An elegant art dealer and a trip to Italy



I was leafing through an old book by Terence Conran on interior design and came across an interesting opinion. Conran claims that a single lamp or desk lamp is superior for reading than a ceiling lamp, because “a pool of light gives a pleasant feeling of privacy and encourages concentration.” If this is true, I wonder if the impact of focus could be increased by using an extremely localized light source, like a flashlight or headlamp. (I know several people who swear by headlamps when reading – and, of course, any kid who has read stealthily under a blanket can attest to the flashlight’s effectiveness.)

Pushed to its farthest conclusion, one might even try using a laser pointer to illuminate exactly one letter at a time while reading, although I imagine that ophthalmologists would oppose this practice. Are you picky about your reading light setup? Please report to, I might use some new ideas.


This book describes its subject, Joseph Duveen, as “the most spectacular art dealer of all time”. To this I would add that he was also a shrewd financier, fixer, oracle, liar and social engineer – although these qualities may all be contained in the author’s original statement. If you like biographies of geniuses told in the form of wacky anecdotes, this volume is for you.

The British-born merchant’s first stroke of genius was to identify an arbitrage opportunity at the end of the 19th century: Europe was teeming with art and America was teeming with people who wanted to buy it. From the age of 17, Duveen played ping-pong between continents, loading paintings in one and selling them to railroad tycoons and oil barons in the other. He rode the waves of the economic boom and shattered the way Kelly Slater rides Backdoor, with divine omniscience and formidable style.

My favorite anecdote comes from the second page of the book. When Duveen wanted to dissuade a Duke of the High Church from buying a religious painting from a rival merchant, he made the offhand (and ridiculous) remark that a set of cherubs depicted in the painting was “homosexual.” Therefore, there was no sale… until the painting ended up in Duveen’s hands, in which case no such speculation was offered. Scruples: In the art world, who needs it?

To read if you like: “The Square”, ancient gossip, learning the follies of the rich, innuendos, being devious

Available from: It’s sold out, so give eBay a try or put your Google search skills to the test.

Fiction, 1922

Here we have such a sunny novel that I would prescribe it for vitamin D deficiency if I were a doctor, which luckily for everyone I’m not. Four ladies rent a medieval castle in Italy for a month in April. Two of the ladies, Rose and Lotty, are acquaintances of the church. The other two – a widow and a socialite – are foreigners recruited through an ad placed with the intention of diluting the cost of rent. (Rose and Lotty pay their share of the “nest eggs,” but the eggs are closer to the size of a quail than the size of an emu.) The medieval Italian castle turns out to be heavenly: the sea sparkles beneath a cliff, cherry blossoms sparkling, the scent of freesias delights every nostril.

But the interpersonal landscape is not so harmonious. The socialite is a misanthropist; the widow a cranky snob. Soon a turf war breaks out: Which will take control of the “good” show? Which will conquer the neutral territory of the garden? What sort of battle will follow the arrival of a foreign enemy? (The alien enemy being Lotty’s husband.) Will a chilly vacation turn into a bloodbath, or will the enchantments of the castle turn anger into euphoria?

Almost every page of this charmer has a phrase begging to be reproduced on a pillow. Imagine the following in emerald embroidery surrounded by a sprig of violet: “Things are going so badly. It’s really amazing how awkwardly they perform.

To read if you like: Correctly identifying wildflowers, Barbara Pym, films Merchant Ivory, contemplating the bizarre contract of marriage

Available from: Random penguin house

  • Avoid this political thriller if you have ARTERIAL HYPERTENSION – because I don’t want to be legally responsible for medical incidents?

  • Switch between TANZANIA and SWITZERLAND in a malicious thriller by an author I just won’t stop recommending until she meets or exceeds TANA FRENCH in book sales?

  • Sing along to VS Naipaul’s smashing intellect (and don’t forget to apply a COOL COMPRESS Once finished)?

  • Tie your HAT SHERLOCK HOLMES DEERSTALKER and embark on a medical mystery in the Balkans? (Note: this is an article, not a book.)

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