Previous Posts: March 2012

Turner's not-Claude Claude

March 14 2012

Image of Turner's not-Claude Claude

Picture: BG

I was intrigued by this little picture at the new National Gallery 'Turner & Claude' exhibition. It used to belong to Turner, and he thought it was by Claude - his hero. But modern scholars now say it has nothing to do with Claude. Which is all rather sad, don't you think?

I've no idea if it is by Claude or not - but my only thought would be that it's hard to make an attribution either way, given that it is a) dirty b) somewhat over-painted and c) under a thick yellow varnish. It would be fun to clean the picture, and see what it really looks like. You can read more about the work here.

At Maastricht, an important new Van Dyck discovery

March 14 2012

Image of At Maastricht, an important new Van Dyck discovery

Picture: Agnews

Much of the world's art trade has now decamped to a cavernous conference centre outside Maastricht, for The European Fine Art Fair (known as TEFAF). Every year, literally hundreds of dealers descend on the small Dutch town for what has been the leading art and antiques fair in Europe, if not the world. It's a highly impressive set up. Usually they're followed by just as many private jets, carrying collectors, advisers and, best of all, sheikhs. But last year sales were down, and there is talk of the fair losing some of its lustre (not least because London, which has always lacked an international antiques fair, is at last getting its act together with Masterpiece). 

As ever, the trade will have some tantalising recent discoveries to present. A good example this year is from Agnews, who have an important grisaille by Van Dyck (above). It is a previously unknown first design for Van Dyck's most important English painting, The Great Peece [Royal Collection], showing Charles I, Henrietta Maria, Charles II and Mary, Princess Royal. You can zoom in on the grisaille here, and the finished picture here. Note how the figures differ in the final composition. 

"Critics turn on 'Turner & Claude' at the National Gallery"

March 13 2012

Image of "Critics turn on 'Turner & Claude' at the National Gallery"

Picture: BG

That's not my headline, but Reuters'. Adrian Searle in The Guardian and Richard Dorment in The Telegraph dislike the National Gallery's new 'Turner & Claude' exhibition so much, it seems, that their response is the basis for a news story itself. 

First, here's Searle:

Quite why the National Gallery is bringing together the British landscape painter with the 17th-century French classical landscapist, I can only wonder. It is only three years since Tate Britain mounted Turner and the Masters, a fascinating overview of his rivalries and influences – including Claude Lorrain.

Most of the works here are in British collections, the majority from Tate Britain and the National Gallery itself. There are only three major foreign loans, all from the US. So it will cost you £12 to see lots of paintings we already own. Perhaps the exhibition is intended to give respite to all the guards who had to shepherd the fainting, weeping and often hysterical crowds around its recent Leonardo show. Turner apparently burst into tears when he first saw Claude's 1648 Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba. As well as being moved, he probably realised how far he would have to go to beat Claude as a painter. There is nothing new in this observation; nor does this exhibition have anything new to say about the relationship between the two artists.

And here's Richard Dorment, in a petulant mood:

For the life of me, I can’t understand why the National Gallery has gone to so much trouble to tell us something that most people with an interest in British art already know. [...]

The show is a muddle from start to finish. The best I can say about it is that the curators have borrowed some wonderful pictures to hang alongside much-loved warhorses from the National Gallery and Tate. But in the catalogue essays, art historians are given carte blanche to waffle on for page after page explaining ideas that could be written on the back of a postcard.

Don’t get me started on the labels: surely there are limits to the number of synonyms curators may use for “soft”, “glow” and “light”. And you only have to tell us once that Turner left Sunlight Rising through Vapour to the National Gallery in his will.

After seeing the exhibition, I found myself writing a single word in my notebook, but that word happens to be the kiss of death for any exhibition: “Why?”

To which the only response is, well why not? Both Dorment and Searle make the common mistake of thinking exhibitions always have to teach us something 'new'. Personally, I see nothing wrong in putting on shows that just have good pictures, well displayed. One of the nice things about the exhibition is that it isn't constantly trying to impress the visitor with a new theory, or a different idea in each room. Instead, it is a pleasant and gentle extended essay on two of landscape art's greatest proponents. I liked it very much. The rooms are well presented (really, we must stop whingeing about the Sainsbury Wing exhibition space - it's fine), and the pictures are given plenty of space, which is essential for Turner's larger works.

Searle's moan about there being only three major foreign loans is pretty daft, for a key point of the exhibition is that English collectors were so obsessed with Claude that fully half his works were in England by the 1820s. Those that Turner drew particular inspiration from (in the collections of Angerstein, Beaumont and Beckford) went on to become some of the central pictures in our permanent collections. And of course it was Turner's explicit desire that many of his best works remained in public ownership in the UK. So we should be glad that we don't have to look overseas to fill an exhibition like this.

Incidentally, I don't know which catalogue Dorment was reading, but it can't have been the one which accompanies this exhibition. The lavishly illustrated catalogue for this show is shorter than usual NG exhibition catalogues, and the essays, which I thought were excellent, even shorter. There is no waffle.  

For better or worse, critics in the national press have the power, collectively, to make or break a show like this, and by extension have an impact on the National Gallery's reputation. In my view they therefore have a responsibility not to write off major exhibitions so glibly. For in the space of just over a month, the National Gallery has finished hosting a stellar success in Leonardo, bought a £45m Titian, and now presents us with 'Turner & Claude'. And I think that's pretty damn good.

Leonardo for models

March 13 2012

Leonardo drilling - a waste of time?

March 13 2012

Yes, says Mark Hudson in the Telegraph, and sets out the history of Leonardo's original commission, and that of Michelangelo's on the wall opposite:


In fact, the whole thing was a fiasco from first to last. The two artists had as little to do with each other as possible. Leonardo, who had had problems with fresco – tempera on wet plaster – while working on the ‘Last Supper’, took the unprecedented step of applying oil paint directly onto the wall. A thunderstorm created excessive humidity, causing the colours to drip and merge into each other. Discouraged, he abandoned the project.

Michelangelo completed a cartoon, or full scale drawing, but had barely begun the painting itself when he was called to Rome to work on the tomb of Pope Julius II, whereupon his cartoon was destroyed by a jealous rival.

These unfinished, compromised works faced each other across the hall for half a century, before the Florentine authorities decided to get some proper frescoes painted over them in 1555 by Giorgio Vasari, author of ‘Lives of the Artists’, a brilliant chronicler of the artists of his age, but a mediocre painter.

Leonardo’s painting is known principally from a powerful drawing by Rubens, made from a later engraving. Michelangelo’s work, a supremely unrealistic catalogue of male nudity, is known from a copy of his cartoon made by a pupil.

Both of these works and the preparatory drawings produced for them, have been not only endlessly ‘quoted’ over the centuries by artists of the order of Titian, but have been talked and fantasised into a kind of cult-phenomenon.

While it would be wonderful to get further insights into either of them – and in the wake of the London Leonardo exhibition interest couldn’t be higher – I’m not going to get over excited on the strength of two holes bored into a wall and a few minute fragments of plaster.

Vasari may have been a self-serving opportunist, but he genuinely revered both artists and it’s impossible to believe he would have painted over a significant work by either of them. There is of course the currently much discussed possibility that he painted onto a false wall erected to save Leonardo’s painting.

Yet even if a substantial chunk of the Battle of Anghiari is unearthed I suspect the experience will be disappointing. Not only will it be in a deleterious condition, but rather like those lost and legendary albums you wait half a lifetime to hear, only to find your internal life somehow the poorer for the experience, the idea of Leonardo’s painting may prove to be far more potent and inspiring than the actuality.


Face it folks, there's no Leonardo here

March 13 2012

Filming drilling for Leonardo

March 12 2012

Drilling for Leonardo

March 12 2012

'Lost', 'hidden', 'Leonardo'; three words guaranteed to deliver a cascade of press interest. The quest to find Leonardo's lost painting The Battle of Anghiari in Florence's Palazzo Vecchio, which some say was covered up by Vasari's later murals, has uncovered... some old flakes of paint. From The Guardian:

Researchers in Florence say they are one step closer to proving a lost masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, The Battle of Anghiari, is painted on a hidden wall in a cavity in Florence's town hall, where it has remained unseen for five centuries.

After drilling tiny holes in a fresco painted on a wall which hides the cavity, the researchers inserted a 4mm wide probe and took samples of paint, which they say is similar to that used by Leonardo when he painted the Mona Lisa. [...]

The research team's probe confirmed the existence of an air gap, originally identified through radar scans conducted of the hall, between the brick wall on which Vasari painted his mural and the wall located behind it. "No other gaps exist behind the other five massive Vasari frescoes in the high-ceilinged hall," the team said.

A sample of black material removed from the back wall was analysed with a scanning electron microscope using energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy to identify its chemical makeup.

The chemical composition "was similar to black pigment found in brown glazes on Leonardo's Mona Lisa and St John the Baptist, identified in a recently published scientific paper by the Louvre, which analysed all the Da Vinci paintings in its collection", the team said.

"Note that Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa in Florence at the same time," said Seracini, who was featured in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.

Flakes of red material were also found. "Analysis of these samples seems to identify them as organic material, which could be associated with red lacquer. This type of material is unlikely to be present in an ordinary plastered wall," the team said.

And on the BBC, a note of dissent:

Tomaso Montanari, an art historian who has led the opposition to the research said that he did not "consider the source of these findings credible."

He added: "What do they mean by saying the findings are compatible with Leonardo? Any painting from the Renaissance would be. Anything from that era could be painted on that wall."

Whether this was worth all the effort remains to be seen. If the Battle of Anghiari has miraculously survived, and if it is anything like Leonardo's other famousy fragile frescoe, The Last Supper, there won't be much left to see. One could reasonably believe that if it was covered up by Vasari, it must have been done so for a good reason - that is, it had perished beyond use. We know Leonardo took great risks with his murals, and was constantly experimenting. After all, what are the chances that Vasari, the first great art historian and Leonardo's biographer, deliberately covered up a viewable Leonardo? 

Caveat Emptor

March 12 2012

Image of Caveat Emptor

Picture: BG

Intrigued by the above advert in the London Evening Standard, I went along to what seemed like the auction of a lifetime in London yesterday. A Van Gogh for sale at 'total inventory clearance' prices? Too good to miss, I hear you say.

Too good to be true, of course. It was a motley selection of prints, some 'signed', and sold in the strangest 'auction' I think I've ever seen. The lots were put up randomly, with each one preceded by a little speech on how valuable it was. Sometimes (with a Dali for example) the auctioneer made reference to a 'price guide' he had, saying the print was worth £4500, but then starting the 'bidding' at a bargain £1500. And still nobody bought it.

Anyone attending the one hour viewing (that tells you something), was first given a lengthy and seemingly inane document detailing the history of printing, which, at the very end, set out the difference between a 'Fine Art Print' and 'a poster' (answer, not very much). I guess this was to avoid any difficulties on the legal front. The auction itself started with a tale of how all this fine art was being sold so cheaply: because a US art gallery had hoped to establish a large gallery in London, and had shipped all this investment quality art to the UK - but, at the last minute, 'the real estate deal fell through', and so the stock had to be sold off. What a curious way of doing business! (I presume the same tale was given at the previous weekend's auction in Birmingham.) As they used to say in the News of the World, 'I made my excuses and left'.

Zoffany's condoms

March 12 2012

Image of Zoffany's condoms

Picture: Times

In the TLS, Professor Mary Beard talks about her visit to the new Zoffany exhibition at the RA, and Zoffany's most risque self-portrait, above:

...we then explored some of the paintings we didn't know. One (from the Gallery at Parma) was a curious self-portrait of Zoffany apparently putting on a friar's outfit, actually getting ready to go out to party in fancy dress. And he's looking forward to a good time, for on the wall were hanging up, the label said, two condoms.

"But" asked the husband, "why do they say "two"? There's three of them hanging up -- a pair, and one a bit further to the right."

And that's certainly what it looked like. In fact it looked as if the condom on the right was neatly hanging over yet another version of the Venus of Urbino...just to rub in what the painting was all about. We didn't linger long, but decided to check it out when we got home.

That's where the story took a curious turn. Every single image I could get of this painting, including the one in the catalogue (above), crops off a good few centimetres on the right hand side, so you can't actually see what's going on there, and whether there's a third condom or not. In fact, in a major article on Zoffany self portraits (in the Art Bulletin 1987), William Pressly explains that even he hasn't seen the original painting and has only had access to a photo slightly cropped on the right. On the basis of that, he concludes that Zoffany had painted a strange tear in his image of the Venus of Urbino -- a significantly condom-shape tear (and that's the line repeated in the new catalogue). 

Should museums pursue trust status?

March 12 2012

There is much debate in the UK at the moment whether local authority museums, and to a lesser extent archives and libraries, should break free from control by local councillors and enter into what is called Trust Status, which affords much greater independence. In this month's Museums Journal there is an amusing letter* from Laura Wigg-Bailey extolling the benefits:

Being part of a trust is like going off to work or university for the first time – terrifying but totally worth it. You may make mistakes, you may blow the budget on getting Sky Plus or food from Waitrose instead of Lidl but you soon learn that your mistakes affect no one but yourself and you pretty soon put them right. 

In my experience, being part of a local authority museum service means bland corporate marketing, no freedom to respond to new media, and a procurement system that has a minor meltdown when you try to order a replica Viking helmet.

It means councillors who know practically nothing about what their museums and galleries are really for and whose social skills mean any opportunities for advocacy are cancelled out as they make a beeline for the free buffet. 

As for favourable employment conditions – after recent ructions over local authority pensions who can say how long these benefits will continue to outshine those in the private or third sectors? 

No, give me trust status any day and I’ll follow the advice of Adrian Babbidge (as I did when taking over the management of the Uttoxeter Heritage Centre from the local town council) and ensure a water-tight agreement between the local authority and the trust so that museums don’t close or run into the ground from lack of investment.

* to which I was alerted by Peter Davies

More data online at York

March 12 2012

Image of More data online at York

Picture: University of York

I've mentioned before the excellent project run by York University's art history department, which puts primary material online relating to the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. Well, now it has got even better, with a cache of new sales and inventories uploaded. Click here for full details.

Friday Amusement

March 9 2012

Image of Friday Amusement

Picture: Cartoonstock

Sewell on Zoffany

March 8 2012

Image of Sewell on Zoffany

Picture: BG

A dazzling piece of writing from the master reviewer in the Evening Standard. You must read it. However, his gripe is that the show is too small:

Alas, it is too small and, crowded and cramped, will be uncomfortable for visitors. With Hockney hogging the main floor of the Academy, poor Zoffany is hidden away in an attic that is as gloomy as a cellar, the number of paintings exhibited far fewer than the number in the catalogue, their impact weakened by a plethora of negligible prints, drawings and even knick-knacks. Nevertheless, even if only an hors d’oeuvres riches rather than a banquet, it is a sound introduction to a painter with a very wide range of experience and patronage.


Zoffany deserves a longer review to match a more comprehensive exhibition; from the Academy’s there are absentees beyond understanding — those from the National Gallery, the Tate and Greenwich peculiarly irritating; there are more examples in the Royal Collection, and I would like to have seen again the small full-length portraits of Mrs Salusbury in widow’s weeds (black is such a test of a painter’s ability) and Sir Elijah Impey, Chief Justice of Bengal, indulging in dramatic oratory. And we should have been able to see Zoffany’s paintings in the daylight that floods the great rooms below, currently occupied by Hockney.

Sewell may be right that the exhibition is a little too cramped - as my photo from the crowded private view shows above. But he omits to mention the mitigating circumstances. The exhibition was due to be held at Tate, but they (daftly) pulled the plug. So the only available central London space, the upstairs rooms at the RA, was the next best alternative. Surely it is better to have a cramped exhibition, than none at all...

Freud mania

March 8 2012

Image of Freud mania

Picture: NPG/Freud estate

The NPG have release 7,000 extra tickets for the Freud Portraits exhibition. The show will now be open till 9pm on Saturdays.

Let's hope the opening on Saturday evenings is so succesful it becomes permanent. I've never quite understood why visual art is seen as a daytime activity, and performance art an evening one. I like going to galleries in the evening - it's usually the only time I can go.

Renaissance portrait symposium in London

March 8 2012

Image of Renaissance portrait symposium in London

Picture: Courtauld

This looks interesting, a symposium at the Courtauld on Saturday 28th April 'Beyond the Frame: Portraits and Personal Experience in Renaissance Europe'. There's an illustrious selection of speakers, admission is free, and you don't need to book. 

As is increasingly the case these days, the art historical blurb needs reading twice if you're not fluent in the lingo:

In Renaissance art historical scholarship, the category of the portrait has provided a key framework for thinking about and discussing representations of the individual, an emphasis that has been echoed in a range of recent exhibitions celebrating Renaissance ‘faces’.

The inaugural Renaissance postgraduate symposium invites new scholars to explore the limits of this framework. It aims to encourage students of the Renaissance, in its broadest definition, to consider the domestic, devotional and urban environments of portraits. Contributors are invited to consider how the experience of viewing, commissioning and living with portraits affects our understanding of their meaning and function, situating the images within their historical contexts rather than within the museum’s exhibition space. Likewise, we invite participants to challenge the terminology of portraiture and to consider objects and images which do not fit into the conventional category of the ‘portrait’ but which nevertheless ‘portray’ individuals.

Stuart beauties at Hampton Court

March 8 2012

Image of Stuart beauties at Hampton Court

Picture: Guardian/Royal Collection/National Portrait Gallery

Exciting news in The Guardian today about a forthcoming exhibition at Hampton Court, and not just because I live round the corner. The Wild, the Beautiful, and the Damned, which opens on 5th April, will look at the women of Charles II's famously salacious court. And happily, this means many fine portraits by Sir Peter Lely will be included, such as Frances Stuart (above left, Royal Collection) and Barbara Villiers (right, NPG). The latter's portrayal as the Virgin Mary holding one of the King's illegitimate children is still quite shocking, if you think about it.

From The Guardian:

The exhibition, the first at Hampton Court on the Stuart period after a decade spent on the Tudors and Henry VIII, is in the Queen's state apartments, which were created in the late 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren for Mary II.

"Beauty was a very thin line," the show's curator, Brett Dolman, said. "On one side, beauty is taken as a symbol of virtue and perfection, beauty could allow you to rise far beyond your original station in life. On the other, beauty is viewed with suspicion as a snare and one wrong step and your reputation is destroyed forever."

Also in the show will be Lely's full-length portrait of a naked Nell Gwyn, whose recent somewhat tragic auction history I have covered here before. From the Guardian article it sounds as if the picture will be exhibited unequivocally as Nell Gwyn - and this is further good news, for the sitter is undoubtedly Charles' most famous mistress. It was only the late Sir Oliver Millar's rather curious suggestion that the sitter might be Barbara Villiers that introduced any doubt on the identification.

'Zoffany' - press reaction

March 7 2012

Image of 'Zoffany' - press reaction

Picture: Royal Collection

So far, the critics seem to like the Zoffany show at the RA. Here's Alastair Sooke in The Telegraph giving it 4/5, and here is Amanda Vickery in The Guardian. However, Philip Hensher has an engaging piece on the artist in The Telegraph, and makes this bold claim:

He must be the greatest painter of English royalty between Van Dyck and Winterhalter. In his royal paintings, such as the wonderful Queen Charlotte With Her Two Eldest Sons, royalty appears with the necessary spectacle, and even with a whimsical appearance, but also off-duty, relaxed. Other painters of the period, like Gainsborough, rendered royalty as private individuals; Zoffany’s royals have a curious quality, suggesting that they have wandered off from stiffer, stately duties and have flung themselves down without changing their clothes to be alone with each other and the painter. They have, unexpectedly, a connection with Zoffany’s large and innovative series of portraits of actors in their best and most memorable roles.

Meanwhile, over at The Guardian, Jonathan Jones gets into a terrible muddle sneering at Zoffany's Tribuna:

Zoffany's eye for the manners of the English was ironic and true. His strange and wonderful Tribuna portrays the reality of the Grand Tour – a social, not a cultural pilgrimage. It also reveals a trait in British society that remains constant to this day: the studied shallowness of the elite. In Zoffany's grand anthropology of the English ruling class, great art is just a prop for fashion and the rituals of the privileged.

A few quick points (someone has to defend the English elites):

  • First, despite those prostitute-frequenting posh Grand Tourists that historians like to highlight, it is undeniably the case that the lure of Italy was primarily cultural. If it wasn't, most Tourists would have stopped in Paris, and England's country houses wouldn't be full of antiquities, and so heavily inspired by classicism.
  • Second, our best source of information about the painting comes from the correspondence of two high members of the elite whom Jones derides as 'shallow'; they are Sir Horace Mann (who is in the painting, and was an art dealer on the side), and Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford, and one of England's greatest art historians.
  • Third, if the art in the Tribuna was just a prop for the privileged, why did Zoffany take such care to portray the figures as admirers of art, rather than each other? All the conversations in the picture are clearly being held around the objects themselves. Indeed the groupings are really no different to Teniers' depictions of the Habsburg elites admiring Archduke Leopold's art collection.
  • Finally, the Tribuna was commissioned by the elite of all English elites, King George III and Queen Charlotte. And they were browned off that Zoffany had put any people in it. In other words, all they wanted to do was look at the art. They couldn't give two hoots about the social rituals or the fashion.  

More on Weiwei's seeds

March 7 2012

Image of More on Weiwei's seeds

Picture: Guardian

The Art Fund have been in touch, to say:

In terms of disclosure of the details of the acquisition, we are always completely open, as our members would expect us to be, about any grants we have offered to a museum – in this case £100,000. 

Regarding the total cost of the acquisition, we generally also announce the cost at the time of announcement unless the acquiring museum wishes to publish this information separately (which in this case, Tate will do in their annual review, which I believe is published in September).

Curiouser and curiouser. I wonder why Tate wanted to announce the price seperately from the acquisition. Did they fear it becoming a distraction? The Art Fund is usually a generous funder, so in this case one would expect the £100,000 to be a fairly large proportion of the final cost. In which case the 8 million seeds are beginning to look relatively cheap.

Guercino acquired by the Nation

March 7 2012

Image of Guercino acquired by the Nation

Picture: BBC

Guercino's Samian Sybil has been accepted by the UK government in lieu of inheritance tax. The picture was first commissioned by Giuseppe Locatelli, and has been in the Spencer Collection at Althorp. The picture's original pendant, the Cumaean Sibyl, is at the National Gallery. Presumably, the Samian Sibyl will now be allocated to the National permanently.

No value has been released for the Guercino, but it must have been many millions. So thanks HMG for foregoing a whole heap of tax, and thanks also to David Lloyd George for coming up with the acceptance-in-lieu scheme in 1910 (even if inheritance tax itself is horrid).  

Update: a reader has sent me this link to the recent sale at Christie's of Guercino's King David, also formerly of the Spencer Collection, which sets out the history of the set.

Another reader adds:

The amount of tax settled by the Guercino is 3.2 million pounds. As I imagine the work would have been subject to the same 40% tax hit as all the other Spencer items sold in 2010, (including the King David and the Rubens), the value of the Samian Sybil has been determined to be the same as the King David, (which sold for at auction for 5.2 million pounds).

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