A vade-mecum (Latin for "go with me') is a pocket companion or quick reference manual. In format very much like maps, each of the titles in this series is a narrow paperback-sized concertina of glossy laminated card which unfolds to a strip nearly a metre long, providing 20 sides of information and images. On a practical level the guides seem durable, and handle well, and the confident design is attractively lively, with good colour reproduction of the images.
The guides include brief biographies of artists famous within each movement or genre, pointers to technique or materials used, relevant concepts, and a timeline of significant world historical events as the background against which the artistic developments took place. The result is to hover uncertainly somewhere between a rather too brisk Beginner's Guide, and a simplistic aide-memoire for existing connoisseurs.
However, these guides do have visual appeal and may well suit sixth-form art students whose confidence would be boosted by seeing an art movement conveniently tied down, and at such an affordable price.
Would I want one in my own back pocket? Probably not - material provided by each gallery or exhibition would be more useful on site. Would I keep one handy at home for general reference? Probably not, because the content is unreliable, and the editing desperately poor. For instance, in Portrait Paintings, the Holbein of Henry VIII was not painted in 1542; the Graham Sutherland portrait of Winston Churchill illustrated is not the one destroyed by Churchill's wife, as suggested by the associated text; similarly, the Julia Margaret Cameron photograph of Tennyson is not her famous "dirty monk" image of him.
Throughout the series there are errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and even text missing. In Icons, the name "Vladimir" is spelled five different ways in just two paragraphs. It does not inspire confidence to find "palette" in print as "palate". Even the authors' own names are spelled variously in different locations.
Susan Morris Susan Morris is a museum and gallery educator