Category: Conservation

Poussin attack - the security implications

July 18 2011

Image of Poussin attack - the security implications

Picture: National Gallery (detail of floorplan)

I went to see the scene of the crime today. The two Poussins are fine, no trace of damage. The vandal must have used a water-based paint that did not penetrate the varnish, or something similarly removable. The National Gallery will not give out any further details. Nevertheless, the punishment surely should reflect the potential damage, not just the actual damage, if it is to act as any meaningful deterrent. 

Having seen Room 19, where the pictures are, I think there are legitimate questions over security at the Gallery. The Golden Calf is a large picture, over two metres wide, and is hung at the end of the room (the red dot, above). The Adoration of the Shepherds, the other Poussin attacked, is to the right, some paces away (the blue dot). The room guard is placed at the end of the normally quite empty room, say some 20m away (the black dot), and stares straight at the Adoration of the Golden Calf. I wasn't there when it happened, of course, but one must wonder how the villain was able to comprehensively spray not one but two pictures before being stopped.

Jonathan Jones at The Guardian says we should step up security dramatically, and makes the comparison with the Louvre, where they x-ray all bags:

A painting like Poussin's Golden Calf is made by a great artist, cherished by owners, and miraculously preserved down the centuries. It is looked after in a museum, cleaned, studied, and silently enjoyed by thousands. And then in an instant someone can brutally attack this venerable human creation and make a vile mark on it.

That cannot be allowed, and modern society cannot be trusted – there is too much craziness out there. Museums should be more severe on visitors. No visitor gets into the Louvre without a security scan. It looks like no one should get into the National Gallery without such scrutiny either. If this is too expensive, museums should charge to cover the costs. Free museums are very fine. But what is the point if people just come in and desecrate the world's cultural heritage? Charge, search, protect.

Meanwhile, a reader with great experience of these things has kindly sent me this insightful view:

Your article [...] illustrates very well the almost impossible task of protecting public art and keeping works on view to that public. It is a delicate balance! As an ex Police officer, ex Christies Porter[...] I am, possibly in a unique position to see the argument on both sides.

[More below]

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Appalling vandalism at the National Gallery

July 17 2011

Image of Appalling vandalism at the National Gallery

Picture: Guardian

Nicolas Poussin's masterpiece, Adoration of the Golden Calf, has been vandalised and sprayed with red paint. The attack happened at the National Gallery, London, yesterday at about 5pm. Aparently another smaller picture was also attacked, but the details of this have not been released. The Guardian reports:

Witnesses reported seeing a man spraying the paintings with a canister as security guards rushed over before detaining him in the room and contacting police. Five officers later came to arrest the man, who is thought to be French.

This is an act of reprehensible stupidity, which I find almost impossible to comprehend. How could anybody do something so pointless and deranged? The picture has survived unmolested for nearly 400 years, and is now possibly damaged forever just because some nutter decided he wanted to make a point.

Obviously, he should be jailed for a long time. The maximum sentence for criminal damage in this respect is ten years. There is a special section of criminal damage for 'heritage items', but oddly enough this does not include paintings.

My immediate worry is obviously the damage to the picture. If regular spray-paint was used, then who knows how much damaged will have been done. Our best hope is that this French pillock used an easily removable type of paint. 

The next question must be how was this allowed to happen? It does not look as if it was the work of a moment, especially if two pictures were damaged. Being a security guard can be a tedious job, but that doesn't excuse those at the National sitting there playing sudoku, as I've seen before.

Tudor portrait set at NPG

July 14 2011

Image of Tudor portrait set at NPG

Picture: NPG

A rare and important set of royal portraits will go on display for the first time in 36 years at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 19th July-4th December. The Hornby Castle set of portraits runs from William the Conqueror to Mary I, including this nicely hump-backed Richard III. They aren't masterpieces, but are a nice example of the Tudor fashion for 'corridor portraits'.

British Art at risk in Syria?

July 11 2011

Image of British Art at risk in Syria?

Picture: GAC, Claude Muncaster, 'A Souwester Over the Downs'.

This is a bit tenuous, but I always like to bring you an art historical take on current affairs...

Following reports that the US embassy in Damascus has been attacked by pro-Assad crowds, here's a list detailing the pictures on loan to the British Embassy from the Government Art Collection. Nothing too valuable, but it would be nice to avoid a repeat of the Tripoli debacle should anything nasty happen. There should be a policy in place to remove the art long before there's any chance of trouble.

There's an Oskar Kokoschka in Yemen too...

First image of newly found Leonardo

July 9 2011

Image of First image of newly found Leonardo

Picture: Robert Simon/Tim Nighswander

Here's the first post-conservation photo of Salvator Mundi, the newly discovered Leonardo painting. Lost for centuries, it was bought in the US in the mid-2000s by the art dealer Alex Parish.

The picture will be included in the National Gallery's new Leonardo exhibition. But after speculation over the $200m asking price, which would conflict with the National's strict rules on loaned paintings, the owners have said the picture is now not for sale. 

It's difficult to judge from the photo, but I can see no reason why it shouldn't be by Leonardo, as the scholars now say. The hand in particular seems very Leonardo like. The only question I suppose is the condition, given the thinness in the face. I can't wait to see it. What an incredible discovery by Alex Parish.

Sleeper alert?

July 8 2011

Image of Sleeper alert?

Picture: Sotheby's

This picture sold yesterday for £718,850 (inc. premium), against an estimate of just £15-20,000. It was catalogued as 'Studio of Gaspar van Wittel (called Vanvitelli)', but evidently two or more people thought it was better than that...

The record for a van Wittel/Vanvitelli is £2m in 2003. A similar scene to the picture sold yesterday made £827k in 1995 at Christie's New York (image below).

Bargain of the week?

July 6 2011

Image of Bargain of the week?

Picture: Bonhams

This large and impressive Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist was on offer at Bonhams today. Catalogued as 'Workshop of del Sarto', I thought it had areas of quality underneath the obvious dirt and old varnish. Since there's a history of 'Workshop' productions being found to be actual del Sartos, I expected it to fetch a decent price. But it sold for just £10,800. We might yet see it again...

New Correggio discovery

July 4 2011

 

A Vatican painting previously thought to be a copy after Correggio has been cleaned. Now, it is believed to be by him.

Connoisseurship in Crisis?

July 3 2011

Image of Connoisseurship in Crisis?

Picture: Courtauld Institute

The picture above, The Procuress after Dirck van Baburen (see the original here), belongs to the Courtauld Institute in London. It was donated to them in 1960 as a work by the notorious forger Hans van Meegeren. However, two years ago, the Courtauld's investigations revealed that it was in fact not a fake, but a 17thC copy. It was even suggested that the picture belonged to Vermeer, for the same subject appears in the background of two of his paintings.

The Courtauld's findings were first published in the Art Newspaper in September 2009:

A “fake” in the Courtauld Gallery, believed to be by the master forger Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), is a genuine Dutch Golden Age painting, new research has revealed. It is a version of The Procuress, a 1622 brothel scene by Dirck van Baburen, which is also depicted in the background of two works by Vermeer. It is now believed that the Courtauld’s painting may, in fact, be the work that Vermeer once had.

None of this sounded quite right to me, so we decided to investigate further for a possible episode of 'Fake or Fortune?'. The Courtauld kindly allowed us to see the picture in their conservation studio. It not only looked to me straight away like a fake, but a fake by van Meegeren. His style is distinctive, particularly in the way he constructs faces. 

The picture has now been conclusively proved to be by van Meegeren on 'Fake or Fortune?'. There is no doubting van Meegeren was a rogue and a wrong'un, but I feel rather drawn to him. I like to imagine him laughing with incredulity at the sight of leading art historians declaring his paintings to be originals, decades after his death. The intriguing thing is that although van Meegeren conceded he had owned The Procuress, he denied repeatedly that he painted it, claiming his wife bought it in an antique shop. The question is, therefore, how many more of his fakes are still out there?

More on the Van Dyck debate

June 27 2011

Image of More on the Van Dyck debate

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd (detail)

The Antiques Trade Gazette has a good summary of the debate over the Van Dyck study we bought at the Chatsworth Attic Sale.

To recap, we bought the study catalogued as 'Circle of Rubens'. We, and a number of experts, say it is by Van Dyck. Sotheby's, and their own experts (who haven't seen the picture), say it isn't. 

Speaking to the ATG, Sotheby's said that the picture was 'short on quality and uncharacteristic for a Van Dyck.' The quality point is moot. Look for yourself at the face, see how animated it is, and remember that this was intended to be no more than a rapidly painted sketch, for later reference in a finished work. But I readily agree that it is uncharacteristic.

It is uncharacteristic because nobody has properly studied Van Dyck's use of studies before. According to the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonne, only 3 studies are listed from between Van Dyck's departure to Italy in 1621 and his death in 1641. This is so patently an under-estimate that we cannot use the 'characteristic' argument when judging potential Van Dyck studies. Instead, we have to look at all the available evidence with open eyes...

Below is my fuller discussion of the picture.

A new $200m Leonardo discovery?

June 25 2011

Image of A new $200m Leonardo discovery?

Picture: ARTnews

In the June edition of ARTnews, Milton Esterow has what could be the discovery story of the decade (or even the century?).

Salvator Mundi, above, was discovered in an estate sale in the US. Now, it will be included in the forthcoming Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery in London. The only illustration so far available is the murky black and white photograph taken before conservation.

The picture belongs to a group of Old Master dealers, including Robert Simon, and reportedly has a $200m asking price.

It has long been known that there was a lost Leonardo of this subject. One, perhaps this one, belonged to Charles I. Here is a rival claimant to be the original. But, if right, what an astonishing thing Robert Simon has found. It proves what I have often said, that (like it or not) we art dealers are often at the coalface of art history, offering up new discoveries for discussion, acceptance or rejection. Such discoveries are the propellant by which art history advances. Full credit to Nicholas Penny and the staff at the National Gallery for including it in their exhibition. 

The picture was apparently discovered 'about six or seven years ago'. Now, I started working for Philip Mould in May 2005. So if it was bought before then, phew, that's fine. If after, I guess I missed the Sleeper to end all Sleepers. You can see why these sort of stories keep me awake at night...

Read the full fascinating details here. Doubtless it won't be long till this is picked up by the world's press...

The Empire Strikes Back

June 16 2011

Image of The Empire Strikes Back

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd

In The Times and on the BBC’s Today programme yesterday morning was news of one of the recent Van Dyck discoveries included in our exhibition ‘Finding Van Dyck’. The story was later picked up in a rather muddled piece by Channel 4 news.

The picture, Study of the Head of a Woman (above), was bought at the Chatsworth ‘Attic Sale’ handled by Sotheby’s. It was catalogued as ‘Circle of Rubens’. Briefly, here’s just three reasons why I think the study is by Van Dyck.

  1. The same head appears in two larger compositions by Van Dyck, both painted in about 1630; Achilles Among the Daughters of Lycomedes (Schonborn Collection), and Adoration of the Shepherds (Church of Our Lady, Dendermonde). 
  2. In the Achilles painting, the woman’s head is used in the lower centre, and has been rotated slightly for the figure looking up at Achilles. In the Adoration picture, the study has been inverted, and used for the shepherdess looking down at Christ. (I would illustrate both, but don't yet have permission to reproduce them online).
  3. In both of the above pictures, the heads follow the study closely, even down to details such as the highlight on the top lip, and the shadows in the cheek. 

We are left, therefore, with two plausible options – either it is a copy after the Achilles or Adoration pictures. Or it was made by Van Dyck in preparation for those pictures.

We can immediately rule out option 1, that it is a copy. Not only is it too impulsive, animated and well painted to be by a copyist (or even a studio assistant), it is also at a different angle and with different hair, thus ruling out the possibility that it was painted after either of the larger works.

In response to inquiries from the BBC and Channel 4, Sotheby’s issued the following statement:

Sotheby’s carefully considered the painting when cataloguing it for sale, and reject the recent attribution to Van Dyck. Six out of seven of the world’s leading specialists in this field whom Sotheby’s has consulted also categorically reject the attribution to Van Dyck (the only one supporting the Van Dyck attribution being the same specialist Philip Mould consulted).  The overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion – consistent with Sotheby’s original cataloguing – is that the painting is by an anonymous Flemish artist working in the 17th century, ultimately inspired by Peter Paul Rubens. 

But here’s three curious things: [more below]

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Triptych re-united at last

June 15 2011

Image of Triptych re-united at last

Picture: Telegraph

An epic triptych by Jan van Belkamp showing Lady Anne Clifford and her family has gone on display at Abbot Hall in Kendal, Cumbria.

The Lakeland Trust bought the picture in 1981. But until now the central section has been in store because they couldn't get it through the door. Eventually, somebody worked out that they could get it through a window, so the three sections are now hanging together. More details here

Nicked

June 7 2011

Image of Nicked

Picture: Tribune De l'Art

The above works by Hals and Jacob van Ruisdael have been stolen from a museum in Holland. Two Boys Laughing, and Wooded Landscape were taken on 26th May from the Hofje van Aerden in Leerdam. More here

British paintings destroyed in Tripoli

June 2 2011

Image of British paintings destroyed in Tripoli

Picture: Art Newspaper

A number of paintings from the Government Art Collection appear to have been destroyed after the British Embassy in Tripoli was evacuated. Apparently, it was a priority to take computers and documents on the plane out, but not the art. 

The GAC had 17 pictures on loan to the embassy, including, from left above, Philip Reinagle's 1797 Harrier Killing a Bittern, Edmund Havell's William Stratton, and a landscape in the style of Salvator Rosa.

Hopefully they're all ok, and hanging in some enterprising Libyan's bedroom.

What are museums for?

May 31 2011

In the Art Newspaper, Maurice Davies tries to find the answer in three new books on museums and collections. They are:

  • Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: the Crisis of Cultural Authority, Tiffany Jenkins, Routledge, 174 pp, $95 (hb)
  • Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, James Simpson, Oxford University Press, 204 pp, £25 (hb)
  • The Best Art You’ve Never Seen: 101 Hidden Treasures from Around the World, Julian Spalding, Rough Guides, 288 pp, £14, $22.99 (pb)
To be honest, the first two sound a bit of a yawn. There's a lot of navel-gazing in the museum world when it comes to deciding 'what we're for'. Nothing beats the British Museum's founding mission statement: 'for the entertainment of the curious'.

Nevertheless, Julian Spalding's book is a timely plea to his museum colleagues to stop bein so retentive, especially over things like climactic controls. He argues that: [More below]

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Restoring Rogier van der Weyden

May 25 2011

Image of Restoring Rogier van der Weyden

Picture: Museo Prado

The Prado is to restore Rogier van der Weyden's c.1460 The Crucifixion. The process is expected to take two years:

The study and subsequent restoration of Van der Weyden’s Crucifixion will be undertaken by the Museo del Prado’s restoration team in collaboration with restorers from Patrimonio Nacional, to whom the Museum will be making available its technical resources and experience acquired through the restoration of other works on panel in recent decades, including The Descent from the Cross by the same artist, which was restored in 1993. The lengthy procedure envisaged will involve a detailed and complete study of the panel in order to decide on the most appropriate procedures for its conservation and restoration.

Full details here.

Restoring a Van Gogh

May 24 2011

 

Here's an excellent idea - the Cincinnati Art Museum is to restore Van Gogh's Undergrowth with Two Figures in public. The 1890 painting was re-lined in the 1970s, and the wax applied to the back of the canvas is now affecting the paint layers. Now, the wax is being removed, and visitors to the museum can watch via a giant screen.

I regularly encounter damage caused by these wax re-linings. They were all the rage at one point, but now we look back on the process and shudder. Usually, a hot iron was used to melt the wax and so glue the new canvas onto the back of the old. Sadly, this often had the effect of flattening the paint layers - not entirely surprising if you iron a painting - and so the texture and impasto of a painting was lost forever.

I wonder what conservation treatments we use these days that will have to be undone by the next generation of restorers

Re-joining 'Leftover Mountain Painting'

May 19 2011

Image of Re-joining 'Leftover Mountain Painting'

Picture: CNTV

Great excitement in China as the two halves of one of China's most famous landscapes are to be reunited. 'Leftover Mountain Painting', painted by Huang Gongwang in c.1350, is travelling to Taiwan to be joined together with 'The Wuyongshi Painting'. More here, and a video here

To sell or not to sell?

May 12 2011

Image of To sell or not to sell?

Here's a quick report on Tuesday's conference on deaccessioning at the National Gallery. The event was organised by Farrers. The conference was overall a success. The arguments for and against were well covered. One or two of the speakers went on for too long (one for far too long).

Simon Jenkins, the patron saint of common sense, spoke passionately for. He decried the acres of art left in storage in London whilst numerous National Trust properties (of which he is chairman) had bare walls. Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, argued against, from the specific point of view of the National: as the national collection, it had inevitably to be the repository of some bad art, as well as the best. The duds were part of the collection's history. Gary Tintorow of the Metropolitan Museum demonstrated the benefits of relentless 'trading up' - selling the bad to buy better - but also highlighted the American approach to not being obsessed with keeping everything. How all the British curators in the audience must have envied his ability to regularly buy masterpieces at auction.

I was on at the end of the day to give the view of the art trade. But since this can be summed up in one word - yippee - I mentioned my plan to have an informal advisory committee of experts to help regional curators decide what to sell, what to keep, and how to prevent mistakes. I am optimistic that we will be able to establish something - and it is needed urgently, for like it or not, deaccessioning is already with us.

The speakers had a posh dinner at the Athenaeum Club, which was jolly. There was some talk of a new Culture Secretary, following the rumours that Jeremy Hunt might have to replace the perpetually ineffective Andrew Lansley. 

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