From English restraint to Bohemian freedom

Two of the National Portrait Gallery's current exhibitions reveal changing attitudes to the artist i

As you walk around the National Portrait Gallery's current exhibition of the works of E O Hoppé it is with the knowledge that the man, renowned in the 1920s and 1930s for his portrait photographs of the rich and powerful, has been forgotten. I spent the majority of my visit to the exhibition trying to work out why.

The answer is to be found in another exhibition at the same venue. Like Hoppé, Ida Kar was also a photographer who, despite not being a native Londoner, gained her reputation in England's capital city. The effect of going to Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer after walking among the Hoppé exhibition is revelatory. The gap between each photographer's most productive period is about 20 years -- Hoppé in the 1920s and 1930s and Kar in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet when you look at the work of the latter it feels like an age has passed between these artists. I was aware as I looked at the work on display in the two exhibitions that I was looking at two vastly different worlds.

Indeed, the social conventions and almost restrained individuality one feels is present even in Hoppé's most daring portraits is completely absent from Kar's work.

Hoppé comes closest to losing the social conventions of his time in his photojournalism. Mainly known for his portraits, if you look to the right side of the gallery a wholly different range of photographs in this form are on show. They form the Street aspect of the exhibition and, as accomplished as some of the portraits are, it is these and their capturing of a London and its people in between the two world wars that grabs your attention.

Hoppé had an eye for what you might call the mundane eccentric. Or at least what looks eccentric now. In the Street collection he records with skill the British going about their hobbies and odd jobs. Just some of those captured here include swimming, piano-playing, bell-ringing, felling trees, ironing and flag making, and all performed with a jingoistic gusto. The photographs would provide the perfect visual companion to George Orwell's essay "England Your England", in which he described the nation's "addiction to hobbies and spare-time occupations". Even though I wished there had been more of this work on display, the feeling is that you are viewing a relic -- an England long gone. A piece of history for which, despite finding it fascinating, I was unable to garner a personal and emotional engagement.

Viewing Kar's work straight after magnified the feeling. For all the eccentricity recorded in Hoppé's Street pictures, by the time of Kar's work it is clear the definition of eccentric has altered. That change has all to do with the growth of the artist as the expression of individualism - a movement that would become all encompassing in artistic circles by the 1960s.

Her work heralds a point in which the celebration of not just the artist but the art itself becomes the focus. This revolution is discernible in the two exhibitions. As Kar captures images of artists in their natural habitats she not only creates the myth of the artist but also obliterates the once held distinction between the artist and their art. In Hoppe's portraits it is the artist who is the subject, in Kar's the artist cannot be separated from their art.

Illustrative of this is a picture Kar took of Russian composer Shostakovich. Sitting on a piano stool turned away from his chosen instrument and looking straight into the camera, he looks incredibly stiff. The burden of balancing the demands of his creative desires and the political state is etched not just on his face but body too and brought out fully in the photograph. It is this sort of autobiographical moment of truth that is something not only absent from Hoppé's pictures, but is now the de rigueur demand we make of our photographers.

Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street and Ida Kar: Bohemian Photogrpaher run at the National Portrait Gallery uintil May 30 and June 19.

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times