For Newman, beauty had a serious purpose


Fr Ian Ker, the Newman scholar and author of an acclaimed biography of the soon-to-be Saint John Henry, gave a talk recently at Blackfriars in Oxford on Newman as a writer. It was pitched for a general audience i.e. for people like me who am not very familiar with Newman’s writings.

Ker made several interesting points: such as (talking of the Oxford milieu of Newman’s day) that Newman knew “people could be well-educated but not Christians” and would have understood how, in another century, “cultured people could be Nazis”. He also noted two providential aspects of the earlier part of Newman’s life: forbidden by the Provost of Oriel from spending time mentoring the undergraduates as he had wished (which tells us much about Newman’s personal and fatherly approach towards students), this gave him the enforced leisure to start reading the Church Fathers; and the well-known slur on the Catholic priesthood by Charles Kingsley gave him the spur to write his Apologia pro Vita Sua.

Ker commented in an aside how much more entertaining and absorbing to read are Newman’s letters compared to those of George Eliot. She put all her literary gifts into her novels; Newman’s literary skills were to hand whenever he took up his pen. As Ker put it, alluding to Wordsworth’s definition of poetry, Newman had a wonderful ability to record “emotion recollected in tranquillity”.

Not having read Wilfred Ward’s early biography of Newman, very influential in its day, I noted Ker’s remark that Ward’s portrait made Newman seem “over-sensitive” and that he hoped his own biography showed how robust, satirical and many-sided Newman actually was. Fr Guy Nichols’ recent book, Unearthly Beauty (Gracewing £25), highlights one of these aspects of Newman’s personality: his love for beauty – especially in poetry, music, the liturgy and architecture (painting mattered less to him; he seems unaware of the Orthodox tradition of icon-painting.)

For Newman, beauty in the arts always had the serious purpose of leading people to the “contemplation of celestial things”. This was especially true of music. I had not known, until I read Nichols’ book, how talented Newman had been on the violin and how musical his family was. When he was at home before the death of his mother and the marriages of his two sisters, they enjoyed regular musical evenings, with Jemima accompanying Newman on the piano and musical Oxford friends joining in. Interestingly, Nichols comments that musical talent at Oxford in those days was not considered a notable accomplishment.

Newman himself is quoted, that “It seems quite frequently the case that in the celibate male world of the Oxford colleges, not only were the dons’ sisters often the females most frequently encountered, but also that they were often the pianists in music-making.” Beethoven was Newman’s favourite composer: he “could move him with exhilaration and delight, so much so indeed that “he was obliged to lay down the instrument and literally cry out with delight.”

Yet my favourite quote of Newman in this book is not about aesthetics. Mrs Elton’s comment in Jane Austen’s Emma that “Birmingham is not a place to promise much…One has no great hopes of Birmingham” is in contrast to Newman’s terse response in 1864 to a certain Monsignor Talbot, who had invited him to preach in Rome on the snobbish grounds that he would find a more educated Protestant audience than in Birmingham. Newman declined with the famous remark, “Birmingham people have souls”.