Books do Furnish a Painting || Jamie Camplin & Maria Ranauro

Once you start looking, books are all over paintings. Particularly in portraits, they can be used to provide the sitter with something to do with their hands, suggest serious study or devotion. They can even suggest leisure – nothing says indolence quite like a discarded volume. The more you think about it, the more intriguing the thesis becomes, which I suspect is how this rather delightful book came about.

In the wrong hands, this could easily have become just another tenuous excuse to draw together a collection of paintings from Albrecht Dürer to Stanley Spencer and claim connections that were never there, either on canvas or in the artist’s mind. Books, however, are different and provide not so much a point of focus for the painting as for the subject – the works here are almost exclusively figurative and the important element is the interaction of the sitter with the tome.

The blurb tells me that the first question asked is “what is a book?” I’m relieved to report that this is not a chapter heading and, although there is a brief history of printing, the esoteric debate over whether manuscripts (never mind scrolls) carry more weight than printing is not one that will detain us. I checked that there is no index entry for “incunabula”, a sure sign that any author (unless they’re discussing early printed works, of course) is taking themselves too seriously.

What we do get, though, is ten pages devoted to “who invented the artist?”, a question I’d never really considered before. I visited the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum, so I’m tempted to say that they probably invented themselves. However, the idea of The Artist as cultural icon might be attributed to Vasari, and artists do certainly tend to put themselves forward a lot more than authors. Maybe I’m just cynical (and a writer…)

I’m being unfair. This is well done, scholarly in a way that’s not overwhelming and a lot of fun. The authors are a former Editorial and Managing Director of Thames & Hudson (why, yes, they have published this) and an art historian who has worked at the National Gallery (and is now a senior picture researcher at – you guessed it – Thames & Hudson).

Would this have seen the light of day without those connections? I rather doubt it. The proposal would have been a hard sell, but it was worthwhile. The result is not, as it could so easily have been, a vanity project the publisher simply couldn’t turn down, but a scenic wander through what turns out to be rather more than a byway of art history.

Click the picture to view on Amazon

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