Sunday, January 21, 2007


Much Depends on Pie

A fascinating Guardian blog post on forgotten authors has elicited a wonderfully wide range of reader responses -- they are remarkably free of Viagra offers -- and I was delighted to see a vote from a reader in Guatemala for John T Smith, the supremely bitchy Georgian-era biographer profiled in my Believer piece The Hatchet Man. Smith was most famous for his vindictive biography of his mentor, the sculptor Joseph Nollekens, but he also had an extraordinary eye for detail and for the telling anecdote:

Upon learning that some murals newly discovered behind wainscoting at Westminster were being pulled down by remodelers, Smith began showing up there at dawn every day. Nobody else had paid much attention to the murals: nobody cared about something so ordinary. But Smith hurriedly drew newly exposed bits of mural each day before workmen came in at 9 a.m. to wreck the very work that he had just captured on paper.

Yet that sort of speed is vital in art. The quiet concentration typically needed to create a finished piece hides the fact that quick reflexes are crucial to superior artistry. There is a talent in suddenly stopping to capture the brilliant flash of the mundane. Smith recalled how engraver William Hogarth, in the middle of getting lathered at Joseph Watkin's barbershop on Tottenham Court Road, observed a boy out on the sidewalk setting down a hot meat pie too hard upon a wooden hitching post: the plate shattered, sending gravy running down the sides of the post. Hogarth sat up, and then with his head still lathered he bolted over to the barbershop window, comically intent on sketching the steaming mess outside. If someone were to ask me to describe the actual work of aesthetic observation, I might simply point to Hogarth and that smashed plate of pie: it is as true a précis of the artistic mind as the day Smith recorded it.

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