National Gallery embraces the '4th plinth'

January 20 2017

Image of National Gallery embraces the '4th plinth'

Picture: TAN

The National Gallery (reports The Art Newspaper) has embraced the concept of the '4th plinth' programme in Trafalgar Square. This is the scheme whereby the vacant plinth beside Nelson's Column is temporarily filled by a contemporary work of art. For the last few years, the National Gallery has slightly distanced itself from the idea, not least because it has been (rightly in my view) concerned about the unruly playground Trafalgar Square has become. 

Auctionata insolvent

January 20 2017

Image of Auctionata insolvent

Picture: Auctionata

The online auction house, Auctionata, has filed for insolvency. It describes itself as 'the leading online auction house for art'. And the fact that it is no longer - and to be honest rarely offered any really good pictures - tells us all we need to know about how difficult online auctioneering is. While traditional auction houses have rightly rushed to embrace the opportunities presented by the digital world, it seems that both consignors and buyers still want the security, convenience and reassurance of an actual place, and the ability to actually see and handle the works of art themselves. Even for experienced buyers like me, it's still difficult to assess the true quality and condition of a painting if you only see it through photos.

Still, none of this seems to stop investors hosing money at online auction platforms, in a way that they would never do if an somebody wanted to found a more traditional auction house. Auctionata, who recently merged with another online auction house, Paddle8, got through tens of millions of dollars in financing. 

Velasquez or not?

January 20 2017

Image of Velasquez or not?

Picture: TAN

A much debated portrait of Philip IV of Spain in the Ringling Museum in Florida might have come one step closer to being accepted as a genuine Velasquez, after Infra-red scans revealed a number of alterations to the original. It turns out that the clothing, which has put off some experts in the past, was actually a later addition, and that Philip was originally wearing armour. Hence, I presume, his rather portly stomach. More here

Brexit and the Art Market (ctd.)

January 20 2017

Image of Brexit and the Art Market (ctd.)

Picture: BBC

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art has managed to acquire the above painting, Message of the Forest, by Czech surrealist Toyen - despite a last-minute price hike after the Brexit vote. The picture was being bought from overseas, at an agreed price of £420,000. But after the pound's devaluation last year, the price went up to £486,448. Happily the Art Fund was able to ensure this particular parrot lived to fight another day, and provided the extra cash. More here

New Giambologna discovery

January 20 2017

Image of New Giambologna discovery

Picture: La Tribune de L'art

Didier Rykner of La Tribune de L'art has news of a re-discovered 1597 bronze Venus by Giambologna in France. More here

Hubris

January 20 2017

Picture (below): Newsweek

Last year, Russian forces re-took the ancient city of Palmyra  in Syria from Isis. They immediately sought to capitalise on their victory with an internationally broadcast concert from the spectacular 2nd Century AD Roman amphitheater (above), in which Vladimir Putin gave a televised address. The message was clear; Russia has defeated Isis, not the US. 

But now Isis has recaptured Palmyra. And inevitably they have destroyed the site from which President Putin used to herald his victory (satellite image below). By their hubristic actions, Russia made this act of vandalism more likely. 

Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

January 17 2017

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

Some breaking news: the St Jerome being investigated by Sotheby's in connection with the Old Master forgery scandal has been deemed to be a fake. Here is Sotheby's statement:

When we learned last year that the painting may have originated from Giuliano Ruffini, we informed the purchaser from our January 2012 auction and initiated a process including technical analysis that established that the work was undoubtedly a forgery.  Ruffini is an individual at the center of a broad-ranging and well-publicized criminal investigation for allegedly selling a considerable number of Old Master paintings that are modern forgeries.

As was true in the recent case of the fake Frans Hals painting [sold by Sotheby's for $10m in 2010], Sotheby's is honoring its guarantee and fully reimbursing our purchaser.  We have also exercised our contractual right to cancel the sale, which requires our consignor to reimburse us.  While we would have preferred to settle this matter out of court, our consignor has refused to abide by his obligations and we have been left no other option than to pursue legal action.

As mentioned earlier on AHN, the painting was sold by Sotheby's in January 2012 in New York for $842,500. It had been discovered in 1999, and before Sotheby's sale had been exhibited (at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna no less) and widely published as a work by Parmigianino himself. The 'Circle of Parmigianino' attribution given to the painting by Sotheby's was therefore one of some caution, and followed Prof. David Ekserdjian, the leading Parmigianino scholar, saying he did not believe it was by the artist. That said, there was little doubt then that the picture was from the period, and when after the sale it was loaned to the Metropolitan Museum in New York the attribution was upgraded again to 'Attributed to Parmigianino'.

Sotheby's lawsuit names the consignor as Lionel de Saint Donat-Pourrieres of Luxemburg. He is described here as an art historian, sometime art dealer, and lawyer. According to Vincent Noce's article on the St Jerome in The Art Newspaper in October 2016, the St Jerome was once owned by Giulano Ruffini, who had owned the Frans Hals portrait which has also been declared a fake by Sotheby's after extensive scientific testing. For the first time, therefore, we can now say for certain that we're dealing with multiple forgeries. Two other paintings still under suspicion, a Cranach of Venus belonging to the Prince of Liechtenstein and a David with the Head of Goliath by Orazio Gentileschi, have yet be proven to be fakes (though, as I have said elsewhere, in my opinion it is likely that they are). Both of these paintings previously belonged to Ruffini, according to Ruffini's own testimony in The Art Newspaper. What we can begin to deduce from this pattern, if indeed it is one, is the fakes are all: small-ish; of no certain provenance or publication history before the 1990s; on either panel or stone supports; by major but not first-rank artists.

Sotheby's court papers set out why the St Jerome has been declared a fake, after analysis by their in house Director of Scientific Research James Martin:

Mr. Martin took pigment samples from 21 different areas of the painting. Each and every one of those samples (none of which were taken from areas of restoration) contained the modern synthetic pigment phthalocyanine green, which was first used in paints nearly four centuries after Parmigianino died.

What is frankly extraordinary about the latest news is how different the painting is to the Hals portrait. This faker, if indeed the same person painted both, has demonstrated amazing versatility in artistic styles to go from 16thC Italian Mannerism to 17thC Dutch Golden Age painting. There has surely never been a better mimic of such differing artists. If I could meet them, the first thing I would do is congratulate them.

Anyway, that's for another day (I hope). The interesting legal aspect here is that Sotheby's have gone to court against Lionel de Saint Donat-Pourrieres before they have done so against the London art dealer Mark Weiss, who consigned the Hals portrait to Sotheby's in 2010. In both cases, Sotheby's say they are determined to secure repayment of monies they have paid to the consignors, as the terms of their sale contract would have stated. Sotheby's are still in discussions with Mr Weiss. 

Brexit and the Art Market (ctd.)

January 17 2017

Image of Brexit and the Art Market (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

The UK Prime Minister will today make her much-trailed speech on the UK's approach to the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. You'll find more cogent analysis of her position elsewhere. But I just want to focus briefly on the possible impact on the UK's art market.

The main points that have been pre-briefed so far tell us: the UK will leave the Single Market; we will also leave the customs union; freedom of movement with the EU will end; but May nonetheless says she wants to find a solution whereby "lorries will be able to pass through Dover and other ports unhindered", according to The Guardian.

Leaving the Single Market will bring cheer to those dealers whose main concern is the Artist's Resale Right. This is the levy charged on the sale of works by living artists or those artists who have died within 70 years. I've always thought it an anachronism, but I am not so sanguine about the UK government abolishing it, even post-Brexit; the arts lobby in the UK tends to be stronger than that of the art market. 

From an art market point of view, the most important aspect of May's speech probably concerns the customs union. This is the basic means by which goods can travel from, say, London to Paris and vice-versa without border checks and customs tarriffs. Needless to say, if you're a UK dealer buying and selling pictures in the EU, then you want to be able to easily transport your wares and not to pay import duties. Similarly, if you're a UK auction house you don't want consignors being put off by the prospect of paying either an additional levy to send their picture to London, or by the bureaucracy of getting it there. And both auction houses and dealers will want to minimise the extent of additional paperwork. 

Nobody yet knows how the forthcoming negotiations will pan out, so all of this is speculative. However, Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for Internatonal Trade, has said that the UK will seek to replicate existing EU tarriffs 'as far as possible'. This suggests that anyone wanting to import a painting into the UK will need to pay 5% import duty, which they currently do if they bring in a painting from outside the EU. The fear must be, therefore, that post-Brexit the 5% import tax will in addition apply to pictures also coming in from the EU.

On the other hand, many will be hoping that the UK government will immediately abolish the 5% import tarriff on all cultural goods, so that imports from the US become duty free, which they are not currently. It's hard to see how a cash-strapped Treasury will find money to help art dealers. Equally we tend to assume here in the UK that all of these things are in our gift - but the EU (or rather countries within it that want a slice of the UK art market) could by force majeur oblige us to keep certain tarriffs as part of any future trade negotiations. If the PM's desire for some kind of associate membership of the customs union (ie, keep those lorries and paintings rolling through Dover) then presumably tarriffs relating to the art market will be part of these negotiations.

Which brings me onto how successful the UK art market will be in negotiating the Brexit rapids ahead. We don't yet know if the art market is to be one of David Davis' supposed 57 economic sectors that his department is preparing to negotiate for in their negotiations with the EU. One would hope it is, given the size of the market, which in 2014 was over £9 billion. Some of my colleagues in the art market take the view that advocating their position on Brexit is best done quietly with ministers and officials, and not by creating a more public campaign. I disagree. When push comes to shove, politicians respond to, and protect, those who shout loudest.

And so far, there's not much evidence of any shouting at all. According to Anthony Browne of the British Art Market Federation, the trade's leading representative body (members include Sotheby's and Christie's) the EU does not account for much of the market's overall trade anyway:

While the EU is main trading partner for many other sectors of the UK economy, 85 per cent of the £4 billion worth of art imported to the UK last year came from non-EU countries, and only 2 per cent of all art exports went to EU destinations. It is probably for this reason that the British art market has so far taken the Brexit vote in its stride.

I think this view is mistaken, and that the statistic of 85% is misleading. Cultural goods coming into the UK from the EU are not subject to border checks at the moment of course, and so it is difficult to be sure that this figure is really accurate. In theory, any Vat-registered business must state on its Vat return whether it has bought goods in the EU, and it is from this and other information reported to HMRC by businesses that the 85% figure comes from. But in practice, I understand that not all art dealers (or their accountants) fill in all the relevant parts of their Vat return, and nor of course are all dealers or art market actors Vat registered. Since in terms of value, if not by volume, the UK art market is already skewed towards modern and contemporary art, in which the major business is transacted between locations like the US, Switzerland Hong Kong, then it's easy to see how the 85% figure can be misleading. 

Certainly, in the Old Master sector, it is absolutely the case that more than 15% of art imports into the UK come from the EU. From conversations I've had with colleagues in the major London auction houses it is clear that consignments from the EU make up significantly more than 15% of total lots. If bringing in those lots from the EU in future entails either import taxes or going through the bureaucratic hurdles of 'temporary import' (thus being exempt from import tax for a brief period) then slowly but surely sales will seep to other cities such as Paris. Those of us in the UK Old Master market may be small fry compared to the modern and contemporary sector. You might rightly point out that we're not likely to get much public sympathy. But we must hope that somehow our voices are still heard, and that the level playing field we've enjoyed for so long can continue.

So at the moment we are left facing continued uncertainty, which looks likely to last for many years. It will be some time before a final trade deal is worked out with the EU, and then even longer with other nations after that. The Prime Minister said today that 'no deal is better than a bad deal', which means that if no agreement with the EU is reached in two years, all trade between Britain and Europe reverts to World Trade Organisation tarriffs. Of course, these will apply to works of art.

Finally, a quick word on freedom of movement. As reported in the Evening Standard yesterday, London's pre-eminence as Europe's art market center relies in part on the ease with which people from the EU can work in the UK, and vice versa. 49% of dealers surveyed at the London Art Fair said that freedom of movement was the most important threat to the UK art market. 

Update - a reader writes:

Your piece on the post Brexit art market is very logical, however it is unlikely that logic will rule. It hasn't to date in the entire Brexit drama which is beyond reason.

The reality of Brexit for any sector remains unknown. As you wrote, the non EU imports are Swiss and US and the exports add Hong Kong. The UK market is largely as a middle man between non UK buyers and sellers or beneficial owners (some being EU) just as the Euro clearing and hedging markets in The City mainly serve non UK clients and transactions.

The government will try to keep The City alive and well, while the art dealers, who lobby passively in Westminster, can expect little help from this government. They don't tell their story well. The Guardian hasn't printed a headline saying Treasury gives up £1billion revenue if art market leaves or 10,000 UK jobs depend on art market. May won't cut a deal like Sunderland to help London art dealers and their staff and suppliers. 

Ferens art gallery re-opens

January 16 2017

Image of Ferens art gallery re-opens

Picture: Guardian

I've been meaning to note the re-opening last week of the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, after a £5.2m refurbishment. The opening was also the first time the museum has displayed its new £1.6m acquisition of a painting by Pietro Lorenzetti (which is being admired above by the National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi). The National has lent a number of pictures to a new exhibition at the Ferens highlighting the Lorenzetti.

Unfortunately, there is no video or set of photos of the new museum, or any mention of the new exhibition, on the Ferens' website. In fact, the site has yet to be updated from when the museum was closed. For a potential visitor trying to find out more, the Ferens might as well not exist. Could the museum not have spent just a fraction of the £5.2m on a new website?

Update - here's a brief video on Vimeo from KCOM, who provide broadband in Hull.

Optimism? (ctd.)

January 16 2017

Image of Optimism? (ctd.)

Picture: Jerry Brannigan/SWNS.com, via Mail Online

Here's a curious story which has been doing the rounds of the Scottish press: an expert in the work of Robert Burns says he has identified a number of 'secret' marks in a recently discovered portrait of Burns by Alexander Nasmyth. The marks include a tiny depiction of Halley's Comet, said to link to Burns' birth, and a series of letters and numbers on his forehead so small they are just 1mm big. The discoverer, Jerry Brannigan, says he has also discovered similar tiny markings on other works by Nasmyth, and these are all part of a masonic code hidden by the artist, which nobody has known about until now:

He said he had uncovered similar mysterious tiny letters and symbols in the other paintings of Burns by Nasmyth which he had examined at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and Kelvingrove Art Gallery. [...]

“This is a bit like the Da Vinci code for paintings - the same kind of mysterious signs and emblems that run through everything."

Ah, the Da Vinci Code - it has a lot to answer for. I'm afraid this appears to me to be another case of people imagining they can see things in paintings, when in fact they're just signs of age, or brush strokes, or random squiggles. I get quite a few enquiries of people thinking they have, say, a Turner, because if you really magnify one tiny area of the painting, then rotate it, turn up the contrast and squint, it says 'JT'. Spend enough time with a magnifying glass and a painting and you can begin to see all sorts of things, if you're not careful. 

You can read more about the secret masonic claims here, and here.

The painting of Burns in question was claimed as a discovery back in 2013. I remember then thinking it was more likely to be just another of the many copies after the three acknowledged autograph pictures by Nasmyth (here's one in the NPG, compare the quality). The attribution to Nasmyth came from an art historian who has for a long, long time been compiling a catalogue of the work of Henry Raeburn, Dr David Mackie. As far as I am aware, Mackie is not widely regarded as an expert on Nasmyth. Part of his reasoning was, according to the Antiques Trade Gazette, that:

X-rays taken last year show that the preparatory work beneath the finished paint is typical of Nasmyth.

I don't ever recall seeing a thorough analysis of Nasmyth paintings that have been x-rayed, so I'm not entirely sure how Mackie can draw such a conclusion. Nevertheless, the picture appears to have been taken seriously by Imogen Gibbon, Deputy Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, who said;

“This is a very interesting discovery. I would say often people approach museums and galleries with what they think is a new portrait of Burns, but often they date from the 20th or late 19th century, but this is appears to be an ­exception.”

The discovery of the painting in 2013 was also heralded by the same Jerry Brannigan, said to be acting on behalf of an anonymous owner. The picture was bought at a regional auction in England. Brannigan was then co-writing a book on Robert Burns' time in Edinburgh, which was eventually published in 2015. This book, which according to the publishers contains walking tours, 100 illustrations and 80 photographs, is now enough for the press to refer to Brannigan, a freelance writer, as an 'expert' on Burns. 

When the discovery of the painting was announced in 2013 it was said that the painting was for sale and valued at £2m, and that the 'clock was ticking' for a museum to buy it. This seems evidently not to have happened. It is now on display at Dumfries House in Ayrshire, who apparently do not express to visitors any doubts about the picture's status as an autograph work by Nasmyth. Finally, I see that the latest story about the secret markings has been put out by the SWNS press agency, who run a website called www.sellusyourstory.com. I see in AHN past that SWNS have promoted curious stories about a claimed £1.3m drawing by the young Andy Warhol, and the one about the long-lost Picasso in the suitcase, neither of which turned out to be quite what they seemed. 

I'm not suggesting that Mr Brannigan or the painting's owner, whoever they are, have made money out of this particular story. I don't know. But I mention all this because it's a good example of how easy it is to get a story into the press about art discoveries and expertise, whether there's any particular merit to them or not. Of course, many of you will be thinking; pot, kettle...

 

Art History toys (ctd.)

January 13 2017

Image of Art History toys (ctd.)

Picture: via Dangerousminds.net

We love these at AHN: figurines modeled on characters from Hieronymous Bosch paintings. They retail at around $45. More here.

Old pictures, old clothes

January 13 2017

Image of Old pictures, old clothes

Picture: Sotheby's

I'll be going out to the US on a mini auction & museum tour the week after next, so I'm glad I'll be able to catch Sotheby's 'Costumist', Jonquil O'Reily, giving a lefture on 'Precious Textiles and their Painted Forms' at Sotheby's New York. Regular readers may remember that Jonquil recently had a look at codpieces. The lecture is on Sunday 22nd January at 3pm. More here.

And while we're on New York, here's the Antiques Trade Gazette's highlights of the Old Master week. I'll write a more detailed report when I'm there.

One that got away (ctd.)

January 13 2017

Image of One that got away (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

From La Repubblica newspaper in Italy comes news that the Italian government tried to stop the sale of a 15th Century painting sold last year by Sotheby's in London. The picture was a gabella showing the Flagellation of Christ, and was painted in 1441 by an artist commonly called the Master of the Osservanza, but who has now been suggested to be Sano di Pietro (1405-1481). Gabellas were used as decorative covers for the official account books of the city of Sienna, and were decorated with the coats of arms of the officials who drew them up. Most Siennese gabellas (105 of them) are now housed in the state archives in Sienna, but a number are in private collections and museums. Here's one in the Metropolitan Museum. La Repubblica says there are 136 in total.

The Italian government claimed that this painting must at some point have been 'stolen', was therefore still the property of the state, and should be returned to Italy. They presented no proof it was stolen, or when it left the Sienna archive. They also conceded that it left Italy 'before rules on export licences existed'. The picture had been in the possession of the German artist Franz von Lenbach, who died in 1904. So Sotheby's ignored this rather crude attempt to seize a painting being sold legitimately, in good faith, and it made £1.38m against a reserve of £400,000-£600,000. 

I don't think there is any international legal mechanism by which Italy could seize the painting, wherever it ends up, since the claim on it is so weak.  But I daresay it might not stop them trying. If I were the new owner, I probably wouldn't want to lend it to an Italian museum any time soon, just in case. The wider point here is that it's time we came to an internationally agreed statute of limitations for these restitution cases.

Guffwatch

January 13 2017

Picture: Christie's

The news that Trump's nominee for Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, is a part-owner of a $14.7m painting by Willem de Kooning, called Untitled III, gives us a chance to look at how Christie's catalogued the painting when it came up for sale in November 2014:

“Untitled III is among a series of paintings made in the late 1970s that convey a keen sense of place—the atmospheres of ocean and the sky in East Hampton…The soft, voluptuous colors and textures of blue-greens and melting whites and yellows summon the out of door ambiance of natural light.”

Maybe Trump would translate this 'draining the swamp'.

Mnuchin is the son of an art dealer, Robert Mnuchin, and a former Goldman Sachs partner.

In related news, there has been some concern from US museums that Trump's proposed tax changes will lead to a reduction in charitable giving to the arts. 

New V&A Director

January 13 2017

Image of New V&A Director

Picture: Labour Party

Extraordinary news just in that Tristram Hunt, the current Labour MP for Stoke and former Shadow Secretary of State for Education, is to become the new Director of the V&A museum. His appointment will trigger a by-election in the normally safe Labour seat, but we can leave the political machinations to others. Let's just say that if I was a Labour MP under Jeremy Corbyn's zombie leadership, I'd want to get the hell out too.

I think Hunt will be a good fit at the V&A. It's true that he has no museum experience, but we'll come onto that in a moment. There's no doubting his academic bona fides. Hunt is a historian by training, and before entering politics was a lecturer at Queen Mary University in London. His thesis and an early book were on Victorian civic pride and urban re-generation (the pre-requisite, in such a field, to know a great deal about drains and sewage gave rise to the quip - back in my own historian days - that Hunt 'knows his sh*t'). Hunt was also for a time a leading TV historian, presenting programmes on things like the English Civil War. (His role as TV's hunky historian has now been taken over by Dan Snow, who's an equally good presenter, but with better muscles.)

So, Hunt is a good and proven communicator, and a first-class brain. Many years ago, when I was running the All Party History Group in the House of Commons, he came to do a lecture for us on Engels, and was brilliant. Many will wonder though whether one can become director of a national institution like the V&A without ever having worked in a museum before. And to that I think we must say; why not? I think there's certainly room for unconventional candidates like Hunt. The point of a museum director is to be a respected leader, a public figurehead, and even an impresario. These skills are sometimes not easy to find within the museum world, especially hese days where there's an increased emphasis on management rather than scholarship. We all know of museum directors who have risen to the top having been essentially managers, and they tend to have all the charisma of a piece of carpet - which soon becomes reflected in the museum itself. Mercifully, such directors are rare.

I know of others who were in the mix to become V&A director, and I  must say I'm disappointed that one in particular did not get further consideration. But I think Hunt is an excellent choice. I'm glad too to see that political opinions are no bar to being considered a national museum director, as I wrote at the time of Martin Roth's resignation following the EU referendum. The V&A has slightly suffered in the past by being too distant from the national conversation, a fact in part due to the diligent and quiet effectiveness of its recent directors. Now, in a political and economic environment where museums will need to shout louder to be heard and supported, I think Hunt's presence will be key.

There's a wider point here too, following the recent and lamentable decision in Edinburgh not to have a dedicated director of the National Gallery of Scotland. The appointment of a director is such a crucial moment in a museum's story. We will see now how energised the conversation around the V&A will be, both in the short and long term, thanks to Hunt's appointment. How terrible that the National Gallery of Scotland can no longer have the same opportunity. 

Update - a quip from HUnt, as reported on Twitter by Christian May:

Asked why he was leaving Corbyn's Labour party to become a museum director, Tristram Hunt says he wants something more forward looking.

Update II - some of the culturati are enraged because Hunt has in the past questioned the abolition of entry charges for national museums. Does his selection by the V&A signal a willingness to re-consider entry charges by that institution? I think the V&A, along with places like the Imperial War Museum, felt they used to be get a better deal before free entry.

Personally, I'm in favour of it, but would like to see a more intelligent way of slicing up the free entry pie.

Update III - a reader writes:

Tristram Hunt may have the necessary skills to lead the V&A in the political world of the arts sphere in London, but it feels like a very top-down appointment. Hunt will hopefully raise the profile of the museum, and encourage major donations, but will his lack of a deep understanding and love for the collection manifest itself in minor but important ways, such as a prioritisation of the big project over the small, of modern over the traditional, and of money over thought. Will there not be a disconnect between Hunt and the curatorial staff?

Another adds:

Peculiar choice.  

At least he's educated and moderately intelligent in an academic establishment sense. But has he ever managed a large staff and a multifaceted organization.   

One would prefer to have someone who knows a bit about art and other cultures as well and has ties for corporate and private support which will become increasingly important.

Update IV: here's Will Gompertz's take.

Met backs away from Modern & Contemporary

January 12 2017

Image of Met backs away from Modern & Contemporary

Picture: The Metropolitan Museum

At least for now; a planned new $600m extension has been put on hold until at least 2022, reports the New York Times.

New book on Charles Le Brun

January 12 2017

Image of New book on Charles Le Brun

Picture: Paul Holberton

I've been meaning to mention a new book on Charles Le Brun, the first monograph on the artist. It's by Wolf Burchard, and can be bought here. Wolf will be giving a lecture on Le Brun at the Wallace Collection on 27th January at 6.30pm; book here.

This is not Shakespeare (ctd.)

January 12 2017

Video: Steve G Wadlow/YouTube

At long last, a break to the monotony of me banging on about the Cobbe Portrait not being Shakespeare; we have a new pretender called 'The Wadlow Portrait'. It is owned by an antiques dealer called Peter Wadlow. In the 1960s he acquired a portrait of an unknown man, and thought little of it. Many years later, an English professor who happened to be visiting Wadlow's house saw the picture, and said he thought it looked like Shakespeare. And ever since Mr Wadlow has been hoping to prove that his picture is William Shakespeare. He has created a website, www.isthiswilliamshakespeare.co.uk to set out his case that the sitter is indeed Shakespeare.

There is, however, no evidence at all that the sitter is William Shakespeare. Not one jot. The site has the usual cleverl annotated diagrams, pointing out imagined things like casts in an eye, which apparently means the sitter might be Shakespeare. The picture has been dated to about 1595, and the age of the sitter might fit that of Shakespeare at the time. But that's about it. Mr Wadlow has taken the picture to our friends at Lumiere in Paris, who have taken their usual whizzy scans, but have not revealed anything of note yet. Except they have made the above video, which 'merges' the Wadlow portrait with the Droeshout engraving (which does show Shakespeare) to apparently demonstrate that the sitters might be the same person. NB: you can do this kind of thing with so many contemporary portraits - which often followed the similar poses of the head - and imagine you're seeing the same sitter. If you don't believe me, have a go on Photoshop and see for yourself. There will be a point when the Wadlow portrait can be made to look like Elizabeth I.

One thorn in the side of the Wadlow portrait is a coat of arms at upper right which is, alas, not that of William Shakespeare. To get around this problem, the Wadlow site claims that this coat of arms is a later addition, and thus not at all connected to the sitter. The evidence for this is an analysis of the coat of arms by a Herald at the College of Heralds in London, who said that the coat of arms seen in the painting does not match a standard English coat of arms. Therefore, Wadlow says, the coat of arms must be something inaccurately imagined by a later artist. The possibility that the picture might not be English, or the coat of arms innacurately rendered by an artist unfamiliar with such things, seems not to have been entertained.

"Let none presume to wear an undeserved dignity."

Update - Steve Wadlow writes:

Thank you for writing an article about ‘The Wadlow’ portrait, (so named by others,) We are delighted to have an expert like yourself showing an interest, so I thought it only fair to answer the points you made.

I started looking into the identity of the sitter when there were two incidents in a relatively short period of time in which people mentioned that the portrait looked like William Shakespeare. Having no background in art history I have consulted experts such as (amongst others) Sir Roy Strong (ex National Portrait Gallery) Karen Hearn (ex-Tate) and Rupert Featherstone (Hamilton Kerr) they are all of the same opinion (after I had asked if it may be by Gheeraerts) that the painting was English in origin painted in the English style. 

You accuse me of not having entertained the idea that it might not be English, but having consulted such eminent people I did not think it was my place to dismiss their opinions.

The Hamilton Kerr also x-rayed the portrait and that showed up areas of over-painting. One of these seems to be beneath the coat of arms so I believe it is reasonable to deduct that this was added later. The x-ray also shows that there is another coat of arms and possibly some text beneath the overpainting.

As to your statement that this is not Shakespeare, you will no doubt have noticed that the website is called “Is this William Shakespeare” not this is William Shakespeare.

You also say that there is “not one jot of evidence.” The evidence that has come to light so far is that the painting came from a manor house that was under-going restoration in the late 1960s, in the Banbury area and from our research so far the best match is Great Tew. As you know, Great Tew was once owned by the Keck family. Robert Keck (of Temple) owned the Chandos portrait. You will also be aware that George Vertue noted that Keck owned two portraits of Shakespeare one which was the Chandos and another (now lost) oil on panel painted in 1595. (He left his estate to Francis Keck of Great Tew, (the Chandos had previously been sold.) I know that you haven’t yet seen my painting but it is oil on panel and has been dated at around 1595. Shakespeare was 31 in 1595 and there is a figure 31 on the painting.

There is also the facial similarity which I think is undeniable as do most of the people to whom I have shown it. This includes Lumiere technology who took it upon themselves to create the video comparison which you featured with you article.

I am not stating that the portrait is definitely Shakespeare [the website did state this, but since changed] but given what has happened so far I hope that you would agree that it is worth continuing my research. If nothing else I am learning a lot about William Shakespeare and Tudor painting.

Behind the whitewash

January 12 2017

Image of Behind the whitewash

Picture: Dr Jonathan Foyle

The historian and writer Dr Jonathan Foyle has shared this photo on Twitter, showing a 17th Century picture discovered behind an office wall in London. It's believed to show Kensington Palace. 

'Was Nazi Art Really That Bad?'

January 12 2017

Image of 'Was Nazi Art Really That Bad?'

Picture: Spectator

In The Spectator, William Cook suggests that not all the art that Hitler liked was 'that bad'. He particularly highlights, if that's the right word, the above c. 1937 'Four Elements' by Adolf Ziegler (above), which Hitler liked so much that he hung it over his fireplace.

[...] at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich’s answer to Tate Modern, there’s a sign that things are changing. Amid the usual trawl through 20th-century modernism, one room has been set aside. ‘Artists under the National Socialists’ comprises only 11 paintings but it’s the most interesting room in the whole museum. It shows that in Nazi Germany, things were rarely black and white. For every diehard Nazi or ‘degenerate’, there were dozens of artists whose political position was more vague. Some supported the regime then turned against it. Others opposed it, then gradually acquiesced.

Dominating this display, on show here for the first time, is ‘The Four Elements’ by Adolf Ziegler. Of course when you know how Ziegler sucked up to the Nazis, and hounded brilliant artists like Beckmann and Kirchner (Beckmann driven into exile; Kirchner driven to suicide), this painting seems revolting. But when you strip away that knowledge, something far more challenging emerges. It would be so much easier if bad men and bad politics made bad art. If only life were that simple. But when you look at this picture with fresh eyes, you’re forced to acknowledge an awkward truth. Despite the repugnant morals of the man who made it, it’s actually not that bad.

Ziegler’s work is too close to the Third Reich, too complicit in its crimes against humanity, but several other paintings in this room are strong enough to stand alone, regardless of the time when they were made. Eighty years ago, modernism was bold and radical, realism was reactionary. Today, the most risqué show in Germany would be a display of realistic art.

I've not seen Ziegler's painting. And as an avowed empiricist I usually prefer to judge everything on its own merits. But if a painting is specifically produced to appeal to, and conform to, an ideology as hateful and destructive as Nazism, then surely the only thing we can admire it for is its technical merits; whether it was 'well painted'. And even in this case I'm not so sure. This is not to say that the painting is not an interesting object worth displaying.

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