Matthew here, reporting on the final event of what proved to be an eventful Hilary Term 2014. Over lunch on Tuesday, 11 March, the noted author, biographer, and curator James Hamilton gave a talk entitled ‘Unrolling the Tapestry: Weaving Interrelated Lives in Books and Exhibitions’. Hamilton’s wide-ranging interests include art and science in nineteenth-century London, and he has written biographies of J.M.W. Turner and Michael Faraday as well as curated exhibits on Turner and Helen Frankenthaler.
His presentation moved fluidly between the personal/autobiographical and the historical/biographical, between individual lives and their relationships to the intellectuals and artists who shared their milieu. He began with his own first encounters with visual art—he was drawn to pictures, he said, because they spoke without asking him to reply—and then discussed how that interest led to Turner, and in turn how his biography of Turner piqued his interest in Faraday. As a biographer, he aimed to draw connections between these two lives, to weave them together. Throughout his talk, Hamilton drew on the metaphor of weaving to show how a life becomes entangled with other lives and made a compelling case for a biographer’s interest in interconnection.
The metaphor of weaving in Hamilton’s title, both, as he noted when he began, includes both the sense of a finished product (a tapestry unrolling) and an unfinished process (weaving). As Hamilton put it: a biographer follows the “thread” of a life. On the one hand, then, a life yields up raw material for the biographer—thread for a tapestry. On the other, though, a life is also complete: a finished picture of an individual. The biographer’s fundamentally creative task is to shape a picture of the individual based on the finished life but nonetheless original. In that vein, Hamilton voiced his belief that biographies need updating every generation or so, as aspects of a remarkable individual’s life take on new significance in light of contemporary events.
Hamilton took the metaphor of weaving one step further, to make a point about relationships and networks. Turner, he points out, was not working in a hermetic environment: he was part of a vibrant cultural scene in London, made up of other artists, intellectuals, and scientists—like Michael Faraday. These connections not only captivate the imagination, they are crucial to capture a complete picture of an individual’s life and a historical moment. Hamilton said the name of the subject of his next book invariably comes up as he works on his current book. So, after writing about Turner, Hamilton turned his attention to Faraday to uncover the threads running between Turner’s art and Faraday’s science. Hamilton’s writing shows how an extraordinary artist and an exceptional scientist approached shared concerns in a shared cultural milieu. He views his books, which examine artistic and scientific communities in London in the nineteenth century, as part of this process of weaving together lives to give a holistic portrait of an age.