For years now, so-called completists have been polluting Philip Larkin's ouevre with all the sub-par work he ruthlessly culled from his books. In what is surely a major statement on the reckless activity, James Fenton reminds us why the stakes are so high in helping a posthumous poet "look his best."
A few years ago some of the contents of the visionary English painter Stanley Spencer’s studio came up for sale, and I went to the auction house to see if there might be some slight work that I might be able to afford, and that might give me the pleasure of hanging a Stanley Spencer on my wall. There were, it turned out, many slight works, too slight, and as I went through the pile a depression began to sink in, and I began to think the worse of Spencer as a draughtsman. In due course, I came to a series of drawings he had made—no doubt when paper was scarce—on a roll of old-style Izal “medicated” toilet-paper. Unrolling this series of sketches released an evocative antiseptic scent of 1950s gents’ toilets—an association so depressing that it put paid to any residual interest I had in Stanley Spencer as an artist. Indeed I’ve hardly looked at his work since. The moral is that Larkin’s admirers were not wrong: artists and writers need careful and sympathetic curating and editing, and the first, best way of guaranteeing they get this attention is for them to curate, to edit, themselves. That is why artists burn canvases. That is why writers are not always wrong to consign that tragedy to the flames. And that is also why conscientious executors whose job it is to sort through the accumulated rubbish of a study or a studio are not always wrong to go in there with a stack of bin-bags.