Thunderclap. A memoir of art and life & sudden death

David Jeffrey is a Senior Lecturer, Lead for Ethics & Law, in the new Three Counties Medical School, Worcester

This beautifully produced sensitive memoir and art history begins with a quote from Euripides, capturing the yearning of anyone who has been bereaved, “Come back! Even as a shadow, even as a dream”.

Laura Cumming is chief art critic on the Observer, but this book is so much more than simply an accessible way to examine the work of the Dutch masters and Carel Fabritius, (The Goldfinch), in particular. Cumming shares her personal feelings and grief for her father, a renowned Scottish artist, James Cumming who taught at the Edinburgh College of Art.

In language which evokes the eloquence of Max Sebald and John Berger, Cumming encourages us to have the confidence to engage with art, “…for pictures can shore you up, remind you who you are and what you stand for. The relationship we have with them is so singular and unique that nobody can gainsay our experience. What you see is what you see, yours alone and always true to you, no matter what anyone else contends”.

Cumming shows us how to look, really to look, in ways that are pertinent to the patient-doctor relationship.

Cumming shows us how to look, really to look, in ways that are pertinent to the patient-doctor relationship. “Seeing is everything” says Laura Cumming, “His paintings bring me close, every time I look. I see his mind all around me”.

Her memories of her beloved father, James, reveal a modest hard-working artist whose work was much influenced by his time on the Isle of Lewis. He was far more interested in the lives of others than his own. James Cumming died in 1991 at the age of 68.

When her father developed lung cancer, Cumming describes a dismissive doctor, “…who always looked away”. Despite ‘seeing’ the patient for months, he kept ignoring his symptoms. She generously speculates that this irritable, tired doctor must have had his own problems. Medical teachers incorporating the arts and humanities into the undergraduate curriculum will find this superbly illustrated book a rich source of insights.

Laura Cumming grapples with the reality of her father’s death. “He dies, but his painting survives”. Cummings is remembered too by his former students. One recalled how his seal of approval for any piece of work was to remark, “You’d better frame it”. In Thunderclap, ‘Jimmy’ Cumming has come back. He would be proud of his daughter.

Featured book: Laura Cumming, Thunderclap. A memoir of art and life & sudden death, Chatto & Windus, London ,2023. pp264, £25 ISBN 978-1784744526

Featured photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash

The BJGP is the world-leading primary care journal. At BJGP Life we add multi-media comment and opinion for the primary care community.

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