Predictably, I lingered too long at the Courtauld. By the time I left, I was short of time; and so, feeling a bit like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland—I’m late, I’m late / For a very important date—I scooted down the stairs and out and back up the road to that green glass fronted building. I remember a big room full of students milling about, a reception desk where they phoned ahead to say I was coming, a lift, stairs and corridors, most of all a sense of aged creaky structures concealed behind that ultra-modern facade—and then, towards the end of the last corridor, there I was shaking hands with Michael Trapp, Professor of Greek Literature and Thought, and being ushered into his long narrow book-lined office with its single window looking out over The Strand below.
Michael is the elder son of Joseph Burney Trapp and his wife Elayne, née Falla; New Zealanders who moved to England in the early fifties and lived on a boat on the Thames near Reading, where Joe had a job teaching English at the university. He was a librarian at heart, however, and in 1953 took up a position at the Warburg Institute in London; and gradually rose through the ranks until, in 1976, he became its director, succeeding the eminent Ernst Gombrich. He retired in 1990 but continued to write and publish until his death in 2005. His area of expertise was the early Renaissance. He was an authority on the English Humanists, particularly Thomas More; upon the history of the book, especially pre-Gutenburg; and on representations of the Italian poet, Francesco Petrarch. After his death one of his colleagues described him as the nicest man I ever knew. I asked Michael what he thought about that.
He smiled. The niceness was—discretionary, he said. My father did not always show what he felt or thought, because it was often not politic so to do. That reticence was of long standing, it may have gone back to his childhood, and was certainly apparent in his early days at Reading, where he would hesitate to deliver an opinion for fear of making an error or being taken for a fool. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have strong opinions—he did. He was just careful about how he expressed them. If you are going to come from an obscure town like Carterton, on the other side of the world, and penetrate to the very heart of the British scholarly establishment, as Joe did, you would need to show a bit of discretion, wouldn’t you?
Michael, an exceptionally nice man himself, brought up a couple of photographs on his laptop screen. The first was of a children’s Christmas party at the Warburg in 1958, I think. There was a long table where a straggle of kids sat wearing paper hats and crepe streamers before plates of jelly and cream. Joe was bending over solicitously to the far left of the image and, near the centre, a woman—perhaps Gertrud Bing—held two babes in arms. The one on the right was Michael. The other photograph was a solo shot of Joe Trapp the same age as I am now—Michael said. That is, about 60. He is sitting at a desk, turning in his chair to look at the camera. Thick black-rimmed glasses, a big nose, slightly bulging eyes; a formidable presence. The look is challenging, perhaps even suspicious: what do you want? Or even: what are you looking at? The image, emblematically, faded slowly to grey as our conversation proceeded.
As it did, a more complex picture emerged. A man of great learning and prodigious memory who was nevertheless uninterested in, or actively sceptical of, theoretical considerations; one who did not have a grand over-arching hypothesis to prove and was not engaged in the writing of a big book; who preferred to follow certain individual threads to see where they led and how they got to where they were going. His interest in visual representations of Petrarch, for example, was of this kind. He was an able administrator as well as a consummate scholar, and managed to satisfy his own intellectual needs despite the busy public career he followed. He was not, Michael said, a disappointed man.
In politics he remained, all his life, an egalitarian socialist. This wasn’t just an ideal. Part of what sustained him through all those years at the Warburg—effectively half a century, because he continued to work there after his retirement—was a belief in community. The basis of the Warburg’s collection was assembled by its founder, Aby Warburg (1866-1929), art historian and independent scholar, in Hamburg in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His interests were eclectic and esoteric and, once the Nazis came to power in Germany, the library, the institute and its scholars, many of whom were also Jewish, were all under imminent threat. The collection, and the scholars, were transported to London; the books, the shelving, even some boxes of pen nibs, crossed the North Sea in two little steamers. The institute has remained in England ever since; and, despite vicissitudes, survives today. Much of what Joe and Elayne did, Michael said, especially in the early days, involved looking after these aging and increasingly frail German scholars; but they were also intimately engaged in the work of ensuring that unique community had a future.
There’s always a point in these conversations, which are also interviews, where I feel called upon to explain myself. I said that this was precisely my interest in his father: as a conservator of culture, as one of those often obscure or unsung people who labour to do the work that must be done to keep a fine old tradition alive. In that sense, I said, I was just as interested in the Warburg as I was in Joe. The Warburg, I said, warming to my theme, seems to me to be about tracing continuities and identifying methods of change, especially in visual symbology, as a means of recording, maintaining and extending traditions founded in antiquity, persistent until today and viable in the future too—if we have one.
Michael agreed; but he was looking a bit alarmed. Yes, I had become too ardent. We changed the subject. He had spent the afternoon engaged in an ongoing project which is attempting to secure the preservation of an ancient site on university land: the Strand Lane Baths, allegedly a Roman survival but actually the remains of a cistern built in 1612 to feed a fountain in the gardens of the old Somerset House, then a Royal palace; the domain of Anne of Denmark, wife to James I. The cistern, after a period of neglect, had been brought back into use in 1770 as a public bath; the Roman speculation seems to have begun in the 1820s, as an advertising gimmick.
The Baths’ real fascination, says Wikipedia, lies in the changes of identity that have ensured their survival, from utilitarian infrastructure to publicly protected monument, and from cistern to cold bath to Roman relic. But even if they are not Roman, the fact that so many people have passionately wanted them to be is now as real a part of their history as their actual origins. That sounds very like something that would have interested your father, I said. Wasn’t he also concerned with tracing the history of misunderstandings, or misattributions? The curious way in which the past is as much an invention or a fiction as it is a record of fact? Yes.
Michael had another relic to show me. It was a Greek grammar, a small soft-back, which had belonged to Joe’s older sister Phyllis, and then to him. Both of their names were in the front, first hers, then his. There were annotations to some of the exercises therein; and a date: 1943. Phyllis, who was herself fluent, had taught Joe Greek while he was a pupil at Dannevirke High, where she was a staff member for a time. In 1943 he was turning eighteen and about to go down to Victoria University in Wellington to study. My father didn’t think his Greek and Latin were good enough to embark on a scholarly career, Michael remarked. But he did find himself teaching Latin grammar to students at the Warburg in the early days (Latin was and is compulsory there). They were evening classes, and when he came home afterwards, he would invariably say that he had been setting people on the wrong path again. That, too, was entirely characteristic: a genuine modesty expressed as ironic self-deprecation.