Starting with a blank canvas

RICK GEKOSKI’s book, Lost, Stolen or Shredded, is an expertly told tale of the shadowy world of books, manuscripts and artworks that have disappeared.

Of the vanished masterpieces, some, such as the Mona Lisa, stolen from the Louvre in 1911, happily turned up again, but Gekoski includes items such as the first poem written by James Joyce, when he was nine and published by his proud father in a limited edition. No known copy survives.

Each of Lost, Stolen or Shredded’s 15 chapters is an individual story, ranging from the bronze sculptures looted from the royal palace at Benin, in the 19th century, to the destruction of much of Iraq’s cultural heritage. Gekoski describes wonderful ‘buildings’, designed by the Scottish architect, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but never built. He recounts the disappearance, and recovery, of the Urewera Mural, a large painting by one of New Zealand’s most famous artists, sparked by a long-simmering dispute over the ownership of Maori territories.

Gekoski records the histories of lost libraries, such as that built up by the Viennese musicologist, Guido Adler, in the early 20th century and ruthlessly pillaged during World War II, and he mourns the loss of the diaries of Philip Larkin, destroyed after the poet’s death.

Gekoski writes in a bright and conversational way, as if talking to an audience. This is not surprising: he often talks to audiences, at literary festivals and on the radio. A veteran teacher of English literature and creative writing, his sentences often end in question marks, while he enlists the agreement of readers by using rhetorical phrases, such as “our response to the Mona Lisa...”

He invites readers to imagine themselves at the scene being described, as in, “The only tragedy was that you were not allowed to get your camera out”. These attempts at camaraderie wear thin, while expressions such as ‘Kapow!’ contribute to a suspicion that this book is for older children.

But Gekoski has succeeded in an interesting curatorial project, which is also anti-curatorial. He has compiled a virtual exhibition of works of art and literature, but most of the exhibits are missing or have been destroyed.

These are cultural treasures that can no longer be seen, experienced, or enjoyed. In some cases, shadows and memories remain, such as the attempts by Stanislaus, James Joyce’s brother, to recall the lines of that early, and now lost, poem by the writer.

In other cases, the disappearance of works was temporary. The theft of the Mona Lisa is a fascinating tale of cupidity and incompetence. The French police arrested the art critic, Guillaume Apollinaire, a friend of Picasso’s. Picasso himself would shortly afterwards be brought in for questioning. Although innocent, the two men had been involved in minor crimes and misdemeanours. Far from displaying the solidarity of compatriots of the avant-garde, they spent so much time ratting on each other that, hours later, having exhausted the patience of police and magistrates, they were released without charge. After two years, the Mona Lisa showed up, hidden in a suitcase under a bed in Florence.

It had been stolen by an Italian restorer, named Peruggia, who became a national hero in Italy for claiming he had stolen it to restore Leonardo’s ideal woman to her homeland.

Another compelling chapter tells of the grim fate of Herculaneum, a town near Pompeii that was buried in 79AD, during the eruption of Vesuvius. Among the buildings covered, but not destroyed, by the layers of hot ash, was the villa and library of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, father-in-law of Julius Caesar. As the library was slowly buried, the intense heat transformed thousands of papyri manuscripts into blackened carbon rolls.

As the ash cooled, it solidified, preserving the charred remains for 1,700 years, until excavators in the 18th century dug down and discovered the remains of Piso’s great library.

It was not until the 1990s that technology made it possible to read the texts, on the charred papyrus rolls, by using multi-spectral imaging with infrared light.

Gekoski speculates that other ancient manuscripts may still lie buried at Herculaneum, and could include lost works by great playwrights and philosophers of the ancient world.

Another intriguing case chronicled is the deliberate destruction, by Clementine Churchill, of a portrait of her husband, Winston. Commissioned by parliament to hang in Westminster Hall, Graham Sutherland’s large canvas portrayed Churchill as a misshapen, dyspeptic old man. Both Winston and Clemmie were appalled when they saw the finished work. However, being seasoned tacticians, they contrived not to reveal the true depths of their loathing, but graciously accepted the portrait, to be displayed at their home at Chartwell, agreeing to return it after Winston’s death. Not long after the portrait was delivered to Chartwell, it was destroyed. While it is said that Clemmie carried out the deed alone, it is not stretching the imagination to see Winston by his wife’s side, cigar between teeth, glass in one hand, knife in the other, venting his anger.

The author of Lost, Stolen and Shredded is every bit as interesting as his writings. Born and raised in the United States, Gekoski graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1966, and subsequently studied at Oxford.

In 1971, he joined the English department at Warwick University. However, 13 years later, his interest in rare books and the discovery of lost manuscripts grew, so he resigned from his university post and opened a rare-book business in London. It is a world occupied by brilliant and sometimes obsessive individuals, who will go to great lengths, and considerable expense, to obtain a work, once they have set their heart on it.

A first edition of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, in its original dust cover, for example, can fetch £20,000. Such is the allure of Gekoski’s rare-book catalogues that his 2009 edition was reviewed by Robert McCrumb in the Observer.

* Lost, Stolen or Shredded, Rick Gekoski (Profile Books).


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