Bright Earth, by Philip Ball, Penguin, £6.99, 434pp
An amalgam of chemistry, art and history, Philip Ball's account of the story of colour is as wide-ranging as it is informative. He notes that a kind of blue dating from 2500BC and known as Egyptian frit indicates the precision of Bronze Age technology. Its complex recipe had to be fired at 800-900°C. The heart of the book concerns the medieval obsession with colour. Made from compounds of mercury and sulphur, vermilion was the most expensive of all, on a par with gold. Crimson lake was made from cochineal insects, which feed on the knawel plant of eastern Europe and can only be collected for a fortnight each year. Ball notes that purple dye made from buccinum shellfish and controlled by royal decree in Imperial Rome is virtually identical to a dye from the Indigofera pea plant, native to India. We know the latter better as indigo. In turn, the indigo molecule is the blue colourant in woad, used as face paint by the Celts in their battles with the Roman legions. Synthetic formulations for these purples did not appear until the 1850s, when William Perkin produced the first commercially viable aniline dyes (based on hydrocarbons) in a garden shed in east London. One bonus of this book are the fine illustrations demonstrating how artists from Raphael to Anish Kapoor have used colour. Ball ends by quietly lamenting the lack of colourists among contemporary artists, but, oddly, his book fails to mention such modern masters of colour as Howard Hodgkin and Craigie Aitchison.
Gaudi, by Gijs van Hensbergen (HarperCollins, £9.99, 322pp)
Antoni Gaudi is a wonderful subject for a biography, and not only for his astoundingly idiosyncratic buildings: part medieval, part daringly avant-garde. A celibate vegetarian, the architect spent his life in a whirl of passionate activity. At 73, he was imprisoned for his part in a Catalan independence demo. At 77, while stomping his customary unswerving path to his great Barcelona church, the Sagrada Familia (started in 1889 and due to be completed in 2030), he was run over by a tram. What a pity his design for a Manhattan hotel never came to fruition.
Cherry, by Sara Wheeler (Vintage, £7.99, 354pp)
In this brilliant biography of the polar explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Sara Wheeler successfully negotiates two problems. First, his own account of Scott's Antarctic expedition, The Worst Journey in the World, is probably the best adventure yarn ever published. Wheeler combines it with the reminiscences of others (Captain Oates wrote: "I dislike Scott intensely") and also contributes historical perspective and psychological acuity. Her second problem is her subject's uneventful life after the First World War. In fact, her sensitive investigation of Cherry-Garrard's depression is almost as enthralling as his great adventure.
Begums, Thugs and White Mughals, by Fanny Parkes, (Sickle Moon, £9.99, 362pp)
As William Dalrymple notes in his introduction, these Indian journals (1822-1839) cover the "crossover chutnification" of the author, a starchy memsahib who transforms into an ardent admirer of India. She ends up playing the sitar and taking opium ("I became very happy, felt no fatigue and talked incessantly"). No matter how shocked Fanny is by what she sees – her boatmen refuse to touch a body that might still be alive; a holy man's fingernails growing through his palm so they emerge from the back of his hand – she is never less than fascinated.
John Ruskin, by Tim Hilton (Yale, £14.99, 947pp)
By marrying Tim Hilton's two already substantial volumes on the great art critic, Yale has engendered a biography that is virtually cubic. Yet this vast, detailed portrait is far from being a mausoleum. We see sides of Ruskin both amusing (his complaints about a London hotel, "with no landlord but agents working you through your meals at the smallest possible outlay to them", ring true today) and touching, particularly in his Lear-like final years. From his still highly readable views on art to his prejudices ("He disliked ... all clergymen"), Ruskin lives on every page.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies