On the library coffee-table

Clive James

  • An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration by Mario Praz, translated by William Weaver
    Thames and Hudson, 396 pp, £35.00, March 1982, ISBN 0 500 23358 6
  • Degas by Keith Roberts
    Phaidon, 48 pp, £10.50, March 1982, ISBN 0 7148 2226 4
  • Monet at Argenteuil by Paul Tucker
    Yale, 211 pp, £15.00, April 1982, ISBN 0 300 02577 7

Last year, the year of his death, Mario Praz’s An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration was once again made available, after being out of print for a decade. William Weaver’s English translation of La Filosofia dell’ Arredamento was first published in 1964, which means that there were about ten years when you could buy it new, and then about ten years when you couldn’t. No doubt it was obtainable second-hand if you looked hard enough. For myself, only recently did it begin occurring to me that some of even the most famous books on art would have to be bought second-hand if they were to be bought at all, since their chances of being reprinted in any form weren’t bright, and if they did get a reprint they wouldn’t necessarily look their best – no small consideration when the quality of the design was part of the original appeal. As it happens, Interior Decoration is now reissued looking almost as good as before, even if some of the colour plates are a bit lipsticky. But the book might just as easily have done a quiet disappearing act. Our reassuring assumption that Thames and Hudson, Phaidon, and a few other imprints, are looking after the whole business – the business, that is, of getting our eyes educated and keeping them that way – is not necessarily well founded. They’ve done just that for a long time, but by now the job of transmitting the past seems to have used up some of the energy that was once available for it. The sense of mission is gone. There is no need to beat one’s breast at its passing, especially if it was a response to catastrophe in the first place, but perhaps it is time to begin appreciating some of its fruits at their true high value.

If it is now more apparent that Interior Decoration is a serious book, this is because other books like it have provided a context. Most of the books like it were written out of the same passion to preserve, which further implies that their authors similarly felt as if civilisation were under a threat. In 1958 Praz published La Casa della Vita, which was later, in 1964, brought out in English as The House of Life. The book is a kind of spiritual inventory of Praz’s house in Rome, which survived the war where so many other houses didn’t. The impact of recent destruction started him on the long job of weighing what had been preserved. The contents of the house were not especially valuable in market terms – no millionaire, Praz was restricted to tertiary pieces at best – but they had been chosen for their associations, and now that the devastating wave had moved on, these fine connections to the past were revealed in a new and startling importance. The great works of art were mainly safe in the museums, even if some of them had had to be retrieved, miraculously unharmed, from the tunnels in which Hitler had planned that they be for ever buried. But the artistic households – in which the cultivated life had been led and everything had been chosen according to often unspoken standards of taste and intelligence – were heaps of wreckage all over Europe. The House of Life is thus a book written under pressure: the pressure to transmit, or anyway restore, a sense of value in a period when value had been attacked in its fabric. Interior Decoration, though written later, carries the same story forward: it is about a hundred different households, but they are all looked at with something of the same intensity inspired by the author’s own house when he had absorbed the full implications of the arbitrariness by which it had been left standing. Praz rather liked decadence, as The Romantic Agony shows, but only as an artificial occurrence: ruins ought to be by Piranesi.

As the great scholars of the German-speaking Jewish emigration were driven to do their best for the fine arts at the moment when civilisation had been revealed in its full vulnerability, so Praz was driven to do his best for the applied arts. They were, after all, more breakable. He wasn’t luxuriating so much as touching things to see if they were still real. The book’s ostensible sumptuousness is now revealed as a strength. On page 193 there is a black-and-white reproduction of a little watercolour dating from 1812 showing ‘Princess Schwarzenburg Reading in the Austrian Embassy, Paris’. Praz tells you that the original watercolour is one of a pair now kept in the confiscated Schwarzenburg castle of Orlik, near Vltavou in Czechoslovakia. It was typical of Praz to use his grand connections in order to find out what had survived and where it was kept. It was why he had his grand connections. There are hundreds of instances in the book which tell you, without his having to say so, that he was putting a world back together bibelot by bibelot, watercolour by watercolour, miniature by miniature. A catalogue of rooms, some preserved but so many lost, the book is an imaginative reconstruction, like Walter Mehring’s Die Verlorene Bibliothek, in which Mehring, who had to leave his library behind for the Nazi firebrands when he fled, reaches back, after the war, to fondle his books through memory.

So really dilettantism, if it is an accusation, is just about the last thing Praz should have been accused of. He was usually trying to get at a principle, rather than just air his knowledge. Even in such a cluttered essay as ‘The Art of the Bourgeoisie’ (which forms the introduction of his 1971 book Conversation Pieces) there is a real attempt at historical definition under the ponderous massing of comparison and example. But of course he was accused of dilettantism – and of connoisseurship, eclecticism and all the other crimes whose names have been made familiar to us by the puritanical side of the modern British critical heritage, which in dealing with the recent history of Continental Europe has suffered from the drawbacks of its advantages. The chief advantage being moated detachment, the chief drawback has been provincialism, which I think threatens to return with new force now that the direct memory of what organised barbarism was like is fading out. Perhaps if Praz had been more obviously a victim, a Jew in Germany, his attempts to retrieve past time would have seemed less like luxury. But he was a non-Jew in Italy, making a fuss about furniture.

In the field of art appreciation, Hitler’s unintentional gift to Britain and America was as precious as in the field of the physical sciences. By driving the Jewish publishers, scholars, critics and editors out of Continental Europe he enriched the English-speaking countries just as thoroughly as he impoverished the German-speaking ones. And in no other humanist field was the effect as palpable as in that of the appreciation of the visual arts. The story has several times been told of which universities and institutions, mainly in Britain and the United States, the art scholars went to. At such an exalted level the transference of talent was a relatively smooth story, if not quite painless. But at the more humble, practical level of the commercial publication of art books for the average intelligent reader, Britain got the Phaidon press, for example, as a gift out of the blue. For two generations, not just the instructive content but the engaging appearance of Phaidon books have been of a quality taken for granted. But it was an imported quality which attained its first high state of development somewhere else.

At present there is a good opportunity to build up one’s own private picture of how a whole institution of modern intellectual commerce – thought, writing, printing, design and distribution – moved from one country to another. The now lavish use of full colour in art books, a change partly made possible by Phaidon itself, has led to a lot of people, or more likely their grown-up children, releasing an avalanche of old, largely black-and-white illustrated art books onto the second-hand market, where the bookshop owners tend to price them low for resale, on the assumption, no doubt correct, that the casual collector is unlikely to want a book which has been rendered technically obsolete. If the emphasis is on paintings rather than drawings, then any volume whose plates are mostly in monochrome is sure to look like a back number. So for a few pounds you can take your pick between multiple copies of those crown folio albums which often had the double function of introducing a major artist to the general public while allowing a qualified scholar to get his thoughts down, albeit in compressed form. If the qualified scholar had first expressed those thoughts in some unattainably expensive multi-volume standard work, then to have them expressed in a short version was a clear gain even at the time. Lately I have picked up the crown folio volumes devoted to Botticelli, Vermeer, Raphael, Velazquez and Leonardo. I note them in the chronology of their publication, which was a chronology of war and the time leading up to it. The Leonardo was published in 1944, the Velazquez in 1943, the Raphael and Vermeer both in 1941. The Botticelli first appeared in 1937, and, though printed in English, was not printed in England. The letterpress was done in Innsbruck and the plates in Vienna. The firm was still based in Vienna and the copyright was attributed to Phaidon’s owner and prime mover. In print, his first name, Bela, was never mentioned: it was always Dr Horovitz.

In all these large-format volumes – and in many more which I haven’t mentioned here – the presiding spirit over the selection and treatment of the plates was Ludwig Goldscheider. He was there in Vienna, and later on, for a long time, he was still there in London. (Dr Horovitz died in 1955 but Goldscheider stayed on with the firm until its first change of ownership in 1964.) A surprisingly high proportion of the plates, incidentally, are in colour: not the major proportion that would nowadays be required as standard, but a solid minor proportion, readily detectable as you browse through. (Indeed if you don’t readily detect a solid minor proportion of colour plates as you browse through, watch out: many incipient ex-owners have found that a tipped-in colour plate can be souvenired with only a fleeting pang of conscience, and second-hand bookshop proprietors rarely check the interior condition of low-priced books.) The colour plates are not as lush as those of today but are often the better for it. Goldscheider, who in all these volumes personally supervised the standards of reproduction and usually did the selection as well – there is often a discreet note saying so – had an infallible eye for the balance of colour. In recent art books the plates often have an overcleaned look, as if the dazzle of the double-coated art paper had made the inks too luminous. But Goldscheider’s plates were the culmination of a great tradition going back to the time when technical limitations imposed a long pause for thought, so that the Medici Society in England, and comparable outlets in France and the German-speaking countries, were producing results before the First World War that have not been surpassed for their delicacy since the Second. Even if the colour plates were not there, however, the volumes would almost invariably be worth having for the introductory essay, in which the scholarship often remains a model of humanism despite some of the details having gone out of date. Wilhelm Suedos’s text for the Raphael album is a particularly good example.

In the same crown folio series I recently found the Van Gogh volume in the original German. Copies of it in English abound in the second-hand bookshops because Van Gogh, like most of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, is an artist whose paintings the average reader understandably doesn’t want to look at any other way except in colour. But the original edition, dated 1936 In Phaidon Verlag Wien, takes you back to near the source of the Phaidon enterprise. The introductory essay by Wilhelm Uhde is fairly elementary but once again, although the black-and-white illustrations undoubtedly look out-of-date, there are more colour plates than you might expect, and once again they have been personally supervised by Goldscheider. The text is printed in a sans serif type to suit the Modernist theme. In retrospect, the design looks untypical and agitated – an indication that the serene interior proportions of the various Phaidon formats was attained not by a happy fluke but by calculation against pressure from within and without. With the Van Gogh book they were trying hard to look advanced, as if Van Gogh’s special contemporary importance needed defending. (It did, as things turned out: Van Gogh was one of the painters held up for mockery in the exhibition of decadent art staged in Munich the following year.) The press found its style during years of threat, and it was by no means predestined that it should have been such a poised style. Hysteria would have reflected the circumstances more naturally. When you go in search of these books and begin finding them, it becomes harder and harder, instead of easier and easier, to believe that such a classically-balanced general appearance could have been attained during the frightened lustrum which remained to Vienna before the Anschluss confirmed that to fear the worst had always been the only sensible attitude.

The style was complete by the time it got transferred to England. During the Viennese years we can see it forming. The short version of Mommsen’s Romische Geschichte was one of the founding books. A plump volume of some thousand pages in demy octavo, it was first published in 1932. My copy dates from 1934 and is from the print run extending from the 60th to the 74th thousand. If you think of the chances of such a book selling so many hardbacks so quickly in the English-speaking countries today, you start getting some idea of how widespread general culture was in the German-speaking countries at the time Hitler came to power – a disturbing idea, because it leads to the further idea that widespread culture is not much protection against vandalism.

But the immediate consideration about this compact Mommsen is the visual authority with which it demands to be picked up, leafed through and read. The many black-and-white photographs were chosen by Goldscheider, who also was responsible for the abridgment and lay-out of the text, which he selected from the first four volumes of Mommsen’s original work. Mommsen’s original fifth volume, conceived as a separate entity anyway, formed the basis of a further Phaidon book in the same format, called Das Weltreich der Caesars. Ludwig Friedländer’s Sittengeschichte Roms made up the trio, and there were other books the same shape, including Woldemar von Seidlitz’s Leonardo da Vinci and Joseph Gregor’s Weltgeschichte des Theaters. This last book I had to leave behind in a Munich bookshop recently, having expended all my cash on its companions. They make a brave show lined up together, stout but graceful tubs of distilled erudition. The photo-illustrated book on cultural history was already a tradition going back to Burckhardt, but with these chunky volumes Phaidon was restating the theme with a new conviction, as if learning needed a bulwark – which it did, at the very least.

The appearance of the thinner but taller and wider volume, the grosse illustrierte Phaidon-Ausgabe, was thus already half-established. But the larger format, naturally enough, gave more latitude for the interplay of massed text and white space, tipped-in colour plate against matt black page, gold classical capital letters on ivory buckrum binding, and all the other characteristic devices which Goldscheider brought to perfection while time ran out. Meanwhile Dr Horovitz, the pioneer of coproduction, arranged for the translation of the books into English. At least one of them was translated from English, and never translated back again in such a sumptuous form: J.H. Breasted’s History of Egypt, which was brought out as Geschichte Aegyptens in 1936, with a rich selection of illustrations from Phaidon’s own archive. That same year Phaidon brought the picture section of the book over into English, complete with its superb colour plates, but for the full effect you need to see the unabridged work, thick as a brick yet full of light and air, the tipped-in plates of falcons and pharaohs seeming to hover just above their black mountings with the pearl grey sans serif captions, and the hundreds of pages of opaque holzfreies Werkdruckpapier providing the ideal palimpsest for the faultlessly arrayed legions of Baskerville antique.

Even by the high printing standards which had for a long time obtained in the German-speaking countries, no books for ordinary consumption had ever looked like these. Books about art, they were works of art in themselves. Collecting them now, I feel like a buyer for the Pierpont Morgan Library commissioned to make a hoard of all the best illuminated books of hours, except that the cost is negligible and they belong to me instead of Morgan. One could be accused of gluttony. But there is a difference between investment and enjoyment. The print runs were too big for the books ever to attain high cash value. Their intrinsic value, however, is incalculable. Leafing through them, you can tell that a single creative impulse was controlling every detail. Goldscheider’s name is on most of the Phaidon books somewhere, and looms large on his personal tour de force, Fünfhundert Selbstporträts of 1936. There was an English version but I have seldom seen it outside a library. In a London bookshop I recently found the German original complete with dust-wrappers and the loose tissues protecting the colour plates, as if the book had never been opened. Once opened, it is not an easy book to close. Understandably a large number of the self-portraits were taken from the Uffizi collection, but in all other respects the work is a testament to Goldscheider’s archival passion, which represented the fulfilment of Burckhardt’s original intention, conceived in the previous century, to enlist photographic reproductions as an aid to the study of history. Part of Burckhardt’s intention might have been to give the study of history a lighter side. If so, Goldscheider fulfilled that too: all his books invite rather than forbid.

The Phaidon directors were obviously aware of Burckhardt’s pioneering importance and took great trouble to publish his works in a way which would have gratified him. Their quarto edition of Die Zeit Constantin des Grosses is plump with illustrations which the reader so soon discovers to be indispensable that he might need reminding what an innovation it was to have a whole photographic archive appended to the text. Both the book on Constantine and the fundamental Kultur der Renaissance in Italien were taken over into English, where the latter, when magically shrunk to the crown octavo format, was the style-setter for the range of heavily illustrated thin-paper Phaidon pocketbooks of which almost any general reader over the age of forty possesses at least one example. Usually it is The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, but there are several other likely possibilities, especially Gregorovius’s Lucrezia Borgia. By now I have managed to bag most of the others on the list, including the Brothers Goncourt on French 18th-century Painters, Cellini’s Life, Baudelaire’s The Mirror of Art, Fromentin’s The Masters of Past Time, and the essential The Journal of Delacroix, which ideally should be owned in no other way.

By the time Huizinga’s Erasmus of Rotterdam was added to the list in 1952, thin paper was obviously no longer an economic proposition: the book looks pudgy. But its predecessors, taken together, represent the peak of small-format publishing in Britain. Lately Phaidon has taken to reprinting some of these books in the series of retreads called ‘Landmarks in Art History’, but the way to own them is in the original format, which for 1944 was a cleverly appropriate thing for anyone to devise, since it reeked of luxury but on an acceptable scale. The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy must have been responsible for a lot of heart’s ease at that stage of the war. In a battledress jacket pocket it might not have stopped a bullet, but it would have staved off the feeling that all was lost, especially at a time when most of the works of art illustrated had only recently ceased having bombs dropped on them. Until lately in the second-hand bookshops it was possible to snap up these Phaidon pocketbooks cheaply, but now it is becoming necessary to pay through the nose, which is only proper, because their real worth was always high above the asking price. Looking at my set – some of them badly shaken but most of them still as firmly compact as an unopened tin of State Express 555 – I still can’t quite see how they were allowed to come into existence. Even as limited editions they would have been remarkable, but as popular printing they amounted to a small miracle.

It was, however, a European miracle, not just a British one. The German dünndruck, or thin paper, printing tradition had merely expressed itself in English. We became accustomed to it as part of the look of our post-war publishing, but when you trace it back you find that not even Phaidon invented the whole thing on their own. The high-quality pocket-book was commonplace in the German-speaking countries between the wars. The Viennese publishers in London, like the refugees who stained the glass for King’s College Chapel, reached the apex of their craft in a foreign country, but they learned its fundamentals before they left home. Gregorovius’s Geschichte der Stadt Rom im Mittelalter was published, with 240 full-page photographs, in two crown octavo volumes by Wolfgang Jess Verlag in Dresden in 1926. Squarely bound in vellum, printed on more than 1,500 pages of thin paper each, they are books that would make a humanist out of a Viking. When you look at the uncluttered lay-out of the title page, you can see everything that was to come later from Phaidon and Penguin. If nothing else were left over from Dresden, here, in a few cubic inches, would be sufficient evidence that a high civilisation once flourished in that city. The history of fine printing by specialist printers is interesting to the antiquarian market: the history of fine printing by ordinary publishers would tell us a lot about modern Europe.

Nowadays there is still an astonishing number of German and Austrian small-format books done to the same high standard, or near it. But they tend not to be in the field of art history, from which the Jews, when they were driven out or worse, subtracted the necessary capacity to see what needed doing. By the time the Nazis in Vienna had got through rendering the city judenrein, there was not much left on Phaidon’s list fit even to steal. Dürer was still all right. Not only did he date from a suitable epoch, but the book on him was written by an Aryan, Wilhelm Waetzoldt. Before the Anschluss, Waetzoldt’s Dürer had already gone through four editions. The English version is easy to find second-hand. Like all the Phaidon quarto monographs it is well worth having, but in its original language it had a sinister career. Under the Third Reich the book achieved a fifth edition in 1942, printed from the same plates but published by Kanter-Verlag in Königsberg. There is a dedication, sad in every sense, to the author’s son-in-law, killed at Kalinin in October 1941. But the tragic element is in the author’s note thanking his new publishers because they have reconquered the book for Germany.

There is no point in getting on a high horse now. Zurückerobern, ‘to reconquer’, is a terrible word for what really amounted to robbery with violence. But perhaps the author was just playing along. If the Thousand Year Reich had lasted longer than 12 years it would probably, like the Soviet Union, have demanded positive allegiance in every department of life, but as things were it was possible for an art historian to make a few token gestures and continue working, provided he stuck to a safely traditional subject. Though the annihilation of the Jews cauterised the brain of German art-scholarship, the corpse kept walking. Picking up copies of Third Reich art books second-hand can be a weird experience, not because they are different from what went before but because they are so like it. As Wolf Jobst Sedler pointed out in his excellent book of social commentary Behauptungen (Berlin, 1965), the really unsettling aspect of Nazi culture was the large areas of life that were left untouched, yet were made sinister by a new silence. Nazi radicalism was essentially retrogressive, even when viewed from the right-wing angle. The official party thinkers, such as they were, regarded even Fascism as international, avant-garde, and thus inherently Bolshevistic and un-German. Nazism left bourgeois life pretty much as it was, while depriving it of the self-generating critical element which had made it civilised. The result was a false normality worse than chaos. The awful fact of the train full of deportees leaving the station was made more awful by the train full of holidaymakers that left an hour afterwards.

The same frightening reassurance is breathed by the German art books published during the Third Reich. There is usually nothing repellent present in the book, nor are there very many signs of awkward facts being suppressed. A scholar such as Ulrich Christoffel goes on as before. It’s just that he has no competition. Pantheon Verlag, Christoffel’s publishing house, had previously been a second-rate Phaidon but now ruled the roost. His popular coffee-table book Meisterwerke der Französische Kunst (Leipzig, 1939) even has a picture by the Jew Pissarro. Christoffel could have given himself points for being brave, while reflecting that the Nazis were probably too ignorant to know much about Pissarro’s ancestry. Anyway, Impressionism was ideologically all right: it was only after Van Gogh that the official line got tough. Everything up to then was considered suitable house-furnishing in an approach to the arts which was, under the hysterical idealism, numbly materialistic. Nevertheless it was safer to stick to the established old masters of unquestionably Aryan origin, particularly Dürer and Cranach. Heinrich Lilienfein’s Lukas Cranach und seiner Zeit (Bielefeld and Leipzig, 1944) has a text printed on butcher’s paper but the colour plates are arrestingly good for a country being bombed around the clock. Here is palpable evidence for the thesis that the Nazis had only a rhetorical, and never a realistic, notion of total war: with no efficient central planning there was little hope of the country’s full resources ever being committed, so these strange pockets of peaceful enterprise continued, as if nothing was going on. Christoffel himself spent a large part of the war preparing a new edition of his standard work on Holbein, which he finally managed to get published by Verlag des Druckhauses Tempelhof in 1950. The colour plates are unimprovably good and the reproduction of the drawings is the equal of the Phaidon Holbein Drawings at Windsor Castle done in England after the war. Yet you can’t open it without seeing ghosts. ‘The book should have appeared in its new form in 1943 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Hans Holbein’s death,’ begins the author’s foreword. ‘The circumstances at that time prevented the printing.’

The circumstances at that time included, for nearly all of Christoffel’s most eminent contemporaries, forced exile at the very least. But at this distance we should be slow to judge. The Viennese critic Alfred Polgar, one of the most glittering figures of the emigration, had a right to be scathing about Furtwängler, but pitied him instead. All we have leave to say about a tiddler like Christoffel is that he seems to have flourished in the circumstances at that time, when the giants of the field were dead, foully imprisoned or on the run.

The emigration ended up in England or in America, but it had several preliminary stages. People could go from Berlin to Vienna in 1933, and then from Vienna to Prague in 1938, and then to Paris or Amsterdam. Only the very eminent found the path at all smooth. Even for so great a scholar as Max J. Friedländer, an old man at the height of his learning and reputation, there were some chancy steps on the way to safety, which until the war was over he never quite reached: he had to hide out in Amsterdam. A fundamental collection of his essays, On Art and Connoisseurship, was published by Bruno Cassirer in Oxford in 1942: the publishing imprint of Cassirer was itself at the end of a long trail into exile which had started in Berlin. The translation from the German was by Tancred Borenius, otherwise prominent as a contributor to Faber’s list of books on art, the Faber Gallery.

On Art and Connoisseurship is simply one of the best books of criticism in any field that I have ever read: learned yet actual, compressed yet clear. The same applies to its companion volume Essays über die Landschaftsmalerei which Cassirer brought out in German in 1947 (the Hague and Oxford) and then in R.F.C. Hull’s English translation (distributed by Faber) in 1949. So the octogenarian’s later essays, the distillation of his wisdom, had been made safe. As for his earlier, central work on the Netherlandish painters, in the 1950s it was published in English as From Van Eyck to Bruegel and became one of the books which proved that scholarship could sit well on the coffee-table. Gombrich’s The Story of Art was to be, as it still is, the all-time best-seller, but Friedländer was only the most prominent of a whole range of important scholars whose work was drawn upon by the firm to show that the general reader would buy a hard text if it were well presented: library shelf and coffee-table, it was assumed, were in the same room.

Perhaps Vienna, where bright ideas were thought up in coffee-houses, was a natural place for such a notion to get started. But really it was a tradition going all the way back to the aforementioned, spiritually omnipresent Burckhardt. Anyone who haunts the secondhand bookshops in even a few European cities will gradually find himself tracing the succession back through the generations. Friedländer’s incumbency at the Berlin Picture Gallery and Print Room (terminated abruptly in 1933) he inherited from the mighty Wilhelm von Bode, the subject of an especially valuable chapter in Friedländer’s last book, Reminiscences and Reflections (London, 1969), a misprint-laden slim volume which was out to remainder for what seemed like years, but is now not so easy to find. Bode, as well as being tough enough to give a Jew like Friedländer a leg up, had other moral qualities. Above all, though a tremendous connoisseur who built up the Berlin collections to world importance, he was unsnobbish enough to be a confident populariser. The German multi-volume art-history encyclopedia, the Propyläen Kunst-Geschichte, has an impressive contribution by Bode. Called Die Kunst der Frührenaissance in Italien (Berlin, 1923), it is a thumping volume on the Quattrocento which starts with a 150-page essay – Friedländer said that Bode was no great shakes as a writer, but perhaps the gifted pupil was being tough on his master – and goes on to provide more than four hundred plates of which the tipped-in colour reproductions are beyond reproach. I found it in a London bookshop for a few pounds and can only imagine it got there because an émigré had died and his descendants didn’t see the point of keeping such an out-of-date-looking whopper. The self-consciously Neo-Classical spine does rather look like a ponderous gesture by Ludwig I of Bavaria towards the ancient world, but when you look inside the book, it is like looking into the future which is now our present. The whole appearance of the Pelican History of Art is already there. The way that Phaidon was to mount its plates on coloured paper is also there. Even the texture of the art paper, which we tend to think of as a post-war luxury, is there. And all this finely judged solidity was produced in the Weimar Republic only a year after the inflation was at its height.

Going further back still, there is a clear stylistic connection between Bode’s Propyläen volume and Karl Koetschau’s pre-World War I gallery guide Das Kaiser Friedrich-Museum zu Berlin (Leipzig, probably 1911). Whatever other aspects of civilisation had been shaken by the First War, art history survived it as a direct continuity. The main difference between Bode’s time and Koetschau’s was that the Berlin collections had grown richer. It took the Nazis to break the connection. Otherwise you can go from 1933 all the way back to Burckhardt, who was himself as much a culminator as an instigator, since in writing general cultural history he was fulfilling a requirement which had already been proposed by Schiller. But Burckhardt’s genius lay exactly in that – he fulfilled it. He had the Olympian sovereignty and the disinterested judgment. (The words, which I wish were mine, are from Egon Friedell’s 1918 essay on Burckhardt collected in Friedell’s Abschaffung des Genies, Munich, 1982.) Also Burckhardt had the necessary lack of snobbery. He knew too much about art to be put off something just because the public liked it. His collections of letters are unputdownable. The year before last in London I found Briefe an einen Architekten 1870-1889 (Munich, 1913). It is amusing and instructive to see how Burckhardt gives Verdi and Wagner an equally thorough hearing but won’t be budged from the conviction that Verdi is the superior artist. After his second hearing of Aida in Munich he had to calm himself down with beer. Touring the European museums and galleries, he collected photographic reproductions with the same enthusiasm. There are peeved letters about how much the photographs cost in London. It was the basis of the whole pictorial tradition by which German and Austrian books on cultural history, and on history generally, were to set world standards. But as Friedell suggested, probably none of it would have happened if Burckhardt hadn’t been Swiss. It needed a politically stable base to allow such scope.

Nevertheless there was no intention to be soothing in Burckhardt’s belief – expounded in Weltgeshichtliche Betrachtungen – that pessimism leads to a false view of history. Pessimism he merely distrusted. Optimism he loathed. Though it was true that we could not define good fortune if ill fortune did not happen, still there were some evil events which produced nothing but devastation and could not be looked upon as edifying even at long range. Not every act of destruction, he said, is succeeded by a new creativity. Sometimes the loss is total. One of his examples was Tamburlaine, with his pyramids of skulls and his walls of stone, lime and living men. Burckhardt, for all his curiosity, was a realist by conviction. But not even with Burckhardt’s historical imagination could anyone have guessed that so blindly damaging a force as Nazism would appear in the age to come.

When the pyramid of skulls was dismantled, the air wasn’t clear so much as empty. The standard of German and Austrian book production is as high as ever, which means it is higher than ours. But too many of the people went away. Phaidon, like the Warburg Institute or the theory of general relativity, was a child of German-speaking parents but it grew up speaking English. The refugees had a mission to preserve civilisation. They were the democratic equivalent of a monarchy in exile, except that afterwards they mostly did not go home. The very intensity of their effort is probably the real reason why, except for the tirelessly productive Gombrich, it could not be maintained, since the succeeding generation lacked the same desperate incentive. The indigenous British art writers added some important titles to the list during the first 25 years since the war, but even to the casual eye, Phaidon rather lost its way in more recent times, although under yet another set of new owners it says that things will pick up. With Gombrich’s Story of Art as a cash cow, Phaidon in Britain was in the same position as Capitol Records in America, which with the Beatles on its list could theoretically make any mistake and still be in profit. But Capitol went broke anyway. Phaidon did not go broke but it did seem to go haywire. All kinds of catch-penny titles came into the catalogue and editorial control showed signs of desperation. In the 1982 enlarged edition of Keith Roberts’s Degas – one of the books in the old Colour Plate Series which has been bumped up to the new Colour Library format – the flap refers to Edouard Degas, which makes you wonder whether there will be a book on Edgar Manet. Meanwhile the remainder shops fill up with stacks of the Phaidon Colour Plate series. These I buy at a cut rate as I would not have bought them at full price, having been spoilt by second-hand bookshops and also wanting more for that money than just pictures.

But probably not enough people had felt the same way, so that the competition from all the picture-book firms from Skira on down had made too chancy the business of publishing serious works for the general market, especially when, as in Skira’s case, some of the writers doing the short text were well enough qualified to persuade you that the book was half-way to being a scholarly monograph anyway, and not just an album. By now Skira itself has been outflanked: some of its titles seem to be going straight to remainder, where they are hard to resist at the price – the Pissarro is the pick of the current bunch.

The art book boom is either over and done with or else is splitting up again, with albums of captioned colour plates for the general reader and serious works of original research for the student. The two functions are all too easily separated. In China I bought art books I couldn’t read just for the pictures, and in the West I have bought books about Chinese art mainly for the text: the book that satisfies both requirements is perhaps hard to bring about. Not that the old European scholar-popularisers have died off. The generation they trained is now mainly in the universities, and that mainly means the American universities. Paul Hayes Tucker’s Monet at Argenteuil is the kind of rock-solid scholarly contribution which Phaidon might once have published but could today only republish. Professor Tucker thanks the University of Massachusetts for a Faculty Development Grant and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation for its support from 1975 to 1977. A lot of travel and research went into the book, which shows the benefits: a simple thesis, that Monet edited the landscape to make it seem more rural, has been backed up with a wealth of on-the-spot investigation. It looks like a Phaidon book now but reads the way a Phaidon book used to. Phaidon continues to bring over some of the important Continental works into English, such as Pierre-Louis Mathieu’s Gustave Moreau, which it published in 1977. And there are even a few such efforts still being initiated within this country. But the old coherent picture has broken up, as it probably had to do, since it was held together by external pressure, which has since relaxed. MacNeice’s refugees are no longer prominent in the vicinity of the British Museum. The popularisers are now publicists, the scholars are specialists. Any British art historian based on a university will probably take his next book to whichever firm is likely to do the best job. If he is part of a community of scholars, it is not based on a publishing firm. The old Phaidon was a community, but perhaps it was the same kind of community you get in a lifeboat.

In which case the price was too high. You can’t wish all hell to break loose just so that civilisation might once again become fully aware of itself. Max Friedlander learned his famous quality of selectivity from Schopenhauer, who always warned against the danger of reading about something instead of looking at it. There was humility under Friedländer’s pride, as there was under Burckhardt’s, who knew that to show his students a photograph of a work of art was at least as important as anything he could say about it. Eventually it is the pictures that count. Connoisseurship and scholarship put the pictures in the right place, so that we can see them. We see pictures, and we see pictures of the pictures, forming in our minds what Malraux called the museum without walls. But Malraux’s idea was already there in Elie Faure’s L’Esprit des Formes, and anyway it was implicit in the behaviour of Burckhardt, part of whose collector’s impulse was the urge to have all the world’s visual wealth at arm’s reach. The photograph of the work of art is not the work of art, but then neither is the work of art. The material object is a registration of the human spirit, that alleged abstraction which becomes so tangibly precious during a catastrophe, like the one brought about by the failed artist Hitler, in the circumstances at that time.