N.C. Wyeth


One of the good things about writing down your thoughts instead of just letting them whirl endlessly round in your head is that once they are on your blog you can think about them some more and perhaps see in what ways they don’t quite ring true. Academics who write books don’t have this luxury and have to get things right first time (hopefully they have done most of their thinking before the MS goes to the printers). Only a dozen people a day view my blog, which is just enough to keep me writing but not so many that I’m scared of making a fool of myself in public or can’t change my mind.


A week ago I wrote a post about art and how I can’t see the point of most of it. I conceded that there were one or two artists and paintings that seemed less pointless than others. One of those was N.C. Wyeth and that prompted me to look more closely at some of his paintings to find out what it was about them I liked. This in turn led to buying a book about him.

N.C. Wyeth was an illustrator of adventure books and children’s stories, like Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. This was very lucrative work and no pure painter could have earned as much as Wyeth did from these commissions. Yet as time went on he wanted to be seen as real artist, not just an illustrator of popular fiction.


As is often the case, I personally think his best works were the popular illustrations. It’s like pop groups who become successful enough to no longer need to pander to the low-brow tastes of their fans and then head off creatively in some God-awful direction of interest only to themselves. One exception to this general trend was the pop group Talk Talk, whose trajectory was rather like that of the Beatles: pretty simple pop to begin with, then an interesting middle stage that included The Colour of Spring and the sometimes haunting yet often boring Spirit of Eden before completely tipping over into unlistenability.


This morning, just before going out to buy the newspaper and some milk from the local shop, I spent half an hour skimming through some of N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations. If you need a sense of the colour and romance of life then look through a book of his illustrations. Just a scene of two sailors playing cards in a darkened room while the sun shines in through a small window gives you a feeling of the sheer drama of life.

Of course the past is always more romantic than the present, especially a past full of swashbuckling pirates, Mohicans and outlaws in pristine, ancient forests. And I’m sure to the characters depicted in the paintings things would have seemed a lot less romantic. I mean, where is the romance for a blind bloke looking for his hat in the road? What to us is romantic and even beautiful would, to Old Blind Pew, have seemed merely bloody annoying.


Occasionally when walking home in the dark I glance in at a window and see someone reading by the warm, orange-yellow glow of a lamp. Framed by the surrounding darkness it all looks very cosy, inviting and beautiful. But then I come to my senses and think that for the person sitting there alone, perhaps reading some DIY magazine, there is no sense of cosiness, romance or beauty. For them it is just another evening in. Of course neither one of us is either wrong or right. It is simply that things look very different from outside, where things are framed, to how they look from inside.


I suppose you could accuse N.C. Wyeth of prettifying the world and we all have a limit to how unreal and kitsch 006a picture can be before it turns us off rather than on. For most children, and even for many young Japanese women, not even Disney is too cutesy. My own threshold in such matters is higher. Norman Rockwell’s pictures are just too nice for me. And even though N.C. Wyeth’s ‘vision’ is right up my street, he does sometimes overstep the mark with pictures like the one on the right, which to me looks like the album cover of some 1970’s Prog Rock band. Even so, on the whole he does a fine job of showing me the romance, beauty and meaning in the lives of adventurous literary characters.

Is there an artist today who could do the same for 21st century Britain? You see, today as I walked down the main street of my village, full of old people on mobility scooters, charity shops, delivery drivers and a Romanian beggar, it all looked grey and flat to me. I want to see things with fresher but find I can’t. What I need is a shot of oxytocin to help me to see things as a smitten lover or doting mother might. Or like some traveller from a distant land or another time. As it is I feel like a camera, just passively recording what I see.

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