Tuesday, June 2, 2009

John Russell

Thank you (3)

I don’t keep up with the obituaries enough these days, so was saddened recently to read about the death of the art critic John Russell in August 2008. John Russell was born in 1919, went to St Paul's School and Magdalen College, Oxford, and in 1940 went to work as an unpaid ‘attaché’ at the Tate Gallery. The gallery’s pictures and staff were evacuated to Worcestershire soon after Russell arrived, and the young man soon found himself called up, first to the Ministry of Information and then to Naval Intelligence, where he met Ian Fleming.

Russell’s time in Worcestershire must have helped him write his first book, Shakespeare’s Country, for Batsford. His encounter with the creator of James Bond bore fruit after the war, when Fleming introduced him to the Sunday Times, where Russell became Art Critic in 1949. In 1974 he moved to the USA, to work for the New York Times, which he did for many years. He did many other things too, curating exhibitions, writing books (including excellent ones on Seurat and Francis Bacon), and writing for television and film.

I first read John Russell in the Sunday Times in the late 1960s where, week by week, he introduced me to modern art – big beasts like Moore and Bacon, younger artists such as Hockney and Hodgkin. I also read Shakespeare’s Country, because I lived on the edge of it. At first I didn’t realise it was by the man I was reading in the paper every week – the book seemed backward-looking whereas the weekly art reviews presented the new with all its shocks. But then the books of regional travel and history that Batsford published during the Second World War were precisely designed to look back in order to remind people what they were fighting for. At the Sunday Times Russell was engaging in different kinds of looking – whether casting backward glances at the career of Picasso or assessments of everything from Pop Art to Joseph Beuys. Most of his writing, though, was thoughtful, insightful, and appreciative – he liked best to write about what he best liked.

When I first read Shakespeare’s Country, I found the writing rather mannered: the book has a tendency to compare places in England to more glamorous ones overseas, so that the countryside resembles the Italian campagna or a town is like Auteuil. But such comparisons are meant to reassure the 1940s reader that the short journeys then possible could yield pleasures equal to those of grander continental tourism. And I was grateful to be introduced to such pleasures - the isolated church at Strensham, for example, with its chancel full of monuments,romantic and deserted country houses, the backstreets of faded, elegant Cheltenham. It is the territory, of course, of this blog. I came to see too that Russell's style was not always mannered, and that he was at pains to show that writing about places and buildings, though it might look back, did not have to be deadeningly nostalgic, or wallowingly indulgent; that it could embody precision, and impart interesting and useful information. That it could be the result of interested enquiry and that it could provoke further enquiry in the reader. And that it did not have to be, as Russell himself put it, reliant on ‘the strange sexual-anthropomorphic idiom of English country-writers, in which villages nestle, valleys girdle, and rivers are said to have issue’.

And so it was that John Russell fired my growing interest in buildings – their history and context as well as their architecture, starting balls rolling that are still in motion. And that he also helped me to find what I could like in art, and how I might understand it. And above all that criticism isn’t always about, or even primarily about, demolishing things – it can also be about taking them apart to show how they work and why you like them.

For starting me off, and keeping me going, thank you, John Russell.


Thud said...

I shall make a point of looking for the book.

Peter Ashley said...

Odd to think that a writer of one of those remarkable Batsford books was with us until so recently.

martin said...

Being an occasional collector of the Batsford Face of Britain series,I have a copy of Shakespeare's Country which I freely admit to not having read.
My main motive for collecting the series had more to do with the Brian Cook dustjackets than the actual contents. However,your post has shifted my perception considerably,and I shall be making further investigation.

Thud said...

just arrived, 99p on ebay...on first glance it looks rather good.