Could Beethoven have been a lawyer?
As the euro and the idea of Europe go into freefall, as the UK’s debts mount and swingeing cuts take place, let us talk about something really important: why is it that so few great artists have been lawyers?Of course, there are lawyers who write primarily about lawyers and their work, and who have became famous for it: John Mortimer and Frances Fyfield in this country, John Grisham and Scott Turow in the US. For those with long memories and ancient reading habits, there is A. P. Herbert, who was called to the bar but never practised. But, with due respect to these highly successful authors, they do not belong in the rank of great artists.
Of course, most artists spend their life on their art, and do not have other careers. There are some who practise a profession very close to that of their artistic output: William Shakespeare and Harold Pinter were actors; Franz Liszt and Wolfgang Mozart were virtuoso performers; Johann Sebastian Bach was an organist and choir master; Gustav Mahler was a conductor; Charles Dickens was a journalist. Many have been teachers of the art they practised. This group does not really come within the scope of my question. I am more interested in those who have practised a profession which is removed from the field of their artistic endeavour. Is there something about the law which is inimical to great art?
The doctors have Anton Chekhov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mikhail Bulgakov, William Carlos Williams, John Keats and Somerset Maugham (the last two of whom did not practise). The insurers have Franz Kafka, Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens, though Kafka studied law and Wallace Stevens started as a lawyer. The civil servants have Anthony Trollope from the Post Office, C. P. Cavafy from the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria, and Henri Rousseau, who was a tax collector in Paris (and was another one who studied law). The bankers have T.S. Eliot. The librarians have Philip Larkin. The chemists have Alexander Borodin.
But whom do the lawyers have? It is difficult to find anyone in the front rank. It is galling that the doctors and even the insurers appear to beat us hands-down. Of course, there are people who studied law, but never practised it. Handel is another good example of this – his father forced him to study law. But where are the great artists who have been practising lawyers?
The only one I can find in the front rank is the English novelist Henry Fielding, who became a barrister and then chief magistrate of London and founder of the Bow Street Runners. Lesser artists include the American novelist Louis Auchincloss, who died earlier this year: he was a wills and trusts partner in a New York law firm; and the 20th century poet Roy Fuller, who was an in-house solicitor for a building society. There is an American website which has an extremely long list of lawyer poets, but I must say that I did not recognise any of their names.
The basic requirements of practising doctors and lawyers are not that different, albeit in different fields: observing human beings, making judgements about the best course of future action, dealing with casework. I would say that the intellectual content of legal work is higher than that of medical work. Yet the doctors have a long and proud line of great artists among their number. Is it that people with artistic temperaments do not like the law – witness the number of successful artists who studied law but then went on to another profession? Or does the law drive out art, and if so, why?
I am perfectly aware that my knowledge is deficient, and I might be ignorant of wonderful, top-ranking artists who were also practising lawyers. Please tell me that Jane Austen was also a corporate partner at Clifford Chance, or that Frédéric Chopin was a high street practitioner in Warsaw before he moved to Paris. It would put me out of my misery.
Jonathan Goldsmith is the secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents more than 700,000 European lawyers through its member bars and law societies