It's Referendum Day

September 17 2014

Video: BBC

Today we're going to the polls here in Scotland to vote on whether the country should be independent. As I said before, I'll be voting 'no'. But my prediction is that 'yes' will win, just.

Anyone wanting to know something of the history behind all this can see the programme I made for the BBC above, on Bonnie Prince Charlie. It has been put onto YouTube in four 15 minute parts; part 1 is above, part 2 is here, 3 here and 4 here.

Update - going to bed now at midnight, and YouGov (the same pollsters who gave Yes a lead two weeks ago) have called it for No, 54% - 46%, citing a last minute shift. Great...

Update II - it's No! The UK is saved. But it will never be the same again. The Prime Minister has announced a raft of constitutional changes, including further devolution and a fundamental reform of the Westminster Parliament, which he wants completed before the next General Election in May 2015. It's all a bit last-minute, as we've come to expect. 

Staff changes at AHN

September 9 2014

I'm pleased to announce that Art History News has a new Deputy Editor. She is very qualified for the job, being my daughter, but sadly cannot yet read or write, and her connoisseurship stretches only to being able to spot her cot, which she seems not to like. Please therefore excuse the lack of posts for a few days, while I train her up.  

Update - many thanks indeed for all your kind emails.

Update II - her name is Gabriella.

Update III - Can I seek your further indulgence on paternity leave? I may have to take this week off too. I'm also a little distracted by the Scottish referendum (which I expect 'Yes' to win, just), and am working on what that means for the UK's art collections. 

Italian Museums (ctd.)

September 4 2014

Image of Italian Museums (ctd.)

Picture: Galleria Sabauda

The Independent has more grim news from the Italian museum world; the Galleria Borghese's climate control system (which is, open the windows every now and then) has apparently caused Raphael's Deposition to 'warp'. But apparently the 'deformation in the painting ha[s] now been reduced'. So that's alright then.

But from Turin, there's better news, as the Galleria Sabauda is to be re-opened following refurbishment. But, reports The Spectator:

From 30 October, Leonardo’s drawings, including the famous sage-like self-portrait [above] and the drawing for the head of the angel in the Louvre’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’, will go on permanent display in the Sala Leonardo, while drawings by other masters in the collection — including Raphael’s ‘Study of a Youth Playing the Lute’ — will be shown in the second vault. In December, with the reopening of the Galleria Sabauda, the Savoy paintings will go back on view. As well as works by Duccio, Fra Angelico, Mantegna, the Pollaiuolos, Filippino Lippi, Veronese and Orazio Gentileschi, the collection includes Netherlandish paintings by Van der Weyden, Van Eyck, Memling, Rembrandt, Brueghel and Rubens — among them a charming portrait by Van Dyck of the three children of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, sent by the English Queen to her sister Christine of Savoy.

I presume the Leonardo drawings won't actually be on 'permanent display', as they certainly shouldn't be (for conservation reasons). By way of comparison, the Albertina in Vienna only brings out Durer's famous 'Hare' only once every six years. 

'Late Turner' (ctd.)

September 4 2014

Image of 'Late Turner' (ctd.)

Picture: National Gallery

Apollo Magazine has an interview with David Blayney Brown, co-curator of the Tate's forthcoming 'Late Turner' exhibition. Here he reveals some details of the display:

As we are covering a period in depth, we are not doing so strictly chronologically, but thematically. That said, the first room is by way of an overview and retrospect, so visitors will see Turner’s death mask before they come to most of his work; and his last exhibits in 1850 will be on the last wall in the final room, which seems fitting. The only significant installation challenge is integrating watercolours and oils, which have to be zoned to allow for different light levels.

Thursday amusement

September 4 2014

Image of Thursday amusement

Picture: Telegraph

In The Telegraph, 'Matt' has an art historical take on the 'celebrities' nude photo leaks' story.

Apollo Magazine's '40 Under 40'

September 3 2014

Image of Apollo Magazine's '40 Under 40'

Picture: Apollo Magazine

I'm very flattered (and very surprised) to be included in Apollo's '40 Under 40', which, says the magazine:

[...] is a selection of the most talented and inspirational young people who are driving forward the art world today. This year, the list covers individuals whose main place of work is considered to be Europe; future editions will be dedicated to North America and the rest of the world. 40 Under 40 is published in association with AXA ART Insurance.

The 40 are broken down into four categories; 'Artists', 'Thinkers', 'Collectors' and 'The Business', which is where I am. The judges were:

  •     Luca Massimo Barbero, Director of the Institute of Art History, Giorgio Cini Foundation, Venice
  •     Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis, The Hague
  •     Isaac Julien, installation artist and filmmaker
  •     Thaddaeus Ropac, owner of Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Salzburg and Paris
  •     Martin Roth, director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Here's my entry:

Bendor Grosvenor is best  known for his work as an art historian, most recently for his discovery of a lost Allan Ramsay portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Such high-profile finds have helped establish him as a regular presence on UK television, while confirming his credentials as an expert in the field of British art. This year, he was part of the steering panel behind Art Detective, a new online forum that encourages connoisseurs to provide specialist knowledge to public collections in the UK. After nearly a decade working in Philip Mould & Company, he has now left to concentrate on writing and consulting.

Which I suppose is a neat way of announcing another aspect of my move to Scotland, as I mentioned below. More anon... 

By the way, I may need to be away for a couple of days, so apologies in advance for the lack of posts.

Selfies - nothing new

September 1 2014

Image of Selfies - nothing new


These photos from the 1920s has been doing the rounds on Twitter today. Shame they're not in an art gallery; game, set and match in the photo debate.

Letter from Edinburgh: art and a 'Yes' vote

September 1 2014

The sinister side of the Yes campaign from No Thanks on Vimeo.

Video: Jim Murphy MP

Regular readers may know by now that I’ve moved to Scotland. For anyone tired of the exorbitant and over-crowded streets of London (where I was born), Edinburgh is the place for you; a capital city with all the culture and commerce you could wish for, but at a fraction of the price, and sandy beaches just 20 minutes away. 

My new home means, among other things,* that I’ll have a vote in the referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country. Folk down south (as they say up here), including friends of mine in the UK government, have always been relaxed that ‘No’ will win comfortably. But from where I am the outcome has long looked less certain. 

It’ll be close. With less than three weeks to go, the latest poll (excluding undecideds of about 10%) gives 47% yes, and 53% no. From what I’ve seen, the Yes side is far, far more motivated to vote than the nos. And winning referenda, just like elections, is all about getting your vote out. 

I’ll be voting no. When I lived in England, I sometimes thought that an independent Scotland would be no bad thing. The romance of a plucky nation going it alone was attractive, and there’s no denying Scotland has often been at the wrong end of bad decisions taken in London. For Jacobites like me, the history of these decisions stretches far back. And in fact I don’t think the sky will fall in if independence wins. I would cheerfully support the new Scotland in its endeavours to go solo.

But Britain and Britishness, I’ve come to realise, is more important than anything else. It may not be fashionable to take pride in being British, but when the alternative is the small-minded nationalism seen in the video above [since made unavailable after I posted this; it showed the Labour MP Jim Murphy being assaulted, and called a 'traitor', 'quisling', and much else], it makes you yearn for the solidity of traditions and institutions built up over many centuries; tolerance, fair play, the pound, the BBC, even the monarchy, to name just a few. In the last few weeks a dark enmity has crept into parts of the campaign, predominantly on the Yes side. Some of it is racist, some is violent; it’s all menacing. My fear is it’ll only get worse in any post-Yes negotiations, when the English drop their nice guy act and hold out for what is best for them.

Anyway, the point of this post is to look at what would happen to the UK’s art in the event of those negotiations. I know culture is pretty far down most people’s list of priorities at the moment, but it has hardly been looked at, and actually there are some quite serious issues at stake. 

There will be two main areas for an independent Scotland to investigate when it comes to the UK’s art collections. First, how to divide up existing assets. And secondly, how and whether to maintain existing cultural programmes such as Acceptance in Lieu.

The Scottish National Party’s (SNP) ‘White Paper’ on an independent Scotland has only this to say about cultural objects:

Question: What will happen to cultural items related to Scotland and held in UK national collections in an independent Scotland?

Answer: Scotland currently owns a share of all UK national collections.

The national museums and galleries in both London and Scotland all hold items from different parts of the UK and collections assembled from across the world. They have long-established arrangements for loans, exchanges and partnerships, which will be able to continue when Scotland becomes independent.

Independence supporters say Scotland is entitled to at least an 8.4% share of the UK government’s total assets, based on population levels. There has been much debate over whether Scotland could have a similar share in the institutions of the UK, but it looks unlikely. In other words, Scotland could reasonably claim to have a share of the assets of the British Museum (its collection), but not the institution itself. 

How many Lewis Chessmen that gets you I’m not sure. But for art lovers in Scotland, the key prize at the British Museum is its superlative collection of Old Master drawings. As David Black pointed out in The Art Newspaper in February, one of the BM’s most important single collection of drawings is was acquired from the Scot John Malcolm of Poltalloch, whose 1,400 works (see them here) included efforts by the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael and Rembrandt. The National Gallery in Scotland often bases its collecting policies on works that have been owned by leading Scots in the past, and if provenance was to form the basis of any acquisition strategy the Malcolm collection would be an obvious place to start.

What of the National Gallery in London? You could argue that Scotland’s claim to anything in the National Gallery in London is balanced out by the rest of the UK’s claim to anything in the National Gallery of Scotland (below). Jointly acquired pictures like the two Dianas by Titian can obviously continue shuttling back and forth between London and Edinburgh (despite Nick Penny’s earlier doubts). 

Other national institutions without a ‘reciprocal’ location in Scotland, such as Tate, are another matter. An independent Scotland could quite reasonably argue (despite Tate’s origins as an off-shoot of the National Gallery in London) that it deserved more or less 10% of Tate’s collection, based if nothing else on the fact that Scots have funded Tate’s growth through their taxes. I would agree.

What gems from Tate’s collection should Scotland choose? Again, the provenance strategy is one route. Or one could just go for purely Scottish art; the Ramsays, the Raeburns. But we’ve a surfeit of those up here already, and I would suggest taking a wider view by identifying gaps in any Scottish national collection. The National Galleries of Scotland has (as far as I can see) one painting by Hogarth; Tate has 20. Many of these sit unseen in a London storage depot.

An alternative to such cherry picking would to insist that Tate opens a satellite institution in Scotland. This would be funded by Scotland, but would have guaranteed access to a fair share of the whole Tate collection, allowing regular exhibitions and a good more ‘permanent’ display. Tate already has satellite sites in Liverpool and St Ives, and the lack of one in Scotland has always seemed strange. It’s (alas) unlikely that Scotland would want a representative gallery of ‘British’ art, and I would envisage most of the works chosen having Scottish connections. Of course, in the event of a Yes vote, Tate Britain would have to re-brand itself, again.

The really difficult case, though, is the Royal Collection. The SNP has said that the monarchy would remain, with a single monarch presiding over two separate nations, as we had between James I & VI’s accession in 1603 and before the Act of Union in 1707. In the longer term, few should be in any doubt that a strong republican feeling would soon express itself after Elizabeth II died, and though I would regret it, I can see an independent Scotland being a republic within my lifetime. In which case any Scottish Royal Collection might be short-lived…

Even so, one could argue that this shouldn’t get in the way of any discussion over a fair distribution of cultural assets. At the moment, the Royal Collection has an excellent gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen's Gallery, which gets most of the exhibitions that take place in London. Since these are regularly amongst the best in the world, I would personally hope that arrangement continues. Holyroodhouse itself has some good pictures, but not many, and if we’re going by the 8.4% principle, then more art would have to be raided from other locations such as Windsor, Kensington, and St James’.  

Here, the identification of more ‘Scottish’ works might be easier, with portraits of monarchs like James I & VI (naturally, I would chose the posthumous one by Van Dyck). One might even try and stretch the provenance route to its limits and seek a share of works acquired by Charles I, a Stuart. That would be a crafty way of getting some of the best pieces in the Royal Collection, but perhaps worth a go. Alternatively, a Scottish government could promise to leave the Royal Collection as a shared asset, but demand certain guarantees from the Royal Collection Trust that the Queen’s Gallery and Holyroodhouse would have access to a fair proportion of the overall collection for long term loans. 

What Scotland decides to do with questions over the funding, retention and acquisition of art is more complicated, and hasn’t been mentioned by the SNP in its White Paper on independence. Many funding bodies such as the Art Fund have yet to say whether they would continue to fund projects in an independent Scotland. At the moment, just 1% of their members are based in Scotland. Would it pull out? 

The SNP says the National Lottery, which through its Heritage Lottery Fund generously supports painting acquisitions and other art programmes, would continue to operate as normal. But I think we can safely expect it to soon become a Scottish National Lottery, with much reduced prizes and ‘good cause’ funds. A Scottish Heritage Lottery fund would have far less firepower to acquire important works of art. An appeal to ‘save’ a really expensive Old Master might be almost impossible to pull off. 

Of course, the question of ‘saving’ important art assumes that a Scottish government would implement the same export controls as those currently used by the UK. These are amongst the fairest in the world, and seek to properly compensate the owners of important works should the state decide to acquire them. However, a Scottish government might seek to follow policies similar to those used in Italy or France, where the state has the right to pre-empt the purchase of important works, which effectively makes them worth a fraction of their value in a fair, open market. I would strongly advise against that, for if, in the negotiations prior to a formal split, a Scottish government even indicated that it wished to pursue such a policy, there would be an immediate ‘art flight’ of works south of the border.

(A related point on the question of export controls concerns what happens to art in the rest of the UK after a Yes vote but before a formal split, a period which might take two or three years. There could be a scenario in which important art in England leaves the UK by the back door. For example, an owner wishing to sell a picture abroad without risking an export stop could, in early 2016, ship (let us say) their Constable of Hampstead Heath over the Scottish border, and leave it there till independence. Will a Scottish government try to stop such a quintessentially English picture from being exported? Probably not, and even if it did, it’s unlikely Scottish funding bodies could match the price. I raise this unlikely prospect only to point out that the English could begin to impose certain border controls prior to formal Scottish independence.) 

Other possible changes to the tax and cultural asset policies could also encourage a swift transfer of art south to England. For example, at the moment the UK Treasury allows private owners to defer the payment of inheritance tax on certain pre-eminent works of art, provided they are put on public display. The policy is called ‘conditional exemption’, and is designed to allow collections to remain intact, and sometimes in situ (in an important country house that is open to the public, for example). In the event of independence, therefore, will owners of conditionally exempt paintings see their deferred taxes called in by a Scottish government? A quick glance at the labels in the National Gallery of Scotland reveals how many major works are on loan from private aristocratic collections (such as the Dukes of Sutherland and Buccleuch). Might it be harder for a Scottish government to be seen to be 'giving tax breaks to toffs'? Again, if there’s even a hint of that we can expect to see conditionally exempt art shipped swiftly over the border. 

Less of an immediate impact, but still important, is whether the successful Acceptance in Lieu scheme is continued by an independent Scotland. This allows the nation to acquire works of art directly from estates in return for an amount of inheritance tax foregone, and reduces the risk of them being sold on the open market or overseas. At the moment, the annual allowance for this policy in the UK is set at £40m. Could a Scottish government hope to continue such an effective policy with a necessarily lesser limit? A single work of art could easily exceed a proportionally lower limit.  

On the other hand, at least some reassurance is provided by the SNP’s track record in government when it comes to the arts; it has contributed directly and generously towards projects like the acquisition of Titian’s Diana and Callisto and the Public Catalogue Foundation (in contrast to the UK government). And as I reported here before, the SNP has advocated funding the arts for arts sake, as opposed to any of the more limited arguments about economic value and the like. But as with the whole question of independence, the many, many uncertainties make keeping the status quo a more attractive option. 

Yesterday we hung a union flag in the window.  

* more on this later.

Update - just seen this in The Spectator and Apollo; a Scottish artist and former museum director debate the pros and cons of independence.

Update II - another poll just out shows Yes gaining even more momentum. Independence is just 3 points away. Undecideds are going for Yes at a rate of 2 to 1. Better start choosing those Hogarths...

Update III - a reader writes:

Given that the Scotland Referendum refuses to recognise anyone as Scottish and worthy of a vote if they live South of the Border - most of the Scottish men/women who either gave works of art to the Nation or created the wealth in the former empire would not have qualified to vote yes or no. Alex Salmond and his party do not count these men and woman as Scottish.

My great-grandmother (Scottish) gave a lovely Rossetti to the Tate Britain, but she lived in England.

Another reader has been looking at the numbers, and wonders if Scotland has enough pictures already:

According to the Public Catalogue Foundation:

The National Gallery, London has 2332 works and Tate has 5358 works (of which c.2400 date up to 1900) for 91.6% of the total population [that is, the remainder of the UK]

The National Gallery of Scotland has 1201 works, for 8.4% of the total population

Result, Edinburgh owes London 703 works.

Another reader writes:

It’s a horribly complicated issue as you indicate but, surely, English collections would have a claim on the Scottish National Collections too in the event of independence? The contents, where purchased, were surely supported by English  (or rUK) taxpayers over the decades.

Keep the union flag flying!!

Update IV - according to their online collection, the National Gallery of Scotland has just two oil paintings by Turner. Tate has too many to count. 

Update V - a reader sends this sobering view:

On the 7th March I predicated a 42 % Yes vote for Scottish Independence. All right, perhaps a bit optimistic, but I, a resident of a former British colony in North America, still believe that the UK and Scotland are “Better Together.”

As for the effects of an independent Scotland on national art collections, the result would have little impact in the remainder of the UK and in the longer term would result in more new resources for art in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  Very simply, Scotland is subsidized in all respects including arts funding by the economic engine that is the Southeast of England.

If Scotland received 8.7 % of the national art collections, and assuming that it already has perhaps half of that in its existing collections, then the remaining national art collections would have to relinquish about 5 % of their holdings.  In has been stated in this website that about 80 % of the national collections are in storage, and so the entire Scottish transfer could be effected nearly unnoticed.  Of course, they would demand and might receive some trophy works, but then the remaining Art Fund and Heritage Lottery proceeds could make up for that within a decade.

Scotland in its desire to double its art holding may have ignored the costs associated with owning and maintaining an expanded art collection.  Who will provide the doubling of space for the newly expanded collections as well as the staff required and conservation costs of the collection.  An independent Scotland will already be under pressure financially because of its demographics which will result in greater demand for health, national pensions, and social services in a rapidly aging society.

The National Gallery has seen its Grant in Aid reduced by 15 % during the four years to March 2015 and is anticipating an additional 5 % reduction for the next year.  It is uncertain that an independent Scotland will afford to double its grants to its national art institutions after independence.

There are many reasons why an independent Scotland will result in a much more difficult and expensive life for those living there with the government requiring more from and providing less to its working population.  The transfer of art is just a small part of this new overhead and reduction in financial resources, but like some others is a net long term benefit to the remainder of the UK which can always go north to view paintings now being maintained by others.

Update VI - Selby Whittingham of the Independent Turner Society writes:

The NG of Scotland lost a prize Turner when the Earl of Rosebery sold the one he loaned to it - the marvellous one of Rome now in the Getty Museum.  The pressure for England to hand over many from the Turner Bequest will presumably be great.  H A J Munro of Novar, the main patron of late Turner, was a Scot, so was John Ruskin by paternity.  A major Turner collaboration was with Sir Walter Scott.  The "iconic" Norham Castle depicts a scene on the border.  Of course the NG of S has the important Vaughan Bequest of Turner watercolours - the terms of which bequest are better honoured than are Turner's!

Update VII - Prof. Mary Beard has been considering the queston too, in The Times.

Update VIII - The Art Newspaper has a piece on how Scottish artists are viewing the question.

Update IX - Now the polls show Yes leading. Yikes. But I'm not surprised. The No campaign has been an absolute disaster, and continues to make mind-boggling blunders. Even as a strong supporter of the Union, I find myself thinking, with each statement that comes from the 'No' side, 'well, perhaps...'

Photography at the National Gallery (ctd.)

August 29 2014

Image of Photography at the National Gallery (ctd.)

Picture: BG

Former National Gallery director Charles Saumarez Smith has written the following on his excellent blog:

Once upon a time, I might have been amongst those who deplore the use of mobile phones in front of works of art. But I have found that photography helps one to concentrate on the details, to look closely and carefully, and to be able to record those parts of a painting that one wants to record, often to a much higher standard of reproduction than those postcards.

I agree with Charles. As I said in my FT piece (which you can listen to here), I believe photography can actually help us look more closely at art, especially if galleries also abolish image reproduction fees. These fees have acted as a choke on the study of art history for too long, resulting in text-heavy books with few illustrations that don't cost publishers much to produce (and nobody reads). If we liberate images, both in digital and print format, then we can begin to look at art in entirely new ways. 

Neil Jeffares makes a similar point on his blog:

I can certainly wholeheartedly endorse his [my] plea for the abolition of image reproduction charges, at least for non-profit uses. If you look at the National Gallery’s policy, scholarly use is free – but you only get small images, can only use them for specified purposes and still have to complete endless forms. Since someone at the Gallery is paid to vet those forms, I can join Bendor in an offer to the Gallery to save at least £10,000:  by abolishing the paperwork, and relying on self-certification of eligible use.

I'd go further than Neil and abolish fees for everything, as Yale did back in 2011. In part, these fees are a by product of the extremely effective lobbying campaigns run by copyright collecting agencies over the years. But these are publicly owned paintings, so why aren't the image rights publicly owned too? If that's too much, the National should certainly waive fees for documentary filming and even what we might call 'commercial' books (though if you think you can make mega bucks from art history books, think again). The amount the National has wanted to charge films I've been involved with borders on the extortionate, and doesn't take into account the marketing value of millions of viewers seeing the Gallery and its works.

"How to write a catalogue raisonne"

August 29 2014

Image of "How to write a catalogue raisonne"

I've just come across these guidlines on how to write a catalogue raisonne, from the website of a recent 'Authentication in Art' conference held in The Hague:

I - Preparation: creating favourable conditions

  • Degree in art history or command of basic art historical research skills.
  • Review historiography and recent scholarship on the subject.
  • Join professional groups, such as the Catalogue Raisonné Scholars Association.
  • Contact specialists on the subject/ check for other CR projects on the artist.
  • Explore the possibility of collaborating with other specialists as a CR calls for a multidisciplinary approach.
  • Obtain permission to reproduce the artist’s work and try to have fees waived or reduced.
  • Set up a computerized database to file images, data and correspondence, and establish protocols for naming images and files.
  • Train your eye by examining first hand major repositories of works of undisputed authorship. Obtain relevant broader connoisseurship by inspecting first hand large quantities of works by similar artists of the sameperiod.

I suppose I should be glad that connoisseurship is mentioned at all, and not worried that it is the last thing on the list, rather than the first. Surely, the most important pre-requisite in compiling a catalogue raisonne is not a degree in art history*, but the confidence that you will be able to know for certain that your chosen artist really did paint the picture that some label/institution/scholar says they did. 

The guide also goes into great detail about all the other things you need to write a catalogue raisonne, but gives no further advice on how to 'train your eye'. Now, I haven't written a catalogue raisonne**, but I have (and I hope this doesn't sound too much  like boasting, but there's no other way of saying it) a proven track record of having a good 'eye'. So for the benefit of any budding connoisseurs out there, I would add the following three crucial tips (obviously, this is all mostly relevant to Old Masters, and not modern and contemporary catalogues).

1 - Starting with 'undisputed' works in major collections is fine, but just as important is getting to grips with lesser works, studio pieces, copies and imitations. For me, the most useful weapon in my connoisseurial armoury is also the most straightforward; the ability to make simple assessments of quality. Looking at the rubbish stuff and knowing its weaknesses (for example, in the drawing of anatomy, or the creation of texture in drapery), makes it easier to recognise the good stuff. So spend just as much time looking in minor museum collections, their reserve collections,  and especially auction rooms, which are excellent training grounds.

2 - Look closely. I mean really, really closely. Sniff the canvas, take a torch, and invest in a good pair of binoculars (and take off the lens caps). First, this will help you develop a far better feeling for an artist's technique than admiring the composition as a whole, from afar. But more importantly, you will be able to discern signs of originality, those crucial indicators that a work of art is the first example of its type, and not a copy or a studio variant. These may include pentimenti (though beware; sometimes minor pentimenti are just evidence of a bad copyist) or, more helpfully, evidence that the picture has been painted from back to front, so to speak, with all the spontaneity one would expect to see when an artist gives free rein to their creative impulses. A copyist, seeing only the finished product in front of them, will invariably paint only what he sees in the top, finished layers of a painting.  

3 - Understand condition. Is that 'dodgy' eye in a portrait the result of bad painting, or simply the work of some ham-fisted restorer who didn't know where the pupil should end and the iris begin? The great majority of discoveries I've been lucky enough to make have involved cases where a painting looks, superficially, to be a bad painting because it is in bad condition (or more accurately, appears to be in bad condition). Nothing obscures the true underlying quality of a painting more than over-paint, dirt, or old varnish. And because no single group of people have done more damage to paintings over the centuries than those tasked with their 'conservation', more pictures that you would imagine have been interfered with, badly over-painted, or scrubbed to death. Sadly, not enough art historians understand how the condition of a painting can alter one's perception of its quality. So (and this last piece of advice is really a combination of points 1 and 2 above) spend time closely looking at pictures in bad condition as well as good, and if possible spend time in a conservation studio (now that conservators have, by and large, worked out ways to safely clean paintings). The sooner you can spot over-paint and learn to see through old varnish, the better.

Now, that's enough trade secrets... 

* Actually, I'd be tempted to argue that a degree in history is more useful, as it gives a better training in how to evaluate evidence.

** Though that might be about to change!

Update - a reader writes:

Having typed out the words 'catalogue raisonné' several times already today, I can vouch for the usefulness of having this character somewhere close at hand if it isn't on your keyboard: é

Alas my new Mac doesn't seem to have that 'ctrl 'e'' function.

Update II - but another reader adds:

My mac does,...     I  =>  O =>  P  =>   shift  éééééééééé ,

or,  non shift      èèèèè.

I 'm sure you'll get an 'eye' for this stuff.

Update III - art historian Dr Matt Loder tweets:

Interesting post on CRs, but full of circular reasoning (the fundamental flaw in most connoisseurship). You're basically engaging in a massive game of confirmation bias. "This artist is good, therefore this can't be by him".

Doing justice to Caravaggio

August 28 2014

Image of Doing justice to Caravaggio

Picture: Wikiart, Corsini Collection, Florence

Further to my comments below (here and here) on the 'justice' of getting the right attribution for Rembrandt, here's a great comment on the importance of connoisseurship from a new book on Caravaggio by Lorenzo Pericolo and David M. Stone:

In a sense, the methodology employed by [Met curator Keith] Christiansen in his attribution of the picture [Portrait of Maffeo Barberini, above] can be deemed “canonical,” that is, characteristic of an illustrious tradition of connoisseurship. And yet, this canonicity is about to become a literal rarity. The nonchalance with which mediocre paintings continue to be ascribed to Caravaggio is undoubtedly appalling. Stone describes the possible impact of this spreading amateurishness upon future scholarship in rightly alarmed terms: “my worry is that, as fewer and fewer scholars devote themselves to problems of connoisseurship, the stage is being set for future generations of students to take these exhibition catalogues off the shelves and write term papers—even dissertations—about pictures Caravaggio almost certainly did not paint.”

I find it astonishing that critics of connoisseurship say this doesn't matter. The new book is called, Caravaggio: Reflections and Refractions, and you can read the introduction online here

Fitzwilliam appeal for Mena's 'Mater Dolorosa'

August 28 2014

Image of Fitzwilliam appeal for Mena's 'Mater Dolorosa'

Picture: Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam is hoping to raise £85,000 by the end of September to complete its purchase of the above Mater Dolorosa by Pedro de Mena. The museum says:

It is not known for whom the Mater Dolorosa was made, but the superior quality of both carving and polychromy suggest that it must have been produced at the height of Mena’s creative powers, c. 1673-4, for a discerning patron. The intimacy of scale (33.6 x 31.0 x 19.8 cm), the care lavished on both the carving and the painting and the fact that the back is fully finished, indicate that it was designed to be seen close up, and in the round, most probably in a private devotional context. Likely made for the private chapel, study or bedchamber of a devout patron, it would almost certainly have been protected under a glass dome and originally paired with an Ecce Homo (Christ as the Man of Sorrows). This mesmerisingly beautiful image of the Mater Dolorosa, with its understated pathos and startling realism—thanks to the naturalism of the flesh tones, the glass eyes and tear drops and the real hair eyelashes—still elicits a powerful response from the viewer, 350 years after it was made.

The Virgin of Sorrows will be permanently displayed in the Spanish & Flemish Gallery, alongside other masterpieces by contemporary Baroque sculptors and painters. It is being displayed there now to promote this Appeal.

The museum's just giving page is here, and they're at £57k so far, which is impressive. I saw the bust in the flesh recently, and very fine it is too. 

Inside Turner's house

August 28 2014

Video: Turner's House Trust

I've mentioned Turner's villa in Twickenham before, but here's a short video which shows you the inside. Turner's design is evidently very Soane-ian. The trust which owns the house is trying to raise funds for its much-needed restoration. Let's hope the forthcoming biopic helps them do that.  

New proposal questions Detroit rescue plan

August 28 2014

Image of New proposal questions Detroit rescue plan

Picture: BG

The attempts to save the Detroit Institute of Arts from the bankrupt city's creditors have so far been impressive: a rescue plan has seen the DIA pledge to raise $100m from donors, including the likes of Toyota, as part of an $810m 'grand bargain' that would see the art placed in a bullet proof trust. 

But with just a few days to go before the 'grand bargain' was to be put before a court to determine its legality, those opposed to the deal (reports Mary Williams Walsh in the New York Times) have put forward a rival plan which they say would raise far more money; some $4 billion. Critics of the $810m plan say the DIA's collection (some of which belongs to the city, so is fair game for debtors) has been significantly undervalued, and reckon Art Capital's $8 billion valuation is far closer to the mark. Art Capital will lend the city the $4 billion in return for taking the whole of the DIA's collections as collateral. 

The original plan saw the DIA's collection valued by ArtVest partners (on behalf of the city) at between $2.8 billion - $4.6 billion. I presume Christie's were involved (see here and here) in this, as they had been allowed access to the museum. The two figures show how difficult it is to value art. However, ArtVest says that in reality the collections would not actually realise that much, because (according to the NYT):

Such a huge sale would flood the market, driving down prices, and Detroit’s bankruptcy might turn off serious investors, Artvest said.

This is clearly phooey, and the sheer quality of much of the art on offer would guarantee stellar prices. And how many times are we told that the one thing holding the Old Master market back is the 'lack of supply'?

Obviously, the 'grand bargain' presents a much safer future to the DIA than Art Capital's somewhat risky and open ended plan. So we must hope that Plan A succeeds yet. 

Doing 'justice to Rembrandt' (ctd.)

August 28 2014

Image of Doing 'justice to Rembrandt' (ctd.)

Picture: Liberation

I said yesterday that for some art historians, such as the Rembrandt expert Ernst van de Wetering, making sure an attribution is right makes you feel as if (as Ernst said) you're seeking 'justice' for an artist. I also said it was the case when an optimistic attribution was manifestly not right, and on cue comes this report from Le Figaro in France, where a museum in Draguignan is persisting in calling the above picture 'a Rembrandt'. The painting was recovered recently amid a blaze of publicity, having been stolen in 1999, and now, says the museum's director, the crowds are flocking to see the newly returned masterpiece (which alas is merely an 18th Century pastiche).

See the Met's miniatures

August 27 2014

Image of See the Met's miniatures

Picture: Metropolitan Museum

The Metropolitan Museum in New York is puting its best portrait miniatures on display from 29th August to 31st December, including the above Holbein of Margaret More, daughter of Sir Thomas. Due to their fragile state, such things are not often shown:

This exhibition will comprise two groups of portrait miniatures: British, from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and French, from the revolutionary period to the Empire. Also included are several eighteenth-century French gold boxes decorated with narratives or scenes in grisaille. All are from the Museum's permanent collection and, because of their sensitivity to light, are infrequently exhibited. Six larger paintings will be exhibited in order to consider what they may share with the miniatures and to show how they differ.

You can zoom in on Holbein's portrait of Margaret More's husband, William Roper, here.

The UK's own Sistine Chapel

August 27 2014

Image of The UK's own Sistine Chapel

Picture: Express

Did you know that a church in Worthing, Sussex, has a complete replica of the Sistine Chapel ceiling? I didn't, but it's been there for over 20 years, and now, The Express reports, it has been given a certificate by TripAdvisor, such is its popularity amongst tourists:

The masterpiece has been created by Gary Bevans, who is Deacon at the church. [...] Mr Bevans began the project in 1987 and despite never having had an art lesson in his life, he was given the go-ahead from former parish priest Father Enda Naughton and Bishop Corman Murphy O'Connor.

It was scheduled to take two years to complete but, combined with a full-time job which forced Mr Bevans to paint at night, it took much longer.

He screwed blank plywood panels to the ceiling and spent the next 66 months painting through the night with a single light on his scaffold boards to create the 500 figures.

Once the plywood had been undercoated and primed, the figures were sketched out and then carefully painted in detail using acrylic. 

I must say it looks terrific. The recreation, says the Church's website:

[...] was started by Gary Bevans, a signwriter parishioner [...] after a parish pilgrimage trip to Rome to attend the Beatification of 85 English Martyrs. Following a discussion with Bishop Cormac, Gary's request to bring 'the Sistine ceiling' here was accepted.

It is now completed at 2/3 scale of the original. The colours match the newly cleaned ceiling in Rome.

At the Mass of Thanksgiving, attended by many local dignitaries including the Duke of Norfolk and Countess of Arundel, Gary was presented by the Bishop with the papal cross 'Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice'.

Thirteen national and international TV companies have filmed the work, including CBS, ABC, BBC, ITV, Australian, New Zealand broadcasters, and recently Nippon Television International. Magazines, including 'Time' have covered it.

The Express reports that:

The end product [...] remains the only copy of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling in the world.

But this is not so, according to Peter Bellan, who wrote to The Times this morning to say:

[...] if you cast your mind back to the film The Agony and The Ecstasy, starring Charlton Heston as Michelangelo, you will see the ceiling being painted by my father, Ferdinand Bellan, one of the greatest film scenic artists. I think that reproduction was sold to a private buyer as a complete work of art, to be re-assembled elsewhere.

More pictures of the ceiling here, and on Tripadvisor here. There's a 45 minute video of the process narrated by the artist here

Update - a reader sends me the image below, and writes:

There are some rather fun re-imaginings of some of the Sistine figures at Exeter St Davids Station, executed by Bridget Green who was a student at Dartington College.

Strikes at the National Gallery (ctd.)

August 27 2014

Image of Strikes at the National Gallery (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

In the London Review of Books, Conrad Landin reveals plans by the Gallery's room wardens to go on strike during the forthcoming Rembrandt exhibition. A new ballot on strike action has been called, and although the Gallery has taken steps to outsource security for the Rembrandt show to a non-unionised grouping, the remainging PCS staff are determined to cause disruption:

'It’s clear they’ll [the National Gallery] do anything to make sure the Rembrandt exhibition opens every day as normal, and they know we’re holding an indicative ballot for strike action,’ another worker told me. ‘They’re launching a new membership scheme at the same time, and so they’re evidently willing to go to great expense to make sure everything goes smoothly. Of course, it will still be embarrassing for them if the exhibition is open but the rest of the gallery is closed, and we’re picketing outside.’

While I recognise that uncertainty over the incoming private security contractor must be unnerving for the current room wardens, I am still suprised by their union's zeal for strike action, which surely, in the long run, has been self-defeating. It's perfectly understandable that the National should want to protect its blockbuster exhibitions from strike action (as happened during Leonardo in 2012). And now that a private security firm has its foot in the door, it won't be surprising (assuming it performs well) if it gradually takes on more responsibility over the rest of the gallery.

The recent decision by the National Gallery to allow photography saw a chorus of well-briefed disapproval from some room wardens (or their union representatives), who seem happy to act almost as a fifth column at the National. No other department at the Gallery (indeed, any UK public gallery I can think of) walks out on strike or publicly criticises the executive with such regularity. Further grievances, we learn in the LRB, include whether room wardens should be allowed to sit down (I used to think yes, until I saw a warden playing Sudoku once), and astonishingly (as The Times reported recently) the fact that the Director, Nick Penny, didn't use headed notepaper when he wrote to thank a warden for helping to prevent damage to a picture (he used a postcard instead).

'Richard Wilson' in Cardiff

August 27 2014

Image of 'Richard Wilson' in Cardiff

Picture: National Museum of Wales, via Spectator

Roderick Conway Morris, in The Spectator, has a good review of the National Museum of Wales' current exhibition on Richard Wilson, and includes this nice line by Constable:

‘I recollect nothing so much as a solemn — bright — warm — fresh landscape by Wilson, which swims in my brain like a delicious dream,’ wrote Constable of his encounter with the Welsh artist’s ‘Tabley House, Cheshire’ after he visited the gallery of that house owned by Sir John Leicester. Recalling this epiphany, Constable went on to say of Richard Wilson: ‘He was one of the great appointments to shew to the world what exists in nature but which was not known till his time.’

'Swims in my brain like a delicious dream'... I can think of few better ways to describe the mental impact of a good painting. 

The exhibition is on until 26th October. Other Wilson goodies at the moment: there's a handy interactive map (by Yale) of Wilson's travels in Italy here; of his travels in Wales here; and a catalogue of the exhibition edited by Martin Postle and Robin Simon can be ordered here. And to look forward to we have Paul Spencer-Longhurst's catalogue raisonne of Wilson's paintings and drawings (again, a Yale production).

'Another art theft in Italy'

August 27 2014

Image of 'Another art theft in Italy'

Picture: TAN

Hannah McGivern of The Art Newspaper reports another theft of pictures, this time from the Castello Sforzesco in Milan.

Update - for more on the alarming state of Italian museums, see Apollo editor Thomas Marks' account of his visit to museums in Naples recently. 

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