Vincent’s Starry Night and other Stories: A Children’s History of Art by Michael Bird, illustrated by Kate Evans

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Large books can be daunting for some children, and this one, at a hefty 336 pages, is certainly a doorstopper. Even the cover looks fairly adult, with its Van Gogh styled image, reflecting both the artist himself and the starry night he is painting. But every page in this volume has earned its place, and every page is worth reading, whether it is in chronological order, or simply sampled at will.

Like those huge narrative histories – A Little History of the World by Ernst Gombrich or Our Island Story by H E Marshall, this will no doubt become a history of art classic read for children.

At a time when exam boards are ditching A Level History of Art, the book is even more important for those who believe that the study and knowledge of classics in the full sense of the word is a vital component of history and an essential lesson for modern times. Classical works of art inform our ideas of history, thread storytelling through the ages, and can give one a sense of cultural identity. They are an integral part of politics (think Elgin marbles at a very base level), and a stalwart part of our current culture, which is starkly visual.

So, to the book. This is essentially a narrative guide through art history from prehistoric to modern day, comprising 68 illustrated short stories that take either an individual artist, or a particular style of painting, or architecture, and explain not only the images and artistry, but the entire background of culture or religion, using a story structure of a person or peoples.

Each story incorporates what was going on in history at the time the artist was painting, as well as the thoughts and spaces created by that artist. For example, the chapter on Giotto explains, through Bird imagining Giotto’s thoughts to himself, how he reintroduced the technique of drawing as close to nature as possible – or in Bird’s attributed thoughts to Giotto:

‘I want to tell stories in paintings, so that people will think “That’s how it would have looked if I’d been there.”.’

This imagined speech, and chapter, not only explores Giotto’s approach to painting, but also his thought process and the effect his paintings had. It also explains fresco painting, and the link between his paintings and the ancient Greek and Roman artists, as well as immortality through fame. What’s brilliant though, is that the chapter is written in such easy, modern conversational prose that it makes Giotto and his era feel relevant and real.

Bird flits between first person, third person, past tense and present tense, depending on what’s happening in the chapter and what he’s trying to explain. This is great as he has picked well – and each chapter feels fresh and illuminates in a different way.

The chapter on Vermeer even mixes the tenses to explore a revelation in Vermeer’s career, and to explain how he uses it, what he had painted before, and what he will do in the future. It explores his discovery of a new magnifying glass and the way it makes things look. He sees the laundry sheet more clearly “whiteness like sunlight on a snowy mountain,” although Bird points out that this is his imagination. “Vermeer has never seen a real mountain. All around Delft the flat Dutch countryside stretches to the horizon.”

Vermeer goes from painting historical scenes to painting domestic subjects – the life around him, which gives modern readers a sense of the artist himself but also a glimpse of social history of that time. Bird also parallels the death of Rembrandt in this chapter, giving context of the art world, as well as exploring Vermeer’s use of colour, and makes the reader think about how to look at a painting.

Of course, this is a book about the visual arts, and so equally important to the text are the illustrations. There is a mix here of reproductions, such as Vermeer’s The Love Letter, and fresh illustrations and interpretations by Kate Evans, including artists at their easels, scenes from their windows and so on.

It’s going to be a difficult selection, narrowing down the whole of the history of art – even to 336 pages, and there is definitely a focus on Western art here, but there is also broad scope beyond the lives of famous artists. From cave paintings, ceramics, stained glass, the architects of Angkor Wat to city art maps, such as Florence and New York, to the African art and thoughts of El Anatsui and his use of adinkra.

There is also a wonderful glossary and list of artworks. A really good, thought-provoking and illuminating read. You can buy it here.