Previous Posts: March 2015

Must. Stop. Buying. Pictures

March 31 2015

Image of Must. Stop. Buying. Pictures

Picture: BG

Wanted - good homes for second-hand picture crates.

What's wrong with the National Trust? (ctd.)

March 31 2015

Image of What's wrong with the National Trust? (ctd.)

Picture: Telegraph

Further to Dame Helen Ghosh’s remarks, here’s more news on the National Trust. Ping into my inbox comes an email from Amanda Bradley, who is Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture and at the Trust. I am very grateful to her for getting in touch. She says Dame Helen’s remarks have been misinterpreted:

Forgive me for not responding to the uproar provoked by your blog until now. I do think the national press misconstrued what was being said by Helen Ghosh.  We are definitely not taking all the 'stuff' out of houses. Where space allows, we would like to focus on select object(s) in a room, so that some of our visitors are not so overwhelmed by the plethora of objects that they cease to see individual works. This has nothing to do with the class of the visitor. 

To some visitors, our interiors are seen as assemblages of furniture, paintings and decorative arts from the other side of a rope. Not all of them can easily focus on a work of art on the other side of the room; indeed, due to their increasing exposure to exhibitions of some sophistication (also pedagogically), they may be less interested in the effect of a furnished interior, but would rather expect to see and understand the significance and manufacture of individual objects/works of art.  Understanding the importance, symbolism and manufacture of an object will hopefully be an enlightening experience. We are striving to do quite the opposite of dumbing down and are hoping to provide intellectual access to key (and rotating) objects and works of art.

It is heartening that people feel so strongly.

So it seems ‘the stuff’ remains, which reassuring. Or at least most of it.

But the last paragraph tells us what the new Trust policy is really all about - and what presumably Dame Helen was trying to explain, when she said:

‘When it comes to our big grand houses one of the things we have to look at is the sheer number of exhibits. There is so much stuff in there. Let’s not expect our visitors to look at every single picture in a room - let’s pick one lovely thing, put it in the middle of the room and light it really well. Let’s just have six or seven of those things dotted around that anybody would love - it’s not difficult. We make people work fantastically hard - we could make them work much less hard.’

Here’s the new policy as I understand it: because visitors are used to seeing paintings in a museum setting, the Trust feels they need to make stately homes more like museums. To do this, the Trust will remove certain objects from their current settings, and place them in a different place within the same property, with more information provided, and present them in a more museum-like manner (with swanky lighting), to provide people with ‘intellectual access’ to them. 

I suppose this is better than ‘taking stuff out’. But it still seems to me to be a rather misguided approach. Houses (indeed, homes, as some still are) are very different environments from museums. I suspect most people go to Trust properties because they want to see, feel, even smell, something of the past, to see how people lived, both ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’. Taking a key painting out of a room, in which it might have been designed to hang, and sticking it somewhere else, or God forbid, in a display case, surely diminishes the historic experience. And why diminish all the other exhibits in a house by saying, 'look only at these six'? Nor am I sure that making houses more like museums - those havens of middle class life - will help bring in the new audiences Dame Helen was talking about.

Amanda acknowledged this concern when I put it to her:

The museum issue is a complicated one and indeed some of our houses have museum status. We do recognise that historic houses are, in many ways, unlike museums, but a rich layering of collections, taste and history.  We need to make these points relevant and interesting to all our visitors – and this is not a question of class, but a question of making things appealing and exciting to those who are not historians or art historians. If I am taking someone around a museum, I generally point them towards what I consider highlights. Granted, this is subjective, but they come away having learnt a lot about a few things, rather than wandering aimlessly, and not being able to see the wood for the trees. This is what we would like to do at the Trust and we do want to attract museum-goers. As you will appreciate, the role of the Trust is wide-ranging and complex, so addressing the interpretation of period interiors should also engage those who are interested in the outdoors and nature. The two are not mutually exclusive and it is our quest to balance the two.

While the Trust insists this new policy is nothing to do with class (even though it was Dame Helen who banged on about class in the first place) I wonder if there is something a little patronising in assuming visitors who ‘wander aimlessly’ must learn more about things? I suspect many people like to wander aimlessly around Trust houses, picking and choosing what they are interested in. I certainly do. The calm, quiet splendour of Trust houses is part of the appeal. Most of us usually resist the offer of a guided tour - there’s only so much preaching we can take in. 

In my experience as a regular Trust visitor, when people want to know more about paintings in a Trust house, they usually ask someone. Trust room wardens are keen and enthusiastic tellers of interesting stories. Where the system sometimes currently fails is when Trust properties cannot provide wardens and visitors with the basic information people want to know. Many a time I’ve tried to point out that an ‘English School’ portrait is actually by, say, Charles Jervas, but I never get anywhere. The Trust needs to focus on the basics. There can be no substitute for properly catalogued painting lists, and informative guide books. All of the Trust’s aims can be reached by taking away ropes, installing better lighting, and by making guidebooks interesting. The Trust could even harness new technology, and follow the National Gallery's example of providing free wifi, so that visitors can tap into more information on the Trust's excellent online database. That way, the Trust can provide better than ever 'intellectual access', while at the same time preserve the historic character of a house.

And that seems to me to be the most important thing here - maintaining the integrity of the historic space. Although the Trust insists that all this has nothing to do with class, I wonder if they would adopt the same ‘too much stuff’ approach to, say, the 'downstairs' section of a coutnry house. Would the Trust think of removing an ancient cooking pot from a historic kitchen, and put it in a museum-like display case somewhere else, with a plethora of informative labels? No, because it’s abundantly clear that both pot and kitchen would be diminished by such a move. And as it will always be better to keep the pot on the old stove in the old kitchen, so it will always be better to keep the Gainsborough above the fireplace for which it was designed.

Let’s give the final word to the Trust’s recently retired curator for paintings, Alastair Laing, who says (in this interview on Codart, given before the recent hoo-ha):

Pictures in historic houses serve a dual role. They are both individual works of art and part of a historic interior. The interconnectedness in historic houses between paintings and the history of the house gives them something really special. […]

One of the most important changes in the past ten years has been the emphasis on accessibility, something that has both positive and negative sides, as mentioned earlier. It is wonderful to have people enjoy historic houses and gardens, but it should happen in a way that highlights the qualities of the houses and the collections. […]

I hope that the National Trust will to some extent return to celebrating the historic houses and their collections for what they are. The present need always “to tell stories” somehow diminishes the emphasis on the houses, their inhabitants and the collections for their own sake. Our wonderful houses are exciting enough as they are, we don’t have to make them exciting artificially.

Update - a reader tweets:

Trust shame the director’s words need to be made accessible to us by her staff.

Another reader writes:

I'm one of the volunteer guides who give tours round the studio home of a Russian sculptor. We don't 'preach' and haven't noticed most people avoiding our tours!

While another adds:

On the National Trust (and maybe on the past hanging) discussion I think I am slightly out of the chorus. Talking about Kenwood House,* I think they succeeded in creating a very visitor and family friendly place. You can leave your children to play in the orangerie (in a couple of years you will understand how priceless this is…) and sneak out to enjoy the collection.  And I never encountered museum staff so motivated, ready to engage with visitors and knowledgeable. I thought this was a sign of a good management with some vision.

Also I think that, to be fully enjoyed, the Gainsborough, the Rembrandt, the Vermeer and the Van Dyck need their proper hanging and some breathing space, and I do not mind if this means rotating less important works or lending them elsewhere (of course, they should be readily available to scholars, ecc.). Just my opinion.

Actually, I am very fond of Kenwood, and think all the above sounds very sensible. So, if it ain't broke...

[*thanks to the readers who pointed out that Kenwood is actually run by English Heritage!]

Update II - another reader tweets:

My experience with volunteers was lack of knowledge and overflowing with (too much) enthusiasm.

While another adds:

Still, it's temporary storms I'm sure - and thank God for the NT as a whole.


Castle Howard pictures on the block

March 30 2015

Image of Castle Howard pictures on the block

Picture: Castle Howard

The trustees of Castle Howard have consigned up to £10m worth of art to Sotheby's for sale. Among the pictures is the above 'Studio of Holbein' portrait of the portly and aged Henry VIII, in which he is seen holding a staff. It has an upper estimate of £1.2m. 

There's also a Bernardo Bellotto on offer. I would link to the Sotheby's press release, but there's some sort of tedious registration form for access to that.

More here in The Guardian. I didn't know that there were now two Howard brothers in charge of the house. Apparently they live in seperate wings. 

Update - here is the full Sotheby's press release.

Update II - a reader writes:

A big house with increasingly little to see in it.  What after the dispersals at the start of the 20th century, in the 1940s – including Boston’s superb Canaletto – and, relatively recently, the Guercino and Bernini to Edinburgh and the great Gentileschi painted for The Queen’s House now on loan to the National Gallery.

Also, I wonder if the Castle Howard trust will try and claim these sales at 0% Capital Gains Tax, following their victory against the UK government over a similar case

New donation to the National Gallery

March 30 2015

Image of New donation to the National Gallery

Picture: National Gallery

All hail Angus Neill, a London-based Old Master dealer whom I know well, who has generously donated the above painting to the National Gallery in London. The picture is of Christ Carrying the Cross, and is attributed to the studio of Giovanni Bellini. It was painted c.1500. 

The NG press release says:

Made as a private devotional work, as an aid for prayer and contemplation, this unflinching depiction of Christ’s misery is an emotionally powerful image. There are no narrative elements to the work, with a plain, dark background deliberately directing the viewer’s attention to Christ’s suffering. It serves as an intimate portrayal of the Saviour, not as a divine ideal, but as an individual experiencing palpable human pain.

Although the painter of Christ Carrying the Cross has not been securely identified, it is the work of an undeniably talented painter equipped with both technical ability and emotional intelligence.  The composition derives from the great Venetian master Giovanni Bellini, yet the artist responsible for this picture - whilst under Bellini’s influence - has stamped his individuality on a subject much painted by the master and his pupils.

This theme was enormously popular in Northern Italian painting in the last quarter of the 15th century.  Initially appearing in Milan in the 1480’s, the depiction of Christ’s face, shown with his cross on his way to Calvary, was adopted by several well-known workshops, including that of Leonardo and Andrea Mantegna, who each produced their own different versions of the subject.

Caroline Campbell, National Gallery Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500, said “There are around sixty-five known variants of this composition by Giovanni Bellini and members of his workshop. One of the best known versions belongs to the Gardner Museum in Boston. That picture was purchased by Isabella Gardner, the founder of that museum, in 1896 and was apparently her favourite. She often placed a vase of violets in front of the painting, a tradition that is maintained by the museum to this day.”

Christ Carrying the Cross joins the National Gallery’s collection as the first Venetian example of one of the most important genres of private devotional painting in Renaissance Italy. The painting will not only enhance our exceptional collection of Venetian Renaissance painting, but further strengthen our knowledge of Bellini’s workshop and the great many painters that either passed through or were influenced by his distinct style.

National Gallery Director, Dr Nicholas Penny, said: “The painting is a great puzzle which someone among our six million viewers will surely be able to solve.  It is also a very moving and beautiful image by which thousands will be touched and not easily forget. We are extremely grateful to Angus Neill for his generosity.”

Angus tells me he fell in love with the picture - which he calls 'simply the most shockingly moving image' - when it first surfaced in a sale at Christie's South Kensington, called 'Follower of Bellini, and with an estimate of £1,000. After a bidding battle, the painting sold to Angus for 'about £80,000'. 

I look forward to seeing it at the National soon.

Everybody out! (ctd.)

March 30 2015

Image of Everybody out! (ctd.)

Picture: Museums Journal

The PCS Union, not satisfied with gaining publicity by shutting down the National Gallery through strikes, is now targeting the Royal Collection. A ballot is to be held on industrial action, ending on 14th April, about staff doing 'extra duties', for which the PCS says they are unpaid.

Mark Serwotka, boss of the PCS, said (in The Telegraph):

"It is scandalous that staff are so appallingly paid and expected to do work for free that brings in money for the royal family."

However, the PCS vote is aimed at the Royal Collection Trust, which is a self-sustaining operation looking after, er, the Royal Collection - that is, the paintings and other works of art held in trust on behalf of the nation. It does not 'bring in money for the Royal family'.

The Royal Collection said in a statement:

"Warden staff are offered voluntary opportunities to receive training and develop skills to lead guided tours for visitors as part of their working day and to administer first aid, as well as to use their language skills.

"These are not compulsory aspects of their role, and it is the choice of the individual whether they wish to take part.

"Wardens at Windsor Castle are paid above market median based upon the Regional Living Wage and receive a range of benefits, including a 15% non-contributory pension and a free lunch.

"Royal Collection Trust continues to award wardens an annual performance-related pay increase of up to 2.5%, in addition to the cost of living increase (in line with treasury guidelines), as well as one-off payments to those who have reached the top of their pay scale. 

Brian - buy Old Masters now!

March 30 2015

Image of Brian - buy Old Masters now!

Picture: The Times

There was a good piece in the Mail by Sarah Oliver looking at the giddy end of the contemporary art market. It had some good lines from the Great Brian:

‘I don’t think we should worry about it from a cultural aspect because what’s being exported are a lot of tenth-rate works of art by people who are always going to be irredeemably tenth-rate when we look back on them.

‘They are selling for huge amounts of money and we should say “Whoopee!”. It’s an utterly absurd market for poor-quality, high-fashion oligarch art. 

'I have no worries about this disappearing from view because the people who create it do more and more of the same. 

'If you’ve seen one Rothko you’ve seen them all, Jeff Koons had one silly idea and then another, Warhol could be painting Chairman Mao or Marilyn Monroe, it’s the same picture.

‘It’s a fashionable fraud and if people want to waste their money then let them because what they are buying is of no historic importance.’

And Brian adds that if he had $50m, he'd go out and by Old Masters, for as Philip Hoffman, chief executive of The Fine Art Group, says:

‘Now is the time for buying great old masters which have gone out of fashion. 

'There are only 20 or 30 artists every century whose name everyone knows and who remain collectable. 

'There are thousands of contemporary artists out there: the key question is which of them will be among the greats?’ 

I agree!

Tate reconsiders Constable restitution (& other restitution news)

March 30 2015

Image of Tate reconsiders Constable restitution (& other restitution news)

Picture: Tate

The Art Newspaper reports that Tate Britain is reconsidering the restitution of the above painting by Constable, after 'new information' came to light. The museum had been ordered to hand the painting back to the heirs of Ferenc Hatvany by the UK government's spoliation panel. The panel also made some rather sharp criticisms of the way Tate had handled the case previously. 

Meanwhile, Charlotte Burns, also in the Art Newspaper reports that an early El Greco portrait is to be restituted - after it was exhibited last year at TEFAF for sale. The portrait above, of an unknown sitter, was in the collection of Julius Priester, who had to flee Austria after the 'anschluss' of 1938.

There's also a new movie about a restitution case, starring Helen Mirren. Woman in Gold charts Maria Altmann's quest to reclaim ownership of Klimt's famous Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (below). More here about the film in The Guardian

The lawyer who helped Altmann secure the painting - against the fierce resistance of the Austrian government (the picture was in the Belvedere gallery) - was E Randol Schoenberg. He had a nice line in the press about these restituted pictures, calling them 'the last prisoners of World War 2'.

All of which raises the question about how long we should go on restituting pictures, a subject raised by the director of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, Klaus Albrecht Schröder, who says in The Art Newspaper:

“The international community should decide on a sensible time frame of 20 or 30 years from now [...] If we don’t set a time limit of around 100 years after the end of the Second World War, then we should ask ourselves why claims regarding crimes committed during the First World War should not still be valid; why we don't argue anymore about the consequences of the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian war, and why we don't claim restitution of works of art that have been stolen during previous wars?”

All of which is hard to argue against, on a purely logical level. There have been cases where governments have sought the return of works 'looted' centuries ago, such as the ludicrious claim by the French government on a painting by Nicholas Tournier stolen, they said, from a French museum in 1818 (AHN covered the case back in 2011). And cases from WW1 are not unheard of either. 

Personally, I would argue that restitution cases before WW2, or rather, the Nazi's rise to power in 1933, should be consigned to history. The idea of returning works of art, or indeed anything, taken from those post-1933 just because they were Jewish is a strong emotional one. I was involved in a couple of cases (one of which we made into an episode of 'Fake or Fortune?'), and it was satisfying to help put right such an injustice, even after all these years. 

But where should we end? Surely there must be an end point somewhere, even to WW2 restitution claims. Instead of a time limit, however, which is arbitrary and potentially rather unfair, I would favour a generational one. That is to say, we should decide at which point the clear injustice suffered by one generation can be said to have had an impact on subsequent generations. If, today, a living child or grandchild of someone who had their paintings stolen during WW2, came forward and said (for example) 'that's my Klimt', then it is impossible to they should not have it back.

But if the great, great grandchild of a Nazi victim came forward? Would it be easy to say, four generations later, that their life chances were materially affected by not owning the Kilmt, or sharing in its proceeds? Who is to say that their parents or grandparents might not have sold the painting, and spent the money, long before they were born? So I would set a limit of a maximum of three generations since the alleged crime - in other words, if the great-grandchild of the first victim can prove ownership, they should benefit. But for subsequent generations, we should move on.  

Penelope Curtis to leave Tate Britain?

March 30 2015

Image of Penelope Curtis to leave Tate Britain?

Picture: Guardian

The portuguese website, Publico, reports that Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis is in the running to become the new director of the Gulbenkian Museum.

Update - The Art Newspaper announces today (31st March) that Penelope Curtis is indeed going to the Gulbenkian. She has been director of Tate Britain since 2010. As I said in an earlier post, although there has been criticism of some aspects of her directorship, such as the exhibition programme, nothing can take away from the fact that, in terms of the building itself, she leaves the museum in the best shape that it's ever been in. Doing so in the midst of a recession is quite some achievement.

Finland's first Monet

March 30 2015

Image of Finland's first Monet

Pictures: via BBC News

BBC News reports that technical analysis of a disputed Monet in Finland's Serlachus Fine Arts Foundation has revealed an overpainted signature, below. The discovery apparently means that Finland has its first Monet.

Art history ads (ctd.)

March 30 2015

Image of Art history ads (ctd.)

Picture: Art History Lab

Via Art History Lab on Twitter, comes this appealing looking label for an organic tomato sauce. 

But the Caravaggio from which the detail is taken, Judith beheading Holofernes [Palazzo Barberini, Rome], might make some wonder about the sauce's source. 


March 27 2015

...sorry everyone, I've been a little tied up the last few days - I was in article-writing purdah on Wednesday, and in London for 'Fake or Fortune?' yesterday. Today I must go to Glasgow to get a passport for my daughter. Should hopefully be back to the blog later this afternoon.

In the meantime, there are many updates to the National Trust story below.

Update - and further apologies! We had a technical issue here which prevented me from posting anything. Fixed now. But the good news is, we got the passport.

What's wrong with the National Trust?

March 24 2015

Image of What's wrong with the National Trust?

Picture: Paul Grover/Telegraph

Has the National Trust lost interest in art? This is something I've been worried about for some time, but now it seems to have been confirmed in a statement by the Trust's chief executive, Dame Helen Ghosh. Dame Helen is worried that the Trust is seen as too 'middle-class', and not getting the right people coming to visit its sites. So one plan is take paintings out of Trust properties. She told the Telegraph:

People were also put off because there is “so much stuff” in some of the stately homes. The Trust was now looking at featuring only a handful of interesting artworks in some homes to see if it increased their appeal. Dame Helen said: “We just make people work fantastically hard, and we can make them work much less hard.”

I think this is the stupidest thing I've ever heard anyone involved in British heritage say. Stuff the millions who go to National Trust properties specifically to admire 'the stuff', and instead cater to an imagined minority who are apparently 'put off' by old paintings. I suspect people - of all classes - are more likely to be put off by such a patronising attitude. [Note for overseas readers, British institutions like this are obsessed with 'class', still - can you believe it?]

And here's more silliness from Dame Helen:

She said: “It is not surprising, given where we have come from, that the kind of places that we own are places where the middle classes feel more comfortable, because it is more part of their cultural life.”

She added that it was not the entrance fee at a lot of attractions that was likely to put visitors off, but a feeling that “this place isn’t for them”.

The challenge was to persuade people that they did not need to feel awkward “if they didn’t know who George II was”.

Does anyone out there, truly, know of anyone else who 'feels awkward' when they don't know who a historical figure is? Don't most people think, 'oh, I don't know about George II, let's find out a little more'? In other words, shouldn't the National Trust respond to this particular problem by saying instead: 'some people don't know much about George II, let's tell them about him'? By the way, I don't know much about George II either.

Dame Helen denies that the Trust is becoming 'Disney-fied'. But last week I went to a National Trust property just outside London - Claydon - and in each of the main rooms the Trust had removed a painting, and replaced it instead with a TV screen, in which actors pretended to be various historical characters. The screens were noisy, and played endlessly, shattering the atmosphere of the house. The acting was hammy, and the scripts were full of faux, Downton Abbey-style nonsense. Nobody I asked seemed to like them, least of all those who worked and volunteered at the house.

At the same time, there was no list of pictures available for visitors, and much of the information about the art in the guidebook was simply incorrect. The Trust made no effort to enlighten visitors about the pictures or the stories contained within them, even though they are fascinating. So I saw no effort there of the Trust 'making visitors work exceptionally hard'. Quite the opposite. 

I used to be a member of the Trust. Over the years I've tried my best for them. Once, I received a notice about elections to the Trust's governing body, the grandly-named Council. Seeing that the 52-strong body was short of a) people below 50, and b) practising art historians on (which I thought odd, since the Trust has one of the greatest art collections in Britain) I decided to apply. 

But the interview was a bit of a disaster. I was asked a series of vapid questions like, 'what do you think of when you go for a walk on National Trust land', and 'what do you think of trees', as well as my views on  High Speed trains (HS2) and wind turbines. I like trains, and dislike wind turbines as much as I do vapid questions, so my answers didn't go down very well. Dame Helen loves wind turbines. And when I said that I was hoping to bring some art historical expertise to the Council (and quite relevant expertise, since the Trust mainly has British portraits) I recieved blank looks. The panel said they couldn't ask me about what I had to offer, because, in the interests of fairness, they had to ask all candidates the same set of questions.

Anyway, I didn't get nominated. And judging by Dame Helen's latest plans to take paintings out of Trust houses, neither did any other art historians.

Update - a reader writes:

I have always refused to join the English National Trust despite receiving a hard sell at every visit, because (a) it takes little interest in its excellent picture collections (b) it wants to tell soapy stories about the usually, though not always, rather ordinary families who owned its houses (c) I get a hard sell to join at every visit (d) it does not seem interested in architecture (e) it is not short of my money (f) it seems more patronising every year.

By comparison the Scottish National Trust is less patronising, poorer, and so far has not expressed a wish to get rid of its pictures. I joined this year.

Me too!

Update II - another reader writes:

I am glad you are shining a light on unwelcome changes at The National Trust. A few years ago the National Trust started to introduce new guidebooks which significantly reduced the sections dealing with the history of the family and the house and did away completely with detailed descriptions of key artworks in each of the rooms.  Kingston Lacy in Dorset is a good example where the Trust is custodian to one of the finest country house art collections. The latest version of the guidebook, introduced in 2012, runs to 56 pages with only a cursory overview of the pictures.  This lightweight publication replaces the previous version of the guidebook which ran to 96 pages with detailed descriptions of many of the paintings and other artworks in the collection and an informative essay as to the origins and importance of the collection.  Comparing both books side by side is a sobering experience.

Polesden Lacey in Surrey is another good example.  If you visit the house you will see that room stewards have a good quality laminated book which contains photographs of all the paintings in the house with potted histories on how they came to enter the collection.  When I first saw this book I asked to buy a copy but was told that the Trust was not intending to sell it to the public; it was simply there for the stewards to use.  I offered to make a donation to the Trust in exchange for a copy but again, there was no interest in sharing this interesting knowledge with visitors.  As the Trust is clearly focused on dumbing down its publications I enquired as to what they were planning to do for those who actually come to their houses to learn about art and history.  I am yet to receive an answer.  in the meantime I would suggest that readers with similar passions buy older versions of the guidebooks on eBay while stocks last.

Update III - it's worse than I thought folks. Here are more remarks from Dame Helen this time in the Daily Mail:

The Trust is to experiment with simplifying the exhibits at some of its properties.

Dame Helen said: ‘When it comes to our big grand houses one of the things we have to look at is the sheer number of exhibits. There is so much stuff in there.

‘Let’s not expect our visitors to look at every single picture in a room - let’s pick one lovely thing, put it in the middle of the room and light it really well.

‘Let’s just have six or seven of those things dotted around that anybody would love - it’s not difficult.

‘We make people work fantastically hard - we could make them work much less hard.’

But she denied that the Trust is ‘dumbing down’ its approach in order to boost visitor numbers.

‘In many ways it is much more intellectually rewarding,’ Dame Helen insisted.

‘People will learn much more by looking at one object in a lot of detail, than they ever would going round a room getting a vague impression.’


Update IV:

An overseas reader writes:

Well, your blog post on the National Trust made for very depressing reading. Last August I spent a very happy few days with a National Trust touring pass, roaming around Kent and East Sussex. The properties were fabulous and the "stuff" inside was marvellous. I love the "stuff"! It doesn't "put me off". I can't quite believe the comments made by Dame Helen, how ridiculous and pretty patronising really. (And stunned to hear that one of the curators would not be interested to try and identify unattributed paintings). As an overseas visitor, every time I come to the UK I am so envious of the wonderful stately homes, palaces and castles that you have coming out of your ears - filled with amazing treasures and paintings. (I am working my way through the Ten Treasures Houses of England...five to go). The idea of deliberately reducing the number of paintings on display is ludicrous to me...and to do so in order to make non 'middle class' people feel more comfortable....huh?! Sounds a bit 'Yes, Minister' to me.

Another reader wonders where they'll put all the pictures they take down:

Absolutely bonkers isnt it!!! What are they going to do with all the 'stuff' they want to remove from the houses...where they have usually been for hundreds of years? To storage? Sell (doubt they can?).....

Then we get into storage charges....did the family want only one picture put on show instead of how the place was left to them....

If I didn't know about a pictures sitter or artist I usually ask a guide but so much better to have a little label or at least a decent guide book.....

Scottish National Trust do it well!

And another reader hopes the message will catch on:

Your alarm signals about the NT need to be expressed more widely .... could it be that there are journalists with clout who actually drop in on AHN?

We have to hope.

The sad drift evidenced with Dame Ghosh and her friends may be related to the trendification (and watering down) since the 1970’s of Art History as a subject and its infection from Messrs Marx and Durkheim.

Now left dangerously lumped with media studies .... No ?

While another reader imagines what might happen if Dame Helen was in charge elsewhere:

The National Trust is blazing the trail here.

I understand that there are advanced plans at the Royal Opera House to remove the music and boring sections from their productions. 

They will attract far more of the right people if they restrict performances to Nessum Dorma and that nice duet from the BOAC advert.

The Royal Shakespeare Company is next. That stage area would make a good heritage cafe.

Update V - another reader writes:

I noticed the following comment under the Telegraph interview with Dame Helen:

"the Trust has not produced an updated list of properties in 17 years. A strange omission for a property owning organisation"

If that's correct I think something should be done about that.

An overseas, trust-visiting reader adds:

How very sad Dame Helen feels the need to "dumb down" for visitors to National Trust sites.  As an overseas visitor, with the opportunity to travel to the UK only every few years I look forward to seeing as much as possible.   To truly be able to engage with  old paintings is one of the main reasons I go to the UK.  I'm not visiting to feel more comfortable, but explore as much as possible in a way I'm not able to by looking at picture in a book.

Many museums, fine houses etc. in my opinion do not have adequate information about the art work in their care.  As a result before I travel I look online to see what art collections are at a particular site and research the art I would like to see.

For me, the only way to truly appreciate the piece is to understand the artist who made it, why they did, what the world was like when they did and then really look. I am not looking for a "vague impressions" but to be as immersed as possible with the art around me.

An overseas curator writes:

I'm firmly against the embargo on the files for unpublished volumes but it's not my call. Also glad to read your bashing of Dame Helen, who should be fired for such stupidity. I have been a member of the trust for the past four years and have been making intensive yearly roadtrips. The idea of emptying houses because there is too much "stuff" in them is simply appalling.

And another UK family writes:

Just read your piece on the National Trust and am left feeling despondent and so very patronised by Dame Helen’s comments. We, a young family, have been members of the Trust for some years – presumably just the sort of audience Dame Helen is keen to attract. My son, now 9, has spent many hours over the years visiting NT properties with us. He absolutely loves the ‘stuff’, and is perfectly capable of selecting one or two objects to look at in more detail (as are his parents). Not surprisingly when we first started visiting NT properties with him he didn’t know much about George II, either. He does now. Wonder why?

Off to write a letter to Dame Helen.

Another reader sees a wider conspiracy:

your article, and the responses it evinced, pursuade me of what I have always suspected, that the target audience of the National Trust is the Conservative front bench.

Not sure I agree with that...

A UK curator writes:

To be fair to the NT Collections curators,  a very large proportion of their art works [and other items] are online so it is possible to ascertain a full list of all pictures in a particular property, with adequate information and [sadly inadequate but online] images whether or not the works are on view / in store/ hung high on a staircase / in a dark corner way beyond the ropes.   But this should be in addition to informative handlists etc on site, as often one doesn’t know in advance what works are to be seen.


Another reader breaks out the caps lock, and I know how she feels:

I am APPALLED BY WHAT the new NT  chief executive said. I have been a member of the NT for many years and worked as a volunteer but if this is the new policy, I shall stop being a member.  They probably would not care if one member resigns but I sincerely hope that a lot more people will think likewise in which case the NT will loose more members than they will acquire through such crass & patronising attitude, I hope. How dreadful that somebody who thinks like Dame Helen should be at the head of the NT. Perhaps we should start a petition, to stop the NT actually introducing this crass and patronising policy.

Another reader reports this bad experience:

I recently contacted the Trust at Anglesey Abbey, following a purchase I made of a small painting attributed to Richard Parkes Bonington, it's not a great picture and small in size but as I'm a researcher and budding art history writer I thought it would interesting to reach out and make contact with the Trust, as I was aware Anglesey Abbey have a fine collection of pictures by Bonington.  

I had spoken to a volunteer on one of my previous visits about my picture and they gave me a name at the Trust to contact.  The volunteer seemed quite buoyant  about me contacting this person as they were the main contact and a good source of knowledge etc.

I sent an email explaining, where I had bought the picture, who it was attributed to and how the previous owner of the picture was connected to the owner of Anglesey Abbey.  I thought this might have been a eureka moment, but how wrong I was!

After my second email to the contact, the first email being left unanswered for a time, I sent the email again.  I know I'm just a member of the general public but I was showing my interest in the Trust and it's work, I thought it might have been reciprocal. I did receive a response and I was told that they would contact the curator as they might know some further information but the reply I received was a bit of a put-off and felt that they just don't have the time to engage with me.   

Which is a pity as the Trust do have such very fine collections, they just need to look at their engagement and outreach policy and see how they can make it inclusive for all ages and interests.

Update VI - The National Trust say the new 'less stuff' approach comes as a result of 'reviewing' their sites and what visitors want. I asked the Trust for evidence to back up the belief that people want to see 'less stuff' - as I simply don't believe it. Answer comes there none...

Update VII - In a fine and enouraging move, the National Trust's own 'National Trust Art' Twitter account has been carefully making its own views on the 'less stuff' policy known:

Whoever you are, well done!

Update VII - I think I should make it very clear that my comments above are directed at the Trust's leadership, and not the many hardworking curators and volunteers. I don't doubt for a second that they are as keen as I am on 'the stuff'. Regular readers will know that I have in the past regularly highlighted much of the Trust curator's work, be it a Rembrandt discovery, or the creation of their own excellent collections website. 

On the Trust's Treasure Hunt blog, a new entry highlights the purchase of a work of art which used to hang at a Trust property, Belton House. The picture below, an 'attributed to Berchem' scene, was bought from Tennants auction the other day. By coincidence, I saw the painting - it is not a great work by any means, and worth about the £7,000 the Trust paid. But it is nice that it should go back to where it used to hang.

In response to the NT's blog post, many readers wrote of their concern at Dame Helen's 'less stuff' comments. One reader highlighted AHN's concerns too. To which Emile de Bruijn, a Trust curator who writes the Treasure Hunt blog, replied:

I am surprised and disappointed that you are swayed by Bendor Grosvenor’s comments. I think this very blog post, and the evidence of the Treasure Hunt blog as whole (which channels the work of many colleagues) proves that he is wrong.

Emile further pointed out:

I simply don’t agree that we are dumbing down. If anything, things are going the other way, with more and more art-historical information becoming available through our online collections database and our specialist publications programme. Just think of the recent Sixtus cabinet book: a whole lavishly illustrated and deeply researched tome on just one object.

The misconception that we don’t care about serious art lovers is caused, I think, by the fact that we also have to look after and engage our other, less specialist visitors. The National Trust has never just been a museum. But it is not a question of ‘either – or': we can do both. So please don’t give up on us.

I hope my main point should nonetheless be pretty obvious - that all the hard work put in by people like Emile is pointless if the Trust leadership isn't interested in it. Dame Helen's comments sound very much like 'either or'. All of this could be resolved if the Trust put a statement making it clear that Dame Helen's remarks have been misinterpreted. But they have not. Instead, I hear worrying reports of Trust employees being warned to 'keep quiet', and not make any comment against Dame Helen's remarks.

So let us hope that the 'either or' approach doesn't mean that 'the stuff' gets shunted online or into books, and out of houses and into store. While the new NT collections website is indeed a great thing, it can never be a substitute for properly showing the actual paintings themselves, in their original historic setting, and explaining to visitors their meaning and purpose - should those visitors, of whatever class, choose to want to know. If they don't want to look at 'the stuff', then steer them towards the café.

Update VIII - another reader summarises the affair thus:

The NT is responsible — in “trust” — for historic houses: not historic architectural shells to shelter a select few pieces of approved art spotlighted as if in a museum, telling us what to look at, but houses with all their lived-in, accumulated-by-owners, even reacquired historic artistic furnishings including paintings, tapestries, woodwork, carpets, “stuff” if you will, so all visitors can see and feel the history for themselves; something we cannot do in most museums however high their levels of artistic quality may be.  Your curator friend’s defence of the NT on grounds of its online and publishing activities is deeply misguided: the houses must come first, in all their higgledy-piggledy, very human glory, vanity, and “stuffiness”.  After all, that’s who most of their owners were: that, too, is our history, whether we react in admiration, envy, fascination or dismay.

Update IX - a reader agrees with the last comment:

Further to the excellent comment at Update VIII, if I recall correctly, James Lees-Milne once wrote that a major part of the charm of English country houses was the 'palimpsest' that was created by multiple generations of ownership by the same family.

He also I believe in a different context complained that the NT sometimes destroyed its houses' charm by over-tidying them. At the same time, he also noted that he had made mistakes when preparing NT houses for opening to the public.

Perhaps there is a balance to be found for the great majority of NT houses that lies somewhere between Calke Abbey and Barrington Court (which was acquired without any historic contents), where the historical contents of the house are displayed more or less as the owners left them, with some degree of scholarship and tidying up of egregious mistakes, and with ample information about the contents readily available. 

But there is no excuse for 'dumbing down' a house whose importance and interest are a product of its history, and whose history is in no small part, its contents.

Another reader sees the NT's new position as evidence of a worrying trend:

I one hundred percent agree with your well founded criticism of the National Trust. However, this is an issue bigger than the NT and indicative of museums and galleries world wide. i.e. Have a slick digitally accessible collection and hide the real one. Didacticism is also deemed a rude and dogmatic term now, the cultural sector is abuzz with words like 'exploring' 'engaging', 'experiencing' and 'responding'. Thus the problem is, what you deem patronising they actually perceive of as removing it!? I work in a museum in Australia and am so discouraged that I have decided to get out of it and find a more fulfilling job.

Curators putting together exhibitions whose narrative they can't explain and education programs that cater for no one over the age of fifteen. I thought the cultural sector would be a more outward looking extension of academia. It's often not now. I was wrong.

Re-discovered: Rubens' portrait of his daughter

March 24 2015

Image of Re-discovered: Rubens' portrait of his daughter

Picture: Rubenshuis

Regular readers may remember the story of the possible Rubens 'sleeper', which the Metropolitan Museum deaccessioned as a copy in 2013. Now, the picture has once again been accepted as a Rubens - which it clearly is - and it'll soon go on display at an exhibition of Rubens's family portraits at the Rubenshuis in Antwerp. The sitter is Rubens' daughter, Clara Serena. The photo above shows the picture post-conservation. Below, you can see the painting as it appeared at Sotheby's in New York.

I've written a piece for The Art Newspaper looking at the sale and reattribution of the painting. Is this the greatest deaccessioning blunder of recent times?

The exhibition opens in Antwerp on 28th March. I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of the show - and it's probably the best Rubens exhibition I've yet seen. Rubens' portraiture is usually at its best when he's painting friends and family, and in this show we see example after example of Rubens' finest work. There are loans from all over (the Hermitage, the Royal Collection etc.). There are seven self-portraits alone. And all, magically, on display in the house where Rubens lived, and where many of them were painted. Do exhibitions get much better than that?

Re-uniting Rubens three Magi

March 24 2015

Image of Re-uniting Rubens three Magi

Picture: NGA Washington

It's all go for Rubens at the moment. In Washington DC, the National Gallery has re-united Rubens' three c.1618 Magi paintings. There's a good online exhibition site here

'Mr Turner'

March 23 2015

Image of 'Mr Turner'

Picture: Thin Man Films

I finally got to see the film 'Mr Turner' on DVD (babies and cinemas not being a good mix). Quelle dinde! Good acting, great scenery and costumes - but sod all story. Nothing happens. Turner grunts a bit, Turner paints a bit, Turner shags a bit, Turner (spoiler alert) dies. That's it.

The film did have some good bits. I enjoyed the portrayal of Ruskin as intensely irritating. Of Ruskin, Turner provides my favourite art history quote - 'he sees far more in my paintings than I ever did'.

Brian on Money

March 23 2015

Image of Brian on Money

Picture: Times

The Telegraph has an interview with the Great Brian, in which he talks about money. We learn that he had to take a pay cut at the Evening Standard when it was sold to the Lebedevs, and he advises (wisely) against buying art purely as an investment. He tried it once, and it didn't last long:

In 1972, I set aside a sum to spend on paintings by students at the Royal Academy of Art, the Royal College of Art, the Slade School of Fine Art and other institutions, and continued these purchases for nearly 20 years before running out of enthusiasm and hope. By then, I had more paintings than I could hang, and was sick of finding stacked canvases in every room. A handful of painters survived to become professional, but the rest graduated to the security of being a handyman in a home for delinquent children, a train driver on the Underground and so on – the last straw was my being served by one behind the cheese counter in Harrods.

Well worth a read. 

"Inventing Impressionism"

March 23 2015

Video: National Gallery

Nice video here from Chris Riopelle, curator of the new National Gallery exhibition, 'Inventing Impressionism'.

Van Dyck sketches for sale

March 23 2015

Image of Van Dyck sketches for sale

Pictures: Sotheby's

Two very interesting, early Van Dyck head studies are coming up for sale at Sotheby's in New York. They're being sold from the Weldon Collection, and both were recently in the excellent 'Young Van Dyck' exhibition at the Prado - a show so good I went twice.

The first study, above, is of a woman looking up, and is preparatory for Van Dyck's The Drunken Silenus (below, Gemaldegalerie, Dresden). It looks to be in superb condition.

The second work is a study of a boy praying, and he appears in Van Dyck's Suffer Children Come Unto Me (in Ottawa). There's another version of this study, without the hands. I'm not sure which came first, but they're both by Van Dyck. It seems there was a demand for studies by him, and sometimes he did replicas. 

The former is estimated at $200,00-$300,000, and the boy is estimated at $250,000-$350,000. Both estimates seem to me to be on the cheap side. I'd value the woman looking up at at least $500,000. I bet they do well on the day. But it's one of those curious mid-season sales, outside of the normal Old Master sales in the summer, so you never know.

Also in the sale is the below sketch - en grisaille - of Martin Ryckaert, which is catalogued as 'attributed to Van Dyck'. The estimate is $200,000-$300,000 - too high it seems to me for an attributed work. And for what it's worth - and I should stress I have only seen it via the photo - I'm not entirely sure it's by Van Dyck himself. Here's the original painting in the Prado - probably my favourite Van Dyck. The sketch was probably made for Van Dyck's series of engravings, his Iconografie. 

Update - I forgot to note Van Dyck's birthday, two days ago (22nd March). Happy Birthday, Ant!

Sotheby's new CEO

March 21 2015

Image of Sotheby's new CEO

Picture: via Art Market Monitor

Marion Maneker of Art Market Monitor has written this essential, in-depth look at Sotheby's new CEO, Tad Smith. Smith (above) used to run a cable TV firm. Apparently, the buzz is all about the way Sotheby's can use 'new technology':

When the Wall Street Journal asked Smith about his plans to supercharge Sotheby’s with technology, he responded by pointing “to an earlier calling card,” reporter Kelly Crow wrote. “While at Cablevision, he said he led a team that created a system that allowed the cable company to tailor the ads it broadcast to its 2.5 million households, with dog owners getting more dog-food ads and new homeowners getting additional home-improvement store ads.”

The man who stole 271 Picassos? (ctd.)

March 21 2015

Image of The man who stole 271 Picassos? (ctd.)

Picture: WSJ

Pierre Le Guennec, Picasso's former handyman who was on trial for possessing 271 'stolen' works by the artist, has been found guilty. For earlier AHN on this unfortunate case, see here

Le Guennec and his wife have been sentenced to two years in jail, but the term has been suspended, meaning they won't be locked up. The works must be returned to the Picasso estate.

This is an extraordinary ruling. No evidence was presented in court to show that the works were stolen, by whom and when. The Picasso estate merely said 'Picasso never gave away his art'. Of course, he did - but in any case, M. Le Guennec's case was that Picasso's wife gave him the works. 

The Wall Street Journal reports the judge's logic:

The court in Grasse found that Mr. and Ms. Le Guennec weren’t able to present any documentation from the painter or his wife that proves the works were effectively donated to them. The court found that the couple never tried to obtain any such proof and never spoke to anyone about their possession—not even to their own children—and said these facts establish that the works were “kept clandestinely.”

The court also said the couple’s testimonies during the trial diverged widely and lacked credibility.

“The violation concerns goods of an extreme value,” Judge Jean-Christophe Bruyere said in his ruling. “The Le Guennec couple didn’t make a profit but they didn’t provide any convincing explanation as to how and why they kept the art pieces for such a long time.”

If this is French justice, then I'm a banana. The judge seems not to have noticed that, at the time M. Le Guennec was given the works, they were not of 'extreme value'. Nor did the court care that M. Le Guennec voluntarily started this whole process, by taking the works to the Picasso estate - hardly the actions of a criminal. So if you happen to live in France, and have works of art that you (a) lost the receipts for (b) don't tell the world and its wife about - ie, keep them 'clandestinely', and (c) keep 'for such a long time', then watch out - you may be found guilty of possessing stolen works too. Even if there was no proof they were stolen!

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