STEPHEN BANN, ED.
The Reception of Walter Pater in Europe
London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2004. 311 pp. $225
In 1994, I had the pleasure of attending a conference in Canterbury devoted to Walter Pater. One evening we went on a walking tour to places associated with our subject. When Stephen Bann took us to Pater's house, the current residents were surprised, even alarmed, to find the assembled group of scholars on their doorstep. "We are here," someone explained, "in honor of Walter Pater." "Fine," the woman coming out replied, "but who is Pater?" Even in his own country, Walter Pater is a very specialized taste. Part of the problem is that he is difficult to place. He hoped to be admired for Plato and Platonism, but specialists in ancient philosophy pay little attention to that book. His fascinating Marius the Epicurean, a very odd specimen of Victorian prose, is in my experience almost unreadable as a novel. (1) Nowadays his reputation rests on the essays gathered in The Renaissance, supplemented by the various portraits appearing in Imaginary Portraits. Pater was writing just when the working methodology of academic art history was being established. Compared with the German scholars of his day, though, Pater seems but a gifted amateur. Certainly, his interests are very different from those of present-day art historians. (2)
This new anthology edited by Bann, a publication in the series the Reception of British Authors in Europe, includes essays discussing Pater's reception in Italian, French, German, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Portuguese, Catalan, and Spanish sources. We learn about the many translations of Pater and how they were understood. Apart from Bann's very useful introduction, these clear essays by specialists are meant for readers already acquainted with Pater's writings. If you seek a summary or critical evaluation of his arguments or a focused discussion explaining why his writings are still relevant to art historians, then you will find The Reception of Walter Pater in Europe unhelpful. But if your aim is to understand why he appealed and appeals to many very diverse readers in many European languages, then you will find the book immensely illuminating. None of the individual essays in this volume gives reason to modify our conception of Pater, but taken collectively they reveal much about the complex process in which a grand reputation is established.
Recently Pater's great precursor John Ruskin has attracted attention. Thanks to his biographers, we know a great deal about this critic's loving attention to Venetian architecture and J. M. W. Turner's paintings and about his socialism. As George Leonard has shown, there is a pretty obvious direct line between Ruskin's concerns and those of the mid-twentieth-century art world. (3) Ruskin's concern with politics, for example, has been taken up by the many influential writers associated with the periodical October. Like Ruskin, these art critics want to moralize...