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August 2022

Vol. 164 / No. 1433

Holiday reading

There is an obvious problem about making recommendations for holiday reading for art historians: most of the books they are eager to read are simply too big – too heavy for a holiday suitcase and too unwieldy for the beach. Much as one admires such landmark publications as David Ekserdjian’s The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece (Yale University Press), reviewed by Nicholas Penny in our April issue, it is fair to say that its author did not have a deckchair in mind when writing it. Like most such books, it is not published in digital form. The following suggestions for books to take on holiday are therefore based not solely on merit but also on them being either in a relatively compact format or available as an e-book. A sterling example of the former is Thames & Hudson’s paperback World of Art series, which was relaunched in 2020. The latest title is Paul Joannides’s Raphael. Timed to coincide with the recent exhibition at the National Gallery, London, it is a distillation of a career thinking about the artist that packs in 232 illustrations (and is also published as an e-book). The practical value of a Kindle is evident also for anyone hesitating to take away the fourth volume of John Richardson’s great biography of Picasso, The Minotaur Years 1933–43 (Jonathan Cape), given that it weighs 1.1 kilograms (the e-book is in addition less than a third of the price of the hardback). A scarcely less anticipated biography, Sheila Barker’s Artemisia Gentileschi, the latest in Lund Humphries’ Illuminating Women Artists series, is as yet published solely in hardback but at only 133 pages it will not weigh down a suitcase unduly.

It is always tempting to choose holiday reading that is relevant to the destination. Martin Bailey’s Van Gogh’s Finale: Auvers and the Artist’s Rise to Fame (Frances Lincoln), reviewed by Rachel Esner in the July issue, is the third in the author’s trilogy of books on the artist and would be ideal to accompany a holiday in the Oise region of France or indeed in Provence, where Van Gogh spent the preceding years, discussed by Bailey in his earlier volumes. Many people will be going to Venice this year because of the Biennale: a reading list for that event, never mind the city itself, could easily occupy all this page, but one place to start is a monograph on this year’s British representative, Sonia Boyce: Feeling her Way, by Emma Ridgway and Courtney J. Martin (Yale). The genre of telling the history of a culture through a concise choice of objects, popularised over a decade ago by Neil MacGregor’s bestselling History of the World in 100 Objects (Penguin), has just received a useful addition, T. Richard Blurton’s India: A History in Objects (Thames & Hudson), which encompasses Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well as India in 479 illustrations. And one must remember also places that are currently inaccessible: Deyan Sudjic’s Stalin’s Architect: Power and Survival in Moscow (Thames & Hudson), the story of the Ukrainian-born Boris Iofan (1891–1976), intertwines the history of a tyrant with that of architecture and urban design.

The concatenation of airport chaos, cancelled flights and heatwaves across Europe may well convince people to stay at home. Our British and Irish readers can find plenty of suggestions for visits to little-known corners of their countries in Christopher Lloyd’s Masterpieces: An Art Lover’s Guide to Great Britain and Ireland (Thames & Hudson), first published in 2011 and reissued this year with a revised text in a new compact size. Another imaginative use of a small format is John Goodall’s The Castle: A History (Yale). This broadens the approach taken by the author in his mighty The English Castle 1066–1650 (Yale 2011) to analyse the many roles played by castles in both British history and the imagination and take their story up to the twenty-first century. Country houses under siege are the subject of Terence Dooley’s Burning the Big House: The Story of the Irish Country House in a Time of War and Revolution (Yale), which explores the reasons why some three hundred country houses were destroyed during Ireland’s years of revolution and civil war, 1912–23. A highly original addition to country house studies – and more – is Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s English Garden Eccentrics: Three Hundred Years of Extraordinary Groves, Burrowings, Mountains and Menageries (Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art).

Holidays are also a time for in-depth reading about some of the pressing issues of the day. As climate activists glue themselves to works of art in museums to protest against sponsorship by oil companies, Stacy Boldrick’s Iconoclasm and the Museum (Routledge), reviewed by Thomas E. Stammers in our February issue, invites reflection on the recurring phenomenon of such iconoclasm. Perhaps some of those activists will read another recent title in Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series, Art and Climate Change, by Maja and Reuben Fowkes. Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes by Barnaby Phillips (Oneworld Publications), reviewed by Mark Evans in the current issue (pp.823–25), is a balanced account of this contentious issue and also considers the afterlife of the bronzes. Easily slipped into cabin bags are the titles in Lund Humphries’ Hot Topics in the Art World series, Alexander Herman’s Restitution: The Return of Cultural Artefacts, Georgina Adam’s The Rise and Rise of the Private Art Museum and Melanie Gerlis’s The Art Fair Story: A Rollercoaster Ride. Puzzled by NFTs, blockchain and crypto art? Then try Domenico Quaranta’s Surfing with Satoshi (Aksioma), which can be sampled in the extract published in June on Burlington Contemporary (

If all this seems too much like hard work for holiday reading, there are also novels of special interest to art historians. Fakes and deception are the subject of Maria Gainza’s Portrait of an Unknown Lady (Penguin); Rachel Cusk’s Second Place (Faber & Faber), a much-praised psychodrama about a famous artist, is just out in paperback; and James Cahill’s raunchy Tiepolo Blue (Sceptre) will be read with particular pleasure by anyone who knows much about the art history department at the University of Cambridge or has visited Dulwich Picture Gallery. Not quite fiction, but not non-fiction either, Celia Paul’s Letters to Gwen John (Penguin) is an imagined correspondence between two female artists with much in common.

Finally, there are the recent titles by our own book-publishing arm, the Burlington Press. Richard Spear’s Caravaggio’s Cardsharps on Trial is a possibly unique combination of courtroom drama and authoritative art history. Anthony Geraghty’s account of the widow of Napoleon III in exile, The Empress Eugénie in England: Art, Architecture, Collecting, tells the story of her house at Farnborough, Hampshire, reconstructs its long dispersed art collection and describes the magnificent mausoleum for the exiled imperial family that she commissioned. It will be followed this autumn by Charles Hope’s Titian: Sources and Documents, published by Ad Illisvm with the Burlington Press in five volumes. Even the most dedicated art historian may find that it challenges the concept of beach reading.