Magazine article The Spectator

Inelegant and Addled

Magazine article The Spectator

Inelegant and Addled

Article excerpt

The l7th- and l8th-century collections on the second floor of the National Portrait Gallery have just re-opened after 'elements of refurbishment'. The rooms look splendid, with restored cornices and handsome silk damask on the walls. The Stuart and Georgian portraits are now back on show in glorious serried ranks. At first sight, all seems well. It is only when you stop to read the information panels that you become as pop-eyed as Edward Gibbon and George III.

From time to time American professors compile jolly lists of amusing answers to history exams by their pupils. You know the sort of thing. 'Who was prime minister of Britain during the second world warT 'Charlie Chaplin.' Smile indulgently, and console yourself with the thought that even prep school boys in England would not produce such risible inanities. Just imagine such a thing. No, don't imagine; visit the National Portrait Gallery and read the new labels.

By applying the methods of 19th-century biblical scholarship to these 'information aids', you can discern different dates of composition, sources and influences; from 1920s distaste for 'trade' to up-to-the-- minute Dome-speak. It is obvious that the more lucid and accurate picture labels are reprints of the old ones. These contain traces of charmingly old-fashioned euphemism and snobbery. The homosexual William Beckford, for instance, is merely said to be 'eccentric', while several artists are snootily described as being of 'humble origin'.

George Romney has the seeming double misfortune of being 'born of humble origin in Lancashire'. Dalton-in-Furness is no longer in Lancashire. It would be more informative to give the exact place and date of birth and state that he was apprenticed to the good local artist Christopher Steele (who had himself studied under Carle van Loo in Paris). Mere objective facts, such as places of birth, are not imparted by any of the labels.

Eighteenth-century architects are described as 'professional men'. By modem standards they weren't. Most of them were builders. We are glibly informed that Capability Brown was a 'consultant' on landscape gardening. The whole point of his successful career is that he was also the contractor for the places he designed and by those means amassed a fortune of L100,000.

Some of the labels contradict each other. One claims that Nova Scotia was granted to Britain under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713; another declares that it was founded in 1749. …

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