357 Gulley Jimson had nothing on Emanuel de Witte

If they didn’t live three centuries apart and if he were a human being instead of a fictional character, you could easily confuse Gulley Jimson with Emanuel de Witte. Both were gifted painters who insulted, bullied and stole from their patrons and were always ready for fights they couldn’t win.

“The cover shows a detail from Desire by Stanley Spencer,
in the collection of Lady Walston” (Penguin edition, 1985)

Rozzie was the only girl in the world for me except Sara… What attracted me to Rozzie in the first place was her size… It took several minutes to walk round her. You studied her from several aspects, like a public building…  When I was suffering from temporary sanity, I went to Rozzie … and took her by as much as I could get hold of with my two arms and my teeth, and said, “Rozzie, you’ve got to marry me, or something like that, or I’ll cut both our bloody throats.”

A typical moment from the love life of the rogue painter Gulley Jimson, all reminiscence, since by the time of the book’s action in the mid-1930s Jimson says “I haven’t kissed anybody since Rozzie died, which was nearly ten years past.” Here is lots of Gulley Jimson all at once: his attachment to his lost horniness; his resort to threats of violence; his grabbiness and reduction of womanhood to an artistic motif.

Gulley Jimson is the recalcitrant anti-hero of Joyce Cary’s picaresque novel The horse’s mouth (1944). He is an unreliable schemer who can’t cash in on his considerable talent because more than anything else he enjoys getting under people’s skin. Some more of his signature characteristics: pathological argumentativeness; chronic kvetchiness; resentment that he was poor, that his “real art, beautiful and moral art,” had been upended by painters of “cubistry, making a steady income and sleeping quiet in their beds and keeping their wives in fancy frocks and their children at school.” He is incapable of suppressing a good insult. When the aristocratic patron Sir William Beeder asks him to judge his wife’s paintings, Gulley comes up with:

Of course, the sky is just a leetle bit chancy, looks a bit accidental, like when the cat spills its breakfast… What you’ve got there is just a bit of nothing at all – nicely splashed on to the best Whatman with an expensive camel-hair—… What I say is, why not do some real work, your ladyship? Use your loaf, I mean your brain. Do some thinking. Sit down and ask yourself what’s it all about.”

After which he offers to paint her ladyship in the nude. “Wouldn’t you like to be immortal, like Goya’s Duchess?”

Alec Guinness playing Gulley Jimson in Ronald Neame’s film,
The horse’s mouth (1958), for which Guinness wrote the screenplay

And he is larcenous. In the course of the novel he steals a “Sèvres teapot and a few apostle spoons” from Sir William and sells them for “Two quid. And stood myself to the best dinner I’d had in five years. No more scrimping and scramping, I said, for Gulley Jimson.” From his best patron, George Frederick Hickson, he takes some netsukes and snuff boxes, getting him six months in the bin, which he uses to learn “the good bits” of William Blake’s Jerusalem by heart. (Jimson engages in constant inner and sometimes even interhuman dialogue with Blake, Spinoza and some other greats.)

What he wants to steal most of all were some of his own early paintings. Years before, when he was making immortal paintings of his lover Sara, he ran out of cash, stopped paying his debts and had his goods seized for a court sale. Hickson had snatched up sixteen paintings for three hundred pounds that were now worth some five thousand each. Jimson keeps calling him on the phone under assumed identities, such as the President of the Royal Academy, to bully Hickson into giving them back.

“Did you at six thirty this afternoon send a telephone message of a threatening character to Mr Hickson, 98, Portland Place?” “I only said I’d burn his house down and cut his liver out.”

He has no right to the paintings, but he convinces some trusting friends that he does, and finesses money out of them as an advance against the take. When that ploy runs aground, he tries to cheat Sara out of the drawings and paintings of herself that she had kept.

She’d seen the box-opener in my hand [with which he wanted to cut a painting out of its frame], and perhaps I’d waved it at her. “You weren’t going to murder me?” she said.

Jan Stolker after a lost portrait by Juriaen van Streeck of Emanuel de Witte, 1677

Compared to the Dutch painter Emanuel de Witte (1616/17-1691/92), Gulley Jimson was a cute old codger. Jimson may have insulted Lady Beeder, an amateur painter, but what de Witte accomplished in this line was worse by an order of magnitude. We have the story from de Witte’s only early biographer, Arnold Houbraken.

A certain young artist named Janssens had produced a painting that he considered the best he had every made. So he asked de Witte, as an old and experienced master, to come and have a look at it, expecting to hear his diligence praised, his errors corrected, and to be encouraged to make further progress. When the piece was shown to de Witte and he was asked what he thought of it, he said: “You must be a very contented person, to take pleasure in this trash,” and he left.

That’s the difference between a nuisance and a misanthrope.

In 1658 de Witte, who earned well but was always short of cash, was involved in a theft that destroyed his family. His sixteen-year old daughter had been breaking into the neighbors’ house and stealing things. De Witte’s second wife, the girl’s stepmother, was said to have put her up to it, and both of them were sentenced to heavy punishments – his wife to six years of banishment from the city (she never lived with Emanuel again) and his daughter to incarceration in the Spinhuis reformatory. Both of them swore emphatically that Emanuel knew nothing about their crimes – so emphatically that I suspect they were protecting him from prosecution. The two of them were already lost; there was no point in having the man of the house put away as well.

Adriana van Heusden and her daughter at the new fish market, Amsterdam, ca. 1662. London, National Gallery

That de Witte was capable of theft we know from a delicious document of 8 June 1671 that tells a story unknown to Houbraken. It shows de Witte pulling off a stunt of which Jimson would have been jealous. Some ten years earlier, de Witte had been put up for free in the house of his patrons Joris de Wijse and Adriana van Heusden (Jimson managed his housekeeping needs the same way), and was paid 800 guilders a year for all the paintings he made (Hickson paid Jimson some 3000 pounds in monthly allowances and uncollectable loans). When he moved out, he took four paintings with him, one of which was a portrait of Adriana buying fish at the market. It took years before she could have the paintings seized, at which point de Witte pulled another trick on her. According to the deposition of 1671, de Witte sent an accomplice to the locale where the paintings were being held to steal the original of Adriana at the market and substitute for it a copy he had made. If Joyce Cary had read vol. 5 (1918) of Abraham Bredius’s collection of artist documents, Künstlerinventare, Gulley Jimson would have done the same with Hickson’s best Sara.

Despite his atrocious manners, Gulley Jimson, perhaps because Joyce Cary lets him tell his own story in the first person, retains something disarming and is able to hold onto friends. Emanuel de Witte’s biographer Arnold Houbraken gives de Witte no such slack. “With his sharp tongue he turned friends into enemies.”

Emanuel de Witte too thought his condition in life worse than that of Gulley Jimson. At the age of 75, on the point of being evicted once more from lodgings for which he could not pay the rent, he committed suicide.

The resemblances between Gulley Jimson and Emanuel de Witte, which go further than the above, struck me many years ago, when I first became acquainted with the de Witte documents. The impulse to write about them came at the opening of the first monographic exhibition on de Witte at the Alkmaar museum, his place of birth (a lovely exhibition that runs until 21 January 2018). The subtitle of the show is Master of light. And so, despite his dark character, he was.

© Gary Schwartz 2017. Published on the Schwartzlist on 14 October 2017.

The cover of the handsome and well-printed exhibition catalogue, which has come out only in Dutch. With Norbert Middelkoop of the Amsterdam Museum, I wrote an essay entitled “Naar de kerk met Emanuel de Witte in Amsterdam” (Going to church with Emanuel de Witte in Amsterdam).

A month ago I gave up my lifelong resistance to Facebook and opened an account. I am enjoying it, and have posted a fair number of pages, mostly about museum visits, including one on the opening of the Emanuel de Witte exhibition. Have a look.

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