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Tim Butcher Uncovers the Story Behind Clarke’s Bookshop


Blood RiverChasing the DevilWriting for BBC News, former war correspondent Tim Butcher, author of Chasing the Devil and the best-selling Blood River, describes a recent visit to Clarke’s Bookshop in Cape Town, arguably Africa’s finest bookshop, where he discovered the amazing and little-known story of its founder, Tony Clarke.

Established in 1956 and towering with books old and new, Butcher says Clarke’s is a “booky world almost extinct in today’s era of online, search-engine rigour”. While researching Graham Greene, Butcher found himself sidetracked and rummaging through some of Tony Clarke’s remaining personal papers instead. What he discovered was a remarkable story – one worthy of a screenplay – about how Clarke managed to save what Aldous Huxley once called “the greatest picture in the world”. Unfortunately, the sole memento of this brave act is a suburban street in the Tuscan town of Sansepolcro named in his honour:

A chance discovery has brought to light the little-known story of how a British Army officer risked a court martial in wartime Italy to save a painting the author Aldous Huxley once described as “the greatest picture in the world”.

I opened a dead man’s suitcase in Cape Town and was transported from today’s Africa, via World War II Italy, to Renaissance Tuscany.

Inside I found a story of high art, bravery and love, all the more powerful because it is a story not widely known.

Book details

Photo courtesy Mobile City Guides


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Patricia</a>
    January 5th, 2012 @14:03 #

    Patricia Schonstein has captured this piece of history in her novel, A Time of Angels. Here is the extract:

    On the mid-winter morning of his seventieth birthday Massimo’s memory cast up before him the painting of The Resurrection which the butcher and baker had described and which, though he had never actually seen it, he could now identify.

    He lay in bed, in the winter-dark before daybreak, and stared in amazement at the resurrected Christ through a dream space that was neither waking nor sleeping. He could hear his friends’ voices clear and strong in the background, as they said goodbye to the youth he once was. “When we have finished our journeying, and you are a grown man, we will meet together in our home town, Sansepolcro, at Piero della Francesca’s fresco. Come with your betrothed to where the Roman soldiers sleep with the Christ figure standing behind them, tall and triumphant over death. You will find your way to the fresco without difficulty. Ask anyone for direction to the Law Courts. We will be waiting on the steps for you.”

    Massimo tried to hold onto the dream, to stay in that place of mirage, but could not. Cornelia was up. She had opened the shutters to let in the winter light. Virginia had brought them their coffee. The image of the painting had dissipated into day.

    He dressed solemnly and, as soon as the shops opened, made his way to Clarke’s Bookshop to ask if there was a book on Piero della Francesca.

    The bookseller showed him a framed print of the Resurrection hanging on the wall. “The most beautiful painting in the world,” his friends had said of it. The young woman told how the first owner of the bookshop, Anthony Clarke, as an Allied gunner officer during the Second World War, had held back from shelling the town, where there were thought to be German soldiers, because he knew of the fresco and did not want to destroy it.

    Massimo stood before the framed picture for a long while, holding his hat in both hands against his chest. Yes, he thought. It is as my friends described it: The sleeping Roman soldiers – how could they sleep with so imposing a figure rising from the dead behind them? Yes, the pained face of the risen Christ contrasted with his strong beautiful body. Yes, the sarcophagus with its straight lines. Yes, the sinuous cylinders of the tree trunks in the background – those on the left bared by winter, and those on the right heavy with leaves.

    “Has this picture always hung here?” he asked.

    “No,” replied the bookseller. “I went to Sansepolcro last year, to see the original. I bought the print there.

    “The fresco could have been destroyed by just one shell. But it wasn’t.”

    “Where is Mr Clarke?” asked Massimo.

    “He’s no longer alive. But he’s well honoured for having saved the fresco. There is a street named after him in Sansepolcro – Via Anthony Clarke.”

    Massimo thanked her and walked out, the world hazed by his tears.

    A Time of Angels by Patricia Schonstein
    ISBN 0 552 77166 X

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    January 5th, 2012 @14:29 #

    Thanks for the extract Patricia (and: you're allowed to refer to yourself in the first person ;).


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