The Eyes Have It

The Image in Form: Selected Writings of Adrian Stokes

edited by Richard Wollheim
Harper & Row, 320 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Adrian Stokes died on December 15, 1972. The headline of the first obituary announced: “The Modern Ruskin Dies.” Time may well show that as a writer on the visual arts Stokes was of comparable importance; but it is revealing of the cloak of privacy and of reticence with which he was always surrounded and had always protected himself that his death should have first been made public by reference to someone other than himself. For some time Adrian Stokes had been something of a cult figure, and an important influence on a small but slowly widening group of English artists, philosophers, and critics. His books, many of them out of print, were sought after; PhD dissertations were being written about him. But to the general public and particularly in America his name meant nothing. This collection of Stokes’s writing, however, should begin to win for Stokes the recognition his achievement deserves.

In 1925, when he was twenty-three, Stokes accidentally met Ezra Pound in Italy (playing tennis). Pound gave him a letter of introduction to Bernard Berenson in which he described Stokes as a young man with a streak of genius; Stokes characteristically never bothered to use the letter. He was formed as a thinker by places rather than by people—by the London of his childhood but also by Rapallo, by Venice, by Arezzo, and by Rimini. The previous year he had met the Sitwells (also in Italy), who were “the first to open my eyes,” but their world was not his; if there was something of the aesthete about Stokes there was more of the puritan—he was an austere man, who disliked preciosity and frivolity and who was repelled by the florid.

In the early Thirties, as a critic for the Spectator, he was writing what were among the first serious reviews of the art of Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and Barbara Hepworth. Yet when he began to paint seriously himself a few years later, his work had nothing to do with advanced currents in British art (his own painting came closest, I suppose, to Bonnard, although he didn’t come to know Bonnard’s work until later). From the start he was, as Kenneth Clark remarked in a Criterion review of the Quattro Cento (1932), Stokes’s first important book on art, “a solitary.”

In his review Clark invoked the Ruskin parallel and for want of a better perhaps it will have to do. Certainly I can think of no other English-speaking critic who had the ability to write in a prose so close to the beauty of the objects he was describing and who simultaneously took such a broad and original approach to his subject. Pater was an even more important influence in the formation of Stokes’s literary style, and he shared with Pater a deeply intuitive approach and many of the same enthusiasms. But although Stokes was never didactic in quite the sense that Ruskin was, there is even in the early writings …

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