Picture books for adults

1st December 2000 at 00:00
Tourists love them because they show the folks back home that they are away. The Surrealists loved them for their exotic inanities. Deltiologists love them to death, categorising them (world fairs, world wars, princesses of Wales) and competing for rarities.

Tom Phillips RA just loves them: front, back, stamps and all. To him there is no such thing as a uselessly dull picture postcard. Dullness is itself evocative - "dull" is collectable.

The Postcard Century: 2000 cards and their messages (Thames amp; Hudson pound;29.95 hbk, pound;19.95 pbk) is an astonishing and fascinating volume of evidence, put together by someone with a keen eye for all a picture postcard can show and imply. Essentially a scavenger artist, picking on ordinary things and teasing from them extraordinary growths of speculation and deduction, Tom Phillips has a detective instinct. Here he makes postcard history.

The book is laid out as a repro postcard album and images recur, altering with time. Every year of the past century, for instance, has a postcard of Piccadilly Circus, registering change, and (a nod to the transatlantic market) one of New York skylines.

Year by year, themes announce themselves and proliferate - cults and movements (Lenin, Oxford bags), technological developments (cinema, Tupperware) and names and places (Mount Rushmore, the Skylon, Tannochbrae, motorway service areas) picturesque enough, or dreary enough, to excite repulsion or nostalgic delight.

Rude postcards have their place, and Donald McGill makes regular contributions. One example, posted in August 1939 in Lancing, Sussex, is a picture of a family of four in gas masks with the caption: "We had Harricot (sic) beans for dinner today." That means war.

Unlike your average deltiologist, Phillips reads the hand-written messages and adds comment. Much of it is speculative - all is illuminating and often funny. It's amazing how poignant and revealing banalities can be - and odd that this compilation of people's boasts and pleas and tuppenny dreams should amount to such an original work of art.

"If I have a favourite among (postcard) publishers," Phillips writes, "it is Frith amp; Co." Britain Then and Now (Seven Dials pound;16.99), celebrates the persistence of Francis Frith, who, from 1860 until his death in 1898, photographed everywhere he could. The firm he founded was ideally placed to produce postcard views of the British Isles, sepiatone and, as a rule, undramatic. His sons carried on the business until the Seventies, and recently, another photographer, John Cleare, spent months going over the ground, matching old photos to what he could see through his own viewfinder.

Philip Zeigler's commentary stresses the anomalies of progress - ribbon development indirectly leading to the pedestrianisation of high streets; haystack and shire horse vanishing and agribusiness paiting the landscape bright yellow with oilseed rape.

Where Francis Frith saw cottages smothered in rotting thatch, now there are weekend retreats behind grass verges strimmed to perfection. This photo-Domesday survey points no morals but it does suggest that the chief concern of the past century has been how to make Britain a land fit for cars to park in.

Too tall and fat to slip in the pocket, narrow enough for the glove compartment, the new edition of A Guide to the Architecture of London by Edward Jones and Christopher Woodward (Cassell pound;14.99) may be designed to be consulted in the car at weekends but that doesn't limit its usefulness. More adjectival than Pevsner and broader in scope, it combines good description and sharp evaluation. It also brings out the continuity of London, the layering of history.

Where Frith photographed rotting wharves, Jones and Woodward wag fingers at the South Bank concrete walkways, "pungent and unloved". They suggest that the Canary Wharf tower, "from a strictly proportional point of view", should be 20 storeys taller.

Ornament and Decoration in Islamic Architecture, by Dominique Clevenot, with photographs by Gerard Degeorge (Thames amp; Hudson pound;36), makes London, and Britain, look hopelessly drab. It's not only the sunshine and blue skies, from Agra to Cordoba, it's the wonderful profusion of pattern, in brickwork, mosaic, stucco and ceramic, the plant forms, the geometries, the starbursts. Aligned and combined, the details from palaces, mosques, forts and mausoleums, have a dazzling impact. But, because they glorify repetition and proportion, they steady the eye.

Patterning on adobe, bronze, cloth and wood, imposes a sort of unity in A History of Art in Africa" (by Monica Blackmun Visona et al, Thames amp; Hudson pound;48), a history that proceeds on the basis of being decidedly non-Euro-determined yet shaped for students who otherwise would be doing "the Renaissance" or "Modernism".

Here, for inclusivity, Ancient Egypt counts as African, as do paintings by Afro-Americans. The art of an entire continent over several millennia, done for a variety of ends - commemoration, deification, ornamentation, tourist dollars - does not lend itself to curriculum packaging.

This is a tidy and circumspect account of some of the themes and preoccupations surviving through the various colonial periods. For art historians it is a cultural minefield, and Tom Phillips has a postcard illustrating this, a picture of Ndbele women in beaded aprons in front of boldly painted houses.

The postcard was sent in July 1959 by Mike in Johannesburg to "Les Girls" at the English Speaking Union, Cambridge. "Having such a wonderful time", he writes. "This is a show village," Phillips comments, "to reassure tourists that all is well under apartheid. The card was still popular 30 years later."

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