Volcano: nature and culture, by James Hamilton. Reaktion Books, London, 2012. No. of pages: 208. Price: UK£14.95. ISBN 978-1-86189-917-0 (paperback)


Books with simple titles like volcano or volcanoes are well known to the geologist (e.g. Francis, 1976; Lopes, 2010). Here is another one, but it is a somewhat out of the ordinary. Volcanoes are the subject, but their geological aspects are subservient to the history of their artistic depiction and influence.

The production of what is a paperback for a large pocket (about 210 × 148 mm) is on high quality paper and the many reproductions of (mostly) paintings are in colour, many at full page. These are uniquely fascinating and make me wonder why a photograph of a recent eruption (Kilauea?) was chosen for the cover, making it look like any other book on volcanoes. The text is well written, readable and full of information that will be new to most geologists. Only when Hamilton talks geology, rarely and briefly, might we be critical; for example, “… the crust first developed a rigid surface roughly 2.5 billion years ago” (p. 29); reference to Vesuvius as atypical is without adequate explanation as to why (p. 32); “Low viscosity lava is low in silica and high in basalt content” (p. 39); and so on.

But Hamilton's book shouldn't be read for its petrological and tectonic whimsies. It is the illustrations that take centre stage and the text supports them at every step. Many of the paintings inspire awe. Vesuvius and Etna dominate paintings from the 18th Century and earlier, being readily accessible to the European cognoscenti. A visit to Vesuvius, including an obligatory walk to the crater, may or may not have coincided with volcanic activity, but it still fascinated even if painted in repose. Artistic license, based on eyewitness accounts and earlier paintings, could produce even more magnificent renditions. This license led to restorations of the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum ranging from the Gothic (p. 95) to the fanciful (pp. 111, 117). The works of native Icelandic artists included paintings in a starkly different style from European artists (e.g. p. 152) that are no less fascinating.

Asides on British scientists and naturalists are many; for example, Joseph Banks climbed Hekla in 1772 (p. 53). But Hamilton seems to think that eruption forecasting is a modern attainment; I don't think many modern experts in the field would make such a confident pronouncement except within broad limits. And Hamilton has as much a weakness for the numerical as any scientist; “It would be meaningless to quote” the statistics of the Mt St Helens eruption of 1980 (p. 165), but he then proceeds to do so!

One interesting aside, De la Beche's Jamaican slave plantation has long been a slight embarrassment to modern geologists. That J. M. W. ‘Turner had financial interests in West Indian slavery in the 1810s and early 1820s’ (p. 90) demonstrated to me that involvement was broader among the moneyed classes than I had suspected.

This book is not written for geologists per se, but will appeal particularly to them. As I found, it will make its way to the popular science shelves in bookshops rather than the art and history sections, so it will be easy to find. And its many beautiful and breath-taking images will make it a ‘dipper’, pulled off the shelf just to enjoy these great geological spectacles.