The heaviest book on my shelves is Hugh Honour & John Fleming’s A World History of Art. I have just put its 960 pages on the kitchen scales: 8lbs 4oz – the weight of a bonny newborn.
If I cradle my copy tenderly today it is because Hugh Honour died last Friday 20 May at the age of 88. A World History of Art is the most famous, certainly the biggest, of his many books. At sixteen, after GCSE exams, my sixth-form history of art teacher sent me away with a copy. I was not to come back in September unless I’d read it. The book is the scaffolding around which I have built everything I have learnt since of art history.
A World History of Art is not like Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art. Gombrich, splendid in his own way, demands sustained, continuous reading from Lascaux to Lucian Freud. Honour and Fleming arrange their book like a great Renaissance banquet – imagine Veronese’s Wedding Feast at Cana. They give you not just the sweep of world art history but mini essays, timelines and diversions: Roman luxury, Lady Murasaki on calligraphy, the cult of the carts at Chartres, a Shaman’s mask. Art history is laid out for you on silver salvers and you may have a slice of the Renaissance, a nibble at the Mughal Court, a taste of Captain Cook and the Pacific.
And it is truly a world history of art. Gombrich, you feel, had to be elbowed to remind him that the West hadn’t the monopoly.
Hugh Honour, born in Eastbourne on 26 September 1927, went to the King’s School, Canterbury, then Cambridge to study English. There he met John Fleming, lifelong companion and collaborator. There was a stint at the British Museum Print Room, then La Spezia, Florence and Venice. His many books included Chinoiserie (1961), Neo-Classicism (1968), the Penguin Dictionary of Decorative Arts (1977), Romanticism (1979) and A World History of Art (1982), now in its seventh edition.
Even when Honour wrote alone, Fleming was there as drinks-mixer, sympathetic advisor, and fellow enthusiast. They lived in a villa near Luca, from 1962, until Fleming’s death in 2001. On the acknowledgments page of his Pelican book on Neo-Classicism, Honour makes this dedication: ‘My greatest debt of gratitude is to Mr John Fleming who has helped me at every stage and whose name should really be placed with mine on the title page.’
He wrote with wit and precision: not ivory tower, nor art-for-dummies. This, from the first chapter of Neo-Classicism, is spiritedly characteristic.
‘For it was at this moment that a wind of change began to sweep through the Parisian salons, freshening up their close and perfumed atmospheres, smoothing out Rococo curves and curlicues, blowing away the delicately fragile ornaments – rose-buds and shells and powdered cupids with their behinds as delicately rouged as their cheeks.’
His books read like novels. Will Rococo fall? Will Classicism triumph? Is that Romanticism scheming in the wings?
Neo-Classicism ends on a cliff-hanger. After an account of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Oedipus and the Sphinx, Honour leaves us on abyss edge: ‘In this grim mountain cleft there is no sign of an eternal springtime. The dark irrational gods are once more closing in.’ It is thrilling stuff.