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Andrew Graham-Dixon on His Favourite Art Books

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane
by Andrew Graham-Dixon

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Art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon takes us through his favourite art books, one of which is the best thing he has ever read about art. He contends that Monet is a follower of Turner, reflects on how the purpose of history of art has changed, and introduces us to the diaries of an "astonishingly bad" painter which reveal him to be one of the nineteenth century's greatest prose writers.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon

Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane
by Andrew Graham-Dixon

Read

Let’s start with Turner: Imagination and Reality by Lawrence Gowing. This is a catalogue for a very important exhibition in 1966 held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Can you give a sense of what was revolutionary in the way Gowing saw J M W Turner’s work?

Gowing was a painter who also wrote, but I think his best work is his writing. He was very encouraging to me when I was starting out, while he was reaching the end of his career and, indeed, the end of his life. This catalogue was published on the occasion of the first ever exhibition of a long-dead painter at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s only about thirty pages, but it is utterly brilliant.

What was revolutionary about it was the way in which Gowing recognised what Turner had given to modern painting, which had been inherited in America primarily via Claude Monet who, in my opinion, although immensely gifted, is essentially a follower of Turner. The water lily paintings are huge versions and therefore even more radical in their appearance and experience than perhaps Turner’s watercolours, but they are huge versions of Turner’s own pictures. It was through their agency that New York art acquired a lot of its vocabulary for painting. With someone like Rothko or Jackson Pollock, it is very hard to imagine how they could have painted without the earlier model of someone such as Monet, and therefore, without the tradition actually initiated by Turner. But while one can say Gowing’s book is revolutionary, I think its message has still not been properly absorbed or understood.

“Claude Monet, in my opinion, although immensely gifted, is essentially a follower of Turner.”

The sixties were a time when art historians including Robert Rosenblum (whose work I could have chosen) were themselves trying to understand the origin of modern painting. I think Lawrence knew all about that. He put on this exhibition to give to the New York audience—but, above all, to the New York painters of the time, although it was a little bit later than their heyday—the concrete evidence of what Turner had done. It included lots of things that had previously been considered unfinished and which still are listed and exhibited by the Tate as not necessarily being finished works. Many are barely ever exhibited. There’s a place in the book where Lawrence asks: Would Turner have left nineteen thousand works of art to the nation—when ninety-nine percent of them are ‘unfinished’—if he hadn’t thought them worthy of attention?

The essence of his argument as I recall it is this. Painters before Turner treated light in different revolutionary ways. For example, Caravaggio had painted light and shade—chiaroscuro—in a way that no one previously had quite done, and created this almost cinematic form of lighting for art that gave an immense quality of drama that then captured the attention of painters such as Rembrandt and all of Spanish art. Vermeer took the perception of light that you get when you look into a camera obscura. In a sense, he understood what photographs teach us about light before photography was even invented: they show us that there is no such thing as a line in art; that everything is a tone. No matter how finely defined the line, in reality, it’s still only ever made of different particles of light and shade for the eye.

No one before Turner had the thought of reversing the fundamental epistemology of vision that is implicit in all previous representational art. This is, namely, the notion that objects are the things that are real in the world and in our experience, and light is that which makes us able to apprehend objects. Light helps us to see what is true, what is real, what is lasting, what is fixed—and however you paint it, that’s the deal.

Turner, as Lawrence argues so compellingly, realises at some point around 1828 that it might be the other way around. In other words, it might be that things are not real and the only thing that is real is light. What is eternal and enduring and bouncing, refracting, moving, and curving around is energy that is light, and everything else is completely coincidental and of no real significance. That’s why Turner likes painting places like Venice. Venice is a city, but it’s a city falling down—what you see is the light.

In everything that Turner does through a certain period, that is the essential proposition. And no one saw this in the nineteenth century, no one really saw it in the twentieth century, and no one properly, perhaps, even sees it now. I don’t know how many people read Lawrence Gowing on Turner and I don’t know how many people even think about Turner. But that’s his argument. The argument I would build is that Turner doesn’t just predict in painting the art of the Abstract Expressionists, but lays the intellectual groundwork for the work of Einstein and post-Euclidean physics.

In their own day, reception of the Abstract Expressionists was hugely divided and caused an enormous amount of fuss in art circles. If we’re saying that Turner prefigures such artists, what was the contemporary reaction to his own work with this move away from representation?

No one really understood it whatsoever. The only person who understood what on earth Turner was doing was Monet, and then he passed it on to the Impressionists. There’s a famous letter written by Monet and the other Impressionists after Turner’s death that said:

A group of French painters united by the same aesthetic tendencies . . . applying themselves with passion to the rendering of the reality of forms in movement, as well as to the fugitive phenomena of light, cannot forget that it has been preceded in this path by a great master of the English school, the illustrious Turner.

Monet spent the rest of his life pretending that he had never written that letter because he didn’t want people to know how indebted he was. But the great shimmering schemes of light that are Monet’s late water lily paintings are clearly built, absolutely and entirely, from the materials furnished to him by Turner.

It’s very significant that Monet visited London in 1872 during the Paris Commune and came to see Turner’s work in the National Gallery. As part of his bequest, Turner insisted that two of his great seaport paintings be exhibited right next to two of Claude’s seaport paintings—Claude being a seventeenth century French painter who Turner greatly admired. It’s very interesting that when Monet paints the very first Impressionist picture—Impression, Sunrise—it’s a seaport painting. It is a Turner seaport but in a modern setting. It hasn’t got the classical trimmings; it doesn’t look like a Claude any more, but it bears the mark of that exposure of the origin of Monet’s idea to Turner.

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But English people didn’t have a clue what Turner was doing. They thought painting was about representing a horse or a dog, or that it was some way of communicating what you thought about a passage in Homer. The idea that a painting could be a radical force for changing the way that you see and think about reality—that painting could be that deeply philosophical—was utterly alien to the British who, in any case, hated anything resembling metaphysical philosophy in the first place. The idea that a painter could be philosophical was totally out of their framework of thinking. It was even out of the framework of the thinking of someone like Ruskin. He didn’t understand that aspect of Turner at all. Ruskin thought Turner was great because of his colours.

Do we have theoretical works by Turner—writings, reflections, or meditations—about this philosophical thrust to his art?

No, not at all. He was highly inarticulate. Other than perhaps “the sun is God” which we’re not sure he even said. He might have said “I’ll have some cod”, or something like that, but it’s gone down as “the sun is God”. It was garbled out of the side of his mouth when he was nearly dead, so no one really knows what he said. But Lawrence puts this book together really beautifully. It’s the best thing ever written that I’ve ever read about art. Apart—of course—from my own work. [Laughs]. It’s absolutely fantastic. It is exemplary.

Your next choice is The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers by T J Clark.

This is an extremely fascinating account of nineteenth-century French art in the age of Baudelaire, Manet, and moving forward into the Impressionists. I came across this fairly early on after I switched from studying English literature as an undergraduate to being a postgraduate studying history of art. When I studied literature, there were many brilliant books I read about why Byron wrote what he did, or why Shakespeare’s work is good and how it related to the time, what the historical or social dimensions behind the work were, and so on. But in history of art, there was absolutely nothing like that. It was all just description.

This goes back to the origins of art history as a discipline. Its function was not to understand art, but fundamentally to establish whether ‘m’lord’s Canaletto’ was really a Canaletto. That’s what art historians were: they were people whose job was to make certain that this or that rich person’s picture was indeed what it said it was. It bore that kind of stigma.

Of course, there were exceptions to that in the writing before T J Clark, but these are very few. Lawrence Gowing was writing before that and he’s absolutely brilliant on art, but it was very very hard to find a book that connected art with society in the way that Clark connected the art of the nineteenth century to the society in which it was produced. I found this book really exciting, interesting, and very thrilling.

He would write about Manet’s Olympia, but he would begin by writing about perceptions of the prostitute in nineteenth-century Paris. How were prostitutes seen? Where did they work? What kind of people were they? What age were they? How were they treated? How were they represented in literature? And what is Manet doing that’s different?

Likewise, with A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Clark writes very illuminating passages about the buying and selling of alcohol in order to captivate people and bring them to these new environments and this new place called a city, that people hadn’t lived in before. Alcohol becomes capitalistic bait in a very strange world which is so familiar to us now that we almost don’t realise we live in it. I think Clark drew those lines of connection between society and art with a strong left-wing bias—and there’s nothing wrong with that. I just thought it was very captivating and interesting.

Do you agree with his central thesis about how the Impressionists are relating to this emerging modernity?

Yes. There’s a sort of lazy attitude to Impressionism which has it as, in a way, the ‘art of the picnic’. This is the idea that it’s all about drinking a little bit too much wine when you’re on an outing in the countryside and then painting everything a bit blurry. For me, and probably T J Clark as well, Impressionism as a form of painting is brought into being by the city.

“If you situate Impressionism as an art of relaxation or bourgeois comfortable life, you’re making a fairly profound mistake.”

There may be some painters like Monet whose response to the city is to escape it and to paint nature or to try and find a reality that’s more real than the temporary realities on the city which confront you on every side. But there are the other painters like Manet or Degas whose work is the exact opposite. It’s all about modernity, it’s about speed, it’s about what life is like now that we have trains. It’s about what life is like now that we have bars on every corner. It’s about what life is like when ninety-nine percent of the people who you meet or pass, you don’t know any more, whereas in the past you knew who everyone was. You knew who everybody was and you knew what they did. Now suddenly you don’t. So, it’s this new bewildering world that is also the world alluded to in many of Baudelaire’s poems in Fleur de Mal. It’s the world that’s passed on in literature to T S Eliot’s “The Waste Land” which in itself, one could say, is a piece of Impressionist poetry.

I think the traditions in which you situate works of art and schools of art are very important. If you situate Impressionism as an art of the picnic, an art of leisure, an art of relaxation or bourgeois comfortable life, you’re making a fairly profound mistake. You’re failing to understand how it helps to shape and shift people’s sensibilities of the nineteenth century, moving towards the fin de siècle, the First World War, and thereafter. Impressionism and post-Impressionism truly changed everything.

You mentioned a slight left-wing bias. Clark almost gives a moral evaluation of the painters; for instance, he points out that the Impressionists rarely paint lower-class neighbourhoods or industrial workers up close. He detects a resistance to them seeing the more oppressive sides of modernity.

It’s not entirely true. If you think of pictures like Degas’ L’Absinthe and all those little girls doing ballet, they’re from lower class backgrounds. I think he called them his “little monkey girls”. It’s probably true that as far as Clark is concerned, no one went as far as they could. I see him as a Marxist who is basically bemoaning the fact that that school of painting didn’t throw up an equivalent to Karl Marx.

You have to look, perhaps, to the social realists of the French tradition for that. It’s a rather different tradition of painters. There were painters in France that did paint these things, but they didn’t tend to do it in the Impressionist style. I’m thinking of those that follow Courbet. There’s Millet as well, and you might say they go on to breed people like Gauguin, painting the peasants of Pont-Avon and, indeed, van Gogh painting those pictures of relatively poor people.

The last thing I’ll say about Clark is that as well as being a refreshing antidote to this rather dilettante form of attributional art history, he wrote with a burning sense of the idea that art matters and that how we see the world matters. This is part of the legacy of his Marxist background, but it’s also true.

Third on your list is Literary Landscape: Turner and Constable by Ronald Paulson. Can you tell me about this one and why you have chosen it?

This is a micro-study of how one might interpret the paintings of Turner and Constable and what they’re really trying to do. It’s one of the very few works I’ve ever read about Turner or Constable that addresses the real issues of their work.

I suppose I’ve chosen two books about Turner, but Paulson agrees with Lawrence Gowing; i.e., he fundamentally understands that there are these huge problems being addressed by Turner and that his importance as a philosophical thinking artist hasn’t been recognised. He’s seen as a painter of views or a wonderful landscapist, but he’s not seen as someone wrestling with the nature of reality.

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One of the problems that exists in Turner’s work is the fact that so much of it is not very good. What I mean by that is that Turner has such a strong and personal vision that it’s a terrible struggle for him to squeeze it into the genres of painting that were accepted at the time, such as landscape painting or history painting—his versions of those accepted genres often look deeply strange or botched, because what he’s really driving towards is a new form of art where genre is irrelevant and the nature of what the painter himself receives is everything. There’s no one to encourage him to do it, and no one will understand him if he does do it. Ronald Paulson writes very brilliantly about the self-invented nature of his process—how he’s obliged to twist the existing conventions of painting in often weird ways.

“Turner is really driving towards a new form of art where genre is irrelevant and the nature of what the painter himself receives is everything.”

There’s a painting by Turner called Regulus, exhibited at the Royal Academy. It’s a history painting about a story from classical antiquity in which a Roman general is punished by the Carthaginians by being strapped to a pillar and having his eyelids cut off, so that the sun burns his eyes out. Turner paints this picture—a seething, mad maelstrom of figures. All that you really get from it is this weird miasmic blaring light. A lot of art historians have written in a very misguided way about where Regulus might be in the picture. I think it’s Paulson who points out that, of course, Regulus is you: the viewer. It is Turner saying, ‘I wish I could burn your eyes so deeply so that you can actually see what I’m doing, but as it is I have to ponce about with these history paintings which I have to paint in disguise and it’s just so frustrating’. It’s that sense of the way Turner expresses himself that’s very hard to get at, but Paulson does it very well.

He also gets very well at Constable who, for him, is an even more important painter than Turner. He sees them both as the most important painters of the nineteenth century, which arguably they are. Turner invents this new way of seeing what the universe is or might be, and Constable invents the language of Expressionism which is probably even more potent to someone like Jackson Pollock—whether he knew it or not—than the work of Turner. It’s the broken facture, the broken brushstrokes, and these profoundly astonishing pictures of utter emotional desolation after Constable’s wife dies, like Hadleigh Castle.

Paulson properly understands what Constable is trying to do. He’s trying to create an art that doesn’t have to have a subject, but that can still have the importance or the emotional vitality of a great altarpiece of the crucifixion. Constable does write about his intentions and his meanings to a much greater extent, although the writings which are his lectures on landscape, given at the Royal Academy late in his life, haven’t really been very well studied. But Paulson writes about them very well. It’s a really really interesting and tightly argued book. It gathers a tremendous amount of really interesting texts together in one book. And it’s not too long—it’s about 220 pages. It’s really terrific.

It’s quite heavily laden with theory, though, isn’t it? It incorporates a lot of Freudian and psychoanalytic idioms, talking about landscapes in terms of Freud’s idea of “cathexis” and things like that. Does this conceptual heavy-lifting bring much out of value?

I think it’s appropriate. Freud comes out of the culture of late Romanticism. It’s a culture that turns reality on its head in a very modern way. Suddenly, reality is not something that we experience; what we perceive is our experience of our own interiors. This massive turn from the objective towards the subjective results in some of the theories of Freud.

It’s fair enough that Paulson uses some of the theories of somebody who has been produced by the moment that he’s attempting to describe. As it were, he turns the spotlight backwards. And who’s to say that some of the structures of thought that Freud had weren’t in some obscure way created by the art of Romanticism? So, I think it’s fair game. But I find the book most illuminating in parts when he’s relating Constable’s own writing to his painting.

In the nineteenth century, you’ve got this growing pre-eminence of landscape taking over from historical portraiture. I suppose that Paulson is getting at that the idea that landscape is not just a change of setting or subject but is something that can be textured with subliminal meaning.

Yes. He’s struggling to account for the structures of Constable. He has a perception which is reinforced by some of Constable’s writing such as, for example, the really radical statement that “painting is another word for feeling”. This is a pretty amazing thing for someone to say in 1802, that painting equals feeling. Paulson is trying to find a way of talking about the structure of Constable’s painting that does justice to the notion of painting as an expression of one’s interior existence. What he’s doing is looking at these very prominent things in the foreground of Constable’s paintings—these rotting posts and slimy banks covered with weeds—and he remarks that painting seems almost to dramatise one’s desire to move from this dank, dark, slightly threatening forefront towards the sunlit meadow where there’s usually a church spire.

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I made a film about Constable where I argued that this is a structure of painting which mirrors a structure of thought caused perhaps by Constable’s astonishingly vexed courtship of his wife Maria. This took forever because he was a lowly painter; her family was very posh, and they didn’t want him anywhere near her. He was loitering about in the meadows half the time, painting her house from a distance. And there’s this structure of thinking: ‘I wish I wasn’t here but I was there‘. I think it holds true; it gets particularly more obvious as Constable gets older, where the paintings become ever more desperate, especially after her death.

In most people’s eyes, landscape painting was an objective art form and, in England especially, was very closely related to topography. Again, it’s a sort of aristocratic patronage that formed the genre. You would have an artist paint your estate. So, the idea is that if there’s a painting of a landscape, then it must be for that reason, or it must be because it’s picturesque, or it must be because Salisbury Cathedral is important and part of our history. The idea that you would paint a landscape in order to express inner turmoil is as great a shift as you might find in a violin concerto by Mozart compared to a late strings quartet by Beethoven. But I think it’s incontrovertible once you start thinking about it.

When I came across that book for the very first time, not many people were writing about art in a way that seemed really to be wrestling with what the art was, why it was so moving, and why it was so interesting. With Paulson’s book, I agree that there’s a bit of intellectual boilerplate to penetrate before you get to the heart of it, but I think it’s very well worth getting out the tin-opener.

Do you agree with his verdict that Constable is the more radical of the two?

No. Paulson’s remark just seems autobiographical. I think he responds more viscerally himself to Constable’s work and so he makes it more profound. He argues the case, but maybe he doesn’t quite go as far as Gowing in terms of seeing Turner’s originality. It may be that he doesn’t quite get Turner as well as he could, or he wouldn’t make that remark.

If you actually look at Turner’s paintings and you look at Constable’s paintings and you try to imagine what they would look like to someone who was only really used to seeing the other paintings that would have been on the walls at the Royal Academy at that time, or the painting that might have been exhibited in France (perhaps with the exception of Delacroix), some of Constable’s would be utterly bewildering but others like The Cornfield would fit in, and you would think yes, that’s a nice picture. But Turner’s pictures, especially the pictures that he never exhibited—the ones that Gowing writes about so well—would be completely unbelievable. And even with some of the exhibited pictures, such as Rain, Steam and Speed, it’s hard to imagine how anyone in the nineteenth century, let alone Thackeray, who really thought it was fantastic, could have even looked at that picture without wondering about Turner’s sanity. It is so far removed from anything of their experience of painting. In that sense, you would have to say Turner is more extreme because he’s coming to pictorial formulae that are just so far outside the box.

Let’s move on to Night Studio by Musa Mayer. This is a memoir of twentieth-century American artist Philip Guston, written by his daughter. Tell me about this book.

This is a brilliant piece of social history. It’s a daughter’s expression of love for her father, even though it was a complicated love. I think it’s a very memorable portrait of a particular painter. She relates his work to his life, to his fathering, and regrets the toll taken on him by the rather damaging macho culture of the male artists of the New York School, who seemed to have felt obliged to drink at least a bottle of whiskey and smoke five packets of Camel no-filter cigarettes every day. It’s amazing that he lived as long as he did, given that he died in his mid-sixties.

I know her a bit and have interviewed her for films a couple of times. She’s the caretaker of his memory, but unlike some caretakers of famous artists’ memories, she doesn’t pull her punches. People write all sorts of nonsense about art because they forget that it’s made by real living people. They write that so-and-so had a passion for this, or they loved that, and Musa Mayer reminds you how complicated people actually are. And Guston was very complicated.

“People write all sorts of nonsense about art because they forget that it’s made by real living people.”

She writes very well of the great turnaround of his life when he turns away from his Abstract Expressionist past—the style he’s painted in all these years—and begins painting these mad seething, weird, cartoonish depictions of Ku Klux Klansmen smoking fat cigars, driving through imaginary pink landscapes. Or he’s painting President Nixon with a grotesquely distended suppurating leg that represents the rottenness of his politics. She writes very well about how this was seen as beyond the pale by the other artists and their dealers in Guston’s circle. They were just so shocked that he could be doing this. It was like farting at the volume of an organ in the cathedral.

But this is a tremendous book about a really fascinating figure. You really get face to face with history in lots of different levels: art history, political history, the history of taste, and the history of this man and his relationship with his wife. It’s a very good book about the real life of a real artist.

What was the source of his disillusionment with Abstract Expressionism?

He wrote about it himself, I can only paraphrase. He was painting these pictures that were about atmosphere and were very much in the tradition of Monet, with a bit of Chinese ‘ism’ thrown in for good measure. So, they were almost Daoist Abstract Expressionist pictures of the eternal movement of the elements. At one point, he just says, ‘How the effing hell can I continue to adjust a blue to a red when America is going to war in Vietnam and the world is going to shit? How can I do this? I’ve got to paint about what’s around me’. I think he remembered his early education when he went to Italy and looked at the fresco painters, thinking, ‘They painted the world around them—why aren’t I doing it?’

And wasn’t he originally a muralist in the social realist style during the Depression era, funded by some of the New Deal programmes? 

That’s right. In a way, he was turning the clock right back to his time with the Works Progress Administration when he created a number of murals for places like homeless refuges. This was all part of the attempt to give work to artists during the Depression and the years that followed. He was turning the clock back, but in a completely different form.

“He begins painting these mad seething, weird, cartoonish depictions of Ku Klux Klansmen smoking fat cigars, driving through imaginary pink landscapes.”

At the time, there was this massive antagonism between the Abstract Expressionists and those who sought to replace them or steal their glory, namely the pop artists. The perception was that Guston had swapped camp and become a cartoon pop painter, having lost his marbles and trying to be down with the kids like Warhol. This is completely removed from the truth, but that was the perception that was put out at the time. It has taken a long time for the Guston estate and Philip Guston’s dealer to try to correct that.

Possibly a slightly vulgar question, but why doesn’t Guston’s name have the same stature as his contemporaries like Rothko, Pollock, and de Kooning?

Because of his reinvention of himself, people don’t know what to do with the Abstract Expressionist works—which are actually very good. They are every bit as good as Reinhardt or Franz Kline. You could see his Abstract Expressionism in that mould, but because he changed and had this volte-face, it’s as if the volte-face tainted everything that he had done. But I still think the market is quite high for Guston’s early Abstract Expressionist pictures, which is always a good way to tell what people really think. But art history has never really known what to do with him. He literally opened the door at the back of his Abstract Expressionist studio and found another studio behind it; he went in there and people went looking for him, wondering where he’d gone.

That’s why Musa Mayer’s book is so good and so important. It gives you the real context for the shifts and shape changes in his apparently chameleon career, at the end of which you realise that it is not a chameleon career at all. Why shouldn’t a poet also write satire?

On a personal level, which period of his work do you enjoy the most?

I like the last eight years, but I also like some of the Abstract Expressionist work very much. But I like the later work, like Head and Bottle, with that dour, full single eye, the lightbulb, the stubble, and the rawness of it all. They’re not all great, but when they are good, they’re very, very good.

Your last book is The Diary of Benjamin Robert Haydon. Who was Benjamin Haydon, and why are his diaries worth reading?

These are the writings of a painter who was so bad at art, and yet was one of the greatest prose writers of the nineteenth century. He completely mistook his vocation and wrote these utterly astonishing diaries in which all sorts of things crop up.

There’s one entry where he’s at dinner with Wordsworth and Charles Lamb while Charles Lamb’s income tax inspector comes around. He writes this brilliant account of Wordsworth and all these other figures from the Romantic period as you’ve never seen them before, just taking the piss out of this poor man from the Inland Revenue. It’s brilliantly observed, coruscating, fantastic prose. It’s scintillating stuff, and there’s three thousand pages of it. The diaries are not as well-known as they should be, but they’re right up there with the letters of Byron.

“These are the writings of a painter who was so bad at art, and yet was one of the greatest prose writers of the nineteenth century.”

In another entry, with Henry Fuseli, a Swiss professor of painting at the Royal Academy, Haydon is going round this weird shed in Hyde Park full of sculptures that everybody is saying are not very good. ‘This bloke Lord Elgin got them from somewhere; he says they’re from the Parthenon but we don’t think they can really be by Phidias’. Haydon goes, ‘No, they really are by Phidias’. And he borrows the bloody things! He takes them off to places like Manchester and puts all these nude figures from the Elgin Marbles on the stage, and then gets a bunch of young men and women in the first flush of sexual maturity to take all of their kit off and get on the stage. He demonstrates, pointing to the body of the naked woman to the sculpture, back to the naked woman going: look at how he rendered this sinew, or this joint.

Haydon was living in a transitional period as regards patronage of the arts, but as you say, he’s also concerned with educating the public about art.

He’s the child of this disaffected Enlightenment strain of thinking about art that develops in England from about 1760 onwards. He was one in a line of British artists who felt this great resentment profoundly towards the very narrow field of possibilities given to artists by the patronage of the English aristocracy and monarchy. This totally curtailed them to paint my lord’s wife, his horse, his dog, and his estate. It’s implicit in some of Joshua Reynolds’ discourses on art where he understands that it’s the Reformation that has caused this essential problem in British culture. The Protestant Reformation makes the depiction of religion pictures illegal and therefore, at a stroke, cuts off ninety-nine per cent of the significant patronage for the arts in this country, from which art doesn’t recover until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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Henry Fuseli had argued that the terrible problem with art in our culture is that it’s all for the private sphere. It’s all portraits, it’s all pictures of horses, it’s all done for private means. There’s no grand public art in Britain, nothing to compare with the Parthenon or the Sistine Chapel. That kind of grand public statement doesn’t exist. Haydon is directly exposed to this and he takes it on. In a way, in a different sense, it’s what’s behind the pre-Raphaelites and Ruskin: this idea that art should be socially responsible and should connect to the wider issues of the time, rather than merely depicting someone’s prized possessions. So, Haydon is part of a very significant cultural moment.

And Haydon’s own paintings?

He was an extraordinary character, driven by this massive ambition to paint great history paintings. Haydon would paint these huge depictions of subjects like, from ancient Roman myth, Marcus Curtius leaping into the gulf. There’s an enormous one—it might be the largest painting in British history—which is owned by the Tate, and I think it still languishes unrestored in the Vauxhall Stores. I can’t remember the subject of it.

But he’s astonishingly bad at painting. He’s probably the worst painter of all of history. He always models the hero in his painting on himself —it’s always a self-portrait— as in Caravaggio, except, unfortunately, Benjamin Robert Haydon looked exactly like Danny DeVito. If you imagine Danny DeVito as Hercules, that’s what you get. The problem is compounded by the fact that he has really really weird theories and almost no gift for drawing or painting. He says, ‘Oh dear, I’ve made Christ in my picture Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem look about sixty. But I’ve got this brilliant idea: I’ll make everyone else in the painting look ninety, and then he will look younger’. Or he’d make a painting far too red, but then he worked out that if he painted everything else even more red, then it would look normal. And his eyesight was so bad that, at one point, he was wearing thirteen pairs of glasses, one on top of the other, in order to peer into the abyss of whatever latest botch of a painting he was working on.

“The problem is compounded by the fact that he has really really weird theories and almost no gift for drawing or painting.”

Yet, he had a compelling, astonishing personality. He would manage to borrow £200,000 from somebody that he’d manage to persuade he was a genius. He’d do bugger all for about five years, then pull out the stops and produce some huge painting and exhibit it somewhere like Bullock’s Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. With luck, a hundred thousand Londoners would see it, each paying sixpence, and he’d be able to pay his debtors back. So, he was constantly saving himself.

As well as the humorous anecdotes and exceptional prose, his diaries also show that Haydon was a man that suffered immensely.

His personal life was absolutely tragic. He had five children, all of whom died of tuberculosis before they were six. One after another, his “little darlings”, as he called them, all died. And it was entirely because, as modern medicine tells us, he or his wife must have employed a tubercular wet-nurse who was giving the tuberculosis to each child that she breastfed. So, all of these terrible tragedies were happening and in the meanwhile he’s keeping this astonishing diary. This is in itself tragic because it’s so beautifully and poignantly written about his desires, his ambitions, about what’s wrong with British taste, about what happens at Wordsworth’s house when he goes around there, and so on.

This is the tragedy: he should have been a writer. He could have written great books, but he didn’t. He completely mistook his vocation; he thought he had to be a painter. And he constantly has these terrible things happen to him. After the Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834, it was Haydon who persuaded those responsible for building the new houses of parliament that they should include a number of huge canvases depicting scenes of British history, as they do. But guess who, having persuaded them to do all this, was never asked to paint one of those pictures: Benjamin Robert Haydon. He never got one of those commissions.

“So, all of these terrible tragedies were happening and in the meanwhile he’s keeping this astonishing diary.”

The last pages of the diary are just utterly heart-breaking. All of his children are dead, and he’s not been given the commission to paint any of the pictures in the Houses of Parliament. To cap it all, what happens with his great rescue picture that is going to save him again from financial ruin? He writes in the ledger that a character called Tom Thumb, a man who’s only one foot six high has arrived and he’s booked the next room in Bullock’s Egyptian Hall. The result of today’s visits: 96,000 visitors to Tom Thumb, visitors to Benjamin Robert Haydon’s great painting: three. And then he writes, “stretch me no more on the rack of this world.” At this point, he shot himself in his studio. There’s blood on his last painting. But he shot himself badly and didn’t manage to die. It took him eight hours to crawl down the stairs of his own house to get into the kitchen to get a knife where he cut his throat. That was the end of Benjamin Robert Haydon. But that’s all in the footnotes, explained in my edition by Willard Bissell Pope.

Haydon was just larger than life. I’ve always wanted to make a film about him. A lot of his paintings are in surprising places, like Plymouth Library, so, you can find them. Most of them, as I say, give you this vision of Danny DeVito doing improbable things. There’s great potential for an entertaining and interesting film, but I’ve never managed to get anyone to commission it so far. But I live in hope.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

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Andrew Graham-Dixon

Andrew Graham-Dixon is one of the leading art critics and presenters of arts television in the English-speaking world.

Andrew has presented numerous landmark documentaries on art for the BBC, including the acclaimed A History of British Art, Renaissance, and Art of Eternity. He has written a number of acclaimed books on subjects ranging from medieval painting and sculpture to the art of the present.

He has a long history of public service in the field of the visual arts, having judged the Turner Prize and the BP National Portrait Prize.

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Andrew Graham-Dixon

Andrew Graham-Dixon is one of the leading art critics and presenters of arts television in the English-speaking world.

Andrew has presented numerous landmark documentaries on art for the BBC, including the acclaimed A History of British Art, Renaissance, and Art of Eternity. He has written a number of acclaimed books on subjects ranging from medieval painting and sculpture to the art of the present.

He has a long history of public service in the field of the visual arts, having judged the Turner Prize and the BP National Portrait Prize.