WHAT are you looking at? A face, a screen, these words on the page? We are visual animals. We make sense of the world through our eyes, through the images we consume. “The most abstract ideas are the consequences of all the objects I have perceived,” the French philosopher Voltaire once wrote.

His words are quoted by Mark Cousins near the beginning of his latest book The Story of Looking (Canongate, £25). To some, that title might suggest hubris. An attempt to catalogue how and why we look, what we look at and how our social and cultural surroundings shape what we see, no less.

But actually, let’s praise the ambition here. Cousins takes in and takes on cinema (as you might expect from a film-maker), neuroscience, art history, architecture, astronomy and evolution. And that’s just a partial list. And the result is, by turns, learned, often surprising, at times, yes, meandering, but often fascinating. (Here’s a did you know: Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Marat’s murder shows the radical journalist in the bath, his skin as smooth as marble. In reality, Marat was in a bath full of oatmeal because he had a chronic skin complaint.)

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“Make images unlike any we have seen before,” Cousins demands at the end of the book. To do that you need to know what has already been made of course. Phaidon’s book The Art Museum (£39.95) might be a good starting point. Newly revised, it’s a picture-heavy history of art that takes us from the Lascaux Cave to Cy Twombly. Thankfully it doesn’t just stick to the western tradition (until it gets to the 20th century anyway).

To do that though, it has to be big. It’s a coffee table book for those with reinforced coffee tables.

One of the best artist biographies of the year is James Hamilton’s take on Thomas Gainsborough. “Gainsborough lived as if electricity shot through his sinews and crackled at his finger ends,” the author writes at the beginning of Gainsborough A Portrait (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25). Hamilton taps into that charge.

This account of the Georgian portrait painter’s life is set against a backdrop of dirt and highwaymen and skeletons on gibbets on Hounslow Heath. An 18th-century Scottish sex therapist even makes an appearance. But for all the fun the author has with the painter’s penchant for drink and sex, the writing really takes off when Hamilton engages with Gainsborough’s paintings themselves in all their swimmy, silken sheen.

Author Joanna Moorhead had one big advantage writing The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington (Virago, £20). She was related to the artist.

Carrington was Moorhead’s father’s cousin, so her telling of the story of the artist’s story comes with an insider perspective. She even knew Carrington. A friendship blossomed during trips Moorhead made to Carrington’s Mexican home prior to the artist’s death in 2011.

This, then, is a personal take on one of the unsung heroines of 20th-century art, an artist who is all too often remembered first and foremost as Max Ernst’s lover.

There are moments when family feeling possibly leads to Moorhead getting a little too giddy and overexcited to be fair (“Max Ernst has met his bride of the wind, and Leonora Carrington has met her saviour,” she writes at one point). But this is a worthwhile reclamation of an artistic reputation. One with a cast of names that stretches from Picasso to Frida Kahlo.

The exhibition True to Life, British Realist Paintings in the 1920s and 1930s at Edinburgh’s Gallery of Modern Art was one of this year’s quiet revelations. And the tie-in book (National Galleries of Scotland, £19.95) is a reminder that British art between the wars, so often damned as conservative, offered its own painterly pleasures.

In its pages you can find Stanley Spencer’s 1921 painting of Christ overturning the money changers’ table (a vision of Jesus as a chunky action figure), or Sir Herbert James Gunn’s 1939 lush portrait of his second wife Pauline Waitling. Dressed in fur and lipstick, she looks like a figure out of a Powell and Pressburger movie.

Or a Cecil Beaton photoshoot perhaps. She wouldn’t look out of place. Some of the best of the photographer’s work has been gathered together by Lisa Immordino Vreeland in Love, Cecil (Abrams, £40).

Beaton is a textbook case of loving the art and not the artist. The photographer was a catty snob who always felt he should have been born, Vreeland notes, further up the English class ladder. And he was hardly a miner’s son to start with. In 1938 he even sneaked an anti-Semitic slur into a drawing for Vogue. But he had an eye, as Love, Cecil reminds us. It is full of theatrical images and offhand surrealist grace. It’s a talent that almost makes you forgive him. Almost.

Beaton flits through some of the pages of Judith Mackrell’s gossipy, revealing, terrifically entertaining The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice (Thames & Hudson, £19.95). The photographer was known by Doris Castlerosse (nee Delevigne; Cara’s great aunt), Churchill’s mistress and the owner of the Palazzo Venier in the 1930s. Indeed, Beaton and Castlerosse were even lovers for a short while, quite something given that Beaton was rather open about the fact that “I’m really much more fond of men.”

Before Castlerosse, the palazzo was owned by the Marchesa Luisa Casati, muse to the artists of the belle epoque, and it later passed into the ownership of Peggy Guggenheim. It’s now the Guggenheim museum.

Mackrell tells the story of the three women, their affairs and the art they inspired. It’s a story that takes in great wealth, great art, the terrors of war and the pleasures of sex. In short, it’s a Netflix series just waiting to be made.

Talking of the carnal … “Sex and art are the same thing,” Pablo Picasso once said. You would expect no less from one of European art’s most notorious bull males (two wives, six mistresses, many lovers). His 1931 painting Figures at the Seaside is one of the paintings included in The Art of the Erotic (Phaidon, £59.95); breasts, tongues, thighs caught, as the notes in in a “sculptural jumble”.

In her introduction Rowan Pelling, editor of The Amorist, worries away at the gap between eroticism and titillation. The plates included here show no such compunction. This is art as Eros; from Greek vases to Tracey Emin.

From undressed to well dressed. According to the Welsh fashion photographer Jason Evans, “fashion photography, at best, is a really great place to dream, and fantasise and project ...”

If that’s the case, then Eugenie Shinkle’s book Fashion Photography: The Story in 180 Pictures (Thames & Hudson, £39.95) is dreaming hard.

This is an excellent primer for those with an interest in the history of fashion photography; one that acknowledges the importance of such celebrated greats as Penn, Bailey & Guy Bourdin, but also recognises those who have fallen out of the story. Like Bill King who was a regular in fashion press from the 1960s until his death from AIDS in 1987, and Yva (aka Else Neulander), a pioneer of advertising photography. A Jewish woman in Berlin, she was arrested by Gestapo in 1942. Her fate is unknown but the possibility of her dying in a concentration camp is heartbreakingly high.

Richard Avedon also features but for a more concentrated dose of his minimalist black and white imagery then Avedon’s France: Old World New Look (Abrams, £25) is, frankly, a joy.

Annie Liebovitz, Vanity Fair’s court photographer, meanwhile, has her maximalist moments as can be seen in her latest book Annie Leibovitz: Portraits 2005 – 2016 (Phaidon, £69.95). The image of George Clooney directing a bevy of half-naked models must have taken ages to set up. But Leibovitz can do simple too. Beautifully lit simplicity, as her image of Bruce Springsteen shows.

After all this beauty, turn to Daido Morayama’s visions of cables and street corners and urban clutter in Record (Thames & Hudson, £50)

A gather-up of images from the Japanese photographer’s own magazine, it is full of pictures so grainy and murky you imagine the ink coming off on your hands.

Morayama has an eye for the ugly beautiful: tarmac and electric cables and machines and street cats and hair and graffiti and wire fences. On Coney Island he photographs a high heel shoe singular sluiced in tomato sauce or could it be ...?

These are photographs that induce synaesthesia. Can you smell the rain?

If Christmas sends you off into dreamy nostalgia, then Martin Salisbury’s The Illustrated Dust Jacket 1920 – 1970 (Thames & Hudson, £24.95) is for you. In its pages illustrated book covers from the likes of Edward Ardizzone, John Minton and Edward Gorey conjure up hazy visions of yesterday’s literary pleasures. Many of them speak to such a rosy vision of English bucolic. So much so that the crime covers can come as something of a shock to the system, though perhaps not as much as what looks very much like a naked Donald Trump on the cover of a 1966 edition of William Golding's The Pyramid.

Those apart, this is a lovely, slightly foxed thing perfect for Boxing Day.

Finally, Colours (Particular Books, £20) an idiosyncratic hand-painted exploration of the colour spectrum in life and art by Scottish illustrator Marion Deuchars. Leafing through its pages causes explosions of sunshine inside your skull.