Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A White Horse and an Open Book

'Peaks, Passes and Glaciers'
Veronica Bailey, 'Hours of Devotion' series (2007).
With kind permission from Veronica Bailey and Giles Baker Smith
  One of the highlights of late January every year – ever since I accidentally ended up with a free ticket as a graduate student – is the London Art Fair. It is one of the biggest such shows/sales in the UK, with dozens of top galleries and dealers exhibiting works from Lowry to Damien Hirst in the glassy, multi-tiered space of the Business Design Centre in Islington. This year, amidst the hundreds of photos, collages, sculptures and paintings on display, two images struck a chord with me as a historian, as works of art which captured something of the experience of researching the past.

The first was History Painting by the Australian-based artist Giles Alexander (on the website, it’s the last picture in the scroll-through gallery). In oil and resin, it’s an oval image showing an Uccello-like scene from a late medieval battlefield, all handsome horses and men in fancy hats. The painting is in the shape of an eye, and the central pupil-section shows a fragment of the scene perfectly in focus, homing in on what looks like the slaying of a commander on a white mount. Beyond the pupil, however, the entire image is foggy and out of focus. This reminded me somewhat of writing a historical monograph –  you try to hold assemble a great panorama of evidence and arguments in your mind’s eye, but for much of the process it all feels a bit out of focus and vague. It’s only when you’ve hit upon your central argument, which can make sense of the evidence, that (ideally) the moment of clarity descends and you feel you can really see the historical landscape.

The second image which stood out for me as a historian was a photograph by Veronica Bailey, entitled Peaks, Passes and Glaciers. It is part of a 2007 series called Hours of Devotion, for which the artist photographed Victorian books from the reading room of Coutts Bank. Her image, of the work standing upright and partially open, its fanned pages facing the viewer, conveys not just the materiality of the old volumes historians consult in research libraries, but their sculptural, architectural and tactile quality as objects. Giles Baker Smith (an Oxford history alumnus himself) has written that Bailey’s images stand ‘as a bold visual testament to the enduring power of the book as a resource of learning, as a cultural mirror and as an aesthetic entity in its own right’. Looking at these photos, I could almost smell their pages and feel their dust on my fingertips. Sometimes artists can tell us things we only half-realised about our own work, its tools and processes.

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