This painting, Madame X, by John Singer Sargent, is one of my favourites. It might even be one of my Desert Island Paintings, should the BBC ever change the format of that show. Or maybe my luxury item. I never tire of exploring this painting or the story behind it, of a shady lady with vaguely violet skin and a louche reputation. I have a framed poster reproduction of Sargent’s masterpiece hanging in my hallway — as well as a massive acrylic on fabric version of it, wildly reinterpreted, painted in the 1980s by one of my dearest friends and part of a series he did, reworking the classics. It is one of the first things people see on entering my flat, and it pretty much stops them in their tracks. It’s too big to photograph.
I can’t remember when, precisely, I tumbled for Madame X, but I remember how, and vividly remember how my parents found out.
We were watching television and the portrait came up on screen. Barely glancing up from the book I was reading (I always read in front of the television, and often did my homework there, too), I said, “Oh, hey, Madame X. I love her.”
They stared. They conferred — had they taken me to see it? Finally one of them asked, “How do you know the name of that painting?”
“I look at her all the time,” I answered. “She’s in the encyclopedia.”
We had the full A-Z and received annual Year Book updates. We also had the Childcraft volumes you can see trailing off into the distance, with the red spines. I think my father sold the World Book, briefly, to earn extra income.
The books sat on a shelf within easy reach of children, and were often called into duty for school reports or if there was an immediate need to identify the chief exports of Japan. But I turned to them more often than that, entranced by the plastic pages devoted to the constituent parts of a frog. My father and I had dissected a frog not long after moving to Long Island (I have no idea why), and I thought it was cool seeing, on these transparencies, the veins and organs that I’d witnessed in the flesh. I loved the way you placed the pages one on top of another to rebuild your frog.
I especially loved the pages devoted to art, and the entry about colour.
Year Books arrived annually along with special stickers to affix to the relevant entries in the alphabetised books, indicating that there was new, better data now available. Dad was in charge of making these updates, carefully placing the rectangular stickers on the top corners of the pages.
But back to the night in question.
“What do you mean, she’s in the encyclopedia,” my parents asked.
Sighing — grown-ups could be so dense and infuriating — I pulled out the relevant volume, flicked straight to the page, and pointed. “There, that. Madame X.”
A look passed between them. We’ve done good, it said.
“So, you, um, read the encyclopedia?”
How stupid could they be? “Duh, that’s what it’s there for, isn’t it? I read the Childcraft, too. It’s neat.”
The Childcraft volumes have vanished, but I still have those World Books and Year Books for 1963 to 1979. They crossed the Atlantic with me. No matter how out of date some of the information — and beliefs — might be in the 21st century, I will not be parted from these time capsules. They represent the sum of human knowledge up to the date of publication. They represent a happy aspect of my childhood. They remind me that there’s always something to learn, and a way to find things out. And they’re full of kitsch photographs and eternal mysteries.
As much as I love the internet — which is much — it’s just not the same.