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John Scott’s The London Magazine by Matthew Scott

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A segment of The Elgin Marbles

The Greek author Lucian tells of a lusty, young aristocrat who fell for a statue of Aphrodite and, willing it to be real, attempted to defile it. He had only the experience of other boys to go on and fell short when it came to the anatomy of women; congress was a hopeless failure and he hurled himself to his death. But statues in Lucian are not all silent in their allure. James Joyce has the hero of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, fascinated by the marble buttocks of Venus and such Pygmalion-like desire has a long aesthetic history. Wanting the art object to come to life is a museum fantasy that recurs repeatedly in western literature and it is a strong theme in The London Magazine of the 1820s. Here, statues abound, leaping to life, though they are more political than sexual.

One of the magazine’s most famous essays is an account in 1822 of the Elgin Marbles by the critic William Hazlitt, which stands out as an extraordinary description of those statues and, indeed, transcends them to make a case for the humanizing potential of art more generally. Hazlitt and Benjamin Robert Haydon were leading voices in an argument that surrounded the value of the Elgin Marbles. For all the debate about the rectitude of their having been taken off the Parthenon in the first place, it seems almost incredible now when no one doubts the importance of the statues in the history of western art, that on their arrival in Britain, they were dismissed by the leading aesthetic mandarin of the time as worthless copies made in the time of Hadrian. History hasn’t dealt favourably with Richard Payne Knight, whose taste — or lack of it — now appears to be quaint if not simply bizarre. But at the time, Hazlitt saw himself writing in opposition to the reactionary conservativism of an orthodoxy rooted the poIite values of the eighteenth century that had fought keep the works outside the British Museum. He felt that he was standing up instead for a newer set of artistic values that found Romantic power in those massive, decaying forms.

Horace Smith is the author of the leading article in the issue of March 1821, which identities one of the marbles as Theseus and is accompanied by a splendid engraving of it. ‘Mutilated and disfigured as is,’ he writes, ‘I never approach this majestic statue without feeling an indescribable awe, leading me, almost unconsciously, to take off my hat, and look at it with silent reverence, as if l stood in the presence of some superior being.’ The article is self-consciously rather coy and its slightly callow veneration of the statue is much more marked than anything in Hazlitt’s tough, technical essay. But Smith’s obvious sense of wonder before the work of art is a familiar emotional theme in the magazine’s many essays on art and culture. Its readers were obviously hungry for material relating to current exhibitions and shows, as well as theatre and music, and this kind of sentimental criticism was popular. But the essay, also betrays an odd sense of anxiety or uncertainty, as though neither he nor his age is quite up to the task of appreciating just how marvellous these statues really are. There is something of an obsession with antiquity in the magazine and it exposes a wider anxiety in this period that even as Britain expanded its empires, its position as a cultural authority could never rival that of earlier eras.

Complaint about the shoddy standards of contemporary culture is of course a pretty time-honoured theme but the writers of The London weren’t conservative traditionalists invoking in fustian the spirit of the past but radical liberals, conscious of living in a culture that had changed very distinctly since the end of the eighteenth century. The decade of the 1820s is a rather forgotten moment in British cultural history. The great poets of the previous generation, Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, had their finest work long behind them; none of the second generation, Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, was to live long. In political terms, these are the last years of a worn out Conservative administration, one dissected forcefully by Disraeli in the opening part of his novel, Sybil. The challenges of the wars in Europe had thrown up a new role for Britain that necessitated change and there was a widespread feeling that electoral reform was needed but this, and Catholic emancipation, were to come only in the 1830s. The London Magazine, especially in the period immediately after its revival in 1820 under the dynamic editorship of John Scott, provides us with extraordinary insight into the intellectual and artistic on of the age and one has the sense of a culture that was in vibrant dialogue with both Europe and its expanding empire, but not yet entirely confident with itself as an imperial power.

A few years before writing his essay on the Elgin Marbles, Horace Smith had taken part in a competition organized by the influential writer and publisher, Leigh Hunt, in which he was asked to produce a poem in response to a new acquisition of the British Museum, an Egyptian statue of the pharaoh, Ramesses II. His rival was Shelley, whose famous sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ remains a potent warning to would-be imperialists of the transience of all empires. Smith’s own poem takes much the same line only he is more specific in imagining a post-imperial London, wasted away into wilds:

We wonder, — and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chase,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

This anxiety isn’t fully representative of the ‘spirit of the age’ as Hazlitt calls his series of literary portraits published in The London; there are optimistic voices too. Indeed Smith himself often sounds rather remorselessly jolly in his essays, the anxiety jarring with the wit in another piece on the same Egyptian statue, ‘Memnon’s Head,’ published a month before his essay on the Theseus. This is an extraordinary bit of writing to which I’ve returned repeatedly since discovering it on a dark winter afternoon in the Bodleian library and it takes us back to Lucian, with whom I began.

The pharaoh’s head known ever since as the ‘Younger Memnon’, a later copy of a larger original, famous in antiquity was excavated and removed from a site at Thebes bv the Anglo-Italian Giovanni Belzoni, and became the subject of a good deal of interest in London following its exhibition and the publication in 1820 of the explorer’s account of his discovery. It’s putting it rather mildly to say that Belzoni was an unusual character: an ex-circus strongman and rampant self-publicist, he had perfected techniques for the removal of ancient statuary and, with this particular sculpture, executed his master trick. John Scott reviewed his popular narrative with its description of the logistics of the project in The London in January 1821, a month before Smith’s essay. His audience was familiar with the statue and Smith wastes no time on description. Instead, he begins by telling his readers about a claim of Lucian that the original sculpture had supernatural powers and could speak in the voice of an oracle. He goes on:

Unless I have been grossly deceived by imagination, I have good grounds for maintaining, that the Head, now in the British Museum, is endued with qualities quite as inexplicable, as any that have been attributed to its more enormous namesake.— I had taken my seat before it yesterday afternoon, for the purpose of drawing a sketch, occasionally pursuing my work, and occasionally lost in reveries upon the vicissitudes of fate this mighty monument had experienced, until I became unconscious of the lapse of time, and, just as the shades of evening began to gather round the room, I discovered that every visitor had retired, and that I was left quite alone with the gigantic Head! There was something awful, if not alarming, in the first surprise excited by the discovery; and I must confess, that I felt a slight inclination to quicken my steps to the door. Shame, however, withheld me;—and as I made a point of proving to myself, that I was superior to such childish impressions, I resumed my seat, and examined my sketch, with an affectation of nonchalance. On again looking up to the Bust, it appeared to me that an air of living animation had spread over its Nubian features, which had obviously arranged themselves into a smile.

Moments later, the statue begins to speak to him in perfect pentameters and, to a reader familiar with Smith’s other work, it comes as little surprise that the resultant poem is an appeal to the British to do away with the arrogance of imperial design lest London be subjected to the same fate as the ancient empires. It’s a very strange contribution — part short story, part poem — but there is no sense of a critical opinion characterized by cold, disinterested objectivity. Smith, having settled to the task of objective imitation, finds himself withdrawn into reverie, losing any sense of time, place or self. He wakes to find himself in the world of the artist-critic’s dream — the private moment in solitary contemplation of the artefact but this in turn produces an anxious solicitude, in which his own mute wonder is displaced by the voice of the very object of his contemplation. The attitude towards the art of the past is curiously vexed, suggesting that it can be at once both supremely compelling and profoundly disturbing. And while we might be inclined to be a little patronizing towards Smith with his quirky, naive story, it does contribute to a sense that any reader will develop that The London was a publication that took aesthetic matters very seriously indeed.

This is revealed more darkly in events that were shortly to take place. John Scott, who started the publication in 1820 by reviving an obsolete title from the eighteenth century, contributed with The London to a literary scene that was already thriving with numerous periodicals that dealt with the cultural events of the day. Most prominent in this period were two reviews, the Quarterly and the Edinburgh, which were strongly marked by their respective Tory and Whig credentials. A principle on The London that Scott was determined to enforce was that the magazine shouldn’t be politically partisan and that his writers, a wonderful gathering of talents including Charles Lamb and Thomas De Quincey, should be allowed freedom of expression. These are marvellous ideals but culture is, of course, inevitably political and in championing the young poet, John Keats, the editor found himself drawn into a larger and more costly battle. Keats was associated with the radical circles of Leigh Hunt, who had long been the butt of attacks from writers on the right for his criticism of the Regency establishment and his avowedly revolutionary sentiments. With the publication of his early poems, Keats found himself tarnished by the association and subject to the same kinds of charge that had been levelled against his mentor. Whatever one makes of the early, rather immature poems, there can be little doubt that the reviews in the Tory press were unfair and often personally insulting, most especially those in Blackwood’s Magazine, a rival of The London.

It isn’t the most glorious moment in critical history but journalism is frequently unfair and it’s probably best to rise above it. Scott, however, was unyieldingly dedicated to his principles and refused to let the matter rest. In a series of editorials beginning in May 1820 and continuing throughout the year, Scott sharply counterattacked, charging Blackwood’s with impropriety and bias. A sham apology only drove him on further with the suggestion of financial irregularity in the rival camp:

It is a common trick with the pickpockets in the streets, to profess great interest in the misfortune of the person they have just knocked down and plundered:—the very rascals who have struck him from behind, and filched his watch from his fob, will come round in his face, to pity and pat him — with their mouths full of asseverations against the roguery and cruelty of the outrage of which he has been the victim.

There is little doubt that the sequence of events that followed could have been avoided. John Gibson Lockhart, the editor of Blackwood’s, sought a retraction to no avail and after a Byzantine sequence of communications that are hard to unravel, Scott found himself forced into a duel with Lockhart’s London agent, Jonathan Christie. The pair met at nine o’clock in the evening at Chalk Farm outside London on 16 February 1821, with James Traill as a second for Christie and P G Patmore, a noted art critic and determined advocate of Keats in The London, for Scott. Christie did not fire on the first attempt in accordance with the honour code, but on the second, after a mix-up between the seconds, he shot, as he thought, in self-defence, the ball striking Scott above the right hip and passing through his guts into the left. It caused profuse bleeding and Scott was returned to his rooms at York Street in Covent Garden, where he lay weakening gradually towards his inevitable death eleven days later on 27 February 1821. He is buried nearby in the vault of St Martin’s in the Fields.

It is horrifying to think of him waiting for death to come through those awful, long days, a fate that would not face his killer for another fifty-five years. Scott, like Keats, wasn’t destined to become a Victorian sage; he remains, like his magazine, a figure from the Regency, essential to the character of the Romantic period. And although The London continued on into the second half of the decade, it never quite maintained the exceptional quality of the issues produced under Scott and in the period immediately following his death. The article about Memnon’s head with its curious, artistically driven but deeply moralising reflections had appeared only a few weeks earlier. Given the events at Chalk Farm on that grim, winter night, it’s pretty remarkable that the publication continued at all and that it did has much to do with Scott’s earlier editorial zeal. The duel forces us to read the magazine with a renewed awareness of the seriousness with which this group of writers took the matter of aesthetic judgement and, at a time when we are asked continually to advocate relativism in matters of taste and to eschew judgements of quality, this is perhaps no bad thing.


This essay first appeared in The London Magazine Dec 2008/Jan/Feb 2009. Matthew Scott is the current Reviews Editor at TLM.

Transcribed by Ludo Cinelli. 

Men at Work

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Hannah Pedley, Anna Leese and Mark Stone in Eugene Onegin Photo: FRITZ CURZON

Holland Park Opera: Tchaikovsky, Yevgeny Onegin and Verdi, Falstaff

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a very dull play indeed. We can be grateful for its having been written, because it provided the occasion of Verdi’s Falstaff, a very great operatic masterpiece … I have nothing to say about Shakespeare’s play, so let’s hear Verdi.’

Auden’s summary dismissal of Shakespeare’s play in the middle of his 1947 course of lectures at the New School in Greenwich Village is a bit naughty but it would have been hard to disagree with him entirely as he set the gramophone to work. The Merry Wives is indeed pretty feeble. Yet, with the odd alchemy that occasionally comes off when art that is not much good in one form becomes magical in another – like Schubert’s haunting Winterreise bursting out from Müller’s mediocre poems – Falstaff is certainly a masterpiece. And it is so on many levels.

Its dramatic concision is remarkable, courtesy of Boito’s superb reworking of Shakespeare’s play and his inclusion in the libretto of material from the fabulous Henry IV plays. The music, meanwhile, marks a real moment of innovation in the history of opera, despite the fact that Verdi was almost eighty at its premiere. The remarkable score with its alluring woodwind achieves incredibly subtle and unexpected changes in tone, the most interesting of which augment the figure at the heart of the piece – Falstaff himself. In Verdi’s hands, he is the distillate of Shakespeare’s great comic creation – the jokes even louder and the sense of the absurd still stronger than in the original – but there is more than this.

Adopted from the first of the Henry plays, the aria L’Onore! Ladri! lends Falstaff’s obvious foibles an unmistakable grandeur: we love him because he has our own failings, on a grand scale. This is combined with a real sense of pathos at the opening of Act Three, when there is a moment of incipient tragedy at his sudden contemplation of the inevitable end of it all. Here is a man who has embraced the toughness of getting on with life amid an awareness that a superfluous, class-based pomposity seems to make things happen, and who sees through it all before setting to the next trick with the learned artistry of the true mountebank.

Olufar Sigurdarson was a magnificent lead in Annilese Miskimmon’s Falstaff. Energetic and charismatic, he was by turns charming and cruel. He held together a production that was otherwise rather lacking in ideas. The conceit initially was that we were back in the aftermath of the Great War, with decorated heroes returned in pieces to an England not quite swept away by its horrors. Ford, transformed into the uptight local vicar, worked well enough – sung carefully, though without much concession to Verdi’s phrasing, by George van Bergen. The merry wives were organising a local fete for the WI, and Carolyn Dobbin as Meg was especially good. The design of the set, however, with its gestures towards a hunting-shooting-fishing world of ‘ye olde’ pubs and heritage Britain, felt almost as hackneyed as the moth-eaten stuffed hare hanging above Falstaff’s head as he contemplated his next move early on. Perhaps this sense of jaded national identity was intended. It fell apart gradually, though, as the opera progressed – the sense of tiredness on the home front wearing ever thinner. The final act in particular was a disorganised spectacle. Nonetheless, the production as a whole had considerable energy, driven along at high tempo by Peter Robinson.

*******

Daniel Slater’s new production of Yevgeny Onegin had more obvious ambition about it and, while not entirely successful, there was much to praise. Tchaikovsky’s Onegin is one of the very rarest things in all of art – a composition that creates something utterly wonderful out of the materials of a work of undisputed genius, without either trampling upon the original or simply rehashing it. To consider it alongside Falstaff is to be all the more dazzled by the achievement.

Pushkin’s poem is a product of European Romanticism. Heavily indebted to Byron and especially his Don Juan, it nevertheless eclipses that work with its far richer comic range. Moments in the poem are painful because of their irony, and the detachment of the narrator is more poised than Byron could manage, for all his swagger. In Tchaikovsky’s hands, however, the material changes almost entirely and the emotional tone is darker and more intense, full of both yearning nostalgia and Romantic lushness. The composer’s decision to adapt the work into separate scenes capitalised at once on the poem’s universal popularity and also enabled him to avoid a wholesale reworking of its narrative, condensing it instead into a sequence of emotional snapshots. It is a broken history of changes in affect, all the more haunting because the overarching narrative is shattered.

Slater chose to update the piece so that the action falls on either side of the Russian Revolution. The opera opens in a Chekovian world teetering on the edge of collapse. Indeed, Leslie Travers’s impressive set has the ruins of imperial Russia thrown around it, prefiguring what is to come. Mark Stone’s rather brilliant Onegin stalks around the scene in a detached, Byronic manner, somewhat reminiscent of a youthful Orson Welles. The death of Lensky, sung carefully by Peter Auty, is mirrored by the fall of his entire officer class who collapse simultaneously. When Monsieur Triquet is dragged out reluctantly to serenade Tatyana on her name day he is a drunken revolutionary whose beautiful aria is played for every possible ounce of comic potential by Gareth Dafydd Morris.

There are problems with updating the piece in this way, however. For one thing, there is so much going on in the opera in terms of its shifts in emotion that it does not particularly benefit from having the enormous tragedy of later history thrust on to smother it. What’s more, the production fails to convey the acute psychological shift that is present as the action moves from the country back to the city in Act Three. Instead, this is transformed into a shift from the broken feudalism of pre-revolutionary Russia to the inhuman nastiness of early Communism with Tatyana (Anna Leese) now the dowdy wife of a party apparatchik. She is quite unlike the charming woman who sang the Letter Scene so well but the change is wrong – she should be the epitome of glamour and not a party wife from whom Onegin hopes to get a leg up.

Both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky were acutely aware of the subtle stratifications of Russian society and it is amid these that Onegin finds his comeuppance. As Slater’s production has it, the whole thing makes no sense. One particular casualty of the transformation is Prince Gremin, whose marvellous aria in praise of Tatyana, though well sung by Graeme Broadbent, is now delivered as an arid political speech. This should rather be a moment of exquisite irony as Onegin is pinned to the spot. It speaks to the hopeful in all of us about the possible redemption that is brought about by unexpected love late in life. If it has a rival in the opera then it is surely Lensky’s magnificent aria on the eve of his death, which mourns the lost potential of youth. Between the two, the vagaries of male identity are laid bare.

The 2012 season of Opera Holland Park has now concluded. Visit www.operahollandpark.com for information on the 2013 season.

An Aesthetic of Awe by Matthew Scott: Review

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Dashi Namdakov: A Nomad’s Universe (16th May-7th July 2012)

Halcyon Gallery, 144-146 New Bond Street

“We were bound to fall in love,” a jaded Ulysses tells Penelope in a sonnet of Robert Lowell, “if only we stayed married long enough.” I found a loose version of these lines about a dying Western myth playing around my mind as I reflected on Westminster’s new sculptural installation at Marble Arch. Sixteen feet in height, it is monumental in size with the verdigris of its bronze, by turns smooth and rugged, arrestingly visceral as it clashes with the late spring greenery of Hyde Park. But this is Genghis Khan astride his charger who drops, apparently from heaven, on one place he can never have thought to capture. Do all of history’s most controversial figures get a chance at redemption provided they hang around the public consciousness long enough for the wheel of financial fortune to turn sufficiently far?

The charming curators of the Halcyon Gallery in Mayfair certainly hope so. And although Genghis Khan retains a reputation as one of history’s most horrifying figures in some parts of the world – the scourge, according to many accounts, of both Arab and Iranian civilisation – the reaction of most passengers in their cars, looking up from Park Lane, will be, I suspect, a form of admiring bafflement. It is an undeniably striking, if somewhat surprising experience to witness the serene warrior fixed in transcendent contemplation of Oxford Street. But it is also curiously appropriate as central London continues to experience the repercussions of an undeniable shift in global power towards the East, with estate agents (as well as gallery owners, fund managers and football club executives) chasing the new wealth of Russia, China and Central Asia.

The sculpture, placed there by Westminster council, has drawn a mixed reaction in some quarters already, only a month after its arrival. After all, there remain those who view him as a figure roughly on a par with Uncle Joe. But there appeared to be few who weren’t converts to this version of the new conqueror of London, or indeed the greater vision of its creator, the Russian sculptor Dashi Namdakov, at the opening of a large retrospective of his last

decade’s work. The lake of champagne, of which there was some tell a short while back, must now be drained by the army of fashionistas who munched their way through endless exotic canapés, some topped with truffles, caviar and gold leaf. Namdakov’s chief aesthetic is awe and a copy of the Genghis Khan bursting upon the classically inspired, Edwardian gallery was remarkable. But up close the work is also more locally beautiful than is apparent at a distance and it is further clear that Namdakov is widely interested in the surface texture of his works.

Indeed, it is hard to resist caressing some of the most prized pieces – none more so than an extraordinary bull’s head carved from an enormous piece of lapis lazuli. It sits staring down at the gallery entrance from a blue room at the head of a distant flight of stairs, as though from the farthest chamber of a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Namdakov is interested in the Buryat mythology of his native Siberia, in which the bull is revered; and one of the most powerful works is a vast and thrusting bronze one that seems destined surely for the forecourt of some great financial powerhouse should we ever return to more benign economic times. Still, I got the feeling wandering around that his target market is probably one that is relatively unworried by the interesting times in which we live. Namdakov’s heroes are gathered from beyond his homeland in order to render icons of power from all over the world. There is a rather terrifying Garuda – national symbol of Indonesia – a large dragon-like bird, oddly Welsh to my eye, and then there are Minotaurs, djinn-like creatures, warriors and symbols of fertility. The centaurs in particular caught my attention – perhaps because of their distance from the dignified metopes of the Parthenon. One is terrifying and speaks to the viewer of an almost unhinged power. It belongs, I was told, to a supremely significant Russian. I pressed my host but she would not be drawn.


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