'I regret to say that I must interrupt the logical continuity of this article. I have been lunching with some friends in one of the most beautiful houses in a Bloomsbury square, and . . .' Walter Sickert came to art journalism with his instincts intact from the stage, on which he had passed his youth. Lose the thread of your argument by all means, but never lose your audience. A little bluster and buffoonery will stop them fidgeting; besides, it establishes character. Play up the absent-minded professor, quoting Sappho in Greek and cryptically vouchsafing the essence of 'the most important piece of art-criticism that has appeared in Europe in modern times' (a translation of Cennino Cennini's 14th-century Libro dell'arte) as follows: 'P.vi (Preface). First and last paragraphs. P.143. First three lines. P.183. Third, fourth and fifth lines.' Break off to hum a few music-hall hits: 'Par' ought to know'; 'When there isn't a girl about, you do feel lonely.' Scramble your commentary with polyglot puns and in clashing literary registers: 'Successful shade, accept my hand in fraternal contrition! We are druv' to it. John Bull will have it so. Tu l'as voulu John Dandin! And his lady still more! Let us toe the line, my brothers, and invest with care. Londres vaut bien une messe.' Then catch at your own coat-tails. 'An unpardonable digression! I am like a bus driver who is perpetually jumping down to fight some passer-by. I apologise to my fares, climb back on the box, and seize the reins. "Bank! Bank! Bank! Charing Cross!"'
LRB 20 September 2001 | PDF Download