The artful life of an Essex boy

<i>The Chapel is on Fire</i> by Michael Levey (Jonathan Cape, &pound;16.99, 267pp)
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The Independent Culture

Michael Levey's paternal grandfather, Haydn Handel, was so enamoured of the operas of Wagner that he christened three of his daughters Senta, Elsa and Eva by way of homage. Eva was the youngest of his girls - he sired 14 children by two wives - and the first of them to die, at the age of 39. Senta and Elsa, unlike their more dramatically disposed namesakes, were God-fearing spinsters (they would not have been offended by the term) who lived the suburban life in a house called "Homeleigh" in the then ultra-respectable London borough of Brixton.

Michael Levey's paternal grandfather, Haydn Handel, was so enamoured of the operas of Wagner that he christened three of his daughters Senta, Elsa and Eva by way of homage. Eva was the youngest of his girls - he sired 14 children by two wives - and the first of them to die, at the age of 39. Senta and Elsa, unlike their more dramatically disposed namesakes, were God-fearing spinsters (they would not have been offended by the term) who lived the suburban life in a house called "Homeleigh" in the then ultra-respectable London borough of Brixton.

To the young Michael (who later became Director of the National Gallery), they were enchantresses, as were his other aunts, Madge and Winnie. Visiting the "Homeleigh" quartet was one of the keen, and keenly awaited, pleasures of his prewar childhood. Many unmarried people have a special talent for treating small boys and girls without condescension, acknowledging something already adult in their natures while satisfying their need for fantasy and make-believe, and these women possessed that gift.

The Chapel is on Fire could be described as a semi-detached memoir. What might have been at the passionate core of the book - Levey's estrangement from his kind and decent father, due to the latter's rigid insistence on the rightness of the Roman Catholic faith - is consigned to a saddened paragraph or so in the Foreword. Levey writes of his parents with contained affection; an affection, it should be noted, much like that they afforded their only child.

Mr and Mrs Levey had a horror of outward displays of emotion, and kept their deepest feelings under a tight rein. His mother had a genius for choosing the dullest, dowdiest clothes whenever she went shopping, and tried to inflict her taste for the brown and the beige on to her son, who soon learned to resist it. Her dress sense, such as it was, amounted to a desire for camouflage.

No wonder Michael wanted to make costumes for Queen Elizabeth I and King Charles I in his room at Braemar Crescent, Leigh-on-Sea. The future aesthete, the author of scholarly, admiring studies of Mozart and Tiepolo, rebelled early on against everything drab and commonplace.

Yet Mr and Mrs Levey, for all the shades of Pooter lingering over their neat and tidy home in Braemar Crescent, were not philistines. Mr Levey, a civil servant at the Air Ministry, inherited a love of music from his father, the felicitously named Haydn Handel, and his grandfather Richard Michael who - family legend has it - was born O'Shaughnessy. This composer, conductor and leading figure in Dublin's musical circle throughout the 19th century, became Levey, it is said, because of English prejudice concerning the Irish. He spelled his new name with two "e"s, to ward off any suspicion that he might, perhaps, be Jewish.

In a witty aside, Michael Levey imagines himself reclaiming O'Shaughnessy, with a poverty-stricken background in Dublin or Belfast, talking on a television arts show about the deprivations he has had to endure. It's a funny swipe, but not without a certain snootiness.

Levey grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, and his recollections of those years are as vivid in detail as they are elegantly expressed. He was sent to a succession of Catholic boarding schools where, for a time, he was an excessively devout pupil. His progress towards the highly cultivated paganism he still espouses is deftly charted.

I registered, with some envy, that he was learning to sing Palestrina at an age when I was struggling not to listen to Bing Crosby. The Chapel is on Fire evokes the England of lace curtains, antimacassars and upper lips that were kept resolutely stiff, but it also allows space for those seemingly eccentric individuals - friends, schoolteachers, beloved relatives - who helped Michael Levey to think for himself. As with many other autobiographies, the book becomes less interesting as soon as its narrator approaches adulthood. Its final pages are crammed with chunks of information and hasty, though generous, tributes to the distinguished keepers who preceded him at the National Gallery. The boy Michael becomes a man while the reader is blinking.

Even so, this is an exceptionally thoughtful and observant recreation of an almost vanished middle England. His father would have been thunderstruck by his comments on the elitism and snobbishness of English Catholics, and his mother would have had sharp, and probably justified, words to say about the manner in which he has depicted her. In their different ways, he implies, they bequeathed him much to be grateful for.

Paul Bailey's new book, 'Three Queer Lives', is published by Hamish Hamilton this autumn

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