Monday, 15 July 2013

American collectors of Spanish Art, and other recently read books

Inger Reist and Jose Luis Colomer (eds) Collecting Spanish Art: Spain's Golden Age and America's Gilded Age Frick Collection 2012

I like Spanish art, I'm interested in the history of art collecting and I'm fascinated by America's gilded age. This is clearly a book for me. It covers the period from 1870 to 1930 when the American economy grew rapidly and the new plutocrats built up wonderful collections of European art. Three parts cover the developing American taste for Spanish art, the great collectors of Spanish art and the great Spanish artists that were collected. Inevitably there's a degree of repetition, but it's a price worth paying for the insights arising from the shifting perspective between collectors and artists.

I'm not convinced by the premise that there was a 'Spanish turn' in American art collecting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as Richard L. Kagan claims in the opening chapter of this book. The thesis is asserted with reference to the interest shown in Spain and in Spanish art, which I grant, but the relative neglect of other schools must be proven to make the case for a uniquely special interest in Spanish art. The great collectors bought fabulous Spanish paintings, but they bought fabulous Italian, Dutch and British pictures too. But no matter; the book's discussion of collecting Spanish art is fascinating. 

I especially enjoyed Susan Grace Galassi's chapter on Frick's Spanish art, which tells the story of his pursuit of famous paintings still in the Frick, his pursuit of others that got away, and a couple that were sold from the collection. There are two chapters on collecting of Murillo, but none on El Greco, which is a lamentable lacuna because America's gilded age coincided with El Greco's rehabilitation as one the greatest Spanish artists (albeit Spanish by residence rather than birth). American museums are therefore well endowed with El Grecos. Still, a fascinating book overall with lots of interesting information that was new to me.
Picture: Amazon
Mary-Anne Garry Wealthy Masters - 'provident and kind': The Household at Holkham 1697-1842 Larks Press 2012

I came across this book by chance in a second hand bookshop. It's from a small press, and hasn't had the attention it deserves. Holkham is one of the most wonderful English country houses, and I greatly enjoyed this social history of 'upstairs, downstairs' relationships, drawing on a rich seam of primary sources in the Holkham archives. Mary-Anne Garry describes a process of professionalisation when servants shifted from being regarded as part of the extended family to being seen (and seeing themselves) as professionals with more demarcated duties. She has an eye for good anecdotes. I was especially drawn to the account of travelling between Holkham and London - a couple of hours' drive today, but a major expedition in the eighteenth century. And in a crass instance of Georgian 'bling', Holkham's exterior windows were gilded in 1777, at a cost of a thousand pounds. There's lots more of interest in this fine book - well worth buying.

Picture: Amazon
Peter Hart The Great War Profile Books 2013

Lots of books are coming out for the centenary of World War I. I'm always suspicious of books rushed out for anniversaries, but those I've read so far have been excellent. This one's a corker. Peter Hart is the Oral Historian at the Imperial War Museum, and this narrative history is brought to life with extensive quotations from soldier's letters. He is relatively forgiving of the conduct of Allied military leadership, in line with the tenor of recent scholarship, but against the grain of cultural memory (e.g. Blackadder Goes Forth). This book is intellectually serious, but it's also a great read.
Picture: History Today
Anthony Pagden Enlightenment and why it still matters Oxford University Press 2013

Pagden is one of the most brilliant and learned historians of ideas, and I'd looked forward to this book. It is a highly readable and admirably opinionated book based on a lifetime's scholarship. But it still left me cold. The enlightenment is fated endlessly to be debated, and to be refashioned in the context of current concerns. But Pagden's enlightenment is just too Guardian for my taste - an enlightenment of multiculturalism, secularism and the European Union. I still think it's well worth reading, and the best recent volume on the enlightenment. But it's not enough on its own; you're going to have to read other syntheses and go back to some of the original sources to make sense of it for yourself. If the book provokes you to do that, it's succeeded admirably.

1 comment: