Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art & Life & Sudden Death by Laura Cumming - review by Norma Clarke

Norma Clarke

Blast from the Past

Thunderclap: A Memoir of Art & Life & Sudden Death


Chatto & Windus 272pp £25

As a teenager with an interest in art, growing up on London’s Old Kent Road with a father whose mantra was ‘God gave you legs to walk’ (he didn’t believe in God but he did believe in walking), I often found myself on Sunday afternoons walking to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. I remember distinctly the day I discovered the Dutch painters. It wasn’t Rembrandt or Vermeer who caught my eye, but Hendrick Avercamp and, especially, Pieter de Hooch. I was startled that a simple painting of a backyard with red-brick and white-plastered walls, an outside tap and a broom could be so compelling. I don’t remember noticing the little view of Delft by Carel Fabritius that meant so much to Laura Cumming, or Fabritius’s self-portrait in a fur hat that hangs in the corner of a room full of Rembrandts. Fabritius is perhaps best known now for his even smaller painting The Goldfinch (in the Mauritshuis in The Hague).

‘We see pictures in time and place … They are fragments of our lives, moments of existence that may be as unremarkable as rain or as startling as a clap of thunder,’ Cumming writes. A love of Dutch art and a passion for looking at pictures were bequeathed to Cumming by her artist parents. She wrote about her mother’s fragmented, mysterious early life in On Chapel Sands (2019). In Thunderclap it is Laura’s father, James Cumming, who takes centre stage, and like On Chapel Sands the book is infused with love – of parents, childhood, pictures and words. It is at once deeply personal and inclusive, because it is about the shared experience of looking at pictures and the shared desire to know and understand what these ‘moments of existence’ mean. I liked reading Thunderclap so much that I immediately reread On Chapel Sands. Together, these books are a remarkable experiment in form as well as a richly satisfying extended meditation on art, life and death.

The thunderclap of the title is both actual and metaphorical. In October 1654, there was a massive gunpowder explosion, so loud it could be heard more than seventy miles away, that destroyed the centre of Delft. Fabritius, who had studied with Rembrandt and some of whose paintings hung in Vermeer’s house nearby, was painting a portrait in his studio when the explosion happened. The roof beams collapsed; everybody died. He was thirty-two. His death was ‘complete chance: the fatal coincidence of time and place’. The gunpowder had been stored in the arsenal and accident or human error set it off. Cumming compares it to the explosion in Beirut in 2020.

Little is known of Fabritius’s life. He seems to exist ‘below the level of common knowledge’. Born in Middenbeemster in February 1622, he had many younger siblings, including two brothers who became painters. Cumming probes the sparse information, asking what pictures they can have seen and noting that Dutch people were zealous buyers of Dutch art. English travellers were astonished to see paintings for sale in markets. Brewers, bakers and carpenters furnished their walls with paintings. (Look at Dutch interiors – there’s almost always a painting.) Fabritius ‘married the girl next door’, but within a few years his wife and three babies were dead. In his first self-portrait you see ‘the eyes of a man who has suffered all this, who lives with the burden of such sorrow’.

Just as her father took issue with what she was taught at school – that ‘Golden Age Dutch art was all about things’ because ‘the Dutch just loved stuff’ – so Cumming takes issue with art historians who, if they mention Fabritius at all, ‘explain him away as some kind of missing link between Rembrandt and Vermeer’. For her he is ‘entirely singular’, each new work ‘an astonishing departure’. Although his life was short and his surviving paintings are few, each is ‘a masterpiece’. A View of Delft, one of the smallest paintings in the National Gallery, is ‘one of the greatest’. When she was starting her career in London, the shadowy figure in A View of Delft became her ‘strange counterpart’. The man in the picture is ‘darkly handsome’, posed in thought, two musical instruments beside him on the table and the city of Delft shining brightly beyond. Why is it called A View of Delft when it could be called ‘Man Thinking’ or ‘Man Looking’? Why is the man rarely mentioned in commentaries on the painting? What do titles mean anyway? Titles are ‘an oddly new invention’ and nobody knows what Fabritius himself might have called the work.

The paintings have a value for Cumming that is derived from repeated viewings, from the intensity of thoughts and feelings built up over a lifetime’s relationship. Cumming has looked at A View of Delft more often than Fabritius himself can have done; she knows more about his fate than he could ever possibly have known. Writing about Fabritius takes her deeper into Dutch art – there are absorbing passages here about Rembrandt, Hobbema, Van Goyen, Coorte and others – and evokes thoughts about her family: her father, whose mind is ‘all around me’; her daughters and what they see or don’t see when they look at art.

Joshua Reynolds, no fan of Dutch art, wrote that it was to the eye only that the works of Dutch painters were addressed, not the mind or the heart, and that this was their limitation. The only thing he could find to praise in it was ‘accuracy of illusion’: Reynolds, Cumming writes, ‘notices the white satin in the paintings of Gerard ter Borch because it is so expertly depicted as to appeal to our supposed appetite for resemblance’. Historical and mythological scenes ranked more highly than landscapes or still lifes. These were what Reynolds had seen on his grand tour, along with magnificent portraits. He didn’t see the works of Fabritius or Hobbema, whose The Avenue at Middelharnis stayed where it had been made in 1689 until it suddenly turned up for auction in Edinburgh in the 1820s, eventually being bought by Sir Robert Peel. We had a reproduction of the Hobbema at my school and I remember being thrilled to encounter the original in the National Gallery, so much bigger and brighter than I’d imagined. Going back to look for Fabritius, I looked again at Hobbema and de Hooch, touchstones of a teenage self. Some mixture of me now and me then sat in the cafe, reading what Cumming says about Hobbema, knowing Reynolds was wrong. Eye, mind and heart are not separate.

Cumming’s sole trip abroad as a child was to the Netherlands, where the family went to study art. It was a memorable visit, full of pleasures and some shocks. Her first impressions of the landscape and localities flower again in her impassioned defence of the art in which they are represented. Thunderclap in its very title is a provocation to those who continue to think of Dutch painting as an art of quiet and peace, of timeless stillness. Reading it, we learn to look for the life in still life while remembering that life can end at any moment.

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