Sir Joshua and the Tumbling Walls

by Theodore Dalrymple (June 2015)

The association of ideas is itself an idea that has fallen into comparative desuetude of late because of its supposed lack of explanatory power, but it still seems to me useful as a way of describing how one idea evokes another. Certainly I seem very rarely to read a book nowadays without it calling forth in my mind memories or other kinds of associations: perhaps this is merely testimony to the length of my life, or alternatively to my choice of reading matter.

When I picked up a book, then, of Sir Joshua Reynolds’ previously unpublished writings (previous, that is, to 1952), I thought back to my days as a student when I attended a lecture by a (then) famous art historian, whose name I shall protect from obloquy by not mentioning it, in which he said that Reynolds was a shallow, vulgar painter, a remark that struck me, despite the prissy fastidious curl of the lip with which it was delivered, as itself rather shallow and vulgar. I am an admirer of Reynolds both as a painter and a man; and at their best his portraits penetrated the complex and deep character of their subjects. His portraits of Samuel Johnson, for example, whom he loved and admired above all men, are reverent without flattery. He does not try to make Johnson a handsome man, but he makes him what he was, a remarkable one. If Reynolds did not work always at his best (he was, after all, very prolific), I remember Somerset Maugham’s dictum that only a very mediocre writer is always at his best.

In this book, Portraits, Reynolds shows that it was no accident that his portraits penetrated the character as well as they represented the physical appearance of his sitters. The book contains three character sketches in words of three of the great men of his time, Oliver Goldsmith, Doctor Johnson and David Garrick. These character sketches were not intended for publication, that of Doctor Johnson having been for the private use of James Boswell in writing his great Life; but though never revised, they are still worth reading because Reynolds had caught the habit of writing and thinking well from Johnson himself, at whose feet he had sat and of whom he wrote, very acutely:

Another circumstance… contributed not a little to the powers which he had of expressing himself, which was a rule… of always on every occasion speaking his best, whether the person to whom he addressed himself was or was not capable of comprehending him… Dr. Johnson, by this continued practice, made that a habit which was at first an exertion…

When a young philosopher asked me how he could learn to write clearly, I told him to develop the habit of thinking in aphorisms. 

One of the most remarkable things about Reynolds’ character sketch of Johnson is the clarity with which he draws attention to his great friend’s faults and defects. Among them were rudeness (tempered by a readiness to apologise) and a tendency ‘to entertain prejudices on very slight foundation, giving an opinion perhaps first at random, but from its being contradicted he thinks himself obliged always stubbornly to support – or if he could not support, still not to acquiesce.’ This is a fault which I have myself, and perhaps is more commonly distributed than its opposite virtues, an unwillingness to express an opinion when ignorant of the subject, and a corresponding willingness to accept correction in the light of further facts and logic. I suspect, however, that a man who had those virtues to the very highest degree would never find his Boswell, nor need him. It is perhaps fortunate that there are more talkers for victory than for truth, or else conversation would be mostly silenced.

‘You will wonder,’ writes Reynolds, ‘to hear a person who loved him so sincerely speak thus freely of his friend, but you must recollect I am not writing his panegyric, but as if on oath not only to give the truth but the whole truth.’ Is this not admirable? The praise of such a man is worth that of a thousand hagiographers or a million flatterers.

Reynolds knew the actor of European celebrity, David Garrick, well, but did not like him, even though he had great charm. And Reynolds had the capacity to damn succinctly:

Great as Garrick was on the stage, he was at least equal if not superior at the table [at a dinner party], and here he had too much the same habit of preparing himself, as if he was to act a principal part.

In other words, he was never truly himself, there was no self to be true to.

Garrick’s greatest fault – and Reynolds’ words carry the conviction of a man who was not only perceptive but unusually honest – was his avidity for fame and superficial triumph. When he went into company he arranged always to be called out as if he were wanted somewhere else, just to create an impression of being important and in demand; and Reynolds’ remarks on the vanity of celebrity are more than ever apt when in an age when for many it is the only thing worth having:

Garrick… died without a friend; so did Lord Chesterfield. The moral to be drawn from their lives is this: that this passion for fame, however proper when within due bounds as a link in the social chain, as a spur to our exertions to acquire and deserve the affections of our brethren, yet when this passion is carried to excess, like every other excess it becomes a vice, either ridiculous, or odious, or sometimes criminal. An inordinate desire for fame produces an entire neglect of their old friends, or we may rather say they never have any friends; their whole desire and ambition is centred in extending their reputation by showing their tricks before fresh new men. That moment you begin to congratulate yourself on your new acquaintance, your intimacy ceases. A worse consequence: by degrees all the principles of right and wrong, whatever dignifies human nature, is lost, or not attended to when in competition with the shadow of fame. They begin to grow short-sighted and seize with such greediness the immediate gratification that they forfeit every title to what is truly praiseworthy, steadiness of conduct. From having no general principle they live in perpetual anxiety what conduct to take on every occasion to insure this petty praise.      

Perhaps this explains the propensity of modern celebrities to adopt political causes: they are in search of the ‘general principle’ that Reynolds says that they lack; but by adopting such a cause (always one that puts them on the side of the unthinking angels) they find a ‘general principle’ without having to change their conduct. Indeed, with proper public relation, they can make the cause they adopt serve their fame.

I read Reynolds’ character sketch of Oliver Goldsmith with a degree of dismay and even pain, for Goldsmith’s abiding vice (he had many virtues also) reminded me forcefully of my father.

It must be confessed – wrote Reynolds – that whoever excelled in any art or science, however remote from [Goldsmith’s] own, was sure to be considered by him as a rival. It was sufficient that he was an object of praise, as if he thought that the world had but a certain quantity of that commodity to give away, and what was bestowed upon others made less come to his share.

That was an exact depiction of my father’s jealousy of praise, with the result that I never heard him unreservedly praise anyone (with the exception of his teachers fifty, sixty, or seventy years earlier); what started as praise in his mouth ended up as adverse criticism, so many qualification and derogations did he append. This inability to praise others sincerely or unreservedly was, in fact, an obstacle to the achievements which his great gifts might otherwise have led: for so great was his jealousy of praise that I think that he could not properly recognise the merits of others even in the privacy of his own mind. This meant that he could not co-operate with gifted, intelligent or worthy men: and such co-operation is necessary to success because no man is an island. I learnt from my father, what he never intended me to learn, that character was at least as important in success as ability.

Goldsmith’s attempted hoarding of praise unto himself, however, was counteracted by his virtues. Of it, Reynolds – himself a very tolerant man - said:

It was so far from being of that black malignant kind which excites hatred and disgust that it was, from being so artless and obvious, only ridiculous.

It astonished me how the off-scourings of Reynolds’ pen could be of such contemporary relevance. There is a previously unpublished essay in the book, an ironical discourse on art, that I would distribute by the thousand in the art schools of the west, whose main purpose, it seems to me, is to corrupt youth, or that pert of it with artistic leanings. Perhaps, in distributing it, it would be advisable to attach a commentary to it, for what Sir Joshua was satirising were the very attitudes and beliefs that have become an orthodoxy in the world of art-schools. Here is a little bit of Sir Joshua’s satire:

Genius, as it disdains all assistance, so it defies all obstacles. The student here may inform himself whether he has been favoured by heaven with this truly divine gift. If he finds it necessary to copy, to study the works of other painters, or any way to seek for help for himself, he may be sure that he has received nothing of that inspiration… Let the student consider with himself whether he is impelled forward by irresistible instinct. He himself is little more than a machine, unconscious of the power which impels him forward to the instant performance of what others learn by the slow methods of rules and precepts.

Reynolds could have been writing of present-day art schools. His next words are as if engraved over their entrance, as the injunction to know thyself was inscribed at the entrance to the Delphic Temple of Apollo:

What is the use of rules, but to cramp and fetter genius?

Reynolds continues:

The rules which dull men have introduced into liberal arts smother that flame which would otherwise blaze out in originality of invention.

This is the attitude of the art schools to a T, which imbue their students with the gratifying notion that originality unhindered by the weight or chains of the past is the highest goal at which they can aim, in the achievement of which ignorance will be a positive aid to them, and which explains why the exhibits in the graduating exhibitions of modern art schools almost always resemble the productions of kindergartens: rare is the talent that can survive an art school education, if education rather than indoctrination is what it deserves to be called. In satirising the romantic notion of untutored genius, Sir Joshua proved himself prescient; and he would not have been surprised by the results when art schools took his satire not as a warning but as a blueprint.

In his Sixth Discourse, Sir Joshua wrote:

To derive all from native power, to owe nothing to another, is the praise which men who do not much think on what they are saying bestow upon others, and sometimes on themselves: and their imaginary dignity is heightened by a supercilious censure of the low, the barren, the grovelling, the servile imitator.

It would be no surprise, he continued, if the student, ‘frightened by these terrific and disgraceful epithets, should let fall his pencil… and consider it as hopeless to set about acquiring by the imitation of any human master what he is taught to suppose is a matter of inspiration from heaven.’ 

Reynolds diagnosed, if he did not foresee, the sickness of much of the modern aesthetic (if aesthetic is quite the word for it). He knew that, if even Homer nodded, even Mozart laboured.




Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Threats of Pain and Ruin from New English Review Press. His next book, Out Into the Beautiful World, will be published in August.

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