Wednesday 14 November 2018

Review: The House of Hanover by Leon Garfield

I was very excited when I discovered that Leon Garfield had written a non-fiction book about the eighteenth century and rushed out to get a copy. It’s not a long book, readable in an evening and it is very…strange.

In some ways it’s structured as a short story. The narrator is taking a trip around the National Portrait Gallery, paying particular attention to the ‘House of Hanover’ corridor and recording his thoughts and feelings as he goes down it. Occasionally he discusses his thoughts with a slightly smarmy gallery attendant who challenges him. The structure makes it seem like an introduction to eighteenth century art and literature, an ‘appetiser’ as it claims, but the reflection and strong opinions of Garfield expressed in the book make it seem like it’s for someone of reasonable knowledge and strong opinions themselves.

Who is this book for and what is it doing exactly?

It’s an interesting idea, using the gallery as a framing device. Even before the eighteenth century, Britain was looked down upon for their culture of ‘phiz-mongers’ and the National Portrait Gallery is an oddity in world galleries, less a gallery of art and more of a national storybook. It provides a different and visual way into the time period but in portraying a national story, the book feels far older than its forty years. With the strong opinions, preference for myths of ‘great men’ over kaleidoscopic lives of little people, it feels like some kind of schoolbook from the 1920s or 30s. Not that the book is imperialistic, Garfield describes the Victorian/Empire galleries as a “bloody inferno of world power” and skips it entirely but the confidence to make such a sweeping generalisation doesn’t feel like it belongs in a modern book.

Best to start at the beginning though, which is the advice the character of the attendent gives to the narrator. For this reason the book starts with iconographic paintings of medieval kings, sweeps through the Tudor courts, lingers a little longer among the Stuarts before emerging into the Hanoverian era. This is so those pesky Georgians don’t feel quaint and remote in their curly wigs but instead feel more vibrant and ‘real’ than the people before them. The journey of the gallery puts them in place.

He then goes down the gallery, describing pictures (even though we have plates), giving tit-bits and stories about the people depicted in them and making huge sweeping value judgements about them also.

Defoe and Hogarth are good, they both used art to open the eyes of people to contemporary life and care about presenting poor subjects. Gay is also good, ridiculing the nonsense of Italian Opera, skewering the criminality of the rich but also giving nobility to the poorer classes.

Pope is bad, he writes prose that rhymes (“If it’s neat, it rhymes, and you’ve heard it before, it’s Pope”). Swift is a weird mix, in hating people in generality but loving them in particular, he’s a bad heart alleviated by a good brain - until the brain deteriorated. 

Johnson is utterly good but Boswell is slimy and bad, fit more to be barrister than anything else. Boswell did manage, however to create something good, the biography, because he had such good material to work with. Joshua Reynolds is bad, even with a face as Johnson’s, he fails to catch any real personality with his portraits, Hogarth should have done it.

Sterne is bad because he made a novel that can only be self-referential. It is also too divisive, good art should unite. Richardson is also bad, a sell out with no real talent who got lucky. His rival, Fielding, is very, very good and ‘Tom Jones’ is a light to all ages.

Gibbon is haunted by the parrallels in Rome’s fall and Britain’s progression. Horry Walpole had a good mind, could recognise the dark gothic heart of people but frittered his intelligence away in fancy and Handel is the ultimate good. His music changes souls and he was good enough to give it to charity.

These aren’t my opinions, they’re Garfields. There’s a little more justification in the full book, but not much. He despairs of the decline of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth, he wonders whether art and literature make any difference at all, he sorts all the portraits on the wall into goodies and baddies - why?

I don’t know. I’ve thought and thought and thought and have decided that this book is essentially Garfield’s GrubStLodger. This is the space where he could talk about what he was interested in and the judgements he makes thereof, a book like this would never be published nowadays (unless it was a celebrity) but it might make a good blog.

Ultimately, Garfield represents the eighteenth-century as an arrogant, over-confident time, with huge pride in its new science and literature blinding it to the squalor that surrounded it and the barbarity of empire to come. Within this he sees sparks of humanity and kindness; artists giving painting and song to the Foundling Hospital, the warm voices of Defoe, Hogarth, Johnson and Fielding, the pleasure of Garrick’s performances and the novels of Jane Austen. Whatever culture is, or what it is for (and there’s no time to answer in such a short book) it might be enough that it has given pleasure and can continue to give pleasure from then into the future. 

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