Obituary: Hugh Gordon Porteus

Hugh Gordon Porteus, literary and art critic, born Leeds 1906, died 23 January 1993.

HUGH GORDON PORTEUS was a genial, quirky, gifted, enigmatic man.

I saw a lot of him in the late 1950s and during the first half of the 1960s, when I was a BBC radio producer and then literary editor of the Listener. Porteus was for a time part of that clientele vaguely aligned towards Features Department, and therefore to be found in such pubs as the Stag and the George, handy for Broadcasting House. I think it was because he had written a radio programme Dog River for my colleague Terence Tiller that I first met him, and encouraged him to embark on translations of some of his favourite Chinese poets, Li Po and Tu Fu, to be broadcast on the Third Programme.

Porteus had taught himself Chinese before the war and perfected it as a member of the wartime Chinese Service (when he came to know William Empson). His calligraphy was particularly fine. But his best gift was to have found an idiom and a style for translating Chinese poetry which was utterly different from the gentle, ironical, wistful manner which Arthur Waley had made seem the only voice for this material. Porteus's translations, of which unfortunately very few have been published, were much more spiky, brilliant, intense.

In the 1930s he had been a precocious dnd prolific literary journalist, contributing reviews and surveys of current periodicals to TS Eliot's Criterion throughout the decade, publishing the first full-length book on Wyndham Lewis in his mid-twenties, and a book on Chinese art a little later. During the war he served for a time in Cairo, contributing to Personal Landscape and becoming a close friend of Lawrence Durrell. His writings, chiefly on poetry, were frequent for over a decade, from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, in a variety of journals, from Poetry London to the New English Weekly. His approach was scholarly but not stuffy, amusing and amused, and quite unafraid of received assessments.

By the time I got to know him, in 1958, he had become less active, and rather ruefully cast himself in the role of back-number, though he was still only in his early fifties. The programme on Chinese poetry which he did for me seemed to give him a bit of a fillip; and, when I joined the Listener in 1962, I thought it a good idea to use him for a time as the journal's art critic, he and I having spent several pre- or post-lunchtimes enjoyably exploring the West End galleries. He took to this very well, bringing flair and wit to his fortnightly pieces. He also did a great deal of book-reviewing for me, everything from Ezra Pound (another of his enthusiasms, though a tempered one) to Oriental shamanism.

He had been married but his wife had left him for another woman and Hugh lived for a longish time in shabby but at the same time rather splendid bachelorhood in a block of flats just off Sloane Square in Chelsea. As the years went by, his habitual geniality seemed more often inflamed with some sort of conspiracy notion, direct against himself; thus my joining the New Statesman as literary editor in 1968 was somehow a left-wing plot, just as later joining Encounter was a right-wing one. His political affiliations, attitudes and sentiments, which seemed both rigid and capricious, were often hard to fathom.

Later, he took himself off to Cheltenham, where he had a small house, and seemed to go out of circulation again. I missed his very funny, elaborate letters, almost always written in an elegantly decorative style close to his notable Chinese calligraphy. I had often urged him to write his memoirs (so much about Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Durrell, Dylan Thomas and many others) and to collect together his translations of Chinese poems. But he did neither. He remains in bound volumes of periodicals, in footnotes and indexes. Those who knew him will remember a rather hearty, ruddy-faced, almost tweedy man, with a slightly barking voice (a bit like a long-ago regular officer), who could be an entertaining, sometimes absorbing companion.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence