A GREAT AND WAYWARD WRITER; GREAT WORKS: 50 PAINTINGS EXPLORED by Tom Lubbock (Frances Lincoln, [Pounds Sterling]18.99)

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[bar] TOM Lubbock, chief art critic of The Independent, died in January this year, as much mourned for his humour and humanity as for his criticism. I liked him for his warmth and passion -- we shared an irreverent interest in classical sculpture and its consequences but our attempt to make a TV programme on Winckelmann was contemptuously disdained by the BBC. I like him too for his wayward criticism -- so much less didactic than mine, entertaining rather than instructing the layman with thought processes that scampered from irreverence to irrelevance and only sometimes back again. These delighted the informed and left the layman laughing and bemused.

Great Works is a compilation of 50 essays, each on a single picture. They are, of course, about the pictures, but they are also about Tom, about the way he saw and the thoughts that sprang from the act of seeing. As he could draw -- which is a means of disciplining what and how one sees -- his seeing was informed by insights that most art critics lack. It is, however, the waywardness of Tom's writing that fascinates, his readiness to set aside the subject in hand and expand a capricious response.

Take Gianfrancesco Caroto, for example, a minor painter in Verona known, if at all, for a portrait of a boy holding a caricatural drawing of a man and grinning as he shares the joke; Tom quotes Picasso's assertion that it took him a lifetime to learn to draw like a child, continues with a discussion of the "electricity" in lines drawn by children, and only towards the end writes of the inescapable knowingness that mars Caroto's invention of the drawing -- "He has faked it" is his conclusion.

Tom's tone is conversational; so too are the sentences -- he is no polished Addison. "OK" appears, and "Maybe" as a one-word sentence; on Delacroix the opening line is "Lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster, lobster," and on Constable "Clouds are all sorts." Occasionally one senses that there are two speakers in the essay, but for the most part the reader himself is the interlocutor. He reminds us of forgotten knowledge: I read Bergson when I was a student, found him almost as boring as Rabindranath Tagore and forgot him, but now, here he is, in an essay on Paul Nash, closely followed by John Betjeman -- only Tom could have invented a connection between three men so incompatible. …


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