21 JUNE 1975, Page 14


Benny Green on a new edition of a triumphant trilogy

The perfect stranger, entering the national and municipal art galleries for the first time, comes across the Nineteenth Century Room with awe and incredulity. As far as he can make out, the island was inhabited exclusively by reincarnated ancient Greeks in Liberty prints acting out Homeric fantasies, suburban fruitcakes trying to pass themselves off as fugitives from Malory, provincial Dantes and Home Counties Beatrices propped up by furniture and wall paper that was usually much better painted than they were. As the stranger wanders through the vast chamber, his feet creating a catacoustic tattoo in the hollowness of the art about him, he is inexorably borne down by the impression that there must have descended on the England of the period an inpenetrable fog composed in equal parts of feeblemindedness, evangelical lunacy, ethical evasion and monetary greed, in which conclusion he would be quite right. And yet the fog surely couldn't have been all that impenetrable. The English excuse was that it

was necessary, amidst the ugliness and squalour of industrialised Victorian England, to paint something uplifting, or as Burne Jones crassly put it, "I mean by a picture a beautiful romantic dream". And a very commendable ambition it was too, as everyone will agree who has ever caught so much as a glimpse of Monet's Houses of Parliament or Pissarro's vision of Upper Norwood under snow. But the job was beyond the English, utterly, hopelessly. Not through a national purblindness, for after all, Pissarro and company knew all about Turner and Constable. Then why?

And why, moreover, did all the English creators of the period so fatuously misconceive their roles that each of them tries to pass himself off as one of the others, so that while the painters all tried to paint short stories, invariably of mind-boggling banality, the writers all tried to compose those nocturnes and elegies which the musicians were neglecting in their attempts to put the Old Testament to music? Wilde's remark about George Moore's latest novel, "I understand it has to be played on the piano", was no joke; nobody has ever discovered what Andrew Lang thought he was doing when he published Ballades in Blue China; and it was Shaw, naturally, who observed of Dr Parry's oratorio Job that it "placed him infinitely above the gentleman who set to music `The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo' ". Holman Hunt, mistaking his studio for the pulpit, kept on delivering painterly sermons of such surpassing idiocy that in the end nobody, not even Holman Hunt, would take them seriously. Mr Alma Tadema catered for the Victorian taste for respectable salaciousness by inhabiting a bogus Roman world whose female inhabitants apparently did nothing else but keep taking their clothes off and start washing themselves. Rossetti actually composed sonnets to attach to his paintings. Why?

The answer was provided some years ago, in three parts, by the art critic William Gaunt* and I have no hesitation in saying that over the years his three books have been the source of more pleasure and instruction to me than any other t‘m books on painting whose existence I know of. Gaunt's trilogy (the poetasters of the bad old days would no doubt have preferred to describe it as a triptych) runs from the caballistic cavortings of Rossetti and company, through the importation of naughty Parisian ideas into Britain, and then doubles back on itself to explain the ingenious pilfering of the Elgin Marbles, a combination of moral righteousness and patrician aggrandisement which led to Lord Leighton, Poynter, Watts and assorted philhellen eccentrics. The observant reader will already have noticed that in choosing his themes, Gaunt has courted the danger of wasting his literary sweetness on some pretty depressing artistic desert air, for in The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy; The Aesthetic Adventure; Victorian Olympus William Gaunt, (Jonathan Cape £3.50 each)

all his six hundred pages there is precious little incidence of genius. Rossetti's prim paramours display the glurh resolution of someone who has just carried out a successful title defence, Alma Tadema's dames continue to believe that cleanliness is next to godliness, and Millais drifts along his pre-ordained route from boy-wonder to boy-wonder, ending up as the most successful manufacture of grocery hoardings of all time. So need Gaunt have bothered?

Gaunt was right to bother because he hit on the truth that sometimes the most misguided artists are the most marvellous biographical sports, that there is such a thing as the artist who unwittingly reserves his genius for his life — echoes of Oscar again — and that, for instance, the Pre-Raphaelites, once you cleanse them of the fog of their own aesthetic speculations, are suddenly revealed as the most entertaining knockabout tragi-comedians who ever stormed the walls of Bohemia. Of course, in order to untangle the web of confusions and false trails, of misconceptions. and well-meant artistic outrages, of intrigues and jealousies, of logrollings and plagiarisms and feudings and fightings and philanderings, a critic would have to have a perfectly poised urbane sense of humour, a shrewd psychological insight, a feeling for quiddity of personality and a sure sense of period. In addition he ought to be able to write better than his subjects usually managed to paint. I will not argue Gaunt's case for him but let him argue his own instead. He is describing a night on the town enjoyed by Dante Gabriel, Swinburne and "the Munchausen of the Pre-Raphaelite circle", Charles Augustus Howell: One sees Swinburne subsiding in the midst of a wreck of glasses, repeatedly comparing himself with Shelley and Dante, asserting that he was a great man only because he had been properly flogged at Eton; that two glasses of green Chartreuse were a perfect antidote to one of yellow or two of yellow to one of green. One sees them venturing into the slum quarters which were then infernal in their wildness and riot. Or at Astley's theatre, applauding Adah Menken in the role of Mazeppa. Rossetti, is is said, urged Swinburne to make love to the celebrated equestrienne and poetess. When she began to talk of their commork interest, Swinburne said, 'Darling, a. woman who has such beautiful legs need not discuss poetry'.

Or this, which introduces to the seCond part of Gaunt's triology the enigmatic figure of Walter Pater:

Pater, walking one summer evening in Christ Church meadow with a friend, remarked to him, 'Certain flowers affect my imagination so that I cannot smell them with pleasure. The white jonquil, the gardenia, and the syringa actually give me pain. I am partial to. the meadowsweet but on an evening like this there is too much of it. It is the fault of nature in England that she runs too much to excess'. There are few who suffer to any extent from the smell of meadowsweet.

All three parts of Gaunt's trilogy have been available now for at least twenty years, so it needs to be said that the new editions seem to me far and away the most enlightening, if only bceause of the quality of the illustrations. My old Penguin of The Aesthetic Adventure and my Reprint Society edition of The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy (at that time still entitled The Pre-Raphaelite Dream) were limited to black and white, or at the very best, sepia. The new editions have full colour reproductions of great splendour, and they include reproductions excluded altogether from my earlier copies. For instance, The Aesthetic Adventure now not only incorporates exquisite colour plates of Sickert's The Old Bedford and Monet's Houses of Parliament, but also introduces me to a portrait whose existence I did not know of, by Frederick Sandys of the incorrigable Charles August Howell, resting his handsome head on his left hand, and staring vacantly down at the viewer's boot strings, perhaps weighing the possibilities of absconding with them, or perhaps merely showing the face of a mastertrickster wearied by his own intricate peculations.