Glimpse of a life: the unexpected joy from a gifted collection

There is something special about being gifted a collection of art books – or a collection of anything.

Rosemary’s mother was an academic, who, when she retired, took up painting. Amongst her bookshelf-lined walls were three rows of art books. Would I like them, Rosemary asked? My bookshelves are full to brimming, but how could I resist more art books? I will take them over time I said, and go through them at my leisure. So I piled about a third of the collection into the car boot.

Before I leave, Rosemary shows me a selection of her mother’s work, stacked in a wardrobe that is now devoid of clothing. It is an eclectic collection, the work of a hobby painter: still life studies; busy people populating the outdoors; landscapes; and stylised figures.

Collections speak of the person who created them. This collection tells me that Rosemary’s mother had a wide and varied interest in art. She must have read voraciously. There are books on Australian painters such as Robert Bunny and Tom Roberts. Scholarly works like Australian Surrealist painter James Gleeson’s book Australian Painters  sit alongside art books for the general reader.

Books on: Brueghel, Cezanne, Munch, Kandinsky, The Impressionists, Goya, La Belle Epoque, Life and Times of Durer, Graphic Works of the American 30’s, couple of weighty tomes on how to paint and much more.

At home, after making space in my bookshelves I begin to unpack the treasures, finding unexpected snippets of information.

In a book by Alistair Duncan entitled Fin de Siecle: Masterpieces from the Silverman Collection, there is a tiny clue to Rosemary’s mother’s creative process. A small piece of paper with the handwritten question “possible?” bookmarks a page of beautifully photographed Tiffany Lava Favrile vases. They are stunning vases, and I recognise the shape as similar to some of the vessels in the still life paintings.

Did Rosemary’s mother draw her creative inspiration and ideas directly from her collection of art books? Perhaps the figures from the detail of Bruegel’s The Corn Harvest inspired her outdoor scenes with busy figures.

Then a piece of scrap paper with a pencil sketch on the back drapes out of a book.. What inspired drawing and what do the figures represent – Matisse’s dancers, a piece of painted pottery or is it a narrative of some sort?

I am left with questions that will never be answered, and further thoughts about collections: of art, of memorabilia, in galleries, in museums, in libraries, grand and small collections, serious or quirky, public and private.

What makes a collection? Why do we humans seem to have a propensity to collect? As a child I collected stamps for a while because my Dad collected stamps. I still have my little collection – in a blue stamp book. Every stamp has one thing in common; it speaks of my love of horses.