In the late summer of 1822, George IV visited Edinburgh. It was a big event, orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott, and the festivities he engineered to surround it are generally thought to have resulted in the Scots being forced to wear tartan for the rest of the nineteenth century. On the 14th of August, the royal yacht arrived in the city; Scott rowed out to meet it, and drank a glass of whisky with the Monarch. There is much to be said about this meeting, about Scott and about Edinburgh at this time; but for the moment all that is important is that glass. Keep your eyes on the glass, ladies and gentlemen.
The poet George Crabbe, who I am afraid will feature heavily in my posts on this site, was at the very same time arriving in Edinburgh. Scott did not know this fact as he stood aboard the boat, and though Crabbe had long promised him a visit, he had no reason to suspect that the Suffolk clergyman would arrive on the same weekend as the King.
Scott was a collector, and artefacts and their acquisition feature heavily both in his life and novels. He therefore asked the King if he might take the glass from which they had both drunk, and this being approved; he placed the glass into the pocket of his coat.
Six years previously, Scott published a book called The Antiquary. It’s a marvellous book, I think it’s my favourite of all of Scott’s novels, and though in many ways it is not characteristic of his work, it is probably the best one to read to understand what Scott is about.
Very early on in the novel, the antiquary Jonathan Oldbuck, invites a visitor into his home. The library, cluttered with acquisitions, does not provide much seating and Oldbuck has to clear a chair for the young man, remembering the plight of his friend the Rev. Doctor Heavysterne from the Low Countries who:
Sustained much injury by sitting down suddenly and incautiously on three ancient calthrops*, or craw-taes, which had been lately dug up in the bog near Bannockburn, and which, dispersed by Robert Bruce to lacerate the feet of the English chargers, came thus in process of time to endamage the sitting part of a learned professor of Utrecht.
But this was written six years prior to Scott sitting on the whisky glass. There, I’ve given away the ending already; Scott upon seeing Crabbe in his home, sat down in surprise and the glass shattered and stuck in his leg.
Now, why did this happen? When Scott was no doubt stopped, some six months later, outside his local Tesco and asked by a man with an oversized golfing-umbrella whether he had received ‘personal injury at home or at work’, what was he to say? No doubt the whisky glass incident was still preying heavily on his mind. But being a legal man himself, he would surely know that any defence team would easily point out that Scott was aware of the dangers of sitting on historic artefacts. Long before the accident took place, he had warned of the dangers. He was in many ways an advocate of antiquarian safety in the home.
So one gets to thinking. There is something Tolstoy says in What is Art? about art being a weapon. It penetrates the mind and body of the perceiver, and in this way is much like the calthrop. Its work is hidden and yet it punctures imperceptibly the soul (or sole) of the viewer (or horse). The horse is of course instantly lamed by the calthrop and stopped in its course, but equally the viewer of the religious painting might go weak at the knees just by looking at it. It does not matter whether the viewer believes for it will:
Train men to experience those same feelings under similar circumstances in actual life; it will lay in the souls of men the rails along which the actions of those whom art educates will naturally pass.
Okay, this is much more important than sitting on a whisky glass. This is more than indulgence. This is the very reason why we look at paintings, at buildings, at sculpture, why we read, why we listen to music; this is the eloquent voice that John Carey attempts and fails to pitch correctly in What Good are the Arts? It is of course also the reason why Scott wanted the whisky glass in the first place. It would have been a weapon even if it did not deposit shards of glass in his thigh. The greater meaning of that object, that he and the king had both drunk from it, had raised toasts to each other’s health; speaks of a closeness, and a status that meant a lot to the novelist, speaks of the exuberance of the age, speaks of so many other things than it merely being a receptacle for whisky.
But please can we return to you indulging my triviality? Because I suppose I am suggesting that Scott sat on that whisky glass for exactly those reasons set out by Tolstoy. That in creating the artistic representation of the act in The Antiquary, Scott was laying the tracks for life to then follow. Or maybe not Scott, for this event is only mentioned in his son-in-law’s biography of him. Lockhart is our only source to suggest that this ever took place. Crabbe does not mention it. Scott did not keep a journal until four years later. Lockhart was not there.
Don’t dismiss Lockhart as a fraud. His Life of Napoleon is fantastically fun, as here concerning Napoleon’s birth:
Letitia had attended mass on the morning of the 15th of August; and being seized suddenly on her return, gave birth to the future hero of his age, on a temporary couch covered with tapestry, representing the heroes of the Iliad.
Now, it’s easy to laugh, but there is something rather beautiful and rare in that image; Napoleon forcing himself out of his mother’s womb, perhaps provoked by the mass, and landing surrounded by tapestry legend. Does it matter whether it is true? What more do you want to know?
And does it matter whether Scott actually sat on the whisky glass? Well no, of course it doesn’t. Some of you have been saying that from the start, what does any of this matter? What indeed?
But something, somewhere, has happened. Something has meant that Lockhart has replicated this minor detail of The Antiquary in his Life of Scott, and that, inconsequential as it is, is proof that art lays tracks in the souls of men.
*These are a sort of spiked object that are half-buried in the ground to lame your opponent’s horses in battle. A bit like throwing drawing pins out of a car window in a cartoon. Some useful advice on making your own can be found here:
Instead of forging your own calthrops, you can simply use the kids toy "jacks". If you are a evil ninja, you can just steal them from a child, or even a lesser-ninja.