Re-founding the Foundling Museum
July 2 2014
Picture: Foundling Museum
In The Art Newspaper, Martin Bailey has a detailed report of the latest developments at London's Foundling Museum, which has an impressive collection of English 18th Century pictures, including Hogarth's portrait of Thomas Coram, above. Here's the story in a nutshell.
Coram was the founder of the Foundling hospital orphanage, and the charity which is now the successor to the hospital, 'Coram' (re-branded from 'The Thomas Coram Foundation') attempted last year to wrestle control of the museum and its contents by sacking both the director and its board. There were fears that the charity wanted to gain control of the assets, and potentially sell them. After intervention by the Attorney General and the Charity Commission, 'Coram' has now had to back down, and the original trustees have been re-appointed. However, this still leaves the Museum with a formidably difficult task, for they have only until 2027 to buy all the pictures from 'Coram'. The collection is thought to value up to £30m, and so far the only major picture the trustees have managed to acquire is Hogarth's March of The Guards to Finchley for £4m.
A new Holbein in Pittsburgh?
June 29 2014
They've broken out the acetone at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh for a new exhibition, Faked, Forgotten, Found. A previously 'tarted up' portrait of Isabella de Cosimo de Medici (below) has been making the headlines (e.g., in the Daily Mail here), but more interesting I think is the above portrait of Lord Bergavenny (1469-1535). Long thought to be a fake 'Holbein', due to rancid-looking later overpaint in the background, new analysis has revealed under-drawing and a much earlier background (left hand top corner) perhaps painted with smalt. I'm going to ask the CMOA for an image of this under-drawing (often crucial in Holbein attributions, as we're looking for signs of originality), and will report back if I get one. In the meantime, you can see a high-res image of the partially cleaned picture here. No panel painting by Holbein of Bergavenny is known. There is a drawing of the same sitter by Holbein at Wilton house, image here, and a miniature is also known.
Update - the CMOA have very kindly sent me this IR photo.
Update II - a painter writes:
The partially cleaned ' School of Holbein' portrait of Lord Bergavenny is definitely based on the Wilton drawing or an exact copy of it, because it reproduces a slight error of draughtsmanship in the original drawing. There is also a miniature based on the same drawing, claimed to be by Holbein.
One of the characteristics of Holbein's (alleged) use of a form of Camera lucida (like Ingres) is the occasional misplacement of one of the eyes, usually the one furthest from the picture plane. This can be caused by the sitter slightly changing the angle of his/her head, during the creation of the drawing.
This phenomenom can seen very clearly in the painting of Jane Seymour where her right eye (further from the picture plane) appears larger than the nearer, left eye. Surprisingly this has been transferred, apparently unnoticed by Holbein, from drawing to painting.
In the case of Bergavenny, the sitter's left eye in the Wilton drawing is very slightly too high up, in relation to the nearer eye, which Holbein will have drawn first and this has been reproduced in the painting, now being cleaned..
In other drawings, the sitter has turned slightly towards Holbein so one sees more of the eye than the strict rules of perspective allow-( I believe this is what happened with Jane Seymour).
The drawing looks immensely more powerful than the painting in its present state and I much look forward to seeing if it improves with cleaning.
I don't buy the camera lucida theory myself.
June 29 2014
That's the number of oil paintings in the Royal Collection, which we only now know for the first time, reports Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper:
Britain’s Royal Collection is to undergo the most ambitious condition survey ever carried out on a major group of paintings. On the eve of the conservation project, The Art Newspaper can give the precise number of paintings for which the collection is responsible: 7,564 works in oil. This is the first time that the number has been confirmed in the past 500 years. The works will all be condition-checked and properly photographed, and images of most of the paintings will be published online, revealing for the first time the extent of the world’s greatest private collection.
The Painting Condition Survey is due to begin this summer with the “lesser” palaces—Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Sandringham in Norfolk and Balmoral in Scotland. A team of four conservators and frame technicians will move systematically through each of the royal residences, room by room. Desmond Shawe-Taylor, the surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, says that the paintings will be taken off the wall, one by one, and removed from their frames. This will be a complex logistical exercise, since the pictures hang in 13 royal residences throughout the UK.
June 26 2014
Video: Art Institute of Chicago
Check out those big swabs.
IR photo reveals mystery Picasso portrait
June 17 2014
Infra-red analysis of Picasso's 'Blue Room' [Phillips Collection, Washington] has revealed a 'mystery portrait' beneath the paint layers. More here.
June 12 2014
The Sotheby's Evening Old Master sale has gone online (London, 9th July), and there are many fine pictures to peruse. The cataloguing is good too. I was tickled to see the above example of prudish over-paint in lot 15, a work by the studio of Jan Brueghel the Younger. It reminds me of that Pete & Dud sketch, when they discuss nudity in art.
Bargaining with Caravaggio
June 12 2014
Picture: Cleveland Museum of Art
This story from Cleveland.com sheds light on the curious bargaining that sometimes goes on when museums arrange international loans. The above picture, The Crucifixion of St Andrew by Caravaggio, was offered as a loan to a Sicilian museum by the Cleveland Museum of Art after Sicilian authorities threatened to charge exorbitant fees for a loan exhibition of antiquities:
In one of his last acts as director of the museum before he resigned last October, David Franklin agreed to lend the Caravaggio and other works in exchange for an exhibition of Sicilian antiquities.
Cultural authorities from the island region had previously agreed to send the exhibition to Cleveland after its run at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The two institutions co-organized the show.
Nevertheless, after an election and a change of government in Sicily, a new group of authorities threatened to cancel the show's run in Cleveland unless the museum paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in loan fees imposed at the last minute.
The Sicilians withdrew the demand after Franklin offered to lend the Caravaggio, which he called "a bargaining chip," along with other works.
Franklin and the Cleveland museum earned praise for not knuckling under to the financial demand, which could have set a dangerous precedent for other museums. At the same time, the arrangement raised questions about whether the painting is too delicate to make the trip to Sicily.
The Cleveland museum now says the deal has not been finalized. Its leaders say that Sicily has not yet responded to requests for information about climate control and security in venues where the Cleveland artworks would be shown.
The picture is currently being cleaned by the Cleveland Museum of Art, to see if it is safe to travel.
June 4 2014
Picture: The Guardian/Fitzwilliam
Restorers at the Fitzwilliam museum have discovered a whale beneath 18th Century overpaint on Hendrick van Anthonissen's View of Scheveningen Sands. More here from Maeve Kennedy in The Guardian. Below is the 'before' picture.
Vandalised Rothko back on show at Tate
May 13 2014
In October 2012 some deluded fellow vandalised one of Tate Modern's Rothkos. He got two years in jail, and now just over a year and a half later, the picture has gone back on display. To their great credit, Tate made the above video about the painstaking process of restoring the work.
Update - the wally who vandalised the picture has written a strange article for The Guardian. He goes on and on about his new creed, 'Yellowism', but doesn't actually say what it is.
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.