Vermeer’s Corner by Graham Burchell

Apart from Katharine Weber and her book, there is another writer interested in Vermeer’s paintings. This author is Graham Burchell, poet and children’s writer well-known in England. His best tale is Chester and the Green Pig. However, I want to talk you about this author because he was also touched by the enchantment Vermeer reflected on his paintings.

Quoting Burchell:

I bought a small book of Vermeer’s paintings at a bargain price. I actually started reading it, and not just looking at the pictures. I was an art teacher for many years, but I knew very little about Johannes Vermeer. Nor does anyone else it seems. I was fascinated, firstly by the enigmatic nature of the artist and his work and secondly by the stunning beauty of his paintings. Hardly anything is known about Vermeer. He has thirty-five known paintings of which one is stolen, missing from a museum in Boston. Women and more significantly, women wearing pearls is an intriguing aspect of his work that seems to be largely about the place and plight of women in 17th century Holland. I became so absorbed by the artist, his work and his time that I resolved to write a poem about each one of his paintings. In all of the poems the speaker is a character (or in some cases – the character) in the work. This was often the woman or one of the women posing. Sometimes the woman was his wife or his daughter either talking directly to the reader or to Vermeer. Occasionally the speaker is a man. In two of the poems ‘The Procuress’ and ‘The Music Lesson’, the man in question is Vermeer himself.

Vermeer is the pinter of domestic scenes, and what Burchell tries is to paly with these themes, commenting on the details of the paintings that may have served of inspiration for the painter. More than that, in Burchell’s House of Martha and Mary, inspired by Vermeer’s painting, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, the characters are aware of themselves as existing within the confines of a painting. Burchell uses to have is characters comment in an ironic way on the situation they are living inside these paintings.

These poems, like Vermeer’s paintings, seek to capture close, intimate moments in the lives of ordinary people. Burchell’s intention is to create a real world betyond those pictures, a world in which the characters involved express their own real feelings, withouth feeling obligingness for those characters who are part of a masterpiece. The characters in the paintings are aware that they are characters in a painting.

The unique poem available is the one on The Milkmaid. Although this is not the painting I’ve chosen, I think it is interesting for my classmates to read this alternative poem:

The Milkmaid – c.1658 – 60I was going to do this in an accent
west country English
lots of ooz and arrz as burred
as sharp as blackberry thorns
or night cooled cider from a clay jug
all pickled pronouns and liberties
taken with doing words

dressed like a gert blue tit I be
what d’you wanna be painting I fer
down ‘ere with me serving bits
and pieces etcetera

but anyway I am Dutch and
you said you want to do me
with more dignity
there is grace in that simple
quiet act of pouring milk you said
strength in the straight white fall
and angle of my concentration

that makes me feel special
like a priest preparing communion
milk the wine
sincere food of devout thought
bread in a basket bread broken
rough-chin crusts snagging morning light
like chickens shaking rain

and you made this simple room
with its cool harvest tang
with its basket pail foot-warmer
nail-hooks and holes look special
the wall lit as a gargantuan pearl
I wrote it down somewhere yes
opalescent you called it

even painted a thin milk line
down my head and back said
it gives me monumental grandeur
said I was the embodiment
of the spiritual maid
and for all that sir
whatever it means I thank you.


Information taken from Got Poetry and from FourVolts Press

One response to “Vermeer’s Corner by Graham Burchell

  1. Well Ana I was certainly surprised and delighted of course to come across your article about Vermeer, and your reference to my book Vermeer’s Corner. It is very gratifying to think it has been of use in your studies. I am away for a few days, but when i get back I will certainly add some of your review to my website.

    Best wishes,(tiene un buen verano!)
    Graham Burchell

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