Paul Johnson

The significance of the order: ‘All hands on deck!’

The significance of the order: ‘All hands on deck!’

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A friend of mine recently sustained terrible injuries to his hand when his shotgun blew up. Such accidents fill me with horror, not least because they remind me how important our hands are to us, and how easily — in scores of different ways — they can be damaged. Hands are miraculous things, and one of the delights of observing children is to see how quickly they make use of them — pointing, turning knobs, pressing buttons, above all using a pencil. I have just received a delightful photo of my transatlantic granddaughter drawing. It is a Vermeer-like study in intense concentration. Though she is only 20 months old, she holds the pencil firmly and correctly. This is very important. However young a child is, it is essential, if the slightest sign of artistic talent emerges, to see that the hand grips the instrument (even chalk) in the most efficient manner, and there is only one: its base between thumb and forefingers, its tip guided jointly by forefinger and middle finger. Correct holding cannot be taught too early, for once a mishabit develops, it is extraordinarily difficult to eradicate later.

The same principle, ceteris paribus, applies to a child with musical talent. Yehudi Menuhin once told me, ‘The first thing with fiddling is to hold the bow properly, and there is only one way.’ The hand can become part of an instrument by 12 months of age, in rare cases, and certainly by two. I believe Clara Schumann was beginning to play the piano before she could even speak. She certainly learnt to read notes before letters. And why not? Nothing prodigious about it: merely a particular sense of priorities. She had remarkably strong hands, and needed them to master the exercises usual in those days, especially for women who aspired to be concert pianists. Her unfortunate husband, Robert, in an attempt to improve his hand muscles, using a patent gimcrack stretcher, did them permanent damage which effectively ended his concert career. She had to play for two. I once examined closely the hands of a celebrated woman performer and was impressed by their muscular development, suppleness and marvellous flexibility. It’s said that first-class women instrumental soloists are also brilliant performers in the boudoir. Well, they would be, wouldn’t they? One thinks of Madame Suggia, the great cellist immortalised by Augustus John, the beautiful and tragic Ginette Neveu, who Sibelius thought gave the best rendering of his mesmerising violin concerto, and the pianist Harriet Cohen, who cut a swath through left-wing hearts in her day.

Women artists, especially sculptresses, need and usually have strong hands too, like masseuses at health farms. When I was a young man in Paris I learnt massage, partly for its own sake, partly to develop my painting and writing muscles. When I was a boy, the belief in artistic circles was that a born artist had notable cushions, rising to a definite point, in the top part of each finger. Flat cushions meant no talent. Can there be any physiological basis for this? There were also theories about the lines in the palm of your painting hand, but those I am sure are baseless, as is — must be — the whole of palmistry. When I meet a painter, the first thing I do is look at his hands. Francis Bacon’s were unimpressive; feeble almost. But then, so were his paintings, in my opinion, even if good for the odd frisson, like the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, another man with woeful hands. On the other hand, David Hockney, as one would expect, has hands which are exceptionally dextrous but powerful too. I love to watch him at work when he is doing a portrait in line: a fine, smooth, almost rhythmic display of digital skill, eye, hand and brain working together in perfect harmony.

The man I would really like to have seen painting is Rubens. He had delicate but also formidable hands, to judge by his self­- portraits, but I think he had notable muscles all over his body, coming from a handsome and well-endowed family. When furiously at work on his giant canvases he must have been a sight you’d remember all your life; darting up and down ladders, running back to get a long view, running forward again to put in a minute dab or a fierce splash of paint, or to prepare for one of his bravura brushstrokes. He could load a big brush with paint, then use it, with complete accuracy and even tone, in a stroke eight feet long. This would require massive and well-coordinated back, shoulder and arm muscles, and few painters could have managed it at any time. How the studio assistants must have goggled! There are certain moods in which I regard Rubens as the finest of all painters, by virtue of the enormous extent, variety and quality of his output, his excellence in landscape and figure-painting, the historical, the sacred, the profane, portraiture and battle, men, women, gods and animals. He was an exceptionally decent man, too, generous and funny, a magnanimous creature. But, not least, he had a body built for art on the most heroic scale.

Probably the form of art requiring the most delicate and sensitive manipulation, and the surest hand, is classical Chinese calligraphy. We know little about it here, and it has many mysteries even for the learned Chinese, for it reached its climax in the 4th century ad, and the entire output of the three greatest calligraphers, who lived then, has totally vanished. There is an enormous literature in Chinese on the way you should pick up a brush, dip it in the ink, hold it and choose the angle of its application (especially centre-tip or oblique-tip), and the precise way in which the brush is employed to begin, continue and finish a character. The Chinese believe each letter has an essential character of its own and, unless the rules are strictly followed, the calligraphy is defective and is seen to be, immediately, by the experts. However, while following the rules, the writer also employs his mentality, philosophy and current emotions, as well as his personal moral character, all of which are reflected in the strokes. This is particularly significant when the calligrapher is also a poet, as is the desired norm, and is writing down his poetry. Its virtue depends only partly on its contents. The way in which it is set down on the paper is at least as important, and is clearly perceived by the practised student of art and literature. They speak of the ‘heart prints’ and the ‘mind prints’ of the calligrapher. Thus the hand is as important to the poet as to the artist or musician — no nonsense in China about a fellow like Auden with his dirty, bitten fingernails.

I wish there were a really learned and well-researched book about artists’ and writers’ hands, of the quality of Patrick Trevor-Roper’s book The World Through Blunted Sight. What were Guercino’s like? The fact that he had a squint, as his name makes clear, did not prevent him from being a draughtsman of superlative quality. There is a drawing of his in the Ashmolean, Oxford, called, I think, ‘Two Women Seated’, which has some claims to be considered the finest piece of draughtsmanship in existence. I would also like to know more about the hands of Jascha Heifetz, who to my mind was the most spectacular executant in all music, producing a continuous series of sounds of a special kind never heard before or since. Was there something equally special about his fingers? The importance of the hand is the real link between the workman, the artist and the intellectual. ‘All hands on deck!’ That says it all.