ALBION, THE ANCIENT poetic name for England chosen by Richard Kenin for his title, is a romantic one, and so we open the book with a faint sigh. More about the book with a faint sigh. More about Henry James, thin-skinned as an onion, abandoning crude America for the refinements of the London drawing rooms? More about the homesick American heiresses married off by their parents to impoverished British aristocrats? More on the subect of famous American expatriates of the Edwardian era? That subject has become so fashionable, it's hard to imagine anything fresh being said about it.
But the Edwardians take up only a small part of this remarkably interesting and well-written book, which includes many highly original illustrations that are rich in substance. Kenin's story opens with Benjamin West and the school of Benjamin West and the school of American painters who followed West across the Atlantic just before or during the Revolution. As Alistair Cooke points out in his excellent introduction, "Here we have Copley, Stuart, and Trumbull sailing blithely, as if on the regular Cunard run, and seeing in London not the enemy's bosom but 'a receptive marketplace.' "The successful West appears to have been completely apolitical, as were his acolytes, and they made the most of the boom in the art market in the 1770s. True, Trumbull was briefly arrested as the son of a famous rebel leader, but it was a comfortable sort of house arrest with Charles James Fox dropping by to console him and Edmund Burke arranging his release. West, second president of the Royal Academy, remained a confidant of the king throughout the War of Independence, and was eventually buried in St. Paul's Cathedral next to Sir Joshua Reynolds.
If Kenin makes it clear how little emotional allegiance to either America or England was felt by these first expatriates, he is even less sentimental about the next wave. John James Audubon came because "his dreams of creating an illustrated guide to the birds of North America, based on his own drawings, transcended American technology." He loved his country, but for his engravings he wanted the best, and only England could provide it. Robert Fulton, the very American inventor of the steamboat, spent 20 years abroad, attaining special skills as an engineer. There are other examples of pragmatic men.
Were there then no romantics? Yes, there were. Kenin picks Washington Irving and the painters Charles Leslie and Washington Allston who described for the public "a fantasized England that never really existed, an Albion to which romantically inclined Americans, seeking to establish identities within the complexity of Europe, yearned to return." They were the precursors of Henry James.
Reading Richard Kenin is like walking through a portrait gallery (indeed this book goes along with the exhibit "Return to Albion" at the National Portrait Gallery through September 16) with a gifted and dedicated lecturer. He has no central theme. How could he with such disparate faces hanging on the walls? There is James McNeill Whistler, that haunting and haunted outsider, who loved England, turned on it, but could never leave it. Kenin is at his best with the stories of Whistler and Ezra Pound, that erratic genius who saw himself as Whistler's follower. Pound is well treated, especially in the sympathetic description of his friendship with T. S. Eliot.
The author is at his weakest in the chapter on "assimilated Americans," as Kenin calls the Astors, Emerald Cunard and Henry Channon. They were leaders of the political-social world of London in the 1920s and '30s, and with the exception of the redoubtable Virginian Nancy Astor, none of them sounds worth writing about. Frivolous they were, but to describe them properly would have taken the pen of their contemporary Evelyn Waugh, and Kenin was born too late.
Two of the book's less well known characters will stick in my mind long after I've forgotten other details about the famous. Both were men of commerce. One was a bustling American, Gordon Selfridge, who surged into London about 1909 with the prairie winds behind him. He brought the novel concept of that peculiarly American institution, the great department store, from Chicago to London and so revolutionized staid British marketing techniques. No one had heard of window-dressing; advertising was unknown as Selfridge and Marshall Field knew it. Summing up his philosophy in simple words, Selfridge said: "The whole art of merchandizing consists of appealing to the imagination. Once the imagination is moved the hand goes naturally to the pocket." With boundless enthusiasm he made his store the talk of London and himself a famous and very rich man. He lived in beautiful 18th-century Lansdowne House, entertaining on a huge scale, but he was a simple man extremely proud of his American past. On his desk he always kept a pair of crossed British and American flags as a symbol of joint allegiance, and he served for dessert at his parties ice-cream sodas from the store. An endearing man, this bustling American, and at the end a tragic one, dying bankrupt and forgotten in an obscure London bed-sitter.
Another merchant prince who comes alive is George Peabody, who started with practically nothing, moved to England in 1837 and became one of the most famous financiers of his time. At his death his body lay in state at Westminster Abbey, not for his fame as a banker but for his philanthropies. He had become such a national figure that pubs were named after him, and at the Abbey "'the gaunt, famished London poor were gathered in thousands to testify their respect for a foreigner who had done more than any Englishman for their class.'"