“The primary colour of delight”: Walter Pater and Gold
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The Irish poet William Sharp recalled visiting Walter Pater’s college rooms, when a golden ray of sunlight suddenly provoked a lengthy discourse on gold from the Victorian critic. Pater explored what he called “the primary colour of delight” throughout his thirty years as a writer. This paper maps the range of Pater’s use of gold in his writings in an attempt to capture the complexities of his notion of the purest of metals. In his Greek essays Pater dealt with the purest gold as a material for sculpture as it had recently surfaced in Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations of Mycenae. But he also dealt with the polychrome sculpture of Antiquity and spoke of Homer’s language as “chryselefantine”. He thus addressed the controversial issue of colour in ancient sculpture, while linking sculpture and language by means of the adjective “chryselefantine”. In his novel Marius the Epicurean (1885) Apuleius’ The Golden Ass figured as the protagonist’s “Golden Book”, and in one of his short pieces of fiction Pater’s Dionysian figure Denys l’Auxerrois was framed in the context of the classical myth of the Golden Age, popularly known from the opening of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In “The School of Giorgione” (1877) the golden threads of Venetian painting relate in a complex manner to J.A.M. Whistler’s controversial Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket and to the influence of Byzantine art on Venetian painting. Gold figures as mass, as line, as surface covering, as composite sculptural material, as an intriguing metaphor and as myth. It is likened to light, and is thus immaterial, and at the same time, it is tangible—whether as a thread in weaving, as surface covering or as solid material, alone or set off by other materials. Its primary aesthetic effect is dependent on light. To Pater gold is pure, truthful, essential—as the result of an alchemical process—and potentially deceptive, as indicated in his distinction between the terms “golden” and “gilded”. It is questionable whether it is at all possible to condense Pater’s use of gold over a long career into any one clear definition, but inevitably his continued reference to the material reflects a range of highly topical late Victorian issues, whether the latest archaeological discoveries, the latest art controversies or the late Victorian interest in myth. Pater’s golden writings, themselves distilled through endless revision and polishing, thus serve as a reflection of the late nineteenth-century concern with gold.
|Journal||Polysèmes: Revue d'études intertextuelles et intermédiales|
|Publication status||Published - Aug 2016|