Vermeer’s Hat by Timothy Brook
This book is deceptive in that it effectively bridges the difficult divide between popular and academic history – the so-called ‘grey area’. Whilst the author is a self-confessed historian of China he uses the Dutch story to emphasise how the world was changing in the Seventeenth century. Far from being a series of national communities, the globe was becoming a vast network of trade routes and migration paths – although consistently perilous as well as consistently utilised.
The book begins in the setting of Delft and returns to the town over and over again referring to the experiences of its most (now) renowned artists as in the title of the piece. On initial inspection, this town seems quiet and yet bustling within its provinciality and yet as the webs are spun, the reader is drawn into the more elaborate chains of trade that fed supply and demand to Europe, the West and East Indies. Brook cleverly ties elements of Vermeer’s works to the mobilisation of goods across the World for example the inclusion, as the title suggests, the hat worn by the protagonist in ‘The Laughing Cavalier’. Each chapter highlights another link in the chain not just for the citizens of Delft but for those affected by the Dutch East India Company allowing the reader to picture a world of activity, expansion, exploration and innovation as well as being plagued with disaster both physically and metaphorically.
Whilst being a very digestible read, the author has a tendency to lose focus of the books’ aim and focuses instead on the Chinese angle; this is not surprising given his particular research preferences. It is also refreshing to see works that focus on the East rather than West Indies as is often the case in works on economic histories. Whilst I am a firm believer in the pivotal importance of a trans-national perspective, it is however possible to lose sight of how ferociously the nations at the time held on to their belief in imperial independence and identity.
This being said, this is a fascinating read which will keep your attention and will no doubt provide insight to the academic and amateur alike in their ideas about trade, economy and the global networks in the Seventeenth Century.