At the Wallace Collection

Peter Campbell

At the Wallace Collection, Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time has been taken down into the basement. It can be found there until 5 February, holding a position of honour in Dancing to the Music of Time, an exhibition about the life and work of Anthony Powell. The painting is powerful but decorous. Apollo’s chariot, high in the sky, drives away the clouds of night. The daylight it brings falls only indirectly on the figures below: four dancers (representing the seasons), Time (whose lyre provides the music), one putto blowing soap bubbles and another watching sand trickle through an hourglass. Art would later tire of Poussin’s classical rhythms. One hundred years later Tiepolo made even martyrdom take place in bright light among fluttering drapery.

Anthony Powell’s novels are full of references to paintings. Some of the pictures that turn up in A Dance to the Music of Time are real, like the Poussin. Others, like a Tiepolo ceiling in which Gyges, encouraged by Candaules, spies on Candaules’ naked wife, are imagined. Novelists often quote fragments of songs or poetry – Powell himself does – but to cite pictures is less usual. Sometimes it is the narrator who remembers a picture. At the very beginning of A Question of Upbringing, the first novel in the sequence, the Poussin is called up to give weight to an apprehension of the nature of social life which comes to the narrator when he is struck by the dance-like formality of a group of workmen gathered round a brazier. In Temporary Kings it is the reader’s memory of how Tiepolo makes figures twist and turn that is relied on for a gloss on the relations, some hectic and some oblique, between a group of Powell’s characters who meet in Venice under a Tiepolo ceiling. The imagined Tiepolo, like the real Poussin, is a lens that brings ideas and actions into focus.

When both painter and paintings are fictional it is harder to imagine the pictures. The look of Edgar Deacon’s Boyhood of Cyrus must be worked out from the comparisons on offer: the Pre-Raphaelites, Simeon Solomon (whose soft-faced youths are perhaps the most suggestive parallel) and Puvis de Chavannes. It’s a mistake to match real and fictional art too quickly, just as it’s a mistake to look for the real-life originals of a novelist’s characters, but there’s no harm in identifying real elements that – like the cut-outs and bits of print Powell pasted onto screens and into scrapbooks – can be used to round an invention out. (There are examples of Powell’s collage pages in the exhibition.) It’s possible, for instance, to imagine Powell’s Barnby enlivening a portrait session much as Henry Lamb did when he enlisted his sister-in-law, Lady Violet Pakenham, to talk to Powell while he was being painted. Lamb’s portraits – of Powell, of Lady Violet, of Evelyn Waugh – are the most assured and historically significant in the exhibition. Perhaps there is some correlation between Powell’s at times curiously subfusc prose and the sober Camden Town colour and gestural reticence of Lamb’s portrait of him.

Both Powell and Evelyn Waugh thought about becoming painters, but the look of things impinges more in Powell’s novels. He provides more visual information than Waugh about places, people and clothes, and his painter characters (Barnby and Deacon) are a good deal more convincing than Waugh’s Charles Ryder. You can guess at Ryder’s style (something of Felix Kelly’s romantic architectural portraits, say, or Rex Whistler’s decorations) but you can’t easily imagine him actually putting brush to canvas.

Among other odds, ends and memorabilia in the exhibition (a typewriter, photograph albums, letters, journals, a family tree Powell used to keep track of the connections between characters) are the typescripts of several of the novels. In a way, these are illustrations too. They show what the pages of X. Trapnel’s manuscript, destroyed by Pamela Widmerpool and last seen sinking into the waters of the canal, would have looked like. A generation whose equivalent disaster is ‘fatal error’ on the screen of a computer with an unbacked-up hard drive might, I suppose, have no idea how scruffy, vulnerable and worked-over a typescript could look.

Powell, like Dickens, is specific about appearances and offers descriptions an illustrator can build on. The paperback covers drawn by Osbert Lancaster for the early Dance volumes, and those done later by Mark Boxer for the whole series when they were reissued by Fontana, are rare examples in modern English fiction of illustrations which add to the understanding of a novel rather than merely decorate it. Boxer gave the characters, Lancaster the scenery. In accounts of Bayswater stucco, gin palace façades and crowded parties, Lancaster made the world of the novels an annex of the wider picture established in his own illustrated histories of English domestic architecture.

Boxer’s virtue as a caricaturist lay in his ability to observe selectively. In his drawings each line refers to a distinguishing fold or pucker. When he was drawing real people he worked from what he had seen, not from photographs. The crumpled faces and sculpted beaks which emerge from the webs of lines in David Levine’s wonderful pen drawings for the New York Review of Books, and his watercolour and pencil heads for the New Yorker, tend to be riffs on existing images. Boxer, in many ways a far less accomplished artist, achieved likeness though a grasp of significant features and brilliant acts of elimination. The result, when he turned to Powell’s characters, was a gallery of recognisable figures: as a reader you somehow absorbed what they looked like. In the drawings you found familiar faces you didn’t know you knew.

The covers of Powell’s first four novels, published in the mid-1930s, were designed by Misha Black, who was to become a pillar of modern design in Britain. A slightly sinister photograph of an artist’s dummy is the common element. The covers are modern graphics, not illustrations: there is none of the engagement with character and setting which marks even the trophy-like compositions James Broom-Lynne drew for the jackets of the hardback editions of A Dance to the Music of Time. In the early novels the worlds of art, music and writing interpenetrate. One can imagine Black rubbing shoulders with Barnby. The Modernism which became the dominant mode in the colleges and galleries and among composers did not penetrate literature in the same way; the amateur spirit which meant, for example, that Lamb could train as a doctor and then become a painter, was of its time. A pleasure of the Wallace Collection exhibition is the picture it gives of a world in which roles were less defined and ambitions less focused.