Books do furnish a Painting by Jamie Camplin & Maria Ranauro

Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

Thames and Hudson have got form for publishing tempting books that combine art and literature – Eric Karpeles’ Paintings in Proust: a visual companion to In Search of Lost Time is easily the most compelling reason I’ve ever seen for reading In Search of Lost Time (maybe one day). Books do furnish a Painting however has to be an irresistible title for anyone with even a passing enthusiasm for art to literature.

As it happens art and literature are two of my favourite things, so a book that sets out to explore the relationship between them in western art over the last 500 and more years – well quite apart from anything else, it’s something I wish I’d thought of first.

There are 165 thematically arranged illustrations here to explore what books, and reading, might be used to mean in art. There’s discussion of what a book is, and the symbiotic relationship between the development of books and the modern idea of an artist, before considering what books are being used to symbolise, or in some cases excuse.

Some of it is obvious – education, religious piety, social status, professional achievement, scientific discovery; a book can be used as shorthand for all of these things and it’ll be easily understood by the viewer. Changing patterns of transport, gender roles, romance, sex, friendship, aids to rest, dangerous or subversive behaviour – these are maybe less clear to the inexpert eye.

Augustus Leopold Egg, ‘Past and Present, No. 1’ 1858 Photo © Tate. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

One painting that isn’t shown in this book, but is discussed, is Augustus Leopold Egg’s ‘Past and Present, No. 1’ (left). It’s a Victorian triptych, in scene number one a women is prostate on the floor in front of her dazed looking husband, who has just received evidence of her infidelity, their children look on. There are clues throughout the image, including half an apple rotten at its core to help us read it. The future is indicated by a tumbling house of cards the girls had been building. The book they had set it on is by Balzac.

Moralisers of the day considered Balzac a corrupting influence, so it’s another clue to this particular domestic set up. The critic Ruskin apparently suggested in a letter that the errant wife’s likely reading would have been historical romance, and she’d have been incapable of understanding Balzac’s subtlety. Understanding what that particular detail means adds to the enjoyment of the picture. As I think does Ruskin’s waspish commentary, which also reveals something of his attitude towards women. 

There are whole worlds of meaning and possibility to explore here, and either as a book to dip in and out of, or one to sit down and read, it’s fascinating. A string of images of women absorbed by their reading, seemingly oblivious to the artist, feel unexpectedly voyeuristic, whilst Edvard Munch’s ‘Christmas in the Brothel’ does not. (The artist is passed out drunk, the madam is enjoying a book and a cigarette). It’s a book full of surprises, and if it’s not to early to mention it, it would make an excellent Christmas present.

Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Jamie Camplin & Maria Ranauro, Books do Furnish a Painting (Thames & Hudson 2018). 978-0500252253, 256pp., hardback.

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