Wednesday, February 01, 2023

The Oxford Companion to Art (1950)

Yesterday we visited Fulham Palace and en route discovered the most amazing bookshop called Hurlingham Books at 91 Fulham High St, London SW6 3JS.  It has the most interesting approach to displaying books in the windows I've ever seen - horizontally with the title showing. 

Inside it's absolutely crammed from floor to ceiling with books and it's quite a skill to manoeuvre inside without sending a pile crashing to the floor. There are no categories. You just stare until you see something that looks interesting.

However it excels in that one stand-out feature of an excellent second hand bookshop - it has books you've never ever seen before. 

Hurlingham Books in Ranelagh Gardens

In it I found a pristine 1950 Hardback Edition of "The Oxford Companion to Art" - or rather JR did - and he reached it down for me from a high shelf.

It turned out to be a VERY big and heavy hardback book of 1,277 pages - which I got for £5.

The Oxford Companion of Art

I confess this blog post is actually mostly to do with me finding out a bit more about the book. 

It appears the book was updated after 1950 with subsequent editions appearing in 1970 aND 1985.

The Companion to Art was designed as a non-specialist introduction to the fine arts - with an emphasis on art (and NOT "Arts" - and not the practical arts and handicrafts. The Preface indicates that it is a handbook rather than an encyclopedia and covers:
  • all human artistic endeavour through all time and throughout the world
  • more variety of material than other Oxford Companions
  • each of the articles is intended to be an introduction only - although I found most I've read (dipping into the book from front to back) to be very thorough and provides good summaries.
The entries cover four main groups of material
  • biographies of important artists
  • accounts of art movements and associations of artists
  • explanations of specific terms relating to art - plus essays on a few technical topics
    • Perspective
    • Graphic Processes
    • Colour
  • historical explanations of the development of art in specific countries / regions.
Articles on technical matters have been kept to a minimum but a few longer and more detailed technical articles have been included when that subject seemed to be of importance for understanding and appreciation over a wide field of art. Preface
Overall, it struck me as a very useful handbook to have in one's art library and not really outdated so long as you understand it relates to an era prior to 1950!

In an era when so much that is published about art is either dumbed down or written by people who haven't had an adequate art education, I found the book a refreshing treat which I dipped into all the way home on the tube - and it's not left my side since!
You can find copies online - mostly of the later edition which you should be able to get for less than a £10 (although do watch out for the postage costs given the weight!). Or you can try rooting around in good second hand shops like me!

I do however have a reservation!  I found it was based on Osborne's own knowledge of specific areas of art and where he had none he makes no reference to that area.  Indeed he doesn't even acknowledge that it exists!

For example, there is absolutely no reference to botanical art or any of the famous artists such as those I've written about at length on Past Masters - Botanical Art and Artists. There again, Wilfrid Blunt had not yet published The Art of Botanical Illustration - it was first published in 1950 - the same year as the The Oxford Companion to Art.

Also, I think the main problem with it as a book is it is HUGE and generalist rather than specialist.  One source suggested 94 editions published between 1960 and 2002 in 4 languages! However it is now not in print - probably because it would be too big to make that possible.
  • In my view, there are specific areas within it which would make a suitable book to update and republish in a new edition in future years. 
  • As indeed has happened to Wilfrid Blunt's book which is now in its (I think) fifth edition - and boasting my reviews of it in its marketing material! 

Marketing image for The Art of Botanical Illustration
including review by ME!

The author

The book was edited by somebody called Harold Osborne (1905-1987) who is characterised in records online as a philosopher and civil servant. It reminds me of the way quite a few people who are world renowned authorities in aspects of art also had jobs which paid the bills.

So who is this man who wrote "The Oxford Companion to Art" ?

He appears to have been a diplomat who spent most of his career in South America - but was particularly interested in the philosophy of aesthetics. Apparently he was also a leading authority on modern art history and wrote books for the Oxford University Press.

  • born in 1905, 
  • educated at Wakefield Grammar School, Yorkshire. 
  • undergraduate at Cambridge University, reading classics and philosophy. 
  • Served in the Intelligence Service during the Second World War 
  • Became a British civil servant in South America and then in the United Kingdom, becoming Principal Officer at the Board of Trade. While in South America he published two volumes, on Andean Indians, and Bolivia.
  • an influential scholar and editor, and an active author throughout his life. 
I imagined he spent a lot of time while being a diplomat in South America reading very many art books!

Publications on aesthetics and art history included more than 20 monographs and 50 articles including

About Hurlingham Books


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