Commissioned portraits throughout history have, in one way or another, shown the social standing and political and cultural viewpoint of the sitter, whether it is done through the pose, the artfully arranged clothing or the extras in the painting – books, works of art, other implements such as swords or paintbrushes.
The recently closed exhibition at the Royal Academy, mentioned by Tory Historian before, “Citizens and Kings 1760 – 1830”, was of particular interest from this point of view, this being a period in which most political and social ideas were turned upside down. With it went many of the ideas of how to paint portraits.
Interestingly enough, the last of those was not entirely true. While Enlightenment ideas of greater emphasis on private and family life certainly took hold, attitudes to the correct way of posing and the correct understanding of aesthetic forms remained not dissimilar and, therefore, very different in Britain from the Continental ones.
On entering a room it is possible to pick out the English and Scottish paintings immediately, not just because Gainsborough, Lawrence and Reynolds are unmistakable or because there is a curious continuity about English physiognomy, but because of the attitude to and by the sitters.
No Continental painter, however hard he tried, could produce that odd feeling of relaxation and certainty that the British ones did. (It is important to remember that there were several extremely good Scottish portraitists at the time.) The one exception is Elisabeth Vigée LeBrun, who even managed to paint children credibly and certainly produced interesting portraits that were much discussed as the emphasis was on the likeness instead of the sitter’s position.
Even or, perhaps, especially the animals in British paintings are relaxed and certain of their position – it being the most important in the household as is clear from the dogs and horses one saw in the exhibition.
The curator of “Citizens and Kings 1760 -1830”, whose notes and explanations were, as is common with the Royal Academy, excellent, drew attention to an interesting comparison between royal portraits.
At the start of the period the Continental countries were largely absolutist monarchies with Britain being the only country where the King’s power was circumscribed by Parliament. This, he thought, may well have been the reason why Reynolds painted King George III and Queen Charlotte in far more relaxed poses than his contemporaries painted other monarchs.
Interestingly enough, George IV eschewed that attitude. The famous Lawrence portrait shows him in an almost Continental manner, bestriding his space, full of “empty pomp”, according to the curator, who is clearly not a Whig.
Looking at other portraits, Goya’s Ferdinand VII, for instance, or the various ones of Napoleon, one can see the difference between attitudes very clearly. In many ways, it is not the great imperial splendour of Napoleon or his appearance as conqueror of Europe that is particularly interesting but David’s portrait of him in the study at the end of a long night’s work “for the good of the French people”, as the curator sardonically notes.
Napoleon is always the ultimate romantic hero, despite his less than total love of freedom, but this portrait surpasses all others. He is in uniform as he is about to inspect a regiment, surrounded by charts and documents, including the Code Napoleon, still the basis of French law. The man who is full of pride and is, yet, ready to sacrifice himself for his country. As it happens, he sacrificed the country to his ambitions for it and himself. How very different from the relaxed view of George III and the stiff emptiness of George IV imitating the Continentals.
First of all, apologies from Tory Historian for the paucity of posting. (Actually, the non-existence). Other commitments and the presence of builders in the home have made working life extremely difficult. But things are about to change.
In the meantime here is a portrait of a great British philosopher and historian, a Scotsman but one who belongs to us all, something we ought to recall in this year of the Union's Tercentenary.
David Hume cannot quite be called a Tory or anything else. Like all great thinkers he is of himself and not to be pigeonholed. His own comment was charactaristically wry:
I have written on all sorts of subjects . . . yet I have no enemies; except indeed all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians.He must have been rather proud of that.
There is another comment that is worth quoting as our own age seems to have reverted to the thought processes of the pre-scientific revolution:
All that belongs to human understanding, in this deep ignorance and obscurity, is to be skeptical, or at least cautious; and not to admit of any hypothesis, whatsoever; much less, of any which is supported by no appearance of probability.It is worth repeating this whenever there is another panic induced by the media and ambitious politicians or, even, scientists in need of money for their pet projects.
Tory Historian, as most readers of this blog know, is addicted to films, particularly films of a certain vintage. It has always been a matter of some sadness, therefore, that so much of the film industry is and has always been in the grip of left-wing and socialist delusions.
Many of the best American films of the thirties show the evils of capitalism and capitalists, coming out on the side of the “little man”, that being the acceptable left-wing version at the time of straightforward socialism. (The idea of those big studios who destroyed anyone who got in their way coming out on the side of the "little man" is quite amusing but there is an interesting history behind all that.)
One can trace similar trends in British and Continental cinematography. In France, with the rise of the Front Populaire films that were much more obviously propaganda were made right up to the outbreak of the Second World War.
We know about the Communist infiltration of Hollywood. As Ronald and Allis Radosh have shown in their “Red Star over Hollywood” all those accused of being Communists were, indeed, that. Moreover, they used the hearings to shout their own propaganda, thus actually losing some support among their colleagues who preferred to stand on a position of free speech.
The situation now is well-known. There is no left-wing idiocy that Hollywood and the rather dilapidated British film industry will not embrace. And yet, and yet. It seems that no matter which way you turn it is conservative ideas that make good films.
Take, for example, “High Noon”, which is supposed to be a symbol of resistance against McCarthyism (only self-obsessed Hollywood types could talk about resistance against something so pathetic). Once you see it, you realize that it is nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it is no different from “Rio Bravo”, John Wayne’s supposed response to it. Well, actually, it is a little more conservative in its attitude, being a hymn of praise to individualism, courage against heavy odds and the need to use guns when necessary.
Both films display another conservative principle, as does “On the Waterfront”, the most openly anti-socialist film – human nature is complex and simple solutions do not work.
What of the many British films made in the late forties and fifties? Some are dark thrillers like “The Noose”, others are more light-hearted comedies and social dramas. By and large, they are morally ambivalent about crime, even murder. Above all, they show the British society in its heyday of socialism, the time all good Labour people hark back to, as being grimly dull and oppressive. It is individual endeavour that is celebrated, even if in a slightly back-handed way.
Libertas is a conservative American website devoted to films and film-making. There is a discussion on it at present about why it is that so many of the Hollywood mainstream films, made according to Hollywood’s ideas by Hollywood’s darlings bomb while films that are dismissed by all the biens pensants attract audiences of enviable size.
The answer may be that those despised films tell a better yarn. Or it may be that Dirty Harry, the main blogger, is right in that the films of gratuitous sex and violence, no moral grounding, no heroes, no-one to cheer for are actually seriously out of date as well as being establishment in its worst form. What audiences want is something completely different, something that is new. Or, perhaps, old.
There are some comments and disagreements as to whether it is movement forward or backward that is being approved of. The truth is that there is no real movement forward or backward, except maybe in terms of technology and technique. The same ideas come around again and again. This is what the more successful films tap into now as they have always done.
From the general to the particular. Tory Historian went to the Riverside Studios on Easter Sunday evening to see “A Foreign Affair”, one of Billy Wilder’s better known efforts. (Incidentally, how is it that no matter how many Billy Wilder films one sees, there is nary a dud one?) The film, which takes place in post-War Berlin, has just been kind of remade into a dud vehicle for George Clooney and Cate Blanchett, “The Good German”.
Let us focus on the original. Its main theme is simple: a group of Congressmen and one Congresswoman arrive in Berlin some time in 1946 or 47 (certainly, after fraternization had been allowed) to check on the American troops’ morale. They find that morale is very high, not least thanks to the fraternization with Germans, particularly the fräulein, and to some extent, other Allied personnel, particularly the Russians. Congresswoman Phoebe Frost, from Iowa, decides to do something about it and all sorts of romantic complications ensue with an ending that is not entirely straightforward.
The Congresswoman is played delightfully by Jean Arthur, one of the best comediennes, and the hero, Captain Pringle, by John Lund (who?). Then there is Marlene Dietrich, who plays her usual part, a development of Lola-Lola from “The Blue Angel”. She is a world-weary nightclub chanteuse, irresistible to men, with a past but determined to have a future. In this case, her past appears to include a long-standing affair with a Gestapo general and a position at the very top of the Nazi hierarchy. An interesting part for Dietrich who had spent the war entertaining American troops, because, in her words, “it was the decent thing to do”.
What is so fine about the film is its understanding of all the characters. Unlike the modern version (well, kind of version) the Americans are shown in a good light, if somewhat lax on questions of black market and chatting up German young ladies. The politicians are of little interest except for Miss Frost, who turns out to be honourable beyond her political convictions. The Germans are having a hard time and one can almost see them as victims until there is a little nudge from the Director that reminds one of why exactly they are in the position they are in.
Nobody is completely bad and nobody is completely good. Even the singer, the nearest we have to a bad person, given her past, is allowed one speech in which she describes what her life and that of other German women had been for the previous three or four years. Of course, had she been saying it to a British woman politician (hard to visualize) rather than an American one, she might have had a reply along the lines of: “Oh so you’ve been bombed out? Well let me tell you what happened to us in London or Plymouth or Coventry.” But even the British politician would not have been able to talk of starvation and the city being over-run by Russians.
If anyone is a hero, it is the colonel who is a secondary character. He knows a good deal of what is going on but disregards petty problems with his eye on the main task: to find the remaining Nazi leaders and to rebuild a country and a nation. Maybe playing baseball and being allowed to shout at the referee is a slightly simplistic way of changing children’s attitudes. And maybe not.
Through the complexity of various human emotions and reactions, the colonel and his subordinates assert definite truths of freedom, human endeavour and ordinary existence, all conservative ideas. Made in 1948, “A Foreign Affair” and its optimism for Germany as well as America may have seemed a little doubtful. But the colonel was right. Germany was reconstructed on acceptable principles.
The William Wilberforce Lecture by David Davis, Tuesday 17 April
SPEAKER Rt Hon David Davis MP
DATE Tuesday 17 April
TIME 6 for 6.30pm
VENUE St Pauls Church, Rectory Grove, Clapham
Just to let you know that Hannah Wilberforce (great, great, great, great granddaughter of William Wilberforce) and her father (great, great, great grandson of William Wilberforce) will be attending the event.
Peel & the Remaking of the Conservative Party: Tuesday 19 June
SPEAKER Rt Hon David Davis MP
DATE Tuesday 19 June
TIME 6 for 6.30pm
VENUE House of Commons (room tbc)
Lord Hurd is publishing a book in June on Sir Robert Peel and how he refashioned the Conservative Party. He has kindly agreed to speak to the Conservative History Group on Tuesday 19 June at 6.30pm. Please put the date in your diaries.
Tory Historian cannot let the somewhat idiotic report put together by the Historical Association (who ought to know better) and published by the DfES (Department for Education and Skills, since you ask) go by without some comment.
There has been an astonishing amount of shock-horror type harrumphing in the media and on the blogosphere about the fact that in some schools teachers have given up teaching the Holocaust because some of the students have been brainwashed by their imams into denying it.
The question to be asked, surely, is why were they teaching it in the first place. Come to think of it, why were they teaching the Arab-Israeli conflict? A completely inappropriate subject for history teaching in schools.
The real problem is that there is no serious teaching of history going on in our education system, just the exposition of bitty little topics, put together, it sometimes seems through the whim of those who write the curriculum and expounded by teachers, many of whom are half-educated themselves.
It has been a matter of grim amusement for all those who care about the teachng of history that children in British schools learn a little bit about the Roman army (if they are lucky), some Tudors'n'Stuarts (most of which is a question of empathizing), a certain amount of the evils of the slave trade as shown exclusively by the British, a certain amount about the evils of the Industrial Revolution and the Holocaust. That's it. Hardly a satisfactory introduction to historical knowledge.
Small wonder most children find the learning of history at school incredibly dull and even smaller wonder that narrative histories and historical programmes on TV are incredibly popular. People feel they have been cheated of what they should have been taught at an earlier age.
The title of the report tells us all we need to know about the problem and the way it is avoided by the Historical Association: "T.E.A.C.H. - Teaching Emotive and Controversial History 3 - 19".
All history can be emotive and controversial and if you don't belive me, have a look at the way history is used by various sides in places where the conflicts are not dead. Furthermore, all imaginative children will find history emotive. Being a Yorkist or Lancastrian, Cavalier or Roundhead, American Patriot or Loyalist used to be the stuff of games and, let's face it, fights.
It is, therefore, Tory Historian's contention that the Holocaust should not be taught, except as part of a course on twentieth century history, which comes at the end of the process. History teaching should start at the beginning and go forward in a chronological fashion.
Some of it will be emotive and controversial - there may well be children who get quite excited about Boudicca and the Romans slugging it out - but at least there will be a basis of knowledge imparted to the children.
Incidentally, proper teaching of the history of British Empire, good sides and bad, will give a narrative to the British Muslims that will be rooted in historical facts rather than fantasies. After all, what could be more emotive than the story of the soldiers of the Empire who volunteered to fight for King and Country twice in the twentieth century?