Detail, Detail, Detail

Snow Storm

Image: Snow Storm. Oil on canvas by J.M.W. Turner, 1842. Tate (London). 

The recent film, Mr. Turner, directed by Mike Leigh, with Timothy Spall in the titular role of the great British Romantic painter, is a masterpiece of detail.  Viewers are visually immersed in the painter’s daily and intimate life; we have entrance to the nooks and crannies of his several homes; we see in close-up his painting tools – canvases, paint brushes, colorants for paint, rags, easels; and we follow the many cups of tea carried by Turner’s loyal housemaid, whose horrid skin condition worsens as the years pass.  Gloriously, we also see the landscapes and seascapes that so inspired Turner’s oeuvre: two Dutch maids walking along a canal with a rising sun behind a windmill; a whipping storm at sea; a steam train cutting through a rolling landscape, rumbling with the oncoming industrial revolution.  All this detail adds up to character.  We start to understand Turner’s complex inner life with the accumulation of all that surrounds him.  As the cinematographer, Dick Pope, says in a recent New York Times article: “we’re looking over his shoulder, looking at what he’s painting, what he’s sketching, the viewpoint of his world….  [We are] inspiring the audience by showing what he was inspired by.”

Seeing the movie, which I highly recommend, took me back to when I was writing the opening chapters of my biography of ​Clover Adams​.  I felt frustrated by how little I found in the family records about reactions to her mother’s death from tuberculosis, when Clover was a small child.  How did the family cope?  What was the mood in the house?  Young children leave little evidence for what they’re feeling after catastrophe.  Later, Clover rarely mentioned her mother in her letters.  Few of her father’s letters survived into the archive.  But then I remembered a small detail from early in my research that helped me turn a key.  On a bit of torn paper, no bigger than a post-it note, Clover’s father, a Boston Brahmin, had written in French a quote by George Sand, which read in part:  “good breeding meant that we hid our suffering.”  Clover had found the scrap in his desk after his death and kept it.  I realized that silence, especially when death is nearby so much of the time (one in five died of tuberculosis in mid-nineteenth-century America), was a large part of how the family managed.  And this one phrase, this one small detail, pointed the way towards understanding Clover’s childhood, becoming a kind of leitmotif for the whole book:  hiding and silence.

Detail, detail, detail – I’ve learned many times that’s where the story is.  And that’s also what the archive can provide in abundance:  the myriad details of the past and of past lives.

– Natalie Dykstra, Director, Boston Summer Seminar

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