George D. Painter

Biographer of Proust whose principal career was as a distinguished incunabulist at the British Museum
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The Independent Online

George Duncan Painter, biographer and incunabulist: born Birmingham 5 June 1914; Assistant Lecturer in Latin, Liverpool University 1937; staff, Department of Printed Books, British Museum 1938-74, Assistant Keeper of 15th-century Printed Books 1954-74; FRSL 1965; OBE 1974; married 1942 Joan Britton (two daughters); died Hove, East Sussex 8 December 2005.

Marcel Proust, the subtle and detached observer of the human mind and heart against a French landscape, and William Caxton, the genial merchant with literary tastes who brought printing to England - two very different subjects, one might have thought. But they came together in the work of George D. Painter, a writer who was accurate, sympathetic and capable of wild flashes of magical insight that illuminated not merely the matter in hand but a whole range of human experience.

His two-volume biography of Proust, published in 1959-65, not only enjoyed great critical success, but also (what is less common) has been in print ever since. It is one of the great masterpieces of literary biography of our time.

George Duncan Painter was born in Birmingham in 1914, and his lifelong love of music came from his father, a schoolmaster with a fine voice (he took part in Rutland Boughton's Glastonbury festivals and sang in The Immortal Hour). His mother was an artist, from whom he inherited a strong sense of the visual. He was educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham, whence he went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, as Bell Exhibitioner. Further scholarships supported him, and he got first class honours in the Classical Tripos; he was Craven Student and was 2nd Chancellor's Classical Medallist in 1936.

Painter was appointed Assistant Lecturer in Latin at Liverpool University in 1937, but left the next year to join the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum. It was here that the cast of his professional life set. The Arched Room, the once magnificent enfilade of shelves designed by Robert Smirke, became his habitation, surrounded by the museum's collection of 15th-century books, the greatest in the world. They had been arranged there by Robert Proctor between 1893 and 1903, and there too his successor, Victor Scholderer, worked until his retirement in 1945. The core of the work that he then handed over to Painter was The Catalogue of Books Printed in the Fifteenth Century now in the British Museum, begun by Alfred Pollard in 1908.

Scholderer had been responsible for most of the volumes dealing with Italy and France; Painter now undertook Spain and Portugal, followed later by the volumes on the Low Countries (divided, anachronistically, into Holland and Belgium). All these benefited from Painter's very acute eye for typographic detail; he also contributed the general introductions, analysing the book production of each area, a task less suited to his talents.

But his appreciation of the historical background was sound and broadly based, and he had an excellent grasp of the documentary sources. All these characteristics showed in his work on British books printed in the period, notably in the acquisitions that he made. These included the copy of the St Albans Book of Hawking, Hunting and Blasing of Arms (1486) marked up for Wynkyn de Worde's edition (1496), an astonishing survival, the unique 1488 Legenda ad usum Sarum from Warwick, and Caxton's second edition of The Mirror of the World in its original binding, in which Painter's sharp eye descried a dim ink offset which, seen in a mirror, proved to be the only trace of another book printed by Caxton, The Fifteen Oes.

He wrote up this last discovery, in his usual clear style, as "Caxton through the Looking-Glass" in the 1963 Gutenberg Jahrbuch. In 1974 he retired from the British Museum as Assistant Keeper of 15th-century Printed Books; two years later his last and greatest contribution to this subject was William Caxton: a quincentenary biography (1976), in which, overcoming the technical complexities of texts and type, he drew a convincing picture of Caxton, by now his "dear little man", in the context of his time.

Bibliographical scholarship was only one strand of many in Painter's life. Moving to London had brought excitements and strains that needed other releases. Music was now available in abundance; he could play the violin well, and delighted in singing Schubert's songs, although he shared his father's taste for Wagner and Liszt as well. But the well of music became a trickle with war, which brought too the agonies of destruction without and conscientious objection within.

The trials of this time are reflected in the poetry of The Road to Sinodun, published in 1951 but inscribed "London, King's Langley, September 1940-October 1941". Sinodun "is a curious domed hill, with a beechwood on its summit, rising from the south bank of the Thames opposite Dorchester"; the way there was tortuous, like Müller's "Winterreise". It involved a "doppelgänger", too:

In the dark land's empty space

Two friends stand, nor need embrace.

Pressed too far, past tears or sleep,

I and I our vigil keep.

This sense of division enabled Painter to enter into the double task of unravelling the complexities of Proust's life, while seeking the roots of A la recherche du temps perdu. With his wife Joan (their long marriage started in 1942) at the piano, he and his violin explored the ever-memorable fictional sonata of Vinteuil (he would have been amused to know that the rival claims of Saint-Saëns, Fauré and Franck are in debate on the internet today). The transformation of personal experience into creative form, common to Heine and Hoffmann as to Shelley and Wordsworth, lay at the centre of his own explorations.

These led first to André Gide: a critical biography (1951), and then to translations of Gide (Marshlands and Prometheus Misbound, 1953) and Proust's Letters to his Mother (1956). Marcel Proust: a biography came out slowly, the first volume in 1959, the second in 1965, when the whole work won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. As Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote, "a kind of infra-red intelligence, invisible but powerful, glows from [the author]".

Fortified by the appreciation, Painter embarked on the still greater task of Chateaubriand's life and work, and a first volume, Chateaubriand, a Biography: the longed-for tempests, came out to equal acclaim in 1977, winning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Meantime Painter had become involved in a quest that took him far away from France and the 19th century. The same year that Proust appeared also saw the triumphant announcement by Yale University of their acquisition of the "Vinland Map", a vellum double-leaf with a world map dating from the mid-15th century (well before Columbus) that showed Greenland in unexpected detail and beyond it the unmistakable outline of the east coast of North America. Could it be genuine? Had the Norsemen really got there first?

Painter was brought into the debate by his colleague, R.A. Skelton, Superintendent of the British Museum Map Room, both working in embarrassing secrecy until the news broke on Columbus Day, 10 October 1965. Academic debate became fierce, and fiercer when the "Tartar Relation", a manuscript also acquired, quite fortuitously, by Yale was discovered (they had wormholes in common) to be the source from which the map had been detached.

Skelton and Painter came to believe that it was genuine, but were assailed by most other experts, who questioned everything from the bad Latinity of the "Relation" to the chemical composition of the ink (at least on the American bits of the map). The map was a forgery, they said, and so was the "Relation" (the latter no light task, in view of its length), the astounding coincidence of the two pieces at Yale was a deep-laid conspiracy, and the wormholes had been made with red-hot knitting needles.

At the conference held to debate all this, Walter McCrone's evidence that the ink contained anachronistic titanium seemed to have carried the day until Painter, with a wonderful sense of theatre, revealed that under the microscope you could see the tiny tooth-marks left by the worms round the matching holes. The knitting-needle theorists were aghast, and the case was left open in The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation (1965).

Open it still remains. McCrone performed yet more elaborate tests in 1972, which seemed to confirm his original findings, but in 1987 proton-induced X-ray analysis showed the titanium content of the ink to be far less than McCrone's findings indicated, and negligible as a constituent. Painter never lost interest in the problem. He had no axe to grind. His work was based on a thorough knowledge of all the written sources, which he then interpreted against their historical and social backgrounds.

He had a wonderful memory well into old age, and could quote from sources as disparate as Widsith, Joyce (he thought Finnegans Wake vastly better than Ulysses) and Lear. But he could also draw on threads of reasoning from yet wider reading, classical, medieval, historical and modern. His introduction to the 1995 second edition of The Vinland Map shows his fundamental common sense, as well as his wide-ranging scholarship.

It is impossible to imagine Painter apart from his wife Joan, his companion in everything for far more than the 63 years of their marriage. Their families were related, and they first saw each other through a railway-carriage window at Bristol, where the Painter family paused en route for a seaside holiday. First sight brought no initial spark. Joan was a painter, and pursued art until 1935, when she decided to train as a nurse. When they met again after the tribulations of 1940-41, they were never parted; painting for her and for him gardening (while listening to music through headphones) and writing. He once said:

I write with torture, it's probably a self-punishment. Somebody has got to do it. Trying to see things as Chateaubriand saw them takes the time.

Work on Caxton diverted him from that task, and after that the Vinland Map. But what he has left is a unique achievement.

The Road to Sinodun ends:

I wrote a verse, I chose a rhyme,

My words spoke all my thought.

"Come death, for I have conquered time,

'Tis all I sought."

My former voice seems out of chime,

My future words all dumb,

Yet I have conquered death and time,

Let what may come.

Nicolas Barker