Previous Posts: November 2011

Don't forget the paintings!

November 30 2011

Image of Don't forget the paintings!

Picture: GAC

After another spat with the Iranian government, Britain is to close its embassy in Tehran. Last time we left an embassay in a hurry (Tripoli) the staff took the computers, but left all the pictures. They've since disappeared. So let's hope that this time they remember the art, which is on loan to the embassy from the Government Art Collection. Above is a highly valuable oil portrait of Fath 'Ali Shah, the 2nd Qajar Shah of Iran, dated 1813. Also listed as being in Tehran is a portrait of Queen Victoria by George Hayter, dated 1863. A quick call to the Government Art Collection was met with... an answerphone.

New Scottish National Portrait Gallery

November 30 2011

Video: SNPG

Kenneth Clark once said:

The faces which look out at us from the past are the surest indication we have of the meaning of an epoch.

I wonder, can you say the same for ‘a nation’? It was a question I thought of going round the newly renovated Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Monday. Did the ranks of Scottish faces, from 1500 to the present day, tell me anything about the meaning of the Scots? Not really.

Still, the new portrait gallery is one of the most impressive galleries I’ve ever been to. The video above gives you a good glimpse of what treats await the first visitors tomorrow. There are of course all the benefits of a new gallery you could wish for, zippy cafes, clever architecture, new lighting, clear labels, display cases in which you can actually see and get close to the contents, and a well-stocked shop.

But the gallery is impressive not just because of the £17m they’ve just spent rebuilding the place, and the 60% increase in works on display. It works well because the staff have used the recent closure to think cohesively about their collection, and how best to use it to tell the story of Scotland’s history. Each of the galleries now has a clearly defined narrative, so that, for example, the story of the Jacobites is well told in a single space, with all the relevant sitters you could wish for. Perhaps most importantly, they have managed to do this without resorting to an over-cluttered hang. Where the Portrait Gallery’s own collection has a gap, the curators have gone out and secured loans.

What I liked most was the inventiveness of the presentation. For example, there is a death mask of Dolly the Sheep, the world’s first cloned animal (who was born at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh). The traditional approach might have been to hang a portrait of Dolly’s scientific creators. But having a cast of Dolly’s own head tells that part of the story of Scotland’s scientific history far more effectively. And in a room in which you can look out over the Firth of Forth, there is a display of Scotland’s role in the Naval battles of the Great War, supplemented with an important series of loans from the Imperial War Museum of naval scenes by John Lavery, including dreadnoughts in the Firth of Forth. This creative approach to telling Sotland’s story means, I suspect, that most visitors will find the new gallery a much more refreshing and enjoyable place than a traditional portrait gallery.

Highlights include: the cleaned murals in the entrance hall by William Hole; a room devoted to George Jameson, Scotland’s first eminent (and alas not always very good) portraitist; one of the best portraits Allan Ramsay ever painted; a ditto by John Michael Wright; the definitive portrait of Walter Scott by Raeburn; a photograph of ‘Subo’ (yes, she’s in); an intimadating portrait miniature of Mary Queen of Scots' husband, James Bothwell; an unusually accomplished self-portrait by Jack Vettriano (proving my theory that artists are usually at their best when they paint themselves); one of the most original medical portraits you'll ever see (by Ken Currie); one of Van Dyck's finest portraits, the study for two of Charles I's daughters; and too many others to list here…

So, go and see the new gallery soon. I went up to Edinburgh for the day, which you can do in quite a civilised way on the train (4.5 hrs), giving enough time for tours round the Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery. Stay the night and you can fit in Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace. 

Hitler liked these pictures so much...

November 30 2011

Image of Hitler liked these pictures so much...

Picture: GDK Research

...he bought them. To see some of the other 1314 works he bought at the Grosse Deutsche Kunstaustellung (Greater German Art Exhibition), visit this new website, which has photographs of all the works shown at the exhibitions between 1937-44. The Kunstaustellung was the Nazi party's attempt to promote 'ideal' German art, as opposed to 'degenerate' modern art. Hitler chose the exhibits himself. As you might expect, a lot of it was a little militaristic. The picture highlighted in red above is Herbert Shnurpel's Abgelost, which Hitler bought for 2500 Reichsmarks.

Not laughing for much longer?

November 30 2011

Image of Not laughing for much longer?

Picture: Christie's Hong Kong

Artinfo reports a weak sale of Chinese contemporary art at Christie's Hong Kong, and says it is a sign of the 'cooling' market: one in the room at the evening sale of Asian modern and contemporary art on Saturday night could help but notice the anaemic level of support for Chinese contemporary art. And given the role of this sector in boosting Hong Kong as a venue for contemporary art sales, this must be cause for concern to the major auction houses and dealers. "Faces of New China," the single-owner sale, was meant to be the high point of the evening auction, but six of the 14 lots were bought in and another four sold below their low estimate. The quality of the works on offer was not in question: among the pieces passed in were strong works by Liu Ye and Zhang Xiaogang, who up until now have been two of the most consistently supported of Chinese contemporary artists both internationally and in China.

A cooling market, or an understandable pause in the stratospheric rise in Chinese contemporary? Who knows, but the recent stories of fakes appearing everywhere can't be helping things.

Artinfo bolsters its theory of a sagging far eastern art market with news that a prominent work by Jeff Koons also failed to sell recently at auction in South Korea. Every cloud... 

'Everybody out!'

November 30 2011

There's something approaching a general strike here in the UK today: thousands of teachers, doctors, and bus drivers have 'downed tools'. But not art dealers! So it's business as usual here at AHN...

Above is my art historical take on the day's events - a detail from Cliff Rowe's depiction of The General Strike of 1926. Let's hope the truncheons don't come out today... Rowe (1904-1989) is one of those artists unjustly overshadowed by the more glamorous names of 20th Century British art, perhaps because of his lifelong socialism and interest in depicting the working classes. I find his scenes of everyday working life fascinating. You can learn more about him here, and see examples of his work here

Miniature madness

November 29 2011

Image of Miniature madness

Picture: Christie's

This delicious miniature sold for £181,250 today, smashing its estimate of £15,000-£25,000. It is by Isaac Oliver, and shows Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's great patron (and, say the conspiracists, lover). It is one of the nicest miniatures to come of the market in recent years, and all the better, I think, for being unfinished. 

Also fetching a high price in the same sale was an enamel by Henry Bone, which set a new record for a work by the artist. The miniature was a copy of Holbein's portrait of Henry VIII. It beat its estimate of £50-70,000 to make £313,250. 

For sale: Powell Frith's 'Derby Day'

November 29 2011

Image of For sale: Powell Frith's 'Derby Day'

Picture: Christie's

Here's some more info and a more detailed image of the recently discovered study by Powell Frith for his celebrated 'Derby Day'. It's coming up at Christie's on 15th December, for £3-500,000. Looking forward to seeing it. I suspect it will beat the estimate - deserves to. 

Another British masterpiece ends up at the Getty

November 29 2011

Image of Another British masterpiece ends up at the Getty

Picture: Getty

This time not as a purchase, but as a loan. George Stubbs' Brood Mares and Foals sold at Sotheby's in 2010 for £10.1m. More details of the loan over at the Getty's blog

'The man who didn't like the Leonardo exhibition'

November 29 2011

Image of 'The man who didn't like the Leonardo exhibition'

Picture: H M Bateman

A curious review of the Leonardo exhibition from Theodore K. Rabb in The Art Newspaper. He says the exhibition 'falls short'. Gripe no. 1, the Sainsbury Wing is a poor exhibition space:

Many words have been written about the gloom of the basement galleries in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery. This is not the place to repeat them, save to say that it is especially hard on a master of delicate light and shade.

Gripe no. 2, it's better to see the drawings in the catalogue than in the flesh (no, he really says this):

By their very nature, they require close attention, which is notoriously difficult in the crowds at a large exhibition. Framed and hung on walls, they are certainly easier to see than in horizontal cases, where the viewer’s shadow tends to obscure the object. But it remains impossible at the exhibition to emulate the experience offered by the catalogue, where one can flip back and forth in intimate connection between a drawing and its application in a painting. This may well be an insuperable problem, especially with an artist like Leonardo, who liked to jot down his perceptions all over a sheet, but the advantage of the catalogue in this case is notable. 

And Gripe no. 3 (with which I have some sympathy), the two Madonnas of the Rocks should have been hung side by side:

Especially when the room is full of people, it becomes impossible to get more than the vaguest idea of how Leonardo changed his mind over the years. An explanation that has been reported is that the Louvre picture, dark and unrestored, would have suffered from too close a comparison with the more vivid, recently cleaned National Gallery panel. That such considerations (or any other that might be put forward) should have been allowed to rob viewers of an unrepeatable opportunity to look at two related masterpieces side by side prompts the profoundest of regrets.

Brueghel the Elder discovery at the Prado

November 29 2011

Image of Brueghel the Elder discovery at the Prado

Picture: NY Times

Further to Lawrence's post yesterday about the latest issue of the Burlington Magazine, here's an image of the Prado's recently acquired and newly discovered The Wine of St Martin's Day by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. The picture seems not to be on the Prado's own website (question; why do museum website take so long to change?) , but is available at the NY Times, where you can zoom in on the details. 

The Chinese - they like Victorian art!

November 29 2011

Image of The Chinese - they like Victorian art!

Picture: Sotheby's

Hallelujah, rejoice: it seems the Chinese are becoming seriously interested in Western art. At Sotheby's New York last year, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's The Finding of Moses fetched a staggering $36 million, shocking the art world. The estimate had been $3-5m, aready strong perhaps in an area of the art market percieved as a little last season. But according to Forbes, the price came about because of strong bidding from a Russian bidder, a Middle Eastern bidder, and a Chinese bidder. The Chinese won. Is it only a matter of time before they turn to Constable, Van Dyck, Titian, Rubens, Turner, Velazquez etc. etc.?

Happy 10th Birthday Free Museum Entry

November 29 2011

This Thursday will see the 10th anniversary of the abolition of abolition charges for national museums. Here's Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian recounting why they're so important to her:

I remember walking into the National Gallery one day in the mid-1990s. I was in my early 20s, enjoying a new life in London, and was able to duck in, on a whim, through that great portico on Trafalgar Square because the museum had not introduced charges – as so many institutions, including the Natural History and Science museums, had been encouraged to do under Thatcher.

Wandering around, pausing to drink in the glorious complexities of Titian's Ariadne and Bacchus, I had a sudden revelation: this masterpiece, this brightly burning cultural beacon, was mine. It, and all the other pictures in this great gallery, belonged to me, and every citizen of Britain. What riches, what a shared inheritance! I still experience that exhilaration every time I enter a national museum – a feeling it is quite impossible to have if you pass through a turnstile, your permission to be there contingent on a financial transaction.

It's an interesting point - being able to walk into a museum for free does give you a warm sense of public ownership. But it also makes people think that, because they already 'own' a museum, they don't need to support it any further with a donation. How often do you see people drop money into those 'please give a donation' boxes placed hopefully by the main entrance? In the Met Museum in New York, they make you line up for your 'suggested donation' of $25. Sure, you can go in for free - but you'll get a dirty look. And quite right.

Can we find a happy medium between the solitary donations box, and the enforced lines of the Met? Staff with jangling buckets? More graphic displays of how much museums cost to keep running, like you see in Cathedrals? Ideas please...

Behold, the world's most expensive snuff bottle

November 29 2011

Image of Behold, the world's most expensive snuff bottle

Picture: Bonhams

This tiny (8cm high) early 18th Century snuff bottle sold yesterday in HOng Kong for HK$25.3m, or EUR2.5m. Its value lay in it being from the Imperial factory. More images here

John Maynard Keynes

November 29 2011

Image of John Maynard Keynes

Picture: National Portrait Gallery

Here in the UK, today will be a day of economic gloom, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer tells us how deep in the mire we really are. There will be plenty of talk of the economist John Maynard Keynes, as politicians blame each other for why we're in the soup. Too much austerity, or too little? Keynes would have said the former. So in case you're wondering what such a sensible fellow looked like, here he is, in a portrait at the National Portrait Gallery by Gwendolen Raverat.  

The most expensive wallpaper per square-inch?

November 28 2011

Image of The most expensive wallpaper per square-inch?

Pic: 'Burning Flower' by Matt Collishaw. (

Have you always wanted to be a dealer in mobile phone wallpaper displays? - nows your chance.

s[edition] is a new website venture which allows you to purchase digital works by some of the leading contemporary artists for use on mobile phones, iPads and computers. These glorified screensavers are produced in limited editions and are even accompanied by a signed certificate of authenticity from the artist. Prices range from £5-£500 and the idea is that the prices increase as they begin to sell out.

...after you have realised your mistake, theres another section of the website which allows you to sell it again.

More here.

By LH.

New Burlington Magazine

November 28 2011

The new Burlington Magazine has just arrived with the following interesting articles:

  • The rediscovery of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 'Wine of St Martin's Day', acquired for the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. By Pilar Silva Maroto and Manfred Sellink.
  • Zanobi Machiavelli, Battista Strozzi and the high altar of the Badia Fiesolana. By James Shaw.
  • Phillipe de Champaigne c.1630: a rediscovered 'Pentecost' for the Carmelites in rue Saint-Jacques. Paris. By Guillaume Kientz.
  • Selling Leonardo's 'Virgin of the rocks' By Thereza Wells.
  • Artemisia Gentileschi's 'Christ and the woman of Samaria' By Richard E. Spear.
  • More Adey, the Carfax Gallery and 'The Burlington Magazine'. By Barbara Pezzini.
  • The Manet exhibition in Paris, 2011. By Juliet Wilson Bareau.

It is also worth noting that for all you Art History students out there, you can become a subscriber to the online version of this iconic magazine for a paltry £15 a year - i assure you, its worth it!

More here.

By LH.

Small figures...

November 28 2011

Image of Small figures...

Pic: Lowry's painting of Picadilly Circus matches the £5.6m record for the artist. (Christies).

An interesting article in the Telegraph reveals the undying fascination with works by Lowry, and how despite the fairly large supply of them, they are consistent performers in the auction rooms.

Out of the 485 lots offered between the leading auction houses during the recent 20th Century British Art sales, only 33 were by Lowry, yet despite this, they contributed to half of the total £40m sale turnover. There are even rumours circulating that Tate Britain might be staging a long overdue exhibition of his work...


Click here for the story.

AHN goes north

November 28 2011

I'm on a train to Edinburgh (see below), so blogging will be difficult today. But if I ask nicely, I'm hoping my colleague Lawrence Hendra will agree to babysit the site... I'd love to share with you a photo of my very mean 'classic bacon sandwich' (one ancient rasher, damp toast), but I can't upload photos from my mobile. More random mutterings from me over on Twitter; otherwise, see you tomorrow.

Scotland awaits...

November 26 2011

Image of Scotland awaits...

Picture: Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is to reopen next week after a £17.6 million renovation. The gallery officially opens on 1st December - but as ever Art History News readers will get a sneak preview! I've been lucky enough to secure a guided tour on Monday, and I will report back to you on Tuesday.

In the meantime, over in The Scotsman Tim Cornwell has the full and fascinating story on the Scottish National Portrait Gallery's battle for survival some twenty years ago, when there was a dastardly plan to close the gallery, and move the collection to Glasgow. The trustees of the Scottish National Galleries wanted to create a seperate gallery of Scottish art. I wasn't aware just how close it came, but in the end the day was won by the Portrait Gallery's supporters, and the gallery's then director, Dr. Duncan Thomson. And now Duncan, one of the great figures in Scottish art history, has published a new history of the Portrait Gallery, which you can buy here

Anyway, here's a little Scottish history for you: the portrait above shows a tartan-clad Bonnie Prince Charlie by William Mosman. On this day in 1745 Charles entered Preston, in Lancashire, at the head of his Scottish army, and pronouced his father, James III, King, apparently to 'the loudest acclamation of the people you can imagine'. Sadly for some, Charles ended his invasion when he turned back from Derby, and was eventually defeated at the Battle of Culloden. His portrait now will be one of the stars of the new Scottish National Portrait Gallery - and let's hope that next week it is once again greeted with the loudest acclamation of the people you can imagine.

A Van Dyck arriveth...

November 25 2011

Image of A Van Dyck arriveth...

Picture: BG

Anthony Van Dyck is my favourite artist. Here's a new Van Dyck arriving at our gallery earlier today. This brings our total of Van Dycks back up to four (we've recently sold three). If we have less than three in stock, I start to feel anxious...

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