17 May Prolixity
We all lean toward prolixity.
— Samuel Butler
I’m putting into conscious practice Harold Speed’s advice to “leave out the details” and go for a “large and simple statement.” (Speed’s is identical to John Singer Sargent’s advice to “omit all but the most essential elements.”)
And so serendipity and the fates must have colluded to put in front of me “Brevity,” a passage from The Notebooks of Samuel Butler.
A scanner if there ever was one, Butler studied painting at several London art schools before leaving the field for a career as a writer. His time there left him a lifelong pal of the painter Charles Gogin.
In “Brevity,” Butler describes a chummy evening’s conversation with Gogin (one of many recounted in The Notebooks).
“I said that in writing it took more time and trouble to get a thing short than long,” Butler writes.
Gogin replies that it was the same with painting. “It was harder not to paint a detail than to paint it,” he says, and “easier to put in all that one can see than to judge what may go without saying.”
“We all lean towards prolixity,” Butler concludes.
“The difficulty lies in the nice appreciation of relative importances and in the giving each detail neither more nor less than its due. We are continually trying to see as much as we can, and to put it down.
“More wisely we should consider how much we can avoid seeing and dispense with. Anyone can paint anything in the minute manner with a little practice, but it takes an exceedingly able man to paint so much as an egg broadly and simply.”
Butler then compares the artist to a favorite manservant.
“Bearing in mind the shortness of life and the complexity of affairs, it stands to reason that we owe most to him who packs our trunks for us most intelligently, neither omitting what we are likely to want, nor including what we can dispense with, and who, at the same time, arranges things so that they will travel most safely and be got at most conveniently.”
Above: Egg with Spoon by Ollie LeBroq; oil on canvas. Fir Tree after Ruskin by Samuel Butler; pen and ink on paper. Samuel Butler by Charles Gogin; oil on canvas.
Below: Bonne Maman by Robert Francis James; oil on canvas board. Ships framed and ready to hang.