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).

Summer ended: autumn begun.

Henry, George, 1858-1943; Autumn

George Henry, Autumn: Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC)

First day of August. ‘Very lovely with calm lake,’ John Ruskin wrote at Brantwood of Coniston Water in 1884, ‘but the roses fading, the hay cut. The summer is ended. Autumn begun.’ It seems a little early. Still, in February of that year, Ruskin had given his lectures on ‘The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ and the details of weather that he’d entered in his diary in the intervening months tended to focus on darkness, fierce wind and heavy rain.

As Jeeves conveys the seasonal news to Bertie, at the opening of The Code of the Woosters: ‘There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in autumn – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.’ Literature not being his strong point, Bertie can only reply, ‘Season of what?’ John Keats—he of To Autumn fame—probably wrote the poem in the second or third week of September, in 1819, a more autumnal sort of date.

So here, in a manner of speaking, we all are (as Ford Madox Ford often had Henry James say). Not that we have a very clear idea of where we are, though the general direction of travel is, alas, only too obvious. There seem to be increasingly loud hints and assertions that this country might end up with no EU deal ‘by accident’. That is to say, we might be moving in the direction that the extremists have been angling for from the outset, a result to suit their ideologies, their unsavoury friends and perhaps their business plans too. I heard one of them, a notable reactionary, say on the radio a week or two back, apropos of something or other: ‘this is not what the people of this country voted for’. Careful with the negative there, I thought, since 63% of the British electorate didn’t vote to leave the European Union at all.

Yeovil-early-morning

Jonathan Franzen once referred to ‘the one benefit of being a depressive pessimist, which is the propensity to laugh in dark times.’ There’s something in that though the laughter, like much else, is wearing a little thin of late. Even not particularly literary people have taken to quoting Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ (‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity’).

Certainly, I’ve more or less given up on the Labour leadership: the last few years should have resulted in nothing remaining of the Tories apart from some unsavoury stains on the floor. But that would have required an opposition to oppose instead of sniping, posturing and bitching among themselves, endlessly inventing new pretexts for internal wrangling.

I look back to Mollie Panter-Downes’ London War Notes: 1941, since the Second World War seems to be the period that so many people in this country are still totally and curiously fixated upon. ‘As a nation’, she wrote, ‘the British wear disaster more gracefully than they do victory.’ Well, that was then and this is now; and while there’s absolutely no danger of victory I strongly suspect that there will be no visible signs of grace when the magic moment comes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gathering Roses

Rose

There are seven, or is it eight, buds on our rosebush now. Like many readers, I can call to mind the first line of Robert Herrick’s ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may’ but then I tend to falter. The poem’s usual title, ‘To the Virgins, to make much of time’, points to those preoccupations with sex and death which are so common in the poetry of that period, perfectly reasonably so, given wars, plagues and an average life expectancy of less than forty years (that this was heavily influenced by a very high infant mortality rate can’t have been that much comfort). So the other three lines of Herrick’s first stanza are:

Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
Tomorrow will be dying.[1]

Be not coy, he advises those maidens, an admonition moved up to headline status in Andrew Marvell’s wonderful To His Coy Mistress. Marvell is also extremely keen to get his lover into bed: of course, he’d like nothing better than to devote tens, hundreds, even thousands of years to praising and adoring her eyes, forehead, breasts and heart. ‘But’, alas, ‘at my back I always hear/ Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near’. And he points out, quite sensibly, that ‘The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace.’[2]

So the rose, or rather, the beauty of the rose, is inextricable from the brevity of its flowering. There are, I see now, a staggering number of poems about roses and often, simultaneously, about beauty, sex and death also. They stretch back to the ancient world—Homer, Horace, Sappho—up through Shakespeare and Milton to the modern period of Frost, H. D., Yeats, De la Mare, Randall Jarrell and Charles Tomlinson.

Go, lovely Rose—
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.[3]

Edmund_Waller_John_Riley

(Edmund Waller, after John Riley)

This is the first stanza of the famous lyric by Edmund Waller (1606-1687), poet and politician; involved in a 1643 plot in the interest of the king, he escaped execution and was banished to France, returning to England in 1652 and becoming an admirer and friend of Oliver Cromwell.

And here’s the first stanza of the ‘Envoi’, carefully dated (1919), to the first part of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:

Go, dumb-born book,
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes:
Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were there cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy upon me lie
And build her glories their longevity.

The speaker then thinks of how the grace and beauty might be made to outlast its moment, its natural lifespan, as roses might be made to do:

Tells her that sheds
Such treasure in the air,
Recking naught else but that her graces give
Life to the moment,
I would bid them live
As roses might, in magic amber laid,
Red overwrought with orange and all made
One substance and one colour
Braving time.[4]

Henry Lawes set Waller’s ‘Goe lovely Rose’ to music; ‘her that sang me once that song of Lawes’ was almost certainly Raymonde Collignon (Madame Gaspard-Michel), who made her professional debut in 1916, was favourably reviewed several times by Pound when he reviewed music for the New Age under the name ‘William Atheling’, and performed in Pound’s opera, The Testament of François Villon.[5]

A quarter of a century later, in the last pages—what I think of as the ‘English’ pages—of Canto LXXX, part of the Pisan sequence, Pound wrote:

Tudor indeed is gone and every rose,
Blood-red, blanch-white that in the sunset glows
Cries: ‘Blood, Blood, Blood!’ against the gothic stone
Of England, as the Howard or Boleyn knows.[6]

Catherine-Howard

(© National Portrait Gallery, London
Unknown woman, formerly known as Catherine Howard
after Hans Holbein the Younger; oil on panel, late 17th century)

The red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of Yorkshire: the thirty-year-long Wars of the Roses and the passing of the Plantagenet dynasty; then the deaths of Katharine Howard and Anne Boleyn on the block; followed by the end of the Tudors with the death of Elizabeth.

But Pound used roses in another context: their delicacy, fragility and vulnerability set against the patterning of energy made visible by, for instance, iron filings acted upon by a magnet.

Hast ‘ou seen the rose in the steel dust
(or swansdown ever?)
so light is the urging, so ordered the dark petals of iron
we who have passed over Lethe.[7]

Pound first mentioned his magnetic ‘rose’ in a 1915 piece on Vorticism, at a time when he was preoccupied with forms of energy. ‘An organisation of forms expresses a confluence of forces [ . . . . ] For example: if you clasp a strong magnet beneath a plateful of iron filings, the energies of the magnet will proceed to organise form. It is only by applying a particular and suitable force that you can bring order and vitality and thence beauty into a plate of iron filings, which are otherwise as “ugly” as anything under heaven. The design in the magnetized iron filings expresses a confluence of energy.’[8]

He returned to the theme—and the image—again in an essay on the medieval Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti,[9] and in 1937, once again found the rose revivified by magnetic energy: ‘The forma, the immortal concetto, the concept, the dynamic form which is like the rose pattern driven into the dead iron-filings by the magnet, not by material contact with the magnet itself, but separate from the magnet. Cut off by the layer of glass, the dust and filings rise and spring into order. Thus the forma, the concept rises from death’.[10]

The idea and the image tend to divert attention from the language used: but the words themselves form highly effective, opposing clusters: ‘dead’ and ‘death’, ‘separate’ and ‘cut off’ set against ‘immortal’, ‘dynamic’, ‘rise’, ‘spring’, ‘rises’.

Ruskin

Eighty years earlier, another writer—another highly contentious figure—began his own rose-centred obsession. John Ruskin, in the preface to his autobiography, Praeterita, referred to ‘passing in total silence things which I have no pleasure in reviewing, and which the reader would find no help in account of.’ Later in the same book, he writes that ‘Some wise, and prettily mannered, people have told me I shouldn’t say anything about Rosie at all. But I am too old now to take advice…’[11]

Rosie—Rose La Touche—was ten years old when she first met Ruskin. She died at the age of twenty-seven. He seems to have asked her to marry him around her eighteenth birthday, though he had clearly fallen in love with her some time before that: she asked him to wait for an answer until she was twenty-one. The story of this long, sad affair, complicated by parental concern, religious mania and Ruskin’s well-documented predilection for young girls, has been traced at length by Ruskin’s biographers. Tim Hilton states baldly that Ruskin ‘was a paedophile’,[12] which, certainly in today’s cultural climate, seems to say both too much and too little. As Catherine Robson points out, ‘There is no evidence that Ruskin sexually abused little girls: the exact dynamics of his encounters with real girls—with Rose La Touche, with the pupils at Winnington, with girls in London, France, Italy, Switzerland, the Lake District—remain essentially unknowable.’[13] Given the ‘non-consummation’ of Ruskin’s marriage with Effie Gray, it seems highly likely that Ruskin never had a full sexual relationship at all.

Roses are everywhere in Ruskin’s work, from the title of his botanical book, Proserpina—not only does the title embrace the word ‘rose’ but Ruskin associated Rose La Touche with Proserpina since at least the spring of 1866[14]—to numerous pages in Fors Clavigera, not least thelittle vignette stamp of roses’ on the title page, of which he writes in ‘Letter XXII’: ‘It is copied from the clearest bit of the pattern of the petticoat of Spring, where it is drawn tight over her thigh, in Sandro Botticelli’s picture of her, at Florence.’[15]

 

 Ruskin-Rosie-1861

(Rose La Touche by John Ruskin, 1861)

And at the last, in ‘Letter XCVI. (Terminal)’ of his great work, Ruskin talks of ‘a place called the Rosy Valley’, which becomes ‘Rosy Vale’, the title of the letter. Rosy Vale, ‘Rosy farewell’. At the head of the letter is a drawing by Kate Greenaway, called, of course, ‘Rosy Vale’. And Fors Clavigera closes with these words: ‘The story of Rosy Vale is not ended;—surely out of its silence the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing, and round it the desert rejoice, and blossom as the rose.’[16]

How much this painful history contributed to Ruskin’s depression and mental decline is impossible to gauge. Rose had died mad in 1875; from 1889 to his death in 1900, Ruskin produced little and, apparently, spoke little, that span of a dozen years eerily echoed in the life of Friedrich Nietzsche, who suffered a mental collapse in 1889 but lived on until 1900. For the last dozen years of his life, Ezra Pound produced practically nothing and spoke—in public—barely at all.

‘You think I jest, still, do you? Anything but that; only if I took off the Harlequin’s mask for a moment, you would say I was simply mad. Be it so, however, for this time.’[17]

References

[1] The Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1918, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), 274.

[2] Andrew Marvell, ‘To His Coy Mistress’, in The Complete Poems, edited by Elizabeth Story Donno (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 50. Some readers of Ford Madox Ford prick up their ears at this point, remembering General Campion’s quoting (and misquoting) of this poem: No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 219-220.

[3] The Oxford Book of English Verse, 318.

[4] Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 557.

[5] Eva Hesse, ‘Raymonde Collignon, or (Apropos Paideuma, 7-1 & 2, 345-346): The Duck That Got Away’, Paideuma, 10, 3 Winter 1981), 583-584.

[6] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 516.

[7] ‘Canto LXXIV’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound, 449. Pound critics point to Ben Jonson’s ‘Her Triumph’ here; and to the form of Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the case of the previous quotation.

[8] Ezra Pound, ‘Affirmations II. Vorticism’, New Age, XVI, 11 (14 January, 1915), 277. Later in the series, an article on Imagism mentioned ‘energy’ or ‘energies’ twelve times, ‘emotion’ or ‘emotional’ sixteen times.

[9] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, edited by T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 154.

[10] Pound, Guide to Kulchur (1938; New Directions, 1970), 152,

[11] Ruskin, Praeterita and Dilecta (London: Everyman’s Library, 2005), 9, 471.

[12] Tim Hilton, John Ruskin: The Early Years (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), 253.

[13] Catherine Robson, Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001), 122.

[14] Tim Hilton, Ruskin: The Later Years (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), 311.

[15] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, new edition (Orpington & London: George Allen, 1896), I, 427.

[16] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, IV, 507.

[17] Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, III, 257,