It is easy, retrospectively, to endow one's youth with a false precocity or a false innocence; to tamper with the dates marking one's stature on the edge of the door. I should like to think – indeed I sometimes do think – that I decorated those rooms with Morris stuffs and Arundel prints and that my shelves were filled with seventeenth-century folios and French novels of the second empire in Russia-leather and watered-silk. But this was not the truth. On my first afternoon I proudly hung a reproduction of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" over the fire and set up a screen, painted by Roger Fry with a Provencal landscape, which I had bought inexpensively when the Omega workshops were sold up. I displayed […] most painful to recall, a porcelain figure of Polly Peachum […]. My books were meagre and commonplace […] and my earliest friends fitted well into this background. (1.1.28)
This is the starting point for the aesthetic education that Charles will undergo throughout the course of Brideshead Revisited. He describes here his taste in art in his early days at Oxford – it reflects what at the time was modern art. Of course, later in the novel, Charles agrees with Cordelia that "modern art is all bosh." Much of his growth and artistic development comes from his relationship with Sebastian and the time he spends at Brideshead.
[… ] and my earliest friends fitted well into this background; they were Collins, a Wykehamist, an embryo don, a man of solid reading and childlike humour, and a small circle of college intellectuals, who maintained a middle course of culture between the flamboyant "aesthetes" and the proletarian scholars who scrambled fiercely for facts in the lodging houses of the Iffley -Road and Wellington Square. […] but even in the earliest days […] I felt at heart that this was not all that Oxford had to offer. (1.1.28)
Charles is looking for someone like Sebastian even before he meets him. This explains why he so eagerly delves into close friendship with the eccentric man.
Collins had exposed the fallacy of modern aesthetics to me: "...The whole argument from Significant Form stands or falls by volume. If you allow Cezanne to represent a third dimension on his two-dimensional canvas, then you must allow Landseer his gleam of loyalty in the spaniel's eye"– but it was not until Sebastian, idly turning the page of Clive Bell's Art, read: "Does anyone feel the same kind of emotion for a butterfly or a flower that he feels for a cathedral or a picture? Yes. I do," that my eyes were opened. (1.1.29)
Thus begins Charles’s aesthetic education at the hands of his friend Sebastian.
I knew Sebastian by sight long before I met him. That was unavoidable for, from his first week, he was the most conspicuous man of his year by reason of his beauty, which was arresting, and his eccentricities of behaviour which seemed to know no bounds. (1.1.30)
Sebastian is very much defined by his beauty. It is a constant reminder that his importance to Charles is his ability to guide him artistically.
I took my gown and left him to his task. I still frequented the lecture room in those days, and it was after eleven when I returned to college. I found my room full of flowers; what looked like, and, in fact, was, the entire day's stock of a market-stall stood in every conceivable vessel in every part of the room. (1.1.43)
Again, look at the objects which Sebastian uses – flowers. He is always associated with nature and beauty.
"Oh, Charles, what a lot you have to learn! There's a beautiful arch there and more different kinds of ivy than I knew existed. I don't know where I should be without the Botanical Gardens."
When at length I returned to my rooms and found them exactly as I had left them that morning, I detected a jejune air that had not irked me before. What was wrong? Nothing except the golden daffodils seemed to be real. Was it the screen? I turned it face to the wall. That was better. (1.1.74-5)
Charles starts developing his artistic taste as soon as he starts hanging out with Sebastian.
"You see, my dear Charles, you are that very rare thing, An Artist. […] I have seen those little drawings you keep hidden away in your room. They are exquisite. And you, dear Charles, if you will understand me, are not exquisite; but not at all. Artists are not exquisite. I am; Sebastian, in a kind of way, is exquisite; but the Artist is an eternal type, solid, purposeful, observant – and, beneath it all, p-p-passionate, eh, Charles?" (1.2.39)
As Anthony points out, Charles is not beautiful himself. But his role as an artist is to seek out and capture beauty. This simple passage goes a long way in explaining Charles’s friendship with Sebastian, his fascination with the Brideshead estate, his eventual affair with Julia, and his career as an architectural painter.
"Oh, Charles, don't be such a tourist. What does it matter when it was built, if it's pretty?"
It was an aesthetic education to live within those walls. (1.4.10,13)
To live within those walls, yes, but also to live with Sebastian, the ultimate teacher.
"Of course, you are right really," he said. "You take art as a means not as an end. That is strict theology, but it's unusual to find an agnostic believing it." (1.4.155)
AHA! Here’s our big hint to a very important point in Brideshead Revisited: aesthetics are Charles’s religion. Read "Character Analysis" for more.
It had been the custom that on every visit to Brideshead I painted a medallion on the walls of the garden-room. The custom suited me well, for it gave me a good reason to detach myself from the rest of the party; when the house was full the garden-room became a rival to the nursery, where from time to time people took refuge to complain about the others; thus without effort I kept in touch with the gossip of the place. (1.6.125)
Every aspect of painting suits Charles’s persona: the isolation, the observing, the knowing without having to engage socially.
I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned wisdom than his. By chance I met this same wine again, lunching with my wine merchant in St. James's Street, in the first autumn of the war; it had softened and faded in the intervening years, but it still spoke in the pure, authentic accent of its prime and, that day, as at Paillard's with Rex Mottram years before, it whispered faintly, but in the same lapidary phrase, the same words of hope. (1.6.284)
Charles finds beauty in the very thing destroying Sebastian: alcohol.
"You see Charles lives for one thing – Beauty. I think he got bored with finding it ready-made in England; he had to go and create it for himself. He wanted new worlds to conquer." (2.2.24)
And now that he’s tired of finding it in South America, he’s made the very beautiful Julia his next conquest.
The most influential critic, who in the past had dismissed me with a few wounding commendations, peered out at me from between his slouch hat and woolen muffler, gripped my arm, and said: "I knew you had it. I saw it there. I've been waiting for it." […] "Ryder's is the last name would have occurred to me. They're so virile, so passionate."
I remembered the exhibition, too, for another reason; it was the week I detected my wife in adultery. (2.2.26-9)
It’s interesting that Charles achieves this artistic breakthrough around the same time he begins his affair with Julia. The aesthetic and the passionate are once again brought together. Of course, both Charles’s supposed achievement and his love with Julia end up "thwarted" in the end.
"I went to your first exhibition," said Anthony; "I found it – charming. There was an interior of Marchmain House, very English, very correct, but quite delicious. 'Charles has done something,' I said; 'not all he will do, not all he can do, but something.'
"Even then, my dear, I wondered a little. It seemed to me that there was something a little gentlemanly about your painting. You must remember I am not English; I cannot understand this keen zest to be well-bred. English snobbery is more macabre to me even than English morals. However, I said, 'Charles has done something delicious. What will he do next?'" (2.2.60-1)
Art and aristocracy don’t mix – this is what Anthony is getting at when he said earlier that charm would strangle Charles’s artistry.