Richard Warren

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‘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.

The inescapable re-entrant: Drummond Allison’s Cynthia sequence

da smallA post in January bigged up the excellent and unaccountably underrated poetry of Drummond Allison, killed in action in late 1943 at the age of 22. Now we have sight at last of Allison’s mysterious inamorata and muse Cynthia Clarke, thanks to a wonderful wartime photo (below), kindly sent by Cynthia’s daughter Charlotte Mackie.

John Heath-Stubbs recalled that Allison was “very interested in girls”. A good many of his poems are addressed to them, named or not. But his poems to Cynthia run from his time at Oxford, through his spell in London (where he rubbed shoulders with Nina Hamnett, Tambimuttu and Dylan Thomas) to his time at Sandhurst. There are seven identified Cynthia poems in all; Allison was certainly smitten!

At the time, I failed to spot “Yorktown Gate Guard (to Cynthia)”, and missed Michael Sharp’s end note in the 1978 Poems, which reveals that this was part of a sequence called “Five poems for Cynthia Clarke”; the others were “Rejection Song”, “December 1941”, “May 1942” and “October 1942”. (Thank you to Stephen Benson, editor of the Collected, for the nudge.) Three of these I have quoted elsewhere, but it seems simplest here to set out below the full sequence of five plus two in what appears to be their chronological order, from November 1941 to October 1942. Anyway, you can’t have too much Allison.

The sequence speaks for itself, and it would be intrusive to comment much here. The end of “Yorktown” is interesting: did young girls habitually hitch-hike solo in 1942? As often with Allison, there are mildly knotty moments due to inversions and coinings – “perspection”; “by slope or slipe”; “aestability” (a summery quality). But “May 1942” is a little masterpiece, from the metaphysical conceit of the first stanza to “the gardener with a gorgeous trowel” and the uncontrollable yo-yo of the second. These seven poems are hymns to, and chronicles of, love – the inescapable re-entrant.

Cynthis Clarke, as Drummond Allison knew her. Copyright Charlotte Mackie.

Cynthia Clarke, as Drummond Allison knew her. Copyright Charlotte Mackie.


Walton Street Sonnet (for Cynthia Clarke)

Dimmed headlights, chinks in curtains, lowered torches
Like notes on Walton Street’s obscurity;
The tower that talks at us, the stone-stepped porches,
Wet curbs and scuffled gratings, energy
Of chimney-outlines now hold new solutions
For every problem this November sets.

But when, if fear has broken off relations,
Headlines diminish and they settle sites
For reconstruction; or if still refuses
Oxford in European death to pry;
Eyes of you singers some pale night peruses
Straggling from sherry parties up the High,
Through building-shadows down Cornmarket thrusting:
May book and recollection need no dusting.


Rejection Song (November 1941)

Now from closing car park and last bus stop start
Vehicles whose muffled passengers and drivers
Have worked out true bearings on their loved and lovers,
But explain no variation of my heart.

Now admitting it my error to have thought
You the right reply to each unsure red setter,
To the query in each clockface in each clutter
Of bewildered boulders, every doubtful fort;

Every question mark that forms on spark-scorched grass,
Puzzled stares of Greenline coach and double decker,
Unconvinced old slot machines, the startled knocker
And the flabbergasted spareroom looking-glass;

Now aware not only unity and shared
Hunts for reasons and for purposes, but looking
More than most, but kissing tired and watching waking,
Are like birds that tantalise their leader snared;

Yet before the unlit fire I know my need
Of your thighs your throat your abdomen their movements,
Yet beside the dry-voiced bookcase on pale pavements
I repeat the quite incredible my creed.


For Cynthia

Close any pamphlet whose insistence catches
Your heart without its sentries and evokes
Nothing but mercy looting all love’s riches,
Talking but never using. Nor attempt
Hills the despondent labourer forsakes
Immune from all our zeal. But by trite birches
And chairs your seemly customs keep, from truth exempt.

Crossed in our opulent ambition
Yet fierce from each rejection
Neither will dare complete attrition
Till liking leaves the eyes.
Hold back your heart from neat dissection
Inured to boldest lies,
Allow me no perspection.


December 1941

They pummel in the playground and lift pneumatic drills,
They slack on scaffoldings and cycle from motor works,
Their image lopes behind me, sticks in my books its bills,
with empty plate and mug outside the dining room lurks.

But in the fog elusive, skipping the vital pages,
Hurrying in to meals, I mention special need:
‘Love of the long down-trodden, advance with crucial ages
Must wait, for I am thwarted too, have greed like their greed.’

Given the shortened hours and the bathroom cleaned of coal,
Clinics and cooking-lessons, access to forests, when
Some can afford more beauty, others a change of soul;
Will sorrow be more joyful, ends be less final then?

Or given strength, my dear, to ascend your quieter mountain
Of mind, and luck to stumble under misleading snow
Upon your heart, and time to fritter round the fountain
Flung on complete lovers, where would there be to go?


May 1942

This was my dread, that I should find
A heart embedded in the mind,
A dream connected by the body.
Now I am liberated from
Yourself and anguish and can frame
A non-coercive constitution.

This was not love, but less and more,
Like an unreckonable score
Or some such maladjusted image:
The gardener with the gorgeous trowel,
The yo-yo that we can’t control,
The inescapable re-entrant.


Yorktown Gate Guard (to Cynthia)

Though in this monstrous moon’s daguerreotype
No shadow shows you sneak by slope or slipe
Or grope behind my back your way through grass,
I’ll never quit my post: you shall not pass.

Not yet the great gate shivers on its hinge
And on the road of pain not yet impinge
Your footfalls; but don’t fear, I’ll not be caught
Napping again who once was in report.

Your aestability surrounds me still;
June had your stealth to undermine my will,
July sent out your agents; but, my dear,
I watched each ditch and understood their leer.

Another August, far too shy to shout,
I flushed and stood aside and let you out;
But now, my bearskin doffed and buttons dull,
A point shall threaten your quiet skin and skull.

Henceforth your last year’s permit won’t avail
And I’ll suspect there’s gas in every gale:
The bombed old buildings of my heart still hide
A Certain Thing whose worth we can’t confide.

So you’d best gather up your floral gown
For good and cadge a lift to London Town
Whither with its impatience and its power
These lonely lorries lumber every hour.


October 1942

O would the leisurely rain that loves the asphalt
And handles the still-drilling squads
Could fall clean on affection and from reflection
Efface at least those winks as bad as nods.

For I resemble ever the schoolgirl in the gallery
Who takes the shape from all she sees;
My heart and mind are colourblind and astigmatic,
The gods I own too hard to please.

Though derived from our friends’ (the fervent and impervious to comment,
Those who encircle Death with words
And love and the saints and dexterity and two historians),
My views move much too like the bison-herds.

Only the flesh must flash its faultless messages –
Yours is the only cause appealing
For which is justified, lust-for-you the only tradesman
With whom, oh darling darling, I am dealing.