Pictures that fail to move in the age of moving pictures and pictures that fail to move

Click to follow
IN the David Livingstone exhibition, which opened last week at the National Portrait Gallery, there is an oil painting which purports to describe the slave trade. It is by an artist I have never heard of, Francois-Auguste Biard, and it looks a pleasantly decorative piece of work: pink skies, sailing ship on the horizon, and in the foreground a dense composition of figures who might, at first glance, be attending a wedding feast or a picnic. And yet when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840 it caused a storm of interest and sympathy. Britain had withdrawn from slavery seven years earlier, but Arabs still conducted the trade in east Africa, where Livingstone hoped he might abolish it by the introduction of the three Cs - Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation. Biard's picture, so its exhibition caption says, was a remarkable piece of propaganda in the same cause. One critic wrote that it had made the slave trade "more infamous than it had been depicted by a score of advocates eloquent for its suppression".

I read the caption and looked at the picture more closely. It still looked like a party. In Biard's painting a white man in a straw hat reclines on the right. In the centre a black man sits on a bright oriental carpet smoking a long pipe. Another black man is stretched out on some raffia matting. Drunk or asleep, it is difficult to say. Another white man bends over him. A black woman, bare-breasted, looks on. Apart from a whip, caught in mid-flail against the sky in the top left, everything is ambiguous and rather beautiful - the light and shade, the complementary colours. Biard has treated his subjects, both wrong-doers and wronged, kindly and politely. Nobody looks angry or particularly cruel or fearful.

All I could see was an aesthetic exercise in a gilt frame; our ancestors read it as a repugnant story. We may not be less humane - maybe, in relation to early Victorians, we are more so - but the crush of images in our lives from photography and film have eroded, and go on eroding, the impact of realism. "Gosh, that was terrible." "Yes, but did you see...." The media embargo on the Dunblane funerals may mark a turning point, a recognition that people can feel for others imaginatively, without being shown their distress. But probably not. Judging from my own reaction to the Biard picture, we cannot be properly moved until we see the real thing - or what passes for it on videotape.

ACCORDING to its own surveys, the Methodist Church is facing extinction. The statistics are grim. Every day it loses 26 members; attendance fell 10 per cent over the past three years. In 1950, there were nearly 750,000 Methodists; today there are half that number. The church's membership secretary, the Reverend Peter Barber, thinks the cause may be the fragmentation of the working class, among whom Methodism was traditionally strong, and "a style of worship which doesn't engage the young intellectually or emotionally".

I offer another theory. The Methodists, like most truly Protestant churches (ie, excluding the Church of England), are not keen on graven images, decoration or dressing up. They may not be as austere as the further shores of Presbyterianism, where even stained glass was thought to be Papist decadence, but they certainly prefer the Word to the picture, the slate roof to the Gothic spire. They love hymns - Methodism has given England some of its greatest lyrics and music - but otherwise they tend towards the untheatrical and the unmysterious. They are plain, verbal, reasonable, accessible and non-hierarchic. No wonder they are in such trouble.

IF the Methodists want to see how bleak their future could be, they should look outside the boundaries of Christianity to the largely forgotten denomination of Hinduism called the Brahmo Samaj. Intelligent Protestantism has a lot in common with the Brahmo Samaj. It was (and where it exists, still is) a remarkably reasonable form of worship. The Brahmos believe in one, largely unknowable God. They have no images of Him/Her/It. Their places of worship were as austere as a tin chapel in County Armagh. Like the Methodists, they were social reformers (against caste, for the remarriage of widows). Like the Methodists, they sang hymns to beautiful music. They were also, like the Methodists, evangelical. Their missionaries spread across India with the steam locomotive and the steamboat. They were not - an important point - Christian, which meant that in the culture, politics and ethics of Victorian Indians they became hugely influential.

And now? Sometimes in a town in the Ganges delta an old man may tell you that a brick ruin, cracked by creepers, was where the Brahmos used to worship. Once in Delhi I managed to locate a Brahmo service and heard its preacher, part-time and plainly dressed, deliver a sermon on the philosophy of Kant. India, as you will know, generally prefers its religions in gaudier, more dramatic forms. The Methodists should take note. But if they change - see the Rev Barber's worry about his church's lack of appeal to young people - they will probably destroy all that is good about Methodism.

MY solution to the Methodist problem would be this. Take advantage of government initiatives and open primary schools, particularly in inner London. The popular demand for Church of England schools is making them quite sniffy about the pupils they will admit, demanding evidence of parental Anglican attendance and belief. Like many members of the North London middle class, my hypocrisy can stretch quite far in the interests of my children. The Church of England, however, is too far even for me. Methodism I could get to like. If the Methodists were to concentrate their funds on education and open some good schools, I'd happily forgive them Alderman Roberts and his daughter and be down to the chapel every Sunday, singing "Lo, He comes with clouds descending" as lustily as the rest.