Category: Research

New 16thC National Gallery catalogue published

May 19 2016

Image of New 16thC National Gallery catalogue published

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery has published the third volume of its new catalogue of the Italian 16th Century paintings, focusing on works from Bologna and Ferrara. The catalogue is written by former director Nicholas Penny with Giorgia Mancini, a former research fellow at the National Gallery. You can order it here for £75. Here's the blurb:

The catalogue defines the special quality of paintings made in Bologna and Ferrara, describing a distinctive and idiosyncratic local tradition but also tracing the influence first of Perugino and then of Raphael and Titian. The entries are informed both by new archival research and technical analysis information and the catalogue also provides a detailed introduction to the work of each artist. In a valuable contribution to the history of taste, their changing reputations are traced and the important collections to which the paintings belonged are described, as is the manner in which they came into the UK’s national collection.

Volume 1 of the series was written by Penny in 2004, with volume 2 (Venice) appearing in 2008. The appearance of this latest volume just after Penny retired from the National underlines the rarity of having a director who was also involved in intimately cataloguing the collection.

US National Gallery 'online editions'

April 4 2016

Image of US National Gallery 'online editions'


The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC has put a second volume on its excellent 'online editions' site. First we had Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, and now we have 'Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries'.

Bish, bash, Bosch

February 21 2016

Image of Bish, bash, Bosch

Picture: Ghent Museum of Fine Arts

The controversy around Bosch attributions continues, in light of the new exhibition at the Noordbrabants Museum, and the work of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP). The latter seems to be going the way of the Rembrandt Research Project in its early days, and becoming 'exclusionist' - even to the extent that we must wonder if the number of Bosch attributions that they accept can ever reflect his subsequent reputation and art historical impact. Generally, committees always result in an excessive downgrading of attributions, because they tend to be follow the lead of the most cautious and sceptical member.

But we learn a worrying flavour of the BRCP's approach to connoisseurship in this report on Art Daily over a discussion about the attribution of Bosch's Christ Carrying the Cross (above) in the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent. The Bosch Research Project says it isn't by Bosch. Partly because:

[...] the BRCP compared the shapes of human ears across several different works. Those in Christ Carrying the Cross are significantly different to those seen in Bosch’s other paintings.

So - great artists only ever had one way of painting ears? This is the Morellian method of connoisseurship. Which has been redundant for about a century now.

Update - a reader writes:

The Bosch team might have been exclusionist as far as the paintings are concerned, but they have almost doubled the amount of accepted drawings: from 11 to 19 sheets. This is quite amazing in the light of the wonderful work Fritz Koreny has recently done in this field. He occupied himself with the works on paper for decades and  his 2012 book on Bosch’s drawings is truly exemplary. This prompts me to wonder if the members have really been looking at the material at hand instead of toying around with X-rays, IIR curtain style, paint samples etc.

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.

'Recovering Charles I's art collection'

December 16 2015

Image of 'Recovering Charles I's art collection'

Picture: Royal Collection

Although the sale of Charles I's collection after his execution in 1649 is well documented, less is known about how Charles II managed to get so much art back. A fascinating new article by Dr Andrew Barclay of the History or Parliament Trust - title 'Recovering Charles I's art collection' - answers many questions, and is well worth a look. You have to pay I'm afraid, but institutions will have free access already. Details here.

New research on Joseph Blackburn

November 20 2015

Image of New research on Joseph Blackburn

Picture: Portrait of Colonel Atkinson by Joseph Blackburn, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Resarchers at Worcestershire Archive service here in the UK have unearthed fascinating new details about the life of Joseph Blackburn, a British painter who was one of the most successful portraitists in Colonial America. 

Here is how the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography begins its entry on Blackburn:

Blackburn [is] of obscure origins: nothing is known of his birth, parents, geographical area of origin, or education. His career is documented primarily by about seventy signed portraits painted between 1752 and 1777 in Bermuda, New England, Ireland, and the west of England. An equal number of portraits, mainly of New England subjects, are attributed to him. [...] Nothing is known of Blackburn's death or burial.

But thanks to the new research we now know:

  • He died in 1787 in the parish of St Nicholas in Worcester, England, where his family is recorded as living from 1768.
  • He was an active member of the church there.
  • We now have his will (which reveals he was wealthy).
  • He had two daughters, Henrietta and Elizabeth.
  • He was buried in St Nicholas Church in Worcester on 11th July 1787.
  • The church is now a pub, called the Slug and Lettuce.

More details of this excellent work here. Many congratulations to Angela Downton, Julia Pincott and Teresa Jones, archivists at Worcestershire Archive Service.

NPG acquires Freud archive

November 19 2015

Image of NPG acquires Freud archive

Picture: NPG

The National Portrait Gallery has acquired Lucian Freud's archive. It has been valued at £2.9m. More here.

The announcement comes in Archive Appreciation Week. Which is an excuse to show you my favourite document from the NPG's archive - a list of rats killed in World War 2 in the Gallery, and how they were killed. THe second one down is the best.

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.

Changes to access at the British Museum print room

June 16 2015

Image of Changes to access at the British Museum print room

Picture: BM

They've made some changes to access arrangements at the British Museum's prints & drawings room - now you have to make an appointment up to two weeks in advance, where previously you could pretty much turn up. The Grumpy Art Historian is unamused.

Fitzwilliam Michelangelo discovery conference

June 16 2015

Image of Fitzwilliam Michelangelo discovery conference

Picture: Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam are having a special conference to discuss those newly attributed Michelangelo bronzes. Says the museum:

It was thought that no bronzes by Michelangelo had survived but now an international team of experts believe they have identified not one, but two.

Convincing evidence based upon stringent art-historical research, scientific analysis and anatomical observation argues that the Rothschild bronzes, which have spent over a century in relative obscurity and which are currently on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, are early works by Michelangelo. If this attribution is accepted, these unsigned and undocumented works would represent a highly significant addition to Michelangelo’s oeuvre.

On Monday 6 July 2015 at Downing College, University of Cambridge, an international panel of art historians, conservation scientists, and other experts will present further research into how these enigmatic masterpieces were made, their likely iconography, meaning, patron and purpose. Papers will also consider how they fit into Michelangelo’s career more broadly and how they relate to the work of his contemporaries.

Tickets are £85, and can be booked here.

Museums and the Trade - National Gallery conference

June 16 2015

Image of Museums and the Trade - National Gallery conference

Picture: NG

The National Gallery in London have put out a call for papers for a conference next year on the art trade and museums. Here is what they're after:

  • Mechanics of the relationship: How did the relationships between dealers and art museums work? Were these business relationships, advisory roles, or both? Which sources can we use to establish such relationships? Can quantitative evidence like pricing be used to illuminate these relationships further? Can any shifts in these dynamics be identified or measured over a geographical or chronological range?
  • Biographies: Who were/are the main dealers associated with art museums? Can the personal and institutional biographies of specific dealers, agents, curators and other associated players assist in the reconstruction of the dealer-museum relationship, either in the historical or contemporary domains?
  • Collaboration and conflict: How close was/is the relationship between various dealers and art museums? To what extent can these relationships be construed as successful or otherwise? Are there examples of conflict, such as failed deals, arguments over pricing or the breakdown of relationships? How were successful cases, such as acquisitions mediated by dealers, negotiated? What happens when dealers are in competition with each other? And what happens when museums are in competition with each other?
  • Works: How can case studies of single artworks or groups of pieces help us to understand better the model of dealer-museum interaction? How do the previous histories of works, their provenance, and the manner of their acquisition (e.g. private treaty or auction sale) affect their afterlife in the museum?

More here. It sounds right up my street, and I'd like to go. But I can't immediately see anything in the tightly written criteria above that I can knowledgeably give a talk on.


June 13 2015

Image of Phallacy?

Picture: Discovery

Regular readers will know I take a dim view of researchers who over-interpret paintings. The most recent example was supposedly seen in Country Life, in a tiny engraving that showed Shakespeare having a dodgy eye. But it was just the engraving, and the portrait was not Shakespeare in any case.

Now, we have from Discovery News an investigation into the foreskins of ancient Pompei, thanks to the study by two doctors of the penis in the above fresco of Priapus. Says Discovery News:

One of Pompeii's most recognized frescoes, the portrait of the Greek god of fertility Priapus, holds an embarrassing truth, according to a new study of the 1st-century A.D. wall painting.

Found in the entrance hall to the House of the Vettii, perhaps the most famous house to survive Mount Vesuvius's devastating eruption, the fresco shows the ever-erect Priapus with his engorged penis.

But this phallus-flaunting symbol of male potency and procreative power shows signs of a condition which can result in difficult sexual relations and infertility, says a study published in Urology journal.

"The disproportionate virile member is distinctively characterized by a patent phimosis, more specifically a shut phimosis," Francesco Maria Galassi told Discovery News.

Galassi is an M.D. now back in Italy who recently worked at Imperial College London. He co-authored the paper with his father Stefano, also an M.D.

An inability to fully retract the foreskin, phimosis was treated only with circumcision or prepuceplasty before the introduction of topical corticosteroids.

"This condition presents different grades of severity, and in this specific case appears to be of the highest grade, in which there is no skin retractability on the glans," Galassi said.

Defects of the genitourinary tract, including phimosis, have been depicted in artistic representation since prehistory, showing a high degree of precision.

But why someone would portray the god of fertility with a severe phimosis?

"It is not unlikely the painter might have desired to report objective evidence of a high prevalence of that anatomic defect in Pompeii, at a time mixing it with fertility attributes traditionally ascribed to Priapus," Galassi said.

In this view, widespread among the male population in Pompeii, phimosis might have been the reason for the abundance in Pompeii of anatomical votive artifacts used to dispel that anatomical and functional defect.

Supports and frames in 16th in early Netherlandish art

May 8 2015

Image of Supports and frames in 16th in early Netherlandish art

Picture: Getty

Getty alerts us to a handy, free new e-book all about frames and supports in 15th and 16th Century Netherlandish paintings. More here.

Was Caravaggio killed by his own paint?

April 26 2015

Image of Was Caravaggio killed by his own paint?

Picture: Guardian

In Italy, they say they've dug up Caravaggio's bones, and can prove that he was killed partly by lead poisoning, which might have come from his paints. But it's all rather uncertain - there is no concrete proof the bones above are in fact Caravaggio's. More here in The Guardian.

Optical Coherence Tomography

April 21 2015

Image of Optical Coherence Tomography

Pictures: Optics Info Base

This sounds interesting - a whizzy new camera (seen above, in front of a copy of a Raphael at the National Gallery) can digitally take cross-sections of a painting. Normally, to find out the exact build up of layers in a painting (from ground layer to the tpyes of pigments used), you need to physically take a sample of paint, flip it on its side, and then look at the cross-section under a microscope (as in the colour photo below). But this new camera - developed at Nottingham Trent University - allows a virtual cross-section to be taken, and the results look as they do in the top image, the black and white one.

The process is called Optical Coherence Tomography.

You can read more about the new research here

31.5m art images online?

April 2 2015

Image of 31.5m art images online?

Picture: TAN

Interesting story in The Art Newspaper by Martin Bailey, who reports that an 'International Digital Photo Archive Consortium' is mulling over plans to digitise their entire collections of archival images. That is, images of paintings in exhibition catalogues and sale catalogues since - essentially - photography began. The Consortium includes the Witt library in London, and the Frick in New York, among others. The total number of combined images is apparently some 31.5m.

Martin writes:

Many of these archives still mount images of works with captions on thin card, filed by artist, in alphabetical order. Each artist work is subdivided by type—for example portraits, landscapes and still lifes. Most have not been digitised, so researchers have to visit the library in person.

The plan is to digitise the 31.5 million cards held by 14 of the world’s leading archives and then upload them on the web to make them easily searchable. No decisions have been made on what would be available free or for a charge. The images would be for research purposes, rather than reproduction.

Chris Stolwijk, director of the Netherlands Institute for Art History, says that it is “essential to go digital, otherwise we will be working for a only very small group of researchers”. His institute’s collection is the largest in the world, with 7 million images. Amassed since the 1930s, it is particularly strong in Netherlandish and Dutch Golden Age paintings.

The RKD alwready leads the way in this area, with a large number of digital images. The Frick has a good image library, but it's approach to online - at the moment - is maddening: it has a good database of what images it does have, but it's unillustrated, and if you ask them for an image, they will only send you one in the post! Perhaps the problem here is copyright, which I suspect will be a pretty difficult barrier to overcome. Recent regulations in the UK, for example, have made such projects all but impossible. And although the Witt Library just about still exists, funding cuts implemented by the Courtauld Institute means that it has stopped collecting images, and has no specialist staff.

But if it could be made to work, the benefits on an online database like this would be extraordinary. And if the images were married up to, say, something like Google image search, then anyone wanting to know what an unidentifed painting was could easily find out what it was, who it was by, or where it had been, just by running a search - as long as the painting had been photographed before at some point in its life.

And since most paintings have been photographed at some point, in an earlier sale for example, then those who rely on their visual memory to make a living by actually knowing such things, like me, would be out of a job. Picture sleuthing would become a thing of the past. I'm not going to say this is a Bad Thing at all - progress is inevitable, and it'll be just one more thing that the computers can do better than us. But until then, I suppose I must make hay while I can...

Anne Boleyn-ollocks

February 16 2015

Image of Anne Boleyn-ollocks

Picture: via Flickr

The Anne Boleyn story doing the rounds today highlights everything that is wrong with art research and art reporting at the moment. It is head-bangingly frustrating. 

First, the story, as reported in The Telegraph:

Two of the most well known portraits of Anne Boleyn, which are on display at the National Portrait Gallery, may not be her, scientists have concluded.

Facial recognition experts have created a computer algorithm which maps the faces from portraits to find a match with other paintings.

They used a contemporaneous miniature of Boleyn from the British Museum as a reference, as it is the only undisputed likeness of Henry VIII’s second wife.

After running the software, the experts said they could not be sure that the ‘Anna Bolina’ portrait, a late 16th century copy of a painting from 1533, which hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery, was the queen. [...]

Professor Amit Roy-Chowdhury, of the University of California, created the algorithm after being approached by a history student who was keen to see if facial recognition technology could be applied to art history.

The technology also appears to have cleared up the mystery of the Nidd Hall portrait [above], a painting labelled as Anne Boleyn, but which many historians believed actually depicted Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife. The image shows a young woman in a gable hood, wearing a brooch bearing the initials ‘AB’ which was known to belong to Boleyn.

The portrait was labelled as “The Most Excellent Princesse Anne Boleyn” but many historians claimed it was based a painting of Seymour by Holbein. [...]

Well, where to begin? The 'miniature' referred to in this piece is in fact a medal (below) in the British Museum, which is dated 1534. While it certainly does show Anne, the main problem is that it has become so damaged over time that it gives few reliable clues as to what she really looked like. The nose has been flattened, and one side of the face has been rubbed clear of any defining features. She looks like a drunken boxer. Can there really be anything reliable here for a computer programme to register? No.

Next, the National Portrait Gallery portrait and Hever Castle portrait (below). For me, the Hever Castle type is the best of a number of versions of this image, all of which date from the late 16th Century. That is, they are not contemporaneous. They are consciously historical portraits, pianted to fit the political and artistic tastes of the time. While some believe that they copy an earlier portrait, there is no firm evidence that they do. In fact, as actual likenesses, they may not be very reliable at all, and could be said to reflect, in the pale complexion, black hair and black dress, the view of her projected by those who resented her role in the break with Rome - that she was some sort of witch who cast a spell over Henry, and thus set the nation on its fateful path away from Catholicism. For example, in 1586, Nicholas Sanders wrote, 'Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature, with black hair, and an oval face of a sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness she wore a high dress covering her throat.' By this account, it's hard to imagine what Henry VIII saw in her. 

The Nidd Hall portrait [illustrated at the top] 'proved' by Prof. Roy-Chowdhury has never struck me as a particularly convincing candidate as a contemporary portrait, although I must stress that I haven't seen it. As far as I know, there is no firm evidence that it is a contemporary image. But I certainly don't think it's right to say that 'many historians' have said it was Jane Seymour. The enormous 'AB' pendant is a bit of a giveaway as to who the portrait was meant to represent. Still, that hasn't stopped the newspapers getting into a terrible muddle. On the website of The Australian, they showed Holbein's portrait of Jane Seymour - over which there is no doubt whatsoever - to illustrate the Nidd Hall image.

Finally, Prof Roy-Chowdhury evidently did not place much faith in our best contemporary portrait of Anne Boleyn; that by Holbein in the Royal Collection (above). It is true that for much of the latter half of the 20th Century, this drawing was doubted - but mainly because it didn't fit in with the NPG and Hever portrait type of Anne, which many people then thought were contemporary images. Now, however, the Royal Collection describes their fine drawing as showing Anne. Regular readers may recall that I had a role in this. For more details see earlier AHN here

The idea of using facial recognition technology to identify sitters in portraits has been around for years. But I'm afraid I've never been persuaded by it. Prof Roy-Chowdhury says, according to The Telegraph that:

The programme is so advanced that it even takes into account how individual painters like Holbein and Clouet represented certain facial characteristics, making allowances for artists’ style.

Whilst there can be no doubt that such technology can be used for scanning the faces of real people in, say, CCTV footage or Facebook, there are just too many hurdles to overcome in art. 

First, in historical portraits we have no control model to use as a true foundation for a face. All the actual sitters are dead. So while it may be possible to make a computer programme make allowances for an artist's style (and personally I doubt it can) we can never know how an artist translated a real human face onto canvas in the first place.

Then there is the question of wider artistic styles - a Mannerist face will look quite different from a Counter-Reformation face. And finally, there is the question of artistic ability - your average jobbing 16th Century English portrait artists, such as the fellow who made the Hever Castle portrait, would have been simply unable to capture all the intricacies of a face, and could only ever present the very basic elements of a likeness. And sometimes not even that.

Which is why it pains me to have to conclude that another of Prof Roy-Chowdhury's findings can also not be relied upon; that the 'Cobbe Portrait' doesn't show William Shakespeare. As The Telegraph says:

But while the software has cleared up one mystery, it may have opened the doors to several others.

It revealed that two pictures of William Shakespeare are also unlikely to be the bard. The Cobbe portrait which dates from around 1610 is probably not the playwright. Historians have long speculated the painting may be poet Thomas Overbury. The Hampton Court Palace painting is also unlikely to be Shakespeare.

Regular readers will know that I'm not a fan of the Cobbe portrait, and (like the National Portrait Gallery) have never believed that the sitter shows Shakespeare.

You can read more coverage of Prof. Roy-Chowdhury's findings here in The Independent, and here in The Guardian

For an interesting take on what the British Museum medal might have looked like before it was damaged, see Lucy Churchill's website here

Update - it's been interesting to see the media response to this story unfold. The presentation of the new research has been uniformly presented as 'experts say'. Despite the fact that Prof. Roy-Chowdhury, while of course an expert in his own field, can hardly be considered 'expert' in Tudor portraits. Would it be too much to ask that news organisations first ask real experts, before presenting stories of this kind as de facto revelations, rather than just speculation? 

Update II - a reader tweets:

Count to 1510, Bendor.

Yes, I'm aware I get a bit ranty about this sort of thing. But it bothers me that so many people may be misled by badly presented research.

A sculptor writes:

No facial recognition software is needed to confirm that the portrait of Anne Boleyn in a gable hood (Is it the Nidd Hall portrait?) probably shows the same person as the squashed lead portrait medal of 1534. The curious piece of cloth on the top of the head in both portraits (as well as the gable hood), is the same shape in both, which can't be pure chance. This has often been pointed out before. One only needs a good pair of eyes.

The gable hood moreover (without the piece of cloth on top) is very similar to that in a portrait miniature of a woman by Lucas Horenbolte which Sir Roy Strong believes is a portrait of Anne Boleyn, because of its undoubted similarity to the woman represented in the two Holbein drawings, supposedly of her. 

I think it reasonable to suggest that both Nidd Hall portrait and the medal derive ultimately from the Hornebolte, and are vastly inferior versions of the likeness. 

On a technical note, I would suggest that the manufacturing method of the medal relates to contemporary and earlier lead alloy ' pilgrim badges' in technique. 

A fine grain Silnhofen limestone ( imported from Bavaria), was engraved to form a mould. Into this an alloy of tin and lead (similar to type metal) was poured to make one or many casts.(A similar profile portrait medal in lead alloy of Elizabeth 1 by Steven van Herwijck was cast in 1565).

The image had to be engraved in reverse in the mould for Anne to face in the same direction as the portrait it copied. I think this more likely than that the painted portraits face in the same direction as the medal because they were based on it as exemplar.

To confuse things, in a similarly poor NPG portrait, Catherine of Aragon  wears an almost identical hood to the portrait of Anne Boleyn we are discussing.

Quite how poor home grown portraiture seems to have been at the time is clear when we compare these paintings with the marvellous portrait of Catherine of Aragon C. 1502 by Michael Sittow, the Holbein drawings of Anne and Horenbolte's miniature.

The other potential likeness perhaps worth mentioning is the tiny enamel portrait in Elizabeth 1's ring at Hever Castle.

I don't personally subscribed to the theory that the image in the ring referred to here is Anne Boleyn. The evidence to suggest that it is is meagre. I suspect it may just as well be a young Elizabeth I, and that the ring is a private demonstration of 'look how far I've come'; from the 'bastard' daughter of Henry VIII to Queen of England.

Another reader writes:

Having done some work on facial sculpture, I know that computers can reconstruct one side of a face based on the other, barring unknown scars or deformities.

I think the point here, with relation to the British Museum medal, is that there isn't much face to begin with, even on the good side.

Another reader adds, pertinently:

Now Anne Boleyn can join others including Moses and Jesus of whom we have portraits that don't depict their actual  likeness.

Another reader refers us to the other Holbein drawing that was for many years claimed to be Anne Boleyn. There is no evidence that the sitter is Anne, and it can be easily ruled out. 

Update III - another reader adds:

In my experience, the best software development and application is directed by subject matter experts.

Spot on.

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 Nevinson discovered on Your Paintings

January 12 2015

Image of New Nevinson discovered on Your Paintings

Picture: BBC

Here's another nice discovery story from Your Paintings: a job applicant for the post of Director of the Atkinson Arts Centre in Southport, UK, discovered a lost work by CRW Nevinson in the Atkinson's collection when he did some pre-interview swotting up about the Centre on Your Paintings. And he got the job. Says the BBC:

An art expert who identified a mystery painting at a job interview has been made manager of the gallery storing it.

Stephen Whittle revealed his "strong hunch" about a painting that has been stored at the Atkinson arts centre in Southport since the 1920s.

He told the panel he thought it was Limehouse, a work by CRW Nevinson, a futurist painter.

"When I saw this unattributed image on the BBC Your Paintings website, it was very reminiscent of Nevinson," he said.

Mr Whittle, who came across the painting as part of his interview research, added: "I mentioned my supposition at interview, but I don't know if it led to me finally getting the job."

See the new picture and other Nevinsons here on Your Paintings.

Kelvingrove acquires sleeping fair-scape

January 7 2015

Image of Kelvingrove acquires sleeping fair-scape

Picture: Glasgow Herald

Here's a nice story from my new locale, up here in Scotland; the Kelvingrove art gallery has acquired, for £220,000, a lost landscape by the Scottish artist John Knox (1778-1845), which shows the 'Glasgow Fair' around 1820. The picture had been discovered in 2013 by Edinburgh-based dealer Patrick Bourne, who spotted it at Sotheby's described as showing a scene in Aberdeen, and attributed to William Turner De Lond. It was bought for £76,900.

I heartily approve of the Scottish version of the 'White Glove Photo-op'.

More here.

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