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All the Beauty in the World

Life, death, and the art of seeing

A stand-out read of the year to date, All the Beauty in the World by Patrick Bringley is a finely understated combination of memoir, lessons on the art of seeing, and a  glorious and very personal tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Capturing a transformative period in Bringley’s life, the book focuses on the months and years after his brother Tom’s untimely death, when poleaxed by grief, Bringley drops out of his relentless New York life and takes a job as a museum guard at the Met. Here, with a broken heart, he gets to just stand still awhile and let the art and life of the museum work its healing magic.

Cruelly taken by cancer at the the age of twenty-six, Tom sits at the heart of this luminous book. He was big-hearted, mellow, smart, pursuing a doctorate in bio math, as ‘bright and irreducible’ as a Titian painting. Rocked by his death, a benumbed Bringley feels unable to return to his budding career at the New Yorker magazine.

He wonders if there could possibly be a loophole ‘by which I could drop out of the forward-marching world and spend all day tarrying in an entirely beautiful one?’ Shortly afterwards, he dons the blue uniform of a guard and enters the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he’s blessed with an eighty dollar a year sock allowance and an ensuing decade of therapeutic art.

The marble floors are hard on the feet but the galleries are wonderful, and Bringley shares them with us, a collection of anecdotes (newsflash: the general public are occasionally a trifle irksome), facts, and a supporting cast of characters that includes the unsung carpenters, riggers, elevator staff and two firefighters who must be on the premises at all time.

Initially, his home section is the Old Masters wing, a collection billed as containing almost 9000 painted inhabitants (8,496 actually, he’s counted). Surveying his domain of Rembrandts, Botticellis and Caravaggios, Bringley is bemused that so many visitors appear more seduced by the Impressionists, often obliged to redirect them to Monet’s water lilies. Personally, he’s always suspected that Monet’s paintings are no more than prettiness. One of the lessons the Met teaches him (to be shared in turn with us), is to put prejudice aside and learn from the art, rather than about the art, a lesson he absorbs across years and, eventually, from each and every nook of this splendid and beloved building.

Bringley also provides links to further information on every artwork he references, expect to be sent on a marvellously absorbing trip down the rabbit hole of the Met’s own website, (I’ve yet to emerge).

All the Beauty in the World is a deeply moving and intimate labour of love. As the years go by, Bringley’s loss changes form, in part due to circumstance but also because the museum’s thousands of artworks teach him how to get on with the ‘head-down work of living…’.

A memorable and enriching read.

All the Beauty in the World by Patrick Bringley is published by Vintage, 240 pages.

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