And now on Radio LitFest…

10 May

Philip Hook and John Rees © Calyx Picture AgencyBeing a regular attendee of the Swindon Festival of Literature can sometimes be like being an avid radio listener. Most of the time, you know what you want to hear – whether that’s the Today programme or Top 40 Singles Chart. But sometimes, something just catches your ear while you’re scrolling along the dial.

And that was what Tuesday night was like for me – tuning in to an unexpected but enjoyable two hours of art, history, and politics.

Philip Hook is a familiar face from the tellybox, being the fine art expert on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. He’s written a book called Rogues Gallery, about art dealers.

Hook set up his presentation by quoting the unscrupulous art dealer Mr Puff in Samuel Foote’s 1752 stage play Taste: “We are all rogues, if the taking advantage of the absurdity and follies of mankind is to be called roguery.”

But while the provocative title suggests that art dealers are just in for for what they can get, fleecing struggling artists with the left hand and gullible collectors with the right, turns out your average art dealer can be more like a literary agent and publishing house – telling the artist what the public appetite is, and introducing the public to new concepts.

And so we were taken on a whistle-stop tour of the world of the art dealer, from the British dealers who brought the Renaissance art of southern Europe to the rich collectors of northern Europe – paintings which now hang in galleries like the National Gallery, for us all to enjoy – to dealers like Paul Durand-Ruel, who switched the public on to Monet’s impressionism, and Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, who got investors interested in Picasso’s cubism.

While, clearly, art dealers have always been, and will always be, primarily interested in making a buck, they have also – Hook argued – been immensely influential in forming taste.

For a bit of fun during Q&As, members of the audience were asked to shout out the names of the 20th century artists whose work is held in Swindon’s collection, so as to determine the value. Lucian Freud, John Piper, and LS Lowry were all reeled off.

It wasn’t long before Hook’s mental maths had reached £18.5 million, and still the names kept coming. “We’re having a little discussion about it,” teased festival director Matt Holland over the massive controversy surrounding the collection, and whether it should be housed in a heritage building, or hung in a brand new gallery.

…dreaming is underrated and undervalued…

Now, like many people of my generation, my first exposure to The Levellers was not to the Civil War-era political movement, but to the rock band, from which the musicians took their name.

And, despite their counter-culture credentials, I don’t recall the NME or Melody Maker ever discussing John Lilburne’s Agreement of the People manifesto, or the movement’s fight for popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance.

In fact, it wasn’t until I was invited to cover the Levellers Day March, led by Tony Benn through the streets of Burford (part of the Witney constituency later held by David Cameron) as a young local news reporter that I came to discover anything about the Levellers at all.

As historian, broadcaster, and Research Fellow at Goldsmith’s John Rees told his Festival of Literature audience, you’re more likely to be taught about the Civil War as an immigrant taking the UK Citizenship Test than you are as an English school pupil (this is true – we studied American and Russian history, so as to hedge our bets when the inevitable happened, and we became either the 51st State of the USA, or the most westerly outpost of the Eastern Bloc.)

“In 1649 the English people did something unique: they took the King, put him on trial, found him guilty of treason against the people, and executed him,” said Rees. “No people in history had ever done this before.”

Rees wrote his latest work, The Leveller Revolution, because he thinks more people should learn about the Levellers, and because “it’s been left far too long – the last one was in 1961.” (Levellers and the English Revolution by Henry N. Brailsford, in case you’re interested).

He looks at the political background to the revolution – the corrupt king, a small-c conservative parliament, and an all-powerful Church of England that “acted as the civil service, education system, mass media, and police”, and how you could be fined and jailed if you did not worship at your parish church (no free market choices when it came to the 17th Century C of E) every Sunday.

He also looks at how the Levellers were instrumental in bringing down the monarchy, before Cromwell turned against them in his bid to take and hold power. The executions at Burford were not an isolated incident.

Naturally, parallels were drawn between the 17th century and today. The Levellers were big distributors of pamphlets and petitions, while today’s written word campaigning is done on social media. But, warned Rees, “no-one looking at society falling apart in the 1630s could look around today and not find similarities.”

And who is flying the flag for The Levellers today? “You won’t like this,” said Rees, “but (UKIP sinking ship-jumper) Douglas Carswell is a big fan. And quite a lot of right wingers in America, because they like the idea of the small person versus the state.”

“But with a much better claim (phew!) is the Labour and trade union movement and the radical left. Tony Benn was an advocate of sustaining the Leveller movement.”

Still clearly in a mischievous mood, Matt Holland reeled off a list of four adjectives – Leveller, Digger, Dictator, Dreamer – and asked Rees to apply one each to Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

“Oh, Corbyn is a big fan of the Levellers,” said Rees. “And he’s also a dreamer. But dreaming is underrated and undervalued, and if England had not dreamed we’d still be forced to go to church on Sundays.”

Words by Peter Davison

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