Gray’s sterility


The New Criterion is back from its annual, two-month summer hiatus, and Dalrymple has a piece in the new issue. Writing about early-twentieth century Irish artist Eileen Gray, Dalrymple finds in her life and work a clue in the death of artistic beauty:


If there is one word that comes to mind on looking at the Victorian house that replaced the Georgian one of Gray’s early childhood it is kitsch. Whatever the achievements of the Victorians, there can be little doubt that they were capable of kitsch on a very grand scale; and one dreads to think of what the furnishings of the new house must have been like, combining elaborate soft furnishings and excessive ornamentation with discomfort and the perfect environment for the house-dust mite.

How easy, then, it would be for an egotistical and mediocre mind to conclude from this that any form of ornamentation was henceforth to be eschewed, and to become in the process a Savonarola of minimalism, ascribing evil not to the sensuousness of art itself, as did Savonarola, but to ornamentation or representation of any description.

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2 thoughts on “Gray’s sterility

  1. Jaxon

    Curiously I’ve just started reading Ruth http://www.readbookonline.net/read/9800/23765/

    “The sides of the streets had a quaint richness, from the effect of the gables, and the stacks of chimneys which cut against the blue sky above; while, if the eye fell lower down, the attention was arrested by all kinds of projections in the shape of balcony and oriel; and it was amusing to see the infinite variety of windows that had been crammed into the walls long before Mr Pitt’s days of taxation…”

    Wealth migrated & speculators moved in.

    “Even that was not so very bad, compared with the next innovation on the old glories.”

    “In short, by mutual consent, the whole front of one side of the street was pulled down, and rebuilt in the flat, mean, unrelieved style of George the Third”

    “The traditions of those bygone times, even to the smallest social particular, enable one to understand more clearly the circumstances which contributed to the formation of character. The daily life into which people are born, and into which they are absorbed before they are well aware, forms chains which only one in a hundred has moral strength enough to despise, and to break when the right time comes–when an inward necessity for independent individual action arises, which is superior to all outward conventionalities. Therefore it is well to know what were the chains of daily domestic habit which were the natural leading-strings of our forefathers before they learnt to go alone.”

    Ruth is an orphan apprenticed to a dress makers work room.

    “Ruth’s place was the coldest and the darkest in the room, although she liked it the best; she had instinctively chosen it for the sake of the wall opposite to her, on which was a remnant of the beauty of the old drawing-room, which must once have been magnificent, to judge from the faded specimen left. It was divided into panels of pale sea-green, picked out with white and gold; and on these panels were painted–were thrown with the careless, triumphant hand of a master–the most lovely wreaths of flowers, profuse and luxuriant beyond description, and so real-looking, that you could almost fancy you smelt their fragrance, and heard the south wind go softly rustling in and out among the crimson roses–the branches of purple and white lilac–the floating golden-tressed laburnum boughs. Besides these, there were stately white lilies, sacred to the Virgin–hollyhocks, fraxinella, monk’s-hood, pansies, primroses; every flower which blooms profusely in charming old-fashioned country gardens was there, depicted among its graceful foliage, but not in the wild disorder in which I have enumerated them. At the bottom of the panel lay a holly-branch, whose stiff straightness was ornamented by a twining drapery of English ivy and mistletoe and winter aconite; while down either side hung pendant garlands of spring and autumn flowers; and, crowning all, came gorgeous summer with the sweet musk-roses, and the rich-coloured flowers of Jun

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  2. jaxon

    I couldn’t resist another fairly lengthy excerpt from that same chapter – it’s the sort of insight, I believe, that readers of Dalrymple will be quite familiar with… and it gets very interesting regarding an admirable resistance to preferment on the basis of physical beauty (which is simply anathema to a great many young women today (WAG’s?) – even where a whole world of alternative options have been opened up).

    “I may as well inform you, young ladies, that I have been requested this year, as on previous occasions, to allow some of my young people to attend in the ante-chamber of the assembly-room with sandal ribbon, pins, and such little matters, and to be ready to repair any accidental injury to the ladies’ dresses. I shall send four–of the most diligent.”

    “Mrs Mason was a very worthy woman, but, like many other worthy women, she had her foibles; and one (very natural to her calling) was to pay an extreme regard to appearances. Accordingly, she had already selected in her own mind the four girls who were most likely to do credit to the “establishment;” and these were secretly determined upon, although it was very well to promise the reward to the most diligent. She was really not aware of the falseness of this conduct; being an adept in that species of sophistry with which people persuade themselves that what they wish to do is right.”

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