Previous Posts: May 2016


May 31 2016

Sorry everyone, I've been away in London for 'Art Detectives'. Hope to be back on the blog later today.

Will virtual reality 'break museums'?

May 25 2016

Image of Will virtual reality 'break museums'?

Picture: Medium, crowds around the Rosetta stone at the British Museum

No, because the whole point of museums is to see the original object. But Adrian Hon, who is the CEO of a tech company (games, I think) says he's fed up with museum overcrowding, and would rather tour them in virtual reality:

[...] to answer the inevitable question, “Why would you want to look at ancient objects in virtual reality when you could see them in real life for free?” I say, “Because even in the best museums in the world, I can’t see shit.” Compared to that very imperfect reality, virtual reality is an improvement. [...]

Hon makes some interesting points about how VR could potentially provide exciting new context for museum objects, but I think his conclusion is a little over-stated:

Anything you can do in a museum — which doesn’t include touching or smelling—VR can do better.

I'd add looking to the list, at least for fine art.

More here.

Did I pass muster?

May 25 2016

Image of Did I pass muster?

Picture: Dulwich Picture Gallery

I recently gave a lecture at Dulwich Picture Gallery on Van Dyck's self-portraits. I thought it went well enough, though I was amused to hear recently that the Gallery had hired a market research company to ask the audience how they rated the evening. 'Was Dr Grosvenor interesting/amusing?', that sort of thing. I haven't yet heard anything about the audience's conclusion - good, I hope. But I'm not sure how objective the report will be, since I heard about all this from one of my most loyal followers, my mother, who gave me a glowing review. Or so she says.

£50m Courtauld revamp

May 25 2016

Image of £50m Courtauld revamp

Picture: Courtauld

The Courtauld Institute in London has announced plans for a £50m revamp. Galleries will be renovated and visitor centres built, but the thing that most caught my eye was the pledge to create this:

An online archive of 1.1m images from The Courtauld’s extensive image collection with a crowd-sourcing programme involving 10,000 people

Does this mean at long last that the Witt and Conway Libraries (above) will be digitised? These libraries are invaluable resources for those of us who try to trace the attribution, identity and provenance of paintings, containing as it does photographs from exhibition catalogues, auctions and house surveys since the early 20th Century. Some years back, the Courtauld axed the library's permanent staff (and thus ended its collection of images) and threatened to close the place entirely. But a hoo-ha saved the day, and you can still visit the library. A review by Sir Nicholas Goodison - to which yours truly contributed - recommended digitisation. So hurrah to the Courtauld if they're going to now do this.

Update - a reader kindly informs me that more information has been posted on the Courtauld website. The British School is to be digitised first, and it should be all up and running by December. Amazing.

Generous support from a private individual has allowed us to embark upon a one-year pilot project to scan, catalogue and display online approximately 250,000 images from the British School.

How have the images for this project been chosen?

Calculations based on random sampling show that the whole British School contains approximately 525,400 images.  Images for this pilot project have been selected by the date of birth of the artist. By starting with the earliest artists and moving forwards in time, a selection of 250,000 images will cover the works of artists born up to and including 1780, possibly extending as far as 1799. The final cut off point will reflect our estimates of the average number of images and folders per box, and the way in which the Witt collection rises and falls over time. 

How many artists and boxes will this project include?

Approximately 2,600 Witt boxes, containing the work over 2,100 British artists.

How will the collection be presented online and to what level will the images be catalogued?

We will scan each entire mount in high resolution and include a scan of the back if information is present. We will also display a photograph depicting the shelf and stack in which the box sits in order to preserve as many of the physical qualities of the library as possible.

For this pilot project the British School will be broken down by artists’ surnames, and then by genre/subject matter (as with the current folders).  Each image will have a unique identifier.  Data from sources such as the Getty’s Union List of Artist Names will be added to the electronic records in order to offer a greater number of avenues for searching. Any text on the mounts that can be detected by OCR will form part of their catalogue records.

When will the images be removed for digitisation, and how long will it take?

We plan to remove the 2600 boxes from the British School selected for digitisation in early July 2016. Digitisation and cataloguing will take place off site, with the expectation that they will be returned to the Library by the end of September 2016.

The provisional launch date for the pilot project website is December 2016.

If you were the mystery donor, thanks!

Update II - a reader writes:

regarding the digitisation of the Courtald and Witt records; hallelujah! I too find this a long waited for sigh of relief as it is also handy for me when tracing my artistic ancestors. Let's hope they eventually manage to do all dates and artists. I wish them well with their project.

But a former Courtauld member of staff warns us:

that the long-term plan is to put the mounts themselves into deep storage once they have been digitised, with the aim of freeing up the (admittedly considerable) space taken up by the Witt and Conway for other uses. Having worked in the Library both as a scholar and member of staff, I feel strongly that the physical mounts are important aids to research.

I agree. Release the mounts!

Extending Rembrandt's 'senses'

May 25 2016

Image of Extending Rembrandt's 'senses'

Picture: Getty

There's a good piece on the Getty website about Rembrandt's early 'Senses' series (one of which, above, was discovered recently in a small aution house in the US) and how they were extended in the 18th Century. We don't know who the artist was who had the chutzpah to add to Rembrandt's original, but thanks to the Getty's technical analysis we know exactly how they did it. More here.

Voltaire in pastel

May 25 2016

Image of Voltaire in pastel

Picture: Neil Jeffares

King of all this pastel Neil Jeffares has an interesting piece on his blog about pastel portraits of Voltaire. Well worth a click.

£16m Elizabeth I 'Armada' portrait for sale

May 25 2016

Video: Art Fund

Royal Museums Greenwich has launched an appeal to buy a version of the 'Armada portrait' of Elizabeth I. The appeal to raise £10m is being led by the Art Fund, which has generously contributed an initial £1m. The headline price of the painting is £16m, but after tax concessions - due one assumes to death duties - the cash price is £10m (so the largest donation so far has come from the taxpayer).

This portrait type of Elizabeth is known as 'the Armada' because each of the three best surviving versions shows a depiction of Sir Francis Drake's defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 in the background. The portrait on offer to Greenwich (above) is being sold by Drake's descendants, and is believed to have been commissioned by him. It's painted in oil on panel. 

What is generally believed to be the 'prime' version of the Armada portrait belongs to the Dukes of Bedford, and hangs at Woburn Abbey (above). It's been a while since I've seen it, and nor have I seen the Drake picture in the flesh. Nevertheless, I think probably the Woburn portrait did indeed come before the Drake portrait in the production line. It also seems evident from the video above that the ships in the Drake portrait are later additions, for the manner of their painting is entirely 17th Century and very different from those seen in the Woburn painting. Perhaps they are painted over an original Tudor maritime scene more like that seen in the Woburn picture.

A third version belongs to the National Portrait Gallery, and although this has been cut down at some point to make a much smaller picture, we can still see the remains of a 16th Century maritime scene in the background to the left, which again is very different from that we see in the Drake portrait. I don't know if any technical analysis has been done to compare all three portraits. Another version of the portrait, this time without any ships but with the hand in a different position, was sold some years ago by Philip Mould and currently hangs in the House of Lords. I was there when Philip bought it, and worked on the research. 

The name of George Gower - Elizabeth I's 'serjeant painter' - has been traditionally attached to the Armada portraits. Attribution is always difficult in these Tudor portraits, but actually for Gower we do have a small but secure body of works by which we can judge his style, such as these examples in Tate Britain. Generally, I'd say Gower was a little 'better' than the artist we see in the Armada portraits, but that's just a personal view based mainly on images - always a dangerous thing. It's possible that such large royal portraits were in any case collaborative workshop productions, overseen by someone like Gower.

What's interesting about the Greenwich and Art Fund campaign is that this time there's no immediate threat of export over the painting. It has evidently been offered privately by the Drake family, but still the appeal is being framed as one of 'saving' the painting. And it needs to be saved from the market, according to Art Fund director Stephan Deuchar, who says the Guardian:

We are very anxious that it shouldn’t go out on the open market which will inevitably happen, I’m afraid, if we fail to raise this sum.”

My instinct, as a sometime purveyor of Tudor portraits, is that the price on the 'open market' would be a little less than £16m, and I bet the trustees at Woburn will be hurriedly updating their insurance valuation. But art valuation is a difficult thing, and there's no denying the importance, from both a historical and artistic point of view, of the Drake portrait. Greenwich, where Elizabeth I was born, would be a fitting home for this important painting. The Guardian tells us that the campaign hopes to raise the money in two months, and donations are being accepted here.


May 24 2016

Sorry for the radio silence- been on the road with both 'Art Detectives' and 'Fake or Fortune?' Should be back tomorrow.

Rothko 'suicide socks' for sale

May 20 2016

Image of Rothko 'suicide socks' for sale


There's a website called which is, or at least was, selling 'Rothko Socks', described as:

a replica of the pair the great American painter Mark Rothko was wearing at the time of his suicide. Such a tragic event affirms a palette of colours which characterise the artist’s profound existential preoccupations.

Also available are 'non-objective bibs' for EUR 25. The site says:

Arts&Clothes produces clothing accessories based on iconic artists from the 20th century. It explores the myth of the artist by reconsidering processes of production, valuation, distribution and consumption of the art object.

It appears not to be a joke. Though these days you can never tell.

This is not Shakespeare (ctd.)

May 20 2016

Video: Harvey Nichols

A reader alerts me to the above video from the fashion store Harvey Nichols. It uses the Cobbe Portrait (which, in my opinion, does not show Shakespeare) to make a point about fashion and brains. 'Great men deserve great style' is the message, and certainly the nattily dressed sitter looks very stylish with his gold embroidered waistcoat. 

It's more evidence of the way we, today, use whichever historical portrait we like to suit the message we mant to convey, irrespective of historical accuracy. I'm not trying to huff or puff about it, just making an observation. Harvey Nichols would hardly be able to use the Chandos portrait (above, which does show Shakespeare) to make their video. Shakespeare looks plain and portly, and is dressed like a Tudor accountant. In reality, one could deduce, great men don't necessarily dress in great style.

The theory works in the other direction. On the BBC at the moment there's a new comedy about Shakespeare called 'Upstart Crow', written by Ben Elton and starring David Mitchell (above). Mitchell is one of the funniest Brits alive, but he's no looker. His portrayal of Shakespeare for laughs (with gags about receding hairlines) only works because it is based on the Chandos image of Shakespeare. 

'Art Detectives' are go!

May 20 2016

Image of 'Art Detectives' are go!

Picture: BBC

I'm very pleased to tell you that the new TV series I've been working on has been announced by the BBC. It's to be called 'Art Detectives', and you can find more details here. My co-presenter is Jacky Klein, the author and art historian who has been a curator at the Courtauld and Tate, and is currently publishing editor at Tate. There will be three, one hour programmes, and the series is scheduled to go out in the autumn. This is the main pitch:

In The Art Detectives, historian and art dealer Dr Bendor Grosvenor and art historian Jacky Klein track down lost and hidden public paintings from local museums and galleries across Britain.

Scouring public museums and great houses across the country, the duo will delve deep into vaults and storerooms to reveal secret stashes of forgotten art - and perhaps even some sleeping masterpieces. A specialist conservation team will use cutting-edge technology to decode and restore the pieces while providing clues for Bendor and Jacky to identify the pictures. Criss-crossing the country, the team will solve the provenance of the artworks before they are valued and hung back in their museums, in pride of place, for the nation to enjoy.

We had our first filming day last week, though the ground work started some months ago. Needless to say, the pressure is on Jacky and I to come up with the art historical goods. Expect many more plugs for this on AHN!

New Francis Towne catalogue raisonné

May 20 2016

Image of New Francis Towne catalogue raisonné

Picture: Paul Mellon Centre, 'Old Walton Bridge', 1785. Francis Towne, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art

The Paul Mellon Centre has published another excellent online catalogue raisonné, this time on the British artist Francis Towne. Their most recent one was on Richard Wilson. The Towne catalogue was written by Richard Stephens, who will be known to AHN readers through his invaluable database on the Art World in Britain from 1660-1735. Says the PMC website:

The catalogue identifies 1080 works by Towne and his circle, doubling previously-described totals. Based on the author’s PhD thesis, it makes extensive use of the papers of Paul Oppé (1878-1957) whose pioneering researches established the artist’s reputation in the 1920s, after a century of neglect. Oppé had discovered the contents of Towne's own studio in the possession of the Merivale family of Barton Place near Exeter. Using the archives of Thomas Agnew & Sons, the Fine Art Society, Colnaghi and elsewhere, Stephens gives detailed provenances for hundreds of the Merivales' Townes that have circulated on the London art market. Towne's biography is established in greater detail than before, using much original research. Resources published alongside the catalogue include an edition of Towne's correspondence and a transcription of Oppé's Barton Place catalogue.

More than 800 works are illustrated with high-quality images, much of it specially commissioned by the Paul Mellon Centre. Towne's sketching tours in Wales, Italy, Switzerland, Savoy, the Lake District and around England are reconstructed with new clarity and detail.

New home for the Museum of London

May 20 2016

Image of New home for the Museum of London

Picture: Guardian

The Museum of London has a great and fascinating collection, but it ain't half difficult to get to, marooned in the middle of a roundabout in the Barbican. I'm sure to London's planners of the 1970s (the museum opened in 1976) it seemed like a good idea at the time. The collections inside are well displayed, and in 2010 the museum benefited from a £20m refit.

But now the museum is to relocate, to the wonderful Smithfield General Market (above) which has been empty for 30 years. Plans to demolish it were recently defeated by heritage campaigners. The new museum will open in 2021, at a cost of about £150m-£200m. More here

Antoon arrives in Birmingham

May 19 2016

Image of Antoon arrives in Birmingham

Picture: Birmingham Museums

The National Portrait Gallery's Van Dyck self-portrait has arrived in Birmingham for the latest leg of its national tour. It's been good to see Birmingham Museums make such a big deal of the arrival on social media, with pictures like the above. I think people really like this sort of behind-the-scenes information. It might even help make museums seem less formal and intimidating to those who find them so. 

Some years ago I had the privilege of opening a crate similar to the above when the self-portrait was delivered from Sotheby's to the Philip Mould gallery in London, where I used to work.

The exhibition around the Van Dyck loan is called 'Turning to see', and is curated by the artist John Stezaker. It runs until 4th September, when, according to my Van Dyck tour t-shirt, the picture heads back to London.

Gang jailed for disrupting art exhibitions (ctd.)

May 19 2016

Video: You Tube / RT

Further to my post below about the silly but not criminal (in my opinion) You Tubers staging a hoax art theft at Tate, today we had Greenpeace scaling the front of the British Museum and closing the site for four hours. Doubtless these protesters - amongst whom I could not see any black youths - will not face 20 weeks of jail, even though the disruption to the public was, in closing London's busiest museum for four hours, arguably more substantial than to the visitors at the Tate.

I cannot imagine that no damage was done to the BM's listed facade as the columns were scaled.

This is not Shakespeare (ctd.)

May 19 2016

Image of This is not Shakespeare (ctd.)

Picture: AHN reader

A reader sends the above photo of a new Shakespeare biography in Italy. A book we can judge by its cover.

Gang jailed for disrupting art exhibitions

May 19 2016

Video: You Tube / Trollstation

Four Youtubers from South London have been jailed for between 16 and 20 weeks for taking part in a 'hoax' raid at Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery. The 'internet pranksters' as the Evening Standard described them, walked into two exhibitions at the galleries holding fake paintings and wearing tights over their heads. They then set off a portable alarm and rushed around shouting 'I've got the painting'. Visitors in the galleries can be seen in the video leaving in a sudden rush, or as the Standard says 'running away in panic'. Arrests were made shortly afterwards.

The four men pleaded guilty to causing 'fear and provocation of violence'. Commenting on the case, Detective Constable Anthony Parker, from the Met's Public Order Crime Team, said:

The actions of these five men was outrageous. 

To go into busy public places wearing masks shouting and screaming at a time of heightened awareness of the terrorism threat facing the UK is deplorable. 

The group terrified those visiting the galleries. It is only by pure chance that no one was injured or suffered serious health issues as they fled in what the judge described as a "stampede". 

All five men now have a number of weeks in jail to consider just how unfunny their stunts actually were.

Is that why these men are now in jail, because their stunt wasn't funny enough? I'm no fan of the sort of silliness seen in the film above, but I'm also instinctively uneasy about both the jail sentence and the criminal conviction here. It's pretty obvious from the footage that it wasn't a real art theft. You can see one of the stunts from another angle here.

If these men had been environmentalists protesting against BP's sponsorship of the arts, or well-spoken art students from Central St Martin's making, say, a piece of live art 'exploring the divergent atmospheres of safety and insecurity in a gallery setting', I suspect they'd have been treated very differently. 

What do you think?

Update - a reader writes:

It’s over the top to give them a custodial sentence…this is why fines and community service exist. However they should have not set off the alarm, that was irresponsible. Even in times of heightened terrorism people still have a sense of humour and as you correctly pointed out if it was students performing a bit of this or that the outcome would have been different I suspect. They should have claimed they were making a point about the EU Remain/Leave referendum and they would have got away with it!

Hirst and Koons team up

May 19 2016

Video: BBC

Damien Hirst is a fan of Jeff Koons, and has for a long time collected his work. Now he has put them exhibition in his gallery in London. The above film by Newsnight for the BBC shows Koons seeing the exhibition for the first time.

Sitting there in suits, they come across as two slightly dull middle-aged blokes, the chat only vaguely more interesting than something you'd hear in a North London pub during half-time. Their manner is disarmingly straightforward, even if it is delivered in the sort of half-dreamy haze of people who once spent a lot of time on drugs. There is no guffy artspeak here. I admire - and indeed always have - the honesty and frankness of it all, when it comes from the artist. And the curious thing is, I suspect some might find it hard to accept that this is the real Koons and Hirst - two people whose simple dedication to their own creativity somehow built a platform onto which a thousand pseuds and speculators could project their own fantasies, a new language, and even a multi-billion dollar industry.

New 16thC National Gallery catalogue published

May 19 2016

Image of New 16thC National Gallery catalogue published

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery has published the third volume of its new catalogue of the Italian 16th Century paintings, focusing on works from Bologna and Ferrara. The catalogue is written by former director Nicholas Penny with Giorgia Mancini, a former research fellow at the National Gallery. You can order it here for £75. Here's the blurb:

The catalogue defines the special quality of paintings made in Bologna and Ferrara, describing a distinctive and idiosyncratic local tradition but also tracing the influence first of Perugino and then of Raphael and Titian. The entries are informed both by new archival research and technical analysis information and the catalogue also provides a detailed introduction to the work of each artist. In a valuable contribution to the history of taste, their changing reputations are traced and the important collections to which the paintings belonged are described, as is the manner in which they came into the UK’s national collection.

Volume 1 of the series was written by Penny in 2004, with volume 2 (Venice) appearing in 2008. The appearance of this latest volume just after Penny retired from the National underlines the rarity of having a director who was also involved in intimately cataloguing the collection.

£350,000 to save the Smythe family

May 19 2016

Image of £350,000 to save the Smythe family

Picture: DCMS/ACE

I've been meaning to mention the placing of a temporary export bar by the UK government on an important collection of nine 16th century portraits by Cornelis Ketel. The sitters are all members of the Smythe family, and the father of the group, Thomas (above), was an important merchant in London. It's apparently the earliest surviving set of portraits from a non-royal or aristocratic family. 

If anyone has a photo of the whole set, do please send it in!

Update - I'd forgotten that some years ago I helped the owners of the Smythe set add another Ketel portrait to their collection, when it came up for sale at Christie's

Update II - a reader kindly sends this photo of the set of nine.

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