Comment: Letter from London

Article excerpt

Dear H,

For someone with an eye for art and architecture and a head filled with English literature and history, London is a cornucopia of delights at any time of year. Yet I think the city is at its best at Christmastime. Christmas as we know it was more or less invented in Victorian England. It would be hard to think of any writer who has put his stamp on any holiday in the way Dickens did with Christmas-or on any city, as he did with London. As I walked the frigid streets last December, I often found the words of Dickens' Christmas Carol running through my head:

It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and [Scrooge] could hear the people in the court outside go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already-it had not been light all day: and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air.

I'll return to Dickens later, and to The Waste Land of T. S. Eliot, who also put the imprint of his imagination on London. But first to two marvelous art exhibitions.

Visitors to the Tate Britain and the National Gallery last winter had a splendid opportunity to study the art of portraiture. At Millbank, the Tate mounted "Holbein in England," while the National Gallery played host to a major exhibition of the work of Velazquez. A contemporary comparison was available at the National Portrait Gallery, which filled nine rooms with a generous retrospective of David Hockney portraits. When viewed in connection with Holbein's masterpieces from the sixteenth century and those of Velazquez from the seventeeth, the Hockney show provided insights, inter alia, into the changing relationship between artist and patron, conventions of formality and informality in art, a sense of what is considered acceptable in contemporary portraiture, and other subtleties of personal identity that are revealed in portrait painting. I decided to concentrate on Holbein and Velazquez.

One can hardly look at these masterpieces of portraiture without entertaining thoughts about the monarchs of England and Spain who were Holbein's and Velazquez's subjects. In the sixteenth century, the Tudors strengthened their position in an England just coming into its own as a European power. In the seventeenth, the Spanish monarchy, a branch of the Hapsburgs, though displaying the pomp of regal privilege, even flaunting it, found itself chastened by personal losses and a decline in imperial hegemony.

Holbein is as central to our image of Tudor England as Dickens is to our image of Victorian London. For instance: ours is a culture where everyone smiles. Not so in Tudor England. Holbein's portraits emphasize his subjects' gravitas and solidity, their seriousness about life and death. In garments, black was the color of choice. Inscribed on one portrait is a quotation from Job, 10:20: "Are not my days few?" For courtiers, for theologians, for Henry VIII's six wives, England was a dangerous, even murderous place where speaking a wrong word, being seen in the wrong company, could lead to imprisonment, torture or execution; those conditions continued under Henry's daughter Elizabeth. But England as a nation was much more secure, prosperous and self-confident than it had been during the fratricidal Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth century her imperial days lay in the future; yet one can sense in Holbein's art that she had already begun to consolidate her power.

Holbein is unsurpassed for Germanic phlegm and cold-roast-beef rectitude. Like his later compatriot Handel, he brought to his English commissions a northern European seriousness that resonated perfectly with his patrons. The exactitude of his portrayals makes you feel, "This man is telling the truth." Portraits notoriously flatter, but there's scant evidence of it here. …