Previous Posts: February 2012

How to make Old Master drawings cool

February 29 2012

Image of How to make Old Master drawings cool

Picture: Salon du Dessin

This is a very smart advert for the Salon du Dessin (Old Master drawings fair), which opens in Paris on 28th March. Here is last year's advert on a similar theme. We need to do something like this for Old Master paintings in London. If you were responsible for this idea - get in touch!

On connoisseurship

February 29 2012

Image of On connoisseurship

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd. Fig.1: Attributed to John Greenhill (c. 1644-1676, 'Portrait of John Locke', c.1672-6, Graphite on vellum, 5 1/4 in. high (oval) Private collection, U.S.A.

I recently wrote an article on connoisseurship in the US-based magazine, Fine Art Connoisseur. It's been a while since the issue was out, so here, with editor Peter Trippi's permission, is the full article for any readers who may be interested.

On the Importance of Connoisseurship

When the celebrated English philosopher John Locke sat to Godfrey Kneller for his portrait in 1704, he made a special request. He asked “Sir Godfrey to write on the backside of mine, John Locke 1704 ... this is necessary to be done,” he continued, “as else the pictures of private persons are lost in two or three generations and so the picture loses of its value, it being not known whom it was made to represent.’” 1

Sadly for Locke, not everyone has followed his advice. About a year ago, Philip Mould and I found a fine portrait drawing of him (Fig. 1) in a sale at Christie’s secondary saleroom in London. It was catalogued as Portrait of a Gentleman, and, proving that Locke was right to worry about his portrait’s future value, was bought for just £386 — a fraction of its true worth. It relates to a painting by John Greenhill in the National Portrait Gallery, London (Fig. 2).

Picture: National Portrait Gallery. Fig. 2, John Greenhill (c. 1644-1676), 'Portrait of John Locke', c.1672-76, Oil on canvas, 22 1/8 in. high (oval)

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Our new neighbour

February 29 2012

Image of Our new neighbour

Picture: BG

We have a new neighbour here at Philip Mould - the famous antiques dealer, Mallett. In fact, they're the oldest antique business in the world, founded in 1865. They've now moved into Ely House, a Georgian nirvana formerly the London residence of the Bishops of Ely (those were the days - even I'd be a vicar to live there). So, a warm welcome to Mallet - and to every one else, it's yet another reason to come to Dover Street!

On dusting at the Wallace Collection

February 29 2012

Video: BBC

Following my little rant about dusty frames, a reader writes:

I loved your idea of moonlighting at the Wallace Collection with a duster. It reminded me of my favourite Two Ronnies sketch [above, about the cleaning tramp].

Another reader writes:

On “doing the dusting”: when I had a very modest family “ancestor” oil painting cleaned, the restorer suggested turning the picture upside down in the frame and hey presto the nice clean section showed up well at the bottom of the picture and the dirty old one with years of accumulated dirt and dust is barely visible!

Excellent idea. But not necessary! For (and now it's confession time) when I was at the Wallace last weekend, I sidled up to one of the said dusty frames, and gave it a very gentle puff. Up flew a plume of dust. Apologies to the Wallace Collection for this - and for the record, I'm not encouraging anybody else to do the same...

Finally, in the interests of balance, another reader writes:

I prefer the dusty frames to the brash wall coverings.

Very true - but the mix of the two is what jars.

More on the Tate archive debacle

February 28 2012

Image of More on the Tate archive debacle

Picture: KHI

Dr Costanza Caraffa, the director of the Photo Library at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz (founded in 1897, one of oldest research institutions on art and architecture in Italy) has been in touch about the Tate's disposal of their photographic archive. She writes:

As director of the Photo Library of an art historical research institute (a German institution with seat in Florence) working also theoretically on photo archives, I would like to draw your attention to the "Florence Declaration - Recommendations for the Preservation of Analogue Photo Archives". 

To the many reasons that were mentioned in the article and in your blog, why throwing away such photographic holdings is an unforgivable crime against the scientific community and the entire society, I would like to add some new research perspectives on photographs and photo archives as material objects that cannot be substituted by digital surrogates. These new studies go beyond the disciplinary borders of art history and see photographs and archives as research objects on their on.

The "Florence Declaration" aims at an integration between the analogue format and the digital format, which only can guarantee the correct conservation of the photographic heritage for future studies and at the same time the implementation of digital instruments.

Quite. Indeed, these points were considered so important that there was a conference on them in 2009 attended by, amongst others, the Courtauld, the Getty, and Holland's RKD, all of which have large photographic archives. Their premise was that:

[Photographic] archives are valuable both as active research tools and as historical entities. They contain images that are records within the history of art, but are in themselves objects of study as historical photographs (for example as parts of bequests by major art historians, collectors, or photographers) and also as documents of art historical practices over time.

Photographic archives not only support but they generate research. Each archive has its historical and conceptual logic, which often raises as well as resolve research questions.

Additionally the mounts hold information about the photographs and the objects they represent.

There, in a nutshell, are several valid reasons as to why the Tate should not have disposed of their photographic archive. The mystery to me is this; if institutions such as the RKD and the Getty thought keeping the actual photos was so important, why didn't the Tate?

And here is the preamble from the Florence Declaration, which goes into more detail on why simply keeping a digital record of the photos is not the same as keeping the photos themselves:

The main role of photo archives, like that of every archive, is to guarantee the conservation and future accessibility of documents from the past for their possible future use for research purposes. 

The introduction of digital technologies has made new, powerful tools available for conservation and access requirements. Almost all photo archives are currently involved in electronic cataloguing and photographic print and negative digitization projects and new methods of online consultation have been developed. The digital technologies applied to the archive have thus undisputed advantages. 

However, for this very reason, there is a tendency to consider the consequences of these processes too superficially. In particular, the debates on digitalization imply that once digitally reproduced, the original artefacts can be removed from consultation or even dispensed with altogether. The Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz – Max-Planck-Institut on the other hand, supported by the other subscribers to these recommendations, believes that it is essential for the future of studies in historic, human and social sciences to generate a greater understanding of the inescapable value of photographs and analogue archives.  

The conviction that it is useful and necessary to preserve the analogue photo archives is based on two simple considerations: 

- the technologies not only condition the methods of transmission, conservation and enjoyment of the documents, but they also shape its content; 

- the photographs are not simply images independent from their mount, but rather objects endowed with materiality that exist in time and space.

"Oh no it isn't"

February 28 2012

Image of "Oh no it isn't"

Picture: Bonhams

The Art Newspaper has an interesting story about a Modigliani recently sold by Bonhams for £825,250. The Modigliani Institute has refused to publish the work as authentic, and will not publish it in the forthcoming catalogue raisonne by Christian Parisot. However, the picture will be published as authentic by Parisot's apparent 'rival', Marc Restellini, who is also compiling a Modigliani catalogue. 

So far so confusing. But then, at the end of The Art Newspaper article is this:

Parisot inherited the moral right to authenticate the artist's work through his friendship with Modigliani's daughter.

Inheriting the right to authenticate paintings? Who came up with this madness? 

Martin Kemp on life after 'Leonardo'

February 28 2012

Image of Martin Kemp on life after 'Leonardo'

Picture: Hermitage Museum

3 Pipe Problem has alerted me to an excellent article by Martin Kemp on The Art Newspaper's site. It is too full of good points to quote selectively here, so do read the whole piece, which discusses the state of Leonardo scholarship after the National Gallery's exhibition.

In the meantime, I'll just select an interesting observation on the Hermitage's Madonna Litta (above), which ties in with my own thoughts:

There was also the bizarre catalogue entry [in the NG catalogue] for the Hermitage’s Madonna Litta written by Tatiana Kustodieva—presumably a condition of the loan—who unquestioningly attributes the whole painting to Leonardo, when the catalogue entries for related drawings demonstrate that it was executed by Boltraffio (who emerges as something of a star of the show).

Some better news in Sheffield

February 28 2012

I highlighted a while ago Sheffield Museum's campaign against the Arts Council's decision not to award them a substantial £1.4m grant from the Renaissance fund. Now, ACE has announced that the blow will be softened by £340k in 'transitional funding'. This means that some exhibitions and programmes can continue.  

Early Rembrandt acquired in Holland

February 28 2012

Image of Early Rembrandt acquired in Holland

Picture: Museum de Lakenhal

The Lakenhal museum in Leiden, Rembrandt's birthplace, has acquired this early work by the master. Painted when he was 17, this small (21 x 17.8 cm) oil on panel is called The Glasses Seller. More details over at Tribune de l'Art here, and you can zoom in on the picture here.

Rembrandt was a relatively late starter as a painter, but I'd still have expected the young genius to be, well, a little better than this.

Let's not 'save' art

February 27 2012

Jonathan Jones, in The Guardian, takes exception to 'saving' the Manet the Ashmolean wants to buy:

This is a beautiful and important painting, a beguiling example of Manet's louche modernity. I would love the Ashmolean to own it – why not? But this rhetoric about "saving" art has to stop. Unless the potential foreign owner is a wealthy maniac who bought it with the express intention of shredding the canvas and feeding it to the hounds, or a thriller writer who wants to do CSI on it to find out if Manet was Jacques le Ripper, or an agent for the Chapman brothers, the painting is not in any need of being "saved". If it did leave these shores, it would be no great loss to most of us, who have never seen it in a British gallery and had little idea it was even in the country. For all those years, it has not been a public possession but a very private one. It is only the prospect of a sale abroad that has suddenly made it news, got it shown in the media, and provoked this campaign.

It is hard to argue that a regional museum in southern England needs a world-class Manet for any reason beyond its own ambition. People living in Oxford are not that deprived of the Frenchman's genius: they can easily get to London, where they can see great works by him at the Courtauld Gallery, as well as at the National Gallery. I bet there are a few who could even manage the occasional Eurostar trip to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

This is all slightly daft. Ok, 'save' might be over-used these days in relation to art, but it's a necessary evil if it gets people to cough up for an acquisition. And if we take Jones' argument in the second paragraph to its logical conclusion, we wouldn't have regional art galleries at all. And they're worth saving.

Doing the dusting

February 27 2012

Image of Doing the dusting

Picture: BG

The Wallace Collection is marvellous. But why do they never dust their picture frames? The problem is more noticeable now that they've redecorated many of the upstairs galleries. The rows of greying frames detract from the newly hung, bright fabrics. It wouldn't really matter if frames became dusty consistently - but the dust settles only on the lower horizontal part of the frame, so you get three shiny sides, and one dusty one. Give me an hour with a feather duster, and I'd transform the place.

A hidden Benjamin West

February 27 2012

Image of A hidden Benjamin West

Picture: BG

An illness in the family means I'm spending a lot of time around Harley Street in central London. So I was pleased to find yesterday hidden in a corner of Marylebone Church this Holy Family by Benjamin West, painted in 1818. It is listed in Allen Staley's catalogue raisonne of West's works, which reveals that it used to be the main alterpiece, but was later moved. It was also vandalised in 1859, which may account for its poor condition. But to me it mainly looks dirty, and it has been rather badly restored by a recent hand in the faces. I wonder how much it would cost to clean the picture. It's a fine thing - West at his best.

Things that make you scratch your head

February 27 2012

Image of Things that make you scratch your head

Picture: Salford Museum & Art Gallery

Salford Museum recently asked two teenagers (both aged 13) to leave, because they weren't accompanied by an adult. It was half term week, and instead of hanging round Top Shop, the girls had thought they'd see a little culture. But the Health & Safety brigade were determined to have their way. From The Manchester Evening News):

Stephen Hassall, Salford Community Leisure chief executive, said it had an exemplary record of working with children. He said: “Our child protection policy means we ask that children under 16 are accompanied by an adult for their own safety. “This isn’t unusual and similar policies operate across Greater Manchester.”

Well, it should be unusual. Meanwhile, in The Guardian, Dea Birkett of Kids in Museums, says:

Many museums argue, completely erroneously, that they don't have a choice; it's illegal to allow teenagers in by themselves. There is no such law. But there is an age limit. For a museum to allow a child to visit aged eight or under, it may possibly need to be Ofsted registered. But any older than that, it's up to the individual institution to set its own rules.

It would be wrong to say museums shun all teenagers. They love them in school uniform, all besuited and trotting along behind a teacher. They are very keen to support "out of the classroom learning" as long as those having the lessons are accompanied by plenty of classroom assistants. They'll issue them with the modern-day equivalent of clipboards – hand-held electronic devices – and send them out on tightly controlled trails. Then they'll boast about how many young people have visited their museum each year, and how much they have learnt.

Van Eyck in ultra-high resolution

February 27 2012

Image of Van Eyck in ultra-high resolution

Picture: Universum Digitalis

A reader has alerted me to this excellent site on Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece. You can even zoom in on the infra-red images.  

Ashmolean bids for Manet

February 27 2012

The Ashmolean museum has until August to raise £7.83m to acquire the above portrait by Manet. From The Guardian:

The unfinished 1868 painting depicts a young violinist, Fanny Claus, the close friend of Manet's wife Suzanne Leenhoff, sitting pensively on a balcony. It was a preparatory study for the Le Balcon (1868–9), one of the major works of the impressionist movement, which hangs in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. "I find it difficult to over-emphasise the importance of this picture," said Christopher Brown, director of the Ashmolean [above]. "Manet is a profoundly radical artist and this is a key picture – in some ways it's more radical and more appealing than Le Balcon."

The picture is subject to an export bar after it was sold recently to an overseas buyer for £28.35m. When the picture was first stopped for export, I wrote that the hefty price meant there was no chance of a UK museum stepping into acquire it. Indeed, the National Gallery had the chance to buy the picture at a much reduced price, but declined, largely on account of the outstanding £50m they are still raising for the Duke of Sutherland's second Titian.

But what I didn't know is that the picture is subject to an unusually heavy tax liability. I presume this is because of a series of deferred death taxes. Under Treasury rules, a public museum can buy such pictures at a discounted rate, with the government effectively foregoing the balance in tax due. In this case, the Ashmolean will buy if it can raise just 25% of the total. For this sensible arrangement we have to thank Schedule 3 of the 1984 Inheritance Tax Act. So well done to the Ashmolean for stepping in, and taking up the challenge.

If you'd like to support the Ashmolean's campaign, you can do so here.

Have you seen this?

February 26 2012

Image of Have you seen this?

Picture: Castle Fraser

It was nicked recently from Castle Fraser in Aberdeenshire. The sitter is Prince Maurice of Nassau, after Mierevelt.

Got to Canterbury!

February 26 2012

Image of Got to Canterbury!

A learned reader writes:

I am writing because you recently, and quite rightly, recommended your readers to visit Turner Contemporary in Margate to see the Turner exhibition (the Hamish Fulton show will be worth a visit too).

There are other destinations in Kent that art lovers could set off to with profit, and I would like to put in a plea for Canterbury. The fast train from St. Pancras can now get Londoners to Canterbury in 56 minutes.

Canterbury has three art galleries run by the University institutions in the city - Studio 3 Gallery at the University of Kent (which I run), Sidney Cooper Gallery (Canterbury Christ Church University) and the Herbert Read Gallery (UCA). There is also the Beaney Institute on the High Street run by Canterbury Museums service which is scheduled to reopen after a big lottery-funded make-over in September this year with an Arts Council Henry Moore exhibition. The Cathedral also frequently puts on exhibitions, and is currently home to a very sensitive site-specific sculpture by Antony Gormley.

For a full rundown on Canterbury's cultural offerings, click here

More on Tate's archive disposal

February 24 2012

As I’m a bit of an archive anorak (and sit on a government archive quango), I’ve done a little more digging on the Tate’s ill-fated house-keeping.

The first point to make is that some of the Tate’s archives count as public records, which are governed by the Public Records Act. And it may be that some serious rules were breached. I don't know exactly what was in the disposed archive, but from what I've heard today from impeccable sources, it certainly wasn’t just old photos Tate was getting rid of. This may need to be looked into further.

Secondly, Tate seems to have broken its own rules on the disposal of archives. Tate’s own Acquisition and Disposals policy states (point 12) that in relation to the management of archives:

As Tate holds archives in the Collection, including photographs and printed ephemera, the Board of Trustees of the Tate Gallery will be guided by the Code of Practice on Archives for Museums and Galleries in the United Kingdom (3rd ed., 2002).

Now, the Code of Practice states that, in relation to disposals:

If any archive material is considered for disposal, the procedures set out in the current Registration Scheme for Museums and Galleries in the United Kingdom: Registration Guidelines should be followed; the disposal should normally be announced through the Society of Archivists' Newsletter, as well as in the Museums Association's Museums Journal, and the interests of the appropriate national or local archive service should always be considered.

So far, I can find no evidence that these guidelines were followed. And I think that’s pretty serious. The Tate has today denied that the archive was being junked, and says that it always planned to give it to the Paul Mellon Centre. But I've been told this is not true.


February 24 2012

...if you've had troubling logging into the site today. Bit of a glitch somewhere, trying to fix it.

This is a joke, right?

February 24 2012

A reader has alerted me to a seemingly quite staggering story about the Tate and the V&A throwing out their photographic archive. In fact, it's so bonkers, I can't believe it. From The Guardian:

Art historians have been disturbed by allegations that the Tate was about to dump its invaluable photographic archive in a skip when another institution realised its importance and rescued it, and that the Victoria & Albert Museum has already destroyed its own thematic archive. Curators, who consider such resources vital, were not consulted.

The archives were full of photographs of artworks from their collections and beyond – crucial visual histories, invaluable for comparative research and for studying any deterioration as a result of time or restoration.

Brian Allen, director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, a UK educational charity with links to Yale University, expressed disbelief that the Tate, as the holder of a national collection of British art from the Tudors onwards, did not treasure its archive.

Allen says he received a call out of the blue from a "low-ranking" Tate employee, who told him: "Someone said … you might like the curatorial photo archive because we're about to throw it on to a skip."

Fortunately, Brian Allen sent some vans round to the Tate's skip, and rescued the archive. It is now safely stored at the Paul Mellon Centre. But alas, nobody was able to rescue the V&A's archive, which has been lost:

The V&A admitted dumping archival material using "a secure data disposal service". A spokeswoman denied the decision was a mistake, explaining that in removing the picture archive in 2007 to make way for new gallery space, it believed that a thematic archive "wasn't a method of classification that was really necessary any longer", as it had duplicates of photographs and digital files.

In case you were the ****** ***** *** plonker at the Tate who decided to chuck the archive out, here's why old fashioned photographs of paintings are of invaluable help to art historians.

1 - pictures change over the years, sometimes quite radically, and mainly as a result of restoration. A careful comparison between, say, a photograph of painting taken in 1935 at an auction, and the same picture today can be revealing. Sometimes, pictures lose their recent provenance, and are mistaken for copies, when in fact they are the same painting that was just over-painted years earlier.

2 - old photos often have seemingly trivial but highly useful notes on the back. This might be, for example, the view of a former curator on attribution, or a piece of provenance.

3 - digital archives are fine if you know roughly what you are looking for. But nothing beats going through the actual photographs. 

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