Sunday, 1 September 2013

Books in brief

As a professional grump I like to spend my summers secluded at home with piles of books, waiting for grey and miserable weather to return so I can go outdoors again. Here are some recent reads.
Katharine Baetjer British Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575-1875 Yale University Press 2010

I was impressed by the Met's recent catalogue of German paintings. This one, not so much. There is no introduction, on the pretext that the Met's collection isn't sufficiently comprehensive to illustrate a full account of the history of British painting. Even if the collection were comprehensive, the catalogue wouldn't need to give a potted history of British art. The history of the collection is a more interesting and relevant topic for a museum catalogue, and the gilded age buccaneers and rich aesthetes who patronised the Met are especially interesting characters. The gaps that Baetjer fails to enumerate are interesting in their own right, revealing of the history of taste and the accidents of acquisition.

One of the most useful services of museum catalogues is rigorously describing the physical condition of objects. Are those basement pictures mediocre, or are they good pictures in mediocre condition? Don't look here for the answers. Unlike the catalogue of German paintings there's no separate section on condition, just some inconsistent impressionistic commentary. For example, a Reynolds Portrait of a Woman (42.152.1): "The picture, although worn and flattened in the process of an old lining, has a certain gentle charm." She move straight from a description of condition to a subjective assessment of the picture's charm, introducing a positive comment to ameliorate the description of the picture's deplorable condition. And we are told nothing about who lined it, or when, or how badly flattened, or whether it was worn at the same time as the lining or in separate cleaning(s). The one substantive entry on condition is for the large Reynolds The Honourable Henry Fane with Inigo Jones and Charles Blair, but it's an apologia rather than an objective description of condition. 

Images are good and the catalogue entries have some merit, but this book is unacceptable for a major museum collection.
Éric Pagliano L'atelier de l'oeuvre: Catalogue des dessins exposé suivi du répertoire du fonds Snoeck 2013

My poor French should disqualify me from reviewing this book, but even I can tell that it's excellent. It accompanied an exhibition of the Musée Fabre's fabulous French drawings (which I missed, alas), but it catalogues the museum's entire collection of Italian drawings, with substantive entries on the more important drawings and summaries with thumbnail pictures of the rest. 

The illustrations are superb. There is a picture of their Raphael Disputa study in raking light showing stylus marks, which are too rarely illustrated in art books. The discussion of their Raphael study for the Northbrook Madonna is interesting; the finished painting in Worcester, Mass. is given here to Raphael and collaborator, but it is more usually regarded as a studio production. The problem is that it's clearly not good enough to be an unaided Raphael, but it was certainly designed by Raphael and is too good for any known collaborator at the time (c.1504/5). Meyer zur Capellen solves the problem by inventing the Master of the Northbrook Madonna. I haven't seen the original, but the arguments for Raphael's participation in the painting seem weak to me.

It's a superb catalogue, fascinating throughout. 

John Martin Robinson James Wyatt: Architect to George III Yale University Press 2012

This book transformed my view of Wyatt, whom I'd underestimated. Many of his greatest buildings are lost, including the amazing Pantheon on Oxford Street, which was widely influenctial. He was prolific and many of his country houses are blocky, boring and repetitive. But his best - including Heaton Hall and Castle Coole in Co. Fermanagh - stand comparison with Adam. Robinson's book is especially interesting on the rivalry between Wyatt and Adam. My main complaint on finishing the book was that I wanted more. The discussion of Heaton Hall really called for plans to supplement the photographs, for example.  
Christopher Rowell (ed) Ham House: 400 years of collecting and patronage National Trust/Yale University Press 2013

This edited collection gives a kaleidoscopic view of a fascinating seventeenth century house on the Thames in outer London. It's the star of a thousand period dramas, so you'll know it even if you haven't heard of it. Short insightful chapters discuss many aspects of its history, contents and architecture. 

Simon Swynfen Jervis's chapter on the public ownership of Ham is especially interesting. He reports that Leigh Ashton, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was quite happy to take the house without its historically important contents so that he could gain a venue to display the V&A's 'overspill' furniture. Sadly some of the content was lost (including much of the ceramic collection), but most was saved, in part because the valuation of Ham's contents fell from £150k in 1930 to £90k in 1948 due to the collapse in the American market for British portraits. 

Jervis is overly reticent on the debates between the V&A and National Trust and the conflict between presenting the seventeenth century house versus showing layers of ownership (the NT approach). The NT was the freeholder, but the V&A owned the contents and administered the house until 1990. Jervis's description of the debate feels deracinated and theoretical. You can't decide between presenting layers of ownership or authentic originality in the abstract, only in the context of specific choices - and not enough information is given on these debates to decide. This chapter should have been longer, and it should have told more tales. It reveals that the V&A was cavalier in redecorating the house, sometimes cheaply and crudely. In the 1980s Maurice Tomlin held the line against crass popularisation, but one wonders who stands up to the bullying philistinism of the NT today.
Zareer Masani Macaulay: Britain's Liberal Imperialist Bodley Head 2013
This is a splendid short biography of a fascinating Victorian character - politician, imperial administrator and bestselling historian. Masani emphasises too much the links with the present; we cannot know what Macaulay would have thought about politics today, and I for one do not care. But the account of his life is wonderful; I find Victorian polymaths inspiring. I loved the picture of the elderly Macaulay in his library, and the description of his Albany flat: "every corner of which was library ... the walls were hung with half a dozen fine Italian engravings from his favourite Great Masters; a handsome French clock provided 'a singularly melodious set of chimes'; and there were bronze statuettes of Voltaire and Rousseau" (p.172). It cost 90 guineas a year (about £4,200 today).

I've also recently read a couple of superb short novels. Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station is a mini-bildungsroman about an American poet in Madrid. In an early scene the poet gets to the Prado for opening time to meditate in front of Rogier van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross - an excellent choice! The American poet is an unlovable but believable character, a compelling mix of degenerate drop-out and earnest student. 

Amy Sackville's Orkney is beautifully written and wonderfully evocative of colour and mood. The story is about an old lecturer going to Orkney with his much younger wife. We slowly learn more about the past. Poignant and brilliant. 


  1. Thank you of course for bringing these sumptuous art books to my attention - but I was also very interested in your comments on Orkney. I'd been wondering about reading that, but reviews elsewhere had been mixed. Good to see that someone I trust thinks it's good!

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