Archive for category Publisher: Yale University Press

Illuminating Natural History – the art and science of Mark Catesby || Henrietta McBurney

There was John Tradescant, there was Joseph Banks, there was Robert Hooke and there was John James Audubon.

They are all names to conjure with and they are all broadly familiar. Mark Catesby is perhaps less so, but he belongs in the same canon. His working period (his dates are 1684-1749) coincides with the development of the scientific method and from amateurship to professionalism in natural philosophy.

Catesby was widely travelled (at a time when this was difficult, dangerous and expensive) and spent two extended periods in the New World at a time when it was just being opened up, producing the two volumes of the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands – the scope of the title alone gives an idea of his achievement.

The significance of this, apart from the scientific work, is the role of the artist. Two things had happened. Firstly, descriptions of distant lands were now first rather than second or third hand, with fantasy having no further place in travellers’ tales. Secondly, printing had advanced sufficiently that detail was possible and the idea of the illustrated book became a possibility (as opposed to the woodcuts that prevailed only a short while before). Colour had to be inserted manually, of course, meaning that books such as this were anything but mass-market, but we should perhaps see publications from this period as distributable reports rather than marketable books.

Henrietta McBurney is thorough. Her account tells the story of Catesby’s life and work, of course, but also deals with the history of science as well as the techniques and materials of illustration and the development of books and printing. All of these are integral to the development of the scientific method and the transmission of discovery and information. Although this is nominally a book about a figure most people will not have heard of, it is also, as it should be, a comprehensive history of the development of ideas that has echoes to this day.

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Joseph Wright of Derby – painter of darkness || Matthew Craske

Joseph Wright effectively chronicles the Age of Reason and the rise of the scientific method. His most famous works show experiments and create the sense of wonder that miust have accompanied them. He was much more than that, though, and this magnificently thorough biography and analysis includes a wide range of other figurative and landscape works. Craske also examines contemporary engravings and prints that reveal details that are now lost. In addition, he turns the received view of Wright as a scientific insider on its head and reveals him to be more of a sceptical outsider, something which the whole chapter on An Experiment on the Bird in an Air Pump demonstrates. It’s a token of the book’s attention to detail that several pages are devoted to the history of the (vacuum) air pump itself and that, far from feeling like more information that we really need, is deeply fascinating.

It’s worth drilling down into this. The composition of the picture is chiefly a pyramid, but with a side-bar that adds a sense of Wright’s own sceptical view. At the head of the pyramid is the experimenter, a more than slightly sinister and Messianic figure who is clearly driven by the desire for experiment itself. He does not appear to share the inquiring mind of the male viewers, who are fascinated by the demise of the bird when the air is removed from its glass chamber – its death is all too visible. To one side are a couple who seem less interested in the proceedings than each other – for some, such things were more of a social event. And then there are the children. This is not, please note, A bird, it is The bird, a fact emphasised by the title, which has An air pump, not The air pump. This is their pet and their distress at its loss is clear to see. The adults may lack which we would now call humanity, but the children don’t. Again, there is emphasis: a male figure (their father?) points to the bird in a kindly way, expecting education and Reason to trump Emotion. All of this sounds like a sledgehammer, but Wright’s skill is to conceal the message in what is simply a damn good painting. The details have to be teased out.

And then there’s the side-bar. A servant looks quizzically at the viewer and is engaged in something, possibly closing the curtains, although the rod he is using neatly points out the bird’s empty cage. Any doubt that this poor creature was part of the household is dispelled. Through the window, a full moon peeps through clouds, a hint, perhaps at Reason and Enlightenment, or maybe that light can also be obscured – are those clouds breaking or closing?

The sub-title of the book is also worth a mention: Painter of Darkness. It hints at the sense of Enlightenment not always as a clear view, but also at Wright’s skill in using limited light – he is probably the best there is at that.

I’ve always liked Joseph Wright, but now I’m a confirmed admirer. It take a pretty good book to do that.

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London’s New Scene – art and culture in the 1960s || Lisa Tickner

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Sixties was a decade that was achingly hip and one of the most innovative in the history of popular culture. You could also make the case that its “anything goes” morality extended into the arts and that, just because something is new, it doesn’t have to be good.

All this is true, as is the fact that somewhere, as Philip Larkin assured us, something happened between the end of the Lady Chatterley trial and the Beatles’ first LP. It’s not entirely an exaggeration to say that the monochrome world of Post War austerity exploded into colour or that the Teenager was invented, albeit the groundwork was visible some years previously.

If you wanted an image that sums up the spirit of the time, the opening scene of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up would be it. The scene is London and through largely deserted streets comes a motley crew of Harlequinesque characters who wouldn’t look out of place in that other seminal piece, the TV series The Prisoner. As a coup de théȃtre this is masterful, as it never leaves the viewer’s mind and sets the mood for the rest of the film, which adds a mystery that gives depth to what would otherwise be a superficial confection. It is however, one skilfully woven around the work of a photographer avowedly based on David Bailey, the wunderkind and chronicler of the time. Unsurprisingly, the film gets a whole chapter to itself in this thorough but eminently readable account of a remarkable decade.

The received view of the Sixties is that, if you can remember it, you weren’t there. The atmosphere was heady with the new and – er –substances. If this was you, the book will be a revelation; for the rest of us, a brilliant aide-mémoire.

For me, the Sixties was the time when I became aware of the wider world, which is why I love this so much and am writing about it in such depth. Some of you will agree with me, others will regard later decades as “theirs” and the earlier period as desperately out of date and old hat. To you, I’d say: read this. I’m not asking you to be converted, but at least you’ll understand. The “scene” of the title conveys the idea that the period was remarkably coherent and a lot more than simply a jumble of ideas that poured out, although it was that too.

The structure is chronological and begins with a look at Ken Russell’s 1962 documentary, Pop Goes The Easel, which blew away many cobwebs in the still staid (and still black & white) BBC. 1963 sees the opening of the Kasmin gallery that celebrated many newly-emerging talents, as well as the idea of the gallery as a white cube. The whole thing is a chronicle of the movement that wasn’t a movement – rather, simply an expression of a mood – and tells the stories of the people who didn’t so much drive it as surf the wave that it sometimes seems to have created for itself.

The final chapter is The Art School Revolution and tells the story of Hornsey College of Art and the artists who emerged from the earlier groundwork and carried what we might call the flame forward. A rather useful epilogue, When Attitudes Became Form, hints at the legacy, but doesn’t omit the fact that some things were just mannered. As John Lennon put it, “Nothing happened except that we all got dressed up”.

Were the Sixties really nothing more than the Emperor’s new clothes? You decide. It was a heck of a suit, though, and one of many colours.

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The Elizabethan Image || Roy Strong

This is the ideal companion, as well as counterpart, to Elizabeth Goldring’s fabulous account of the miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard.

Where miniatures were intensely personal, this is the public face of art. Appearance and perception were paramount in the Sixteenth Century, where the intrigues and machinations of the Court have parallels in the politics of today. It is greatly to Roy Strong’s credit that, while he makes this point, he does not labour it. It’s introduced as a way of understanding the past, not to explain the present.

Elizabethan art was full of iconography – the position of hands, what they hold and minute details of clothing all tell the viewer something about the subject and Strong shows how these run through the period covered. Not all the paintings were intended for wider public consumption, but they would probably have been seen by an inner circle and served as a reminder of, and to cement, position. They are, in many ways, the voices of those who commissioned them.

This is a full and thorough account of a fascinating period of English history that necessarily also covers the politics of the time. Strong never forgets, though, that he is primarily writing an artistic account and his narrative always concentrates on this. The illustrations are many, well-chosen and superbly reproduced.

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Nicholas Hilliard || Elizabeth Goldring

Nicholas Hilliard is arguably one of the greatest portrait artists this country has ever produced. That his name is not a household word is largely down to the fact that he was primarily a miniaturist. His works don’t hang in all their glory on gallery walls, but rather are tucked away in glass cases, requiring close examination to appreciate properly.

What is surprising when you do get close is that, apart from the costume of the sitters, Hilliard could easily be working two or even three hundred years later than he was. These are not the formal portraits of the Sixteenth Century court, often severe and forbidding, but something altogether more relaxed and intimate. Well, of course they are, because, just as exhibition is difficult, these were not for public show; they were for family, friends and lovers and for remembrance while the subject was away, or had died. They carry the essence of personality intentionally in a way that had never really been done before.

To achieve not just a physical likeness but also character and personality takes skill at any level, but to do so in something only an inch or two high is truly remarkable. There are some enlargements in this magnificent book that are up to ten times the original size and show the beautiful detail and frankly unbelievable skill Hilliard brought to his work. Few paintings will stand this level of magnification, but it takes a moment to realise that these are not simply full-size.

This is set to be the definitive study of Nicholas Hilliard. It includes a full biography and includes a wealth of illustrations, many of the images appearing in colour for the first time. New archival research adds to the authoritative nature of the text and the quality of production is everything you could wish for – a book like this can easily be let down in that department, but this shines.

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