Gainsborough: A Portrait by James Hamilton (2017)

Executive summary

Born in 1727, eighteenth century portrait and landscape artist Thomas Gainsborough was far less ambitious and canny than his main rival and the dominating artist of the day, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Early in his career Gainsborough was fairly happy churning out portraits of local worthies in his nearest large town, Ipswich until he was encouraged to go to Bath to seek a higher class of client. Unlike Reynolds (a lifelong bachelor) Gainsborough married young – aged just 19 – the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat who had settled a £200 annuity on her for life. The earnings from his portraits supplemented this basic family income.

  1. Suffolk (1727 – 1740) childhood in Sudbury
  2. London (1740 – 1748) apprenticeship, prints, acquaintance with Hogarth, marries Margaret Burr
  3. Suffolk again (1748 – 1758) first Sudbury, then the more profitable town of Ipswich
  4. Bath (1759 – 1773: 14 years, first in Abbey Street, from 1767 at 17 King’s Circus)
  5. London again (1774 – 1788)

In his letters we have Gainsborough’s own testimony that he didn’t really like painting portraits, and he actively disliked the ‘ugly’ aristocrats who were his clients. But he was good at it and by the 1760s found himself renting a big town house in Bath, with a coach and horses and servants to run, and paying for tutors for his two beautiful daughters. By 1769 he calculated his annual expenses at £1,000. He didn’t like his clients, he would have preferred to spend his life painting idyllic landscapes. But he was trapped.

By the 1760s Gainsborough was established as one of the best portrait artists of the day and so was invited to join the new Royal Academy of Art set up in 1768, but he repeatedly argued with the hanging committee about the placing of his works in the annual exhibitions, and in other ways kept his distance from the kind of elite London circles which his frenemy, Reynolds, moved in.

Handsome and attractive, Gainsborough had a reputation among his friends as a womaniser and party animal, which he acknowledged in his letters. His wife had to put up with a lot. But the real sadness of his biography is that, although he lavished love and attention on his two beautiful daughters things didn’t turn out as he hoped – one divorced within weeks of her wedding and the other suffering premature dementia.

Detailed review

Far less authoritative and comprehensive than Ian McIntyre’s life of Joshua Reynolds, for at least two reasons. The main one is Gainsborough’s life was far more fleeting and elusive. Reynolds led an active social life among leading figures of the day who all kept records of their dinners and conversations, dedicated their books to him, plus one of his pupils kept notes and wrote a detailed biography soon after his death, plus the minutes and accounts of the clubs and societies he was a member of, not least the Royal Academy of the Arts which he helped found and was the first president of. Reynolds kept a detailed appointments book which recorded all his sitters, the dates and times of their appointments. In other words the biographer if Reynolds has a mass of paperwork and evidence to work with.

Gainsborough is an altogether more fleeting character. He left relatively few letters (150 in all), no diary or journal or accounts book. He didn’t even own many books at his death. He didn’t cultivate the best circles or make sure he was mentioned in their books by the best writers. He painted the rich and famous but didn’t like them very much, unlike super-sociable Reynolds.

For the biographer who requires a constellation of dates to steer by, Gainsborough supplies thin pickings. (p.6)

Thomas Gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough was born in 1727 into a large extended family based in the Suffolk town of Sudbury. His father was a weaver with ambitions to be a businessman, which got him into financial trouble – he only escaped debtors’ prison because of a family whip-round. A benevolent uncle – also named Thomas – left some money to help young Tom to pursue ‘some light handy craft trade’, and the family decided to send him to London at the tender age of 13 in 1740,

Here he trained under engraver Hubert Gravelot, of Huguenot extraction. Hamilton goes into some detail about the expanding print market of the mid-eighteenth century and the dominating figure of William Hogarth, whose moralised pictures had created a sensation in the 1730s – A Harlot’s Progress (1732), A Midnight Modern Conversation (1733), A Rake’s Progress (1735), Four Times of Day (1738). Gainsborough probably came into contact with Hogarth, but mainly worked for an established painter named Francis Hayman, although details about the period are sketchy.

[During his early years in London] whoever it was that nurtured him, Hayman or Hogarth or Canaletto or Hudson or other painters such as Arthur Devis who took assistants and apprentices, they all gave him something of what follows. (p.59)

The second reason this is not such a compelling book as McIntyre’s is that Hamilton makes an editorial decision to roll with the relative lack of information about Gainsborough and to make his approach a bit more impressionistic. Thus the opening sentences don’t tell us much about Gainsborough, but tell us everything about Hamilton’s style:

Thomas Gainsborough lived as though electricity shot through his sinews and crackled at his finger tips. There is a fire in Gainsborough: it lights up his paintings…

He is going to embroider and speculate – based on facts for sure, but a fairly thin picking of facts meringued up with many a fluffy turn of phrase.

Landscape, however, hovered around him like an old flame (p.84)

Like a family of cats jumping off a ledge, the Gainsboroughs had landed on their feet (p.160)

Whole pages pass wherein we learn a lot about mid-century Sudbury or Ipswich or Bath, embroidered and elaborated from contemporary accounts by diarists and commentators – but where Gainsborough himself doesn’t make an appearance. Other pages pass in speculation and guesswork and Hamilton is fond of drawing comparisons between aspects of Gainsborough’s society and our own.

Just as a salesman or marketing person or builder must drive an expensive car in the twenty-first century to reassure the world that he or she is doing all right, so in the eighteenth century a portrait painter had to look neat, confident and successful to attract the custom he needed. Fine clothes were very expensive indeed, and much aspired to: flash car and flash waistcoat are probably equivalent as status signifiers, if not in monetary terms. (p.120)

Or he quotes a letter where Gainsborough brags about owning 5 viola da gambas, three Jayes and two Barak Normans:

Today, a star of the art world might tell a friend, My comfort is I have 5 Lamborghinis, 3 Ferraris and two Aston Martins’ Their value as status symbols is roughly similar. (p.262)

Hamilton’s relentless urge to give eighteenth century people and customs a 21st century comparison can get pretty annoying, and sometimes offensive. After half a page giving a reasonable enough analysis of Gainsborough’s great portrait of the young women musician Ann Ford, Hamilton concludes:

With Ann Ford, Gainsborough added extra titty to the fluctuating city. (p.188)

Key learnings

Jack the Lad The biggest surprise, which Hamilton announces early and then refers repeatedly is that Thomas Gainsborough was a bit of a lad, a roaring boy, one for wine and the ladies. Hamilton routinely refers to Gainsborough as a lad, to his laddish behaviour, and to his ‘mates’.

There are distinct Jack-the-Lad tendencies about Gainsborough the young man… The 19th century song about Jack-the-Lad ‘swigging, gigging, kissing, drinking, fighting’ had echoes in the young Gainsborough…(p.133)

The idea is that although Gainsborough mixed professionally with numerous aristocratic sitters – ‘the Quality’, in the contemporary term – his tastes remained those of a country boy who came to London in his teens and was introduced to a dizzying world of booze and broads (Hamilton has a section describing the delights of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens) and what letters we have contain rather oblique references to regretting being led astray, particularly on his visits to London.

This is a striking claim but I don’t think he actually backs it up with that much evidence, mostly hearsay collected after his death, for example Joseph Farington quoting the artist’s daughter as saying he ‘was passionately fond of music… and this led him much into company with musicians, with whom he often exceeded the bounds of temperance & his health suffered from it, being occasionally unable to work for a week after’ (quoted page 111). Fine, but she was a small girl at the time and this report comes from decades later. Reliable?

Hamilton asserts that one his visits to London from Bath he had ‘the casual sexual encounters that punctuated his life’ but immediately goes on to say:

How many or how regular these were is impossible to tell. (p.199)

Well, if it is ‘impossible’ to tell how many ‘casual sexual encounters’ Gainsborough had, how come Hamilton is confidently telling us that they ‘punctuated his life’? Throughout the book I had the uneasy feeling that Hamilton was bending or interpreting the evidence to suit his vision of a freewheeling Jack the Lad. The more he asserted it, the more reluctant I felt to acquiesce, the more doubtful I felt of Hamilton’s opinions.

Hamilton quotes the daughter of an Ipswich friend describing him as ‘very lively, gay and dissipated’ (p.118) which fits his Jack the Lad thesis, but then goes on to explain that ‘dissipated’ might have its 18th century meaning of ‘spendthrift, an simply indicated that he spent beyond his means in order to dress his wife and growing daughters appropriately.

In autumn 1763 Gainsborough was very ill, laid up for three months unable to work, and a Bath newspaper even reported that he had died! Hamilton interprets the handful of letters we have to mean the illness was associated with a sexually transmitted disease because Gainsborough describes feeling guilt and regret. But then, to my surprise, Hamilton concedes:

It may be the case that Gainsborough’s long near-fatal illness had nothing to do with his sex life… (p.200)

So Hamilton’s entire speculation about the illness being related to an STD is just that – speculation. This kind of building castles in the sky and then, reluctantly, admitting the castles may all speculation, slowly and steadily undermined my trust in Hamilton as a guide and interpreter to Gainsborough’s life.

Making it up It’s a feeling compounded by the amount of sheer invention which appears on every page.

Now, in his late thirties, he was active, busy, in demand. His sitters’ book in Bath, assuming he had one, would have bulged with the names of old clients, new clients, their friends and relations and their various requirements. (p.203)

‘Assuming he had one’. Hamilton did warn us in his introduction that he would be weaving a certain amount of fantasia around the very thin documentary evidence which survives, and I wouldn’t mind if I thought his spinning were justified, but… his relentless habit of inventing things and then commenting on them didn’t agree with me and I came to dislike reading this book.

Destroyed letters We learn that part of the reason that so few of Gainsborough’s letters survive is because a surprising number were in Hamilton’s view ‘filthy’ – presumably sexually explicit – and so Gainsborough’s executors destroyed them – for example, the cache of letters sent to his friend Samuel Kilderbee and destroyed by Samuel’s heirs because of their ‘obscenity’.

But if they have been destroyed… how can we know what they contained? The generations after Gainsborough’s were not only more puritanical about sex but about religion too, and about family values. I.e. there could be a number of grounds why the letters gave offence to later generations and it was considered best to destroy them.

Spirited What is believable – because we can read it in the letters and in many diary accounts and memoirs of the period – is that Gainsborough was very high spirited. Good-looking, cutting a graceful figure, lively and talkative, he said whatever was on his mind, a fountain of lively observations, so much so that surviving letters and memoirs agree that, next morning, on sober reflection, he often regretted things he said. But being over-talkative and shooting from the hip is very different from being sexually promiscuous.

This high-spiritedness is a quality Gainsborough readily admits in himself, indeed actively promotes in some of his letters, writing:

I am the most inconsistent, changeable being, so full of fitts and starts… (quoted p.257)

or describing himself as:

a Long cross made fellow [who] only flings his arms about like threshing-flails without half an Idea what he would be at. (p.258)

Joshua Reynolds Later memoirists, notably Ephraim Hardcastle, give colourful accounts comparing and contrasting Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. Hardcastle paints Reynolds in conversation as pursuing ‘a steady philosophic course’, while

the lively Gainsborough was a skipping and gambolling backwards and forwards from side to side… none for enthusiasm and vivacity could compare with he. (p.199)

Now this is the aspect of Gainsborough which is most consistently reported – his unbuttoned liveliness and spontaneity.

Margaret Aged 19, Thomas married a local woman Margaret Burr. She was the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who acknowledged her and had settled a £200 annuity on her. Thus Thomas was marrying into what counted, in Sudbury, for money. It was to be a difficult marriage. Both were faithful, there was no divorce, Thomas had no mistresses, but Margaret owned and managed her own money, and there is plenty of evidence that she took a strong-willed approach to Thomas’s income, too (from his own letters and the accounts of others). He sometimes felt too much under her thumb. It was an effective working relationship but he writes on a couple of occasions that he didn’t feel worthy of her and the cumulative sense is that it was not a very loving marriage.

A life in five acts The trajectory of his life is indicated by the five parts of Hamilton’s account:

  1. Suffolk (1727 – 1740) childhood in Sudbury
  2. London (1740 – 1748) apprenticeship, prints, acquaintance with Hogarth, marries Margaret Burr
  3. Suffolk again (1748 – 1758) first Sudbury, then the more profitable town of Ipswich
  4. Bath (1759 – 1773: 14 years, first in Abbey Street, from 1767 at 17 King’s Circus)
  5. London again (1774-1778)

Landscapes He knew he was better at landscape than at portraits, and enjoyed painting landscapes more, but portraits paid the bills (in fact, Hamilton tells us that during his time in Ipswich 1752 – 1759, Gainsborough painted so many landscapes that he ended up giving them away, p.108).

Gainsborough’s landscapes are indebted to the style of Dutch landscape painting crossed with his own immersion of the Suffolk countryside around Sudbury. His early landscapes are already a joy to look at. This one was painted when he was only 20 years old. Pretty impressive.

Cornard Wood by Thomas Gainsborough (1748)

Doll paintings Whereas most of his portraits before the 1750s are embarrassingly bad. They look like skinny children’s doll’s with empty dolls’ faces plonked in lovely landscapes. In fact, Hamilton explains that the bodies really were painted from so-called ‘lay dolls’, wooden mannekins with jointed bodies which could be arranged in  different postures. Later, from the 1760s, he pained bodies and clothes from life, but not from the actual sitters, from much cheaper models brought in and made to wear the sitters’ clothes (p.218).

Sarah Kirby and Joshua Kirby by Thomas Gainsborough (1751-1752)

Music Gainsborough was very musical, unlike Reynolds. He was proficient on the violin and a member of the Ipswich Music Club which held regular concerts. He was easily distracted by invitations to play music, and portrayed musicians, with their instruments e.g. Johann Christian Fischer, Carl Friedrich Abel, Ann Ford,

Hamilton quotes the letter to William Jackson, well-known to Gainsborough buffs, in which the artist declares he is sick of painting portraits and wishes he could go off somewhere quiet in the country, just him and his viola da gamba, and live a quiet life of music and paint Landskips (p.260). However, Hamilton marshals the evidence of friends that he wasn’t, actually, that good at music and also that he was very impulsive, taking up a string of different instruments each time he heard one being played, and never becoming proficient on any of them (p.266-270).

Style transformed Hamilton doesn’t really identify how and why Gainsbrough’s depiction of human figures and faces changed, but change it did, drastically, between the early 1750s (when, to be fair, he was still only 23, 24, 25) and the later 1750s. But it amounts to a revolution in style, which allowed him to create depictions of human faces and figures of transcendent grace and beauty, such as this, the famous unfinished portrait of his two young daughters, Mary and Margaret.

The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-1761)

Bath Bath was hectic with social life and also with artistic competition. Over the 18th century as a whole some 160 artists worked in Bath, the majority portrait miniaturists. The most successful, like Gainborough, provided life-size portraits in oil on canvas and had a permanent show room as well as a ‘painting room’ (the Italian word studio was only introduced in the 19th-century).

Until Gainsborough arrived the most successful portrait painter in Bath was William Hoare (1707 – 1792) who Gainsborough quickly eclipsed, though the two men became friends. A flick through his work shows that it is very capable at catching a likeness, but a bit dead and, above all, set inside.

People in landscapes A glance at one of the largest and most ambitious (double portraits) Gainsborough painted at Bath, The Byam Family (1764) instantly shows you how placing his sitters outside, in a kind of generic gentle south-of-England wooded countryside immediately transforms the subjects, giving them a lordly sense of style and movement as well as a sense of ownership of the land they walk through. And gives the viewer a similar sense of breadth and ease

Gainsborough’s painting method The younger painter Ozias Humphrey observed Gainsborough painting on numerous occasions and left detailed descriptions (pp.217-218).

  1. Surprisingly, Gainsborough painted by candlight in a room kept perpetually dark.
  2. He painted the sitter’s face in chalk and arranged the canvas so it was only inches from the sitter’s face.
  3. He was very restless, stepping back from the canvas to size it up, then quickly right back up to it to paint more, in an endless round of fidgety movement.
  4. All he needed was the face; the costume was painted afterwards, worn by a model (often his wife or one of his by-now grown-up daughters was dragooned in).
  5. He painted for 5 or 6 hours a day continuously, quite a physically demanding regimen (although this is from the account of the unreliable witness, Philip Thicknesse, quoted page 339).

Contempt for sitters Gainsborough was fairly open about not liking most of his sitters: he described portrait painting as ‘my dam’d business’ and a ‘curs’d face business’, of the clients as ‘damn gentlemen’ and ‘confounded ugly creatures’ (quoted page 275).

Royalty Ironically, for all his focused ambition, Joshua Reynolds had a troubled relationship with King George III (ascended the throne in 1760) not least because Reynolds associated with writers and politicians associated with the Whig i.e. anti-royal faction. Whereas Gainsborough who was far less professionally and socially ambitious than Reynolds, was asked to do portraits of the king and queen in 1780 and ended up getting on famously with both of them, invited back to do portraits of their large brood of children and individual portraits.

Models No, not that sort. Later in his career, Gainsborough enjoyed making models for landscapes which could fit on a table and were constructed from broccoli, moss and stones.

Prices At the height of his fame, in the 1780s, Gainsborough charged for a three-quarters portrait 40 guineas, for half-length 80 guineas, and for a full-length 160 guineas.

Religion Hamilton describes Gainsborough as ‘a devout Anglican’, though there are almost no references to him going to church and only the most generic religious references in his letters, which are strewn with swearing (lots of ‘Damns’). It was a religiously tolerant family. His older brother, Humphrey, was a non-conformist minister, and his sister Mary, was a Methodist.

Kew Gainsborough is buried, not back home in Suffolk, in fashionable Bath, or in mercantile London, but in the graveyard of St Anne’s Church, Kew. I used to go and sit by his tomb and eat my sandwich lunch, when I worked at Kew.

Concluding image

There are a lot of Society ladies and gentlemen to choose from, but I think one of Gainsborough’s greatest paintings is this portrait of his wife, Margaret, done in the late 1770s. It is an extremely subtle, sensitive, sensuous depiction of his spouse of 25 years, a brilliant portrait of any middle-aged woman, honest and frank and a universe away – not only in terms of art, but of experience – from the silly doll-figures of the 1740s. It is a triumph of technique but also of human wisdom.

Portrait of Mrs Gainsborough by Thomas Gainsborough (1778) @The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London


Related reviews

Blog posts about the 18th century

Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity (2005)

This is the catalogue of a major exhibition of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portraits held at Tate Britain back in 2005. I went, loved the exhibition and bought this catalogue. In my opinion the written content of the catalogue is poor, but the colour reproductions of 100 or so of Reynolds’s best paintings are spectacular.

The catalogue contains a biography of Reynolds by Martin Postle and four essays by Reynolds scholars:

  • ‘The Modern Apelles’: Joshua Reynolds and the Creation of Celebrity by Martin Postle
  • Reynolds, Celebrity and The Exhibition Space by Mark Hallett
  • ‘Figures of Fame’: Reynolds and the printed Image by Tim Clayton
  • ‘Paths of Glory’: Fame and the Public in Eighteenth-Century London by Stella Tillyard

The essays are followed by some 100 full-colour reproductions, divided into the following sections:

  • Reynolds and the Self-Portrait
  • Heroes
  • Aristocrats
  • The Temple of Fame
  • The Streatham Worthies
  • Painted Women
  • The Theatre of Life

With separate sections of images devoted to:

  • Reynolds and the Reproductive Print
  • Reynolds and the Sculpted Image

The concept of celebrity

As the title suggests, the idea is somehow to tie Reynolds’s 18th century art and career to 21st century ideas of ‘celebrity’. In my opinion all four essays fail to do this. Despite frequently using sentences with the word ‘celebrity’ in them, the catalogue nowhere really explains what ‘celebrity’ is.

The authors have a hard time really distinguishing it from the notion of ‘fame’ and the pursuit of ‘fame’ and the risks of ‘fame’ – subjects which have been thoroughly discussed since ancient Greek times.

In Greek mythology Pheme was the personification of fame and renown, her favour being notability, her wrath being scandalous rumors… She was described as ‘she who initiates and furthers communication’… A tremendous gossip, Pheme was said to have pried into the affairs of mortals and gods, then repeated what she learned, starting off at first with just a dull whisper, but repeating it louder each time, until everyone knew. In art, she was usually depicted with wings and a trumpet… In Roman mythology, Fama was described as having multiple tongues, eyes, ears and feathers by Virgil (in Aeneid IV line 180 ff.) and other authors.

In other words, the concept of ‘fame’ and the way it unavoidably attracts a spectrum of public comment, from dignified praise at one end through to scurrilous rumour at the other end – is as old as Western civilisation.

In my opinion the authors struggle to establish a really clear distinction between these multiple and time-honoured notions of fame with all its consequences, and their attempt to shoe-horn modern-day ‘celebrity’ into the picture.

The whole thing is obviously an attempt by Tate to make Reynolds and his paintings more ‘relevant’ to a ‘modern’ audience, maybe to attract in those elusive ‘younger’ visitors which all arts venues need to attract to sustain their grants. Or to open a new perspective from our time back to his, which makes his society, his aims and his paintings more understandable in terms of modern concepts.

I can see what they’re trying to do, and it is obvious that the four authors have been told to make as many snappy comparisons between the society of Reynolds’s day and our own times as possible – but flashy references to the eighteenth-century ‘media’ or to Reynolds’s sitters getting their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, aren’t enough, by themselves, to give any insight. In fact, these flashy comparisons tend to obscure the complexity of 18th century society by railroading complex facts and anecdotes into narrow 21st notions and catchphrases.

Being modish risks becoming dated

The authors’ comparisons have themselves become dated in at least two ways:

  1. the ‘modern’ celebrities they invoke have dated quickly (David Beckham is given as a current example)
  2. it was written in 2005, before the advent of social media, Instagram, twitter etc, so has itself become completely out of date about the workings of ‘modern celebrity’

There is a third aspect which is – Who would you trust to give you a better understanding of social media, contemporary fame, celebrity, influencers, tik tok and so on – a social media marketing manager, a celebrity journalist or… a starchy, middle-aged, white English academic?

There is a humorous aspect to listening to posh academics trying to get down wiv da kids, and elaborately explaining to their posh white readership how such things as ‘the media’ work, what ‘the glitterati’ are, and showing off their familiarity with ‘the media spotlight’ – things which, one suspects, library-bound academics are not, in fact, all that familiar with.

The authors’ definitions of celebrity

The authors attempt numerous definitions of celebrity:

Reynolds’s attitude towards fame, and how it was inextricably bound up with a concern for his public persona, or what we today would call his ‘celebrity‘ status.

So Reynolds was concerned about his fame, about building a professional reputation and then defending it, but wasn’t every other painter, craftsman and indeed notable figure of the time? As Postle concedes:

In this respect he was not untypical of a whole range of writers, actors and artists  who regarded fame as the standard for judging the worthiness of their own performance against the achievements of the past.

Postle goes on to try and distinguish fame from celebrity:

However, Reynolds [achieved fame] by using the mechanisms associated with what has become known as ‘celebrity‘, a hybrid of fame driven by commerce and the cult of personality.

Hmm. Is he saying no public figures prior to Joshua Reynolds cultivated a ‘cult of personality’ or that no public figures tried to cash in on their fame? Because that is clearly nonsense. And putting the word celebrity in scare quotes doesn’t help much:

Reynolds pandered to the Prince [of Wales]’s thirst for ‘celebrity‘ and fuelled his narcissistic fantasies.

The author doesn’t explain what he means by ‘celebrity’ in this context or why the prince thirsted for it and how he was different in this respect from any other 18th century aristocrat who ‘thirsted’ for fame and respect.

Through portraits such as these [of the Duc d’Orleans], Reynolds openly identified with fashionable Whig society; the Georgian ‘glitterati’ – liberal in the politics, liberated in their social attitudes, and libidinous in their sexual behaviour.

Does use of the word ‘glitterati’ add anything to our understanding?

He was also the first artist to pursue his career in the media spotlight.

‘Media spotlight’? Simply using modern clichés like ‘media spotlight’ and ‘celebrity’ and ‘glitterati’ didn’t seem to me to shed much light on anything. The reader wants to ask a) what do you understand by ‘media spotlight’? b) in what way did Reynolds pursue his career in a media spotlight?

As experience of the modern media tells us, a sure sign that an individual’s fame has been transmuted into ‘celebrity’ is when press interest in his or her professional achievements extends to their private and social life.

I’m struggling to think of a time when there hasn’t been intrusive interest in the lives of the rich and famous, and when it hasn’t been recorded in scurrilous satires, squibs, poems.

People gossiped about Julius Caesar, about all the Caesars. We have written records of the way Athenians gossiped about Socrates and his wife. Prurient interest in the personal lives of anyone notable in an urban environment go back as far as we have written records.

Here’s another definition:

In a process that seems to prefigure the ephemeral dynamics of heroism and redundancy found in today’s celebrity culture, the exploitation of celebrity typified by Reynolds’s representation of [the famous soldier, the Marquess of] Granby depended not only on the glorification, in portrait form, of individuals who had already gained a certain kind of renown within the wider realms of urban culture, but also on a continual replenishment – from one year to the next – of this hyperbolic imagery of bravery, beauty and fame.

I think he’s saying that visitors to the annual exhibitions liked to see new pictures – or, as he puts it with typical art scholar grandiosity, ‘a continual replenishment of this hyperbolic imagery’.

‘The ephemeral dynamics of heroism and redundancy found in today’s celebrity culture’? Does that tortuous definition have any relevance to Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Rihanna et al?

What these authors are all struggling to express is that Reynolds made a fabulously successful career by painting the well-known and eminent people of his day, making sure to paint army or naval heroes as soon as they returned from famous victories, making sure he painted portraits of the latest author after a hit novel or play, painting well-known courtesans, carefully associating his own name (or brand) with success and fame.

It was a dialectical process in which Reynolds’s portraits, often hung at the annual Royal Academy exhibition – which was itself the talk of the town while it lasted – promoted both the sitter and their fame, but also kept Sir Joshua’s name and reputation as Top Painter Of The Famous continually in the public eye.

That’s what the essay writers are trying to say. But you have to wade through a lot of academic rhetoric to get there. Take this questionable generalisation thrown out by Stella Tillyard, which sounds reasonable, until you start to think about it.

Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now, celebrity appears to have been made in the eighteenth century and in particular in eighteenth century London, with its dozens of newspapers and print shops, its crowds and coffee houses, theatres, exhibitions, spectacles, pleasure gardens and teeming pavements. (Stella Tillyard, p.61)

‘Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now’? What would you say defines modern society in 2020? I’d guess the list would include the internet, mobile phones, social media, webcams and digital technology generally, big cars, long-haul flights, cheap foreign holidays, mass immigration, multi-cultural societies, foreign food… things like that.

Quite obviously none of these originated in eighteenth century London.

Tillyard’s essay is the best of the four but it still contains highly questionable assertions. She thinks there is a basic ‘narrative’ of ‘celebrity’ which is one of rise, stardom, fall and rise again. The examples she gives are Bill Clinton getting into trouble because of Monica Lewinsky, and the footballers Francesco Totti and David Beckham. She thinks this basic narrative arc echoes the story of Jesus Christ, rising from obscurity, gaining fame, being executed, and rising from the dead. You have to wonder what drugs she is on.

Nonetheless, Tillyard’s is the best essay of the four because she’s an actual historian and so has a wide enough grasp of the facts to make some sensible points. She also gives the one and only good definition of celebrity in the book when she writes that:

Celebrity was born at the moment private life became a tradeable public commodity. (p.62)

Aha. Right at the end of the four essays we get the first solid, testable and genuinely insightful definition of celebrity.

According to Tillyard’s definition, the really new thing about celebrity is not the interest in gossip about the rich and famous – that, as pointed out, has been with us forever – it is that this kind of fame can be packaged into new formats and sold. It has become part of the newly mercantile society of the 18th century.

Celebrity, among other things, is about the commodification of fame, about the dissemination of images representing the individual celebrity, and about the collective conversations and fantasies generated by these processes. (p.37)

The assertion is that Reynolds was able to capitalise on his reputation. He made money out of it. He was able to exploit the new aspects of mid-18th century fame in order to build up a successful business and make a fortune.

He developed a process for making his portraits well known. The lead element in this was ensuring they were prominently hung at the annual exhibition of paintings by members of the new Royal Academy and so became the subject of the enormous amount of comment the exhibition attracted in the scores of newspapers, magazines, cartoons, lampoons, caricatures, poems and plays which infested Georgian London.

Deftly riding this tide of gossip and talk and critical comment, Reynolds was able to assure his sitters that he would make them famous – and he made himself famous in the process. And, as a result, he was able to charge a lot of money for his portraits.

He was able to turn the insubstantial, social quality of ‘fame’ into hard cash. That’s how the argument goes. I’ve put it far more plainly than any of these four writers do, and it’s an interesting point, but still begs a lot of questions…

Robert Orme’s 15 minutes of fame

When Postle says that the soldier Robert Orme got his ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ (p.27) it strikes me as being a flashy but misleading reference.

Andy Warhol’s expression, ‘in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes’, refers very specifically to the 15-minute time slots allocated on the kind of American TV programmes which are punctuated every 15 minutes or so with ad breaks. Its merit derives from its source in a very specific technology and at a very specific moment in that technology (the later 1960s).

Whereas Robert Orme took part in an important battle of the Seven Years War (surviving the massacre of General Edward Braddock’s forces by French and Indians in July 1755), returned to England and was for a while feted and invited to dinners to give first-hand accounts of the massacre.

OK, so interest in Orme petered out after a while, but his story hardly conforms to the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ description in the very precise, TV-age way Warhol had intended.

It’s an example of the way the authors are prepared to twist the historical record in order to shoehorn in their strained comparisons with modern ‘celebrity’ or the ‘glitterati’ or ‘the media spotlight’.

My point is that just chucking modern buzzwords at historical events doesn’t help us understand the historical events and doesn’t shed much light on the buzzwords or the ideas behind them, either. Not without a much more detailed analysis, anyway.

What was new about 18th century ‘media’

The one place in the four essays which comes alive i.e. presents new facts or insights, is in historian Stella Tillyard’s essay, where she explains that a new concept of ‘fame’ was being driven by some genuinely new developments in mass publication. She suggests four factors which account for the rise of a new type of fame in the mid-18th century:

1. A limited monarchy – the mystique surrounding the Divine Right of Kings which had clung to the Stuart Monarchy (1660-1714) drained away from the stolid Hanoverian monarchs who replaced them after 1714. Their powers were circumscribed from the start by Parliament and this made them much more human, much more worldly and, well, sometimes boring figures, for example. George III, widely known as Farmer George.

2. Royal glamour migrated – instead of surrounding the monarch in a nimbus of glory the human desire to have glamorous figures to look up to and gossip about migrated to new categories of ‘star’ or ‘celebrity’, namely top military figures, successful actors and even writers.

3. The lapse of the Licensing Act left the press a huge amount of freedom. By 1770 there were 60 newspapers printed in London every week, all looking for gossip and tittle tattle to market. Combined with a very weak libel law which allowed almost any rumour and speculation to be printed. Well before the tabloids were invented, the taste for an endless diet of celebrity tittle tattle was being catered to.

4. A public interested in new ways of thinking about themselves or others. This is the tricksiest notion, but Tillyard argues that this huge influx of new printed matter, combined with shops full of cheap prints, to make literate urban populations think about themselves and their roles as citizens of a busy city, and as consumers, in new ways.

Now all this chimes very well with the picture painted in Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds, which clearly shows how almost every incident, not only from his personal life but of the lives of all his famous friends (e.g. the writer Dr Johnson, the actor David Garrick, the historian Edmund Gibbon, the poet Oliver Goldsmith) was quickly leaked to scurrilous journalists, who reported them in their scandal sheets, or made cartoons or comic poems about them.

Reynolds’s world was infested with gossip and rumour.

By contrast with Tillyard’s authoritative historian’s-eye view, Postle’s art critic assertions are less precise and less persuasive:

Reynolds grew up in an age that witnessed the birth of modern journalism.

Did he, though? ‘Modern’ journalism?

Googling ‘birth of modern journalism’ you discover that ‘modern journalism’ began with a piece written by Defoe in 1703. Or was it during the American Civil War in the 1860s? Or maybe it was with Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, often referred to as the ‘father of modern journalism’?

In other words, the birth of ‘modern’ journalism happened more or less any time you want it to have done, any time you need to add this cliché into your essay to prop up your argument. And that little bit of googling suggests how risky it is making these kinds of sweeping assertions.

In fact it suggests that any generalisation which contains the word ‘modern’ is dodgy because the term ‘modern’ itself is so elastic as to be almost meaningless. Historians themselves date ‘the modern period’ to the 1500s. Do you think of the Elizabethan era as ‘modern’?

The modern era of history is usually defined as the time after the Middle Ages. This is divided into the early modern era and the late modern era. (Define modern era in history)

Postle’s assertion that there was something uniquely and newly journalistic about Reynolds’s era sounds fine until you think of earlier periods – take the turn-of-the 18th century and the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) which was packed with coffee house publications and scurrilous poems written against each other by leading figures. Alexander Pope’s entire career exemplifies a world of literary gossip and animosity.

Going further back, wasn’t the court of Charles II the subject of all kinds of cartoons, pictures, scurrilous paintings and poems and plays? Lots of John Dryden’s poems only make sense if you realise they’re about leading figures of the day, either praising or blaming them. During the British civil wars (1637-51) there was an explosion of pamphlets and leaflets and poems and manifestos denouncing the actions of more or less every notable figure, and giving a running commentary on the political developments of the day. Wasn’t Shakespeare’s time (1590 to 1615) one of rumour and gossip and pamphlet wars?

And in fact I’ve just come across the same idea, on page 4 of Peter H. Wilson’s vast history of the Thirty Years War, where he writes:

From the outset, the conflict attracted wide interest across Europe, accelerating the early seventeenth-century ‘media revolution’ that saw the birth of the modern newspaper.
(Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H. Wilson, page 4)

So surely the widespread availability of gossip sheets and scandal mongering publications was a matter of degree not kind. Artists of the late-17th century (van Dyck, Peter Lely, Godfrey Kneller) had earned types of ‘fame’ and certainly tried to capitalise on it. By Reynolds’s day there were just more outlets for it, more magazines, newspapers, journals – reflecting a steadily growing urban population and market for all things gossip-related. Between 1650 and 1750 the British population increased, the population of London increased, the number of literate people increased, and so the market for reading matter increased.

So when Postle asserts that newspapers played an increasingly important part in the critical reception of art, well, they played an increasingly important role in the critical reception of everything, such as war and politics and religion, such as the Seven Years War, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and every other kind of debate and issue.

1. That is what newspapers do – tell people what’s going on and editorialise about it – and 2. there were more and more of them, because the population was growing, and the number of literate consumers was steadily growing with it.

Reynolds didn’t invent any of this. He just took advantage of it very effectively.

Reynolds’s strategies for success

  • Reynolds was apprenticed to a fellow Devonian, Thomas Hudson, who not only taught him how to paint portraits but introduced him to important patrons
  • Hudson introduced Reynolds to leading gentlemen’s clubs of the time (the 1740s)
  • Reynolds took care to keep a large table i.e. to invite notable people to dinner, specially if they had had a recent ‘hit’ with a novel or play or work of art
  • Reynolds took dancing lessons, attended balls and masquerades, cultivated a man about town persona
  • as Reynolds became well known he was invited to join top clubs and societies e.g. the Royal Society and the Society of Dilettanti
  • he helped to found the blandly named The Club, with a small number of very eminent figures in literature, theatre and politics, including Garrick, Goldsmith, Johnson and Edmund Burke, later to include Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan
  • in the 1770s Reynolds painted portraits of the friends to be met at the Streatham house of his friend Mrs Hester Thrale (who became nicknamed ‘the Streatham Worthies‘)
  • during the 1770s and 80s there was a growth in a new genre, ‘intimate biographies’ told by authors who knew the subjects well, such as Johnsons Lives of the Poets (1781) and Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson (1785) – the intimate portraits of the Streatham Worthies tied into this taste, in fact Boswell considered writing an intimate biography of Reynolds
  • the point of having a cohort of friends like this was that they provided a mutual admiration and mutual support society, promoting each others’ work – for example, Oliver Goldsmith dedicated his famous poem, The Deserted Village to Reynolds, James Boswell’s vast ‘intimate biography’ The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) was dedicated to Reynolds, as was Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777)
  • in former times, getting an appointment to work for the king had been crucial to artists’ careers – by Reynolds’s day, however, it was no longer vital because 1. the monarch no longer had the absolute powers of the Stuarts – the Hanoverian kings’ powers and patronage were much more limited and often determined by Parliament 2. there was a well enough developed domestic market for art for a painter to make a career and livelihood without explicit royal patronage
  • Reynolds very consciously bought a large house in fashionable Leicester Fields; the Prince of Wales owned a big house in the same square
  • Reynolds bought an expensive coach that had formerly belonged to the Lord Mayor of London, renovated it and encouraged his sister Fanny to drive round in it in order to prompt gossip and awe

But was Reynolds unique?

As mentioned above, the four essayists have clearly received a brief to make Reynolds sound as modern and edgy and contemporary and down with the kids as possible.

But the tendency of the essays is also to try and make Reynolds sound unique – in his painterly ambition, in the way he used connections and pulled strings to paint famous sitters, promoted himself socially (by being a member of many clubs and inviting all the famous men and women of the time to large dinners), promoted his work through public exhibitions, tried to wangle key painting positions to the royal family, and by having prints made of his portraits which could be sold on to a wider audience.

The trouble is that – having just read Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds which presents an encyclopedic overview of his times, its clubs, newspapers, magazines, his colleagues and rivals, of the mechanisms of a career in art and an in-depth overview of all Georgian society – I realise these were the standard procedures of the day.

For example, the authors point out that Reynolds was keen to paint portraits of famous people to boost his career – but what portrait painter of the day wasn’t? Allan Ramsay and Thomas Gainsborough, to name just two contemporary painters, lobbied hard to win aristocratic patrons, to promote their portraits to other potential clients, to expand their client base, and so on. It was a highly competitive and commercial world.

The catalogue contains sections on the portraits of aristocratic ladies, military heroes and courtesans as if Reynolds had invented the idea of painting these kinds of figures – but paintings of aristocrats go back at least as far as the Renaissance, and statues of emperors, notable figures and military leaders go back through the ancient Romans to the Greeks.

There’s a section devoted to showing how Reynolds used prints extensively to promote his career, not only here but abroad, where British art prints commanded good prices. (One of the few new things I learned from the essays was that British mezzotinting was so highly regarded as to become known as la maniere anglaise, p.51)

But all his rivals and colleagues did just the same, too – otherwise there wouldn’t have been a thriving community of printmakers and of printbuyers.

And the authors strain to prove that the kind of high-profile aristocrats, military leaders, and top artists-writers-actors of the day that Reynolds portrayed were often discussed, profiled, ridiculed and lampooned in London’s countless scurrilous newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, poems, broadsides, gossip columns and so on.

But this was just as true of all the notable figures that all the other portrait painters of his day painted. It was an extremely gossipy society.

In other words, none of the activities the authors attribute to Reynolds was unique to him – they were being energetically carried out by scores of rivals and colleagues in the swarming ant hill of rivalry and competition that was Georgian London. What is interesting, is the extent to which Reynolds did all these things best (when he did), or where he failed, or where he pioneered a new aspect of this or that activity.

Unfortunately, the four authors don’t really have much space to make their cases. The four essays are relatively short. They have nowhere like the 550 closely-typed pages that Ian McIntyre has in his masterful biography of Reynolds. Therefore, to anyone who’s read McIntyre, the four essays come over as fleeting and superficial sketches of subjects and issues which deserve to be dealt with in much, much greater detail if you want to understand why Reynolds was the towering figure that he was.

It wasn’t that he did all these activities listed above – it’s that he did many of them better, more comprehensively, and more systematically than his rivals.

And also that he just worked harder at it. He was extremely disciplined and professional, working a solid 6 or 7 hour days, every day, often on Sundays. He produced, on average, well over one hundred commissions a year, an extraordinary workrate. This isn’t mentioned anywhere in the essays, but it is a key reason for his success.

Or the even more obvious fact that a his success was down to the fact that he was, quite simply, the best portrait painter of his time. He may well have adopted the canny career strategies listed above, but they’d have been meaningless if he hadn’t also been a painter of genius.


Art scholarship prose style

This section contains no facts and is devoted to an analysis and skewering of pretentious artspeak. Art scholar prose is very identifiable. It has at least three elements:

  1. use of fashionable, pretentious buzzwords such as subvert, interrogate, engage, gendered, identity, desire, site, gaze, other
  2. combined with a curiously starchy, old-fashioned locutions such as whilst, amongst
  3. thin actual content

1. Buzzwords

In terms of his desire to associate himself with the celebrity of others, the most compelling paintings by Reynolds are surely his portraits of prostitutes… (p.29)

‘Wish’ wouldn’t be a better word?

When the ancient philosopher, Socrates, visited the artist’s house with friends, the courtesan was to be found under the gaze of the painter (p.29)

The word ‘gaze’ now has the adjective ‘male’ attached to it in all contexts, and is always a bad thing.

[At the new public exhibitions of the 1760s] the visitor’s encounter with the painted images of celebrities was crucially informed by those other burgeoning cultural sites of the period, the newspaper and the periodical. (p.35)

Do you think of a newspaper or magazine you read as a cultural site? Alliteration is always good, makes your ideas sound grander and more important.

In arranging that his pictures of such women [the royal bridesmaids at the wedding of George III and Queen Charlotte]… Reynolds… was contributing to, and trading upon, a burgeoning cult of aristocratic celebrity within the sites and spaces of urban culture. (p.39)

Tillyard in particular likes the word and idea of the ‘site’:

In response to the overwhelming attention of the London public [Jean-Jacques Rousseau] took himself off to the wilds of Derbyshire and began to write his Confessions, in which he demanded the right to be heard on his own terms rather than to become the site for others’ imaginings. (p.66)

Omai [a South Sea islander Reynolds painted] is both sophisticate and innocent, celebrity and savage, an eloquent but mute subject whose lack of the English language and inability to write allowed his audience and the picture’s viewers to make him a site for their own imaginings. (p.69)

It is surprising that Omai isn’t taken as an example of The Other, an almost meaningless word commonly used to describe anyone who isn’t a privileged white male.

The press functioned as one vital counterpart to the exhibition space in terms of what was emerging as a recognisably modern economy of celebrity… (p.37)

The ‘modern economy of celebrity’ sounds impressive but what does it mean, what is an ‘economy of celebrity’ (and remember the warning about using the word ‘modern’ which is generally an empty adjective used solely for its sound, to make the text sound grand and knowledgeable).

Reynolds painted a number of portraits of aristocratic patrons such as Maria, Countess Waldegrave and Elizabeth Keppel. This allows art scholar Mark Hallett to write:

In being invited to track the shifting imagery of such women as Keppel, Bunbury and Waldegrave, attentive visitors to the London exhibition rooms thus became witness to an extended process of pictorial and narrative transformation, choreographed by Reynolds himself, in which his sitters became part of a gendered, role-playing theatre of aristocratic celebrity that was acted out on an annual basis in the public spaces of the exhibition room. (p.39)

If you read and reread it, I think you realise that this long pretentious sentence doesn’t actually tell you anything. It is prose poetry in the tradition of the mellifluous aesthete, Walter Pater, just using a different jargon.

‘Narrative’, ‘gendered’, ‘theatre’, ‘spaces’ are all modish critical buzzwords. What does ‘gendered’ even mean? That some portraits were of women and some of men? Hmm. And a gallery isn’t really a theatre, no matter how hard art scholars wish their working environment was more jazzy and exciting. It’s a gallery. It consists of pictures hung on a wall. Therefore to say a gallery is a ‘role-playing theatre’ is simply a literary analogy, it is a type of literary artifice which makes absolutely no factual addition to our knowledge.

Translated, that sentence means that regular visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition often saw portraits of the same famous sitters and so could judge different artists’ treatment of them, or gossip about how their appearance changed from year to year. That’s what ‘pictorial and narrative transformation’ means.

The artist’s portrait of Granby can now be understood as just one element within an unfolding iconography of military celebrity that was being articulated by the artist in the exhibition space during the 1760s.

Translated, this means that Reynolds painted many portraits of successful military heroes. As did lots and lots of other portrait painters of the time. But it sounds more impressive the way Hallett expresses it using key buzzwords.

We can even suggest that such details as the Duchess [of Devonshire]’s ‘antique’ dress and rural surroundings… transform her into a figure of pastoral fantasy, a delicately classicised icon of aristocratic otherness… (p.43)

Ah, ‘the Other’ and ‘otherness’, it was the last empty space on my bullshit bingo card. What does ‘otherness’ mean here? That aristocrats aren’t like you and me? That, dressed up in fake Greek robes, leaning against a classical pillar in a broad landscape, they seem like visions from another world? Better to say ‘otherness’. Makes it sound as if you understand complex and only-hinted-at deeply intellectual ideas (taken, in fact, from Jacques Lacan and other French theorists).

2. Starchy prose style

It’s peculiar the way art scholars combine these flashy buzzwords from Critical Theory (interrogate, subvert, gender, identity, The Other) with creaky old phrases which sound as if they’ve come from the mouth of a dowager duchess.

It’s as if Lady Bracknell had read a dummy’s guide to Critical Theory and was trying to incorporate the latest buzzwords into her plummy, old-fashioned idiolect. For example, art scholars always prefer ‘within’ to ‘in’, ‘amongst’ to among, and ‘whilst’ to while – versions of common English words which help them sound grander.

Some contemporary critics thought Reynolds’s experiments with oil and painting techniques meant his works would eventually decay and disintegrate. Mark Hallett says:

The fact that an exhibition including paintings such as these is now taking place, more than two hundred years after Reynolds’s death, helps put paid to such aspersions.

‘Helps put paid to such aspersions’? Isn’t that the voice of Lady Bracknell? ‘I should certainly hope, Mr Moncrieff, that in future you shall keep your aspersions and animadversions to yourself.’

3. Thin content

See above where I’ve highlighted the relative lack of new or interesting insights in the four critical essays, which can’t be concealed by tarting them up with references to the eighteenth century ‘glitterati’ or Andy Warhol.

Sometimes the essays descend to the bathetic. When we read that scholar Richard Wendorf has written a paper in which he observes that

Reynolds was adept at cultivating patrons through observing the rules of polite society

we are straying close to the University of the Bleeding Obvious.

When we learn that Reynolds sometimes flouted these rules in order to create a Bohemian effect, in order to copy the more raffish end of the aristocratic spectrum of behaviour, it feels like a variation on the obvious, and hardly something which required an entire essay to ‘explain’.


Conclusion

Having read the four essays twice, what you take away is that Reynolds specialised in painting portraits of famous people, this ensured the portraits were much talked about, written about and commented on by the larger-than-ever number of daily newspapers and magazines, and encouraged other famous people to commission their portraits from him, all of which boosted his professional career.

And that he was canny in using the means available to him – aristocratic patrons, choosing famous people to paint – famous soldiers, sailors, aristocrats, courtesans, writers and fellow artists – socialising and hosting grand dinners, joining top clubs, getting supporters to talk him up in the press, and encouraging the distribution of prints of his work – to build a successful and profitable career.

All of these were strategies adopted by most of his contemporaries were doing. He just did it better.

I’m confident making a statement like that because I’ve just read Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds which places the great man in the incredibly busy, buzzing, competitive, dog-eat-dog environment of Georgian London, and  gives extended portraits of scores and scores of his peers, rivals, colleagues and competitors.

It shows how British society changed during Reynolds’s long career, from his earliest paintings in the 1740s to his last ones in 1790. He changed, art changed, society changed.

None of the essays in this catalogue have much space to play with and so these art scholars play very fast and loose with the historical record, yanking together quotes and events which were actually far separated in time, in order to impose on the people and culture of a very different society the modish contemporary art scholar concerns of ‘gender’, ‘identity’ and ‘celebrity’.

The point being: these essays are actually quite an unreliable introduction to the life and career of Joshua Reynolds, written at the behest of a gallery with an agenda and a marketing plan. By all means buy or borrow this book for its wonderful reproductions of the paintings. But read the McIntyre biography to understand the man and his times.

Unanswered questions

Having read both MacIntyre’s book and this catalogue, I still have a couple of unanswered questions:

1. They both tell me that History Painting was meant to be the highest and most prestigious genre of the day. In which case, how come the greatest painter of the age, Reynolds, didn’t paint any history paintings, and neither did his closest rivals, Allan Ramsay or Thomas Gainsborough?

2. Why are there so many black servants in 18th century portraits?


Related links

Blog posts about the 18th century

Slowness by Milan Kundera (1995)

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. (p.34)

The novel open with the narrator driving down a French highway to a weekend away with his wife in a chateau-turned-hotel. He reflects on the meaning of these little oases of green in a sea of concrete, but another car is breathing down his neck which leads him to reflect on the cult of Speed in modern society (‘speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man’)

This leads him to lament the extinction of walking (‘Ah, where have they gone the amblers of yesteryear?’), which makes him remember another journey out of Paris, that of Madame de T. and the young Chevalier in a favourite novel of Kundera’s, Point de Lendemain (‘No Tomorrow’), by Vivant Denon, published in 1777.

Ah, it is an exquisite work, mon cher, in which the young gentleman is hoodwinked into acting as a front for Madame de T’s real lover, the Marquis. And the plot of No Tomorrow brings to the narrator’s mind that other great masterpiece, Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, which he adores not because of its amorality, but because it is such a forensic and acute analysis of the powerplays of love, and for the fact it is an epistolary novel, i.e. told via letters. This format highlights the way its characters act the way they do partly so they can tell others about it.

Thus the first eight pages of Slowness, the first novel Kundera wrote entirely in French and in his adopted country, France. Some obvious points emerge. It is split between 1. the ‘present’, where the narrator is on holiday with his wife, scattering thoughts about the crappiness of modern life, and 2. references to literary works of the 18th century, allowing him to scatter thoughts and ideas about the novel and that era.

That’s the basic ‘structure’ of the text, but as you can tell, the actual experience of reading the book is to be subjected to an almost stream-of-consciousness series of brief meditations about speed – car crashes on the French roads – the precise definition of Hedonism – the 18th century novel – the epistolary novel, and so on and so on.

The hotel is nice but where there was once a pretty rose garden, the management have put in a swanky swimming pool. Alas.

They go for a walk through the grounds but are surprised to come across a new road cutting through them with roaring traffic, Alas.

Dinner is ruined by badly behaved children at the next table playing up (standing on their chairs and singing) while their parents beam on proudly. Alas.

Turning on the TV as they retire to bed, they come across ads with loads of starving black children because of some famine and reflect, acidly, that obviously no old people are dying in the famine, only children. Or could it be that the mass media only present images of children in order to jerk our heart-strings? Alas.

This reminds him of two French celebrities, Duberques of the National Assembly, and Berck the intellectual, who are always trying to outdo each other in front of the cameras to display their compassion – Duberques holding a dinner for HIV+ people and rising to kiss them as the cameras zoomed in, while, not to be outdone, Berck flew off to some famine-ridden country in Africa and got himself photographed surrounded by starving black children. Sick children trump sick old people, Rule Number One of the media age. Alas, thinks the narrator.

It makes him think of his acquaintance Pontevin, a history PhD (who is a pompous ass by the sound of it) and likes developing elaborate and stupid theories for the benefit of his hushed coterie of friends at the Café Gascon, in this case the ‘theory’ that those exhibitionists who like performing for the media are like dancers. That’s the theory. Either as satire or reportage this character fails, because he comes over as a shallow smartarse.

Kundera cuts to a précis of Point de Lendemain, namely the highly contrived lovemaking of Madame de T. who seduces the Chevalier in a whole succession of locations, the garden, the pavilion, a room inside the chateau, her secret room of mirrors, and then, finally, in a dark room full of cushions. It is slow and staged and artful. For, as he has said:

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

The 18th century author Denon was never identified during his lifetime, and was probably quite content to win the approbation of a small group of intimate friends. Alas how very different from our modern world besieged by fame, where everybody is either over-famous appearing on TV, in magazines and newspapers, or dreams of becoming famous.

Berck is seen on TV shooing flies away from a dying girl’s eyes by an old flame of his at school, who he nicknamed Immaculata. Now she stalks him with a series of letters, and worthy causes, until he is horrified to discover that she is a TV producer and is planning to make a documentary about him.

This reminds the narrator of a book his friend Goujard showed him by a woman journalist who undertook a photobiography of Henry Kissinger, convinced all the time that she was fated to have a love affair with the great man who twigged to her intention and began systematically putting her off, which only made the flames of her passion rise higher.

This woman journalist believes she is one of the ‘elect’, which leads the narrator to a rambling meditation on the nature of the elect in a secular society, to the rise of celebrity and fame, and how everyone dreams of it to lift their lives above the everyday.

Berck has gone to an international conference on entomology where we are told at length the story of a Czech expert on flies who was kicked out of his scientific job by the repressive regime installed in Prague after the Russian tanks rolled in in 1968, and has spent 20 years as a construction worker. Having read Kundera’s essays on the novel I suspect this character derives from the concept of ‘melancholy pride’, which is repeated about him. He is melancholically proud that the woman ticking off names at the entrance to the conference has no idea about the Czech circumflex, the caron which, when placed over a ‘c’ turns it into a tch sound. And melancholically proud that the woman has never heard of Jan Hus, the great Czech religious reformer.

And when he is called to the stage to present his modest scientific paper he is so overcome with emotion that instead he speaks about how he was kicked out of the Czech academy of sciences and forced to work as a labourer, and he starts weeping and the audience applauds wildly. And so he walks back to his seat on the stage having completely forgotten to deliver his paper.

Pontevin’s sidekick tries to repeat a funny story Pontevin told his gang, starting with the statement that his girlfriend wants him to treat her ‘rough’, which, for some reason, made everyone who heard Pontevin say it burst into laughter. Why is it funny?

Berck sidles up to the Czech scientist and, in a sequence which is clearly meant to be very funny, sets off to patronisingly thank him for his speech and being so brave for standing up to the authorities – but makes howling errors, including saying the capital of Czechoslovakia is Budapest and thinking the Czechs’ great poet was Adam Mickiewicz (who was, in fact Polish). Symbolic of the patronising superficiality of ‘the Western intellectual’.

He’s half way through doing this when Immaculata arrives with a cameraman, to capture him for her documentary (having made a number of documentaries, I was struck how utterly unlike documentary TV-making this random attack actually was). Immaculata and the cameraman capture Berck in full flood, and the bar-full of entomologists applaud his speech. This gives him the confidence to take Immaculata to one side and tell her to fuck off, the evil old bag of piss.

From a distance Pontevin’s jealous sidekick Vincent watches all this and launches into a loud speech mocking Berck and his addiction to the TV camera, fame, repeating Pontevin’s idea about extrovert performers for the media being like ‘dancers’. At the end of which a self-possessed young man rounds on Vincent for being a Luddite and reactionary and suggesting he goes back to the 12th century where he belongs.

Is this all meant to be funny? A farce? Vincent had begun chatting up a girl, a secretary at the conference miffed because everyone’s ignored her. Now he returns from the bar with some whiskeys, chats her up, takes her back into the bar to buy some more, swigs them down and takes her for a walk in the moonlight, stopping for more kisses and then deciding to tell her about the Marquis de Sade and his classic, Philosophy in the Boudoir.

The narrator looks out the window of his bedroom in the chateau. He sees a couple strolling in the moonlight. They remind him of the lovers in that book, Point de lemdemain. He is knocked out of his reverie by his wife, Véra, waking from a nightmare. In it a madman was rushing down the corridor towards her yelling, ‘Adam Mickiewicz was not Czech! Adam Mickiewicz was not Czech!’

The comic ‘novel’ Kundera is writing is infecting his wife’s dreams. (It’s worth pausing a moment to acknowledge how important dreams are in Kundera’s fiction.)

The Czech scientist is in his room, feeling humiliated by the laughter against him in the bar, but reflects that one benefit of working on a building site all that time was his excellent physique. He decides to go for a midnight swim in the hotel pool and put these pissy French scientists to shame.

On his walk with her round the chateau grounds Vincent has had a sudden pornographic vision of timid Julie’s anus. He is bewitched. He is transfixed. Characteristically, this allows Kundera to digress about the poem about the nine orifices of woman written by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire in the trenches during the Great War. In fact, Apollinaire sent two versions, one to one lover, another, rewritten four months later, to another. Kundera makes much of the fact that in the first one the vulva is the ninth and peak of the poem, but in the second one, after four months of meditating in the trenches, Apollinaire has decided the anus is the darkest and most profound erotic site of all.

Vincent, drunk on his vision of Julie’s anus, apostrophises the full moon as the anus of the sky etc, while drunk Julie hangs on his every word and decides to ‘give herself’ to Vincent. Thinking it will be too easy just to go to their room, he decides they will go down to the hotel pool for a skinny dip.

Berck whispered his insults to Immaculata that no-one heard them but her and she staggers up to her bedroom. In comes the cameraman who is – inevitably for KunderaWorld – also her lover, asks her what is wrong and changes into his pyjamas ready to go to bed with her, but she is seething, furious, and takes it out on him, declaring their affair is over, and dresses in a virginal white dress to go back down into the hotel and brave the scorn of the world.

Initially the cameraman stands in her way getting more and more angry, pointing out that they fucked only this morning, and they fucked last night, in fact she begged him to Fuck me Fuck me Fuck me (I am using the words Kundera uses: this is – I think – the first book of his which uses lots of demotic swearwords).

At which point Immaculata becomes incandescent and tells him the cameraman is a useless shit and his breath smells, and she storms past him, leaving him, after a few moments of stunned immobility, to follow after her, still dressed in his pyjamas, like a dog with its tail between his legs.

Vincent has stripped off under the high glass dome of the hotel swimming pool. Being naked intoxicates him and he dives in. Thus he misses shy Julie slipping out of her dress and very tentatively descending the steps into the cold water till it is touching her ‘pubic thatch’ (p.99). She looks exquisite, and with only the all-seeing eye of the narrator to appreciate her naked womanly charms.

Nudity! The thought sets Kundera off on a typical digression wherein he remembers an opinion poll from an October 1993 edition of Nouvel Observateur which asked 1,200 eminent left-wing people to underline key words from a choice of 210 words. In a poll ten years earlier, 18 words had been selected by all of them, representing common ground. In 1993? Just three – revolt, red and nudity. Revolt because of its long association with the existentialism of Camus and Sartre, red for obvious reasons, but nudity? Kundera speculates on the role of nudity in ‘radical’ protest, remembering various groups who’ve stripped off to make a ‘political’ point and what nudity means, in that kind of context.

Drunk Vincent wildly declares he’s going to fuck Julie. He says he’s going to pin her body to the wall. He says he’s going to rip her ass hole wide with his mighty cock. He chases her round the pool, then flings her to the floor and she spreads her legs ready for the deflowering she is so anticipating. Except that:

The penetration did not take place. It did not take place because Vincent’s member is as small as a wilted wild strawberry, as a great-grandmother’s thimble. (p.102)

Now that, I admit, did make me laugh out loud. Not only the unexpected reversal but the vividness of the similes. On the whole Kundera’s writing is dry and factual and grey. There is little colour and little or no imaginative use of language. This little flurry of similes stood out like an oasis of colour in the desert of his over-cerebral prose.

Kundera goes on to give Vincent’s penis a speech in which it justifies its small appearance, reminding me of other comic novels.

Anyway, in a surreal moment of agreement Vincent decides to ‘dry hump’ Julie simply by moving his hips up and down, and Julie silently agrees to play along, making increasingly loud moaning noises.

Onto this odd scene comes the melancholy Czech entomologist who’s come for his swim and determines to go ahead while quietly ignoring the couple dry humping on the poolside.

He’s in the middle of doing some warm-up calisthenics when a woman in an elaborate white dress arrives, and jumps into the pool, obviously intending to kill herself. Unfortunately it is the shallow end and the water only comes up to her waist, so she slowly (held back by the dress) walks into the deeper end, periodically ducking down under the surface in a feeble effort to drown, but always reappearing.

The melancholy Czech dives into the water to rescue her. But the cameraman in pyjamas screams at him to take his hands off her, and jumps in as well. They fight, both in their frenzy forgetting the woman in white, who comes to her senses, climbs out of the pool and waits for the cameraman to join her.

The cameraman punches the Czech who is enraged because it seems to have loosened a front tooth which he had very expensively screwed into place by a Prague dentist.

Suddenly, all the anger and frustration of twenty years or more rise up in the Czech, and he whacks the cameraman so hard he at first thinks he’s killed him, the man disappearing under the waves in the little hotel swimming pool. But when he lifts him back up, the cameraman comes to, shakes himself loose, and also exits the pool.

He climbs out and catches up with the woman in white, who is stalking rather grandly through the now-empty hotel corridors – and Kundera explains how they will be condemned to relive this moment for the rest of their lives, she demanding he leave, he begging forgiveness, she execrating him, he getting angry and smashing stuff, then falling at her knees and begging forgiveness. And then both falling into bed for joyless sex. Again and again forever.

In a passage like this you can see the Jean-Paul Sartre of Huis Clos, the Sartre for whom hell is other people, peeking through the text, underpinning a lot of Kundera’s worldview.

Meanwhile, at the first approach of the other guests, Julie had wriggled out from beneath Vincent, slipped on her panties, grabbed her other clothes and scarpered. Vincent is slower to get dressed and by the time he follows her into the hotel she is nowhere to be found. Feeling tragic he pads damply back to his bedroom where is now – now! – assaulted by an enormous inappropriate erection. For no very good reason the narrator says it is standing up against a hostile universe like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

For the second time, the narrator’s wife, Véra, awakes from her sleep insisting she is deafened by a full-volume rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and asking him to turn it down. But there is no sound. Once again the fictions of author are invading her sleeping mind. She declares they must leave this haunted chateau.

It is early morning and he is thinking about the last scene of the Denon novella, where the unfaithful Madame de T. takes her farewell of the young Chevalier she has spent the night having sex with. Kundera the literature professor gives the novella a number of possible interpretations:

Is it possible to live in pleasure and for pleasure and to be happy? Can the ideal of hedonism be realised? Does that hope exist? Or at least some feeble gleam of that hope? (p.121)

And in a flash I realised the weakness of Kundera’s position. He identifies ‘pleasure’ entirely with heterosexual penetrative sex. Maybe this is why, reading steadily through his works, I’ve felt increasingly claustrophobic. There is no mention of the ten billion other ways of finding pleasure, having pleasure, of being a hedonist. Even some fairly obvious clichéd ones, such as being a connoisseur of fine wine or fine art, make no appearance. There is no mention of that or any other kind of physical pleasure. Only sex. Only sex stands as Kundera’s notion of ‘pleasure’. It is a stiflingly narrow definition.

The last few pages are the only real ones which lift off, for me, which have that sense of mystery which I look for, or value, in literature.

For Vincent is sneaking out the back of the hotel, trying to concoct a plausible story he will be able to tell his gang back in Paris – inventing the idea that he really nailed Julie and not only that, but triggered off an orgy by the hotel pool! – when he realises that a man in eighteenth century costume is walking towards him. The two men meet and regard each other, then speak and explain that one is from the eighteenth, one from the twentieth centuries.

A moment of mystery. But within a minute they are rubbing each other up the wrong way. The Chevalier can’t believe how scruffy Vincent is. Vincent can’t believe what a ridiculously complicated fig the Chevalier is wearing. When Vincent playfully fingers one of the Chevalier’s ribbons, the latter nearly slaps him, but merely turns and stalks off.

Vincent feels the need to obliterate his night of humiliation with speed. He rams on his helmet and climbs astride his motorcycle.

The Chevalier, in simple contrast, climbs up into his chaise, and prepares to spend the long slow journey back to Paris reminiscing about his night of love, reliving every moment of pleasure and savouring every one, for:

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

Quite explicitly, in the book’s last lines, Kundera states that our ‘hope’ hangs on the Chevalier and his slowness.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope. (p.132)

Hope for what? Hope to hold back, fight back against, all the forces of stupidity, nonbeing, the ‘dancers’ who dominate the media and play to the crowd, the amnesia of popular culture and everything else which makes modern life, in Kundera’s view, such a moronic inferno? Is that what the slow savouring of pleasure can resist?

Credit

Slowness by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Linda Asher by Faber and Faber in 1996. All references are to the 1996 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

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