The heaviest book on my shelves is Hugh Honour & John Fleming’s A World History of Art. I have just put its 960 pages on the kitchen scales: 8lbs 4oz – the weight of a bonny newborn.
If I cradle my copy tenderly today it is because Hugh Honour died last Friday 20 May at the age of 88. A World History of Art is the most famous, certainly the biggest, of his many books. At sixteen, after GCSE exams, my sixth-form history of art teacher sent me away with a copy. I was not to come back in September unless I’d read it. The book is the scaffolding around which I have built everything I have learnt since of art history.
A World History of Art is not like Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art. Gombrich, splendid in his own way, demands sustained, continuous reading from Lascaux to Lucian Freud. Honour and Fleming arrange their book like a great Renaissance banquet – imagine Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana. They give you not just the sweep of world art history but mini essays, timelines and diversions: Roman luxury, Lady Murasaki on calligraphy, the cult of the carts at Chartres, a Shaman’s mask. Art history is laid out for you on silver salvers and you may have a slice of the Renaissance, a nibble at the Mughal Court, a taste of Captain Cook and the Pacific.
And it is truly a world history of art. Gombrich, you feel, had to be elbowed to remind him that the West hadn’t the monopoly.
Hugh Honour, born in Eastbourne on 26 September 1927, went to the King’s School, Canterbury, then Cambridge to study English. There he met John Fleming, lifelong companion and collaborator. There was a stint at the British Museum Print Room, then La Spezia, Florence and Venice.