Broke Italian museums
May 12 2014
News that the Galleria Borghese's air conditioning system has broken down reminds me that I've been meaning to post a rant something about my recent trip to Rome, and the art galleries there. First, here's what The Guardian reports about the Borghese's climate crisis:
Concerns have been raised about the preservation of one of the world's finest art collections after it emerged that a cash-strapped museum in Rome had resorted to opening its windows to reduce humidity.
Home to masterpieces by Caravaggio, Titian, Raphael and Rubens, Rome's Borghese Gallery has been without air conditioning in one section for two months due to a funding slowdown, just as Rome sweats through a hot spring.
While most of the world's most prized art is increasingly housed in climate-controlled rooms to shut out humidity and pollution, guards at the gallery are opening windows to try to lower the temperature.
"We have been in the grip of this emergency for two months," the museum's director, Anna Coliva, told Italian daily La Repubblica. She said the air conditioningwas worn out after years of scant maintenance, with requests over the past few years for a new system falling on deaf ears.
Built in the 17th century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese to house his burgeoning art collection, the Borghese Gallery boasts such works as Caravaggio's Boy with a Basket of Fruit and Titian's Sacred and Profane Love, as well as sculptures by Bernini and Canova.
Custom built for the cardinal's collection, the frescoes on the ceilings of the building echo the themes of the works of art beneath them.
Opening windows might bring in cool air now, but with summer approaching, the race is on to get the air conditioning working again. In the meantime, the paintings risk exposure to humidity and pollution from Rome's heavy traffic.
The fact that Italian museums are feeling the pinch comes as no surprise, given the austerity regime there at the moment. But what should be surprising is the fact that major museums like the Borghese, with their priceless Berninis, Titians and Raphaels, cannot even get the basics right like climate control. When you've got large panel pictures, a stable environment is pretty crucial, and simply leaving the windows open won't do.
The sad fact is that Italian state-run museums are often hopelessly and ineffeciently run. Useless websites, arbitrary opening times, optimistic labelling (beware anything which says 'Titian'), and idle staff all combine to leave you yearning for the UK's impeccably run and free museums. Sometimes you wonder if there's more than a hint of corruption involved. A favourite job-creation trick, for example, is the ticket selling and ticket checking routine: one person sells you a ticket at the entrance, and then, just a few inches away, another person then has to check it before you are grudgingly admitted. You may have first had to go through a security scanner, but of course nobody seems to care if it goes beep. If you're lucky, all the rooms in the museum may be open, but usually they're not, and woe betide you if you dare ask for a partial refund, on the not unreasonable basis that only a fraction of the place is actually visitable (like the Palazzo Venezia, in my case). It's no accident that by far the best art gallery in Rome is the privately owned and run Palazzo Doria, where not only can you can get a handy picture-list and an audio guide, but there's even a shop and a cafe.
Finally, a few words of advice to anyone wanting to go to the Vatican museums:
- Never , ever go in the morning - the queue goes on forever, and there's literally a giant, seething scrum to get in. Only do this if you've been to Eton and excelled at the Wall Game (I didn't, so ran away).
- Book your ticket first online, and go for the last available slot in the day, usually 3.30pm.
- Go round the route slowly, so that you're at the end of hordes, and get a little more space than usual.
- Ignore the touts at all costs.
- Take binoculars, to look at all the frescoes.
- Take some form of guidebook - there are no labels.
- Don't forget the Pinacoteca, go there first.
- Spend more time in the Raphael rooms than the Sistine Chapel - they're better, and haven't been wrecked by "conservation".
But despite all this, there's probably no finer city in the world to visit, from an artistic point of view. I loved it. It's my new favourite place.
Update - a reader has much better advice:
Rome is glorious despite the infuriating closures, queues, exhaustion and heat. Your advice is sound- but I recommend a totally different policy: GO IN JANUARY. I strolled straight into any museum or gallery I chose- and never saw a queue. At the Vatican the people were so spread out that it was easy to see, to linger and to go back. The café was half empty and as the dusk crept through the corridors and the lights went on, it became so quiet that I was afraid I had been locked in. Reaching the main door with half an hour before closing time, I set off around again. As the last entries had already hurried off towards the Sistine Chapel, I had endless vast classical galleries, dimly lit, entirely to myself. Cold but sublime.
Another reader adds:
And in Italy a small gratuity will encourage museum guards to open a closed gallery or two.
Regarding the Villa Borghese collection, It is important to recall that most of these works sat in uncontrolled climatic conditions for three centuries. Now the buildings are leaking and crumbling around them especially in southern Italy..
I am truly delighted that you share my opinion of the Sistine Chapel which was produced while on endorphins from painful working conditions. Buonaroti was a great sculptor. Visit St pietro in Vincoli in Rome to see his Moses.
Another suggests a private tour:
If you pay 2 or 3 hundred euros, you can have a quasi- private viewing in the evening with only about 6 other people.
Worth it, no doubt.
Goliath's Revenge (ctd.)
May 4 2014
Michelangelo's 'David' apparently has weak ankles, and may fall over at any time (report various media outlets). This story isn't exactly new, however, and seems to come around once every couple of years - here's a similar one from 2011.
Update - Florence's museum authority says the statue is tickety-boo, and that the cracks, as I suspected, are no cause for alarm. The Guardian reports:
"Even if there is an earthquake of 5.0 or 5.5 on the Richter scale, Florence will stay in one piece. And David would be the last to fall," Marco Ferri, a spokesman for the authority, told Agence France-Presse.
The value of dirt
April 30 2014
Picture: Christie's (left), Sotheby's (right)
We've just had a round of rather uninspiring Old Master sales here in London. I haven't noticed any special prices to report, on the sleeper front. However, I was interested to see that the above portrait in oil on copper by Gonzales Coques sold at Sotheby's for £16,250. This was some seven years after it sold at Christie's in Paris for a whopping EUR78,000. So someone has presumably taken quite a hit...
Why the dramatic price difference? Well, first, as we say in the trade, 'cleaning is the friend of a good picture, and the enemy of a bad one'. The cleaned picture, as seen this week at Sotheby's, isn't an especially bad one. But it's fair to say that it's not as enticing as the pre-cleaning, Christie's image might have led one to believe.
Then there's the question of whether it's better to enter a picture into a sale cleaned or 'dirty'. I'm often asked by consignors whether they should restore a picture before sending it to auction, and the answer is - rarely. Despite the auction houses' best efforts to work against art dealers, it is still the case that dealers underpin most prices at auction, particularly for the middle market. So when the Coques was at Christie's in 2007 its dirty and alluring state would have appealed to the trade, who, in taking a risk on the painting in its unclear condition and then restoring it, could be seen to have added value to the sale price which, in this era of online prices, anyone could easily look up. The dirty picture, therefore, would have been a good piece of stock for dealers to buy, and consequntly the number of potential bidders went up, and the price was high. I know it was bought by a major European dealer, whom I shan't name.
This time round, alas, there would have been no trade buyers for such a shiny bright work, and so the price achieved was much less. It's still the same picture of course. Which value was more appropriate? I don't know. But the moral of the story is, keep your picture's dirty (most of the time).
Exclusive - 'Mona Lisa' being cleaned
April 1 2014
It's the big one, folks: the Louvre has finally decided to take the plunge and clean the Mona Lisa. Pleased with their success in cleaning Leonardo's Virgin and Child with St Anne, curators decided that they had now perfected the art of restoring Leonardos, and felt that it was at last time to remove the many layers of varnish and over-paint that have been obscuring the Mona Lisa's true qualities for the last few centuries.
In fact, it seems that the restoration of Virgin and Child with St Anne was always considered a dry run for cleaning the Mona Lisa. However, the news of Mona Lisa's restoration wasn't supposed to be made public until it had finished. Given the inevitable protests, staff at the Louvre had planned to do the cleaning in the utmost secrecy.
The plan had been working well till now. The 'Mona Lisa' that's been on display for the last few months is in fact a photographic copy - the barriers and thick glass where the portrait hangs of course meant that nobody has noticed. However, a concerned curator at the Louvre, who is an AHN reader, has been in touch to relay some disturbing news. He has sent me the above secretly taken photo, showing some cleaning tests in the background. These had been very encouraging, and everyone at the Louvre was very pleased. But what appears to be a potential disaster is the area around the mouth. Look closely - the smile has disappeared, for it turns out to have been an early 17th Century addition.
Said my curatorial source:
We were shocked: one whiff of acetone, and pouf, the famous smile was gone. Now, she looks utterly miserable. Nobody knows what to do. This is going right to the top. President Hollande has even been consulted. But he said he prefers her this way. It reflects the national mood.
More on this as I get it.
Update - thanks for all your comments. Here's some of them:
The reports of riots in Paris have been exaggerated I'm sure.
Thank you for reminding me that it's April Fool's day.
Quite shocking news, and what amazing contacts you must have in the museum world ! As I read on I got more and more upset and was just about to rush downstairs and tell the rest of the house about it, when, wait a minute.........
Brilliant, Quite the best April the 1st joke in years! So well done that I actually doesn't feel embarrased about having been totally fooled.......
I’m hoping that this is another April fool’s joke, and that the smile has been digitally edited… I’ve already been the subject of a prank today, so I’m a little more prepared than most of your readers. Despite this I must admit that upon seeing the image, my heart still skipped a beat, so congrats I guess…
Yeah nice April's fools joke. I didnt buy it for a second. They will never clean it (at least not in my lifetime), much like the Fete Champetre on the other side of the wall
No, no, your secret source has it all wrong, she is laughing out loud -- the photo was taken from a fun-house mirror image of the real restoration!
Thank you, Bendor, and a happy April Fool's Day to you and all AHN readers.
Were all today's blogs satire, or just the one about the Guardi?
Finally, a reader sends me this classic cartoon by Tony Reeve:
New clues in hunt for missing Ghent Altarpiece panel
March 31 2014
Every now and then someone says they know the whereabouts of the missing panel, Just Judges, from Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, stolen in 1934. In January this year, for example, a retired police commissioner said he thought it was buried in a cemetery outside Brussels. And in 2008, an anonymous tip off led Ghent police to dig up part of a house, but to no avail. Now, however, a Belgian politician and historian, Paul De Ridder, says he knows that the picture belongs to a prominent Ghent family. He says he is respecting their anonymity for now, but hopes to bring public pressure on them to return the work. More here at Flanders News.
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'.
At the Ashmolean...
March 24 2014
Picture: Ashmolean Museum
...they're restoring the original Grinling Gibbons frame for John Riley's portrait of Elias Ashmole (1617-1692). The frame was carved in 1681-2, but the gilding now being removed was only added in 1729-30. I was lucky enough to see this work in progress some months ago. It's going to take an age, but will certainly be worth it.
Two new Gainsboroughs!
February 11 2014
Pictures: BBC/ Your Paintings
Thanks to those of you who wrote in about the latest episode of 'Fake or Fortune?' If you want to see it (if you live in the UK), the episode is still on iPlayer here. It was a rewarding programme to work on, and to have ended up with two new works by Gainsborough was a nice way to end the series. For those who didn't see it, we looked into two paintings found on the BBC Your Paintings website which had no firm attribution.
The first was an 'imaginary landscape' (above) described as by an imitator of Gainsborough, and the second was a portrait of Joseph Gape (top), which was catalogued simply as 'English School'. The landscape is in the Courtauld collection, while the portrait was in storage at the St Albans museum, but turned out to be on loan from the sitters' descendants. Both pictures were subsequently accepted by the compiler of the forthcoming catalogue raisonne of Gainsborough's portraits, Hugh Belsey. The Courtauld picture turned out to be a drawing, partly worked up in colour by Gainsborough, but which had been finished off by another hand, most noticeably in areas such as the central part of the sky.
We didn't have time in the programme to fully explore the fascinating x-ray we took of the Gape portrait, so I've posted images of it below. The first one, as I mentioned in the show, demonstrates that originally the picture was a described oval, but had been cut down into an oval shape, and the arm extended by a later restorer. The second is a close up of the head, which reveals just how much overpaint remains on the face, especially around the eyes; they're much more expressive, to the extent that it's almost a different person. Also visible in x-ray is more of Gainsborough's signature technique, and it was gratifying to see this after my initial hunch that the much over-painted picture was indeed by Gainsborough. And interestingly, the x-ray revealed a different wig. The wig seen in the x-ray is of a slightly older fashion, and has been altered, probably just a few years after the portrait was painted, to show the latest type.
If you'll allow me to boast for a moment, 'Fake or Fortune?' has so far discovered (and had accepted by the relevant experts) works by Degas, Van Dyck, Turner (3), Vuillard, Constable (2), and now Gainsborough (2). We're now looking for stories for a fourth series, so if you have a secret Leonardo, please let me know. To read more about how we go about finding pictures like these, and how you can do it too, here's a new article on the BBC website.
January 23 2014
In Italy, cash-strapped museum officials are asking members of the public to vote on which works of art they want restored. From NPR radio in the US:
Here's how it works: The government selected eight pieces of art from across Italy deemed to be in need of repair, ranging from an ancient Roman marble horse to a painting by Renaissance master Pietro Perugino. Then, it posted pictures of them on Facebook, and asked people to vote for the work they felt was most deserving of a fix-up. The work that draws the most clicks wins the money raised at these late-night events.
"The strength of a democratic institution is listening to its citizens," says Buzzi. "Giving people the right to choose makes them more invested in their own heritage. It makes them care more. If you give the people more responsibility, they're more likely to take an interest in their own culture.
Rome archaeologist Gabriele Cifani describes the program as "extremely demagogic."
Bonkers. A work of art should be conserved on the basis of need, not popularity.
So far, Perugino is the winner. More here.
Not Henry VIII's 'last portrait'
January 16 2014
Picture: The Times
A new dendrochronological analysis of the above portrait of Henry VIII at Longleat House has led to some incorrect news reporting. The Mail, for example, reported the following:
The painting was previously thought to be a portrait of the king painted after his death. Now, after thorough scientific examination of the oak, experts believe Henry VIII may have posed for an unknown artist in 1544, three years before his death. The wood is believed to date back to 1529.
The painting has an inscription on it stating that it was painted when the Monarch was aged 54, in the 36th year of his reign, but it was common for information to be placed on later copies.
But a closer look at the inscription showed it had been added at the same time the portrait was created.
Then we have this quote from a Tudor historian:
Elizabeth Norton, an author and historian of the Tudor monarchy, said: 'He died in January 1547 and suffered from ill-health for much of 1546. There aren’t any paintings of him depicted as as old man.
'It may well be the last painting that he posed for.'
Readers even half familiar with Tudor iconography will know, however, that the Longleat picture is merely a (very good, by the look of it) replica of Holbein's best surviving face-on portrait of Henry in Rome,* which can be dated to 1540 and is inscribed as showing the king at the age of 49. In the Rome picture, as in the Longleat replica, Henry is shown wearing the clothes he wore for his marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1539. So it isn't at all possible that the Longleat picture, which is inscribed as showing the king aged 54, is a life portrait.
In fact, Holbein's original portrait of the king in this full-frontal pose, for which Henry must presumably have sat, was the c.1536 mural at Whitehall palace, which was destroyed by fire in 1698, after a laundry maid left some washing too close to a fire. The mural was recorded in 1667 by Remigius van Leemput:
Some years ago I re-created (after many hours on Photoshop) a digital, life-size recreation of Holbein's mural for an exhibition in the Philip Mould gallery guest-curated by Dr David Starkey, called 'Lost Faces'. Contemporary accounts of the original mural reported people 'trembling' in front of it. And when I stood before the replica at full scale I could understand why. For a tudor spectator, Holbein's extraordinary realism, combined with the relatively confined and probably quite gloomy space the mural was in, must have convinced some that they were in the presence of some sort of royal witchcraft. Most people then, of course, would never have seen a work of art on such a scale before, and nor such a good one.
Finally, contrary to what Elizabeth Norton says, there are indeed portraits which show the king as an older man, as seen in the example below (from the National Portrait Gallery) in which he is shown with what must be one of the blingiest walking sticks in history:
As to the Longleat picture's value, which the newspapers inevitably speculated on, then I would say it comes in at around the level of the Studio of Holbein portrait sold recently at Christie's for £650k. This last picture was one of the first Tudor portraits I researched, and it was fun to find it in the inventories of the Dukes of Hamilton.
The Longleat story was also in the Times today.
Update - a reader writes:
I have the same reaction to all these portraits of Henry VIII: that was one very, very frightening man!!
Chopping up Sir Thomas Lawrence
January 9 2014
There's a rather sad sight on offer at Christie's NY Old Master sale - a mutilated portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence. If you look closely at the right hand of Lady Arundell, above (zoom in here), you will see that her hand is resting on a disembodied shoulder. Her husband, Lord Arundell, has long since disappeared, but you can see what he used to look like, below.
The provenance (and Kenneth Garlick's Lawrence catalogue raisonne) suggests that the portrait was chopped up in about 1914, when the picture went to America, and that the shameful culprit was a dealer called Robert C. Vose in Boston. A lot of this used to happen in the early 20th Century, when British portraits were all the rage in the US. The picture is now being deaccessioned by the Toledo Museum of Art.
The value of art history
January 6 2014
Picture: El Pais
Here's a maddening comparison for you, one that tells us a great deal about the museum world's skewed priorities. Below, I posted the news that an Assistant Curator at Tate Britain (PhD preferable) gets paid just £23,360. And here, in the New York Times, is a report that a US museum is paying about the same ($31,000) to transport a single painting to an exhibition from Europe. The picture in question is probably not even worth as much as the transport bill - it's a fake Vermeer, by Han Van Meegeren, 'The Head of Christ' (above).
The fake belongs to the Museum Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, which is insisting, as it does with all loans, that the picture be flown with a personal escort who must travel first class.
What a load of phooey. It's stories like this which prompted one former leading museum director to confide in me recently how the 'conservation mafia' sometimes made his job completely impossible with their inflexibility. Ridiculous (but entirely routine) 'conservation' demands like the Van Beuningen's (why must the escort go first, or even business class?) are driving up museum and exhibition costs, which, in turn, are (at least partly) forcing museum salaries down. With a bit of common sense, the picture in question could be shipped for one tenth of the cost. And hey presto, there's your Curatorial Assistant salary for the year.
Update - a reader writes:
This curatorial First Class travel is a racket; if the courier does not carry the paintings within the cabin, there can be no justification for a more expensive seat. In the UK, this could be interpreted by HM Revenue & Customs as a benefit in kind, and taxable. Also, years ago, company executives would trade in a First Class ticket for a combination of one Business & one Economy, thus allowing them to fly with a spouse or 'secretary'.
New Van Dyck discovery
January 5 2014
Slightly old news this now, but an interesting Van Dyck head study turned up on the Antiques Roadshow recently here in the UK. The picture was first spotted by Fiona Bruce, with whom Philip Mould and I work on 'Fake or Fortune?'. It was much over-painted by a later hand (as sketchy head studies often are), but conservation revealed the original beneath. Full story in the video above.
The picture is one of four head studies relating to Van Dyck's lost painting of 'The Magistrates of Brussels'. Two other studies are in the Ashmolean, here and here, and another was found by the London-based art dealer Fergus Hall.
'Cleaning' the Elgin Marbles
December 17 2013
Here's a short film by Waldemar on the 'cleaning' of the Elgin marbles in the early 20th Century. Here, the bad guy is 'unscrupulous dealer' Lord Duveen (said as if all art dealers are unscrupulous), but in actual fact the damage was done in the name of conservation, by conservators.
The problem is, each generation of conservators has always thought that they, uniquely, had the definitive solution to fixing works of art. In the world of pictures, today's conservators spend much of their time undoing the earlier, bad restoration of their predecessors. For example, the dreadful wax re-lining technique all the rage only a generation or so ago is now routinely removed, as over time the wax creates a dull, thick layer which affects the paint surface. Before that, there was a fashion for planing down pictures on panel, and laying them onto canvas, with all the attendant holes and large losses that entailed (see for example the poor Bridgewater Raphaels in the National Gallery of Scotland). More recently, conservators thought they had invented a synthetic varnish that didn't go yellow with age. But now we are discovering that it just goes grey instead. So the pictures have to be cleaned all over again.
It's a fact that over the course of art history more damage has been done to pictures by those claiming to be 'conserving' them than anything else. We can only wonder which of today's foolproof conservation techniques will have to be rectified by tomorrow's restorers. Sometimes I think it's all a giant, inter-generational job creation scheme by some shadowy, global conservator's union.
Detroit sell off (ctd.)
December 9 2013
Christie's has submitted its initial valuation of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection to the city's emregency managers. More details here. The good news is that the number of works the city could possibly sell (that is, those bought by the city directly, not gifts or DIA acquired objects) is only 5% of the museum's total collection. Still, that means some 2,781 works. And of course, some of the pictures that could be sold are big name items like the Van Gogh self-portrait. Just 11 sellable works comprise 75% of the total value of that 5%. The overall valuation is much lower than I'd expected, at $452m-$866m. In other words, creditors of Detroit, why bother?
In the meantime, a former Detroit university professor, Paul Schaap, has pledged $5m towards a recovery fund for the DIA.
New Constable discovered verso
November 28 2013
The V&A has discovered a sketch (above) by John Constable on the reverse of their Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead. The picture was found when a later re-lining canvas was removed. More here.
Save Van Dyck!
November 25 2013
I went to the launch this morning (below) of the National Portrait Gallery's campaign to save Van Dyck's last self-portrait for the nation. The picture has been sold to an overseas buyer, and the NPG has 8 months to try and raise £12.5m to keep the painting in the UK.
It's the largest such campaign ever mounted by the NPG, and so far their determination to succeed is both admirable and encouraging. Regular readers will know (as I posted last week) that I work for the company which has sold the picture, so I'm in something of a predicament. But of course, the Van Dyck fan in me (he's my favourite artist) wants to see the picture remain on public display in the UK.
A large part of whether the campaign to save the picture succeeds will come down to how the public reacts. Funding bodies like the lottery will want to know whether the picture is not just an important work of art, but also whether it's something the public really relates to. That's why the NPG are taking the picture on tour round the country, and cleverly pitching it as one of the greatest 'selfies' ever painted (which it is).
So if you'd like to see the picture stay here, spread the word as far and wide as possible. Take your kids to see it. Tweet #savevandyck endlessly. Watch the video above and share it. And most importantly of all, donate!* Which you can do here, on the Art Fund's 'Save Van Dyck' website.
Update II - excellent reaction on Twitter already, including this helpful Tweet from Derren Brown, just sent to his 1.7m followers:
Update III - a fine piece from Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, who asks, is the picture worth it?
Absolutely. I think this is one of the most worthwhile campaigns in years to "save" a work of art for the nation. Van Dyck's Self-Portrait would make a spectacular addition to the National Portrait Gallery. Quite frankly, it could make the place. It would give a gallery stuffed with pictures of primarily historical interest a true artistic masterpiece, by the man from Antwerp who gave birth to British art.
Van Dyck was fascinated by the English face. His paintings are full of pale faces, with quirky physiognomies and flaccid skin – the faces of the English upper class in the reign of Charles I. You can see how intrigued he was by this northern island just by looking at his portrait of the art collector George Gage doing business in Italy. Van Dyck shows this elegant art lover as a quintessential Englishman abroad, his long white hands and face looking raw and even sickly in the light of Rome.
Charles I ruled over an art-loving court and Van Dyck, a painter who could and did work all over Europe, came to Britain to get paid for portraits. His images of Stuart ladies and gentlemen have immense panache and cavalier style. They are at once real and down to earth – those pasty faces – yet magnificent in their silken garments and rich settings.
When British art took off in the 18th century, it was Van Dyck that artists like Gainsborough looked back to as the father of British painting – Gainsborough's painting The Blue Boy is his tribute to his art hero.
The painting the National Portrait Gallery wants to buy is the last known self-portrait by Van Dyck. He was very conscious of his talent – this portrait shows it. He stands sideways to the mirror he is looking at while he paints, and turns his head lightly towards it in a nonchalant, aristocratic pose.
Yet his world was falling apart. This was painted in 1640 to 1641 as Britain descended into a civil war that would leave many of Van Dyck's subjects and patrons, including Charles I, dead.
Meanwhile, Van Dyck himself had died by December 1641. The king said – as praise – that he spent all his money living "more like a prince than a painter".**
Van Dyck was Britain's first art star. For once, a campaign to save a painting is not just hype. This gifted Flemish student of the English face belongs in this country, at the National Portrait Gallery, among all those people whose bad skin and bad teeth and cockeyed smiles he had such a good eye for.
Update V - an overseas reader writes:
Not my business (as a Canadian, although we did recently nick your General Wolfe letters...), but I couldn't agree more with you and J.Jones et al: it is a superb portrait, with a great historical meaning, in a marvellously "right" frame too. So best wishes for successfully keeping it in Britain!
Update VI - More Twitter action. Celeb endorsement from Mary McCartney. And this great Tweet from Deborah Larbi:
If #Movember was a competition, Van Dyck would win. Let's win this for him.
Meanwhile, Waldemar is mounting a one-man campaign to have my employer donate the picture to the NPG...
Update VII - on the last point, a reader writes (helpfully!):
In defense of capitalism and the art market, Mould & Co are entitled to profit from 1) saving the Van Dyke four years ago by taking the risk of purchasing it at auction during a very difficult economic period 2) holding the painting for four years with a lot of someone's capital in it 3) researching the picture to add to its value all that is now known about it.
I haven't seen Waldemar suggest that Sotheby's or Christie's or Bonham's (they will appreciate inclusion here) return or contribute their buyer's premium and commissions in similar circumstances. I know that his tweets are good natured pricing to help raise some funding. Aren't they.
Having said all that, some contribution from Mould's profit to the NPG would be nice, however that is in fundamental conflict with Mould & Co.'s duty to its client who is trying to purchase the picture and carry it to foreign shores.
*yes, I'm doing my bit.
** I'm not sure Charles I did say that, I think it was said of Van Dyck when he was in Rome.
What's the greatest painting in Britain?
November 22 2013
Picture: English Heritage
In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones makes the case for Rembrandt's self-portrait at Kenwood, which is now open again after restoration:
This majestic work of art is about to go back on permanent public view when Kenwood House in north London reopens its doors on 28 November. It has been closed for repairs and restoration by English Heritage, and if you have been missing it, or have never been, an artistic feast awaits. Kenwood has a staggering art collection, including Gainsborough's Countess Howe and Turner's Iveagh Sea-Piece.
But the Rembrandt is something else. You don't have to take my word for it: when Kenwood was closed, this painting was excitedly borrowed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which showed it as one of Rembrandt's ultimate achievements alongside its own masterpieces by him.
Rembrandt, at the age of about 59, looks at us from the depth of his years, and with the authority of his craft. He has portrayed himself holding his brushes, maulstick and palette, in front of two circles drawn on a wall. Why the circles? Do they represent a sketch for a map of the world? Or is Rembrandt alluding, with this drawing on a brown surface, to stories that say the first picture was a drawing made with a stick in sand?
His eyes contain so much knowledge and melancholy that even looking at this painting on a computer screen, I get the eerie feeling that Rembrandt is looking back and weighing up my failures. You can deduce the power of the original.
Watch a Turner being cleaned
November 14 2013
Picture: Bowes Museum
This looks like fun - the Bowes Museum is cleaning their 'Lowther Castle - Evening' by Turner, and all in public. You can go along and watch if you like. The picture was recently acquired through the UK government's Acceptance in Lieu scheme. More details here on the museum's blog.
Poor Sir William Burrell?
November 11 2013
Picture: BBC/Glasgow Museums
When Sir William Burrell left his important art collection of some 8,000 objects to the City of Glasgow in 1944, he did so on condition that none of the items should be loaned overseas. Now, the Scottish Parliament has passed a bill to get around that restriction. More details here.
What do readers think about this? I'm mindful that we have to respect the conditions of people who donate works. That, in the end, must I suppose be inviolate?
Update - a reader writes:
Well in those days the "lending of" was probably not as well organised as it is now, and things probably went on horse and cart, so not good for the articles. The decisions were made under v different condiditons.
Good point. Lending conditions are now very different.
I don't see this as a chance to get things out of the stores, but rather the lending out of the highlights. They want to close the Burrell for years while they make cash by renting out the collection for a world tour. It's not shedding new light on the collection by showing objects in a new and relevant context, but simply shipping them around the world in exactly the same configuration to raise cash. There's a lot of it going on these days (I think the big Barnes tour may have started the trend), and I think it's wrong on many levels. It puts art at risk, it makes serious exhibitions harder to mount (because the schedule is tied up with these shows, which take very little organising, and because works are bespoken for touring and cannot be released for other more meaningful exhibitions), and it sets an unfortunate precedent for the monetisation of collections - why provide any public money if you can pay your way by renting out a third of the collection? The organisers of these shows are often 'for-profit' entertainment companies that are incentivised to pay as little as possible and cut as many corners as possible.
Update II - another reader writes:
My own research into the history of collecting has taught me that while some collectors wanted their art to be kept together in museums with their names attached to it as a way of remembrance, others also knew of the inherent dangers of museum display. Dusty, unvisited museums could become mausoleums and just as in a collector's home, objects had to be part of daily life in order to remain relevant. Of course, Burrell's great achievement needs to be remembered but his objects have multiple meanings, of which the provenance is just one. It might be wrong to emphasise this over all other aspects. Burrell collected European objects and their temporary inclusion in European museums where they could enter into dialogue with the continental collections might in a way revitalise the objects. Loans are an excellent means of focussing on the art historical or historical value of the objects that once belonged to a Glaswegian collector. I am sure that this is what Burrell would have wanted. After all, he did approve of loans.
Update III - a reader adds:
Regarding lending and other such restrictions a friend who is the scion of fabulous collectors/philanthropists often had said that "the dead shouldn't govern the living" in such matters. His family made unrestricted gifts and left relatively little to their descendants.
Things change and the static instructions of the dead must occasionally be altered, to wit the Barnes of which I was a neighbor long ago.
While art historian and fellow blogger Neil Jeffares says:
The Burrell dilemma overlaps with the Detroit question, as I discussed in my post.
However tempting it may seem to broaden access etc., every time we ignore the explicit wishes of philanthropists we run the risk of alienating other donors. But the most disturbing feature of this development is the council’s complacency about transportation risks and their apparent total disregard for Nick Penny’s widely reported cautionary advice.
Presumably the council thinks that the collection attracts many visitors to Glasgow. Have they considered whether those who are now to have the opportunity to see its star attractions elsewhere will now bother to go to Glasgow when it is reopened?
Nick Penny's advice about the risks of sending works on tour was given to Glasgow in confidence, but leaked by mistake some time ago. The Grumpy Art Historian (who is very wary of the risks of transporting art) covered it here.
Regular readers will know that I take a more sanguine view of loaning and transporting works of art. And in practice, so do most museums. In fact, I remember that on the day news of Penny's comments came out, I got an email from the National Gallery press office, headlined 'Masterpiece on Tour'. This year they're sending around the country Manet's Execution of Maximilian on tour, next year a Canaletto, and in 2016 Rembrandt's 1669 Self-Portrait.
Update IV - a reader writes, conclusively I think:
Better to give the collection a life for another generation, and put it on the map with wider audiences at home and abroad, rather than to consign the whole collection to the stores for four-five years whist the refurbishments takes place. A London showing of its own will present the chance of attracting a wider international audience than would otherwise venture as far north to Glasgow.
The V&A sent fragile masterpieces from its Islamic collection on a overseas tour whilst reconstructing the galleries. The more recent tour of Kenwood's Iveagh Bequest to four venues in the US was a worthwhile venture ("US Tour Pays Off", Art Newspaper November 2013, p.18).
In the light of Dr Penny's leaked comments about the risks of transporting, how comes the National Gallery are prepared to tour mega-value Old Masters, not least the Titian Diana and Actaeon. Dr Penney seems to have had little qualms about the conservation risks of transporting that £50 million painting several times within one year, or Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral to five venues.
There is plenty of scope for well-curated selections. This is hardly the scenario of cherry picking masterpieces, literally leaving blank spaces on the gallery walls and plinths as was the deplorable case of the Louvre's venture to the mining town of Lens.
Glasgow's art directors report "In the last five years, Glasgow has loaned more than 400 objects to 150 venues in 12 countries and has received 1700 objects from almost 250 lenders from eight countries. There has not been a single claim as a result of damage to any of those items. From lending the Dali to Atlanta, to the current tour of Italian Renaissance treasures in America, our staff are expert in assessing risks and ensuring we meet the strictest national and international standards on lending and transportation." (Herald 5 Sept 2013)
We are fortunate in the UK in having world-class regional art collections, but given the fact that the greater proportions of most languish in the stores I would welcome many more opportunities aside for the Burrell in letting publicly owned artworks see the light of day by means of loan exhibition programmes.
Meanwhile, Maurice Davies of the Museums Association has more on Nick Penny's view of lending and transportation here.