Wednesday, 22 June 2011

A strangely captivating book

I am reading an extraordinary book – The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. It's not extraordinary in style, being accessible and straightforward. Neither is the genre difficult, for me at least, being classed as “biography/history”. And the subject is not controversial, simply the author's attempt to trace the movements of a collection of 264 netsuke that have been left to him by his late great uncle, a Jew of Russian extraction who was living in Japan. De Waal, a potter, finds himself writing an intimate history of his wealthy and artistic antecedents as they progressed out of Odessa and across Europe.

However, what is extraordinary is de Waal's unearthing of connections, financial and artistic, between the first European owner of the 264 netsuke and those at the core of the Impressionist movement in France, and then their journey towards the home of his 84 year old uncle and his male partner near late 20th century Tokyo. De Waal, raised on and guided by the aesthetic principals of Bernard Leach, gently and sympathetically probes the private thoughts and prejudices of the art world and those who commissioned works. He can do this with authority since he is bound up in this world himself as a creator and emotional interpreter.

I can't help but draw parallels with my recent experience of reading A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, in which the careers and motivations of a fictitious literary and artistic family are laid bare for our inspection. Both books came out in print around the same time, so I'm sure one did not consciously influence the other. But the similar emotions they have both evoked in me also make me value each one as highly as the other. Coincidentally, a new series has begun on BBC1 called Fake or Fortune?, and the first article to be scrutinised was a painting of the Seine at Argenteuil purporting to be by Claude Monet. I think the programme was intended as a logical “spin-off” from The Antiques Roadshow, but curiously it has revealed the tensions and passions arising from tracing the provenance and history of an art work. Why would anyone care who actually painted an atmospheric and beautiful scene if not interested in its future sale price? Why was the Wildenstein Institute so adamant in its denial that the scene was by Monet in the face of almost overwhelming evidence, if not fearing more for its reputation than any possible truth?

These are some of the questions that de Waal incidentally raises in his pursuit of the history of his family and the netsuke collection he has inherited. And along the way he turns over the rock of anti-Semitism in the spheres of art and finance that pervaded most of Europe before the World Wars, not just Germany. Apart from the pernicious jealousies de Waal also presents the reader with bizarre images, one of which was a sight that impressed Oscar Wilde of “a tortoise whose shell was encrusted with gemstones so that its slow passage across a room would enliven the pattern of a Persian carpet”... Naturally Damien Hirst's For the Love of God sprang instantly to mind, and forced me to consider what on earth art is for when even artists have to eat, yet the money always talks the loudest. And I cannot draw any satisfactory conclusions, except that corruption surely begins with the very first sale of any artefact. Can anyone enlighten me?

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Tonight the Village Hall - tomorrow the world?

For the first time in around six years I have been paid to speak about history. It has taken me roughly six months to prepare an illustrated talk based on my research into a local Early Modern manuscript. Since no-one seems to want to publish the fruits of that research – 65,000 words of transcription, evaluation and analysis – I decided the best way to recoup some of my expenses would be to offer myself up to the Local History circuit for £30 an hour. Of course, it's about more than the money, which honestly is fairly limited in its availability. No, I want people to accept that I'm a real historian, in a way that won't involve me walking round with a tattooed forehead. And I eventually enjoyed the experience of “coming out”! This was in spite of my initial doubts that I'd lost my touch – I had once been, after all, a Further Education history lecturer.

However, I am not a natural public speaker. Even a school play at the age of ten had turned me into a gibbering wreck, and caused me to relinquish the starring role to my understudy. Yet in grammar school days I was happy to stand up in front of any kind of audience as long as I was part of a well-rehearsed choir – and, of course, never the soloist. For me the thrill was in the close harmonising and the feeling of being an important thread in a rich fabric. When I was about fifteen I mistakenly entered a speaking contest at my school. This involved delivering a passage from Shakespeare – Viola's soliloquy from Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene II: 'I left no ring with her: what means this lady?' etc. - followed by an unrehearsed two minute monologue on a random topic given you on the day. My mouth dried, my voice died, I fled... Never again, I promised myself.

So why did I become a lecturer all those years later? I was 53 and had just come through an Access course and a B.A. I was offered a job in the place where I'd studied, and felt comfortable and confident with familiar surroundings and colleagues. Of course, it wasn't an entirely scare-free exercise, training to teach whilst actually teaching! I apologise now, and probably at the time as well, to my first batch of students for being such a useless tutor. But there were other subjects and other tutors, and I must have provided a little comic relief for my guinea pigs. But I got there without harming them too much, and gained my P.G.C.E. So I was utterly deflated when, as a reasonably competent part-time lecturer, I was one of the first to be made redundant 5 years later. I had learned to enjoy “going on stage” and holding forth in my favourite field.

I have had to get up and briefly address small groups a few times since then, but the thought of presenting an hour long exposition of my latest research, with Powerpoint, rattled my cage somewhat, even though I'd willingly accepted the invitation. I think the worst prospect was of some clever-clogs challenging my assertions. So I had to firmly remind myself that I'd been in similar situations before; that I'd thoroughly prepared both text and illustrations; that I'd absorbed some advice from my more outgoing younger sister; and that anyway the subject was mine and I'd done all the hard work! No-one else had examined my particular source I knew for sure, and my research had been meticulous.

And so it turned out to be an exhilarating evening for me, and I've already got three more bookings.