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A choice of art books

Had I not been sent this year’s art books to review, the one I would most have liked to receive as a present would be Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill edited by Michael Snodin (Yale, £40).

2 December 2009

12:00 AM

2 December 2009

12:00 AM

Had I not been sent this year’s art books to review, the one I would most have liked to receive as a present would be Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill edited by Michael Snodin (Yale, £40).

Had I not been sent this year’s art books to review, the one I would most have liked to receive as a present would be Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill edited by Michael Snodin (Yale, £40). J. H. Plumb — the historian who achieved the unusual distinction of being shouted out as a wrong answer by a schoolboy in Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If…. — dismissed the creator of this delectable Gothick meringue of a house as ‘incurably mannered and irrelevant’. Earlier, in a passage oddly not quoted in this book, Lord Macaulay had put the boot into Walpole still more effectively: 

After the labours of the print-shop and the auction room, he unbent his mind in the House of Commons. And, having indulged in the recreation of making laws and voting millions, he returned to more important pursuits, to researches after Queen Mary’s comb, Wolsey’s red hat, the pipe which Van Tromp smoked during his last sea-fight, and the spur which King William stuck into the flank of Sorrel.

In Snodin’s book that red hat is illustrated, along with so much of Walpole’s magpie hoard. But Macaulay and Plumb were grossly unfair to Walpole. The many volumes of his letters alone, devotedly edited by W. S. Lewis and others, are an essential resource for any historian of the 18th century. Gossipy, yes; but as a prime pinister’s son (sort of exotic flower of a cactus) he had an ‘in’ politically as well as culturally.

Snodin is a splendid cicerone to the house and the collection. He gives us Walpole the man as well as the connoisseur, including an assessment of his sexuality. (Walpole was clearly besotted with his cousin, General Henry Seymour Conway, though whether the two actually had sex, as William Guthrie alleged in a scurrilous tract of 1764, is open to doubt.) I cannot over-emphasise how admirable this book is, both as a read and as an eye-feast. I do not think another book on the subject will ever be needed.

The most festive of the new art books is Star Pieces: The Enduring Beauty of Spectacular Furniture by David Linley, Charles Cator and Helen Chislett (Thames & Hudson, £40). I happen to think Lord Linley the best living designer. I possess only one artefact of his, a sycamore key-ring holder (it has not come to bits in ten years); but every time I walk past — sometimes into — his shop in Albemarle Street, I marvel not just at the quality of the individual pieces, but at the harmony between them — table, cushion, cigar box, glass vase.

Now he and his co-authors are presenting us with a visual anthology of furniture — grand in both the sense of impressive and the north-country use of that word (pronounced ‘grund’), meaning ‘jolly good’.

It is an eclectic mix: on facing pages we find a Louis XV ormolu mounted marquetry table by the legendary ébéniste BVRB (Bernard II van Risenburgh) and a Charles and Ray Eames prototype chair of 1948 of arresting simplicity: it’s like a large white palette that has been heated and bent to fit bums.

Some extreme quaintnesses are admitted, such as the ‘Ear Chair’ (2002) by Studio Makkwik & Bey — but then, over-the- topness and eccentricity are part of the grand manner, a sort of see-how-far-you-can-go-without-bursting. (Think Dame Edith Sitwell, Salvador Dali, Sir Roy Strong.) The Ear Chair is not my taste but I will defend to the death your right to sit in it. In this book, colour is as significant as form: glorious splurges of heliotrope, indigo and gold. No one will take to everything illustrated; but there is no rampaging kitsch. Alfred Hitchcock put himself in his films, but David Linley modestly omits what would surely have qualified for inclusion: his magnificent ‘Mozart Bureau’, illustrated in the June 2006 issue of Apollo magazine.

Understanding Art Objects: Thinking Through the Eye edited by Tony Godfrey (Lund Humphries, £25) would be a welcome gift for any connoisseur, especially one who is not a narrow specialist. It is a symposium by experts on topics ranging from ‘The Countess of Dysart’s Backstools’ to ‘The Eroticised Victorian Child’. Several of the contributors teach at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, so we expect, and get, a link between aesthetics and economics — above all, in the top-class essay by Catherine Morel on the shop sign that Antoine Watteau painted for the rather dodgy art dealer Edmé-François Gersaint. In 1760 the work was sold to that discriminating collector Frederick the Great (among the ‘enlightened despots’, only Catherine the Great of Russia rivalled him, by acquiring Sir Robert Walpole’s collection); and today it can still be viewed where Frederick viewed it, in the Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin.

In 1884, Toulouse-Lautrec painted a ‘Puvis Parodie’ — a wicked send-up of the symbolist painter Puvis de Chavannes — a man 40 years his senior. It showed a row of pubescent nudes in the manner of ‘Pubis’ (as he was inevitably nicknamed). Lautrec represented himself with his back to the figures, apparently urinating. I am afraid I was reminded of that picture by a magnificently produced book, Henry Darger by Klaus Biesenbach (Prestel, £50). I must admit I had never heard of Darger, an American painter born in 1892. His line is Puvis-like nymphets. Bisenbach’s introduction is headed ‘American Innocence’; and I might get into the sort of trouble that Graham Greene got into with his remarks about Shirley Temple that caused Night and Day magazine to fold, if I suggested that these dainty, simpering, often naked figures are anything other than innocent. Did Darger have a Lolita complex? Whether he did or not, the scenes are saccharine, the watercolours anaemic.

If you want to see the same sort of childhood scenes — genuine innocence, I’d say — rendered with masterful crispness and truth, get a book on the Swedish artist Carl Larsson — as much older than Darger as Puvis was older than Lautrec.

Do you have a friend or relation who likes what used to be called ‘modern art’? A splendiferous present would be Henri Matisse JAZZ, with an introduction by Katrin Wiethege (Prestel, £45). It explodes with joie-de-vivre, being a facsimile of his book of coloured paper cut-outs first published in 1947. If, as Walter Pater suggested, all art aspires towards the condition of music, Matisse’s JAZZ comes as near as dammit. Wiethege’s introduction is illuminating — though as it comes at the end of the book, it’s less of an intro than an exit. She writes that the cut-outs ‘may seem to be as simple and spontaneous as child’s play’. To me, they seem just that.

Lived in London: Blue Plaques and the Stories Behind Them edited by Emily Cole (Yale, £40), only just scrapes under the limbo bar as an art book — partly by dint of the artists whose houses, plaques and sometimes paintings are included, and partly by the aesthetics of the plaques themselves. By the time you have finished reading it, you will have absorbed all you could possibly want to know (and perhaps a little more) about how the plaques were designed and made. It is a scholarly job.

The idea of plaques was mooted in Parliament in 1863 by a man called William Ewart. At first they were called ‘memorial tablets’, which sound like something you might take for Alzheimer’s. In 1866 the [Royal] Society of Arts set up a committee which decided that the first plaques should be for Lord Nelson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Benjamin Franklin and Lord Byron.

Stephen Fry contributes a typically spirituel foreword. Not everyone will share his ima
ginative empathy:

Go to Dean Street in Soho and you will see Karl Marx letting himself out of his rooms, crossing into Frith Street where he nods to the essayist William Hazlitt (who in fact died when Marx was 12 years old) before finding himself importuned by a disordered John Logie Baird, who needs money for his new invention, television . . .

But many will agree with Fry that the blue plaques ‘make a traffic jam endurable’.

Other books on the plaques have put them in alphabetical order. This one, more sensibly, groups then in geographical areas of London — Mayfair, Hampstead, South Kensington and so on. Coe varies the diet very nicely, sometimes showing us the buildings in which celebs lived, sometimes the plaques, and occasionally portraits of the celebs.

It is good to find the portrait of William De Morgan, holding one of the lustre vases he potted. The image was painted by his wife, Evelyn De Morgan. She tended to sign with the initials of her maiden name — ‘EP’ for Evelyn Pickering. (Unscrupulous art dealers alter them to ‘EBJ’ — for Sir Edward Burne-Jones, who commands much higher prices than Evelyn and will probably command even higher ones when Fiona MacCarthy’s eagerly awaited biography of him appears).

In later life De Morgan swapped potting for writing novels: as he put it, he exchanged ‘pots for plots, tiles for tales’. The novels sold fantastically well; they are now virtually forgotten, but his pots are collectors’ grails. He was a son of the eminent mathematician Augustus De Morgan, an anagram of whose name is GREAT GUN, DO US A SUM. Does he rank a blue plaque, I wonder?

Before opening my review copy of Laura Cumming’s A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (Harper Press, £30), I thought: ‘Whose self-portraits would I include if compiling a book with that title?’ The first three I came up with were J. M. W. Turner, Samuel Palmer and the young G. F. Watts. (Before he began painting those ghastly allegories, Watts bid fair to be one of the great masters of the 19th century.) I was flabbergasted to find that Laura Cumming had included none of those three — no illustrations, not even a glancing mention. When Swinburne’s companion, Theodore Watts, changed his name to Watts-Dunton, Whistler sent him a bitchy telegram: ‘Theodore, what’s Dunton?’ If we still had telegrams (wish we had) I might send Cumming one: ‘Laura, Watts missing?’

She has still written a lovely book, and in her defence, there have been other books on self-portraiture in which T, P and W did figure — perhaps she wanted to refresh us with a new set of images. Dürer, Rembrandt and Velasquez rightly get chapters to themselves.Where Cumming scores particularly highly is that she has a literary as well as art- historical background. She has been art critic of The Observer since 1999, but was formerly literary editor of the late lamented Listener. So she is able to begin her book with a clever and reader-grabbing disquisition based on Dickens’s remark that he lived in perpetual dread of an image of Shakespeare being discovered that ‘might disturb his life’s fine mastery’.

For £50 you can buy what may not be the last word on art deco, but is certainly the most luscious, lavish book ever to appear on the subject: Art Deco Complete by Alastair Duncan (Thames & Hudson). It’s a large sum to fork out — one could buy quite a respectable example of the style for that — but I think it is worth it. I met Duncan in the 1980s when I was a columnist on the Los Angeles Times and he had just written a (very good) book on American deco. He struck me as amiable and knowledgeable. In 1999 Duncan, who had been an officer of Christie’s, New York, came to grief. He was found guilty of conspiring with a grave-robber and antique dealer and receiving a 9ft- tall Tiffany stained-glass window stolen from Salem Fields Mausoleum, New York, which was sold to a Japanese collector for a hefty profit. On 9 March 2000 he was sentenced to 27 months in a Federal gaol.

Some may feel that this ropey past makes anything Duncan has to say suspect; but I do not. He has, as they say, paid his debt to society. What I specially like about his book — quite apart from its feast of top-notch illustrations — is that his deco is a broad church. He finally puts to rest all the old squabbles between those who think the style (which they usually pronounce ‘ar dayco’, à la française) belonged only to the 1920s; those who insist on calling the Thirties manner ‘streamline moderne’ or ‘modernist’; those who do not think it suddenly fizzled out in 1930 with a ‘Now you see it; now you don’t’; those (particularly in the posh auction houses) who are only interested in high quality deco — because it sells for high prices; and those who see it as ‘the last of the total styles’, affecting everything, whether patrician or demotic, from liners and hotels to lamp-posts and powder compacts.

It has to be said that you won’t find much demotic deco in Duncan’s book. He was for many years, after all, a Christie’s expert. But then again, if you are going to pay £50 for a book, you may not want to be swamped by chromium-plated ashtrays and Bakelite bangles. And how glorious some of his prize exhibits are — the inlaid furniture of Ruhlmann; the silver of Puiforcat; the jewellery of Templier; the book-bindings by Rose Adler and Paul Bonet. The one artist who manufactured for the masses who does get a look-in is Clarice Cliff, but of course her ceramics fetch high prices today, as any viewer of The Antiques Roadshow or Flog It! knows.

At the end of the book there is something very useful for collectors: an ‘A-Z of Designers, Artists and Manufacturers’, voluptuously illustrated throughout. If it weren’t unhygienic, I’d call this a book to drool over. Drool, Britannia!

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