Sunday, September 20, 2009


My malapropism collection is expanding. To (a) “one foul swoop”—or, I suppose, “one fowl swoop”—(b) “pet noire,” and (c) “it never seems to amaze me,” I can now add “I wish I’d been a flower on the wall,” and my favorite (in connection with something that the utterer really did not like one little bit): “It really sticks in my groin.” The trouble is, I hear them continually but rarely remember to copy them down at once. All of these have Australian provenance, and in the cases of (a) and (b) seem worryingly widespread.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Switching off the media

This week I did what I should have done years ago—I got rid of the television. The cable man came today to disconnect me, and took away the little black box. Good riddance. It is not simply that among the dozens, even hundreds of channels to which one has access in return for monthly payments of ridiculous sums of money there is nothing at all to watch except rubbish, and advertisements. Rather it is, above all, the disgusting feeding frenzy that has unfolded here in New Haven since a sordid murder took place on the Yale campus last Tuesday week, not two hundred paces from where I sit. No aspect of this human calamity has been shielded from obsessive scrutiny, endlessly prurient comment, or what passes for “coverage” by those absurd chattering heads who have flocked here by the truckload with cameramen in their forlorn quest for viable news entertainment. I cannot, and will not continue to watch or listen—especially just now, when there has never been (as far as I can remember) more urgent need of serious debate about issues of real importance. There are other factors as well. Lately I have found that the outrageousness of many of the angry Republican and other critics of President Barack Obama and his administration has made it simply impossible to endure such mendacious, indeed hate-driven sound bites as find their way into the television news. To some extent this is merely a reflection of that greatest of all American paradoxes: The guarantee of rights and freedoms that, under the United States Constitution, extends farther than almost anywhere else in the world, inevitably therefore accommodates, even embraces not just the barmy, but the mad and dangerous as well. Certainly it permits the endless circulation of fear-mongering gossip—cynically destructive diatribes and hysteria dressed up as political discussion. Whereas serious policy-makers obviously know better, the rest of us must patiently sit there listening to ignorant nonsense. So the only option, for me at least, is to switch off the electronic media. Thankfully from now on it will be books only, my beloved T.L.S., the Australian Book Review, and what remains of the New York Times. Far, far better for the soul.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Manuscript 3

The snag with checking a large manuscript (The Finger: A Handbook) is that although you get better at it as you go along, you also start to get rather weary. I think you can see this also in the quality of the writing—and that’s an excellent argument for writing out of sequence, if you can manage or organize it that way. In this case I did, more a result of happenstance than of careful planning, and therefore at least in theory only I definitely know which sections came in those last few months of crazy slog, and which bits benefited (maybe) from several years of exhaustive finessing. On the other hand, I am quite certain that the principal differences between these are not too hard to spot, but let us not be deflected. In the end I was getting up at four o’clock in the morning, and writing until seven thirty, whereupon I went to work. My sustenance in those peaceful hours before dawn was three full pots of double-smoked Lapsang Souchong tea from the nice man at McNulty’s, to whom therefore at least some of the credit must go for dragging me over the line. Several months later, I am having that slightly peculiar experience of re-reading things that I only have a vague recollection of having written. However, the encouraging part is that from time to time you think to yourself, you know, this is actually quite good. Thus far the publishers have been gracious enough not to contradict me. No more body parts, I think. So I am starting to think about life after The Finger: A Handbook; what next?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Manuscript 2

Morning tea, again. I am going through the corrected manuscript of The Finger: A Handbook and am beginning to piece together tiny flecks of detail about my meticulous purple critic and companion. He or she—the gender is unclear at this stage—turns out to be Scottish, alert to the misuse of the word England where Britain should more properly stand. Actually, it’s not always the case that this was an egregious error on my part, unlike that confusion over the sting versus the bite of an ant. Because sometimes I really did mean England, notwithstanding the Act of Union, but somehow it doesn’t really seem worth the effort to explain in jade green pencil what I was originally getting at. The fact that it’s not entirely clear to my copy editor means that it almost certainly won’t be to any general reader, so, that being the case, it’s far better to accept the amendment with good grace. To some extent this is the overriding obligation of the author, and besides: Resistance is futile. My copy editor is also a little sensitive in respect of a small point I made somewhere about how the sensible remarks in respect of infantile thumb-sucking that were made in a letter to the editor of The Times from the doughty Scottish matron of a public school in Wales, are especially charming if you imagine them uttered with an especially strong accent; all I can do is to assure him or her that this was meant as a genuine compliment. I wonder if that will be enough to save that portion of the relevant sentence; perhaps it ought to go. At this stage other people are much better equipped to make the necessary call.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


This long weekend I am tackling the manuscript of my next book, The Finger: A Handbook, which has returned from the copy editor with gratifyingly few substantial alterations or corrections. The process is a humbling one, though, because I realize how completely I am still unaware of many of the strictly codified rules of American punctuation—and much else besides. The elegant notations in purple pencil of my invisible but kindly critic draw my attention to the fine distinctions between further and farther, for example, onwards/upwards and onward/upward, and, indeed, between between and among (or vice versa). Just now I am on my morning tea break, and I have decided that life is definitely too short to spend any amount of time sorting out the American way with which and that, or that and which—something an English friend and colleague of mine describes as the great American which hunt—especially when there are patient souls who are prepared to correct me. Because clearly I have developed the ineffable knack of getting it wrong each and every time. My purple critic—with whom I am rapidly developing a sort of bond—evidently has immense learning also, because at one point I refer to the sting of an ant—you’ll have to read my book to find that particular reference. The word sting is struck and replaced with bite. The marginal note reads “O.K?—no sting; it’s the formic acid in the bite that causes the burn.” To which, in the face of a statement at once so gentle but so compellingly authoritative, there can be no response more appropriate from authors, we solitary laborers in the vineyard of prose, than humility, gratitude, and a solemn resolve never again to make the same error. This is not to say that I have not from time to time rebelled. In a section where I remark, in relation to the opposability of the thumb, that this unique capacity has elevated us above all other mortal creatures, my purple companion asks in the margin “Best word?—One could argue, in ecological terms, that we’re actually parasites or a virus, for example.” I suppose it was wrong of me, but late last night I responded to this challenge with my soft jade-green colored pencil: “Speak for yourself!”

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Caroline Matilda Sotheron at Sea

In his Island to Empire: 300 Years of British Art, 1550–1850, Ron Radford cleared up the problem of the identity of Caroline Matilda Sotheron, the subject of Sir Thomas Lawrence’s beautiful three-quarter length seated portrait in Adelaide, formerly in the Bowmore collection (above). In the process he also made a satisfactory revision of the date of execution, backwards from ca. 1825 to a more plausible ca. 1808, and, incidentally, made entirely redundant my own catalogue entry for the painting in Christopher Menz’s 1998 exhibition Regency: British Art and Design, 1800–1830.

However, a chance discovery now adds a further note of color, and indeed mystery, to the early history of the portrait. Hitherto, the work has been traced to a Duveen Brothers’ sale conducted in New York on the evening of Thursday, April 29, 1915 (lot 12). In the following day’s New York Times (Friday, April 30, 1915, p. 13), under the breathless headlines “PAINTING BY CUYP SOLD FOR $73,000; Top Price of Fifteen Damaged Masterpieces Given for a Dutch Landscape. A LAWRENCE FOR $31,000…” we find the following remarkable report:

Probably one of the shortest picture sales on record and the smallest number of pictures for which the ballroom of a great hotel was taken for a sales-room was the sale of fifteen masterpieces of painting belonging to the Duveen Brothers by the American Art Association at the Plaza Hotel last evening.

These were the pictures which were on the steamship Mississippi in November, 1914, when, a fire breaking out, they were more or less damaged. The paintings were sold as they were, without attempt at restoration, and the returns for the fifteen were $190,125. The highest price of the evening was $73,000 given by Scott & Fowles for Albert Cuyp’s “Herdsmen, Cattle, and Shepherds in a Landscape.”…

The picture by the Dutch master shows a beautiful summer morning, a road by a stream, and a little color, read and blue, is introduced in the figures on the road. It is a picture which was said by [Cornelius Hofstede] de Groot to be one of the best by the artist on the Continent. It came from the collections of Edmund Higginson [1802–1871] of Saltemarsh [
sic] Castle, 1842; Joseph Bond, 1872, who lent it to the Academy; C[harles]. [John] Wertheimer [1842–1911], who lent it to the Academy, and Comte Boni de Castellane [1867–1932] and M. Maurice Kann, Paris. Mr. [Thomas Ellis] Kirby said in putting up the picture that it was valued at $200,000. It was started at $3,000, ran up immediately to $10,000, was the subject of considerable competition, other dealers trying for it, and it was finally knocked down to the purchasers.

There was apparently little damage done this picture by the fire. Others of the pictures painted on panels had the wood badly warped, and in some places cracked where the colors were little affected. Only two pictures of the lot were very materially defaced.

They came first on the catalogue. A panel, “Bust Portrait of a Young Man in Black Cap,” by Poero [sic] di Jacopo [d’Antonio] Benci, called Pollaiuolo, went to R. H. Loines for $250, and the “Portrait of a Youth in a Red Cap,” by [Giovanni] Ambrogio [de Predis], went to M. J. Rugeron for $175.

Giving the other pictures in the order of sale, a circular panel 3 feet in diameter, “Virgin and Child with St. John,” by Lorenzo di Credi, went to Henry Reinhardt [of Henry Reinhardt & Son, 606 Fifth Avenue] for $3,700, and to the same buyer went another circular panel, 30⅜ inches in diameter, “Virgin and Child with Saints,” by Pier Francesco Fiorentino, for $5,700. The “Madonna and Child,” a panel, by Mariotto Albertinelli, 31⅛ by 22¾, went to E. L. Lueder [of L. W. Minford & Co., 106 Wall Street, coffee and sugar brokers], for $1,200, and Cosimo Rosselli’s “Virgin and Child with St. John and Saints,” circular panel, 3 feet 2¾ inches in diameter, went to Bernet, agent for $2,600.

The delightful long, narrow panel, “Processional Scene,” 17 inches in height by 65¾ inches, by Jacopo del Selajo [Sellaio], went to P. [&] D. Colnaghi of London for $3,300. Paul[us] Potter’s “Landscape with Cattle,” a pleasing picture, which had been in the [Charles T.] Yerkes collection, went to A. G. Brown for $3,000 [Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, now re-attributed to Anthonie van Borssum; the Friedsam Collection; Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931; 1932.100.12]. There were three Cuyps in the collection, and a panel, 18 by 22, “The Flight Into Egypt,” went to Knoedler & Co. [also now in the Met; Bequest of Josephine Bieber, in memory of her husband, Siegfried Bieber, 1970; 1973.155.2], who were competitors for the more important picture by the artist, for $4,000. “Oxen in a Shed,” by Cuyp, went to Dr. Paul Mersch [of Paris] for $3,500.

The two beautiful portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence and Sir Joshua Reynolds brought nearly the same price. The “Portrait of Miss Sotheran [sic],” by Lawrence, was nearly full length, a charming young woman, simply dressed in a creamy white gown, blue sash, and salmon-colored shawl. It went to Scott & Fowles for $31,000. W. E. Evarts paid $30,000 for Reynolds’s “Mrs. Otway and Child,” a woman seated, wearing a white gown and quilted coat, with a yellow bow as a headdress. She holds the hand of the child, who stands upon a sofa [Mannings, No. 1371]. Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s “Portrait of Alexander Treist, Baron d’Auweghem,” a standing figure in black velvet, with wide, thick ruff and one hand resting on the pommel of his sword, went to Seaman, agent, for $8,700. [This painting is now convincingly re-attributed to Gaspar de Crayer (1584–1669), Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mrs. Samuel Sachs, Mrs. W. Scott Fitz, Mrs. Ernest B. Dane, Felix M. Warburg, and three anonymous subscribers, 1915.13.]

Rubens’s, “The Holy Family,” was the last picture sold and went to C. F. Williamson of Paris, for $20,000. This was from the collection of the [fourth] Duke of Sutherland. It is 63 by 39 inches, composed of six life-size figures, the Virgin with the Child at her breast, a cherub at her feet, at the left St. Catherine holding the little St. John with St. Joseph on the right bending over the group [Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles: Duveen Brothers Records, 1876–1981, Acc. No. 960015, Series II.A., Part 5, Box 286, Folder 4].

Leaving aside the remarkable disparity of prices paid (clearly, and dazzlingly in Lawrence’s favor), this sale is fascinating because it so exactly reflects the competing, even incongruous elements of Gilded Age taste in New York, much fortified by Duveen Brothers, Knoedler’s, and P. & D. Colnaghi before the Great War: in other words Italian Renaissance panels jostling with Rubens and Van Dyck; seventeenth-century Dutch landscape, and eighteenth-century English grand-manner portraits. An earlier article in the New York Times (Sunday, March 28, 1915, p. 12, “MARRED PAINTINGS OF MASTERS IN SALE…”) made it clear that this capsule of paintings was consigned as cargo aboard the Mississippi by Duveen Brothers in London the previous November (1914), and damaged in the hold of the vessel.

The 4,738-ton S.S. Mississippi was built for the Atlantic Transport Line by Harland and Wolff in Glasgow, and was the first ship to sail the transatlantic route that was equipped solely with internal combustion diesel engines. She was launched on February 11, 1914, and ultimately sold for scrap in 1933. In 1902 the A.T.L. was subsumed, through a merger with five other lines, into J. Pierpont Morgan’s huge, parent International Mercantile Marine Company, and with them became synonymous with the opulent First Class services between New York, Boston, and British ports. Apart from these reports, however, there appears to be no other mention in the press of any fire aboard the Mississippi. It must have been comparatively minor.

Nor indeed do we know how the New York dealers Scott & Fowles ultimately disposed of the Adelaide Lawrence, if in other words they found a local buyer; it seems at least possible, because the United States did not enter the War until April 1917, and money was still plentiful in New York, despite the economic malaise of 1913–14. Certainly the painting was back with Duveens’ in 1923.

In 1980 an elderly former employee of Scott & Fowles donated several hundreds of files from the company to the Cincinnati Art Museum, who, in turn, donated them to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It is just possible that that 2.2 linear feet of documents may contain some reference to the present picture. However, I think I shall leave this matter for Adelaide to pursue.