Why connoisseurship matters (ctd.)
March 14 2013
Pictures: The Bowes Museum/BG/Your Paintings
Thanks for all your emails and comments about The Culture Show programme. It was fun to make, and I'm always glad to have a chance to evangelise about two of my favourite subjects; Van Dyck and connoisseurship. I promised a more detailed note about the picture, so here goes. I’m afraid it’ll be a little rushed, so don’t expect a Burlington type write-up.
I'll start with condition. At first sight, the picture looked a bit of a mess, and it was easy to see why it had been passed over as a copy for many years. One of the most disfiguring aspects of the portrait was the sitter's left eye, which did not seem to point in the right direction. With a portrait, small damages in a face can make the viewer question the whole image. We tend to look at portraits almost as human faces - and if the eyes are wonky, we assume that the whole portrait must be, in effect, also wonky.
However, as is often the case with condition issues, things looked worse than they in fact were. The wonky eye in question, which at first I thought had been over-painted, was merely missing a dark glaze over the pupil, and a tiny white highlight. Both of these had been cleaned off in a previous campaign of over-zealous restoration. Delicate glazes and pigments like those in an eye on a portrait can be easy to accidentally remove. Possibly, this was done centuries ago, for cleaning pictures used to be the job of the house keeper. Sliced potatoes, stale urine, and worse were used to wipe down paintings, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Wipe too vigorously, off comes a highlight, and suddenly an eye loses its direction.
Elsewhere in the picture, it was the usual story of old layers of dirt and varnish making the paint strokes and colours unreadable. There were also a few holes and some areas of abrasion. Although the picture had been over-cleaned it had not (and this is most unusual) been 'restored'. That is, there were no layers of old over-paint covering the losses and holes. Often, areas of old over-paint can be very hard to remove, especially if applied in oil. Even more fortunately, the picture was unlined, which meant that the original surface of the canvas was actually in excellent condition. I don't recall dealing with an un-lined Van Dyck before. Consequently, the paint layers had not been pressed or flattened in an old lining process (they used to use hot irons to bond the two canvases together, therefore melting and flattening the paint), and all the impasto was just as the artist had intended it. The picture had a fine texture, especially in the drapery. So despite appearances, the painting was in relatively good condition.
There was, however, one area where it had been dramatically altered by a later intervention, and this was in the curious grey, oval additions at the top and bottom. I've not seen these on a Van Dyck before, and again they must have been another reason to doubt the painting in the past. It was fairly easy to see that the edges were additions, especially at the bottom of the picture, as the remains of the sitter's sleeves were visible beneath the later paint. Our paint analysis also confirmed that, at the top, the grey background extended underneath the oval, and so we could safely rule out any question of the oval being original to the picture. In the past, it was not uncommon for owners to add ovals like this if a portrait was intended to be hung as part of a decorative set, perhaps in an architectural feature. When we cleaned the picture, it was decided to leave the oval additions on. It might have been possible to remove them, but they formed part of the picture's history. Below you can see a not very good effort by me at removing them on Photoshop, to give you an idea of how the portrait would originally have looked.
Cleaning the picture was a delicate but enjoyable experience. I was lucky that the Bowes Museum entrusted the picture to our care, and we were able, with Simon Gillespie's help, to use all our experience of conserving Van Dycks (over 20 so far, and many more studio works) to full advantage. Unless you really know what you're dealing with, cleaning Van Dycks can be a fraught business, given the extremely complex and delicate glazes he used. It is very easy to get things wrong, especially in areas with darker pigments like the hair. (If I may say so, the case demonstrates how sometimes the art trade and commercial restorers can have a greater understanding of how to conserve a painting than the museum world. Because we're portrait specialists here at Philip Mould & Company, with a particular expertise in Van Dyck, we have dealt with, researched and restored more Van Dycks in the last few years than a museum conservator might do in a lifetime.) Simon and I decided that the best approach would be to intervene minimally, and so where possible we have left on a layer of the oldest, possibly original, varnish over the whole picture. After the cleaning, there was some re-touching required, for example in areas of abrasion in the drapery, and most notably in the sitter's left eye, where a highlight was replaced. Fortunately, we had a useful guide for any re-touching with a good quality studio copy of the picture at Lamport Hall (below).
Although the picture was of an unidentified sitter when John Bowes bought it in 1866, curators at the Bowes museum had more recently suggested Olivia Porter (d.1663) as an identification, by comparing it to other portraits of her by Van Dyck. And they were right. The copy at Lamport Hall had originally been acquired in the late 17th Century as an unknown sitter, but was subsequently identified as Dorothy, Countess of Leicester. However, some further research, including a trip to the Heinz Archive at the National Portrait Gallery and some help from Olivia Porter's descendants, allowed us to prove conclusively that the Leicester identification was wrong, and that the sitter was indeed Olivia (or Olive, as she called herself). Olive was the wife of Van Dyck's closest friend in England, Endymion Porter, one of Charles I's key courtiers. Porter was the only person whom Van Dyck painted himself with [below, Museo Prado]. Olive was a lady-in-waiting to Henrietta Maria, and later, in 1637, converted to Catholicism with such zeal that she was eventually ordered to leave the country by Parliament.
The Bowes picture was of such high quality that I think we can safely say it was done from life. The portrait was not only exceptionally well painted (as Professor Christopher Brown said, ‘this is Van Dyck at his best’), but carried real authority in terms of characterisation and overall human presence. It's dangeours to be subjective about these things, but it feels as if it was someone Van Dyck knew intimately, and liked. The sketchy and unfinished nature of the drapery further suggests that the picture was conceived as a portrait from life, probably done with the intention of being able to use the likeness in the other portraits of Olive that Van Dyck was to paint. The same head, with a slightly different direction of gaze, was used again by Van Dyck in a larger three quarter length portrait now at Syon House (below, Duke of Northumberland collection), a picture which has been in the Northumberland collection since at least 1652.
The late Sir Oliver Millar, author of the section of the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne devoted to the artist's English works, dated the Syon House picture to c.1637, which I would agree with, and which also seems a most likely date for the Bowes Museum picture. Given Van Dyck's own strong Catholic faith, it is interesting to speculate whether the portraits of Olive done at this time were in any way linked to her conversion. Van Dyck also painted a group portrait of her with her husband and child [Private Collection - a copy (perhaps that recorded as being made by Mary Beale in 1672) is at Dunham Massey], but this is more difficult to date. A less securely identified portrait of Olive by Van Dyck was formerly at Shrubland Park. Two smaller copies of the Bowes picture exist, on panel. One was formerly at Balnagowan Castle, and was later sold at Christie’s as a portrait of Henrietta Maria, and the other remains in the private collection of Olive's descendants.
After filming was over, I was subsequently alerted (again by Olive's descendant) of another important likeness of her at Lacock Abbey. This portrait, above, is an early copy probably by Theodore Roussel (1614-1689) after the head of Olive in Van Dyck's group portrait of her with her family. The Lacock Abbey copy is important because Van Dyck’s original group portrait is in bad condition (even George Vertue in 1751 records this fact), and consequently the likenesses are not reliable as the picture has been substantially over-painted*. So the Lacock Abbey copy, done soon after the original was completed, is another useful guide to what Olive looked like. For more information on Olive's life and the history of some of her portraits, the best source is Gervas Huxley's ‘Endymion Porter: the Life of a Courtier’ (London, 1959).
John Bowes bought the portrait of Olive in Paris in 1866, from one of his regular dealers, Madame Lapautre. A receipt records that he bought it with another portrait then attributed to Van Dyck, of Henrietta Maria. The Henrietta Maria picture is also still at the Bowes Museum, but has sadly been very heavily over-cleaned, and badly restored (many years ago). It is hard to tell the quality due to the paint loss, but I would say that it was probably painted in Van Dyck’s studio. The earlier history of Olive’s portrait was unknown, but I found the remains of a wax collector’s seal (below) on the back of the un-lined canvas.
It's hard to make out from the photo, but what you can see is a coronet, the top of a shield with 'mascles' or lozenges, and part of the chain of the order of the Holy Spirit, France's highest order of chivalry (as denoted by the tiny ‘H’ in the chain). All of these combined meant that I was looking for a titled (the Coronet) member of the Rohan family (a coat of arms with nine mascles, since the shield was undivided) who was a member of the order of the St Esprit. With help from Dr. Clive Cheeseman, Richmond Herald at the College of Arms, and Hervé, Baron Pinoteau of the Académie Internationale d'Héraldique, we were able to establish that the arms belonged to either Henri, 2nd Duc de Montbazon (d.1654) (below, with his arms in the engraving), or his son Louis (d.1667).
Hopefully, further research in any Montbazon archives might yield further clues, but it was decided not to do this in the programme. What the wax seal does tell us, however, is that the picture was in France by the middle of the 17th Century. It is likely, therefore, that the Porters took the painting with them when they fled England into exile after Charles I lost the Civil War, and probably sold it soon afterwards. We know that the Porters were in dire financial straits when in exile. The supposition is that the picture remained in France until John Bowes bought it in Paris in 1866.
You can see a larger image of the cleaned painting here on the Your Paintings website. In addition to Professor Christopher Brown, the attribution to Van Dyck is also supported by the Rev. Dr. Susan Barnes, a renowned Van Dyck scholar who was one of the original authors of 'Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings' (New Haven and London, 2004)
* Incidentally, if you own the group picture, and would like some advice on possibly restoring it...
Watts archive to go online
March 12 2013
The National Portrait Gallery is to catalogue and put online the archive of George Frederic Watts. From the NPG's website:
The Watts Collection, held in the Gallery’s Heinz Archive and Library, contains approximately 3,000 letters written to, or received by, the artist. This series was compiled by his second wife Mary Seton Watts (1849-1938) following her husband’s death, in preparation for her biography of him, published in 1912. In July 1905 Mary Watts advertised for the loan of Watts’s letters, intending to make copies for biographical research. The correspondence, both original and copied, was arranged and pasted into 15 albums, of which the National Portrait Gallery acquired 14, plus many loose letters.
The letters represent a broad cross-section of the artistic and social circles in which Watts moved. Many important Victorian figures are represented, including Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Julia Margaret Cameron, Thomas Carlyle, William Ewart Gladstone, Sir John Everett Millais, Cecil Rhodes, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The shortest letters record appointments for sittings and social engagements. More detailed exchanges relate to the organisation of exhibitions of Watts’s work and his art practice.
The NPG is currently looking for an archivist to catalogue the papers. More details here.
Test your connoisseurship
March 8 2013
Picture: Bowes Museum
The picture above belongs to the Bowes Museum, and will be the subject of a Culture Show Special presented by Alistair Sooke tomorrow, Saturday, on BBC2 at 6.30pm. Long called a copy 'after Van Dyck', is it in fact by him? Watch tomorrow to find out...
But in the meantime, I invite you to hazard a guess on the attribution. Let me know if you would stake your reputation on the above pre-conservation photo, and say whether it is or is not by Van Dyck (as I, er, have). Or is it attributable to the range of options we have with an artist like Van Dyck; 'studio of Van Dyck', or 'Van Dyck and Studio'? Or is it even an out of period, 18th Century copy? In which case, have I made the biggest blunder of my career?
PS - As loyal readers of AHN, it is your duty to spread the word about the programme!
Update - a reader writes:
I assume that it is not a later copy.
IMO not by Van Dyck, studio of Van Dyck or Van Dyck and studio. Surely if it had been anywhere near Van Dyck’s studio it would have a more interesting background. It looks English. The fictive oval frame invites the idea of Cornelius Johnson, but the style doesn’t match him.
You don’t say what the support is – presumably canvas rather than panel.
The neckline is low, and there is little sign of lace. Could the costume be second half of the 17th century? The uninteresting background makes me rule out Lely and its probably not Wright either.
Ellis Waterhouse’s Painting in Britain has some small black and white illustrations of work by a painter by the name of John Scougall. I know nothing about him, but that’s my guess.
It is on canvas.
Update II - another reader writes:
Update III - a reader goes for half and half:
The head on the 'Van Dyck' looks to be better than the very poorly painted lower body and costume,I'd plump off a unfinished portrait by Van Dyck? but finished by an inferior hand.
All no's so far. Another:
The angle of the shoulders looks too sharp for the proportion of the face and the rest of the body. The mis-balance suggests overpainting.
Update IV - at last, a reader takes the plunge:
I'd venture to say it does indeed have a very good chance!
Guffwatch - Burlington Magazine joins the fray
March 4 2013
Picture: Burlington Magazine
Three cheers for The Burlington Magazine, which, in its latest editorial, calls for an end to Artspeak in:
[...] art-historical books and publications. Here, what is striking is not so much the cliché but the inventiveness of the language used, the reckless extensions and elaborations of words, the adverbial decor, the nifty transformation of noun into verb, the plain sentence got up in grotesque academic drag. We have recently witnessed ‘the narrativisation of subversion’ and ‘the spatiality of viewership’, among other portly neologisms. And the more the argument concerns art’s inclusiveness, the collective memory or the demotic gaze, the more the language seems to retract into hermetic exclusivity. Critical and historical writing must in some way be shaped by an intended audience. Style – whether it be complex or succinct, expository or descriptive – is a writer’s personal expression inflected by a sense of that audience. In a good deal of recent art history, felicitous style is rarely a consideration, but the imagined reader is there, drawn from a restricted circle of fellow academics (who will, incidentally, nod knowingly at the fashionable names quoted and cited that give the writer a spurious authority). Articles are couched in a careerist language to be peer read for renewal of tenure. An initial distrust of plain English turns into a positive fear of it, in case of reprisals.
Update - a reader writes:
How many of them are out there I wonder? Sitting on comfy stipends in faculties and institutions around the globe, writing impenetrably cryptic books, papers, monographs and theses that nobody but their identical peers or hapless undergraduates will read?
Dictionary of Art Historians
February 18 2013
A reader alerts me to the online Dictionary of Art Historians. It must be a Good Thing, as it has a photo of my art historical hero, Kenneth Clark, on the home page. The entry on Clark concludes thus:
The popularity of his television [series] and book, Civilization, made him a target for much of the New Art History historians who saw his work as traditionalist and ignoring social factors of art production.
Yet another reason to be a fan, then.
Update - a reader writes, obligingly:
On a personal note, I think anyone whose heroes include John Maynard Keynes and Kenneth Clark must be a good art historian and connoisseur -- o.k., that is probably a non sequitur, but as I gather the twitterati say WTH !
And from a UK Tweeter:
Shame the DAH misspelt "Civilisation".
Update II - I've just ordered Civilisation on blu ray. Bargain at £19.99.
Update III - I thought I was doing the Right Thing by ordering Civilisation directly from the BBC, not Amazon, where it was £2 cheaper. But now I hear it'll take seven working days to deliver, I'm not so sure. Oh for the old days, when you could actually go into a shop and buy something...
Agnews to close (ctd.)
February 15 2013
Picture: Look and Learn
When I reported that Agnews was to close after 195 years, readers asked what would happen to their invaluable archive. A reader informs me that it will definitely be sold, and that it is already boxed up, ready to go. The question is, of course, where will it go? Two centuries' worth of dealing in everything from Rembrandt to Bacon has left Agnews with what must be one of the most important - and valuable - art historical archives in the country. A likely bidder, however, is the Getty Institute in California, which has a fine provenance research centre. Of course, one would prefer the archive to remain in the UK, and it seems unlikely that it will easily get an export licence if sold abroad. But it would not be too much of a loss if it did go to the Getty - as they would soon have everything online, and open to all.
Update - on Twitter, Neil Jeffares makes this important point:
Let's update the Waverley criteria, distinguishing information from objects, [and] making online publication a condition.
The UK export controls currently only allow for a binary decision - it either stays in the country or it doesn't. Probably, in this digital world, the exporting committee should be able to allow for a foreign buyer like the Getty to give an undertaking to provide universal access, and factor that into an application.
One reader, however, would rather the archive remained in the UK:
You may know that the Getty already has microfilm copies of part of Agnew's archive, comprising stock books for the years 1852-1938.
Personally I think it would be a pity if the Getty got it - after all, how many people are going to traipse all the way over there to consult them? The Agnew's archive is the kind of essential reference resource you will want to dip into repeatedly, but briefly, year in year out. Who did they get that picture from? They exhibited such and such a drawing in 1932, but did they sell others from the same source at the same time? That kind of thing.
But you make an excellent point: nowadays if you want to acquire an important art historical archive, it really isn't good enough to expect people to plod along to your premises to examine it between the hours of 10 and 5 with an hour for lunch, under arcane study room conditions. What if you are based in Canada, and the archive is in London? At least the Getty understands that if it wants to be a leader of its kind, it has to address an audience well beyond those that can visit its reading rooms.
Guffwatch - CAA special
February 13 2013
The College Art Association conference is taking place at the moment in New York. For a certain type of academic art history, it's the main annual event, certainly in the US. I'm sure those attending and giving papers will have a great time - but as ever I'm baffled by many of the session titles. On the first day there are, for example, sessions called:
- The Proof Is in the Print: Avant-Garde Approaches to the Historical Materials of Photography’s Avant-Garde
- Transmaterialities: Materials, Process, History (which includes a paper entitled, 'The Generative Possibilities of Base Materiality in Postwar Conceptions of Art and Architecture')
- The Empathetic Body: Performance and the Blurring of Private Self in Contemporary Art
- Beyond Good or Bad: Practice-Derived Epistemologies of Studio Critique
I have no idea what any of the above are about. Why do art history papers have to have obfuscatory titles? For a subject which continually claims to be anti-elitist, art history too often speaks in an alien language designed specifically to exclude.
The session on Practice-Derived Epistemologies, whatever they are, includes a paper called, 'Demystifying Critique: Exploring Language and Interaction with Non-Native Speakers of English'. I'm a native English speaker, and I need help demystifying this kind of language. But then maybe I'm just a bit dumb.
Update - a reader writes:
If you took, more or less at random, some of the words in all the papers you cite, you could still come up with a paper that wouldn't look out of place on a CAA programme. How about:
Transmaterial empathies: Conceptions of practice-derived critiques of the self in Avant Garde postwar epistemiology.
Update II - I probably am just dumb. Reader Dr Matt Loder tweets:
I went to one of the supposedly unfathomable panels. It was perfectly fathomable. I hope Bendor comes to AAH!
On the other hand, I did spot, on the second day of the CAA conference, at least one session title that even I would understand:
French Art, 1715–1789
West Ballroom, 3rd Floor
Chair: Colin B. Bailey, The Frick Collection
Update III - another reader writes:
Highlight for me was the "Critiquing Criticality" session, with the unintentionally ironic paper "Mediocrity doesn't happen overnight ... it takes a lot of hard work". I do hate 'critique' as verb. I know it has historic precedent, but 'criticising' is always better. 'Critiquing' gives the wrong focus, implying that it's all about the construction of a critique rather than the criticism of an external object. But maybe that's the right connotation in this context.
The 'New Connoisseurship' panel looks interesting though - I hope an AHN reader is attending and will provide a report.
Me too. The session on connoisseurship is titled:
The New Connoisseurship: A Conversation among Scholars, Curators, and Conservators
West Ballroom, 3rd Floor
Chairs: Gail Feigenbaum, Getty Research Institute; H. Perry Chapman, University of Delaware
Note that dealers don't get a look in. But then we are very much 'Old Connoisseurship'.
Update IV - I am not dumb! Top US art critic Jerry Saltz writes on why he goes to CAA:
I say go for the voyeurism and snacks, stay for the panels and symposium. I often attend super obscure ones about how wood was beveled in 15th century Italian marquetry; or the presence extra-terrestrials in pre-Christian art. Mostly, however, when I get the CAA program (available on line or at the Hilton) I'm utterly baffled by the titles. Much of academia speaks a foreign tongue, using insular jargon and language I'm either unfamiliar with, can't understand, or isn't in dictionaries. I love made-up words. But when they don't make any new sense I get antsy. And feel dumb.
Update V - a distinguished art history professor writes from the US:
I am an avid reader of AHN and was amused by your comments about the CAA meeting in NY. I gave up attending several years ago -- too crowded, too frantic, too expensive, too many presentations I don't understand or care about.
Update VI - a CAA attendee writes (kindly):
I've been following your delightful blog for a few months now and I want to thank your for the work you put into it. It is balm for an art soul tattered by the likes of Artfagcity and Hyperallergic here in the NYC area. I was playing catch up and came across your Guff post on the annual CAA conference. I had to laugh because I fell behind while attending for the first time this year. There was the nonsense I knew to expect from more seasoned veterans, and that I didn't feel to badly trying to avoid, and some wonderful panels that left me inspired to go back to grad school and do good art history, not bad contemporary art-history-theory nonsense. For all the panels on art criticism this year, and despite my interest and concern for the field I only sat through one lecture (which was great, but I was too exhausted to go on, and it might have continued horribly).
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.
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.
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!).