THE CONNECTED WORLD
Timothy Brook weaves a fascinating account of the world through three seemingly disparate historical events
Lily Tekseng Delhi
What does the great Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer, have to do with China, the North American beaver and globalisation? Timothy Brook’s Vermeer’s Hat explores the connection between these and many other seemingly disparate ideas, events and objects, and he does it charmingly without once deflecting from the objective of constructing a nuanced, accurate understanding of the past. His narrative, seemingly winding on the surface, makes for an exciting and insightful read for that very reason.
First published as Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World in 2009, it has been recently published in the Indian subcontinent as Vermeer’s Hat, Indra’s Net and the Dawn of Globalisation. A scholar of Chinese history, in this book too Brook dwells on China albeit in a slightly oblique way. He posits that an important reason behind the European exploratory voyages was the search for an easier route to China, and globalisation was a subsequent byproduct.
Ben Okri once remarked that to read well is as important as to read extensively. Vermeer’s Hat does both plentifully and well. It handles history in a fresh way. Brook is clever in his analysis of history, literature and art history, and to boot, his language is lucid and engaging. The book begins in Canada where a younger Brook falls from his cycle in a pool of mud on a drizzly day in the idyllic Dutch town of Delft and ends with him positing a case for pushing back the dates of globalisation to as early as the 17th century.
In between, it dwells on three Vermeer paintings, two other works by Dutch painters, and a Chinese porcelain plate. There are patterns and affinities observed by the author that baffle the reader in their opacity at the initial moment of introduction of each idea but that is part of why the narrative is delightful. For example (without trying to give away too much), Brook dwells on the extravagant hat that the officer has on in Vermeer’s The Officer and the Laughing Girl. In the painting, the light falls slightly off the centre of the canvas on the face of ‘the laughing girl’ and behind her, a large map hangs from the wall. Mildly illuminated is a man seated facing the laughing girl. He is dressed in a luxuriant scarlet tunic and wearing the eponymous hat.
Vermeer belonged to a period that witnessed the rise of the middle class, the birth of the novel and a secular world in the wake of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. His paintings reflect that: a tranquil world of domesticity and interiority. Contrary to this standard reading of the painting, Brook traces the origin of the hat in the painting. We find ourselves in the midst of wars and alliances among the French traders in North America and various native tribes, only to return to Europe where the beaver felt has travelled to be made into a hat, and finally to become immortalised in a Vermeer painting.
If only for a moment, the narrative feels overstretched but Brooke salvages it just at the moment of doubt. Vermeer’s Hat is a history book that abounds in metaphors and quotes, and dissects older metaphors. It is essentially a book of ideas, of novel directions, and certainly a must-read for anyone with love for history, art, literature, or a captivating book.