REVIEW of What’s Bred in the Bone, by Robertson Davies

Francis Cornish, the wealthy Canadian art collector, is dead. But what kind of man was he? And what should his posthumous biography tell the waiting world? Neither his nephew Arthur nor the biographer Darcourt are entirely sure. Heaven only knows who Francis Cornish really was, and so it is heaven that provides the reader with a narrator for the tale. The recorder angel Zadkiel and the daimon Maimas (Francis’s indwelling inspiration) tell the story of a lonely boy, a loveless man, and an electrifying artist who lived in the wrong century to be truly considered great.

Francis grows up in the small Canadian town of Blairlogie. His father, a member of the British Secret Service, and his mother, a glittering socialite, have no time for him, and so he is raised by his maternal grandparents in a house full of stern religious convictions and startling secrets. A strange, neglected child, he has no friends but a few household servants. Drawing becomes a passion with him, and he learns to draw the human figure in the cold rooms of the town morgue.

After attending school in Canada, he goes to college at Oxford in England. The Secret Service recruits him as an inactive member and encourages him to exercise his powers of perception in the 1930’s world of growing European tensions. At Oxford, he falls in love with his cousin Ismay, despite her coarseness and Communist leanings. When Ismay becomes pregnant by another man, she tricks Francis into marrying her, then runs away to the continent forcing him to provide financially for the child. Although Francis is devastated by this affair, it is all the work of his governing daimon who knows that artistic greatness cannot be achieved without great sorrow.

At the encouragment of the Secret Service, Francis becomes the apprentice to Tancred Saraceni, a restorer of Renaissance art with a somewhat shady business deal in the works. Under Tancred’s direction, Francis goes to a ruined castle in Germany to restore and “improve” old, non-descript German paintings. These paintings are then shipped to England and traded to Hitler’s regime for works by famous artists like Raphael or Michelangelo. In the process, Tancred challenges Francis to paint two works in the style of the old masters. Using old canvases and creating his own pigments, Francis produces a picture of a dwarf and masterful triptych called the Marriage at Cana. Both are indistinguishable from German Renaissance art, and, despite Francis’s misgivings, join the batch of work sold to Hitler’s Aryan museum.

The rest of the story describes the fruit that comes from this artistic fraud. The war comes and goes and the Allies send in art experts to redistribute the old masterpieces that Hitler had accumulated–Francis’s paintings among them. In the final chapter of the story, Francis makes a choice that angers his daimon. He determines to stop the fraud he has created, the Marriage at Cana, from being foisted on the National Art Gallery of Canada. By doing this, he rejects love, ambition, and future fame, and (according to the daimon) loses the distinction of being truly great. But by doing this, he also shows a spark of integrity that the circumstances of his life have stifled but never fully extinguished.

Modern art is a subject I have always struggled to understand and appreciate, and this book by Davies offers remarkable insight. When Francis first encounters his mentor, Tancred Saraceni, the maestro gives his explanation of what modern art is, and though it is long, it is worth quoting in its entirety.

“It [modern art] is the logical outcome of the art of the Renaissance. During those three centuries, to measure roughly, that we call the Renaissance, the mind of civilized man underwent a radical change. A psychologist would say that it changed from extraversion to introversion. The exploration of the outer world was partnered by a new exploration of the inner world, the subjective world. And it was an exploration that could not depend on the old map of relgion. It was the exploration that brought forth Hamlet, instead of Gorboduc. Man began to look inside himself for all that was great and also–if he was honest, which most people aren’t–for all that was ignoble, base, evil. If the artist was a man of scope and genius, he found God and all His works within himself, and painted them for the world to recognize and admire.”

(Francis:) “But the moderns don’t paint God and all His works. Sometimes I can’t make out what they are painting.”

(Saraceni:) “They are painting the inner vision, and working very hard at it when they are honest, which by no means all of them are. But they depend only on themselves, unaided by religion or myth, and of course what most of them find within themselves is revelation only to themselves. And these lonely searches can quickly slide into fakery. Nothing is so easy to fake as the inner vision, Mr. Cornish. Look at those ruined frescoes we were examining this morning; the people who painted those–Rossetti, Morris, Burne-Jones–all had the inner vision linked with legend, and they chose to wrap it up in Grail pictures and sloe-eyes, sexy beauties who were half the Mother of God and half Rossetti’s overblown mistresses. But the moderns, having been hit on the head by a horrible world war, and having understood whatever they can of Sigmund Freud, are hell-bent for honesty. They are sick of what they suppose to be God, and they find something in the inner vision that is so personal that to most people it looks like chaos. But it isn’t simply chaos. It’s raw gobbets of the psyche displayed on canvas. Not very pretty and not very communicative, but they have to find their way through that to something that is communicative–though I wonder if it will be pretty.”

Later on in the story, Saraceni again gives his viewpoint on the moderns in a more concise form:

“I do not hate them [modern artists]. The best of them are doing what honest painters have always done, which is to paint the inner vision, or to bring the inner vision to some outer subject. But in an earlier day the inner vision presented itself in a coherent language of mythological or religious terms, and now both mythology and religion are powerless to move the modern mind. So–the search for the inner vision must be direct. The artist solicits and implores something from the realm of what the psychoanalysts, who are the great magicians of our day, call the Unconscious, though it is actually the Most Conscious. And what they fish up–what the Unconscious hangs on the end of the hook the artists drop into the great well in which art has its being–may be very fine, but they express it in a language more or less private. It is not the language of mythology or religion. And the great danger is that such private language is perilously easy to fake. Much easier to fake than the well-understood language of the past.”

I picked up What’s Bred in the Bone in a small shop in Victoria, BC and greatly enjoyed it. (One warning: because the book is very frank in its discussion and description of sexuality, it is probably inappropriate for high school age and below.) Although I did not realize this while I was reading the book, What’s Bred in the Bone is actually the second book in a trilogy of connected novels about the Cornish family. The first and third novels in the trilogy are both set in the aftermath of Francis Cornish’s death, but in my opinion, they were unnecessary to a full understanding of this middle novel.


  1. Fascinating . . . When Max Beckman’s New York art dealer, Curt Valentin, asked for an essay to explain his triptych “Departure”, Beckman responded, “Remove this painting or return it to me, my dear Valentin. If people cannot understand it themselves with the help of their own inner world, it makes no sense to show the thing. . . . It can speak only to those who carry within them, consciously or unconsciously, a metaphysical code close to mine.”

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