Moping Owl: Sooke Sayings…

… from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r The moping owl does to the moon complain Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,  Molest her ancient solitary reign.


I fear I may have made a mistake in always taking Little Sookey for one of Old Mother Dorment’s gaggle of goslings down on Telegraph Farm. He is certainly still there in the rick-yard, waddling along after Old Goosey, gabbling away and picking up the scraps, only these days he seems rather more like a Twite, that little brown bird with a pink bottom and a merry cheep. Here he is now,  twittery-twiteing on about the work of The Glasgow Boys, yet another lot of painters he never quite got round to for his GCSE (art app & flwr arr). A ‘nebulous association’ he calls them, which is to say a ‘small, cloudy, foggy, misty cluster of indistinct stars.’ Quite good really, if he meant it. I almost wish I’d thought of it. I suspect he meant ‘loose’.

You have to hand it do him, though: he does have a go at winging it, and talking about anything but painting. “Certain adjectives spring to mind”, he chatters on, “‘Charming’, ‘elegant’ and ‘lovely’ might judiciously describe their paintings” – which is of course what adjectives are judiciously supposed to do, or they’re not judicious. And 301 Moved Permanently there’s not much wrong with a spot of charming, elegant loveliness, I’d have thought. But no: our Sookey has a judicious doubt or two on that very point. “Whether or not these are admirable qualities, “he suggests, “depends on your point of view.” Well yes: I suppose it does.

Yes indeed: Sookey takes judicious exception to all such admirable qualities, I mean seductive aesthetical traps and snares. We are not put into this wicked world for pleasure alone, he seems to say, and he’ll hammer the point home with every judicious adjective he can. Quite the Johnny Knox, he is. Take Guthrie’s Schoolmates, a ‘rustic scene’ of three ‘impoverished’ children walking along a lane: he doesn’t like it one bit. “Pleasing on the eye, it has been executed with skill, but the sweetness feels overdone: … the children’s faces have been meticulously finished to emphasise their pretty features and flawless, delicate complexions. The result (here we go) is a piece of whimsy (surely not) that indulges  (can’t have that) middle-class fantasies about the countryside.” Oh dear: I shall have to have a word with the Vicar before all this gets out of hand, what with Christmas coming on and all – or is that a middle-class fantasy too?

Lavery’s Tennis Party certainly is, which “offers a charming vision of the ball zipping back and forth, gilded in the foreground (no, not the ball) with dabs of white, primrose and cream that represent thick sunlight (??*!! – not such a judicious adj. there, Sookey old thing).  But everything about it is designed to flatter and seduce (oh the shock and horror and wickedness of it all), down to the detail of the gate opening on to the court (sheer depravity)  … to entice viewers (I can hardly bear to go on) into the action – promising that we too might mingle injudiciously with the rich and beautiful (smelling salts, Vicar, please).”

No Sookey, you’re quite right. We must never mingle. Nor must artists flatter and seduce, let alone offer charming visions, meticulously finished. Whatever next? Perish the judicious thought.


I do sometimes worry about old Wally the Dodo. I mean to say, he’s still with us, even now after all these years, still chuntering around the wood on his Sunday Times Mobility Trolley (special offer), gibbering the first words that come into his head and crashing into everything that … no: crashing into everything. It would be a kindness really. It would help, perhaps, if he cleaned his glasses once a year. I’m sure he can’t see anything through them. And they were cracked to begin with.

Here is, going on about poor old Tom Lawrence, as though he’s never heard of him, let alone seen him, ever before. “If Lawrence is not being given the credit he deserves, then the reasons for this neglect are clear: the modern world has put him down as a lackey. The National Portrait Gallery’s task is to prove us wrong.” How I love that ‘us’. Speak for yourself, Wally.

Now his glasses have steamed up again. “The gallery began its defence with an ill-judged [attempt] to pass Lawrence off as a fascinating Regency sex pest.” Ah ha, Wally old thing: that’s more like it. “This nakedly (naturally) manipulative (I say, steady on: there are ladies present) press effort

zoomed in on his simultaneous love affair with two of the daughters of (wait for it) the much-tortured Sarah Siddons.” Well, I must say: I know that Regency Society got up to all sorts of

301 Moved Permanently

fun and games, but really. Much tortured, eh? Who’d have thought it? She of all people.  No wonder her hair went a bit grey and frizzy. Well I never.

And a simultaneous love affair too, whatever that is, and which, Dodo primly quacks, “did nothing to nuance the young goat’s reputation.” Oh, come come, surely it must have nuanced it one way or the other, just a bit. Nothing like a bit of nuancing, now and again, I always say. So, where were we? Ah yes, on we go. “What a relief, therefore, to find the exhibition itself not only avoiding entirely the topic of his tortuous testosterone …” – and I had to stop reading at that point,  and give myself a stiff drink. Quite made my eyes water even to think about, and I still can’t quite get my poor old wits round what it means. Still, it all comes out straight enough in the end, as you might say, rather as it did for the Young Man from Kent – but we won’t go into that now: there are, as I say, ladies present. Anyway, in the event, and to Wally’s inestimable relief, the show proves, “beyond any conceivable doubt (which is what doubts are, of course) that our Tom of Bristol was indeed a much more substantial and talented artist than most of us had suspected.”

“Than most of us had suspected”, Wally? Or weren’t you paying attention when were taking your art-history A Level resits down at the Poly all those years ago? “Substantial and talented”? Have you never noticed? You really should get out more. No, on second thoughts, better not. And mind that ditch:  right hand down a bit, no, no, yes, no .. I can’t watch. Straight in. Oooohh.

OL History note

Queen Charlotte, whose great portrait by Lawrence has graced the National Gallery for ever and a day, though somehow Wally must have missed it, was never “the reigning British Queen”, as he avers, therefore never Lawrence’s ‘monarch’. She hated the painting, and it remained unsold in his studio until his death.

The Jackdaw Jan-Feb 2011