Category: Research

Titian upgraded at the National Gallery, London

January 8 2013

Image of Titian upgraded at the National Gallery, London

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

Image of The V&A loses a Schiavone, but gains a Tintoretto

Picture: V&A

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

Image of X-ray revelations at the NPG

Picture: NPG

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

Image of Vatican art database goes online

Picture: Freemages

Ermanno Rivetti in The Art Newspaper has exciting news about a new Vatican online database:

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.


December 21 2012

Image of Frame-tastic

Picture: BG

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.

Here's one I missed earlier

December 21 2012

Image of Here's one I missed earlier

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!).

National Gallery conference: the Emerging European Art Market

December 19 2012

Image of National Gallery conference: the Emerging European Art Market

Picture: Towneley Hall Art Gallery/Your Paintings

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.

Read More


December 12 2012

Image of Yesterday...

Picture: BG

...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

Image of New research on artists' suppliers

Picture: NPG

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. 

Research seminars

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.  

Research lunches

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], at least two days in advance.

Full details of the seminars and research topics here.

Does this cabbage turn you on?

November 16 2012

Image of Does this cabbage turn you on?

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.

National Trust picks up a bargain

November 16 2012

Image of National Trust picks up a bargain

Picture: Christie's

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.

How to prepare for an Old Master sale

November 9 2012

Image of How to prepare for an Old Master sale

Picture: Sotheby's

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.

More here.

High-res and free at the Rijksmuseum

November 5 2012

Image of High-res and free at the Rijksmuseum

Picture: Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam now allows you to download and use for free (for personal use) high-resolution images of their collection. Above is a detail of Van Dyck's Portrait of Johannes Baptista Franck, c.1621.

The honey bee as connoisseur

October 29 2012

Image of The honey bee as connoisseur


'Buzzzz. It's a Picasso'. I'm grateful to Bullet Shih of for alerting me to a bizarre but seemingly true scientific research paper on the art historical skills of honeybees. Despite what you might think, this doesn't seem to be a hoax. Bullet writes:

While artist elephants and orangutans have made headlines over the past century, it is now honey bees who are making headlines for having the critical eyes to differentiate between works done by Picasso and those done by Monet.  In a study done by researcher Dr. Judith Reinhard at the The Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) at The University of Queensland Australia (UQ) she found that,

"honeybees had a highly developed capacity for processing complex visual information, and could distinguish landscape scenes, types of flowers, and even human faces…[the study] found honeybees had remarkable visual learning and discrimination abilities that extended beyond simple colours, shapes or patterns."

If you don't believe any of this, read the report itself, which is titled, 'Honeybees can discriminate between Monet and Picasso paintings'. And there's more from the University of Queensland here.

Appreciating Wright of Derby, ctd.

October 25 2012

Image of Appreciating Wright of Derby, ctd.

Picture: Derby Museum

I recently wrote about the apparent lack of appreciation for Joseph Wright of Derby's paintings in Derby, where the local paper foolishly asked if the town should sell its collection of Wrights. Now, a reader alerts me to a PhD grant available for research into how Derby embraced Wright's work in the 19th Century:

The aim of the research project is to examine the meanings and reputation of Wright's art in the century following his death in his home town of Derby, in relation to wider currents of culture and society, including programmes of civic improvement.  The project will primarily involve study of the collection, curation and exhibition of Wright's work, and the development of new cultural institutions, notably Derby Museum and Art Gallery which now has the world's largest and finest collection of Wright's paintings and drawings.

Probably, the conclusion will be that Wright was more appreciated in the 19th Century. Sigh. If you want to apply, more details here.

'ThoughtOut', and why art history needs to change

October 25 2012

How can arts and humanities academics best disseminate their research to a wider audience? If there is a gap between ivory-towered researchers and the wider public, how can we overcome it? Is there any point in publishing research in obscure academic journals nobody ever reads? Is the digital world killing academia?

Last night I went to the launch of a project called ThoughtOut. Sponsored by UEA and Editorial Intelligence, it aims to help academics transmit their ideas to a wider audience, primarily through a new website. The background to all this is partly to do with changes in the complex funding formula for universities, which I won't bore you with here. But essentially the idea is to have a platform where research in arts and the humanities, often with 'contemporary resonance', can be made accessible to all. 

To launch the project, ThoughtOut organised a debate on the question, 'can elite ideas be accessible?', with David Aaronovitch, Orlando Figes, Mary Anne Sieghart, Sarah Churchwell, and Tom Holland. It was an interesting discussion. Much of it centred around the need to break down the obscure, isolating language some academics seem to revel in. It was hoped that a positive side-effect of the decline in traditional publishing, and the need to reach as wide an audience as possible through digital means, might be to persuade academics to write in less mystifying language. This can only be a Good Thing.

The presence of Figes and Holland meant that the debate was slightly skewed towards history as a discipline, and it was agreed that by and large history has escaped the descent into jargon suffered by so many subjects. Fans of this site's regular 'Guffwatch' entries will be well aware that art history has not had such luck, however.

The presence of a self-regarding elite (I use that term reluctantly) whose development of a special art history language, one designed not only to exclude the ignorant but to make the writers believe they are more clever than they really are, has done much damage to the subject we love. In part this is because 'new art history', as for convenience I like to call it, is a bullshitter's charter. For example, there is so little written evidence to give us concrete proof of an eighteenth century artist's or patron's intentions that we are given free rein to speculate endlessly from images about what a composition means, what and who it was painted for, how it fits into its social and gender contexts, and so on. And that's to say nothing of the more far out art history concepts we are all asked to consider these days - last week I went to a conference where a speaker went on about an artist's 'sovereignty', whatever that is.

The consequence of such endless, jargon-fuelled speculation, especially when combined with the right-on mindset that academics often feel compelled to work within, is that art history is in far greater danger as a discipline than other subjects. It has disconnected itself from the mainstream, and writes books and articles that nobody wants to, or can, read. Because (especially in America) university art historians and museum art historians mutually sniff at each other, and in turn sniff mightily at writers who publish 'crossover' popular art history books (not to mention art dealers!), we have ended up with a subject which, despite 'the history of art' being more popular than ever in terms of a museum-going public, is often incapable of connecting with the wide audience it needs to if it is to survive.

Proof of this is surely the fact that art history departments around the world are often the first to face the axe in these days of squeezed university budgets. And that's why art history needs to engage in projects like ThoughtOut. The subject must stop talking to itself. The eventual collapse of the traditional routes by which research was published means that art history has no choice but to engage new audiences. 

The good news is that we can make the digital cuckoo in the nest work for us. A cleverly written art history book self-published on Amazon really can sell well. We no longer have to spend two years getting an article approved by academic journals. We are all now our own publishing houses, and have websites, blogs, and even Twitter at our disposal. Sites like the University of York's Art World in Britain are leading the way in making one of the long-ignored basic ingredients of art history, documentary evidence, available for everyone for free (and can help stop the bullshit). And perhaps best of all, we have the increasing availability of free-use images from museums like Yale. Of course, this means that there may be a little less money to be made from publishing your first monograph (if indeed anybody ever did make money from publishing a monograph). But art history must come down from its ivory tower. In short, it needs to globalise.

Update - a reader writes, eminently:

As I was reading your post, I was making the point to myself that you made in your final paragraph. You observe that "there is so little written evidence to give us concrete proof of an eighteenth century artist's or patron's intentions that we are given free rein to speculate endlessly from images". Well, true enough. But actually for me, there is a ton of evidence out there, waiting to be found and exploited. There is a strange fatalism among even senior art historians & curators, who say (of painters etc) that "we just don't know" about so and so. Actually, more often than not there is a fair bit about so and so that can be deduced from even quite unpromising-looking scraps of evidence. But, as you say, instead of having a good rummage in the archive, we have collectively chosen a different route. I recently asked a very senior historian of British art if he'd heard of the National Register of Archives: he hadn't! Historians, I suppose, don't have any pictures to hide behind: all they have to go on are the sources.

Quite true - and as a member of the government's advisory body on historical manuscripts I would urge all readers to make use of the wonderful resources available to study archives (in the UK we really do have the best level of archive accessibility in the world). Too many (but not all!) art historians shy away from archives, however. I suspect it may even be idleness - after all, theorising is much easier than learning to read 16th Century script.

Another reader takes us back to our old friend, contemporary art-speak, and alarmingly informs me that it's being partly funded by our tax pounds:

This is even more of a problem in the world of contemporary art, try spending an afternoon with a little Arts Council funded magazine called Art Monthly!

“Higher-intelligence-speak” also now pervades Tate Magazine, this must be very puzzling for the ‘ordinary’ Tate member receiving it.

Progress indeed required.

I don't see why the state needs to support a magazine like Art Monthly, which it does to the tune of about £40,000 a year. Perhaps AHN should apply for a grant - my readership is certainly larger than Art Monthly's (which prints 3,500 copies a month, with a claimed readership of c.20,000. AHN's readership last month was 23,896).

A Holbein sitter identified?

October 15 2012

Image of A Holbein sitter identified?

Picture: Royal Collection/Telegraph

Conservation of a Holbein in the Royal Collection has revealed more clues about the identity of the sitter. I'll try and get more images, like x-rays, from the Royal Collection. But I'm a bit pushed for time today, so for now, find the basic story here

Update - see more images and the x-ray here.

Update II - find further details here at the NPG, and watch a talk by Royal Collection curator Clare Chorley here.

Developing connoisseurship

October 9 2012

Image of Developing connoisseurship

Picture: NPG

A reader poses an interesting question:

The two series of Fake or Fortune have really piqued my interest in the art world, the problem is no I know very little about it.

For a total beginner looking to develop his eye, with an aim to start collecting in the future what steps do I need to take? I understand there are no short cuts involved but are there any specific books or other resources I should be looking at?

Books? Pah. You can't learn much from tiny illustrations. The best advice I can give to anyone wanting to improve their 'eye' is to go to as many museums, auction rooms and stately homes as possible, and simply look at pictures - as if your life depended on it. Practice the art of close looking by staring intently at as many pictures you can, as close as you can, until the room guards begin to wonder if you're entirely normal. Take a pair of binoculars, and if you dare a torch. Spend just as long looking at bad pictures as good ones (for that's really the best way to train your eye to spotting genuine masterpieces; you have to first be able to tell the difference between, say, a copy, a workshop variant, and the real thing). So just look, look, look. And always buy the guidebook, or the picture list. In time, you can use it to test yourself with the attributions. 

Of course, the perfect primer for anyone starting out is Kenneth Clark's epic TV series, Civilisation. Order a copy (on Blu-Ray ideally) here.

Update - a reader writes:

Bendor, why don't you organize some "conoisseurship workshops" in your gallery, allowing prospective collectors to examine closely real things, copies and workshop variants? I am sure would be very popular!

New updates at 'The art world in Britain, 1660 - 1735'

September 28 2012

Image of New updates at 'The art world in Britain, 1660 - 1735'


More handy additions at the University of York's art history archive project. Editor Richard Stephens tells us that the new material online includes:

Listings of over 250 late 17th century auctions and lotteries have been added, making the index of art sales complete for the period 1660 to 1699. 13 newly transcribed sale catalogues include the collections of surgeon Luke Rugeley (1697), painter Herman Verelst (1702), art collector 3rd Earl of Leicester (1703) and dealer and print maker Alexander Browne (1706). Among other additions, a group of letters from Christiaan Huygens provides a window into the studio practices of Sir Peter Lely in the early 1660s.

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