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

Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture

an exhibition at the Frick Collection, New York City, March 2–June 5, 2016
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

The Rothschilds at Waddesdon Manor

by Mrs. James de Rothschild

Personal Characteristics from French History

by Ferdinand Rothschild
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.

The Abbey That Jumped the Shark

The cast of Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

a television series created by Julian Fellowes

Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey

by Margaret Powell
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.


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.

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 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?

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.”