Archive for category Publisher: Lund Humphries

America Collects Eighteenth Century French Painting

When Americans collect, they really collect! It’s generally known that Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane is based on the life of William Randolph Hearst and that Kane’s massive and obsessive acquisition of European artefacts reflected both that of his original and of many contemporaries. This, then, is not a slim volume of dilettante collections, but a blockbuster of a book with 232 top-quality illustrations and all the academic research and authority that the Washington National Gallery of Art can bring to the feast.

The tale begins in 1815, when Joseph Bonaparte (Napoleon’s brother) arrives from across the Atlantic with an impressive collection of the Eighteenth Century art of his country. This kick-started fashion and mansions were furnished with works by artists such as Boucher and Fragonard. In modern times, the neoclassicism of David and others has been added to the mix and the interest continues.

This book accompanies an exhibition which brings together sixty-eight paintings by thirty-eight artists, having been gathered from no fewer than twenty-five states. It’s worth quoting those numbers just to give an idea of the extent of the collection and the distribution of the works across the country. Even then, it’s been selective. It should also be said that the book stands alone as a separate product and is a long way from being an exhibition catalogue that would benefit from a visit.

The book, with contributions from eleven different writers, doesn’t just list, reproduce and explain the works, even if that might have been enough. It also tells the story of the collectors, collections, museums and galleries that now house them. It talks about the art dealers who brought them to where they are and becomes, in the process, something of a social history, both in terms of the process of acquisition and the American fascination with the France of the period – with revolution, in a word.

The artistic scope of the book makes it worthwhile on its own, but the historical elements make it compelling reading. Yes, it’s a book about art, but it’s also about collecting, obsession and society and what that tells us about ourselves.

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The Diary of Mary Watts 1887 – 1904 || Desna Greenhow

Mary Watts was a leading designer of the Arts & Crafts movement and founder of the Compton Pottery, as well as the wife of the painter George Frederic Watts. While her husband was alive, she was also an assiduous diarist and recorded her thoughts both on art and on daily life with an artist who was at the height of his powers. There is a narrative to the entries that reflects Mary’s desire to make the most of what she felt was the most wonderful luck that had befallen her: basically, she worshipped Frederic.

The comparatively short period covered by the diaries is explained by the couple’s relative ages. Mary was 32 years Frederic’s junior. When they married in 1886, he was 69, she 36 and the 17 years cover the period from then until Frederic’s death in 1901.

Basing herself at Linnerslease, the house the couple built for themselves at Compton in the Surrey Hills, Mary was able to give full rein to her artistic talents. The diaries, begun at her husband’s suggestion, acted as a confidante where she was able to make the most of what she knew was the precious, but limited, time she would have with Frederic. Written in a tiny, almost illegible hand, there is no particular evidence that they were ever anything other than a personal memoir and they have remained unpublished until now. Desna Greenhow has rightly not chosen everything for this book, but concentrated on those passages that most illuminate Mary and Frederic’s story and the artistic, literary and political circles of the time. As a result, it becomes a social as well as a historical document that, while the style can be a little intense at times – “The sweet blessed air as we drove out was delicious … The blessing hand of the ceiling was over our heads in an instant” – her account of the life of an artist and musings on art and creativity hold the attention well.

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Rose Hilton || Ian Collins

Rose Hilton’s is a life of two halves, the first considerably shorter than the second. A promising student at Beckenham School of Art (later part of Ravensbourne College), she was accepted at the RCA with a full scholarship. As well as a concise, but factually full, account of her early chapel-based life, Ian Collins includes a selection of early work that shows not merely promise, but a precocious talent and a distinctly individual voice. It is rare that juvenilia sit well beside mature works, but Rose’s do to the extent that you have to double-check the dates.

And then it all ground to a halt in 1965 when she married Roger Hilton, a pioneer of abstract art and adopted member of the St Ives School, who was twenty years her senior. A demanding man, Hilton seems to have wanted more of a personal assistant than a wife and effectively forbade Rose to pursue her own career. This 10 year sabbatical ended in 1975 with Roger’s death, at which point Rose’s creativity took off like the proverbial rocket. Suppressed for so long, she had had time to consider what it was she wanted from art and to develop her own vision, which sprang out pretty much fully-formed.

Illustratively, the book is dominated by the later works as Rose comes to be regarded as one of the country’s greatest colourists. Now in her eighties she is, he says, “painting better than ever”. Rose is also referred to as a “free spirit”, which perhaps has echoes of the effectual confinement of her marriage and her reaction to it.

This is a full account of the life and work of a major figure in contemporary art.

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Outline: an autobiography || Paul Nash

Paul Nash’s autobiography occupied the last fifteen or so years of his life. Starting in 1930, it was still unfinished when he died suddenly in 1946. The problem, as he acknowledged, was that he struggled to get beyond the start of the First World War, the period up to then being, “another life, another world”.

Eventually published in 1949, the version that exists provides many insights into the life of an artist and the development of a very distinct vision. Many, perhaps even most, artists think visually and struggle to express themselves in words. Nash, however, writes coherently and elegantly and demonstrates considerable self-awareness. It is entirely possible that the events that stopped him in his tracks also promoted this; writers who deal with the same period are similarly introspective and the period has promoted much great and thoughtful literature.

The original publication included a selection of the letters Nash wrote to his wife Margaret from the Western Front and these provide further insights into his state of mind as well as his experience of war. A new element here, though, is Margaret Nash’s previously unpublished memoir of her husband, written in 1951. This goes a long way towards completing the story and filling in many gaps.

The whole is augmented by reproductions of some of Nash’s major works although, as the paper used is more suited to type than images, they serve more as aides-mémoire than actual milestones.

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Johnston & Gill – very British types || Mark Ovenden

I do like a nice bit of type and Edward Johnston and Eric Gill (the old goat!) are hard to beat. Both were proponents of an uncluttered style that was a departure from the fussy fonts that went before and it’s no accident that not only did they pave the way for the proliferation of architectural fonts around today, but that their own creations are still widely in use. London Underground uses a font designed for it by Johnston and the BBC’s logo is instantly recognisable not least because of the purity of Gill Sans. The index has lengthy entries for London Underground, London Transport and Frank Pick (“the test of the goodness of a thing is its fitness for use”), as it should.

Contemporaries, the two were friends and sometime collaborators and this entertaining and informative book recounts their personal stories as well as those behind the development of their letterforms.

Typography is not a static thing and refinements are a constant work in progress. To account for every detail would be incredibly dull, but Mark Ovenden manages to skip as little as possible while keeping the interest piqued. I don’t think you have to be a typomaniac to enjoy the book and there is plenty of personality as well as history here. Better still, there is a generous amount of illustrative material that is a veritable feast, as well as making immediate visual sense of the text.

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Art Business Today || Jos Hackforth-Jones & Iain Robertson

Subtitled 20 Key Topics, this is a symposium devoted to the business of the art business. The editors both hold senior positions at Sotheby’s Institute of Art and many of the contributors are involved with that body. This is, therefore, nothing if not authoritative. Subjects addressed include globalisation, ethics, emerging markets, authenticity, due diligence and artist/dealer/collector relationships.

Art business is a fact of life, although it has little, if anything, to do with the creative process. It would be nice to think that patronism fitted in here somewhere – that dealers could (would/should) develop relationships with collectors and, in turn, introduce them to emerging talent that could be nurtured, if not for its own sake, then as a possible investment. That happens, of course, but not at this level. Those involved here are the high rollers who want works that are guaranteed to at least hold their value and preferably increase immeasurably. Much of this was visible in the recent BBC documentary on the rival auction house, Christies.

Do you detect a note of jaded cynicism here? You bet you do. I’m perfectly aware that there is a market for “great” art and that, once an artist dies, their oeuvre is complete – to quote from another context, “buy land, they aren’t making any more”. However, I can’t help feeling that there’s an evil spirit driving this multi-billion [insert currency here] behemoth and I’m not sure I’m all that keen on this uncritical insight, excellently done though it is.

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Winifred Knights || Sacha Llewellyn

The second world war has a lot to answer for. As well as the obvious upheaval, it marks a turning point in so much of the life of the twentieth century and marks a lacuna that effectively delineates a “before” and an “after”. The urgent sense of a need to change and progress in its aftermath took the form of a sort of desperate optimism that drove the building of the Common Market (later to become the European Union), the development of the United Nations and the construction in Britain of the welfare state. It has taken over seventy years of peace for it to seem logical to start dismantling all that.

The counterpart to such forward vision was a refusal to look back and a rejection of what was past, out of date and, in terms of the build-up to war, destructive. A whole art movement had been developing in the early years of the twentieth century. Some of it was eschewing naturalism, but there was also much that celebrated everyday life and saw historical or mythical events in terms of what we might call “ordinary people”. Stanley Spencer’s Entry of Christ into Liverpool is one such, and Winifred Knights’ The Marriage at Cana is another. Both are mundane and mondaine and strip the scene of its mysticism. The Cana marriage guests are sitting down to melon and dressed in what are, while not suits and ties, certainly not overtly Biblical clothes.

The point of this rather roundabout introduction is to attempt an explanation of why Winifred Knights (1899–1947) is one of the great ignored talents of British art. Her short life didn’t help, but then Eric Ravilious didn’t suffer from longevity either. The fact that she was a woman may have contributed, but women were not completely invisible at the time. Maybe she just didn’t have anyone to champion her at the right time and everything just got put onto a high shelf.

Whatever the reason, this substantial volume sets the record straight. Comprehensive in its coverage and number of illustrations, it exhibits the sweep of Knights’ work. Along with complete paintings, there are several portraits of Knights by other artists – she was quite striking – as well as drawings, sketches and studies. Maybe it is the proliferation of these that are the clue to her obscurity and there isn’t quite the body of work to give her the momentum to have been studied before. Quantity doesn’t equate to quality, and of the latter, there is plenty.

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The St Ives Artists – a biography of place and time || Michael Bird

You might be forgiven for thinking that not a lot can have happened in the life of an well-established artistic colony in the eight years since the first edition of this account was published. As Michael Bird points out in his introduction, the town itself has changed, much has been written and interpretations have changed. There has also been a series of exhibitions, including at the Tate Gallery outpost. It isn’t the art that has changed so much as the view of it.

This is a narrative account of a colony that did not establish itself entirely by chance and was, for the most part, populated by incomers rather than growing out of local work. That centred more around the fishing industry and it is the demise of this, as much as anything else, that has contributed to the changes in the town itself.

The story begins with the arrival of Terry and Kathleen Frost in 1946 and recounts the difficulties of a journey by train in the aftermath of the second world war, which provides a setting for what is an enthralling story as much as an art history. Such detail helps to emphasise the fact that artists are people who lead quotidian lives as well as producers of great works and figures in an elevated history.

The paper on which this is printed is designed to take type rather than illustrations, but there are plenty of these latter and they are reproduced surprisingly well. They are also carefully chosen to represent both the variety of personalities and styles that characterise a vibrant community that contributed a great deal to the art of the latter part of the last century.

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Maggi Hambling Touch || Jennifer Ramkalawon

It’s fortuitous that, given its title, this is such a tactile book. To handle it is to want to open it and betokens the care that has gone into its production. Your optimism will not be unrewarded, either as this is a well-selected view of Maggi Hambling’s works on paper from the 1960’s to the present day. Primarily intended to accompany an exhibition at the British Museum, the book nevertheless stands well on its own and is certainly not a catalogue. This is something the BM is particularly good at and their publications enhance the visitor experience rather than merely reflect it, sometimes adding material that wasn’t on show as well.

Jennifer Ramkalawon, the exhibition’s curator, adds a useful, incisive and insightful biographical introduction that includes plenty of quotes from Hambling herself, providing a glimpse of her creative processes and working methods.

If you’ve visited the exhibition, the chances are you’ll want this. If you haven’t, or can’t, it makes for a very useful substitute.

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Hubert Robert || Margaret Morgan Grasselli & Yuriko Jackall

Dubbed “Robert des ruines” by Denis Diderot, Hubert Robert (1733-1808) was a painter of architectural scenes and imagined landscapes that combined contemporary views with ancient monuments in ways that are often unexpected. His romantic canvases are juxtaposed with lively sketches that have a fluidity of line that belies their age and this sumptuous volume does them all ample justice. Published to accompany an exhibition organised jointly by the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the Musée du Louvre in Paris, it is a thorough account of Robert’s often eventful life and his work.

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