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A Week in Culture: Angus Trumble, Curator, Part 2

July 29, 2010 | by

This is the second installment of Trumble's culture diary. Click here to read part 1.

DAY FOUR

5:30 A.M. I have been mining the poet, critic, journalist, playwright, sometime minor colonial official Richard Henry Horne (1802–1884). He was one of the most picturesque, occasionally lionized but accident-prone literary figures in Victorian Britain. According to his biographer Cyril Pearl, Horne “finished a wild and adventurous career as a rather pathetic, rather tiresome, very poor old man, living in two shabby rooms of a London apartment house, still determined, in his eighties, to be a distinguished man of letters. Forty year before, no one would have questioned his claim to the title. He had been extravagantly praised by Poe, who ranked him with Milton, and enthusiastically praised by Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, by Carlyle and G. H. Lewes, by Leigh Hunt and Douglass Jerrold, and many other of his contemporaries. Critics spoke of him in the same breath as Browning or Tennyson. He was, for many years, one of Elizabeth Barrett’s most valued friends; Dickens, with whom he worked, had a warm regard for him; he was the patron, almost the discoverer, of Meredith…No writer ever affirmed the dignity of literature more, or himself behaved with less dignity.” Quite so.

1:30 P.M. The reason for my present interest in “Hengist” or “Orion” Horne is that I think he was the conduit through which the term “art for art’s sake” migrated from the neighborhood of French criticism in the 1830s (when in England “l’art pour l’art” was generally treated with disdain) and crash-landed in the circle of Algernon Charles Swinburne, Rossetti et al. during the 1870s, thereby laying a sort of foundation of Aestheticism in British art and letters. Horne was obviously insane. In 1873 he entertained the idea of representing Her Brittanic Majesty as consul-general in Tokyo, and duly sent to Mr. Gladstone in Downing Street, and to the Meiji Emperor complimentary copies of his privately printed Ode to the Mikado of Japan. Even if your command of the English language is surefooted, the text is truly bonkers—so goodness knows what Emperor Mutsuhito made of it.

There was a Dome, like midnight

Lit up by blood-red lightning!

And deep within

A demon din,

With many a sight

Of ghastly horror whitening

Faces and Forms, e’en while the flames were brightening!

The screams of those wild massacres

Long echoed down the shuddering years;

And yet we know the self-same creed

For which those proselyting [sic] martyrs died,

Hath caused unnumbered victims thus to bleed

Before its symbols deified1!...

To cover against the possibility that it might just be good, the Emperor sent back two lavish volumes of Japanese poetry. An invitation to tea with His Imperial Majesty’s Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s was thrown in also. To His Excellency’s dismay Horne promptly accepted it.

DAY FIVE

4:45 A.M. I see in this morning’s New York Times that Goldman Sachs is poised to hand out an average sum of $544,000 to each and every one of their employees. One wonders what planet2 they think they are dwelling on.

6:00 A.M. Any public policy maker worth their salt must recognize that the only way the debt will ever be repaid is by inflating our way out, but it remains to be seen whether the fifty per cent of real value you’ll get back when your U.S. Treasury bond matures will in any way satisfy those surplus countries whom we expect dutifully to participate in the Washington bond tenders. As far as I can see, the only thing that stands between us and wholesale ruin is that you and I, the American consumer, account for roughly sixteen per cent of global consumption of everything, so if we went down the gurgler, we’d almost certainly3 take everyone else with us. So—and this is my point—why on earth are the same banks now dispensing such huge emoluments so that their employees can blow it on planes, yachts, and fast cars?

9:45 A.M. I am moving house next month, and that prospect is appalling. A major cull of books and papers is called for, but every time I tackle this, I get badly distracted. Among the morning’s discoveries is my copy of Keeping It Dark4 by Bernard Causton and G. Gordon Young, a book about censorship, or why there should be more of it.

I also came across my copy of the wonderful 1910 cautionary list of quacks, imposters, and swindlers active in Britain, an annual handbook compiled and published by Truth. The sheer scale of fraud5 in Edwardian England is astonishing, much of it aimed at hapless servants: Hundreds of begging letter-writers are listed, with their prior convictions, as well as bucket-shops, sixpence-a-share scams, home-employment tricksters, touts, extortioners, bigamists, fee-snatchers, fake clergymen, fake impresarios, fake charities, fake insurers, astrologers, “matrimonial agents,” exploiters of orphaned girls and lads—especially worrying, those—lottery conmen, and suspicious characters such as Professor Roxroy the handwriting clairvoyant, and Mrs. Shedden-King of Bayswater, who “writes gushing letters to total strangers giving a very full account of herself and her troubles.”

4:45 P.M. The condominium I am buying is in the upper portion of a carriage house that is tucked behind a large, converted mansion on Wooster Square. It was built by the Hotchkiss family, who made their fortune in rubberized soles for shoes, but in recent years it was used as a funeral home6.

Fortunately I am fairly sanguine about any and all such matters, and almost completely impervious to communications from the spirit world. I say “almost,” because there was one occasion a few years ago in London when, lingering in St. Giles-in-the-Fields, I started reading inscriptions on the eighteenth-century wall monuments, many of them delightfully batty. Presently, a few feet over my left shoulder, somebody cleared their throat in that unmistakable, prefatory mode so cherished by the English. I swung round, fully expecting to be challenged by an adenoidal curate or organist, but there was nobody. I checked the pews for slumbering tramps: empty. The door to the upstairs gallery was padlocked. I was quite alone. As far as I am aware this was my first and only brush with auditory hallucinations.

8:30 P.M. Books are a problem, but papers are worse. After tea I came across a lengthy correspondence in which the distinguished Melbourne historian Weston Bate sought my professional opinion as to the quality of the colonial architecture of Melbourne Grammar School in St. Kilda Road, where I was myself expensively under-educated from 1978 to 1981. It was not a matter I could approach with anything like detachment or objectivity, and I was careful to make this clear in my reply. The school quadrangle makes Stonehenge seem cosy7. I told Weston there was absolutely no alternative but to pull it all down, and start from scratch. I think he was probably a bit taken aback, because the school is quite proud of this cluster of 1858 buildings. Indeed I assume they are listed. No matter: Bring in the bulldozers under cover of darkness, or maybe use explosives. Nowadays—much assisted by my excellent therapist—I would probably urge them at least to paint it8, pending the completion of new plans.

DAY SIX

10:05 A.M. I have just been talking on the telephone to an art dealer who wishes to sell us a picture. I have never understood why certain dealers think it is a good idea to place a cold call about a work of art that they know I have not yet seen. It is impossible for me to express any interest (or not) until such time as a photograph arrives on my desk, to start the ball rolling, or I can arrange to examine it in the flesh, preferably with our excellent paintings conservator Mark Aronson, and a decent black light. No amount of discussion will alter that. Good, experienced, reliable art dealers know this; unfortunately it’s the other sort who like to chew the fat. Some may even call you at home, in the evening, or at the weekend. My dear former colleague in Adelaide, Dick Richards, used to confound people who engaged in this sort of time-consuming pre-sale banter by asking them, please, to hold the picture a little closer to the telephone, because he couldn’t quite…

12:30 P.M. A shoebox full of photographs. So tempting to toss it, but then you come across something that throws you off-balance, rather like an ocean breaker of homesickness. In this case, the photo is of Mrs. McCaughey and me after one of our memorable victories. Often in summer we played croquet before dinner. Mrs. McCaughey had played as a young woman in Northern Ireland, and (as far as I know) never since then. It was the Governor's official secretary's inspired idea to convert the south lawn of Government House from a bowling green to a delicately manicured croquet pitch, and she and the Governor took to it like ducks to water. Evidently, Mrs. McCaughey harbored a strong genetic predisposition towards croquet, and in due course it became one of the most effective and enjoyable of ice-breakers for houseguests, visitors, and every sort of person, even higher-maintenance members of the royal family. Mrs. McCaughey was rarely beaten. It was my privilege and pleasure to be her regular partner.

4:00 P.M. On one occasion, a distinguished retired general and his wife—who later became firm friends of the Governor and Mrs. McCaughey—came to stay for the first time from another, interstate Government House. I think it would be fair to say that initially there was a degree of wariness on both sides, until at length it emerged that the general played croquet and would gladly play a round. He was in robust good health, and may have given the impression (if one had chosen to notice this) that an easy victory was not an unreasonable prospect. In due course, he (Red) and the Governor (Yellow) partnered against Mrs. McCaughey (Blue) and me (Black). Mrs. McCaughey had earlier in the afternoon gone out to have her hair done, was wearing the wrong glasses, and was dressed in an elegant plum-colored suit for the reception that was due to take place a little later in the evening.

“Oh Davis,” she said. “I hope I can play in these shoes.”

The general won the toss, and opened with a strong shot of respectable distance which placed him within easy reach of the first hoop. He seemed pleased. I followed with a reasonably okay stroke of middle distance, coming to rest slightly to the side. The Governor, a good golfer, came next with a long shot that put his yellow where the general could pick it up after navigating the first hoop. Then came Mrs. McCaughey. Eyeing the lawn much as one imagines a wheeling falcon fasten upon a small rodent obliviously snuffling in the undergrowth far below, Mrs. McCaughey hit a powerful, gracefully curving croquet shot of breathtaking accuracy which—“clack!”—sent the general’s red skittering towards the base line. She then collected the Governor’s yellow and rocketed him to a hopeless spot in the Outer Siberia of the top corner, in the process uniting herself with my black. She then fired me through the first hoop, following elegantly behind, her blue trickling deftly to within easy reach of the second hoop. A cloud descended over the south lawn.

“Your turn, P——,” she said sweetly.

The general had served with distinction in Korea and Vietnam, and was by then a recently retired chief of the Australian Defence Forces, well-versed in logistical and strategic command. His staff were at times, I think, genuinely frightened of him. However, it is hard to imagine that in the course of what was by any measure an illustrious military career the general had ever faced a defeat as ignominious as the one he suffered that afternoon at the hands of Jean McCaughey, because the rest of the game unfolded in essentially the same way. Naturally, the remainder of the general’s visit to Government House, Melbourne, was a tremendous success.

DAY SEVEN

11:30 A.M. I have just come from my last sitting for Jonathan Weinberg. For the past few weeks he has been painting me in the pose of François Boucher’s 1745 L’Odalisque brune (Paris: Louvre). This is the first time I have ever been painted nude9 and although it’s quite hard on the lower back it is definitely worth the effort. Anyhow, “sitting” for Jonathan is for me the culmination of a decades-long and actually rather taxing journey through the cold, dark labyrinth of punishingly prescriptive male homosexual body image. In middle age, I find I no longer care, which is a marvelous gift.

2:30 P.M. You could argue that my decision (at forty-five, 193 pounds, six feet five inches tall, and more or less bald) to colonize in this way the plump, dimpled body10 of a stunted orientalizing teenage ancien régime sex object is not a little defiant. Jonathan agrees with me. Jonathan has the gift of easy conversation. His upstairs studio is bright and air-conditioned, and he puts me in an entirely relaxed frame of mind.

4:15 P.M. Through the morning I reflected on the benefits to an art museum curator of posing nude for a painter. You gain innumerable insights. For example, a pose is merely the starting point; an artist doesn’t really need to ask you too often to shift your knee or elbow, or to lift or turn your head, because he can easily do that for himself straight onto the canvas. But the model can also do subtle things to aid in that process, or encourage him in a certain direction if the artist cares to speak a bright idea out loud. Shift in a helpful way, and you hear a little acceleration or vigor in the brushwork—very satisfactory. From time to time you pause for a rest, and stretch. I started the day feeling like a tired old worker ant; I left Jonathan’s studio feeling like a goddess. For the still-life element at the bottom left hand corner of the composition, I brought with me Dad and Mum’s eccentric Russian teapot, my magnifying glass, a pendant that belonged to Uncle John, and a pale amber-colored bottle of Mitsouko, to which congregation of carefully selected objects Jonathan’s partner Nick thoughtfully added a double string of his late mother’s pearls. Delightful11.

6:30 P.M. As well as being a city solicitor and sometime senior partner of the Melbourne firm of Mallesons, as his father was before him, my late father was a notary public—confirmed in that appointment by an enormous handwritten parchment signed and sealed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Over many years he collected the standard fee of sixpence in return for notarizing many clients’ documents. With a good proportion of those clients Dad served during World War II as an able seaman aboard various ships of the Royal Australian Navy. I think it was upon the recommendation of one of those former comrades-at-arms that one day an old southern European migrant came to see Dad, much distressed by some weighty legal dilemma. In due course the gentleman received helpful advice, free of charge. Afterwards he was so happy and relieved that he came back to Mallesons’ old premises in Queen Street and, with some ceremony, produced an old Russian teapot12 from a crumpled brown paper bag, and presented it to Dad as a suitably thought-out token of gratitude.

9:30 P.M. Dad kept this shapely teapot on his desk, and used it as a convenient receptacle for his notarial sixpences. After he retired shortly before his sixty-fifth birthday on January 31, 1986, Dad brought the teapot home to Denham Place along with many other mementoes of a long and eventful professional life. With her eye for utility, Mum began using it to make the tea. Dad died on October 3, 2000, but Mum continued to use his splendid teapot right up until a few days before she died also, last November 27, and now, thanks to the generosity of my three brothers, I have brought it with me to New Haven, Conn., where it continues to provide excellent service.

11:05 P.M. Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this pleasingly characterful teapot is its efficiency. I must tell you that a full pot stays piping hot for hours, without the need for an insulating tea cosy or even a top-up of boiling water from the kettle. I like to reflect upon its remarkable journey through time and space: the Azerbaijani commercial pottery in which it was fired; the St. Petersburg emporium from which it was first purchased; the Zhivago-like identities for whom it provided refreshment; its wanderings by pack-horse, sled, cart, crate, steam train, and ship; its radically reduced circumstances in Paris or Lisbon or Tashkent or Tien-Tsin—and the sad murmurings of poetry-loving émigrés; its disembarkation at Fremantle, Port Adelaide, or Hobson’s Bay; its decades eavesdropping on confidential legal discussions relating to the vast Cleveland Cliffs iron-ore joint venture at Robe River, upon which my father expended much time and energy for most of the latter part of his career; and, lately, its relocation by freighter and transcontinental truck to downtown New Haven. Quite an odyssey, that.

Angus Trumble is senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.

Annotations

  1. Horne seemed to feel that this evocation of the Japanese flag and the long imperial tradition of military prowess would come across as complimentary.
  2. The truly terrifying aspect of the present economic malaise—cheerfully pressed upon us punters as “recovery”—is that quite clearly the United States’ federal budget cannot any longer reflate the rest of the world. For the past sixty years, the U.S. Treasury could do just that, but not any more. And in order to continually re-finance the stupefying public debt incurred by the economic holocaust of 2008–09 one has to wonder: Who will buy the bonds? Such is the view of former Prime Minister Paul Keating—a man of rare brilliance—and I agree with him entirely.
  3. This might not be the case in forty years’ time. Right now India has 1.9% of the vote on the International Monetary Fund; the Russians have 2.7%; China 3.7%, the Saudis 3.2%, and the Indonesians (220 thrifty, hardworking millions of them) have less than one. The United States and Europe control 51%. Clearly it is time to draw up an entirely new Bretton Woods agreement, because without some more adequately representative geopolitical architecture we’re not going to get out of this mess, no matter how shrilly Wall Street talks up the domestic economy. And if the banks hadn’t played tricky poo with a mountainous accumulation of worthless mortgages—aided and abetted by the ratings agencies—and then come running to Mama tax-payer when their luck ran out, we wouldn’t have come so perilously close to placing the entire country in receivership.
  4. It has an embarrassing foreword by Rebecca West, I notice, and is one of several de-accessions from the library of King’s College that I snaffled some years ago in London.
  5. I suppose most of their current equivalents are confined to the Internet, well and truly driven out of poste restante Charing Cross and Great Portland Street (whence Madame Vigor purveyed magneto-electric corsets). But are we any safer?
  6. I doubt if the realtors would ever have referred to this if I hadn’t mentioned it first, and it is clearly a matter of some delicacy for them, as it may be for other prospective buyers. I suppose the carriage house was where they parked the hearses, but I’m not quite sure what they stored upstairs—caskets?
  7. It is a monastic shocker, the crucible of adolescent rage—gray, gray misery, from burping grease-trap to meager finial. I suggested that the problem was not so much in the obsequious cut-price Gothic-Revival design but in the choice of building material. Quarried on the high plains of central Victoria, volcanic bluestone, with its miserable texture—marooned somewhere between pumice and granite—and its exceedingly crude rustication, radiates in summer a sullen, dusty gray that, in the depths of winter, gives way to a bleak blue-black howl: the epitome of hard, wet, and cold.
  8. An eggy Nash yellow might work nicely, or Eau de Nil, or even the palest of Regency pinks: Anything.
  9. When some months ago I discussed with Farrar, Straus and Giroux certain strategic matters relating to advance publicity for my new book, The Finger: A Handbook, I was careful to insist that any nudity must be tasteful. They thought I was joking.
  10. The original model was probably Madame Boucher (Marie-Jeanne), substantially modified; the slightly later, 1751 Odalisque blonde in the Wallraff-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud in Cologne is actually a portrait of the fourteen year-old Marie-Louise O’Murphy, also known as “Morphise de Boisfaily,” one of King Louis XV’s trainee mistresses at Versailles.
  11. Beforehand we went shopping for suitable background draperies at Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft in Milford, Conn., the vast emporium out along the Boston Post Road, and returned with yards and yards of cheap blue satin with glitter. Nearly twenty-four hours later I was still discovering tiny metallic flecks winking up at me from private places.
  12. It seems to be some kind of commercially manufactured pre-Revolutionary tin-glazed terracotta production, with slightly crude foliate and floreate ornament in two greens, creamy dark magenta, and dashes of pale lilac with ample (if slightly wobbly) gilded outlines, all laid over an unctuous butter-yellow ground—not, perhaps, the kind of object that my father would ever have acquired voluntarily.

1 COMMENT

1 Comments

  1. Kosherdylan | November 18, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Um, I adore you to bits and can only think that, after reading this, meeting you in person would have to be a bit of a disappointment. Otherwise you might have found yourself with a “groupie” of, perhaps, one?

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