Dr Spike Bucklow, Reader in Material Culture at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, reveals the reads which have had the greatest influence on his life
Gabriel García Márquez
In my late teens I worked in an Australian steelworks where, once I’d finished the tasks assigned for each shift, the foreman allowed me to read. I worked like a maniac and then ploughed through a lot of Dostoyevsky in the hot strip mill. From there, I sailed to Malaysia as the only passenger on a Filipino cargo boat. For weeks on end I basked alone over the prow, escorted by dolphins and flying fish. While on board, I read One Hundred Years of Solitude very slowly. It was completely idyllic – magical realism for real. And, judging from my continued interest in the magic of art and science, the experience must have been formative.
Also in my late teens, I read Monkey as a piece of serious 16th-century literature, following the adventures of a Chinese monk journeying to collect Buddhist scriptures from Gandhara. A few years later, I stumbled upon the BBC version of the low-budget cult Japanese TV show, Saiyūki, based on the book. I returned to Monkey and reread it as a ripping yarn. Funnily enough, I got a lot more out of it.
Over the decades, I’ve repeatedly dipped into this extraordinarily deep and subtle book. Each time it gets better. It’s my Desert Island book.
In my late 20s, I lived round the corner from the Barbican when it was the temporary home of the RSC. I saw lots of Shakespeare, and my appreciation of the plays was absolutely transformed by the discovery of this modest little book. My eyes were opened to the magical reality of Shakespeare’s world. Lings’ book led me to others, including CS Lewis’s Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. These books suggested to me, as a chemist, that artists’ materials could be examined in the light of contemporary world views (the four elements, alchemy, astrology etc) to throw light on pre-modern visual culture, in the same way that Lings and Lewis threw light on pre-modern literature.
I was very lucky to have the late, great, John Gage as my PhD supervisor at Cambridge. He almost singlehandedly established colour as an academic subject, so it is rather strange that my thesis was a pretty monochrome affair. However, I see my subsequent work as the expansion of two or three footnotes in his Colour and Culture. Following in his footsteps (and those of Michael Baxandall) has been extremely rewarding. I feel very privileged to have such close access to great medieval and Old Master paintings at the Hamilton Kerr Institute. This allows me to consider cultural ideas with reference to scientific analysis; to have my head in the clouds while keeping my feet firmly on the ground, bridging, in some small way, CP Snow’s Two Cultures.
Spike Bucklow’s The Anatomy of Riches: Sir Robert Paston’s Treasure will be published by Reaktion later this year.
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