Monday, November 22, 2010

A connection, and a little bit of hero worship

When, last week, I wrote about Henry McIlhenny, I didn't include this view of his green drawing room in Rittenhouse Square. I'm not sure what exactly my reasons were for not using it, but I remember that the Ingres portrait of the Comtesse de Tournon stirred a vague memory of reading something, somewhere, that connected to my theme of past weeks. A drawing rather than a painting - of an Englishman, I thought, and somewhere in one of my books.

I found it, this graphite portrait of Alexander Baillie, not of an Englishman but a Scot, in the same book, a catalogue of an exhibition about Ingres, as the portrait of Comtesse de Tournon.

Alexander Baillie, eldest child of a rich merchant with interests in Jamaica, met the man, the Norwegian Jørgen von Capellen Knudtzon, also the son of a rich merchant, with whom he was to spend the rest of his life, short of six months, when his boat rescued a group of people who had been shipwrecked. I remember the surprise and pleasure I felt ten years ago when I read the short essay accompanying the pencil portrait, for however liberated, and I use that word judiciously, gay life had become at the end of the twentieth-century, it was unusual to find such an open, uncomplicated acknowledgement of the love between two men.

There are other connections to be be made, of course, for both Baillie and Knudtzon had portrait busts carved by Bertel Thorvaldsen - Knudtzon and the sculptor were close friends - and with David Hockney who in his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters posited that artists such as Ingres used an optical device called a camera lucida as an aid when drawing. Hockney's theory, published ten years ago, remains interesting and because in some quarters it was thought he accused artists of cheating, it is much refuted. It's not something I care too much about, this bewailing of attacks on untouchables - for isn't it frequently so that the polemic of one generation becomes the orthodoxy of another? Years ago, it was said to me that I'd never met a sacred cow I didn't want to barbecue. At the time, I didn't know whether to feel proud or worried about being negatively critical so, typically, I did both. What I care about is that discourse remains humane - kindness and compassion being qualities missing from much discourse, political or otherwise, in the present day - as humane as the mention of the importance of these two men to each other.

And that was it, the connection - nothing more important than a synapse or two sparking at each other.

Alexander Baillie was also painted, as a child with his family, by Thomas Gainsborough.

Portrait of Alexander Baillie from Portraits by Ingres, Image of an Epoch, edited by Gary Tinterow and Philip Conisbee, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harry N Abrams, 1999.

Images of portrait busts from here.

Thomas Gainsborough painting courtesy The Tate Gallery


  1. I love Ingres portraits, they are so descriptive as well as being so stylish. All his sitters somehow look vaguely like very elegant rodents - you expect them to have tails peeping out from under the tailcoats :)

  2. It is as rare to read about love and fidelity rather than titillating serial affairs, as it is to speak of kindness and compassion in cases of critical judgment. It’s refreshing! Not that we can’t like both from time to time, but the difficulty is not to gush or sensationalize. Thank you too for your earlier article on McIlhenny, a name too closely associated with Tabasco sauce for this Louisiana native, to have gone beyond. I feel very sheepish that my American education apparently ended too early!

  3. Emile de Bruijn, thank you. I too love Ingres portraits but had not made a connection with rodents. I see what you mean, especially with Alexander Baillie's portrait - his nose between twitches. Lovely idea, thank you!

    le style et la matiere, thank you. I had no idea you are a Louisiana native.

    My problem with celebrity affairs, and they are of great concern to lots of people, is that I really don't care. Gushing and sensationalizing is the norm in interior design and because of it critique becomes bad manners or, worse, inappropriate.

    By the way, your American education continues apace!

  4. Lovely post, Blue. One of Reggie's regrets is that he turned down an invitation to spend the weekend at a houseparty of Mr. McIlhenny's in his Rittenhouse Square house back in the early 1980s. Reggie was a callow youth at the time, and was seeing an older man (in his early 40s) who was a friend of Mr. McIlhenny, and had been invited by said man to accompany him. These many years later I can't recall why I turned the invitation down, but it is one of my life's regrets. That, and not accepting an invitation to go to the Bohemian Grove. Oh well.

  5. Reggie, thank you. I remember a day in my youth when I was cruised on the tube by a very famous .... well, I'd better stop right there and perhaps move on to the time when I played croquet on what I was told was the oldest garden in London and decided to walk away from that opportunity.

  6. I stopped at the green velvet of the Comtesse de Tournon's dress and could hardly get past it. Ingres. Master of textiles (among other things).