30 OCTOBER 1976, Page 20


Peter Conrad

A Hidden Life: The Enigma of Sir Edmund Backhouse, Bart. Hugh Trevor-Roper (Macmillan £4.95) Princes and Artists: Patronage and Ideology at Four Habsburg Courts 151 7-1 633 Hugh Trevor-Roper (Thames and Hudson £6.50) Memoirs of Duveen Brothers: Seventy Years in the Art World Edward Fowles (Times Books £7.95) In England, we have biography instead of history, and connoisseurship instead of criticism. The deficiency is deserved. Biography is a mode of condolence, and connoisseurship a wishful dream of acquisitiveness. Because all lives end in biological defeat, biography funereally consoles an expiring nation; and the conventions of English biography—its sociable humanism, its predilection for the futile eccentric, and its dependence on the material relics of a life: houses, titles, deposit boxes of family papers—embalm the manners of a doomed' class. Sir Edmund Backhouse is an ironically terminal candidate for biography. He left behind him a reputation and a fabled collection of assets which Hugh Trevor-Roper's detective work has revealed to be empty and illusory. Biography, reconstructing his life, finds that he didn't have one. Connoisseurship, in its recent forms, also laments the loss of possessions: it recalls, while our national heritage is being auctioned off, idyllically solvent days when art could be bartered—by Trevor-Roper's Habsburg princes in the age of faith, by Edward Fowles's entrepreneurs in the age of commerce.

Forger, fraud and fantasist, Backhouse shows up the chimerical nature of biography. The more the researcher discovers about him, the more insubstantial he becomes. The titles he affected were snobbish fakes; his activities as a government agent were the airy ruses of the confidence trickster; his memoirs are sexual mendacity. TrevorRoper's A Hidden Life is less a biography than a brilliant demonstration of the vacuity of biographical method: the exact investigation of fact ends by disclosing that Backhouse's life was entirely fiction. The Chinese diary he presented to the British M.useum is of uncertain authenticity; as a go-between during the Great War he negotiated the sale of armaments which didn't exist ; his affairs with Verlaine, Lord Rosebery and the Empress Dowager Tzti-hsi are lubricious inventions. He is, literally, a non-entity. Biography has presided over its own undoing: it has made its subject vanish.

Trevor-Roper compares his pursuit of Backhouse with Symons's 'quest for Corvo', which unmasked the pederastic mock

aristocrat Rolfe. But A Hidden Life is less a quest than an inquest. Biography punishes Backhouse for his elusiveness by treating him with prim legalism. Like a suave QC, Trevor-Roper teases the court : 'I venture to think that the evidence which 1 shall submit will settle that controversy', and nimbly exposes discrepancies in evidence. He addresses his argument to 'the attentive reader', a conscientious juror, not to readers pruriently curious about Backhouse's fantasies, and the lewd memoirs are summarised with the brisk distaste of a barrister indicating a soiled exhibit in court.

Biography necessarily convicts Backhouse, and Trevor-Roper doubts his subject on principle: Backhouse's grave illnesses are exposed as prudent retreats from creditors; he is capable of declaring himself 'in microscopic handwriting, too blind to read or write'. But Backhouse lived a life of fiction, and so he finds his justification in art, which validates each of his personae. His speculative ventures, raising money on the security of non-existent assets, were feats of imagination. In this respect he resembles Mann's confidence trickster, Felix Kalil, a conjurer whose double-dealing is agile, truth-defying art. His role of secret agent is equally allegorical: the ineffectual intrigues of Auden's secret agent hint at sexual treachery and recrimination, and in his outrageous arms deal Backhouse the 'trained spy' in vented a political equivalent to the salacious ubiquity of those imperial court eunuchs he admired and envied. Forgery and pornography also misrepresent life to enhance it, ill a frustrated parody of art. Trevor-RoPer compares Backhouse to the scholarly fakers Lenormant and Wise, but he belongs perhaps in the company of the poetic forgers, Chatterton and Macpherson, whose lies sponsor and protect their visions. Back' house's imaginary affairs have the sarne, aesthetic meticulousness: he inserts himsell into the lives of his putative lovers by usurPing the roles of actual persons—in Verlaine's case, that of the `sweet youth' Lucien Letinois; in Rosebery's, that of his Ovate, secretary Lord Drumlanrig, brother 01 Bosie; in the Empress Dowager's, that of her minister J ung-lu. As Backhouse makes art pander to his, fantasies of social exaltation and sexliat.i athleticism, so the Habsburg patrons °. Trevor-Roper's second new book, Princes and Artists, construct from the art they COT; mission an 'imaginary autobiographY. Backhouse's. Trevor-Roper's narrative one of decline and fall—the idealism Charles V collapses into the brutality of tn. c Thirty Years War, the lucidity of the Renals; sance into the hysteria of the baroque-3°u,, he takes a Gibbonian pleasure in identifYirl! the weaknesses of his titans: the hearty over., eating of Charles V in monastic retireme.% the pedantic bigotry of Philip Rudolf lite unworldly retreat into necromancy, ti1,5 docility of the Archdukes. But patronag.e a psychological rather than a social relatiofane ship. As Trevor-Roper demonstrates, painter's commission is to illustrate the Patron's mental world. Titian's equestrian Portrait of Charles V turns the Emperor into Diirer's grim, embattled knight of faith ; El Greco paints the adoration of the name of Jesus as a dream of Philip II, phantasmagorically populating the air above him. Philip collected the works of Bosch for his Private rooms, as if acknowledging the Painter's monstrous hybrids and joking abortions as images of his own spiritual maladies; in Prague, Rudolf II made his gallery of hermetic oddities—clockwork ships, astronomical globes, the treacherously serpentine designs of mannerist painting --a mental space, secretive and heterodox.

For the collectors served by the Duveen brothers, whose activities as art-dealers have been chronicled by their employee Edward Fowles, art was not an aid to contemplation but a boastful emblem of affluence. If _ revor-Roper's subject is art's subjection to faith, Fowles's is its annexation to the money market. The Habsburgs accumulated agate and bezoar as investments in a spiritual future; Duveen's millionaires are greedy for art as an investment in a more Proximate future, which is to profit the Purse rather than the soul. The world of these memoirs is that of Henry James's Piratical aesthetes, crassly precious, angelic

larcenous, A Chicago restaurant-owner, drunk in Rome, offered to buy the Arch of Constantine; Joe Duveen declined to handle small paintings, declaring, 'I do not deal in Postage stamps'. The pursuit of art now sanctifiesthe most squalid vices—Gulben s penny-pinching, Berenson's trans!ormation of scholarly authentication into a lucrative business, the autocratic ill-temper '21f Baron Maurice de Rothschild, who could °nIY behave politely if his bowels had moved that morning. Art which was a symbol of

oral value becomes, for Duveen's carpet?aggs a symbol, like coinage, of a negotiable economic value. EtY coincidence, Fowles describes a

tiJuveen initiative to purchase the Habsburg na,DestrY collection. Duveen's motive was '-pn,aracteristic: a rival had outbid him for the t2erPont Morgan tapestries, and he was de

ttlined not to be beaten a second time.

D'reyertheiess, Fowles promotes Duveen to utncelY equality with Trevor-Re-,er's nivabsburgs, calling him 'a truly great salesal,"' (Which sounds like Willy Loman) and bdeegauleiorgthtehat he ennobled the job of art

'purveyor of second-hand goods'

excaMe 'a provider of the greatest and most et_13ensi1e luxuries'. Yet Duveen is much ttauser to Backhouse than to the princes. arms elchouse the con man invented a cache of the Which he proceeded to sell; like him, obi:II-dealer is a go-between, juggling with ts of often dubious authenticity, re' g them by cosmetic restoration, in. ventin raph 4. outrageous values for them. Biogaty 1Y. has had its bluff called by the imaginpe Ife of Backhouse; the same has hapindn,ed to connoisseurship, thanks to the


shado,.fts forger Tom Keating. Such time wY Poseurs are apt heroes for our