Second Thoughts:Pleasure and painting in Spain

Patrick O'Brian recalls the easy path that led to his life of Picasso (Harvill, £9.99)
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The genesis of the Picasso book is as clear as ever it could be - a letter from my literary agent saying that an American publisher, aware that I had certain qualifications for the task, would like to commission it from me.

This, as the agent knew, came at a time when I had finished one book and had not yet started another; and in any case the proposal was in itself quite extraordinarily attractive. I accepted with both hands. The qualifications I have spoken of included a long-standing admiration for most of Picasso's work; a not inconsiderable acquaintance with the painter himself, who had spent a summer in our village; much closer relations with many people who knew him intimately - we shared several friends, some of whom, like Marguerite Duthuit (Matisse's daughter), had known him in his Bateau Lavoir days; and a concern with painting that went back to my earliest youth.

Yet although my earliest youth had shown me a good deal of Picasso's work in Dublin, London and Paris, and although my adolescence had led me somewhat farther afield, while catalogues and reproductions had done more, this was not nearly enough, so we bought a small car and scoured the Spain of Picasso's childhood and the Catalonia, sometimes the very remote Catalonia, of his youth and his most formative years. Then, having made innumerable contacts and accumulated a great mass of notes, we did the samein Paris and the south of France. We were young and resilient and we enjoyed ourselves immensely, just as we enjoyed the wonders of Russia and the United States, with their wealth of paintings, drawings and sculptures by Picasso and his friends. And allof this was very greatly enhanced by the conversation of Marguerite Duthuit, who had first met him when she was a little girl, who was intimately acquainted with the French artistic world, who had a fine disillusioned caustic wit and who spent her summer holidays with us while I was shaping the book.

The actual writing I no longer remember clearly, though it must have been pretty laborious, but I have a lively recollection of the very kind welcome it received from Sir Kenneth Clark, then the curator of the National Gallery, who stated that it was "much the best biography of Picasso", and from Xavier de Salas, the curator of the Prado itself, who said virtually the same. At first its commercial success was no more than moderate, particularly in America. I had had the temerity to say that Gertrude Stein's inability to read French and Picasso's to speak it with anything like correctness diminished the value of her reported conversations with him on the subject of painting; and the book was reviewed for the New York Times by one of Stein's most ferventworshippers. Still, later it did better, particularly in its Spanish, French, German, Italian and other translations; and in the intervening years the editions and recordings have succeeded one another, overflowing their original shelf and filling me with a quiet but I hope inoffensive complacency. It was indeed a most conscientious piece of work, the result of intense and loving research, and a book that was written with a very great deal of pleasure.