Portraits

Hogarth, the lenderOn Sunday, we strolled down a quiet, civilised street: Oxford Street. There were people outside John Lewis waiting to go in. Quiet is relative- London is so laid back compared to Moscow, said the young woman on the train, and has such good transport links. She is over visiting her boyfriend, they have been together two years but this is only her second time in Swanston, which is so pretty. Moscow is crazy. Her grandparents are Muscovite. “Dos Vidanye”, I said- not до свидания with the proper accent- and she glowed: how do I know that? Oh, I picked up a few words in lots of languages, I said airily, it really pleased a Russian colleague- but I thought it meant hello, and only now find out it is goodbye.

We went to the Foundling Hospital for the Rake’s Progress: the eight Hogarth prints, and responses since. David Hockney, now a grand old man, made a series of prints in the sixties as an angry young man. The Yorkshire lad arrives in California, his blank face refusing to show he is overawed, to striking sights like rows of men with trannies at their waists, listening on headphones. In one picture he is thrown into the maw of a giant fish. Downstairs is The Vanity of Small Differences by Grayson Perry: as with Hogarth, it is all in the faces. I love Hogarth’s lender drawing up his contract with the gull.

Then in the National Portrait Gallery we saw the tiny, crowded The Great War in Portraits. Here are George V, Wilhelm II (h/t II-II) and the Austrian bloke, and a small oil of Franz Ferdinand looking smug, entitled and disdainful. Did they even on the most formal William_Orpen_-_Sir_Arthur_Currieoccasions dress like that? Here’s a photo of Gavrilo Princip looking lost, the perpetual victim. I had not taken much interest in portraits, so William Orpen was new to me. Here are rows of generals: the faces captivate me, more sensitive than I would expect. Donkeys who told men to march towards machine guns-

He’s a cheery old card, grunted Harry to Jack
as they trudged up to Arras with rifle and pack
but he did for them both with his plan of attack.

I could not necessarily get to like and know these people, but there is a person to like and know. Then there are a couple of VCs: this man shot down an enemy plane, had to land near enemy lines, made repairs to his plane under shell fire then took off again.

Then we saw some contemporary portraits, mostly actors and entertainers though Blair was there. A man asked if Dame Kelly Holmes was a photograph. I had wondered that until I studied the mouth, which is about 7″ across: those vertical lines of reflected light confirmed they were brush strokes, though what I see in the painting is the cleverness of the technique, rather than the person. We don’t know what to make of Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge, either: a blank canvas for the subjects to project what we will.

Here is William Orpen himself:

Self-portrait, 1917

Hogarth’s verse captions move from what is continent and proper to what is disordered and vile, and from the general to the particular:

Gold thou bright son of Phoebus
Of universal intercourse
Of weeping Virtue soft redress
And blessing those who live to bless
Yet oft behold this sacred trust
The tool of avaricious lust
No longer bond of humankind
But bane of every virtuous mind
What Chaos such misuse attends
Friendship sloops to prey on friends
Health that gives relish to delight
Is wasted with the wasting night
Doubt and mistrust is thrown on Heaven
And all its power to Chance is given
Sad purchase of repentant tears
Of needless quarrels endless fears
Of hopes of moments pangs of years
Sad purchase of a tortur’d mind
To an imprisoned body join’d!

3 thoughts on “Portraits

    • What do you think of Robert Macqueen, painted about 1798?

      Robert Macqueen, Lord Justice-Clerk

      For me, the interest is in the face. I can’t tell the judge’s expression, and I can make directly opposing theories. Perhaps the quality of the painter William Orpen attracts you.

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      • Yes, that does appeal. I think my other gripe about portraits is that I don’t want to see too many at once. I like a mix of subject matter. Quite like still life. I will look up Orpen, like you, the name wasn’t familiar.

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