'Fake or Fortune?'

June 20 2011

Image of 'Fake or Fortune?'

Picture: BBC

Many thanks to those of you who have written to say that you enjoyed the programme last night. If you missed it, it's on iPlayer here.

The reaction so far has been very encouraging. I'm told we averaged 3.9m viewers, which is quite good for a 7pm Sunday slot in the summer. The Times gave us 5/5 stars ('This Gripping programme took us to a very dark place: the art world'); The Guardian liked 'this fascinating new series'; The Telegraph called it 'aesthetically pleasing, quietly enjoyable'; and Metro 'fascinating'. Sorry if this all sounds a bit self-congratulatory...

Tom Sutcliffe in The Independent seemed to like the programme, but thought one scene 'didn't feel right': 

It was implied, for example, that Bruce and Mould had to wait on tenterhooks for their emissary to return to London from Paris before finding out the final verdict, though it seems frankly inconceivable that he wouldn't have called them on the phone the moment he got the news.

Well I can assure Tom that Philip and Fiona (and nor I) had any idea of the final verdict before John House delivered it. 

New exhibition at the Liechtenstein museum

June 20 2011

Image of New exhibition at the Liechtenstein museum

Picture: Liechtenstein Museum

The Hohenbuchau Collection of Dutch and Flemish old masters has gone on display in its entirety for the first time at the Liechtenstein Museum. Amongst the Baroque gems is this portrait of a monk by Rubens, which is interesting to compare with the Portrait of a Carmelite Monk of a similar period about to be sold by Sotheby's.

The latter picture, long attributed to Rubens, is now being sold as a Van Dyck. As you can see from the catalogue note here, the picture was traditionally called 'Rubens' Confessor', and has a plausible provenance going back to Rubens himself. I'm looking forward to seeing it in the flesh - and if I'm feeling brave and am prepared to back up my earlier hunch that it might in fact be by Rubens, I'll let you know here...

By the way, in case you didn't know, the Liechtenstein Museum is not in Liechtenstein, but in Vienna. A long time ago, I was skiing in Switzerland, not far from Liechenstein. Feeling cultural, I thought I would drive down to the small principality to look at their fine collection. A couple of hours later a friendly tourist official in Vaduz (the capital of Liechtenstein) told me that no, the Liechtenstein Museum is in Austria. But the curious thing was the shock on his face, as if anybody could be so stupid to think it wouldn't be... 

New price record for Stanley Spencer

June 17 2011

Image of New price record for Stanley Spencer

Picture: Sotheby's

Sunflower and Dog Worship, 1937, by Stanley Spencer, sold for a new record price of £5.4m at Sotheby's this week. 

John Martin exhibition

June 17 2011

Image of John Martin exhibition

Picture: Tate Britain

The first exhibition devoted to the audacious artist John Martin (1789-1854) will open at the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield on June 22nd. Closes September 4th. More here

One way system to see Hockney

June 17 2011

Image of One way system to see Hockney

Picture: Hull Daily Mail

Staff at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull are scratching their heads over how to install David Hockney's Bigger Trees Near Water (seen above whilst at Tate - see if you can guess which of the viewers is Hockney). Once in, the 15 x 40 ft picture is expected to be so popular, that the gallery will install a special one-way system for visitors. 

Tune in...

June 16 2011

Image of Tune in...

Picture: BBC

...to BBC1 this Sunday at 7pm to see Fiona Bruce, Philip Mould and I (the bloke on the left) in a new series tracking down lost and mysterious paintings.

The series is called 'Fake or Fortune', which I'm told is a good BBC1 title. I just hope nobody thinks it's a game show...

It was quite an experience filming the series, and somewhat nerve-wracking. Fortunately, we had a brilliant production team from BBC Bristol. As a viewer, one doesn't really appreciate just how talented people who work in TV are, until you see how it's all done. Anyway, it's well worth watching. And don't just take my word for it; an advanced review from Time Out gave us 4/5 stars: 'it's captivating viewing', The Times calls it 'gripping' and 'fascinating', and the FT also gives it 4/5 stars.

More here

The Empire Strikes Back

June 16 2011

Image of The Empire Strikes Back

Picture: Philip Mould Ltd

In The Times and on the BBC’s Today programme yesterday morning was news of one of the recent Van Dyck discoveries included in our exhibition ‘Finding Van Dyck’. The story was later picked up in a rather muddled piece by Channel 4 news.

The picture, Study of the Head of a Woman (above), was bought at the Chatsworth ‘Attic Sale’ handled by Sotheby’s. It was catalogued as ‘Circle of Rubens’. Briefly, here’s just three reasons why I think the study is by Van Dyck.

  1. The same head appears in two larger compositions by Van Dyck, both painted in about 1630; Achilles Among the Daughters of Lycomedes (Schonborn Collection), and Adoration of the Shepherds (Church of Our Lady, Dendermonde). 
  2. In the Achilles painting, the woman’s head is used in the lower centre, and has been rotated slightly for the figure looking up at Achilles. In the Adoration picture, the study has been inverted, and used for the shepherdess looking down at Christ. (I would illustrate both, but don't yet have permission to reproduce them online).
  3. In both of the above pictures, the heads follow the study closely, even down to details such as the highlight on the top lip, and the shadows in the cheek. 

We are left, therefore, with two plausible options – either it is a copy after the Achilles or Adoration pictures. Or it was made by Van Dyck in preparation for those pictures.

We can immediately rule out option 1, that it is a copy. Not only is it too impulsive, animated and well painted to be by a copyist (or even a studio assistant), it is also at a different angle and with different hair, thus ruling out the possibility that it was painted after either of the larger works.

In response to inquiries from the BBC and Channel 4, Sotheby’s issued the following statement:

Sotheby’s carefully considered the painting when cataloguing it for sale, and reject the recent attribution to Van Dyck. Six out of seven of the world’s leading specialists in this field whom Sotheby’s has consulted also categorically reject the attribution to Van Dyck (the only one supporting the Van Dyck attribution being the same specialist Philip Mould consulted).  The overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion – consistent with Sotheby’s original cataloguing – is that the painting is by an anonymous Flemish artist working in the 17th century, ultimately inspired by Peter Paul Rubens. 

But here’s three curious things: [more below]

  1. At the time of writing, neither Sotheby’s nor their six experts have been to see the picture since it was cleaned. As you can see from the above comparison, the picture now looks rather different to how it did when sold at Chatsworth. The surface was covered in an old discoloured varnish, about a third of which had ‘blanched’. The expert who has seen it, let us call him ‘no.7’, is convinced by our argument. This probably tells you something about the need to see the painting (in fact any painting) in the flesh before venturing an opinion on the attribution. 
  2. Sotheby's six experts have not been presented with the results of our research, including access to close-up photographs of the relevant sections of the Achilles and Adoration paintings. These photographs were specially commissioned by us, making close comparison of the three heads possible for the first time. 
  3. The six have also not seen the results of our technical analysis of the painting. Paint analysis, x-rays and infra-red reflectography have confirmed our initial belief that the study has been ‘finished’ by a later hand. The original canvas has been added to a panel (which bears an Antwerp panel makers mark datable to c.1638 onwards) and then extended. The background, the bun in the hair and the brown drapery are all therefore later additions. Such effort presumably indicates that the picture was once considered a work of value. But more importantly, unless the six experts knew with certainty where in the painting Van Dyck’s involvement ended and where the later hand began, then no reliable opinion on the attribution is possible.


As a historian by training, I would always hesitate to make an opinion unless I had seen all the available evidence. I presume the same goes for art historians.

As Finding Van Dyck intended to show, there is still a great deal we do not know about Van Dyck. His use of sketches and preparatory studies has been particularly under-researched by scholars. Here’s an interesting statistic: the 2004 Van Dyck catalogue raisonné lists just 25 pictures that may reasonably be called preparatory studies in oil, out of a total of 744 works. The great majority of these studies relate to works other than portraits, that is, large multi-figured religious and clissical scenes. The breakdown of this figure is more revealing still – of the 25, 22 are given to Van Dyck’s first Antwerp period (until 1621), one to his Italian period (1621-27), one to his second Antwerp period (1627-32), and one to his English period (1632-41). 

The Chatsworth study is a second Antwerp period work. But according to the 2004 catalogue, there is only one other work for us to compare it to. (It is worth noting, incidentally, that the only Italian period study accepted in the 2004 catalogue is also painted in oil on canvas, which was added to a panel later and extended.)

Even allowing for Van Dyck’s change in technique after he first left Antwerp, such a discrepancy in the number of accepted Van Dyck studies in existence strikes me as untenable. Many more must once have been known. So where are they now? A number of manuscript inventories from the 17th Century attest to both their survival and popularity, such as that of Canon G. van Hamme, which records ‘Twenty little pieces by the knight Van Dyck, being head studies in various manners, standing above the gilt leather hanging’ and ‘thirteen head studies above the gilt leather, by Rubens as well as Van Dyck’. 

Some hint as to the extent to which Van Dyck might have made use of studies can be seen in even the most cursory look at the practice of his one-time master, Rubens. Rubens would execute a number of head studies of the same model, usually in oil on panel, which would then be used repeatedly by him and his assistants in any number of compositions, rather like spare parts. Look closely at Van Dyck's large classical and religious scenes, and you will occasionally see the same head again and again. Some of Rubens’ pictures even featured the same model more than once, such as Saint Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna], where the same bearded sitter is used to represent Theodosius and, somewhat incongruously, the figure immediately next to him. Interestingly, when Van Dyck (who one senses was a more conscientious and less over-worked, or dare we say it, less idle, artist than Rubens) made his own version of this composition [National Gallery, London], he avoided the same mistake and gave Theodosius a different head. If, as is widely accepted, Van Dyck supervised a large studio workshop throughout his career he must, like Rubens, have made significant use of sketches, both for his own use and that of his assistants. Only by discovering new works will we ever understand this fascinating aspect of Van Dyck’s career. 

Discoveries such as the Chatsworth study suggest that Van Dyck used his head studies in much the same way as Rubens when composing large group scenes, moving and even mirroring the various heads to fit where appropriate. They would almost certainly have been conceived for more than one use, and doubtless for collaboration with his studio assistants when directing the beginnings of his large canvasses. Such a practice may suggest laziness to some, but it would have seemed perfectly normal to any artist commissioned to paint the same subjects over and over again, both for his own reference and that of his assistants. It must be that there are many more examples of similar sketches waiting to be discovered.

There are two plausible references to a head of a woman by Van Dyck in the 18th Century in the collection of Lord Burlington at Chiswick (later inherited by the Devonshires). The attribution was then evidently changed to Rubens, as seen on the frame. 

Anyway, you can always come and judge all this for yourself in the exhibition, which runs until 13th July.  

BP Portrait Award

June 15 2011

Wim Heldens has won this year's BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery, London. Here's an interview with the artist by Channel 4's Matthew Cain. 

'What is Vorticism?'

June 15 2011

Image of 'What is Vorticism?'

Picture: Tate Britain/EPA. Detail of Wyndham Lewis' 'Workshop'.

A new exhibition of Vorticist paintings has gone on display at Tate Britain. More details here.

The show was featured on the Today programme by the BBC's arts editor Will Gompertz. Evan Davis began by asking Gompertz, 'what is Vorticism?', and got this fantastically baffling (to the average listener) response:

Vorticism was a London-based modern art movement started in 1914 and it was in effect a British version of Italian Futurism with a splash of Parisian Cubism added to bring out a distinctive flavour. [cue guffaw from John Humphrys] 

Rembrandt at Dulwich

June 15 2011

Image of Rembrandt at Dulwich

Picture: Dulwich Picture Gallery

Dulwich Picture Gallery have instituted a new series called 'Masterpiece of the Month'. June's is Rembrandt's Portrait of Titus van Rijn in a Monk's Habit. Richard Dorment in the Telegraph is enthused, and sees in it a comparison with the Mona Lisa:

Painted in 1660 when Titus was 19, Rembrandt’s brush describes not the young man’s physical appearance but his interior life. It is a study not of surfaces or appearances but of thoughts and feelings.

By cloaking Titus in a brown monk’s habit and cowl against a rich brown background, Rembrandt isolates the sitter’s face, making it the whole focus of the picture’s visual interest. But even then not all of the face is shown, for light from an unseen source at the left illuminates the right side, leaving the left partly in shadow.

Titus tilts his head and lowers his eyes, lost in thought. An almost imperceptible smile plays on his lips, and, as in the Mona Lisa, it is this smile that makes the picture so mysterious. Because the sitter is wearing the Franciscan habit, our first thought is that this is not a portrait at all but a representation of St Francis at prayer. But that can’t be entirely true, since this is clearly a portrait. The monk’s habit could also be a studio prop, which Rembrandt gives Titus to wear in joking reference to the order’s vow of poverty, which the boy would have to embrace during the hard financial times the family was going through. Whatever the answer, every brush stroke speaks of the artist’s love for his son, who would die eight years later at the age of 27.

The picture is on display at Dulwich Picture Gallery until July 3.

Triptych re-united at last

June 15 2011

Image of Triptych re-united at last

Picture: Telegraph

An epic triptych by Jan van Belkamp showing Lady Anne Clifford and her family has gone on display at Abbot Hall in Kendal, Cumbria.

The Lakeland Trust bought the picture in 1981. But until now the central section has been in store because they couldn't get it through the door. Eventually, somebody worked out that they could get it through a window, so the three sections are now hanging together. More details here

Top of the Pops c.1630

June 14 2011

Image of Top of the Pops c.1630


How cool is this? My colleague Sara has found the perfect CD for our Van Dyck exhibition. Details here if you want to buy it.

Is this by Monet?

June 14 2011

Image of Is this by Monet?

Picture: David Joel

This painting will feature in a new BBC1 series on art, Fake or Fortune. The picture is signed 'Claude Monet', and has provenance as a Monet going back to the artist's lifetime. Numerous Monet scholars also believe it to be by him - but the Wildenstein Institute in Paris, which controls the Monet catalogue, maintains it is a fake. Read more here

The series, which is presented by Fiona Bruce and Philip Mould (and even occasionally features me), goes out on Sundays at 7pm from June 19th, for four weeks. 

India joins China in the Eastern art boom

June 14 2011

Image of India joins China in the Eastern art boom

Picture: Christie's

An untitled painting by the Indian artist Tyeb Mehta, which shows a figure resting in a rickshaw, has sold for $3.24m at Christie's. It's the second highest price paid for an Indian painting.

Don't panic

June 14 2011

Image of Don't panic


The pictures are hung, the catalogue is printed, and the champagne has arrived. But the lights have gone out. 

What to do? Our exhibition opening is tonight. Candles are hardly an option...

[fixed it in the end, dodgy fuse]

Christie's wins...

June 13 2011

Image of Christie's wins...

Picture: Christie's

...the race to get their Old Master July catalogues out first. 

It's about this time of the year that I nerdishly check Sotheby's and Christie's sites about twice a day, to see if the sales have been posted online.

Christie's have secured some remarkably fine pictures here, such as Robert Peake's Portrait of William Pope, 1st Earl of Downe (est. £1m-1.5m). I'll write more on these nearer the time of the sale (5th July). Now we await Sotheby's offerings...

How to pack a picture

June 13 2011

Image of How to pack a picture


This is The Holy Family, on loan to our exhibition Finding Van Dyck from Manchester Art Gallery. I have never seen a more expertly wrapped and crated painting.

In the photo here is Tony Gregg, our indispensable framing expert, while out of shot is Hannah Williamson, a curator from Manchester, who was there to supervise the installation. And thank goodness she was, for there are few things more nerve-wracking than hanging a valuable publicly-owned painting...

Two Van Dyck stories for the price of one

June 13 2011

On BBC news.

The Top 10 Summer Paintings

June 13 2011

Image of The Top 10 Summer Paintings

Picture: Musee D'Orsay

The Observer's art critic Laura Cumming compiles her top ten. In at No.1 is Monet's Poppy Field (1873).

'I'm not sure what art is'

June 13 2011

Image of 'I'm not sure what art is'

Picture: Alan Cristea Gallery

I've always been a great admirer of Julian Opie's work. He is one of relatively few contemporary artists to embrace art history, and yet not be defined by it. Over the last few years I have been lucky enough to get to know him a little.

There's a good interview with him in The Guardian, in which he talks about art in his typically honest approach. The discussion moves to Opie's interest in silhouettes, which are part of his new exhibition at the Alan Cristea Gallery (closes 9th July):

We move to some silhouettes he made of himself. Before photography, silhouette profiles, cut from black card, were the cheapest way of recording a person's appearance. "It's a purportedly obsolete and vulgar art form. It surprises me that I care about it. I used to have a stricter idea of what art was. Now I feel much less sure. I'm not really sure what art is."

Its refreshing to see a contemporary artist discussing art in normal English and with candour. I recently had to read Damien Hirst's musings in On the Way to Work, but parts of it I simply couldn't understand. In fact, I challenge anyone to read that book, and not get a headache. 

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.