Reginald Baxter: A Life
Text by David Weaver
Reginald Baxter (? - ?) is one of those curious figures of English culture – Shakespeare and Turner also spring to mind – whose impact could not be overstated, but about whom we actually know little in terms of biographical detail. This creates a conundrum for the contemporary critic, for despite the many post-modernist theories arguing for a ‘death of the author,’ the fact remains that we thirst for knowledge, or at the very least, some gossip regarding the man behind the paintings.
So for those who cannot simply immerse themselves in the pellucid perfection of Baxter’s “King Charles Cavalier Spaniel” series, a few facts are offered. Baxter was apparently of unacknowledged noble birth, most probably a scion of the Baxter house that first appeared during the Elizabethan era. The art historian C.P.R. Brumbley, writing in the first monograph on Baxter’s work (completed in 1883, but not discovered until 1998 in a refuse bin in South Bromley), argued that Baxter’s lineage could possibly be traced back to the virgin queen herself. Subsequent critics, however, have dismissed his thesis, stating it was most likely a product of Brumbley’s syphilis-induced mental illness.
There is no further mention of the Baxter bloodline until Reginald actually makes an appearance nearly two hundred years later, during the Crimean War. The Crimean War has provided us with excellent accounting of the English upper classes – generally because so many of them died a most horrible death. This appears to be the case with Baxter, as the rolls of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s First Regiment of Mounted War Artists and Royal Fusiliers testify.
We know little about the composition of this unique company of men who valiantly rode into combat and attempted to capture, from horseback, the barbarity of warfare in full-scale oils, not to mention the occasional watercolour. War correspondents of the period would record their plaintive cries from the battlefield, “This painting from horseback is damnably difficult!”
Many a time sentiments such as these were the final expressions of a life ended far too early. Was this Reginald Baxter’s fate? No one can say for certain, but we do have the combat record of an ‘R. Baxter,’ apparently known to his comrades as “Mutt-lover Baxter.” It reads simply: “Shot through the back while fleeing enemy fire.” The only other information comes under the heading, “Number of Paintings Completed,” which is followed by an incomprehensible “0.” Clearly even in such trying circumstances Baxter had to suffer the slings and arrows of professional jealousy.
That would appear to be the end of Reginald Baxter’s all-too-short sojourn on this earth. Yet the paintings remain, along with the dilemma – the bane of the long, lonely life of the art historian – of ascertaining the date of their composition. Carbon-dating analysis appears to establish their attribution as subsequent to Baxter’s demise. Indeed, some of this research seems even to suggest that the paintings were completed as recently as the late twentieth century, which only goes to demonstrate the considerable limitations of science.
No, instead we must look directly to the paintings to come to grips with their ultimately irreducible mystery. Baxter’s decision to paint the King Charles Cavalier Spaniel and only the King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, has often been dismissed by naysayers as evidence of a supposed “lack of imagination” or even, most shockingly, Baxter’s “limited talent.”
Such statements betray an almost comical misunderstanding of Baxter’s project and are quite wearisome to refute. However, if one must, one only has to point out that in choosing to paint the same subject over and over again, Baxter was rejecting classical, patriarchal, logocentric Western notions of ‘creativity’ and ‘genius.’ After all, it takes a remarkable imagination to conceive of all the subjects one is not going to paint. Surely that is why it is now possible to find a Baxter painting hung in nearly every mall or factory painting outlet across this great land.
But inevitably we find ourselves returning to the question, “Why the King Charles Cavalier Spaniel?” We find our answer in the near-equine poise of the Spaniel, its unnervingly forthright, disarming gaze. This is a gaze that tells us that the Spaniel has seen the many vicissitudes and supposed calamities of history pass it by – and it is not in the least impressed.
For this is aKing Charless Spaniel, as Baxter is repeatedly at pains to remind us, a designation that makes reference to an historical entity nowhere present in the painting itself (trust me, I looked – and closely, too). Who was this King Charles? What relation did he have with Spaniels? Did the eponymous King somehow see himself and the goals of his administration reflected in supra-historical perspective of the Spaniel? How does this relate to Baxter’s own traumatic engagement with history? Speculation is never the serious critic’s stock-in-trade, yet it is difficult not to imagine that Baxter’s encounter with the Spaniel came in the heat of battle, and that there is a bond there that far surpasses that usually found between man and beast. We will never know for certain. Ah, the frustrating murk of history!
Or, as is so often the case, the truth may be more mundane, even uninteresting. Could it be that Baxter saw the Spaniel as a subject redolent of a long-ago, almost-forgotten, happier era? Is this what we are to read in the Spaniel’s placid gaze? For it is a gaze that says, Get on with your life! Forget your unsuccessful marriages, your numerous unpublished manuscripts, your sordid episodes of personal bankruptcy! Let us swim together in the blue sea glimpsed so tantalizingly in the distant background of the painting! Somehow Baxter has created in us the belief that the Spaniel sees into the darkest corners of our lives – and that the Spaniel forgives us.
Now tell me that is not genius.
David Weaver is a Toronto writer and filmmaker with a lifelong interest in the works of Reginald Baxter. He is presently contemplating the purchase of a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel.