Magazine article The Spectator

They Came, They Saw, They Left

Magazine article The Spectator

They Came, They Saw, They Left

Article excerpt

The Victorians welcomed and appr ciated the alien with genuine curiosity and enthusiasm.' Yes, though this scarcely reached that Victorian horror, the intrusive undeserving poor. The book's title, however, needs emphasis: Rupert Christiansen is unconcerned with refugees like Marx, emigres like Henry James, sociologists like Taine, who concluded that meat-eating induced long teeth in English women. His protagonists, if apt to reappear, stayed briefly, for diverse reasons, though seldom excluding money. Nellie Melba, escaping a bad marriage and a vile city, wanted fame as a singer, eventually claiming to have put Australia on the map. Prominent are Gericault, Wagner, Emerson, D. D. Home, dancers with exotic novelties in style and behaviour, and such Aboriginal Australian cricketers as `Dick-a-Dick' Jumgumjenanuke, together with minor eccentrics, artistes, charlatans, amongst them the American psychic Cora Lavinia Victoria Scott Hatch Daniels Richmond, whose gifts failed to anticipate imprisonment for fraud. Many stirred up stagnant fashions, provoked discussion, substantiated MacNeice's line, `World is suddener than we fancy it.'

Paris had been cool to Gericault, the English were warmer. Disdaining the popu- ', lar Benjamin Haydon, he admired Consta- ',, ble, Landseer, Lawrence, and adopted a London speciality, the lithograph, producing several works which Christiansen rates unprecedented in Western art. On horses, he adds that English painters saw them as calm trophies, but Gericault respected them as beings, sensitive, energetic, disturbing. Like Cobbett, like Dickens, Gericault also relished the raucous street theatre of hanging, sketching the execution of the Cato Street conspirators with an intensity that still startles.

Few were lured by romantic castles and ruins. Domestic reasons apart, Wagner sought cash and recognition. Both came slowly. J. W. Davison, Times critic, dismissing Chopin as a morbidly sensitive flea, and Verdi the greatest imposter who ever wrote rubbish, considered the Tannhauser overture a pompous and empty commonplace. Ordinary people of all classes usually emerge here better than intellectuals, whether listening to Wagner, or to Emerson lecturing on `Domestic Life', `Reading', `Napoleon'. Wagner bemoaned dreadful weather, contracts, and musical standards, with `Promenade Concerts' usually accomparried by fireworks. Accustomed to inflict culture shocks, he now received many, constantly encountering `Sir, we are not used to that sort of thing here.' Anti-Semitic, he had to conduct Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer and everywhere hear their praises. …

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