Previous Posts: September 2018

Burlington becomes a publisher

September 28 2018

Image of Burlington becomes a publisher

Picture: Burlington Magazine

Important news; The Burlington Magazine is launching its own publishing arm. Three or four books will be published each year. The first will be Roger Fry and Italian Art, by the magazine's former Editor Caroline Elam. The Burlington has chosen to enter the publishing field at a time when art hsitory publishing is facing greater challenges than ever before, some of which are outlined in this excellent editorial:

[...] the quandary for publishers of academic art history is inescapable. How can a typical book on this subject, such as a monograph, consisting of around 100,000 words and 200 illustrations, be made to work? Reproduction fees are one significant issue. Although it is true that some museums are making more images freely available, especially for academic publication, in the United Kingdom they have been remarkably reluctant to do so, blaming the need to sustain revenues in a time of declining public subsidy. Not only are authors increasingly expected to shoulder this financial burden, they are now also often expected to supply their text for nothing, or a nominal fee. Deplorable as this undoubtedly is, it reflects the economic reality of publishing a serious art history title. For such a book to be viable it either needs to be subsidised – by a charitable foundation or an academic institution if not the author – or it has to sell around 3,000 copies. That is a very tall order for a specialised academic title, which in most subjects typically sell fewer than 1,000 copies.

One of the Burlington's guiding principles in the new venture will be to promote good writing:

The impressive sales figures of books by leading academic historians, such as Eamon Duffy, David Cannadine or Margaret MacMillan, show that there is a large popular appetite for well-written, intellectually challenging texts on a wide range of historical subjects. This is an appetite that is much less often satisfied by art historians. The way to sell more books on art history is to encourage more people to read them, and that will be achieved not by technological or economic innovation but by something that this Magazine, and now the books it will publish, has always endeavoured to provide – good writing.

Bravo to The Burlington!

Hokusai and Van Gogh

September 28 2018

Image of Hokusai and Van Gogh

Picture: via TAN

In his latest Van Gogh blog post, Martin Bailey looks into the links between Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' and Hokusai's 'Great Wave'. More here.  

"Ribera: Art of Violence"

September 27 2018

Video: EFE

The new Ribera exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London looks good; above is a clip from Spanish TV from inside the show, which opened yesterday. It runs until 27th January. More here.  

Hockney in Westminster Abbey

September 26 2018

Image of Hockney in Westminster Abbey

Picture: Westminster Abbey

David Hockney has made a window for Westminster Abbey, designed on his iPad. More here

Murder in the Gainsborough family

September 26 2018

Image of Murder in the Gainsborough family

Picture: Private Collection, Gainsborough self-portrait, via TAN

New research has revealed that Thomas Gainsborough's uncle and cousin were almost certainly murdered when the artist was young. From Martin Bailey in The Art Newspaper:

Two close members of Thomas Gainsborough’s family were murdered over a financial dispute, new research has revealed. The Art Newspaper has tracked down threatening letters sent in 1738, just before the separate murders took place. One of the warnings was directed at the artist’s cousin: “We will either shoot him or hang him up in gibbets, damn the… rogue’s arse.”

The main research on the artist’s youth and the murders has been conducted over four years by Mark Bills, the director of Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury, Suffolk, in preparation for an exhibition that is due to open there in October. His show focuses on the early years of Thomas Gainsborough, who was born in Sudbury in 1727, the son of a wool merchant, and who went on to become one of the leading painters of his time.

Lost Henry VIII tapestry found in Spain

September 26 2018

Image of Lost Henry VIII tapestry found in Spain

Picture: Telegraph

A tapestry made for King Henry VIII of England in the 1530s, and thought to have been lost, has been found in Spain. 'Tapestry Tom' Campbell, former Met Director, has been researching the find along with the specialist tapestry dealer Simon Franses. A value of £5m has been mentioned, which seems to me rather low. I was once told (but don't know if it's true) that the most valuable publicly owned items in Britain were the Abraham Tapestries hanging at Hampton Court, which were also made for Henry VIII.

More here

New extension at National Gallery of Scotland (ctd.)

September 26 2018

The on again/off again extension at the National Gallery of Scotland here in Edinburgh is back on track. The last one was scrapped because costs got out of control. The new one is more expensive, but seems to be more realistic, from an engineering point of view, as it won't involve such significant work on the railway bridges beneath the Gallery. 

The aim is to create a new display area for the Scottish art collection, which used to be housed in a subterranean extension that was more like an old car park than a gallery. The old gallery has been closed for over a year now, with highlights of the Scottish collection squeezed in willy nilly with the European Old Masters upstairs in the main galleries. It's a bit of a mess to be honest. Construction will take two years from October. Alongside the new display area will be a larger shop, and a new cafe. But still, as far as I can gather, no office spaces for the curators, who have all been shipped off site. 

More here.  

Incidentally, as part of the new management restructuring at the Galleries (which abolished individual museum directors), the former head of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Dr Christopher Baker, is now styled as "Director, European and Scottish Art and Portraiture". Quite where the likes of Hogarth fit into all this, I'm not sure. 

Courbet's 'L’Origine du monde' model?

September 26 2018

Image of Courbet's 'L’Origine du monde' model?

Picture: The Times

New research has apparently uncovered the name of the model used by Gustav Courbet for his famous picture 'L’Origine du Monde'. She was the opera singer Constance Queniaux, above. More here in The Times

Regular readers will know that various attempts have been made to identify the model, such as this one here from 2013.

'And now for the Leonardo - who'll give me $1200?'

September 22 2018

Image of 'And now for the Leonardo - who'll give me $1200?'

Picture: Wall Street Journal

It's always been a mystery just where the US super sleuth Alex Parrish found Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi - all we knew is that he bought it for about $10,000 with the New York dealer Robert Simon. But now the Wall Street Journal has found a copy of the original sale catalogue, from New Orleans auction house in 2005. The estimate was just $1200-$1500! The WSJ also interviews the family of the previous owner of the painting, who seem pretty sanguine about it all. We've yet to hear from the underbidder...

JHNA online

September 22 2018

Image of JHNA online

Picture: JHNA

The latest Journal of the Historians of Netherlandish Art is online, and it's free and in high-res. How about that? There are articles on Metsys and the miniaturist Bernard Lens, amongst others.

Don't move Emmeline! (ctd.)

September 22 2018

Video: Houses of Parliament

Good news - the daft plant to move the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst from outside the Houses of Parliament in London has been scrapped. More here

Sleeper alert! (ctd.)

September 22 2018

Image of Sleeper alert! (ctd.)

Picture: de Volksrant

Remember this 'Sleeper Alert' from 2014? It's now been announced as an early Rembrandt - it turns out that the picture had been comprehensively overpainted, and if you compare with the photo below from when it was at auction at Lempertz in Cologne you can see just how many figures had been painted out. The photo above shows the painting mid-restoration.

The Rembrandt scholar Ernst van der Wetering calls the picture 'a great find'. And, would you Adam & Eve it, the picture was found by Jan Six, who of course recently made another Rembrandt discovery - a portrait sold at Christie's in London last year

Meanwhile, there have been some ructions over the purchase of the Christie's portrait, revolving around who was bidding with whom on the painting. The story sheds light on the practice of dealers bidding with other dealers on 'sleepers'. It goes on a lot, and sometimes it can get quite unpleasant. I've always tried to avoid it. Anyway, the story has resulted in some unfortunate remarks from van der Wetering about the picture. He says the portrait gives 'little reason for joy. Because it is a fragment of a much larger canvas, it is a strange thing - something between a Rembrandt and a non-Rembrandt.' Which I think is more than a little unfair, not least because the idea that it was once part of a double portrait is just a guess. 

Van Gogh's gardener identified

September 22 2018

Image of Van Gogh's gardener identified

Picture: Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome

I've been meaning to tell you about the new book by the Van Gogh scholar, Martin Bailey; 'Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum', which is available here. To help publicise it, Martin has started a weekly Van Gogh blog, which is here at The Art Newspaper. The latest revelation is that Martin has identified the sitter in Van Gogh's 'Portrait of a Gardener' (above) as Jean Barral (1861-1942). The portrait was painted while the artist was at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. 

Museum image fees (ctd.)

September 12 2018


There was a debate in the House of Lords today about museum image fees. It's the first time the issue has been raised in Parliament. The debate was called by Lord Freyberg, a crossbench peer who is in favour of museums being more generous with their images, especially for educational purposes. His speech opens the debate, and can be seen in the video above, which is the full hour of the debate. The text will be made available in Hansard by tomorrow. 

Lord Freyberg set out a strong case for greater open access in the UK's national museums. I was very pleased to see that he was strongly supported by the Labour spokesman on Culture in the Lords, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port. UK politics is in a state of some disarray at the moment, but it's heartening to know that the Labour front bench are minded to support Open Access. You never know when another party might take power.

Opposing Lord Freyberg's points was the former army chief, Lord Dannatt, who is now chair of the Royal Armouries, a museum which says it needs the income from image fees. Lord Dannatt made much of the idea that museums should share in the commercial success of those who use museum images, but didn't really consider the educational or academic side of the equation. Of course, the Armouries is slightly outside of the image fee debate we've been having so far, since it has few paintings, and images of its other (3D) objects are subject to different copyright laws.

There was a curious speech from the Conservative Viscount Eccles, who wished those advocating Open Access ('a rather vague idea') would go away, saying that he "really hoped that not much more is heard of a small storm in an academic teacup". He is an adviser to the British Library. 

We were also lucky to have a contribution from the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Addington. He astutely came to the heart of the matter; the way in which museums arbitrarily and rather meanly determine what is and is not an 'academic' publication, and thus qualifies for a free image. In his speech, Lord Freyberg pointed to the way in which the British Museum defines 'anything which is itself charged for' as a 'commercial' publication, even if it is an obviously academic publication with a print run of just 100 copies. Lord Addington suggested that the museums need to come together and agree a common position on what constitutes an 'academic' publication. And of course he is right.

Viscount Younger of Leckie responded to the debate on behalf of the government. His main point was that the charging of image fees was not a matter on which government could interfere. National museums got their funding from government on the basis that they made their collections available to the public in person, and so everything else was effectively a matter for them. On one level he is right; national museums are so-called 'arms length' bodies, and act free of government interference. But then the government-commissioned Mendoza Review made a great deal about collections being made available digitally, and 'not just physically'. Freeing up image restrictions is a key part of this, because in order to help sell high res images, museums generally only make lower resolution images available online for people to see (Tate being the worst offender). Lord Younger also stressed how expensive producing photographs was, although of course museums photograph objects as part of their core mission, not just to provide images for scholars. In many cases these costs have been borne by museums long ago, often funded by charities and the National Lottery. 

Nonetheless, the really crucial thing from our (that is, advocates of open access, which I'm sure all you AHNers are) point of view is that the government did not come out against Open Access, and said that it would encourage museums to convene a 'round table' meeting on this issue. This is an important development I think. Not least because Lord Younger seemed sympathetic to an intervention made by Lord Addington that it was high time museums were much clearer, and more generous, in how they define 'academic' publications. 

So I'm very pleased with the day's events. First, it was good to get the issues debated in Parliament, and to find other peers and parties supporting Open Access. Second, I think the points made by speakers opposed to Open Access were fairly easily rebutted. Third, we have a potential route towards securing something we've long been aiming for; a common and much more generous allowance of free images to academic and educational publications. If we can do that, we'll have won half the battle. Change is coming. No wonder the fellow from Bridgeman Images who attended the debate looked a bit worried. 

The Hirst sale 'bloodbath'

September 12 2018

Image of The Hirst sale 'bloodbath'

Picture: Artnet News

There's an interesting article from Tim Schneider on Artnet News about the Damien Hirst sale at Sotheby's in 2008. Schneider has tracked down the subsequent sale history of 19 works that featured in the sale, and it turns out they've mostly lost money. Says Schneider, eloquently:

Instead of a formaldehyde tank, the best fluid measure here is a bloodbath. After enticing buyers to spend $8.1 million at “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” the same 19 works only managed to bring in about $5.2 million after they each mounted the auction block a second time—a collective loss of nearly $3 million.

More here

The rush to Wikipedia

September 12 2018

Image of The rush to Wikipedia

Picture: National Gallery of Scotland

It's been pointed out to me that the National Galleries of Scotland are also relying on Wikipedia for their artist biographies. At least with the NGS each artist gets a short paragraph of their own text, but it strikes me as another cheap way out of providing authoritative content.

The Gallery's own brief entry for George Jamesone (above) describes him as 'Scotland's first great native painter', which is true. But the Wikipedia biography hardly stands this claim up. A former director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Dr Duncan Thomson, actually wrote the book on Jamesone; it's a shame that the current Gallery website doesn't capitalise on this expertise. 

Some Wikipedia fans keep saying; why don't you go and make the Wikipedia entries better? First, it's not my job. And second, those people have clearly never had to do battle with the various (always anonymous) self-proclaimed experts who lurk in Wikipedia's depths. I'm afraid it's very rarely worth the bother. 

'Diary of an Art Historian' (ctd.)

September 11 2018

Image of 'Diary of an Art Historian' (ctd.)

Picture: Christie's

My latest Diary piece for The Art Newspaper is now online

Update - Someone has pointed out to me all the negative connotations of the phrase 'committed', in relation to Minton's suicide. Apologies; I used it without thinking, and won't again.

Artemesia heads for the National Gallery (ctd.)

September 11 2018

Image of Artemesia heads for the National Gallery (ctd.)

Picture: National Gallery

Regular readers will know that while I was delighted to see the National Gallery acquire a self-portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi, and have admired the way in which they have made the conservation of the picture so public, I was puzzled by the manner in which they bought the picture, and the price they paid. The picture came up for auction in Paris on 19th December 2017 with an estimate of €300,000-€400,000, and sold for €2.3m. The picture was bought by dealers, and the National Gallery acquired it soone afterwards for £3.6m, a price increase of £1.6m from the auction. The self-portrait is close in composition and date to another example that came up for sale recently at Christie’s in New York with an estimate of $3m-$5m - but didn’t sell - and which was subsequently acquired after the auction by the Wadsworth Atheneum.

We are always hearing how hard up UK museums are. So why pay the big mark up? In a statement to AHN, the National Gallery said they were “not given notice of the painting's appearance at auction in Paris, so we were only able to consider its acquisition once it had been purchased there by dealers.” In an earlier post, I set out that the National Gallery, had they been monitoring the auction scene and art history blogs, had fully a month to consider the acquisition before the sale, and that the picture was not subject to any French export bar. The fact that they seem to have missed the picture’s sale in Paris is all the more surprising given the emphasis they placed, after the acquisition, on how securing paintings by female artists has been a priority, and that the acquisition of the Self-Portrait was a realisation of a ‘long held dream’. We are also often told that major museums need time to buy artworks at auction, because the fundraising is so difficult. And yet, in this case, the great majority of the National Gallery’s funding to buy the picture came from what are effectively its own reserves. I’m not saying the National Gallery would have been able to buy the picture for less in France. But I do think it’s right to ask whether they have acted in the most efficient manner. You may say; ‘they have the picture, and that’s all that matters’. But in an age of declining attendances and more difficult fundraising, it’s vital that publicly owned and funded museums are able to demonstrate that they are doing everything they can to preserve public trust, and money. A fraction of that £1.6m would pay for a dedicated staff member to monitor all auction sales, and help keep the Gallery alert for potential acquisitions in the future. 

To try and find out more about why the National Gallery felt it appropriate to pay £1.6m more for a painting only months after it was sold, I asked the Gallery for any correspondence relevant to deciding on the acquisition under the Freedom of Information Act. In the UK, all public authorities are expected to be transparent and open in how they operate, and the Act allows the public a ‘right of access’ to information held by those bodies, at any time. The Act has been in effect since 2000. Under the Act, public bodies are allowed to invoke a range of exemptions to withhold information, if they think, for example, that things like security arrangements or personal information should not be made public. For some years, I used to be a government adviser on public archives, and so am quite familiar with how the Act works, or at least how it should work.

Yesterday, I received the National Gallery’s response to my request. It came in form of a PDF, many pages long, most of which looks like the above photo. There are a great deal of redactions, and not much of any real use remains to be seen. There's some information about arranging IR and X-ray photos when the picture came in, a little about general fundraising, but that’s about it. I have been unable to find out when the National Gallery first became aware of the painting, how they went about valuing it, the extent to which they negotiated the price down, if they did, and so on. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to find out much. But I think the reasons for the National Gallery withholding so much information are what’s really interesting here. And so, below, I will quote from,and comment on, their reasoning.

First, a number of emails were exempted for security grounds, which is fine. It’s quite right that information about how valuable paintings enter the National Gallery is not released. But other exemptions used to withhold information are perhaps more ambiguous. Here’s their comment on documents specifically relating to the commercial element of the acquisition:

Section 43(2)

Release of some of the information would prejudice the commercial interests of the National Gallery. This information includes how we assess the merits of a painting considered for the national collection, how we seek funding for acquisitions, and how we negotiate with vendors. I have therefore concluded that a section 43(2) exemption is engaged. Section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act states that “information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it)”. The National Gallery believes that disclosure of this information would prejudice our own commercial interests. In reaching this decision, particular consideration has been given to the likelihood of the National Gallery engaging in similar activities in the future. The Gallery is also mindful of the need to build relationships of trust with vendors and funders. Whilst we must not hide from public scrutiny, our ability to deal advantageously and in the public interest with vendors and funders would be damaged by the release of information.

Critics of the purchase price would probably point out that in this case, they have not dealt advantageously in the public interest.

More substantively, the Gallery said that releasing many of the emails would have a detrimental impact on staff and their ability to operate:

As a public authority we recognise our duty to balance the need for openness with the requirement to keep information private where it is in the public interest to do so. Having considered your request, we believe that a section 36(2)(b)(i) and (ii) exemption is engaged. Section 36 states that information is exempt information if “disclosure of the information under [the] Act would, or would be likely to, inhibit – (i) the free and frank provision of advice or (ii) the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation”.

The information which has been withheld relates to the provision of advice and discussion, for the purposes of deliberation and the drafting of documentation, regarding the decision to acquire the painting, undertake due diligence, produce legal agreements and other documentation, provide a valuation of the painting, seek and discuss expert third-party advice, seek external funding for the acquisition, consider future conservation treatment and outreach activities.

Much of this is understandable. But I think we can see just how broad the National Gallery’s refusal to disclose information is, when they mention things like conservation treatment. I can’t immediately see why the conservation treatment on a publicly owned painting needs to be kept secret, especially when the Gallery is usually commendably open about such things. 

They go on:

The issue referred to is still ‘live’ in so far as the acquisition of the painting continues to be of interest to third party individuals. […]

As this is a live issue, there remains the need for the Gallery’s staff to have a ‘safe space’ in which to exchange views and opinions.

The issue is also live in so far as the Gallery will engage in future activities of a very similar nature as it continues to acquire paintings and seek funding.

Connoisseurship – as used to judge a painting – is subjective and requires careful thought and discussion. It is important to maintain a safe-space for such deliberations to take place.

This last point is interesting. Presumably, since the painting is now in the National Gallery’s collection, Gallery staff thought it was a good painting. Some might see it as surprising that discussions about the quality and authorship of a painting need to be kept secret - especially since the Act allows the redaction of names from documents, but not the actual text. Therefore, it would be possible to see correspondence that ‘X’ thought this painting was or was not by Gentileschi, and so on. The argument might be different if a picture from another gallery or owner was under discussion, because then there would be other reasons to withhold that information. But this is the National Gallery discussing the public’s painting - are we not able to know what they think?  

The National Gallery’s email to me went on to further expand on this point, however, and deployed a couple of what I think are revealing phrases:

We believe that disclosure of this information would inhibit the frank provision of advice and the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation and decision making. It is important that the Gallery’s officers are able to carry out their work free from external interference in order to make the best possible decisions on complex subjects such as this. In order for a section 36 exemption to be engaged, a qualified person must give their reasonable opinion that that is the case. I can confirm that the National Gallery’s qualified person, the Director, has given their opinion that the exemption is engaged.

As a public authority we have a duty to balance the need for openness with considerations of the public interest in maintaining this exemption. However, we do not believe that it is in the public interest to inhibit the provision of advice or the exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation and decision making. We have concluded that releasing the information requested would have a ‘chilling effect’ on members of Gallery staff, thus hindering their work and putting at risk the decision making process. We therefore consider that the public interest is better served by the use of the exemption detailed above to prevent the release of this information. In reaching this decision I have also been mindful of the fact that the outcomes of the deliberations have either been released or published, for example the purchase price and sources of funding. In this way, the Gallery has sought to ensure openness in relation to the acquisition.

This last sentence suggests we are supposed to applaud the Gallery for making public the £3.6m figure in the first place. But while I do agree with the general thrust of the statement above - that Gallery staff should feel at liberty to give free and frank advice to their colleagues - we do need to remember above all that this is a public institution. It receives substantial public funding. The Gallery's artworks belong to the public, as does its site. It is our collection. The staff work for us. They are accountable to us. They know this when they take the job. If, when contemplating a course of action they think, 'this would look bad if it ever became public', then it's probably not a good idea to do it. Characterising legitimate public interest in how the Gallery operates as ‘external interference’ is, I think, quite shocking. Public scrutiny is not ‘interference’. It’s the only way we can be sure that public institutions are acting in our interest. Going so far as to claim such scrutiny will have a 'chilling effect' on Gallery staff reveals, I think, what they think of that scrutiny. 

And here we get to the heart of the matter. There is a growing disconnect between some of our national museums and the public they serve. I’ve described before what I call the 'Gollum syndrome' when it comes to museums; it’s their ‘precious’. Their collection. Their museum. Their money.

No. It’s ours. Too often, museum management and trustees treat their audiences with contempt, whether it’s closing entire galleries at a whim for private events, or junking expert written text for links to Wikipedia, or arbitrarily banning photography, or even (yes) charging schools and academics excessive fees to use images by falsely claiming they own the copyright. But taking the public’s support for granted is a dangerous way to operate. Because one day, it could vanish.

As ever, I'd be glad to hear your views. I have made a donation to the National Gallery to cover the costs of complying with my FoI request.

Update - a reader writes:

You wrote on 11th Sept - 'Too often, museum management and trustees treat their audiences with contempt...As ever, I'd be glad to hear your views.' Writing as a former curator/manager/director of galleries and museums, I’d agree – indeed they all too often do. And there’s one thing which gives away their attitude - it’s when they refer to the museum/gallery collection as ‘my collection’, e.g. ‘in my collection there’s a such-and-such item’, or ‘I’m working on a catalogue of my collection’ – that little word ‘my’ says it every time. 

'Heni Talks' (ctd.)

September 10 2018

Video: Heni Talks

Here's another excellent 'Heni Art Talks' film, on the National Portrait Gallery's portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo by William Hoare of Bath. The short film is presented by Gus Casely-Hayford.

'Courtauld Impressionists at the National Gallery'

September 10 2018

Video: National Gallery

The Courtauld Gallery is currently closed for refurbishment, and a selection of their Impressionist paintings are going on display at the National Gallery from 17th September. More here

Notice to "Internet Explorer" Users

You are seeing this notice because you are using Internet Explorer 6.0 (or older version). IE6 is now a deprecated browser which this website no longer supports. To view the Art History News website, you can easily do so by downloading one of the following, freely available browsers:

Once you have upgraded your browser, you can return to this page using the new application, whereupon this notice will have been replaced by the full website and its content.