Confined to my bed for a day with a stinking cold, I thought I would console myself by reading the original text of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which has been the subject of so much discussion and debate in recent weeks and which, although it was kept in my parent’s glass-fronted bookcase along with other family treasures, I’m not absolutely convinced I ever actually read, although I watched the original series, and have watched some episodes since. What struck me immediately is not the confidence and intellectual arrogance which some found so off-putting in Clark as the extreme sense of anxiety and pessimism about the fragility of what he finds it hard to describe as ‘Civilisation’. He describes his enterprise in an ironic, eighteenth-entury way as Speculations on the Nature of Civilisation as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day. He belonged to a generation who felt, rightly or wrongly, that the values of civilisation as they had been brought up to believe in had been at risk of being swept away during the second world war and were still at risk, so worth trying, however inadequately, to define. I think it’s this which gives the book, and presumably the programmes, their moral urgency, which the current programmes, with their much greater generosity of spirit to other cultures, maybe lack.
We went to our Charles I exhibition again yesterday afternoon in order to enjoy it as much as possible before it closes in less than three week’s time and is dispersed for another 350 years. Two things struck me. The first is that Charles I is wearing a pearl earring in the Triple Portrait (and, also, in the National Gallery’s equestrian portait and the Louvre portrait, too). He is apparently first shown wearing it (always the same pearl earring, always in his left ear) in a portrait by Isaac Oliver, painted when he was fifteen; and he was apparently still wearing it at his execution. I had totally forgotten, also, that the earring survives, inherited by the Dukes of Portland from the first Earl who received it as a gift from Queen Mary and that it’s on display in the Harley Gallery at Welbeck (strongly recommended). The other thing that struck me was the amazing quality of the painting of the clothes in Jacopo Bassano’s Journey of Jacob (Royal Collection). But then there is always something new to see and appreciate.
I thought that Hambleden was in Oxfordshire, but it turns out to be in the tail end of Buckinghamshire where it runs along the Thames: a village of unexpected picturesqueness, in a valley on its own, with a monument in the churchyard to the Kenricks, the local landowners, which was apparently sketched by Horace Walpole when he visited it in 1764:-
I had a conversation during the week about Bill Brandt, who is to be the subject of an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art. I had thought, quite wrongly, that he had contributed photographs to Robert Byron’s Shell Guide to Wiltshire, with its surreal collage cover done by Lord Berners. What he did do was provide photographs for the National Buildings Record, established by Walter Godfrey in 1940 ‘to meet the dangers of war then threatening many buildings of national importance’ and with John Summerson, who had a good eye for architectural photography, as its Deputy Director. Brandt (his voice ‘as loud as a moth’) took unexpectedly straight documentary photographs for the NBR of the tombs in Canterbury Cathedral, as well as buildings, streets and churches in Chichester, Canterbury and Rochester. At the same time, he took much more atmospheric photographs of ancient monuments towards the end of the war, including Stonehenge and Avebury, published first in Lilliput and in 1951 in his book on Literary Britain.
In discussing Somerset House yesterday, I remembered that we have a chimneypiece by Joseph Wilton which came from the original Council Room in Somerset House and was moved to the new Council Room in Burlington House, after the Royal Academy had moved in 1868. But they had left Somerset House in 1837, so it was quite a feat to have transferred the (very elaborate) chimneypiece, presumably with the permission of the new occupants of the rooms in Somerset House:-
Wilton was an intriguing figure – well known and successful as a sculptor, trained in Flanders and Paris, knowledgeable about antiquities, and one of the four key figures in the foundation of the Royal Academy, but, at the same time, running a successful yard, selling chimneypieces from Queen Anne Street East, opposite Marylebone Fields, sellings casts, urns and vases by the yard.
While at it, I tried to identify the layout of the rooms occupied by the Royal Academy.
First, the staircase:-
The first room on the first floor opening out onto the staircase was the Ante Room and Library, with surprisingly elegant plasterwork decoration and Theory by Reynolds in the middle of the ceiling:-
The room next door over the arch was the meeting room, described as for the Royal Society, with chimneypieces by Joseph Wilton:-
To the left was a room for casts with the original insignia of the RA in the plasterwork decoration:-
Beyond, in the centre of the Strand façade, the original Council and General Assembly Room, a good space, again with chimneypieces by Wilton:-
The rooms of the Royal Academy interleaved with those of the Royal Society.
On the floor above was the Great Room, due to be restored as part of the plans by Witherford Watson Mann.
I saw bits of Somerset House I had never seen before.
The basement vaults next door to where Henrietta Maria had her chapel:-
The Nelson staircase with Chambers’s beautiful, crisp stair treads:-
The detailing, which, according to Baretti in his Guide through the Royal Academy, was ‘carved from finished drawings by Cipriani, one of the founding RAs:-
The bust of Newton over the entrance to the Royal Society:-
And, finally, the north front in the evening sun:-