THE HALF-OPEN WINDOW
Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World
By Timothy Brook (Profile Books 232pp £18.99)
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
On the cover of Timothy Brook's enthralling new book is a well-known painting by Jan Vermeer of a laughing young woman in yellow, seated at a table and bathed in sunlight which floods through a half-open window. Her hands cup a crystal glass, and she is flirting with a dashing officer in a red coat seated opposite her. He has his back towards us, his right arm akimbo, but the composition is dominated by the outsized, black beaver hat he wears, fashionably trimmed with ribbon. This hat, and the diamond-paned window against which it is framed, set the stage for Vermeer's Hat. The minutely observed and meticulously executed details in Vermeer's paintings, Brook suggests, offer us metaphorical 'doors' - apertures opening up, like that half-open window, towards a wider world. Such doors, proposes Brook, take us directly into the rapidly expanding seventeenth-century world of global exploration and trade. Objects interjected into Vermeer's compositions draw the reader's eye and mind towards vistas beyond the sitters in their quintessentially Dutch surroundings.
In the case of the painting I have just described, that lovingly textured broad-brimmed hat opens a door which leads from Vermeer's Delft westwards across the Atlantic Ocean to Canada, where buccaneering adventurers like Samuel de Champlain - leader of a French mission seeking a northwest passage through the Great Lakes to the Pacific in the 1600s - exchanged beaver pelts for firearms with the Huron chiefs to finance their journeys. Back in Europe, the underfur of those much-sought-after pelts was stewed in copper acetate and mercury-laced glue to make the very best felt for the most fashionable hats.
Champlain's ultimate goal was not North America but China. In the early seventeenth century, all navigable routes led to the apparently boundless commercial opportunities offered by the Orient. What makes Vermeer's Hat such an original and stimulating book, however, is not simply the way that Brook traces threads from materially acquisitive Europe to more aloof markets in the East. He is a distinguished professor of Chinese studies, and each freshly painted door he opens to reveal connections between China and the Netherlands tells us as much about China as it does about ourselves. The story of tobacco, for example, tells us as much about the route tobacco took from Mexico to Manila, and thence to China, as it does about its arrival in Europe. By explaining the way in which the stories differ - tobacco caught the imagination of European working people, whereas in China smoking was an elite pursuit - Brook deftly expands the reader's understanding of some of the motives behind China's self-imposed isolation, as well as giving us some of the same sort of captivating local detail more familiar to us from the Dutch milieu.
Some of the topics Brook tackles in this book may be reasonably familiar to European readers. Others are exhilaratingly fresh. The chapter I found most revealing, covering a period I believed I knew well, is the one that begins with a Vermeer painting of a coifed and probably pregnant woman in a fur-edged velvet jacket, concentrating on weighing coins with a hand-held balance. Here, Brook uses the large silver coin on the table beside the pensive woman as an entry into the world of fluctuating currency values and the global trade in silver. He tracks the booming trade in that metal from Spanish-controlled mines in the mountains of Peru to Spain, Portugal, London and Amsterdam, and thence to China, the 'great global destination for European silver'.
'A river of silver linked the colonial economy of the Americas with the economy of south China', writes Brook, 'the metal extracted on one continent paying for goods manufactured on another for consumption on a third'. Because China's monetary system was silver-based (whereas Europe's was both gold- and silver-based), vastly more could be bought by European merchants for silver in Asia than back at home. The Dutch and English East India Companies poured silver into Manila (Europe's access point to the forbidden Chinese mainland) in exchange for luxury goods like porcelain, which in their turn take their place prominently - celebrating the opulence and purchasing power of their sitters - in paintings like Vermeer's.
With the Beijing Olympics this year, it was inevitable that a flood of books on all things Chinese would pour off the presses, uncovering every aspect of China's hidden world. Make no mistake about it, however: Vermeer's Hat is not to be bracketed with any speculative or journalistic exploitation of the market. This is no opportunistic work aimed at a world newly curious about a civilisation which has always stood aloof from the West. Here is a series of windows into seventeenth-century China that reveals its cultural history to be sometimes strange, and at other times unexpectedly close to our own, yet always inextricably bound into a global mesh which includes us all. Vermeer's Hat is a jewel of a study of two distinct yet intertwined worlds, feeling their way together towards modernity.
Lisa Jardine's most recent book is 'Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland's Glory' (HarperPress).