The Man Who Wasn’t There

Marbot: Eine Biographie Crampton, will be published in September by Braziller.)

by Wolfgang Hildesheimer
Suhrkamp Verlag, 326 pp., $20.90 (The American edition of Marbot, translated by Patricia

In this book Wolfgang Hildesheimer, the German novelist and author of a recent biography of Mozart, purports to resuscitate a forgotten figure in English nineteenth-century art and letters; a writer whose achievement—as was the case with Beckford, Byron, Swinburne, Wilde, and many others—was in some way linked to sexual “deviation.” According to Hildesheimer, the work of Andrew Marbot has passed largely unnoticed because his ideas were too novel and radical for his own time. For this short-lived amateur art historian was the first scholar ever to have searched for the psychological roots of artistic creation, thus anticipating some of the discoveries of the psychoanalytical theory of art.

A precocious achievement indeed. As we learn from Hildesheimer’s meticulously written biography, his hero’s upbringing favored the direction of his research. Sir Andrew Marbot (1801-1830) was born at Marbot Hall, Northumberland, into a family of Catholic landowners. His father was a country squire with few interests beyond hunting; his mother, Lady Catherine, had been raised in Italy and was possessed of a livelier, more educated mind. Her father, moreover, the third Viscount Claverton, had been British minister-resident in Venice from 1784-1797; in this capacity he acquired masterpieces by Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto, Canaletto, and Guardi. His guests at nearby Redmond Manor included Turner and Raeburn, De Quincey, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. The combined influences of Lord Claverton, his paintings, and his guests triggered the grandson’s lifelong passion for art. In addition, a Jesuit tutor provided him with a solid grounding in the liberal arts.

At age twenty Andrew was ready for his Grand Tour. It took him by way of London and Paris to Italy, always in pursuit of artistic interests. He soon started jotting down impressions of paintings and the first adumbrations of his future theories. Marbot made friends with the leading art scholar, Baron Rumohr; he spent one month with Byron and his circle at Pisa. Upon the death of his father in 1822 he returned for two years to England, but he spent the remainder of his life on the Continent where his studies increased steadily in breadth and depth. He died mysteriously in Urbino, where he kept house with a mistress.

Most of these facts, Hildesheimer explains, were known from an earlier biography by an American, Frederic Hadley-Chase (1888). Marbot’s writings were accessible, under the title Art and Life, in a posthumous edition by his tutor, Gerardus van Rossum (1834; German translation 1839). Hildesheimer, however, does not conceal his pride in his own research, which produced, among other interesting details, Marbot’s hitherto unrecorded interview with Goethe. He tells us with some excitement how his own view of his subject changed dramatically when a descendant of the tutor’s heirs put at his disposal all of Marbot’s manuscripts, including his private papers. For then Hildesheimer realized that there had been a secret behind Marbot’s busy intellectual life and aloof manner. His premature insights had been conditioned by his own extremely vulnerable psychic disposition …

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