High on art's main currents

Vision - What is Painting? - British Painting
May 21, 1999

Tom Rosenthal celebrates the cutting edge of art book publishing.

I must, as they say, declare an interest. Apart from the usual myriad vacation jobs, Thames and Hudson was my first employer. I was there for 12 years from 1959 to 1971 and whatever I learned about publishing in general and art book publishing in particular over some 40 years was learned at the feet of Walter and Eva Neurath. It is, therefore, not easy to be entirely objective about this year's celebrations of Thames and Hudson's 50th anniversary - and the publication of Vision: 50 Years of British Creativity - but I shall try.

Thames and Hudson is one of the good legacies of Adolf Hitler; he caused an extraordinary exodus of Jewish publishers who, against appalling odds - a new country, a new language and no old money - made their mark on British publishing. Andre Deutsch, Paul Hamlyn, Bela Horovitz, Walter and Eva Neurath and George Weidenfeld had an enormous influence. Thames and Hudson is unique among these houses because it is still an independent, family-owned business, built on a rising curve of success that has shown no signs of the clogs to clogs in three generations syndrome.

Walter Neurath was a founder member of Neustift (New Foundations), a small left-wing commune of intellectuals with a radical approach to both life and culture. He worked in his native Vienna at various Jewish publishing houses. One closed itself down when the rise to power of the Nazi Party virtually deprived it of its principal German-language market.

Because of his anti-Nazi publishing activities, Neurath was soon on the Gestapo lists, and after several near-misses and a period in hiding, he managed to get to England on June 1 1938. He was soon offered work by a company called Adprint, run by a fellow refugee, Wolfgang Foges, as managing director. He became the production manager and designed and produced the celebrated King Penguin series. After its success, Neurath developed a somewhat larger and more ambitious series called Britain in Pictures, edited by W. J. Turner, and an even more numerous and more permanently successful series, The New Naturalist, edited by Julian Huxley.

A formidably scholarly and erudite man, Neurath had a genius for making illustrations an integral part of a book -placing them prominently on the page together with the words to which they were related, rather than banishing them to the "plates" section in the centre or, worse still, at the back of the book - as was the convention of his day for publishers such as Phaidon Press.

Thus, at a stroke, Adprint and Neurath had become a significant force in quality illustrated book publishing in this country. The path was, however, not wholly smooth or unbroken. Neurath was not yet a naturalised British subject, and the powers that be, failing to distinguish between Jewish refugees who had fled virtually certain death in concentration camps and other non-Jewish "enemy aliens", despatched Neurath to an internment camp on the Isle of Man, alongside the Amadeus Quartet and other distinguished European artists and intellectuals.

Happily, a relevant civil servant, Richard Cowell, aware that the Britain in Pictures series had considerable propaganda value, managed to get Neurath released rapidly (he was interned for only two weeks), and he was soon back at work with eventual naturalisation as a British subject to follow.

Neurath founded Thames and Hudson on an exceedingly modest capital of Pounds 7,000 in September 1949. (His co-directors included his Adprint colleague Eva Feuchtwang who, after the death of his wife, married him. As Eva Neurath, she has been one of the most successful woman publishers in the world and, aged 90, is still the company's chairman.) The company was named after the rivers of London and New York, to signify its ambition to publish on both sides of the Atlantic, although the point was frequently missed and letters addressed to Mr Thames and Mr Hudson were often received.

Because of Neurath's high reputation in America, and because at that time not only editorial costs but also design, printing and binding were much cheaper in England and Europe than in the United States, American art book publishers such as Abrams and the great museums such as the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art in New York not only appointed Thames and Hudson their representatives, but also entrusted some of their more complex art-historical books to the company to "package" for them, as well as publishing under its own imprint in the United Kingdom.

The Neuraths, having already established the integration of text and illustrations, also pioneered the use of a much higher proportion of colour illustration which, because of its much greater engraving and printing costs, was a brave thing to do in the 1950s, even if it is today the standard method of dealing with subjects such as art.

They invariably planned their books not only on an Anglo-American axis but also aimed at the European market, producing books that were simultaneously translated into the principal Western European languages and printed for publishers not only in the major publishing countries, such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain, but also (if the subject was sufficiently accessible) in Dutch, Finnish and the three Scandinavian languages. Eventually, even the problems of publishing key books such as Herbert Read's A Concise History of Modern Painting in Japanese were mastered.

Read's volume was part of a series, The World of Art, which was to be, and still is, one of the mainstays of the list. Neurath was the first publisher not only to produce art books at affordable prices - a World of Art title with about 100 pictures in colour would, typically, cost no more than a decent biography - but he was also the first to foresee the rise of the quality original paperback. By putting The World of Art into paperback form, he could issue the books at prices that could fit student budgets; and the best titles in the series, such as Read's volume or Michael Levey's From Giotto to Cézanne: A History of Western Painting (which had more than 500 colour illustrations) went on academic reading lists all over the world, in as many as 20 languages, and sold by the hundred thousand.

Neurath had a considerable persuasive gift in attracting the leading figures in their subjects, and historians such as H. R. Trevor-Roper, Asa Briggs and A. J. P. Taylor were happy to join their art-historical colleagues in these ventures. When he got Glyn Daniel, then editor of Antiquity , to edit a new series of archaeological books titled Ancient Peoples and Places, neither man could have foreseen the publication, over half a century, of more than 100 separate titles. A connoisseur of art, Neurath was often the first publisher to recognise the talents of new artists, and Thames and Hudson published the first book on painters such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Jackson Pollock and many more.

On September 26, 1967, aged only 63, he succumbed to cancer, which he had fought heroically for many months, working to the last to ensure that the substantial business he had created would continue without him on the principles he had established. The company is now run by his son Thomas. His daughter Constance is a director and a third generation is also working in the firm.

There have been other publishers who have succeeded at what the French rather snobbishly call haute vulgarisation , but there is little doubt that Thames and Hudson is the world's leading publisher of illustrated scholarly art books with, as is essential for economic survival, a judicious admixture of the popular, of which Vision is a perfect example.

Short on text and long on pictures, Vision contains brief essays by David Sylvester and David Hockney on painting, Melvyn Bragg on television and the arts, Martin Harrison on photography, Michael Craig-Martin on the role of art education and Nicholas Serota on the Turner prize, as well as nearly 300 illustrations in colour. Apart from painting, sculpture and photography, it also covers architecture, fashion, furniture, industrial design and all the other subjects that constitute our visual perception of this country. That the book's range is almost precisely the same in time and subject matter as the publishing house is, at the very least, an elegant serendipity.

Christopher Frayling informs us in his foreword that "the phrase 'Cool Britannia' originated 30 years ago (I'm slightly ashamed to admit) with a group of Royal College of Art graduates who formed themselves into the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. First time round, though, it was intended as a joke."

Frayling's somewhat chastening thought is a useful lead-in to a book that is organised chronologically, with roughly two double-page spreads of illustrations, with long informative captions, per year. To this reviewer at least, it is a sometimes almost painfully sentimental journey back to when one first became aware of art and its allies, just before the 1951 Festival of Britain and when the English neo-Romantics were in flower: John Piper, John Minton, Michael Ayrton, John Craxton, Ceri Richards and the great panjandrum Graham Sutherland. One cannot help contrasting them with the artists who fill the last pages; Mona Hatoum, Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, Jenny Saville and the rest of the "Sensation" crowd. Did Sutherland, Piper et al set out so steadfastly to shock? Did they seek to shock at all? At least in those days we were spared the endless what-I-did-on-my-holidays home videos that constitute such a depressing component of the current art scene. There is a revealing caption to the illustration for Gillian Wearing's Turner prizewinning video 60 Minutes Silence: "for which the group of policemen and women undertook the testing task of keeping still and silent for an hour".

Unquestionably, the book is up to date - the last illustration is of that costly potential white elephant, the Millennium Dome - and admirably catholic in its selections. It is good to see such design classics as the Trainspotting poster, James Dyson's Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner and the poster for "Sensation" itself. They contrast nicely with the magnificent Lucie Rie stoneware bowl of 1978 and, going back almost to the beginning, Abram Games's brilliant Festival of Britain logo and Powell and Moya's Skylon. Like all such surveys, Vision will infuriate as many by its omissions as it will please by its selections, but, as a browse through the visual turmoil of our half century, it is both memory prod and intellectual stimulation and is itself admirably designed.

Julian Bell's represents another strand of the Thames and Hudson tradition, a brief, provocative and carefully illustrated work in the category for which one can only employ the French word essai. Already hailed by E. H. Gombrich, this book bears all the hallmarks of a classic text written by someone who is both painter and writer. It is a combination that tends, in a branch of learning and teaching that so often produces clotted, modish and indigestible prose, to yield a lucidity and a sense of practical experience that all too often eludes the academic. Bell, as the son of Quentin Bell, is of course a scion of Bloomsbury and one would love to know what that other writer-painter Roger Fry would have made of this.

Despite its clarity of style, Bell's book is actually impossible to summarise. Like all the best books on art, and particularly the philosophy of art, it requires careful reading, since it is very dense and nearly every page has a useful aperçu .

Puzzling over a Degas painting of two women whose history cannot be accurately gauged, Bell writes: "These women could be anyone, it is all of a piece. We are all trying to overhear the meaning but we are stuck with the mere look. We look at this kind of painting now and think: Degas had been looking at snapshots. But it follows from what I have been saying in chapter two that photography in the first place was more of a symptom than a cause of changes in picture-making. Early photographers tended to compose their shots like paintings, so as to present information in an orderly manner; the 'arbitrary' look of the snapshot, the grabbed glimpse, had yet to be exploited by them." That is as good a gloss on that great 19th-century clash between painting and photography as I have read.

Time and again Bell's perceptions are illuminating. He has clearly read his Freud, who could himself have written: "One bodily analogue for expression, in fact, is excretion; a thought not lost on Piero Manzoni, who in the 1960s canned, labelled and sold several tins of Artist's Shit ." Indeed, how one would have enjoyed knowing the thoughts of the sage of Vienna on first encountering Manzoni's work; the phrase "anal retentiveness" somehow springs unbidden to the mind.

I particularly admire Bell -Ja working painter, remember -Jfor his merciless exposure of the American Ad Reinhardt, who endlessly and oh-so-tediously paints all black rectangles. Having quoted a passage of Reinhardt's dreary prose, Bell comments: "Reinhardt's act - unrestricted assertions about art, profoundly constricted evidence of actual skill - challenged his audience in a quasi-religious manner: he was directing their vision towards a zone of sublime, utter stasis. At the same time his negative aesthetics were, in the most provocative form, the act of the emperor's tailors, in the most familiar of all popular myths about modern art."

If Vision is a book to browse through and look at the wonderful illustrations, What is Painting? is a highly sophisticated view of art and a constant stimulus not just to thought, but to a reappraisal of one's own received ideas.

William Vaughan's book, British Painting , is the latest addition to the mainstay of the Thames and Hudson list, The World of Art series. It is a brisk, commonsense canter through what is probably the most fruitful period in the history of British art. There is throughout a strong historical perspective, beginning with the heady influence of patriotism at the beginning of the period and the interesting point that when the Royal Academy was founded in 1768 it was a private institution and not, like its continental counterparts, state-run and controlled.

Vaughan is good on Hogarth, whom he rightly compares to Dickens and who was the first English painter to find international fame. Yet he writes:

"Disdain for Hogarth has been as constant as his fame I. he appears to the arbiters of good taste to be impossibly vulgar ... he seems to be dragging art out of the temple and into the gutter ... He has never been quite forgiven for this by the art establishment, even to this day."

For those who could possibly doubt the appellation, the Golden Age, Vaughan gives us brief but sound analyses of, among others, William Blake, Zoffany, Wright of Derby, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Gillray, Stubbs and Constable. He even gives us our two invaluable Americans, Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley, and has room, in his illuminating chapter on "Landscape and history", for that splendid eccentric Philippe de Loutherbourg, whose masterpiece, Coalbrookdale by Night , is reproduced. Above all, it is appropriate that the last part of the book is dominated by the greatest of all English painters, Turner, about whom Vaughan poses a crucial philosophical question. It is a truism of our study of 20th-century art that the late, often quite indeterminate Turners, with their wild swirls of abstract colour, are the forerunners, the prototypes, even the icons, of impressionism, post-impressionism and the other seismic movements that followed. Vaughan writes: "It is not so much that Turner is a precursor of impressionism and abstraction, one could argue. It is that impressionism and abstraction make these works into paintings." Since many of the canvases we now so admire were considered at the time of Turner's death to be unfinished, we clearly have here as neat an illustration of the artistic chicken-and-egg conundrum as one could possible devise.

It is surely fitting that the last words of this book are:

"Turner's late work is the last and most brilliant outburst of a forward-looking modernity that had been initiated by Hogarth. After that, British painting lost its radical edge." One wonders quite where "Sensation" would come into this if Vaughan were to write a sequel, but then so much of "Sensation" is not painting as such.

Do I prefer late Turner to Hirst et al ? A rhetorical question if ever there was one - particularly as I explored the other day, after a visit to the Turners at the Tate Gallery, Damien Hirst's installation of a chemist's shop at the same gallery. Has our premier modern art museum given itself expensively over to advertising Pharmacy, Mr Hirst's newish west London restaurant? O tempora , O mores .

Tom Rosenthal is chairman, Institute of Contemporary Arts. He is writing a study of Sidney Nolan for Thames and Hudson.

Vision: 50 Years of British Creativity

Editor - Michael Raeburn
ISBN - 0 500 01906 1
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £24.95
Pages - 240

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