Behold - the young Van Dyck
November 16 2012
Picture: Prado/Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenen Künste, Vienna
Christmas has come early for this Van Dyck anorak, with the apparent news that Van Dyck's earliest Self-Portrait (above, c.1615) has been cleaned.
I say apparent, because I don't know quite when it happened - but the image on the Prado's website for their forthcoming 'Young Van Dyck' exhibition shows the picture looking very different to all previous illustrations of the picture. So I presume it has been cleaned for the exhibition. Before, the picture was hard to interpret thanks to what looked like ingrained dirt and old varnish remaining in the impasto (see below, and here), and, from the photos at least, was a trifle underwhelming. Now, however, the picture looks as wonderfully fresh and spontaneous as you'd expect a youthful Van Dyck self-portrait to look. It's completely fantastic.
The exhibition opens on 20th November, till 3rd March 2013.
Incidentally, please note how different this undoubted self-portrait is to the Portrait of Van Dyck by Rubens at the Rubenshuis (below) of about the same date, which has lately (and most curiously, in my view) been attributed to Van Dyck. I see for now that the Rubenshuis website still identifies the picture as by Rubens, which is a relief. You can see a high-res image of the Rubens here for comparison with the Prado picture.
Fresco Jesus - the restorer's story
November 15 2012
As told to Saturday Night Live.
More on the Prado's new Titian
November 13 2012
A reader has kindly alerted me to the above video, in which we can briefly see the Prado's St John the Baptist by Titian before it was restored. It looks very damaged, but much better.
I've asked the Prado for an image of the picture in its stripped down state, but answer comes there none...
Ouch - pictures damaged in UK museums
November 12 2012
A Freedom of Information request has revealed the number of pictures recently damaged in British museums. From The Telegraph:
In one of the more comical incidents, at the National Portrait Gallery, the ornament on a frame around a painting of John Dryden, the 17th century poet, by James Francis Mauber valued at £25,000 was detached after a visitor who was part of a large tour group was accidentally knocked off balance by a security officer and fell onto it.
At the British Museum, a 17th century Edward East night clock was broken when a visitor lost their footing and knocked it over, while a valuable Japanese clock was damaged after a cleaner accidentally stumbled into it during a power failure.
But Tate Modern is also a repeat offender.
Roy Lichtenstein’s painting Whaam!, one of the earliest works of pop art which depicts an exploding plane, was defaced when one visitor decided to dispose of what was thought to be chewing gum on the picture itself rather than in a nearby bin.
Most of the examples cited look to be the inevitable accidents. It would be a shame if stories like this led in any way to new rules that make it harder to move or look at paintings.
November 12 2012
Picture: Philip Mould & Company
...is always one of our busiest months of the year. I'm not entirely sure why - it may be because people are thinking acquisitionally, ahead of the December Old Master auctions. Today, for example, my colleague Emma Rutherford sold three miniatures, all to new clients, and I sold the above Romney of Mrs Raikes and her Child.
The Romney had been most curiously over-painted by a duff restorer. The detail below shows Mrs Raikes' arm, which had been entirely re-touched in a gloopy brown glaze. This glaze obscured all the form and detail in the dress, and all trace of shadowing above and below the arm. (The right-hand side of the picture below shows our cleaning test). It was as if the previous restorer only had one dark colour on their palette, and decided to restore the whole dress in that one colour. And because it didn't match all the areas he or she needed to restore, they simply re-painted the whole dress in same shade of dark brown. Now that we've taken all this gunk off, the picture has blossomed into one of Romney's more engaging maternal portraits. It's a testament to my boss's x-ray vision - he thought he detected something more promising beneath the over-paint, even from the auction house's photographs.
The picture once belonged to the great collector Henry Clay Frick - did he perhaps employ the restorer from hell? Possibly. But actually we find this sort of thing quite often - restoration standards, even until relatively recently, were far below what we expect today. If you had an area of damaged background, for example, it was easier just to re-paint the whole background one colour, rather than attempt to fill any individual holes. Romney was hotly collected in the US in the early 20th Century, and it's often the case that Romney portraits which have at some time been in America have suffered from unneccessarily extensive restoration. Here's a previous example. Perhaps it was something to do with the American market wanting their pictures to look new and shiny bright.
Greenwich's Painted Hall to be restored
November 7 2012
The Guardian reports that Sir James Thornhill's painted hall in Greenwich is to be restored. A large part of the cost is being met by our new best friends, the Heritage Lottery Fund:
The £335,000 grant from the heritage lottery fund will pay most of the cost of the £475,000 first phase of the work, on the enormous west wall, which features giant figures of George I towered over by allegories of naval victory, surrounded by children and grandchildren including the future King George II and Prince Frederick, father of the future King George III, with the artist himself standing meekly in the shadows in the foreground.
The total cost including later work on the ceiling and remaining walls will be more than £2m. Events including scaffold tours are planned while the work is carried out.
Giotto, or Grotto?
November 7 2012
Restoration work at the Chapel of St Nicholas in the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, which was damaged in an earthquake in 1997, has revealed evidence to suggest the frescoes may be the work of Giotto. More here.
Update - a reader writes:
If Ghiberti thought he was at Assisi it's good enough for me. If you look at his evolution between the Arena Chapel in 1305 and the Bardi Chapel in 1325, the St Francis cycle could be the same painter in the 1290s. The secondary figures in the Arena Chapel are like figures from Assisi. Giotto is the moment painting starts walking on two legs. I don't think he ditched the icon style overnight.
How not to restore Titian toes
November 7 2012
Picture: Museo Prado
A reader has secretly sent me a high-resolution image of the Prado's newly restored Titian discovery. Just for now, I'll treat you to a close-up of the toes.
New Titian discovery unveiled at the Prado
November 5 2012
Picture: Museo Prado
In September, I mentioned (actually, it was a bit of scoop, in English at least) that the Prado would soon be unveiling a newly discovered Titian of St John the Baptist from their collection. Now, the restoration of this previously over-looked and much damaged original has been completed, and the picture will be the subject of a new mini-exhibition. From the Prado website:
Saint John the Baptist is the only work by Titian in the Prado not to have originally been in the Spanish royal collections. Rather, it came via the Museo de la Trinidad, entering the Museum in 1872 as by an “anonymous Madrid School artist of the seventeenth century”. As such it was sent fourteen years later to the parish church of Nuestra Señora del Carmen in Cantoria in the province of Almeria.
[...] in 2007 the Museum embarked on a study of the work, reaching the conclusion that it was not a copy but an original by Titian. Technical characteristics such as the preparatory layer of white lead with added calcium carbonate as well as the similarity between the landscape and those found in other works by the artist of the early 1550s allowed for its date to be established.
The painting arrived at the Museum in extremely poor physical condition. The recent, outstanding restoration by Clara Quintanilla has recovered the composition’s legibility by re-establishing the balance between the figure and its setting. Furthermore, in the less damaged areas (the sky and landscape) it is now possible to appreciate Titian’s grandeur and subtlety. The importance of this new Saint John the Baptist is not, however, aesthetic (the work is too damaged) but rather documentary. Firstly, research has shown that this was one of the artist’s most popular religious compositions in Spain, evident in the large number of copies that have been identified. The fact that the earliest are from Zaragoza and nearby suggest that the painting’s first owner lived there, who may well have been Martín de Gurrea y Aragón, 4th Duke of Villahermosa (1526-1581). Secondly, the painting constitutes an exceptionally important record of how Titian repeated his compositions (see below). Finally, it provides information on the other two versions of the subject, strengthening the arguments for the autograph status of the El Escorial painting, which has recently been questioned.
All very interesting, but excuse me for saying that, on the basis of this photo, the restoration leaves something to be desired. The formless drapery, the overly rendered face, and in fact most of the body (what's with those curious toes?), looks as if it has been restored in the same workshop as the famous Fresco Jesus. It's interesting that the Prado has not published a high resolution image - surely, if the museum wants us to believe that, despite the damage, this is really a Titian, we need to not only see a decent photo of the picture as it is now, but, more importantly, one showing the picture stripped down, so that at least we can see what remains of original Titian there are left (not much, I suspect).
Update - find more coverage in The Art Newspaper.
Update II - a reader writes:
In light of the most recent case (Titian, ‘St John the Baptist’, Prado) do you agree that restorers should, in such drastic cases, be strictly prohibited from extensively repainting canvases? The most important value of any painting, whatever remains of it, is artistic, and that lies solely in the original and not in any subsequent repainting that hopes to represent what the original might have once looked like. In such drastic cases (here, of the entire work, only the lamb seems to have been left relatively undisturbed) they might as well have started a fresh canvas, perhaps then placing it alongside the damaged but stabilised work for the sake of comparison. What’s the point of covering up a Titian??
Take your important Queen Henrietta Maria Van Dyck as a valid case in point. Whatever the state of the original was, you vested all of your primary interest in the overpainted hand of Van Dyck. This understandably justified the stripping away of the perhaps more compositionally pleasing 18th Century additions, and this despite running the risk of ending up with no composition to appreciate at all. In Spain’s latest Titian case, the thought process was totally reversed. I’m guessing the Fresco Jesus Fever (FJF) didn’t help when deciding the original’s fate. Perhaps the Prado are looking for a new pop icon? They in fact used the same… logic? as Ms Gimenez.
Titian approves of this message.
In this case, I think I agree. Though of course I would want to see an image of the stripped down Titian first.
Art conservation, Italian style (ctd.)
November 1 2012
Picture: 3PP/Google Art Project
In an interesting post over on Three Pipe Problem, Hasan Niyazi describes why he is so keen on Raphael, and reveals that the first time he saw he Raphael's Self-Portrait in the Uffizi, it was displayed in a rather sad setting (above):
At this point in time, the portrait was in a scuffed corner of a room featuring works by Raphael and Andrea del Sarto. I recall it was near a window, which on the day was partially ajar to allow in some air, showing a glimpse of the Arno river.
Beneath the picture is a portable humidifier.
Got a dirty picture?
October 30 2012
Video: Museo Thyssen
If you have a picture at your museum which needs conservation, then consider applying to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch's Art Conservation Project. The closing date for this year's grants is 30th November. Above is a video from the Museo Thyssen, which has been funded by the bank to clean Tintoretto's Paradise.
The headless Duke
October 30 2012
Just in time for Halloween, Bonhams are offering this decapitated bust of the Duke of Wellington. Bit of superglue, and he'll be right as rain.
To steal a Picasso...
October 22 2012
...you just need a hoodie, and an inept alarm system. The Dutch police have released footage of the Kunsthal theft in action. It took the thieves two mintures to pack their stash of pictures onto their backs. Apparently the alarm system fitted at the Kunsthal automatically opens the door locks once it has been set off. And since there was nobody on site, and the police took five minutes to arrive, it was essentially an accident waiting to happen.
A Holbein sitter identified?
October 15 2012
Picture: Royal Collection/Telegraph
Conservation of a Holbein in the Royal Collection has revealed more clues about the identity of the sitter. I'll try and get more images, like x-rays, from the Royal Collection. But I'm a bit pushed for time today, so for now, find the basic story here.
Update - see more images and the x-ray here.
A Batoni in storage
October 10 2012
Picture: Brentwood Gazette
There's an interesting little story in the Essex local press today about the council's art holdings. The most valuable piece in their collection is the above Batoni, of Thomas Barrett-Lennard, 17th Lord Dacre, with his wife and daughter. Valued at £2.5m it is, needless to say, in storage. The Batoni was given to the council, along with other family portraits, by the late Sir Thomas Barrett-Lennard. The Council is hoping to display the works more effectively, but one wonders why it has taken them so long to find a suitable home. And doubtless a similar situation exists across the country with paintings that are owned by local authorities. As the PCF has sadly shown, 80% of publicly owned paintings are in storage.
There must be plenty of museums who would like such a fine work. The picture is an interesting, if rather sad one. The Dacres' daughter, Anne, had died before it was painted, and when the couple visited Rome a year after her death, they asked Batoni to include her portrait. He copied her likeness by Thomas Hudson, which accounts for the strange un-Batoni like quality of her head.
Dacre was a great patron of the arts. Some years ago we discovered his portrait by Andrea Soldi, which is now in the Rienzi House Museum in Texas (where, if you happen to be in Texas, you can soon see an exhibition on Romney).
Update - a reader writes:
I'm told that the great Eric Pickles has waded into this debate. I was pleased to hear that he supports wider display of publicly owned art, but was slightly surprised by his suggestion for how this should be done. Apparently the best place to do so is in supermarkets.
I would agree that the public could hardly avoid seeing these hidden treasures if they were next to a till in Morrisons, but I doubt very much if it will aid their appreciation. It hardly seems necessary to point out that there are other public buildings or more worthy not-for-profit sites such as churches or local museums/heritage sites which would welcome them.
You could get a lot of Clubcard points for a Batoni.
Gainsborough's grave restored
October 9 2012
Picture: BG/St Anne's Church Kew
Some time ago, I highlighted the parlous state of Gainsborough's grave in Kew (above), and the efforts of St Anne's Church to raise funds to restore it. I'm delighted to report that the Friends of St Anne's succesfully raised the necessary £15,000, and have now completed their work.
More grave matters here.
Was it right to excavate?
October 1 2012
A reader and viewer of 'Fake or Fortune?' writes:
...the part of the programme where the painting was cut down and relined literally made me feel mildly unwell! My problem, I guess, is that my background is in history, rather than art history - and that I have been thinking of SPAB-type building restoration issues rather than art per se recently.
I couldn't help worrying, though, about what boils down to be a decision to destroy one state of an extant work in order to create what is, in some sense, a new work - a work which includes autograph work by Van Dyck, but which also incorporates decisions by a conservator regarding the removal of old varnish and old paint, a radical change in the size of the canvas, and a bit of skilful restoration. The result is, admittedly, beautiful - but at the same time, something has been lost.
It's a very interesting point - when is it acceptable to destroy one art work in order to get at another? We have recently had a most extreme view with the Battle of Anghiari debacle. In the case of Henrietta Maria, it was thought, mainly on a basis of connoisseurship (gasp!) that the painting on top was obviously not a great work of art. It was possible to date it to the early 18th Century, to about the 1730s. But there was no identifiable hand, or even a very skilled one. It appeared to have been done by either an enthusiastic amateur, or perhaps a regional artist in the manner of someone like John Vanderbank. But it really wasn't a great piece of painting, and art history will recover from the loss of 28 x 24 inches worth of not particularly good bodice and drapery. The remainder, above, is on display at the Banqueting House (I'm hoping Philip will one day let me keep it as a souvenir).
So in this case, what lay beneath was clearly worth pursuing. But if it had been, say, a body by Joshua Reynolds over a Van Dyck, it probably would not have been. But then Reynolds would probably have never done such a thing...
Update - a reader writes:
The spectacular appearance of the Original work fully justifies the discarding of the repainted portrait, repainted to deceive a purchaser in the 18th century that they had a fully 'complete' work. The state the picture is in now, allows us to see the work as Van Dyck wanted us to see it, with the very Titianesque sleeve to the fore, congratulations on a wonderful conclusion.
Van Dyck's Henrietta Maria on display
October 1 2012
Thanks for your kind messages everyone - I'm glad you liked the final episode of 'Fake or Fortune?'. We had another strong audience showing - 4.3m viewers, peaking at 4.8m. The programme started off with 3.8m, then steadily put on another million viewers, despite the XFactor starting halfway through on ITV.
Here's a shot of the picture on display at the Banqueting House, where it hangs alongside one the best known studio of Van Dyck version (left). It's very instructive to see the two side by side - if you go and see them, let me know what you think. The BH's opening times are a bit sporadic, so it's best to check out their website first. In the middle is the remainder of the larger 18thCentury canvas. I'm afraid the lighting in the case could be better - we're hoping to improve it.
Henrietta Maria mid-clean
October 1 2012
I thought I'd put this picture up of the Henrietta Maria in mid-clean. What an amazing job our restorers Rebecca Gregg and Jo Gorlov did. What you see here is the exciting nature of what lay beneath the 18th Century over-paint. The revealed drapery was in pleasingly good condition - there is no re-touching here at all.
As you can see, the over-paint was not removed as systematically as you might imagine - it was a case of following a good 'seam' of over-paint, almost following the strokes of the paint as it had been applied.