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The Art of the Matter

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 it about paintings, people, or institutions. This is indeed one of the most self-assured books I have ever read. Self-assured is not the same as vain, conceited, or aggressive. It means that the author has never doubted that the career for which he destined himself or the decisions he made during it would have been other than they were.

He allows himself to doubt what others have written or thought about works of art; for how otherwise could art history be written? Apart from this, doubt is a state of mind entirely foreign to him. He has no doubt about his vocation as an art historian.

Works of art have always seemed to me to have a supernatural power, and I believe that visual images constitute a universal language through which the experience of the past is transmitted to the present, and by whose means all lives can be immeasurably enriched.

Nor does he doubt the existence of another supernatural power. When Berenson asked him what he believed, “I said I believed tenaciously in a number of things that were inherently improbable, and that the fixative by which I was attached to them was ritual.” The nine interminable years he spent at the junior and senior Benedictine public school Downside strengthened his hold on the Catholic faith. Romantics say an artist is inspired. He believes the artist is visited by divine grace. He has that relaxed view of the eternal verities that many Catholics born in the faith display. During the air raids on London he realized that “it was no use praying to major saints, whose switchboards would almost certainly be busy, so I prayed to St. Rose of Viterbo, whose line seemed always to be disengaged.”

But if his religion protected him from the temptations of the world to stray from his vocation, who implanted the gyroscope that kept him relentlessly on course? Perhaps his grandfather had a hand in it. He was an Irish gentleman whose winning manner secured him a seat in Parliament and gave Trollope his idea for the character of Phineas Finn in his political novels. When he lost his seat Pope-Hennessy became a colonial governor who preferred to appoint competent natives rather than bad hats from aristocratic families sent out from England. “When he saw that things were wrong, he tried to put them right,” writes his grandson. “This is a vice I have inherited.”

But by far the strongest influence was his mother. Brought up to believe that truthfulness mattered most in life, she wrote maxims in her girl’s commonplace book such as, “To be active is the primary vocation of man,” and “Those who are quite satisfied sit still and do nothing; those who are not quite satisfied are the sole benefactors of the earth.” She read German philosophy, made friends with George Moore and Yeats, and she was counseled by Bertrand Russell to stand firm when she fell in love with a penniless army officer, the son of the colonial governor. Her father disapproved. He too had been a colonial governor and the elder Pope-Hennessy was too liberal a member of the service for him. Still, the young pair married. He rose to the rank of major general, she became one of the first Dames of the British Empire as a reward for her work for prisoners of war during the First World War. She emerged as a literary figure in London, reviewing for the periodicals and writing worthy biographies of Dickens and Charles Kingsley. She told both her sons that they were born to write, and write they must. From her John Pope-Hennessy inherited a powerful moral sense, astringency, and wit. He also inherited her habit of expressing astonishment at other people’s ignorance of esoteric facts.

He does not consider he inherited much from his father. “I was fond of my father though I never knew him well.” Although his father shared his son’s interest in painting, he was a “keen but clumsy watercolour painter” and “for my mother he became something of a liability. He was wasteful and unpractical, and was not allowed to handle money or to carve.” One can see that the masterful Dame Una was right to protect the family fortunes against a spendthrift; but to ensure that the general did not give too lavish a helping of the leg of lamb to guests seems a very severe punishment. From this account it could be inferred that here was a relic of the First World War who exasperated his two literary sons and his intellectual wife. The inference would be wrong. During the war I had got to know his other son, James, and when I met the general I wished more First World War generals had been as intelligent as he. James detested his father, and his father was rightly disturbed that such a prince of indiscretion should be in military intelligence. The trouble, I suspect, was that nobody in the family was in the remotest degree interested in the general’s concerns.

Even in his childhood John Pope-Hennessy followed pursuits that pointed to his future: delight in jigsaw puzzles, collecting shells and butterflies, and logging the numbers of the railway engines. But it was at Oxford that he moved into the world in which he was to live. In the early 1930s no one taught art history at Oxford or Cambridge. It was not regarded as a subject fit for undergraduate study and Anthony Blunt had not yet taken over the Cortauld in London. You had to teach yourself with the help of a few museum directors or connoisseurs who could be persuaded to take an interest in you. Some may pick up this book expecting to read some of John Pope-Hennessy’s celebrated asperities. They will be disappointed. He praises his patron Kenneth Clark and Berenson and thanks every curator or owner of a painting who gave him the chance to learn to look.

Learning to Look is an apt title. Using a small legacy Pope-Hennessy visited in a bare half year in 1935 Amsterdam, the Kröller-Müller, Utrecht, Munster, Cologne, Frankfurt, Altenburg, Dresden, Berlin, Basel, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Venice, Padua, Siena, Assisi, and Perugia. The gyroscope was in command. He decided what was to be the subject of his first book, and Giovanni di Paolo duly appeared in 1937. The next year he finished his book on Sassetta.

Thinking to figure skate, he launched himself on the connoisseurs’ rink but found they played a mean game of ice hockey. While Tancred Borenius was kindness itself, Pope-Hennessy also heard him denouncing Kenneth Clark for buying paintings by Previtali for the National Gallery. As a boy on a visit to America his mother had taken him to tea with Miss Helen Frick. “Berenson,” said Miss Frick, “never let me hear the man’s name again.” When some years later he told BB the story, Berenson was not amused. At I Tatti he learned that the names of Richard Offner and Erwin Panofsky were unmentionable. At Salzburg he once told Berenson that he doubted whether he would go to hear Bruno Walter conduct Mahler’s Third. “My dear, you would be making a great mistake. Mahler is a very considerable phenomenon.” The next evening Pope-Hennessy told Berenson how grateful he was for the advice. “‘How can you be taken in by stuff like that?’ he replied. I found this disconcerting.”

None of this, in fact, disconcerts him. He likes making friends with difficult people. He praises that troublesome art historian Edgar Wind. He chuckles over Douglas Cooper’s quarrelsome addiction to truth: Cooper “represented standards…in a world peopled with limp critics and sequacious art historians.” “I have a weakness,” Pope-Hennessy admits, “for people who are intolerant.” Very properly he praises Anthony Blunt as a scholar and an organizer in the art world. He never quite got on terms of friendship with him but he admits that just before Blunt was disgraced, he wrote him a letter of support, disgusted as he was by the innuendoes of the press. Whatever Blunt did does not efface the contribution he made to his subject. It pleases me—though it would not have pleased Blunt—to read Pope-Hennessy’s praise of Michael Jaffé, another scholar who is as assured as himself, for making Cambridge after the war the best place for teaching art history and for becoming at the Fitzwilliam Museum “the most distinguished English museum director of his day.”

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