“The more one-sided a society’s observance of strict moral principles such as orderliness, cleanliness, and hostility toward instinctual drives, and the more deep-seated its fear of the other side of human nature – vitality, spontaneity, sensuality, critical judgement, and inner independence – the more strenuous will be its efforts to isolate this hidden territory, to surround it with silence or institutionalize it”.
– Alice Miller, ‘Thou Shalt Not Be Aware’
According to Greenaway, Augustus is six. He is the ‘adopted’ son of Mr Talman – his impotent German uncle, who had stolen him from his Catholic upbringing to rear him as a “little protestant”. Mr and Mrs Talman are Augustus’ surrogate parents – she, referring to him as an ‘orphan’ – an appropriate definition for one starved of love, parental or otherwise. As for Mr Talman, he is simply deploying Augustus as a substitute heir for the house and grounds at Compton Ansty; it is well known that if Mrs Talman were to bear a child, it would be the next in line for this inheritance. Augustus has no known brothers or sisters, no friends of his age; an isolated child surrounded by vain, selfish, arrogant adults whose speech consists of Shakespearean-style banter; whose only purpose seems to be a contest of wit and wits.
Yet it is Augustus, the child, who silently beholds the talent of wit and observation; he, who is naturally in touch with his environment: “… the boy was sensitive to what adults chose to ignore and saw magic in an English garden where others saw only money and property”. He has nothing to gain by scorning others, and it is he who privately acknowledges the peculiarity of the ‘statue’ – a living statue that roams the garden. Augustus is captivated by the statue during one of his uncle’s rambling sermons – and in spite of his shameless curiosity, Mr Talman does not even attempt to discover the object of the child’s distraction – a blind, disinterested parent. The statue – in return, looks to Augustus and blows a silent raspberry at Mr Talman, pointing at him with a leering gesture. He then smiles at the young boy. A fantastical ally like a child’s imaginary friend sprouted into reality. Instead of parodying the adults with visual puns – which he does by climbing and dismounting the lead horse that occupies a section of lawn – a possible analogy to the saying ‘Get off your high horse’, the statue sides with Augustus and appreciates his child’s fascination – bored with grown-ups’ constipated vision. Grown-ups who will never savour the mysteries of nature; too preoccupied with the preservation of order and continuity in society, where social acceptance is conformity.
Mrs Talman illustrates this when she states: “To be a good draughtsman requires a certain blindness; an impartial reluctance to be aware of all things”. This idea is based upon a remark expressed to Greenaway by an art master when he was a student: “Draw what you see, and not what you know” – a concept implying that self-expression must be institutionalized according to contemporary mores. A child’s artistic expression is not usually prescribed for it, and is therefore qualified to “be aware of all things”.
Augustus is not a child of that type. He is ‘force-fed’ German and conventional ideologies by his pompous uncle. He is provided with a blackboard and a scratchy nibbed-pen to etch his drawings on. The resulting grating noise from this combination is unbearable to listen to – as if the pen was a chipped fingernail, in contrast to the soft, sensual sounds of the draughtsman’s pencil. It would seem that the experience is intended to be as unpleasant as possible for Augustus. Mr Talman would like him to concentrate on more ‘important’ pursuits: “Drawing is an attribution worth very little and in England worth nothing at all. If you must scribble, I suggest that your time is better spent in studying mathematics”.
Most children enjoy “scribbling” – it is their abstract act of creation, and the cruel nibbed-pen and blackboard are a more subtle and effective way to discourage a child from “scribbling” than a verbal no-no, where a tempting opportunity to rebel could arise.
Although Augustus has not been institutionalized by schooling, his uncle has made certain that the young nephew has been regimented with knowledge and an upbringing he deems fit for society, and suited to his role as ‘father’ – albeit a selfish father who lives out his own dreams, re-enacting them vicariously through a dependent child. As it is, Mr Talman addresses the young Augustus as he might an aspiring trainee: “I would engage a tutor and who knows – one day, you Augustus, may add the Talman name to the royal society…” He speaks to Augustus not as a child, but as a potential partner in an illicit business deal; and Augustus’ childhood is sacrificed to accommodate an untimely introduction to the adult world.
Augustus can be viewed as a victim of his circumstances; he is at an age where play is important, and the only time we see him at ‘play’ is on a swing, being pushed alternately between his nanny and a male member of the household. The ‘family unit’ of which he forms a part is a pathetic denial of what he would really desire. Augustus and Mrs Talman are never shown together; that task of ‘mother’ is assumed by the aloof nanny and his elders who surround the swing – they form no emotional attachment. No one touches the child; he is simply tossed back and forth like the swing – a cold, loveless existence. He is an object of play, a puppet reliant on someone else to manipulate the strings – just as he, in reality, is manipulated by others.
Augustus is dressed in white; a colour traditionally associated with the idea of innocence – a blank canvas exposed to any exterior powers that might wish to impose an imprint. He is clothed to conform to the adults’ concept of fashion, and his exaggerated wig appears to ridicule the pretensions of their own garnished get-up. In reply, these adults sport black and white fashion – chess pieces perhaps, or a subliminal comment on their unquestioning behaviour; literally viewing life in black and white. Their contrast makes Augustus all the more visible, his presence more blatant, a freak. He is treated like an oddity, his head bowed as he is pushed; a solemn expression on his face. Perhaps he is even ashamed, conscious of the difference adults have accredited him with. Even his name ‘Augustus’ has a comical, sarcastic undertone; ridiculously huge and embellished for one so small, so young – its meaning signifying someone “marked by majestic dignity or grandeur”. An ironic reflection on Mr Talman’s approach to his role as ‘father’, patriarchy in place of paternity.
Adults stand about Augustus, pleasure themselves with the voyeuristic delights of watching the young “midget king” at ‘play’. Play itself has become an institutionalized ritual.