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Jacobites, metaphysics and ogooglebarhet

30 March 2013

12141_38921-h[1]Art historians come with a wide range of backgrounds and skills. A surprising number remain unpersuaded that the internet is a valid tool in their work. They are of course right to deplore the uncritical reliance of a new generation on popular search engines and instant reference works, and a failure to think beyond the results, but they are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater by rejecting totally the extraordinary richness of the material that is now available online and the remarkable possibilities of search engines – provided always that they are used intelligently.

My recent essay on my Pastels & pastellists site about a wonderful portrait in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich – ça vaut le voyage – spells out precisely what a broader view can allow us to achieve: how a picture that has been analysed at great length in a rigidly academic framework turns out to offer so much more if we allow ourselves to find out.

It concerns a lady once known as “la célèbre Mlle Ferrand”, shown with a volume of Newton – a fashion accessory of the day – whose biography had been lost entirely to art history. Ferrand is quite a common name – so common that it is effectively “ogooglbar”, or ungoogleable, to use the word now banned by Språkrådet (or Language Council of Sweden) after a dispute with a well-known search engine. (Other common barriers to searchability include variant spellings, diacritical marks in foreign texts and optical character non-recognition from older publications: paftel is a personal favourite.) So art historians like me have for years been stymied in trying to find out who she might be.

The secret was unravelled only a week ago when, looking for something completely unrelated, I came across an excellent website devoted to the mathematician Alexis Clairaut which referenced Mlle Ferrand as one of his correspondents. It provided a crucial reference to a 1977 publication by the historian Laurence Bongie in which all was revealed. Well, not quite, but at least the crucial facts that allowed me to write the essay (to which you should now turn if you want to understand why Jacobites and metaphysics appear in my heading: this blog is not about Mlle Ferrand); but in a tantalising remark he announced that he intended to devote a full scale study to her. A paper published the following year repeated the promise. But try as I might I can find no details of that publication, which I suppose got overtaken by other commitments.

But this set me to thinking about the processes of art history, and my essay contains more about that than I would normally include. How could an important scholarly contribution in a prestigious series simply get overlooked? Part of the evidence, if not the answer, lay in my hands: the copy I had borrowed from the London Library, that venerable institution we all love so much, had never previously been taken out (I always enjoy being the first borrower, as I very frequently am – the older the publication, the greater the satisfaction). But mainly it is the fact that so often we assume that the previous researcher has looked. And of course that too much is published, so that we can’t possibly read everything we should.

That might seem like an argument for waiting until our work has reached a stage of perfection before sharing it. I think not: I think this is a clear example where we can help people enjoy this wonderful portrait more fully by setting out facts – about the sitter’s role in concealing Bonnie Prince Charlie in a convent in Paris over three years, about her correcting errors in the work of Locke, Berkeley and Condillac or about her commissioning the portrait knowing that she would shortly die – before we can tie together all the loose ends. After all that may never happen. And the other reason for posting incomplete drafts of work in progress is that many scholars will generously share their insights in response, allowing errors to be corrected before your work is set in stone.

The essay also illustrates the ways in which art history, the most multi-disciplinary of activities, can use odd bits of knowledge that we would otherwise disdain. Heraldry, for example, would be regarded by most educated people as somewhere between graphology and alchemy on the spectrum of looniness: and yet all three bodies of knowledge can be tools, in the right hands, for helpful discoveries – in this case, a remote link between two families. (You have to verify your results: but, as in cryptography, once you know the answer, checking that it’s correct is a different proposition from finding it in the first place – the difference between looking someone up in the phone book, and finding their name from the number alone.) And the internet has both revolutionised and democratised such research: to research Mme de Vassé, for example, in traditional genealogical reference works, you need to know her husband’s family name, the “ineffable,… deep and inscrutable singular name” which is never used by French nobility to prevent research by οἱ πολλοί. But the internet reveals the answer (Grognet) readily (well, with a little persistence).


From → Art history, Ideas

  1. Sian White permalink

    It’s amazing what you can find when you stop relying upon established academic texts and dig a little deeper!

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  1. Intimations of disappearance | Neil Jeffares

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