Sunday 13 December 2015

In the Tate

Above, by way of decoration, is an unusually restful Holman Hunt, depicting A Cornfield near Ewell (Ewell? That's down my way - not many cornfields now...). It was something that caught my eye as I wandered around Tate Britain yesterday, to the accompaniment of hideous recorded sounds emanating from war-damaged bugles etc (this was a Work of Art, designed no doubt to Make Us Think). Quite a few other pictures caught my eye, of course - but one didn't so much catch it as cause it to stare in amazement. Not that it's a good picture - far from it - but that it's there, restored and on display, after decades of languishing in the Tate's stores.
 George Cruikshank's The Worship of Bacchus is one of the most extraordinary artistic undertakings ever completed - a gigantic (13ft by 8ft, give or take) and immensely detailed panorama of all the social evils caused by the demon drink. In case the point hasn't been made strongly enough in these lurid images, the picture is also emblazoned with explanatory headings, to hammer it home a little more. Subtle it isn't; borderline hysterical it certainly is. The density of detail across such a vast acreage of canvas is quite staggering; wherever the eye roams it will find some new scene of debauchery, violence, madness and ruin. These are the culmination of an inexorable process that can be traced from its innocent beginnings in scenes of domestic and celebratory social drinking - be warned, my fellow drinkers, take heed!
 Cruikshank was a passionate, fanatical teetotaller, determined to preach the message of total abstinence at every opportunity. I have a reprint of one of his lurid illustrated tracts, The Black Bottle - one of the eccentric 'series of small books' published by J.L. Carr (the Last Englishman). As Cruikshank's father died of alcohol poisoning after a drinking game, his extreme views were pardonable, but they did his career no good when they contributed to his falling out with Dickens after illustrating Oliver Twist - his best work, and arguably the best Dickens illustrations of all. (He also did a nice set of pictures for Tristram Shandy.)
 When Cruikshank died in 1878, The Times wrote that 'There never was a purer, simpler, more straightforward, or altogether more blameless man. His nature had something childlike in its transparency.' After his death, it was discovered that, for all his childlike transparency, Cruikshank had a secret family of 11 children with a mistress who had been a servant in his house and whom he had set up with a home conveniently close by. Who knows? He might have been a secret drinker too.

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