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Throughout his life, Anthony Powell surrounded himself with art

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Here's something a little out of the ordinary. A major London museum devoted to the fine and the decorative arts has opened its doors to an exhibition about the life and work of Anthony Powell (1905-2000), the greatest English comic novelist of the post-war era. But why should art and literature be brought together in this way?

Like all major museums, the Wallace Collection, which occupies a fine town house in Manchester Square just north of Oxford Street, has to find new ways of attracting visitors. Its permanent collection is almost entirely on display at all times, so there is no possibility of the institution's being able to ring dramatic changes on what we can see there, as the two London Tates can do by drawing unexpected treasures from their reserves.

And, being housed in an historic building with very particular architectural features, the Wallace Collection cannot display its treasures in surprisingly different ways, either. These spaces are not neutrally appointed, infinitely re-fashionable white cubes. Furthermore, the collection's exhibitions budget does not enable it to host blockbuster shows. So what else can be done to attract a slightly different clientele?

Here is where Powell comes in. Powell, whose great sequence of novels A Dance to the Music of Time, is a crowning comic achievement, was a frequent visitor to the Wallace Collection. He was, in particular, passionate about one painting: Nicolas Poussin's A Dance to the Music of Time (c1634- 6). It was the enigmatic subject matter of this painting " which has teasing art historians since it was made " that lit the fuse which culminated in the opening novel in the sequence, A Question of Upbringing, which was published in 1952. (The 12th and final book was published almost a quarter of a century later.)

This painting hangs in an exhibition devoted to Powell's life and work, which includes paint-ings, drawings and photo graphs of his friends and contemporaries (including Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell), personal effects, typescripts of novels, letters, scrapbooks, notebooks, artworks (by himself and others) and various editions of his novels.

Poussin's picture shows five women, with linked hands, engaged in a stately dance. They are all looking over their shoulders towards us, half-smiling, as they move in a ring. Time is seated nearby, a grizzled-bearded, rather malevolent-looking presence with a lyre between his knees and a raptor's gaze. A small, pudgy cherub sits at his feet, staring at an hourglass through which the sands of time are soft-sifting. This is what Powell wrote in 1980 about the link between the impulse for the novel and this great painting.

'I found myself in the Wallace Collection, standing in front of Nicolas Poussin's picture.... An almost hypnotic spell seems cast by this masterpiece upon the beholder. I knew all at once that Poussin had expressed at least one important aspect of what the novel should be.'

What aspect was that exactly? Powell had written a number of novels between the early 1930s and the beginning of the war, but the disruptive influence of the war years had put an end to all that. Poussin helped to re-energise and refocus him.

A reference to the painting turns up on page two of the first novel of the sequence. The narrator, the pleasingly self-effacing Nicholas Jenkins, has been observing workers gathered around a bucket of burning coke in front of a shelter on a street corner. They look, with their strangely outlandish gesturings, like figures from a pantomime. Then Jenkins remarks that 'the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin's scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of a lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays...'.

To Jenkins, they appear like all humanity in microcosm, making patterns, which then break down, and perhaps later become reestablished. Are our destinies also predetermined in some way, he muses. Or is it all just the play of chance? The 'one thing certain is that the [...] figures depicted are dancing to Time's tune.'

Powell was influenced by paintings throughout his life. They turn up repeatedly in his fiction. He uses them to frame a situation, to set its temper. He also collected them. A number of works from his own private collection " by Vuillard, Conder, Beerbohm and others " are in this show. As a young man, Powell had aspirations to become an artist himself. Various notebooks in this show demonstrate his skills as a collagist. You can see a large-scale sample of a collage of his made from posters of the 1890s on a filing cabinet which sits next to his typewriter " a small Lettera 22 " at the entrance. Powell enjoyed writing with the typewriter. It was preferable to the human hand, he once remarked, less lonely.

Powell seems not to have been a lonely man. He had many important literary and artistic friendships, not least of which was the one with Evelyn Waugh. It was Powell who found Waugh his first publisher. Waugh is present in this exhibition in the form of letters and a fine portrait of him as a determined young man by Henry Lamb. Waugh sits with a pipe clamped between his teeth, looking as old as a 'bright young thing' can ever hope to appear, and clutching a glass of stout in his hand. He was apparently aware that the painting was to be paid for by a member of the Guinness family.

Powell was also a great friend of George Orwell. He organised Orwell's funeral and, after his death, wrote a delightful memoir " some typesheets of it are on display " which begins: 'George Orwell was about two and a half years older than myself. He used to complain of the fact that I was too fond of drawing attention to a difference of age that put him at a disadvantage.' They had both been at Eton together, which put neither of them to any particular disadvantage in those days.

What is so pleasurable about this show is the whiff of Powell's gently understated and always delicate humour, which seems to permeate everything. It's there in the wonderfully roguish bronze that William Pye did of him in old age standing in the entrance to the exhibition, on a handsome pedestal, like some gallery attendant about to introduce his own show. The eyebrows are like seagulls' wings in full flight in the teeth of a buffeting wind; eyes swivelled askance; hair inching towards a middle parting, but not quite making it.

The humour is there, too, in the odd little scraps that we can read from his writer's notebook " such as this: 'People do not mind how much they are interfered with: what they cannot stand is being treated as adults.'

'Dancing to the Music of Time: the Life and Work of Anthony Powell', Wallace Collection, London W1 (020-7563 9500) to 5 February

(C) 2005 The Independent - London. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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