18th Century

Study this, win £10k!

January 8 2018

Image of Study this, win £10k!

Picture: Royal Collection

The Burlington Magazine have launched a new £10,000 prize for the study of French 18th Century fine and decorative art. From the January editorial:

Initiated and funded by Richard Mansell-Jones,  a trustee of The Burlington Magazine Foundation, the scholarship  offers £10,000 to a student based anywhere in the world  who has embarked or is about to embark on an M.A. or Ph.D. or is undertaking research in a post-doctoral or independent  capacity. The deadline for applications is 1st March 2018, and the successful candidate will be chosen in April by a selection panel chaired by Christoph Vogtherr, Director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle and former Director of the Wallace Collection, London.

New Joseph Highmore exhibition

September 28 2017

Image of New Joseph Highmore exhibition

Picture: Foundling Museum

This is interesting; the first exhibition on Joseph Highmore since 1963 will open tomorrow at the Foundling Museum in London. Says the blurb;

Curated by Dr Jacqueline Riding, Basic Instincts explores Georgian attitudes to love, desire and female respectability through the radical paintings of Joseph Highmore.

A highly successful artist and Governor of London’s Foundling Hospital, Joseph Highmore (1692-1780) is best known as a portrait painter of the Georgian middle class. However, during the 1740s his art radically shifted, reflecting his engagement with the work of the new Foundling Hospital and its mission to support desperate and abused women. Highmore’s involvement with the Hospital sparked engagement with issues around women’s vulnerability to sexual assault and society’s unwillingness to support them, culminating in a work of exceptional power, The Angel of Mercy.

Basic Instincts is the first major Highmore exhibition for 50 years and explores this decade of disruptive social commentary in his art. Amongst the works on display are four paintings from a series of twelve, inspired by Samuel Richardson’s international bestseller, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, explicitly making reference to the abuse and sexual violence at the core of the novel. On public display in the UK for the first time as part of Basic Instincts is a remarkable painting that still retains the power to shock. The Angel of Mercy (c.1746) depicts a desperate mother in the act of killing her baby, with the distant Foundling Hospital presented as the alternative. Set among Highmore’s tender portraits of mothers and children, family and friends, this show uniquely demonstrates the artist’s depth and variety.

More here in The Guardian, and details on opening times etc, here.  

Sleeper alert?

June 16 2016

Image of Sleeper alert?

Picture: Christie's

The above painting described as 'After George Stubbs' was offered in a minor Christie's New York 'Living with Art' sale earlier this week, with an estimate of $3,000-$5,000. It sold for $215,000.

The picture was deaccessioned by the Huntington Art Collection in California.

But its status as 'not Stubbs' is new. The picture is listed in the recent Yale catalogue raisonné as a genuine work by Stubbs. It was acquired by the Huntington as a Stubbs. It is signed (lower right) and is on panel, as is often the case with Stubbs. From the (not especially good) online photo I can see why the picture might have struck some as being 'right'. According to the catalogue note, the painting is now 'understood' to be a copy of another work, even though the whereabouts of that work is not currently known, and could only be judged on the basis (it seems) of a photo from 1958.

Hmmm. Has a bish been made here? If so, it's one of the biggest deaccessioning blunders of modern times. The Huntington is not awash with Stubbs, and has only one other painting by him. Or is it the most expensive Stubbs copy in history?

Either way, here's what I don't really understand about these deaccessioning cases. The picture was offered 'without reserve', which means that the Huntington were happy to literally give it away. If only one person had bid $50, then that's what they would have been obliged to sell it for. But that being so, then why bother selling it in the first place? The picture had evidently been recognised as a genuine Stubbs for many years. It was dirty and apparently overpainted in parts - and thus impossible to judge with certainty whether it was by Stubbs or not. So why take the risk of getting it wrong? And why have such little institutional curiosity as to not investigate the possibility of Stubbs' authorship more fully, if only as an interesting academic exercise?

New Francis Towne catalogue raisonné

May 20 2016

Image of New Francis Towne catalogue raisonné

Picture: Paul Mellon Centre, 'Old Walton Bridge', 1785. Francis Towne, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art

The Paul Mellon Centre has published another excellent online catalogue raisonné, this time on the British artist Francis Towne. Their most recent one was on Richard Wilson. The Towne catalogue was written by Richard Stephens, who will be known to AHN readers through his invaluable database on the Art World in Britain from 1660-1735. Says the PMC website:

The catalogue identifies 1080 works by Towne and his circle, doubling previously-described totals. Based on the author’s PhD thesis, it makes extensive use of the papers of Paul Oppé (1878-1957) whose pioneering researches established the artist’s reputation in the 1920s, after a century of neglect. Oppé had discovered the contents of Towne's own studio in the possession of the Merivale family of Barton Place near Exeter. Using the archives of Thomas Agnew & Sons, the Fine Art Society, Colnaghi and elsewhere, Stephens gives detailed provenances for hundreds of the Merivales' Townes that have circulated on the London art market. Towne's biography is established in greater detail than before, using much original research. Resources published alongside the catalogue include an edition of Towne's correspondence and a transcription of Oppé's Barton Place catalogue.

More than 800 works are illustrated with high-quality images, much of it specially commissioned by the Paul Mellon Centre. Towne's sketching tours in Wales, Italy, Switzerland, Savoy, the Lake District and around England are reconstructed with new clarity and detail.

Come and hear me talk!

March 9 2016

Image of Come and hear me talk!

Picture: Earl of Wemyss/Gosford Estates

I'll be giving a talk at the Scottish National Galleries in Edinburgh on 4th April at 6.30pm on 'The True Face of Bonnie Prince Charlie'. It'll be all about the discovery of the above portrait of Charles Edward Stuart by Allan Ramsay, and how the Prince's iconography has changed as a result. I'm told that, somehow, over 150 people have already been persuaded to come, but doubtless this is due to the free glass of wine on offer. There are still some tickets left; more details here.

Francis Towne at the British Museum

January 21 2016

Image of Francis Towne at the British Museum

Picture: British Museum

A new exhibition opens today at the British Museum on the work of watercolourist Francis Towne. Says the BM website:

Come and experience 18th-century Rome through an astonishing series of watercolours not displayed together since 1805.

British artist Francis Towne (1739–1816) made a remarkable group of watercolours during a visit to Rome in 1780–1781. They include famous monuments such as the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, ancient baths and temples, and the Forum. These watercolours were Towne’s way of delivering a moral warning to 18th-century Britain not to make the same mistakes – and suffer the same fate – as ancient Rome. 2016 marks the 200th anniversary of their bequest to the British Museum.

Towne’s 52 views of Rome are among the great creative landmarks in the use of watercolour within British art. They played a central role both in Towne’s career, and in the revival of his reputation in the 20th century. They were his main claim for recognition in the London art world and he continued to revise and work on them throughout his life. The views of Rome were the centrepiece of Towne’s one-man retrospective exhibition in London in 1805, and have not been displayed together since. When Towne bequeathed them to the Museum in 1816, they became his permanent public legacy. In addition to the views of Rome, the exhibition will feature further views of Italy by Towne and other works on paper by his contemporaries in Rome, including the important recent acquisition A Panoramic view of Rome by Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1755–1821).

As a landscape painter based in Exeter, Towne’s work was not well known in London during his lifetime, and he failed to be elected to the Royal Academy on several occasions. The Victorians had written off 18th-century watercolours as unambitious and limited, but in the early 20th century, the flat planes and spare, angular designs of Towne’s long-ignored drawings seemed unexpectedly fresh and elegant to modern eyes.

The exhibition has been organised by Richard Stephens, who is writing a catalogue raisonné of Towne's work, to be published online by the Paul Mellon Centre in London. Richard will also be giving a talk on Towne at the BM on Tuesday 26th January at 1.15pm. 

Regular readers will know Richard for his invaluable online resource, The Art World in Britain 1660-1735. I think it's high time AHN designated him a Hero of Art History.

Update - the show gets five stars from today's Guardian.

'Bridgewater Seapiece' future in balance

January 6 2016

Image of 'Bridgewater Seapiece' future in balance

Picture: National Gallery

The death of the owner of JMW Turner's Bridgewater Sea Piece, one of the most important paintings in the history of British art, was announced shortly before Christmas. Harry Hyams, a property developer, had owned the picture since 1976, when it was sold from the Bridgewater collection. It has for many years been on loan at the National Gallery in London. What will happen to it now? 

Fragonard vandalised in France

October 28 2015

Image of Fragonard vandalised in France

Picture: Le Parisien

Some eejit has vandalised a number of paintings by Fragonard and others at the Musée Fragonard in Grasse, France. Reports Artnet News:

a painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a respected Rococo master, reproductions of his work, and additional artworks by François Gérard and François-André Vincent have all been defaced using felt tip and ballpoint pen.

Circular scribbles, long lines of felt pen, and ill-executed moustaches can clearly be seen on the canvases. Moreover, one painting now has a large hole right at its center.

The perpetrator struck on more than one occasion, starting on September 25. On October 19, further damage was noticed. Despite the repeated incidents, nothing was mentioned publicly, until the Mayor of Grasse confirmed the puzzling acts on October 25 via a public statement.

Goya at the National Gallery

October 9 2015

Image of Goya at the National Gallery

Picture: Apollo

Rave reviews flood in for the new Goya show at the National Gallery. Five stars in The Guardian, the Evening Standard, and The Telegraph. I have yet to see it. Here's a good piece by the show's curator Xavier Bray in Apollo on how he managed to secure some of the more difficult loans. He even learnt to shoot, to better mingle with Goya-owning Spanish aristocrats. The Art Newspaper reports that some loans were only confirmed with a month to go.

Everything you need to know about 18th Century pastels

September 8 2015

Image of Everything you need to know about 18th Century pastels

Picture: Neil Jeffares

Neil Jeffares has posted an extremely useful, free and interesting guide to all things pastel in the 18th Century on his website. It's a PDF - yours to download and keep - and is meant as a form of introduction to his invaluable online dictionary of pastellists (above). He says:

The book aims to answer the questions that used to (or in some cases still do) baffle me, such as

  •     why did some pastellists also work in oil – and which sitters opted for pastel?
  •     why did pastel disappear from fashion with the French revolution, returning a century later, but vanishing just as abruptly?
  •     why does the word have such negative connotations?
  •     was the Académie de Saint-Luc just a virtual concept, or was there a building?
  •     how many pastellists were there?
  •     how can you physically safeguard your pastels for a few pence each?
  •     how were and are pastels displayed?

Neil calls it a 'prolegomena', but it's in PDF form partly because, as he points out:

I’m aware that not everyone enjoys browsing websites. There’s something about riffling the pages of a book that the internet, tablets etc. haven’t been able to replicate. And it’s in the nature of reference books that one doesn’t sit down to read them in a linear fashion. 

And this means it's easy to navigate and use.

On a seperate post on his blog, Neil also looks at the wider question of publishing online, and its various shortcomings. For him, a particular bugbear is authors often not citing proper references. My bugbear is that for some writers online is a licence to go on meandering endlessly, for paragraph after paragraph, with no beginning, middle or end. Print and paper may have been expensive, but they encouraged brevity and discipline.

New Gainsborough drawing discovery

June 30 2015

Image of New Gainsborough drawing discovery

Picture: Bainbridges Auctions

A newly discovered drawing by Thomas Gainsborough is to be sold at auction, with an estimate of £20,000-£30,000. More here

Julian Opie on the Old Masters

March 15 2015

Image of Julian Opie on the Old Masters

Pictures: NPG, self-portrait by Julian Opie, 'Julian with T-shirt'. Below, Philip Mould Ltd.

There was a fascinating article in the Sunday Times recently by Julian Opie, talking about his love of Old Masters, why he collects them, and how they inform his own art. It's rare to hear contemporary artists talking about their predecessors with such flair and insight.

Here, with his permission, is the full piece, which is well worth reading:

I am not a historian, a critic or a writer. I am a fan, an artist myself and I suppose a collector. I collect a lot of different kinds of art, contemporary, ancient, Japanese and 17th and 18th century European. I get interested in things because they seem to jump out at me. It can be because the thing relates to what I am making or  because it shows me what I could make. The object can be from anywhere and from any time, I recently bought a painting on buffalo hide by mid 19th C Pawnee Native Americans.

Having noticed British painting some years back I moved from the early 17th Century forwards and eventually arrived at Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney and Ramsay. They were the giants of the late 18th Century each with their own style and particular brilliance. All artists learn from previous art and refer to previous art. I may be high up on that particular scale. 

Walking down Dover street in Mayfair my wife and I spotted a small, dark painting leaning against the wall in my favourite Old Master gallery. Sometimes I see an art work and the day seems to stop. Other things, normal things are forgotten and there is only the fact of looking at the thing. I love the feeling, of being totally focused and engaged and enthusiastic. Other paintings remain paintings but I seem to enter the space of some works. I don't care really when the work was made or by whom. I don't care what or who it is of. Well, I do read about the period and learn all I can finding out about other artists in the process. I want to stare at the artwork and if possible to have it. After some negotiations ( the painting was reserved by someone else) I bought Mr Bradyll [above] and have looked at it almost every day since then. It is particularly vivid as it’s painted thickly and fast on a wooden board and thus has faded less than much of Reynold’s work.

I had always admired Reynolds even as a student when I only knew of him in a general sense as an old master. There is a melancholic and gentle quality to his work. The slightly deathly mood ( enhanced by the tendency of his skin colours to fade to pale) is offset by a vivid, powerful sense of presence. Like many 18th Century works the compositions are elegant and balanced and there is a piercing sincerity and fresh energy and optimism to the paintings. 

These days we usually see good paintings in museums and museums tend to focus on the interesting and the grand. It's hard for them to write about yet another portrait of an aristocrat done in oil paint. There are thousands of them, all the same set size and although I can tell a lot of them apart they look remarkably similar on the surface. In the case of Reynolds this bias is a shame. His best works are the workaday portraits commissioned to be hung in people's homes. There is an energetic modesty and sense of sureness and purpose to these works. Reynolds helped to set up and then directed the first public English gallery where artists could exhibit their work, the Royal Academy. This was part of a whole move away from artist as commissioned portraitist, the end of a golden age and the end of my interest in English painting really. The mythological later works of Reynolds are pompous and stiff and dated but a huge number of his hundreds of commissioned portraits are still glowingly intense and alive. 

Like most British portrait painters Reynolds came from the tradition of Dutch portraiture introduced by Van Dyke, Cornelius Johnson and others in the early 17th Century. Reynolds travelled to Italy to learn from earlier Italian late Renaissance painters like Raphael and Titian. He then applied the techniques and compositions to his busy London studio practice. Daily sessions of portrait sittings undertaken to order. Paintings then often sent by cart to drapery painters such as the brilliant Van Aken who did all the top artist’s drapery. For a set price and at a set size you could have a head or a three quarter length or a fabulous full length portrait. You could get more than one copy. It was a service and artists knew what their job was. 

Reynolds experimented and borrowed and imitated. He played with props and poses and above all lighting and painting technique. Dappled light and shadows falling across complicated drapery gave glamour and depth and life. He often used gracious garden settings or exciting wild skies as backdrops as did his contemporaries, to add a sense of depth, place, narrative and an almost cinematic realism. Towards the end of his career these became somewhat overblown or sentimental with young girls hugging smiling sheep and young men dashing through arcadian woods with bows and arrows - by this stage I have lost interest.

A lot of emphasis is often put on the fame or glamour of the sitter and although there can be amusing stories to be told and although the whole complex system of portraiture, wealth, propaganda, society and patronage is important it’s not really what interests me.I do like to know about the role of art and artists and understand the changing way in which artists can work and exhibit but in the end I love to gaze at paintings and see what they do to my eyes and mind. Art can open up the past and bring you directly into the minds and views of other periods almost like time travel. 

The amazing sense of presence in the best of the artists of this time was a pinnacle of a shared purpose and set of techniques. Now we have no idea what we are supposed to be doing as artists, which is a freedom and of course confusing. Reynolds holds all this richness at the end of the golden Age of Enlightenment in late 18th Century London just before most British art fell into the sentimentality, corruption and slick academic tedium of the 19th C.

Disclaimer: I sold Julian the Reynolds he refers to, when I used to work for Philip Mould. And I'm lucky enough to own something of Julian's too, a French landscape. It is one of my favourite pictures.

Update - I meant to say that, as Julian hints above, the reason the Reynolds portrait works so well is because it is in really excellent condition. Just imagine how different our perception of Reynolds would be if all his pictures had survived in such good state.

Reynolds exhibition at the Wallace Collection

March 13 2015

Image of Reynolds exhibition at the Wallace Collection

Picture: Wallace Collection

There's what looks like a great new exhibition at the Wallace Collection on Joshua Reynolds. The approach is refreshingly old-fashioned, for it looks at what Reynolds did, and how he did it:

This exhibition offers a snapshot of Joshua Reynolds’s creative process, and reveals discoveries made during a four-year research project into the outstanding collection of his works at the Wallace Collection. We have selected not only significant portraits but lesser known ‘fancy pictures’ and a rare history painting, all of which will be shown side by side. Among the works on display will be famous pictures such as Nelly O’Brien, Mrs Abington as Miss Prue and Reynolds’s own Self Portrait Shading the Eyes.

By focusing on the themes of experimentation and innovation, we trace Reynolds’s working practice in two ways: on the material level, through his use of pigments and media; and on a conceptual level, through his development of composition and narrative.  What emerges is a vision of Reynolds as a pioneering painter, highly original in his approaches to pictorial composition. This drive to innovation is exemplified in his ambitious allusions to the great masters of the past, such as Titian and Rembrandt and his obsessive tendency to rework and revise his images as he painted.

The exhibition is co-curated by Mark Hallett, who recently published a fine book on Reynolds. Reviews here in The Guardian and The Independent

Stolen Tiepolo returned

March 2 2015

Image of Stolen Tiepolo returned

Picture: New York Times

An important picture by Giabattista Tiepolo (or, 'Mr. Tiepolo' as the New York Times calls him) has been returned to its owners in Italy, having been stolen in 1982. The picture, The Holy Trinity Appearing to Saint Clement, had been consigned to Christie's last year, and was due to be sold with an estimate of $500,000-$700,000 before it was spotted. 

According to the FBI website:

After being provided with evidence that the painting was the same piece previously reported stolen in 1982, the Tiepolo’s consignor agreed to its seizure by the FBI and its return to Italy. The United States Attorney’s Office submitted a proposed stipulation and order providing for the Tiepolo’s seizure and return, and the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York entered that order on January 23, 2015. Italian authorities continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding the theft of the painting, including the circumstances of its importation into the United States.

Nothing here, pace the curious case of the two stolen Wolsey angels (below), about anyone buying the picture 'in good faith', and therefore being due a cut.

The Battle of the Goya Self-Portraits

February 23 2015

Image of The Battle of the Goya Self-Portraits

Pictures: Musée Goya and Musée Bonnat-Helleu.

On Hyperallergic, Benjamin Sutton has a neat summary in English of the story of a newly authenticated Goya self-portrait in France, above. The picture belongs to the Musée Bonnat-Helleu in Bayonne, and was authenticated by the central French government service for museum art restoration 'using scientific imaging and analysis'. Yikes.

The trouble is, those who authenticated the above picture have decided that another version (below) which belongs to another French museum in Castres, the Musée Goya, must be a copy. Nonsense, says the rather splendid chief curator of the Musée Goya, Jean-Louis Augé; the Bayonne painting is a study for the Castres picture, which is also genuine. You can see Augé's response in the video here.

It's hard to judge on the images of course, but I'm with Augé. It's perfectly possible for both pictures to be 'right'. The Castres picture is more worked up than the Bayonne one, so the Bayonne picture could be a preparatory study, and the Castres picture a more finished second version. 

Beware restorers making attributions. 

On a wider point, it's been the case for some time now that Goya connoisseurship is in some disarray.

Any takers for this Batoni?

February 19 2015

Image of Any takers for this Batoni?

Picture: ACE

UK museums take note - the above portrait by Batoni, of the 3rd Baron Monson of Burton, is on offer through the Arts Council. No price is stated. The picture is listed on the Council's 'notification to sell' page, which is where artworks that have been conditionally exempted from death duties are listed before a sale.

It's a very fine picture, and a handsome addition to any museum. 

Exclusive - Museum swap-shop

February 2 2015

Image of Exclusive - Museum swap-shop

Picture: Tate/NPG

Tate Britain is to transfer the above portrait, Mrs Jordan as Hypolita by John Hoppner, to the National Portrait Gallery. Tate, along with the National Gallery, has a statutory power to do this, and it doesn't formally count as a 'de-accession'. 

It is a de-accession, of course, and it's worth noting that once upon a time this picture used to belong to the National Gallery, before that institution transferred it to Tate in 1979. The portrait had been bequeathed to the National Gallery by Sir Edward Stern in 1933.

The picture's change in fortunes (in terms of the relative 'status' of each gallery) charts the curious decline in Hoppner's reputation. At the beginning of the 20th Century, he was more or less seen on a par with the likes of Romney, Gainsborough and Lawrence, as the holdings of institutions like the Metropolitan Museum demonstrates. Now he isn't so highly regarded, though there's no doubting his talent as a painter. 

Tate's website says that the picture is not on display, and I suppose we can assume that it hasn't been regularly shown there for some years now.* Personally, I'm all in favour of such transfers, if pictures go from an institution which doesn't value them to one that does. Regular readers will know my views on Tate's woeful ratio of pictures in store to pictures on display (see my piece on this in the FT here). Indeed, of Tate's ten oil paintings by Hoppner, none are currently on show. I'd say 'Mrs Jordan' (who was an actress, and William IV's mistress) is Tate's best Hoppner. But now it's the NPG's. Lucky them. 

*I'm told the picture has been on loan at the NPG for 'many years'.

The 'Isleworth Mona Lisa' (ctd.)

January 19 2015

Image of The 'Isleworth Mona Lisa' (ctd.)

Picture: WSJ

The owners of the so-called 'Isleworthless Mona Lisa' are still plugging away with their contention that the painting is by Leonardo da Vinci - even, that it might be 'the first version'. The painting is currently on display at The Arts House in Singapore, where visitors are treated, reports the Wall Street Journal, to a blizzard of 'scientific' proofs.

Now, it seems, the story has become one of 'new science' against traditional methods of attribution:

David Feldman, a leading stamp dealer who is vice president of the foundation [...] says art experts like Mr. Kemp, who has played a part in attributing other works to Leonardo, fear technological advances will erode their power to assess paintings.

“There is no easy way to get recognition and acceptance from the art world, particularly when connoisseurship in the traditional way is being challenged,” Mr. Feldman said.

Mr. Kemp responds that science is useful to highlight a forgery, by discovering pigments or other materials that weren’t available during an artist’s lifetime, but not to prove authenticity, which requires expertise and visual interpretation. He believes the painting’s style is too heavy-handed to be by Leonardo.

Although there has been no evidence to prove the picture isn’t by Leonardo, the foundation’s efforts to use science for a positive attribution have faced a series of obstacles.

Carbon dating only has been able to show the canvas of the portrait was produced between 1492 and 1652, a wide date range that doesn’t rule out the possibility that it is a later copy by somebody else.

The foundation also asked Pascal Cotte of Paris-based Lumiere Technology to investigate the painting. Mr. Cotte’s firm has pioneered a process called multispectral digitization, which reveals original colors of a painting and can pick out preparatory drawings beneath the painted surface.

The foundation, in a 320-page book on the work published in 2012, said Mr. Cotte, who also has done studies on the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, “confirms that the artist was likely the same for both paintings.”

Now, on its website, the foundation makes a more modest claim: Mr. Cotte’s analysis fails to show any reason why the painting “was not by Leonardo.”

Mr. Feldman said Mr. Cotte signed off on the content in the book but later changed his mind. The foundation believes Mr. Kemp, the Oxford scholar, put pressure on Mr. Cotte to do so, he said. Mr. Kemp denied any involvement in the matter.

Mr. Cotte didn’t respond to requests for comment. A statement posted on Lumiere Technology’s website warns of “flashy” and “ambiguous” use of its work to “back up risky conclusions,” although it didn’t give details.


For earlier AHN on this picture see here, here and here

A lost Wright of Derby?

January 14 2015

Image of A lost Wright of Derby?

Picture: Your Paintings/Derby museum

The excellent Derby Museum and Art Gallery has secured a £15,000 grant to help them decide whether the above painting is by Joseph Wright of Derby. The subject is The Colosseum by Night, and the picture belongs to the museum. However, its authorship has, reports the Derby Telegraph, been doubted. Presumably on account of what appears to be the curious drawing of the arches on the right. Wright painted The Colosseum by Day, which also belongs to the Derby museum. 

£15,000 is a lot of money to find out an attribution, and I presume this sum allows for the picture to be cleaned, and analysed. I can only find this not especially good photo online. Though at first sight the painting looks too wobbly (that's the technical term) to be by Wright, the sky and foliage top left looks convincing enough. Probably there are some condition issues going on, which are affecting how the picture appears. I'm trying to get a better photo, and will put it up if I can. 

Update - Lucy Bamford, the curator at Derby, has kindly sent a high-res image, and below are some close ups. I'm sure that the picture is indeed by Wright - we can tell that alone from the little figure in the window, and also the foliage and sky at the top left.

But the rest of the picture has been savagely 'restored' by someone in the 1960s or 70s, with huge areas entirely over-painted (as seen in the last image below). The question is, why was it done - to cover up old damage? Or just ineptness. Often it's simply a case of the latter.

Lucy Bamford tells me, however:

Worryingly, I had a tip-off from someone who had some dealing with a painting that was also over painted by the same restorer as the Colosseum back in the 60s or 70s. Their approach seems to have been to sand down the original to make a smooth surface on which to lay new paint, ‘improvement’ being the chief concern I presume.

Yikes. The tale such woeful restoration may be a bizarre one to modern ears, but in my experience it's not unusual. No single group of people has done more damage to paintings in history than those who at some point have fancied themselves as 'art conservators'. Ironic but true. Those pictures that are in the best condition are those that have never been 'cleaned'.

The problome is, every generation of restorers (or, in days of old, simply domestic cleaners, who would scrub pictures with a potato if you were ucky, or a scourer if you weren't) thinks it has come up with the latest answer to 'improve' paintings: once it was 'transferring' (with disastrous results) panel paintings onto canvas; then it was wax re-lining (until people realised how the wax damaged the paint surface). Sometimes it seems art restoration is a giant, intra-generational job creation scheme by restorers.

But anyway, I have no doubts that this time around the work will be done well and carefully. And I look forward to seeing a Wright emerge from beneath the work of that sinful earlier restorer. 

New Raeburns & Van Dyck for the Scottish Portrait Gallery

December 3 2014

Image of New Raeburns & Van Dyck for the Scottish Portrait Gallery

Picture: AIL/SNPG

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery has acquired the above handsome portraits by Raeburn, of Lady Helen Montgomery (d.1828) and her father-in-law, Sir James Montgomery. The acquisition came through the UK government's Acceptance in Lieu scheme, and settled £210,000 worth of death duties. We are not told where the portraits came from; ie, what a nice irony it would be if, after the referendum, they were allocated to a Scottish gallery from an estate in England...

More details here, and a report on the frame here.  

The Raeburns are not the SNPG's only AIL acquisition of late - the below portrait by Van Dyck, of the 2nd Earl of Haddington, was acquired in place of £400,000 of tax (cheap, in my view). This picture, however, remains 'in situ' at Mellerstain House in Berwickshire. Sometimes this 'in situ' arrangement works well, if, for example, a work of art hangs in an interior that was built around it. But in the present case I'm not so sure it does. The picture currently hangs in the small, side wing public entrance to Mellerstain, just opposite the cash till. There seems to me to be no compelling reason for the picture not to be on display in a more publicly accessible place, such as the SNPG itself. But it's not even on their website (hence the rubbish photo). 

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