Some years ago my colleague Andrea Wolk Rager and I spent several days in the darkened basement of the Rothschild Bank in New Court, St. Swithin’s Lane, in the City of London, inspecting every one of the nearly 700 autochromes created immediately before World War I by the youthful Lionel de Rothschild.
There is an unbroken line of thought in western civilisation extending all the way from Cicero through St. Augustine and Coluccio Salutati right up to the present day, in which we have regularly weighed the significance, respective merits and competing priorities of the “active” versus the “contemplative” life. Can they coexist?
Near the end of her life, facing the gloomy prospect of yet another ministry led by Mr. Gladstone, Queen Victoria confided to her eldest daughter the Empress Frederick, “These are trying moments & [it] seems to me a defect in our much famed Constitution, to have to part with an admirable Gov[ernmen]t. like L[or]d. Salisbury’s for no question of any importance, or any particular reason, [but] merely on account of the number of votes.”
It may seem an odd thing to do at one’s leisure on a beautiful tropical island, but I spent much of my midwinter break a few weeks ago re-reading Bleak House. Partly inspired to do so by Dempsey’s People, I was also on the look-out for portraits because, I now realise, Charles Dickens’s mighty novel is absolutely crammed with them.