Friday, 27 September 2013

Bad news, and good

Only known drawing of Soane's proposed house at Burn Hall, a plan showing the room layouts.  Image courtesy of Christie's
Picture: Soane Museum
The National Trust turned down the opportunity to acquire the house of former President of the Royal Academy Sir Albert Richardson with its fascinating collection, which has now been sold at Christie's. The National Trust used to acquire historic buildings, which it held in trust and preserved for posterity. Now it organises tours of the Big Brother house, perhaps to thwart anyone hoping to parody their race to the furthest depths of moronic populism. It's something to do with 'debating the meaning of heritage', apparently

The good news is that Sir John Soane's Museum bought some Soane drawings at the sale. The Soane is a wonderfully eccentric museum in the great architect's own townhouse with some first rate pictures, including two of Canaletto's masterpieces. It also has a magnificent library in the house next door, including much of Soane's work and many other drawings by architects and by old masters. I spent some days there a few years ago going through their Robert Adam drawings - most of his extant drawings are at the Soane. There's no better home for Richardson's Soane drawings. 

I'm just heading up north to see some of Adam's country houses, followed by cycling in the Pennines and then returning home via the Barber Institute in Birmingham, getting back on Monday evening for Artwatch's James Beck Memorial Lecture. It will take my mind of the National Trust's depravity.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Another downgraded Rembrandt

Picture: Getty
When I looked up this image to illustrate another post I noticed that the Getty now lists this picture as  'School of Rembrandt' . I'm sure it used to be listed as Rembrandt and Dou, which I thought was a bit optimistic. It's interesting how institutions change attributions from time to time without telling anyone (especially if it's a 'downgrade'). Shame there isn't more background on the Getty website, which doesn't give much information about its collection - although they at least make the images freely available. 

Great blogs

Picture: Getty
A reader asks which blogs I read, so here are some recommendations. 

Art History News always picks out the key stories with pithy and insightful commentary (helps that I almost always agree, too!). I love Alberti's Window3 Pipe Problem (a Raphael fan - what's not to like?) and The Frame Blog - all of these are refreshingly upbeat and a great contrast to my brand of miserablism. These blogs are deservedly famous and much-visited; I can't fail to include them on my list, but they scarcely need my endorsement.

The Idle Woman is updated very regularly with substantive reviews of films, books and exhibitions. Well-written, thoughtful and always a good source for interesting things I haven't otherwise come across.

Rembrandt's Room is recently launched, and it's tremendous. Fascinating detailed posts, including a wonderful discussion of Sweerts, an obscure artist particularly liked by the GAH.

David Packwood's blog is updated less often, but it's always interesting and his posts stand the test of time. Well worth dipping into his back catalogue. He's also launched some excellent subsidiary blogs related to his teaching.

Artwatch is simply the most important group in the artworld, calling attention to the depredations of art through bad restoration practices, the risks of damage as art travels around an endless cycle of blockbusters shows, and much else. Posts are thorough, substantive and damning. 

In theory I think it's important to read blogs with a different perspective, but it's too easy to get stuck reading things you like. I recommend Museum 2.0. I disagree with almost every word of it; all of its prejudices are contrary to mine. But it's well-written and thoughtful, so have a look and Know Your Enemy.

Outside art, I rely on The Browser for a daily dose of interesting links on a variety of topics - it's overtaken my previous favourite, Arts & Letters Daily. I must mention Spiked, as they've even published me on occasion! 

The blogosphere in economics and finance is especially rich. Debates are often very polarised, especially in academic economics. A number of top economists are active bloggers, and many of the most important and interesting debates are conducted on blogs. The place to start is Marginal Revolution, because it has lots of well-chosen links and because it is especially open-minded and honest about areas of uncertainty and ambiguity.  

My latest find is The Epicurean Dealmaker, which cannot be praised too highly. It's intelligent, thoughtful and knowledgeable on topics generally debated with stupidity, thoughtlessness and ignorance. His posts always hit the mark. Many of the finance topics that he treats are generally reported by journalists who know nearly nothing about the subjects they cover. This blog, although updated irregularly, could replace 90% of financial journalism. And it's not only right; it's also refreshingly curmudgeonly.  

That's it for the first installment. I'm sure there are others I've missed, so I'll update from time to time on my blog reading.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Do museums make you tolerant?

Picture: Crystal Bridges Museum/Stephen Ironside
Don Bacigalupi, President of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, claims that research proves that after a single visit to his museum with a one-hour tour school students "showed significant increase in critical thinking skills, levels of tolerance and an increase in historical empathy." Sounds impressive, but it's not true.  

The critical thinking score was mainly derived from the students' ability to describe works of art; 96% of the average score for 'critical thinking' came from describing a picture and working out what's going on. The remaining 4% came from things like evaluating, problem finding and flexible thinking - all the stuff we might regard as 'critical thinking'.  It seems odd to me that critical thinking should be one of the key things sought in this study, as it's not generally considered to be one of art's specific virtues. 

Common sense should tell us that such a fundamental aspect of character as tolerance is unlikely to shift measurably after half a day in a museum. I'm still an intolerant curmudgeon despite many days in art museums. The study tried to measure tolerance with four questions, but the methodological appendix concedes that the statistical measure for the internal consistency of these questions - i.e. if they are actually testing the same thing - "falls short of conventional standards". When asked about the statement 'Artists whose work is critical of America should not be allowed to have their work shown in art museums', 32% of students who'd been on the trip agreed versus 35% of those who hadn't. That small difference is meaningful, but the failure to demonstrate that they have a coherent measure for tolerance means you can't claim that school trips to art museums make children more tolerant. The internal consistency score for historical empathy was also weak and only marginally achieved the minimum standard to be regarded as statistically valid. 

Bacigalupi is right to say "no one would dispute the cultural enrichment that [school museum trips] affords these children", which makes me wonder why they're struggling so hard to justify them. We should be especially sceptical of this research because it reinforces generally held views about the value of cultural visits. We're predisposed to give more credence to research that supports our views, and to disbelieve research that challenges our prejudices. But research isn't true just because it's palatable.

The research showed that kids recalled stuff they'd been told a few weeks earlier. And they were able to apply what they'd learned; kids who'd been to Crystal Bridges scored better when writing about a picture they hadn't seen on the trip. Shocking news - children can be educated! I jest, but it's a serious point. The article makes the important observation that school museum trips often eschew teaching in favour of facilitated discussion, on the erroneous assumption that kids won't retain information that's fed to them. I think some of the findings have been over-stated and some important details are hidden away in the statistical appendix, but this is a robust, interesting and useful study. 

Crystal Bridges is over-selling this research, which is irresponsible and unnecessary. But that's not to question the merit of their school tours. From what I can see, it's a serious and well-thought-out programme that sets high standards. It stands tall on its own merits, and has no need of Bacigalupi's extravagant claims. 

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

New acquisitions at the Meadows


One of my favourite museums has just announced a bumper crop of six acquisitions, including a rare colour drawing by Valdes Léal (left) and a panel from a tabernacle by Alonso Cano (right). The Meadows is a museum of Spanish art with some spectacular pictures - outstanding Murillos, Velazquez's wonderful Sibyl and a great Goya alongside fine and unusual pictures by less well known artists. The overall quality is high and I was impressed by the less well-known works, although the condition is rather mixed. The Meadows website is disappointing - there's no comprehensive catalogue of the collection and the illustrations of the new acquisitions are poor. The newly acquired portraits by Miguel Jacinto Meléndez seem to be of more antiquarian than artistic interest. But great to see such an active acquisitions strategy. The Meadows is really one of the best places to appreciate Spanish art. It's a balanced and interesting collection on a small scale in a wonderful building. Worth a trip to Dallas, and you can take in the Kimbell too.

Self-destruction at the Museums Association

Picture: Tate
The Museums Association seems never to have liked museums very much. It always wants them to be something else, something more entertaining and more audience-focused (whatever that means) and more in tune with fashionable nostrums about inclusion and access. Maurice Davies, who is always wrong, summed it up in the title of a recent blog post, 'Stupid Curators'. He thinks the public knows best, except when the public disagrees with him

Some curators took umbrage at their professional association calling them 'stupid' (who'd have thought it?). Their balanced and reasonable comments make an excellent case for the importance of curators. Maurice Davies tried to defend himself with a follow-up post, with a revealing discussion in the comments. He says that he was brought up provocative and provacative he will remain (all to the good, but it rather misses the point that people objected to the substance rather than the style). But when another contributor responded in similarly robust style, Davies accused him of hysteria and libel. 

The defensiveness is telling. The Museums Association's 'Museums Change Lives' agenda reflects ideas that are now less fashionable in government circles. They claim to speak for the people, but the people don't want the things the Museums Association wants for them. And the curatorial profession is rightly standing up for itself against this daft onslaught. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

'Provenance' and other recent books

Picture: Amazon
Gail Feigenbaum and Inge Reist (eds) Provenance: An alternative history of art Getty 2013

I'm attracted to quirky books, and a history of provenance sounded fascinating. But this is dreadful. Chapters are short and superficial, and the claims made from the evidence of former ownership are not sustainable. Knowing the history of ownership in isolation tells you little; it needs economic, cultural and social context. This volume falls into the trap of reading too much into the raw data of ownership without considering its context. 

Elizabeth A. Pergam's chapter Provenance as Pedigree: The marketing of British portraits in gilded age America starts badly with the claim that the role of dealers is overlooked in the history of gilded age collecting. Overlooked? Art dealer Joseph Duveen might be the most famous character in gilded age collecting, subject of numerous biographies and mentioned in virtually every book about gilded age collectors and collections. Elsewhere she surmises that Duveen Brothers must have been especially anxious to sell a picture because they'd owned it for four years. That fundamentally misunderstands Duveen's business practice, which was often to hold stock for many decades. Indeed when Norton Simon bought the remnants of Duveen in 1964 it included pictures they'd bought more than fifty years earlier. Some of the works sold to Mellon in 1937 came from collections bought three decades earlier. Neglect of context like this means her conclusions are often untenable. For example:
The social formalities embodied in eighteenth-century British portraits, which made them so popular with collectors of the Gilded Age - Huntington, Morgan, and Frick - were less appealing to collectors who had experienced the horrors of Old World politics as manifested in the First World War and the economic crisis of the Depression. Where once identity - and the social hierarchies inherent in family name and association - had been the standard for evaluating a portrait, after the so-called Great War, American art institutions turned instead to aesthetics as the basis for value. (p.117)
Huh? All this is on the evidence of two exhibitions at Duveen Brothers. But simply looking at the collections disproves these daft claims. The portraits bought by Huntington and Frick were of supreme artistic quality (Gainsborough's Blue Boy, Mall in St. James's Park, Hon. Frances Duncomb, Lawrence's Pinkie, Lady Peel - most of which are not of famous aristos). Where is the evidence that 'experience' of World War I changed the outlook of collectors? These absurd claims are unsupported with the evidence supplied, and just ridiculous if considered in a wider context. 

There are some interesting morsels in here, but it's often marred by an attempt to stretch the material too far, to narrate an 'alternative history of art' rather than to elaborate on some fascinating footnotes to the history of art.   
Picture: Amazon

I picked up this book expecting to scoff at the hyperbole of the reviewers, but it deserves the hype. It's a fascinating account of fighting wars today, self-consciously updating the great enlightenment military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. Simpson was a British officer in Afghanistan; like Clausewitz, he's experienced was first hand, and like Clausewitz he brings learning and intellectual sophistication to his task of making sense of war.

Simpson weaves together his own experiences with a discussion of history, theory and politics. Fascinating insights abound. Military thought oscillates between excessive conservatism ('just read Clausewitz') and excessive presentism, thinking that globalisation and technology mean that the past is history. Simpson navigates these excesses with aplomb. He recognises that strategy has always sought to engage audiences rather than simply batter an enemy into submission, but he also recognises that the nature of those audiences and the means of engagement have changed.

I doubt Simpson has studied Hegel, but he's an instinctive Hegelian. This wonderful passage introduces a chapter on strategic narrative, and it's a concrete example of how contingency is retrospectively understood as necessity:
Policy starts as an abstract idea, because by logic it has not been achieved yet; policy finishes as a set of accomplished facts, the policy end-state, which in many cases may not meet the original intent, and may not represent a clear end point, as policy in a conflict merges into post-conflict policy ... [strategic narrative] explains policy in the context of the proposed set of actions in the abstract, and then explains those actions, having been executed, in terms of how they relate back to policy. (p.180)
So much richer than some of the army PowerPoint charts he reproduces later in the chapter!

I've rarely been so excited by a new book. It buzzes with ideas. You'll find this book rewarding even if you don't think military strategy is your thing. The conclusion makes it clear the wider relevance of his analysis given the promiscuous deployment of force by liberal democracies today.
Picture: Amazon

Frantz Schmidt executed 394 people, and flogged, maimed and tortured many more. He was an executioner, chiefly in Nuremberg, and he kept a journal recounting his professional achievements. The physical barbarism is utterly alien to modern sensibilities (execution by beheading was considered the merciful alternative!), but equally striking is the calibrated imposition of violence - should we tear the flesh with red hot pincers twice or four times on the way to execution?

This is really first rate social history, interesting throughout. We know that rank and status were vitally important in early modern Europe, but this book brings it to life with the discussion of the 'untouchable' position of the executioner, forbidden to drink in taverns, attend church or take part in public festivals. We learn about sixteenth century crime, from the petty criminals who won't take 'expulsion' for an answer, and the ghastliness of highwaymen's crimes. 

It's a fascinating tale, but Schmidt's journal was more a record of work than a reflective diary - which is interesting in itself, of course, but rather limits its narrative potential. Harrington honestly describes the limitations of his source, but he seems sometimes to compensate by embellishing the narrative with dubious details. How can we know that Schmidt "followed with amazement, and no doubt disgust, the mass trials and burnings in the Franconian countryside" (p. 206)? The evidence is weak; Harrington notes that Nuremberg resisted the witch-hunting craze, and guesses that Schmidt was 'disgusted' by witch burning. It was disgusting, but why should Schmidt think it so when his contemporaries clearly did not?

The conclusion reaches even further beyond the evidence of the diary, making sweeping claims about the decline of judicial violence in the generations after Schmidt. He claims that the subsequent decline in public executions was because the state felt more secure. It could afford clemency because it no longer had to demonstrate its power with regular public executions. Harrington might be right, but his claims are not supported by his source, and there is little argumentation or discussion of wider literature. It rests on the borrowed authority of Schmidt's story. And Harrington's focus on state security doesn't account for the wider decline of violence in society.

A riveting read but beware its more sweeping conclusions. 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Failed Banks


Ray Perman Hubris: How HBOS wrecked the best bank in Britain Berlinn 2013
Iain Martin Making it Happen: Fred Goodwin, RBS and the men who blew up the British Economy Simon & Schuster 2013

The Royal Bank of Scotland and Halifax Bank of Scotland were two of the world's most successful and admired banks until their spectacular failure in the 2008 financial crisis. RBS was bailed out by the government and HBOS was taken over by Lloyds TSB, which in turn had to be bailed out. These recent books by journalists Ray Perman and Iain Martin tell their stories. Both narratives are fast paced and fluently written with plenty of good anecdotes. They are enjoyable reads that illuminate an aspect of the credit crunch. But these accounts are partial, the authors' knowledge of finance is weak and description overwhelms explanation. 

The very title of Iain Martin's book conflates the story of RBS with the story of its notorious former CEO Fred Goodwin. He notes that Goodwin has assumed the role of pantomime villain, and there are lots of entertaining and horrifying anecdotes. Martin dishes the dirt, but he provides balance and nuance. Goodwin bullied his staff, but was reluctant to sack them (especially face to face). He tore strips of subordinates, but was nervous of confronting Johnny Cameron, head of the Global Banking and Markets division. Former chairman Bob Mckillop reveals a more constructive relationship with the board than is generally recognised, and Goodwin's successor Stephen Hester is quite generous. But the overall verdict is damning.  

At Goodwin's executive Christmas lunch one year there a game "involving assorted bankers dipping a finger in sambuca, one lighting it and then passing around the flame, with the first person to opt out declared a sissy" (p.155; I wonder if it would be wrong to propose that game at my work Christmas lunch this year?). More seriously, the book describes his bullying of subordinates, his insistence that targets are met at any cost and his absurd focus on superficial details like the colour of the bank's corporate Mercedes and the carpet in its offices. But this appalling character eclipses the story of the business he ran. 

Many of the Goodwin stories in this book were widely circulated before his downfall. But he was feted as a great leader; he was Forbes' 'Businessman of the Year' and subject of a fawning Harvard Business School case study. Regulators assessed the management of RBS more favourably than that of more conservative Lloyds TSB (p.176). Investors supported his aggressive growth strategies and audacious acquisitions. When Bob McKillop talked to fund managers after assuming the RBS chairmanship he was given a clear message that the shareholders valued Fred Goodwin. People often accept bad behaviour when it generates good results. Steve Jobs was regarded as a bully and a perfectionist too, but Apple prospered so he is still seen as a role model. Indeed, his character is taken as a explanation for Apple's success just as Goodwin's (similar) character is now taken as an explanation for RBS's failure.  

The focus on personality means that other reasons for the RBS collapse are downplayed. The biggest single factor was the disastrous ABM Amro acquisition; an assessment of the bank's prospects without ABN would have been interesting. The Bank followed a similar growth strategy to many of its rivals, but there is no assessment of RBS's relative performance on a stand-alone basis. The discussion of the regulator's failure to challenge its strategy is superficial, and there is no account of why investors backed it so willingly. The story of RBS is sui generis, but the explanation of its collapse involves factors common to the entire industry - many of which are abstract and complex and don't make for a good narrative.

The book works as an extended feature article about Fred Goodwin, but Martin spoils it by trying to address wider questions of bank regulation that he scarcely understands. He mentions the Efficient Market Hypothesis, but he doesn't know what it is (it does not hold that investors will act wholly rationally if they have access to the same information - p.313). His understanding of Value at Risk is sketchy - it's not a measure of risk to the whole balance sheet, as Martin implies (p.220). He describes the process of using retail deposits to fund the wholesale bank by saying that vans came around the branches to collect the money for head office (p.62). The reality is less literal. He wants smaller banks to avoid the 'too big to fail' problem, but doesn't address the risk of systemic failure by a large number of smaller firms (like the savings and loans crisis in the US). 

The most insightful and interesting part of the book is the account of Martin's discussion with Stephen Hester, which explains the background to his recent surprise departure from the bank. Hester is better than Martin at summing up RBS's failure. The attributed quotes from Hester are revealing of the book's reliance on interviews with biased internal sources with a personal interest in heaping blame on Goodwin to exonerate themselves. It makes it hard to second-guess Martin's narrative, because only he had access to those sources and only he has the interview notes. The book is sparsely referenced, which means we have to take the narrative on trust. It also means that we should be especially cautious of its account, and accept that there is still a lot of uncertainty about what really went on. 

Perman's book about HBOS also focuses on personalities, but the personalities are smaller and the anecdotes less compelling. Perman is also more insistent with his wrong-headed prescriptions about banking, contrasting aggressive practices of the go-go years with a golden age of decent banking that is in fact wholly mythical. The book suffers from a surfeit of errors of fact and of understanding; Perman especially struggles when he tries to explain securitisation. He thinks that bankers used to borrow long term and lend short term (their role has always been exactly the opposite). He thinks that sub-prime mortgage securities were never rated AAA (they were deliberately structured to ensure AAA ratings). He thinks that HBOS fared little better than RBS in its rights issue (HBOS take-up was under 9%, RBS was 100%). 

Perman's romanticisation of old-fashioned banking is pure hokum. Old-fashioned banking was just as prone to crises, and it was much worse at providing credit to worthy borrowers. An old hand at one Scottish bank once told me that when he started out in banking his boss told him to follow the 'three Cs': "never lend to coons, Catholics or council house tenants". When branch managers had to rely on their instincts this kind of prejudice was widespread, if rarely expressed so crudely. The credit scoring systems that Perman scorns consistently perform better than 'expert' human judgment in retail lending decisions. |But Perman makes no attempt to consider contrary evidence, or even to argue for turning the clock back. He simply presents it as an obvious improvement that needs no justification.

The book is not wholly without merit. It debunks the popular myth that Lloyds TSB was forced by the government to take over HBOS and it describes the institutional politics well. But it has the same faults of partiality as Martin's book, plus a few more all of its own. 

These books are enjoyable tales about the institutional politics at two banks at the centre of the credit crunch. But they are partial accounts relying on biased sources, and both authors struggle to explain the wider context of these firms' failures. It's easy and reassuring to see the financial crisis as the outcome of bad decisions by corrupt or incompetent individuals. It gives us people to blame, and it implies simple prescriptions for avoiding future crises. There were corrupt and incompetent people, and their stories should be told. But those stories should not be mistaken for explanations of the credit crunch. 

[Full disclosure: the author works for RBS and previously worked for Lloyds, which bought HBOS. This review is written in a personal capacity.]

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Rembrandt the National Gallery

Picture: NG

These great late Rembrandts are back from exhibition in Haarlem and I'm delighted that the NG has hung them exactly where I recommended. They look much better on a long wall with space to see them from the side, and the lighting is better too. I'm sure it wasn't really my post that inspired them, but whatever the reason it's a great improvement and you can really appreciate the masterful way Rembrandt has positioned the sitters so they appear to engage you directly whether you view them face on, or from the right or left.

But unfortunately they are newly glazed. The NG usually uses very high quality glass, but there were still distracting reflections. I do hope they're not economising with inferior glass. The information department could only tell me that it's 'laminated'.

The glass was added by the NG before the pictures went out on loan. The NG's policy is to glaze pictures that are most at risk of being touched by visitors - intricate still lifes, for example, that people sometimes poke by mistake when pointing out fine details. These are not especially at risk, except that they are hung in the Orange Wing where the recent reduction in the number of guards means that their room is often unattended. When I was there at the weekend several rooms in that wing were closed 'until further notice' due to staff shortages. The Claude room, containing part of the greatest collection of Claudes in the world, seems to be closed more often than not. It always seems to be the first victim when there aren't enough staff.

Protecting the paintings must be paramount, and sometimes that means glazing is necessary. But cost-cutting is a bad justification, and it would be a shame if seeing pictures through glass becomes the norm simply because the gallery can't afford enough guards.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Exhibition damage: NG director speaks out (confidentially)

National Gallery director Nicholas Penny knows of ten major accidents to works of art in transit. We know about them only because the Scottish Parliament mistakenly published his submission on the proposal to allow the Burrell Collection to go on tour. It's now been removed, but Phil Miller's report is in the Glasgow Herald. Details are so secret that Penny was willing to describe the incidents only to a single 'trustworthy' individual nominated by the Scottish government. 

The official response to Penny's comments is thoughtless. Penny is one of the greatest living art historians and the director of the UK's premier art gallery, but his concerns are brusquely dismissed by Glasgow Life, which runs the Burrell, by asserting that their staff are expert in 'risk assessment'. Worse, they avoid the question of damage in transit by answering a different question - reporting that there have been no claims for damage arising from loans from Glasgow museums. That's a very different thing from no damage. 

Lots of small accidents and minor scuffs might not be worth claiming under insurance, but they represent a real diminution of irreplaceable works of art. It is in any case moronic to assert that risks are acceptable because a sample of a few hundred loans has resulted in no major accidents. That's like saying that smoking is safe because you've smoked a few hundred cigarettes without getting cancer. And rejecting Penny's experience of damage is like saying that evidence of other smokers getting cancer is irrelevant because only your own experience counts (after all, they're especially expert in risk assessment).

Anyone who's moved house knows that no matter how much care you take, stuff sometimes gets damaged when you move it. Lots of people have warned of the obvious dangers from constant touring shows - not least Nicholas Penny himself. But it's almost never reported. I spotted a damaged frame at the Wallace Collection that I'm sure would never have been reported if I hadn't seen it. Penny's testimony reveals that significant damage is more common than we realise, and each of those instances represents an irretrievable diminution of human culture. 

Penny is an outstanding scholar, connoisseur and museum director who almost always says the right thing. But he is constrained by a zeitgeist that values art only as entertainment or as therapy. He is politically acute and avoids publicity; it was noteworthy that the Leonardo exhibition was fronted by curator Luke Syson, whereas almost every other museum director would seek personal credit. I understand his reticence and respect his methods. But it is utterly contemptible that the museum world's omerta hides the damage done by its incessant parade of exhibitions. They are responsible for protecting the works of art in their care, and they must be held accountable for that responsibility. They cannot be held to account if incidents of damage are kept secret.

This is the most important art story of the year, but so far it's reported only in the Glasgow Herald. Please pass it on!

Thanks to Tiffany Jenkins for the tip, and Phil Miller for breaking the story.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Books in brief

As a professional grump I like to spend my summers secluded at home with piles of books, waiting for grey and miserable weather to return so I can go outdoors again. Here are some recent reads.
Katharine Baetjer British Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1575-1875 Yale University Press 2010

I was impressed by the Met's recent catalogue of German paintings. This one, not so much. There is no introduction, on the pretext that the Met's collection isn't sufficiently comprehensive to illustrate a full account of the history of British painting. Even if the collection were comprehensive, the catalogue wouldn't need to give a potted history of British art. The history of the collection is a more interesting and relevant topic for a museum catalogue, and the gilded age buccaneers and rich aesthetes who patronised the Met are especially interesting characters. The gaps that Baetjer fails to enumerate are interesting in their own right, revealing of the history of taste and the accidents of acquisition.

One of the most useful services of museum catalogues is rigorously describing the physical condition of objects. Are those basement pictures mediocre, or are they good pictures in mediocre condition? Don't look here for the answers. Unlike the catalogue of German paintings there's no separate section on condition, just some inconsistent impressionistic commentary. For example, a Reynolds Portrait of a Woman (42.152.1): "The picture, although worn and flattened in the process of an old lining, has a certain gentle charm." She move straight from a description of condition to a subjective assessment of the picture's charm, introducing a positive comment to ameliorate the description of the picture's deplorable condition. And we are told nothing about who lined it, or when, or how badly flattened, or whether it was worn at the same time as the lining or in separate cleaning(s). The one substantive entry on condition is for the large Reynolds The Honourable Henry Fane with Inigo Jones and Charles Blair, but it's an apologia rather than an objective description of condition. 

Images are good and the catalogue entries have some merit, but this book is unacceptable for a major museum collection.
Éric Pagliano L'atelier de l'oeuvre: Catalogue des dessins exposé suivi du répertoire du fonds Snoeck 2013

My poor French should disqualify me from reviewing this book, but even I can tell that it's excellent. It accompanied an exhibition of the Musée Fabre's fabulous French drawings (which I missed, alas), but it catalogues the museum's entire collection of Italian drawings, with substantive entries on the more important drawings and summaries with thumbnail pictures of the rest. 

The illustrations are superb. There is a picture of their Raphael Disputa study in raking light showing stylus marks, which are too rarely illustrated in art books. The discussion of their Raphael study for the Northbrook Madonna is interesting; the finished painting in Worcester, Mass. is given here to Raphael and collaborator, but it is more usually regarded as a studio production. The problem is that it's clearly not good enough to be an unaided Raphael, but it was certainly designed by Raphael and is too good for any known collaborator at the time (c.1504/5). Meyer zur Capellen solves the problem by inventing the Master of the Northbrook Madonna. I haven't seen the original, but the arguments for Raphael's participation in the painting seem weak to me.

It's a superb catalogue, fascinating throughout. 

John Martin Robinson James Wyatt: Architect to George III Yale University Press 2012

This book transformed my view of Wyatt, whom I'd underestimated. Many of his greatest buildings are lost, including the amazing Pantheon on Oxford Street, which was widely influenctial. He was prolific and many of his country houses are blocky, boring and repetitive. But his best - including Heaton Hall and Castle Coole in Co. Fermanagh - stand comparison with Adam. Robinson's book is especially interesting on the rivalry between Wyatt and Adam. My main complaint on finishing the book was that I wanted more. The discussion of Heaton Hall really called for plans to supplement the photographs, for example.  
Christopher Rowell (ed) Ham House: 400 years of collecting and patronage National Trust/Yale University Press 2013

This edited collection gives a kaleidoscopic view of a fascinating seventeenth century house on the Thames in outer London. It's the star of a thousand period dramas, so you'll know it even if you haven't heard of it. Short insightful chapters discuss many aspects of its history, contents and architecture. 

Simon Swynfen Jervis's chapter on the public ownership of Ham is especially interesting. He reports that Leigh Ashton, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, was quite happy to take the house without its historically important contents so that he could gain a venue to display the V&A's 'overspill' furniture. Sadly some of the content was lost (including much of the ceramic collection), but most was saved, in part because the valuation of Ham's contents fell from £150k in 1930 to £90k in 1948 due to the collapse in the American market for British portraits. 

Jervis is overly reticent on the debates between the V&A and National Trust and the conflict between presenting the seventeenth century house versus showing layers of ownership (the NT approach). The NT was the freeholder, but the V&A owned the contents and administered the house until 1990. Jervis's description of the debate feels deracinated and theoretical. You can't decide between presenting layers of ownership or authentic originality in the abstract, only in the context of specific choices - and not enough information is given on these debates to decide. This chapter should have been longer, and it should have told more tales. It reveals that the V&A was cavalier in redecorating the house, sometimes cheaply and crudely. In the 1980s Maurice Tomlin held the line against crass popularisation, but one wonders who stands up to the bullying philistinism of the NT today.
Zareer Masani Macaulay: Britain's Liberal Imperialist Bodley Head 2013
This is a splendid short biography of a fascinating Victorian character - politician, imperial administrator and bestselling historian. Masani emphasises too much the links with the present; we cannot know what Macaulay would have thought about politics today, and I for one do not care. But the account of his life is wonderful; I find Victorian polymaths inspiring. I loved the picture of the elderly Macaulay in his library, and the description of his Albany flat: "every corner of which was library ... the walls were hung with half a dozen fine Italian engravings from his favourite Great Masters; a handsome French clock provided 'a singularly melodious set of chimes'; and there were bronze statuettes of Voltaire and Rousseau" (p.172). It cost 90 guineas a year (about £4,200 today).

I've also recently read a couple of superb short novels. Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station is a mini-bildungsroman about an American poet in Madrid. In an early scene the poet gets to the Prado for opening time to meditate in front of Rogier van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross - an excellent choice! The American poet is an unlovable but believable character, a compelling mix of degenerate drop-out and earnest student. 

Amy Sackville's Orkney is beautifully written and wonderfully evocative of colour and mood. The story is about an old lecturer going to Orkney with his much younger wife. We slowly learn more about the past. Poignant and brilliant.