Why do some cultures prefer small things? I think Tom Lubbock would have known

Plus: why we need a literary UEFA Champions League; and a grumble about Hollywood fact-twisting in Argo

Share
Related Topics

It's mostly in art galleries that I miss my late friend Tom Lubbock, a former reviewer for these pages. And usually it's because I don't understand something and find myself wondering what he would have said about it. It happened the other day when I was walking round the British Library's lovely exhibition of art and artefacts from Mughal India. The troubling questions were these: what is it about some cultures that drives towards the small and the minute as an expression of luxury? And what is it about miniatures that so allures us? You could, after all, propose a rough dichotomy when it comes to expressing the magnificence of a regime in paint. Some cultures go for grand panoramas and wall-filling frescoes. Others – the Ottoman and Mughal among them – seem more inclined to the small and exquisitely detailed. One approach aims to overawe the spectator with sheer extension, the other with an act of compression, fitting more than you can quite believe into a couple of square inches of painted parchment. The Mughal exhibition is full of the latter effect.

I set about solving my confusion in a slightly perverse way, by looking through English Graphic, a recently published collection of Tom's writings on drawings, etchings and watercolours by English artists. Not Mughal painters, obviously, and only tangentially about fine detail in art. But then Tom didn't always supply a pre-cooked explanation in response to a question. His gift was for applying a brilliant and raking light to something that you thought was obvious and revealing new layers in it, just as art researchers sometimes do. English Graphic is full of that distinctive quality. Who else would start an essay on a Hilliard miniature like this? "Images are mostly not for looking at. They are for being there and having around." The mind demurs briefly, but then you think of all those millions of wallets with their tens of millions of photos of children – never looked at but magically indispensable all the same. The Hilliard essay also delivers this, which points towards one possible answer: "The miniature encapsulates its subject, turns a person into something that can be wholly enclosed, wholly held, wholly handed over." Thinking about those Mughal paintings there's something fitting in that. A fresco, even inside a palace, is common property. An exquisite miniature is more luxuriously private, an art work essentially designed to be seen by one person.

A long and wonderful essay about Thomas Bewick's woodcut vignettes (full of illumination about framing and edges and the unexpected psychology of the drawn line) also contains this, about the minuteness of detail that Bewick gets into his images: "Their wonder lies not in vision but in eyesight. They aren't pictures to be known at a glance. Their scale makes them a kind of secret to be probed." And that too hits squarely at the optical deliciousness of Mughal paintings, the sense that you'll never quite see minutely enough to see how the trick of depiction works. I still haven't worked the thing out but English Graphic helped a lot, as I knew it would. Curiously, the form of the book, rather than any individual piece in it, probably offered the best clue as to the seductive power Mughal paintings. Like the essays in this book those images are eminently graspable, presented with an utterly straightforward simplicity of line and clarity of description. There's no impasto in English Graphic, no overworked, painterly effects in the language to blur the perception of what you're looking at. Instead you get precision and a hairline niceness of discrimination. Both paintings and writing are the fixed traces of a remarkable act of human attention – and they induce the gratifying illusion, for as long as you concentrate on them, that your own attention is just as refined.

A writing contest to top them all...

I found myself wondering whether it was time for a literary equivalent of a UEFA Champions League the other day after looking at the recent winners of the Alfaguara Prize, the prestigious Spanish literary prize, awarded this year to Leopoldo Brizuela. I barely recognised any of the previous winners – and a quick look at recent winners of the German Book Prize, the Prix Goncourt and the Strega Prize reinforced the sense of literary cultures that almost never overlap. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize already does its bit to break down the barriers for British readers. But what about a cupwinner's cup to push it a bit further?

Facts are as important as fun

When people grumble about Hollywood fact-twisting in "real life stories" the burden of indignation is usually felt on behalf of the traduced. So, in Ben Affleck's Argo the contention that the British Embassy refused to help the six escapees from the American compound turned out to be flatly untrue. But my indignation is reserved for the film itself, because the point at which a director opts for box-office expediency is almost always the point at which they give up the task of making an original film in favour of making one that we've all seen before. Argo is a lot of fun, but if Affleck had insisted on making the truth work on screen it might have been really good too.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia  

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Oliver Poole
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices