Previous Posts: July 2013

Painting the boss

July 30 2013

Image of Painting the boss

Picture: Katy Homan

Here's my boss, Philip Mould, being painted by Jonathan Yeo, who will soon be having his own exhibition at none other than the National Portrait Gallery (11th September-5th January). One of the sittings was being filmed today by BBC 2's Culture Show, directed by Katy Homan, who took this photo. The programme goes out in early September.

I'm looking forward to seeing the NPG show. Many years ago, long before I worked for him, I bought from Philip a painting by Jonathan, a portrait of Tony Blair. It was a study for Jonathan's 2001 portrait of Blair, which now hangs in the House of Commons. At the time, I always assumed the picture's value would be dominated by the fact that it was of Blair, done from life while he was Prime Minister. But given Jonathan's rising status, I think the fact that it's 'a Yeo' will probably be more important.

Artists on their frames

July 30 2013

Image of Artists on their frames

Picture: The Frame Blog

If you've ever wondered what artists thought about frames, look no further than The Frame Blog, which has compiled letters like this, from Sir Thomas Lawrence (to his patron Mrs Benjamin Gott in 1828):

‘…let me beg to assure you that the comparative richness of the frames now made for them has been adopted with not the remotest view to their impression on the eye as mere splendid decoration.  The pattern has been selected by me and its dimensions determined solely with a view to the advantage of the Pictures: a Frame is so much a part of the Picture, that almost invariably we a little change the effect or colour of some part the moment we place it in the frame, and the work as certainly is the better for it.  The finest picture, seen without an appropriate Frame, loses a great advantage; as on the other hand it sustains material injury from a Frame injudiciously selected.  The most unbecoming character of a frame is the very plain and very narrow… the next defection is the Frame with large obtrusive Ornaments in the centre, and the corners of it.  A good frame (a merely safe one for the general effect of the picture) should be sufficiently broad and rich, but the ornament of that richness composed through-out of small parts, and usually it should be unburnished… The Frame is the clear Decanter not the brush…’

Lawrence's frames are indeed lovely, but our framer here at the gallery would like me to tell you, Sir Thomas, that they have become very fragile over time, and are a nightmare to fix. The little plaster details were never securely attached to the main part of the frame, and they have a habit of dropping off at the slightest touch. Tut tut.

New material on 'Art World in Britain 1660-1735'

July 30 2013

Image of New material on 'Art World in Britain 1660-1735'

Picture: University of York

Lots of lovely new primary source material on Richard Stephens' website. He writes:

1: The art market

The main additions are 180 sale catalogues - featuring 39,000 lots - which represent the publication of three sources that are fundamental for any student of late 17th & early 18th century art in Britain:

A volume of catalogues from 1689-92 compiled by Narcissus Luttrell (1657-1732) and now in the British Library, considered "by far the most important source of information concerning late seventeenth-century taste" (H&M Ogden). Thanks and congratulations to Anna and Peter Moore for having transcribed this volume so efficiently.

A scrapbook of unique art trade ephemera assembled by John Bagford (1650/1-1716) book seller, historian and art dealer. As well as its sale catalogues, the album's trade cards, lottery proposals and handbills are published. The volume, also in the British Library, provides an exceptional view of the every day workings of the picture trade around 1700.

The Houlditch manuscript, a set of catalogue transcripts owned by Richard Houlditch (died 1759), & now in the National Art Library. The pre-1740 contents are published here, which are the chief source for names of auction buyers in the early 18th century.

In addition, brief listings of 300 further sale catalogues - mostly from the 1740s and 50s - are published, describing the sales of artists and collectors who were active earlier in the century.

The index of art sales has been updated with 130 records covering the years 1700-1704. This half decade saw the start of long-term growth in the art market that continued to the 1730s; there was also a changing of the guard within the picture trade, as leading figures of the 1690s died or retired, and new salesmen emerged to replace them.

In total there are now 62,000 auction records on the website. 430 people who bought at auction are identified; 220 people involved in selling pictures by lottery, auction or as dealers/retailers; and 225 addresses where art sales took place  5,300 prices paid for pictures and related services are documented. Collectively these provide a rich & detailed account of artistic production and consumption in this period, when London emerged as a major centre of the international art trade.

2: Sculptors

A list of over 600 sculptors, carvers and related trades has been published, with links to the online edition of the great Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors in Britain 1660-1851, from which this information comes. Many thanks to Greg Sullivan and Ann Sproat for sharing their data.

In addition, research for this website has revealed the names of around 50 previously unrecorded masons, carvers and sculptors, which are currently being added to the Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors.

3: What books did painters read?

If we study the books that painters and others read, we can enter their intellectual world, discover the skills they sought to master and learn about the wider interests and concerns. Materials are now published which address this essential question:

A listing of 320 book subscriptions  across architecture, poetry, history, languages, gardening, theology, natural history and travel. Which two dozen titles did Sir James Thornhill order? Which architectural treatise was popular with early 18th century decorative painters? Which dictionary did painters rely on for help with foreign languages  How did they get their clients' titles and honours right?

The libraries of two prominent painter-dealers are recorded in sale catalogues: Henry Cooke (1700-1) and John Closterman (1706)

During the early 18th century several landmark book collections were formed, such as by the Earls of Oxford and Pembroke. A useful introduction to this subject, which describes 20 of the main book collectors in our period, is provided through the publication here of Semour de Ricci's English Collectors of Books and Manuscripts.

4: Dutch-language materials

Brief notices about painters in England, which appeared in the Dutch press, are published. These were recycled from the London press and show that people in the Netherlands were kept aware of the London art world from time to time. The extracts also include a few Dutch newspaper advertisements for both London and continental book and picture sales, which can help us to understand the networks of distribution that enabled sale catalogues to circulate across borders.

We know that hundreds of Dutch painters came to work in London in the 17th century, but we know precious little beyond that. Two documents now published offered detailed information about the circumstances of these migrations. One dates from 1671  and the other from 1687 (a third, from 1714  is already online). We owe Sander Karst of the University of Utrecht our thanks for kindly translating these contracts.

5. Functional changes

There are two small changes that aim to improve users' ability to access the data on the site: 

A book icon is now displayed next to 'full-text' sources (which contain transcripts or summaries of texts) to distinguish them from 'bibliographic' sources (which are index-style listings, with no texts).

It is now possible to browse through the database of places according to several categories, such as book shops, the premises of colour men, art sale venues, coffee houses, and sites of decorative painting.

I particularly like the material on what artists were reading. Here is the full list of newly-published sources.

China sell off in Croydon museum

July 29 2013

Image of China sell off in Croydon museum

Picture: TAN

Interesting news from Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper from Croydon, in South London, where the Conservative Council has voted to deaccession and sell a collection of Chinese ceramics. The money will be used to refurbish a local theatre and music venue. The collection is worth nearly £13m apparently, and (get this) one of the justifications for selling the collection now is that it might be worth less in the future:

A Croydon Council report to the 24 July meeting argues that there are “very exceptional circumstances” that warrant the sale, although deaccessioning contravenes the council’s own policy. The report says, unless there is a sell-off, security for the Riesco display would need to be upgraded, at a time of spending cuts. It also says it is a good time to sell Chinese antiquities, since if delayed, “any decline in the economic climate in Asia could lead to a decrease in the prices achieved”.

The security factor is a valid one, given the recent spate of attacks targetting museums with Asian artefacts. I wonder, however, if someone should tell the good burghers of Croydon that the value might equally, er, go up. Still, I must admit to a smidgen of ceramic philistinism - if Croydon council were selling a Gainsborough, I'd be manning the baricades. But I can't get as excited about a pot. 

The Council has apparently accepted that the sale will result in the loss of museum accreditation for its museum service, and hence future grants from bodies such as the HLF and the Art Fund.

Update - a reader writes:

It's more than a pot, I believe they want to sell the best of the collection, I think 13 pieces, they are very beautiful examples of Chinese art, bequeathed to the people of Croydon. I live in the neighbouring London borough of Bromley, & have a small collection of 18thC. art & antiques which I possibly might leave to the borough, but the actions of Croydon, have made me think twice about it, seeing how local councils treat cultural gifts.

Update II - Neil Jeffares alerts us to this petition against the sale.

Update III - a reader writes, crossly:

I was deeply surprised that you should not think the sale of the Riesco Collection in Croydon a huge disaster for Croydon, which has so few cultural amenities...and no proper museum or art gallery.

Are you aware not that Croydon owns 500 paintings and 1500 watercolours as well as the Riesco collection, but that the Council closed the really rather pathetically small Clocktower Museum and that nothing, except the Riesco collection, has been on display in recent years?

If the Conservative Council here starts selling things off, they may as well sell off the paintings and watercolours too...not that anybody in Central London cares much for Croydon, London's largest borough....but, you should know, it took 100 years to get the pictures out of storage at the top of the town hall tower in the first place - by a now retired librarian called Heather Kirby who found them filthy and unloved and who found that a large number of pictures had been stolen - and if a precedent is set with the Porcelains, the jewel of the otherwise unseen collection, the picture collection may well follow.

Please take back your comment about caring nothing for 'Pots'. They are all items of cultural value to the people of London, not just Croydon, and though I am no Oriental Ceramic specialist, I think we should fight the cause for everyone who values culture - which I find hard to believe you don't.

At no point in my post did I say that Croydon should sell the china, or any part of the collection. Merely, that I don't feel as protective about pots as I do about paintings. It is self-evidently the case that if, as I mentioned above, Croydon's disposal leads to a loss of accreditation, and the removal of further grants, it will be a disaster. The problem we have to face, however, is that not enough people in Croydon seem to care.

Kunsthal theft trial (ctd.)

July 29 2013

Image of Kunsthal theft trial (ctd.)

Picture: AFP

Apprently, they nearly recovered the pictures in a sting, but it all went wrong at the last minute. The New York Times reports:

“We were about to catch them red-handed,” said Raluca Botea, the chief prosecutor in a special Romanian unit responsible for fighting organized crime and the leader of the hunt for the art thieves. She was one of numerous people close to the case interviewed for this article. Mr. Cosma declined to comment.

Just a few hours later, however, the operation fell apart, when Mr. Dogaru received a warning that the police were tapping his cellphone. Today, six months on, the fate of the paintings is still unknown, as law enforcement authorities in Romania and the Netherlands, as well as art lovers around the world, struggle to penetrate the fog of claims and counterclaims about what happened to the masterpieces, from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam.

Circling Detroit

July 26 2013

Image of Circling Detroit

Picture: BG/DIA

The Art Newspaper has this interesting snippet on Christie's trip to bankrupt Detroit's Institute of Arts, which I mentioned earlier:

At some point in the past two months, Christie’s auction house sent two employees to Detroit to assess DIA’s collection, according to two sources with knowledge of the trip. The employees did not meet with museum leadership during their visit.

Which I guess means they just turned up and went in, clipboard in hand. I hope they bought a ticket.

TAN continues:

The auction house did not show up uninvited, according to a source familiar with the situation, but it is unclear who requested Christie’s services. A spokesman for the city manager Kevyn Orr says his office was not involved. He says he is “unaware” if any of the city’s creditors were behind the request, though several sources suggest this is the most likely explanation. A spokeswoman from Christie’s declined to comment.

Update - a reader writes:

I know the body isn’t even cold yet but, if the collection does end up on the block, there’s one particular painting this country should pursue as it holds a unique place in our cultural history [Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold, the picture in the Ruskin court case].

Great idea!

Update II - more on the DIA situation from Neil Jeffares here, and the Grumpy Art Historian here


July 26 2013

Not very good blogging at the moment - sorry. Things to blame: writing entries for our Samuel Cooper catalogue, the summer, the Ashes, not much news around, and moving house. The last of which is proving far grimmer than I thought. How does one accumulate so much stuff? Where am I going to put my full-length Jervas, given that our rented flat-ette is too small? And why is even the filthiest three bedroom house in central London more expensive than a Rembrandt?

New Rijksmuseum acquisition

July 26 2013

Image of New Rijksmuseum acquisition

Picture: Rijksmuseum via New York Times

The Rijksmuseum has acquired an imagined depcition of the discovery of America, painted 1525-40 by Jan Mostaert. The NY Times reports:

The work, also known as “Episode From the Conquest of America,” was among 202 paintings that were returned to Marei von Saher, the daughter-in-law of Jacques Goudstikker, a Jewish Dutch art dealer between the wars whose collection was looted by the Nazis. After the war, the painting was hung in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, until legal action by Goudstikker’s heirs forced them to return it to the family in 2006.

Ms. von Saher was approached by the Rijksmuseum about buying the painting earlier this year, said Hugo Nathan of the Simon Dickinson Gallery in New York and London, which handled the sale. It brought the work to the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht in March, with an asking price of $14 million.

“It’s a picture that a lot of people were interested in both in North and South America because of it being such an important historical picture,” said Mr. Nathan, “but Mostaert is arguably the most important early Dutch painter, as opposed to being a Flemish master, and the Rijksmuseum was always hoping to secure it for the Dutch nation.”

The Rijksmuseum’s director, Wim Pijbes, said it was one of the museum’s most important acquisitions, because it is one of the oldest Dutch paintings mentioned in the first Dutch art-history book, “Het Schilder-boeck” (1604) by Karel van Mander. He said the museum obtained it after a “long negotiation process with the Goudstikker heirs.” He didn’t disclose the final sales price, but he said that the Rijksmuseum did not pay the asking price.

More details at the Rijksmuseum site here

Jane Austen on the money

July 25 2013

Image of Jane Austen on the money

Picture: AP

Relief all round here at AHN, after the Bank of England unveiled their new £10 note with a correct, of sorts, portrait of Jane Austen. Some news outlets had previously illustrated the note with the so-called Rice portrait, which very sadly is most likely not Jane. The image used on the note above, unveiled by the new Governor, Mark Carney, is a later engraving based on the very cursory watercolour by Jane's sister, Cassandra, which is the only certainly known likeness of Jane.


July 23 2013

Image of Baby!

Picture: Alamy via Guardian

A big AHN congratulatory hug to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the birth of their son. In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones provides a brief history of royal baby portraits, such as Holbein's Edward VI above, and concludes that the new prince should be painted by... Paula Rego. Not a bad idea, actually.

However, given the frosty reaction to Kate's own portrait, I should think one for her baby is the last thing on her mind.

'Visible Storage'

July 23 2013

Image of 'Visible Storage'


Regular readers will know that I get anxious about great art being hidden away in museum basements. The LA Times, however, reports on an intriguing idea:

Behind an art museum's gleaming galleries lies the off-limits and uninviting space that can hold as much as 95% of its collection: storage.

These spaces are often packed with hundreds or even thousands of paintings, decorative art objects and other artifacts that can languish, unappreciated and untouched by curators, for years.

But as a way to bring art out from its underbelly and display more of a museum's possessions, several institutions are embracing "visible storage" in public areas, exhibiting the art without the expense of a spacious, beautifully installed and curated show.

And two new, but quite different, examples are planned for museums in Los Angeles.

At the L.A. County Museum of Art, where only 2.3% of the 119,000-piece collection is currently on view, director Michael Govan has been working with architect Peter Zumthor on new $650-million building plans that would, among other things, bring more artwork out of storage.

Meanwhile, at the Broad under construction downtown, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro are essentially putting the storage room itself — and maybe the idea of storage as well — on display. The Broad is expected to open to the public by the end of 2014.

Update - a reader writes:

I should just like to highlight  that the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre conduct guided tours of their Nitshill storage facility and very good they are too. While I fail to appreciate the utility of art held in public collections languishing unseen - indeed 2nd or 3rd Division art would be better appreciated and loved in private hands - I applaud them for their readiness to cater to the art loving public.

She did burn them

July 23 2013

Image of She did burn them

Picture: AFP

Or at least, three of them. Yesterday, the mother of one of the thiefs accused of stealing seven works of art from the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, who had told police she burned the paintings, retracted her claim. This may, as the New York Times reports, have something to do with the fact that:

Under Romanian law, the crime of “destruction with very serious consequences,” one of three charges against Mrs. Dogaru, carries a sentence of 3 to 10 years — far longer than the punishment for her two other alleged crimes, “supporting a criminal group” and “assisting criminals.”

Oops. Undermining her new found innocence, however, is a report from Reuters that the charred remains of three paintings have been found in her stove:

"We gathered overwhelming evidence that three paintings were destroyed by fire," said Gheorghe Niculescu, head of the team examining ashes that police found in a stove at her house in Carcaliu, a village in southeastern Romania.

Crucial pieces of evidence examined with high-tech equipment were the nails used to fasten the canvases to their wooden frames, and a particular blue paint, Niculescu, of the National Research Investigation Center in Physics and Chemistry, told Reuters.

But he could not say which paintings were destroyed, nor say whether the burned remains could have come from other paintings.

Really keen AHNers can hear me discuss the theft on the BBC World Service, here at 48:20 in.

Why buy a copy?

July 22 2013

Image of Why buy a copy?

Picture: Susie Ray Originals

An article in The Guardian alerts me to a new gallery selling copies of famous artists. 'Susie Ray Originals' in Cornwall will do you a nice signed Monet for £8,000, or a Renoir for £3,900. But, asks The Guardian:

[...] isn't this forgery? Isn't Ray's whole oeuvre that of a cynical charlatan? "I'm not a forger," she says, arguing that she's different from, say, the notorious cockney forger Tom Keating, who avoided jail even after admitting to painting 2,000 fakes of old masters. On the back of each copy, Ray signs her name. Real forgers don't do that. That said, she tells me some of her clients have passed off her copies as the real thing, if not to make money then to show off to dinner guests. One household name (whose identity I can't reveal) loves to boast about his Claude Monet – when it's really his Susie Ray. But isn't Ray facilitating such grubby behaviour? "A lot of famous people pass off my copies as original," she says. "That's up to them."

Susie Ray's website provides us with more reasons to buy a copy, including this baseball card analogy:

Art collectors can use high quality copyist paintings to complete a collection by an original artist, where the work is out of circulation.

The Monets and Van Goghs seem impressive from the website, but the Old Masters less so.

City in debt? Flog the museum! (ctd.)

July 19 2013

Video: CBS

In May, I reported on the possibility that the Detroit Institute of Art's collection could be sold off to pay the city's debts. News today that the city has now filed for bankruptcy has raised the threat, although the state of Michigan has been taking steps to prevent such a calamity, as the Washington Post outlines:

In May, the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, requested an inventory of the DIA’s collection, causing concern among arts leaders that the works could be sold if the city filed for bankruptcy. In June, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette issued an opinion that the city’s art could not be sold to pay off its estimated $19 billion in debt, citing the state’s charitable trust law.

The state Senate recently passed a bill that would prohibit the sale of the city’s art unless sold to a comparable institution to further the museum’s core mission. But the bill has yet to become law, and the museum has hired attorneys to advise it on protecting the art.

“I’m obviously concerned,” said Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums. “We thought that this was behind us in terms of the collection at the DIA, but I’m not an attorney so I don’t know what could happen. This has never happened before.”

The collection is undoubtedly valuable. Graham W.J. Beal, director of the DIA, has called it one of the most valuable in the Western Hemisphere. An independent assessment by the Detroit Free Press estimated that the bulk of the collection could be worth $2.5 billion, although the exact value is impossible to determine because it is rare for so many valuable works to hit the auction block. The DIA has more than 60,000 works spanning centuries, with nearly 90 percent of the pieces in storage.

I bet someone involved in the city's administration will wonder if the 90% in storage can be sold...

Update: Wowee - fast work; The New York Times reports that Christie's is already in on the action:

About a month ago, the institute’s officials were contacted by Christie’s auction house, which asked for an inventory of works and asked if appraisers could visit to assess the collection. It is unclear whether such a visit took place and whether it was creditors or someone else who enlisted Christie’s to begin an appraisal. (Mr. Nowling said that the emergency manager’s office did not do so, and Christie’s declined to comment.)

Update II - Tim Worstall, a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London, says (in Forbes), sell the lot, and quickly!

Leave aside the precise legalities of this for a moment. The City’s in the hole for something like $10 billion and one quarter of that amount could be raised by moving around some paint daubed pieces of canvas. That looks pretty much like a no brainer to me as a start. What is it that we’re supposed to care about? A few pieces of canvas or real lives as they are actually lived? Pensioners moving down from known meat from an animal whose species can be assured to the cat food aisle? Retired city workers getting the medical treatment they were promised for 40 years or keep a few paintings that the well to do like to oooh and aaah at? Get the ambulances back on the road, get cop cars to a 911 in under and hour or please the arts establishment?

It’s a toughie really, isn’t it?

Imagine that the paintings are sold: we’re moving two sets of assets from where they have a lower value to a higher. Firstly, we’re moving money into Detroit. Given that whoever buys the paintings will clearly, by the purchase itself, value the painting more than the money being paid for it we therefore know that the money is worth more in Detroit. Similarly, that the painting is leaving the city means that we also know that the money is worth more to Detroit than the painting. So we have moved two assets from places where they are lowly valued to places where they are more highly valued. The money’s worth more in Detroit and the paintings worth more out of it.

And this is the thing: moving an asset from one use to one where that asset is more highly valued is the very definition of wealth creation. So, selling the paintings would indeed be wealth creation.

Boijmans museum buys 15thC triptych

July 19 2013

Image of Boijmans museum buys 15thC triptych

Picture: Museum Boijmans van Beuningen

I'm afraid I can never get that excited about gold ground paintings, but if you can, then cheer at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen's acquisition of the above c.1410-20 triptych by an unknown artist for more than 1 million euros. More here.

Update - a reader writes:

You say "I'm afraid I can never get that excited about gold ground paintings": but you just did get excited (rightly) about the Lorenzetti panel acquired by the Ferens!! 

That was, I'm ashamed to say, more at a regional UK museum acquiring a such an expensive work. 

Update II - another reader asks:

Not even a little bit excited about the Wilton Diptych? 

Oh alright then. But mainly because it's Richard II.

'Attributed to' or 'Probably by'?

July 18 2013

Image of 'Attributed to' or 'Probably by'?

Picture: National Gallery

The Grumpy Art Historian has noticed that the above Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, on display at the National Gallery, London, is now labelled as 'Probably by Rembrandt', while it used to be called Rembrandt in full. The GAH observes:

I was surprised by the change, partly because I think it's by Rembrandt, and partly because the NG Director has said that he doesn't like using the term 'Attributed'.

[...] They [the NG] confirmed that it was previously given to Rembrandt, and they've now updated the label to 'Probably by Rembrandt'. I think the avoidance of the term 'attributed' is silly, and I think the portrait is by Rembrandt, but on this occasion I think the new label is spot on. The NG is right to reflect scholarly dissent about the attribution, but also the balance of probability towards Rembrandt. Certain technical aspects of the picture are atypical of Rembrandt, and it rather pales beside the awesome power of the finished portrait, usually shown in the same room. But no other artist has come so close to capturing Rembrandt's late manner, and this is a very accomplished picture.

Being a stick-in-the-mud, I prefer 'attributed to'. 

I always feel sad about Rembrandt's oeuvre, which has ballooned wildly in the last century. Once, over 600 paintings were accepted as being by Rembrandt, but only about 340 are today. Rigorous connoisseurship and attributions are to be applauded, but at the same time there's a tendency to be overly exclusionist for big name artists.

The more celebrated a painter, the more art historians he attracts, and, because there is a sort of academic glamour in being an exclusionist, a lowest common denominator effect comes into being where the probability of all scholars agreeing on an attribution is necessarily quite low. So the bar for a work to be accepted as a Rembrandt is placed much higher than many other artists, where perhaps the agreement of only two or three scholars is required. The result is that Rembrandt is rarely allowed to have had off days, studio help, or moments of experimentation (the picture above, for example, is questioned because the ground layer is different from that Rembrandt normally used).

Personally, I find it hard to accept that Rembrandt only produced some 340 pictures in his 63 year lifetime. Van Dyck made over 750 in his, and he died at the age of 42.

Update - a reader writes:

[...] the bust portrait of Margaretha de Geer has been labelled “attributed to” for nearly 20 years now, ever since scientific examination revealed the discrepancies with the artist’s usual techniques.  It was downgraded after the Gallery removed the Old Man in an Armchair from the canon and at about the same time as the Tobit was readmitted.  The only change since then has been the downgrading of the Adoration, though the current cleaning of the Rihel equestrian portrait may prove interesting in this respect.

History of Collecting on telly tonight

July 17 2013

Video: BBC

This looks like fun - the history (or rather, as everything must be these days, the Secret History) of British art collecting, presented by Helen Rosslyn. Programme one, of three, is on BBC4 tonight at 9pm.

Update - I originally had a clip of the programme embedded into the site, but being a BBC clip, with a tedious code, it didn't work (just put it on You Tube please). You can watch the programme here.

It was an enjoyable programme, well made, and often beautifully shot. There were, however, a few moments where breath was sharply inhaled on the Grosvenor sofa. The programme made the mistake of many art histories of 16th Century English art - it judged the era on what has survived, which is almost entirely easel portraiture, and not all the religious and decorative art which has not (the former done for by the Reformation, and the latter because it perished with the buildings it decorated).

The programme's starting premise was that in England we were, artistically, only interested in stiff and dull portraits of ourselves. While it is largely true that collectors such as the 21st Earl of Arundel revolutionised English taste in art with the religious and historical pictures they brought back from the continent, there was nonetheless a non-portrait tradition in England. We can never know much about it, alas, because it hasn't survived.

For me, therefore, a better distinction to make is one of artistic quality. We may well have liked all sorts of art in England in the 16th Century, but almost of all of it was made by artists who paled in comparison to the greats of Europe brought to England by collectors like Charles I and Arundel. Their contribution to the history of art in England was to make us realise what great painters could do,and to raise the bar for our native English talent.

Update II - sharp-eyed viewer John Matthews spotted a possible error on one of the sitters featured in the programme:

The BBC programme on 17th century art collectors was fascinating. It included a sequence in which the Duchess of Norfolk and Helen Rosslyn discussed Aletheia, Countess of Arundel whilst looking at a 1619 portrait by Cornelius Johnson. Unfortunately this was portrait was not of Aletheia and was probably not a Countess of Arundel. I have posted a longer discussion of this portrait on

Update III - a reader writes:

History of Collecting – one of the most interesting and informative programmes I’ve seen for ages you’ll be pleased to hear!  Aside from your comments, and those of readers to your site already posted, a couple more inaccuracies: Charles I too commissioned work from contemporary Italian artists – the Exeters were not the first, from Reni and from Orazio Gentileschi among others – the latter coming over to England.  And I understand the “Rembrandt” at Wilton is now considered a Lievens.

Van Dongen theft in Belgium

July 17 2013

Image of Van Dongen theft in Belgium

Picture: Van Buuren Museum

Another art theft in Europe, this time in Belgium at the Van Buuren Museum, where two thieves stole six pictures valued at over 1.5m Euros. The best known work was Kees Van Dongen's 1906/7 'La Penseuse'. More details here.

Update - a reader writes:

I am a reader of your weblog arthistorynews and wanted to provide you with a few more details on the Van Buuren theft.

According to Belgian newssite, thieves took 10 pictures, not 6. Other sources mention at least 10 pictures. The museum's security system was in full working order, but the thieves left the building after little more than 2 minutes, long before the police arrived. Expert Janpiet Callens argues that the pictures must have been stolen either on behalf of an obsessive collector or in view of asking a ransom. Among the stolen works are pieces by James Ensor, Kees van Dongen, Brueghel the Younger and Adriaen Brouwer. The Van Buuren museum is located in the home of banker, collector and patron David van Buuren and his wife Alice Piette and features their private collection in the villa's art deco rooms.

Fakes, fakes everywhere (ctd.)

July 17 2013

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere (ctd.)

Picture: Telegraph/Weibo

Not our usual fare this, but it's worth reading the story in today's Telegraph about a museum in China that has closed, because its entire collection (of some 40,000 objects) is made up of fakes. Bummer. Still, we must applaud the optimism of the museum's staff:

Wei Yingjun, the museum’s chief consultant, conceded the museum did not have the proper provincial authorizations to operate but said he was “quite positive” that at least 80 of the museum’s 40,000 objects had been confirmed as authentic.

Ferens gallery acquires Lorenzetti panel

July 17 2013

Image of Ferens gallery acquires Lorenzetti panel

Picture: Guardian

Many congratulations to the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, which has acquired the above panel by Pietro Lorenzetti for £1.6m. The picture had had an export licence deferred back in January, so it's good to see the system working, and especially for such an apparently un-glamorous object. Funding came from the gallery itself, the Art Fund, and the Heritage Lottery Fund. More details from Jonathan Jones in the Guardian here. Giant round of applause to all involved. 

Update - the picture was originally sold for £5m, but tax breaks allowed the Ferens to buy it for just £1.6m. More details here.

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