Monday, April 24, 2006

A Far Cry from Kensington-

The English novelist Muriel Spark died last week in Italy. Over a career spanning more than five decades, Ms. Spark wrote many much-loved novels, including “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, “A Far Cry from Kensington”, “The Ballad of Peckham Rye”, and “Memento Mori”. But in her autobiography of the first four decades of her life, Muriel Spark recounts some of her other jobs, and one, her first job after working on a secret project for the British Foreign Office during the War, may be of particular interest to antiques collectors-

“The year after the war I found a job on a good quarterly magazine called Argentor... Argentor was a beautifully produced magazine, resembling the Connoisseur in style and format, the official quarterly journal of the National Jewellers’ Association. My job was mainly research in museums, libraries, art galleries; a truly refreshing occupation. I loved it. Even now, looking back at the list of contents of the first number in which I was involved, the pleasure of that world comes back to me. The editor, William Llewellyn-Amos, was particularly trusting, and quite uncaring about my lack of experience. His confidence in me was stimulating. I had no hesitation about writing contributions on a subject hitherto unknown to me. Another journalist, Mona Curran, was employed in the office; we worked together well. Quite a lot of articles by specialists had to be touched up from the stylistic point of view, and we spent long hours recasting the articles that had been commissioned.

The list of contents in the number under preparation when I joined the magazine included an article on English domestic silver, and one on spoons and forks; another was ‘Old Clocks of England’ and James Gunn, a celebrated portrait painter, contributed ‘Jewels and the Painter’. The journal, very well illustrated, aimed to express high standards of workmanship, and to give the readers an idea of the history of the jewellers’ art, and that of goldsmiths, silversmiths, horologists and the allied crafts. One of my first assignments was to work on an article (signed by the editor) called ‘The Goldsmith Painters’, relating how many of the Renaissance artists began as goldsmiths. On my own account I wrote ‘Some Jewels of English Poetry’, in which I showed how the names of jewels were used figuratively throughout English poetry. (To my surprise and joy this article was picked our for a highly favourable mention by the Evening Standard: my stock in the office went up). Later on, before I left Argentor, I had researched and written a long article on the Order of the Golden Fleece which adorns many famous and historical portraits. About this article I have a sense of great satisfaction. It bears no signs of immaturity and I would not hesitate to reprint it today.

The number of subjects connected with the goldsmiths’, silversmiths’ and jewellers’ art was inexhaustible. The essays written by experts which needed some form of recasting were mainly passed on to me. I learned how to copy-edit tactfully. I recall that I took out a great many adjectives.

My working days were long. I spent hours on research at the College of Heralds, the National Gallery, the British Museum and similar institutions. Further hours were spent in the office, writing and editing. And sometimes I would work at home on an interesting article, far, far into the night.

I got no extra pay for work I had done at home, and of my own composition. I wasn’t expected to sell my work to the magazine. Even when I wrote a small poem, much approved of by the editor, this too went in with my wages, six pounds a week, as a matter of course. I was perfectly happy with this arrangement. I enjoyed the work and was learning, too, how to edit a magazine, and how to proof-read and copy-edit. Argentor continued to publish my work (no pay) till 1948, two years after I left, and was editing Poetry Review for the Poetry Society. But Argentor is no more. It is now an expensive production often quoted in the rare book lists”.

-Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae. Autobiography. London, Constable and Company, 1992.

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