Discovering Art

While some mid nineteenth century tin-miners remained, like my maternal great-grandfather, James Nicholls, life-long illiterates, others were beneficiaries of the nation-wide promotion of “useful knowledge” for the working-class. In Cornwall, the numerous mechanics’ and “literary” institutes

St. Agnes Miners' and Mechanics' Institute

St. Agnes Miners’ and Mechanics’ Institute

focused intensively on providing lectures and library resources on geology and engineering for self-improving miners, especially those intent on emigration. “Science” in this form was “bread to the poor” suggested, Sir Charles Lemon, a promoter of such formal education for working miners. Many miners, however, acquired their knowledge of geology almost entirely from practical experience rather than enrolling in the expensive courses offered by the nascent schools of mines in the area. One of these was my paternal great grandfather who left Cornwall in mid-century Screen Shot 2013-02-24 at 9.42.09 AM to work in mines in Michigan and the gold-diggings of California,

Grass Valley, California during the gold boom.

Grass Valley, California during the gold boom.

returning to his native village in the early 1860s, bringing with him a carefully itemized mineral collection as well as the profits from his California prospecting–the latter being dissipated by the significant drinking habit he had developed in the goldfields and Michigan mines. Although his intemperance and extravagance became the stuff of lasting family legend, he evidently saved enough money to set up his son in a skilled trade that would not be dependent on the vicissitudes of tin-mining. His son, James Frederick, my father’s father, was the beneficiary of compulsory schooling reinforced by the self-improving tendencies of Wesleyan Methodism. Local Board Schools as well as the new schools of “Science and Art” in the region encouraged students in drawing and painting intended to instill “into the minds of working men and women a taste for decoration in regard to their cottages” so that “they would resort less and less to places where they were influenced for ill.” James Frederick copied  various posters and paintings that he came across and sketched and painted some local scenes including the one shown here of the well at nearby Treslothan.IMG_0974_3 Beginning working life as a house-painter, he became a “master decorator” with expertise in graining and sign-writing–skills that were frequently in requisition for the interiors of the many Methodist chapels that dotted the landscape. His artisanal skills, like his own father’s geological knowledge, were probably acquired through direct practical experience rather than from books or formal lessons. Graining, intended to make cheap wood resemble the more expensive oak or mahogany, commanded much higher remuneration than simple painting and could only be learned by imitation and endless practice, sometimes, histories of the trade indicate, conducted in secret: “A grainer . . . would protect the secrets of how he reproduced nature by even going to the extent of working behind locked doors, covering windows and stopping up key holes. Only the finished work was seen. So an apprentice with aptitude and natural flair had to look into the finished work and from this and natural samples develop his own method avoiding at all times ‘paintiness’ in the work.” Even though his most marketable artisanal skills derived from practical experience rather than books, James Frederick evidently achieved more than functional literacy. His sermons, preserved for decades by my father for his own inscrutable reasons, were written in a firm, fluent and legible hand. From what I can recall from my perusal of them in my mid-teens, they were comprised of the usual tapestry of biblical texts, laced together with familiar chapel rhetoric. His religious reading did not, I think, extend beyond the conventional range of the Bible, the Wesleyan hymn book and The Pilgrim’s Progress. The practical skills that James Frederick had acquired in order to achieve the status of “master decorator” were generally a less secure assurance of a reliable income for the next generation. Even before the first World War, Robert Noonan’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, published under the pseudonym “Robert Tressell” places the main character, Frank Owen, under apprenticeship to “a master decorator who was a man of a type that has now almost disappeared, being not merely an employer but a craftsman of a high order.” Based in Cornwall, with Methodist chapels as continuing reliable customers and with a more slowly shifting public taste in interior decoration, James Frederick was able to remain a successful anachronism for the rest of his life.

Interior of St. Just Wesleyan Reform Chapel showing grained pews.(Source: English Heritage. Phot credit Eric Berry)

Interior of St. Just Wesleyan Reform Chapel showing grained pews.
(Source: English Heritage. Phot credit Eric Berry)

His oldest son inherited the business, initially taking contracts for graining and signwriting as his father had done, but by the time he wound down his work in the mid twentieth century, the shop’s trade consisted only of retailing paint and wallpaper. The other three sons propelled themselves into the professions through formal education and qualifications. In my father’s case this shift was marked by some reluctance. Despite his vague yearnings to attend art school to train as “a designer,” his mother was determined that her youngest son should become a teacher. Along with one of his cousins, he was dispatched to Westminster College to be set on a course towards assured respectability in an institution with a firm Methodist resistance to the temptations of the metropolis.

Schooling in Aesthetics

Westminster College offered my father a curriculum heavily weighted to the Victorian “greats.” The editions of works by Ruskin, Arnold, Carlyle and Tennyson that were among my father’s books at the time of his death all date from his time as a Westminster student, many of them bearing the required college bookplate.Westminster bookplate Like Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger,  he was highly susceptible to the critical and aesthetic judgements of others, “murmured in the right tone” by the cultural authorities endorsed by the college curriculum. The literary tastes that the college encouraged were a perfect chronological match for the aesthetic tastes formed at home under the influence of his master decorator father, for whom modernity was equated with the Arts and Crafts movement of the 1890s and perpetuated through his subscription to The Studio.Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 5.35.03 PM Bennett’s Clayhanger delineates the conflict between the intellectual and cultural aspirations of Edwin Clayhanger and his father Darius by focusing on Edwin’s rejection of his father’s hard-won trade skills. Edwin secretly yearns “to become the possessor of certain defined groups of books . . . all to the end of self-perfecting” which provokes outbursts of rage from the irascible Darius. No such conflict seems to have ensued from the new influences my father absorbed from his college curriculum. His cultural aspirations embodied in his book-buying, his proficiency as a pianist and a painter, unlike Edwin Clayhanger’s forbidden cultural yearnings, were viewed by his parents as hallmarks of an enhanced social status and a cause for pride. My father shared many of Edwin Clayhanger’s characteristics—similar aesthetic yearnings, similar questing for cultural authorities and a deference to their pronouncements. But, unlike Clayhanger, he was never prompted to shun the Victorians. Instead, he steadfastly identified himself as “a Victorian” in matters of behavior, morality, as well as in taste. In strict chronological terms this identification was a bit of a stretch. Born toward the end of 1899, he would have been less than eighteen months old by the time the old queen died in 1901.

My father on his father's knee in 1900. His mother at rear.

My father on his father’s knee in 1900. His mother at rear.

But the tone of much of his upbringing would have come under the broad heading of what is now termed  “Victorian.” Like Clayhanger, he was easily impressed by the judgements of those who were presumed to be aesthetic authorities. His early book purchases leaned heavily towards encyclopedic “sets” which offered guides to literature, painting or music as well as to volumes titled with such superlatives as “greatest” or “best”. His attraction to “sets” of books with encyclopedic ambitions was part of a timid yearning for the authoritative word on cultural matters. Georgian aesthetic tastes took solid form on his shelves with John Drinkwater’s two volume Outline of Literature and William Orpen’s Outline of Art Orpen spine with its dull two tone reproductions of “masterpieces” purportedly selected by Orpen on the grounds of their being “beautiful and inspiring.” Originally issued by Newnes in fortnightly installments, beginning early in 1923, the work’s explicit goal was “to reproduce as many as possible of the greatest pictures in the world” while making no attempt “to indulge in learned criticism and argument.” Even when it was first published in the 1920s, at least one reviewer found Orpen’s discussion of his choices as “strangely conventional and uninspired.” But, for my father at least, the conventional was soothingly reassuring. In the mid 1930s he acquired a three volume large-format set published by Odhams with the amazingly presumptuous title, The World’s Greatest Pictures.  Billed as “an Art Gallery of 100 masterpieces suitable for framing.”Screen Shot 2013-02-20 at 9.34.42 AM A skilled amateur painter in water colours and oils himself, my father’s personal pantheon of admired artists included mid-Victorian water-colourists like John Sell Cotman and David Cox and extended to the sumptuous near-kitsch of a later Victorian like Russell Flint. His deepest admiration was reserved for the work of Stanhope ForbesStanhope_A._Forbes

and his Newlyn School colleagues.

Forbes and his associates combined Victorian genre painting tentatively infused with techniques derived from the French Impressionists. Painting outdoors, en plein air, rather than in stuffy studios had been styled in Forbes’ time as a daring move. My father and his oldest brother, Wilfred, idolized Forbes. They followed their weekly outdoor sketching sessions with an hour or so spent critiquing their efforts. The severest condemnation of a sketch was that it was “a bit chocolate-boxy.” The highest praise, usually reserved for a small detail, was the observation, “There’s a bit of Stanhope Forbes there.” This would be followed by red-faced mirth at the daringness of their presumption. The sketching expeditions and the critiquing sessions that followed them were among my father’s happiest and most relaxed moments, but an ongoing frustration lay in the fact that, unlike the idolized Forbes, he seemed incapable of drawing or painting human figures. Small, tentative stick-like daubs were the typical result of his attempts to include any human figure in his otherwise skillful renderings of local scenes.

Watercolour sketch of engine house near Breage by my father

Watercolour sketch of engine house near Breage by my father

He was no better at sketching faces. However, like Traddles in David Copperfield, he was an inveterate doodler, in his case penciling in, not skeletons, but countless profiles of expressionless male faces. These proliferated in the margins of nearly every newspaper or magazine he read and even, occasionally put in an appearance on the blank pages or margins of books. So perhaps it was a compensation for, or an attempt to remedy this weakness in his graphic skills that he so frequently re-read John Brophy’s The Human Face Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 12.19.16 PM which he’d acquired in the mid 1940s. Brophy is now  known, if at all,  only as a “middlebrow novelist” who has lapsed out of fashion and as the father of another novelist, Brigid Brophy. He should at least be remembered as one of the first in the English-speaking world to lobby for the Public Lending Rights system which would remunerate writers for the use of their books in public libraries. Brophy’s proposal in the early 1950s was for a levy of one penny applied to each borrowing, nine tenths of which would go to the author and one tenth to the library for administering the system. Popularly known as the “Brophy penny,” it was the first time such a notion had come to public attention, although it would take many more years and much further lobbying before any lending rights system was put in place.. But struggles over the political economy of authorship and publishing were remote from my father’s world. John Brophy’s history as a pioneer champion of author’s rights would have been of little interest. Instead, Brophy would have been endeared to my father because he had been, during World War II, the editor of John O’London’s Weekly, regarded by my father as an infallible guide to what might be worth reading.