The Weekly Machen
We begin 2023 with a meditation by Arthur Machen on childhood and the spiritual imagination. Those familiar with Machen’s literary theories will easily note his classic terminology, as well as his insistence that living faith should be focused first on the sacramental reality of creation. The daughter of a painter, Daphne Allen (1899-1985) was known for her religious paintings which were published in The Birth of the Opal and A Child’s Visions—the book which Machen reviews in the following article.
A Wonder of Childhood
August 1, 1912
I have been looking through a wonderful portfolio of drawings and paintings.
It was an imaginative world of line and colour. Here sat enthroned the Madonna, haloed in gold, here the Holy Trinity crowned the martyred Innocents, here the Spirits of the Sun and of the Air waged war amongst the clouds of Heaven.
A host of angels, holy, with bowed heads, and then a dance and chorus of cupids circling in a ring; the Fairy Prince meeting his Princess between golden pillars, Ophelia standing by the brink of the stream, then floating down the shimmering water; Perseus freeing Andromeda from the monstrous beast that would have destroyed her; these were a few of the pictures contained in the amazing portfolio.
Amazing, not only because of the imaginative quality, the pure vision of these pictures, not only because of the sureness of the figure modelling and the strength and simplicity of the line, but because the artist is a little girl of thirteen.
The artist’s name is Daphne Allen, whose book, “A Child’s Visions” (Allen), has just been published. Her father showed me the contents of the portfolio, and told me that his daughter had drawn and painted since she was three—“she showed her interest in drawing as soon as she could hold a pencil.”
Environment may count for much in the reckoning. I do not know whether the child artist has lived under the reproductions of the old pictures of the saints and the angels; it seems likely enough, and if this be so; it may very well account for the choice of her means of expression. As the infant who hears English naturally and inevitably speaks English, so the artist of “A Child’s Visions” seeing about her a certain dialect in art has adopted this dialect in her work. The figures with wings and golden aureoles, we will suppose, have always been familiar forms to her; and so she uses them as the “language” of her vision.
But it is one thing to be familiar with this or that speech, and quite another, as we must all allow, to use it well. Many of us have long been familiar with the masterpieces of the ages in music, painting, literature; but this intimate acquaintance has not made us even humble apprentices in the schools of Bach, or Turner, or Shakespeare. Daphne Allen has learnt the speech of the great artists, and has applied it to her own original ends. The picture in colours called “After the Temptation” is in no sense a copy of any Italian artistry. The Christ with a bright light about Him and the faint forms of the angels surrounding Him, stands on the summit of the high peak in the wilderness; darkness, and confusion, and the void are at His feet, and the picture is full of the sense of incredible heights and depths.
A Vision of Desolation
And more astounding still is “The Remorse of Eve.” With Mr. Lewis Hind, who contributes an introduction to “A Child’s Visions,” one admires the economy of line; the superb technique with which the nude, desolate figure is set crouching and kneeling on a stony mountain side: with means slight but sure, a whole world of sorrow and loss is firmly indicated. And here we have quite abandoned all possible examples of classic art: there is no trace of old convention, but a clear and new vision.
Well, I have long ago indicated my belief that “heaven lies about us in our infancy” cannot mean that “wholesome maternal influences surround us in our childhood.” With Wordsworth I hold that true insight and true vision are given to children from some sphere that surpasses all our knowledge and all our analysis.
Hazlitt really utters the same doctrine in the language of prose when he declares that the man of genius passes his life in trying to make the world grasp that which he himself understood perfectly before he was eighteen. And perhaps it is only our narrow, limited, obtuse and confused ethical preconceptions which prevent us from grasping the real import of the saying concerning little children and the “Kingdom of Heaven.”
We have made up our minds that this phrase alludes to a state in which nobody will back horses, or drink anything stronger than ginger beer; while perpetual Sunday school lessons will be given on Moses in the bulrushes and Daniel in the lion’s den. We have also made up our minds that the child is near to this kingdom because he is so good.
The Dreams of Childhood
But the child is not good; he is often as wicked as he can be with the means and the knowledge at his disposal: only his wickedness is called “naughtiness” in the language of the nursery.
We shall probably be nearer the truth if we say that children are partakers of and seers of the world of imaginative reality; that they see the visions and dream the dreams of the eternal sphere of beauty.
But it is only in rare instances that they can utter what they have seen and heard. Immortal harmonies are in their souls, but they do not know the laws of Harmony and Counterpoint, and the music remains unscored. Their thoughts are matter of high romance—but their grammar is lacking. And they are aware of the wonders of colour and form; but what a gulf of technique yawns between the picture in the heart and the picture on the paper!
Now and then the gulf is somehow bridged over—as in “A Child’s Visions.”
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