Sarah Burton

The net result

Sarah Burton on the new book by Timothy Brook

Vermeer’s Hat turns on its head the conventional relationship between a history book and its illustrations. The seven paintings and one plate reproduced here are not intended to give us clues as to what the period and people in the narrative looked like, but are themselves the starting points for the web of narratives that Timothy Brook has woven on the subject of early global trade and the international exchange of ideas and practices.

The eight works (five of which are paintings by Johannes Vermeer) were all made in Delft between 1630 and the end of the century and all depict objects which Brook recruits as portals not just to 17th-century Holland but to the 17th-century world as it became increasingly joined up through international commerce. Hence the hat of the title (which appears in Vermeer’s ‘Officer and Laughing Girl’) is a doorway which leads — via the superior felt from which it is made, the manufacture of which required beaver pelts — to the development of European trade with natives of North America. Like all the interconnected journeys the book takes us on, this is an adventure in itself.

The dish on the table in ‘Young Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window’ takes us down a corridor of trade routes all the way to China; the silver coins in ‘Woman Holding a Balance’ open a trail to the silver mines of Peru; a Chinese man smoking a pipe on a Delft plate connects with the spread of tobacco use around the world, and so on. You get the picture. This device enables Brook to communicate the interconnectedness of things in a period of ‘second’ contacts. (‘First contacts’ are when two cultures first discover each other; ‘second contacts’ begin a process of ‘transculturalisation’, where not only goods but everyday practices are exchanged and we begin to adapt our behaviour in order to accommodate and deal with alien societies.)

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