Angels and Aristocrats: Early European Art in New Zealand Public Collections by Mary Kisler
Godwit $75

Anyone who has heard Mary Kisler discussing art with Kim Hill on National Radio will know that she is an engaging communicator, able to speak with authority and infectious enthusiasm on a wide range of subjects.

An indulgent publisher has, in this large and handsome book, given her ample space to discourse at length on the subject of her greatest expertise - European art from the 15th to the 19th centuries, as represented by works held in New Zealand public collections; more specifically the galleries of Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington (Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand), plus a few works from the Sarjeant Gallery in Wanganui.

Compared with some other New World countries, such as Australia, Canada and the United States, New Zealand collections of European art are somewhat lacking in examples of paintings by the most stellar practitioners (if prints and works on paper are included, the representation is considerably richer).

We lack specimens of Titian, Rembrandt, El Greco, Rubens and Poussin which are available even as close by as the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.

In the early 1950s, the patron Charles Brasch privately paid for Colin McCahon to visit Melbourne so that he could educate himself by direct exposure to such Old Masters, instead of relying entirely on books and reproductions.

However, as Kisler demonstrates convincingly, the national collections are considerably richer than they are sometimes given credit for (Bernard Shaw in 1930 said of one New Zealand gallery, "Bonfires, that's what you need, lots of great big bonfires"), and by assembling the best examples from around the country - an admirably sensible approach, transcending petty parochialism - she presents a comprehensive account of five centuries of European art through New Zealand-held examples.

Many of the greatest names may be absent but a list which includes artists such as John Constable, John Singleton Copley, Henry Fuseli, Thomas Gainsborough, Meindert Hobemma, Claude Lorrain, Sir Henry Raeburn, Sir Allan Ramsay, Guido Reni, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Salvator Rosa, Jan Steen, J. M. W. Turner and Joseph Wright is far from threadbare.

Beyond the most recognisable names are dozens of other practitioners from across Europe whose works are subject to penetrating, lively and well-researched commentary. More than 240 works are reproduced and discussed.

Kisler's lengthy text is admirably free from cringing apologetics and boosterish over-statement (the usual signs of "colonial cringe") and is packed with fascinating details about the artists' practice, their lives and careers.

To pick but one of hundreds of such details: apparently, in 18th-century England, among artists such as Reynolds and others, it was the practice to send out a painting to specialists to paint clothing and the landscape, leaving the master to concentrate on the head.

In some cases, small pieces of canvas depicting the head were actually sewn into large canvases to be completed by others.

To read this well-produced book is to be educated not only in the treasures held within our collections but in the rich history of art itself.

* Peter Simpson is an Auckland reviewer.