Previous Posts: January 2013

Introducing 'The Grumpy Art Historian'

January 14 2013

Image of Introducing 'The Grumpy Art Historian'


Apparently I'm not the only one. Allow me to introduce a new and well written blog called 'The Grumpy Art Historian'. Recent pieces include a first-hand view of the decidedly curious 'Raphael and Studio' Pope Julius II in Frankfurt, and this interesting account of a visit to the prints and drawings room at the Louvre:

It was no problem getting an appointment, but I struggled a bit with the meaning of the 'red items' that could be seen only once.  Turns out it means that you can only request them once, ever - they keep a record of which drawings you've looked at, and on subsequent visits you can't request any 'red' items that you've seen before.  

Enough to make anyone grumpy, really.

There's also an interesting post on the merits or otherwise on the Government Indemnity system, whereby the state assumes all risk for art damage and loss so that museums in the UK don't have to pay for commercial insurance:

The Art Newspaper reports that the government provided free insurance for loans of works of art worth £8.6bn last year.  It is a shameful and stupid subsidy that incentivises perverse behaviour. 

This insurance isn't free.  There are costly claims for damage, and there is always the risk of a catastrophically high claim if something goes horribly wrong.  Governments shouldn't be in the business of providing services that they don't understand and can be more efficiently supplied by the private sector.  Insurance is a complex business, and a worst-case outcome (fire at the Leonardo show) could put a meaningful dent in state finances at a time when it's especially unaffordable.  I'm all in favour of government subsidising the arts, but this is an arbitrary subsidy that encourages institutions to borrow the costliest works because they never bear the full cost.

The dreadful story of the damaged Miro at the Tate is a salutary warning of the real harm that can be caused, which no amount of cash can put right.  It's not just specacular instances of damage that are of concern, but the ongoing stresses caused by packing and unpacking delicate works of art and moving them between different environments.  The state shouldn't be encouraging this by picking up a big part of the tab. 


The Art Newspaper estimates that commercial insurance would have cost about £15 per visitor to the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy (which I heard was too crowded for any of the 411,000 visitors to have seen much anyway).  The implication is that it's a Good Thing because it allowed the exhibition to go ahead with ticket prices at a reasonable level (less than half the cost if insurance were purchased commercially).  But why - especially in times of austerity - is the government providing a £15 a head subsidy to the well-heeled visitors to the RA?  And is this really the best way for the government to subsidise the arts at a time when the National Gallery cannot even afford to pay enough guards to cover all of its rooms?

The author of The Grumpy Art Historian knows all about risk - he (Michael Savage) is a trader at RBS. However, I think the Government Indemnity scheme is a great asset to the museum sector in the UK, and good value for taxpayers. As TAN reports:

We have also obtained data on indemnity payouts. In the 14 years up to 2010/11, there were 28 claims on behalf of lenders (an average of two a year), totalling £303,000 (an average of £10,800 each). These were all for conservation repairs, and not a single indemnified work was stolen. 

Last year, there were two claims, totalling £236,000. One was for a minor item, but the other was for damage to Miró’s Painting on White background for the Cell of a Recluse I, 1968, on loan to London’s Tate Modern.


All of which means that in 15 years, total claims on the Government Indemnity have been just over £.5m. It represents a signficant net saving to the government, for if museums had been forced to get private insurance, the bill to the taxpayer would have been in the tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds (since the governmnet funds museums to the tune of about 35%-45%).

Update - a reader from Spain writes:

The paintings loaned to the Prado, Thyssen and Reina Sofia Museums are covered by free insurance provided by the Spanish government called "Garantia de Estado" (State Guarantee) . Without this insurance would be impossible for public museums with very limited funds (even before the crisis) hold exhibitions, such as the Late Raphael or The Young Van Dyck, with works valued at exorbitant amounts. This expenditure, combined with the cost of transportation, would make it impractical exhibition with dozens of paintings from all over the world.

More on the Spanish system here.

Update II - another reader writes:

I’m not sure whether one should encourage too much open discussion of this surprisingly complicated question – but...

When you write “All of which means that in 15 years, total claims on the Government Indemnity have been just over £.5m. It represents a signficant net saving to the government, for if museums had been forced to get private insurance, the bill to the taxpayer would have been in the tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds (since the governmnet funds museums to the tune of about 35%-45%)”, there are several debatable points. Not all my answers point in the same direction, and I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with the Grumpy Art Historian.

Firstly if one were to go down the private insurance route, it is rather unlikely in the present climate that the Government would in fact increase explicit funding, even to the 35–45% level. The fear is that, once out in the open, the value of the scheme would be retained by the Treasury and arguments such as the value of tourism etc. generated by the exhibition would be lost.

More insidiously you ignore what in the world of finance would be termed the “option value” inherent in insurance. I can chose not to insure my house, but it would be a category error to call that a saving of the amount of the commercial premium; and my wife might take a different view of the wisdom of my gamble. So far HMG has got lucky, but it is playing at the casino (best left to financial institutions): you simply don’t know when over the next 15 years, or 150 if necessary, the catastrophe will strike that will change the perceived value of the cover. There may be a saving in “self-insurance”, but it is only the profit element retained by insurers, a far smaller amount than the commercially appraised risk value. With or without profit, the hidden subsidy the Government has provided is an eye-catchingly large number to flaunt before ministers who (according to today’s Sunday Times) dare not even tell us they have been to the theatre, such is the perceived philistinism of the voter. And whatever you think of Gordon Brown’s numerous errors, taking the chips off gold bullion, even though the bet came up, was at least logically defensible.

A serious question for some of these high value exhibitions is whether the commercial insurance market would be able to provide sufficient cover for the very concentrated risk.

An even broader perspective: whether as tax payer or through my pension fund or other investments in insurance companies, I am probably footing this bill anyway. 

This gets a bit more complicated in an international perspective. If the National Gallery and the Louvre each self-insures their own Leonardo when they remain in the respective museum, how much of the premium notionally attached for insuring one on loan is covering a risk that wouldn’t have been covered before? In other words are we just talking about the extra risks from transportation? Of course the risk of loss goes up on a move, but if you sought commercial insurance for a Leonardo in situ only, you would still have to pay a vast amount to reserve the “line” of cover, however minute the risk. And of course if the Treasury started to think about the full implications of self-insuring the National Gallery’s permanent collection…

Which raises the crucial point: whoever pays, money is not an acceptable substitute for the loss or damage to a major artistic masterpiece. The price of commercial insurance cover merely focuses the mind on this – and the GAH is right to that extent. But actually curators are not better placed than civil servants to decide these questions: asking scholars to take round the begging bowl to the usual suspects just won’t work for these amounts. The numbers simply won’t permit a curator to trade off the insurance costs of a high-value loan against say the production costs of colour printing in the exhibition catalogue, and the market discipline the GAH seeks won’t work in practice. The result is that the major masterpieces would never be shown in the UK.

The reason for reducing the number of blockbuster exhibitions should be caution rather than Treasury politics. And if that is a spur to curators to follow Nick Penny’s lead in emphasising focused, scholarly exhibitions, so much the better. But the idea that we should never again be able to borrow a good Titian or Leonardo – for a serious exhibition that justified the risk – would be crushing.


January 14 2013

Image of Today...

Picture: BG

Yet more filming I'm afraid, so probably not much action here on AHN. This morning we were in the National Portrait Gallery's invaluable Heinz Archive.

Kate's first portrait

January 13 2013

Image of Kate's first portrait

Picture: Mail

Oh dear, it is pretty awful, isn't it? And it’s so big too, which only amplifies the awfulness. When I went to see poor Kate’s new portrait earlier today it seemed I was not alone in instantly disliking it – there was much tittering and shaking of heads among my fellow viewers. That it is hung alongside some of the National Portrait Gallery’s very best contemporary portraits – opposite, for example, Michael Taylor's excellent portrait of John Tavener - further heightens the feeling that we have here a real turkey of a picture. I’m not surprised that it has been universally panned by commentators. But what I am surprised by, given that there is no shortage of good portrait artists out there, is how the NPG allowed this to happen to their new Patron.

The answer is, unfortunately, that it was probably inevitable, and for two reasons. The first is our (and the National Portrait Gallery’s) increasing obsession with photo-realist portraiture. The NPG’s main contemporary portrait competition, the BP Portrait Award, now seems actively to encourage photo-realism at the expense of traditional portraiture – indeed, the artist of Kate’s portrait, photo-realist Paul Emsley, himself won the award in 2007. The second reason, which is related to the first, is that there must have been a wish to choose a safe pair of hands for Kate’s first official portrait. One presumes that there was a desire to avoid a ‘controversial’ picture like Stuart Pearson Wright’s (brilliant) portrait of a half-naked Duke of Edinburgh holding a fly. Photo-realism allows for a safely conservative portrait, since the artist is effectively limited to just painting a photograph, one the sitter themselves can approve before anything goes too far.

The problem is, though, that the NPG has ended up with a safe but stultifyingly dull portrait, and, worse, Kate has been subjected to some needlessly negative media and public reaction on one of her first forays into the arts. Regular readers will know that I have long been unimpressed with photo-realist portraiture (to me, painting a photograph requires no more skill than photographing a painting, just more time). However, when done well there is no denying that photo-realism can have an initially impressive impact, as the viewer is allowed to feast on the minutest details of an interesting-looking sitter; the crevasses of a wrinkled face, the intensity of a dazzling eye. 

Sadly, Kate’s portrait is not only a woeful piece of painting, it’s also a woeful piece of photo-realism. There are few interesting details for us to be impressed by - indeed, Emsley himself has bemoaned the lack of ‘wrinkles’ on Kate’s face. But although the portrait relies on photographs, it nevertheless attempts a veneer of painterliness, and the result is an awkward collision between banal photography and bad painting. It reminds me of the washed out, soft-focus photos of the elderly one finds in high street studios, or, more commonly, American shopping malls. As a painting, it conveys nothing of note whatsoever, and fails entirely to bring the subject to life. The flesh tones are pallid, stale, and so unbalanced that Kate appears to be recently deceased. Visitors at the NPG need only walk three paces to their right to see, in a series of Mario Testino photos of Kate, that happily she looks nothing like Emsley's picture in real life. Emsley has tried hard, but he is out of his depth.

This painting then is a shining example of the fundamental weaknesses of photo realist portraitists. For all their attention to detail, for all the hours the artist spends standing close to the canvas labouring over a single hair, there is no corresponding sense of overall perspective, and certainly no penetrating exploration of character. The whole becomes lost in the detail. One wonders if they ever stand back and look at their portrait from afar. Might we hope, therefore, that the very public failure of this portrait leads to a reappraisal of photo-realism? 

The omens are not good. In a sense, the NPG is merely reflecting the public’s appetite for paintings that look like photographs. We are now so conditioned to looking at the world through a lens, be it in our mobile phones, digital cameras, or on the telly or in newspapers, that we expect our paintings to look like photos too. Stick-in-the-muds like me and Brian Sewell might say that a painted portrait should be the means by which we eschew the instantaneous, one-way, emotionless gaze of the camera lens. But these days too many portraitists rely on cameras, and the result is the increasing eclipse of the oil portrait done from life, in long sittings where artist and sitter could built up at least a semblance of some deeper understanding than is ever possible through photography.

The irony in this case is that there is one person who agrees with me to such an extent that he’s even established his own art school, where art students are taught the traditional techniques of the Old Masters. He is, of course, Kate’s father-in-law, the Prince of Wales.  

Update - a reader places the blame more in Kate's direction:

Wait....didn’t Kate receive a degree in the history of art not too long ago? Either her degree should be revoked, or it’s a sad testament to the quality of higher education in this country (not to mention the whole connoisseurship issue...)  Here was a good chance for her to champion all the things one hopes and assumes a history of art graduate would have learned with a unique practical demonstration of that knowledge, and all I can hear is scores of parents saying ‘we paid good money for you to study the history of art and that’s what you learned??’ 

I found the portrait pretty revolting to look at – it reminded me of a Breck shampoo advertisement from the 1960s aged to show how the sitter (missing? dead? fugitive from the law?) might appear today.

Another reader cautions:

At first glance 'Kate' is so ghastly that it transcends the Ecce Mono, and then gradually I wonder if the NPG was tricked into commissioning a conceptual, and subversive, Great Work of Art.

Update II - another reader writes:

Photorealism is an impressive style of art when painted well. However, more often than not this style of painting places the viewer's focus on the painting's technique rather than its subject (and as such, arguably emphasises the achievements of the artist rather than the sitter). 

If the aim was to make Kate's portrait seem modern and up to date then it seems a shame, with so many fantastic portrait photographers working in this country,  that the final outcome was not a photograph. On the other hand, if the aim was to produce a painted portrait for the sake of tradition and Kate's art historical background, then why not fully exploit the fact that paint is not reliant on reality alone. The result is an uncomfortable  hybrid of these two media, no doubt caused by an over-zealous attempt to express the new 'with-it' generation of royals but in a traditional manner. In doing so the painting becomes the equivalent of a postage stamp - it shows the image of the (future) queen, but not much else.

Another reader sees the influence of a recent Leonardo discovery:

I would hazard a guess that it is a rather poor attempt to make the Duchess of Cambrige look a bit like Leonardo's? Salvator Mundi. The blurry picture on the front of the weekend's newspapers made me come to this realisation.

The only real mystery seems to me to be why the expression of her lips don't seem to match the rest of her face.


January 11 2013

...I'm away all day making a film for the BBC Culture Show, so no service I'm afraid. Random musings will continue over on Twitter. Otherwise, see you Monday.

Update - I'm told 'making a film' is seen as pretentious. In the world of telly it's 'making a programme'. That said, you are allowed to say 'I'm away filming', even if it's just for telly. 

Picasso vandal arrested

January 10 2013

Video: ITN

The wally who attacked a Picasso in the Menil Collection (Texas) in June has at last been arrested. From Fox News:

Seven months later, Uriel Landeros, 22, turned himself over to marshals at the international bridge near McAllen, Texas on the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I don't regret anything that I've done," Landeros told KPRC-TV of Houston in an interview.

Landeros was charged in June with felony graffiti and criminal mischief for vandalizing the 1929 artwork at the Menil Collection in Houston.

It'll be interesting to see how his punishment matches up to the two years in jail for the similar Rothko attack here in London.

Is history of art only for poshos?

January 10 2013

Image of Is history of art only for poshos?

Picture: British Museum

No, of course it isn't. But we Brits love to be chippy about this sort of thing, so in this country there's a feeling that art history is an elitist subject. That said, it is undeniably the case that a lot of posh people study art history, including, most famously at the moment, the Duchess of Cambridge. In The Guardian,* art history student Joy Starkey writes:

As a history of art student at Cambridge University, I have had direct experience of the stigma attached to the subject. I am regularly confronted with the attitude that, as one recent Cambridge graduate put it: "History of art is a niche subject, one that isn't particularly relevant or useful for future life."

The public and students alike regard it as a subject reserved for wealthy students from top private schools. This belief has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a student who came to the subject from a state school background, I am in the minority.

The subject's elitist image has been exacerbated by the long list of royals who have studied it – Prince William, Kate Middleton and Princess Beatrice to name a few. This not only gives the impression that you have to be from the right background to study it, but also reinforces the notion that this subject is not useful in the current barren landscape of graduate recruitment.

In 2011 25 people from state schools and 38 from independent schools applied for history of art at Cambridge University. Just five of the available 16 places were awarded to state school students. Admissions tutors have to select the best applicants. These are most likely to be those who visited art galleries when they were children. They will also be those who studied the subject at A-level, something often only offered by private schools.

But strip history of art of its seemingly pretentious finery and it's clear that it's anything but elitist. In my three years at university I have discovered that art is one of the most vivid ways of viewing history — it is an intimate glimpse into someone's world.

I'm not entirely sure how we 'strip art of its pretentious finery'. Take paintings out of their frames? Display them in industrial warehouses? When we had our connoisseurship debate on this site a while ago, some commentators said that words like 'connoisseurship' are elitist and even intimidating. I don't agree. But what do you think? Can readers suggest ways of making the subject more accessible? Should we stop saying, for example, 'sfumato', and instead say, 'blurry bits'?

Incidentally, I'm delighted that our future queen studied art history (and has become a valuable patron for the National Portrait Gallery), not least because our future king, William, gave it up to do geography instead...

* via Hannah Williams

Update - a reader writes:

Always surprising that such a broad subject like Art History is considered niche compared to, say, English Literature.

Another reader writes:

I think the issue highlighted by Joy Starkey is one of class and wealth as opposed to academic elitism i.e a suggestion of not understanding art historical terms like sfumato, imprimatura or chiaroscuro because you're from a state school might seem incredibly patronising! Those can be learnt.

In my experience, I grew up in a council flat on a sink estate, I did a full time degree in art history supporting it by working 35 hours a week in a petrol station, whilst living at home. The other students on my course apart from one or two others came from privileged backgrounds, had their fees and rent paid, and had the opportunity to spend more time in the library and visiting galleries etc (whether they did or not I've no idea). I could never afford to do an internship, and have attempted a Ph.D (no chance of funding for 16th century Flemish) whilst working two jobs, but that was doomed to failure from the start. In the rare instances where my skills (as opposed to my background) have been noted, such as being offered the opportunity to curate an old masters exhibition (obviously unpaid) I've washed dishes in a restaurant in order to do so, which is far worse in reality than even Orwell makes out.

In the rare instances I've been offered job interviews I get asked why I haven't done an internship. I wouldn't have afforded a weeks worth of suits and shirts let alone the bus! I've discovered unknown paintings in public collections, increasing their value ten fold, yet try to get a job in one of these intuitions when your peers have had the opportunity to do internships at the Met or the Frick or the Prado or their father is on the board at Christie's....banging your head against a brick wall is an understatement. 30 or so years ago you could get a job as a porter at a London auction house, with relatively little qualifications and work your way up the ladder (the same can be said for the BBC and other institutions), those days are sadly over. I would be very surprised if anyone working at the top London commercial galleries (apart from Front of House) came from state schools or lower class backgrounds. 

The way we make it more accessible is by employing on merit, and acknowledging there is a problem (particularly nepotism). If I walked into the door of [several London art dealers] asking for a job, I'd expect to be ushered out the door at the earliest opportunity. These galleries seem to employ anonymously through elite agencies who must have a special furnace reserved for my CV. It's as if the very act of advertising their need for an employee is deemed uncouth, so they cloak it in mystery. (Sotheby's also do this). It's sewn up.

All too often true, alas, and a shame to read. With regards to the job problem, it is not necessarily one of elites or class, but a more straightforward market-related fact that there are (and always have been) more candidates than vacancies in the art world. It's a tiny industry with a very large appeal. An equivalent is all those media studies students hoping to be journalists - few of them ever can be, and when was the last time you saw a correspondent's job at The Times publicly advertised?

So for employers in the art world, particularly the auction houses (tho' please note I make no specific allegations), there is little incentive to pay interns - there's a ready supply of free, if privileged, candidates desperate to do the job. As internships are a major route into art world jobs, the problem becomes self-perpetuating. And it's not just in the art market that this happens. We recently had an example here on AHN about the National Portrait Gallery offering a long-term unpaid internship, albeit one that was part-time.

Incidentally, I'm pleased to say that we have a good record on employment and internships here at Philip Mould & Co; we recently took on an intern, whom we paid. He proved so successful that we offered him a full-time job. I won't embarrass them by revealing what school they went to, but it wasn't Eton.

PS - For what it's worth, I never studied art history, anywhere! 'And it shows!', you all shout... In fact, I don't think I could have got a job in the art world had I studied art history, at least not the sort of job I have now. For me, the key skills I need were learnt by training as a historian - for example, the ability to look for and evaluate evidence. These, and much else besides, are not taught properly in overly theoretical art historical courses. But that's a whole different debate...

Update II - the above reader adds:

Amusingly I was once asked by one of the elite agencies 'what experience do you have with high net worth individuals?'

I didn't realise they were a different species, but nevertheless I would have told them everything they wanted to know about the painting they were buying....!

Update III - a reader writes:

You wrote "For me, the key skills I need were learnt by training as a historian - for example, the ability to look for and evaluate evidence."  Right on! Those skills are indeed crucial, and not at all only for art history or history generally, but they much less common than they should be.  At the same time, some 'analytical' disciplines short-change students by treating imagination and artistic sensibilities as unimportant if not disreputable. Are there universities/colleges which encourage one to combine art history with exposure to disciplines that emphasize analytical skills, not only history but even (don't scream!) basic economics? 

Update IV - a reader writes:


I don't believe that technical vocabulary is a serious barrier, at least to primary school-age children, who pick up vocabulary effortlessly: I suspect it's more their teachers who have the problem with technical terms. (Though I can see why some may find 'connoisseurship' a bit irritating, as it's an ugly combination of French and English: perhaps the 17th century French 'connoissance' would be preferable?)

However, it may be possible to teach terminology by linking 'high art' with the digital arts, in particular films and video games. For example, Glennis McGregor's blog 'Rennaisance for Real' explains sfumato, chiaroscuro, cangiantismo and unione by comparing examples from Renaissance artists with stills from 'Monsters Inc.', Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland', and other films. See

I'm interested to see that Michael Daley of Artwatch UK has recently (and surprisingly, at least to me) adopted a similar strategy, by comparing techniques in Burton's 'Frankenweenie' with those of Michelangelo. See

On your suggestion of taking pictures out of their frames or displaying them in industrial warehouses: while the thought of the first makes me shudder, I do like the notion of the second, if it were done in a comparative setting. It seems to me that comparative exhibitions like the National Gallery's 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012' or 'Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present' were misguided, because they were in the wrong location: anyone who visits the NG will not need any encouragement to view Renaissance art. They'd be more useful in the context of an industrial warehouse or modern equivalent like the Tate Modern or the Saatchi Gallery, where those visitors who already appreciate the art of Chris Ofili and Mark Wallinger may be helped by seeing 'high art' treatments of similar subjects or using similar techniques. Although a comparative 'hang' has the danger that it may be too diverse to make much sense, this could I think be avoided by restricting the traditional artworks to a few examples which can easily be compared with the modern works. I'm thinking of something like Tracey Emin's exhibition 'She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea', where she selected a few erotic drawings by Turner and Rodin to hang among her works: see

(I suppose the ratio could be reversed: for example by displaying Damien Hirst's 'For the Love of God' amongst an exhibition of traditional 'vanitas' works,  but I don't somehow see this as so focussed.)

Finally, It seems crucial to encourage the practice of painting and sculpture to the very young: it's a cliche that we are all artists at the age of 5, but very few of us still are by the age of 15, when active participation in drawing and painting has usually become peripheral to our lives. There's a musical parallel here: I'm thinking of the phenomenon of El Sistema currently sweeping the world, which has led to the foundation of hundreds of classical music centres, targetting children from deprived backgrounds in 22 countries including Britain. Most of its alumni will not have careers as professional musicians, but all will have developed a love of the music, and will no doubt enthusiastically attend classical concerts for the rest of their lives. And by active participation in music, they will have picked up the vocabulary painlessly. No doubt the same applies to visual art.

Ultimately, all this comes down to our government's education policy. If schools are not encouraged (or required) to set time aside for art classes and visits to galleries, whatever is done by art teachers, historians and curators will still affect only a minority of the population.

Another reader writes:


In response to your recent post ‘Is history of art only for poshos?’, and with regard to art history’s profile in higher education, we can ask three questions:

Is the subject itself inherently elitist?  Yes, insofar as it is, vicariously, about the study of elites.  This fact is only slightly qualified when we consider the study, by no means widespread, of subjects such as the popular print.  (I’ll put aside the long-standing debate about whether art history is, or should be, ’visual culture’).

Is subject studied by elites?  It follows that art history will be more attractive to those who are familiar with the kind of art and cultural milieu studied on art history degrees, than to those who are not, just as degrees in a foreign language tend to contain a disproportionately large number of students from that country, or with connections to that country of one kind or another.  Pupils exposed to art, and also to art history, whether at school or at home, are more likely to know about the subject and want to study it, and to be supported in turn by parents and teachers.  (I myself only came into the subject through the enthusiasm of an A-level art teacher, Mr Cooper, who supplemented our lessons with enthusiastic talks on artists such as Hogarth, and annual school visits from Rotherham to the galleries in London).

What can be done to change things?  This begs the question of why we think people should want to study a subject so closely associated with ‘elites’ in the first place.  A greater co-ordination of effort among interested parties in answering this question would be welcome, starting perhaps with a serious study of the key issues affecting widening participation in art history. 

Update V - on the language point, another reader adds:

Regarding making the Art History degree less formal, could not disagree more. A degree is not a workshop! If people decide to get a degree they are seeking specialization and professionalization. So, simplify what exactly? I do not even consider Art History very challenging concerning technical vocabulary, especially if compared with Medicine or Law. 

A completely different thing is, afterwards, to adapt the speech according to the public and the language used should vary depending whether it is addressed to the museum, the gallery or auction house. May be considered patronizing, but it seems only logical that a museum guide do not mention to a group of school children the provenance of an artwork, information that may be interesting to an adult audience which, in turn, probably is not interested in its number of inventory. Those speaking have to adapt, nevertheless, those speaking are the Historians, the Curators, the Gallerists and should know all about the art they are representing - That is professionalism.

Those seeking for a more informal environment can always try Contemporary Art as a work field - Not being ironic, it is less formal...



Are art critics too polite?

January 10 2013

Image of Are art critics too polite?

Picture: The Guardian

Yes, says Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, and for good measure dishes it out to today's artistic wunderkinds:

Grayson Perry is a fine pundit, an interesting curator, but as a visual artist he is a hack whose work churns around and teems with futile incidents in a way that totally fails to soar. Tracey Emin draws with more life than he does, but not half as well as any newspaper cartoonist. If you think Antony Gormley is a good sculptor, go and see the childish figures he carved on boulders outside the British Library in London. Jenny Saville? A heroic mediocrity. The bloated reputations of so many artists of our time offer critics a lifetime's supply of truth telling, so why hold back? We should be going after this lot (and loads more) all the time, and at full volume. Instead, they are more or less guaranteed nice reviews that ignore the pustules of badness that seep out of chic galleries.

Maybe a prize would help?

Talking of prizes, I realise I haven't yet put up the first ever AHN awards. Coming soon, I think...

Titian upgraded at the National Gallery, London

January 8 2013

Image of Titian upgraded at the National Gallery, London

Picture: National Gallery

The National Gallery's recently restored and upgraded portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro (?) by Titian is the subject of an article in the new edition of The Burlington Magazine, which is worth a read (if you're a subscriber). A post-restoration image has now been added to the National Gallery website, here, but not any of the research details (the NG website in general is very thin on details). It seems from The Burlington article that Nicholas Penny thought as far back as the 1990s that the picture was a candidate for conservation and potential upgrading, a conclusion more recently reached, independently, by Professor Paul Joannides - so congratulations to them for their connoisseurial hunches.

The story has been picked up in a big splash by The Guardian today, which you can read here, and which describes the picture as 'just rediscovered'. Readers of AHN, of course, have been aware of it since April last year...

In The Guardian piece, Jonathan Jones says that the discovery:

[...] must mean the National Gallery now has the finest collection of Titians in the world – it already owned (among others) the elegantly frenzied Bacchus and Ariadne, the heartbreaking Easter landscape Noli me Tangere, and his portrait of a man with a mesmerising blue sleeve. But Penny, who is not given to hype, points out that the Museo del Prado in Madrid also has a few Titians. I think he is being modest.

Though the NG does indeed have many fine and important Titians, I think Penny is right to be modest - the Prado's collection of Titians probably is the superior one, and, it seemed to me when I saw them recently, they're mostly in better condition too.

Update - the sharp-eyed reader who initially alerted me to the upgrade writes:

Nice to have one's opinions vindicated: even if it is after 30 years! Actually my view was that the work was simply better than the Gallery thought it was: Titian attributions being moot and a very murky area.

It does strike me as remarkable that, given the National Gallery has one of the smallest collections of its type in the world and that it has been comprehensively studied for decades - starting with Martin Davies' work on the detailed and brutally honest catalogues produced during the war, so many "discoveries" have been made in recent years.   Indeed, at times it seems startling.

Aside from the Titian, here are a few works that have been recently been re-examined and declared originals:

  • Bellotto - Venice: The Grand Canal facing Santa Croce
  • Botticelli - Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy
  • Bouts - Christ Crowned with Thorns
  • Canaletto - Venice, Palazzo Grimani
  • Cesare da Cesto - Salome
  • Ghirlandaio - The Virgin and Child
  • Gossaert - The Virgin and Child
  • Master of Moulins - Charlemagne and the Meeting at the Golden Gate
  • Perugino - Christ Crowned with Thorns (actually attributed)
  • Poussin - Nymph and Satyrs
  • Reni - Saint Jerome
  • Reni - Saint Mary Magdalen
  • Reni - Susannah and the Elders
  • Rubens - A Wagon Fording a Stream
  • Strozzi - The Annunciation
  • Veronese - The Rape of Europa
  • Verrocchio - The Virgin and Child with Two Angels

 The have been a few "losses" over the years of course but in general I would say that the Gallery is "up".  And there are, I believe, more discoveries in the basement.

Meanwhile, another reader demurs:

Shocking news!  This picture sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the ext siting display of undisputed masterpieces.  The quality of paint and general execution is poor and it very much looks like a studio work.  It's nowhere near the level of quality of any other portrait by Titian I am aware of.  Titian may well have been involved in the initial 'design' but the this picture was not painted by him.  Another case of wishful thinking but generating great publicity.

The Young Connoisseur (ctd.)

January 7 2013

Image of The Young Connoisseur (ctd.)

Picture: Robert Simon Fine Art

I recently posted two 19th Century pictures of connoisseurs in action, one old, by La Thangue and one young, by August Seigert in the Paisley Art Gallery. In response to the latter, reader and fellow dealer Robert Simon writes:

When I was revamping my website about a year ago, I thought to find some suitable images to reflect the different aspects of my work.  To go with the pictures for sale (“Selected Inventory”) I chose Zoffany’s Tribuna, and for my consultative and appraisal services I used another version of the Siegert painting.

As you can see the Paisley painting turns out to be a somewhat reduced variant of the composition that I used – and in the reduction the meaning seems a little different.  With the full composition we can see that the child connoisseur is studying his or her father’s painting as he sits in another room working at another.  Without the context, the child is just another one of us,  earnestly trying to make sense of the work of a master.  Also, without the presence of the father at work in his studio,  the riding crop lying next to the child may suggest something other than the fact that it is one of the father’s studio props.

Job opportunity

January 7 2013

Image of Job opportunity

Picture: Watts Gallery

Gareth Harris of The Art Newspaper alerts me via Twitter to a very choice vacancy at the Watts Gallery in Surrey:

Salary c.£30,000 including free accommodation in the Curator’s House, plus free utilities and council tax.

We are seeking to appoint an innovative, skilled and ambitious Curator who will take forward the vision of creating a lively and varied exhibition programme ranging from in-focus displays to important loan exhibitions attracting national and international attention.

We are looking for a passionate and experienced specialist with a minimum of 10 years’ museum or gallery experience, including five years in a senior position with Curatorial responsibilities.

Please apply with a CV and covering letter to the by 11 February 2013.

I believe the house is to the right of the photo. What a nice commute.

The V&A loses a Schiavone, but gains a Tintoretto

January 7 2013

Image of The V&A loses a Schiavone, but gains a Tintoretto

Picture: V&A

In the latest issue of The Burlington Magazine, V&A curator Ana Debenedetti has a fascinating and impressive article showing that a painting in the collection of the V&A formerly attributed to Andrea Schiavone is in fact by Tintoretto. It was traditionally called The Embarkation of the Queen, but the subject is now shown to be St Helena embarking for the Holy Land. You can see the picture here (the V&A website still calls it a Schiavone). The Burlington article is available here to subscribers (though, incidentally, isn't it time The Burlington made its content freely available online? It is after all a charitable publication). 

Update - a reader writes:

You ask, "Isn't it time The Burlington made its content freely available online? It is after all a charitable publication." But how would the magazine cover its considerable costs if it made content available free online immediately on publication? The result would be to lose paying subscribers. The magazine's finances are already extremely tight. There is a unwarranted sense that online content should be free. Great to have things free but actually they still have to be paid for, whether through subscriptions, donations, taxation or advertising.

AHN is free! And I'd wager that my readership is about the same as The Burlington's. Though I appreciate that the content is very tabloid by comparison...

The question is, however, to what extent should a publication's mission be about accessibility and, in The Burlington's case, education - spreading the gospel, so to speak - as opposed to being a financially sound production. The Burlington essentially signalled that it could never be the latter with the establishment of a charitable foundation to supplement its income in 1986. It went from being a commercial publication to a charitably funded means of disseminating high quality art historical research. That being the case, then it seems to me that the magazine must move with the times, not to mention the reading habits of its future readers and contributors, and establish a greater online presence - one that is searchable and accessible to a far wider audience than the current £16.60 cover price allows.

Of course, publications around the world are grappling with the transition from print to online, and whether to opt for paid content from subscriptions, or free access supported by advertising and other income. Most publications that choose the former seem to die out pretty quickly. My hunch is that most of The Burlington's subscribers would continue to pay for the print edition even if the content was free online - for those that can afford it, a printed art historical image and text is always nicer than a screen. The magazine might even find that it gained subscribers by opening itself up to an online market of many millions (mind you, if The Burlington did do this - and I'm sorry to go on - it really should try and make its articles more readable for the generalist. I find some of them baffling, beginning as they often do in media res, with no attention paid to paragraphs, to say nothing of introductions and conclusions.)

Update II - a reader writes:

I couldn't agree more about Burlington - not so much the free vs. subscription argument - but rather the lack of clarity of its articles. Talking of which you used to mention the British Art Journal which, on the hand, seems far better written than Burlington, but you don't seem to have referred to it for quite some time.

The BAJ is indeed a quality read, but alas isn't as frequently published as The Burlington

X-ray revelations at the NPG

January 6 2013

Image of X-ray revelations at the NPG

Picture: NPG

A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, shows the interesting results of recent technical analysis of the Gallery's 16th Century portraits. As The Guardian explains, a portrait of Francis Walsingham was found to be painted on top of a religious painting:

He was the eyes and ears of Elizabeth I, the loyal spymaster and ruthless counterterror chief: Sir Francis Walsingham was the man who knew everything. Or not quite everything, it seems. Certainly not that his portrait was secretly painted over an overtly Roman Catholic image of the holy Virgin and Child.

“He would not have been delighted,” speculated Dr Tarnya Cooper, standing in front of the remarkable new discovery going on show at the National Portrait Gallery. “You do wonder if the artist might be enjoying a private joke."

The gallery on Thursday opened a display showing x-rays of devotional paintings it has discovered underneath its portraits of two key Tudor statesmen. As well as a Virgin and Child under Walsingham, researchers found A Flagellation of Christ under the Queen’s lord treasurer Thomas Sackville.

The Walsingham portrait dates from the 1580s when Protestant England was isolated and supporting the war in the Netherlands against the Spanish.

“The Catholics are the absolute enemy at this period so the idea that you’ve got this wonderful devotional image underneath your portrait would probably be rather horrifying to him,” Cooper, the NPG’s chief curator, said.

It was a surprise finding. “There is not very much that Walsingham does not know about of what’s going on in courts across Europe, he has a huge network of informers, is an incredibly wily man and is someone with a public reputation. For somebody who is not wonderfully keen on Walsingham this would be a clever way of getting at him."

The NPG believes it cannot be accidental that after x-raying more than 120 Tudor portraits and mostly finding nothing, it found an image so emblematic of Roman Catholicism under Walsingham. “It is intriguing that it is under the spymaster-general,” said Cooper.

I suspect the answer is a little less sensational - after the Reformation, England must have been awash with unwanted religious imagery, much of which was good quality and painted on expensive oak panels. It would seem logical to accept that some of these panels were re-used by artists, particularly when making replicas of original portraits, as is the case with the NPG's Walsingham. We recently had a similar case here at Philip Mould & Co., with our late 16th Century portrait of the young James VI of Scotland painted on top of a painting of a saint. There, even the original integral frame had been re-used. 

Update - a reader writes:

Fascinating.  Although I tend to think you are right to take the practical view of painters re-using panels no longer wanted in order to make their work easier and probably cheaper, it also seems to me -- contrary to the experts you quote -- that Walsingham would very much have approved of painting his portrait on top of a 'heretical' (in his view) Catholic artwork: how better to demonstrate the Elizabethan triumph over 'popery' and the Catholic dissidents whom Walsingham opposed and spied on!!??

Sotheby's Old Master videos

January 6 2013

Video: Sotheby's

I'm impressed by Sotheby's introductory videos for their New York January Old Master sales. They've done five this time, including features on a Goya and works from the estate of dealer Giancarlo Baroni. See the full list here. Christie's haven't put any up yet. 

New Memling discovery at Sotheby's NY

January 6 2013

Image of New Memling discovery at Sotheby's NY

Picture: Sotheby's

Sotheby's New York Old Master catalogues have gone online. There's an important new Hans Memling discovery, above, estimated at $1m-£1.5m.

Canada's only Titian goes on display

January 6 2013

Image of Canada's only Titian goes on display

Picture: CBC/NGC

Last summer, I reported on the restoration of the only Titian in public ownership in Canada. It had been called a copy of an original in the Prado, but conservation by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) has led them to reassess the attribution. Now the picture has gone on display, as well as online. CBC has the story:

When the NGC bought the painting in 1928, it was believed to be a Titian. Letters between the bishop and Barbaro confirmed its history.

But there is another painting of Daniele Barbaro in Spain’s Prado Museum and scholars were divided on whether both works were by Titian or if the NGC portrait was a copy by one of his acolytes. In 1991, the two paintings were compared side-by-side at a specially arranged meeting and experts decided the NGC was not by the Venetian master.

But a recent restoration revealed the sensitivity and skill used in painting the NGC portrait.

Stephen Gritt, NGC director of conservation and technical research, arranged to work with an expert at the Prado to compare the two paintings again. X-ray images showed the underlying images, including ways that the painter had adjusted the collar height and repainted the sitter’s prominent nose.

"I spent an afternoon in front of a light-box with the Prado's technical documentalist,” Gritt said in a statement.

“By painstakingly comparing subtle features of execution as revealed on the X-ray, we were able to demonstrate that while the paintings were painted more or less at the same time, the Ottawa canvas was the one with all the thinking in it, the one that leads the way," he said.

The conclusion was that the paintings were painted side by side, but that the NGC’s portrait was the one where Titian had worked out details such as colour and composition, and it was most likely finished with Barbaro present.

Hmmm. It's hard to be sure from the not particularly good photo on the NGC website, but I think I still prefer the version in the Prado, the attribution of which there can be no doubt at all. The one in Canada seems a bit hard and plastic in its handling, and less sure in its drawing. You can read more details here from the NGC's press release.

Art history toys (ctd.)

January 3 2013

Image of Art history toys (ctd.)

Picture: BG

Nearing the top of my Christmas present list this year is the above set of artist moustaches, kindly given to me by my boss. Sadly, no Van Dyck moustache was included, so I may just have to grow my own. Order your set here.

Vatican art database goes online

January 3 2013

Image of Vatican art database goes online

Picture: Freemages

Ermanno Rivetti in The Art Newspaper has exciting news about a new Vatican online database:

The Vatican has published a vast online catalogue of the Italian Catholic Church’s artistic heritage. The project, which began 16 years ago, is ongoing but in the meantime the Church hopes the database will help in the recovery of works if they are stolen.

The website contains almost 3.5m objects, from paintings and sculptures to ornaments, crucifixes, altarpieces and other items belonging to some of Italy’s 63,773 churches in 216 dioceses. The database will be subject regularly updated. Thousands of works held in the churches of certain dioceses, such as those of Florence and Naples, are still to be catalogued.

The project is a collaboration between Church and State, involving the dioceses, the Ministry of Culture, the Italian Episcopal Conference and the National Office for Ecclesiastical Heritage. Initial funding was set at around €51.6m.

Optimism, ctd.

January 3 2013

Video: Bob Gillespie

I don't recommend you spend 40 minutes of your life watching the above film, recently uploaded to YouTube, but it's one of the strangest examples of an over-optimistic identification you'll find. I mentioned the case last Autumn, but I keep getting email updates from the picture's proponent about the latest 'evidence'.

Sadly, there is no evidence whatsoever that this so-called 'Versailles Portrait'  (though it has no link to Versailles at all) shows Prince Charles Edward Stuart, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. The portrait shows an unknown man wearing the French Order of the St. Esprit. Charles was never given this order, and in any case was almost without exception portrayed wearing the English Order of the Garter, which, in sash form, is worn over the left shoulder. The basis for the identification to Charles is made on a dubious 'likeness' basis, and the fact that the sitter's coat is claimed to feature oak leaves and thistles, though they could in fact be any form of leaves or flowers, and in any case neither attribute can be used to prove Stuart identification.

I don't mean to damn the picture too harshly, but these days once pictures appear online with apparently convincing 'proof', it isn't long before they crop up erroneously in books and newspapers.

Update - a reader has surely cracked it:

I am something of a recent subscriber to your excellent website so did not see any earlier postings about the so called Versailles portrait of BPC.  However the portrait I suspect might be of the Comte de Maurepas.  I say this as the sitter appears very similar to a full length by van Loo engraved by Petit and he seems to be wearing the same fancy coat.  It was the detail of the design of the coat which put me on to the possibility.

What an excellent bit of sleuthing - it must be him. The 'Versailles portrait' is a reduced copy after the full-length. If you reverse the engraving so that it follows the direction of the original painting (as I have below), then the details of the coat and overall composition match up well. The sash has been modified in the engraving and an insignia added, so that even though the engraved composition was reversed, people would have been in no doubt that the sitter was wearing the Saint Esprit.

Update III - following the revelations above, the video has now been removed, and the new identity accepted. The case is a good example of art historical crowd-sourcing in action.

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