The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch (1945)

The silver lamp next to the couch swung gently to and fro on its long silver chain and outside the window the emanation of the city, ebbing and flowing above the roofs, was dissolved into purple, from purple-violet into dark blue and black, and then into the enigmatic and fluctuant.
(The Death of Virgil, page 47)

The Sleepwalkers

A few years ago I read and reviewed The Sleepwalkers (1931), the masterpiece of Modernist German novelist Hermann Broch (1886 to 1951). The title in fact refers to a trilogy of novels each of which focuses on a troubled individual from successive generations of German society, the novels being titled: The Romantic (1888), The Anarchist (1903) and The Realist (1918).

I reviewed each novel individually but also subjected the magniloquent claims often made about the trilogy to fierce criticism, using evidence from Walter Laqueur’s blistering attack on the failure of intellectuals in the Weimar Republic, Weimar: A Cultural History 1918 to 1933 by Walter Laqueur (1974). I argued that calling the trilogy things like ‘a panoramic overview of German society and history’ were wrong in fact and misleading in implication. The three novels are more eccentric and particular than such generalisations. But then lots of critics make sweeping claims about books they haven’t read.

Broch flees Austria

In March 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria in a move known as the Anschluss. Within days Broch was arrested by Nazi authorities for possession of a Socialist pamphlet and thrown into a concentration camp. A campaign by western writers managed to get him freed and he immediately emigrated to Britain, then moved on to America where he settled in 1939.

Before this happened, in 1937, in Austria, Broch had delivered a radio lecture about Virgil. Over the following years he enormously expanded and elaborated this text to become his other great masterpiece, Der Tod des Vergil or The Death of Virgil. This big novel was first published in June 1945 in both the original German and English translation simultaneously. Symbolically, it appeared in the month after the Second World War in Europe finally came to an end, with the complete destruction of Nazi Germany. A crushing end to all illusions about Germany politics, history and culture.

Schematics

Broch’s imagination is schematic: the three novels which make up The Sleepwalkers trilogy each centre on a character who a) come from successive generations and are in some sense emblematic of them; and who b) are each of a distinct and categorisable type. The same urge to structure the material is immediately evident in The Death, which is divided into four equal parts, portentously titled:

  • Water – The Arrival
  • Fire – The Descent
  • Earth – The Expectation
  • Air – The Homecoming

Despite these universal-sounding categories the ‘action’ of novel in fact only ‘describes’ the last 18 hours of the Roman poet Virgil’s life in the port of southern Italian port of Brundisium. The year is 19 BC. Virgil had travelled to Greece, according to this novel hoping to a) escape the fevers of Rome b) finally complete the long poem which has been dogging him, and c) be free to pursue his first love, philosophy.

But he was foiled in this ambition when the princeps or proto-emperor, Augustus, returning from the East, stopped off in Athens, called on Virgil and invited/ordered him to accompany him back to Italy. Hence Virgil’s regret at the start of the novel at giving in to Augustus’s insistence and abandoning his hopes of finally being rid or ‘art and poetry’ and devoting his life to meditation and study.

Anyway, on this return journey Augustus, Virgil and others of the party fell ill. Augustus fully recovered, but the novel opens with Virgil lying in a hammock that’s been rigged up in one of the ships, feeling very unwell indeed. Starting from this moment the long novel portrays the last 18 hours of his life.

The central theme or subject of the novel is Virgil’s wish to burn the manuscript of his epic poem, The Aeneid, a wish which is decisively thwarted by his master and ‘friend’, Augustus.

Modernist?

Blurbs about the novel claims it uses well-established modernist techniques, mixing poetry and prose with different styles and registers to convey the consciousness of a sick man drifting in and out of reality and hallucination but I didn’t find this to really be the case.

When I think of modernism I think of the combination of fragmented interiority matched by collage used in The Waste Land, or the highly collaged text of Berlin Alexanderplatz or the tremendous stylistic variety of Ulysses. There’s none of that here: the text is fluent and continuous. There’s no collage effect, no newspaper headlines or scraps of popular song or advertising jingles. Instead the text is continuous and smooth and highly poetic in style.

Modernism is also usually associated with the accelerated rhythms of the western city, as in the examples above or in John dos Passos’s huge novel, USA (1930 to 1936). Quite obviously a novel set nearly 2,000 years, before anything like the modern city had been imagined, could not use, quote or riff off any aspects of the twentieth century urban experience. So in that respect, also, the novel is not modernist.

What is modernist about it, maybe, is a secondary characteristic, which may sound trivial but is the inordinate length of Broch’s sentences. These can be huge and very often contain multiple clauses designed to convey the simultaneous perception of external sense impressions with bursts of interior thought, memory, opinion and so on – all captured in one sentence.

The Jean Starr Untermeyer translation

The 1945 translation into English was done by Jean Starr Untermeyer. I have owned the 1983 Oxford University Press paperback edition of this translation (with an introduction by Bernard Levin) since the mid-1980s and never got round to reading it till now. This edition contains a longer-than-usual 4-page translator’s note by Jean Starr Untermeyer who, we learn, devoted five years of her life to translating this novel. We also realise, within a few sentences, that her English is non-standard i.e. a bit quirky and idiomatic. On the whole I think that is a good thing because it continually reminds you of the novel’s non-English nature.

Untermeyer makes a number of good points about the difficulty of translating German into English. An obvious one is German’s tendency to create new words by combining individual nouns into new compound nouns. A second aspect of German style is that it can often have a concrete practical meaning but also a ghostly metaphysical implication. This doesn’t happen in English which has traditionally been a much more pragmatic down-to-earth language.

Long sentences

The biggest issue, though, is sentence length. Good German prose style has for centuries allowed of long sentences which build up a succession of subordinate clauses before being rounded out or capped by a final main verb.

English is the extreme opposite. English prefers short sentences. Hemingway stands as the patron saint of the prose style taught in all creative courses for the past 40 years which recommends the dropping of subordinate clauses, the striking out of all unnecessary adjectives, the injunction to keep sentences short and unadorned, a process Untermeyer colourfully refers to as ‘exfoliation’.

As Untermeyer points out, Henry James’s use of long, multi-clause sentences was very much against the general trend of 20th century English prose (as was the extravagant prose style developed by William Faulkner a generation or so later, contrary to the Hemingway Imperative).

Untermeyer says that English prose works by placing its thoughts in sequence and separately expressed in short, clear sentences; German prose more often works by seeking to express multiple levels of meaning ‘at one stroke’ i.e. in each sentence.

But Broch not only came from this very different tradition of conceiving and writing prose, but he pushed that tradition to extremes. Untermeyer reckons some of the sentences in the middle of the book might be the longest sentences ever written in literature. (I’m not so sure. Samuel Beckett wrote some very long sentences in Malone Dies and The Unnameable.)

Thought-groups

Broch’s sentences are long, very long, but they don’t have the deliberately confusing repetitiveness, the incantatory repetitiveness of Beckett. They are clearly trying to capture something and Untermeyer explains in her note that the aim can be summed up by one maxim: ‘one thought – one moment – one sentence’.

Each sentence is trying to capture what she calls one ‘thought-group’, the flickering and often disparate impressions and sensations which occur to all of us, all the time, continually, in each changing second of perception and thought. The difference between you and me and Hermann Broch is that Broch spent a lifetime trying to develop a prose style which adequately captures the complexity of each fleeting moment of consciousness.

In English we do have a tradition of hazy impressionistic prose maybe best represented by the shimmering surfaces of Walter Pater’s aesthetic novel, Marius the Epicurean (also about ancient Rome). And a related tradition of deliberate over-writing in order to create an indulgently sensual effect, maybe associated with Oscar Wilde and sometimes dismissively called ‘purple prose’.

Broch’s intention is different from both of those because he is trying to be precise. His sentences are so very long only because he is trying to capture everything that his subject felt in that moment. The superficial comparison in English is with James Joyce’s Ulysses but Joyce wove an intricate web of symbolic and sound associations, at the same time as he steadily dismantled the English language, in order to make his text approximate the shimmering a-logical process of consciousness. Broch goes nowhere near that far. His sentences may be epic in length, but they are always made up of discrete clauses each of which is perfectly practical and logical and understandable in its own right.

And from Pater to Joyce, the English style of long sentences has tended to choose sensual and lugubrious subject matter, from the lilies and roses of Wilde’s prose to the astonishing sensuality of Ulysses. Broch, by contrast, uses his long sentences to cover a much wider range of subject matter, much of it modern, unpleasant and absolutely not soft and sensual.

In the warehouse district

One example will go a long way to demonstrating what I’m describing. Early in the novel the little fleet carrying the emperor and Virgil docks at Brundisium. Virgil is then carried off the ship and carried in a litter by slaves to the emperor’s mansion in the city, led by a young man with a torch who leads them among the warehouses of Brundisium. Here is one sentence from the passage describing this journey.

Again the odours changed; one could smell the whole produce of the country, one could smell the huge masses of comestibles that were stored here, stored for barter within the empire but destined, either here or there after much buying and selling, to be slagged through these human bodies and their serpentine intestines, one could smell the dry sweetness of the grain, stacks of which reared up in front of the darkened silos waiting to be shoveled within, one could smell the dusty dryness of the corn-sacks, the barley-sacks, the wheat-sacks, the spelt-sacks, one could smell the sourish mellowness of the oil-tuns, the oil-jugs, the oil-casks and also the biting acridity of the wine stores that stretched along the docks one could smell the carpenter shops, the mass of oak timber, the wood of which never dies, piled somewhere in the darkness, one could smell its bark no less than the pliant resistance of its marrow, one could smell the hewn blocks in which the axe still clove, as it was left behind by the workman at the end of his labour, and besides the smell of the new well-planed deck-boards, the shavings and sawdust one could smell the weariness of the battered, greenish-white slimy mouldering barnacled old ship lumber that waited in great heaps to be burned. (Pages 24 to 25)

What does this excerpt tell us? It demonstrates both a) Broch’s ability to handle a long sentence with multiple clauses and b) the complete absence of modernist tricks such as collage, quotation etc.

And there is none of the shimmering incoherence of, say, Virginia Woolf’s internal monologues. Instead it is quite clear and comprehensible and even logical. What stands out is the repetition, and the way it’s really more like a list than a wandering thought.

I’ve mentioned that Broch is a systematic thinker and many of these long sentences don’t really meander, they work through all the aspects of a thought or, in Untermeyer’s phrase, thought-group. We are in the warehouse district, a place saturated in the stinks of the goods stored there. And so Broch enumerates them, not in the English style, in a series of short, discrete sentences, but in one super-sentence which tries to capture the totality of the sense impression all together, as it were, capturing one moment of super-saturated perception.

Pigs and slaves

Far from the shimmering impressionism of the English tradition, The Death of Virgil is also capable of being quite hard, almost brutal. Thus the opening passages contain quite stunning descriptions of being on deck of an ancient Roman galley on a very calm sea as it is rowed at twilight into the harbour of Brundisium just as a thousand lamps are lit in the town and reflected like stars on the black water. So far, so aesthetic.

But Broch mingles this soft stuff with over a page harshly criticising the aristocratic guests on the ship whose only interest on the entire journey has been stuffing their faces like pigs. At these moments the narrative is more like Breughel than Baudelaire.

He also devotes a page to a nauseated imagining of the life of the galley slaves, chained below decks, condemned to eternal toil, barely human, a frank admission of the slave society the entire narrative is set among. The theme is repeated a bit later as Virgil watches the slaves carrying goods from the ship once it’s docked and being casually whipped by their bored overseers.

And there’s another theme as well. When the imperial ship docks, it is greeted by roars of approval from the crowd who have gathered to greet their emperor. Suddenly Broch switches to a more socio-political mode, meditating on the terrible evil to be found in the crowds which seek to suppress their individual isolation by excessive adulation of The One – an obvious critique of Nazism.

From far off came the raging, the raging noise of the crowd frantic to see, the raging uproar of the feast, the seething of sheer creatureliness, hellish, stolid, inevitable, tempting, lewd and irresistible, clamorous and yet satiated, blind and staring, the uproar of the trampling herd that in the shadowless phantom-light of brands and torches dove on towards the evil abyss of nothingness… (p.47)

German brutalism

These passages also epitomise what I think of as ‘the German quality’ in literature, which is a tendency to have overgassy metaphysical speculation cheek-by-jowl with a pig-like brutality, qualities I found in the other so-called masterpiece of German Modernism.

The claim about metaphysical bloat is merely repeating the claim of Walter Laqueur, who knew more about Weimar literature than I ever will and found it present in much of that literature. The comment about piggishness is based on my reading of:

  • Berlin Alexanderplatz, which starts as the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, is released from prison where he’d been serving a sentence for murdering his girlfriend, Ida, and one of the first things he does is go round and rape his dead girlfriend’s sister, Minna. There’s the scene where the scumbag Reinhold drunkenly smashes his girlfriend, Trude’s, face to a pulp or when Franz beats his girlfriend Mieze black and blue etc.
  • The surprising crudity of much Kafka, the protagonists of The Trial and The Castle jumping on their female companions without warning, and the visceral brutality of stories like The Hunger Artist or In The Penal Colony.
  • The crudity of Herman Hesse’s novels, such as The Steppenwolf, in which the ‘hero’, Harry Haller, murders the woman who took pity on him and loved him, Hermine.
  • The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil which I was enjoying very much for its urbane and humorous tone until – sigh – being German, it had to introduce a psychopath, Moosbrugger, who is on trial for murdering a prostitute and chopping her up into pieces, a process which the author describes in gratuitous detail.
  • In Broch’s own novels, Esch, the piggish ‘hero’ of The Anarchist rapes the innkeeper he subsequently shacks up with, and thinks well of himself because he doesn’t beat her up too much, too often.
  • Wilhelm Huguenau, the smooth-talking psychopathic ‘hero’ of The Realist, murders Esch and then rapes his wife.
  • Bertolt Brecht made a point of dispensing with bourgeois conventions in order to emphasise the brutal reality of the ‘class struggle: ‘Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.’

Phenomenology

I’ll quote from my own review of The Romantic:

Aged 40 Broch gave up management of the textile factory he had inherited from his father and enrolled in the University of Vienna to study mathematics, philosophy and psychology. I wonder what kind of philosophy Broch studied because this focus on trying to describe the actual processes of consciousness – the flavour of different thoughts, and the ways different types of thought arise and pass and sink in our minds – reminds me that Phenomenology was a Germanic school of philosophy from the early part of the century, initially associated with Vienna. According to Wikipedia:

In its most basic form, phenomenology attempts to create conditions for the objective study of topics usually regarded as subjective: consciousness and the content of conscious experiences such as judgements, perceptions, and emotions. Although phenomenology seeks to be scientific, it does not attempt to study consciousness from the perspective of clinical psychology or neurology. Instead, it seeks through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience.

‘Through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience.’ That’s not a bad summary of what Broch does in The Sleepwalker novels and does again here. The obvious difference is that whereas The Sleepwalker novels have plots and numerous characters who interact in a multitude of scenes, in The Death of Virgil Broch found a perfect subject – a deeply sensitive, highly articulate poet – to host/inspire/articulate an enormous number of these phenomenological speculations, long passages which not only describe Virgil’s sensations and thoughts, but analyse, ponder and reflect on the nature of thought itself.

Thus the first part of the passage through the warehouses, which I’ve quoted, amounts to a catalogue of sense impressions. But the smells of country produce awaken a yearning in him for the peace he knew back when he was growing up on his parents’ farm, but not some peace described in the English purple prose tradition – instead a highly theoretical and metaphysical notion of ‘peace’, as representing longing for a full integration of the self, a longing-yearning which haunts Virgil but which he is fated never to achieve.

Here’s an excerpt from that scene. To understand it you need to know that the roaring greeting of the mob in Brundisium town square had led Virgil to pretty negative thoughts about humanity in all its crudity. And so, in this sentence, the two themes –yearning, and the mob – are blended.

It was himself he found everywhere and if he had to retain everything and was enabled to return all, if he succeeded in laying hold on the world-multiplicity to which he was pledged, to which he was driven, given over to it in a daydream, belonging to it without effort, effortlessly possessing it, this was so because the mutiplicity had been his from the very beginning; indeed before all espial, before all hearkening, before all sensibility, it had been his own because recollection and retention are never other than the innate self, self-remembered, and the self-remembered time when he must have drunk the wine, fingered the wood, tasted the oil, even before oil, wine or wood existed, when he must have recognised the unknown, because the profusion of faces or non-faces, together with their ardour, their greed, their carnality, their covetous coldness, with their animal-physical being, but also with their immense nocturnal yearning, because taken all together, whether he had ever seen them or not, whether they had ever lived or not, were all embodied in him from his primordial origins as the chaotic primal humus of his very existence, as his own carnality, his own ardour, his own greed, his own facelessness, but also his own yearning: and even had this yearning changed in the course of his earthly wanderings, turned to knowledge, so much so that having become more and more painful it could scarcely now be called yearning, or even a yearning for yearning, and if all this transformation had been predestined by fate from the beginning in the form of expulsion or seclusion, the first bearing evil, the second bringing salvation, but both scarcely endurable for a human creature, the yearning still remained, inborn, imperishable, imperishably the primal humus of being, the groundwork of cognition and recognition which nourishes memory and to which memory returns, a refuge from fortune and misfortune, a refuge from the unbearable; almost physical this last yearning, which always and forever vibrated in every effort to attain the deeps of memory, however ripe with knowledge that memory might be. (pages 25 to 26)

Here we have some choice examples of the German tendency to make up new compound nouns to describe elusive philosophical or psychological categories: ‘world-multiplicity’, ‘self-remembered’, ‘animal-physical’.

And the use of repetition is pretty obvious – I’ve singled out the words ‘yearning’ and ‘memory’. It isn’t really repetition for the sake of either euphony (purely for the sound), or to drive home a point (as in, say, Cicero’s legal speeches). It is more that, with each repetition, the meaning of the word changes. Broch is examining the concepts behind these key words from different angles. Each repetition sheds new light, or maybe gives the word additional connotations. It is a cumulative effect.

An obvious question is: does this kind of thing actually shed light, does it help us to understand the human mind any better? Well, not in a strictly factual sense, but in the way that literature forces us to have different thoughts, sensations, expands the possibilities of cognition, vocabulary and expression, then, maybe, yes. And the epic length of Broch’s sentences are indicative of his attempt to really stretch the possibilities of perception, or perception-through-language, in his readers.

Then again, it isn’t an actual lecture, it’s not a scholarly paper appearing in a journal of psychology; it’s embedded in a work of literature so a better question is: how does it work within the text?

Any answer has to take account of the fact that this is only one of literally hundreds of other passages like it. No doubt critics and scholars have tabulated and analysed Broch’s use of key words and concepts and traced them back to works of psychology, philosophy or phenomenology he may have read. For the average reader the repetition of words and phrases and the notions they convey has more of a musical effect, like the appearance, disappearance, then reappearance of themes and motifs, building up a complex network of echoes and repetitions, many of which are not noticeable on a first reading. I ended up reading passages 2 or 3 times and getting new things from them at every reading.

Last but not least: do you like it? I found The Death of Virgil difficult to read not because of the clever meanings or subtle psychology but because a lifetime of reading prose from the Hemingway Century, compounded by a career working on public-facing websites, has indoctrinated my mind into preferring short, precise sentences. So I found it an effort to concentrate fully on every clause of these monster sentences – that, the sheer effort of concentrating of every element in these long sentences, holding all the clauses in your mind as they echo and modify each other – that’s what I found difficult.

But short answer: Yes, I did enjoy it. Very much. And it grows and adds new resonances with every rereading. It’s a slow read because I kept picking it up after putting it aside to make lunch, water the garden, feed the cats etc, found I’d forgotten where I was (because so many of the pages are solid blocks of text without any paragraph breaks) and so ended up rereading pages which I’d read once and not even realising it, but when I did, deliberately rereading it with a whole new pleasure, hearing aspects of the text, its meanings and implications and lush style, which I’d missed first time around.

Lyricism

Because The Death of Virgil is highly lyrical. Untermeyer says the entire text is in effect a poem because of its sustained lyricism. It certainly overflows with lyrical passages of deliberate sensuality.

Through the open arched windows well above the city’s roofs a cool breeze was blowing, a cool remembrance of land and sea, seafast, landfast, swept through the chamber, the candles, blown down obliquely, burned on the many-branched, flower-wreathed candelabrum in the centre of the room, the wall-fountain let a fragile, fan-shaped veil of water purl coolly over its marble steps, the bed under the mosquito netting was made up and on the table beside it food and drink had been set out. (p.41)

Maybe you could posit a spectrum of the content, with pure lyricism at one end, pure abstraction at the other, and a mix in the middle. So the excerpt above is what you could call entry-level lyricism in the sense that it is concerned solely with sense impressions, sense data, describing the ‘real’ world. Here’s a passage which contains hints of the metaphysical:

Yet in the night’s breath all was mingled, the brawling of the feast and the stillness of the mountains and the glittering of the sea as well, the once and the now and again the once, one merging into the other, merged into one another… (p.42)

And here is the full-on visionary-metaphysical:

Oh, human perception not yet become knowledge, no longer instinct, rising from the humus of existence, from the seed of sentience, rising out of the wisdom of the mothers, ascending into the deadly clarity of utter-light, of utter-life, ascending to the burning knowledge of the father, ascending to cool heights, oh human knowledge, unrooted, eternally in motion, neither in the depths nor on the heights but hovering forever over the starry threshold between night and day, a sigh and a breath in the interrealm of starry dusk, hovering between the life of the night-held herds, and the death of light-flooded identification with Apollo, between silence and the word, the word that always returns into silence. (p.48)

By now I hope you can see how Virgil’s mind is in almost permanently visionary mode. In his last hours he is entirely concerned with huge abstract ideas of human nature and destiny and personal intimations about being and consciousness and awareness, all mixed into a great, prolonged swirl. Every conversation, every new event, stirs a new aspect of this endless flow of thoughts, triggers a new long rhapsody. The novel as rhapsody, where rhapsody is defined as ‘an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling’.

Plot summary

Part one, ‘Water – The Arrival’, is just 53 pages long. The third person narrator records Virgil’s thoughts about the sea journey, his swinish companions, his regret at being forced to leave Athens, notifies us that he is very ill, all as the fleet of 6 ships pulls into the harbour of Brundisium as night falls.

The emperor’s ship navigates among the many other ships in the harbour, ties up and slaves start to unload it, while Virgil is carried ashore in a litter borne by 4 slaves.

A huge crowd has turned out to greet Augustus in the central square, roaring approval. Virgil is carried through them, overcome with disgust at humanity, led by a youth who has appeared out of nowhere carrying a torch.

This youth leads the slaves bearing Virgil’s litter through the smelly warehouse quarter and then into a very dirty narrow back passage, reeking of poverty, as raddled women hang out their windows yelling abuse at the rich guy in the litter. This is a sort of vision of hell and goes on for some pages, Virgil repeatedly calling it Misery Street.

They finally emerge into a plaza, also thronged, and make their way through the surging crowd to the gates to the emperor’s palazzo. Here they are let through by the guard and handled by an efficient major-domo who escorts them to their room.

The mysterious torch-bearing boy is unaccountably still with Virgil and when the major-domo tells him to leave, Virgil, on an impulse, says the boy is his ‘scribe’ and can stay. When he asks how long the boy slave will stay with him, the boy gives the portentous reply ‘forever’, which triggers a characteristic response in Virgil:

 Everlasting night, domain in which the mother rules, the child fast asleep in immutability, lulled by darkness, from dark to dark, oh sweet permanence of ‘forever’. (p.44)

The slaves depart. Virgil is alone in the bedroom he’s been allotted, perceiving the night sky, the plash of the fountain in the gardens outside, overcome with swirling thoughts about peace and youth and sense impressions and memory, as he lies on the bed and tries to sleep. End of part one.


Credit

The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch was published by Pantheon Books in 1945. References are to the 1983 Oxford University Press paperback edition.

Hermann Broch reviews

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Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity (2005)

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

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

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

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

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

With separate sections of images devoted to:

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

The concept of celebrity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being modish risks becoming dated

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

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

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

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

The authors’ definitions of celebrity

The authors attempt numerous definitions of celebrity:

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

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

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

Postle goes on to try and distinguish fame from celebrity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s another definition:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite obviously none of these originated in eighteenth century London.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Orme’s 15 minutes of fame

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was new about 18th century ‘media’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reynolds’s world was infested with gossip and rumour.

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

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

Did he, though? ‘Modern’ journalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reynolds’s strategies for success

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

But was Reynolds unique?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Art scholarship prose style

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

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

1. Buzzwords

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

‘Wish’ wouldn’t be a better word?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Starchy prose style

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

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

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

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

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

3. Thin content

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

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

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

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

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


Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unanswered questions

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

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

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


Related links

Blog posts about the 18th century

Botticelli Reimagined @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) is widely recognised as one of the masters of the Italian Renaissance and a handful of his images – Spring, The Birth of Venus – have become almost universal due to their reproduction on posters etc.

This exhibition brings together the largest number of works by Botticelli, his pupils and followers, seen in Britain since 1930, but there is a twist. For Botticelli’s reputation underwent a strange decline after his death and for 300 years he was eclipsed by his more famous contemporaries Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael. Only in the mid-Victorian period did his fortunes revive and then flourished as he was copied and emulated by, in this country especially, the pre-Raphaelites.

This era of new appreciation was followed, in the 20th century, by a mixture of homage and parody as some of his most famous imagery became ripe for re-appropriation, satire and comedy.

The Virgin and Child with Two Angels by Sandro Botticelli (c.1490) Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna . Image courtesy Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna .

The Virgin and Child with Two Angels by Sandro Botticelli (c.1490) Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna. Image courtesy Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Vienna.

And so this exhibition is in three parts: 20th century homage; the 19th century rediscovery; the original Botticelli, pupils and followers. The exhibition is laid out in reverse chronological order, starting with the 20th century, and the first thing you see is a video screen showing the clip from the movie Dr No where Sean Connery wakes up on the island of Dr No to see Ursula Andress emerge from the sea in a bikini. This is taken as homage to Botticelli’s most famous image, The Birth of Venus, as is the other clip in the sequence, from Terry Gilliam’s movie Baron Munchausen, the scene where the picture comes alive and the statuesque Uma Thurman emerges naked from a huge sea shell.

Having grasped this layout I preferred to start in the opposite order from the exhibition, and spend my Saturday morning energy soaking up the real thing, before progressing to the Victorians, and only then returning the shiny plastic modern spoofs and homages.

Sandro Botticelli

Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (c. 1445-1510) belonged to the Florentine School under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici. By 1470 he had his own workshop in which numerous pupils and craftsmen worked. One of the problems of Botticelli scholarship is that of attribution: only two paintings have his signature on them; all the rest are scholarly guesses, many causing controversy to this day.

In this respect the exhibition fascinatingly hangs sequences of paintings of the same subject in the same style next to each other: six Madonna and Childs, one (?) by the man himself, several (?) from his workshop, the rest (?) by contemporaries working in the same style, allow you to fine tune your understanding of his style and, incidentally, to understand a little the challenging world of art attribution.

The distinctive thing about Botticelli’s style is the way it is flat and diagrammatic, with no attempt at light and shade, of chiaroscuro, of blurring or shadowing. 1) The outlines of faces, noses, chins, arms and especially tresses of hair are all conveyed with a cartoon clarity 2) In particular the women’s faces all look the same or similar, oval with a strongly defined chin and jawbone which continues in a graceful curve round to the earlobe 3) The hair is stylised into into a kind of schematic diagram of hair 4) The women are  tall and slender with high small boobs, the body generally covered in a light diaphanous-feeling, many-folded robe.

 Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1490s) Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz . Photo: Volker-H. Schneider.

Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1490s) Gemäldegalerie Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz . Photo: Volker-H. Schneider.

My favourite work in these rooms was Portrait of a young woman, possibly Simonetta Vespucci (1484) the hair in particular more like a flat book illustration than a painting, each pearl painted with the same amount of detail, no attempt at modelling light and shade, further and nearer, blurring some area to create a sense of depth or shadow: everything in the same hyper-clarity, but all against an impenetrable black background, itself a change and a rest from the stereotypical broken columns or distant lakes with a boat on it which populate so many Renaissance paintings. Just her, in super-clarity.

In these two rooms are gather some 40 paintings by Sandro or his workshop as well as 11 pen and ink drawings and half a dozen early books from the period. A Renaissance junky could probably spend the whole morning poring over these marvellous works. The really classic works, the Spring and Birth of Venus are held in the Uffizi in Florence and are never leaving. I was surprised that the National Gallery’s Venus and Mars hadn’t made the 3 mile trip to be included (note Venus’s strong jawline and statuesque white neck). The nearest thing to them was the large and beautiful Pallas and the Centaur, with the slender grace of the goddess and the vines twining over her arms and breast.

Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli (c.1482) © Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 2015 . Photo: Scala, Florence - courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Cultura

Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli (c.1482) © Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 2015. Photo: Scala, Florence – courtesy of the Ministero Beni e Att. Cultura

The main thing I learned was about his later style. In his last years Botticelli fell under the influence of the fundamentalist preacher Savonarola, a period shrouded in rumour. Some say he abandoned painting, others that he burned all his paintings (the ones which weren’t hanging in the villas of his rich patrons the Medicis). What the show illustrates is that is later style was heavier. Two paintings represent it, notably the Flight from Egypt. In this the figures fill the frame, looming and heavy, the composition no longer feels light and dainty but heavy and threatening and the cartoon element is even more to the fore. Look at the donkey. Joseph’s head looks as if it was done by a completely different artist.

Off to one side in a separate room were the prints and drawings. These included five illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy (there is currently a fabulous exhibition of thirty of these drawings at London’s Courtauld Gallery). The best of them was the Allegory of Abundance – or by ‘best’, do we just mean the one that looks most like the figures in Prinmavera and Venus? The paintings include a lot of Biblical subjects, a lot of Madonnas in tondi (round paintings). None of these are canonical i.e. none of these are what we expect our Botticelli to be: we expect slender graceful women, and so…

Allegory of Abundance or Autumn by Sandro Botticelli (c.1470-5) The British Museum (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

Allegory of Abundance or Autumn by Sandro Botticelli (c.1470-5) The British Museum (c) The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Victorian rediscovery

The exhibition suggests that it was the heaviness of these later works which caused Botticelli’s eclipse. For three hundred years or so (1510 to 1810) he was largely overlooked in history books and art teaching.

The exhibition claims that the first step in his revival was the way that, during the Napoleonic Wars, lots of Catholic religious houses were closed down and the art works they contained came onto the market. That began to revive interest in his name.

But the story then fast-forwards to the 1860s and to an essay written by English critic Walter Pater praising Botticelli, and especially to the patronage of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelite painters. Their joint enthusiasm created a revival of Botticelli’s reputation.

There is a smallish room with Victorian books and magazines and posters explaining the Victorian resurgence in his reputation; and then there is a stunning long room full of beautiful sumptuous pre-Raphalite masterpieces. If you like Victorian painting it is worth visiting for these alone, with lovely big sensual works by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and many more.

La Ghirlandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1873) © Guildhall Art Gallery 2015. Photo: Scala, Florence/Heritage Images .

La Ghirlandata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1873) © Guildhall Art Gallery 2015. Photo: Scala, Florence/Heritage Images.

Rossetti has taken the shape of the female head – all strong jawline and statuesque neck – and overlaid a whole world of Victorian sensuality and green velvet. Next to these images of sensuality Botticelli’s women look blankly emotionless. It is fascinating – and an amazing experience and opportunity – to wander back and forth between the Botticelli originals and what artists three hundred years later made of them.

The end wall of the room is covered by a fabulous William Morris tapestry, The Orchard, dominated by four female figures, loosely based on the Botticelli lightness and grace, but note the changing fruits of the trees which make up the background pattern of foliage. A reproduction doesn’t do justice to the scale and impact of this beautiful tapestry. Obviously Morris felt at home with, or was inspired by, the foliage themes of the Primavera.

The Orchard by William Morris (1890) V&A. John Henry Dearle, Morris & Co (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Orchard by William Morris (1890) V&A. John Henry Dearle, Morris & Co (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

There were also lovely works by Aubrey Beardsley and artists I’m less familiar with such as Arnold Böcklin, Simeon Solomon, Sartorio, and a couple of works by woman artist Evelyn de Morgan, including her Flora from 1895.

The twentieth century response

The thing about the twentieth century is how big and messy it was. From between the wars were traditional (sort of) paintings by the likes of:

But the lion’s share of the 20th century room is dominated by post-war art which, from one point of view, becomes progressively bigger and more facile. There is:

  • Orlan – Occasional strip-tease (1974) Like many of the women photographers featured in Performing for the camera at Tate Modern, Orlan thinks taking her clothes off is an artistic or subversive act, here done in homage, at last in the penultimate shot, to Sandro’s Venus.
  • Cindy Sherman – #225 (1990) homage to one of Sandro’s Madonnas
  • Vik Munix – VantagePoint X This is a huge work. Only when you go close do you realise every element in it is junk, rubbish collected from the streets and garbage bins, arranged to reproduice the famous image.
  • Tomoko Nagao – The Birth of Venus Apparently a homage to the instantly recognisable Japanese style of ‘Superflat’

Here is an image chosen to publicise the show, David Lachapelle’s kitchy, campy studio re-enactment of the Birth of Venus with some fit young men from the YMCA in attendance.

Rebirth of Venus by David LaChapelle (2009) Creative Exchange Agency, New York, Steven Pranica / Studio LaChapelle (c) David LaChapelle.

Rebirth of Venus by David LaChapelle (2009) Creative Exchange Agency, New York, Steven Pranica / Studio LaChapelle (c) David LaChapelle.

The ‘best’ of the 20th century homages had to be the Andy Warhol silk screens of Venus’s face from 1984. God knows how many exist in what combinations of colours, but this exhibition featured two with strikingly different colour schemes. The most attractive one, with a pink face, is used as the exhibition poster.

Warhol had a great eye for classic design, from Campbell’s soup tins to Elvis pulling a gun from his holster. These silks are an appropriate homage from one master of clarity of design and strength of line to another, Sandro’s cartoon-like tresses and features highlighted and retouched for the age of plastic and imacs.

Related links

Reviews of other V&A exhibitions

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