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Joyce Cary: The Horse’s Mouth

This is the third and by far the best-known of Cary’s first trilogy. It is the best-known one as it is narrated by Gulley Jimson, an outrageous, scurrilous, dishonest artist. It is also the best-known because it was made into an excellent film, starring Alec Guinness.

We have already met Gulley Jimson in the first novel in the trilogy, where we saw what a rogue he was. He proposed to Sara Monday when he was already married, ran off and left her more than once, returned with another wife, Nina, to whom he was not actually married, whom he beat, and borrows money off anyone he can, with no intention of paying it back. He may or may not be a great artist. He seems to paint in a childlike style. Some dealers and critics think he is a genius. Other disagree. Obviously, we are not in a position to judge, unless we judge him on the paintings used in the film, which were in fact done by John Bratby some of whose paintings (like one of Jimson’s) hang in the Tate. We do know that, in this book, Hickson, the collector, does admire him and that Jimson’s painting of Sara Monday (semi-nude) hangs in pride of place in his living room. We also know that the penniless critic, Alabaster, wants to do a biography of him.

However, as readers, his genius counts for little. What does count is his scurrilous behaviour, which makes him a fascinating character, one we should totally despise but, because of his charm and Cary’s skill, we cannot help feel a certain sympathy for. He is happy to sponge off anybody he can and, if that does not work, steal from them. He routinely avoids paying debts. Yet, despite this, he does help/is sympathetic to some of the downtrodden. He still seems somewhat attracted to Sara Monday and, though he tries to use her and, indeed does, he also feel pity for her – the two men she lives with in this book are abusive towards her – and even tries to help her. His friend Plant loses his hand as a result of an infection he does not get treated. As he is a cobbler by trade, he can no longer work and becomes destitute. Despite being almost as destitute himself, Jimson does help him.

Where Jimson’s worse side really comes out, is when he is up against those who, on his opinion, have mistreated him or who owe him. We see this with the art dealer Hickson, who has legally acquired his paintings to pay off his debts. However, Jimson’s view is that they are his paintings as he painted them. At the beginning of the book, he is just coming out of jail, after spending a week there, for trying to defraud Hickson. He will later spend six months in jail when he steals Netsuke ornaments from Hickson and then throws them through his window. He uses a boathouse – it is not, of course, his, but rented – as both his studio and residence. However, when he is spending his six months in jail, it is taken over by Mrs Coker and her daughter, Jimson’s friend, Miss Coker, formerly bar manager but now out of work and in an advanced state of pregnancy. Jimson resents this and tries to sabotage them, writing threatening letters and breaking in and causing damage.

The worse victims are the poor Beeders, who do try to help them but they seem very rich to Jimson and, when they are away, he gets hold of the key, moves into their flat and causes untold damage, justifying it by the fact that he is painting a picture of the Raising of Lazarus on their wall (which they are unaware of). He even lets Abel, a young sculptor, join him, and a huge block of stone is moved into the flat (also causing damage).

But one thing we can (perhaps) say in Jimson’s favour, is that he is devoted to his art, good or bad. He is prepared to risk anything – jail, assault or (the least of his worries) the condemnation of all and sundry. He gets an idea and runs with it. Despite this, during the course of this book, he continues with one painting (The Fall), started prior to this book and starts two more (The Raising of Lazarus and The Creation) but comes nowhere near to finishing any of three. Part of this is because of circumstances, often though certainly by no means always of his own making, part of it is because of his overweening ambition (both The Fall and The Creation are massive paintings) and part because of his apparent high standards (he is always changing his mind, redoing a bit that he has done or generally being dissatisfied with his own work).

Whether he is the consummate artist is open to question. His father had been an artist (I never meant to be an artist. You say, who does. But I even meant not to be an artist because I’d lived with one and I couldn’t forget seeing my father, a little grey-bearded old man, crying one day in the garden), which put him off. With only partially tongue in cheek, he frequently condemns artists (Prison is too good for artists — they ought to be rolled down Primrose Hill in a barrel full of broken bottles once a week and twice on public holidays, to teach them where they get off.). This is by no means the only time he condemns artists, himself included.

However, it is not his artistry that makes this book, as I mentioned above, it is his behaviour. We keep wondering how he gets away with it all and, when he does not, we feel somewhat (though only somewhat) sorry for him. However, we also feel glad that we do not have a Gulley Jimson in our lives, as he does seem to disrupt the lives of most of the people he comes into contact with. However, he is certainly a wonderful creation and Cary has produced a wonderfully funny novel about him.

Publishing history

First published 1944 by Michael Joseph