Much ado about nothing
May 21 2015
Video: Country Life
Country Life is a UK weekly magazine which normally focuses on, well, country life. It's an essential staple of the well-to-do, and the place to go for articles on garden history, phesant fricassé recipes, and advice on how to stop your spaniel crapping in the car. I sometimes buy it, if only to fantasise about buying a stately home (this week, Wentworth Woodhouse for £8m).
But now it seems to have gone extremely off-piste, and has issued a special gold-embossed 'Special Historic Edition' (see the cover above) to promote a new theory about Shakespeare's likeness: 'His True Likeness Revealed at Last', shouts the front cover, 'The Greatest Discovery in 400 Years'. In a breathless editorial, editor Mark Hedges talks of being 'at a loss for words - and sleep' as he tried to come to terms with the significance of the discovery first presented to him some months ago; 'a new portrait of Shakespeare, the first ever that is identified as him by the artist and made in his lifetime from the life'. This week's triumphant edition of a magazine that has been steadily going since 1897 is meant to mark one of the glorious highlights in the magazine's long history.
Unfortunately, Country Life has instead made itself a laughing stock. The 'greatest discovery for 400 years' is alas little more than a convoluted theory based almost entirely on speculation. It's a Tudor Da Vinci Code, and makes about as much sense.
The last time a major 'Shakespeare' portrait discovery was announced, I got into a certain amount of bother for daring to say that I didn't think the sitter was, in fact, Shakespeare. Legalistic missives were sent to me, amongst other things. So when I first saw this latest story, I was initially reluctant to get involved. But happily you can't libel a portrait, or indeed a theory. So here goes.
This latest Shakespeare discovery is the work of the distiguished horticulturalist and botanist, Mark Griffiths. About a decade ago he began to work on a biography of John Gerard (d.1612), a celebrated Elizabethan botanist and surgeon who in 1598 published a book called 'The Herball', an illustrated book on plants. The book, which was printed by John Norton, had an elaborate frontispiece (below) by William Rogers (d.1604), in which the title was surrounded by numerous plants, four male figures, a smaller pair of figures in a garden, and, at the base, two small motifs which resembled coats of arms.
After years of research, Griffiths decided that the plants and other symbols were part of a complex Tudor code, and by cracking it he could prove the identities of the four figures. The identity of the classically-attired 'fourth man' was the hardest to establish, but on a midsummer night no less (as he says in Country Life) Griffiths had a revelation; it was Shakespeare.
As Griffiths says, previous scholars had always understood that the four male figures were merely allegorical or historical figures, such as Dioscorides and Theophrastus who were a claissical botanists. Other frontispieces from the period show similar figures, and indeed a later 1633 edition of Gerard's Herball (published by John Norton's widow, Joyce) shows two figures similar to those seen in the 1598 edition, only this time actually identified as Dioscorides and Theophrastus (below, click here for a larger image).
But Griffiths is convinced the four figures in the 1598 edition were actual people merely 'acting out' the roles. The figure bottom left was Lord Burghley, Gerard's patron; above him was Gerard himself; then came another botanist, the Dutchman Rombert Dodoens; and finally Shakespeare. Griffiths also believed that the minute lady seen walking a garden was Elizabeth I (on account of a Tudor Rose and an eglantine - Elizabeth's symbols - in the frontispiece) and that the presence of the royal coat of arms denotes the Queen's special royal favour of Gerard.
But even here we can quickly see Griffiths optimistic interpretation of the design of the frontispiece. The inclusion of the royal coat of arms need not necessarily denote anything, and while the Tudor rose and eglantine were indeed Elizabeth's symbols (or some of them anyway) they were readily adopted in other uses to declare general loyalty or support. The presence of a Tudor rose or a royal coat of arms in a book or building does not indicate the personal approval of Elizabeth I, just as the Queen's head on stamps today does not mean she sent the letter.
And nor, alas, can we be at all certain that Griffith's most readily identifiable figure is Lord Burghley. It is true that Burghley was Gerard's patron, but the means by which Griffiths identifies him in the frontispiece are shaky, to say the least. He gets into a muddle over the imagined presence of a 'wart' in the frontispiece, which he believes links the bearded figure to Burghley, while the 'distinctive jewel' he sees in the bearded man's hat just is nowhere near close enough to that seen in many of Burghley's portraits for us to say, 'this is the same jewel, and thus the same man'. Really, the bearded man is just a generic bearded man, and we could choose any number of Tudor portraits of old bearded men, and say, 'Aha! here he is in Gerard's frontispiece'. William Rogers, the engraver, was one of the best in England at the time, and was quite capable of making accurate portrait engravings. Instead, these figures follow the design and conception of the more generic figures we see in his work (of which here is an example).
Of course, as a botanist, Griffiths sees various meanings in some of the plants around Burghley. The bearded man in a frontispiece is standing beside an ear of wheat. Wheat appears in the Cecil coat of arms. In the middle of the frontispiece we are told we see an olive tree. Burghley apparently grew olive trees. But the problem with this interpretation (which is the means by which Griffiths begins to identify the three other figures in the frontispiece) is that it selectively chooses from only a few of the vast array of plants seen in the whole picture. And with so many plants, latin names, visual puns and supposed meanings to choose from, it's possible to make up just about any theory, if you believe that the frontispiece is indeed some giant 'Tudor code' waiting to be cracked.
The trouble is, there is no firm evidence whatsoever that the frontispiece was meant to be interpreted as a 'code'. Because Griffiths believes it to be a code, we are asked to assume that it is. Instead, there are far simpler interpretations, as we shall see. It is true that the Elizabethans loved imagery with symbols and puzzles, but generally these were there to support the illiterate interpret such images, and not to be on the level of an ultra-fiendish Sudoku, unsolveable for 400 years. If there was just one contemporary record of someone thinking Gerard's frontispiece was such a code, Griffiths would be on firmer ground. But there is not, and the fact that the later edition of Gerard's book contains a similar design, but with the figures specifically identified, makes it far more likely that the traditional interpretation of the frontispiece is correct.
But - putting aside the question of whether the four figures are in fact identifiable Elizabethans - let's move onto the evidence which Griffiths says identifies the fourth figure as Shakespeare.
The main evidence is in two parts. First, the 'code' in the armorial shield beneath the fourth man (above). And second the flowers and plants that the fourth man is holding. Both elements are, to my mind, rather fanciful.
The shield contains, as Griffiths points out, what is known as a 'sign of four', due to the number '4' you can see at the top. These were commonly used, in this field at least, as printers' marks; identifiable sequences of letters, puns or numbers arranged in a symbol, which acted as a sort of trademark or signature. The below print from the British Museum has other examples of English printers' marks - as you can see, some are very close to the symbol in the frontispiece.
In the case of the Frontispiece, the sign has traditionally been interpreted as the printer's mark of John Norton, hence the 'N', the 'OR', the 'I' (for 'J') etc. As Ames 'Typographical Antiquities' says in 1749*;
'This curious Folio has the mark of William and John Norton together in a cypher [...]'
John Norton had been apprenticed to his uncle William Norton, also a printer. Though William Norton died in 1593, I suppose it is conceivable that at this stage in his career he retained a 'W' in the mark, hence the 'W' at the bottom of the symbol. Either way, we know little about how these printers and publishers identified themselves - certainly, not enough for us to be able to simply accept Mr Griffith's assertion that the symbol is nothing to do with a printer at all, even though it looks like it is.
Instead, Griffiths contends that the symbol is an elaborate code. Here is the relevant passage from his essay in Country Life:
The numeral in genuine specimens of the Sign of Four was always an unambiguous figure 4 - no messing with the hallowed symbol. But Rogers had turned this example into a roughly equilateral triangle with the number's stalk running down its midline. I wondered if it might, in part, be a rebus. I had a triangle atop a stalk - an arrow. Attached to it was E, as close inspection and other examples of Rogers's lettering confirmed. The triangle was engraved with slight asymmetry, to convey both an arrowhead and 4. Clearly, the numeral was key, but how in this context to read it? I decided to try Latin.
Quater is Latin for four in the adverbial sense of 'four times'. It was also a good Elizabethan term for a four in cards and similar contexts [...] Then this is quat., a standard abbreviation for quattor, 'four', which Gerard and his peers often used in recipes for herbal medicines [...]
The device is asking us to add the E linked to the 4 to either quater or quat. The first produces the infinitive of the Latin verb quatio; quatere, meaning 'to shake'. The second produces the imperative; quate, 'shake!'. The rebus is not an arrow, but a spear. The 'Fourth Man' [...] is William Shakespeare'.
On this piece of precarious symbology the whole thesis stands. And I'm afraid it seems to me to be bordering on the ridiculous. I have every respect for Mr Griffiths' integrity and expertise in horticulture. But he is asking us to accept too much here. First, that the symbol is not a printer's mark for 'Norton', as has been previously believed, and which it looks like. Second, that the '4' is some kind of strange and hitherto unnoticed Latin clue. Third, that we have to conjugate this Latin clue in a convaluted manner (why must we add an 'E' from the symbol, and not say the 'N'?). Fourthly that somewhere in this array of lines and letters is a spear. And fifthly, that we must intepret the first part of Shakespeare's name in Latin, but the last part in English. Why?
But there's more. Griffiths asserts that the 'OR' is a reference to Shakespeare's father's new coat of arms, which was on a gold shield. The Latin for gold is 'Or'. And then we move onto the flowers that the fourth man holds or is standing near to. Some of these crop up in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, which I suppose is not unusual given his enormous output. Unfortunately for Griffiths' theory there is one plant, the Gladiolus italicus, which does not appear to have any connection with Shakespeare. But no matter! For Griffiths says he has discovered a previously unknown work by Shakespeare - which does indeed contain a reference to this plant.
By now we are of course really pushing at the boundaries of credulity. But to demonstrate Griffiths apparent misunderstanding of visual imagery in the 16th Century, the Country Life essay then treats us to a visual comparison between the head of the 'fourth man', and two other known portraits of Shakespeare, the Droeshout engraving and the memorial bust at Stratford. Griffiths maintains that the 'fourth man' shows a 'strabismus', or squint, in the left eye, and that this can be seen in the bust and Droeshout engraving. The 'fourth man', says Griffiths:
[...] corresponds well to the face in the Stratford monument, allowing for the ten year difference in their subject's ages and for damage to the effigy's nose - and both correspond to the Fourth Man, allowing that he is only 33 years old and has much hair to lose. All three likenesses exhibit the same cranial proportions, facial structure and details such as fine, arching eyebrows, narrow, prolonged earlobes and strabismus of the left eye.'
Come on. The 'fourth man' in the Gerard frontispiece is just a tiny print, from which none of the above physical features can be certainly identified. As with the whole of Griffiths' argument, it seems to be little more than (well intentioned) wishful thinking. I'm sure that with enough time, you could probably identify any of the figures in the frontispiece as any famous Elizabethan; a Latin clue here, a floral symbol here, and a blurry likeness - hey presto, there's - I dunno - Sir Walter Raleigh. Didn't he go to the Americas to find gold - aha, the 'Or'! And there's a 'W' in the symbol, for Walter! The 'fourth man' also has a moustache, like Walter! And he's holding a cob of American maize! Etc. etc.
So it seems to me that there is nothing in the Griffiths' theory that allows us to say, as Country Life attests, 'here is Shakespeare, drawn from the life'. Even if all that Mr Griffiths says were true, where then is the evidence - as opposed to a theory - that Shakespeare actually sat down to William Rogers, the engraver, for a life portrait, which resulted in little more than a doodle? There is none. Why would Rogers not pass down to us some other, more elaborate portrait of Shakespeare, if he was treated to a life sitting? It is yet more wishful thinking. I cannot quite believe that Country Life has embraced all this so enthusiastically.
And inevitably, the story has flown around the world's media - 'the true face of Shakespeare found at last!'. So now we have yet another non-Shakespeare portrait to contend with. Indeed, some papers are illustrating the latest story with the 'Cobbe' portrait as the 'true' Shakespeare.
Anyway, the nit-picking naysayers like me are now lining up. I hope Mr Griffiths doesn't take it personally. Here's Jonathan Jones in the Guardian doubting the new identification. And Griffiths' theory has already been questioned already by some Shakespeare scholars, as reported here:
Professor Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham, dismissed the picture, even saying that he ‘wasn’t sure that Country Life’s reputation will recover.’
‘One has seen so many claims on Shakespeare based on somebody claiming to crack a code,’ he said.
‘I can’t imagine any reason why Shakespeare would be in a botany textbook. It’s a lovely picture.
‘It’s nice that people are so fond of Shakespeare that they see him everywhere, even in the pages of a botany textbook. But it’s hallucination.’
Paul Edmondson, head of research and knowledge for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, added: ‘I see there a figure who is dressed like a Classical poet, with a green bay on his head, but that doesn’t make him Shakespeare.’
In his defence, Mr Griffiths has said that the theory must be correct, because:
“What we have here is a series of incontrovertible facts. I dare say people will think: ‘Oh no. it’s not him.’ But there is no other construction that can be placed on these facts. It is not an assumption that he is Shakespeare, it is algebra ... it is an equation.”
I won't here try to set out everything in Griffiths case - if you're interested in the details, then you need to read the full 20 pages of his argument in Country Life. And most importantly, let me know what you think!
Update - here's someone who thinks the 'fourth man' is actually Francis Drake. It probably isn't - but the point is the 'clues', if interpreted differently, allow you to make a claim that it is.
Update II - Shakespeare Magazine wonders (on Twitter) is this might be the great man too:
Update III - Mark Griffiths has a lengthy response to the point about the symbol beneath the 'fourth man' being a printer's mark, here on the Country Life website. The post is titled 'more evidence', but in fact it's just a rebuttal. He goes into a long explanation of why it cannot be a Norton mark, because he has looked at all the other known examples, and it doesn't match. But of course, he has only looked at those which survive, and which are known about.
And he also assures us that the '4' in the symbol is not a real '4', but a triangle. (A quick look at the printers' marks I reproduced above shows - to me at least - that the '4' could be arranged pretty much any way you liked.) And nor, says Griffiths, is the 'N' actually an 'N', because "William Rogers was remarkably consistent with N: he always engraved its diagonal with a heavier line than its verticals, and he would certainly have done so here had it been the all-important initial letter of Norton." So there you have it - we can discount the 'N' standing for Norton, because it's not quite the right 'N'. Instead, it must be something to do with a Latin imperative clue that nobody has ever noticed before - because that's the way William Rogers always did his special Tudor code 'N's.
At every turn, Mr Griffiths has a cunning explanation as to why the clues fit his interpretation, but not everyone else's.
Update IV - in the post above, I suggested, entirely in jest, that the 'fourth man' might in fact be Sir Walter Raleigh. Two historians have, however, wondered if it might be; the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells (here), and (here) Raleigh's biographer Mathew Lyons. Personally, I don't think the 'fourth man' is anyone, merely a generic Roman-esque figure. The art historian, Mark Gray alerts me (via Twitter) to another plant book also published in Frankfurt in 1598, which has a very similar frontispiece, though it is clear that the figures are classical ones.
Anyway, Stanley Wells' view of Griffiths methodology is rather damning; he calls the whole code thing 'inherently improbable'. And as to the claim that Griffiths has found a whole new Shakespeare play, well:
In fact the ‘play’, identified in the article, is a really rather boring speech of welcome delivered by a hermit along with a dialogue between a gardener and a molecatcher, both long known to scholars, and both of unknown authorship, which formed part of an entertainment given before Queen Elizabeth I at Theobalds in May 1591.
Mathew Taylor makes an entertaining allusion to Griffiths' midsummer moment of revelation:
Griffiths begins his piece with the revelation that he made the discovery on Midsummer’s Night. He might have paused at some point to reflect that if Shakespearean comedy teaches us anything, it’s that midsummer night is when hobgoblins and sprites famously plant foolish conceits in human heads to make them seem ridiculous in the morning.
Update V - a reader writes:
My feeling about it is that even if it could be shown to be an image of Shakespeare, it is clearly a generic 'heroic man' figure and would be of very limited, if any, value as a true portrait of the man. We know all too well that it is a loosing game to say - this man looks like that man only 10 years younger - so Griffiths's arguments that the 'facial structure' and 'cranial proportions' match the Stratford monument add nothing useful to his case.
Another reader, Dr Alexander Marr of the University of Cambridge, kindly alerts us to a similar-looking merchant's symbol in the Judde Memorial portrait (detail below).
Update VI - the valiant Mr Griffiths has had yet another go at defending his theories on the Country Life website, which now resembles a Shakespeare portrait blog.
First, he rejects any connection whatsoever between the first 1598 frontispiece to the Herball, and the second, published in 1633 (and reproduced above, and here). The clear identification of two figures as Theophratus and Dioscorides in the second frontispiece does not, Griffiths says, mean that the very similar looking, generic figures in the first frontispiece were the same figures:
"[The editor of the second edition], Thomas Johnson, despised Gerard and did everything in his power to distance his 1633 edition from that of 1597/98. This included suppressing many of the poetic translations in which Gerard and Shakespeare had collaborated and replacing the original title page with a wholly new design.
The 1597 Rogers engraving was too frivolous for Johnson’s tastes and it reflected a collaboration in which he’d played no part. He knew that the four men it portrayed had been alive and active not long ago. Now, they were yesterday’s men, and they had to go. In commissioning the new title page, Johnson reverted to the convention that Rogers had subverted. It does indeed show Dioscorides, in correct Roman dress and wearing no laurel wreath. In identity, iconography, portrayal and purpose, this image of Dioscorides has no connection whatsoever to the Fourth Man."
This makes no sense at all. And in any case, critics of Mr Griffiths' theory like me are not saying that the 'fourth man' in the first frontispiece is Dioscorides, we're just saying it's a classical figure, and not Shakespeare. And if the editor of the second edition despised Gerard so much, why did he put a portrait of him on the second edition's frontispiece? Finally, how can Shakespeare be considered 'yesterday's man' in 1633? Griffiths is, again, simply presenting his theories as fact, asserting motives on the part of people who lived 400 years ago, and for which we have no proof.
Mr Griffiths also makes a leap of logic in his latest piece, saying that the frontispiece contains an 'unquestionable portrait of Lord Burghley'. But the Burghley identification is really very questionable, and relies, I would say, on the same flawed interpretation of 'clues' in the frontispiece that allows Griffiths to believe that Shakespeare is the 'fourth man'.
And nor does Mr Griffiths answer any critics who claim that the relationship between Burghley and Shakespeare was not nearly as close as he believes it to be (and has to in order to make his theories work).
What Griffiths really needs to demonstrate - but it appears cannot - is some actual proof that Rogers' engraving, and the clues it contains therein, were intended to be a solveable riddle. We need just one jot of contemporary evidence that Rogers or Gerard, or even the printer John Norton, were in the habit of making puzzles that looked extremely like printers' marks, and were designed to be solved by mixing Latin with English symbology. If Mr Griffiths produces a rare 1598 edition of 'Ye Tudor Puzzler - curious Trickes for all ye Trippes', then he'll make some progress.
Update VIII - more AHN on this here.
*I'm grateful to John Overholt of Harvard University for drawing this to my attention via Twitter.
London mid-season OMP sales
May 4 2015
The 'mid-season' Old Master sales were held in London last week, and one or two prices caught my eye. The above Virgin and Child was offered at Sotheby's as 'Workshop of Murillo', with only one enticing line of cataloguing; 'This appears to be a unique composition'. The estimate was £15,000-£20,000, and I wasn't surprised to see it make £269,000 (inc. premium).
At Christie's South Kensingon, the above 'Follower of Van Dyck' made £104,500 against an estimate of £3,000-£5,000. It was the second time I had seen the picture at auction (it came up about a year ago, in a minor UK sale, if I recall correctly), but the first time I had seen it in the flesh. It is plainly a copy, and the speculative high price is all the more suprising when we consider that the original (below), of which there can be no doubt, sold in 2010 at Sotheby's in New York, for $1.53m.
The only picture I bid on last week - but alas unsuccessfully - was the below 'Follower of Claude', which made £206,500 against an estimate of £7,000-£10,000. Neither landscapes nor Claude come within my limited area of expertise, but I thought the picture looked right for early Claude. It had been rejected as the work of an imitator in the 1961 Claude catalogue raisonné. We may yet see it again, as the real thing.
April 27 2015
Pictures: Shannon's Auction, Charterhouse Auction, and Neil Jeffares via Twitter.
It's a been a busy week for the sleeper hunters. At Shannon's auction in the USA, the above 'possibly 14th/15th Century Italian School' panel made $144,000 against an estimate of $6,000-$8,000. I've no idea who it's by, not my area.
At Charterhouse Auction in Dorset, the below small canvas called 'Follower of El Greco' made £98,000 (inc. premium) against an estimate of just a few hundred pounds. I asked for some better photos of the picture, but didn't bid.
And somewhere in Europe (I learn via Neil Jeffares) the below pastel study by Maurice Quentin de La Tour made €11,047 (inc. premium) against an estimate of €400-€500. Neil says on Twitter that it is a 'first preparation for Belle de Zuylen'.
Prince Philip paints!
April 6 2015
I didn't know Prince Philip was a painter. One of his pictures, painted in 1965, has gone on display at Sandringham; it shows the Queen having breakfast.
Finland's first Monet
March 30 2015
Pictures: via BBC News
BBC News reports that technical analysis of a disputed Monet in Finland's Serlachus Fine Arts Foundation has revealed an overpainted signature, below. The discovery apparently means that Finland has its first Monet.
$10m Van Gogh drawing unveiled at TEFAF
March 13 2015
A newly authenticated drawing by Van Gogh has gone on display at The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) at Maastricht, with a price tag of around $10m. The work is being offered by Simon Dickinson. Reports Dalya Alberge in The Guardian:
A landscape by Vincent van Gogh is to be exhibited for the first time in more than 100 years following the discovery of crucial evidence that firmly traces back its history directly to the artist.
The significance of two handwritten numbers scribbled almost imperceptibly on the back had been overlooked until now. They have been found to correspond precisely with those on two separate lists of Van Gogh’s works drawn up by Johanna, wife of the artist’s brother, Theo.
Johanna, who was widowed in 1891 – months after Vincent’s death – singlehandedly generated interest in his art. She brought it to the attention of critics and dealers, organising exhibitions, although she obviously could never have envisaged the millions that his works would fetch today.
Le Moulin d’Alphonse Daudet à Fontvieille, which depicts vivid green grapevines leading up to a windmill with broken wings in the distance, is a work on paper that he created with graphite, reed pen and ink and watercolour shortly after he reached Arles, in the south of France.
If you're also exhibiting at TEFAF, good luck!
March 12 2015
Video: NBC San Diego
In San Diego, a fellow claiming to have a 'newly discovered' Jackson Pollock for sale at $160m invited the local news affiliate to his hotel room for a bit of publicity (above). The picture was apparently donated to a thrift store by the artist many years ago (sounds similar to the plot of that play, Bakersfield Mist). The mystery owners have had the picture 'authenticated' by... a computer programme, which said that there was a '93% chance' it was by Pollock.
Update - here's the sales brochure. The picture is described as 'Pollock.. .style'
'A really crass, inept painting'
March 9 2015
Remember the case of the newly discovered Constable sketch (above), which made $5m at Sotheby's New York after being sold as a copy by Christie's in London for £3,500?
Well the Christie's fightback has begun. At the time of the Sotheby's sale, Christie's put out a statement casting doubt on the attribution, saying:
“We understand that there is no clear consensus of expertise on the new attribution.”
And now they have provided, to the New York Times, the name of a Constable scholar who doubts the attribution. And he doesn't just doubt it, he says the picture is not even close.
The scholar is called Conal Shields, and his Constable resumé is impressive enough - in a letter published online (in relation to another matter) he says:
I was formerly Head of Art History and Conservation at the London Institute and am now co-curator of the Thomson Collection and the Thomson Archive of Art, and fine art advisor to Lord Thomson of Fleet, whose collection of paintings, drawings and prints by John Constable is the largest in private hands.
I have been co-organiser of two Tate Britain exhibitions devoted to John Constable, one of these the official bicentennial celebration, and am presently preparing a Constable exhibition for the Royal Academy, London, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Clark Institute in the U.S.A. I am co-editor of the final volume in the Suffolk Record Society's series of Constable documents and was keynote speaker at the National Gallery of Australia's Constable Symposium. I act as a consultant to both Christies and Sothebys.
But does he have a good Constable 'eye'? I don't know, as I've never met him, and have no means to immediately judge his track record. What is curious, though, is that his reaction to the picture is so viscerally different to that of say, Anne Lyles, the former Tate curator who is recognised as the current pre-eminent Constable scholar. Where Lyles saw a fine sketch by Constable, Shields:
“could see no sign of Constable’s hand in the work [...] It’s a really crass, inept painting.”
So this is not a case of Shields saying 'I'm not sure'. He's saying that Lyles, Sotheby's, and the market in general (I heard of not a single dissenting voice when the picture came up for sale as 'Constable' at Sotheby's) is wrong, massively wrong. For what it's worth (though I claim no Constable expertise at all) I saw the picture twice before it was sold in New York, and I had no doubt it was indeed by Constable.
All this, it would seem, comes in the context of whether Christie's are in danger of being sued by the consignors of the picture when it was sold for £3,500 in London. In the New York Times piece, Lady Hambleden, the named vendor in the Christie's catalogue, says that:
[...] when she first learned the painting was by Constable, “I felt like a fool! I know it’s not my fault, but that was my first feeling.”
But she said she has no intention of suing over a work for which she had little affection and that her mother-in-law had stuffed in a cupboard for 60 years.
“It was sold under my name,” she said, “but on behalf of my children. So it would be their decision whether or not to bring legal action.”
Her sons did not respond to a number of messages seeking comment.
I don't know, but I suspect they're looking into it quite carefully. Remember, the key thing here is negligence, not whether Christie's made a simple mistake; did Christie's make all reasonable efforts to ensure that they looked into the possible Constable attribution? If they showed it to Conal Shields before the sale, and he said 'nah', then they might be in the clear, even if Shields turns out to be wrong. The recent Sotheby's 'Caravaggio' case gives us a good template of how such cases will work, and how hard it is to prove negligence against a major auction house. But it still seems to me that the special weakness in Christie's case is the presence of the £5m Claude in the same minor sale as the Constable, which was only withdrawn at the very last minute.
Incidentally, a reader kindly sent me an interesting quote from an earlier case on attribution heard in a British court, over a putative Van Dyck in 2002. Then, Mr Justice Buckley, in relation to who was qualified to make an attribution, said:
From listening to them both I understood that [the expert ‘eye’] to mean rather more than just observation. Whilst it is vital to have keen observation it is also necessary to have knowledge of an artist’s methods and style and to be sufficiently familiar with his work to be able to recognise his artistic ‘handwriting’. Even that is not all. It involves also a sensitivity to such concepts as quality, emotion, mood and atmosphere. To an extent ‘eye’ can be developed but, like many other human attributes it is partly born in a man or a woman. Were it otherwise there would be many more true experts.
Very true, m'lud.
Update - a reader writes:
It may be the inherent nature of the blog that it is quickly written but assuming that you want your opinion to be taken seriously I would query your claim of 'no Constable expertise at all' and yet have 'no doubt that it is by Constable', whatever Shields says!
Nobody should take me seriously.
By the way, the same reader tells me that:
[...] I have heard from several sources that Shields is not alone.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, art vandal?
March 9 2015
Picture: Berlin Gemäldegalerie
The Berliner Morgenpost reports that conservators at Berlin's Gemäldegalerie have found evidence - in X-rays - of substantial over-painting on Rembrandt's Susanna and the Elders (above). The lead culprit is Sir Joshua Reynolds, who owned the work in the 18th Century.
Van Dyck's c.1628 self-portrait re-discovered
March 5 2015
The Art Newspaper seems to have scooped a story I've been dying to tell you about for some time; the re-discovery of an important self-portrait by Van Dyck. The picture was one of the last important portraits I worked on with Philip Mould in London. Martin Bailey writes:
A self-portrait by Van Dyck that was dismissed a decade ago as a copy is now hanging in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota, as an original work. The painting, which has been authenticated by experts, was quietly put on display in February, having been lent by a US collector based on the West Coast.
An unpublished paper on the self-portrait, prepared for the owner, dates the work to around 1629 and states that the attribution is accepted by four key experts: Susan Barnes, a co-author of the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonné, Christopher Brown, the former director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, David Jaffé, a former senior curator at the National Gallery in London, and Malcolm Rogers, the outgoing director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The attribution is also accepted by Patrick Noon, the head of paintings at the Minneapolis museum.
The work is particularly important because it is the self-portrait by which Van Dyck wanted to be remembered. The artist produced an etching of the image in 1630 for the frontispiece of his book Iconography.
The late Oliver Millar, another co-author of the 2004 catalogue raisonné, dismissed the work as “possibly a very early copy”. He assumed that the original painting was missing.
When the self-portrait was put up for sale at Lempertz in Cologne on 12 May 2012, it was described as a “copy after Van Dyck”. The auction house estimated its value at €30,000 to €40,000. The painting fetched €512,000, showing that at least two bidders were reasonably confident that it was by Van Dyck.
For a Van Dyck anorak like me, finding this picture was as good as it gets. Working on it was like being in art historical heaven.
The unpublished paper referred to above was written by me, and I'll share further details with you soon. There's a great deal to discuss. I think the picture was probably painted in late 1628. A few quick additional points:
The Art Newspaper mentions that the late Sir Oliver Millar 'dismissed the work' - but in fact when he saw it at an Agnews exhibition in 1968 he pretty much accepted it. Indeed, although the picture was little known and only exhibited once, it was continously published as 'a Van Dyck' right up until 1999, and it was only in the 2004 Catalogue Raisonné co-written by Sir Oliver Millar that the picture was first doubted.
I'm not sure why Sir Oliver changed his mind, but it was probaby due its pre-conservation condition; it had been substantially over-painted, and was also really quite dirty under old varnish. I believe Sir Oliver was perhaps also misled by the gold chain, thinking that chain was that given to Van Dyck by King Charles I, and that the portrait must therefore be an English-period work (that is, in the section of the catalogue that he was responsible for), dating to after 1632 - when Van Dyck's technique was rather different. In fact, I linked hte portrait to a a gold chain Van Dyck was given earlier, in 1628 by the Archduchess Isabella in Brussels, when she appointed him her court painter. This was Van Dyck's first such official position, and in the picture he is proudly removing his cloak to show off the gold chain. Before the picture was cleaned, it was hard to discern the implicit downward movement in the hand and the drapery.
Other interesting things to note include a prominent pentiment around the hand, which showed that Van Dyck had originally gripped the cloak in a very different manner, and a distinctive application of two layers of ground for the head, which helps give the picture part of its force. It's an incredible portrait to look at in the flesh, and has great presence. What a pleasure it was to work with Philip Mould in his gallery with it - sometimes we would treat ourselves and hang it next to the later Van Dyck self-portrait we also had in the gallery (the one which was bought by the National Portrait Gallery last year).
In fact, although the NPG's picture has now become rather famous, it was this earlier self-portrait that was until relatively recently perhaps the defining image of Van Dyck. It was the portrait he chose to be printed for his series of engraved portraits, which he called the Iconografie. It is best known in the famous unfinished etching below.
The painting was also engraved by Paulus Pontius in a double portrait with Rubens. You can see an image of that engraving here.
The photo below shows me with the painting and the Rev. Dr Susan Barnes, who co-wrote the Van Dyck catalogue raisonneé in 2004. I went to show her the painting in New York a couple of years ago - for me, that was a very special moment.
Finally, the provenance is fascinating; I was able to establish that the picture was almost certainly in the collection of a prominent Flemish collector, Jan-Baptiste Anthoine (d.1691) - it is listed in his 1691 inventory; 'Een contrefeijtsel van Van Dijck met eenen mantel in de handt' ['a portrait of Van Dyck with a cloak in his hand']. We know Anthoine marked his pictures with a wax seal - and although the picture has long since been re-lined, we did find the remains of a red wax seal on the back of the original canvas.
During the research into the provenance, I found that the above painting in the Royal Collection by Jacob Formentrou (fl.1640-59) called simply 'A Cabinet of Pictures', which was thought to be a random assortment of paintings, in fact shows a large number of works from Anthoine's collection. (All of this requires much more time to set out, so I'll have to revisit it for you. I'm afraid this is a rather rushed post.) And if you look closely at the little portrait under the Crucifixion by the doorway, you'll see the Van Dyck self-portrait. You can zoom into the painting on the Royal Collection website here. Anthoine was very interested in Van Dyck it seems, and owned a number of works by him. He also had his family portrait (below) painted by the 'little Van Dyck', Gonzales Coques, [which portrait is also in the Royal Collection] in which he and his family are seen recreating various Van Dyck-ian poses.
The really odd thing is that the Formentrou cabinet painting hangs at Hampton Court Palace, where I used to live (well, I lived in the park at Hampton Court, not the palace itself). And whenever I went round Hampton Court, which was often, I would look at the tiny depiction of the 'missing' Van Dyck self-portrait, and say to myself, 'one day, I'd like to find that picture'. And then one day I saw it in an online auction catalogue, described as 'after Van Dyck'. The chase was afoot. The gods of art history move in mysterious ways...
Update - a reader alerts me to the blog of Darren R. Rousar, a sharp-eyed visitor to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts who wrote about seeing the picture back on 10th February. He took some good-ish snaps of the painting if you want to see some details. I'm afraid I don't have a good photo that I can publish.
Update II - Iconografie, by the way, is the name of my new company. I'll tell you more about it soon.
Stolen Tiepolo returned
March 2 2015
Picture: New York Times
An important picture by Giabattista Tiepolo (or, 'Mr. Tiepolo' as the New York Times calls him) has been returned to its owners in Italy, having been stolen in 1982. The picture, The Holy Trinity Appearing to Saint Clement, had been consigned to Christie's last year, and was due to be sold with an estimate of $500,000-$700,000 before it was spotted.
According to the FBI website:
After being provided with evidence that the painting was the same piece previously reported stolen in 1982, the Tiepolo’s consignor agreed to its seizure by the FBI and its return to Italy. The United States Attorney’s Office submitted a proposed stipulation and order providing for the Tiepolo’s seizure and return, and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York entered that order on January 23, 2015. Italian authorities continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding the theft of the painting, including the circumstances of its importation into the United States.
Nothing here, pace the curious case of the two stolen Wolsey angels (below), about anyone buying the picture 'in good faith', and therefore being due a cut.
The Battle of the Goya Self-Portraits
February 23 2015
Pictures: Musée Goya and Musée Bonnat-Helleu.
On Hyperallergic, Benjamin Sutton has a neat summary in English of the story of a newly authenticated Goya self-portrait in France, above. The picture belongs to the Musée Bonnat-Helleu in Bayonne, and was authenticated by the central French government service for museum art restoration 'using scientific imaging and analysis'. Yikes.
The trouble is, those who authenticated the above picture have decided that another version (below) which belongs to another French museum in Castres, the Musée Goya, must be a copy. Nonsense, says the rather splendid chief curator of the Musée Goya, Jean-Louis Augé; the Bayonne painting is a study for the Castres picture, which is also genuine. You can see Augé's response in the video here.
It's hard to judge on the images of course, but I'm with Augé. It's perfectly possible for both pictures to be 'right'. The Castres picture is more worked up than the Bayonne one, so the Bayonne picture could be a preparatory study, and the Castres picture a more finished second version.
Beware restorers making attributions.
On a wider point, it's been the case for some time now that Goya connoisseurship is in some disarray.
Lost Gauguin sculpture found
February 9 2015
The Art Newspaper reports that a lost sculpture by Gauguin (above) has been discovered. It will feature in a Gauguin retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler. More here.
New Veronese drawing discovered? (ctd.)
February 3 2015
Picture: The Saleroom
A quick update on a 'sleeper' story I featured last year. The above drawing came up for sale in the shires here in the UK catalogued as 'attributed to Veronese', and made £15,500.
At the time, a sharp-eyed reader (who underbid it) wrote in to say he thought it was by Jan van der Straet, and related to an engraving in the British Museum. Well, he was right, for now the picture has been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, as by van der Straet. The provenance on the Met site reveals that it was acquired through the Old Master drawings dealer Katrin Bellinger.
Export block for newly discovered Claude
February 2 2015
The UK government has placed a temporary export block on Claude's Embarkation of St Paula, which was recently discovered by Christie's, and sold by them in 2013 for £5m. A UK museum has until May 1st to express any interest.
The picture was scheduled to be sold in a minor Christie's South Kensington sale as 'After Claude', but was pulled out at the last minute.
It's always worth looking at the back...
January 28 2015
Picture: BBC/Scottish Gallery
Here's nice discovery story from my neck of the woods; the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh has discovered a lost work (above) by the Scottish colourist Francis Cadell, which had been painted over by the son of another colourist, Samuel Peploe. Says the BBC:
The lost Cadell work was painted around 1909 from his studio at 112 George Street, Edinburgh, and looks across the street to Charlotte Square. When the artist died in 1937, his sister Jean Percival Clark, well-known as the actress Jean Cadell, came up to Edinburgh to sort out his affairs.
She was helped by Denis Peploe, son of Samuel, who was a student at Edinburgh College of Art. She gifted him some of her brother's art material and included among the canvases, probably including "George Street and Charlotte Square", taken off its stretcher, turned and re-stretched ready to be used again.
It is not known why Cadell abandoned the painting, which is finished and bears a strong signature.
Years later, Denis Peploe painted his own picture, Begonias, a still life on a trestle table and whitewashed over the Cadell exposed on the other side.
The Scottish Gallery acquired the Denis Peploe and in the process of conservation discovered the Cadell on the reverse.
And in a final twist, the director of the Scottish Gallery is Guy Peploe, Denis Peploe's son.
A lost Wright of Derby?
January 14 2015
Picture: Your Paintings/Derby museum
The excellent Derby Museum and Art Gallery has secured a £15,000 grant to help them decide whether the above painting is by Joseph Wright of Derby. The subject is The Colosseum by Night, and the picture belongs to the museum. However, its authorship has, reports the Derby Telegraph, been doubted. Presumably on account of what appears to be the curious drawing of the arches on the right. Wright painted The Colosseum by Day, which also belongs to the Derby museum.
£15,000 is a lot of money to find out an attribution, and I presume this sum allows for the picture to be cleaned, and analysed. I can only find this not especially good photo online. Though at first sight the painting looks too wobbly (that's the technical term) to be by Wright, the sky and foliage top left looks convincing enough. Probably there are some condition issues going on, which are affecting how the picture appears. I'm trying to get a better photo, and will put it up if I can.
Update - Lucy Bamford, the curator at Derby, has kindly sent a high-res image, and below are some close ups. I'm sure that the picture is indeed by Wright - we can tell that alone from the little figure in the window, and also the foliage and sky at the top left.
But the rest of the picture has been savagely 'restored' by someone in the 1960s or 70s, with huge areas entirely over-painted (as seen in the last image below). The question is, why was it done - to cover up old damage? Or just ineptness. Often it's simply a case of the latter.
Lucy Bamford tells me, however:
Worryingly, I had a tip-off from someone who had some dealing with a painting that was also over painted by the same restorer as the Colosseum back in the 60s or 70s. Their approach seems to have been to sand down the original to make a smooth surface on which to lay new paint, ‘improvement’ being the chief concern I presume.
Yikes. The tale such woeful restoration may be a bizarre one to modern ears, but in my experience it's not unusual. No single group of people has done more damage to paintings in history than those who at some point have fancied themselves as 'art conservators'. Ironic but true. Those pictures that are in the best condition are those that have never been 'cleaned'.
The problome is, every generation of restorers (or, in days of old, simply domestic cleaners, who would scrub pictures with a potato if you were ucky, or a scourer if you weren't) thinks it has come up with the latest answer to 'improve' paintings: once it was 'transferring' (with disastrous results) panel paintings onto canvas; then it was wax re-lining (until people realised how the wax damaged the paint surface). Sometimes it seems art restoration is a giant, intra-generational job creation scheme by restorers.
But anyway, I have no doubts that this time around the work will be done well and carefully. And I look forward to seeing a Wright emerge from beneath the work of that sinful earlier restorer.
New Nevinson discovered on Your Paintings
January 12 2015
Here's another nice discovery story from Your Paintings: a job applicant for the post of Director of the Atkinson Arts Centre in Southport, UK, discovered a lost work by CRW Nevinson in the Atkinson's collection when he did some pre-interview swotting up about the Centre on Your Paintings. And he got the job. Says the BBC:
An art expert who identified a mystery painting at a job interview has been made manager of the gallery storing it.
Stephen Whittle revealed his "strong hunch" about a painting that has been stored at the Atkinson arts centre in Southport since the 1920s.
He told the panel he thought it was Limehouse, a work by CRW Nevinson, a futurist painter.
"When I saw this unattributed image on the BBC Your Paintings website, it was very reminiscent of Nevinson," he said.
Mr Whittle, who came across the painting as part of his interview research, added: "I mentioned my supposition at interview, but I don't know if it led to me finally getting the job."
See the new picture and other Nevinsons here on Your Paintings.
New Constable discovery at Sotheby's
January 9 2015
One of the star pictures at Sotheby's forthcoming Old Master sale in New York is, reports Martin Bailey of The Art Newspaper, a sleeper from a minor Christie's sale in London. Constable's study for Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows is for sale at Sotheby's with an estimate of $2m-$3m, but was sold by Christie's at South Kensington for just £3500 in 2013. There, it was catalogued as by a 'follower' of Constable, in a sale of the contents of Hambleden Hall, the home of the Viscounts Hambleden. It had been in their collection since the late 19th Century. Says The Art Newspaper:
When the oil sketch came up for sale at South Kensington in July 2013, Christie’s catalogued it as by a “follower of John Constable” and estimated it at £500-£800. The unnamed buyer later confirmed that the work had been heavily retouched in the late 19th or early 20th century, depriving it of its lively, sketchy quality, but it has now been cleaned.
The painting was examined by Anne Lyles, a specialist on Constable, who dated it to 1829-30. She determined that the oil sketch is by the artist’s hand and was among the preparatory works for the final painting, which Tate bought in 2013 for £23m. Lyles describes the study as “one of the most exciting and important additions to the master’s oeuvre to have emerged in recent decades”.
I saw the picture at Sotheby's preview last year in London, and had no doubt whatsoever that it's 'right'. And that was before I read Anne Lyles' persuasive essay in Sotheby's catalogue, which places the picture in its context, and analyses all the key evidence. One of her conclusions is that Constable - who was in the habit of making numerous preparatory sketches and studies for his large scale landscapes - relied on the Hambleden picture most when making the final painting, which (having been recently bought) is now in Tate Britain.
One of the clinchers in the Hambleden picture's favour is that the dramatic, horn-shaped cloud formation it shows looming over the cathedral was copied by Constable for a larger sketch in the Guildhall art collection in London. But, crucially, Constable then painted over that horn-shaped cloud, to make the sky slightly less stormy in that area. Over time, that original cloud structure has become visible through the paint layers; if you look at the image of the Guildhall picture above you can just make out the 'horn shape' to the right of the spire, underneath Constable's later cloud formation. The point is - and apologies for my rather unscientific cloud descriptions - the Hambleden painting cannot be the work of a copyist, because only Constable himself developed that structure of the sky. As Anne Lyles says in her note:
[...] all the other preparatory sketches show the cathedral building more or less in shadow [...]. Moreover, the dramatic stormy sky in the full-scale sketch in the Guildhall (fig. 4) also derives more closely from the Hambleden study than the other sketches. Indeed the cluster of black storm clouds in the full-scale sketch to the right of the cathedral spire was once closer in appearance to the formation seen in the Hambleden picture until Constable decided to knock them back in the former by overpainting parts of them in white.
Anyway, the other clincher for me was the sheer quality of the painting. It's too good to be a copy. Yes, some elements, such as the structure of the cathedral are a little simplistic, but that's to be expected in a study like this, for the emphasis, the compositional development, is all about areas like the sky and stream, and they're pure Constable. For what it's worth, I also know that Anne Lyles - who used to be the Constable scholar at Tate Britain* - is no pushover when it comes to endorsing Constable attributions. So if it's good enough for her, that means it's really good.
Now, here's the humbling bit - I missed the picture entirely when it came up at Christie's South Kensington, in July 2013. Indeed, I also missed the other 'sleeper' in that sale, The Embarkation of St Paula, which (regular readers will remember) was catalogued as a copy after Claude, but which was withdrawn at the very last moment and sold for £5m at Christie's main salerooms in London in December 2013. In my defence, the South Kensington sale was in the week immediately after all the main Old Master sales, and after South Kensington's own Old Master sale, when you'd normally expect things like the Constable to be sold. Also, the sale was branded as 'Colefax and Fowler [famous English interior decorators], Then and Now', so it sounded like the sort of sale you'd only find chintzy sofas in. Anyway, the fact is, I had my eye off the ball, and can only congratulate the sharp-eyed buyer.
But, AHNers, we must also sympathise with the buyer as well as congratulate them. For when the main press picked up The Art Newspaper's story today (e.g. here in The Mail), Christie's gave this rather unhelpful comment:
'We took the view at the time of our sale in 2013 that it was by a 'follower of'. We understand that there is no clear consensus of expertise on the new attribution.'
Which I think is a little mean, to be honest. Who are the dissenters? Christie's should say so, rather than just casting unspecified doubts like that. I suspect the truth is that no serious Constable scholars doubt it. The Mail's coverage also looks into whether Christie's might be vulnerable to legal action from the Hambleden vendors, and the paper quotes the editor of the Antiques Trade Gazzette, Ivan Macquisten:
'There was a legal case in 1990 that set a precedent for this when provincial auctioneers Messenger May Baverstock of Surrey failed to recognise something that ended up selling for a lot more and was sued by the vendor.
'In the High Court, a judge established a degree of responsibility that auctioneers have.
'If you are a small auction house holding your sales in a village hall it is reasonable that you may not identify such a painting.
'But if you are a Sotheby's or a Christie's with specialists departments with some of the leading specialists in the world, then you probably are. The burden on these bigger auction houses to get it right is far higher.
'That is not to say they are negligent or liable, that depends on how easily the work would be to identify and what due diligence was carried out to identify it.
'Have they been negligent by not carrying out checks on things like the composition of the painting and, in the case of Constable who was known for his cloudscapes, the quality of the clouds?
'I would be surprised if the previous vendor was not considering taking the matter further.'
Factors in Christie's defence include: the fact that the general subject matter - Constable's 'Salisbury Cathedral' - is one of the more copied compositions in British art, and Christie's were thus not negligent in assuming the Hambleden picture was another; the fact that the picture was quite heavily overpainted, thus making certain elements hard to read; the fact that the sale price of £3,500 meant that only one other person thought it worth taking a closer look at.
In favour of the Hambledens, should they wish to pursue the matter: the fact that Christie's evidently did not show it to Anne Lyles, the leading Constable authority, before the sale; the fact that Christie's only recognised at the last minute that there was a £5m Claude in the same sale, which suggests that, when preparing the sale, not as great care was taken with the pictures as one might expect; the fact that Christie's did not put in the catalogue entry the fact that the painting might have had a 19th Century Christie's provenance.
But it's a very difficult area, and I wouldn't want to place too much blame on Christie's specialists. They work to extremely tight deadlines, and, especially in house sale situations, they only get a short period of time to look at each picture. Inevitably, things will slip through the net. Probably the culprit here, if there is one, is the system in which auction house specialists have to operate - if the bean counters further up the food chain gave them more time and staff, fewer mistakes might be made. But then what would we all do without the occasional discovery story?
* It's a matter of great regret that they don't have one any more, of course.
Kelvingrove acquires sleeping fair-scape
January 7 2015
Picture: Glasgow Herald
Here's a nice story from my new locale, up here in Scotland; the Kelvingrove art gallery has acquired, for £220,000, a lost landscape by the Scottish artist John Knox (1778-1845), which shows the 'Glasgow Fair' around 1820. The picture had been discovered in 2013 by Edinburgh-based dealer Patrick Bourne, who spotted it at Sotheby's described as showing a scene in Aberdeen, and attributed to William Turner De Lond. It was bought for £76,900.
I heartily approve of the Scottish version of the 'White Glove Photo-op'.