Friday, November 11, 2016

A Tribute to Giles Waterfield

I first met Giles in 2001.  Or maybe it was 2002.  It was a long time ago. I was working for 5 weeks as a 'Rector' (live in Residence Director) for the University of Notre Dame Summer Program in London. At that time, the program required that its faculty plan within the course a 5 day travel program, relevant to the subject being taught. Those of us who were "non-academics" were duty-bound to accompany a faculty member on this trip, to "deal" with the undergraduate students, so that the faculty member could concentrate on his or her teaching during the venture.

The first summer I served in this capacity, I went to Paris with the music professors.  I had a wonderful and interesting time, and, except for one or two little hiccups, mostly having to do with a very intoxicated man attempting to pick me up, the trip went off without a hitch.

The following summer, I returned and was told I would be accompanying Professor Giles Waterfield's class on the five day trip to Amsterdam, Haarlem and the Hague, for his art course.  I had never meet Professor Waterfield.  I instantly had visions in my head of American sitcoms featuring the English butler, whose name always seemed to be Giles.  The character was inevitably haughty, condescending towards Americans, and very English.  Needless to say, I was intimidated before I even met Giles Waterfield.  I was not looking forward to this.  I hadn't even considered the major issue with this trip--the fact that certain narcotic substances were all too readily available in Amsterdam and I would be charged with making sure our students were attuned to their academics and "Dutch Art of the 17th Century" and NOT Amsterdam coffee shops.

I remember meeting Giles for the first time, just prior to our trip.  He did seem to me very English, in both speech and mannerisms.  As I listened to him speak to students, I remember feeling slightly queasy.  I had never been to Holland. I knew absolutely nothing about art.   I would be in charge of getting them there on the train (Giles would meet us there), getting their admissions to everything, dealing with accommodation, making sure that they stayed together, and on and on.  I felt totally inadequate.  And terrified of Giles Waterfield.  I knew he was going to be annoyed with me and my performance.

Encumbered by my intimidation of this person and my lack of familiarity with Holland, I proceeded to stumble my way clumsily through the five day trip, making mistake after mistake, all the while having to deal with a major glitch that was not my fault--the means of obtaining funds given me by the university was not working. At one point, I actually had to ask Giles for money.  Giles had no other choice than to conclude that I was an idiot.

However, on the second day of the trip, Giles asked me if I would like to join him and a friend for dinner. My first thought was no, absolutely not.  At this point in the trip, I had probably made about six stupid mistakes and, despite being a graduate of charm school in Grand Rapids in 1980, was feeling the biggest klutz in the world.   But the other option open to me was to find a place to eat by myself and retire early to my room.  One in my position didn't hang with students after hours, and the red light district of Amsterdam wasn't really my scene at the time.  So I agreed. That evening, I had dinner with Giles and his friend from Utrecht, who was working with an organization to recover paintings that had been lost or taken by the Nazis during WWII.  It was a fascinating evening.  After the dinner, when I retired to my hotel room, I wondered why Giles had invited me along.  I had already gotten a sense that Giles was somebody very important in the art world, and I was not.  There was absolutely no reason to include me--he had no obligation whatsoever to make sure that I was taken care of in my free time on this trip, and I must have seemed the most uninteresting person in the world to them. And yet, over the following three days, Giles invited me for a coffee, or a drink, or lunch in our free time.  He expressed a tremendous amount of interest in me and my life, and shared some interesting stories of his own.

At the end of our five day trip to Holland, I had a mad crush on Giles Waterfield.  I can only say that without embarrassment because I'm certain that everyone that knows Giles would, (if he or she were being honest) say the exact same thing.  Still, I continued to be intimidated by him (and told him so) for the next two years. He took great pleasure in that.

On our trips to Holland, I noted that people stopped Giles and spoke to him.  I noted him autographing things.  One morning, walking down a street with him, a gentleman on a bike stopped and greeted Giles.  They hugged, and spoke warmly.  After a few minutes, the man pedaled off, at which point Giles explained that this was his good friend who was Director of the Rijksmuseum.  The Rijksmuseum?  You mean that big-assed place with all of the Rembrandt paintings, at which we spent about five hours of our time the day before?  The Night Watch place???  As he was explaining a painting one afternoon in the Hague, a woman came up to him and said something along the lines of "You're Giles Waterfield."  Indeed he was.  I shook my head.  Giles was secretly famous.  Who knew?  His students know....every semester, about halfway through the term, they would inevitably come up to me, eyes wide as saucers and say "Did you know that Giles has written NOVELS?"

I have so many memories of my times with Giles, but one which rates in the top five things I have ever experienced in my life also happened one summer in Amsterdam.  We had the morning free, and were not due to meet the students until early afternoon.  This was the summer of THE exhibit at the Van Gogh Museum:  the Caravaggio-Rembrandt exhibit.  It was not on our itinerary, as apparently it must not have been relevant to the material of Giles' course.  But he said to me the day before, in his lovely voice:  "Judy, would you like to go and see this exhibit with me?"  As clueless about art as I was, I was not from another planet.  I knew this was an amazing exhibit, and had seen the people queued up for 1/2 mile to get in.  I also knew it was sold out.  So I eagerly nodded.  He told me to meet him there the next day at EIGHT O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING.  What?  OK.  I did.  The lines were already down the street.  Giles took me in a side door, whereupon he informed me that the curator of this exhibit was a great friend of his. Of course he was. What else is new?  I was able to see this exhibit, side by side with this most astonishing man, listening to his commentary (and being followed about by a very nervous security guard, who, I could tell, was annoying Giles to no end--and that amused me to no end).  We were at the last picture when the exhibit opened, at which point I had a true appreciation for the fact that the Dutch are amongst Europe's tallest people, and was grateful to have been able to see these paintings unobstructed.  I walked out of the Van Gogh museum as if I was in a dream world.  To this day, I point to it as one of the highlights of my life.  It was a turning point for me--and the beginning of an admittedly very basic appreciation of art.

I had the good fortune of being able to do 4 or 5 of those summer program trips with Giles and his class.  Those who know Giles do not really need to read any further to understand why I was so taken with him, because they know about his character, his charm, his unique and generous soul.  Those who never had the fortune to meet or know Giles--well, it's better that you do not know what you missed.  The experience of Giles cannot be recaptured or recreated because I don't think we shall ever see his like again.

I was unable to return to the summer program in 2007, but actually was able to return to Notre Dame London in a full-time capacity in 2014.  One of the reasons I was thrilled to come back was to be able to once again be colleagues with Giles, who was still teaching at our institution, and I was not disappointed.  I absolutely loved seeing Giles weekly, and engaging in conversation with him.  Just last month, I was able to accompany him and his class to the Frieze Art Fair at Regent's Park.  It was a joy to see him with his students, who were clearly excited to be there.  Giles sent them off on their assignments and walked around the fair with me.  They came back and practically grabbed his hand, wanting to drag him off to show him their discoveries.  I think this is what I loved most about Giles--his relationship to his students.  Here is a man who had no need to teach.  His students at Notre Dame were not art students.  They were business students, science and engineering students, and the occasional Arts and  Letters student--most of whom were taking the course because it fulfilled the Notre Dame Fine Arts requirement.  But in Giles' classes a passion was awakened in many of them.  Because he exhibited an interest in his students, they naturally wanted to respond to his teaching.  I can't recount how many times I heard students say that Giles was their favorite professor.  I can think of at least two who changed their course of study after being in Giles' class.

To this day, I don't really understand why Giles went out of his way to spend time with me and be my friend.  Admittedly, he would chide me about my self-image, and this last statement is exactly the sort of thing that would annoy him.  In truth, I acknowledge my own value as one of God's creation, yet I never figured out what I added to Giles' world. He was amazing.  He was internationally renowned. He was an author, a prize-winning novelist.  He was the Director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery for years.  He curated amazing exhibits world-wide.  He was famous and knew famous people.  I was none of those things.  I knew little about any of the things that made up Giles' world.  That he took me under his wing and actually went out of his way to spend time with me--and share part of his life with me speaks volumes about the man, about his humility, and about his attitude and outlook upon people and upon this world he inhabited for way too short a time.

Everything I know about art, I owe to Giles.  BG (Before Giles), I detested the thought of entering a museum.  It was an alien world and I felt as if I didn't belong.  I found museums to be an exercise in fatigue, and, on the rare occasions that I found myself in an art museum, would stand in front of the largest painting, and look at it, pretending as if I was analyzing it, and acting as if I actually had a clue.  I once emailed Giles after a particularly humiliating experience in my hometown.  I had gone to the GRAM (Grand Rapids Art Museum).  There was an exhibit there of James Tissot drawings of London.  Newly initiated into art by GW, I thought this would be interesting.  I paid my money and looked around, but was unable to find the exhibit.  I asked a man, who was clearly a volunteer, because he was wearing "the jacket", for directions to the Tissot exhibit (pronouncing it "Tiss-oh"). The oh so pretentious volunteer said loudly "WHO?"  I repeated the name, and he said, even more loudly "WHO?? Oh, you mean Tiss-otte--he screamed in the most condescending voice he could conjure! I was humiliated.  I felt my face flushing and I felt like a common pleb. I wanted to run out of there at light speed.  I explained to Giles in an email that THIS is why people like me avoided art museums.  I never felt as if I belonged, or had enough knowledge or culture to set foot in such places.  Giles' response was, first of all, that I had pronounced the name correctly and secondly that the volunteer was an absolute ass.  He then said that he would be using my story to illustrate something or other in something he was writing for somebody.  Whatever.  The point is that I felt redeemed.  I wish Giles had been with me that day...that would have been so cool, because he would have taken that guy down, and run over him like a lawnmower.

Knowing Giles for 15 years or so has changed my life.  Whenever I was to visit a city for the first time, I would contact Giles.  Judy:  Giles--I'm going to a conference in LA.  I have 1/2 day free.  Which museum would you recommend. --Judy Giles:  Judy--1/2 day is too short to go through the Getty.  I think it would overwhelm you.  Go to the Norton Simons Museum in Pasadena.  You'll enjoy it.  They also have a lovely courtyard and cafe where you can enjoy a nice cake and a cup of tea or a drink. --Giles.  I went to the Norton Simons Museum in Pasadena.  It was amazing. I had the best day.  And the same when I went to Kansas City, and Rome, and Florence, etc. etc.  I actually felt privileged when Giles was off to his trip to Egypt, and asked ME where I thought he should go...

At this point in my life, and thanks to Giles, I can spot a Rembrandt across the room.  I notice the large brushstrokes in the paintings of Frans Hals.  I know that Cuyp is not the Dutch word for cow, but rather the name of Dutch artist (who apparently likes to paint cows).  I can identify a Ruisdael landscape.  When I see weird trees I know it's a Hobbema.  More interestingly, I look at space.  It never occurred to me to think about the museum itself.  Giles seemed to be the world's leading expert in the the history of museums.  I remember when he told me that, the first summer I met him.  I looked at him as if he was nuts.  I had no idea there was such a thing as an expert in the History of Museums.  I know it now.  And it makes total sense.

Over the years, Giles would say on occasion:  Judy, I must have you over to my house for dinner.  My response was:  Giles, when the English say that, what they really mean is "I will never invite you to my house, but I'm being polite by saying this."  But he actually did invite me, along with some great friends of ours.  We had a blast.  And he invited me again, along with the students in his class.  And again. with a group we were taking to the cricket match at the Oval around the corner.  He was generous, he was kind, and he was hilarious.  I had so much fun with Giles.

This week, after learning about Giles' death, I've been walking around in a fog.  Like everyone else who knew him, I cannot quite accept that I will never see him again.  I am not yet able to grasp that he will not come in on Tuesday at about 9:17 (two minutes late for his class), make a slightly sardonic and yet affectionate comment to Nick and me as we're chatting in the office, and then go into his classroom.  It has been many years since I have shed this many tears, and because of it, I find I have a constant headache that will not subside.  I haven't really slept since hearing this awful news.  A light has been extinguished in the month of November--the month that we traditionally remember the dead.  I find the grief sometimes too much to deal with, and that alone surprises me.  I loved Giles.  And yet, he was not my closest friend, and I certainly was not his.  But as I think about it, reflecting upon why I am so deeply affected by his passing, it comes down to the fact that, in knowing him, my life was changed.  I gained a new interest...a new appreciation for art.  I came to understand how it is transcendent, and how it allows us to transcend--important for someone like me who was once a theologian.  I have gained another passion, and all because Giles Waterfield, a man who already had an incredibly full life, thought enough of me to embrace me and include me into his circle of friends.  I am a better person for having known him...Giles made me feel important and significant.  No--that's not right--Giles helped me to see the truth that I am important and significant.

I have a lot of photos of Giles, but I'm posting some of my favorites.  The first is one of our best trips to Amsterdam.  We had a blast.  The other three pics are from March of 2015.  I ran into Giles one day at our centre and told him I was off to my first trip to Florence the following weekend.  He exclaimed that he, too, was going to be in Florence and suggested we meet up.  Naturally, I was ecstatic.  We met on the Oltrano side of the Ponte Santa Trinita.  From there we went off to lunch, and then to look at the apartment where he was staying.  I told him I was off then to visit the Basilica di Santa Croce and he thought he'd like to come along.  It was there that I took these photos, and I remember thinking that I have never laughed so hard. Giles wanted to pose, and look "studious and serious" but I kept laughing, and this made him laugh.  Therefore, he thought the pictures would not be satisfactory, so he kept ordering me not to make him smile, and I kept snapping away.  I ended up with three pictures that look fantastic, but still, when I look at them, I cannot help but smile and think about what an amazing day I had in Firenze, with the inimitable, unique and amazing Giles Waterfield.

Dutch Art of the 17th c. Class in Amsterdam


I'm not really reading this book
Stop making me laugh, this is serious

I don't know really how to end this blog  post.  It was written out of grief, as I have spent the week not wanting to accept what I know is true--that Giles is gone.  And yet he is here, in my many memories.  He will be present every time I step foot into the National Gallery, or pass by a museum, or see the large brush strokes of a Frans Hals painting.  I will remember him when I look at the ceramic Irish cow he gave me (whom I named Cuyp).  Tonight, these thoughts do not give me consolation, but I know that time is the healer of all wounds.  But as I write, I am compelled to acknowledge that, along with near inconsolable grief, I have been granted an incredible privilege, for I am counted among those who had the opportunity to know this amazing man, to learn from him and to be a recipient of his kindness, counsel, wisdom and friendship, not to mention his sardonic and dry wit.  I will never stop missing him, the sparkle in his eyes, and the adorable half smile.  I will never forget him, for he has changed my life for the good.   Requiescat in pacem, lovely Giles.

1 comment:

  1. This is a lovely post. I know just how you feel. Thank you for writing it.