BY Olivia Laing in Opinion | 09 FEB 18
Featured in
Issue 193

In Time

The intertwined imaginations of Anthony Powell and Nicolas Poussin

BY Olivia Laing in Opinion | 09 FEB 18

Back in the autumn, I started reading A Dance to the Music of Time (1951–75), Anthony Powell’s virtuosic cycle of 12 novels charting a group’s shifting fortunes over the course of the 20th century. I wanted something glacial, something that regarded the progression of history from an immense distance; an antidote, if you like, to the impossible mounting up of news of the present day.

Powell came up with the idea for A Dance in the Wallace Collection, London, in 1945, while looking at Nicolas Poussin’s painting of the same name from c.1634–36. He describes the picture on the very first page: ‘Human beings, facing outwards like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognizable shape: or break into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.’

It’s this combination of pattern and meaninglessness that I love about Powell. People complain about his snobbery, but the titles and grand houses are just window dressing. The books are about time: how we move through it together, in funny little bands; how it disperses and diminishes us; how hard it is to grasp the actual role we’re playing.

Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time, c.1634–36. Courtesy: The Wallace Collection, London

The novels that comprise A Dance are unusually painterly, unusually concerned with surface and light, and unusually populated by canvases both fictional and actual. While I wasreading, I had a hankering to see the Poussin for myself. I’d been dipping into T.J. Clark, too: The Sight of Death (2006), his besotted account of visiting two Poussins daily for six months.

Clark’s Poussin, like Powell’s,is a conjuror of inhuman time frames, of people moving minutely through a dispassionate world, in which a reflection in a puddle has as much value and interest as a man running pell-mell away from the grotesque spectacle of a corpse devouredby a snake.

Poussin’s Dance is still at the Wallace Collection; the Wallace Collection is still in Manchester Square. I walked there on a cold winter morning. Cutting through Burlington Arcade, past the windows of silk pyjamas and cologne, I bumped into a novelist I’ve known for a longtime and we had a brief, barbed conver­sation about whether there’s such a thing as a bad painting, a Powellish exchange in a Powellish place.

The Wallace Collection was almost empty. I drifted through the violet and empire-green rooms, with their washed-silk walls, the flotillas of Canaletto and Claude in gilt frames inducing a feeling of somnolence and remove. The Fragonard girl still hung on her swing, suspended in thick air; a goose lay perpetually unplucked on a kitchen table. Nothing beats paint for stopping time cold.

The Poussin was at the end of a room. It was smaller than I’d expected, somehow uglier; preposterous and depressing at the same time. Four dancers, a plump pink breast, two putti, Father Time muscle-bound and grey, Apollo’s chariot bucketing throughthe complicated sky. It was theatrical and faintly ridiculous, creating drama and coldly dispersing it at the same time. The landscape was dismal andunpromising, inappropriate for celestial revels. Some god or minion was up in the clouds, scattering confetti, but the outlook was not good, was in fact what Powell might describe as ‘uncompromisingly clear’.

The next morning, I read an obituary written by a friend of mine, a painter. In it, he wrote: ‘I had such a clear visual image in my head, of a group of friends walking through the streets, as Shannon and I often did, and one of them suddenly being held back for some reason, like he was stuck at a turnstile while the other friends had to keep on walking.’

This struck me as exactly what A Dance is really about. Powell started writing it at 40, the same age that Poussin was when he started painting his reeling figures. It’s the age at which you begin to notice how strange time is, how it repeats and returns, how the group you travel with is inexorably diminished. On you go, go you must, bound feet moving on damp ground. The weather isn’t looking good, time’s running out, a bright shrapnel of light falls whitely on the birch.

Olivia Laing is a writer and critic. Her latest book The Garden Against Time: In Search of the Common Paradise will be published in May 2024.