The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting || Norbert Wolf

A very long time ago, a remainder dealer managed to convince me that a book he was flogging called Florentine Art Treasures would be a perfect fit for my market. It was a hasty paste-up job, not very well reproduced, but it was large format and did contain a lot of illustrations for the relatively modest sum he was charging. In my defence I was young, rather naïve and a bit of a sitting duck. No, we didn’t manage to sell more than a small handful.

Some years later, reminiscing with another bookseller, we started talking about that dealer and my friend asked, “Did he try to sell you Florentine Art Treasures?” I admitted the truth. The story was, apparently, that the dealer used to drive around London with a box of the cursed things in the boot of his Rolls Royce (yes, it’s possible to make money out of bookselling, but you have to be sharp as a razor) on the off-chance that someone would run into him and he could offload a couple of dozen onto the insurance.

All of which preamble is a way of saying that large books of art treasures and I have a chequered history and that my view of them may be just a touch jaundiced.

This is a big book – I mean, really big. If you want your own private art gallery on your coffee table (it’s not something to sit with in your lap for long), this will give you one of the best collections of Lowlands art it’s possible to have. No more peering into tight spines or at really-too-small reproductions, the illustrations here are as near to being in a gallery as you’re going to get. There is also a good narrative of the history of the times and critical analysis of schools and artists. Rather handily, several of the major works are set alongside comparison pieces by other artists that treat the same subject or use similar compositions.

Excellent though this is, the reproduction does seem a trifle soft in places and you might find yourself struggling to see some of the detail. This doesn’t impose, though, and may be something you only really notice when you start looking really closely. It’s a shame, but sometimes publishers are restricted by the quality of the photographs they can get (high-resolution scanning is not generally available for priceless paintings in public collections). For all that, if I was going to part with a whisker under £100 for a book, I might expect it to be the acme of perfection.

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