Ken Pyne cartoon

Do you remember the smell? The redolence of the little tubes of ‘oil paint’?

Not to mention the exquisite risk (because oil paint would not wash off). The necessity to soak the brush in that strange stuff—‘turpentine’. The ambition, the aspiration to achieve the picture of a horse in a field, the flowers in a jar, the replication of the Mona Lisa: so perfect and so beautifully available—if you could just fill in each numbered portion faithfully, with its own faithful colour.

And the painting to be achieved would arrive on a birthday or at Christmas, the perfect thing to fill several hours of patient application. But oh, the disappointment when half way through, your patience ran out or you discovered you’d painted a bit with the wrong colour. Your edges weren’t clear, like they should have been. The horse was not as horse-like as it had been on the cover. It should have fitted together as magically as a jig-saw but (in my case, at least) it never quite did. And so the painting lay about, and the little tubes looked squeezed and limp, and the brush was not soaked in turpentine as it should have been, but hardened in the unforgiving paint, which had also somehow found its way onto bits of the dining room table. There was retribution, and there was guilt.

Wikipedia tells me it all started in the early 1950s, just in time for me (born 1953) to undergo aspiration and anguish. Max S Klein (owner of the Palmer Paint Company of Detroit, Michigan) and Dan Robbins (a commercial artist with an eye for the main chance) were the perpetrators, and the marvellous idea led to ‘colour by numbers’ (with crayons, so much less dangerous to household furniture), as well as the same principle applied to tapestry.

Stamped cross-stitch and embroidery kits must, however, have long pre-dated painting by numbers. From the tablecloths we grew up with, I have reason to believe my mother tackled pre-printed designs long before I was born. In this case, no numbers are required, just the faint indication of the design on the cloth, sometimes in colour, more often in monochrome shadow, with the colours left to the craftswoman’s judgement. I have a memory of half-finished embroidered cloths in the little sewing table (the lid lifted up and the threads and bobbins were underneath). Presumably the vision grew thin halfway through, or my mother got too busy to finish the job.

There’s no real connection between this and writing by numbers. There isn’t really an equivalent, and when Pope talks about it in his ‘Epistle to Arbuthnot’, he means something different:

Why did I write? what sin to me unknown
Dipp’d me in ink, my parents’, or my own?
As yet a child, nor yet a fool to fame,
I lisp’d in numbers, for the numbers came.
I left no calling for this idle trade,
No duty broke, no father disobey’d.
The Muse but serv’d to ease some friend, not wife,
To help me through this long disease, my life

‘Numbers’ were the Renaissance term for poetry, because poetry was defined in terms of measured form, counted out metrically or syllabically, or via some patterned system. Certainly it makes sense in terms of Pope’s work, his ear for the perfect turn of phrase to complement a neatly iambic line.

And now? What about the repeating French forms: the villanelles, the sestinas, the triolets, and even the paradelle (the last invented by Billy Collins as a joke, but now popping up in various places with disturbing solemnity). The pattern is supplied. You study it carefully. You choose the words that are to recur in the recurring places, and – voilà! a poem appears. I am among the many who have served their time with these forms, who have industriously studied to repeat the repetitions, in the hope that something would emerge.

For me, however, they do not have the charm of the oil paint, the risk and the promise. I can’t say these forms are unworthy. Sometimes, when penned by other people, I read them with pleasure and surprise. I know the feat has been achieved when I discover I have liked the poem without noticing the elaborate practice in numbers. This is rare.  (It doesn’t help when the work is titled ‘Sestina’.)

As for the villanelle: if you are going to repeat two lines four times inside one poem of only 19 lines in total, those two lines had better be good. ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is one of the few that does it for me. By and large, I think the villanelle is a villain. But let Pope have the last word:

Fire in each eye, and papers in each hand,
They rave, recite, and madden round the land.

What walls can guard me, or what shades can hide?
They pierce my thickets, through my grot they glide;
By land, by water, they renew the charge;
They stop the chariot, and they board the barge.
No place is sacred, not the church is free;
Ev’n Sunday shines no Sabbath-day to me:
Then from the Mint walks forth the Man of Ryme,
Happy! to catch me just at Dinner-time.

Ken Pyne cartoon


  1. Not only do I remember the smell of the paint but I have been to an exhibition of paintings made from numbered kits – in the National Museum of American History, Washington in June 2001. That’s one of the joys of being a tourist: you go to things you wouldn’t ever choose to at home, and you confront the unexpected. So I learned that every painting had something red in it, somewhere; that the ‘paintings’ were a response to postwar prosperity and increased leisure time; that even Nelson Rockefeller and J Edgar Hoover had dabbled with the art form (their efforts were on show). A personal response: they are truly terrifying en masse – they manage to suck all creativity and originality out of the air.

    The accompanying leaflet introduced the exhibition as follows: “Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s revisits the hobby from the vantage point of the artists and entrepreneurs who created the kits, the critics who reviled them, and the consumers who happily completed them and hung them in their homes. Although many critics saw ‘number painting’ as a symbol of the mindless conformity gripping 1950s America, paint by number had a peculiarly American virtue. It invited people who had never before held a paintbrush to enter a world of art and creativity.”

    One section of the guide is headed “Every man a Rembrandt”. Er, no. But people seemed to like the security and safety that they offered, the tidy completion. They framed them. They hung them in their homes.

    Fortunately form in poetry offers a bit more choice, and just occasionally it’s inventive and new. I agree that it’s best when you don’t notice it until the second or third reading of a poem – and that can happen, and when it does it’s a bonus.

  2. How refreshing to hear a sensible approach to villanelles – and how refreshing to reread some of Pope’s best lines! I got into trouble recently for suggesting that this type of form distanced the emotion, so that the emotional content has to be cranked up, as it were, to stop the form dominating. That’s what Dylan Thomas did. The point is exactly as you say: if we notice the form and are distracted by its cleverness, rather than being affected by the content, the poem has failed. A lot of contemporary poetry is (I humbly submit) thin on content, so the danger is doubled.

  3. Oh that’s good. Davina, I wish I had seen that exhibition in Washington. It would have plunged me into nostalgia.

    But, after I’d written the blog above, I thought my early memories of painting by numbers in oil did not actually include [i]tubes [/i]of paint. I think tubes came later. To begin with there were little tiny — well not ‘tubs’, but smaller than that — little capsules of paint — I remember something of this kind, and that you had to stir them. And afterwards there were palettes. I can’t quite see them in my head. Someone else must remember this better than me.

    And thanks Anthony for agreeing with my villainy.

  4. Nell, you wouldn’t have wanted to see that exhibition. I felt that the walls were closing in on me, slowly, silently as though in an M R James short story, and that however much I tried to engage with the sociological aspects of the exhibition I would be crushed if I stayed there too long. What passed for fresh air in Washington in June was extra welcome after that exhibition.

    The leaflet refers to the contents of each kit as ‘two brushes and up to ninety premixed, numbered paints ready to be applied’. My memory is as blurred as yours around this, but tubes would have been too fiddly; tubs, tub-lets possibly.

    It’s not only the villanelle that imprisons the poet and the reader. Triolet, anyone?

  5. Oil Painting is fascinating. I still remember my first oil paint which was not perfect, although had managed to reach the walls of our living room. Thereafter I did not look back. Kept on trying and still learning but for sure my love for oil painting will never deplete.

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