James Fenton is a British poet and literary critic. From 1994 until 1999, he was Oxford Professor of Poetry; in 2015 he was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize. 
He is the author of School of Genius: A History of the Royal Academy of Arts and, most recently, Yellow Tulips: Poems, 1968–2011.
 (May 2016)

Van Dyck: ‘The Great Power of Execution’

Anthony Van Dyck: Mary, Lady Van Dyke, née Ruthven, circa 1640
The last words of the dying painter Thomas Gainsborough in 1788—“We are all going to Heaven, and Vandyke is of the party”—serve as a reminder of the enduring presence of Anthony Van Dyck in the world of English portraiture during the centuries after his death. A Flemish protégé of Rubens, …

Dennis Hastert: Victim

John Boehner and Dennis Hastert at the unveiling of Hastert’s portrait at the Capitol, Washington, D.C., July 2009
Between his indictment on May 28 and his court appearance on June 9, at which his lawyer entered pleas of innocence on his behalf, almost nothing was heard from Dennis Hastert, the former Republican Speaker of the House. He had been accused by the government of violating money-laundering laws and …

The Rothschild Taste

Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, built for Ferdinand de Rothschild in 1874–1889 and bequeathed to the British National Trust along with all its art and objects by James A. de Rothschild in 1957
When, after World War II, James A. de Rothschild offered his Buckinghamshire house, Waddesdon Manor, together with its principal contents and a suitable endowment, to Britain’s National Trust, the consensus among those involved in making the decision to accept or not was that the house itself was hideous. Hideous! What mattered were the contents.

What I Mean by Mexico

Oaxaca City, Mexico, 1999

I must have landed in the foothills, for the first impressions I had were of piles of rocks, as if emptied casually from a bag. And among these rocks and cactuses, a leafless tree with yellow flowers, a profuse flowerer, unfamiliar to me. Well, some things have to be unfamiliar; I have never visited this part of the world before.

The Abbey That Jumped the Shark

The cast of Downton Abbey
We (the English) look to programs of this sort for a kind of verisimilitude we would not ask of, say, a Shakespeare drama, or even of Jane Austen. We want the food to look like period food, and the kitchen and servants’ quarters (mostly filmed in Pinewood Studios) to be accurate portrayals of servants’ quarters. We are delighted to note that, say, the butler strains the vintage port through a napkin, or that the most fantastic points of servants’ etiquette (no maids, only footmen, serving at dinner) have been resurrected for our amusement. This is the documentary aspect to the drama—something it shares with an older classic series, Upstairs, Downstairs.

Two Kinds of Magic

A scene from Cirque du Soleil’s Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall, with digital snakes shown on an LED wall
Who knows in how many directorial breasts a conflict rages between the desire for intimacy and the yearning for the very grandest of effects? On the one hand, there is the ambi- tion to mount, in the smallest of theaters, a drama of the most intense kind, in which the …

Two Kinds of Magic at Radio City & Lincoln Center

The finale of Cirque du Soleil’s production of Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall, New York City

Who knows in how many directorial breasts a conflict rages between a desire for intimacy and the yearning for the very grandest of effects? On the one hand, there is the ambition to mount, in the smallest of theaters, a drama of the most intense kind, in which the actors are never obliged to raise their voices to suit the acoustics of the space, because nothing is going to be missed. Working through improvisation, perhaps, or through other revered techniques of self-discovery, the performers arrive at dangerous levels of intensity and verisimilitude.

The Saints Take Broadway

Rema Webb, Andrew Rannells, and Josh Gad in The Book of Mormon
Hearing that the same men who brought us South Park were mounting a musical to be called The Book of Mormon, we were tempted to turn away, as from an inevitable massacre. How could the Mormon faith, with its wobbly stories of golden tablets dug up and then lost to …

‘The Book of Mormon’: No Offense

Rema Webb, Andrew Rannells, and Josh Gad in The Book of Mormon

Hearing that the same men who brought us South Park were mounting a musical to be called The Book of Mormon, we were tempted to turn away, as from an inevitable massacre. How could the Mormon faith, with its wobbly stories of golden tablets dug up and then lost to view, its pseudo-archaeological racism, its prevarications over the practice of polygamy, its almost exact resemblance to a cult, stand up to all that gleeful juvenile ragging?

Bollocks on Broadway

Mark Rylance, center, and Danny Kirrane in Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem
The red cross on a white background, the English national flag of Saint George, used, a few decades ago, to be little more than a curiosity—something you learned about in the Boy Scouts, along with reef knots and map-reading and the Morse code. In national life it took second place …

A Heavy Vase of Irony, Broken Over Our Heads

Mark Rylance, center, and Danny Kirrane in Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem

Strictly English nationalism comes with a sense of diminishment. It is like a falling back to a defensive position, a withdrawal to the last redoubt. The Empire has long gone. Ireland has mostly gone. Scotland and Wales keep threatening to be next. England is what we will be left with, more of a consolation prize than “England’s green and pleasant land.” William Blake’s “Jerusalem,” with its vision of building the Eternal City in the squalor of the “dark Satanic mills,” is sung by a young girl in a fairy costume at the opening of Jez Butterworth’s play—named for Blake’s poem—in front of what the play text stipulates: a “faded cross of St. George.”

Jazzing Up Hazlitt

William Hazlitt; drawing by William Bewick, 1825
There is something secretly repellent in the prospect of an author recommended for his prose style (and nothing else). We hate the thought of an empty performance. Great prose attracts us by expressing great truths, not by the purity of its diction or the beauty and variety of its cadences.

How to Paint Like Titian

The first of Benjamin West’s two versions of Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes, 1796–1797, painted according to methods described in a fraudulent manuscript that purported to reveal the lost or secret techniques of Titian and other Venetian painters of the High Renaissance
The affair of the Venetian Secret was renowned in the 1790s as a notorious and revealing swindle. It involved an obscure functionary of the royal household in London; the president of the Royal Academy, Benjamin West; and several of the leading artists of the time. Thomas Provis, a sweeper, and …

Victims of Vermeermania

Sometime after 1866, when a series of articles by Théophile Thoré in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts brought much of Vermeer’s heretofore misidentified work together, his reputation began to acquire the ability to drive men mad, or at least to inspire them to fatal loyalties and gross errors of judgment. This …

In Samuel Palmer’s Garden

In the last decade of his life, as is well known, William Blake began to receive recognition and respect as an artist, not from the general public but from a group of painters and printmakers who looked to him as a figure of deep spiritual and artistic authority: “The Interpreter,” …

The Art of the Dead

Some years ago, I was being driven through the suburbs of Milan when we passed an astonishing façade in the “medieval Lombard style,” all horizontal stripes in contrasting stones and extending for a quarter of a mile. “What’s that?” I asked the driver. “Cemetery.” “What sort of cemetery?” “For the …

Yellow Tulips

Looking into the vase, into the calyx, into the water drop, Looking into the throat of the flower, at the pollen stain, I can see the ambush love sprung once in the summery wood. I can see the casualties where they lay, till they set forth again.

The Cruel Carpenter

Thirty years ago, during the last days of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia, people in Phnom Penh began to ask with an increased urgency and interest: Who was leading the forces of the Khmer Rouge? Who was going to take over in Cambodia? By April 1975 the city was …

A Snob in the Garden

The recent craze for short books (this one was published first in England by a firm called Short Books) gives a welcome home to what used to be known, when someone like Macaulay or de Quincey wrote them, as essays. We will all still read essays happily, it turns out, …

The Photograph Man

The first war photographer, according to some versions, was Carol Popp de Szathmari, a Romanian amateur painter who photographed the Russian generals at the start of the Russo-Turkish War in Wallachia in 1854. He followed this with portraits and camp scenes from the Turkish occupation of Bucharest. Then, having equipped …

Getting Clare Clear

It may seem bizarre to find that John Clare’s poetry and his prose—which I discussed recently in these pages[^1]—have been stripped of their punctuation and presented as the work of an illiterate, when their author was clearly a learned man. Yet this is what happened during the course of the …

John Clare’s Genius

In heaven, too, You’d be institutionalised. But that’s all right— If they let you eat and swear With the likes of Blake, And Christopher Smart, And that sweet man, John Clare. —“Heard in a Violent Ward,” Theodore Roethke Roethke’s “sweet man,” John Clare …

Vandalism and Enlightenment

In a recent essay, the director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Philippe de Montebello, placed authenticity at the core of public trust in an art museum.[^*] There should never be any question of a work of art on display being anything other than authentic. Nor should information about …

Shakespeare, Stage or Page?

“Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe.”[^1] In 1811, Charles Lamb published his subtle and pugnacious essay “On the Tragedies of Shakspeare, considered with reference to their fitness for stage representation.” In it he argued not that Shakespeare’s tragedies should never be acted, but that they are made “another thing” …

The Last English Style

In my childhood one of the first great questions of style that I encountered was the classification of medieval architecture. This was not a matter of marginal curiosity to a child growing up, as I did, in cathedral closes. The learning of church styles was the great key to visual …

Blair in Trouble

The political day begins, in Britain, at six in the morning, when BBC Radio 4’s Today program goes on the air. This is a three-hour news magazine with reportage and political interviews. During the first hour, before the politicians are ready to talk, much of the information tends to be …