By HAROLD NICO1SON IN last week's Spectator my colleague, Mr. M. H. Middleton, wrote about two Festival Exhibitions that illustrate the mutability of taste. The first, bearing the engaging title of Black Eyes and Lemonade," is being held at the Whitechapel [Art Gallery, and seems from the description to be a demonstra- tion of proletarian aesthetics. I shall not fail to visit it before ft closes down. The second is now being held at the R.B.A. Galleries in Suffolk Street, and bears the more austere title, " Ten des." A purist in such matters might contend that it is bad 'taste on my part to devote a whole page of this periodical to ,boosting this particular exhibition. I am not shaken by such !criticisms. Were I to refrain from mentioning exhibitions organised, criticised or introduced by my family or friends, I 'should find that many of the gayer manifestations of modern life 'were pronounced taboo. Indeed, I question whether all this talk atout cliques, mutual admiration societies, groups, log-rolling, back-scratching and so on bears any relation at all to human conduct, discrimination or morals. Obviously, men or women who have devoted fifty years of life to the pursuit of art or litera- Eure meet during that half-century most of the artists and writers pf their times. They will find that for some of these eminent or gifted persons they feel a natural affinity, whereas their repug- pance to others is equally spontaneous. They will, in other words, make friends with those whose pictures or writings indicate a mind or character congenial to their own. Astonishing and un- 'worthy as it may appear, they will, as the years lengthen, come lc enjoy the works of those they like more than they enjoy the Works of those they dislike. This is a quite inevitable and com- mendable process: to dismiss it with sneers about cliques and log-rolling is to say something ignorant and unkind. I shall thus devote this article to considerations aroused by the Suffolk Street exhibition without even the first stirrings of a blush.
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It must be difficult to write about changes in taste, since the *hole process is subjective and gradual. I recall that when I 'as eight years old I was taken by an aunt to a shop in Great ortland Street to be fitted for the spectacles that early astig- atism imposed. When I see children wearing spectacles today great pang of pity shoots through me ; but at the time I felt ud of having to wear spectacles, since they rendered me nteresting—different from the other little boys who, at The range, Folkestone, kicked at the gravel of the playground with hoses not encased-in steel. The memory of that visit to Curry bed Paxton remains vivid to me, and is associated with what I lieve are called " feeling-tones " of mystery and awe. I was 'put into the train at Folkestone by one of the school prefects, a ;harming boy, a scion of the great Butler family, who in after ears lost the gay curls that danced upon his head and beCitme fi proMinent member of the Reparations Commission. I was, met lit Charing Cross by my aunt and driven in her barouche to Great Portland Street. London was new to me at the time, and gazed in wonder at the thick fog that circled round the pedi- ments and enabled the gas-lights in the chemists' shops to Illumine the huge bottles in their windows with purple, blue and old. It is from that-afternoon that I date the first movements 'thin me of the aesthetic impulse. " Aunt Bessie," I said, " do On like picture-frames? "
She cast at me a-sudden, anxious look: she was not a woman who was,fond of children, and it must bre been embarrassing ofind herself alone in Great Portland Street with a little boy , who was evidently mad. I do not know why picture-frames i- hould have been the first objects of plastic art to arouse _my esthetic feelings ; down at Folkestone I had often paused, on , y way to the esplanade, at the shop of a man who sold picture- frames gold they were, and sometimes white, and sometimes diversified with lovely patterns of Louis XV design. The excite- ment of that memorable day—being taken to the station by Butler, the fog and the glass jars, the distinction, at so early an age, of being fitted for spectacles—all these combined to render me articulate. My pang had found a voice. But the strong fountain of self-expression that had gushed up into that surely innocent question was met by a cold startled look ; the fountain fell to a few drops splashing on a dark pool. I do not think that since that day I have ever beetiguilty of crushing infant curiosity. A decade passed and I was given a book entitled, I believe, The Education of an Artist, and written by Mr. C. Lewis Hind. Already by that date I had become less interested in picture- frames than in the pictures they surrounded. Mr. Hind's book filled me with a wild surmise ; the whole great world of art opened suddenly before me ; I pay my tribute of gratitude to that great creative critic. Yet, in Suffolk Street, in that fiendish catalogue, I find a quotation from my .guide and hero. Writing of Sargent's portrait of Lady Sassoon, Mt. Hind had ventured to express appreciation of that now derided artist. " He is," wrote Mr. Hind in 1910, " the biggest force in art. He's a giant." The Organising Committee reproduce this telling statement on the part of my first great master (o anima cortese mautovana) in order (there can be no doubt about it) to poke fun.
Certainly the Suffolk Street Exhibition of Ten Decades is, as Mr. Middleton remarked last week, stimulating, entertaining and salutary. Yet I wonder how many of those who sniff and giggle at the apparent errors of past art-experts derive from this exhibition and its vinegar catalogue the salutary message which, I feel sure, the organising committee wished above all to convey. I fear that for every hundred visitors who go to the Exhibition only some ten or twenty will descend the stairs chastened by the consciousness of the empiricism of human taste. The remain- ing ninety or eighty will derive from a comparison of the taste of 1851 with their own taste of 1951 sentiments of elation, merri- ment and self-esteem. How was it possible, they will ask them- selves, that our grandfathers, stupid though they were, can ever sincerely have liked those " idylls in oil," can seriously have admired Walter Crane's "A Herald of Spring" or Leighton's " Brunelleschi's Death"? How ridiculous of the Art Journal of 1856 to have asserted that W. S. Burton was " secure of fame hereafter " I- How could a man like W. E. Henley have pre- ferred " the pictorial expression of certain balanced and choice suggestions ' to what he called " the vulgarity of realisation-"? How could the aged Ruskin have failed in 1877 to recognise the significance of Whistler's Nocturne? Closely wedded to the amusement caused by the stupidity of our forebears is the delight occasioned by our ,own marvellous gifts of discrimination. Laughing happily each to each, the visitors pour out into the wet September pavements of Suffolk Street.
* *. * I did not do that_ I crept away sadly, conscious of the muta- bility of human fortune, of the relativity of taste, of some wastage even in human energy and endeavour. Modesty, as the organisers intended, is the lesson that this, I admit, most scintillating exhibition ought to inculcate, After all, the men who painted or criticised these pictures were men of serious pur- pose, great professional conscience and wide erudition. We do not today agree either with their productions or their judge- ments. But surely it is too -facile- and frivolous to attribute this -disagreement solely to their stupidity and falsity of sentiment? I have a question to put to the organisers. It is this: "Aunt Bessie, do you like picture-frames ? "