All The Beauty in the World
Patrick Bringley writes of art as foundational to the need for human solace and the need for creativity.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a Museum Guard, standing there for hours and hours with crowds streaming past, constantly on the lookout for some idiot using flash photography, or damaging the paintings or climbing over barriers that are evidently there not to be climbed over? I suppose my answer to my own question is that if I had wondered what it was like, I would have assumed it would be quite boring. Patrick Bringley will answer this question. In fact, Patrick Bringley will answer most people’s questions about everything in this wonderful book All the Beauty in the World : A Museum Guard’s Adventures in Life, Loss and Art. (Vintage)
Above all this is a personal journey, starting with his being taken to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (fondly known as the Met) by his mother as a child,
“In my memory, it was so still in the museum that the statues appear to have fallen under a recent and sudden enchantment. It was so silent, we could hear our footfalls on the pale stone floors. We climbed a stairway toward a gold Diana statue, her weight forever on the ball of one foot, her hand perpetually adding tension to a bowstring.”
and leading on to his taking a job there as a guard after the death of his older brother, Tom. It was the only way he knew how to deal with his grief. All the Beauty is a book about standing still both in work and in life. Bringley already had a great job – but felt that he could no longer cope with the pressure of having to rush forward. He just needed time to be still. And where do you find that time but in a Museum, a place which is wholly representative of time?
Bringley is highly knowledgeable about the collections he is guarding. Museum Guards are constantly asked questions – not just ‘where are the loos’ or ‘where’s the cafeteria?’. Many other questions too. Like, where is the Mona Lisa? ‘At the Louvre in Paris’, he replies. Oh, not here then? No, not here. Once he was excited to be posted for the Met Ball but found himself miles from the event and saw nothing.
Of course there are negatives too: punishingly long shifts; sore feet and legs; no week-ends free; only the most senior guards are given holiday allowance over the Summer. But Bringley evidently loved his time there. To the author the long stretches spent standing and looking were not in the least boring. By the end of his time at the Met he knows every collection, every route, every gallery, pretty much every work of art. There is a fascinating piece on the Gee’s Bend quilters and far too many other collections to list here.
He says, not only does he like his job but “it would be an indecency, a stupidity even a betrayal to find fault with such peaceable, honest work. No, I prefer to be grateful, grateful for the soft wood floors and thousand year old art, grateful for all the stuff I don’t have, like a product to sell, lies to tell, a ditch to dig, a register to ring.”
Patrick Bringley worked at the Met for 10 years and by the time he feels ready to move on he is married with two children, has made loads of friends and has written this great book. So although he took the job at the Met because he was tired of having to push forward all the time in a previous high profile career, interestingly his life has moved forward anyway. Just in different and more profound ways perhaps.
On the front cover is a quote from Hope Jahren (whose book Lab Girl I adored) saying that this made her:
‘yearn to have Patrick Bringley at my side at every Museum I will ever visit for the rest of my life’.
His engagement with art is so fresh, so unacademic and completely unsnobbish, yet so knowledgeable.
This is such a lovely book I can heartily recommend to any art lover or simply if you are curious about people who stand still for a living or the connection between our greatest art works and mental health. I do not mean that in a woke or politically correct way. Sadly there is is too much slinging around of terms relating to psychological distress that are little or barely understood by the people doing the slinging.
Bringley writes of art in a way that is foundational to solace and the human need for creativity.
Classics Club Spin XVIII – The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
And talking of psychological distress, here is one from my Classics Club List, Henry James The Turn of the Screw (Penguin Classics). There was a classics club spin recently which I missed but the number came up as 18 so I have chosen number eighteen off my main list as a belated way of taking part in the challenge.
So to the plot.
Bly is the setting, a house to which a young governess (who has led a sheltered life), comes to look after two children Miles and Flora at the behest of their guardian. I mention the sheltered life bit because that is pretty much all we know about her. She does not even get a name. In this she shares a relationship with Maxim de Winter’s second wife in du Maurier’s Rebecca. Although the two characters have little else in common.
James’ heroine speaks as though she has swallowed several dictionaries.
How about this from the beginning of Chapter VI:
“It took of course more than that particular passage to place us together in presence of what we now had to live with as we could, my dreadful liability to impressions of the order so vividly exemplified, and my companion’s knowledge henceforth – a knowledge half consternation and half compassion – of that liability.”
Does a young governess – even one from the 19th century – really think or speak like that? I don’t know because, dear reader, even I am not that old.
It’s difficult to talk about any of the plot points of Turn of the Screw without giving something away. According to the introduction to this edition, written by David Bromwich, James himself described his ghost story as being ‘meant for readers he hardly supposed to be ready for his major fiction.’ In other words, just a conventional ghost story aimed at those who like the genre.
I heartily wish that were the case for at least then we might have had a thumping good ghost story. But this is not that.
Yes there are ghosts, and we are told by the good housekeeper Mrs Grose (who never actually sees them) that they could be the ghosts of people who during their lifetimes worked at the house and behaved in a reprehensible manner. Nothing is ever specified. Can it be assumed that in death these deceased servants are equally up to no good? That is an assumption which is made – not by the author but by the narrator – and it is one on which it seems to me that the entire story turns.
The governess comes to believe that the children are possessed. But are they? Whose reality are we dealing with here? It is in any event an assumption that will lead to dire consequences.