Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Augustus John

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 scandalous portrait of footman Smith

My recent visit to the pompous cold and gloom of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk was relieved only by (a) a chat with an elderly gentleman guide who recalled being introduced by Richard Burton to Francis Bacon at the Colony Room during a student drinking binge, and (b) the acquisition for a song at the National Trust second hand bookshop of Michael Holroyd’s 1975 biography of Augustus John.

It’s become the norm to compare the boho-machismo of Augustus unfavourably with the demure painterliness of his long eclipsed sister Gwen. And certainly his work is problematic, veering uncomfortably between genius and the risible. Many of the commissioned portraits come in, rightly, for their share of stick, but one of the earliest, to my mind, is a clear piece of evidence (among many others) for John’s greatness: it is his 1909 civic monster, Portrait of His Honour H C Dowdall KC as Lord Mayor of Liverpool. Though in his biography Holroyd too often employs literary twiddles to disguise a lack of hard fact, he does a good job of chronicling the troubled history of this painting.

Lord Mayor
The commission by Liverpool city council brought the relatively unknown John a hundred guineas. The subject and recipient of the portrait, the retiring Lord Mayor, Harold Chaloner Dowdall, was a friend of John’s (despite being a Conservative), and made the choice of artist himself. John insisted on the largest available canvas, and started with the two vertical edges of the triangular composition, the wand and sword. For a fortnight John worked “like a steam engine,” and in a moment of inspiration inserted the Mayor’s footman, a Mr Smith, to whom the massive sword was now allotted. (Smith’s surname alone is ever used in the account, oddly.)

As completion became increasingly problematic John found himself anxious to escape the claustrophobic ambience of officialdom: “I had but one desire: to submerge myself in crude unceremonious life.” But his nocturnal excursions to this end were deterred by Dowdall, who had been advised by the police that such outings might “prejudice in some way the dignity of his Office.” After a spell of recuperation among Welsh gypsies, John returned abruptly to finish the portrait in a single day.

The result, a masterpiece of satirical painting, caused predictable outrage when unveiled at the Walker Art Gallery, the critic of the Liverpool Daily Post suggesting that footman Smith had grounds for legal action. The Liverpool Courier found it to be a “topical allegory” with “symbolic value,” the figure of Smith personifying the abasement of the Labour movement before the Liberal government. A false rumour arose that Dowdall had hired a gang of burglars to get rid of it, only to find that they had ineptly stolen the frame and left the painting. The Walker was packed with locals keen to gawp at “the Smith portrait”.

In fact, Dowdall consistently defended the work, though he barely had house room for the seven foot canvas. In 1918 he sold it to a private collector, E P Warren (no relation of mine, as far as I know), for £1,450 and bought a house and three acres of land in Oxfordshire with the proceeds. In 1938 Warren sold it to the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, where it remains, one of twenty Johns owned there. The new price was £2,400.

John Rothenstein’s 1945 study Augustus John has the painting as a black and white plate only. The Victoria’s own online colour image is oddly dark and flat, so I’ve tweaked it a bit to copy here. You have to admire the rhythms of the numerous diagonals, the lower right to upper left movement of Smith’s white stockinged legs signalling the parallel line of sight between his upturned eyes and the Lord Mayor, the object of his apparent veneration. Without Smith, the portrait would have been competently dull, and John’s gratuitously vast canvas would have been space needing to be filled; with him, the image is taut and dynamic. It remains, as the Liverpool Courier sensed, a devastating image of the oppressive class system that the painter loathed.

John’s autobiography Chiaroscuro was partly ghost-written, it seems, by none other than the ubiquitous John Davenport – see my previous post. (Though Davenport cannot be blamed for the dreadful title.) In it, John opts not to mention Dowdall, but he recalls meeting many others, from Kropotkin – “His bearded countenance radiated benignity, faith and courage” – to Aleister Crowley – “He held me by his glittering eye as any bore is apt to do” – to Charlie Chaplin – “While he was speaking on social conditions in a strain which seemed to me familiar and sympathetic, I was impelled to slap him on the back, saying, ‘Charlie, why, you’re nothing but a dear old anarchist!’ Recovering, he replied, ‘Yes, that’s about it.’”

And that – a dear old anarchist – was about it for Augustus too, bless him.