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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.”

Before the war Pope-Hennessy along with the art historian and collector Denis Mahon spent an unsuccessful three months as an unpaid assistant of the National Gallery in London. The staff disliked the two protégés of Kenneth Clark, though not so much as they did Clark himself, for preferring the London beau monde to themselves. In 1938 Pope-Hennessy joined the staff of the Victoria and Albert Museum. After the war he published more than ever and spent every holiday in Italy, looking. By this time he had moved on from the narrow field of Sienese art to Florentine sculpture and by the 1960s he had tackled the most painterly of all painters, Raphael. Perhaps the happiest years of his life were spent as curator of sculpture at the Victoria and Albert after the war. No museum outside Italy has a finer collection of Italian sculpture, and Pope-Hennessy made his name in museums by his catalog of the collection and as an indefatigable purchaser for the museum. And it is from these pages in his book that one gets the best impression of how he worked as an art historian.

But his career inexorably began to take a different path. His work as a curator was so outstanding that he was appointed director of the V&A. He was an excellent director and he gives an account of the many changes and reforms he made there. It was no wonder then that after thirty-five years there he was asked to become the next director of the British Museum, which was then in low water. Pope-Hennessy overhauled the committee structure of the museum, established better relations between staff and trustees, created more curatorial posts for research, encouraged loans to provincial museums (as at the Victoria and Albert), and arranged exhibitions. Best of all, against the opposition of the keepers, Pope-Hennessy set up a conservation department. (Whether all the young men he appointed were as effective as he thinks is another matter.)

So it was galling to the trustees when after only three years as director Pope-Hennessy resigned. There was no row. He felt he was traveling through a tunnel at the end of which was retirement and son et lumière, and the tunnel was too long. The haul to renovate the British Museum would take many years, and as always he found too many of his colleagues dispiriting. In his memoir he gives another reason for leaving. The murder of his brother James in his house in Ladbroke Grove made him long, “at first subconsciously, then consciously, to be released from the ghost-haunted atmosphere.”

Like Auden and Isherwood in the 1930s Pope-Hennessy had made up his mind that his destiny was on the other side of the Atlantic, and soon offers from America flowed in. He accepted Thomas Hoving’s offer of the chairmanship of European painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a professorship at the Institute of Fine Arts. Thus he resumed the work he liked most—he was again a curator advising on acquisitions and the running of one section of the museum’s activities; and he had also time for research and a supply of first-class graduate students.

Pope-Hennessy savored the consternation that his decision caused in London and the dismay of his friends when he told them he would not miss them at all and had no intention of keeping a base in England. “I wanted a new life,” he writes, “and a new life was what I got.”

He adored America. Like other British intellectual expatriates, he discovered how receptive and genuinely curious their audiences can be; how hard graduate students work and what a hunger there is for the arts. Even more exhilarating for him was New York. What a relief to move from a country in which it was often impossible to get the money to acquire important works to a city where one could appeal to benefactors who were knowledgeable and generous. Connoisseurs of paintings can be self-effacing scholars like Meyer Schapiro or Johannes Wilde. But if they are to enter the marketplace and buy for museums, they need the social skills to know who owns treasures and when aristocrats may be induced to sell them. “I had looked,” Pope-Hennessy confesses, “as intently as manners allowed, at the fine Burne-Joneses in Lady Horner’s dining room in Fitzharding Street.” His prewar tours of Europe and his entrée to English country houses were now to be invaluable for the Metropolitan Museum.

The astrologist’s prediction that he was incapable of liking people was inaccurate. John Pope-Hennessy is on as good terms with this world as he is with the next. His greatest coups at the Metropolitan were the fruit of his friendship with Charles and Jayne Wrightsman and with Jack and Belle Linsky. He found New York much more friendly than London. In London he had always to compete—and he is very competitive. In New York he was accepted as a celebrity and an arbiter. From the janitor of his apartment house to old friends such as Drue Heinz, who was to help him get his way in the museum, he found himself surrounded by friends and admirers. He repaid his friends in a coin which he was expert in minting, gossip. One can see what agreeable company he is by the stories he retails—even if some are ben trovato. Yet it was not Pope-Hennessy’s appetite for gossip so much as his mastery of his subject that won him admirers. When the time came for him to retire, some young scholars paid him the singular compliment of mounting an exhibition of fifteenth-century Sienese painting: and there before him were many of the paintings that had moved him when he set out in the Thirties on his career.

The zest with which Pope-Hennessy describes his translation to the Metropolitan is infectious. His benefactors enabled him to make the decade he was there a golden age for acquisitions. He could hand-pick his staff and rehang the galleries. He could bring in new experts to clean paintings. He could organize exhibitions renowned for their range by making treaties with Italian directors and by exploiting his excellent relations with the Louvre.

This leads him on to explain the problems facing a museum director. His relations with his trustees pose difficulties: How are they to be persuaded that “the fully efficient, really creative museum is the museum that by business standards is overstaffed”? Even more fraught are his relations with his staff—curators and experts jealous of their rights. How is the director to enable his connoisseurs to become scholars? Scholarship does more than add to the prestige of a museum. It generates “moral seriousness and pertinacity.” But how then does one deflect scholar-connoisseurs from becoming pedants? ” ‘He is a good scholar,’ we say of someone of whom there is, indeed, little else that can be said.”

On these and many other matters Pope-Hennessy has many wise things to say. His judgments inspire confidence because he records ventures that have not entirely succeeded as well as those that have. Relabeling the Metropolitan paintings was only partially successful, he concedes, because the labels were too large and too white. I thought that they contained too much information, with the danger that the visitor read his way around the gallery instead of looking. At the National Gallery in London where the collections were relabeled when I was chairman of the trustees, the labels were, I think, of a better and more modest size. But too often the information was of interest mainly to an art historian. (Keats knew Claude’s Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid [The Enchanted Castle] and probably had the painting in mind when in the “Ode to a Nightingale” he spoke of “magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.” But the label made no mention of this and two directors had to intervene before it could be changed.)

John Pope-Hennessy ends his analysis of museums and their problems with a reprise of his article first published in these pages, on the vicissitudes of the Victoria and Albert.* When he goes to war no quarter is given. He considers that the rot at the V&A set in immediately after the appointment of his successor was announced. He should have explained in fairness that his successor, Roy Strong, had made his name as director of the National Portrait Gallery, which had been moribund until Strong revived it. He might also have added that when consulted by one of the electors he said Strong was the best of the applicants. Strong had written to say how overjoyed he was to be appointed because “one feels it is the right thing to happen at the right time,” to which Pope-Hennessy adds: “It soon transpired, however, that it was not the right thing or the right time at all.” Pope-Hennessy’s secretary was given notice to quit and Roy Strong’s secretary

came down to announce that my office would be redecorated by Supertheatricals Ltd. When asked why this was necessary, she replied: “Because Dr. Strong will be receiving members of the aristocracy.” This was the beginning of a thirteen-year regime that reduced the museum and its staff to a level from which it will not recover for many years.

During the Eighties a board of undistinguished trustees was appointed to the V&A; its chairman, Lord Carrington, was head of NATO and spent most of his time in Brussels. He backed the director against the staff, and when a new director had to be appointed under a new chairman the board “embarked on policies of a brainless vulgarity that would not have been tolerated by any self-respecting museum in the United States.” The whole sorry scheme was eventually abandoned though the new scheme suffers still from a prejudice against scholarship, the number of curatorial posts has been reduced, and those that remain have been downgraded.

To Pope-Hennessy the disaster at the V&A was a symptom of a deeper malaise. Conservative governments had made the error of thinking that Britain should follow American practice and rely on the rich to make donations to pay for new acquisitions and the public to pay at the door. But this policy, Pope-Hennessy says, is doomed to failure. Britain and America are two different societies. In America local citizens give works of art to their city museum, in Britain aristocrats rarely gave anything to their local museum and later sold their paintings to collectors in the United States. The British museum public, he says, is “lethargic,” whereas the American public is “culture-conscious and seducible” and is willing to pay. That is why American museums are so full of vitality and innovation.

Lethargy is certainly a syndrome that attacks the staff of museums. In the late 1960s when Sir John Wolfenden was director of the British Museum, Dame Kathleen Kenyon and I as trustees asked whether the mummy room, which attracts more visitors than any other, should not be redesigned. The trustees were given innumerable reasons why this was not possible. Nor indeed desirable; for would it not awaken the morbid interest of the public? Dame Kathleen has long been in her grave and my own beckons, so I hardly expect to see any transformation of that dingy room such as the marvelous international exhibition of Tutankhamen’s treasure could lead one to expect.

Pope-Hennessy’s analysis, however, lacks a political dimension. He remembers with pleasure the concern for education and enlightenment that Jennie Lee, Aneurin Bevan’s widow, displayed when she became minister for the arts; and he contrasts her with David Eccles, a man “with cultural pretensions” whose “obstinate, ego-centric personality” induced him to inflate Jennie Lee’s modest staff into a “mini-ministry manned by dead-end civil servants.”

Not everyone warms to David Eccles’s manner, but he was arguably the best minister of education Britain has had during this century. It was he who in the Seventies transformed the scale of public funding of museums. When he was chairman of the British Museum trustees, he told them they were neglecting their duty to the public and to the education of children and that the staff were too inward-looking; and when he became minister of the arts he persuaded the Treasury to create a considerable number of new posts for the national museums. Pope-Hennessy recalls the improvements and the appointments he was able to make when he took over the British Museum, but who did he think was responsible for providing the money that made these possible? Eccles persuaded the Treasury by providing a controversial quid pro quo—the museums were to be forced to introduce entry charges; and it is true that he introduced his new policy in a way that caused offense. Pope-Hennessy thinks it was “ill-advised but per se to involve no issue of principle.”

It was, however, precisely because it raised a question of principle that the consternation was so great. Since Victorian times the British prided themselves that entry to libraries and museums was free. Yet today, several national museums—even the Science Museum to which thousands of children go each year—have been forced to charge admission. The V&A asks for a “voluntary” contribution (though considerably less fiercely than the Metropolitan Museum). The British Museum, the National, and the Tate Galleries still enjoy free entry and their directors might well resign if their trustees imposed a charge.

The reason they still hold out is that they believe that charges will reduce the numbers who go there, especially those who drop in for an hour or less to see some particular exhibit. Moreover, what is gained at the gate will be lost by a fall in revenue from the shop or the restaurant. The proponents of charges admit that numbers at first decline but predict they will recover within a decade. To be dogmatic about the issue is unwise. Each country and city has its own custom.

Pope-Hennessey’s life has been, as he wished, a life of triumphant achievement. He was beyond question the most distinguished museum director of his generation in Britain, and he came to that position through the system. He was not brought in like a scholar or an administrator from outside, and his prestige was built on his work as the keeper of sculpture at the Victoria and Albert. He gave his staff a hard time, but they admired his intellectual capacity, which enabled him to cut through verbiage and detail and isolate the important issue. His memory, both visual and factual, was exceptional. He was characteristic of his generation in believing that the arts are the most important of all secular phenomena; beside them the world of politics, power, business, or the learned professions are dross. He quotes almost as an epitaph on his own career Henry James’s great aphorism:

We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.

Pope-Hennessy believes that art history and history are two separate disciplines. Certainly little of any interest can be said about painting or sculpture by analyzing the impersonal forces of history. The iconographical tradition in which the painter worked has certainly to be considered. But so have the patron who commissioned the work, the technique the artist employs, and the interests and character of the artist himself. He himself was interested in the relation between the artist and the work of art—not, as Berenson was, between the relation of the work of art and the spectator. In giving examples of the many art-historical problems he has tackled, he writes about Piero della Francesca in a way that is characteristic:

There is always a temptation to suppose that great paintings represent more than they appear to do. With some artists and some works of art this is unquestionably true. But not with Piero della Francesca. The Madonna at Monterchi illustrates the prayer “Show us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus”; the fresco of the Resurrection is a sublime portrayal of the Resurrection; and the Baptism of Christ in London is a lucid portrayal of the Baptism. Their significance arises from their directness and artistic quality, not from refinements of literary content. In both cases the fit area of investigation is geometry, not iconography.

He finishes by praising those art historians who have meant most to him: Kenneth Clark, Meyer Schapiro, Otto Paecht, Johannes Wilde, and in particular Richard Offner, whose “eye was the most rapid I have ever known.” Of Schapiro’s books on Cézanne and van Gogh, he writes, “He enters the artists’ minds and, with an authority few other art historians or critics have achieved, reconstructs their creative processes.” The book closes with him in retirement watching the Arno flow past and the sunlight play upon the trees.

In one respect he is untypical of his generation. He is a moralist in every aspect of life. He resembles the man in the parable who, given five talents and called later to account by his lord, produced ten. He stares at Cecil Beaton’s photograph of Berenson and asks it, “Have I come up to scratch?” You feel he worked under the eye of the Great Taskmaster who at different times takes different shapes—God, Berenson, Dame Una. This is never more evident than when he deals with perhaps the only tragedy in his satisfying life. His brother James was a writer of great talent—his life of Monckton Milnes is still one of the best Victorian biographies. James did not bury his talent, he squandered it. Enchanting, extravagant, feckless, and reckless, he ran through advances before books were written, giving money away to his chance encounters and hoping that old friends would bail him out. He once told John that he had been asked to write the official life of Queen Mary, too ludicrous a proposal even to consider. His brother begged him not to turn it down. On that occasion James took his advice and no other official biography of royalty can hold a candle to it. But confusion governed his affairs and his writing suffered badly. He made a number of dangerous acquaintances. One day two villains broke into his house and murdered him.

The shock to his brother was immense, and it came only three weeks after he had taken over the direction of the British Museum. Exasperated as he often was by James’s way of life and weary from retrieving him from this and that scrape, he felt when he died that “it was as though part of one had been cut away.” Each wrote to the other even when they were both in London. He felt that he had failed to save James from himself. His mother had a gold watch on which was inscribed the Johnsonian text “For the Night Cometh.” “It was inherited and lost by James who did not believe that the night would ever come.” But the night came, and when Pope-Hennessy had to identify the body, “I was appalled at the dissolute, almost evil expression on his face.” All his life he had spent making judgments and he did not shrink from doing so then. Perhaps he was guided by what St. Bernard said: “It is better that scandal should arise than that truth should be deserted.” Terrible truth that comes to such implacable judgments.

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    The New York Review, April 27, 1989.

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