Scribblers at the National Portrait Gallery, London

Scribblers at the National Portrait Gallery, London

I have been traveling. Oh, have I been traveling! I spent a week in Edinburgh last month and then was so fortunate to return to the UK and attend the opening weekend of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. Of course, I had an amazing time. Along my journey I made a stop at the National Portrait Gallery in London, a place I had not previously managed to visit. The gallery contains an impressive collection of famous Brits, but determined lit geek that I am, it was the portraits of the writers that most entranced me. How wonderful to encounter face after face of so many beloved authors! The best of these portraits capture the quality of the writer’s work within the image. I had an excellent afternoon, journeying through the history of british literature, which I would very much like to share with you. Please join me for what I’m terming a scribblers tour of the gallery.

Unknown artist after Hans Holbein the Younger, oil on panel, late 16th century (1527)
Unknown artist after Hans Holbein the Younger, oil on panel, late 16th century

One of the first faces to greet me upon entering the museum was Sir Thomas More’s (1478-1535). It is impossible to do justice to this man’s legacy in a few words. I highly recommend the Wolf Hall novels by Hilary Mantel if you are curious about his role in the government of Henry VIII. I’ll just say a few words about his literary legacy. His Utopia, a latin text highly influenced by Plato’s Republic, describes an oppressively ordered yet simultaneously idealized society. It spawned an entire genre of literature and has inspired political philosophers into our modern age. Without it there would be no 1984, no Brave New World, and maybe no such thing as a forced labor camp. More is also responsible for creating the vile image of Richard III that the Tudors promoted – that Shakespeare based his play upon – in his unfinished manuscript The History of King Richard III. Canonized in 1935, his biography is both fascinating and troubling, and this gorgeous painting captures the intelligence fueling an obdurate personality.

“When men go to buy a colt, where they are risking only a little money, they are so cautious that, though the animal is almost bare, they won’t close the deal until saddle and blanket have been taken off, lest there be a hidden sore underneath. Yet in the choice of a mate, which may cause either delight or disgust for the rest of their lives, man are so careless that they leave all the rest of the women’s body covered up with clothes and estimate her attractiveness from a here handsbreadth of her person, the face, which is all they can see.”                                                                                                                               – from Utopia, 1516

attributed to John Taylor, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1610
Attributed to John Taylor, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1610

A few rooms over was the man who needs no introduction, William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Darling of the Elizabethan stage, poet extraordinaire, and probably the most famous writer since Homer, what more can I really say about him? The gallery has ninety-six portraits of Shakespeare in their collection, a reflection of his celebrity. I firmly believe that Much Ado About Nothing was the inspiration for Elizabeth and Darcy’s romance in Pride & Prejudice. Shakespeare’s artistic legacy has shaped our literature and language for centuries. For goodness sake, it’s a foregone conclusion: Shakespeare’s work is the stuff dreams are made on. All’s well that ends well.

BEATRICE: But for which of my good parts did you first suffer love for me?

BENEDICT: Suffer love! A good epithite! I do suffer love indeed, for I love thee against my will.

BEATRICE: In spite of your heart, I think. Alas, poor heart, if you spite it for my sake, I will spite it for yours, for I will never love that which my friend hates.

BENEDICT: Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably.
                                                         – from Much Ado About Nothing, 1598
Unknown English artist, oil on panel, circa 1595
Unknown English artist, oil on panel, circa 1595
It was with reverence that I next gazed upon the next visage, belonging to one of my favorite poets: John Donne (1572 -1631). A shinning star of the metaphysical poets and dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Donne is a man who fascinates but whom I’m not sure I’d actually have liked to meet, much like his distant kinsman, Thomas More. Unlike More, Donne renounced his Catholicism in exchange for social acceptance and eventual advancement in the state sanctioned church. His lusty verses stand in stark contrast to his clerical career, but regardless of all his contradictions, his poetry is undeniably brilliant and way ahead of its time. This romantic, brooding portrait suits him very well.
‘Tis true, ‘tis day, what though it be?
O wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise because ‘tis light?
Did we lie down because ‘twas night?
Love, which in spite of darkness brought us hither,
Should in despite of light keep us together.
Light hath no tongue, but is all eye;
If it could speak as well as spy,
This were the worst that it could say,
That being well I fain would stay,
And that I loved my heart and honour so,
That I would not from him, that had them, go.
                                                              – from Break of Day, 1622, 1633
By Charles Jervas, oil on canvas, circa 1718
By Charles Jervas, oil on canvas, circa 1718

Best know as a wicked satirist, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) strikes me as surprisingly mild looking in this portrait, though there is an intensity in the eyes that indicates his true nature. His pen was never mild but violent in his indignation at humanity. Born in Dublin, he spent many years involved in London politics, most notably as the editor of the Examiner, the media arm of the Tory government. He then returned to Ireland and became dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Gulliver’s Travels remains to this day many children’s first exposure to satire, though most certainly don’t understand it, and his shocking A Modest Proposal the darling of English teachers and resistance movements the world over.

Now from all parts the swelling kennels flow,
And bear their trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all hues and odors seem to tell
What street they sailed from, by their sight and smell.
They, as each torrent drives with rapid force,
From Smithfield or St. Pulchre’s shape their course,
And in huge confluence joined at Snow Hill ridge,
Fall from the conduit prone to Holborn Bridge.
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.
                                                              -from A Description of a City Shower, 1710
By William Hoare, pastel, circa 1739-1784
By William Hoare, pastel, circa 1739-1784

Speaking of satire, here is another master: Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Pope was the first man of letters to completely support himself on the proceeds of his publications (as a Catholic, he was not eligible for the kind of patronage that most writers relied upon). I adore this portrait. He was a small man, only four and a half feet tall, but here his personality shines through. He was also sickly, having had tuberculosis as a child and never completely regained his health, but there is no weakness in his piercing, blue eyes. This is a man I would very much have loved to meet.

Be silent always when you doubt your sense;
And speak, though sure, with seeming diffidence:
Some positive, persisting fops we know,
Who, if once wrong, will needs be always so;
But you, with pleasure own your errors past,
And make each day a critic on the last.
‘Tis not enough, your counsel still be true;
Blunt truths more mischief than nice falsehoods do;
Men must be taught as if you taught them not;
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.
Without good breeding, truth is disapprov’d;
That only makes superior sense belov’d.
                                                            – from An Essay on Criticism, 1711 
By Edward Francisco Burney, oil on canvas, circa 1784-1785
By Edward Francisco Burney, oil on canvas, circa 1784-1785

Past the Prince Regent and his cohorts I found Frances d’Arblay, better known as Fanny Burney (1752-1840). Her Camilla and Cecilia are both sited by Austen in her famous defense of the novel in Northanger Abbey, but it is her first novel, Evelina, that I enjoy most. Scholars thrill over her her posthumously published Journals and Letters. As she was both a member of Queen Caroline’s court and interned in France during the Napoleonic War, she had much to say about the times in which she lived, and she said it extremely well, such as this account of encountering George III during his malady:

When they were within a few yards of me, the king called out, “Why did you run away?”

Shocked at a question impossible to answer, yet a little assured by the mild tone of his voice, I instantly forced myself forward, to meet him, though the internal sensation, which satisfied me this was a step the most proper to appease his suspicions and displeasure, was so violently combated by the tremor of my nerves, that I fairly think I may reckon it the greatest effort of personal courage I have ever made.

The effort was answered: I looked up, and met all his wonted benignity of countenance, though something still of wildness in his eyes. Think, however, of my surprise, to feel him put both his hands round my two shoulders, and then kiss my cheek! – from The Journals and Letters, 1791-1840

Now we come to room eighteen and the mother load of romantic writers. From here on I am going to address each sitter chronologically by birth, as I kind of spun in circles and lost my path, overwhelmed by the sea of famous faces (one of which is particularly dear), and now I cannot recall in which order they are hung.

By Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807
By Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

William Blake (1757-1827) was an experimental poet, leaps and bounds ahead of his time. An engraver and illustrator by trade, he hand printed his poetry using a unique copperplate technique, magnificently combining visual art and language. His works grew increasingly complex and bizarre, eventually revolving around a complex, religious mythology I will not even attempt to summarize. In the last years of his life he gave up writing altogether to focus on his art. This portrait is appropriately intense.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

                       – The Tyger, 1794

By Benjamin Robert Haydon, oil on canvas, 1842
By Benjamin Robert Haydon, oil on canvas, 1842

I remember first reading the next poet, William Wordsworth (1770-1850), as a teenager and the intense fear he imparted in me of old age. His verses capture the “dizzy raptures” of adolescence better than any writer I have encountered, and I felt deep concern for the loss of emotional intensity he associates with that period of life, even as he rightly assured me I would not regret it when gone. Made poet laureate in 1843, when his best poetry was already composed, he and Coleridge (coming up) are the writers we primarily associate with Romanticism, their jointly composed Lyrical Ballads, first published in 1798, being the seminal publication of the movement. I always thought he had a name that insisted upon a career in writing, and this portrait portrays him as the consummate brooding poet.

For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, not any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
       – from Lines, Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, 1798
by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, oil on panel, circa 1824
By Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, oil on panel, circa 1824

This portrait of Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was painted four years after he was made a baronet, in recognition of his “recovery” of the Scottish crown jewels, and two years before he went bankrupt. Poet, novelist, and playwright, he was one of the most famous writers of his day, though his career was in law and politics. He is considered the father of the historical novel genre, has one of the most bizarre and visible monuments in Edinburgh dedicated in his honor, and was one of Jane Austen’s earliest admirers (a sentiment somewhat grudgingly returned).

So stately his form, and so lovely her face,
That never a hall such a galliard did grace;
While her mother did fret, and her father did fume,
And the bridegroom stood dangling his bonnet and plume;
And the bride-maidens whisper’d, “’twere better by far
To have match’d our fair cousin with young Lochinvar.”
One touch to her hand, and one word in her ear,
When they reach’d the hall-door, and the charger stood near;
So light to the croupe the fair lady he swung,
So light to the saddle before her he sprung!
“She is won! we are gone, over bank, bush, and scaur;
They’ll have fleet steeds that follow,” quoth young Lochinvar.
                                                   – from Lochinvar, 1808
By Peter Vandyke, oil on canvas, 1795
By Peter Vandyke, oil on canvas, 1795

The youthful visage of Wordsworth companion in arms, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), conceals the true brooder of the duo. Because of that, I am not terribly fond of this portrait, but as it’s Coleridge I must share it. There is something in the eyes that hints at his struggles. When he was focused and driven, his poetry is remarkable, but it was not his common state. A terribly drug addict who put up a lifelong fight against a laudanum addiction he never won, his psychological condition was what we now would probably term bipolar. Though he was not as prolific or successful as Wordsworth, I think his poetry is far more compelling, perhaps particularly to a modern audience.

There was a time when, though my path was rough,
         This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
         Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.
But now afflictions bow me down to earth:
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;
                But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
         My shaping spirit of Imagination.
For not to think of what I needs must feel,
         But to be still and patient, all I can;
And haply by abstruse research to steal
         From my own nature all the natural man—
         This was my sole resource, my only plan:
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.
                – from Dejection: An Ode, 1802
by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810
By Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolor, circa 1810

And here is our dear authoress, Jane Austen (1775-1817). The writer of what I believe are six of the best novels ever written, her works do not only continue to enthrall readers two hundred years later but were essential to the formation of the modern novel. The portrait isn’t much, especially compared to the others, but as the gallery is intent on informing us, it is “the only reasonably certain portrait from life.” That point is in dispute. I can’t go into details here, as this post is already ridiculously long, so for more information check out my blog post on the subject, Jane Austen’s Portrait.

He stopped in his earnestness to look the question, and the expression of his eyes overpowered her.

“My dearest Emma,” said he, “for dearest you will always be, whatever the event of this hour’s conversation, my dearest, most beloved Emma–tell me at once. Say ‘No,’ if it is to be said.”–She could really say nothing.–“You are silent,” he cried, with great animation; “absolutely silent! at present I ask no more.”

Emma was almost ready to sink under the agitation of this moment. The dread of being awakened from the happiest dream, was perhaps the most prominent feeling.

“I cannot make speeches, Emma:” he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing.–“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am.–You hear nothing but truth from me.–I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.–Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them. The manner, perhaps, may have as little to recommend them. God knows, I have been a very indifferent lover.–But you understand me.–Yes, you see, you understand my feelings–and will return them if you can. At present, I ask only to hear, once to hear your voice.”                 – from Emma, 1815

By Joseph Severn, oil on ivory, 1819
By Joseph Severn, oil on ivory, 1819

Jane Austen died in her prime, having composed three of her six novels in the last few years of her life. So too did John Keats (1795-1821) succumb to illness and death in midst of a creative burst, having composed the bulk of his most beloved poems in the first half of 1819, when he had only been writing for five years. It was the same year this haunting portrait was painted. He was only twenty-five years old when he died, and we must wonder what splendors he would have created had he the time. His melancholy disposition and doomed romance with Fanny Brawne, gorgeously portrayed in the 2009 film Bright Star, only adds to his mystique.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
   Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
   Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
   Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
   Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
   That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
   Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
                                – When I have fears that I may cease to be, 1818
Now on to the Victorians.
By Frank Stone, oil on canvas, circa 1839
By Frank Stone, oil on canvas, circa 1839

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) was considered second only to Dickens amongst the novelists of his time. The years have tempered his reputation. Now he is mainly known for Vanity Fair and justly so, for it is a phenomenon of a novel. I always found him particularly interesting due to his wife’s madness, a subject my readers know fascinates me. This portrait is excellent. Known for his gluttony, here Thackeray’s body looks to be aflame, perhaps with the appetites he can’t control and would one day kill him. His finely rendered face seems prisoner to the human form precariously supporting it. I could look at this painting for hours.

The two couples were perfectly happy then in their box: where the most delightful and intimate conversation took place. Jos was in his glory, ordering about the waiters with great majesty. He made the salad; and uncorked the Champagne; and carved the chickens; and ate and drank the greater part of the refreshments on the tables. Finally, he insisted upon having a bowl of rack punch; everybody had rack punch at Vauxhall. “Waiter, rack punch.”

That bowl of rack punch was the cause of all this history. And why not a bowl of rack punch as well as any other cause? Was not a bowl of prussic acid the cause of Fair Rosamond’s retiring from the world? Was not a bowl of wine the cause of the demise of Alexander the Great, or, at least, does not Dr. Lempriere say so?–so did this bowl of rack punch influence the fates of all the principal characters in this “Novel without a Hero,” which we are now relating. It influenced their life, although most of them did not taste a drop of it.  – from Vanity Fair, 1847

By Daniel Maclise, oil on canvas, 1839
By Daniel Maclise, oil on canvas, 1839

The portrait currently on display of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is on loan from the Tate Gallery, so a high resolution copy isn’t available for use on the NPG’s site and you’ll have to make do with my cellphone shot. Though still in his twenties when it was painted, the novelist was already famous and prosperous. However, his life did not begin that way. The son of an often broke, Naval pay officer clerk, his father was sent to debtors prison when Dickens was only twelve years old. Although the rest of the family joined their father in prison, as was the custom of the day, Charles was left to work in a shoe blacking factory labeling bottles, while living alone in a boarding house. The young writer was certainly traumatized by this occurrence, and the experience influenced his depictions of mistreated children in his novels. It is Dickens’ descriptions that form our image of a dark and dangerous Victorian London. His influence has been immeasurable, both on his contemporaries and writers throughout the modern era. We all know his works – they are more implanted in the public imagination than any writer on this tour but Shakespeare’s.

Not that, all this time, his mind was, for an instant, free from one oppressive overwhelming sense of the grave that opened at his feet; it was ever present to him, but in a vague and general way, and he could not fix his thoughts upon it. Thus, even while he trembled, and turned burning hot at the idea of speedy death, he fell to counting the iron spikes before him, and wondering how the head of one had been broken off, and whether they would mend it, or leave it as it was. Then, he thought of all the horrors of the gallows and the scaffold- and stopped to watch a man sprinkling the floor to cool it- and then went on to think again.

At length there was a cry of silence, and a breathless look from all towards the door. The jury returned, and passed him close. He could glean nothing from their faces; they might as well have been of stone. Perfect stillness ensued- not a rustle- not a breath- Guilty.

The building rang with a tremendous shout, and another, and another, and then it echoed loud groans, then gathered strength as they swelled out, like angry thunder. It was a peal of joy from the populace outside, greeting the news that he would die on Monday.               – from Oliver Twist, 1838

By Patrick Branwell Brontë, oil on canvas, arched top, circa 1833
By Patrick Branwell Brontë, oil on canvas, arched top, circa 1833

This fragment of a group portrait including Emily Brontë (1818-1848) also shows the shoulder of her brother, Branwell, who is also the artist. His more famous portrait of all three Brontë sisters and himself, painted over with a pillar, is currently on loan to The Morgan Library in New York (it would be at a museum I’ve been to countless times when I am an ocean away). Unlike that portrait, here Emily appears much less the curate’s daughter. Her hair is down, unadorned, and surprisingly short. Instead of a prim fichu, her gown is askew and hangs off one shoulder. Somehow this image seems more believably that of the author of Wuthering Heights than the other.

‘Oh, for the time when I shall sleep
Without identity,
And never care how rain may steep,
Or snow may cover me!
No promised heaven these wild desires
Could all, or half, fulful;
No threatened hell, with quenchless fires,
Subdue this quenchless will!’

‘So said I, and still say the same;
Still, to my death, will say—
Three gods within this little frame
Are warring night and day:
Heaven could not hold them all, and yet
They all are held in me;
And must be mine till I forget
My present entity!
Oh, for the time when in my breast
Their struggles will be o’er!
Oh, for the day when I shall rest,
And never suffer more!’

– from The Philosopher, 1845

Replica by FranÁois D'Albert Durade, oil on canvas, (1849)
Replica by FranÁois D’Albert Durade, oil on canvas, (1849)

When I was first introduced to George Eliot (1819-1880), whose real name was Marian Evans, I thought of her as a scandalous bohemian. This is largely due to being immediately told she lived with a man out of wedlock for the bulk of her adult life. This portrait does a far better job of capturing who she really was: a fierce and fearless intellectual who was surprisingly rigid in her morality, though it was mainstream. Much like Dorothea Brooks of Middlemarch, as a young adult she was fanatically religious. Then, in her early twenties, she rejected Christianity altogether, only attending church to appease her father. Eliot did not make those decisions that mark her bio as outrageous flippantly. They were the result of prolonged philosophical contemplation, like her decision to live with George Henry Lewes, who was already married. Upon failing to obtain a divorce, Eliot chose to become his common-law wife and considered their commitment to each other as sacred as any legal marriage. She called herself Mrs. Lewes, and they lived together until his death. In the last year of her life, she married her friend, J.W. Cross. Her books are amongst my favorite in the world.

“I grant you ample leave
To use the hoary formula ‘I am’
Naming the emptiness where thought is not;
But fill the void with definition, ‘I’
Will be no more a datum than the words
You link false inference with, the ‘Since’ & ‘so’
That, true or not, make up the atom-whirl.
Resolve your ‘Ego’, it is all one web
With vibrant ether clotted into worlds:
Your subject, self, or self-assertive ‘I’
Turns nought but object, melts to molecules,
Is stripped from naked Being with the rest
Of those rag-garments named the Universe.
Or if, in strife to keep your ‘Ego’ strong
You make it weaver of the etherial light,
Space, motion, solids & the dream of Time–
Why, still ’tis Being looking from the dark,
The core, the centre of your consciousness,
That notes your bubble-world: sense, pleasure, pain,
What are they but a shifting otherness,
Phantasmal flux of moments?–”

I Grant You Ample Leave (date unknown)

by Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, oil on panel, 1850
By Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, oil on panel, 1850

I never even heard of Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) until I was in college, when his enthralling novels first came into my life. Though immensely popular in his day, he is no longer as well known as his contemporaries, Dickens and Eliot. This is a shame, as his marvelous book The Moonstone is considered the first modern detective novel: the culmination of the work begun in Austen’s Emma and continued in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. In this portrait he is still young, a decade away from writing his most memorable books, and his potential is enormous. Unfortunately, ill-heath sparked by gout and opium abuse in response hindered his creative abilities in the final years of his life. I would remiss not to mention what a huge influence one particular novel, The Woman in White, had on me and my writing. The Madness of Mr. Darcy owes it a great debt.

These pages are not the record of my wanderings and my dangers away from home. The motives which led me from my country and my friends to a new world of adventure and peril are known. From that self-imposed exile I came back, as I had hoped, prayed, believed I should come back–a changed man. In the waters of a new life I had tempered my nature afresh. In the stern school of extremity and danger my will had learnt to be strong, my heart to be resolute, my mind to rely on itself. I had gone out to fly from my own future. I came back to face it, as a man should.

To face it with that inevitable suppression of myself which I knew it would demand from me. I had parted with the worst bitterness of the past, but not with my heart’s remembrance of the sorrow and the tenderness of that memorable time. I had not ceased to feel the one irreparable disappointment of my life–I had only learnt to bear it. Laura Fairlie was in all my thoughts when the ship bore me away, and I looked my last at England. Laura Fairlie was in all my thoughts when the ship brought me back, and the morning light showed the friendly shore in view.

My pen traces the old letters as my heart goes back to the old love. I write of her as Laura Fairlie still. It is hard to think of her, it is hard to speak of her, by her husband’s name. – from The Woman in White (1859)

By William Strang, oil on panel, 1893
By William Strang, oil on panel, 1893

We bridge the gap between the 19th and 20th centuries with this gorgeous portrait of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). While Hardy’s beloved novels are typically lumped together with the Victorians, he has a fatalistic perspective and folksy tone more commonly associated with 20th century writers. The world of Hardy’s “Wessex,” his fictionalized version of Dorchester, where he grew up, is as vivid and detailed as Tolkein’s Middle Earth. The comparison seems fitting, as both writers created characters bound to a fate which they can do nothing to thwart. Hardy was an architect by trade, but the 1870’s brought him enough success as a writer to pursue it as his career. He turned away from novel writing in his later years, and his output during the 20th century is primarily lyrical poetry.

            Well: while was fashioning
            This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything
            Prepared a sinister mate
            For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.
            And as the smart ship grew
            In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
            Alien they seemed to be;
            No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
            Or sign that they were bent
            By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
            Till the Spinner of the Years
            Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
                     – from The Convergence of the Twain (1912)
By John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas, 1913
By John Singer Sargent, oil on canvas, 1913

Was Henry James (1843-1916) British? Sort of. He officially became a subject of his majesty in 1915, one year before his death. Typically, he is considered an American and writes primarily about Americans, but it was nice to see him included, nonetheless. Though largely a resident of Europe from his late twenties onward, he had almost the quintessential wealthy, New York upbringing, the family splitting their time between the city, Newport, and travel abroad. His education was haphazard, but he did, of course, attended Harvard. That’s a hard legacy to shake, and his knowledge of this elite world penetrates his novels. A true man of letters, he not only wrote fiction, but numerous articles, biographies, plays, literary criticism, and travelogues. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times, in 1911, 1912, and 1916.

The ideal of quiet and of genteel retirement, in 1835, was found in Washington Square, where the Doctor built himself a handsome, modern, wide-fronted house, with a big balcony before the drawing-room windows, and a flight of marble steps ascending to a portal which was also faced with white marble. This structure, and many of its neighbours, which it exactly
resembled, were supposed, forty years ago, to embody the last results of architectural science, and they remain to this day very solid and honourable dwellings. In front of them was the Square, containing a considerable quantity of inexpensive vegetation, enclosed by a wooden paling, which increased its rural and accessible appearance; and round the corner was the more august precinct of the Fifth Avenue, taking its origin at this point with a spacious and confident air which already marked it for high destinies. I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations, but this portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable. It has a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city; it has a riper, richer, more honourable look than any of the upper ramifications of the great longitudinal thoroughfare–the look of having had something of a social history.                      – from Washington Square (1880)

By Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920
By Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

Another writer who teetered between the old world and the modern was E. M. (Edward Morgan) Forster (1879-1970). In construction and narrative his books are perhaps the ultimate culmination of the 19th century novel writing. In subject he brings us into the the 20th, though it is worth noting that all of his novels were written pre-WWII, and only A Passage to India after WWI. He did continued to write essays, short stories, book reviews, and even co-wrote the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s 1951 opera Billy Bud, based on the Herman Melville novel. Though highly acclaimed in his day (he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature an astounding thirteen times), modern literary theory doesn’t really seem quite sure what to do with him. Forster was a homosexual, yet scholars tend to be somewhat dismissive of Maurice, his posthumously published book exploring young gay love. His most touted book, A Passage to India, can be uncomfortable for modern readers as it perpetuates so many colonial stereotypes and assumptions. This has not proved problematic for the Merchant Ivory Productions group, having adapted several of Forster’s novels into some of the most beautiful films ever made.

A very wet afternoon at the Bertolini permitted her to do the thing she really liked, and after lunch she opened the little draped piano. A few people lingered round and praised her playing, but finding that she made no reply, dispersed to their rooms to write up their diaries or to sleep. She took no notice of Mr. Emerson looking for his son, nor of Miss Bartlett looking for Miss Lavish, nor of Miss Lavish looking for her cigarette-case. Like every true performer, she was intoxicated by the mere feel of the notes: they were fingers caressing her own; and by touch, not by sound alone, did she come to her desire.

Mr. Beebe, sitting unnoticed in the window, pondered this illogical element in Miss Honeychurch, and recalled the occasion at Tunbridge Wells when he had discovered it. It was at one of those entertainments where the upper classes entertain the lower. The seats were filled with a respectful audience, and the ladies and gentlemen of the parish, under the auspices of their vicar, sang, or recited, or imitated the drawing of a champagne cork. Among the promised items was “Miss Honeychurch. Piano. Beethoven,” and Mr. Beebe was wondering whether it would be Adelaida, or the march of The Ruins of Athens, when his composure was disturbed by the opening bars of Opus III. He was in suspense all through the introduction, for not until the pace quickens does one know what the performer intends. With the roar of the opening theme he knew that things were going extraordinarily; in the chords that herald the conclusion he heard the hammer strokes of victory. He was glad that she only played the first movement, for he could have paid no attention to the winding intricacies of the measures of nine-sixteen. The audience clapped, no less respectful. It was Mr. Beebe who started the stamping; it was all that one could do.  – from A Room With a View (1908)

By Jacques-Emile Blanche, oil on canvas, 1935
By Jacques-Emile Blanche, oil on canvas, 1935

My adopted city of Zurich, for a variety of reasons, has long been a place of refuge for writers. Though born in Dublin, which he writes about so beautifully, James Joyce (1882-1941) died in Zurich, having made it is home during both World Wars. He spent very little of his adult life in Ireland, and he considered this self-imposed exile essential to his work, providing the distance he required to analyze his home country clearly. Joyce pioneered a narrative technique known as stream of consciousness, a concept introduced by psychologist William James in 1890, that has been heavily relied on by novelists ever since. Excuse me while I deviate for a moment, but scholars often point to Poe and The Tell-Tale Heart as Joyce’s precursor in this, yet as is so often the case, I believe Austen did it first, particularly in Emma, where so much of the story is delivered as an interior monologue. With Joyce we are now firmly in the modern world, and his books are amongst the very best written not only in the twentieth century but ever. Ulysses is broadly accepted as the preeminent modernist novel.

Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me: I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.  – from Araby, 1905

And here ends our tour. Please forgive me for shamelessly omitting Thomas Hobbes, Andrew Marvell, John Bunyan, Samuel Butler, John Dryden, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, Horace Walpole, William Beckford, Laurence Sterne, Elizabeth Carter, Robert Southey, Thomas Paine, John Clare, both Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Matthew Arnold, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Kingsley Amis, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, Beatrix Potter, and Virginia Woolf. Some were left out simply because this is the work of a partial and prejudiced reader, others because I couldn’t get the rights to the images (I only made an exception for Dickens because, well, because its Dickens). I am continuing to write about my visit on my blog, so please pop by if this horrendously long post wasn’t enough to sate your National Portrait Gallery needs. Thank you so much for joining me on the scribblers tour! I hope you enjoyed it.

7 Responses to Scribblers at the National Portrait Gallery, London

  1. I loved this! Really interesting to read from your perspective! I feel differently about some of the authors but none the less it was very interesting reading how they had affected you throughout your life.

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