PositiveThe New Statesman (UK)Almost everything you need to know about the heroic age of Britain’s Industrial Revolution – its energy, hypocrisies, almost unstoppable curiosity and inventiveness – is neatly parcelled in the life of the one-legged Nonconformist potter who built an international industry from the clay and coal of Staffordshire ... yet, despite Wedgwood’s whirl of activity, he does not quite come alive in these pages. He was admirable, not lovable. He kept a commonplace book, but it appears to be filled with technical observations...He may have been a genial enough companion – his closest relationships were with male friends – but he was also a bit of a dry old stick. Hunt does his best with the human interest ... Hunt deftly weaves together the complex forces in Wedgwood’s world ... Hunt’s book reminds us that our predecessors could be infuriating, complex folk, resistant to neat analysis. How should we make sense of an economic system that was based on so much pious Christian hypocrisy, everyday cruelty and oppression, but which also roiled with energy that Britain now so conspicuously lacks? ... The book comes most to life in its epilogue, when Hunt contemplates the collapse of the modern Wedgwood company under Tony O’Reilly’s stewardship, and then the behaviour of the US private equity company KPS Capital Partners as it picked over the remains – offshoring production, sacking skilled workers and leaving Stoke-on-Trent with an industrial ruin. His anger smokes off the page. The story of Josiah Wedgwood, it turns out, isn’t only about the Industrial Revolution – it is also about Britain today. It isn’t flattering.
Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
MixedThe New Statesman (UK)This large, generous book contains it all: the childhood whippings by his father’s servants, the adolescent flight to interwar Berlin and Paris, the thieving, the cat burgling adventures, the overnight fame, the gangsters, beatings, the postwar Tangier dives and the long-lost nights of Soho in its bohemian prime; the wild, hilarious, bitchy lunches at Wheeler’s – all those oysters, all that champagne – and, of course, the dramatic self-destruction of his two great loves, Peter Lacy and George Dyer, one by whisky and one by drugs. Too much! Too much, because the story can elbow aside the achievement of the paintings. It’s a jagged, jump-cut biopic spangled with glitter and squalor that dares you to look away. Sex. Death. Glamour. Gossip, gossip, gossip. With all this noise, how can we plant our feet, focus and look levelly at the actual, you know, paintings? ... The authors of this monster biography do at times bring out Bacon’s winning character, wit and mischief. However, being American critics, they sometimes struggle with milieux that may be more familiar to British writers. There are some passages of solemn explanation which become wooden. But their virtue is they are great completists and cross-checkers, which means they debunk some of the stories and give us a full explanation of who was who ... They are particularly strong on the early years, misted by Bacon-derived myths ... Does this book deserve its bold subtitle Revelations? Not really. We have known all the shocking stuff for a long time already. This is a work of real scholarship and seriousness. But London’s bohemia has many fine historians already, people who were there at the time and remember the rhythm and timbre of Francis Bacon in full flow. I don’t suppose those who know their Daniel Farson and Michael Peppiatt will be surprised by anything here. And if that seems a tad ungracious for such a heavy, serious and well-meant book, I can only reply by reassuring Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan that, duckies, Muriel Belcher, the chatelaine of Bacon’s favoured drinking den, the Colony Room Club, would have been ruder by far.
RaveNew Statesman (UK)One theme in this remarkable biography, based on hundreds of hours of conversation between Feaver and Freud, is the painter’s dawning realisation that, even as he opens himself up, he absolutely doesn’t want his biography to be written after all… at least not until he is safely dead ... This intensity makes him a glorious subject for biography. In this second volume, taking the story from 1968 to 2011, Feaver lacks the jaw-dropping Hogarthian quality of the early life, with its cast of gangsters, stoned aristocrats and Soho bacchanals ... You wouldn’t have thought that any of this could possibly be as interesting as the hungry years. Yet Feaver has written a second great page-turner, one of the finest art biographies I know. Part of that comes about because of the artist’s authentic voice, meticulously recorded in all those conversations ... astonishing.
RaveThe New Statesman (UK)A successful biography should be, on top of everything else, a good read. It needs a cracking, whip-like narrative. To expect that from the third volume of a life crammed with high policy and political complexity might seem absurd. And yet this reads, for the most part, like a sophisticated thriller ... Charles Moore is one of the most partisan journalists on the right, a lifelong Thatcherite and an utterly committed hater of the BBC, for which this reviewer proudly works ... So, it isn’t with limitless personal enthusiasm that I must report that Moore has finally completed one of the most thrilling, comprehensive, fair-minded and elegantly written biographies of modern times. It is full of complex argument, and a very large cast, but it is a joy to read ... Today, we are still almost as split about Margaret Thatcher as we are about Brexit. Was she disastrous for us, or was she essential? Whichever side you take, this is the book to read.
MixedThe Sunday TimesThis is a golden age for history-minded authors who want to take the world’s temperature and tell us what’s going to happen next ... Michael O’Sullivan...has produced one of the gloomier and odder, but most thought-provoking books of the lot ... a very short view ... The least satisfactory passages of this book...are about political reform ... when O’Sullivan, clearly a naturally moderate man, tries to produce his own manifesto and models for fresh political parties to replace the current ones, it all sounds blandly familiar, even pious. His concern about inequality requires a hard-edged social-democratic approach to tax, but that hardly features. He doesn’t really sound like a politician, and there is a certain, albeit charming, naivety about his change agenda ... The best sections in this book by far—perhaps not surprisingly—concern economics and finance. They are really good ... my advice is, study the money chapters closely, then skim the rest.
PositiveThe Sunday TimesThis private-education boom provides the starting point for Robert Verkaik’s calmly written, fair-minded but ultimately angry polemic against what we still call the public-school system ... Verkaik is skeptical about how much Labour would do, not least because Jeremy Corbyn’s circle is so infested with privately educated men; but he carefully analyzes the growing unease about this peculiarly British form of class division in the modern Tory party ... His book, crammed with facts and reminders and passionate argument, including from supporters of private education, is well worth reading. Some of it is highly contentious. At times, the author seems to believe that everything that has gone wrong with Britain is the fault of Eton and a clutch of other grand ivy-choked academies. This is easier to state than demonstrate ... The book is least convincing where Verkaik enjoys himself too much attacking easy targets—David Cameron’s admittedly remarkable network of chums, the Bullingdon club, Boris being endlessly Boris. All this is easily available elsewhere ... The strongest passages come when Verkaik goes after lesser-known targets, such as the private-school influence around Corbyn’s office and Momentum, and in shafts of historical insight that will surprise many.