EssaysWeekend

The Crafting of an Art Critic

How did I learn to judge between one work and another? By looking and reading and looking and reading and looking.

A family photograph of Coningsby Road, the author’s childhood home, from his memoir “Playing Out in the Wireless Days,” published in 2017 (image courtesy1889 Books)

This is the story of how one man fell into the role of an art critic in London, found it congenial, and just kept on keeping on.

Life is a pleasurable game of serendipity. The wind blows you to the left. The wind blows you to the right. You act. You spectate. You act a bit more.

I grew up in a fairly poor district of northeast Sheffield in South Yorkshire, a bluff, straight-talking, working-class city famous for its steel-making and its cutlery, a city which had rolled out the steel flanks of warships in its heyday, which was not quite my day. I was born a little too late for all that jingoistic razzmatazz.

The low-slung, brick Victorian-era row house where I grew up had two bedrooms upstairs and two small downstairs rooms for six of us to share. It was a squeeze. One downstairs room was hot: the kitchen, where a fire blazed up inside a black, cast-iron range, and everything else happened too. The other was cold: the front room, kept for best, which was seldom used.

Outside the kitchen window there was a macadamed yard, held in common by four houses and four families, with four outside lavatories. All very hygienic, you understand, because the wind whistled up through the crack beneath the door. All four families lived hugger-mugger. It was a marvelous childhood, the best I could ever imagine. It was the only childhood I ever knew.

Being bookish and dutiful, I attended the local grammar school, and was fortunate to be taught by a poet, who changed my life. At home, words were sloppily hurled, blunt weapons. From the mouth of my teacher, words came well-honed and well-used and in a very particular order, with delicate spicings of irony. Mesmerizing.

I determined to be a writer. I filled notebook after notebook with untutored, soulful outpourings of poetry. It was wretched, unstoppable. My poet-teacher liked me, saw something in me, and introduced me to many dead writers whose words caught fire inside. He suggested I apply to Cambridge University. None of my family had ever attended a university. The interview was a catastrophe. I was tongue-tied. The entrance exam, where silence and self-communing presided, was possible.

William Blake, “The Ghost of a Flea” (c.1819-20), tempera heightened with gold leaf on mahogany panel, 8.4 x 6.2 inches; Tate Britain; Bequeathed by W. Graham Robertson 1949 (Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

I hated Cambridge. It was too toffee-nosed. The climate was terrible. The land was a flat monotone. I sorely missed the bucking and rearing hills of Sheffield. Two things were important about it. I made fast friends. I discovered yet more books and writers.

I still wanted to be a writer. I wrote short, gnomic, barely intelligible poems. I graduated. I became an editor in London. That was good: I was still working with words, pushing them around, recognizing how it is so often the editor, that undersung hero, who turns the author into a memorable, praiseworthy craftsman.

Twelve years into the office routine, I threw it all in to become a writer full-time. I reviewed books and yet more books. I wrote novels and collections of poetry, one after another after another. I received enough rejection slips to wallpaper a small row house in northeast Sheffield. I worked as a reviewer for small magazines, larger magazines, and then newspapers. I was mainly writing about literary matters: reviewing poetry, biographies, novels, etc.

By this time, I had married an artist….

So let’s talk a little bit about art at last. Was there much art in Sheffield? Some, yes, but none at home. My mother had once had dreams of going to art school — she once showed me competent drawings of some horses on the run — but she was needed at home to look after the house. She left school at 14. She never drew in my lifetime.

There was one book in a damp cupboard in that cold front room. It was large, maroon, and it contained Victorian prints. A retirement gift to my great-grandfather, who had distributed newspapers by horse and cart for Sheffield Newspapers. I would get it out from time to time to sniff at its edges because the reek of damp intrigued me.

John Ruskin, “Study of a Peacock’s Breast Feather” (1873), watercolor on paper; Ruskin Collection, Collection of the Guild of St George, Museums Sheffield (image courtesy Museums Sheffield)

Fortunately, the Victorian art critic John Ruskin had done Sheffield a great favor. His plan to open museums for the working man in the English regions had borne fruit in a small way. A museum had been created in Sheffield, in a cottage, in the 1870s. The collection itself was from Ruskin’s own — prints, paintings, books, minerals. By the time I was growing up, little of that collection was still in Sheffield. But that little was more than enough for me.

As a teenager, I would travel into town, again and again, to look at a drawing of a peacock’s feather by Ruskin himself at the Mappin Art Gallery. I had never seen such a thing. I had never believed that a mere feather could be so interesting. It was so small and so meticulously rendered. And such colors! Such blues! Painted in the hues of heaven, as it was later described. I count that feeling of wonderment in front of a peacock’s tail feather as my introduction to art and everything that it would come to mean to me.

My enthusiasm continued for years as a passive enjoyment. As a writer, critic, and reviewer, I consumed, and was consumed by, books of poetry, fiction, biography, literary criticism. I was using words to describe words.

I attribute my next step in the direction of art criticism to two factors: the extraordinary richness of the art to be seen in the great galleries of London, and the influence of my wife, the artist Ruth Dupré. She is a multimedia artist who has swum over the years through one discipline after another — ceramics, painting, prints, film.

As I looked at her work, I would think to myself: what words would I use if I were to be invited to describe this work of art? In front of paintings in the National Gallery, the question might refine itself: what six adjectives would I deploy if someone were to challenge me to describe this painting by Fra Angelico? I would then think of some apt words, and walk away.

Giovanni Bellini, “Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan” (1501), oil on panel, 62 x 45 cm; National Gallery, London (image via Web Gallery of Art)

The beginning occurred in the office of the Arts Editor of the Financial Times on a weekday morning about 30 years ago. I had been thinking to myself: I have learnt how to describe poems. Could it be more difficult to describe how a painting works on us?

Perhaps not. I decided to pluck up the courage. I turned to the editor and remarked, as casually as possible, that I was about to spend a couple of weeks in Lausanne in Switzerland. A Jean-Michel Basquiat show was newly opened over there. Could I write about it by any chance? Why not? he replied, without even looking at me. The piece was written and published. No one said anything about it. It was fine. I was on my way.

I have been writing about art ever since. What is it to be a practicing art critic? What have I learned? As a writer for newspapers, I had to accept from the start that my readers would have no specialized knowledge of what I was describing, not necessarily. My task would be two-fold then: to make the reader see what I had seen, and to judge its quality.

No writer can expect to be read. He or she has to earn that right. I saw it as my task to write vividly, simply, clearly, companionably, and perhaps with a few dibs and dabs of humor — so that the reader would feel compelled to read on. No obscurantism. No dictionary words. Wrestle hermeneutics into the bathtub and hold it down for as long as it takes.

How did I learn to judge between one work and another? By looking and reading and looking and reading and looking. It is not a matter of mere subjectivity. You acquire the skill to transmit your excitement before a work, feel its pulse, recognize why it comes alive, pinpoint the source of its visual allure.

I developed a simple test: if a work of art is worth contemplating for 10 seconds, it stands a chance. I learned on the job, year after year. I learned to satisfy the demands of a news desk by writing at breakneck speed — a nerve-wracking matter, because your words will be mauled over forever. Mistakes, stupidities, reckless generalizations will be shouted from the rooftops and never forgotten.

It continues to be worth it. A personal, one-on-one encounter with a work of art of some moment is a thrilling experience, a thunderclap, and it is an experience that immediately demands to be shared.

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