Saturday, 13 July 2013

The National Gallery and hidden biographies

I freely confess that I have little knowledge of the visual arts, and a poorly developed aesthetic sense to boot. So it was something of a surprise to get a recent call from an art historian who was looking for someone to visit the archive of the National Gallery to look for footprints left by a number of Royal Academy students from the 1930s. I was quite open about the fact that I had never visited the archive and could not lay claim to any research expertise in this field (although it helps to be good friends with one of the archivists at the Gallery), but my client was generous enough to entrust me with the commission, and I am pleased to report that the trip was a success: all but one of the people of interest were identified in the Gallery's registers of copyists. But the point I wish to make is that one recurring name - not on my list - struck me for some reason and I didn't know why. The name was Roger Fry, and a quick search of Wikipedia when I got home confirmed his status within the art world; I cannot think where I came across the name, but it obviously lodged in my mind - an example of the mental detritus that seems to accumulate at some depth but occasionally bobs to the surface.

The fact that Roger Fry's name appears in some obscure registers at the National Gallery is probably of no consequence whatsoever in terms of biographical importance; but that might not be the case with some material - that you'd have to assume as hitherto hidden - that the researcher accidentally uncovers. I recently came across a letter at the Bank of England Archives where I did think 'if he or she hasn't already seen this, a biographer of Austen Chamberlain might just be interested'. I believe that Chamberlain was at the India Office for much of WW1, and there had obviously been a spat about something with Sir (John) Gordon Nairne, the chief cashier at the Bank. Portraits of Chamberlain suggest a man who would brook neither argument nor insult and this letter supports that impression. The tone is of icily controlled fury, although it may have been a struggle to maintain professional calm: Chamberlain had dictated the letter but then added a MS note to reiterate his point about refusing to respond 'to a letter which is gratuitously offensive'. Professional working papers - as opposed to personal papers - are for the most part marked by their calm and dispassionate tone, but not here in this one small item: it may just be momentary, but the full force of personality blasts from the page.     

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