Spitfire: The Illustrated Biography – Book Review

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Product summary Title Spitfire: The Illustrated Biography Author Jonathan Glancey Published by Atlantic Books ISBN 978 1 84354 799 0 Format Hardcover; 28.2 x ...

Product summary

Title Spitfire: The Illustrated Biography
Author Jonathan Glancey
Published by Atlantic Books
ISBN 978 1 84354 799 0
Format Hardcover; 28.2 x 23 cm; 288 pages
Price Recommended Retail Price £25.00. Available to buy from Amazon.co.uk

Fresh from the printing press this month comes the new book entitled Spitfire: The Illustrated Biography by Jonathan Glancey. Actually, this book is not entirely new. First published in 2006, it was then entitled Spitfire: The Biography. While the text contents remains basically the same, this new edition is in large-format hardback and enhanced by many photographs, making for a more ambitious and impressive publication.

The biography illustrated

The word illustrated in the title of the new edition is fully justified. Upon opening the covers one is immediately struck by all the beautifully printed black-and-white photographs. Some of the arguably best vintage Spitfire photos have been included, and although many of them will be known from other books, plenty of space has been offered to print them in half-page , full-page or even centrefold format. The quality of photo printing with regard to contrast, resolution and level of detail is as good as you will find in a quality photo album, and thick, premium-quality paper adds to the impression. It is presumably because of this that the publisher has claimed this book to be “quite simply the most beautiful book of its kind”. Whether it is so or not is a matter of discussion, but for a die-hard Spitfire enthusiast such as myself this book may well be worth purchasing solely for the number and reproduction quality of these old but invaluable photos by Charles Brown, John Yoxall and various war correspondents.

Document of the Spitfire era

For the history purist, this book may appear biased. According to Glancey, Spitfire pilots were better than their German opponents, the Spitfire itself superior or at least on par with the Messerschmitt Bf 109, and besides, the Spitfire was the greatest fighter of the war. Glancey is excited about his subject, it shows, and he seems to write for those who love the aircraft regardless, not to those that are searching for dry facts and cold-hearted analysis.

Jonathan Glancey is the editor of the Guardian, not a professional historian, although he apparently followed the subject of the book since boyhood. His departure from the dry, factual style of a history lesson (admittedly over-represented in Spitfire literature) to a well-written collection of semi-personal essays is a knowing choice, and in my opinion a successful one. It makes the book highly accessible for anyone with the slight interest in wartime history, yet never dull to read even to those who know a lot about the Spitfire already.

It should be said that the word biography may appear misleading. This book does not offer a complete development history of the Spitfire, nor does it cover its operational use in sufficient detail. Rather than that, it is the celebration of the Spitfire legend. His book is a biography of a great phenomenon – the collective fascination by one great piece of British engineering. Glancey attempts to portrait the era which created the Spitfire and how the aircraft itself captured everyone’s imagination in the dire days of 1940 to become the symbol of the British cause in the war, its freedom and defiance, and remained so ever since. From the 1930s, when flying was a luxury for the wealthy who could afford it, through war years when the Spitfire so captured public imagination not only in the UK but worldwide. Notably, where other Spitfire books end with the aircraft’s withdrawal from service in the 1950s, Glancey continues with the Airfix modelling frenzy, the aircraft’s lasting footprint in post-war movies, Triumph sports car and Spitfire Ale, ending with the description of the small but prospering Spitfire restoration industry of today.

Throughout his story, Glancey makes many digressions and introduces an impressive and highly diversified gallery of men and women connected with the legend and its period in history. R J Mitchell; Douglas Bader; Pierre Clostermann; the author’s own parents; John Magee Jr; Johnnie Johnsson; “Buzz” Buerling; Noel Pemberton-Billing; Malcolm Campbell; Hugh Dowding; Diana Barnato-Walker; Jeffrey Quill; Beatrice Shilling; Ezer Weizman; even Laurence Olivier and David Niven. If sometimes a bit unfocused, it’s a heart-rising drama that captures the imagination and reflects the scope of the Spitfire’s impact on its time.

Technical specifications

The last chapter of the book enumerates all the versions of the Spitfire, with technical data and 3-view drawings of selected variants (Mk. I, Mk. V, Mk. XI, Mk. XIV and F.24) to 1/72 scale. There is also a cutaway drawing of the Spitfire Mk. I sourced from the contemporary Aeroplane. All these are a nice touch and should be helpful for modellers.


Jonathan Glancey’s tribute to the greatest British aircraft of all time is first and foremost a great read. The broad view on the Spitfire phenomenon gives it its unique character and makes this book that little bit different. In that it is worth recommending. Also, because of its large format and exquisite photographs, it would not look out of place under the coffee table.

If, on the other hand, you want a detailed history of the Spitfire development, Battle of Britain or similar, you will be better suited by other titles.

For a Spitfire fan, this book is worth purchasing in the new hardback edition due to the many immaculately printed photographs.

If you are looking for a nice Christmas or birthday gift for an aviation enthusiast, this book is a fool-proof choice and should be enjoyed by your nearest and dearest regardless of the level of his/her aviation interest.

Thanks to Atlantic Books for the review sample

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