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Review of Erik Fischer’s MELCHIOR LORCK, in four volumes
Published by The Royal Library, Vandkunsten Publishers, Copenhagen
Review in Cornucopia magaazine

Why publish five massive tomes about an obscure Danish artist from the sixteenth century? The sheer quality of the production might be thought to silence any such an idea, for the collected volumes constitute a silent brooding gravitas of printed matter. They have admirably thick bindings, black endpapers, wonderfully dense and creamy paper ( 130 gms Munken bookwove ), beautiful balanced typography, with different colours and typefaces for different languages set within a harmonious overall design of double columns and generous margins. The reproduction of Lorck’s drawings and etchings are exquisite, and I speak as someone who has over the years sought out some of the original prints wearing white gloves in the rare books department of both the V & A and the British Museum - though like all modern printing one misses that intense fusion of ink and paper at impact, when the paper has been bitten into by the pressure of inked wood and metal on an actual press, rather than on a rotating drum. As a publisher I stand in awe of the end result, and as a book-lover (who day-dreams not about a sports car but about more library shelves) I am close to rapture at owning such a set of volumes.

But still in me there is an awkward voice that questions the why, and the wherefore of it all? Is Denmark in some sort of competition with its Scandinavian neighbours, with Sweden – whose recent diplomats have forged such an enlightened attitude to understanding Turkish domestic politics that she now seems posed to act as Turkey’s honest broker with Europe? Or is it with Norway, the wealthy refuge of choice for many of the political dissidents from the Muslim world? Or is this an attempt to redress some of the damage done to Danish culture and trade with the Islamic world by the unfortunate publication of those anti-Islamic cartoons? Probably none of these have the slightest bearing on the publication of these four volumes (and there is a fifth one due) though none would deny that Melchior Lorck’s fame rests not on his European work but on the images he made in Ottoman Turkey. The complete set will certainly make a handsome diplomatic gift, whilst gently reminding the world that there are good Danish artists uniting the world in humanistic understanding, as well as some notorious cartoonists. But the heart of the matter is that Melchior Lorck deserves the five-volume treatment because he is the first famous Danish artist. Nor does it hinder matters that he is also a genuinely European figure (who supped from the Hanseatic, German, Dutch and Italian schools of art) before making his name as the man who brought the first accurate and sympathetically observed images of Turkey back to Europe.

Last night, I was able to arrange myself, before a log fire and a glass of whisky, with all four volumes spread out in front of me, so that after several hours of happy browsing as an owner, I could settle down and address the books as a reader. The volumes bring together all the printed images known to have been made by Lorck, as well as the few surviving drawings (which may or may not be fine copies of his actual penmanship), as well as translated versions of all the historical documents that refer to him. Volumes Two and Four are reserved for fascimiles of his two great printed works, the Turkish Publication (which was amassed posthumously and printed in 1625) and the Constantinople Prospect. Until now the works on Lorck have been scattered across the globe, studied in many languages, in different museums, journals and catalogues. After the pleasure of looking over the prints, I found that the accompanying text was yet also remained playful, if not argumentative and suggestive, and mercifully it is not in the slightest bit pompous. Instead the three editors seem to share a delight in the mystery of the man, this allusive butterfly that they have all chased after without any expectation of pinning him down.

For his fame, especially after the Turkish Publication of 1625 and its many subsequent editions, was entirely posthumous and his life story is full of uncertainties. Apart from his youth we do not really know where he lived, who he learned from, nor how he survived. Even his dates are vague, he might have been born in 1526 or 1527 and is considered to have died ‘sometime’ after 1583. So we have a life full of holes, with bits of blazing glory as the itinerant artist picked up commissions from the monarchs of Europe that leave us with a trail of sorts. Though ‘Danish’, he spent most of his working life as far from his homeland as possible, produced nothing of real worth in Denmark and at the end of his life seems to have ended up once more in disgrace with his royal patrons. But then no-one who has ever looked intently at his profile set against the city of Constantinople, or his siesta-time view over the roofline of Istanbul, can fail to be delighted by the company of this charming, handsome, mischievous and talented artist. These four volumes help us construct an imagined life but fortunately never attempt to imprison the free-spirit of Melchior Lorck behind the bars of scholarship.

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