Mendelsohn. Joseph Severn. Gladstone. Princess Alexandria. Burne-Jones. William Morris. Prince Bismarck. The names drop like unripe plums – abundantly, but without yielding anything more juicy than a sour aside, or a sticky platitude. William Blake Richmond is a minor Victorian artist, forgotten by his family, the art world he used to navigate so confidently, and his absentee, perpetually offstage assistant Gaetano Meo – who I was hoping would be, in classic horror tradition, dead all along. No such luck.
Rory Fellowes’ one man show at the Jermyn Street Theatre is a portrait as conservative as any that Richmond might paint; no chiaroscuro in sight. In what’s either a bizarrely plush studio, or a living room his dead wife can no longer stop him painting in, Richmond opens his store-cupboard of anecdotes for a cobbled-together supper of old stories.
The play’s opening gambit is especially clumsy. Richmond picks up a photo album to reminisce about his father, a pencil to remember his drawing education. He even picks up a copy of his diaries – on which this play is all too closely based – to remember his plighted childhood sweetheart. The gesture is a reminder that we’re seeing Richmond’s life, never the most brilliant, through the veil of his own crafted narrative, and his own staged dotage. Moments which could never be entirely thrilling – the highest tide of his adolescent depravity is ordering hot water in a provincial hotel – are barely wry, while his comments on the contemporary art scene that’s fast disowning him are curmudgeonly, not acid.
At the centre of Richmond’s life is his grandest project – his mosaics at St Paul’s, which took 13 years to complete. They were central to Sir Christopher Wren’s original design, but Richmond explains that he chose the tiles large for their wipe-clean properties: cleanliness next to godliness. Pragmatism aside, the play’s strongest moments come from his discussion of cutting tiles by remembered Italian light, and actual City gloom, as his tessellated icon fades in to view. Other attempts to bring Richmond’s art into view falter. It doesn’t help that Nigel Dunbar’s performance can be best summed up as “avuncular” – nothing he says, none of his mannerisms would be out of place round a Christmas dinner table. The economic necessity of painting portraits feels like a mild, cold-coffee grievance, not a deeply felt artistic self-betrayal. Seeing his actual paintings in the form of printed canvases, jabbed at helplessly with a brush, reinforces the show-and-tell feel.
Director Maureen Payne-Hammer and Nigel Dunbar share a long background in Chicago theatre, and worked together on The Countess, which tells the far juicier story of Ruskin, Millais and Ruskin’s wife, Effie’s, love triangle. This project has been devised and stewed up between the two of them, with meticulous reverence for the source text, and the Victorian art world.
They clearly really care about their subject, but have forgotten to show us why we should care about the reminisces of a man who’s so thoroughly overshadowed by the memory of everyone he reminisces about. Richmond never rages, raves, or convinces us of his brilliance; his conservative reaffirmations that art is an act of worship, historical precedent is everything, and the Impressionists philistines are easily quashed by Modernist bulldozers.