I’m having a bit of sabbatical from writing about Arnold, Joseph and Alexander van Aken (Heacken). Instead I’m reflecting on some of those niggling questions – which of the several spellings of the brothers’ name to use, is Arnold truly one of the brothers, where did the three recurring dates of birth come from and to which one do they apply? I don’t want to get too bogged down but having plotted out ideas, drawn a narrative arc and written endlessly in spite of not knowing I now feel is the time to settle some of these questions and get past the question, as I hit a buffer, why am writing this story?
So much of the research I have found regarding the lives of Joseph (1699-1749), Arnold (7101-1736) and Alexander (1709-1757); these are the most consistent attribution of dates so far, is conflicting. Or unsubstantiated and generally remains hidden. Destroyed on purpose, lost as considered unimportant, no living memory to recount stories even if memories are unreliable. Wondering around Kennington bookshop[i] a found Why I Write a collection of essays by George Orwell[ii]. Well you need to read his reasons for yourself, but I will own up to his point number 3:
Historical Impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity[iii].
Only I am starting from the other end – Having seen the resulting legacy of the brothers’ lives as it has journeyed through the Chinese whispers of posterity I hope to find out the true facts of their own story as possible – all be it back through a lens of more than two hundred and fifty years.
Another essay[iv] that is included in this book tries to encapsulate the character of the Englishman. Bearing in mind that the essay was first published in 1940, Orwell does, in his attempt to compare and contrast the Englishness to the rest of Europe, includes:
‘….paintings and sculpture have never flourish in England (sic)’[v].
This lack of appreciation for arts created by Englishmen, was the battle that artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) fought during his lifetime. How best to educate the connoisseur and art collectors to appreciate the talented British artists over their foreign rivals. This conflict created flotsam and jetsam of collaborative work between both the newly united British artists of England, Scottish Welsh and Irish, and European artists. British artists scrabbling to learn all they could from the artistic advanced Europeans. Hogarth used French engravers to cut his printing plates and created St Martin’s Lane Academy as a precursor to the Royal Academy of Arts for the formal education of artists in Britain.
Joseph and Alexander was part of this transition from being dependent on the skills of professionally trained European artists to establishing collectable British art and artists. Although there is little primary information about the brothers, their legacy, true or false, has survived where thousands of others have not. They form a conduit through which to view the making of art in the eighteenth century. That is why I write today.