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Archives, beards and brothers-in-law

11 September 2014

Valade Loriot SQ 1991.9.1 T68 copyThe indefatigable Bendor Grosvenor has another piece in today’s Financial Times, setting out his thoughts on connoisseurship. Those who read this blog, and the many discussion fora online and elsewehere, will by now be familiar with the debate which Bendor has done much to advance, explaining patiently the need for connoisseurship, informed by direct examination (and even handling) of pictures, and opposing it to the often dry theoretical discussions pursued in universities: these are characterised by abstract theories couched in ludicrous vocabulary, and are necessarily governed by the whimsical vogues that infect the institutions where such work is conducted. You will know that I agree completely with Bendor as to which pursuit is more important, and indeed ultimately more rewarding.

But there is a third activity which is almost always ignored (although I’ve touched on it before in previous posts), probably because most people have little idea of what it does or what it produces, or even how it is done or who does it. And so they have even less idea as to whether it is worthwhile. It would certainly be dismissed as worthless by free market economists, since it is almost entirely unremunerated. Because there is no career structure or institutional “validation”, and even its greatest triumphs rarely give rise to stories in newspapers, and because those who pursue it haven’t done so in the interests of personal celebrity, it will continue to be ignored.

I won’t change that if I tell you the word some of us apply to (part of) what we do: “prosopography”. The public will struggle to say it: some will confuse it with pogonology, while others, better informed, will consider one a necessary accompaniment to the other. So more mundanely let me just say that I mean archival research into the lives of the artists and the worlds they worked in. Of course the pictures come first, and drive all that is worth investigating about those who created them. But I believe that the best way to explain a picture, and come to terms with what it is that delights and inspires us, is to tell its story, and in doing so, these facts can often play an important role.

When it comes to the big names – Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens – that work is already well established: often very imperfectly, but it is unlikely that something totally new will emerge. But that is certainly not the case with artists below that stratosphere. You might think that once an artist is in the Dictionary of National Biography, his life is fully documented and there is nothing more to say. But even works as great as the DNB are put together by the steady accumulation of research of the kind I mean: and that work is continuing. I recently sent a long list of minor additions to its entries: they won’t appear until sometime next year, so in the meantime you’ll have to rely on my Dictionary of pastellists.

That brings me to the point that concerns me. When you read an article in a major reference work, you probably understand that much of the material has been compiled from other sources (and most of you will realise that the trust you should place in it is proportional to the skill of the compiler). But you probably won’t know which parts of the article are new. You’re not supposed to: a biographical dictionary just gives you the facts, and is not to be encumbered with the compiler’s puffs for his own cleverness. A dry discussion about why two dates differ might safely be buried in the footnote of a long article, but won’t bring users back to your dictionary. (Attempts to claim ownership for new archival discoveries would be as counterproductive to scholarship as trying to control IP rights in photographs.) But since users expect to find exactly the same material in all the reference works they turn to, and so usually don’t go beyond the resource they turn to first, it can be really difficult to get them to see what material is new.

Paradoxically the internet has entrenched this problem rather than solving it. It may be that your first source is now online rather than on your shelf, but if it is the DNB, will you bother to check to see if the Jeffares (as Didier Rykner graciously called it) has something different?

I’ve tried to flag some of these discoveries with Twitter, but this isn’t the sort of thing for which social media are well adapted. This week for example I’ve tweeted two minor discoveries coincidentally about brothers-in-law: I found a document which proved that Loriot and Pellechet, two of the big names in pastel technology in eighteenth century France, were thus related (Loriot was made famous by Valade’s portrait in Saint-Quentin, above, but Pellechet was completely obscure until now: if you’re remotely interested in what fixing pastel has to do with cement, see my article which attempts to give a human angle on the otherwise tedious list of names of inventors of discarded processes). And, through dry work with the register of births at St Michael’s Cornhill in the early seventeenth century, I identified William Faithorne’s brother-in-law – ‘the famous Captain Grand’ according to the engraver’s early biographer, but of whom the DNB say “despite his fame, his identity remains uncertain”. In fact they already have an entry on the rather fascinating figure of John Graunt, an actuary avant la lettre (he died 100 years before the word was applied to people who analysed mortality tables) and a leading light in the Royal Society. Such a tiny link is unlikely to be of interest to non-specialists, but for someone writing an article about Faithorne’s close involvement with the Royal Society it would be a handy thing to know. But the person writing that may not follow me on Twitter; the person who will write it in ten years’ time will have forgotten; and the person writing Graunt’s biography won’t think to look in a dictionary of pastellists.

The satisfaction in this work is seeing it reappear elsewhere, even if it isn’t acknowledged. The dissatisfaction is when new articles appear that are flawed because the author has failed to consult the source from which the correct fact could have been ascertained: there is nothing more profoundly disheartening than that. And so, despite my protestations of altruism (which you may or may not believe), I do confess that I appreciate the odd footnote acknowledging my discoveries – because that is the only way more scholars are going to make the effort to consult Jeffares as well. And when (as they will) they spot its errors, omissions and inconsistencies I shall be truly grateful for corrections, so that it can be even more useful.

The struggle against entropy continues…

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From → Art history

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