Previous Posts: July 2015

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July 20 2015


That's it for a couple of weeks folks - time for AHN to take a break. I hope you have a good summer, wherever you are. And thanks very much for reading. 

Update - sorry, the break turned out to be a little longer than planned. And for some of this week I'll be away looking at various pictures. But I'll post as regularly as I can.

Is the Old Master market dead?

July 17 2015

Image of Is the Old Master market dead?

Picture: Sotheby's

The London summer sales are traditionally seen as the most important week of the Old Master world, and an important indicator of the health of the market. This year, the overall sales total was down on previous years. Sotheby’s evening sale made £39.3m, which could only be described as ‘above estimate’ thanks to the inclusion of buyer’s premium in the final totals (catalogue estimates do not include premium). Christie’s sale was pretty disastrous. Already hit by the loss of the Beit collection pictures, their total was a sad £18.9m. 

In some quarters such patchy results have produced anxiety, and even gloom. Is the Old Master market dying, people ask? A leading art market journalist told me after the sales that, because hardly anyone wants to own old art these days, we are witnessing the ‘end of the market. End of story’. 

The latest publication of Artnews ‘Top 200 Collectors List’ stated another apparent decline in Old Master collecting - of the 200 collectors featured, only 10% were buying Old Masters, whereas in 1990 it was 15%. This theme was picked up in the wider press, as evidence of a ‘growing decline’ in the Old Master market. 

Finally, in a piece for the New York Times, Scott Reyburn cited the decline of independent dealers as further evidence of a wider collapse of the Old Master market, and quoted the dealer Edmondo di Robilant (who deals in both old and modern art, though the latter only more recently) “People don’t go to galleries any more, and they don’t buy old masters,” he said. “They’re not part of the overall mood of today’s taste.”

Well, bulls**t. Yes, the recent sale totals were not stellar, but that’s no reason to panic. There’s no reason to believe that Old Masters are falling through the floor. You might say I’m biased, and, being an Old Master dealer myself for over a decade, merely trying desperately to inflate the market. All I can say is, either I’m writing this because I’ve managed to make a fairly decent living out of selling Old Masters for the last ten years (and mostly to the ‘middle market’ everybody says doesn’t exist), or I’m a delusional fantasist. You decide.

Let’s look then at the various portents of doom. First, that Artnews ‘Top 200 Collectors list’. I’d like to know how reliable and scientific is the data. Who compiles it, who decides who is a top collector, and on whose figures? We are not told. I suspect the list is dominated by modern and contemporary buyers because they’re more likely to be public about the art they buy. For many collectors of contemporary art, it’s about the brand, the glitz, the big names, and buying the art is a way of buying into it by association. It’s conspicuous consumption. 

In my experience, those who buy Old Masters (and who may be just as rich as their contemporary-collecting peers) are rather discrete and introverted. You might say, well the point is it’s not seen as ‘cool’ to buy Old Masters - and you’d be right. But that’s not news - Old Masters haven’t been cool for decades, even centuries - so we can’t use that fact as evidence of a sudden decline on Old Master interest. And in any case, aren’t Impressionists still ‘cool’ - or rather ‘hot’? Not according to Artnews, who say there has been an even bigger decline in people buying impressionism and post-impressionism. In 1990 that sector accounted for 18% of sales; now it’s just 9% - less than Old Masters. This hardly tallies with the explosion in prices for works by Monet et al. In short, I think the Artnews collector’s list has more to do with marketing than data.

Then let’s look at the numbers for the recent London Old Master sales. Sotheby’s average evening sale total for the last 9 years is £41.05m, so they hardly disgraced themselves this time around with £39.3m. Add in the totals for Old Master drawings and sculptures (and why not, it’s an indicator of demand for ‘old art’), then the total Sotheby’s haul for the week was £52.03m - or, to put it in context, just over a third of Sotheby’s recent combined total for their summer contemporary and art evening and days sales. Is that really a sign of a dying market? 

Christie’s 9 year evening sale average is slightly less than Sotheby’s - £39.6m - and there’s no denying that this year’s sale for them was bad news, at £18.99m. (Their total for ‘old art’ sales in the week was £26.59m). I suspect the Beit pictures might have added some way over the combined lower estimate of £5.3m. But if we’re honest, the disappointing Christie’s sale total might have something more to do with the fact that Sotheby’s - in both London and New York - has ‘the big mo’ when it comes to securing big pictures.* 

Anyway, even if we concede that the overall auction totals last week were disappointing, this to me reflects no alarming decline in Old Master demand. Rather, it reflects the more obvious fact that the sales themselves were disappointing. There were no star lots by Titian, Rembrandt, or Rubens this time around. There was only one fully catalogued Van Dyck (in Christie’s day sale). There was no major Canaletto, and no Turner or Constable landscape. 

Instead, the stellar lots were a Bellotto of Dresden (at Christie’s, estimated at £6m-£8m), and a Cranach ‘Mouth of Truth’ (above, at Sotheby’s, estimated at £6m-£8m). The former, a nice enough picture, failed to sell, probably because it carried an estimate we might expect to see for a Venetian scene. The latter was certainly an important work, but could hardly be called a masterpiece - and yet it sold for £9.3m. That’s an astonishing price for Cranach, and a new record. And from what we’re told it sold to a Chinese buyer.

A Chinese collector of Old Masters, buying Cranachs for a record sum? That seems to me a sign of a market in rude health. Indeed, we’re also told that a Chinese collector bought a portrait by Ferdinand Bol for £5.2m. Think about that - a portrait by Bol (hardly an artist to set the world on fire) for £5m, going to China? For me, that more than makes up for the apparent lack of Russians (doubtless hit by various sanctions) buying second-rate Brueghels - which arguably has been an inflated market for some time now.

So, forgive me for being optimistic, but I still see signs that the Old Master market is actually in good health. And nor should one below par sale make us forget some of the other extraordinary prices that have been achieved in recent years - prices which, not so long ago, had commentators saying Old Masters were the new thing; a George Stubbs making over £20m, a small drawing by Raphael making $47.9m, a Turner making £30m, and so on. The number of Old Master artists who make big prices is far more diverse than the 20 or so who seem to dominate the modern and contemporary market.

And what are we to make of those other Old Master voices who are happy to feed the media narrative that the Old Master market is dying? Regular readers will know that I take a dim view of dealers who say things like ‘nobody buys Old Masters anymore’. Often, they’re just looking for excuses for failure. It’s much easier to blame a change in taste for the fact that you can’t sell pictures any more. 

Here, the wider story is the fact that the Old Master market is (and has been for the best part of a decade) undergoing a profound change in the way it operates. Those dealers who moan about a lack of good pictures to buy or clients to sell to tend, in my experience, to be those who have been around a bit - those who used to be good at the traditional retail model of art dealing. In the old days, you could get away with buying fully catalogued pictures at auction, and then asking a hefty margin in either your swanky London gallery, or at a fair like Maastricht. You needed a bit of flair, the right accent, and a nice showroom. 

But now it’s almost impossible to do that anymore. First, the transformation of London property prices, with international fashion brands prepared to pay through the nose for loss-leading premises in central London, has forced dealers either to vacate the traditional areas like St James’ altogether, or to move out of ground floor premises into 1st or 2nd floor offices. Such moves come with a corresponding lack of accessibility. 

Most important, however, has been the change brought about by the internet. These days, a client can see a picture in your gallery, and, if you’ve bought it at auction fully catalogued (ie, it’s not a discovery or privately sourced painting), can find out on their phone within a minute what you paid for it. Not surprisingly, clients who know you’ve bought a picture for £50,000 are reluctant to give you £100,000 for it. Nobody should be surprised by this; the internet has empowered consumers as never before. 

But the art market is subject to this sort of technological pressure more than many other markets. When you buy a car from a dealer, or your milk from a supermarket, you can’t quickly go to Google to find out the original cost price of either the car or the milk. So it’s easier for the middle man to ask a profit. But in the art world the product is much easier to identify; we’re dealing with unique works that have identifiable titles, creators and images, all of which are easily searchable thanks to price databases like Artnet. Even Google’s reverse image searching now makes it possible to look up the source of ‘sleepers’.  The contemporary art market, of course, is able to shrug off the same phenomenon, because prices are seen to be rising quickly. In a rising market, sometimes it’s helpful to be seen to be paying a record price for a work.

The flip side of this new internet-dominated market efficiency is that many dealers find it hard to compete with auction houses. It also means that dealers don’t bid at auctions as much as they used to, and this can lead to some strange volatility in auction totals, as we’ve seen this week. In most markets, auctions are an inefficient way to sell high value items; you’re exposing your goods to the market on just one day of the year, and are thus vulnerable to a whole range of uncertainties, be it a bad internet connection or phone line interrupting a bid, the fact that someone’s over-spent that week already, or may be ill, as well as wider phenomena like international sanctions directed towards a specific country. Traditionally, markets which revolve heavily around auctions depend on a network of secondary dealers to underpin prices, for those dealers are prepared to hold onto stock for inventory and to meet market requirements at other times of the year. These days, however, none of that applies to the Old Master auctions - it’s mostly private buyers bidding. And when you’ve got literally hundreds of works on offer in one week of the year, it doesn’t take much to soak up the pool of potential clients. Nor do auction houses guarantee their Old Master sales to the hilt, as they do in the contemporary sales.

Furthermore, one of the dealer’s traditional niche advantages, the art fair, is also undergoing changes. Maastricht is, it seems, in more or less permanent decline. Some dealers still do well there. But the writing is on the wall, mainly because it’s too far away, and has not responded quickly enough to the whims of the new rich. Clever dealers are already getting out. Frieze Masters, which for many (including me for a while) seemed like the great new hope - because it’s in London - is also not performing for Old Master dealers.**

There are, however, dealers who are succeeding in the new Old Master market - and more than you might imagine. I won’t embarrass them by naming them here. But I can tell you that they operate in a wholly different way to those dealers who regularly grumble about the declining market. And also that they’re feeling confident and bullish about the future. They tend to focus on one or two genres, and invest heavily in research - which is the only way to compete against the dominance of the auction houses. Dealers can never out-market or out-spend auction houses. But just occasionally they can out-think them.

While I maintain that the demand for Old Master pictures remains strong, I will concede two things. The first is that taste is changing within the sector. It should come as no surprise that overtly religious pictures, especially heavily Catholic ones of gory martyrdoms, are not likely to sell well in these increasingly secular days. The taste for traditional Dutch 17th Century pictures is also showing signs of fatigue. And yet there are other areas of the market that are gaining strength, such as English 16th Century portraiture - witness the close to £1m price for a workshop of Holbein portrait of Henry VIII at his most corpulent last week at Sotheby’s. Ten years ago that would have been a half million pound painting at the most. Indeed, so strong is that particular niche of the market that the picture was bought by a dealer; my former employer, Philip Mould.

Secondly, the Old Master market as a whole is pretty woeful when it comes to promoting both itself and its product. Having dealers whinging publicly about nobody buying Old Masters is bad enough. But how many dealers have good websites, with innovative content? How many make an effort to get out there and sell their wares in both the press and social media? Why am I the only Old Master dealer to have a blog? As ever, the auction houses are leading the way here, with good online videos, and creative marketing. They even make the effort to take Old Master paintings to new markets - both the Bol and the Cranach sold by Sotheby’s were exhibited in China before the sale.

So no, I don’t agree that the Old Master market is dying. For me to believe that, I’d have to believe that interest in Old Masters was declining in general. And yet we’ve just witnessed, in Late Rembrandt in both London and Amsterdam, one of the busiest Old Master exhibitions ever staged, with queues around the block. They’re still making films about Turner, while anything with Leonardo in it seems guaranteed to sell. And (I’m sorry if this sounds like boasting) in ‘Fake or Fortune?’ we regularly get audiences of up to 5m taking an interest in Constable or Van Dyck. In other words, the Old Masters, if presented in the right way, are arguably of more interest to the general public than they’ve ever been. It shouldn’t be that hard to sell them.

Update - an important collector writes:

Great read on the subject.

All I could think was to say: hear - hear!

It is up to the "younger" generation of OM dealers to educate & present their wares in a relevant way.

I myself use to buy/"collect" all the contemporary junk available from my 20's till my 40's....then sold the lot and embarked on a new fantastic journey.

I'm learning daily.

However, I have to be honest with you re dealers complaining and talking the OM market down...this is great for me (and surely for others with deeper pockets) in that prices do not explode as a result of this.

Update II - another reader writes:

The problem also coincides in a decades long declining interest in early-modern history amongst academics. I think there is a need to culturally address how the past can be more than just a fantasy for a middle class holiday, or a weekend pleasure diversion in a gallery. When the Old Masters were most prized was precisely when contemporary artists were inspired by them and fine art education rigorously taught the language of drawing and painting, rather than neo-Dadaist 'sophistry'.

Update III - a sleuthing dealer, responsbile for some of the greatest art discoveries of all time, writes:

Congrats on your article. 

Personally, I'll say times are the best ever for OMP. Connoisseurship is receding at a general there are more opportunities to make 'discoveries. 

Prices for 'true' masterpieces are higher than ever.

Those are the golden years of OMP.

A young dealer & scholar from Europe writes:

I am a reader of your blog since you started it and today I am writing to you to say : Thank you!

Your latest article about the so-called "decline of the Old Masters" is great and you said what I have thought for a long time.

I myself am an Old Master Painting dealer and I might say a young one since I am running my gallery for four years now. And I have to fight exactly with the problems you mentioned: everyone saying OM are not cool, no one wants to buy them and the lack of new ideas for presentation as well as for the selections of paintings you sell. I can only confirm that there are (also young!) buyers for OM and they are absolutely fascinated by these. They mostly cannot believe that you can buy a brilliant painting which is about threehundred years old for a price that is not even comparable to a work of contemporary art (in quality and in price).

Research is another very important thing. And I offer my clients technical and arthistorical analysis as well as the ALR certificate. I also try to find new ways of presentation (at fairs and in the gallery) , including new media/ certain things you wouldn't expect to find with old masters. As my gallery is quite young I have to admit that it is not always  easy to find clients and to catch on with the established dealers. Anyway, I am still trying...

And an economist writes:

Your piece says it all. 

The difficulty with the Old Masters market is that the works appeal mainly to people who can afford them and know something about pre twentieth century art  which is a smaller market but competitive for top works and good pictures generally. It's a good market but isn't likely to expand noticeably because little effort is devoted to expanding the elite sell side versus the populist exhibition side. And the supply of quality works is limited and holding periods are generally long.     

The Contemporary market is much larger appealing to people who can afford it and either know art (like all periods some is worthwhile) or believe what they are told about it or have investment advisers whom they believe or want to belong to the group of competitive collectors (like finding rare coins or antique automobiles).  There is a vast and expanding supply of goods with dealers and in vaults, and the average holding period is probably shorter. Additionally, in some counties like the US there can be government sponsored financial incentives (deductions) to buying and donating art at an appraised value which subsidize the habit/hobby/sport  

As a non income producing asset class - a store of value - it relies on a constant supply of buyers who can't sell any large percentage of their holdings simultaneously or the market will implode. Currently there are plenty of buyers with vast liquidity who would rather hold a Francis Bacon or a Giacometti than more bank deposits or another London property.  

* That said, I should disclose that Christie’s sold a picture for me last week, and I was very pleased with how they handled it from start to finish.

** Masterpiece seems to be doing well, however; I've always been a fan of it. It's a very different fair to the traditional Maastricht and Frieze Masters approach, and that seems to be paying off for picture dealers. Selling at Masterpiece is fine art, however (no pun intended). Over the years I've seen some old-school dealers turn up with the same type of stand they're used to having, with the same pictures, presented in the same way as c.1985. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't work; Masterpiece is not about replicating your first floor gallery - you have to realise that it's a retail environment, catering to the super-rich whose experience of shopping is entirely different from the traditional experiece of art buying. Dealers who have done well there have to be quite careful about which works they take, and how they present them.

'Fake or Fortune?' - plug!

July 17 2015

Video: BBC

This week in 'Fake or Fortune?' we look into a 'mystery Old Master' in a church in Lancashire. More here

New Louvre store to go ahead

July 17 2015

Image of New Louvre store to go ahead

Picture: TAN

In The Art Newspaper, Vincent Noce reports that, despite the objections of 42 out of 45 curators, the Louvre's new out of Paris storage site is to go ahead. It is due to open in 2018. 

Can you hear a painting?

July 17 2015

Video: National Gallery

The National Gallery's new 'Soundscapes' exhibition - in which musicians have been invited to create sounds for paintings - has not exactly been met with praise by critics. Which is not surprising, when even the trailer (above) is dull and pointless. Here's Laura Cummings in The Observer:

Soundscapes is the worst idea the National Gallery has come up with in almost 200 years. It is feeble, pusillanimous, apologetic and, even in its resolute wrong-headedness, lacks all ambition.

Ouch. It's no suprise to find - via an interview in The Sunday Times - that this is the exhibition outgoing director Nicholas Penny has 'had least to do with' during his time in charge. 

New Romney Catalogue Raisonné

July 17 2015

Image of New Romney Catalogue Raisonné

Picture: Yale

I've been wondering lately whether to institute a new AHN category called 'Heroes of Art History'. And surely an early recipient of this life-changing award must be Alex Kidson, whose invaluable new catalogue raisonneé of George Romney's paintings has just been published by Yale.

It's a three volume work, and costs a hefty £180. But that's worth it for what you get - the most thorough analysis yet of one of Britain's greatest painters. Here's the Yale blurb:

This magnificent catalogue, in three volumes and with nearly 2,000 illustrations, will restore George Romney (1734–1802) to his long-overdue position – with his contemporaries Reynolds and Gainsborough – as a master of 18th-century British portrait painting. The product of impressive and thorough research undertaken over the course of 20 years, Alex Kidson asserts Romney’s status as one of the greatest British painters, whose last catalogue raisonné was published over 100 years ago. In more than 1,800 entries, many supported by new photography, Kidson aims to solve longstanding issues of attribution, distinguishing genuine pictures by Romney from works whose traditional attribution to him can no longer be supported. The author’s insights are guided by rich primary source material on Romney—including account books, ledgers, and sketchbooks—as well as secondary sources such as prints after lost works, newspaper reports and reviews, and writings by Romney’s contemporaries.

Alex Kidson is special projects fellow, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, and was curator of the 2002 bicentennial exhibition George Romney 1734–1802.

I've met Alex quite a few times over the last decade or so, and have seen first hand his tireless deidcation to the Romney cause. I've even sent him a few new Romney discoveries for potential inclusion over the years, and I think I'm right in saying that they're almost all in the book. Needless to say, the one picture I know has not been included is one that I actually own, which I suppose is a Romney version of Sod's Law. The last I heard, Alex had said 'maybe'. But it's an interesting picture, and I like it regardless.

The book is available to order here, and has been sponsored by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.

BP Portrait Award

July 17 2015

Image of BP Portrait Award

Picture: NPG

Yesterday, I was able to finally see this year's BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. I've always been a fan of the Award and the NPG's advocacy of modern portraiture. But this year's selection was one of the worst yet.

Regular readers will know that I've long ranted against the way photo-realism has infected both the Award, and modern painting in general. This year the BP exhibition is stuffed full of paintings which are specifically designed to look like photographs. Above is Eliza by Michael Gaskell, which was awarded 2nd prize.

Why? What is the point? Painting a photograph is as artistically pointless as photographing a painting. A portrait, in its classic sense, is about more than capturing a person in one moment of time; it is about an artist's studied observation of an individual over a period of time (traditionally over multiple sittings). A photograph, by definition, forces us to focus on a split second. And trying to mimic that photograph forces painters and painting, as a genre, to become nothing more than a human inkjet printer.

Perhaps the problem is that we are now so conditioned to seeing the world through a lens, be it on our TV screens or, increasingly, on our phones. Consequently, we even seem to prefer paintings that format and light themselves in the same way as a photograph - short depths of field, the illusion of flash. But pardon me if I yearn to see at least some modern painters try and exercise a little confidence and independence with both brush and eye.

There were a couple of pictures I liked, but these were all eschewed by the judges. My favourite was a self-portrait by Alan McGowan (below). Good painter.

For one brief moment in 2013, the Award seemed to be turning away from photo-realism - a change I think we must ascribe to the presence of Lucian Freud's assistant David Dawson on the judging panel. This year, however, he is no longer a judge. There need to be more painters on the judging panel in future.

Digby Warde-Aldam in Apollo wonders if the Award has had its day, so poor is this year's offering. 

Update - Alan McGowan writes:

Thank you for your kind comments about my painting in this years BP Portrait Award. I thought I would write to thank you and also to add my tuppenceworth on the issue of the use of photography in painting which you raise and which is a subject which is on my mind a lot. 

The use of photography as primary source material is endemic in the contemporary figurative world and yet I don't think it is being seriously thought about or questioned enough. What does it mean about the artworks and our perception of them and indeed the world we inhabit? If photography is able to capture a certain momentary image then is not the job of painting to do something else? Certainly I think it is possible to work from photographs but its current ubiquity is troubling. Personally I only work from life because I think this is how my work becomes most vivid, and my feeling is that there is a massively rich area of experience and potential to be explored there and that a case has to be made for it.  I recently had two experiences which brought my thoughts on this subject into sharper focus (excuse the pun). 

As you commented the BP Portrait exhibition has many paintings which are not only seemingly derived from photographs, but also embrace the visual language of photography - depth of field etc including details of the sitter such as pores or single hairs which, frankly do not constitute my experience of people or the world around me. To me it would also be true to say that certain of the paintings, those in a more obviously classical tradition, whilst possibly not executed from photographs yet still seem to embrace a kind of photographic aesthetic - in that one gets the feeling that the closer they came to resembling a photograph the "better" they would be thought to be.

At the same time as I was in London for the BP exhibition I  coincidentally had the opportunity to attend a book launch and lecture at the National Portrait Gallery by Roger Malbert of the Hayward Gallery entitled "Drawing People", his overview of contemporary figure drawing which featured the work of many contemporary artists (from what we might call the "conceptual" camp) - the most well known of whom were people like Marlene Dumas and Francesco Clemente. What transpired in the lecture and was confirmed in the question and answer session afterwards was that all of the artists he had chosen are working from photographs or from their imagination - but none of them from life. I asked Roger what he thought the significance of this was but he didn't have a theory about it, although he did personally seem reasonably well disposed towards life work.

The drawings in Malbert's book generally eschew what I would call traditional draughtsmanly skills, and the BP works are generally technically accomplished, so they are diametrically opposed yet ironically they are largely united by a common source in the photograph: I found myself in the National Portrait Gallery between Malbert's presentation of conceptual figuration and the BP exhibition of representational figuration, and it seemed like nearly all of this stuff was underpinned by photography.

Why should this be so? Clearly there is a proliferation of photographic imagery and especially now digitally - magazines, advertising, mobile phones, the internet etc, the mediation of experience through reproduction, the rise of the virtual, the "hyperreal"... of course. This is interesting and valid stuff and has been explored by artists going back to Warhol et al, but it is not the only stuff. It is not the only source of our experience. We still live in a world where we negotiate with our minds and our senses - and I think in a much more interesting way than we interact with the images in magazines and on our mobile phones.

My feeling is that there are positive virtues to be gained from working from life. I believe that I do not experience the world in the same way that a camera does; that the technical precision of a photographic view of the  world offers a seductive but basically false rendering, one which is based on an idea of the world as understandable, containable, defineable, precise, whereas my feeling is that the world is full of ambiguity, doubt, compromise and guesswork.

A good articulation of this is contained in Sarah Bakewell's description of Michael de Montaigne's world view "To try to understand the world is like grasping a cloud of gas, or a liquid, using hands that are themselves made of gas or water, so that they dissolve as you close them." To work in a life situation is to directly experience this mobility of experience, and not only that it gives us it as a subject. 

Further I believe that the creation of an artwork - the materials, surfaces, processes and attitudes is somehow analagous to the processes of perception so that the the making of the thing becomes in some way an exploration or example of the partiality of our engagement with the subject/sitter. This whole terrain is to me the stuff of living perception; the interpretation and creation of our own version of the world - nearly all of which is absent from a photograph, so all that is lost before you even start. 

Another quality that photographs emphasise (as well as stillness) is flatness and it seems by extension that, removed from the 3-dimensional qualities of the world, the paint too in photo-derived painting takes on a flatness (which is perhaps even perceived as a virtue) rather than exploring its' sculptural and textural potentials - runniness,  impasto etc, which has been part of the vocabulary of paint going back to Titian, Rembrandt etc. Perhaps for some the technical process of squaring up would have an effect here, as it removes the construction of the painting from any flow or physical momentum.

I had an experience recently of working in a portrait painting situation with a number of artists who took photographs on their ipads and began squaring them up and copying them onto canvas - completely ignoring the models who were sitting! Of course the models were totally undermined and demotivated by this. They were in effect superfluous after their photos had been taken. The absurd situation served to emphasise another terrain which impacts on a portrait and that is the significant contribution of the sitter. The relationship of the artist to the sitter is the stuff of figure work - the space between them is vivified and is in reality the subject of the work. A replacement with a photograph is simply a different, perhaps more controllable, but certainly impoverished thing. I work with lots of life models, mostly very good, and am acutely aware of the contribution they make to a painting.

Why do people work with photographs rather than working from life? I think there are a number of reasons, some more laudable than others. It is more convenient. It is cheaper. It is more controllable. It is expected in the art schools. Technically, in terms of drawing, it is certainly easier. I think the aesthetic of the photograph can seem to represent a form of "reality" which has come to be commonly accepted - related to ideas of accuracy or objectivity, perhaps even a faith in the mechanical. Also the contemporary art world has created a void in which "skillfull" representation can seem a welcome relief from artworks with often no obvious technical merit. I think however, more importantly, it is a lack of recognition of the more fascinating, the profounder and more elusive qualities of working from life: this area is not being understood or promoted. And it is practical so it has to be done to be understood not talked about. The lack of life drawing at school or art school has had a hugely detrimental effect - to the point where even if it is taught now it is largely reduced to the basics of proportional accuracy with little engagement with purpose or context (apart from the contemporary flirtations with a revived classicism).

I think there is enough feeling from all sides - artists, students, the public for a healthier debate about this stuff. It is currently bubbling under but should come out I think, and will be exciting and fruitful when it does.


July 16 2015


I'm down in London for various meetings; so apologies for the lack of AHN the last two days. 

'Old Flo' safe

July 13 2015

Image of 'Old Flo' safe

Picture: Art Fund

A Henry Moore sculpture known as 'Old Flo' will not, it seems, now be sold by the London Borough of Hackney. The Borough's recently deposed Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, had pledged to sell the statue, triggering a campaign. Rahman's successor, John Biggs, has now said the piece will not be sold. Good - well done him.

More here.

'Fake or Fortune?'

July 13 2015

Image of 'Fake or Fortune?'

Picture: BBC

Last night's episode of 'Fake or Fortune?' got a record audience for us of 5m average viewers, peaking at 5.8m. Everyone's very pleased at ForF HQ - so thanks for watching. We were competing against the new series of 'Dagon's Den'.

If you missed it, here's the episode on the BBC iPlayer. Overseas readers - keep an eye on You Tube. Tho' obviously I didn't tell you this.

An Old Master swindle?

July 13 2015

Image of An Old Master swindle?

Picture: Sotheby's

A London-based art dealer, Timothy Sammons, has been cited in a raft of lawsuits in both Britain and the US over claims that he didn't pay consignors for pictures he sold. There are claims over a £1.6m Canaletto, a £380k Van Gogh sold via Sotheby's (above), and another group of paintings sold for £7.1m. Where did all the money go? More here in the Antiques Trade Gazette.

New Liotard exhibition

July 12 2015

Image of New Liotard exhibition

Picture: Shonbrunn Palace, Vienna

The new Jean-Etienne Liotard exhibition here in Edinburgh, at the Scottish National Gallery, is extremely good - and well worth a trip if you can make it. That said, the show moves to the Royal Academy in the Autumn.

I blagged a trip to the press preview, where I pretty much had the place to myself. This was lucky, for the delicacy and stillness of Liotard's works, the majority of which are in pastel, is best appreciated in silence and space. When looking at Liotard's portrait of his daughter, above, I experienced one of those rare moments when my eye was momentarily fooled by the painting's exquisite realism; for a split second, I believed I was looking at an actual wooden doll. Then my brain caught up - nope, that's a painting. It's happened to me before with a Holbein. 

Anyway, for mastering the then relatively new medium of pastel, Liotard ranks for me as one of the great geniuses of painting. To see so many works together in one place and in good condition was a treat. He could also paint in oil - though the portraits on show reveal a hesitancy and adherence to convention one doesn't see in his pastels - and he was good at portrait miniatures too, as a fine pair of Charles Edward Stuart and Henry Benedict Stuart (below) show.

I was glad to see the below portrait of the Countess of Northampton on display as a work fully catalogued as by Liotard. It had recently been sold at Christie's in New York as 'attributed to Liotard' for the relative bargain price of $242,500. The picture had been rejected by the authors of the 2008 catalogue raisonné, but was considered an autograph work by the great pastel connoisseur, Neil Jeffares. For what it's worth, I saw the picture at the sale and thought then that it was 'right'. It now belongs to the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth - a good buy, for a not dissimilar and fully catalogued Liotard made almost £1.2m in Paris in 2012.

The show is in Edinburgh till 13th September. There is an excellent catalogue, available here.

A new Bellotto discovery?

July 12 2015

Image of A new Bellotto discovery?

Picture: Sotheby's

I had a long look at the above picture at Sotheby's last week - a newly discovered work by Bernardo Bellotto (above). Auction houses like Sotheby's are more modest about making discoveries than tarty art dealers like me, and there was no mention in the catalogue that the picture had been consigned to them as a work by an unknown Italian vedute painter. Sotheby's sharp-eyed specialists soon spotted, however, that the composition matched (with minor differences) a drawing by Bellotto, below, made when he was between 13 and 16. The painting therefore seemed to fit as an early work by this important artist.

I'm no expert in this area, but the technique seemed to fit perfectly for early Bellotto, and, a few condition issues notwithstanding, I thought the cataloguing was spot on. Thinking that the estimate of £80,000-£120,000 was a little cheap, I advised a collector to bid on what appeared to be something of a bargain.

But at the last minute a saleroom notice was put up, which read:

Please note that, following first hand inspection, Bozena Anna Kowalczyk is of the opinion that this work is by a follower of Bernardo Bellotto.

In other words, the picture was a copy. Kowalczyk has curated exibitions on Bellotto and his uncle Canaletto, and evidently carries considerable authority. But Sotheby's (rightly I think) stuck firm to their cataloguing. The picture made £473,000.

Italian Museums (ctd.)

July 12 2015

Regular readers will know that Italian mu frequently bangs on about the sometimes appalling state of Italian museums (for example; lax security, arbitrary closures, zero online presence, bad conservation practice, weird attributions).

Now, for the first time in many years, the Italian government is trying to do something about it. The country's top museums have been forced to open nominations for new directors, even (gasp) from overseas, while new funding arrangements are proposed to make museums less dependent on corrupt and parsimonious local governments. More here in The Art Newspaper

Ashmolean campaigns for Turner (ctd.)

July 12 2015

Image of Ashmolean campaigns for Turner (ctd.)

Picture: Ashmolean

Congratulations to the Ashmolean museum, which has successfully raised enough money to acquire a £3.5m view of Oxford High Street by Turner (above). More here

New Daniel Gardner record

July 12 2015

Image of New Daniel Gardner record

Picture: Sotheby's

'Daniel who?', you say? Daniel Gardner was a leading proponent of pastel in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. He also taught John Constable to paint portraits. Until recently, his pictures have not made huge money at auction, but in 2013 a large group portrait (Mary Sturt with her three eldest children) made £133,875, against an estimate of £50,000-£80,000.

The same estimate was also carried by a portrait sold at Sotheby's last week, of Mary Whitbread, Lady Grey (above), which I thought reasonable enough. The picture made, however, £233,000, establishing a new record for the artist by some margin. The picture was in extremely good condition, which must account for the price I suppose. But nonetheless it seems to me to be something of a breakout price for a category which has hitherto been rather under-appreciated. 

Blockbuster exhibitions - what's the point?

July 12 2015

Image of Blockbuster exhibitions - what's the point?

Picture: RA

The Royal Academy's announcement of a new exhibition next year called Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse has prompted a new round of angst about blockbuster exhibitions. Another Monet exhibition, went the cry?

Here is The Guardian's Jonathan Jones:

This week the Royal Academy’s announcement of its January 2016 blockbuster Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse was greeted with groans. What, more Monet? The editor of the Burlington magazine confessed a “fatigue” with the same famous names being trotted out again and again because they “draw people in”.

Personally, I can take a lot on Monet – what’s not to like about his shimmering contemplative bottomless water garden? – but the really irksome thing about the way our big museums and galleries now operate is right there in the dates. This exhibition opens next January. Why is it even news six months in advance? Why the press breakfasts, pumped-up interviews and remorseless cavalcade of advance publicity?

And here in The Times, is more from Burlington Magazine editor Richard Shone :

Art historians suggest the academy is in thrall to the artist’s power to pull in audiences and there is a danger of “Monet fatigue”. Richard Shone, editor of The Burlington Magazine, says there is a hint of desperation about the show.

“I think there is some fatigue with Monet,” he says. “It’s a name that exhibition organisers almost automatically put on to a title even if the artist is hardly represented. It’s the same with Caravaggio. It just draws people in.

“It does seem a little late in the day for the Royal Academy to be doing this. It’s coming at the end of many Monet shows. I think they’re a bit desperate for their historical shows. Getting these works costs a fortune, but it does put money in the coffers of the RA, which has no government grant. But it’s going a little far.”

Shone, albeit perhaps reluctantly, points out just why the RA (and other institutions) indulge in the crime of putting on exhibitions people are actually keen to see - because they pay the bills, and bring in the funding needed to put on less popular but more academic shows. I see nothing wrong with that; indeed, I applaud it.  

Here is the RA's blurb for the show:

In January 2016, the Royal Academy of Arts will present Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, a major exhibition examining the role of gardens in the paintings of Claude Monet and his contemporaries. With Monet as the starting point, the exhibition will span the early 1860s to the 1920s, a period of tremendous social change and innovation in the arts, and will include Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Avant-Garde artists of the early twentieth century. It will bring together over 120 works, from public institutions and private collections across Europe and the USA, including 35 paintings by Monet alongside rarely seen masterpieces by Paul Klee, Emil Nolde, Gustav Klimt and Wassily Kandinsky.

'Fake or Fortune?' plug!

July 10 2015

Video: BBC

In my humble opinion, this weekend's episode of 'Fake or Fortune?' is the best we've yet made. The artist in question is Renoir - and in particular a painting (below) said to have belonged to his friend Claude Monet. Above is a clip of the film, where the picture's owner goes to Monet's famous home at Giverny.

BBC1, Sunday, 8pm!

More here

Sleeper alert!

July 10 2015

Image of Sleeper alert!

Picture: Kahn

The above sketch by Jordaens, an early work, made €260,000 in Paris today, against a €600-€800 estimate.

Sleeper alert!

July 10 2015

Image of Sleeper alert!

Picture: Bonhams

This picture, which was displayed unframed in two pieces on a table, soared above its £7,000-£10,000 estimate at Bonhams to make £230,500. The picture was catalogued as Follower of Francesco Furini, but the name of Jacques Blanchard has been whispered to AHN. I looked at it during the viewing, but couldn't make head nor tail of the likely artist. Way off piste for me...

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