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Review Coverage

Artists & Illustrators Magazine

April 2007

Be wary of any critic who tells you he is going to turn art on its head. In this book, Julian Freeman announces that he is going to traverse the better part of 500 years of British art in an unprecedented manner. Containing 16 essays on subjects as diverse as migration, maritime art, climate, portraiture, warfare, sculpture, spirituality, printmaking and the business of exhibiting, Freeman provides us with what is billed as an antidote to conventional art history.

To Freeman's credit, he does not try to formally reassess British art. Rather, the book consists of a highly personal selection of opinions and perceptions, expressed in an irreverent manner that injects some levity into what could have been a dense read. Certainly, the narrative is a refreshing change to orthodox art criticism.

Although there is no central theme to the book, one concept repeats itself throughout: the idea that geography is a crucial determining force in the formation of cultural and creative identities. Freeman's Britain is a country composed of nations within nations - Roman, Saxon, Viking, Irish, and so on - each one dispersing a visual tradition in its wake. The traditions come and go in quite rapid succession, each one leaving just a memory.

Freeman paints a picture of Britain as a country that is simultaneously personalised and regimented by its massive cross-cultural baggage. He argues that Britain has found it hard to maintain an indigenous visual tradition, as it is constantly infiltrated by outsiders and immigrants. Our artistic practices seem doomed to be forever mongrel, always slightly unsure of their identity. Nonetheless, he also points out, to our credit, we often fail to appreciate how settled our society is given that so many of our traditions are imported.

Freeman writes about art as you might imagine him writing about travel. It is humane, anecdotal, and full of visual detail. One chapter is devoted to the weather, another two exclusively journey through the art of Wales and Scotland. Particular precedence is given to the parochial: it seems hard to imagine, but he has written a book about British art that spends more time discussing John Eardley than David Hockney (who isn't mentioned once).

Sometimes Freeman gets carried away - he'll think of a metaphor and then grab onto it remorselessly, or throw in lame jokes about fox hunting or Randy Newman that seem totally out of context. Generally, though, the playfulness of his manner tends to cancel out the odd conceit. My biggest criticism is that the book is too free-form: but then again, that is entirely the point; we are deliberately put on uneven ground because Freeman wants us to look at the British artistic landscape in a radically unfamiliar way.

Freeman is a man who thinks freely, without borders. He builds bridges between places where other art critics have done their best to burn them to the ground, helping to level up British art with ideas and experiences beyond our cultural tradition.

Reviewer: Will Barrett