“Time,” R.H. Ives Gammell wrote in The Twilight of Painting, “is a ruthless appraiser of art and, by and large, a very just one.” Gammell addressed his book “to readers disposed to consider the complete deterioration of the older forms of painting a disaster to civilization.” When he published The Twilight in 1946, Gammell’s purpose was not to attack any method or school of painting then in vogue; he believed, however, that a large number of art lovers felt uneasy about the kind of painting “encouraged by our art museums and fostered in our art schools.”
“As a matter of record,” Gammell wrote in the conclusion to The Twilight, “I will state here that all the trained painters I have known, several of whom were considered leaders in their profession a short quarter of a century ago, have been unanimous in their estimate of critical opinions emanating from theorists, amateurs, and incompetent artists.” Theory, Gammell believed, was outstripping performance, and the traditional art of painting with long established standards had fallen to a level that has had no parallel in the civilized world for several centuries. No one “ever envisaged a criticism at once as ignorant and as self-assured as that dispensed by the art writers attached to our newspapers and periodicals.” For great art is not acquired intuitively nor do fine pictures just paint themselves. “There will not be good painting until we once more have among us talented men who also know how to paint.”
The 1993/1994 Fine Arts Season at Hillsdale College’s Sage Center began with an impressive exhibition celebrating Gammell’s achievement, especially the work that most embodied his personal criterion. The Daughtrey Gallery premiered the International Tour of R.H. Ives Gammell’s pictorial sequence of Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven,” whose imagery focused Gammell’s own visionary experiences and provoked him into the largest undertaking of his career. The exhibition is held in conjunction with an academic residency by Professor Brigid M. Boardman, author of Between Heaven and Charing Cross: The Life of Francis Thompson. The exhibition also features auxiliary material from both Gammell and Thompson. The poem and the cycle of paintings (numbering 23 in all, oil on canvas) embody the theme of man’s pursuit of the infinite, or in Thompson’s terms, the pursuit by God of the soul in flight.
A retired M.D. we know, a devout Roman Catholic, can still recite by heart Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven.” A Calvinist minister we know, living in Arkansas, ministering to a small Ozark Mountains church, can also recite the poem by heart. These are two persons living apart from colleges and universities, also a generation apart from one another if not religiously apart, who share in the hidden lives of their hearts the power of a great poem:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears.
From those strong
Feet that followed, followed after.
Last year was the centenary of the publication of Francis Thompson’s Poems. I’he centerpiece to that collection is “The Hound of Heaven,” an allegorical, liturgical poem that portrays the stripped soul of Everyman who seeks and finds a home in eternity, as Brigid M. Boardman writes in her biography of Francis Thompson. The years from 1888 to 1894 were Thompson’s period of poetic productivity. In the four chapters covering those years. Professor Boardman shows that the “liturgy was even now being woven into the pattern of his poetic ideas.” She sees “his main fault to be the tendency to excess which he never succeeded in bringing under full control . . . a potentially fine passage can deteriorate into needless obscurity or empty rhetoric.”
Still, the writing is anything but stock religious poetry. “The Hound of Heaven” unites the personal with the universal, Thompson drawing from childhood memories of his service as an altar boy, his nomadic life on the London streets, his illness, and his pain. The self-revelation and self-acceptance in the poem, however, build on a “mythological undercurrent” containing “echoes of the Scriptures and Fathers of the Church . . . to the no less distinct voice of Augustine.”
Last year was also the centenary of the birth of R.H. Ives Gammell, whose The Boston Painters, Nineteen Hundred to Nineteen Thirty and The Twilight of Painting defended an older standard of execution, one that demanded thorough and comprehensive professional training. Gammell first read Thompson’s poem in 1911, and it provoked and focused his imagination. During the 1930’s, Gammell planned a cycle of paintings freely based on Thompson’s poem, but the project never materialized due to Gammell’s nervous breakdown and depicted creative energies. Gammell suggests, in the foreword to the 1956 catalog of “The Hound of Heaven” cycle, that for years he had been unable to find the proper imagery to convey the ideas he found in Thompson’s poem. “Eventually I decided that it would involve only a slight change in terminology to consider ‘The Hound of Heaven’ as a history of the experience commonly called emotional breakdown rather than as the story of a specifically religious conversion.” He was unwilling to traduce what he believed was Thompson’s intention, but this interpretation “brought within range a quantity of pictorial ideas which had haunted mv thoughts for many years but for which I had never found a connecting link capable of giving them artistic unity.”
For Gammell, the link was provided by C.G. Jung’s The Psychology of the Unconscious. Jung’s demonstration of the close relationship among myths, symbols, poetic imagery, and “the perpetually recurring emotional patterns of human life from which they evolved” enabled Gammell to relate his pictorial conceptions of the poem that he had stored in files and to begin “The Hound of Heaven” cycle. In all there are some 12 folders directly related to the paintings, which Gammell used during the nearly 12 years he worked on the sequence.
The fourth painting in the cycle, for example, as it appears in the 1956 catalog, is printed opposite some of the filefolder materials. The page begins with a phrase from Thompson’s “Hound”: “I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind.” Gammell follows the Thompson passage, which may serve as a title to the painting, with touchstone passages from Jung’s The Psychology of the Unconscious and Modern Man in Search of a Soul as well as from Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Shelley. In most cases, the contents of the touchstones can be identified with ideas and themes in the paintings to which they refer. The 20th painting in the sequence takes its title from Thompson’s phrase “Rise, clasp / My hand, and come!” Gammell’s corresponding file folder contains passages from Eliot, Baudelaire, Wagner, and, again, from Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious: “At this time, when the sun has set, when love is apparently dead, man awaits in mysterious joy the renewal of all life.”
All of this is in the tradition of classical realism, and a far remove from the avant-garde. Gammell’s conservative position, in opposition to the multitudinous glitter of modernism, “embodies,” as Richard Lack writes, “a reverence for tradition, a resistance to wanton and senseless destruction of past accomplishments, and the carrying forward of hard won achievements and noble endeavors that characterize the best of any civilization.” By temperament, Gammell was not an impressionist but belongs rather to that broad class of painters who draw their inspiration from literature, history, philosophy, theology, psychology, symbol, and myth.
When Gammell died in 1981 at the age of 88, he had painted for nearly 70 years, mostly as a spectral figure whose ideals, attitudes, and objectives were in stark contrast to the “modern art” establishment. It is not difficult to conceive that isolation was as much a “heart-perturbing thing” for Gammell as was the “sad and doubtful questioning” of Francis Thompson.
On Sunday, September 5 at 7:50 p.m.. the Sage Center for the Performing Arts officially inaugurated the R.H. Ives Gammell tour. The program in the Sage Center’s Markel Auditorium included a special performance of Professor Ralph von Sydow’s musical adaptation of . Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven,” followed by the first of Professor Boardman’s lectures: “The Hound of Heaven: The Poem and the Poet/The Paintings and the Painter.” The Daughtrey Gallery is open to the public weekdays, 8:00-4:00; Saturday, 10:00-5:00; Sunday, 12:00-5:00. Additional information can be had by calling Daniel James Sundahl, 516-437-7341, extension 2443.