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.
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.
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.
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.
The honey bee as connoisseur
October 29 2012
'Buzzzz. It's a Picasso'. I'm grateful to Bullet Shih of Ahomina.com 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."
Appreciating Wright of Derby, ctd.
October 25 2012
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
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.
October 9 2012
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
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.
Henry IX restored
September 19 2012
Picture: National Portrait Gallery
I'm delighted to report that the National Portrait Gallery has finally agreed to re-identify its portrait of Prince Henry Benedict Stuart, Cardinal York (or Henry IX as he is known to Jacobites). As I mentioned recently, the portrait had long been called a portrait of Prince Henry, but was then debunked some years ago. This means that, following my 2008 article in the British Art Journal, I've been able to re-identify portraits of Henry in both the London NPG and the Scottish NPG. The latter portrait, a fine pastel by La Tour, was being displayed as Henry's brother, Charles, and had appeared on countless posters, tea towels and book covers. (Sorry for the boast, but I'm rather proud the research). Now I just need to persuade the NPG that their portrait is actually by Mengs, not just 'circle of Mengs'. But this may take another five years...
More on the Degas
September 17 2012
We had a 20% audience share last night for the first episode of 'Fake or Fortune?', with 3.8m viewers. The grand fromages at the BBC are pleased with the figures, which are high for an arts programme. We hope to do better next Sunday, when we're back at our usual 7pm slot. If you saw it, thanks for tuning in. Next week's programme should be even better, with not one but three paintings up for inspection.
The critical feedback so far has been encouraging, with the Telegraph being very kind:
It’s hard to imagine a more artfully crafted – if you’ll pardon the pun – piece of Sunday night factual telly than the return of Fake or Fortune?
Meanwhile, over on Twitter the programme has its very own troll, and a famous one too. The critic and arts presenter Waldemar Januszczak (of whose programmes and writing I'm a great fan) really doesn't like the show. He dismissed the Degas as 'dodgy' and a wrong 'un before he'd even seen the evidence in the programme, on the basis of a short clip on the news. That's an impressive display of connoisseurship, don't you think? One might have thought there'd be a certain solidarity among arts TV makers, especially those that share commissioning editors...
Still, the main thing for me was that we were able to showcase some quite complicated art historical investigations to the broadest possible audience. Normally, terms like 'connoisseurship', 'provenance research' and 'pigment analysis' are banished to BBC2, BBC4 or even the radio. Sadly, there was quite a lot of research we weren't able to squeeze in. Untangling the provenance of the two versions of Blue Dancer was highly complicated, and made our brains hurt. But a saving grace was that the sizes were listed, and of course matched up.
Another unbroadcast but key part of the research we presented to the Degas catalogue compilers focused on our theory that Patrick Rice's picture was a study for the one in Hamburg. The alleged weaknesses in Patrick's picture are all forgiveable if one accepts that it was no more than a preparatory effort for the finished picture in Hamburg. Patrick's picture had to be judged not against the many famous, finished Degas' we are familiar with from books and museums, but against his sketches and studies, which are far less known, and hardly ever reproduced (in some cases only in poor black and white photos in the catalogie raisonne). And the best proof that Patrick's picture was indeed a study came in the discovery of two important pentimenti, or changes, in the painting. The first was that Degas had changed the position of the right hand double bass head - it was originally substantially further to the right. He had also painted the dress of the dancer before he then moved the double bass head over to the left. Such movements rule out any suggestion that Patrick's picture was a straightforward copy of the one in Hamburg.
A few Tweeters, including Waldemar, are still convinced that the picture is a fake. Let us consider, then, the probability that we are dealing with a faker. If so, we have to have a pre-war faker who was able not only to pre-empt pigment analysis techniques not yet invented, but, even more specifically, to find and use the unusual pigments that Degas favoured. How did this faker, before 1945, know how to do this? How did they have access to the Goupil stock books to find the missing provenance of another version of the Hamburg picture, and get the right size? Why did they bother to introduce pentimenti? Not even Han van Meegeren, the famous forger of Vermeer, went to such lengths.
Finally, some readers have suggested, in light of our debates here at AHN on connoisseurship, that the scientific tests and documentary research we carried out on the picture mean that the judgement of connoisseurs, who had previously rejected the picture, are redundant, and thus is connoisseurship itself. I would argue instead that our programme merely highlighted what happens when connoisseurship goes wrong. As I've said before, there are good connoisseurs and bad connoisseurs - but the latter does not mean we should condemn the practice of connoisseurship itself. If a doctor misdiagnoses you, do you question medical science itself, or do you get a second opinion?
And in any case, scientific testing and provenance research must all form part of any connoisseurial analysis these days, if necessary. For what it's worth, I was at first very sceptical of the picture, but then my expertise in Degas is very limited indeed. I run out of steam after about 1830. It was only after looking away from the image I had in my mind of Degas' work - that is, the well-known museum, book, and poster examples - and started to focus on his lesser known (and frankly lesser) works such as studies and sketches, that I began to see comparisons that could be made. The most valuable aspect of the whole exercise, for me, was endless close looking at as many Degas' as I could find. I mean real, get the binoculars out and look like a nutter close looking. For it is the art of close looking, so rarely taught and encouraged among art historians these days, that any aspiring connoisseur needs to learn. If it means getting told off for leaning over ropes in galleries, so be it. But, armchair connoisseurs please note, it's more useful than making judgements from the telly.
Update: an interesting response from a reader, posted above.
Van Dyck and Tapestry
September 7 2012
Picture: Tate/Lord Sackville/National Trust
Regular readers will know that I'm slightly obsessed with Van Dyck. So allow me to recommend a fascinating article online at Tate by Simon Turner which looks at Van Dyck's relationship with the Mortlake tapestry workshop. Turner builds on the theory that Van Dyck may have first been invited to England, in 1620, specifically to design tapestries, an intriguing idea which has some merit, especially when one sees the fluidity of handling and composition of The Continence of Scipio [Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford], one of few pictures we now were painted during Van Dyck's first brief stay in England. The article also reproduces a tapestry [above] featuring Van Dyck's Self-Portrait with Endymion Porter [Prado] in what was most likely its original frame (the one around it now is later, and entirely lacking in oomph). A similar frame is still to be found around Van Dyck's last Self-Portrait.
A hair to prove a Van Gogh?
August 9 2012
A hair found on a disputed Van Gogh is going to be DNA tested to see if it is Van Gogh's. From The Telegraph:
In a bid to settle one of the mysteries of the art world, the three inch long, red hair was lifted from "Still Life with Peonies" and DNA samples taken from it will be compared with those from Van Gogh's living relatives.
If confirmed a Van Gogh, the painting could fetch a value of £39 million and make Cologne art collector Markus Roubrocks, its owner, a multi millionaire.
The bright painting of a vase of multicoloured peonies resting on a wooden floor was discovered in a Belgian attic in 1977, and since then debate has raged in the art world whether it is the work of the Dutch master.
Mr Roubrocks, who inherited the painting from his father, has always argued it is an original Van Gogh dating from the spring of 1889 just a year before the artist took his own life. Two independent art experts who examined the picture independently backed his claim, but the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam contests this, saying the brush strokes are inconsistent with Van Gogh's style, and therefore the painting is nothing more than an expert piece of forgery.
Pity the article doesn't tell us what type of hair it is. Attribution by pube - now that's a story.
'for a licle picture of 12 artichoks.... £00-02-00'
August 6 2012
Many fascinating new documents have gone online at 'The Art World in Britain 1660-1735', including a list of picture payments from the 3rd Earl of Leicester (who bought a still-life of artichokes for 2 shillings), and a spirited letter from Godfrey Kneller to a client who seems not to have liked one of his paintings.
Splendid - free access to JSTOR...
July 25 2012
...or more importantly, to back issues of The Burlington Magazine - with JSTOR's new 'Register & Read' service for 'individual scholars and researchers'. To find out if you qualify, read more here.
Free money to look at portraits!
July 24 2012
The Understanding British Portraits Subject Specialist Network is offering four £500 bursaries for people wanting to study portraiture. You can apply here on their website. But before you get too excited, here's the inevitable bureaucratic stuff you have to get your head round first:
Applications should take the form of a concise outline (max. 500 words) of the proposed project, including:
- A description of the project and clear objectives
- Proposed activities involved in the project
- Specific partners expected to be involved in the research (e.g. local libraries, private collections, auction houses, museums, etc.)
- If the proposed bursary project is one element of a larger project, please demonstrate how it will relate to and contribute to the defined outcomes of the latter project.
- Desired outcomes of the proposed project
- Target audience
- CPD benefits
- Timescale of research (all projects must be completed by 22 March 2013)
- Estimated use of funds
- How the outcomes of the bursary will be disseminated among professional colleagues within the applicant’s organisation or region.
- Applications must be accompanied by a brief nomination from line managers.
I wonder if the costs of administering this laudable scheme are greater than the money given out? The site states that all applications will be read by the Understanding British Portraits Steering Group. This is comprised of The National Portrait Gallery, the National Trust, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. That's a lot of people.