Can art be too real?

May 29 2015

Video: Metropolitan Museum

Here's an excellent video from Luke Syson of the Met about Pedro de Mena's polychrome sculptures. 

Van Dyck in Manchester

May 28 2015

Image of Van Dyck in Manchester

Picture: Manchester City Art Gallery

The Van Dyck 'selfie' has made it to Manchester on the latest leg of its three-year UK 'tour. The picture will be there until 31st August. Go see him!

More here.

Guffwatch - Biennale edition

May 27 2015

Image of Guffwatch - Biennale edition

Picture: Contemporary Art Daily

Cristina Ruiz of The Art Newspaper alerts us to this years pick of the turkey's at the Venice Biennale - the ones which even the contemporary art crowd are baffled by. Guffwatch's antennae sprung into action with Cristina's mention of the Austrian pavilion, which is, er, entirely empty. This year, artist Heimo Zobernig pushes the emperor's-new-clothes analogy  to breaking point by filling the pavilion with nothing (although, cunningly, he has given it a lick of paint). You can see lots of photos of the empty space here.

Of course, the official press release is worthy of a place in the Guffwatch pantheon of greats:

Heimo Zobernig’s work is marked by its high level of precision in terms of both form and content. He often succeeds in involving the observer both intellectually and sensually at the same time. His spectrum ranges from drawing and painting through installation and sculpture to video and spatial settings of a practical nature. Already in his early years, Heimo Zobernig had a firm grasp of how to question the basic premises of art both critically and playfully, by using the exhibition and/or the catalog or book in itself as a medium of his analytical reflection. In this sense, the individual building blocks of his art became his actual oeuvre. Hence, he exposes the mechanisms of the art system, addresses hierarchies and examines concepts both for their concrete and metaphorical meanings. All the more impressive is how he succeeds in negotiating these issues in the form of what might almost be called classical, apparently autonomous canvases and sculptures, or by means of concrete architectural interventions and installations.

Heimo Zobernig will combine both approaches for the Austrian Pavilion, which was built in 1934 based on plans by Josef Hoffmann and Robert Kramreiter. Both spatial intervention and independent work of art will enter into a combination as equal, reciprocally commentating elements of his Venice contribution. No less than the concrete room, the situation of the Biennale itself is a starting point for Heimo Zobernig’s deliberations. How can a meaningful contribution be made in an environment based on nation-state representations and in which each voice competes for the most attention? What effects make sense in such a context? These questions also play a role in Heimo Zobernig’s concept for Venice. And the Austrian Pavilion, with its equally classical and modern language of form, offers an ideal space for this purpose.

Update - a reader writes:

A propos of the empty gallery gambit, my brother-in-law, who is an artist and art history professor at an American university, "thought it was funnier in 1958... (1968, 1969, 1970, 1974, 1975, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004…)”.

{/box} 

Much ado about nothing (ctd.)

May 27 2015

Image of Much ado about nothing (ctd.)

Picture: BG

I continue to be amazed at Country Life's emphatic pronunciation of 'The Greatest Discovery in 400 Years', with their claim to have found Shakespeare's only life portrait (in the frontispiece, above, of Gerrard's 1598 Herball). The theory, by Botanist Mark Griffiths, has been pretty neatly debunked now, but the magazine and Griffiths are holding firm, and back up their faith with statements like:

'We have a series of completely incontrovertible facts that this is Shakespeare'.

If you said that in an A-level history essay, you'd get an 'F'. The most important evidence Griffiths cites for his theory - that the symbol on the frontispiece says 'Shakespeare' if you add an 'E' to the number '4', which in Latin could translate as 'Shake' in English, and that the vaguely arrow-looking thing is in fact a spear, to be identified not in Latin but in English, thus giving you 'Shake, spear' - is not an 'incontrovertible fact' but an interpretation of self-identified clues. 

If Country Life wanted to publish this theory, then they should have done so as a fascinating conjecture - which it is - and not as the gospel truth. By doing so they devalue both the argument and themselves. On Twitter, Philip Mould described the publication as a 'Hitler Diary moment'. Ouch.

Still, the debate is an interesting one, and there has even been some defence of the claim. In The Spectator, Alexander Waugh leaps to Griffiths' side, and says it certainly is Shakespeare - but not for the reasons Griffiths thinks:

In those days poets were nicknamed after the works they had written – Sydney, for instance, was ‘Astophel’, Watson was ‘Amyntas’, Spenser was ‘Collyn,’ Nashe was ‘Pierce’, Drayton was ‘Rowland’ etc.  Three years before the publication of Herball Shakespeare was nicknamed ‘Adon’ by the poet Thomas Edwards in his ‘Envoy to Narcissus.’  Given, as Professor Wells concedes, that Mark Griffiths has persuasively identified the other three figures on the title page as Gerard, Dodoens and Lord Burghley, the identification of the poet holding the symbols of Adonis can only be ‘ADON’ who is indisputably Shakespeare, the author of the poem Venus and Adonis, so popular that it had already run to three editions by 1597. It should also be noted that the Narcissus lily grows out of Adonis’s blood only in Shakespeare, all other variations of the Greek myth make it an anemone.

In other words, the Gerard frontispiece on which Griffiths' claims are based can be interpreted in numerous ways. Waugh, incidentally, doesn't believe that Shakespeare (as in, the fellow from Stratford) wrote Shakespeare's plays. He thinks it might have been the Earl of Oxford.

On Huffington Post, Ros Barber lays into the corn on the cob that 'Shakespeare' is holding, which Griffiths says helps identify the playwrite:

Griffiths claims that the cob of corn in the figure's other hand is a reference to Titus Andronicus. But the "corn" mentioned in Titus Andronicus is very clearly wheat, not the newly imported American plant maize. We know it is wheat because it is thrashed ("first thrash the corn, then burn the straw" -- 2.3.123) and gathered into sheaths ("This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf" -- 5.3.70). You do not do this with corn-on-the-cob. "Corn" in Elizabethan England denoted any kind of grain, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, maize was not referred to as "corn" without the modifier 'Indian' before 1809. This removes any argument that it might be Shakespeare who is holding a cob of corn.

Meanwhile, there seems to be more compelling evidence that the figures on the Gerard frontispiece are supposed to be seen as classical figures such as Dioscorides, who was a Physician in the Roman army (hence the roman toga he is depicted in) and viewed by those in the 16th Century as the leading authority on all things plant. Mark Gray points us to a German edition of Dioscorides' work published in 1598 (below), which has clear similarities to Gerard's frontispiece.

John Overholt of Harvard University (here) highlights that not only do we see a clear mention of Dioscorides on the frontispiece of the later edition (1633) of Gerard's Herball, but also on earlier editions of Rembert Dodoens' Herball, of which he illustrates the below example published in 1616, but which was first published in 1583. Gerard's Herball borrowed heavily from Dodoens' work. In Dodoen's title page, Dioscorides is shown lower right.

I haven't found an example of the 1583 edition online, but I learn from the website of the Edward Worth Library in Ireland that it was re-used on Carolus Clusius book of rare plants published in 1601. So it seems safe to say that many late 16th Century books on plants contained on overt reference to classical figures such as Dioscorides on their title pages. Mark Griffiths' claim, of course, is that in the case of Gerard's 1598 edition, these were subverted to mean four modern figures, only identifiable to master cryptographers (of whom none apparently existed, because there is no evidence anyone cracked the code until now).

Meanwhile, here's a 1578 edition of Rembert Dodoen's 'Herball' published in England (from which Gerard's 1598 Herball borrows heavily), which shows figures similar to those seen on the Gerrard frontispiece, but come with identifications. Dioscorides, however, is not shown. The imagery is taken from a 1563 Dutch edition of Dodoens' Herball.

Update - the Country Life website has sprung into life again. This time, Emeritus Fellow of Worcester College Edward Wilson, who backed Mark Griffiths' claims from the start, goes into bat. He was a tutor in medieval English. But he immediately sets himself up for a fall by beginning:

There is now growing acceptance, beginning with no less an authority than Prof Stanley Wells, that three of the men depicted on William Rogers’s 1597 title page of John Gerard’s Herball are real persons as identified by Mark Griffiths in Country Life (May 20)—namely, John Gerard, Lord Burghley and Rembert Dodoens.

Phooey. This is a curious way to defend an argument. Stanley Wells has said the 'fourth man' is not Shakespeare, but because he thinks the other three figures might be real people, he is still used to defend Griffiths' thesis. But as far as I can make out, the majority of people who have weighed into this debate think the figures in the frontispiece are, as seems to traditionally have been the case, merely generic figures related to the classical age. As I stated in my earlier post, the evidence that the 'first' man is Burghley is slight, and based purely on speculation. I do not find the likeness encouraging, when seen within the wider context of late Tudor portraits.

Anyway, because some have said the 'fourth man' might be Dioscorides, Wilson sets this theory up for demolition - because it isn't Dioscorides it must be, er, Shakespeare. Straw man, anyone?

Evidence in Wilson and Griffiths' favour is the frontispiece which I reproduced above, the 1578 Herball by Henry Lyte, in which we don't see Dioscorides but Apollo (top left) in Roman garb.

Wilson and Country Life then illustrate yet another frontispiece (above), which again bears remarkable compositional similarities to the Gerard frontispiece of 1598. It is from Jacobus Tabernaemontanus Neuw Kreuterbuch, and it was published in Frankfurt in 1588. Here we see not Dioscorides, but Apollo (on the right), in Roman garb but this time wearing a laurel wreath. This, says Wilson, must mean that we are dealing with a depiction of the poets Apollo inspired:

In short, there is a precise and incontrovertible precedent that establishes the fact that the Fourth Man on Gerard’s 1597 title page represents not Dioscorides, but Apollo and the poets he inspired. Given that the other three figures are portraits of persons alive in the 16th century camouflaged as the characters conventionally shown on botanical title pages, we are looking at a new likeness of an Elizabethan poet.

See what he did there? He made one massive assumption - that the three figures on Gerard's title page are beyond doubt correctly identified by Griffiths, and uses it to reinforce the assertion that the 'fourth man' must be Shakespeare. Historians amongst you - and lawyers - will know that this is a strange way of presenting evidence. (Alas, we are not treated to any Griffiths-like interpretation of the the Neuw Kreuterbach title page - might not the garden depicted be some Imperial Habsburg spot, or one of the figures the Emperor Rudolf II himself?)

As far as I can see, the only thing we can be sure about now - beyond doubt - is that there was a strong tradition that frontispieces of this kind featured classical figures such as Apollo and Dioscorides. In all the frontispieces we have seen so far, the figures are drawn like mythical or ancient figures, as opposed to actual portrait depictions, and are usually inscribed as such. In those frontispieces where modern figures are depicted, the manner of their portrayal is very different (as art historians will immediately be able to recognise), and they are identified by a further inscription - as Gerard is himself in the subsequent 1633 edition of his Herball.

In other words, we still await firm, contemporary evidence that the 'fourth man' is Shakespeare. Conjecture and theories will not do. Anyone who thinks it does needs to go to the back of the history class, and start again.

Update - prompted by Mark Gray, I've been having a look at some other frontispieces of the period, especially those that relate to Gerard's 1598 Herball.

Mark Griffiths begins his theory that the Herball's frontispiece contains all sorts of identifiable clues by stating that the garden seen at the bottom (detail above) is not a generic garden, but shows Lord Burghley's garden at Theobalds, in Hertfordshire. From there we get to Elizabeth I being in the garden, then to Lord Burghley being one of the 'four men' in the frontispiece, and so on until we get to Shakespeare.

To make this initial Theobalds identification fit, Griffiths states that William Rogers, the engraver of the Herball's frontispiece, took inspiration from Adriaen Collaert's c.1580 engraving 'April' (above, first published in Antwerp; see a high-res here), but that Rogers changed certain key elements. One of these was to replace the central tree with an olive tree. Burghley grew olives in his garden, we are told, and so the tree is a clear indication that the garden is Theobolds.

Also, Rogers was - Griffiths states - 'careful to include [Burghley's] prized olives' in the decorative borders of the above print of Lord Burghley. (Though I have to say not so careful as to make them stand out amongst the many other types of flowers one can see in the print.) 

Anyway, there is little architecturally in the Herball frontispiece that links us directly to the garden at Theobalds. True, the original manor house at Theobalds had a moat, but that seems to have been replaced by Burghley when he enlarged the house (see more on the history of the house here). The garden did have canals in it, but the waterway seen in the print seems more of a moat than a canal. And we know that the garden at Theobalds was large, so is it odd that we are shown a rather small parterre which looks out onto a field of crops?

But the main point is - are we really sure Rogers was being as ingenious as Griffiths attests? I wonder. The vast bulk of the illustrations in Gerard's Herball (some 1800) were taken from woodblocks that were rented by the Herball's printer John Norton from another printer in Frankfurt, Nicholaus Bassaeus. In 1590 Bassaeus had published an edition of a book by Jacobus Theodorus, also known as 'Tabernaemontanus', called 'Eicones plantarum seu stirpium', which had used these illustrations.

Now, in 1598, the same year that the Herball was published, Nicholaus Bassaeus also published another book on a related theme; a commentary on the works of the Roman naturalist Dioscorides by the Sienese doctor and naturalist, Pietro Andrea Mattioli (sometimes called 'Matthiolus'). The book was called Medici Caesarei et Ferdinandi Archiducis Austriae opera quae extant omnia. I have illustrated the frontispiece in full above, but here is a detail of the garden, which appears at the bottom of the page, as in the Gerard Herball.

Now, is the close similarity of the garden in the scene at the base of both Mattioli's work and Gerard's a coincidence? The garden in Rogers and Gerard's frontispiece seems to me to be much closer to that seen in the 1598 Mattioli book than the c.1580s Collaert 'April' print. Look closely and we see the apparent olive tree is in the centre of both the Mattioli and Gerard gardens, as well as similar architecture int he building, a full field in the distance, and the similarly attired walking couple (one of whom, Griffiths says, is Elizabeth I).

Therefore, my question is, instead of making his own interpretation of the c.1580s 'April' print, might Rogers instead have been following the latest type of garden print sent over by Nicholas Bassaeus from Frankfurt with the rest of the plates for Gerard's Herball? If indeed Rogers was following a print, and then made an engraving plate from that print, then this would account for the fact that the image appears back to front.

Given the similarities between the two, the alternative I suppose is that somebody in Frankfurt was struck by Rogers' interpreation of the garden, and thought, 'I'll follow that'. But I can't easily see that being the case, given that Frankfurt was a more sophisticated place for making such prints than London. 

'Aha!' you say - but what about the dates? Rogers' engraving is dated 1597, and the Mattioli one 1598. But this isn't perhaps as much as a problem as you might think. First, the Mattioli frontispiece might have been in preparation some time before the date of publication, and a print of some kind might have been sent over to London with the rest of Bassaeus' woodcuts. And second, though Rogers' engraving was dated 1597, publication of the Herball was in early 1598 in our modern calendar - the 'New Year' in those days coming at the end of March (hence our financial year running the same way today). The Gregorian calendar and the new style of beginning the new year on January 1st was introduced in Germany earlier (from c.1583 onwards) than in Britain which, being a Protestant country, resisted until much later the formal introduction of the Gregorian calendar announced by the Vatican in 1580.

But there's another key point here - the comparison between the Rogers/Gerard frontispiece and the Mattioli one takes on another significance when we realise that immediately beneath the garden in the Mattioli book we see a printer's mark, in this case for Nicholaus Bassaeus of Frankfurt. Also of interest is the fact that in a later 1674 edition of the Mattioli book (below) we see the same garden, but with a different mark, which this time appears to contain one of our famous 'signs of four'. Therefore, if Rogers did indeed get sight of a new type of botanical title page from Frankfurt when he was designing his own for Gerard's Herball, was he merely following that further when he decided to incorporate a printer's mark, which Griffiths has chosen to interpret as a code saying 'Shakespeare'?

I make no claim to know much about printing botanical publishing in the 16th and 17th centuries. But it seems to me that we can begin to see more logical explanations for the appearances of the various 'clues' on the frontispiece for Gerard's Herball in 1598 than Griffiths' imagines. Could it be that the garden is just a garden, the printer's mark is just a printer's mark, and that the figures are just figures?

Update II - another key aspect of Griffiths' claim is a supposed 'E' in the cypher, which we are asked to add to the Latin 'quater' to make 'quaterE', which can translate as 'shake'. The illustration printed in Country Life, below, is supposed to show what has been called 'a broken E'. In other words, because it doesn't quite look like a proper 'E', which is essential to the Griffiths thesis, an excuse has to be made for it.

Griffiths says this about the unusual 'E':

The cipher does not contain I (or J) for John Norton. The letter at top right is without doubt E. To determine that, I examined all other known extant specimens of William Rogers’s lettering. Where, as in this case, he was pushed for space, he radically shortened the top bar of E to something like a serif.

I'd like to see these other examples. But, a quick glance at other versions of the 1598 Herball reveals that it is most likely not an 'E' or even a 'broken E', at all. Here's another Herball online, and you can see in the detail below that it is a most unusual-looking 'E'.

This whole affair is like watching someone make a jigsaw puzzle come together by simply jamming all the pieces in, whether they fit or not. I wish it wasn't so, but so much of Griffiths' claim is based on what may be seen as optimistic interpretations like this. I'm afraid I cannot escape the conclusion that it is little more than wishful thinking at almost every step. But as with so much to do with Shakespeare we're likely to be stuck with it now, cropping up in news stories for years to come as a likeness of Shakespeare, courtesy of time-pressed sub-editors.

Update III - I made the mistake of voyaging into the comments section of the Country Life website. Alas, discussion of Griffiths' claim has descended into mud-slinging between 'Stratfordians' (those who believe Shakespeare was Shakespeare) and 'Oxfordians' (those who believe it was the Earl of Oxford). It's nasty out there, and poor Dr Griffiths has been caught in the cross fire, with some needless abuse thrown at him too.

Who owns Hugh Lane's works?

May 27 2015

Image of Who owns Hugh Lane's works?

Picture: National Gallery

In 1915, when the celebrated Irish collector Sir Hugh Lane was killed on the Lusitania, the National Gallery in London inherited 39 first class paintings, among them Manet's Music in the Tuileries Gardens (above). Lane had initially bequeathed the pictures to the National Gallery, but then changed his mind and made a codicil to his will stating that he wished the pictures to go to the new municipal gallery in Dublin. But the codicil was unwitnessed, and so had no legal effect. Two galleries in Dublin  and London have been in dispute about the pictures ever since, but have come up with a pragmatic sharing agreement (for more details on which, see here).

In comments reported yesterday by the Guardian yesterday, the National Gallery's director, Nicholas Penny, said:

“The National Gallery claims legal ownership of the paintings bequeathed by Sir Hugh Lane, but has long conceded that Dublin has some moral claim to them,” he said.

Penny added that it was a difficult but important topic because “there are so many cultural institutions which should, even if they don’t, acknowledge that some other institution or some other country, has some sort of moral claim on the works of art in their possession.”

He went on: “To have reached a compromise of the kind we have is something that I’m very pleased that we can advertise. We must always welcome people who feel we haven’t gone far enough in the type of acknowledgement we have made.”

The comments have been welcomed by those who campaign to have the paintings' ownership transferred to Ireland. But they don't in fact go any further than the National Gallery in London's existing position. So, as you were.

But I have to say I wasn't aware of this history; the moral case is very strong indeed.

Update - Neil Jeffares alerts us to W. B. Yeats' letter to the Spectator in 1916 on the whole issue. It seems beyond all doubt that Lane intended the collection to go to Dublin.

Picassos pinched?

May 27 2015

Image of Picassos pinched?

Picture: Telegraph

The case involving the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev and the dealer cum art storage provider Luc Bouvier (for more on which here) has taken a new turn; it has been alleged that Bouvier sold a load of Picassos which were in fact stolen from a Picasso's stepdaughter, Catherine Hutin-Blay (above). She alleges that the works were stolen from another storage provider. More here in The Art Newspaper. M. Bouvier of course denies the allegations. 

A quick Google finds that Mme Hutin-Blay apparently also discovered another theft, in 2013, of over 400 works, which she said then were stolen by her handyman. 

Dictator art (ctd.)

May 25 2015

Image of Dictator art (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

Regular readers will know I'm fascinated by dictator's relationship with art. The Guardian reports on a new gilt, equestrian sculpture erected in Turkmenistan by Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the country's quirky leader who has recently been named, 'The People's Horse Breeder'. Berdymukhamedov is obsessed with horses.

Everybody out! (ctd.)

May 25 2015

Image of Everybody out! (ctd.)

Picture: TAN

The PCS union has called yet another strike at the National Gallery in London (the Mail reports). This time it is for ten days, and will cause much of the Gallery to be closed over half term. There have been 24 strike days since February alone.

The action is over the 'privatisation' of some services at the National Gallery, and the dismissal of PCS (and Socialist Worker's Party) member Candy Udwin (above). I have long suspected, however, that the PCS union is using the Gallery as a means to highlight its wider agenda - a National Gallery strike readily earns press attention. The PCS' secretary, Mark Serwotka, says this about the latest strike, and calls for a demonstration outside the Gallery on May 30th:

'This privatisation plan is totally unnecessary and is damaging the well-earned reputation of the gallery and the sacking of our representative, Candy, is a disgraceful attack on our union.'

'Our demonstration is not just about this sell-off and the victimisation of Candy, it is an opportunity to oppose the kind of Tory cuts being cited as a rationale to hive off staff to the private sector.'

But the real news of the day is that the National Gallery, exasperated by the Union's bone-headedness, has now decided to go ahead with the full 'privatisation' of certain visitor services, most notably the room wardens. The Gallery's Sainsbury Wing and exhibition space have been managed for some time by a private sector company, CIS, seemingly without incident, and have remained open throughout all the strike days.

The Gallery said today:

'The PCS opposes the introduction of a new roster for some visitor facing and security staff which would enable us to operate more flexibly. In conjunction with the new roster we also proposed not only to meet the London Living Wage, but to pay a basic salary in excess of it.'

'As a result of the PCS position, we are now appointing an external partner to manage these services. Affected staff will transfer across - there will be no job cuts and terms and conditions will be protected.'

A total defeat for the PCS Union then. The PCS Union used to say that the National Gallery were refusing to pay 'the living wage', but this is clearly not the case, and it is noticeable that they no longer make this claim.

As far as I understand it, the real issue was not over 'privatisation' as such, but over-time. Over the years, the wardens (and other staff) had had to make do with a low basic rate, but a more generous over-time one. The new arrangements seek to redress that balance. We can only hope that everything works out, and that all the NG staff are better off as a result of both the new deal, and a more stable working environment.

New Mary Beale painting discovered

May 25 2015

Image of New Mary Beale painting discovered

Picture: Art Daily

My former colleague at Philip Mould Ltd, Lawrence Hendra,* has spotted a lost Mary Beale painting in the collection of the McMaster Museum in Canada. Painted in about 1660, the picture was mistakenly attributed to the painter Michael Sweerts.

Nice one Lawrence! More here.

*long-standing readers may remember him as a sometime writer for AHN too.

Gurlitt Liebermann to be sold

May 25 2015

Image of Gurlitt Liebermann to be sold

Picture: NYT

A picture by Max Liebermann (above) that formed part of the Gurlitt collection is to be sold at Sotheby's with an estimate of £550,000. The picture has been consigned by David Toren, who is 90, and remembers seeing the picture being looted by the Nazis in 1938. The New York Times reports:

Mr. Toren, who lives now in New York, last saw the painting when he was 13, the day after Kristallnacht in 1938. It was hanging in the conservatory of his uncle’s country estate in Germany on the day that Mr. Friedmann, a brick factory owner, was forced to sign over his home to a Nazi general.

The painting was sold by Nazi authorities after Mr. Friedmann’s death of natural causes in 1942 and ended up in the hands of Hildebrandt Gurlitt, a Nazi-era art dealer. Three years later, the painting was seized by the “Monuments Men” unit for the allies and stored in Wiesbaden. But because of missing documentation, the painting was returned to Mr. Gurlitt in 1950 and ultimately hung on a wall in the Munich apartment of his son, Cornelius Gurlitt.

$179m Picasso record (ctd.)

May 21 2015

Image of $179m Picasso record (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

It seems the Qataris bought it. More here.

Update - oh no they didn't. More here.

Much ado about nothing

May 21 2015

Video: Country Life

Country Life is a UK weekly magazine which normally focuses on, well, country life. It's an essential staple of the well-to-do, and the place to go for articles on garden history, phesant fricassé recipes, and advice on how to stop your spaniel crapping in the car. I sometimes buy it, if only to fantasise about buying a stately home (this week, Wentworth Woodhouse for £8m).

But now it seems to have gone extremely off-piste, and has issued a special gold-embossed 'Special Historic Edition' (see the cover above) to promote a new theory about Shakespeare's likeness: 'His True Likeness Revealed at Last', shouts the front cover, 'The Greatest Discovery in 400 Years'. In a breathless editorial, editor Mark Hedges talks of being 'at a loss for words - and sleep' as he tried to come to terms with the significance of the discovery first presented to him some months ago; 'a new portrait of Shakespeare, the first ever that is identified as him by the artist and made in his lifetime from the life'. This week's triumphant edition of a magazine that has been steadily going since 1897 is meant to mark one of the glorious highlights in the magazine's long history.

Unfortunately, Country Life has instead made itself a laughing stock. The 'greatest discovery for 400 years' is alas little more than a convoluted theory based almost entirely on speculation. It's a Tudor Da Vinci Code, and makes about as much sense.

The last time a major 'Shakespeare' portrait discovery was announced, I got into a certain amount of bother for daring to say that I didn't think the sitter was, in fact, Shakespeare. Legalistic missives were sent to me, amongst other things. So when I first saw this latest story, I was initially reluctant to get involved. But happily you can't libel a portrait, or indeed a theory. So here goes.

This latest Shakespeare discovery is the work of the distiguished horticulturalist and botanist, Mark Griffiths. About a decade ago he began to work on a biography of John Gerard (d.1612), a celebrated Elizabethan botanist and surgeon who in 1598 published a book called 'The Herball', an illustrated book on plants. The book, which was printed by John Norton, had an elaborate frontispiece (below) by William Rogers (d.1604), in which the title was surrounded by numerous plants, four male figures, a smaller pair of figures in a garden, and, at the base, two small motifs which resembled coats of arms.

After years of research, Griffiths decided that the plants and other symbols were part of a complex Tudor code, and by cracking it he could prove the identities of the four figures. The identity of the classically-attired 'fourth man' was the hardest to establish, but on a midsummer night no less (as he says in Country Life) Griffiths had a revelation; it was Shakespeare.

As Griffiths says, previous scholars had always understood that the four male figures were merely allegorical or historical figures, such as Dioscorides and Theophrastus who were a claissical botanists. Other frontispieces from the period show similar figures, and indeed a later 1633  edition of Gerard's Herball (published by John Norton's widow, Joyce) shows two figures similar to those seen in the 1598 edition, only this time actually identified as Dioscorides and Theophrastus (below, click here for a larger image).

But Griffiths is convinced the four figures in the 1598 edition were actual people merely 'acting out' the roles. The figure bottom left was Lord Burghley, Gerard's patron; above him was Gerard himself; then came another botanist, the Dutchman Rombert Dodoens; and finally Shakespeare. Griffiths also believed that the minute lady seen walking a garden was Elizabeth I (on account of a Tudor Rose and an eglantine - Elizabeth's symbols - in the frontispiece) and that the presence of the royal coat of arms denotes the Queen's special royal favour of Gerard.

But even here we can quickly see Griffiths optimistic interpretation of the design of the frontispiece. The inclusion of the royal coat of arms need not necessarily denote anything, and while the Tudor rose and eglantine were indeed Elizabeth's symbols (or some of them anyway) they were readily adopted in other uses to declare general loyalty or support. The presence of a Tudor rose or a royal coat of arms in a book or building does not indicate the personal approval of Elizabeth I, just as the Queen's head on stamps today does not mean she sent the letter.

And nor, alas, can we be at all certain that Griffith's most readily identifiable figure is Lord Burghley. It is true that Burghley was Gerard's patron, but the means by which Griffiths identifies him in the frontispiece are shaky, to say the least. He gets into a muddle over the imagined presence of a 'wart' in the frontispiece, which he believes links the bearded figure to Burghley, while the 'distinctive jewel' he sees in the bearded man's hat just is nowhere near close enough to that seen in many of Burghley's portraits for us to say, 'this is the same jewel, and thus the same man'. Really, the bearded man is just a generic bearded man, and we could choose any number of Tudor portraits of old bearded men, and say, 'Aha! here he is in Gerard's frontispiece'. William Rogers, the engraver, was one of the best in England at the time, and was quite capable of making accurate portrait engravings. Instead, these figures follow the design and conception of the more generic figures we see in his work (of which here is an example).

Of course, as a botanist, Griffiths sees various meanings in some of the plants around Burghley. The bearded man in a frontispiece is standing beside an ear of wheat. Wheat appears in the Cecil coat of arms. In the middle of the frontispiece we are told we see an olive tree. Burghley apparently grew olive trees. But the problem with this interpretation (which is the means by which Griffiths begins to identify the three other figures in the frontispiece) is that it selectively chooses from only a few of the vast array of plants seen in the whole picture. And with so many plants, latin names, visual puns and supposed meanings to choose from, it's possible to make up just about any theory, if you believe that the frontispiece is indeed some giant 'Tudor code' waiting to be cracked.

The trouble is, there is no firm evidence whatsoever that the frontispiece was meant to be interpreted as a 'code'. Because Griffiths believes it to be a code, we are asked to assume that it is. Instead, there are far simpler interpretations, as we shall see. It is true that the Elizabethans loved imagery with symbols and puzzles, but generally these were there to support the illiterate interpret such images, and not to be on the level of an ultra-fiendish Sudoku, unsolveable for 400 years. If there was just one contemporary record of someone thinking Gerard's frontispiece was such a code, Griffiths would be on firmer ground. But there is not, and the fact that the later edition of Gerard's book contains a similar design, but with the figures specifically identified, makes it far more likely that the traditional interpretation of the frontispiece is correct.

But - putting aside the question of whether the four figures are in fact identifiable Elizabethans - let's move onto the evidence which Griffiths says identifies the fourth figure as Shakespeare.

The main evidence is in two parts. First, the 'code' in the armorial shield beneath the fourth man (above). And second the flowers and plants that the fourth man is holding. Both elements are, to my mind, rather fanciful.

The shield contains, as Griffiths points out, what is known as a 'sign of four', due to the number '4' you can see at the top. These were commonly used, in this field at least, as printers' marks; identifiable sequences of letters, puns or numbers arranged in a symbol, which acted as a sort of trademark or signature. The below print from the British Museum has other examples of English printers' marks - as you can see, some are very close to the symbol in the frontispiece.

In the case of the Frontispiece, the sign has traditionally been interpreted as the printer's mark of John Norton, hence the 'N', the 'OR', the 'I' (for 'J') etc. As Ames 'Typographical Antiquities' says in 1749*;

'This curious Folio has the mark of William and John Norton together in a cypher [...]'

John Norton had been apprenticed to his uncle William Norton, also a printer. Though William Norton died in 1593, I suppose it is conceivable that at this stage in his career he retained a 'W' in the mark, hence the 'W' at the bottom of the symbol. Either way, we know little about how these printers and publishers identified themselves - certainly, not enough for us to be able to simply accept Mr Griffith's assertion that the symbol is nothing to do with a printer at all, even though it looks like it is.

Instead, Griffiths contends that the symbol is an elaborate code. Here is the relevant passage from his essay in Country Life:

The numeral in genuine specimens of the Sign of Four was always an unambiguous figure 4 - no messing with the hallowed symbol. But Rogers had turned this example into a roughly equilateral triangle with the number's stalk running down its midline. I wondered if it might, in part, be a rebus. I had a triangle atop a stalk - an arrow. Attached to it was E, as close inspection and other examples of Rogers's lettering confirmed. The triangle was engraved with slight asymmetry, to convey both an arrowhead and 4. Clearly, the numeral was key, but how in this context to read it? I decided to try Latin.

Quater is Latin for four in the adverbial sense of 'four times'. It was also a good Elizabethan term for a four in cards and similar contexts [...] Then this is quat., a standard abbreviation for quattor, 'four', which Gerard and his peers often used in recipes for herbal medicines [...]

The device is asking us to add the E linked to the 4 to either quater or quat. The first produces the infinitive of the Latin verb quatio; quatere, meaning 'to shake'. The second produces the imperative; quate, 'shake!'. The rebus is not an arrow, but a spear. The 'Fourth Man' [...] is William Shakespeare'.

On this piece of precarious symbology the whole thesis stands. And I'm afraid it seems to me to be bordering on the ridiculous. I have every respect for Mr Griffiths' integrity and expertise in horticulture. But he is asking us to accept too much here. First, that the symbol is not a printer's mark for 'Norton', as has been previously believed, and which it looks like. Second, that the '4' is some kind of strange and hitherto unnoticed Latin clue. Third, that we have to conjugate this Latin clue in a convaluted manner (why must we add an 'E' from the symbol, and not say the 'N'?). Fourthly that somewhere in this array of lines and letters is a spear. And fifthly, that we must intepret the first part of Shakespeare's name in Latin, but the last part in English. Why?

But there's more. Griffiths asserts that the 'OR' is a reference to Shakespeare's father's new coat of arms, which was on a gold shield. The Latin for gold is 'Or'. And then we move onto the flowers that the fourth man holds or is standing near to. Some of these crop up in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, which I suppose is not unusual given his enormous output. Unfortunately for Griffiths' theory there is one plant, the Gladiolus italicus, which does not appear to have any connection with Shakespeare. But no matter! For Griffiths says he has discovered a previously unknown work by Shakespeare - which does indeed contain a reference to this plant.

By now we are of course really pushing at the boundaries of credulity. But to demonstrate Griffiths apparent misunderstanding of visual imagery in the 16th Century, the Country Life essay then treats us to a visual comparison between the head of the 'fourth man', and two other known portraits of Shakespeare, the Droeshout engraving and the memorial bust at Stratford. Griffiths maintains that the 'fourth man' shows a 'strabismus', or squint, in the left eye, and that this can be seen in the bust and Droeshout engraving. The 'fourth man', says Griffiths:

[...] corresponds well to the face in the Stratford monument, allowing for the ten year difference in their subject's ages and for damage to the effigy's nose - and both correspond to the Fourth Man, allowing that he is only 33 years old and has much hair to lose. All three likenesses exhibit the same cranial proportions, facial structure and details such as fine, arching eyebrows, narrow, prolonged earlobes and strabismus of the left eye.'

Come on. The 'fourth man' in the Gerard frontispiece is just a tiny print, from which none of the above physical features can be certainly identified. As with the whole of Griffiths' argument, it seems to be little more than (well intentioned) wishful thinking. I'm sure that with enough time, you could probably identify any of the figures in the frontispiece as any famous Elizabethan; a Latin clue here, a floral symbol here, and a blurry likeness - hey presto, there's - I dunno - Sir Walter Raleigh. Didn't he go to the Americas to find gold - aha, the 'Or'! And there's a 'W' in the symbol, for Walter! The 'fourth man' also has a moustache, like Walter! And he's holding a cob of American maize! Etc. etc.

So it seems to me that there is nothing in the Griffiths' theory that allows us to say, as Country Life attests, 'here is Shakespeare, drawn from the life'. Even if all that Mr Griffiths says were true, where then is the evidence - as opposed to a theory - that Shakespeare actually sat down to William Rogers, the engraver, for a life portrait, which resulted in little more than a doodle? There is none. Why would Rogers not pass down to us some other, more elaborate portrait of Shakespeare, if he was treated to a life sitting? It is yet more wishful thinking. I cannot quite believe that Country Life has embraced all this so enthusiastically.

And inevitably, the story has flown around the world's media - 'the true face of Shakespeare found at last!'. So now we have yet another non-Shakespeare portrait to contend with. Indeed, some papers are illustrating the latest story with the 'Cobbe' portrait as the 'true' Shakespeare.

Anyway, the nit-picking naysayers like me are now lining up. I hope Mr Griffiths doesn't take it personally. Here's Jonathan Jones in the Guardian doubting the new identification. And Griffiths' theory has already been questioned already by some Shakespeare scholars, as reported here:

Professor Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, dismissed the picture, even saying that he ‘wasn’t sure that Country Life’s reputation will recover.’

‘One has seen so many claims on Shakespeare based on somebody claiming to crack a code,’ he said.

‘I can’t imagine any reason why Shakespeare would be in a botany textbook. It’s a lovely picture.

‘It’s nice that people are so fond of Shakespeare that they see him everywhere, even in the pages of a botany textbook. But it’s hallucination.’

Paul Edmondson, head of research and knowledge for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, added: ‘I see there a figure who is dressed like a Classical poet, with a green bay on his head, but that doesn’t make him Shakespeare.’

In his defence, Mr Griffiths has said that the theory must be correct, because:

“What we have here is a series of incontrovertible facts. I dare say people will think: ‘Oh no. it’s not him.’ But there is no other construction that can be placed on these facts. It is not an assumption that he is Shakespeare, it is algebra ... it is an equation.”

I won't here try to set out everything in Griffiths case - if you're interested in the details, then you need to read the full 20 pages of his argument in Country Life. And most importantly, let me know what you think!

Update - here's someone who thinks the 'fourth man' is actually Francis Drake. It probably isn't - but the point is the 'clues', if interpreted differently, allow you to make a claim that it is.

Update II - Shakespeare Magazine wonders (on Twitter) is this might be the great man too:

Update III - Mark Griffiths has a lengthy response to the point about the symbol beneath the 'fourth man' being a printer's mark, here on the Country Life website. The post is titled 'more evidence', but in fact it's just a rebuttal. He goes into a long explanation of why it cannot be a Norton mark, because he has looked at all the other known examples, and it doesn't match. But of course, he has only looked at those which survive, and which are known about.

And he also assures us that the '4' in the symbol is not a real '4', but a triangle. (A quick look at the printers' marks I reproduced above shows - to me at least - that the '4' could be arranged pretty much any way you liked.) And nor, says Griffiths, is the 'N' actually an 'N', because "William Rogers was remarkably consistent with N: he always engraved its diagonal with a heavier line than its verticals, and he would certainly have done so here had it been the all-important initial letter of Norton." So there you have it - we can discount the 'N' standing for Norton, because it's not quite the right 'N'. Instead, it must be something to do with a Latin imperative clue that nobody has ever noticed before - because that's the way William Rogers always did his special Tudor code 'N's.

At every turn, Mr Griffiths has a cunning explanation as to why the clues fit his interpretation, but not everyone else's.

Update IV - in the post above, I suggested, entirely in jest, that the 'fourth man' might in fact be Sir Walter Raleigh. Two historians have, however, wondered if it might be; the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells (here), and (here) Raleigh's biographer Mathew Lyons. Personally, I don't think the 'fourth man' is anyone, merely a generic Roman-esque figure. The art historian, Mark Gray alerts me (via Twitter) to another plant book also published in Frankfurt in 1598, which has a very similar frontispiece, though it is clear that the figures are classical ones.

Anyway, Stanley Wells' view of Griffiths methodology is rather damning; he calls the whole code thing 'inherently improbable'. And as to the claim that Griffiths has found a whole new Shakespeare play, well:

In fact the ‘play’, identified in the article, is a really rather boring speech of welcome delivered by a hermit along with a dialogue between a gardener and a molecatcher, both long known to scholars, and both of unknown authorship, which formed part of an entertainment given before Queen Elizabeth I at Theobalds in May 1591.

Mathew Taylor makes an entertaining allusion to Griffiths' midsummer moment of revelation:

Griffiths begins his piece with the revelation that he made the discovery on Midsummer’s Night. He might have paused at some point to reflect that if Shakespearean comedy teaches us anything, it’s that midsummer night is when hobgoblins and sprites famously plant foolish conceits in human heads to make them seem ridiculous in the morning.

Update V - a reader writes:

My feeling about it is that even if it could be shown to be an image of Shakespeare, it is clearly a generic 'heroic man' figure and would be of very limited, if any, value as a true portrait of the man. We know all too well that it is a loosing game to say - this man looks like that man only 10 years younger - so Griffiths's arguments that the 'facial structure' and 'cranial proportions' match the Stratford monument add nothing useful to his case.

Another reader, Dr Alexander Marr of the University of Cambridge, kindly alerts us to a similar-looking merchant's symbol in the Judde Memorial portrait (detail below).

Update VI - the valiant Mr Griffiths has had yet another go at defending his theories on the Country Life website, which now resembles a Shakespeare portrait blog.

First, he rejects any connection whatsoever between the first 1598 frontispiece to the Herball, and the second, published in 1633 (and reproduced above, and here). The clear identification of two figures as Theophratus and Dioscorides in the second frontispiece does not, Griffiths says, mean that the very similar looking, generic figures in the first frontispiece were the same figures:

"[The editor of the second edition], Thomas Johnson, despised Gerard and did everything in his power to distance his 1633 edition from that of 1597/98. This included suppressing many of the poetic translations in which Gerard and Shakespeare had collaborated and replacing the original title page with a wholly new design.

The 1597 Rogers engraving was too frivolous for Johnson’s tastes and it reflected a collaboration in which he’d played no part. He knew that the four men it portrayed had been alive and active not long ago. Now, they were yesterday’s men, and they had to go. In commissioning the new title page, Johnson reverted to the convention that Rogers had subverted. It does indeed show Dioscorides, in correct Roman dress and wearing no laurel wreath. In identity, iconography, portrayal and purpose, this image of Dioscorides has no connection whatsoever to the Fourth Man."

This makes no sense at all. And in any case, critics of Mr Griffiths' theory like me are not saying that the 'fourth man' in the first frontispiece is Dioscorides, we're just saying it's a classical figure, and not Shakespeare. And if the editor of the second edition despised Gerard so much, why did he put a portrait of him on the second edition's frontispiece? Finally, how can Shakespeare be considered 'yesterday's man' in 1633? Griffiths is, again, simply presenting his theories as fact, asserting motives on the part of people who lived 400 years ago, and for which we have no proof.

Mr Griffiths also makes a leap of logic in his latest piece, saying that the frontispiece contains an 'unquestionable portrait of Lord Burghley'. But the Burghley identification is really very questionable, and relies, I would say, on the same flawed interpretation of 'clues' in the frontispiece that allows Griffiths to believe that Shakespeare is the 'fourth man'.

And nor does Mr Griffiths answer any critics who claim that the relationship between Burghley and Shakespeare was not nearly as close as he believes it to be (and has to in order to make his theories work).

What Griffiths really needs to demonstrate - but it appears cannot - is some actual proof that Rogers' engraving, and the clues it contains therein, were intended to be a solveable riddle. We need just one jot of contemporary evidence that Rogers or Gerard, or even the printer John Norton, were in the habit of making puzzles that looked extremely like printers' marks, and were designed to be solved by mixing Latin with English symbology. If Mr Griffiths produces a rare 1598 edition of 'Ye Tudor Puzzler - curious Trickes for all ye Trippes', then he'll make some progress.

Update VIII - more AHN on this here.

*I'm grateful to John Overholt of Harvard University for drawing this to my attention via Twitter.

Apologies...

May 20 2015

Sorry for the lack of posts - I'm in London for 'Fake or Fortune?' Hope to be back later today.

Podcast - Nicholas Penny

May 18 2015

 

Here's AHN's first podcast. It's with the Director of the National Gallery in London, Dr. Nicholas Penny. Amongst other things, we discuss: why and how he became Director; what the role of Director is; how he discovered Raphael's 'Madonna of the Pinks'; connoisseurship; and photography in art galleries. We also cover Dr Penny's academic background, and how he has researched and immersed himself not only in Italian Renaissance paintings, but also sculpture. Is he therefore the ultimate 'Renaissance man'?

Needless to say, we didn't have time to cover as much as I'd hoped. But I hope you enjoy it.

I was struck afterwards by how sensible, and valuable, Dr Penny's overall philosophy for running a leading gallery was. I hadn't appreciated before how essential this is for someone directing a museum, as opposed (for example) to curating within it. Above all, Penny believes, the emphasis must be on quality and excellence - it is no good chasing marketing ideas or visitor numbers just for the sake of it. People come to the National Gallery, he said, primarily because they know instinctively that it is a place which stands for something 'better'.

A key part of Penny's role as Director, it seems to me, has been to guard militantly against the many pressures to dumb down. And it can be no accident, I believe, that today the Gallery is arguably in better shape than it has ever been in; visitor numbers are at record levels, and finances likewise.

For an institution, such an approach requires above all confidence not just to do what you think is right, but in what you are. In the National Gallery's case, it is to believe absolutely in the value and purpose of high art. Accordingly, that belief will eventually, as if by magic, translate through to your audience, who will in turn come to share that belief. There is no way to 'strategise' this way of running an institution; it just happens, if you go about everything you do in the right way. Sadly, so many institutions, like the National Trust, have lost confidence in what they have to offer, and thus their way. Whereas the National Gallery positively celebrates the fact that it is, to use that dreaded phrase, 'elitist', the National Trust endlessly worries about it. And as a result, we end up with beanbags in historic houses, rather than 18th Century furniture.

Update - when Dr Penny discussed how he identified the Madonna of the Pinks as a genuine Raphael, he mentioned the fact that a local art historian had in fact suggested to the Northumberlands some decades before that the picture might be 'right'. Inquiries were made by the family to, er, the National Gallery, who said 'no, not at all'. In the podcast, Dr Penny wondered who this local art historian was, and (generously) said that he should be accorded all due credit.

Well, marvellously, a reader (and listener) writes:

On a point of detail re Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks, I think the 'art teacher or perhaps an art history teacher', mentioned by Nicholas Penny as having organised an exhibition of Northumberland paintings in Newcastle and who first proposed to the Duke that the Madonna might indeed be by Raphael was Ralph Holland (1917-2012) -- alas no longer living to receive the credit. Ralph taught art history in the Department of Fine Art at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne (until 1963 King's College, University of Durham), eventually becoming Reader.

In 1963, to mark the establishment of the University of Newcastle, with the Duke of Northumberland as its first Chancellor, he organised the exhibition Nobel Patronage, celebrating the artistic patronage of the Percy family. This borrowed heavily from the Northumberland collection and included the Madonna of the Pinks (no.66), albeit as after Raphael.Ralph Holland had an outstanding 'eye', which enabled him to assemble a remarkable collection of Old Master drawings, sold posthumously at auction by Sotheby's. London, on 5 July 2013, making  £1,664,441.

Before studying at the Courtauld Institute, Ralph had trained as an architect. Although he never practised, this stood him in good stead as a pioneer exhibition designer: among his projects in this field was the Corot exhibition of 1965 shown in Edinburgh and at the National Gallery, London.

New rooms at the Soane Museum

May 18 2015

Image of New rooms at the Soane Museum

Picture: Guardian

They've opened up a load of new rooms at the Soane Museum, as part of their ongoing restoration. More here

Buy Prince Charles for £100

May 18 2015

Image of Buy Prince Charles for £100

Picture: Bellmans

An official portrait of Prince Charles is being sold at auction, with an estimate of just £100-£200. The picture belonged to the Home Office, and was at Bramshill Police Training Centre (which has been sold due to cutbacks; check out the brochure here).

You can also buy Bramshill's official, full-length portrait of the Queen, though this is more expensive at £8,000-£12,000. All rather sad, really.

Censoring Picasso

May 18 2015

Image of Censoring Picasso

Picture: Fox News/Metro

Fox News censored the naughty bits in Picasso's Women of Algiers (which sold last week for $179m). More here.

Meanwhile, the eye-popping price for the Picasso has prompted another round of socialist whataboutism. In the Guardian, Sarah Crompton asks:

In a world where 21 children under five die each minute, mainly from preventable causes, how can any work of art – however beautiful or significant – be worth this amount? How can any single object? You’re going to tell me you can’t put a price on genius (and Picasso, were he here today would probably agree with you) but it seems to me a frightening waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere. [...]

Think of the galleries you could fund with that $179m as well as the children you could save! The inflated price is not about any real value or any desire to share art with the world. It is driven instead by a combination of two things: firstly, the unfettered power of global capitalism, where art is seen as an investment, and where the limited supply of modernist masters drives prices ever upwards. Secondly, those hyper-rich collectors who want the world to know they have taste and discrimination. That’s why instantly recognisable trophy pieces – a Picasso, a Giacometti, a Klimt, a Bacon – command such ridiculously high prices.

In the same article, Tiffany Jenkins provides the voice of reason:

Is $179m a lot of money? Most certainly. Is it a waste of money to spend this fantastic sum on one painting, a canvas depicting a mess of jagged female limbs? Certainly not. We are, after all, talking about Picasso, one of the greatest and most influential artists that ever lived. Why shouldn’t someone spend a fortune to own a work by – yes – a genius?

It’s true, spending money on art won’t cure cancer, or stop the children you mention from dying, but is it not human to want both? To take care of our basic needs and the more elevated ones? A civilised society cares for the soul as well as the body – let us not neglect hearts and minds. Most sick people don’t just want to get better, they want life to be worth living – and art contributes to this latter need. Following your logic, we could stop the state from funding the arts altogether, because the money could be better spent on health; and we could prevent the rich from spending their cash as they choose, so as to make sure it goes towards something more worthy, but wouldn’t that also be the most spiritually empty and bland world in which to live? (Not to mention terrifying in its illiberalism.) [...]

Art has always been tied to power and money. There would be no Sistine Chapel without the Holy See; no Dutch old masters without the bourgeoisie and their desire for portraiture. So now a new class of very wealthy people want to show that they have arrived – ’twas ever thus. Why hold it against them? There is an element of inverted snobbery here: we, the poor-but-cultured are genuinely discerning, whereas those super-rich oligarchs don’t know the meaning of good taste.

Finally, there was an interesting little remark from Christie's modern art supremo Brett Gorvy over on Instagram, where, in the midst of an Instagram spat with another auctioneer, he said:

Pictures don't just sell themselves at Christie's. Especially for over $150 m.

Clandon salvage operation

May 15 2015

Video: National Trust

The rather upbeat tone of this video can't mask the depth of the destruction at Clandon. It seems not many pictures came out. Only two Barlows are confirmed to have been salvaged (the Ostrich and the Cassowary), the last of which was the final painting to be taken out of the house. It was hanging in the Marble Hall by the front door. Some items, such as the gilt frame below, have been removed after the fire was extinguished. I'm guessing the frame is from the Speaker's Parlour, which survived more or less intact. More here.

We've not yet heard anything about the cause of the fire, though an investigation is apparently underway. There must already be some idea of what happened. Unless the cause is found to be entirely accidental, and impossible to have predicted or prevented, the Trust will have serious questions to answer about how it carries out its primary responsibility; the basic preservation of buildings and collections entrusted to its care.

Art History ads (ctd.)

May 15 2015

Image of Art History ads (ctd.)

Picture: BG

I saw many plugs for the Rijksmuseum's 'Late Rembrandt' when in Amsterdam airport yesterday.

Gurlitt's looted Matisse returned

May 15 2015

Image of Gurlitt's looted Matisse returned

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper reports that Germany has formally returned the first looted work from the collection of the late Cornelius Gurlitt. The Matisse, above, has been restituted to the heirs of Paul Rosenberg, from whom the picture was stolen by the Nazis in World War Two.

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