It's still not Shakespeare (ctd.)
March 7 2013
This portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury still keeps popping up as Shakespeare in the press, this time in the Sunday Times.
The Met buys a sleeper
March 5 2013
Paul Jeromack in The Art Newspaper reports that the Metropolitan Museum has pulled off a bit of a coup, with the purchase of the above drawing by Jacques Louis David for just $840. It came up for sale in a minor auction in New York, called 'French School, early 19th Century'. It relates to David's painting The Death of Scorates, which belongs to the Met.
The auction, at Swann Galleries, took place on 29th January during New York's Old Master week. In other words, the Met bought a sleeper in the same week that they might well have sold one.
March 4 2013
Very kind of the The Sunday Times to make our Culture Show programme (Saturday 9th March, BBC2, 6.30pm) their 'Pick of the Day'.
Turner discovered in India
March 2 2013
Picture: Bid & Hammer Auction
A missing Turner watercolour showing part of the fortifications at Seringapatam has been found in India. It is to be sold at auction soon, with an estimate of 2-3 million Rupees (approx. $370,000-$555,000). More details here.
A painting's eye view
February 28 2013
Here's a screen grab from the forthcoming BBC2 Culture Show programme I'm in, presented by Alistair Sooke. On the left is the director of the Bowes Museum, Adrian Jenkins. We're examining what might, or might not, be a major discovery... Tune in at 6pm on Saturday March 9th to find out...
Plug - new Kneller discovery
February 27 2013
Picture: Philip Mould & Company
I thought I'd mention an unfinished picture by Sir Godfrey Kneller we've just discovered here at the gallery. It came up on the Continent as German School, and was much over-painted. Happily, the over-paint was easily removed, and we also found Kneller's signature on the back of the original canvas when we re-lined it (always nice to have your connoisseurial hunch confirmed like that). It's a rare religious picture by Kneller, and probably shows his daughter, Catherine Voss, modelling as Mary Magdalene. Although the picture is unfinished, as shown in the very sketchy handling of the fabric and background, Kneller himself must have viewed it as somehow complete, hence the signature. More details at Philip Mould & Company here.
February 25 2013Pic: LH
Part of my job here at Philip Mould & Company is to request images of upcoming lots from various auction houses around the world. We always ask for high-resolution images and very rarely get them. Instead, we get bombarded with hundreds of terrible low-res snaps from which nothing can be gleaned. I have decided therefor to share my frustration with you all by taking a terrible photo of a nice little painting we have in stock, the first person to guess the artist will get a handful of the much coveted AHN points, now accepted in all good retailers.
Update - thanks for your entries. The artist is, as two of you guessed correctly (well done), Mary Beale.
'Sacred Geometry' in action
February 18 2013
Picture: Alfonso Rubino/MLF
The 'Iselworth Mona Lisa' proponents have published a photo of their 'sacred geometry' proof that their painting is by Mona Lisa. All it prooves, alas, is that copies tend to follow originals quite closely. Probably we knew that already...
They've also apparently developed a fool-proof way to attributing paintings:
Previously, four tests undertaken by Prof. John Asmus, nuclear physicist, who digitised the brushtrokes of both paintings, established scientifically that both the 'Earlier Version' [ie, the Isleworth picture] and the 'Mona Lisa' in the Louvre would have been executed by the same artist. This brushstroke analysis identifies conclusively an artist in the same way that DNA or fingerprints identify criminals'.
More details at the Mona Lisa Foundation here.
Sotheby's sued over Caravaggio attribution
February 15 2013
The Art Newspaper reports that Sotheby's is being sued over a work it sold as a copy of a Caravaggio in 2006, but which might in fact be the real thing. The vendor is apparently claiming up to £10m. The word 'might', of course, is the crucial bit here, for although the late Sir Denis Mahon said the picture was by Caravaggio, other Caravaggio scholars have said it isn't. And Sir Denis might have had a conflict of interest - he bought the picture at Sotheby's, for £50,400.
The claimant is Lancelot William Thwaytes, who consigned the work to auction in 2006; it was catalogued as The Cardsharps, “a 17th-century copy after Caravaggio’s original now in the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth”. The painting had been in the Thwaytes family since 1962. According to the claim that was filed at the end of January, Thwaytes seeks unspecified damages, interest and costs relating to the price difference between the £42,000 the painting sold for in 2006 and “what its true open market value was in 2006”, had it been attributed to Caravaggio and to be determined by expert evidence. The filing includes the claim that Sotheby’s did not undertake the necessary research and analysis prior to the work’s sale.
In a statement, Sotheby’s says that its “view that the painting is a copy and not an autograph work by Caravaggio is supported by the eminent Caravaggio scholar Professor Richard Spear, as well as by several other leading experts in the field”. Other experts who have gone on the record in support of Sotheby’s view include Helen Langdon, the Italian Baroque scholar and the writer of Caravaggio’s 1998 biography, and Sebastian Schütze, a professor of art history at the University of Vienna. In reference to Mahon’s The Cardsharps, Schütze writes in his 2009 catalogue of Caravaggio’s paintings that “the quality of the execution… rather suggests the painting to be a copy”.
So far, Sotheby's case would seem pretty strong, not least because it's very hard to sue an auction house if they make a mistake over attributions. The Terms and Conditions you sign when consigning a painting for sale effectively give them carte blanche to call a picture what they like. The only thing you can sue auction houses for is negligence - that is, say they didn't bother to do even the most basic research on a painting - and that is very hard to proove. In my experience, at least, the major auction houses usually are professional and diligent in how they catalogue pictures.
However, then Sotheby's go and spoil their case by saying:
Sotheby’s adds: “Our view is also supported by the market, which gave its verdict on this painting when it set the price at £50,400 [the hammer price plus the buyer’s premium] at Sotheby’s sale in December of 2006. The catalogue in which the painting was included was distributed among the world’s leading curators, art historians, collectors and dealers—had they deemed the attribution different to that given in the catalogue, the price realised would doubtless have reflected that.”
This is a spurious argument, and I can't believe that anybody senior at Sotheby's has signed off on it. Such logic would rule out any cheaply bought 'sleeper' ever being right. And, if the inverse is true, it must mean that when 'the market' bids way over estimate for a picture called, say, 'follower of Rubens', then not only is the market right that it is by Rubens, but the auction house must wrong in stating that it is by a follower.
The 'Caravaggio' in question here was offered at Sotheby's minor saleroom in Olympia, which is now closed. It was a pain in the bum to get to, and only the hardy and determined tended to go and view paintings there. So it would have been quite easy for the 'the world's leading curators, art historians, collectors and dealers' to miss the painting. It used to happen a lot, but sadly, for bottom-feeding dealers like me, doesn't so much these days; high-resolution online images mean most people can inspect pretty much everything on offer at auction, no matter where it is. But in the distant days of 2006 online images weren't as good as they are now, and the Sotheby's Olympia catalogues generally only had very small printed images. You can see the original catalogue entry here. So it's just not possible to use an auction sale price as proof of a painting's attribution. For what it's worth, I remember looking at the picture - and not having a clue that it might be by Caravaggio. The attribution is now also supported by, according to TAN:
[...] Caravaggio scholars Mina Gregori and Maurizio Marini; Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums; the curator and Bolognese art expert Daniele Benati; Thomas Scheider, a writer and restorer; and Ulrich Birkmaier, the chief conservator of the Wadsworth Atheneum.
Update - a reader asks:
A very interesting article on the Mahon 'Caravaggio' - do we know where it currently is, does it form part of the Mahon estate, which I understood was willed to the Art Fund, and on a slightly different matter, what is the news on Mahon's will, which I believe still hasn't been published?
Another reader also wonders:
Interestingly the article actually says Mahon “obtained an export licence for it that gave an estimated selling price of £10m”.
I assume this was a temporary one for the exhibition in Trapani as I don’t recollect any case before the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art. Unless of course there was no objection to a permanent export licence by the Committee’s expert adviser, the National Gallery, which, given the rarity of authentic Caravaggios in the UK, one would expect there to be.
And what has happened to it since? I notice that the Mahon pictures in the National Gallery have not yet been accessioned, they remain “On loan from the Personal Representatives of Sir Denis Mahon”.
Update II - I am reliably informed by someone whose opinion on attributions I trust entirely, that the picture is certainly not by Caravaggio.
February 14 2013
Picture: Monda Lisa Foundation
The folks behind the so-called 'Isleworthless Mona Lisa', who claim their picture to be 'the first version' by Leonardo, have come out with yet more 'evidence' behind their claim. From The Independent:
New tests on a painting billed as the original version of the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci's 15th century portrait, have produced fresh proof that it is the work of the Italian master, a Swiss-based art foundation claims.
The tests, one by a specialist in "sacred geometry" and the other by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, were carried out in the wake of the Geneva unveiling of the painting, the Isleworth Mona Lisa, last September.
"When we add these new findings to the wealth of scientific and physical studies we already had, I believe anyone will find the evidence of a Leonardo attribution overwhelming," said David Feldman vice-president of the foundation said.
Not me, alas. 'Sacred geometry' or not, it's just a (not very good) later copy. But don't take my word for it; read Leonardo scholar Professor Martin Kemp's view here.
The wrinkly Elizabeth I
February 14 2013
I feel I ought to point out a few things about the 'newly discovered' portrait of Elizabeth I doing the rounds, which has gone on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. The fact that it shows Elizabeth with wrinkles has been cited as evidence of its extreme rarity. From The Telegraph:
[...] Thomas Herron, an author and English professor at East Carolina University, noted that the reason for the portrait’s obscurity may lie in Elizabeth’s efforts to control her image.
And according to Anna Riehl, author of The Face of Queenship: Early Modern Representations of Queen Elizabeth I the [...] portrait is a "rare exception in not covering up the queen's flaws”.
A 1563 draft of Royal Proclamation attempted to regulate the production and circulation of the Queen's portraits, and a 1596 order to the Privy Council commanded public officers "to aid the Queen's Sergeant Painter in seeking out unseemly portraits which were to her 'great offence' and therefore to be defaced and no more portraits to be produced except as approved by [the] Sergeant Painter."
While Herron points out that “the decrees don't specify ‘ageing’ portraits or even comment on the queen's own looks in any way”, many paintings of the time presented an eternally youthful Elizabeth. Herron also notes that visitors at her court commented upon the queen’s advanced age by the 1580s and 90s - as well as her dignified and benevolent disposition. He further observed that visitors offered less flattering descriptions.
In The Guardian, Jonathan Jones makes this conclusion about the painting:
In the new, unvarnished portrait of Elizabeth I, wrinkles-and-all, the artist has stepped over a fine line. All the accoutrements of her glamour are there, but the painter has gone just that bit nearer to the reality behind the myth than was required to give a portrait plausibility. The result is a cruel unmasking of power. Could this have been a deliberately subversive image, hidden away in the house of some rebellious lord? Here is the fairy queen, her spell broken.
Sadly, there is little we can deduce from this picture, and certainly not enough to make speculative claims of artistic subversion. First, contemporary portraits of Elizabeth I with wrinkles are not unknown. The famous Ditchley portrait in the National Portrait Gallery shows her looking quite aged, for example, though you can't get a full sense of it from the photos. Secondly, the picture above is a not particularly good workshop painting based on a 'mask' that would have been re-used many times. The features and lines, in the process of copying, have become exaggerated. Finally, the effect of the wrinkles is exaggerated by the condition of the picture, in which a greyer ground layer is coming through pink flesh tones which have both faded and been somewhat abraded.
The 1563 proclamation referred to in The Telegraph almost certainly relates to the earliest portrait type of Elizabeth as Queen, an example of which we currently have here in the gallery. The Queen evidently didn't like these portraits, which the proclamation said 'did nothinge resemble' her. They were swiflty superseded in 1563 by the Hampden portrait (which we also once had here at Philip Mould) which was much copied, and set the pattern for the remainder of her reign.
Update - a reader writes:
Yes I thought that too about the Wrinkly Elizabeth. The 'rebellious Lord' bit was like something you'd hear from a well-meaning country house guide.
That type is curious - a highly individual Ditchley variant. I've seen a few examples - probably more than any other late type, but still fewer than you ever see of Henry VIII. Strange how rare relatively Queen Elizabeth's portrait is. Where did all these corridor pictures go?
Update II - another reader writes:
Too bad you pooh-pooh this wrinkly Elizabeth as a "not particularly good workshop painting" -- I confess with head lowered that I find it deeply poignant and oddly impressive. Ah well, that is the advantage of not having any connoisseurship expertise, perhaps!
Another Richard III found
February 13 2013
Picture: Adam Busiakiewicz
Reader Adam Busiakiewicz from Warwick Castle sends news of a potentially exciting rival Richard III discovery. The above head was found:
[...] outside Bear and Clarence Towers, two buildings that were commissioned by Richard III himself, but never completed. He married Richard Neville’s, ‘The Kingmaker’, daughter Anne Neville in 1472... so we are celebrating this link a lot at the moment!
Prado discovers rare early 15thC panel
February 12 2013
Video: Museo Prado
The Prado has restored a newly discovered early 15thC panel showing Louis I d'Orleans. From the Prado website:
Shown to the public for the first time, the Museo del Prado is presenting The Agony in the Garden with the Donor Louis I d’Orléans (1405-1407/1408), a previously unpublished work acquired by the Museum in 2012. Following a lengthy process of restoration it will now be placed on display in the permanent galleries and represents a major contribution to the field of Early French Painting. The aesthetic and pictorial merit of the painting, recently restored with the sponsorship of Fundación Iberdrola, combined with the rarity of works from this school, make this panel a unique example of enormous historical importance given that it is the only known panel painting to depict Louis d’Orléans. With a possible attribution to Colart de Laon, Louis’ painter and valet de chambre, the panel will be presented in a special display until 28 April in Room 51A, alongside X-radiograph and Infra-red reflectograph images of it and a video that shows the different stages of its restoration.
Courbet discovery - is it all a load of 'foutaise'?
February 10 2013
Picture: Paris Match
Le Figaro has interviewed art dealer Hubert Duchemin on the apparent discovery of the head of Courbet's 'L'Origine du Monde', first published in Paris Match. He says it's all a load of 'foutaise' - or as we say in English, 'bullsh*t'. In addition, the Musee d'Orsay has issued a statement saying the discovery is, to use the technical term, a load of old phooey.
Didier Rykner at Tribune de L'Art has published Paris Match's recreation of how the sketch and body are supposed to match up [above]. Didier is deeply sceptical of the whole thing. Meanwhile, Jean-Jacques Fernier, the compiler of the Courbet catalogue raisonne who has accepted the work, is taking a dim view of the critics:
I don’t give a damn what they think. I am the official Courbet specialist and I have said it is by him. These Civil servants haven’t even seen the work.”
The phrase 'official specialist' should be enough to chill the heart of any art historian. What a weird concept. But they seem to like doing things this way in France.
Readers will notice that I've censored the above image, out of deference to Buckinghamshire County Council, who blocked AHN after I first reported the story.
Courbet's infamous model?
February 7 2013
Picture: Paris Match
Will try and get more photos (of the head).
Update - more images here, including a pencil drawing of what the whole picture looked like before it was cut down.
Update II - Art History News is officially porn. A reader writes:
You will be delighted to hear that the Bucks County Council schools server has just blocked all access to your website on all school computers (administrative as well as teachers and students) as it contains ‘Profanity’ and ‘Sexual content’ - must be the Paris Match cover of the ‘L’Origine du Monde’ painting – without the strategically placed spot that was printed in today’s Times!
I did think about somehow censoring the image, in deference to AHN's younger readers, but then thought I owed a greater responsibility to Courbet. And in any case, the headline in the Paris Match article just about covers enough for it not to be shocking. But apologies for any embarrassment caused to readers.
Update III - this may yet be another dud discovery story. See my separate post above. But I'm still trying to get a decent photo of the head.
Richard III? (ctd.)
February 6 2013
Video: Press Association
I'm afraid I just don't trust these facial reconstructions from skulls. According to the video above, 70% of the facial recreation from a skull is highly accurate. But then we all have two eyes, a nose and a mouth - that is, our faces all have a great deal in common. It's the tiny details that set us a part. I don't believe we can get details such as the precise length or shape of noses, eyes, eyebrows, lips or ears, even hair colour - all the things which make our faces so distinctive - from a skull. So please treat the face in the above video with some caution. In this other video at The Guardian, the lady behind the recreation says that the face is derived 'only from science', but then immediately contradicts herself by saying she used multiple contemporary references. This exercise would only have been valid had the recreators been given the skull, and not told who it was meant to be.
Update - here's an interesting article in Acta Biomedica in 2009 on the history of facial reconstruction by Laura Verze from the Department of Anatomy, Pharmacology and Legal Medicine at the University of Turin, Italy. She concludes:
In conclusion, over the centuries faces have been reconstructed from skulls for different reasons: religion, teaching, and more recently forensics, anthropology and archaeology of ancient or more or less famous people. The techniques are changing, and new more reliable methods are being studied. Nevertheless, it is clear that facial reconstruction methods and their traditional guidelines present some inaccuracies, and the challenge will be to increase the degree of accuracy of facial reconstruction.
Murillo at Dulwich
February 6 2013
Video: Dulwich Picture Gallery
Interesting article by Maev Kennedy in The Guardian about the Murillo exhibition about to open at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Xavier Bray, Dulwich's Chief Curator, went to great lengths to track down one rarely seen picture:
St Peter was known only from an ancient black-and-white photograph, last catalogued in 1905. The last recorded owners lived at Newick, near Lewes in Sussex – as, by chance, do Bray's in-laws. He interrogated them about known inheritances among local families, and once he got a lead, settled down with Google Earth to track houses that might have walls large enough to take the painting.
After he narrowed it down, Bray lost his nerve about marching up a very long drive, probably with guard dogs, and knocking on the door. Instead, he ransacked the contact books of everyone he knew until he found an intermediary to break the news to the startled householders that they had inherited not just a mansion but a masterpiece. They had had no idea that the painting was of any significance.
Meanwhile, the Grumpy Art Historian is annoyed that Dulwich forked out for Maev Kennedy's trip to Spain to see the Prado's leg of the exhibition, and also at the fact that the museum has allowed one of the lenders, Lord Faringdon, to borrow a picture of theirs to fill the hole on his wall.
Update - Brian Sewell's review is here.
February 5 2013
I really want to believe that the skeleton found in a car park in Leicester is Richard III. (I'm aware this topic isn't very art historical, but you'll have to indulge me). The Wars of the Roses were the first thing to awaken my interest in history, and the story of Richard III in particular. I remember being quite convinced, as a seven year old, that Richard was a good 'un, and that Shakespeare was a Tudor propogandist villain. If the body is Richard's, which it certainly seems to be, then those responsible for finding it have performed nothing short of a historical miracle, and deserve our fullest possible congratulations. After all, what were the chances of finding the King's body in the first trench of the first dig, under a parking space marked 'R'...
And yet... It is true that the TV programme, The King in the Car Park, broadcast in the UK last night made for good telly, and that the newspaper reports have set out the main facts of the case well. The University of Leicester's website also has some intriguing further information. But the problem with being a trained, empirical historian is that you tend to want to examine all the evidence yourself, and then make up your own mind, rather than rely on the reports of others. And so far I cannot do that. The published evidence that the body is Richard III is quite convincing. But it really cannot be said to be entirely convincing.
Why does it matter? It's a good story, and has been fun to follow. But for an anorak like me that's not enough. If we want to be able to say, 'This is Richard III', with such conviction that we are able then to bury him with all the dignity the Church can muster, in a shrine in some exalted cathedral,* then we must be absolutely sure, beyond not just reasonable doubt but any doubt, that it is him. And we are not yet there.
Here are some of the problems I have with the evidence presented so far. First, having argued for decades (with some compelling contemporary evidence, it has to be said) that Richard III absolutely did not have a crooked spine, Ricardians have now seized on the fact that the skeleton did have a crooked spine as proof that it must be Richard III. I'm sorry, but that's not good enough. Secondly, the evidence that Richard III was buried in Greyfriars monastery is quite strong, but to be sure this particular body is him we need to have far more archaeological evidence about the rest of the site, and even to be able to discount other bodies buried therein. Heralding the first body you dig up and then not fully excavating the rest of the site, is, again, not really good enough. I don't think we yet have conclusive proof that the body was by the altar. Thirdly, the evidence that the body died a violent death is useful, but hardly a clincher in a violent age, and in a place not far from one of the bloodiest battles fought on English soil. I'm also puzzled at the bound hands theory - why would you bind the hands of a dead person? Is it possible that the large slice at the back of the head, the bound hands, and the way the skull was rather oddly placed in the grave (higher than the skeleton), all suggest instead that we are dealing with some unfortunate captive who was beheaded? And finally, what of the DNA evidence? For me, the most compelling evidence was the DNA analysis linking the bones to Richard's descendants. But so far we have had no published evidence to back this up. All we had in the TV programme was the simple, impossibly brief conclusion that 'we have a match'.
Well, what sort of match? The graph above, from the University of Leicester's website, shows part of a sequence from the DNA of two descendants of Richard III's sister, Anne of York. The two descendants' DNA matches perfectly. The bottom graph shows the partial DNA sequence of Richard III. At first glance they look close - there is indeed 'a match'. But look closer and you'll see that there are quite distinct differences. My main question here is, if two (apparently seperate) descendants of Richard III's sister have, after 18 generations, entirely identical DNA matches, then why does Richard III's not also match identically?
There may be a perfectly acceptable explanation for all this (and I'm no geneticist), but the problem is we are not provided with one. And before you think I'm just being curmudgeonly here, then you may be interested to read this from today's Guardian:
"Mitochondria is not brilliant for detecting relatedness but, given you've got so far back in time, so many generations back, it's as good as it can get. If the only thing you can compare that ancient DNA with is somebody living today, then you'd want it to be mitochondria," said Mark Thomas, a professor of evolutionary genetics at University College London.
But it is not ideal. Two people could have the same mitochondrial type just by chance and it would not necessarily mean they shared a common ancestor at the time of Richard III. "If Richard III had a very common type of mitochondrial DNA, then there will be plenty of people in the country that have got the same," said Thomas.
Even if there is good circumstantial evidence to suggest two people are related, they might still share the same mtDNA by chance. One thing to look out for in any forthcoming research paper is just how rare the mtDNA type is that King's team measured – the rarer it is, the less likely it is to be a chance result and the more likely it is to be a robust family connection.
Ross Barnett of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum in Copenhagen also questioned the depth of the mtDNA match between the skeleton and Ibsen.
"The [diagrams] they showed were only about 30 base pairs or so … you need to have quite a lot more than 30 base pairs to get a deep match." The more common a mtDNA type is in the population, the more base pairs of DNA are required to get a reliable match.
I have some concerns with other aspects of the archaeological evidence too. Now it is true that historians have long been wary of archaeologists jumping to logical-sounding conclusions based on almost no evidence, and I may just be being academically sniffy here. But take this explanation for some of the wounds on the body:
There was another sword slash to the skull, which would also have penetrated to the brain and proved fatal in moments, but the others came after death, and were described – in an image still resonant from many battlegrounds today – as "humiliation injuries". They could not have happened to a man protected by armour, and are consistent with the accounts of his body being stripped on the battlefield, and brought back to Leicester naked, slung over the pommel of a horse. That, almost certainly, was when the thrusting injury through the right buttock and into the pelvis happened.
Professor Lin Foxhall, head of the university's archaeology department, and Bob Savage, an expert on medieval weapons from the Royal Armouries, pointed out that Richard's face was relatively undamaged.
"They'd killed the king and they needed to keep him recognisable," Savage said. "To me, the injuries are fully consistent with the accounts of his dying in a melee, and [being] unhorsed – I believe he was dead within minutes of coming off his horse. But they took care not to bash the face about too much."
"It's the Gaddafi effect," Foxhall said. "We saw just this in the horrible mobile-phone footage of Gaddafi being found, and you can hear the voices shouting 'not the face, don't touch the face'. It's one of those dreadful lessons from history which we never learn."
This all sounds logical, but as hard historical evidence it won't entirely do. First, we cannot judge a battle in 1485 by comparing it to the death of a dictator in 2011. I don't know, but I suspect that those who confronted Richard III at Bosworth tried to kill him as quickly as they could, face or no face. There is no contemporary evidence that anyone cared a jot about Richard's face. And then there is the sudden supposition that this skeleton was that of a man who was wearing armour, when in fact there is no evidence he was wearing armour at all. Yes, if you assume this body was Richard III, he would have been wearing armour. But you cannot make that assumption first, and then use it as part of your argument that he was Richard III. Haven't the archaeologists got ahead of themselves here?
All of which brings me onto my main concern with this story - the academic processes followed by the University of Leicester (and I'm not just talking about the unfortunate archaeological digging that split open the body's leg and skull). As a historian, I cannot help but be instinctively uncomfortable with the seemingly subjective way in which the University has gone about their task. The press conference held yesterday to announce the discovery made for dramatic TV, but reflected badly on the University's regard for academic process and objectivity. One wondered if the university found only what they wanted to find. This is, however, potentially one of the most important archaeological and historical discoveries in British history, and the university owed it to their fellow historians and archaeological colleagues to ensure that the evidence was not only presented fairly, but in great detail, and at leisure (the DNA match was only made on Saturday night!). Instead, we have had no peer review process, and no in-depth evidence to analyse for ourselves. All we have so far is an engaging but historically redundant TV programme, and an entirely deficient (from an academic point of view) section on the University of Leicester website which raises more questions than answers, especially when it comes to the DNA evidence. On which, as Professor Mary Beard writes:
Then I found myself thinking... this is a complicated bit of scientific analysis being given its first outing in a Press Conference, not ever having been through the process of peer review. DNA evidence is tricky and any scientist would want their results peer evaluated before going completely public. OK, I see that there is a tricky dividing line. We want to have us, the public, informed of what's been going on -- and we dont necessarily think it is a great idea that we should all have to wait for that for months or years, until the academic seal of approval has been granted. But the idea of the publication of research by press conference isn't one I feel very comfortable with (as a member of the public, I want not just a story, but a validated story).
I know I may come across as an old grump on this, and I really don't mean to begrudge the team at Leicester their excitement and justly won praise. I've little doubt that they're right and that the body really is Richard III. History and historians will forever owe them a debt of gratitude. But from a historical point of view the stakes could not be higher, and I just wish that a little more care had been taken to present the evidence properly. It's a shame that there need to be any doubts at all. I don't want to have any doubts. I want it to be true.
*I would argue for burial in York.
Update - a reader writes:
The concerns you raise regarding the university's approach to identifying the putative remains of the King are well taken. But on one point, there may be an easy answer. You ask "... if two (apparently seperate) descendants of Richard III's sister have, after 18 generations, entirely identical DNA matches, then why does Richard III's not also match identically? According to the CBC National news last evening the descendants are actually Canadian brothers (Jeff and Michael Ibsen) whom, one presumes, are likely to have close to matching DNA. The film clip is here.
Update II - Neil Jeffares, via Twitter, asks some pertinent DNA questions:
How many of the other bodies left below the parking lot would have passed the mtDNA test? We need the numbers. After all, if it survives unchanged for 18 generations, lots of people must have the same...
How many of RIII's maternal cousins (perhaps many times removed) also slain at Bosworth and buried in same carpark?
Update III - more DNA questions on Livescience.com:
Ancient DNA, however, is very susceptible to contamination, sparking some skepticism.
"Before being convinced of ANY aDNA study, it should be explicit that all possible cautions were taken to avoid potential contamination," Avila wrote in an email to LiveScience. "It is just part of the protocol." (aDNA refers to ancient DNA.)
Avila also warned that people could share mitochondrial DNA even if they didn't share a family tree. To be confident that Ibsen is related to the owner of the disinterred skeleton, the researchers must present statistics showing how common the DNA profile is in the United Kingdom, she said. Otherwise, the similarities between Ibsen's mitochondrial DNA and the skeleton's could be coincidental.
Avila noted that she doesn't necessarily disbelieve the team's conclusion that the skeleton is Richard III's, just that the DNA evidence isn't the strongest piece of the puzzle.
"It seems to me that osteological as well as archaeological evidence is stronger, however 'DNA evidence' sounds fancier so it looks like they used it as the hook to capture the attention of media," she said.
Personally, I see it the other way round. I hope we are able to say that the DNA evidence is stronger than the interesting, but not wholly convincing, archaeological evidence. Apparently fuller DNA details will be released in a week or so.
Update IV - revisiting this on 2nd September 2013, I see that the University of Leicester has still not released a fuller analysis of the DNA evidence.
A sleeper awakes...?
February 2 2013
For me, the highlight of the New York Old Master sales was the above small oil on panel described as 'Follower of Rubens' at Sotheby's, with an estimate of $30,000-$50,000. The sitter was identified as 'Possibly Clara Serena Rubens', the artist's daughter, and was being deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum. After a protracted bidding battle between what seemed to be at least half a dozen bidders, the picture sold for $626,500.
The picture shone out from the wall at the viewing, and I'm not surprised that more than one person had the same idea as Philip Mould and I - that this was by no mere follower of Rubens. What could have appeared at first glance to be a poorly drawn face was in fact a wonderfully observed informal portrait of a seemingly self-conscious but relaxed young girl. The shadowing and reflected light on the right hand side of the face and neck, for example, were masterly. The key here was the informality of the picture, which, in its sketchy application (especially in the drapery) set it apart from Rubens' better known and more finished head studies. The fact that it was partly obscured by several layers of old varnish, particularly in the hair and background, also made the quality of the work hard to read at first. But enough people were convinced to take it to a higher level, and I'm not surprised it made a high price.
You might say, however, that if it was so apparently by Rubens, why did it not fetch more? The answer lies in the - how shall I put this? - unsettled nature of Rubens scholarship at the moment. The Rubenianum is a fine and glorious body, but it is known for its multi-headed approach to its cataloguing - that is, it is unlike the Rembrandt Research Project, where a single figure of tested connoisseurial ability, Ernst van der Wetering, is the ultimate arbiter of attributions. As a result, a number of surprising attributional calls are made on Rubens as scholars with varying thresholds of what is and isn't a Rubens publish works on seperate areas of the artist's work. Therefore, the picture at Sotheby's will be a difficult one to 'get through', as we say in the trade, and thus carries a greater commercial risk. Plus, there is the fact that this picture was deaccessioned by the Met - as big an institution as they come - as a copy of a lost original, presumably with the agreement of the current crop of Rubens scholars, and with the views of important names such as Julius Held, who in 1959 first questioned the previously accepted attribution to Rubens, behind it. So the buyer of the picture is necessarily going to put a lot of noses out of joint if he or she does prove that it is by Rubens - almost as many as me for writing this post, in fact.
Still, it's all good fun, and art history will be the ultimate winner for the picture getting greater attention. I don't think, by the way, that Sotheby's were wrong to put the picture in as by a follower of Rubens. First, I and the other bidders may well be wrong (though I don't mind saying here that I think it certainly is by Rubens, and the winning bidder will have to excuse me for not publishing here all our research on the picture). Second, if the Metropolitan Museum and five decades of Rubens scholarship have said it is not by Rubens, then it's hardly up to Sotheby's to tell the Met where it might be going wrong. The picture will be an interesting one to follow, and gives a timely reminder here in the UK on (as I have highlighted many times) the perils of deaccessioning.