It had been there for years and while I was aware of its presence, I’d never really looked at it before. The frame was old, mid-twentieth century perhaps. It was shabby, dark, and crumbling away at the corners. The glass was dusty and the glare of sunlight from my mum and dad’s kitchen window obscured the image underneath, reflecting their welsh-dresser instead. That said, as I sat at the kitchen table something familiar in the picture caught my eye. It was the gentleman’s long fair hair and the hint that he might be wearing seventeenth century clothes. Using his flowing locks as an anchor, my brain quickly began to assemble various versions of what the image could be. I had to see it.
Climbing onto the kitchen surface (something I hadn’t done since I was a child) I freed the picture from its home behind a small ornament above one of the high kitchen cupboards. My fingers were immediately coated in time’s grey moss so I instinctively wiped them clean on my jeans (old habits die hard). Back at the table I blew away more of the dust and looked at the image properly for the first time. It was of a gentleman sat at a desk penning what seemed to be a letter. He was dressed in Protestant black and his desk was clad in a rich, red blanket. There was a globe at the far end of the desk and a pastoral painting of hills and sheep hung on the wall behind him. I realized why I had been drawn to the long hair. I’d recently studied someone with a similar hairstyle – John Milton in Solomon Alexander Hart’s 1847 portrait of the writer’s supposed meeting with Galileo. This wasn’t John Milton, but it was definitely a man from the same era. The clothes screamed seventeenth century and I knew then that the picture would not be returning to its home. I had to have it.
Turning the frame over I found a card on the back with the makers mark and the title of the image, ‘Man Writing a Letter’. I grabbed my phone and typed the title into Google. Low and behold, the painting wasn’t just from the seventeenth century, but it was created during the very period I have been writing about and studying for the last few years, the 1660s. It was painted by the Dutch painter Gabriel Metsu between 1662 and 1665. The version in my mum and dad’s house was, of course, a copy (the original is now in the National Gallery of Ireland), but it looked lovely so I packed it away ready to take back with me (I would naturally ask for permission later).
Why have I bothered to write about such a trivial incident? Well, I shall tell you. My mum has loads of paintings, ornaments, and curious furniture in her house. She visits local car-boot sales and second-hand shops regularly and picks up an array of wonderful objects – from old books and jewellery to art deco portraits and chunky wooden chests. There was no real reason for me to feel drawn to and then covet that particular picture. However, over the past few years I appear to have acquired a kind of ‘seventeenth-century radar’ where my brain seems to pick up and processes anything related to that period faster than other things. It’s like (and I know this is a limiting analogy) when you have a new baby and suddenly notice all the baby related adverts on TV. There is a feeling of familiarity and of these items somehow belonging to me and the world that I inhabit more than items from, say, the eighteenth century, sixteenth century, or, dare I say it, present. I am pretty sure I am not alone in this. There must be people out there with their ‘Terminator vision’ fixed to ‘Victorian’, ‘Medieval’, ‘Interwar’, you name it. I have been studying post-Restoration/pre-Fire London for over a decade now. It is a strange thing to spend longer occupying, in my mind at least, a time and place than those who actually lived through it. It does something odd to you.
If anyone has any similar experiences with items, places, etc, I’d love to read about them in the comments below.