Previous Posts: April 2012

Why armed museum guards are a bad idea

April 23 2012

From NBC:

A security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art accidentally shot himself in the leg Friday afternoon.

The FDNY said he was being transported to New York Hospital with a minor injury. Officials said he was taking his gun out of its holster in the locker room, away from the public areas, when it went off.

I was ticked off again at the National Gallery last week by a room guard - for 'looking at the pictures too closely' - and in the usual brusque manner. I'm glad he wasn't armed...

Update - a reader writes (delightfully):

Re: Armed Guards and your close encounter, when I was in the Barber Institute (Birmingham) once, peering at works with my new reading glasses (I have since progressed to varifocals) I  ventured so close to a canvas in order to focus my ailing vision that my nose touched the canvas - the guard barked out a threatening warning, embarrassing at the time but in retrospect totally over the top (imagine being charged with threatening a work of art with one's nose!). 

In Ottawa, the exhibits at the fabulous Museum of Mankind were not cordoned off when I visited years ago but had bells that sounded ear-shatteringly if one approached too closely - they sounded every other minute!  What's the answer? - obviously better spectacles (if I could only afford them!) - but the best collections use superior non-reflective glass for (their own) works that allows close viewing. Non-glassed works are often loaned canvases, and many collections cannot afford 'superior' glass. 

It reminds me of when I was once in the old Courtauld Institute galleries and watched in horror as a demonstrative lady pointed out some (presumably) strong opinion to an ignorant companion about Gauguin's sublime 'Nevermore' by punching the bare canvas several times with her forefinger so vehemently that the whole work vibrated violently in response - the room steward leapt to life from his apparent doze with a room-shattering expletive warning, that the lady (by virtue of her birth, status and wealth) hardly registered. Had that guard been armed, can you imagine the blood-letting that might have ensued?  Can you visualise the Bateman cartoon?

The Lost Prince found

April 23 2012

Image of The Lost Prince found

Picture: PCF/BBC/Wellcome Library

More lovely discoveries from Your Paintings have been coming in - continued thanks. I'll put them all up soon. In the meantime, a particularly sharp-eyed reader has sent in this fine contemporary portrait of a 'Portrait of a Young Man', or Henry, Prince of Wales (1594-1612). Henry, a much forgotten figure, was the eldest son of James I and considered the great hope of the Stuarts. His tragic death at the age of 18 paved the way for Charles I. 

Later this year, a new exhibition on Henry will open at the NPG in London, so it's nice to add this portrait of him to our records. I think the head type was originally by Robert Peake

Crowd-sourcing the national art collection

April 20 2012

Image of Crowd-sourcing the national art collection

Pictures: Your Paintings/PCF/BBC

I've had some excellent responses in the quest to find lost paintings on the new Public Catalogue Foundation website, Your Paintings. Thanks to all of you for writing in.

The title of Chief Sleuth this week goes to the director of the Avoncroft Museum, Simon Carter, who has identified the following impressive list of previously unnamed portraits: Archbishop Laud in the collection of Hampshire Country Council (after Van Dyck); Robert Burns at the Atkinson Art Gallery (after Nasymth); Anthony Van Dyck at the Worthington Art Gallery (my hero, above, hooray!); and Charles James Fox at the Haslemere Education Museum (after John Raphael Smith). Simon used to be a curator at the Palace of Westminster, so knows his portrait onions.

Meanwhile, my colleague Lawrence Hendra spotted the below portrait of Samuel Johnson, called 'Old Man at a Desk'. We don't know the artist yet, but it relates to this engraving, and appears to be a good example of a 19th Century genre picture. 

And finally, I can add this not particularly distinguished portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh at Maidstone Museum, which is taken from this engraving. Now it may be that none of the portraits we've uncovered so far this week are great works of art. But, along with the others we've discovered so far, it shows the immense value of having collections online with decent sized photos. Who knows what else we'll find?

Update - a reader writes:

I think the Johnson portrait may be by Edward M Ward; he did a similar one of Johnson and Chesterfield.


Sewell on Hampton Court 'Mistresses' exhibition

April 20 2012

Image of Sewell on Hampton Court 'Mistresses' exhibition

Picture: Christie's

The Great Man doesn't like it. Which is perhaps to be expected, given the original way the exhibition is laid out (which I liked). But he makes a connoisseurial blooper in relation to the full-length of Nell Gwyn, above:

Always attributed to Peter Lely, it seems a wretched nude when compared with his convincingly erotic tumble of more substantial nymphs snoozing by a fountain in the Vale of Lethe (a masterpiece in Dulwich), painted perhaps a decade before Charles II came to the throne and perhaps evidence of a licentious tendency in English culture well before the Restoration. That these two paintings are by the same hand and same imagination is quite improbable; a prime original of the Gwynn portrait has yet to be discovered.

Sewell's mistake no.1 - comparing Lely's later works with his earlier pictures. Lely is a rare artist, in that he seems to get worse as he gets older. The picture Sewell refers to in Dulwich is perhaps his best early painting, from the early 1650s. The Nell Gwyn is a later work, from the 1670s.

What explains the difference? I don't know - but I suspect - that Lely's decline was partly due to idleness. Note, for example, his extensive reliance on the studio system. But perhaps most of all we must blame ourselves - for we English in the 17th Century just weren't that interested in painting itself, from an artistic point of view. We were the philistines of Europe. Portraits of ourselves we loved, but, generally, we weren't cultured enough to tell the difference between an exquisite piece of brushwork by a master hand, or a plodding piece of drapery by a studio assistant. (After all, these portraits were meant to hang in dark, candlelit dining rooms, so it didn't particularly matter.) This partly explains why there are so few really talented native English artists, and why those foreign artists that did come here tended to decline in their powers as they churned out portrait after portrait, and realised that they could get away with less and less effort. Compare for example Van Dyck's later English portraits with his earlier Antwerp works. Compare also Kneller's portraits; his earier English pictures are far better than the later ones, in which he relies increasingly on studio assistants. Happily, by the eighteenth Century we Brits had become a little more cultured (thanks in part to things like the Grand Tour), and we were at last able to contribute meaningfully to art history with the likes of Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hogarth and Lawrence.

And Sewell's mistake no.2: condition. As I was muttering earlier this week, not enough critics take into account condition issues when looking at paintings. The Lely in Dulwich Sewell takes as his reference point is in excellent condition. The Lely of Nell Gwyn is not, and has been both flattened during a relining, and abraded through over-cleaning - which partly explains why it failed to sell twice at auction recently. Personally, I'm in no doubt about Nell's attribution to Lely, and nor that it was the portrait Charles II had in his private rooms. 

'Portrait of an Artist', or...

April 19 2012

Image of 'Portrait of an Artist', or...

Picture: PCF/Atkinson Art Gallery

More lost picture hunting fun from the PCF/BBC/Your Paintings website. After my call to arms, a particularly sharp-eyed reader writes:

What fun! [...] I found the BBC's site and clicked on "unknown artists" and got to page 4 before finding this gem [catalogued as 'Portrait of an Artist', by an Unknown Artist at the Atkinson Art Gallery in Southport]. I can't imagine why this isn't an autograph version of the Christian Seybold self portrait to be found in Leichtenstein (on copper) [below].

It's hard to assess from the above image whether it is by Seybold - is the mouth a little awkward? - but it's certainly of him! I'll try and track down a better photo. 

Keep 'em coming please. So far this week we've added to the national collection portraits of a king, a celebrated composer, a Prime Minister, and now a famous artist. Not bad...

Romani restituted in US

April 19 2012


The painting by Girolamo Romani that was dramatically seized by the FBI from an exhibition in Florida has been restituted to the heirs of the jewish family from whom it was stolen during the war. The picture will now be sold at Christie's this summer, and is thought to be worth up to $3.5m. More here.

Museums - lock up your jades

April 19 2012

Image of Museums - lock up your jades

Picture: PA/Mail

The dizzying demand from China for antique jade is having alarming implications for museum security. Recently, thieves stole millions of pounds worth of jade from Durham University. And now up to £18m worth has been stolen from the Fitzwilliam. More here.

The Sun, naturally has the best headline:

'£18m jade snatch by merciless Ming gang'

Here, incidentally, is a heretical thought. Given the sudden and astronomical rise in value of these previously rather neglected items, and given the fact that UK museums have literally tons of the stuff, should they consider selling some of it, perhaps to bolster acquisition funds? 

'Portrait of an Unknown Man', or...

April 18 2012

Image of 'Portrait of an Unknown Man', or...

Picture: PCF/Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service. 

... a four time Prime Minister? A reader has sent in this excellent spot from 'Your Paintings'. More please!

'Portrait of a Man in Blue', or...

April 18 2012

Image of 'Portrait of a Man in Blue', or...

Picture: PCF/Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

... a portrait of certain well known composer?

I'm continuing my roams around the new Public Catalogue Foundation website Your Paintings in preparation for my talk at the OPEN conference next week, looking for lost paintings. You should try it - it's great fun for us nerdy art history anoraks. 

Here is the picture catalogued as 'Portrait of a Man in Blue (possibly the Reverend G Greenway)' at the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry. Below is the original portrait, by Thomas Hudson, in the University Library of Hamburg. Click here to find out the sitter. 

If you come across any other good examples, let me know.

New Raphael exhibition the Prado

April 18 2012

Image of New Raphael exhibition the Prado

Picture: Louvre, Raphael's Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione

This sounds like a must-see:

This will be one of the most important exhibitions ever to be devoted to the work of Raphael (1483-1520) and his studio and the first to focus on the final phase in the artist’s career when he became the most influential painter in Western art.

Organised in collaboration with the Musée du Louvre (where the exhibition will take place following its showing at the Museo del Prado), the 40 paintings and 30 drawings that comprise this exhibition will be displayed chronologically. As such they will cover the last seven years of Raphael’s life, from the start of the pontificate of Leo X (1513) up to the artist’s death in 1520. This period includes famous works such as the Saint Cecilia Altarpiece (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale) and the portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, from the Louvre. Space will also be given to the work of Raphael’s principal pupils and followers, Giulio Romano (c. 1449-1546) and Giovanni Francesco Penni (1488-1528), who worked under the master’s close supervision on the late commissions he received.

12th June - 16th September.

Reporting arts discoveries

April 18 2012

Image of Reporting arts discoveries

Picture: JP Humbert

Regular readers will know we've had a few art history stories in the press lately that seem to question the thoroughness of art historical reporting. First, there was the recovered haul in Italy which apparently included a Van Dyck, a Rubens, and a Poussin, but which was in fact just a load of copies and pastiches. Then there was the bizarre story of the 'early Warhol'. Both stories enjoyed global media coverage.

Today we have an interesting case study in how discovery stories are picked up by the media. This morning I received a press release from local auctioneer J P Humbert about a newly discovered 'portrait of the three Bronte sisters', above, which has been attributed to Landseer (why?). You can find the text of the press release below, by clicking 'Read on'. Now see if you can spot the difference between the press release, and the story as it appeared on The Daily Telegraph website soon afterwards. 

You can see the same auctioneer's previous two 'Bronte discoveries' here

Read More

Breaking the silence over fakes

April 18 2012

Image of Breaking the silence over fakes

Picture: TAN

There's a very interesting piece in The Art Newspaper by Jack Flam, the author of the Robert Motherwell catalogue raisonne, on the subject of fakes and expertise. There have been a number of fake Motherwells on the market lately, and he has direct experience of the difficulties experts face when threatened by lawsuits. It creates, he says, a dangerous atmosphere of silence. His solution?

Two somewhat different ways of remedying this situation should be considered. The first would be to establish a properly constituted authority—similar to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority—with limited immunity from lawsuits, which would oversee the authentication of works by modern US artists. Doing so would rectify the topsy-turvy relationship between scholars, dealers and collectors, and would keep the authors of catalogues raisonnés and the foundations that often support them from being cowed into silence. Information would circulate more freely and experts would be able to pass judgments on works without getting entangled in complicated legal messes. 

Another approach would be to pass legislation in the US that would give experts and scholars the kind of legal protection they now generally receive in the UK, where statements about authenticity may be protected as “opinions” and thereby be generally exempt from lawsuits. 

Option 2 sounds most sensible to me. Or, better still, move to London! I find it strange that in the freedom of speech-loving US, where libel laws are more relaxed than in the UK, scholars are restricted from giving their view at all.

'Portrait of a Man'

April 17 2012

Image of 'Portrait of a Man'

Picture: PCF/Your Paintings/Nottingham University

Last week I mentioned the forthcoming conference (25th April) at the National Gallery on the proposed new Oil Painting Expert Network (OPEN). OPEN will help under-resourced museums and galleries identify any mystery paintings in their collections, and provide advice on cataloguing and conservation. Thanks to those of who have signed up to come along - we now have over a hundred people attending. If you want to come you can still do so, and it's free. Here's the day's agenda.

I'll be giving a short talk at the conference, and will reveal a few hidden sleepers in our public collections. Here's a very simple example of how wider access to images can help with attributions. This portrait, in the collection of Nottingham University, is called 'English School', and described as 'A Portrait of a Gentleman with a Black Sash'. Most of you (I hope!) will know straight away who he is, and recognise the significance of the blue sash. Find the answer below, by clicking 'read on'.

Update - a reader writes:

Glad to hear of the OPEN initiative - it seems eminently sensible - but hasn't something along these lines been going on for the last few years. The National Inventory Research Project has published its results on the NICE website: sadly some (any?) of their conclusions are not reflected in the PCF data on Our Paintings. Lack of joined-up thinking?

There are more fundamental problems of course; aside from attributions [...] the searches in the online databases of the Royal Collection, the National Trust and Your Paintings simply do not work as they should and make interrogation a frustrating exercise.

As far as I can see, there are major probems with data-field definitions, resulting in inconsistencies.

None of this would have happened if the major collections in this country, and the PCF, had taken a joint approach to database development and cataloguing.  The databases at the BM and the V&A are excellent - despite the sheer range of types of object they have to deal with: in the case of the former one can even search on previous owners, which is great for provenance research of course. 

If these organisations have been able to come up with something workable, why haven't the others?  It appears there was nothing to stop the development of a national database covering everything, not just paintings.

I agree that the BM and V&A sites are excellent, and models for everyone to follow. I know that the PCF and the Royal Collection have developments ongoing to improve searchability. Hopefully, it won't be too long before all these sites work well together. And if a body like OPEN gets up and running, we can nail as many incorrect and dubious attributions as possible. 

When the PCF began, it was  interested in merely photographing and recording the paintings in the national collection, taking the view that to try and do that alongside any attributional exercise would be impossibly time consuming. I think this was the right approach. 

Read More

New National Gallery channel

April 17 2012

Image of New National Gallery channel

Picture: National Gallery

Feast your eyes on this excellent new addition to the National Gallery's website. Perfect for lunchbreaks (after you've read AHN...).

The condition of Titian

April 17 2012

Image of The condition of Titian

Picture: Hermitage

In The Telegraph, Mark Hudson wonders if Titian's Flight into Egypt really deserves to be billed as 'Titian's First Masterpiece', as the National Gallery is billing it in their new exhibition:

The background is extremely accomplished, with its line of autumnal trees, receding towards craggy mountains reminiscent of Titian’s native Dolomites, surrounded by sunlit clouds. The group of shepherds, conversing in the shadows in the middle distance, are pure Giorgione in their tenebrous moodiness.

The figures in the foreground, however — Mary on her donkey led by a tousle-headed youth, with a rather stiff-looking Joseph bringing up the rear — progress in a flat frieze-like fashion, the figures rendered in laboured imitation of Bellini. While they have a certain naive charm, the faces are generic, the drapery cumbersome. The magisterial assurance of that extraordinary early portrait The Man with a Blue Sleeve (here called Portrait of Girolamo Barbarigo) is utterly absent. Indeed, it is impossible to believe the two works are separated by only two years, as the exhibition claims.

Background and foreground fail to marry to the degree you wonder if more than one artist was involved, or if the two parts were painted in different periods. Vasari suggests that Titian may have been assisted by a group of German artists — experts in landscape — to whom he gave “hospitality”. But if Titian was still a teenage assistant to Bellini, as the exhibition implies, it’s difficult to imagine him putting anyone up, and the treatment isn’t in any case particularly Germanic.

The answer to this disparity in the quality of the painting is of course its condition. The picture has been substantially abraded in the past in many areas. The figures in the foreground are in parts liberally covered in over-paint to cover-up these losses. So of course it appears at first glance as if some parts are better painted than others. In fact, some parts are simply better preserved than others.

Sadly, so few critics, and increasingly academics, understand condition issues these days. (We saw this most recently in the reviews of the Leonardo exhibition.) And Titian, perhaps more than any other painter , suffers from condition issues. There are two reasons for this. First, he was such a sophisticated artist, and used new techniques and delicate glazes that are particularly sensitive to over-cleaning. And secondly, he has been one of the most sought-after and collected artists of all time, and consequently collectors, dealers and museums have 'cleaned' Titians at a higher rate than works by other artists. This is especially evident in the National Gallery's new exhibition, where two putative Titians on loan from the Hermitage are in the most ruinous state, thanks largely to the Hermitage's old and hopelessly misguided policy of transferring all their panel paintings onto canvas.

I hesitate to say this, but probably The Flight Into Egypt worked more harmoniously (as a whole image) before it was cleaned, when the uniform effect of layers of old varnish knocked back the underlying imperfections caused by loss and abrasion. For example, look at the bottom of the cleaned painting above, and the way the figures seem to float rather uneasily. But in the painting before conservation, there was a subtler degree of shadowing at the lower edge of the canvas, which rooted the figures more effectively in the foreground.

Guarding "The Scream"

April 16 2012

Image of Guarding "The Scream"

Picture: Guardian

In The Guardian, Zoe Williams describes going to see Munch's The Scream, on view at Sotheby's before its sale in New York on May 2nd:

Approaching the work has the kind of ceremony you'd imagine they'd put on for the pope, or a dictator. You go through the security, the queue control, past the Miró, and there you are, in a totally dark room, this iconic creation glowing from the darkness as if possessed by a mystical force. [...]

Simon Shaw, Sotheby's head of impressionist and modern art, remarks, "It's so well known, so familiar; everybody's seen the pastiches, the parodies, the toys, the cartoons. You might think it would lose its power, but it doesn't. When you look at the Mona Lisa, it looks exactly as you'd expect it to look. This is quite different."

This is not Katherine Parr

April 16 2012

Image of This is not Katherine Parr

Picture: PCF/Lambeth Palace

I was pelased to see on a trawl through the Public Catalogue Foundation's website, Your Paintings, that the above portrait has been properly re-identified as Katherine of Aragon. For decades, the picture has wrongly been called Katherine Parr, and continues to crop up in the literature as her. 

'Some like it Hot', c.1792

April 16 2012

Image of 'Some like it Hot', c.1792

Picture: Philip Mould

As featured in The Sunday Times yesterday, here's a homegrown discovery for you: the only oil portrait of the Chevalier D'Eon, one of the most famous transvestites in history. He was also a spy, diplomat, soldier and author. This portrait was sold in a minor auction in the USA, where it was catalogued as 'Portrait of a Woman with a Feather in Her Hat'. The giveaway is the medal of the Order of St Louis, which was awarded to D'Eon by Louis XV for his services as a spy in the Secret de Roi. the picture was long thought to be by Gilbert Stuart, but is in fact by the English artist Thomas Stewart.

You can read more about the picture and its history by clicking 'Read on'.

Update: story covered by The Daily Telegraph here.

Read More

Our Van Dyck discovery at the Ashmolean

April 16 2012

Image of Our Van Dyck discovery at the Ashmolean

Picture: BG

Yesterday, I went to the Ashmolean Museum to see the Portrait of a Young Girl by Van Dyck we recently discovered. Forgive me if I tell you I felt burstingly proud standing in front of her - from auction house sleeper to museum wall in 18 months. It is there on loan from a private collector. Curiously, she looked far better at the Ashmolean than she ever did at our gallery. It may have been the red walls, or the lighting. Or the good company! 

Me on Top Gear!

April 16 2012

Image of Me on Top Gear!

Picture: BBC

Or at least, the same website as Top Gear - doubtless the closest I'll ever get. For any readers in Asia, you can see the first series of Fake or Fortune on BBC Asia Knowledge starting May 4th.

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