The perils of online bidding

April 29 2016

Image of The perils of online bidding

Picture: Christie's

Tens of millions of pounds have been spent on online bidding platforms, but it seems to me to be an extremely unreliable way of buying at auction. I certainly won't be risking it again after two recent misses. 

The most recent was at Sotheby's in their Old Master mid-season sale. The sale started off ok, and I was cheerfully logged in watching auctioneer Andrew Fletcher, who always conducts his sales in an entertaining and friendly manner. But then just before my lot came up, disaster. As the bidding screen froze, the clerks on the desk beside Andrew started poking around at the back of their laptop. The sale carried on, despite me shouting uselessly at my computer, and by the time the bidding icon reappeared the hammer had fallen. The bids office were very apologetic, but explained that once the hammer had fallen there was nothing they could do.

More frustrating was a recent bid on the-saleroom.com, the leading platform for regional auctions in the UK. A few months ago a wee sleeper-ette appeared in the shires, the above sketch by George Romney of Lady Hamilton. I believe it was called Portrait of a Lady or some such, and the estimate wasn't much more than £200. There I was again logged in, and clicked away until the hammer went down, and the website told me that I had the winning bid. But when I called the auction house to pay the bill they said it had sold to someone in the room, even though I distinctly heard the auctioneer say it had sold to an online bidder (which I assumed at the time was me). I recall it sold for about £800.

I wasn't too distressed when I saw the picture reappear this week in Christie's Old Master sale in South Kensington as a Romney (officially blessed by Romney scholar Alex Kidson). It had an estimate of £4k-£6k, which I thought was about right for a picture in somewhat compromised condition. But to my surprise it made £30,000.

Some you win, some you lose.

New Art Newspaper editor

April 29 2016

Image of New Art Newspaper editor

Picture: TAN

The Art Newspaper has announced that Javier Pes (above left) will take over as editor next month, when Jane Morris (above right) stands down. Jane has been editor since 2008, and will now become an Editor-at-Large at the paper. Javier, a former curator at the Museum of London, has been deputy editor at TAN since 2010. More here.

Irish Guercino cleaned in LA

April 29 2016

Image of Irish Guercino cleaned in LA

Picture: Getty/National Gallery of Ireland

The National Gallery of Ireland has sent its Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph by Guercino to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for conservation. The work will be funded by a group of private donors called The Getty Museum Paintings Council, which is, says the Getty website:

[...] a group of generous individual donors, helps support the study and conservation of major art works from international museums and cultural institutions at the Getty; in exchange, the Getty enjoys the opportunity to display the paintings at the Getty Center for a few months after the completion of treatment. 

I didn't know of this body of splendid people before - whoever you are, AHN salutes you.

Censoring art history (ctd.)

April 29 2016

Image of Censoring art history (ctd.)

Picture: Pandeamonium

Remember the hoo-ha earlier this year when Rome's nude classical sculptures were covered up for a visit by the Iranian president? On the Pandaemonium site, the writer Kenan Malik gets to the bottom (so to speak) of who ordered it:

In no time, it was established that nobody had really asked for the boxing up to occur. Italian authorities have a way of scattering in a crisis, like cockroaches scuttling under the fridge when you turn the light on in the kitchen. So after politicians from both sides – including the minister for culture and the arts – had taken turns denouncing the decision, the finger was pointed towards the prime minister’s office in charge of protocol. Rather conveniently, however – or so we were assured – this office operates with the highest degree of independence from the rest of the government machine, thereby protecting elected representatives from censure.

The Iranian embassy, we were further told, had not asked for the clumsy gesture either. True, some discussions were had. According to one journalist, questions were raised about the conspicuous testicles of Marcus Aurelius’ horse in the equestrian statue which also graces the hall. But they, the testicles, were spared the plywood treatment. At any rate, the decision was finally attributed to an unspecified bureaucrat’s ‘over-zealousness’, and even the most fervid of the clash-of-civilisations proponents eventually moved on.

Malik also wonders why the Italians have a track record for this sort of thing, and cites the example of a photograph of a Tiepolo painting being censored when the former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was due to be speaking in front of it:

This is not just to say that Italians are an oddly prudish people. It’s that we are also oh-so ambivalent and easily scared. It was a Pope who commissioned the ‘Last Judgment’, or the ‘Truth Revealed by Time’ sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for the tomb of Alexander VII, of which Innocentius XI apparently said: ‘Truth is generally disliked. I’m afraid people are going to like this one altogether too much.’ We undress, and then we hastily dress up again. Silvio Berlusconi kept a ready supply of young women available for sex parties in a tenement building on the outskirts of Milan, but his office sprung into action as soon as they heard he was about to be photographed in front of a naked breast modelled by a woman who died three centuries ago.

It’s a complicated mix of power, fear and shame. Perhaps the office of the protocol really wanted to spare Hassan Rouhani a moment of discomfort, but discomfort for what? What power could that modest, two thousand year old Venus exercise that the nudes at the National Museum in Tehran could not? No: that fear of the naked body is really our fear, which we project onto powerful men as if it was them who couldn’t bear the sight. Even Berlusconi, the most secular of leaders, had to be protected from the indignity. Something had to be done.

'Old Masters fit for the future'

April 29 2016

Image of 'Old Masters fit for the future'

Picture: CRASSH

There's an interesting seminar coming up on 10th May at Cambridge University, entitled, 'Old Masters Fit for the Future'. It's run by the Centre for Research in The Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, or CRASSH for short. free to all, and you don't need to register. The seminar features former Rijksmuseum director Wim Pijbes with the director of the Mauritshuis, Emilie Gordenker. Here's the blurb:

How do you make a collection with old masters and only paintings, in a building which in itself can't be refurbished, relevant and appealing to the audience of today and tomorrow? Wim Pijbes will lead the conversation with Emilie Gordenker on the issues below.

1. The building: architecture and  the extension of the Mauritshuis 

2. The audience:  which tools  you use to attract the audience

3. The collection:  what is the role and how can you 'use' your icons

I don't think that I can make the event alas. But as someone who strives to make Old Masters 'fit for the future', if that's the right term, perhaps I might offer two tips of my own.

1 - Mostly, of course, it's about communication. Those institutions tasked with caring for and promoting Old Masters are often terrible at communicating, on even a basic level, with their potential audiences. When you're dealing with art that is 'old' and created in times past with different cultural languages, the very first thing you have to do is give your audience the means to access it and understand it in today's language. That means not only using clear, uncomplicated language (not art history speak), but making the art available in a way that modern audiences can immediately feel comfortable with. But so many museums, even major ones, have websites that are utterly useless, and in today's world where people visit places online first, before visiting in person, that's fatal.

Bad websites and communication create an instant barrier to Old Masters. The same goes for communication barriers within museums, such as the (happily decreasing) ban on photography. If museums keep trying to make visitors engage with Renaissance art in a Renaissance way, they shouldn't be surprised if attendances fall.  

Happily, Wim Pijbes is I think in a good position to be able to help counter these outdated practices. The Rijksmuseum's website is one of the best of its kind. it has a great online collection database with high resolution images that are free to anyone to use in any way they like. Which is as it should be with publicly owned assets. But the Rijksmuseum is years ahead of other institutions. For example, the Uffizi in Florence has no online collection database, which is extraordinary in 2016.

2 - Once Old Master galleries have sorted out their basic communications, the rest is actually fairly straightforward. With Old Masters were dealing with some of the most beautiful objects ever made, by some of history's most famous and interesting characters. If you let them, they'll sell themselves. All you have to do is help tell their stories in an engaging way.

Sadly, the story telling is too often left to those who are so immersed in 'art history', the modern discipline that is far removed from what we might more simply call 'the history of art', that the type of language used creates another barrier between the audience and the art.

A good example of this is the labelling in the National Gallery in London (which is most other respects, I should point out, is faultless). The National's labelling focuses more on themes within a painting, and these not only assume pre-existing knowledge of the period and artist, but are frankly rather dull. A good museum label should seek to inspire the viewer to look more closely at a work of art, to linger a while and marvel at its beauty. So rather than focus on narratives or social context it should explain more about who painted it, how and when. That's what most people are interested in. 

I always see the Royal collection as an excellent example of good story telling in Old Masters, both on their website and in their exihibitions. Perhaps in part this is because the story of the collection is presented as part of a wider story of the British monarchy and its history.

Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

April 29 2016

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

Picture: TAN

There's an interesting letter in The Art Newspaper which sheds a little more light on the Knoedler fakes scandal. It is written by Dr Sharon Flescher, the director of IFAR, the International Foundation for Art Research, which was invited to subject a purported Jackson Pollock (above) bought from Knoedler for rigorous testing by Jack Levy, a collector who had bought the picture from Knoedler in 2001.

Dr Flescher was writing in response to this Art Newspaper interview given by Anne Freedman, the former director of Knoedler, which appeared to suggest that IFAR could not "determine whether the work was authentic or not” - in other words, that the painting wasn't ruled to be a fake for certain. The section of Freedman's interview which covers the IFAR report is headed 'Inconclusive report'. But Dr Flescher writes:

As the report makes clear, IFAR had serious concerns about the painting’s style, material properties, signature, lack of documentation, and reported provenance, which we concluded was “inconceivable”. We wrote three times within the report, and again in the cover letter, that we could not accept the work as a Pollock. And we were right. If we were writing a catalogue raisonné, it would not have been included.

Also incorrect is the assertion that a “recent history of bad feelings” between IFAR and Knoedler might have affected our report. There were no bad feelings during my tenure that I know of, nor would any have affected our report. To imply otherwise is offensive. We are a 47-year-old non-profit dedicated to integrity in the visual arts.

Finally, it was disclosed at the outset that the specialists would be anonymous. Only Ms. Freedman knows why she didn’t heed the warnings in IFAR’s report. In any event, the report was not written for her, but for Mr. Levy, who certainly understood its conclusion when he demanded, and received, a full refund. 

The picture was bought for a reported $2m. The point of all this is that IFAR's warning sirens were sounded in 2003, after which time Knoedler continued to sell many fake works as genuine, for much higher prices, all of which came from the same source, the art dealer Glafira Rosales who has since pleaded guilty to selling fakes. For example, another 'Pollock' was sold in 2007 for $17m to Pierre Lagrange. In all, Knoedler bought 40 undocumented works from Rosales. And according to this 2012 article in Vanity Fair, concerns about the alleged provenance of Mr Levy's 'Pollock' led to the provenance of subsequent of Rosales' sourced pictures apparently changing. 

So the question continues to be; how much did Freedman know, and when? Rosales started selling fakes to Knoedler in 1994, and the gallery closed in 2011. In her Art Newspaper interview, Freedman describes herself as "the perfect mark" for Rosales' fake operation. If anything, she's selling herself short.

Dobson self-portrait for sale

April 27 2016

Video: Bonhams

Bonhams are offering William Dobson's earliest known self-portrait in their forthcoming July Old Master sale in London. The estimate is £200,000-£300,000, which strikes me as quite reasonable. A very similar painting of the artist's wife is in the Tate gallery. Tate should be really buy this one too.

Bonhams kindly showed me the picture the other day; it is compelling, and in good condition. Although painted around 1635-40, the most noticeable thing about it to me was how un Van Dyck-ian the technique is. Instead it seems more Dutch if anything. Although Dobson's tecnnique does become a little more Van Dyck-ian later on, in its smoother application of paint, early works such as the self-portrait at Bonhams only raise further questions about where Dobson emerges from, in an artistic sense. Was Dobson really a pupil of Van Dyck, as some sources suggest? Not on this evidence, at least. Sadly, we know few certain details about his life. 

The above film was made by ZCZ Films, the Great Waldemar's production company. Waldemar is probably the world's no.1 Dobson fan, and made an excellent film on the artist some years ago.

'Isleworth Mona Lisa' visits Shanghai

April 27 2016

Image of 'Isleworth Mona Lisa' visits Shanghai

Picture: 247tickets.cn

The 'Isleworthless Mona Lisa' (above, and below) is on public display again, this time in a shopping district in Shanghai. Press reports herald the arrival of this important masterpiece - which claims to be another version by Leonardo of the Mona Lisa - with Shanghai Daily writing:

Due to the painting’s priceless value and place in art history, the “Earlier Mona Lisa” will be displayed behind bulletproof glass, in a humidity-controlled, GPS-locating case. Despite such precautions though, visitors will be able to get up close with the painting.

Tickets cost between RMB 100 and 120, or between $15-$18. That's a lot of money to see a copy and read a lot of nonsense. Nobody wants to interest new audiences in China in Old Masters more than I do - and it irritates the hell out of me that Chinese art lovers are being offered this sort of expensive rubbish. In fact, I pledge here and now that one day I'll organise a proper exhibition of Old Masters in China.

I see also in Shanghai Daily that the comical 'Mona Lisa Foundation' is sticking to its claim that:

Twenty-eight out of 29 experts believe this is either possibly or certainly a painting created by da Vinci.

Which is about as useful as those '8 out of 10 cats prefer Whiskas' adverts.

Marketing for the show seems to promote it as a luxurious and exclusive event.

Incidentally, it seems pretty clear to me that the Isleworth picture is simply a copy of another copy of the Mona Lisa in the National Museum in Oslo, below. You can see how the various details have become simplified the further away you get from the original, so that you end up with the rubbery pastiche we see in the Isleworth picture.

'Giorgione' at the RA (ctd.)

April 26 2016

Image of 'Giorgione' at the RA (ctd.)

Picture: San Diego Museum of Art

I greatly enjoyed the Royal Academy's new exhibition, 'In the Age of Giorgione'. The catalogue is excellent, and is largely free from modern art history speak. Instead, we get for each picture an overview of what evidence there is for an attribution, and how opinions have changed over the centuries. All of which is useful for an exhibition centred around Giorgione, for whom we have only a handful of securely attributed pictures. (One of these is an exquisite portrait of a man from San Diego Museum of Art, above). It's a shame that in the exhibition itself, the thorny question of who painted what is almost completely unaddressed in the wall text and labels, so that the casual visitor comes away thinking pictures are far more certainly attributed than is really the case. In many cases, wall labels simply state artist and title.

There's a fascinating review of the exhibition in the London Review of Books by the art historian Charles Hope, which is well worth reading. Hope (and I hope he doesn't mind me saying this) is known amongst some parts of the art trade as 'Charles Nope', such is his (alleged) tendency to doubt attributions. I think it's fair to say that in general he prefers to look for certainty of attribution in documentary sources, and in the uncertain world of Giorgione attributions this approach is essential. I think also that in the Giorgione exhibition his scepticism over many of the attributions is well founded. He writes:

Although the term connoisseurship normally carries associations with discernment and a certain rigour in aesthetic judgment, when applied to the study of Giorgione these qualities have been and remain conspicuously lacking. Optimistic guesswork would better describe the process.

Hope's central charge against the world of Giorgione scholarship - that many Giorgione attributions are only arrived at because we can't think of an alternative name:

None of the other six pictures in the exhibition accepted as by Giorgione looks like his secure works, and the only significant reason for attributing them to him is that no one can agree on an alternative candidate. As almost all the experts are convinced, on the basis of no evidence at all, that, apart from Titian and Sebastiano (who soon left for Rome), there were no other painters of real talent working in this general idiom in North Italy in the years around 1510, it is not surprising that Giorgione and the young Titian are now each commonly credited with unrealistically vast numbers of paintings in a remarkable variety of styles.

I am far from an expert in early Italian Renaissance art, but I do agree with Hope about the wide variety of works we now call early Titian. Although we are told in the literature that Titian, when young, was a talented mimic of other artistic styles, I still found it hard to entirely believe everything presented to us in the RA show as early Titian. And I agree particularly with this point of Hope's:

In the case of Titian this is well illustrated by a couple of large pictures on the two end walls of the third room. One, Jacopo Presented to St Peter, is said to be c.1508-11, the other, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery [below], c.1511, yet in style and technique they look utterly different. The attribution of the second of them is justified by a comparison with some frescoes in Padua that Titian painted in 1511, with which it does have something in common – but many artists could have seen those frescoes. In the previous room there is a painting from the Uffizi said to be by Giorgione, The Trial of Moses, which was first attributed to him in 1795, when nothing was known of his style, and which resembles none of his secure pictures. However, the figures are very similar, and in one case virtually identical, to those in another set of frescoes in Padua dating from after Giorgione’s death. One would have thought that, by the logic used for the Titian attribution, the Uffizi picture ought to be by the painter of the frescoes it resembles. But this possibility is seldom even discussed.

As I've remarked before on AHN, there has been an art historical tendency over the last century or so to take pictures away from Giorgione's oeuvre and give them to early Titian. For what it's worth, the Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery was the one picture not attributed to Giorgione in the exhibition that I came away wondering if it might indeed be by him. It is, as another art historian said to me, too poetic and lyrically drawn to be early Titian, and sculptural enough to be by Giorgione. These are subjective notions I know, but I also thought the handling was different from early Titian, and close to those few examples of Giorgione that we can confident of. (Another consideration in all these questions, of course, is that of condition, and it's clear from the literature that not enough consideration has been given to condition issues when assessing attributions - often, a 'badly drawn hand' can just be a knackered one).  

And just to confuse matters even further, I thought that the 'Giustiniani Portrait' of a young man (above), which (regular readers will remember) was to be made the subject of a debate as whether it was by Titian or Giorgione, was more likely to be by Titian, even though it is labelled in the exhibition without caveat as being by Giorgione (and despite one of the show's curators, Per Rumberg, also believing it to be by Titian).

Anyway, it's all good attributional fun, and the RA is to be applauded, in these connoisseurship-phobic days, in putting the exhibition on. 

Update - a reader writes:

[...] you gave a very judicious response to Charles Hope's LRB piece on the RA's Giorgione show. Charles [...] is a formidable archival and analytical art historian. There is no one who knows more about the documents relating to Titian. And he deserves to be one of your heroes of art history, for saving the Warburg Institute and Library from the misguided machinations of the University of London a few years ago. He wrote a brilliant account of that whole sorry saga, in the LRB about two years ago.

This is quite true - saving the Warburg was a heroic act, and so Charles Hope is formally declared an art history hero.

'Conditionally exempt' works for sale

April 25 2016

Image of 'Conditionally exempt' works for sale

Picture: ACE

Enterprising museum directors ahoy - the Arts Council has published a long list of 'conditionally exempt' works that are being offered for sale either in the Old Master auctions this summer, or privately. These are works that have had tax deferred on them, and so UK museums are given advance notice of their sale, should they wish to have a go themselves. Alas, usually museums only get involved after an auction at the export process, by which time the price has usually gone up.

This time around there is a cache of Old Master drawings, including a rare Titian (above) with a guide price of £4.8m. Also on offer is a rather fine Reynolds portrait, and a picture by Hogarth that seems quite reasonable at $1.5m. A £6m Modigliani, until recently on long term loan at Birmingham City Art Gallery, will be offered at auction at Christie's in June.

Major art theft in Italy (ctd.)

April 25 2016

Video: R.it

The Italian police have released some extraordinary CCTV footage from the armed robbery at the Castelvecchio museum in Verona last year. Pictures stolen apparently included works by or attributed to Rubens, Mantegna and Tintoretto.

I am baffled by the ease with which they were able to take pictures off the wall, and how some of the works were just on easels in the middle of a room. It all looks a little... easy.

The Italian authorities say they have traced the pictures to Moldova. So hopefully they can be recovered soon.

Update - I'm afraid there's nothing I can do about the prostate advert at the beginning of the video.

Italian police track down lost Nazi loot

April 25 2016

Image of Italian police track down lost Nazi loot

Picture: Carabinieri

The Italian Carabinieri have tracked down and seized three important Renaissance pictures that had been missing since the war. The paintings had been part of the collection of Felix of Bourbon-Parma, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, and were seized by the SS in 1944. They are: a Madonna with Child attributed to Cima da Conegliano; the Trinity by Alessio Baldovinetti; and the Presentation of Jesus to the Temple by Girolamo dai Libri, above, which is signed. Reports The Art Newspaper:

Occupying German troops seized the works in 1944, transporting them to Dornsberg castle, the South Tyrol headquarters of Karl Wolff, the SS commander who negotiated the Nazi surrender in Italy in 1945. At the end of the war, US soldiers from the so-called “Monuments Men” raided the castle. A number of works from the Bourbon-Parma collection were returned to the family in 1949, but the three paintings remained missing.

Following what it described as a “complex investigation” based on archival documents, a branch of the Carabinieri art crime unit in Monza, northern Italy, traced the works to the descendants of two Milanese collectors in December 2014. The paintings are in state custody but will be stored at the Pinacoteca di Brera while authorities decide whether to restitute them to Luxembourg, La Stampa reports.

You can see more photos here.

Update - and here below is an extremely rare case of a black glove shot.

A lost Wright of Derby? (ctd.)

April 24 2016

Image of A lost Wright of Derby? (ctd.)

Picture: Derby Museums/TAN

Regular readers may remember that last year I reported on Derby Museum's commendable decision to restore two works in their collection which had been the subject of a botched restoration job. Indeed, so bad was the conservator's efforts (from the 1960s or 70s) that the attribution had been doubted. Now the pictures have been revealed, and there can be no doubt that they're fine works by Wright. More here in The Art Newspaper.

Botched conservation is, in my experience, the number one cause for attributions being lost. It never ceases to amaze me how inept some professional conservators can be. 

I am so pleased to see that Derby Museums have taken this project on. It shows a deep care and passion for their collection, even for apparently duff pictures, which must be the foundation for any museum.

This is not Shakespeare (ctd.)

April 24 2016

Image of This is not Shakespeare (ctd.)

Picture: Guardian

Yesterday saw the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and of course the event was marked with many erroneous portraits of the great man. I was pleased, therefore, to see that someone else apart from AHN has taken up the case of the Cobbe portrait - here is William Leahy in The Guardian:

[...] why use a picture of someone who is definitely not Shakespeare to promote Shakespeare?

This common mistake all started in 2006. As explained on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website, this picture, the so-called “Cobbe” portrait was “identified” as being a portrait of William Shakespeare. There is not much evidence for this claim, but the Birthplace Trust purchased* the painting and launched it upon the world through the “Shakespeare Found” touring exhibition in 2009.

The painting’s claim to authenticity seems to be, according to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, that it “may” have been commissioned by the Earl of Southampton. They then go on to repeat a widely held myth that Southampton was Shakespeare’s patron; but there is no evidence that this was true. Or that the earl and the playwright knew each other or ever met or spoke.

* I don't think they did buy it, merely that it was on loan.

Wright display at Tate

April 24 2016

Image of Wright display at Tate

Picture: FT

Tate Britain has, for the first time, hung Joseph Wright of Derby's preliminary sketch for 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump' alongside the finished picture. More here.

£20 Turner

April 24 2016

Image of £20 Turner

Picture: Guardian

Last year the Bank of England conducted a consultation on which British artist should be on the new £20 note. Turner has won the day, and his self-portrait will feature on the note alongside his 'Fighting Temeraire'. Of course, I lobbied for Van Dyck. But at least it's not Jake and Dinos Chapman.

New connoisseurship conference

April 24 2016

Image of New connoisseurship conference

Picture: codart

Codart, the 'international network of curators of Dutch and Flemish art', is devoting its annual conference this year to connoisseurship, which is great news. The keynote speaker is Prof. Christopher Brown, former director of the Ashmolean, who (I can vouch from personal experience) is a most formidable connoisseur. The opening pitch for the conference sums up the connoisseurship dilemma perfectly:

Connoisseurship has long been at the heart of the work of attributing an artwork – that is, associating it with a specific artist, period, and/or location. Ever since the 17th century, attributing works of art has ranked among the foremost tasks of the art historian. Traditionally, attribution is predicated on meticulous examination by a connoisseur. Yet for some time now, art-historical attribution has been virtually absent from academic training. Indeed, it has even been denigrated as an unscientific, anachronistic activity. For museums and the art market, however, it has lost none of its significance.

It's a shame that the programme of speakers is entirely devoid of anyone from the art market - which of course is the area where connoisseurship is practised most intensely.

I see also that Martin Myrone from the Tate is speaking, and regular readers might remember from an earlier conference where I spoke alongside him (at the Paul Mellon Centre) that he is no fan of connoisseurship. 

Update II - any discussion of connoisseurship amongst museum curators needs really to address the question of why so many museums refuse to allow their staff to give opinions on other people's paintings. Not only does this arbitrarily cut curators off from wider discussions about pictures and attribution, but it also creates two classes of object; those that happen to be in public ownership (good) versus those that are privately owned (bad). It is usually in the latter world that the most interesting discoveries are to be made - so why should museums refuse to comment on them? Museums and curators should follow Sir Nick Penny's dictum (as discussed with me in my podcast here) - 'the picture comes first'. Who owns it, or what (gasp) it might be worth, is irrelevant.

Contemporary art is bad for your health

April 21 2016

Image of Contemporary art is bad for your health

Picture: Telegraph

Or at least, some of it, maybe - though AHNers knew this already of course. Scientists testing the level of formaldehyde gas in the air around Damien Hirst's dead floating animal pieces at Tate Modern found that the levels were higher than permitted by law. More here

HMQ at 90

April 21 2016

Image of HMQ at 90

Picture: Royal Collection

The Queen is 90 - AHN wishes her a very happy birthday. In a fine blog post, James Mulraine notes the absence of any of her painted portraits in today's many 'Queen's 90 years' press stories, and writes about his favourite by Pietro Annigoni (above):

[...] my favourite portrait of the Queen is this 1969 portrait by Pietro Annigoni. Annigoni is best known for the earlier portrait of the Queen in Garter robes, like a photograph by Cecil Beaton. He was inspired  by the Italian Renaissance, and this painting has something in it of the supernatural power of Piero della Francesca, not a messiah but a ship’s figurehead the waves would bow to. At the same time it is so triumphantly modern. You hear a Parry anthem in your head, and see it freeze-framed like scene from a movie. The Queen will sweep on into the frame, and turn and speak. It is an icon of Duty, the perfect Royal portrait, because it makes a vast abstraction real because it fits with what we believe of the sitter’s character. It is the last transcendental Royal portrait, in a tradition stretching back to the Christ-like Westminster Abbey portrait of King Richard II, Holbein’s annihilating mural of King Henry VIII, and the Ditchley portrait of Queen Elizabeth I as Fortune.

Turner’s Investment Records Found

April 21 2016

Image of Turner’s Investment Records Found

Picture: Eric Shanes/Bank of England

There's a new biography of J.M.W. Turner just published by Eric Shanes - 'Young Mr Turner, The First Forty Years 1775-1815'. It has already received glowing reviews, which is perhaps not surprising for Shanes has been working on the book for ten years, and is already well established as a Turner scholar. Shanes has kindly sent AHN this snippet of new research, having discovered Turner's investment details at the Bank of England. As you might expect, Turner was careful with the pennies.

Acting on a tip-off that the painter’s name had been spotted in Bank of England ledgers some years earlier, I have unearthed Turner’s investment records from the age of nineteen onwards. Naturally, the new financial data tells us a huge amount about Turner’s patronage, sales, career planning, and much else besides. 

The son of a humble Covent Garden barber, Turner showed signs of extraordinary talent at a very early age and began selling from the start. By 1794, when he was nineteen, he was able to make his first investment in government stock, and he went on doing so thereafter. Correlation between financial memoranda jotted down in his sketchbooks and Bank of England ledgers demonstrates that on many occasions he would invest a particular sum of money on the selfsame day he had sold a work for precisely the same amount. Clearly he never looked for quick or large returns; instead, what he sought was long-term security for his money, which is why he acquired government stock offering safe but low-yield dividends. By compiling a running total of Turner’s holdings, we are now able to pinpoint exactly what he was worth at any given moment. Thus on 23 April 1815, when he reached 40, he held exactly £10,186–8s–10d in government stock, all of which had been earned in the twenty-eight years since 1787. (By way of comparison, an ordinary labourer on a working-class average annual income of £26 would have earned a mere £735–10s during the same period, none of which could easily have been retained in the form of savings or investments.) Over the course of a career spanning sixty-five years or so, Turner became very wealthy, and now we can perceive how, when and why he did so.

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