Paul Johnson

And Another Thing | 7 June 2008

‘Mr Pont, may I introduce you to Miss Austen?’

‘Mr Pont, may I introduce you to Miss Austen?’

There is something infinitely touching about a creative artist who dies young, not before displaying sure evidence of a glorious gift but without having time to set up the arching parabola of developing genius. One thinks of that magic group at the beginning of the 19th century — Keats, coughing his heart out in Rome; Shelley, drowned in his crazy yacht off the stormy Ligurian shore; Girtin, about whom Turner said ‘If Tom had lived, I should have starved’; Bonnington, whose watercolours (said Delacroix) ‘shone like jewels’; and the grim and mysterious Géricault, who adored English horses ‘and the fierce Amazons who ride them’. Later there was that elongated, emaciated, evanescent, etiolated, elegant skeleton Aubrey Beardsley, whose tapering hands looked as if they were carved in Arctic alabaster and whose nose was a major work of art in itself.

‘Whom the gods love die young.’ This saying by Plautus scarcely applies today, when everyone seems to live for ever — unless of course God is tiring of the human race, which would not surprise me. Nuns used to tell me, when I was a child of five, that people might die young because God wanted them by his side. I didn’t believe it then and don’t now, sharing the view of Charles Lamb, who wrote so movingly, in prose and verse, of untimely death, that such tragedies demonstrate to us the awful fragility of life and teach us to value each precious moment.

I have been thinking of the case of Graham Laidler (1908-40), the outstanding comic star of Punch in the 1930s, signing his wonderful half-page cartoons ‘Pont’. When I was eight or nine, and trying to imitate the strongly idiosyncratic and stylish line of Fougasse, my father drew my attention to Pont: ‘This fellow is much better and you can learn more from him.

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