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Thursday, 13 November 2008

Omai and The Age of Innocence

The other picture (see previous post) Christina Thompson refers to in her book Come Ashore and We Will Kill and Eat You All is Omai (a Polynesian from the Society Islands) by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

"...what Reynolds aspired to paint was some quality or idea thesitter was supposed to embody - wit, for example, or innocence, or understanding. In the case of Omai, the idea was nobility, specifically the nobility of man in his natural state."

Omai was taken by Captain Cook to England in 1774. There he delighted London society. He was good at dancing, bowing and chess. He had a penchant for "immediate corporeal gratifications" and delighted in toys and "trifling amusements". Most of all, he had excellent manners. ""Indeed," wrote Fanny Burley, "his manners are so extremely graceful, & he is so polite, attentive and easy, that you would have thought he came from some foreign court.""

"What is really marvellous," writes Thompson, "is the staying power of these conceits. The idea of the Noble Savage may sound condescending to modern ears, but by eighteenth-century standards it was the highest kind of praise. Nobility was a quality that every European aspired to; natural nobility was something even they could not achieve."

Thompson takes her Maori husband Seven home to Boston and finds similar sentiments greeting his arrival. "Women, especially, gravitated to him, though he was also popular with men. And while they sometimes semed to be at cross-purposes in their conversation.... they appeared delighted with one another."

The other Reynolds picture featured above is The Age of Innocence which captures another form of idealisation - that of the Innocent Child. And just as the Noble Savage has stuck, so has the Innocent Child. As Anne Higonnet notes in her Pictures of Innocence, "The Romantic child makes a good show of having no class, no gender, and no thoughts..." In terms of class, "...they belong to a middle class that identifies itself discreetly with affluent cleanliness and absence of want."

Good, clean, well-mannered middle-class children appeal to us. However there's a flip side, and the flip side is something that is alien to us, that we have no interest in or sympathy with - the idea of the bad child, the child tainted by their parents, the child not blessed by the middle class aura of cleanliness and innocence. These ideas were prevalent in the 19th century, but they persist to this day and help we English defend ourselves from ever finding out what is really wrong with our country. What would the English equivalent be of electing Obama president. It's not electing a black prime-minister (or a woman prime-minister - we're ahead of you on that one, America). But it might be something to do with the way we treat our children and it might be something to with education and class. It might be something that can help us learn from, rather than briefly be fascinated in and then forget ( because the people are just so alien and other) events like the bizarre and horrific news that has been in the UK papers all this week. Shannon Matthews or Baby P ? Harringey and Dewsbury. Learning Difficulties and Asbos. Nothing to do with me, mate. I live in Bath.

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