John Fleming & Hugh Honour Remembered Susanna Johnston (Gibson Square, £20)
Art historians hugh honour and John Fleming were brilliant writers on art, architecture and the decorative arts. they lived together in italy in a devoted partnership for many decades and sustained themselves by writing on the subjects they loved, often together. novelist susanna Johnston, wife of the architect nicholas Johnston, has written a very personal memoir of the two men based on her own long friendship with them; John Fleming died in 2001, hugh honour in 2016.
she first met them in 1957, when Gordon Waterfield introduced her as their potential replacement as ‘reader’ to the aged—and by then blind—writer and critic Percy Lubbock. Lubbock lived in a villa by the sea—gli scafari, owned by his stepdaughter, the writer iris origo.
the scene of Mrs Johnston’s unpromising arrival at the villa has the curious ring of an updated chapter from a henry James novel—appropriately enough, perhaps, because Lubbock had, as a young man, been a close friend of the novelist. the ageing Lubbock was clearly not expecting ever to hire a young woman for the role, but, somehow, she passed muster, got the job and began her friendship with Fleming and honour.
their love of italian culture and their 1962 acquisition and restoration of the Villa Marchio near Lucca are at the heart of this memoir. Mrs Johnston, who also found a house near Lucca as a happy retreat for her growing family of four daughters and friends, offers her personal insight into how Fleming and honour lived in tuscany. she describes their beloved home and gives us glimpses of their eccentric circle of literary and artistic friends, as well as of the many admiring grandees who sought them out (‘can’t they just read our books?’).
their A World History of Art, first published in 1982, remains an influential work, reissued several times, and their 1977 The Penguin Dictionary of Decorative Arts is still, perhaps, unrivalled. Mrs Johnston might perhaps have extended her memoir to give a fuller account of the remarkable careers of these two men as writers and editors, for, influential as they were, they will be less well known to each passing generation. however, others may be planning to fulfil this role and she has produced her own honest, idiosyncratic and engaging account of her two friends as she knew them, a very human link with a rich but slowly vanishing strand of Anglo-italian culture and ideas. Jeremy Musson
Art historians John Fleming (left) and Hugh Honour