Tom Rosenthal

Mixed blessing | 11 November 2006

Text settings

The subtitle ‘Artist, Author, Word and Image in Britain 1800–1920’ sets out the aim of one of those curator-inspired delvings into the vast stock of a great and fairly ancient museum. It repays several hours of study as the devil, as so often, is in the detail. The Fitzwilliam — unlike many other, larger art museums — is particularly strong in rare books and literary manuscripts, which provide some of the most pleasing exhibits.

For those who find many of our museums a little po-faced, the visitor could do worse than start with the last section ‘Where’s the Joke?’ There are superb cartoons by Beerbohm, Bateman and du Maurier (full name George Louis Palmella Busson du Maurier), which perfectly embody the show’s title and whose humour is fully apparent only when one has read the words as carefully as one has ‘read’ the picture. My favourite is Edmund Dulac’s satirical, circular watercolour of Ricketts and Shannon, whose caricatured faces are superimposed on two four-armed Vishnu-like deities. Dulac’s title is ‘Ricketts and Shannon as Hindu Gods (Ri-Ké-Tsan-Dcha-Nhon)’.

If one treasures both literature and art, their commingling is of abiding fascination so that the range of portraits of writers by painters, with a leavening of artists’ self-portraits, is doubly rewarding. Here you will see Dante Gabriel Rossetti by himself and his florid Pre-Raphaelite version of ‘Dante and Beatrice in Purgatory’. And for the ghoulish there’s also a lock of his hair, snipped off by his brother on the night he died. Rossetti’s flamboyant head and shoulders of Swinburne in all his red-maned glory is accompanied by the manuscript of Swinburne’s effusive verse tribute to Théophile Gautier in French, while the catalogue notes that the museum also holds a manuscript of the same poem in Greek.

Given the way in which Augustus John’s reputation has suffered since his death, it’s salutary to forget those awful, huge, gipsy panoramas and enjoy his workmanlike portrait of George Bernard Shaw, and his Thomas Hardy is surely the definitive likeness of the great man in his later years. Wise, seen-it-all-disillusioned, dignified and unhappy, John has caught, in a relatively small space, all the aspects of the complex character revealed in recent biographies. To see alongside it the manuscript of Jude the Obscure in Hardy’s inimitable hand, complete with some of the excisions made, in blue and green, of passages deemed too sexually explicit for its original serial publication, gives any Hardy admirer an extraordinary frisson.

Perhaps the most detailed and elaborate fusion of ‘word and image’ of the period is the ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’. A bit over-designed for modern tastes, it is still the high point of Victorian deluxe book production and represents the apogee of the half-century partnership of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who relaxed during the arduous task of illustrating The Canterbury Tales by producing several enchanting caricatures of Morris at work and play.

The development of illustrated magazines from the 200 copies per issue of the Dial to the more popular Cornhill Magazine produced some interesting bedfellows. Millais illustrated the serialisations of Trollope’s Framley Parsonage and The Small House at Allington, not always to Trollope’s entire satisfaction. He denounced Millais’s ‘Was it not a lie?’ for the former as ‘simply ludicrous’ but recanted when he saw a woman wearing exactly the same sort of dress that Millais had depicted. In fact, the magazines eventually did for the Private Presses, such as the Pissarros’ Eragny, Ashendene, Vale, Essex House and Doves, all of which closed between 1904 and 1916, but for a number of years the ideal of the ‘Book Beautiful’ flourished and, as we see here, the contributions of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Walter Crane, William Strang and the great Aubrey Beardsley and others made this period one of the richest and most satisfying for British book illustration and design. Even if Lawrence Binyon was a minor poet, to see his love poems ‘Dream-Come-True’ produced by the Eragny Press, with decorations designed by Lucien Pissarro and etched by Esther Pissarro, is still a special treat.

Literary Circles has an exemplary catalogue, edited by Jane Munro and Linda Goddard. The show merits Michelin’s ultimate category, vaut le voyage, in this case only a cheap day return to Cambridge.

There is at the same venue, also curated by Jane Munro, an exhibition called Chasing Happiness: Maurice Maeterlinck, The Blue Bird and England (until 7 January 2007), devoted to the stage designs and costumes for the 1909 English première of Maeterlinck’s play. The sets by Frederick Cayley Robinson constitute one of the glories of English stage design and there is additional theatrical art by Charles Ricketts. This includes a small masterpiece of set and costumes for a Japanese production in 1919 of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which would have thrilled the author with its extraordinary blend of realism and exotica. This particular exhibition is a joyous evocation of the spirit of happiness that Maeterlinck, the old Symbolist, tried so hard and so successfully to spread.

Tom Rosenthal is a trustee of the Fitzwilliam Museum, but had no involvement in these two exhibitions.