Sunday 15 January 2017

Found - and Lost

A while back, I passed on a comment from an alert reader who pointed out that, despite the evident Dutch love of flowers and flower painting, the painted interiors of the Golden Age are strangely lacking in flowers, with not so much as a bowl of tulips or a few blooms from the garden in evidence in any of the paintings any of us could think of. We kicked around a few theories about their absence, but no one came up with an exception to the rule.
 Well, yesterday I was in the marvellous Dulwich Picture Gallery and I found one - a Golden Age Dutch interior painting featuring a bowl of flowers. It was Gerrit Dou's Woman Playing the Clavichord, a lovely piece of work in which colours, textures and the fall of light are all perfectly harmonised - and there, on the windowsill, at the far left of the picture space, is a vase of flowers. It's a glass vase full of quite humble-looking white, blue, red and yellow flowers, catching the clear strong light of the world outside. Is it on the windowsill for artistic effect, or was this standard practice, at least on fine days? Who knows? The fact remains that Dutch interior paintings rarely show flowers on display - but I was glad to find this beautiful exception.
 After the Picture Gallery, I walked to the library where, in an earlier life, I spent the best part of fifteen years working in the reference department. I hadn't revisited the place in at least ten years, and was pleased to find that the library was still in business and apparently doing a brisk trade. The lending library was impressively full of books - something you can't count on these days - sensibly classified and well displayed, with thematic selections, recommendations, etc. The only staff to be seen were two dejected men and a 'Saturday girl', whereas in my day there would have been eight or ten dejected persons of both sexes - but that was before barcodes and scanners took over. Otherwise, this was still recognisably the same library I had known a quarter of a century ago.
 Upstairs, however, in what had been the Reference Library and was now a Study Area, all was changed, change utterly. What had been quite a complicated layout was now but one large open space, lined with books and filled with tables at which students toiled away, with no sign of the kind of people who used to haunt the old reference library, reading the papers, scanning encyclopaedias, muttering to themselves, snoozing, keeping warm... I could no longer work out the interior geography, not even where the desk had been at which I spent so many hours working (mostly, I must admit, on my various extracurricular projects). No need for an office desk now, in this unstaffed space.
 Somewhat disoriented and unable to work out quite what had been done to the old place, I made my way downstairs, and out into the chilly dusk.


  1. Our local library now has a coffee shop, internet access area, kiddie play area and giftshop selling seaside tat in the front window all in the main hall. There are a few bookshelves too.

  2. Quite - it was so good to find a book-dominated library in these times. Demand for them seemed to be brisk too.

  3. I now live3.5 miles from what was my local city centre library but because of boundaries and despite being closer than many in the actual city I was shocked to have my card snatched away when I went for a change of address! My local library is now a small room with fewer books than I have at home. The choice is pathetic and nothing which is older than about a decade since it was first published, it is now hived off for tax purposes as a trust so has no money and is asking for the public to donate books. Quiet has been replaced by the clatter of keyboards from their two public computers and the screech of children since local child minders find it warm and comfortable play area and a handy handover point!

    As for the flowers, the dutch had very sombre interiors, just saying...

  4. Oh dear - your portrait of your local library is all too recognisable. So sad that libraries - one of the very few genuinely popular services local authorities provide - are so often being allowed to wither on the vine. I was so glad to find that at least my old lending library seems to be thriving - not that that will necessarily guarantee its future...