Watercolour Nature Unleashed || Jane Betteridge

This is a revised and updated edition of Jane’s Dynamic Watercolours, which appeared in 2019. The blurbs adds that, as well as being revised, the book is “revitalised” although, as I don’t have access to the original, I can’t say what that entails. You can read the original review here.

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This Is Tomorrow || Michael Bird

Now that we’re firmly established in the Twenty-First Century, its predecessor has become the subject of history and a one to be evaluated from that perspective. What was once achingly hip, original, never seen before, ground-breaking, can be seen as part of an organic development as groups coalesce then fracture, movements build and hand their legacies on to those who inherit them as well as those who reject them in their entirety.

This is the story, told almost as an adventure, of how art and society developed in what the blurb tells us was an unprecedented pace of change (I think we could discuss that). It is certainly true that two World Wars and scientific development that took us from primitive motor cars to super-computers left a world unrecognisable from either of its bookends.

To view a whole century, especially one as dynamic as Michael Bird presents it, is a formidable task and one which requires careful marshalling of material and thesis. To do that in less than 400 pages presents plenty of opportunities not just for pitfalls, but spectacular pratfalls. To read it is almost to go to the circus just to see the wire-walker hit the arena floor and gasp as they manage not to.

The title, neatly, is taken from a Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition of 1956. It’s a significant date, because the country is just emerging from post-war austerity and youthful talent, while it may remember the war, was not an active participant. The mood of the times was optimistic. It was time to rebuild, but also to find new ways and approaches, we were in a hurry, time was of the essence and the old could be – and frequently was – discarded.

But there was also a foundation. The early years of the century had seen a change of regime. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria had gone into mourning and the whole country had to follow; life was stifled. Then, just as the century turned, Edward VII ascended the throne and the lights were turned on. And, yes, I am going to say that, in the words of Edward Grey, they were turned off again thirteen years later. From 1920 to 1939, there was another renaissance as art and architecture rejected ornamentation and simplification became the order of the day. Much of that movement, as well as many of its proponents, did not survive the next war and before you know it, another batch of young British artists (they weren’t YBAs yet) had come onto the scene. And it was a scene, this was art that shouted, demonstrated and told its parents they didn’t have a clue. The parents, as parents do, looked on with a mixture of bemusement and toleration – well, mostly.

This is not a book peppered with illustrations, and there’s hardly any colour, but that doesn’t detract one jot from its appeal. This is a story that unrolls the narrative of a whole century and Michael conjures up in words all the pictures you’ll need. It’s a heck of a journey.

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The Unstoppable Artist || Barbara L McCulloch

The premise behind this is that you can make your art attractive and irresistible to viewers. The words “spiritual” and “empower” appear in the cover blurb.

It’s fair to assume, therefore, that this is a journey through the mind as much as a lesson in practical art. Get in touch with your inner self, discover your creative spirit and then channel it into projects that express what we might refer to as your inner soul. Yes, it’s very New Age and, honestly, something I struggle with. The opening section, for example, is mostly words and, if this fails to connect, you’d probably give up. That’s fair enough – not everything is for everyone, but you might think differently and that this is the best and most empowering thing you’ve read. If so, Barbara certainly has much to tell you.

The second half of the book is devoted to the projects the first half promised and this is where things get practical. It is also, unfortunately, where the book gets hard to use. There’s nothing wrong with the instruction, which is clear and well laid out, but there is a lack of breaks in the design to indicate where one section ends and the next begins. That may be the idea – that this is a journey that extends out in front of you in a continuous thread, but I think the general reader, used to more conventional layouts, will have trouble following. I’m also a bit concerned by the colour reproduction, which looks out of balance – if these are the irresistible creations the blurb promises, something has gone wrong, maybe with the magenta. Where the balances are right, you can see that Barbara is actually a very capable artist and her line work in a variety of drawing media is superb.

All-in-all, I feel a bit underwhelmed, but that this has considerable promise that’s let down by the lack of a designer and by the method of reproduction. For once, though, in a book that has a self-published feel, I don’t so much get the sense of the lack of an editor.

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The Legend of King Arthur – a Pre-Raphaelite Love Story || Alison Smith et al

The Arthurian story is the mythological history of Britain in which a hero triumphs and brings pride and greatness to the nation. Does that sound familiar? Of course it does and almost every age has reinvented the tales for its own time. We all long for that period when our country was great and there is an academic study to be conducted into Golden Ages and how close they are to the current level of decay. It should also be said that all countries and communities have similar longings.

The earliest versions of the Arthurian legend are preserved in Welsh tales, but the story is older. The Celtic tribes of Britain were driven westwards by invasions, most notably the Roman one and, while the main corpus of Arthurian myths is in Wales, elements are to be found in Cornwall (especially the King Mark tales) and Cumbria (inheriting the legend of Govan the Smith who probably became Sir Gawain).

We should say at the outset that there really was a King Arthur. Well, not a King as such, and certainly not of Britain. The most likely figure would be a local ruler, possibly in East Anglia, but also possibly a powerful warrior (the name means The Bear). In the Welsh tales, his companions are Cei (Sir Kay) and Bedwyr (Sir Bedevere). This figure really did have a round table because he lived in a roundhouse, round whose central fire he and his most trusted companions would have sat. He also quite probably got his sword from a stone because it was bronze and therefore cast. It is not impossible to imagine a ceremony around the breaking of the mould and the weapon’s naming by its rightful owner, who would be the only person who could weald it (it being made to measure). Oh and, this being the Bronze Age, it really would have been thrown into a lake, quite possibly by the aforesaid Bedwyr, when Arthur died. There is plenty of archaeological evidence of bronze weapons returned to water . Their reception by the spirit, or lady, of the lake is perfectly credible in terms of the myth.

The full legend of Arthur came to be compiled around the Eleventh Century, probably in response to the Norman invasion. Such a traumatic time needed a heroic legend in response and what is known as the Roman de Brut, or just Brut, is a manuscript attributed simply to Layamon (Layman). It was basically sedition, but the Normans took it sufficiently seriously to pen an answer by Robert Wace, the only difference being that, in the French version, far from returning one day to save his land, Arthur is definitely dead and not coming back, ever.

As a result, the story came to the attention of the French romance writers, such as Chrétien de Troyes, who already had experience with the Charlemagne stories. Arthur gave them new material and their own figure of Lancelot was quickly added to the corpus.

The full story as we know it was assembled by Thomas Malory in the Fifteenth Century and is pretty much the only work of literature to come out of that time, which was troubled by the massive civil war that was the Wars of the Roses. For several hundred years, only the final section, the Morte, was known from the edition printed by William Caxton. It was not until 1934 that the full manuscript was discovered in the library of Winchester College.

All of which massive preamble brings us to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, for which such a romance was tailor-made. Absorbing Malory, the French romances and Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, they set to work with a passion. This really rather magnificent book treats not just of the PRB approach, but also examines the Arthurian myth itself, explaining its many ins and outs and placing it in both geographical and historical context. The interpretations are important because the legend itself is almost less important than what it tells us about the ages that adopted it (in one of the French versions of the Mort, Arthur actually goes to Rome and defeats the Romans!).

Understanding their relationship to the Arthurian story is therefore key to understanding the Pre-Raphaelites themselves and this book is magnificently enlightening in this respect. There are many illustrations, both of well- and lesser-known works and also photographs of locations. Although the reproduction is not perhaps quite up to the quality one has come to expect from Sansom, it is perfectly adequate and it is hard to quibble about just how much you get for a really rather modest outlay.

This is definitely an excellent appraisal of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a whole through an aspect that is central to understanding them, but also manages to be a really rather good explanation of the Arthurian cycle itself.

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The Artist’s Studio || James Hall

Art history is filled with accounts of the lives, working practices, trials and tribulations of artists as well as their working methods (of course) and, sometimes, business practices. What has been missing, however, is a consideration of their workplaces – how these were arranged, how they developed and their influence – perceived and actual – on the work produced.

This may sound esoteric, perhaps even a niche looking for a statue, but think of today’s concentration on ergonomics and, with lockdowns and working from home, how to set up a workspace that is practical, congenial and stress-limiting.

Working alone, an artist needs relatively little – a space to themselves, materials and light. Even that, though, in early times was hard to come by, and personal space a luxury. However, as art became a business, space needed to be set aside to receive and impress clients; assistants required training. As early as the Fourteenth Century, Cennino Cennini was laying out how long an apprentice should spend working with a stylus before picking up a brush, how many times a day an artist should eat, the benefits of not rushing the grinding of pigments and the value of having a massage the day before starting an important work.

All this is about a lot more than just spaces and exemplifies the huge scope of James Hall’s book. It is also about a lot more than simply the processes of creating art and is, in reality, a comprehensive social history centred on art, from which it radiates out through science, architecture and politics. The availability, use and control of light, for instance, enables the development of the Old Master works as the environments in which they were created came to be a thing to be controlled rather than battled – because of, rather than in spite of.

The word “atelier” is used a lot in art history and describes what are effectively business premises with large teams working on commissions, the Great Man’s involvements depending entirely on the price paid. Despite this, “studio of” works can be of considerable quality and are not always easy to attribute away from the hand of the named artist themselves. Quality control was an important element of the system.

And then, of course, there’s plein air work, where the elements of the studio have to be recreated outdoors – Hall references Claude Monet’s boat that combined perhaps the best of both worlds.

This is a comprehensive account of much more than the practice of art and demonstrates how artists have influenced, as well as been affected by, their working spaces from the earliest time.

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The Art of Pyrography || Cherry Ferris

I would add this to my ever-lengthening list of 2022’s innovations, but I’m pretty sure pyrography has been written about before, albeit more as a craft, maybe a curiosity, than as art. This is the first book to cross my desk, anyway. It’s also worthy of note that this appears in Search Press’s The Innovative Artist series, which betokens both a broad coverage and a move of the technique into something more mainstream.

As you might expect, this is not a beginner’s guide, nor should it be. I think we can accept that those exist and that this is as much a showcase for an experienced practitioner as it is a book of instruction. That said, there’s plenty of technical analysis to get your teeth into here. Someone wanting to pursue this as art will find a great deal to occupy and challenge them and the results are simply stunning. The blurb announces that it’s suitable for beginners too, but they always say that. Yes, Cherry does explain the fundamental techniques as well as what equipment you need and how to use it, but I think I’d start with something a lot more basic and with rather more simplified exercises. You aren’t going to achieve the sort of detailed, coloured work that Cherry demonstrates without a very thorough grounding first and, without belittling the fundamental work done here, I don’t think this is the book for it. This is basic techniques for the more experienced worker who mainly wants to make sure they’re on the right track and learn from a master.

Small rant over, this is an astonishing book that will open your eyes to work you probably didn’t think possible. The detail and subtlety of shade and colouring that Cherry achieves is remarkable and looks more like painting or drawing. There’s much to learn and this is a book you’re going to want to spend a lot of time with – I’d go so far as to say that, if you price a book by the number of hours spend between its covers, this is definitely well below minimum wage.

Will you ever manage to achieve the same results as Cherry? Well, it wouldn’t be for want of trying, on your part or hers.

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Suzanne Cooper – paintings under the spare-room bed || Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Jenny Uglow & Andrew Stewart

This, as the title implies, is a story of rediscovery. Glance through the excellent and varied selection of illustrations here and the first thing that strikes you is naivety, perhaps a hint of Alfred Wallis, although maybe a bit of Edward Bawden too. Comparisons are dangerous things, of course, because they imply derivation, maybe a lack of true innovation. After all, Suzanne Cooper was – until this book appeared – pretty much forgotten. Not entirely, though, as her work turns out to have been held in galleries as far apart as Manchester and New Zealand.

Suzanne was born in that non-hotbed of art, Frinton-on-Sea and, although she later moved to Much Hadham and would say hello to Henry Moore if she met him, was never a part of his circle. That implies a somewhat hermit-like artistic existence and bolsters the idea of a natural savant working apart from any mainstream. That’s quite far from the truth, as Suzanne learnt her craft at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art and was tutored by its founder, the Scottish wood engraver Iain Macnab. Her work was quite highly regarded. That naivety is actually a deliberate point of view and, suddenly, it is possible to see experiments in perspective that pre-date the work of David Hockney.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is a writer who brings vivacity to subjects as varied as the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra and the Italian Fascist Gabriele d’Annunzio. She is also Suzanne Cooper’s daughter-in-law, so this is a personal quest. In her introductory essay, Suzanne springs immediately to life and the reader is hooked. We can’t not want to know more about this enigmatic footnote to art history.

So, what happened? Well, the Second World War. The Grosvenor School closed, Suzanne became a volunteer nurse and then a mother. She continued to draw, but the main thread had been broken and was never really re-connected.

As well as paintings, there are also plenty of wood engravings (the Macnab influence) that show both a sense of style and a confidence in the medium and considerable originality – there’s a distinct sense of their being not quite typical of the usual aesthetics, as exemplified in Carol Singers 1 & 2, where something enigmatic and maybe disturbing is going on – the wryness of the quiet observer is present in a lot of Suzanne’s work.

As well as Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s biographical reminiscence (small sidebar: I was at university with her), Jenny Uglow contributes an account of the Grosvenor School and what developed from it. Andrew Stewart adds a commentary on the artworks.

This is a thorough, personal and entertaining account of the life of a largely forgotten artist who is worthy of resurrection (not all are) that is enhanced to no small degree by the extent and quality of the production and illustrations.

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Stained Glass || Sophie D’Souza

So, the year of surprises continues. This is not really my area, so it’s entirely possible I’ve missed something. However, this is the first book on the practical aspects of stained glass that I’ve seen in a very long time and the first to be fully illustrated in colour.

The first thing to say is that this isn’t really a subject you can dabble in and also probably not something you can learn exclusively from books. The amount of equipment needed is considerable and very specialist. There are also processes involved for which safety is a major consideration. That said, if you’re working with a tutor, to have something you can go to between lessons for extension, revision and clarification would be useful and this should fit the brief well.

I’m not in a position to judge the quality of the instruction here, but it looks sound and the resulting work that’s illustrated is both varied and competent. Above all, it’s thorough and well-structured and moves from basic techniques and establishing a workshop right through to quoting for professional work. There’s a lot to read, of course, but the illustrations are nicely integrated with the text so that you can see what is being described as you go along. Although this is very much not a visual book with extended captions, such visual notes add considerably to the comprehensibility of the text and the balance is well thought-out.

Normally, I like to work from a printed copy but, this being peripheral to what I write about, I’ve decided to accept a digital edition. Here, the reproduction looks fine and, although I can’t comment on the paper (which makes a considerable difference to how well images show up), the pictures are sharp and the colour looks right.

Allowing for the constraints I’ve already mentioned, I’d say this is an excellent introduction and companion to work in stained glass that will be fully satisfying and not one to leave you wanting more.

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Love Lucian || David Dawson & Martin Gayford

I am generally underwhelmed by collections of artists’ letters. Although they promise a doorway into the innermost thoughts of a creative genius, they are often just as filled with mundanity as those of anyone else. They can also be repetitive and, once you’ve grasped the chief of the bon mots, you really don’t have the appetite to read them again and again. Yes, I’m aware that, for the serious researcher, they can often add useful information to the chronology – the artist was working on this major painting at least two weeks before anyone thought, which changes everything.

This, however, is a different kettle of the proverbial fish. You’ll spot it immediately – the book is packed with illustrations, which are, indeed, its mainstay and the point at which you’ll probably start. Not for this the occasional image that simply gives a sense of the handwriting and (mark this) the paper used. Lucian Freud was clearly a visual thinker, perhaps even more than one could deduce from the fact that he was an artist of formidable ability. Quite simply, everything here is a work of art in its own right and intended to be so. The handwriting is quite childish and the spelling more than a little random. Although there is a waspish mind at work that is perfectly capable of expressing itself sharply and concisely, Lucian is not a wordsmith, at least certainly not at length. Amen, one might add, to that.

Because these are not reflections on the creative process, and far less an artist’s manifesto, the content is entirely personal. Back, you would think, to my original thesis, they’ll add nothing to our understanding of the artist’s work. All that is true, but artists are also people and we want to know at least something of their mundane life and relationships and you have it here in spades. Brevity comes once again to the rescue and the lack of prolixity (some visual thinkers don’t half go on once they get a pen in their hand) makes for a lively and entertaining read.

So, this is an account, partly in his own words and partly with a sound biographical framework, of Lucian Freud’s life below the artistic surface and of his relationships. It fills him out as a person perhaps more than anything else could and also more than we get for almost any other figure. Well done all round.

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James Gillray || Tim Clayton

Although the claim of this book’s blurb that he invented political satire is perhaps an exaggeration, James Gillray was certainly the most prominent caricaturist in an age where the genre grew up and flourished.

There are many reasons why such a lack of respect for authority should emerge in the late Eighteenth Century. The republican experiment under Oliver Cromwell some hundred years previously had shown that monarchs were not indispensable, and absolute power, even after the Restoration, was waning. The Hanoverian Georges seemed, and frequently were, alien. Finally, the Regency became a period of loose rules and morals that emboldened what we may call the chattering classes. Yes, that is a very simplified account, but this is a book review, not a history and Tim Clayton’s thorough and admirable account of the life and work of a major figure in the creative life of the age will fill in all the gaps for you.

Gillray was prolific, acerbic and precise in his targeted attacks, both on individuals, events and public mores. This is a lavish account of his life and work that is set firmly in its historical context. Caricature in the Eighteenth Century was an elaborate affair. The simple line of modern cartooning had not developed, neither had the simple one-line caption. Every illustration rewards detailed examination and more than a superficial understanding of its context. In modern times, the work of Martin Rowson and Chris Riddell offer something of a parallel, with minor figures, repeating motifs and sometimes, too, in-jokes.

Many of Gillray’s works remain famous today, such as The Plumb-pudding in danger, which has the Emperor Napoleon and Pitt the Younger carving up the globe and is an excellent example of Gillray’s incisive ability to reduce complex politics to simple motifs. There are many more works, however, which have faded into obscurity as the individuals and events have fallen away from general memory. Tim Clayton includes many of these as part of the broad canon of Gillray’s work. This is a complete and, indeed, beautifully produced account of the work of man who, although by no means forgotten, deserves his time in the spotlight once more.

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