Jigsaws are a joy at Christmas, the ideal gift, the perfect employment. They provide hours of painless social intercourse or moments of peaceful, solitary retreat. They come in all sizes, all degrees of difficulty, for all ages, at all prices. They can be educational, artistic, kitsch, challenging, competitive, communal and comforting. You can do them in silence, or you can talk round the table. They give you an illusion of order and progress when all around is chaos. They draw out the venom of the year's barbs of neglect and anger. They keep you sane. They are very low-tech. All you need is a big table and a good light.
Some people do jigsaws only at Christmas, when they provide easy bonding with rarely seen family members. The Christmas jigsaw is usually a sociable jigsaw. It makes the ideally harmless opening conversational gambit, as safe as, but more interesting than, the weather. I've been collecting jigsaw testimony for the past few years, from fellow novelists, actors, children and scholars, and I'm hoping to catch a member of the royal family soon. There is a long tradition of regal engagement with the pursuit, from Queen Victoria to our present monarch, who is to be seen near one in her drawing room at Balmoral in the recent film where she is so well impersonated by Helen Mirren.
One witness tells me that in the festive season his family always embarks on an elaborate puzzle of many thousands of pieces. This keeps his mother-in-law happy and busy for hours, but alas, her eyesight is failing and she tends to misplace pieces with rash confidence, so he has to get up in the middle of the night, sneak down and undo the work she has done.
I know how he feels, and how his mother-in-law feels. My sharp-eyed daughter often ticks me off for stupid mistakes, but only a month ago I had to undo a house guest's work on Jacques-Louis David's 1806 painting, The Coronation Of The Emperor Napoleon. He had got the pillars all mixed up, and a piece of the edge was floating ominously free. We started this masterpiece in the summer, and I hope to finish it early in the New Year. The painting is puzzling in more ways than one: it seems to me that it isn't the emperor who is being crowned, but his empress. Jigsaws can teach you a lot about art history. They make you look very carefully at the image, and imprint it for ever in your memory.
The jigsaw puzzle started life in the 18th century as an educational aid to the teaching of geography. The first models were dissected maps - one of the earliest references is in Mansfield Park, where Fanny Price's cousins tease her for not being familiar with these expensive new schoolroom toys. They were beyond the reach of her Portsmouth parents. A century or so later, the variety of images had diversified amazingly, and the prices were within the range of more modest families. By the 30s the cottage garden began to dominate, and is still the favoured style of traditional puzzles sold in village shops. Roses and hollyhocks, thatched roofs and bird tables remain as popular as they were during the Depression. Ask a non-puzzler to describe a jigsaw, and this is the picture they come up with. Cheap to manufacture, bright and cheering to behold, they offer a pleasing escape - although, of course, you can also find snow scenes, Christmas trees, robins. A picture of Santa in a red aeroplane, delivering gifts to a snowbound farm surrounded by pine trees, is one of America's all-time favourites, and, at an estimated $85, one of the most collectible and valuable of vintage items.
Those not seriously interested in the pursuit are probably unaware of developments in style and technology. Manufacturers have created ever more sophisticated artefacts, some three-dimensional, some hand-cut, some strangely shaped, some double-sided, some consisting of one uniform colour. Connoisseurs have strong opinions about the superiority of wood to cardboard, and commission their own personalised designs, as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor used to do. This couple first met over a jigsaw, and they remained loyal to the pastime: they liked to incorporate shaped pieces, called "whimsies", in the form of Scottie dogs, of which they were also very fond. Some puzzles have readymade whimsies. I have a very pretty and rather expensive wooden one based on a marble micromosaic scene of Rome showing the Ponte Rotto and Tiber Island. Its whimsies are nautical, and include an anchor, a capstan, a dolphin, a lobster and a yacht.
Jigsaws provide a harmonious, constructive, cooperative activity, free of the rivalry that makes so many games contentious and so many children so cross. The educational aspect is a bonus, and I cannot believe, as one historian says, that in Victorian times they were received with "gloom and depression in the nursery". But I know that home puzzlers may be highly competitive and set themselves time limits: they even race each other, with specialised techniques and prizes for the fastest. That's not the right spirit at all. In the US some have the average time for completion on the box. For me, that would ruin the whole enterprise. I don't want to be good at jigsaws. I don't want to beat the clock. I am happy to work at the same picture for months on end. Napoleon and Josephine will wait.
Review by The Guardian