Previous Posts: August 2022

Lavinia for the Getty

August 31 2022

Image of Lavinia for the Getty

Picture: Getty

The Getty has acquired a Lavinia Fontana, the Marriage Feast at Cana, from the New York based dealer Nicholas Hall. You can read more about the acquisition here on William Poundstone's blog, see Nicholas' cataloguing here, and zoom in on the painting here on the Getty's site.

Save Omai! (ctd.)

August 31 2022

Regular readers will know that Sir Joshua Reynolds' Portrait of Omai has been subject to an export bar from for some months, but with little sign  a UK institution could raise the £50m required to buy the picture. Now, however, Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper has broken the exciting news that the National Portrait Gallery is making a bid to save the picture for the UK (answering the call made by a group of art world luminaries in the FT back in June).

Back in June, I didn't think a UK institution would have the appetite, in these difficult times, to try and raise £50m for an Old Master painting. But Nick Cullinan and the NPG have proved me wrong. If they pull this off, it will be the most significant acquisition by a British institution since the National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland jointly bought the two 'Diana' Titians from the Duke of Sutherland in 2012 for £100m. There's no doubt in my mind the picture is worth going for, and would be a glorious addition to the new NPG when it opens again in 2023 (though, would it be easier to fundraise if the Gallery was open now?).

Where will they get the money? Martin Bailey highlights how difficult it will be (the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the normal acquisition-supporting fund, has had its budget frozen at £5m for years). Hopefully the Heritage Lottery Fund will be able to make a special grant. And really, the UK government should support it directly too, given the picture's importance - but given the cost of living crisis I can't see any Chancellor wanting to be seen diverting taxpayer's money to buy a painting of an overseas millionaire art collector.

In The Art Newspaper piece, Cullinan is mentioned as being open to the idea of working jointly with another UK institution, and the one which springs to mind of course is the next door National Gallery, which has the deepest of all UK gallery pockets (and a £200m reserve). In fact (and I don't mean this to sound as if I'm denigrating the NPG) this is in many ways a National Gallery painting. But they may be preoccupied with their Sainsbury Wing extension plans. Let's wait and see what the fundraising strategy is, but I'll certainly be supporting it, and if you can, I hope you'll consider it too.

One final word on the price - it will doubtless be mentioned by critics of the NPG's plan that the picture was sold for £10.3m in 2001, so how can it be worth £50m now? Well, the answer lies in large part that even as recently as 2001 this aspect of British history was considerably underappreciated and undervalued. We've seen a similar transformation in how works by women artists are valued and collected. 2001 seems recent, but in terms of attitudes to what makes 'great' art, it was a very long time ago.

Job opportunity!

August 31 2022

Image of Job opportunity!

Picture: NG

The National Gallery in London are hiring a new Curator of Later Italian, Spanish and French Paintings. Salary about £63k. More details here.

New Van Dyck in Madrid?

August 30 2022

Image of New Van Dyck in Madrid?

Picture: Twitter

I learn via Twitter of what appears to be a previously unknown painting by Van Dyck, which has recently been given an export ban by the Spanish government. We've only got the above photo to go on, but this Adoration of the Kings does look close to the series of very early religious pictures by Van Dyck usually dated to around 1615 (including indeed this Adoration of the Shepherds in the Courtauld). You'll notice some of the same models and Rubensian motifs, as well as the curiously small Christ child. It would date from just before the period of Van Dyck's almost miraculous emergence into fully formed artist before his 18th birthday. You can read the export documents here.

'Florida man' has fake Basquiats?

August 30 2022

Image of 'Florida man' has fake Basquiats?

Picture: NY Post

There's ongoing fallout at the Orlando Museum of Art, following an FBI raid to seize a number of allegedly fake Basquiat paintings. One was painted on some Fedex shipping cardboard not used before Basquiat died. An expert paid $60,000 to catalogue the works had doubts, and was told by the museum to 'Shut up. You took the money'. The museum has lost two directors in the last two months, according to The Art Newspaper. Worth remembering, next time someone tells you attributions in the modern art market are solid.

Sleeper alert

August 30 2022

Image of Sleeper alert

Picture: TW Gaze

A Holy Family catalogued as 19th Century and with an estimate of £50 made £160,000 in a UK regional auction. The names Bartolomeo Schedoni and Annibale Carracci have been mentioned. The sale was reported on ITV news here.

The £1.4m doorstop (ctd.)

August 30 2022

Image of The £1.4m doorstop (ctd.)

Picture:BBC News

Back in 2016 AHN reported on the discovery in Scotland of a valuable marble bust of Sir John Gordon by Bouchardon, which was found being used as a doorstop on an industrial estate. The bust was lent to exhibitions at the Louvre and the Getty, but is now about to be sold by Highland Council, which appears to have claimed ownership of it. In 2016, it wasn't clear - as Ashmolean curator Colin Harrison pointed out to AHN - who actually owned it. The latest BBC news report on the bust, thought to be worth £1.4m, appears to confirm that nobody has settled the ownership question, but the council want to sell it anyway. Which seems like a shame.


August 18 2022

Sorry, I've been away this week, back Monday!

Update - further apologies! I was on a research trip last week, which took up more time than expected.* And the last two days' excitement has been the arrival of new cats. So I'll be back with a slew of AHN stories tomorrow, Tuesday 30th, and, if you're lucky, some cute kitten pics.

*for my forthcoming book on the history of British art, to be published by Elliot and Thompson in 2024.

Race to preserve post-war altarpiece

August 15 2022

Image of Race to preserve post-war altarpiece

Pictures: Guardian

Efforts to save an altarpiece by the Hungarian artist George Mayer-Marton have been boosted by the decision to grant it listed status. The Crucifixion was painted in Oldham 1955 by Mayer-Martin, a jewish refugee who had fled the Nazis in 1938. Bizarrely, it was partly painted over by a priest in the 1990s, in magnolia emulsion (image above). And recently, it has been vandalised, because the church is no longer in use. The campaign to save the artwork is being led by the artist's great nephew, Nick Braithwaite. I hope he succeeds, it looks like a fantastically important work. More on the listing decision here. More on Mayer-Marton's life from Apollo here. And a selection of his works here.

'Restitution - A Practical Guide'

August 15 2022

Image of 'Restitution - A Practical Guide'

Picture: ACE

Another sign the weather is changing in the UK restitution debate - Arts Council England have published a guide on what museums should do if presented with a claim for an item to be returned. It was commissioned from the Institute of Art & Law, and while it doesn't make any formal policy changes, the language is still interesting. For example, in the section on 'Assessing the Claim', insitutions are advised to consider how the item first came into their collection, as it is no longer deemed ethically acceptable to say, 'it was legally acquired at the time':

It is recognised throughout the museum sector today that museums must be especially sensitive to countries or communities of origin, and to past owners, in relation to cultural objects originally taken in ways considered unethical today (including during war, conflict or occupation, as well as by unlawful means or through duress). [...]

Questions to consider:

Did the removal occur in a way that was unlawful at the time or through a transactionentered into under duress or without consent (even if it occurred long ago)? If removal was illegal, the decision is often nolonger an ethical one, but a legal decision.

Did the removal occur at a time of war, conflict, occupation, famine, disease or widespread displacement of a population?

Did the circumstances through which the object was removed create particular harm and suffering that still resonate today for theclaimant?

Did the person(s) (if any) who facilitated the removal have the appropriate authority to do so?

Update - Dan Hicks, author of The Brutish Museums, takes a dim view of the report, here.

August Burlington Magazine

August 12 2022

Image of August Burlington Magazine

Picture: Burlington

The latest Burlington Magazine is out, with articles on La Tour, Laguerre, and Lutyens. The editorial gives some tips for holiday art history reading.

'A Taste for Impressionism' in Scotland

August 12 2022

Video: NGS

There's a wonderful new exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh looking at how Scotland and Scottish collectors were among the first to start seriously collecting the work of French Impressionist and post-Impressionist artists. The above video exlores the themes of the exhibition in more detail, and features me in my natural environment. More info on the exhibition here.

Cranach's bee baby

August 12 2022

Video: National Gallery

The National Gallery's Charlotte Wytema explains why Lucas Cranach the Elder has covered one of his angels in bees.

Digital recreation in the heritage sector

August 12 2022

Image of Digital recreation in the heritage sector

Picture: University of Reading

There's an interesting one day symposium at the Natural History Museum in October on the use of digital technologies in the heritage sector, including virtual reality (like the recreation of a virtual Rome, above). Say the organisers:

This symposium will showcase new methods by which heritage properties are restoring lost context and animating their stories in order to enhance visitor experience and engagement. All six speakers have practical experience in the application of the latest technologies to explain, educate and engage the public in a wide range of heritage attractions.  Attendees will learn about these technologies, the methodologies, the tools, the successes, the failures and the experiences gleaned from real-life projects.

Personally I think virtual reality will transform the way the heritage sector will engage with audiences. But we're only in the foothills now. The full list of speakers and more details are here.

New Sainsbury Wing designs (ctd.)

August 11 2022

Image of New Sainsbury Wing designs (ctd.)

Picture: Twitter

There's been some striking news about the National Gallery's new designs for their £30m Sainsbury Wing makeover (background on AHN here). The original architect of the space, opened in 1991, Denise Scott Brown, has called for the plans to be scrapped. She made the intervention in a call to the architectural writer Hugh Pearman, who posted the news in the below tweet.

Where does this leave us? Presumably, if anyone heeds Denise Scott Brown's call there will be a bit of a row as the development goes into the planning application process (which as far as I can see has not begun). Here's a new article in Architecture Today by Richard Pain, which calls the changes 'deeply regrettable'. It's unlikely permission will be refused by Westminster Council, and in any case time is tight - the refurbishment is supposed to be finished in time for the Gallery's 200th anniversary in 2024. But the Sainsbury Wing is already Grade 1 listed, so there may be some intervention from other parties, such as Historic England (but again I think this is unlikely).

Personally, I can see the logic in retaining the original entrance. Yes, it was a little dark and crypt-like, but that was the intention of the original architectural vision, as part of the experience before you went upstairs to the really beautiful, spacious and well lit galleries. Also, there's no doubt the Sainsbury Wing entrance today - with its in your face shop and lobby clutter - is a long way from the original vision. Perhaps we should try going back to that first.

But more significantly, it seems to me this is a battle the National Gallery doesn't need to fight, and an expense it doesn't need to incur. I find it slightly bemusing that some museums still think part of the answer to get people to visit their museums is to continually tinker with the front door. In fact, the problems of people feeling reluctant to visit go much deeper. If you've got millions to spend, spend it on that instead.

Update - the planning papers are now online, and you can see all the proposed changes in full here. Hugh Pearman has had a look, and, on Twitter, says:

The interventions into a Grade 1 listed building are extraordinarily intrusive and damaging...

John Wonnacott

August 11 2022

Image of John Wonnacott

Picture: Charles Saumarez Smith

Charles Saumarez Smith has written a new book on the British artist John Wonnacott. It's coming out on 5th September, but you can pre-order it here. On ArtUK Charles has written an article about Wonnacott's work, with illustrations of those in public collections.

Horniman Museum to return Benin Bronzes

August 8 2022

Image of Horniman Museum to return Benin Bronzes

Picture: The Sunday Times

The Horniman Museum in London has decided to formally transfer ownership of a collection of 72 items looted from Benin in 1897 to the Nigerian government. Here's the Horniman's statement. In The Sunday Times, Liam Kelly calls this a 'watershed moment', and I think that's right. This is a really significant decision, and the processes which have led to it must mean this is the first of many.

A few thoughts on why. First, the decision to transfer has been made following a request from Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). In days past, one of the hand-wringing responses from UK museums was, 'well we'd love to give them back, but we've had no formal request'. That's now changed.

Second, the Horniman is a central government funded museum. So this decision has been - or will be - signed off by the Department for Culture, DCMS. There have been some instances of UK museums returning (or pledging to return, since only two items have actually gone back so far) some of their Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, but these have been regional museums, not sponsored directly by DCMS. In The Sunday Times, the arts minister, Lord Parkinson, is quoted as not necessarily approving the Horniman decision, but making it clear decisions like this are up to museums:

Lord Parkinson, the arts minister, said that it was not for government to “tell the museums what the right or wrong decision is” and that any restitution claims should be made “case by case, item by item

Parkinson added: “There are at least two sides to every argument. The job of historians and museums is to faithfully represent all of those sides and let people make their decisions. A lot of people are concerned that we rush to moral judgment about the past.

It's bad history if a nation sweeps things under the carpet and forgets them. It’s also bad history if you create new myths of wickedness and sins of the past. We have to confront the facts and learn lessons from them.

Third, this all builds pressure on the British Museum, which not only has the UK's largest collection of Benin Bronzes, but also of course many other high profile restitutable items, such as the Parthenon Marbles. For the British Museum, however (and some other major institutions such as the V&A) there are separate bars of statute preventing restitution. Recently, as mentioned on AHN, senior museum leaders like the V&A's Tristram Hunt have not only called for these laws to be reviewed, but have effectively taken the decision into their own hands with cleverly crafted 'long term loans'. While Lord Parkinson says 'the case has not yet been made' to change the law, it is hard to see how the now government-endorsed policy of 'this is up to individual museums' can be countered by 'well not that museum'.

In other words, it seems to me that the Horniman Museum and Lord Parkinson have made, or are about to make, a significant contribution to a change in UK government policy. Remember, this is a government which usually loses no time to strike a position of 'Britain first' in any culture war. So the fact that we are seeing these developments now probably does, however obliquely, herald a turning point.

One final technical point, I suspect the export licensing system, including the Waverley Criteria (by which the government judges whether cultural items can be permanently exported from the UK) will have to be amended in light of this new policy. Because all of these items will require export licences, and at the moment it's hard to see how items like the Benin Bronzes can be said not to satisfy the Waverley Criteria for blocking export. They are:

Is the item closely connected with our history and national life?

Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?

Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

If there is a change in the export licence system, we really will know that a nationwide restitution of these objects is finally going to happen.

"Diary of an Art Historian" (ctd.)

August 8 2022

Image of "Diary of an Art Historian" (ctd.)

Picture: BG

My latest Diary column for The Art Newspaper has gone online, here.

Van Gogh's pots

August 8 2022

Image of Van Gogh's pots

Picture: Van Gogh Huis

A new exhibition at the Vincent Van Gogh Huis has assembled as many objects as possible from his pictures, and through them has made a number of interesting discoveries:

Never before have all the everyday objects depicted by Vincent been accurately identified. Recent research by art historian Alexandra van Dongen, curator of historical design at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, shows that a precise identification of Vincent's objects can sometimes shed new light on the possible place of manufacture and the dating of his work. For example, a very simple earthenware saucepan that appears on Still life with potatoes comes from the southern French pottery center Valuaties. It was previously assumed that Vincent painted this still life in Nuenen, but identification of the saucepan and technical research into the linen canvas indicate that Paris 1886 was the place and time of its manufacture.

More here.

"Reframing Picton"

August 5 2022

The National Museum of Wales has hit on a novel way to display its portrait of Thomas Picton, a major figure in Welsh history who was also a nasty b*stard. As Steven Morris in The Guardian reports:

After months of consultation and anguished debate, the portrait has been hung not in the museum’s grand Faces of Wales gallery but in a modest side room, and is contained in a specially built travel case made of softwood and scraps of plywood, with a strut covering the figure’s bulging groin area.

It is surrounded by vivid descriptions of Picton’s brutal treatment of the people of Trinidad when he was governor at the turn of the 19th century, including the torture of Luisa Calderón, a 14-year-old girl of mixed heritage.


More here.

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