Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Monthly Archives: October 2016

Hatted and piped: photographing The Enemy

“I hope you will forgive me for speaking plainly,” wrote artist and author Wyndham Lewis to an unnamed London photographer in 1949, declining to buy the publicity shots he had commissioned. “Several are unspeakable … One or two are what might be described as photographic insults. Needless to say, I can make no commercial use of them … Of course I am sure you produced these photos with the best of highbrow intentions. But there it is. I have not exaggerated the displeasing impression, and in some cases the horror induced … P.S. Probably you ought to have a bigger camera.”

It seems that getting your press photos done (essential for the artist or writer in the public eye) was not always trouble-free. In the past, Lewis had successfully used George Charles Beresford, noted society photographer and a mate of fellow painters Augustus John and William Orpen. In 1913 Beresford snapped Lewis as moody bohemian, fag dangling from lower lip; in 1917 he did him proud cutting a dash in uniform. And in 1929 he captured Lewis in his current Enemy persona, arsing about with a big hat, a pipe and a plaster pillar.

Big hats, of course, were a standard signifier of artisticness in this era, though the pipe was Lewis’s touch. His Tyro figures of the early ‘twenties all have hats, as do many of his self-portraits; the pipe appears in his last drawing of himself, from 1938, and had an outing in the newsreel of the T S Eliot Royal Academy scandal of that year. In the “Enemy Interlude” in Lewis’s fiercely rambling poem sequence One Way Song (1933), the Enemy persona is noted as “cloaked, masked, booted, and with gauntlets of astrakan,” but also in a “large black steeple-hat,” completing the association with cartoon anarchists and banditti.

I’ve noticed a few images from this shoot, but like best the full length studied-casual-with-faraway-gaze-and-column shot (left). Somehow it encapsulates modern but classical, ironic but serious, visionary but engaged. A cropped head and shoulders variant appeared in number 3 (1929) of Lewis’s one man review, The Enemy, captioned “A recent photograph of the Enemy, Mr. Wyndham Lewis,” while a similar image, minus column, was used in his Blasting and Bombardiering (1937). It’s a version of the former, ex some newspaper photo library, that turned up on eBay recently, finding its way to me for the price of a coffee (below, right).


But look closely: what I actually have is a photo of that photo. To “improve” Lewis’s riskily diagonal posture, the original print has been tilted and re-photographed, the re-photographer’s bench being clearly visible in the triangular gaps created at each corner. This, then, is a new photograph of a cropped print of an original photograph. (To push things a bit more in a John Berger direction, what you’re seeing here is a digital image of an upload of my scan of that photo of a print of a photo; the reader of the time would have viewed a grainy screened reproduction of it on newsprint.)

Now a final irony. For much of his career Lewis was plagued by frequent confusions between himself and his namesake, the humourist D B Wyndham Lewis, “Beachcomber” of the Daily Express and then Daily Mail columnist. At one point Lewis even claimed that Lord Rothermere of the Mail had “invented” DB to plague him, in revenge for a dinner party quarrel. On the reverse of my photo is a faint agency stamp and a picture editor’s typed label:

In the News.
D. WYNDHAM LEWIS.,
The wellknown author.
MAR 1940

The “wellknown” identity is confirmed in ink. I’ve no idea what DB was up to in 1940 to be “in the news,” but at the time our own P Wyndham Lewis, now eleven years older than his photo, was having a very grim time in a dreary mock-Tudor hotel in Toronto (a transatlantic wartime experience later mirrored in his harrowing novel Self Condemned ). A silver lining, perhaps, that he was thereby denied the opportunity to catch his own carefully constructed brand subjected to “photographic insult” in whichever English paper it was that carried this misidentified image.


All of which reminds me that I’ve been meaning to do a piece here claiming Lewis and One Way Song as an early progenitor of hip hop. Yes, from The Enemy to Public Enemy … One day before too long, perhaps.

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Garman-Ryan collection under threat at Walsall

Here we go again.

Quite a few posts on this blog have been focused around the excellent New Art Gallery in Walsall, a prestigious building opened in 2000 at a cost of shed-loads, which houses an extraordinarily fine permanent collection based around the amazing Garman-Ryan Collection given to Walsall in the ‘seventies by Kathleen Garman, Jacob Epstein’s widow and a Black Country girl born and bred. The Gallery also houses an important Epstein archive.

Astonishingly, the future of the Gallery is now in jeopardy. Under severe financial pressure from the government’s austerity programme, the Lib-Lab coalition running Walsall Council is floating a draconian withdrawal of funding which, it seems to me, would bring inevitable closure. More detail down below, but meanwhile, if you’re interested, here are some readable links with fuller stories, including (end of the list) one to a petition to save the Gallery:

BBC news     The Art Newspaper     The Guardian   The petition

Finally, as promised, the small print. Here’s the relevant bit from the Council’s horrific “Summary of Revenue Policy Savings by Portfolio for Consultation.” (Click to enlarge if need be, or skim down to my closing comments.)

doc-combo

So, a £100K kick up the bum next year to wake things up, then a year’s grace, then in 2019 the £470K subsidy will be reduced at a stroke to £80K. No matter how they dress this up as an “opportunity” (don’t they always?), I just can’t see enough “new business” or “philanthropic support” arriving by then to plug a gap of such proportions, even with sensible trimming. Something brave and creative is needed from the Council here, with a commitment not to go for closure while solutions are being found.

A note on “environmental implications”, further on in this document,  anticipates the Gallery building being “disposed of”. What happens then to the collection? I’ve no idea what legal provisions may have hedged in Kathleen Garman’s gift to the Borough, but if they’re not watertight and more, I can see Sotheby’s rubbing their grubby hands already.

I’ve no intention of allowing this issue to hijack the blog as happened with Mandergate a couple of years back, but if a campaign coalesces somewhere beyond the existing petition page, I will post a link.

The bad and better days of Thomas Good

You know those moments when you trip over a poem by an unfamiliar name and think: blimey, who’s this? A while ago, I turned a page in Fred Marnau’s apocalyptical review New Road 1945 to discover:

THOMAS GOOD
The Trappist

In a lean country suckled by forgiveness
Nailed to bleak courage and the percussive breeze
Bends the hooded man, scarecrow of tailors,
Humming death’s harlotry and the private grave.

Who loving farther mountains tracked the bloody avenue
Coddled atonement and the sword insulted,
Brief’d by no reason on earth insured the triple girdle
Sprinkled wishes like ashes on the changeless floor …

… One window opening in the village of remembrance
Where the smooth lady guilelessly inclines,
Unmanacled of vows the tonsured dandy starts
Electrified as by the sudden glass of Chartres.

O senseless sense. O far too clear division
Of sense and spirit (if these unhallowed deeps be true).
O riper worm, shocked into penance and the holy wax,
Adjourn, the eminent pillar of St. Simon cracks …

… and four more stanzas of the same – tough stuff, dense and jagged, disciplined in form but slippery in syntax, if not consistently secure then certainly compelling, and unlike anything on neighbouring pages. Here (as in much of Good’s poetry, as it turns out) the force of the full impression is in despite of the many particulars that resist ready understanding. Compacted images are piled in without respite, and associations are often puzzling, as if at one or two removes, implying invisible connections that may or may not exist. For instance, in stanza one we can see that the breeze is percussive, but how can the hooded monk be said to be nailed to it? But yes, of course he must be. It works.

good-photo

Thomas Good in 1968

And there are obscurities, such as the “triple girdle” in stanza two, which can surely be only a triple Girdle of Venus, the line associated in palmistry with lasciviousness and nervous temperament; it is the “tonsured dandy” whose hand discards his deadened desires like ashes. The poem concerns a dreadful tension between spirit and bodily senses, culminating in a violent release from Catholic guilt. Is this, despite first appearances, confessional? If so, who was Thomas Good? Just the one poem in this book, but ninety pages later, the same name introduces his own translations of Apollinaire, so here, clearly, is someone to be reckoned with and to be pursued.

Nothing by Thomas Good – poet, priest, critic, teacher and Francophile – has ever been anthologised or is currently in print. His Selected Poems appeared posthumously over forty years ago in an edition of 250. (“The Trappist” is not among them.) In The Fortnightly Review last year Peter Riley listed Good among those “now unknown names” once endorsed unhesitatingly by Nicholas Moore. In a footnote to a volume of letters of William Carlos Williams he is shrugged off as “a relatively minor British poet and critic.” For J H Prynne, in a 1974 poetry review in The Spectator, he is “another serious and unread poet of [the ‘forties] generation” – a condition Prynne helps perpetuate by neglecting to get around to any actual consideration of Good’s poems.

But the more I re-read Good’s work, the more I tune into it, the more I’m convinced that here is a poet of stature and interest who has been unjustly and sadly overlooked.

out-of-circumstanceIt’s fortunate that Good’s friend and literary executor Michael Hamburger, the careful editor of his 1973 Selected, included there Good’s substantial “Autobiographical Note,” which informs a  short write-up by David Collard in the Record of Pembroke College, Oxford (here, jump to page 103) whose Archives now house Good’s papers, “rich and so far un-researched.” I’ve not visited Pembroke, but in what follows I’ve drawn on the “Autobiographical Note” and on a summary of the Good papers, for which I’m extremely grateful to Amanda Ingram, Pembroke’s archivist. (The Archives’ site is at http://www.pmb.ox.ac.uk/archives.)

To continue with a profile of Good’s life and work, go here. To jump directly to a selection of his poems, go here. Or use the Thomas Good tab up above for both pages.

‘The language of a world where meanings defeated any common syntax’: Joyce Cary meets Gerald Wilde

As an addendum to my previous post on the painter Gerald Wilde (go here), I give you the best part of an article on Wilde by Joyce Cary, author of The Horse’s Mouth and creator of the incorrigible, penniless and visionary painter Gulley Jimson, with whom Wilde fiercely identified.

nimbusThis appeared in Vol 3 No 2 (1956) of Nimbus, the literary review created by Tristram Hull, and edited at the time by him and David Wright. I’ve omitted the more general passages where Cary expands on the issue of artistic originality and so forth, which, to be honest, are pretty skippable. This piece is not excerpted in the 1988 October Gallery monograph on Wilde, and I don’t see it online, so here we are. Included here are the four illustrations: a fine photo of Wilde by Gilbert Cousland, and three black and whites of Wilde paintings, one then owned by Cary.

Here, Cary’s startling characterisation is of an artist as a complete original, beyond tradition, outside all context, and so an apparition, a revenant, a dweller in another world. One wonders how Wilde felt, reading about himself as a rattling spectre … But it’s a fine piece of writing, about a great and neglected painter. The Art UK site now shows just five paintings by Wilde in public collections, two owned by Oxford colleges. It’s better than none.

(Throughout the original, oddly, Gulley is spelt as “Gully,” which I’ve corrected. A note on personalities mentioned – the Davins: Dan and Win Davin. Dan Davin, author, then working for Oxford UP. Winnie Davin was Cary’s close friend and literary executor. Ronnie Syme: Ronald Syme, classicist and historian, then at Brasenose, Oxford. Father Gervase Matthews: Gervase Mathew[sic], Dominican theologian, Oxford lecturer.)

 

JOYCE CARY

GERALD WILDE

The first time I met Gerald Wilde was, I think, about 1949, in Oxford, at the Davins’. It was late in the evening. There was a crowd of people in the room, Ronnie Syme, the historian, was one, and I think Louis MacNeice was another, certainly I know I was sitting by the fire conversing on some historical matter with Father Gervase Matthews, when I heard a queer noise and saw in the middle of the room, a figure strange even in that gathering place of poets and professors, of dreamers in all dimensions.

Gerald Wilde

Gerald Wilde

At first glance, in the dim light, Wilde seemed like a spectre. His long, dead-white face with its hollow cheeks was like a mask of bleached skin on a skull, his arms seemed but bones, hanging loosely in the sleeves of an enormous coat whose crumpled folds gave no room for flesh. The arms, too, were extremely long, so that the bony hands almost touched the floor. It was as if this skeleton had but half risen from the grave.

All this figure was in violent and continuous agitation, and with a movement that seemed by itself preternatural. It was this shivering, shaking which, more than anything, gave, at the moment, the sense of visitation from another world. Ghosts in fiction are still dignified appearances, they either stand still like Hamlet’s father, or they glide; only Giselle is allowed feet, but as she flies, she trails them like a bird. The spirits of books and plays are imagined to exist in white robes whose folds must not be disarranged even by the most tragic emotion. They are like the aesthetic ladies of the eighties who had no waists and who were not permitted even to die except in a liberty pose.

'Head' 1952, oils

‘Head’ 1952, oil

But how much more fearfully ghostly was this apparition that shook in every joint, whose enormous pale eyes were full of an excitement equally extravagant – whose very words sounded like the language of a world where meanings defeated any common syntax.

Startled, I began to get up. I could not make out what was happening, or if Wilde was speaking to me, only that he was staring at me and his stare was urgent. But at the same moment, he flung out his arms and plunged forward, knocking over a table of glasses and bottles with a crash which seemed to astonish and bewilder him. He stood gazing at the floor.

Win Davin then jumped up, touched his arm, and he went out with her. She came back in a moment, laughing, and said that Wilde had gone to bed. The broken glass was swept up, the carpet mopped, and the party went on as if nothing had happened; that is to say, in a general murmur of conversation which had no more reference to Wilde’s event than the rustle of garden leaves to a firework.

I had been ready to think the man drunk, but afterwards, when I was going away, Win Davin assured me that he was stone sober. The stare, the trembling, the strange sounds which resembled speech to the ear but not to the mind, were due simply to the shock of the unexpected, and a clash of ideas all insisting on immediate expression.

'Rocky Landscape' 1949, oil

‘Rocky Landscape’ 1949, oil

Wilde was a painter who thought of himself as a Gulley Jimson in the world, and seeing me unexpectedly, he wanted to explain, all at once, his feelings about the book, about Gulley, about the relations of artist and public.

Since then, he has talked to me on all these matters, with the detached tentative air rather of polite conversation than obsession. He has, by nature, gentle manners, a soft voice, he is eager to agree with you – he has no idea of cutting a dash with startling opinions; he says what he believes, and what is true, and what is true is always a platitude.

We would agree quietly that a really original artist is never popular; that he always has had, and will have, a long fight for recognition; he is lucky to get it in his lifetime.

It is true that Wilde’s position resembles that of Gulley Jimson. In the trilogy, Wilshire is the conservative broken by the creative revolution; Gulley is the original creator defeated by conservatism. Gulley was an original artist and that means that he had no school, that he was alone.

'Figures in Arches' 1930-49, gouache

‘Figures in Arches’ 1930-49, gouache

I do not mean by an original artist one who turns out variations of Picasso, Mondrian, Klee, Kandinsky, thirty or forty years after the prototypes. Imitators get plenty of appreciation. Critics are used to them and are not afraid to analyse and compare their works.

It is the painter who does not imitate, who is a true creator, who will have a long fight for recognition …   [ … ]

I have often thought how true to the fact was that first apparition to me of Gerald Wilde, in the Davins’ sitting-room; he seemed like a revenant from another world of spirits, and so he was. He came to us out of a dream that he could not even describe, or explain – he could only paint it. For such a world, that realm where the original visual artist lives as naturally as we in our familiar conventions, is so alien to that of the judgement, of the critical reason, that judgement and reason themselves are barriers about it. A painter like Wilde is born to his own visionary dimension, and it is one necessarily so alien to his contemporaries, that it is equally hard for them to conceive it, or for him to describe it. [ … ]

I have lived now for some years with Wilde pictures, and I can vouch for the force of the novelty. And their impact is that of an original, a great art.

By an original art I mean one that adds to my visual imagination, a new dimension; by a great art, one that moves greatly and profoundly. [ … ]

You cannot classify Wilde’s art. It is not representative; and neither is it abstract. It conveys the most powerful impressions by means of form and colour of which the relation is not so much to an actual world of objects as to the real world of fundamental and universal experience.

I cannot explain what I feel before the grand and strange complex of Wilde’s Rocky Landscape, of his Green Seascape, of the landscape that he has never named, that I call the Woman on the Shore, or his Creature. But for me they belong emphatically to the category of great art. And they are profoundly original.

Dunstan Thompson’s wavering football

Is it just me, or is there an issue with the declining quality of recent academic writing? (I don’t say “research,” as that implies a sense of direction and originality that might preclude some of it.)

img_0001I’ve been reading D A Powell and Kevin Prufer’s editing of essays and other bits on Dunstan Thompson, an uncommonly interesting American poet who came over here as a GI in the ‘forties and stayed. (Unsung Masters series, Pleiades Press, Missouri, 2010.) Tramping through “Battles in the Boudoir: Thompson’s Intimate Metaphors of War,” by Heather Treseler (Presidential Fellow at Notre Dame, Postdoctoral Fellow at Cambridge, Mass), I came across this, regarding Thompson’s magnificently titled “In All the Argosy of Your Bright Hair” of 1947:

“The poem begins as a graveside elegy … The first lines are full of funereal keening:

Whom I lay down for dead rises up in blood,
Drawn over water after me. His wavering
Football echoes from the ocean floor. Blow,
Ye winds, a roundabout. These bully sailors flood
My eyes with tears, treacheries.

The poet stumbles slightly here in his mixture of maritime and homely images; a ‘football’ sent up from the ocean floor seems, at best, a rather odd gift from Neptune and one strangely placed among watery ‘tears’ and ‘treacheries.’ But by the second stanza, Thompson’s ‘argosy’ has been righted in its waters.”

Quite apart from the clear fact that the opening lines, while they mention death, are no sort of elegy and involve zero “keening,” what the dickens is this about a “wavering football”? Ms Treseler has been watching too much college sport from her window. It’s “footfall.” With an eff. And it’s clearly printed as such in the “folio of poems” included in the very same volume, as well as in the original edition. The mannered aesthete Thompson may have fancied footballers, but he would have run a mile from the object itself. In these lines, the “dead” lover returns revived to stalk the unwilling poet. (And to bed him too, as what was lain down now rises again in blood. Thompson was partial to a bit of double entendre.) There’s absolutely no need for the poet to “right” the wobbling argosy, which was never in danger of capsizing; it’s the critic who’s capsized here. And while on the “right the argosy” comment, don’t you rather weary of that sort of waggish conceptual punning that academics resort to when they run short of real perceptions?

Two pages on, Treseler tackles Thompson’s “Lament for the Sleepwalker,” telling us that it –

“… features the speaker’s heart as a predatory cat, prowling the outdoors for the figurative carrion of an erotic connection. The poem begins in dramatic apostrophe:

The lion is like him and the elusive leopard:
Nine lived, he ranges – killer cat – my heart.”

Sorry, but what apostrophe? Thompson does not address his own heart here. Treseler has mistaken the dashes for commas and read this as if it were:

“Nine lived, he ranges, killer cat, my heart.”

Which could identify “he” with “cat” with “heart.” But it ain’t so. The heart is not subject, but object. He, the other, the lion-lover, the killer cat, ranges my heart. It’s a simple enough inversion, but the misreading knocks out Treseler’s whole understanding of the poem.

In the same poem, perhaps enchanted by Thompson’s adopted Englishness, she takes the “green courts” where the predatory lion-lover “eats green meat from the green dead” as “worthy of the Windsor palace.” Windsor? Where did that come from? And this despite the green moss, green jungle and bamboo of the previous two lines. I’m afraid it’s simply not that sort of court. Just an open space. I’m only surprised that we don’t have a tennis ball bouncing in to maintain the sporting metaphors.

But you get the point. Let’s give it up and hasten on a few pages to “I Can Only Promise Poems: Finding Dunstan Thompson” by Katie Ford (Professor at Franklin and Marshall College). This proceeds to take a look at some of Thompson’s later, overtly Christian poems:

“Probably the most heavily liturgical of the poems is ‘San Salvador,’ which has perhaps only one moment that breaks from Christian formulas of belief:

… Dear Host, sole owner of the house He built,
Who, coming unexpected to the door,
Knocks, and, if answered, breaks the chain of guilt,
And lets the soul go free to live once more;
Shepherd, who seeks His torn and filthy sheep,
Rejoicing when the longest lost is found;
Father, who sees the broken wastrel creep
Towards home, and, running, lifts him from the ground …

It’s the little ‘broken wastrel’ that feels new to me, although it participates in the parable of the lost sheep.”

img_0002No, no. It doesn’t. Quite apart from Ford’s persistently sloppy use in this essay of the term “liturgical,” confusing formulas of language with formulas of belief, the “broken wastrel” is not “little” and it’s NOT A BLOODY SHEEP. (Excuse my shouting, but …) Thompson announces the shift from one saying or parable of Jesus to another with a series of divine titles: Host, Shepherd, Father. “Father” flags up the jump from the lost sheep to the Prodigal Son, and it’s this son, of course, who is the broken wastrel who creeps towards home, to be met by his father running to meet him. Not a little sheep. No way then is this image a “new” or “one moment” departure from an orthodox narrative or register – quite the reverse.

Katie Ford also is fond of conceptual puns, rambling them out in sequence to take us, imaginatively, to nowhere and back. Bizarrely, her opening thoughts in this essay conjure up the “cathedral” of the ocean depths, from which the earliest living creatures emerge onto dry land to escape the dangers of the deep: “Imagine crawling out of the ocean,” she invites the reader. Er, no thanks. This then drifts  to social Darwinism, to the ascent of Christianity under Roman rule (the “cathedral” again, cleverly), to the ascents and descents of canons of literature, and thence, finally, to the critical neglect of Thompson’s poetry; “There’s a fight for life,” she tells us, “going on in every discipline, system, business and art.”

Uhuh. Maybe so. Cranking out more “research” is the surest way to survive, I’ve no doubt. But you do wonder just how red in tooth and claw some universities can be if these two essays represent winning quality. Yes, there is some better stuff in this book and no, I’m not just picking on these two contributors because they happen to be women, and yes, I know, it’s only one book, and yes, we all make mistakes, and yes, I am being curmudgeonly about relatively minor points, and agreed, there are more important things in the world to get worked up about, and yes, I’ve nearly finished ranting now. But it would be reassuring for the future of English studies if those who earn their modest crust by analysing poems on our behalf could learn to read and understand them before they arrive at the point of publication.

Thompson may turn up in a proper post on this site some day. Meanwhile, he’s easily Google-able. Here’s a good place to start.