Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Recent books

Picture: Amazon
Simon Green and Jane Thomas Dumfries House: An Architectural Story Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland 2014 £30

Books about historic houses generally disappoint. Many are just coffee table books with some lavish pictures but superficial text, and few have comprehensive plans. Guidebooks are bigger and glossier than they used to be, but they're often just pricey souvenirs, not a patch on their cheaper and dowdier predecessors. But there have been some notable recent exceptions. Schmidt and Keller's book on Holkham Hall is excellent, particularly on the history of its construction. But this brilliant book on Dumfries House is a model for how to write about historic houses, taking the genre to new heights. 

Dumfries House is an early design by the Adam brothers, which was sympathetically extended in the late nineteenth century. Its owner, the Marquis of Bute, needed to sell it to pay death duties and its contents, including the Chippendale furniture original to the house, were nearly auctioned off. But at the last moment, after the auction catalogue had been printed, a consortium of charities headed by the Prince of Wales bought the house and its contents.

This book does full justice to the house. The highlight is the big fold-out plans of the entire building at different points in its history, a particular delight when set against the mean partial plans in many books, some with 'private' areas blocked out and few showing upper floors or historic changes. The book is arranged chronologically, deftly blending architectural and social history, with separate chapters on the design, buidling, fitting out and furnishing of the house. The whole book is exemplary - comprehensive, scholarly, clearly written and well illustrated. The authors work for the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, which also published the book. It should be a model of its type; other publishers, take note!
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Fernando Marias (ed) El Greco of Toledo: Painter of the Visible and the Invisible Ediciones El Visio 2014 £55

This is the catalogue of an El Greco exhibition in Toledo, the Spanish city where he died 400 years ago. I'm especially frustrated by the discussion of the exhibits, which are described in turn in discursive chapters rather than given individual entries. El Greco's studio turned out multiple versions of his most popular compositions, and I'd like to know more about his studio practice and read assessment of the quality, technique and condition of the pictures in the exhibition. I doubt I'll get to the exhibition, though, and this is an excellent book about El Greco's time in Toledo even if it falls short as an exhibition catalogue. 

The illustrations are particularly good, with some great detail photos - much better than the pictures in Marias's biography. The book opens with four thematic chapters by major El Greco scholars. Richard L. Kagan revisits his account of El Greco in light of more recent scholarship, Marias gives a summary of some of the key points from his excellent recent biography and Joaquin Berchez discusses El Greco's 'architectural enigmas', with a fascinating discussion of the architectural settings of his great altarpieces. Nicos Hadjinicolaou's chapter is a learned account of El Greco's relationship to ideas prevalent in his time, and is the best account I've read of El Greco's relationship to 'modernity', avoiding the ahistoric pitfalls of this well-worn topic. These four chapters are more scholarly than is usual in exhibition catalogues, but they read well and give a wide view of this fascinating artist.
Picture: Amazon
Richard Roberts Saving the City: The great financial crisis of 1914 Oxford University Press 2013 £20

This is an authoritative and fascinating account of a massive financial crisis that is barely remembered today. It's a superb history that understands the economic and financial aspects thoroughly, and it's an important book that should inform current debates, particularly because it describes a financial crisis that was not a 'Minsky Moment' caused by credit expansion. Even if you don't have a specialist interest in financial history, this is still a good read. It's sophisticated and well-informed, but non-technical, packed with interesting anecdotes and worth reading for the discussion of the politics (grand and office) at the outbreak of World War I. 
Picture: Amazon
Eric H. Cline 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed Princeton University Press 2014 £19.95

This book is better than its sensational title suggests. In 1177 BC, during the reign of Ramses III, the 'Sea Peoples' invaded Egypt. But the book is about a wider and longer process of decline of late bronze age civilizations around the Mediterranean. The introduction strains too hard to draw parallels with today, which is frankly daft. The Greek financial crisis is really not comparable to the decline of the bronze age. I was also unconvinced by the final chapter, which posits a 'murder on the Orient Express' explanation of multiple causes for civilizational collapse - invasions, earthquakes, environmental change. No major change is entirely monocausal, but I'm persuaded by arguments that climate change was decisive; it was the new variable that shifted the context for other occurrences, like the invasion of the Sea Peoples. And the relatively primitive, marginal societies of the bronze age were too precarious to adapt. I don't agree with the conclusion, but Cline's short book is an enjoyable guide to this remarkable period of history.


  1. Totally agree about the catalog of the exhibition, El Greco. A catalog must have individual entries for each work, which deepens in each work (Almost not discussed for lack of space, the dubious attribution of Lady with a Fur). It is what remains of the exhibition. I am afraid this catalog model, allows smaller, more popular for any public and especially profitable for the organizers books. In the Prado some recent catalogs have lacked individual entries before required in a book that should be reference.

  2. From September to December, can be seen in Toledo, the exhibition "El Greco: Art and Crafts". This exhibition will show works by El Greco and variations together with replicas made ​​with the participation of artists of his workshop. I guess it will be both more educational and scholarly. The Greek of Toledo has been a blockbuster, with a full house every day (amazing to see together masterpieces that never meet, but overwhelming by the large number of people)

    1. Thank you - yes, that sounds more promising. I was fortunate to go to Toledo when there was no big exhibition on, and had it to myself. I might make the effort to go to the smaller shows, but I hate crowded blockbusters too much to see the current exhibition.