Tuesday, 14 May 2013

This week I've been reading...

Picture: Waterstones

Roy Hattersley The Devonshires Chatto & Windus
The Devonshires are a fascinating family, and Roy Hattersley has written some fine biographies.  This isn't one of them.  It's hard to write a sustained narrative history of a great Ducal family over four centuries that encompasses so many different interests - great politicians, art collectors and scientists as well as dissolute gamblers, drunks and letches.  Hattersley pottered about in the Devonshire archives without much to show for it.  Some of the mini-biographies are good, but they reveal few coherent themes beyond counterbalancing talents for acquiring great fortunes and frittering them away.  It's a good read, but rather lightweight.  

There is almost no discussion of the Devonshire art collections, beyond some reference to the library and the sculpture collection.  The Rembrandt that he mentions as being given up in lieu of death duties isn't even a Rembrandt.  The great collection of drawings was largely inherited from the Burlingtons by marriage, so isn't covered here.  It's impossible to write about everything in such a wide-ranging survey, but the neglect such a great art collection seemed to me a serious failing.  
Picture: Times Higher
Jonathan Sperber Karl Marx: A nineteenth century life W.W. Norton
Nothing to do with art history, but I admired this new biography of Marx.  It's a serious intellectual history that situates him in the context of radical nineteenth century politics, and it's also a great read.  Sperber is immensely knowledgeable about Marx's context and sources, and he gives the best short account of Capital  that I've ever read.  It's a superb achievement, but I think he goes too far in situating Marx in the context of arguments in Parisian cafes and London pubs rather than arguments about the future of the world, and  he doesn't adequately explain why Marx's ideas were so much more successful than those of his interlocutors.   

Marx didn't have much to say about art, and I find the idea of Marxist art history ridiculous, but S.S. Prawer's superb study Karl Marx and World Literature gives a vivid picture of Marx's engagement with the arts, revealing a deeply cultured thinker with an endearing fondness for trashy novels.

I've also recently finished Anthony Powell's twelve-volume Dance to the Music of Time, named for the Poussin painting at the Wallace Collection.  Every time I saw those fat trilogies in bookshops I felt a sense of rebuke; keen to read them but always putting them off because of their formidable length.  Some one once engaged me in conversation in front of the painting at the Wallace and ordered me in no uncertain terms to go and read them immediately, and he was right.  It's a fabulous series, utterly compelling.  The characters are brilliant and unforgettable, and it's a remarkably quick read because you cannot but make time for it.  I wish I'd read it sooner; I'm sure I'll read it again.  

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