National Trust goes contemporary

July 6 2013

Video: National Trust

As they used to say in the 18th Century, 'most curious'.

Art is good for your health

July 6 2013

Image of Art is good for your health

Picture: ITV

The Lindo Wing at St Mary's hospital in London, where the Duchess of Cambridge will soon give birth, has been given an artistic overhaul by Julian Opie, of whom AHN is a big fan. More details here

More cuts at English Heritage

July 6 2013

Image of More cuts at English Heritage


Not strictly art history this, but worth mentioning: English Heritage's budget has been cut again, this time by 10% for the year 2015/16. There has, however, been little in the way of protest from the cultural sector. I've often wondered why it is that 'the arts' have such a strong political voice, and are comparatively protected from cuts, but heritage does not. By many measures, it is more incumbent on the state to protect its physical heritage assets (from Dover Castle to Bletchley Park) than it is to keep a contemporary dance troupe in clover.

Of course, the primary responsiblity for this short-term cut must lie with the government. But I believe that part of the problem is a failure of leadership in the heritage sector. The case for heritage is not properly made in goverment, despite the clear evidence that more people visit 'heritage' sites than take part in 'the arts', and despite the fact that heritage is more important to our tourism industry (and thus the government's growth strategy) than the arts.

Proof of this is the fact that the budget for English Heritage has been cut in real terms consistently since long before the current economic crisis. In 2004/5, English Heritage's grant-in-aid budget was £127,901,000. Now, nearly a decade later, it is just £83,056,000. I can't do the inflationary maths, but I bet few other government departments have suffered such a consistent funding squeeze. Indeed, I was working in politics at the time the English Heritage budgets began to be cut, in 2004, which were days of plenty, and arts spending was rising massively. We tried to criticise the government for the cuts, but heritage never had the traction of the arts. Nobody in government seemed to be on the receiving end of a clear and concise case for heritage. It seems they still aren't.

Partly to make up for the history of cuts, which have led to a backlog in heritage repairs, the present government has now granted English Heritage a one-off capital grant of £80m. This will also help establish a seperate, independent body to look after sites such as Dover Castle. The long-term future, therefore, looks like being one of a further reduction in state support for heritage, as English Heritage is forced to become increasingly independent. 

An intriguing glimpse of what might be going wrong at English Heritage is the recent story of their blue plaque programme (which are placed on the homes of the great and good after they die). The Telegraph reports:

The programme, which involves commemorative signs being attached to the former homes of celebrated personalities from the past, has been drastically scaled back by the English Heritage, which has seen a reduction in Government funding. The numbers of plaques being awarded has been reduced and nominations for new ones suspended entirely.

The three resignations - including by the chairman and vice chairman - mean the panel has lost more than a quarter of its membership. Some of the remaining eight members are also said to be considering their position over the changes, and the body itself is now facing an uncertain future.

You have to wonder why the scheme is so expensive in the first place, and why such a large and fractious panel is required. Surely the decision as to who merits a plaque can be made in minutes with common sense by no more than one or two people. And since the plaques do wonders for the value of a property, the cost of making and installing them could be borne by the householder.

Update - see my more recent post for what the real terms cut amounts to.

Sleeper alert?

July 5 2013

Image of Sleeper alert?

Picture: Christie's

The above 'Circle of Rubens' Mater Dolorosa just made £193,000 at Christie's South Kensington, against a £2-£3k estimate.


Sotheby's Old Master sale makes £35m

July 4 2013

Video: Sotheby's

There seemed to be stronger bidding all round at Sotheby's Old Master sale last night, so the total of £35m against Christie's £23.8m isn't surprising. The comparison between Sotheby's and Christie's totals is a little tortoise and hare - despite there being fewer 'star' pictures, Sotheby's sale was perhaps stronger in depth, and, crucially, the estimates were on the right side of realistic. For example, my favourite lot in the sale, the series of six Tiepolo frescoes featured in the video above, were estimated at what I thought was a reasonable £3-5m, and just scraped home, making £3.2m with premium. 

Sotheby's press release says:

An unprecedented level of participation from new markets propelled Sotheby’s London Evening Sale of Old Master & British Paintings to £35,048,000. Collectors from 33 countries took part in the sale with record numbers from Asia and the Middle East. More than 400 years since El Greco executed Saint Dominic in Prayer in early 17th-century Toledo, bidders from new markets battled tenaciously for this powerfully expressive work which was appearing at auction for the first time. They drove the price to £9,154,500 (est. £3-5million), a new record for a Spanish Old Master and the highest price across London’s Old Masters sales this week.

In total, 8 auction records tumbled tonight, including that for Claude-Joseph Vernet, whose outstanding View of Avignon from the right bank of the Rhône outstripped pre-sale expectations to realise £5,346,500 (est. £3-5million). A new auction record for a female Old Master artist was also established when Rachel Ruysch’s Still Life of Roses from 1710 achieved £1,650,000 (est. £1-1.5million).

There was a bit of drama when Sotheby's phone bidder lost their connection on the £9.1m El Greco at £7.1m. The auctioneer, Henry Wyndham (as I've said here before, the best in the business) was about to put the hammer down, after waiting what seemed an age. But at the last moment connection was re-established, and £2m later the person with the dodgy mobile walked away the winner. I imagine they were sitting casually on their yacht, drifting in and out of signal on the Cote d'Azur.

PS - I'm aware there's been lots of other non-market related art history news this week, so sorry for the paucity of stories. This crazy week is nearly over, and the blog'll be back to normal soon.

Update - the Vernet was bought by Axa insurance for the Louvre. More details here

'The market for Old Masters has never been stronger'

July 3 2013

Video: Christie's

So says the commentary for Christie's video above, showing highlights of the Old Master sale last night here in London. Sadly, the prices realised didn't quite prove the theory right. The total raised, including buyer's premium, was £23,852,300. In the same sale last year, the total was £85m.

So what happened? There were some fine pictures, the room was packed, the exhibition was well laid out, and the catalogue was first-class (they're getting really good these days). The problem was, I suspect, the high estimates. The £7m-£10m Jan Steen, for example, failed to elicit a single bid. The estimate was, I presume, arrived at on the back of Sotheby's record Steen price of £5.6m, realised last year for 'The Prayer Before the Meal'. However, the Prayer picture was, I believe, bought by a pre-sale guarantor, so it's not certain that the £5.6m figure is truly representative of Steen's 'value'. I'm afraid I thought the Christie's Steen rather an unappealing thing. Other buy-ins included a £1.5m-£2m Lucas Cranach the Elder of Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg, a pair of Wright of Derby landscapes at £500k-£700k, and a £3m-£5m Poussin of Hannibal on his Elephant. 

The sale total was significantly helped by a Canaletto making £8.46m. A fine Rubens head study made £1.74m, which was a little low I thought for such a well painted image. Interestingly, Van Dyck head studies seem to be making much more than Rubens' examples at the moment. Something to do, I suspect, with Van Dyck being a better portraitist than Rubens, and his heads (especially in study form) therefore having a more immediate, modern feel to them. 

On a night of fairly lacklustre bidding, it fell to our own British portraitists to shatter the estimate barrier - a Thomas Lawrence of Lady Berkeley made £901k against a £400k-£600k estimate, while George Romney's beautiful Portrait of Elizabeth Ramus made £541k against a (too low) estimate of £150k-£200k. The buyer of the Romney was so keen to have it that they unilaterally increased the bidding increments by £50,000. My kind of client.

It'll be interesting to see what tonight's Sotheby's sale makes. Last time round, in December, Sotheby's whupped Christie's with a total of £59m vs £11.2m.

Update - Christie's press release says:

Last night’s sale of Old Master & British Paintings was led by Canaletto’s The Molo, Venice, from the Bacino di San Marco, doubling its presale estimate to realise £8,461,875 / $12,870,512 / €9,841,161.

The sale saw strong prices for paintings from all schools, particularly Italian, Flemish and British, while six new artist world records were achieved.

With participation from Asia, the Middle East, South America and Russia as well as Europe and North America, the sale total of £23,852,300 / $36,279,348 / €27,740,225 reflects the continued global interest in Old Master Paintings.

Update II - a reader reminds me that I made a rash prediction on the Steen price, and writes:

I am happy to see that the buyers kept their paddles down so you wont have to eat your trousers...

More pictures under attack?

July 1 2013

It seems that Fathers4Justice protesters are now deliberately targeting works of art. Last week we had an attack on Constable's Haywain, and before that a portrait of the Queen was spray painted in Westminster Abbey. Now, the Abbey has been targeted again, this time with a statue being defaced. And worryingly, The Guardian reports a F4J source as saying that similar protests are on the way:

Obviously that is the way we are heading at the moment after the two protests on paintings.

What to do? Glaze everything? At the moment, people who damage works of art in this way can only be charged with causing criminal damage. Do we need a new offence that makes the targeting of heritage assets a more serious offence?

Update - a reader writes, correcting me:

It is possible to prosecute someone for a ‘heritage crime’, which can be interpreted as any offence which harms the value of heritage assets and their settings.

The idea was pioneered by English Heritage who set up “The Alliance to Reduce Crime against Heritage” (ARCH) in response to the metal theft crisis.

Essentially it allows the crime to be properly recorded, and for sentencing to be more severe. More info here.

Another reader writes:

I think you must recognise a great difference between suffragettes slashing the Rokeby Venus [Fathers4Justice claim, strangely, that their protests are akin to the suffragettes attacks on art in the early 20thC], and a disposessed father sticking  a photograph to a Constable, an act which apparently resulted in no lasting damage, criminal or otherwise. The great worry is that the warders at the National Gallery are not sufficiently numerous or alert to prevent an attack on a painting in their care. If they were, it would be impossible to touch the pictures, even to write in the dust.

Constable's 'Haywain' removed from view

June 28 2013

Image of Constable's 'Haywain' removed from view

Picture: National Gallery

A reader alerts me to the removal of Constable's Haywain from public display, this lunchtime, at the National Gallery. It appears there was an incident involving a sticker of some kind. Let's hope it's nothing too serious. More as I get it. 

Update - our witness tells us:

Was looking at the National's newly purchased Maulbertsch (not great) at around 1.00 when the (rarely seen) art handling team rushed passed with an empty trolley heading for the blocked off English room.  Minutes later they returned by the same route with The Haywain loaded up - I couldn't see clearly but there appeared to be a sticker showing the head of a child roughly where a load on the fording cart in the foreground would be.

Update II - the damage isn't serious. A photo was stuck to the picture by a Fathers for Justice protester. This is the second FforJ protest recently that has involved defacing paintings. Protesting dads everywhere, stop being so bloody daft. 

More apologies (and another plug)

June 27 2013

Image of More apologies (and another plug)

Picture: Philip Mould & Co.

...more woeful service at the moment I'm afraid. Blame the 12 hour days on the stand at Masterpiece and preparing for Master Paintings Week. So I may be quiet for a few days - sorry. In the meantime, here's an interesting, recently discovered self-portrait we're showing at Masterpiece. It's by Henry Wyatt, was painted in London in 1826, and was spotted by Philip Mould in a sale in the US, where it was called an unknown gent. A nice repatriation I think. More details here.

Update - more plugging! Here's a photo of our new selling exhibition, 'Sir Peter Lely and his Circle', at Philip Mould & Company, which I've just finished hanging. If you'd like to come, it's open every day till next Friday, as part of Master Paintings Week. We have eight Lelys below, of which four are previously unknown.


June 25 2013

Image of Guffwatch

Picture: Christie's

You and I might think that the above picture is just an 84 x 108 inch canvas covered with about twenty quid's worth of chewing gum. But this is not any ordinary gum. It has been chewed and stuck onto the canvas by Dan Colen (b.1979), and was sold this evening at Christie's, London, for £481,875. Suck on that, Wrigleys. 

Here's a vintage piece of breathless guff from the Christie's catalogue:

Playful and brazen, Untitled, 2010 is an energetic blend of the real world and the abstract. Scattering a multitude of brightly coloured chewed pieces of gum across a vast surface of a traditional canvas in an explosion of primary colour, Dan Colen creates a fascinatingly dense, intricate and animated abstract surface, transforming a ubiquitous object of the everyday into a vibrant monument of urban modernity. In a witty inversion of trompe l'oeil that embraces the possibilities created in a post-Pop era of modern art, Untitled instantly recalls the revolutionary drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, and the automatism common amongst many Surrealist and avant-garde American painters. Harnessing the gestural energy of a performance piece and tethering it to the expressive immediacy of abstraction, the artist demonstrates his mischievous ability to surprise and engage the viewer.

In case you missed it, here's an earlier post explaining how auction houses come up with this sort of thing.

And here's what Dan has to say about his gum paintings (for, yay, there is more than one) himself:

I started using the gum like paint. Certain canvases would have gum stretched from the center outward, creating 'hypnotic' spirals. I've also done a series of Bazooka Joe joke paintings, with the comics stuck to the gum. But most of the pieces are just about playing with the gum and building up layers until they finish themselves. They turn into a mess but remain beautiful (in my eyes)... I'm in a special, or at least particular, place right now that allows me to be very playful with my work... My conceptual development and working processes function differently without due dates-not for better or worse, just for a change of pace. Because of this situation these gum paintings were almost able to make themselves. I fell in love with them immediately'.

A Tweet from The Art Newspaper tells us that the gum painting was bought by dealer Larry Gagosian, who represents Colen: 

Gagosian keeps his artist in play - buys Dan Colen chewing gum piece for £400,000, low estimate

Always good to keep the prices up!

Update - dealer Mark Mitchell writes, on his blog:

If this piece could bear the weight of the interpretation given it in the catalogue, it would surely not be necessary for the artist’s dealer to purchase it, presumably in order to keep its putative value circling high above the clouds of taste, sense and comprehension.  If not a dealer, do you buy such a thing for its aesthetic charm, its intellectual content, its capacity to make you re-see the world, or its spiritual uplift?  Do you buy it for its ironic comment on the consumer-driven society which hatched it (and on which it surfs), or for its expression of the contemporary, fragmented zeitgeist? Is it actually applied, rather than fine, art – like a wall-hanging – chosen to fit an interior by its unique blend of tone and colour?  Is it a self-portrait of the artist, modelled from spit and shaded with DNA, capable of regenerating him at some point in the scientific future?  What of truth, beauty and the human condition would post-apocalyptic man gain from this canvas if he dug it from an archaeological pit in a thousand years’ time, and how would he differentiate it from the floor tiles or rags of curtain in the pit?

Archaeologists of the future! If you have indeed been misfortunate enough to dig up this masticated square of nothingness, do not judge us all by such vapid mistaste - let this blog be evidence that some of us. indeed probably most of us, would rather have had the floor tiles and rags of curtain.

'Should this woman be on a banknote?'

June 25 2013

Image of 'Should this woman be on a banknote?'

Picture: BBC News

Asks the BBC, wondering if Jane Austen qualifies to be on the £10 note. And well she might, but not in the form of the above portrait, for, as regular readers will know, it isn't Jane

Jstor's free access programme

June 25 2013

Image of Jstor's free access programme


Last year I mentioned Jstor's new free access programme. To date, they have just announced, more than one million articles have been read through the Register and Read programme. More here

Fancy a trip to Vienna?

June 24 2013

Image of Fancy a trip to Vienna?

Picture: via

Then why not go on the art historical guided tour to end all guided tours, with Ben Street, who is a lecturer at, amongst other places, Tate Britain and the National Gallery. In November and December this year, he's running tours that will:

[...] coincide with the first ever museum show there of Lucian Freud. The show, the last to be curated in collaboration with the artist (who died in 2011), features ‘Freud’s Freuds’ – the artist’s favourites from his own body of work. The exhibition will be displayed within the Old Master galleries of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, one of the world’s greatest collections of western painting, featuring masterpieces by Raphael, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Breughel, Titian, Rubens and Velazquez, many of whom were direct influences on Freud’s work. We will see these works first hand, and will meet with Jasper Sharp, the curator of the exhibition, who will give us an exclusive introduction to the show and an insight into working with Freud and putting together a major museum show.

We will also visit some of the other treasures the city has to offer, including the museum’s Kunstkammer (hundreds of unusual, intriguing and often bizarre objects collected by the Hapsburgs, which has just gone on display after ten years of restoration), the Secession (featuring Gustav Klimt’s famous Beethoven Frieze), the MUMOK Museum of Modern Art, the world’s best collection of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt at the Leopold Museum, and a major exhibition of Matisse and Fauvism at the Albertina, featuring some of the best known works from that period. Oh, and the occasional smaller gallery along the way. Along with stops for coffee, Sachertorte and Wienerschnitzel in Vienna’s famous coffee houses.

You pay your own way for travel and accomodation, and the guided bit is £250.

'Art everywhere' (ctd.)

June 24 2013

Image of 'Art everywhere' (ctd.)

Picture: Shipley Art Gallery

Oh dear - the shortlist for the 'Art Everywhere' scheme I mentioned earlier (where the nation's 'favourite masterpieces' are put on posters around the country) has been revealed - and it's weak. The shortlist was drawn up by:

An A-Team of art lovers including Bob and Roberta Smith, Richard Reed, Art Fund Director Stephen Deuchar and Tate Britain Director Penelope Curtis...

If so, then why is Van Dyck's entry on this list is represented by... a copy (above, from Shipley Art Gallery)? If the images of 'famous British art' on the billboards are just going to be weak copies, isn't the whole exercise a waste of time? If they need a rights-free, and genuine, Van Dyck image, then I'm sure I could sort them out with one. After all, 'Bad Art Everywhere' doesn't really do it for me.

You can see the original Van Dyck here.

Lowry at Tate

June 24 2013

Video: Telegraph

Here's the Telegraph's art critic Richard Dorment and Tate's Helen Little on the new Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain, which opens on the 26th. Dorment comes away unconvinced that Lowry is 'in any way' a great artist. 

Update - a reader writes:

'Without Lowry we would lack an account in paint of the British working class,' says Helen Little. Time for a major William Roberts retrospective, methinks.

Saving Italy

June 23 2013

Video: Monuments Men Foundation

Robert Edsel, the author of Monuments Men (now being made into a film by George Clooney), has a new book out, Saving Italy. Looks like fun, and another useful reminder of just how close we came to losing vast chunks of western art history during the war.

They don't do restitution in Russia

June 23 2013

Image of They don't do restitution in Russia

Picture: Wikipedia

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to abandon plans to open a new exhibition in Moscow, after the Russian government found out that she was going to use the occasion to ask for the return of a star exhibit. The Eberswalde Hoard of gold objects was taken by the Soviets from Berlin in 1945, as war loot, and, like thousands of similar objects, has never been handed back. 

Can I just say...

June 23 2013

...on the basis of this-is-my-blog-and-I'll-rant-if-I-want-to, that Microsoft's new Windows 8 is utterly, head-bangingly useless, and should be avoided at all costs.

Photography at the NPG?

June 23 2013

Image of Photography at the NPG?

Picture: BG

I was cheered to see, on Newsnight on Friday, that the director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sandy Nairne, seemed to indicate that photography might be allowed in the National Portrait Gallery. Sandy's view was, like mine, that being allowed to take photos (if done quietly and considerately) meant that people engaged with the art on display more, not less, and that allowing people to share images would be good for the gallery.

Others, however, feel that allowing photography stops people looking 'properly' at paintings, and that we should compel them to look at art in a certain, traditional way. 

That said, I was sorry to hear of this reader's experience of the Queen's Gallery, where they do allow photography:

Went to the excellent exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery yesterday and, very efficiently, the warders asked me to put my mobile on silent while in there: I liked this as it suggested there would be a suitable atmosphere for concentration and it was also, of course, a mark of consideration for other visitors.   How wrong I was!  I can honestly say that I have never been to show where there were more unnecessary distractions. 

Aside from the commentaries on audio guides providing a distant background noise through headsets, many people had downloaded the app for their phones and spent most of their time standing in front of works searching through and reading the content rather than looking – I think there may have been audio content on this as well to add to the sound effects.  Then there were the cameras – all seemed to have electronic shutter noises as these were going off constantly.  Not to mention the fact that the happy snappers seemed to spend a great deal of time lining up their shots – I watched one gentleman carefully scan a case – and just the case - for minutes before quickly taking a photo (loudly) of an object and then walk off.

What made all this worse was the, otherwise, silence of the tomb atmosphere – as I was with friends, we seemed to be disturbing the company by actually have discussions in front of objects.

Shock! The Great Brian likes something

June 23 2013

Image of Shock! The Great Brian likes something

Picture: Evening Standard

Brian Sewell liked the new 'Crisis of Brilliance 1908-22' exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery so much that he began his review with the word 'wow'. 

Fret not, however, for he was back on usual disapproving form with scathing reviews of two exhibitions at the National Gallery; the Michael Landy saints thingy, and the display of early additions to the Barber Collection.

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