Saturday, 2 June 2012

A Clash of Cultures

   Two or three decades ago when speeding through the streets of Dublin in a white van laden with building materials I passed the Chester Beatty Library and noticed it was hosting an exhibition of Muscovite enamels, so, instead of racing on to the house I was supposed to be working on, I slewed into the library's gravel drive and wedged my battered charger amongst a smattering of shiny cars.

   It turned out they were about to broadcast a television programme about the enamels – various technicians were dragging cables about, some presenter type was combing his hair – everyone was too busy to mind my being there so I examined the exhibits on display and eventually discovered a weighty publication that described them. It was far too expensive for me to buy so I scanned a few passages. They described how in the 13th century the Mongols, during what was the only successful winter invasion of Russia (they charged up the frozen rivers on horseback giving no time for defenses to be organised), had sacked Moscow, at the time a beacon of civilisation, and murdered so many Muscovites that one of the techniques for enamelling, that of cloisonné - a word I'd never seen before - was lost for ever. This last fact intrigued me. The book explained that despite there being an example of something very similar to cloisonné in the main cabinet there was no example of this lost process in the collection on display - they did exist elsewhere, but their locations were not given. I asked an attendant where such enamelling could be found, he had no idea, however he did say that there was one person who was sure to know and that was the expert who was about to be interviewed for the television show. As we spoke that very woman was striding toward me on her way to two floodlit armchairs. What a stroke of luck!

“Ah! Excuse me, could you tell me where I could find an example of cloisonné?”

“What? Oh. Over there in the main cabinet.”

“No, that's a different technique. I'm looking for cloisonné - it's a lost technique.”

Is it. Well look in the other cabinets.”

“I did and there's none. It says so here on page 247.”

   After a moment of intense mutual assessment we separated and she strode off to be questioned by someone more civil, whose hair was not full of cement dust and who knew how to pronounce cloisonnéAnd I took off in my white van, its spinning wheels scattering gravel and taking me forward to where I once was.