Not crying Wolfe: that rare thing, art that should be saved for the nation

General Wolfe

Most of us retain, shelved away somewhere in our innermost being, a lexicon of clichéd phrases absolutely guaranteed, no matter why or in what context they are uttered, to produce instant, categorical, irreversible disagreement. Mine probably opens automatically at the phrase ‘a work of art that must be saved for the nation’ — and if it doesn’t, that’s only because the relevant pages are gummed together with spent vitriol. Yet one of maturity’s sparse but genuine pleasures is, surely, the act of giving in to a line of argument against which one has struggled for decades — of contemplating the sort of scheme one’s consistently opposed, in public and in private, for as long as one can remember, before responding, mildly, after a bit of thought, ‘well, yes, that sounds like a pretty good idea — why ever not?’

All this occurred to me last week, as I was passing the morning at the National Army Museum. The National Army Museum is one of London’s last uncompromised bastions of curatorial focus and sanity. Dignified, scholarly, welcoming but distinctly unflashy … … homely yet in places distinctly shrine-like, the unemphatic structure just down the road from Wren’s great Royal Hospital houses displays describing the history of the British Army from its origins in the Civil Wars down to the present day, as well as a large research collection. The visitors are as varied as the exhibits. On a typical Wednesday morning one might, for instance, encounter a youngish father advising his son about the niceties of handling a mortar, a flock of school-children cooing over the earthly remains of Marengo, two very old men engaged in a detailed and apparently enjoyable conversation about different types of buttons, an art student subjecting a splashy oil by John Keane to anxious scrutiny, a pair of Canadians engaged in the pious rites appropriate to amateur genealogists, a coach-party of retirees reminiscing about National Service, and a trio of toddlers trying on pith helmets and laughing at each other.

Due to spill-over from the well-used ‘kids’ zone’, the lower floors of the National Army Museum sometimes resemble a Action Man-themed creche, particularly during half-term. This can lead to strange and sometimes unsettling juxtapositions. At present, the National Army Museum is playing host to a genuinely significant exhibition, Helmand: The Soldiers’ Story, an account of our contemporary Afghan War, curated with the cooperation of men from 16 Air Assault Brigade. In typical soldierly fashion, the emphasis here is less on the filmy stuff of big-picture analysis than the hands-on details of everyday life in a combat zone — boredom and the runs, as well as heroism and sacrfice — with a resulting texture quite unlike that anything else I’ve seen in a real museum. There’s bad pop music, weapons to be lifted and put down again with some predictable exclamation regarding their weight, flash laptop computers and iron-age cooking methods. There’s a comments section — ‘they’ve had their say, now you have yours’ — and although there’s the predictable smattering of reflexive anti-war posturing, the great bulk of the comments read something like ‘God bless you, stay safe, come home soon’.

This conjoining of familial intimacy with a realm of particularised experience totally alien to most of us is, perhaps, the signal quality of the National Army Museum. On my recent visit, a mother was feeding a young baby while perching on the sandbags protecting a mocked-up mortar emplacement; her toddler son tried to shoo away all visitors who came too near the position, peering out from behind the sandbags and shouting, lispingly but emphatically, ‘Go away! It’s mine!’ ‘He’s just starting to get territorial,’ the mother said, slightly ruefully, by way of apology. Sometimes interpretive greatness lies in the ability to generate perfect metaphors. The National Army Museum not only tells a story that needs, constantly, to be reframed for each new generation, but sometimes does so almost too well.

All of which has more than a little to do with my swift capitulation in the matter of General Wolfe, his portrait and ‘a work of art that must be saved for the nation’.

Until last week, admittedly, it had escaped my notice that the National Army Museum was seeking to acquire J. S. C. Schaak’s portrait of General Wolfe. The portrait — crucially, not the famous Death of Wolfe by Benjamin West, but as we shall see in a moment, all the more interesting for being a fairly mythology-free depiction of the actual living general — came up for sale at Sotheby’s in June 2007, where an overseas private buyer outbid the National Army Museum. Following informal representations, the Reviewing Committe on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council temporarily halted export of the portrait. The National Army Museum has now declared its interest in purchasing the work for its own collection. The National Army Museum apparently needs £300,000 to secure the work. It has already received £100,000 in pledges. As for the rest, there are various mini-displays located around the Museum, filling up with small change as well as some bank notes. Beyond that — well, one trusts that lobbying is going on somewhere, anywhere, behind the scenes. On the domestic scale £200,000 may sound a lot, but in terms of corporate and major donor charitable munificence, it’s not exactly an intimidating sum, particularly under the terms of the Gift Aid scheme. So, it really ought to be possible to Save General Wolfe For The Nation.

Still, for any doubters out there, especially anyone who remembers Bunny Smedley’s strong views on the subject over here, I shall now engage in a degree of only mildly arbitrary self-justification. Put briefly, General Wolfe is, up to a point, a special case.

Let us examine, first, the general objection here. The manifold problems with the concept of ‘a work of art that must be saved for the nation’ repose mostly in that small word ‘must’ — although ‘art’ and ‘nation’ raise a few issues, too. The ‘must’ conjures urgent necessity out of what is, almost invariably, a conjunction of whim, sentiment and institutional convenience. For, truth be told, the vast proportion of art held privately or publicly in the United Kingdom could be spirited away to Mars overnight, without distress or lasting damage to the national wellbeing. Art is, after all, not terribly important to most people, except insofar as its extrinsic associations run. When upsets occur regarding its transfer, this has more to do with what those transfers symbolise — one thinks of Napoleon parading his captured loot through the streets of Paris in a conscious echo of Roman triumphs, or, conversely, the general disinclination in these quarters to send the Elgin Marbles back to Athens — than with the hapless objects themselves, thrown hither and thither by historical cross-currents until the rough-and-tumble handling of time’s disregard wears them away entirely.

For had Canova’s Three Graces, or that rather doubtfully-attributed Madonna of the Pinks, abandoned our dull shores for the blatant light of southern California, in contrast, who’d have been the worse for it? Not normal people who, for heaven’s sake, have more good art nearby than most will ever wish to contemplate — and, in any event, might find it hard to summon up much patriotic zeal concerning the need to retain within our United Kingdom the fruits of Venice, Rome, Urbino or indeed some eighteenth century Parisian forger’s workshop. With enough jollying-along, of course, a sizeable proportion of museum-goers can be coaxed into donating to the project far less than they’d pay for a coffee, let alone a cinema ticket, but to confuse shelling out for the high culture equivalent of union dues with actually caring would be to commit a solecism as naieve as it is annoying. No, this ‘save our masterpiece’ stuff is mostly of interest to cultural administrators of various stripes, who, if lucky or ruthless enough, can parlay a long and succeessful career from well-advertised acts of ‘salvation’. Politicians, strangely scared of appearing philistine (as though it mattered) can also derive from these exercises a short-lived, self-congratulatory thrill, as if spending someone else’s money on someone else’s purchase transformed them en masse into the liberal, democratic equivalent of Maecenas (a strikingly meaningless concept, that last one, when one thinks of it). The basic fact, though, is that fine art — imported and home-grown — tends to thrive in the presence of power, wealth and civic self-confidence. If these are lacking, it drifts off elsewhere. That’s just what art’s like.

So it’s a crucial point in favour of General Wolfe that the claims surrounding it have nothing to do with its merits as ‘art’, and everything to do with its extrinsic associations. For one thing, except perhaps in households preoccupied with the also-rans of mid-eighteenth century English portraiture, J. S. C. Schaak is not yet a household name. ‘Schaak’ means ‘chess’ in Dutch, but beyond this revelation, coupled with a list of semi-datable works, I have been able to discover precisely nothing about the artist. As for the actual portrait, the word ‘masterpiece’ doesn’t apply — although before the massed ranks of the online Schaak-claque come after me, I had better add that it’s by no means a bad painting, either. It’s just that, in contrast with the sort of claims usually made for great art, the work’s qualities lie more in its versimilitude than in its visual persuasiveness. Probably it was painted soon after Wolfe’s famous victory on the Heights of Abraham, which saw both Wolfe’s death from a massive chest-wound just as the enemy commenced a retreat, and, in the slightly longer term, confirmation of British pre-eminence in North America. This heady mixture of national triumph with secular martyrdom transformed Wolfe — hitherto a sickly, prickly, rather difficult character — into a military hero whose like would not be seen until Nelson’s death 46 years later, and then Gordon’s death 80 years after that.

Sub-Christian cults, however impeccably protestant, feed off images. Schaak’s oil portrait appears to have been based on a drawing from life by Wolfe’s aide-de-camp and friend, the amateur artist Hervey Smyth. As such, it has a better claim to ‘how he really looked’ accuracy than any other work. The General is presented here in quasi-informal mode, standing high above the fray and framed by a conventionally storm-curdled battlefield sky, his hair unpowdered, striking a classicised pose, one hand on his hip casually gripping a glove, the other raised, issuing some purposeful command. I should like to know, but do not, why he has a black ribbon tied around one sleeve. Behind him, beneath him, battle rages. Of course we know what will happen, but in contrast with West’s painting, the spectacle that confronts us here is that of the vigorous, victorious soldier at the peak of his powers, not the deeply sentimental, tear-wrenching, quasi-Golgotha moment of death and apotheosis.

So in a sense, one might argue that aside from any issues of quality, there’s a chasm of sensibility separating the works, two divergent rhetorical modes in play. And since West’s painting is probably Britain’s most famous history painting, perhaps even one of the most famous history paintings in the English-speaking world, there’s something almost magical in encountering its natural counterpoint, this alternative to everything that’s declamatory, inflated and now — alas, this being the steepish tariff on visual greatness — clichéd about West’s masterpiece. One image unlocks the other, exposes its qualities, in a thoroughly reciprocal transaction. The original (there are three autograph copies) of West’s great work is in Canada, having been presented to the National Gallery of Canada by the 2nd Duke of Westminster via Lord Beaverbrook, as a tribute to Canada’s immense and unforgettable sacrifice in the Great War. The Canadians, it must be said, responded elegantly, supplying that only faintly sinister statue of Wolfe that glares down from the top of Greenwich Hill to the curving tidal Thames beneath. And now, as we have seen, Schaak’s portrait is soon to set off overseas to take its place in a private, unnamed collection. Does anyone much care? Not a lot, I imagine. Media fuss has been all but non-existent, while the sort of politicians who queue up to ‘save’ a dodgy Raphael seem impervious to the claims of a dead white English major general.

Actually, truth be told, I’d have been happy enough had Schaak’s painting remained at Quebec House in Westerham, Kent. This attractive rambling heap of ancient brick and mortar, once Nelson’s childhood home and now a National Trust property complete with an exhibition of Wolfe-related relics, is frequently open to visitors. It appears that the portrait had remained there for some time, presumably on loan, until the Sotheby’s sale removed it. This seems, in many ways, a shame.

But then there are many aspects of this sale that one might have wished to have been otherwise. For one thing, it would have been pleasing if, rather than having to resort to the heavy-handed thuggishness of tearing the export licences from honest buyers’ hands, the National Army Museum had been able to win this work at auction, fair and square, rather than scrabbling around for some sort of ex post facto ‘market value’ price, achieved in fact not through the market at all, but through the force majeure of the state. Now, I have no idea what the National Army Museum may be able to boast by way of an acquisitions budget, but I’ve the figures I’ve heard relating to the Imperial War Museum’s art collections are hardly such as to intimidate the less ambitious sort of private collector — these are collections that thrive on the kindness of strangers, but are desperately ill-suited to buying their own round.

And this, in truth, is a shame, if only because the whole setup encourages running conflict between these reputable public collections and the private collectors who, wearing a different hat, are so often these institutions’ most kind and generous friends. For while I’m about the last person to advocate state expenditure on pretty much anything at all, and hesitate to do so even in this case — private enterprise in the context of massive tax relief being a much more congenial way forward — it has to be said that £200,000 is, in the context of government spending, absolutely nothing, literally the sort of trivia that gets lost in rounding errors. Meanwhile, politicians of all stripes continue to shovel money into hospitals that exist to spread disease, schools that teach pupils to be coarse and callous, ‘public services’ so wretched that they are used only by those not yet able to spend themselves free of them. Frankly, if I could choose between spending tax on the NHS, state education or a few rather ordinary eighteenth century portraits, the choice would not be a difficult one.

None of which is a problem that’s likely to be solved any time soon, so we’ll leave it for the moment. Let’s return to ‘saving this work of art for the nation’. Well, already we have asserted that the painting in question fails to inspire at the ‘work of art’ level, that the ‘nation’ hardly needs such ‘works of art’ in any event, and that its means of ‘salvation’ is dubious in the extreme. What next?

Something else entirely, which is the real point of this exercise. Let us return, for a moment, to General Wolfe. A career soldier who joined the army at the age of 14 (he was himself the son of a general) and literally gave his life to it, Wolfe fought at Culloden and Dettingen before being sent to Canada to serve in the Seven Years War. At Culloden, he rejected an order (from the Duke of Cumberland, no less) to shoot a wounded Highlander, Wolfe apparently pronouncing that his honour was worth more than his commission. He was a harsh disciplinarian, but at the same time reflected that he’d rather have composed Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard than have taken Quebec. By the time he received his fatal wound, he was already dying of tuberculosis. He was, in short, like most British generals of any quality, paradoxical, quite arrogant and more than a little odd. And of course he won Quebec, and hence Canada, and hence North America for Britain and wider Anglophone interests: sadly, a reality of which the new-season fruits, at least the more bitter ones, are perhaps as apparent in Afghanistan as anywhere else.

But even had Wolfe been dreary — as infinitely dull as an English day last summer — his existence should, even now, still merit far more than the odd, incurious footnote he usually receives. Who remembers him? True, every culturally literate person (which is to say, a tiny, often self-congratulatory elite) knows West’s painting, while a dwindling minority (the old, the privately or eccentrically educated, military obsessives and war games enthusiasts) recall enough history for references to the Heights of Abraham still to strike a plangent chord. As for the rest, history consists of something to do with Hitler and Churchill and beyond that, a great grey vale of unknowing — but not with Brooke or Montgomery, or Guderian or Keitel, or even Clausewitz or Liddell Hart, for instance, because outside the realms of professional training and amateur fascination, military history receives astonishingly little emphasis in education. It never ceases to amaze me, for instance, that during the 1980s and 90s Cambridge undergraduate historians were encouraged to complete papers both on the ‘social and economic history’ side and the ‘political and constitutional’ history side, but were offered no military history whatsoever — the obvious implication being that whatever the motive forces of history might or might not be, military effectiveness can, at least, be excluded from the list. One might almost have supposed one was learning from a generation the rancidness of whose anti-war convictions had in no way been alleviated either by the spectacle of British victory in the Falklands, or the collapse of Soviet communism and the consequent irrelevance of much-loved secular sects like CND.

Thus it is, anyway, that our best and brightest depart their ivory towers heavily armed with insights about the inevitability of Fox’s radicalism, or alternatively au fait with the birth control practices and nuptuality rates of late eighteenth century textile-weavers, yet remain vague on the subject of Wolfe and his achievements. As a nation, we’re still capable of erecting the odd war-related monument — but when we do, it’s striking how often the emphasis is on the Home Front, or slightly tangential areas of interest such as women and animals, rather than on, for instance, the more conventional topos of military leaders and the men serving under them. Heaven knows there’s nothing wrong with commemorating such subjects, but it’s hard to deny that in doing so, we are subtly shifting our cultural understanding of what should be commemorated, admired or even celebrated from amidst the memory of recent wars. Literary and media presentations of the First World War in particular are wedded to a vision of war as pointless sacrifice, a meaningless machine that sucks in human life and chews it up to no purpose at all — a thin gauze of sentimentality and historical colour not really disguising the anti-war message. Meanwhile the Royal Tournament is no more, visible now only in memory and on blurry faintly samizdat-looking DVDs. And the various forces museums — for instance the excellent RAF Museum at Hendon — are increasingly expected to act as lumber rooms for the storage of memorials, some of them beautiful and all of them moving, no longer wanted in churches or commercial settings.

So, while the ambivalence of the British towards their peace-time standing army and the people who comprise it is both an ancient stance, reaching back beyond the Civil Wars, and perhaps even in some sense a useful one, ‘ambivalence’ seems more than ever — albeit at some social levels far more than others — to be mutating into a worrying hybrid of ignorance, alienation and antipathy. All of which is happening at a moment when Britain is not only fairly fully engaged in conflicts halfway around the world, but at which those conflicts comprise an emotive if unpredictable aspect of the British political and cultural scene. (And yes, it still does give me a shock to hear anti-war protest songs, delivered very casually at low-key indie gigs, as if contempt for what’s perceived as a war-mongering, blood-thirsty Labour Party is the most natural thing in the world.)

All of which goes some way toward explaining why, last week, when I became aware of the appeal to ‘save’ that portrait of Wolfe, instead of reaching for my usual diatribes, I found myself scrabbling in my handbag for a £10 note. Only later did it occur to me to wonder what had prompted this change of heart.

What was I doing? Why, in digging around in my bag, had I abandoned the convictions of a lifetime? In part, I suppose, I was paying a tribute, however modest, to that luxuriously poignant thing, a semi-forgotten hero — a hero once revered for securing a continent, but now (for such are the surprising contortions of post-modernism) perhaps more famous, at least amongst historians of popular culture, for the fame he once enjoyed. So at one level, the £10 note was a vote of confidence in Wolfe’s continued relevance. It was also a statement of support for a a painting that showed a soldier as heroic, not simply because he died for his country — famously, to bowlderise Patton’s pronouncement on the subject, not what soldiers go into battle hoping to do — but rather, because he was good at what he did. In our cultural confusion about this issue, we’re probably at least as wrong-headed as our proto-Romantic forefathers ever were.

But it was also — and here the fact that I was standing in the foyer of the National Army Museum, fresh from Helmand: The Soldiers’ Story, probably counts for something — a strange little gesture of support, heartfelt if ineffectual, for Britain’s armed forces more generally. I don’t, I should add, imagine that Britain’s armed forces cared greatly about my decision one way or the other. However much our soldiers, sailors and airmen display a becoming reverence for the past — and it’s worth reflecting that even as we speak, there are regimental standards displayed as far afield as Basra and Camp Bastion, bearing proudly a series of battle honours reaching back three centuries or more — it’s possible they’d have preferred some spare parts for their helicopters, or better body armour, or a plumber to fix the leaking taps in forces’ family accomodation.

But since no one was offering me the chance to provide any of those things, at least not very directly, a portrait of General Wolfe will have to do. It’s a small enough gesture. Surely, though, what happens to this little picture says something, however quietly, about how Britain values the sacrifice of those who fight, and sadly sometimes die, to preserve her overseas interests. Indifference towards yesterday’s heroes is dangerous, not only in what it implies for today’s heroes, but in what it says about us as a nation. Saving Wolfe’s portrait won’t, in itself, put that right. But all the same, forgetting about Wolfe — letting his portrait go without so much as a note of public regret — feels very wrong indeed.

Donations to the National Army Museum in respect of the Save General Wolfe Appeal can be made here.

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