Previous Posts: February 2015

Strikes - National Gallery fights back

February 3 2015

Image of Strikes - National Gallery fights back

Picture: Museums Journal

A five day strike organised by the PCS union has begun at the National Gallery in London. Many rooms are closed, but the Gallery remains open. For the background on all this, see earlier AHN here (or type PCS union into the search box). 

For too long, the National Gallery has taken a passive view when it comes to arguing its case. The PCS union, always up for a bit of free publicity, has been able to lead the narrative with regular strikes, aided by the likes of Polly Toynbee in The Guardian.

But now the National Gallery has decided to fight back, and in response to the strike has issued this press release, which contains many unanswerable points:

The National Gallery is a public asset and we have a duty to ensure the collection and the Gallery itself is accessible as much as possible, to as many people as possible. We take this task seriously and therefore have an ongoing modernisation programme designed to encourage a broader audience to access the wealth of cultural inspiration the National Gallery has to offer – so far this has included initiatives such as introducing Wi-Fi, a Membership scheme and photography. We also have ambitious future plans to further extend our Education programme and public events.

However in order to allow these plans to be implemented we need to introduce a new roster for some visitor facing and security staff to enable the National Gallery to operate more flexibly. 

The PCS union leadership oppose these changes and, despite months of dialogue, we have not been able to reach any agreement with them.  During these discussions, we proposed not only to meet the London Living Wage, but also to pay a basic salary in excess of it. As a result, the National Gallery will now appoint an external partner to manage these services. There will be no job cuts and terms and conditions will be protected.

The National Gallery is one of the last major national UK museums to take this step.

We believe the proposed changes are essential to enable us to deliver an enhanced service to our 6 million annual visitors for many years to come, and to remain as one of the world’s leading art galleries. It is unfortunate the PCS union do not share this aspiration with us.


  • There are 604 staff employed at the National Gallery.
  • Approximately 300 members of staff are employed as Gallery Assistants.
  • 204 National Gallery staff are members of the PCS.
  • 153 PCS members are employed in the Visitor Services and Security Department (which includes Gallery Assistants).
  • 132 people voted in the strike ballot (60.8% of the National Gallery PCS membership). This is 22% of all staff employed by the National Gallery. 
  • The PCS has held a strike at the National Gallery on average every two months for the past nine years.

The last statistic is particularly damning for the PCS.

Update - a National Gallery employee* has written to say:

You claim that over the past nine years, PCS staff have on average gone on strike every two months. This is patent rubbish. I have worked at the National Gallery for four years and in that time there has only been one strike, over a related issue.

I would hope that you would correct your `notes to editors`, though perhaps this is the triumph of hope over experience. [...]

If you had bothered to check your facts, rather simply regurgitate propaganda from the very people, mostly ex G4S managers, attempting to gerrymander the situation, you may have some justification for your arrogant and dismissive attitude. [...]

Do your own research, as any self respecting journalist should. You claim to know about the art scene and art galleries, surely it is as plain as the nose on your face that your strike claims are to put it diplomatically, untrue. Who do you imagine tells the NG Press officer`s what to say? Shoddy journalism masquerading as documentary fact, disgraceful

Just to be clear, the bit in the green box above is information put out by the National Gallery in the form of a press release. It is not a claim by me, and they are not my facts. I am merely reporting what the National Gallery has said. As I am now reporting what the employee has said. I have asked the National Gallery for more information on their 'every two months' claim.

After a couple of minutes Googling, I can see that, in addition to this week's strike, there was one in October last year, in May 2012, in January 2012, and in August 2012. So the employee's 'one strike' in four years claim cannot be true. 

Update II - the employee writes back:

Most respectable journals would at least make some reference to the other side of the argument, you make not even a passing mention of the reasons why a majority of staff in the areas to be privatized, feel aggrieved. You may not have the professional integrity to do your own research, rather than swallow unquestioningly the claims of one side, whilst attempting to muddy and confuse the argument. I am telling you that in my period at the Gallery there has only been one strike, which suggests that for the proceeding five years there must, according to your quoted claim, have been a strike every month. Patently absurd, on a par with` Freddie Starr ate my Hamster'. 

Evidently, this employee refuses to accept that there has been more than one strike at the National Gallery in the last four years. They also must have missed my post on the Polly Toynbee article, which gave extensive coverage to the PCS union's claims.

Update III - The employee is fast becoming AHN's number 1 troll. He writes again:

Having been shown up for a charlatan you compound the issue with obfuscation and avoidance of the point. I`m sure Vladimir Putin has a position for a press spokesperson, he`d appreciate someone who plays fast and loose with the truth and doesn`t ask too many questions.

This last email was in response to me pointing out that he was wrong about the number of strikes. Apparently, news outlets like the Guardian and the Museums Journal are 'biased', and reported strikes that never actually happened. Is it all a vast conspiracy?

Update IV - and so it continues:

[this blog is] blatantly biased propaganda which you are happy to regurgitate, liar.

Update V - and another one this morning:

Definitely a fake rather than a fortune, must be aristocratic inbreeding.

Update VI - and more!

[...] your claims are demonstrably wrong and your comments blatantly biased. Either you are a liar or you believe your own bull excrement. Perhaps you just need help


* at least, he claims to be an employee, but he won't say which part of the gallery he works in, and his website makes no mention of it either. Out of pity, I have decided not to name him.

Export block for newly discovered Claude

February 2 2015

Image of Export block for newly discovered Claude

Picture: Guardian/DCMS

The UK government has placed a temporary export block on Claude's Embarkation of St Paula, which was recently discovered by Christie's, and sold by them in 2013 for £5m. A UK museum has until May 1st to express any interest. 

The picture was scheduled to be sold in a minor Christie's South Kensington sale as 'After Claude', but was pulled out at the last minute. 

More here

Exclusive - Museum swap-shop

February 2 2015

Image of Exclusive - Museum swap-shop

Picture: Tate/NPG

Tate Britain is to transfer the above portrait, Mrs Jordan as Hypolita by John Hoppner, to the National Portrait Gallery. Tate, along with the National Gallery, has a statutory power to do this, and it doesn't formally count as a 'de-accession'. 

It is a de-accession, of course, and it's worth noting that once upon a time this picture used to belong to the National Gallery, before that institution transferred it to Tate in 1979. The portrait had been bequeathed to the National Gallery by Sir Edward Stern in 1933.

The picture's change in fortunes (in terms of the relative 'status' of each gallery) charts the curious decline in Hoppner's reputation. At the beginning of the 20th Century, he was more or less seen on a par with the likes of Romney, Gainsborough and Lawrence, as the holdings of institutions like the Metropolitan Museum demonstrates. Now he isn't so highly regarded, though there's no doubting his talent as a painter. 

Tate's website says that the picture is not on display, and I suppose we can assume that it hasn't been regularly shown there for some years now.* Personally, I'm all in favour of such transfers, if pictures go from an institution which doesn't value them to one that does. Regular readers will know my views on Tate's woeful ratio of pictures in store to pictures on display (see my piece on this in the FT here). Indeed, of Tate's ten oil paintings by Hoppner, none are currently on show. I'd say 'Mrs Jordan' (who was an actress, and William IV's mistress) is Tate's best Hoppner. But now it's the NPG's. Lucky them. 

*I'm told the picture has been on loan at the NPG for 'many years'.

Who painted the Met's 'English School'?

February 2 2015

Image of Who painted the Met's 'English School'?

Picture: Sotheby's

The Metropolitan Museum in New York sold the above, 19th Century 'English School' landscape at Sotheby's last week. It was estimated at $25k-$35k, but made $197,000. An optimistic bidder thinking it was by Gainsborough? I hope not, because it isn't. 

But it is by someone good, probably early to mid 19th Century. I give up entirely in about 1820, so I've no idea who painted it. But I'd wager it'll turn up somewhere in the trade soon, with the attribution nailed. In which case, do we have to ask, why did the Met sell it?

Update - a reader suggests 'Swiss School':

[...] a closer look at the trees and foliage may suggest to me a lost composition by Pierre-Louis de Larive-Godefroy (1735-1817). He was a key painter from the Geneva school in the last decades of the XVIII century and very much influenced by XVII century Dutch landscape. A painting by him of this size and quality would definitely command the price paid at the auction.

Update II - Another reader sends in the below photo of the painting at Sotheby's view, and writes:

The ex-Met landscape: the general feeling is that it’s Ramsay Richard Reinagle. [...]

A stupid sell-off by the Met. It used to hang in the British period rooms. 

It was a picture of remarkable quality - not a run-of-the mill landscape at all. And the Met’s British picture collection is not strong enough so they can afford to lose a picture like this.

Michelangelo bronzes discovered

February 2 2015

Video; BBC, Pictures: Guardian

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has announced (and put on display) the discovery of Michelangelo's only known surviving bronze sculptures. The  museum 'firmly believes' they are early works by the artist. The two allegorical male figures astride panthers were bought in 2002 at Sotheby's in London for £1.65m as 'Florentine School', and have since been subjected to various tests, as well as some more traditional art historical sleuthing. 

The key discovery was made last year by Professor Paul Joannides of Cambridge University, who found the below drawing in the Musée Fabre in France. The drawing is not by Michelangelo, but is thought to be 'a faithful copy' of one of his drawings, made by an unknown student, and it is, according to the Fitzwilliam;

[...] drawn in the abrupt, forceful manner that Michelangelo employed in designs for sculpture. This suggests that Michelangelo was working up this very unusual theme for a work in three dimensions.

Dr Victoria Avery of the Fitzwilliam says (in the above video on the BBC) that the drawing shows 'precisely this composition'. Sharp-eyed readers will see that it doesn't, in fact; the beast's head is lowered, the figure is more twisted, and the arm is placed differently. Also, while the drawing shows a finely feline, poised creature, the scrawny bronze beasts appear somewhat caricatural, and even dog-like, by comparison. Still, the Fabre drawing seems to be enough to show that Michelangelo was working on this subject.

The bronzes were also tested by 'neutron scan x-rays', which showed that they were made in either the late 15th Century, or early 16th Century. 

There is no pre-19th Century provenance for the pieces - when they were in the Rothschild collection. The earliest recorded attribution is to Michelangelo.

Another piece of evidence released by the Fitzwilliam is analysis of the anatomy carried out by (reports the Guardian):

[...] clinical anatomist Professor Peter Abrahams, from the University of Warwick, [which] suggested every detail in the bronzes was textbook perfect Michelangelo – from the six packs to the belly buttons, which are as artist portrayed them on his marble statue of David.

“Even a peroneal tendon is visible, as is the transverse arch of the foot,” Abrahams writes in the book that accompanies the discovery.

Avery said: “Whoever made them clearly had a profound interest in the male body … the anatomy is perfect.”

Of course, we must all wait to read the full evidence on the attribution (which is in a new book), but I must say I find the involvement of a 'clinical anatomist' slightly alarming. Is it really necessary? I've no doubt that Professor Abrahams is a leading authority in his field. But my experience of 'cross-over' analysis like this is that it's sometimes hopelessly misplaced; science most certainly has a role to play in making attributions, but it has to be done from within art historical confines, by people who absolutely understand the artistic point of view. But here, science is being used not to prove whether a material is of a certain date, or whether the technique of the casting is demonstrably that of Michelangelo, but whether a work of art is 'good' or not. And I'm sorry, but you just cannot judge artistic genius and human creativity on the basis of binary, yes-or-no scientific analysis. Indeed, while there's no doubting Michelangelo's gift for drawing the human figure (or, as we must call it here, 'anatomy') was amongst the finest in art history, I defy anyone to look at his Sibyls in the Sistine Chapel, and say, 'here is the perfect anatomy of a woman, it must therefore be by Michelangelo'. As one of the studies shows, the anatomy is sometimes that of a bloke.

Anyway, this is just me nit-picking. The most important evidence when assessing these sculptures must be the overall quality - are they good enough to be by Michelangelo? I haven't seen them, and I'm no Michelangelo scholar, but they are certainly very fine things. It's hard to disagree with Professor David Ekserdjian's initial view in Apollo Magazine:

This is neither the place nor the time to pass judgment on the matter, not least since the various contributions to a not insubstantial book presenting the case in favour of Michelangelo’s authorship will need to be digested thoroughly, but it is tempting to surmise that much will hinge on what people make of the connection between the bronzes and a drawing in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, which is generally agreed to be a copy of a lost early sheet of studies by Michelangelo, and certainly features spidery pen sketches of men on big cats. Whether posterity comes to the conclusion that the bronzes are by big M or not, they are unquestionably works of extraordinary quality.

You can see more images here, and while the 2002 Sotheby's catalogue is no longer online it seems, you can see their catalogue images here.  The pair were estimated at £100,000-£150,000, and sold for £1.65m.

Update - a reader writes:

Clearly much hinges on the drawing but also surely, in that context, whether other artists are known to have taken 'men astride big cats' as their subject matter? It does strike me as a very particular form and if nobody else took it up then this must add considerably more weight to the Michelangelo attribution.

Another writes:

[...] about the “Michelangelo” sculptures exhibited at the Fitzwilliam, you are very cautiously right (!), strange way to “attribute” such an important discovery. They look definitely more Venetian than Florentine…

Update II - a sculptor writes:

The nude 'bacchic' figures of bearded men astride panthers, formerly in the Rothschild Collection were clearly made by an artist with an exceptional knowledge of male anatomy. The wonderful  feet and the musculature of the chests and backs of both figures are certainly in a very Michelangelesque style. I wouldn't be surprised if he knew Michelangelo's drawings first hand as he was clearly very influenced by them, and his finished murals.

The heads are not however in the style of Michelangelo at all, apart from the twist of the neck, familiar from Lorenzo de Medici's tomb effigy and the great David. 

The give away is the hair.

The hair and the beards have curls deliniated and emphasised by deep curved, quite crude, parallel lines; something that Michelangelo never did in drawings or sculptures.

Look at the hair of the  early 'Angel with candelstick', the infant Jesus in the 'Bruges Madonna', the head of the David'. The hair is always built up from a series of interlocking domed shapes. The direction of the hair is indicating by a series of radiating (rather than parallel) arabesque lines. The impression of volume in the hair is further enhanced by hollows creating shadows.

Secondly,  the curves of the  lower eyelids are again too parallel and do not sufficiently radiate from the tear duct. 

These are marvellous 'mannerist' decorative bronzes but are not on the same level of artistry as any of Michelangelo's surviving sculptures.

Update III - Alastair Sooke in The Telegraph has this overview of 'lost art', and what else might turn up:

One of the things I love about art history is that its grand narrative is never set in stone. When I was studying at the Courtauld Institute of Art, seeking out obscure journals interred within mouldering book stacks, it sometimes felt as though everything that it was possible to say about the great art of the past had already been recorded. In triplicate.

But then along comes a news story like the announcement that the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has “found” two bronze sculptures by Michelangelo, when previously none was thought to have survived.

If the attribution proves to be correct, then at a stroke countless “definitive” tomes about the Italian genius will need to be rewritten. Isn’t that exciting? And tantalising when you consider what else is yet to be discovered?

He also, very kindly, quotes me in the piece.

Update IV - US artist Matthew Best has also revealed, on Twitter, two Michelangelo discoveries of his own:

In with a chance, I'd say...

Update V - The Art Newspaper has more on the team behind the new attribution, and what they did:

The Michelangelo attribution was made by Paul Joannides, the emeritus professor of history of art at Cambridge. His study of a sheet of drawings of around 1508 by a student of Michelangelo in the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, showed a composition remarkably similar to the bronzes, not to mention the highly unusual bacchic subject matter. This triggered further art-historical research by Joannides along with Victoria Avery, keeper of applied arts at the Fitzwilliam, two conservation experts at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Robert van Langh and Arie Pappot, and Peter Abrahams, the professor of clinical anatomy at Warwick University Medical School. The team was assisted by Charles Avery, the art historian, Andrew Butterfield, an Old Master dealer and Verrocchio specialist, and Martin Gayford, the art critic. 

Scientists at Oxford University’s laboratories that specialise in researching authenticity questions used thermoluminescence dating and determined that the bronzes were cast between 300 and 500 years ago, while conservators at the Rijksmuseum subjected samples from the statues’ cores to neutron imaging, establishing that the method of casting fits completely with what is known of contemporary Florentine practices. 

A minutely detailed anatomical examination of the nude male figures not only proved their exact correspondence with features (for example, belly-buttons, posterior back grooves, exaggerated abs) of other of Michelangelo’s male sculptures, but showed that their observation of musculature and torsion was anatomically correct in every way, a characteristic particularly of Michelangelo.

Update VI - another reader writes:

Far from the same cat.

The drawing has a cat with ears on the side of its head and weight leaning forward as if to move rather than the upright cats in the bronzes - also a wonderful long tail.

These could have been a commission for a particular purpose, but one might expect some written comment about them from their first three centuries.

Update VII - here they are in situ in the Fitzwilliam, as spied by the Simon Dickinson Twitter account:

Update VIII - another reader takes issue:

The expertise involved in the attribution is very impressive, and I am no expert on Michelangelo at all, just a fascinated amateur.  Yet the cats do seem underwhelming, and to my eyes the postures of the two men are oddly unstable and unconvincing, especially (in both aspects) compared to the drawing.  A great deal of the attribution seems to rest on the musculature: so was Michelangelo really the only Cinquecento sculptor capable of that, among those who might have had access to his drawings?

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