Our old friend, David Fielding, the opera director, came to supper tonight and told us about Johann Christian Bach, who arrived in London in 1762, composed a number of operas, including Carattaco, now seldom performed, became music master to Queen Charlotte, and made friends with Karl Friedrich Abel, with whom he shared lodgings in Meard Street. They organised subscription concerts on Wednesday afternoons in Carlisle House and later in Hanover Square. Abel was a friend of Gainsborough, who swapped a painting of a Pomeranian bitch and puppy (now in the Tate) for lessons on the viola da gamba. When Abel died of the drink in 1787, Gainsborough wrote how he would ‘never cease looking up to heaven…In hopes of getting one more glimpse of the man I loved from the moment I heard him touch the string’.
I have thought many times in recent weeks of the two occasions when I met Kenneth Clark. The first must have been in 1981 when we were invited to stay by friends in a small pavilion at Parfondeval in the farming hinterland outside Dieppe. As we were having a drink in the evening, I looked across the lawn and saw a familiar figure sitting on the terrace of the chateau in a bath chair. It was Kenneth Clark. He and his second wife Nolwen lived in the other pavilion. A plan was hatched that I might look at the many lectures he had given on the subject of modern art and not long afterwards I visited them in their bungalow in the grounds of Saltwood Castle. There in an old steel filing cabinet was an array of lectures he had given in the 1930s. I still regret not having taken up the suggestion of publishing them. I handed over the task to Nick Coker who died not long after Clark himself. We remained friends of Nolwen and went to concerts with her at the Barbican where she encouraged us to eat ginger biscuits.
I was unfamiliar with Phyllida Barlow’s work until she had an exhibition in the Hauser and Wirth building next door to St. James’s Piccadilly. It was a great and glorious, adventurous mess. Not long after (in 2011) she was elected an RA. Now her work is everywhere, in the Duveen Gallery in Tate Britain, about to be in the new Hauser and Wirth gallery outside Bruton in Somerset, in Venice and Pittsburgh and West Palm Beach. I like and admire her new exhibition of drawings at Hauser and Wirth in Savile Row, which shows the intellectual discipline which underlay her early drawings, before she developed her later, doodling freedom.
This morning I went to an early morning viewing of the Kenneth Clark exhibition at Tate Britain. There he was, the great aesthete, in the portrait by Graham Sutherland, open necked and slightly dandified, also being painted on the banks of the river Alde by Charles Sims, who was dressed in a Homburg hat and spats. Clark’s taste in early Italian art is revealed as less sure than expected, including some duds he bought for the National Gallery, whilst his taste in artists of his own time was wide ranging and confident, buying work from Henry Moore’s first exhibition, by illustrators like Ardizzone and fine work by Victor Pasmore and Graham Bell (Anne Olivier Bell is described on a label as Bell’s ‘friend’, but she was also his fiancée and lover). He supported the young Lucian Freud with a grant of £500. Throughout one hears recordings of Dame Myra Hess playing at the National Gallery during the second world war.
Tonight, I was asked to say a few words to a group who were about to have dinner in the Royal Academy Schools. I thought they might find it interesting to have a look at the picture which Johann Zoffany painted of the St. Martin’s Lane Academy not long after he arrived in London from Germany in 1760. I hadn’t looked at it carefully myself. What it shows is the most important academy in London before the Royal Academy itself. It was based in a courtyard off St. Martin’s Lane, was much more democratic than the Royal Academy (the subscription was two guineas for the first year and a guinea and a half thereafter), and more casual, a drop-in centre for evening classes in drawing. The person in the front looking out at the spectator is George Michael Moser, a Swiss artist who was committed to the community of artists and became the first Keeper of the Royal Academy. In the background, putting equipment away in a cupboard, is John Malin, who was the first member of staff of the RA.
I find myself doing some unexpected things. Today I boarded an early train to Bicester Village with a group of instantly identifiable fashion journalists to an event to celebrate a pop-up version of our Keeper’s House. The hope is that all those wealthy shoppers from China and the Home Counties will buy a print by Grayson Perry and join the RA friends. En route, I was asked by one of the journalists why I was dressed for Henley.
I have been investigating the career of Janet Stone in connection with a review I’m writing of the Kenneth Clark exhibition at Tate Britain. The daughter of a bishop and sister of two, she was one of Kenneth Clark’s many lovers, the recipient of more than 1,500 letters from him (currently unavailable for consultation at the Bodleian), describing herself as ‘his sink’. The wife of Reynolds Stone, the old Etonian wood engraver, they lived in the Old Rectory in Litton Cheney. She gave a collection of photographs to the National Portrait Gallery which, so far as I know, have never been exhibited. I used to see her occasionally in Salisbury in broad-brimmed Edwardian hats and remember spotting her as a guest (presumably of John Sparrow who she photographed in a tea cosy) at an Encaenia lunch at All Souls. This is her photograph of Kenneth Clark:
Janet with Daisy Gili:
An unusual start to the day in that I was asked to chair a discussion organised by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Design on the subject of Beauty in Public Life. Luckily, chairing the session meant that I didn’t have to speak about it. Richard Rogers described how he had not been allowed by senior civil servants ever to use the word beauty and lamented the fact that policy makers and parliamentarians seldom included artists and architects. Nick Raynsford MP, the chairman of the Parliamentary Group, revealed that he was one of only two MPs who had been to art school and therefore were comfortable about speaking about art in the House of Commons. Sam Jacob, of the architectural practice FAT (soon to disband after they have provided Britain’s contribution to the Venice Biennale), talked about the experience of designing New Islington in Manchester where they had the temerity to ask the clients what they thought about beauty. The President of the Royal Academy described how he had had been a closet believer in the concept of beauty throughout his painting career. The discussion was – perhaps inevitably – inconclusive because the idea of beauty remains philosophically slippery in spite of the good efforts of Alberti and Edmund Burke. Should it be defined top down by artists and architects, as happened after the second world war, or should it be defined bottom up by engaging the public in the discussion of aesthetics ? The majority took the latter view, but recognised the difficulties of getting the civil service and politicians to engage with it.
Some years ago, I was invited to lunch with Henry Kissinger. I wasn’t able to go. I have always regretted it. Tonight he came to the RA in celebration of his ninetieth birthday. Whatever the views of historians of his role in the past, he spoke with extraordinary authority about international relations, referring to the first mission of the British to China in the late eighteenth century and to the ideas of Bismarck in the nineteenth, talking about diplomacy with a long historical and philosophical dimension.
One of the enjoyable rituals of the Summer Exhibition is Sanctioning Day, when members of the Summer Exhibition committee meet to approve the hang. We meet at 11 am and move from gallery to gallery. Whoever has been responsible for the hang in a room speaks to it, talking through problems and issues, pointing out where members’ work has been hung, sometimes pointing out work by artists who might be members or have been considered. Occasionally, minor suggestions are made by the President or members of the committee: how a work might be centred or a juxtaposition improved or where the work of James Turrell would look best. Then, the artist who has hung the room is congratulated, the room is sanctioned by the President, and there is a small round of applause.