Michael Kerrigan reviews the latest releases by Jill Cook, Nicholas Rogers and David Esterly
Ice Age Art by Jill Cook
(British Museum, £30) * * * * *
This splendid, spectacularly illustrated book brings together over 100 portable objects – engraved or sculpted in stone or antler, ivory or bone. Beyond-ancient they may be – 10,000 to 40,000 years old – but for Jill Cook they represent “the arrival of the modern mind”. Not that we know how to read this mind (“calendar, calculator or ornament?” asks the caption beneath one flake of bone), but we can certainly identify with its aesthetic. “Abstraction, caricature, metaphor, grouping, contrast, balance and isolation … intrigue and stimulate,” says Cook, who points up the parallels with modern art. Pendants like swans in flight; beads in the form of women’s breasts – Stone Age artists possessed awe-inspiring expressiveness and skill.
Mayhem by Nicholas Rogers
(Yale, £29.95) * * * *
The War of the Austrian Succession ended in 1748 with a new political settlement in continental Europe – and a spree of crime and violence in Great Britain. Demobilised soldiers got up to mischief of just about every kind. Crime, disorder and smuggling soared – though respectable fears soared even higher as a mood of moral panic gripped the nation. The earth tremors that shook London in 1750 seemed a judgment. Apocalyptic dread brought a ratcheting-up of the “Bloody Code” of capital charges. But it also prompted the spiritual crusade of the Wesleys and the magistrate Henry Fielding to envisage social reforms. And, suggests Rogers in this absorbing book, the birth of a new sense of “governmentality” – the assumption that the state should involve itself in unprecedented ways in the supervision of social life.
The Lost Carving by David Esterly
(Duckworth, £16.99) * * * *
There’s something perverse in the attempt to put the simply sensuous into words. Yet, what sort of writer wants to duck the challenge? Take the catalogue of knots in E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. And, now, David Esterly’s account of what it feels like to work in wood, his year spent re-creating a celebrated carving by Grinling Gibbons, destroyed by fire at Hampton Court. So soul-baring an account of artistic creation courts accusations of self-indulgence. Overall, though, it’s hard not to be won over by the audacity of his enterprise and the resolve (and writerly skill) with which he sees it through.