Vermeer's Hat: The seventeenth century and the dawn of the global world by Timothy Brook

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Vermeer's Hat: The seventeenth century and the dawn of the global world by Timothy Brook

Category: Art
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Fiona Thompson
Reviewed by Fiona Thompson
Summary: An introduction to the dawn of the global economic age inspired by the paintings of Johannes Vermeer.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: July 2009
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1846681202

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If a picture paints a thousand words, then Timothy Brook provides the dictionary we can use to make sense of the vocabulary. Using five paintings by the seventeenth century Delft artist Johannes Vermeer along with a blue and white porcelain plate and the works of two of Vermeer's contemporaries, Brook demonstrates how the far flung corners of the seventeenth century world were drawn together by the ambitions of European merchants and the ability of Asia, Africa and the Americas to provided the materials to fulfil them.

Brook likens each work of art to a door and by entering it, we can be transported around a rapidly expanding world; a seemingly simple object – a felt hat, a china dish, a fishing vessel – can tell us not just about the interior depicted but point to the complicated chain of links that has seen key commodities that we now take for granted become common currency around the world. The hat of the title may or may not have belonged to the artist, what Brook is interested in is the material from which it is made. Beaver fur makes the best felt but by the mid seventeenth century beavers had been hunted almost to the point of extinction; fortunately North America had huge numbers of beaver and Brook describes how Europeans like Samuel Champlain made sure they forged the necessary connections with the native tribes in order to send beaver pelts to Europe.

In another example, using the paintings on a Dutch copy of a traditional Chinese porcelain dish, Brook looks at how tobacco made its way to China and contrasts the way smoking was commonplace among the working masses of Europe, but became the preserve of the elite in China. Brook is a Professor of Chinese studies at Oxford university and the material focuses heavily on Chinese history and culture and I felt that in this respect there was a severe imbalance; some points appeared laboured and there were too many examples given, or those examples were illustrated in too much depth. Of course, the Dutch East Indies Company and with it the special economic relationship with China was the success story of the seventeenth century; it is only right that Brook should emphasise the importance of such connections. However, I found references to corresponding trade, for example in silver, with South America, glossed over and tantalisingly fleeting.

While I found aspects fascinating, the overall impression was that the paintings were merely a useful vehicle with which to link up various tales of international trade. The title is a misleading one for the articles Brook uses to transport the reader to the seventeenth century could have come from many depictions of interiors at the time. With the recent success of Tracy Chevalier's novel (and the subsequent film adaptation) Girl with a Pearl Earring, which dares to create a fictional relationship between model and artist, could Brook be capitalising on popular interest in Vermeer in order to exploit a loose connection between what he wants to say about the dawn of the global economy and the work of an artist who currently attracts much attention?

What Brook has in abundance is the ability to tell a good story; history is really brought to life with vivid descriptions of piracy on the high seas, exploration of North America's Great Lakes and the addiction to tobacco of upper class Chinese ladies. This is a highly entertaining read even if it does tend to lose its way at times.

However, the disappointment for me came with the almost total lack of appreciation of Vermeer's paintings for their quality; this implied, to me, a suggestion that the paintings are more important for what they tell us about the time in which they were painted than about their intrinsic beauty or charm. As a keen art historian I found this view very one-dimensional.

In spite of its minor failings, Vermeer's Hat is immensely readable; it can be read in its entirety but the individual chapters work well as stand alone articles too. It's a very accessible way of presenting history which would have universal appeal but it struck me that it might be an excellent way of promoting an interest in history to young men who don't read much because it features heavily tales of piracy, exploration and warfare. Vermeer's Hat is an engaging work that combines social and economic history with a dash of good old-fashioned storytelling to throw open a fascinating window on the seventeenth century world.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Recommendations for further reading: If you enjoy tales of derring do, this fictional tale of life on the high seas from the same period may appeal to you.

Buy Vermeer's Hat: The seventeenth century and the dawn of the global world by Timothy Brook at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Vermeer's Hat: The seventeenth century and the dawn of the global world by Timothy Brook at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Vermeer's Hat: The seventeenth century and the dawn of the global world by Timothy Brook at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Vermeer's Hat: The seventeenth century and the dawn of the global world by Timothy Brook at Amazon.com.


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