Learning to Look
by John Pope-Hennessy
Doubleday, 336 pp., $27.50
Toward the end of the Second World War a young British officer was posted to Washington where he rented a room in the house of a maiden lady. The lady was an astrologer and she obligingly cast not only his horoscope but that of his brother. “Don’t blame me,” he wrote his brother, “if you are frightened by its uncanny accuracy.” The horoscope read as follows:
This person is born for fame and will have a very long life. He is “a lovely gentle soul” and has a phenomenal brain, is “seething with emotion” but never towards human beings, and is so sensitive that “he cannot stand the shriek of a train whistle or any sudden noise”…. He will achieve great fame and money by his work which will become more strictly creative than anything he has done hitherto. He will produce some great work of a visionary or occult nature, which could have to do with the Italian Renaissance. Astrologically he can never wish to live in England, but must and should live in Italy….
His planets absolutely prevent his having emotions about people or even liking them. He will never really enjoy social life, and must at all costs be left alone since he is entirely happy in himself at his own ploys. It cannot be too much emphasized that he must be left alone. Hardly anyone can understand him, and neither his mother nor his brother will ever be able to do so fully, although there is the greatest harmony of affection between all three. He can become very irritable, even very disagreeable when crossed or if anyone tries to force him to do what he doesn’t like. People, including his own family, sometimes irritate him to excess. He is not of a spending disposition, indeed in preference saves, but will readily spend money “on some valuable book or, it seems to me, a picture.”
John Pope-Hennessy has in fact achieved a degree of fame as an art historian and as a museum director in London and museum curator in New York; and his autobiography is strewn with remarks suggesting the astrologer was uncannily accurate. “By temperament I am not gregarious, and I have always disliked group activities.” “Balliol left its mark on me, in the form of a self-confidence that sometimes verged on arrogance and a clear understanding of the difference between success and a succès d’estime.” “Sometimes one gets exasperated with the limitations of one’s friends and expels them from one’s life, and I did exactly that with [the fifteenth-century painter] Matteo di Giovanni.” Most sympathetic of all: “Nothing makes one feel so unclean as simulating enthusiasm.”
This is the story of a man obsessed with looking. No matter how often he has seen a painting he will return to it once more in the expectation that he will find something new. Pope-Hennessy is indifferent to what people may think. Nothing deflects him from telling the truth as he sees …