THE CULT OF CELEBRITY has now reached almost every corner of life but its differentiation from fame, even greatness, remains an endlessly contested question. To ‘think continually of those who were truly great’ – to adapt the once-famous first line of a poem by Stephen Spender – is still a national preoccupation. But if such things are to be judged by those compelling lists drawn up by public polls for television programmes such as ‘The Greatest Briton’, there is obviously some confusion between unimpeachable achievement and popular acclaim. In ‘The Greatest Briton’, for example, Sir Winston Churchill headed the list of ten, with Brunel in second place, and Diana, Princess of Wales, in third, easily outdoing Shakespeare, Newton, Darwin and Nelson. The element of blind hero worship still plays its part but it has been increasingly inflected by a notion of demotic familiarity. In a media-driven culture, with its instant fixes of accessible knowledge, this has led to a commercialised sense of fame. It has become a commodity to suit a low general expectation. Famous figures of the past, men and women of enduring stature, are now treated as equals of those who occupy today’s transient headlines – and vice versa. Fuelling this is a much increased knowledge of past figures and the way we can now reveal what formerly was kept under wraps by social mores or a family’s appellation contrôlée. The foibles and failings, the small undermining hypocrisies and petty meannesses of the great are now woven more intimately into the fabric of fame, making some figures more endearing or, at the least, more ‘contemporary’, while others are shuffled off into the outhouse of history. It might be presumed that no amount of personal revelation would alter the esteem in which the achievements of the newly naked figure are held. But we know this is not so, just as the preoccupations of today’s society inevitably fashion our interpretation of works of art from the past, sometimes enriching and sometimes tarnishing them.
THE BEAUTY OF the miniatures painted by the Limbourg brothers in the Très Riches Heures is bewitching. They hold us hostage to such a degree that we sometimes pass too swiftly over those painted by Jean Colombe at the end of the fifteenth century. Yet these leaves hold some surprises. One miniature of special interest, fol.158v (Fig.12), is the scene for the third mass on Christmas Day, the daytime mass. In the initial for the introit Puer natus est, Mary and Joseph are shown kneeling in adoration before the Infant Christ; the shepherds shown kneeling in the margin evoke the readings at the preceding masses at midnight and dawn.
FEW MANUSCRIPTS EQUAL the beauty of the Très Riches Heures, although many match the intricacy of its different stages of illumination. Its complex history is more likely to be elucidated by previously unconsidered visual evidence, as presented here and by Patricia Stirnemann and Claudia Rabel on pp.534–38 below, than by the discovery of new documents. Yet the published documents bear reconsideration in order to provide a fuller context for these new insights. The one contemporary reference plausibly identified with the manuscript now in the Musée Condé, Chantilly (MS 65), comes in the post-mortem inventories of Jean, duc de Berry: ‘en une layette plusieurs cayers d’une tres riches heures, que faisoient Pol et ses freres tres richement histories et enluminez, prisez Vc livres tournois.’ The book was abandoned unfinished, probably because of the duke’s death on 15th June 1416 or because of the deaths of ‘Paul and his brothers’. The three Limbourgs were alive on 22nd August 1415; news of Jean’s death had reached Nijmegen, their home town, by 9th March 1416 and of Paul’s and Herman’s by September–October that year. Since they were salaried by the duke, who had presumably paid for the materials and writing of the Très Riches Heures, the manuscript belonged to his estate even if Paul or Herman had survived him.
IN OCTOBER 1947, at the beginning of the Michaelmas Term, I became a student at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, and began reading for my BA Honours degree in the History of Art. I was eighteen years old, very green from Luton Grammar School, and had been awarded a County Major Scholarship from the Bedfordshire Education Authority. While still at school, I had turned for advice first to our careers master, who, as a chemistry teacher, had no idea about the history of art; indeed, I quickly discovered that very few people had ever heard of the subject, and certainly my parents were bemused by my eccentric choice. I was perceived by my sympathetic headmaster as ‘good at art’, and he knew I wished to follow a career in that somewhat vaguely defined field. I owe a considerable debt to the senior art master at my school, Ronald Smoothey, who had not only heard of the subject but, as a graduate of Goldsmiths’ College, knew of the Courtauld Institute and directed my aspirations there. My father made enquiries and we were interviewed by the Courtauld’s registrar, Charles Clare, a big, jovial, silver-haired, pipe-smoking man, who seemed to fill the tiny second-floor office he occupied, which overlooked the garden at 20 Portman Square. Entrance requirements were discussed, and my examination prospects assessed. I needed to pass in Latin at Subsidiary level, Cambridge Higher School Certificate, to complete London University matriculation. I scraped through.
THE STUDY OF the back of relief sculpture is rarely undertaken. It seems true to say that such an examination is unlikely to provide information which can match that gained from the backs of panel paintings. However, the case of Michelangelo’s tondo commissioned by Taddeo Taddei (Fig.25) is an exception.
ON 10TH OCTOBER 1785 Thomas Rowlandson went on board the Europa, an East India Company merchant vessel recently returned from Bombay, then lying moored at Blackwall. While there he made a drawing of a group of seamen and visitors taking their ease on deck (Fig.33). He was not present, however, as a passenger starting one of his overseas tours. His reason for travelling to Blackwall from his lodgings in Soho was altogether more sombre. He was on board the ship to collect the outstanding effects, including pay amounting to £14.5s.9d., of his younger brother, James, who had been ‘Blown up assisting the Duke of Athol’. Hitherto, the drawing, Sketched on board the Europa, has not been linked to Rowlandson’s personal life and, in fact, the existence of a sea-going brother has so far gone unrecorded.