June 18 2015

Image of Waterloo

Picture: Sotheby's

The Battle of Waterloo was fought on this day two hundred years ago. There are plenty of Waterloo related things coming up for sale at the moment, and my eye was caught by the above watercolour by Turner of The Field of Waterloo; yours for £150k-£250k at Sotheby's on 8th July. 

Museums and the Trade - National Gallery conference

June 16 2015

Image of Museums and the Trade - National Gallery conference

Picture: NG

The National Gallery in London have put out a call for papers for a conference next year on the art trade and museums. Here is what they're after:

  • Mechanics of the relationship: How did the relationships between dealers and art museums work? Were these business relationships, advisory roles, or both? Which sources can we use to establish such relationships? Can quantitative evidence like pricing be used to illuminate these relationships further? Can any shifts in these dynamics be identified or measured over a geographical or chronological range?
  • Biographies: Who were/are the main dealers associated with art museums? Can the personal and institutional biographies of specific dealers, agents, curators and other associated players assist in the reconstruction of the dealer-museum relationship, either in the historical or contemporary domains?
  • Collaboration and conflict: How close was/is the relationship between various dealers and art museums? To what extent can these relationships be construed as successful or otherwise? Are there examples of conflict, such as failed deals, arguments over pricing or the breakdown of relationships? How were successful cases, such as acquisitions mediated by dealers, negotiated? What happens when dealers are in competition with each other? And what happens when museums are in competition with each other?
  • Works: How can case studies of single artworks or groups of pieces help us to understand better the model of dealer-museum interaction? How do the previous histories of works, their provenance, and the manner of their acquisition (e.g. private treaty or auction sale) affect their afterlife in the museum?

More here. It sounds right up my street, and I'd like to go. But I can't immediately see anything in the tightly written criteria above that I can knowledgeably give a talk on.

Fitzwilliam Michelangelo discovery conference

June 16 2015

Image of Fitzwilliam Michelangelo discovery conference

Picture: Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam are having a special conference to discuss those newly attributed Michelangelo bronzes. Says the museum:

It was thought that no bronzes by Michelangelo had survived but now an international team of experts believe they have identified not one, but two.

Convincing evidence based upon stringent art-historical research, scientific analysis and anatomical observation argues that the Rothschild bronzes, which have spent over a century in relative obscurity and which are currently on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, are early works by Michelangelo. If this attribution is accepted, these unsigned and undocumented works would represent a highly significant addition to Michelangelo’s oeuvre.

On Monday 6 July 2015 at Downing College, University of Cambridge, an international panel of art historians, conservation scientists, and other experts will present further research into how these enigmatic masterpieces were made, their likely iconography, meaning, patron and purpose. Papers will also consider how they fit into Michelangelo’s career more broadly and how they relate to the work of his contemporaries.

Tickets are £85, and can be booked here.

Changes to access at the British Museum print room

June 16 2015

Image of Changes to access at the British Museum print room

Picture: BM

They've made some changes to access arrangements at the British Museum's prints & drawings room - now you have to make an appointment up to two weeks in advance, where previously you could pretty much turn up. The Grumpy Art Historian is unamused.

Pictures, pastels and prices

June 16 2015

Image of Pictures, pastels and prices

Picture: Neil Jeffares' blog

The indispensable Neil Jeffares has a good blog post looking at how we should look at historical picture values and prices - in particular pastels. The moral of the story, as ever, is only buy a picture if you like it.

Hubris and optimism

June 15 2015

Image of Hubris and optimism

Picture: Mail

Here's a story of a lethal combination of attributional optimism, hubris, and lawyers who don't know their way around art history. A fellow called Jonathan Weal, who was recently declared bankrupt, is being prosecuted in the UK for the crime of 'non-disclosure of property by a bankrupt'. The government is claiming that far from being bankrupt, he apparently has a valuable art collection worth up to '£20 million'. The star of his collection is the above picture by 'Turner' - which Mr Weal did not tell bankruptcy officials about when he was declared bankrupt. 

But the picture is not by Turner. It was bought by Mr Weal for £3,700 at an auction in 2004, and he then (as is the way with these cases of attributional optimism) came to believe that it was by Turner, and worth a great deal. Apparently he was filmed on television declaring his delight that the picture had been 'authenticated' by some experts, though this in fact turns out not to be quite accurate.

I have been sent photographs of the painting more than once, by different people, asking my opinion - and though I am no Turner scholar, it was immediately clear that this picture is nothing more than a pastiche, and not even a very good one at that. So it baffles me that the government is now prosecuting Mr Weal - who's only major crime appears to be believing that he might have had a Turner - for not declaring the value of a painting which is in fact not worth anything. 

More on this sorry saga here, in the Daily Mail

Update - an email arrives from Mr Weal:

I formally challenge you to a live televion debate on the picture fishing boats in a stiff breeze by JMW Turner.

The opinion you seek to rely on is totally discredited.The authentication was approved by the leading art law firm Mischcon de Raya.

Your firm recieved an invitation to the academic event inclusive of my posaition as a lecturer on the topographical component location as the Kent coast Ramsgate and Margate.

Instead attending to hear your superiors speak you produced your own fake and fortune production and walked the coastline at the location that you had been notified was close to mine.

The Turner museum at Margate then had there work authenticated by your team.These pictures unlike mine did not contain the forensic and historical research relation to the signature.

I formally challenge you to a head to head live television debate.More than 700 invites to the Dulwich Picture gallery conference were sent including ten to the Fitzwilliam museum at Cambridge.

The prognosis that it was not had been discredited.

The Swiss/Germans used to loot art in the 1930susing such false instruments as forged valuations either side of the Bundesbank printing counterfeit money in 1928 and Nazis making there counterfeit instruments inclusive of forging the Queens head on Pound notes.

Bendor Grosvenor you have not seen the picture live is your just another  art looter opinion from the 1930s or can you stand up to me Man to Man.

I have thrown down the gauntlet the debate  can be live.

For the record the Turner museum attended the lecture and approved it .So who are you to say it is not.

Man or mouse who are you? Take the challenge or are you to scared?.

Jonathan Weal


Update II - further emails arrive...

Update III - Mr. Weal was found guilty, but spared jail because the judge found that the painting could only be valued at £6,500 - after all, no widely accepted Turner experts have judged the painting to be by Turner. So the offence was relatively minor, and only community service (120 hours) is appropriate. And yet Mr Weal emails me copiously to say that he has 'ten professors' behind him.

In all, a sorry tale. 

New Samuel Pepys exhibition

June 15 2015

Image of New Samuel Pepys exhibition

Picture: NPG

I think Samuel Pepys' diary would be the one book I'd take to the desert island - perfect for dipping in and out of, and always amusing. So I'm glad to see there's a new Samuel Pepys exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, opening on 20th November 2015, until 28th March 2016. Here's the bumf:

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution opening at the National Maritime Museum on 20 November 2015 will be the largest ever exhibition about the famous diarist with 200 objects from national and international museums, galleries and private collections.

Pepys, one of the most colourful and appealing characters of the 17th-century, witnessed many of the great events that shaped Stuart Britain, bringing them brilliantly to life in his famous and candid diary. He lived through a time of turmoil which saw kings fighting for their crowns, and medieval London transformed into a world city following the devastation of the plague and the destruction of the Great Fire. He was a naval mastermind, a gossip and socialite, a lover of music, theatre, fine living and women. He fought for survival on the operating table and in the cut-throat world of public life and politics, successfully navigating his way to wealth and status until his luck, intimately entwined with the King’s fortunes, finally ran out.

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution places this fascinating and multifaceted figure within a broader historical context, beginning at the moment a schoolboy Pepys played truant to witness the execution of King Charles I in 1649.  It explores the turbulent times which followed, including the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 in a year of personal crisis for Pepys as he underwent a life-threatening operation to remove a bladder stone the size of a snooker ball without anaesthetic or antiseptic. He was fortunate to survive the ordeal; his recovery perhaps, in part, due to being the first on the operating table that day, reducing the risk of infection.  The grisly and extremely painful procedure is graphically brought to life by 17th-century medical instruments (Royal College of Physicians).

Pepys began his now-famous diary on 1 January 1660 and was on board the ship that carried Charles II out of exile at the restoration of the monarchy later that year.  He met and conversed with the King and his brother, James, Duke of York (later James II), who promised Pepys ‘his future favour’.  In the diary he records his disapproval of the debauchery at court during Charles II’s reign, including the King’s many mistresses. But Pepys himself was frequently unfaithful to his wife.  The exhibition will display the famous Portrait of Charles II in Coronation Robes (Royal Collection), as well as objects connected to his mistresses including one of his love letters to Louise de Kéroualle which uses her nickname ‘Fubbs’, meaning chubby (Goodwood Collection).

During his lifetime Pepys was best known for his important work in running the naval affairs of England, a career that propelled him towards wealth and power and the creation of a truly ‘professional’ navy. His work also took him to the English colony of Tangier, a place notorious for drunkenness and immorality, all of which he observed and noted in his writings.

The penultimate section of Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution looks at the dawn of the scientific revolution.  Pepys was president of the Royal Society when Newton’s Principia Mathematica (Royal Society) was published, placing him at the centre of scientific debate.  Publications like Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (British Library), which Pepys thought ‘the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life’, made unseen worlds of lice and fleas visible.  While the matters discussed at the Society interested him, he confessed not always to understand what he heard.

The exhibition ends with extraordinary events of the Glorious Revolution, which resulted in the overthrow of Pepys’s great patron, James II.  It shows how intimately Pepys’s own career was intertwined with larger national events outside his control.  With the accession of William and Mary in 1689, Pepys stepped down from office and began an active retirement, indulging his many passions.

Using the voice and personality of the famous diarist, Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution explores and interprets a remarkable time of great accomplishment, upheavals and excess.  It was a formative era in British history that saw the repositioning of the monarchy and the development of Britain’s place as a maritime, economic and political force on the world stage. 

Why engravings aren't always right

June 15 2015

Image of Why engravings aren't always right

Picture: National Portrait Gallery

In art history, sitter identifications are often made on the basis of later engraved images. But, as the above 19th Century engraving of Rembrandt shows, they aren't always right; he's definitely not Prince Rupert. It's hard to see how even in the 19th Century publishers were able to make such a mistake. Still, at least they figured out that Rembrandt was the artist.

London Old Master catalogues online

June 15 2015

Image of London Old Master catalogues online

Pictures: Sotheby's and Christie's

Great excitement here at AHN - the summer Old Master picture catalogues have gone online, and there are many treats on offer. Both auction houses have put together strong sales.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that Christie's have put their sales back a couple of days. Traditionally, the Christie's evening sale has been on the Tuesday of Old Master week. Now it is on the Thursday, with the day sale is on Friday (formerly Wednesday). Perhaps the intention is to leave more time for viewing, now that the London 'Old Master week' is slightly more established as a concept, with other dealers taking part. But I suppose there's a risk with the day sale being on a Friday that some buyers will already be either exhausted or sated. Sotheby's stay with the usual dates - evening sale on the Wednesday, and day sale on the Thursday.

What follows is my pick of the lots.

Christie's top lot is an epic Bellotto of Dresden, at £8m-£12m. There's a Gainsborough three quarter length portrait of Sir Richard Brooke at £2m-£3m. I particularly like an English School 1567 full-length portrait on panel of William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, which is cheap at £150k-£250k.

The meat of Christie's sale comes from the collection of the late philanthropist, Sir Alfred Beit, who bought the magnificent Russborough House in Ireland in 1952, and then left it to a charitable trust along with a stellar collection of paintings. Sadly, the paintings were the target of IRA thieves more than once, and have not been displayed for some years. The charitable foundation is now selling a number of pictures, including two important works by Rubens; a study for Venus Supplicating Jupiter, estimated at £1.2m-£1.8m (which should surely outperform its estimate), and the below portrait head estimated at £2m-£3m. The latter is described sometimes as a study, but it's too finished for a study, and the head doesn't appear as one of the frequent 'extras' you see in Rubens' multi-figured compositions. Some suggest it's a portrait of a friend or collector, which is probably right.  

There has been a hoo-ha in Ireland about the sale of the pictures from Russborough. First, that they should be sold at all (why not spend some money instead on strengthening security, so that the works can be displayed?), and secondly that they have been able to leave Ireland without some form of attempt to keep them in the country. More on this here in the New York Times.

You can see the rest of the Christie's evening sale here.

Sotheby's evening sale is probably the stronger of the two. The catalogue is an impressive production - in depth and scholarly. Regular readers will remember that Sotheby's are selling some good pictures from the Castle Howard collection. Of course, it's a shame of course that these things have to be sold, but there we are - Castle Howard is merely the latest in a long line of stately homes that have to strip the walls the keep the roof on (like Russborough in fact). If it was me, I think I'd rather keep the art - how about you?

Anyway, I was interested to be able to zoom into the rare half-length portrait of Henry VIII as an older man, complete with staff (top). The portrait type is derived from Holbein's original in Rome, which shows the king as a younger man. Here, the head type is re-used - as was common practice - and you can clearly see the pencil tracings used to lay out the details of the face. The detail in the rest of the costume is good, but not perhaps up to Holbein quality. So it's correctly catalogued I think as 'Workshop of Holbein'. The estimate is £800,000-£1,200,000. The price compares to a recent 'Workshop' Henry VIII that sold at Christie's in July 2011 at £657k. The Castle Howard isn't the same celebrated composition as the Christie's picture, but it's in better condition. 

Of course, we don't know for sure if Holbein had a studio - there is documentation to attest to assistants - but it seems likely that he adhered to the conventions of the day. I suspect that somewhere out there is a 'prime' Holbein original of this type. 

Also from Castle Howard is a full-length portrait by Ferdinand Bol, thought to be the artist's son. The estimate is £2m-£3m.

Sotheby's highest estimated pic is a Cranach the elder of 'The Mouth of Truth' at £6m-£8m.

Sotheby's also has: a Bellotto, this time of Venice, at £2.5m-£3.5m; a full-length Batoni at £2m-£3m; a full-length Romney at £1m-£2m;a  newly discovered Gainsborough landscape at £300k-£500k (cheap); and a John Martin at £2m-£3m.

Bach portrait goes home

June 13 2015

Image of Bach portrait goes home

Picture: Guardian

A portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann has been bequeathed to the city of Leipzig, where Bach worked from 1723 until his death in 1750. The portrait was left to the city by the US philanthropist Bill Sheide. More here.


June 13 2015

Image of Phallacy?

Picture: Discovery

Regular readers will know I take a dim view of researchers who over-interpret paintings. The most recent example was supposedly seen in Country Life, in a tiny engraving that showed Shakespeare having a dodgy eye. But it was just the engraving, and the portrait was not Shakespeare in any case.

Now, we have from Discovery News an investigation into the foreskins of ancient Pompei, thanks to the study by two doctors of the penis in the above fresco of Priapus. Says Discovery News:

One of Pompeii's most recognized frescoes, the portrait of the Greek god of fertility Priapus, holds an embarrassing truth, according to a new study of the 1st-century A.D. wall painting.

Found in the entrance hall to the House of the Vettii, perhaps the most famous house to survive Mount Vesuvius's devastating eruption, the fresco shows the ever-erect Priapus with his engorged penis.

But this phallus-flaunting symbol of male potency and procreative power shows signs of a condition which can result in difficult sexual relations and infertility, says a study published in Urology journal.

"The disproportionate virile member is distinctively characterized by a patent phimosis, more specifically a shut phimosis," Francesco Maria Galassi told Discovery News.

Galassi is an M.D. now back in Italy who recently worked at Imperial College London. He co-authored the paper with his father Stefano, also an M.D.

An inability to fully retract the foreskin, phimosis was treated only with circumcision or prepuceplasty before the introduction of topical corticosteroids.

"This condition presents different grades of severity, and in this specific case appears to be of the highest grade, in which there is no skin retractability on the glans," Galassi said.

Defects of the genitourinary tract, including phimosis, have been depicted in artistic representation since prehistory, showing a high degree of precision.

But why someone would portray the god of fertility with a severe phimosis?

"It is not unlikely the painter might have desired to report objective evidence of a high prevalence of that anatomic defect in Pompeii, at a time mixing it with fertility attributes traditionally ascribed to Priapus," Galassi said.

In this view, widespread among the male population in Pompeii, phimosis might have been the reason for the abundance in Pompeii of anatomical votive artifacts used to dispel that anatomical and functional defect.

Arise Sir Nick!

June 13 2015


The outgoing director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, has been given a knighthood today in the Queen's birthday honours. Many congratulations to him from us all at AHN - his award is richly deserved. And personally I think we should be giving awards like this to far more people in the museum sector.

In case you missed it, here (and above) is my recent podcast with Sir Nick.

Is 'old stuff' making a comeback?

June 13 2015


Here's my latest podcast for the Financial Times, in which I look at how 'old art' (and also antiques in general) are making something of a comeback.

If you haven't got time to listen, the answer is 'sort of'.

Sleeper alert!

June 11 2015

Image of Sleeper alert!

Picture: Rossini

The above still life made some waves in Paris last week. It was catalogued as:

Attributed to Giovanni Battista RUOPPOLO(1629-1693)

Nature Morte aux cédrats, oranges, asperges et artichauts

Copper 40 x 55 cm

collection de l’Infant don Luis de Borbon,

Estimate: 30 000 / 40 000 €

And sold for €800,000 hammer. I'm told by a sleuthing reader that it might be by Luca Forte (c.1617-c.1670).

Apparently, it took 15 minutes for the auction house to line up all the phone bids before the lot came up. That's the point that meagre and frugal sleeper-hunters like me think about hanging up. If you bought it, congrats!


June 11 2015

Sorry about the lack of action lately, and also the rather desultory nature of recent posts too. The thing is, we got married on Tuesday, so things have been a little hectic. I hope to be back to usual service soon.

Inside China's painting factory

June 8 2015

Video: BBC

Here's a short BBC film about the famous Da Fen painting factory, where you can buy a 'Van Gogh' Sunflower for peanuts. The founder now says there are too many people trying to copy his copies, so he's turning to 'original' art instead. 

How much does it cost to find a Leonardo?

June 8 2015

Image of How much does it cost to find a Leonardo?

Picture: Duke of Buccleuch

The case of the stolen Leonardo, the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, rumbles on, years after the picture was returned to its owner, the Duke of Buccleuch. Now, a former solicitor who was charged - and cleared - with involvement in trying to extort money from the Duke is seeking £4.25m he says he's owed. The 'debt' apparently came about when the Duke helped undercover police in trying to return the picture by signing a letter authorising the payment of a finder's fee for the painting. The picture was recovered by police, but the sting and the subsequent court case collapsed. Marshall Roland is now suing for the payment. 

For more see here. For earlier AHN on this affair, see here. The picture is now on loan to the Scottish National Gallery, and very fine it looks there too. 

It's worth bearing in mind though the seemingly standard practice of offering payments to seek the return of stolen paintings. In many cases, these payments are dressed up as 'finder's fees', but are in fact little more than ransom money paid eventually to those who stole the painting. The whole business of stealing and recovering paintings is now almost a standardised affair, with insurance companies ready to pay to secure an asset, and middle men - sometimes presenting themselves as 'lawyers' - to whom payment is made. The situation is in contrast to human kidnapping, where, at least in Britain, ransoms are seen as counter-productive, and merely encourage further kidnaps. 

I am not saying that is the case here. 

Van Dyck show at the Frick

June 5 2015

Image of Van Dyck show at the Frick

Picture: New York Times/Frick Collection

Well, regular readers will know how excited I am about this - a new exhibition on Van Dyck at the Frick show. Apparently it will contain 'about 100 works' - wowee. Here's what the New York Times has to say about the exhibition, which was announced today:

Featuring about 100 works, it will be the first major show in the United States on this 17th-century Flemish painter since a 1990 exhibition by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the most comprehensive examination of his creative process as a portraitist, the Frick says. The exhibition will juxtapose preparatory drawings alongside prints and paintings, some of which remain unfinished.

The show covers the span of van Dyck’s career, including his early works, when, as a teenage prodigy, he was influenced by Peter Paul Rubens; his Italian period; and finally the English years, when he flourished at the court of King Charles I. It is organized by Stijn Alsteens, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Adam Eaker, a Frick curatorial fellow.

“We all felt it made sense to focus on an artist that we had never really focused on here at the Frick, surprisingly so since we have so many of his paintings,” said Xavier F. Salomon, chief curator at the Frick.

A prolific artist and a favorite for collectors during the Gilded Age, van Dyck (1599-1641) is among the best represented in the Frick’s collection — it has eight — but many works have been in storage for years. The Frick will bring out six of its best for the show, including the masterpiece portraits of the animal painter Frans Snyders and his wife, Margareta de Vos, and “Portrait of a Genoese Noblewoman,” which is currently being cleaned at the Met.

The remainder will come from loans, including possibly the star of the show, “Portrait of Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio,” arriving for the first time from the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

The exhibition will be from March 2nd to June 5th. See you there!

£35m Rembrandt on offer

June 4 2015

Image of £35m Rembrandt on offer

Picture: Telegraph

In The Telegraph, Colin Gleadell reports that one of the greatest Rembrandts in the UK, his 1657 Portrait of Catrina Hooghsaet, is to be sold by Sotheby's. The picture is currently hanging in Penrhyn Castle, and belongs to the family of the Barons Penrhyn. The guide price is £35m. Because the picture is currently conditionally exempt from inheritance tax, UK museums have been given a head start to try and raise the cash. But is the sum too large? Let's hope not.

Killer conservation irons

June 4 2015

Image of Killer conservation irons

Picture: BG

I came across these old lining irons in a conservation studio recently. They are, or rather were, used when bonding a new canvas lining onto the back of an old one. The technique was to heat the irons, which are seriously heavy, on cookers. The weight and heat of these irons would then melt the glue or wax lining material and force it into the original canvas, bonding it to the new lining, and at the same time providing a new adhesive for any flaking paint. Sadly, the irons also used to flatten any impasto, melding the paint layers into each other, and sometimes caused a chemical change in the paint surface.

Happily, they're not often used these days - vacuum tables can be used instead. But when I occasionally say that no single group of people has done more damage to paintings in art history than conservators, these are the sort techniques I have in mind.

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.