May 5 2015
There have been no posts today - sorry about that. I'm on the way back to Edinburgh from London, where I was showing some pictures to various experts. I can't say what the pictures were here, but happily all went well. Some of them are headed to museums, so I should be able to tell you more soon.
I've been working on some of the pictures for what seems like an age. You can imagine the relief when years of 'is it or isn't it?' anxiousness finally comes to an end. I realise this might sound trite, but the most rewarding aspect is the feeling that you've somehow done justice to the artist concerned. Regular readers may remember Ernst van der Wetering discussing the same reaction, in relation to Rembrandt.
London mid-season OMP sales
May 4 2015
The 'mid-season' Old Master sales were held in London last week, and one or two prices caught my eye. The above Virgin and Child was offered at Sotheby's as 'Workshop of Murillo', with only one enticing line of cataloguing; 'This appears to be a unique composition'. The estimate was £15,000-£20,000, and I wasn't surprised to see it make £269,000 (inc. premium).
At Christie's South Kensingon, the above 'Follower of Van Dyck' made £104,500 against an estimate of £3,000-£5,000. It was the second time I had seen the picture at auction (it came up about a year ago, in a minor UK sale, if I recall correctly), but the first time I had seen it in the flesh. It is plainly a copy, and the speculative high price is all the more suprising when we consider that the original (below), of which there can be no doubt, sold in 2010 at Sotheby's in New York, for $1.53m.
The only picture I bid on last week - but alas unsuccessfully - was the below 'Follower of Claude', which made £206,500 against an estimate of £7,000-£10,000. Neither landscapes nor Claude come within my limited area of expertise, but I thought the picture looked right for early Claude. It had been rejected as the work of an imitator in the 1961 Claude catalogue raisonné. We may yet see it again, as the real thing.
Clandon Park destroyed by fire (ctd.)
April 30 2015
The National Trust have some photos of the devastation inside the house here. And the BBC have some more too, here. The photo above shows the marble hall, and below is how it was before. Let us hope that the Francis Barlow Cassowary picture was in fact saved.
The image below shows a portrait from Clandon which had been cut out of its frame by quick thinking members of the fire brigade. This is very heartening news to hear, and raises hopes that many other pictures might have been saved too. The Hogarth/Thornhill I mentioned below was, however, apparently set into a wall - so we must wait to hear what happened to that.
Update - a reader writes:
I work for the fire service doing fire safety, it never ceases to amaze me how little regard is given to the potential losses should a fire happen in these old properties.
The level of fire resistance and hidden voids that fire exploits to spread means we have practically no chance of saving a building. Consider the fires at Winsor Castle, and more recently the Macintosh.
Fire safety may not be very exciting (far from it!) but a bit of common sense and pre-planning can help to save the mobile treasures such as pictures and tapestries. Investment in fire stopping will help contain a fire in one area (macintosh) and allow the local fire service to save more and tackle the blaze.
Update II - The National Trust has said that one of the Barlows was saved, and also the Hogarth Thornill House of Commons portrait. Overall, however, it is looking exceptionally bleak.
What happens next is anyone's guess. Will the Trust aim to restore the house? My instinct is that they won't. Much depends of course on things like insurance. But all the noises one hears from the Trust these days, whether it is beanbags at Ickworth, or the new Chairman, Tim Parker, and Dame Helen Ghosh keen to say that the Trust is not in favour of acquiring any more 18th Century mansions, suggests that the leadership's heart won't be in it.
Clandon Park destroyed by fire
April 30 2015
Video: NPAS Redhill
Clandon Park, a National Trust property in Surrey, has been destroyed by fire. The initial reports were that one wing had caught fire, and the BBC is still reporting that 'at least one wing' has been gutted. But as the above aerial footage shows, the entire interior has gone. It seems extraordinary that the fire spread so extensively, and was not able to be controlled, despite the presence of 80 firefighters. Nobody was injured.
It looks, from the image below, that the fire started to the right of the photo. It was reported at about 4pm, and apparently began in the basement.
But soon the whole house was aflame.
The early 18th Centuryhouse was the home of the Earls of Onslow, and was designed by the Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni. Three members of the Onslow family were Speakers of the House of Commons. From the outside, the house was not one of the most spectacular in Britain, but the interiors were as lavish as any you might find, including the marble hall.
The house contained many fine treasures, including a state bed.
News reports described items being removed and being placed on the lawn to be 'wrapped in bubble wrap', so happily some things were salvaged. But given the speed with which things happened, doubtless many important works have been lost. Well done to those who were bravely involved in the rescue operation.
And a famous picture by both Hogarth and Thornhill of Speaker Arthur Onslow talking in the Commons to Sir Robert Walpole.
I seem to remember, when I visited a couple of years ago, that there were more pictures than I can see now on the Your Paintings site - perhaps there were further works on loan.
The last serious fire like this at a Trust property was Uppark, back in 1989. Then, the Trust carried out an extraordinary restoration, and the house was re-opened in 1995. Although the first floor and the garret floor (where the fire started) were destroyed, and collapsed into the ground floor, the walls of the ground floor largely escpaed serious damage, allowing the restoration to go ahead. Looking at the latest photos from Clandon - and the fact that the fire started in the basement - I'm not sure we can expect that this time. What should be done?
Update II - it's as bad as I feared. Dame Helen Ghosh has given a statement saying the house is 'essentially a shell'. More here.
Ramsay's portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie - official!
April 29 2015
Picture: BG/Earl of Wemyss
I'm off to London today to give a lecture on Jacobite portraits. (Greetings from the train, as we pass through York: the Minster is looking very fine today, and in the sidings - treat of treats - is a steam train). I was checking a few dates for my talk last night, and found, wonderfully, that the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Allan Ramsay has been updated to include his newly discovered portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie (above, the one I made a TV programme about last year). Here is the new paragraph:
Ramsay never forgot Scotland and three visits he made between 1745 and 1748 may serve to chart his social progress. He was in Edinburgh when the Young Pretender entered on 16 September 1745 and when the Guse-Pye house was briefly threatened as a site of strategic importance; but during this visit of perhaps three months he displayed a practical tolerance towards his sitters, who included the wife of the solicitor-general, Mrs Robert Dundas, and Lord and Lady Ogilvy, the most enthusiastic Jacobites (all in priv. colls.). It was on this visit to Edinburgh that Ramsay also painted Charles Edward, the Young Pretender, most probably in October 1745. The portrait, which is in the collection of the earl of Wemyss, was categorically identified as a likeness of Charles in 2014. The only known likeness of the Young Pretender made while he was in Britain, it was engraved by Robert Strange and became an important image of Jacobite propaganda in 1745–6.
I didn't expect the DNB to move this quickly, so I'm delighted.
Guffwatch - Biennale edition
April 29 2015
Guffwatch - Biennale edition
April 29 2015
In The Spectator, Jonathan Meades takes a sharp aim at the sort of guff we're likely to find at this year's Venice Biennale. He lays the blame on the new breed of 'curators':
Curators were, till a generation or so ago, urbane historians of the renaissance or donnish scholars of the Beaker people. The dusty smell of muniments rooms hung about them. Today they are — well, what are they? Achingly hip neophiliacs who have mastered the peculiar illiteracy that comes from having been the willing victims of critical theory, cultural studies and art history, which, as we all know, begins with Duchamp — and ends with him too. Where once museums and galleries were repositories of what already existed, they have mutated into stores of stuff commissioned by their amply funded curators who impose their pensée unique upon a public too timid to protest that this is a load of balls. That taste is of course avant garde — the thoroughly conventionsalised, institutionalised art of the establishment.
Curators have moved from the passive to the active. From being receptive to what is actually made to being controlling. From accepting random expressions of individual creativity that belong to no ‘school’ to proposing taxonomies and ordering up ‘site-specific’ works: where creation ends and curation begins is moot. The spectre of ‘collaboration’ looms. And so, too, does that of the century-old modernism and the anti-establishment posturing that is de rigueur throughout the establishment. This consensual frivolity is, of course, taken seriously; there can be no more damning proof than the risibly self-important language that the curatocracy employs to explain installations so mute they are meaningless. It is, laughably, called ‘art writing’: ‘…on the one hand cultural productions are symptomatic of these relations, while on the other analytic of them — having the potential of intervention and critique, again with a specific placement and angle, or, if you will, method of intervention and mode of address.’
No. Me neither. Curator shall speak unto curator.
Caravaggio - the comic!
April 28 2015
Picture: Ben Street
Anyone want to draw Van Dyck for me?
Update - Ben points us to a comic biography of Rembrandt.
'Spot the fake' at Dulwich Picture Gallery (ctd.)
April 28 2015
Picture: BBC/Dulwich Art Gallery
In January, Dulwich Picture Gallery hung a fake painting in place of one of their masterpieces, and invited visitors to see if they could identify it. I thought it was a good idea - anything to encourage close-looking. Now they've revealed which picture the fake was; Fragonard's Young Woman. More here.
Tory blow to antiques trade?
April 27 2015
Picture: BG (miniature by John Smart at Cincinnati Art Museum)
Ivan Macquisten in The Antiques Trade Gazette reports that the Conservative party has pledged to ban entirely the trade in antique ivory. This is a reversal of their former position, which was (quite rightly) to ban ivory trading but to make a concession for that ivory which is clearly antique, such as in 18th Century portrait miniatures like the one above, by John Smart.
The ATG reports that the latest announcement was made by Conservative campaign headquarters, and not ministers, who have been supportive of the art market. Since it is a daft position, I'm sure it's a mistake. But it might not be. In which case, either buy all the miniatures you want to now, before the international market ends, or, similarly, sell.
Update - a reader writes:
This is utterly absurd. Obviously antique miniatures came into being long before there was a threat to elephant survival and the continued trade in them would have no bearing on this whatsoever. It is a classic case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Or do the Conservatives think they can grab votes from the Greens with this daft idea?
Update II - another reader writes:
Thank you for that pointer to the article in the ATG about the conservative position on ivory. Let us hope it is a mistake.
I have just been cataloguing a portrait for a forthcoming auction that has an important gilt artist-designed frame dating from 1868-69. One of its most distinctive and attractive features is a row of four ivory paterae inset diagonally across the corner butt joints. The sale room took the decision to remove the ivory and have it replaced with replica material so that the portrait could be sent for viewing in the US. Had they not done so, they tell me that there was a very real possibility that the frame would have been destroyed at immigration.
Surely - considering the contribution that the art trade makes to the UK economy - the Conservatives should be lobbying for our sensible legislation to be adopted worldwide, rather than removing the exemption on ivory in historic works of art. It seems to me philistine, indeed an act of vandalism, to have to remove the ivory keys from a William Morris piano, for example, so that it can be exported from the UK to an overseas buyer. An international convention could be adopted that would make it quite clear that it has no wish to endanger twenty-first century elephants, but cannot see how banning the antique use of ivory would help them.
Bacon self-portraits 're-discovered'
April 27 2015
When is a 'discovery' not a discovery? When the pictures have been known about all along.
Still, today's Bacon 're-discovery' story is a good bit of PR-ing from Sotheby's [via the BBC]:
Two self-portraits by Francis Bacon are going on public display for the first time after being rediscovered in a private collection, before being sold.
Although experts knew the works by the late painter existed, they had no idea who had bought them.
Descendants of the original owner have decided to sell the paintings, which are expected to fetch up to £15m each.
The artworks are titled Self-Portrait 1975 and Three Studies for Self-Portrait (1980).
A Bacon painting featuring his friend and fellow artist Lucian Freud, became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction when it fetched $142m (£89m) in New York in 2013.
Oliver Barker, Sotheby's senior international specialist in contemporary art, described the discovery of the portraits as "a pretty extraordinary collecting moment".
"(Art dealer) Marlborough Fine Art kept a photographic archive and so both of these paintings appeared in a book on Bacon's self-portraits, but apart from being reproduced in books they've not been seen," he said.
"We knew of the existence of the paintings but simply had no idea where they could be. The first time I saw these paintings it was such a wonderful awakening. They're both so luminous."
April 27 2015
Pictures: Shannon's Auction, Charterhouse Auction, and Neil Jeffares via Twitter.
It's a been a busy week for the sleeper hunters. At Shannon's auction in the USA, the above 'possibly 14th/15th Century Italian School' panel made $144,000 against an estimate of $6,000-$8,000. I've no idea who it's by, not my area.
At Charterhouse Auction in Dorset, the below small canvas called 'Follower of El Greco' made £98,000 (inc. premium) against an estimate of just a few hundred pounds. I asked for some better photos of the picture, but didn't bid.
And somewhere in Europe (I learn via Neil Jeffares) the below pastel study by Maurice Quentin de La Tour made €11,047 (inc. premium) against an estimate of €400-€500. Neil says on Twitter that it is a 'first preparation for Belle de Zuylen'.
Should museums lend paintings for cash?
April 26 2015
Picture: The Scotsman/National Galleries Scotland (detail from Botticelli's Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ, which is on tour in the US)
A number of celebrated works from the National Galleries of Scotland (here in Edinburgh, where I now live) are going on a 'treasures' tour of the USA. Although the reason is not made explicit, one aspect of the tour is to raise money, either through donations or straight out loan fees for the host venues. Quite a few institutions do this these days. But in The Scotsman newspaper, Tiffany Jenkins says the practice should stop:
The danger is that once museum officials start seeing the loaning of art as a way to raise funds, we will see more loans to pay for all kinds of costs. With funding cuts, it’s not like the money is pouring in from other sources, so I understand the attraction. But this practice puts art at risk. Literally – because it is packed up, sent abroad, carted about and unpacked again. But also because art is increasingly weighed on the scales to see what funds it will raise.
And the recipients don’t gain much, either. They get a selection of highlights padded with the second rate, curated, not by an idea, but with a price tag in mind. Lost as a consequence will be a different kind of enrichment – loans conducted for scholarship, the spirit of inquiry and collaboration.
Today the National Galleries of Scotland is a kind of Swiss cheese museum; the best bits are elsewhere. That leaves us – the core audience – shortchanged.
All good things in moderation, I say. The NGS is trying to raise money for a much needed extension - and if sending some masterpieces on a lucrative tour helps bring in the money, so be it.
What's wrong with the National Trust? (ctd.)
April 26 2015
Yet more from me on beanbag-gate, this time for a comment piece in The Art Newspaper. Apparently the Trust are going to run similar 'experiments' at nine other properties. Who knows what we'll find next? Readers are invited to keep a sharp lookout, and to keep me posted.
AHN was also quoted in The Independent today.
I thought for a brief moment of standing for election to the National Trust's 50+ strong governing Council (which as far as I can see has no professional art historians on it), but have missed the various deadlines. Although I definitely would not be seeking to be an approved candidate, even those who want to stand without first being vetted by the Trust (that's the point at which they weed out anyone who might ask awkward questions) have to go by the same timescale as the 'approved' candidates. The deadline for that was in February, even though the election is not until the end of this year. Oh well, maybe next year.
By the way, my rather ancient blog management system managed to delete a large chunk of my original post on the Ickworth beanbags, together with many excellent comments from readers. I'm sorry about this, and am trying to fix it, but it's not looking hopeful.
The lonely auctioneer
April 26 2015
A reader has sent me the above photo - of a sale at Christie's South Kensington with no bidders in the room at all. Everything was being bought either on the phone or online. Amazing really.
Was Caravaggio killed by his own paint?
April 26 2015
In Italy, they say they've dug up Caravaggio's bones, and can prove that he was killed partly by lead poisoning, which might have come from his paints. But it's all rather uncertain - there is no concrete proof the bones above are in fact Caravaggio's. More here in The Guardian.
April 26 2015
The Financial Times want me to write a piece on the merits of hanging 'old' art on your walls, as opposed to contemporary art. Easily done, of course. But I need some illustrations of Old Master-y type paintings in modern settings, ie houses and offices. Can anyone send me examples they might have seen?
I was pleased to see a pair of old pictures on the front cover of House and Garden recentlyin a modern interior. There was even - gasp - a piece of 'brown furniture'. Is the lustre of the new finally beginning to rub off, just a smidgen?
View from the Artist - no.18
April 24 2015
Can you guess the location and artist? No prizes, just for fun. And no Google Image search cheating!
Update - a reader writes:
I'm sure others will get this, but I felt compelled to reply because it is a picture I always quite liked back home at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool - it's Joseph Wright of Derby's fantasy picture of fireworks over Rome. I have checked, and this detail appears to foil the Google search, which is good!
Quite right. Full picture here. Well done to those who got it.
Podcast with Nicholas Penny
April 24 2015
The National Gallery director Nicholas Penny has kindly agreed to do a podcast with AHN. This will be the first in a recurring series of interviews with senior figures from the art world. If you have any questions you'd like me to ask, please send them in.
How the Met acquired Le Brun's 'Jabach' portrait
April 23 2015
Picture: Metropolitan Museum
Regular readers will have been following the Met's restoration of Charles Le Brun's Portrait of Everhard Jabach and His Family. Now, the Met's head of European Paintings, Keith Christiansen, has written a fascinating blog on how the Met acquired the work:
It goes back to the evening of February 25, 2013. I was in London for a conference, walking back to my hotel after dinner with my wife. It was the evening before my return flight to New York. Checking my emails, I noticed one from a colleague in one of the major auction houses: "Keith, next time you are in London, let me know. I have something important to show you." Despite the late hour, I quickly got in touch with him. There was a scramble, and the next morning my wife and I found ourselves making an unanticipated trip to a warehouse where, propped against the back wall of a large, gray, box-like space, was Le Brun's portrait of the Jabach family. My wife was overwhelmed by the sight, finding the picture completely compelling. A brief conversation ensued about its history, the circumstances of its sale, and the price. That the Metropolitan would be able to acquire the work seemed to me dubious or, at best, a long shot, for apart from the price, could one imagine that a picture of this importance—one that had been in the United Kingdom since 1794—would ever be given an export license?
Back in New York, I made a call to the director of the National Gallery, London: after all, there was no point in trying to move forward with acquiring the work if the outcome was already scripted and the National Gallery had plans. Much to my surprise, I was told they had another priority [a painting by George Bellows] and would not attempt to purchase the picture. The door had suddenly opened—or was at least ajar. So I sat down with Tom Campbell, our director, and also met with my colleagues in the Department of European Paintings. All agreed that if this work could be had, it would be one of the Met's great acquisitions.
Negotiations were handled with extreme discretion over the ensuing months, and in September—seven months after I first saw the picture—we found ourselves in the enviable position of being able to make an offer, thanks the same person who had come to our aid so many times over the past forty years and whose name was already attached to some of the signature works in the collection. Our debt to her is very great. Papers were done up, and I presented the picture to the Museum's Acquisition Committee in October for approval. The next step was the application for the export license, which was being handled by Christie's.
The matter of granting an export license went before the Reviewing Committee of the Arts Council of the United Kingdom in January 2014, with the anticipated postponement of a decision until May 9 to allow a British buyer to step forward with a plan to acquire the work. By what I believe was a piece of extraordinary luck, a self-portrait by Anthony van Dyck was also up for review at around the same time. Van Dyck, of course, had an active career in Britain and his portraits established the model for the next two centuries. His oval, bust-length self-portrait captured the attention of the press as well as the public. "Saving it for the nation" became a priority, and this, I believe, deflected attention from the Le Brun—to my mind a vastly more important and significant work. On May 9, I received the news that an export license had been granted.
This account is interesting on many levels. First, is the picture really the dramatically important work Christiansen thinks it is? Certainly, it's a great work, but regular readers won't be surprised to hear that I think Van Dyck's self-portrait is an infinitely more important work in the history of British art. Naturally, the Met are very proud of their acquisition.
Second, should the National Gallery's acquisition of the George Bellows painting have gotten in the way of the Le Brun in such a manner? Ie, is it right that a mere question of timing stopped the National making an effort to buy the painting? Probably not, but then at £7.3m something had to give. The Bellows was £15.6m. Can we stop everything? Probably not, and we shouldn't forget either that the Bellows was a pretty audacious acquisition from a US museum. In the US, they have no export controls at all.
Perhaps I should say, though, that my own old-fashioned taste would see me prefer to have the Le Brun than the Bellows. Anyway, the Met are looking after it very well.