Art and Vulgarity
- William Mulready by Kathryn Heleniak
Yale, 287 pp, £25.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 300 02311 1
Kathryn Moore Heleniak has written quite an interesting book about minor art and vulgarity in the earlier part of the 19th century. She has a good subject in Mulready, whose paintings are the very alphabet and epitome of these art-historical problems, and whose career she has faithfully but not fully recorded. She is fond of him, as we ought to be: he had a determined, kind character. But she is at fault with Mulready’s art. Her overvaluation is ingenuous and persistent. The result is not only an inflation of his merits: she cannot feel his artistic nature.
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Vol. 2 No. 20 · 16 October 1980
SIR: I am bemused by two sentences in Tim Hilton’s review of Kathryn Heleniak’s William Mulready (LRB, 18 September). Mr Hilton is discussing Lady Dilke: ‘She lacks a biographer. God be praised for His mercy, the George Eliot admirers (they are also the admirers of English water-colours) have so far left her alone.’ On general grounds, it is, I suppose, likely enough that some admirers of George Eliot (does Mr Hilton mean the woman, the books, or both?) are also admirers of some English water-colours, but I do not see that an admiration for the one necessarily entails an admiration for the other. Nor do I see that, even where an admiration for both exists, the reasons for admiration need be (as Mr Hilton would seem to imply) identical, or even very closely related. I am, furthermore, unconvinced that to admire either George Eliot or English water-colours (or both) is (as Mr Hilton again implies) a sign of menial debility, depraved taste or moral turpitude. And anyway, what water-colours does Mr Hilton have in mind? Those of Turner? Or Rowlandson? Or Girtin? Or Dr William Crotch?
I must confess, then, that the second of the two sentences remains obscure to me. The first, however, appears to mean exactly what it says. Lady Dilke ‘lacks a biographer’. Betty Askwith, whose Lady Dilke: A Biography was published, with no attempt at concealment, in 1969, will be surprised to hear it. But perhaps I am being too literal in my interpretation of Mr Hilton’s remark. Perhaps it is of a piece with his darkly facetious observation about admirers of English water-colours and George Eliot, and should be taken to mean that Betty Askwith’s book is beneath Mr Hilton’s notice or contempt. This reading may, possibly, seem over-subtle, but I should be reluctant to adopt the alternative and simpler one, which would convict Mr Hilton of ignorance.
Christ Church, Oxford
SIR: It was Dorothea’s husband in Middlemarch, Casaubon, who was supposed to be modelled on Mark Pattison, not Dorothea on Francis, Mark Pattison’s wife, as Mr Hilton claims. Dorothea was a simpleton, Mrs Pattison an adventuress. What is curious is that the first woman who ruined Dilke, Mrs Crawfurd, also took to art and good works, like Francis.