Gainsborough by James Hamilton review – the painter’s secret sauciness

An astute biography casts a new light on famous paintings and underlines the importance of the artist’s risque private life

Thomas Gainsborough’s early masterpiece, Mr and Mrs Andrews (c1750), has long been read as a celebration of that pivotal moment in mid-Georgian Britain when man managed to wrestle nature to its knees and tell it what to do. To one side of the painting are the recently married Robert and Frances Andrews, a lucky young couple handsomely dressed in a rustle of linen, satin and soft leather. Significantly, though, the pair are posing not in the library or hall of their manor house but out in the grounds, in the well-worked, wheat-covered bit of Suffolk’s loamy Stour valley that provides the capital on which their combined fortune depends. In the far distance you can just make out the tower of All Saints’ Church where this alliance between two local landowning ...

Watling Street by John Higgs review – the myths and stories of Brexit Britain

An aficionado of the counterculture journeys along the ancient route from Dover to Anglesey in search of glimmers of utopia

You might know Watling Street as a shortcut in the heart of the City of London where crumpled-looking office workers dash on their way to somewhere else or linger after work for an expensive pint. But as John Higgs explains, the street is more than a quaint rat run with a Dick Whittington vibe. While its origins are “far older than recorded history”, it remains one of the great highways of modern Britain, running virtually unbroken from Dover to Anglesey. You probably don’t recognise it because it mostly goes by other names: the A2, the A5 and, when it’s feeling fancy, the M6 Toll. Sometimes, as it wiggles its way through the market towns of central England, it becomes simply “the high street”.

Around the time of last year’s referendum, ...

The Witch by Ronald Hutton review – why fear of witchcraft hasn’t gone away

A magisterial account across space and time of why people have been accused, and how some societies have stayed clearIt comes as no surprise to learn that the study of witches and witchcraft has been pockmarked by feuds and even the occasional falling-out. According to the opening section of Ronald Hutton’s magisterial book, the battle lines were drawn from the 1960s to the 90s between those scholars who insisted on taking a global view of maleficent magic and those who argued for a more local approach. The big-picture people tended to be an older generation of anthropologists who believed that all expressions of witchcraft could be traced back to a pocketful of ancient sources. Local characteristics – hanging upside-down naked from a tree in Uganda, dressing your pet toad in a frock in the Basque country – were simply a dialect version of a universal shamanistic language that ...

That’s the Way It Crumbles by Matthew Engel review – against the Americanisation of British English

Engel is not anti-American and it is not linguistic purity he’s after, but rather difference. How will that pan out going forward?OK, here’s the thing. Maybe you like to think that you are a reliable user of the Queen’s English. You give slang a wide berth and never refer to anyone as a “guy” unless it happens to be the fifth of November. You don’t “do the math”, not least because back in your day it was called “maths”. Receiving an email that begins “Hi” makes you squirm and whenever you attempt to “kick ass” you worry about getting a call from the RSPCA. Well done you. Not. For as Matthew Engel shows in this jaunty book, even the most pedantic Britons use Americanisms – words, phrases, pronunciations and spellings, but also that indefinable thing called cadence – 24/7. We can’t help it. Our ears are exposed to an American ...

Collecting the World by James Delbourgo review – Hans Sloane’s ‘nicknackatory’ and the founding of the British Museum

Sloane, a society doctor who gave his name to the Chelsea square, gathered a vast array of objects, from a cyclops pig to a penis protectorThere was nothing too small, too big, too fast or too odd for Hans Sloane not to want to put it under glass and attach a label. Setting out to collect the world in the late 17th century, Sloane packed his cabinets with gnats’ blood, Inuit sun visors, a stick to put down your throat to make yourself sick, a cyclops pig, a silver penis protector and a bit of coral that looked just like someone’s hand. Out of this jumble of natural and manmade scraps he fashioned a legacy for the nation. In 1759 the British Museum was opened for the purpose of letting plebeians, patricians and everyone in between gawp at the world as refracted through one man’s roving eye and sticky ...

The Gastronomical Me by MFK Fisher review – a food writing classic

Fisher exposed the private appetites most of us struggle to hide. Her celebrated book from 1943 has been reissued and reads very differently nowWH Auden’s famous observation on the writer MFK Fisher – “I do not know of anyone in the States who writes better prose” – has been pressed into service on the cover of this reprint of Fisher’s most beloved book The Gastronomical Me (1943). The power of the puff lies in the fact that Auden wasn’t praising another poet or even a novelist but a food writer, a species conceived at that time as a domestic science teacher with a fail-safe recipe for meatloaf. Implicit in Auden’s praise was the suggestion that Fisher should be removed from this category and set alongside Hemingway or Faulkner as a literary practitioner in her own right. These days we would get around the whole vexed business by saying that ...

George Eliot: is this a new portrait of the author as a young woman?

The long face, the flinty eyes and the open book in the background – experts believe this is a sketch of the young Eliot and that it has a romantic story of its own to tell In February last year a London picture dealer called Andrew Sim was clicking through the online auction catalogue for a saleroom in South Oxfordshire, hoping that something might turn up while knowing that it probably wouldn’t. In among the wavy mirrors and scuffed-up sofas, his attention was caught by a chalk pastel portrait of a young woman. “My first thought was that it was from the 1840s – a period that interests me because it is so undervalued,” says Sim. More specifically it looked a bit like the work of George Richmond, the pre-eminent portrait painter of the period who did everyone from Charlotte Brontë to Charles Darwin. Richmond, though, was always more than ...