Thursday, 23 February 2006

About that painting

Well, thanks for all the comments about the painting. (Though I am a tiny bit sad Fluffy chose not to post her entire thesis as a comment...maybe we can coax it out of her this time eh?) It's by Joshua Reynolds, as I mentioned already, and it's called "portrait of Master Bunbury", painted in 1780 or 1781.

This is why I asked: it's on the cover of a new book by Nancy Armstrong called How Novels Think: I'm meant to be pitching in a review of it for The Valve shortly. Indeed I'm honour bound to, since I got the book for nothing on this understanding (though as The Valve grows into mature self it's increasingly mysterious what I'm doing on the author list there). Armstrong's book is about the connection between the nineteenth-century rise of the novel and the (simultaneous, related) development of the modern idea of the individual person. I think it is a very good book, which is nice, because it means I'll be able to actually write about it; the last time I tried to participate in one of these book events what I wound up having to say about the book in question was so critical that it would have been incredibly stupid to attempt to publish it without the protection of peer review and so forth.

I fully intend to get to the painting in a second, but I want to pause for a moment to ask a question about reading literary criticism (or any other scholarship, I guess) and awarding (or withholding) the benefit of the doubt. I know a lot of you will have had the experience of reading some generally irreproachable and interesting book and coming across a protruding sore thumb of a mistake - a fact about the content of the text is misunderstood or simply gotten wrong. I'm curious about how you let it influence your reception of the piece of scholarship as a whole. In this instance, the author says Frank Churchill's foster parents (in Emma) are his grandparents, but the novel makes it perfectly clear that they're his uncle and aunt. I understand very well how easily you make a mistake like that, particularly when you've lived intimately with the novel under discussion for many years, and it actually has no bearing on the point being made at that moment. But all the same it does ever place an ever so faint and temporary question mark over the validity of the argument being made, especially where it depends on accumulations of loads of small details. (A good editor should pick this kind of thing up, I think.) Throwing the book aside in disgust is obviously a silly over-reaction; but is it a betrayal (of the novel? of yourself?) to just politely let it pass unmentioned? I would like to know what you think.

Anyway, Master Bunbury. There is a very interesting story traditionally attached to the picture, specifically, to the boy's expression, which Armstrong tells at the beginning of her book, thus:
In 1781 the Gazetteer reported what soon became the salient facts of the portrait. Young Bunbury was "so vivacious that Sir Joshua could not have settled him in any steady posture if he had not told him an entertaining story, which fixed his attention." This story travelled with the image to the Royal Academy exhibition of 1781, where poet and philosopher Dr James Beattie declared it one of the two best portraits by England's most celebrated painter and described it as "a Boy, supposed to be listening to a wonderful story". Horace Walpole was reported to have found the portrait "charming". Nor has the deterioration of the bituminous painting over time diminished either the painting's power to recall the anecdote or the anecdote's power to reanimate the image. Offering modern testimony to the story's ability to shift the source of the boy's uniqueness back onto the painter is Richard Dorment's speculation that "it may not be fanciful to see in the woods darkening behind Henry and the (gnarled?) tree trunk to the left, an evocation of the slightly scary settings usual in fairy stories." Given that Henry Fuseli, the well-known painter or nightmares, was Reynold's contemporary and occasional interlocutor, it strikes me as entirely plausible that Reynolds did in fact coax this expression from the lad by telling him frightening stories. True to the gothic sensibility, the sensations to which the boy's facial expression is attributed did not arise from actual objects. Born of stories, these sensations came from somewhere in the foreground - already charged with emotion - to arrest the movement captured in his rumpled clothes and open shirt.


So as Armstrong reads the painting, the boy's look is memorable because it powerfully captures the outward appearance of a person with an intriguing inner state of mind; and the legend about the scary stories has hung about, and seems to explain so much, because it sheets home that powerful representation to the skill and power of the painter. My commenting guinea pigs supplied good evidence that the picture raises these kinds of ideas and speculations.

I wonder if it looks different to you now that you know the story.

16 comments:

JM said...

Wow, how much do I suck? That book has been sitting on my table for a week or two, certainly since you posted the picture, and it didn't click.

Putting aside my own cluelessness, I haven't read the book yet and I look forward to your review of it. As to the question you asked...if it's just one of those silly but obvious errors, I'm apt to let it politely pass unmentioned -- probably because I've done the same thing, myself, No, I don't write scholarly books and make arguments based on loads of small detail, but in almost all of my books there's been one really dumb thing that I said or did that's been carried through multiple editors and multiple editions. It happens, and you feel like an idiot, especially when you do actually know the correct factoid, but there it is.

But I will admit when I find the time to read this book, I will put a little asterisk next to the factoid and say "a ha! Lucy says this is wrong." :)

Pavlov's Cat said...

Great story, thanks for explaining the mystery. And for the Nancy Armstrong ref -- one of my favourite critics. (Am shocked by Austen blooper though.)

I like the stuff about the painting's background; after you said it was Reynolds I did some image googling and saw that almost all his backgrounds look like that, which says something interesting either about Sir JR's psyche or about the English weather, possibly both.

Re finding errors: the phrase I use when teaching writing, in order to try to encourage people not to make mistakes (in, oh, you know, little things like spelling and grammar) if they want to be taken seriously as writers; many of them are deeply shocked by this notion -- is 'undermines the reader's confidence'. The same applies to errors in scholarship or reading.

The idea of undermining is useful in this context because it suggests an increasing process of erosion and destabilisation: the more errors one finds, the less confidence one has.

kate said...

I generally let things like that (in an otherwise carefully researched argument) slide as examples of editing failures (like typos). If, on the other hand, it was one of many screaming errors, I'd make a point of it.

A mag I worked for was sent a book to review and the task was taken by the other reviewer. She gave up at page 16, said the book was so offensively wrong that she could bare to read it, and wrote a review accordingly. I also tried to read the book, got to page 30 and backed her up. The book was badly written and historically innaccurate. It was also blatently racist, so, rather than not reviewing it at all, we felt we had to answer the claims it made. The author, needless to say, wasn't happy with our reviews.

Galaxy said...

I think that the error and the oversight should be pointed out--to ensure it isn't taken for fact by other readers who are unaware of the specific relationships between the characters and so that if there are further prints of the book it can be corrected. In this instance you clearly don't think the oversight/error undermines the worth of the book or even the particular point being made so pointing it out is not an attempt to maliciously undermine the author or her scholarship, but a matter of fact that the author and publishers might well be grateful for knowing. I think if you temper your identification of this one detail with your overall regard for the work, then you will have done good work by everyone.

Galaxy said...

ps I still think the painting could be Little Lord Fauntleroy, just as he is being told the story of his windfall and the gouty old grandfather he is yet to meet.

genevieve said...

I think knowing that someone is telling him stories to make him sit still makes a huge difference - I read the post first, then looked at the picture. He's beautiful, but obviously completely absorbed in something outside the picture. You could read all sorts of things into it if you didn't know he was just another jumpy little fellow.Must have been a ripping yarn.

Anne said...

Two great stories, Lucy.

I'm with the general tenor of the argument over Armstrong's error. You know Austen so well that this hurts you more than it might hurt another. Whether or not you mention the error in the review depends on the impression you want to give: it's embarrassing enough that it will be unforgettable to all. Then, of course, you can present the error in many ways. If there aren't too many errors but one--like this one--is serious enough, I kind of like adopting a gracious hauteur ("it is a shame that neither author nor editor caught...")

The picture leaps to life knowing the story about it. Just adorable. And funny to see, on his face, the rapt look I so often see on my daughter when she's transfixed by a good video. (I can't usually see her face when I'm reading to her...)

Bon weekend!--Anne

kate said...

btw, our posters arrived safe and sound. they look great, thanks so much.

fluffy said...

btw - as did mine. i am so crap for not thanking you for them yet! they are up on the wall pinboard styles but i have plans for framing. will send you pics of the framed versions x fluff

Ray Davis said...

"Grows into mature self"? More like slouches into rough beast. Your entree was one of the best things to happen to the Valve; I hope you don't exit any time soon.

Oh, and I agree with the general view: point out both the error and that you liked the book.

Kent said...

I think pointing out the small errors is forgivable. Anyway, that's what second editions are for, right?

Lucy Tartan said...

Kent, absolutely. I've written to the publisher about the mistake - it's only a slip and it doesn't affect anything else. The author's erudition is emphatically not in question so it's probably not something I'd make a point of noting in a formal review. I realise that looks quite weird at the bottom of a long discussion about the ethical issue, I guess it is, of publically drawing attention to mistakes.

Mistakes are interesting. Freud was right about that. I think they're in a different category from errors. The trouble is the most interesting ones are tricky to discuss (especially mistakes in scholarship) without becoming offensive in a disproportionate, first stone casting sort of way.

I think I'm going to write another post about this.

Anonymous said...

When you start to talk about family names and transpositions, you could well be in the Zone of Freud.

I've just come from a script meeting btw in which we were talking about the exact opposite of the "undermining confidence" idea. In documentary a good film will have found some way at the beginning to "establish authority".

In non-fiction books we look to the dust jacket and publishing style; in films it has to be part of the story and/or mise-en-scene.

- barista

Scrivener said...

I just spent a chunk of a class discussing Freud's misreading of Hoffman's "The Sandman" in "The Uncanny." But that mistake of his leads to a direct problem with his argument and was therefore interesting to analyze. I would say you've done the right thing by pointing out the error to the publisher but not necessarily mentioning it in the review itself. If it doesn't really do much to undermine Armstrong's position, and doesn't cause real problems with her argument, then making a deal of it in the review runs the risk of making you seem like a nitpicky reader looking to find a way to sound smarter than her.

Lucy Tartan said...

Thanks, Scriv - that's exactly how I feel about the issue of misreadings & mistakes both heuristically and as a kind of guild or professional question.

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