I was trying to do some background research on the area of the Gard to the west of Avignon when I discovered on my shelves a book by Freda White entitled West of the Rhone. The book gives little information as to who she was, other than the author of Three Rivers of France, a cult book to my parent’s generation. The answer is that she was a Scot, went to Somerville, worked for the League of Nations, was assistant editor of the New Statesman during the war, and stood as a Labour candidate before turning to full-time writing in the 1950s. She is described as ‘a small and determined figure in her trademark tweeds’.
Last night we watched some archival films by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, including an interview late in his life with Magnus Magnusson. Wheeler is a type who would probably never find his way onto television nowadays – so robustly opinionated, so deeply knowledgeable and so obviously politically incorrect. I was particularly interested because he was for a time the Honorary Secretary of the British Academy and I can now more easily imagine him holding court in the British Academy room downstairs with his pipe and carefully curled moustache and vigorously trenchant views.
I was approached today in connection with the campaign to save the small seaside cottage where William Blake lived in Felpham, a village now subsumed by Bognor Regis. In 1799 and 1800, Blake exhibited big works in tempera at the Summer Exhibition, commissioned by Thomas Butts, a minor government servant in charge of military pay. In July 1800, he visited Felpham for the first time, invited by William Hayley, a local poet and patron whose son had just died. Blake loved being by the sea as an escape from ‘Londons dungeon dark’ and thought that Felpham would be ‘propitious to the Arts’. It was for a bit and he thought Felpham ‘the sweetest spot on earth’. But his relationship to Hayley gradually soured, he was accused of sedition by a local drunk, and he and Catherine returned to London in September 1803.
One of the less well-known activities of Richard Westmacott is that he and John Flaxman together with an assistant called William Pistell were responsible for the display of the Elgin Marbles during the period when they were stored in a ramshackle wooden hut next to the garden wall at the back of Burlington House, where they were housed in 1814 and 1815 after Lord Elgin had to sell his house on Park Lane. It was here that they were considered for possible acquisition by the British government. Elgin described how ‘Pistol the marble cutter in New Road near Fitzroy Square, brought them in safety from Piccadilly (Park Lane) to Burlington House; and is much employed by Flaxman on such occasions’.
I woke up early and thought I should go and have a quick look at Richard Westmacott’s colossal statue of Achilles, one of those commemorative statues one half knows about and never really bothers to look at. It’s pretty magnificent, on an epic scale, straight out of central casting, and designed by Westmacott as a memorial to the Duke of Wellington’s victories at Salamanca, Vittoria, Toulouse and Waterloo. The fact that it was paid for by donations from the women of Britain led to a certain amount of ribaldry, including a cartoon by George Cruikshank of the Backside & front view of the ladies fancy-man:-
I have been gently taken to task by Mark Fisher for not knowing as much as I should about Richard Westmacott who was, of course, not just a major authority on ancient sculpture and advisor to the British Museum, but also a major neoclassical sculptor in his own right. It’s true. He was everywhere, designing church monuments, commissioned by the Committee of Taste, producing commemorative statues of Nelson, a huge statue of Achilles in Hyde Park, a statue of George III as Marcus Aurelius, the Duke of York in Waterloo Place, the Waterloo Vase, and, as Mark points out, the pediment sculpture of the British Museum on the progress of mankind to Civilisation. But does this make him the neoclassical sculptor ? Certainly a major one.
The prospect of being interviewed by Swiss Public Radio tomorrow about the life and significance of Angelica Kauffman has compelled me to find a bit more about her than I knew already. What I hadn’t realised was what a huge celebrity she was from an early age across Europe. The toast of Rome, a member of the academies in Florence, Bologna, Rome and Venice, musical as well as artistic, fluent in English, French, Italian and German, she was persuaded to come to London in 1766 by Lady Wentworth, the wife of the British resident in Venice. In London, she was admired (maybe loved) by Reynolds, married a bigamist, elected one of the first RAs, and was one of the five artists selected to decorate the interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral. She was a star ! And when she died, her funeral was organised by Canova and all of Rome turned out in procession.