Prado goes LED, and unveils a new Ribera
July 9 2013
Picture: Museo Prado
The Prado Museum has announced that it is to convert its galleries to LED lighting. These give a much more natural sense of light, and as I've noted here before, it's probably as close to daylight as you can get. Mind you, there was that slightly alarming study into how LED lights cause some yellow pigments to go brown...
Still, basking happily for now in the Prado's new LEDs is a recently cleaned and newly attributed work by Jose de Ribera, Saint Jerome Writing. The picture was long thought to be by Esteban March, but recent restoration by the Prado has prompted a rethink. From the Prado's press release:
Formerly in the collection of Isabella Farnese, this work has been on deposit since 1940 at the Casa-Museo Colón in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. That loan agreement was cancelled last year in order for the work to be studied and restored.
Saint Jerome writing was in the Casa-Museo Colón in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria with an attribution to the Valencian painter Esteban March. The expert on Caravaggism, Gianni Papi, has, however, recently identified and published it as an early work by José de Ribera, basing his attribution on the work’s close stylistic and compositional similarities with various works painted by Ribera around 1615, including some of the paintings in his series on “The Senses”. The present painting shares their descriptive preciseness and markedly tenebrist use of light, the origins of which lie in Ribera’s highly personal interpretation of Caravaggio’s models. In the light of the painting’s importance, it has been brought to the Prado for restoration and display in the galleries devoted to naturalism and Ribera. To replace the painting, the Casa-Museo Colón has received the long-term deposit of Saint Andrew, also by Ribera. From the viewpoint of the Prado’s collections, this is an important addition, given that together with his painting of The Raising of Lazarus, it will allow the public to gain an idea of the originality and high quality of Ribera’s work during his early years, which is a unique period in his career and one not represented in the Prado’s collection until around twelve years ago.
The painting arrived at the Museum with problems around its edges due to damp and an old attack of woodworm. The pictorial surface was generally well preserved but had an abnormal appearance due to the oxidization of the varnishes, surface irregularities caused by an old lining and an earlier selective cleaning that had concentrated on some zones to the detriment of others. During the restoration process the edges have been consolidated and straightened, dirt and oxidized varnishes have been removed, some small losses have been replaced and the painting has been cleaned. The result is the recovery of numerous spatial planes and as a consequence, a sense of volume in the saint’s figure.
More pictures under attack?
July 1 2013
It seems that Fathers4Justice protesters are now deliberately targeting works of art. Last week we had an attack on Constable's Haywain, and before that a portrait of the Queen was spray painted in Westminster Abbey. Now, the Abbey has been targeted again, this time with a statue being defaced. And worryingly, The Guardian reports a F4J source as saying that similar protests are on the way:
Obviously that is the way we are heading at the moment after the two protests on paintings.
What to do? Glaze everything? At the moment, people who damage works of art in this way can only be charged with causing criminal damage. Do we need a new offence that makes the targeting of heritage assets a more serious offence?
Update - a reader writes, correcting me:
It is possible to prosecute someone for a ‘heritage crime’, which can be interpreted as any offence which harms the value of heritage assets and their settings.
The idea was pioneered by English Heritage who set up “The Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage” (ARCH) in response to the metal theft crisis.
Essentially it allows the crime to be properly recorded, and for sentencing to be more severe. More info here.
Another reader writes:
I think you must recognise a great difference between suffragettes slashing the Rokeby Venus [Fathers4Justice claim, strangely, that their protests are akin to the suffragettes attacks on art in the early 20thC], and a disposessed father sticking a photograph to a Constable, an act which apparently resulted in no lasting damage, criminal or otherwise. The great worry is that the warders at the National Gallery are not sufficiently numerous or alert to prevent an attack on a painting in their care. If they were, it would be impossible to touch the pictures, even to write in the dust.
Constable's 'Haywain' removed from view
June 28 2013
Picture: National Gallery
A reader alerts me to the removal of Constable's Haywain from public display, this lunchtime, at the National Gallery. It appears there was an incident involving a sticker of some kind. Let's hope it's nothing too serious. More as I get it.
Update - our witness tells us:
Was looking at the National's newly purchased Maulbertsch (not great) at around 1.00 when the (rarely seen) art handling team rushed passed with an empty trolley heading for the blocked off English room. Minutes later they returned by the same route with The Haywain loaded up - I couldn't see clearly but there appeared to be a sticker showing the head of a child roughly where a load on the fording cart in the foreground would be.
Update II - the damage isn't serious. A photo was stuck to the picture by a Fathers for Justice protester. This is the second FforJ protest recently that has involved defacing paintings. Protesting dads everywhere, stop being so bloody daft.
June 23 2013
Video: Monuments Men Foundation
Robert Edsel, the author of Monuments Men (now being made into a film by George Clooney), has a new book out, Saving Italy. Looks like fun, and another useful reminder of just how close we came to losing vast chunks of western art history during the war.
Why are so many paintings being attacked...?
June 19 2013
...asks Jonathan Jones, following the spray painting of a portrait of the Queen (above) here in London:
This is an age of protest. If you have a cause you can share with lots of other people, you take to the streets. But what if your cause is too strange or overlooked for mass protest? Attacking an authority figure is one way to get it in the headlines, and as authority figures go, paintings are vulnerable. A portrait of the Queen has a lot less security around it than the woman herself. A museum is a tranquil place where a moment of destruction can catch guards unaware. The results can be gratifying, if you are desperate to get your voice heard.
Sad but true.
Conservation conference, 12th July, London
June 17 2013
This looks like fun, a one day conference in London on '50 years of painting conservation':
The Picture So Far...50 Years in Painting Conservation is a landmark retrospective of the painting conservation profession and practice. Such a comprehensive review has not been presented in this country before and the event has broad appeal, not only to conservators but to curators, art historians, dealers, and collectors. The conference will also address the present challenges facing painting conservation and will conclude with a chaired panel discussion on our future directions. We are very pleased to have attracted pre-eminent international speakers (Nicholas Penny, David Bomford, Richard Wolbers, Joyce Hill Stoner among others) who will offer an extremely valuable insight into this, one of the key professions within the ’fine art family’.
More details here. You'll need £120 to attend though...
2 years for Picasso vandal
May 29 2013
The plonker who did this has been jailed for two years. More here in The Art Newspaper.
How not to hang a painting
May 29 2013
Picture: NY Times
Reader Adam Busiakiewicz from Warwick Castle sends this clipping from The New York Times in 1890. Happily, the picture, which is a studio piece, is now hung much more securely, and in a frame.
Cleaning Sir Joshua
May 21 2013
Picture: Kathleen Soriano
Kathleen Soriano, Director of Exhibitions at the Royal Academy, has tweeted this picture of Sir Joshua Reynolds' statue getting a spring clean.
Update: Dr Ben Thomas alerts me to his excellent blog entry on the statue, which is by Alfred Drury.
Thornhill's Greenwich painted hall restored
May 2 2013
Picture: Country Life
Read all about it here.
The Raising of the Van Dyck?
April 25 2013
Video: De Standaard
The above video is in Dutch, but the jist of it is that a recently restored Raising of the Cross (in a church in Tienen, Belgium), has been suggested to be a work from the studio of Van Dyck. It was previously thought to be a later copy. It's impossible to say much from the video, but it does look like it has a chance of being a studio replica of the undoubted original in the Church of our Lady, Kortrijk. The original is exceptionally well documeted. The Canon who commissioned the Kortrijk picture was so pleased with it that he sent Van Dyck 12 waffles in gratitude. Yum.
Cleaning test fun (ctd.)
April 16 2013
Picture: Philip Mould & Co.
Here's the cleaned early Lely portrait I showed you a cleaning test of recently. I've never handled a Lely portrait in such good condition. The sitter's identity eludes us for now, but at least not the attribution - Erik 'Larceny' Larsen once included it in his deeply flawed catalogue raisonne on Van Dyck!
Lend, lend, lend!
April 11 2013
Are oil paintings put at unnecessary risk by lending to exhibitions, and moving them about it? Short answer, no. But lots of people think they are. So I was surprised to read, following my rather unkind appraisal of the Museums Association 'vision' document, Museums 2020, that the MA agrees with me. Page 19 of Museums 2020 says:
Museums can take greater risks in the way they use and share collections. Handling and lending rarely cause significant harm.
This is true, and worth emphasising in light of a recent article in The Art Newspaper suggesting that, because of the risk of damage, museums should lend less often. Blake Gopnik says we need far fewer exhibitions, and cites:
[...] the physical risks run by works of art every time they are moved; as recently as 2008, at the National Gallery in London, a panel painting was dropped and broken as workers took down the great “Renaissance Siena” show. We also have to worry about the wear and tear that will diminish every well-travelled picture or sculpture. (Conservators wouldn’t fill in condition reports on every loan if there had never been a thing to note on their forms.)
Well, it's now 2013, so the National Gallery's dropped picture debacle was five years ago. Of all the major exhibitions in the world, one damage every five years is, I would say, not enough to argue for fewer exhibitions, the activity around which is the life-blood of any museum. In my experience of moving (lots and lots of) pictures, there is very little risk of damage or ‘wear and tear’, because - and here's the great secret everyone - these things are pretty damn tough. Much tougher than us, in fact.
The fuss made over loans and handling by conservators has reached levels of new silliness. Did you know, for example, that curators at one of London's major museums aren't actually allowed to pick up and move paintings? To move a picture, a curator has to book a team of art handlers. I once watched another London museum use 12 people to hang a single painting. All this costs money, of course, and leads to unnecessary strictures on the handling and lending of objects.
What is especially curious about the increasing nervousness over art handling is the varying approach taken by museums. Some museums are still happy with a relaxed and common sense approach to loans. For a recent loan exhibition here at Philip Mould & Company the most valuable item arrived, via the Underground, in a curator's handbag. In the same exhibition, however, another object cost more to transport than every other exhibit combined. It had to be flown first class, in a large crate, and accompanied by a specialist courier who was put up in an expensive hotel for three days each side of the journey. It was a miniature. And then there's the inconsistency of museums keeping objects in a cold basement, but demanding that they be housed in a permanently stable environment with the temperature at 21 degrees and the humidity at 50%, were it ever to be put on public display.
Now it is hard to disagree with the idea that we must be as cautious as possible with the handling of museum objects. And yet if preservation was our sole aim, we would never display anything. Some museum conservators would undoubtedly prefer it this way. But we must strike a balance between care and display, and I would argue that we have lately gone too far in the wrong direction. The result is that exhibitions have become harder, and more expensive, to mount. At some institutions there is now almost a presumption not to lend objects. The procedures to approve a loan are so tedious and time consuming that for many curators it's not worth the effort. The captive grip of the museum basement is getting stronger and stronger.
Update - Michael Savage, aka The Grumpy Art Historian, disagrees, and wonders why we need exhibitions at all.
This Easter, I am wearing...
March 30 2013
Happy Easter everyone!
Update - a reader writes:
hahahahah omg that shirt is great!!
'That's a good nose'
March 20 2013
In this clip from the 1969 film, 'The Magic Christian', Peter Sellers is the art collector from hell, while John Cleese plays a (fairly typical?) dealer or auction house expert.
An expensive restoration
March 15 2013
Picture: Worcester Art Museum/TAN
Emily Sharpe in The Art Newspaper reports that a pair of Hogarths belonging to The Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts is to be restored thanks to a grant from the TEFAF Museum Restoration Fund. Good for TEFAF for making the donation, but I'm surprised at the figures involved - EUR 25,000, and for pictures described by the museum as being 'in pretty good condition'. A further $20,000 is required to restore the frames.
That's a lot of money. Way more, for example, than it cost to restore the Van Dyck recently unearthed at the Bowes Museum.
Why connoisseurship matters (ctd.)
March 14 2013
Pictures: The Bowes Museum/BG/Your Paintings
Thanks for all your emails and comments about The Culture Show programme. It was fun to make, and I'm always glad to have a chance to evangelise about two of my favourite subjects; Van Dyck and connoisseurship. I promised a more detailed note about the picture, so here goes. I’m afraid it’ll be a little rushed, so don’t expect a Burlington type write-up.
I'll start with condition. At first sight, the picture looked a bit of a mess, and it was easy to see why it had been passed over as a copy for many years. One of the most disfiguring aspects of the portrait was the sitter's left eye, which did not seem to point in the right direction. With a portrait, small damages in a face can make the viewer question the whole image. We tend to look at portraits almost as human faces - and if the eyes are wonky, we assume that the whole portrait must be, in effect, also wonky.
However, as is often the case with condition issues, things looked worse than they in fact were. The wonky eye in question, which at first I thought had been over-painted, was merely missing a dark glaze over the pupil, and a tiny white highlight. Both of these had been cleaned off in a previous campaign of over-zealous restoration. Delicate glazes and pigments like those in an eye on a portrait can be easy to accidentally remove. Possibly, this was done centuries ago, for cleaning pictures used to be the job of the house keeper. Sliced potatoes, stale urine, and worse were used to wipe down paintings, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Wipe too vigorously, off comes a highlight, and suddenly an eye loses its direction.
Elsewhere in the picture, it was the usual story of old layers of dirt and varnish making the paint strokes and colours unreadable. There were also a few holes and some areas of abrasion. Although the picture had been over-cleaned it had not (and this is most unusual) been 'restored'. That is, there were no layers of old over-paint covering the losses and holes. Often, areas of old over-paint can be very hard to remove, especially if applied in oil. Even more fortunately, the picture was unlined, which meant that the original surface of the canvas was actually in excellent condition. I don't recall dealing with an un-lined Van Dyck before. Consequently, the paint layers had not been pressed or flattened in an old lining process (they used to use hot irons to bond the two canvases together, therefore melting and flattening the paint), and all the impasto was just as the artist had intended it. The picture had a fine texture, especially in the drapery. So despite appearances, the painting was in relatively good condition.
There was, however, one area where it had been dramatically altered by a later intervention, and this was in the curious grey, oval additions at the top and bottom. I've not seen these on a Van Dyck before, and again they must have been another reason to doubt the painting in the past. It was fairly easy to see that the edges were additions, especially at the bottom of the picture, as the remains of the sitter's sleeves were visible beneath the later paint. Our paint analysis also confirmed that, at the top, the grey background extended underneath the oval, and so we could safely rule out any question of the oval being original to the picture. In the past, it was not uncommon for owners to add ovals like this if a portrait was intended to be hung as part of a decorative set, perhaps in an architectural feature. When we cleaned the picture, it was decided to leave the oval additions on. It might have been possible to remove them, but they formed part of the picture's history. Below you can see a not very good effort by me at removing them on Photoshop, to give you an idea of how the portrait would originally have looked.
Cleaning the picture was a delicate but enjoyable experience. I was lucky that the Bowes Museum entrusted the picture to our care, and we were able, with Simon Gillespie's help, to use all our experience of conserving Van Dycks (over 20 so far, and many more studio works) to full advantage. Unless you really know what you're dealing with, cleaning Van Dycks can be a fraught business, given the extremely complex and delicate glazes he used. It is very easy to get things wrong, especially in areas with darker pigments like the hair. (If I may say so, the case demonstrates how sometimes the art trade and commercial restorers can have a greater understanding of how to conserve a painting than the museum world. Because we're portrait specialists here at Philip Mould & Company, with a particular expertise in Van Dyck, we have dealt with, researched and restored more Van Dycks in the last few years than a museum conservator might do in a lifetime.) Simon and I decided that the best approach would be to intervene minimally, and so where possible we have left on a layer of the oldest, possibly original, varnish over the whole picture. After the cleaning, there was some re-touching required, for example in areas of abrasion in the drapery, and most notably in the sitter's left eye, where a highlight was replaced. Fortunately, we had a useful guide for any re-touching with a good quality studio copy of the picture at Lamport Hall (below).
Although the picture was of an unidentified sitter when John Bowes bought it in 1866, curators at the Bowes museum had more recently suggested Olivia Porter (d.1663) as an identification, by comparing it to other portraits of her by Van Dyck. And they were right. The copy at Lamport Hall had originally been acquired in the late 17th Century as an unknown sitter, but was subsequently identified as Dorothy, Countess of Leicester. However, some further research, including a trip to the Heinz Archive at the National Portrait Gallery and some help from Olivia Porter's descendants, allowed us to prove conclusively that the Leicester identification was wrong, and that the sitter was indeed Olivia (or Olive, as she called herself). Olive was the wife of Van Dyck's closest friend in England, Endymion Porter, one of Charles I's key courtiers. Porter was the only person whom Van Dyck painted himself with [below, Museo Prado]. Olive was a lady-in-waiting to Henrietta Maria, and later, in 1637, converted to Catholicism with such zeal that she was eventually ordered to leave the country by Parliament.
The Bowes picture was of such high quality that I think we can safely say it was done from life. The portrait was not only exceptionally well painted (as Professor Christopher Brown said, ‘this is Van Dyck at his best’), but carried real authority in terms of characterisation and overall human presence. It's dangeours to be subjective about these things, but it feels as if it was someone Van Dyck knew intimately, and liked. The sketchy and unfinished nature of the drapery further suggests that the picture was conceived as a portrait from life, probably done with the intention of being able to use the likeness in the other portraits of Olive that Van Dyck was to paint. The same head, with a slightly different direction of gaze, was used again by Van Dyck in a larger three quarter length portrait now at Syon House (below, Duke of Northumberland collection), a picture which has been in the Northumberland collection since at least 1652.
The late Sir Oliver Millar, author of the section of the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne devoted to the artist's English works, dated the Syon House picture to c.1637, which I would agree with, and which also seems a most likely date for the Bowes Museum picture. Given Van Dyck's own strong Catholic faith, it is interesting to speculate whether the portraits of Olive done at this time were in any way linked to her conversion. Van Dyck also painted a group portrait of her with her husband and child [Private Collection - a copy (perhaps that recorded as being made by Mary Beale in 1672) is at Dunham Massey], but this is more difficult to date. A less securely identified portrait of Olive by Van Dyck was formerly at Shrubland Park. Two smaller copies of the Bowes picture exist, on panel. One was formerly at Balnagowan Castle, and was later sold at Christie’s as a portrait of Henrietta Maria, and the other remains in the private collection of Olive's descendants.
After filming was over, I was subsequently alerted (again by Olive's descendant) of another important likeness of her at Lacock Abbey. This portrait, above, is an early copy probably by Theodore Roussel (1614-1689) after the head of Olive in Van Dyck's group portrait of her with her family. The Lacock Abbey copy is important because Van Dyck’s original group portrait is in bad condition (even George Vertue in 1751 records this fact), and consequently the likenesses are not reliable as the picture has been substantially over-painted*. So the Lacock Abbey copy, done soon after the original was completed, is another useful guide to what Olive looked like. For more information on Olive's life and the history of some of her portraits, the best source is Gervas Huxley's ‘Endymion Porter: the Life of a Courtier’ (London, 1959).
John Bowes bought the portrait of Olive in Paris in 1866, from one of his regular dealers, Madame Lapautre. A receipt records that he bought it with another portrait then attributed to Van Dyck, of Henrietta Maria. The Henrietta Maria picture is also still at the Bowes Museum, but has sadly been very heavily over-cleaned, and badly restored (many years ago). It is hard to tell the quality due to the paint loss, but I would say that it was probably painted in Van Dyck’s studio. The earlier history of Olive’s portrait was unknown, but I found the remains of a wax collector’s seal (below) on the back of the un-lined canvas.
It's hard to make out from the photo, but what you can see is a coronet, the top of a shield with 'mascles' or lozenges, and part of the chain of the order of the Holy Spirit, France's highest order of chivalry (as denoted by the tiny ‘H’ in the chain). All of these combined meant that I was looking for a titled (the Coronet) member of the Rohan family (a coat of arms with nine mascles, since the shield was undivided) who was a member of the order of the St Esprit. With help from Dr. Clive Cheeseman, Richmond Herald at the College of Arms, and Hervé, Baron Pinoteau of the Académie Internationale d'Héraldique, we were able to establish that the arms belonged to either Henri, 2nd Duc de Montbazon (d.1654) (below, with his arms in the engraving), or his son Louis (d.1667).
Hopefully, further research in any Montbazon archives might yield further clues, but it was decided not to do this in the programme. What the wax seal does tell us, however, is that the picture was in France by the middle of the 17th Century. It is likely, therefore, that the Porters took the painting with them when they fled England into exile after Charles I lost the Civil War, and probably sold it soon afterwards. We know that the Porters were in dire financial straits when in exile. The supposition is that the picture remained in France until John Bowes bought it in Paris in 1866.
You can see a larger image of the cleaned painting here on the Your Paintings website. In addition to Professor Christopher Brown, the attribution to Van Dyck is also supported by the Rev. Dr. Susan Barnes, a renowned Van Dyck scholar who was one of the original authors of 'Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings' (New Haven and London, 2004)
* Incidentally, if you own the group picture, and would like some advice on possibly restoring it...
Cleaning test fun
March 13 2013
Top marks if you can spot the artist.
Update - we've had bids for Francis Hayman and Thomas Lawrence so far. Nope!
Update II - the right answer comes in within the hour, via Twitter, from the Rowntree Clark gallery. It's by Sir Peter Lely. An early picture, 1650s. Well done!
A framer in action
March 8 2013
Picture: Anthony Gregg
Our framer, Anthony Gregg, sent us this photo, to check the section of a frame he's making for us. It's a nice image of a craftsman in action, so I thought I'd put it up here.