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Artists’ Letters: Leonardo da Vinci to David Hockney by Michael Bird

This intriguing collection of letters offers a glimpse into the personal lives of around 90 artists, across many centuries. Many of the artists are well-known, others less familiar. Although some of their artworks would be instantly recognisable – Rothko’s bold large-scale work, for example, or the Cubist paintings of Picasso – we are far less likely to know what their handwriting looks like, or to know how they expressed their thoughts and feelings in words.

Author Michael Bird is a writer and art historian, and a former Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

Each letter (either in whole or in part) is on one page, with the facing page providing a short history of the writer, as well as information about who the letter was sent to and often historical information too. Bird has grouped the letters into chapters according to common themes (including love, professional matters, and travel).

Some letters are handwritten, some are in calligraphy or characters from other alphabets, others are typed and one was transmitted by fax. Bird includes a verbatim script of each letter. This is helpful because although many of the letters are written in English, some are hard to decipher. For the letters written in other languages, Bird’s translation is a necessity. And some letters – such as Rodin’s lengthy love letter to his friend Claudel – are reproduced in such tiny detail that they are almost impossible to read. Bird’s translation shows Rodin’s deep and apparently unreciprocated feelings for Claudel: You who make me feel such high, intense delight … I live in such a state of intoxication when I am near you …

Each of the letters in this book offers a snapshot of the writer’s personality, their relationship with the recipient, and the times they live in. Often their passion, disappointment, or frustration is evident too. One artist wrote his letter in the form of a Japanese Haiku. Bird describes this as a parody yet also ‘a serious message of consolation’ for the artist’s friend who had recently undergone surgery and faced a grim prognosis.

The book’s cover illustration – a bedroom sketch by van Gogh – is taken from a letter that van Gogh wrote to his friend Gaugin. Van Gogh encourages Gaugin to join him soon at his house in Arles: I believe that once here, like me, you’ll be seized with a fury to paint the autumn effects, in between spells of the mistral. Other artists also included drawings in their letters, such as Signac’s letter to Monet with its gentle watercolour of a yacht in the open sea. Dali has drawn a tiny rural scene at the head of his letter to the poet Eluard, inviting him to come and stay. Grosch illustrates his letter – a birthday invitation – with a bottle of Hennessy and half a dozen glasses of red wine. We will have lots of drinks, he promises. Lear’s sketch of a little jumping man pursued by a cat is a delight, as is Beatrix Potter’s sketch of Mr Mole and Nurse Mouse. Henry Moore’s letter includes several mini-illustrations of his own works, apparently to assist the recipient to ‘untangle the confusion as to which drawings belong to [which artist]’ after a post-exhibition mix-up.

The closing words of some letters reflect the historical context. Not the modern-day succinct ‘Cheers’ or ‘Best’ but lines such as these: I am with the greatest respect Your Lordship’s most humble and obedient servant Joshua Reynolds; Your obliging and affectionate servant Rembrandt; Sincere greetings to you, Wang Zhideng.

The oddly-placed line breaks on many pages are distracting, although the overall quality of the book is good. It’s also frustrating that the pages don’t sit flat when open, although perhaps this is a book that deserves to have favourite letters flagged with a ribbon or eye-catching bookmark.

Bird expresses gratitude to the institutions that have digitised and documented their paper archives to extend the lives and impact of written material. ‘Even on screen,’ Bird writes, ‘letters retain their wonderfully ephemeral integrity, populated by passing thoughts and chance observations…’ I suspect that many of the letter writers did not imagine that their words would continue to inform and fascinate other readers decades or centuries later.

Reviewer: Anne Kerslake Hendricks

White Lion Publishing


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