Thursday, 23 January 2020

Battered Penguin - Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark

Loitering with Intent is, like much of Muriel Spark's work, very readable and amusing, despite being complex and not easy to understand.  Extracts from Cardinal Newman and Benvenuto Cellini's memoirs are interwoven through the narrative, which is a novel, although its narrator, a novelist, claims it is an autobiography.

The book opens with the phrase, "One day in the middle of the twentieth century." The narrator, Fleur Talbot, tells us this day "was the last day of a whole chunk of my life, but I didn't know that at the time" ,and explains that she was sitting in an old graveyard which she observes, puzzlingly, "had not yet been demolished", suggesting we are in a world that is not quite our own. She is approached by a policeman who "only wanted to know what I was doing", although "plainly he didn't like to ask", which is confusing - did he ask, or does the narrator simply know that that is what he wants? As the novel progresses, this question becomes less and less easy to answer; the lines between fiction and reality become increasingly blurred; finally, looking back at that opening page, it is hard to know whether the policeman stepped out of fiction and into the reality of Fleur's day or stepped from that reality and into fiction.

In other words a major theme of the novel is an examination of what exactly fiction is. In that context, Spark's narrator tells us a lot about writing and being a writer. "I talk very little" she explains to her new employer, "although I listened a lot", she adds in a kind of aside to us, continuing  "I have always been on the listen-in for ... phrases."

"Contradictions in human character" she goes on " are one of its most consistent notes ... Since the story of my own life is just as much constituted of the secrets of my craft as it is of other events, I might as well remark here that to make a character ring true it needs must be in some way contradictory."

It becomes clear as Fleur and her friend discuss the novel she is writing during the period in which this novel (autobiography?) is set that Fleur sees a clear distinction between fictional characters and reality. When her friend declares that one of Fleur's characters is "a personification of evil", Fleur retorts, "Marjorie is only words", adding for our benefit, "I knew I wasn't helping the reader to know whose side they were supposed to be on. I simply felt compelled to go on with my story without indicating what the reader should think...I wasn't writing poetry and prose so that the reader would think me a nice person, but in order that my sets of words should convey ideas of truth and wonder, as indeed they did to myself as I was composing them."  Paradoxically, when Fleur tells her friend that she cannot explain why she is concerned about the activities of certain people in their own real lives until she has written more of her novel - "It's the only way I can come to a conclusion about what's going on ... I have to work it out through my creativity" - she seems to be indicating that for her reality does not really exist until she has written about it.

Adding to the confusion, the characters and events in the novel Fleur is writing increasingly become the characters and events in her own life - in that order: that is, she invents and then the invention comes out of the fiction and into reality. "What is truth", Fleur asks at one point, and the reader - this one anyway - becomes less and less clear what the answer is as the book goes on.

Never mind, there is much rather heartless humour in the novel and many vivid and marvellous characters, above all Lady Edwina, "a tall, thin and extremely aged woman with a glittering appearance, largely conveyed by her many strings of pearls on a black dress and her bright silver hair ... her face cracked with make-up, with a scarlet gash of a smile ... her fingernails, overgrown, so that they curled over the tips like talons ... painted dark red", who uses "the blackmail of her very great age." She will be my role model from now on.

At the very end of the book, Fleur sees that friend with whom she discussed her earlier novel and has "a row with her on the subject of my wriggling out of real life", which I take as a statement about more than Fleur's decision to remain single and childless. There is something as intriguing but also as difficult to fathom as quantum physics here, which cleverer readers may be able to grasp instantly, but I cannot. I don't mind though. Spark has constructed something strange and intricate and often funny. The author - or at least the narrator - is someone who sees that all human activity is, from a divine perspective, mere foolishness. But, if she is godlike in her perspective, she is no Christian kind of god, for she sneers at her fellow humans rather than feeling any obvious affection for them.

The book closes with Fleur leaving her friend's flat and having a faintly transcendental experience:

"I came out into the courtyard exasperated as usual. Some small boys were playing football, and the ball came flying straight towards me. I kicked it with a chance grace, which, if I had studied the affair and tried hard, I never could have done. Away into the air it went, and landed in the small boy's waiting hands. The boy grinned. And so, having entered the fullness of my years, from there by the grace of God I go on my way rejoicing."

On reading this I felt as I usually do when arriving at the end of a piece of Muriel Spark fiction - no sense of dissatisfaction, as the spectacle has been entertaining, but faintly disturbed, having been made aware, that I am, compared to Spark, sadly, rather dim.

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

January Reading - Lady in Waiting by Anne Glenconner

Having read this review, I came to this book with high hopes. Boy, what a disappointment it turned out to be. Lady Glenconner cannot write for toffee. She is a person who has had quite a life but her account of it has all the excitement and narrative drive of a telephone directory. Understatement and stiff upper lippery is so pronounced in her character that her verdict on her marriage to a serially unfaithful man who regularly erupted into unspeakable rage and occasionally bought elephants on impulse is merely this:

"Apart from his infidelity and his temper, we got on so well."

But perhaps she didn't know there were other kinds of marriage. After all, as she explains, her:

"sister Carey had trouble with her husband ... after a few years, [he] refused to talk directly to her and instead would talk through his Labrador, saying things like 'Tell her to bring the bloody paper over here'."

Furthermore, Lady Glenconner's father in later life believed his wife and the writer's youngest sister "were Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields. At his insistence, they sang songs like 'The Biggest Aspidistra in the World'." As if this were not enough, Lady Glenconner's "father got into a habit of chatting up women on the train to London and inviting them back to Holkham, where he would take them off on the fire engine, encouraging them to ring the bell.'

The book really brought home to me what an extraordinarily good writer the Duchess of Devonshire was. Describing a similar milieu but provided with far fewer eccentrics, the Duchess was able to produce hilarity from the flimsiest of material. Lady Glenconner has much more exciting substance, but her supreme gift is to render everything banal. Take her account of the demise of an acquaintance called Laura Brand, who was, she explains:

"the rather eccentric sister of Lord Hambleden ... [She] always wore sombreros and was always in the sea. ... Laura drowned [when] she and her husband Micky were in Grenada and she went for a swim. Micky was on the beach when all of a sudden her hat floated past, out to sea."

That is the full extent of that story. We move rapidly on to a party, while the hat and the memory drift away.

But then in Lady Glenconner's social circle it seems very little is required to make someone appear wonderfully entertaining. A ritual of the Queen Mother's involving drinking toasts to people is portrayed as the height of wit but isn't, while one of Princess Margaret's entourage, a man called John Harding was, we are told, always welcome, since "the children adored [him] on account of his ability to tear a telephone directory [not often those get mentioned more than once in a blog post] in half." It does seem to me that that particular party trick would pall quite quickly, but not so far as the Glenconner children were concerned, apparently.

Mind you, some of those children went on to rather grisly ends, so perhaps something in their way of life - possibly the forced gaiety expected when witnessing the wanton destruction of telephone directories - did have long term bad effects. Or perhaps their mother's steadfast refusal to do anything but look on the bright side provoked them. Her tone remains constant even when she tells us how one of her sons would go off to rehab clinics packed "with other members of high society", (who she then lists). When her husband suggests disinheriting the boy, she remarks, utterly inconsequentially, "I didn't know what to think, but could quite see where Colin was coming from."

Just as Lady Glenconner seems unable to differentiate between tragedy and daily life, she appears to have absolutely no idea what is funny and what is boring. Thus she mentions in passing, as if she hadn't even noticed it, that the undertakers she dealt with after her husband's death were called Lazarus Funerals, but devotes a whole paragraph to a story with no punchline at all:

"In the late afternoon we [Lady Glenconner and Princess Margaret] would often go and sit in Basil's Bar, watching the sunset, sceptically waiting for the 'green flash' that is supposed to appear on the horizon just after the sun vanishes. Neither of us believed it, yet we always seemed to be distracted by the thought, pausing our conversation to stare at the view, just in case we saw it. We never did but it became a fun habit."

A fun habit! Elsewhere in her narrative we have Princess Margaret trying to beat grey squirrels to death. Another fun habit? Possibly.

In the end, I even began almost to sympathise with Lady Glenconner's monstrous loony husband. A few hundred pages spent in her dull, dull company was bad enough; if one had to spend a lifetime with her, who knows how angry and irrational one might not become.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Past Presents

When I noticed this little clip on Twitter, memories of past Christmas presents from my father came rushing back. Although, like me, generally tending toward the cloth-eared end of the spectrum, he would occasionally become possessed by brief but intense enthusiasms for some genre of music or other.  If Christmas happened to be in the offing at such moments, his choice of presents would then reflect whatever happened to be his latest craze.

Which is why one year I found myself unwrapping a quantity of long-playing records featuring traditional singing from Mongolia, while another year, unexpectedly,  I received a selection  of the best bagpipe music money could buy.

“Bagpipes”, my maternal grandmother observed, “best heard over several hills.”

In a non-musical mood, my father also posted me a birthday present from Hanoi where he was stationed. The city had been being bombed fairly heavily and so I ought not to have been surprised when I untied the ribbon and tore off the paper to find an old box lined with cotton wool on which he had arranged several pieces of shrapnel that he’d collected from his verandah.

I was too young to understand what a thoughtful gift this was, given that the alternatives available to him in wartime north Vietnam were nothing or nothing - and even a few bits of carefully chosen shrapnel are better than nothing. At the time, it was pointed out to me that it was the thought that counted, which only led to me wondering at length what exactly the thought behind this odd gift  might be

Monday, 30 December 2019

A Budapest Guest

At Budapest’s Fine Arts Museum at the moment there is a visiting exhibition that I looked round quickly this afternoon. It was packed with people, and so I will go back again when the Christmas and New Year crowds have abated.

But even during a cursory visit several pictures caught my eye. They included: this - for its decorative borders, amusing cherubs and splendid dog; and this - the person I went with asserted all such flower paintings are boringly the same, but I think some, this one included, are wonderful; apart from anything else, as well as flowers, you get a bumble bee, a grasshopper and an exquisite mouse; and this - which really needs to be seen in reality, as the glow and liveliness that Rubens creates on the canvas somehow does not  get conveyed by photographs; and this - mainly because I wanted to look at it properly but couldn’t over the heads of others, as I would like to see if it is really as oddly modern looking for a 17th century painting as it appeared from the glimpse I had; and this - as with the Rubens, the reproduction does not do it justice; and this - partly for the dogs annoying each other in the bottom left hand corner, partly for the feeling that all the pictures in the room in which this one is hung are less paintings than windows into the past; and this - which is tiny and very beautifully painted. There was also an image from the Prado that I didn’t get the name of; it looked like surrealism but was made in the 1600s.

I shall go back quite soon and find out more.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Battered Penguins: The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin

Edmund Crispin's books are far-fetched - some might even say silly - but I find them charming. Rather than explaining the details of this particular one, I will simply tell you that it is similar in tone and milieu to others in his series about Gervase Fen - university setting, arty types, outdated views on male-female relationships, no diversity and an unlikely plot. If the others amuse you, this one probably will too, ( a cursory glance at information about Crispin on the internet suggests that it may actually be the very first of his books about Fen).

Needless to say, I do like the books in the series, partly because they are the ideal kind of thing to read when you have jetlag and don't want anything tiresomely thought-provoking and partly because in passages like the following Crispin conjures up absurd scenes that make me laugh:


"The 'Aston Arms' was none of your brightly-painted, up-and-coming hostelries. It exuded so strongly an atmosphere of the past that drinkers living were spiritually cowed and jostled by the shades of drinkers long dead and gone. Every suggestion of improvement or modernisation was grimly resisted by the management, which consisted of a large, ancient man manifestly disintegrating at a great rate into his component chemical elements. An elaborate ritual, the abandonment of which was anathema, presided over the ordering and consumption of drinks; a strict social hierarchy was maintained; irregular visitors were unwelcome, and regular customers, particularly the acting profession, were treated with a mild pervasive contempt. The only salient feature of the small, rather shabby public bar was an enormous nude parrot, which had early contracted the habit of pecking out all its feathers, and which now, with the exception of the ruff and head, which it could not reach, presented a dismal and ludicrous grey, scraggy body to the gaze. It had been given to the proprietor of the 'Aston Arms' in a fit of lachrymose gratitude by a visiting German professor, and was in the habit of reciting a lyric of Heine, which feat, however, it could only be induced to perform by the careful repetition of two lines from the beginning of Mallarmé's L'Après-midi d'un Faune, this appearing to start some appropriate train of suggestion in its mind. This aptitude aroused the deepest suspicions in such soldiery as frequented the 'Aston Arms', equalled only by their suspicion of those of their countrymen who were capable of similar or greater achievements in the same direction;it was employed by the proprietor to warn customers of the imminence of closing-time, and the raucous tones of Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten, dass ich so traurig bin were the normal prelude to more forcible means of ejection." 

I think being able to make people laugh is a talent that is under-rated and much harder than producing solemn works of art. I would not go so far as to suggest that Crispin ought to have been given the Nobel Prize for Literature but I am certainly grateful he gave us the volumes he did.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Twitter Treasure

From time to time, I post something here in praise of Twitter, which is a form of 'social media' that has a fairly bad name. It is often characterised as a cesspit of insult and extreme politics but, as in actual life, it depends who you talk to, (in Twitter terms, that means who you follow). If you steer away from politics, you can find all sorts of interesting accounts that lead you to things you would never otherwise come across.

My example for today is a tweet by @MsJeanRhys, a Twitter account that tweets quotations from the work of Jean Rhys. A couple of days ago, @MsJeanRhys tweeted a link to a copy of an article Jean Rhys wrote for the Times about growing old. It was published on 21st May, 1975, when Rhys was 84. She died one week short of four years later, on 14 May 1979. According to @MsJeanRhys, the article has never been republished since, even though it is very well worth reading.

I am reproducing it here for those who, despite my evangelising, still cannot bring themselves to dip their toes in the wide Twitter sea:

Whatever became of old Mrs Pearce? - Novelist Jean Rhys contributes this week's guest column in our International Women's Year series

In one of Aldous Huxley's stories a Mr Hutton remarks that whenever he hears the word 'cynical' he longs to say 'Bow wow'. Every time I hear the remark, 'she thinks she's young' (for it's nearly always 'she'), I feel like saying 'Bow wow wow'. For to think you're young when you're old is an impossibility. Old people are constantly reminded, every day, every hour, almost every minute, that they are old; only a lunatic wouldn't be convinced.

But age seldom arrives smoothly or quickly. It's more often a succession of jerks. After the first, you slowly recover. You 'learn to live with the consequences'. Then comes another and another. At last you realise that you'll never feel perfectly well again, never be able to move easily, or see or hear well.

You don't realise that you will die soon, because while you are still alive this is inconceivable. But the knowledge is there, unconscious, hidden, suppressed. Willingly or not, you think, 'Will I ever see another summer, another spring, ever do this, that or the other again?'

People meet all this differently. Some yield without a struggle, even exaggeratedly. Some try to ignore it. Some fight it.

The first is, of course, the easiest, but has its dangers. When it becomes impossible to ignore age, you can still fight it. Battle has its excitements, its plans, stratagems, defeats. Also its victories. It's a matter of character, temperament and circumstances. Why not allow the old, whenever possible, to follow their bent without interference, malice or ridicule? Why must everyone be forced into this legendary uncomfortable bed - the right size for all - for the tall have had their limbs lopped and the short have been racked and stretched to fit? The tiresome old will soon be quiet enough.

Now for the compensations. For there are compensations of age. The first is that time alters. I don't know how else to put it. As a rule it gallops: scarcely is it Monday before it's Thursday, scarcely Thursday before it's Sunday and another week has gone. It's May, then August, then October and winter again. But other days, instead of flashing by, seem to stretch so that 12 hours becomes an enormous, an infinite time.

For instance, I (for now it must be I) wake very early; at the time of year I am writing this it is still dark. I used to keep a book handy, put the light on and read, but now that I've decided to save my eyes I get up instead, and, without looking at myself, stumble along the passage, switching lights on as I go. Then I am filling the kettle, taking the blue cup off its hook (careful now, don't drop it), getting a saucer, spoon, sugar. From then on its routine.

After tea and cigarettes, it gets lighter and I am happier. Perhaps the real deep feeling is of joy, even triumph, that one has survived the night. Once more darkness has been conquered and, however dreary, day will soon be here. Of course you could die during the day, but it's not likely, not even possible, is it? This year, next year, sometime again becomes never.

The first motor bicycle passes, the sun rises - cold and watery, perhaps, but sun. It is then that time stretches, time that you're free to spend exactly as you wish. You can eat what you like when you like, drink what you like when you like, or not at all, for no reproving warning glance forces you to drink out of defiance. You can spend a couple of hours dressing or slop around, not bothering to dress at all, reading passages from King Solomon's Mines or Lady Audley's Secret. Or wander about in what passes for a garden. There's time for everything. The intoxicating feeling of freedom repays you a thousand times for any loneliness you may have endured.

And while I am on the subject, loneliness is not the worst thing by any means. Some old people are lonely. But a great many others live in dread of being argued with, persuaded or even forced to do something which they know will be catastrophic.

Old people, especially women living alone, are very vulnerable. Some are protected by money (up to a point), some by friends or relatives, (perhaps, perhaps). But some are not. And the older and frailer they grow the weaker their position, the greater their dread of being interfered with. I don't know whether the story of the old lady who hid the fact that she'd broken her leg for two weeks is true. She so feared the sort of help that wold be flung at her. I for one believe it.

'What's become of old Mrs Pearce', you wonder. She usually passes my window on her daily walk and I haven't seen her for some time. You're told that Mrs Pearce is now perfectly happy in an old people's home. 'Perfectly happy, they're so kind.' You remember uneasily that the last time you saw Mrs P. she said that more than anything else she dreaded being sent to an old persons' home. 'I keep very clear of them', she'd said. 'Don't let them in the house if I can help it.' But when I half-heartedly suggest visiting her it seems she's going through a difficult phase. She keeps saying she wants to go home and won't eat or talk of anything else.

'Why not let her go home then?' I say. 'She's quite able to look after herself.''

'Not now', I'm told.

Perhaps not after six weeks of worry and anxiety, longing for her usual chair, her favourite cup, and wondering who will put out milk for the hedgehog which is almost a pet. Soon Mrs Pearce isn't mentioned any more and that's enough of Mrs Pearce.

The sad thing is that a fierce desire for independence and freedom can exist with the longing for companionship or help. It generally does. It's a difficult problem which euthanasia would solve. The trouble is that human nature being what it is euthanasia wouldn't be voluntary for long. Nor would it stop at old people.

Two more compensations. The first is that old people, like children, can live in the present. A fine day, feeling almost well, some small pleasure, and they forget everything else. Perhaps only old people and children can do this. Or should I say, some old people, some children.

The other compensation is the calm that often comes with age. If you've often tried in the past to put yourself to sleep by repeating, 'nothing matters, nothing matters at all', it's a relief when few things really do matter any longer. This indifference or calm, whatever you like to call it, is like a cave at the back of your mind where you can retire and be alone and safe. The outside world is very far away. If you sometimes long for a fierce dog to guard your cave, that's only on bad days. Perhaps tomorrow will be a good day.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Books - Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas


Christos Tsiolkas is best known for his novel The Slap, which tells the story of a group of friends who go to a barbecue and disagree when one of them slaps the child of another. I thought the concept was clever, but I hated the characters, who seemed vulgar and grasping and driven by startlingly forceful sexual appetites. 

All the same, I did recognise that Tsiolkas writes energetically and has original ideas, which is why, when I saw his latest novel in a bookshop in Sydney, I bought it - that and the fact that I was intrigued to discover that he had chosen St Paul as the book's central character and subject, a choice that, had he not already made a success of his writing, might well have guaranteed that the book would never be published. But it has been - and one can't help wondering if Saint Paul is having what is these days called "a moment", since the historian Tom Holland has just published a book called Dominion which, as I understand it, is essentially an attempt to explain how Saint Paul is central to western civilisation, influencing the ideas and thought of even those who are most violently opposed to the religion he espoused.

Tsiolkas's novel is written in the present tense, (so much is these days, and I'm still not at peace with it) and contains dialogue that is often rather wooden. It has very little in the way of a plot, which may explain the large amount of semi-pornographic sex and violence within it, which may be intended as compensation. 

Given that Tsiolkas has spent the last several years studying all aspects of Saint Paul's life and times, (including, I assume from his reference at one point to a feast that includes 'salted acorns', the culinary habits of the period [does anyone have a recipe for 'salted acorns' I wonder?]), I hesitate to challenge his portrayal of Paul's world as obsessed with violent sex*, circumcision and the punitive removal of genitalia in the most painful ways possible. And who am I to argue with his characterisation of Paul as a repressed and tormented homosexual who was in love with Timothy or his depiction of Timothy's death as suicide. 

Tsiolkas has done the research and I haven't, but I still find these last two suggestions offensive, even sacrilegious - although one might argue that, as Tsiolkas is himself gay, the most loving thing he can do to a character is to make him gay too.  But the Paul who wrote the various wise letters that form a large part of the New Testament does not seem to me to have anything to do with Tsiolkas's tortured fanatic, who spends most of his time in the book engaged in a desperate struggle with his sexual impulses. (And, given that the sex in the book is so full of disgust and deliberately inflicted pain, I can't help wondering about Tsiolkas's happiness, because at least in this piece of fiction he seems unable to imagine love and sex as coexistent.)

This is a strange and courageous (and, as so often nowadays, sloppily edited) book, which is largely unappetising. However, I do admire its author for tackling the unfashionable subject of Christianity with honesty and sincerity, and on some level understanding the importance and revolutionary nature of the faith:

"...the Lord forgives. That was the thing about the Jews that the Greeks and Romans could never understand. Their gods despised men for not being gods. This was the greatest wickedness, the worst lunacy. The Lord was the only god that forgave men as men"

as well as the difficulty of actually being a good Christian:

"I bring my head to the cool plank of the floor and pray for forgiveness, pray for charity and for filial love ... I pray, but rather than being soothed by the balm of selflessness and duty, my heart is struck by the poison dart of envy."

I will not be giving Damascus to any of my friends as a Christmas present, as for much of the time while reading it I was feeling rather sickened, but I admire Tsiolkas for taking the subject on. 

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*Read no further if you don't want to feel queasy, but here are two passages to give a sense of what I'm referring to when I complain of the sado-porn aspect I discern in the text:

"...we enter the tight unsoiled cunts of the girls and we break open the tight buttocks of the boys and our spirits and our sex are guided by the hand of Venus and our hatred and our lust is enflamed by the mighty Mars and .... as we spill our seed into the children and the maidens and the women and the crones we know we are continuing the justice of war ... and we know we are beloved of The God and in this sodden pit our sex is full and we smear our sex with blood and we spill into the earth ...."

"...I look down to my body, below the blood-soaked pelt of my loins where there was once my sex there is now only a gash, raw and violently purple meat; flyblown, host to crawling, feasting maggots ...|

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

William Blake - Tate Britain

If you are English, and particularly if you grew up in London - even more so if you grew up south of the river - you are unlikely to have reached adulthood without having heard something of William Blake. You may have encountered his words while singing the hymn Jerusalem or reading his poems - his most famous poem is The Tyger. You may even know that as a child he saw a tree full of angels on Peckham Rye and that he lived in Lambeth and behaved eccentrically (something about surprising his neighbours by wandering about his garden without any clothes on has entered my memory, although I can find no trace of any such thing having happened).

Armed only with these scraps of information (or misinformation in the case of the nude gardening element), when I saw that Tate Britain was putting on a large exhibition of Blake's work, (it runs until February 2020), I decided to go down and find out (although it isn't meant to, I fear this post is beginning to sound a bit like a Julian and Sandy sketch?), more.

So deep was my ignorance of the artist, in fact, that when I went into the exhibition, I was under the impression that Blake was his own model for the bearded deities that I'd seen in many of his visual works:
Either from Urizen or Blake's Small Book of Designs, 'Of life on his forsaken mountains' 1794, Colour-printed relief etching with hand colouring, on paper, British Museum
O

Elohim Creating Adam, 1795-c.1805, colour print, ink and watercolour on paper, Tate

Here is what Blake actually looked like, (handsome, in a way, and with a lively, intelligent, even intense look about him):

Portrait of William Blake, c.1802, graphite with black, white and grey washes on paper. This is probably a self-portrait drawn by Blake when he was in his forties

Portrait of William Blake by John Flaxman, c.1804, graphite on paper, Tate

William Blake Wearing a Hat, by John Linnell, c 1825, graphite on paper. Linnell made this seemingly spontaneous portrait of Blake during one of their regular walks on Hampstead Heath. Linnell, who lived by the Heath, was Blake's most important friend during his final years.Their families became close and, through Linnell, Blake's social circle expanded. He met landscape artist John Constable at Linnell's house. Looking at Constable's drawing of trees on Hampstead Heath, Blake exclaimed that it was 'not drawing, but inspiration'".


William Blake by Thomas Phillips, 1807, oil paint on canvas, National Portrait Gallery. This is Blake at the age of 50, enjoying a brief period of relative celebrity. Phillips said he captured Blake's 'rapt poetic expression' as he recalled one of his visions, a visit to his studio from the Archangel Gabriel 

Sadly though, aside from enlightening me on what Blake actually looked like, the exhibition did not do much more to broaden my understanding of Blake's work and position. I had hoped to emerge with a clearer understanding of why Blake deserves our attention, where he fits in artistic tradition and what exactly he was trying to do. The exhibition curators, however, have largely squibbed this task. As the little catalogue that is given to exhibition goers says, "This exhibition does not try to explain Blake's imagery and symbolism ... Instead it considers the reception of his art [and] sets out the personal and social conditions in which it was made". As the imagery in Blake's art is unusually full of obscure symbolism, I felt rather abandoned as I tramped from room to room, trying to make sense of Blake's wild and confusing images.

But perhaps no explanation is possible and the work is merely incoherent and rather strange. But if that is the case, why organise this huge exhibition? It seems to me that some attempt should be made to explain why Blake was significant, rather than just a peculiar and mildly intriguing English eccentric. Yes, he had quite definitely an entirely individual vision but was it an enlightening one or just very striking? I wasn't convinced by the end that a transcendent intelligence or talent was at work, so much as a strange, wild ego.

The one thing that did strike me was the possibility that Blake's moment has finally come. I believe that if he were working today, Blake, with his fondness for serpents and dragons, might be immensely popular, striking a chord with the many fans of Tolkien, Game of Thrones and all forms of fantasy:
The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea, c.1095, ink with watercolour over graphite on paper, National Gallery of Art Washington
Pity, 1795, Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper

The Night of Enithamion's Joy (formerly called Hecate) c. 1795, colour print, ink, tempera and watercolour on paper - a heated discussion went on between two gallery goers beside me about whether the size of the feet of the main figure doesn't suggest that the model was a man
As I'm not fond of the fantasy genre, I found myself less excited than baffled and a great deal of the time I found Blake's visual choices bordered on kitsch. Why for example did he feel the need to put in those terrible eyelashes in this picture:


The Virgin and Child in Egypt by William Blake, tempera on canvas, 1810. This painting demonstrates Blake's enduring ambition to work ona larger scale. He adopted the 'Tuchlein' technique of 16th-century Netherlandish painting, using tempera on linen. Blake had seen such paintings on the London art market. It is one of four life-size figure paintings Blake did for Thomas Butts in 1810





Although capable of reasonably good portraits, vis this of the reverend John Johnson, who was rector of Yaxham and Welborne in Norfolk, for whom Blake went on to provide some fairly hideous fireplace surrounds:

The Rev. John Johnson, Watercolour on card, 1802, Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, Buckinghamshire
and this of the son of one of his mentors:
Thomas Alphonso Hayley, c 1800, attributed to William Blake, graphite and gouache on paper (this is the sone of Blake's sponsor, William Hayley - the boy died at the age of 19 in May 1800)

apparently he did not find that kind of work interesting. All too often, in fact, he gives his figures absolutely idiotic faces, none more so than this image of Christ who is supposed to be descending into the grave but looks more like a shy debutante entering her first ball:

Christ Descending into the Grave, c.1805-7, ink and watercolour over traces of graphite

Blake seems to have been less interested in individual psychology than in striking, strange and original - if not entirely beautiful? - semi-symbolic images, the kinds of things that might appear in lurid comics these days (these were my favourite works in the exhibition and I think illustrate a poem by Blake called Urizen, about which I would have appreciated more information than was provided by the curators):
"I sought pleasure and found pain" (Urizen?)

(Urizen?)

Frontispiece to 'Visions of the Daughters of Albion', c. 1795, relief etching, ink and watercolour on paper



"The floods overwhelmed me" (Urizen?)

'Everything is an attempt to be human' (Urizen)



At times, his work reminded me of the illustrations of Edward Ardizzone (or perhaps that should be the other way round, since Ardizzone came later):

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, by William Blake, c. 1786, watercolour and graphite on paper. 

Brutus and Caesar's Ghost, by William Blake, c.1806, ink and watercolour on paper. This is from a group commissioned by the Rev. Joseph Thomas, lent by British Museum

A Woody Landscape, by William Blake c.1801, watercolour and graphite on paper, Yale Centre for British Art


The Counsellor, King, Warrior, Mother and Child, in the Tomb, by William Blake, 1805, ink and brown wash over graphite on paper, collection of Robert N Essick



Richard III and the Ghosts, by William Blake, c.1806, pen and black ink, and grey wash, with watercolour on paper. 

At times, I found it sickeningly wet and sentimental:

Friendship, c. 1825-7, ink and watercolour over graphite on paper


Sometimes it just doesn't seem very good:

This seems the equivalent of a Hollywood underwater ballet extravaganza:
Queen Katherine's Dream, 1809, ink and watercolour on paper, lent by the British Museum
And this is supposed to be a depiction of a terrible scene but the whole thing is too mannered to evoke any real emotion, I think:

The Body of Abel found by Adam and Eve c 1826, Ink, tempera and gold on mahogany: In the 1820s Blake's work took on a richer appearance. He began to use more vibrant colour and to apply gold leaf more frequently. Anther new practice was his use of a mahogany support. These innovations were perhaps inspired by Northern European art of the late 15th century, which adapted ideas of the Italian Renaissane. Blake and Linnell often visited such works in private and public collections across London. Blake's use of gold may have been facilitated by the fact that one of his Fountain Court neighbours was a gilder
As for this, if that is the conversion of Saul, then Saul must have been the gentlest persecutor the Christians ever had to suffer the attentions of:

The Conversion of Saul, c.1800, ink and watercolour on paper, The Huntington Library

Drawing was fundamental to Blake, the catalogue tells us, but the evidence on show suggests that his drawing was not all that strong:


Landscape with Spire c.1801, graphite on paper, Yale Centre for British Art

The Ghost of a Flea, c.1819, graphite on paper
(Here, by the way is the finished painting Blake made from that early sketch:

The Ghost of a Flea, c. 1819-20, Tempera and gold on mahogany: The Ghost of a Flea is one of Blake's most bizarre and famous characters. As the vision appeared to Blake, he is said to have cried out, "There he comes! his eager tongue whisking out of his mouth, a cup in his hand to hold blood, and covered with a scaly skin of gold and green." John Varley watched Blake make the original sketch of this character. He also owned this painting showing the creature on a stage, flanked by curtains with a shooting star behind. Varley was a keen astrologer.)
What Blake was good at was conveying liveliness and movement - and of course he was an absolutely astonishingly skilled engraver. Both of these traits are visible in his work on the Canterbury Tales, (which sadly caused him all kinds of misery). The thing is full of movement and character and includes some marvellous dogs:

Canberbury Pilgrims detail, by William Blake: In around 1806 both Blake and his old friend Thomas Stothard started planning pictures representing characters from The Canterbury Tales. Stothard's painting was commissioned by publisher Robert Cromek and they planned to issue a print of it. Blake felt betrayed and claimed that Stothard had stolen the idea of a frieze-like composition from him. Blake completed his own painting in 1808 amd published his print in 1810 but worried it would be overshadowed by the more commercial work of his rival. The incident prompted a series of bitter and frustrated commentaries by Blake and motivated his disastrous one-man exhibition in 1809. Blake felt his artistic vision was more authentic than Stothard's and that Stothard and Cromek were more interested in making money than in great art. 



In illustrating Dante's Divine Comedy, I think Blake found a perfect vehicle for his histrionic vision:


Ephialtes and Two Other Titans, 1824-7, ink and watercolour over black chalk, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
The Six-Footed Serpent attacking Agnello Brunelleschi, 1824-7, ink and watercolour over graphite and black chalk, with sponging on paper, National Gallery of Victoria
The Serpent Attacking Buoso Donati, 1824-7, ink and watercolour on paper, Tate

Capaneus the Blasphemer, 1824-7, ink and watercolour over graphite and black chalk, with sponging and scratching out on paper, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne



and of course the exhibition is almost worth visiting just to see parts of the original illuminated Songs of Innocence and Experience, produced some time between 1789 and 1794 as disbound books, 14 plates on 7 leaves made using a mysterious technique invented by Blake called 'relief etching', printed in green ink, text strengthened with blue wash and finished with watercolour on paper, (property of the National Gallery of Victoria, part of the Felton Bequest):









Ultimately, I wondered if the problem I was having was more than anything a difference of temperament. I have noticed that fans of the apocalyptic and the Gothic tend not to be strong on humour and I felt that Blake too, although in some ways perhaps an absurd figure himself, had no sense of the absurd. There is a poignance in some of the accounts contained in the exhibition of how even in his own time barely anyone - possibly no one - understood his larger projects. Now I notice that they are being championed by Patti Smith among others - another charismatic but solemn figure. Perhaps at heart I am too flippant to be a romantic and this is where William Blake and I parted our ways?

To give Blake his due though, he did have moments of intense prophetic power, vis this work, which the nation might have taken as a dire warning but, alas, did not: 

Europe, a Prophecy relates contemporary historical events - specifically the French Revolution - in an epic, symbolic form. As Blake's biographer Alexander Gilchrist observed of this book: 'It is hard to describe poems wherein the dramatis personae are giant shadows, gloomy phantoms; te scee the realms of space; the time, of such corresponding vastness, that eighteen hundred years pass as a dream.' This copy may have been the one bought from Blake by the painter George Romney.

and he was without doubt an astonishing engraver:

Detail from the frontispiece to The Grave, (although actually I see now that this engraving was executed by Louis Schiavonetti from inventions of William Blake)




Of all the images I looked at in the exhibition, it was this, a tiny image among many that I am most glad that I have seen. I cannot explain why, except to say that there is something both poignant and eerie about it that appeals to me very strongly:

One of a set of wood engravings to illustrate Pastorals of Virgil, a Latin textbook. A group of young artists called 'the Ancients' particularly admired these engravings, one member, Samuel Palmer, saying that they possessed 'a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inmost soul ... unlike the gaudy daylight of this world'.
Overall though, I was left wondering whether Blake was great but hard to categorise or whether he was to the visual arts what Somerset Maugham claimed to be to writing - at the very first rank of the second rate.

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PS - A sign of the times: this warning, or what was left of it, accompanied an illustration made by Blake, depicting a hanged slave. The exhibition caption to that illustration reads thus:

"This controversial image provides an important test case for how we think about Blake's politics.

Blake expressed his opposition to slavery in all forms and is often taken as a courageous opponent of empire and colonialism. However, his work has been interpreted in different ways. Some people see this print as a sympathetic image of an enslaved man. For others it is a sensationalist representation of slavery that objectifies the Black body."

The pomposity of that "important", the odd capitalisation of "black", the sudden interest, shown nowhere else in the exhibition by the curators, to guide the viewer's interpretation of an image, the insinuation that Blake said he was against slavery and empire, but actually others know better, all these things annoy me a great deal - and I think that last element, the insinuation, undermines the entire exhibition, by suddenly suggesting that Blake was some kind of racist bigot masquerading as something he wasn't, (and when you spell it out like that, the idiocy of the caption emerges even more clearly).

Blake was a committed anti-slavery advocate and the illustration was not advocating but reporting. Have we really reached a point where a 19th century engraving made by someone who hated slavery can somehow cause offence? And if warnings are to be given so that people of colour are not offended, should we not also have warnings for women that they might see themselves portrayed as objects or warnings that we might find some images violent? Where will all this end? Are we mere children or can we actually be brave and look at things and survive?