western-railway

Turner and Constable. Writing to Harman Grisewood in 1972, the poet and artist David Jones wrote of a chance acquaintance that ‘his cut of suit suggested the turf—but then so did that of Sickert, which did not prevent him from being the best English painter since Turner (in my view).’ Still, eleven years earlier, Jones had remembered: ‘I was encamped very near Stonehenge early in the First War, before going to France, and must confess to not finding it very impressive. I like Constable’s picture of it, though.’[8]

2015HW5111

(John Constable, Stonehenge: Victoria and Albert Museum)

‘I have made a beautiful drawing of Stonehenge’, John Constable wrote to Leslie in September 1836, and made several other studies before producing the watercolour now in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection. ‘He always kept the influence of earlier masters on his own work under close control’, Raymond Lister writes, ‘and though Stonehenge, for instance, contains a suggestion of Meindert Hobbema in the plein air rendering, it remains Constable’s conception and could not have been painted by any other artist.’[9]

It was, apparently, in 1819—the birth year of Turner’s great champion, John Ruskin—that a critic first compared Constable’s painting with Turner and, ‘again for the first time a critic attempted to liken Constable’s painting with the great tradition of rustic landscape associated with Ruisdael and Meindert Hobbema.’[10]

Hobbema: painter of trees, mills, woods and cottages. Constable was not uncritical of him but, replying to Fisher’s advice to ‘diversify your subject this year as to time of day’—‘People get tired of mutton at top, mutton at bottom, and mutton at the side, though the best flavour and smallest size’—he wrote that he himself didn’t enter into ‘that notion of varying one’s plans to keep the public in good humour.’ He went on: ‘Change of weather and effect will always afford variety. What if Vander Velde had quitted his sea pieces, or Ruysdael his waterfalls, or Hobbema his native woods. The world would have lost so many features in art’ (Leslie 131). Half a century after Constable’s death, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, then in London:

‘Now I for my part have always remembered some English pictures such as “Chill October” by Millais and, for instance, the drawings by Fred. Walker and Pinwell. Just notice the Hobbema in the National Gallery; you must not forget a few very beautiful Constables there, including “Cornfield,” nor that other one in South Kensington called “Valley Farm.”’[11]

The Valley Farm 1835 by John Constable 1776-1837

(John Constable, Valley Farm: Tate)

Unfortunately for Constable, Ruskin, who became the most influential art critic in the country, was consistently highly critical of him, claiming that he could not draw and was not accurate or specific enough in rendering the details of the natural world. A major factor in this evaluation was that he was combatting the great claims made by C. R. Leslie who, by setting Constable higher than Turner, prompted Ruskinian counter-attacks.

‘Unteachableness seems to have been a main feature of his character, and there is corresponding want of veneration in the way he approaches nature herself’, Ruskin asserted. Having found no signs of Constable ‘being able to draw’, this resulted in ‘even the most necessary details’ being ‘painted by him inefficiently.’ Then: ‘His works are also eminently wanting both in rest and refinement: and Fuseli’s jesting compliment[12] is too true for the showery weather, in which the artist delights, misses alike the majesty of storm and the loveliness of calm weather; it is great-coat weather, and nothing more. There is strange want of depth in the mind which has no pleasure in sunbeams but when piercing painfully through clouds, nor in foliage but when shaken by the wind, nor in light itself but when flickering, glistening, restless and feeble. Yet, with all these deductions, his works are to be deeply respected, as thoroughly original, thoroughly honest, free from affectation, manly in manner, frequently successful in cool colour, and realizing certain motives of English scenery with perhaps as much affection as such scenery, unless when regarded through media of feeling derived from higher sources, is calculated to inspire.’[13]

That ‘want of veneration’ and ‘feeling derived from higher sources’ hint at some of the criteria Ruskin was applying – though he would suffer a temporary loss of faith in the next decade, at this stage the recognition and appreciation of beauty was inseparable—and indispensable—in his eyes from the worship of God. Constable was not reverent enough and his painting did not explicitly transfigure. ‘The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt to do something beyond the truth’, he wrote to John Dunthorne (Leslie 15) and that ‘truth’ remained his concern, even if this makes his pictures seem undramatic to his audience, too easy at first glance to interpret and digest, We might occasionally wonder ‘where is it?’ when looking at a Constable landscape – but rarely ‘what is it?’ as prompted by some Turner canvases and sketches. There is surely room for both: the viewer, after all, moves through different ages, moods, states of mind, of knowledge, of experience, of taste. We should be able to manage Turner, Constable – and John Ruskin too.

 
Notes

[1] Frances Spalding, John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 189.

[2] Geoffrey Grigson, Britain Observed: The Landscape Through Artists’ Eyes (London: Phaidon Press, 1975), 93.

[3] Constable to Archdeacon John Fisher, 23 October 1831: C. R. Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable: Composed Chiefly of His Letters (1845; edited by Jonathan Mayne, London: Phaidon Press, 1951), 85-86.

[4] Leslie, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, 194.

[5] Constable: The Great Landscapes, edited by Anne Lyles (London: Tate Publishing, 2006), 140, 142.

[6] Alan Bennett, Untold Stories (London: Faber and Faber and Profile Books, 2005), 463.

[7] G. D. Leslie, The Inner Life of the Royal Academy (London: John Murray, 1914), 144-145.

[8] Letter to Juliet and Richard Shirley Smith, 17 August 1961: Anthony Hyne, David Jones: A Fusilier at the Front (Bridgend: Seren, 1995), 30.

[9] Raymond Lister, British Romantic Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), Plate 37.

[10] Anne Lyles, ‘Soliciting Attention: Constable, the Royal Academy and the Critics’, in Constable: The Great Landscapes, 36.

[11] The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, second edition, three volumes (London: Thames & Hudson, 1978), II, 300.

[12] ‘Speaking of me, he says, “I like de landscapes of Constable; he is always picturesque, of a fine colour, and de lights always in de right places; but he makes me call for my greatcoat and umbrella.”’ Constable, letter of 9 May 1823: Leslie, 101.

[13] John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Volume 1, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1903), 191.

 

A bit of Turner

Spall-Turner-Guardian

(Timothy Spall as Turner in Mike Leigh’s 2014 Mr. Turner, via The Guardian)

Reading Greg Gerke’s new collection of essays, I came across the opening lines of ‘Mr. Turner, Boyhood, and Criticism’:

‘Let us begin with difficulties. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, a film as rich as an afternoon in the Louvre, presents an austere and bilious portrait of the great English artist and a ridiculous one of a young John Ruskin, a critic who explicated Turner in many works over the course of different works—a critic who drew and painted, lecturing on both activities with a great avidity.’

He adds that, in Leigh’s film, ‘the drama is the classic case of critic as obnoxious foil to the artist’s majesty and magic’, before bringing in Guy Davenport, a great admirer of Leigh—but also of Ruskin, not only as a titanic figure in his own right but a major influence upon much of the modern movement.[1]

Gerke’s essay, as the title suggests, is concerned with setting his ‘adulation’ for Leigh’s film beside his ‘cool reception’ to Richard Linklater’s widely acclaimed Boyhood (preferring several of Linklater’s other films), but also considering the nature and difficulties of criticism. Still, for the moment, I was thinking about Turner and Ruskin.

Back in April this year, after the Don McCullin exhibition and the Van Gogh in Britain show—and the Ruskin Exhibition at 2 Temple Place the day before—we had a couple of hours to spare before our train. We revisited old friends in the Tate Britain galleries, the Librarian often to be found in front of Vanessa Bell, Carrington, Sargent, Gwen John, me turning aside to Nevinson, Bomberg, Spencer, Gaudier-Brzeska, pausing by Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts (first called ‘Lost Sheep’ and then ‘Strayed Sheep’), with its too obvious applications to the country’s current travails.

Charles-West-Cope-JMWT-NPG

(Charles West Cope, J. M. W. Turner: National Portrait Gallery)

‘Do you fancy some Turner?’
‘I’m always up for a bit of Turner.’

We walked to the Clore Gallery. The Librarian mentioned wanting to see again the 2014 Mike Leigh film, with its gorgeous opening sequence and its tremendous central performance by Timothy Spall, its only false note for me precisely that grotesque depiction of John Ruskin, Turner’s most famous champion, whose first major work was initially conceived with exactly the intention of praising and promoting the painter.[2]

Our visit was just a few days short of the painter’s birthday, I realise now. Joseph William Mallord Turner was born in Covent Garden, 23 April 1775. I’d read a short biography of him by Peter Ackroyd which quoted Samuel Palmer, recalling his first sight of a Turner painting, ‘Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, going to Pieces’, in 1819 when Palmer was just fourteen: ‘being by nature a lover of smudginess, I have reveled in him from that day to this’. Ackroyd also notes Ruskin’s emergence as ‘Turner’s most eloquent and knowledgeable supporter’, ‘the principal advocate’ of his art, adding: ‘it can be said with some certainty that no artist has ever had a more profound and articulate explicator.’[3]

Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, Going to Pieces; Brill Church bearing S. E. by S., Masensluys E. by S. exhibited 1819 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

(J. M. W. Turner, Entrance of the Meuse: Orange-Merchant on the Bar, going to Pieces: Tate)

John Ruskin was just seventeen when a hostile notice of three paintings by Turner in Blackwood’s Magazine prompted him to draft a reply. Looking back some fifty years later, Ruskin wrote: ‘The review raised me to the height of “black anger” in which I have remained pretty nearly ever since’. In fact, Ruskin’s father deciding that Turner himself should be approached first, the painter wrote back thanking Ruskin but adding: ‘I never move in these matters, they are of no import save mischief’.[4] Ruskin’s reply to the Blackwood’s review was finally printed as an appendix to Modern Painters in the great Cook and Wedderburn library edition—‘Turner may be mad: I daresay he is, inasmuch as highest genius is allied to madness; but not so stark mad as to profess to paint nature. He paints from nature, and pretty far from it, too; and he would be sadly disappointed who looked in his pictures for a possible scene.’[5]

Fifteen years further on, Ruskin famously defended works by the Pre-Raphaelite painters in reaction to the dismissive comments published in notices in The Times.

(The notices together with Ruskin’s letters are gathered together in the superb Rossetti Archive:
http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/n.gb1.1851.may.rad.html )

In the famous Thames flood of 6 – 7 January 1926, the waters filled the lower floor of the Tate where Jim Ede (biographer of Henri Gaudier Brzeska and founder of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge) was keeping 19000 Turner drawings and watercolours, as well as some watercolours by Ede’s friend, the poet and artist David Jones, who had recently completed engravings for a Golden Cockerel Press edition of The Chester Play of the Deluge. The Tate treasures were ‘submerged but kept dry by ark-tight carpentry of a set of cabinets.’

In the following year, Jones spent four weeks, mid-August to September, at Portslade, painting mostly ‘the open sea under an empty sky.’ He was remembering Ruskin writing on Turner, that ‘the sea, however calm, is redolent of storm’. Jones thought this was ‘more than half’ the secret ‘of good painting, of good art . . . it is both peace and war.’[6] Patrick White used to go and look at Turner’s ‘Interior at Petworth’ often when he lived in London, adding to Mary Benson that, ‘besides being a subtle painting, I feel it taught me a lot about writing.’ Late Turners, he told Penny Coleing, made him ‘grow breathless with delight every time I see them’.[7]

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

(J. M. W. Turner, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet: Tate)

Some of Turner’s pictures are so familiar now that some decrease might seem inevitable in that breathlessness if not the delight. But I don’t know: when I come in sight of Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway or The Slave Ship (originally, Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhon coming on), The Fighting Temeraire, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet or Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, I still catch my breath a little, or articulate that highly technical art-critical term, wow.

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

(J. M. W. Turner, Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth: Tate)

‘To understand how the artist felt, however, is not criticism; criticism is an investigation into what the work is good for’, the philosopher George Santayana wrote, a sentence which, Greg Gerke notes, Guy Davenport quotes twice (Gerke also notes how ‘“good for” smacks of the paterfamilias making a pronouncement from 1905’—Reason in Art’s year of publication).[8] An introductory note to one of Davenport’s collections of essays ends: ‘The way I write about texts and works of art has been shaped by forty years of explaining them to students in a classroom. I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.’[9]

Yes.

Near the end of ‘Mr. Turner, Boyhood, and Criticism’, Greg Gerke writes: ‘We all die, so live all you can—if art is good at anything, it’s reminding us of this.’[10]

Yes again.

 
Notes

[1] Greg Gerke, See What I See (Birmingham: Splice, 2019), 315. For Davenport on Ruskin, see particularly ‘The House That Jack Built’ in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997) and ‘Ruskin According to Proust’ in The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996); but there are references to Ruskin throughout Davenport’s oeuvre.

[2] And see Philip Hoare on both Mike Leigh’s film and Effie Gray, written by Emma Thompson and directed by Richard Laxton: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/07/john-ruskin-emma-thompson-mike-leigh-film-art

[3] Peter Ackroyd, Turner (London: Vintage Books, 2006), 94, 132, 133.

[4] John Ruskin, Praeterita (London: Everyman, 2005), 192.

[5] John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Volume 1, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1903), 637.

[6] Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet (London: Jonathan Cape, 2017), 98, 107. In ‘Art in Relation to War’, Jones phrases it thus: ‘Ruskin, writing of Turner’s treatment of the sea, says that however calm the sea he painted he always remembered the same sea heavy and full of discontent under storm. That is half the secret, more than half, of good painting, of good art.’ See The Dying Gaul and Other Writings (London: Faber 1978), 140.

[7] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 203fn.

[8] Gerke, See What I See, 317; Guy Davenport, Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 68, 71.

[9] Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), ix.

[10] Gerke, See What I See, 320: he nods here to Lambert Strether in Henry James’s The Ambassadors (‘Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to’). His essay on James’s The Portrait of a Lady, ‘Stylized Despair’, is included here (51-56).

‘Domestic detail come alive’

Vuillard, Jean Edouard, 1868-1940; Interior with Madame Hessel and Her Dog

(Jean-Édouard Vuillard, Interior with Madame Hessel and Her Dog, 1910: Photo credit: Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives)

‘What would you like to do on your birthday?’

The time before last that I lunched with the Librarian, she steered me to the excellent Sotiris Bakery for spanakopita and a Greek coffee (and some halva and cakes to take away), after which I drifted into the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery to visit a few favourites, including Vuillard’s portrait of Lucie Hessel and her dog.

Lucie Hessel—friend, muse, lover of Vuillard—was the wife of the art dealer Joss Hessel: they remained close friends for many years with Vuillard, to whom they offered constant hospitality in their Rue de Rivoli apartment or the Chateau de la Claye near Versailles. Vuillard lived mainly with his mother until her death: he was then sixty.

In 1955, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Randall Jarrell, thanking him for his review of Poems: North & South—A Cold Spring: he had written that her work was ‘as unmistakable as the first few notes of a Mahler song, the first few patches of a Vuillard interior. (The poems are like Vuillard or Vermeer.)’[1] Bishop wrote that ‘it has been one of my dreams that someday someone would think of Vermeer, without my saying it first, so now I think I can die in a fairly peaceful frame of mind, any old time, having struck the best critic of poetry going that way. . . ’ She continued: ‘Something else rather funny too—I’ve been working on a long poem about an aunt of mine, and when I don’t write on the poem I’ve been trying to use all the same material for either a long story or a short play—and in both of them Vuillard was the person I had in mind for the exact effect I wanted to produce. In fact, in the beginning of the play version I’d already written (in the stage directions) that it was to look like a Vuillard, before I received your clippings. —Well, communication is an undependable but sometimes marvelous thing.’[2]

Vuillard-Seamstresses

(Édouard Vuillard, Deux ouvrières dans l’atelier de couture (Two Seamstresses in the Workroom), 1893, © National Gallery of Scotland / Photo: Antonia Reeve)

And so say most of us. Paris in 1968 was pretty busy with demonstrations, strikes, student occupations of universities, workers’ occupations of factories, running battles with the police and the like; but a little later in the year, Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris were able to indulge in ‘an orgy of paintings and food’, White noted, mentioning ‘[a] marvellous exhibition of Vuillard’. David Marr’s biography quotes another letter of that time: ‘The great joy of Paris was an orgy of paintings, especially little intimate Vuillards “of people sitting over the remains of a meal, women sewing, and nursemaids looking after children in parks. Although he is so very French he is also related to the best 19th century Russian writers in his ability to make domestic detail come alive.”’[3]

What more natural, then, in answer to the Librarian’s question as to what I’d like to do on my birthday than say lunch in Bath, followed by the Vuillard exhibition at the Holburne Museum (Édouard Vuillard: The Poetry of the Everyday, until 15 September)? Alas. Ten minutes before we left I stooped a little to put a book back on a shelf and yelled loudly—not from delight or exultation but because I must have twisted my upper body when shelving it, just enough anyway to wreck my—previously wrecked—back again. Instead of looking at paintings by Vuillard, then, I shouted, winced, clutched at walls and door handles, climbed the stairs on all fours and subsequently spent at least ten minutes getting out of bed, cursing and howling, with the aid of the Librarian and a bemused stare from the cat.

A trip deferred for now. À bientôt, Monsieur Vuillard.

 
Notes

[1] See Randall Jarrell, Kipling, Auden & Co. Essays and Review 1935-1964 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), 245.

[2] Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 312.

[3] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 329; David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 483.

 

All safely gathered in – Guy Davenport, Stanley Spencer

Piper-Enjoying-Paintings

Here’s a recent arrival: Enjoying Paintings, edited by David Piper, a Pelican Original (at twelve shillings and sixpence), published in 1964. I ordered my secondhand copy at the prompting of a few lines by Guy Davenport—another prodigious instigator of book purchases and readings, not unlike his admired Ezra Pound.

In March 1966, Davenport wrote to Hugh Kenner: ‘[Rene] Odlin tells me the Egyptians wrote letters to the dead, the temple being the post office.’ A month later, he advised: ‘Do add the Penguin Enjoying Paintings to your library (ed. David Piper) – contains essays on specific works by essayists who write in the gracious olden manner. Ayrton on Watteau, for instance. Piper on Holbein also excellent. And an essay on Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, that has moved me more than any contemporary work of English painting. And more than anything in American painting.’[1]

Davenport didn’t say that this essay is by the painter Carel Weight, one or two of whose early paintings are a little reminiscent of Spencer’s own, nor did he mention, and may not have known, that Spencer also wrote letters to the dead, specifically to his first wife Hilda, beginning with a December 1950 letter and continuing until his own death nine years later. At no point did Spencer refer to her being dead. Some of the letters ran to a hundred pages.[2] More than fifty years after his own death, his younger daughter Unity, herself a painter, ends her autobiography, Lucky to be an Artist, with a moving letter addressed to her father.[3]

Unity-Spencer-Lucky

This very high value placed on Spencer’s painting is introduced fairly abruptly but Davenport’s interest in him manifested itself many times and in several contexts.

The attractions of Spencer’s work seem to have been the painter’s direct engagement with a world which is there, the human body crucially a part of its natural beauty; pictures often crowded with puzzling details that required an intense and knowledgeable gaze; and a figure of the kind that he felt too often evaded conventional critical and historical habits of classification. Davenport’s enthusiasms frequently tended to be for the maverick, the misunderstood, the overlooked, the misread and the misrepresented.

‘Christ Preaching at the Henley Regatta’, Davenport’s story in Eclogues, plays on Spencer’s Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta, a painting ‘made of a collage of elements: Dufy, Mallarmé, et d’autres choses.’[4] A few years later, Davenport’s essay ‘Stanley Spencer and David Jones’ begins by pointing to Roger Fry’s part in what was ‘a necessary revolution’ but one which had unforeseen consequences. The hierarchical placement of technique over subject ‘calcified into a dogma: the subject of a work of art is negligible.’ So a good many British artists largely disappeared from serious critical consideration. Davenport views Spencer and Jones as ‘spiritual twins’, together constituting ‘a thoroughly British phenomenon: nonmodernist modernism.’ He adds that, ‘The meaning of a work of art is efficacious only insofar as its charm elicits a response. Thus a new kind of art, like Spencer’s and Jones’s, must educate an audience before it can communicate.’ He remarks also that: ‘Modernism has been owned and operated by various groups with their own interests to look after.’[5] In an essay from the early 1940s, David Jones wrote: ‘“All must be safely gathered in”, as Mr Stanley Spencer said to me, with reference to the making of a picture (a more apt expression of the artist’s business I never heard).’[6]

Dufy-Regatta-at-Henley

(Raoul Dufy, Regatta at Henley: National Gallery of Art, Washington)

In an essay on Jonathan Williams, Davenport discusses English eccentricity, then the tradition stemming from Blake’s Ancients, seeing it for the most part as ‘a tangled and untraced path in and out of official literature and art.’ He mentions Charles Doughty, Tolkien, Edith Sitwell, Bruckner – and Stanley Spencer: ‘we await the historian of these visionaries.’[7] Elsewhere he suggests that Balthus and Spencer ‘illuminate each other’, the latter’s ‘intrepid religious grounding’ comparable to Balthus’ ‘privileged, undisclosed, but articulate psychology’, both of them expressing ‘a sensual delight in the material world that is openly hedonistic’. Davenport sees Balthus in ‘the distinguished category of the unclassifiable, like Wyndham Lewis and Stanley Spencer’, remarking that, ‘If modernity ended by trivializing its revolution (conspicuous novelty displacing creativity), it also has a new life awaiting it in a retrospective survey of what it failed to include in its sense of itself.’[8]

Most evidently, there is, in Thasos and Ohio—a selection of Davenport’s poems and translations—The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, which opens the book:

The Cookham dead begin to rise
When God with April in his eyes
Ended in O its midst the night.
To dogwood flowered hard and white,
To rain and violets overhead,
Sharp music lifted up the dead,
In cuckoo song and silence born,
A silver brilliant hunting horn.

GD-Thasos

In the following 212 lines, fifty or so named figures arise—a touch of verbal equivalence to the Jann Haworth and Peter Blake design for the sleeve of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—many of them familiar from other Davenport writings: Michael Ventris, who deciphered the Linear B script, Ruskin, Alan Turing, Charles Doughty, Hugh Miller, Christina Rossetti, Wittgenstein, Henri Rousseau, Babbage, Stan Laurel (also on the Beatles album cover, together with Oliver Hardy) – and Spencer himself, of course.

And Stanley Spencer rose upright,
Who, naked as a swimmer, stood
As best his sleepy body could
Beside his tombstone while his wise
And deep and dark untroubled eyes
Watched the startled, exultant dead
Take flesh of fire in flesh’s stead.[9]

Stanley Spencer wrote of his painting: ‘The resurrection is meant to indicate the passing of the state of non-realization of the possibilities of heaven in this life to the sudden awakening to the fact. This is what is inspiring the people as they resurrect, namely the new meaning they find in what they had seen before.’[10]

The Resurrection, Cookham 1924-7 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

(The Resurrection, Cookham: Presented by Lord Duveen 1927: © Tate Gallery)

The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard is a huge – 108 x 216 in/ 274 x 549 cm – painting, begun in 1924 and completed in 1926. ‘He painted it in a small room over a public house in the Vale of Health, Hampstead. Outside was a fairground, and Spencer used to say that the only way he could ever get far enough to see his picture as a whole was “to have two pennyworth on the swings” and glimpse it as he shot by the window.’[11] That’s a wonderful image. Penelope Fitzgerald, born in 1916, wrote to Howard Woolmer in 1990, ‘I’m glad you like the Spencer Resurrection and the Cookham pictures – I used to be taken to see them when I was quite small, and indeed Stanley Spencer was a familiar sight on Hampstead Heath in those days with his pram full of canvases.’[12]

There were many resurrections in Spencer’s body of work but The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard represented, he thought, a consummation of all his work up to that point.[13] There are many interpretations of it but I doubt if anyone feels confident that they’ve plumbed its depths, not least because, as Carel Weight remarks, the painting is ‘a great piece of autobiography which can tell you more about its author and his immediate family than any self-portrait could have done’.[14] So Spencer’s wife Hilda appears at least three times and his favourite dresses of hers a couple times more; his brother-in-law Richard Carline is there two or three times, and Spencer himself twice.

GD_Hunter_Gracchus

(The jacket painting is Spencer’s Swan Upping at Cookham: Tate Gallery)

As against Wyndham Lewis—‘The lines define, the surfaces are expanses of ink or graphite or paint, NOT cloth or flesh or any texture whatever’—Spencer, ‘by contrast, painted textures only.’[15] Spencer was ‘before all else a poet for whom the natural beauty of the world [ . . . ] was the primary fact.’ Of Spencer’s extensive and unfinished series, Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta, Davenport wrote that it was going to be ‘a very crowded. Bosch-like tangle of people, picnicking, and punts. A great deal of eighteenth-century British humor comes from too many people in a space (Rowlandson, Hogarth, Smollett). This very British theme becomes for Spencer an objet-petit-a [Jacques Lacan’s unattainable object of desire], an intimacy with gratuitous sensual content’. Spencer’s art exemplifies ‘an insistence that the world (not a world created ideally by a choice of attentions) is there.’[16]

Though he spent time during the First World War in the Beaufort War Hospital and later served in Macedonia, experiences which had a huge and lasting effect upon him—and resulted in some extraordinary pictures—the centre of his life and art was Cookham. There’s a world in William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and in William Carlos Williams’ Rutherford – there’s one more distinction in Spencer’s case, which is the erasure of that line between the secular and the holy, between the human, godly and angelic realms. ‘Everything is holy and everything is connected’, Alexandra Harris wrote of Spencer’s work.[17] And so it is.

 

Notes

[1] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), I, 781, 789.

[2] Maurice Collis, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harvill Press, 1962), 214.

[3] Unity Spencer, Lucky to be an Artist (London: Unicorn Press, 2015), 229-234.

[4] Bernard Hoepffner, ‘Pleasant Hill: An Interview with Guy Davenport’:
http://wvorg.free.fr/hoepffner/PleasHillEng.html (Accessed 3 July 2019)

[5] Guy Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 112-113, 121, 125.

[6] David Jones, ‘The Myth of Arthur’, in Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings (London: Faber, 1973), 243.

[7] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 188.

[8] Guy Davenport, A Balthus Notebook (New York: Norton, 1989), 19, 18.

[9] Guy Davenport, Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations, 1950-1980 (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986), 9, 10.

[10] Kenneth Pople, Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 226, citing the Spencer collection in the Tate Archives, reference TA 733.3.1.

[11] Carel Weight, ‘The Resurrection: Cookham’, in Enjoying Paintings, edited by David Piper (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1964), 225.

[12] Penelope Fitzgerald, So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 358.

[13] Keith Bell, Stanley Spencer (London: Phaidon, 1999), 59.

[14] Weight, ‘The Resurrection: Cookham’, 226.

[15] Questioning Minds, II, 931.

[16] Davenport, The Hunter Gracchus, 121-123.

[17] Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London: Thames & Hudson, 2010), 179.

 

Albers, Bonnard, Carter: as easy as ABC

Bonnard, Pierre, 1867-1947; Coffee (Le Cafe)

(Pierre Bonnard, Le Café: Tate)

In search of ways to take our minds off the quagmire of Brexit, we head for the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern, just squeezing in before it closes. It was certainly impressive—and important that a woman working in the fields of weaving, textiles and design should be recognised as a significant artist. My difficulties were, firstly, that the lighting, reduced for understandable reasons, made it tricky for me to see some of the materials very clearly; secondly, that the show required a certain level of technical knowledge to appreciate what was actually displayed—knowing a bit about the Bauhaus and more about Black Mountain College didn’t cut the mustard; and, thirdly, lacking the requisite knowledge, chunks of the exhibition seemed rather repetitive. Still, several items, such as the Six Prayers, were astonishing even to the most inexperienced eye.

albers-six-prayers-1965

(Albers: Six Prayers)

To have gone all the way to London, at such expense, only for that might have felt to me a bit, hmm, thin. Luckily, there was, at the same address, an exhibition of paintings, and drawings, and photographs, by Pierre Bonnard. That is to say, light and colour and Marthe, his companion of fifty years, glimpsed, clothed or naked, in the bath, in the kitchen, at the table. She died in January 1942. ‘You can imagine my grief and my solitude’, Bonnard wrote to Henri Matisse, ‘filled with bitterness and worry about the life I may be leading from now on.’ (‘Vous jugez de mon chagrin et de ma solitude pleine d’amertume et d’inquiétude sur la vie que je puis mener encore.’)[1] Julian Barnes, whose essay on the artist is called, not unreasonably, ‘Bonnard: Marthe, Marthe, Marthe, Marthe’, comments that ‘Bonnard’s subject-matter is sometimes so seductive as to be problematic’ and notes that Bonnard’s exteriors, when they occur, retain the qualities of the interiors: ‘Bonnard is the painter of the Great Indoors, even when he’s painting the Great Outdoors’.[2] And those ‘Great Indoors’, of course, are his true domain. Laura Cumming, in a typically acute and discriminating review, remarks that Bonnard ‘turns curiously conventional outdoors’ (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jan/26/pierre-bonnard-the-colour-of-memory-review-tate-modern-wife-marthe)
which is perfectly true – but a lot of that outdoors is seen through an open window and here is the bath, the table, the coffee cup, the door or window frame, the curve of hip or breast or shoulder in Southern French light, the essential Bonnard: the sketched, the familiar, the remembered, the known, felt on the skin and the fingertips and the mind’s eye. There’s an extraordinary canvas, The Sunlit Terrace, which was painted over seven years, 1939-1946, right across the span of the Second World War; and some unsettling late self-portraits which radically undercut the idea of Bonnard as a consistently happy or serene painter.

bonnard-nude inaninterior

(Bonnard, Nude in an Interior: National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Back on the 16:30 train, with a valuable reminder, if such were needed, that some people just Can’t Shut Up. Two of them on their phones for miles after mile, talking over and against each other, a twenty-first century duel to set against those of Lermontov, Pushkin, George Canning and Lord Castlereagh. Still, there and back, I sojourned happily enough in the Golden Age of Crime—Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers—as opposed to this age of it, the Brass one.

wise-children

(Wise Children, via The Guardian)

Then, on Saturday, to the marvellous Emma Rice adaptation of Angela Carter’s Wise Children at Bristol Old Vic. The Librarian and her sister shaking with laughter beside me; their mother crying with laughter in the seat in front of me. Songs, dancing, spontaneous applause, tears, jokes, a deafening ovation to end with. As someone rarely seized by things theatrical, I was—seized.

And we are back, with a glass of wine to offset cultural overload—but that Other Thing, alas, is still with us.

References

[1] Antoine Terrasse, Bonnard/Matisse: Letters Between Friends, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Abrams, 1992), 101.
[2] Julian Barnes, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015), 142.