UK police's art unit under threat

August 20 2017

Image of UK police's art unit under threat

Picture: via TAN

Alarming news that the London Metropolitan Police's art and antiques unit is under threat, after three detectives were transferred to the Grenfell Tower enquiry (the Tower burnt down in London earlier this year, leaving over 80 people dead). The unit was already small enough, but there are fears that the three staff might never be transferred back to art crime duties. More here from Martin Bailey in TAN.

Martin's piece tells us that the Metropolitan Police has something called the 'London Stolen Art Database', with details of 54,000 stolen items. But the website for this seems to no longer be functioning.

The lack of a worldwide, impartial, police-maintained database of stolen and looted art is one of the most serious challenges in the art world. Museums and the trade are forced instead to rely on private, for-profit enterprises like the Art Loss Register.

'Confessions of the Bolton Forger'

August 20 2017

Image of 'Confessions of the Bolton Forger'

Picture: Cheltenham Festivals

This looks interesting; the 'Bolton Forger', Shaun Greenhalgh, will be talking about his fakes with the great Waldemar at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Friday 13th October. More here

Me on Van Dyck!

August 20 2017

Image of Me on Van Dyck!

Picture: IG

Just a reminder that I'll be taking part in the Chatsworth Festival this September, with a talk on the life and art of Sir Anthony Van Dyck. I'm speaking at 10am on Sunday September 24th, and the festival itself starts on Friday 22nd. There are many excellent speakers, including Grayson Perry and Cornelia Parker. Alarmingly, my talk is going head to head with another by Marc Quinn, so I need all the help I can get, if you're minded to come. That said, my mother is convinced that nobody will come to my talk anyway, as 'they'll all be at church'.

There's better news with my Royal Academy course on connoisseurship; sold out! 

Sunflowers live!

August 20 2017

Video: National Gallery

I've written before about the success of the National Gallery's Facebook Live films. The latest saw the NG team up with four other galleries around the world to focus on Van Gogh's famous 'Sunflower' paintings. Above is the NG's film with the always excellent Chris Riopelle, while you can find links to the other four here

An amazing 1.5m people watched the films (or at least part of them). For the investment (the films are very simple to make, after all and can't cost more than a few hundred pounds, technically) this is an extraordinary RoI. 

Perspectives (ctd.)

August 20 2017

Video: NBC

I'll be writing more about the issue of Confederate monuments in the USA for The Art Newspaper, but in the meantime here is a good overview of the issues and the monuments in question. Above is a video of the removal of a memorial to Confederate soldiers in Raleigh Durham. What do AHNers think of whether these statues should be removed?

Restoring the Armada Portrait

August 20 2017

Video: NMM

The National Maritime Museum's recently acquired Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I has now been sent off for conservation. It will be away for six to nine months.

More about the picture here

'Fake or Fortune?' is back!

August 20 2017

Video: BBC

The BBC's most watched art series, 'Fake or Fortune?' returns this Sunday with a programme about a potential oil sketch by John Constable. The series is now in its 6th 'season', though very sadly it will be the fist without yours truly. But fear not, it will still be the same excellent programme. And best of all, I now get to watch it without knowing what happens!

Just in case anyone really does miss me staring at pictures on the telly, my new series of 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' will be on later this year. 

Apologies...

August 10 2017

...sorry for the lack of news lately. We're on holiday in Cambridge. And today we are going to fly a Spitfire! The main art history news of the moment seems to be a new book on Vermeer, and the old question of whether he used lenses. More on that soon.

Update:

Update II - sorry again for the abysmal posting the last week or so. I've been away on work, mainly in Venice, which was of course lovely. If rather crowded. 

Bless you for your patience, but to be honest there hasn't been much news about either.

$50m US deaccession

August 7 2017

Image of $50m US deaccession

Picture: Sotheby's

There's a hoo-ha in the USA over the deaccessioning of $50m worth of paintings, from Old Master to contemporary art (including the above Frederic Edwin Church), by the Berkshire Museum. The sales are needed, says the museum, to complete a $20m renovation programme and to increase its endowment. US museum bodies have sanctioned the museum, and said that deacessions must only take place in order to raise money to buy more art. But as long as the money is put to good use for the long-term future of the museum, and not just to keep the wolf from the door, is there much difference? 

The sale will be handled by Sotheby's in New York.

Richard Waitt exhibition

August 7 2017

Image of Richard Waitt exhibition

Picture: Grantown Museum

Bravo to Bonhams, who are sponsoring an exhibition of the Scottish portrait artist Richard Waitt. The Grantown museum in Scotland has assembled Waitt's portraits of Grant clan. More here

Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

August 7 2017

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

Picture: ArtNet News

There's a growing phenomena of 'authenticating' fakes by having them seized by police. Regular readers may remember the story of the '£90m Leonardo' seized by Italian police. The picture was neither a Leonardo, nor worth £90m. But combining an apparent art 'discovery' story with a criminal sub-plot more or less guarantees column inches (or rather, these days, clicks).

The latest in this genre* is the story of a previously unknown Basquiat seized by Spanish police. The news story of its recovery is replete with intriguing details, such as the fact that it was painted in 1982, 'the most coveted year for work by the artist', and was bought 'directly from the artist's father'. Hmm. This Basquiat looks more than usually rubbish. 

* (it appears)

Joseph Highmore exhibition

August 7 2017

Image of Joseph Highmore exhibition

Picture: Foundling Museum

I'm glad to read of a new exhibition on the British 18thC painter Joseph Highmore. It will be at the Foundling Museum, and opens on 29th September. More here

Martin Roth (1955-2017)

August 7 2017

Image of Martin Roth (1955-2017)

Picture: Guardian

Sad news that the former V&A director Martin Roth has died. More here, and an obituary in The Art Newspaper here.

Giacometti - the Movie

July 31 2017

Video: Transmission Films

There's a new film, Final Portrait, about Giacometti. The artist is played by the great Geoffrey Rush. Here's the blurb:

In 1964, while on a short trip to Paris, the American writer and art-lover James Lord is asked by his friend, the world-renowned artist Alberto Giacometti, to sit for a portrait. The process, Giacometti assures Lord, will take only a few days. Flattered and intrigued, Lord agrees.

So begins not only the story of a touching and offbeat friendship, but, seen through the eyes of Lord, a uniquely revealing insight into the beauty, frustration, profundity and, at times, downright chaos of the artistic process. FINAL PORTRAIT is a bewitching portrait of a genius, and of a friendship between two men who are utterly different, yet increasingly bonded through a single, ever-evolving act of creativity. It is a film which shines a light on the artistic process itself, by turns exhilarating, exasperating and bewildering, questioning whether the gift of a great artist is a blessing or a curse.

Job Opportunity!

July 31 2017

Image of Job Opportunity!

Picture: TAN

Sad news indeed that Javier Pes is to leave The Art Newspaper. He has been there for almost a decade, as Deputy Editor since 2009 and Editor since last year. Javier has kindly commissioned many an article from yours truly! TAN, says chairman Anna Somers Cocks, will now be hiring a 'senior editorial leader'. More here

Art history photoshops (ctd.)

July 31 2017

Image of Art history photoshops (ctd.)

Picture: Severe Delays

Some clever person has dropped Munch's 'Scream' into a photo of the Brexit-plotting, internecine-feuding, cluelelessly-led cabinet UK government. Judging by the reactions on Twitter, many people think the setting is genuine.

Perspectives

July 30 2017

Image of Perspectives

Pictures: BG

[Warning; this post has nothing to do with art history!]

My family and I were in America recently, on a meandering road trip from New York to Kentucky. History buffs that we are, we visited whatever ‘historic’ sites that we could, and a highlight was Thomas Jefferson’s house in Virginia, Monticello. Jefferson was, amongst all his other achievements, an amateur architect, and he designed Monticello himself. It’s small but pleasingly inventive to look at, and sits in a beautiful location on a spur looking east towards the coast, and west towards the Blue Ridge mountains. Like Mount Vernon (George Washington’s house) Monticello has become a Holy of Holies for Americans, and it was busy with visitors paying homage to Jefferson’s memory and achievements. Such is Monticello’s status as an American national symbol that it features on one side of the nickel. Jefferson himself appears on the other side, beneath the word ‘Liberty’.

Monticello was built by slaves. Jefferson owned well over 150 slaves. Some he inherited from his father, and 135 came with his marriage. The original slave dwellings at Monticello (one could barely call them houses) crumbled away long ago, and have sunk, like their inhabitants, unremembered into the soil. But two have recently been recreated. They had one room, were built of wood, with tiny windows, and situated only yards from Monticello on the edge of the garden. Jefferson would have seen them every time he admired the beautiful view.

Jefferson treated his slaves just like other slave owners of the time. That is, harshly. He employed overseers known for their cruelty and keenness to whip. One was called Gabriel Lilly, an illiterate white man in charge of Jefferson’s nail-making business. Many slaves attempted to escape. In 1811, James Hubbard, a nail maker, ran away. He was 27 and would have been making nails since the age of about 10. Jefferson rated him as one of his more productive slaves, and once noted that he made seven pounds of nails in a single day, meaning he raised a hammer about 20,000 times between dawn and dusk. Adverts were placed to track down Hubbard, a ‘negro man… strong made, of daring demeanor’, and he was caught. Jefferson brought him back to Monticello, and had him "severely flogged in the presence of his old companions”. He was then sold and separated from his family (he had been born in Jefferson’s ownership). Nothing more is known of James Hubbard.

Jefferson was especially keen on breeding slaves. It was cheaper than buying them. ‘I consider a woman [slave] who brings a child every two years’, he wrote, ‘more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption’. Account books from Monticello show how much interest Jefferson took in his slave’s offspring, and although ‘family’ was not a concept he sought to protect amongst his slaves, the names of each slave’s mother and father were diligently recorded.

Except in one case. The ‘father’ column beside that of ‘mother’ Sally Hemmings in Jefferson’s account books is blank. Hemmings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, having been fathered by Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles. She was also Jefferson’s slave, and was no older than sixteen when she gave birth to the first of his six children (he was 44). Four survivied, and in turn became Jefferson’s own slaves. He freed them when they were much older, but he never freed Hemmings, not even in his will. 130 slaves were sold by auction after Jefferson’s death, with families split up and children as young as nine separated from their parents.

For more than two centuries, Sally Hemmings and the remainder of Jefferson’s slaves were forgotten about. Actually, forgotten is too forgiving a word; they were ignored. There have long been suggestions that Jefferson fathered some slave children. But most Jefferson scholars said the story was a myth put about by Jefferson’s political opponents. It took a series of DNA tests in 1998 to prove that Jefferson was the progenitor of Sally Hemming’s descendants. 

Now, I’m not in the business of judging Jefferson. As a historian, it’s not my role to judge the morals of people acting in a different moral age. A historian deals in facts, motives, reasons. What interests me about all this is how we instinctively create our own perspectives on history to suit our own values, beliefs and judgements. In America, I believe, the limits of those perspectives are more acute than many realise.

Throughout history, and just as much today as ever, Jefferson is lauded as the man who wrote those famous words; “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” His memorial in Washington D.C. is second only to Lincoln’s in terms of prominence and recognition. But its design pays homage to Monticello, the house built by slaves, serviced by slaves, and financed by the unrewarded labour of slaves. It is a monument to a ‘liberty’ born out of hypocrisy.

And yet, the actions of every generation, when judged by succeeding ones, are always open to charges of hypocrisy. Never will mankind reach a state where no person, no being, and no place is not somehow exploited or persecuted. We cannot know now why future generations will look at us, and ask, ‘how could they have done that?’, but they will. And if we should resist judging Jefferson’s actions in the 18th Century by the values we hold in the 21st Century, then at least we must be more honest in how we remember the 18th Century. Because we abhor slavery today, as well as forced marriage and rape - all of which Jefferson indulged in - we cannot pretend that our heroes did none of these things. 

I should make it clear that at Monticello they are making renewed efforts to deal with this less attractive side of Jefferson’s life. One can go on ‘slavery tours’, and, as I mentioned, see recreations of how the slaves lived. The Monticello website has detailed research of slave life during Jefferson’s time there. But there is nothing too revealing; no chains, no whips, no jails. It’s like watching a PG-rated version of an 18 film. In most American historical sites one gets the impression that slavery was something abstract, a concept to be sympathised with, rather than individual stories of pain and torment.

Another site of Jerffersonian homage in the USA is Colonial Williamsburg, an immaculately preserved and recreated set of buildings from Virginia’s colonial capital. We always enjoy visiting - it really is like stepping back in time - and went again this year. The scene is set in the 1770s, at the moment when the American colonies transform themselves into states. The flag hung on every building is not the stars and stripes, but the Union quartered flag of the 13 colonies. Re-enactors give speeches about British oppression, and their desire for liberty and freedom. Some of these speeches come of course from someone playing Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was twice Governor of Virginia, and lived in the Governor’s mansion at Williamsburg. He called the city "the finest school of manners and morals that ever existed in America."

In the 1770s, the majority of people living in Williamsburg were slaves. But slavery is largely non-existent at Williamsburg today. We stopped by a re-created tobacco garden to hear all about how tobacco was grown, and how the crop underpinned America’s early economy. We learnt everything from the guides except the fact that tobacco farming, a very labour intensive process, was entirely dependent on slave labour. However - and this is the crucial point - such historical amnesia is not necessarily by design of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (who own and manage the city) but by the desire of the people who visit. The Foundation tried, some years ago, to show visitors more of the reality of slave life in the 1770s, and even held recreations of slave auctions. But these proved too upsetting for audiences to bear, and were discontinued after distressed families made their feelings known. 

Shying away from history is of course not a uniquely American trait. As a Briton I must face the uncomfortable fact that, as a recent poll revealed, 65% of us are ‘proud’ of the British Empire. That is, we take pride in the colonisation and conquest of places like the Indian Subcontinent, as well as much of Africa, to say nothing of specific moments like the Amritsar Massacre and the botched partition of India and Bangladesh. When it comes to Empire, we Brits tend only to remember things like ‘the railways’, and those nice Lutyens buildings in New Delhi. 

Is British imperial pride, like America’s, built on ignorance? Or is it our selective memories? And how do we chose those memories? Indeed, do we choose them, or are we simply relying on what historians tell us? Do we feel embarrassed into sugar-coating those memories by a sense of inherited complicity? Certainly, there’s a debate to be had on the relative ‘badness’ of Britain’s Empire. But Britain’s pride in Empire still reflects the fact that everyone, whether it’s a matter of race, religion or nationality, choses a view of history which suits our own perspectives. 

And the point of this long-winded post (forgive me) is that I couldn’t help noticing the uniformity of one particular historical perspective in America today. Whether we like it or not, the story of revolutionary America told habitually in museums, books and films is from the perspective of only one group of people; white people. If you’re the descendant of a black slave you might have a very different perspective of the selective liberty ushered in by the American Revolution. If you’re a native American you might have a more radically different perspective, with little interest in celebrating the ethnic cleansing and conquest - there are no other words for it - of Native American lands. 

For all of the people affected by the American story, life today can still resonate with the legacies of actions taken centuries ago. Acknowledging that is not about assessing the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of our predecessors, but about viewing their stories and legacies with candour and humility. We must learn to face our historical demons. Can we ever honestly address the injustices of our own era unless we do?

How many people does it take to hang a painting?

July 28 2017

Video: Met

Here's a great time-lapse video from the Metropolitan Museum, of their installation of a giant 1683 painting, "Moses and the Brazen Serpent and the Transfiguration of Jesus", by the Mexican artist Cristóbal de Villalpando It is on loan from Puebla Cathedral in Mexico City. Says the Met:

The installation of Villalpando's 28-foot-tall masterpiece took five days and involved the combined expertise of more than a dozen riggers, machinists, carpenters, and art technicians in addition to the exhibition curator and four conservators.

Videos like this show why the Met is streets ahead of other museums when it comes to online presence. Filming the installation and making a time-lapse video of it is such cheap and simple marketing (you can do it on an iPhone) but it's amazing how few museums do it.

The exhibition runs until October 25th; more here.

Update - there's a video of them taking the picture down in the Cathedral, and preparing it for travel, here

A new Ofili tapestry at the National Gallery

July 28 2017

Video: National Gallery

A new tapestry commissioned from Turner prize winner Chris Ofili has gone on display at the National Gallery in London. It took three years to make! I love tapestries, and am glad to see new works like this being commissioned.

In fact, the tapestry went on display in April, but I missed the story. Here's Will Gompertz of the BBC on the finished piece, which looks great. The BBC photo is complete with ubiquitous girl-walking-in-front-of-artwork effect. Curiously enough, the National Gallery has only this week put up a video promoting the exhibition, which shows how the tapestry was made. The exhibition ends 28th August.

[Museums of the world; please make it easier for people like to spread the word about your exhibitions by making sure videos, images and press releases are put up in good time, and easily accessible.]

Charging for history

July 28 2017

Image of Charging for history

Picture: Northamptonshire Record Office

Grim news for historians and art historians in the UK; Northamptonshire record office is becoming the first to charge for regular access to its reading rooms. If you want to visit outside a very limited free period, which is just Tuesday-Thursday from 9am-1pm, then you'll have to pay £31.50 per hour.

£31.50 per hour! That is an absurd and insulting fee. Those who have spent time researching in local record offices, which house come of the UK's most important private and public archives, will know that it is practically impossible do all you need to do in a morning. Ordering and reading through documents just takes too much time. For Northamptonshire record office to limit free access to just a few mornings a week in effect means that serious researchers will not able to access their documents at all; the cost for most of staying in the area to wait till the next free morning would make it impossible. Perhaps the new charging structure is a cynical and deliberate ploy to force people to keep away, thus allowing the council to cut staff and hours even more in future.

Northamptonshire record office has made a statement on their Facebook page, blaming government cuts, though it's a Northamptonshire council decision. Of course, the main concern is that this will be the thin end of the wedge, with other record offices soon following suit.

Is there much anyone can do about it? Probably not; the National Archives in Kew doesn't show enough strong leadership on issues like this, and if it does ever act, it takes an age to do so. Nor can we expect anything from government ministers. All we can hope is that by making a fuss we'll discourage other record offices from following Northamptonshire's shoddy example.

Update - there's a petition against the charges here.

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