Previous Posts: May 2017

Venice Biennale

May 19 2017

Video: Sotheby's

It's the Venice Biennale again. Above is a short video by Tim Marlow on the highlights, and here is The Art Newspaper's Biennale app, which will guide you around what to see. As a flashback, here and here is a BBC programme I made on the Biennale with Alistair Sooke in 2014. 


May 18 2017

I'm sorry for the radio silence at the moment; I'm rather tied up with some TV work, and glad to be able to tell you that it's for another series of Britain's Lost Masterpieces. More soon!

Two for the price of one (ctd.)

May 16 2017

Image of Two for the price of one (ctd.)

Picture: Washington Post

Conservators at the National Gallery of Art in Washington have discovered that a lost portrait (of a woman playing a piano) lies beneath the above 'Ruth and a Boaz' by Frederic Bazille. Since Bazille died at the age of 28, leaving only about 60 paintings, identifying another is quite a coup - even if we can never really see it. More here

Still life cleaning at the Bowes Museum

May 16 2017

Video: Bowes Museum

It's good to see the Bowes Museum putting these conservation videos online, showing the cleaning of a Flemish still life from the circle of Peter Aertsen. More here.

The Bowes also has a good blog, listing all sorts of discoveries and stories, here. AHN applauds such openness and engagement. 

Ashmolean acquires Dobson portrait

May 16 2017

Image of Ashmolean acquires Dobson portrait

Picture: Oxford Times

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has acquired the above sensational portrait by William Dobson. It has been allocated to the museum through the UK government's Acceptance in Lieu tax scheme. An additional grant of £90k has been provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund to help promote the painting. The painting was:

commissioned by John Russell in the winter of 1645–6, [and] is a unique artefact of the English Civil War. It shows a meeting between three Royalist commanders who were then based in Oxford, home to the royal court in exile. The group in the painting are Prince Rupert (the King’s nephew), Colonel William Legge (Governor of Oxford) and Colonel John Russell (commander of the prince’s elite Blue Coats).

You can read more about the picture here. The unveiling was done by a characted playing Elias Ashmole (below), to celebrate the fact that this year is his 400th birthday.

Hermitage's Dutch masterpieces return to Amsterdam

May 11 2017

Image of Hermitage's Dutch masterpieces return to Amsterdam


This looks like a good show; in October this year, 63 Dutch Old Masters from the Hermitage collection in St Petersburg will go on display at the Hermitage Amsterdam. There will be six Rembrandts, including his c.1631 Portrait of a Scholar (above). More here

New Dulwich director (ctd.)

May 11 2017

Image of New Dulwich director (ctd.)

Picture: Dulwich Gallery

The new director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Jennifer Scott, will be 'in conversation' with Alastair Sooke at the gallery on 19th May. Tickets here if you're interested. 

150 Michelangelo drawings at the Met

May 11 2017

Image of 150 Michelangelo drawings at the Met

Picture: Royal Collection, via New York Times.

The Metropolitan Museum is planning what it calls 'a once in a lifetime' Michelangelo show, with 150 drawings. Opening in November this year. More here

'Dear What not'

May 11 2017

Image of 'Dear What not'

Picture: Alison Clarke

Alison Clarke is doing research for a PhD into the relationship between the National Gallery and art dealers like Agnew in the 19th Century. She recently came across this postcard addressed to 'The Curator or What not', at the National Gallery. Alison is on Twitter here

Cleaning Liverpool's Murillo

May 11 2017

Video: NML

Conservator Olympia Diamond at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool is cleaning Murillo's c. 1673 Virgin and Child in Glory, and, splendidly, blogging about it too. More here.  

Pevsner; 'The Englishness of English Art'

May 11 2017

Image of Pevsner; 'The Englishness of English Art'

Picture: BBC

A reader has alerted me to the fact that Nikolaus Pevsner's 1955 Reith Lecture series is on the BBC iPlayer. In the lectures, Pevsner explores:

[...] the qualities of art which he regards as particularly English, as illustrated in the works of several English artists, and what they say about the English national character.

Artists's covered include Hogarthe, Blake and Reynolds. More here

Introducing 'The Art Society'

May 11 2017

Image of Introducing 'The Art Society'

Picture: Art Society

NADFAS (the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies) is to rebrand itself 'The Arts Society' this month. More here.

Art and poetry

May 10 2017

Video: ArtUK

Art UK has commissioned four poets to respond to paintings in the UK public collection. Generally, I think it's better when poets allow others trained for the purpose to actually deliver their poems - that is, usually, actors. But Sophia Thankur, in the video above, is astonishing; what a poem, and what a performance! See if you can watch it without crying.

More here

Changes at the Scottish National Galleries

May 8 2017

Image of Changes at the Scottish National Galleries

Picture: BG

The final changes to the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) management structure have been announced. The Times covered it last week, as did the Herald. Sadly, it's in danger of being both a bureaucratic mess, and a two-fingered insult to the majority of staff at the Galleries. The staff, including some very senior ones, are not at all happy about the changes. Personally, I think the changes are mistaken, and reflect not only muddled thinking by the Director General, Sir John Leighton, but also (more alarmingly) the weakness of the trustees. They have not sufficiently challenged Sir John's plans, and have ignored the concerns of the wider staff. Perhaps the most worrying thing is talk of a new climate of fear within the Galleries, with staff frightened to say anything that might be seen as questioning the new direction. 

Before we go into the changes in detail, a quick recap. The National Galleries of Scotland is the umbrella body which runs the three ‘National' galleries in Edinburgh; the National Gallery (Old Masters and Scottish Art up to the 19th Century), the Portrait Gallery, and the Gallery of Modern Art. AHN discovered last year that the position of Director of the National Gallery was to be abolished, and that a new post of Director of Collection & Research was to be created instead (more on that person in a moment) across all three collections. You can read more about why I and others think abolishing individual directors is misguided here, from back in January. The story was also covered in The Sunday Times.

We now know more about the management changes. This new Collection & Research post will oversee the whole collection - Portrait, National and Modern - with the intention of effectively merging the collections, and ending the distinction of the three galleries as separate buildings. Furthermore, a new senior management team of five will now run the organisation, and - crucially - this will mean a demotion for the surviving directors of the Modern and Portrait galleries, Simon Groom and Christopher Baker respectively. They themselves, thankfully, have not been abolished, but will no longer be directors of an actual institution. Groom and Baker will no longer be part of the senior management team. Instead, they will become directors of 'modern and contemporary art' and 'historic art and portraiture’. This is therefore the first time that the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, the world’s first purpose built portrait gallery, will no longer have a dedicated director (or ‘Keeper’ as they used to be known). Frankly, I think that's a backward step - these institutions need to led by individuals of expertise and flair, not committees. 

The senior team used to consist of Leighton, Chief Operating Officer Nicola Catterall, Keeper of Conservation Jacqueline Ridge, an acting Director of Public Engagement, and the three gallery directors. Now the team will be Leighton, Ridge, Catterall, with the new Director of Public Engagement (Jo Coomber, who was previously Marketing Director of Dobbie’s Garden Centres here in Edinburgh), and Professor Christopher Breward, the new Director of Collection and Research (who was until recently the Principal of Edinburgh College of Art). Breward’s role will be to lead "on all aspects of the development, research and use of the NGS collection across all our sites, our national and international partnerships and online activities.” Breward is highly rated, and will doubtless be a Good Thing. But for what it’s worth, there will be nobody on the senior management board who has expertise in Old Masters. I think that's a sad thing for Scotland's national collection.

In effect, the new title for Groom is a continuation of his present responsibilities, in terms of the actual collection. But Baker benefits from a territorial expansion, if not a management promotion; he will assume responsibility for the pictures that used to be in the National Gallery, which we must now grimly learn to call 'historic art’ up here in Edinburgh. Of course, many pictures in the National Gallery (like Raeburn's Skating Minister) are also portraits, so I presume a distinction will have to be made within collection management between portraits that are of important national sitters (which should be in the Portrait Gallery) and portraits that just happen to be nice pictures (like the Skating Minister). You can see already what a muddle this is all likely to become...

What is the point of all this? It is, as Sir John says in the Times:

[...] to "unleash creativity" [and to] encourage curators to think creatively about their programmes and encourage “fluidity between subjects and disciplines” [...] 

He said he saw the reach of the national collection extending far beyond the gallery buildings in Edinburgh to a global audience of six billion who have access to the internet. Sir John added: “We are not disrespecting disciplines. We are saying that knowledge and expertise is attached to the collection, not contained in four walls. That is liberating.

If anyone can tell me what "fluidity between subjects and disciplines" actually means, I'd be grateful. I think it's what happens when curators, which Sir John used to be (and by all accounts a good one), read too many management books. I've never met a curator whose knowledge and expertise is just confined to the four walls of their collection. I think to suggest to a curator that the only way they can think more creatively is by effectively abolishing their institution is more than patronising.

What I can tell you is that the abolition of dedicated directors of the separate institutions is already having a negative impact. The National Gallery itself is now a Marie Celeste-like institution, with no director and no curators in it (they’ve been moved elsewhere, permanently). Above is my photo of part of the National Gallery taken recently. On the left you can see the Skating Minister, which frames a doorway with another Raeburn. But behind it is a selection of Dutch Golden Age pictures. This is not some new philosophy to merge periods and schools in the National Gallery, but a hodge-podge short term hang, to accomodate the fact that the Scottish picture galleries have been closed for refurbishment. Rather than use this opportunity to arrange a thoughtful re-hang of the main galleries, which are designed to display and follow a chronological hang around the building beginning in the 15th Century and ending in the 19th Century, visitors are now faced with a jarring clash of Dutch 17thC pictures, Scottish 19thC pictures, and Italian 18th C pictures all in close proximity (see below). It’s a mess (the Deputy Editor could do better). But sadly it's the sort of thing actual visitors in the actual galleries will have to get used to, now that the NGS is focusing on 'fluidity' and warbling on about ‘online’.* The former National Gallery director Michael Clarke would never have tolerated such a hang. The former Director General Sir Timothy Clifford would have exploded if he'd seen such a thing on his rounds. More people visit the galleries in person (2.2m) than online (1.6m), so it's sad to see the priorities of these actual visitors (the ones who spend the money in the shops, and benefit the Scottish economy) being relegated behind the quest for more virtual visitors.

Anyway, I think the saddest part of all this is the way the staff and curators have been treated. The latest Times coverage (which, curiously, repeats a quote I gave to the Sunday Times some months ago, but making it appear as if it was a new quote) mentions one anonymous source as saying the changes have caused a ‘gnashing of teeth’. But that’s understating it. There is deep concern at the new direction, and the clear relegation of curatorial expertise in favour of marketing and other priorities. You’ll note that nowhere has Sir John said anything about the positive effect these changes will have on the basic things art galleries should do well, like exhibitions. That’s possibly because he knows it will now be harder for an enthusiastic curator to drive an idea for an exhibition through the increased layers of bureaucracy. Most disingenuously of all, Sir John has attempted to say that his staff are supportive of his changes, and that they have responded with ‘great enthusiasm’. This is simply not the case. I don’t personally see how a leader who has so comprehensively lost touch with his employees, and indeed in many cases lost their confidence, can continue in his post.

Finally, I’m told there was some probing within the National Galleries of Scotland as to who the source was for my initial story, with suspicion falling on a particular senior member of staff. That fact alone tells you about the dysfunctional relationship between some management and staff. I’m glad to clear this up; my initial source was at trustee level. I have never met or spoken to the person under suspicion. The fact that this matter was even discussed within NGS makes me feel uneasy. No institution can ever hope to flourish in an atmosphere of paranoia. That said, I'm told the NGS has for some years now been an institution that refuses to tolerate dissent. Someone should tell Sir John that if he really wants to 'unlease creativity' then all he needs to do is let his staff and institutions have the freedom to do and say what they think best.

Update - I wonder what the financial saving would be of abolishing the Director's General's office, and the senior management team. Significant, wouldn't you say? Now, ask yourself if the mission of the three National Galleries in Scotland would be detrimentally affected by not having a layer of management above them, and being free to operate with increased autonomy. If you still need reassuring that this would not be a crazy idea, ask yourself if, in London, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, and Tate would ever want to be subservient to, say, The National Galleries of England? Why do Scotland's three comparable national galleries need to be run as one homogenised group? It makes you wonder if all these changes are an attempt to justify the Director General's existence. 'I alone...'

Update II - a rummage around the NGS' website and the minutes of trustee meetings tells us all we need to know.

First, the key motivation behind the 'one collection' policy seems to have been driven by, yes, 'branding'. In late 2015 the NGS began a comprehensive new 'brand strategy', which you can read all about here. Note that the word 'art' does not feature at all in the text. Instead it's all about:

The brand project, which began in February, is part of a number of interrelated projects currently underway at NGS, including the development of a new business plan and audience engagement strategy and a thorough review and rebuild of the galleries’ website.

[...] the ambition is that the brand strategy will also become a daily, living guide for decision making for all the staff whatever their focus – whether they are planning an exhibition, conducting a performance review, developing a new partnership or creating a retail strategy – these are all ways in which they will engage with and develop the galleries’ audiences.


This relies on the galleries having a coherent and relevant story to tell and a shared sense of direction on the inside, from which they can build clarity and distinctiveness and loyalty and conviction on the outside, making the brand transformative both on the inside and outside.

If you're a curator, that's a pretty depressing statement; next time you think of an exhibition, you must make it fit 'the brand strategy'. Naturally, an external branding consultant was hired for all this, JWA. That's what organisations and leaders who don't have the confidence of their own convictions do; get someone else in from outside to tell them what to do. I wonder how much that cost.

In response to this branding review, the Trustees, at a meeting in June 2016, were:

[...] supportive of a move towards the vision of ‘one collection’ to ensure NGS was in a position to meet the demands and challenges for the next generation.

Then, at a trustees meeting in November 2016, the trustees were updated on the 'Management Changes':

The Director-General detailed progress with the changes to management structure. The Senior Management Team had discussed and approved the changes. The Director-General had also met with curators to outline the plans for a new Director of Collection and Research. The plans were being shared with the rest of the staff at briefing sessions over the following two days.

The timeline for implementation was July 2017, by which time the new director would hopefully be in place. This was an important aspect of delivering the brand strategy. [my emphasis]

And then at the trustees meeting in January this year, after the Sunday Times had reported on the proposed management changes, this chilling note in the minutes:

Management Structure

In the event of external comments or queries, the Chairman reminded trustees to emphasise their full engagement and commitment to the re-structure. 

The chairman was Ben Thomson. 

So there we are; decades of history, sound practice and staff contentment all junked on the high altar of 'branding'. And what branding! It seems extraordinary that the solution to having three distinct and accessible brands - the National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, and the Gallery of Modern Art - was abolish those brands, and instead muddy the waters by focusing on an entity that only exists in abstract, the National Galleries of Scotland. 

Update III - I'm told at least one very senior member of staff is looking to leave the NGS as a result of all this. 

Update IV - you should hear what former senior NGS staff have to say about all this. Some of it's unprintable.

*Incidentally, the new NGS website is already excellent.

'The Art Detectives'

May 8 2017

Picture: Acorn TV

I've just found out that 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces', the series I presented on BBC4 last year with Jacky Klein, has begun to be distributed overseas. Lucky AHNers in New Zealand can watch the series here. And if you're in America then you can watch it here

Because 'Britain's Lost Masterpieces' doesn't sound particularly international, the title has been changed to 'The Art Detectives'. Hope you enjoy it!

Update - it's also in Australia on Foxtel; check out the trailer above.

Mellon Centre acquires Sewell archive

May 8 2017

Image of Mellon Centre acquires Sewell archive

Picture: The Times

Great news that the archive of the late, great Brian Sewell has been acquired by the Paul Mellon Centre in London. It's not yet catalogued but is already available to researchers. How's that for good art historical service? More details here

Man slashes '$3m painting'

May 8 2017

Video: Live Leak

There's something rather odd about this attack on a painting by Christopher Wool in an art gallery in Colorado. More here

Tate's new £1.5m 'British Impressionist'

May 8 2017

Image of Tate's new £1.5m 'British Impressionist'

Picture: Guardian

Tate Britain has unveiled Le Passeur (1881) by William Stott of Oldham. It shows two girls waiting for a ferry on the Loire, and was well received when exhibited at the Paris Salon. Bravo to the HLF, the Art Fund and the Hintze family for contributing to the £1.5m needed to secure the picture. The purchase was actually announced last year, but the media's attention was directed towards Tate's acquisition of their first painting by Joan Carlile. Perhaps this time the now obligatory woman posing in front of the painting (and with someone wearing a similar dress to the girl shown waiting for the ferryman) helped attract photo editors' eye'. Full story in The Guardian here.

'Michelangelo & Sebastiano' (ctd.)

May 8 2017

Image of 'Michelangelo & Sebastiano' (ctd.)

Picture: NG

The National Gallery in London has just announced a two-day conference to discuss its Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition. It's on 23rd-24th June, and tickets range from £75 to £30. Keynote speakers are Professors William E. Wallace and Paul Joannides. Full details here (and the NG asks you to note that "three papers in the afternoon session on Friday 23 will be presented in Italian. Extended English abstracts will be provided for these papers.")

Art History toys (ctd.)

May 8 2017

Image of Art History toys (ctd.)

Picture: Faller

Some years ago I brought you news of a Playmobil set featuring Albrecht Durer. A reader has now discovered that the model makers Faller in Germany do a very fine scale model of Durer's house. Available here

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