Support 100 years of independent journalism.

5 December 2013

I like to think I’m tougher than I look, but Rembrandt takes my breath away

The painting that gives me an unmistakable case of Stendhal syndrome is Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Two Circles.

By Nicholas Lezard

At the time of writing, I do not know whether the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special will be any good but it had better be, because I’ve just had to lash out £174 incl VAT on a new aerial – the last one got nicked – to be able to watch it. The children have understandably wearied of sitting in front of a computer monitor to watch the show, especially when the internet connection is ropy, giving us plenty of time to contemplate the plot holes while watching the little red circle go round and round. Now it can just wash over us, as Steven Moffat intended.

One aspect of the 50th anniversary upsets me and that is the word “50th”. It is, I suppose, a privilege to have been born in a year that people are finally beginning to recognise as one of the most auspicious in the west’s history but I can’t help noticing that it’s all a bit . . . 50-ish. That’s half a century.

Footage from the 1960s looks as though it was filmed underwater on a zoetrope, whatever that is. It was a time of full employment. I can still add up in old money. I made the bad mistake of alluding to the old money to the Beloved, who was born ten years after decimalisation, and I won’t be doing that again in a hurry. Incidentally, while checking on the date at the Royal Mint website, my heart sank even further at its opening sentence: “For those of us under 50 . . . ” Shouldn’t that be “you”?

I was sitting on the Tube the other day and listening to a young, camp gay man talking about a recent night out to a couple of female friends. He was talking so loudly that it was impossible not to overhear and, besides, I’d forgotten to bring a book, so I thought I might learn something about the human condition. Every day is a school day.

He described, in some detail, an evening that ended in the not-so-small hours with him watching a man singing in a band. “It was hilarious. He was, like, so old – he must have been, like, 50 – and I had tears streaming down my face, I was laughing so much.” He made little waterfalls past his eyes with fluttering fingers to demonstrate.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

The rest of the journey was rather spoiled for me and even though it was only three stops to King’s Cross, it felt like – ha! – 50. I contemplated winking at him and saying softly, “Fifty isn’t that old, you naughty boy,” as I left, but thought better of it and carried on to Hampstead, where I was going to spend the afternoon being shown round the newly restored Kenwood House. There, at least, I’d be seeing things that were older than I was, although this thought was undermined when I was introduced to the curator in charge of the restoration, a rather attractive woman, who noticed the label of my jumper sticking out and tucked it back in.

Hell’s bells, I think to myself, now I need curating. (Not that this good woman caused offence: I quite like it when that happens and, as my jumpers tend towards unruliness, it happens quite a lot.)

So I gawp at Gainsborough’s portrait – all eight feet of it – of Mary, Countess Howe, and marvel that there is some beauty that is so powerful that it can transmit its signal undiminished through the centuries. (A spot of mental arithmetic informs me that she is the same age in the portrait as the Beloved is now.) But the painting that really holds my attention, the one that gives me an unmistakable case of Stendhal syndrome, to the point where I feel my legs might give way, is Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Two Circles. I knew it was in the collection and was looking forward to seeing it; I like to think that I’m tougher than I look but this still takes my breath from me. That incredible expression of indomitability. The confidence and power of execution.

I then recall that at the time of composition, Rembrandt was broke and had to sell the plot of land his sister was buried in to keep himself in paint and canvas. Rembrandt’s poverty bothers me even more than Mozart’s at times. To think you can be one of the greatest talents the world has ever seen, one of about 20 people out of multiple billions who have changed the way we experience the world, and die in poverty . . .

Eventually, after the most extraordinary visit – upstairs in the Suffolk Collection are 400-year-old portraits so preserved that they look like they were painted last week – I cheer myself up by having a pint with my old friend John Moore in the Holly Bush. He asks if it is true that the Beloved is off to Sweden. Yes, I say.

“Ha!” he laughs. “You’ll never get laid again!”