He was dashing if slightly bookish — always impeccably turned out — owned a pointed brindle greyhound of delightful character, came across as refreshingly mature for his 21 years, and understood the hard-to-achieve magic spell that is companionable, genuinely sympathetic silence.
In short, he could hardly have contrasted more extremely with most of the men I knew at Cambridge, which may perhaps explain why, in the late 1980s and early 90s, I wasted so many pleasant hours in the Fitzwilliam, in a vast vaulted room where the quiet was all but hypnotic, just standing and looking, absorbing something from his taciturn company that seemed unobtainable anywhere else, but no less desirable for that. His name, I should perhaps add, was Charles Compton, the short-lived 7th Earl of Northampton (1737-1763), as portrayed in this full-length canvas by Pompeo Batoni.
A shelter, amid the flood of mortal ills
The Fitzwilliam was, in those days, as much my refuge as my nearest world-class art gallery. Those born after the early 1990s may find this hard to believe — having cut milk-teeth on a disregarded PalmPilot, lisped their first syllables into an iPhone, and, for all I know, employed some chunky plastic Bob the Builder-style Blackberry to precipitate their very first playground flame-war — but in the period of which I write, it was possible, by the simple expedient of moving from one physical space into another, to cut loose the chains that bound one, however irksomely, to the world of human communication. Back in those days messages arrived, if at all, possibly scrawled in fountain pen on heavy card embossed with a college crest, through an inter-college mail staffed by formidably grumpy college porters. In moments of passion there was always the possibility, at least in colleges that lacked tall gates, for note popped furtively, if probably slightly drunkenly, under someone’s door. And for the expat given to complex emotional entanglements, there was always almost theatrically public telephone, operated by £20-a-time phone cards that only ever lasted for three-quarters of any given row — telephones invariably located under some soaring stair-well, the better to amplify whatever regionally specific swear-words, or lingua franca of sobs, might emanate from its vicinity. (These observations, admittedly, are largely for the benefit of social historians, as the Thatcher-era Cambridge of my youth is now as basically irrecoverable as that ornamented fen, punctuated with hunting milords in periwigs, myopic astronomers of questionable orthodoxy, and earnest young Bible-expounding clergymen, that poor Charles Compton knew.)
The Fitzwilliam, in any event, took me away from the Cambridge of my own times, from every ugliness and inconvenience that encumbered my present-day world, because for some reason, despite or perhaps because of its unfathomable richness, students rarely seemed to venture through its doors. And this, more than anything else, was why I grew so fond of the place.
A matter of taste
Why, on the other hand, that particular Batoni painting became such a favourite is marginally harder to explain, if only because, again in retrospect, the Fitzwilliam was such an Aladdin’s cave of treasures, and so to explain what did and didn’t, at the time, constitute a gem is to enter into the seriously sticky, offputting stuff of hard-core autobiography.
Well, let’s keep it simple and factual. The sort of visionary Samuel Palmer watercolour that means everything to me now meant nothing to me then. This Van Dyck, obviously, was a staggeringly effective painting, but its particular effect didn’t hit the right spot. And while this, arguably, is the best painting in the entire collection, what on earth could my undergraduate self hope to bring to such shattering explosion of physical and emotional violence, to that slightly too eager account of pain and its reception, to a morality tale intended for those whose grammar of moral possibilities so far exceeded mine? No, instead, I went for this, for its sheer oddness, and this, for its pungently East Anglian semi-familiarity. Sienese fragments merited courtesy, but I’d have preferred, then as now, to see them in the churches and conventual buildings of their origins; Impressionist paintings bored and frustrated in equal measure a half-formed mind still ignorant as a kitten regarding the oeuvre of T. J. Clark yet already natively incapable of seeing ‘light’ as a concern on part with religion, politics or the even smarter sort of pornography.
So here, anyway, with Pompeo Batoni, was where my fondest art-historical imaginings finally found a berth. This, I thought, was what ‘painting’ ought to do, long before I had thought about painting much at all: it should open up an unproblematic window into another, apparently wholly superior world, and then just go away. Tired out from time to time by everything else that Cambridge had to throw at me, I loved Batoni’s portrait of Charles Compton as much for its good manners as anything else — for the fluency of its execution, the clarity, the lack of pointless friction. Grateful for all of this, and having missed the 1982 monographic exhibition of Batoni’s work at Kenwood, I was curious to discover whether the charisma of that portrait in the Fitzwilliam signalled something that was true about Batoni’s work more broadly. And although of course I saw scattered Batoni portraits from time to time over the years that followed — to avoid them in Britain would, frankly, require a degree of conscious effort — there never arose a chance to survey his oeuvre, to generalise and judge it, to see whether the effect he’d achieved in that one portrait was anything more than an accident of my own age, my circumstances, what I needed in my life at that time.
All of which is only a prelude, albeit a self-indulgently long one, to saying that the National Gallery’s current exhibition, Pompeo Batoni 1708-1787, is not only a delight, but also — at least for those who through some quirk of personality are basically predisposed to appreciate Batoni — a revelation.
True, it’s a relatively small show — only about 70 works — and the pictures are forced to contend with all the challenges of lighting, scale and general underground car-park type ambiance that the Sainsbury Galleries so reliably offer. (For all the magnificence of the Velasquez show a few years back, there was something to be said for not knowing, even for those of us who’d disliked the Sainsbury exhibition space ever since it opened, exactly how well those upstairs galleries in the old wing, with their high ceilings and brocade wall-coverings, function as a setting for grand paintings conceived on a generous scale, not least when compared with the charmless, airless depths below.)
Worse still — this may seem a futile complaint, but I’m going to make it anyway — the works are brutally decontextualised, for the setting in which they are currently being shown could hardly be more different, in every possible way, from the settings for which they were intended. This isn’t just a matter of spoiling their colour, proportions or light-effects, either. The lack of context actually saps away at their significance. In one sort of room (for instance, the Great Hall at Boughton House, Northamptonshire) a Batoni portrait, brought back from a Grand Tour, slips easily into its place within a palimpsest of dynastic aggrandizement and accumulation spanning centuries; in another sort of room (for example, the North Dining Room at Holkham Hall, Norfolk) another Batoni portrait (or even a splendid series of them, as at Uppark, West Sussex) would register as part of a coherent scheme, as much intellectual as aesthetic, invoking a whole universe of classical allusions — artistic and architectural, but also moral, philosophical and political — now, alas, once again dead to virtually all of us. So what is lost in exhibitions such as this is not only Batoni’s much-eroded newness — how unutterably fresh and even surprising these works must have seemed to their earliest British and Irish viewers — but also, and perhaps more importantly, his functionality. In displaying these paintings as ‘art’, in a space dedicated to ‘art’ and nothing else, the organisers run the danger of lifting a few tesserae from a complex mosaic, placing them at arbitrary intervals against a dull surface, and wondering why it is that they somehow fail to sparkle.
To complain about that, though — while the nature of the complaint more or less sums up why, at present, I rarely find it very inspiring to write about ‘art’ — runs the danger of appearing to condemn professionals who are, for the most part, doing the best they can in a conceptual framework not entirely of their own devising, hemmed in with limitations of which they are often more conscious than anyone else. Let us, then, leave aside these reservations and this pessimism regarding art exhibitions in general, and return to what was, ultimately, most most striking about the National Gallery’s Batoni show.
Rescuing a reputation
The principal charm of the Batoni exhibition reposes in the fact that it has been organised by enthusiasts. Edgar Peters Bowron (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) and Peter Björn Kerber (University of Munich) show every sign of believing that Batoni was a serious, significant artist — and of seeking to ensure that the rest of the world believes this, too. So while one sometimes senses the shade of Robert Rosenblum hovering nearby, smiling wryly at the attempted rehabilitation of a painter now emphatically out of favour (and if you don’t believe Batoni is out of favour, consider the damningly casual nature of this dismissal by the Guardian‘s Jonathan Jones, denouncing as ‘the most futile [show] I can remember at the National Gallery’ an exhibition he cannot at that point actually have seen), the end result feels less like Rosenblum’s mischievous puckishness than a sharp-witted and well-planned PR exercise, aimed at ‘spinning’ Batoni back to where the organisers so clearly feel he ought to be, amongst the great names of eighteenth century painting.
The second distinctive feature of the exhibition is, in turn, a consequence of all this. For in order to make the case that Batoni is a significant artist — to rescue him from the disregard that Sir Joshua Reynolds, engaged in his own complex PR exercises, predicted all those years ago — it is first necessary to rescue him from all the snobbery attendant on the fact that he painted portraits (ugh!) for paying patrons (double-ugh!) who were often aristocrats (ugh in excelsis!), many of them British, with all the aesthetic sensitivity that being British is generally taken to imply. Many of Batoni’s paintings also feature dogs. (At this point it is pleasing to note that Edgar Peters Bowron worked with Robert Rosenblum on Best in Show: The Dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today.) As passing familiarity with John Singer Sargent’s reputation will confirm, none of this is exactly a trustworthy formula for critical adulation, bringing as it does with it every possible charge of hackery, subservience, flattery, superficiality, production-line practices and painting-for-money, the combination of which qualities is, for all sorts of rather dated modernist reasons, seen to be antithetical to true artistic greatness. The solution, then, for this exhibition, is not simply to insist that the portraits are in fact good paintings — although this is part of the strategy — but at the same time, to introduce Batoni’s other, less-known work, including religious, mythological, historical and allegorical subjects, in the hope that these will reveal a different, more acceptable side of the artist.
The strategy works. Indeed, for someone accustomed to understanding Batoni all but exclusively as a portrait-painter — a misconception all too venial particularly in these islands, where one can see many of Batoni’s portraits but precious little else by him — these other works come as something of a shock. It is as if one had come to recognise Batoni entirely in two dimensions, only to move a little and discover a third dimension there round the back, filling him out and rendering him — and, for that matter, his portraits — both far more complicated, and more firmly anchored in the stuff of his own time.
Batoni’s personal history, and in particular the nature of his training, provides some sort of key to all this work. Born in Lucca in 1708, the son of a goldsmith, he was raised (in the course of a childhood characterised by a contemporary as ‘motherless, miserable and disfigured’) to take his place in the family business. This, at least, was a success. In 1727, at the age of 18 years, he travelled to Rome in order to deliver a gold chalice to Pope Benedict XIII. But at this point something must have happened to convince him to change paths, for by 1732 he had already produced paintings of sufficient merit to generate the first in a long line of commissions. Oddly, there is no evidence at all that he worked in the studio of any established painter, although at some point, somewhere, he obviously acquired the technical skills necessary to produce highly professional-looking oil paintings. In large part, however, his ‘training’ seems to have consisted of a life-long process of examining, copying and internalising Rome’s infinite visual riches: everything from antique statuary to the paintings of the great Bolognese and Roman masters, including Annibale Carracci, Guido Reni and perhaps most of all Raphael, whose habitual mood of calm and sweetness he made very much his own. (Given the doubts surrounding at least one of the National Gallery’s high-profile recent acquisitions, it’s also worth remembering that throughout his career Batoni, like other painters of his calibre, welcomed commissions to produce exact replicas of existing Old Master paintings, both for Grand Tourists and other connoisseurs. No wonder the attributions of so many stately home ‘treasures’ seem to dissolve and reform with every single passing cloudburst!)
For Batoni, however, beauty was more than just a matter of marks on surfaces. For while Batoni’s literary education may well have been even more haphazard and self-directed than his artistic training, it was evidently just as effective. He lived, after all, in a world where visual perfection, not yet despised but at the same time not yet made autonomous, required support on an armature of reason. Well-read and erudite, Batoni seems to have taken great pride in developing sophisticated iconographic programmes, in loading the most superficially simple portrait with a heavy freight of symbolic allusions, in lacing his art with a wealth of meaning that even now silently courts discovery by any similarly cultured, symbolically-literate viewer — which is to say, virtually no one alive today, a few academic specialists perhaps excepted. The intellectual programmes could become over-developed, which was why his most challenging commission — an altarpiece for St Peter’s — was deemed a failure, and rejected. Strengths, though, more than compensated for this weakness. As his hand and eye developed, he came to combine confident drawing and intellectually rigorous content with an extremely distinctive palette, an obvious enthusiasm for depicting textures (fabric, fur, coils of corn-silk blond hair) and a remarkable ability to capture ‘character’ in the painting of a human face. Soon his patrons included not only wealthy Luccanese and Roman aristocrats, but a growing international following as well.
Yet until the financial rewards of portrait-painting became so great as to divert Batoni away from most other spheres of endeavour, he continued to produce historical, allegorical, mythological and religious paintings. The large altarpieces included in the National Gallery exhibition (e.g. the demurely swooning Ecstasy of St Catherine of Siena, 1743) tend to suffer, as even the best altarpieces invariably do, from being ripped out of their architectural and liturgical settings. Some of their technical skill is evident, but much of the spiritual impact is necessarily lost en route. A small, late Holy Family (c. 1760), however, comes across as genuinely heart-felt and still deeply moving — none the less so for the possibility that the tired old Joseph, gazing so lovingly at his impossibly beautiful young wife and fat soft-skinned toddler, constitutes a sort of emotional self-portrait. (The lovely pale-haired woman who appears in so many of Batoni’s paintings from 1747 onwards is in fact his second wife, Lucia Fattori; the artist was the father of twelve children, three of whom went on to help in his studio.)
These historical, religious and mythological paintings cast up their own challenges. Batoni is notably convincing when he portrays the way mothers and children look at each other, the way their bodies connect. He can deploy differences in physical texture, or variations in light and shadow, in such a way as to inject unarguable emotional and symbolic force into them, as for instance in Peace and War (1776). But what to make of the fact that Frederick the Great became inseparable from the finely-composed, yet somehow unnerving Marriage of Cupid and Psyche (1756) — the interlocking arms at the centre of the painting such a brilliant conception, yet the age gap between boyish Cupid and his teenage bride so jarring? Or the way in which, in the magnificent Death of Meleager (1740-43), the dying warrior seems to be attempting to cheer up his final moments by groping his enchanting wife’s bare breast? To recapture the rightness of such decisions is perhaps even harder now than it is for most of us to recapture the specific religiosity of mid-eighteenth century Catholic Rome, or to reconcile ourselves to an age in which the complex interactions of all those nymphs, half-human creatures, gods, goddesses and semi-historical figures constituted a language capable of conveying the most subtle yet hard-hitting psychological, moral and philosophical truths.
Those portraits again
Eventually, though, having reminded us of the work that underlies and intersects with them, the exhibition has to grapple with the portraits themselves. What, then, of what a Guardian journalist was pleased to call ‘Batoni’s gallery of silked nonentities‘? (The fact that the ‘gallery’ in question includes a royal duke, a prime minister, a theatrical impresario of some significance, and at least two of the more famously charming women of the age may strike some students of journalistic self-esteem as, at the very least, mildly amusing.)
In truth, the portraits are, at their best, nothing short of brilliant. True, there are not many of them here — something like 20 portraits of British subjects, for instance, out of about 200 that Batoni painted, and perhaps half as many continental subjects. And yet even these few paintings demonstrate a remarkable range. Against the theory that Batoni was some sort of mindless, mercenary hack, churning out pretty souvenirs to sell to the tourists, we can now set the sheer variety of pose, setting, costume, symbolism, mood and character here. Some have sneered at him for attempting to paint his less prepossessing subjects in a flattering light — but how many artists would have managed, as Batoni did in his portrait of Frederick, Lord North (c. 1753-56), to have drawn attention away from the thick lips and bulgy eyes, so that what lingers in the memory is the elegantly undone tie, the casual undress of that red collar, and the abstracted, unguarded expression of a young statesman lost in his thoughts? By the same token, as depicted by Batoni, Sarah, Lady Fetherstonhaugh (1751) is no idealised classical beauty — indeed her high forehead, weak chin and over-emphatic nose seem all too real, if only because they are still so often replicated wherever the upper and upper-middle ranges of British womanhood gather — and yet somewhere between the sweetness of her expression, the carefully-calibrated tonality, the simplicity of her dress and the liveliness of the paint, there remains something hauntingly beautiful about the totality of the portrait, just as there is something at once paradigmatically aristocratic yet wholly recognisable about the pendant portrayal of Sir Matthew Fetherstonhaugh (1751), sitting up so straight, fixing the viewer with a slightly quizzical eye.
And here we come to the final truly distinctive feature of this exhibition — although in this case, I remain somewhat undecided as to whether it’s a good thing or in fact a seriously bad one. Put simply, in order to emphasise Batoni’s merit as an artist, rather than just a painter of portraits, the organisers have decided to keep remarkably quiet about the subjects of the portraits — the men and women, British and otherwise, on whose likenesses Batoni’s enduring reputation, for good or ill, surely rests. The catalogue for Pompeo Batoni: Prince of Painters in the Eighteenth Century — a jocular, highly readable enerprise, quite funny in places — is arranged as a monograph rather than as an annotated list of exhibits with essays at either end. The upside is that one learns a lot about Batoni’s practice in a way that isn’t wholly dependent on loans to the exhibition, but the downside is an alarming lack of information about commissioning, provenance, condition — or who these men and women actually were. In other words, the contrast with the catalogue for the Royal Academy’s recent Citizens and Kings could hardly be more extreme, as a glance at that catalogue’s treatment of Batoni’s portrait of the bereaved Wills Hill, Earl of Hillsborough and later Marquis of Downshire, makes more than clear.
Well, perhaps my background as an historian is showing here — or perhaps the same deformity of perception that drew me to Charles Compton as a person, albeit a long-dead one, rather than to Batoni’s alchemy of line, colour and finish per se — but I cannot see why fascinating biographical details should make a portrait seem any less interesting. On my first visit to Citizens and Kings, Hugh Douglas Hamilton’s portrait of the grief-stricken widower Lieutenant Richard Mansergh St George (above — now in the National Gallery, Dublin) made me stop and stare — but on my second visit, having read the catalogue entry for it, I very nearly wept — in an effusion of sentiment, incidentally, which both the sitter and painter would, I think, have viewed as entirely appropriate. Perhaps knowledge of the sitter’s tragic yet weirdly heroic life may have distracted me from a more arid contemplation of whatever merits Douglas Hamilton possessed as a portait painter, but did it lessen my experience of the portrait in question? Did it make me look less closely, or care less about what I saw? Self-evidently not. In any event, the people who first saw and appreciated these portraits did so armed with quite a lot of information, I suppose, regarding the status, lineage, character and foibles of the subjects — Batoni’s sitters, not least the British and Irish ones, being a very closely interconnected group, as the catalogue does, at least, make clear. That we should be forced, due to the bigotry of recent art-historical dogma, to admire Batoni’s portraiture largely in ignorance of biography, the better to appreciate his formal brilliance, strikes me as arbitrary and capricious at best, anarchronistic and shallow at worst.
A little more about the portraits
One could go on almost endlessly about these portraits. I am struggling to avoid doing so. One more point, however, demands a hearing. For while it’s clearly true that Batoni could use all the age-old inherited tricks of portraiture in order to manipulate his subject’s image, it is less clear — to me, anyway — that this ought somehow to count against him. If his portrait of the 24-year old papal nipote Prince Abbondio Rezzonico (1766) looks almost absurdly magnificent — the apotheosis of a well-connected if untried youth into regal and commanding figure, his wisdom and nobility endorsed by the weight of classical Rome as well as more yards of lavishly splendid lace and fabric than mere mortals can count — this was presumably what was needed at the time; by the same token, if his Pope Clement XIII (1760) seems to portray a gentle, unassuming, rather genial figure, perhaps this was appreciated by a tough-minded pontiff fighting running battles against the Enlightenment on every possible front. Also, why do present-day reviewers find Batoni’s portrait of Colonel the Hon. William Gordon (1765-66) so hilarious? Yes, he’s wearing tartan (woven in silk, the better to withstand the heat of a Roman summer), his pose is a martial one and he’s standing before some very famous Roman ruins. But in fact it’s an intensely political portrait. The tartan in which Gordon is draped was, along with other Highland dress, banned from 1746 due to its associations with the Jacobite cause — the Gordons having played, for generations, a prominent role in Jacobite insurrection. The tartan socks, which raise such mirth, were part of this forbidden dress, as e.g. the not famously frivolous John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Major Hugh Montgomerie (c. 1780) bears ample witness. In short, in rising to the challenge of this ‘exotic’ dress and incorporating it within such an assertively triumphant image, Batoni wasn’t being silly. He wasn’t just piling on the frills for frills’ sake. On the contrary, he was doing his job, and doing it very well.
Change and decay
Batoni’s old age was a rather sad affair. By 1785 his eyesight was failing — hardly a surprise, given that by that date he was nearly 80 years old. More to the point, however, taste was changing. With a tendency towards financial precariousness — although he had earned a great deal over the years, he was also a prolific alms-giver and generous host, with a large family to support — Batoni lived long enough to see demand for his paintings first faltering, then all but drying up. He died in 1787, shortly before the disaster of the French Revolution which would, in any event, soon kill off the Grand Tour. He was, apparently, painting up until his final day, devoutly exerting himself on a series titled The Litanies of Our Blessed Lady, although by his last week his vision was so poor that he could hardly make out eyes, mouths, noses, and at one point painted six fingers onto a single hand.
Yet it is worth noting that these last years seem to have produced some of Batoni’s greatest portraits. The National Gallery exhibition includes pendant portraits of the Prince Benedetto Giustiniani and his wife Princess Cecelia Mahony Giustiniani (both 1785). The signs of Batoni’s old age are very much present. The handling is relatively loose, almost painterly in places — the background simply a dark area — props, scenery, statuary all very much absent. The Princess’s casual chemise dress and unpowdered hair show how time has marked not only Batoni, but fashion as well. Perhaps the painting of fabric lacks some of the unimaginable delicacy it might have had in earlier years. Perhaps Batoni’s hand was a bit unsteady. But for all that, there is so much sensitivity in the portrayal of this couple — the Prince’s face watchful but perhaps a little sad, while the Princess, with her bitten lip, seems just on the brink of some wise, ironic observation — that to me, at any rate, it is a work of real genius, fit to set beside the best that Goya or David could do. At his best, as far as I’m concerned, Batoni’s portraits really can stand next to anything the eighteenth century produced, and hold their own.
Then and now
So, is the attempt to rehabilitate Batoni a success? Sadly, some of Batoni’s long-term doubters will probably never be persuaded. In a sense, this is hardly their fault. Batoni was a painter with his eye trained firmly on the Ideal — whereas in the present-day lexicon of aesthetic judgements, ‘ugly’ all too often reads as honest, accurate, superior. Fine finish, unless obviously ironic, is taken to be a sign of culpable shallowness. Our critics tend to prefer Caravaggio to Raphael, Rembrandt to Van Dyck, Goya to Reynolds. Meanwhile there was nothing stirringly ‘transgressive’ about Batoni’s life: to all appearances he was a kind, generous and decent man, affectionate towards his family, respectful of authority and conventionally devout in his religious practices. Nor is it possible, no matter how much one might wish it otherwise, to promote Batoni as historically forward-looking, cutting-edge or radical.
Indeed, much of what is most successful and distinctive in Batoni’s work rests at an uncomfortable angle to the requirements, partial and purblind as these inevitably are, of our own age. The sort of critic, for instance, who wishes to be ‘challenged’ by the repetition of what he believes to be absolute and unarguable truths — that privilege, wealth, war and established religion are all bad — will not gravitate naturally towards Batoni. That sort of critic may well struggle to grasp the simplest of Batoni’s classical or Biblical allusions, just as he may fail to understand, having lingered too long amidst the coarser emanations of our contemporary culture, what an eighteenth century consciousness could possibly find to admire in qualities such as ‘meekness’ or ‘purity of heart‘. Like all of us, he will see these paintings through the lenses of his own preconceptions, but the nature of those preconceptions will blind him to everything that is best in Batoni, while highlighting all that doesn’t quite work, or jars, or simply seems too difficult. So for some observers, Batoni will always remain a minor figure encapsulating much that they despise and much more that they simply fail to understand. No exhibition, I think, could have been fair to Batoni yet at the same time changed all that.
Lost loves, lost selves
All of which brings us, however gradually and circuitously, back to Charles Compton, 7th Earl of Northampton, and his portrait in the Fitzwilliam — a work, I am happy to report, that turns up in the present exhibition. What was it like, encountering him again after all these years? The atmosphere was not working in favour of our reunion. As implied above, the exhibition space in the Sainsbury Wing wholly lacks both the grandeur and the good light of the relevant gallery in the Fitzwilliam. The room was rather crowded (reports of the show’s relative unpopularity thus turning out to be as unreliable as much else of what the Guardian has printed about it) while the buzz of conversation, the hissing flutter of other people’s audioguides and the odd irrelevant peal of a mobile ‘phone casually destroyed that silence we’d once so happily shared.
And yet, for all of that, I was glad to see Charles Compton again. The intervening decades have changed me, of course — Cambridge seems very far away now, the half-formed self that used to stand in front of Charles Compton’s portrait further still — but then they’ve also changed my reading of Batoni’s portrait. For one thing, now that I’m well into my 40s, Charles Compton’s 26 years now seem, even by the tough and bruising standards of eighteenth century demography, a heartbreakingly short measure. Only now do I really understand, for all the titles and robes and classical allusions, how very young he was, and only now do I see how Batoni’s portrait hints at both the infinite unchecked enthusiasms and the rather innocent tendency to strike attitudes which are so often characteristic of youth, not least in Cambridge — although Batoni being the sort of painter he was, whatever hinting is taking place is done very respectfully indeed.
But then, the present exhibition has also played a part in changing how I see Charles Compton — as have other exhibitions, probably hundreds down the years, not least the brilliant if maddening Citizens and Kings. To some extent, by placing him so firmly back amongst an art-historical context, these exhibitions have rescued his portrait from my own immediate past, from my own network of associations. They have given him a range of contemporary associations and resonances to replace whatever daydreams I once spun away at his feet. And if the thought of the specific cultural matrices that first enclosed these pictures still stirs me more, however dimly I might understand it, than the timeless manipulations of shape, form, line and colour — well, at least I now recognise both that that parallel universe of formal quality exists, and that it has merit. In other words, if I have now come to the conclusion that Batoni actually is, as this exhibition insists, a significant artist — perhaps even a great one — what I mean by those words today is something very different from what I would have meant by them twenty years ago.
Yet for all of that, standing once again before Batoni’s portrait of Charles Compton — and recalling, in the rancorously nagging way one cannot always avoid at moments like that, the rather grudging reviews this particular exhibition had received — it occurred to me that one thing really hasn’t changed in all those years. For although art galleries may no longer offer the literal refuge from insistent communication, enforced sociability and headachey mundane distraction that they once did — as the inscrutable purr of an incoming text-message is quick to remind me — I suppose that when I seek out art these days, I still do so largely in pursuit of an imaginative refuge from immediate reality.
My taste has, thank heaven, broadened a lot since university. Titian, Palmer, Rubens, Twombly, Pollock, Poussin, Turner, Bomberg, Van Dyck, Van Eyck, even Manet and Degas: all these painters, and hundreds more, now matter at least a little to me. But for all their differences, they matter mostly because — as Batoni’s portrait of Charles Compton once did and still does — their work seems sometimes to open a window on another time and place, in a form of communication all the more welcome for its subjective, thoughtful, non-coercive nature. At the times — and there have been a few of them over the years — when art has had nothing to say to me, the failure occurred because reality was simply too insistent in its demands, drowning out with its raucous unpleasantness whatever art might have offered by way of alternative. (Either that, or the ‘art’ was even more improbably ugly than the reality, which is really saying something.)
Antiquarian? Escapist? Not the sort of thing real critics do? Almost certainly so — no wonder I like Batoni. All the same, it was genuinely a pleasure to catch Charles Compton’s eye again, and to remember how the light glances off his greyhound’s smooth flank, and to move back through the years, as effortlessly as a strand of red silk slipping through that casually half-opened, long-fingered hand.
(Pompeo Batoni 1708-1787 runs from 20 February – 18 May 2008 at the National Gallery, London. It previously appeared at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, USA.)