Previous Posts: September 2016

'Zurbaran Centre' announced in UK

September 30 2016

Image of 'Zurbaran Centre' announced in UK

Picture: BBC

The philanthropist and lover of Spanish art, Jonathan Ruffer, has announced a new part of his project to make the North East of Britain a centre for the study of Spanish art. The 'Zurbaran Project' has been launched between Auckland Castle Trust (which Ruffer funds, and which owns Zurbaran's series Jacob and his Sons, above) and Durham University to:

[...] provide a direct link between research and exhibition programming, creating student opportunities and allowing visitors to benefit from world-class research.

Postgraduate students will work alongside Auckland Castle’s curatorial staff, ensuring that the next generation of curators and museum professionals benefit from a hands-on experience of an evolving collection.

It is envisaged that the centre, which will also host major conferences and workshops, will raise the public profile and understanding of Spanish and Latin American art, both in the UK and globally.

Additional funding also comes from Santander. Thanks to Ruffer's efforts, County Durham is now home to the UK's largest collection of Spanish paintings outside London. For earlier AHN on Ruffer's visionary plans, see here and here

'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' (ctd.)

September 30 2016

Image of 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' (ctd.)

Picture: BBC

Thank you to the 514,800 people who watched the first episode of Britain's Lost Masterpieces. Judging by the reception on Twitter and the fact that we won our slot in the schedules, the audience seemed to like what they saw. Thank you also to AHNers for all your kind emails. If you missed it, you can catch up here on iPlayer. 

Only two more weeks of relentless plugs to go, then it'll be back to normal AHN service.


Strippers at the Uffizi?

September 30 2016

Image of Strippers at the Uffizi?

Picture: Wikimedia Commons/ArtNet news

Artnet News reports that the Italian press has complained about a 'wild bachelor party' at the Uffizi gallery in Florence. It looks as if there's hardly any substance to the story. And the backdrop of course is the continuing reform programme at Italian museums, which has angered many who preferred the gentle and slow pace of life that used to exist.

Van Gogh Museum eye-tracking project

September 30 2016

Video: Francesco Walker/You Tube

Researchers at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam have teamed up with the Van Gogh Museum to use a mobile eye-tracker to see how people look at paintings. They did this because:

Many of us appreciate art, but no-one really knows how or why we do so. Researchers in the field of empirical aesthetics attempt to answer such questions. The way people look at paintings is often studied by letting participants look at images on a computer screen in a laboratory setting, during which their gaze is tracked using a stationary, bulky, eye tracker. Obviously this is not a ‘natural setting’ in which people normally view paintings or appreciate art, so the question remains how well viewing behaviour in such laboratory settings approaches that of real life.

Part of the research's purpose was to see how children and adults look at pictures differently. I'm not sure, however, that following our eyes can really tell us that much about 'how we appreciate art'. This may sound daft, but there's much more to appreciating art than which part of the canvas your eye actually looks at, and in which order. While our eye is looking at a picture, our minds are processing any number of other thoughts, such as an appreciation of beauty, an examination of technical achievement, and of course (and perhaps more powerfully) our emotional interactions. To further complicate matters, all of the above may in turn may be driven by our own beliefs, faith and a lifetime of unique experience. 

Stolen Van Gogh paintings recovered

September 30 2016

Image of Stolen Van Gogh paintings recovered

Picture: BBC/Van Gogh Museum

Two paintings stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in 2002 have been recovered by police in Italy. The BBC reports:

Italian police have recovered two Van Gogh paintings stolen during a dramatic raid on an Amsterdam museum in 2002.

The works were recovered from the Naples mafia, they said.

The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam said the works were found during a "massive, continuing investigation" by Italian prosecutors and organised crime officials.

The paintings were taken when thieves used a ladder and sledgehammers to break into the museum.

They were among assets worth millions of euros seized from the Camorra group, Italian reports said.

A new museum for Basra

September 29 2016

Video: You Tube/Ruptly

Some good cultural news from Iraq; a new museum in Basra has been opened. Much of the funding and expertise has come via the British Museum, and in particular Dr John Curtis, a former Keeper at the British Museum, reports the Art Newspaper:

The city’s old museum, in Basra’s historic centre, was looted during the first Gulf War in 1991 and damaged during the 2003 invasion. Fortunately, much of the collection had already been evacuated to Baghdad. The museum’s former director, Mudhar Abd Alhay, was shot dead amid communal violence in 2005.

Three years later, Alhay’s successor, Qahtan Alabeed, took up the dream of re-establishing a museum in Basra. The British Army and the British Museum agreed to help create a new museum with proper security, climate control, regular opening hours and modern displays. The plan was to take over the 1990 Lakeside Palace, which had been used by the British Army after the overthrow of Saddam.

Progress has been slow, largely because of fundraising problems in Iraq. At an early stage, the Basra Provincial Council promised a $3m contribution but, because of budgetary problems, the funds were never provided. Most of the funding has been supplied by the UK-based Friends of Basrah Museum. The charity, founded by John Curtis, a former keeper at the British Museum, has raised nearly £500,000, largely through contributions from the oil company BP.

The museum still lacks the funds to open fully. Alabeed has decided instead to launch the project piecemeal, beginning with a gallery dedicated to the history of the Basra region from around BC300 to the 19th century. The remaining three spaces—which cover Sumer, Babylon and Assyria—are expected to open in the next few years. The museum estimates the project will cost an additional £450,000 to complete. A grant under consideration by the UK’s Cultural Protection Fund would provide the necessary funds; a decision is expected in late November.

Bravo Dr. Curtis - you deserve a knighthood. In the meantime, AHN declares you a "Hero of Art History".

Versailles' pre-emption

September 29 2016

Image of Versailles' pre-emption

Picture: ATG

In France, museums can 'pre-empt' pictures they want to acquire. This means that if somethings appears at auction, the museum can immediately announce after the hammer has fallen that it will take ownership of the work. The sale price is paid by the institution. But of course, because it did not have to bid, the price is lower than it otherwise would be in an open market. Good for the French state, bad for the private owner. 

The latest case of pre-emption, reports the Antiques Trade Gazette, is in Versailles, where the palace has acquired the above painting of its orangery by Hubert Robert.

Brexit art

September 29 2016

A giant thumb has been unveiled as the latest work to grace Trafalgar Square's 'Fourth Plinth'. It's called 'Really Good' and is by David Shrigley. Unveiling the work, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, linked it to Brexit, and said (reports The Guardian):

“What this represents is so important,” said the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, revealing the latest artwork to occupy the renowned spot.

“Optimism. Positivity. The best of us. Particularly post-Brexit, the three most important words I say are ‘London is open’ and this shows Londoners, visitors to London, tourists, EU citizens, immigrants that London is open.”

The fact that we have to say 'London is open' these days is sad enough. But expect more art to be co-opted into the Brexit arguments over the next few years. 

Sleeper alert! (ctd.)

September 29 2016

Image of Sleeper alert! (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

Regular readers may remember a 'sleeper alert' from a US auction in 2015. A portrait of a Sultan, described as 'Circle of Veronese', made $390,000 against an estimate of $2,000-$4,000. A reader alerts me to the picture's return to auction at Sotheby's, where it is again called 'Circle of Veronese', and this time carries an estimate of £150,000-£200,000. It's a high stakes game, this sleeper business.


September 28 2016

Image of Watch!

Picture: Tern Television

Here's what we call in telly land the 'TX Card' for Britain's Lost Masterpieces. Of course, all AHNers are required to watch, and to tell their friends to watch. And their pets. And so on. 

The £1.4m doorstop

September 27 2016

Image of The £1.4m doorstop

Picture: BBC

A £1.4m marble bust which until recently was being used as a doorstop is to go on display at the Louvre. The bust is by the French sculptor Edme Bouchardon, and shows a Scottish MP, Sir John Gordon. It was made in 1728, and belongs to a Scottish local authority, Highland Council. They were bequeathed in the 1920s, but it became lost for decades, before being found on an industrial estate in 1998, propping open a door. Inevitably, the council tried to sell it. But hopefully its inclusion in a new Louvre exhibition dedicated to Bouchardon will help persuade them to keep this important piece of local heritage. 

Update - Colin Harrison, Senior Curator of European Art at the Ashmolean museum, writes:

Good to read that the bust of Gordon of Invergordon will be included in the forthcoming Bouchardon exhibition. It was published in:

Malcolm Baker, Colin Harrison, Alastair Laing, 'Bouchardon's British Sitters: Sculptural Portraiture in Rome and the Classicising Bust around 1730', The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 142, No. 1173 (Dec., 2000), pp. 752-762,

which you can read on JSTOR, if you have it.

Unfortunately, we found no evidence as to who owns the bust. Certainly, the local authority cannot claim title until it produces proper proof - ' found in a municipal store' might very well mean that, as often happened, it was merely lent by the owner for safe-keeping, perhaps in the First World War or at some other point of crisis. That particular branch of the Gordon family died out in the eighteenth century, but they married into the Mackenzie Earls of Cromartie, whose descendants may well be the legitimate owners. In the absence of any documentation, the only sensible solution would be for the bust to be displayed in Inverness Museum, where it has been in storage for nearly twenty years.

Fascinating. Might any claimants now come forward?

'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' (ctd.)

September 27 2016

Britain's Lost Masterpieces: Swansea Clip 1 from Tern Web on Vimeo.

Video: Tern Television/BBC

Sorry for the repeated plugs, but here's another taster of what to expect in our first programme, which is shown tomorrow, Wednesday, at 9pm on BBC4.

Introducing 'Pricasso'

September 27 2016

Video: ITV/This Morning

Ever wanted to have your portrait painted by a penis? This fellow in pink, Tim Patch, is happy to oblige. He goes by the name of 'Pricasso' - geddit? Apparently you can get a video of him painting your picture too, and there's too pay grades, one for aroused, and one for not. Guess which is the most expensive.

Incidentally, the 18th Century British portraitist John Astley used to do this - so it's nothing new. How long till the PhD thesis on penis painters?


2016 Turner Prize

September 26 2016

Video: AFP

This year's Turner prize features the usual load of whatever, and a giant bum with no hole.

'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' (ctd.)

September 26 2016


Video: Tern Television/BBC

Here are the pre-titles for Britain's Lost Masterpieces.

'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' (ctd.)

September 26 2016

Image of 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' (ctd.)

Picture: Swansea Museum

I'm delighted to be able to tell you about the first news story from Britain's Lost Masterpieces. It's about the discovery of a beautiful and rare study by Jacob Jordaens, Atalanta and Meleager. Above is a post-restoration photo. Below is what it looked like when we first saw it. I've never seen such disastrous overpaint before. Fortunately, it was easy to remove.

The finished picture is in the Prado Museum, and can be seen here.

I'll be writing a much fuller piece on the painting and what it means for Jordaens' oeuvre (quite a lot, it turns out). But in the meantime, here is a piece I've written for the Art UK site, which was how we first came across the painting. 

There's been quite a lot of news coverage. Here's The Sunday Times. It's been interesting to see how the news gets repeated by other sources, who can then make the occasional mistake. One newspaper, for example, said that the discovery would be shown in a new episode of Fake or Fortune?. While Artnet news came up with something very curious about us proving the painting by dating the frame!

Update - alas, it looks like Swansea Museum is facing unprecedented budget cuts. Let's hope any renewed interest in their collections can help fend off the local authority axe wielders.

Brian Sewell sale

September 26 2016

Image of Brian Sewell sale

Picture: The Times

Just a reminder that the Brian Sewell sale is tomorrow at Christie's. I am very sad to report that I haven't been able to view the sale, nor can I make it to the auction. I'd really have loved to see his collection together. I will have to lurk in the auction room online to see what I can pick up. 


Auricular frames conference

September 26 2016

Image of Auricular frames conference

Picture: National Trust images

I've been asked to remind any framing fans that there'll be a conference at the Wallace Collection on auricular frames (often great works of art int heir own right) next month. Details here

Publishing art history digitally

September 26 2016

Image of Publishing art history digitally

Picture: NYU

There's an interesting conference coming up in New York in October about publishing art history digitally. It's at New York University - details here. The pitch says:

This event brings together art historians and publishing experts to share their views on the future of publishing digital art history. Combining a lecture and two roundtables, this symposium will be of interest to all those involved in, or wishing to embark on, digital publishing, as well as to those who are looking for solutions to publishing digital humanities research in compact online formats.

Organized by Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, the event is funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the NYU Center for the Humanities and is free of charge. It will be followed up by a hands-on professional development workshop at the College Art Association annual meeting in February, open to all CAA registrants at no extra cost.

Art history is, by and large, certainly behind the times when it comes to digital publication. But for me, the real change we need to make is not in the technology we use, but the attitudes we take. The printed page has primacy over everything, and there's a sense that really serious art history shouldn't be published online. If it is published online, then it's as an adjunct to a physical publication, like the Burlington Magazine with its £15-a-go PDFs: yesterday's technology at (what should be) yesterday's prices.

In other words, digital comes second. The publication of art historical research is still done primarily in a way that hasn't changed for centuries. You write it out, send it to a  publisher, and then they print it on paper, often with small and bad illustrations, and ship it out to institutions and shops in the hope that some people will buy it or read it. All of which is great - I love a nice book as much as anyone - but it's not necessarily the best way to get people engaged in the work art historians do. 

For me, it comes down to why art historians do what they do. Do they research new facts and make new discoveries for their own pleasure? Or do they do it because they want to be able to share their research with others, to communicate their passions, and inform wider audiences? If it's the latter, then surely digital publishing is the way forward. Not digital in the sense that an online version might be made available of a hard copy, in either a PDF or a clunky flipbook. But real, shareable, interactive, connected digital publishing. Art historians deal in images, primarily, so why don't we publish our research in such a way that allows us to easily click from one image to another, in glorious high-resolution, or x-ray or infra-red? 

If we assume that only a small audience of already academically minded readers want to read our research, which is how most art historical publications currently operate, then we shouldn't be surprised if fewer and fewer people are interested in what we do. We must let other people into the conversation - and the digital door is the easiest one to open.

Update - readers have helpfully sent in some pioneering examples of digital art history. Here's the new Philip de László catalogue raisonné website, which is excellent. Catalogues raisonné are of course perfectly suited to online publishing, which gives the great benefit of being easy to update. The new site also has a section of missing pictures - have a rummage in case you have any clues. Yale's new Richard Wilson website is similarly excellent, and likewise that on Francis Towne.*

A reader also alerts me to VISTAS; Virtual Images of Sculpture in Time and Space. Which:

[...] combines old and new. We marry the most innovative technology to the highest standard of traditional book publishing — all in support of sound, new scholarship. We produce dual publications, one part in print, the other online at Each will supplement the other, not copy it. 

I'm in awe of this site - do have an explore yourselves. The image quality is extraordinary.

Of course, there's also Google's art project, which has good images, but is lacking (so far) on the text and analysis side. They've recently revamped the site, which, sadly, has made it more difficult to navigate than it used to be.

*Sod's law; at just the time I want to mention them, the servers for both Yale sites seems to be down. Of course, the issue of what lasts over time is a different one. Books will always be with us - but websites? 

'Moving Pictures'

September 23 2016

Video: BBC

Radio programmes about art, as paradoxical as it sounds, can often be really stimulating. Of course, nowadays digital media means radio programmes have evolved somewhat. 'Moving Pictures' is a fantastic new series on BBC Radio 4, which looks at one painting in detail, and combines the commentary with high-resolution digital photographs. In the clip above, Cathy Fitzgerald looks at Breughel the Elder's 'The Harvesters'. More here

I hope programmes like this can encourage more close-looking in arts programmes. Too often, we're only allowed to see art on the telly through wide shots, with someone waving their arms in front of a painting. We've tried to avoid this, of course, in Britain's Lost Masterpieces.

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