Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley (1921)

He was overcome by the beauty of those deeply embayed combes, scooped in the flanks of the ridge beneath him. Curves, curves: he repeated the word slowly, trying as he did so to find some term in which to give expression to his appreciation. Curves – no, that was inadequate. He made a gesture with his hand, as though to scoop the achieved expression out of the air, and almost fell off his bicycle.
(23-year-old Denis Stone, hero of Crome Yellow, page 6)

Huxley, born in 1894, was 26 when his first novel was published. It is a short and funny comedy of contemporary post-war English manners. Its hero, Denis Stone, is a young 23, has just published a very slim volume of verse and is, sigh, a most sensitive soul. He has come down by train to the charming English village of Crome and to the house of his friends Mr Henry Wimbush and his astrology-loving wife, Priscilla.

‘I see Surrey has won,’ she said, with her mouth full, ‘by four wickets. The sun is in Leo: that would account for it!’

The silly goings-on of guests at a charming country house was an established literary genre, going back at least as far as the slender comic novels of Shelley’s friend, Thomas Love Peacock, to wit: Headlong Hall, Nightmare Abbey, The Misfortunes of Elphin and Crotchet Castle.

Anyway, half a dozen house guests are assembled at the manor house of the sweet little village of Crome and proceed to be frivolous, posh and silly. They are:

Jenny Mullion – ‘perhaps thirty, owner of a tilted nose and a pink-and-white complexion, and wore her brown hair plaited and coiled in two lateral buns over her ears, who is separated from the rest of the world by the almost impenetrable barriers of her deafness.’ The way she uses her deafness to withdraw into is described very wittily.

I’m glad to hear it,’ said Priscilla.
‘Glad to hear what?’ asked Jenny, emerging suddenly from her private interior world like a cuckoo from a clock. She received an explanation, smiled, nodded, cuckooed a last ‘I see’,  and popped back, clapping shut the door behind her.

Mary Bracegirdle – ‘nearly twenty-three, but one wouldn’t have guessed it. Her short hair, clipped like a page’s, hung in a bell of elastic gold about her cheeks. She had large blue china eyes, whose expression was one of ingenuous and often puzzled earnestness.’

Mr. Scogan – ‘like one of those extinct bird-lizards of the Tertiary. His nose was beaked, his dark eye had the shining quickness of a robin’s. But there was nothing soft or gracious or feathery about him. The skin of his wrinkled brown face had a dry and scaly look; his hands were the hands of a crocodile. His movements were marked by the lizard’s disconcertingly abrupt clockwork speed; his speech was thin, fluty, and dry.’

Gombauld – an artist: ‘with more hair and less collar, Gombauld would have been completely Byronic – more than Byronic, even, for Gombauld was of Provencal descent, a black-haired young corsair of thirty, with flashing teeth and luminous large dark eyes.’

And Anne, Henry Wimbush’s niece: ‘Within its setting of light brown hair her face had a pretty regularity that was almost doll-like. And indeed there were moments when she seemed nothing more than a doll; when the oval face, with its long-lashed, pale blue eyes, expressed nothing; when it was no more than a lazy mask of wax.’

Denis is, of course, madly in love with her, included poems to her in his recently published slim volume; she, of course, merely thinks he’s a darling and a sweet boy, thus condemning him to hours of torture. Whenever they talk she doesn’t understand anything he says about the life of the mind and ethics and the soul: her philosophy is “One enjoys the pleasant things, avoids the nasty ones. There’s nothing more to be said.” Denis is tormented by the suspicion that she is attracted to the wild Provencal artist, Gombauld (and who wouldn’t be?)

They go on a tour of Henry’s farm, admiring his pigs and prize bull.

Mr Barbecue-Smith arrives. He is a writer, too, but of vulgar self-help and spiritual enlightenment books. Denis is horrified when the older man takes him aside in order to share authorly tips with him i.e. dragging him down to his level.

A chapter is devoted to the village’s vicar, the iron-grey Mr Bodiham. Huxley satirically includes the text of an actual sermon which correlated events of the First World War with predictions in the Book of Revelation to show that the Second Coming was at hand. Any moment. Really soon.

It is interesting that two of the themes Huxley would become famous for are clearly expressed in this, his first work:

1. Mr Scogan is an apostle of technology and efficiency. When they visit Henry Wimbush’s farm and are asked to admire the prodigious reproductive achievements of his pigs and his cows, Mr Scogan confidently predicts that in the future all this kind of thing will be managed, eventually in test tubes and bottles – a vision which clearly anticipates the work he’s most famous for, Brave New World:

With the gramophone, the cinema, and the automatic pistol, the goddess of Applied Science has presented the world with another gift, more precious even than these – the means of dissociating love from propagation. Eros, for those who wish it, is now an entirely free god; his deplorable associations with Lucina may be broken at will. In the course of the next few centuries, who knows? the world may see a more complete severance. I look forward to it optimistically. Where the great Erasmus Darwin and Miss Anna Seward, Swan of Lichfield, experimented – and, for all their scientific ardour, failed – our descendants will experiment and succeed. An impersonal generation will take the place of Nature’s hideous system. In vast state incubators, rows upon rows of gravid bottles will supply the world with the population it requires. The family system will disappear; society, sapped at its very base, will have to find new foundations; and Eros, beautifully and irresponsibly free, will flit like a gay butterfly from flower to flower through a sunlit world.

2. Spirituality. In 1937 Huxley moved to California and soon developed an interest in Vedanta, a form of Indian spiritualism. He was to go on and take this very seriously, becoming a follower of Hindu Swami Prabhavananda, receiving instruction in meditation, translating Indian spiritual classics and so on. The point is that some of the characters in this, his first novel, already display an interest in the spirit world, namely Priscilla Wimbush and Mr Barbecue-Smith although, as the names suggest, at this stage it is played entirely for laughs.

The plot

Things happen in nice, neat little chapters, their crisp tidiness itself contributing to the feel of slickness and cleverness.

Chapter 7

Virginal Mary knocks politely and tiptoes into Mary’s bedroom where the latter is lying catlike in bed reading, and timidly raises the subject of sex and how frightfully bad it is for you to be ‘repressed’ and ‘frustrated’ and therefore, was Mary attached to either Gombauld or Denis? Anne tries to keep a straight face and says No. Right. Mary is on the prowl.

Chapter 8

Priscilla and Mr Barbecue-Smith discuss Spiritualism over breakfast. It is interesting social history that, when Mr Wimbush asks if anyone wants to come to church with him, they all make excuses no to – interesting that there’s such widespread apathy, interesting that he’s a little shamefaced about asking.

Chapter 9

Mr Bodiham the iron-faced vicar in the Rectory, furiously wondering why his apocalyptic sermon predicting the end of the world and the Second Coming doesn’t shake up his sleepy congregation.

Chapter 10

In the drawing room that evening  Gombauld and Anne are dancing to jazz shouting out from a gramophone. Like many an intellectual, Denis is oppressed by the sight of other people having fun and wish he could be spontaneous and enjoy himself, instead he has picked up the first book that came to hand – The Stock Breeder’s Vade Mecum – and is pretending to read it. And now he finds virginal Mary suddenly standing in front of him, blocking his view of Anna and Gombauld, infuriating him with a load of damn fool questions. She earnestly asks who his favourite contemporary poets are and, savagely angry, he facetiously invents a trio based on the book he’s reading. ‘Blight, Mildew, and Smut,’ he angrily replies.

Chapter 11

Next morning they see off Mr Barbecue-Smith and all stroll round the house to the terrace and garden. Wanting to sound worldly Denis says: ‘The man who built this house knew his business. He was an architect’ only to be immediately contradicted and made to look a fool by the owner, Mr Wimbush, who gives a lengthy explanation of how the house was the design of a gifted amateur, an aristocrat who was obsessed with toilets.

Chapter 12

Mary realised Denis’s answer about Blight, Mildew and Smut was facetious and is upset. Now she sets her sights on Gombauld, the raffish painter from Marseilles and goes to see him in the upstairs part of a converted barn which has converted into a studio. First she is disconcerted to see that his current painting demonstrates that he has gone right the way through cubism and come out the other side into a form of figurativism. Second, he treats her like a child, lets her stay and witter on for precisely the length of one cigarette, then turns her round and firmly guides her back the step-ladder out of the attic, and pats her behind a few times for good measure.

Chapter 13

Henry comes down to dinner that evening and presents his History of Crome, a book which his niece Anne remembers him as working ever since she’s known him. He reads the chapter about his ancestor, Sir Hercules Lapith, who was a dwarf and so populated the staff with fellow dwarfs, had only the smallest dogs and shetland ponies to ride and even sought out and married an Italian lady dwarf. But alas when she gave birth, the son grew into a surly, normal-sized brute. After arguments and disputes, the giant one day returns from the Grand Tour with two normal-sized friends and their servants. They mock the dwarves and get the loyal butler drunk and make him dance while chucking walnuts at him. Sir Hercules spies all this through the keyhole of the dining room and decides there is no place for him in the world. He goes back to his bedroom, commiserates with his lovely wife, she takes an overdose of opium and he gets into a hot bath and slashes his wrists. It is a strangely absorbing and peculiar story.

Chapter 14

In the living room is a door cunningly made to look like part of the shelves of the library, with lots of leatherbound spines which contain no actual books. This prompts Mr Scogan to paeans of praise for the glories of these, alas, inaccessible volumes, especially the legendary ‘Seven volumes of the ‘Tales of Knockespotch’.

Chapter 15

They’re all on the terrace admiring the view. Mr Scogan descants on the oddity of the fact that in all of recorded history writers have been amused by sex until the nineteenth when it suddenly became unmentionable. At the end of the 19th century, sex reappeared in polite conversation but now seen through science: discussion of sex is frank but earnest, whereas he laments the jolly sex of Chaucer and Rabelais. Earnest Mary, proving his point, earnestly disagrees. She thinks sex is very serious. Frivolous Ivor arrives on his motorbike. He is a natural at everything, driving cars, playing the piano, singing, art, chatting up women, he even has contacts in the spirit world which he draws with gay abandon.

Chapter 16

After dinner the ladies leave the room. Mr Scogan explains his habit of comparing everyone he’s in company with to one of the first six Caesars. This frivolous thought develops into quite a serious point about the post-war climate of violence. Huxley has

‘Seventy and eighty years ago simple-minded people, reading of the exploits of the Bourbons in South Italy, cried out in amazement: To think that such things should be happening in the nineteenth century! And a few years since we too were astonished to find that in our still more astonishing twentieth century, unhappy blackamoors on the Congo and the Amazon were being treated as English serfs were treated in the time of Stephen. To-day we are no longer surprised at these things. The Black and Tans harry Ireland, the Poles maltreat the Silesians, the bold Fascisti slaughter their poorer countrymen: we take it all for granted. Since the war we wonder at nothing. We have created a Caesarean environment and a host of little Caesars has sprung up. What could be more natural?’

Since the war. A little piece of anecdotal fictional evidence which supports the conclusion of numerous commentators that the First World War unleashed previously undreamed-of levels of violence into politics and society.

And a serious point about the limits of sympathy, namely that it is only because we are such unsympathetic, unfeeling and on the whole unimaginative people, that happiness is possible.

‘At this very moment,’ he went on, ‘the most frightful horrors are taking place in every corner of the world. People are being crushed, slashed, disembowelled, mangled; their dead bodies rot and their eyes decay with the rest. Screams of pain and fear go pulsing through the air at the rate of eleven hundred feet per second. After travelling for three seconds they are perfectly inaudible. These are distressing facts; but do we enjoy life any the less because of them? Most certainly we do not. We feel sympathy, no doubt; we represent to ourselves imaginatively the sufferings of nations and individuals and we deplore them. But, after all, what are sympathy and imagination? Precious little, unless the person for whom we feel sympathy happens to be closely involved in our affections; and even then they don’t go very far. And a good thing too; for if one had an imagination vivid enough and a sympathy sufficiently sensitive really to comprehend and to feel the sufferings of other people, one would never have a moment’s peace of mind. A really sympathetic race would not so much as know the meaning of happiness. But luckily, as I’ve already said, we aren’t a sympathetic race.’

I wholeheartedly agree. We are a blunt unimaginative species. It is the only thing that allows us to live. But our inability to see beyond the little circle of our families, friends and pleasures will be the death of our planet.

Chapter 17

It is night. The younger members of the party go out into the garden and then set off running down the slope in the dark. First Ivor tries it on with Jenny and gets a slap for his troubles. Then waiting at the bottom of the slope he puts his arms around Anne only to discover it is Mary. Still, he sings so divinely and it is such a beautiful evening that she soon forgets and then succumbs to his charms. Meanwhile Denis discovers that Anne has tripped and twisted her ankle and scraped her hands. He sits next to her, cleans her wounds, puts his arms around her and then experimentally kisses her. For a fleeting moment it works but then she averts her face and tells him ‘It’s not our stunt,’ an interesting turn of phrase. He volunteers to carry her back up to the house and makes it for five paces before he stumbles and drops her. Anne bursts into tinkling laughter and, as usual, poor Denis is covered in confusion and mortification.

Chapter 18

Mr Wimbush attends church. Mr Bodiham preaches a sermon about the necessity for a war memorial. Various ideas have been mooted – a memorial library, lich gate or stained glass window – but no decision has been made and not much money has been raised. Mr Wimbush walks home in a pensive mood, passing through a group of surly, loutish village youths who just about tug their forelocks before bursting into sniggers. They reminded me of the bored village teenagers in Posy Simmonds’s graphic novel Tamara Drewe.

Chapter 19

Mr Wimbush reads another chapter from his History of Crome. (The reader realises this is going to be a recurring feature.) This time the short happy life of Sir Ferdinando Lapith, the rough rude son of the dwarf Sir Hercules, who drank to excess, especially when celebrating defeats of the tyrant Napoleon and drank himself silly on a coach heading west after the victory at Waterloo, fell off as it approached Swindon, was run over and died, from excess of patriotic zeal!

This leads into the comic tale of his ancestor George who was in love with three thin and everso spiritual sisters of a local landowner. They indicated this extraordinary spirituality by eating little or nothing and rhapsodising about Death in a Shelleyan manner. One night George is dozing in a deep armchair when he sees a serving woman carrying a heavy tray press a secret button, open a false door and disappear up some stairs. Following on tiptoe George burst into a hidden room to find the three sisters stuffing their faces. They’re as shocked as he is. After a muttered apology he turns tail, flees back down the stairs, then bursts into laughter at the bottom. Next day he blackmails the prettiest of the daughters, Georgiana, into marrying him. Her mother Lady Lapith, was disappointed but after all, he wasn’t such a bad catch.

When Henry has finished reading the young people complain what a stuffy night it is. Mary and Ivor suggest they sleep in mattresses up on the towers, and so they do, and when everyone has gone to sleep, Ivor perilously tightrope walks along the roof ridge, over to Mary’s tower, where they have a snog and watch the sunrise. Sounds wonderful.

Chapter 20

Ivor departs in his lemon yellow sedan, leaving a fluent poem in the visitors book. This prompts a conversation wherein Denis explains the nature of literature and poetry to Mr Scogan, namely in the magic of words.

‘That’s the test for the literary mind,’ said Denis. ‘The feeling of magic, the sense that words have power. The technical, verbal part of literature is simply a development of magic. Words are man’s first and most grandiose invention. With language he created a whole new universe; what wonder if he loved words and attributed power to them!’

Chapter 21

Gombauld is painting Anne’s portrait in the granary. He infuriates her by claiming she is flirting with him, and then even more by claiming she is leading Denis on. Anne delivers a feminist lecture complaining that men simply project onto passive women their own lusts and fantasies and then blame the women for it. Hundred years old, this book is.

‘So like a man again!’ said Anne. ‘It’s always the same old story about the woman tempting the man. The woman lures, fascinates, invites; and man—noble man, innocent man—falls a victim. My poor Gombauld! Surely you’re not going to sing that old song again. It’s so unintelligent, and I always thought you were a man of sense.’
‘Thanks,’ said Gombauld.
‘Be a little objective,’ Anne went on. ‘Can’t you see that you’re simply externalising your own emotions? That’s what you men are always doing; it’s so barbarously naive. You feel one of your loose desires for some woman, and because you desire her strongly you immediately accuse her of luring you on, of deliberately provoking and inviting the desire. You have the mentality of savages. You might just as well say that a plate of strawberries and cream deliberately lures you on to feel greedy. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred women are as passive and innocent as the strawberries and cream.’

Chapter 22

In a lazy post-prandial mood, Denis lazily tries to write a poem. Then out the window he glimpses Gombauld and Anne walking by towards the granary and is so angry he throws the poem in the bin, and rushes downstairs.

Straight into the arms of Mr Scogan who insists on taking him for a walk through the herb garden where he expounds his vision of a perfectly rational future state – the Rational State – in which psychologists allot every new-born baby to a particular class or species. There may be hundreds of these but there will be three master categories – the commanding Intelligences; the Men of Faith, i.e. fanatical believers who translate the Intelligence’s plans into the kind of emotional rhetoric the masses understand along with ’causes’ and ‘battles’; and then the masses, the Herd.

Chapter 23

Denis persuades Mr Scogan to accompany him on his original errand, which was to interrupt whatever Anne and Gombauld are up to in the granary. In fact they are in bad moods with each other and happy to be interrupted. Mr Scogan admires Gombauld’s portrait of Anne but goes on to explain why he in fact likes cubism because it so utterly banishes huge, unwieldy and incomprehensible nature – which is why he likes travelling on the Tube in London. Denis rests his hands on the back of Anne’s chair as they both look at some of Gombauld’s other paintings, both aware of a special mood. Suddenly, in a strangled voice, Denis says, ‘Anne, I love you’. She laughs but blushes. Is she starting…

Chapter 24

Denis comes across the secret journal Jennifer is always writing in. He is aghast to discover it’s full of blisteringly accurate caricatures of all the house guests, not least him, portrayed in an armchair watching Gombauld dance with Anne and entitled Sour Grapes. In a flash he realises he is not the only person in the world – that people talk about him all the time behind his back. He is watched (this is the anxious feeling – that, for others, we are no more than objects that Jean-Paul Sartre would examine in depth 20 years later).

He mopes.

Oh, these rags and tags of other people’s making! Would he ever be able to call his brain his own? Was there, indeed, anything in it that was truly his own, or was it simply an education?

Depressed, Denis walks down to the boathouse by the lake where he finds Mary sitting, depressed after receiving a postcard from Ivor who has moved on to his next house party, and which makes it quite plain he’s moved on from her, while she has fallen fatally in love with him.

Chapter 25

Mr Wimbush announces the annual Charity Fair and Anne groans in horror. Quickly she signs up all the guest to perform functions. Gombauld cheerfully says it sounds like a holiday. This triggers a long disquisition by Mr Scogan about holidays, we can never have holidays because we can never escape from ourselves or our human nature.

‘Isn’t a complete and absolute change precisely the thing we can never have—never, in the very nature of things?’ Mr. Scogan once more looked rapidly about him. ‘Of course it is. As ourselves, as specimens of Homo Sapiens, as members of a society, how can we hope to have anything like an absolute change? We are tied down by the frightful limitation of our human faculties, by the notions which society imposes on us through our fatal suggestibility, by our own personalities.’

Mr Scogan is described as beaky and saurian, with claws instead of hands. Is he a caricature of the philosopher Bertrand Russell?

Chapter 26

Feeling soulful and sad, as usual, Denis looks down at the hubbub of the annual Fair, and then goes down amongst it, among all those people, amazing to think they all have souls and minds like his, are individuals full of hopes and fears and criticism. He steps down into the crowd and visits the stalls, the Tattooed Lady, the Largest Rat in the World, the funfair rides, a balloon flying loose up into the sky.

Chapter 27

Mr Scogan is dressed up as a gypsy palm reader, ‘Sesostris, Sorcoress of Ecbatana’, and very funnily gives people dark hints about their doom-lade futures. The result is that he is wildly popular and a big queue forms outside his tent. We watch him reading the palm of one susceptible young woman and – it appears – predicting that a short beaky-faced man will meet her next Sunday afternoon at 6pm and she will take him down to the woods for some rumpy-pumpy. Hmm.

Denis wanders on to the trestle table where Anne is serving mugs of tea. There’s a neat pile of the poem Denis wrote specially for the fair. They had five hundred copies printed. It is a page long and mournful and completely inappropriate for a people’s fair. He asks Anne how many copes have been sold (at tuppence a go). Three.

Old Mrs Budge who, when the government announced that it needed peach stones (for unknown reasons) bravely did her bit for the war effort and in 1916 ate 4,200 peaches and sent the stones to the government. In 1917 the government called up three of her gardeners and she was only able to eat 2,900 peaches, which may explain why the allies fared so badly in that disastrous year.

Denis strolls on to the Young Ladies Swimming Competition where he sees two local worthies, old Lord Moleyn and Mr Callamay ‘congratulating’ the winner of the latest heat, standing trim and nubile in her dripping swimming costume. Hmm. Or leching over her. Walking on he hears voices and looks up to see the vicar and his wife peering over a high yew hedge, staring at the schoolgirl swimmers in their costumes, and tut-tutting and saying, ‘Disgusting, disgusting.’

Elsewhere earnest, rational Mary is swamped by schoolchildren who she is organising into a three-legged race, red-faced and efficient. Denis sneaks away from all thus vulgar racket, back up to the empty manor house, makes himself a cheeky gin and tonic, and settles into a deep armchair to read the French critic, Sainte-Beuve (1804-69).

Chapter 28

In the evening there is a band. Two or three hundred couples dance under the hard white acetylene lights. Henry finds Denis and asks if he’d like to come and view the old oak log pipes he’s dug up which were part of the original house. Far enough away from the noisy dance floor, Henry sighingly laments how much he doesn’t like people. Life would be so much simpler if we could just read books and didn’t have to engage with the smelly, noisy and completely unknowable people of the present. How comforting history is, where life is wrapped and defined and finished and comprehensible. As to the present he has no idea about news or current affairs and lacks the energy to find out. One day all our ‘human’ interactions will be carried out by machines.

Chapter 29

10pm the evening of the Fair. The crowds have left, things are being packed away. Denis sees Gombauld and Anne necking and smooching down by the swimming pool and runs inside in despair. In fact Anne is furiously trying to escape Gombauld’s clutches and he is irritated at being balked.

Denis reads till 2.30 but is still upset. He sneaks down the hall to the little pantry which houses the ladder up to one of the mansion’s towers, pushes open the trapdoor and emerges on the tower top. O Life. O Death. O Love. What is the meaning of it all? Denis looks down at the terrace far below and deliciously imagines plummeting to his death. Then they’d be sorry.

He is holding his arms up and out like wings when he is startled by a voice from close behind him and very nearly does topple over the parapet by accident! It is Mary. Ever since that magical night with Ivor she has slept up here on a mattress. Now Denis confesses everything i.e. his doomed love for Anne, his rage and frustration. An hour later he is lying with his head on her knees as she stroke his hair, having herself confessed her undying love for Ivor. O love!

There’s only one way out of Denis’s torment. He must leave.

Chapter 30

So he arranges for a telegram to be sent to him declaring ‘Urgent Family Business. Come At Once.’ Of course, as soon as the plan is laid, Anne starts to become more sympathetic, coming to sit with him on the terrace. After lunch the telegram arrives, is handed to him, he opens it and announces he must leave. All the other guests tut tut and say how sad they are, but Anne really does look sad and Denis is in torment, wondering whether he’s made a huge blunder. Again. As usual.

The final chapter is as funny as the first, with Mary urging Denis on in her brisk, no-nonsense fashion, Anne expressing what seems to be genuine regret that he’s leaving, and then the car is at the door, Denis’s stuff is loaded into it, and the novel ends.

Romanà clef

Wikipedia confirms my hunch that Mr Scogan is a portrait of Bertrand Russell. By extension the lovely manor house with its relaxed atmosphere is based on Garsington Manor, a favourite venue for posh literati between the wars, owned by Lady Ottoline Morrell who is the basis for the mannish, astrology-reading Priscilla Wimbush. Gombauld is – apparently – loosely based on the energetic young painter Mark Gertler (1891-1939) and earnest Mary Bracegirdle on Dora Carrington.

Knowing this only makes it more intriguing to wonder who the other characters – the fragrant willowy Anne, Mr Barbecue-Smith, the charming Ivor – are based on. But thinking about this much reminds you that the whole thing may be loosely based on real-life characters, but has been hugely perfected and rounded out by Huxley’s comic invention.

To give a sense of the period and the people and what they looked like, here’s a photo of the American poet T.S. Eliot visiting Garsington, with Mark Gertler seated in the middle, and the weird-looking Ottoline Morrell swathed in silk and sitting in an uncomfortable-looking posture (look at her feet) on the right.

T.S. Eliot, Mark Gertler and Lady Ottoline Morrell


Related links

Books from or about the 1920s

First World War

The Good Soldier Švejk

Russian Revolution

William Somerset Maugham

Franz Kafka

Hermann Hesse

Alfred Döblin

Dashiell Hammett

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites @ the National Gallery

This is a smallish (just 33 works) but really beautiful and uplifting exhibition.

It’s devoted to showing the influence of the northern Renaissance painter, Jan van Eyck, on the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite painters. Well, I love Northern Renaissance art and I love later Victorian art, so I was in seventh heaven.

In the mid-19th century Jan van Eyck was credited as the inventor of oil painting by the Italian painter and historian Giorgio Vasari, author of the Lives of the Great Painters (1550). We now know this not to be strictly true; a more realistic way of putting it is that Van Eyck and his contemporaries in the mid-15th century Netherlands brought oil painting to an extraordinary level of refinement and brilliance. They were the first to use multiple ‘glazes’ (building up successive layers of partly translucent paint) and to pay astonishing attention to detail, producing works which combined amazing precision and sumptuous colour, with an intoxicating sense of depth.

Van Eyck versus del Piombo

The exhibition opens with a ten-minute film (shown in a dark room off to one side) which explains the idea succinctly. In the 1840s the National Gallery only owned one work by any of the Netherlandish masters – Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, which it acquired in 1842 when the National Gallery itself was only 18 years old.

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife (1434) by Jan van Eyck

At that point, the Royal Academy’s School of Art was located in the same building as the small National Gallery collection. All the art students of the day had to do was walk along a few corridors to view this stunning masterpiece. Among these art students were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and others who went on to form the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in 1848.

Nearby hung the very first painting acquired by the Gallery, this enormous work from the High Renaissance, The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo. The PRBs thought that works like this had become so stylised and formalised as to have become meaningless and devoid of emotion. They disliked the artificial poses, the pious sentiments, the sickly colouring, the simplified pinks and blues and greens.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo

The raising of Lazarus typified everything the PRBs disliked in painting, a sterile academicism. Compare and contrast the van Eyck, with its precision of detail (look at the pearls hanging on the wall, the candelabra, the fur trimming of husband and wife), the humane mood and emotion, and the realistic use of light.

The PRBs rejected Piombo, Michelangelo, Raphael, all the masters of the High Renaissance and, as a group, made a concerted effort to return to the twinkling detail and humanity of medieval painting. (A trend which was helped by the medievalising tendency in Victorian culture generally, epitomised by the poetry of Tennyson, the historical novels of Scott, and which would be carried through into the Arts and craft movement by William Morris).

The appeal of the Northern Renaissance

In total the exhibitions comprises a room or so of works by van Eyck and contemporaries (Dirk Boults, Hans Memling) before three rooms look at masterpieces by the PRBs which pay homage to the Arnolfini Wedding; and a final room looks at its influence on art at the turn of the century.

Pride of place in the first room goes to van Eyck’s stunning self-portrait. For me this epitomises the strength of northern Renaissance painting in that it is humane and realistic. Unlike Italian Renaissance paintings which tend to show idealised portraits of their sitters, this presents a genuine psychological portrait. The more you look the deeper it becomes. His wrinkles, the big nose, the lashless eyelids – you feel this is a real person. For me, this has extraordinary psychological depth and veracity.

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait) (1433) by Jan van Eyck © The National Gallery, London

Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?) (1433) by Jan van Eyck © The National Gallery, London

Near to it is a Virgin and Child by fellow northerner, Hans Memling. I love the medieval details which cling to these works, the toy sailing ship in the background such as might have been used in the Hundred Years War. Note the way there is perspective in the picture (things further away are smaller) but it is not the mathematically precise perspective which Italian Renaissance painters liked to show off. In particular the floor is set at an unrealistically sloping angle. Why? To show off the detail of the black and white tiling, and especially of the beautifully decorated carpet.

As well as the humanity of the figures and faces, it is this attachment to gorgeous detail which I love in north Renaissance art.

The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor by Hans Memling (1480) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with an Angel, Saint George and a Donor by Hans Memling (1480) © The National Gallery, London

The convex mirror

Next we move on to the first of the Victorian homages to van Eyck and it immediately becomes clear why the exhibition is titled Reflections. The curators have identified a thread running through major early, later and post-Pre-Raphaelite paintings – use of the CONVEX MIRROR.

If you look closely at the Arnolfini Wedding, you can see not only the backs of the married couple but a figure who is usually taken to be a self-portrait of the artist. It adds an element of mystery (nobody is completely certain it is the artist in the mirror), it expands the visual space by projecting it back behind us, so to speak, and painting an image distorted on a convex surface, along with the distorted reflection of the window, is an obvious technical tour de force.

Now look at this early Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, the Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) in which a ‘kept woman’ is suddenly stirring from the lap of the rich bourgeois who keeps her (in this instance, in a luxury apartment in St John’s Wood).

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) © Tate, London

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853) © Tate, London

Note the sloping floor which gives full scope to a gorgeous depiction of the patterned carpet; the hyper-realistic detailing of every one of the cluttered elements in the room, for example the grain of the piano, the gilt clock on top of it, the crouching cat, which recalls the dog in the van Eyck. But behind the figures is an enormous mirror which adds a tremendous sense of depth to the main image.

Maybe it is a symbol in a painting packed with religious symbolism: maybe the window opening into sunlight and air is an allusion to the woman’s possible redemption from her life of shame.

The curators have selected works which demonstrate the way the mirror theme is repeated by all the pre-Raphaelites, famous and peripheral. Here’s an early Burne Jones watercolour where he’s experimenting with a complex mirror which consists of no fewer than seven convex mirrors each reflecting a different aspect of the main event (the capture of Rosamund by Queen Eleanor).

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones © Tate, London

Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor (1862) by Sir Edward Burne-Jones © Tate, London

The exhibition explains that this type of convex mirror became highly fashionable among the PRBs and their circle. Rossetti was said to have over 20 mirrors in his house in Chelsea, including at least ten convex ones. In fact we have a painting done by his assistant Henry Treffry Dunn which shows a view of Rossetti’s own bedroom as reflected in one of his own convex mirrors.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872) by Henry Treffry Dunn © National Trust Images/ John Hammond

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bedroom at Tudor House, 16 Cheyne Walk (1872) watercolour by Henry Treffry Dunn © National Trust Images/ John Hammond

A generation after The Awakening Conscience Holman Hunt uses a mirror again, this time because it is part of the narrative of the influential poem by Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott. In Tennyson’s poem the eponymous lady lives her life in a high tower, shut off from real life outside, devoting her life to creating an enormous tapestry, seeing the world outside only as it is reflected in a grand mirror. One day along comes the heroic knight Sir Lancelot, the mirror cracks and the lady rises up, leaves her ivory tower and ventures out into ‘real life’.

(A relevant fable for our times, maybe, when so many of us are addicted to computer screens and digital relationships that we have coined an acronym, IRL [in real life] to depict the stuff that goes on outside the online realm.)

The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) by William Holman Hunt © Manchester City Galleries/Bridgeman Images

The Lady of Shalott (1886-1905) by William Holman Hunt © Manchester City Galleries / Bridgeman Images

Note the wooden sandals or ‘pattens’ on the floor which are a direct quote from the Arnolfini Wedding, as is the candelabra on the right.

This painting is hanging in a room devoted to the story of the Lady of Shalott since, obviously enough, the mirror plays a central part in the narrative, and so gave painters an opportunity to explore ideas of distortion, doubling and reflection, ways to convey complex psychological drama.

Nearby is hanging another masterpiece by a favourite painter of mine, John William Waterhouse.

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) Bridgeman Images

The Lady of Shalott (1888) by John William Waterhouse © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / Bridgeman Images

In the mirror we can see what the lady sees i.e. the window through which she can see dashing Sir Lancelot and the green fields of the real world. But we are looking at her looking at him although, in fact, she seems to be looking at us. And in her eyes is conveyed the haunting knowledge that, although her life to date may have been a sterile imprisonment – in fact, her emergence into ‘real life’ – in the poem – leads to her mysterious and tragic death.

I love Waterhouse’s faces – like Burne-Jones he hit on a distinctive look which is instantly identifiable, in Waterhouse’s case a kind of haunted sensuality.

By this stage, we are nearly 40 years after the first Pre-Raphaelite works, and Waterhouse’s art shows a distinctively different style. Among the things the PRBs admired in van Eyck was the complete absence of brushstrokes; the work was done to such a high finish you couldn’t see a single stroke: it was a smooth flat glazed surface, and they tried to replicate this in their paintings. Forty years later Waterhouse is not in thrall to that aesthetic. He has more in common with his contemporary, John Singer Sargent, in using square ended brushes and being unafraid to leave individual strokes visible (if you get up close enough), thus creating a looser, more shimmering effect.

In the final room the curators attempt to show that van Eyck’s convex mirror remained a source of inspiration for the next generation of artists, including Mark Gertler, William Orpen, and Charles Haslewood Shannon. These artists incorporated the mirror into their self-portraits and in domestic interiors well into the early 1900s, as seen in Orpen’s The Mirror (1900) and Gertler’s Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918).

Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918) by Mark Gertler © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Bridgeman Images

Still Life with Self-Portrait (1918) by Mark Gertler © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) U.K. Bridgeman Images

Conclusion

In the final room the curators include a massive copy of Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas (1656) on the basis that the van Eyck was for a time hung in the Spanish Royal Collection and so might have directly inspired Velázquez’s use of the mirror motif.

At moments I became confused whether this was an exhibition about van Eyck’s overall stylistic impact on the Pre-Raphaelites – or a history of ‘the mirror’ in painting. You feel the exhibition doesn’t quite do either theme thoroughly: ‘the mirror in art’ would be a vast subject; ‘van Eyck’s convex mirror’ would result in probably a smaller show than the one here, whereas ‘van Eyck’s influence on the PRBs’ would have stopped earlier, certainly not including the 20th century works and probably not the Waterhouse.

So in the end I was left slightly confused by the way the exhibition had two or three not-totally-complete threads to it. But who cares: on the upside it includes a number of absolutely beautiful masterpieces. The mirror theme is kind of interesting, but I found the alternative thread – the direct relationship between van Eyck’s meticulous realism and that of the early PRBs – much the most visually compelling theme.

It is epitomised in this wonderful masterpiece by John Everett Millais, painted when he was just 22.

Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais © Tate, London

Mariana (1851) by John Everett Millais © Tate, London

No convex mirror in sight, but what is in evidence is a luminous attention to naturalistic detail (the needle in the embroidery on the table, the leaves on the floor, the wee mouse, bottom right, echoing van Eyck’s doggie) and the technique.

The curators explain that Millais used a resin-based paint for the stained glass and especially the blue velvet dress, comparable to van Eyck’s use of layers of ‘glaze’ — both of them seeking – and achieving – an incredible sensation of depth and colour and sensual visual pleasure which only oil painting can convey.


Videos

Here’s the one-minute promotional film, with funky three-dimensional techniques.

And the 50-minute-long presentation by the exhibition’s co-curators.

There are a few other short films the National Gallery has produced on aspects of the show, all accessible from this page.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

A Crisis of Brilliance by David Boyd Haycock (2009)

A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War  by David Boyd Haycock (2009) is the book which led to the lovely exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The artists in question all attended Slade Art school in the years just before WWI and this group biography – weaving together their family stories, their love affairs, their letters and diaries and works of art – gives a wonderful sense of what it was to be young (very young in some cases, 16, 17) and dedicated to Art at a great turning point in history. The five are:

Paul Nash (1889-1946) at Slade 1910-11. Parents artists, but his unstable mother had a nervous breakdown and went into a mental asylum in 1910. Served with the Artists’ Rifles 1914–17; appointed Official War Artist as a result of his exhibition Ypres Salient at the Goupil Gallery 1917.

CRW (Christopher) Nevinson (1889-1946) at Slade 1910-11, from an artistic middle class family, Nevinson was a loud bombastic man who joined the Futurists, was briefly allied to Ezra Pound’s Vorticists, before achieving his height of fame as a war artist during the Great War with a series of wonderful Modernist depictions of the conflict, most famously La Mitrailleuse.

Mark Gertler (1891-1939) at Slade 1908. From very poor Jewish immigrant family struggling to survive in the East End, popular and famous in his day he is best known for the harshly Modernist the Merry-go-round.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) at Slade 1908-12. From a populous family of a come-down-in-the-world middle class family living in Cookham, Berkshire, which Spencer came to idolise. Served with the R.A.M.C. and the Royal Berkshire Regiment, mainly in Macedonia, 1915–18, and was commissioned to paint a war picture for the Imperial War Museum

Dora Carrington (1893-1932) at Slade  . From a smart, professional and arty middle class family but with a spectacularly repressed Victorian mother who passed on her sexual ignorance to Dora who spent her entire life trying to break free until she ended up in a very Bloomsbury menage with the gay writer Lytton Strachey.

The book falls into two halves: the first half where a selection of promising art students arrive at Slade, in slightly different years, at different ages, from different backgrounds, and set about trying to make careers in London’s difficult and treacherous art and literary world; and the second half when, quite by surprise, the First World War begins and all of them (except the only woman, Dora Carrington) find themselves dragged into it. Although it brings out the artistic best in Nevinson above all, but also in Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer, the War destroys their innocence and optimism and neither the world nor they are the same afterwards.

This book more than anything I’ve ever read conveys the way the Great war smashed lives. It creates such a compelling sense of the group, the gang of friends and hangers-on and aquaintances, all living their rather self-obsessed literary or artistic lives, squabbling and falling in love and issuing little manifestoes – and then, BANG! Horror and terror. Never before have I shared the fear and anxiety these young men and their brothers felt about whether or not to enlist and then, as conscription spread like a plague, how or if they could escape being conscripted and being forcibly sent like sausage fodder in trains to the Front to be murdered in their millions.

The book begins with the light airiness of Cookham by the Thames but by the time it draws to a conclusion at the same beauty spot 50 years later too much has happened, too many lives been lost and cultures been broken and hopes been dashed for it not to be shadowed and riven. This is a wonderful book and at the end I was nearly crying.

A marvellous nude by Dora Carrington aged 19, the varieties of flesh tone set against an impenetrable black from Fuseli.

Nude Woman 1912 by Dora Carrington (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nude Woman 1912 by Dora Carrington (source: Wikimedia Commons)

A few years later the sensuous comfort, based on centuries of realistic painting, of Carrington’s nude, was swept away by faceless masses, by the semi automatons which were created by war on a hitherto unimaginable scale, captured by one of Nevinson’s wonderfully evocative war paintings, Column on the March.

Column on the March by CRW Nevinson (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

Column on the March by CRW Nevinson (copyright Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

A Crisis of Brilliance @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

To the small and beautifully formed Dulwich Picture Gallery for a typically petite and poignant exhibition, “A Crisis of Brilliance“, bringing together 70 or so paintings by C.R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, David Bomberg and Paul Nash who all studied at the Slade in the years leading up to the Great War. The exhibition stems from a book, David Boyd Haycock’s group biography of these artists, ‘A Crisis of Brilliance‘, published in 2009, so this is the exhibition of the book:

Mark Gertler developed a stylised way with chunky figures (eg the strange and wonderful The Fruit Sorters) and blocky landscapes (The Pool at Garsington) – though he’s probably best known for the highly stylised Merry-go-round, currently hanging in Tate Britain. Paintings by Mark Gertler on Google images.

Dora Carrington is the most elusive of the bunch: a note on the exhibition wall claims the patriarchal sexism of the Georgian art world undermined her confidence. It is telling that the images Google images bring together for her are a) not particularly distinctive b) feature lots of photos of her with men including the Love of her Life, Lytton Strachey. The show features some striking pencil drawings of heads and wonderful female nudes (the powerful Female Figure Lying on Her Back, 1912) testament to Slade’s insistence on teaching its students draughtmanship. She married the writer Lytton Strachey and moved to rural Berkshire, where she painted local scenery eg The River Pang above Tidmarsh, in stark contrast to the urban and/or modernist approach of the five men.

David Bomberg was, apparently, one of the first painters to experiment with pure abstraction in 1913 and 1914, in paintings like The Mud Bath or In The Hold (1914), below, painted when he was just 22!

David Bomberg, In the Hold, 1913-14, oil on canvas, 196.2 x 231.1 cm, © Tate, London 2012

David Bomberg, In the Hold, 1913-14, oil on canvas, 196.2 x 231.1 cm, © Tate, London 2012

But Bomberg seems to have capitalised on this breakthrough in relatively few paintings and after the War relapsed into a sub-Cezanne murkiness. He became a respected teacher but was erased from art history.”He was in his lifetime the most brutally excluded artist in Britain. Having lived for years on the earnings of his second wife Lilian Holt and remittances from his sister Kitty, he died in absolute poverty.” (Wikipedia)

Paul Nash had a long and successful career developing his early knack for landscape into a particularly surreal vision of an essentially quiet pastoral England. Throughout his career he produced vivid and strange images, of the Great War (The Menin Road), of the South Downs in the 30s (Landscape from a Dream), and then haunting depictions of the Second World War in the 1940s (Totes Meer). Paintings by Paul Nash on Google images.

Paul Nash, The Void, 1918, Oil on canvas, 75 x 95.7 cm, Photo © MBAC

Paul Nash, The Void, 1918, Oil on canvas, 75 x 95.7 cm, Photo © MBAC

C.R.W. Nevinson quickly took to the Futurist/Vorticist style in with its dynamic angles, bright colours and sense of boundless energy bursting out the confines of the picture frame. I liked The Towpath, an early example of industrial impressionism which reminded me of the Paul Valette painting I saw at the Lowry exhibition: it was done in 1912 but only a year later he had moved beyond this into the modernism of Dance Hall Scene, below, or the Le Vieux Port, both 1913.

C.R.W. Nevinson, Dance Hall Scene, c.1913-14, chalk, gouache and watercolour, 22.2 x 19.7 cm, ©Tate, London 2012

C.R.W. Nevinson, Dance Hall Scene, c.1913-14, chalk, gouache and watercolour, 22.2 x 19.7 cm, ©Tate, London 2012

Nevinson found the subject to match his angular, vibrant style in the Great War, working in the Ambulance Corps and producing unforgettable images of which maybe the most famous is La Mitrailleuse. Everything Nevinson did in these few hectic years is excellent, virile, lucid, alive, like the darkly vivid Column on the March, or the grim scene in a field hospital,La Patrie. He did a series of paintings of airplanes in the Great War and there is a perfect, exquisite example here – Spiral descent – a sliver of blue heaven with a tiny matchstick airplane swooping down the metal curve of the sky – breathtaking. Paintings by CRW Nevinson on Google images.

Stanley Spencer was to become the most successful of the group, going on to fame and a knighthood, all very odd for the shy visionary from Cookham. The early works in the exhibition show the quirky naive style Spencer was developing, the Christian subject matter embedded in his native Berkshire village and the awkward angular handling of the human figure (John Donne arriving in heaven) – but they seem like apprentice works, none of them have the finished, oiled richness of his amazing shipbuilding paintings from the Second World War or the mature Cookham paintings. Paintings by Stanley Spencer on Google images.

The last room, detailing the fates of the six artists after the Great War, is sad: Nevinson never recovered the swashbuckling style or intense subject matter of the War, reverting to a more figurative style, sinking into despair by the mid-20s and dying unknown in the 1940s. Gertler gassed himself in 1936. Dora Carrington shot herself in 1932 shortly after Lytton Strachey died. Bomberg, though a brilliant teacher, sank into critical obscurity. Only Nash and Spencer went on to unquestioned success.

This is a wonderfully intimate exhibition, showing early and minor and experimental works from six very interesting artists, as they found their feet and navigated through the hectic style wars of the experimental 1910s and the brutal War Years.

The exhibition continues until 22 September at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

List of Crisis of Brilliance artworks (PDF)

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Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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