A Short Life in a Strange World

Toby Ferris

At the age of 42, his father not long dead and his young sons growing fast, Toby Ferris set off on a seemingly quixotic mission to track down each of the 42 surviving paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who, at the age of 42, had been approaching the end of his own short life.

Over the next five years Ferris would travel to 22 galleries in 19 cities in 12 countries across 2 continents: Budapest to San Diego, Detroit to Naples, Berlin to Madrid, ticking off his Bruegels as he went.

The results of his journeying are a revelation: Bruegel’s panels, their landscapes teeming with robust life, become a lens through which Ferris takes stock of the world, informing everything from mortality, fatherhood, and contemporary life, to the bombing of Rotterdam, the extinction of North American megafauna, and how to ward off bears in the forest.

Short Life in a Strange World is a dazzlingly original hybrid of art criticism, philosophical reflection and poignant memoir, a book about one man’s obsession with Bruegel’s short life in a strange if familiar world, and the precisely-detailed yet cosmos-encompassing works in ink and oil which sprang from it.

And it begins with the story of a boy who fell from the sky.

Reviews of A Short Life in a Strange World

  • ‘I was reminded a little of Sebald, a little of Teju Cole, a little of Geoff Dyer – but mostly I knew I had met a book that kept its own rules and knew its own voice … Oddly beautiful and beautifully odd, it will draw many readers into its strange world, and the short lives that it contains’ Robert Macfarlane

    ‘A quixotic global quest to see all of the master’s 45 paintings’ Sunday Times

    ‘…an intricately plotted book that is by turns stimulating and moving…the real strength of this book lies in Ferris’s infectious enthusiasm for Bruegel, and every arcane offshoot loops back to the artist’s work. He is brilliant on the detail, on the slight variations that denote the master from the copyists, on the realities of peasant life, on the marginal figures; and Bruegel of all painters is the most rewarding subject for this sort of scrutiny’ Spectator

    ‘…an uncategorisable book that mingles paintings and pensées, history and life lessons, travel and memoir. The pictures, every one of them enigmatic, stimulate innumerable musings and thoughts, some random, some focussed… This book mimics the way the mind works when confronted with compelling but complicated paintings’ Literary Review

    ‘The advent of Toby Ferris’s 42nd birthday sparked him off on a quest to visit each one of the 42 surviving paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The project had little to do with either Bruegel or painting, and everything to do with Ferris’s own listlessness, exacerbated by the recent death of his father. So packed with life are those 16th-century images that Ferris mined them for insights into the human condition: “birth to death in 42 panels”, as the subtitle has it, but with less weighty digressions, too, on everything from children’s games to mastodons’ New Statesman