"No more than an imposing folly": James Fenton at Mentmore

20 May 1977.

James Fenton’s portfolio is extensive. As critic, columnist, political reporter and theatre reviewer he has written both variously and extensively. His earliest years were at the New Statesman, where he was a political correspondent.

Fenton made the decision to become a journalist after graduating from Oxford University. It was there that he became friends with Christopher Hitchens, who also joined the New Statesman both as a writer and foreign editor. As political correspondent, Fenton showcased the kind of witty and masterful writing for which he has become known. He is first and foremost a poet.

Even before graduating, Fenton won the Newdigate Prize for best poem by an Oxford undergraduate, and later won an Eric Gregory Award when he published his first full poetry collection, Terminal Moraine, in 1972. Since then, Fenton has gone on to become, as the Observer put it, “the most talented poet of his generation”.

The following article exemplifies the kind of wit and flair with which Fenton writes about every kind of topic. Mentmore Towers is a stately home in Buckinghamshire, named for the village in which it sits. Fenton writes about the controversy surrounding the sale of the house’s contents after the death of the Sixth Earl of Roseberry in 1973. The Labour government refused to accept the contents of the house and after three years of discussion, the executers of the estate decided to sell it all by public auction. Fenton laments their lack of clarity.

Introduction by Sarah Howell.

Final View: Mentmore

I went last week to a charity open day at Mentmore, an occasion I would not have missed for the world. It was like being in at the kill. It had a splendour and a cruelty, a finality that was horribly fascinating. It was true that every attempt had been made to depersonalise the occasion. In the whole house there was practically no item which indicated that the place had recently been inhabited by human beings. There were no personal effects, no paperbacks or Tauchnitzes, no toothbrushes or letters, no pens except a box of swan quills. There was very little bedding. The feather mattresses had for the most part been burned. There was one rubber hot water bottle hanging on its peg.

And the crowd, for the most part, was searching for precisely such evidences. On the ground floor, in the vast hall, we were respectful and impressed. In the bedrooms we felt more at ease. In the servants' quarters, among the junk furniture, we were completely at home. "Well," said one lady, settling into an arm chair, "if I'd been in charge, I can only say that the place would have been a great deal cleaner." This was just the attitude one expected to find behind the green baize door. We felt immeasurably superior to the Roseberies. Another lady said airily: "I do hate to see beautiful furniture left in the sun, so that the veneer is allowed to crack." In her house, we were supposed to understand, such things would never have happened. Cowed in the presence of superior wealth, we fell back on superior discernment, taste or practicality.

There was not much, we told ourselves, that we would actually, personally, have wanted. Quite frankly, these Boulle armoires were not what we went in for. And yet had the collection been presented not as a series of numbered lots, but as a museum, our reactions would have been quite different. What a superb museum it was. There was a political, a historical character to the collection - it constantly evoked images of blood and the tumbrils. Here was the furniture and the frippery of the ancien régime. Here too were reminders of what had happened to the ancien régime. And here finally were reminders of what had happened to those who overthrew the ancien régime. How appropriate that, among all the ormulu and gilt, one should come across the thin-lipped sneer of Voltaire, Zoffany's painting of the crowd ransacking the wine cellars of the Tuileries palace, and a tiny, grey, menacing Fragonard depicting a tribunal. There was a series of revolutionary portraits, some of them purporting to show the leaders at the height of their power and at the moment of their eclipse — "Couthon au tribunal, Couthon sur la charrette", the pride of the orator, the humiliation of the tumbril.

No doubt the owners of Mentmore gained great satisfaction from contemplating such contrasts. But for us there was little satisfaction in observing the disintegration of a collection we could have owned. Mentmore was a museum. What can it possibly become when stripped of its collection? No more than an imposing folly. The philistinism of Peter Shore and the spinelessness of Shirley Williams have combined to throw away what could have been so easily preserved. Such thoughtless destruction makes one shudder. To save Mentmore was a mere matter of good book-keeping. To replace it will be impossible. Why does the Government think that by adding vandalism to its other vices it will repair its popularity? Are they hoping to appeal to the punk element in the electorate?

The 7th Earl of Rosebery at the Mentmore auction. Photo: Getty Images.

James Fenton is a poet, journalist and literary critic who wrote regularly for the New Statesman in the 70s and 80s.

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The new Tate Modern building is perfectly designed for the Instagram generation

Almost every three minutes a photograph of The Switch House is uploaded to Instagram tagged with the Tate Modern Switch House location.

It's a Tuesday morning in the Tate Modern Switch House”s “Living Cities” display.  A group of teenage girls charge around the room, phones in hand, paused on the camera screen, hunting down a potential Instagram post or Snapchat story. A young man is capturing shots of Mark Bradford”s 2004 “Los Moscos”,  a violent collage made from the materials found on the floor of his Los Angeles Studio. Ten minutes later the same man remains looking at his screen, observing the images he has taken on his iPhone camera. A group of tourists are posing for a photo on Marwan Rechmaouis”s “Beirut Caoutchouc”.  A young girl tells her Dad “that”s a really good photo that you took”. Kader Attia's “Untitled (Gharrdaia)” is surrounded by lenses of Canon cameras attached to bodies.

You can't miss it. The camera is literally everywhere: in every hand, in every room, in front of every painting.  

Downstairs, in the room “Between Object and Architecture” Yayoi Kusaama”s “The Passing Winter” (2005) seems to be a hotspot for the perfect Instagram post. People crowd around the cube, placing not their heads, but their iPhone cameras through the inviting holes. I too am part of this. Standing just outside the grey tape boundary, I take a picture of myself in the mirrored cube. Add a Clarendon filter, adjust the brightness and contrast, and tap post. By the time I've left the room, three friends have liked it.

But why do we insist of photographing the art around us? And what are the consequences of doing so?  A common criticism of social media is that it discourages us from living “in the moment”. As we constantly view the world from behind a digital screen, the tech-sceptics say, we neglect details of life at that very second. But there are even greater ramifications for the clicking, capturing and photographing of visual art for the sake of your Instagram feed. As you take a picture of Louise Bourgeois  À L”Infini (2008) and adjust the brightness, contrast, structure, warmth and saturation, then apply a filter of your choice:  Gingham, Juno, Crema Sierra, Nashville or Sutro, you become an artist with your own digital palette, transgressing the intentions of Bourgeois in terms of colour, tone and texture. While the intricate effects of Bourgeois's own work may be lost in the snapshot, your Instagram feed gains. It becomes a mini gallery, holding these appropriated and transformed works.

As you pose in the cube mirrors of Robert Morris”s “Untitled” (1965), or next to Andy Warhol”s iconic “Marilyn Diptych” (1962), it becomes clear that the gallery is an ideal space for capturing the art via selfies. If you'd like to convey to your followers just how “cultured” and “artistically engaged” you really are (just look at the Tumblr “Tinder Guys Posing with Art”), this space allows you to promote your own self-image with ease.

I ask the woman beside me viewing (or rather capturing) Lorna Simpson”s “Photo Booth” (2008), exhibited in the “Artist and Society” display of the Boiler House, why it is she is taking images of the work. She tells me she herself is an artist, and so sees this work as inspiration, capturing photos as a record for herself.  Art is photographed as a means of preservation. The content of a gallery is simultaneously static and fleeting. If you come back to the Tate Modern tomorrow, or a week later, chances are Lorna Simpson's “Twenty Questions (A Sampler)” (1986) will not have moved from that same space. You stand and observe the image, take it in, maybe read the detailed text beside it, and then move on to something that catches your eye in the next room.

The camera, however, offers a chance to capture the art forever. Will you ever come back to it? Perhaps not, but the image is stored away among your photos of a summer holiday, preserved as evidence of a piece of work that made you feel something. The camera provides a sense of security. It is a reassurance that you won't forget the image, just yet.

“But also”, the woman goes on to tell me “I think it”s really nice to share images. If I take a photo of this art, I can share it with my friends”. In his Ways of Seeing, John Berger talks of how the camera has changed the way we interact and engage with art. “The camera enables us to see something that isn”t precisely there in front of us”, he states, “allowing appearances to travel across the world in seconds”. I take a picture of a Gerhard Ritcher and Snapchat it to a friend with the caption: “Your fave!” A few seconds later, he opens the image and replies.

Indeed, in the corner of a display in the Boiler House, is a digital screen provided by the Tate that encourages an exchange of images between the gallery space and home. “When do you feel most creative? Post your photo on Instagram using #tatestudio and it may appear here”, it says. Alongside photographs of the studios of Claude Monet and Eva Hesse are square framed, edited images of the work spaces of @paulaclyde, @magpieethel and @rayofmelbourne. Social media, it seems, has become central to the identity of the Tate. Just look at its own Instagram feed, updated daily with times lapse videos and images of the art work in its collection. Access to free Wifi throughout the Tate Modern only epitomises the pertinence of social media to the art gallery experience.

When searching for “Tate Modern Switch House” in the Instagram search engine, you are presented with 194 posts with the hashtag #tatemodernswitchhouse, and a photograph almost every three minutes tagged with the Tate Modern Switch House location. The most popular shots on Instagram, among Louise Bourgeois”s dresses and Marwan Rechmaouis”s immersive floor installation “Beirut Caoutchouc” are images of the concrete twisting staircases of the building and the newly expanded viewing gallery. This landscape of London, offering at various views as you walk around the external of the building, is perhaps one of the most photographed pieces of “art” to exist amongst the gallery space. There is a sense in which the Switch House has been built to be photographed.  And if you don”t bring your camera, you”re missing out.