Alan Bennett chooses four paintings for schools

Alan Bennett

When I was at school in the late Forties there were two sorts of painting on the walls. Most classrooms hosted a couple of pictures scarcely above the Highland-cattle level, and in terrible frames, that had been discarded by the City Art Gallery and palmed off on the Education Committee, which then sent them round to schools. These uninspired canvasses didn’t so much encourage an appreciation of art as a proficiency at darts. However, there was another category of picture occasionally to be seen: reproductions on board of work by modern British painters – Ravilious, Paul Nash, Henry Moore, Pasmore. These, I think, were put out by Shell and turn up occasionally nowadays at auction, though not quite at Sotheby’s. That I’ve always liked – and found no effort in liking – British paintings of the Forties and Fifties I partly put down to my early exposure to these well-chosen reproductions. So it was my own largely unwitting experience that made me welcome the Sainsbury scheme whereby every year four selected paintings are reproduced, framed and sent round with an information pack to schools local to Sainsbury’s stores.

To be asked to choose four paintings from any of the galleries in the British Isles feels, I imagine, not unlike taking part in that dreadful TV game in which contestants are each given a trolley and the run of a supermarket and, dashing frantically between the cling peaches and the minced morsels, end up with far more Jeyes Fluid than any sane person could reasonably want. The supermarket, I hasten to add, not Sainsbury’s.

As a trustee I felt that one of my paintings should be from the National Gallery and I originally wanted The Good Samaritan by Bassano. It may seem, in view of its much more spectacular neighbours like Veronese’s Family of Darius before Alexander or Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, to be a dull choice. Indeed this rather intimate picture is an exception for Bassano himself, who produced much more spectacular paintings, one of which, a tumultuous Nativity in the National Gallery of Scotland, at one point I had it in mind to choose.

The Good Samaritan is quite low-key, the Samaritan caught just as he’s trying to heave the injured man onto his horse; it’s an awkward movement because the man is either unconscious or unable to do much to help and the tension of the effort runs right across the picture. In the background the priest and the Levite, having chosen not to see the injured man, are making off. In the distance is the town where the Samaritan will pay for the man to be lodged until he recovers, the town thought to be a representation of the painter’s home, Bassano near Venice.

So many paintings in galleries are populated by the beautiful and the perfectly proportioned that it’s a relief to find one of this date (mid-16th century) where the characters are so downright ordinary. These are not gods, or athletes even: just one balding, middle-aged man helping another, their bodies worn and slack and past their best. That seemed to me to be something that a child could learn from – apart, of course, from the relevance of the parable itself, and particularly the fact that Samaritans were rather looked down on in their day, which points up the contrast between the priest and the Levite, who ought, if they were sincere in their beliefs, to have lent a hand, and the despised figure who actually did help. It’s as if you’ve broken down on the M6 and the only person who bothers to stop and help is a Hell’s Angel.

Having decided this was one of the paintings I wanted, I was told that it wouldn’t reproduce well, so I had to look elsewhere.

An obvious choice was the spectacular painting of St George and the Dragon by the Spanish painter Bermejo, which the National Gallery acquired a couple of years ago. Wherever you look in this painting there is something that delights: in particular, the vivacious and many-mouthed dragon – it even has mouths in its elbows. St George looks a little baby-faced but his armour makes up for it, particularly the reflections in his breastplate, which are said to represent the Heavenly City but look not unlike All Souls College, Oxford. Having chosen this painting, I was looking forward to the umpteen papier-mâché versions of the dragon – with or without egg-boxes – that the children would inevitably construct. But again my choice was thwarted. The painting is long and thin and I was told it would be difficult to reproduce without a vast border of white – and since borders are something I hate I had to look elsewhere.

I finally chose The Adoration of the Kings by Gossaert, also called Mabuse, which hangs in Room 12 of the Gallery. There’s such a lot going on in it that it’s hard to take it all in: the Holy Family below, confronted by rich visitors and attendants plus a crowd of onlookers, the sky above buzzing with a flotilla of angels. The picture is painted in extraordinary detail, every bit of it in focus – which is partly why it seems so crowded and confusing. Caspar is offering the Christ child a gold chalice filled with coins, the lid of the chalice lying on the floor. Balthazar on the left is identified by an inscription on his crown and Gossaert has painted his own name below it (and again on the neck ornament of Balthazar’s black servant). On the right, Melchior is waiting with his presentation, rather precariously balanced in his limp hand. The detail is such that one can distinguish the hairs on the mole on Caspar’s cheek. Above the scene, and in another order of things, the angels crowd the sky, where the star that led the Wise Men to the manger is still shining. A dove representing the Holy Spirit descends from the star.

Gossaert was an artist from near Antwerp, painting in the first quarter of the 16th century, and this picture was done as an altarpiece for the Abbey of Grammont in Flanders around 1510. Somewhere on the painting the restorers at the National Gallery have found Gossaert’s own fingerprints.

It’s a painting that cries out to be made into an Advent calendar, though there would be an insufficiency of windows to display all its wonderful detail. And yet I always feel that it’s with the Adoration of the Kings that the Christian story begins to go wrong; that the unlooked for display of material wealth and the shower of gifts, for all their emblematic significance, are a foretaste of the wealth and worldliness that were to ensnare the medieval Church; and while the Virgin, always the perfect hostess, takes it all in her stride, even, in this painting, accepting the chalice of coins proffered by Caspar, it nevertheless bodes ill for the future. As is generally the case with the Adoration, it’s the animals who get it right, even though, as here, they scarcely figure, shouldered out of the way by the Kings and their arrogant followers, the young man on the left, for instance, the picture of boredom and superciliousness. In the Bassano Nativity the animals scarcely manage to get their noses into the painting at all. Here they do a bit better, as the ox keeps company with Gossaert himself, just peeping into his own painting, while the ass is at the back of the picture, where the sightseers are gazing over the ramshackle fence. The dogs, being dogs, get more of a look-in than the ox and the ass. They seem to be quite posh dogs and probably came with the Kings, both having distinguished pedigrees, the one on the left taken from Schongauer’s engraving of The Adoration of the Kings, the other from Dürer’s St Eustace.

One way of looking at this extraordinary painting is as an advertisement for the Flanders Tourist Board, or as the equivalent of one of those airport bazaars where all the products of the locality are on sale. Embroidery, millinery, jewellery, leather, fancy goods – it’s all here. On this view, the Three Kings in their elaborate apparel could be seen as fugitives from the catwalk – and like anyone dressed at the very height of fashion, startling and not un-ridiculous.

This way of looking at the painting isn’t entirely a joke, though, because if one wants a prime site from which to advertise, what better place than the altar?

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