Ruskin once said Whistler was a coxcomb who asked two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face. One could say something similar about etcher Robert Goff – who, as Brighton Museum so incessantly avows, is a poor man’s James Whistler.
Robert Goff, 1837-1922, is a Hove resident and monochromatic doodler, who has yet to appear in The Grove Dictionary of Art. He went to the most majestic beauties of the imperial world and produced nothing but glum squiggles. Egypt, Japan, Florence and Venice are depicted in the same humdrum manner as a field in Shoreham. The Gothic spires of Westminster hold as much dull appeal as the boat next to it. These transitory daubs must have meant something to someone some time but have no resonance, emotional or otherwise, now.
The curator’s side-comments don’t help. They tell you: “The stark and imposing beauty of the pyramids is balanced by the sparse rendering of the sky.” Above is a sketch of two large black triangles and underlying scratches. Another caption praises Goff for adding “depth by placing small figures in the foreground”. How do we know he didn’t just draw what he saw? Another insists Goff “strategically places a sailing boat to create a focal point”. What if the boat was just, y’know, there?
The whole exhibit is distinctly underwhelming. Leave the museum and see the wanton beauty of Nash’s Royal Pavilion: compare this Regency-era creation of decadence with Goff’s dreary doodles, and you’ll see what I mean. It is not the subject matter. Sussex gales and English waters have inspired both the intensity of Turner and the wistfulness of Constable. It is the artist. Robert Goff, while technically skilful, stirs the soul very little. If you are an artist, this matters.
Philosophers of art have written interminable theses on the definition of good art. Very broadly, it is this: art is something that makes you go wow. This doesn’t. Don’t go.
Robert Goff: An Etcher in the Wake of Whistler, Brighton Museum, until 29 April.