N.C. Wyeth


One of the good things about writing down your thoughts in a blog instead of letting them whirl endlessly round in your head, never coming to a conclusion, is that once they are fixed and pinned down you can think about them some more and alter any bits that down ring true. Academics who write books don’t have this luxury and have to get things right first time (hopefully they have done all their thinking before the MS goes to print). 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. After re-reading a post I often revise it or sometimes even delete it if it reads poorly or just doesn’t seem true.


A week ago I wrote a post about art and how I can’t see the point of most of it. I conceded that one or two artists and their paintings seemed less pointless to me than others. One of those was N.C. Wyeth and that prompted me to look more closely at his paintings to try to find out what it was about them that I liked. I then bought 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 lucrative work and no art-for-art’s-sake painter could have earned as much as Wyeth did from these commissions. Yet as time went on he wanted to be seen as a 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 in some creatively God-awful direction of interest only to themselves. One exception to this general trend was one of my favourite pop group’s from the 1980’s, Talk Talk, whose trajectory was rather like that of the Beatles: pretty simple pop to begin with, an interesting middle stage that included The Colour of Spring and the sometimes haunting sometimes 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 to regain a sense of the colour and romance that life can have then I advise you to look through a book of his illustrations. Just a scene of two sailors playing cards in a darkened room with the sun shining through a small window gives you a feeling of the 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 the blind bloke feeling about his hat that’s lying 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 evening 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 looks cosy and inviting. But then I come to my senses and think that for the person sitting there alone, perhaps reading some DIY magazine, there is probably no sense of cosiness, romance or beauty. For them it is just another evening in. And yes, I know, I shouldn’t look in other people’s windows.


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 apparently even for many young Japanese women, not even Disney is too cutesy. My own threshold is much lower. Norman Rockwell’s pictures are just too nice for me. And even though I like most of N.C. Wyeth’s paintings, 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: adding that eagle was a mistake. Just that mysterious man on a bare, windswept peak would have been enough. Still, he usually does a fine job of showing me how surprisingly beautiful life can sometimes be.

Is there an artist today who could make me see 21st century Britain with new eyes? Not that I know of. Today as I walked down the main street of my village, full of old people on mobility scooters, charity shops and delivery drivers it all looked very grey and flat to me. Maybe a shot of oxytocin would cause me to take a second look. Or I need an artist able to turn mobility scooters and charity shops into something arresting.

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