Hink Tank

Nicholas Penny

  • The Gymnasium of the Mind: The Journals of Roger Hinks 1933-1963 edited by John Goldsmith
    Michael Russell, 287 pp, £10.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 85955 096 6

Roger Hinks portrays himself as picking his way fastidiously through a sadly Philistine and foolish world, musing upon his aesthetic disappointments and, less often, consolations. Even during what his friend K (the late Lord Clark) describes in the foreword as ‘the abominable intrigue which forced him to leave his beloved British Museum’, he scrupulously avoids self-pity. But self-satisfaction and self-righteousness were certainly not purged by keeping the journal. His intelligence and sensitivity often distanced him from the art of the past which was the ostensible object of his desire, but in recompense elevated him comfortably above all but a handful of his fellow men. It is hard to suppose that he was suited to working in a public museum, however wrongly he was uprooted from it.

He arrives on 5 April 1941 at the ‘latest and grandest’ of K’s residences, which at first glance seems ‘bold and noble’ but, sure enough, on closer inspection, has ‘faults of taste, and inconsequences of design which shock a purist like myself’. Upon the company within he casts a disdainful eye. There is Hiram Winterbotham ‘who sounds like an American millionaire in a novel by P.G. Wodehouse’ but is in fact a ‘bachelor with intellectual tastes’, wearing ‘enormous, totally non-conducting tortoise-shell glasses’ and accompanied by ‘a friend, inevitably called Michael, who said not a single word and contented himself with selections from his repertoire of ravishing smiles, which ranged from a slow, dreamy unfolding of the subconscious to brilliant flashes of amused recognition when one of the two American dowagers present said something more than usually fatuous’. The dowagers are identified as Lady Lee of Fareham and Lady Robertson. The former ‘comes from Maine and looks like the matron of a cottage-hospital’. The latter ‘comes from Virginia and looks like a peach-fed ham’.

Given this gratuitous abuse of the guests, it is surprising to find K declaring in the foreword that ‘in a period when many writers cannot be read without embarrassment, it is a pleasure to read him.’ For some fellow inhabitants of privileged and artistic society the pleasure may not be unmixed. Sir John Pope-Hennessy testifies that Roger was a ‘much kinder, more liberal, more positive person that the diary suggests’. That such virtues were valued by Hinks, even if rarely displayed in his writings, may perhaps be deduced from the exclamations he made on 16 July 1940 concerning the ‘destruction’ of France. ‘Egoism, greed, possessiveness are the poisons which corroded France, and have ended by ruining her. They are the poisons which make the whole Proustian world so futile and so sterile. A grain of charity would have saved France.’ Had such thoughts been uttered by an American dowager, Michael would have beamed and K surely felt embarrassed.

The cosmopolitan Hinks also adopts a posture of national superiority when he meets a certain Colonel Mackay on 5 November 1945, in the bar of the Hotel Eden in Rome. Though Mackay ‘cherishes few illusions about the mental and moral stability of the defeated Italians, he believes (as I believe) that we are the only people who can do anything for them, or with them.’ Some may discern the positive, the liberal and even the kind Hinks here, but the tone is intolerably patronising. That last ‘doing with’ is more suggestive of disposal than assistance – as in ‘what shall we do with the children when the guests arrive?’ More characteristic is the passage written during the previous year in Stockholm in which he supposes that only ‘a handful of highbrows in the Anglo-Saxon world care whether Rome survives or is blown to pieces.’ The upper-middle-class British, who make such a surprising appearance as the potential saviours of Italy in 1945, seldom excite his approval – to say nothing of that charity which he found so lamentably absent among the French; indeed many of them, he notes with carefully elaborated disgust, ‘have to fill their spiritual vacuum with golf and tennis and bridge and love’ (whilst he satisfies himself with caviare, a bottle of Mersault 1919, and still older art).

Hinks is perhaps a shade too anxious that posterity should not doubt that he was one of the handful of highbrows. He is careful to record not only a joke made by T.S. Eliot in allusion to a maxim by La Rochefoucauld but also the fact that he, Hinks, shared it, whereas an ‘egregious’ American professor failed to see the point. In Rome he sits near Jean-Paul Sartre at dinner and we are made to feel that the Frenchman was jolly lucky not to have tried to talk about existentialism. Hinks hadn’t been able to ‘summon up enough energy’ to attend Sartre’s lectures, and anyway he was ‘bored with this recrudescence of a fashionable German fad of fifteen years ago: and not being quite so ignorant as the majority of the intelligentsia, and having looked into Jaspers and Heidegger in my day, I am all the less inclined to let Sartre and Co get away with their claim to have invented something startlingly modern and revolutionary.’ ‘Looked into’ is good. The journals certainly did not provide what Hinks hoped for: ‘a form of autobiography exempt from self-importance’.

In Florence in 1962 Hinks is annoyed by the rubbish ‘proffered by callow graduate guides (oh, the Europeans are just as bad as the Americans) to their undergraduate sheep, goats and geese’. And then he has some private thoughts about Michelangelo’s David: about ‘those enormous hands, that boxer body, and what Michelangelo’s slightly older contemporary Marlowe called “those parts which men delight to see”, but here pitifully small, soft and drooping – parts to which, of all homosexuals, Michelangelo can scarcely have been indifferent’. He wonders whether this particular feature represents some sort of confession. Had the callow graduate, or even the despised undergraduates, overheard, they might have chuckled at the coy circumlocution and the name-dropping. They might also have pointed out that Marlowe was born in the year that Michelangelo died. They would surely have questioned whether David’s genitals really are so pitifully small and they would have asked how the sculptor could, properly, have represented the hero’s penis hard and rising.

Hinks’s reflections on art are not usually so peculiar. Many of them now seem quite unremarkable, as when, ‘lying once more in Caroline Murat’s bed in the rotunda at Attingham’, he is reminded that 18th-century Neoclassicism owed more to Rome than to Greece. At other times his ideas are only provocative if you revere the anachronistic categories he juggles with, as when he wonders to what extent Caravaggio is Mannerist, Counter-Mannerist or Counter-Baroque. What should be developed as an argument is often expressed merely as a prejudice – for example, when he deplores ‘the insanity, the frivolity, and the duplicity’ of Picasso. Removed from the British Museum because of alleged involvement with the over-cleaning of the Elgin Marbles, Hinks, years later in Athens, condemns the clearing of the Acropolis, suggesting that what is admired there is sentimental modern landscaping rather than ancient architecture. It is a good point, but even as he makes it we detect the satisfaction he derives from his superiority to ‘most people’ who, he asserts, ‘prefer nature to art’.