An illustration of how not do to it

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An Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture: sounds like the perfect combination, a book combining text with pictures just when you need it. Compiled by two experienced architectural writers, it looks authoritative and attractive. From the Preface:

The present Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture 800-1914 is a revised and extended edition of the Illustrated Glossary of Architecture 850-1830 published in 1966. About 200 entries and almost a hundred photographs have been added. …All architectural terms used in the definition of a term are themselves defined. Illustrations show architectural details in situ and in relation to the whole facade or part. They are arranged in a sectional way according to building types, forms, periods and styles.

Sounds like a perfect reference book: definitions, pictures, been through an updated edition (which gives the opportunity to correct the inevitable errors in a first edition). Why then is this book a model of how things can go wrong?

Well, take the very first entry:

Abacus. The flat slab on top of a capital, on which the architrave rests. In the Greek Doric capital it is a thick, square slab.

Hold on! I thought  this was an illustrated dictionary. Then, at the end of the entry, I note a series of numbers in square brackets. These numbers, I realise, refer to the photos. The photos are contained in the back of the book, while the text is at the front. That may be illustrated, but it’s not integrated.

Illustrations are not placed next to the text to which they refer.  In other words, it’s not an illustrated dictionary, it’s a dictionary to which some pictures have been attached at the end. There are plenty of books with pictures, but in many illustrated books the pictures are only rarely next to the text they refer to. For an illustrated dictionary, the position of the illustration is all-important.  Score: 0/10

Now, to those numbers. The first one is 74. I turn to page 74 only to find pictures of arches. Got it! the numbers refer to the number of the illustration, not to the page on which the illustration is found.

Not all the entries are illustrated. There is an entry for “Italianate”, defined as  – well, not really defined at all (we’ll come to that). But this entry refers to buildings such as Charles Barry’s Travellers Club, 1829, and the Reform Club, 1830. I’m sure these are good examples of Italianate style, but I will have to get my own pictures of these buildings, because the dictionary doesn’t provide any. But then again, perhaps it does. At the end of the entry for Italianate is a section on the Italian palazzo style, with a photograph illustrating this style. On consulting this photo, I see it is of the Reform Club. Why didn’t the entry tell me there was a photo fifteen lines above, when the building was mentioned earlier?

Even some technical terms are not illustrated:  you  might forgive the authors for not trying to illustrate an entire period with one photo, but what about a technical term such as entasis? This is the subtle curve of a column that gives it a more satisfying appearance. It is easy to show this in a picture … but there is none, although there is a definition.

Technical terms in definitions are not themselves defined: whatever the Preface says, this admirable principle is not followed.  The Harris and Lever Dictionary has a cavalier attitude to defining terms in situ. A Hip-knob is defined as “a finial placed on the apex of  a gable”. There is an illustration for hip-knob, which shows a gable and a hip-knob, but there is no illustration of finial here. Yet finial has its own entry, and its own illustration.  The entry for finial doesn’t mention hip-knob.

It’s not what it says on the tin: The label says “An Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture”, but the text refers to English (or British) architecture. The entry for Renaissance has the briefest definition of the term and its origin in Italy, but then moves on to English renaissance architecture, devoting 12 lines to English Renaissance architecture, as opposed to five or so lines on Italian Renaissance architecture. Terms like “rococo” have definitions that begin: “In England, a phase of decoration …”

The photos don’t define the terms. Although the photos in the Dictionary are lovely to look at, they often fail if their aim is to define a term. A photo of a church tower is captioned “Angle buttress”. An innocent reader could be forgiven for thinking the tower is the angle buttress. Sometimes there is a diagram alongside the photo that explains the terms in detail … and sometimes there isn’t.

I could go on, but I think my case is made: this is an opportunity lost. There is a great need for a usable illustrated dictionary of architecture, but this is not it.

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2 Comments

  1. Ralph Adam

    I enjoyed your piece in eLucidate. I followed the link to your fascinating blog.

    As you are writing about reference books (and even have an item entitled What a difference a date makes) could you please get someone to proof-read it?

    I’ve just glanced at three pieces:
    The Biographical Dictionary of Film – the book that metamorphosed. This post tells me that Tom Rosenthal died in January 204. He was such an early encyclopaedist? Really? And were you using the Julian calendar to calculate that date? Surely in an article about reference books you should have told us!

    What is better than A to Z? has ‘programme’ mis-spelt while An illustration of how not do to it has:
    “The entry for Renaissance has the briefest definition of the term and it origin in Italy….:’. Which is not the way to do it.

    Incidentally, you refer to Bernard Pivot. There are many references on the Web to his death. These have morphed into Necropedia’s unverified entry: Bernard Pivot est mort! However, he appears to be still very much in the land of the living!

    If I sound a bit of a nitpicker, that’s, perhaps, because I’m a professional editor.

    • Hi Ralph, thanks for your comments. Both my wife and daughter are full-time editors, which makes my errors all the more shocking. All I can claim is that in my enthusiasm to complete writing, I forget to check the spelling.

      Great that you enjoyed the pieces!

      Let me know of any reference books that strike you are particularly interesting or unhelpful.

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