If a portrait 'happened to be on the easel', wrote Henry Angelo of Thomas Gainsborough, 'he was in the humour for a growl at the dispensation of all sublunary things. If, on the other hand, he was engaged in a landscape composition, then he was all gaiety - his imagination was in the skies.' What Angelo doubtless meant was that the painter's creativity rose like a balloon into the air. But, looking at Gainsborough's work assembled at Tate Britain in a huge retrospective (until 19 January), one might be excused for taking his words literally.
Imagine you have been walking up into the sky for four days on end, until you reach a frozen plateau as high as Mont Blanc. Only now does the serious business begin. Starting at midnight, you climb continuously for six hours in the dark up what seems like a near-vertical scree slope the height of Snowdon, at 20 degrees below zero while gasping for breath at 50 per cent oxygen. You have reached the crater rim of the highest free-standing mountain in the world, capped with cliffs of ice, only a few miles from the equator.
Chris Patten is used to rudeness. When he was the last governor of Hong Kong, the Chinese used to call him a 'jade-faced prostitute' and a 'tango-dancer for a thousand years', and other baffling insults. In these very pages he is called EU Marshal Chris PZtain, a byword for general sell-outery. To the neo-conservatives of Washington, he is the consummate Euro-weenie, ever warning us of the dangers of American 'unilateralism' and the risks of duffing up Iraq.
We all know what 'vigorous exchange of views' means. But rarely can a summit have ended with both sides boasting that their chap managed to get some juicy insults past the other fellow. Reading the press coverage on both sides of the Channel, a cartoon-like picture emerges. One imagines Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac like two Asterix characters, purple with rage, leaning towards each other with their noses squashed together.