June 14 2011: Young Bert: An Exhibition Of The Early Years Of D.H. Lawrence (Castle Museum, Nottingham, 1972)
Obviously, there was something Lawrentian in the air this weekend. After hearing Geoff Dyer and John Hegley talking about his life and work at Nottingham Contemporary on Friday evening it was perhaps inevitable that the photograph I picked up the next morning (showing a young boy on a toy horse) would seem reminiscent of the protagonist in Lawrence’s 1926 short story The Rocking Horse Winner. But then Sunday brought yet more material to light, one example being an oddly Lawrentian sex education manual published in 1935, another the Nottingham Castle exhibition catalogue whose front cover – a drawing made by Lawrence on completion of The Rainbow in 1915 – is reproduced above.
The exhibition itself, shown at Nottingham Castle Museum in July 1972, gathers a comprehensive collection of documents, photographs, paintings, sketches, objects and other material from Lawrence’s early years in Eastwood, Nottingham, Croydon and elsewhere, taking us from his earliest recorded childhood to the First World War. Quite a few things about this catalogue are interesting, not least the weight it grants Lawrence’s paintings, going so far as to look back over records of exhibitions held in the Castle’s own Long Gallery in Lawrence’s day to establish which works he’d seen and tried to imitate in his own pictures.
It’s not that Lawrence was a good painter or even that his lack of technical skill was worked into something interesting and his own. When we look at his paintings and drawings beside those of (say) Le Douanier Rousseau or Henry Darger it’s clear that Lawrence was too conventional to create a style of his own, even out of an‘exemplary lack of style’. It wasn’t impossible: in this catalogue a 1915 box decorated with birds and foliage in a folk art style is reproduced, and much better than anything he took more seriously. The real point, though, is that in 1972 even Lawrence’s juvenilia, failures and ephemera warranted detailed scholarship.
But 1972 was his high point. After the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover was lifted in 1960 not only had Lawrence become an icon for movements to repeal censorship and extend freedom of speech, the mix of nature and sex in his work had also started to attract and influence nascent hippies and environmentalists. His explorations of class and education resonated with the experience of first generation working class grammar school boys, by then finding their ways into academia and other previously closed professions. The coming together of these favourable currents made D.H. Lawrence arguably one of the most important writers of the 1960s, despite the fact that he’d died in 1930.
But sometime in the mid-1970s Lawrence’s reputation began to slip: his work has been largely respected ever since, but his standing lacks the sense of security and inevitability it once had. Usually, as on Friday evening when Geoff Dyer suggested feminist critiques were a possible cause for the decline in Lawrence’s literary standing, his relative fall is seen in terms of his portrayals of women and sex. But whatever issues he raises for feminists, the slump in Lawrence’s general status as a writer seems far more plausibly related to an ongoing decline of literary interest in class, and especially the kinds of questions posed by such conspicuously articulate interlopers as David Herbert Lawrence.