Saturday, 7 September 2013

William Rothenstein’s Portrait of Sir Edward Elgar

In 1920 George Allen & Unwin Ltd. published a limited edition of 2000 copies of Sir William Rothenstein’s portraits of his friends and contemporaries. Born in 1872, Rothenstein was a well-known artist and art administrator. He had an especial interest in the art history of India.  In 1917 he went to the Western Front in the capacity of Official War Artist. Rothenstein died in 1945.
In the preface to his book the artist writes that these ‘twenty four drawings were selected from among many which it has been my happy privilege to make of my friends and contemporaries during the last few years.’ He believed that ‘the riches of the world do not all lie in mines or oil fields, nor yet in the safes of banks, of companies and of trade unions. Much of our wealth is supplied by men of vision who must often, lest they be prevented from giving their best, deposit their gold under men's pillows in the night-time’.
Included in this book are portraits a number of men (all men, alas) who even today are ‘household’ names: - Arnold Bennett, Joseph Conrad, John Galsworthy, Andre Gide, Thomas Hardy, A.E. Housman, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells.
Each drawing is accompanied by a thumbnail pen portrait of the subject. The authors’ names are not given.
Finally, Rothenstein sagely notes that ‘these drawings [are] intended as an act of homage to those who give rather than take.’

The biography of every great artist is a history of the interaction between temperament and experience: between the natural endowment which is the content of genius and the training, whether of the schools or of the world, which gives it form and experience. In the career of Elgar this interaction has been singularly close and harmonious. His natural endowment is a keen sense of beauty of tone, an imagination vivid and poignant rather than wide of range, a special gift of pathos and tenderness, and above all a sheer intellectual power which might equally well have made him a great scientist, or a great man of letters.
It is no coincidence; it is still less a pose, that he takes far more interest in discussing a chemical problem or extricating a seventeenth century dramatist than in any question concerning this technique of his own art. ‘I like music' he once said 'but I do not in the least care to know how it is made,' and he is probably to this day unconscious of the extent to which in his recent character music he has superseded the old classical form. Of direct musical training he had little or none.
[Robert] Schumann learned most of his counterpoint from Jean Paul [1]: Elgar's composition owes less to the music teacher than to the collections of old English authors which he found in an attic at home and devoured through every spare moment of his boyhood. His astonishing gift of orchestration was trained not in any school but in amateur bands when he had the inestimable advantage of testing each experiment as he made it, and the result is a mastery of instrumental dialogue, which, had he nothing else, would give him rank among the great artists of the world. And he has much else.
Of his limitations which are plain and obvious, there is no need here to speak criticism has too often deserved its definition as the art of complaining about something because it is not something else and Elgar has given so much that it would be ungrateful to discuss what he has withheld. A master of the grave and elegiac mood in music, a colourist whose richness of tone is reinforced by the full texture of his polyphony, he is above all conspicuous for the variety and interest of his musical structure. In the Malvern Variations, in the Concert Overture, in Falstaff, [2] in the slow movement of the first symphony and the whole of the second; in the violin concerto, in the pianoforte quintet he has taken his place among the great composers and has written work which bids fair to live so long as the Art endures.
Twenty Four Portraits William Rothenstein London George Allen & Unwin Ltd. (1920)

[1] Johann Paul Friedrich Richter Jean Paul (21 March 1763 – 14 November 1825), was a German Romantic writer, best known for his humorous novels and stories. Often known simply as John Paul.
[2] The ‘Malvern Variations’ are the Variations on an Original Theme for Orchestra (‘Enigma’), op. 36, The Concert Overture is ‘Froissart,’ op.19 (1890) and Falstaff is the  ‘Falstaff ‘– Symphonic Study in C minor, Op. 68 (1913)

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