Until 12 years ago, the Courtauld Institute of Art, where I did my graduate study, was quartered in a Grade I listed (landmarked) neoclassical town house designed by Robert Adam at 20 Portman Square. Walls and ceilings dripped with multicolored stuccowork, a sweeping grand staircase filling the house’s central and defining drum (which students weren’t supposed to use, but I didn’t know that!), and frescoes by the greatest of the old mistresses, Angelica Kaufmann, who also had the distinction of being a young mistress of Goethe’s. The Courtauld moved when its lease ran out (property laws in England are still a bit feudal). Home House (pronounced “Hume” by those in the know) has now been sumptuously (and by and large sensitively) renovated to its former glory and converted into an exclusive club, called Home House (pronounced “Home,” and quite right, too; it’s egalitarian: Men and women of all ages and professions are equally welcome, dress as they like, and pay their $2,400 a year and the same initiation fee, which so far 2,000 bankers and media-types have). Anyhow, the Courtauld alumni society got together a reunion there last night, and it was quite a hoot, the Home-Hume controversy providing plenty of merriment all round.
On the guided tour last night, I had a moment of déjà vu in a now very posh bedroom suite with hand-painted Chinese wallpaper (lovingly restored) and a silver ceiling. I’d once had a “viva” (oral exam) in this very room, it and me in a shabbier state. The wonderful novelist Anita Brookner taught at the Institute, and one of her tasks was to comfort candidates waiting for this drilling, which she did with a maternal touch that belied her spinsterish persona. My antechamber was actually a disused 1930s bathroom now apparently favored by Madonna because of the astrological mosaic in the bathtub (she stays there at $800 a night sometimes while Lourdes takes a pricier suite next door). In a former incarnation Madonna’s tub might well have served the lavatorial needs of Sir Anthony Blunt, director of the institute (he lived above shop), keeper of the queen’s pictures, Poussin scholar, epitome of establishment connoisseurship, and—as it turned out—Soviet spy.
I ran into Blunt’s best-known protégé this morning, the ultra-camp and invariably vituperative critic Brian Sewell, a household name in England as he has become something of a TV celeb with his distinctive plummy accent. He was at the Chardin press view at the Royal Academy. He is actually very personable and has a sharp eye that is not exclusively put to the service of his wicked tongue. Of course, his first comment was that the paintings on display were “uneven,” his contrarian response to any old master thought to be unassailable (as Chardin is in my dizzied gaze). He reacted with some astonishment to my stated preference for the depictions of youths and children, pretty much writing them off. His insight into the exquisite portrait of a little boy spinning a top was that the red chalk protruding from an open drawer is a visual pun for a dog’s penis. The level of metaphor in Chardin I was responding to was somewhat more chaste: I love the way activities like blowing soap bubbles or constructing a house of cards, whatever the prim moralizing that would have been read into them by visitors to the 18th-century salon, can now be savored (misread, if you like) as metaphors for the act of painting itself. To allude to elusiveness, though, has to be false modesty on Chardin’s part, so exquisite is his touch, tone, muted color, and effortless-seeming composition.
Chardin’s first admirers had to pick his works out from salon walls groaning with rococo opulence and bombastic religious and classical subjects. My press-view experience was comparable: one moment I would be losing myself in Chardin’s private universe of silence, the next gossiping with colleagues I haven’t seen for ages. But some of it was good gossip. And in a few days I’ll meet up with an academician, the painter Leonard McComb, for the best treat in the business, a crack of dawn pre-public visit, just the two of us and these long dead washerwomen and even deader rabbits.