Was Caravaggio killed by his own paint?

April 26 2015

Image of Was Caravaggio killed by his own paint?

Picture: Guardian

In Italy, they say they've dug up Caravaggio's bones, and can prove that he was killed partly by lead poisoning, which might have come from his paints. But it's all rather uncertain - there is no concrete proof the bones above are in fact Caravaggio's. More here in The Guardian.

View from the Artist - no.18

April 24 2015

Image of View from the Artist - no.18

 

Can you guess the location and artist? No prizes, just for fun. And no Google Image search cheating!

Update - a reader writes:

I'm sure others will get this, but I felt compelled to reply because it is a picture I always quite liked back home at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool - it's Joseph Wright of Derby's fantasy picture of fireworks over Rome. I have checked, and this detail appears to foil the Google search, which is good!

Quite right. Full picture here. Well done to those who got it.

Podcast with Nicholas Penny

April 24 2015

Image of Podcast with Nicholas Penny

Picture: Guardian

The National Gallery director Nicholas Penny has kindly agreed to do a podcast with AHN. This will be the first in a recurring series of interviews with senior figures from the art world. If you have any questions you'd like me to ask, please send them in.

How the Met acquired Le Brun's 'Jabach' portrait

April 23 2015

Image of How the Met acquired Le Brun's 'Jabach' portrait

Picture: Metropolitan Museum

Regular readers will have been following the Met's restoration of Charles Le Brun's Portrait of Everhard Jabach and His Family. Now, the Met's head of European Paintings, Keith Christiansen, has written a fascinating blog on how the Met acquired the work:

It goes back to the evening of February 25, 2013. I was in London for a conference, walking back to my hotel after dinner with my wife. It was the evening before my return flight to New York. Checking my emails, I noticed one from a colleague in one of the major auction houses: "Keith, next time you are in London, let me know. I have something important to show you." Despite the late hour, I quickly got in touch with him. There was a scramble, and the next morning my wife and I found ourselves making an unanticipated trip to a warehouse where, propped against the back wall of a large, gray, box-like space, was Le Brun's portrait of the Jabach family. My wife was overwhelmed by the sight, finding the picture completely compelling. A brief conversation ensued about its history, the circumstances of its sale, and the price. That the Metropolitan would be able to acquire the work seemed to me dubious or, at best, a long shot, for apart from the price, could one imagine that a picture of this importance—one that had been in the United Kingdom since 1794—would ever be given an export license?

Back in New York, I made a call to the director of the National Gallery, London: after all, there was no point in trying to move forward with acquiring the work if the outcome was already scripted and the National Gallery had plans. Much to my surprise, I was told they had another priority [a painting by George Bellows] and would not attempt to purchase the picture. The door had suddenly opened—or was at least ajar. So I sat down with Tom Campbell, our director, and also met with my colleagues in the Department of European Paintings. All agreed that if this work could be had, it would be one of the Met's great acquisitions.

Negotiations were handled with extreme discretion over the ensuing months, and in September—seven months after I first saw the picture—we found ourselves in the enviable position of being able to make an offer, thanks the same person who had come to our aid so many times over the past forty years and whose name was already attached to some of the signature works in the collection. Our debt to her is very great. Papers were done up, and I presented the picture to the Museum's Acquisition Committee in October for approval. The next step was the application for the export license, which was being handled by Christie's.

The matter of granting an export license went before the Reviewing Committee of the Arts Council of the United Kingdom in January 2014, with the anticipated postponement of a decision until May 9 to allow a British buyer to step forward with a plan to acquire the work. By what I believe was a piece of extraordinary luck, a self-portrait by Anthony van Dyck was also up for review at around the same time. Van Dyck, of course, had an active career in Britain and his portraits established the model for the next two centuries. His oval, bust-length self-portrait captured the attention of the press as well as the public. "Saving it for the nation" became a priority, and this, I believe, deflected attention from the Le Brun—to my mind a vastly more important and significant work. On May 9, I received the news that an export license had been granted.

This account is interesting on many levels. First, is the picture really the dramatically important work Christiansen thinks it is? Certainly, it's a great work, but regular readers won't be surprised to hear that I think Van Dyck's self-portrait is an infinitely more important work in the history of British art. Naturally, the Met are very proud of their acquisition. 

Second, should the National Gallery's acquisition of the George Bellows painting have gotten in the way of the Le Brun in such a manner? Ie, is it right that a mere question of timing stopped the National making an effort to buy the painting? Probably not, but then at £7.3m something had to give. The Bellows was £15.6m. Can we stop everything? Probably not, and we shouldn't forget either that the Bellows was a pretty audacious acquisition from a US museum. In the US, they have no export controls at all.

Perhaps I should say, though, that my own old-fashioned taste would see me prefer to have the Le Brun than the Bellows. Anyway, the Met are looking after it very well.

Art Detective strikes again (ctd.)

April 22 2015

Image of Art Detective strikes again (ctd.)

Picture: Art Detective

The Art Detective website, which regular readers will know I'm involved with, has won a prestigious award; 'Best Museum Professional' website at the Museums and the Web conference in Chicago. Apparently this is the Oscars of the museum and technology world, and Art Detective's victory is the first time a Uk institution has won such a prize. 

Van Dyck sketches for sale (ctd.)

April 22 2015

Image of Van Dyck sketches for sale (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

I mentioned last month two enticing look head studies by Van Dyck coming up for sale in New York. Well, they just sold, and I thought for quite a reasonable price, given that both have recently been exhibited in stellar company in the 'Young Van Dyck' exhibition at the Prado.

The study above made $298,000, while the Boy with Clasped Hands made $274,000 (both prices inc. premium). Slightly to my surprise, a grisaille catalogued as 'attributed to Van Dyck', which was missing part of the panel from the right hand side, sold well, fetching $478,000.

Everybody out! (ctd.)

April 22 2015

Image of Everybody out! (ctd.)

Picture: TAN

Yet more strikes at the National Gallery in London. Not content with holding 17 days of strike action this year already, the PCS union at the National will be on strike until 24th April. Much of the gallery is therefore shut.

The Art Newspaper report of the strike tells us, however, that the Sainsbury Wing remains open, because it is already under the supervision of CIS, the private form who have been brough in to cover security in temporary exhibitions.

The picture above shows Candy Udwin, the PCS union representative who was suspended by the Gallery last year. I think I can also see my troll in the photo above (the one who said I was liar for stating that staff at the Gallery have been on quite a few strikes recently). Udwin strikesMore here

Optical Coherence Tomography

April 21 2015

Image of Optical Coherence Tomography

Pictures: Optics Info Base

This sounds interesting - a whizzy new camera (seen above, in front of a copy of a Raphael at the National Gallery) can digitally take cross-sections of a painting. Normally, to find out the exact build up of layers in a painting (from ground layer to the tpyes of pigments used), you need to physically take a sample of paint, flip it on its side, and then look at the cross-section under a microscope (as in the colour photo below). But this new camera - developed at Nottingham Trent University - allows a virtual cross-section to be taken, and the results look as they do in the top image, the black and white one.

The process is called Optical Coherence Tomography.

You can read more about the new research here

What's right with the National Trust?

April 21 2015

Video: BBC

Ok, so the beanbags and the occasional daft comment from the Chief Executive are maddening - but we'd be stuffed without the National Trust, wouldn't we? Above is a video documenting the Trust's £8m refurbishment of Mount Stewart in Northern Ireland. Looks like they've done a great job - well done to all involved. 

Tate reconsiders Constable restitution (ctd.)

April 21 2015

Image of Tate reconsiders Constable restitution (ctd.)

Picture: Tate

The Mail on Sunday has more on Tate's recent decision to halt the restitution process of the above painting by Constable. Tate had been ordered to return the painting by the UK government's restitution panel - but last month said they had found new evidence about the picture's provenance. The Mail tells us that this includes:

Tate Britain chiefs believe the chance discovery of an export permit will bolster their claim that the 1824 oil painting – Beaching A Boat, Brighton – was legitimately brought to Britain.

The 1946 document bears the signature of a dealer called Karola Fabri and seeks permission for the transfer of artworks from Budapest to Zurich, including one by Constable identified as Fishing Boat.

The discovery of the permit in the archives of Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts is the latest twist in an increasingly fraught dispute between the Tate and the descendants of the painting’s original owner, Baron Ferenc Hatvany, who died in 1958.

The descendants of Hatvany – believed to be two daughters and a grandchild – say the Nazis stole the painting and smuggled it out of Hungary.

The discovery of the permit in the archives of Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts is the latest twist in an increasingly fraught dispute between the Tate and the descendants of the painting’s original owner, Baron Ferenc Hatvany, who died in 1958.

It turned up in Britain in 1962 and passed through several hands before being donated to the Tate in 1986.

The family launched a claim three years ago. The Government-backed Spoliation Advisory Panel, which rules on disputes over looted art, supported the heirs last year and said the Tate had a ‘moral obligation’ to return the painting. Sources close to the case say the export permit could prove the Tate’s claim that Hatvany voluntarily disposed of the painting while he was still alive.

The Tate does not dispute that the painting was looted by the Nazis but the gallery’s understanding is that it was returned to the owner after the war and then legitimately exported.

Gallery chiefs are expected to argue that the permit proves the work was still in Hungary after the war. But The Mail on Sunday understands the claimants will argue the permit doesn’t change anything as it does not identify Hatvany.

One source said: ‘If you had stolen the painting, you would still need to get an export permit to get it out of the country.’

The lure of the blockbuster

April 21 2015

Image of The lure of the blockbuster

Picture: TAN

I love a blockbuster exhibition, and I love smaller offbeat ones too. Many bemoan the prevalence of the former these days, but as Charles Saumarez Smith points out in The Art Newspaper,* blockbusters have always been with us. Do read the full article, which looks at the history of the blockbuster from the 19th Century in Britain. But Charles focuses onto his experience of such shows at the Royal Academy, of which he is Chief Executive:

In the past two decades, our most successful exhibitions have been the two Monet shows held in 1990 and 1999, which attracted 7,003 and 8,597 visitors a day respectively. The Van Gogh exhibition in 2010 drew 4,785 visitors a day; David Hockney in 2012 drew an average of 7,512 a day; and “Manet: Portraying Life” in 2013 drew 4,359 a day.  

What conclusions can one draw from a historical analysis of exhibition numbers? Statistically, exhibitions by the Impressionists have always come top, not just in Britain and the US, but most of all in Japan. The Pre-Raphaelites are also popular, as was evident when we exhibited Waterhouse in 2009, and when Tate Britain showed “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde” in 2012. In recent years, we have demonstrated that contemporary artists can be as popular as the Impressionists. The Hockney exhibition was a mass cultural phenomenon, not only in London but also, more surprisingly, at the Guggenheim Bilbao, wh ere the show again got more than 500,000 visitors in a city with a population of only one million.

While we study our visitor numbers, and have to, this does not preclude trying to ensure a varied exhibition programme. We try to develop a portfolio of exhibitions in which the more commercial shows subsidise the loss-leaders. This year, “Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined” drew 167,906 visitors; an average of 2,332 a day. Anselm Kiefer drew 184,910; an average of 2,341 a day. What the bald numbers disguise is that both were particularly successful in drawing new visitors to the Royal Academy.

*which has a zippy new website - looks nice.

Apologies...

April 16 2015

I'm very sorry for the lack of posts this week. I've been away (in Sicily), and tomorrow I'm filming for 'Fake or Fortune?'. So I'm afraid there won't be anything from me till next week.

What's wrong with the National Trust? (ctd.)

April 10 2015

Image of What's wrong with the National Trust? (ctd.)

Picture: Telegraph

The Daily Telegraph's Harry Wallop (above) has been to Ickworth to see the beanbags, having been alerted to their insidious presence by AHN. Here's his article, which is well worth a read.

The Trust's defence is typically maddening. In the Telegraph article, it falls to Sue Borges, 'the marketing and engagement manager at Ickworth', to explain why the Trust removed the original early 19th C furniture (which they bought some years ago) and consigned it to storage. Sue says:

“Before, it was very linear. We did a counting exercise two years ago and found that most people spent a minute and half in this room. And we wanted to encourage people to dwell and take in the atmosphere.”

She adds: “It's about making it more accessible, whether it be intellectually, or physically.”

A counting exercise will be conducted later this year to see if “dwell time” is extended. But Mrs Borges, who is a charming tweed-skirted guide, insists the bean bags are already a hit. "Our visitors are enjoying it, and they are engaging with us. We had 9,500 people through Ickworth last week and not a single person has criticised us for what we have done in here."

All that boring 19th Century furniture - it's so linear! And I wonder if Sue, albeit unwittingly, personifies part of the problem: she is the 'engagement and marketing' manager. Shouldn't marketing be seperate from 'engagement' and its related curatorial decisions? I wonder if Sue's job title explains those giftshop cushions I saw scattered amongst the main rooms at Ickworth. It's certainly a novel approach - take out the original furnishings, and replace them with things the punters can buy. Kerrching!

Anyway, Sue's last claim seems a little disingenuous, as Harry Wallop gently points out (he spoke to some of the room guides - sorry 'interpreters' - who made it quite clear that many people are as baffled as I was). But it's more evidence of the usual defensive reflexes you get when an institution like the Trust loses touch with both reality and its members; in other words, an organisation which refuses to listen. Does it matter to the Trust if someone like Tim Knox, a former Head Curator of the Trust, breaks ranks and says removing the historic interiors at Ickworth is 'misguided'? Not at all.

In fact, says Sue Borges, people like Tim and I (and almost all of you, dear AHNers):

[...] clearly have some strong opinions about how mansion houses should be presented. And I don't think we should shy away from challenging those opinions."

That's 'engagement'-speak for 'screw you'. 

Many thanks for all your comments so far. Please keep 'em coming.

Update - a reader writes:

I've been following the Ickworth/National Trust story via your twitter feed and AHN with interest. My girlfriend and I are new NT members, and surely of an age group (35) that they'd be keen to attract. We're unlikely to renew our membership beyond this year...

Thought you might be interested in this - https://vimeo.com/113257582

It's Sue Borges talking in 2014 about new directions at Ickworth, including 'spirit of place'. Is it just me, or does it not seem as if she has responsibility for making curatorial decisions? To me, this video confirms that important decisions at the NT are being made by 'marketing and engagement' types rather than art historians/curators. 

Incidentally, a recent trip to Kingston Lacy perhaps highlights a lack of care in their approach to their art collection. Las Meninas was not on display in the Spanish Room, and as far as I could see, there was no explanation as to where it was...

Do watch the video made by Sue Borges. It's all a bit management speak, but actually what she has to say sounds quite promising. She says she wants to focus more on the collections and original works of art, and talks of raising the blinds, to let more light in. So quite how these noble aims translated into removing some of the most important furniture, and closing the shutters in the library, so that it is gloomier than ever before, defeats me. 

Over on the Country Seat blog, the National Trust's Regional Director, Ben Cowell, has written in defense of the Ickworth experiment. Actually, he doesn't defend the removal of the furniture at all, but makes the case for 're-interpreting' some National Trust houses from time to time. He makes the case well, and cites the example of Dunham Massey, which has been transformed into how it was during the Great War.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am entirely in favour of this sort of well-curated intervention, and mentioned in the updates of an earlier post a similar example, at Upton House, which I thought looked to be a great success. But at Ickworth, taking away original furniture and replacing it with beanbags isn't re-interpretation. It's just silliness.

Anyway, the Trust could really score a PR win here if it just said, 'the Ickworth thing was an experiment - and we've seen the reaction, and are unlikely to do it again.' That's all they need to do.

Update II - Dr Iain Clark writes:

I joined the Trust in 1970, started lecturing for it at the age of 23 and when a junior hospital doctor working an average 116 hours a week managed to find time to found the Banbury Centre of Trust members.

You can imagine my disgust at the way the Trust is moving! [...]

Essentially the fact is that art is and always was and always will be the product of surplus wealth and thus is the creation of the elite. It is a point completely missed in the modern PC world.

I do not know what one can do about it. The Trust does have an elected council but after the entryism farce which resulted in the hunting ban in 1995 the Trust has protected itself from pressure groups, but that is exactly what is needed to bring it to its senses.

Iain has also written a comment on the Country Seat blog in response to Ben Cowell's post, which ends thus:

I am not rich, but what was to be my residual estate is now going to the Georgian group, SAVE and the Countryside Restoration Trust and no longer to the National Trust. I am not alone in my disillusion.

Jenni Hatton sends in this zinger:

After reading your article regarding the National Trust site of Ickworth I am frankly disgusted about your small mindedness. 

As a current archaeology student, employee of the National Trust and a life member I have visited many National Trust properties, and I have seen the behind the scenes methods employed by the National Trust. Re-interpretation of rooms is a vital way of encouraging repeat visits, as many people say “once you’ve visited a property there is no point visiting it again”. They are wrong. By reinterpreting the history, the artefacts and the rooms it enables visitors to focus on different items in the room, to gain a better understanding of the history at that particular property. Imagine if you begin to rewrite the same old boring articles? You wouldn’t get any new readers - this is exactly what we are doing. By encouraging repeat visits we can continue to look after special places for everyone.

I can’t personally speak for the team at Ickworth, however I can say they haven’t removed the much loved chairs, carpets or any of the furniture which was in the room, it is in storage. And the likely hood is that the room will return to how it looked previously in the next year or so. 

There is not a Trust policy which is to make the historic places they look after into museums, they are in-fact actively trying to make the historic places they care for more accessible for everyone, making them spaces for everyone to enjoy in different ways. 

I suggest you visit a number of properties before making ridiculous statements without having any true understanding of the heritage industry. 

Jenni completely misses many points. First, how is removing the original contents of a room 're-interpretation'? And how does it encourage repeat visits? Unless by frustrated visitors who come again, hoping to see what they were denied on an earlier visit? And Jenni, we know the furniture has gone into storage, that's the point. Secondly, the Trust has explicitly said to me that, in some cases, their policy is indeed to adopt a more museum-like approach. And finally, I have visited many, many historic houses, and I venture to suggest that I do have some understanding of the heritage industry - after all, many of the arts and heritage policies I helped draw up have now become government policy. And I'm very proud of them too.

But I have noticed, in light of the above comment, and also from one or two comments on Twitter, that the only people who seem to approve of Ickworth's policy are those that work in the heritage of museum sector. And it's suprising to see the disdain with which some people who work in museums view those of us who visit them. Bit of a disconnect there...

Update III - as if to prove my last point above, Kate Yates, the Ickworth House Steward from 2001-2013, says that people who want to go and see the wonderful works of art at Ickworth are 'tiny' - and those of us who regret seeing the removal of some of the works should 'get over it'. Here's her email in full:

As the House Steward of Ickworth for 12 years I feel compelled to respond to your article "What's wrong with the National Trust". I love absolutely every cavernous room and nook and cranny in that place - it was my entire life and it feels like home whenever I return. I am old school when it comes to country houses and long thought that the NT was dumbing down the art and architecture and history of the owners of such places. Why is the NT obsessed about making everyone love their houses? Why can't it just accept that some people do not find art and antiques interesting, even those attached to a colourful family history, and cater properly for those who do? Why? Because the small number of people who are actually interested in seeing such glorious works of art in a country house setting is tiny - too small to sustain the vast maintenance costs that go hand-in-hand with a vast property. Ickworth has an internationally important collection, a fantastic history and stories to entertain everyone however it does not have an internationally recognised historical figure associated with it that it can market easily to tourists. Although very grand and striking in appearance it is not a pretty house and doesn't have glorious flower gardens. To top it all it's in "Curious" Suffolk. People love Suffolk because it is rural, quiet, and slow but these aren't helpful qualities when it comes to attracting visitors.

When I first started working for the Trust there was only one balancing act, that of conservation of the collection v. access ("physically and intellectually") to the collection. Now however they also seem to be struggling to find the best mid point for how to interpret their collections. I did think they were tipping over too much towards those who only want a sentence or two about a whole room. Or rather that is how it appeared.

When I left in 2013 Ickworth were working on producing a rather glossy and comprehensive picture list, which the curatorial staff are always updating,  and of course for those interested there is now a public access catalogue online. My comment specifically about the Library at Ickworth would be that, although it's a shame that it doesn't now look like it does in the guidebook, the whole house was furnished by Banting & France so there are plenty of other pieces to satisfy any furniture lovers and the library curtains which can be seen at close quarters are made from the same silk as the upholstered pieces which have been TEMPORARILY stored away. To give greater physical access to a room, to create a more immersive experience (which I believe were the buzz words in my time and is surely the reason to come to a country house rather than an art gallery), they needed to remove the ropes and drugget. This meant that people would have been walking on an early 19th century carpet and up against the beautiful Regency furniture so for understandable conservation reasons these have been removed. Did you notice that having access to the central part of the room means now that any visitor who is physically capable of doing so can lie directly under the stunning geometry of the Osler chandelier, also made specifically for the room? This, which should be actively encouraged, was only ever possible during the closed months by members of staff and what better way to do this than by lounging on a beanbag!

As I said, I'm from the old school of Please Do not Touch signs and my initial reaction would have been "What the...?" but then I would have stopped, looked around and thought actually what a great opportunity! So my final comment would be "get over it". By the way, on behalf of my ex-colleagues, thanks to you and Harry Wallop for the publicity!

I still don't understand how removing exhibits helps create a 'more immersive experience'. Doesn't 'less stuff' mean there is less to be immersed in? What about those who want to be 'immersed' in the feel of an authentic early 19th Century library - must we deny them? And, if dedicated art lovers are 'tiny' in number - which I can assure her they are not - I can't imagine many people are desperate to sit directly underneath a chandelier. 

Another reader writes:

The torment continues....

The heading for your latest post on the NT surely could have been "Guffwatch"...? Trotting out phrases like "linear", "dwell time", "making it more accessible, whether it be intellectually, or physically", "engaging with us", "challenging opinions". Spare me.

And doing a further counting exercise to see if "dwell time" has been extended is not, in my opinion, and indicator of success. Wandering around horror-struck could well take more time than wandering through in a 'linear' fashion.

I would suggest Ickworth puts a large photograph of how the library was formerly and ask visitors which they prefer. I have no doubt what the overwhelming response would be. And, to encourage dwell time - if that is so important - put some other more suitable (and subtle) chairs in the room with a sign inviting visitors to have a seat. (Not those ghastly Darth Vader armchairs). I visited Lyme Park 2 years ago (a NT property) and I recall sitting in chairs in the library and being invited by the room guide to find a book to read if I felt so inclined.

I would happily revisit all of the NT properties that I have seen because there is so much to see and one visit isn't enough.

I am so glad you are drawing attention to this whole debacle via your blog.

Thanks! 

Update IV - another rearder writes:

Since Kate Yates emphasizes how removal of the carpet and protecting ropes improves “physical accessibility” at Ickworth, and since — wheelchair bound — I daily encounter small but impassible barriers, I want to say that I appreciate her concern but would much prefer “immersing" myself as far as possible in the full historical atmosphere and furnishings of a country house, from the margins of a room, to traversing an impoverished but fully accessible space such as the current version of the Ickworth library.  Then again, I have the advantage of bringing along my own chair! Although, from experience, I can also assure Ms. Yates that beanbag chairs are the nadir of accessibility for persons with any limitations of mobility or arm or leg strength, as well as diminishing the “intellectual accessibility” of an historic room by their sheer out-of-place ugliness.  Yes, I want historic houses to be accessible to me and my wheelchair, as far as may reasonably be; but I don’t want “physical accessibility” deployed as an excuse for ill-considered, unnecessary anachronisms however fashionably draped in the condescending analogy of “intellectual accessibility”.

Sleeper Alert!

April 9 2015

Image of Sleeper Alert!

Picture: The Cobbs Auctioneers

This picture was up for sale in the US over the weekend, catalogued as 'School of Veronese', and with an estimate of $2,000-$4,000. The subject is Sultan Bajazid I. It made $390,000!

More images and details here.

Update - a reader alerts me to the original, byVeronese (below), which is in the Collection Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, in Munich. The condition of the picture at auction is such that I wouldn't like to be sure of hazarding an attribution. But it certainly looks like a brave purchase.

Apologies...

April 8 2015

I hope you all had a good Easter, or similar. I'm a little tied up today, Wednesday, and away tomorrow with 'Fake or Fortune?' - so I'm afraid you can't expect much from me till Friday.

The below story about the National Trust has many interesting updates though, in the meantime. Please do continue to tell me what you think about all this.

Update - do have a read of the Grumpy Art Historian's latest account of Italian museums. It makes the National Trust's problems seem very minor in comparison.

Update II - Neil MacGregor is stepping down as Director of the British Museum. I suspect this means that he'll be appearing on our screens soon as part of the BBC's revamped Civilisation, which is excellent news. Though I have it on good authority that the series will be presented by multiple presenters.

What's wrong with the National Trust (ctd.)

April 6 2015

Image of What's wrong with the National Trust (ctd.)

Pictures: National Trust/BG

The National Trust denied to me that Dame Helen Ghosh's recent 'there's too much stuff in our houses' comments did not actually mean that 'stuff' would be removed. Instead, they said, it would merely be displayed in a better way, to provide enhanced 'intellectual access' for visitors.

But this is untrue. 'Stuff' has actually begun to be removed, as I saw today when I went to Ickworth, the former home of the Marquesses of Bristol.

The library - probably the finest room in the house - used to contain a suite of historic furnishings, as shown above. The furniture, much of it by Banting and France, was commissioned by the 1st Marquess of Bristol in the 1820s. The chair coverings matched the enormous silk curtains, and the furniture was an integral part of a room originally designed by the famous Bishop-Earl of Bristol, who believed the high-ceilinged rooms helped his asthma. Much of this furniture was actually bought by the National Trust after they acquired the house (I presume from the errant 7th Marquess, who was a drug addict, and sold most of the contents to the Trust) specifically to recreate the original interior.

But now all the furniture - and the carpet - has been removed and placed in storage. The room now appears as above (apologies for the poor photos taken on my phone). The only furnishings in the room are four bean bags (for visitors to lounge on), a piano (which is accompanied by piped music), and two hideously upholstered arm chairs.

The removal of the furniture - and thus the temporary destruction of the historic setting - is therefore an indicator of what the Trust's new 'too much stuff' strategy will mean in practice. A room guard told me it was 'an experiment' to make it easier for people to look at the paintings. Apparently simply removing the ropes, or moving one or two pieces of furniture, was not possible.

The removal of the furniture facilitates, just about, a closer look at two paintings on the fireplace wall, one of which is a portrait of Prince Baltasar Carlos attributed to Velasquez. But the other painting is hardly a great work, and being able to peer up at them a little more closely doesn't compensate for not being able to see the library as it was. Beneath the 'Velasquez'* the Trust has tastefully placed a cushion showing a detail of the portrait, which is available in the gift shop.

Nor did I see much evidence of enhanced 'intellectual access' (as the Trust calls it, which is modern curator-speak for 'telling people about things'). In the middle of the library is an old book, lit, and in a display case. This must be one of the 'five or six lovely things' Dame Helen wants visitors to focus on. But I saw  no label with it, so I didn't know what it was. The library was unusually dark, because three of the windows were shuttered up because a pastel painting, by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, had been brought into the room as part of the new display. This pastel, along with another painting (a copy of a portrait by Sir Francis Grant) were placed on easels in front of the shuttered windows. The pictures on easels were minor pictures, and there was little effort to tell people what they were. The large easel-mounted picture is perilously in danger of someone walking or falling into it. 

A great room is thus reduced to a bizarre joke. I can't quite believe that anyone at the Trust thought this was a good idea. I never imagined they would go this far. Certainly, it didn't seem to be what visitors wanted or expected; the room warden told me hardly anyone lounged on the bean bags, or sat in the lounge chairs. It shows the folly of the Trust's new policy to deliberately make houses feel more like museums; in this case, the pictures were not good enough to justify a museum-like focus, and the overall effect was to denude the room of any feeling of it having once been a library, because visitors are invited to look at specific objects in different ways. It's a scandalous waste of time and money - a dereliction of duty imposed upon members for no other reason than to humour the Trust's sudden crisis of confidence, and its belief that we're all too stupid to admire more than one thing at a time.

The best pictures are in another part of the house, in a small room with little furniture in it. Therein you'll find a Titian, a Hogarth, a Vigee Le Brun self portrait, and many other treasures. They are mostly easy to see, and one gets the feel of both museum and historic home. Some of the pictures have picture lights, but the Titian (one of the finest paintings the Trust owns) was rather gloomy, because the bulb had gone (as seen in the below photo, lower left). In other words, if the Trust was really hoping to help people 'see the pictures better' they would attend to small things like the picture lights. But I don't think the Trust really is interested in helping people see pictures. I think the removal of the library furniture is instead part of a new phobia about having 'too much stuff', and a worrying sign of an organisation that has lost its way.

Readers are encouraged to send any other examples they come across. We must fight this new idiocy.

*More on this picture soon. I think it might actually be by Velasquez's son-in-law, Del Mazo.

Update - here's another photo of the cushion. There's more of these dotted around the house.

And here's a photo of some new, rather cheap-looking signs they've put around the house, which are presumably part of the plan to 'highlight' the five or six things they think people will be interested in. So in the room below, we get a sign pointing out that a writing case was used for, er, writing. In the same room you'll find one of the finest full-length portraits  Gainsborough ever painted. No sign about that...

Update II - here's the blurb from the National Trust's online collection page, which makes a point of mentioning the library furniture:

The collections assembled at Ickworth are beyond compare. [...] Our furniture includes the most comprehensive surviving collection of pieces by Royal furniture makers Banting, France and Co, commissioned by the 1st Marquess, as well as significant pieces of continental furniture. Our library is one of the Trust’s finest [...]

The Trust has a good online presence for things like this, and the Trust's central curators take care to present collections like Ickworth's in the best possible way. But online is no substitute for in situ.

Update III - a reader writes:

Scandalous.  And so stupid and simply ugly.  Beanbag chairs, for God’s sake!  And the obtrusive, kitschy information panel (surely it would be far better to use both old-fashioned information sheets in plastic paddles, which visitors can choose to pick up or not and carry with them room by room, and new-fashioned wi-fi for pick—up by smartphones and tablets). Short of actually destroying the furniture and the carpet, this is close to vandalism.

Another writes:

I thought your post was another April Fools joke at first.
But it turns out you've highlighted an idiotic act of (hopefully reversible) vandalism which makes it absolutely clear that the concerns you have expressed about the National Trust's direction are valid.

Another takes a special exception to the bean bags:

So many things wrong with the National Trust. What stood out for me beside the total lack of understanding and respect f

Prince Philip paints!

April 6 2015

Image of Prince Philip paints!

Picture: Express

I didn't know Prince Philip was a painter. One of his pictures, painted in 1965, has gone on display at Sandringham; it shows the Queen having breakfast.

Cheap cheap cheap

April 3 2015

Image of Cheap cheap cheap

Picture: Ebay

Yesterday saw the first auction on Sotheby's new Ebay platform. And from now it seems that all Sotheby's auctions will be available via the Ebay site. 

I can't see why Sotheby's ever thought this was a good idea. When it comes to fine art, Ebay is (at least in my experience) invariably a place to buy bad copies and fakes. It's everything a Sotheby's auction is not.

But now you can bid on, for example, an important Van Dyck oil sketch on Ebay, with an estimate of $200,000-$300,000. On the same page, you'll find links to 'Deal Frenzy 70% off', and other such unenticing things. And there's also one of those slightly naff 'see what it looks like in your home' image options (below). The whole thing cheapens both product and seller - mainly because it's obvious that Ebay is the leading site/brand, and not Sotheby's. It looks like Sotheby's is just a regular seller on Ebay, like a random grandmother selling knitwear. The existing Sotheby's online bidding platform is pretty good. I can't see how this will be a success in markets like China, where the luxury of a brand is all-important. Sotheby's is a great brand - why diminish it?

Anyway, have a play around with it yourself, and tell me what you think.

Cornelius Johnson exhibition

April 3 2015

Image of Cornelius Johnson exhibition

Picture: Paul Holberton publishing

I've always had a soft spot for Cornelius Johnson's portraits. A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London calls him 'Charles I's Forgotten Painter', and indeed he is little known. But now that might change, for Karen Hearn, formerly curator of early British art at Tate, has not only curated the NPG's new show, but has written a book (above) on Johnson - the first ever. More details of the exhibition here, and the book here.

Karen will be giving a talk on Johnson at the NPG on 16th April 1t 7pm. It's free, and seats are allocated on a first come first served basis, so get there early! Here's the exhibition blurb:

Cornelius Johnson (1593-1661) was born in London to a Flemish/German migrant family. After his spell at court and on the outbreak of the Civil War, the 50-year-old Johnson emigrated to the Netherlands, creating a second successful career there. Johnson painted on every scale - from the tiny miniature to the big group portrait (like The Capel Family) - to produce delicate, sympathetic portraits that often emphasise his sitters' fine lace collars and luxurious clothes.

Karen Hearn FSA was the Curator of 16th & 17th Century British Art at Tate Britain from 1992 to 2012, and is now an Honorary Professor at University College London. In 1995, she curated the landmark Tate exhibition Dynasties: Painting in Tudor & Jacobean England 1530-1630.  Her 2002 show Marcus Gheeraerts II established the topic of the ‘pregnancy portrait’. Subsequently she curated the major Van Dyck & Britain (2009) and Rubens & Britain (2011-12) both at Tate Britain. Karen specialises in the art made in Britain between 1500 and 1710, and in the cultural links between Britain and the Netherlands during that period.

31.5m art images online?

April 2 2015

Image of 31.5m art images online?

Picture: TAN

Interesting story in The Art Newspaper by Martin Bailey, who reports that an 'International Digital Photo Archive Consortium' is mulling over plans to digitise their entire collections of archival images. That is, images of paintings in exhibition catalogues and sale catalogues since - essentially - photography began. The Consortium includes the Witt library in London, and the Frick in New York, among others. The total number of combined images is apparently some 31.5m.

Martin writes:

Many of these archives still mount images of works with captions on thin card, filed by artist, in alphabetical order. Each artist work is subdivided by type—for example portraits, landscapes and still lifes. Most have not been digitised, so researchers have to visit the library in person.

The plan is to digitise the 31.5 million cards held by 14 of the world’s leading archives and then upload them on the web to make them easily searchable. No decisions have been made on what would be available free or for a charge. The images would be for research purposes, rather than reproduction.

Chris Stolwijk, director of the Netherlands Institute for Art History, says that it is “essential to go digital, otherwise we will be working for a only very small group of researchers”. His institute’s collection is the largest in the world, with 7 million images. Amassed since the 1930s, it is particularly strong in Netherlandish and Dutch Golden Age paintings.

The RKD alwready leads the way in this area, with a large number of digital images. The Frick has a good image library, but it's approach to online - at the moment - is maddening: it has a good database of what images it does have, but it's unillustrated, and if you ask them for an image, they will only send you one in the post! Perhaps the problem here is copyright, which I suspect will be a pretty difficult barrier to overcome. Recent regulations in the UK, for example, have made such projects all but impossible. And although the Witt Library just about still exists, funding cuts implemented by the Courtauld Institute means that it has stopped collecting images, and has no specialist staff.

But if it could be made to work, the benefits on an online database like this would be extraordinary. And if the images were married up to, say, something like Google image search, then anyone wanting to know what an unidentifed painting was could easily find out what it was, who it was by, or where it had been, just by running a search - as long as the painting had been photographed before at some point in its life.

And since most paintings have been photographed at some point, in an earlier sale for example, then those who rely on their visual memory to make a living by actually knowing such things, like me, would be out of a job. Picture sleuthing would become a thing of the past. I'm not going to say this is a Bad Thing at all - progress is inevitable, and it'll be just one more thing that the computers can do better than us. But until then, I suppose I must make hay while I can...

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