The art of discovery;Ideas for Christmas;Books

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
Tom Deveson works his way through an extensive collection of information books

Santa will need duvet covers rather than stockings to accommodate the choice of information books on offer this year. Gillian Wolfe's Oxford First Book of Art (Oxford University Press pound;9.99) is an admirable introduction to visual art with a thematic approach. Paintings are grouped under such headings as Faces, Shapes, and Light and Shade. A particularly good representation of works from this century includes pieces by Bomberg, Roberts, Klee, Kandinsky, Leger and Lichtenstein. Medieval tapestries and Flemish realists are there too. Questions on technique and follow-up activities ensure that the reader isn't merely a passive looker-on, but is actively and aesthetically involved.

Lucy Mickelthwait uses a similar method, inviting children to become art detectives in Discover Great Paintings (Dorling Kindersley pound;9.99). Her choice of pictures is chronological - 13 painters (all men) from van der Weyden to Hockney display their talents. A cryptic Vel squez, a lavish Boucher and a sentimental Millais are there too, challenging young eyes and minds to work out the artists' intentions and the methods by which they realised them. And to add to the feeling of enlightenment and sumptuous contentment, answers are given on the opposite page.

A child's first visit to Venice is commemorated in a charming and unusual book from Sweden, Vendela in Venice by Christina Bjork, illustrated by Inga-Karin Eriksson (Raben and Sjogren Ragged Bears pound;11.99). The city is presented in a variety of guises - not just somewhere to see churches, statues and paintings or ride on the canals, but a place where you eat almond syrup and might go to hospital.

Vendela finds out about St Mark, pollution and exhaust fumes. She writes the diary of a 13th-century horse. The illustrations are beautifully varied and the surprising bibliography includes Casanova and Ruskin.

Richard Platt's Amazing Pop-Up 3-D Timescape, illustrated by Stephen Biesty (Dorling Kindersley pound;12.99), is a fair notion fatally injured. Biesty's drawings are full of fine detail, with dinosaurs haunting the Jurassic forest, plague ravaging a Renaissance city, chimneys darkening a Lowryesque townscape and modern multi-storeys challenging the sky. But the skimpy text is blandly Eurocentric, with the Catholic Church and the CD each scoring one paragraph to Islam's none. And the 12 slices of history are misleadingly out of proportion - half the 1.5 metre chart covers time from the Big Bang to the Vikings, with the whole of the other half devoted to the last millennium.

The Pop-Up Atlas of the World by Francois Michel (Pavilion pound;14.99) is a disappointment too. There is some nifty paper engineering, with lots of wheels to spin and flaps to lift. Physical Europe is smoothly transformed to Political Europe at the pull of a tab. But chances are missed. The Himalayas lie flat on the page, surrounded by a raised Pacific Rim that encompasses Kamchatka and southern Australia. Small drawings within the United States and Africa labelled "baseball player" or "elephant" are predictable and add little. There is more ingenuity here than information.

Life 100 years ago is commemorated in two books featuring a family of anthropomorphic mice, Town Mouse House and Country Mouse Cottage by Nigel Brooks and Abigail Horner (Hutchinson pound;9.99 each). They teeter on the edge of tweeness but are re-deemed by the authors' affectionate attention to detail. Dozens of little coloured drawings elucidating household life show us pink bloomers and cut-throat razors, kitchen stoves and tortoiseshell combs. Among dozens of books in the "how we lived" genre, these are attractively different.

An even more pungent Proustian whiff of the same era comes from Philippe Dumas's loving reconstruction of an Oxfordshire farm, The Farm (Pavilion pound;14.99). In 30 watercolours and sketches and using a generous page space, he finds room for cart horses ploughing and harrowing, for harvesters relaxing with cider and radishes, for the dairy, the laundry room and the wooden privy. Marginal notes offer succinct glosses on the ways of a world that has passed. It may be unrealistically presented as idyllic, but the book shows how doing one small thing modestly and scrupulously is better than boldly trying to do everything and ending with less.

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