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This long pursuit

17 December 2016

sibyl_domenichinoEarlier this week I was lucky enough to catch a few minutes of Patrick Malahide’s mellifluous readings from Richard Holmes’s new book, This Long Pursuit. I immediately bought a copy, and can unequivocally recommend it. If you haven’t bought all your Christmas presents yet, it will do for almost anyone, whether grandparent or godchild. Most of all, make sure you buy one for yourself.

Holmes – not to be confused with the military historian – is the author of numerous biographies of figures from the Romantic era. I first came across him through his books on Coleridge (the first volume has a German eighteenth century pastel on the cover) which came out in 1989. All his books are intelligent, informative and highly readable, and this can be taken as a kind of anthology of some of the most fascinating passages in his writing (although in fact it is far more than that, being rather an exercise in metabiography). It is the perfect way to wean the public off the diet of biography as served today on innumerable television documentaries, where great lives are reduced to three-minute snippets containing an ambitious puff and a funny anecdote. If the producer permits another three minutes, it is given to another “expert” to repeat the formula: analysis or thought are banished without mercy, as one mustn’t frighten the horses. Instead the television documentary is dominated by the presenter who must be given an absurdly exaggerated attribute of the kind that used to be the preserve of the fictional detective: the Meerschaum can now resurface as a panama hat, a pair of hyperactive shoes or a suitcase (let us not mention the lady who cannot resist dressing up), each to dominate the screen to the exclusion of the subject matter – which is further squashed by the constant intrusion of inappropriate music.

So there should be a ready market for the six-hundred-pager. And Holmes, the arch-professional in his field, knows better than anyone how to do this properly. Foremost among his trade secrets – the rules for biography which he shares with us, making this book so compelling for those of us who labour at the same cliff faces – is the avoidance of the first person pronoun. But if the trick of the biographer is to gain your trust and get you to think that their account is the objective truth, this book is at its most brilliant in showing just what that can mean in different hands. Comparative biography even becomes an academic discipline in itself: the forensic analysis of earlier biographers’ approaches yields insights time and again that I won’t spoil.

Meticulous accuracy is another of Holmes’s hallmarks: woe betide the biographer whose unsure command of his facts undermines your confidence in his research. I came across only a handful of trivial errors, all in the chapter on Mme de Staël where perhaps Holmes’s footing is less secure: Goodden, one of de Staël’s recent biographers, has two ds; Chateaubriand has no circumflex (however tempted we may be to add one, as it “looks” right). More worryingly, Holmes responds to the common bafflement as to how his subject’s name is to be pronounced by telling us it is “style” – perhaps that too “sounds” right, but (in France, at least) it should be “[stal]”.

Holmes’s eye is surer, and there is a strong visual sense throughout. I don’t just mean his focus on Mme de Staël’s famous turbans (instead of thinking about Domenichino’s Sibyl, I couldn’t help wondering whether they had influenced Camilla Batmanghelidjh). Several of his subjects are artists, and two versions of La Tour’s pastel of Belle de Zuylen are reproduced in the context of a discussion of Geoffrey Scott’s biography of her. As for the claim that Sir Thomas Lawrence was producing pastel portraits at the age of five, that belongs perhaps more to the rainbow area than the granite in Virginia Woolf’s opposition between the facts that biographers need to balance against their tendency to flights of literary fancy.

Holmes favours the “footsteps” approach, visiting every physical location associated with his subject, and writes grippingly of what this means – or doesn’t mean, as in his encounter with Coleridge’s initials in a cave. Too often the biographer has been denied this luxury by the bulldozer. Even ardent Supreme Court groupies, who recently latched onto the rare moment of comic relief afforded by the discussion over the pronunciation of the name of a case on royal prerogative, will have been unable to visit Sir Polydor De Keyser’s Royal Hotel as it has been replaced by Unilever’s headquarters. But recent academic art history has usefully turned to the study of artists’ objects as a peg for biography, as for example Hannah Williams’s analysis of Lemoyne’s sword.

Of course Holmes, as a professional biographer, must choose his subjects with care if he is to make a living out of his trade. Statesmen, soldiers and writers have always been grist to the biographer’s mill; more recently the market for studies of neglected women has taken off. But even then there needs to be enough material to work on, particularly if they are to be the subject of a metabiographical analysis.

Holmes has little to say about the plight of the lexicographer, condemned to work with far less (sometimes no) information about his subjects. Here there are no choices to be made: any snippet, however trivial, must go in, in case something can be attached to it by future generations. Instead of reviewing forty recordings of a Beethoven symphony, we might have only a couple of bars scribbled on a torn sheet of paper to work with. And in place of reams of analysis from previous biographers, endless boxes of correspondence from which to select a phrase that provides an insight into our subject’s personality, a biographer of obscure portraitists often has little more to go on than a list of names of customers. Some painters may have been close to some of their subjects – I suspect such claims are often inflated by art historians and dealers anxious to puff spurious life into second rate canvases – but for the most part I think the relationship is frequently superficial. How much would you know about me if you could only talk to my tailor? (No one has a valet nowadays.) My dentist might have a few harder facts, but only extreme personalities (usually defective ones) leave useful records at this level: biography cannot depend on the discovery of petrosomatoglyphs.

So it can be tempting to retreat into the position that an artist requires no biographical study: the work must speak for itself. I don’t believe that; and however imperfectly we go about, and however deficient the ingredients at our disposal, Holmes’s book (and his whole œuvre) shows us just why this pursuit matters. An example to us all.

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From → Art history

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