Vol. 9 No. 8 · 23 April 1987

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Aristocratic Collectors

SIR: I read with some amazement F.M.L. Thompson’s claim (LRB, 19 February) that the assembly of great aristocratic collections in this country was ‘generally unimportant and undeserving of comment at the time at which it occurred’. Comment by whom? The voracious acquisition of works of art on the European market by English aristocrats did not pass unnoticed by King George III and greatly agitated the Popes in Rome. It is indeed hard to think of any English aristocratic activity that attracted more international comment during the 18th century. Anyone reading Thompson might suppose that since there was no fuss when the ‘nation’s treasures’ came here, there is no need for fuss now they are being sold. But there was a fuss.

‘The old landed aristocracy has produced no great collectors with the single-mindedness, determination and coherence of industrialists like Henry Tate, Samuel Courtauld or Burrell,’ Thompson tells us. But these industrialists are of little significance when compared with the second Earl of Arundel and the fifth Earl of Exeter in the 17th century, the third Earl of Burlington and the second Duke of Devonshire in the 18th, or the third Marquis of Lansdowne and the fourth Marquis of Hertford in the 19th. The ignorance displayed by Thompson here would be impossible had he any interest in the ‘nation’s treasures’ or respect for people who do have such an interest.

No wonder Thompson considers the ‘spectacle’ of, aristocrats ‘posing as curators of the nation’s treasures’ to be ‘pathetic’. The aristocrats, however, are more aware of their history than is their historian. Their ancestors were among the founders, promoters and supporters of the British Institution, the National Gallery and the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition. There is much hypocrisy behind today’s talk about heritage, but there are initiatives and commitments which the ruling classes of this country made in the past which deserve to be honoured. Philistinism has certainly sometimes been respectable among many sections of our aristocracy, but no more so, I suspect, than it is today among senior academics.

Nicholas Penny
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

SIR : It would be unfortunate for your readers if some of the breezy assertions on the subject of art collecting by the English aristocracy in F.M.L. Thompson’s run-up to reviewing J.V. Beckett’s The Aristocracy in England: 1660-1914 were allowed to pass unchallenged. To anyone who has made a study of the subject, it seems extraordinary that someone whom you describe as a Director of Research of an Institute of Historical Research, and a professor of history, could apparently be so ignorant of a large body of literature on the subject. One could produce a long list of members of the aristocracy who took an enlightened and enthusiastic interest in assembling collections of works of art from the late 17th century onwards. Indeed, such interest was often repeated, if not in the immediately following generation, then in later ones: so that such collections continued to grow in stature. The evidence – which Thompson asserts to be non-existent – can be found in Thomas Martyn’s The English Connoisseur, 1766; J.D. Passavant’s Tour of a German Artist in England, 1836; William Buchanan’s Memoirs of Painting, 1824; Dr Gustav Waagen’s Works of Art and Artists in England, 1836, and the vastly enlarged edition of 1854 entitled Treasures of Art in Great Britain, with its long supplement of 1857; Mrs Anna Jameson’s Companion to the Most Celebrated Galleries of Art in London, 1844; Adolf Michaelis’s Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, 1882; or even my own documentary chrestomathy, The English as Collectors, 1972; and in many other volumes. As for members of the aristocracy who formed notable collections of paintings and works of art – some of which survive and some of which have been dispersed – Professor Thompson might ponder on such names as Arundel, Pembroke, Marlborough, Egremont, Exeter, Towneley, Bridgwater, Grosvenor, Stafford, Salisbury, Radnor, Bristol, Spencer, Northwick, Landsdowne, Palmerston (father of the politician), Hertford and Harewood. I could go on.

Frank Herrmann
Maldon, Essex

F.M.L. Thompson writes: It is flattering to have drawn the fire of Nicholas Penny and Frank Herrmann, although a shade alarming that their aim has been made so erratic by their eagerness to show off their splendid toys. All the same, I am most grateful to them for generously making freely available some of their store of learning on art history and art collecting, and for supplying a select bibliography and a short list of famous men. It has to be admitted, however, that this information, while instructive, is neither destructive nor constructive in the context of a section of a review which was trying to explain how a big book on the English aristocracy could avoid giving any space to discussing the processes by which the general run of country-house collections were formed over the centuries. It must be conceded, also, that naming half a dozen famous aristocratic names drawn from three centuries, although an interesting exercise, is not a major contribution to understanding the general behaviour of a social order that numbered several hundred families; neither was my own naming of three industrialists intended to convey the impression that all 19th-century industrialists were great art collectors. Of course, the author of the Arrogant Connoisseur will know better than I do that there are few things so dangerously offensive as an art historian who gets hold of the wrong end of the stick while riding his hobby-horse: until he regains control of his mount it is advisable for everyone else to stand well clear.

Mrs Shakespeare

SIR: Here we go again. I promised not to quarrel any more with Barbara Everett about Shakespeare’s Sonnets. By all means let her believe that they were addressed to Mrs Shakespeare, to the Earl of Southampton’s cat, to anyone she likes. Fine by me. When she said that Shakespeare was ‘partial’ to his wife, however, I thought that she meant that he was fond of her, more than that he was prejudiced in her favour. Now, apparently, I should have used the dictionary before leaping to any such conclusion. My Oxford Dictionary gives ‘having a liking for, or fond of’ as one definition of the word ‘partial’. Perhaps Everett was using a different dictionary.

Larkin, incidentally, was fond of Barbara Everett, as I am. Her overpraise of Larkin and Amis is full of the generous percipience for which she enjoys her following. It is almost as though it comes from a pen different from the one which writes about Shakespeare and about me.

A.N. Wilson

Seconds Away

SIR: In criticising Lord Kennet’s review of my book, ‘Peace’ of the Dead – The Truth behind the Nuclear Disarmers, Mark Thompson (Letters, 5 March) paints a rosy but misleading picture of END’s (European Nuclear Disarmament’s) relationship with the CND. When END was launched, it was strongly backed by the CND, with Sanity (June 1980) enthusiastically reporting on its formation. At the time E.P. Thompson outlined END’s role in its Bulletin (No 1, 1980) as being ‘to co-ordinate and bring into being a European-wide alliance; second, to provide the political perspective of this movement; third, to work out actual events, symbolic and effective, which will add a European dimension to the work of national movements’. Unlike the CND, however, END sought to precipitate popular resistance to nuclear weapons in both East and West. Many of those who supported END, such as Thompson and Ken Coates, were, in fact, former Communist Party members who had become disillusioned with the repressive nature of East European socialism.

In the West, END saw its components as being the existing ‘peace’ movements – such as the CND in Britain and VAKA in Belgium. It was the East which posed problems. In each country there was already a ‘national peace committee’ affiliated to the Soviet-controlled World Peace Council. Although the CND itself has been quite prepared to fraternise with these groups, END (to its credit) recognised them as propaganda outfits and tried to cultivate links with independent ‘peace’ groups, such as Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and the Dialogue Group in Hungary. This strategy was, as Lord Kennet rightly notes, a failure. Thompson’s dream of independent anti-nuclear activities in the East was incompatible with the near-absolute control a totalitarian regime must exert over internal political activities. More worrying for END, however, was their condemnation of the ‘peace’ movement in the West. As the exiled leader of the Moscow Trust Group, Sergei Batovrin said in 1983: ‘The international disarmament movement is an important ally of the USSR, considerably, more dependable than the Western Communist Parties.’

According to Mark Thompson, END and CND ‘fully support each other’s aims’. Reporting on the 1986 CND Annual Conference in Tribune (21 November 1986), Paul Anderson, a member of his ‘editorial collective’, cited the deletion of the forthcoming END Convention as ‘a major focus for campaigning’ from the CND’s 1987 programme as evidence of the strength of the ‘pro-Soviet caucus’ in CND. This is hardly an endorsement of END’s stance.

Finally, it is ironic that Mark Thompson accuses the Coalition for Peace through Security (CPS) of engaging in a ‘smear campaign against the peace movement’, for this is precisely what he is doing against CPS. Moreover, since both CND and END have refused to answer my questions whilst I was writing my book, they can hardly complain when PRP Ltd now refuses to send them free copies.

Paul Mercer
London SE1

The Clearances

SIR: Why does David Craig imply (Letters, 19 March) that I am the kind of person who might condone the Holocaust because I have accepted some of the findings of a notably imaginative and compassionate economic historian about the Highland Clearances?

Statistics of population do not support the widespread impression that the Highland counties lost people, in the period of the Clearances, faster than Lowland agricultural shires. They certainly lost far fewer, proportionately, than famine-stricken Ireland. Any reasonable account of emigration from the Highlands has to take account of a pressure of population which might have produced, but mercifully did not, a cataclysm like Ireland’s, as well as of self-interested and sometimes very cruel ‘clearance’ by landlords for sheep-farming or sporting purposes. It also has to allow for the undoubted fact that from the mid-18th century many Highlanders went overseas voluntarily. One motive was the opportunity to recreate, on the frontier, a way of life that was becoming impossible in Scotland. An upshot both piquant and poignant is that Gaelic, in the Canadian Maritimes, where it has been spoken for two centuries by whole communities, now faces a danger of slow extinction at the same time as Gaelic in Scotland and for similar reasons.

Prince Charlie’s saviour Flora Macdonald settled with husband and clansmen in North Carolina, which Highlanders had been colonising since the 1730s. These people fought for Hanoverian George III against the American ‘patriot’ revolutionaries. The fact represents the difficulty of moralising about history as Dr Craig wishes to do. At what point in the scale of viciousness one places the Clearances among the many assaults made by capitalism and imperialism on peasant ways of life is open to debate. Dr Craig implies that they were as sudden, comprehensive and ruthless as, say, British occupation of the White Highlands of Kenya. My own view is that they weren’t, though their aspect of cultural genocide makes them even more repulsive than the changes in the Southern English countryside which produced the miseries of the era of Captain Swing and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Angus Calder

Vichy and Vietnam

SIR: R.W. Johnson’s review (LRB, 5 March) of Herbert Lottman’s book The People’s Anger closes with a gratuitous reference to recent United States history, as if the parallel he suggests were obvious: ‘Just as the Americans have still to come to terms with Vietnam, the French have still, collectively, to come to terms with Vichy.’ Except in a passing reference to the presence of American troops, America had nothing to do with the review, and nothing to do, apparently, with the book being reviewed, but Professor Johnson managed to seize the occasion nonetheless: how can wickedness possibly come under discussion without mention of Vietnam? I have no doubt that in reviewing a book on Jenghiz Khan he would be able to generate a cameo appearance for Mr Nixon. That a condemnation should be gratuitous is, of course, no argument against its substance. Consider, then, the parallel itself. Is Vietnam to America as Vichy to France? Did the United States leadership send soldiers to Vietnam because it was comfortable to do so? Or to indulge its latent racism? That the Vietnam war was a failed enterprise is plain: do the French look on Vichy as a ‘failed enterprise’?

One more comment. Why should the French still, collectively, have to come to terms with Vichy? The ‘shame and humiliation of the Occupation’ is something for the participants to come to terms with, I should think. In America, at least, Bills of Attainder and the Corruption of Blood are prohibited by the Constitution.

Ralph Raimi
University of Rochester, New York

R.W. Johnson writes: I meant, of course, that Vichy and Vietnam were both national traumas. Because they were national traumas there is a collective need to come to terms with them. The sharpness of Mr Raimi’s response to a two-line simile appears simply to make my point in another way.

Eriksonian Speculations

SIR: P.N. Johnson-Laird, in his review of William James: His Life and Thought (LRB, 5 March), claims that the author, Gerald Myers, ‘throws new light on William as the eldest brother who allegedly messed everyone else up’, a supposed ‘neurotic enigma who sought refuge from his problems in his writing’, and whose fraternity with his younger brother Henry had ‘homosexual overtones’. These extravagances are attributed to ‘the psychoanalytically-inclined’. It is remarkable how the discussion of James’s life has centred on these unprofitable Freudian speculations, rather than on the extensively documented, historically sensitive and sympathetic narratives that have been based instead on Erik Erikson’s attention to the problems of vocation as a focus for conflict at the stage of identity-formation. His reflections on this stage of the lifecycle work even better for James than they do for Luther, for whom there is far less evidence. The result is to throw a psychologically sophisticated light on what Ralph Barton Perry understood in a common-sense way when he entitled one of the chapters of his great book, The Thought and Character of William James, ‘His Father’s Son’. The significant work in this Eriksonian vein on James has nothing to do with making him ‘a neurotic enigma’, but rather it seeks to understand his neurotic problems in relation to the complex entanglements he found himself in by reason of over-identification with a neurotic and implacable father, who profoundly influenced the son’s plight and the development of his philosophy. The purpose of such study – see, for example, Howard Feinstein’s Becoming William James and my own The Voracious Imagination – is to understand how James slowly worked his way out of the identity-confusion he suffered as a young man. Its service is to show (in Mr Johnson-Laird’s phrase) that ‘the personality was all of a piece with the thought.’ Whatever its merits as a philosophical critique of James, Meyers’s chapter on the life tends to obscure this Eriksonian scholarship by correcting unconvincing Freudian speculations about the James family.

Cushing Strout
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

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