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Of cars, carpets, and chemistry.

A Fortnightly Review of

Which Yet Survive
by John Mills

Quartet | 268pp | £25 $28.82


JOHN MILLS HAS no Wikipedia or Who’s Who entry, which seems astonishing. As a chemist (b. 1928) he was a reforming influence on the Scientific Department of the National Gallery, which he joined in 1951 and where he worked for most of the next half century, becoming its director from 1984-1990.

Paint is a mixture of mostly inorganic mineral pigments liquefied and bound by the addition of an organic medium, in western painting typically egg or drying oil. Colour identifies pigment; medium, Mills’s speciality, is far more complex: a description of the paintings of Stubbs shows just how complex. His book The Organic Chemistry of Museum Objects, published in 1987, has long passed the Cyril Connolly in-print-for-a-decade ‘classic’ test. For many years Mills edited the IIC (International Institute for Conservation) journal Studies in Conservation. He is also a world authority on carpets, which arose from his interest in those depicted in paintings. Many will remember his 1983 exhibition Carpets in Paintings at the National Gallery. Here too his scholarship is preserved in print, beginning with Carpets in Pictures (1975).

He carries his expertise lightly. As he says of his pioneering research in steroid chemistry, which took him to Mexico in the late 1950s: ‘I will summarise my work now so as to get on to more readable matters.’ Accordingly most of the memoir is devoted to his friends, many of them in the arts, especially the visual arts; and, often inseparably, his global travels, professional and private, which began when he was posted to the Far East as a qualified wireless mechanic during National Service, and show no sign of abating.

A meticulous account of surely the most transformative years in human history, by a witness with the rare knowledge of both science and art.

The tone is elegiac – ‘always my favourite in poetry and prose’ – and readers over seventy should be warned that, thanks to the precision of the author’s memory and his stoical accounts of old age, there is much here that may cause tears of recognition. Attention to detail and dry humour will appeal to all ages. The detail has considerable sociological value as a meticulous account of surely the most transformative years in human history, by a witness with the rare knowledge of both science and art. For that reason it is equally recommendable to the young.

Just how much the world has changed is illustrated by his childhood memory of charcoal burners in the woods round Guildford, where he was born and raised. Exceptionally bright, Mills won a place at grammar school at nine. There he made lifelong friends, whose fortunes he follows in later chapters. Several achieved public distinction, including his best friend, the painter Victor Willing. It was through Willing, who went to the Slade, that Mills first planted one foot firmly in the art world. His widow, Paula Rego, their children and friends, among them writer and publisher Tony Rudolf, a vital supporter of this book, have for many years constituted his inner circle. Final and coincidental fruition finds him in old age a Ventnor neighbour of Victor and Paula’s daughter, the writer Cas Willing and her husband the sculptor Ron Mueck.

One way he contrasts past with present is by including prices. As he reminds us, British austerity was worse after than during the war, so every penny counted; but there was compensation in cheap foreign travel. In 1949/50 he and Willing rented a top floor flat in a Chepstow Villas mansion for about £4 per week; a Covent Garden gallery ticket cost 2/6 (12.5p; 30p for Wagner); and in Spain: 35 pesetas (35p) covered full board and lodging; a £2 booklet of train vouchers guaranteed 3,000 kilometres of travel. He was astonished to find Paris ‘a sort of Babylon… there appeared to be no shortage of anything’.

The art panjandrum and collector David Sylvester called him ‘a fifties man’. For Mills, the fifties meant the ‘wonderful’ Festival of Britain and later the arrival of Expresso coffee bars. They reverse its reputation as a dreary post-war interlude. Parties were the binding social medium and he quotes some contemporary entries from his journal, which include the presence of Bacon, Freud and other now legendary figures.

The fifties also marked his entry into professional life. In this he relied on ‘that most poignant of Shakespeare’s pensées’:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune.

He adds a corollary: ‘start as you want to go on for almost certainly you will go an as you start…But chance – even luck – can also determine the course of one’s life.’ So it proved. In search of a job he returned one summer vacation to his deserted alma mater, Imperial College, and found an insignificant hand-written message on the notice-board. It offered interviews for two Nuffield Foundation scholarships to carry out research at the National Gallery. One was for a physicist to study the effects of solvents on paint and varnish. Nothing could better have combined his principal interests, science and art. He was accepted. The course of his life was set.

Perhaps what most marks him as a fifties man is his reason for taking early retirement at 62. ‘I started to feel rather unhappy at the change in managerial style that was gradually taking over the Gallery. For some reason an administrator had been brought in – I think from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries – to bring us more into line with ministerial ways rather than continue in the relaxed style which had served us so well.’ It meant a ‘greater emphasis on hierarchy’ and ‘staff assessments’. In the six-strong Scientific Department, where they all ‘felt equal and equally committed’ he found this market diktat ‘very embarrassing and even offensive’. His book is a tribute to the days when work was based on friendship and vocation and did not inhibit style or eccentricity. Mills records memorably delicious meals, cites agreeable long restaurants-cum-meeting places, and writes lovingly of his 1933 350cc four-stroke Levis motorbike and 1957 Chrysler New Yorker convertible, which he even shipped back to England.

He describes his parents as kind; and kindness is the mark of his own nature, never more so than when for many years he voluntarily met the onerous demands of the Portuguese poet Alberto de Lacerda, when absent in the USA. It is epitomised by the magnificent trans-USA journey with which he rewarded his parents in their old age, a dream fulfilled which afforded them many traveller’s tales back in Guildford.

“”His friendship with David Sylvester, ‘the greatest achiever among my male friends’, offers special humour and poignancy as it reveals an often exasperating figure of fun. Mills and the painter Keith Sutton, who has yet to receive his posthumous due, first inspired Sylvester’s influential interest in carpets. Sylvester decided to collect ‘extremely worn and faded pieces if they were of an important type’. Mills and Sutton referred to them as ‘David’s ghosts’ and such carpets were soon referred to in the rug trade as in ‘David Sylvester condition’. When Sylvester found a new interest in gardening, his obsession with re-arrangement meant nothing grew; a trait which also reduced his collaborators to tears of frustration when installing exhibitions. Dimension particularly dictated the positioning of carpets, yet ‘David would insist on these heavy objects being rotated through all possible orientations…until they finally ended up in the obvious position’.

Kindness makes for professional and personal discretion but he can deliver a withering aside. He once heard Mary John sum up the bohemian life of girls at the Slade with the telling description:

‘Our beds were like old dog baskets.’
Well plus ca change…But at least they didn’t put them on exhibition as works of art.”

And his readers are unlikely to visit Wellington in New Zealand – or Swindon and Wigan in England: ‘Wellington was the pits, it was like spending the day in Swindon or Wigan or some such place. How could they have chosen it for their capital.’ The one redeeming feature was Captain Cook’s ‘stunningly beautiful’ feather coat in the National Art Gallery.

Among other recommendations worth noting are Don Carlos, favourite Verdi opera; the cathedrals of Modena and St Bertrand de Comminges; the sixteenth-century Persian ‘garden carpet’, Jaipur Museum; Istanbul (but not in winter); George Gissing, one of his chief literary heroes; and the discovery that with age you begin to ‘understand’ the Baroque: note the cathedral at Piazza Armerina, Sicily, and the chapel of San Cataldo, Cosenza, Calabria.

The seeds of cypress trees, arising from his research of natural resins in California in the 1950s and presented by him to Kew, eventually grew to become a grove which he visited with pleasure in later years. Now we have this richly informative and moving testimony to a consummately civilised life, which bridges the cultural divide and spans the globe and most of the twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries.

John McEwen is the author of Paula Rego and Paula Rego: Behind the Scenes. He writes the Favourite Painting page in Country Life and Bird of the Month, illustrated by Carry Akroyd, in The Oldie.

Also in the Fortnightly: The Curved Planks, Dear Paula, and a note on Paula Rego, by Yves Bonnefoy,  and a note by his translator, Anthony Rudolf.


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