Previous Posts: February 2018

Apologies (ctd.)

February 19 2018

Sorry again for the lack of news - things are a little busy. I'm currently on a train south to London, finishing a piece for the FT's forthcoming Tefaf Maastricht supplement. Tomorrow I'm meeting the new arts minister, Michael Ellis MP, to discuss museum reproduction fees. And then on Wednesday I'm filming the first day of a new episode of Britain's Lost Masterpieces, at a top secret location. 

Will post when I can. In the meantime, celebrate with me the excellent news that the Finnish National Gallery has made all their images free to use. You can read the director's faultless logic here. British museum directors, pay special attention to this bit:

It seems to be a widely shared view, both here in Finland as well as in other countries, that  generous open data policies increase museums’ popularity and generate more visitors and more engaged audiences. Talking about a museum’s business policies, it’s worth considering thoroughly the transaction costs involved in licensing and distributing images, compared, for example, with selling products based on images of artworks and objects in the collections. I don’t recall hearing regrets from any museum that decided to execute a open data policy.

'Why collect?'

February 16 2018

Image of 'Why collect?'

Picture: Art Fund

The Art Fund has published an interesting report on the state of museum acquisitions in the UK, or rather the lack of them. It's written by the historian Sir David Cannadine, and is well worth reading, here. But it misses the goal a few times, and presents a more dire view of the situation than is justified. I'll write more about it soon.


February 16 2018

I'm writing a piece about private loans; what are the problems when collectors lend artworks to museums? Who gains, who loses - what risks should we be prepared to take? Are museums being used by unscrupulous colectors keen to legitimise their wares? Or are the opponents of loans killjoys who think every collector out there is a dastardly fraud? 

I'd love to hear your thoughts and tales. Thanks!

Putting the 'Royal' into the Royal Academy

February 15 2018

Image of Putting the 'Royal' into the Royal Academy

Picture: Royal Collection

I didn't know that every two years, the leadership of the Royal Academy goes to visit the Queen, to tell her about the health of the RA. On his blog, Charles Saumarez Smith almost tells us what happened:

We were after the new Peruvian and Italian ambassadors had presented their credentials (I was accidentally mistaken for the Italian ambassador even though she is a woman).   For us, the equerry was allowed to take off his sword and medals.   I know that I am not allowed to report on what was said, only that the Queen has a great number of paperweights on her desk.

NPG closes for fashion show

February 15 2018

Image of NPG closes for fashion show

Picture: NPG

I can't quite believe the news in Martin Bailey's story (in The Art Newspaper) that the National Portrait Gallery in London is closing for a whole day, so that a fashion company (Erdem) can host an event. As Martin writes, on a Monday in February, around 5,000 people would usually visit the gallery. That'll be a lot of disappointed people on the doorstep in St Martin's Place. 

The NPG say that they need the cash. That as a charity, needing to raise over 70% of their income themselves (ie, not from the government) they will need to exploit their premises for events. We are not told how much Erdem will be paying for the day (I have asked, but don't expect an answer - it'll probably be deemed 'commercially sensitive' information).

But a whole day? If the NPG's answer to difficult fundraising conditions is - close the whole place, then it is demonstrating a woeful lack of imagination, and a complete disregard for the people it serves. What is the National Portrait Gallery for? It's a public museum, with publicly owned art, funded over decades by public funds. It is our museum, not something that should be arbitrarily closed as a venue for hire. But these days (and here of course I'm going to mention image fees again) it appears the NPG is being run by a bunch of venture capitalists, desperate to squeeze as much money out of the asset they've just acquired. 

It's easy to see this as a thin end of the wedge moment. The NPG may say; 'this is a one-off'. But in reality it's unlikely to be. How corrosive will be the impact on those 5,000 people who will turn up, expecting the NPG to be open, only to be told that they can't go in, because someone else has got a bigger chequebook? How many others will hear of the news, and then not plan a visit to the NPG in future, in case it's arbitrarily closed? There is a risibly small notice about the closure on the NPG's 'visit' page (above), and nothing on their homepage. It's as if they're hoping nobody's going to notice. The whole thing is pathetic; an unprecedented low from a new generation of museum bureaucrats who have lost touch with what public museums should be for.

Update - I also can't believe the trustees agreed to this. What were you thinking?


February 12 2018

Sorry for the lack of news - it's half term!

Fate of Van Dyck's mistress revealed at last

February 7 2018

Image of Fate of Van Dyck's mistress revealed at last

Pictures: BG and Fondation Custodia (below)

In this month's Burlington Magazine you can read an extraordinary piece of scholarly sleuthing, on the life of Margaret Lemon, best known as Van Dyck's mistress. Until now, little has been known of her life, and nothing of her fate after Van Dyck's death. But the historian Hilary Maddicott has discovered not only that she committed suicide in 1642 (in Oxford, after the death in battle of one her lovers), but that she was well known for cross-dressing. This now explains the curious miniature of her by Samuel Cooper, below. 

The other piece of good news is that the Burlington Magazine has decided to make Hilary's article free to download for a week, here. Well worth a click! (Also, if enough of us click, it might persuade the Burlington to do this more often.)

KMSKA closed until 2020

February 7 2018

Image of KMSKA closed until 2020

Picture: via Flickr

Your annual reminder that, when renovating a museum, it's a bad idea to close the entire place; another delay has been announced to the re-opening of the KMSKA in Antwerp. It will now remain closed until 2020. It has been shut since 2011, and was due to re-open last year, then that was put back to 2019. More here

Sotheby's NY Old Master sales (ctd.)

February 7 2018

Video: Sotheby's

I've been meaning to report on the success of Sotheby's Old Master sales in New York. The total for the week was $82.5m, more than double the same series of sales made last year. The totals were at, or exceeded, the higher estimates. I know AHNers will be tired of me saying 'the Old Master market isn't dead', so I won't go on about some of the soaraway lots (except to point you to the above video of a fine portrait of the Prince of Orange by Van Dyck, which made $2.4m). But I think it may now be time to say, 'the Old Master market is alive and kicking'. More on the results here

'Rubens: Power of Transformation' at the Staedel (ctd.)

February 7 2018

Image of 'Rubens: Power of Transformation' at the Staedel (ctd.)

Picture: Staedel Museum

The new Rubens exhibition in Frankfurt I mentioned earlier is now open. But if you can't go, there's an excellent online site about the show, called a 'digitorial'. I hope more museums do this.

ArtUK podcast

February 7 2018

Audio: ArtUK

Here's a new podcast series from ArtUK. This one includes the team behing Tabloid Art History

'Civilisations' on the BBC

February 7 2018

Video: BBC

Here's a trailer for the new BBC2 series, Civilisations, which looks set to be the arts TV event of the decade. It'll be on in the Spring.

Update - there's an app too.

Update II - I'm afraid BBC trailers don't work when embedded on some browsers such as Chrome. So if you're seeing a blank space above, that's why.

'The Paston Treasure'

February 5 2018

Video: Yale Center for British Art

Here's a great new video on the mysterious 17th Century British still life painting by an anonymous artist called 'The Paston Treasure'. The picture will be on display until May 27th at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven in the US, as part of a new exhibition. More here

'Libson Yarker Ltd'

February 5 2018

Image of 'Libson Yarker Ltd'

Picture: Libson Yarker Ltd

I'm late to the news that the esteemed British art dealer Lowell Libson (above right) has entered into a new partnership with his colleague Jonny Yarker. Lowell has been in the business for decades, but Jonny started working for him just five years ago. Jonny is one of the sharpest scholars on British art of his generation - in fact, there's a touch of the Kenneth Clark about him - and I always expected him to go back into museum or academic life. But interestingly he has chosen to commit to 'the trade'. Good for him. It's often where the most rewarding, and exciting, art historical research takes place.

And good for Lowell too. Some eponymous dealers grow too fond of having only their name over the door. Often, they rely on a good researcher or colleague, but prefer to keep that person in their place, or even the shadows. A threatened ego can lead to the fiercest resentment. In the long term, these businesses atrophy, because there is nobody in the next generation to take them on. The most successful dealers - like Lowell - understand this. But there are very few of them.  

Codart 21

February 5 2018

Image of Codart 21


I'm honoured to have been asked to speak at the annual Codart (the association of curators of Flemish and Dutch art) conference in Bruges this year, on Monday 12th March. The theme of the day will be - 'Old Masters, Old-Fashioned?' I'll be arguing no, of course, and suggesting that if those of us in the Old Master world want to engage new audiences, we need to change how we do things. Feathers may be ruffled...

More on the conference here. If you're coming, say hello!

'art world ambulance chasing'

February 5 2018

Image of 'art world ambulance chasing'

Picture: via TAN, La Salle University's 'The Tomb of Virgil' by Hubert Robert

The news that La Salle University is to sell 46 works of art from its museum - about a third of the art on display - has prompted an excoriating article in The Art Newspaper from Brian Allen, a former US museum director. He lays some of the blame on the auction houses willing to help museums deaccession works:

It seems to me that the auction houses are equally culpable. They are training their sights on financially pressed colleges and museums as part of their business development strategies. This is art-world ambulance chasing.

All change at the Vatican Museum (ctd.)

February 5 2018

The Art Newspaper has an interview with the Vatican Museums' new director, Barbara Jatta, in which she sets out more of her plans to ease the crowds. But most interesting is the way she got the job - there was no interview or application process; 

In May 2016, Barbara Jatta was summoned to the Roman home of her boss, Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, the librarian and archivist of the Catholic church. He told her he had received a letter from the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, its central bureaucracy, informing him that Jatta had been chosen to lead the Vatican Museums. This extraordinary assemblage of collections and buildings, created by successive popes, encompasses antiquities, Etruscan objects, a paintings gallery, papal apartments, rooms decorated by Raphael and, of course, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

Jatta was asked immediately to leave the Vatican Library, where she had worked for around 20 years and led the prints department from 2010. She would serve for six months as the deputy to the museums’ then director, Antonio Paolucci, before succeeding him. And that was that. “I went white; I was shocked. It was a radical change for me,” she remembers.

Christie's top ten Old Master sales

February 5 2018

Image of Christie's top ten Old Master sales

Picture: Norton Simon Museum

There's a great 'top ten' piece on Christie's site - even auction houses go in for clickbait - listing their most significant Old Master sales over the last 251 years. Naturally, the sale of the Salvator Mundi is top of the list. But two other tales stand out. First, the day Norton Simon tried to bid on Rembrandt's Portrait of the Artist's Son, Titus (above):

Prior to the introduction of the paddle system, buyers were allowed to choose their own bidding signals. The American industrialist and collector Norton Simon sent a letter to Christie’s before the sale of the Rembrandt, explaining, ‘If he is sitting he is bidding; if he stands he has stopped bidding. If he sits down again he is not bidding until he raises his finger. Having raised his finger he is bidding again until he stands up again.’ Unfortunately, Chance misinterpreted Simon’s sitting and finger-raising, and sold the work to Marlborough Fine Art in London for 700,000 guineas. 

When the hammer came down, the enraged collector approached Chance’s rostrum and demanded that bidding be reopened. Simon went on to win the auction, spending an additional 60,000 guineas to secure the work. But if the industrialist’s obscure bidding tactics were intended to help him hide from press attention, he now became the focus of the sale. When the painting made the front cover of Time  magazine that year, Simon became an unlikely star. Today the portrait hangs in Simon’s museum in Pasadena, California.

And then a postscript to the sale of the Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare from Stowe in 1848:

In another twist of fate, Thomas Woods, the son of Stowe’s gamekeeper, was so inspired by the sale that he decided to become an auctioneer. In 1859 Woods joined George Christie and William Manson as a partner in their firm, creating Christie, Manson & Woods — still the official name for Christie’s.

Censorship, or good taste? (ctd.)

February 5 2018

Image of Censorship, or good taste? (ctd.)

Picture: Manchester City Art Gallery

After all that, they've put the picture back on display.

Update - a reader writes:

My Manchester-based brother mentioned that something had happened but I hadn’t realised it was THAT painting. It is a sad day when the greatest masterpiece by one of Britain’s greatest painters (and he really was the best pure painter active in the UK after Turner) can no longer be seen by the British public. We’ve become used to arts education and funding being under threat from people like Michael Gove, who have the excuse of not ‘belonging’ to the arts; but for the threat to accessibility to come from WITHIN one of the UK’s major art institutions beggars belief. We could forgive the curators if it were purely a clever ruse to promote the still under-publicised genius of Waterhouse, but Clare Gannaway’s commentary suggests that the decision really was motivated by a moral objection to the supposed content of the work — as though taking the picture off view would somehow punish the artist for his non-adherence to the moral standards of a later century, or protect contemporary viewers from the insidious effects of his perceived mysogeny.

The great irony, of course, which nobody seems to have mentioned, is that the subject of the painting is the sexual objectification of a MALE body, NOT a female body; in the ancient myth, the nymphs are the predatory aggressors; Hylas is the helpless, lusted-after victim. They are immortal; HE is underage. There is nothing to suggest that Waterhouse intended the nymphs to look like children, and until I read this article that thought would never have entered my mind. Viewers of his time would have recognised the subject and all of its relatively innocent connotations instantly, as an episode in one of the most famous mythological stories (Jason’s Argonauts and the Golden Fleece). Gannaway’s statements reveal her to be uninformed about the very painting she takes the authority to discuss (it isn’t clear why a contemporary art curator is involved — do her views outweigh those of her colleagues responsible for the Victorian pictures?), lacking the basic education that should be indispensable for any humanist professional, and ultimately confused about the very real social problems that she claims to be helping address.

Update II - after all that (part II), it was all a piece of performance art.

Censorship, or good taste? (ctd.)

February 5 2018

In France, a Facebook usser has taken the tech company to court after it deleted his account, following the posting of an image of Courbet's famous painting, The Origin of the World. He wants €20k in damages. More here

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