It's always worth looking at the back...
January 28 2015
Picture: BBC/Scottish Gallery
Here's nice discovery story from my neck of the woods; the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh has discovered a lost work (above) by the Scottish colourist Francis Cadell, which had been painted over by the son of another colourist, Samuel Peploe. Says the BBC:
The lost Cadell work was painted around 1909 from his studio at 112 George Street, Edinburgh, and looks across the street to Charlotte Square. When the artist died in 1937, his sister Jean Percival Clark, well-known as the actress Jean Cadell, came up to Edinburgh to sort out his affairs.
She was helped by Denis Peploe, son of Samuel, who was a student at Edinburgh College of Art. She gifted him some of her brother's art material and included among the canvases, probably including "George Street and Charlotte Square", taken off its stretcher, turned and re-stretched ready to be used again.
It is not known why Cadell abandoned the painting, which is finished and bears a strong signature.
Years later, Denis Peploe painted his own picture, Begonias, a still life on a trestle table and whitewashed over the Cadell exposed on the other side.
The Scottish Gallery acquired the Denis Peploe and in the process of conservation discovered the Cadell on the reverse.
And in a final twist, the director of the Scottish Gallery is Guy Peploe, Denis Peploe's son.
New Nevinson discovered on Your Paintings
January 12 2015
Here's another nice discovery story from Your Paintings: a job applicant for the post of Director of the Atkinson Arts Centre in Southport, UK, discovered a lost work by CRW Nevinson in the Atkinson's collection when he did some pre-interview swotting up about the Centre on Your Paintings. And he got the job. Says the BBC:
An art expert who identified a mystery painting at a job interview has been made manager of the gallery storing it.
Stephen Whittle revealed his "strong hunch" about a painting that has been stored at the Atkinson arts centre in Southport since the 1920s.
He told the panel he thought it was Limehouse, a work by CRW Nevinson, a futurist painter.
"When I saw this unattributed image on the BBC Your Paintings website, it was very reminiscent of Nevinson," he said.
Mr Whittle, who came across the painting as part of his interview research, added: "I mentioned my supposition at interview, but I don't know if it led to me finally getting the job."
See the new picture and other Nevinsons here on Your Paintings.
WW1 officer identified on Art Detective
August 4 2014
Picture: PCF/Carmarthenshire Museums Service
Today is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, so here's a fitting story; a user of the new Art Detective site has identified the above portrait of an 'unknown officer' belonging to the Carmarthenshire Museums Collections. The soldier is Second Lieutenant Paul Chancourt Giradot (1895-1914), who was killed by a shell during the Battle of the Aisne on 16th September 1914. Martin Gillott recognised the unknown sitter from the below newspaper photograph. Well done him, and the wisdom of the art historical crowd. We don't know the artist. The portrait was made up some time after Giradot's death from the photograph. I see lots of these, evidently commissioned by grieving families. More details here.
'New Dali discovered'
May 23 2014
Picture: AFP via Telegraph
Here's a story which at first sight sounds convincing, but then is in danger of soon falling apart. Maybe it's just the way the story is written. The Telegraph reports:
An oil painting bought for a mere €150 (£120) from a dusty antiques shop in northeastern Spain 26 years ago has been discovered to be the earliest surrealist work by Salvador Dali, art experts confirmed on Thursday.
[Art historian] Tomeu L'Amo suspected it may have been an early work by Catalan artist Salvador Dali but the shopkeeper insisted that was impossible as it bore an inscription with the date 1896, eight years before Dali was born.
Nevertheless, Mr L'Amo purchased the artwork for 25,000 pesetas - around £120 in today's money - and spent the next quarter of a century trying to confirm his hunch. [...]
A team of experts used a series of technological methods to help determine the painting's authenticity. Infrared photography of the canvas revealed lines made by the artist that were consistent with a style he used in later works.
Analysis of the paint used on the canvas proved it could not have been created before 1909 and comparison of the lettering of the inscription with hundreds of other known Dali works by a well-respected handwriting expert showed it was consistent with Dali's own hand.
José Pedro Venzal, the handwriting expert who regularly carries out analysis for Interpol, revealed that the inscription contained a corrected spelling mistake, one that Dali oft repeated in later life.
The ten word dedication in the lower righthand corner of the painting written in Catalan translates as "To My Dear Teacher on the day of his birth", with the date 27-IX-96.
Mr L'Amo believes Dali, who had a reputation for making outrageous claims and carrying out media stunts, used a numerology code to come up with date.
"Dali must be laughing in his grave at the thought that he managed to fool everyone for so many years," he said.
So the evidence at first seems to be pretty thin - and it might even be case of over-enthusiastic scientific interpretation. We have a few 'lines' in infra-red, and some handwriting analysis. On the former, it always strikes me as odd that we're still reluctant to trust old-fashioned connoisseurship, but if it's a question of analysing indeterminate brush strokes beneath the paint layers, via infra- red or x-ray, then it's alright. Especially if the verdict comes from someone wearing a white coat.
The "forensic" analysis of the handwriting reminds me of the similar story with the 'Rice' portrait of Jane Austen. There, another police-endorsed 'expert' was convinced they could see 'Jane Austen' written in the paint, when it was just an optimistic interpretation of craquelure. Such cases make me feel anxious about the level of forensic expertise submitted in our courts...
The Telegraph story ends thus:
The Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation, which runs a museum in the artist's birthplace of Figueres, has yet to recognise the work as a Dali original.
Update - a reader writes:
Nicholas Descharnes is standing next to the painting in the photograph - Robert & Nicholas are two of the most respected Dali experts, so as crazy as it might seem, it would suggest it has strong connoisseurial backing.
Update II - another reader writes:
You are dead right to be wary of so-called forensic experts. Some years ago when I was a trainee solicitor in England I was in court when a defendant pleaded guilty to charges of fraud involving forgery of cheques. However this was only after another completely innocent person some months before had been convicted of these offences based on finger print and handwriting evidence which in the event was wrong. The judge's passing remark in the later case "It makes you think, doesn't it" was to me the understatement of the century.
The label 'expert' is too easily acquired these days.
Art Detective (ctd.)
May 22 2014
Picture: National Museum of the Royal Navy
Some impressive sleuthing has already emerged from Art Detective, the new website designed to help solve various picture mysteries in the UK's national collection. The above unattributed picture was submitted to the site by the National Museum of the Royal Navy, who were keen to know the artist. User Toby Bettridge soon recognised that the picture was a study for a larger work, in the Imperial War Museum, by Arthur David McCormick (below), for a picture called 'Valve Testing: The Signal School, RN Barracks, Portsmouth'. Excellent!
Matisse - the movie
April 23 2014
Goodness, isn't everyone getting excited about these Matisse scissor-y things. The critics have been eulogising Tate's new show as never before. My favourite so far is this film by the BBC, in which the rapper Goldie goes entertainingly bereserk over the whole thing.
If you can't get to the new blockbuster show, then fear not, for on Tuesday 3rd June a 'live' film of the exhibition will be shown in cinemas across the UK. More here.
In the meantime, here's the Great Brian urging us to enjoy Matisse's jottings, but to keep our feet on the ground:
Enjoy the gaiety of colour. Be moved by the myth of the old genius, victim of a botched stomach operation, discovering new inspiration when told that death was on his doorstep. Be astonished by this sensualist turned saint, finding God in his own work, lying a-bed and drawing on the wall with a six-foot pole, cluttering every surface with the worst drawings this worst of draughtsmen ever did. Delight in the jaunty amusements of the infants’ school, but do not discard your critical faculties. Is what you see in this Matisse really a match for Michelangelo’s Adam, his nude youths, his prophets and sybils, his Last Judgement? What nonsense.
Enjoy these seductive trivialities for what they are — insubstantial, deceitful, fraudulent and, we must hope, transient, rather than some spiritual and mystical essence of art. Having no doubt that the number of visitors between now and September will break the record for Tate Modern (and so, perhaps, it should), I hope only that, unlike the early critics, they will cling to reason.
De-accession time in Delaware
April 22 2014
Cash-strapped Delaware Art Museum (DAM) in the US has been drawing fire for a while now over its declaration that it must sell $30m worth of art to keep the show on the road. In March, the US Association of Art Museum Directors sharply criticised the DAM for announcing the sell off, and urging it to look again at fundraising options.
Sharp-eyed observers have now seen that the above painting by Winslow Homer, called Milking Time, has disappeared from the DAM's online collection. Given recent prices for Homers at auction, I wouldn't be surprised if the DAM solved in one sale their current cash crisis.
Incidentally, all this comes on top of the recent announcement that the Corcoran Gallery in Washington is so broke that it's giving up altogether. Suddenly, the much-lauded (at least, here in the UK) US model of wholly philanthropically funded museums is looking a lot less lustrous.
Sooke on Matisse
April 1 2014
Allow me to plug Alastair Sooke's new book on Henri Matisse, available here on Amazon. Well worth getting for your shelves.
March 28 2014
The pictures in question were painted for the dining room of the Holyoke Centre, a modernist lump built by Harvard University in 1966. They did not hang there long, though. Rothko liked to mix his own paints, said Dr Stenger, and had no idea how his concoctions would react to the abundant sunlight the Holyoke was designed to admit.
The answer, it turned out, was not well. After just 15 years they had faded so badly that they were consigned to a darkened basement for their own protection. Worse, when Dr Stenger and his colleagues dug out photographs taken of them when they were new, the researchers were dismayed to find that the photographs were not light-fast either, and that they too had faded over the years.
Fortunately the emulsion used standard pigments. This meant a chemist could work out how it would have reacted to sunlight. That let the researchers work backwards to make a computer-generated image of the original photos, and thus of the original paintings. But what to do with this information?
Any restoration would have involved extensive repainting. A materially minded scientist might wonder why that should be a problem, as long as the result was faithful to the original. But the finer sensibilities of art historians are, apparently, offended by this approach. Such people regard simply slapping on a new coat of paint as unethical.
If you cannot change the paint, though, you can change the lighting instead. In 1986 Raymond Lafontaine, a Canadian art conserver, outlined how shining coloured light at a painting could counteract the effects of yellowish varnish overlying the image. Craft this optical illusion carefully and you can change the colours of a picture in a natural looking way.
In the case of the Holyoke Centre’s Rothkos this was not easy. Each had faded differently, depending on its original colours and how much sunlight it had seen. And various parts of individual paintings had faded at different rates, too. But modern technology allows optical illusions to be finely crafted indeed. The paintings are continuously observed by a high-resolution camera. Its images are compared, pixel by pixel, with the idealised versions provided by the restored photographs. A computer then works out, moment by moment, what mixture of light to shine back to make the faded originals match the vibrant reconstructions—with no messy repainting necessary. For now, the paintings remain under wraps while the museum at which they are stored is renovated. One day soon, though, they will be on display in all their illusory glory.
Rothko should have followed the young Thomas Lawrence's practice of writing, on the back of his pastel portraits, 'be pleased to keep from the sun and the light'.
Sewell on the NPG's new 'War Portraits' show
March 10 2014
The Great Brian is on excellent form in his review of the National Portrait Gallery's new exhibition of Great War portraits. The whole piece is exhibition reviewing at its best. Here are the strangely moving final paragraphs:
Though it is far too cramped and small, playing second fiddle to a once fashionable photographer — David Bailey in this case, but my objection applies to every other who might have been so honoured, so foolish is this misjudgment of priority. I am grateful to the NPG for this exhibition. It falls between too many stools and concentrates on only one campaign, the long-drawn Western Front, but it is to some degree a reminder of the horrors inflicted by war. My diminishing generation needs no such reminder; in my childhood before the Second World War, on every street in London I could see the living wreckage of the Great War, men limbless, eyeless, dreadfully damaged, selling matches and bootlaces for a penny, or, in hope of a penny, singing (often rather well), playing the accordion, the saw (outside St Mary Abbots, Kensington) — yes, the saw — and a harp outside Tattersalls in Knightsbridge. The fortunate legless might have a wicker chair on wheels, the unfortunate a simple wooden chassis paddled along with the hands. A curious child, I wonder how such damaged beings emptied their bowels and bladders, where they slept, how they could eat. Now I see them only in my memory and in the dreary northern paintings of Laurence Lowry. The Great War did not create a world fit for heroes — it threw them on to the street.
It did, however, establish lasting loyalties and affections. Only once did my stepfather speak of that war, though he fought throughout it — in France, the Balkans, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and the Holy Land — and that was when I unwisely developed an interest in Lawrence of Arabia (who is among the many not included in this exhibition) whom, I learned, my father had good reason to think “a boastful little shit”. But his loyalty to those with whom he fought was quite extraordinary and to be found in no other of his interests; he joined his soldier peers once a month for dinner, even in the blackouts, the Blitzes and the Buzzbomb Summer of the Second World War, until his death in 1962. I experienced something of that loyalty as a National Serviceman with not an enemy in sight — but had there been an enemy, that loyalty would have been much more intense and lasted longer.
But these are the maunderings of an old man in melancholy mood inspired by the pathos of the young so early dead. As the experience of war in any form, in the armed forces or as a civilian, is now the privilege of very few in Britain, I doubt if many will share my powerfully empathic response to this exhibition but I beg them to try. Having done so, having watched the film clips (cramped and uncomfortable) and perhaps having gleaned something of the inglorious sufferings of the soldier, cross the road towards Pret A Manger and, glancing to the left, spare a moment for Edith Cavell, nurse, executed by the Germans in October 1915, for there is her monument, “Patriotism is not enough”, the inscription — her last words, we are told. And it is not, but how now are we to interpret this Delphic utterance when young Gavrilo Princip’s patriotism proved to be so much too much?
The exhibition is on until 15th June.
Update - the Grumpy Art Historian didn't like some of the labels:
The weakness is a jarring curatorial voice that makes bombastic claims that are quite unnecessary; the pictures tell their own story. But the wall text offers questionable generalities like this: "The appalling consequences of [new] weapons suggested that human nature itself had changed, compassion snuffed out by unbridled cruelty and hatred. Such altered perceptions raised profound questions for artists". Was it really new weapons? Was it really worse than, say, the thirty years' war? And even if it was, why should other horrific conflicts not have caused such questioning? Were changed perceptions really caused by war? Virginia Woolf thought human nature changed in December 1910; why do the curators think it was later? These questions are better left for visitors to ponder. Less would have been more in this otherwise fine show.
Update II - I went to see the exhibition, and agree with Brian. It's fascinating, but way too small. What a shame. The show is cramped into two semi-rooms, one of which is part of a room reduced to make way for the tiresome and too, too large exhibition (it takes up almost the entire ground floor) of photographs by David Bailey. I went to see the Bailey show to contrast the offer with the WW1 exhibition. In the former, people drifted swiftly from room to endless room, each more boringly and densely hung than the last. In the latter, they dwelt for far longer on both image and wall text, evidently learning and thinking about a subject currently high up in our national consciousness.
Presumably, the disparity in space is a reflection of the NPG's enforced priorities in these days of funding cuts, for shows like the Bailey bring in the cash. Let's hope that somewhere like the Imperial War Museum (from where many of the NPG exhibits come) can soon mount a larger and more penetrating exhibition of this fascinating artistic aspect of the Great War.
February 18 2014
Just when you thought the art market couldn't get any crazier... Colin Gleadell reports in the Telegraph:
It’s official! The art market has reached a new peak, and it’s good, old-fashioned painting, figurative and abstract, that’s driving it.
London’s auctions of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art sales over the past two weeks have amassed a record £709.5 million, a 39 per cent increase on last February and a 29 per cent increase over the last highest combined totals for these sales in London, achieved in June 2008. In dollar terms, they breached the $1 billion mark for the first time, reaching $1.2 billion.
Jeff Koons' Cracked Egg (above, and the subject of an earlier Guffwatch) made £14.1m, against an estimate of £10m-£15m.
Nuclear testing for fakes
February 11 2014
Picture: Guggenheim Collection
Here's an interesting story; a questionable painting in the Guggenheim collection by Fernand Leger has been proved to be a fake by testing for faint signs of cold-war era nuclear bombs. These apparently proved that the painting must have been made after Leger's death. More here.
How did they do that?
February 11 2014
Picture: National Gallery
The National Gallery has found £15.6m to buy its 'first US artwork', a painting by George Bellows. The picture also becomes the first Bellows to enter a UK public collection. The money came principally from the acquisition fund established by the late Sir Paul Getty, and other anonymous donors. In other words, no public funding body, such as the HLF, was involved. That's testament to the National Gallery's impressive fundraising operation. More details on the purchase in the NG's press release here.
Given that the picture was painted in 1912, and so lies outside the 1900 cut off date that has traditionally been followed by the National Gallery, some have wondered how this affects both the National's and Tate's future acquisition policy. The BBC's arts editor, Will Gompertz, writes, on the BBC website:
Tate and the National Gallery have an agreement that is renewed every decade that sets the parameters of each institution's collection strategy to avoid overlap and competition. The line has hitherto been drawn around 1900, the point at which the National Gallery hands the story of Western art over to Tate Modern.
The acquisition of the Bellows blurs that line as it was produced in the second decade of the 20th Century, which has always been very much Tate territory. It raises the prospect of the two national galleries competing for certain paintings in the future, which either could argue fits within their historical art narrative.
The picture was de-accessioned by the Maier Museum, part of Randolph College in Virginia, in the US. This has created a bit of to-do, because the institution in question, Randolph College, is using the money to fund general operating costs, not for its art collection. The CAA has its say here.
The acquisition is a rare, and pleasingly welcome, case of a UK institution buying a US de-accession. The boot is usually on the other foot...
Update - a reader points out that there are of course many other 'American' paintings in the NG:
A couple of things about the reporting on this: much has been made that this is only the second American work in the NG’s collection, after the Inness landscape. Which, by the way was cleaned recently and has been displayed on the main floor of the Gallery. More important, and somewhat overlooked, is the fact that while the Bellows is the second work by an American artist in the collection OF an American subject, there have been, and are, other works BY American artists in the collection. The Sargent of Lord Ribblesdale still forms part of the collection and Whistlers like this one have also been displayed there relatively recently. The press releases for the acquisition of the Bellows make something of its relationship to artists like Manet but, of course, both the Whistler and the Sargent are more closely connected so are they now going to form part of the main display?
One further thing: the division of the spoils date-wise between the NG and Tate has never been absolute or logical. Tate has hung on to one of the loveliest of Degas pastels - the drawings and sculptures by Degas can’t be transferred – and Tate clearly wasn’t interested in taking the Nationals latest complete work.
Another reader wonders where all these new pictures will go:
The Bellows is a wonderful addition to the National Galleries collection, but makes the pressure on wall space, if the break off period is now 1910, for the NG/Tate divide, critical. I wonder when the National Gallery will bite the bullet, and start to built a brand new extension on the Radisson Blu Hotel it owns to the east in Whitcomb St.
Another reader asks, why did they do that?
Congratulations to the National Gallery for acquiring its first significant American painting. However, one is left to wonder about the true cost of the £15.6m George Bellows canvas, 'Men of the Docks.'
Last year an important painting ('Richmond Hill') by renowned American artist, Jasper Cropsey, was subject to a temporary export ban by Ed Vaizey to provide a last chance for a British museum or gallery to save it for the nation. The National Gallery declined to step in to meet the £5m asking price and the painting, in the UK since it was originally painted 150 years ago, was lost overseas.
The importance of the Cropsey painting (an artist not represented anywhere in the national collection) was recognised by the National Gallery itself in 2000 when it was also at risk of going abroad and the then Director, Neil MacGregor, campaigned for it to be saved. So why the change of mind?
In the past twelve months, export stopped paintings by Domenico Puligo and Niccolo Gerini have also been lost despite their importance and exceptional works by Benjamin West (born in America) and Alonso Coello are currently at risk. None of these artists are represented in the permanent collection of the National Gallery and all four would cost less than two thirds of the price of the Bellows painting.
Bold acquisitions from overseas are to be encouraged but is it right that this should be at the expense of equally as important works more closely associated with this island's history which continue to leave these shores with depressing regularity?
Gwen John's grave found
February 4 2014
In Dieppe, apparently. More here.
February 4 2014
If you thought authenticating Chagalls was frought with difficulty, spare a thought for Modigliani - as Patricia Cohen in the New York Times reports, the artist's ouevre is now beset by fakes and controversy:
Three daunting facts confront anyone interested in buying one of Amedeo Modigliani’s distinctive elongated portraits. They tend to have multimillion price tags; they are a favorite of forgers; and despite an abundance of experts, no inventory of his works is considered both trustworthy and complete.
Christian Parisot, for instance, the author of one catalog and the president of the Modigliani Institute in Rome, is due in court this week in Rome on charges that he knowingly authenticated fake works.
Marc Restellini, a French scholar compiling another survey of Modigliani’s work, jettisoned part of his project years ago after receiving death threats.
And even those who swear by a listing of 337 works created by the appraiser and critic Ambrogio Ceroni acknowledge it has significant gaps. The effort to establish an authoritative record of Modigliani’s work “resembles nothing so much as a soap opera,” Peter Kraus, an antiquarian book dealer, wrote in an essay published a decade ago.
Test Your Connoisseurship
January 17 2014
Is this by the post-Impressionist painter Edouard Vuillard? Watch 'Fake or Fortune?' on Sunday, BBC1 at 6pm to find out! (If, like me, you'll be in Scotland, then it's on at 4.30pm, to make way for a programme about a BBC Radio Scotland presenter).
Update - yes, the picture is indeed 'right', as we like to say in the art world. Thanks for your kind comments on the programme. It seemed to go down well, with an audience of 4.8m, and a share of 21.8%.
My favourite comment on Twitter came from someone called 'Chimpman':
i bet these poshos are straight on Google once the cameras turn off #fakeorfortune
If you are the lucky owner of the other missing Vuillard (below), or know where it is, then please get in touch!
'Britain's Sistine Chapel'
October 21 2013
Picture: National Trust
Regular readers will know of my anorak-like fascination with war art, so it's exciting to read that Stanley Spencer's WW1 murals, normally housed in Sandham Memorial Chapel in Berkshire, are coming to London. They will be on display from November 7th till January 26th at Somerset House. Needless to say, the PR hype that these murals are somehow 'Britain's Sistine Chapel' is a bit de trop.
Henry Moore stolen in Scotland
October 13 2013
The Guardian reports:
A valuable Henry Moore bronze has been stolen from an open-air sculpture park in the latest high-profile theft of the British artist's work.
Standing Figure (1950) was one of four Moore pieces in Glenkiln Sculpture Park, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.
The park in moorland on the Lincluden Estate also includes his world-renowned King and Queen (1952-53), Upright Motive No.1: Glenkiln Cross (1955-56) and Two Piece Reclining Figure No.1 (1959). They sit among work by other artists including Auguste Rodin and Jacob Epstein.
Police said Standing Figure was a high-value sculpture and are appealing for anyone who saw any suspicious people or vehicles in the Glenkiln reservoir area last Thursday or Friday.
Re my posts below, it wasn't me.
Painting the boss
July 30 2013
Picture: Katy Homan
Here's my boss, Philip Mould, being painted by Jonathan Yeo, who will soon be having his own exhibition at none other than the National Portrait Gallery (11th September-5th January). One of the sittings was being filmed today by BBC 2's Culture Show, directed by Katy Homan, who took this photo. The programme goes out in early September.
I'm looking forward to seeing the NPG show. Many years ago, long before I worked for him, I bought from Philip a painting by Jonathan, a portrait of Tony Blair. It was a study for Jonathan's 2001 portrait of Blair, which now hangs in the House of Commons. At the time, I always assumed the picture's value would be dominated by the fact that it was of Blair, done from life while he was Prime Minister. But given Jonathan's rising status, I think the fact that it's 'a Yeo' will probably be more important.