Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Some notes on what I read while looking at paintings in London last week

1 Dulwich Picture Gallery, which has the distinction of being England's first public art gallery and which adjoins Dulwich College, where both Raymond Chandler and P. G. Wodehouse were educated, features the hands-down best explanatory captions I've come across in any gallery. They're explanatory without being dry, and they frequently employ quotations from outside sources to bring the subjects or creators of particular paintings to life. Accompanying a portrait by
William Hogarth, for example, is a note that Hogarth disliked straight portraiture, dismissing it as "phiz-mongering."

2 The note beside a portrait of poet William Hayley by George Romney reveals both that Hayley wrote a biography of his friend Romney and that English poet laureate Robert Southey once said of Hayley, "Everything about that man is good, except his poetry." Take that for what you will: according to Anthony Powell, Southey also complained about Wordsworth's "entire and intense selfishness," while in Don Juan (1824) Lord Byron commanded
Thou shalt believe in Milton, Dryden, Pope;
Thou shalt not set up Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey;
Because the first is crazed beyond all hope,
The second drunk, the third so quaint and mouthey.
The closing rhyme is so good it makes me doubt its veracity; is it wrong of me to suspect Byron of characterizing Southey in a way more convenient than truthful? He's going to force me to go read some Southey to be sure.

3 A lovely portrait of the Linley sisters by Thomas Gainsborough is annotated with an explanation that work on the portrait was interrupted when the elder sister, Elizabeth, eloped with Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The families must ultimately have reconciled at least a bit, for a few years later Sheridan partnered with Elizabeth's father in the running of the Drury Lane Theatre.

4 Best of all, though, is the note that accompanies a painting of shaggy-haired young William Linley by Sir Thomas Lawrence, which reveals that George III, on being shown the portrait, exclaimed, "Ah! Ah! Why doesn't the blockhead get his hair cut?"

5 Staying on the topic of paintings, at the extensive and wonderful
Hogarth show at the Tate Britain, I saw for the first time the painting Francis Matthew Schultz in his bed, which Hogarth painted in the late 1750s, allegedly at the behest of Schultz's long-suffering wife in the hope of shocking him into leading a less debauched life. According to the Tate Britain's guide to the show, the painting
proved too indecorous in its imagery for Schutz’s Victorian descendants. They hired an artist to paint in a newspaper over the chamber-pot; only a recent programme of restoration returned the painting to its original state.
The show really was marvelous; if you're in London and can get to it before it closes Sunday, it's well worth your time.

Tomorrow, a few notes on beer, drink, and their perils, from Hogarth and others
encountered on the trip.

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