My review of Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Underland’

My review of Robert Macfarlane’s Underland

My short review of Robert Macfarlane’s absorbing and intelligent Underland is in the 7th-20th June issue of The Lady – not online, but in all the shops today.

The book wasn’t always comfortable reading for semi-claustrophobes like me (I don’t even care for lifts), but it’s often good to force yourself into places you’d really rather not go. It makes an interesting counterpoint to Norbert Casteret’s 1940 classic Ten Years Under the Earth – which is more audacious as well as grittier, as you would expect from the period and the World War I experiences of the author, but lacks Macfarlane’s articulacy.


Time Song by Julia Blackburn


Time Song, Julia Blackburn, Vintage, £25

Something in East Anglia encourages spectral visions, deep thoughts about time. The 14th-century seer Julian of Norwich dreamed of submarine realms, going

…downe into the see-ground, and there I saw hill and dalis green, semand as it were moss-begrowne, with wrekke and gravel.

In 1658, Sir Thomas Browne published Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial, inspired by Roman remains. M. R. James’s A Warning to the Curious told of supernatural vengeance visited on a man who steals an Anglian crown. Rowland Parker paid tribute to a whole sea-taken town in Men of Dunwich (1978). In Rings of Saturn (1995), W. G. Sebald’s narrator concludes ‘The east stands for lost causes’. John Gordon’s children’s tales Giant Under the Snow and Fen Runners reveal disquieting presences in the east’s slow rivers, slimy mudflats and rabbit-gnawed heaths.

For many, eastern England is a place of indeterminacy and loss, characterised by vast skies, huge churches in decayed villages, flitting birds and coasts crumbling away forever into insatiable ocean. Julia Blackburn has now added to this mordant corpus with her informative and sensitive conjuration of Doggerland, which drowned millennia ago yet still makes its presence felt, like a ghost pain from an amputated limb. 

Britain was not always Shakespeare’s ‘fortress’; the North Sea conceals a vanished country that linked Kent to Calais. The Shetland Islands were formerly hills where Mesolithic hunters mislaid arrows, and the Outer Silver Pit off Flamborough Head, where Dutch dogger trawlers delve, a great sweet-water lake. ‘The land is a sea in waiting’, Matthew Hollis says in his poem Stones (2016), a bitter truth for millennia of West Doggerlanders/East Anglians. Some trawlermen claim they can sense the differing depths below them, ‘seeing’ the old courses of the Dee, Elbe, Ouse, Rhine, Thames, Tweed and the obscurer Bytham and Urstrom. Doggerland alternated between tundra and temperate steppe, reconfiguring itself when relieved of the weight of ice, only for the ice to return in rising sea-levels, until the link to Europe was lost 8,000 years ago.

Blackburn hymns the deluged land’s history from geology’s ‘Deep Time’ to today’s fragmented littorals, in 18 blank verse ‘time songs’ of uneven quality, and 45 excellent chapters that wander pleasingly between science and suggestiveness. She digresses as distantly as Neanderthal caves in Gibraltar, Arctic hunter-gatherers, and sacred grottos in Jerusalem to hint how Doggerland’s human inhabitants may have viewed their land, and cosmic lot. She is transfixed by ‘uncorrupted’ Tollund Man, sacrificed to bog gods 2,400 years ago, whose ‘private smile’ conveys the essence of prehistory. 

She stopped writing fiction because she disliked ‘wide and un-signposted landscapes’, but Doggerland is wide and un-signposted enough, albeit based on accumulating evidence. We read of Happisburgh’s hominid footprints, warehouses of mammoth bones, Holme-next-the-Sea’s ‘Seahenge’ and antler harpoon points dredged up by drillers. She is fascinated by things out of time—fossils, wrong clocks, an attraction called Futureland, even a satnav’s ‘and then’. Even old rain can be remembered, through 7,000 year old pockmarks on storm-exposed sands.

Her late husband (sculptor Herman Makkink) accompanies her in imagination as she ponders extinctions and rebirths, the change and return of things, ‘intimations of things unseen’. Death to her is pure, a process rather than an end; her cremated husband was wafted skywards as surely as the Mesolithic baby in Vedbaek, Denmark, buried cradled in a swan’s wing. She ate her husband’s ashes ritualistically, their grittiness evoking evolution’s endless interments. At 71, she looks forward calmly, seeking comfort in life’s ’crowdedness’, the sentience of sediment, and the boundlessness of the sea. While she waits, she has found release by adding to our understanding of this restless realm. 

This review first appeared in the 30th January 2019 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission 

Museum of Lost Art by Noah Charney

The 2,000 year old Lion of Al-Lat in Palmyra, destroyed by ISIS in 2015


The Museum of Lost Art, Noah Charney, Phaidon; £19.95

If art is largely illusion, as the theorists claim, then how much more illusionary is art that no longer exists? Extant artworks elicit complex considerations of perspective, proportion, reality and temporality—yet, strangely, so can extinct or missing ones, their absence a presence, a virtual reality Kunstkammer of once-weres and might-have-beens. The Museum of Lost Art reminds us of civilisation’s essential contingency.

The author of The Art of Forgery now turns his acute eye on works that have been bombed, buried, burned, drowned, dumped, looted, stolen or vandalized—or which were never intended to last, or maybe never existed. Just as some texts are only known through doxographers, some artworks have only come down to us by repute, or as copies. Certain once-famous reputations might have survived, and certain now-famous reputations might be dimmer, had their and their rivals’ works not been winnowed by accident, act of God, changing taste, theft, vandalism, or war. One hundred and fifteen Caravaggios may have been lost in history’s churn, as were celebrated images such as Holbein’s Hans von Zürich, Velázquez’s Expulsion of the Moriscos, and Courbet’s Stonebreakers. Even the Mona Lisa went missing between 1911 and 1913 (it was later attacked by acid and rock), and the van Eycks’ Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was set alight both accidentally and deliberately, forged, dismembered, and six times stolen. 

All areas of artistic endeavour are in here. Raimondi’s pornographic I Modi engravings, themselves derived from lost paintings, were censored by the Vatican but lived on obliquely in Carracci’s Loves of the Gods in Rome’s Palazzo Farnese. Also included are the statues of Praxiteles, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Alexandria Lighthouse, the brilliant confection that was the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Chinese bronzes, the Bamiyan Buddhas blown up by the Taliban and Damien Hirst’s creations incendiarized in the 2004 Momart fire. Engaging anecdotes and insights range from Savonarola and ISIS to the conservators, curators and sleuths who, each year, quietly rescue countless expressions of creativity, reframing the narrative, restoring the world’s repository, shoring up genius against eternity. The Museum of Lost Art is paradoxically partly about finding it again. 

This review first appeared in Country Life, and is reproduced with permission 

Animal: Exploring the Zoological World – introduction by James Hanken


Animal: Exploring the Zoological World

Introduction by James Hanken, London: Phaidon, 2018, hb., 352 pages, £39.95

Any volume examining ‘humankind’s fascination with animals’ can only hope to be a conspectus, but Animal is unusually ambitious and thoughtful, handsomely produced and with an introduction by a Harvard zoologist. It ranges far and wide, from prehistoric paintings to 2018’s XROMM technology, which allows us to watch animal skeletons in action. 

Images are paired cleverly, sometimes touchingly, to show how our fascination evolves – Francisco Goya’s void-falling bulls with a 1906 image of deer startled by a camera flash – a Greek Bronze Age fresco of introduced monkeys with a 2016 photo of Japanese snow monkeys naturalised in Texas – the puissant monkey-god Hanuman with Francis Bacon’s caged and screaming baboon – Eugène Delacroix’s sensitive dreaming tiger with today’s ‘unorthodox taxidermy’ in which animals are arranged in death-like rather than life-like poses. Nematodes’ swirling imprints echo Aboriginal cosmos-creating lizards, William Blake complements Grayson Perry, and twitching jerboas face onto pitifully chained goldfinches. 

Many of the illustrations are part of common cultural zoogeography – Pablo Picasso’s bull, Uffington’s White Horse, Albrecht Dürer’s rhinoceros, Walt Disney’s orang-utans, Tutankhamun’s scarabs, Robert Hooke’s flea from Micrographia, King Kong, Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom – but intelligent captioning offers new angles even on these (Edwin Landseer’s Monarch is really a royal stag, with only 12-point antlers).

Many others will be less familiar, and some strikingly new – huge 6,000 year old giraffe carvings from Niger, Papua’s Ambum Stone, Aztec anthropomorphic myth as depicted for the conquistadores’ far-off King, Charles Le Brun’s human-animal phrenologies, John Ruskin’s kingfisher, a harvestman stalking a night-time pine forest, and four artworks created for this book. 

Animal captures admirably two interlocking intoxications – the thrill of ever expanding zoological knowledge and the sheer joy of looking at animals, who look right back and into us in challenge and entreaty. 

This review first appeared in the 7th November 2018 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission 

The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St. Clair


The Secret Lives of Colour

Kassia St. Clair, John Murray: London, 2016, hb., 320pps.

History can be refracted through countless prisms – cultural, economic, environmental, ideological, moral, national, racial, religious – but one has been oddly unexplored, despite being not just obvious, but ubiquitous. That prism is colour, an element that suffuses every instinct and thought, hues our whole universe. Since hominids evolved opsin genes, we have been able to distinguish between colours and assign them significances. Over aeons, and increasingly as Homo became sapiens sapiens, we have used this rare ability to paint our world in affirmatory or menacing shades, define deities, read countries and skies, rank friends and foes, inform others about ourselves. By the time the artists of Lascaux were depicting their sable elks, umber aurochs and charcoal wisent, 17,000 years ago, ur-Europe had complex hierarchies and mythologies of colour ingrained into the everyday. Even now, when we know something of anthropology, cultural transmission, evolution, genetics, light, optics, and anomalies like synesthesia, colours carry inescapable, almost instinctive associations.

Kassia St. Clair “fell in love with colours” while writing about eighteenth century fashions, and parlayed chromophilia into a column for Elle Decoration, and so this book. These may sound like slender credentials, but she has mined carefully and mixed well, foraying into art history, art theory, biology, botany, chemistry, industrial methods, military history, politics, symbol dictionaries, and the worlds of clothes, cosmetics, football and pop. 

She reminds us how colour vision works – the rods, cones and retinas vaguely familiar from school science lessons. Then there is a well-informed (her bibliography is nine pages) overview of how colours have been created, used and viewed from the ancients up to light artists like Olafur Eliasson and the 99.96% light-eating nanotube Vantablack. 

Pliny claimed Greek painters only used black, white, red and yellow, and this was good, because having too wide a palette would have distracted them from the business of line and form. He made politic allowances for Tyrian purple, 

…for which the Roman fasces and axes clear a way. It is the badge of noble youth; it distinguishes the senator from the knight; it is called in to appease the gods. It brightens every garment, and shares with gold the glory of the triumph.

Tyrian purple was so jealously reserved to royalty that Nero had a mauve-clad high society woman dragged from a recital, stripped naked and relieved of her property. But the colour (insalubriously obtained by crushing vast quantities of shellfish and soaking the resultant ooze in stale urine) was never consistent. Pliny described it as the colour of “clotted blood”, which we would not necessarily classify as purple at all. Pliny was incidentally incorrect about the limited palette of ancient painters, as “Egyptian blue” had been produced since 2,500 B.C., and would have been available around the Middle Sea. But early colourists were indeed often limited to what was easily available from earth, lichens, plants, stones or insects (cochineal beetles are still included in the ingredients of cherry cola, euphemised as “E120”). 

Pliny-style severity was echoed by early Christians chary of artifice, pride and sensuality, like St. Cyprian: 

The very Devils first taught the use of colouring the eyebrows, and clapping on a false and lying Blush on the Cheeks, so also to change the very natural Colour of the Hair and to adulterate the true and Naked Complexion.

Such suspicion carried into the Middle Ages, the mixing of colours even for church decoration frowned upon as unnatural. Renaissance painters attracted superstitious contumely for their experiments in paint and perspective, and Isaac Newton was seen as suspect for breaking and remaking white light. 

This handsome book must have been a production headache, its white cover indented with coloured dots, its endpapers striped luxuriously, its contents pages highlighted with Pantone colour wheels, each text page edged in a swatch of the colour under discussion that allows easy comparison between shades. Or is it easy? One is struck by how subtly different colours can be, how subjectively we see them, and yet how powerfully they move us. Even white, dismissed now as ‘vanilla’ and ‘white bread’, pulsates with concepts of ‘purity’ and ‘simplicity’ that shaped how the West saw itself culturally and even physically; today’s derision is connected to these concepts, part of a sometimes inchoate effort to delegitimise a civilisation simultaneously disliked and envied. When nineteenth century historians discovered that classical statuary and structures had usually been brightly bedizened, Rodin is said to have hit his breast and declared “I feel it here that they were never coloured!” The author makes various angsty references to actual or alleged racisms, sexisms, etc. but such are almost obligatory in modern Western writing. (Metaphorically speaking, blushing pink sometimes seems to dominate our present culture.) 

If ‘simple’ white is so complicatedly emotive, how much more so is it when subdivided into lead white, ivory, silver, whitewash, isabelline, chalk and beige? These blend into blonde and other yellows, each tint tainted or tinged with absorbing stories – why the lead-tin yellow used from Giotto to Rubens suddenly disappeared, how Indian yellow derives its uniqueness from cow urine, the origins of acid-yellow emojis, why Van Gogh’s supposedly immortal sunflowers are wilting (chrome yellow reacting with other pigments), the diuretic qualities of gamboge (also used to demonstrate the reality of Brownian motion), the toxicity of orpiment, the semi-sacerdotal nature of China’s imperial yellow, confined to royals for 1,300 years between the Tang and Qing dynasties, culminating in gold, about which volumes could be and have been written.

Oranges touch on Dutch monarchs, the medieval spice trade that gave Essex’s Saffron Walden its name (the town appears again later, linked laterally to the red known as dragon’s blood), Buddhist monks, the lost Amber Room of Tsarskoye Selo, the origins of the word electron, attitudes towards redheads, the ethnocentric connotations of ‘nude’, and more. ‘Miniature’ originally did not connote smallness, but was derived from miniators, specialist applicators of a colour called minium. 

Oranges become pinks and reds. Baker-Miller pink was adopted eagerly by American institutions in the 1970s and 1980s after tests suggested the colour could reduce aggression on buses, in housing estates, drunk-tanks and jails. Football teams with red strips finish higher in the leagues. Immediately before execution, Mary Queen of Scots undid her muted outer clothes to show a crimson undergown, so associating herself with Catholic martyrdom (although Knoxians snorted it proved she was Jezebel). 

Blues were associated with barbarism by the Romans because Celtic warriors dyed themselves with woad, and this persisted in the West until the 1130s, when the visionary Abbot Suger oversaw the rebuilding of Paris’s Saint-Denis Abbey, and encouraged its adorners to use God-given cobalt. About the same time, artists began to paint the Virgin in light blue robes, and this association became increasingly powerful. In 1200, only 5% of European coats of arms contained azure; by 1400 it was almost a third. Up to the twentieth century, girls were accordingly often garbed in blue, and boys kitted out in pink (vaguely reminiscent of blood, or military redcoats). Blues are also often abused – “Let’s sell these people a piece of sky-blue”, chortled Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard.  

Greens were associated with growth, but also with envy, toxicity and wildness (and, in the West, Islam), unsettling qualities exacerbated by the technical difficulties of creating consistent, unfading dyes or pigments. 55-75% proof absinthe, which The Times termed “emerald-tinted poison”, was blamed for nineteenth century national decadence. The 840 pound Bahia emerald immediately attracted criminality from the moment it was unearthed in 2001. Carl Scheele’s fashionable green filled Georgian and Victorian clothing and interiors with lethal levels of arsenic. 

Browns were underrated, lacking luminosity, men having been uplifted from clay and dust according to many traditions, and in the end returning to it. Excrement, mud, and rubbish were brown; russets were reserved to the poor by fourteenth century sumptuary laws; buffs and fallows were strictly for camouflage. But one could ask what would Caravaggio have been without his brown contrasts? Then Washington assumed the Fairfax Volunteers’ blue-and-buff (a combination taken up by influential English Whigs), the 1850s Indian army switched to khaki, and stag-stalking Victorians fell in love with earth-toned tweeds.

So inevitably to blacks, Secret Lives closing with an examination of the absence of light (technically, black is not a colour) widely associated with blindness, death, depression, evil, night, obscurity, and witchery. Look into John Dee’s obsidian mirror, Elizabethans shivered, and you never know what might look back. But as with all colours there are countervailing connotations – the night is when we dream, artists outline in charcoal, black means good taste, respectability, scholarship and seriousness. Once again, as so often in this engaging compendium, we wonder what we are really seeing when we consider colours. What is looking back usually is ourselves, in all our contradictions. 

This review first appeared in the July 2018 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

Beauty seen, beauty sought – Beauty by Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh

Echo and Narcissus, by J W Waterhouse


Beauty, Stefan Sagmeister & Jessica Walsh, Phaidon: London, 2018, hb, 280pps

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever” Keats effused in Endymion – “Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.” His 1818 poem about the shepherd so handsome he was beloved by immortals was poorly received, and Keats would regret publishing it. But whatever about Endymion’s demerits, his outlook attests to a time when “beauty” was taken seriously, regarded as a worthy aspiration for artists and as subject of intellectual attention. 

For Keats, as for many others before him and since, beauty was associated intimately with the classical world as reflected in Arcadian myth, or represented by Ode-worthy Grecian urns and the astounding statuary then being salvaged from Levantine rubbish-tips and carted back to English country houses by Grand Tourists. But he was also a Romantic, so combining within himself the twin poles of Western aesthetics, the conflicting-complementary blend of classical-formal and Romantic-naturalistic impulses which also coexist in each of us. But now, two hundred years on from Keats’ confidence, any consensus about the nature of beauty has been broken – part of a wide repudiation of all things canonical, ridiculed as male-pale-stale or pastiche, or at best just one possibility among many potential choices. Or has it? 

In this sumptuously produced contribution to aesthetic theory, the well-known New York graphic designers Stefan Sagmeister and Jessica Walsh assert that actually there still exists a widespread consensus about what beauty is, even if it is not necessarily reflected or even aspired to in twenty-first century architecture, or high street fashions, or Turner Prize winners. They peer backwards into philosophy and history, and forwards into science to try to define this elusive attribute – and prove that humans have an intuitive recognition of beauty in colours, shapes, smells and textures, which could and should be utilised to improve the quality of life, from Coke cans to airports, and modern art to mountainsides.

“Beauty itself is function”, they argue, contrary to the twentieth century dictum that form should follow function. It is possible to create things that are not just ornamental, or not just useful, but an optimal blend of both. The Pantheon has never been destroyed in all of Rome’s upheavals, solely because it is, by any conqueror’s standards, beautiful. Architectural beauty, the fifteenth century Florentine Leone Battista Alberti remarked, consists in

the harmony and concord of all the parts achieved in such a manner that nothing could be added, or taken away, or altered except for the worse.

Alberti’s aspiration can easily be extended to music, paintings, people, products, scenery or sculpture.  

Sagmeister and Walsh examine what “smart people” over the centuries meant by beauty, consider how notions of beauty and order appear to have existed even before Homo became Sapiens, how we respond when faced with beautiful things, and how we can, or could, be uplifted by surrounding ourselves with lovelier things and living in more beautiful places. “The Beauty Project: A Manifesto” commits them to “translating the arguments and findings of this book into our daily lives”, developing “smart strategies” to “reach and outreach” and “infuse beauty” into ignored, neglected, overlooked or ugly areas. These sound banal, but there is no cause to doubt the authors’ sincere desire to make the world handsomer – and this matters, because improving people’s surroundings improves the people.

But what is this beauty they (and we) want, and has its “loveliness” increased? And whatever it is – or was – is it passing into “nothingness” at the hands of caustic cultural critics? It seems no longer enough to say, as Shakespeare did in The Rape of Lucrece,

Beauty itself doth of itself persuade

The eyes of men without an orator

Beauty – whether of art or nature, animals or people – was long intimately associated with proportion – even in music, wherein beauty has been defined as

…sound uttered with a due sense of proportion and with an accurate estimate of its suitability to its individual setting and surroundings (Edmund Fellowes, The English Madrigal Composers, 1921)

Symmetry is also inseparable from traditional ideas of beauty, as John Brophy noted in his 1945 minor classic, The Human Face: 

The physical beauty of the human face is a delicately balanced composition of many elements, chiefly the configuration of the whole face, the complexion of the skin, the colouring of hair, eyes, and lips, and the shaping and relative sizes of the features…for aesthetic satisfaction, the face must be pleasingly proportioned to the head, and the size of the head to the height and breadth of the body.

Beauty has also long been linked to bodily health, strength and youth – although there have always been discussions about the existence (or otherwise) of “inner beauty” and “spiritual beauty”. It has also created and perpetuated hierarchies of distinction, inequality and separation, and highly specific ideas about what is beautiful and what is not.

All these interrelated notions stretch back to Pythagorean reflections on connections between visual proportions and musical harmony, which were developed by Plato, Euclid and Vitruvius, amongst many others. For these, the loveliness of a face or place, or the elegance of an argument, or the charm of ‘the music of the spheres’ could be part-explained by geometry and reasoning, but they also rose above the quotidian into a wholly abstract and Elysian realm. There was the magical-mathematical character of phi, the Greeks’ “golden mean” for buildings – and everything else.

Such ideas continued shaping European civilisation for centuries after the fall of Greece and Rome, the early Christian idiom shaped by all the Hellenic and imperial centuries, Divine dominion preached in buildings evoking ideas of old earthly Magisterium. Early medieval architecture was called Romanesque for good reason – although in the Byzantine sphere there were also strong Eastern influences. Even during the Gothic period, the old mode was never forgotten, buildings still being erected in that style, or borrowing from it. Then during the Renaissance, Vitruvius was rediscovered by Alberti, Palladio and others, giving rise to countless new buildings in quondam styles, while the surge of interest in the classical authors betokened burgeoning interest in old-school aesthetics. Artistic conventions and examples for this Christian and humanist Europe were shaped by proxy by the pagans Apelles and Praxiteles, even though none of their works had survived, because their originals had been copied so often by later (and, it was felt, lesser) practitioners.

By the end of the seventeenth century cultural arbiters had turned decisively against the generic “Gothic”, with its perceived disorderliness and extravagances, its lack of cohesion, rhythm, rules or scholarship. Beauty now was cooler, more idealised and restrained – exemplified by the wall-to-wall white marble statues of the Farnese Collection, Versailles, Sanssouci, Whitehall, Chatsworth and many other places.

The new century was to show a new spirit, the spirit of order; the reason, not the heart, was to govern man in all his works,

as John Steegman observed in his 1936 The Rule of Taste. The new Augustan “correct taste” was policed by Whiggish connoisseurs and dilettanti, as well as Tories like Dr. Johnson, who were temperamentally averse to all “enthusiasms”. 

Inevitably the reaction impelled a counter-reaction from radicals and Romantics. In his 1753 Analysis of Beauty, William Hogarth – who had been stung by academic scoffing at his “coarse” and “vulgar” style – asserted that beauty, whether in nature or art, could be defined by a formula, an S-shape curving not only in linear direction, but also in its planes, that combined such unmistakeable intangibles as balance, elegance, grace, simplicity, variety, and distinctness. Hogarth’s “Serious and Comical” survey of beauty in everything from skin colour to chair-legs was satirised brilliantly in Paul Sandby’s The Analysis of Deformity, but it was already too late for the academicians and formalists. For more and more artists and thinkers, the standard face derived from all those Greek examples suddenly seemed to lack expression, and life-drawing started to edge out neoclassicism. 

Far beyond artists’ ateliers, there arose experimental houses like Horace Walpole’s Gothic Revival Strawberry Hill and William Beckford’s Fonthill, which spurned cool classical orders in favour of supererogatory curlicues. Even gardens became a battleground of conceptions of beauty, as the Mannerist French template began to be replaced with the “artfully informal” landscape gardens of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, then William Chambers’ “sentimental” ones, and eventually Uvedale Price’s “Picturesque” landscapes – these movements sometimes as much political reaction against all things French as well as an alteration in aesthetic sensibility. Lines of sight in these gardens were lines of beauty; particular features, or follies, or plantings, were supposed to evoke particular emotions, or gratify certain senses, or the whole horizon was to be seen in uplifting unity. These literal groundbreakers would have been intrigued by the work of mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who in 1975 posited the idea of fractals, which broke down landscapes (or cloud-banks, or animals) into mathematical constituent parts, to prove there was often a gratifying underlying order even to the ostensibly chaotic or random.

Romantic literature started to prioritise self-realisation over self-restraint. Emotion became seen as more becoming than edification – and even royals aspired to “pastoral” pulchritude, Marie Antoinette famously dressing as a faux-shepherdess (the apparent “authenticity” the ultimate in affectation). That unhappy Queen’s doughtiest Britannic defender Edmund Burke wrote the most celebrated study on aesthetics of his century, his 1757 Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which sought (often unconvincingly) to separate “dark and gloomy…vast…rugged and negligent” sublime objects from “comparatively small…smooth and polished…light and delicate” beautiful ones. The Sublime, he averred, was a masculine principle, surprising and potentially dangerous – the Beautiful was feminine, sweet and decorous. Hume averred, contra Plato, that beauty only existed in the eyes of beholders – another big gun salvo in a then urgent debate. In his Discourses, Reynolds advocated educating oneself to appreciate the beauties in Old Masters.

The conflict and interaction between the classical-formal and Romantic-natural aesthetic tendencies have continued ever since, the latter camp having the best of the exchange. Tastes have turned over constantly since the end of the eighteenth century and ever more quickly, as democratisation, science and technology offered ever more opportunities for experimentalism. There was still an insatiable appetite for beauty, suggested by the nineteenth century notion of beaux arts – but it was defined differently, and changeably. The classicisers and formalists were well on their way out – and they have not yet gained reentry to the salon – their ideas misunderstood, their books unread, their buildings less desired, their canvases stacked against walls, their lyres metaphorically unstrung. Ever since, new movements have been sweeping across all arts – Neo-Gothicism, Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, Neo-Primitivism, Vorticism, Cubism, Art Deco, Abstraction, Outsider Art, Modernism, Atonality, Bauhaus, Brutalism, International Style and many others jumbling and tumbling over each other as the intellectually curious middle classes sought new perspectives, proportions and sensations. Some of these movements brought beautiful things of their own, and others were at least fresh and interesting – but their overall effect seems to have been to bewilder.

In recent decades, any ideas of beauty have too often been ignored – most obviously by house-builders, town-planners, for whom beauty just means expense. Big business-friendly conservative politicians have long been complicit in the uglification of urban centres or the coarsening of culture in the interests of cheapness and convenience. Very recently, there have been attempts to reverse the disastrous town-planning decisions of the 1950s-1980s – low-rise, mixed-use districts, daylighting culverted rivers, and so forth – but they have only been tentative, hindered by lack of vision, lack of leadership, lack of money, and the increasing unwillingness of Westerners to mingle in our distrustful diverse societies. 

Civic and corporate neglectfulness troubles Sagmeister and Walsh, as one would expect from New York graphic designers who have worked with the likes of Brian Eno, and whose firm’s website waxes nostalgic about creating

50 illustrated works protesting Trump, encouraging people to register + vote for Hillary, and promoting love, tolerance & kindness.

But there have also been actual attacks on ideas of beauty by the alienated or publicity-hungry. Marcel Duchamp’s notorious 1917 urinal is seen by Sagmeister and Walsh as a harbinger of the new utilitarian ugliness – although they excuse it as an understandable product of the Great War’s moral desolation. 

Beauty has always had its sceptics – as the proverb about beauty being skin-deep suggests – but now it is sometimes viewed as innately bad, because ageist, disablist, discriminatory, elitist, racist (not helped by Arno Breker’s coldly proficient supermen) or sexist. The whole idea of there being a canon of taste or standard of beauty has been offending more and more intellectuals since 1945, and they have responded by trying to make us see beauty in the boring – think Andy Warhol’s soup tins (the authors would argue that soup tins don’t need to be boring, and if they are it will affect sales) – or the outright ugly, like Jeff Koons’ ironic kitsch (which Sagmeister and Walsh defend).  

Today’s expanding – in every sense – “body positivity” movement is a conscious rejection of long-standing aesthetic ideals. The October 2018 Miss Britain Beauty Curve competition, which requires competitors be a dress size 14 or over, attracted a record number of entrants – but then there is a larger than ever pool of eligible women, as the average UK dress size is now 16 (it was 12 in 1957). Burke’s over-dainty dolls are now sometimes more Rubenesque than is entirely good for them, and his Beautiful has been dispatched to join our Sublime.

Body positivity was brilliantly predicted by L. P. Hartley in his 1960 novel Facial Justice, in which all faces are rated for beauty, and there is constant pressure from the B-rated to bring down the A-rated, and the C-rated to bring down the Bs, and so on ad infinitum down through the alphabet. Hartley would have appreciated the newest subset of the body positivity movement, Acne Positivity, which has 50,000 members on Instagram, and was hailed in a September 2018 Guardian article with the only slightly jocular headline, “Pimples Are In”. It is kindly as well as realistic never to expect physical perfection, which is why nobody ever has – Thomas Weelkes wrote a 1597 madrigal about “Those spots upon my lady’s face”, which he likened gallantly to “mulberries in dainty gardens growing” – but actually to celebrate bodily faults is something of a different order.

We should be grateful to Sagmeister and Walsh for simultaneously reinforcing all kinds of old and rarely examined ideas, and applying them to an age that has become too accustomed to everything being accelerated, aggregated, cheapened, coarsened, homogenised, infantilised, mass-produced, ready-made, and relativised. Readers are likely to differ with the authors on specifics, but they are right that beauty exists, even if sometimes difficult to define, and that in every sphere it is better to aspire upwards than sideways or down. 

This review first appeared in the December 2018 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission

The Matter of Manners – In Pursuit of Civility by Keith Thomas

Baldassare Castiglione, author of The Book of the Courtier


In Pursuit of Civility – Manners and Civilisation in Early Modern England

Keith Thomas, Yale: New Haven and London, hb., 457 pages

Among the Bodleian Library’s celebrated Douce Collection of arcana,  incunabula and later works is an instructional manuscript of circa 1350, which contains the first-known written English expression of what was almost certainly already a cliché – ‘Maner makys man’. Maybe William of Wykeham, Chancellor of England to both Edward III and Richard II, read this very manuscript – because when he founded Winchester College and New College, Oxford, in the 1370s he chose ‘Manners makyth man’ as motto for both. But what did ‘manners’ mean in fourteenth century England, and what do they mean now? How are they made – and how do they make? How can we decode these complex ciphers – so changeable, inconsistent, irrational, ludicrous, oppressive, petty, self-serving – and so essential, persistent, salutary, and uplifting? 

Keith Thomas has approached this almost limitless subject with the same thoroughness with which he tackled Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500-1800 (1983), and The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England (2009) – and with which doubtless he chairs the Supervisory Committee of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He has brought a fully-examined life’s reading to bear on this book, erudition so exhaustive that at times it almost overwhelms his text as he indefatigably adds counter-reference to reference, in a torrent of well-contextualised quotations revealing the infinite complexities and contradictions of early modern English behaviour. 

There are almost one hundred pages of notes, authorities balanced finely against each other – an oddly hypnotic catalogue raisonée of a huge and mostly forgotten exhortatory literature. His treatment is likely to prove unsurpassable as summation of this cajoling corpus, which over so many centuries has done so much to reflect, refract and shape England’s essence. The study of English manners is the most rewarding of all such ethnologies, because here social manners are so central a preoccupation – burgeoning even in the Iron Age, throwing out luxuriant shoots under Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, medieval and early modern cultivators, before being transplanted worldwide. 

Not content with comprehensiveness, Sir Keith aspires also to objectivity –

As a Welshman, and therefore something of an outsider, I have tried to study the English people in the way an anthropologist approaches the inhabitants of an unfamiliar society. 

His ‘outsider’ status extends farther, because he is also an undogmatic humanist, who can view ancient and modern Christianity (once the source and long a motive force of English manners) with coolness, acknowledging its instrumentality as well as its inadequacies.  

‘Manners’ is sometimes narrowly understood as meaning the everyday, taken-for-granted rituals we observe in order to live more easily with each other. But even the smallest observances, like saying ‘please’, are not as simple as they may seem. Behind the minutiae of manners, Pierre Bourdieu asserted, one can glimpse ‘a whole cosmology, an ethic, a metaphysic, a political philosophy’. This sounds like overstatement, but these things do arouse strong emotions, those who omit them at hazard of being thought arrogant, boorish, crass, impertinent, or sociopathic. If, as Georg Simmel had earlier argued, gratitude is ‘the moral memory of mankind’, those who fail to give thanks, or who give them in the wrong way or at the wrong time, can be seen as moral malefactors, and worthy of condign chastisement. Similarly, those who dress ‘indecently’, or fail to wash, or are unkind to animals or children, or have the wrong faith, or tastes, or views, have always faced social sanctions, from sniggering and snubbing via public insult and legal action to mob or state violence.

Manners are about whole attitudes and modes of living – civilisation as opposed to primitivism, nurture as opposed to nature, urbanity as opposed to rusticity. They may be promulgated in polemics, or lampooned in comedies of manners – and are often seen as outward signs of inner worth. To be ‘polished’ or polite is to be advanced, considerate, educated, sophisticated, superior in some sense. To be rude, churlish or ‘clownish’ is to be deficient, gauche, provincial, retrograde, sometimes verging on semi-human. Sometimes top-down condescension is repaid by recipients, the upper classes portrayed as epicene and ridiculous, like Colley Cibber’s Lord Foppington, or the ‘Frenchified’ dandy pictured in a 1770 engraving in this book, facing fisticuffs from a John Bullish butcher while a prostitute pulls his greased queue. 

Ideas of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour appear to be immemorial and ubiquitous. Probably every society had or has taboos surrounding bodily functions, cleanliness, religious belief and sexual intercourse, and ideas of ‘correct’ conduct have probably always been coterminous with politics, religion, self-definition and self-esteem. In fifth century BC Athens, those who could not speak Greek were dubbed barbaroi (barbarians) – at first neutrally, but increasingly pejoratively. Xenophobic dismissiveness helped codify Greek corporate identity, portraying geopolitical competitors as not just enemies of Greeks, but of civilisation itself. Scythians, many Hellenes held, were cruel, ignorant, nomadic, and unlettered – while even worse human/subhuman horrors awaited in the wind-blasted wastes of northwestern Europe, or the endless sun-punished deserts behind the Greek colonies of the African and Asian coasts. The Persians – grudgingly admitted to be quite cultured in their way – were nevertheless still barbaric, because they were ‘decadent’ and tolerated despotic government. The Romans would also sometimes be ridiculed as vulgar cultural counter-jumpers. Naturally, the Scythians, Persians and Romans had ideas of their own on these matters – but tendencies to distinguish and separate seem as old as the species.

The Dark Ages added more means of differentiation and stratification, as new nations warred within themselves and against each other. But always there are recurring themes – elites versus masses, the educated versus the uncultivated, the court versus the country, the old versus the young, community members versus outsiders, believers versus non-believers – and laws and manners to manage the constant ebbing and flowing of class, dynastic, economic, ethnic, political and religious fortunes. ‘History can be seen’ says the author, ‘as the story of how different patterns of conventional restraint have succeeded each other’. There were always leading lights like Boethius entreating everyone to be more virtuous, countless Scripturally-inspired didacticists and natural philosophers promulgating ideals of agreeableness, bearing, mildness, modesty, restraint, suavity, and wit.

Early Christian and Scholastic notions of ‘virtue’ and ‘nurture’ evolved into ‘chivalry’, exemplified by knights fighting Christianity’s wars from Lithuania to Jerusalem. Chaucer’s fourteenth century paragon has fought gallantly, but is also ‘meeke as is a mayde…a verray, parfit gentil knight’. In 1516’s Orlando Furioso, Bradamant is told her grandson will ‘defend Holy Church against the barbarians’. Now, it was not non-Greeks but non-Christians who were backwards, even beast-like – which permitted treating them with utmost severity. The chivalric ‘Decalogue’ outlined by chivalry’s great nineteenth century interpreter Léon Gautier prescribed ‘unceasing and merciless war against the infidel’ – although this was supposed only to apply on the battlefield. Edmund Spenser saw no discrepancy between his fantastical ‘Gentle Knight pricking on the plaine’ and his day job as Lord Deputy of Ireland putting down the natives with their ‘savage brutishness and loathsome filthiness’.

Chivalry commingled with ‘courtesy’, examples of decorum, dress, education, language, morality and even posture filtering down constantly from courts largely through writers like Baldassare Castiglione, whose 1528 Book of the Courtier was translated into English in 1561. As Christianity split, Catholics and Protestants differentiated their societies and themselves from the mistaken (or diabolical) denominational Other. Divergences over doctrine overlapped with old animosities and stereotypes, and spawned countless day-to-day divergences  – Catholics seen by Protestants as shiftless, superstitious and untrustworthy, Protestants seen by Catholics as ill-educated, plebeian, and uptight. Dissenters often saw social rituals like bowing or being complimentary as akin to genuflection in church. Anglicans often viewed public religious discussions as vulgar, because likely to lead to dinner-table awkwardness – not to mention the undermining of the entire Elizabethan settlement. 

Renaissance humanists revisiting classical antiquity also entreated Europeans to become more civilised, with Erasmus’s De Civilitate Morum Puerilium of 1530 translated into English in 1532 as A Lytell Booke of Good Maners for Chyldren. Christianity started to be augmented as civilisation-signifier by co-existing, contradicting ideas of both Europe’s oldness and its Prometheanism. A ready-made foil for sixteenth century theorists of civilization and difference lay close at hand, in the expansionist, ‘infidel’ Ottomans (our humanist author would eschew such ‘Islamophobia’, let alone their still resounding ideas of a ‘clash of civilisations’.) The navigators of Portugal, England, France, Spain, Holland and Venice were also opening up huge new fields of imaginative play, as they brought home accounts of the exotic indigenes of Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Emerging information on non-European societies encouraged some to see Europe as ineffably, obviously superior – because non-Europeans looked so different, spoke incomprehensible tongues, worshipped odd gods, had few (or no) European-style governments, ate strange things, wore peculiar (or too few) clothes. Bodily comportment and emotional restraint had long been thought of as ‘outwards signs of the inner dispositions of the soul’, so loincloths or sarongs suggested loose morals to Europeans who saw nothing incongruous in doublets, farthingales or stove-pipe hats. (We can only speculate what Castiglione, Erasmus or Hobbes – or even early cultural relativists – would have made of some twenty-first century Europeans’ obesity, states of undress, swearing and tattoos.)  

Manners were weaponised to aim outwards as well as in – intercontinental behaviour missiles used by utterly sincere Christians to excuse African, Asian and American exploitations, expropriations, expulsions, and slavery. There were ancient admonitory precedents; Aristotle had advocated honestas and humanitas between Greeks, but he also said barbarians were born to be slaves. There were also plenty of early modern colonialists who saw no contradiction between private goodness, even kindliness – and policies permitting chattels and ethnic cleansing. What we now call ‘international law’, often cited to undercut national and Western sovereignties, was born in Salamanca, and added to by the Dutch jurist Grotius and the German natural lawyer Pufendorf, and naturally reflected sixteenth-seventeenth century European assumptions. It also contained elements now usually uninvoked by international lawyer-activists, such as Grotius’ view that victors of battles were entitled to slaughter prisoners unless their own states forbade this distinctly unchivalrous practice.

One of the author’s principal aims is to show that anti-colonialism, cultural pluralism and relativism long predate our era, and he cites Ovid, Saint Paul (I. Corinthians, XIV, 11 – ‘If I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me’), Spanish Dominicans, Montaigne, Smith, Diderot, and many others.  These chapters could betoken a descent into P.C. hectoring – 2018’s ritual obeisances – but the author is too careful. He qualifies his approval of old open-mindedness by reminding us, for example, that some American Colonial-era accounts praising the Indians as friendly and welcoming were knowingly misleading, written to gull more English into coming. As another example of nascent New World sensitivities, the author asks twice why, if the English settlers really believed Indians childishly unknowing of private property rights and incapable of self-government, they so often insisted on paying them for the land they were taking? It’s an interesting question – although the answer may simply be that even the most greedily obtuse among Albion’s seed nursed vestigial guilt about theft. 

In the dawning, deist Age of Reason, manners drifted yet farther from their moral underpinnings, and their apparent ethical emptiness was often noted. The ultra-urbane Lord Chesterfield’s 1744 Letters to his (illegitimate) son were vilified by Dr. Johnson as combining ‘the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master’. Johnson was being unjust, because Chesterfield’s emphasis on external appearances did not preclude internal goodness  – but the Great Cham was giving voice to an old English (and Protestant) detestation of ‘coxcombery’ and ‘mummery’, over-civility seen as servility. This bluff ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ was itself something of an affectation – yet even now, the North of England holds out an ideal of itself as gruff but good, Philistine but plain-spoken, more substantive than the smooth South.

Intellectuals on all social sides vied constantly to preserve privileges, or assert rights. Adhering to the majority faith, having a particular accent, wearing certain clothes, going to certain schools, or using a fork for eating, were often moral imperatives – but they were also tactics used to put an ‘inferior’ in his place, or show a ‘superior’ you were as good as he. These daily de rigeurs changed constantly, and as soon as any rules changed they would be enforced in a million subtle and unsubtle ways. In Pursuit of Civility is predictably rich in contemptuous or indignant animadversions about the ‘incivility’ or ‘rudeness’ of entire classes or countries (one curious omission is Frances Trollope’s wonderfully withering 1832 Domestic Manners of the Americans). It is also rich in their opposites – generous, gushing, pluralistic, or relativistic remarks about entire classes or countries, and others’ cultures. For every Smollett, travelling through France and Italy and hating almost everything he finds, there seems to be a Sterne making a Sentimental Journey.

Tendencies and counter-tendencies are always ironically equipoised. Elizabethan and Jacobean administrations permitted torture in special circumstances (even though torture was banned under Common Law) – so long as the torturers were ‘gentle and merciful’ and used the rack ‘in as charitable a manner as such a thing might be’. 

The Commonwealth Solicitor-General John Cook, who led the state’s case against Charles I, may have been a regicide, but he also called courtesy 

the most precious pearl that any man in authority may wear, for it buyeth men’s hearts. 

The English Civil Wars really were relatively ‘civil’ when compared with contemporaneous conflicts, because ‘the contending parties shared a common culture and were linked by ties of kinship and friendship’. Atrocities were, however, committed in Ireland, whose largely Catholic and clannish – and poorer – people were widely regarded as inferior and outdated. Allegations of being outdated and so uncivilised would come to be levelled with increasing force as the economic forces of the Industrial Revolution were joined and justified by Darwinism, imperialism, and race science. 

Restoration, Queen Anne and Georgian England also contained modish multitudes –  

Later seventeenth century England saw both growing politeness and the birth of pornography…good breeding in the eighteenth century was accompanied by sexual libertinism, heavy drinking, brutal sports, bawdy and scatological humour and scurrilous gossip.

It is startling to learn that as late as 1763, the visiting Casanova saw people defecating openly in city streets, albeit with their faces turned to the wall to maintain their ‘modesty’. 

Slowly, somehow, between the recalcitrant earthiness of a few and the expostulations of uplifters, Chesterfield’s ideal of ceremonious sociability transmuted into nineteenth and twentieth century etiquette, which Thomas derides as ‘purely arbitrary prescriptions, peculiar to a particular social milieu and lacking any mental or moral foundation.’ There was – and still is – acute anxiety born of social uncertainty – about elocution, whether to say ‘lavatory’ or ‘toilet’, whether to leave the bottom button of one’s waistcoat undone (as Edward VII exampled –  he was too portly to do it up), or how to address anyone from the Queen or the sons of Scottish clan chiefs to RAF officers or surgeons. The countless ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ considerations and ‘refining’ accretions of 1800-1968 were always being challenged and mocked, but each has left its trace, and even now they wait in England’s anthropological anteroom, neither in demand nor finally dismissible.  

Chivalry likewise lingers sadly in the West, an unhorsed knight with a battered helm and notched sword fighting many foes – vague ideals of forbearance and honour, and practices like holding doors open for women (such sexist politesse is sometimes seen as ‘unacceptable’ by modern moralists). Aristocracies may have been upturned, and Christian and pre-1960s Western sensibilities downgraded, but courtly trace-elements tinge ‘humanitarianism’ – ideas of old decencies now skewed to unman the no longer world-straddling West. Thomas adjudges wryly,

It is common for people today to declare portentously that “the hallmark of a civilised society” is the way it treats animals, say, or children, or the universities, or refugees…Sometimes such assertions reflect a considered view as to what an ideal form of society would look like. More often, they are just bids for sympathy.

Many moderns pride themselves on being ‘above’ old protocols and punctilio, and on their freedom from socially conservative shibboleths and stereotypes. We are certainly less formal and obviously hierarchical than often before (although maybe old hierarchies have simply been replaced by new ones). In any case, In Pursuit shows there have always been some who fled from rather than pursued the à la mode, and others who were left outside The Pale through no choice of their own. Today’s narcissists were prefigured by the Cynics, nostalgie de la boue, and aristocrats pretending to be plebeian – while old racial and social caricatures have simply been replaced. Yesterday’s ‘boors’, ‘churls’ and ‘clowns’ are today’s football fans, Trump voters and Brexit-supporters. Former ‘savages’ are now ‘unspoilt’ – and the ‘barbarous Moors’ of yore are now tolerant multiculturalists. Once world-beating ‘European civilisation’ is now picked up in morality’s tweezers for sniffy examination, before being resigned as ideological invention designed for exploitative and hateful purposes. Autre temps, autres mœurs.

In 1748, Montesquieu wrote – ‘the more people there are in a nation…who need to deal with each other and not cause displeasure, the more politeness there is.’ It follows that the more these more plentiful people diverge in culture and outlook, the more complex and forced the forms of the new politeness – increasingly literally forced by governments. Montesquieu was righter than he realised when he referred to civilised nations as un peuple policé. Countless painfully-won semi-consensuses about civility, morality and society are now being cast up constantly into the stratosphere in a mania of experimentation for experimentation’s sake. But rather than being liberated, we may instead be becoming excessively refined.

This review first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission