Book Club


Publishers of award-winning illustrated books on art, history, archaeology, world cultures and more.

Roman Empire: Power and People

Roman Empire: Power and People opens this Saturday 21st September at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, in partnership with the British Museum.

Roman Empire: Power and People brings together over 160 stunning pieces from the British Museum to explore the story of one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen. Highlights include sculpture from the villas of the Emperors Tiberius and Hadrian, coins from the famous Hoxne treasure, beautiful jewellery and even near-perfectly preserved children’s clothing from Roman Egypt.

The exhibition explores the wealth, power and organisation of the Empire, but also how the Romans viewed their provinces and other peoples. Religious, military and personal objects give an insight into the lives of people across the Empire, from northern Britain to Egypt and the Middle East.

Roman Empire: Power and PeopleThe book, Roman Empire: Power and People by Dirk Booms, Belinda Crerar and Susan Raikes is available now from the British Museum Press. Ahead of the opening of the exhibition, we’ve published here an exclusive extract from this fascinating new publication.

“The Roman opinion of their barbarian foes, particularly the Celtic people of north-western Europe, written about in contemporary literature initially seems contradictory: by some authors they were portrayed as uncouth, untamed savages in dire need of the civilizing lessons of Rome; at other times they were noble, simple people with a brave spirit, unhampered by the complex pressures of Roman life and the softening character that came through luxury and comfort. As Caesar wrote in his Gallic Wars: ‘Of all of these tribes, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are the furthest removed from the civilization and elegance of the Province [Gallia Narbonensis], and because merchants visit them least often to import those things that effeminate the mind’ (Caesar, Gallic Wars 1.1). However, despite seeming incompatible, the two opinions worked in tandem: the barbarian way of life was not to be praised or emulated, but victory over an unworthy foe was not much to celebrate. Therefore, the bravery and fighting spirit of the barbarians was to be applauded and mentioned at every opportunity as a tool for increasing Roman pride as their conquerors.

Roman Empire p 53 image

Bronze eagle found at the Romano-British town of Calleva (modern Silchester). Despite being the inspiration for Rosemary Sutcliff’s book The Eagle of the Ninth, it was probably not part of a military standard but rather may have come from a statue of Jupiter. Silchester, early 1st century AD. Bronze, H. 15 cm, L. 23 cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Attitudes towards the peoples of the Hellenic and Persian worlds generally differed from feelings about those of the Celtic provinces. The Greeks were greatly admired by the Romans for their intellectual accomplishments, not to mention their art which the Roman elite imported and imitated with relish. However, they were generally seen as somewhat ‘soft’ –lacking the hard-nosed political acumen and military prowess on which the Romans prided themselves. To be seen as too much of a ‘philhellene’ (a lover of Greek culture) was, for a Roman, a sign of weak and soft character and an accusation often leveled at the emperor Hadrian who spent a great part of his reign in the Hellenic provinces and earned the nickname Graeculus (Little Greek).

Further east, Arabia held a particular fascination for Rome as the source of luxury goods such as spices and silks. For example, a beautiful bust shows a Persian woman wrapped tightly in a veil and wearing the distinctive curved Phrygian cap which characterized eastern people in Greek and Roman art. The immediately alien aspect of this figure demonstrates the hold that the east had on the imaginations of the people of Rome. However, she is carved in a classical style and her facial features appear European. The idealizing of foreigners expressed by this sculpture is also seen clearly in Roman images of Gallic and German foes and their actual resemblance to the people of these areas is highly doubtful.

Roman Empire p 54 image

Marble bust of a woman wearing a Persian headdress. Rome, 2nd century AD. Marble, H. 69.9 cm. © The Trustees of the British Museum

“…Like the images on coins, Roman art throughout the empire is filled with depictions of bound captives, or of Roman soldiers and emperors crushing foreign enemies physically under their feet or their horses’ hooves. It was one thing to set up such images at home in Rome, where, as with the arch of Claudius and Trajan’s Column, they fed an already inflated sense of cultural and moral superiority, but they also repeatedly appear in the conquered provinces themselves, visible to the very people they pertain to represent, broken and subdued. … In Aphrodisias, in modern Turkey, two brothers erected a monumental temple complex for the cult of the Roman emperor with depictions of all the nations that the Romans had conquered, as well as images of the emperors physically trampling their subjects.

… It is interesting to wonder how the native peoples of these areas responded to having such graphic reminders of their suppression erected right on their doorstep. Would these peoples have identified with the depictions of ‘barbarians’ that adorned these monuments, or did their exaggerated, caricatured features make them as alien to them as they were to the Romans? The relationship between Rome and the peoples whom it conquered was far more complex than simply winner and loser.”

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum. Roman Empire: Power and People, by Dirk Booms, Belinda Crerar and Susan Raikes is published by the British Museum Press in paperback at £10.99. For more information and to look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

Curious Beasts: Animal Prints from the British Museum

3D Image - with white background

A beached whale near Beverwijk, The Camelopard, The Monstrous Pig, The Famous Porcupine, Dürer’s Rhinoceros: these are but a few of the beautiful and bizarre creatures that feature in Curious Beasts: Animal Prints from the British Museum by Alison E. Wright, due out from the British Museum Press on 16 September.

The invention of printmaking in Europe coincided with a rapidly increasing curiosity about the natural world. Before photography, printed images were crucial to communicating information (or misinformation) about new and familiar species. At the same time, animals were viewed primarily in relation to the human world. Many animals in prints were designed to be interpreted symbolically or as holding moral lessons for humanity, while images of hunting, farming and menageries show that people have always turned to animals both for the necessities of life and for entertainment.

Curious Beasts: Animal Prints from the British Museum draws on the British Museum’s exceptional collection of prints from the fifteenth early nineteenth century to offer a glimpse into a vibrant visual culture. Visually appealing, entertaining and intriguing, this book explores humankind’s enduring curiosity about the animal world.

We’ve included a sneak peak of our forthcoming book here ahead of publication.

The monstrous pig

Curious Beasts 73

The monstrous pig of Landser

c. 1496

Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528)

Engraving, 118 x 126 mm


On 1 March 1496 a piglet was born in the village of Landser, in Alsace, with one head, two bodies and a surprising number of legs, tongues and ears. It lived for just one day, but its fame spread far beyond its small village with the production of printed broadsides with simple woodcut illustrations and long moral texts, indulging the public’s curiosity and dread about what it signified. Birth abnormalities (‘monstrous births’) were often interpreted in the early modern period as portents or bad omens. Dürer must have seen one of these broadsides and, characteristically fascinated by the variety of animal form, made this investigative engraving of what such a creature would like, informed by his own studies of pigs. In the background, the castle and Landser locates the ‘monster’ in a solid, verifiable setting, persuading the viewer to accept its unlikely appearance – and perhaps, to speculate on the doom about to visit the inhabitants.

Text and image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Extracted from Curious Beasts: Animal Prints from the British Museum, published by the British Museum Press in paperback at £9.99. To read more about Curious Beasts and to look inside the book, you can visit our website here.

Shakespeare’s Globe, 400 Years On

400 years ago today, the original Globe Theatre in Southwark famously burned to the ground during a production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. To mark this anniversary, we’ve included here an extract from Shakespeare: staging the world by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, published in 2012 by the British Museum Press.

Shakespeare P 18

I hope to see London once ere I die’. Henry IV Part 2 5.3.45. London (‘The Long View’), Wenceslaus Hollar, 1647. Etching comprising four sheets, overall 47.1 x 158.7 cm. British Museum, London.

Shakespeare -staging the world

“Although London was far smaller than it is today, it had, by the standards of the time, extensive suburbs. The south bank of the river – the district of Southwark – was all suburb. That was where you went for entertainment. In 1599… a brand new theatre called the Globe opened its doors. The first play staged there is likely to have been Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Some of the audience would have arrived by water taxi, others would have walked over the bridge. The tragedy of Caesar’s death was played out within sight of the Tower of London, across the river, that he was supposed (incorrectly) to have erected. The drama of ancient conspiracy and treason would have been given edge by the very modern sight of those heads on spikes witnessed on the way to and from the theatre.


‘With this wooden O’… Henry V Prologue. 13. Detail of Sheet 2 from Wenceslaus Hollar’s print London , showing Southwark with the second Globe, built in 1614 after the first Globe burned down, mistakenly labeled as the ‘Beere bayting house’. The building labeled the Globe was the Hope, built in 1613 as a dual-purpose venue for animal-baiting and as a theatre. Etching, 46.6 x 39 cm. British Museum, London.

…Like all crowded places, the playhouses were a magnet for petty criminals. Simon Forman (1552-1611) was a celebrity astrologer and sought-after physician. He kept a diary in which he recorded intimate consultations with a wide range of London society, from prostitutes to fine ladies, who came to him with their problems and concerns (he had a tendency to take advantage of the doctor-patient relationship). In 1611 he went to see Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale at the Globe. He drew a moral from the performance in noting how the trickster Autolycus ‘feyned him sicke & to have ben Robbed of all that he had and hoe he cozened the por man of all his money’ and reminded himself to ‘beware of trusting feined beggars or fawning fellouse’.

The success of Shakespeare’s representation of a feigned beggar and pickpocket on stage came in small measure from the presence around the theatres of numerous real-life figures of just such a kind. In popular literature there was a vigorous market in pamphlets describing the tricks and jargon of the petty criminals who duped their victims, known as ‘conies’ or rabbits, in the streets of London. The most valuable sequence for our purposes in Thomas Platter’s diary is his account of theatergoing, including a visit to Shakespeare’s Globe:

“On September 21st (September 11th in the English calendar) after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen people;  when the play was over, they danced very marvelously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women”.

…The value of this account goes far beyond the information it gives about such details as entrance prices, starting time, costumes, dance routines at the end of the show, the competition between different venues, and so forth. Platter also reveals how plays helped to shape cultural identity. The ‘play in which they presented diverse nations’ shows how the theatre was an arena in which national stereotypes were forged (or overturned). The centrality of theatre to London life is suggested by the idea that merely to witness how the English ‘play or act’ in their social encounters is to see how much time they have clearly spent at the playhouse: the English go to the theatre, Platter implies, in order to learn how to behave like English men and women”.

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The above is extracted from Shakespeare: staging the world by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, published by the British Museum Press, paperback £25. To read more and to look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

London Gay Pride 2013

Happy Gay Pride everyone!  For more information, visit

In the spirit of Gay Pride, we’ve included here a short extract from our new book, A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World by R.B. Parkinson (British Museum Press, paperback, £9.99).

A Little Gay History front cover - low-resPacific Embraces

“In the early eighteenth century, European explorers recorded sexual practices between males in the eastern Pacific region. European missionaries and colonial officials in the following centuries strongly discouraged such activities.

In many parts of the eastern Pacific or Polynesia, same-sex acts were tolerated only between a gender-crossing male and a socially accepted man. Polynesian languages have terms such as mahu (Tahiti) and fa’a fafine (Samoa) that define men who act and dress as women and who, as in many areas of South-East Asia, represent a third gender between man and woman. However, not all man on man sex involved such individuals: in Hawaii, aikane were young masculine men who had sex with the king. David Samwell (1751 – 98), a Welsh surgeon on Captain Cook’s ship the Discovery, noted in 1779 with some surprise that

It is an office that is esteemed honourable among them & they have frequently asked us on seeing a handsome young fellow if he was not an aikane to some of us.

Treasure Box

Above: This ‘treasure box’ was designed to be stored, not on the ground, but suspended. New Zealand, late eighteenth century. Wood and shell, H. 9.4 cm; L. 43 cm; D. 9.8 cm.

Below: Detail.

Treasure box close-up

This box from eighteenth-century New Zealand is made of wood and decorated with shell. It is a so-called ‘treasure box’ that would contain the powerful personal ornaments of a high-ranking Maori person, such as a chief. Every surface (including the underneath) of this prestigious box is covered with designs which show fourteen highly stylized figures, intertwined and linked in various types of sexual union, several showing an embrace between two males.”

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

New this week is the first-ever British Museum audio recording on the subject of A Little Gay History, featuring British Museum curators, Simon Russell Beale and Maggi Hambling discussing a number of objects in the British Museum collection. A free guide to objects from A Little Gay History on display is also available from the British Museum website.

A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World is available from all good bookshops and from the British Museum shop online.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013


We are delighted to announce that the British Museum Press will be a partner of the Edinburgh International Book Festival for the first time in 2013. Senior curator and head of the Roman collections Paul Roberts will discuss life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, deputy keeper of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic material Jill Cook will discuss groundbreaking works of art from the Ice Age, and world-renowned Shakespeare historian Jonathan Bate and curator of Renaissance Europe Dora Thornton will explore the world and works of William Shakespeare.

Paul Roberts

Paul Roberts

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

12:30pm on Monday, 12th August 2013 | Peppers Theatre | Adult Programme

New line

Jill Cook

Jill Cook

Ice Age art

arrival of the modern mind

4.00PM on Friday, 16th August 2013 | Peppers Theatre | Adult Programme

New line

Dora ThorntonJonathan Bate low-res

Jonathan Bate & Dora Thornton


staging the world

New line

12.30PM on Sunday, 25th August 2013 | Peppers Theatre | Adult Programme

For full information on the above events and to find out more visit the Edinburgh International Book Festival website.

We hope to see you there!

Pompeii Live

Tonight is Pompeii Live, an exclusive new event from the British Museum. See the wonders of the exhibition from the comfort of your local cinema, introduced live by Peter Snow and Bettany Hughes, with Mary Beard, Rachel de Thame, Giorgio Locatelli, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, exhibition curator Paul Roberts and British Museum director Neil MacGregor.

For a full list of participating cinemas and for further information, visit the Pompeii Live webpage.

For a taster or what’s to come, we’ve included here a couple of spreads from our exhibition gift book, Art in Pompeii and Herculaneum by Paul Roberts with Vanessa Baldwin: a visual treasury of the art of these two cities. With page after page of exquisite details of frescoes, mosaics, marble reliefs, jewellery, statues, glass and silverware, these close-ups of masterpieces evoke the skilled hands and practiced eye of accomplished classical craftsmen.


Left page: Fresco showing Theseus and the Minotaur. Pompeii, House of Gavius Rufus (VII,2,16). H. 97 cm, W. 88 cm. Naples, MANN 9043

Right page: Fresco showing Perseus and Andromeda. Pompeii, House of Dioscuri (VI, 9,6). H. 128 cm, W. 106 cm. Naples, MANN 8998


Left page: Gold snake bracelets. Herculaneum, ancient shoreline, vault IX, skeleton 65. Diam. 9. 3 cm. Herculaneum, SAP 7835809.

Right page: Painted marble panel showing women playing knucklebones. Herculaneum, House of Neptune and Amphitrite (V,6-7). H. 42 cm, W. 49 cm. Naples, MANN 9562.

For more information and to look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World

A Little Gay History 3D mock-up - high-res

How old is the oldest chat-up line between men? Who was the first ‘lesbian’? Were ancient Greek men who had sex together necessarily ‘gay’? And what did Shakespeare think about cross-dressing?

This week, we are excited to be publishing A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World by R.B. Parkinson. This exciting book draws on objects ranging from ancient Egyptian papyri and the erotic scenes on the Roman ‘Warren Cup’ to modern images by artists such as David Hockney and Bhupen Khakhar to consider questions like these.

The concepts of human desire and gender have never been straightforward and have been shaped in many different ways, both throughout history and across the globe. This book takes over 40 artefacts from many cultures and from all periods to look at the intimate issues behind these objects and to ask a question that concerns us all: how easily can we recognize love in history?

Concise and beautifully illustrated with objects from the British Museum’s far-ranging collection , A Little Gay History provides an intriguing and valuable insight into the range, diversity  and complexity of same-sex desire.

Author R. B. Parkinson, a curator of ancient Egyptian culture at the British Museum, has chosen his three favourite objects from the book.

LGH Page 120

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 – 78), Avanzi del Tempio del Dio Canopo nella Villa Adriana in Tivoli. Rome, c. 1760 – 78. Etching on paper, 45.5 x 58.5 cm.

R.B.P.: This etching by Piranesi has great personal resonance: it shows the ruins of the emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli was one of the inspirations for Marguerite Yourcenar’s poetic novel, Memoirs of Hadrian (1951), and a print of it hung over the fireplace in the house in Maine where Yourcenar lived with her translator and life-partner Grace Frick.  Whenever I travel, I take a copy of the novel with me.

R.B.P: One favourite object is the British Museum itself, which provided the setting for one of the greatest gay romantic moments in English literature: the scene in E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice, where the two heroes finally realise they are in love, superbly filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions in 1987.  Gay romance on a grand scale and with a happy ending.

You can view a clip from Maurice on the British Museum’s YouTube channel.

LGH image 3

R.B.P.: This badge from the 1980s by the wonderful cartoonist and illustrator Kate Charlesworth wittily caricatures stereotypes and assumptions about LGBT identity.

Images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World (£9.99) is published by the British Museum Press, and is available now in all good bookshops. For more information and to look inside the book, visit the British Museum shop online.

The British Museum Press in Autumn 2013

Autumn 2013 Catalogue Cover

Our Autumn 2013 catalogue is now available!

Accompanying two major exhibitions in Autumn, we will be publishing Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia and Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art.  In August we will publish Sex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome by the award-winning author Carrie Vout, bringing new insights to Greek and Roman culture and erotic imagery, past and present. In October, we will publish 5000 Years of Tiles, showcasing the incredible range of tile arts and production techniques, and revealing a fascinating history of design, colour and decoration.

Beyond El Dorado cover - low-resShunga cover 2-5-13 low-resSex on Show cover low-resThe Greek Vase cover low-res5000 Years of Tiles cover - low-resMasterpieces - Early Medieval Art cover low-resRoman Empire cover -  low-resCurious Beasts front cover low-resHaiku Love cover - low-resPersian Love Poetry cover low-resThe Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia low-res

These are just a few highlights from our Autumn 2013 list. To view the full catalogue, visit the British Museum Press website.

Happy reading this Autumn!

The art of influence: Asian propaganda

The art of influence cover

The art of influence: Asian propaganda will be published next Monday by the British Museum Press.

Revolutionary art generally means propaganda – art with a political message that is intended to motivate or persuade. However, propaganda is not just a sinister manipulation, as inferred in the West since the early twentieth century.

In revolutionary and wartime societies, propaganda is considered a vital part of education and political participation. Propaganda encourages or condemns; reinforces existing attitudes and behavior; and promotes social membership within nation, class or work unit.

The art of influence: Asian propaganda by Mary Ginsberg draws on the British Museum’s wide-ranging collection of Asian art to explore the use of political propaganda in Asia from about 1900 to 1976. This fascinating and provocative catalogue features over 100 works of art from countries such as China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea and India. Posters, cartoons and ceramics are among the art forms that Ginsberg uses to illustrate the power of propaganda in twentieth century Asia.

The art of influence: Asian propaganda is published to complement an exhibition at the British Museum opening on 30th May, which presents a selection of the British Museum’s rich collections of unpublished and rarely seen political art from Asia.

Ahead of publication, we’ve included here an extract from the book in addition to several striking artworks.

From the introduction:

This catalogue focuses on the twentieth century in Asia, an era of almost continual war and revolution with ever-evolving styles and techniques of propaganda. The account presented here takes the relatively neutral position that the main goal of propaganda – and propaganda art – is to create involvement. Not all propaganda is bad; it is not always lies. Propaganda aims to inspire action and belief in a common cause. It builds nations and defies enemies. It informs as well as persuades; promotes and admonishes; includes, excludes and shapes identity politics. It motivates obedience or resistance using a host of methods and modes of appeal.

Page 77

Dawn of Victory, Liu Lun. China, 1941. Woodcut, ink on paper, 24 x 15.5 cm. Purchase funded by Brooke Sewell Permanent Fund.

Liu Lun (b. 1913) is a native of Guangdong province, where he trained in printmaking, actively worked in the wartime resistance movement, and taught for many years in higher institutions of art. The British Museum has nine of his works, eight (including this one) from the Thompson collection and one from the international exhibition organized by Jack Chen. Almost all his works are realistic; one print (fig. 16) records the carnage from an actual battle in 1942.

This remarkable patriotic print – heroic cavalry-men charging through the air on a cloud – is unlike any other by Liu Lun. It is rare to know the exact circumstances of a work from this period, but Liu Lun still remembers making it. It was created in 1941, during the second United Front between the Communists and Guomindang. Liu Lun was arts editor for the Creative Committee for the number 4 war district in Guangdong. The Committee published a magazine called New Construction, and this print was made for its cover, to promote resistance and inspire the public. This was the only wartime print he made in what he calls the romantic style, inspired by contemporary Western pictorals.

Page 70

Plate, 1930s (probably), India, Bamboo, split and coiled, and lacquered, Diameter: 15.2 cm.

Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869 – 1948), one of the leaders of the Indian independence movement, was committed throughout his life to principles of non-violence (ahimsa) and Indian self sufficiency (swadeshi). In the long campaign for self-rule (swaraj), Gandhi promoted boycotts of foreign goods (mainly British and Japanese) for both political and economic reasons.

His tool was the spinning wheel (charkha), with which he is depicted here. India exported ever-increasing amounts of raw cotton, but would not become a net exporter of cloth piece goods until the 1940s. Gandhi exhorted villagers – especially women – to revive the rural economy by spinning cotton yarn to supplement household agricultural income. The yarn production also supported the carders, weavers and dyers of the cloth. Gandhi’s charkha became the symbol of swadeshi and appeared on the flag adopted by the Indian National Congress in 1931.

This small plate was made in Burma (possibly Pagan) by the laborious and expensive shwe-zawa technique using black lacquer and gold leaf. Many Indians settled in Burma in the colonial period.”

Page 138

Long live Marxism, Lenism, Mao Zedong Thought.  Late 20thcentury, China. Papercut, 16.3 x 27.6 cm. Given by Andrew Bolton.

Papercuts were traditionally made in China as decorations for festivals and rituals. This was an art of the common people, for holidays, weddings and marking the seasonal activities of village life. Particularly at the time of Spring Festival (New Year), farmers and craftsmen made ‘window flowers’ to invoke blessings for the coming year. Among the earliest surviving examples are the ninth-tenth-century flowers found in the so-called Library Cave (Cave 17) at Dunhuang, now in the British Museum.

Communist arts policy transformed this centuries-old folk art into a progressive tool. Decoration for its own sake was anti-revolutionary, but traditional crafts were to be encouraged, their content altered in the service of politics. Gu Yuan and other trained artists at Yan’an produced papercuts during the Resistance War. They were an attractive, comprehensible vehicle to promote production, literacy and support for the army. Propaganda papercuts are still made today.

Papercuts are made with scissors or with knives. Knife-cutting is used for production in large quantities, and professional artists execute topical sets for domestic and foreign consumption. There is nothing left of the bold, colourful folk style in this group portrait of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao – where Mao is nearest to the viewer, and just a bit larger than the others.

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

For further information on The art of influence: Asian propaganda and to look inside the book, please visit the British Museum online shop.

Mary Ginsberg will be speaking about The art of influence: Asian propaganda at The Telegraph Hay Festival on Sunday 2nd June.

Kitaj Prints

Kitaj Prints

Kitaj Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné will be published on Monday by the British Museum Press.

This beautifully illustrated new book explores the range of graphic works of R.B. Kitaj, one of the most thought-provoking and controversial artists of the second half of the twentieth century.

American-born artist R.B. Kitaj’s (1932–2007) distinctive, highly personal and often challenging works drew on many influences ranging from literature to politics and film. The British Museum holds a near complete set of the artist’s proofs, the best representation of the artist’s graphic works in the UK.

Kitaj worked in England for almost forty years – until 1994 when his ill-fated retrospective exhibition at the Tate was savaged by the critics. Hurt by the hostile reception of his works in his adopted homeland and grieving for the sudden death of his young wife, the painter Sandra Fisher, Kitaj left England for good, returning to America, declaring, ‘London is dead to me now’. It was in London that he developed his early style and influenced many of his close circle of friends, including David Hockney, who he met at the RCA, and Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach. This led him to coin the term ‘School of London’, later associated with this group of purely figurative artists.

This exciting and beautifully produced book amounts to the definitive collection of the artist’s graphic works, and is the first to examine in detail Kitaj’s prints for almost twenty years, featuring 300 pieces.

A forthcoming exhibition at the British Museum from 30 May to 1 September 2013, Recent Acquisitions: Arcimboldo to Kitaj will showcase many of Kitaj’s striking graphic works, which are featured in the catalogue.

Ahead of publication, author Jennifer Ramkalawon, curator of prints and drawings, chooses her favourite pieces.

Boys and Girls

Boys and Girls! (detail), 1964. Colour screenprint.

In Kitaj’s 1965 New York exhibition catalogue he placed this print with the Mahler group and stated that it was associated with ‘the 2nd movement of the 2nd symphony. At the bottom right is Werner Krauss playing ht lead in the anti-Semitic movie Jud-Suess. The central photo was taken from a post-war German nudist mag’.

La Luca

La Luca del Pueblo Español por su Libertad, 1969 – 70. From the series, In Our Time: Covers for a Small Library After the Life for the Most Part, 1969-70. Colour screenprint, photoscreenprint. 770 x 575 mm.

A large reproduction of the cover of La Luca del Pueblo Español por su Libertad, compiled by A. Ramos Oliveira (The Press Department of the Spanish Embassy, London 1937). First published 1937.

The Red Dancer of Moscow

The Red Dancer of Moscow, 1975. Colour screenprint, photoscreenprint, 1013 x 750 mm.

Here Kitaj reuses the figure of the woman in the print Cutie, 1974 (cat. 180) along with the head of the sailor from the print Cap’n A.B. Dick, 1975 (cat. 201).

Self-portrait (after Mattteo)

Self-portrait (After Matteo), (detail), 1983. Soft-ground etching.

This portrait appears to be based on a figure from Massacre of the Innocents, 1482, a painting by Matteo di Giovanni (c. 1452 – 95; Sant’ Agostino, Siena). The man directly beneath Herod’s right hand wears a black cap and stares out of the painting with a direct gaze, which Kitaj has adopted for his self-portrait. This is the reverse image of the charcoal drawing on green paper, Self-portrait (After Matteo), 1982 (estate of the artist).

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum, extracted from the book.

Kitaj Prints: A Catalogue Raisonné by Jennifer Ramkalawon is published by the British Museum Press, and is available in hardback at £40. For more information and to look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.