A lost Wright of Derby?
January 14 2015
Picture: Your Paintings/Derby museum
The excellent Derby Museum and Art Gallery has secured a £15,000 grant to help them decide whether the above painting is by Joseph Wright of Derby. The subject is The Colosseum by Night, and the picture belongs to the museum. However, its authorship has, reports the Derby Telegraph, been doubted. Presumably on account of what appears to be the curious drawing of the arches on the right. Wright painted The Colosseum by Day, which also belongs to the Derby museum.
£15,000 is a lot of money to find out an attribution, and I presume this sum allows for the picture to be cleaned, and analysed. I can only find this not especially good photo online. Though at first sight the painting looks too wobbly (that's the technical term) to be by Wright, the sky and foliage top left looks convincing enough. Probably there are some condition issues going on, which are affecting how the picture appears. I'm trying to get a better photo, and will put it up if I can.
Update - Lucy Bamford, the curator at Derby, has kindly sent a high-res image, and below are some close ups. I'm sure that the picture is indeed by Wright - we can tell that alone from the little figure in the window, and also the foliage and sky at the top left.
But the rest of the picture has been savagely 'restored' by someone in the 1960s or 70s, with huge areas entirely over-painted (as seen in the last image below). The question is, why was it done - to cover up old damage? Or just ineptness. Often it's simply a case of the latter.
Lucy Bamford tells me, however:
Worryingly, I had a tip-off from someone who had some dealing with a painting that was also over painted by the same restorer as the Colosseum back in the 60s or 70s. Their approach seems to have been to sand down the original to make a smooth surface on which to lay new paint, ‘improvement’ being the chief concern I presume.
Yikes. The tale such woeful restoration may be a bizarre one to modern ears, but in my experience it's not unusual. No single group of people has done more damage to paintings in history than those who at some point have fancied themselves as 'art conservators'. Ironic but true. Those pictures that are in the best condition are those that have never been 'cleaned'.
The problome is, every generation of restorers (or, in days of old, simply domestic cleaners, who would scrub pictures with a potato if you were ucky, or a scourer if you weren't) thinks it has come up with the latest answer to 'improve' paintings: once it was 'transferring' (with disastrous results) panel paintings onto canvas; then it was wax re-lining (until people realised how the wax damaged the paint surface). Sometimes it seems art restoration is a giant, intra-generational job creation scheme by restorers.
But anyway, I have no doubts that this time around the work will be done well and carefully. And I look forward to seeing a Wright emerge from beneath the work of that sinful earlier restorer.
A Jacobean bargain? (ctd.)
January 12 2015
I mentioned a couple of years ago English Heritage's inability to sell Apethorpe Hall, a large Jacobean mansion which they had bought in 2004 and spent £8m on, saving it from total collapse. At last, reports the Telegraph, someone has come forward to buy the house (for £2.5m) and complete the restoration. He is a French aristocrat, called Jean Christophe Iseux, Baron von Pfetten, who apparently was once a member of the Chinese parliament. I'm not sure how me managed that, but he sounds like the sort of fellow who can rescue a great house. Congratulations to him, and a hearty AHN good luck with the restoration. I daresay he'll be needing a few pictures...
Turner's house wins £1.4m grant
January 7 2015
Regular readers will know I've been covering fundraising attempts by Sandycombe Lodge, which was the country villa designed by Turner in Twickenham. I'm very glad to report that they've been awarded £1.4m by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to help preserve the site. Well done to all involved. More here in The Guardian from Maev Kennedy.
Constable before 'n after
December 19 2014
Pictures: US NGA
There's a nice piece on the US National Gallery's website about the restoration of their 'White Horse' by Constable. Before conservation, above, the picture was thought to be a copy of a picture in the Frick. But cleaning (below) and x-rays revealed otherwise.
Meanwhile, in Tashkent...
December 15 2014
The Guardian reports that employees of the Usbek State Arts Museum have been flogging off originals these last fifteen years, and replacing them with copies. Crafty. Among the illegal sales were:
25 originals by European artists, including the Italian Renaissance painter and sculptor Lorenzo di Credi.
I wonder if anything's happened to that 'Veronese' they discovered in the vaults a few years back.
December 9 2014
The man who punched a hole in a Monet in the National Gallery of Ireland has been jailed for six years. He also had paint stripper on him at the time, but didn't get a chance to use it. When police raided his house, they found a large cache of stolen paintings. More here.
One has to say that this is a good deterrent sentence. It beats the two years given to the nut who defaced the Tate's Rothko.
Re-gilding the Paston Treasure
December 9 2014
Video: Art Fund
Here's a good cause - the Norwich Castle Museum is hoping to raise £14,500 to re-gild the wooden frame that surrounds their 'Paston Treasure', a large late 17th Century still life which records a number of treasures owned by the Paston family in Norfolk. At some point (we're not told when, perhaps at some trendy point in the '70s) the gilding was stripped from the original frame.
Here's the blurb on the Art Fund's 'Art Happens' website:
Research has shown that the ornately carved frame was in all likelihood made for the painting, but it would not have looked like this in the 17th century. It would have been gilded – the dazzling finishing touch to the depiction of a dazzling collection. Six years ago, we raised money to have the painting cleaned and conserved. Now we want to re-gild the frame and restore this masterpiece in its entirety to its former glory.
The museum hopes to raise the money in time for an exhibition in 2016, when they'll assemble many of the treasures depicted within the painting. The funding total is currently at 1% - can you help them out?
Update - a reader writes:
I'm all for having the 'Paston Treasure' re-gilded (and I might consider bunging them a few quid) but £14,500!!?? Is this the best quote they could get?!
I'm clearly in the wrong business.
Alas, gilding, I know from experience, is very, very expensive.
Losing our marbles?
December 5 2014
The British Museum has lent one of the Elgin Marbles to the Hermitage. What do we think of this AHN-ers? The Greeks are outraged, of course, but then they always are.
I can't personally see too much of a problem, culturally; I'm all in favour of letting other countries see what we have, if it means we might also get to see what they have. That said, politically, it does come at a moment when we're supposed to be being beastly to President Putin, on account of his expansionist jaunts.
Update - areader writes:
You asked for some thoughts on the British Museum’s loan of one of the Parthenon marbles to the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. In principle I’ve no objection to the BM lending one of the sculptures that it owns and as for the objections of the Greeks, or anyone else for that matter, they can go to hell. Their nationalist whining is sickening and only makes me more determined that they should never, ever have the Parthenon sculptures back in Athens!
I am, however, very concerned that the British Museum is so determined to lend its objects to any and every quarter of the globe while failing abjectly to provide comprehensive, public display of its collections at the main museum in Bloomsbury. For example, the Museum of Mankind closed in 1997 but the BM still has not opened displays of its collections of Central & South American cultures ( other than Mexico ), Australasia and Oceania: this despite galleries for these collections being in their development plans and then disappearing when the new exhibition building was mooted. How long, for instance, do those who want to visit and study the finest collection of Pacific art in existence have to wait before it is displayed in London?
Or take the Egyptian collection. Four exhibition rooms have “disappeared” since the late 1990s; three swallowed up by the Great Court. Is it any wonder then that the display of Egyptian culture at the BM is so piece-meal and arbitrary? Where can you see Egyptian pottery or Amarna sculpture at Bloomsbury , for example? You cannot: there is no chronological or coherent display at all as the galleries jump around from Early Dynasties to mummies to 18th Dynasty wall paintings. Rare and important objects such as the 6th Dynasty wooden statue of Meryrehashtep or the gold bracelets of Prince Nimlot are never exhibited at all in Bloomsbury these days ( but I saw the latter on loan to the Met the other month).
It seems that any old exhibition or museum can count on borrowing objects from the BM while the British visitor ( and tax payer ) and international visitors are deprived of wonderful collections and individual objects which they should be able to see, study and experience in London.
The question is: having lent it are we going to get it back, given Lilyputin's demonstration of acquisitiveness in the Crimea?
Update III - another reader writes:
A few thoughts on the Marbles. Regarding lending them out, seems a good thing although this isn't part of an exhibition. Lending to Russia, less so but perhaps it's a victory for culture over aggression.
But on the wider Marbles debate which is not quite the issue at hand but as everyone else will mention it.
This issue gets caught up in Las Malvinas-esq nationalism but put simply, it would be better if the remaining marbles were on display together, in their original layout and in sight of the building which they not only adorned but were part of (which is why Elgin's men had such difficulty getting them). A building which UNESCO considers so important it uses it as it's logo. It would be interesting to hear someone claim a gloomy, grey room in Bloomsbury is a more appropriate setting.
Returning them would not be about giving in to Greek demands, it would be about reunifying two parts of a wider artistic whole. I cannot see how a lover of art would not be curious to see the remaining pieces, which are of such importance to Western culture, together again.
Would it not be a better scenario to have the originals in Athens and the casts in London? Thereby still allowing their impact on world culture to understood.
And no you can't restore all of them or indeed rebuild the Parthenon in the same way you can't undo Lord Duveen's 'cleaning' but no one is suggesting that and you should never let best become the enemy of better.
Duke's Titian declared genuine
December 4 2014
Pictures: Museo Prado
The Times alerts me to the conservation and re-attribution of a picture by Titian, which belongs to the Duke of Wellington. The picture, a Danaë, was cleaned by the Prado, and proved to be the original painting that once belonged to Philip II of Spain. Painted in about 1551-3, it entered the Wellington collection when it was given to the 1st Duke, following his victories over the French in Spain. It was recently thought to be a copy, but it is in fact an autograph repetition of Titian's first Danaë, which was painted in 1544/5, but with the addition of the old woman on the right. The photo below shows the picture in its stripped down state.
More here on the Prado's website, including videos.
'Show us what you've got' - the scandal of great art in store
October 31 2014
My latest piece for the Financial Times, which you can listen to as a podcast here and read here, looks at the sometimes staggering amount of good paintings our leading museums keep in storage. Would you believe that out of Tate's 50 oil paintings by John Constable, just three are on show at Tate?
And by chance Jonathan Jones has also touched on the same question over in The Guardian. He went to Tate Britain recently to see some of their William Hogarths:
So I got to Tate Britain and headed for its 18th-century gallery. But where was Hogarth’s self-portrait? Where were Tate’s other terrific examples of his art? Nowhere. I hate to moan (no really, I do) but I have to ask why the man who invented British art is so glaringly absent from Tate Britain’s “Walk Through British Art”.
Actually, I think this is a subject well worth moaning about.
Finally, over on Tribune de l'Art, Didier Ryckner reports that the Louvre's plans to build a new €60m storage depot 200km outside Paris have caused uproar amongst the Louvre's curators. They fear, quite rightly I'd have thought, that once so many pictures are so far away, there won't be much rotation of art works at the Louvre itself. That said, at the moment, even with the storage in the Louvre's basements (where there is a risk of flooding of course, being next to the Seine), one regularly sees long-standing gaps on the walls when pictures are taken off on loan or for conservation.
Update - a reader writes to point out that Jones just missed out on a cache of Hogarths because of Tate's new 'spotlight' exhibition on Hogarth portraits, which opened on 27th October. In my experience, such a turn of events is, however, very much the exception. And it still seems to me a shame that as great an artist as Hogarth has to wait for his turn in the spotlight. He should be permanently in the limelight.
I remember looking at the number of Hogarths Tate's website said was on display some months ago (I've had this article in mind for some time), and I recall it was something very low like two or three.
Update II - another reader writes:
The National Gallery used to boast that all its paintings were on display, but this was in the halcyon days of Neil MacGregor's directorship (before you were born); and meant that the zweite garnitur was hung hugger-mugger, cheek by jowl, in the lower ground floor. Successive trustees and directors of the National Gallery have steadily weakened their commitment to ensuring that everything is on display, to the extent that the reopening of the lower ground floor this (?last) year, with only a small percentage of the lesser pictures, was hailed as a major advance. The Tate, on the other hand, has never been embarrassed about the huge extent of the iceberg below display. What is needed is a clear commitment to the permanent collections, even if this comes at the (literal) expense of exhibitions; but it would need trustees much more courageous than any appointed in recent years to acknowledge that the public has a right to see what it owns, immediately, and not by appointment or in an exhibition several years hence.
Which is why I should immediately be made a trustee of everything.
Update III - another reader writes, from the US, with this sad note:
Some storage items are never seen as they may be stored from the day they are donated to the day they are sold, as happened to my mother's gift.
Update IV - another US reader writes:
Hang paintings in the nineteenth century manner as at the Barnes Foundatoin [below] and you can show the entire collection.
Indeed. The Wallace Collection is another example of this hanging style, and I've always thought it works well.
Update V - a reader writes:
Worth adding that four of the Tate's Constables are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in their Constable exhibition?
Even if all four of these go back on display at Tate, that still leaves 43 in storage...
Update VI - a reader who has held senior curatorial positions in both regional and London galleries writes:
Many, perhaps most regional galleries, have large numbers of pictures in store (as BBC Your Paintings shows). There are wonderful exceptions but, sadly, many can't cope with their existing collections. It's a matter of staffing and resources. There is no point in redistributing art unless the resources go with the redistribution. But I agree about being more relaxed about lending and moving.
Which is true, though I would add that to resources we might, in some cases need to add gumption. Some regional curators and directors are much more active and enthusiastic than others when it comes to acquiring, displaying and borrowing. The late Brian Stewart, for example, ran Falmouth Art Gallery on a shoestring, but managed to put on the most extraordinary displays.
Also, it's undeniably the case that many of the pictures in regional museum's stores are hardly top line. My main point is that some London galleries have pictures which they might not feel are quite good enough for permanent display in a limited hanging space; but for smaller galleries they would be handsome additions to any hang.
Update VII - a reader makes this perceptive point:
With regards to Tate Britain, I wish the director or curators could have the imagination to stage a grand rehang in classical style for the vast Duveen Halls, along the lines of the Koch gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. That would be splendid way to showcase some of the grand 18th and 19th Century paintings, and maximize the wallspace of this much under-used central space.
I've mentioned this before, in relation to the fine hang in a similar space at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Update VIII - a reader recently tried to borrow one of the stored Constables; 'we're too busy', was Tate's response. Tate also require, I'm told, nine months notice for a loan request. Most galleries are happy with six, though since museum world bureacracy moves at a famously glacial pace, it's obviously better to get your request in long before that.
Re-Lining Le Brun's Jabach portrait
October 27 2014
Picture: Metropolitan Museum
I've been covering (see here) the Met's restoration of Le Brun's magnificent portrait of the collector Everhard Jabach and his family (recently, sadly for us Brits, acquired from a UK private collection). Now, the picture is cleaned, as you can see above, and it is time to even out the distortions in the canvas caused by the picture having once been folded over. You can see some excellent videos of the process here.
October 15 2014
Picture: Museo Prado
One of the reasons I go on about connoisseurship so much is that it's not just about working out who painted what, but knowing how they might have painted it. This is particularly important for conservators. Putting a damaged picture back together is not just a technical exercise in joining up the dots - that is, filling in the holes, retouching some abrasion - but having an insight into how a painter would have approached a certain area.
Here is an example of a work by Titian which has been ever so slightly misunderstood during conservation. Titian, like most of his Venetian colleagues, was an artist who liked to work quite freely on the canvas, and as a result you get a lot of changes, or as the arty lingo calls them, pentimenti, in his paintings.
In the picture above, we see a foot from his Danaeë receiving the Golden Rain in the Prado. Clearly, Titian would never have let such wonky toes leave his studio, even if they were painted by an assistant. So what's happened? As you can see from the image, there is a faint outline of an earlier, slightly lower position of the foot - it's that differently coloured 'halo' between the white sheet and the dark outline of the base of the foot. At some point in the past, the picture has been overcleaned, exposing this alteration, and the ends of the toes as they were originally drawn in. And then, probably at a later date, a conservator has got into a muddle as to where each of the toes should end. As a result, two toes look unnaturally long, and the foot looks out of balance. Small errors like this can then make us question the whole painting.
I recently went to see a conservator with a view to seeing if they could clean one of my pictures. But when I heard that they didn't know who painted a (reasonably well known) portrait they were already working on (which belonged to a museum), I made my excuses and left. Some conservators approach pictures as a purely technical exercise, with an identikit, one-size-fits-all approach. But of course different artists used different techniques, and it is essential to know these things when cleaning a picture - some pigments and techniques are much more vulnerable to solvents than others, for example. And as Titian's toes show us, there needs to be and element of artistry involved too, when it comes to re-touching.
Cleaning Le Brun's 'Jabach' (ctd.)
September 29 2014
Here, Michael Gallagher of the Metropolitan Museum has written about the next steps in their conservation of Le Brun's portrait of the collector Everhard Jabach and his family.
Cleaning Elizabeth I
September 23 2014
Great video here from the National Portrait Gallery, where conservator Sophie Plender discusses cleaning the 'Phoenix' portrait of Elizabeth I. The end result looks fantastic (you can see it in the new 'Real Tudors' exhibition I mentioned yesterday). Congratulations to Sophie and all involved.
Newly discovered Wtewael on show in London
September 22 2014
Picture: National Gallery
A newly discovered painting by Joachim Wtewael has gone on display at the National Gallery in London. The picture, a Raising of Lazarus painted c.1605-10, had lain unnoticed and without attribution at Wycombe Museum in Buckinghamshire, until it was suggested by a specialist at Bonhams that Wtewael might be the artist. The picture was then sent to the National Gallery for cleaning, and it will now be on show there for ten years. You can see a pre-restoration image here, on Your Paintings.
The picture is 'Painting of the Month' for October, and you can read more about the picture here.
I don't know who the Bonhams specialist was - well done whoever you are!
Italian Museums (ctd.)
September 4 2014
Picture: Galleria Sabauda
The Independent has more grim news from the Italian museum world; the Galleria Borghese's climate control system (which is, open the windows every now and then) has apparently caused Raphael's Deposition to 'warp'. But apparently the 'deformation in the painting ha[s] now been reduced'. So that's alright then.
But from Turin, there's better news, as the Galleria Sabauda is to be re-opened following refurbishment. But, reports The Spectator:
From 30 October, Leonardo’s drawings, including the famous sage-like self-portrait [above] and the drawing for the head of the angel in the Louvre’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’, will go on permanent display in the Sala Leonardo, while drawings by other masters in the collection — including Raphael’s ‘Study of a Youth Playing the Lute’ — will be shown in the second vault. In December, with the reopening of the Galleria Sabauda, the Savoy paintings will go back on view. As well as works by Duccio, Fra Angelico, Mantegna, the Pollaiuolos, Filippino Lippi, Veronese and Orazio Gentileschi, the collection includes Netherlandish paintings by Van der Weyden, Van Eyck, Memling, Rembrandt, Brueghel and Rubens — among them a charming portrait by Van Dyck of the three children of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, sent by the English Queen to her sister Christine of Savoy.
I presume the Leonardo drawings won't actually be on 'permanent display', as they certainly shouldn't be (for conservation reasons). By way of comparison, the Albertina in Vienna only brings out Durer's famous 'Hare' only once every six years.
'Another art theft in Italy'
August 27 2014
Hannah McGivern of The Art Newspaper reports another theft of pictures, this time from the Castello Sforzesco in Milan.
Update - for more on the alarming state of Italian museums, see Apollo editor Thomas Marks' account of his visit to museums in Naples recently.
Rubens self-portrait to be restored in London
August 26 2014
Update - a reader writes:
Good of the National Gallery to help out, as they did with van Eyck, and I assume they are charging for it or at least getting something substanantial in return. Otherwise, I ams sure there are any number of regional collections in this country which would be only too delighted to have the Gallery's conservation studio's apply their expertise on works they hold.