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Read an extract from Tiepolo Blue by James Cahill

Tiepolo Blue 


James Cahill


Published 9th June 2022


Cambridge, 1994. Professor Don Lamb is a revered art historian at the height of his powers, consumed by the book he is writing about the skies of the Venetian master Tiepolo. However, his academic brilliance belies a deep inexperience
of life and love.


When an explosive piece of contemporary art is installed on the lawn of his college, it sets in motion Don’s abrupt departure from Cambridge to take up a role at a south London museum. There he befriends Ben, a young artist who draws him into the anarchic 1990s British art scene and the nightlife of Soho. 


Over the course of one long, hot summer, Don glimpses a liberating new existence. But his epiphany is also a moment of self-reckoning, as his oldest friendship – and his own unexamined past – are revealed to him in a devastating new light. As Don’s life unravels, he suffers a fall from grace that that shatters his world into pieces.


Extract from Chapter One


It is late September – and a new term. Don Lamb has spent the afternoon in Jesus College library, reading letters from the eighteenth century. It has been raining – the air is still damp – but as he cycles back to Peterhouse, the sun comes out and catches the world off guard. The paths and trees of Christ’s Pieces look naked in its glare. The houses across the park glow like bronze.


It is one of those moments when summer and autumn creep into one another, each uncertain of its territory. The breeze is mild, like liquid, and the trees – still in full leaf – quiver and bristle. Slowing to a stop, Don screws up his eyes. The sky is breaking. A rush of exhilaration passes over him, mixed with sadness. It’s inexplicable. He knows what the term will bring, his life isn’t chequered by surprises or excitements, and yet – he can’t explain the feeling.
There is a smell of wet nature in the air – a leafy, muddy, mulchy aroma, underscored by something dank. He pedals along the path – slowly, like a man less busy than himself – crossing islands of shadow. Cambridge is still quiet from the long summer break, but students are beginning to return. Two of them are suddenly in his way: young men absorbed in animated talk, walking towards him, their faces enlarged by mirth. Their words reach him as blunt fragments of sound. With a swivel of his handlebars, he veers off the path.


The change of course sends him straight into a stone bird bath, hitting it hard with his knee. Don slides off his bike and grips his leg; the pain subsides and leaves him in a tranquil stupor. Rainwater has risen to the rim of the basin, and the clouds overhead are visible through a debris of leaves, petals and insects – dead and living – on the surface of the little pool. A cigarette butt floats in the confetti. The edge of his face is there too in the water, a slice of brow and cheekbone and one dark eye.


A sign at the end of the park marks the boundary of Christ’s Pieces. It’s a strange name, as if the son of God lay dismembered beneath university land. Steering the bike around a coil of dog shit, he kicks one leg across the saddle and cycles past the bus station, into the benign heart of Cambridge.
The sunlight is retreating as he turns into the gate of Peterhouse. Beyond the porter’s lodge, in the middle of the front court, is something odd – a pile of rubbish on the lawn. It looks as if a skip has been emptied. Affecting indifference, he asks the porter when it will be cleared away.


‘Not for some time, Professor Lamb.’


The porter’s smile makes Don reluctant to ask more. Amid the latticework of pigeonholes, oak-walled inlets stuffed with envelopes and newspapers, fat wads of paper and stray sheets, his own niche (Professor D. Lamb) is empty. The pile of rubbish is more than it seemed. The skeleton of a bed lies at the centre of the grass – an iron frame packed with coil springs. It is propped up at one end by a mound of empty liquor bottles, crushed beer cans and snarled-up clothes. On the grass beneath is an industrial lamp that rotates with slow, robotic gyrations. A black cable snakes across the lawn and disappears underneath a door at the perimeter of Old Court.


There is a sign near the path.


Angela Cannon


Don looks back with fascination at the objects. Intermittently, the lamp shines through the wire innards of the bed with a blinding flash and spidery shadows race over the quadrangle.


Someone – the thought comes to him as he stands there – might see him. Colleagues might be watching from the windows of Old Court – watching this very second, squinting to register the verdict of the art historian. And so he assumes a look of cool disdain. The lamp changes angle and blazes through the pile of bottles, illuminating their glass surfaces – green, brown, the electric blue of a spent litre of Bombay Sapphire. The colours induce a fit of blinking.

Walking around the court to the staircase that leads to his rooms, he resists the temptation to look back. But the view from the window of his study allows him another glance at the junk on the grass below, so peculiarly arranged. It’s more contrived than a heap of refuse. More knowing. He tugs the curtains closed, and the thin fabric pulses with an alien glare. Lighting a cigarette, he looks around him, as if to reassure himself that the rest of his surroundings are unchanged – just as they have ever been.


The tautology of his name has always pleased him. Donnish, serious, dignified – that is how his life has been. He came to Cambridge aged seventeen, and over the years his consciousness has fused, like ivy eating into stone, with the town. He turned forty-three this summer. Sometimes the span of time seems like nothing. His memories are entwined with the foliage of Peterhouse, with the gardens and meadows and surreptitious river. His thoughts are the mirror image of Cambridge’s unchanging vistas, his mind sustained by the rituals of academic life.


His rooms are two of the oldest in the college. The larger room, his study, contains his collection of prints and drawings, most of them by masters of the Rococo – a modest collection, modestly arranged. In the centre of the room is a scale model of the Pantheon, carved from cork and mounted on an oak console. Between the windows, resting on two brass hooks, is a small ornamental sword. All around the walls, books fill the shelves. On his desk is a framed photograph of a greyhound, black and white and fading.


In one corner is a column of cardboard boxes, each filled with paper and labelled meticulously in marker pen – Palazzo Sandi, Residenz Würzburg, Santa Maria del Rosario: the divisions of his private archive. From the age of seventeen, Don has collected reproductions of the frescoes of Giambattista Tiepolo – hundreds of postcards, prints and pages from books.


Tiepolo is his enduring love. All this time he has been readying himself to write a book – the book – on that genius of eighteenth-century Venice: the last of the Old Masters, the first of the moderns. Other art historians have described Tiepolo as a painter of sweetness and light, a divine choreographer. Not Don. With every picture he keeps, the ghost of the artist beckons him a little further, demanding the scholarly treatment that only Don can give. ‘No more sweetness and light,’ he hears Tiepolo say. ‘Show them how classical I am.’ The book is still in its earliest stages, a swirling suspension of ideas. The task will be difficult – the most complex yet.


The adjoining room, Don’s bedroom, is bare apart from a single bed, a sink and a cracked mirror. Changing his leather shoes for slippers, he turns on the radio to hear a succession of pips:‘ And now the news at six o’clock. There is no end in sight to the war in the Balkans – Sarajevo remains under siege. The Prime Minister, John Major, faces fresh allegations of sleaze within his government. Madonna, queen of pop—’ He switches it off. There is nothing of interest in the day’s news.


There is a scent of antique paper on his fingers. Tiepolo’s correspondence from Milan – the cache of letters he was reading earlier – steals back to him. He removes his notes from his briefcase and pores over them at his desk.


Not until he left Venice, his known universe, did life begin. Milan – Mediolanum to the ancients – saw the blossoming of Tiepolo’s early maturity. It took a classical city to raise him to greatness.


Hours pass and he forgets to go down to dinner. His mind is closed to the distant clatter and drone from the Hall, interrupted just once by the saying of grace; it fizzes with the small quandaries of the 1730s. Late in the evening, he reads through his script for the Fitzwilliam Lecture. It is an early teaser of his book on Tiepolo. He tries sections out loud. There is one passage, a description of the Allegory of the Power of Eloquence, which he plans to deliver from memory. He will step away from the lectern, relinquish his notes – as if the words have come to him in a rush of inspiration. Standing in front of the bedroom mirror, lit from behind by the glow of his study, he delivers the phrases perfectly, gracing his diction with careful motions of the hands – a single raised finger. He repeats the section, over and over, until half the night has passed.