Sunday, 9 December 2012

'The age of each had its dangers...'

'The disparity of age might preclude, apart from the fact that Adelaide was married, the thought of love between them: and yet there was an affection, no less tender because disinterested. Obviously, she was pleased by the good looks, the talent of the young man - and he, on his side, adored her as an ideal being. The age of each had its dangers. A motherly sentiment on the one hand and a feeling of reverence on the other were not absolute safeguards against a warmer emotion, but it would be an idle speculation to pursue this thought, and irrelevant to their mutual recognition of a lofty and even abstract excellence...'
  Henry James surely? No, it's William Gaunt in Victorian Olympus (see below, 'Proudly and Furiously Bad..', 5th December). He's writing, with that Jamesian delicacy of discrimination, about the relationship between the young Frederic Leighton and Adelaide Sartoris, born into the Kemble acting dynasty, married to an art critic and amateur painter - and clearly very impressed by the young Leighton.
  Art historians don't write like that nowadays, more's the pity. Gaunt's approach - which would today be roundly condemned as fanciful and unscholarly - is unashamedly novelistic. He has a story to tell, and he has characters to bring to life, along with their various milieux - and he does it superbly well. His three studies of Victorian art movements - The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy, The Aesthetic Adventure and Victorian Olympus - are irresistibly readable page turners. First published in the late Forties and early Fifties, they are out of print now, but seem to be available for 1p on Amazon, in paperback (an edition by Cardinal with covers that make them look like Seventies erotica).
 Not only do art historians not write like that; neither, I fancy, do artists. Here's Leighton writing to his mother ahead of the exhibition of his first major work, warning her to be indifferent to the 'scribbling of pamphleteers; the self-complacent oracularity of those pachidermata is rivalled only by their gross ignorance of the subject they bemaul.' But Leighton needn't have worried; the painting was a triumph. It was Cimabue's Celebrated Madonna Carried in Procession Through the Streets of Florence - which now hangs over the grand staircase of the National Gallery. And which I have written about elsewhere...

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