The subtle modesty of Vermeer

The charm of Vermeer is at once obvious and elusive, says Craig Raine. The pull of his paintings are apparent to most, but their precise qualities are almost impossible to explain.

The charm of Vermeer is at once obvious and elusive. Everyone feels the pull of these paintings. No one can quite say how they exercise their magnetism, their unique beauty, their compelling mood. When people attempt to define the paintings, they often speak of Vermeer’s “poetry”. If you are a poet, you wonder what they mean by this. After all, there are many kinds of poetry, as Auden noted in “Letter to Lord Byron”: “By all means let us touch our humble caps to/La poésie pure, the epic narrative;/But comedy shall get its round of claps, too.”

On 20 June, in his Guardian blog, Jonathan Jones talked about “the camera-crisp art of Vermeer”. Which is exactly wrong. Crisp. The paintings are clear, yes, but with a faint, phantom nimbus, much subtler than Man Ray’s photographic solarisations, where the image is surrounded by an edge of fierce light like an eclipse of the sun. Vermeer’s images are as if magnified. They have that shimmering granular quality you experience looking through binoculars. There is an indefinite surrounding glow, an almost infinitesimal tremor of light, common to the face of his ermine-clad female guitar player, the city of Delft and a milkmaid pouring from a jug, wearing coarse workaday cloth next to her white skin and the dark russet-pink of her hands.

These are modest paintings, confident in their calmness. They are composed. And their composition is part of their subtle allure. The Little Street is unpretentious. You can see it in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It shows us a sewing woman, the backs of two children playing a game together, whose nature and outcome we will never know, a woman with two brooms down an alley. It is a painting that, as it were, turns its back on us. It is absorbed in itself, the private place of family life, fortified against politics, against the larger world of telegrams and anger. “Fortified” is the mot juste because the form of this picture is crenellation. The top of the brick house is candidly, deeply crenellated, in three U shapes. At the bottom of the painting, we have a pseudo-crenellation of thick whitewash, of protective Potmolen.

We can see the dirty marks left by the bodies of people who have sat on the bench outside the house. One of the strange pleasures of this picture is that, in it, paint represents paint. And this isn’t an accident. The line of whitewash makes an inverted set of crenellations as it goes round the doorway, the archway, and under the sun-faded, green-shuttered windows. The top of the house is mirrored in the bottom of the house, like two facing mirrors in a railway compartment. The form tells us that this is a world which is self-contained, rapt in its own reflection, satisfied, complete in itself.

There are five Vermeers in the current National Gallery exhibition, “Vermeer and Music”, one of which is, I think, a fake. It is privately owned and sometimes said to be by the circle of Vermeer. It shows a woman at a clavichord, whose mouth is taken from the National’s own A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (circa 1670-72). Its title and dates are identical but it is inert and strangely denuded. The wall behind the woman playing is empty, an uncharacteristic void. Vermeer knows that walls are for paintings and even his milkmaid has a hanging wicker basket, an ember carrier, a nail and the shadow cast by the nail. Compare this dull vacuum with the greatest painting on show here – and one of Vermeer’s absolutely greatest paintings – and the difference is at once apparent.

The Music Lesson (circa 1662-65) is from the Royal Collection. At some distance from the viewer, at the “end” of the picture, a woman with her back to us is standing, playing the muselar virginal. Her face is only visible in the mirror above the instrument – tantalising, readable, but not quite accessible. To her right is a long-haired man in black, with a sash, large starched white bands at his neck and white billowing sleeves like something from a lava lamp. His right hand is resting on the virginal, his left poised on a cane. It is a painting of propriety. It is also a picture of courtship, a painting of overlap.

In his great monologue, Playing Sandwiches, Alan Bennett manages to show us, sympathetically, the inner workings of a paedophile. Graham loves little children as well as desiring them. The crucial, the fatal moment comes when he is playing a game with his victim, playing sandwiches – where one person puts a hand over the other person’s hand, one after another, taking the hand from the bottom of the heap and putting it on the top. At some stage in the game, he closes his hand and says “there’s nothing there for you” – and the little girl worms her finger into his closed fist, an action he interprets as a signal, the semiology of sex.

In The Music Lesson, we see a similar process at work, a series of overlaps. Vermeer is playing sandwiches with his viewer. The left foreground is an expanse of black and white marble tiles like a checker board. To the right is first a magnificently painted carpet over a high table in the Dutch manner. On it, there is a metal tray, on which rests an elegant white porcelain jug with a hinged metal lid. The carpet is extraordinary. It takes up nearly a quarter of the painting. The carpet is thicker than usual, its two folds stiffer, twofold like the roots, the bole of a great tree. In the absolute foreground, the greenish carpet fringe frays on the floor like the ragged wash of a wave.

Immediately behind the carpet is one of Vermeer’s characteristic ultramarine chairs of studded velvet. Where the table is completely occluded by the carpet, the chair is a threequarter view. Immediately behind that is a partial sighting of a viola da gamba, supine on the floor, on its back, its strings on view, its neck occluded. Then we see the woman at the virginal, which has a partially obscured Latin motto: MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S MEDICINA DOLOR[UM], “music is the companion of joy, the medicine of sorrow”.

Vermeer has painted the dance of courtship, the steps, the gradualism, the ritual of wooing, its obstacles, its hesitations, its loaded obliquities, its indirections – like the woman’s face seen only in a glass darkly.

The other three genuine Vermeers on show at the National Gallery are good but they come nowhere near this quietly spectacular masterpiece. In his perfectionism, Vermeer painted only 34 pictures in his short life before he vanished from view for more than 125 years, thanks to his omission from Arnold Houbraken’s lexicon of Dutch painters, De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen (1718-21). (He seems, like Shakespeare, not to have been much prized by his contemporaries.) Within this tiny oeuvre there are miracles and there are lesser miracles and the merely good. Compare, for example, The Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis, in The Hague, and The Guitar Player borrowed from Kenwood House for this exhibition.

The Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of Vermeer’s miracles. The girl is virtually without eyebrows. Her half-open mouth is one of many great Vermeer mouths. No painter captures oral liquidity better. Her look, sideways yet direct, holds us. She may be about to speak – words that will never reach us. But it is the form, so subtle, so firm, that contributes crucially to the painting’s eternal eye contact. The earring catches the light like a nearly new moon, a crescent of brightness, lit from the left. This is echoed in her lovely, left-looking eyes, which are like moons in wane, the whites and the dark irises, as she turns to hold our gaze.

But this is a painting of suspended verticals also. Her turban has a hanging train, which mirrors her nose – a nose not unrelated to those wedge noses in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignonand suspended from those almost non-existent eyebrows. The mouth is suspended from the nose . . . as the earring is suspended from the ear lobe. It is a composition of great harmony.

The Guitar Player (circa 1672) has its own set of internal echoes. The woman’s yellow satin jacket has beautifully rendered ermine trim at the lapels and the cuffs. This picks up the ebony and ivory trim of her guitar, just as the intricate fingering is mirrored in her plait and Elizabeth Barrett Browning ringlets in triplicate. The folds of her dress are splashed with shadow, freely and convincingly. Every ermine spot is differentiated, without fuss or pedantry. Her face is brightly lit and boldly shadowed. She is manifestly happy, with a high colour to her cheek. What makes this excellent painting fall short of Vermeer’s greatest work? It is, I think, the face, which is inclined to the rudimentary. It isn’t simplified, but it is a close thing.

This absorbing show has a factitious quality. How to create an exhibition around only four Vermeers? Answer: all four conveniently ready-to-hand Vermeers include musical instruments, so use the theme of music to eke out the show with a display of instruments – violas da gamba, lutes, guitars – and contemporaneous Dutch painting by Jan Steen, Carel Fabritius, Pieter de Hooch, Jan Jansz, Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gabriël Metsu.

Some of these are interesting painters. The Fabritius, for example, shows a seller of musical instruments – a lute and a viol da gamba painted from an unusual and testing angle athwart the canvas – while there is a neat miniaturised Nieuwe Kerk in the background. The viol is on its back, so you can see the suspension bridge of its strings – claiming kin with two bridges in the townscape, as well as the rising approach to a third bridge seen head-on. The lute’s “broken” neck is paralleled by the seller’s hand with its open thumb. Behind the stall is an exquisitely dirty wall that was well worth painting. A View of Delft, with a Musical Instrument Seller’s Stall (1652) is a charming picture but it does not come within a mile of the Vermeers. The other artists are by no means negligible but neither are they great.

One marvellous feature of this exhibition is the final room where the wall notices are given over to photomicrographs – images of the Vermeers taken through a microscope. Alas, this fascinating material – a bit like the tutorial on fresco painting that accompanied the long-ago “Frescoes from Florence” – isn’t reproduced in the catalogue. For example, we learn about Vermeer’s preference for ultramarine (expensive, ground lapis lazuli) and the way he used it unadulterated in those blue chairs and mixed it with browns in the ceiling of The Music Lesson. You can see it, too, in the thick carpet where it faces the viewer full-on. There is much to be learned about his use of thin paint to let undercolours show through.

In The Music Lesson, the micrograph shows that in the underdrawing the man was originally leaning forward much more. But red chalk underdrawing is invisible to infrared imaging. Perhaps the most interesting wall note concerns Vermeer’s characteristic granular surface. We are told this “has sometimes been interpreted as a deliberate painting technique”. Which is my view. However, the note continues: “under magnification the effect is shown to be the result of lumpy particles protruding through the paint surface. These particles, known as soaps, are an alteration product caused by chemical interaction between lead (in pigments such as lead-tin yellow and red lead) and the oil binding medium”. Science. Science blinded by science?

“Vermeer and Music: the Art of Love and Leisure” is at the National Gallery, London WC2, until 8 September

Vermeer's paintings are clear but not "crisp". They contain a phantom nimbus, much subtler than May Ray's photographic solarisations. Above: a detail from "The Music Lesson".

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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David Olusoga's look at a forgotten history shows there's always been black in the Union Jack

Black and British: A Forgotten History addresses one of the greatest silences in British historiography.

Nineteen eighty-four was a transformative year for David Olusoga. Then a young teenager, he was driven out of his council home, together with his grandmother, mother, two sisters and younger brother, by a sustained campaign of nightly stoning of their windows. When Olusoga recalled the experience before television cameras last year, he wept. His book is a product of that childhood terror, and partly an exploration of his condition as a black Briton. As he states, “The oral history of 20th-century racial violence has never been collected or collated, but it is there and it is shocking.”

Nineteen eighty-four affected him in another way: the publication of Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain introduced him to the scholarship needed to understand his position in Britain. Fryer’s book was monumental, inspiring conferences, publications, the setting up of local history groups, the establishment of Black History Month, and radio and television programmes. It began to alter (slightly) the history curriculum at university level: the first undergraduate one-year course on black British history and culture was taught at the University of Warwick in 1984. It was an apt university to experiment with such developments, since Lord Scarman, who reported on the Brixton riots of 1981, was its chancellor.

Olusoga patterns his narrative after Fryer’s, starting with the North African presence in Roman Britain. He updates Fryer, citing radioisotope analysis of skeletons and craniometrics, which support written documentation of Aurelian Moors guarding Hadrian’s Wall and settling in places such as Yorkshire. Indeed, third-century York may have been more ethnically and racially diverse than present-day York. Roman writers such as Pliny who chronicled – or rather fabricated – African life shaped perceptions of a continent populated by anthropophagi and other fantastic creatures, half-human, half-animal. John Mandeville, whose travelogue (circa 1356) was one of the most widely translated books of the later Middle Ages, presented Africans as naked savages living amid heaps of gold to which they gave no value.

And so, equipped with the fruits of Islamic learning (new navigational instruments, books on astronomy and trigonometry), European explorers set sail for Africa to relieve the natives of their gold. Pope Nicholas V gave his blessing, so long as the Vatican benefited. In the 15th and 16th centuries, thousands of pounds of gold were shipped to Europe. But slaves were more valuable, so the British fought the Spanish for a share in the trade and eventually came to dominate it. At the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Britain was granted the right to supply slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas, a right then passed on to the South Sea Company. The “South Sea bubble”, the greatest financial crash of the 18th century, was intimately connected to Britain’s dealings with Africa, though this is rarely acknowledged by historians.

The Royal African Company, established by Charles II in 1672, eventually enslaved and transported more Africans than any other company in British history. It built slave forts on the African coast, some such as Bunce Island in Sierra Leone furnished with a “rape house”. Separated from home and family and landed in the West Indies (countless numbers dying of suffocation during the journey, given that the people traffickers were packing the holds to maximise profits), the Africans had no recourse to the law, much less the conscience of their captors. The Barbados slave code of 1661 stripped Africans of all human rights, and set out ways in which they were to be punished, to exert control over their labour (mutilation of the face, slitting of nostrils, castration, execution). After decades of complaints, the Royal African Company lost its monopoly in 1712 and, Olusoga writes, “Independent traders were turned loose upon the shores of Africa.” These traders had argued (“stone-blind to irony”) that the right to enslave Africans was “a defining feature of English freedom” and that the Royal African Company had breached their status as free-born Englishmen. Eventually, 11,000 separate British slave-trading expeditions resulted in the trafficking of three-and-a-half-million Africans to the New World plantations, the greatest forced migration in modern history until the 20th century.

How could Britain, a civilised and Christian nation, indulge in rape, torture, killing and the forced labour of Africans over two centuries? The answer is money. If you had spare cash or could borrow, investment in slavery was a sure winner, never mind slave rebellions or hurricanes that destroyed cane fields. Sugar was king: originally a luxury, it became one of the main sources of calories for the British poor. And so many hundreds of thousands of British workers were directly dependent on slavery (from sailors to those who built, rigged and repaired ships) that it was easy to turn a blind eye to the inhumanity. Once insignificant villages, great cities such as Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow sprang up on the profits of slavery.

But a group of 12 disciples of Christ set out to change things. In 1787, they met in London and set up the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. They included Josiah Wedgwood (the pottery entrepreneur), Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson. Fired by religious feeling, they embarked on a campaign of public education and political lobbying “unprecedented in scale and revolutionary in nature”. Supported by African authors of slave narratives such as Olaudah Equiano and Ottabah Cugoano, they held meetings all over the country, attracting huge crowds. Thousands of petitions were presented to parliament. Women, denied a meaningful role in politics, formed their own organisations, writing tracts, pamphlets and poems, gathering signatures for petitions and fundraising: “At certain times and in certain places they were the engine room of the movement.”

Abolition was the first mass philanthropic movement in Britain, and it ended the slave trade in 1807. It could have ended earlier, but the planter interests in parliament defeated William Wilberforce’s attempts. In 1796, a bill was defeated by only four votes: a group of abolitionist MPs went to the opera and missed the vote. Between that night at the opera and 1807, nearly 800,000 Africans were enslaved.

Women such as Elizabeth Heyrick continued to lobby for the abolition of slavery. They organised a boycott of sugar, produced more petitions and hosted meetings. It was such a brilliantly organised programme of mass protest that slavery was declared abolished in 1833: 46,000 slave owners were given £20m in compensation (£17bn in today’s money), the largest payout in British history and 40 per cent of all government spending that year. The enslaved Africans had to wait another five years for their freedom and were not given a penny.

Long after slavery ended in the British colonies, British people continued to lobby the American government to free their slaves. The many African-American abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass, who visited Britain from the 1840s onwards, were well received and, again, thousands of people greeted them and raised money to support their cause.

The publication in 1852 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by the American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, swelled national sympathy for the plight of black slaves. More than a million copies were sold in Britain – cheap pirated versions reached a mass readership. The novel became the bestselling book of 19th-century Britain; it was adapted for the theatre and generated mass-produced merchandise – playing cards, jigsaws, tableware. Its extraordinary success rested upon the “foundation of sympathy… laid down during the previous 70 years of abolitionist activity in Britain”.

Yet American slave-produced raw cotton continued to feed the 4,500 mills of Lancashire. In 1860, cotton goods accounted for 40 per cent of all British exports. In 1861, the Economist stated that nearly four million people in Britain depended – directly and indirectly – on the cotton industry; a fifth of the entire population. When the American Civil War interrupted the supply of cotton, hundreds of thousands of British workers were made destitute, dependent on soup kitchens, and the British economy was “dealt a thunderous blow, all because an ocean away the forced labour of four million enslaved black Americans had been disrupted”. Needless to say, the national mood changed. The masses who once supported black freedom now campaigned for the Deep South.

Olusoga brilliantly reveals such contradictions in British society. In dealing with the black contribution to the First World War, for example, he cites popular gratitude and admiration for black Britons – among them Walter Tull, who fought on the Western Front. Tull played professional football for Northampton but instead of signing up for Glasgow Rangers, he enlisted. Rapidly promoted to sergeant, then second lieutenant, he led white British troops into action and died in 1918, having been mentioned in despatches and recommended for the Military Cross. And yet Africans and West Indians were banned from the victory parade in 1919. Anti-black riots broke out in Liverpool that year.

During the Second World War, thousands of black American soldiers stationed in Britain were befriended by white Britons who opposed efforts by the white military to segregate them. West Indians fought with the Allies – more than a hundred were decorated. And yet anti-black race riots broke out in 1948 in Liverpool and in 1958 in Nottingham and London’s Notting Hill. The following decades were taken up with popular and political rhetoric about immigration and parliamentary acts to limit blacks coming to Britain.

Olusoga’s stated purpose is to argue that black British history is not about migration and settlement, whether of black servants in the 18th century or black workers in the Windrush era. It is about the centuries-long engagement with Africa, a consequence of which is the black presence in Britain. Olusoga has benefited from and added significantly to the work of Fryer and other historians such as James Walvin. He has discovered new and exciting research materials in African archives, among them the Register of Liberated Africans in Sierra Leone, which list names, bodily details, ethnicity and origins, thus putting a human face on people otherwise treated as fodder and statistics. Such sources give his writing freshness, originality and compassion.

Like Fryer’s book, Olusoga’s will inspire and will come to be seen as a major effort to address one of the greatest silences in British historiography.

Black and British: A Forgotten History
David Olusoga
Macmillan, 624pp, £25

David Dabydeen is a novelist, broadcaster, academic and co-editor of “The Oxford Companion to Black British History” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear