History Just Isn't Roy's Strong Point; Review

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), September 5, 1999 | Go to article overview

History Just Isn't Roy's Strong Point; Review


Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

The Spirit Britain: Narrative History Of The Arts by Sir Roy Strong Hutchinson [pounds sterling]40 % [pounds sterling]35 ***** Brian Sewell

Two thousand years or so in 700 pages, this is less an evocation of the lively spirit of the British (whoever they may be) than a brisk survey of England's history and all her arts, from Roman origins lost in the Celtic mists to the consumer culture of the Internet and genetic engineering.

Sir Roy Strong's book is a melting pot of Jacob Burckhardt, John Ruskin, Lord Clark of Civilisation, Arthur Mee of the Children's Encyclopedia and every other generalist who influenced his childhood - but the Two Fat Ladies could have made a better bouillabaisse of them.

Strong urges us to see him as a passionate writer whose life has been for ever 'entwined with everything English' and for whom the legend 'Made in England' is a true statement of intellectual, technical, visionary and aesthetic superiority.

Who cares for the glory and grandeur of ancient Greece and Rome when we have such sweeping colonnades in Bath? Who cares for the Italian Renaissance when we have Holbein and Hampton Court? Who cares for the Rome of the baroque or the Europe of the Enlightenment when we have Chatsworth and the lunatic Blake writing Songs Of Innocence? Who cares for American skyscrapers when we have such a horizontal landscape?

This is an oddly uncomfortable book.

Strong runs in leaps and bounds from one enthusiasm to the next, and from one dim-witted generalisation to another, amiably dotty in his praise, as in the case of the Bayeux Tapestry with which 'the great civilisation of Anglo-Saxon England passes away in a final sunburst of glory' - not a word of its startling realism and observation, nor of its value as a record of the customs of the day; Strong is an art historian with no eye for art.

At this point, the reader must be warned that, though the civilisation of the Anglo-Saxons may have been great, it and the whole of the first millennium are despatched in 37 pages, the legacy of Roman occupation, Virgil, Ovid, the Emperor Constantine, coinage, Christianity, Beowulf, Saint Augustine, monasticism and Alfred the Great and old uncle Tom Cobleigh are dealt with in a few flashes of insight and a welter of hustled fact. …

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