Two extracts about English attitudes to artby Ian Irvine / January 27, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
1st July 1792. The Hon John Byng visits Tong Castle, Shropshire, and records it in his diary:
“This place, purchased by Mr Durant, has been rebuilt in a most overgrown taste and would require a very large fortune to keep up. How people can build these pompous edifices without a sufficiency of surrounding estate is wonderful. And yet how commonly it is done. It is a grand and beautiful place. Attended by the housekeeper I surveyed the house; the staircase is very fine, the rooms well-sized and well furnished, the bedchambers excellent, there is on the first floor a vast music room; but no library? Your hasty wealth thinks not of that. Every part of this magnificent house is covered by pictures—from Christie’s and other auctions, of dying saints, naked Venuses and drunken bacchanals.
“Now why all this offensive show, disgusting to every English eye that has not been hardened in Italy? Surely the intention of paintings was to cheer the mind and restore your pleasures, to survey your ancestry with conscious esteem, to view the beauties of nature, to restore the memory of famous horses and of faithful dogs, but why produce savage and indecent exhibitions before your children’s eyes? Why is Ovid’s Metamorphosis to be produced in full display? Why are the glorious feats of Jupiter to be held before our eyes, and why are we to be encouraged by Satyrs to peep at naked, sleeping beauty?”
June 1930. James Lees-Milne, then an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, records in his autobiography, “Another Self,” a drunken dinner party at Rousham, a Jacobean house with a park landscaped by William Kent:
“Our host seemed to me an old man. I suppose he was in his early thirties. He became noisy and rowdy. On leaving the dining room he got hold of a hunting crop, and cracked it against the portraits. With the thong he flaked off chunks of paint. When satisfied with working off some of the effects of his brandy on the Knellers and Reynoldses, he fetched a riddle from the gunroom. He went to the terrace and proceeded to fire at the private parts of the statues. I do not think that by then his aim can have been very accurate. For all I remember he missed, and I sincerely hope that the manhood of Apollo, Pan and the Dying Gladiator remains unscathed to this day. To my lasting shame I never raised a finger in protest against this hideous iconoclasm…
“The experience was a turning point in my life. It brought home to me how passionately I cared for architecture and the continuity of history, of which it was the mouthpiece. These Rococo rooms at Rousham, with their delicate furniture, and portraits of bewigged, beribboned ancestors, were living, palpable children to me. They and the man-fashioned landscape outside were the England that mattered. I suddenly saw them as infinitely fragile and precious. That evening I made a vow that I would devote my energies and abilities, such as they were, to preserving the country houses of England.”