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.

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