'Show us what you've got' - the scandal of great art in store
October 31 2014
My latest piece for the Financial Times, which you can listen to as a podcast here and read here, looks at the sometimes staggering amount of good paintings our leading museums keep in storage. Would you believe that out of Tate's 50 oil paintings by John Constable, just three are on show at Tate?
And by chance Jonathan Jones has also touched on the same question over in The Guardian. He went to Tate Britain recently to see some of their William Hogarths:
So I got to Tate Britain and headed for its 18th-century gallery. But where was Hogarth’s self-portrait? Where were Tate’s other terrific examples of his art? Nowhere. I hate to moan (no really, I do) but I have to ask why the man who invented British art is so glaringly absent from Tate Britain’s “Walk Through British Art”.
Actually, I think this is a subject well worth moaning about.
Finally, over on Tribune de l'Art, Didier Ryckner reports that the Louvre's plans to build a new €60m storage depot 200km outside Paris have caused uproar amongst the Louvre's curators. They fear, quite rightly I'd have thought, that once so many pictures are so far away, there won't be much rotation of art works at the Louvre itself. That said, at the moment, even with the storage in the Louvre's basements (where there is a risk of flooding of course, being next to the Seine), one regularly sees long-standing gaps on the walls when pictures are taken off on loan or for conservation.
Update - a reader writes to point out that Jones just missed out on a cache of Hogarths because of Tate's new 'spotlight' exhibition on Hogarth portraits, which opened on 27th October. In my experience, such a turn of events is, however, very much the exception. And it still seems to me a shame that as great an artist as Hogarth has to wait for his turn in the spotlight. He should be permanently in the limelight.
I remember looking at the number of Hogarths Tate's website said was on display some months ago (I've had this article in mind for some time), and I recall it was something very low like two or three.
Update II - another reader writes:
The National Gallery used to boast that all its paintings were on display, but this was in the halcyon days of Neil MacGregor's directorship (before you were born); and meant that the zweite garnitur was hung hugger-mugger, cheek by jowl, in the lower ground floor. Successive trustees and directors of the National Gallery have steadily weakened their commitment to ensuring that everything is on display, to the extent that the reopening of the lower ground floor this (?last) year, with only a small percentage of the lesser pictures, was hailed as a major advance. The Tate, on the other hand, has never been embarrassed about the huge extent of the iceberg below display. What is needed is a clear commitment to the permanent collections, even if this comes at the (literal) expense of exhibitions; but it would need trustees much more courageous than any appointed in recent years to acknowledge that the public has a right to see what it owns, immediately, and not by appointment or in an exhibition several years hence.
Which is why I should immediately be made a trustee of everything.
Update III - another reader writes, from the US, with this sad note:
Some storage items are never seen as they may be stored from the day they are donated to the day they are sold, as happened to my mother's gift.
Update IV - another US reader writes:
Hang paintings in the nineteenth century manner as at the Barnes Foundatoin [below] and you can show the entire collection.
Indeed. The Wallace Collection is another example of this hanging style, and I've always thought it works well.
Update V - a reader writes:
Worth adding that four of the Tate's Constables are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in their Constable exhibition?
Even if all four of these go back on display at Tate, that still leaves 43 in storage...
Update VI - a reader who has held senior curatorial positions in both regional and London galleries writes:
Many, perhaps most regional galleries, have large numbers of pictures in store (as BBC Your Paintings shows). There are wonderful exceptions but, sadly, many can't cope with their existing collections. It's a matter of staffing and resources. There is no point in redistributing art unless the resources go with the redistribution. But I agree about being more relaxed about lending and moving.
Which is true, though I would add that to resources we might, in some cases need to add gumption. Some regional curators and directors are much more active and enthusiastic than others when it comes to acquiring, displaying and borrowing. The late Brian Stewart, for example, ran Falmouth Art Gallery on a shoestring, but managed to put on the most extraordinary displays.
Also, it's undeniably the case that many of the pictures in regional museum's stores are hardly top line. My main point is that some London galleries have pictures which they might not feel are quite good enough for permanent display in a limited hanging space; but for smaller galleries they would be handsome additions to any hang.
Update VII - a reader makes this perceptive point:
With regards to Tate Britain, I wish the director or curators could have the imagination to stage a grand rehang in classical style for the vast Duveen Halls, along the lines of the Koch gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. That would be splendid way to showcase some of the grand 18th and 19th Century paintings, and maximize the wallspace of this much under-used central space.
I've mentioned this before, in relation to the fine hang in a similar space at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Update VIII - a reader recently tried to borrow one of the stored Constables; 'we're too busy', was Tate's response. Tate also require, I'm told, nine months notice for a loan request. Most galleries are happy with six, though since museum world bureacracy moves at a famously glacial pace, it's obviously better to get your request in long before that.
Re-Lining Le Brun's Jabach portrait
October 27 2014
Picture: Metropolitan Museum
I've been covering (see here) the Met's restoration of Le Brun's magnificent portrait of the collector Everhard Jabach and his family (recently, sadly for us Brits, acquired from a UK private collection). Now, the picture is cleaned, as you can see above, and it is time to even out the distortions in the canvas caused by the picture having once been folded over. You can see some excellent videos of the process here.
October 15 2014
Picture: Museo Prado
One of the reasons I go on about connoisseurship so much is that it's not just about working out who painted what, but knowing how they might have painted it. This is particularly important for conservators. Putting a damaged picture back together is not just a technical exercise in joining up the dots - that is, filling in the holes, retouching some abrasion - but having an insight into how a painter would have approached a certain area.
Here is an example of a work by Titian which has been ever so slightly misunderstood during conservation. Titian, like most of his Venetian colleagues, was an artist who liked to work quite freely on the canvas, and as a result you get a lot of changes, or as the arty lingo calls them, pentimenti, in his paintings.
In the picture above, we see a foot from his Danaeë receiving the Golden Rain in the Prado. Clearly, Titian would never have let such wonky toes leave his studio, even if they were painted by an assistant. So what's happened? As you can see from the image, there is a faint outline of an earlier, slightly lower position of the foot - it's that differently coloured 'halo' between the white sheet and the dark outline of the base of the foot. At some point in the past, the picture has been overcleaned, exposing this alteration, and the ends of the toes as they were originally drawn in. And then, probably at a later date, a conservator has got into a muddle as to where each of the toes should end. As a result, two toes look unnaturally long, and the foot looks out of balance. Small errors like this can then make us question the whole painting.
I recently went to see a conservator with a view to seeing if they could clean one of my pictures. But when I heard that they didn't know who painted a (reasonably well known) portrait they were already working on (which belonged to a museum), I made my excuses and left. Some conservators approach pictures as a purely technical exercise, with an identikit, one-size-fits-all approach. But of course different artists used different techniques, and it is essential to know these things when cleaning a picture - some pigments and techniques are much more vulnerable to solvents than others, for example. And as Titian's toes show us, there needs to be and element of artistry involved too, when it comes to re-touching.
Cleaning Le Brun's 'Jabach' (ctd.)
September 29 2014
Here, Michael Gallagher of the Metropolitan Museum has written about the next steps in their conservation of Le Brun's portrait of the collector Everhard Jabach and his family.
Cleaning Elizabeth I
September 23 2014
Great video here from the National Portrait Gallery, where conservator Sophie Plender discusses cleaning the 'Phoenix' portrait of Elizabeth I. The end result looks fantastic (you can see it in the new 'Real Tudors' exhibition I mentioned yesterday). Congratulations to Sophie and all involved.
Newly discovered Wtewael on show in London
September 22 2014
Picture: National Gallery
A newly discovered painting by Joachim Wtewael has gone on display at the National Gallery in London. The picture, a Raising of Lazarus painted c.1605-10, had lain unnoticed and without attribution at Wycombe Museum in Buckinghamshire, until it was suggested by a specialist at Bonhams that Wtewael might be the artist. The picture was then sent to the National Gallery for cleaning, and it will now be on show there for ten years. You can see a pre-restoration image here, on Your Paintings.
The picture is 'Painting of the Month' for October, and you can read more about the picture here.
I don't know who the Bonhams specialist was - well done whoever you are!
Italian Museums (ctd.)
September 4 2014
Picture: Galleria Sabauda
The Independent has more grim news from the Italian museum world; the Galleria Borghese's climate control system (which is, open the windows every now and then) has apparently caused Raphael's Deposition to 'warp'. But apparently the 'deformation in the painting ha[s] now been reduced'. So that's alright then.
But from Turin, there's better news, as the Galleria Sabauda is to be re-opened following refurbishment. But, reports The Spectator:
From 30 October, Leonardo’s drawings, including the famous sage-like self-portrait [above] and the drawing for the head of the angel in the Louvre’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’, will go on permanent display in the Sala Leonardo, while drawings by other masters in the collection — including Raphael’s ‘Study of a Youth Playing the Lute’ — will be shown in the second vault. In December, with the reopening of the Galleria Sabauda, the Savoy paintings will go back on view. As well as works by Duccio, Fra Angelico, Mantegna, the Pollaiuolos, Filippino Lippi, Veronese and Orazio Gentileschi, the collection includes Netherlandish paintings by Van der Weyden, Van Eyck, Memling, Rembrandt, Brueghel and Rubens — among them a charming portrait by Van Dyck of the three children of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, sent by the English Queen to her sister Christine of Savoy.
I presume the Leonardo drawings won't actually be on 'permanent display', as they certainly shouldn't be (for conservation reasons). By way of comparison, the Albertina in Vienna only brings out Durer's famous 'Hare' only once every six years.
'Another art theft in Italy'
August 27 2014
Hannah McGivern of The Art Newspaper reports another theft of pictures, this time from the Castello Sforzesco in Milan.
Update - for more on the alarming state of Italian museums, see Apollo editor Thomas Marks' account of his visit to museums in Naples recently.
Rubens self-portrait to be restored in London
August 26 2014
Update - a reader writes:
Good of the National Gallery to help out, as they did with van Eyck, and I assume they are charging for it or at least getting something substanantial in return. Otherwise, I ams sure there are any number of regional collections in this country which would be only too delighted to have the Gallery's conservation studio's apply their expertise on works they hold.
Are you the 'South Ken Scrubber'?
August 14 2014
There's an art dealer out there somewhere whose modus operandi seems to be this: buy a cheap but vageuly enticing-looking old picture in a far flung auction house; give it a fairly brutal 'clean' with acetone and a brillo pad (by the look of it); and then consign it to Christie's South Kensington. I don't knwo who it is, but I call them 'the South Ken Scrubber'.
The above portrait of Charles I sold at Christie's South Kensington in July for £5,000 inc. premium looking like this. It had previously sold at Chorleys auction (as below) in Gloucestershire for £2,200 (exc. premium). After commissions, Vat and travel 'the Scrubber' might have made a few hundred quid. But the picture is damaged forever.
2 days left to help restore 15th Century altarpiece
August 13 2014
Video: Bowes Museum/ArtFund
The Bowes Museum is close to raising the £21,000 they need to restore a fine 15th Century Flemish altarpiece. The fundraising, which is being led by the ArtFund on their new Art Happens site, is 89% completed, with just 2 days left to go. So if you've got a few spare spondoolees, please help them out. There's a range of goodies on offer too.
I'm pleased to see that the Bowes campaign (which I've plugged here twice before) is the most funded project on the new Art Happens site. So if readers have contributed already, many thanks. It's good to know that a campaign to restore a 15th Century anonymous painting in the North of England has gotten far more traction on the Art Happens site than the appeal to raise £25,000 to pay for a Chapman Brothers exhibition (which is only at 68% funding, despite the recent burst of 'publicity' for the show).
Update - it's now at 96%, one hour after posting the above. Anyone want to be the crucial final donor?
Update II - 14.8.14: they've got to 100%. Well done all contributors.
Restoring Le Brun's 'Jabach and His Family'
August 4 2014
Picture: Metropolitan Museum
I've just noticed that Keith Christiansen, head of European Paintings at the Met, has a blog, which is worth checking for some interesting photos of his work in the galleries there. This post details the Met's plan to restore Charles Le Brun's Everhard Jabach and His Family, which was so recently (and sadly) lost to the UK.
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.
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.
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 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.