26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 26


Dulwich wakes up to salute the man who painted nothing happening


Iwas first introduced to Pieter de Hooch (pronounced Hock) at the age of 14 by my history teacher, a lovable little Jesuit called Father Rea, whom we all knew as Pussy. Whenever Pussy talked about Dutch 17th- century history, he sooner or later got back to de Hooch, and how his paintings were windows into the world of the past. He extolled the beauties of 'A Courtyard in Delft', in the National Gallery, to his mind one of the finest canvases ever painted. `Look how well he painted those bricks,' he would say. And indeed they are very con- vincing bricks. De Hooch painted old red bricks even better than Vermeer did. Nor is this surprising. His father was a bricklayer. I dare say young Pieter was drawing his father's bricks before he could read or write, or possibly even speak.

One of the keys to a love of art is not to underrate a well-painted brick. We live in an age when an 'artist' simply buys bricks and arranges them in an oblong which is hailed as a masterpiece by the Serota- Saatchi-Rosenthal cultural dictatorship. But in the good old days real artists painted them. My father taught me to draw bricks, or, rather, dark sandstone ashlar courses, when I was five, and I spent a lot of time painting bricks during the quarter-century when I owned a delectable early-18th-cen- tury house in Iver, Bucks. Painting a wall of bricks is a useful discipline in patience (a virtue in which I am defective), accuracy and skill, for each brick must be alike but unrepetitive, and the wall must look weath- ered and homogeneous while avoiding mechanical linearity and glare.

De Hooch could paint superbly a lot of other objects besides bricks: stone and mar- ble floors, for instance, dirty old wash- buckets, birdcages, dingy wall-maps, golf clubs, inkpots and tablecloths made of car- peting. He was one of the few artists who have been able to paint a convincing fire in a grate. He began humbly with inn scenes for the commercial market, especially that delight of the male chauvinist burghers, sol- diers from the Thirty Years War getting a young wench drunk. Then, like everyone else of his generation, he fell under the influence of the Caravaggists and discov- ered the endless pleasures of depicting light, especially when, following the exam- ple of Caravaggio's masterpiece, 'The Call- ing of St Matthew', it comes from unexpect- ed quarters and has disconcerting effects. From about 1650, light was the subject of all his paintings, whatever their nominal subjects or settings — exteriors, interiors, half of each: By avoiding harsh sunlight and working in subdued but penetrative daylight, de Hooch was able to achieve extraordinary subtleties, sometimes as good as Vermeer and once or twice even better. He exulted in the difficult feat of creating and distin- guishing between more than one light- system in a single painting. The characteris- tic de Hooch has three: one inside the room, which is the main subject, one in a corridor, and one outside. Sometimes there are four. That is how he achieves his mes- merising verisimilitude which fascinates ordinary members of the public and is the very reverse of photographic, for no cam- era, recording a split second of vision, can possibly capture the truth about the way light works on objects with this degree of complexity. Within the light-systems there are bravura details, like the way the window light falls obliquely on a painting of a bearded man in the work entitled 'Woman with Baby in her Lap and a Small Child', now owned by the Aurora Art Fund, or the virtuoso depiction of light on gilt leather which covers the wall in the New York Met's 'Party of Figures Round a Table'. Sometimes the light is brilliantly suggested by the way it picks out the smoke from a man's pipe, or bounces on to a lady's face off her starched white collar, or tells the sorry story of a neglected wall badly in need of new whitewash.

De Hooch thought about light so intensely that it eventually drove him mad, like the man who screams, 'The sun, the sun!' at the end of Ibsen's Ghosts. So he died in Bedlam. I am grateful to him because he gives me not only waves of sen- suous pleasure as I stroll among his can- vases but splendid ideas for my own paint- ings. He loved to plunge the principal fig- ures in a work in deep shadow, with the only real light coming from an insignificant doorway or window in the background cor- ner, often silhouetting a minor figure whose face is hidden. He says to the view- er, 'If you want to see what is really going on here, you will have to step into the pic- ture and do a bit of work for yourself.' He does not tell you anything directly, but there are clues, and you can make up the rest of the story — if, indeed, there is a story: de Hooch essentially depicts moments when nothing whatever is hap- pening, has happened for ages, or is likely to happen. His women, in particular, ooze contentment with a normality which others might find stupefying but which to them is all they want. No painter I know conveys so well the joy of non-events.

It is appropriate, then, that the first de Hooch exhibition ever held in England should be at Dulwich, a succulently old- fashioned place which also gives the impression that nothing ever ' happens there. Well, things did happen once. Alleyn set up the collegiate foundation in 1619, Desenfans collected the paintings in the permanent collection in the 1780s, and then made possible Britain's first public gallery, which Soane designed. But then it all qui- etened down, and when you emerge there today from the London traffic or the sta- tion, it is like stepping back two centuries into a village. The foundation has a tradi- tion of creative indolence, the museum sets its face against all the horrible innovations which engulf most collections now, and there is a comforting smell of dust. As a rule, nobody goes there, thank God, and those of us who relish somnolent institu- tions consider it a paradise.

However, the popularity of de Hooch is such that, last Saturday, under a moist September sun, the place was packed with nice, solid people who like proper art. A bewildered attendant, worried that the floor might collapse, was letting us in only ten at a time. There was a Victorian sort of marquee on the nearby lawn, and within this edifice tea was being brewed by ladies overwhelmed by the influx. The little Asian waiter told me that everything that was edi- ble had already been eaten, 'and soon we will be down just to coffee powder and tea. How were we to know that people would come? We have never seen a day's trading like it'. His baffled indignation stirred ancient memories. The tea had indeed a 1940s Naafi flavour, and I almost expected him to say, 'Don't you know there's a war on?' though he would, presumably, be referring to the third Indo-Pakistan con- flict, or possibly the Gulf war. Never mind. It was all lovely.