Count Belisarius by Robert Graves (1938)

Now, in Constantinople there is a square called ‘The Square of Brotherly Love’ with a fine group of statuary in it, on a tall pedestal, commemorating the fraternal devotion of the sons of the emperor Constantine – who subsequently destroyed one another without mercy. (p.183)

Robert Graves

Apart from one year teaching at the University of Cairo, Graves made a living for his whole long life (1895-1985) from writing – books and articles, editing collections, but above all writing poetry.

He regarded himself first and foremost as a poet, slaving over his carefully constructed verses and developing slightly eccentric theories about poetic inspiration. It was only to pay the rent, and feed his growing family that he churned out the prose works which he didn’t consider nearly as important.

But ironically, it is these prose works which posterity has remembered Graves for, starting with his hugely enjoyable autobiography, Goodbye To All That (1929), famous for its account of his service in the First World War, but which also includes humorous memories of his childhood growing up in Wimbledon, and then merry anecdotes of being a struggling poet, husband and father in the 1920s.

I, Claudius

On the same level of fame is the pair of novels he wrote about the Roman emperor Claudius (who ruled from AD 41 to 54), I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both published in 1934) which were made into a famous BBC TV series in 1976. Presumably this introduced Graves’s name (and Claudius’s) to million of viewers who’d never heard of either before.

Belisarius

Close behind the Claudius duet in reputation is this novel, which is also based around another major figure from the classical world, General Flavius Belisarius.

Belisarius (500-565 AD) rose to become the leading general of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first half of the 6th century. He is best known for serving the Eastern Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) and leading a series of campaigns to try and recapture the Western half of the Empire, over a century after the first sack of Rome (by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410), 50 years or so after the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed (476) and Africa, Spain, Gaul and Italy had been overrun by barbarian conquerors.

Belisarius made his reputation in a campaign against the Persian Empire on the eastern border, before leading campaigns against the Vandals in Africa (then a word describing what is basically Tunisia today), before taking Sicily and then fighting Ostrogoth armies the length and breadth of Italy during the prolonged Gothic War (535-554). Unfortunately the resulting waste and devastation of Italy left the inhabitants with an enduring resentment of the Easterners / the Greeks / the Byzantines. At one point a minor character, the tall good-looking Theodosius who is a favourite of Antonina’s (and who court gossip quickly suggests is having an affair with her) composes a comic song which ironically lists all the ‘benefits’ Byzantine rule has brought to Italy, including ‘massacre, rape, arson, enslavement, famine, plague and cannibalism (p.298).

In fact the next effect of Justinian and Belarius’s campaigns was so to weaken both Goth and Roman authority that just fourteen years after both sides had fought to exhaustion, the entire peninsula was conquered by another tribe of barbarian invaders, the Lombards, in 568.

As with the Claudius books, Graves had a number of good sources for the career of General Belisarius, namely the scurrilous account of court intrigue by the contemporary historian, Procopius (the origin and motivation for whose books is dissected right at the end of the text), as well as other chronicles by the likes of John Malalas, Theophanes, and John of Ephesus. But being such a good classicist, he has slipped in various inventions – invented characters and events – which fit seamlessly into his vision of the 6th century Byzantine Empire.

Flavius Belisarius depicted in the mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The novel

I found the book slow going to begin with, but then became more and more absorbed by it. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, covering Belisarius’s boyhood and school years, his move to the Eastern capital Constantinople, his rise in the army, reforms to the army, and then the long, long sequence of military campaigns.

What brings the book alive, though, is the narrator Graves has invented to tell the whole, long story – Eugenius the eunuch (p.11). He makes Eugenius the long-suffering servant of Belisarius’s wife, an ex-prostitute named Antonina who, at an early point in her life ran a sort of nightclub-cum-brothel with several other filles de joie, including – as it happens – one Theodora who, after a series of unlikely events, ends up marrying the Emperor Justinian and becoming ‘Her Resplendent Highness, the Empress’.

And what power she has! Again and again Eugenius shows Theodora as being the most resolute and decisive of all the emperor’s advisers, and even going behind his back to take strong decisions when Justinian was dithering.

Theodora was no fool of the priests. She had seen the world, and she understood men and politics, both lay and ecclesiastical. She ruled Justinian as absolutely as it is said that the great Livia once ruled Augustus, the first Emperor of the Romans. (p.147)

[A discreet nod, there to the guiding theme of the Claudius novels, published just four years earlier.]

Thus although the novel is generally about a man, a military man, one of the most famous generals in history – and although it certainly contains a great deal about the Byzantine army and cavalry, their equipment, training and tactics, and describes in great detail pretty much every battle Belisarius was involved in – nonetheless, the novel still has quite a lot of feminine content, the eunuch Eugenius being as understanding of and sympathetic to his mistress and her lady friends, and in tune with the friendship between Antonina and Theodora, as he is with the more famous menfolk.

In fact Eugenius manages to be consistently rude about most of the male figures, not least Justinian (and his illiterate predecessor and sponsor, Justin, and his hapless predecessor, Anastasius I). Here he is on Justinian:

The man was a mass of contradictions: most of which, however, were to be explained as the result of great ambitions struggling with cowardice and meanness. Justinian wised, it seems, to make himself remembered as Justinian the Great. His talents would indeed have been equal to the task if he had only been less of a beast in spirit. (p.146)

Rudeness which slowly changes into contempt as he describes Justinian’s growing meanness, avariciousness, paranoia and poor decision-making, until he is routinely describing examples of Justinian’s

incompetence, cruelty, procrastination, meanness, ingratitude (p.407)

Towards Belisarius Eugenius is more ambivalent, painting him as the generally innocent victim of various court intrigues and Justinian’s petty mean-mindedness – but all the same, he doesn’t really like the general and is only supportive because of his undying loyalty to Belarius’s wife, Eugenius’s mistress, the lovely Antonina.

The Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) and his entourage as depicted by a contemporary mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (it is believed that the figure standing on Justinian’s immediate right is Belisarius)

We learn a lot about the backstories of Eugenius, Antonia and Theodora which are described with wonderful plausibility. I particularly like Eugenius’s own story, that he was the young son of a Welsh prince, kidnapped by Saxon raiders and then sold on to an unscrupulous Greek salesman of fake religious relics, Barak, who had him castrated, and crops up at amusingly unlikely moments throughout the rest of the story.

At Constantinople Barak [who had been arrested and sent there by Belisarius] secured an honourable release through bribery, and though by now seventy years of age, resumed his long-interrupted task as overseer of monuments in the Holy Places. It was his pleasure to refresh the blood-marks on the pillar of scourging; and to  renew the hyssop-sponge at Golgotha, which the piety of pilgrims had worn almost to nothing; and to discover at Joppa, buried in an old chest during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero, a startling number of early Christian relics of the first importance and in an agreeably sound state of preservation. (p.305)

A passage which, incidentally, gives you a good feel for Eugenius’s own ironic scorn for most Christian belief and practice.

Eugenius is a gossipy narrator and frequently stops the narrative to tell us diverting anecdotes about whoever is appearing in the main narrative whether it is the early stories about Antonina and Theodora setting up their brothel, or stories about the enemies Belisarius faces, like old Khavad of Persia, or describing the culture of the north African Moors, or a revealing anecdote about King Gelimer of the Vandals. All these little asides and stories make the book much more accessible and readable.

Eugenius is also a chatty and fascinating guide to the culture of 6th century Constantinople where the first half of the novel is set, before Eugenius sets off accompanying his mistress Antonina who insists on accompanying her husband Belisarius on his western campaigns.

Two massive issues dominated the culture of the time, which were the powerful antagonisms stirred up by the various Christian heresies which swirled round the empire, and, in the city itself, the huge division between the two factions, the Blues and the Greens.

Heresies

By the early 300s the spread of Christian heresies throughout the empire was already such a problem that the Emperor Constantine, the man who ordered the building of Constantinople (officially consecrated in 330) had been forced to call the Council of Nicaea in 325 to thrash out definitions of the key ideas and terms of Christianity.

Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, though far from the last. The heresy it was called to address was Arianism, named after the presbyter Arius who preached that Jesus – the Son of the Christian Trinity – was at some point created by the Father and therefore was not identical with him and was therefore, logically, inferior to him. This belief became very popular but contradicted the orthodox view that Jesus was fully divine, part of the Holy Trinity which was made up of equal members.

Although the Council of Nicaea stripped Arius of his teaching position and exiled him, his heresy continued to flourish, and others soon joined it. A recurring problem was defining the precise nature of Jesus: was he a man, or a God? Or half man, half God? Or both man and God? Was he eternal and one with God, or ‘begotten’ i.e. created at some later date i.e. not as godly as God?

These are all ‘Christological’ issues i.e. debates about the person, nature, and role of Christ, and they turned out to be prolific. To put it another way, Christianity was and is to this day, a very unstable theological or philosophical system, liable to splinter off into all kinds of heresies and sects.

At the period when the novel is set the most common heresy in the Greek East was monophysitism. This held that in the person of Jesus Christ there was only one, divine nature. This view conflicted with the ‘orthodox’ position, which had been agreed at a later ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which proclaimed that Jesus possessed two natures, divine and human.

The emperor Justinian was a staunch defender of the orthodox view propounded at Chalcedon, but his wife, Theodora, was a believer in miaphysitism. Miaphysitism holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one nature, ‘united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration,’ although – looking it up – I see that Chalcedonian orthodoxy considered this view assimilable within the orthodoxy. Thus Justinian and Theodora were more or less at one in their theology.

This may all sound very theoretical and abstruse but in fact heresy played a vital role in the geopolitics of the day. Virtually all the ‘barbarian’ tribes who had conquered the territories of the former western empire were Arians which put them at loggerheads both with the pope (who clung on in defeated Rome) and Justinian.

Thus the Ostrogoths, who had conquered and occupied all of Italy and the Adriatic coast, and who reached the zenith of their power under Theodoric (454-526) were Arians. It was these Ostrogoths who Justinian sent Belisarius to conquer in what turned into the long and ruinous Gothic War (535-554 AD) and, at various points in the long, complex negotiations for peace, the issue of religious belief became a stumbling block.

Also the Vandals who had travelled through Spain and crossed the straits in order to conquer Carthage and the surrounding area of north Africa were also Arians who lorded it over the native Roman population who were orthodox. This fact led to some bad decisions, for Belisarius – having conquered them in battle – sensibly recommended to Justinian that the Vandals be allowed to worship in their own way and receive eucharist from their Arian priests. But Justinian, more devout and more removed from military reality, insisted that the Vandals be forced to submit to orthodox priests and that their own religious rites be banned. Predictably, this (along with other tactical mistakes Justinian made, like not allowing the victorious Byzantine troops to hang on to the estates they had sequestered) led to a rebellion against Byzantine rule after Belisarius had left the area in order to campaign in Italy, forcing Belisarius to weaken his forces by sending some back to quash the rebellion. It could have become a peacefully restored part of the Byzantine empire but for Justinian’s religious intolerance on this central issue of Christian heresy.

These heresies add depth to the personal, social and military clashes which feature in it. Of every single major character we need to know which form of Christianity they follow in order to gauge or understand their likely reactions to other characters, and to understand the broader religious-cum-power politics of the situation.

The Blues and Greens

Within the Eastern empire itself, and especially in the city of Constantinople, raged a fierce enmity between the Greens and the Blues. These had originally been the colours of competing teams of chariot racers in the city’s massive Hippodrome. In fact there had originally been blue, green, red and white teams but the latter two had been swallowed up by the former.

By the time of the novel the conflict between Blues and Greens had permeated every level of Byzantine society. It was a bit like Brexit. Families were divided, friends opposed, politics became poisoned by the fierce opposition of Blues and Greens at every level. Even religion was dragged into it, with the Greens broadly representing monophysitism and the lower classes, while the Blues tended to be orthodox and upper class. Blues and Greens took opposing views not only on religion, but on social and political issues, up to and including the choice of new emperors.

Early on in the novel we learn that the empress Theodora was the daughter of one Acacius, a bear trainer of the hippodrome’s Green faction. An internal rivalry among the Greens led to Acacius’s death whereupon his widow brought her four children, including young Theodora, into the Hippodrome wearing garlands, but they were roundly booed and rejected by the Green half of the audience who had been led to believe Acacius had been a traitor to their colour. To spite the Greens, they were taken up by the Blues and from then on Theodora would be a Blue supporter.

The degree of enmity this rivalry caused has to be read about to be believed. In its sporting origins it was a bit like the sectarianism of football fans of my youth in the 1970s, and was accompanied by a lot of street hooliganism. Except that there were only two factions and the rivalry permeated right to the top of Byzantine society, something like the ineradicable difference between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or Turks and Greeks in Cyprus.

As with all the other sociological aspects of the book, Graves gives a completely convincing description of what it felt like to live and work in a society drenched in this rivalry. The different factions developed different haircuts and fashions. Young toughs of both sides patrolled the streets in gangs, wearing short swords, frequently stabbing each other in broad daylight.

The mounting anarchy climaxed in the Nika Riots of January 532. Some rioters from a previous horse race had been arrested and most of them hanged. A pair escaped and took refuge in a church. The emperor Justinian was just at a delicate point in negotiations with the Persian empire and facing hostility over high taxes at home. At the next day of chariot racing, on 13 January the crowd began chanting anti-government slogans at Justinian who, as usual, was sitting in the royal box (which linked directly into the enormous royal palace just behind the Hippodrome). By the end of the races the entire crowd, Blues and Greens, had united in chanting their opposition to Justinian via the slogan ‘Nika’, meaning ‘Victory’, the chant usually set up when one or other of their champions had won a race.

The crowd then surged out into the streets and ran wild, burning and looting. Justinian’s palace was besieged and over the next week nearly half of Constantinople was burned or destroyed (including the grand church of Hagia Sophia) and hundreds of people killed. Senators opposed to Justinian saw their opportunity, first of all to call for the repeal of his unpopular laws and then, as things really got out of hand, they were bold enough to declare a new emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of former Emperor Anastasius I.

All this is described in a thrilling eye-witness account by the narrator, Eugenius. He explains how a) Justinian was all for fleeing the burning city but was restrained by Theodora who, like so many of Graves’s women, is the really strong figure in the story, and so b) contrives a solution to the anarchy. This was to bribe the Blue faction by pointing out that he, Justinian, was a Blue supporter while the new emperor, Hypatius, was a Green. This, and a hefty bribe of gold, got the leading Blues back on the emperor’s side, at which point they left the hippodrome, leaving the Green leaders isolated.

And it was at this point that Belisarius was ordered to lead Imperial troops into the Hippodrome, commencing a merciless slaughter of the Green rebels. In all, after the street violence and the out of control city fire, and then the mass slaughter, it is estimated that some thirty thousand rioters were killed.

Justinian tracked down Hypatius, who pleaded that he had only agreed to become puppet emperor because the rioters threatened to lynch him, but Justinian had him executed nonetheless, and had the senators who had supported the riot exiled. He then rebuilt Constantinople, and particularly the church of Hagia Sophia which stands to this day (although it was converted into a mosque by the conquering Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453).

Glorious though this may sound, Eugenius continually criticises Justinian for spending more money building churches and basilicas than defences for strategically important cities, and for continually skimping on men and supplies for Belarius’s many expeditions.

Fighting the Persian empire

Again Graves takes historical fact and, by filtering it through the gossipy, chatty, storytelling narrator Eugenius, makes it come to life. The ancient Persian or Achaemenid Empire reached its zenith under Xerxes (519-564 BC) and Darius (550-486 BC), who both tried to invade the West, at that point represented by the Greek federation of cities led by Athens, which stopped the invaders at the famous Battle of Marathon.

At the time the novel is set, nearly 1,000 years later, Persia is ruled by the Sassanian Empire, the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. To quote Wikipedia:

In many ways, the Sassanian period witnessed the peak of ancient Iranian civilisation. The Sassanians’ cultural influence extended far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture in art, architecture, music and other subject matter was transferred from the Sassanians throughout the Muslim world.

The Persian ruler is the ageing Kavadh I (449-531) (who Graves – or Eugenius – refers to as Kobad). The Byzantine Empire and Persian Empire are the two main powers sparring for control of the Middle East. In the first, Eastern half of the book, we become very familiar with the towns and rivers of the border region, the dividing line between the two empires running roughly from the Caspian Gates – a narrow pass through the Caucasus mountains in the north – dividing Christian Armenia in two, and then running across the headwaters of the River Euphrates, sloping diagonally down towards the Red Sea. Many offences are launched from the Persian frontier town of Nisibis. Belisarius leads the defence of the town of Dara, just over the border opposite Nisibis, in the Battle of Dara of 530, which Graves describes in great detail. A few years later the Persians launched a devastating raid on Antioch which they pillaged and burned (540).

Map showing the border between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire from 502 to 628

What is really interesting about Graves’s account, though, is the insight he gives into the strangely friendly relationship between the Roman emperor and Persian emperor. Although they wage intermittent wars, there is a continual correspondence between them including exchanges of gifts and land. When both are threatened by attacks from the Hunnic tribes north of the Caucasus they arrange to suspend hostilities between them to fight against the common foe, indeed Kavadh at one stage invites Justinian to send Byzantine soldiers to bolster the Persian garrison defending the Caspian Gates. There had been another, important historical juncture when, in 525, Kavadh had asked Justinian’s predecessor, Justin, to ‘adopt’ his youngest son, Khosrau. Kavadh had two older sons but wanted Khosrau to succeed. Much bloodshed would have been spared if Justin had agreed but, as it happened, he (Justin) was without an heir and so worried that Khosrau, if officially adopted as his son, might end up with a good claim to the Byzantine throne, which Justin wanted to hand on to his appointed heir Justinian. So Justin refused the offer and Kavadh was mortally offended, immediately launching an attack on Roman border towns.

Ten years later Belisarius, having completed the conquest of the Vandals in North Africa, returned to Constantinople where he was granted an enormous victory parade, first the soldiers of his army marching along the imperial high street, then hordes of captured Vandals, and then huge amounts of plunder and treasure which the Vandals themselves had built up during their career of looting (not least during their comprehensive sack of Rome in 455). But it is characteristic of the time that the new king of the Persians, Khosrou, sent an embassy to Justinian, half-jokingly asking for his share of the spoils since, as he pointed out, it was only due to his keeping peace on the Persian frontier which had freed up the soldiers Belisarius had used to conquer North Africa. And very characteristic that Justinian, choosing to continue the joke, sent the ambassador back to Khosrou with his thanks and bearing a valuable gold dinner service (p.204).

This is all fascinating stuff, but made all the more readable by being told in Eugenius’s factual, but chatty, gossipy style, assigning praise and blame, relating these historical incidents to the present conflicts and battles he is describing, and weaving in and out of them his concerns for his mistress Antonina or behind-the-scenes accounts of power struggles at the court of Justinian.

Belisarius’s career

505 Flavius Belisarius born in Illyria.
532 Belisarius puts down the Nika Uprising, slaughtering between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
530 Belisarius defeats the Persians at the Battle of Dara
533 Belisarius leads the Byzantine invasion of North Africa and defeats the Vandals under King Gelimer at the Battle of Ad Decium and the Battle of Tricameron.
534 Belisarius celebrates a triumph in Constantinople.
535 Belisarius’ first campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy, during which he conquers Sicily and, in spring 536, takes Naples.
536 Rome falls to Belisarius but is then besieged by the Ostrogoths from March 537 to March 538, during which Pope Silverius and some senators try to betray it to the Goths.
539 Belisarius conquers Ravenna and captures the Ostrogoth king Witigis but, due to disagreements in the Byzantine chain of command, Milan falls to a combined force of Goths and Burgundians, its inhabitants decimated and the city razed to the ground.
540 Belisarius captures the Goth capital of Ravenna, and is offered the crown by the Goths, but turns it down. Nonetheless he is recalled to Constantinople by Justinian who has been listening to rivals claiming Belisarius plans to seize the throne. Instead Belisarius is sent once again against the Persians.
545 Belisarius’ second campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy.
559 Belisarius is recalled again to Constantinople to defeat the invading Bulgars.
562 Belisarius is arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of corruption. Pardoned by Justinian and restored to former position.
565 Belisarius dies in Constantinople of natural causes, and so does the Emperor Justinian
571 The year the narrator, Eugenius the eunuch, claims to be writing his text in (p.388)

Proverbs

One entertaining way Graves brings the period to life is having Eugenius report and explain various trivial aspects of contemporary life, such as the Empress’s use of a wig, or the way young men of the Green faction wear their hair shaved back over the forehead but left hanging long at the back, ‘in the Hunnish manner’. He tells us that the poor of Constantinople could claim a dole so long as they had obtained the requisite wooden ticket. He also includes a number of proverbs. Who knows whether he’s made them up or not. When discussing the Massagetic Huns’ addiction to drinking mares’ milk, Eugenius comments:

  • Every fish to his tipple
  • Thistles are lettuces to the ass’s lips

And various characters make pithy replies or sayings at crucial and dramatic moments, which are overheard by slaves and servants and end up becoming proverbial sayings. All these add colour and verisimilitude to the account.

Cruel and unusual punishments

But the story never lets you forget that they were living in a world of almost perpetual warfare, that anyone living in what was left of the Roman Empire was – far from being guaranteed peace and security – almost certain of the opposite. The narrative shows how Belarius brought war and ruin to North Africa, before inaugurating 20 years of war and devastation the length and breadth of Italy which reduced the land and all the cities to abject poverty – Rome’s ancient defences are entirely removed by the Goths, who also burn Milan to the ground – marking a decisive break between the peace and plenty of the ancient world, and the role of backwater littered with ruins which was to be Italy’s lot for the next 1,000 years. All the towns and cities of the Levant do not escape, as the book covers a period when the two largest cities – Antioch and Jerusalem – are sacked, and many other towns entirely razed, their populations taken off into slavery by the Persians. And Thrace, the area of north Greece to the west of Constantinople, is ravaged more than once during the 60 or so years the book covers, with barbarian tribes making it right up to the walls of Constantinople before just about being beaten back.

Overall, the book paints a picture of a world of continual warfare, in which the forces of Roman civilisation and Christian culture are only just keeping their heads above water.

And a world of stunning brutality. You get used to reading that an entire city was burned to the ground by the Goths or the Persians, all the men of fighting age massacred, and all the women and children led off into slavery but, if you stop to really reflect on what this must have meant, it makes reading the book a mournful and harrowing experience.

And this is brought into the foreground of the story, so to speak, by some of the cruel and unusual punishments meted to out to named characters. Thus we are told the fate of Photius, Antonina’s son by her marriage before Belisarius. He grows up to be a selfish, scheming brat. After losing lots of money gambling on the hippodrome races, he flees Constantinople to Belarius’s camp in Persia and there spins a long cock and bull story about how his mother (Belisarius’s wife, Antonina) is having an affair with her musician companion Theodosius, and the two are conspiring to blacken Belisarius’s name.

To cut a long story short the empress Theodora becomes involved to try and reconcile Belisarius and Antonina and this involves arresting, imprisoning and torturing Photius, at which he admits the whole thing was a conspiracy and also admits a string of thefts, embezzlements and perjuries. He had been helped in all this by a figure referred to simply as ‘the Senator’ who also confesses under torture. Now here’s the point: as punishment, Theodora has the Senator stripped of all his property and immured in a dark underground stable. He is tied to a manger with a short halter, his hands shackled behind him and there he was forced to stand, unable to move or lie down, but forced to eat, drink, try to sleep, defecate and urinate in a semi-standing position. It turns out that back in the days when she worked in a brothel the Senator had very rudely insulted Theodora’s appearance. This was her revenge. As for Photius he was shackled in the same underground stable but not given the manger treatment. After a while Justinian (who found sneaks and snitches useful) helped him escape. (pp.332-3)

Boutzes was one of Belarius’s most successful generals but when he fell foul of Theodora she had him convicted of treasonous speech and punished by being lowered into an unlit dungeon in solitary confinement. He was thrown scraps of bread and meat once a day. He was only released after two years and four months by which point he could only crawl on his hands and knees which were covered in callouses, had lost all his hair and most of his teeth, and when he was dragged out the sudden exposure to harsh sunlight meant that he could never again see properly (p.345).

This litany of imperial cruelty reaches a climax at the very end of the book when the scheming, paranoid, ageing Justinian, unrestrained by Theodora, who predeceases him (she dies 548, Justinian dies 565) having  recalled Belarius to Constantinople, finally charges him with a long list of ‘crimes’.

Now Eugenius has described in great detail all his military campaigns so that we know that his defeats and setbacks were almost all due to the emperor refusing to send enough reinforcements or money. It was Justinian’s insistence that the Arian Vandals be forbidden their religious rites, and his skimping on the pay of his own troops, which led to mutiny and the loss of North Africa, and we have seen countless examples of how Justinian’s penny-pinching and deliberate undermining of Belsarius’s authority hamstrung the years of campaigning in Italy. Why? Because, in Eugenius’s account, Justinian is determined to go down in history as ‘Great’ and he is jealous of Belisarius and, when his general is at his most successful, genuinely afraid that Belisarius will raise up in rebellion and declare himself emperor. Certainly this has happened many times before in Roman history but Justinian completely fails to appreciate Belisarius’s honesty and rectitude (as depicted by Eugenius).

Thus, at this final trial, Justinian takes all the occasions when Belisarius had failed militarily and declared them deliberate treasons, along with all the times he had been accused by others of treasonous speech or plotting, strings them all together, and comes up with the surreal conclusion that Belisarius is the greatest enemy of the state – despite his obvious track record of defeating all of the empire’s major enemies (the Persians, the Vandals, the Goths).

All Belisarius’s household servants and associates were tortured to provide incriminating evidence, including Eugenius the narrator. The tortures included being racked and scourged, having cords tied round the forehead and then tightened, and having their feet burned in a charcoal brazier. Eugenius insists he proclaimed Belisarius’s innocence of all charges, but many others didn’t. Belisarius was found guilty of treason against the emperor and blinded. Then he was pushed out of the state prison into the street, in rags.

The final pages describe how passersby give him money, then word spreads that the man who had, within the last year, led a last-ditch military effort to save Constantinople from marauding Bulgarians, had been treated this disgracefully and crowds, and then huge crowds assemble, to put money into his begging bowl, while his old troops and comrades rally to his assistance. Even this last monstrous ingratitude from his emperor doesn’t shake Belisarius’s loyalty and he is led by friends to Antonina’s house where he spends his last days quietly before passing away. The murmur against Justinian becomes so great, shouting against him in the Hippodrome as well as graffiti all over town saying that he is the real traitor, that Justinian – cowardly to the last – hurriedly revokes the charge and magnanimously ‘pardon’s Belisarius. But the noble warrior is beyond caring and passes away in peace of spirit.

In the chapters up to this point the reader had formed the opinion that Justinian was a paranoid coward. This last passage leaves you feeling sick at the mention of his name.

Then again…

It’s worth pointing out that John Julius Norwich, in his book Byzantium: The Early Centuries, gives a far more favourable account of Justinian, noting his jealousy of Belisarius’s success, and his failure to give his general enough money or men to achieve the goals he was set, but also blaming the emperor’s animosity against Belisarius largely to the influence of Theodora – more or less the opposite of what Graves’s fiction claims.

Moreover, Norwich dismisses the story of Belisarius being imprisoned and blinded and then walking the streets of Constantinople dressed in rags and holding a begging bowl as a touching but entirely fictitious legend. Apparently, this story first appears in a history written five centuries later, in the 11th century, and so Norwich dismisses it.

Homo homini lupus

This novel was published in 1938, the year of the Munich Crisis and when the Italy which features in the book had been ruled for 16 years by a Fascist dictator, and Germany by the Nazi dictator for five years, and all Europe was paralysed with fear of another world war. Graves had served in the First World War and this gives his many detailed descriptions of Belisarius’s battles a kind of quiet authority. But it also adds to the one small passage where Eugenius reflects that war is an unmitigated evil.

Credit

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves was published by Cassells in 1938. All references are to the Penguin Classics paperback edition.


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The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States (1) by Michael Haag (2012)

From its title I expected this book to focus narrowly on the history of the Knights Templars, but it is much more than that.

The Knights Templar

The history of the order can be summarised thus:

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, also known as the Order of Solomon’s Temple, the Knights Templar or simply the Templars, were a Catholic military order founded in 1119 after the First Crusade had seized Jerusalem. The order was recognised by the Pope in 1139 and was active until 1312 when it was suppressed by Pope Clement V.

The Templars became a favoured charity throughout Christendom and grew rapidly in membership and power. Templar knights, in their distinctive white mantles with a red cross, were among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades. Non-combatant members of the order, who formed as much as 90% of the order’s members, managed a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, developing innovative financial techniques that were an early form of banking, building its own network of nearly 1,000 commanderies and fortifications across Europe and the Holy Land, and arguably forming the world’s first multinational corporation.

The Templars were closely tied to the Crusades so that when the Holy Land was lost, support for the order faded. Rumours about the Templars’ secret initiation ceremony created distrust, and King Philip IV of France – deeply in debt to the order – took advantage of this distrust to destroy them and erase his debt. In 1307, he had many of the order’s members in France arrested, tortured into giving false confessions, and burned at the stake. It was under pressure from King Philip that Pope Clement V disbanded the order in 1312. (Wikipedia)

From that time to the present day rumours have swirled around the Templars, and I have met conspiracy theorists who think that the tentacles of the transnational organisation they founded persist to the present day, and underlie modern banking/wars/global inequality.

Deep history, revisionist history

So much for the order itself. What is surprising about Haag’s book is the extreme thoroughness with which he presents the deep historical background for the crusades themselves, a history so deep it goes back before the founding of Christianity, and covers the conquests of Alexander the Great (333-323 BC), the rise of the Roman Empire, the fall of Rome to the barbarians, the endurance of the Byzantine empire, the rise of Persian power, and then the eruption of militant Islam into the Middle East in the 630s.

And the reason he goes back to such an early period is because…

Haag presents the entire crusading enterprise in a radically revisionist light.

The politically correct, modern view of the crusades is that they were a racist, orientalist, unjustified, colonial attack by rapacious, cruel and undisciplined European armies, motivated solely by greed and personal aggrandisement, against the peace-loving Muslim world upon whose civilians (and even local Christian populations) they perpetrated grotesque massacres.

By going so very far back into the deep pre-history of the crusades Haag aims to present us with the broadest possible historical context for them, a perspective which then forms the basis of his drastic reinterpretation. Thus he claims that:

1. At the time of the First Crusade the majority of the population of Palestine was Christian – so the crusades weren’t an attack on a majority population of Muslims, but an attempt to rescue the majority population of the area from subjugation by alien oppressors. He quotes a young Islamic scholar Ibn al-Arabi who stayed in Jerusalem from 1093 to 1096 and wrote that, four and a half centuries after the Muslim conquest, Jerusalem was still a predominantly Christian city, as was Palestine generally:

The country is theirs [the Christians’] because it is they who work its soil, nurture its monasteries and maintain its churches. (quoted on page 88)

2. Because it was not the Christians, but the Muslims who were the outsiders and conquerors – erupting into the Levant in the 7th century and imposing a violent, racist, imperialist ideology on the native inhabitants of the region over the next few hundred years.

You can see how that is completely opposite to the self-hating, anti-western narrative most of us are used to. Haag goes back to the start of the Christian era to show that:

  1. The entire Mediterranean basin, from the south of Spain through Italy and Greece on to Anatolia and the Levant, then around Egypt and along the whole coastline of North Africa to Ceuta opposite Spain – this entire region was part of the Roman Empire.
  2. Christianity did not spread via the sword; the exact opposite, for its first three centuries (from Jesus’ execution in 33 AD to the Emperor Constantine decriminalising Christianity in 312) Christianity spread like wildfire around the Mediterranean empire despite the violent and cruel attempts of the Empire to crush it. Christianity was not a religion of the sword but of proselytising and persuasion, which despite all efforts to stamp it out had nonetheless become the de facto religion of the Empire by the mid-350s, and was officially made the state religion by the Emperor Theodosius in the 390s.
  3. With the result that, from around 400 to around 700 AD, the entire Mediterranean basin formed one unified Christian civilisation.

The extent of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Trajan in 117 AD

The invaders were the Muslims, who erupted from Arabia in the 650s and quickly overran Persia and the Levant, then spread along North Africa, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and pushed up through Spain, crossing the Pyrenees and raiding half way-up France until stopped at the Battle of Tours in 732. From about 718 onwards, various Christian princes and armies began the very long, slow process of reconquering Spain for Christianity – the so-called Reconquista – which was only completed in 1492, over 700 years later.

The spread of Islam 622 – 750

Meanwhile, Muslim armies continued pushing eastwards into Persia and on towards India, and north and west through Anatolia towards the embattled centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, which they were only prevented from capturing by a series of heroic stands by succeeding Byzantine emperors.

During the 800s and 900s Muslims also seized the islands of Cyprus, Malta, Sicily (842) and the Balearic Islands, using them and ports along the North African coast as bases for pirate raids on Christian ships and ports. They even attacked the heart of Christendom in the West, the city of Rome, in 846, when Muslim raiders plundered the outskirts, sacking the basilicas of Old St Peter’s and St Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls, and were only prevented from entering the city itself by the sturdiness of the Aurelian Wall. In 849 another Arab raid targeted Rome’s port, Ostia, but was repelled.

This, then, was the broad – and often ignored – context for the crusades. Christian Europe was, in effect, under siege from extremely fierce warriors motivated by an ideology which aimed to suppress or wipe out all traces of Christian civilisation.

Haag goes on to make key points about the new Muslim overlords of the conquered areas:

1. The Muslim rulers generally despised agriculture and manual labour. In all the Mediterranean lands they conquered they saw themselves as a warrior élite whose fierce ideology justified them in subjugating the native inhabitants who were overwhelmingly Christian in culture and belief. The native Christians and Jews (in Palestine, particularly) were subject to punitive taxes, unable to worship openly, forbidden to repair their churches or synagogues and, in some periods, forced to wear specific clothes or even branded to indicate their lowly serf status.

2. The call for Christians in France and Italy – the ‘West’ – to come to the aid of their fellow Christians in the newly-occupied lands were not new to the 11th century (when the crusades began). Throughout the 800s, 900s and 1000s came repeated pleas for help from Spain, from the imperilled emperor at Byzantium, from Christian leaders in Alexandria and Jerusalem –  pleas to be liberated from semi-slavery, from the Muslim desecration of Christian holy places, and the destruction of churches and synagogues. From the suppression of the original Christian culture and belief of the native inhabitants.

Of the five original patriarchal seats of the Roman Empire – Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem – by the 1050s Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem had fallen into Muslim hands, and – as mentioned – Constantinople was under permanent threat.

In other words, seen from this deep historical perspective, it is not the Christians who were the aggressors. Christian armies didn’t march on Mecca and Medina and occupy them and tear down their holy places and plunder their treasures and force the native inhabitants to wear special markers on their clothes or even to be branded. Christian armies have never attacked the holy places of Islam.

But Muslim armies had by the 800s:

  • conquered Alexandria, the great centre of Christian learning
  • Jerusalem, where Jesus was tried, executed and rose from the dead
  • Antioch, home of the first Gentile Christian church and where the term ‘Christian’ was first used
  • and Constantinople, explicitly founded as the new, Christian capital of the Roman Empire

For Haag, then, the crusades are the precise opposite of a colonial Western attempt to conquer peace-loving Muslims; they were an attempt to recover authentically and originally Christian lands, shrines and holy places which the Muslims had seized and whose majority Christian populations the Muslims were oppressing.

Haag makes further arguments.

Jerusalem not a Muslim holy city By going back into the deep history he shows that Jerusalem was, for centuries, not the Holy City for Muslims which is it now generally seen to be. It is so now because the tradition grew up that the city was the location of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey. Just to be crystal clear, I’ll quote Wikipedia on the subject of the Night Journey.

The Isra and Mi’raj are the two parts of a Night Journey that, according to Islam, the Islamic prophet Muhammad took during a single night around the year 621. Within Islam it signifies both a physical and spiritual journey. The Quran surah al-Isra contains an outline account, while greater detail is found in the hadith collections of the reports, teachings, deeds and sayings of Muhammad. In the accounts of the Isra’, Muhammad is said to have traveled on the back of a winged mule-like white beast, called Buraq, to ‘the farthest mosque’. By tradition this mosque, which came to represent the physical world, was identified as the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. At the mosque, Muhammad is said to have led the other prophets in prayer. His subsequent ascent into the heavens came to be known as the Mi‘raj. Muhammad’s journey and ascent is marked as one of the most celebrated dates in the Islamic calendar.

But Haag points out that the sura in the Koran which is the basis of this belief in no way mentions Jerusalem, but simply refers to ‘the farthest mosque’ or masjid.

Glory to Him Who carried His beloved by night from the Sacred Masjid to the Furthest Masjid, whose precincts We have blessed, to show him of Our wonders! He it is Who is All-Hearing, All-Seeing![Quran 17:1 (Translated by Tarif Khalidi)]

In Haag’s view, the tradition that Muhammad’s flight took place from Jerusalem was created after Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims. He describes in detail the career of Muslim warrior Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan, who built the al-Aqsah mosque (which became known as the Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem in order to promote and aggrandise his achievements, and in deliberate competition with the large Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

But, as Haag highlights, the carved inscription inside the al-Aqsah mosque in which al-Malik claims credit for building it (and which also threatens Christians and Jews with dire punishments unless they obey their Muslim overlords), and which is also one of the earliest written records of a text from the Koran – this inscription nowhere mentions the Night Flight. Thus, in his view:

Far from commemorating the Night Journey, the Dome of the Rock seems to have generated the tradition. (p.34)

The point of this section is that Haag is seeking to undermine or question what most historians (and ordinary people) tend to take for granted, which is that Jerusalem was a Muslim Holy City at the time of the Crusades.

Not so, claims Haag. It certainly had been a Jewish and then a Christian Holy City – it had been founded by Jews and was the centre of their world for a thousand years before the Romans arrived, and it was where the Jewish heretic and/or Son of God, Jesus, was crucified and rose again and preached to his disciples before ascending into heaven, which makes it pretty obviously holy to Christians, too.

But for the Muslim rulers it was, at least to begin with, just one among numerous ports and trading centres in the Levant, with no particular strategic significance in itself, but with the notable perk that – as a destination for European pilgrims could be heavily taxed – it was a useful profit centre.

Saladin not a Muslim hero In another reversal of the usual story, Haag points out that Saladin (An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), the legendary opponent of Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade (1189-92), was not an Arab at all, but a Kurd, who spent more time fighting against his fellow Muslims than against Christians.

For years before he finally took Jerusalem, Saladin fought Muslim rivals in Egypt and Syria in his efforts to found a new dynasty, the Ayyubid dynasty. Above all, Saladin aspired to supersede the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad and his seizure of Jerusalem was, for him, a great propaganda coup.

Thus if Saladin fought the Crusaders it wasn’t as part of a high-minded general Muslim resistance; it was as part of his attempts to gain kudos and respect in the Muslim world in order to reach his deeper goal, the establishment of his own dynasty, achieved through what Haag calls ‘an imperialist war.’ In fact, the core of the Muslim world, the caliphate based in Baghdad, hoped the Christians would defeat Saladin and thus remove this troublesome usurper.

Summary of Haag’s argument

In the section about the Night Flight, in his passages about Saladin, and in numerous other ways throughout this book, Haag sets out to counter the politically correct narrative and to show that:

  • the crusades were not a violent attack on the Muslim Holy City of Jerusalem because it was not in fact a genuine Muslim Holy City, not in the same way that Mecca or Medina were
  • the majority population of the Middle East was not Muslim, but Christian and Jewish
  • that the imperialists in the story were not the Europeans, but the conquering Muslims who (as he vividly shows) at various times massacred the native Christians and Jews (who had both been living there far longer than the Muslims) or imposed all kinds of restrictions on them – forbidding them to practice their religion in public, closing churches and synagogues, mulcting them for money, and making them wear special clothes, or even branding their skin

Which leads up to Haag’s claim that the Crusader States, far from being the oppressive intervention of Christian outsiders, were a rare period when the majority Christian population of Palestine had something approaching local rule, representing local interests.

These are the big, thought-provoking points Haag makes before he even gets to the origins of the Templars.

The vital role of Constantinople

It’s not the main focus of Haag’s book but, covering the Dark and Middle Ages in the East as he does, his narrative can’t help bringing out the way that Constantinople/Byzantium again and again and again proved a bulwark protecting the rest of Europe from the marauding Muslims.

Prompting the reader to reflect that, if Constantine had not happened to win the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 (the battle in which he defeated his main rival to the throne and thus became Emperor of Rome), and if Constantine had not become convinced of the power of Christianity – he would never have decided to create a new capital in the East and commissioned the mighty new city which came to be known as Constantinople. And this city and its outlying territories and warrior population would not have gone on to become Christian Europe’s main bulwark and protection against invading Muslims for eight hundred years (from the 600s until its fall in 1453).

And so, if it had not been for this sequence of fortunate events, might not the whole of Europe – and so its later colonies like America, Australasia and so on – not all now be Muslim?


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The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The Lost Victory: British Dreams and British Realities 1945-50 by Correlli Barnett (1995)

What a devastating indictment of British character, government and industry! What an unforgiving expose of our failings as a nation, an economy, a political class and a culture!

Nine years separated publication of Barnett’s ferocious assault on Britain’s self-satisfied myth about its glorious efforts in the Second World War, The Audit of War (1986) and this sequel describing how the Attlee government threw away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to modernise Britain’s creaking infrastructure and industry – The Lost Victory: British Dreams and British Realities, 1945-50.

I imagine Barnett and the publishers assumed most readers would have forgotten the detail of the earlier book and that this explains why some sections of this volume repeat The Audit of War’s argument pretty much word for word, down to the same phrases and jokes.

And these set the tone and aim which is to extend the brutal dissection of Britain’s wartime industrial failings on beyond victory in the Second World War, and to show how the same old industrial and economic mistakes were made at every level of British government and industry – but now how the ruling class not only ignored Britain’s bankruptcy and ruin during the war but consciously chose not to take the opportunity to consolidate and invest in Britain’s scattered industries, her creaking infrastructure, and draw up plans for long-term industrial rejuvenation (unlike the defeated nations Japan and Germany) but instead piled onto the smoking rubble of the British economy all the costs of the grandiose ‘New Jerusalem’ i.e. setting up a national health service and welfare state that a war-ruined Britain (in Barnett’s view) quite simply could not afford.

The unaffordable British Empire

One big new element in the story is consideration of the British Empire. The British Empire was conspicuous by its absence from The Audit of War, partly, it seems, because Barnett had dealt with it at length in the first book of this series, The Collapse of British Power which addressed the geopolitical failings of greater Britain during the interwar period, partly because Audit was focused solely on assessing Britain’s wartime economic and industrial performance.

Anyone familiar with Barnett’s withering scorn for the British ruling class, the British working class and British industry will not be surprised to learn that Barnett also considers the empire an expensive, bombastic waste of space.

It was the most beguiling, persistent and dangerous of British dreams that the Empire constituted a buttress of United Kingdom strength, when it actually represented a net drain on United Kingdom military resources and a potentially perilous strategic entanglement. (p.7)

It was, in sum:

one of the most remarkable examples of strategic over-extension in history (p.8)

The empire a liability Barnett makes the simple but stunningly obvious point that the British Empire was not a strategically coherent entity nor an economically rational organisation (it possessed ‘no economic coherence at all’, p.113). Instead he gives the far more persuasive opinion that the empire amounted to a ragbag of territories accumulated during the course of a succession of wars and colonising competitions (climaxing with the notorious Scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century) whose rationale was often now long forgotten. It was, as he puts it, ‘the detritus of successive episodes of history, p.106.

For example, why, in 1945, was Britain spending money it could barely afford, administering the Bahamas, Barbados, Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands, and the Leeward Islands? They didn’t bring in any money. They were a drain, pure and simple, on the British Treasury i.e. the British taxpayer.

India too expensive Everyone knows that India was ‘the jewel in the crown’ of the Empire, but Britain had ceased making a trading surplus with India by the end of the 19th century. Now it was a drain on resources which required the stationing and payment of a garrison of some 50,000 British soldiers. It was having to ‘defend’ India by fighting the Japanese in Burma and beyond which had helped bankrupt Britain during the war. Barnett is scathing of the British ruling class which, he thinks, we should have ‘dumped’ India on its own politicians to govern and defend back in the mid-1930s when the Congress Party and the Muslim League had started to make really vehement requests for independence. Would have saved a lot of British money and lives.

Ditto the long string of entanglements and ‘mandates’ and ‘protectorates’ which we’d acquired along the extended sea route to India i.e. Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and Egypt with its Suez Canal. None of these generated any income. All were a drain on the public purse, all required the building of expensive military bases and the indefinite prolongation of National Service to fill them up with discontented squaddies who, as the 40s turned into the 50s, found themselves fighting with increasingly discontented locals demanding independence.

So why carry on paying for this expensive empire?

For psychological reasons. Politicians and public alike though the Empire (morphing into the Commonwealth) was what made Britain Great.

Pomp and circumstance Barnett explains how the trappings of Empire were mostly created in the late Victorian period in order to unite public opinion across the dominions and colonies but also to impress the home audience. These gaudy ceremonies and medals and regalia and titles were then carried on via elaborate coronation ceremonies (George V 1910, George VI 1936, Elizabeth II 1952), via pomp and circumstance music, the Last Night of the Proms, the annual honours list and all the rest of it, the grandiose 1924 Empire exhibition – all conveying a lofty, high-minded sense that we, the British public, had some kind of ‘duty’ to protect, to raise these dusky peoples to a higher level of civilisation and now, in some mystical way, Kikuyu tribesmen and Australian miners and Canadian businessmen all made up some kind of happy family.

In every way he can, Barnett shows this to be untrue. A lot of these peoples didn’t want to be protected by us any more (India, granted independence 15 August 1947; Israel declared independence 14 May 1948) and we would soon find ourselves involved in bitter little wars against independence and guerrilla fighters in Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya to name just the obvious ones.

Empire fantasists But the central point Barnett reverts to again and again is the way what he calls the ’empire-fantasists’ insisted that the British Empire (morphing into the British Commonwealth as it was in these years) somehow, magically, mystically:

  • made Britain stronger
  • gave Britain ‘prestige’
  • made Britain a Great Power
  • thus entitling Britain to sit at the Big Boys table with America and Russia

He shows how all these claims were untrue. Successive governments had fooled themselves that it was somehow an asset when in fact it was a disastrous liability in three ways:

  1. Britain made no economic advantage out of any part of the empire (with the one exception of Malaya which brought in profits in rubber and tin). Even in the 1930s Britain did more trade with South America than with any of the colonies.
  2. Most of the Empire cost a fortune to police and maintain e.g. India. We not only had to pay for the nominal defence of these colonies, but also had to pay the cost of their internal police and justice systems.
  3. The Empire was absurdly widely spaced. There was no way the British Navy could police the North Sea, the Mediterranean and protect Australia and New Zealand from Japanese aggression.

The end of naval dominance Barnett shows that, as early as 1904, the British Navy had decided to concentrate its forces in home waters to counter the growing German threat, with the result that even before the Great War Britain was in the paradoxical position of not being able to defend the Empire which was supposed to be the prop of its status as a World Power.

In fact, he makes the blinding point that the entire layout of the Empire was based on the idea of the sea: of a merchant navy carrying goods and services from farflung colonies protected, if necessary, by a powerful navy. But during the 1930s, and then during the war, it became obvious that the key new technology was air power. For centuries up to 1945 if you wanted to threaten some small developing country, you sent a gunboat, as Britain so often did. But from 1945 onwards this entire model was archaic. Now you threatened to send your airforce to bomb it flat or, after the dropping of the atom bombs, to drop just one bomb. No navy required.

An Empire based on naval domination of the globe became redundant once the very idea of naval domination became outdated, superseded. Instead of an economic or military asset, by the end of the Second World War it had clearly become an expensive liability.

The hold of empire fantasy And yet… not just Churchill, but the vehement socialists who replaced him after their landslide general election victory in August 1945, just could not psychologically break the chain. Their duty to the Queen-Empress, all their upbringings, whether on a council estate or at Harrow, all the trappings of the British state, rested on the myth of the empire.

The delusion of being a Great Power Added to this was the delusion that the existence of a British Empire somehow entitled them to a place at the top table next to Russia and America. Churchill had, of course, taken part in the Great Alliance with Roosevelt and Stalin which made enormous sweeping decisions about the future of the whole world at Yalta and Potsdam and so on.

Looking back across 70 years it is difficult to recapture how all the participants thought, but there was clear unanimity on the British side that they genuinely represented a quarter of the world’s land surface and a quarter of its population.

Ernest Bevin What surprises is that it was a Labour politician, Ernest Bevin, who became Foreign Secretary in 1945, who felt most strongly about this. Barnett, in his typically brusque way, calls Bevin the worst Foreign Secretary of the 20th century because of his unflinching commitment to maintaining military defence of the British Empire at its widest and most expensive extent. He repeatedly quotes Bevin and others like him invoking another defence of this hodge-podge of expensive liabilities, namely that the British Empire provided some kind of ‘moral’ leadership to the world. They thought of it as an enormous stretch of land and peoples who would benefit from British justice and fair play, a kind of safe space between gung-ho American commercialism on the one hand, and the menace of Stalinist communism on the other.

And yet Barnett quotes the U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson as getting fed up with Britain’s clamorous calls to be involved in all the high level discussions between America and Russia, calls which would increasingly be ignored as the years went by and which were brutally snapped down during the Suez Crisis of 1956, when America refused to back Britain’s invasion of Egypt and Britain had to back down and walk away with its tail between its legs.

Salami slicing On the specific issue of imperial defence Barnett shows in considerable detail – using minutes and memoranda from the relevant cabinet meetings – that the Attlee government’s inability to decide what to do about defending the farflung Commonwealth set the pattern for all future British administrations by trying to maintain an army and navy presence in all sectors of the Empire (Caribbean, Far East, Middle East) but ‘salami slicing’ away at the individual forces, paring them back to the bone until… they became in fact too small to maintain serious defence in any one place. For the first few decades we had an impressive military and naval force but a) to diffused in scores of locations around the globe to be effective in any one place b) always a fraction of the forces the Americans and the Soviets could afford to maintain.

Empire instead of investment

Stepping back from the endless agonising discussions about the future of the Empire, Barnett emphasises two deeper truths:

1. The 1946 loan The British were only able to hand on to their empire because the Americans were paying for it – first with Lend-Lease during the war, which kept a bankrupt Britain economically afloat, then with the enormous post-war loan of $3.5 billion (the Anglo-American Loan Agreement signed on 15 July 1946). This was negotiated by the great economist John Maynard Keynes:

Keynes had noted that a failure to pass the loan agreement would cause Britain to abandon its military outposts in the Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean regions, as the alternative of reducing British standards of living was politically unfeasible.

A debt that was only paid off in 2006.

2. Marshall Aid While Barnett shows us (in numbing detail) successive British governments squabbling about whether to spend 8% or 7% or 6% of GDP on the military budget required to ‘defend’ Malaya and Borneo and Bermuda and Kenya and Tanganyika – their most direct commercial rivals, Germany and Japan, were spending precisely 0% on defence.

I was surprised to learn that (on top of the special loan) Britain received more Marshall Aid money than either France or Germany but – and here is the core of Barnett’s beef – while both those countries presented the American lenders with comprehensive plans explaining their intentions to undertake comprehensive and sweeping investment in industry, retooling and rebuilding their economies to conquer the postwar world, Britain didn’t.

This was the once-in-a-generation opportunity which Britain also had to sweep away the detritus of ruined British industry, and invest in new technical schools, better training for workers and management, new plant and equipment built in more appropriate locations and linked by a modern road and rail infrastructure.

Instead Britain, in Barnett’s view, squandered the money it borrowed from America (the only thing keeping it afloat during the entire period of the Attlee government) on 1. the grandiose welfare state with its free care from cradle to grave and 2. propping up an ‘Empire’ which had become a grotesque liability and should have been cut loose to make its own way in the world.

Empire instead of Europe

Britain’s enthralment to delusions of empire is highlighted towards the end of the period (1945-50) when Barnett describes its sniffy attitude towards the first moves by West European nations to join economic forces. The first glimmers of European Union were signalled by the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950 which proposed the creation of a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the basis of the EU as we know it today.

Typically, the British government commissioned several committees of mandarins to ponder our response, which turned out to be one of interest but reluctance to actually join – with the result that a pan-European coal and steel market was forged and we were left out of it.

The episode starkly demonstrated that five years after Victory-in-Europe Day Britain still remained lost in the illusion of a continuing destiny as a world and imperial power – an illusion which was costing her so dear in terms of economic and military overstretch. (p.120)

The following month (June 1950) North Korea invaded South Korea and Britain immediately pledged its support to America in repelling the invasion. The Korean War ended up lasting three years (until an armistice on 27 July 1953). Britain committed over 100,000 troops to what those who served bitterly called ‘the forgotten war’, of whom 1,078 were killed in action, 2,674 wounded and 1,060 missing, in defence of a nation 5,500 miles away – a military deployment which cost a fortune.

New Jerusalem

This prolonged demolition of the whole idea of the British Empire comes before Barnett even turns his guns on the main target of the book – the British government’s misguided decision not to invest in a comprehensive renovation of the British economy, and instead to devote its best minds, energies and money to the creation of the welfare state and the National Health Service.

Here Barnett deploys all the tactics he used in The Audit of War:

  • he lumps together these two projects, along with the broader aims of the Beveridge Report (massive rehousing, full employment) under the pejorative heading ‘New Jerusalem’ and deliberately mocks all its proponents as ‘New Jerusalemers’ (Beveridge himself described as ‘the very personification of the liberal Establishment’, possessing the righteousness and ‘authoritartian arrogance and skill in manipulating the press which made him the Field Marshall Montgomery of social welfare’, p.129)
  • he goes to great lengths to show how the entire New Jerusalem project was the misguidedly high-minded result of the culture of Victorian idealism, the earnest religious revival of the early and mid-Victorian period as brought to perfection in the public service ethos of the public schools and which he scornfully calls ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’ – meeting and marrying the ‘respectable’ working class tradition of non-conformism and moral improvement, particularly strong in Wales which produced, among many other Labour politicians, the father of the NHS, Aneurin Bevan
  • and how this enormous tide of high-minded paternalistic concern for the squalor and ill health of Britain’s industrial proletariat led throughout the war to a co-ordinated campaign across the media, in magazines and newspapers – led by public school and Oxbridge-educated members ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’, editors, writers, broadcasters – which used all means at its disposal to seize the public imagination

The result of this great tidal wave of high minded altruism was that by 1945 both Tories and Labour were committed to its implementation, the implementing the Beveridge Report of 1942 which called for the creation of a welfare state, for the creation of a national health service free at the point of delivery, and for Beveridge’s other two recommendations – for a vast building plan to erect over 4 million new houses in the next decade, as well as a manifesto pledge to maintain ‘full employment’.

Barnett quotes at length from the great torrent of public and elite opinion which made these policy decisions almost unavoidable – but also emphasises how none of these great projects was ever properly costed (the actual cost of the NHS tripled within two years, far exceeding expectations); and how the warnings of financial ‘realists’ like the successive Chancellors of the Exchequer (Sir Kingsley Wood, Sir John Anderson, Hugh Dalton, Sir Stafford Cripps and Hugh Gaitskell) that Britain simply couldn’t afford them, were rejected by the barnstorming rhetoric of the impetuous and passionate Bevan, who established a pattern of making grandstanding speeches about the poor and needy to his cabinet colleagues, before threatening to resign (page. 150) (Bevan did eventually resign, in 1951, in protest at Chancellor Gaitskell introducing prescription charges for false teeth and glasses).

Case studies and proof

As in The Audit of War these general chapters about the New Jerusalemites, the pointlessness of the empire, the arts and humanities education of both politicians and civil servants, and the lamentable anti-efficiency practices of the trade unions, are all just preliminaries for a long sequence of chapters and sections in which Barnett examines in mind-boggling detail how the Attlee government’s wrong-headed priorities and policies hampered and blocked any kind of industrial recovery across a wide range of industries which had already been struggling even before the war started, and now became fossilised in postures of bureaucracy and incompetence.

It is an absolutely devastating indictment of how restrictive government policies, short-sighted and stupid management, and the incredibly restrictive practices of an embittered and alienated working class all combined to create the ‘British disease’ which had brought Britain to its knees by the 1970s. Some quotes give a feel:

The catastrophically cold winter of 1946 to 1947 forced the shutdown of large swathes of industry.

In 1947 the price of food imports, many of them from the dollar area, rose to nearly a third higher than in 1945. As a consequence of this double misfortune [loss of exports due to shutdown factories, huge rise in cost of food imports] plus the continued £140 million direct dead-weight cost of the world role, Britain was no longer gaining ground in the struggle to close the balance of payments gap, but losing it. In the first six months of 1947 more than half the original 1945 loan of $3.75 billion was poured away to buy the dollar goods and foodstuffs that Britain could not itself afford. (p.199)

In fact, there is evidence that it was the failure of the ‘centrally planned’ economy under Labour to supply enough coal to keep the power stations running, and the general collapse of the economy, which did a lot to undermine faith in their competence.

It is striking that in this great age of plans and planners, it turned out that Labour did not, in fact, have a fully costed and worked out plan for either the costs of the welfare state and NHS, and even less so for what it wanted to do with the country’s economy and industry. The only plan was to nationalise key industries in the vague hope that bringing them into public ownership would make management and workers work harder, with a greater spirit of public unity. But nationalisation did the opposite. Because no new money was poured in to modernise plant and equipment, men kept working in crappy workplaces at hard jobs and insisted on their pay differentials. Instead of directing resources to the most profitable coalmines or steel plants, the Labour government nationalised these industries in such a way that the most inefficient were subsidised by the most efficient, and workers across all factories and mines were paid the same wages – thus at a stroke, killing any incentive for management to be more efficient or workers to work harder. The effect was to fossilise the generally poor level of management and incredibly inefficient working practices, at the lowest possible level.

From the start the various Boards and committees and regional Executives set up to run these ramshackle congeries of exhausted industry regarded their job as to tend and succour, not to inspire and modernise, dominated

by a model of a ‘steady-state’ public utility to be ‘administered’ rather than dynamically managed.

But it’s the fact that, after all these years of articles and speeches and radio broadcasts and meetings and papers and research and books, there were no worked-out plans which takes my breath away.

The Labour government renounced the one advantage of a command economy – direct intervention in the cause of remaking Britain as an industrial society. Except in the fields of defence, nuclear power and civil aircraft manufacture, there were still to be no imposed plans of development – even in regard to industries where the need had long been apparent, such as shipbuilding, steel and textiles. (p.204)

As to these knackered old industries:

It was a mark of how profoundly twentieth century industrial Britain had remained stuck in an early-nineteenth century rut that even in 1937 exports of cotton (despite having collapsed by three-quarters since 1913) still remained a third more valuable than exports of machinery and two-and-a-half times more than exports of chemicals. (p.209)

A Board of Trade report stated that between 60 and 70% of its buildings had been put up before 1900. Whereas 95% of looms in America were automatic, only 5% of looms in Britain were. Most of the machinery was 40 years old, some as much as 80 years old. Barnett then describes the various make-do-and-mend policies of the government which had spent its money on defence and the welfare state and so had none left to undertake the sweeping modernisation of the industry which it required.

Same goes for coal, steel, shipbuilding, aircraft and car manufacturing, each of them suffering from creaking equipment, cautious management, mind-bogglingly restrictive trade union practices, poor design, absurd fragmentation.

The chapter on Britain’s pathetic attempts to design and build commercial airliners is one of humiliation, bad design, government interference, delay and failure (the Tudor I and II, the enormous Brabazon). While politicians interfered and designers blundered and parts arrived late because of lack of capacity in steel works themselves working at sub-optimal capacity because of failures in coal supply (due, more often than not, to strikes and go-slows) the Americans designed and built the Boeing and Lockheed models which went on to dominate commercial air flight.

While the French committed themselves to an ambitious plan to build the most modern railway network in the world, high speed trains running along electrified track, the British government – having spent the money on propping up the empire, building useless airplanes and paying for cradle to grave healthcare, was left to prop up the Victorian network of

slow, late, dirty and overcrowded passenger trains, freight trains still made up of individually hand-braked four-wheeled wagons, and of antique local good-yards and crumbling engine sheds and stations. (p.262)

The Germans had already built their motorways in the 1930s. Now they rebuilt them wider and better to connect their regions of industrial production, as did the French. The British bumbled along with roads often only 60 feet wide, many reflecting pre-industrial tracks and paths. The first 8 mile stretch of British motorway wasn’t opened until 1958.

When it came to telecommunications, there was a vast backlog of telephones because no British factories could produce vital components which had to be (expensively) imported from America or Germany. Result: in 1948 Britain was a backwards country, with 8.5 phones per 100 of the population, compared to 22 in the US, 19 in Sweden, 15.5 in New Zealand and 14 in Denmark (p.265). Some 450,000 people were on a waiting list of up to eighteen months meaning that for most of the 100,000 business waiting for a phone to be installed, making any kind of communication involved popping out to the nearest call box with a handful of shillings and pence and an umbrella (p.267).

Barnett details the same kind of failings as applied to the entire system of British ports: too small, built in the wrong places without space to expand, harbour entrances too narrow, docks too shallow, cranes and other equipment too small and out of date – then throw in the immensely obstructive attitude of British dockers who were divided into a colourful miscellany of crafts and specialism, any of whom could at any moment decide to strike and so starve the country of supplies.

I was particularly struck by the section about the British car industry. it contained far too companies – some 60 in all- each of whom produced too many models which were badly designed and unroadworthy, made with inferior steel from knackered British steelworks and required a mind-boggling array of unstandardised parts. Barnett tells the story of Lucas the spark plug manufacturers who put on a display of the 68 different types of distributor, 133 types of headlamp and 98 different types of windscreen wiper demanded of them by the absurd over-variety of British cars e.g. Austin producing the A40, the Sheerline and the princess, Rootes brothers making the Sunbeam-Talbot, the Hillman Minx, and three types of Humber, and many more manufacturers churning out unreliable and badly designed cars with small chassis and weak engines.

Barnett contrasts this chaos with the picture across the Channel where governments helped a handful of firms invest in new plant designed to turn out a small number of models clearly focused on particular markets: Renault, Citroen and Peugeot in France, Mercedes and Volkswagen in Germany, Fiat in Italy. It wasn’t just the superiority of design, it was subtler elements like the continentals’ willingness to tailor models to the requirements and tastes of foreign markets, and to develop well-organised foreign sales teams. The British refused to do either (actually refused; Barnett quotes the correspondence).

On and on it goes, a litany of incompetence, bad management and appalling industrial relations, all covered over with smug superiority derived from the fact that we won the war and we had an empire.

It makes you want to weep tears of embarrassment and humiliation. More important – it explains what came next. More than any other writer I’ve ever read, Barnett explains why the Britain I was born into in the 1960s and grew up in during the 1970s was the way it was, i.e. exhausted, crap and rundown on so many levels.


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Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis @ the House of Illustration

The ‘refugee crisis’ started to make headlines in 2015 as thousands of people fled wars in Syria, Iraq, and conflict and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

News footage of overcrowded boats coming ashore in Greece and Italy made the evening news, along with images of those who didn’t survive the trip, who drowned at sea, and then images of life in the squalid, overcrowded refugee camps which sprang up on the Mediterranean shore, as well as the so-called Jungle refugee camp in Calais.

Journeys Drawn is the first ever UK exhibition to explore the refugee crisis through illustration. It includes 40 multi-media works by 12 contemporary artists, several of whom are themselves refugees.

Illustrators have the advantage over ‘fine artists’, in that they are already used to working with stories and narratives, and most refugees’ stories are, by definition, stories about moving, about travelling, journeying – fleeing x and arriving in y.

Also, the genre of ‘illustration’ is flexible enough for illustrators to feel to treat subjects in all kinds of ways, from childlike picture-books, through stark political cartoons, to images packed with all kinds of information and detail – a kaleidoscope of approaches which ‘purer’, fine art tends to disavow.

A good example is the information-rich pictures of Olivier Kugler, who didn’t just depict the refugees he met on the Greek island of Kos (on a project funded by Médecins Sans Frontières) but created a format which can accommodate their stories through the extensive inclusion of text, especially the refugees’ own words, as well as inset images of their key objects and belongings.

As he says: ‘If you take time to view the drawing, it is like spending time with a person and their family in their tent.’

Rezan and Roca by Olivier Kugler (2015)

Rezan and Roca by Olivier Kugler (2015)

At the other extreme are the stark black-and-white images of David Foldvari. Foldvari usually does editorial work for The New York Times, Guardian and FT. He was commissioned by Save the Children to illustrate the stories of unaccompanied children at Civico Zero in Rome, a centre for refugee children. In his own words:

My main concern was to treat the subject matter in a way that was not patronising or clichéd, and to create some kind of emotional connection with the viewer without resorting to shock.

Typical of his style is this stark but deeply shaded, black-and-white image of one boy, Awet (not, in fact, his real name),which becomes even more powerful when you learn his story.

After fleeing his home in Eritrea at just 15 years old, Awet trekked to Sudan. He was smuggled with 30 others on a packed pick-up truck to Libya, but here they were kidnapped and imprisoned in a disused factory, where they were starved and tortured until their families could pay a ransom. Awet later managed to get onto a boat bound for Italy, only for it to fill with water. Rescued by the Sicilian coastguard, he found shelter at Civico Zero, two years after leaving Ethiopia. Which is where Foldvari met him.

Awet © David Foldvari

Awet © David Foldvari

I like realistic drawings, I am endlessly stimulated and excited by an artist’s magical ability to draw the world, to set down what we the rest of us only see around us, in solid lines and colours on paper – so I was immediately attracted to the documentary illustrations in pen, ink and watercolour which George Butler has made from what he’s seen in Greece, Belgrade and Syria.

As he puts it: ‘Reportage should tell a story, communicate an idea, or help someone relate to a situation.’

Of this picture, made in war-torn Syria, he says: ‘This was the first scene we saw as we came into Azaz – children playing on a burnt-out government tank. The fighting had finished here ten days earlier and would soon start again, but in the meantime the few residents left were trying to fathom what had ripped through their homes.’

Climbing frame tank by George Butler

Climbing frame tank by George Butler

There are a number of animations in the exhibition. This is Iranian artist Majid Adin’s award-winning animation set to Elton John’s song, Rocket Man.

Adin was imprisoned for his political works in Iran, before being expelled. He made his way by boat to Greece then trekked across Serbia before reaching the Jungle camp at Calais. He was smuggled to London inside a refrigerator in a lorry. In 2017 he won a global competition to create the first ever music video for Elton John’s hit Rocket Man and since then has been working as an animator in London.

Another video, by Karrie Fransman, uses a format called ‘zoom comic’ in which the picture is continually zooming in on the central image to open up the next scene. It was inspired by the testimonies of four Eritrean refugees who fled their homes to make the dangerous journey across Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya to Europe. The animation is narrated by Lula Mebrahtu, an Eritrean refugee who has found fame as a singer, songwriter and sound designer.

Kate Evans created a graphic novel, Threads from the Refugee Crisis, describing her experience of volunteering in the Calais Jungle. She published drawings from the camp within days of returning, and then went on to expand them into the book, ‘a poignant and emotive depiction of conditions in the camp, punctuated with political narrative, insightful commentary and angry responses from the public to her original blog post.’

Earlier this year Threads became the first ever graphic novel to be nominated for the Orwell Prize for Books.

Camp Sunset from threads by Kate Evans

Camp Sunset from Threads by Kate Evans

By now you should have got the idea of what the show looks and feels like.

In a way the subject matter is a bit repetitive – war, escape, camp. But visually, the artists and their works are extremely varied. I was surprised to see one set of pictures entirely in the style of Japanese manga, created by Asia Alfasi.

Alfasi grew up in Libya and moved to Glasgow at the age of seven. She now lives in Birmingham and has been working in the manga style since 2003. She aims to represent the voice of the Muslim Arab and her illustrated short stories have won several national and international manga awards.

In this wordless comic a young refugee returns to her destroyed childhood home. She is haunted by memories, but finds hope when she sees children playing among the rubble.

Childhood is hope by Asia Alfasi (2016)

Childhood is hope by Asia Alfasi (2016)

All of the illustrations in this exhibition are good, some very good. All the stories are moving, some very moving. It is, all in all, quite a shocking and upsetting exhibition.

According to Wikipedia, ongoing conflicts and refugee crises in several Asian and African countries have increased the total number of forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2014 to almost 60 million, the highest level since World War II.

Where are they all going to go?


Related links

The illustrators’ websites

Also currently on at the House of Illustration

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Mrs Craddock by Somerset Maugham (1902)

‘Entre deux amants il-y-a toujours un qui aime, et un qui se laisse aimer.’

After the success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth in 1897, the 23-year-old William Somerset Maugham optimistically abandoned his career as a trainee doctor to become a professional writer. Later in life, Maugham considered this to have been a bad mistake, for literary success came only slowly and he spent nearly a decade churning out ten novels which sold little or poorly.

All the time his real ambition was to be a playwright, but none of his plays were accepted either. It was only in 1907, ten years after Liza, that his play Lady Frederick was finally staged and, to his own surprise, became a runaway success, transforming his reputation and fortunes. Within a year he had four plays running in the West End and had arrived.

Mrs Craddock

Mrs Craddock, from 1902, is a product of his lean early years, and you can see why. It is a long and uneven narrative, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, covering ten or so years in the life of Bertha Leys:

  • from when she is a head-strong, romantic orphan under the guardianship of her aunt Mary living in the family home, Court Leys in Kent
  • through her infatuation for and marriage to the virile local farmer Edward Craddock
  • her slow realisation that Edward is conventional, unimaginative and boring and cares more about his wretched cows and pet dogs than about Bertha’s feelings
  • (something she starts to suspect on their honeymoon in London where he laughs at crude vaudeville and can’t see the point of the art galleries which Bertha adores)
  • she is mortified when he humiliates her at tennis at a big party of the local gentry
  • she hopes that getting pregnant and having a child will bring them close together again, or at least provide a focus for her thwarted love
  • but, inevitably, she has a long, drawn-out miscarriage and the baby is still-born
  • worse than anything is the calm, sensible way Edward accepts this and its corollary, the doctor’s conclusion that she will never again be able to have children – news at which Bertha is, understandably, distraught (chapter 17)
  • their married life becomes a series of niggling arguments – like the one about whether the farm workmen should chop down some beech trees which overshadow an important field (Edward) or should not, because they are old and beautiful (Bertha)
  • these escalate into flaring rows and, slowly, Bertha is forced to admit that she can no longer stand her husband
  • so she leaves Edward and Kent to go travelling with Aunt Mary on the Continent for months
  • on her return to London she has an ill-advised but madly passionate fling with a distant cousin, Gerald Vaudrey
  • but when, after torments of separation, and even mad thoughts about going with him to the New World, Gerald finally leaves for New York, Bertha’s spirit snaps and she returns to Court Leys emotionally empty

Ironically, throughout the novel, as Bertha’s love for him dwindles and dies, we watch as Edward’s career has gone from strength to strength. He manages the Ley property superbly, making a hefty profit and buying up surrounding land, restoring the house, building a tennis court in the grounds, and becoming the life and soul of local North Kent society.

It’s just a shame that Bertha loathes and detests local North Kent society for its parochialism and small-minded snobbery. In the final chapters of the book Bertha and Edward live together but utterly separate in spirit. Bertha, bored out of her mind, walks the local countryside, watches the changing seasons, goes down to the sea and stares for hours at its endless waves, dreaming of escape, dreaming sometimes of suicide or some kind of painless dissolution, anything to make the dreary routine of morning, noon and night, boring dinners with her husband or dreary visits to the local vicar or other landowners, all go away.

Then Edward, stubborn and confident to the end, goes out riding on a horse which has already thrown him once and broken his collarbone. The horse shies at a fence, falling on top of him and he dies. Stunned, Bertha staggers to her bed and reviews her life. Shocked and dismayed, she realises that she is… free!

On the day of the funeral, there is social comedy about who should get order of precedence in the funeral parade among the various organisations Edward which was a leading member of (the freemasons, the county council, the Conservative Party).

But quite separate from all that, Bertha doesn’t attend the funeral. Remote and isolated from the hurly burly of the entire world, she lies on her sofa, in the beautifully restored house, admiring the fine view to the sea, and picks up a book. The End.

Response

I enjoyed reading Mrs Craddock but was aware of its numerous faults. For a start, there are several odd passages where Maugham is being ‘experimental’ (or giving in to contemporary literary fashion) but which really don’t come off.

One of them occurs half way through, when Bertha, still in her infatuation stage, hears tell that Edward is a little injured, and goes off into a peculiar hallucination of him being brought in dead, her washing the corpse, lowering the coffin into the grave and her throwing herself on top of it, a bizarre stream-of-consciousness hallucination – at the end of which Edward walks in right as rain and wondering why she’s in such a state.

The book is also heavily garlanded with over-ripe, purple prose passages describing the Kent countryside or the romantic air of Italy, which go on for pages.

That said, the book has two obvious virtues or strengths:

One is the effectiveness of the social comedy generated by the stiflingly conventional provincial society of Blackstable (the thinly disguised version of Whitstable where Maugham was himself brought up in the 1880s).

The characterisation of the stiff local vicar, Mr Grove, his well-intentioned sister, the hearty doctor, the dashing local landowner Branderton, the chorus of snobbish local ladies led by Mrs Branderston, with Mrs Mayston Ryle and Mrs Molsons not far behind, the scenes involving this little community – are often very funny.

The vicar’s sister, Miss Glover, is a particularly memorable character, all shiny stiff dress and sincere Christian sympathy. Maugham was always strong on social comedy, and strong on the subtleties and veiled malice of petty snobbery. It would later reappear in his feel for the thousand and one stupid restrictions on colonial life in the Far East, as described in his short stories of the 1920s.

Another is Maugham’s knack for beginning or setting his stories in very mundane settings, and often mundane incidents, but from this base working up passages of tremendous emotional intensity which stay with the reader.

Thus, for example, Bertha’s passionate lust and master-worship of Edward are described with real heat, as is her second great infatuation, the sensuality leading to inflamed lust for young Gerald. You can almost smell the sex. Unusual for its day.

Similarly, Bertha’s anger when she realises that Edward doesn’t much care if she lives or dies or what she does, is vividly described and moving.

And so, again, towards the end, is her prolonged mood of depression as she wanders down to the grey Kent sea and fantasises about drowning in it.

So far so good. But whether all these passages really come together to form a convincing description of a plausible personality, such as literature is meant to, I’m not sure.

I’m not sure and I’m also not sure if I’m qualified to judge. For a start, maybe only a woman reader or critic could really assess whether Bertha is a ‘realistic’ character. Who am I to say?

Secondly, the novel covers a period from the 1880s to the end of the 1890s and… that was so long ago, so far away, in a kind of constipated rural Victorian society which is almost impossible for us to imagine, that I can’t see how any modern reader can make a just assessment of its veracity.

What can be confidently made is the criticism that the number two figure in the story – Edward Craddock – never really comes alive. Tall, strong and good-humoured he remains throughout the novel – admittedly putting on weight and growing red-cheeked as the years pass – an unbendingly good, honest, efficient and utterly boring man, the straight man to Bertha’s fireworks display of emotions.

Maybe it’s the failure to bring the man in this novel fully alive which has contributed to it being more or less forgotten.

But what is good, I think, in the novel, is the slow, slow pace at which Maugham describes Bertha’s slow, slow, slow loss of her infatuation, then loss of her love, then her loss of respect for her husband. The book has to be long because its whole point is to describe the very gradual erosion of her love in great detail. In this respect, in the care with which Maugham has plotted the decay of passionate love, I think the novel works.

Sex and lust

Without much by way of introduction or preparation the book launches us straight into the flustered mind of twenty-one-year-old Bertha – living calmly and respectably with her aunt in the family home Court Leys – and her fiercely physical infatuation with the tall, strong, dark local farmer, Edward Craddock who is a tenant farmer on the Ley family land, at Bewlie’s Farm.

He came nearer, a tall fellow of twenty-seven, massively set together, big boned, with long arms and legs, and a magnificent breadth of chest. Bertha recognised the costume that always pleased her, the knickerbockers and gaiters, the Norfolk-jacket of rough tweed, the white stock and the cap – all redolent of the country which for his sake she was beginning to love, and all vigorously masculine. Even the huge boots which covered his feet gave her by their very size a thrill of pleasure; their dimensions suggested a certain firmness of character, a masterfulness, which were intensely reassuring… His cheeks were flushed and his eyes glistened. His vitality was intense, shining out upon others with almost a material warmth.

Although it’s hard for us now to imagine, a number of later writers, in the 1930s and 1940s, paid tribute to the way Maugham broke free of Victorian silence about sex, and wrote with a new openness and candour about passionate, physical love.

This fierce physicality was there right from the start in Maugham’swork, in the powerful descriptions of Liza’s pulse racing and her body swooning against the tall, strong, masculine figure of Jim Blakeston in his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897) – and exactly the same thing is repeated here, as impressionable young Bertha thrills at the touch and swoons against the tall, strong, masculine figure of young Edward.

When he put it round her shoulders, the touch of his hands made her lose the little self-control she had left. A curious spasm passed through her, and she pressed herself closer to him; at the same time his hands sank down, dropping the cloak, and encircled her waist. Then she surrendered herself entirely to his embrace and lifted her face to his. He bent down and kissed her. The kiss was such utter madness that she almost groaned. She could not tell if it was pain or pleasure. She flung her arms round his neck and drew him to her.

When at last he bade her good-bye and shook hands, she blushed again; she was extraordinarily troubled, and as, with his rising, the strong masculine odour of the countryside reached her nostrils, her head whirled.

In a field she saw him, directing some operation. She trembled at the sight, her heart beat very quickly; and when, seeing her, he came forward with a greeting, she turned red and then white in the most compromising fashion. But he was very handsome as, with easy gait, he sauntered to the hedge; above all he was manly, and the pleasing thought passed through Bertha that his strength must be quite herculean. She barely concealed her admiration.

‘I’m rather frightened of you, sometimes,’ she said, laughing. ‘You’re so strong. I feel so utterly weak and helpless beside you.’
‘Are you afraid I shall beat you?’
She looked up at him and then down at the strong hands.
‘I don’t think I should mind if you did. I think I should only love you more.’

‘Let me look at your hands,’ she said. She loved them too. They were large and roughly made, hard with work and exposure, ten times pleasanter, she thought, than the soft hands of the townsman… She stretched out the long, strong fingers. Craddock, knowing her very little, looked with wonder and amusement. She caught his glance, and with a smile bent down to kiss the upturned palms. She wanted to abase herself before the strong man, to be low and humble before him. She would have been his handmaiden, and nothing could have satisfied her so much as to perform for him the most menial services. She knew not how to show the immensity of her passion.

It’s a commonplace enough word but in Maugham’s hands the word ‘thrill’, more nakedly than in other writers of the time, describes the physical impact of sexual arousal and lust.

Even the huge boots which covered his feet gave her by their very size a thrill of pleasure…

Craddock blushed. Bertha noticed it, and a strange little thrill went through her…

He took her hand and the contact thrilled her; her knees were giving way, and she almost tottered.

His letters had caused her an indescribable thrill, the mere sight of his handwriting had made her tremble, and she wanted to see him; she woke up at night with his kisses on her lips.

It gave her a queer thrill to see him turn white when she held his hand, to see him tremble when she leaned on his arm.

It’s a striking paradox that such an externally polite, formal, correctly dressed, well-mannered and self-contained man as Maugham wrote so obsessively and fiercely, throughout his career, of complete sexual abandonment and the heart-stopping power of sheer physical lust.

Never before had she experienced that utter weakness of the knees so that she feared to fall; her breathing was strangely oppressive, and her heart beat almost painfully.

And the candid way he describes the wish to be mastered, dominated, controlled, owned and directed by a powerful strong man.

For the moment Bertha forgot her wayward nature, and wished suddenly to subject herself to his strong guidance. His very strength made her feel curiously weak.

‘Shut your eyes,’ she whispered, and she kissed the closed lids; she passed her lips slowly over his lips, and the soft contact made her shudder and laugh. She buried her face in his clothes, inhaling those masterful scents of the countryside which had always fascinated her.

Later in the book, the same thing happens all over again when she becomes infatuated with Gerald. In the course of that affair there takes place something you don’t usually read about at the period, which is the clearly defined moment when Bertha decides to have sex with Gerald, to give him the great gift of her body, to make their union unique and unforgettable.

You can almost smell the pheromones radiating off the page as Bertha pursues Gerald across London, tracking him down to her aunt’s house, her aunt goes out and they are on the verge of doing something unforgiveable according to Victorian custom (Bertha was still a married woman and keeps telling us that Gerald is almost young enough to be her son) when… there’s a knock at the door and Aunt Mary reappears in the nick of time!

Still. The description of Bertha’s heat and arousal as` she gets so close to her goal is almost pornographic in its blood-heating intensity.

Later, in the 1920s, Maugham met D.H. Lawrence (but then, he met everyone) although they didn’t hit it off. From the limited knowledge I have, I can’t help thinking that this story about a passionate young woman’s lust for a farmer prefigures Lawrence’s novels of love among the haystacks, and I wonder what the younger man thought of the trail Maugham had blazed with his shocking-for-their-time descriptions.

The battle of the sexes

Arguably the central subject of ‘the novel’ since its birth has been the battle of the sexes – to be precise the struggle to find and keep the perfect partner.

The English novel starts in 1748 with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a 500-page battle between a man who wants to ravish his servant girl (Pamela) and the said servant girl who insists that they are married before he takes her ‘virtue’. And the rest of ‘serious’ fiction continued to be centred on this theme for at least 150 years – the sly marriage markets of Jane Austen, the earnest character studies of George Eliot, in the American ladies in Europe of Henry James and the Golden Age snobbery of Edith Wharton, through the endless sex war in D.H. Lawrence, eachoed in the love comedies of H.G. Wells or Aldous Huxley, and so on.

Literature which doesn’t address the problem of finding the right partner, and holding onto them i.e. of marriage and adultery, tends not to be thought central to the Great Tradition of the English Novel. Thus ‘serious’ literary critics for a long time refused to admit Sterne, Dickens or Conrad to the ‘canon’.

Love, marriage, infidelity, these are the topics which fill vast warehouses of ‘serious’ literature. Madame Bovary. Anna Karenina.

Mrs Craddock is smack bang in the middle of that tradition for which marriage is the sole interest of human life and, in particular, unhappy marriage. Unhappy, mismatched and ill-fated love turned out to be the central theme of Maugham’s long career.

And Mrs Craddock amounts to an extended early exploration of this theme.

Maugham and women

And at the heart of these mismatched marriages is the women. Maugham throughout his long career had a special sympathy with women. Take imaginative, free-spirited, if naive, Kitty Garstin getting bored of her dull husband in The Painted Veil. Or Mary Panton, unsuitably married to an alcoholic gambler in Up At the Villa and then seriously considering a second (and obviously foolish) marriage to an eminent diplomat twice her age. Or Julia Lambert, famous actress throwing herself away on a worthless young cad in Theatre. Or Liza giving her heart and body to rascally Jim Blakeston instead of decent loyal Tom in Liza of Lambeth. Mismatches, all of them. And women all at the centre of the stories.

In Maugham’s theatrical comedies of manners, there is also a wide array of interesting women characters. There are old and amusingly cynical women (Lady Grayson in Our Betters), younger, powerful women (Constance Middleton in The Constant Woman) and mature, tragic women (Mrs. Tabret in The Sacred Flame).

It is the women, and their often painful emotional journeys, who stick in the reader’s imagination, while the callow young men in these plays are often only dramatic ciphers.

Maugham’s subject is the eternal erring of the human heart, but it is nearly always a woman’s heart which is described, and felt, with greatest intensity.

The New Woman

As if the marriage theme wasn’t already central enough in the literary tradition, the 1890s saw a particular interest in the role and experience of women in contemporary society. It was the era of ‘the New Woman’, and a flurry of novels were published examining the issue of women in society, with narratives and characters being created to explore the rights and wrongs of women.

The term ‘New Woman’ was popularized by British-American writer Henry James, who used it to describe the growth in the number of feminist, educated, independent career women in Europe and the United States. Independence was not simply a matter of the mind: it also involved physical changes in activity and dress, as activities such as bicycling expanded women’s ability to engage with a broader more active world. The New Woman pushed the limits set by a male-dominated society, especially as modeled in the plays of Norwegian Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906). (Wikipedia)

The New Woman was in all the papers, in magazines, in articles, on the stage, discussed in Parliament, aired in a thousand short stories and novels. It even percolated through to the provincial backwater of Blackstable where Mrs Craddock is set, and where clever, cosmopolitan Miss Ley enjoys teasing the hide-bound locals.

‘Which do you think is the predominant partner?’ she asked, smiling drily [referring to Edward and Bertha].
‘The man, as he should be,’ gruffly replied the doctor.
‘Do you think he has more brains?’
‘Ah, you’re a feminist,’ said Dr. Ramsay, with great scorn.

Striking that old fuddy-duddy Dr Ramsay knows what a feminist is and uses the term ‘feminist’ in a story set in the 1880s. Amazing that women were arguing with men about the role of women, and both able to joke and josh about it, some 130 years ago. In that 130 years hundreds of novels, plays, films, thousands of factual books and hundreds of thousands of articles have been written about the New Woman, about feminism, women’s liberation and #metoo.

Quite clearly it is an issue, a real and enormous issue – but one like homelessness and poverty and managing the economy and the North-South divide and how to run the railways, which every generation of intellectuals thinks it has discovered, discusses to death, but which is, somehow, never finally solved.

Boldness about marriage

I mentioned Maugham’s surprising candour in describing the physical characteristics of lust. He makes at least one of his characters be just as scandalously blunt about the broader realities of sex and reproduction. It is Bertha’s aunt, Miss Ley, who is given a speech impatiently telling the dry-as-dust Miss Glover, the vicar’s sister, that the basis of marriage is biological reproduction and nothing more.

‘Yes, I know what you all think in England,’ said Miss Ley, catching the glance and its meaning. ‘You expect people to marry from every reason except the proper, one – and that is the instinct of reproduction.’
‘Miss Ley!’ exclaimed Miss Glover, blushing.
‘Oh, you’re old enough to take a sensible view of the, matter,’ answered Miss Ley, somewhat brutally. ‘Bertha is merely the female attracted to the male, and that is the only decent foundation of marriage – the other way seems to me merely horrid. And what does it matter if the man is not of the same station, the instinct has nothing to do with the walk in life; if I’d ever been in love I shouldn’t have cared if it was a pot-boy, I’d have married him – if he asked me.’
‘Well, upon my word!’ said the doctor.
But Miss Ley was roused now, and interrupted him: ‘The particular function of a woman is to propagate her species; and if she’s wise she’ll choose a strong and healthy man to be the father of her children. I have no patience with those women who marry a man because he’s got brains. What is the good of a husband who can make abstruse mathematical calculations? A woman wants a man with strong arms and the digestion of an ox.’
‘Miss Ley,’ broke in Miss Glover, ‘I’m not clever enough to argue with you, but I know you’re wrong. I don’t think I am right to listen to you; I’m sure Charles wouldn’t like it.’
‘My dear, you’ve been brought up like the majority of English girls – that is, like a fool.’
Poor Miss Glover blushed. ‘At all events I’ve been brought up to regard marriage as a holy institution. We’re here upon earth to mortify the flesh, not to indulge it. I hope I shall never be tempted to think of such matters in the way you’ve suggested. If ever I marry I know that nothing will be further from me than carnal thoughts. I look upon marriage as a spiritual union in which it is my duty to love, honour, and obey my husband, to assist and sustain him, to live with him such a life that when the end comes we may be prepared for it.’
‘Fiddlesticks!’ said Miss Ley.

As with his hot-blooded descriptions of lust, Maugham’s correlation of human reproduction with animal reproduction i.e. as an animal instinct devoid of all moral or religious meaning, strikes me as definitely anticipating D.H. Lawrence.

Boldness about religion

And the same goes for his treatment of traditional religion. After his parents died, Maugham was brought up an orphan in the home of his father’s brother, the unimaginative vicar of Whitstable in the 1880s (hence the accuracy of the social comedy of provincial Kentish society in this novel).

Sometime in his student years, Maugham’s Christian faith just melted away and he experienced a tremendous sense of liberation, liberation (as Selina Hastings’s fabulous biography of Maugham makes crystal clear) to have sex with whoever he wanted, male or female.

Accompanying Miss Ley’s blunt truth-telling about sex, there is a similar passage in which Bertha brutally attacks the Christian faith. Devout, tightly-laced Miss Glover, the vicar’s spinster sister, has come to ‘comfort’ Bertha after she’s lost her baby in childbirth. Bertha demurs.

‘Oh, Bertha, you’re not taking it in the proper spirit – you’re so rebellious, and it’s wrong, it’s utterly wrong.’
‘I can only think of my baby,’ said Bertha, hoarsely.
‘Why don’t you pray to God, dear – shall I offer a short prayer now, Bertha?’
‘No, I don’t want to pray to God – He’s either impotent or cruel.’
‘Bertha,’ cried Miss Glover. ‘You don’t know what you’re saying. Oh, pray to God to melt your stubbornness; pray to God to forgive you.’
‘I don’t want to be forgiven. I’ve done nothing that needs it. It’s God who needs my forgiveness – not I His.’

The attack continues later, when Miss Glover returns with the vicar as back-up. Bertha initially starts off meekly reading the Prayer Book with them, but then breaks down:

‘I have no wish to “give hearty thanks unto God,”‘ she said, looking almost fiercely at the worthy pair. ‘I’m very sorry to offend your prejudices, but it seems to me absurd that I should prostrate myself in gratitude to God.’
‘Oh, Mrs. Craddock, I trust you don’t mean what you say,’ said the Vicar.
‘This is what I told you, Charles,’ said Miss Glover. ‘I don’t think Bertha is well, but still this seems to me dreadfully wicked.’
Bertha frowned, finding it difficult to repress the sarcasm which rose to her lips; her forbearance was sorely tried. But Mr. Glover was a little undecided.
‘We must be as thankful to God for the afflictions He sends as for the benefits,’ he said at last.
‘I am not a worm to crawl upon the ground and give thanks to the foot that crushes me.’
‘I think that is blasphemous, Bertha,’ said Miss Glover.
‘Oh, I have no patience with you, Fanny,’ said Bertha, raising herself, a flush lighting up her face. ‘Can you realise what I’ve gone through, the terrible pain of it? Oh, it was too awful. Even now when I think of it I almost scream.’
‘It is by suffering that we rise to our higher self,’ said Miss Glover. ‘Suffering is a fire that burns away the grossness of our material natures.’
‘What rubbish you talk,’ cried Bertha, passionately. ‘You can say that when you’ve never suffered. People say that suffering ennobles one; it’s a lie, it only makes one brutal…. But I would have borne it – for the sake of my child. It was all useless – utterly useless. Dr. Ramsay told me the child had been dead the whole time. Oh, if God made me suffer like that, it’s infamous. I wonder you’re not ashamed to put it down to God. How can you imagine Him to be so stupid, so cruel! Why, even the vilest beast in the slums wouldn’t cause a woman such frightful and useless agony for the mere pleasure of it.’

This powerful scene should take its place in any anthology describing the collapse of Christian belief in the later 19th century.

What with the Darwinian view of human reproduction, this forthright atheism, and the implicit theme of the New Woman throughout the novel, along with the numerous natural descriptions which I’ve mentioned, Maugham was clearly making an effort to write a Big Serious Novel tackling some of the fashionable Issues of the Day.

It doesn’t work because the central characters aren’t, in the end, really believable enough to support the great weight placed on them. But it’s a valiant attempt.

Miss Ley

All this is to overlook the third major character in the story who is, on one reading, arguably its most successful character – Bertha’s Aunt Mary, or Miss Ley as she’s referred to.

In the opening scenes of the novel, Bertha is still living under Miss Ley’s guardianship, we see them often together, and so she is one of the first characters we get to know and like. Although she then disappears from view for the long stretches which describe Bertha and Edward’s marriage, whenever Miss Ley does reappear – when Bertha goes to stay with her for a short break, and then runs away with her to the continent, and in the prolonged sequence when Bertha is staying with Miss Ley while she has her almost-affair with young Gerald – she was greeted with cheers from this reader. Why? Because she is drily, quietly funny.

Miss Ley sat on the sofa by the fireside, a woman of middle-size, very slight, with a thin and much wrinkled face. Of her features the mouth was the most noticeable, not large, with lips that were a little too thin; it was always so tightly compressed as to give her an air of great determination, but there was about the corners an expressive mobility, contradicting in rather an unusual manner the inferences which might be drawn from the rest of her person. She had a habit of fixing her cold eyes on people with a steadiness that was not a little embarrassing. They said Miss Ley looked as if she thought them great fools, and as a matter of fact that usually was her precise opinion. Her thin grey hair was very plainly done; and the extreme simplicity of her costume gave a certain primness, so that her favourite method of saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner often disconcerted the casual stranger.

‘Saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner’. Miss Ley emerges as the vehicle for the best of the book’s sub-Jane Austen sly wit, acting – especially in the first half – as the tart and comic centre of the novel, as drily cynical and Bertha is passionately romantic.

Humanity, Miss Ley took to be a small circle of persons, mostly feminine, middle-aged, unattached, and of independent means, who travelled on the continent, read good literature and abhorred the vast majority of their fellow-creatures.

She asked politely after [the doctor]’s wife, to whom she secretly objected for her meek submission to the doctor. Miss Ley made a practice of avoiding those women who had turned themselves into mere shadows of their lords, more especially when their conversation was of household affairs.

[Miss Ley] had already come to the conclusion that he [Craddock] was a man likely to say on a given occasion the sort of thing which might be expected; and that, in her eyes, was a hideous crime.

Miss Ley was anxious that no altercation should disturb the polite discomfort of the meeting.

Miss Ley revels in the embarrassment of other people, especially the uptight, narrow-minded provincials around her. She spends as much time as she can in London, and even more abroad in Italy (in another anticipation of a more famous novelist, this time E.M. Foster with his nice-girls-and-their-aunts-in-Italy stories). Whenever Miss Lay arrives back in Kent it is hilarious to watch the locals being affronted and outraged and shocked and tutting and twitching the curtains, under fire from Miss Ley’s dry wit and through Miss Ley’s quiet, sardonic gaze.

And she is not only an appealing character in her own right. But at a number of key moments (throughout Bertha’s early infatuation with Edward, then slyly noticing her loss of faith in her husband, and then throughout the Gerald affair) Miss Ley’s role as onlooker and chorus to the main action pushes her closer to the reader’s perspective.

It is as if she was standing next to us in the wings of a theatre, muttering an ironic commentary as we both watch the overwrought romantic heroine fainting and weeping and panting with passion.

Oscar Wilde

Moreover, Miss Ley gets most of the book’s one-liners. Much of the dialogue of Mrs Craddock contains the sub-Wildean cynical wit which was to characterise Maugham’s later string of extremely successful plays, such Oscarisms as:

‘Marriage is always a hopeless idiocy for a woman who has enough money of her own to live upon.’

‘Marriage is an institution of the Church, Miss Ley,’ replied Miss Glover, rather severely.
‘Is it?’ retorted Miss Ley. ‘I always thought it was an arrangement to provide work for the judges in the Divorce Court.’

‘Mr. Branderton has been to Eton and Oxford, but he conceals the fact with great success.’

‘My dear Dr. Ramsay, I have trouble enough in arranging my own life; do not ask me to interfere with other people’s.’

It is madness for a happy pair to pretend to have no secrets from one another: it leads them into so much deception.

‘I make a point of thinking with the majority – it’s the only way to get a reputation for wisdom.’

‘You wouldn’t rob us of our generals,’ said Miss Ley. ‘They’re so useful at tea-parties.’

And the fact that almost all of these lines are given to Miss Ley, and that she emerges as in many ways the most loveable character, explains why Maugham begins the book with a dedication – more precisely, a mock ‘Epistle Dedicatory’ – to her. He obviously liked her best of all the characters in the book, and she is the only one you would want to meet.

A tiny Marxist comment

Having just been to an extensive feminist art exhibition, and read numerous articles about the Judge Kavanaugh affair, and read some feminist articles about Maugham and Women and, given that Bertha is quite clearly a heroine who traditional feminist criticism would see as the oppressed, repressed, stifled, stymied victim of the Patriarchy – it is worth pointing out that Bertha never does a day’s work in her life.

Bertha lives her entire life off the labour of the workers on her father’s farms and estates, as does Miss Ley.

Both women live lives full of books and art and travel and galleries and fine feelings, their meals are cooked and served and cleared away by nameless faceless servants (we never learn the names of any of the Craddocks’ household servants or farm workers), their rooms are cleaned, their laundry is washed, trains run for them, boats sail for them, galleries open for them – without them ever lifting a finger to earn it.

They belong to the rentier class. They are social parasites. Edward works hard and is efficient and effective at transforming the fortunes of the Ley estate, at managing its livestock and agriculture, and joins local bodies like the parish council and freemasons, which he also runs with exemplary honesty and thoroughness. And for this – he is bitterly mocked by his wife:

Bertha soon found that her husband’s mind was not only commonplace, but common. His ignorance no longer seemed touching, but merely shameful; his prejudices no longer amusing but contemptible. She was indignant at having humbled herself so abjectly before a man of such narrowness of mind, of such insignificant character. She could not conceive how she had ever passionately loved him. He was bound in by the stupidest routine. It irritated her beyond measure to see the regularity with which he went through the varying processes of his toilet. She was indignant with his presumption, and self-satisfaction, and conscious rectitude. Edward’s taste was contemptible in books, in pictures, and in music; and his pretentions to judge upon such matters filled Bertha with scorn.

Books, art and music – that is how Bertha judges people, not for their character or dutifulness or patriotism or hard work. All these are rather ridiculous qualities in her eyes.

This scorn is echoed by young Gerald, himself the wastrel son of rich parents, who was kicked out of public school and has got his family’s housemaid pregnant.

On one occasion Edward comes up to see his wife during her stay with Miss Ley. After he has left, Gerald, the good-for-nothing idler, mocks solid, efficient, patriotic Edward Craddock to Miss Ley, who feebly defends him:

‘His locks are somewhat scanty but he has a strong sense of duty.’
‘I know that,’ shouted Gerald. ‘It oozes out of him whenever he gets hot, just like gum.’

This, one cannot help thinking, is all too often the attitude of high-minded writers and artists – regardless of gender or race – to the actual, physical, hard, demanding labour of making and maintaining the world; the smug condescension of the bookish toward those who do the daily necessary labour which makes their luxurious lives of fine feelings and deep thoughts and carefree travel possible.

Maugham pours so much feeling and sentiment and imagination and sympathy into hundreds of pages describing Bertha’s feelings and passions and thoughts and worries and fears and disillusion and unhappiness and despair – that it is easy to forget that she is a leech.


Plus ça change

Reading older literature, I am continually struck at the way that things which bothered the late-Victorians are still bothering us now. The status, roles and rights of women were exercising many of their best minds. Same now. And so was the problem of the poor, the homeless, and the huge inequalities in society. Same now.

But there are other, lesser issues, too, which made me think that some things really never change.

Railways For example, it was only last week that we were hearing about the Labour Party’s plans to renationalise the railways because, in private hands, the level of service given by the railways is shocking, and all the money they raise seems to end up as massive dividends for their shareholders. Well, here is what Maugham thought about British railways in 1902.

Though it was less than thirty miles from Dover to Blackstable the communications were so bad that it was necessary to wait for hours at the port, or take the boat-train to London and then come sixty miles down again. Bertha was exasperated at the delay, forgetting that she was now (thank Heaven!) in a free country, where the railways were not run for the convenience of passengers, but the passengers necessary evils to create dividends for an ill-managed company. (Chapter 23)

Brexit There’s a passage designed to contrast Edward’s narrow-minded Little Englandism and his simple patriotism with Bertha’s cultured cosmopolitanism and loathing of patriotic symbols (in this case, jingoistic late-Victorian music) which anticipates a lot of the rhetoric of Brexit. Manly if thick Edward is talking:

‘I don’t mind confessing that I can’t stand all this foreign music. What I say to Bertha is – why can’t you play English stuff?’
‘If you must play at all,’ interposed his wife.
‘After all’s said and done The Blue Bells of Scotland has got a tune about it that a fellow can get his teeth into.’
‘You see, there’s the difference,’ said Bertha, strumming a few bars of Rule Britannia, ‘it sets mine on edge.’
‘Well, I’m patriotic,’ retorted Edward. ‘I like the good, honest, homely English airs. I like ’em because they’re English. I’m not ashamed to say that for me the best piece of music that’s ever been written is God Save the Queen.’
‘Which was written by a German, dear Edward,’ said Miss Ley, smiling.
‘That’s as it may be,’ said Edward, unabashed, ‘but the sentiment’s English and that’s all I care about.’
‘Hear! hear!’ cried Bertha. ‘I believe Edward has aspirations towards a political career. I know I shall finish up as the wife of the local M.P.’
‘I’m patriotic,’ said Edward, ‘and I’m not ashamed to confess it.’
‘Rule Britannia,’ sang Bertha, ‘Britannia rules the waves, Britons never, never shall be slaves. Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay! Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!’
‘It’s the same everywhere now,’ proceeded the orator. ‘We’re choke full of foreigners and their goods. I think it’s scandalous. English music isn’t good enough for you – you get it from France and Germany. Where do you get your butter from? Brittany! Where d’you get your meat from? New Zealand!’ This he said with great scorn, and Bertha punctuated the observation with a resounding chord. ‘And as far as the butter goes, it isn’t butter – it’s margarine. Where does your bread come from? America. Your vegetables from Jersey.’
‘Your fish from the sea,’ interposed Bertha.
‘And so it is all along the line – the British farmer hasn’t got a chance!’ (Chapter 12)

Or again, Edward stoutly declares:

‘I’m quite content to be as I am, and I don’t want to know a single foreign language. English is quite good enough for me…. I think English people ought to stick to their own country. I don’t pretend to have read any French books, but I’ve never heard anybody deny, that at all events the great majority are indecent, and not the sort of thing a woman should read… What we want now is purity and reconstitution of the national life. I’m in favour of English morals, and English homes, English mothers, and English habits.’

Cosmopolitan contempt for Britain The cosmopolitan Miss Ley thinks there is something intrinsically pathetic about the English.

‘You’ve never had a London season, have you? On the whole I think it’s amusing: the opera is very good and sometimes you see people who are quite well dressed.’

To this day there is a broad streak of intellectual literary life which despises the English and worships the literature, climate, fashion and landscape of France or Italy.

Tourism When I went to Barcelona recently I couldn’t miss the graffiti everywhere telling tourists to go home and stop ruining their city. I’ve since read articles about other tourist destinations which are struggling to cope with the number of visitors. Back in 1902 Miss Ley shared this feeling that tourism was ruining everywhere, in this case Paris:

We have here a very nice apartment, in the Latin Quarter, away from the rich people and the tourists. I do not know which is more vulgar, the average tripper or the part of Paris which he infests: I must say they become one another to a nicety. I loathe the shoddiness of the boulevards, with their gaudy cafés over-gilt and over-sumptuous, and their crowds of ill-dressed foreigners. But if you come I can show you a different Paris – a restful and old-fashioned Paris, theatres to which tourists do not go; gardens full of pretty children and nursemaids with long ribbons to their caps. I can take you down innumerable grey streets with funny shops, in old churches where you see people actually praying; and it is all very quiet and calming to the nerves. And I can take you to the Louvre at hours when there are few visitors…

Infest! She says tourists infest parts of Paris. If she had been describing immigrants, the book would be banned.

Politicians are idiots In a funny scene Edward stands for election to the local council and makes a speech riddled with pompous expressions, bad jokes, stories which disappointingly taper off, but still manages to end with rousingly jingoistic rhetoric.

Bertha is more ashamed and embarrassed than she’s ever been in her life by its simple-minded idiocy. But the speech is greeted with wild applause and Edward is elected by a landslide. People, Bertha concludes, are idiots. And the biggest idiots of all are running the country.

There is nothing so difficult as to persuade men that they are not omniscient. Bertha, exaggerating the seriousness of the affair, thought it charlatanry [of Edward] to undertake a post without knowledge and without capacity. Fortunately that is not the opinion of the majority, or the government of this enlightened country could not proceed.

Throughout the book the reader finds the same tone, and the same arguments, applied to the same ‘issues’ that we are still discussing and arguing about, 120 years later. Many superficial details change – but arguments about the rights of women, the idiocy of politicians, the rubbish train system, the philistine patriotism and the snooty snobbery of the book and art world – all of this remains the same as ever.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1902 Mrs Craddock
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner (novel)
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before The Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014) and multi-ethnic societies

Mutual suspicion, brinkmanship, arrogance, belligerence and, above all fear were rife in the halls of power across Europe in the summer of 1914. (p.8)

I’m very surprised that this book won the ‘2014 Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History’ and the ‘Society of Military History 2015 Distinguished Book Award’ because it is not really a military history at all.

It’s certainly an epic book – 788 pages, if you include the 118 pages of notes and 63 pages of bibliography – and it gives an impressively thorough account of the origins, development and conclusion of the First World War, as seen from the point of view of the politicians, military leaders and people of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

More social than military history

But I found it much more of a sociological and economic history of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society, than a narrative of military engagements.

Watson gives a broad outline of the German invasion of Belgium and northern France, but there are no maps and no description of any of the vital battles, of the Marne or Aisnes or Arras or Ypres. Instead he spends more time describing the impact on Belgian society of the burning of villages and the atrocities carried out by the Germans – in retaliation for what they claimed were guerrilla and francs-tireurs (free-shooter) attacks by civilian snipers.

I was specifically hoping to learn more about the famous three-week-long battle of Tannenberg between Germany and Russia on the Eastern Front, but there is no account of it at all in this book.

Instead Watson gives a detailed description of the impact on society in Galicia and East Prussia of the ruinous and repressive Russian advance. Little or nothing about the fighting, but a mass of detail about the impact on individual villages, towns and cities of being subject to Russian military administration and violence, and a lot about the impact of war on the region’s simmering ethnic tensions. I hadn’t realised that the Russians, given half a chance, carried out as many atrocities (i.e. massacring civilians) and far more forced movements of population, than the Germans did.

Watson does, it is true, devote some pages to the epic battle of Verdun (pp. 293-300) and to the Battle of the Somme (pp. 310-326), but it’s not what I’d call a military description. There are, for example no maps of either battlefield. In fact there are no battlefield maps – maps showing the location of a battle and the deployment of opposing forces – anywhere at all in the book.

Instead, what you do get is lots of graphs and diagrams describing the social and economic impact of war – showing things like ‘Crime rates in Germany 1913-18’, ‘Free meals dispensed at Viennese soup kitchens 1914-18’, ‘German psychiatric casualties in the First and Second Armies 1914-18’ (p.297) and so on. Social history.

Longer than the accounts of Verdun and the Somme put together is his chapter about the food shortages which began to be felt soon after the war started and reached catastrophic depths during the ‘Turnip Winter’ of 1916-17. These shortages were caused by the British naval blockade (itself, as Watson points out, of dubious legality under international law), but also due to the intrinsic shortcomings of German and Austro-Hungarian agriculture, compounded by government inefficiency, and corruption (all described in immense detail on pages 330-374).

So there’s more about food shortages than about battles. Maybe, in the long run, the starvation was more decisive. Maybe Watson would argue that there are hundreds of books devoted to Verdun and the Somme, whereas the nitty-gritty of the food shortages – much more important in eventually forcing the Central Powers to their knees – is something you rarely come across in British texts. He certainly gives a fascinating, thorough and harrowing account.

But it’s not military history. It’s social and economic history.

A lot later in the book Watson gives a gripping account of the German offensive of spring 1918, and then the Allied counter-offensive from July 1918 which ended up bringing the Central Powers to the negotiating table.

But in both instances it’s a very high-level overview, and he only gives enough detail to explain (fascinatingly) why the German offensive failed and the Allied one succeeded – because his real motivation, the meat of his analysis, is the social and political impact of the military failure on German and Austrian society.

Absence of smaller campaigns

Something else I found disappointing about the book was his neglect of military campaigns even a little outside his main concern with German and Austro-Hungarian society.

He gives a thrilling account of the initial Austrian attack on Serbia – which was, after all, the trigger for the whole war – and how the Austrians were, very amusingly, repelled back to their starting points.

But thereafter Serbia is more or less forgotten about and the fact that Serbia was later successfully invaded is skated over in a sentence. Similarly, although the entry of Italy into the war is mentioned, none of the actual fighting between Austria and Italy is described. There is only one reference to Romania being successfully occupied, and nothing at all about Bulgaria until a passing mention of her capitulation in 1918.

I had been hoping that the book would give an account of the First World War in the East, away from the oft-told story of the Western Front: the war in Poland and Galicia and the Baltic States he does cover, but in south-eastern Europe nothing.

The text – as the title, after all, indicates – is pretty ruthlessly focused on the military capabilities, mobilisation, economy and society of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

Ethnic tension

If there’s one theme which does emerge very clearly from this very long book it is the centrality of ethnic and nationalist divisions in the Central Powers themselves, and in the way they treated their conquered foes.

Throughout its examination of the impact of war on German and Austro-Hungarian society – on employment, women’s roles, propaganda, agriculture and industry, popular culture and so on – the book continually reverts to an examination of the ethnic and nationalist fracture lines which ran through these two states.

For example, in the food chapter, there are not only radical differences in the way the German and Austro-Hungarian authorities dealt with the crisis (the effectiveness of different rationing schemes, and so on) but we are shown how different national regions, particularly of Austria-Hungary, refused to co-operate with each other: for example, rural Hungary refusing to share its food with urban Austria.

What emerges, through repeated description and analysis, is the very different ethnic and nationalist nature of the two empires.

Germany

Germany was an ethnically homogeneous state, made up overwhelmingly of German-speaking ethnic Germans. Therefore the fractures – the divisions which total war opened up – tended to take place along class lines. Before the war the Social Democrat Party (much more left-wing than its name suggests) had been the biggest socialist party in Europe, heir to the legacy of Karl Marx which was, admittedly, much debated and squabbled over. However, when war came, Watson shows how, in a hundred different ways, German society closed ranks in a patriotic display of unity so that the huge and powerful SDP, after some debate, rejected its pacifist wing and united with all the other parties in the Reichstag in voting for the war credits which the Chancellor asked for.

Watson says contemporary Germans called this the Burgfrieden spirit of the time, meaning literally ‘castle peace politics’. In effect it meant a political policy of ‘party truce’, all parties rallying to the patriotic cause, trades unions agreeing not to strike, socialist parties suspending their campaign to bring down capitalism, and so on. All reinforced by the sense that the Germans were encircled by enemies and must all pull together.

Typical of Watson’s social-history approach to all this is his account of the phenomenon of Liebesgaben or ‘love gifts’ (pp.211-214), the hundreds of thousands of socks and gloves and scarves knitted and sent to men at the front by the nation’s womenfolk, and the role played by children in war charities and in some war work.

He has three or four pages about the distinctive development of ‘nail sculptures’, figures of soldiers or wartime leaders into which all citizens in a town were encouraged to hammer a nail while making a donation to war funds. Soon every town and city had these nail figures, focuses of patriotic feeling and fundraising (pp. 221-225).

Watson is much more interested by the impact of war on the home front than by military campaigns.

Austria-Hungary

The spirit of unity which brought Germany together contrasts drastically with the collapse along ethnic lines of Austria-Hungary, the pressures which drove the peoples of the empire apart.

The Empire was created as a result of the Compromise of 1867 by which the Austrians had one political arrangement, the Hungarians a completely different one, and a whole host of lesser ethnicities and identities (the Czechs, and Poles in the north, the Serbs and Greeks and Croats and Bosnians in the troublesome south) jostled for recognition and power for their own constituencies.

Watson’s introductory chapters give a powerful sense of the fear and anxiety stalking the corridors of power in the Austro-Hungarian Empire well before the war began. This fear and anxiety were caused by the succession of political and military crises of the Edwardian period – the Bosnia Crisis of 1908, the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1911 and 1912, the rising voices of nationalism among Czechs in the north and Poles in the East.

To really understand the fear of the ruling class you have to grasp that in 1914 there was a very clear league table of empires – with Britain at the top followed by France and Germany. The rulers of Austria-Hungary were petrified that the collapse and secession of any part of their heterogenous empire would relegate them to the second division of empires (as were the rulers of Russia, as well).

And everybody knew what happened to an empire on the slide: they had before them the examples of the disintegrating Ottoman and powerless Chinese empires, which were condemned to humiliation and impotence by the Great Powers. Austria-Hungary’s rulers would do anything to avoid that fate.

But Watson shows how, as soon as war broke out, the empire instead of pulling together, as Germany had, began dividing and splitting into its component parts. Vienna was forced to cede control of large regions of the empire to the local governments which were best placed to mobilise the war effort among their own peoples.

This tended to have two consequences:

  1. One was to encourage nationalism and the rise of nationalist leaders in these areas (it was via wartime leadership of the Polish Legions, a force encouraged by Vienna, that Józef Piłsudski consolidated power and the authority which would enable him to establish an independent Poland in 1918, and successfully defend its borders against Russian invasion in 1920, before becoming Poland’s strongman in the interwar period).
  2. The second was to encourage inter-ethnic tension and violence.

The difference between homegeneous Germany and heterogeneous Austria-Hungary is exemplified in the respective nations’ responses to refugees. In Germany, the 200,000 or so refugees from Russia’s blood-thirsty invasion of East Prussia were distributed around the country and welcomed into homes and communities all over the Reich. They were recipients of charity from a popular refugee fund which raised millions of marks for them. Even when the refugees were in fact Polish-speaking or Lithuanians, they were still treated first and foremost as Germans and all received as loyal members of the Fatherland (pp. 178-181).

Compare and contrast the German experience with the bitter resentment which greeted refugees from the Russian invasion of the Austro-Hungarian border region of Galicia. When some 1 million refugees from Galicia were distributed round the rest of the empire, the native Hungarians, Austrians or Czechs all resented having large number of Poles, Ruthenians and, above all, Jewish, refugees imposed on their communities. There was resentment and outbreaks of anti-refugee violence.

The refugee crisis was just one of the ways in which the war drove the nationalities making up the Austro-Hungarian empire further apart (pp. 198-206).

Two years ago I read and was appalled by Timothy Snyder’s book, Bloodlands, which describes the seemingly endless ethnic cleansing and intercommunal massacres, pogroms and genocides which took place in the area between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s.

Watson’s book shows how many of these tensions existed well before the First World War – in the Balkans they went back centuries – but that it was the massive pan-European conflict which lifted the lid, which authorised violence on an unprecedented scale, and laid the seeds for irreconcilable hatreds, particularly between Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and Jews.

The perils of multi-ethnic societies

Although I bet Watson is a fully paid-up liberal (and his book makes occasional gestures towards the issue of ‘gender’, one of the must-have topics which all contemporary humanities books have to include), nonetheless the net effect of these often harrowing 566 pages of text is to make the reader very nervous about the idea of a multinational country.

1. Austria-Hungary was a rainbow nation of ethnicities and, under pressure, it collapsed into feuding and fighting nationalities.

2. Russia, as soon as it invaded East Prussia and Galicia, began carrying out atrocities against entire ethnic groups classified as traitors or subversives, hanging entire villages full of Ukrainians or Ruthenians, massacring Jewish populations.

3. The to and fro of battle lines in the Balkans allowed invading forces to decimate villages and populations of rival ethnic groups who they considered dangerous or treacherous.

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915)

Austro-Hungarian troops hanging unarmed Serbian civilians (1915) No doubt ‘spies’ and ‘saboteurs’

In other words, everywhere that you had a mix of ethnicities in a society put under pressure, you got voices raised blaming ‘the other’, blaming whichever minority group comes to hand, for the catastrophe which was overtaking them.

Unable to accept the objective truth that their armies and military commanders were simply not up to winning the war, the so-called intelligentsia of Austria-Hungary, especially right-wing newspapers, magazines, writers and politicians, declared that the only reason they were losing must be due to the sabotage and treachery of traitors, spies, saboteurs and entire ethnic groups, who were promptly declared ‘enemies of the state’.

Just who was blamed depended on which small powerless group was ready to hand, but the Jews tended to be a minority wherever they found themselves, and so were subjected to an increasing chorus of denunciation throughout the empire.

Ring of Steel is a terrible indictment of the primitive xenophobia and bloodlust of human nature. But it is also a warning against the phenomenon that, in my opinion, has been ignored by generations of liberal politicians and opinion-formers in the West.

For several generations we have been told by all official sources of information, government, ministires, and all the media, that importing large groups of foreigners can only be a good thing, which ‘enriches’ our rainbow societies. Maybe, at innumerable levels, it does.

But import several million ‘foreigners’, with different coloured skins, different languages, cultures and religions into Western Europe – and then place the societies of the West under great economic and social strain thanks to an epic crash of the financial system and…

You get the rise of right-wing, sometimes very right-wing, nationalist parties – in Russia, in Poland, in Hungary, in Germany, in Sweden and Denmark, in Italy, in France, in Britain and America – all demanding a return to traditional values and ethnic solidarity.

I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying the evidence seems to be that human beings are like this. This is what we do. You and I may both wish it wasn’t so, but it is so.

In fact I’d have thought this was one of the main lessons of history. You can’t look at the mass destruction of the Napoleonic Wars and say – ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the appalling suffering created by industrialisation and say, ‘Well at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mind-blowing racist attitudes I’ve been reading about in the American Civil War and say, ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the mad outbreak of violence of the First World War and the stubborn refusal to give in which led to over ten million men being slaughtered and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’. You can’t look at the Holocaust and say – ‘Well, at least we’re not like that any more’.

We cannot be confident that human nature has changed at all in the intervening years.

Because in just the last twenty years we have all witnessed the savagery of the wars in former Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide, the genocide in Darfur, the failure of the Arab Springs and the civil wars in Syria and Libya, the 9/11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of ISIS, the war in Yemen, the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar prove.

If all these conflicts prove anything, they prove that —

WE ARE STILL LIKE THAT

We are just like that. Nothing has changed. Given half a chance, given enough deprivation, poverty and fear, human beings in any continent of the world will lash out in irrational violence which quickly becomes total, genocidal, scorched earth, mass destruction.

In the West, in Britain, France, Germany or America, we like to think we are different. That is just a form of racism. In my opinion, we are not intrinsically different at all. We are just protected by an enormous buffer of wealth and consumer goods from having to confront our basest nature. The majority of the populations in all the Western nations are well off enough not to want, or to allow, any kind of really ethnically divisive politics or inter-ethnic violence to take hold.

Or are they?

Because creating multi-cultural societies has created the potential for serious social stress to exacerbate racial, ethnic and nationalist dividing lines which didn’t previously exist. When I was growing up there was no such thing as ‘Islamophobia’ in Britain. 40 years later there are some 2.8 million Muslims in Britain, some 5% of the population – and I read about people being accused of ‘Islamophobia’, or Muslims claiming unfair discrimination or treatment in the media, almost every day in the newspapers.

It’s not as if we didn’t know the risks. I lived my entire life in the shadow of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland which were based entirely on ethnic or communal hatred. And now not a day goes past without a newspaper article bewailing how Brexit might end the Good Friday Agreement and bring back the men of violence. Is the peace between the ethnic groups in Northern Ireland really that fragile? Apparently so. But British governments and the mainland population have always had an uncanny ability to sweep Ulster under the carpet and pretend it’s not actually part of the UK. To turn our backs on 40 years of bombings and assassinations, to pretend that it all, somehow, wasn’t actually happening in Britain. Not the real Britain, the Britain that counts. But it was.

Anyway, here we are. Over the past 40 years or so, politicians and opinion makers from all parties across the Western world have made this multicultural bed and now we’re all going to have to lie in it, disruptive and troubled though it is likely to be, for the foreseeable future.

Conclusion

Although it certainly includes lots of detail about the how the societies of the Central Powers were mobilised and motivated to wage total war, and enough about the military campaigns to explain their impact on the home front, overall Watson’s book is not really a military history of the Central Powers at war, but much more a social and economic history of the impact of the war on the two empires of its title.

And in the many, many places where he describes ethnic and nationalist tensions breaking out into unspeakable violence, again and again, all over central and eastern Europe, Watson’s book – no doubt completely contrary to his intentions – can very easily be read as a manifesto against the notion of a multicultural, multi-ethnic society.


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley (2015)

Our Lord has done great things for us, because he wanted us to accomplish a deed so magnificent that it surpasses even what we have prayed for… I have burned the town and killed everyone. For four days without any pause our men have slaughtered… wherever we have been able to get into we haven’t spared the life of a single Muslim. We have herded them into the mosques and set them on fire… We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, Sire, a very fine deed. (Afonso de Albuquerque describing the Portuguese capture of Goa on 25 November 1510, p.286)

In 1500 the Indian Ocean was the scene of sophisticated trading networks which had been centuries in the making. Muslim traders from the ‘Swahili Coast’ of Africa traded up the coast to the Red Sea and across land to Cairo, heart of the Muslim world, while other traders crossed the ocean eastwards to the coast of India, where Hindu rajas ran a number of seaports offering hospitality to communities of Muslims and Jews in a complex multi-ethnic web.

The trading routes were well established and the commodities – such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – were managed via a familiar set of tariffs and customs. Even if you were caught by one of the many pirates who patrolled the sea, there were well established procedures for handing over a percentage of your cargo and being allowed to continue on your way.

All this was dramatically changed by the sudden arrival in 1497 of the super-violent Portuguese, who had orders from their king and from the pope:

  • to destroy all Muslim bases and ships
  • to establish European forts at all convenient harbours
  • to bully all local rulers into proclaiming complete subservience to the King of Portugal
  • to build churches and convert the heathens to Christianity

This is the story of how an idyllic, essentially peaceful, well ordered and multicultural world was smashed to pieces by the cannons, muskets and unbelievable savagery of barbarian Europeans. This book is a revelation. I had no idea that the Portuguese ‘explorers’ of the ‘Age of Discovery’ were quite such savage sadists.

Massacre of the Miri

Probably the most notorious incident, which epitomises the behaviour and attitudes of the invaders, was the massacre of the Muslim pilgrim ship Miri.

The Portuguese sent their ships to conquer the Indian Ocean in large groups or ‘armadas’.

On September 29, 1502, the fourth great Portuguese Armada spotted a large merchant ship carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. The ship, the Miri, was identified as belonging to al-Fanqi, thought to be the commercial agent representing Mecca – and the interests of the Muslim Mamluk dynasty in Cairo – in Calicut, one of the commercial seaports on the west India coast.

Portuguese Captain Matoso cornered the pilgrim ship which surrendered quickly, the captain and passengers imagining they would be able to buy off these ‘pirates’ in the traditional manner. But these were not pirates; they were Christians or, as they would come to be recognised around the Indian Ocean, sadistic, uncivilised barbarian murderers.

Commander of the Armada, Vasco da Gama, ignored all the offers of gold or cargo. His Portuguese crew plundered the ship, stole all its cargo and then made it plain that he planned to burn the ship with all its passengers – men, women and children – on board. As this realisation sank in the civilian passengers desperately attacked the Portuguese with stone and bare hands, but were themselves shot down by muskets and cannon from the Portuguese ships.

On October 3, 1502, having gutted the Miri of all its valuables, the Portuguese locked all the remaining passengers in the hold and the ship was burnt and sunk by artillery. It took several days to go down completely. Portuguese soldiers rowed around the waters on longboats mercilessly spearing survivors.

All in all it was a fine example of:

The honour code of the fidalgos with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending belief in retribution and punitive revenge. (p.144)

the honour code which, as Crowley emphasises, inspired the Portuguese voyages of conquest and terror.

The Calicut massacre

It helps to explain this behaviour, and put it in context, if you know about the Calicut Massacre. Back in December 1500 the Second Portuguese India Armada, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, had gotten frustrated at the slow pace at which his ships were being filled with spices at Calicut, the largest spice port on the western coast of India, despite having made an agreement with its raja or zamorin.

To hurry things along Cabral ordered the seizure of an Arab merchant ship from Jeddah, then loading up with spices nearby in the harbour. Cabral claimed that, as the Zamorin had promised the Portuguese priority in the spice markets, the cargo was rightfully theirs anyway.

Incensed by this theft, the Arab merchants around the quay started a riot and led the rioters to the ‘factory’ or warehouse which the Portuguese had only just finished building to store their booty. The Portuguese onboard the ships in the harbour watched helplessly while the Calicut mob successfully stormed the ‘factory’, massacring 50 of the Portuguese inhabitants, including some Franciscan friars.

Once the riot had quietened down, Cabral sent to the Zamorin asking for redress. When it wasn’t forthcoming, Cabral seized around ten Arab merchant ships in the harbour, confiscating their cargoes, killing their crews, and burning their ships. Blaming the Zamorin for doing nothing to stop the riot, Cabral then ordered all the guns from his fleet to bombard Calicut indiscriminately for a full day, wreaking immense damage, killing many citizens and starting fires which burnt entire quarters of the town.

Crowley shows us again and again how one bad deed, a bit of impatience or a slight cultural misunderstanding was liable to blow up, in Portuguese hands, into explosions of super-destructive wrath and mass murder.

The crusader mentality

It helps to understand the Portuguese approach a bit more if you realise that the Portuguese kings – John I (1481-1595) and Manuel I (1495-1521) – didn’t send out explorers and scientists – they sent warriors. And that these warriors were still steeped in the aggressive anti-Muslim ideology of the crusades.

Crowley’s narrative sets the tone by going back nearly a century before the Portuguese entered the Indian ocean, to describe the ‘crusade’ of an earlier generation when, in 1415, Portuguese crusaders attacked Ceuta, an enclave of Muslim pirates on the north coast of Africa. The Ceuta pirates had been a pest to Portuguese shipping for generations, and the Portuguese finally had enough, stormed and sacked it.

Having established the sense of antagonism between Muslims and Christians, Cowley leaps forward to the next significant moment, to when the Muslim Ottoman armies took Constantinople in 1453. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslims sent shocks waves throughout Christian Europe.

  • It made Christian kings, and their peoples, all over Europe feel threatened
  • It cut off trade routes to the East, for spices and so on

1. The quest for new routes to the spice trade

In other words the fall of Constantinople provided a keen commercial incentive to navigators, explorers and entrepreneurs to come up with alternative ways of reaching the Spice Islands by sea. While in the 1490s Christopher Columbus was trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund his idea of sailing west, around the world, to reach the Indies, the King of Portugal was persuaded to fund expeditions in the opposite direction – down the coast of Africa with the hope that it would be easier to cruise around Africa and reach the Spice Islands by heading East.

The spices in question included the five ‘glorious spices’ – pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – but also ginger, cardamom, tamarind, balms and aromatics like wormwood, Socotra aloe, galbanum, camphor and myrrh.

Also brought back from India were dyes like lac, indigo and dyewood and precious ornamental objects and materials like ivory, ebony and pearls. All these good fetched up to ten times as much on the quaysides of Lisbon or Venice as they cost to buy in Calicut. But that was when they had been transhipped from warehouses in the ports of the Middle East. The conquest of Constantinople reduced the transhipment trade and led to a more aggressive attitude from Muslim traders, which badly hurt the commercial prosperity of Venice, in particular.

2. Outflanking Islam

But the aim of the explorers was not only to get commercial access to the spice trade. throughout the Middle Ages it had been widely believed that Christianity had been carried by the apostle James and others, deep into Africa, into Arabia, and even as far as India.

So there was a military element to the expeditions. Christian strategists thought that, if the explorers could make contact with the Christian communities which were believed to exist in faraway India, and were able to link up – then together they would be able to surround, the European armies attacking from the west, the newly awakened Indian Christian armies attacking from the East.

In other words, alongside the element of exploration, ran an aggressive continuation of the fierce anti-Muslim, crusading mentality of John and Manuel’s medieval forebears.

This helps to explain the unremitting anti-Muslim hostility of the commanders of all the great Portuguese Armadas to the East. Not only did their kings demand it, not only was it part of their explicit, written instructions (which survive to this day), but their conquering mentality was backed up by the full force of the pope and the Holy Catholic Church.

The whole European apparatus of state power, religious intolerance, and the technology of war – metal armour and huge shipboard cannons – was brought to bear on the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean.

Wage war and total destruction… by all the means you best can by land and sea so that everything possible is destroyed. (The Regimento or instructions given by King Manuel I to Dom Francisco de Almeida in 1505)

Thus it was that warrior-sailors like the Sodré brothers or the du Albuquerque cousins received orders quite simply to destroy all Muslim ships and trade between the Red Sea and Calicut.

Sadism and intimidation were seen as legitimate tactics. The reader loses count of the number of local hostages, ambassadors and civilians who are taken by the Portuguese who, if anything displeases them, proceed to hang their hostages from the yardarms, before dismembering them and returning their scattered body parts to their horrified relatives waiting on shore. This happens lots of times.

When Vicente Sodré intercepted a large Muslim ship carrying a full cargo of treasure, commanded by the wealthy and well-known merchant Mayimama Marakkar, Vicente had Marakkar stripped naked, tied to the mast, whipped and then subjected to the Portuguese practice of merdimboca or ‘shit in the mouth’ – the name says it all – with the added refinement that the Portuguese forced Marakkar – an eminent and pious Muslim – to eat pork and bacon fat (p.141).

Deliberately offensive, determined to rule by Terror, fuelled by genocidal racism, unflinching, unbending and merciless, the Portuguese conquerors, in this telling, seem like the Nazis of their day.

Conquerors

So this is the story which Crowley’s book tells: the story of how tiny Portugal, at the far western tip of Europe, managed in thirty or so years, from the late 1490s to the 1520s, to establish the first global empire in world history – in reality a set of connected outposts dotted along the west and east coasts of Africa, the west coast of India – before moving on to explore the East Indies – all the while pursuing this policy of unremitting intimidation and extreme violence. It’s a harrowing read. Noses are slit and hands chopped off on pretty much every page.

Conquerors is divided into three parts:

  1. Reconnaissance: the Route to the Indies (1483-99)
  2. Contest: Monopolies and Holy War (1500-1510)
  3. Conquest: The Lion of the Sea (1510-1520)

Over and above the narrative of events, we learn a couple of Big Things:

1. How to round the Cape of Good Hope

The navigational breakthrough which allowed all this to happen was the discovery of how to round the Cape at the southernmost tip of Africa. For generations Portuguese ships had hugged the coast of Africa as they tentatively explored south and this meant that they struggled with all kinds of headwinds, shoals and rocks, particularly as they rounded the big bulge and struggled east into the Gulf of Guinea. The net result was that by 1460 they had established maps and stopping points at the Azores, Madeira, but only as far south along the African coast as the river Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Great Breakthrough was to abandon the coast altogether and give in to the strong north-easterly winds which blew sailing ships south and west out into big Atlantic – and then, half way down the coast of Brazil, to switch direction back east, and let the strong west winds blow you clean back across the Atlantic and under the Cape of Good Hope. See the red line on the map, below. This immensely significant discovery was made in the 1460s.

That’s if things went well. Which they often didn’t – with calamitous results. Crowley reports that of the 5,500 Portuguese men who went to India between 1497 (the date of Vasco de Gama’s first successful rounding of the Cape), 1,800 – 35% – did not return. Most drowned at sea.

All the armadas suffered significant loss of life to shipwreck and drowning.

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

2. The accidental discovery of Brazil

The Second Portuguese India Armada, assembled in 1500 on the order of Manuel I and commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, followed the strategy of heading west and south into the Atlantic in order to catch easterly winds to blow them round the tip of Africa. But the ships went so far that they sighted a new land in the west, landed and claimed it for Portugal.

It was Brazil, whose history as a western colony begins then, in April 1500, though it was to be some time before anybody made serious attempts to land and chart it, and Crowley makes no further mention of it.

3. Rivalry with Venice

I knew the Portuguese were rivals with the Spanish for the discovery and exploration of new worlds. I hadn’t realised that the creation of a new route to the Spice Islands rocked the basis of Venice’s maritime trade and empire.

Venice had for generations been the end point for the transmission of spices from India, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea to Suez, across land to Cairo, and by ship to Italy. This was all very expensive, especially the transhipment across land. Venice was rocked when the entire supply chain was jeopardised by the new Portuguese sea route, which resulted in huge amounts of spices and other exotic produce ending up on the quays of Lisbon at a fraction of the Venetian price.

With the result that the Venetian authorities sent spies to Lisbon to find out everything they could about the Portuguese navigators, their new routes and discoveries. They also sent emissaries to the Sultan in Cairo, putting pressure on him to either take punitive measures against the Portuguese, or to lower the taxes he charged on the land journey of Venetian spices from Suez to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Or both.

The sultan refused to do either. Venetian fury.

The rivalry of Venice is sown into the narrative like a silver thread, popping up regularly to remind us of the importance of trade and profit and control of the seas 600 years ago, and of the eternally bickering nature of Europe – a seething hotbed of commercial, religious and political rivals, all determined to outdo each other.

Prester John and a new Crusade

Medieval Christendom was awash with myths and legends. One such tale concerned a mythical Christian King who ruled in wealth and splendour somewhere in Africa, named ‘Prester John’.

When King Manuel sent out his conquerors, it was not only to seize the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, but to make contact with Prester John and unite with his – presumably massive and wealthy army – to march on Mecca or Cairo or Jerusalem, or all three, in order to overthrow Islam for good and liberate the Holy Places.

Vasco de Gama had this aim at the back of his mind as he set off to round the Cape, and so did Afonso de Albuquerque who, at the end of his life, was still planning to establish Christian forts on the Red Sea and to locate the mysterious John in a joint crusade against the Muslim sultan of Cairo.

If anyone was Prester John it was the self-styled ’emperor’ of Ethiopia, who some of the Portuguese did travel to meet, although he turned out – despite all his pomp and pageantry – to be completely unprepared to help any kind of European Christian Crusade against his Muslim neighbours, not least because they completely surrounded and outnumbered him.

Still, it is important to remember that the whole point of funding these expensive armadas into the Indian Ocean wasn’t primarily to open up new commercial routes: for the king and his conquerors, that was a happy side aim, but the Key Goal was to link up with the kingdom of Prester John and the imagined Christian kingdoms of the East, in order to exterminate Islam and liberate the Holy Places.

Crowley’s approach – more adventure than analysis

Crowley’s approach is popular and accessible. He prefers anecdote to analysis.

Thus the book’s prologue opens with a giraffe being presented to the Chinese emperor in Beijing in the early 1400s. This had been collected by the Chinese admiral Admiral Zheng He, who led one of the epic voyages which the Yongle Emperor had commissioned, sending vast Chinese junks into the Indian Ocean in the first decades of the 15th century. The flotillas were intended to stun other nations into recognition of China’s mighty pre-eminence and had no colonising or conquering aim.

The Yongle emperor was succeeded in 1424 by the Hongxi emperor who decided the expeditions were a waste of time and so banned further ocean-going trips, a ban which within a few decades extended to even building large ocean-going vessels: small coastal trading vessels were allowed, but the Ming emperors hunkered down behind their Great Wall and closed their minds to the big world beyond.

One way of looking at it, is that the Hongxi emperor handed over the world to be colonised by European nations.

The point is Crowley gets into this important issue via an anecdote about a giraffe, and doesn’t really unpack it as much as he could.

A few pages later, the main text of the book opens with a detailed account of the erection of a commemorative cross on the coast of Africa by Diogo Cao in August 1483. It was one of several he erected on his exploratory voyage down the west African coast.

In both instances Crowley is following the time-honoured technique of starting a chapter with an arresting image and dramatic scene. The problem is that when he proceeds to fill in the background and what led up to each incident, I think his accounts lack depth and detail. For example, my ears pricked up when he mentioned Henry the Navigator, but Henry’s life and career were only fleetingly referenced in order to get back to the ‘now’ of 1483. I had to turn to Wikipedia to get a fuller account of Henry’s life and importance.

Once on Wikipedia, and reading about Henry the Navigator, I quickly discovered that ‘the invention of the caravel was what made Portugal poised to take the lead in transoceanic exploration’, because of the light manoeuvrability of this new design of ship.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

Crowley certainly has some pictures of caravels, and describes them a bit, but doesn’t really give us enough information to ram home why their design was so game-changing.

It may be relevant that Crowley studied Literature not History at university. He is continually drawn to the dramatic and the picturesque, and skimps on the analytical.

To give another example, Crowley periodically namechecks the various popes who blessed the armadas and gave instructions as to the converting of the heathen and fighting the Unbeliever. He briefly mentions the famous Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, whereby Pope Alexander VI brokered the deal deciding which parts of the New World would belong to the rivals Spain and Portugal. But there is nowhere any real analysis of the enormous role the popes and the Catholic Church played in the geopolitics behind all this exploring and conquering.

Instead, Crowley is continually drawn to the most vivid and melodramatic moments: battles are described in terms of who got an arrow in the eye, and strategy is more seen as deriving from the raging impatience of this or that Portuguese commander than from higher-level geopolitical imperatives.

The personal, not the wider geo-political situation, is what interests Crowley in Europe and Indian and Islamic politics.

Crowley’s style

Crowley writes the short staccato sentences of a popular thriller – fine if you’re looking for poolside entertainment, but not enough if you’re looking for something with a little more analysis and insight.

It was time to move on. However, the wind thwarted their departure. The wind turned. They were forced back to the island. The sultan tried to make peace overtures but was rebuffed. Ten nervy days ensued. (p.67)

This is thriller writing, or the prose style of a modern historical romance.

Either Crowley, his editors or his publishers decided that hos book would be best marketed as popular, accessible, hair-raising history. Thrilling, gripping and often quite horrible history.

In the rain, with the continuous gunfire, in a tropical hell, soaking and sweating in their rotting clothes, they were increasingly gripped by morbid terror that they were all going to die. (p.275)

He gives us gripping individual scenes, but not so many real insights, let alone overarching analysis or ideas.

Thus, despite the book being some 360 pages long, and including lengthy end notes, I felt I’d only scratched the surface of these seismic events, had been told about the key dates and events, and seen quite a few hands being cut off – but was left wanting to understand more, a lot more, about the geographical, economic, technological and cultural reasons for the success of Portugal’s cruel and barbarous explorers and empire makers.

This feeling was crystallised when the book ended abruptly and without warning with the death of the bloodthirsty visionary, Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1415.

For sure he was a central figure, who grasped the strategic importance of seizing Goa, who tried to storm Aden, who arranged a native coup at Ormuz, who burned Muslim towns and ships without mercy, who chopped the hands and ears off his hostages by the score. By page 330 he had become the dominant figure of the book, almost as if it the book was at one stage intended to be a biography of just him.

So the book ends with his death in 1515 but … the Portuguese Empire had only just got going. There would be at least another century of colonising effort, in Brazil, on the coast of Africa, and further East, into Malaysia, Japan and China. A century more of adventures, wars and complex politicking.

None of that is here. Crowley briefly refers to all that on the last pages of his book, before a few sententious paragraphs about how it all led to globalisation and modern container ships. But of the real establishment and running of the Portuguese Empire which stretched from Brazil to Japan there is in fact nothing.

The book’s title is therefore a bit misleading. It should be titled something more like The generation which founded the Portuguese empire. That would excuse and explain his relatively narrow focus on de Gama, Cabra and Albuquerque, and on the king who commissioned their exploits, Manuel I. Maybe adding Manuel’s dates – 1495-1521 – would make it even clearer.

In fact, with a bit of rewriting, the book could have become Manuel I and the conquerors who founded the Portuguese Empire: that accurately describes its content.

The current title gives the impression that it will be a complete history of the Portuguese Empire – which is why I bought it – and which is very far indeed from being the truth.


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The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet and Architecture @ the National Gallery

This is a staggeringly brilliant exhibition for a number of reasons.

1. It is about an aspect of Monet’s work – the importance of all kinds of buildings to his art throughout his career – which has never been explored before but turns out to shed fascinating light on his art.

2. It brings together 78 works loaned from an astonishing variety of galleries across America and Europe to create a unique opportunity to see so many, and so varied, Monets together in one place. Sometimes big exhibitions are based largely on a gallery’s own collection, but not here: I counted over forty galleries and collections that works have been borrowed from. And not only that; almost a quarter are loaned from private collections. This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see so many works – from all round the Western world – all in one place.

3. Monet really was a genius. The first three or so rooms are interesting and contain good things, but the last two rooms, full of the works of his maturity, are quite stunning – spaces in which you feel you should be on your knees praying to the more-than-human brilliance of this complete master of oil painting.

4. They’ve really gone to town on the extras for the exhibition, with not only a fascinating audioguide but in the cinema room off to one side, a long film explaining the importance of architecture in Monet. The free printed guide contains not only a detailed timeline of Monet’s life but maps of France, Italy, London and Venice showing the precise locations where many of the paintings were made.

And the gallery has co-operated with Google Arts to produce a dedicated website / online experience which allows you to see the paintings in digital clarity, alongside text explaining their creation, all playfully titled Monet Was Here.

Seven rooms

There are seven rooms. The first three look at different ways Monet used rural and village buildings, buildings set in landscapes, to point and focus the composition. The next two look at his depictions of Paris and the Paris suburbs, from the smoky railway station of the Gare St Lazare, to the new bridge being built at Argenteuil, to busy scenes at seaside resorts, to some wonderful street scenes in Paris.

Then the last two, the Temples of Monet – the penultimate room has a wall of paintings depicting the facade of Rouen cathedral in changing light with, opposite them, a wall of wonderfully atmospheric paintings of London, Waterloo bridge and the Houses of Parliament.

And the final room is devoted to ten shimmering, magical paintings of the queen of the Adriatic, Venice.

The village and the picturesque

At the start of his career Monet used strong designs, powerfully constructed. In this example, bright colours (green grass, aquamarine sea) boats and distant smoke, but all crystallised by the hut in the foreground.

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

A Hut at Sainte-Adresse (1867)

In the 1870s Monet visited Holland where he played with the influence of the great 17th century Dutch painters of landscapes and interiors. This is a rare example of a Monet where the viewer is entirely enclosed by buildings.

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Footbridge at Zaandam, 1871 by Claude Monet. Musées de Mâcon © photo Pierre Plattier, Musées de Mâcon

Thus the first few rooms explore numerous aspects and experiments with buildings, in townscapes, by the sea, amid fields, from close up, seen on a shimmering horizon, playing with the impact and focus they bring to a composition.

By the sea

All through his life Monet painted sequences showing the same view, or different views of the same subject, like a chemist repeating the same experiment, trying to get at the core of a reaction.

Monet spent a lot of 1882 on the Normandy coast and painted a number of works which feature a modest custom officer’s cottage on the cliffs. Sometimes centre stage, sometimes tucked away or almost hidden, the exhibition includes three of these works to show how Monet took a building as the central focus around which he could experiment. In two of them it dominates the composition but – can you see it in this picture?

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

The Cliff at Varengeville (1882) by Claude Monet. Private Collection, USA, Courtesy of Richard Green Gallery, London © Photo courtesy of the owner

In 1888 Monet travelled to the south of France, staying at Antibes which he painted from the spit or ‘cap’ across the bay. This vantage point allowed endless experimentation with the effect of the shimmering sunlight on the blue Mediterranean.

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

Antibes from la Salis (1888) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s

These Antibes paintings include recognisable landmarks – the tower of the cathedral and the medieval castle of the Grimaldi family – but the commentary points out how, in many of his paintings, Monet very deliberately chose not to include more modern elements. For example, there’s a cluster of paintings he made of the picturesque Italian town of Bodighera, which he visited and painted in 1884, and from which he quietly excised newly built holiday homes or the new railway line.

Mist and snow

But Monet isn’t all Mediterranean sunlight. One very vivid painting is a depiction of his home village of Giverny, a few miles west of Paris, in the snow.

Monet is always conscious of the effet, the effects of changing light and weather and even of the clarity or mistiness of the air. In this snowscape it is the dimly visible buildings of Giverny, the architectural elements, which give the painting a sense of depth and volume, and the composition a focus for the eye, while the paint does the work of creating a mood.

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Snow Effect at Giverny (1893) by Claude Monet © New Orleans Museum of Art

Impressions not precision

At about this point I should mention that Monet isn’t a particularly accurate painter of architecture. His buildings are not mathematically precise renditions of the squares and angles which modern buildings and bridges must necessarily consist of.

I recently visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s excellent exhibition of Edward Bawden and I very much enjoyed the way that, whether he’s doing a watercolour of his back garden or a linocut print of Covent Garden market, Bawden’s lines are all clearly defined and mathematically precise.

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Albert Bridge (1966) by Edward Bawden. Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery © Estate of Edward Bawden

Monet’s buildings are never this precise, even when he is painting bridges or railways stations or other highly engineered structures.

Monet’s buildings, like his trees and other elements, are created by shimmering and often vague daubs of paint, overlaid and juxtaposed to create an atmosphere, a mood, an impression, rather than efforts at precise delineation.

Because I, personally, tend to like clear defined lines, I felt ambivalent about the series of big paintings Monet did of the new Gare St Lazare in Paris in 1877, a cluster of which hang here.

The commentary makes the clever point that they are a subtle subversion of the landscape genre, with a metal and glass roof replacing the sky and the shimmers of steam replacing the foliage of trees.

Maybe so. But after looking for some time I realised that I actively dislike the inaccurate draughtsmanship of the engineered roof, lamps and above all of the beautiful and ornate steam engines. All this is a kind of lost opportunity to show gleaming metal, precisely engineered structures, rivets, pistons and coupling rods. They seem to me a kind of acknowledgement of modernity which somehow misses the point of modernity.

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (1877) by Claude Monet © The National Gallery, London

Monet’s use of urban motifs

Monet’s use of contemporary urban subjects in a manner more appropriate to his style is demonstrated in The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris painted in 1873.

The commentary makes the interesting point that the painting captures the view from the first floor of the building where the first ever Impressionist Exhibition was to be held the following year, and where this very painting would be exhibited. Always interesting to learn snippets of art trivia.

And I couldn’t help thinking that there’s a large amount of L.S. Lowry in the way Monet paints his people, or at least his crowds of tottering nine-pin-like figures.

But the real visual interest is obviously in the shadow which casts a great diagonal line across the composition. It is the contrast between light and shade which really pulls Monet’s daisy, the drama it gives to the composition, the way your eye is pulled in by the great diagonal and then wants to explore the different effets of shade and direct sunlight.

So much so that if you look closely at the big buildings on the opposite side of the boulevard, you notice that they are leaning backwards – they are not accurately and strictly vertical. Architectural accuracy is not what he’s about.

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (1873) by Claude Monet © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

This slight wonkiness is a feature of many of the paintings. It was apparent in one of the earlier seaside paintings where an enormous white cliff seemed to be bulging out and threatening to collapse onto the beach below. The walls of the rural buildings in a number of the early village scenes seemed to meet at odd angles as if about to topple over. There’s a striking early painting of rural houses with Dutch gables reflected in the river (Houses on the Banks of the Zaan, Zaandam) where the wall of the left is leaning outwards at a perilous angle. In all of them the lines are wonky and unvertical, hazy, not ‘true’ in the engineering sense.

The point is – who cares, when he paints like this?

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

On the Boardwalk at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet © Photo courtesy of the owner

In this, as in several other seaside paintings shown side by side, the point is not the mathematical precision of the booth on the left, or the hotels on the right, of the steps down to the beach or of the planking of the boardwalk – these are all elements which go to create the overall effet.

In both boardwalk paintings the important thing is not the precision but the tremendous dynamism given by the plunging perspective of the boardwalk itself, which draws you quickly right into the heart of the painting which is all about vibrant colour, space and life.

Rouen, London, Venice

The previous five rooms have contained 50 or so good and sometimes outstanding paintings – for me the Trouville paintings and Giverny in the snow stood out, and there’s a painting of the Japanese bridge over Monet’s world-famous lily pond for fans of his garden paintings – all accompanied by fascinating and insightful commentary.

But walking into the last two rooms is like walking into a different world. Here you are brought face to face with half a dozen examples each of his famous series of paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral, opposite a selection of the series of paintings he made of the Thames in London, before you enter the final room devoted entirely to his late paintings of Venice – and it is as if you have died and gone to art heaven.

I have rarely felt so overwhelmed and awed by such an array of astonishingly beautiful artworks.

Rouen

By the 1890s Monet had perfected his technique of having multiple canvases of the same view on the go at once, and painting each of them at a specific time of the day, switching to the next one at the clock moved on, the sun rose, and the play of light and shadows changed.

Cities were easier to do this in since he needed the space to house quite a few wet canvases and all his equipment, somewhere he could leave it all overnight. The three cities represented here – Rouen, London, Venice, were all tourist resorts famous for their great architecture.

Monet painted some 30 canvases in Rouen, between February and April 1892 and the same months of 1893. He rented various rooms from shop owners opposite the cathedral which explains why there are two distinct points of view. The five massive paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral show that slight difference in vantage point but above all Monet’s godlike ability to capture the changes in light and colour on this elaborate and detailed architectural facade, with quite stunning results.

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

Rouen Cathedral (1894) by Claude Monet. Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

London

Monet first stayed in London in 1870-71 to escape from the violence of the Franco-Prussian War and the civil war in Paris which followed (a historical moment documented by the recent Tate Britain exhibition Impressionists in London).

In September-October 1899 he returned and stayed on the 6th floor of the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames Embankment, returning for another visit in January to April 1902. In total Monet made an impressive 100 canvases of London.

He painted the view from the Savoy he painted the view west towards Waterloo Bridge. Later he got permission to paint the houses of Parliament from the newly built St Thomas’s Hospital on the opposite bank of the Thames. In both views what interested him was the play of light.

This was made much more interesting but sometimes frustrating, by the high level of pollution in London’s air not to mention the erraticness of the English weather which made capturing exactly the same light at the same hour on successive days a challenge.

This section about London included one of the many half-finished canvases Monet made, a strikingly vague sketch of the Embankment including Cleopatra’s Needle. The commentary points out that with his London paintings, as with those of Rouen cathedral and Venice, Monet developed the paintings up to a certain point, alongside extensive sketches and notes, and then finished the paintings back home at Giverny.

Two of the Parliament paintings really stood out for me, one where the sun is flaming red and the Thames is on fire. Right next to it the exact same view at night with the moon a divided into fragments by cloud and reflecting shivers of silver all over the river surface.

But the one I really couldn’t tear myself away from was this stunning painting of an orange sun struggling through the London smog to glimmer and fleck red-gold highlights on the Thames. The painting is all about light and colour, it is a masterpiece of what oil painting can do to fill the visual cortex with pleasure – and yet the vague architectural structure of London Bridge with its neat arches, just barely visible through the smog, is a vital part of the composition in the way it enables the light to exist, to function, to perform.

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight in the Fog by Claude Monet

Venice

Monet visited Venice in 1908, staying for two months in apartments on the Grand Canal. The floating city under a Mediterranean sun was crying out to be depicted by the greatest impressionist of all. He produced 37 canvases, of which nine are on show here.

No people. No human activity is portrayed. Just the play of unearthly pink and eggshell blue in this watery paradise. (On a practical note, observe how the buildings on the right have the characteristic Monet lean; to my eye all of them look out of ‘true’, bulging out slightly over the water – but, as mentioned before, who cares.) they are quite staggeringly, luminescently transcendent works of art.

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Grand Canal (1908) by Claude Monet © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Scholarly conclusion

The rational, historical, art scholarly conclusion is that Monet used a very wide range of buildings, more than has previously been recognised, as motifs in his paintings:

  • as the basis of designs and patterns and compositions
  • as symbols of modernity and the bustling city
  • or to emphasise rural tranquility or isolation

In all cases using buildings to create, point and highlight his subtle emotional and psychological effects. Then, later in his career, he uses buildings as the subjects of some of his most dazzling, experimental and awe-inspiring works, the London, Rouen, Venice paintings.

Emotional conclusion

Often by the end of an exhibition I’m full to overflowing with facts and impressions and a little relieved to walk back out onto the street, but I found it genuinely difficult to leave this one, in particular to leave the room full of Monet’s London paintings.

I spent a good ten minutes looking from one to another and back again, walking out the room then finding myself drawn back in, to marvel all over again at Monet’s unprecedented handling of paint and the breathtaking creation of gorgeous, transcendent, shimmering works of art.

I’ve rarely encountered such a feeling of pure, unalloyed beauty and wonder in an art exhibition.

Exhibition videos

This is an introduction to the role of architecture in Monet’s life by Christopher Riopelle, The Neil Westreich Curator of Post 1800 Paintings at the National Gallery in London.

And here is Richard Thomson, exhibition curator and Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh, introducing The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

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