Book review: Lost Prestige

Lost Prestige, by historian, diplomat and former Hungarian Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky, now published in English translation, is a book about reputation. Using British perceptions of Hungary in the years leading up to the First World War, it seeks to examine more broadly the relationships between states, and how international reactions to particular events can shape universal judgements. We have all become used to seeing opinions presented as general consensus by a manipulative Press, or appearing to have traction on an unedited social media, but what does this really reveal? We are in a hall of mirrors, Jeszenszky suggests. And behind this, as the silvering on the mirror, lies moral posturing or vested interest. 

No mirror is perfect: every looking glass, however well made, distorts the image, sometimes in subtle ways. Nor is the person who looks in the mirror an impartial spectator: they are looking for a reflection that will show them what they want to see or that will flatter their sense of self. 

The specific conundrum with which Jeszenszky grapples is this: In 1848, Hungary rebelled against Austria, demanding its constitutional freedoms. Hungarians gained wide international support, particularly in Britain, and came to be seen as a noble people standing up bravely against oppressive and absolutist masters. By 1914 this reputation was in tatters and it was Hungary, rather than Austria, who was regarded as authoritarian and chauvinistic. How did this happen?

If we cannot see things directly ourselves, we rely on mirrors and lenses for information. Lost Prestige is an examination of how the perception of things and the way those perceptions are presented can alter the course of history. Immediately after 1848, Hungarians were largely telling their own story. The anti-Habsburg revolutionary Ferenc Pulszky spent his exile in Britain and his wife Theresa wrote a best-selling memoir in English. The architect of the revolution, Lajos Kossuth, toured Britain and America giving talks to enthusiastic audiences. But although reactions were widely favourable, the Habsburg empire was nevertheless still seen as integral to the European balance of power. Voicing public support for plucky Hungary’s bid for independence was one thing, but Britain’s mandarins were privately pleased when in 1849 Russia stepped in to crush the revolution and to restore the integrity of Austria. A fully independent Hungary was not in Britain’s interests. It was a romantic idea, perhaps, but not a sensible one. In the first years of the 20th century, however, two influential British commentators appeared: Henry Wickham Steed (Vienna correspondent of the Times), and R.W. Seton-Watson, a journalist and campaigner. Initially both men were great champions of Hungary but over time their attitudes became more and more critical. Their conclusions not only swayed the opinions of the British public; they also began to influence British foreign policy, in Hungary’s disfavour. How and why?

By the 1890s, Hungary was no longer the underdog. She was widely seen to have received a “good deal” in the Compromise agreement of 1867, when the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary came into being, but the huge bulk of her non-Magyar population—Croats, Slovaks, Romanians and others—lacked political representation. International sympathies now turned to these marginalised minorities. Britain had another reason, too, for deploring Hungary’s attitude: internal conflicts between Magyars and non-Magyars blinded the country as a whole to the external threats besetting it. In holding up a mirror to Hungary, Britain hoped to see a bulwark against German ambition. Instead it saw selfish, Magyar-centric chauvinism, an arrogant assumption that the prosperity Hungary enjoyed was all of her own making, and petty quarrelsomeness with Austria in demanding more rights for herself while denying those same rights to her non-Magyar peoples. Hungary’s obstreperousness in obstructing the proper workings of Parliament and stubbornly insisting on a Hungarian language of command (instead of German) in the Hungarian army (despite the fact that almost half of its soldiers were not Magyars) was widely deplored. For decades the existence of a united Austria-Hungary had been central to British policy, its dissolution unthinkable. Britain now began to think about it.

It was at this point that Wickham Steed and Seton-Watson came into their own. The Monarchy’s Slavs, Wickham Steed reported, were more reliably anti-German than the Hungarians. Partition of Austria and the creation of new buffer states along ethnic lines might be a better safeguard against German domination of the region. The creation of such states would bring the added advantage of liberating peoples groaning under a system of repression by Hungary which Seton-Watson described as “without any parallel in civilized Europe”. This book does not directly blame Seton-Watson or Wickham Steed for the outcome of Trianon (the post-WWI treaty by which Hungary was deprived of two thirds of her territory, millions of her citizens and a significant proportion of her natural resources), but it was Britain who led the charge towards the dismemberment of the Habsburg empire and it did this even before the War was over, for example by entering into treaties with Italy and Romania, enticing them over to the Allied side in return for territorial reward. Jeszenszky quotes a telegram sent in January 1915 to the British Embassy in Bucharest by the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey: “We have already declined to entertain any suggestion of Hungarian independence that would prevent satisfaction of Roumanian national aspirations as regards Transylvania.” It was a done deal. What Britain did not see was that there is no such thing as “the Slavs”. Croats, Serbs and Slovenes do not always think alike and their interests are not necessarily the same; nor are those of Czechs and Slovaks. Prophetic voices such as that of the intelligence officer Leo Amery, warning that breaking up Austria-Hungary would create a “new Balkan” of weak, unstable states which would “sooner or later lead to another war”, were ignored. 

Britain was an imperial power not known for championing the self-determination of the peoples under her dominion. How dare she, one might ask, attack Hungary on the subject of the way she treated her minorities? Wickham Steed excused himself by maintaining that his attitude was directed purely and simply by British national interest. As he saw it, a Hungary which worked in harmony with its nationalities would be a stronger ally against Germany. One that was at daggers drawn with them was a danger to Britain. Seton-Watson’s attitude was more personal. He had friends among the non-Magyars in Hungary and the horror-stories they told him led him to see everything in black and white. His Racial Problems in Hungary (1908) was shocking and convincing but it was also exaggerated and factually selective, “a passionate piece of polemical writing”. Hungary was certainly unlucky in making an enemy of him, since he was more of an activist than a historian. He orchestrated the bombardment of Austro-Hungarian troops with leaflets showing proposed new national borders and urging Slav and Romanian soldiers to desert and join international legions. Murky tactics. But Jeszenszky notes that Hungary was fooling herself in clinging to the notion that she was or could become a homogenous nation and her tendency to see all manifestations of national feeling as separatism, and thus to crush them, merely served to fan the flames.

In some ways this book is a portrait in non-fiction of the plot of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy: a wilfully blind elite class of Magyars refusing to see how hard the people they oppress (both the national minorities and the working classes) are longing for their destruction. And Jeszenszky pulls off a rare feat: he makes parliamentary history into a page-turner. But quite a lot of background knowledge is taken for granted and readers not already familiar with Hungarian history will need to look things up, because Lost Prestige is not a history book, it is a book about image: about how Hungary was viewed and judged by external media and about how it failed to turn the mirror on itself to see how big its warts really were.

The Paris Peace Conference made many mistakes. In Central Europe, multiple peoples were living “overlapping and mixed and it was next to impossible to create States uniting all the members of a nation and having no large minorities that had their own distinct language and identity.” Human nature is universal and after Trianon, Hungarians found themselves minorities among the peoples they had tried to Magyarise. But what would have happened if Hungary had appeased its nationalities? Would concessions have prevented the break-up of the Hungarian lands? Or merely accelerated it? The opinions that become history are all about perception. Perceptions drive events. Tony Blair and the spin doctors were right: it is crucial to put the right gloss on things. 

The English translation of this book is timely. How is it that Hungary has once again alienated the world’s press, when in 1956 and 1989 it was lionised? Are we seeing a repeat of 1848 and 1914? It is always tempting to look for historical parallels. The UK’s vote to leave the EU unleashed intense confrontation between leavers and remainers. Can similarities be seen with post-Dualist Hungary? Does today’s European Union approximate to the federation of states that some early 20th-century observers believed was the solution to Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and European equipoise?

And to what degree were Seton-Watson and Wickham Steed’s analyses fair? Reputation is a fragile thing, an “idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving” (Othello). Hungary, as Jeszenszky points out, was neither so liberal before the turn of the 20th century nor so reactionary afterwards as British commentators portrayed it. But instead of angrily blaming the mirror for distortion, he suggests, a better response is to consider instead whether some of the faults it shows might actually be there. We should take Jeszenszky’s concluding lines to heart: “Self-awareness that also rests on criticism from others is essential to individuals as well as to nations.”

Lost Prestige: Hungary’s Changing Image in Britain 1894–1918, by Géza Jeszenszky. English Translation by Brian McLean. Published by Helena History Press, 2020. Reviewed here by Annabel Barber.

Modernists and Mavericks

By Martin Gayford. ‘After the war, because everybody who was about had escaped death in some way, there was a curious feeling of liberty. It was sexy in a way, this semi-destroyed London. There was a scavenging feeling of living in a ruined city.’

This is the reflection of Frank Auerbach, one of the subjects of this absorbing study. Auerbach had arrived in London aged 16 in 1947. His passage to Britain from Germany when aged only seven had been sponsored by Iris Origo, well known for her sheltering of children in Tuscany in the war. His parents had perished in Auschwitz. It was understandable that he felt he was a scavenger and this might be said of many of the artists in this book, most of them figures marginal to society with a passion for a deeper understanding of reality that forced them to break through the barriers of conventional art. Auerbach’s friend David Kossoff put it well: ‘Nothing really begins to happen in a painting until you reach the point where conscious intention breaks up and ceases to be the thing that’s driving you.’

Gayford has already provided a detailed account of himself as a sitter for a portrait to the reclusive Lucian Freud (the acclaimed The Man with the Blue Scarf, 2010) so Freud and Bacon are presented here with authority. By adopting a chronological approach, from the 1940s through to the 1960s, and drawing on many notes and reminiscences, he presents a history of aesthetic struggle in which the personalities are almost as important as the art. One of the strengths of the book is the recording of many somewhat inarticulate attempts to describe what the act of creation means. There is a sense, encapsulated in the Kossoff quotation above, of breaking through to a higher state of being through the endless working and reworking of paint. The artist does not know how or why he or she has arrived at a masterpiece but recognises it when he sees it. There is as much destruction as creation, as rejected alternatives are scraped off in frustration.

Naturally many readers will be interested in the great names and there is much to enjoy. There is a particularly good section on Hockney, a close friend of the author, who was rejected by many of his contemporaries and their dealers because he did not fit into any recognisable category. As Gayford notes, like Hogarth, William Blake (a major exhibition of Blake opens at Tate Britain in September 2019) and Stanley Spencer, Hockney resolutely set out on his own path, although it was not until he arrived in New York that he found his personal and artistic awakening. He was drawn to the States for much of his working life.

Gayford is good on showing the impact of the arrival of the Abstract Expressionists, from their first London exhibition in 1956. This was the moment when the centre of the art world moved from Paris to New York. This left the London painters divided between those who followed the new trends and those who stuck to their own paths. It paid off for some. Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (from 1969) became the most expensive work ever sold at auction when it went under the hammer for $142.4 million in 2013. It is only a few artists who have the determination and confidence to transcend movements. I enjoyed the many dismissive remarks of even radical professors of art when their fledgling students upset convention.

This being London, it was inevitable that by the end of the book I began longing for some warmth, sun and blue skies in the paintings. In the many illustrations there is much to admire—some pictures that I would even have on my walls—but there was one painting above all that haunted me: Michael Andrews’ Portrait of Timothy Behrens from 1962, now in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. I knew nothing of the Norwich-born Andrews (1928–95). I was inspired to research him more fully, being drawn to his humanity, the sensitivity of his portraits and his continuous reinvention of his subject matter through to a period of peaceful spiritual landscapes. Sadly, only 250 of his pictures survive.

One bonus of this book is its readability across such a spectrum of different movements and personalities. Not least, it is a relief to be free of the jargon through which so many art historians attempt to show off their apparent knowledge. It will be hard to find a better introduction to the ‘London Painters’ than this one and it left me looking forward to reading Gayford’s more detailed studies of Freud and Hockney.

Martin Gayford, ‘Modernists and Mavericks: Bacon, Freud, Hockney and the London Painters’, Thames and Hudson, 2018. Reviewed by Charles Freeman, Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. His review of Martin Gayford’s ‘Rendez-vous with Art’, a discussion with Philippe de Montebello (Thames and Hudson, 2014), can be found on this website.

Dracula: An International Perspective

The first thing you need to do, before beginning to consult this book in any detail, is to re-read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you haven’t read it, this volume of essays will inspire you to do so; but you will enjoy the essays much more if the story is fresh in your mind.

The editor, Marius-Mircea Crișan, Associate Professor at the West University of Timișoara, Romania, has assembled an impressive array of scholars for this collection, published last year in the Palgrave Gothic series, books which deal exclusively with the Gothic genre.

The book is formed of a collection of 15 essays, all looking at Dracula from different perspectives. To begin with, there is a lot of useful contextualisation, examining not just the Dracula myth itself, but the whole concept of the exotic, the strange and the eerie. In their essay entitled “Bloodthirsty and Remorseless Fangs”, examining the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Lucian-Vasile Szabo and Marius-Mircea Crișan do an excellent job in exploring how these terrifying imaginary spaces evolved. Too much intimate knowledge of a place will prevent it from ever being depicted as evil and haunted; but some cursory knowledge is obviously necessary to give credence to the narrative. Poe, we are told, consulted several books and periodicals on East-Central Europe before committing pen to paper. As the authors note, “fantastic actions are placed in a fictive geography inspired by elements of real ones.” One is reminded of the famous remark of Robert Louis Stevenson’s (himself a creator of Gothic fantasy with his Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) that “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.” Nevertheless, this foreignness is essential. A reviewer of Dracula is cited by Szabo and Crișan as remarking that “the author seems to know every corner of Transylvania.” Of course he did not. But he managed to make his depiction seem convincing.

Such contexts are still with us. At the end of the volume, Carol Senf reminds us that we inhabit an age with an appetite for urban jungles: hence The Shining, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.

It would take far too long to review every essay in this book. Instead, I have chosen one. Since travel writing is our business at Blue Guides, I was inevitably intrigued by Duncan Light’s “Tourism and Travel in Bram Stoker’s Dracula”.

One does not immediately think of Dracula as a travel book, nor of its protagonists as tourists. But Light, a lecturer in Tourism at Bournemouth University in the UK, manages to find many ways in which tourism plays a role in the novel. He begins by defining it for us, following the definition of the WTO:

Tourism is “the activity of visitors:; a visitor is “a traveller taking a trip to a main destination outside his/her usual environment, for less than a year, for any main purpose (business, leisure or other personal purpose) other than to be employed by a resident entity in the country or place visited.” It may seem obvious in a way, but it is helpful to have it set out like this.

Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania for two reasons that can allow us to class him as a tourist. He starts out on a business trip and, as Light, points out, “the business traveller effectively becomes a leisure tourist once the working day is over. Thus Harker takes part in many of the performances associated with leisure tourism. He carefully researches his destination in advance in the same way that a contemporary tourist might consult a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.” (I cannot argue with this, except to regret that no mention is made of a Blue Guide! A modern-day Harker on his way to this part of the world might well consult Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania.) Harker also has the typical prejudices of a tourist: he compares everything with home, often unfavourably, and (rather patronisingly) describes the natives as “picturesque”.

There are other sorts of tourism examined by Light. Health tourism (visits to spas and so forth) is one; political tourism (visits to the scenes of major world events) is another. He ends with “dark tourism”, which involves visiting graves, burial sites, battlefields, the sites of murders or other atrocities. Jonathan and Mina Harker may have revisited Transylvania on a quest for the grave of Quincey Morris (after whom they have named their son, in gratitude for Morris’s aid in dispensing with the dreaded Count). We do not know. What we can be sure of, though, is that Dracula has spawned a dark tourism industry of its own. Many of those who visit Transylvania today are doing it for the frisson of travelling to the land of the vampire.

Living with Leonardo

Martin Kemp, Living with Leonardo, Fifty Years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond. Thames and Hudson, London 2018. 

Some time ago I was sitting next to a retired surgeon at a dinner party. I asked him how he filled his time. He told me that he had discovered the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and was so astonished by their accuracy that he had taken to lecturing about them. Leonardo was a pioneer in relating thought to observation; in the words of the celebrated art historian Ernst Gombrich, quoted here by Kemp, establishing that ‘the correct representation of nature rests on intellectual understanding as much as on good eyesight’. It is not only the sheer quality of Leonardo’s art and drawing that impresses, it is the endlessly inventive nature of his mind: ‘no one covered the surface of pages with such an impetuous cascade of observations, visualized thoughts, brainstormed alternatives, theories, polemics and debates, covering virtually every branch of knowledge about the visible world known in his time’.  

This last quotation is from Martin Kemp’s study of Leonardo’s drawings for an exhibition held at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2006. For fifty years he has been immersed in the works and the book under review is an account of the many adventures that have come his way in what is often a weird world of charlatans, code-breakers, ‘devious dealers and unctuous auctioneers’, as well as honest and committed scholars. As Kemp notes, Leonardo has never finished with him and as late as 2008 he was alerted to a new find, what turned out to be the Christ as Salvator Mundi, now accepted by many—if not all—experts as an original and sold for the Louvre Abu Dhabi for a staggering $450 million.  

Kemp’s chapter on ‘The Saviour’ is one of the most absorbing, partly because the subject is so topical. Almost as soon as he had first seen it in the conservation studio of London’s National Gallery, Kemp knew it was special and that it showed many of the characteristics of Leonardo. Originally it was thought to be one of twenty known copies of an original recorded in the collection of Charles I, but once cleaned of accretions and restorations it emerged as clearly superior to its competitors. There were telltale signs such as a pentimento (an alteration made as the artist worked) in Christ’s fingers that was typical of the way Leonardo painted and would not have been found in a copy. Researches of the draperies in Leonardo’s drawings and studies of rock crystal, probably the mineral of the orb that Christ is holding, gradually consolidated the attribution, at least so far as Kemp and other acknowledged experts were concerned. Others disagreed, sometimes without even having examined the painting itself. In the end, solid scientific and archival research have to marry with instinctive reactions to reach a final judgement and Kemp stands firm on the ‘Saviour’s’ authenticity. 

Kemp was first drawn to Leonardo when asked to advise on a study of the motion of fluids in his drawings. He gradually became aware of the principles that underpinned the depictions, with Leonardo relating the flow of water to the way that hair curls naturally. In fact, he was later to use this to confirm that the hair of Jesus in one of the versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder (see below) was by Leonardo. From there he moved on to the anatomical drawings in the Windsor Castle collection, and he was hooked.  

In Living with Leonardo, Kemp takes us through some of the great paintings. There is the famous Last Supper in Milan and the controversy over its restoration. He has been able to see the Mona Lisa ‘out of its prison’ twice, and recent technical work on the underpainting has provided a model for the way Leonardo worked, revising as he went along. This immediately shows up copies and Kemp is thus able to reject the so-called ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’, which was heavily backed by its owners as the original of the Mona Lisa with a sumptuous volume of ‘research’, without even seeing it. Kemp adds to his appreciation of the Mona Lisa through becoming immersed in the literature of the period, especially the Renaissance idealisation of women, and by making use of discoveries in the Florentine archives to recognise a certain Caterina Lippi as Leonardo’s mother. Caterina married elsewhere soon afterwards but Leonardo’s father, a successful Florentine notary, took Leonardo into his household without shame. 

There is a good chapter comparing the two versions of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, one the property of the Duke of Buccleugh, the other known as the ‘Lansdowne Madonna’. Both appear to be by Leonardo and the relationship between them is complex. The former was spectacularly stolen in 2003 from the ducal castle but Kemp is on hand to confirm its authenticity when it is recovered by police. Then we are on to La Bella Principessa, a haunting study of a girl in Renaissance dress, once believed to be a 19th-century German copy on vellum. Again, simply by looking at it, Kemp and others suspect it is something more than this and studies of the eye link it back to drawings by Leonardo. This is, of course, not enough to confirm an attribution, especially as it is unusual for Leonardo to paint on vellum. However, a breakthrough moment comes with the discovery of a missing page in a vellum book in the National Library in Warsaw. This was a presentation volume to Duke Ludovico of Milan to celebrate the marriage of his legitimised daughter Bianca Sforza in 1496. Leonardo was working for the Duke at the time and so his contribution is possible. It seems that the quality, if not the attribution, of the painting was recognised and the page was cut out in the 19th century. This chapter is notable for the abuse Kemp receives when he goes public that the Principessa is indeed a Leonardo likeness of Bianca Sforza. 

As with the medieval Turin Shroud, Leonardo attracts cranks. In a final chapter, ‘Codes and Codswallop’, Kemp deals with Leonardo as a Master of the Priory of Sion, with supposedly heretical additions to the Louvre version of the Virgin of the Rocks, with hidden messages in landscapes, secret letters in the eyes of the Mona Lisa, divine proportions and so on. He appears amazingly generous to purveyors of such nonsense—or perhaps he is simply intrigued with the absurdities that Leonardo provokes. (I have to sympathise: during the course of my own studies of the undoubtedly medieval Shroud of Turin, I found that the more bizarre the arguments by Shroudies were, the more fascinating the Shroud became.) 

Living with Leonardo is an excellent introduction to the cut-throat world of attributions and scholarship, here related to a formidable genius. The pressures to find a genuine Leonardo are immense. Yet in the end, it is the instinct that matters, and Kemp’s many years of study enable him to spot the lineaments of a Leonardo among the hundreds of hopefuls that reach him every year.  

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides.

Heroism on the Danube

Ingrid Carlberg: Raoul Wallenberg: The Heroic Life of the Man Who Saved Thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust. Translated Ebbe Segerberg. Maclehose Press, 2016 

The name of Raoul Wallenberg is well-known in Budapest today: there is a street named after him; two statues stand to his memory; and there is a general awareness that he was a brave individual, a Swede honoured as Righteous Among the Nations for his resistance to Nazi genocide. But who was he more exactly? This excellent biography, painstakingly assembled from interviews and written primary sources by the Swedish journalist Ingrid Carlberg, is now available in a clear and lively translation. It gives an excellent insight into the man and his times. Balanced and informed, it largely avoids the pitfalls of sermonising or anguished hand-wringing, leaving calmly-presented facts to tell the story much better.

Wallenberg was born shortly before the First World War. His father, who died two months before Wallenberg’s birth, was a scion of a Swedish banking, shipping and manufacturing dynasty. The young Wallenberg might well have expected a place in the family business, particularly as his grandfather aimed to school him for precisely such a role, sending him to study in the US and finding work placements for him in South Africa and Israel. This exotic (by the standards of the time) upbringing, coupled with the fact that his uncles never did deliver on a position in the family firm, led Wallenberg to various schemes and ventures, and, from 1941, a directorship in the Mid-European Trading Company, jointly owned by Swedish shipping magnate Sven Salén and Swedish-resident Hungarian émigré Kálmán Lauer. The company engaged in “importing eggs, fowl and tinned goods”, among other things, mainly from Hungary. 

By 1943 Nazi Germany’s genocidal ambitions and extermination of large numbers of Jews were becoming clear to the outside world. For the Allies, this was another compelling reason for doing everything to hasten the Third Reich’s defeat. Roosevelt’s World Refugee Board, established in January 1944, assembled a huge budget to aid and save Europe’s Jews. Wallenberg was well-qualified to be the WRB’s man in Budapest: he had visited the city frequently and had a considerable network there—and by coincidence, the Mid-European Trading Company had offices in the same building as the US Embassy in Stockholm. An embassy official who met Lauer in the elevator asked him to recommend “a reliable, energetic and intelligent person” for the post. But what made Wallenberg accept? As Carlberg asks, what makes an act heroic? A contributing factor might have been Wallenberg’s attendance at a secret screening, at the British Embassy in Stockholm, of the 1941 British propaganda movie Pimpernel Smith, a re-working of the Scarlet Pimpernel story, in which an eccentric Cambridge professor helps German intellectuals interned by the Nazis to escape. “That’s the kind of thing I would like to do,” Wallenberg is reported to have remarked. 

Whatever the reasons, Wallenberg, a young man of 32, found himself on his way to Hungary. After the Nazis assumed forcible control of the Hungarian government in October 1944, he energetically ran an enormous operation which gave “protected” status—Swedish diplomatic immunity—to houses in the “International Ghetto” (Budapest’s District XIII), issued official-looking but generally bogus papers to Jews with (increasingly flimsy) connections to Sweden, ran soup kitchens and gave medical support, all backed up with fearless personal interventions with Nazis and local authorities. Estimates of the number of lives saved vary, but tens of thousands of Budapest Jews probably owed their survival to Wallenberg’s efforts. 

An intriguing side-question often arises: was Wallenberg himself Jewish? Herschel Johnson, US Ambassador (“Minister”) to Sweden during WWII, described Wallenberg as “half Jewish, incidentally”. This was an overstatement, although he was, this biography tells us, one sixteenth Jewish on his mother’s side, via her paternal grandfather, an 18th-century immigrant to Sweden. Wallenberg’s business experience in Haifa and his work with Kálmán Lauer, himself a Hungarian Jew, may well have sharpened his sympathy for the plight of Budapest’s Jews. 

The second half of the book is taken up with the story of Wallenberg’s disappearance into the Soviet Union’s prison and gulag system. As the Soviets advanced across Budapest in early 1945, Wallenberg crossed Red Army lines willingly with a briefcase full of plans for Hungary’s post-war reconstruction. He was never seen in the free world again. Concrete or credible news of what happened to him was never provided, though he was clearly in Moscow’s labyrinthine Lubyanka prison immediately after the War. Uncorroborated sightings and reports emanated for decades after, cruelly raising hopes in the hearts of his ever-loyal half-siblings and their children, but he may have been murdered as early as 1947. 

Clearly judging on results, Wallenberg was a hero, a man whose personal actions, under instructions from no higher authority than his own conscience, saved thousands of lives. But questions were raised as to his methods: corners were cut; large sums were disbursed with minimal cash accounting; there were significant “related party” provisions deals where his Mid-European Trading Company was the counter-party; involvement in black marketeering was hinted at. But in fact there was no suggestion that Wallenberg personally profited in any way. Knowing how things worked, he had been clear when he spoke to Stockholm’s chief rabbi that the success of his Budapest mission would depend on bribes, and surely some of the plentiful resources of food and money at his disposal were deployed to buy the support of enemy individuals. While the flimsy pieces of paper implying a Swedish connection may have had some effect in occasionally taming the bloodthirsty urges of the German Nazi and Hungarian Arrow Cross thugs, Wallenberg’s connections, oiled by bribery, to their superiors—possibly all the way up to the crazed and drunken Eichmann—were no doubt at least as effective. 

The Communists were uneasy with the Wallenberg legacy. The institutionally dishonest world of Hungary’s post-war Stalinist regime needed morally clear and unambiguous tales of herosim. The liberation of Budapest’s ghettos by Soviet troops was one instance where they could genuinely show themselves to have been on the right side. Wallenberg, however, was problematic as a socialist hero: he had aided Budapest Jewry and saved thousands of lives but he had a capitalist family name, had been in the pay of the Americans, had engaged with the “enemy” and—embarrassingly—had disappeared in Stalin’s Russia. 

The USSR’s problem with Wallenberg was the USA’s propaganda boon. Wallenberg’s unimpeachable goodness stood in stark contrast to his probable murder—either executed or tortured to death—at the hands of the KGB. For four decades the Soviets proved unable to give a straight answer as to what had happened to him. This was a gift for the CIA, who throughout the Cold War were urgently seeking ways to undermine Soviet credibility with its supporters in the West. And indeed the USA pressed its advantage by making Wallenberg an honorary US citizen in 1981 (the first after Winston Churchill), to give them an official channel for attacks on the Soviets to release information as to Wallenberg’s whereabouts or fate. What is also well catalogued in this book is Sweden’s official pusillanimity. At the beginning of the War, when Germany seemed to be winning, neutral Sweden adopted a policy of accommodation with her powerful neighbour across the Baltic. Later, and also during the Cold War, it was the USSR whom she sought not to offend—certainly not by championing a maverick aristocrat who had gone rogue behind enemy lines and had always had an uneasy relationship with official channels.  

This book is a crisp and sympathetic biography, a brilliant and clearly-told history (particularly interesting on Sweden during and after WWII), and an excellent addition to the canon on the Holocaust. Recommended reading.

Fleming and Honour Remembered

Susanna Johnston, John Fleming and Hugh Honour Remembered. Gibson Square, London, 2017.

John Fleming and Hugh Honour’s A World History of Art (1982 and later editions, the 7th as recently as 2009) was one of those books one had to have on one’s shelves. My copy, now 30 years old, is still in place in my large art books section: its crumpled cover shows how much I have consulted it. By integrating non-Western art into the story, it represented a fresh perspective for students and soon became an unexpected bestseller. Possibly, however, Hugh Honour’s Companion Guide to Venice (1965) resonated more with me, as I carried it around on my first two or three visits to that city.

I knew nothing of the authors of A World History, certainly not that they lived happily together near Lucca for decades. The two had met in 1949, when Honour was studying English at Cambridge and Fleming, eight years his senior, was working as a solicitor. Deciding to put their lives together, they moved to the more tolerant atmosphere of Italy, where they made their permanent home. This is a charming memoir by a friend who was close to them throughout their lives there.

Susanna Johnston at 21 was certainly not untypical in having ‘no ambition other than a yearning to stay in Italy’. This required some kind of occupation, but it was a long shot when she was introduced to Percy Lubbock, widowed stepfather of Iris Origo, who was blind and grumpy but needed reading to. Johnston managed to win him over: she was able to take the place of the two young men who had kept him happy. They turned out to be Hugh Honour and John Fleming. They all became close friends before ‘the boys’ left for Asolo (Freya Stark provided a house for them) and then set up themselves up in an idyllic house, the Villa Marchio, near Lucca. This is a personal memoir and so there is little of their growing fame in the art world, something that surprised and sometimes irritated them both, especially when they had to be on show to receive prizes.

Johnston feared that she might offend them all by marrying and having babies but her husband, Nicky (the architect Nicholas Johnston), was already known to Hugh Honour and was accepted within the friendships. Eventually the Johnstons bought a house near Lucca and summers were spent in going to and fro between them. Johnston always had a shopping list to bring from London: ‘cigarettes, Charbonnel et Walker chocolates, double-edged razor blades, marmite and gossip’. Honour and Fleming, a normally fastidious pair, rather relished the wild behaviour of the Johnstons’ teenage daughters, who add memoirs of their own to this book.

Hugh Honour was ‘stately, anxious and polite’, frugal with money, (probably as a result of his father having been a bankrupt) and he could drive—somewhat wildly, while John Fleming could not—and had a dashing side that he kept confned to James Bond cigarettes and good restaurants. John was more gregarious and tactile and predictably furious with incompetent professionals. The reticent Hugh resented Johnston’s cosy chats with him. Once, when Honour had gone off to research in the US, Fleming joined Johnston’s family for the Rocky Horror Show. He was found out and there was a brief reciprocal froideur. Honour and Fleming were destined to be together, even to merge into one. Neither of them ever used the personal pronoun ‘I’. It was always, ‘We didn’t sleep very well last night’ and, ‘Our dentist is very pleased with our teeth’.

‘The boys’ knew all the leading figures of the Italian art world. Rudolf Wittkower and Bernard Berenson, of course, in their early days in Italy; James Pope-Hennessy, Francis Haskell and the classicist Michael Grant; but they were cautious in their friendships. They laughed cattily at the snobbishnesses of the aesthetes—Harold Acton at La Pietra in Florence (‘Too many photographs of royalty. He’s become obsessed with them. It will lead to a very lonely old age’) and were annoyed by those who stayed too long, distracting them from their work. ‘I have been busy sweeping up the names he dropped on the terrace all afternoon’, was Hugh Honour’s comment on John Calmann, the erudite but loquacious publisher of their books, who was tragically murdered the day after he left them. Comments were often waspish. On Henry Moore: ‘We think he was greatly overrated and probably ruined as an artist by Kenneth Clark, who we did NOT care for.’

Their working life consisted of Honour, the more scholarly of the two, ensconced for the day in his study, only emerging to cook for Fleming and any staying guest. It was John Fleming who wrote the chapters on architecture and was the organiser of the final text, with pictures and notes fitted in. Editors found them easy to work with but as they grew more famous, ‘rich, culture-craving elderly ladies wanted to visit them.’ They had become ‘one of the prescribed Anglo-Tuscan sights’; but these unknown visitors, whose chauffeurs gamely negotiated the rough road up to the villa, annoyed the pair and were cruelly much mocked after they had left them back in peace.

And then disaster struck. Returning from Bologna one day, they found that their house had been burgled and stripped of everything of value. The loss haunted them. Johnston scoured the antique shops for replacements but failed to find much of equivalent quality. John Fleming was never the same again and they both resented having to leave someone living there when they were away. Gradually, the long friendship changed as Fleming and Honour grew older and their villa ever more decrepit. Fleming’s sight began to worsen and he was reduced to listening to audiobooks. Then bone cancer set in. He faded away with Hugh devotedly looking after him.

Hugh Honour struggled on. There was a silver lining. Their lives had been enriched by two young antique dealers from Lucca, Carl Kraag and Valter Fabiani, who had become so close that Valter was named the heir. He dutifully adopted the role of son to Hugh and arranged help for him as his legs weakened. A sensitive and capable Sri Lankan carer and his family took over for the last months as the house disintegrated, flashes of light spurting erratically from disconnected wires and plugs. Despite the loss of much of his movement, Hugh enjoyed his Charbonnel et Walker chocolates to the end.

This book is a delight to read. It is an affectionate tribute to a deep and loving friendship, with the backdrop of Italy, food and art to add to the pleasure of reading it.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides.

A Time in Rome

Elizabeth Bowen: A Time in Rome. Reviewed by Charles Freeman. Originally published by Longman (1960). Reissued by Vintage Books.

Back cover of the 1st edition (1960)

I wonder how much the novelist Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973) is read now? Bowen was of Anglo-Irish stock, a fine but delicate writer acutely attuned to the cadences and concealments of an elitist society that had lost its purpose in an independent Ireland. She has been described as ‘haunted by loss’, her characters pulled back into a past that cannot return. Perhaps it is this for which she is still remembered, as much as for her evocation of the atmosphere of a place, notably the Irish country house, or London in the midst of war.

It was for this evocation of place that I was recommended her A Time In Rome, a memoir from when she spent some months in the city in the spring and summer of 1958. What I had not expected when I ordered a cheap second-hand copy on the internet was a first edition still in its original dustwrapper. It is a pleasure to own. The author, with her aristocratic nose, elegant coiffure and several strings of pearls, is shown on the back, a shadowy arch of Septimius Severus behind the title on the front.

This is not a coherent account. It is, as I was told to expect, an evocation by someone who had time on her hands, is interested enough in her surroundings and its history, but perhaps prone to be didactic, making sure that we know all the ancient roads leading from Rome, the names of the gates in the Aurelian wall, and what might or might not count as one of the Seven Hills. She is brisk about the inadequacies of the Forum: ‘This might be an abandoned building-site, or outgrown giant playroom littered with breakages.’ We are firmly told how to negotiate the ruins despite there not being an entry gate just where she would have liked to start. She is not drawn to Roman ruins.

Her wanderings go hand in hand with her battles with her piante, the only maps of Rome that she can find. They are large and brittle and need to be unfurled every time they are used; in the winds ‘the Pianta forever was rearing up to wrap itself blindingly round my face’. There was a struggle to unfold them on a café tables without staining them with coffee or butter and there had to be frequent new purchases after each one disintegrated along its folds.

Still, despite her frustrations, Bowen allows herself to absorb the city. She enjoys the less pretentious restaurants, watching the regulars treating them like home, marvelling at the pride of the waiters, even in trattorie that have nothing to be proud of. The secret of success is ‘a matter of freshness, resilience, tenderness, and in the case of pasta sufficient slipperiness without oiliness’. She revels in the revival of Renaissance Rome, especially the Via Giulia, ‘One rejoices in positive spaces, like giant ballrooms, connected by corridors of perspective. The longer the distances to look down, the greater the pleasure.’ Despite an air of Protestant hauteur about the extravagances and intolerances of the Catholic Church, the vistas created by Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585–90) are especially valued. The pope ‘brought Rome’s extravagant distances and bewildering contours into a discipline which is beautiful.’ She is sensitive to the burgeoning of Rome’s spring in the Borghese gardens and other less known gardens. ’I associate the Parco Savello [on the Aventine] with singing birds, the columnar lines of the slender trees, and reposefulness—here in so green a space, at so great a height, above Rome.’ The garden frescos from the Prima Porta villa of Livia, the wife of Augustus, delight her and it seems, from the way she admires Livia’s grace and courage, that she found a kindred spirit in the empress.

When asked by acquaintances why she is in Rome, Bowen cannot give an answer. Her husband had died in 1952 but it had never been a close marriage (apparently never consummated). Her lover, a Canadian diplomat, Charles Ritchie, had married during the affair, which lasted over 32 years, leaving a possible life with him unresolved. She was overwhelmed with debts on her beloved Irish home, Bowen’s Court, which she would eventually have to sell. Rome may have been an escape but there is nothing to shape her apparently solitary days or her narrative. Her wanderings seem serendipitous, ‘one or another desire or curiosity shaped my courses for runs of days’. She is reticent, prefers to learn from watching rather than engaging in conversation.

So this is the memoir. Yet many of her letters to Charles Ritchie survive and I found a quote from one of them that was written from Rome. ‘I am leading a very gay, amusing, glamorous, sumptuous life’, she writes. There is nothing of that in her memoir and so a mystery hangs over this book. It is not one of the great evocations of Rome, it is too disjointed and digressive for that, but it intrigues. Who—the reader or Ritchie—was getting the correct version?

A Time In Rome is a period piece. Much of the writing is of quality as Bowen catches a mood of the city. There is a good description of the ceremony in St Peter’s in which the ageing Pope Pius XII beatifies Chinese Christians martyred in the Boxer Rebellion. ‘Half the lights in the world were already blazing, hanging in torrents from the roof, clustered against the carmine brocades clothing the columns, when on the ungated river of congregation we surged in, scaled to our places, waited’ as the pope processed among the frenzy of the crowds, ‘a scarlet spiked tree of gladioli’ carried before him. Yet there is a lot of Rome that she fails to catch, as if her mind never fully engaged with the city. I shall look out for the biographies—those by Victoria Glendinning (1977) and Neil Corcoran (2004)—and letters to find out why. I think she would have been happier in Florence.

Charles Freeman is the Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. Bowen’s ‘A Time in Rome’ is one of works featured in Blue Guide Literary Companion Rome.

Diana Athill, ‘A Florence Diary’

Diana Athill, A Florence Diary. Granta, 2016.
Reviewed by Charles Freeman

This is an amuse-bouche of a book, just 40 pages from a notebook recording the author’s visit to Florence in the late summer of 1947. By sheer coincidence I found myself reading it on Diana Athill’s hundredth birthday, December 21st, 2017. Her lively introduction shows that her mind remains undiminished from 70 years ago.

Athill set off for Florence from Victoria Station with her cousin Pen. While Athill is well organised, her cases registered all the way through and her hand luggage consisting mainly of a hatbox and a shopping bag of food, her cousin comes loaded with many small items tied together with string, a straw hat and an easel that falls apart and gets in the way of everybody. Yet they are clearly a cheerful and attractive pair and well looked after on the journey south. Athill is cossetted by an Italian prince by the name of Alfonso, who even arranges flowers to be delivered to their pensione in Florence while he sweeps on to Rome, imploring the travellers to come after him.

Italy at the time was just recovering from the war and the bathwater was cold due to the lack of electricity. English visitors were gladly welcomed but had very little money. Athill and Pen had been given a tip over where to find the best rates of exchange and they survived happily, first in the Hotel Bonciani, and then in their pensione. After paying for their full board they have enough left over for patisserie and entrance fees. It is the patisserie that delights them: a wonderful array of exotic items that must have been a godsend after the dour food of a still-rationed England. Pen has come in uncomfortable shoes and sees some lovely sandals that she looks at every day, unable to decide whether to buy them (they enjoy yet more patisserie instead). Optimistically they decide that they will one day buy a villa in Fiesole. (This hope is frustrated, not least, Athill’s introduction tells us, because Pen went on to become a nun.)

Athill is more studious than Pen and makes sure she has visited everything in the guidebook. Pen has fewer inhibitions, even getting herself shown round Bernard Berenson’s villa, I Tatti, but missing out on the sumptuous Medici Chapel because she did not explore far enough into San Lorenzo. Athill’s response to art is intuitive and immediate. She delights in coming across a new treasure, a ‘dreamlike’ Botticelli or the light on the walls of Santa Croce that makes them ‘glow like ripe peaches’. She has an exuberance that falls just short of gushiness: the amphitheatre in the Boboli Gardens is ‘too lush and Renaissance for words’ and ‘the courtyard [of the Bargello], with a colonnade all round and a gallery on the first floor with great stairs coming down, is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen’. Images of the works of the great Florentine masters flit by.

This is a book to be read not so much for what it tells you about Florence but for the way it describes a society restoring itself after the trauma of a lost war. Athill’s are the reactions of a sensitive outsider to the city’s atmosphere and charms. There is a selection of contemporary photographs and an introduction in which Athill meditates from her great age on the power of place in her life. Short though this memoir is, I found much to enjoy.

Charles Freeman is Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides. He has written the historical introduction to the Florence volume.

Italian island food

Matthew Fort: Summer in the Islands, An Italian Odyssey. Unbound Press, London, 2017.
Reviewed by Charles Freeman.

Matthew Fort, distinguished writer on food and all the conviviality that accompanies it, fell in love with Italy through its ice cream at the age of eleven. The relationship has lasted and has developed into a deep affection for Italy’s peoples and their traditions of fine local cooking. Having traversed the peninsula for Eating up Italy and explored Sicily in Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons, he embarked, at the age of 67, on a leisurely six-month tour of all the islands off the Italian coast. It did not quite work out as planned: a ruptured Achilles tendon led to his abrupt return to England, but he eventually made it back to complete his visit to every Italian island, with Sardinia and Sicily included.

Italian restaurateurs love a genial and tubby figure who turns up to ask them what they cook best and then enjoys several courses of local specialities. Mr. Fort fits the bill brilliantly. From zuppetta di lenticchie usticese con totani from the fertile soil of Ustica to grigliata mista di suino in Alghero, Sardinia, and ricotta salata al forno, ‘salted ricotta that has been baked in the oven and sliced as thin as a communion wafer’, matched with a sweet Malvasia di Lipari in Salina off the coast of Sicily, he honours the cucina of wherever he turns up. Fort travels with Nicoletta, his trusty Vespa, and the pair are happy together chugging across the varied terrains thrown up by geology and volcanic eruptions (although of course Nicoletta cannot participate in the feasting). One lady who can is Fort’s daughter Lois, who joins him in Giglio and Giannutri, off Italy’s western coast. She is “curious, humorous, calm in the face of adversity [unlike Fort], cheerful and determined to enjoy each adventure to the full”, so they have happy times together and Fort is melancholy when she leaves. She will reappear in the final chapter when, on her first visit to Venice, they enjoy a beautifully served lunch at the Locanda Cipriani on Torcello. Other companions appear: Lisa, who disrupts Fort’s lazy lifestyle on Filicudi and Alicudi with two vast aluminium suitcases and a vigorous programme of walking and swimming.

I was worried at first that one island after another would prove monotonous; but each island is different. Some are crammed with holiday-makers and others with prisons (either abandoned or still functioning), so there is plenty of contrast and enough variety to keep the narrative going. Fort also knows enough history and literature to fill us in on Napoleon on Elba, for example, or the Dukes of Bronte, heirs of Nelson, in Sicily. There is a discursion on the ‘pagan’ Norman Douglas, whose memoir Old Calabria (1915) extols the wildness of Italy’s deep south; and frustration with a German film crew who have taken over Garibaldi’s farm on Caprera, depriving Fort of the chance to eat there. He sums up his ambivalent feelings about Garibaldi nonetheless.

I am one up on Fort in that I have a chance, on the tours I lead, to follow up the best restaurants my wife and I discover on our reconnoitring trips. So south of Naples I shall be re-visiting the Tre Olivi at Paestum (this time taking 30 people to lunch there) and the following day I will reacquaint myself with Ristorante Romantica near Teggiano, a small hilltop town where medieval frescoes will be opened up for us in the churches before we leave for the vast Certosa di San Lorenzo in the afternoon. There is no better way of honouring a restaurant than to bring one’s friends along for a second bite. I am sure that Matthew Fort would approve.

Charles Freeman is Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides and contributor to many Blue Guide Italy titles. For more on Italian food, try the Blue Guide Italy Food Companion.

Rogues’ Gallery by Philip Hook

Philip Hook: Rogues’ Gallery: A History of Art and its Dealers. Profile Books, London, 2017.

In May 2017, I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner  Museum in Boston for the second time. Housed in a neo-Renaissance palazzo with courtyards and galleries, it is crammed—one might say cluttered—with the extraordinary collection of Mrs Gardner, accumulated with her vast wealth before her death in 1924. There are special objects, a brilliant Titian (The Rape of Europa) and a stunning John Singer Sargent, El Jaleo, of a Spanish gypsy dancing girl; but as Mrs Gardner was not a discriminating buyer and insisted that everything she had collected had to be displayed, the effect can be rather cloying. Perhaps I was biased, having come on from the wonderful new Art of the Americas gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts.

It is hardly surprising that Isabella Gardner appears in Rogues’ Gallery, Philip Hook’s history of art dealing. She had a large fortune, was avid for the best of Renaissance paintings, and thus became easy prey for suppliers. Bernard Berenson and his colleague Otto Gutekunst at Colnaghi saw their chance. As Hook puts it, ‘The race to supply Mrs Gardner with as many Renaissance masterpieces at as high a price as possible was on.’ Titian’s The Rape of Europa was extracted by Gutekunst from Lord Darnley for £14,000 and Berensen and Gutekunst agreed that it would be sold to Gardner for £18,000, with each of them splitting the difference. In fact, Berensen sold it to Gardner  for £20,000, paid Gutekunst £2,000 and pocketed  £4,000 for himself. Hook has no illusions about his ‘Rogue Dealers’ (although some of his subjects were more rogueish than others). The value of an artwork is what a buyer is willing to pay for it and this sum can be manipulated by the dealer in a number of ways. Often the aesthetic value of a picture, the way its composition or subject might grab a viewer, is secondary to the prestige of owning whatever is in fashion. There are all kinds of subtle ploys for creating desire for an object that the purchaser might never have thought of owning and certainly does not need. The fascination of Hook’s book lies in the different personalities and methods used to achieve this end.

The story starts in the 17nth century. The Rev. William Petty was an accomplished buyer for Charles I and the ‘Collector Earl’ of Arundel, outplaying rival buyers simply by staying put in Italy. In Amsterdam  Hendrick van Uylenburgh took Rembrandt under his wing, guiding clients into his workshop for their portraits but carefully leaving other pictures around in the hope of selling more to the sitters. By the 18th century, the market has shifted to Rome. Not all dealers there were insensitive to art. The Anglophile Cardinal Albani’s own collection was as fine as anything he sold on to English aristocrats. But as so much dealing was carried on amicably between social equals, it was hard to say where the balance between sociability and commerce lay. In the case of Lord Duveen, a hundred years later, his knowledge of Italian art was minimal but the skill with which he manipulated the expertise of Bernard Berenson to provide ‘authentic’  provenances for the culture-hungry and cash-rich American moguls brought fabulous returns for them both. Osbert Sitwell lamented that the austere galleries donated to British museums by Duveen were funded by selling the cream of English paintings to America.

One moves on to Paul Durand-Ruel, the great patron of the Impressionists. Hook is at his best in exploring the life of this reactionary Catholic monarchist who may have changed the direction of art history through his championship of a new and little regarded movement. In 1872 Durand-Ruel had seen two works by Manet and was so overwhelmed by them that he went off to Manet’s studio and brought everything that he found. He was prepared to subsidise his favoured artists and wait for the return that matured through his relentless proselytising. He cleverly created the aura of one who was simply an idealist, altruistically promoting needy artists, yet, as Hook points out, he would ruthlessly impose a monopoly over an artist’s works (as the curmudgeonly Ambroise Vollard did over Cézanne) and if prices were flagging, buy his own stock at public auction to keep up the fiction of increasing values. The fiction would eventually become reality. Why the conservative Durand-Ruel should have been so taken by the Impressionists when they were so little regarded is unknown.

Hook’s most intriguing chapter centres on an auctioneer, the legendary Peter Wilson of Sotheby’s. (Hook worked at Sotheby’s for many years so his account is as good as any.) Wilson was a connoisseur, passionate about art and with great taste. His theatrical sense of how to play an audience was unequalled, as were his negotiating skills.

He made the auction room a place of glamour, with dealers sidelined as bejeweled celebrities basked in the glare of publicity. Wilson sensed how the Hollywood elite would compete for the prestige of owning a major Impressionist and was adept at exploiting the power of the Press to create the necessary buzz. Record prices made news and stimulated beguiled collectors to pass on their treasures directly to Sotheby’s when before they would have been sold discreetly in a dealer’s office. Wilson also had a contempt for the buyers, a vital attribute for a successful dealer. It was said that he once sold a gold box by soliciting phone bids from an inebriated Barbara Hutton which probably took the price $750,000 dollars higher than it should have been. He would tell a seller to sell now before the market fell and for the same work would advise a buyer to buy now when prices were still low.

This is a knowledgeable and perceptive book that raises important questions about the value of art and the ways in which this can be exploited or even created from nothing. Rich in anecdote, cynical in tone (‘Art dealers are purveyors of fantasy’), it makes a good read. Sadly, Hook decided only to tell on dead dealers. I would have loved to have heard the gossip on how money is extracted from the new rich on contemporary artists of such varying quality and prospects.

Charles Freeman is Historical Consultant to the Blue Guides.