The Mannerist Queen

January 20 2013

Image of The Mannerist Queen

Picture: Telegraph

It's been quite a week for woeful royal portraits. Hot on the heels of 'Mona Kate', we now have a mannerist Queen Elizabeth II, as seen in a portrait that has only now gone on display some 61 years after it was painted. It has since been hidden because officials in Liverpool, where the picture was commissioned, thought the Queen's neck was too long. More details in The Telegraph here

Met acquires Santi di Tito 'Madonna'

January 20 2013

Image of Met acquires Santi di Tito 'Madonna'

Picture: Metropolitan Museum

La Tribune de l'Art alerts us to new acquisitions by the Met, including the above Santi di Tito. You can zoom in on the image here.

Woeful service...

January 17 2013

...from AHN lately I'm afraid. I've been filming most days; today in Northamptonshire for The Culture Show, and tomorrow (snow permitting) in Yorkshire for 'Fake or Fortune?'. Hope to catch up with things here over the weekend.

Update - didn't make it to Yorkshire in the end. I got as far as Birmingham, for my first appointment of the day at the wonderful Barber Institute. But with at least half an inch of swow falling, I decided to get back to London before the trains ground to a halt. The Swiss half of me is embarrassed at the English half...

If you're in Canada...

January 16 2013 can watch episode one of 'Fake or Fortune?' here. And if you're in California, you watch episodes two and three this Sunday and Monday.

Lowry show at Tate

January 16 2013

Image of Lowry show at Tate

Picture: Christie's

In The Guardian, Charlotte Higgins has news of a forthcoming Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain. See if you can spot the show's possible PR angle from this:

LS Lowry – the quintessential painter of northern, working-class life – is among the most divisive of British artists. A household name, beloved of the public and commanding huge prices at auction, he is at the same time wildly unfashionable in the art world, derided for his apparently naive images of "matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs" set among the industrial landscapes of Salford, Pendlebury and Manchester.

But this June Tate Britain, in London, is to mount the first major retrospective devoted to Lowry since the artist's death in 1976. The show is co-curated by one of the world's pre-eminent scholars of French impressionism, TJ Clark.

According to Clark, Lowry is "an artist who is taken for granted and condescended to. The reaction from London art world friends over the last year and a half, when I have said I am working on Lowry, has been of deadpan incomprehension and disappointment."

There has, said Clark, been a "metropolitan resistance to taking the north seriously as a subject for art". He added: "It may now be possible to look beyond that condescension at a time ... when the limits of the London art world's view of art are pretty obvious." He said: "It is extraordinary to me, this image of him as an amateur, as someone who could barely paint, won't die. To me it is absolutely astonishing. And coded into this conversation by the metropolitan elite is the idea that someone who paints this subject matter can't be taken seriously."

What is this 'art world' in which Lowry is so unpopular? I don't recognise the one described here. As a London-based art dealer (albeit in older artworks), I can genuinely say I've never encountered the sort of condescension mentioned above, and certainly not amongst the many dealers I know who sell Lowrys to enthusiastic collectors. I suspect that this false accusation of a 'metropolitan art-world' bias against Lowry is in part being constructed to mask Tate's own long-term reluctance to show Lowry's work properly. Either way, it would be a great shame if the Lowry exhibition became enmeshed in such a debate. Let us just appreciate his art.


January 16 2013

Image of Alarming...

Picture: BG

I'm a fan of LED lighting, so was concerned to read this in The Independent:

Scientists have discovered that the bright-yellow pigment featured in several famous artworks becomes unstable under LED lights and, over time, turns a shade of brownish green. A sample of 14 works from the period between 1887 and 1890 were tested for the reaction which affects the oil paint colour known as chrome yellow. It was favoured by 19th-century artists and has been found in important works by Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin.

Researchers have now warned galleries and museums to reconsider the use of some LED lighting to prevent the colours in such paintings deteriorating further.

Claus Habfast, from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France, where some of the artworks were studied, said: "LED lights appear to have many advantages but museums should carefully consider that paintings from the Van Gogh era could be affected by them.

"Paintings that have moderate darkening will find this accelerates in the coming years.

A congress on art authentification

January 15 2013

Three Pipe Problem helpfully alerts me to an interesting planned conference on 'art authentification', to be held in 2014:

For quite a long time there has been a latent need within the international art community for a congress in which participants from different countries and from various professional backgrounds can meet one another to evaluate authenticity investigations and to exchange information about recent developments in the field.

The very first symposium on authentication issues ‘Authentication in the Visual Arts’ was held in Amsterdam on the 12th of March, 1977. Thirty-five years later the need for a new conference has become more eminent then ever before. It all seems to come together now: major changes forced by a new generation of thoroughly trained scholars, the economic boost on the value of paintings, a new generation of collectors with a strong focus on asset value, improved techniques for research and objective scientific research and, not least of all, the social and financial pressure coming from the law field as well as from the public.

During a meeting on May 25th 2012 a number of representative peers from the fields of art history, painting conservation, material sciences, the art market and the academic field of art and law came together in The Hague to discuss and review authentication developments and to sense the feasibility of a new congress. It was decided unanimously that a congress on the topic would be an absolute necessity. Further evaluation proved that the best time frame for organising such a congress would be May, 2014.

It seems quite a mysterious set up, with no invitation for papers. I've also looked in vain for the word connoisseurship. I wonder who is behind it? It looks from the supporters page that it's being led by technical art analysis groups. But remember, science can usually only tell you what a painting is not, not what it is.

Guffwatch - it's 'Mona Kate'!

January 15 2013

Video: The ArtFund

Ye Gods, it gets worse. Here, Christopher Lloyd, formerly of the Royal Collection and a trustee of the ArtFund, through whom the portrait was commissioned, compares the portrait to a Leonardo (really).

In centuries to come, will art historians wonder what 'Mona Kate' was smiling about?

Update - a reader writes:

If you were to cast and script this as comedy, it would look and sound no different. Hilarious!

Bonhams to the rescue

January 14 2013

Image of Bonhams to the rescue

Picture: Bloomberg

Scott Reyburn on Bloomberg reports that the famous record-setting £51.6m Chinese vase sold at a regional auction house in London in 2010 has finally been sold by Bonhams for about half that, after the original buyer refused to pay. 

Mozart discovered in miniature?

January 14 2013

Image of Mozart discovered in miniature?

Picture: Stiftung Mozarteum

There were few details available in the English press, but if you're German is good enough you can read here details of what seems to be an exciting new discovery of a portrait miniature of Mozart. In a nutshell, the miniature above, long uncertainly called Mozart, has been firmly identified as him by the Stiftung Mozarteum in Salzburg  thanks to an engraving done in 1829 by Gottschick after a portrait by Joseph Grassi, whom Mozart is known to have met in Vienna.

Where have all the blokes gone? (ctd.)

January 14 2013

Image of Where have all the blokes gone? (ctd.)


Following on from the discussion on whether art history is an elitist subject, art historian Meghan Callahan turns the light back onto the gender balance, at both ends of the art historical tree:

Reading art history can be meant in the British sense of choosing it as a major in college, or the broader sense of reading art history books or blogs. Choosing it as a major in college is often seen as the choice of the elite, or of women. I'll get into class issues of people in the class later, right now I'm thinking about women in art history. I don’t have the numbers, but art history classes I have taken and taught were all majority women. There were one or two men. Somehow though, the few men who do art history in college, or in postgraduate degree programs, manage to become the directors of museums, influential dealers, and chairs of art history departments and heads of art history schools.

More art historical gender discussion here, and here.

Update - a reader send this important nugget of information:

Here’s a useful stat for your discussion on the missing art history blokes. The Times Good University Guide records a male:female ratio of 17:83 at the Courtauld Institute. Based on my postgrad year I would say that’s unexpectedly high! I will consider the subject further after I plan my future executive career.

Introducing 'The Grumpy Art Historian'

January 14 2013

Image of Introducing 'The Grumpy Art Historian'


Apparently I'm not the only one. Allow me to introduce a new and well written blog called 'The Grumpy Art Historian'. Recent pieces include a first-hand view of the decidedly curious 'Raphael and Studio' Pope Julius II in Frankfurt, and this interesting account of a visit to the prints and drawings room at the Louvre:

It was no problem getting an appointment, but I struggled a bit with the meaning of the 'red items' that could be seen only once.  Turns out it means that you can only request them once, ever - they keep a record of which drawings you've looked at, and on subsequent visits you can't request any 'red' items that you've seen before.  

Enough to make anyone grumpy, really.

There's also an interesting post on the merits or otherwise on the Government Indemnity system, whereby the state assumes all risk for art damage and loss so that museums in the UK don't have to pay for commercial insurance:

The Art Newspaper reports that the government provided free insurance for loans of works of art worth £8.6bn last year.  It is a shameful and stupid subsidy that incentivises perverse behaviour. 

This insurance isn't free.  There are costly claims for damage, and there is always the risk of a catastrophically high claim if something goes horribly wrong.  Governments shouldn't be in the business of providing services that they don't understand and can be more efficiently supplied by the private sector.  Insurance is a complex business, and a worst-case outcome (fire at the Leonardo show) could put a meaningful dent in state finances at a time when it's especially unaffordable.  I'm all in favour of government subsidising the arts, but this is an arbitrary subsidy that encourages institutions to borrow the costliest works because they never bear the full cost.

The dreadful story of the damaged Miro at the Tate is a salutary warning of the real harm that can be caused, which no amount of cash can put right.  It's not just specacular instances of damage that are of concern, but the ongoing stresses caused by packing and unpacking delicate works of art and moving them between different environments.  The state shouldn't be encouraging this by picking up a big part of the tab. 


The Art Newspaper estimates that commercial insurance would have cost about £15 per visitor to the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy (which I heard was too crowded for any of the 411,000 visitors to have seen much anyway).  The implication is that it's a Good Thing because it allowed the exhibition to go ahead with ticket prices at a reasonable level (less than half the cost if insurance were purchased commercially).  But why - especially in times of austerity - is the government providing a £15 a head subsidy to the well-heeled visitors to the RA?  And is this really the best way for the government to subsidise the arts at a time when the National Gallery cannot even afford to pay enough guards to cover all of its rooms?

The author of The Grumpy Art Historian knows all about risk - he (Michael Savage) is a trader at RBS. However, I think the Government Indemnity scheme is a great asset to the museum sector in the UK, and good value for taxpayers. As TAN reports:

We have also obtained data on indemnity payouts. In the 14 years up to 2010/11, there were 28 claims on behalf of lenders (an average of two a year), totalling £303,000 (an average of £10,800 each). These were all for conservation repairs, and not a single indemnified work was stolen. 

Last year, there were two claims, totalling £236,000. One was for a minor item, but the other was for damage to Miró’s Painting on White background for the Cell of a Recluse I, 1968, on loan to London’s Tate Modern.


All of which means that in 15 years, total claims on the Government Indemnity have been just over £.5m. It represents a signficant net saving to the government, for if museums had been forced to get private insurance, the bill to the taxpayer would have been in the tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds (since the governmnet funds museums to the tune of about 35%-45%).

Update - a reader from Spain writes:

The paintings loaned to the Prado, Thyssen and Reina Sofia Museums are covered by free insurance provided by the Spanish government called "Garantia de Estado" (State Guarantee) . Without this insurance would be impossible for public museums with very limited funds (even before the crisis) hold exhibitions, such as the Late Raphael or The Young Van Dyck, with works valued at exorbitant amounts. This expenditure, combined with the cost of transportation, would make it impractical exhibition with dozens of paintings from all over the world.

More on the Spanish system here.

Update II - another reader writes:

I’m not sure whether one should encourage too much open discussion of this surprisingly complicated question – but...

When you write “All of which means that in 15 years, total claims on the Government Indemnity have been just over £.5m. It represents a signficant net saving to the government, for if museums had been forced to get private insurance, the bill to the taxpayer would have been in the tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds (since the governmnet funds museums to the tune of about 35%-45%)”, there are several debatable points. Not all my answers point in the same direction, and I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with the Grumpy Art Historian.

Firstly if one were to go down the private insurance route, it is rather unlikely in the present climate that the Government would in fact increase explicit funding, even to the 35–45% level. The fear is that, once out in the open, the value of the scheme would be retained by the Treasury and arguments such as the value of tourism etc. generated by the exhibition would be lost.

More insidiously you ignore what in the world of finance would be termed the “option value” inherent in insurance. I can chose not to insure my house, but it would be a category error to call that a saving of the amount of the commercial premium; and my wife might take a different view of the wisdom of my gamble. So far HMG has got lucky, but it is playing at the casino (best left to financial institutions): you simply don’t know when over the next 15 years, or 150 if necessary, the catastrophe will strike that will change the perceived value of the cover. There may be a saving in “self-insurance”, but it is only the profit element retained by insurers, a far smaller amount than the commercially appraised risk value. With or without profit, the hidden subsidy the Government has provided is an eye-catchingly large number to flaunt before ministers who (according to today’s Sunday Times) dare not even tell us they have been to the theatre, such is the perceived philistinism of the voter. And whatever you think of Gordon Brown’s numerous errors, taking the chips off gold bullion, even though the bet came up, was at least logically defensible.

A serious question for some of these high value exhibitions is whether the commercial insurance market would be able to provide sufficient cover for the very concentrated risk.

An even broader perspective: whether as tax payer or through my pension fund or other investments in insurance companies, I am probably footing this bill anyway. 

This gets a bit more complicated in an international perspective. If the National Gallery and the Louvre each self-insures their own Leonardo when they remain in the respective museum, how much of the premium notionally attached for insuring one on loan is covering a risk that wouldn’t have been covered before? In other words are we just talking about the extra risks from transportation? Of course the risk of loss goes up on a move, but if you sought commercial insurance for a Leonardo in situ only, you would still have to pay a vast amount to reserve the “line” of cover, however minute the risk. And of course if the Treasury started to think about the full implications of self-insuring the National Gallery’s permanent collection…

Which raises the crucial point: whoever pays, money is not an acceptable substitute for the loss or damage to a major artistic masterpiece. The price of commercial insurance cover merely focuses the mind on this – and the GAH is right to that extent. But actually curators are not better placed than civil servants to decide these questions: asking scholars to take round the begging bowl to the usual suspects just won’t work for these amounts. The numbers simply won’t permit a curator to trade off the insurance costs of a high-value loan against say the production costs of colour printing in the exhibition catalogue, and the market discipline the GAH seeks won’t work in practice. The result is that the major masterpieces would never be shown in the UK.

The reason for reducing the number of blockbuster exhibitions should be caution rather than Treasury politics. And if that is a spur to curators to follow Nick Penny’s lead in emphasising focused, scholarly exhibitions, so much the better. But the idea that we should never again be able to borrow a good Titian or Leonardo – for a serious exhibition that justified the risk – would be crushing.


January 14 2013

Image of Today...

Picture: BG

Yet more filming I'm afraid, so probably not much action here on AHN. This morning we were in the National Portrait Gallery's invaluable Heinz Archive.

Kate's first portrait

January 13 2013

Image of Kate's first portrait

Picture: Mail

Oh dear, it is pretty awful, isn't it? And it’s so big too, which only amplifies the awfulness. When I went to see poor Kate’s new portrait earlier today it seemed I was not alone in instantly disliking it – there was much tittering and shaking of heads among my fellow viewers. That it is hung alongside some of the National Portrait Gallery’s very best contemporary portraits – opposite, for example, Michael Taylor's excellent portrait of John Tavener - further heightens the feeling that we have here a real turkey of a picture. I’m not surprised that it has been universally panned by commentators. But what I am surprised by, given that there is no shortage of good portrait artists out there, is how the NPG allowed this to happen to their new Patron.

The answer is, unfortunately, that it was probably inevitable, and for two reasons. The first is our (and the National Portrait Gallery’s) increasing obsession with photo-realist portraiture. The NPG’s main contemporary portrait competition, the BP Portrait Award, now seems actively to encourage photo-realism at the expense of traditional portraiture – indeed, the artist of Kate’s portrait, photo-realist Paul Emsley, himself won the award in 2007. The second reason, which is related to the first, is that there must have been a wish to choose a safe pair of hands for Kate’s first official portrait. One presumes that there was a desire to avoid a ‘controversial’ picture like Stuart Pearson Wright’s (brilliant) portrait of a half-naked Duke of Edinburgh holding a fly. Photo-realism allows for a safely conservative portrait, since the artist is effectively limited to just painting a photograph, one the sitter themselves can approve before anything goes too far.

The problem is, though, that the NPG has ended up with a safe but stultifyingly dull portrait, and, worse, Kate has been subjected to some needlessly negative media and public reaction on one of her first forays into the arts. Regular readers will know that I have long been unimpressed with photo-realist portraiture (to me, painting a photograph requires no more skill than photographing a painting, just more time). However, when done well there is no denying that photo-realism can have an initially impressive impact, as the viewer is allowed to feast on the minutest details of an interesting-looking sitter; the crevasses of a wrinkled face, the intensity of a dazzling eye. 

Sadly, Kate’s portrait is not only a woeful piece of painting, it’s also a woeful piece of photo-realism. There are few interesting details for us to be impressed by - indeed, Emsley himself has bemoaned the lack of ‘wrinkles’ on Kate’s face. But although the portrait relies on photographs, it nevertheless attempts a veneer of painterliness, and the result is an awkward collision between banal photography and bad painting. It reminds me of the washed out, soft-focus photos of the elderly one finds in high street studios, or, more commonly, American shopping malls. As a painting, it conveys nothing of note whatsoever, and fails entirely to bring the subject to life. The flesh tones are pallid, stale, and so unbalanced that Kate appears to be recently deceased. Visitors at the NPG need only walk three paces to their right to see, in a series of Mario Testino photos of Kate, that happily she looks nothing like Emsley's picture in real life. Emsley has tried hard, but he is out of his depth.

This painting then is a shining example of the fundamental weaknesses of photo realist portraitists. For all their attention to detail, for all the hours the artist spends standing close to the canvas labouring over a single hair, there is no corresponding sense of overall perspective, and certainly no penetrating exploration of character. The whole becomes lost in the detail. One wonders if they ever stand back and look at their portrait from afar. Might we hope, therefore, that the very public failure of this portrait leads to a reappraisal of photo-realism? 

The omens are not good. In a sense, the NPG is merely reflecting the public’s appetite for paintings that look like photographs. We are now so conditioned to looking at the world through a lens, be it in our mobile phones, digital cameras, or on the telly or in newspapers, that we expect our paintings to look like photos too. Stick-in-the-muds like me and Brian Sewell might say that a painted portrait should be the means by which we eschew the instantaneous, one-way, emotionless gaze of the camera lens. But these days too many portraitists rely on cameras, and the result is the increasing eclipse of the oil portrait done from life, in long sittings where artist and sitter could built up at least a semblance of some deeper understanding than is ever possible through photography.

The irony in this case is that there is one person who agrees with me to such an extent that he’s even established his own art school, where art students are taught the traditional techniques of the Old Masters. He is, of course, Kate’s father-in-law, the Prince of Wales.  

Update - a reader places the blame more in Kate's direction:

Wait....didn’t Kate receive a degree in the history of art not too long ago? Either her degree should be revoked, or it’s a sad testament to the quality of higher education in this country (not to mention the whole connoisseurship issue...)  Here was a good chance for her to champion all the things one hopes and assumes a history of art graduate would have learned with a unique practical demonstration of that knowledge, and all I can hear is scores of parents saying ‘we paid good money for you to study the history of art and that’s what you learned??’ 

I found the portrait pretty revolting to look at – it reminded me of a Breck shampoo advertisement from the 1960s aged to show how the sitter (missing? dead? fugitive from the law?) might appear today.

Another reader cautions:

At first glance 'Kate' is so ghastly that it transcends the Ecce Mono, and then gradually I wonder if the NPG was tricked into commissioning a conceptual, and subversive, Great Work of Art.

Update II - another reader writes:

Photorealism is an impressive style of art when painted well. However, more often than not this style of painting places the viewer's focus on the painting's technique rather than its subject (and as such, arguably emphasises the achievements of the artist rather than the sitter). 

If the aim was to make Kate's portrait seem modern and up to date then it seems a shame, with so many fantastic portrait photographers working in this country,  that the final outcome was not a photograph. On the other hand, if the aim was to produce a painted portrait for the sake of tradition and Kate's art historical background, then why not fully exploit the fact that paint is not reliant on reality alone. The result is an uncomfortable  hybrid of these two media, no doubt caused by an over-zealous attempt to express the new 'with-it' generation of royals but in a traditional manner. In doing so the painting becomes the equivalent of a postage stamp - it shows the image of the (future) queen, but not much else.

Another reader sees the influence of a recent Leonardo discovery:

I would hazard a guess that it is a rather poor attempt to make the Duchess of Cambrige look a bit like Leonardo's? Salvator Mundi. The blurry picture on the front of the weekend's newspapers made me come to this realisation.

The only real mystery seems to me to be why the expression of her lips don't seem to match the rest of her face.


January 11 2013

...I'm away all day making a film for the BBC Culture Show, so no service I'm afraid. Random musings will continue over on Twitter. Otherwise, see you Monday.

Update - I'm told 'making a film' is seen as pretentious. In the world of telly it's 'making a programme'. That said, you are allowed to say 'I'm away filming', even if it's just for telly. 

Picasso vandal arrested

January 10 2013

Video: ITN

The wally who attacked a Picasso in the Menil Collection (Texas) in June has at last been arrested. From Fox News:

Seven months later, Uriel Landeros, 22, turned himself over to marshals at the international bridge near McAllen, Texas on the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I don't regret anything that I've done," Landeros told KPRC-TV of Houston in an interview.

Landeros was charged in June with felony graffiti and criminal mischief for vandalizing the 1929 artwork at the Menil Collection in Houston.

It'll be interesting to see how his punishment matches up to the two years in jail for the similar Rothko attack here in London.

Is history of art only for poshos?

January 10 2013

Image of Is history of art only for poshos?

Picture: British Museum

No, of course it isn't. But we Brits love to be chippy about this sort of thing, so in this country there's a feeling that art history is an elitist subject. That said, it is undeniably the case that a lot of posh people study art history, including, most famously at the moment, the Duchess of Cambridge. In The Guardian,* art history student Joy Starkey writes:

As a history of art student at Cambridge University, I have had direct experience of the stigma attached to the subject. I am regularly confronted with the attitude that, as one recent Cambridge graduate put it: "History of art is a niche subject, one that isn't particularly relevant or useful for future life."

The public and students alike regard it as a subject reserved for wealthy students from top private schools. This belief has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a student who came to the subject from a state school background, I am in the minority.

The subject's elitist image has been exacerbated by the long list of royals who have studied it – Prince William, Kate Middleton and Princess Beatrice to name a few. This not only gives the impression that you have to be from the right background to study it, but also reinforces the notion that this subject is not useful in the current barren landscape of graduate recruitment.

In 2011 25 people from state schools and 38 from independent schools applied for history of art at Cambridge University. Just five of the available 16 places were awarded to state school students. Admissions tutors have to select the best applicants. These are most likely to be those who visited art galleries when they were children. They will also be those who studied the subject at A-level, something often only offered by private schools.

But strip history of art of its seemingly pretentious finery and it's clear that it's anything but elitist. In my three years at university I have discovered that art is one of the most vivid ways of viewing history — it is an intimate glimpse into someone's world.

I'm not entirely sure how we 'strip art of its pretentious finery'. Take paintings out of their frames? Display them in industrial warehouses? When we had our connoisseurship debate on this site a while ago, some commentators said that words like 'connoisseurship' are elitist and even intimidating. I don't agree. But what do you think? Can readers suggest ways of making the subject more accessible? Should we stop saying, for example, 'sfumato', and instead say, 'blurry bits'?

Incidentally, I'm delighted that our future queen studied art history (and has become a valuable patron for the National Portrait Gallery), not least because our future king, William, gave it up to do geography instead...

* via Hannah Williams

Update - a reader writes:

Always surprising that such a broad subject like Art History is considered niche compared to, say, English Literature.

Another reader writes:

I think the issue highlighted by Joy Starkey is one of class and wealth as opposed to academic elitism i.e a suggestion of not understanding art historical terms like sfumato, imprimatura or chiaroscuro because you're from a state school might seem incredibly patronising! Those can be learnt.

In my experience, I grew up in a council flat on a sink estate, I did a full time degree in art history supporting it by working 35 hours a week in a petrol station, whilst living at home. The other students on my course apart from one or two others came from privileged backgrounds, had their fees and rent paid, and had the opportunity to spend more time in the library and visiting galleries etc (whether they did or not I've no idea). I could never afford to do an internship, and have attempted a Ph.D (no chance of funding for 16th century Flemish) whilst working two jobs, but that was doomed to failure from the start. In the rare instances where my skills (as opposed to my background) have been noted, such as being offered the opportunity to curate an old masters exhibition (obviously unpaid) I've washed dishes in a restaurant in order to do so, which is far worse in reality than even Orwell makes out.

In the rare instances I've been offered job interviews I get asked why I haven't done an internship. I wouldn't have afforded a weeks worth of suits and shirts let alone the bus! I've discovered unknown paintings in public collections, increasing their value ten fold, yet try to get a job in one of these intuitions when your peers have had the opportunity to do internships at the Met or the Frick or the Prado or their father is on the board at Christie's....banging your head against a brick wall is an understatement. 30 or so years ago you could get a job as a porter at a London auction house, with relatively little qualifications and work your way up the ladder (the same can be said for the BBC and other institutions), those days are sadly over. I would be very surprised if anyone working at the top London commercial galleries (apart from Front of House) came from state schools or lower class backgrounds. 

The way we make it more accessible is by employing on merit, and acknowledging there is a problem (particularly nepotism). If I walked into the door of [several London art dealers] asking for a job, I'd expect to be ushered out the door at the earliest opportunity. These galleries seem to employ anonymously through elite agencies who must have a special furnace reserved for my CV. It's as if the very act of advertising their need for an employee is deemed uncouth, so they cloak it in mystery. (Sotheby's also do this). It's sewn up.

All too often true, alas, and a shame to read. With regards to the job problem, it is not necessarily one of elites or class, but a more straightforward market-related fact that there are (and always have been) more candidates than vacancies in the art world. It's a tiny industry with a very large appeal. An equivalent is all those media studies students hoping to be journalists - few of them ever can be, and when was the last time you saw a correspondent's job at The Times publicly advertised?

So for employers in the art world, particularly the auction houses (tho' please note I make no specific allegations), there is little incentive to pay interns - there's a ready supply of free, if privileged, candidates desperate to do the job. As internships are a major route into art world jobs, the problem becomes self-perpetuating. And it's not just in the art market that this happens. We recently had an example here on AHN about the National Portrait Gallery offering a long-term unpaid internship, albeit one that was part-time.

Incidentally, I'm pleased to say that we have a good record on employment and internships here at Philip Mould & Co; we recently took on an intern, whom we paid. He proved so successful that we offered him a full-time job. I won't embarrass them by revealing what school they went to, but it wasn't Eton.

PS - For what it's worth, I never studied art history, anywhere! 'And it shows!', you all shout... In fact, I don't think I could have got a job in the art world had I studied art history, at least not the sort of job I have now. For me, the key skills I need were learnt by training as a historian - for example, the ability to look for and evaluate evidence. These, and much else besides, are not taught properly in overly theoretical art historical courses. But that's a whole different debate...

Update II - the above reader adds:

Amusingly I was once asked by one of the elite agencies 'what experience do you have with high net worth individuals?'

I didn't realise they were a different species, but nevertheless I would have told them everything they wanted to know about the painting they were buying....!

Update III - a reader writes:

You wrote "For me, the key skills I need were learnt by training as a historian - for example, the ability to look for and evaluate evidence."  Right on! Those skills are indeed crucial, and not at all only for art history or history generally, but they much less common than they should be.  At the same time, some 'analytical' disciplines short-change students by treating imagination and artistic sensibilities as unimportant if not disreputable. Are there universities/colleges which encourage one to combine art history with exposure to disciplines that emphasize analytical skills, not only history but even (don't scream!) basic economics? 

Update IV - a reader writes:


I don't believe that technical vocabulary is a serious barrier, at least to primary school-age children, who pick up vocabulary effortlessly: I suspect it's more their teachers who have the problem with technical terms. (Though I can see why some may find 'connoisseurship' a bit irritating, as it's an ugly combination of French and English: perhaps the 17th century French 'connoissance' would be preferable?)

However, it may be possible to teach terminology by linking 'high art' with the digital arts, in particular films and video games. For example, Glennis McGregor's blog 'Rennaisance for Real' explains sfumato, chiaroscuro, cangiantismo and unione by comparing examples from Renaissance artists with stills from 'Monsters Inc.', Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland', and other films. See

I'm interested to see that Michael Daley of Artwatch UK has recently (and surprisingly, at least to me) adopted a similar strategy, by comparing techniques in Burton's 'Frankenweenie' with those of Michelangelo. See

On your suggestion of taking pictures out of their frames or displaying them in industrial warehouses: while the thought of the first makes me shudder, I do like the notion of the second, if it were done in a comparative setting. It seems to me that comparative exhibitions like the National Gallery's 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012' or 'Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present' were misguided, because they were in the wrong location: anyone who visits the NG will not need any encouragement to view Renaissance art. They'd be more useful in the context of an industrial warehouse or modern equivalent like the Tate Modern or the Saatchi Gallery, where those visitors who already appreciate the art of Chris Ofili and Mark Wallinger may be helped by seeing 'high art' treatments of similar subjects or using similar techniques. Although a comparative 'hang' has the danger that it may be too diverse to make much sense, this could I think be avoided by restricting the traditional artworks to a few examples which can easily be compared with the modern works. I'm thinking of something like Tracey Emin's exhibition 'She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea', where she selected a few erotic drawings by Turner and Rodin to hang among her works: see

(I suppose the ratio could be reversed: for example by displaying Damien Hirst's 'For the Love of God' amongst an exhibition of traditional 'vanitas' works,  but I don't somehow see this as so focussed.)

Finally, It seems crucial to encourage the practice of painting and sculpture to the very young: it's a cliche that we are all artists at the age of 5, but very few of us still are by the age of 15, when active participation in drawing and painting has usually become peripheral to our lives. There's a musical parallel here: I'm thinking of the phenomenon of El Sistema currently sweeping the world, which has led to the foundation of hundreds of classical music centres, targetting children from deprived backgrounds in 22 countries including Britain. Most of its alumni will not have careers as professional musicians, but all will have developed a love of the music, and will no doubt enthusiastically attend classical concerts for the rest of their lives. And by active participation in music, they will have picked up the vocabulary painlessly. No doubt the same applies to visual art.

Ultimately, all this comes down to our government's education policy. If schools are not encouraged (or required) to set time aside for art classes and visits to galleries, whatever is done by art teachers, historians and curators will still affect only a minority of the population.

Another reader writes:


In response to your recent post ‘Is history of art only for poshos?’, and with regard to art history’s profile in higher education, we can ask three questions:

Is the subject itself inherently elitist?  Yes, insofar as it is, vicariously, about the study of elites.  This fact is only slightly qualified when we consider the study, by no means widespread, of subjects such as the popular print.  (I’ll put aside the long-standing debate about whether art history is, or should be, ’visual culture’).

Is subject studied by elites?  It follows that art history will be more attractive to those who are familiar with the kind of art and cultural milieu studied on art history degrees, than to those who are not, just as degrees in a foreign language tend to contain a disproportionately large number of students from that country, or with connections to that country of one kind or another.  Pupils exposed to art, and also to art history, whether at school or at home, are more likely to know about the subject and want to study it, and to be supported in turn by parents and teachers.  (I myself only came into the subject through the enthusiasm of an A-level art teacher, Mr Cooper, who supplemented our lessons with enthusiastic talks on artists such as Hogarth, and annual school visits from Rotherham to the galleries in London).

What can be done to change things?  This begs the question of why we think people should want to study a subject so closely associated with ‘elites’ in the first place.  A greater co-ordination of effort among interested parties in answering this question would be welcome, starting perhaps with a serious study of the key issues affecting widening participation in art history. 

Update V - on the language point, another reader adds:

Regarding making the Art History degree less formal, could not disagree more. A degree is not a workshop! If people decide to get a degree they are seeking specialization and professionalization. So, simplify what exactly? I do not even consider Art History very challenging concerning technical vocabulary, especially if compared with Medicine or Law. 

A completely different thing is, afterwards, to adapt the speech according to the public and the language used should vary depending whether it is addressed to the museum, the gallery or auction house. May be considered patronizing, but it seems only logical that a museum guide do not mention to a group of school children the provenance of an artwork, information that may be interesting to an adult audience which, in turn, probably is not interested in its number of inventory. Those speaking have to adapt, nevertheless, those speaking are the Historians, the Curators, the Gallerists and should know all about the art they are representing - That is professionalism.

Those seeking for a more informal environment can always try Contemporary Art as a work field - Not being ironic, it is less formal...



Are art critics too polite?

January 10 2013

Image of Are art critics too polite?

Picture: The Guardian

Yes, says Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, and for good measure dishes it out to today's artistic wunderkinds:

Grayson Perry is a fine pundit, an interesting curator, but as a visual artist he is a hack whose work churns around and teems with futile incidents in a way that totally fails to soar. Tracey Emin draws with more life than he does, but not half as well as any newspaper cartoonist. If you think Antony Gormley is a good sculptor, go and see the childish figures he carved on boulders outside the British Library in London. Jenny Saville? A heroic mediocrity. The bloated reputations of so many artists of our time offer critics a lifetime's supply of truth telling, so why hold back? We should be going after this lot (and loads more) all the time, and at full volume. Instead, they are more or less guaranteed nice reviews that ignore the pustules of badness that seep out of chic galleries.

Maybe a prize would help?

Talking of prizes, I realise I haven't yet put up the first ever AHN awards. Coming soon, I think...

Titian upgraded at the National Gallery, London

January 8 2013

Image of Titian upgraded at the National Gallery, London

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery's recently restored and upgraded portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro (?) by Titian is the subject of an article in the new edition of The Burlington Magazine, which is worth a read (if you're a subscriber). A post-restoration image has now been added to the National Gallery website, here, but not any of the research details (the NG website in general is very thin on details). It seems from The Burlington article that Nicholas Penny thought as far back as the 1990s that the picture was a candidate for conservation and potential upgrading, a conclusion more recently reached, independently, by Professor Paul Joannides - so congratulations to them for their connoisseurial hunches.

The story has been picked up in a big splash by The Guardian today, which you can read here, and which describes the picture as 'just rediscovered'. Readers of AHN, of course, have been aware of it since April last year...

In The Guardian piece, Jonathan Jones says that the discovery:

[...] must mean the National Gallery now has the finest collection of Titians in the world – it already owned (among others) the elegantly frenzied Bacchus and Ariadne, the heartbreaking Easter landscape Noli me Tangere, and his portrait of a man with a mesmerising blue sleeve. But Penny, who is not given to hype, points out that the Museo del Prado in Madrid also has a few Titians. I think he is being modest.

Though the NG does indeed have many fine and important Titians, I think Penny is right to be modest - the Prado's collection of Titians probably is the superior one, and, it seemed to me when I saw them recently, they're mostly in better condition too.

Update - the sharp-eyed reader who initially alerted me to the upgrade writes:

Nice to have one's opinions vindicated: even if it is after 30 years! Actually my view was that the work was simply better than the Gallery thought it was: Titian attributions being moot and a very murky area.

It does strike me as remarkable that, given the National Gallery has one of the smallest collections of its type in the world and that it has been comprehensively studied for decades - starting with Martin Davies' work on the detailed and brutally honest catalogues produced during the war, so many "discoveries" have been made in recent years.   Indeed, at times it seems startling.

Aside from the Titian, here are a few works that have been recently been re-examined and declared originals:

  • Bellotto - Venice: The Grand Canal facing Santa Croce
  • Botticelli - Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy
  • Bouts - Christ Crowned with Thorns
  • Canaletto - Venice, Palazzo Grimani
  • Cesare da Cesto - Salome
  • Ghirlandaio - The Virgin and Child
  • Gossaert - The Virgin and Child
  • Master of Moulins - Charlemagne and the Meeting at the Golden Gate
  • Perugino - Christ Crowned with Thorns (actually attributed)
  • Poussin - Nymph and Satyrs
  • Reni - Saint Jerome
  • Reni - Saint Mary Magdalen
  • Reni - Susannah and the Elders
  • Rubens - A Wagon Fording a Stream
  • Strozzi - The Annunciation
  • Veronese - The Rape of Europa
  • Verrocchio - The Virgin and Child with Two Angels

 The have been a few "losses" over the years of course but in general I would say that the Gallery is "up".  And there are, I believe, more discoveries in the basement.

Meanwhile, another reader demurs:

Shocking news!  This picture sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the ext siting display of undisputed masterpieces.  The quality of paint and general execution is poor and it very much looks like a studio work.  It's nowhere near the level of quality of any other portrait by Titian I am aware of.  Titian may well have been involved in the initial 'design' but the this picture was not painted by him.  Another case of wishful thinking but generating great publicity.

The Young Connoisseur (ctd.)

January 7 2013

Image of The Young Connoisseur (ctd.)

Picture: Robert Simon Fine Art

I recently posted two 19th Century pictures of connoisseurs in action, one old, by La Thangue and one young, by August Seigert in the Paisley Art Gallery. In response to the latter, reader and fellow dealer Robert Simon writes:

When I was revamping my website about a year ago, I thought to find some suitable images to reflect the different aspects of my work.  To go with the pictures for sale (“Selected Inventory”) I chose Zoffany’s Tribuna, and for my consultative and appraisal services I used another version of the Siegert painting.

As you can see the Paisley painting turns out to be a somewhat reduced variant of the composition that I used – and in the reduction the meaning seems a little different.  With the full composition we can see that the child connoisseur is studying his or her father’s painting as he sits in another room working at another.  Without the context, the child is just another one of us,  earnestly trying to make sense of the work of a master.  Also, without the presence of the father at work in his studio,  the riding crop lying next to the child may suggest something other than the fact that it is one of the father’s studio props.

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.