Monday 21 March 2011


The great photographer Felix Nadar died on this day in 1910, just short of his 90th birthday. The image above is his famous portrait of the troubled (to put it mildly) poet Gerard de Nerval, taken shortly before his death. Surely it is one of the most revealing, vivid and haunting portrait photographs of a writer. Richard Holmes, as he recalls in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, was obsessed with it, as he was with Nerval himself, a subject who nearly drove Holmes himself mad as, struggling to write his biography, he fell into dangerous levels of self-identification with his subject. Eventually Holmes abandoned the projected book, but he did write a brilliant radio documentary/drama, all in de Nerval's words, called Inside the Tower.
Recalling his excursion into radio, Holmes writes:
'The discovery of radio, as a vehicle for biographical story-telling, moving effortlessly inside and outside its characters’ minds, shifting with magical ease between different times and locations, was a revelation and an inspiration to me.'
Hear hear. Holmes has since returned to radio at intervals, most recently with A Cloud in a Paper Bag, a piece exploring the ballooning mania of the 18th century - subject of a dazzling chapter in his The Age of Wonder, which I am still reading, one illuminating chapter at a time. I have just reached Humphry Davy...


  1. ..and who could be a more illuminating subject than Davy? I think that was one of my favourite chapters in age of wonder, Davy comes across as a true genius

  2. You're right. I like that photograph because it shows so clearly how, as writers, we have to be resigned to being open.

  3. I've just found a reel-to-reel tape with the hour-long radio programme "Inside the Tower" on it.
    It seems to be quite well recorded.
    I will be digitising it soon (for personal listening) and have contacted the bbc. I haven't listened to it yet, I'm now very curious!

  4. Thanks so much for this article, pretty useful material.