Vol. 20 No. 7 · 2 April 1998

Alan Bennett chooses four paintings for schools

Alan Bennett

5863 words

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?

The character and situation of Joseph interests me partly because in most paintings of this period, and until the end of the 16th century, he has to take a back seat, particularly in paintings of the Adoration. He’s often so much in the background that one wonders if his role in the Holy Family, which is in any case ambiguous, isn’t made more so by his persistence in keeping out of the limelight. It must have been very puzzling. One can imagine a conversation between the Wise Men:

‘Who’s the guy with grey hair?’
‘That’s the husband.’
‘Oh my God!’

And so it must often have been with Joseph, his situation not helped by his always being represented as getting on in years. This is possibly because he’s not mentioned in the New Testament after the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Jesus then being 12, and so is presumed to have died before Jesus’s ministry began.

Even when Joseph is not depicted as old he is often made into such a pathetic and eccentric figure as almost to reflect discredit on the Virgin who picked him out in the first place. But I suppose that to portray him as an old man or a bit of a fool bolsters the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. After all, there is a sense in which Joseph is cuckolded by the Holy Ghost, a notion which is easier to accept if he fulfils the familiar role of the elderly and foolish husband of a much younger wife. Indeed, in some mystery plays he was presented as a cuckold.

It’s hardly fair and one feels that he’s rightly a saint, if only because having to play second fiddle he needs to be. It’s a situation one sometimes comes across in show-business, the famous actress with the supportive spouse; and while Joseph hasn’t quite had to sacrifice carpentry to the demands of his wife’s career, he’s definitely No 2 in this marriage, a male wife in fact.

In Gossaert’s Adoration he shrinks into the background as usual, but it’s nice occasionally to find a painting in which he doesn’t and where the Wise Men pay him a proper degree of attention. There is, for instance, an Adoration by Giovanni di Paolo in the Lynskey Collection at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, in which one of the Wise Men has his arm round Joseph’s shoulder, and is also holding his hand, perhaps saying: ‘Well I know what it’s like to be woken up in the middle of the night. I’ve got children of my own.’ Nice, too, when Joseph so seldom gets to hold the baby, to find him in a painting from the Paris Hours of René of Anjou, helping to bathe the baby and, in a 15th-century Book of Hours from Besançon, sitting by the fire, airing Jesus’s nappy.

Looking at the extraordinary gifts brought by the Three Kings, a child might well wonder what happened to them while Jesus was growing up. The myrrh is traditionally said to have been used to anoint Christ’s body after the Crucifixion. But what of the cup? Did it foreshadow the cup from which he drank at the Last Supper? Did Mary and Joseph ever take it down from its shelf, unwrap the cloth in which it was kept and think back to that extraordinary time when kings and their retinues paid them court and pitched camp around their stable? Which, in Gossaert’s painting, isn’t a stable at all but a derelict palace, the rundown building a symbol of the teachings of the Old Testament, which Christ would now supersede and make new and so build his own temple.

Painters of this period never get the baby right. He’s always far too big, as he is here, and frequently looks as if he knows exactly what’s going on, the problem for the painter being that, if he is the personification of God, then he would know what was going on and how do you represent that? But almost any of the babies depicted in paintings of the Nativity, sometimes spindly, sometimes gross, were they taken along to a baby clinic today, would arouse concern. A paediatrician would have to ask Mary some very searching questions.

The National Gallery is particularly rich in Gossaert’s work, not all of which I like, but none of his other paintings is as spectacular as the Adoration. One recent addition to the canon is a Virgin and Child, previously thought to be a 17th-century copy but which, when cleaned, was shown to be the genuine article. What to me is remarkable about the painting is that if you glance back at it from the door of Room 12 the illusion of it being three-dimensional is so strong that the Virgin looks as if she is a wax figure. It’s as startling an effect as the anamorphic skull in Holbein’s Ambassadors or the perspective tricks of the Hoogstraten Box. As a painting, though, I’m not particularly keen on it because the Virgin looks as if she is enthroned in a Victorian fireplace.

Hanging next to Gossaert’s Adoration of the Kings is Portrait of a Man aged 38 by Lucas van Leyden, painted around 1521. The age of the sitter is written on the scroll that he’s holding and, given his somewhat doleful countenance, if it said 40 rather than 38 it would be rather funny. I find it hard to say why I like the painting so much. It’s partly its austerity, which brings to mind some of Lucian Freud’s early portraits, while the sitter reminds me of Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal. When I go through Room 12 it’s the painting I always glance at as if it were a friend. I haven’t got anything more to say about it than that, though, and I couldn’t choose it as one of my four pictures because it, too, must seem rather dull. But I love it and I think it’s a reminder – and not one that all art historians would welcome – that there isn’t all that much to be said about some paintings.

In much the same category as the Lucas van Leyden, a painting I find ravishing but can’t find much to say about, is John Sell Cotman’s Greta Bridge, a watercolour in the British Museum. I was brought up on Cotman, in that they have a very good collection of his work in Leeds, most of it bequeathed by Sidney Kitson, who was so fond of the artist he was said to suffer from Cotmania. Understandably in my view, as I’ve yet to see a Cotman I didn’t like. But that just about says it all. It’s true one could find things to say about Greta Bridge itself, which has a dramatic history, and when I was a boy was the subject of a Children’s Hour serial. But nothing I could say would add much to the appeal of the painting and if there is nothing to be said one should have the sense not to say it.

My second choice, Hambletonian, Rubbing Down, by George Stubbs, was painted in 1800. It hangs at Mount Stewart, a National Trust property in Northern Ireland. Hambletonian was one of a string of racehorses belonging to Sir Henry Vane Tempest, a landowner from County Durham. Having already won some important races, the horse was matched at Newmarket in 1799 against a much-fancied rival, Diamond. The race was exceptionally dramatic, both horses being cruelly whipped and goaded with the spur until, utterly exhausted, Hambletonian managed to pull ahead and win the race by half a neck. Though he went on to win other races, the horse never wholly recovered from his ordeal and was eventually retired to Wynyard Park in County Durham, where he is buried under a large oak tree.

Stubbs was an old man of 75 when he painted Hambletonian, one of his last pictures, but the drawings he made of the skeletons and muscles of horses years before show that he knew horses literally inside out. For a long time this didn’t help his reputation, as he was thought of as just an animal painter. It’s only in the last thirty years that he has come to be recognised as one of the greatest English painters, a landmark in this process the exhibition at the Tate in 1985, curated by Judy Egerton, from whose magnificent catalogue I’m cribbing most of what I am saying.

The background of Stubbs’s painting hints at the scene of Hambletonian’s triumph, as we can see the pavilions and the winning post of the course over which his famous race was run. But there’s no sign of the piteous state the horse must have been in at the conclusion of the race, no weals from the whip or blood from the spurs. Nor do the groom and boy who have charge of the horse show any emotion. It’s obviously not ‘The Triumph of Hambletonian’, which may well have been the kind of painting the owner wanted. Certainly Stubbs had a great deal of trouble getting paid for his commission.

Both groom and boy look quite stern and self-possessed, and though both are the owner’s servants, they seem anything but servile and are so indifferent to our regard as to appear almost arrogant. The reason may be that they have a skill which we do not share. They know about horses and this horse in particular, and they look down on us, who are watching them, because we don’t. Groundsmen and coaches have a similar attitude to spectators: they are professionals – we are just fans.

I can’t decide whether Stubbs has made the boy’s right arm longer than it could possibly have been in order to have it reach over the horse’s neck. One would like to see a reverse angle on the scene in order to be sure. Mind you, I’m no authority. As a boy I was hopeless at drawing horses and thought there was something almost magical about other children who could. There were more horses about then, of course (though not many like Hambletonian). Coal was delivered by horse and cart, as was milk, and when I was evacuated during the war – though I find this hard to believe now – I went to Ripon market by horse and cart. On the other hand, I have never been to a horse-race.

Stubbs was born and brought up in Liverpool, then moved to York, and then beyond York to an area even more remote than the one inhabited by his contemporary, the clergyman Sydney Smith, who complained that he was so remote from civilisation he was twenty miles from a lemon. An absence of lemons wouldn’t have bothered Stubbs, who shut himself up in a farmhouse at Hawkstow in North Lincolnshire, in what’s now Humberside, where he dissected and drew the corpses of horses, only abandoning a cadaver when it stank so much as to be intolerable.

My third choice is Lorenzo and Isabella by Sir John Millais, painted in 1849 and now in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Millais’s picture was inspired by Keats’s ‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’, a story retold from Boccaccio. Lorenzo is in love with his master’s daughter, Isabella, and this arouses the resentment of her three brothers, who lure him into the forest and murder him, leaving Isabella to think that he has abandoned her. Lorenzo then appears to Isabella in a dream and reveals the whereabouts of his forest grave: she digs him up and brings home his head, which she keeps in a pot on her window sill in which she grows herbs.

It’s a macabre tale which, in Millais’s painting, is just beginning, Lorenzo handing Isabella half an orange while the brothers look on. The most brutish brother teases his sister’s dog with his foot, while the eldest brother looks as if he is already making plans to do away with the upstart. On the window sill a pot of herbs hints at the story’s dreadful conclusion. Most of the people in the painting, even the unsympathetic brothers, are portraits of Millais’s friends and family; for instance, the old man delicately touching his napkin to his lips (in a gesture I had hitherto associated with Northern ladies in teashops) is a portrait of Millais’s father.

Many Pre-Raphaelite paintings, this one included, I find to some degree sinister or disturbing, peopled with characters who seem fearful or haunted. Like the flower-seller in Ford Madox Brown’s Work or the potboy in the same picture; or the young John the Baptist in Millais’s Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop. They all look as if something dreadful is about to happen, which in Lorenzo’s case is no less than the truth.

On one side of the table are the brothers, three in Boccaccio, two in Keats and it could be two or three in Millais – the young man at the rear looks less evil-minded than the other two. It’s a deliberate configuration, and confrontation, but slightly awkward, as the rest of the party have to budge up on the other side of the table – though their sober dress suggests they are all inferior members of the household anyway and so not entitled to much comfort. The dogs, incidentally, don’t do at all well here, one getting teased by the probing foot, the other quite likely to have its paw or tail crushed when the awful brother puts his chair back.

I suppose the brothers would defend themselves by saying that they are concerned for their sister’s virtue but I don’t believe it, the young men’s obligation to keep their sister pure having more to do with their own frustrated desires than with any concern for morality. Besides, they don’t want her marrying Lorenzo because, however capable he might be, she is destined to marry into the aristocracy, thus improving the family’s status. This element – and the mercantile activities of the family – is stressed by Keats, and Millais was very much aware of it. The painting had originated as one of a series of etchings planned by Millais and Holman Hunt in the first flush of Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasm and there is a drawing by Holman Hunt, Lorenzo at Work Supervising the Brothers’ Warehouse, which strikes the same note. The initials of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, incidentally, are visible on Isabella’s stool. Millais was not yet twenty when he painted the picture and its technical accomplishment is astonishing, Ford Madox Brown saying that the modelling of the napkin carried by the servant was the painting’s supreme achievement.

It was exhibited at the Academy in May 1849 and sold for £150 to three tailors in Bond Street who were making a start in picture-dealing. The tailors beat Millais down from his original price but threw in a suit of clothes as compensation. People disliked the painting so much, however, that they got rid of it for the £150 they had paid and lost the suit of clothes into the bargain. It passed through one or two hands before coming to the Walker Art Gallery as early as 1884.

What always makes me remember the painting is the bully’s wonderful, terrible leg, arrogant, perfectly proportioned and up to no good. Here teasing the greyhound, today it might be flung loutishly across the aisle of a bus or shoved on a spare seat in the train, a hurdle one has to take (stepping over it or asking for it to be removed) if one is to retain one’s self-esteem.

It’s the leg of a ballet dancer – Nureyev’s leg, if you like. I only saw Nureyev dance once, in Manon at Covent Garden. He was partnered by Anthony Dowell, who is much more delicately made. There was nothing delicate about Nureyev. He had legs, like the leg in the painting, that were not so much legs as hindquarters. Nureyev was often compared to Nijinsky and the comparison is apt. He was like Nijinsky but it was Nijinsky the horse.

The last of my four paintings comes from the art gallery at Aberdeen, which has a particularly good collection of modern British paintings, and from which I was hoping to choose Eric Ravilious’s Train Landscape. It’s a painting redolent of all the journeys by train I remember, particularly in my teens and during my National Service, when it was still possible to explore the English countryside by rail, a period that the foolishness of Dr Beeching put an end to. I then found that I’d been forestalled and that this particular Ravilious had already figured in Sainsbury’s Pictures for Schools. Aberdeen has others, though, and appropriately, as so much of Ravilious’s work was done in the North of Scotland. He was a war artist and painted the convoys waiting in Scapa Flow to depart on the gruelling voyage to Murmansk. It was on one such trip that Ravilious himself died, killed off Iceland in 1942.

Two other paintings of his that I like very much are Farmhouse Bedroom (1939), which is in the V – A, and one of England before the war, called Tea at Furlongs, which was the Ravilious’s Sussex home. It’s seemingly a very peaceful scene but its emptiness is ominous and I think it could equally be called ‘Munich, 1938’. I might well have chosen it but it turns out to be in a private collection and so doesn’t qualify.

I ended up plumping for another of Aberdeen’s pictures, a beach scene by Stanley Spencer, Southwold 1937. In my childhood, holidays at the seaside were often quite doleful affairs. It rained or was cold and if we weren’t cringing in the shelter of some breakwater, as they’re doing in the picture, we were probably trailing up and down the seafront until we were allowed in go back to the boarding-house (which was strictly off-limits between meals). That was Morecambe or Cleveleys on the northwest coast, whereas this is Southwold in Suffolk, but the sea looks much the same. Stanley Spencer described it as ‘dirty washing water colour ... splashed by homely aunties’ legs’ and the air of Southwold as ‘full of suburban seaside abandonment’. He’s right about the sea, though Southwold looks more sedate than he describes, no aunties paddling at the moment and scarcely a child that I can see. It’s certainly not Blackpool.

Stanley Spencer painted this lovely, blustery picture ‘before the war’, as I tend to think of it, because within two years beaches like this would be cordoned off, the shore strewn with tank traps and the sea unreachable behind rolls of barbed wire. That was what the seaside was like when I first saw it, so this painting is for me a carefree vision of what holidays were like between the wars.

In 1925 Spencer had married his wife Hilda in a village not far from Southwold, but by 1937 the marriage had broken up and Spencer came back to Southwold in great distress of mind. None of this sadness finds its way into the picture, painting as much an escape for the artist as the holiday is an escape for the people in the deckchairs.

Stanley Spencer didn’t quite play the artist in the manner, say, of Augustus John; but his odd personality has tended to get in the way of his professional reputation and somewhat diminished it, much as Lowry’s did, both of them too easily caricatured as the artist as eccentric. It’s a way the newspapers have of making art palatable, of showing how unpretentious we English are, but it’s not much more useful or informative than a view of French art which has the painter wearing a smock and a beret and living in a garret. There’s no doubt that Spencer was eccentric. His cousin said that he didn’t look fit to take a sheep down the street and he was a gift to magazines like Picture Post, one minute pottering round Cookham with his paints in a pram, the next doing his stint as a war artist in the Glasgow shipyards.

One is so used to allegory in Spencer’s work that when it’s absent, as it is here, one feels a little uneasy, as if the painting is perhaps a detail from something much larger – ‘Christ and the Miraculous Draught of Fishes’, say, with the fishing boat just off the top of the canvas. Or perhaps it’s the ‘Calling of the Disciples’, Christ skirting the shoreline off to the right with some of these determined sunbathers blissfully unaware that they’re about to be enlisted among the Twelve. But Southwold is not Galilee, just a select, rather refined seaside place which retains much of its gentility today.

The towels deserve a word. I know this kind of towel from childhood, thin, ribbed, the nap long since gone, and only just big enough to do the job. It’s the kind of towel, brisk, bracing and comfortless, that would have commended itself to Baden Powell. Towels for me have always been strong indicators of class, the often smelly towel that hung behind the kitchen door when I was a child firmly putting us in our social place, a pile of thick fleecy towels in the airing cupboard signifying luxury and something which I’ve never quite attained. When I first went to America in 1962 the first present I sent home were some huge bathtowels from Bloomingdales, the sort of towel I’d always hankered after. Typically, my parents never put them in the airing cupboard, but left them in their cellophane wrappers feeling they were too good to use. The other thing to be said about towels – and these towels in particular – is that when one used to go swimming as a child to the beach or, more generally, to the municipal baths, one carried the towel under one’s arm in a kind of Swiss roll with one’s cossy in the centre. Children don’t do that now. Why? What happened and when?

Looking at the four paintings I ended up choosing I can see that three of them have to do with my own childhood, most obviously the Stanley Spencer with its echoes of prewar summers I was too young to remember. Lorenzo and Isabella is also to do with school, where I was quite late growing up, my abiding terror being that it wouldn’t happen before I was conscripted, so that my middle teens were a race between puberty and the call-up. I was very conscious of how big some of my schoolfellows were, making the young man with the perfect leg both a bully to be avoided but also someone whose physique I would have envied. Stubbs’s Hambletonian, Rubbing Down is childhood too, and the feeling I always had of being shut out of sports and the expertise that went with sports. Only The Adoration of the Kings is unconnected with anything I recognise or remember, though it’s also the most bewitching painting from a child’s point of view.

This is not to say, though, that these are my ‘favourite’ paintings. I’d find it hard (and not very useful) to determine what my ‘favourite’ paintings were. Making lists of this kind – the Hundred Best Paintings, the Hundred Best Classics – is a silly game that newspapers and radio stations play. Of course, It’s easier to do with music but I’m sure that if there was a way of putting paintings into some sort of league table, radio and television would not hesitate to do so. So just as one is supposed to wait with breathless excitement to find out whether ‘Vissi d’arte’ has dislodged Samuel Barber’s Adagio from its position at No 18 in the Classic Countdown, so, no doubt, with paintings we would be expected to catch our breath on hearing that Paris Bordone has made a surprise entry at No 47.

Who would have thought that one would one day groan at the name of Albinoni? God forbid that paintings should share such a jaded fate. Art is not a race. And there often is – and probably should be – something clandestine about it. When I was at school, art was a soft option for games and was in consequence looked down on. These days there’s nothing so respectable as art, which is fine, except that it makes art somehow official.

All masterpieces are eloquent: not all of them are articulate. And of course it is, rightfully, one of the functions of art history to try and make a painting articulate: to demonstrate its virtues, inform you of its background and history and put it in its context. Some paintings have to be cajoled into speaking when they may have very little to say in words. There’s not a lot to be said about the self-portraits of Rembrandt, for instance. ‘I am’ is what they say. Or ‘Here I am again.’ In fact, there are two voices: Rembrandt saying ‘I am’ and the painting saying ‘I am.’ Of the paintings I have chosen, the most eloquent and the least articulate is Hambletonian, Rubbing Down. The National Gallery has recently acquired Stubbs’s Whistlejacket and that’s another wonderfully eloquent but wholly inarticulate picture. And though there’s lots to be said about both these paintings, what can be said about a work of art can never outsay what a work of art says about itself.

Sometimes – and I don’t mean to disparage art history, which I’ve always found fascinating – it’s as if paintings were being doorstepped, an historians crowding in on them like reporters from the Mirror or the Mail, pestering some inarticulate unfortunate about ‘What they really feel’, teasing out an inappropriate and inadequate response when the person interviewed would sensibly prefer to say nothing at all. And maybe, hearing what is said about them, some paintings might shrug, saying: ‘Well, if you say so.’ The Mona Lisa’s smile is the smile of art.

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Vol. 20 No. 9 · 7 May 1998

How nice that when Messrs Sainsbury asked Alan Bennett to choose four images for display in local schools (LRB, 2 April) he should wish to include Eric Ravilious’s Train Landscape. Bennett ascribes his love for British painting of the Forties and Fifties to Shell’s patronage of contemporary work. Didn’t Joe Lyons open even one teashop in Leeds? Contemplating the block-mounted modern British paintings which Lyons, too, had commissioned helped me pass many teenage Saturdays when I should have been clearing tables in Joe’s Luton teashop. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can conjure up a Piper and a Nicholson.

Ravilious gets much too fashionable today, at least for those of us who collect fugitive Wedgwood ceramics made in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties and adorned with his whimsical designs. These are charming, but Train Landscape is an important painting, one of a series treating Neolithic white horses. Here the Westbury horse stands framed by a Great Western Railway carriage window. This effect refracts Augustus Egg’s Travelling Companions (1862), in the Birmingham gallery. Egg shows us two richly clad young women in the mould of Ingres, luxuriously (and, surely, erotically) ignoring the view of the Bay of Naples through the window of their first-class railway carriage. Ravilious’s compartment is empty. Patterns on moquette seats, graining on mahogany door and window frames, evoke the woodcut skills in which Ravilious challenged Thomas Bewick. Numbers on the compartment door play to his typographical interests (as in his ‘Alphabet’ design for Wedgwood). The big ‘3’ on the door tells us that this is a third-class carriage, far removed from Egg’s sybaritism. Above his number lies the framed landscape, with downland nature yielding imperceptibly to cultivated ploughland.

This picture is an intervention in a long debate. The rude intrusion of the railways into 19th-century landscapes evoked very different responses from painters. In Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), Turner counterposed threat with promise in a perennially unsettling image. Later painters used Claudian conventions to neuter this threat by settling the train in the landscape. Ravilious inverts this procedure, settling the landscape in the train. It’s astonishing how well the inversion works. But we also should recognise other conventions with which he plays. Like Turner and W. Heath Robinson, he shows us a Great Western train. This company was notoriously disdainful of less monied passengers: yet Ravilious depicts a third-class compartment. Celebrating a democratic version of English cultural continuity (that downland/ploughland vista), Train Landscape summarises much of what he and Edward Bawden sought to achieve in their artists’ commune at Great Bardfield in Essex.

This genteel landscape poses a problem for Alan Bennett, for whom it is ‘redolent of all the journeys by train I remember, particularly in my teens and during my National Service, when it was still possible to explore the English countryside by rail’. But Ravilious shows us a very particular landscape, loaded with very particular cultural freight. This is Edward Thomas’s South Country: that ultra-southern strip of land from Kent to Wiltshire which Victorian and Edwardian writers and artists, recoiling from Northern industrial blight, constructed as an unchanging dream world embodying real, unchanging England. Alan Bennett should recognise that Ravilious’s skill seduces as it beguiles. What know they of England who only Wiltshire know?

Ian Carter
Auckland, New Zealand

Vol. 20 No. 11 · 4 June 1998

The only pictures on the walls of my son’s infant school are by himself and his classmates. Not to be scoffed at, but there’d be scope, you’d have thought, for the odd reproduction, as there was in Alan Bennett’s day (LRB, 2 April), though I’m not sure, multiculturally speaking, that an Adoration would go down well in our LEA. My son is not yet a devotee of the LRB but Bennett’s piece, open on the kitchen table, caught his interest. He liked the Stubbs more than anything and explained that Hambletonian was running away from the remains of a smouldering rainforest in South America. There’d been conflagration and a fantastic application of saws and axes. Hambletonian had made his getaway as the last tree crashed to the ground. Until then, I’d thought that kids in schools would mostly want to know why there’s a house where Hambletonian’s willy might be, but I see now that this is a frivolous adult anxiety.

Harvey Plant

Alan Bennett recalls childhood trips to the swimming baths – please tell him I went to the baths on the bus to Middleton Junction, that’s Middleton north of Manchester – and wonders why no one carries their cossies about in a Swiss roll nowadays. The first answer that came to mind was just that we went by bus in those days not by car. But a better answer is that, since then, plastic has come into common use. So the answer is the cheap carrier bag. You couldn’t put a wet cossy into anything made of paper.

David Andrew

Vol. 20 No. 13 · 2 July 1998

Over thirteen years ago I moved from Yorkshire to Essex, and now Harvey Plant (Letters, 4 June) has given me good reason for doing so. On wandering into the primary school opposite my home I noticed on the walls good-quality, framed, poster-sized prints from Diego Rivera, Richard Diebenkorn, Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe and Norman Rockwell, among others. What a refreshing change, not a Sunflower or Starry Night in sight. This same school recently suffered an Ofsted inspection, in the course of which, one nine-year-old pupil said to an inspector: ‘This is a great school. I didn’t know metaphors existed till I came here.’ Regrettably, my own children are now older than me and unable to benefit from a school education in Thurrock.

David Hooper
Chafford Hundred, Essex

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