Previous Posts: April 2013

Maggie won't jump

April 9 2013

Video: via the Daily Dish

A nice apolitical video of Margaret Thatcher in typical form.

Thatcher and UK museums

April 9 2013

Image of Thatcher and UK museums

Picture: Philip Mould/Historical Portraits. Margaret Thatcher by Michael Noakes

In The Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks says that Mrs Thatcher made UK museums into world leaders:

[...] in her belief that public institutions should give value for money and be accountable, but also masters of their own fate, she was indirectly responsible for reforms to Britain’s national museums that helped make them the flexible and creative places they are today. Her reforms in public funding gave them the freedom to manage their own financial affairs, raise money from the private sector and run publishing and merchandising companies.

More here

Update - Will Gompertz on Thatcher and artists here.

The decline in specialist curators

April 9 2013

I've been rummaging around on the Museums Association website, and found the worrying results of a Museums Journal survey. Apparently, the number of specialist art curators in the UK has fallen by 23% over the last decade.  

By the way...

April 8 2013

Image of By the way...


Margaret Thatcher may have been a cheerleader for privatisation, but did you know that the only (I think) nationalisation she enacted was for Liverpool's museums and art galleries, in 1986? The Militant Labour council in Liverpool was threatening to close the museums, like the Walker Art Gallery above, and sell the contents. So she nationalised the lot. 

Update - a reader provides more intriguing background to the case:

[...] let' s not forget that the NG and other art institutions refused the Liverpool local authority collections in 1986 to their discredit, so what option was there to preserve them but to make them a national collection. Should that have been done and did it skew other regional collections? Interesting on several historical points.

'Er, we like our museums just as they are, thanks'

April 8 2013

Image of 'Er, we like our museums just as they are, thanks'

Picture: Museums Association

Good news from the Museums Association - a poll commissioned by the MA has rejected much of the curious nonsense it has been peddling in its document 'Museums 2020 - a bold vision for the future of the museums sector'. As a reader, and senior regional museum curator, writes:

The People have spoken!  I hope you will open up more exciting debate by announcing the Museum Association's publication of the response to the daft 'Museums 2020' proposals, see here.

In summary, the Great British Public thinks museums are for (in this order):

  • Care and preservation of heritage
  • Holding collections and mounting displays
  • Creating knowledge for, and about, society
  • and is extremely doubtful about 'promoting justice and human rights', 'providing a forum for debate' etc etc.

Hurrah!  Maybe I won't have to retrain as a social worker / political activist after all ...

Hurrah indeed. As I reported earlier, the Museums 2020 consultation document was often alarmingly off beam, full of museums-must-make-society-happier speak. It's therefore very useful that the poll, which was funded by the Arts Council England (ie, you and me), has clearly stated that museums 'should not expand from their core roles' into the areas of, for want of a better term, social work that the Museums Association was advocating. The sort of thing the MA wanted museums to do were demonstrated in five out of six 'impacts' set out in Museums 2020:

1 - Making a Difference for Individuals

Museums can improve individuals’ lives in ways such as supporting learning, stimulating interaction with friends and family, and building skills and confidence. To do this, museums often work in partnership with other organisations. Museums can expand this work, finding ways to engage with people more deeply.

1a - Wellbeing and Happiness.

Museums are well placed to improve individual wellbeing, improve quality of life and contribute to mental health. 

2 - Making a Difference for Communities

Museums can strengthen communities by bringing people together, validating the experiences of particular groups and supporting community organisations. Most museums have more potential to become truly of their communities.

2a - Participation

Museums are seeking ways to increase community participation in their activities and decision-making. Done with care, and avoiding tokenism, this can improve museums and benefit communities. 

3a - Human Rights, Equality and Social Justice

Museums have the potential to address the issues that matter most to society and to promote public debate and beneficial social change, rather than always assuming a position of neutrality.

Now this is all very laudable. But should making people happy be a museum's primary purpose, or a natural side-effect of, say, good exhibitions and well presented displays? Obsviously, AHN (and our senior curator quoted above) would say the latter. In fact, the debate over a museum's 'instrumental' value (the making people happy stuff) versus its 'intrinsic' value (the preservation and display of heritage stuff) has been going on for over a decade, and I'm surprised the MA is still going on about it. As the poll conducted by the MA shows, most people are quite happy with the intrinsic approach, thanks.

Only one of the six 'impacts' made any vague sense to stick-in-the-muds like me - that emphasising the preservation of collections - but even this was couched in unnecessarily chippy language:

3 - Making a Difference For Society

Museums safeguard and develop collections, create knowledge and contribute to cultural life. 

Museums see themselves as serving society. In the MA’s definition of a museum, they “hold collections on behalf of society” and there is a very real (if not strictly legal) understanding that museums and their collections belong to everyone. Museums exercise “stewardship” or “guardianship” rather than acting as private owners of collections. They have been highly successful – perhaps too successful – in preserving things that matter to society (or at least to the more powerful members of society).

That's right. Raphael, Rembrandt, Hockney - they only matter to the more powerful members of society. One of the recommendations in the 2020 document seems to suggest that the MA has a curious contempt for the core content of museums - actual objects:

Museums could rethink the ways they allocate their space, with less occupied with fixed display and more available for a wider range of activities: for workshops, for short-term pop-up displays, for performances, for discussions, for people and groups to come together.

Update - a reader writes:

One of their main functions must be the availability of decent public toilets. Is that in the poll? 

Death of the galleries (ctd.)

April 8 2013

Image of Death of the galleries (ctd.)

Picture: Faygate, via Flickr

Further to my post on Jerry Saltz lamenting the decline of contemporary galleries, and the impact this has on artists and artistic awareness, the director of one highly regarded and long-established London gallery writes:

I'm afraid Jerry Saltz is pretty correct.

We no longer see curators / advisors / critics / academics doing the rounds. They'll all turn up for Frieze and hop onto planes to go to Biennales and Documenta-type events, but have lost interest in the small end of things where an artist having a show is like a writer publishing a book or opening a play.

Of course they'll turn up for Zwirner / Hauser & Wirth etc but as Kenny Schachter says it's a big money art-economy for a very very small number of artists.

We try to make ourselves attractive for the 'younger' people with money but there are so many other assaults on their time and they want instant gratification. The CAS [Contemporary Art Society] here in London used to be supportive but now seem to sneer at us. It's a worry and I hate getting bitter and twisted about it.

That $7 Renoir (ctd.)

April 8 2013

Image of That $7 Renoir (ctd.)

Picture: Associated Press

The one which turned out to be stolen from a museum in Baltimore - well it seems it might not have been bought at a flea market (by a Marcia Fuqua)  at all. From the AP:

On Friday, The Washington Post reported that Fuqua’s 84-year-old mother, who operated an art school for decades in Fairfax County under the name Marcia Fouquet, is an artist who specialized in reproducing paintings from Renoir and other masters. The Post said Fouquet had artistic links to Baltimore in the 1950s, when the painting was stolen, and graduated from Goucher College with a fine arts degree in 1952.

A man who identified himself as Fuqua’s brother, Owen M. Fuqua, told the Post that the painting had been in the family for 50 or 60 years and that “all I know is my sister didn’t just go buy it at a flea market.”

The man later retracted his story, and ultimately said it was another person using his name who gave the initial interview.

Efforts by the AP Friday to reach Martha and Owen Fuqua Friday were unsuccessful. Martha Fuqua’s lawyer did not return a call Friday seeking comment.

Even more curiously, the picture has been valued for the FBI at just $22,000 because:

[...] Renoir’s paintings have fallen out of favour with some art collectors who consider them old fashioned and because questions about the painting’s ownership and possible theft diminish its value to collectors.

Renoir - he's, like, so last year.

Do you own this picture?

April 5 2013

Image of Do you own this picture?

Picture: BBC

Here at 'Fake or Fortune?' HQ we're looking for the above picture. There's a small chance it might be by Edouard Vuillard, but it was sold on Ebay some years ago for just £3000. If you know where it is, please get in touch. More details here

Update - a reader writes:

Bendor, your supposed' Vuillard' looks like a meeting between the young David Hockey and Barbara Cartland in the Dorchester. I known his standards dropped as he aged & gained popularity, but surely not to that extent.

'An Important Message from the Director'

April 5 2013

Image of 'An Important Message from the Director'

Picture: Metropolitan Museum

So says the Metropolitan Museum's website, and in capitals too, so it must be Important. Thomas P. Campbell (he's a Brit, by the way, but has gone for that American middle initial thing) has posted a message about the Met's admission policy, in response to a lawsuit which claims the museum's pricing system is "deceptive". 

The lawsuit, according to the BBC:

[...] contends that the world famous museum, which receives six million visitors a year, uses misleading marketing and cashier training to deceive unwary visitors.

Lawyers say the signs in the lobby listing the price of admission with the word "recommended" below in smaller type violate a 1893 law mandating the public be admitted free of charge at least five days and two evenings per week in exchange for monetary grants and rent-free use of city-owned land.

The suit, which lawyers hope will eventually represent a broad class of people who have visited the museum in recent years, seeks a change in the admissions policy and reimbursement for those who they say were misled.

The last paragraph here explains why Campbell's message is indeed, Important. It would appear that the lawsuit is an attempt to bring a costly 'class action' claim against the museum, so that millions of museum visitors, it will be suggested, somehow over-paid to get into the museum and are thus due a refund. Given that the Met introduced 'suggested contributions' in the early 1970s, all those individual refunds will add up to a hefty sum. Lawyers who bring such cases and win usually get a handsome slice of any settlement. It's sad that a fine charitable and public body like the Met can be sued like this. The phrase 'only in America' comes to mind.

In response, Campbell says:

In recent weeks, you may have read about a lawsuit filed by one of the Metropolitan Museum's Fifth Avenue neighbors. It inaccurately alleges that the Met deceives the public by not making its long-standing pay-what-you-wish admission policy clear enough, and asserts that we are violating a nineteenth-century New York State law that once mandated that we be free to the public. This was followed by a second legal action, filed by the same law firm, seeking monetary damages.

We have explained to the press the genesis and legality of our recommended admission policy and intend to defend it vigorously. But the legal process takes time—so I wanted to communicate directly with you, our audience, about our admission policy, and to clarify its origin and importance.

First and most crucially, a recommended or suggested admission structure was instituted only after the Museum received approval from New York City's Administrator of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs more than four decades ago. No current State legislation requires the Museum to be free to the public.

Second, the recommended admission policy is clearly posted at all entry points to the Museum's Main Building and The Cloisters, on all printed materials, and on our website. Should a visitor ask a cashier about the admission policy, the message is always equally clear: the amount is voluntary; please pay what you wish.

I've always noted, when visiting the museum, that the Met cashiers do indeed say very firmly that payment is voluntary. It leaves you with a feeling of benefaction as you say, no I'd like to pay the $25 please. But it should be said that the way the entry system is set up leaves you with no doubt that you really ought to pay. You can't just walk into the galleries, you have to pass guards and a barrier, and it's clear you're expected to show the little lapel badge which denotes you've coughed up. So it's undoubtedly a curious system. I've often thought that the ideal scenario, here it the UK, is something halfway between the Met's system, and those 'suggested donation' boxes everyone walks straight past at the entrance to the galleries. Perhaps there's some way UK museums can make it just a little bit harder to walk in without giving a penny.

I was surprised to read that only 40% of visitors pay the 'suggested' $25 fee. Still, here's hoping some sensible New York judge kicks the case out of court. 

Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico...

April 5 2013

Image of Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico...

Picture: Museo de Arte de Ponce

A reader alerts me to what looks like a fine exhibition of British art in Puerto Rico, at the Museo de Arte de Ponce. The show includes works by Lawrence, Gainsborough, Burne-Jones, and the above landscape by Thomas Seddon. All in the caribbean. Who knew?

Update - a reader writes:

If you read the blurb on the website the so called exhibition in Puerto Rico is not an exhibition at all but it is the permanent collection of British Art. However they are calling it an exhibition as they are doing a scholarly catalogue of their Victorian paintings, which is good news. Perhaps you might alert your readers to this. (Try turning on the English language button on the website and all will be revealed) It is a collaboration with the Tate - encouraging to hear of some good things the Tate is doing even if they are thousands of miles from London.

You ask: who knew? Well, anyone seriously in to the Pre-Raphaelites knew of this collection and I am surprised a seventeenth century enthusiast such as yourself doesn't know the museum. Julius Held was one of the advisers to Luis Ferrer in forming the collection and it has fantastic European baroque holdings.

When I went there I was shown round by Ferrer himself, alas now no longer with us, but then in a wheelchair. He had lots of anecdotes about his bargain hunting, for example his advisers told him not to buy Leighton’s Flaming June, but he did so anyway, for £2000 (1963). Victorian painting and baroque painting were both cheap then and he got some great things. 

Next time you are in the USA go there, it is not that difficult, you fly to San Juan and then change to a small plane to Ponce a rather charming but sleepy town, with one really good restaurant that Ferrer took me to. The waiters all bowed when we arrived.

Update II - another reader writes:

The Ponce Museum of Art is unforgettable.  I was there 30 years ago, and aside from Flaming June by Frederic, Lord Leighton, and other British Masters, it has an extremely large and important collection of Russian 19th century artists.

Don Luis Ferre was a former Governor of Puerto Rico, and he told me that he had an engineering degree from M.I.T., before going into the family business of concrete and cement construction.

He was, of course, a dedicated art collector, advised by Oscar and Jan Klein, of The Central Picture Gallery in NYC, and by Professor Julius Held ( Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck) of Columbia University.  When I was there there were galleries dedicated to Oscar and Jan Klein, and to Julius Held ( all gone, as is Don Luis ).

Don Luis told me that every year he would get higher and higher offers from British Dealers to buy Flaming June. 

He and Julius Held both told me that when he started to collect, he went to Professor Held for advice, and ever after, he would pick out paintings, and vet them by Professor Held, to see if they were museum quality.  Don Ferre showed me around his home and personal collection - I remember that he had several impressive paintings, and an important Antonio Gaudi window grill.  But the best things went to the museum.  ( see Wikipedia ).

Aside from this, Ponce is fun.  It houses one of the most charming Victorian buildings in the whole world - the Ponce Fire House.

Flashmobbing the Nightwatch

April 5 2013

Video: ING

A very cool and very clever recreation of Rembrandt's The Nightwatch, to promote the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum. Let's do the same in London, for this

Update - a reader writes:

[...] not sure about the London one though, it's far too cold at the moment…

Another reader writes:

I think we should all calm down about Titianesque flash-mobbing possibilities in respect of any British institution. Far more likely to be Frith’s Derby Day, surely?

Optimism (ctd.)

April 4 2013

Image of Optimism (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

The government has placed a temporary export ban on the Raphael drawing Head of an Apostle, sold from Chatsworth last year. It has to be done, I suppose, but if a UK museum manages to come up with the necessary £29.7m, I'll eat my trousers. Under our current export system, the more expensive an item is, the more likely it is to leave the country.

The 15th Century manuscript sold by Chatsworth in the same sale, for £3.8m, has also been temporarily blocked. 

New Louvre director

April 3 2013

Image of New Louvre director

Picture: Tribune de l'Art

Didier Rykner has the scoop on the Louvre's new director, Jean-Luc Martinez. He is currently head of the museum's Greek and Roman antiquities department.

Is Google bringing us too close to art?

April 3 2013

Image of Is Google bringing us too close to art?

Picture: Google Art Project/Albertina/detail from Durer's 1503, 'The Lare Piece of Turf'

There's an interesting, if slightly loopy article in The Daily Dot by art historian Professor James Elkins, about the effect of Google on art history:

[...] we are now seeing things more closely than we should, than we were ever meant to. That is particularly true in the case of artworks that are uploaded at very high resolutions—so high that we see them more closely than the artists ever intended.

No evidence is produced to back up the claim that 'artists' never intended us to look at their work close up, or under magnification. And no wonder, because it's mainly nonsense. True, Godfrey Kneller once upbraided someone for looking at his paintings too closely, by saying, 'my pictures are not for smelling of'. But I suspect that the likes of Holbein and Durer, not to mention miniaturists like Nicholas Hilliard, would have delighted in viewers admiring the intricate detail of their work. In any case, as an empiricist I always take as my starting point the artist Jonathan Richardson's maxim, in his treatise on connoisseurship:

In making our Remarks upon a Picture of a Drawing, we are only to consider what we Find, without any Regard to what, perhaps, the Master Intended. 'Tis commonly said of Commentators, that they discover more Beauties than the Author ever thought of.

In other words, beware of anyone who speaks of 'what the artist intended'. Professor Elkins' remarks strike a chord here on AHN, because regular readers will know that I place great emphasis on the art of close-looking. It's an essential part of learning to be a connoisseur, which in turn is an essential skill that all art historians and art lovers should aspire to practice. By only looking at pictures from afar, or as Professor Elkins assumes, 'as the artist intended', not only we can never learn the trademark techniques that make up an artist's technique, but we also lose part of our knowledge of how they worked. Understanding the craft of painting is vital, and enjoyable. Reducing artists to simple conjurors of composition, mere storytellers, is foolish. 

Update - a reader writes:

Your comments in AHN on James Elkins' article about the Google Art Project are (as always) full of sense. I have in the past much enjoyed your reports of braving the disfavour of custodians at public galleries by your practice of close-looking, and I don't doubt its value.

It strikes me that Elkins may be making the wrong objection, as it were, and that Google's inadequacy as a tool for the connoisseur is not the short distance, but the lack of depth. One of the (many) reasons why Pointillist works (for example) are so much more striking in reality than in reproduction is that they aren't at all flat, and their colours leap and flash as the viewer moves round them.

However, this would not necessarily rule out the use of reproductions as a scholarly tool, if we could recover a sense of depth using raking light. I'm aware that this is already done by art and archaeology photographers, but it is now possible to take the practice beyond creating a series of photos taken at different times of day.

Perhaps I could direct your readers' attention to this web page, illustrating Hewlett Packard's use of 'reflectance imaging' for the ancient Antikythera mechanism.

If one clicks on these images, and uses the mouse to click-and-drag across the image, one can direct the raking light at will, to bring out particular details. You will see that it's very easy to control, and effective in bringing out detail. The technique has been extensively used by the different Antikythera teams to examine the artefact via the internet.

I would suppose that the same technique could also be used as a scholarly tool for the art historian, and would also enhance the experience of viewing a reproduction for all art-lovers. I'd be very interested in hearing your expert view on this.

There is, inevitably, a technical drawback: the camera-and-lighting rig used for the Antikythera mechanism is large and heavy and expensive, and too unwieldy to be brought into most galleries. Perhaps Google could be persuaded to help develop a smaller version. Or perhaps such a thing is already under way? That would be wonderful, though I'm not of course arguing that a photographic reproduction can be anything like a replacement for the object itself.

Fascinating. Google should clearly invest in one of these machines. And imagine sculpture too...

Adam de Colone and Adam de Colonia (ctd.)

April 2 2013

Image of Adam de Colone and Adam de Colonia (ctd.)

Picture: Burlington Magazine

Last year I mentioned an article in The Burlington Magazine by Rudi Ekkart, which seemed to show that the Scottish artist Adam de Colone and the Netherlandish painter Adam de Colonia were one and the same person. Well, it turns out that they weren't. In the latest issue of The Burlington (above, which focuses on British Art), former Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Duncan Thomson has shown that Ekkart missed out, or misunderstood, a crucial piece of evidence in relation to Adam de Colone's upbringing in Scotland, that is, a document that Colone signed for the Privy Council proving that he was born and raised in Scotland. This means that he cannot have been Adam de Colonia, who was brought up in Dordrecht and Rotterdam. I can't link to the letter here, but it's an important one to note for anyone interested in Scottish art history. 

Pre-Raphaelites in the US

April 2 2013

Image of Pre-Raphaelites in the US

Picture: New York Times

The Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Washington's National Gallery (formerly at Tate Britain) has gone down like a cup of cold sick with Roberta Smith of the New York Times:

If you are genuinely interested in art and emerge from this show thinking that you have seen scores of outstanding paintings, you should spend more time studying other examples. For comparison the galleries adjacent to this exhibition contain two outstanding works by the Pre-Raphaelites’ French contemporaries, Eduard Manet’s “Dead Toreador” (probably 1864) and Paul Cézanne’s portrait of his father reading a newspaper (1866). Consider the simplicity, directness and mysteries of these paintings against the moralizing and endless intricacies of the Pre-Raphaelites. It is a contrast between the complex and the merely complicated.

Pre-Raphaelite art is a volatile, highly complicated mixture of questionable intentions, literary erudition, ironclad nostalgia, meticulous realism, lavish costumes and a prescient technicolor palette. The brotherhood was formed in 1848 by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, three disgruntled students at the Royal Academy of Art. Barely 20, they were repelled by the decadence of art and society, much of which they ascribed to the Industrial Revolution. 

For pastel fans...

April 2 2013

Image of For pastel fans...

Picture: Alte Pinakothek, Munich

...allow me to direct you to a fine piece of research by Neil Jeffares, King of all things pastel, on a previously obscure sitter painted by La Tour, Elisabeth Ferrand.

Tate follows Kensington Palace display ethos

April 1 2013

Image of Tate follows Kensington Palace display ethos

Pictures: Anon.

Disturbing news from Tate Britain. Senior managers and marketing staff have been so impressed by the new picture display at Kensington Palace that they're planning to copy it themselves. This means that the new hang of the 'historic collection' in Tate Britain's newly refurbished galleries, due to open this autumn, will use many of the features employed by Historic Royal Palaces in their £12m revamp of Kensington Palace.

For example, a nervous curator tells me that an order has been issued to re-write all picture labels along the lines of those now used at Kensington Palace. My source has sent me a photo from Kensington Palace of the sort of thing that is now in vogue (above), where George II is described as 'a bit boring'. They tell me:

It's been decided that labels like this are the best way of widening access to what is now called our 'old stuff'. The removal of any useful information from the labels for our recent 'Looking at the View' exhibition [as covered earlier on AHN here] was considered a success, so we've been told to use descriptive terms that are 'more relevant to a younger audience'. The new policy is, in portraits, to describe sitters as 'a bit dull', 'quite cool', and 'really fit'. The access team are still working on new terms to describe landscapes, but I've heard that 'totes amazeballs' was only narrowly rejected by the Future Label Forum.

More worrying still, I've been told that Tate managers were so impressed by the flock of flying and squawking paper seagulls in the picture gallery at Kensington Palace (below) that they've commissioned Jeff Koons to come up with a similar design for the Duveen galleries. The funding for the commission will come from savings realised by last year's curatorial redundancies, and by a new organic cafe, to be built in the space formerly occupied by Tate's photographic archive. Alarming...

Update - Check the date! Quite a few readers were fooled by this, but as a former Tate employee says:

Really enjoyed your April Fool - not really all that far from the truth!

Another reader couldn't quite believe that the label I showed from Kensington Palace was actually real:

It is very unkind of you to pretend that the Tate is following the Historic Royal Palaces in its moronic labelling, and that the example from Kensington Palace is real! Some of the more cynical among us might easily have believed you - so thank goodness it is 1 April!

One reader points out some of the information that should have been on the Kensington Palace label, but wasn't:

Your photo of the caption just shows how un-informative these are: visitors may wonder how Copley came to paint someone who died before he was born.  As you probably are aware, unlike anyone less informed looking at the work in this context, the painting a copy by Copley of a work by an earlier artist, Morier.

Indeed. Or at least that is how the picture is catalogued on Your Paintings. I can't see any mention of the picture in Jules David Prown's catalogue raisonne of Copley's paintings. 

One reader has volunteered to help Kensington Palace with their future label writing efforts:

"George II was punctual...."  Perhaps that explains why they called him 'King George the second'.

The Grumpy Art Historian refers me to an alleged label writing exercise in advance of the Ashmolean Museum's re-opening. Says his source:

The labels that ended up in the final display had apparently been written, revised and dumbed down innumerable times thanks in large part to the efforts of the outside experts who even forbade the use of the word ‘century’; ‘too confusing for the general public’ was the message (there was, I gather, a rich moment when a curator asked at one of their regular public meetings ‘How then do I describe the 17th century?’; ‘the seventeen hundreds’ came the reply’).

A reader shares their view of the new Kensington Palace display:

I visited England last September and spent more than a week in London - had a ball, however the one disappointment was Kensington Palace. We visited after hearing that the whole place had been done up. We didn't enjoy the display theme - it was vaguely ridiculous and very distracting from the actual paintings and other pieces. As a comparison, Apsley House was fabulous.

Finally, another does so in a stronger vein:

My wife and I visited the palace last month, together with some of her German relatives, I couldn't believe the inept displays, and the even more inept descriptions & potted histories that accompanied them. It left our visitors much bemused, who couldn't understand why, with all our history, and the objects to accompany the story of it, we would choose to dress it in a manner more in keeping with the windows of a department store.

I agree with both the above comments. The new interior display at Kensington Palace is nothing short of disastrous, and, worse, a monumental waste of money. With its daft labels such as that shown above, swirly carpets, constant drive-you-mad sound recordings, and an overly liberal use of bargain basement bunting, it seems deliberately aimed at four year olds. And like nanny it insists that everyone must be spoon fed. There is no concession to anyone with an intellectual age greater than about ten. It isn't possible to enjoy the paintings on display without being distracted by hidden speakers blaring woefully scripted 'whispers', as imagined 18th Century courtiers whitter on about their corsets, or something similarly tedious. Every other wall is graffiti-d with vapid text. There is a constant belittling of the palace and its history, to the extent that a building built for majesty is now utterly devoid of it. As I overheard one visitor saying, it's like being in a bad dream.

Historic Royal Palaces [HRP] so often gets things right, and has in the past been excellent at combining accessibility with serious historical presentation, and preservation. The new 'Secrets of the Bedchamber' exhibition at Hampton Court Palace is great fun, but also conveys some serious historical messages. But at Kensington Palace HRP have gone completely mad. Bringing history to life for children is commendable, but not to the extent that it takes second or even third place in a nauseating theme park. I chose to ridicule the label of George II because it tells us all we need to know about the failure of the Kensington Palace approach. You might have thought that a child's interest would be piqued by George's most memorable achievement; that he was the last English King to lead his troops into battle. Indeed, the painting on display shows him doing this, at Dettingen. But there is no mention of this on the label, where instead we are told that he was merely 'a bit boring'. This dumb approach to history isn't just daft, it's treason. 

OPEN opens

April 1 2013

Image of OPEN opens

Picture: PCF

More good news from the Public Catalogue Foundation - they have secured the initial funding (of £125,000 from the Arts Council - well done them) needed to establish OPEN, the Oil Painting Expert Network. OPEN is intended to provide specialist art historical advice to collections which don't have such expertise in house.

The opportunities provided by OPEN are significant - of the 210,000 paintings (80% of which are in storage) photographed and published online by the Public Catalogue Foundation, 30,000 have no artistic attribution at all. That's one in seven. The combination of expertise and new high-quality digital images (many of paintings which have never been photographed before) should mean that we are able to make many more discoveries like the Van Dyck recently found at the Bowes Museum. I hope that OPEN will also be able to provide advice on other aspects of collections, such as conservation.

Regular readers will remember me lobbying for the creation of such a scheme for some time, first at a conference at the National Gallery in 2011, and also in a book published by Museums etc., Museums and the Disposal Debate. The PCF have kindly asked me to be on the steering group to help set up the network. You can read more about the OPEN announcement in my newsletter for the PCF here.

Can you paint better than this?

April 1 2013

Image of Can you paint better than this?

Picture: Mail

A new TV series is to find Britain's best amateur portraitist. The series, on Sky Arts, will have a prize of £10,000 and a commission to paint the novelist Hilary Mantel. One of the judges will be Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery, who recently chose Paul Emsley to paint the Duchess of Cambridge. Don't hold your breath.

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