Speaking Volumes: James Laver's Portraits in Oil and Vinegar

January 6, 1995

Kenneth McConkey on James Laver's Portraits in Oil and Vinegar.

A couple of years ago with the millennium heaving into view, I dreamt of giving up higher education to write a three-volume history of British art in the 20th century. I was led to these thoughts one day while pursuing my hobby. For years I have collected books written by critics at the turn of the century who were unscrambling the art of the immediate past. The years around 1900 saw a publishing boom in surveys of 19th-century art.

After the Great War a similar stocktaking occurred although the task was somehow easier. A whole set of assumptions and beliefs had evaporated. Young people of the 1920s doubted Edwardian materialism and the idea of progress. Suddenly the plutocrats, portrayed with great technical flourish by John Singer Sargent, seemed like creatures from another world, "characters from a fantastic comedy written in a language which we have somehow forgotten". Writing in 1925, in his first book, Portraits in Oil and Vinegar, James Laver characterised the change. Rather then presenting a survey of British painting in the previous quarter century he wrote 2,000 words on each of 25 of his illustrious contemporaries. As a young man, he was prepared to be irreverent and iconoclastic. Sir Frank Dicksee, president of the Royal Academy, described as the survivor of an "almost prehistoric school" was a soft target. Frank Brangwyn was noted for his unproblematic view of the world, in which industrialism was like football or hunting. Of the older generation, Laver hailed Walter Sickert "one of the most considerable painters this country has ever produced". Much more difficult were moderns like Roger Fry and Eric Gill. For all its theoretical clarity, Fry's painting was a kind of "watery consomme" and Gill, currently being lionised, was castigated for his sham byzantinism.

The young Laver was heroic and rash and it was these qualities which immediately appealed to me in Portraits in Oil and Vinegar when I first read it about 15 years ago. Its pithy directness was the perfect antidote to the arid postgraduate posturing of the "new" art history of the early 1980s. Laver took no hostages. His book, in any case, was much more entertaining than a piece of art history, although for the historian of the period it was an invaluable source of informed opinion. Portraits came from a higher caste of art writing; it was a by-product of the now much maligned category of art appreciation. There was no theoretical exegesis blindly applied; there was simply the operation of an intelligent eye and brain, matched with an enviable command of the language. Fry's modernist schema could be viewed objectively from the outside and left to the historian of the future who "will be called upon to settle (the question of) whether all the striving and agonising of fine minds devoted to the service of painting really did open up for mankind a new kingdom of the spirit". In 1925, this was dangerously like crying "wolf!" Laver wrote with complete confidence in his own values. In describing Augustus John's trajectory, he observed that "the present age finds the old wine of the Renaissance insipid and flies to the cocktails of the Baroque". He looked back at a past in which artists delighted in the brown fog of a London dawn, and forward to a future in which smoke abatement societies would obliterate this source of inspiration. He could see, in retrospect, how problematic Impressionism was, and viewed from the future, he was certain that the dogmas of the present would seem like antique intellectual fashions. So supremely conscious of his own present was he that it was self-evident that history was merely a temporary view taken from this vantage point.

But more than anything else I admire the fluidity of Laver's literary style in Portraits in Oil and Vinegar. Laver excelled in word pictures. Sargent's people lived life as if "in the first-class saloon of an ocean liner". The young "purring cat" debs who flocked to Ambrose McEvoy's studio all had "claws". He was sensitive to the mawkishness or irony that might accompany the discussion of Gill, and finally, this artist helped him to define his own position. "If I shared his beliefs I would not be able to write about those other fine artists." This was where Laver stood in 1925. He could not partake in the religious fervour and exclusivity of the ideologue. He was a free spirit.

Kenneth McConkey is professor of art history and dean of arts and design, University of Northumbria at Newcastle.

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