Friday 16 March 2018

Burlington Brookner

I owe my start in life as a writer to Benedict Nicolson, who was editor of the Burlington Magazine from the end of the War until his death in 1978.
Anita Brookner, 'Benedict Nicolson', Independent Magazine, 10 September 1994

Hearing that Anita Brookner, an all but unknown graduate student, was to be living in Paris, Nicolson 'mentioned that [she] might like to send him reviews of the major exhibitions'. It was, Brookner recalls, an amazing act of generosity. She looked forward to her monthly assignment, making herself known to dealers and collectors, tackling the 'dreadful Salon d'Automne with something like enthusiasm'. Her biggest cheque was for £19.

My copy of the Burlington Magazine dates from May 1962 and finds Brookner, then in her thirties, in London. (She seems to have migrated regularly between the Two Cities, rather like Emma in Leaving Home.)

At the Hazlitt Gallery she is predictably delighted and beguiled by an exhibition called 'Baroque and Rococo'. Immediately she gets to work critiquing a painting by Berchem, Allegory of the Seasons. The tone is learned, amused, ironic, the language a clever mix of the mandarin and the slightly demotic. Things are 'faintly adumbrated' and 'surprisingly overt', a lion is 'rather tame'. Do we hear the authentic Brookner voice, a little in embryo? Take this, of a Vernet View of Marseilles in another exhibition:
In the way that an imitation sometimes does better than the real thing, I found the steady margarine of this sunset more poignant than the careful golden ripples of the archetypal Claude that lies behind it.
The steady margarine... But what we probably also hear is the voice of the kind of patrician art critic into whose heady company a spell at the Burlington surely propelled the young Brookner.

And Miss Brookner reveals her alliances most strongly when viewing a show called 'British Painting and Sculpture Today and Yesterday'. She advises the visitor to seek instruction beforehand in a recent 'B.B.C.' (how antique, those full stops) television programme Monitor a few weeks back, 'Pop goes the Easel', which showed 'young painters having themselves a wonderful time round the rifle ranges, pin-tables, and sex magazines of their native Shepherds Bush': one might as well congratulate a child on its first piece of knitting, she adds. One Peter Phillips 'simply copies in paint the kind of crude device one occasionally sees bobbing between the shoulder blades of a bogus leather jacket'. Plainly this won't do; plainly this doesn't pass Brooknerian muster. But fortunately Miss Brookner is on hand to suggest other places one might 'like to take the young people'.

She was only thirty-four. But this was, we must remember, 1962.


  1. Hello. Good evening. I've enjoyed catching up with your latest posts in the Brooknerian's world this evening after being away for a few days of reading lightweight middlebrow fiction, which Miss Brookner would definitely not approve, by D. E. Stevenson.

    I am glad to see that you have found Brookner's exhibition reviews and articles in The Burlington Magazine. It was The Burlington Magazine where I was first subjected to the full force of her superb style and lucidity in her writing. It was the time when I did not realise that she also wrote novels. Although she admitted in 'Paris Review' that she did not pay too much attention on the style, her perfectly crafted sentences in these art criticisms, each reflecting and illuminating the other speak for themselves.

    Art writing is an art form itself. There are a few practitioners in this field and Brookner is definitely one of them. Her tone is less formal in the exhibition reviews (they are generally shorter articles appear on the last pages of the magazine). I remember her beautiful description of fountain, outside one of the galleries she went to visit in France in the magazine, which to me almost Proustian.

    She wrote when she was reviewing T. J. Clark's book on Poussin - a series of diary entries, recording minute details of his observation day after day at the gallery on two paintings by Poussin and the book is entitled: "The Sight of Death" in The Spectator:

    "The classical term for the description of a work of art is ekphrasis, or transliteration. In the 17th and 18th centuries this was considered almost a work of art in its own right: ut pictura poesis erit."

  2. Thank you again for recommending AB's Burlington articles. There is much to discover and enjoy. I too have wondered at her comment in the PR about her not being aware of having a style, though the remark is explained in some measure by these early articles, where the style is already confident.


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