Summary Reviews for Busy People
of outstanding books

The Art of G. F. Watts.

By Nicholas Tromans. 138 pp. 70 colour illus. Pb. £17.95. Paul Holberton Publishing.

This tremendous book is a near passionately, yet admirably presented, modern-day paean for a great and still controversial nineteenth-century British artist, asserting his continuing importance and significance. “Watts’s images” writes Nicholas Tromans “became places where the bewildering storms of news might be contained in human form, orienting our relationships to a changing world.”

For some, that might be some claim, but none can deny that we live today in an eminently changing universal world in which basic human truths and understandings, once widely accepted have become forgotten, neglected and even derided. This year, the two hundredth anniversary of the artist’s birth is being celebrated, principally and notably at the amazingly revitalised Watts Gallery in Compton near Guildford in Surrey, of which Nicholas Tromans is the present Curator.

Mr Tromans brings a wholly fresh knowledge and appreciation of Watts adding, for today’s readers much detail abut his enduring influences on later artists, Picasso included, all of whom like Watts independently minded, all fundamentally conscious of contemporary social problems and anxieties.

If Watts was a visionary, as his contemporaries often felt, then his vision were not of blessed states but of figures which stood for a generalized Humanity.” In this short sentence Nicholas Tromans summarises the intentions of his book, based as it is specifically on Watts’s art. Later in his introductory chapter the author continues his unequivocal statements: “No British artist before or since has provoked such a wealth of response from people around the world, who have seen their own lives and struggles in these secular icons.”

Of course, Watts’s own unusual life – his long period living as a kind of permanent bachelor house-guest of admirable friends in Kensington, his love of woman-kind, his long male friendships, his disastrous brief marriage to the actress Ellen Terry, his huge professional successes, his series of important portraits and later major sculptural works, all these with many other important points have places in Mr Troman’s compelling narrative.

But nothing was to be more important for Watts in his later years than his marriage to the successful artist and designer Mary Fraser-Tytler in 1886, his junior by 37 years. She became his faithful companion, on her own account designing the still amazing Watts Memorial Chapel in Compton, the village near Guildford in Surrey where they lived.

After Watts’s death in 1904, Mary became the steadfast promoter of his legacy, especially through the Watts Gallery in Compton, remaining in their own house in the village until her own death in 1938. There, Mary is now fully and admirably commemorated as part of the new and brilliantly conceived “Watts Gallery Artists Village.”

Not the least of Nicholas Tromans’s excellencies are his acknowledgements of published writers, and many others, whose work have made his own modern day appreciation of G. F. Watts so full and so outstanding in its own compelling right.

Studio of the South. Van Gogh in Provence.

By Martin Bailey. 224 pp. Illustrated principally in colour. Hb. £25.00 Frances Lincoln.

This amazing book is written by very rare kind of art historian not only “a leading specialist on Van Gogh” but one also and specifically an arts journalist. Both these latter qualities are apparent from from a single example. In his wide and lengthy researches Martin Bailey found a modest newspaper report dated from 1888 which mentions Van Gogh working on his painting Starry Night over the Rhone (in the Musée dˊOrsay, Paris).

This report confirms that there were numbers of artists working in Arles – the town in southern France to where Van Gogh moved after two years living with his brother in Paris. He was seeking a more peaceful environment and a warmer climate where he could work out of doors with his new palette using bold and complementary colours in lively strokes – ideas found and stimulated by seeing the works of his Impressionist peers.

Although Van Gogh was to spend only 15 months in Arles, the scenes, subjects and persons he painted there have come to dominate what is presently most admired about his work: visual ideas patiently investigated and their history sought by Martin Bailey.

My aim” writes Martin Bailey “has been to look afresh at Van Gogh, using new sources and images to illuminates his period of greatest creativity... His exploration of the Provençal landscape played a key role in leading the way to a transformation of modern painting.”

Yet it says much for this author’s sensitivity that amidst so much detailed and lengthy research he has been been “struck by the way that Van Gogh’s still-life paintings are so revealing – because of the very personal reasons he has for selecting the objects he chooses to depict.”

Of The Bedroom (in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum) Mr Bailey understand’s this famous work as representing “a moment just after [Van Gogh] had furnished the room where he sought utter peace and a place to dream of the pictures he would paint.”

Dominant though, inevitably and rightly in this fascinating and revealing book, are Van Gogh’s personal relationships with his brother Theo and his friend Paul Gauguin. Martin Bailey writes in detail and at length about these connections – both he suggests not only intimate but in their different ways causal too on the circumstances that were to lead to Van Gogh’s self-mutilation and to his final illness and death. These last and tragic months, full though they were of many fine works, are carefully analysed and described by the author.

My hopeconcludes Martin Bailey, “is that you, the reader, will enjoy following Van Gogh on this journey of discovery.” Gratitude and admiration from this reader, for one.

Vitamin P3: New Perspectives in Painting. By Phaidon editors with introduction by Barry Schwabsky. 352 pp. Illustrated in colour throughout. Hb. Phaidon. £39.95

It is exciting as well as revealing, and more than a little consoling for this antique person anyhow, to become near enmeshed in this mighty volume. “Painting endures” write its editors Tom Melick and Rebecca Morrill, “because like the book, it continues to absorb, ignore or play with the periodic accusation that it is antiquated or even irrelevant.” That has to be a great even seductive start. More than 100 artists have been nominated by 84 “internationally renowned curators, critics and other art professionals” Their choices come from many nations, are of many ages, and notably include numbers of women and people of colour: imperative human aspects not yet always equally recognized.

How then to review such a giant miscellany? First to confirm that the publishers Phaidon have produced for this volume, the third in its series, splendid and comprehensive illustrations of images by each artist, accompanied by individual texts that are not only informative but relatively and tellingly brief. That about each chosen artist includes details about their practice as well as a short biography.

Time now for some examples. Josephine New writes about Danish artist Mette Winckelmann, born in 1971 she “begins all of her paintings with a grid, upon which the subsequent lines and marks of her brushstrokes collect and multiply in planes. What begins as clean canvas carved into a uniform grid of lines gradually shifts to hold a more gently formed, loose wrapping of geometry, so that the planes of paint appear to hang on top of their of their original framework.”

Matthew Price considers the Scottish artist Caroline Walker, born in 1982. Her “exploration of women’s lives, environments and appearances has evolved into a complex exposé of gender inequalities and assumptions. Wealth, status, age, sexuality, career, family, friends, body and looks all become intertwined signifiers in engineered scenarios.”

Louise Elderton is fascinated by the Chinese artist Liu Wei, born 1972, who is interested “in how society and individuality is constructed and seeks to eliminate any sense of personal style from his painting practice.” Colin Perry explores the work of Greek artist Apostolos Georgiou, born 1952 who creates images of self-referential playfulness with immediate insistent force.”

African-American artist Jack Whitten, born in 1939 is the choice of Veronica C. Roberts who tells of his decision to dispense with paintbrushes in favour of homemade concoctions “a fifty year comitment to rigorous experimentatation with materials.”

In total this really is an endlessly provoking and stimulating book. One problem only, it you choose to lend it, you might well lose it...

The Paper Zoo. 500 Years of Animals in Art. By Charlotte Sleigh. Illustrated in colour throughout. 256 pp. Hb. £25.00 British Library.

Charlotte Leigh is a very rare scholar indeed: wise and learned she writes with an apparent simplicity, often with quiet wit, that belies her authority but continually charms and constantly attracts the reader. “By opening the covers of a book, the reader enters through the gates of the paper zoo.” She unequivocally states.

While animals are found in medieval works of art, in glass and manuscripts, they were biblical symbols. It was not until the Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that animals began to be seriously illustrated in books and in differing forms of accuracy using a range of drawings and watercolours. Later in the seventeenth century a variety of types of images appeared notably woodcuts, later succeeded by copper engravings and then etchings, both being finally followed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by lithographs, which made colour practicable as well as economically possible. Finally there came photography, which is not illustrated, but now dominates the field.

Charlotte Leigh’s magnificent book is principally concerned with presenting and illustrating past forms of art, choosing and discussing an amazingly often delightful range of subjects including for example bees and rabbits, fishes and horses, dogs and cattle. Their origins are as various: and a long distance from Britain to, say, Lombardy, New Holland, South America, Japan and Ethiopia, plus a multitude of other nations from around the known world. Wisely too, Ms Leigh finds room for investigating long-held human beliefs. She discusses, for example, a sixteenth-century illustration of a unicorn, since ancient times thought to be rather small being only 71 centimetres (28 inches in length). “They must have remained this size throughout the Middle Ages.” She suggests. “Else how could female virgins have caught them on their laps, as all sources agreed that they did?”

The images for this enticing and handsome volume include examples by some of the “world’s most renowned natural history illustrators” some of them barely known today, but all chosen from the “ultimate bibliophiles menagerie – the collections of the British Library.” In total this is a real treasure of a book.

Treasured Possessions from The Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Edited by Victoria Avery, Melissa Calaresu, Mary Laven. 292 pp. Illustrated in colour throughout. Philip Wilson Publishers in association with the University of Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum. Hb. £39.95.

In 1816 a wealthy, cultured and successful Irish peer Viscount Fitzwilliam left a munificent legacy to the University of Cambridge – his library, his art collection and £100,000, then a huge sum, "to cause to be erected a good substantial museum repository".

Two and a half centuries on the much-loved, much-visited English university museum that bears his name has grown to comprise more than half a million objects: antiquities, applied arts, illuminated manuscripts, and paintings.

From this nigh over-whelming richness, the authors of this magnificent and desirable volume have chosen a selection of objects with the intention of explaining their past significance. A few indeed may represent ‘high art’ but all in their way offer opportunities for more personal interpretation that explains not only their existence but the continuing care they attracted to become a “treasured possession”.

The Museum’s Director Tim Knox explains that this all came about as the result of an “unprecedented collaboration” between the applied Arts Department of the Fitzwilliam and the University’s History Faculty.

Undergraduates and their tutors were invited to handle and thus to begin to get to know “some of the Museum’s treasures... It was a process of discovery that neither they nor their tutors would forget; just as the students were given a taste of how curatorial expertise could expand their understanding of the past, so the curators were challenged by the interpretative questions posed by historians.”

Examples include a mid eighteenth-century Staffordshire teapot moulded in the shape of a pineapple; a substantial much used and slightly earlier earthenware sugar caster made in Rouen; and for proto fans of the Swiss army knife, a combined silver spoon and fork “an indicator of wealth and gentility” made in Zurich in the middle of the seventeenth century. All are individually explored by scholars one of whom disarmingly admits to studying “the making and eating of ice cream in eighteenth-century Naples.”

One exceptionally charming object described simply as a “cabinet” is a small rectangular wooden box with a hinged lid which opens to reveal a pair of doors and several drawers, one of which hides a secret ring holder, everything breath-takingly covered and decorated with silk-embroidered satin. Indeed this would have been treasured, first by the small girl for whom it was made in England, in the third quarter of the seventeenth century, and then by successive owners until in 1945 it was given to the Fitzwilliam by Mrs W.D. Dickson. As those who studied this cabinet discovered, several skilled individuals would have been responsible for making it originally.

In other words, there is a deal of fun surely, as well as personal enlightenment to be found during such careful, collaborative exploration of why an object might have been made, by whom, for whom, when, where and why. Yes, this writer is jealous.

Soldiers & Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom. By Anna Sparham with contributions by Margaret Denny, Diane Atkinson and Hilary Roberts. 234 pp. Monochrome illus throughout. Philip Wilson Publishers in association with the Museum of London. Pb. £20.

Christina Broom was born in 1863, the seventh of nine children, into a prosperous late-Victorian family of craftsmen, shop-keepers and property owners whose kind no longer exists. Her father Alexander Livingston was a goldsmith and her mother Margaret Fair the daughter of Chelsea boot maker whose business Alexander joined on their marriage. In 1889, Christina married Albert Broom, an ironmonger and keen sportsman who was unexpectedly crippled in 1896 while playing cricket for his club, his health steadily declining to the extent that after the failure of his family business in 1901, he was unable to support his wife and only daughter Winifred herself born in 1890.

Like all determined and intelligent women, before and since, Christina was not to be hindered by personal tragedy and so set about seeking a way of earning her own living. She saw a business opportunity in the then current craze for sending picture postcards at a time when postage was cheap and a likelihood of mail being delivered on the same day that it was posted. Without any form of training Christina, who was less that five feet tall, secured a plate camera and tripod and set about photographing people, places and events in London choosing subjects that had wide and immediate appeal – selling the results from her own shop and in time eventually finding a market in the many illustrated journals then current.

Obviously also with more than her fair share of common sense, Christina taught herself the mysteries of developing glass negatives and printing the results, often in large numbers. In all this she was aided by her daughter Winnie whose practical involvement was not only crucial to the success of her burgeoning business but, whose devotion to her mother ensured, in the end, that examples of the latter’s work found a rightful place in several public collections, including the Museum of London. In fact this evocative book, amply illustrated and scrupulously annotated though without any index, is, in its way as much a memorial to the purposeful endeavours of Winifred as of her mother.

Long before the idea of “marketing” was conceived, Christina saw the need for taking her wares directly to her public – for a number of years having her own stall in Buckingham Palace Road outside the Royal Mews whose glamorous horses, carriages, coachmen and postillions she had photographed. Christina’s directness of purpose, obvious trustworthiness and discretion, as well as her characteristic news sense, brought her opportunities to photograph Royalty either as portraits or about their duties, as well as soldiers of the Royal Household Division and, not least, several views of HMS Dreadnought, the first of this fearsome class of battleships. Similarly, but by contrast, Christina photographed over many years the crews of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Races.

Whatever her own sympathies may have been, Christina made many photographs of Suffragettes individually and collectively – all with a professionally attractive and real sense of detachment from her indomitable female subjects. This unusual quality is also apparent in her images of soldiers taking leave of their families before travelling to the front by train during the First World War: the cheerful faces of the troops in sharp contrast to the misery exhibited by those of their families.

Two photographs have outstanding interest for this writer: the diminutive figure of the then Prince of Wales proudly bearing the Regimental Colour ahead of his Guards battalion, and, a group of cheerful officers, including the bespectacled image of Rudyard Kipling’s only son John, prior to their leaving for France in 1915 where he was lost – to his father’s enduring pain and misery. Did Christina ever relax? The last photograph of her shows her quietly and contentedly fishing from Margate pier in 1939, the year her death.

James Sowerby: The Enlightenment’s Natural Historian. By Paul Henderson. 332 pp. 150 colour illus. 30 black and white. Kew Publishing in association with the Natural History Museum. Hb. £40.00.

On the jacket of this splendid book a potential reader is immediately struck by a black and white engraving of a handsome, middle-aged man whose direct gaze, from a sensitive face with a determined chin, is crowned by a coiff of dashingly curly white hair. This is James Sowerby (1757 – 1822) who in his time produced long series of beautifully designed and executed illustrations of the natural world – principally and most famously botanical, yet such was the breadth of his scientific interests his work also extended into zoology and shells, fossils and rocks. His illustrations were all supported by “letterpress” that is explanatory texts by specialists, and others the results of his own researches.

As told by Paul Henderson in a compelling narrative, Sowerby, orphaned son of a London jeweller, had a fascinating story, from his apprenticeship to a marine painter, to his natural talents leading to his acceptance at the Royal Academy Schools, free to students then as now, though in Sowerby’s case he had to earn his living the while, principally by his skills as a painter and engraver. His interest in natural history led to his specialising in the field and, with a growing family to support, to his decision to become his own publisher with the practical help of his marvellous supportive wife Anne, and soon enough a business extended by the skills and talents of his many children: who as their letters touchingly reveal, created their own problems for their father to whom they remained devoted, as they sought to make their own ways in life.

Sowerby’s determination to understand for himself and to explain more widely through his publications brought him success and limited fame, limited because this was something he did not seek, preferring recognition by his peers which was soon forthcoming, not least by his involvement with the growing number and variety of scientific societies - so characteristic of the time. The generosity of Sowerby’s spirit is amply shown by the nature and extent of his correspondence, which also reveals his problems when trying to deal sympathetically yet firmly with his collaborators: one of whom disarmingly noting that no text was necessary as Sowerby’s illustration told all.

While Sowerby’s scientific importance is still apparent and still consulted and admired by his successors today, four of Sowerby’s other “works” are as interesting: his establishment of a public museum in his own house; his making for the Emperor of Russia of a sword using material culled from a meteorite that fell in Yorkshire; a system of colour analysis to aid fellow artists; and his successful intervention on behalf of the Admiralty which was urgently seeking an explanation for the reasons why the timbers of so many naval vessels suffered from rot.

Paul Henderson, formerly of the Natural History Museum in London, “is a scientist involved with the environmental, earth and biological sciences, along with the history of science.” Nowadays he is an Honorary Professor of Earth Sciences at University College London, interests that in their way that reflect those of James Sowerby himself - all of two centuries ago and, not least, interests that serve to reinforce the overall importance of the subject of his very fine and superbly illustrated book.

The following books are unreservedly recommended and each will receive a Summary Review - in due course.

A Revolution in Color. The World of John Singleton Copley. By Jane Kamensky. 526 pp. Illustrated. Hb. £25.00 W.W. Norton & Company.

Constable and Brighton: Something out of Nothing. 160 pp. Edited by Shân Lancaster. Illustrated in colour. Pb. £25.00. Scala Publishers.
October/November 2017