Everything is Happening: Journey into a Painting

Everything is Happening: Journey into a Painting
Michael Jacobs, introduction and coda by Ed Vulliamy
Granta Books  240pp  £15.99

Michael Jacobs is widely considered one of the most distinguished travel writers of his generation. In particular he wrote perceptively and critically about Spain, an enthusiasm that dated back to his schooldays. When he died, in January 2014, he was working on a book on Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez. It has now been published, assembled by his wife Jackie Rae, with an introduction and coda by the journalist Ed Vulliamy, a close friend whom Michael Jacobs had asked to undertake this task. It provides both an interesting discourse on Velázquez’s marvellous painting and a fitting tribute to a compelling author.  

The book was intended both as an exploration of the picture he most loved, but was also clearly conceived as a reflection on his own life. He had wanted to be a painter and indeed his love of Las Meninas sprang from this enthusiasm. Somewhat ruefully he did not become a great  painter but trained instead as an art historian. His early book The Good and Simple Life (1985), a highly original exploration of late 19th- and early 20th-century artists’ colonies in Europe and America, shows how accomplished he was in this field. 

Quite early, Michael Jacobs decided to be a professional writer, a vocation he followed with enormous discipline and dedication and the vivid lucidity that characterised his writing is very apparent even in this incomplete text. It is a great good fortune that Ed Vulliamy, also a masterful writer, undertook the task of completing the book for publication with sympathy and enthusiasm. Most importantly, it is a pleasure to read.

The status of Las Meninas as a masterpiece is quite exceptional, particularly since the 19th century. It has prompted a huge number of responses and enquiries which broadly fall into two categories: those who consider it a prodigious mystery or a revolutionary work; and those who see it as a brilliant development within the conventions of art. In some ways Jacobs’ text registers the tension between the two as the writer vied with the art historian. Because the book is set up as a quest focusing on a single work rather than as part of a career and an oeuvre, while not neglecting the specific historical context, the first approach is favoured. 

It seems to me that in a broad sense the lasting value of this book is as cultural history of our time. Sadly Jacobs’ text concludes just as he was about to enter the palace for which Las Meninas was created, but the chapters up to this point cover a myriad range of topics as the author leads up to the main subject which he could not fully explore. There is the eventful story of Las Meninas in the 20th century recounted through a series of encounters with restorers and the like. We also learn of the process of Jacobs’ own intellectual formation and his profound engagement with Spain, still something relatively exceptional in the context of Britain. Vulliamy’s coda concentrates upon a major incident in Jacobs’ life, when he sprang publicly to the defence of Anthony Blunt, not least in a letter to The Times, outraged and distressed at the general obloquy meted out at the time of the art historian’s disgrace as a result of his involvement with Soviet intelligence. Blunt had taught Jacobs at the Courtauld Institute and supervised his PhD thesis on the 18th-century perspective artist, Gerolamo Mengozzi Colonna, who collaborated with Giambattista Tiepolo. Vulliamy’s account of this is an important record as he has taken the opportunity to explore it with others who were students of Blunt at the time. 

The title of the book, Everything is Happening, underlines Michael Jacobs’ fascinated engagement with the world.  Both in writing and in person he had an extraordinary capacity to evoke experience. Never needing to deploy mimicry, satire or exaggerated language, he would convey the most vivid impressions. This explains the sympathy with what Velázquez, also towards the end of his life, did in paint in Las Meninas, making observation something sublime.  One is reminded of W.B. Yeats’ touching elegy for J.M. Synge ‘... that dying took the living world for text …’

Charles Robertson is Senior Lecturer in the History of Art at Oxford Brookes University.

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