British art has always been slightly different from that of mainstream Europe. Perhaps it’s because we’re an island. European painting in the eighteenth century is generally conceived as radiating from Paris. There was a strong move during the course of the 18th century towards the development of a national school – a desire for academies of art where the latent English genius could be nurtured.
French Rococo portraits and decorative mythologies invaded Germany, the Scandinavian countries, and Russia and the French influence was powerful in Rome and Spain but as the French Revolution approached, France, in the person of Jacques Louis David, took over the leadership of the emerging Neoclassical style (which perhaps originated in Rome) and established its primacy killing the age of Rococo and the Baroque.
The two great centres of resistance to Neoclassicalism are generally held to be Britain and Venice. During the 18th and 19th centuries, young members of the British upper classes broadened their education with the Grand Tour of continental Europe. They encountered a sophisticated level of artistic achievement that influenced their tastes as art patrons. To ensure similarly high standards in Britain, the Royal Academy was founded in London in 1769. Its first president was Sir Joshua Reynolds, a brilliant painter as well as an influential teacher and author whose Discourses authoritatively addressed many aesthetic topics—including the preeminence of history painting.
Landscape and romanticism were two key themes of two masters, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. Constable’s true-to-life views of the verdant English countryside emphasized the essential harmony and purity of nature. Turner, on the other hand, was a romantic who expressively dissolved forms in terms of light and atmosphere. With their fresh vision and powerfully original styles, Constable and Turner profoundly influenced the work not only of many subsequent British painters but of countless other American and European artists as well.
The death of court painter Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1723 brought to an end the long dynasty of foreign artists who had dominated English painting for two hundred years. Kneller’s pupils and followers were conventional ‘portrait manufacturers’, whose work had neither life nor charm. It was left to his pupil and son-in-law, William Hogarth, to restore English fine art painting to dignity and honour.
The young artist William Hogarth broke the mould of Britsh art in the 1730s when he began his series of moral fables in paint. Hogarth’s earlier style, although strongly personal, is an English variation on the style of the French Rocco painter Watteau and his contemporaries but Hogarth’s moral fables fit in exactly with that climate of Enlightenment thought which was to produce Diderot and the Encyclopedists. William Hogarth dominates English art in the first half of the century. Scornful of portraiture, he single-handedly created a new genre, the ‘Modern Moral Subject’, and introduced the original practice of paintings and engravings in series, and of telling a visual story.
Hogarth is called a moralist and a genius and is acknowledged as the first great English painter of modern times, but in his own lifetime, he waged a perpetual struggle for recognition and patronage in a society indifferent to native talent. He was the son of a schoolmaster and literary hack and born at Ship Court, Old Bailey in 1697. About 1712 his father apprenticed him to Ellis Gamble, a silversmith in Cranbourne Alley, Leicester Fields, from whom he learned something of the processes of engraving. He took to drawing, it is said because he wished to record the humours of London life as he saw them. He devised a system of drawing from memory so that he could record in the evening the things he had seen during the day. This, he believed, was the only way ‘living art’ could be produced.
In 1733 Hogarth settled in Leicester Fields, where he remained for the rest of his life with the exception of a brief trip to France in 1748. His trip resulted in the picture of “Calais Gate”, now in the National Gallery but while making a sketch of the old gateway Hogarth was arrested on a charge of espionage and, though subsequently released, the incident had the effect of confirming his truculent insularity which finds full expression in this picture.
Towards the end of his life, Hogarth contrived to produce satirical engravings and paintings. He also painted a fairly large number of portraits, and a few pictures in the “grand historical style”, which are not on a level with his other work. Late in life, he published his “Analysis of Beauty”, in which he expressed his own aesthetic ideals, and endeavored to establish a definite canon of taste. In 1757 he received some official recognition in his appointment as serjeant-painter to the king, but he died on 26th October 1764, four years too early to become one of the foundation members of the Royal Academy.
Illustration: The Ladies Waldegrave. Reynolds was particularly skilled at choosing poses and actions which suggested a sitter’s character and which also created a strong composition. Here, three sisters, the daughters of the 2nd Earl Waldegrave, are shown collaboratively working on a piece of needlework. The joint activity links the girls together. On the left, the eldest, Lady Charlotte, holds a skein of silk, which the middle sister, Lady Elizabeth, winds onto a card. On the right, the youngest, Lady Anna, works a tambour frame, using a hook to make lace on a taut net.
Sources: Ellis Waterhouse, Tate Gallery, London National Gallery Scotland.
Using the Present Tense to Write About the Past
Writing about the past in the present tense is hot with publishers but does it work for readers?
In writing and rhetoric, the historical present or narrative present is the employment of the present tense when narrating past events.
Dickens – David Copperfield
Dickens used it to give immediacy: ‘If the funeral had been yesterday, I could not recollect it better. The very air of the best parlour, when I went in at the door, the bright condition of the fire, the shining of the wine in the decanters, the patterns of the glasses and plates, the faint sweet smell of cake, the odour of Miss Murdstone’s dress, and our black clothes. Mr. Chillip is in the room and comes to speak to me.
“And how is Master David?” he says, kindly.
I cannot tell him very well. I give him my hand, which he holds in his.
— Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Chapter IX
More recently, analysts of its use in conversation have argued that it functions by foregrounding events that is, signaling that one event is particularly important than others. Historical novelist Sarah Dunant is one of the ace exponents of this style of writing. She uses the present tense to bring the past to life. The elegance of her prose can be seen in this quote from her latest book, In the Name of the Family, Virago, 2017.
“He leaves for work each day at dawn. In the beginning, she had hoped that her nest-ripe body might tempt him to linger awhile. Florence is rife with stories of married men who use early risings of excuses to visit their mistresses, and he had come with a reputation for enjoying life. That even if that were the case, there’s nothing she can do about it, not least because where ever he is going, this husband of hers has already gone from her long before he gets out of the door.
In fact, Niccolo Machiavelli doesn’t leave the warmth of his marriage bed for any other woman (he can do that easily enough on his way home), but because the days dispatches arrived at the Pallazzo della Signoria early and it is his greatest pleasure as well as his duty to be among the first to read them.
His journey takes him down the street on the south side of the city and across the river Arno via the Ponte Vecchio. A maverick winter snowfall has turned into grimy frost and the ground cracks like small animal bones under his feet. On the bridge, fresh carcasses are being unloaded into the butcher’s shops. Through the open shutters, he catches glimpses of the river, its surface a silvery apricot under the rising sun. A feral dog streaks across his path, going for a goblet of offal near the wheel of a cart. It earns him a kick in the ribs of his daring but his jaws remain firmly clenched over the prize. Scavenging opportunist Niccolo thinks, not without a certain admiration.”
Dunant describes her inspiration in an interview with Meredith K. Ray.
She said, “I became interested in a very simple idea, which was, “What would it have been like to be in the middle of the cauldron [Florence] of the shock of the new that they must have felt when it was happening around them?”
I just kept thinking “Dear God, everywhere you go in this city, it must have been vibrating!” I wondered whether or not it would be possible to write a book that would capture that sense of exploding modernity within the past.
Then of course what happened is when I went back to look at the history, I realized that there had been a quiet but persuasive revolution going on within the discipline. When I was doing history [at Cambridge] . . . people studying [gender and race] had yet to move into doing their post-graduate work and become professors and start producing the literature which was starting to fill in the missing spaces or at least make a gesture towards the colour.
I really often think of [history] as a pointillist painting, which is made up of a thousand dots. It’s just bits of paint, but as you walk away, each one of them gives you more of a sense of internal life and dynamic. I really began to feel that that was true about some of the history that I’d studied: blocks of primary colour, but there was stuff missing and it was very important stuff. It was like, “What was it like to be half the population?”
Dunnant’s story proceeds through a succession of tremendous set pieces, including a sea storm, a plague, the delivery of a child and various skirmishes as the pope and his children seek to tighten the “Borgia belt” around Italy. The focus is on the immediacy of the experience in a similar way to Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels. Like Mantel Dunant’s project is a sympathetic presentation. The villains are human beings with families and needs – power being the first among many. Dunant has made the Borgia’s completely her own in this way. How the use of the present tense fits this aim is unclear as it used in all her writing.
Mantel’s prose is sparse and more visceral by comparison;”The blood from the gash on his head – which is his father’s first effort – is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded, but if he squints sideways with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unravelling. The twine has sprung loose from the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.“So now get up!” Walter is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next. He lifts his head an inch or two, and moves forward, on his belly, trying to do it without exposing his hands, on which Walter enjoys stamping. “What are you an eel?” his parent asks. He trots backwards, and aims another kick.” Woolf Hall, Harper Collins, 2009.
Mantel said, “My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claim.” Perhaps that is why she uses the present tense in her work.
She goes on to say that when we memorialise the dead we are sometimes desperate for the truth or for a comforting illusion. As a nation, we need to reach into the past for foundation myths of our tribe. We find them in past glories and past grievance, but we seldom find them in cold facts. Nations she says are built on wishful versions of their origins: stories in which our ancestors were giants, of one kind or another.
According to Mantel, we live in a world of romance. Once the romance was about aristocratic connections and secret status, the fantasy of being part of an elite. Now the romance is about deprivation, dislocation, about the distance covered between there and here. The facts have less traction, less influence on what we are and what we do, than the self-built fictions.
Novelists she says are interested in driving new ideas but readers are touchingly loyal to the first history they learn. However, if you’re looking for safety and authority, history is the wrong place to look say Mantel. Any worthwhile history is in a constant state of self-questioning, just as any worthwhile fiction is. If the reader asks the writer, “Have you evidence to back your story?” the answer should be yes: but you hope the reader will be wise to the many kinds of evidence there are, and how they can be used.”
Does writing about the past in the present tense work? As much as I admire both writers I shall be sticking to the past tense in my writing with a bit of present tense thrown in for immediacy when required. As a reader, I find it much easier to read and hold onto the story when it’s written that way. Too much present tense, in my opinion, can end up like listening to the audio-description while you’re watching TV even if the prose is elegant.
Julia Herdman’s debut novel ‘Sinclair‘ is available on Amazon worldwide.
The Duchess of Hamilton was born in Ireland, Elizabeth Gunning. She was a celebrity beauty who caused a sensation when she and her sister were introduced into high society. Though the sisters had neither dowries nor rank, their physical attractiveness secured them excellent marriages. Elizabeth married the Duke of Hamilton on St Valentine’s Day in 1752, only weeks after meeting him at a masquerade. This is a graceful portrait by the neo-classical painter, Gavin Hamilton, who was a distant relative of the Duke. Hamilton also produced an elegantly-draped full-length portrait of Elizabeth.
In late 1740 or early 1741, the Gunning family returned to John Gunning’s ancestral home in Ireland, where they divided their time between their home in Roscommon and a rented house in Dublin. According to some sources, when Maria and her sister Elizabeth came of age, their mother urged them to take up acting in order to earn a living, due to the family’s relative poverty. The sources further state that the Gunning sisters worked for some time in the Dublin theatres, befriending actors like Margaret Woffington, even though acting was not considered a respectable profession as many actresses of that time doubled as courtesans to wealthy benefactors. However, other sources[who?] differ and point out that Margaret Woffington did not arrive in Dublin until May 1751, by which time Maria and her sister Elizabeth were in England.
In October 1748, a ball was held at Dublin Castle by the Viscountess Petersham. The two sisters did not have any dresses for the gathering until Tom Sheridan, the manager of one of the local theatres, supplied them with two costumes from the green room, those of Lady Macbeth and Juliet. Wearing the costumes, they were presented to the Earl of Harrington, the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Harrington must have been pleased by the meeting as, by 1750, Bridget Gunning had persuaded him to grant her a pension, which she then used to transport herself, Maria, and Elizabeth, back to their original home in Huntingdon, England. With their attendance at local balls and parties, the beauty of two girls was much remarked upon. They became well-known celebrities, their fame reaching all the way to London, with themselves following soon afterward. On 2 December 1750, they were presented at the court of St James. By this time, they were sufficiently famous that the presentation was noted in the London newspapers. Elizabeth was also immortalised in portraits by Gavin Hamilton a distant relation of the Duke.
The Palazzo del Re was home to the exiled Jacobite court and the Stuarts in Rome. Owned by the Muti family, it was rented by the Papacy for the Old Pretender, James Francis Edward Stuart. Both James’s sons, Charles Edward (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) and Henry Benedict, were born in the palace. The event depicted here is a celebration organised in honour of Henry’s appointment as a cardinal deacon on 3 July 1747. James, wearing the blue sash of the Order of the Garter, is shown greeting his younger son, who is dressed in the black coat, scarlet stockings and shoes with red heels often worn by cardinals in the eighteenth century. The palace itself has been lavishly ‘dressed’ with temporary architectural decoration, somewhat like a theatre set.
During their long exile, the Stuart dynasty commissioned a steady stream of portraits and subject pictures as propaganda for the Jacobite cause. The Portrait Gallery has an extensive collection of images of the deposed King James VII and II and of his son Prince James and grandson Prince Charles Edward (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’), many of them of high quality by the leading artists of the day. This picture occupies a special place among this wealth of material. It is large, colourful and celebratory but the apparently joyful mood here belies some harsh political truths. In reality, the painting captures a moment when the Jacobite ambition of re-establishing a Stuart monarchy in Great Britain was effectively at an end.
After their disastrous defeat at Culloden in 1746, the Stuarts were left politically isolated and vulnerable. In Rome, Prince James, the Old Pretender, finally acceded to the desire of his younger son Henry to become a Cardinal, immediately guaranteeing not just a degree of status but also much-needed financial security for the family. But for Henry’s older brother, Charles Edward, this pragmatic move was a catastrophe. By linking the Stuarts so closely to the papacy, it was clear that any hope of reviving Jacobite sympathy back in Britain was now fatally undermined. Charles Edward refused to return to Rome and never saw his father again.
Our picture was commissioned to celebrate Henry’s appointment as Cardinal in 1747. In the foreground, James, wearing the bright blue Order of the Garter, stands with his court outside his residence, the Palazzo del Re, to greet his son, shown in a cardinal’s costume of black coat and scarlet stockings. A recent papal regulation required that new cardinals should decorate their home with a false façade and provide a fete for the local populace. In the background, the palace is dressed with temporary architectural decoration to create an elaborate backdrop for the celebrations, with the arms of the English monarchy and the papacy prominently on display on top of the palace. The foreground is filled with incident to evoke a festive if somewhat unruly mood among the onlookers. Alongside the fashionable courtiers here are parading soldiers, beggars scrambling for coins and even some figures fighting. Elsewhere, musicians are preparing to play while food for a banquet is carried into the palace.
Until comparatively recently, the identity of the maker of this work was uncertain and it carried a traditional attribution to Giovanni Panini, the great Italian painter of topographical views. After it was acquired in 2001, an examination in the Gallery’s conservation studios indicated that more than one artist was involved in painting the figures as well as the background, and it now appears to be the work of three minor artists. It is nonetheless a fascinating document in which pomp and theatricality, colour and noise, mask the poignant significance of the event for a dynasty now destined to remain permanently in exile.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.
How to Write a Good Love Letter
Benjamin Franklin wrote a good love letter. In 1779, Benjamin Franklin fell in love with Anne Catherine Helvétius, the widow of the Swiss-French philosopher, Claude-Adrien Helvétius. He was serving as the U.S. envoy to France at the time.
Nicknamed “Minette”, Anne maintained a renowned salon in Paris using her dead husband’s accumulated wealth. Among its habitués were France’s leading politicians, philosophers, writers, and artists.
Courting her attention, Franklin sent her many letters expressing his love, admiration, and passion. In one, he claimed that he had dreamed that their dead spouses had married in heaven and that they should avenge their union by doing the same on earth!
He wrote In another passionate plea: “If that Lady likes to pass her Days with him, he, in turn, would like to pass his Nights with her; and as he has already given her many of his days…she appears ungrateful never to have given him a single one of her nights.”
Boris Pasternak gives his character Dr. Zhivago so pretty racy lines in his letters to his lover Lara.
“Don’t be upset. Don’t listen to me. I only meant that I am jealous of a dark, unconscious element, something irrational, unfathomable. I am jealous of your toilet articles, of the drops of sweat on your skin, of the germs in the air you breathe which could get into your blood and poison you. And I am jealous of Komarovsky, as if he were an infectious disease. Someday he will take you away, just as certainly as death will someday separate us. I know this must seem obscure and confused, but I can’t say it more clearly. I love you madly, irrationally, infinitely.”
I think you’ll agree that’s powerful stuff but how would you feel if you got a letter like that? Would it please you or make you run a mile? I think I’d make a run for it. So what should you write to your love? Well if want to woo your love successfully science has some tips for you.
Yale psychologist Robert Sternberg’s theory of love, suggests that the ideal love letter should include the following components—intimacy, passion, and commitment. To test this hypothesis Donelson Forsyth and Kelli Taylor constructed a number of letters and asked people what they thought of them.
They discovered that, when it comes to love letters, commitment conquered all. The letter that proclaimed, “I know we will be happy together for the rest of our lives” and “I couldn’t imagine a world without you in it,” was rated much higher, in terms of expressing love, than one that made no mention of commitment.
Adding language that spoke of closeness and caring increased the letter’s good impression with readers, but it was a commitment that left readers feeling loved and in love.
As to expressing passion in a letter; frisky letters, which went on for too long about the sender’s sexual passions, were viewed generally negatively by both genders; perhaps because they were more about lust than love.
They also discovered that a message of commitment need not be delivered in a traditional love letter or a card; a simple email will do which is lucky as so many of us have lost the art of putting pen to paper. However, research shows that people think that letters are more trustworthy, and a handwritten letter shows effort and care too.
Therefore, if you want your love letter to get results you need to write it yourself, show your commitment to the relationship and put it in an envelope. Call me old-fashioned but a bunch of flowers wouldn’t go amiss either.
For more see:
The Science of Love Letters
Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago