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Christmas 2015: The 8 best books in art

Here are some of 2015's finest books to fire the imagination, engage the grey matter and invigorate the spirit over the festive period

Lucy Scholes
Thursday 26 November 2015 19:18 GMT
Ways of seeing: ‘Las Meninas’ or ‘The Family of Philip IV’, circa 1656, by Diego Velazquez
Ways of seeing: ‘Las Meninas’ or ‘The Family of Philip IV’, circa 1656, by Diego Velazquez (Getty Images)

Alexandra Harris concerns herself with the weather "as it is recreated in the human imagination" in Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies (Thames & Hudson, £24.95). From the ninth century to the present day, and exploring the physical through the psychological and even the spiritual, it is a fascinating portrait of that most British of preoccupations: surveying how writers and artists have woven all things meteorological into their works.

Another treasure trove of images and interpretations can be found in Julian Barnes's Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Art (Jonathan Cape, £16.99). Combining what is clearly a life-long love of art with an admirable depth of knowledge, Barnes brings a novelist's eye to the gallery's wall and, with this, a fresh, accessible approach to the stories being told in each painting. From Géricault's The Raft of the Medusa, via Vallotton's The Lie, to Howard Hodgkin's "operatic" pieces, he's acutely concerned with the story behind the scene – whether in the suggestion of a certain piece's title or, as in the case of Degas: And Women, that circulating about the artist himself.

"Having looked at a work of art, I leave the museum or gallery in which it is on display, and tentatively enter the studio in which it was made," writes John Berger in the preface to Portraits: John Berger on Artists (Verso, £25) – what reads like a near exhaustive selection of the ever astute writer's "responses" to various artists and works, chronologically organised from early cave paintings through to the Palestinian artist Randa Mdah, and edited by Tom Overton. "And there I wait in the hope of learning something of the story of its making. Of the hopes, of the choices, of the mistakes, of the discoveries implicit in that story."

If Barnes and Berger deal in the stories of the art or artist in question, two volumes that branch out into gloriously baroque subplots and side narratives are Michael Jacobs's Everything is Happening: Journey into a Painting (Granta, £15.99) and Edmund de Waal's The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts (Chatto & Windus, £20). Published posthumously, Jacobs's analysis of Velázquez's masterpiece Las Meninas – the story of the painting intertwined with that of the writer's lifelong obsession with it – is completed by an insightful introduction and coda by Ed Vulliamy. De Waal, meanwhile, illuminates the allure of the white porcelain he has been working with for the past 25 years by means of actual pilgrimages – from Jingdezhen in China, via Europe to the Appalachian Mountains – accounts of which sit side-by-side with his history of the "white earth".

When it comes to illustrated works, one relatively slim volume stands out. Bridging the gap between essay collections and glossy coffee table tomes is Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir by Truman Capote, with the Lost Photographs of David Attie (The Little Bookroom, £19.99). A real gem of a find, it brings together, for the first time, the photographs – portraits of Capote as well as images of the neighbourhood – that were commissioned in 1958 to illustrate the celebrated US writer's essay in Holiday magazine.

On a more practical note, the current craze for colouring-in books for adults means that each and every one of us can now produce masterpieces of our own, one of the best of which has to be Johanna Basford's stunningly intricate Lost Ocean: An Inky Adventure and Colouring Book (Virgin Books, £12.99).

Another topsy-turvy offering is Miriam Elia's We Go to the Gallery (Dung Beetle, £8.99), a hilarious adults-only spoof of the Ladybird early learning books of the 1960s that sees Susan discovering that God is dead, and John being scared by big, feminist vaginas.

Lastly, Hackney by Night (Hoxton Mini Press, £12.95), a small volume of photographs by David George with words by Karen Falconer, would make stylish stocking filler for any hipster, naughty or nice.

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