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Things That Have Interested Me

Paint Me a Picture

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
28 April 2007

This is going to be about description, systematic description, which is quite different from the art of evocation. A writer evokes a scene, or an era, by means of a limited number of chosen details, suggestive examples that do the work of a larger number of words. Economy is at a premium. Bravura consists in summing up a whole period in a single phrase, or an artist's life's work in a sentence. In the world of the short story, as much attention is paid to what is omitted as to what is described. The reader is asked to supply the details that have been passed over.

Systematic description, on the other hand, although it is seldom considered an art, requires consummate skill. The purpose is to describe everything: every coin in the coin room, every work of art in the gallery, every botanical specimen, every musical instrument.

One takes a painting and measures it. The next job is to ascertain what the support is (canvas, panel, metal), and the medium (oil paint, tempera, acrylic), what can be said about the condition of the work, what can be deduced about the method of its execution. The subject of the painting, if it has one, and the nature of its details call for still further expertise: a knowledge of mythology or history, an alertness to interior decoration, expertise in ceramics (there is a vase of flowers in a niche, but what kind of vase, made where and for what purpose?), botany (what flowers are these?), costumes and textiles.

The paintings of the old masters are both a source of information about the society they come from and a source of problems: if the Virgin is shown at a lectern-like piece of furniture, does that tell us furniture like this was found in Renaissance houses of this kind - or are we contemplating an invented, sacramental world? A systematic description of a single complex painting (something Flemish, for instance) can require the expertise of a lifetime. No doubt there is much assistance at hand, in the form of a scholarly literature, and a catalogue of this artist's other works. For, surely, the greater the artist, the more likely we are to find this kind of help.

But what if the objects to be described, measured, analysed and catalogued are entirely miscellaneous and might include both masterpieces and trash? How does one acquire expertise in the matter of trash? Suppose one were told: here is a museum storeroom, and we want a detailed inventory of everything in the room, from the Rembrandt in the corner to the curator's abandoned coffee mug. The Rembrandt would of course pose its own absorbing problems. But how easy would it be to sort out the coffee mug? There is a charm in auction-room catalogues, where we discover a wealth of technical terms that will aid us in the description of objects both extraordinary and everyday. And there is a usefulness, for any writer, in knowing the proper name for a thing - even if the name is too obscure to be used in, say, a piece of fiction. One really ought to know what they refer to, before putting them in. But it is asking a lot of a writer, particularly a young poet, to know the exact meanings of beautiful words before using them.

Some technical words can be broadly guessed at. I have here an illustrated table of some 30 leaf shapes (ensiform, ligulate, falcate, lorate and so forth). About half of them one might have guessed at. Many people know what the leaf of a gingko tree looks like, but how many would know that that shape is called flabellate? Or that a tulip-tree leaf is lyrate? Systematic description requires a wealth of such words: words for leaf tips (cirrhose, cuspidate, praemorse), for leaf bases (acuminate, cuneate, sagittate) and for the surfaces of leaves (villous, floccose, tomentose). But how many words can I think of for the shapes of coffee mugs? Cylinder, baluster, Horlickoid - that's about it.

My tables of leaf forms and leaf surfaces, of flower forms and inflorescences, will in the end give me a much better chance of certainty in identifying a problem flower than many photographs will. And this precision, this analytic or diagnostic usefulness, will at least be of interest to the writer - even where it cannot be of immediate practical use. To look at a room and have it in your power to describe all its contents is to look knowledgeably and with insight.

You may wish, in whatever you are writing, to give no more than an impression, and to suppress all proper names. You are looking out over paddy fields, and there are flocks of white birds, and you may find it suits your purpose to leave them as white birds, as if seen in a dream. But these birds have a name - they are egrets. And to persist in referring to them without naming them may begin to sound obfuscatory, or pseudo-poetic. While to call them egrets, even if not every reader will be confident of identifying an egret, at least has the merit of avoiding an unwanted ambiguity.

And it is surely true - especially when we are reading for pleasure and without ulterior motive, as when we are reading literature - that we store up interesting words such as egret, that we make a sort of hypothesis as to what it might refer to, and that in due course we find out, one way or another, whether our hypothesis has been correct. Whole vocabularies may remain obscure to us - as, for instance, the meaning of many basic nautical terms remained obscure to me while I was reading Joseph Conrad - but can be stored away in some form, against the day when we really do need to elucidate them precisely.

It would be better to read Conrad with a knowledge of some nautical terms, and a vivid understanding of the ships of his day. But I was reading - I wasn't sitting an exam. I felt at the time that this technical vocabulary was of no great interest to me. So I guessed my way through it and stored those guesses away, as we all do when operating beyond the bounds of technical expertise.

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