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Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance.

Jenkyns, R., Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance. Pp. xviii + 363. London: HarperCollins, 1991. 20.00. [pounds].

THIS handsome and very readable book is strongly related to Richard Jenkyns's much-admired The Victorians and Ancient Greece (1980), a wide-ranging volume of which some chapters were evidently the starting-points for the much fuller treatment of the visual arts in the present work. As with the earlier title, the unity is that of a subdivided essay or |study' rather than of a comprehensive history. It concentrates, however, on the representative: Jenkyns is interested in traditions more than individual talents, so that his material is very eclectic (illustrations of vernacular shop frontages rub shoulders with Soane's banks and Burnet's galleries) and more major figures are treated primarily to identify in them the symptomatic. The coverage is wider than the title suggests in any case, since Jenkyns is properly concerned with the relation between the Gothic and Classical tastes in the period, and since (somewhat less justifiably) there is a chapter-long retrospective on the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. With the Victorians, paintin and architecture get about equal attention, while art criticism and sculpture are allotted scanter but still substantial treatment.

Though this is not a book a specialist might have written -- and Jenkyns happily admits to his lack of credentials in this respect -- Dignity and Decadence is as elegant a map of this extensive territory as anything else available. If some areas are merely sketched in, the forceful interpretations of others are compensation enough. If too many of the 250-odd illustrations are over-familiar, it is at least reassuring that Jenkyns judges the Victorian classicizers by their works and not their words; and though he makes many other concessions to the ill-informed the discussion is always much too lively to have any whiff of the potted about it. The scholarship, again, is not always minutely accurate; but this is because Jenkyns is keener on debating the big issues than on detail.

Some will find the writing occasionally irritating. Jenkyns's humour can be a trifle ponderous, though he manages a laconical wryness on, for instance, Leighton's Clytemnestra: |The best one can say for it is that it accurately conveys the impression that Agamemnom is in for a bad time when he gets back.' The no-nonsense dismissals of the sillier products of Victorian classicism are summary and just, but the brisk self-assurance of Jenkyns's writing means that even the best of his chosen paintings, sculptures, and buildings tend to be admitted only to clinch his points. He is never lost in wonder: he has always made up his mind -- some years ago, one guesses -- and seeks principally to make us see things his way (at times an over-narrow, but usually a perceptive and helpful way). Even on Leighton, rightly characterized at one point as an elusive figure for all his apparent straightforwardness, Jenkyns is a touch patronizing in his summary comments: |there is a dutiful seriousness about Leighton's Hellenism which we do not find in the other classical painters of the time, but even he cannot help letting a love of the narrative element in painting and a certain Victorian softness of sentiment steal into the scene'. Jenkyns is self-consciously hard on |softness of sentiment', and it is surprise that the escapism of Burne-Jones comes off so lightly, whilst Jenkyns's approval of much popular deference to |the classical', an attitude he finds |not merely false or superficial', is apt to have a slightly mollient effect on his own perceptions.

But Jenkyns's emphases lie ultimately on Victorian |middlebrow' and |highbrow' (his own terms) art and criticism. The so-called |Olympians' are relegated to the first category while Ruskin and Pater are the most considerable figures in the second (but Jenkyns's range of reference is so wide that few individuals occupy him for more than a page or two). Jenkyns's drift is here mostly revisionist not revolutionary, and discussions often include sentences like the following: |The early Victorian period is an age of earnestness, the late century an age of worldliness -- it is crude to stick these simple moral labels on whole generations, as we know, but there is a truth in them nonetheless.' Jenkyns eschews neither crudity nor subtlety when he has a point to make. Another characteristic sentence runs: |Is there not something hidden here, something unspoken?' This of the homoeroticism -- so often a feature of Victorian Hellenism -- latent in Pater's thought and specifically in the essays on Leonardo and Winckelmann; but similar questions are posed of many works throughout this book. Such questions are particulary important in this field because of the special forms of licence the Victorians allowed themselves in their classically inspired art, and in his answers to them -- sometimes tentative, sometimes fully persuasive -- Jenkyns's sensitivity as a critic triumphs over his lack of specialist expertise. His book, neither unduly taxing nor lightweight, is an attractive combination of the stimulating and the entertaining.
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Author:Gillespie, Stuart
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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