Restoring Canada's only Titian

July 25 2012

Image of Restoring Canada's only Titian

Picture: Ottawa Citizen

Here's a fascinating tale - restoration has revealed that a downgraded Titian at the National Gallery of Canada really is by Titian. Previously, it was thought to be a copy of a version in the Prado, due to its deletorious condition. But work by the Gallery's restorer Stephen Gritt has led to its reattribution. From the Ottawa Citizen

[The picture] was a mess — dirty, water-damaged (not irreparably), and the victim of earlier, regrettably bad restoration. It looked, Gritt says, like “it was dragged through the hedge backwards.” Its sorry state, and the royal pedigree of the Madrid Titian, contributed to a drift in scholarly opinion, and by the 1980s the Ottawa Titian was considered a copy of the other. Then came a side-by-side comparison in Washington, D.C. in 1991.

“The general consensus of everyone in the room was that the Prado was probably the real one by Titian and the Ottawa painting was a copy of it,” Gritt says. “So pretty much that was the lid on the coffin being tightened.”

The Ottawa Titian, now not a Titian at all, sat in its grimy, faded glory in storage. Curators at another gallery asked to borrow it, but backed out when they saw its condition. Oh, the indignity. Then, one morning, a glimmer of redemption arrived in the daily mail.

In 2003 a Toronto man wrote to the gallery’s then deputy-director, David Franklin, to ask why the only Titian in Canada was not on display. The reply — that scholarly opinion no longer considered it to be a Titian, and that it was too dirty to hang in public — could have been the end of it. Enter Stephen Gritt.

Gritt, who is from London, England and joined the gallery that same year, kept thinking about the tenuous Titian as he restored other important paintings, such as Tom Thomson’s iconic Jack Pine and, in 2007, Veronese’s Petrobelli Altarpiece. (Veronese also painted a portrait of Barbaro.)

In 2009, Gritt formally put up the Titian and began hundreds of hours of work to undo four centuries of degradation. Gradually, the vibrancy of the original portrait emerged – the nobleman’s perhaps pensive expression, with a sliver of crimson red neckpiece showing beneath his dark cloak. This, Gritt believed, was no workshop copy.

The team turned to X-rays, which see beneath the surface of a painting, and they showed evidence of changes made by the artist during production. For example, Gritt says, “you can see him wrestling over how to paint the nose, because Daniele has a peculiar nose.” Such changes made no sense if the Ottawa Titian was a copy, as a copy would directly echo an original.

Gritt brought the X-rays to Madrid and, with a Prado specialist, compared them in light of these new revelations. “Those really subtle shifts, things that were adjusted by millimetres, the Prado painting doesn’t have them,” he says. “It’s really rather direct.” The conclusion was clear. The Madrid Titian is a copy, and the Ottawa portrait is re-established as Titian’s original Barbaro.

You can see a video of Stephen Gritt talking about the restoration process here. Rather unhelpfully, there is no image of the painting on the National Gallery of Canada's website, so we can make no examination of the attribution ourselves. But if the Canada picture really is by Titian, then it would appear that this is another example of scholars not understanding condition. In my experience, a picture's condition is the number one reason attributions get wrongly downgraded. 

Undertsanding condition should be the first skill any serious art historian aspires to learn (at least those studying Old Masters). If I were teaching the art historians of the future, I would make it compulsory for every student to spend a term in a conservation studio. You cannot judge any painting until you are sure you are looking at the artist's original intentions - and it is fact that most Old Masters have at some point suffered from either a degree of damage, or worse, the attentions of later ham-fisted restorers. It's interesting to note that in this case, Harold Wethey catalogued the Canada picture as Titian in full in his 1971 Titian catalogue raisonne.

Another one, already?

July 25 2012

Image of Another one, already?

Picture: NPG

Ouch! New figures show that the UK's GDP shrank by 0.7% in the last quarter. That's the third consecutive quarterly fall. We are well and truly double-dipping. So, for the benefit of my readers in government, it's time for yet another portrait of John Maynard Keynes (he of sound economic sense). This one shows him with his wife, the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, and was painted in 1932 by William Roberts

Please, don't try this at home

July 24 2012


Yikes - lurking on the internet is this video, which tells you to clean your painting with a baguette. Yes, a baguette. Over four thousand people have watched it. Which means that someone, somewhere has wrecked their favourite Old Master with a piece of bread. 

Update - a reader writes:


Pavement art plunges to new depths

July 24 2012

Image of Pavement art plunges to new depths

Picture: by Kurt Wenner at the National Geographic Visitor Center

Very cool - can we have one in London please.

Free money to look at portraits!

July 24 2012

The Understanding British Portraits Subject Specialist Network is offering four £500 bursaries for people wanting to study portraiture. You can apply here on their website. But before you get too excited, here's the inevitable bureaucratic stuff you have to get your head round first:

Applications should take the form of a concise outline (max. 500 words) of the proposed project, including:

  • A description of the project and clear objectives
  • Proposed activities involved in the project
  • Specific partners expected to be involved in the research (e.g. local libraries, private collections, auction houses, museums, etc.)
  • If the proposed bursary project is one element of a larger project, please demonstrate how it will relate to and contribute to the defined outcomes of the latter project. 
  • Desired outcomes of the proposed project
  • Target audience
  • CPD benefits
  • Timescale of research (all projects must be completed by 22 March 2013)
  • Estimated use of funds
  • How the outcomes of the bursary will be disseminated among professional colleagues within the applicant’s organisation or region.
  • Applications must be accompanied by a brief nomination from line managers.

I wonder if the costs of administering this laudable scheme are greater than the money given out? The site states that all applications will be read by the Understanding British Portraits Steering Group. This is comprised of The National Portrait Gallery, the National Trust, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. That's a lot of people.

Banksy does the Olympics

July 23 2012

Image of Banksy does the Olympics


No sooner did I post the lament below on the art historical dearth at the Olympics than up pops Banksy with this fine take on the Games. More here

The Olympics - an art history special

July 23 2012

Image of The Olympics - an art history special

Picture: V&A

I can't think of anything art historical amongst the London Olympics. Those vaguely terrifying one-eyed mascots popping up around London can hardly be considered sculptures of future renown. And the less said about the ArcelorMittal Orbit the better. If you see anything vaguely old and artistic associated with the Games, let me know. It all seems to be relentlessly modern and forward-looking. 

I like a bit of nostalgia, so was interested to see a copy of the 1948 Olympic poster on offer at the Christie's 'London Sale' I mentioned earlier. It was designed by Walter Herz, and he evidently liked his art history for not only do we get a backdrop of Charles Barry's Houses of Parliament, but also an image of Discobolus. The sculpture in question must be the Towneley Discobolus now in the British Museum. Herz's genius in the 1948 poster was to use two images that instantly spoke of London and the Olympic ideal. Nothing in the marketing of the current games achieves this. Isn't that rather sad?

Update: a reader alerts me to the British Museum's tasteful bag with a reproduction of the 1948 poster on it, yours for £15.99. And if you don't fancy bidding over £1,000 for the original 1948 poster, you can buy a reproduction here at the National Gallery for £20. Judging by the reams of unsold 2012 merchandise I see in the shops, I'll wager that the retro Olympic stuff is outselling the modern. 

Axe falls on the Institut Neerlandais

July 23 2012

Video: TEFAF

The Dutch government has decided to stop funding the Institut Neerlandais in Paris. The IN, which promotes Dutch culture abroad, is closely involved with the Fondation Custodia in Paris, one of the best known art historical research centres in the world and home to the Frits Lugt collection. Fortunately, La Tribune de l'Art tells us that the Fondation will not be too badly affected by the cuts.

The above video is a brief overview of the Fondation Custodia from its director Ger Luijten. If your French is good enough, you can find details of the petition to stop the threat to the Institut here.

Stolen Henry Moore sundial found

July 23 2012

Image of Stolen Henry Moore sundial found

Picture: Guardian

A rare success against the sculpture thieving scrap metal melting pillocks. Details here in The Guardian.

Boom - Christie's post record results

July 23 2012

Image of Boom - Christie's post record results

Picture: Christie's

Apart from a dip in Chinese sales, Christie's have seen big rises in all sectors. From Reuters:

Christie's announced record first-half art sales of 2.2 billion pounds on Tuesday, a rise of 13 percent over the same period of 2011 and further evidence of the strength of the high end of the market.

The world's largest auctioneer reported auction sales of 1.8 billion in the first six months of 2012, seven percent up on a year ago, while private art sales soared 53 percent to 413 million pounds. All figures include buyer's premium.

However, there was a steep drop in Asian and Middle Eastern auction revenues to 234 million pounds, 23 percent down on the first half of 2011 as rampant Chinese buying cooled.

In terms of auction categories, the post-war and contemporary sector rose by 34 percent to 576 million pounds, jewellery jumped 28 percent to 190 million and old masters and 19th century art was up 50 percent to 72 million.

Encouraging news too from the lower end of the market:

Several experts have warned that the disparity between art values and the broader economy cannot continue forever and that while the most coveted works are rising in value, other sectors of the art market are less healthy.

Christie's noted, however, that sales at its South Kensington showrooms in London, where lesser works are typically sold, had risen 23 percent to 73 million pounds in the first six months.

How clever Christie's have been to keep hold of their South Kensington saleroom, and to run it with such panache. A few years ago there was talk of closure, especially after Sotheby's ditched their Olympia saleroom. Having a seperate premises for lower value items allows greater flexibility, and builds loyalty among the next generation of collectors. It also means that the main salerooms aren't cluttered with mediocre lots during the more important sales, which is often the case at Sotheby's. A good example of the versatility that South Kensington offers is the forthcoming 'London Sale' (3rd September), which includes the above famous photo by Norman Parkinson, 'New Look at the National Gallery' (est. £4-£4,500). You can even buy an old Routemaster London bus (est. £20-£30,000).

In LA, a bout of contemporary navel-gazing

July 23 2012

Image of In LA, a bout of contemporary navel-gazing

Picture: New York Times

Great angst and hand-wringing at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, as artist trustees (generally a bad idea) resign in protest at the directorship of Jeffrey Deitch. Deitch has been much criticised for following (gasp) a 'populist agenda'. You and I might think that getting more people to visit a museum is a Good Thing. Roberta Smith in The New York Times has the story.

Signs that your gallery needs renovating

July 23 2012

Image of Signs that your gallery needs renovating

Picture: BG

In this case, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, where I was on Saturday. The above image was taken before I was told off (with exceptional politeness) for taking photos.

Is this Mona Lisa's Skeleton?!

July 23 2012

Image of Is this Mona Lisa's Skeleton?!

Picture: Mail

From Discovery News:

Known for controversial claims, like that letters and numbers are hidden inside the Mona Lisa painting, Vinceti has based his search in the convent on documents found by historian Giuseppe Pallanti some years ago. "Lisa Gheradini did exist and lived a rather ordinary life," Pallanti, who is not involved in the project, told Discovery News.

The historian traced back Lisa's life from her birth on June 15, 1479, to her death at the age of 63. In his research, Pallanti found several important documents, such as Francesco del Giocondo's will. There, the merchant asked his younger daughter, Marietta, to take care of his "beloved wife," Lisa. At that time, Marietta, one of Lisa and Francesco's five children, had become a nun, thus she brought her mother to the nearby convent of Sant'Orsola.

Lisa remained there until her death, according to a document known as a "Book of the Dead," found by Pallanti in a church archive. "Lisa di Francesco Del Giocondo died on July 15, 1542 and was buried in Sant'Orsola," the document stated.

The record noted that the whole parish turned out for her funeral, showing that Lisa was rather famous among Florentine society. Vinceti said that the newly discovered bones will undergo radiocarbon dating, hystological analysis and DNA testing.

"If the bones turn to be those of a female skeleton there will be two possibilities: Either they belong to the noblewoman Maria del Riccio or they belong to Lisa Gherardini. According to historic records, only these two women, who were not nuns, were given special burials in the convent," Vinceti told the local daily La Nazione.

Eventually, comparisons will be made with the DNA of Bartolomeo and Piero, Lisa's children who are buried in the church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence.

More photos here.

A reader writes:

Many years ago, my Grandfather claimed to have been shown 'the skull of Shakespeare as a child'...

Stolen Matisse recovered in US

July 23 2012

Image of Stolen Matisse recovered in US

Picture: Mail

The FBI has recovered a stolen Matisse in Florida. The picture belongs to the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum, and had been missing for ten years after someone swapped it for a very dodgy-looking fake. From The Daily Mail:

'Odalisque in Red Pants’ had been on tour to other museums several years previously and at some point been switched with a forgery [above right, by the way].

The Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum had bought the original painting in 1981, but how and when the painting was replaced with a replica, and by whom are questions still unanswered. 

The director of Caracas Museum, Rita Salvestrini, suggested that the switch many years ago had been done by an insider. She said in 2003, when the forgery was first discovered, ‘There had to be inside complicity. You can't just make the switch freely inside the museum.’

I'm not so sure about that last point. Stranger things have happened...

'Young Van Dyck' exhibition at the Prado

July 23 2012

Image of 'Young Van Dyck' exhibition at the Prado

Picture: Museo Prado

Here's a fascinating glimpse of all the effort that goes into a museum exhibition - the Prado have put online the hanging plans for their new 'Young Van Dyck' exhibition. On page four (which you can zoom into) you can see all the exhibits. The show opens in November - and I am counting down the days. 

Art history - Italian style

July 23 2012


A reader alerts me to the above video, in which the Caravaggio 'discovery' story takes a sinister turn. Check out the table banging at the end too.  The reader writes:

On July 12 2012 you described the debate over the "new" Caravaggio discoveries as "an academic bitch fight of epic proportions..."  Some of your readers may have imagined you guilty of hyperbole, but in Italy unfortunately, there is an alarming tendency toward behaviour among some scholars that can only be described as unprofessional. Things took a turn for the worse when the researchers behind the new discovery - Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz and Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli - presented their findings at a press conference in Leno, near Brescia earlier this week. 

As the  video highlights, a member of the audience was singled out by Ms. Conconi Fedigrolli  for his smile of disbelief, and then directly confronted by Mr. Bernardelli Curuz, with members of the audience having to intervene. 

In the several videos posted so far, the full presentation is not shown. Subsequently we only see the most contentious parts of the discussion, and we are left to wonder at the context of some of the statements and behaviour which resulted in the altercation. The crux of the matter seems to be that audience member Professor Marco Vallora expressed that the findings of the the pair were an expression of opinion rather than a standard of proof. 

This incident causes us to reflect on how art historical research in Italy is portrayed to the world at large. There are many serious, hard-working scholars and technicians whose work barely rates a mention in local or international press - yet when the likes of Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz, or Maurizio Seracini (searching for Leonardo's "Anghiari") are embroiled in squabbles around major artists such as Caravaggio and Leonardo (respectively), such news travels fast. At some point, when the clamour subsides, we may hope that substantive evidence becomes the focus of such announcements.

Moral of the story? Never trust an art historian with no cufflinks. Also, beware scholars presenting drawings as 'studies' which bear no relation to the finished painting. 

A Caillebotte at the National Gallery

July 18 2012

Image of A Caillebotte at the National Gallery

Picture: National Gallery

A reader has alerted me to an exciting new loan at the National Gallery in London - Gustave Caillebotte's Bridge at Argenteuil and the Seine. It was bought at auction last year for $18m, having sold previously in 2008 for just $8m. The picture fills a gap in the national collection, after the last Caillebotte on loan to the NG was sold to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

How not to respond to a blogger

July 17 2012

Ping! In comes an email from the Heritage Lottery Fund, following my recent (I thought rather supportive) post:

I work at the Heritage Lottery Fund’s press office and would like to have a chat with you about the HLF’s very broad funding remit. Whilst our annual budget is currently at an increased level from previous years we are certainly not ‘awash’ with money (as you put it) as there is huge demand for our support and we are currently nearly three times over-subscribed for all our programmes.  I am not sure if you realise how broad the UK’s heritage is ranging from museums and galleries to landscapes, endangered species, public parks, industrial heritage etc.

Even if I had not, for some years, worked as a political adviser on arts and heritage policy, including detailed Heritage Lottery Fund policy, I think I would realise 'how broad the UK's heritage is'. Probably most schoolchildren would too. And I'll leave it to you to decide whether an annual budget of £300m qualifies as 'awash' with money.

Early Lely exhibition at the Courtauld

July 17 2012

Image of Early Lely exhibition at the Courtauld

Picture: Courtauld

I'm delighted to mention a forthcoming exhibition at the Courtauld on the early works of Sir Peter Lely, such as The Concert, above. From the press release

This exhibition is the first to examine the remarkable but forgotten group of large-scale narrative paintings produced in the 1640s and 1650s by Peter Lely (1618-80), England's leading painter after the death of Anthony van Dyck. Often depicting a sensuous pastoral world of shepherds, nymphs and musicians in idyllic landscapes, these ambitious pictures are all the more extraordinary for having been painted during the turmoil of the English Civil War and its aftermath. Organised around The Courtauld's enigmatic The Concert, the exhibition includes an important group of little-known paintings loaned from historic private collections. 

Sir Peter Lely was Charles II's Principal Painter and the outstanding artistic figure of Restoration England. Since the 17th century, he has been celebrated for his flattering pictures of the great and the beautiful of Charles II's court. However, Lely never wished to be principally a portraitist. When he arrived in war-torn England in the early 1640s, hoping to step into the vacuum left by the death of Sir Anthony van Dyck, Lely had high ambitions and devoted  himself to paintings inspired by classical mythology, the Bible or contemporary literature. His pastoral subjects resonated with a lyrical dream of England, an Arcadia far removed from the political upheaval of the age.

Much to Lely’s disappointment, his narrative paintings did not find favour with many English patrons, and he produced no more than thirty. As the artist’s friend, the Royalist poet Richard Lovelace explained, all Lely’s English supporters wanted was ‘their own dull counterfeits’ or portraits of their mistresses.  Lely was obliged to turn to portraiture, and he employed a large and productive studio to keep up with the high demand for his work.  His paintings of figures in idyllic landscapes remained relatively unknown and yet they are among the most beautiful and seductive made in 17th century England.

I have to say I think the spin put on Lely's early career here is incorrect. I don't doubt that, early in his career, Lely might have preferred painting subject pictures. Most artists do - even Gainsborough tired of 'face painting'. But I don't think you can say that it was 'much to [Lely's] disappointment' that he was forced to turn to portraits. There is relatively little evidence on Lely's early career, and I don't think it allows us to make such an interpretation. How any artist can have come to England in the 1640s and not have known that portraiture was what the English wanted is difficult to accept - especially one who (as is almost certainly the case with Lely) had come hoping to succeed in Van Dyck's place.

It is therefore an art historical non-sequitur to say, as the press release says, '...Lely never wished to be principally a portraitist. When he arrived in war-torn England in the early 1640s, hoping to step into the vacuum left by the death of Sir Anthony van [sic] Dyck...' While in England, Van Dyck was known to all the world as a portraitist. Of the 264 works attributed to Van Dyck's English period (1632-41) in the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne, only 3 are not portraits. So it can never have been the case that somehow word filtered back to Lely in Holland to the effect that in England, land of the Reformation and Civil War, lay a ready clientele clamouring for religious and allegorical pictures.

This is the second major institution to have got its 17th Century English art history wrong in as many weeks. What's going on?

Update - a reader writes:

Well, possibly the loss of specialist curators from major institutions may be a problem. The average curator in a small to medium institution has to cover a great deal of territory. For the non-specialist, such as me, 17th century art history is not an easy area to get into.

More bad economic news for the UK.

July 16 2012

Image of More bad economic news for the UK.

Picture: ArtFund

So let's have another of my periodic John Maynard Keynes posts, for the benefit of those readers in government. This portrait of Keynes, he of sound economic sense, is by Duncan Grant, and is at Charleston. Says the ArtFund website of the portrait:

...painted at Charleston during the First World War where Keynes is reputed to be drafting a crucial telegram negotiating an American loan to secure Britain's wartime survival.

Nearly time for another one John!

Update - a reader writes:

Re your Keynes posting: right on....until you exhort him as 'John': he hated to be called John, always was called Maynard!

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