Warning – long post, but please stick with it as hopefully it will make sense by the end!
In Memoriam: My beloved father, 1923-2013
Over the past week I have been giving a lot of thought to the importance of objects as symbols of something much deeper in our lives, and especially since Friday night when my Dad passed quietly away. I have already posted this photograph on my blog, of a collection of items which used to belong to Dad:
and I have had several requests for more information about these intriguing objects.
Coinciding with this, I have just been listening to one of the most fascinating and gripping audio books I have ever heard – I enjoyed it so much that my hubby is going to give me the illustrated hardback book for Christmas.
A few weeks ago I watched two programmes on TV on the work of Edmund de Waal, a ceramicist living in London who makes vast numbers of individually thrown plain porcelain pots which are then meticulously arranged in vitrines (glass cases) and on simple shelves, and exhibited as installations. The effect of these pots-en-masse has a strangely restful effect, on me at least, and there is as much importance given to the spaces between the vessels as to the pots themselves – I have some further thoughts about this which follow below.
He studied in Japan for a while, perhaps explaining the origin of the “zen” effect created by his work, and stayed with his great-uncle, who had inherited the family’s collection of Japanese netsuke, tiny, intricate carvings of animals, people at work, and many other subjects, originally intended to be worn as toggles dangling from cords on Japanese clothing.
He has now inherited this collection himself, and he decided to take time out from his work to retrace the steps of this remarkable collection, from the time when his ancestor Charles, of the wealthy Jewish banking family of Ephrussi, originally acquired them as part of his huge art collection. This voyage into the past became one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read, and is at the same time an intimate family history, a detailed account of various artefacts in the family collection, a history of the turbulent years of European history from the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its dissolution with the First World War, the unstable inter-war years and the rise of Hitler, and the devastating destruction of the Nazi years and the Second World War. It also details the struggle of European Jews to assimilate into mainstream society, and how thin a veneer this proved to be, and how this was ultimately stripped brutally away by the Nazis in an attempt to rid Europe of the Jews once and for all.
The thread running throughout this remarkable tale is the objects in the collection, in particular the netsuke, passed down faithfully from generation to generation, each one gathering along the way its own collection of stories and memories, layer by layer, as it passed through each succeeding hand. Gaining far more worth as symbols of family continuity than their intrinsic or monetary value, these objects became so much more than mere “things,” which made their theft, splitting up and dispersal, and in some cases destruction or disappearance, all the more traumatic as the family inheritance was raped and pillaged.
Edmund de Waal is a quiet, unassuming man with immense talent and a capacity to create simple objects with the capability to move one in a way not expressible in words. There is something very Japanese about his work which speaks to us in a totally different way from Western art. He has written books on pottery, and The Hare with Amber Eyes, his first book dealing with wider issues, is a masterpiece. On the audio version I have, there is an interview with him at the end of the book, and he expresses amazement that it has shot into the bestseller lists, when he expected this personal family history to be of limited appeal to an audience wider than his own intimate circle.
Reading the book, I began to feel intimately acquainted not only with the characters in his family tree, but also with the objects they owned and passed on, and could feel a real sense of grief as they were wrenched from their rightful place, and something died. I had never before thought of the Holocaust as a destruction of symbols as well as people – the physical object may still exist, as a painting, or a piece of porcelain, or an article of antique furniture – in a museum or in the hands of another private collector – but stripped of its story, and the threads that bind it to the family and the other objects in their collection, it is diminished and becomes a mere thing.
When we cleared my parents’ house ready for sale, my hubby, my sister and I spent many hours in Dad’s study. Mum always complained that he never threw anything away, and I am so, so glad that he did not. Yes, it made our work much harder, but what we found was a treasure-trove. My hubby came into our family too late to witness the stories growing around these objects, many of which he had never even seen before, because he never lived in the same house with them. My sister left home very soon after leaving school, and was never as close to Dad as I was. I have spent many a long and happy hour in his workshop with him, as a child, “helping” him by holding things, and just watching, and letting him explain what he was doing, and why, and seeing his unique way of working, and gradually moving away from the carpentry and cabinet-making of my younger childhood, to the metalwork and engineering of later years with the acquisition of the first lathe, and throughout, the passion for clocks – collecting, repairing and maintaining them, not just for himself but for family and friends as well, the only payment usually being a bottle of his favourite Single Malt!
My dad was a consultant ophthalmologist by profession, but he could equally well have been an engineer like his father, or a professional musician. He was a true Renaissance Man. His stature was small and might be considered by some to be insignificant, but his brain and his heart were that of a giant. After a long day of intricate and exacting work, he could not simply put that great brain and those deft fingers to sleep, but would spend his leisure hours creating things simply because they interested him, or conducting experiments in optics and sound, often with me as his willing “gofer,” assisting with the setup of the experiment and witnessing the results. We had a great deal of fun throughout, and I have now come to appreciate that he enjoyed my company just as much as I did his, as he had no-one else to share his interests with at home.
We found copious notes, and many curious objects when clearing his study, and my sister and hubby would pull something out and say “What on earth is this??” and I would whoop for joy as a whole treasure-trove of memories would tumble out, and I rescued it and saved it to keep as my special inheritance – the intrinsically valueless object made infinitely valuable by its own stories, known perhaps only to Dad and myself.
Before we embarked on this clear-out, I had already started acting on a plan I’d been hatching for months – to make an album about Dad’s life, chronicling his ancestry, childhood, youth, professional life, interests, etc. etc. I had already created the first page, and with the discovery of all these treasures, I have a wealth of material to incorporate. Some items will have to be included in photographic form, those which occupy the special shelf, along with others I have not yet found in the course of my unpacking after the house move. The whole collection will be a lasting archive of a life well lived, lived to the full, and special and personal and unique to me. My inheritance.
Astigmatic Lens Model
While working at the hospital, every few months a new intake of junior doctors would arrive. My dad was the only consultant in the team who believed that a working knowledge of optics was a useful tool for the ophthalmologist – curious really, because it is so fundamental, but perhaps the younger consultants were more interested in the hi-tech aspect of the work, with the use of lasers, diamond knives, etc. and maybe felt that optics were far too mundane! Dad used to run a short evening class at the end of the working day once or twice a week, which the young doctors would attend, and in the course of this he would produce visual aids to help explain some of the more complicated aspects. One of these was this model of the astigmatic lens – of particular interest to me since I suffer from astigmatism! Hard to explain how a lens could focus a beam of light not into a point but into a line, but his model, with the threads running through the perspex representations of the lenses, explains it perfectly. It is also a rather beautiful object.
In his cabinet making days, I was always fascinated by the beautifully fitted joints – the mortise and tenon, and especially the dovetail, which had to be carved so accurately with a series of chisels. I loved the sound of the tap-tap-tap of mallet on chisel, and the appearance and fragrance of the fresh shavings which would fall from the bench. Dad came across a pattern somewhere for creating a trick dovetail, with a dovetail joint on all three faces of a triangular prism – clearly an impossibility to assemble! Of course, these dovetails are not real dovetails at all, but they certainly look real! On this little piece, made of two solid pieces of wood (not veneered), one oak and the other mahogany, you can see the dovetail on each face. Over the years, with polishing, these woods have become darker and it is less easy to see the difference between them than it was originally. This little object is very tactile and the satin finish of the polished wood and the contrasting clean sharpness of the edges feels pleasing in the hand.
In 1987, his colleagues had a Graefe knife (cataract knife) gold plated and mounted in a small silver-mounted glass display box, to be presented to him on his retirement from the hospital. Wikipedia says of this knife that “Use of the knife demanded a high level of skill and mastery,” something my Dad had in abundance. Nobody uses them now, as with the advance of technology there are easier methods.
My Grandmother’s Silver Medals
Three heavy silver medals presented to my Scottish grandmother (Dad’s mother) in her school days, in the years 1907 and 1908 – prizes for mathematics, English, and science. She was an extremely bright lady, and graduated from Aberdeen University in 1913 with a 2nd class honours degree in mathematics and natural sciences. (Scotland was obviously more enlightened than England in those days because it was many years before English women were awarded degrees from the principal universities, even though they had done the work and achieved the required level of excellence equal to their male counterparts!)
Dad fenced for Devon in the early 1950s. When I was very young I remember going to meetings and watching him fight, and was intrigued by the heavy white linen clothing and the mesh face mask, the stylised movements and the exaggerated politeness between the protagonists, and the curiously-shaped canvas bag he made to carry all the kit. He was always very quick on his feet and you could see the fencing influence in later years when he played tennis or table tennis!
A miniature set of weighing scales in a beautiful little polished wooden box. Dad inherited this pocket set of scales from Grandpa, who obtained them while in South Africa. They were used for weighing diamonds. The set is complete, with all the tiny carat weights, and is quite exquisite, and just the sort of thing that appealed to Dad.
Press the top, and the number advances by one digit. Ushers at conferences or church services would frequently use these, clicking as each person arrived, so that the organisers would know how many attendees there were. Dad used this for all sorts of things where he was counting and didn’t want to lose count. It is worn and somewhat grubby from so much use.
Two small perspex models of clock escapements. In 1985, when Dad was president of his local medical society shortly before his retirement, one of his duties was to give the annual presidential address, which was always of a non-medical nature, and to which members’ families were invited. The lecture would be followed by a dinner. The subject of Dad’s address was “The Clock Doc – or Horology in a Nutshell” and he brought along many examples of different clocks from his collection. He showed diagrams on the overhead projector – one I remember was extremely detailed and complex, and he prefaced his explanation of this with “It’s really quite simple” which caused a ripple of amusement through the audience! They all knew what he was like!! He made these escapement models from perspex, to place on the plate of the overhead projector, and he would pull the string to make the pallets work against the scape-wheel, and it would all show on the screen. One is of a recoil escapement, common in normal long-case clocks, and the other a dead-beat escapement, more often found in regulators. He spent many hours designing and making these, to be shown for just a few minutes during his lecture. He used to do things like that.
In this tiny well-thumbed notebook are details of all the clocks he serviced and repaired over the years, written in his tiny and often illegible handwriting (illegible even to himself at times, as he freely admitted!) with the dates, and what he had done, so that when a particular clock would return as an inpatient in the Clock Hospital, he would know what had been done before, and any peculiarities or anomalies of that particular clock. He would often detail the gift the grateful owner would present him with, on the return home of the precious clock – usually a bottle of his favourite Single Malt. He never charged for his services but did it for love – love of the clocks and the opportunity to work on many different and varied timepieces, and of the many and varied owners with whom he often had long-standing relationships over the years as he continued to maintain their clocks for them. Many of the clocks led to enduring friendships, and several of these people left their clocks to him in their wills when they died, adding to his collection. I now own at least two of these.
I bought this for Dad when my hubby and I visited Granada on our Spanish holiday several years ago. He always loved Granada, Cordoba, Seville… all the wonderful Moorish architecture and the ancient culture, and I fell in love with these mirrors on sale, which imitate the intricate plasterwork of the walls and ceilings of these astonishing buildings. It hung in his study from the day I gave it to him. The only item in the collection which I gave him, chosen because I knew he would love it, and now it has returned to me, but with an extra layer of significance, another story, gained during his period of ownership.
Double Moebius Strip
Dad had long been fascinated by various mathematical problems and puzzles, including the Moebius strip, which is a mathematical three-dimensional figure with only one surface. He decided to make one, and ended up making a double one out of copper strip, brazed together. It used to hang in his study, rotating slowly in the air. As you look at it, it appears impossible, with the two figure-eight shapes appearing to be suspended on nothing. It still has a single surface. As you hold it in your hands, it moves and flexes in a strange way that makes it feel somewhat unreal, and not rigid as you would expect a metal object to be. I have in mind one day to create one from silver mirror card, and to suspend it from a slowly rotating motor, inside a partial cylinder of mirrored surface, to create an interesting play of light and reflection. It’s one of those projects in embryo form and not even yet on the drawing board! One day, one day… I think Dad would have been intrigued to see the result of such an idea, and when I eventually get around to doing it, it will feel like a joint project created by myself and Dad – an object with its own story and a divided timeline, as Dad is no longer with us, but he will still be intimately involved in its creation.
Antique Gold Pocket Watch
This little watch is highly decorated and ornate. I do not know its history, but it was with his clock bits so I decided to keep it. I think it is probably a Victorian lady’s pocket watch but I have no details. Its story is hidden, but I am sure it has one!
Some years ago, Dad read a book about the 17th and 18th century kings of Prussia, who became passionate devotees of ornamental turning, producing some astonishing work. He decided to try his hand at this, and although he did not have a dedicated ornamental turning lathe, he used his 7-in Myford engineering lathe and decorated some small cylinders of box wood. The one in the above photograph is the only one remaining, unfortunately. Being a very hard, dense wood, box is ideal for showing up the fine detail of this form of turning.
Oxford Congress Badge
For many years, Dad attended the annual Oxford Ophthalmological Congress which drew delegates from around the world. They would stay in one of the colleges and after an early morning dip in Parson’s Pleasure (a section of the River Thames strictly reserved for male nude bathing!!) they would settle down in the conference venue and hear learned papers and generally bring themselves up to date with the world of ophthalmology and share information in the more informal environment of the dining room. One year, for the final session, my dad presented a paper on a patient who had suffered a traumatic head injury resulting in the condition known as enophthalmos due to blow-out fracture (her eye had been pushed backwards, breaking the thin orbital bone of the skull). He had devised a novel method of rectifying this problem, which involved removing first the legs, and then the arms, of the patient, which enabled him finally to remove her head, and access the orbit posteriorly, via the foramen magnum. By this time, as you can imagine, there were distinct murmurs of apprehension and concern from the assembled company. At the end of the paper, Dad said that the patient herself had kindly agreed to appear before the congress to show them how successful this surgery had been. Dad introduced them all to Wendy, my sister’s plastic doll! Her limbs and head were connected by elastic bands via holes in her body, and her head could not be removed without first removing the limbs! Once he had her head off, he was able to push the eyeball back into its socket from behind – fortunately her head was quite hollow and his progress was not impeded by the presence of a brain!
Signet Ring Impression
When my parents got married in 1947, post-war rationing was still in place, and new gold was practically impossible to obtain. My dad bought an antique gold wedding ring for Mum, and she bought him an old gold signet ring set with a very dark red garnet. To make these rings uniquely their own, hers was engraved with tiny daisies all around (long since worn off after 66 years of marriage!) and the garnet of his was engraved with his monogram in reverse, as a seal. In amongst Dad’s things I found a tiny box with a wax impression of this seal, and a printed diagram of the monogram, produced by the jeweller who did the work for them.
I am extremely upset that the ring has gone missing recently. When visiting Dad in hospital the other day, I noticed to my horror that it was not on his finger. I immediately asked the hospital staff, and they checked the inventory of his belongings on admission, and it was not there, and none of the staff had noticed him wearing a ring. I phoned the residential home and the manager said they would have a look for it – it had not been handed into the office. He was notorious while there for losing his possessions – glasses, walking sticks etc. went missing for a pastime, and we are hoping it may yet turn up. This is history repeating itself – my maternal grandmother had a fine gold signet ring set with a bloodstone which had belonged to my grandfather, and which was to come to me, and it disappeared while she was in the nursing home. I am hoping and praying that it may yet turn up. I feel very upset over the loss of this ring which I have always loved, and which has been part of my dad’s hand all my life.
Thistle Liqueur Glass
This is the last remaining glass from a set owned by my Scottish grandmother (the recipient of the silver medals). I always loved these little glass thistles, and I love the tactile contrast between the rough, cut-glass bowl and the smoothness of the rest of the glass. It brings back so many happy memories of holidays spent in her beautiful Scottish house so full of treasures.
I have various other objects which are not displayed on this shelf, partly because there’s no more room and partly because some of them are still not unpacked. They will most likely feature in the album. I also have some treasures of my own which were presents from Dad, and which reflected our shared interest in such things as the ancient Minoan culture of Crete, the Russian Imperial eggs of Peter Carl Faberge, and working with our hands – many of his gifts were workshop tools to help me with my basic DIY skills. We used to give each other magazine subscriptions for Christmas presents – he gave me a craft publication called “Golden Hands” for several years, and I reciprocated with “The Model Engineer,” or as we called it, “Oily Hands.” He was physically very healthy all his life until his extreme old age, suffering only from migraines – one thing he generously passed on to me that I could well have done without!
My dad had more integrity than anyone I have ever known. One of his favourite phrases was, “Just because everybody else is doing it, doesn’t make it right!” He was meticulous in his desire to do the right thing and to follow his conscience at all times. He was honest through and through, a man of faith, quiet, unassuming, hating to be thanked although he was generous to a fault, and giving in secret. He had extremely high standards in every area of his life, exacting, not sloppy in any way, neat and dapper in appearance and extremely intelligent. He liked everything to be clearly expressed and exact, and he used to irritate me a lot when I was growing up, by constantly correcting my grammar and not letting me get away with expressing things inaccurately! He and I had a close relationship from my early teens onwards, with mutual respect and a shared sense of humour, and a common love of classical music, especially Bach and chamber music. He introduced me to the Dartington International Summer School of Music which we attended together for many years, he playing chamber music and I singing in the choir and in workshops. We had long discussions about many subjects, including the Bible and our Christian faith, music, art, astronomy and many of his other interests and he always appreciated the things I had made. We enjoyed many of the same books – he introduced me to Sherlock Holmes and Nevil Shute – and we shared a love for thick, Scottish porridge cooked with salt and served with no sugar!
Some thoughts on physical presence and memory
I mentioned earlier the importance of the spaces between objects being as important as the objects themselves. I have been reflecting on my dad’s place in the world, and how for 90 years he displaced a small part of the universe by his presence. At the moment of his death, although his body still occupied physical space, it was as if this displacement vanished, and the universe once again encroached on the space that he had lived in. His living presence made a leap – to glory, to share in eternity with our Lord Jesus, but also, at the same time, and in no lesser degree, into our hearts, where he will remain forever. He is no less real, now that his presence in time and space is no more, and I feel I have internalised him in a way that enlarges and enriches me. The space between objects that he once occupied has suddenly become a space within an object – as it were filling a plain and simple pot with something rich and enduring.
My precious little collection of artefacts appears as an eclectic group of objects with nothing to connect them except the mind of an extraordinary man – a true Renaissance man with wide-ranging interests and an untiring intellect – a mind which chose not to rest at the end of the working day, or when his professional life came to a close. A questing, enquiring mind which took delight in learning new things every day, expressed in the objects that he collected, made, and loved, and expressing a time-line of changing interests as his knowledge and experience grew. Each object tells a story and is redolent of the character of this great man I am privileged to call my father.