Category Archives: Art & Photography

Traces of Vermeer


Traces of Vermeer
By Jane Jelley
Oxford University Press – £25.00

There was a bewildering choice of blacks at the time, and they all had different properties and different uses. It is a long list: earth black; sea coal black; lamp black; cherry stone black; vine black; charcoal black, peach, date, or almond stone black; walnut shell black; bone black; ivory black; even ‘burnt toast,’ described as a ‘bread black.’ Some blacks are warmer in colour than others: bones produce a brownish colour, while vine black, often called ‘blue black,’ was recommended for painting ruffs, or the shadows in the face, when mixed with white. There were recipes to suggest how to prepare and use all of these different pigments in painters’ treatises. ‘Cheristone’ black was suggested as being good for draperies; and if a painter wanted ‘a most extremely deep black,’ then lamp black, and ivory black could be used together; by putting one, as a glaze, over the other. Painters could follow a recipe for making ivory black; and put some bits of an ‘old combe, fanne handle or knife in a closed crucible, with a ‘little salt;’and place it in the fire for a quarter of an hour.

My word, the complexity of choice at the disposal of artists during The Netherlands so-called ‘Golden Period’ – or any period come to that – really was both bewildering and overtly comprehensive to say the least. A daunting feature and something which is resoundingly highlighted in this overtly investigative yet very readable book by Jane Jelley.

A painter of still life and landscape herself, who, as authoress, herein bequeaths the reader with an inexorable intrigue that is altogether contagious. Contagious, because in her pursuit of trying to decipher just how Johannes Vermeer’s paintings were ”made,” she takes the reader on something of a tangential journey that is most illustrative, idiosyncratic and interesting at the same time.

This ultimately accounts for Traces of Vermeer being what it is: ”An absolute delight. A rich and highly original exploration of Vermeer’s life and work seen through the eyes of a practising painter” (Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe).

An example of such richness can be found in Vermeer’s View of Delft, on which Jelley conclusively writes in the book’s seventh chapter ‘A Glimpse of Vermeer’: ”Vermeer had to decide where he would stand to observe Delft, in order to establish his composition. Which window he would use? What might he like to include from here, or from any other viewpoint, and what should he ignore? One of his trademarks is the attention he pays to the construction of his picture, and the dynamics of the movements within it. He thought carefully about the weights of shapes, and where he wanted the viewer’s eye to travel; where he wanted it to rest […]. If this picture appears ‘real’ to us, it is not because things are very detailed, but because Vermeer has grasped the essentials of the tone and the shapes, and has left much for us to interpret ourselves. It is not like looking at a high definition image on screen, or even a photograph; but like glimpsing something out of the corner of our eye, something we feel to be familiar.”

It is precisely this familiarity, that to my mind at least, entices us to admire Vermeer’s luminous sunlit spaces, full-blown, mesmerising skies, glimmers of satin and many eloquent strokes of tranquillity (such as Young Woman with a Water Jug, Mistress and Maid and of course, Girl with a Pearl Earring).

To be sure, Traces of Vermeer is an invitation for us to not only embrace Vermeer’s world, but to also ask or decipher to what degree he may, or may not have used some sort of lens through a camera obscura.

Personally, I couldn’t care less. Surely it’s the final product that counts?

Wonderful paintings that have traversed the years.
The centuries. Paintings which continue to touch us.
And resonate.

David Marx


Marie Antoinette


Marie Antoinette
By Helene Delalex, Alexandre Maral & Nicolas Milovanovic
Getty Publications – £32.50

I have seen all, I have heard all, I have forgotten all.

I do not share the king’s tastes. He is only interested in hunting and metalwork. I am sure you will agree that I would look quite awkward standing at a forge; I would not make a good Vulcan and if I were to play the role of Venus that would bother him far more than my real tastes, which he does not seem to mind.

The thought of the Viennese born Archduchess dressed as a Vulcan or working in a forge, does make for quite an image. Although had it been a reality, it may just as well have saved her life. That said, this Marie Antoinette essentially examines the the last and ill-fated French Queen’s personal collection at Versailles.

Assembled with all the authority of three curators (Helene Delalex and Alexandre Maral at the Chateau of Versailles, Nicolas Milovanovic at the Louvre Museum in Paris); this sumptuously compiled and altogether stunning book, really is something of a photographic treasure. An artistic approach to a book which sheds oodles of light on a subject, that unless one were actually/regularly in Versailles itself, has continued to remain something of an idiosyncratic enigma. Until now.

That Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793) continues to intrigue historians, writers and film-makers more than two centuries after her death is a nigh given. Her glamorous role as arbiter of fashion and patron of the decorative arts in the French court, not to mention the overtly dramatic circumstances surrounding her death, still does much to trigger the imagination.

Lest we forget, Antoinette was the only French queen to have her own collection, the Garde Meuble de la Reine, upon which she spared no expense (much to the eventual chagrin of the Parisian populace at large might I add): ”Tracing her life from her upbringing in Vienna as the archduchess of Austria, to her ascension to the French throne, and finally to her execution, the three authors discuss the exquisite objects that populated her surroundings: beautiful gowns, gilt-mounted furniture, Chinese porcelains, and opulent tableware. Her more personal possessions are also represented, including her sewing kit, her harp, her children’s toys, and even the simple chemise she wore as a condemned prisoner. Excerpts from her correspondence offer a further glimpse into her personality and daily life.”

A life it would seem, to which she resolutely and openly adhered.

As much is touched on in the book’s third chapter (‘The Queen’) at the very outset of ‘Queen of Europe’s Greatest Kingdom,’ in which the authors write: ””Although God caused me to be born in the rank I now occupy, I cannot resist admiring the arrangements of Providence who chose me, the youngest of your children, for the greatest kingdom in Europe,” wrote Marie Antoinette to her mother a few days after her accession. Full of youthful beauty, charming and vivacious, the eighteen-year old queen was adored by the people of Paris and greeted with cheers on every public appearance, something that touched her deeply.”

From ‘The Future Queen of France’ to ‘Queen of Fashion,’ from ‘Petit Trianon -The Queen’s Refuge’ to ‘Platonic Love?’ to ‘A Tragic End,’ these 209 pages (excluding Bibliography and Illustration Credits) are throughout, more than substantiated with the most lavish collection of truly wonderful illustrations. Many of which, evoke in the reader, a place of the most exquisite, magisterial design.

Furthermore, a place many of us always knew existed, but one that nevertheless, has always remained (subliminally) hard to define. Hard to clarify. Even hard to come to terms with. Until now.

Marie Antoinette is one of those collections one will invariably return to time and time again, because some of the astonishing beauty within will simply refuse to leave us be.

David Marx

Annie Sloan Paints Everything


Annie Sloan Paints Everything
By Annie Sloan
Cico Books – £14.99

[…] I didn’t want it to be about all the weird and wonderful things people paint – skateboards, tubas, and even caravans! – nor just about all the multitude of surfaces that can be painted, such as fabrics, concrete, plastics, melamine, marble, and metal, as well as all the usual surfaces like wood. This is an important point, of course, and one that I certainly took into account […].

From Warehouse Rustic to Shibori Lampshades, from a Painted Chandelier to Printed Table Runners, Annie Sloan Paints Everything might well traverse everything (and a whole lot more besides) that we have come to expect from one of the world’s most respected experts in the field of decorative painting.

It’s the sort of book that is bound to inspire any free-thinking home-owner with a quantum leap of varying ideas and dare I say it, opportunistic mayhem. Each of it’s three chapters (‘Furniture and Lighting,’ ‘Fabric and Other Surfaces’ and Walls and Floors’) cover an exceedingly wide terrain of the home – as mentioned at the outset – all of which are augmented with a spectacular array of photographs.

In fact the photographs alone, will have you running for the brush in next to no time!

As Annie Sloan writes in the Introduction: ”In this book, I wanted to excite you and encourage you to paint everything. I wanted to show how my own range of paint, Chalk Paint, which I developed in 1990, has retained its classic identity and continued to evolve and develop with new techniques and treatments.”

Having already written rather extensively on the subject of paint, texture and design (her previous books include Quick and Easy Paint Transformations, Colour Recipes for Painted Furniture, Annie Sloan’s Room Recipes for Style and Colour and Annie Sloan’s Chalk Paint Workbook among others), the authoress most certainly knows how to convey a grand idea, but more importantly, put it across.

For instance, on page 34, there is a wonderful colour photograph of a completed Waxed Bureau, on the opposite page of which she writes: ” Oak is a very distinctive wood that is characterized by a deep grain. It also has interesting irregular markings, depending on how it is cut. I particularly love oak when it’s very old, unvarnished, and natural because it is a lovely, soft, light gray in colour […]. This particular bureau is from the 1940s or so, and had been lightly varnished with a dark colour. The grain was still textural, but the wood was darker than I would have liked. I could have removed the varnish – a rather long and tedious job – but this would have made the whole piece lighter. So, instead, I opted for the easier method of applying white wax to lighten the varnish and bring out the grain of the wood. If I had taken the varnish off, the finished effect would have been a lot lighter and the grain probably more pronounced.

The trick is to allow the wax to harden for long enough that it hardens a little in the grain, but not for so long that the wax does not come off where you want it to.”

That every section comes replete with a drop box called ”You Will Need” (in the above instance: White wax, Small wax brush, Clean, dry, lint-free cloths, Clear wax, Annie Sloan Valeska stencil and a project pot of Graphite paint, to decorate the edge of the bureau’s desk – optional), reiterates the practicality of both Sloan’s work and approach.

So why not start the New Year with some terrific new ideas for the home; of which this most fabulous book is literally uber-jam-packed with.

David Marx



By Mary Telford
Illustrated by Louise Verity
The Lilliput Press – £25.00

In seven segments (‘Envy,’ ‘Pride,’ ‘Avarice,’ ‘Sloth,’ Gluttony,’ ‘Anger,’ and ‘Lust’), this book is a veritable delight to both behold and partake in; partake as in with the turning of every page, one doesn’t quite know what to expect.

Admittedly, this may have a lot to do with the occasionally dark and brood induced illustrations of Louise Verity (colourful and inviting the one minute, angular and intrinsically cartoonesque the next), although Mary Telford’s words are of an equal persuasion so far as the utterly non-ob(li)vious is concerned.

For instance, at the outset of ‘Avarice’ on page 75, Telford writes: The woman longed for wealth above all else. It wasn’t vulgar gold she hankered after or a fortune newly acquired, but long-held riches and respect.

Every Christmas she left her penthouse to visit her impoverished aunts. Their residential hotel was shabby. She slipped on the wheelchair ramp and scraped her Louboutin heel. She reminded herself that the trust fund would be hers once the aunts were dead […].

It’s not until one has reached page 108, that the reader invariably learns of the outcome; but not before having stumbled across a myriad of definitive artwork that (unsurprisingly), does much to trigger the imagination. An imagination, clearly, already attracted to Sins, but which now finds itself served with a certain imagery – some of which, assorted readers will no doubt find appealing while others will feel merely skim the surface of the aforementioned, seven universal themes.

There again: ”The modern fairytale takes many forms, clothing our unconscious with the macabre, the fantastical, the grotesque. In seven elemental stories, anxieties and dark desires are given dramatic force in the renderings of illustrator Loiuse Verity. Drawn form the European folk tale, they are grounded in a tradition from Hieronymus Bosch, the brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll, to Dali, Dahl and Audrey Niffenegger. Where irreality touches life, dreams begin […]. A controlling husband envies his wife’s pleasures. An abused lover takes her revenge. An avaricious socialite is tormented by the kindness of others. A widow exploited by her grown son gains her freedom.”

To quote Kilgore Trout, and so it goes.

These 240 pages could be construed as being something of a subliminal traipse through the back pages Edgar Allan Poe’s after-thoughts; which, all said and invariably done, is a mighty interesting proposition.

Not to mention a regal and intrinsically refreshing change to such writing as that of the fifty shades of hog-wash variety…

David Marx

Jan Gossart and the Invention of Netherlandish Antiquity


Jan Gossart and the Invention of Netherlandish Antiquity
By Maris Anne Bass
Princeton University Press – £37.95

”It contends that Gossart participated in a local renaissance – the revival of alternative ”Netherlandish” antiquity – through his antiquarian engagement with Eyckian painting, his selective use of Italian and ancient models, and his involvement in the recovery of the region’s ancient history.”

Being half Dutch, I’ve always had a penchant for Dutch painting and to a certain degree, Jan Gossart’s work is no exception. His testimonial, nigh majestic nudes alone, remain somewhat ahead of their time, even by today’s standards. But what particularly drew me to this more than engaging and rather wonderful book, is the fact that it challenges previous interpretations of Gossart’s many influential works.

One of these is its re-evaluation of the foregone conclusion that the Dutchman’s patrons did not slavishly imitate Italian Renaissance models, but instead, sought to contest the very idea that the all encompassing Roman past (and mere presence) instilled an Italian monopoly on antiquity.

Indeed, by drawing on many previously unused primary sources in Latin, Dutch, and French, Jan Gossart and the Invention of Netherlandish Antiquity offers a turbulent, yet altogether fascinating new understanding of both the painter himself and the history of northern European art itself.

Convincingly put together with a mixture of very high quality black and white/colour reproductions, the book’s four chapters and 153 pages (excluding Notes & Bibliography) are an education as well as an inspiration.

Already in the very first chapter ‘The Embodied Past’, authoress Maris Anne Bass (who is Assistant Professor at the Art History and Archaeology Department of Washington University in St. Louis) states: ”Gossart was obsessed with bodies, and with the representation of bodies in space. His most iconic works, whether mythological or religious in subject, all explore the extreme juxtaposition of enlivened figures within realms of cool stone architecture or intricate foliate ornament. Even his portraits set against monochrome backgrounds present their figures emerging, sometimes as if breaching the boundaries of their framesa.”

To my mind, this gives readers something to think about almost immediately, simply because of the compelling clarity of exploration.

This leads me to agree with Ethan Matt Kavaler of The University of Toronto, who has been quoted as saying: ”This remarkable and original book greatly advances our understanding of northern European humanism and its relation to art in the early modern period – a central and longstanding problem in art history. Creatively researched and compellingly written, this interdisciplinary study will have wide appeal.”

This is essentially the first real in-depth historical study of Jan Gossart (ca. 1478-1532), surely one of the most important painters of the Renaissance in northern Europe. It’s a book which provides so much more than just a richly illustrated narrative of the Duth artist’s life and art.

As mentioned at the outset, Bass illustrates how Gossart’s paintings were an integral part of a large(r) cutural effort throughout the Netherlands, which did much to ”to assert the region’s ancient heritage as distinct from the antiquity and presumed cultural hegemony of Rome.”

To a large extent, this is immediately addressed, if not wholeheartedly substantiated in the book’s Introduction: ”The early modern Low Countries and the image of its history were profoundly shaped by a sense of scale. The region’s cultural achievements, and attendant local pride, have always swelled beyond the limits of its small geographical domain […]. The presumption of causality between the two pillars of Gossart’s fame – his Roman drawings and his mythological paintings – has resulted in a profound misunderstanding of his engagement with antiquity […]. This book sets out to rehabilitate Gossart’s mythological works in the milieu of their creation by investigating not only the artist’s intimate courtly environs but also place within the intellectual culture of the early sixteenth-century Low Countries.”

To semi-quote Dagmar Eichberger (University of Trier and University of Heidelberg): ”With great enthusiasm and erudition, Marisa Anne Bass situates Jan Gossart in the intellectual network of his Netherlandish patrons and thoroughly investigates the literary output of the humanist circles that he and his patrons moved in.”

Totally original as well as lavishly illustrated, Jan Gossart and the Invention of Netherlandish Antiquity is as idiosyncratically informative as it is occasionally spellbinding.

David Marx

Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs


Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs
By Jeff Brouws & Wendy Burton
W.W. Norton – $39.95

Far too cryptic for its own good? A book of esoteric love?

As stated at the very outset of Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs: ”The patent of time will transform any artifact into an object of veneration” (Sarah Greenough, The Art of the American Snapshot).” Indeed it might, which is why this rather remarkable collection of images, taken by both passionate amateurs and more accomplished photographers alike, is as all encompassing as it is.

I say all encompassing, for while the actual photographs on the page may trigger a certain remembrance of time or place, transport or poignancy, there’s also a fair bit of self-injected, subliminality taking place. A subliminality, triggered by the grain, contrast or composure of a certain photograph, which, depending on one’s own history and love of trains, will obviously differ in range of depth from person to person. Although what accounts for this utterly unostentatious collection, is its rather expansive inclusion of humble snapshots, albumen prints, stereographs, real photo postcards, glass-plate negatives and everything in-between.

Thus fully deserving a definition that is rich with historical value and meaning, while the photographs themselves are often ”imbued with a naive artfulness and beauty.”

To be sure, Jeff Brouws has clearly been ”collecting vernacular railroad photographs for many years, poring through disorganized boxes of snapshots at train shows and swap meets.” Repelte with a rabid, editorial eye for fine detail, ”he has sought out the unusual, the lyrical, the pastoral, and the urban, ultimately assembling a collection that includes railroad landscapes, locomotives, infrastructure, and workers, primarily during the age of steam.” All of which is reinforced in the book’s Introduction, where Brouws (who has been published in Trains, the NRHS Bulletin and the R&LHS Quarterly) unsurprisingly writes: ”The art of collecting, for most human beings, seems to be encoded in our genetic makeup – a trait perhaps passed down from our hunter-gatherer origins […]. I simply enjoyed the collecting process and the pleasures it brought. Later, as an adult, photography books became my passion; new shelves from IKEA never remained empty for long. I also began to understand that assembling collections, like the one contained between these covers, was a way to bestow order on the universe, create meaning, and temporarily control the arbitrary chaos we call life.”

Might it be therefore said that this fascinating assemblage will appeal to both fans of vernacular photography and railroad enthusiasts alike. Accompanied by an essay that includes a thoughtful, well-researched discussion of the aesthetic evolution of railroad photography in the early to mid-twentieth century and the phenomenon of the International Engine Picture Club (which acted as a clearing house and swapping mechanism for rail fans), Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs is by no means Brouws only publication. Along with his wife Wendy Burton – a photographer whose work is included in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the North Dakota Museum of Art among others – the photographer and part-time writer already has nine books to his credit, having already authored five on railroad photography alone.

That his photography can be viewed in major institutional collections in the US – including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum Harvard’s Fogg Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – underlines the degree to which these particular photographs are aligned with true grit and muchos gravitas.

David Marx


By Annie Leibovitz
Introduction by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Jonathan Cape – £35.00

To say Annie Leibovitz’s Pilgrimage is a conceptually brave, although artistically redundant collection of surprisingly average photographs, is a rather unfortunate, albeit honest understatement. Compiled during what was obviously a financial and emotionally difficult time for the photographer (and usually an excellent one at that), I’m sad to say the work herein reflects far too much melancholic sobriety for its own good.

What ought to have been a poignant traipse through the back pages of some of her inspiration – visiting the homes and hideaways of iconic people of interest to her from Charles Darwin to Emily Dickinson, Elvis Presley to Virginia Woolf – has instead evolved into nothing other than a cryptic collection of partially self-induced confusion. As a result, I don’t in the least agree with the concluding words of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Introduction: ‘’What strikes me most about this collection is that even when Annie and I spend time at the same place, we see different things. She has captured the spirit of the people and places in this book as surely as thousands of words could ever do.’’

I’d like to agree, but I can’t, and I absolutely don’t.

Admittedly, a picture does indeed paint a thousand words, far more words than most of us could ever assimilate; all of them unique; all of them different. But surely a picture has to initially sparkle in some way, especially if it’s to trigger some sort of deft, colourful debate? Sadly, most of the photographs throughout this particular pilgrimage don’t sparkle in the least. They’re far too weighted by some sort of idiosyncratic (maudlin) importance.

As such, they’re far too considered, and I say this for two reasons. The first of which lies within the very opening gambit of the book wherein Leibovitz writes: ‘’’Several years ago, Susan Sontag and I were planning something that we called the Beauty Book. The Beauty Book was going to provide an excuse for us to travel around to places we cared about and wanted to see. For me, it meant going back to taking pictures when I was moved to take a picture. When there wasn’t an agenda. If you are on assignment for a magazine, there are always agendas. Things that have to get done. I care about my assignment work, but I wanted to try working without that pressure. To be in a situation where I took a picture just because I saw it.

After Susan died, I knew that I couldn’t do the Beauty Book, although as time passed, I realized that I might do a different book, with a different list of places. The list would, inevitably, be coloured by my memory of Susan and what she was interested in, but it would be my list. This wasn’t an idea that seemed obvious at first. It came gradually. Emily Dickinson was Susan’s favourite poet.’’

If these words don’t read like an inadvertent assignment, then I don’t know what does. If any thing, what Leibovitz writes amounts to an emotional assignment of the highest calibre, and this is reflected within the quintessential sombre nature of the photography.

The second reason I find this entire collection far too weighted in sobriety, is because death looms large. For instance, there are some intriguing pictures of Charleston House in Lewes, Sussex – which I adore and have visited on numerous occasions – but even here, the images are set amid speculative ramblings of Emily Dickinson, which doesn’t exactly enable said images to sparkle.

In truth, the book lacks focus and clarity. Apart from the fact that most of the written text isn’t aligned with what one is actually looking at (for instance, Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg address is confusingly set amid pictures of Elvis Presley memorabilia – his record player, his mother’s dresses, his 1957 Harley-Davidson) ensures Pilgrimage is far too dour and confusing a photographic homage, to Leibovitz’s aforementioned ‘beauty book.’

David Marx