Eye-Catchers

Peter Campbell

  • Survey of London: Vol. XLII. Southern Kensington: Kensington to Earls Court
    Athlone, 502 pp, £55.00, May 1986, ISBN 0 485 48242 8
  • Follies: A National Trust Guide by Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp
    Cape, 564 pp, £15.00, June 1986, ISBN 0 224 02105 2
  • The Botanists by David Elliston Allen
    St Paul’s Bibliographies, 232 pp, £15.00, May 1986, ISBN 0 906795 36 2
  • British Art since 1900 by Frances Spalding
    Thames and Hudson, 252 pp, £10.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 500 23457 4
  • Paintings from Books: Art and Literature in Britain, 1760-1900 by Richard Altick
    Ohio State, 527 pp, £55.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 8142 0380 9
  • History of the British Pig by John Wiseman
    Duckworth, 118 pp, £12.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 7156 1987 X

The earliest buildings in the 42nd volume of the Survey of London are late 17th and early 18th-century houses in Kensington Square. The market gardens and nurseries which surrounded this urban housing disappeared rather slowly, as land to the south of Kensington High Street was developed. The modest scale of the brick houses of Kensington Square, the neat brick and stucco of Edwardes Square (1811-25) and the Italian-villa-like elevations of Launceton Place (1840-3) gave way to cliffs of Italianate stucco (like Cornwall Gardens, late 1860s) and the red-and-yellow-brick mansion blocks of the 1880s and 1890s. These now dominate: this is Victorian London.

Among the more remarkable buildings are the department stores (Derry and Toms and Barkers) and the houses in Harrington and Collingham Gardens by George and Peto. The façades of the latter development suggest that the constituent buildings were, like those in the Flemish street front it resembles, ‘erected in casual but emulous sequence by individuals’. In fact, it was a speculation. Some of the houses stood empty for years, but W.S. Gilbert was true to his promise that he would move there in October 1883 ‘in whatever condition the premises may be’. One party of casual passers-by, seeing workmen and open doors, took a look inside and were surprised to find Gilbert in residence. Contemporary photographs show dark, elaborate interiors in which dramatist and architect (Harold Peto took 7 Collingham Gardens himself) lived like merchant princes. (Gilbert hung hams in the hall fireplace.) House plans did not change very much, but mansion flats brought new demands; among the most interesting of the many excellent drawings are those showing the hydraulic lift in Abingdon Mansions.

Contemporary photographs of the Underground stations at Earls Court, South Kensington and Gloucester Road show buildings that are still quite recognisable today; pictures of the ‘Cromwell curve’, with John Fowler’s concrete bridge of 1867-9, are evidence of the scale of engineering work now masked by later building and softened by vegetation. The railways have proved adequate. Reading the plans of the St Mary Abbots Hospital, on the other hand, shows how modern welfare has been packed piecemeal onto a site which once announced benevolence more symmetrically. The chapel of 1875 was demolished in 1974; the geriatric wards, psychiatric department and boiler-house are in post-war blocks; mortuary, operating theatre and pathology department were added in the Twenties and Thirties. Despite change, most patients are still housed in wards built in the 19th century. In the history of the hospital and workhouse, social concerns, clinical practice and demographic change can be illustrated architecturally.

The same is true of the department stores. The Board of Derry and Toms and Barkers consulted a Chicago firm about the floor plans of their new buildings in the late Twenties, when American stores layout was showing the way to new retailing methods. The Derry and Toms roof garden was in an English tradition, however – such conceits had been common since the Edwardian years. The two-and-a-half-inch layer of soil is watered from artesian wells under the building.

Immensely detailed and scholarly, surprising and sometimes amusing, the Survey of London is more readable than most popularisations of architectural history – many of which must depend on it for their information.

England’s smallest police station (a plinth in Trafalgar Square), its first Greek Revival building (James Stuart’s Doric temple of 1758 at Hagley Park) and Temple Bar (in its present situation in a Hertfordshire wood) are all follies by Headley’s and Meulencamp’s definition. The first, like many of their eye-catchers and shams, is not quite what it seems; the second was a plaything, although also a try-out for the big architecture of the next generation; the third is merely foolish through displacement. It is clear that an account of follies can extend beyond building fever, castles one wall thick, and unsteady towers commemorating eccentric squires.

Headley and Meulenkamp have cast their net wide in ‘some thinly-follied areas’ to allow ‘visitors or locals the enjoyment of fishing something out’. This reflects their own pleasure in the chase: in exploring, for example, the tower raised by Edward Bull (who later built Borley rectory) – ‘the most frightening building we have ever been half-way up’ – or in penetrating the dank underground works at Witley Park, which culminate in a small underwater ballroom with a glazed dome – a people tank for the fish in the pond above.

Of the chapel at Crimplesham Hall they write: ‘A tall spidery bell-tower is all there at first appears to be; but further inspection reveals a rather substantial building so encrusted with ivy and creeper that it is hard to make out the overall shape.’ As the DOE and the National Trust have stripped ivy and owls from any monument genuinely stained with what Walpole called ‘the true rust of the Barons’ Wars’, mock-ruins now look more ancient than the real thing. So this book may be the undoing of its authors’ pleasures. Perhaps they are aware of this. True to their National Trust label, they are sound on saving the heritage, but they also find the restored Gothick Tent at Painshill ‘a little too white and pristine’. The huge baroque memorial which Lord Ashton, the linoleum magnate, built to one of his three wives in 1906 cost him £87,000; £600,000 has been found for its restoration. It would make a very fine ruin, and £600,000 would build a fine folly.

Romantic follies are not the only sort, however. The best stories attach to men who threw up arches and obelisks to mark their territory, annoy their neighbours and puzzle posterity. Archaeology now supports the famous story about Mad Jack Fuller, who one night rashly bet that the spire of Dallington Church could be seen from his windows. Morning showed a hill stood in the way. When the cone-shaped folly Fuller had built to defy fact and win his bet was restored in 1961 it proved to be made of mud and stones: it had indeed been put up in a hurry. Although we have been cured of follies on the grand scale by planning laws, the urgent need to build and decorate can still become detached from a monitoring sense of function. Almost the last example in the book is a bus, parked in a garden on South Uist, which the owner has covered in patterns with shells from the local beach. There are no references to plates in the text, nor are they indexed: to find if a particular folly is among the 150 illustrated one must search the entire list.

The Atlas of the British Flora, published in 1962, is the great achievement of the Botanical Society of the British Isles. Fifteen hundred unpaid field-workers – some professional botanists and some amateurs – spent five years assembling plant lists for each square of the national grid: one and a half million records in all. County lists and herbarium sheets were searched for older records. One lesson of David Elliston Allen’s earlier book The Naturalist in Britain was that this kind of disciplined collaboration can get good scientific work out of the essentially inefficient engine of amateur natural history. There is more than one reason for climbing such Everests of observation. The Atlas showed that primroses were rather scarce, and doubled the known British stations of the military orchid – to two: more significantly, it is a base from which change can now be measured. Moreover the confidence which the achievement of the Atlas gave the Society showed when they went on to campaign against the planned construction of a reservoir at Cow Green in Teesdale. There are those who get as much pleasure from reading a hedgerow as from reading a book, and for whom making lists is an end in itself. The health of a society like the BSBI, however, depends on having useful work in hand. Conflicts in the marriage of amateur and professional botany mark turning-points in Allen’s exemplary history. The membership changes: it began with medical men, was rich in mathematicians in the early 1840s and reforming barristers at the end of the decade. By the end of the 1920s, at the height of G. Claridge Druce’s secretaryship, one member in eight was titled. Druce, a well-to-do Oxford pharmacist (his ‘purple specials’ were a popular cure for undergraduate hangovers), made the Society his private domain at a time when exchanging rare specimens, which in the late decades of the 19th century had become its sole function, was beginning to be frowned upon. He toed the line in theory, but the collector died hard: ‘W.H. Mills was once ill-advised enough to take him to see the Cambridgeshire dactylorchids and was horrified when Druce pulled up specimens by the armful ... he would have hit him had he not been forcibly restrained.’ It was in the work of an earlier member, H.C. Watson, that the Society’s future lay. He joined in 1840, and lived frugally as a self-supporting scholar on a small private income, devoting his life to the taxonomy and distribution of British plants. His Topographical Botany was the precursor of the Atlas, and set standards which others – Druce, for example – did not always meet. The health of natural history depends on a symbiosis between professional and amateur enthusiasms. Allen, looking to the future, stresses the importance of this relationship. It has already done a lot for that knowledgeable concern for the natural environment which, even when it shades into eccentricity and monomania, is one of the great gifts of British natural history to Britain.

Frances Spalding makes the ups and downs of art in Britain seem gentle ones. This is only partly a side-effect of small illustrations and limited space. The half of her book which covers the years I have lived through is as evocative as a pile of old magazines. It is magazines it brings to mind: Berger and Heron writing in the New Statesman; Freud, Minton, Sutherland and Moore reproduced in Penguin New Writing; Bacon photographed in Vogue. There are very few surprises. Can the Arts Council and the weeklies have got it right every time? Were there no underground movements or unfashionable painters? The first half seems less rich, but then one brings less to it, and the book is a lucid and intelligent account of works, groups and influences.

In her final chapter, which takes the Conceptual and Post-Modern themes through from the late Sixties to the present, she still manages to give a disinterested commentary. Most judgments are benign, or neutral: Richard Long’s and Hamish Fulton’s documented walks tap ‘a narrow, poetic vein’; Gilbert and George ‘have succeeded in charging their surroundings with positive unease: offset by their passivity everything becomes art’; Barry Flanagan’s hares had ‘instant appeal, the hares perhaps symbolising the imaginative agility of the artist’s mind’.

Her concise summings-up make no assumptions about absolute values. You can reckon painting to have become as marginal as manuscript illustration and still find no reason to disagree with her account. Richard Altick takes an even more detached view of the aesthetic value of his raw material: the ten to twelve thousand oil paintings which were publicly shown in London between 1760 and 1900, mostly at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy and other less important societies, and which can reasonably be attached to British literary texts. The kinds include: 18th-century theatrical pieces (Zoffany’s Garrick playing Macbeth, for example); pictures painted for commercial exhibition and subsequent publication (Boydell’s ‘Shakespeare Gallery’, and Fuseli’s huge Milton illustrations); genre pieces and anecdotal scenes scaled down to furnish the walls of suburban villas; ‘keepsake beauties’ (Grizeldas, Juliets and so forth, painted for the ‘annuals’); landscapes loosely attached to poetry – in the case of Turner to fragments composed by the painter himself; and quite a number where it is not clear whether the painter is illustrating a writer’s work or merely drawing on the same sources.

Only about 10 per cent of the pictures listed in catalogues can now be traced, but the similarities between known examples of various categories are enough to justify generalisations. Of the recorded works about a fifth are Shakespearian; the rest are spread rather unevenly through the canon. Milton, Goldsmith (but no Jane Austen), plenty of Scott and Dickens (but less Thackeray). The general conclusion one draws is that painters matched rather than enlarged their taste in literary excursions. Milton’s Comus allowed Etty to assemble a nude rout which the Times thought was ‘handled in a way entirely too luscious ... for the public eye’. (Constable wrote of an exhibition in 1830 which included Etty’s Venus and Cupid that he recollected ‘nothing in the Gallery but some women’s bums by Etty R.A’.) Altick suggests that a study of literary painting might cast light on other issues: ‘What correlation, if any, prevailed at a given moment between the critical standing of a work and its popularity as a subject for representation? To what extent are literary pictures ... dependable indicators of changes in literary taste?’ And so on. The evidence he assembles does not suggest that such exercises in statistical aesthetics would offer interesting or surprising insights. Altick’s book itself, on the other hand, is wonderfully rich in examples and analyses of the relations between the literary and visual branches of the family of arts in Britain. The first part follows the history of literary illustration chronologically, the second looks at the treatment individual authors received. National loyalties and the precedence given to history painting in 18th-century theory (Reynolds’s Discourses, in particular) led to attempts at a heroic art which gave visual substance to the work of Shakespeare and Milton. They were over-ambitious. Fuseli’s Milton pictures did not draw crowds: ‘The greater part of my exhibition,’ he told a friend, ‘the rejected Family of a silly Father, are now again rolled up, Or packed against the walls of my Study to be Seasoned for dust, the worm and oblivion.’ Boydell’s investment also failed. The bulk of the pictures brought less than £20 a piece at auction, while the engravings elicited Lamb’s scornful statement of the case against all illustration:

What injury (short of the theatres) did not Boydell’s ‘Shakespeare Gallery’ do me with Shakespeare! To have Opie’s Shakespeare, North-cote’s Shakespeare, light-headed Fuseli’s Shakespeare, heavy-headed Romney’s Shakespeare, wooden-headed West’s Shakespeare (though he did the best in Lear), deaf-headed Reynolds’s Shakespeare, instead of my, and everybody’s Shakespeare. To be tied down to an authentic face of Juliet! To have Imogen’s portrait! To confine the illimitable.

Tennyson, who was ostensibly co-operating in the production of Moxon’s illustrated edition of his poems, could not protest in such general terms. Instead he found errors of detail: he complained to Holman Hunt that ‘I didn’t say the Lady of Shalott’s hair was blown about like that,’ and had him remove unauthorial steps from his illustration to ‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid’. He was dealing with Pre-Raphaelites, whose notions of fidelity to text were flexible, but Altick describes this kind of confrontation as ‘a favourite form of journalistic pedantry’.

Popular taste, which proved unkind to the monumental ambitions of Fuseli, directed painters to a few common themes. Critics complained of boredom, but painters stuck to known books and subjects of proven marketability. When a new vein was discovered it was mined vigorously. Scott was a prodigious image-generator. In 1819 Charles Leslie wrote: the picturesque scenes with which the works ‘abound are almost too highly finished to leave anything for the painter to do but merely follow him, which is some disadvantage’. Ruskin called him the Turner of the verbal scenic artists. A few painters (Wilkie, especially) did more than sit in his slipstream. Others very nearly painted by numbers: he was a money-spinner, and the sheer magnitude of the market he created is astonishing. Whatever doubts one may have about extrapolation from paintings to general cultural history, Altick’s book supplies the materials for an exercise of imagination which leaves one with the sense of a steep historical perspective. The 19th-century novelists still seem to write for us: most of the paintings Altick discusses were produced for middle-class picture-readers, who scanned canvases literal-mindedly and bought for content and sentiment in a way we can hardly imagine.

John Wiseman’s admirable History of the British Pig describes how at the end of the 18th century the British pig had been bred into a fine state of confusion. In 1793 one commentator reckoned that no two pigs in Kent were the same; in 1817 another said that in Derbyshire the pigs were ‘a complete mixture of colour and type in this country as elsewhere’. In the Medieval period the early domestic or turbary pig – small, long-legged, razor-backed, prick-eared, bristly, and probably descended from the small wild pig of South-Eastern Europe – was an important domestic animal. To judge from manuscript illustrations, it was of uniform appearance. Rights of pannage (grazing for acorns and beech mast) were valuable, and often produced more than selling firewood and charcoal from forests did. The pig declined in importance as a domestic animal (its peak in Britain was around the time of the Conquest) as forests disappeared.

By the late 17th century local types are mentioned, and in the 18th the Old English Pig mysteriously appears – a larger, lop-eared animal, appreciated for its maternal qualities. The import which gave these characteristics to the British pig gene-pool is not known – perhaps it was a Danish animal. During the 19th century the influx of new stock makes any attempt to work out where a given trait might have come from very difficult. New blood derived from (among others) the Chinese pig, the Black Neapolitan, the Irish Greyhound (an animal with wattles), the Maltese, and the Indian Jungle pig. One authority adds further confusion by asserting that it was common to refer to all foreign pigs as Chinese. (Just as in old thrillers the Chinese tend to call all foreigners ‘pigs’.) The family tree of ‘possible major developments in the early history of the Berkshire’ has, in one cadet branch alone, the Midlands, the Black Chinese and the Midland ‘Plum Pudding’.

Competitive breeding produced animals of phenomenal size (up to a thousand pounds in weight). Pigs were bred like dogs and pigeons for points of appearance, which had little to do with meat (its quality and the ratio of lean to fat), rate of growth or fecundity. Wiseman sees signs of a return to this kind of thing in the present revival of minority breeds: he notes that ‘it is currently “fashionable” to breed for only one spot in the Gloucester Old Spot, and the British Lop is apparently being bred for a more attractive ear!’ The commercial pig industry in Britain is at present dominated by the Large White and the Landrace. The photographs of modern pigs show animals which at least are not a burden to themselves. If pigs could read they would be encouraged by Wiseman’s suggestion that outdoor systems may prove to have advantages over intensive piggeries, and interested to find that studies in Edinburgh into alternative methods of pig-raising which ‘allow the animals to express their innate behavioural drives more fully’ may supply a role for minority breeds. They would, however, also find much which was unpleasant. For example, the postscript on pigs which John Mills gratuitously added to a book on cattle, published in 1776: ‘The defects of its figure seem to influence its dispositions: all its ways are gross, all its inclinations are filthy, and all its sensations concentrate in a furious lust, and so eager a gluttony, that it devours indiscriminately whatever comes its way.’ So you have made us, the pig, looking at its history, might say.