In his poignant piece on the railway hobby Ian Jack doesn’t mention ‘bashing’ (LRB, 7 January). I was introduced to this hardcore subset of trainspotting by a staff member at Ian Allan’s when I was researching an article for Maxim in 1994. He put me in touch with two bashers (trainspotters who consider a train collected only when it’s been travelled on: ‘I’ve had that one haulage’). The photographer Anthony Cullen and I met Brian and Simon (notebooks, anoraks, Marmite sandwiches, a holdall full of Carling Black Label) at Waterloo and took one of the first ever Eurostars to Paris for an exhilarating, exhausting weekend chasing trains as far as Erstfeld on the Swiss-Italian border, clocking the rare double-headed re/66s, sprinting between platforms, sleeping in ten-minute snatches and taking some forty trains in a day. I have no idea if the hobby persists: 27 years ago the bashers were worrying what the privatisation of British Rail would do to their freedom of movement at home, but they took it for granted that they would have the run of the European railways for ever and a day.
In her essay on black models in Amsterdam and London, Esther Chadwick writes (LRB, 7 January) that
when Joshua Reynolds recorded studio sittings for his portrait of Elizabeth Keppel (c.1762), he listed eight appointments with Keppel and two morning sessions with the woman of African heritage who in the picture supplies a garland for the shrine of Hymen. In place of this woman’s name, Reynolds wrote, simply, and with not so much as an article, ‘negro’. For us, looking at the portrait now, this single word in the sitter-book confirms her image, exoticised and compositionally subservient though it is, as the trace of a presence, a life. At the same time, those five letters stand for all the dismissals and injuries that the racism of British imperialism has so casually and economically administered.
The ‘negro’ child – she looks pubescent – is one of Reynolds’s most beautiful, dynamic and innovative creations. Astonishingly, her brown skin colour is shared by the marble Term of Hymen that looms over the composition. She sets the tone, and is an emblem of purity, youth, strength, health, fertility. She’s no more exotic than anyone else. In his later portrait, from 1773, of the three Irish Montgomery sisters adorning a Term of Hymen, the youngest sister, aged around 16, performs the black girl’s role. Reynolds found many of his child models in Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square), where he lived. They are never named. Puck was painted ‘from a little child he found sitting on his steps’; one of his favourite models (The Schoolboy) was an orphan ‘beggar boy’ who made and hawked cabbage nets. When he painted Count Hugolino and His Children in the Dungeon (1770-73), Reynolds’s work diary records sittings for ‘child’, ‘Beggar child’, ‘Beggar’, ‘Hugolino Boy’. The designation ‘negro’ is in the same vein. Incidentally, when portraits were exhibited at the Royal Academy or the Society of Artists, the sitter was not named (instead the pictures were entitled ‘Portrait of a Lady’ etc) with the exception of Reynolds’s famous portrait of a Polynesian – Omiah: Whole-Length (1776).
Reynolds, the workaholic son of a Devon schoolteacher, belonged to a cultural and intellectual meritocracy. Race and even class were of little importance. His best friend was another poor but brilliant provincial, Samuel Johnson. Johnson had a facial disfigurement and Tourette’s, and was socially awkward. He had a Jamaican servant, Francis Barber, whom he adored and made his principal heir, leaving him money as well as his books and papers. Reynolds had a liveried black footman who is probably the sitter for one of his most vibrant and dignified head studies, though some believe it to be of Barber (c.1770). The head was copied many times by students. In 1773 Reynolds and his sister, who was a miniaturist, painted portraits of the moral philosopher James Beattie and became friendly with him. Beattie is celebrated for his passionate denunciation of slavery and eloquent refutation of David Hume’s white supremacist beliefs. Finally, Reynolds was actively involved in the establishment of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. In his history of the abolitionist movement, Thomas Clarkson describes a dinner party held at the house of Reynolds’s old friend Bennet Langton at which ‘Sir Joshua Reynolds gave his unqualified approbation of the abolition of this cruel traffic.’
It is essential that black lives are rediscovered by historians, just as the lives of white women and the poor have been. But judgments need to be made with subtlety, humility and perspective. The condescension of posterity risks turning huge swathes of the past into Dark Ages.
‘The end of the world has always been nigh,’ Nick Richardson writes (LRB, 7 January). ‘The ancient Assyrians, nearly five thousand years ago, expected it to arrive any minute.’ That date is a little early for Assyrian culture, which began around the 19th century BCE. The Neo-Assyrian empire, which most people have in mind when they say ‘the ancient Assyrians’, began a thousand years after that.
In fact neither the Assyrians nor their cultural cousins the Babylonians had any great interest in apocalypses. They did have tales of global destruction – such as the Flood (Atra-Hasis), the war god’s global rampage (Erra) and the cosmic battle that created the world (Enuma Elish) – but these were all set in the distant past, not the near future. One reason for this eschatological dearth is that the scholars of ancient Iraq were more concerned with divining the gods’ intentions and swaying them for the benefit of humankind. Any certainty about the apocalyptic future would have denied humans the chance to sweet-talk the gods into changing their minds. It isn’t that englobing disaster was thought impossible – after all, it had happened before – but that it must be predicted and averted. In the age of climate crisis, we have something to learn from the Assyrians.
Rosemary Hill writes of Barbara Amiel’s fury at having her words taken at face value by Bill Deedes: ‘She had simply dealt the wrong card. She played little-girl-seeking-approval-and-reassurance and he countered with taking-you-seriously’ (LRB, 17 December 2020). As I saw when I interviewed her some years ago, Amiel had more than one card, or mask. When we were done, Amiel, clearly worried about what I would write, became chummy and cheerful, dangling an invitation and hinting at friendship. When she saw this wasn’t getting her anywhere, she went into the helpless-child routine. When this got no response either, out came the knives: if there was anything defamatory in my article, she said (the voice had lost its breathiness and dropped half an octave), her libel lawyer would be on the case.
David A. Bell writes of Nelson’s triumph in the Battle of Trafalgar (LRB, 3 December 2020). Nelson’s tactics – precipitous attack in two columns – were indeed revolutionary, but they were also inherently dangerous, as they exposed the leading Royal Navy ships to the concentrated fire of the enemy line, to which they could not reply. The poor handling of the Franco-Spanish ships actually increased the danger, as their line had become doubled, increasing the concentration of guns. In the words of an unknown officer who witnessed Trafalgar (probably from Conqueror): ‘Victory, Téméraire, Sovereign, Belleisle, Mars, Colossus and Bellerophon were placed in such situations in the onset, that nothing but the most heroic gallantry and practical skill at their guns could have extricated them.’
Joseph Conrad, from personal experience of the winds around Cape Trafalgar, concluded that Nelson had placed the British fleet where it might well have been becalmed under fire. Brian Tunstall pointed out long ago that when in 1816 the Admiralty issued a revised Book of Signals & Instructions it did not incorporate Nelson’s tactical approach. When in the middle of the 19th century navies began to acquire ironclad battleships Nelson’s tactics enjoyed a revival, and it was to lay the ghost of Trafalgar that in 1913 the Admiralty authorised its study of those tactics. In 1805 Nelson, like Admiral Jellicoe in 1916, was the one man who could have lost the war in an afternoon, and he very nearly did.
Fredericton, New Brunswick
Ben Walker’s article on William Smith’s great geological map of 1815 gives a fine impression of the visual impact of its dramatic colouring, which did an effective job at suggesting the layered structure of the rock formations beneath the soil and vegetation of England and Wales (LRB, 7 January). The map was the result of extensive fieldwork carried out over many years, most of it by Smith himself. It has rightly been celebrated by generations of geologists. But ever since its publication Smith’s map has been used by many Anglophones to support a chauvinistic interpretation of the history of the Earth sciences, according to which all the major advances in their formative period were owed to the British. To criticise this shouldn’t be a matter of scoring points, but of recognising the fundamentally international and collective character of scientific research.
Smith’s was not in fact ‘the first true geological map’, except by a definition formulated to make it so. It was just one of a diverse set of cartographical experiments in the late Enlightenment and subsequent decades which tried to depict in two dimensions on paper what in reality were solid structures in three dimensions extending into the depths of the Earth. Smith’s idiom was exceptionally vivid, but in an age when colours had to be added by hand, it was too expensive to be adopted generally. Modern geological maps have much closer forerunners in, for example, the map of Saxony (1778) published by Johann Charpentier, who taught at the mining school at Freiberg, or the map of the environs of Paris (1811) published jointly by the mineralogist Alexandre Brongniart, the director of Sèvres, and the zoologist Georges Cuvier, who taught at the great Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. These and many other such maps, often complemented – as Smith’s was – by vertical ‘sections’ depicting the inferred structure of the rocks at depth, have been described and analysed by modern historians of several nationalities, notably the late François Ellenberger, but their research seems not to be widely known to many authors writing on such topics in English.
Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire
Having been confronted by Henry Percy at Cawood Castle with an accusation of treason, and ordered to return to London, Cardinal Wolsey faced a trial and likely execution when he arrived – ‘disgrace and death’, as Alan Bennett puts it (LRB, 7 January). But he died en route, at Leicester, where he was buried, thus sparing himself public humiliation and his king the dubious distinction of beheading no fewer than three of his lord chancellors.
It was with considerable interest that I learned from Alan Bennett that Francis Kilvert had visited Bennett’s ‘sometime house’ – 23 Gloucester Crescent – on New Year’s Day 1882. As this would have been more than two years after the diarist’s death from peritonitis in September 1879 it speaks much for the resilience and hardihood of the Victorian clergy.
Old Windsor, Berkshire
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