Vol. 41 No. 2 · 24 January 2019

Search by issue:

Dumb Insolence

Seamus Perry is not quite right in saying that Shelley was expelled by University College, Oxford for atheism (LRB, 3 January). It was no secret that Shelley and his friend (and future biographer) Thomas Hogg were responsible for the anonymous pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism, which the High Street booksellers Munday and Slatter had displayed. But the college governing body’s minute for 25 March 1811 records a decision that the two students ‘be publicly expelled for contumaciously refusing to answer questions proposed to them, and for also repeatedly declining to disavow’ the pamphlet. In other words, Shelley was expelled for what came to be known in the army as dumb insolence.

The reason was almost certainly that, since promoting atheism constituted the common law crime of blasphemy, neither student could be compelled to incriminate himself by admitting authorship. The unanswered questions may have been designed to obtain such an admission – we cannot know – but the dons’ shrewd invitation to repudiate the pamphlet will have evaded the bar on self-incrimination, giving the college a ground for expulsion.

The bicentenary of Shelley’s death falls in 2022. It is hoped that by then a plaque will be in place on the High Street commemorating not only the publication of the pamphlet but the printers and booksellers who risked imprisonment for publishing it.

Stephen Sedley

Bellini or not?

Loan exhibitions are often supposed to contribute to knowledge by showing side by side pictures that are not normally juxtaposed. But as reservations are almost never expressed, in the catalogue or on the labels, about the traditional attribution of works that have been loaned, the impact of such comparisons tends to be rather muted. This seems to have happened with two of the pictures supposedly by Giovanni Bellini discussed by T.J. Clark and illustrated in his review of the Mantegna and Bellini exhibition at the National Gallery (LRB, 20 December 2018).

In his treatment of the two versions of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, one by Mantegna and the other, which is not very well preserved, first attributed to Bellini or an assistant of his by Berenson in 1916, Clark takes it for granted that the attribution of the second to Bellini himself is correct. Mantegna’s version, in egg tempera, is usually dated to the mid-1450s, whereas the other, in oil, is generally thought to be about twenty years later. Noting that Bellini’s Agony in the Garden had been painted in response to a panel of the same subject by Mantegna, Clark writes that ‘it is hard, therefore, not to see the redoing of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple as some kind of contest as well as homage.’ But the two paintings of the Agony in the Garden were entirely different compositions, whereas the later Presentation of Christ was copied from the earlier one using a precise tracing, although two subordinate figures were added at the sides and the painted frame introduced by Mantegna was eliminated. The idea that a painter as established and successful as Bellini would have made such a mechanical copy of a work by an equally successful contemporary (who happened to be his brother-in-law) as a contest and homage seems far-fetched, and without obvious parallel in the history of Western art. Clark speculates, as others have before him, that Mantegna’s picture, which may have incorporated his self-portrait, was made to commemorate the birth of a child, and that Bellini may also have used the composition to mark a betrothal or the arrival of a new baby. If that were the case, why did he not produce a new version of the subject, as he had done with the Agony in the Garden? And if the figure at the right in Mantegna’s picture was indeed a self-portrait, why was this portrait eliminated in the later version? This is difficult to reconcile with the idea of a homage on the part of Bellini. Predictably, none of these problems is discussed in any detail in the catalogue. The only realistic way of resolving them is to suppose that the second version of the Presentation is not by Bellini at all, but by someone trained in his studio (as many Venetian painters of the period were) who had been commissioned to make a copy of Mantegna’s painting with different subordinate figures, possibly including the new patron. That would explain why it seems so inferior to the many wonderful pictures by Bellini displayed elsewhere in the exhibition.

In the catalogue no reservations are expressed about the authorship of The Drunkenness of Noah. This was first recorded in 1896, when it was bequeathed by a French painter to the Museum of Besançon, as a work by Bellini. Although the attribution has been widely accepted, especially after it was promoted by the celebrated Italian art historian Roberto Longhi in 1927, no one has drawn any compelling parallel between this picture and any well-attested work of Bellini. The pictures that Longhi himself thought most similar are no longer regarded as being by Bellini at all. But he suggested that a comparison could be made with The Feast of the Gods, from Washington, which was completed in 1514, two years before Bellini’s death. In London the two pictures hang side by side for the first time, so visitors can decide for themselves if they are by the same artist and painted at almost the same moment. Seeing them together, this seems to me not remotely credible. In the next room there is also a portrait of Fra Teodoro of Urbino, signed by Bellini and dated 1515. Like a painting of a woman with a mirror, in Vienna, also signed and dated 1515, it is similar in handling to The Feast of the Gods but not to The Drunkenness of Noah. In the catalogue we read of Bellini that ‘the older he grew, the freer his handling became,’ but this claim seems to be based entirely on the Besançon picture, which is painted with great freedom, unlike The Feast of the Gods and the two pictures from 1515 and unlike any earlier work by Bellini. The artist responsible for it has yet to be identified.

Charles Hope
London W2

Not a Woman in Flight

I was surprised to find Edmund Gordon so disarrayed by the idea that a Victorian girl could have imagined the world to be peopled with women medics, engineers, socialists and so on (LRB, 3 January). He is referring to my novel The Essex Serpent, which he believes ‘giddy with anachronism’. The novel doesn’t specify the year in which it is set, but the reader can assume it is the late 1890s, since (as Gordon notes) reference is made to Freudian psychoanalysis, a term coined in 1896. Thus, by the time the girl in question was permitting first-name terms with a paid companion (a practice that would not have raised Jane Austen’s eyebrow, she having been deeply attached to the family governess, or surprised the Marx family, whose housekeeper became an intimate friend and confidante), Hertha Marks Ayrton was preparing to deliver a paper to the Institute of Electrical Engineers; women had for twenty years been admitted to Oxford and Cambridge; the London School of Medicine for Women was well established; and British women could be certified by medical examining bodies. In 1872 the Royal Horticultural Society awarded the entomologist Eleanor Ormerod the Flora medal, and in 1888 the mathematician Sophie Kowalevksi was awarded the Prix Bordin by the French Academy of Science. I am sure it is a comfort to consider these merely ‘the outlying’, as Gordon does, since the alternative is to accept that they are only a handful of the most visible women among generations written out of history, something in which contemporary literary criticism remains complicit. I write not as a woman ‘in flight’, constructing a falsified version of history in which I can cosily ‘feel at home’, but as an author evidently yet to see an end to the practice of men diminishing the achievements of women.

Sarah Perry

On a Young Man’s Arm

I am, of course, delighted that Alan Bennett is ‘more than happy’ to be (tattooed) on my arm (LRB, 3 January). My only question is: does he intend to reciprocate?

Tom King
London NW5

Brexit Blues

David Runciman is right to conclude in his analysis of the Brexit impasse that the attempt ‘to combine parliamentary government with plebiscitary democracy has failed’ (LRB, 3 January). The UK is faced not merely with a constitutional crisis, but with constitutional breakdown. Together, the referendum principle introduced by Harold Wilson and the Parliament Act invented by David Cameron and Nick Clegg – both made possible by an unwritten constitution – have torpedoed constitutional order.

Runciman compares the present crisis to Suez but that was political. Better comparisons might be with the abdication crisis of 1936 or the People’s Budget which led to the Parliament Act of 1911. But the constitution was able to deal with both. The present situation is more intractable. Even if Brexit is somehow resolved the country will remain saddled with incompatible notions of legitimacy – the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament and the sovereignty of the popular will. The last time something like this happened was in 1688, when the lawful claims of the Crown clashed catastrophically with the lawful claims of Parliament. That situation was resolved by London’s being occupied for 15 months by a European military power, which is not an option at the present time. A constitutional convention might resolve the difficulty, but how would it be set up, by Parliament or by referendum?

Bill Myers

David Runciman makes a slip in imagining that the Labour Party Conference determined that ‘the strategy should be to push for a second referendum only if it was clear that the government could not be collapsed through a vote in Parliament.’ In fact, the resolution called for all options to be on the table, including a public vote on the Brexit deal, in the event that a general election cannot be called. Obviously, assorted remnants of New Labour have pushed hard for that to mean a second referendum, but most rank and file members are clear that that is not what was meant.

What’s more, Labour Party members do not want a referendum. We want a general election, and as soon as possible, to break the Brexit logjam and get rid of austerity for good; that is far preferable to a vote managed by the people who brought about the logjam in the first place.

John Calderon
London E8

Can’t Afford to Tell the Truth

Owen Bennett-Jones writes about the decline of the World Service (LRB, 20 December 2018). The key moment was the October 2010 Public Spending Review, which forced the BBC to swallow within a frozen licence fee the costs of the World Service (£272 million per year) along with those of the Monitoring Service at Caversham and the Welsh-language channel S4C, as well as an obligation to subsidise the planned roll-out of local television. Inevitably, once the World Service was absorbed within the BBC, the pressure to cut costs and impose managerial standardisation became irresistible. More important, nothing could have more vividly demonstrated that the licence fee – far from ensuring the BBC’s independence – leaves the corporation at the mercy of whichever government is in office.

Bennett-Jones writes that ‘subscription seems the most likely candidate’ as a means to enable the BBC ‘to remain an important non-privately-owned cultural institution’. When I first argued publicly for subscription to replace the licence fee – in 1983 – my reasoning was simple. First, it was wrong to make people who did not want to use the BBC pay for it. Second, direct funding by its customers would allow the BBC to set its own level of charges and to escape the political control that was unavoidable under the licence fee.

What I did not foresee then was the rise of subscription as the dominant means of funding TV content, something I learned much more about working at Sky and then Virgin Media over the next nine years. Subsequently, the stunning success of Netflix and Amazon in recruiting more than ten million households in the UK in barely five years has further exposed the anachronistic nature of the licence fee. Because subscription funding is not dependent on either audience size or reach, but instead on take-up by people who want premium content, the services using it – such as HBO, Showtime, AMC and now Netflix and Amazon – can focus their spending on quality productions, rather than the run-of-the-mill schedule-fillers that take up so much of BBC budgets. Yet it is those schedule-fillers that deliver the reach and volume which, as Bennett-Jones notes, are the criteria for judging the success of the licence fee.

As long as politicians of all parties (who love the control the system gives them) and the BBC itself remain committed to the licence fee, the corporation faces decline and increasing irrelevance.

David Elstein
London SW15

There is no question that ‘the licence fee is unsustainable,’ as Owen Bennett-Jones says, but his suggestion that ‘subscription seems the most likely candidate’ for its replacement has to be wrong, and he compounds the error when he adds casually that ‘government subsidies … could provide extra funding for areas in which the market is unlikely to deliver.’

These are measures that the BBC’s worst enemies have long wished on it: to reduce it to an elite broadcaster serving a minority who are prepared to pay, leaving the lucrative mass market to commercial operators. This is the direction in which it has been prodded by governments, through cuts and conditions in licence fee settlements, and now by Ofcom through fastidious regulation. But the BBC was not put there to fill the gaps left by ‘market failure’. The rationale for its existence is universality. It must offer something to everyone, across social and geographical divisions – age, class, gender, region and all. It is still the most effective unifier that British society has. After a twenty-year free-for-all the BBC still attracts the biggest TV audiences by miles, despite all the weakness in decision-making, all the cuts and slices in funding, and the non-stop sniping in the popular press. For all the hundreds of alternatives onscreen and online, a third of the population still watches BBC TV, and an even larger share listens to radio.

Most positive suggestions of potential replacements for the licence fee propose household levies not for ownership of a TV set but for the receipt of internet communications, as paying for a utility. The Media Reform Coalition issued a report last May proposing a ‘digital licence fee’ to be payable by all households via their internet service providers. Alternatively, the UK could adopt the system used elsewhere in Europe, where a fee for ‘audio-visual services’ is bundled with the basic household tax. In the UK it could be added to council tax, and thus be funded in the way police forces are funded. This could allow the fee to vary in accordance with council tax bands, to alleviate the serious problem with the flat-rate payment that dozens of poor people are jailed every year for failing to pay the fines dished out by magistrates for non-payment of the licence fee.

Sooner rather than later the BBC will have to comply with something of this kind, or face the alternatives suggested by Owen Bennett-Jones: that it be reduced either to operating commercially (funded by the subscriptions of the better-off) or to taking direct subsidy from government. Either way, the malaise he diagnoses in its programme-making could only get worse.

Tim Gopsill
London SW2

BBC World Service news editors have always reacted with terror when they realise they might actually have a scoop. When I worked in BBC News and Current Affairs in the 1970s I was aware of one correspondent who repeatedly had scoops that External Services (radio) news editors were too nervous to touch. This was the Moscow correspondent Kevin Ruane, who died a few weeks ago at the age of 86. He had such good news sense and mastery of Russian that he got stories from Soviet dissidents no other journalist had. The rule was that if a BBC correspondent or reporter had the story, the desk should run it; it did not require the otherwise statutory confirmation from an independent ‘second source’. Despite this, Bush House news editors would always chicken out and decline Ruane’s scoops. His tactic became systematically to give his scoops to the Daily Telegraph’s Moscow man Richard Beeston. When the early edition of the Telegraph landed on the World Service news desk, Ruane was rung up by the next shift and asked if he could match Beeston’s dispatch; as its source, he obviously could, and did so immediately. If the news editors had been doing their job the story could by then have been running on all BBC outlets for many hours.

Graham Webb
Saint-Mandé, France

Jamie Angus’s letter defending the BBC World Service, which he directs, against Owen Bennett-Jones’s criticisms, brings to mind Noam Chomsky talking to Andrew Marr in 1996 (Letters, 3 January): ‘I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.’

Georgina Baidoun
Milton Keynes

Smarter than You Think

While I don’t wish to cast aspersions on a lady whose knowledge of antiques was considerable and who did much to encourage the conservation of textiles, in particular embroidery, I can in response to Rosemary Hill’s judicious indecision on the matter give some examples of Queen Mary’s sometimes less than courteous ways of acquiring objects she coveted (LRB, 6 December 2018). My mother worked for some years at a well-known country house and remembered vividly helping to transfer smaller objets d’art and delicate items of furniture from the yellow drawing room to a place of safety for the duration of the queen’s visit for the annual race meeting.

After the Second World War, as companion to a close friend of the then queen mother, my mother learned from her elderly mistress of the visits Queen Mary made to her friend’s home in Berkshire, where many of her precious things were stored. During these visits she enjoyed opening up three or four of the items and regaling her friend and hostess with stories of how and from whom she had acquired them – usually as ‘gifts’. An item admired by a visiting royal was always offered as a gift, so that considerate royal visitors were mindful of what they admired.

Long after I had heard these and other stories – of the jeweller in Chichester, for example, who was careful to lock away his most precious items for her visits; and even then, when Queen Mary selected smaller items to give to staff at Goodwood, he remained unpaid until the Duchess of Richmond heard what had happened and recompensed him – my late husband told me of the visit made by King George V and Queen Mary in 1935 or thereabouts to Stonyhurst. A common tale among boys and staff when my husband was there in the 1940s was that, as this was to be the first visit to a Roman Catholic school by a reigning monarch since the Reformation, every effort was made to ensure their welcome. The queen enormously enjoyed the rich display of Stonyhurst’s famous treasures, to protect which many Jesuits had suffered privations, exile and even death.

Apparently on the procession back to the visitors’ cars, a lady-in-waiting quietly spoke with the rector suggesting that Her Majesty would be graciously pleased to accept the offer of one of the charming little embroidery-covered books of devotion she had just been admiring – as a fitting memento of this significant visit. With great care the rector attempted to explain the concept of mortmain for church property and that not only were the books not in his gift or in anyone else’s, but also that they were of great devotional significance for the faithful, for whom Stonyhurst held them in trust. The parting was glacial.

Margaret Devitt
Bosham, West Sussex

Queen Mary didn’t always get what she wanted. In autumn 1968 I visited Old Battersea House, where Mrs A.M.W. Stirling (sister-in-law of William de Morgan, the potter) had lived. Mrs Stirling died in 1965, aged 99, and the 17th-century house was decaying, but it did still house a superb collection of de Morgan pottery, which one could view by appointment. Thus one Saturday afternoon her old manservant, Mr Peters, left me alone to wander round the ill-lit damp-smelling rooms. De Morgan’s fabulous lustre pots gleamed on tables, together with his ‘Persian’ glazed vases. It was a ceramic collector’s dream.

When I said goodbye to Mr Peters in the hall, he mentioned a visit by Queen Mary. As the queen entered she drew attention to an unusual deep-blue ‘Persian’ vase on a high shelf. Mrs Stirling did not rise to the bait. There followed a tour of the house, then the queen made her departure. ‘I like them all, but I like that blue one best,’ she said. ‘So do I,’ replied Mrs Stirling. Queen Mary left empty-handed.

Roger Morsley-Smith
London W4

In the Second World War when the nation was urged to Dig for Victory and to Make Do and Mend, my grandmother Elizabeth Lawson turned herself into an expert and innovative basket-weaver. My grandfather roamed the Sussex countryside searching the hedgerows for possible native materials and the bath was frequently occupied overnight by a tangle of old man’s beard and willow and whatnot, soaking to become malleable. Through much experimentation and dogged hard work, she produced a huge variety of shapes and styles, mostly utilitarian, but often with contrasting light and dark stems as well as panache. As a member of the Women’s Institute, she began to give lectures on her techniques and to exhibit examples. The grandest occasion was a collective show of craftwork at which Queen Mary was the guest of honour. She scrutinised everything, then pointed to a charming basket of my grandmother’s, and said: ‘I like that one.’ It was code, of course. More than honoured, Grandma was annoyed.

Ann Lawson Lucas
Beverley, East Yorkshire

Arthur who?

It is a customary pleasure of the LRB that, within a single issue, harmonies arise between different pieces, as well as contradictions. Just a few pages after Harald Prins’s letter in the issue of 3 January asserting that King Arthur’s legendary conquests in Iceland and Greenland legitimised British colonial conquest in the late 16th century, Katherine Rundell, in her piece on the narwhal, brought in Frobisher’s buccaneering voyages to the region, made between 1576 and 1578, which suggest the reverse. As far back as Geoffrey of Monmouth there had been a legend that Arthur conquered Iceland and ‘adjoining islands’, but it appears Frobisher didn’t know a thing about it. On his third voyage he took possession of Greenland for Elizabeth I, and named it West England. He seems to have had no notion that Bristol fishermen had been sailing there for a hundred years, that an English friar had mapped the High Arctic in the 1350s (this Minorite friar, from Oxford, was the original source for Johann Ruysch and Mercator’s cartographies of the High Arctic), or that Norse settlers had lived there for centuries prior to 1400, and even established a Greenlandic bishopric answerable to Rome. As well as detailing the abduction of some unfortunate Inuit, the official account of Frobisher’s voyage emphasises his ignorance. ‘The Generall and other gentlemen wente ashoare’ in Greenland, it was written, ‘being the fyrste knowen Christians that we have true notice of, that ever set foote upon that ground.’

Gavin Francis

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences