A Stylish Art Dealer and a Trip to Italy

A Stylish Art Dealer and a Trip to Italy

I was leafing through an old Terence Conran book on home décor and encountered an interesting opinion. Conran asserts that a single lamp or task light is superior for reading than an overhead light, because “a pool of light gives a pleasant sense of intimacy and encourages concentration.” If this is true, I wonder if the concentration impact might be heightened by using an extremely localized light source, such as a flashlight or headlamp. (I know several people who swear by headlamps when reading — and, of course, any child who has read furtively beneath a blanket can testify to the efficacy of the flashlight.)

Taken to its furthest conclusion, one could even try using a laser pointer to illuminate exactly one letter at a time while reading, though I imagine eye doctors would object to this practice. Are you picky about your reading light setup? Please report to RLTW@nytimes.com, I could use some fresh ideas.


This book describes its subject, Joseph Duveen, as “the most spectacular art dealer of all time.” To that I would add he was also a canny financier, fixer, oracle, liar and social engineer — although perhaps those qualities are all contained within the author’s original declaration. If you like biographies of geniuses told in the form of zany anecdotes, this is the volume for you.

The British-born dealer’s original stroke of genius was to identify an arbitrage opportunity in the late 19th century: Europe was full of art and America was full of people who wanted to buy it. Beginning at age 17, Duveen ping-ponged between continents, loading up on paintings in one and selling them to railroad tycoons and oil barons in the other. He surfed waves of economic boom and bust the way Kelly Slater surfs Backdoor, with godlike omniscience and tremendous style.

My favorite anecdote comes from the second page of the book. When Duveen wanted to dissuade a High Church duke from buying a religious painting from a rival dealer, he made the casual (and ludicrous) remark that a set of cherubs depicted in the painting were “homosexual.” Consequently, there was no sale … until the painting found its way into Duveen’s possession, at which point no such speculations were offered. Scruples: In the art world, who needs ’em?

Read if you like: The Square,” antique gossip, learning about the follies of the rich, innuendo, being devious

Available from: It’s out of print, so try eBay or put your Googling skills to the test.

Fiction, 1922

Here we have a novel so sunny that I would prescribe it for Vitamin D deficiencies if I were a doctor, which luckily for everyone I am not. Four ladies rent a medieval castle in Italy for one month in April. Two of the ladies, Rose and Lotty, are acquaintances from church. The other two — a widow and a socialite — are strangers recruited through an advertisement placed with the intention of diluting the cost of rent. (Rose and Lotty are paying their share from “nest eggs,” but the eggs are closer to quail-size than emu-size.) The medieval Italian castle turns out to be heavenly: The sea sparkles beneath a cliff, the cherry trees bloom frothily, the scent of freesias enraptures every nostril.

But the interpersonal landscape is not so harmonious. The socialite is misanthropic; the widow a grumpy snob. Soon a genteel turf war breaks out: Who will gain control of the “good” sitting room? Who will conquer the neutral territory of the garden? What sort of battle will follow the arrival of a foreign enemy? (The foreign enemy being Lotty’s husband.) Will a breezy holiday devolve into a blood bath or will the castle’s enchantments alchemize ire into euphoria?

Nearly every page of this charmer contains a phrase that begs to be replicated on a throw pillow. Imagine the following in emerald embroidery surrounded by a sprig of violets: “Things happen so awkwardly. It really is astonishing, how awkwardly they happen.”

Read if you like: Correctly identifying wildflowers, Barbara Pym, Merchant Ivory films, contemplating the bizarre contract that is marriage

Available from: Penguin Random House

  • Avoid this political thriller if you have HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE — because I don’t want to be legally responsible for medical incidents?

  • Toggle between TANZANIA and SWITZERLAND in a novel of malevolent suspense from an author that I simply will not stop recommending until she equals or exceeds TANA FRENCH in book sales?

  • Singe yourself on the blistering intellect of V.S. Naipaul (and don’t forget to apply a COOL COMPRESS when finished)?

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

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