Archaeology on the front line

May 18 2022

Image of Archaeology on the front line

Picture: via Artnet

On Artnet News, Sarah Cascone has the story of some Ukrainian soldiers who, while digging trenches near Odessa, unearthed a cache of ancient Greek artefacts.

A lost Eworth at Burghley?

May 17 2022

Image of A lost Eworth at Burghley?

Picture: Burghley House

For my latest Diary of an Art Historian column in The Art Newspaper, I wrote about a full-length portrait I saw recently at Burghley House in Lincolnshire. The picture has previously been thought to be a posthumous portrait of Magdalen, Viscountess Montagu (1538-1608), but I think it's period, and probably by Hans Eworth. After Holbein, Eworth was the next start artist working for the Tudor court, and is probably best known for his portraits of Mary Tudor (like this example at the Society of Antiquaries).

The Burghley portrait would most likely have been painted around the time of Magdalen's marriage in 1558, and as such would be one of the last great Marian full-lengths. By the way, the billowing pink drape, which doesn't look 16th Century at all, is largely overpaint, from when the panel was long ago transferred onto canvas. 

There is one fascinating detail about the Burghley portrait, in the jewel Magdalen wears round her neck (above). As I wrote in TAN:

Eworth worked mainly for Catholics. And fittingly, another mystery in the Burghley portrait—the nature of the scene depicted in the medal around Magdalen’s neck—was solved by a Twitter friend of mine, Fr Robin Gibbons, the first Catholic Priest in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, since the Reformation. Robin, without knowing the name of the sitter, identified the scene—of a white robed figure emerging from a tomb, followed by a female figure—as the story of Christ saying “noli me tangere”. It was an eponymous jewel, a Magdalene for a Magdalen.

This got me thinking about another Eworth portrait, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, a portrait once thought to show Mary Tudor (above), but currently regarded as an unknown sitter. If the Burghley portrait's jewel showed a Magdalene to identify a Magdalen, did the Fitzwilliam jewel give us any clues as to its identity? The scene in this jewel shows Queen Esther, from the Old Testament story of Esther revealing herself to King Ahasuerus. The only thing is, Esther (or its anglicised version of Hester) was a relatively rare name in the mid-Sixteenth century in England. But there is one Esther/Hester who might fit the bill. From my TAN column again:

among Esthers of the 1550s of an age to be the Fitzwilliam sitter is one Esther or Ethelreda Malte, an illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. She died in 1559. Her daughter was also called Hester (the anglicised Esther). Her mother, Joan Dyngley, was said to have been a royal laundress, and intriguingly the only other clue to the sitter’s identity in the Fitzwilliam portrait is a prayer book embossed with the letter ‘D’. In the Bible, Esther hides her identity before being recognised by the king, and this is the scene shown on the medallion. Perhaps whoever once looked at the Fitzwilliam portrait and decided it looked like Mary Tudor was half right—is it in fact her half sister?

More here.

Derby museum acquires Wright self-portrait

May 16 2022

Image of Derby museum acquires Wright self-portrait

Picture: Oliver Taylor/PA, left, Derby Museum curator Lucy Bamford, right, director Tony Butler.

Now this is a lovely story - Derby Museum has acquired a fabulous Joseph Wright of Derby self-portrait, through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme. The self-portrait was painted in about 1772 and in my opinion shows Wright at his absolute best. The picture represents a two-for-one Wright special offer, because on the back is an equally important study (below) by Wright for his famous painting, Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (National Gallery, London).

From The Guardian:

The painting was accepted in lieu of inheritance tax, settling a sum of £779,619. Because the work was worth considerably more, Derby Museum and Art Gallery made good the difference of £2.72m with a £2.3m donation from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, plus additional amounts from the Art Fund, private donors and foundations.

The arts minister Lord Parkinson said: “It is wonderful that this rare self-portrait by Joseph Wright has been saved for the nation and acquired by Derby Museums … where it will take pride of place in the world’s largest collection of his works.”

Tony Butler, the museum’s executive director, said: “The acquisition of this painting is a triumph for Derby Museums. The work has never been in public ownership having remained in private hands since it was executed in a studio not far from where Derby Museum and Art Gallery is now. We feel a palpable sense of bringing Joseph Wright of Derby back home.”

The acquisition is another demonstration of how well the Acceptance in Lieu scheme can work. In this case, the painting was worth more than the amount of inheritance tax to be settled by the government (I can't say how much more, as I advised on the valuation, but a lot more) and Derby Museum was able to fundraise the balance, from the Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and others. But the fact that the museum and funders knew the government would in effect be putting down a deposit on the painting gave them time and confidence to embark on raising the extra funds. This is just the latest in an extremely impressive run of acquisitions by Derby Museums, who rarely miss an opportunity to add to their (already outstanding) collection, and are amongst the best in the business at raising funds for new purchases. AHN says, well done to all involved.

Imelda Marcos' Picasso

May 16 2022

Image of Imelda Marcos' Picasso

Picture: Guardian

There's been much excitement in the press about a 'lost' Picasso supposedly seen in photographs of Imelda Marcos' home. 'Reclining Nude' was spotted when her son, Bongbong, went to celebrate his win in the Philippines presidential election (see above). However, the picture isn't certainly the same as that seen in photographs of Marcos' home from 2007 (see below). At least, the frame is different. It's all a bit unclear, and I can't really muster much more enthusiasm for the tale. If you can, more here.

The Dancing Plague of 1518

May 16 2022

Image of The Dancing Plague of 1518

Picture: Holtzius after Peter Brueghel the Elder

There's an interesting article on the BBC culture website by Rosalind Jana on the so-called Strasbourg Dancing Plague in 1518. The technical term for the plagues is choreomania, and lovers of Brueghel will now it from a number of his works, as above. But as Rosalind explains, the Strasbourg plague wasn't the only one:

Though it is now the most famous example, Strasbourg was not the only "dance plague" to hit Europe during the medieval and early modern era. Many instances of uncontrolled or threatening dancing were recorded in Germany, France, and other parts of the Holy Roman Empire. In earlier centuries these events were interpreted as divine punishment or demonic possession, remedied with religious solutions like processions, masses, or direct intervention from priests. Two decades before the summer of 1518, a cleric in Strasbourg named Sebastian Brant wrote in his satirical allegory The Ship of Fools "that dance and sin are one in kind," blaming Satan for all this "giddy dancing gayly done".

Crypto crash

May 13 2022

Image of Crypto crash

Picture: via Twitter

There's a cryptocurrency crash going on, and who knows where it will end. Ethereum, which is used in the art world to buy NFTs, is down more than 50% from its peak in November. As it happens, the British Museum auctioned one of its 'Super Rare'* Hokusai Great Wave NFTs then. So if you were the lucky bidder, you're now down about 50% just on the currency side alone. That's before we worry about NFT values themselves.

*So rare it's one of ten. That is, if you can create any degree of scarcity around a jpeg which is infinitely reproduceable, which is in turn an image of a widely reproduced print which is itself not exclusive to the British Museum.

New acquisition for Cleveland Museum

May 12 2022

Image of New acquisition for Cleveland Museum


This was a few weeks ago, but I'm interested in how museums, especially US ones, are changing their collecting priorities in the wake of Black Lives Matter. The Cleveland Museum of Art has bought a plaster bust by the French 19th Century sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, who explored questions of slavery a number of times. Says

The Cleveland Museum of Art sees its new acquisition of a major 19th-century French sculpture expressing abolitionist outrage against slavery as a launchpad for wide-ranging discussions on the role of politics, race, and power in art history — and in the history of its own collection.

The plaster sculpture, entitled “Why Born Enslaved!” created by the artist Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux in 1868, is a bust-length portrait of an anonymous enslaved Black woman, bound tightly with ropes, with her gown ripped away, revealing her left breast. [...]

The acquisition of the Carpeaux comes as cultural institutions across the U.S. are re-evaluating racial equity practices in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, and the national wave of Black Lives Matter protests that followed.

The Cleveland museum, which serves a city that is roughly 50% Black and is surrounded by low-income, majority-Black neighborhoods, adopted its first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan in 2018, and over the past decade has stepped up the frequency and scale of exhibitions and purchases of works by African-American artists.

The bust, of which there are a number of versions in different media (there's a bronze in the Indianapolis Museum of Art which, surprisingly, still carries a title from another age), was originally modelled as part of a commission for the Fontaine de l'Observatoire in the Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris. It was intended to represent Africa, which, along with representations of Europe, America and Asia, held up the world. Carpeaux's initial designs drew some scorn, and in the finished fountain the full length figure of Africa is more idealised, and bound only by her ankle.

New Eric Ravilious film

May 12 2022

Image of New Eric Ravilious film

Picture: Tate

I discover from Charles' Saumarez Smith's blog there's to be a new film about Eric Ravilious, the 20th Century British artist of whom I'm very fond, especially for his work in World War Two. It'll be out in June, and here's what the makers, Foxtrot Films, have to say about it:

ERIC RAVILIOUS – DRAWN TO WAR a Margy Kinmonth film, is a true story. One of Britain’s greatest landscape artists, Eric Ravilious, is killed in a plane crash while on commission as Official War Artist in Iceland in 1942.  His life is as compelling and enigmatic as his art, set against the dramatic wartime locations that inspire him. This film brings to life this unique and still grossly undervalued British artist caught in the crossfire of war 80 years ago, whose legacy largely sank without trace, until now…

This is the first full length feature documentary about Eric Ravilious, told in his own words through previously unseen private correspondence, made with the blessing of the Ravilious estate.

Shot entirely on location in UK, Portugal and Ireland, the film asks what it is to be a war artist, featuring Ai Weiwei, Alan Bennett, Grayson Perry, Robert Macfarlane and many more, to be released in his 80th anniversary year.

'The biggest deaccession sale yet'

May 11 2022

Image of 'The biggest deaccession sale yet'

Picture: LA Times

The Toledo Museum of Art are selling works by Cezanne, Matisse and Renoir at Sotheby's next week, bringing in an estimated $48m-$62m. In the LA Times, Christopher Knight descibes the sale as the biggest deaccession yet, and gives the decision to sell both barrels:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Asserting that “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping” is a ridiculous way to run an art museum.

The for-profit market today leads much of the nonprofit museum world around by the nose. But the core museum mission is collecting, researching and preserving great art, and a conservative strategy of privatizing irreplaceable public assets in the name of liberal progress is backward. The Toledo sale is unconscionable.

Of course, I think it's a shame they're selling such works too. And yet if the Toledo Museum ever decided it didn't need its fabulous Holbein (which I think is probably Catherine Howard) I'd be delighted if it could somehow end up back in the UK.

Update: they all sold, the Cezanne making $41.6m.

Warhol makes $195m

May 11 2022

Image of Warhol makes $195m

Picture: Guardian

One of Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe portraits sold at Christies in New York for $195m all in. Apparently Larry Gagosian was the buyer.

There was a lot of promotional speak about it, I liked this, in The Guardian:

“Shot Sage Blue Marilyn is the absolute pinnacle of American pop,” Alex Rotter, chairman of 20th and 21st century art at Christie’s, said. “The painting transcends the genre of portraiture, superseding 20th century art and culture.”

This pinnacle of American pop art is one of five verions, and that doesn't include all the other Marilyns in different formats. If we were to catalogue it by the same standards we use in Old Masters, it would be Studio of Andy Warhol after Eugene Kornman (who took the original photograph).

€15m Leonardo drawing discovery (ctd.)

May 10 2022

Image of €15m Leonardo drawing discovery (ctd.)

Picture: Tajan

The imminent sale of the newly discovered Michelangelo drawing in Paris has reminded me of the Leonardo drawing of St Sebastian that surfaced in 2016, also in Paris. It belonged to a retired doctor, known only as 'Jean B', who was given the drawing when he was a young man, but forgot about it till he was in his 80s. There were suggestions it would be sold by Tajan, the French auction house who first proposed the attribution. In 2017 it was valued at €15m and declared a 'national treasure' by the French state, which meant museums had three years to attempt to buy it. Since then, rien.

But I see from the French press (RTL) in Decmber last year that the drawing has now become a court case. The French government attempted to buy it for €10m, which offer was rejected by Jean B as too low. He then applied for an export licence to sell it overseas, but the French state refused, apparently on the grounds it might have been stolen. Which seems extraordinary, since the state had just tried to buy it. Jean B is suing the French culture minister to get his export licence. And in the meantime, Tajan are suing him, saying he owes them €2m for all the work they did.

As they say in legal circles, all good things end in litigation.

There is one intriguing little snippet; when Jean B first took his drawing to Tajan, it was given an estimate of just €20,000-€30,000. It was only after specialist Patrick de Bayser saw it that the Leonardo penny dropped. What a sleeper that might have been...

Sleeper alert

May 10 2022

Image of Sleeper alert

Picture: Vanderkindere

On Artnet News, Dorian Batycka has spotted that a picture 'attributed to Leyster' soared above its €1800 estimate at an auction in Belgium to make €230,000. Will it find official favour? Looks nice to me. Zoom in for yourself here, and see how much you'd have been willing to bid.

A looted Courbet at the Fitzwilliam?

May 10 2022

Image of A looted Courbet at the Fitzwilliam?

Picture: Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam's ownership of a Courbet landscape - La Ronde Enfantine - has been challenged, after doubts were raised over its pre-1945 provenance. Currently the museum doesn't know who owned the picture before the war, and it was donated in 1951, having surfaced on the Swiss art market after 1945. Which is rarely a good sign. In The Art Newspaper, Martin Bailey has identified that the picture may have belonged to Goering. More here.

New Burlington Magazine

May 10 2022

Image of New Burlington Magazine

Picture: Jesus College Cambridge

The new issue of The Burlington Magazine has arrived in the post, and as ever it's packed with fascinating stuff. There are articles on Rembrandt drawings, Holbein, Gainsborough and a newly discovered drawing by Hendrick Goltzius.

The editorial covers the tricky subject of a memorial to Tobias Rustat (1608-1694) in the chapel at Jesus College Cambridge (above). It's a fine piece of carving commissioned by Rustat from Grinling Gibbons. The College has asked the Church of England (via its consistory court) for permission to move the memorial, given Rustat's close involvement in the slave trade. But the Court has said it should remain, and The Burlington agrees. It also makes a case for how we should consider similar examples:

Now that the college has accepted that it must retain the monument, can it find creative and persuasive ways of explaining it? The case is also an opportunity for art and architectural historians to reflect on how much work needs to be done to correct misapprehensions about church monuments, even in a place as well informed as a Cambridge college might be assumed to be. In particular, they are intended for commemoration, not veneration, and are not ornaments in a building that can readily be removed but are integral elements of its historical and cultural significance. There are lessons for us all in the case of the Rustat Memorial.

The College, led by Sonita Alleyne, isn't pleased with the decision, and has vowed to keep up the pressure for a different outcome, telling BBC news:

"The consistory court's decision shows a lack of understanding of the lived experience of people of colour in modern Britain.

In short, the college is up against a Church ruling which believes involvement in the slave trade over 30 years isn't sufficient to warrant the removal of this celebratory memorial."

The case strikes me as a tricky one, and I'm glad I'm not tasked with responsibility for deciding whether the Rustat memorial should remain or go. I'm personally glad, for example, that the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston is no longer on display in Bristol, for statues are political acts, and require audiences to engage in their presence in a way modern audiences can find deeply upsetting. The Colston statue, high on its pedestal, demanded subservience from the descandants of people Colston in his lifetime sold into subservience.

Yet there is also a memorial to Colston in All Saints Church, Bristol, by John Michael Rysbrack - should that be moved too? Does removing a marble statue of great artistic quality from a place of worship not involve some sort of iconoclasm? There is no easy answer to this, but here I think it's relevant that the church in Bristol is closed. Nobody is required to pass before Colston's memorial, whether in commemoration or veneration, as they use the church for worship.

The chapel at Jesus College, however, is very much open, and in daily use. As you can see from the photo above, the Rustat memorial is in a commanding position. One can understand why some might find it off-putting, or even oppressive. We need to find a solution that works for all sections of the community at Jesus, and perhaps we have some way to go yet.

Brexit and the art market (ctd.)

May 10 2022

Image of Brexit and the art market (ctd.)

Picture: TAN

It's almost six years now since the UK voted to leave the European Union, and time enough to be reasonably certain of any impact Brexit has had on the UK art market. The latest figures show it's not good news; for the first time, the UK art market has slipped from being the world's second largest to the third. There's not much escaping the fact that Brexit is in large part to blame.

In The Art Newspaper, Anny Shaw and Gareth Harris have been looking at the numbers, including research done by Dr Clare McAndrew for Art Basel's Art Market Report:

London will become “a shadow of its former self” in just five years if art imports continue to plummet, members of the trade have warned the British government, after it was revealed the UK’s global share of the art market fell by 3% to 17% last year—its lowest in a decade. The latest figures from HM Revenue and Customs, published in the 2022 Art Basel/UBS Global Art Market report, show that the value of art and antiques imported into the UK in 2020 was $2.1bn, down by one third on 2019. Imports fell a further 18% last year, leaving them at almost half the value of 2019.

The TAN piece also highlights the critical issue of import VAT, and quotes the art market specialist lawyer Pierre Valentin:

Brexit is thought to be the main reason for the sharp decline in imports, which have been further hampered by the pandemic. The art lawyer Pierre Valentin says: “The obligation to pay import VAT when moving art from the EU to the UK and the additional paperwork are considerable deterrents,” adding: “many European collectors have left the UK. The pound sterling has lost some of its value, resulting in sellers of more important works selling in New York rather than in London.”

I don't have any stats to hand, but from the little corner of the art market I'm most familiar with, Old Masters, I've certainly noticed a shift in particularly mid-level sales from London to auction houses in France and Germany, as well as places like Dorotheum in Vienna. In addition to the increased burden of import Vat, the UK market has not benefited from some of the other areas of Brexit it was hoping to, such as the abolition of the Artist's Resale Right, which the UK government committed to retaining.

I know good friends should never say, 'I told you so', but I did my best to warn everyone, as here in The Wall Street Journal back in 2017:

The great hope of Brexiteers in the UK art market is that after we leave the EU import Vat will be abolished. But it is hard to see how a cash-strapped Treasury will find the money to do this. In fact, there is a risk that import Vat will be extended to any artwork coming into the UK, increasing costs for dealers and drastically affecting an auction house’s ability to attract consignments from Europe. Nor is it at all likely that the EU will abolish Vat on artworks imported from a post-Brexit UK. Any EU-based collector wanting to buy a picture at Sotheby’s, or from a UK dealer, or at one of London’s many art fairs, will know that an extra 5.5% (at least) must now be added to their bill. It’s easy to see how, gradually, transactions that now take place in London might start to migrate across the Channel.

What can be done now? It's hard to see any change on the Vat regime coming now, but as Anthony Browne of the British Art Market Federation points out, import Vat on art raises relatively trivial amounts of money for the Treasury, £16m last year. Could the government be persuaded of the merits of a tax break for the art business? A good place to start might be a concerted effort by the art market to make a public case for its benefits to the UK economy, led not by art dealer types like me, but (say) by artists. For better or worse, we have a political system which responds to those who shout the loudest.

Update - a reader writes:

As an unrepentant secessionist, champion of the Norway option / (potential) owner of 3 passports, might I remind you that Article 50 came slightly after the vote and the time spent outside the EU, just over 2 years, hardly constitutes the panoramic view of human affairs suggested in your article.   

Also interesting to note that the UK art market (17%), having been eclipsed by China (20%), is still larger than the rest of the single market combined. China is a very interesting case – not really a nation, more a self-contained civilisation of a billion which will inevitably come to command a greater share of the global economy as the years roll on; by contrast the artistic heritage of the West cuts across many borders and is consumed /shared by many different countries.

A far more interesting question perhaps, is why a country as trivial as the UK had such a disproportionate share of the art market in the first place? You mention the Witt Library; I would also like it to reopen. I suspect it is precisely these places, as well as the many other archives, libraries and great museums, that give London such an advantage in the global art market

I have no idea how anyone would go about it, though it would be nice if someone could gauge in tangible terms the value of such places to the British art trade (and by extension the British economy) – not least because it might allow us to put forward a more persuasive case for their reopening and continued use.

Job opportunity!

May 10 2022

Image of Job opportunity!

Picture: Courtauld Institute of Art

The Courtauld Institute in London is looking for a new director. The job spec looks pretty demanding, but they won't say what the pay is:

This person will need to have a proven track record as an innovative head of a world-leading, high profile academic or cultural institution with the ability to develop, motivate, and unify teams around a common vision. They will be respected as a leader who can deliver the highest academic standards. They will need to demonstrate significant cultural credibility, alongside strong experience negotiating within and dealing with an international environment, preferably with a strong academic leadership background. This person will also need experience of growing an enterprise which touches many different communities, including significant patrons and partners and, essentially, the public, including students and Gallery visitors. The person will need to personally lead the fundraising and development activities of the Institute that will be so important in delivering the vision.

Remuneration will be commensurate with the standing of the role.

Deadline is 31st May. If you're applying, good luck, and please re-open the Witt Library soon. More here.

The National Gallery goes viral

May 9 2022

Video: The National Gallery

The National Gallery's YouTube videos are really good these days, and can quickly generate tens of thousands of views. But I see that one from a few weeks ago has exploded with over one million views already. It's presented by Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, The Myojin-Nadar Associate Curator of Paintings 1600–1800, and looks at the c.1470 Swabian School Portrait of a Lady of the Hofer Family. The title to the video helps explain why it's such a catchy and appealing hit, 'Why does this lady have a fly on her head?' It's a great piece of art history for the digital age, bravo Francesca!

The British Museum's carbon problem

May 9 2022

Image of The British Museum's carbon problem

Picture: BM

One of the things I've been getting vexed about in my regular column for The Art Newspaper is the British Museum's NFT sales. To raise cash, the BM has signed an exclusive deal with a company called La Collection to sell NFTs of works from its own collection, some of which are being marketed for thousands of pounds. Whatever you may think of NFTs and digital art, I hope we can all regret a public museum monetising works of art the public already owns. It feels like the thin end of a worrying wedge.

Besides, in reality the BM's NFTs are simply jpegs already available on the BM's website for free, but with a line of code attached to them so they can be put on the blockchain, and so apparently give them value. Prices for one of the BM's Hokusai Great Wave NFTs have apparently reached $45,000. If you'd like one of the images for free instead, there's one at the top of this story.

Anyway, the NFT market is stalling, and you and I are not daft enough to buy one. But the reason for my latest bout of vexedness is over the huge carbon emissions the BM's NFT sales are generating. Because creating and selling NFTs is an energy intensive operation, it consumes vast amounts of carbon. For The Art Newspaper, I ran the numbers, and discovered that:

The widely used carbon-offsetting website Aerial estimates the total emissions associated with the BM’s NFTs so far is 819 tonnes of CO2. Last year, the British Museum calculated its emissions over the whole museum to be 5,861 tonnes. In only six months of selling jpegs, the BM has thus significantly increased its annual emissions. LaCollection says it will plant one tree for each NFT it makes. One tree will absorb about one tonne of CO2 over the course of 100 years. The BM said recently that it views NFTs as “a multi-year play”, so one tree per NFT is not nearly enough.

More here. You can read the BM's current environment policy document here. It's one page long and was last updated in 2007.

In case you'd like to hear more of my reactionary views on NFTs, I was interviewed by David Aaronovitch for the BBC Radio 4 programme The Briefing Room, here.

Is this Cromwell's mum?

May 9 2022

Image of Is this Cromwell's mum?

Picture: BBC News/Cromwell Museum

A picture has gone on display at the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, with the suggestion it might be Oliver Cromwell's mother. Of whom no known portraits are thought to have survived. The identification was attached to the picture from at least the mid 18th Century. However, Elizabeth Cromwell (nee Steward) was born in 1565, and this seems to be a picture of about the 1650s. Can it really show someone in her 80s? More here.

Ashmolean Pre-Raphaelites at the Watts Gallery

May 9 2022

Video: Watts Gallery

There's a new exhibition at the Watts Gallery, 'Pre-Raphaelite Treasures: Drawings and Watercolours on loan from The Ashmolean'. In the video above, curator Emily Burns give us a guided tour. Show till 12th June. More here.

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