SELBY WHITTINGHAM looks back on a life in the arts, from the New Elizabethans to Generation Z
The latest bout of iconoclasm has produced renewed demands for a statue of Cecil Rhodes to be removed from a building built with his money at his and my alma mater, Oriel College, Oxford. The protesters claim that he was an imperialist and racist, though some authorities say that the charge of racism is partly misplaced. At least one protester was under the misapprehension that he was a slave owner.
At the same time, the BBC has been showing programmes on the history of Persia, reverently admiring its emperors, whose images are set amid the figures of the tributary peoples whom they had conquered. Of course the Persian empire belongs to the distant past, while the British one is more recent and its misdemeanours still a live issue for some of its subject peoples. Other bouts of iconoclasm are also now remote, such as the Protestant destruction of Catholic images. Today no one is very concerned about those disputes, but art lovers deplore the loss of works that once adorned our churches.
Among the last I count myself. Believing that everyone suffers from prejudices in varying degrees and that I too am a product of my background, I feel I should state what that was. I was brought up by my mother, who was a Conservative, an historian, a barrister, a journalist and a lover of the theatre. Those interests led to my being taken to see the cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays, Richard II – Henry V, at Stratford-upon-Avon put on by the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre for the Festival of Britain in 1951. In 1948, John Harvey, the promoter of Perpendicular Gothic as a great English stylistic invention, had had published The Plantagenets, which began with a paean in praise of monarchy and continued by emphasising the biographer’s need for authentic portraits of his subjects. That led to my helping my mother with the task of finding such for her history and then to my doctoral thesis. Harvey’s royalism was matched by my mother’s. She would stand when the national anthem was played, even at home.
In 1953 I witnessed the preparations for the coronation, which seemed like some glorious pageant, a fit opening for the New Elizabethan Age. At the same time was performed at Stratford Antony and Cleopatra with Michael Redgrave as Mark Anthony and Peggy Ashcroft as Cleopatra and directed brilliantly by Glen Byam Shaw. The French were rather rude about Redgrave, comparing him with a Scottish highlander rather than a Latin lover. I was particularly captivated by Ashcroft, and avidly eavesdropped – not quite the word to describe listening to her declamatory style of talking – when my mother and I sat at the theatre restaurant table next to hers. That was the closest I got, whereas in 1951 Richard Burton had shown us round back stage and we got reluctant permission to attend a rehearsal taken by Redgrave.
The schools which I attended conventionally prized the classics most highly and at university I continued to study them while pursuing my mediaeval interests. Visits to the Mediterranean had complemented that. In 1948 we stayed at the seaside villa of an anglophile Italian family at Sta Margherita Ligure. Being covered in oil discharged from an Italian warship into the sea, to the indignation of our Italian hostess, who said the British navy would never do such a thing, did nothing to diminish the shock of delight after the bleak 1947 winter and rationing in the UK. The fresh food by itself was a revelation. And the unaccustomed brilliance of the scene enhanced by the colourful cafe umbrellas at Rapallo, which my mother and I tried to catch in chalk sketches (now lost), created an indelible impression.
I made many visits to Italy later, partly in pursuit of mediaeval portrait sculptures. At university I twice joined parties visiting Greece, and was delighted both with the classical sites and the Byzantine churches. I was already in agreement with those who believed that the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Athens, not so much on national or moral grounds, but because I thought that they could be much better appreciated there than in the British Museum. This contributed to my long-held view that art should generally remain in its original situation. Once the British had returned works to Italy that Napoleon had taken for the Louvre, but that of course was different! Curators have a similar Napoleonic urge to amass and centralise and to set up the Universal Museum as the great desideratum, though the public does not altogether share that view.
On the return from Italy we stopped briefly at Paris and visited Versailles – my mother wanted to show me the Galerie des Glaces – where guided parties of different nationals followed closely one after another. The following year my father, on leave from Malaya, was nostalgic for England and as a compromise we stayed on a farm on Guernsey. But in 1950 my mother and I went to a small village on the Normandy coast. We combined that with a day excursion to Rouen, the cathedral blackened by war, and then took a bus to the 18th century Chateau du Grésil where my mother had stayed with a family, which I think had a South American business association with her grandfather, when she was a teenager and was the commencement of her Francophilia. She wrote an account for Blackwood’s Magazine under the title of “The Adopted Son”, in reference to an Argentinian boy and now in 1950 an elderly man and sole family survivor at the house. Later for a while it served as a research centre for Shell.
The article followed immediately on an hilarious contribution by a British army officer who had been invited to stay with the 7th Raja of Poonch (1) in the 1930s, an example of the friendly relations that often existed between the British and Asiatic rulers in their colonies. However, the British were never so sentimental as to prefer these ties to realpolitik and in a postwar treaty partly dumped the Malay sultans, an act deplored by my mother in 1946 in an article “Malaya Betrayed!” for the World Review, edited by Edward Hulton (2) – who incidentally had an address in Cromwell Road when I first came to live there, and whose nephew, Jocelyn Stevens, was the partner of Sir Charles Clore’s daughter, to whom I come later.
Like Hulton, my mother had been an active Lancashire Conservative in the 1930s, supporting Randolph Churchill’s doomed attempt to be elected an MP and then his father’s opposition to Appeasement. She embarked on a history of Liverpool politics, in which figures such as Canning and Gladstone’s father had played a part. In her time, it was divided into two cultures, Protestant English and Catholic Irish, not reconciled until Bishop David Sheppard and Archbishop Warlock (whose parents, later neighbours of my father, I knew). My grandfather and mother, part of the Anglican tradition, already favoured greater unity, but the local Conservative party was strongly Protestant and tolerated with difficulty one of its MPs who, following a long Lancashire tradition of recusants, was a Roman Catholic. This made my mother both a constitutionalist and a rebel.
After the visit to Stratford in 1951 we toured the vineyards of the Rhone, on which my mother wrote several articles, at the invitation of Baron Le Roy de Boiseaumarié, who had been a French fighter pilot in World War I, winning the Croix de Guerre, and had set up the system of Appellation d’Origine Controlée. My mother had had the option of writing about the Rhône wines or those of Languedoc, staying at Perpignan. She was torn between the two and left the choice to me, and I plumped for Provence because it seemed more historic. This showed that I had already developed a taste for the past, perhaps encouraged by the Shakespeare history cycle seen a few months earlier. My mother too was more interested in history than in wine, and her account of Rhône viticulture was mostly about its Roman past and its being prized by the English, first under Queen Eleanor of Provence and again in the 18th century. The 19th century phylloxera outbreak was devastating (a company started by my great-uncles, McKechnie Bros, exported sulphate of copper to spray on the vines, and a photograph exists of their stand at the 1919 Lyons Fair). In 1951 Rhône wines were again at a low ebb, despite the efforts of Baron Le Roy, and in need of publicity.
From an historical point of view, the trip was partly disappointing. Avignon, where we spent the first night in a small modern hotel, was unexciting, and the Palais des Papes was closed to visitors. The Roman remains at Vaison-la-Romaine and theatre at Orange left me rather cold. But the romance of the vineyards, which suggested to my mother the idea of a film about the oldest, Chateau de la Nerthe, was different. I had not read then the memoirs of Captain Gronow (3), who was equally at home in London and in Paris, a fact appreciated by Winston Churchill when preparing to meet De Gaulle. One of his most entertaining anecdotes was about General Palmer, who bought a fine Bordeaux vineyard (still called Chateau Palmer), whose wine he ruined after taking the advice of the Prince Regent, who shared the English preference for fortifying claret with the more robust Hermitage, where we were the guests of Louis Jaboulet, whose firm was founded by his ancestor in 1834. Its labels depicted the hermit’s chapel, while those of Le Roy showed Chateau Fortia on labels unchanged down to the present. However, under the pressure to appeal to non-Europeans unconcerned with history some Bordeaux vineyards have jettisoned the chateaux for silly names and trite designs. This dumbing down was in contrast to the commissioning by a Rothschild of designs from the leading artists of the 1950s, an example of innovation which is fruitful rather than destructive or decadent.
Then in 1957 I followed my mother’s teenage experience by staying with a French family at their Angevin chateau which had the ruins of a mediaeval castle in its grounds (they had advertised in the Times for an exchange with their eldest son, whose English needed improving). Three years later, before entering Oxford University, I spent two terms at the Sorbonne studying the course for foreigners on French Civilisation. A popular lecturer on French 19th century literature, Antoine Adam, declared that there were two types of Frenchmen, ‘Franks/Germans’ and ‘Gauls/Latins’. He was the epitome of the second, while his fellow lecturer on literature epitomised the Frankish strain.
The contrast between the English and French has been endlessly drawn. It was shown in stylised fashion in the cartoons of Hogarth and Rowlandson, and later in Olivier’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, to which we took my French teenage exchange. Often, of course, people do not conform to these stereotypes and one needs to regard people as individuals. However, the generalisations remain, though in the case of the English (sent up by our neighbours, Flanders and Swann (4), in their song, The English, The English are Best, which they performed to the slight bemusement of an American audience) the image with which I grew up, of the stiff upper lip and either bowler hat or cloth cap, has now gone, though the reluctance to make a fuss remains. It is a nice philosophical question how far such generalisations, whether about race or tradition, are ever valid. What many hold as tradition only goes back a few generations or, with regard to the fine arts, to the Renaissance, whereas my mediaeval and classical perspectives are different.
In a stay on a farm at Coniston with my father in 1956 among the places visited was Brantwood, the last home of John Ruskin. I was then more in tune with Wordsworth, one of whose descendants, with a marked resemblance to his ancestor, was the only other visitor to Dove Cottage when I entered it. It was only some years later that I began to read Ruskin’s works that I found I had an affinity with him. This began with his championship of Gothic and contention that all portraiture is essentially Gothic, while the Renaissance sculptors “rounded their chins by precedent” (5). This view appealed to me because it suited my thesis, and for its contrarian nature.
In 1975, when I started a campaign to honour Turner’s testamentary wishes to have his works displayed in a special Turner gallery, I had Ruskin again as on the whole a support. This campaign naturally met the opposition of the three (now two) museums between which Turner’s paintings had been split. But it had the support of leading panjandrums in the art world and of some politicians. Decades later, Boris Johnson wrote that the continuing failure to observe Turner’s last wishes merited an enquiry, but latterly there has been silence. Various Conservative politicians have expressed an admiration for the work of Turner as well as for heritage, and some even for honouring conditions attached to gifts and accepted with them. But, despite the Turner wing at the Tate given by Sir Charles Clore’s daughter being an additional failure, they have latterly shown no concern. The Conservative Party, as Matthew Parris has written, has no set beliefs, and today is more the heir of Gladstonian liberalism than of the conservatism of the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (6).
While at university I became a supporter of the Liberal party and have remained one of its successor. This is mainly because of its emphasis on individualism and free choice, but also because influences were the party’s colour, yellow, the colour of Turner and Van Gogh, and the fact that some of my forebears and cousins were Liberals on free trade or other grounds. That may seem a trivial reason, but others were Liberals by heredity as well as belief, and the same goes for other parties, which all are conscious of their traditions. Bertrand Russell, though not a member of the Liberal Party, was conscious of his Liberal heritage. He regarded doubt as essential and that addiction to certainty as the cause of the world’s ills. Today he would surely condemn the epidemic of wokeness, puritanism and illiberalism masking as liberalism, a distinction made recently by among others Tim Farron, who was pilloried for his evangelical beliefs, regardless of his liberal voting record.
If the arts in England, especially the fine arts, are now at a low ebb, there are many causes. Traditional Englishness has been diluted by foreign influence, notably from America. Of course English art has always been subject to foreign influence, from France especially. But it evolved some distinct traits in the Middle Ages, as Nikolaus Pevsner traced in his now unfashionable 1955 book The Englishness of English Art (7) (my copy of which a young, non-English architectural student stole!). I found this useful in my analysis of the style of the Wilton Diptych, with its puzzling portrait of Richard II, on which my mother had started me. While looking at popular books on Gainsborough and his contemporaries on the bouqiniste stalls by the Seine I was struck by how they had an English air distinct from that of French portraits. But Pevsner’s rules only hold good so far, and in the end artists are individuals and go off in all sorts of directions. That is especially true of Turner, who early on captured the Englishness of the Thames and Medway valleys, and also was steeped in tradition and the past (Lady Eastlake commented how knowledgeable he was about the history of all the castles he depicted). However, in his later works he moved on and prompted commentators to call him un-English, Germanic, a proto-French-Impressionist and so on.
In the Turner campaign one of our supporters, the late Dr William Allen, a scientific adviser to the National Gallery, discouragingly cited the law of physics, “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, as also a law of society. That is certainly true in history. The enthusiastic admiration for British imperialism has given rise to an equally passionate denunciation. Lenin acted partly in reaction to the Tsarist execution of his teenage brother, and liberals have then reacted violently against him, whereas I would keep some of his statues as being of historical importance. Of course Africans had not done anything to cause them to be enslaved, but those today demanding extreme measures in recompense risk provoking a violent counter-reaction.
Unfortunately, academics have too often failed to be more objective than their students. When I was an undergraduate at Oriel, it was a notably conservative college, with Hugh Trevor-Roper a hovering presence. Today the enlarged body of fellows has few historians but a number of colonials (as has the university), and few are former alumni. The Provost (8), however, is one, and has just been ennobled as a Conservative peer ostensibly for his involvement in the museum world. Will he be willing or able to direct the college to keep the statue of Rhodes in line with the opinions of the Chancellor of the University and the Prime Minister? I have tried to show why my bias is in favour of retention.
- Both India and Pakistan have districts named Poonch, parts of the disputed Kashmir region (Editor’s note)
- Sir Edward George Warris Hulton, 1906-1988, chiefly remembered now as founder of the Eagle comic and The Picture Post, whose name is perpetuated in Getty Images’ Hulton Archive (Editor’s note)
- Captain Rees Howell Gronow, 1794-1865, who served in the Grenadier Guards during the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, dandy, debtor, briefly an MP, and author of four volumes of justly highly-regarded reminiscences (Editor’s note)
- Flanders and Swann, British comedy double act, made up of Michael Flanders, 1922-1975, and Donald Swann, 1923-1994 (Editor’s note)
- “You may understand broadly that we Goths claim portraiture altogether for our own, and contentedly leave the classic people to round their chins by rule, and fix their smiles by precedent” (The Art of England, III, “The Classic Schools of Painting”, 1873, pp.72-3; Works, ed. E.T.Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 1905, XXXIII, p.316). Also “Some Characteristics of Greek Art in Relation to Christian”, (Works, XX, p.409). I returned to this question in “The Face in Mediaeval Sculpture”, ArtWatch UK Journal, 32, Autumn 2019, pp.12-17 (Author’s note)
- Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 1830–1903, three times Conservative Prime Minister between 1885 and 1902 (Editor’s note)
- London: Architectural Press, expanded and annotated version of the 1955 BBC Reith Lectures. Pevsner says “the English portrait keeps long silences, and when it speaks, speaks in a low voice”. He goes on to say English painting is characterised by an interest in the everyday world and the observed fact, by “temperance, smoothness, judiciousness, moderation”, a consequence of “a decent home, a temperate climate, and a moderate nation”. He goes on, “There is no Michelangelo, no Titian, no Rembrandt, no Dürer or Grünewald… but there are exquisite water-colours and miniatures, things on a small scale, and there are in the Middle Ages exquisitely carved bosses and capitals…The amateur is altogether characteristic of England, and not the specialist. This has much to recommend it.” He also cites the understatement of Perpendicular architecture, and feels England has contributed more to architecture than to either painting or sculpture (he does not discuss music) (Editor’s note)
- Neil Mendoza, Provost of Oriel since 2018, also Chairman of the Landmark Trust, and the government’s Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal (Editor’s note)
SELBY WHITTINGHAM is the founder and secretary of the Independent Turner Society, which campaigns to unite all of J M W Turner’s paintings in a special Turner Gallery, in accordance with the painter’s last wishes. He is also the author of numerous books on Turner, and a regular contributor to The Jackdaw