Magazine article History Today

A Life in Art

Magazine article History Today

A Life in Art

Article excerpt

Harriet Bridgeman describes how a simple idea led her to found one of the world's most prestigious libraries of art.

I SEE MY LIFE, in common, I suspect, with most people, as not having had one blindingly significant point of departure but rather a series of revelations and prompts which imperceptibly evolved into the mainstream of my life and a consistent route dominated by art.

Perhaps the earliest point of departure was being educated, like my three sisters, at home by a governess who followed a curriculum devised by what we knew familiarly as the PNEU (the Parents' National Educational Union). An imaginative and ambitious programme, it introduced us at an early stage to a far broader spectrum of learning than most children now experience. We were taught that English history must be seen in the context of Europe and that art was also another aspect of history. `Art' at that time of my life was summarised by a beautifully presented folder into which were tipped colour illustrations fastened together with a silky white tassel which treated a different artist or school of painting each month. I looked forward to the arrival of the betasselled folder just as I looked forward to the stories that were read to us by my parents from a book called The Picture Frame. This consisted of twelve reproductions of famous paintings around each of which the author had written a wonderfully imaginative story. The fact that he was a Dutch prisoner-of-war called Peter van Ooostkerke who had been in the same prisoner-of-war camp as my grandfather, to whom he had given the book, undoubtedly added to its glamour.

So it was that I became acquainted with such paintings as Arnolfini and his Wife by Van Eyck, not simply as consummate works of art but also as human dramas. How many other children were told that Arnolfini's beaver hat had been specifically designed to dwarf his nose and ears of which he was so self-conscious, and that his wife is looking so tense because her husband has come home unexpectedly and her little grey griffon dog is about to alert him to her lover who has just climbed out through the open window and is hiding on their balcony?

Together with this early interest in, and appreciation of, art, my mother, through her close involvement in our education (doubtless to the irritation of our governess) also imbued in us a strong interest in history and classical mythology. When other children were being read books by Arthur Ransome, we were being read the first edition of the Lives of the Queens of England by Agnes Strickland, which was published in 1840 dedicated to `Her most excellent Majesty, our Sovereign Lady Queen Victoria ... with feelings of profound respect and loyal affection'. There were times, I must confess, when we were not as absorbed by the adventures of Matilda of Flanders or Eleanor of Aquitaine as my mother would have liked, perhaps because of the arcane language in which they were described. It was then that she turned to The Tales of Troy and Greece by Andrew Lang, which I recently discovered was dedicated to H. Rider Haggard, which had line drawings by the Victorian children's illustrator and friend of Burne-Jones, H.J. Ford, and which rooted the Fleece of Gold and the adventures of Ulysses in our imagination.

It was perhaps for this reason that in my early thirties, when I was being paid an above-average salary by an art-based publishing project, I decided to invest in Greece, the country of my childhood imagination. Here we built a house in the Southern Peloponnese, near the beautiful and historic town of Monemvasia, which has been variously owned by the Greeks, Turks, Venetians and French and is sometimes referred to as the Gibraltar of Greece. Our house, which has no telephone or electricity, stands in open country close to the sea and was built by a local farmer and his brothers between their olive harvests. When a certain dexterity crept into their financial calculations, perhaps partly because the design had been drawn on a cigarette packet, we would remark that the modern Greek was a mirror of Ulysses and his contemporaries and time had effected no changes. …

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