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.
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.
New British portraits website
January 30 2013
Here's a handy new website, from the Understanding British Portraits [UBP] subject specialist network. The UBP is funded by the National Portrait Gallery, the National Trust, the Arts Council and the Foyle Foundation. On their new website you can find all sorts of useful information:
New online publishing and best practice case studies, guest blog, and queries board are just some of the additions to our website which has been designed with your portrait-needs in mind! Find out what recent delegates at our Annual Seminar found relevant to their collections, how to identify portrait specialists, and practical guides to researching and interpreting portraits and devising learning programmes. Tell us what you think, submit reviews, and share your thoughts on the illustrated queries.
The list of British portrait specialists will be useful. Though when I put in Van Dyck, 'no matches' came up. Mind you, 'no matches' also came up when I put 'Grosvenor' in...
Update - this clarification comes in about the funding:
The network is supported by the National Portrait Gallery, National Trust, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, and Bristol Museums Galleries Archives. A grant from Arts Council England is assisting a great deal with our programming costs, and the website is entirely funded by the Foyle Foundation, for which we’re very grateful indeed.
Tudor & Stuart royal fashion at the Royal Collection
January 29 2013
Picture: Royal Collection
What's this - yet another Royal Collection exhibition to look forward to? From the Royal Collection press office:
For the Tudor and Stuart elite, luxurious clothing was an essential component of court life. Garments and accessories – and the way in which they were worn – conveyed important messages about wealth, gender, age, social position, marital status and religion. Through the evidence of portraiture, In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion traces changing tastes in fashionable attire and the spread of fashion through the royal courts of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Using paintings, drawings and prints from the Royal Collection, and rare surviving examples of clothing and accessories, it explores the style of the rich and famous of the Tudor and Stuart periods.
The exhibition will follow the current show, the epic, brilliant The Northern Renaissance: Durer to Holbein* (if you haven't yet seen it, you have until 14th April), and opens on 10th May.
London will be a feast of Tudor-iana this summer, as the V&A are also having a Tudor themed show, called 'Treasures of the Royal Courts'. A key exhibit will be the earliest full-length portrait of Elizabeth I, the Hampden Portrait (below), which I had the pleasure of researching when we sold it here at Philip Mould & Company some years ago. If you fancy it, you can read my article on the picture here in The British Art Journal. The V&A show is in collaboration with the Kremlin Museum in Moscow, and will also feature goodies from the courts of the 16th Century Tsars.
*by the way, I know I once promised a review of 'The Northern Renaissance', so apologies for never writing it. Damn good show though, and a typically excellent Royal Collection catalogue to go with it too.
A congress on art authentification (ctd.)
January 24 2013
The website of the planned 2014 Authentication in Art congress I mentioned a while ago has been updated with some additional information. The Committee of Recommendation is comprised (so far) of Professor Martin Kemp (of Oxford and Leonardo fame) and Dr Rudi Ekkart (of the RKD in Holland). So far so eminent. Here's some more info on what the Congress hopes to achieve:
Within the disciplines mentioned above until now no specific education is available to experts specialising in authentication processes. Nowadays training mainly entails the gradual development of empirical knowledge that appears mainly within the international art and auction sector and in some cases in museums. Structural development of academic skills and competencies focussed on the complex domain of authentication in art simply does not exist. The congress organisers strive towards the development of specialised professional training entirely focussed on expertise on authentication matters.
The educational character will be demonstrated through a well-balanced and academic selection of topics, speakers and specific workshops. The congress requires participants with an inquisitive attitude that are willing to look across the boundaries of their own field.
Students from disciplines Art History, Conservation techniques, Material and Legal sciences from around the world will be invited to participate.
Presentations, lectures and discussions at workshops will be recorded and audio/video reports will be made available.
- Common terminology and understanding
- Standards for scientific research and technological research
- Education and training
- Cataloguing and publishing
- Dispute settlement
- Practical use, users
- Finance, Legal, Art trade implications
- Legal implications
This all sounds most encouraging. Hopefully, the educational aspect can be spread further, particularly to university art history departments and students. Perhaps there might be a concerted attempt to get teaching departments involved?
It's an area I feel strongly about. I was recently invited to a seminar (and a fine lunch) at the Paul Mellon Centre to discuss matters of attribution and connoisseurship, along with others from the art trade. The discussion was to look at ways in which the trade could help art history academics and students, and vice-versa. I noted that one thing my fellow dealers had in common was that they had only really started to interract with paintings on a meaningful level (that is, really subject to close study) once they had left university. Isn't this a shame?
Now, I know some art history courses are better than others when it comes to the close analysis of objects. But too much art history teaching is done from small screens and books. The result is that many art history students are missing out on the basic skills they need to work in the art world, particularly when it comes to attribution and authentication, and assessing condition. Students and teachers need to get out more. Hopefully events like this authentication congress can encourage further debate in this area. I know the Mellon Centre are looking to explore this further too.
That said, I'm still looking for the 'c-word' - connoisseurship - on the authentication congress website, but so far with no luck. I do hope the congress will make the case for connoisseurship as part of the authenitication process, but it appears that the emphasis is heading towards a scientific one. This is all well and good, but as I've said before, it is rare that you can scientifically prove a painting.
Science can help you rule out a number of factors - for example, whether a painting is a later copy. But it is rare that it can rule something in. Some artists worked in isolation from the mainstream, and thus developed their own idiosyncratic painting techniques (Vermeer is a good example), and it is true that here scientific evidence can assume a greater importance. But with most artists, particularly those who used a workshop (and who therefore had a number of followers working with exactly the same painting tecniques and styles), science can only offer a more general guide. And since many of the artists we are most interested in authenticating are those who did operate large studios, such as Rubens and Rembrandt, then science can usually only ever get you so far. You still need the connoisseur's eye for the final conclusion.
That said, I would also make the case for the connoisseur's eye at the beginning of any authentication process. Here's why - the trend for getting paintings scientifically analysed has given rise to an interesting phenomenon I call 'the dossier delusion'. Increasingly, we are presented here in the gallery (and also at 'Fake or Fortune?' HQ) with paintings that are manifestly not by, for example, Turner, but which have nonetheless been subjected to a full technical examination; x-rays, infra-red, pigment and support analysis. The analysis invariably comes up with a conclusion such as; 'yes, this is an early 19th Century painting, with the right sort of canvas and paints, and there is nothing to disprove the suggestion that this is by Turner'. In other words, it's all a bit vague. The conclusion is presented with a thick, professional-looking dossier - and of course a whopping bill.
However (to continue our Turner example), despite this dossier all the Turner experts, and even anyone with a general knowledge of his work, would say merely on looking at the painting, 'this is not by Turner'. So here's an interesting, indeed ethical question - why, if a connoisseurial look can tell you that a picture is manifestly not by Turner, should an owner be encouraged to spend a great deal of money to prove, scientifically, that it is? If the owner of the putative Turner had asked the Turner experts first, and trusted the expert's judgement, he would have saved himself many thousands of pounds, a great deal of time, and not a little hope. But, as someone wise once said, 'hope is the most powerful human emotion'.
I didn't mean this to become a rant about connoisseurship, but you know me, once I start...
Update - a reader writes:
I read your comment about connoissuership with interest. I seem to remember a program in the "Fake or Fortune" series about a disputed Monet painting during which the presenters,especially a certain Mr. Philip Mould, railed against the Wildenstein Institute. A barrage of scientific tests, and the testimony of the other experts, indicated the painting was authentic but the Wildenstein's in their infinite wisdom said "non" for the sole reason, as I remember that it didn't look right. Isn't that the problem with connoissuership ; there are just too many connoisssuers?.
Should the program "Fake or Fortune" speak to the connoissuers first before the barrage of tests or would that make it a ten minute program each week?
Having said that, I agree in many ways. I would much prefer to look at a painting and make up my own mind than read a 500 page report which has probably been commissioned simply to justify an insurance valuation. My judgement is probably wrong but it doesnt matter as painting is not a science; it is an art.
Good points - yes, 'you could say there are too many connoisseurs'. But I would say instead - 'there are too many bad connoisseurs'. As I've said before, in any occupation or skill there are good and bad practitioners. Some doctors are good, some are rubbish. But we don't say as a result, 'medicine is rubbish, let's try another way to cure people.' The trick with attributions and connoisseurship is very simple; to find someone who is good, who is tried and tested. In the case of the 'Fake or Fortune?' Monet we did have a tried and tested connoisseur, Professor John House of the Courtauld, who knew merely from looking at the painting that it was right. Ultimately, I think one of the reasons the Wildenstein's refused to play ball was because the science never proved that it was vraiment a Monet, merely that it could be.
Update II - Another reader writes:
Your flagging-up of the conference and its ramifications also bring to mind the intense hostilities engendered over declarations of authenticity across the board in paintings etc. from Monet onwards where there are committees and families involved.
I have in particular been hearing about one deceased artist’s foundation, now fronted by the grand-daughter. This is now insisting on scientific analysis of anything put in front of them, which has just recently led to a certain work being ‘removed’ from the canon despite having earlier written testimonials from both the artist’s daughter and said grand-daughter (used as back-up by Christie’s).
This is as nothing against the Warhol shenanigans which have been well reported.
You are also quite right to highlight the need for students to include real experience of artworks away from the computer screen or slide show.
Subsidised unsnobby internships would be ideal ......in our dreams !
I've never understood this business of having an inherited right to authenticate paintings. Who the hell came up with that idea?
Update III - a reader writes:
With growing concern I witness how museums and art historic scholars are trying to reattribute paintings of minor quality to be "masterpieces" simply by arguing with science. The most "shocking" example in my opinion is the new John the Baptist at the Prado. Even someone who is not a conoisseur can see at an instant, that this painting cannot have anything to do with the master. The clumsy manner in how the upward gaze of the figure with his hand pressed to its chest has been handled is unworthy of a Titian. This is such a "baroque" gesture that one can ask if the painting has anything to do with the master at all. At an auction such a painting would fetch a few thousand Euros at its best. One could therefore just forget about it if there would not have been a noted scholar affiliated to an institution like the Prado who brought it to the attention of the art world. Now we have to deal with it which means that a lot will be written and about it. In my opinion the discussion will not be about the style, becaus here the painting can definitely not stand its ground.
To make one's point the discussion will therefore focus on the restoration report instead. Take the alleged Raphael painting of pope Julius II, that has recently been aquired by the Städel in Frankfurt. The x-rays show pentimenti what has been interpretated as part of "the creative process" that was inflicted upon the painting by the master himself. A standard argument by now to silence critics. As none of us has been with the artist as the painting was created how can we be so sure it was him? Only because a scientific report says so? It is hard to argue against it if you have only got your eye and your subjective opinion on your side. But what will become of conoisseurship if we rely exclusively on science? Nothing much, I guess.
Update IV - a reader from Spain adds, in response to the above comment:
The authenticity of the work by Titian from Prado is not based obviously in the picture visible surface. The paint surface is destroyed by the heat of fire and in my opinion the restoration has not had the best results. I can not say if the work by Titian or Titian's workshop, but what I have clear is that the x-rays show that the work is a composition masterminded by Titian. The manner in how the upward gaze of the figure with his hand pressed to its chest is presented in a secure work by Titian and its radiograph.
True, the St. John the Baptist only would be sold at auction for a few thousand and for this we must be thankful that there are museums that spend money on restore and analyzing a painting, which draws an important lesson about how the master worked. That said and knowing that the Prado recognizes that the value of the painting is essentially documentary I just hope that when finished the exhibition about its restoration and discoveries the curators are responsible enough (and I'm fear that no) to not expose the painting next to other works by Titian, because like happens with the Fracastoro in the NG lowers the level of collection.
Science to art history is not the end, [it] is an aid that connoisseurs have to learn to read.
New Walpole Society online guide
January 20 2013
Picture: Walpole Society
The new editor of the Walpole Society, Jacob Simon, has been in touch, with news of a handy guide to online art historical resources.
Did you know that membership of the Society is a snip at just £45? Well worth joining if you can.
Titian upgraded at the National Gallery, London
January 8 2013
Picture: National Gallery
The National Gallery's recently restored and upgraded portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro (?) by Titian is the subject of an article in the new edition of The Burlington Magazine, which is worth a read (if you're a subscriber). A post-restoration image has now been added to the National Gallery website, here, but not any of the research details (the NG website in general is very thin on details). It seems from The Burlington article that Nicholas Penny thought as far back as the 1990s that the picture was a candidate for conservation and potential upgrading, a conclusion more recently reached, independently, by Professor Paul Joannides - so congratulations to them for their connoisseurial hunches.
The story has been picked up in a big splash by The Guardian today, which you can read here, and which describes the picture as 'just rediscovered'. Readers of AHN, of course, have been aware of it since April last year...
In The Guardian piece, Jonathan Jones says that the discovery:
[...] must mean the National Gallery now has the finest collection of Titians in the world – it already owned (among others) the elegantly frenzied Bacchus and Ariadne, the heartbreaking Easter landscape Noli me Tangere, and his portrait of a man with a mesmerising blue sleeve. But Penny, who is not given to hype, points out that the Museo del Prado in Madrid also has a few Titians. I think he is being modest.
Though the NG does indeed have many fine and important Titians, I think Penny is right to be modest - the Prado's collection of Titians probably is the superior one, and, it seemed to me when I saw them recently, they're mostly in better condition too.
Update - the sharp-eyed reader who initially alerted me to the upgrade writes:
Nice to have one's opinions vindicated: even if it is after 30 years! Actually my view was that the work was simply better than the Gallery thought it was: Titian attributions being moot and a very murky area.
It does strike me as remarkable that, given the National Gallery has one of the smallest collections of its type in the world and that it has been comprehensively studied for decades - starting with Martin Davies' work on the detailed and brutally honest catalogues produced during the war, so many "discoveries" have been made in recent years. Indeed, at times it seems startling.
Aside from the Titian, here are a few works that have been recently been re-examined and declared originals:
- Bellotto - Venice: The Grand Canal facing Santa Croce
- Botticelli - Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy
- Bouts - Christ Crowned with Thorns
- Canaletto - Venice, Palazzo Grimani
- Cesare da Cesto - Salome
- Ghirlandaio - The Virgin and Child
- Gossaert - The Virgin and Child
- Master of Moulins - Charlemagne and the Meeting at the Golden Gate
- Perugino - Christ Crowned with Thorns (actually attributed)
- Poussin - Nymph and Satyrs
- Reni - Saint Jerome
- Reni - Saint Mary Magdalen
- Reni - Susannah and the Elders
- Rubens - A Wagon Fording a Stream
- Strozzi - The Annunciation
- Veronese - The Rape of Europa
- Verrocchio - The Virgin and Child with Two Angels
The have been a few "losses" over the years of course but in general I would say that the Gallery is "up". And there are, I believe, more discoveries in the basement.
Meanwhile, another reader demurs:
Shocking news! This picture sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the ext siting display of undisputed masterpieces. The quality of paint and general execution is poor and it very much looks like a studio work. It's nowhere near the level of quality of any other portrait by Titian I am aware of. Titian may well have been involved in the initial 'design' but the this picture was not painted by him. Another case of wishful thinking but generating great publicity.
The V&A loses a Schiavone, but gains a Tintoretto
January 7 2013
In the latest issue of The Burlington Magazine, V&A curator Ana Debenedetti has a fascinating and impressive article showing that a painting in the collection of the V&A formerly attributed to Andrea Schiavone is in fact by Tintoretto. It was traditionally called The Embarkation of the Queen, but the subject is now shown to be St Helena embarking for the Holy Land. You can see the picture here (the V&A website still calls it a Schiavone). The Burlington article is available here to subscribers (though, incidentally, isn't it time The Burlington made its content freely available online? It is after all a charitable publication).
Update - a reader writes:
You ask, "Isn't it time The Burlington made its content freely available online? It is after all a charitable publication." But how would the magazine cover its considerable costs if it made content available free online immediately on publication? The result would be to lose paying subscribers. The magazine's finances are already extremely tight. There is a unwarranted sense that online content should be free. Great to have things free but actually they still have to be paid for, whether through subscriptions, donations, taxation or advertising.
AHN is free! And I'd wager that my readership is about the same as The Burlington's. Though I appreciate that the content is very tabloid by comparison...
The question is, however, to what extent should a publication's mission be about accessibility and, in The Burlington's case, education - spreading the gospel, so to speak - as opposed to being a financially sound production. The Burlington essentially signalled that it could never be the latter with the establishment of a charitable foundation to supplement its income in 1986. It went from being a commercial publication to a charitably funded means of disseminating high quality art historical research. That being the case, then it seems to me that the magazine must move with the times, not to mention the reading habits of its future readers and contributors, and establish a greater online presence - one that is searchable and accessible to a far wider audience than the current £16.60 cover price allows.
Of course, publications around the world are grappling with the transition from print to online, and whether to opt for paid content from subscriptions, or free access supported by advertising and other income. Most publications that choose the former seem to die out pretty quickly. My hunch is that most of The Burlington's subscribers would continue to pay for the print edition even if the content was free online - for those that can afford it, a printed art historical image and text is always nicer than a screen. The magazine might even find that it gained subscribers by opening itself up to an online market of many millions (mind you, if The Burlington did do this - and I'm sorry to go on - it really should try and make its articles more readable for the generalist. I find some of them baffling, beginning as they often do in media res, with no attention paid to paragraphs, to say nothing of introductions and conclusions.)
Update II - a reader writes:
I couldn't agree more about Burlington - not so much the free vs. subscription argument - but rather the lack of clarity of its articles. Talking of which you used to mention the British Art Journal which, on the hand, seems far better written than Burlington, but you don't seem to have referred to it for quite some time.
The BAJ is indeed a quality read, but alas isn't as frequently published as The Burlington.
X-ray revelations at the NPG
January 6 2013
A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, shows the interesting results of recent technical analysis of the Gallery's 16th Century portraits. As The Guardian explains, a portrait of Francis Walsingham was found to be painted on top of a religious painting:
He was the eyes and ears of Elizabeth I, the loyal spymaster and ruthless counterterror chief: Sir Francis Walsingham was the man who knew everything. Or not quite everything, it seems. Certainly not that his portrait was secretly painted over an overtly Roman Catholic image of the holy Virgin and Child.
“He would not have been delighted,” speculated Dr Tarnya Cooper, standing in front of the remarkable new discovery going on show at the National Portrait Gallery. “You do wonder if the artist might be enjoying a private joke."
The gallery on Thursday opened a display showing x-rays of devotional paintings it has discovered underneath its portraits of two key Tudor statesmen. As well as a Virgin and Child under Walsingham, researchers found A Flagellation of Christ under the Queen’s lord treasurer Thomas Sackville.
The Walsingham portrait dates from the 1580s when Protestant England was isolated and supporting the war in the Netherlands against the Spanish.
“The Catholics are the absolute enemy at this period so the idea that you’ve got this wonderful devotional image underneath your portrait would probably be rather horrifying to him,” Cooper, the NPG’s chief curator, said.
It was a surprise finding. “There is not very much that Walsingham does not know about of what’s going on in courts across Europe, he has a huge network of informers, is an incredibly wily man and is someone with a public reputation. For somebody who is not wonderfully keen on Walsingham this would be a clever way of getting at him."
The NPG believes it cannot be accidental that after x-raying more than 120 Tudor portraits and mostly finding nothing, it found an image so emblematic of Roman Catholicism under Walsingham. “It is intriguing that it is under the spymaster-general,” said Cooper.
I suspect the answer is a little less sensational - after the Reformation, England must have been awash with unwanted religious imagery, much of which was good quality and painted on expensive oak panels. It would seem logical to accept that some of these panels were re-used by artists, particularly when making replicas of original portraits, as is the case with the NPG's Walsingham. We recently had a similar case here at Philip Mould & Co., with our late 16th Century portrait of the young James VI of Scotland painted on top of a painting of a saint. There, even the original integral frame had been re-used.
Update - a reader writes:
Fascinating. Although I tend to think you are right to take the practical view of painters re-using panels no longer wanted in order to make their work easier and probably cheaper, it also seems to me -- contrary to the experts you quote -- that Walsingham would very much have approved of painting his portrait on top of a 'heretical' (in his view) Catholic artwork: how better to demonstrate the Elizabethan triumph over 'popery' and the Catholic dissidents whom Walsingham opposed and spied on!!??
Vatican art database goes online
January 3 2013
The Vatican has published a vast online catalogue of the Italian Catholic Church’s artistic heritage. The project, which began 16 years ago, is ongoing but in the meantime the Church hopes the database will help in the recovery of works if they are stolen.
The website contains almost 3.5m objects, from paintings and sculptures to ornaments, crucifixes, altarpieces and other items belonging to some of Italy’s 63,773 churches in 216 dioceses. The database will be subject regularly updated. Thousands of works held in the churches of certain dioceses, such as those of Florence and Naples, are still to be catalogued.
The project is a collaboration between Church and State, involving the dioceses, the Ministry of Culture, the Italian Episcopal Conference and the National Office for Ecclesiastical Heritage. Initial funding was set at around €51.6m.
Here's one I missed earlier
December 21 2012
Picture: The Magazine Antiques
In The Magazine Antiques, Christopher Bryant has an excellent article on a long-lost portrait of Captain Gabriel Matruin by John Singleton Copley, recently found at an auction in the US (and alas not by me!).
December 21 2012
The wonderfully comprehensive NPG online resource on British framemakers has been updated for a 3rd edition. Jacob Simon writes:
British picture framemakers, 1610-1950
A revised and substantially expanded 3rd edition of this online resource has just gone online on the National Portrait Gallery website. This dictionary resource has doubled in size since first launched in 2007. Thirty-five additional makers have now been added and the starting point for coverage taken back to about 1610. Although most entries have been researched and written by Jacob Simon, this new edition also features articles by Lynn Roberts and Edward Town. Further contributions would be welcome.
Highlights in the new edition include:
• identification of the role of Richard Norris, as the first known member of the Norris dynasty, in framing and other work in the cabinet of Prince Charles at St James’s Palace in the early 1620s (see case study below)
• biographies for Herman Scholier and Henry Waller, both active in the early 17th century, researched by Edward Town
• a lengthy entry for Gillow of Lancaster, provided by Lynn Roberts
• biographies for George Coffee and William Saltmarsh, who worked for Sir John Soane
• highly revealing information from the account book of George Jackson, who supplied composition ornament to many leading Regency framemakers (see case study below)
• a new entry on Robert Archer of Oxford and an expanded text for his apprentice, James Wyatt, revealing their importance in working for the Bodleian Library and the University Galleries in Oxford in the 19th century
• expanded entries for Edinburgh makers, thanks to information from Helen Smailes, and new entries for Aberdeen and Glasgow framemakers
• entries for Charles Goodwin of Maidstone, who carved frames for Arthur Hughes and some of the Pre-Raphaelites, and for John Henry Steer, London-based but framemaker to two artists with Cornish associations, Lamorna Birch and Laura Knight.
• information from the National Probate Calendar, providing the value of estates for makers dying in the years, 1858-1966, and information from Board of Trade records relating to the setting up and liquidation of businesses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
National Gallery conference: the Emerging European Art Market
December 19 2012
The National Gallery have been in touch - they're seeking papers for a conference to be held next year on 21-22 June, on London and the Emergence of a European Art Market (c. 1780-1820):
The French Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars with occupations of Italy, Spain and the Low Countries, instigated a sweeping redistribution of art. At the same time, the Papacy’s loss of temporal power undermined the enforcement of export laws in the Papal States. This convergence of events ensured that large volumes of paintings—often entire collections, from European monasteries, churches, and private palaces—were widely dispersed via auction and private treaty sales in a true diaspora of art. Current scholarship posits that amidst these large-scale market transformations London emerged as the new hub of the international art trade, replacing Paris. The well-known example of the move of the Orléans collection to London, where it was sold through various private treaty transactions and a series of auctions between 1798 and 1802, is often considered a pars pro toto for the British assumption of power on the international art market.
While some studies have begun to address the velocity and scale of this redistribution, little has been done to analyze the dynamic networks of agents who provided the infrastructure for the circulation of art works and sales information throughout Europe. Economist Neil De Marchi recently pointed out that the financial market linking crucial centers such as Amsterdam, London, and Paris has been studied in depth, but comparable research into the “mechanism of the painting trade and the extent to which it was integrated across those centers has barely begun.” This conference aspires to tackle this issue by convening scholars and experts from a range of disciplines to discuss broad research questions such as: Did the long-term effects of the political turmoil in France alter the existing personal and professional networks of dealers and connoisseurs? What would have been the motivations to ship art works to foreign market places? How integrated was the European art market around 1800, or were there still relatively independent local markets? Was there an implied hierarchy of metropolitan markets or were conditions too volatile and fluid for fixed patterns to emerge?
More specific details below (clock 'Read on'). If you would like to give a 30 minute paper, or know anyone who might, please contact Susanna Avery Quash at the Gallery wtih a 250 word proposal by 15th February by emailing susanna[dot]avery-quash@ng-london[dot]org[dot]uk.
December 12 2012
...I was at a conference on archives, so apologies for the lack of AHN. The conference was organised by the National Archives (TNA), which I advise, with the aim of helping private archive owners make their collections more accessible to researchers.
It's a subject close to my heart as both a historian and art historian. Some years ago, when researching for my PhD, I tried without success to get into the archives of Belvoir Castle, in which lie the highly important and unpublished diaries of a member of Disraeli's government. Many owners are (naturally) wary of strangers coming to rummage around their private, and often very valuable papers, but one of the messages we were trying get across yesterday is that TNA and local records offices around the country are on hand to offer all sorts of advice to owners, even down to helping screen researchers. So if you're ever stuck for access, remember that TNA is there to help.
In some cases, however, owners want to keep stuff secret. I was astonished when, again during my PhD, one old peer said he wouldn't let me look at a particular stash of papers, because it contained details of a sordid scandal from the 1850s!
The book above was brought along by one of the speakers. It may look like any damaged old tome - but only because it took a direct hit from a cannon ball at the Battle of Trafalgar.
New research on artists' suppliers
November 23 2012
Former Chief Curator of the National Portrait Gallery Jacob Simon has been in touch, with news of his updated research pages on artists' suppliers on the NPG website:
The most recent edition of the online resource, British artists' suppliers, 1650-1950 has now been selectively updated. It contains new information on Scottish 19th-century suppliers, including Alexander Hill, William Macgill, Robert Nelson, Hugh Paton, Alexander Scott, John Douglas Smith, John Taylor and Taylor & Norie, later Robert Norrie & Son. These amended entries derive from two days spent in Edinburgh, where my research was greatly facilitated by Helen Smailes. The resource also contains updated entries on John Bryce Smith and Percy Young, both important early 20th-century London suppliers, and on John Wragg, the late 18th- century lay figure maker.
Additionally, there is a new illustrated feature, The artist’s porte-crayon, which happens to coincide with a display of some of the National Portrait Gallery’s finest but rarely seen drawings, The Art of Drawing: Portraits from the Collection, 1670-1780, until May 2013.
Next month, the resource, British picture framemakers, 1630-1950, will be launched in an expanded and updated form.
Can any other museum boast such a comprehensive online resource?
New research programme at the Paul Mellon Centre
November 21 2012
The Paul Mellon Centre in London has published details of its new research programme:
The spring of 2013 will see the launch of an exciting new programme of research events at the Centre.
The first of a seasonal series of five, fortnightly research seminars will be given by distinguished historians of British art and architecture. These research seminars, which will take place on Wednesday evenings, are intended to showcase original and stimulating research in all areas of British art and architectural history. They will take the form of hour-long talks, followed by questions and drinks, and are geared to scholars, curators, conservators, art-trade professionals and research students working on the history of British art. We are pleased to announce that the papers given in this first series of research seminars will be delivered by members of The Paul Mellon Centre’s Advisory Council.
The spring programme of events will also include a series of five research lunches, geared to doctoral students and junior scholars working on the history of British art and architecture. These research lunches, which will normally take place on alternate Fridays, are intended to be informal events in which individual doctoral students and scholars will talk for half-an-hour about their projects, and engage in animated discussion with their peers. A sandwich lunch will be provided by the Centre on these occasions. We hope that this series, which we look forward to maintaining in the summer and autumn, will help foster a sense of community amongst PhD students and junior colleagues working in the field, and bring researchers from a wide range of institutions together in a collegial and friendly atmosphere.
In order to help us plan for these events, it is essential that all of those who intend coming to individual research seminars and research lunches email the Centre’s Events Co-ordinator, Ella Fleming, on efleming[at]paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk, at least two days in advance.
Full details of the seminars and research topics here.
National Trust picks up a bargain
November 16 2012
Good to see that the National Trust is not averse to a spot bargain hunting. Curators at Dunham Massey will soon be receiving the above portrait of George Booth, 1st Lord Delamer, bought at Christie's in New York for just $2,125. In their Arts Bulletin, the Trust reveals that it found some extra provenance linking the picture to the house. But despite their purchase, the Trust seem cautious about firmly identifying the sitter, although it's a dead ringer for their other portrait of Delamer, attributed to Lely.
Does this cabbage turn you on?
November 16 2012
Picture: Schwerin, Staatliches Museum/Erich Lessing, Art Resource New York
To the authors of a new study in Volume 35 of Art History,* the above cabbage is 'startlingly erotic'. In The Erotics of Looking: Materiality, Solicitation and Netherlandish Visual Culture, Angela Vanhaelen and Bronwen Wilson have written an engaging piece exploring supposed sexual themes in pictures like Woman Peeling a Carrot by Gerrit Dou (below, Schwerin, Staatliches Museum), which they call 'sexually charged'.
Personally, I'm not entirely convinced by their argument, which I enjoyed reading. But read the article yourself and let me know what you think. The authors rightly establish at the outset of their piece that there is a problem with interpreting pictures like Dou's in an overly sexual way:
Early modern Netherlandish artists did not write all that much about their practice and what little they did write has long frustrated art historians with its seeming refusal to divulge information about what the pictures actually mean. While art treatises devote much attention to the mechanics of art making, they contain no instructions about how to interpret the enigmatic visual motifs that recur especially in the ostensibly descriptive genres such as still life, landscape and genre scenes. Instead, the treatises repeatedly describe both the making and viewing of art in explicitly erotic language.
I'm not so sure. One of the treatises they refer to is Karel van Mander's 1603/4 Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters, which is hardly Forum. Florid certainly, but probably not that erotic. Unfortunately, none of van Mander's text is cited by Vanhaelen and Wilson for the general reader to make their own judgement.
Anyway, the article reminds me of a Dutch-inspired late 17th Century picture we have in stock here at the gallery. It shows Charles II's famous mistress Nell Gwyn (below, the head is based on Samuel Cooper's lost miniature) washing sausages, with a breast exposed, and satirically dressed in virginal white. In this case, we don't really need to find any texts by the likes of van Mander to know that its meaning is sexual. The sausage washing theme goes back to Brueghel the Elder, and is a fairly common one when suggesting an erotic subject matter.
That said, I have always felt that pictures like Nell Gwyn's are not only taking their satirical aim at the sitters, but also at the Dutch genre pictures they're ripping off. Dou's woman may be peeling a large, firm carrot of the sort treasured by Uncle Monty in Withnail & I, but regular readers will know that I'm not one for seeing willies everywhere in paintings. And if we're not supposed to see 'startlingly erotic' cabbages in works just decades earlier by those fathers of still-life, Joachim Beuckelaer and Pieter Aertsen, then I'm not sure we are in Gerrit Dou's work either. At least, not until someone finds some convincing contemporary evidence that we are.
*kindly flagged up to me by Dr Matt Loder from the Association of Art Historians.
How to prepare for an Old Master sale
November 9 2012
The process of finding, researching, cataloguing, valuing, and selling the hundreds of Old Masters needed to make up an auction is a daunting and stressful challenge. I couldn't begin to do it. On the Sotheby's website, Old Master specialist Andrew Fletcher (above) has an interesting piece on how he and his colleagues go about preparing for a sale:
At this time of year, with hundreds of pictures arriving from around the world in time for inclusion in our December auction, all the senior specialists and cataloguers in the Old Master department regularly gather deep in the basement beneath New Bond Street to inspect each and every one of them, analysing both attribution and value.
This is the moment when your heart-rate increases exponentially. The picture you agreed for sale the prior month while on a lonesome trip to some far flung corner of Europe makes its way to the easel, to be minutely scrutinized by a dozen colleagues, and can be greeted with either delight or derision. Happily, instances of the latter are rather rarer than those of the former.