Art, politics and history

July 19 2011


Here's a video of Barack Obama looking at Normal Rockwell's iconic painting, The Problem We All Live With, with its subject, Ruby Bridges. The picture shows Ruby Bridges' first day at school in 1960 in Louisiana, after the Supreme Court had ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. She is being escorted by guards as tomatoes are thrown at her. Above her is written the word 'n*gger' in graffiti. 

The painting is now hanging outside the Oval Office. The White House blog says:

The President likes pictures that tell a story and this painting fits that bill. Norman Rockwell was a longtime supporter of the goals of equality and tolerance. In his early career, editorial policies governed the placement of minorities in his illustrations (restricting them to service industry positions only).

However, in 1963 Rockwell confronted the issue of prejudice head-on with this, one of his most powerful paintings. Inspired by the story of Ruby Bridges and school integration, the image featured a young African-American girl being escorted to school by four U.S. marshals amidst signs of protest and fearful ignorance. The painting ushered in a new era in Rockwell's career and remains an important national symbol of the struggle for racial equality.

In the video Obama describes how much it means to him, the first black President, to have Rockwell's painting by his office in the White House. It's pretty powerful stuff.

It is also, on a purely art historical level, an important moment in the history of 20th Century American painting. I've always struggled to understand why American museums (indeed museums around the world) are so sniffy about Rockwell's work. The same museums that fall over themselves to have a vapid repetition of Jeff Koons' tediously boring souvenir-shop sculptures look with disdain on Rockwell's paintings, which on every conceivable level are more significant artistically, historically and politically. Will the situation will be reversed in fifty years time?  

Poussin attack - the security implications

July 18 2011

Image of Poussin attack - the security implications

Picture: National Gallery (detail of floorplan)

I went to see the scene of the crime today. The two Poussins are fine, no trace of damage. The vandal must have used a water-based paint that did not penetrate the varnish, or something similarly removable. The National Gallery will not give out any further details. Nevertheless, the punishment surely should reflect the potential damage, not just the actual damage, if it is to act as any meaningful deterrent. 

Having seen Room 19, where the pictures are, I think there are legitimate questions over security at the Gallery. The Golden Calf is a large picture, over two metres wide, and is hung at the end of the room (the red dot, above). The Adoration of the Shepherds, the other Poussin attacked, is to the right, some paces away (the blue dot). The room guard is placed at the end of the normally quite empty room, say some 20m away (the black dot), and stares straight at the Adoration of the Golden Calf. I wasn't there when it happened, of course, but one must wonder how the villain was able to comprehensively spray not one but two pictures before being stopped.

Jonathan Jones at The Guardian says we should step up security dramatically, and makes the comparison with the Louvre, where they x-ray all bags:

A painting like Poussin's Golden Calf is made by a great artist, cherished by owners, and miraculously preserved down the centuries. It is looked after in a museum, cleaned, studied, and silently enjoyed by thousands. And then in an instant someone can brutally attack this venerable human creation and make a vile mark on it.

That cannot be allowed, and modern society cannot be trusted – there is too much craziness out there. Museums should be more severe on visitors. No visitor gets into the Louvre without a security scan. It looks like no one should get into the National Gallery without such scrutiny either. If this is too expensive, museums should charge to cover the costs. Free museums are very fine. But what is the point if people just come in and desecrate the world's cultural heritage? Charge, search, protect.

Meanwhile, a reader with great experience of these things has kindly sent me this insightful view:

Your article [...] illustrates very well the almost impossible task of protecting public art and keeping works on view to that public. It is a delicate balance! As an ex Police officer, ex Christies Porter[...] I am, possibly in a unique position to see the argument on both sides.

[More below]

Vigilance is the best weapon. You can alarm, you can shield and you can imprison certain works behind glass like a dodgy head of state but well trained staff, paying attention cannot be beaten. So how do you stop your guy going to sleep?

Well a number of things can be done. Not tying security personnel to one room for more than half an hour. Move him to another gallery or position, preferably the front entrance and make sure that the supervising staff are on the floor going from room to room all the time. Moving security staff regularly gives the impression that there are more staff than there really are.

Education into how your average art vandal works would also be a good idea. Generally the perpetrator has picked his target and will make b-line for it. Security personnel should be a aware of 'fast trackers' within their environment and have the remit to follow that person whilst notifying his control by radio. Unfortunately knives feature high on the art vandals weapons of choice list, so great care and good training are critical.

Doing the same thing for long periods of time, all day, every day is extremely boring. I know, I've done it. Engaging the staff and making them more than one trick ponies can elevate a boring job into a useful one and as a consequence a more vigilant one. 

It is, however, almost impossible to stop the determined vandal. The courts should sentence accordingly to make the 'easy' public art target just not worth making the point in return for a 10 year sentence. Public awareness of the problem should be geared up too.

Poussin - It's all going to be ok!

July 18 2011

Image of Poussin - It's all going to be ok!

Picture: Guardian

Here's a statement from the National Gallery:

At 5.08pm on Saturday 16 July 2011, a panic alarm was set off in Room 19 of the National Gallery. A Gallery Assistant acted promptly and triggered the alarm after observing a person appearing to spray two of the paintings in the room with an aerosol can.

The police were called at 5.10pm and arrived at the National Gallery at 5.19pm. A man has been arrested.

The two paintings involved are both by Nicholas Poussin, The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-4) and The Adoration of the Shepherds (1633-4). Both works are part of the National Gallery permanent collection.

Prompt action by Conservation staff has ensured very little damage was sustained by the two works.

They will be returned to display in Room 19 of the National Gallery on Monday 18 July 2011.

What a relief. And three cheers for the National Gallery's conservation staff for saving the day.

I wonder what paint the vandal used. If normal spray paint, of the type you use for your car, then one presumes it would have been very difficult to avoid serious damage to the original layers beneath. Perhaps (although I know it is dangerous to speculate) a far less harmful type of spray was used.

Either way, the culprit should be strongly punished as a deterrent. We cannot risk similar pranks in future, just for publicity. And of course, it is worth mentioning that vandalising old paintings is being done these days in the name of contemporary art, by the likes of Banksy. The problem is, if the 'damage' sustained was not serious, and amounts to less than £5000, then the maximum sentence is just three months and a fine of £2,500. It is conceivable, therefore, that whoever did this could get away with a very light punishment for his 15 minutes of fame.

Poussin attack - not the first time

July 18 2011

Image of Poussin attack - not the first time

Picture: Guardian

I'm grateful to two readers who have written to say that the Adoration of the Golden Calf has been attacked before, in 1978. Yesterday, I said wrongly that it had survived 'unmolested' until the most recent debacle.

The 1978 attack is chronicled in Adrienne Corri's engaging book, The Search for Gainsborough. Here is her fascinating diary entry for the day after the attack, when she happened to be going to the National Gallery to do some research on Gainsborough:

Everyone was in tears, even strong guards! [...]

Someone had slashed the Poussin Moses and the Children of Israel Worshipping the Golden Calf. It is one of the gallery's great treasures, one of the world's greatest pictures, or rather, was. They had closed the main galleries and the police were in charge. The only people not weeping were the science department. They were beside themselves with delight, sweeping up the tiny bits of paint which lay on the ground, and conserving them carefully. now they would know exactly what pigments Poussin used in his paints. It's an ill wind...!

[More below]

The picture wasn't there. Nothing remained of it except a fringe of canvas around the edges. The rest lay on the ground in shreds or hunks, already curling at the dges: it was the most expensive jigsaw in the world. After the police had finished taking photographs, the bits were placed carefully on large trays and taken to the restoration department. [...]

It was the most dreadful sight; so stupid. In one moment a maniac had reduced an exquisite piece of philosophy, beauty and geometry to chaos. The keepers in the gallery were uttelry shattered. They care deeply about the pictures. The man had gone to the tea room and taken a knife back with him. And they search women's hadnbags! It wasnt the knife that did the real harm. After the inital attack, the man had been pulled away by other visitors to the gallery and the guards, but he managed to get free and in seconds had torn the rest of the picture out with his bare hands. This had done the worst damage.

I don't know what the motive was for the 1978 attack - I'll try and find out. But evidently it is a picture which attracts nutters, and one wonders if it shouldn't have been glazed. It's obviously a difficult balance to strike between security and display, however. Over at Art History Today, Poussin scholar David Packwood says: 

This will inevitably re-ignite debates about security in museums. While I don’t want museums to resemble banks, maybe it would be a good idea to initiate bag searches (airport style) like they have in museums like the Rijksmuseum, for example. I’m sure we’re going to be hearing a lot about such subjects in the coming months.

Appalling vandalism at the National Gallery

July 17 2011

Image of Appalling vandalism at the National Gallery

Picture: Guardian

Nicolas Poussin's masterpiece, Adoration of the Golden Calf, has been vandalised and sprayed with red paint. The attack happened at the National Gallery, London, yesterday at about 5pm. Aparently another smaller picture was also attacked, but the details of this have not been released. The Guardian reports:

Witnesses reported seeing a man spraying the paintings with a canister as security guards rushed over before detaining him in the room and contacting police. Five officers later came to arrest the man, who is thought to be French.

This is an act of reprehensible stupidity, which I find almost impossible to comprehend. How could anybody do something so pointless and deranged? The picture has survived unmolested for nearly 400 years, and is now possibly damaged forever just because some nutter decided he wanted to make a point.

Obviously, he should be jailed for a long time. The maximum sentence for criminal damage in this respect is ten years. There is a special section of criminal damage for 'heritage items', but oddly enough this does not include paintings.

My immediate worry is obviously the damage to the picture. If regular spray-paint was used, then who knows how much damaged will have been done. Our best hope is that this French pillock used an easily removable type of paint. 

The next question must be how was this allowed to happen? It does not look as if it was the work of a moment, especially if two pictures were damaged. Being a security guard can be a tedious job, but that doesn't excuse those at the National sitting there playing sudoku, as I've seen before.

Art dealing in numbers

July 15 2011

Today we finished taking down our Van Dyck exhibition, which was rather sad. The last two weeks have been unduly manic, with an exhibition, Master Paintings Week, the Masterpiece fair, the Old Master sales, and our television series, Fake or Fortune?. So here's a numerical rundown of what happened: 

  • Pictures transported around London: 39
  • 'Opening nights' attended: 3
  • Lectures given: 3
  • Auctions viewed: 5
  • Trips to the library: 3
  • Bids made: 3
  • Pictures bought: 0
  • Pictures sold: 14
  • Visits to our Van Dyck exhibition: over 1,000 (in total)
  • Visits to this site: over 2,000
  • Fake Renoirs shown to me after 'Fake or Fortune?': 3
  • No. of people who saw my mug on the telly: over 4m
  • Times recognised in the street: 1

Curious de-accessions no.26

July 15 2011

Image of Curious de-accessions no.26

Picture: Toledo Museum of Art

A reader writes:

In 1953 the Fitzwilliam Museum sold a painting at Sotheby's for £350.  This important Valentin de Boulogne - a rare artist in British collections as I know of only the one work in the National Gallery - is now in the Toledo Museum of Art.

Zoom in on it here, and shed a tear...

Earl's row over family pictures

July 15 2011

Image of Earl's row over family pictures

Picture: Daily Mail

In last week's Sotheby's Old Master Sales, there were a number of fine pictures from the Savernake Estate (above), home to the Earls of Cardigan. But they were suddenly withdrawn at the last minute. 

Today, the Daily Mail reports just why: the Earl of Cardigan had appealed to the Court of Appeal to stop the sale. The pictures had been consigned to sale by the trustees of his estate, which is apparently deep in debt. There will be a further hearing to decide what happens next. 

It always disappoints me to see family collections being broken up. Sometimes it is not the choice of the family, but of the trustees of the collections. Such trusts are usually set up to avoid death duties, and at first the trustees may be close friends of the family not minded to rock the boat. However, over time, the trustees become increasingly professional and distant from the family. They see ancestral portraits as nothing more than assets gathering dust. So they are sold. Then the empty house, denuded of character, staggers on for a few more years until that too is sold. It's all rather unromantic, don't you think? I hope the Earl wins.

The Bonnie Prince

July 14 2011

Image of The Bonnie Prince

Picture: BG

Not a great discovery this, but you'll have to indulge my Jacobite obsession: here is Bonnie Prince Charlie (or King Charles III if you prefer), just arrived from France. There, it was thought to be a portrait of Louis XV. It is a decent copy in oil of La Tour's lost pastel of the Prince, which was painted in Paris in 1747, shortly after the failure of Charles' 1745 uprising.

It is my favourite portrait type of Charles. He seems, despite his crushing defeat, to be confident and regal, and one can see just how he deluded himself, for the rest of his life, into thinking that he would one day return as King.

I often see portraits of the Jacobites renamed as French kings and princes. It is ironic that even in his portraits Charles' royal claims were eventually ignored.

Tudor portrait set at NPG

July 14 2011

Image of Tudor portrait set at NPG

Picture: NPG

A rare and important set of royal portraits will go on display for the first time in 36 years at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 19th July-4th December. The Hornby Castle set of portraits runs from William the Conqueror to Mary I, including this nicely hump-backed Richard III. They aren't masterpieces, but are a nice example of the Tudor fashion for 'corridor portraits'.

Bolton Council's loony de-accessioning

July 14 2011

Image of Bolton Council's loony de-accessioning

Picture: BBC

Bolton Council has been selling off a series of works from their museum to try and raise £500,000 for a new storage facility for the rest of their collection. The picture above, J E Millais' Somnambulist, was supposed to be the big gun of the disposal, with an estimate of £70,000-£100,000. But it only just sold at £74,400, including buyer's premium. This means that the bidding didn't make it to the lower estimate. 

The Independent reports that it sold to an American private collector, and will now leave the country. So that's Bargain Hunting Foreign Collectors 1 - Guardians of our Cultural Heritage 0.

As I've said before, I have no problem with well-managed deaccessioning, if it raises funds for worthwhile projects. But real questions have to be asked as to whether Bolton Council have made the correct decisions when it comes to placing their works on the market. The Millais was one of 36 works being sold. A Picasso lithograph failed to sell last week at £10,000.

All the sales were made by Bonhams. Bonhams can sometimes get excellent prices - but should all the pictures have been consigned to one auction house? Or could certain pictures have been better placed with different auctioneers at different dates? Might the Millais have done better if offered at Christie's or Sotheby's in their major sales in the winter?

There is a real lack of transparency when it comes to deaccessioning, and this risks undermining the whole process. As I have suggested before, we need to have some sort of structure to help manage the process. The Museums Association has now been contacted by another council with regard to a major disposal. And there will be many others...

A lost Michelangelo in Oxford?

July 13 2011

Image of A lost Michelangelo in Oxford?

Picture: Campion Hall, Oxford

This picture belongs to Campion Hall, part of Oxford University. It has long been attributed to Marcello Venusti, a contemporary of Michelangelo. Now, however, an Italian art historian has said it is by Michelangelo himself. Mindful of the potential increase in value from £200,000 to many millions, Campion Hall will now send it to the Ashmolean Museum for safekeeping.

The art historian who has re-attributed the work has a track record of finding lost Michelangelos. He is Antonio Forcellino, perhaps best known for the '$300m Brooklyn Michelangelo' discovery in October 2010. That picture had also previously been associated with Venusti. Forcellino's findings on the Brooklyn picture were published in his book, 'La Pieta Perduta', in which it seemed to me that the picture was of such poor quality it could never have been painted by Michelangelo.

It is difficult to judge the Oxford case from the photos available, but I wouldn't be surprised if Forcellino's fellow scholars disagree with the latest attribution.

Last chance to see 'Finding Van Dyck'

July 13 2011

Image of Last chance to see 'Finding Van Dyck'

Picture: Bowes Museum

Our exhibition 'Finding Van Dyck' closes today, so now is your last chance to come and see a number of potential Van Dyck discoveries. One of them is this dirty and over-painted Portrait of a Lady in a White Dress, which belongs to the Bowes Museum. It was long thought to be a copy, even perhaps a 19thC one. But is it in fact an original by Van Dyck?

I think it could be. The picture shows how condition issues can lead to an attribution being questioned. We've been asked to help restore the painting, so I guess we'll soon know for sure whether it is by Van Dyck or not...

Salvator Mundi - National Gallery statement

July 13 2011

Image of Salvator Mundi - National Gallery statement

Picture: Robert Simon/Tim Nighswander

Here's the statement from the National Gallery on the Salvator Mundi:

The painting Salvator Mundi will be shown at The National Gallery, London, exhibition: Leonardo da Vinci: Painter of the Court of Milan from 9 November 2011 – 5 February 2012. 

Leonardo is known to have painted the Salvator Mundi – an image of Christ holding a globe, with his right hand raised in blessing. The version in a private collection in New York was shown after cleaning to the Director of the National Gallery and to the Curator of the exhibition as well as to other scholars in the field. We felt that it would be of great interest to include this painting in the exhibition as a new discovery. It will be presented as the work of Leonardo, and this will obviously be an important opportunity to test this new attribution by direct comparison with works universally accepted as Leonardo’s. A separate press release on the Salvator Mundi is issued by the owner.

I can't immediately think of another major gallery that has included a newly discovered work found by a dealer in a blockbuster exhibition. It is a bold step by the National and its director, Nicholas Penny. Museums in some other countries, such as France, would probably recoil in horror. Personally, I cannot applaud the National enough for including the picture in the exhibition. It is a fitting recognition of the role that we dealers, and their discoveries, can play in advancing art history. 

Jonathan Jones in the Guardian has, typically, the best piece on the story here

New acquisition at the Louvre

July 12 2011

Image of New acquisition at the Louvre

Picture: Musee du Louvre

The Louvre has acquired this handsome Les Larmes de Saint Pierre by the Spanish Caravaggesque painter Juan Bautista Maino (1581-1614). More details here (in French).

Mark Fisher on deaccessioning

July 12 2011

The former Arts Minister has written a good piece on deaccessioning for the Art Newspaper. He concludes:

If we are to consider any variation in our present arrangements it is vital that we are clear about the criteria that would apply. Decisions should be made by directors and curators, on grounds of artistic quality. Proceeds should be ring-fenced. Tax incentives, such as proposed in the recent Goodison Report, should be introduced by the government. Museums and galleries should be encouraged to adopt far more open loans policies. The criteria in the Museums Associations code of ethics are slow (decisions can take two years), but not inflexible [...]

Such reforms would allow us to maintain the framework that has served us well in sustaining the integrity of our great collections, while enjoying some of the advantages of being more open, relaxed and flexible with regard to disposals and transfers. A British compromise, and a sensible one.

The 'fake aristo'?

July 12 2011

Image of The 'fake aristo'?

Picture: Bridgeman Art Library

The repeated airing of my funny name on 'Fake or Fortune?' continues to excite people in an odd way. Now the Daily Mail is on the case in its Ephraim Hardcastle column:

Here's TV's rising new star, shyly smiling Bendor Grosvenor, 34, pictured, described as an art historian, on BBC1's Fake Or Fortune? show, starring newsreader Fiona Bruce. 

The 2nd Duke of Westminster (1879-1953) was known as Bendor, called after the 1880 Derby winner, Bend'Or, because of his chestnut colouring. 

Is TV's Bendor a real, or faux, aristo? A spokeswoman for Grosvenor Estates – the 6th Duke's property company – says : 'He is a very, very distant relative – so distant you would barely say they were related.' 

Bendor himself tells me: 'I have no wish to be in Ephraim Hardcastle, normally the meanest part of a mean newspaper. I and a number of friends have had the misfortune of being in it before.' 

It amazes me how obsessed some people still are about this sort of trivia. But here's an art historical take on how distantly I'm related to the Duke of Westminster: some months ago, I asked him if I could borrow his Self-Portrait by Van Dyck (above) for our recent exhibition (we were also exhibiting Van Dyck's last Self-Portrait). I was expecting a 'no', of course, but was amused that it came in the form of a letter not from him, and not even from his assistant, but from his assistant's assistant. 

Sadly, my side of the family is the infinitely poorer half, and we certainly didn't end up with any nice pictures. I even have to buy my own furniture, as Alan Clark said so dismissively of Michael Heseltine. But if I had inherited some of the finest pictures in Britain, I would make a point of lending them to exhibitions. It's almost a moral duty, isn't it?

In case you were wondering why I think the Hardcastle column is 'mean', then look no further than the first story in it today, a tragically homophobic piece about Evan Davis. 

Thin end of the wedge

July 12 2011

Here's a bonkers de-accessioning story from the US, of the type that make people fear de-accessioning here in the UK:

The Port Huron Museum is asking the city council permission to sell four paintings by 19th-century French artists to raise money for operating costs.

Susan Bennett, the museum's director of administration and community relations, said the paintings range in value from about $4,000 to up to $50,000.

The paintings are "Peasant Girl Herding Ducks" by Jean Francois Millet; "Tree Trunks of a Forest" by Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet; "Landscape with Water" by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot; and "Woodland Scene" by Narcisse Virgilio Díaz de la Peña.

Of course, it's always wrong to flog a collection to pay for operating costs. But what I want to know is, where can I buy these ridiculously cheap pictures?

British Art at risk in Syria?

July 11 2011

Image of British Art at risk in Syria?

Picture: GAC, Claude Muncaster, 'A Souwester Over the Downs'.

This is a bit tenuous, but I always like to bring you an art historical take on current affairs...

Following reports that the US embassy in Damascus has been attacked by pro-Assad crowds, here's a list detailing the pictures on loan to the British Embassy from the Government Art Collection. Nothing too valuable, but it would be nice to avoid a repeat of the Tripoli debacle should anything nasty happen. There should be a policy in place to remove the art long before there's any chance of trouble.

There's an Oskar Kokoschka in Yemen too...

"convincingly re-attributed"

July 11 2011

Image of "convincingly re-attributed"

Picture: V&A

Self-congratulatory post alert: the V&A have agreed with me that their Portrait of an Unknown Woman and Child formerly attributed to Joseph Highmore is in fact by Andrea Soldi. I first made the suggestion here a few weeks ago. The V&A have even been kind enough to give me a generous credit on their online catalogue: 

Formerly attributed to Joseph Highmore (1692-1780), in 2011 the painting was convincingly re-attributed by Bendor Grosvenor (see History 2, curator's comments) to Andrea Soldi (ca. 1703-71), a Florentine painter who arrived in London in 1736. 

Read the full argument here. It's great that the V&A put full historiographical information on their website, and are happy to have discussions over attributions. It's also (sorry, I can't resist this) quite a contrast with the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, who, despite eventually heeding my suggestion that they had the wrong Prince, only ever spoke to me to say I was wrong...

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.