The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)

Chesterton (1874-1936) was a hugely successful ‘writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic’ in his day. He wrote a vast amount of essays, reviews, columns, articles, literary criticism – notably helping a revival of interest in Dickens with his 1906 biography of the great man – and wrote extensively about religion, leading up to his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

Probably Chesterton’s most enduring legacy is the 53 Father Brown detective stories published between 1910 and 1936, and regularly dramatised for TV or radio – followed by the novels The Man Who Was Thursday, and this one.

Edwardian humour

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a comic novel, full of satire and high spirits, not all of which are easily understandable. Some of the incidental humour is pretty laboured and dated.

For example, book three (of five) opens with an extended satire on the kind of poetry published around 1904 and the kind of criticism it received, in the form of an extended joke about a volume of poetry, Hymns on the Hill, which the king reviews, under the critical pseudonym ‘Thunderbolt’, as a member of the so-called ‘Hammock’ school of criticism, so-called because quite a few of their reviews start with reference to the great pleasure the book brought the reviewer as he lazed in his hammock on a seasonal summer’s afternoon. If you make a big effort to project your mind back into the literary world of 1904, this is just about funny.

Similarly, book one opens with a chapter satirising the fashion for ‘prophecies of the future’ which were popular in his day, skewering not only H.G. Wells – by then the leader of a whole school of scientific prophecy – but all kinds of other prophets of socialism and pacifism and vegetarianism and so on. Chesterton mocks them all by carrying their prophetic arguments to extremes.

Having itemised all the individual prophets and their foibles, Chesterton then demolishes the lot with one grand fictional gesture. This is simply to set his novel in the far distant remote year of 1984, and assert the simple fact that, contrary to all their predictions… nothing whatsoever has changed! All the great catastrophes and collapses and social revolutions predicted by the prophets… have failed to transpire.

In effect, the people, the uneducated, uninterested masses, have listened to the Great Prophets, read their books and articles and… ignored them, and just got on with their lives. They have played the traditional game which Chesterton puckishly names ‘Cheat the Prophet’, with the result that:

When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In fact the England of 1984 is a despotism but in the nicest possible way. Democracy has faded into the rule of one man, a titular ‘king’, overseeing committees of efficient civil servants. But there have been no devastating wars, society carries on much as it always has, chaps still wear frock coats and top hats, ladies wear elaborate Victorian dresses with corsets and bustles, horse-drawn hansom cabs rumble through the streets. The only change that concerns us is that the ruler of the country, the so-called ‘king’, is chosen at random, like the members of a jury.

In the first couple of pages we are introduced to a trio of young men – the Honourable James Barker (‘one of the most powerful officials in the English Government’), Wilfrid Lambert (a ‘youth with a nose which appears to impoverish the rest of his face’, ‘a fool’) and their short friend Auberon Quin, who:

had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses.

Some of the early incidents, before the story really gets going and taking up several chapters – are offputtingly inexplicable. In one they bump into the exiled President of Nicaragua in Whitehall, and watch as he goes to mad extremes to recreate the flag of his lost country – yellow by tearing a rip in an advertising hoarding for Coleman’s mustard, and red by plunging a knife into his own hand and staining a handkerchief red. After much inconsequential Latin fieriness, he walks proudly off into the night never to be met again.

Quin, Lambert and Barker are strolling through Kensington Gardens one fine day, Quin infuriating the other two with his latest tom-fool idea which is that the secret of humour is telling elaborate stories which don’t have a point, and is just sticking his head between his legs and making a cow noise when… two equerries walk up and announce that the new king of England, picked by random lot is…. Quin!

While the other two go pale with horror, Quin preens and plumes himself and struts around, wandering up into Notting Hill, where a serious little boy wearing a toy knight in armour costume, prods him in the tummy with a wooden sword, whereat Quin very seriously tells the young man he must defend his home turf, the Hill of Notting, with his honour, before strolling off dispensing similar ‘advice’ to puzzled passersby.

But this brief encounter sets Quin thinking. What if he used his power to make the rulers of all of London’s boroughs wear medieval armour and halberds and … and so when Barker visits ‘his majesty’ a few days later he finds Quin on the floor surrounded by poster paints, playfully sketching out new coats of arms and coloured standards for each of the 32 boroughs.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility. (Book 2, chapter 2)

As the last sentence indicates, the whole thing is told with an amused, tongue-in-cheek drollery.

Ten years later

Cut to ten years later: Quin is still king and still the joker. One day a building developer (‘Mr Buck, the abrupt North Kensington magnate’) comes to complain about delays in getting a new road and housing development he’s managing built up from Hammersmith through Notting Hill and beyond. Soon he is joined by the Provosts of West Kensington and so on, all dressed in the ceremonial costumes which Quin still childishly insists they all wear, announced by pages and so on.

They’re all complaining to Quin about the hold-ups and delays blocking the project, and the costs and the overheads and profit margins, when a remarkable thing happens: the Provost of Notting Hill arrives – and at a stroke reveals that he takes all Quin’s nonsense about medieval pageantry perfectly serious! He speaks medieval language as if he means it. He speaks of ‘my liege’ and ‘my honour’ and waves his doughty sword and generally takes Quin’s joke at face value.

‘I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have – my sword.’
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the King, blankly.

Stunned, Quin looks closer and realises it is the little boy who prodded him in the tummy with a toy sword ten years earlier. Now Adam Wayne, aged 19, announces that he is prepared to defend the Hill of Notting to the death! Well, well.

The novel then tells us something about Adam Wayne’s character. Never having been out of London – or even Notting Hill – he is a genuine modernist, in the sense that he finds poetic beauty in the urban landscape, finds fairyland in railings and gas lamps and hansom cabs, and in the silhouette of terraced houses against the night sky. Above all he takes absolutely seriously the notion that Notting Hill is a precious land, worthy of his patriotism, worthy of defending.

In a comic sequence perfectly understandable to the modern reader, Wayne canvases opinion among the shop-keepers on Notting Hill, visiting a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop and a toy-shop. The comic premise is simple: Wayne enters each shop and speaks the 15th-century register of patriotism and heroism and defending the Hill – and the (generally) short, round, balding shop-keepers are comically nonplussed.

(It’s interesting to learn just how long short, irascible shopkeepers have been a reliable staple of English humour, from H.G. Wells’s numerous retailers (I’ve just read about Bert Smallways, keeper of a bicycle hire shop in The War In The Air) to Jones the butcher in Dad’s Army and Arkwright in Open All Hours.)

Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!

The Pump Street argument

The Provosts of the boroughs affected by Wayne’s refusal ask King Auberon for a meeting to insist that their planned new thoroughfare carve its way up from Hammersmith and through Notting Hill, specifically through a few buildings in Pump Street. Led by Buck they offer Wayne three times the properties’ value. But Wayne refuses point blank to see any part of his kingdom despoiled, and leaves the meeting.

At which point Buck and the other speculators say they will simply send men in to knock down the buildings, halbardiers from each of the allied boroughs, Wayne or no Wayne – and the king sadly acquiesces. He wanted fun, frivolity and fantasy, and now it’s all got a little out of hand.

The king has only just moved on to begin a champagne dinner, arranged by servants in Kensington Gardens, when it really does get out of hand. He hears sounds of shouting, footsteps running closer, and then – to his and his courtiers’ astonishment – wounded halberdiers come running and stumbling from Notting Hill, beating down a flimsy wall which separates the gardens from the public thoroughfare and then, in the gap, the apparition of a god-like figure, blazoned with light – Adam Wayne, General of the army of Notting Hill!

A dazed Barker, who had been involved in the battle, stumbles south to High Street Kensington where he bumps into Buck closing up his shop and tells him what has happened. Buck is immediately on his mettle, rallies the Provosts, quickly assembles a few hundred soldiers from each of the four boroughs and leads them on a march converging on Pump Street, which has become the symbolic epicentre of the war.

But the Notting Hillers take control of the nearby gasworks, turn off the gas supply to the streetlamps, plunging all the roads into darkness and, knowing their home turf, launch devastating attacks, genuinely hurting, maiming and killing their opponents.

Chesterton manages to gloss over the seriousness of injury and death, instead writing a funny chapter where King Auberon storms into the offices of his favourite newspaper, The Court Journal, where he terrorises the editor into giving him huge placards to write incendiary headlines on, and then is concocting an entirely fictional description of the battle – in the manner of a modern newspaper – when real eye witnesses, Barker and Buck, stumble in.

Immediately the whimsical king nominates himself Foreign Correspondent to the paper and sets off ‘for the front’, in his usual comically histrionic style:

‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘I will be an eye-witness. I will write you such letters from the Front as will be more gorgeous than the real thing. Give me my coat, Paladium. I entered this room a mere King of England. I leave it, Special War Correspondent of the Court Journal. It is useless to stop me, Pally; it is vain to cling to my knees, Buck; it is hopeless, Barker, to weep upon my neck. ‘When duty calls’… the remainder of the sentiment escapes me.’

There follows an increasingly complex description of the various battles, which climax with man-to-man fighting around the waterworks on Campden Hill. But meanwhile Buck has sent for reinforcements from the further-flung London boroughs, who have all promptly sent a few hundred men. During a lull in the battle Buck sends an emissary to Wayne pointing out that they now outnumber the Notting Hillers by ten to one. In the manner of confident business men he makes a bet with the king that Wayne will promptly surrender. The king thinks not.

And is proved correct when an emissary from Wayne arrives, arrayed in full medieval gear, and blandly asks the assembled army of the boroughs to surrender. Buck and his entourage burst out laughing. But the emissary goes on to point out that Wayne has secured Campden Hill reservoir and, if a surrender is not given in ten minutes, will open it, flooding and drowning the entire army standing, as it is, in the valley below. Astonished, Buck realises they will have to surrender. The mischievous king is delighted with this turn of events. And so the Empire of Notting Hill commences.

The last battle

It is twenty years later. Notting Hill is an empire to which the other boroughs pay obeisance. It is entered via nine huge elaborately carved gateways on which are depicted events from the battle for Independence. The king is walking its quiet and amazingly prosperous streets. The king notes how the five shopkeepers who Wayne visited all those years ago, now rule over colourful emporia and use the elaborate diction of medieval merchants. In fact Wayne’s victory is not so much a military conquest of the rest of the London as the fact that everyone turned out to want to live a life of medieval colour and romance.

He bumps into Barker who is just explaining that the men of Kensington sometimes get exasperated by the Notting Hillers’ lordliness when… the lights abruptly go out, a local telling our puzzled protagonists that this happens every year on the anniversary of the Great Battle. The Hillers start singing a martial song of victory and this pushes Barker over the edge. He grabs a sword, yells ‘South Kensington’ and leaps into the fray. Other passersby turn out to be from other boroughs and join in. From nowhere appears Buck, leader of the allied boroughs in the earlier war. Soon there is a massive battle taking place… again.

And these final pages are odd, strange and puzzling. One of the reasons I read older books is because they come from a foreign country, where lots if not most of the assumptions are different – about everything, about society, class, technology, about language itself – and you find yourself being brought up dead on every page by words, expressions, ideas, things taken for granted by the author and their Edwardian readers which we, a hundred years later, find outlandish – all of which force the modern reader to stop and rethink our prejudices, values and opinions.

I find this much more challenging than reading modern fiction, which overwhelmingly just confirms our current liberal pieties. It is more bracing to be challenged.

It is clear that Chesterton descends into a kind of romantic fugue state, the battle becomes a vision of romantic fighting from the period of King Arthur, all swords and halberds, quickly relinquishing all contact with reality. At the climax of the battle Wayne stands with his back against a huge old oak tree, symbolic of deep English character, and repeated waves of attackers can’t separate him from it, until in pulling him from it, they only manage in pulling the whole tree up by its roots, which promptly falls onto the crowd of soldiers killing all of them.

This is obviously a hugely symbolic moment but symbolic of what, exactly? I read in the introduction that Chesterton has been criticised, then and now, for glorifying war, for thinking of war as a redeeming cleansing activity. Critics quote King Auberon musing as he walks round the empire of Notting Hill:

‘Old Wayne was right in a way,’ commented the King. ‘The sword does make things beautiful.’

But the use of the word ‘sword’ immediately reveals that Chesterton is not really thinking about war as such. the book was written in the aftermath of the Boer War with its barbed wire, concentration camps and machine guns. No fool glamorise that kind of war. The key is given by the king’s very next remark:

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

The book doesn’t glamorise war, it praises the life-enhancing qualities of medieval romance – while at the same time richly satirising them, it has its cake and eats it. Right up until the end, when something much stranger happens.

This strangeness reaches a new height in the very last chapter – titled ‘Two Voices’ – when out of the ruins and grim silence at the end of the battle, from out of the darkness of the night amid the landscape ruined with corpses, arise two voices.

I’ve read the chapter twice but still don’t really understand what they’re saying. It seems to by a sort of conservative hymn to the notion of undying, unchanging values.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean – an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great – a great war or a love-story. And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that[Pg 292] men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient. There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

It takes on a theological tone. Suppose he is God, says one voice, and he made the whole universe as a joke, as a jeu d’esprit, knocked it off for his amusement and then forgot about it.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean—an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great—a great war or a love-story. And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient. There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

At which point dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky (with rather crushing symbolism) and one voice is revealed as that of King Auberon and the other of Wayne. ‘Wayne,’ says the king, ‘it was all a joke. I meant it as a joke.’ ‘Then that makes it all the more real,’ says Wayne

All criticism of Chesterton sooner or later mentions his fondness for paradoxes, for the unexpected, for reversals. That’s what happens here. Somehow,the very fact that it was all a joke makes it all the more profound and serious.

Wayne says it doesn’t matter what motivated Auberon: all that matters is that the two of them – two poles of human nature – the over-satirical and the over-earnest – came together to restore humanity to the poetic way of life, vision and diction which it deserves.

It isn’t war as such: it is the romance of human life which Chesterton is asserting, in this strange visionary conclusion to what had been, until this moment, a fairly easy-to-assimilate satire.

‘I know of something that will alter that antagonism, something that is outside us, something that you and I have all our lives perhaps taken too little account of. The equal and eternal human being will alter that antagonism, for the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god. When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace. But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but the two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend. Auberon Quin, we have been too long separated; let us go out together. You have a halberd and I a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials. Come, it is already day.’

In the blank white light Auberon hesitated a moment. Then he made the formal salute with his halberd, and they went away together into the unknown world.

As I say, I read older books because they are so often challenging, not because of their plots or characters, but because of ideological or political or theological assumptions which underly them are so often challenging to understand or sympathise with.

But the effort to do so, in my opinion, whether you agree with them or not (whether you completely understand them or not) expands your mind. Better than TV. Better than movies. Better than drugs.


A hint of modernism

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Thus T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land published in 1922 but much of it written much earlier. Anomie was clearly a common feeling among Edwardian writers – passages in Conrad and Wells spring to mind, and I was struck how vivid and forceful the same feeling appears in Chesterton. The sheer oppressive boredom of London’s long blank streets.

Adam Wayne is a figure of fun, but in his innocence he speaks truth:

‘I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might wake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.’

Maybe it was Tennyson who introduced this mood of urban despair into English poetry. Here’s a lyric from his long, desolate poem In Memoriam, commemorating his best friend who died young, published as long ago as 1850.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Dickens knew that long bald street, and so did Chesterton.

The blank white morning had only just begun to break over the blank London buildings when Wayne and Turnbull were to be found seated in the cheerless and unswept shop.

And:

‘I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’

Much of the wickedness of men comes from sheer boredom.


Related links

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 Shropshire Lad by AE Housman(1896)

The Classics professor Alfred Edward Housman surprised his students and colleagues when, in 1896, he published a collection of 63 short lyric poems which his publisher persuaded him to title A Shropshire Lad. Tennyson was responsible for the view that poetry should be pure and lyrical, flying far above the sordid realities of Victorian England. His acolyte Francis Palgrave produced a Golden Treasury of English Verse (1861) which selected with care only the purest of thin, high, quavering lyrical poetry from the previous 450 years of hugely varied verse and poetry.

The poems in A Shropshire Lad continue down that narrowing avenue, producing short, rhyming verse which aspires to a purity untainted by real-life diction or attitudes or events or activities, instead creating a set of bloodless variations on half a dozen stock sentimental themes: the soldier going off to war; handsome young men doomed to die young because they are different, either through suicide or fighting or being hanged for crimes of passion: in short, the narcissistic mentality of an angsty 15-year old.

All this is set in a largely fictional Shropshire of the mind, an imaginary, a Platonic Form of an English rural county which, however, has been taken over by Thomas Hardy and is populated by lads (18-21) who woo lasses who are either reluctant or die young and are carried to the churchyard where they join the other restless souls underground, at which the lads leave their depressing lives to take the Queen’s shilling and go fight in one of the Empire’s countless little wars, or stay at home to become bad ‘uns, to murder or rob and swing for it (Housman is morbidly obsessed with hanging).

The extreme purity of the vocabulary, the idealised English landscape and the teenage sentimentality of the thoughts made it a surprise bestseller. I was interested to learn from the Wikipedia article that the Boer War had an impact on its sales and influence, that “Housman’s nostalgic depiction of rural life and young men’s early deaths struck a chord with English readers”. Of course this chord was to ring even louder during and after the vastly more terrible slaughter of the Great War, and established Housman’s thin pallid verse as a coffee-table favourite.

Poem XL

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Why, the sceptical reader is tempted to ask, can you not go there again? Oh because I can’t, I am doomed, I am a lost soul, oh can’t you see, oh growing up is sooo hard. Surely it is not only the rural setting which represents an escape from the urban life most of us lead, but the essentially adolescent sentiments of the verse which represent a Hollyoaks-style escape from the complex problems of adult life, careers, money, wives and children, which underpin its enduring appeal.

Various of the 63 lyrics have been set by various composers, most notably George Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and Ivor Gurney. For my money the Butterworth settings are head and shoulders above the others; with his music these pallid lyrics achieve a depth and resonance the words alone lack made all the more poignant by the knowledge that Butterworth himself was killed in the Great War and so his songs about doomed young men have a horrible irony.

1895

1895 was a year of endings and beginnings in English literature and beyond:

Endings

The long series of gripping tales and stories spun by master teller Robert Louis Stevenson had ended when he died on the Pacific island of Upolu on December 3rd 1894. He had completed the long short story The Ebb-Tide (1894), but left unfinished Weir of Hermiston, which was published posthumously, as were his 20 Fables and a final volume of verse, Songs of Travel and Other Verses, in 1896.

Two major careers ended in 1895. On 14th February Oscar Wilde‘s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, opened at St James’s Theatre, London, and was an immediate success, a triumph of wit, artifice and stagecraft. Within days the Marquess of Queensberry – outraged by Wilde’s relationship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas – had accused Wilde of sodomy and begun the nightmareish sequence of events which led to Wilde being put on trial and, on 25 May, being found guilty of seven counts of gross indecency with other men. He received the maximum sentence, 2 years hard labour, emerging from his ordeal a broken man, and dying just three years later he died, aged 46, in exile in Paris.

A backlash began against not only Wilde, whose name was erased from playbills and whose books went underground, but against the whole cult of beauty, the aestheticism which had been a major strand of late Victorian culture. A mood of revulsion set in against the dandyism, the metropolitan decadence of the London literati and artists. The pre-Raphaelites who had sown the seeds of the cult, and some of its leading lights, were to pass away in the next few years:

  • In 1895 William Morris published three minor works while he prepared his beautiful illustrated edition of Chaucer, the Kelmscott Chaucer, which was published the following year. But only a few months later, on October 1896, aged only 61, the great pre-Raphaelite painter, poet, novelist, textile-maker and revolutionary died.
  • In June 1898 the pre-Raphaelite giant Sir Edward Burne-Jones who had designed the woodcuts for his friend Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer, himself passed away.
  • From the younger generation, the scandalous caricaturist and illustratorAubrey Beardsley died aged only 25 in June 1898.
  • In 1895 Sir Frederick Leighton, purveyor of sumptuous paintings of the classical past, exhibited one of his enduring masterpieces, ‘Flaming June’, a symphony of colours. In January 1896 he passed away.

Flaming June (1895) by Sir Frederick Leighton

Another literary sex scandal ended a brilliant career in 1895. Thomas Hardy, aged 56, published his last novel, Jude the Obscure. It had begun magazine serialisation in December 1894 and continued through to November 1895 when it was published in book format and met with a storm of abuse for its supposed immorality. ‘Jude the Obscene’ one reviewer called it, and the bishop of Wakefield notoriously claimed to have burned his copy. The fierceness of the criticism which greeted Jude (and had also greeted his earlier masterpiece, Tess of the Durbevilles, 1891) led Hardy to abandon novel writing. The philistine English public had claimed another scalp. He never wrote another novel, though he continued to publish poetry until his death in 1928.

Imperialism 

The mood was changing, swinging away from art for art’s sake and towards the prophets of Imperialism, to Kipling and his epigones. The Jameson Raid (29 December 1895 – 2 January 1896) was a botched raid on Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic carried out by a British colonial leader, Leander Starr Jameson, and his Rhodesian and Bechuanaland policemen over the New Year weekend of 1895–96. It was meant to trigger an uprising by British expatriate workers in the Transvaal (known as Uitlanders) and so justify a British military invasion, but failed to do so. Weeks later, in January 1896, the Tory journalist Alfred Austin published a Kiplingesque ballad, Jameson’s Ride, celebrating the entirely illegal and foolish act. Later in the year Austin was appointed Poet Laureate.

Sir Henry Newbolt followed his stirring poem Vita Lampada (‘Play up, play up and play the game!’) with the patriotic collection, Admirals All (1897) featuring the patriotic classic, Drake’s Drum. The new mood was to reach a kind of crescendo in the jingoism of the Boer War years, and then slowly recede to reveal the solid and suburban Edwardian novelists, Wells and Bennett and Galsworthy.

Beginnings

Within months of Stevenson’s death a new voice had emerged to tell stories of the South Seas, of the Far East, and to continue Stevenson’s mordant scepticism about the ‘benefits’ of Empire for native peoples, Joseph Conrad whose first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was published on 29 April 1895 in the midst of the furore surrounding the Wilde trials.

And as the Aestheticism of the 18970s and 1880s came to a climax and was abruptly garrotted, a completely new strain of writing was emerging in the hands of the 28 year-old Herbert George Wells which was to thrive and prosper into the new century. The Time Machine, serialised from January to May 1895 in W.E. Henley’s magazine the New Review, then published in book form in May 1895 – ie exactly contemporary with the Wilde trials – was the first in the long and prolific career of Wells, the godfather of science fiction. He also published ‘The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents’, his first volume of (15) fantasy and science fiction stories. No decadence from Wells, though. Even if the ideas in the science fiction questioned the meaning and endurance of Western ‘civilisation’ (for example in Wells’s classic The War of The Worlds, 1898), they did so using manly chaps as heroes.

(Talking of discourses which were to dominate the 20th century, unknown to all these authors and artists, the obscure Viennese doctor Sigmund Freud was speculating that his patients’ neuroses were possibly the results of suppressed childhood sexual traumas, and also wondering whether our dreams might reveal the return of these suppressed memories but in concealed and symbolic forms. Both these insights took place in the pivotal year 1895, though he only published his first short papers on the subject the next year, and The Interpretation of Dreams wasn’t published until 1899…)

Art Nouveau

On 1 January 1895 the streets of Paris were plastered by a new poster advertising the play ‘Gismonda’ by Victorien Sardou, featuring Sarah Bernhardt, designed by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. The poster was to crystallise many aspects of the style which came to be known as Art Nouveau.

‘Gismonda’ by Alfons Mucha

In December 1895 German art dealer Siegfried Bing opened his famous gallery, the Maison de l’Art Nouveau. Henry van de Velde designed the interior of the gallery, while Louis Comfort Tiffany supplied stained glass. These displays became so strongly associated with the style that the name of his gallery subsequently provided a commonly used term for the entire style.

Business as usual

Through all these changes and shifts in mood other Victorian writers continued their careers, with varying degrees of success:

George Meredith, 65, published The Amazing Marriage.

Henry James, 56, was booed offstage on the opening night, January 5, of his play Guy Domville at London’s St James’s Theatre. As coincidence would have it, the play was taking off after just four weeks to make way for Wilde’s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde’s nemesis the Marquis of Queensberry had tried to gatecrash the first night in order to denounce Wilde from the audience but Wilde had the police blockade the building. Two historic first nights within a month of each other!

George Bernard Shaw, 39, helped found the London School of Economics which held its first classes in October; he began a three-year stint as drama critic for Frank Harris’s ‘Saturday Review’, and wrote a play, The Man of Destiny.

George Gissing, 38, most famous for New Grub Street, published three novels, Eve’s RansomThe Paying Guest and Sleeping Fires.

Rudyard Kipling, 29, published The Second Jungle Book.

Arthur Symons, 30, published London Nights.

The ever-prolific Henry Rider Haggard, 39, published Joan Haste, Heart of the World and a serious tome on Church and State.

In verse, WB Yeats, 30, published ‘Poems, verse and drama’, the first edition of his collected poems containing ‘The Countess Cathleen’, ‘The Land of Heart’s Desire’, ‘The Wanderings of Usheen’ and the poetry collections ‘The Rose’ and ‘Crossways’.

Politics 

Another eminent Victorian’s career came to an end when, in May 1895, William Ewart Gladstone, leader of the Liberal party, resigned as an MP, having resigned as Prime Minister the year before. Tennyson had died in 1892. The politician and the poet for many people embodied the Victorian period, its art and values and politics. Their passing marked a watershed in literature and the broader culture.

A New Mood

Dead or silent were Tennyson, Gladstone and Hardy, masters of long poems, long speeches, long novels. The future belonged to the shorter, pithier tales of Conrad, Wells and Kipling, Bennett and Galsworthy, the Fabians and Edwardians. The new writers, whatever their personal proclivities, were to depict a homely Home Counties version of Englishness, in abreaction both to the metropolitan decadence of Wilde’s circle and to the melodramatic jingoism of Kipling, Austen, Newbolt. Even the cosmopolitan Kipling was to catch the new mood by settling in Sussex and writing innocent children’s stories set among the rolling Downs, Puck of Pook’s Hill.

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