A friend of mine recently splashed out on a painting by the Nottingham-born artist Paul Waplington. Naturally, this gave me an excuse to photocopy a short essay by Lawrence called Pictures on the Wall and post it through her letterbox. ‘The human race loves pictures,’ declares Lawrence, ‘barbarians or civilised, we are all alike, we straightway go to look at a picture if there is a picture to look at’. This is perfectly true, although my first port of call for distraction and stimulation is the contents of a bookshelf. I remember once being shown around a house I was interested in buying, and being put off by the seller’s book collection. I just couldn’t bring myself to live in a space that had housed such a shabby collection of fiction. My partner at the time was appalled by what she perceived as my lack of sincerity. But I was deadly serious. The space had been polluted and I didn’t want to catch anything. We split up a year or so later.
Lawrence is fascinated by the pictures we hang on our walls. But needless to say they bring as much pleasure as pain. He takes particular offence at painting that have been hanging around for a long time as they represent ‘sheer inertia’ and a ‘staleness in the home is stifling and oppressive to the spirit’. He uses an analogy of fashion to explain these sentiments. Fashion in clothes changes because ‘we ourselves change, in the slow metamorphosis of time,’ consequently it is hard to imagine ourselves in the clothes we bought six years ago because we have since become different people. This is true, although fashion is also a process of aesthetic obsolescence that keeps the greasy wheels of capitalism turning.
Our reason for buying paintings, he argues, is that the painting somehow reflect or respond to some feeling in us. But as we grow (or age) these feelings change. If our feeling for a picture are superficial, our feelings for the picture wears away quickly. This is definitely true and I witness this every year when there’s a poster sale outside Nottingham Trent University for the latest batch of students. There’s only so long you can have a poster of a ‘doh’ing Homer Simpson, Bob Marley toking on a joint, or Tupac ‘God rest his soul’ Shakur on your wall before you feel a bit silly.
Lawrence, as subtle as a flying brick, has a simple solution for dealing with unwanted unfeeling pictures: Burn them.
Now this might seem extreme at first, and it is, but that’s because Lawrence doesn’t like art that’s reduced to materialism. ‘It is fatal to look on pictures as pieces of property. Pictures are like flowers, that fade sooner or later, and die, and must be thrown in the dustbin and burnt’. A picture, therefore, is only useful when it is ‘fresh and fragrant with attraction’. Once the aesthetic emotion is dead, the picture is no more than ‘a piece of ugly litter’.
And there’s more…
It’s a fallacy to see a picture as part of the architectural structure of a house, as somehow opening up the walls and functioning with the same purpose as say, the fire. Oh no. ‘The room exists to shelter and house us, the picture exists only to please us.’ Pictures are decoration, nothing more.
It’s at this point that a lot of readers probably pack in reading this six page essay. Life is too short to be scalded for having a painting on your wall for a decade. Some, good to his word, may even set Lawrence’s essay on fire. But try to have the one thing that Lawrence lacks, patience. He’s toying with you. He’s slowly building up to a bigger idea on how to make art more accessible to the masses. And to do this he brings in the example of public libraries.
In the 18th century books were very expensive. If you asked a gentleman whether he had read so and so he would most likely reply ‘I have a fine example in folio in my library’. Books being expensive rendered them a form of property, thereby overwhelming ‘any sense of literary delight’. It was only the development of the lending library system that changed the direction of the conversation to the contents of the book, the pleasure of reading for readings sake. ‘The great public was utterly deprived of books till books ceased to be looked on as lumps of real estate, and came to be regarded as something belonging to the mind and consciousness, a spiritual instead of a gross material property’.
Lawrence argues that the same principles apply to art as long as a ‘picture is regarded as a piece of property, and not as a source of aesthetic emotion.’ He suggests that we need a Circulating Picture scheme that follows the principles of the library, where we can hire pictures as we hire books until we’ve ‘assimilated their content’. Obviously he doesn’t offer any practical advice on how to implement such an arrangement, but the sentiments are honourable.
Money is always a corrupting influence for Lawrence, and he suspects that a man who pays a hundred pounds for a canvas is doing it in the secret belief, or hope, that one day it will be worth thousands of pounds. The world of modern art supports these accusations, not least the vulgarity of Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull. But I think Lawrence’s arguments don’t necessarily apply to my friend. She hasn’t purchased her Waplington painting for financial reward, she’s bought it because he’s a local artist and, perhaps, it helps her feel a sense of home, within her home. And she certainly wouldn’t burn it because that’s wasteful and she’s someone who thinks about her impact on the planet. I’m quite sure she didn’t bother to read Lawrence’s essay on paintings but this doesn’t matter. If we’re still friends in ten years and the Waplington is still on her wall, I’ll post another copy through her door.
In 2019 Paul Fillingham and me will be creating a DH Lawrence Memory Theatre. It will include artefacts that address aspects of Lawrence’s life. Perhaps ‘Pictures on the Wall’ will be one of these artefacts. If you’d like to get involved and have any suggestions, please submit your ideas here.
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.