Art Critic and Illustrator
Until Further Notice, I am Alive
In 2008, Tom Lubbock was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and told he had only one or two years to live. In this remarkable record of those years, lived out in three-month intervals between scans, he examines the question of how to live with death in sight.
As the tumour progressed, Tom engaged intensely and imaginatively with work, art, friends, and his wife and their young son, while trying to remain focused on the fact of his impending death. His tumour was located in the area of the brain associated with language, and he describes losing control over the spoken and written word and the resources he drew on to keep communicating; a struggle which brought him ever closer to the mysteries of the origin of speech. As the Independent's chief art critic, he was renowned for the clarity and unconventionality of his writing, and the same fierce intelligence permeates this extraordinary memoir. This is a book written by a man wholly engaged with life even as it ends.
'Until Further Notice, I Am Alive is an account of what William Empson called 'the human practice of dying'. And nothing in Lubbock's writing indicates that he did it with any less of the humour and intellectual curiosity that the lived by ... The details are beautifully observed; the big picture is illuminated; the title is well chosen' - Alexander Linklater, Observer
Published 5 April 2012 by Granta
Introduction by Marion Coutts
Hardback Demy HB
Until Further Notice, I am Alive, extract and introduction by Marion Coutts, The Independent, 31 March 2012 »
When Words Failed Me, Tom Lubbock, The Observer, 7 November 2010 »
What links the damned in the Winchester Psalter Hellmouth to a brilliant piece of anti-slavery propaganda? Who can draw an apple tree like ‘a slow explosion’? Why is Max Beerbohm so lethal? How many kinds of line can you find in a picture by Patrick Caulfield?
English Graphic is a book of essays by the acclaimed critic Tom Lubbock on the subject of illustration and drawing, with the focus on English artists using graphic media; drawings, prints and watercolours.
The majority of the essays in English Graphic first appeared in Tom Lubbock’s weekly Great Works column for the Independent. As Jamie McKendrick says of Great Works in his introduction, “The revelation … borne out by all his art criticism, is how much there is in every painting to think about, even to think with; how much thought – not just instinct, luck or genius – went into the making of a picture and, in generous exchange, how much thought each picture prompted.”
English Graphic includes previously unpublished writing and longer pieces published originally as reviews or catalogue essays. The historical span is broad – from Robert Hooke’s The Flea to Harry Beck’s London Underground Map and beyond. The high point of English Graphic art in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century makes up the heart of the book, with Fuseli, Blake, Bewick and Palmer all the subject of extended essays.
Images range from the visionary to the empirical, from folk art to caricature. ‘Arguments in shape and line’ was an early sub-heading, and connecting and overlapping ideas run through the book; maps, islands, clouds, swarms, wombs, skins, dots, contours and boundaries. Energetic, coherent and strange, English Graphic presents an electrical storm of ideas and illuminations provocatively argued by one of our most brilliant writers on art.
Editor, Marion Coutts
Introduction by Jamie McKendrick
Published 18th October 2012 by Frances Lincoln
Hardback 208 pages, fully illustrated
6 October 2011, Evening Standard
by Brian Sewell »
Tom Lubbock, chief art critic of The Independent, died in January this year, as much mourned for his humour and humanity as for his criticism.
I liked him for his warmth and passion - we shared an irreverent interest in classical sculpture and its consequences but our attempt to make a TV programme on Winckelmann was contemptuously disdained by the BBC. I like him too for his wayward criticism - so much less didactic than mine, entertaining rather than instructing the layman with thought processes that scampered from irreverence to irrelevance and only sometimes back again. These delighted the informed and left the layman laughing and bemused.
Great Works is a compilation of 50 essays, each on a single picture. They are, of course, about the pictures, but they are also about Tom, about the way he saw and the thoughts that sprang from the act of seeing. As he could draw - which is a means of disciplining what and how one sees - his seeing was informed by insights that most art critics lack. It is, however, the waywardness of Tom's writing that fascinates, his readiness to set aside the subject in hand and expand a capricious response.
Take Gianfrancesco Caroto, for example, a minor painter in Verona known, if at all, for a portrait of a boy holding a caricatural drawing of a man and grinning as he shares the joke; Tom quotes Picasso's assertion that it took him a lifetime to learn to draw like a child, continues with a discussion of the "electricity" in lines drawn by children, and only towards the end writes of the inescapable knowingness that mars Caroto's invention of the drawing - "He has faked it" is his conclusion.
Tom's tone is conversational; so too are the sentences - he is no polished Addison. "OK" appears, and "Maybe" as a one-word sentence; on Delacroix the opening line is "Lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster," and on Constable "Clouds are all sorts." Occasionally one senses that there are two speakers in the essay, but for the most part the reader himself is the interlocutor. He reminds us of forgotten knowledge: I read Bergson when I was a student, found him almost as boring as Rabindranath Tagore and forgot him, but now, here he is, in an essay on Paul Nash, closely followed by John Betjeman - only Tom could have invented a connection between three men so incompatible. Only Tom, writing of Daumier, could address the reader thus: "Take off your clothes ... Stand before a full-length mirror" and develop this into a discussion of contour, outline and edge, of form, volume and energy.
With Degas we discuss the indignity of sitting on the lavatory (though it is not in the picture) and the particular helplessness of being pulled by the hair - but the victim in this Toilette is utterly co-operative, supporting her damp Titian tresses while her sister, fellow servant or attendant prostitute tenderly draws a comb through them after a bath. This essay makes two points about Tom's perceptions: first, that he occasionally sees not necessarily what is there to be seen but what he wants to see - and here the supposed aggression lends the subject a more exciting twist; and second, that we are not compelled to agree with him, that our alternatives may be just as justified, if not as stimulating.
I think him in error too over Pollaiuolo's Apollo and Daphne - but then my view is informed by Bernini's interpretation of the tale and I think it a triumph of Renaissance logic and delicate eroticism rather than awkward, disproportionate and funny; but with Géricault's Severed Limbs and Masaccio's Expulsion, Tom has me in thrall.
Read at a sitting, this is an indigestible accumulation of maverick ideas but I could not put it down; it is pure Tom, playing as shrewd an observer of a painting as was Aldous Huxley, or honest fool, or schoolboy, or slippery Jesuit, all prompting argument - and argument with Tom prompts recollections and he is still alive.
11 April 2012, Daily Telegraph
Until Further Notice, I am Alive
by Jane Shilling »
In August 2008 the critic, writer and illustrator Tom Lubbock had a fit while staying with friends in Suffolk. At first his doctors thought he had suffered a stroke, but an MRI scan showed a tumour in the left temporal lobe of his brain – the area responsible for speech and language.
An operation to remove the tumour revealed it was malignant, fast-growing and incurable: "Something in my head," Lubbock recorded, "is hurrying to kill me." But having told friends he was dying, he reconsidered. Noting that, "a fatal diagnosis is a sovereign cure for hypochondria", he wrote in an email: "Until further notice, I am alive."
At the time of the diagnosis, he had been married for seven years to the artist Marion Coutts. They had an 18-month-old son, Eugene. These are pressing reasons to resent the imminence of death.
Yet in this memoir he writes, "I always felt from the start that it would be wrong to complain, to protest, to be outraged… wrong even almost to treat the situation as an evil at all… It is partly an acceptance of the human state… It is partly a kind of self-respect."
In her introduction, Marion Coutts writes that the progression of the tumour and the journal that became Lubbock's memoir happened over the same period. In his last year, "he willed words into being as they vanished again – Tom's work was to keep his illness and his life in clear sight".
Lubbock described his physical and mental state with the keen intelligence and fine observation that he brought to his critical writing. "A new motto," he wrote. "Neither mysticism nor stoicism." He records the knowledge that his new sofa bed will outlast him not with panic or resentment, but with curiosity and an acceptance of mortality that is very far from resignation.
His oncologist observes that he is "doing amazingly well". In what way? Lubbock wonders. It is his attitude, apparently, that has amazed her: "I'm amazingly undespondent. Well, this is true – and it is not a guard that drops when I am alone… Still, I would not describe this as an attitude… It is a kind of duty, to myself and others, not to be cast down. And it isn't a struggle."
You could call this courage, or to use an old-fashioned term, grace. Montaigne, who discussed death in his Essays with a mixture of robust spirituality and amused pragmatism of which there is a potent echo in this memoir, wrote that he hoped death would find him planting cabbages.
The penultimate entry in Tom Lubbock's journal, an intensely resonant fragment, written even as language escaped him, reads, "My body. My tree. After that it becomes simply the world." If one sought a lesson in how to die, one could hardly do better.
20 April 2012, The Independent
Until Further Notice, I am Alive
by Michael Bywater »
This extraordinary, vast little book enacts Larkin's almost-instinct, almost true: what has remained of him is love. Tom Lubbock was art critic of this paper for many years until a brain cancer removed, inch by inch, his language and then he died, stupidly young.
He was a writer secondly. First, he looked, not at himself nor soliciting the admiration of the reader, but at the image he was writing about. The words were a necessary tool brilliantly wielded. It was a pure form of ekphrasis.
And then the words were taken away. Neurological disorders tend to be monstrously cruel like that. If he had been a watchmaker, you can bet his cancer would have taken away his hand-eye co-ordination; a musician, his ear. Evolution says that nature has finished with us once we've passed on our genes; human sentiment, that finding love is the highest good and, that being achieved, it's gently downhill.
Lubbock did both late, and nature's revenge followed swiftly. He married late, became a father late, and almost immediately life dealt him the short straw. We are all dealt it in the end. Nor is it really the timing; there's never a good time to be told your number's up.
What is extraordinary is Lubbock's response. "I always felt from the start that it would be wrong to complain... This going wrong is the way I have gone wrong. I will not deny it, abjure it." He and his wife Marion are in this together. Their intimate companionship, a mutual self-identification, brightened. He falls in love with his little son Eugene (a lucky fellow to have such a father, such a testament). Eugene's acquiring of language matches his father's losing of it.
Lubbock writes love letters to his family, adamantine in their resolve. Occasionally Jesus, his tribal god in whom he has no particular belief, seems to be putting in a shy appearance on the periphery. But, mainly and wonderfully, Lubbock considers himself a body, an operating-system, a manifestation as meticulous and non-transcendent as those he wrote about, on canvas or in the marble.
It's hard, impossible, to précis this magical book: magical not by its author's intent but by what it achieves. He addresses one of the most ancient of philosophical questions – how should a man die? – with emotional assurance, a precise and kindly brutality of judgment, rare in the current rash of death-confessional writing. This is a book in a different class. More; it is a different class of thing.
Most striking is the language. Samuel Beckett spent his life trying to reach the limits of language, beginning by abjuring English and writing in French. By the end of the second book in his monumental trilogy, Malone Dies, he is getting there. Malone out on the lake in the dark with the murderous asylum-warden Lemuel falls asleep, or dies, along with his language in its fits and starts and noddings-off:
...I mean never he will never
or with his pencil or with his stick or
or light light I mean
never there he will never
The modifiers go, the verbs simplify, only the nouns remain, the things that do the real work in our lives. And it's the same for Lubbock, under a greater force majeure than literary investigation. He writes of his wife and son:
Marion and her embrace.
Ground, river and sea.
Eugene – his toys, his farm,
his fishing game.
The final thing. The illiterate. The dumb.
Quiet but still something?
My body. My tree.
After that it becomes simply the world.
There's nothing to be said about this. Except perhaps that once language is stripped away we are left with poetry. His wife writes that the last words "were understood, spoken aloud and pulled together through question and answer, repetition, verbal challenges, inspired guesswork and frustration... Very early on, Tom wrote: 'The shape of the creature is the pressure of life against the limit of death'. We were right against the limit for a very long time, and we knew what we were doing and we kept on doing it, During that long time something was made and here it is." We should be grateful. I hope I remember this book when it's my turn to die. There's little more to be said.
8 April 2012, The Observer
Until Further Notice, I am Alive / Great Works
by Alexander Linklater »
One of Tom Lubbock's nicest habits as an art critic was to observe some quirk in a piece of art and, while distracting you with this eccentric detail, to whip off the magician's cloth and illuminate the whole work. It was a regular trick of the short essays he wrote in his "Great Works" series for the Independent: a preparatory manoeuvre priming you for the big picture.
Published posthumously as a collection, Great Works deepens a neat journalistic technique into a profound way of seeing. Why did Alfred Hitchcock, in his 1941 film, Suspicion, put a light inside the glass of milk in Cary Grant's hand? And what does this little special effect tell you about Francisco de Zurbarán's Still Life with Jars, painted in 1635? Lubbock's unlikely juxtaposition lights up not only a film and a painting, but the very idea of the illusion of light in art.
Or he wonders which patch of yellow it was that Proust noticed in Vermeer's View of Delft. In À la recherche du temps perdu, this is the last detail the novelist Bergotte thinks about as he dies in an art gallery. Lubbock notices that Proust must have slightly misremembered the yellow patch when he put it into Bergotte's mind. The intensity of the detail – of any detail – is an illusion created by its place in the composition. Bergotte dies clinging to an illusion as the wider composition fades. This is why it is such a good image, Lubbock writes, of a man's "fading consciousness and will to live".
As Laura Cumming points out in her introduction to Great Works, Lubbock wrote the essay while waiting to undergo surgery for the brain tumour that would kill him. In September 2008 he was diagnosed with an advanced glioblastoma multiforme, situated in an area of the brain involved with the production of language. For two years he wrote, knowing that he would, soon enough, lose the ability to speak and to write. And he wrote of his own fading in the same way he wrote about art – fascinated by the quirks in himself, charming his readers into seeing the big picture.
The quirk of the brain as a biological entity is that it can register pain from everywhere else in the body but not from within itself. Although Lubbock experienced fits, he was unaware of them as they happened. His tumour was painless, so he could observe in himself the oddness of dying without physical suffering: "It's wholly a matter of knowledge and how I deal with this knowledge." The time he had to contemplate his death was a foreshortened version of the knowledge we all have.
Until Further Notice, I Am Alive – composed from his journals and a long article written for this newspaper – is an account of what William Empson called "the human practice of dying". And nothing in Lubbock's writing indicates that he did it with any less of the humour and intellectual curiosity that he lived by. He finds it slightly odd that, even though he has a small son who will grow up without him, he doesn't aggrandise his impending paternal absence. "I'm not made for gloom," he writes. "Not cast for catastrophe."
His wife, the artist Marion Coutts, reinforces this honourable and moving trait of equanimity in her introduction. "What we needed to know here," she writes of their post-diagnosis life, "was an extension of what we knew already."
Of course, there is sorrow and loss and terror. Instead of envying the young their youth, Lubbock finds himself envying the old for all the additional years they have enjoyed. Yet he can also find moments in which he feels a sense of blessing in the change in life forced on him by his tumour. His thoughts turn to his wife, and he asks if he has ever written her a proper love letter. He writes one. "I send you all my love from the middle of the night. Hold on to me. Hold on to us."
The story of the book is simple and clear: first operation, diagnosis, treatment, good news, bad news, second operation, then more bad news. Lubbock is not preoccupied by the science of his condition, nor tempted by far-fetched remedies; rather he is interested in the effects produced by this most abstract of afflictions. He is amusingly wry about the attitudes of others. When confronted by those who can't understand why he isn't investigating every alternative treatment, he detects a hint of disapproval and gently puts it down: "I'm not going to count my death as a personal failure."
Above all, what he notices is language as it slips away from him or reveals itself to be bizarrely involuntary, as if some "inefficient proxy" were forming the words. When the tumour distorts his speech, he recognises that, even in the midst of his jabberwocky, "the stress of the words and sentences – sense or nonsense – is equally and perfectly accurate." It is an observation of the linguistic structures underpinning mental existence. "Loss of speech amounts to the loss of mind," he writes. "Mind means talking to oneself."
Yet, later on, having recovered from a period in which words utterly failed him, he notices that "my experience of the world is not made less by lack of language, but is essentially unchanged."
In the silence at the end of his book, Lubbock leaves an eerie trace of that ineffable thing we all leave behind, summoning up the big picture in his two final words: "the world".
The quirk I notice in this review is that I have referred to events leading up to Tom Lubbock's death in the past tense, but when I cite what he wrote, I instinctively revert to the present, as if he were still writing. Until Further Notice, I Am Alive is an illusion of the author as a living composition. The details are beautifully observed; the big picture is illuminated; the title is well chosen.
23 March 2012, The Guardian
Until Further Notice, I am Alive / Great Works
by Julian Bell »
The art critic Tom Lubbock died in January 2011, aged 53. A tumour shut down his brain. The first sign that this would happen had come 30 months before, when a fit overtook him as he, his wife and infant son were visiting friends outside London. Until Further Notice, I Am Alive is an occasional journal that Lubbock shaped into book form during that time, aware that his diagnosis was terminal. As you read your way through and approach the back cover, life and the book you're holding close down together. Thinner and thinner grow the sheets between your fingers, the print giving way to blank – and you're up against the hard binding. Lubbock's working experience gave him another analogy for the situation. "Mortal. We occupy a limited patch of space (I have never believed in travel) for a limited stretch of time. Like the art of realistic painting: pictures hold an equivalent in the confined areas which they enframe."
As the tumour gradually wore away at his hold on speech, Lubbock went on with his job, delivering weekly essays to the Independent about those enframed areas that painters create. Great Works (Frances Lincoln, £18.99) selects 50 pieces from a series the paper ran for five years, the last of them composed three months before his death, while he was noting in his journal: "My language works in ever-decreasing circles … It's very difficult for me to talk at all." It is an endlessly lively and surprising book. The format's simple: reproduce a picture, usually by a well-known artist; talk about it for two or three pages; add a nifty 100-word thumbnail about the artist. But the title misleads. Lubbock writes not to celebrate "greatness", but to plunge head first into strangeness.
Again and again Lubbock comes at an artist from an unfamiliar end of his oeuvre. Not a screaming pope by Bacon but a sand dune, Giotto's allegories of vices rather than his gospel stories, not a shouty melodrama by Delacroix but a Still Life with Lobsters. "Lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster," Lubbock's commentary begins, insistently nonsensically. He wants you to register the sound of the word, becoming "stranded and estranged" from its meaning. This, he suggests, is an effect that the still life delivers visually when it heaps lobsters with dead rabbits and pheasants on a country hillside. No narrative sense can be made of the scene. Yet from that absurdity, Lubbock leaps to a powerful inference: that for Delacroix, "a picture is a set of functions, a series of boxes to be filled. The world is a supply of things and scenes with which to fill them, quite arbitrarily." That bites: the painter's grandes machines such as Liberty Leading the People start to look different in the light of those lobsters.
But the insight also shines back on Lubbock's own way with painting. Insofar as he has any characteristic approach (in fact, Great Works is a virtuoso display of variety in essay technique), it is to treat pictures as spaces that "enframe" certain things and not others. Why did the painter put this in, not that? "You can never just subtract a part from a painting. You have to fill it in," he writes, wondering how Van Gogh's Wheatfield with Lark would look without the lark. His "scissors and crayon" stand poised: alongside his journalism, Lubbock was also a superb collage artist. Working out why the lark or the lobster happens to be there, he takes you closer to the painter's mind, and in this task he is very sure-footed – you invariably learn a lot. He enjoys steering your sensibility, too: listen to him sequencing epithets for the heroic-worker paintings of Léger: "Safe, graceful, optimistic, but tough, and never simply jolly."
Yet individuals and their achievements are not the main objects in view. What the collection keeps returning to is the way that "painting remakes its world from scratch". The stuff of painting is not like the stuff of that other 3D world, even when painting pretends to be realistic. "In the pictured world, the laws of nature change" and things are no longer held down by everyday gravity, optics or narrative coherence. What's more, mainstream western painting, according to Lubbock, sidelines great swathes of experience – relationships, children, sex, messiness and laughter. It still has content, certainly. From its own peculiar angle, it reflects with continual wonder on the fact that we have – or that we are – bodies. But it does so by conducting a set of visual thought-experiments. The way that Lubbock describes those experiments may not dwell on the turps and the sweat of the studio, but it communicates something rarer to come by, the liberating clarity of a philosophic mind.
His terse phrasing is heady. Of Hopper's Early Sunday Morning: "The scene says 'etc'." Of Zurbarán's still lives: "Everything feels seen." Behind those compressions lie vast resources of cultural knowledge, capriciously paraded – from Mickey Mouse to Dante, from Simone Weil to condom packets. What culture a writer carries matters also, in a sense, when he describes how he goes about dying.
Since we're all headed for the same door, the interest of the exercise turns partly on the different directions we're coming from. Until Further Notice, I Am Alive concerns the mortality of a highly educated Londoner, whose circle includes fellow journalists and some of the medics busy tackling a tumour that is immediately identified as malign. When Lubbock sleeps in a hospital ward, the night noises remind him of a Bartók concerto: he mulls over his Brecht and William Empson; he makes savvy, sceptical asides about other contemporary death writing, such as that of Julian Barnes and Joan Didion. Death approaches him at a point when he is, on his own terms, at the top of his game. He agrees with an art critic friend, Laura Cumming, when she remarks how "clearly defined" his life has appeared. All we see of his family is his little son and his wife Marion Coutts – who contributes a moving introduction-cum-afterword. Apart from them, no other ties come into view.
The tamped-down controls enable Lubbock to concentrate on his real-time thought-experiment: how to live staring non-life in the eye. He wants not to be evasive. Some friend sends him a book of remedies involving meditation, but "being asked to change my life and my self, in order to save my life" is something he rejects. "I side with 'western' medicine because it treats me as an organism." He wants to exist as a measurable body: that way, the tumour cannot constitute any kind of reproach.
He has an ear for religion, much as he has an ear for poetry, but God is not real to him – and, more important, God is not quite relevant to his present demands. God cannot confirm for Lubbock that "here" is wholly "here". And that is what he is intent to hold on to. "The prosaic, material, solid, opaque, secular, untranscendent, this-worldly": it is to these qualities he's "attracted", he writes. He loves this world, he finds it good, and adds: "I'm not made for gloom." And yet to be "attracted" to something, you must be somehow distinct from it. Knowing he'll die, he becomes acutely aware of seeing the world from a certain angle, and: "I can't imagine the world's good as apart from my perspective."
Equally, how can his powerful mind grapple with its own status as a physical brain, under attack in its left temporal lobe? Philosophy's big riddles get dramatised here in rich detail. Lubbock does not dwell on physical pain but he tries to track, with awesome stubbornness and lucidity, the gradual disintegration of his own speech patterns. He heads into strange territory. Six months before his end, he is contemplating "the mystery of summoning up words. Where are they in the mind, in the brain? They appear to be an agency from nowhere. They exist somewhere in our ground, or in our air. They come from unknown darkness."
Early on in his to-and-fro with operations and chemotherapy, Lubbock wrote touching love letters to his wife and a son he feared might be too young to remember him. But tearjerking was not really his business. What gradually came on me as I read his notes and meditations was a sense that behind the witty and complicated man I very slightly knew, there stood a kind of hero of contemplation. Always Lubbock's instinct is steadily to wonder. One page before the print surrenders to blank paper – exiting on a keel of high poetry – he remarks that language is slipping away fast, and yet that his thoughts when he looks at the world are "vast" and "limitless". And characteristically he adds: "This is curious."
17 November 2012, The Independent
by Tom Sutcliffe »
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.