Previous Posts: December 2011

Merry Christmas everyone

December 24 2011

Image of Merry Christmas everyone


Wherever you are, I hope you have a good Christmas. Thank you for all your interest in, and support for, AHN this year. We're now up to a thousand visitors a day. I am very grateful.

The image above is a little out of date, but as topical as I can get for a festive image by my favourite artist, Anthony Van Dyck. Clearly, whoever designs the stamps in Micronesia is highly cultured. The original Adoration of the Shepherds is in the Church of Our Lady in Dendermonde, Holland Belgium. Unusually, Van Dyck has decided to cast one of the shepherds as female. I like to think that not only was he a great artist, but enlightened. 

National Trust paintings go online - can you find any sleepers?

December 23 2011

Image of National Trust paintings go online - can you find any sleepers?

Picture: National Trust

At last! The UK's greatest single collection of paintings has gone online. The site apparently went live last week, but I've only just stumbled across it today. What a resource. I can barely contain my excitement; it's nirvana for anyone interested in British art history, and this particular British art history anorak will now be spending a lot of time on his iPad over Christmas. Well done to everybody involved. With this and the Public Catalogue Foundation putting museum pictures online, Britain now leads the way in digital access to its art. 

Being slightly obsessed with Van Dyck, I searched immediately for works by him. As you might expect, there are many fine things. But also some more mysterious works. I'm taken with the above Portrait of an Unknown Lady at Petworth, called 'attributed to Van Dyck'. It is not in the 2004 catalogue raisonne, but looks to me as if it has a good chance of being 'right', probably done in the mid 1620s in Italy. 

For all you budding connoisseurs, it's a great site for playing guess the attribution. Have a search for unattributed works, by entering 'English School' for example, and let me know if you find anything good. Below are a few pictures that have caught my eye in the last hour or so... [all images (C) National Trust]

This painting of a Madonna and Child, is attributed to the 'Studio of Willem Wissing'. The Trust catalogue correctly notes that it is a partial copy of Van Dyck's painting of Cesare Scaglia adoring the Virgin and Child [National Gallery, London], albeit without Scaglia, and an altered Madonna. However, the original of this composition is in fact by Sir Peter Lely, and is now in an American Private Collection. It's one of the nicest Lelys I've ever seen, fluidly painted and richly coloured, and evidently done for his own pleasure. Lely was fascinated by Van Dyck, and copied many of his works. Intriguingly, a ghostly pair of hands in Lely's copy reveals that he initially planned to paint Scaglia too, but then changed his mind and left him out.  

Other things that briefly caught my eye include the above 'English School' portrait at Erddig in Wrexham, of whom the Trust is unsure of the identification, calling it 'Supposedly Joshua Edisbury, or ?James Hutton'. It is in fact a copy of Benjamin West's Portrait of Governor James Hamilton, which hangs in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. How a copy of Hamilton's portrait ended up in Wrexham masquerading as a welshman is a mystery... 

This 'English School' Unknown Gentleman is by John Riley. 

And Mary of Modena, wife of James II, would have been most displeased to find her portrait at Chirk Castle (above) identified as Charles II's mistress Moll Davis. The Chirk portrait is based on this original by Lely.

And going really off piste, the above Portrait of John Throckmorton is called 'Circle of William Larkin', but looks to have a chance of being by Marcus Gheeraerts. 

So if you have a few idle moments this Christmas, have a look at the site and see what you can find. Between us we should be able to wrap up all those unattributed pictures... The only sad thing about the site is the tiny photos. You can zoom in a bit, but they really should be larger. Presumably it's the old 'we must protect our copyright' fallacy. 

Zurburan deal back on

December 23 2011

Image of Zurburan deal back on

Picture: BBC News

Splendid news from the North East. It seems the Church Commissioners have seen sense, and the deal to save the Zurburans (supported by the philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer) is back on.

Newly found Rubens for sale at Sotheby's New York

December 23 2011

Image of Newly found Rubens for sale at Sotheby's New York

Picture: Sotheby's

Hats off to Sotheby's New York for amassing one of the most impressive line ups of Old Masters I've seen at auction for a long time. Available for you to buy on January 26th are works by Guardi, Cranach, Van Dyck, Canaletto, Tintoretto, and Fra Bartolomeo. It seems consignors are taking up the opportunities of the growing momentum behind Old Masters sales. It'll be insteresting to see how well things sell - I expect strong prices.

A highlight of the sale will be the above newly discovered study by Rubens for The Adoration of the Magi, estimated at $2-3m. It surfaced last year at Koller auction in Switzerland, where it was catalogued as 'Workshop of Rubens', and sold for CHF 140,000. There, the attribution was presumably complicated by the existence of another study of the same subject by Rubens, and some rather awkward passages. Some of these, it transpires, were the result of later over-paint, and have been removed. You can zoom in on the Koller picture and play spot the difference. Full details here.  

The Leonardo queue...

December 22 2011

Image of The Leonardo queue...

Picture: BG

...gets longer and longer. This morning it started in Trafalgar Square, then snaked up behind the Sainsbury Wing, before coming back on itself and then continuing inside. If you're having to queue to for tickets, follow my earlier advice and buy the catalogue first; by the time you get to front you'll be fully prepared for the exhibition. It's either that or at least two chapters of War & Peace...

Wedgwood museum - a rescue emerges (via Twitter)?

December 22 2011

Image of Wedgwood museum - a rescue emerges (via Twitter)?


John Caudwell, the founder of Phones4U, has said on Twitter that he would be prepared to buy the Wedgwood museum's collection to prevent its being broken up.* Good for him. He said:

I passionately believe that the collection should remain intact and in place, and available for public viewing. If the Trustees don’t find any other way of solving the issue, then I will attempt to buy the entire collection and keep it n situ for the foreseeable future, and continue with public access. This would be subject, of course, to the outcome of any discussions with Administrators, and input of the Trustees.

No numbers have been mentioned yet as to how much it would cost him to buy the collection. The pension pot hole is £134m. Maybe (but I don't know) the collection is worth more than this (the paintings alone are worth a handy sum), so perhaps not all of it needs to be sold off. 

* as I learnt via Twitter's antiques king, Steven Moore.

Hepworth theft

December 22 2011

Image of Hepworth theft

Picture: AFP

A curious article in The Guardian today from Zoe Williams, who, it seems, struggled when her editor said 'give me 800 words on what the Hepworth theft means'. She thinks it points to a wider malaise in society, and blames, in part, the free market:

When you throw someone into the mix who doesn't care that a statue's true value is £500,000, and cares still less about its emotional value to the community, and will trash all that for £1,500, that person has a lot of power. It's caring that makes you weak.

The reason this is such a blow at this peculiar time is that the free market – the fundamental understanding of society where we exchange time for money and money for stuff and everybody wins – isn't working out. There is a full spectrum of explanations for the failure. On the right, it's because governments interfered, over-regulated, overdid the handouts and overspent. On the left, it's because government privatised, outsourced, didn't regulate, and created a corporate plutocracy by failing to protect wages, grouting the gaps with benefits and ultimately subsidising super-profits. There are centrist arguments that blame the legerdemain of financial instruments – just one giant, apolitical "oops".

Sadly, people have been stealing and vandalising art since the year dot, and will continue to do so. Probably the same section of society that does not care whether something is beautiful or historically important is the same as that which cannot empathise with their fellow man. Call it cultural pyschopathy. It has taken many forms throughout history; one is iconoclasm. 

Meanwhile, a reader writes with a further suggestion on how to deal with the current problem of melting sculptures for scrap:

Re your point about scrap metal thieves, I agree entirely with everything you write. Here's one additional point, though, not least because you clearly have plenty of experience of the policy world, and the importance of framing these things properly from the start.

The theft of scrap metal or indeed 'architectural salvage' items from a listed property - something which, perforce, would include not only lead from church roofs, but also lots of things which do end up stolen and sold - e.g. pews, lecterns, statues, light fixtures, door handles, sinks, fire surrounds, you name it - ought to be considered an aggravating factor when it comes to sentencing in criminal court. This is both (a) easily defined and (b) covers a lot of serious problems currently afflicting heritage properties, both ecclesiastical and secular, at least some of these involving what might reasonably be regarded as works of art.

Sounds eminently sensible to me. 

The Vermeer effect

December 22 2011

Image of The Vermeer effect

Picture: Louvre

In case you haven't seen it yet, Vermeer's Women at the Fitzwilliam Museum closes on 15th January. The exhibition has drawn record crowds, with 130,000 people filing past the Louvre's Lacemaker since October. It has been so popular that the opening times have been extended for the last two weeks of the show. 

Help stop the scrap metal thieves

December 21 2011

Image of Help stop the scrap metal thieves

Picture: Rob Fitzpatrick

Following the Hepworth theft yesterday, a reader writes:

It was sad to read today on your excellent website of yet another theft of public sculpture -- probably, as you rightly imply in your commentary, for its scrap-metal value only.  Perhaps you might alert readers of Art History News to a  current, and laudable, e-petition which seeks an 'amendment to the Scrap Metal Merchants Act 1964' by prohibiting cash transactions on the part of scrap-metal dealers and making 'payment by cheque or directly into a bank account mandatory'. This would be a significant factor in reducing metal theft. The e-petition, which needs 100,000 signatories in order to be considered for debate in Parliament,has already passed the half-way mark:

If only the tragedy of the Wedgwood Museum could be averted by an e-petition!

Please do sign it. Another possibility is to make it a particular crime to wilfully damage works of cultural importance. So x months in jail for nicking a bollard for scrap, but longer for works of art, or lead from a church roof. I believe they do this in Australia. 

Hepworth sculpture nicked

December 20 2011

From Dulwich Park on Tuesday. There's a £1000 reward for its return. But it's probably been melted down for scrap already...

Dictator Art - Kim Jong Il special

December 20 2011

Image of Dictator Art - Kim Jong Il special

Picture: Kim Jong Il Looking at Things

Regular readers will know that I'm strangely fascinated by totalitarian art. And it doesn't come much more interesting and bizarre than that in North Korea. All dictatorships rely on artists for propoganda, but probably none more so than the Hermit Kingdom. The lack of computers and printing equipment means that the state has to employ thousands of artists to produce the endless posters, sculptures and paintings needed to glorify Kim Jong Il's regime.

Almost all the posters one sees in North Korea, for example, are painted by hand, usually by artists sitting in large rooms endlessly copying the same master image, like a human printing press. North Korea probably has the highest proportion of artists per head of population in the world. The largest artistic centre is the Mansudae Art Studio*, which employs about 4,000 people, and was until his recent funny turn under 'the special guidance' of Kim Jong Il himself.

Not surprisingly, 'socialist realism' is the order of the day. Consequently most oil paintings tend to be highly detailed, colourful and stylised depictions of happy workers, or North Korea's often beautiful landscape. Much of it is technically quite proficient, if a little surreal.

There's quite a market for North Korean art in the west. If you think it will one day boom llike Chinese art (and you have no qualms about your money potentially helping to prop up the regime), then get in early and stock up before prices rise. One of the places you can be sure of buying the real thing is the Galleria, in Pall Mall, London. Their website explains why North Korean art is so unlike anything else:

Art from this hermit country has not yet been influenced by outside politics or normal world contemporary art trends. It is still pure North Korean art, artist have very little contact with other countries and their artwork is kept within the Juche political philosophy that they follow.

All artists in North Korea are State employees, registered as members of the Korean artists Federation (Misulga Tongmaeng) and receive monthly salaries for which they are expected to produce a number of works; some artists work on location others in the Art Studio. Both would be expected to work regularly and to have 2hour daily periods of study or discussion with regular reports and evaluations of their work.

There is no question of a solo exhibition in North Korea, but small group exhibitions do take place on national holidays and special anniversaries, modern art is included in displays in the National Gallery and the University Museum as well as in public offices.

You can see more examples here, and here

*site currently not working.

View from the Artist no. 7 - answer

December 20 2011

Image of View from the Artist no. 7 - answer

Picture: Rijksmuseum

Sorry that the first clue was a little tricky. An early answer:

Gut reaction... AVERCAMP??? Somewehre Dutch? Amsterdam/ Hague??? (Surey it's not London with a church like that?)

Indeed not. Right country though. Another guess had Avercamp again:

I'm going to have a stab and suggest the picture is by Hendrick Avercamp, subject is Haarlem. Although many of Avercamp's works feature windmills and lots of people playing kolf, but then the figures do have quite a strong outline to them... 

The competition is a good distraction from PhD work, yet sufficiently art historical to not feel too guilty about procrastinating!

Alas, wrong answer, but delighted to have taken you away from your studies. The extra clue brought in some correct answers, the fastest coming within about half an hour of me putting it on the site:

Indeed, the first clue was too difficult for me, especially because I’m not familiar with Flemish landscape artists. But now that you provided the second detail, I am able to give you the answer: Sebastian Vrancx, The Kranenhoofd on the Schelde. The Rijksmuseum online database dates it to 1622. 

Another sleuth wrote:

Sebastian Vrancx, The Kranenhoofd on the Schelde, Antwerp, 1622. Such a wonderful winter-painting, it makes you want to jump right into the scenery! I really enjoy your blog!

Thanks! You can indeed jump in thanks to the Rijksmuseum's marvellous new, free, high resolution digital photos. The best clue was the single spire of Antwerp Cathedral on the left. Well done everyone. 

Wedgwood museum collection will be sold

December 19 2011

Image of Wedgwood museum collection will be sold

Picture: Wedgwood Museum

The incomparable Wedgwood Museum, the country's pre-eminent pottery museum, will now almost certainly be closed down and its collection sold off. The High Court has ruled that the collection is an asset that effectively belongs to the Wedgwood company pension fund, which has a £134 million deficit.

The collection was never intended to be used as an asset this way. But a balls-up when drafting the original legal framework for the museum meant that the collection would potentially be at risk if the Wedgwood company went bust, which it did in 2009. The whole situation might have been avoided if someone had hired a good lawyer at the time. 

It's not just pottery that will be sold. The museum has a fine collection of paintings, including a group portrait of the Wedgwood family by George Stubbs. 

Our best source of acquisitions - death

December 19 2011

Image of Our best source of acquisitions - death

Picture: National Gallery

Details of this year's Acceptance-in-Lieu scheme have been released. Almost £20m worth of cultural treasures, including the above Rubens sketch The Triumph of Venus (at £4.4m), have been accepted by the UK government in place of inheritance tax. Invitations to be allocated the Rubens are now being sought. So if you've got a Rubens hole in your museum collection, apply now.

I've always found it curious that the government will automatically acquire a pre-eminent work of art for the nation if it comes from someone who's dead, but not if they are alive. But there it is. To see some of the other works acquired this way, click here

View from the artist no.7, another clue...

December 19 2011

Image of View from the artist no.7, another clue...


Tut tut, a woeful response to the latest 'View from the Artist' competition. No correct guesses at all! Though most of you are in the right country. So here's another glimpse from the same painting, this time with more notable surviving landmarks. 

That newly discovered Frith

December 19 2011

Image of That newly discovered Frith

Picture: Christie's

Made £505,000 at auction (inc. premium).

Coming soon at Dulwich - Van Dyck in Sicily

December 19 2011

Video: Dulwich Picture Gallery

An exhibition bringing together all the works by Van Dyck from his time in Palermo. I literally cannot wait. Here's Xavier Solomon giving a sneak preview. Opens 15th February 2012.

Le Moyne discovered at English public school

December 19 2011

Image of Le Moyne discovered at English public school

Picture: National Gallery/Winchester College

An Annunciation by Francois Le Moyne, previously thought to be lost, has been discovered at Winchester College. It was previously known through an engraving, and is now on loan to the National Gallery. Full details at Tribune de L'Art

BP maintains sponsorship of the arts

December 19 2011

Good news for the arts in Britain - BP will continue its support for the British Museum, Tate Britain, The Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery with £10m over the next five years. This comes despite the curious news last week that the Tate was 'reviewing' whether it should deign to accept the cash. From Tuesday's Guardian:

Tate's director, Sir Nicholas Serota, has said it will decide whether to renew the contract with BP "quite soon". This month he was presented with a petition from 8,000 Tate members and visitors organised by the pressure groups Platform, Liberate Tate and Art Not Oil. Serota said: "You'll not be surprised to learn that the whole question of the support from BP has exercised trustees quite seriously over the past two years. Both the trustees as a board, but also the trustees through their ethics committee, which was instituted about four years ago, have looked very carefully at the question."

The phrase 'don't look a gift horse in the mouth springs to mind' here, especially in these austere times...

Happy birthday Katherine of Aragon

December 16 2011

Image of Happy birthday Katherine of Aragon

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd

The happy coincidence of it being Katherine of Aragon's birthday today*, and the recent sale at Christie's of a portrait of her, allows me to continue my impromptu feast of art historical Tudoriana. The portrait above was found by Philip Mould in 2004 in a minor auction, where it was thought to be a much later copy of a miniature by Lucas Hornebolte. Last week it was sold again by a client of ours at Christie's, where it made a healthy £151,000. It's one of my favourite Tudor portraits, full of symbolism, and we borrowed it for our 'Lost Faces' exhibition in 2006.

The Christie's catalogue summarised the meaning of the picture very well:

...the marmoset is shown reaching for the cross on the Queen's breast, rather than for the proferred coin. In addition to the obvious allegory of the choice of spiritual virtues over worldly gain, the gesture has been interepreted as reflecting the circumstances of the later years of the Queen's marriage to King Henry VIII, during which the King sought various means of ending the marriage, including offering her money; her steadfastness was explained by her piety.

However, I've always though there may be an extra dimension to this picture. Why? Because the coin being rejected by the monkey is clearly an English coin, in this case a groat (as you can see if you zoom in on it). And on the other side of a groat, as you can see below, is a portrait of Henry VIII. The portrait of Katherine may therefore be seen not only as her rejection of riches in favour of faith, but of Henry himself. In which case, it is one of the most daring images of the Tudor period. 

Picture: BG

Update: By the way, the groat on the left is from Henry VII's reign. You can see how Henry VIII's frequent debasing of the currency resulted in his groats, on the right, shrinking.

*with thanks to TudorTutor for alerting me to this.

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.