Essential Art: The History of Western Art

This book infringes Henry’s first rule of art books, namely, Will you please make them big enough that we can see the **** illustrations?!

However, rules are made to be broken or, at the very least, if you’re going to break them you’d better have a pretty good reason and, in spite of an initial reservation, this has much to recommend it.

First up, you’re not going to get quite such a comprehensive and copiously illustrated history of art for £12.99 anywhere else. It’s gobsmackingly good value for money and that alone has to silence any cavil; you simply can’t fail to get your money’s worth from it one way or another.

Use this as a desk reference and you’ll quickly get annoyed with it. It’s a fat little thing and you’re either going to have to break the spine or hurt your hands getting at the inside edges of the pages. This is not a book to set open on your knee and read from cover to cover, but I’d contend this is not its purpose. Although it’s billed as a paperback, in fact it has a semi-rigid cover that takes quite happily to being bent around a bit and isn’t going to get dog-eared in your pocket. This is where it starts to shine. Take it out with you on a gallery trip or on holiday and, suddenly, you’ve got a complete reference work that, in any other form, would tip you heavily into excess baggage. If you’re really into the history of art, then you’ll probably have an extensive library and, even then, this will complement it perfectly. If you’re more of a dilettante, then it might be just enough on its own. It has its limitations, of course, but they’re never ones you can’t live with.

The book’s 500 pages are divided historically from early and pre-history to post 1945 and pretty much follow the major schools and developments. Most general histories put all of modern art into one section, but that’s to be expected if they do the same with the Renaissance, frankly, and it does have the advantage of not getting into any currently-running controversies. Playing it safe is a quality to admire in a general book! Each section is colour-coded at the page edges and starts with a timeline, moving on to specific schools and artists, allowing the reader to focus in quickly. If you’re standing in a museum or a gallery, you don’t have to fumble around for long to get to the relevant pages.

The word “essential” is nowadays used to mean something you can’t be without, but its original sense was of getting to the heart of the matter. This little book fulfils both.

Herbert Press 2007

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