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.
Church of England conservation scheme
November 6 2013
What's this, the Church of England making an effort to restore their works of art, rather than flog 'em off at every opportunity?* The Art Newspaper reports that the Church is seeking to raise £3m to restore treasures such as the above 15th Century wall painting, 'Doom', from Waltham Abbey. Other items, according to TAN, include a della Robbia relief, some early 15thC brasses, and a William Morris carpet. (In other words, if you were being unkind, all the things they know they can't ever sell.)
* vis the Benjamin West in the City of London.
More of Leonardo's Sala delle Asse mural uncovered
October 24 2013
Removal of whitewash in Sforzesco Castle, Italy, has apparently revealed the remains of Leonardo's decoration in the Sala delle Asse. From the Gazzetta del Sud:
New sections of artwork by Leonardo da Vinci have been found in a room of the Sforzesco Castle, where he was the court artist for the duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro, in the late 1400s. Restoration work on the Sala delle Asse (room of the planks), which da Vinci decorated from April to September of 1498 with a mural of trees soaring into a vaulted canopy, has revealed additional sections of the original work under several layers of whitewash - sometimes up to 17 - according to representatives of the Florentine restoration institute Opificio delle Pietre Dure. Restoration workers say they are uncovering a monochrome section of the mural depicting a huge tree root [below], stuck in rock at the base of the many trees that adorn the room - a giant, surprising 'trompe l'oeil'. Analyses done on the face of the mural to reconstruct the original composition give "quite interesting results", they say, and give hope of restoring large parts of the original decoration. So far the work of scraping away newer layers has been performed with mechanical means, like scalpels and hammers, but further work will likely require other methods, like ultrasound scaling, laser instruments and chemical products.
More photos of the work in action here.
Understanding condition (ctd.)
October 17 2013
Regular readers will know I'm always beanging on about the importance of understanding a picture's condition, when buying at auction. The above picture, by Thomas Willeboirts Bosschaert, was recently sold at Christie's Amsterdam for EUR133,000, against a EUR20-30,000 estimate. As an attractive and engaging image, painted fluidly in oil on panel, it ticked a lot of boxes. Kinda cute, don't you think?
But did you spot the later over-paint around the chin? The picture had been very cunningly 'restored' by a previous owner, which had the effect of making it look a touch 19th Century. Click 'read on' to see what it looks like now, with all the over-paint removed.
Henry Moore stolen in Scotland
October 13 2013
The Guardian reports:
A valuable Henry Moore bronze has been stolen from an open-air sculpture park in the latest high-profile theft of the British artist's work.
Standing Figure (1950) was one of four Moore pieces in Glenkiln Sculpture Park, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.
The park in moorland on the Lincluden Estate also includes his world-renowned King and Queen (1952-53), Upright Motive No.1: Glenkiln Cross (1955-56) and Two Piece Reclining Figure No.1 (1959). They sit among work by other artists including Auguste Rodin and Jacob Epstein.
Police said Standing Figure was a high-value sculpture and are appealing for anyone who saw any suspicious people or vehicles in the Glenkiln reservoir area last Thursday or Friday.
Re my posts below, it wasn't me.
First photo of Titian's(?) 'Concert'
October 4 2013
Picture: NG3, Possibly by Titian, 'The Music Lesson', about 1535, Oil on canvas 100.4 x 126.1 cm, (C) National Gallery, London
The National Gallery have kindly sent me a photo of the newly cleaned 'Concert', or as it is now called 'The Music Lesson', which I posted about below, and which is featured in the latest issue of The Burlington Magazine. The Gallery catalogues the work as 'Possibly by Titian'. It's hard to judge the picture from this, not least because it has obviously suffered significant damage in the past. The best bit is the central figure below, which, in his jacket, is quite Titian-esque.
September 10 2013
The Independent reports on an art world opening night disaster:
Quite a few hacks were probably thinking “there but for the Grace of God…” when on Saturday evening in Lugano’s swanky Meno Uno gallery, one of their number, tanked up on free cocktails, made a lunge for a passing nibble but instead knocked over and destroyed a priceless work of art.
With the famous Swiss sense of decorum notably absent, “one guest at the preview," intoned Radio Switzerland (RSI), "caught between a canapé and a chat with someone, unfortunately knocked over a work by Luciano Fabro and smashed it to pieces. It is, or rather, it was, the famous Impronta (Imprint) dated 1962-1964". [...]
The sculpture, an opaque glass disk with a central impression of Planet Earth at its centre, was left in a thousand pieces, while the other 30 guests picked their jaws up of the floor. Ironically, the work was said by its creator to represent the longevity of the world.
'Fresco Jesus' - the payday
August 15 2013
Remember this? The restoration job that was so bad it became a world cultural event? Well now the 'restorer', Cecilia Gimenez, has cashed in on her reputation by signing a deal with the local council to split profits from merchandising featuring the image. The 'artist', as the Washington Post describes her, gets 49% of everything.
This is all very amusing, but there's something jarring about rewarding the person who trashed a perfectly decent painting. If the resulting damage didn't look so funny, I suspect she'd have been arrested by now.
Rare 15thC English religious art stolen
August 14 2013
Picture: Apex, via Mail
Horrible story this - thieves in Devon have ripped out two panels from a set of 15th Century religious icons, and damaged a third. English religious art like this is very rare. More details here.
Kunsthal theft trial (ctd.)
August 13 2013
The trial was meant to start today, but it has now been delayed until September. One defence lawyer has said the pictures are intact, and returnable. It's all most mysterious. I'm going to be discussing the case on BBC World radio* & TV shortly (everyone else, I guess, being on holiday).
Update - thinking further about this, I'd be prepared to bet that the paintings have not in fact been destroyed (as the mother of the gang leader first claimed), and will turn up one day. It seems clear to me from the trial details so far that we're dealing here only with the low-level villains, those who physically removed the pictures. I refuse to believe their story so far; that the crime was just one of opportunity, that they thought the pictures might be valuable, and so worth nicking. They also claim that they found the museum just by googling 'museum' in Rotterdam (where they were already living).
I'm sure that somewhere out there is the usual 'Mr Big', the one who plans and bankrolls such operations. Invariably, as I believe probably happened in this case, the paintings are stolen as hostages, one day to be ransomed back to the museum or insurer. Therefore, the whole 'the pictures are burnt' story, and the presentation of the thieves as amateurish chancers, is useful in that it takes the heat off those who are likely still holding the paintings. In five, ten, twenty years time, once things have died down and the police have moved on, I'm confident we'll see the pictures again.
* here, at about 48 minutes in.
Kunsthal theft trial (ctd.)
August 9 2013
More details of the Kunsthal theft case have emerged. Yesterday, experts from Romania's National History Museum (above) gave a presentation on the old nails, pigments and other details found in the ashes of Olga Dogaru's stove. Olga is the mother of one of the accused thieves, who admitted to police that she burnt at least two of the works, though she has since changed her story, and we don't know which ones were really destroyed.
There were also further details of the theft in Rotterdam, where it seems the security response to the alarm going off was pretty woeful (according to Dutch News:
Police [...] alerted by the alarm, carried out an inspection but failed to realise the museum had actually been broken into because the thieves had closed the door behind them.
In addition, security staff wondered if the gaps on the walls of the exhibition were due to paintings being moved. It was only 75 minutes after the alarm went off that officials realised paintings had been stolen, the AD said.
Lawyer Maria Vasii even claims police saw the suspects shortly after the robbery. ‘One officer waved, as if to say "all’s fine boys",’ the lawyer is quoted as saying.
The paper says the thieves were so shocked by their narrow escape they left the paintings in their getaway car on the nearby Coolsingel canal and did not pick them up until the next morning.
The works, including paintings by Picasso and Matisse with a value of some €17m, were not smuggled out of the country for several days.