This famous book was first published half a century ago, in 1959. Over the years it has gone through numerous revisions (the current edition, the seventh, appeared in 1997) and has grown considerably in length, from 355 pages originally to 580 pages now. However, its character has remained essentially unchanged: its strength and its weakness is that by the standards of serious reference books it is a very personal work.
When the Murrays write about artists or topics that engage them, they can produce highly readable entries, enlivened by anecdotal details. Unfortunately, a downside of their chatty style is that they often don't take the trouble to explain things clearly, but instead meander on conversationally; and when called upon to discuss subjects for which they have no sympathy - most modern art, for example - they barely go through the motions. To look no further than the first four pages, the entries on Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting are hopelessly inadequate. Moreover, by the time Linda Murray alone produced the seventh edition (her husband Peter had died in 1992) she was in her eighties (she died in 2004, aged 91) and understandably showing signs of fatigue. Indeed one entry in particular - that on Claude Lorrain - is so off beam it suggests she was no longer up to the task. It will be worthwhile looking at this entry in detail to highlight some of the book's shortcomings.
The entry gets off to a bad start by giving the traditional date for Claude's birth, 1600, for recently discovered documents indicate he was probably born four or five years later. I don't know when the revised dating was first published, but it had appeared in other reference books by 1996, so Linda Murray could have included it if she had been on the ball. Many of the statements that follow are wrong or inexact. `He was in Naples 1618-20': no, his stay in Naples is not firmly documented. `There are no works by him certainly datable before 1630': no, his first dated painting (in the Philadelphia Museum of Art) is of 1629. `He never had a pupil': yes he did - an obscure painter called Angeluccio.
These may seem like minor points, but there is also a huge mistake concerning the size of Claude's output. `Claude's production was steady, at about seventy pictures a year . . . until 1650 when he slowed to about thirty . . . In his last years he slowed to about ten to twelve pictures a year.' This is wildly and bafflingly wrong. Of all the great Old Masters, Claude probably has the best-documented output, as he recorded most of it in an album that still survives (in the British Museum). From this we learn that towards the end of his life (when he was weakened by age and illness) he sometimes finished only one or two paintings a year. About 250-300 pictures by him are known today, from a career lasting 50-odd years. Allowing for works lost over the centuries, his overall average must have been about six paintings annually - not seventy, thirty, or even ten.
The woeful statistics about Claude's output were not in previous editions of the Penguin dictionary, so they must have been added by the elderly Linda Murray. Even if this entry is dismissed as an aberration, the book cannot be recommended without strong reservations. In addition to being unreliable in matters of detail, it is uneven and often unbalanced in coverage, with 20th-century artists generally poorly treated. For example, Wassily Kandinsky, one of the giants of modern art, gets a mere 11 lines; on the opposite page, Angelica Kauffmann is dismissed as a painter of `rather anaemic little decorative history pieces', but she nevertheless gets 19 lines. I'm tempted to give the book only two stars, but because I have a lingering affection for it, I'll make it three.
For many years the Murrays had the field to themselves, but since about 1990 several other paperback art dictionaries of similar size, scope, and price have appeared. As far as I'm aware, three of these are currently available in the UK - from Oxford University Press, Thames and Hudson, and Yale University Press. How do they measure up against the Penguin dictionary?
At first glance, The Yale Dictionary of Art and Artists (published in 2000) looks an attractive proposition, as it is the bulkiest but also the cheapest of the four books. However, cheapness seems to have come at the cost of carelessness, for there are many signs of over-hasty production. The most obvious is that there are two almost identical entries on the same artist under variant spellings - Joseph Csáky and (three pages later) Joseph Czaky. He doesn't deserve a place in the book however you spell his name, and there are other strange inclusions, notably a silly hagiographic piece on Derek Jarman (`his creativity seemed infinite'). Some of the imbalances are grotesque: for example, Howard Hodgkin gets a longer entry than Giotto. The book is much more academic in tone than the Murrays' dictionary - stodgily written, with little feeling that art is something to be enjoyed. In spite of this scholarly sobriety, it is badly out of date in many respects and there are some horrible blunders, including saying that the Statue of Liberty is made of `stone slabs' (rather than copper sheets).
However, the Yale book is far preferable to The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists (latest edition 1994), in which much of the material is flimsy, sloppy, dated, or inaccurate. It's the only one of these books to have illustrations, but they are small and sometimes of wretched quality. Another conspicuous failing is that locations are not given for the works of art cited. This leaves The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (latest edition 2009), which to my mind is easily the pick of the bunch - more up to date, more accurate, more user friendly, better balanced, better produced, and far better written than any of the others.