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updated 12/20/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/20/1982 01:00AM

CHRISTMAS BY THE BOOK

Books make wonderful Christmas presents, last-minute or otherwise, and those usually described as "lavishly illustrated" can make for especially relaxing browsing on cozy postholiday evenings. With the warning that most of these volumes are expensive, here are some of the glossiest gift books to put under a tree this season:

Most compelling of the many art tomes is Master Drawings (Abrams, $65), which includes almost 300 color illustrations, from a cave painting of a bison, circa 12,000 B.C., to Roy Lichtenstein's Pop Art Any Man (Him) from 1964. The polysyllabic but manageable notes are by Terisio Pignatti, curator of the Museo Correr in Venice. More specialized by far are Rockwell Kent (Knopf, $60), which includes paintings, drawings and book illustrations by the realist American artist as well as excerpts from his writings, and the fascinating Palace Museum: Peking (Abrams, $65), which presents richly detailed photographs of such parts of the museum—encompassing most of the 15th-century Forbidden City—as the Hall of Mutual Ease and the Palace of Heavenly Purity. Norman Rockwell fans can have something new too, in Norman Rockwell's Four Seasons (Grosset & Dunlap, $24.95), a collection of his illustrations, with appropriate poems taken by author George Mendoza from his own verse as well as the likes of Shakespeare, Shelley and Wallace Stevens.

For photography buffs The Imaginary Photo Museum (Harmony, $25) is the equivalent of a baseball all-star team. The book was inspired by French writer André Malraux's fantasy about being able to fill a museum with whatever works he wanted. West German photography experts L. Fritz Gruber and his wife, Renate, chose 457 pictures for the book, ranging from a Paul Outer-bridge Jr. abstract to René Burn's portrait of Che Guevara. If anyone still needs proof that photography is an art form, here it is. Linda McCartney's Photographs (Simon & Schuster, $29.95; paper, $12.95) is not just a star's wife's trip; her shots are sometimes grainy or gratuitous, but her portraits of such musicians as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, as well as of her husband, Paul, and John Lennon, are often striking.

The Big Cats (Abrams, $65) is the most dazzling of the new animal books. It has 59 paintings of lions, tigers and their cousins by wildlife artist Guy Coheleach and an extensive yet accessible text by New York cat expert Nancy A. Neff. Richard Ellis, a marine life artist-writer, has compiled a similar study, Dolphins and Porpoises (Knopf, $25). Ellis enlivens things with anecdotes, such as one about Pelorus Jack, a dolphin who lived in Cook Strait and was so popular his disappearance was widely mourned in New Zealand. More unusual is Backyard Bestiary (Knopf, $25), a compendium of local creatures by Dutch naturalists Ton de Joode and Anthonie Stolk, with water-colors by Dutch artist Kees de Kiefte. It's a bit simplistic—"There is probably no animal more completely domesticated than the dog"—but informative. Jane Safer, a social anthropologist and wife of CBS-TV's Morley Safer, and photographer Frances Gill collaborated on a creative study of the shell, Spirals From the Sea (Potter, $35). Safer traces man's fascination with shells—to the Mayans, they symbolized both birth and death—and Gill's photographs show common examples. While German photographer Reinhard Künkel is less scientific in his Elephants (Abrams, $50), his chatty text, including encounters with a rhino and a snake, is colorful. If his 120 pictures get a little ponderous, they're marvelously detailed. British ecologist Michael Allaby's Animal Artisans (Knopf, $25) celebrates nature's ability to imbue its creatures with a taste for the aesthetic; the aptly named sepulchre bird, for instance, collects as many as 1,300 little bones to decorate its bower.

Though Walt Disney's World of Fantasy (Everest House, $35) and Walt Disney's Epcot (Abrams, $35) are hardly critical examinations—references to Disney's "genius" abound—those interested in how his animated features or the new Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) near Orlando were created won't mind. Another purveyor of children's fantasies, Henson Associates, created The World of the Dark Crystal (Knopf, $25; paper, $14.95), which illustrates and explains the current post-Muppet film.

Ballerina Margot Fonteyn's enticing The Magic of Dance (Knopf, $22.95) is also a companion volume to her PBS series on her medium. Anna Pavlova, along with Babe Ruth, Mary Pickford and others, appears in Vanity Fair (Potter, $35), a stunning book of portraits done by the likes of Edward Steichen, Man Ray and Imogen Cunningham for Vanity Fair magazine from 1914 to 1936.

Photographer David Douglas Duncan has spent much of his career in the Middle East, and he has collected the cream of his pictures from that and other Islamic areas in The World of Allah (Houghton Mifflin, $35), a humanizing, often beautiful book. Moroccan photographer Bruno Barbey's Portrait of Poland (Thames and Hudson, $37.50) includes excerpts from writing in and about Poland, Solidarity poems among them, and would be an ideal present for Americans of Polish descent. Leni Riefenstahl's Vanishing Africa (Harmony, $30) continues the onetime Nazi sympathizer's study of the people of East Africa. Her text is personal, and not terribly enlightening; her photographs are vivid.

The text of The Orthodox Church in Russia (Vendome, $65) has been sanitized by the editing of Archbishop Pitirim of Volokolamsk, but the 203 photographs by Swiss photographer Fred Mayer demonstrate the determination to survive of the Soviet Union's Christians. American Churches (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, $50) describes, in text (by Roger Kennedy of the Smithsonian) and pictures, more than 100 houses of worship in the U.S., from those of 17th-century New England to the Roofless Church of New Harmony, Ind., designed by Philip Johnson and built in 1960.

Luxury Trains (Vendome, $35) goes into meticulous detail. The first trip of the Orient Express, for instance, averaged 48.7 kilometers an hour in 1882. English travel writer George Behrend engineered the text and 223 illustrations.

Finally, here is one book not to buy: Grace, the Story of a Princess (St. Martin's, $9.95), a quickie biography of the late Grace Kelly that contains many poorly reproduced photographs and a cloying text by Phyllida Hart-Davis.

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