Vision of life unfrozen: ice skaters by the Dutch painter Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634). Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty
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Christmas cards were my window to another world

The child of a grey coal town in Calvinist Scotland, I was hungry for imagery, wild about colour and, even though I accepted that I would never live there, desperate for proof of some other world.

Growing up, I lived in a house without art: no picture books on the shelves, no visits to museums, no posters on the bedroom wall. That this was as much a blessing as a lack did not become clear until later: the child of a grey coal town in Calvinist Scotland, I was hungry for imagery, wild about colour and, even though I accepted that I would never live there, desperate for proof of some other world. There was no art gallery in Cowdenbeath, however, and our occasional visits to Edinburgh were spent walking round the shops, staring at things we couldn’t afford, before unpacking a picnic lunch in Princes Street Gardens, sometimes in sunshine, though more often in a fine, rather greasy drizzle.

The one exception to this monotony was Christmas. Everyone sent out cards in those days and, although the majority were of badly photographed robins and religious scenes, every now and then something came through the mail that startled me with its vibrancy and beauty. Though I didn’t think of it then as art (or, worse, as “culture”), that fortnight’s span leading up to Christmas introduced me to Brueghel and Hendrick Avercamp, to Joseph Farquharson and the Limbourg brothers – and every Twelfth Night, when the decorations came down and the cards on mantelpiece were about to be consigned to the fire, I would rescue a handful of the best pictures and hide them away in my room. Later, I added Japanese bridges in deep snow and, during a half-hearted correspondence with an American “pen pal”, a precious snow scene by Walter Launt Palmer.

Hardly anyone sends Christmas cards these days. Though I accept the environmental and financial logic of this, it doesn’t stop me feeling slightly cheated when the mail comes around. Clearly my childhood self was drawn to colour and to the delicacy of light reflected on snow but I think he also recognised that something else was going on, something that wasn’t obvious on the surface. That something is not easy to name or describe. Yes, it has to do with an acceptance of what, when many of the paintings were made, was a hard, even fatal season, a time of abstinence and bone-deep cold and, when the snow set in hard, dangerous isolation. But it also reveals a recognition of the magical process that happens invisibly at the turn of the year, a miraculous closing down of almost everything under the cover of ice and snow so that the earth can be renewed.

Snow isn’t just pretty. It also cleanses our world and our senses, not just of the soot and grime of a Fife mining town but also of a kind of weary familiarity, a taken-for-granted quality to which our eyes are all too susceptible. When the thaw comes, we are surprised again (if we are lucky) by forms and colours that we had almost forgotten. The first seedlings to uncurl from chill spring loam remind us that this rare planet’s abundant life, against which all the odds were heaped, is (to paraphrase the Spanish poet Jorge Guillén) a matter of law, rather than mere accident.

This year, I am collecting new images, mostly by the German expressionists whose work I first found at the Brücke Museum in Dahlem: artists such as Fritz Bleyl and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff who were active in the early years of the 20th century. Influenced partly by the Japanese woodcut tradition, they made winter scenes that are highly economical and, at the same time, immensely powerful. It is work that seems almost to pause time, while the year turns and that stillest of days, the winter solstice, renews our ties to the earth – ties that are both as binding as gravity and as mysteriously liberating as the intuition that Wallace Stevens had, gazing into the white origin of the snowy world, of “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.