August 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Richard Hamilton, Papli (1949) (British Museum)

Richard Hamilton, Papli (1949) (British Museum)

I took a group of students to the Print Room at the British Museum a couple of days ago (definitely one of the highlights of my week), and while I waited for them to arrive, I found myself with enough time  to look round the current display in the adjoining gallery.

The British Museum recently acquired a trove of drawings by Richard Hamilton, all preparatory studies for the illustrations for Ulysses that occupied him for more than half a century. If ever there was an artist better suited to the task, I can’t think who it could be – his Leopold Bloom is the one I see in my mind’s eye when I read the novel (or even think about it), and the other figures – louche, stubble-jawed Buck Mulligan (as precisely stately and plump as Joyce paints him), the gap-toothed, red-haired barmaid Miss Douce, Molly and Bloom sleeping head to foot as their bed drifts in a starry sky – feel no less true.

But in the middle of these tremendously accomplished drawings was a bizarre intruder. The painstaking scribbles of a child. How on earth did that get into the British Museum?

The label cleared up the confusion. This, too, was a drawing by Hamilton – to be precise, a faithful rendering of one of the treasures Bloom keeps in his desk drawer, a portrait of him drawn by his beloved daughter Milly when she was small. Hamilton obeyed Joyce’s description to the word:

‘a large globular head with 5 hairs erect, 2 eyes in profile, the trunk full front with 3 large buttons, 1 triangular foot’ … inscribed with Milly’s childish term of endearment for her father, ‘Papli’.

It looks so astonishingly like a real child’s drawing that I can’t help wondering how easy – or difficult – Hamilton found it to lay aside his cool and exquisitely controlled draughtsmanship to draw like Milly. Was it (literally or figuratively) child’s play, or was the experience every bit as effortful as it must have been for Milly herself?

There are times when an unskilful or naive work of art can be every bit as powerful – or more so – than one made with skill and panache. That doesn’t mean I like Hamilton’s other Ulysses drawings any less.

But perhaps Papli is the most affecting of them all.


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