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Best summer reads for arts and antiques lovers

Whether holidaying in a historic city, or on a sundrenched beach, a good book is essential. Janet Gleeson chooses great reads to entertain and enlighten…

Best books for summer
Published: June 4th, 2022 at 10:00 am

Whether you're spending summer soaking up culture in European cities or jetting off for some sun, sea and sand, there's always time for a good book. If you're not sure which novels to choose, we've rounded up a few of our favourites that arts and antiques lovers are sure to enjoy...

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Utz

Author: Bruce Chatwin

Best books for summer

Utz tells the story of Kaspar Joachim Utz – a Czech of Jewish descent, a minor aristocrat, as well as an art dealer and obsessive collector of Meissen figurines. Utz lives in Prague and, through the political upheavals of the 20th century, he amasses a vast porcelain collection through various collaborations and the loyal assistance of the family retainer, Marta.

Utz is allowed to keep his Meissen in his small flat, on condition that he bequeaths it to the National Museum when he dies. He longs to escape the Communist regime, and makes his way to Vichy, but his beloved Meissen force him to return to Prague, where he marries Marta.

After his death, the collection disappears. Was Utz finally liberated from the prison of his love for beautiful objects by human love?

Buy Utz by Bruce Chatwin from Waterstones (£8.99)


The Improbability of Love

Author: Hannah Rothschild

Best books for summer

An entertaining satirical caper set in the art world: Annie McDee buys a painting in a junk shop that depicts a courting couple and a clown, as a gift for her feckless boyfriend. When things start to go wrong, she takes the painting back to the shop for a refund, only to discover it has burned down.

To soothe her broken heart, Annie begins to investigate the painting and visits The Wallace Collection, where she meets Jesse, an artist guide who befriends her. As the couple’s relationship flowers, the painting’s colourful history is uncovered partly by the ‘voice’ of the painting itself, and partly as Annie and Jesse encounter art dealers, restorers, Russian oligarchs and auctioneers to find out the disturbing truth.

Buy The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild from Waterstones (£9.99)


I, Mona Lisa

Author: Natasha Solomons

Best books for summer

The meticulously researched and beautifully written story of the world’s most famous painting, as told by the artwork herself. We begin in the Florentine studio of Leonardo, witnessing the portrait taking shape against a background of rivalry and intrigue.

From there we track her life as Da Vinci’s most prized possession, travelling from Florence to the French courts, where the painting was damaged by being hung in the royal bathroom.

Picasso makes a cameo appearance to confess his female portraits are all of Lisa, and falls under suspicion when the painting is stolen. During the Second World War, she is moved again and again to escape Nazi looting. In the final chapter Lisa concludes, ‘because of me his name shall live forever; we made each other immortal’.

Buy I, Mona Lisa by Natasha Solomons from Waterstones (£14.99)


Sybil & Cyril: Cutting Through Time

Author: Jenny Uglow

Best books for summer

Jenny Uglow’s elegantly written account of a powerful interwar artistic partnership. In 1922, Cyril Power was a 50-year-old architect who abandoned his secure job and family to follow Sybil Andrews, a 24-year-old artist, to Suffolk.

Over the following two decades the pair co-habited (although they denied they were lovers), and collaborated, pioneering an innovative and cheap form of printmaking – lino cuts.

Together they developed a streamlined artistic style in which tennis players, skaters, footballers, the London Underground, manual labourers at work, and scenes of country life were all depicted with a sense of movement that encapsulated the excitement and unease of the new modern age.

Buy Sybil & Cyril: Cutting Through Time by Jenny Uglow from Waterstones (£20)


Headlong

Author: Michael Frayn

Best books for summer

Academic Martin Clay takes a sabbatical in the countryside with his art historian wife and new baby, when he stumbles on a painting that might be a missing masterpiece from a series called ‘The Months’ by the Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel.

The painting is owned by Tony Churt, an uncouth local landowner who is keen to sell, but is unaware of the painting’s potential value.

Hoping to make his academic reputation as well as a fortune, Clay sets about trying to acquire the picture, without alerting its owner to its possible significance, or being caught in an extramarital affair with Tony’s wife.

The story that follows uncovers the seamy side of the art world and highlights human folly, with moments that will make you laugh out loud while also learning a lot about Bruegel as well.

Buy Headlong by Michael Frayn from Waterstones (£8.99)


The Hare With Amber Eyes – A Hidden Inheritance

Author: Edmund de Waal

Best books for summer

Potter Edmund de Waal unravels his family history through a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke, left to him by an uncle in Tokyo. This is the tale of the Ephrussi family, a wealthy Jewish dynasty of bankers based in Odessa, Paris, and Vienna during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

During Germany’s annexation of Austria, the family were imprisoned or forced to flee, their sumptuous palace in Vienna was requisitioned, and most of their art confiscated.

The netsuke survived only because they were hidden in a straw mattress by a loyal maid, who returned them to the family after the war. Set against a tumultuous historical backdrop, this is an evocative narrative of art, inheritance and loss.

Buy The Hare With Amber Eyes – A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal from Waterstones (£10.99)


The Lady and the Unicorn

Author: Tracy Chevalier

Best books for summer

Romance and tapestrymaking intertwine in a novel woven around some famous tapestries in the Musée de Cluny. Nicolas des Innocents is commissioned to design a series of tapestries for the house of wealthy nobleman Jean le Viste.

Under the influence of Jean’s wife Geneviève, and a passion for her daughter Claude, the designs he presents depict the seduction of a unicorn, incorporating the women as models in a way that makes clear his interest in Claude – despite their different social standings.

Nicolas takes the designs to Brussels where he is drawn to the blind daughter of the master weaver commissioned to make the tapestries. A sensual, highly charged novel that brings life to the world of weavers, woad and medieval women.

Buy The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier from Waterstones (£8.99)


The Miniaturist

Author: Jessie Burton

Best books for summer

An atmospheric novel set in 17th-century Amsterdam, and inspired by a doll’s house in the Rijksmuseum. Eighteen-year-old bride Nella Oortman is neglected by her new husband, but he presents her with an unusual gift: a miniature replica of her new home and the funds to furnish it. She follows his instructions and orders pieces from a mysterious miniaturist.

But when she discovers her husband in a compromising situation with another man, she understands the marriage was a sham to mask his homosexuality.

Meanwhile, frequent deliveries from the miniaturist arrive, some of which she hasn’t ordered, revealing an uncanny and rather unsettling knowledge of her life and presaging the dramatic events to come… its sequel, The House of Fortune is published this month.

Buy The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton from Waterstones (£8.99)


The Radical Potter

Author: Tristram Hunt

Best books for summer

The Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum – and ex-MP for Stoke-on-Trent – presents a readable account of the life of Josiah Wedgwood, who he views as the Steve Jobs of his day.

Hunt sets Wedgwood in his historical context, positioning him centre stage in the Industrial Revolution and explaining how, thanks to willpower, inventiveness, canny business sense and ambition, a disabled boy from a modest background could create a global pottery.

We also discover more about Wedgwood’s character. He improved workers’ living standards, boosted the development of canals and campaigned against slavery, despite acknowledging that the wealth of many of his customers depended on its continuation.

Buy The Radical Potter by Tristram Hunt from Waterstones (£25)


Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes

Author: Barnaby Phillips

Best books for summer

In 1897, in retaliation for the killing of seven officials, Britain sent a punitive expedition to the Kingdom of Benin (today’s Nigeria). Having forced the king into exile and annexed the country, British forces helped themselves to thousands of works of art – the Benin bronzes – widely seen today as some of Africa’s most refined and precious works of art.

Loot tells their story, before and after their removal, and carefully unpicks the controversy and debate that now surrounds them. On the one hand, Phillips explains, they have altered the west’s understanding of African culture and history. On the other, Benin City artists of today see them in the British Museum and feel they are ‘visiting relatives behind bars’.

Buy Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes by Barnaby Phillips from Waterstones (£10.99)


Would It Surprise You To Know...?

Author: Ronnie Archer-Morgan

Best books for summer

A familiar face on Antiques Roadshow, Ronnie Archer-Morgan has brought to life many surprising stories linked to the cherished heirlooms he is shown. But his own story is even more remarkable. Born in 1950, to a Sierra Leonean mother battling mental health problems and a father he never knew, Ronnie’s childhood was spent in and out of care.

On leaving school, he forged careers as both a DJ and a hairdresser, before an interest in fashion prompted him to start buying and selling antique watches. Through objects that inspired him, Ronnie reveals his personal story – surviving childhood abuse, racism and brushes with the law to become the internationally respected dealer and art expert he is today.

Buy Would It Surprise You To Know...? by Ronnie Archer-Morgan from Waterstones (£16.99)


The Marriage Portrait

Author: Maggie O’Farrell

Best books for summer

Set in Florence in the 1560s, Maggie O’Farrell’s eagerly awaited new novel focuses on Lucrezia, third daughter of Cosimo de Medici, who lives a privileged life in the family palazzo, enjoying the treasures that surround her.

Everything changes when her older sister dies on the eve of her marriage to the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este, and the Duke demands her hand as a substitute.

As Lucrezia begins her new life in a foreign court, she sits for a marriage portrait, increasingly aware of how posterity will view her, the expectations that surround her, and the precariousness of her new role.

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Pre-order The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell from Waterstones (£25)

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