A wee Scottish discovery

September 11 2015

Image of A wee Scottish discovery

Picture: Lyon and Turnbull

The main auction house up here in Edinburgh, Lyon and Turnbull, asked to me write an article about a re-discovered 17th Century portrait of King Malcolm III, best known as the slayer of Macbeth. The portrait is by George Jamesone, and was painted for the entry of Charles I into Edinburgh in 1633. 

The article is on page 54 here, and the picture comes up for sale in December with an estimate of £20,000-£30,000.

The Queen

September 9 2015

Image of The Queen

Picture: Nye & Company

Today the Queen becomes the longest reigning British monarch ever. You'll find elsewhere better-written analysis on how she's done it and what it means. Personally, I think the fact that she's still monarch, and that we still have a monarchy, is an extraordinary achievement by an extraordinary person.

All of which reminds me that I've been meaning to write about a portrait of the Queen that came up for sale recently, by the well-regarded contemporary artist Tai-Shan Schierenberg. The above picture was painted from life at Windsor Castle with the Duke of Edinburgh. It's no masterpiece, and the Duke looks unnervingly like Bobby Charlton, but I liked it, and at 6ft by 5ft thought it was an impressive enough thing. It had been commissioned in 1997 by Reader's Digest magazine, which has lately gone bust, hence the sale.

The estimate, at a minor US auction house, was a dismal $800-$1200. A life portrait of the Queen for less than a thousand bucks? I was intrigued, and thought it my patriotic duty to bid strongly and bring this picture back home. But I'm ashamed to say I forgot - there goes the knighthood - and it made a still derisory $5,250, or about £4,000. Isn't that absurdly cheap - or does nobody care for pictures like this anymore?

Update - here in The National, where the Queen is pointedly referred to as 'Mrs Windsor', is an example of silly politics can be up here in Scotland. 

Art History Ads (ctd.)

September 8 2015

Image of Art History Ads (ctd.)

Picture: James Mulraine

Reader and fellow art sleuth James Mulraine has kindly sent me the above photo from Paris, where Van Dyck's portrait of Charles I is being used to sell... something, I don't know what.

Achtung - Spitfire!

September 8 2015

Video: tmnrsociety

Longstanding and extremely loyal readers may remember that some years ago I bid, at a charity auction, for a ride in a Spitfire (I am unashamedly obsessed with Spitfires). The flight was to take place when a full restoration had been completed - and now the work is nearly done. So there is greater than usual excitement here in AHN towers, and much humming of the theme tune from Battle of Britain.

Above is a video of an engine test earlier this year. Now we await an inspection by the Civil Aviation Authority, then test flights, and then - all being well - we'll be ready to go.

Everything you need to know about 18th Century pastels

September 8 2015

Image of Everything you need to know about 18th Century pastels

Picture: Neil Jeffares

Neil Jeffares has posted an extremely useful, free and interesting guide to all things pastel in the 18th Century on his website. It's a PDF - yours to download and keep - and is meant as a form of introduction to his invaluable online dictionary of pastellists (above). He says:

The book aims to answer the questions that used to (or in some cases still do) baffle me, such as

  •     why did some pastellists also work in oil – and which sitters opted for pastel?
  •     why did pastel disappear from fashion with the French revolution, returning a century later, but vanishing just as abruptly?
  •     why does the word have such negative connotations?
  •     was the Académie de Saint-Luc just a virtual concept, or was there a building?
  •     how many pastellists were there?
  •     how can you physically safeguard your pastels for a few pence each?
  •     how were and are pastels displayed?

Neil calls it a 'prolegomena', but it's in PDF form partly because, as he points out:

I’m aware that not everyone enjoys browsing websites. There’s something about riffling the pages of a book that the internet, tablets etc. haven’t been able to replicate. And it’s in the nature of reference books that one doesn’t sit down to read them in a linear fashion. 

And this means it's easy to navigate and use.

On a seperate post on his blog, Neil also looks at the wider question of publishing online, and its various shortcomings. For him, a particular bugbear is authors often not citing proper references. My bugbear is that for some writers online is a licence to go on meandering endlessly, for paragraph after paragraph, with no beginning, middle or end. Print and paper may have been expensive, but they encouraged brevity and discipline.

Art-knapping (ctd.)

September 8 2015

Image of Art-knapping (ctd.)

Picture: Philip Ide via Mail

Regular readers will know that I worry about paying ransoms for stolen art - doesn't it just encourage more thefts?

The Mail recently reported that a number of pictures were returned to Esmond Bulmer (above), a former MP, from whose home they were stolen in a rather brutal raid in 2009. The return came about after the involvement of Dick Ellis, a former police officer who is now one of the world's best known and most effective art investigators. On this occasion, a reward for £50,000 was advertised in The Antiques Trade Gazette, and after a while;

Mr Ellis received a phone call [...] to say that ‘he had been contacted and told that someone he knew, knew somebody else, who knew somebody else who had information’. What followed was a period of tense negotiation. Mr Ellis said: ‘It is not an easy process. But you can be assured that the money went to those whose information led to the recovery, not the raiders themselves.’

Now, I'm very pleased the pictures - inlcuding a Watts and a Clausen - have been safely returned. But can we really be sure that someone, somewhere along the line, hasn't profited from the original criminal act? Would the original thieves have simply given up the pictures, gratis, to the person who then claimed the £50k? If, for example, the case was one in which somebody had simply found the pictures, then wouldn't they go to the police and claim the reward? That seems not to have happened here. And the suspicion in cases like this is that such art thefts inevitably manage to extract a payout, in the form of a ransom. All you the villains have to do is wait a few years, put in place a middleman or two, and then begin negotiating. 

In this case, the thieves have yet to be caught, and some £1m of jewels are still missing.

Is this by Goya?

September 8 2015

Image of Is this by Goya?

Picture: National Gallery

I'm looking forward to the National Gallery's forthcoming Goya exhibition, which opens on 7th October. I must confess to never being that impressed by Goya's portraits - awkwardly painted things - so hopefully I'll learn something, and be proved wrong.

Anyway, as a taster to what we can expect, the National Gallery has new small display looking at the above portrait of Dona Isabel de Porcel, and more specifically its attribution. Apparently, when the picture was;

[...] purchased by the National Gallery in 1896, [it] was among the first paintings by the Spanish artist to enter the collection and has long been heralded as one of his most dazzling portraits. And yet it is precisely this flamboyance that has led scholars more recently to cast doubts over its attribution to Goya.

Although painted with tremendous flair, the picture’s brushwork – when compared with his other portraits – lacks Goya’s customary subtlety in describing transparencies and textures. The sitter, Isabel de Porcel, is extremely charismatic but we struggle to grasp her psychological state; something in which Goya’s portraits invariably excelled.

Technical examination of ‘Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel’, including X-rays and paint cross-sections, has revealed that Isabel de Porcel was painted directly on top of another portrait. Although perhaps surprising, this is not unique in Goya’s work – nor was it a practice adopted exclusively by him.

This thought-provoking display brings together the historical and technical evidence surrounding ‘Portrait of Doña Isabel de Porcel’, and looks again at the attribution question of one of the most striking and recognisable paintings in the National Gallery.

I'm no Goya scholar, and it has been a while since I've looked at this picture, so I won't dare proffer an opinion. Except to say that Goya connoisseurship has gone through a bit of a muddle of late. Rather like Rembrandt in the early days of the Rembrandt Research Project, a number of long accepted pictures have been doubted. 

You can read more on the display here. You can zoom in on the picture here. You can book tickets to the main Goya exhibition here.

Van Dyck 'Selfie' returns to London

September 8 2015

Image of Van Dyck 'Selfie' returns to London

Picture: BG

The National Portrait Gallery has put on a good display to welcome the Van Dyck self-portrait back to London. It's there until 3rd January, when it goes to Dulwich Picture Gallery, and then Birmingham. When I went to see the picture on Friday, it was being assiduously copied by a number of admirers.

The show includes a number of Van Dycks from the NPG's collection, as well as two portraits of Charles I and Henrietta Maria on loan from Chequers, the country home of the UK Prime Minister. These pictures benefit from being in good condition, but are perhaps not the first version of their type by Van Dyck. Inevitably, there was demand for multiple versions of Van Dyck's royal portraits, and it's interesting to see the varying levels of vivacity he was able to impart on each one. The Chequers Henrietta Maria is a fine autograph work, for example, but I've seen better versions of that head by Van Dyck. The format of the drapery is re-used in other portraits, and gives us an idea of how Van Dyck's studio was sometimes involved in laying in these areas in his portraits.

Anyway, the point of the show, which is called 'Van Dyck - Transforming British Art', is to demonstrate that even in these repetitions, Van Dyck was so much better than any other artist at work in England, and in that it succeeds. Poor old Cornelius Johnson, whose work can be seen in a fine selection in the next room at the NPG, could never match Van Dyck's portraits for characterisation and overall presence, even if he could, for example, paint the detail of silk ruffs with extraordinary skill.

The self-portrait is back in the same place it was hanging when, almost two years ago, the NPG began its campaign to buy the picture. What a lot has happened since then.

I was pleasantly surprised by how good the self-portrait is looking, after its recent 'surface clean'. It's always surprising to see even the slightest layer of dirt can alter a picture's appearance, especially a portrait. 

Britain's 'hidden £3.5bn art collection'

September 7 2015

Image of Britain's 'hidden £3.5bn art collection'

Picture: art-handling.co.uk

There was much excitement in the news here in the UK on Monday over a report published by the 'Taxpayer's Alliance' on how much art is in storage. The Alliance's 'research' showed that Britain had an art collection worth £3.5bn, and that only 3% of this was on show. The Alliance's Chief Executive Jonathan Isaby said that:

"Public bodies and local authorities should make an effort to display more of their art for people to enjoy, and they also need to take a good, hard look at their art portfolio and think about what does and does not need to be retained."

And he also said here that:

The public sector has a role to play in preserving Britain’s artistic heritage, but that’s not a reason not to look at the possibility of using some of the assets to fund frontline services. With a budget deficit of more than £60bn, nothing can be off the table.

The clear implication is that deaccessioning should be considered, and that the sale of art is a justifiable way of funding public services. Which of course is silly. Try and fund the NHS by selling the UK's art, and you'd empty the nation's museums quicker than you can say Philistine.

Now regular readers will know that I'm often going on about the scandal of how much art we have in storage in this country. You can read more on the question from me here in the FT (and listen to the podcast here). 

But the suggestion here that the matter should be seen in monetary terms, and one of assets ripe for the selling, is a mistake. Many councils hardly need encouraging that deaccessioning is a justified option. And besides, the reality is that it isn't the relatively valueless, rarely seen print collection (for example) that councils decide to sell, but the more valuable oil paintings and sculptures.

You can look further at the Alliance's research here. It's not exactly thorough, and relies on a blizzard of 859 Freedom of Information requests, many of which were unanswered. We can be sure, therefore, of two things: that the £3.5bn figure is a significant undervaluation; and that the Taxpayer's Alliance wasted a whole heap of taxpayer's money in cobbling together these statistics. The average cost of answering an FoI request is £293 (according to this research here). 

A better way to calculate the value of the nation's art would be to look at the annual reports of museums, which, under new accountancy rules, must now list the value of their collections as 'heritage assets'. But that would be a lot of work - and certainly more than sending the same FoI request out over 800 times.


Schama's 'Face of Britain'

September 7 2015

Image of Schama's 'Face of Britain'

Picture: Sunday Times

I'm looking forward to seeing Simon Schama's new series of the history of British portraiture, which starts on BBC2 later this month (I don't think the transmission date has been confirmed yet). To coincide with the series, the National Portrait Gallery will put on an exhibition of works curated by Schama, which opens on 16th Sept. More here.

In the press photo above, the good Professor goes for the dreaded white gloves, just to hold a frame.

Why study Art History?

September 7 2015

Image of Why study Art History?

Picture: AAH

In Apollo Magazine, Christine Riding looks at who studies art history, and why. For those in the state sector, the omens are not encouraging:

Out of some 3,000 state secondary schools, only 17 schools offered A-level history of art, and only 15 sixth–form colleges. This compared with over 90 fee-paying schools – which only 7 per cent of UK-based children attend – that offered the subject.

Such statistics are rather grim, and reflect a general trend in state education away from anything vaguely 'arty'. 

But fear not, art history aspirants: studying art history at school or university is not necessarily the best way to learn about, or have a career in, the history of art (and the history of art is often something entirely different from the academic discipline of 'art history').

I never studied art history at school or university, and thank goodness - I'm not sure I could have coped with all that theorising - it makes my brain ache. My particular stroke of luck in education was to have a series of brilliant history teachers who taught me the value of assessing evidence. The art stuff I first picked up in my spare time. So if you're wondering what A-level subjects or degree to do, then think about doing history. But most of all, do what you enjoy.

I'm often asked which books people should read before they start an art history degree. My general advice is to skip the books, and instead look at as many pictures as you can. There's no right or wrong way to interpret paintings, and very few artists gave us instructions on how to do so. 

But on the subject of books, Christine Riding, who is Chair of the Association of Art Historians, enthuses in her Apollo piece about a new art history book aimed at A-level students called 'Thinking About Art' (above). The book has its own website here. Like the A-level syllabus itself, it doesn't follow a chronological approach to art, but instead takes a thematic one. 

Inside Lucian Freud's studio

September 3 2015

Video: Channel 4 News

David Dawson, Freud's assistant, inherited the artist's studio. He's keeping it as it was.

The artist who never existed

September 1 2015

Image of The artist who never existed

Picture: Artinfo

A group of forgers in Germany have got around the traditional problems faced by art fakers, such as learning how to mimic a particular artist and creating convincing false provenances: instead, they simply created an entirely new persona. Karl Waldman's work has sold at auction for almost $15,000 (the above picture sold in Paris in 2011), and he has even entered museum collections (like the Kunsthaus Dresden). But he seems never to have actually existed.

Now the German police are on the case. But what is the crime? Only, surely, the gullibility of the contemporary art market.

More here from Artnet.

Uncovering Rembrandt's covered up Rembrandt

September 1 2015

Image of Uncovering Rembrandt's covered up Rembrandt

Pictures: Getty/Applied Physics A

The Getty's Rembrandt Old Man in a Military Costume was originally painted over the top of another painting. For some reason, Rembrandt wasn't happy with the first picture, so he turned the panel upside down and started again.

In recent years, there has been something of a quest to establish what the picture underneath looked like. One effort led to an artistic recreation that didn't tell us much (see here).

But now a new team of scientists has come up with a new way of recreating, in colour, an image of the buried painting. A number of scans were made to detect the make up of the pigments in the painting beneath the Getty's Old Man. But the clever part was working out the colour of those pigments, to give the image below. More here in the Wall Street Journal.

Until now, looking at the x-rayed pictures beneath pictures has been a rather unsatisfactory affair, being limited to black and white. The ability to see such buried pictures in colour is a great advance. Bravo to the team who carried out the research, who were:

Karen Trentelman, senior scientist with the Getty Conservation Institute, Koen Janssens and Geert van der Snickt, both from the University of Antwerp, and Joris Dik, of the Delft University of Technology, together with Yvonne Szafran, senior conservator of paintings at the Getty Museum and Anne Woollett, curator of paintings at the Getty Museum.

You can read the full article here.

Sooke on Pop Art

August 31 2015

Image of Sooke on Pop Art

Picture: Penguin

My friend Alastair Sooke has piblished a new book on Pop Art, with a front cover design by none other than Peter Blake. Here's the blurb:

Pop Art is the most important 20th-century art movement. It brought Modernism to the masses, making art sexy and fun with coke cans and comics. Today, in our age of selfies and social networking, we are still living in a world defined by Pop.

Full of brand new interviews and research, Sooke describes the great works by Warhol, Lichtenstein and other key figures, but also re-examines the movement for the 21st century and asks if it is still art? He reveals a global story, tracing Pop's surprising origins in 19th-century Paris to uncovering the forgotten female artists of the 1960s.

Order your copy here.

Collecting the present

August 31 2015

Image of Collecting the present

Picture: fivethirtyeight

The statistics and polling site fivethirtyeight.com has an interesting article on the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which has recently put online its museum database (works painted, collection number, year made, year acquired, that kind of thing).

The above chart shows how, over time, the museum has begun to acquire younger and younger works. Or, as the 538 article says:

The [graph] shows the paintings MoMA has added to its collection each year and when the additions were painted. The red regression line shows the “modernizing” of MoMA’s collection — how quickly the museum has moved toward acquiring recent paintings.

MoMA’s official mission is to aid the understanding and enjoyment of “the art of our time.” And judging by its acquisitions, it’s succeeding. It has established a solid body of works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and occasionally still reaches back to acquire something older. But its focus is new work. As you can see from the thick blanket of points at the frontier of the scatter plot, much of its yearly acquisitions are of recent pieces — the art of our time.

I suspect Moma isn't the only gallery whose collecting patterns lean increasingly towards the present. 'We must buy these great works now', say the acquisitions committees, 'because if we don't then...'

Then what? They might get even more expensive? Or the artists might make another? Or another series? There is no shortage of contemporary works, great or not.

And then we come to the question of price. The other useful statistics to look at, given the boom in contemporary art prices, are the relative prices per work, and how that changes in regard to acquisition date. In other words, does it make sense these days for museums to buy works so soon after the date of creation, at the moment of greatest hype and thus price - and before their artistic reputation has really been tested by time. Or is it better to wait?

At the moment, because we're so busy chasing our tails in the contemporary art market, prices do indeed seem to rise and rise. Thus, the sooner you can get 'in' on an artist the better. But such a policy assumes that the present is some kind of artistic golden age. I'm not sure it'll seem that way in 50 years time.

It's never too early...

August 31 2015

Image of It's never too early...

Picture: BG

...to teach your kids a bit of art history. I start with mine before they can walk. Captive audience.

Rodin pinched

August 28 2015

Image of Rodin pinched

Picture: via Artnet, and Copenhagen Police

The above bust by Rodin was stolen 'in broad daylight' by two thieves (below) at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum in Copenhagen. They walked in, took the bust of its plinth, put it into a bag, and walked out. Just like that.

More here.

'Caravaggio by Private Jet'

August 28 2015

Image of 'Caravaggio by Private Jet'

Picture: Private Jet Tours

On the back page of my newly arrived Royal Academy Friends magazine is an advert for probably the most expensive art history tour in the world; 'Following Caravaggio by Private Jet'. 8 nights, in 'five star hotels' takes you to Rome, Malta and Sicily - for £10,995 ('based on Twinshare'). Wowee.

Since I'm sure all AHNers will be queuing up to go... here are the highlights from Private Jet Tours' website:

We are very pleased to have secured, what we believe, to be one of the best VIP Private Jets for group travel. A division of Iceland Air offers an exclusive Boeing 757-200 aircraft with services tailored to our needs. The aircraft comes in a 50-seat configuration with lie-flat sleeper seats.

All meals including 3 “your choice” dinners offering a choice of restaurants.

Local English speaking guides and our own expert, Canon Dr Anne Davison (a NADFAS Accredited Lecturer).

Private viewing at Galleria Borghese in Rome.

Private lunch at a Nobleman’s House in Rome - 'Day3' 'We will then visit one of the palaces of Rome where we will meet a member of the aristocratic family who currently resides in the palace and we will also enjoy some fine Italian cuisine.'

Private viewing at Co-Cathedral Valetta of 2 Caravaggio’s paintings.

'Day 2' - Following a leisurely breakfast we transfer you to the Harrods Aviation Private Jet Terminal at London Luton Airport which is a quiet haven away from the main terminal where we check in and relax with a coffee or tea before boarding our jet for the first time. 

And just in case you're worried about not getting prime spot in the Jet...

We do operate a seat rotation system and move people around the aircraft for each sector which we believe is a fair way of allowing most a chance to sit at a window, at the front or at the back of the aircraft.

So that's all right then.

It's not my cup of tea, but doubtless there's some people out there who can afford it, and would like to know more about Caravaggio in some style. I suppose if I was offered a free place on such a tour for 'Van Dyck by Private Jet', would I go? Deffo. Though I'd politely skip the visit to 'the Nobleman's house'.

The tour departs on 16th April 2016. Sign up here!

Back and forth with Rembrandt

August 27 2015

Image of Back and forth with Rembrandt

Picture: Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen's University

[This isn't 'news' - but it's my blog, and I'll indulge myself with a rant about bad connoisseurship if I want to].

I was doing a little research into Rembrandt the other day, and came across an example of just how misguided the early days of the Rembrandt Research Project could be when deciding what is and is not 'a Rembrandt'.

The picture above belongs to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen's University in Canada. It was given to Queen's by Alfred Bader, the chemical magnate, art collector, philanthropist, and occasional art dealer (in which guise I got to know him quite well some years ago). It looks (for what it's worth) like a Rembrandt to me - a rather fine one - and has done to many others in the past. Much of the willingness to accept the picture as a Rembrandt arose out of the engraving of 1634, below, by J.G. Van der Vliet, which names Rembrandt as the author, and the fact that the picture is signed, 'RHL'.

But the early Rembrandt committee decided that:

Though having a thematic affinity with a number of Rembrandt works from around 1630 no. C 22 cannot be accepted as autograph, because of the poorly organized and (particularly in the lit areas) remarkably coarse manner of painting, of the muddy shadow areas and of the strange flesh tints that tend towards a yellow. It can however be assumed that an etching by J. G. van Vliet dated 1634, and naming Rembrandt as the inventor, reproduces this painting.

In other words, someone other than Rembrandt in the early 1630s, before Rembrandt was the internationally famous artist he later became, painted the picture Rembrandt's style, signed it as by Rembrandt, and, finally, persuaded a contemporary engraver to publish the picture as by Rembrandt.

Who was this villainous and talented fiend? And why, when they were evidently extremely talented, did they not paint under their own name? As with so many rejected Rembrandts that have similarly convincing evidence behind them, we are not told. Instead, the RRP rejected the picture because of such things as 'strange flesh tints that tend towards yellow' - as if Rembrandt, one of the strangest painters in art history, never used anything yellow in his flesh tones.

The later guise of the RRP, under Ernst van der Wetering, reversed the above opinion, and the picture is now accepted once again as a Rembrandt. Phew.

For more by me on the RRP and connoisseurship, see here and the podcast here.

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