Dr Vaidehi Nathan
Mr. Collier’s Letter Racks: A Tale of Art & Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age, Dror Wahrman, Oxford University Press, Pp 275, $ 34.95
Mr. Collier was a painter of the late 17th–early 18th century, who was taken little notice of and has been forgotten. His works, a challenge to the intellect of the viewer did not catch the imagination of people. Dror Wahrman, who chanced upon his works in a museum took this challenge up. His book, Mr. Collier’s Letter Racks – A Tale of Art & Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age, presents to the reader the joy of this discovery.
Collier, born in Holland came to England and settled there. He specialised in an art form called trompe l’oeil, which in painting creates an illusion of three dimension. For instance, painting a window on the wall as though to make it appear there is a window. Dror Wahrman gives a detailed introduction to Collier’s work by discussing the first painting of his that caught his attention. It is a letter rack. It has three leather straps. Under each, there are objects. It is these objects that have the clue to a kind of puzzle that Collier set up for himself. Reading it would seem as though the artist was afraid someone may discover his ‘secret.’ “Nothing in these paintings is really what it seems. This is because Collier was an artist who specialized in trompe l’oeil paintings, although this term would not be coined for another century.”
Trompe l’oeil was practised during the period of Collier, with the letter rack itself being a popular theme. Dror takes up Collier’s paintings and deciphers them for the readers. “Such eye-deceiving paintings try to fool the beholder into believing they they are the real thing they represent…: but they are not. They are illusionist deceptions.”
But the end gets as gripping as Collier might have desired. The main feature of the paintings, the letter racks themselves are probably part of this trompe l’oeil. For, according to the limited research undertaken by Dror, letter racks were not in vogue during the 17th-18th centuries, though every other object depicted in the paintings are familiar till date. To understand Collier’s works one has to have a sound knowledge of history, which the author has. Dror Wahrman is Ruth N Halls Professor of History at Indiana University and Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
(Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2, 6DP, United Kingdom)