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On R. Langton Douglas

In response to:

Berenson's Certificate from the March 12, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

Old men’s rages sadden me: whether my father’s (R. Langton Douglas) or John Pope-Hennessy’s. I fail to understand why Pope-Hennessy’s anger at what well may be an irresponsible book [NYR, March 12], causes him to take, not the author, Colin Simpson, but my father and other former mentors, like Mason Perkins, as his target. My criticism is not Pope-Hennessy’s critique of the Simpson book but his misrepresentation of my father.

I would like to correct several statements. First, my father was not simply a clergyman nor was he an “indigent enthusiast…engaged in exploiting Sienese painting.” My father’s roots were academic. Oxford trained, he was in Siena to research and write its history. His friends were prominent Italian scholars as well as the Zendadari-Chigi family, in whose palace Douglas stayed while writing a part of his book, The History of Siena (John Murray, 1902). This makes a less amusing story than Pope-Hennessy’s, but may serve to balance it.

Pope-Hennessy says “Berenson had a world wide reputation as a scholar while he [my father] had next to none.” That may be so today, but in earlier years it was not true. Among other academic or scholarly pursuits, Douglas lectured at Harvard, Princeton and Yale (and at the Metropolitan), was the Director of the National Gallery of Dublin, edited Crowe and Cavalcaselle’s A History of Italian Painting (a major reference in Pope-Hennessy’s books) and was a respected, if controversial and untactful, author of numerous scholarly articles and books. (It was in the early years of his writing about Italian art that Douglas first insulted or one-upped Roger Fry and Berenson and earned their vociferous enmity.)

Denys Sutton, the noted art critic, historian and editor, presents a very different evaluation of my father’s life and work in a series of articles in Apollo. In them Sutton writes about my father’s “reputation for honesty and knowledge” both as a dealer and as a writer of opinions on pictures. Sutton adds:

I have endeavored to present the achievement of one of the most gifted art dealers of all time and who, as a judge of Italian paintings, commands the respect of later generations, of men such as John Pope-Hennessy, Frederico Zeri and Everett Fahy.

Sutton also notes that “John Pope-Hennessy also read the manuscript and gave me sound advice as well as his own memories of Douglas.” Memories and respect that differ greatly from that voiced here.

If only from having read the Apollo articles and Pope-Hennessy’s own books, Pope-Hennessy knows the large number of important pictures that went through my father’s hands and that are now in major museums (many in his own Metropolitan Museum). His denial of this, “all I recall…is a handful of ambiguous, secondary paintings,” twists the truth.

But let me use Pope-Hennessy’s own words on Perkins and Douglas. Words that present a markedly different evaluation of his older friends than the scorn he heaps on them in the present review:

In writing this volume I have had one supreme advantage, the friendship and advice of Mr. F. Mason Perkins. With the greatest generosity he has allowed me to draw on his unexampled knowledge of Sienese painting…. This book as a whole owes much to Mr. Perkins’s encouragement and inspiration…. Among those to whom I have applied for advice on questions of varying importance I must thank particularly Capt. Langton Douglas. [John Pope-Hennessy, Giovanni di Paola, Chatto and Windus, London, 1937, pp. vii–viii]

To Mr. F. Mason Perkins, who has perhaps a more intimate knowledge of, and a greater intuitive sympathy for, Sassetta’s style than any other living critic…I also owe much…. In the nature of things it is impossible to record here individually the many other scholars and officials whose help I have received, but I must nevertheless recall the name of…Captain Langton Douglas. [John Pope-Hennessy, Sassetta, Chatto and Windus, London, 1939, unpaged vii]

Pope-Hennessy goes on to write about Douglas and Berenson in almost the reverse of the way he writes of them in The New York Review:

There followed at the beginning of this century the work of a more professional student, Langton Douglas, who, in the course of his History of Siena and of articles in The Burlington Magazine and Bryan’s Dictionary, attempted the first synthetic review of Sassetta’s career and reattributed to the painter several of his most important pictures, among them the now famous panel of The Mystic Marriage of St. Francis at Chantilly then attributed by Berenson to Sano di Pietro. Immediately on the appearance of Douglas’ article Berenson himself took up the trail, publishing at the end of the same year in two articles in Burlington Magazine…. These articles…confined themselves otherwise to presenting such information as was already ascertained against a background of ingenious theory. Of no great importance as a factual contribution to the study of Sassetta’s style, the author’s [Berenson’s] meticulous and sensitive descriptions of individual pictures are nevertheless largely responsible for the wide popularity of Sassetta today. [pp. 1-2]

I will not bore your readers with the many other references to my father’s scholarship throughout Pope-Hennessy’s books (most notably and extensively in his beautiful Fra Angelico [Phaidon, 1972, 2nd ed.]).

What I most resent is Pope-Hennessy’s use of gossip: “It was said” this and that outrageous thing about Douglas, none of which fit his character. My father was outrageous but not like that. He was a Celt and his excesses were Celticly large. He was a sensualist, a spendthrift and an obstinate, angry and untactful man. Yes, my father may have looked “like an enormous frog” in 1951. He was eighty-seven, bloated with edema and dying. He was also senile and given over to ever more Lear-like ragings and self-pity. But he still could be touched. What I remember is how moved my father was by Pope-Hennessy’s visit and how much my father enjoyed discussing “that brilliant young man’s [Pope-Hennessy’s]” proposed book on Fra Angelico with him. A true friend, Pope-Hennessy. That was what my father thought. I wonder what he would think now. Does Pope-Hennessy, being himself so old, now nurse the same angers and rages that once tore at my father? Whatever the reasons, this review makes a tragic mockery not of the book he reviews, nor of my father, but of John Pope-Hennessy himself.

Claire Douglas, Ph.D.

New York City

The angry old man replies:

Dr. Douglas asks, “Does Pope-Hennessy, being himself so old, now nurse the same angers and rages that once tore at my father?” The answer is that he does not. The two monographs I published before the war owed more to the encouragement of Robert Langton Douglas than they did to that of Berenson. The book under review, Simpson’s Artful Partners, however, represents a gross distortion of what has become history. I am sorry that Dr. Douglas should take exception to my references to her father, but rereading them, they seem to me faithfully to represent the view taken of him in the 1930s by people other than myself, to which later experience (not least the Apollo articles reprinted as Robert Langton Douglas, Connoisseur of Art and Life) has led me to subscribe.

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