Thursday, 27 March 2014

Renaissance Impressions at the Royal Academy

Picture: Amazon

This is the show to see in London. It doesn't compare to Veronese for the brilliance of the art on display, but whereas Veronese brings together mostly familiar masterpieces that are always on public view, this shows unfamiliar works that are rarely seen alone, let alone in context. There are no knock-out masterpieces, and some are of little artistic merit. But it's a rare and wonderful opportunity to see a fascinating aspect of mannerist art. 

Printing used to be a linear medium; shading was accomplished with hatched lines. But in the sixteenth century German artists developed a chiaroscuro technique, using separate woodblocks for line and tone to create colour and shade. The earliest are among the best including an outstanding Burgkmair portrait and a striking Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns by Beham. There's also an impression of Dürer's famous Rhinoceros that was posthumously turned into a chiaroscuro print by adding a tone block.

Some of the later prints are rather crude, but Beccafumi, Ugo da Carpi and Goltzius developed chiaroscuro prints to a high artistic level. I loved Beccafumi's tiny Group of Men and Women and Ugo da Carpi's masterful Diogenes. There are three versions of Diogenes on display, showing how much variation can be achieved with different colours. It's worth going just to see these three prints alongside each other.
Picture: RA
The final section shows northern mannerism, including two impressions of Goltzius's magnificent Hercules Killing Cacus (above), both from the Baselitz collection, and some lovely landscapes.  

Lots of chiaroscuro prints were copies of famous works by artists including Raphael, Parmigianino and Mantegna, making them fascinating documents in the diffusion of renaissance images as well as works of art in their own right. The copies of mannerist sculptures are particularly interesting. There are prints by Andrea Andreani after Giambologna's Rape of a Sabine Woman, which he then incorporates into a larger print of Rape of the Sabine Women. I don't care  for many of the copies as works of art, but they are still enormously interesting. They show how the great artistic leaps made by artists like Raphael were actually experienced by the majority of people who couldn't travel to see the originals. 

The exhibition is a funny hybrid that shows off a single private collection, but augments it with loans from one of the world's greatest print collections to provide more context on chiaroscuro prints. I think it works, although I don't know enough to judge any gaps. I thought Baseltiz's prints would be rather eclipsed by the Albertina's, but they hold their own. The supplementary loans complement Baselitz's collection, and I left impressed by the coherence and quality of the Baselitz collection, and impressed by the comprehensive overview of the chiaroscuro print.

Unfortunately Royal Academy catalogues are becoming a joke; they're just picture books padded out with wall text and a few short articles. It's an opportunity to fleece mugs like me who feel they have to have a permanent record of the exhibition, which leaves a bitter taste. That's a shame, because it's such a good show. I can't say that I love chiaroscuro woodcuts, but they are a fascinating aspect of mannerism and it's a great tribute to the RA that I loved the exhibition despite not greatly liking, or even admiring, many of the exhibits. Do go along if you can. It might not be the most spectacular show, but the old cliché about a 'once in a lifetime' opportunity may actually apply here. Big names get shown over and over again. It's the dusty corners of art history that continue to be neglected. 

Monday, 24 March 2014

A new Titian drawing?

Image of New Titian drawing discovered
Picture: National Gallery of Scotland
This drawing has been reported by the Herald and Scotsman newspapers as a newly discovered Titian. It was bought by the National Gallery of Scotland in 2007 as 'Attributed to Jacopo Bassano' for £30k (£25k hammer price against an upper estimate of £20k). It has only just become news, seven years after its purchase, because the National Gallery has included it in a new exhibition with an upgraded internal attribution to Titian. It had previously been exhibited in the US with a more tentative attribution, but with a catalogue entry that explained the case for Titian. It's notable that the reports of the new attribution don't cite any sources for the upgrade. Although a number of experts were consulted at the time of the purchase, and the drawing has been widely seen since, there don't seem to have been any new endorsements. All that has changed is that the gallery is now expressing its  long-held internal view more forcefully.

Attribution of Titian drawings is especially tricky because there are so very few secure works. He was a prolific painter, but he developed his compositions on the canvas, often making major changes as he went along, which are now visible in x-rays. His drawing style is not especially distinctive and many attributions have been debated between different Venetian artists. 

Titian drawings are controversial because different scholars have fundamentally different conceptions of Titian as a draughtsman, with some restricting the corpus severely and others allowing many more into the canon. As an opposite case, take Parmigianino, a prolific and brilliant draughtsman with a quite distinctive style. With Parmigianino attributions, the primary consideration is quality - is this good enough for Parmigianino? With Titian, there is a prior question about the kind of draughtsman you think he was.

Philosophers and political theorists use the term 'essentially contested concept' for ideas that mean very different things in different theoretical contexts.* The term 'democracy', for example, means something different to a liberal and to a Stalinist. You can't engage in a neutral debate about the true and proper meaning of democracy using data or logical argument, because each tradition has a distinctive but coherent understanding of the term. There's something analogous with Titian's drawings. You can't attribute just on the basis of formal analysis, because the argument is partly about what kind of draughtsman Titian was. This problem isn't unique to Titian, but it hasn't received much attention in debates about connoisseurship.

For all the controversy about 'neinsagers' who dispute the attributions of others, it's striking that people haven't rushed forward to dispute this highly controversial attribution. I think the problem in the art world is that there aren't enough neinsagers. The incentives are all skewed towards new attributions - not just financial, but the sheer excitement of new discovery. Many will inevitably be challenged over time and eventually fall away, with much less fanfare than the original attribution. But for many artists, there is a single recognised expert who arbitrates attribution, or at most a small handful of scholars. We are beholden not only to their connoisseurial eye, but also to their possibly flawed or at least contestable conception of the artist they're arbitrating. Neinsagers don't make many friends, and they are vulnerable to the charge of being less expert than the 'YAY-sayers', or of being merely miserable party-poopers. And professionals are understandably wary of treading on each other's toes. New attributions are often treated as settled once the accepted experts have opined. There ought to be more critical scrutiny.

I don't claim any expertise in Titian drawings, but I'm certainly sceptical. Quality alone doesn't prove the case, but from reproduction I think better anonymous Venetian drawings have been sold recently for similar prices. That said, I have no criticism of the National Gallery of Scotland. I think it was a fine acquisition at a reasonable price, and good but anonymous or uncertain drawings are often better value for money, even if they don't make good headlines. It's exactly the kind of drawing they should be buying. I think the full attribution to Titian is ambitious, but full credit to them for having the courage of their convictions and making such a bold claim. But it is disappointing that it only becomes a story when a big name (& potentially big price tag) is attached to it.

* W.B. Gallie 'Essentially Contested Concepts' Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Vol 56 (1956) pp. 167-198. I'm simplifying Gallie's argument a bit to emphasise the relevant point for my argument.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

William Kent exhibition at the V&A

The Gallery, Chiswick House, William Henry Hunt, 1828, watercolour. © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees
Picture: V&A, (C) Chatsworth Settlement Trustees
William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain Victoria and Albert Museum to July 13

William Kent was the go-to architect and designer in early Georgian England. He was fortunate to be working at a time when a lot of grand country houses were being built; Robert Adam had to content himself with renovations and interior decoration, whereas Kent was given a relatively free hand by wealthy and enlightened patrons. We are fortunate that several of the best houses he worked on have survived more-or-less intact, including Holkham Hall, which is a grand mansion in Norfolk, and Chiswick House, which is an exquisite villa in a London suburb. Kent was influenced by Italy, and especially by Palladio, but his style is quite distinctive and unlike Palladio he designed the furniture and interiors as well as the buildings.

There are some fine things in this show. I enjoyed seeing the originals of some of the famous interior drawings, including Houghton Hall with the original picture hang and the nineteenth century watercolours of Chiswick (above). There's some great furniture too. I love the owl motif on the desk and mirror from Chiswick. But the exhibition is overall a failure. Partly that's because it's hard to curate an exhibition about architecture, and partly it's because the curation is just bad. 

Handel is played in the background, the ultimate cliché of Georgian England. It might be merely thoughtless and unimaginative, but I suspect it's trying to engage an audience with something familiar. That's even worse, because it shies away from anything challenging in favour of a tedious Merchant Ivory country house ethos. I hate music in exhibitions because it imposes a mood, forcing us to experience it exactly as the curatorial apparatchiks want to make us experience it. It imposes emotion and closes down meaning.

Cheap looking backdrops hang behind the exhibits, and looped films of country house interiors play alongside original works of art. Lest you're tempted to dally, some of the more intricate drawings are hung behind four foot deep stands. The wall text is minimalist and you have to snake along a narrow corridor, making it difficult to linger or to go back for a second look. It's more like watching television rather than reading a book. A book might make an argument, but you can choose how you engage with it, reading at your own pace and pausing to consider. A documentary imposes a pace. It is totalising; sound and vision are used to tell a story, which we must passively consume. 

The display is as bad as it could be, but there are inherent difficulties in mounting this show. Kent wasn't a great draughtsman or painter. Some of the furniture is good, but can be seen better in situ. Rather than seeing new connections in the exhibition, it just seemed marooned and out of context. Some of the best pieces are usually displayed at Burlington House, just a few miles from the V&A, in the interiors for which they were designed. Sadly a lot of the furniture designed for Chiswick, including some in the exhibition, is now at Chatsworth House. It would be nice if they'd put it on permanent loan to Chiswick; they do have an awful lot of good furniture at Chatsworth. But it looks better even at Chatsworth than in this show. 

The disappointment is greater because the catalogue is so magnificent, a great doorstopper of a book and a brilliant work of scholarship. Do go along to the V&A to buy a discounted copy (still £45, but worth it). Skip the exhibition and look at the Renaissance sculpture instead. The tenner you save will offset the cost of the catalogue.

Thursday, 20 March 2014


Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice National Gallery London to 15 June

This is a stunning and visually thrilling exhibition. The Martyrdom of St George (above) really grabs your attention when you first glimpse it through a doorway at the NG's Veronese show. It still lives in a church in Verona; it's hard to get to and hard to see. In the NG's main galleries it's well lit and looks absolutely magnificent. It's a glorious masterpiece of Italian art that few have seen.

Veronese is often cited as part of the Venetian triumvirate TitianTintorettoVeronese, but as the catalogue explains his art was formed before he moved to Venice, and was influenced by northern artists like Moroni and the high renaissance innovations of Michelangelo and (especially) Raphael, directly and via Giulio Romano. Veronese's own particular superpower was his ability to depict drapery - those stunning shimmering fabrics are terrific. But in the St George we can see how well he assimilated the likes of Raphael in his mastery of gesture, his ability to tie together a complex group of people in an effective composition. You can see just how far he'd come by comparing the National Gallery's own conspicuously youthful Conversion of Mary Magdalene.

Veronese is a good subject for a monographic show. His work is familiar; he's a famous artist well-represented in most major collections. The National Gallery has ten, including the stupendous Family of Darius before Alexander. But unlike, say, Rembrandt or Titian we are less aware of his artistic development, or of his work as a whole. Partly that's because his style changed less, and partly it's because some of his best pictures are still in churches were they are seen less often and less well. I hate the disruption to the permanent collection from showing the exhibition in the main galleries, but the result is that we see the pictures in good natural light. Some of the altarpieces that still hang in churches probably haven't been seen so advantageously since they left the studio. But even the National Gallery's own pictures look better in these smaller rooms; nothing looks good in the giant gallery where they usually hang.

Veronese's pictures are variable. He was enormously prolific, which required a lot of assistance. Some of his pictures are rather damaged; the difference you can see in a reunited pair of portraits is striking. Above all, you get a feel for the challenges faced by the generation after the High Renaissance. Raphael had so effectively solved visual challenges that artists who followed could use his model without much thought. You see the same poses and gestures repeated, sometimes with less success. In one of his late pictures the figure of Mars was added as an awkward afterthought to a picture of Venus. 

It's already well-established that Veronese was a variable painter and an unintellectual artist, and this exhibition was never likely to shift those views. But it does establish the breadth of his achievement, pulling him out from the shadow of Titian and allowing us to see him whole. It shows familiar works to great advantage; I'd seen the Dresden Resurrection before, but it somehow impressed me much more in this exhibition, and even the National Gallery's Darius looks better in a different room. And above all it's a sheer visual feast of virtuoso painting, a purely enjoyable experience that doesn't require deep thought.

It's a good show, and it's easy to get carried away, but let's not lose our critical faculties. I have some grumpy observations too.

The overcrowding is hard to bear in a show of large paintings. I've come to realise that critics don't see the same show as the rest of us. For days before opening the National Gallery was re-tweeting accounts of the show by VIPs who get early access. And even if you get there for opening time, the galleries are stuffed full of private tour groups; you can't try to get straight to the end to enjoy a few rooms in peace ahead of the crowds. I get the sense that exhibitions just aren't meant for the little people like me; they are designed to be enjoyed only by the privileged few who get special access, because they alone can see it properly. 

The catalogue is a travesty. It's a good introduction to Veronese's art, and in parts it excels. The account of Veronese's development is insightful, particularly his encounter with Titian and Tintoretto. But it is inadequate as a catalogue of a major exhibition. Xavier Solomon's narrative account is punctuated with brief notes on the pictures in the exhibition, which are sometimes just an interruption to the flow of the text. But when it comes to the actual catalogue entries, we just get brief facts with no narrative. Early on he cites the importance of condition in understanding Veronese's work, but it never gets another mention in the text. The final chapter mentions his workshop, but there is no account of workshop participation in individual pictures. In parts it seems that he is padding the text to fill the word-count assignment; the account of the famous encounter with the Inquisition is dragged out for pages (read this by Jonathan Jones instead).

Charles Saumarez Smith recently argued with Nicholas Penny that exhibitions foster scholarship. This catalogue makes the opposite case; a rushed deadline meant an unacceptable book. Ironically the Royal Academy, which Saumarez Smith directs, produces the worst exhibition catalogues of all - illustrated handlists with some celebrity comments. Wasted opportunities all round.

The lighting is generally a highpoint of this exhibition, but a picture from Turin is shown in a vitrine with such awful glass that it is effectively invisible. It shouldn't have been borrowed if they can't display it properly; there is still time to change the vitrine, and the cost will be well worth it. And the lack of drawings is a great shame, given how important draughtsmanship was to Veronese's art. I quite understand that they couldn't be shown in the main skylit galleries, but a selection in Room 1 (currently closed) would have been a great complement to the show.

I got a season ticket, which is the only way to see the more crowded exhibitions. These are my initial impressions, but I look forward to going again and again over the coming weeks.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Art as an Investment

Picture: Amazon
Melanie Gerlis Art as an Investment: A survey of comparative assets Lund Humphries 2014 £30

The case against art as an investment can be simply stated. It doesn't produce an income stream, so 'investors' are just speculating on price rises. It's highly illiquid, and transaction costs are enormous. But there is a persistent belief in the merits of art as an alternative investment, so this thorough and comprehensive book is welcome. Melanie Gerlis is the art market correspondent for The Art Newspaper, but her previous career in finance has served her well in navigating the debates on the economics of the art market. She examines the art market in relation to more conventional investment categories such as gold, property and private equity. There is interesting material throughout, and I found the discussion of art rental particularly rewarding, as in theory it could allow art to generate an income stream, which would be a more robust basis for valuing art as a financial asset. I fully share Gerlis's scepticism about art as an investment, but the book is not a polemic; it is carefully analytic and balanced.

I was frustrated by lots of points that weren't quite right. None was integral to the argument, but it still niggles. For example, counterparty risk does not arise with fiat currency (the purported 'promise to pay' on British bank notes does not represent any real obligation), prices that move in opposite directions are negatively correlated not uncorrelated, there is no banking law in the UK that says that art as loan collateral must be stored in a warehouse, the best wine producers do not have to obtain 100 points from Robert Parker (no one achieves that every year), and I think sellers' premiums are levied even more rarely than Gerlis implies. But this is nit-picking. Gerlis understands art as an asset class as well as anyone, and her clearly argued book is the best guide to the subject. 

Monday, 10 March 2014

The National Portrait Gallery and beyond: my weekend in London

The Great War in Portraits  at the National Portrait Gallery until 15 June

This small show is a poignant tribute to World War I. There are some well-known pictures and some famous artists, but the relative unknowns stood out for me. The portraits of doomed soldiers have a quiet dignity; they are followed by harrowing pictures of disfiguring war wounds and film footage from the Western Front. They have done well with a challenging brief, and I think they were right to mount this display on a small scale. 

The weakness is a jarring curatorial voice that makes bombastic claims that are quite unnecessary; the pictures tell their own story. But the wall text offers questionable generalities like this: "The appalling consequences of [new] weapons suggested that human nature itself had changed, compassion snuffed out by unbridled cruelty and hatred. Such altered perceptions raised profound questions for artists". Was it really new weapons? Was it really worse than, say, the thirty years' war? And even if it was, why should other horrific conflicts not have caused such questioning? Were changed perceptions really caused by war? Virginia Woolf thought human nature changed in December 1910; why do the curators think it was later? These questions are better left for visitors to ponder. Less would have been more in this otherwise fine show.
Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, after Hans Holbein the Younger, early 17th century (1533-1534) - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

I was more disappointed by this display of Holbein copies - really more of a re-hang than an exhibition. There's a dreaded 'interactive display', but limited wall text, no accompanying publication and poor visibility. It's a shame, because some of the copies are quite good and I'd love to learn more about them. 

I then made some fortuitous acquisitions at Any Amount of Books including a wonderful old Dutch architectural treatise with fantastic plates. I want to compare it to other editions, as it seems to be a rather idiosyncratic selection of illustrations, some sharp early impressions and others very worn. I also got a copy of Oliver Millar's Zoffany and his Tribuna inscribed by the author to Roy Strong, the catalogue of the NPG's 1974 Samuel Cooper exhibition and the introductory volume to I.Q. van Retgeren Altena's catalogue of Jacques de Gheyn.

On Sunday I went to view the English furniture sale at Bonham's. It includes an architect's collection from a rectory in Kent, which is very much my style - simple and elegant English walnut. This bureau is exceptional, and has a great provenance. The estimate of £25k - £35k reflects just how unfashionable these things are today. I suspect this exceptional batchelor's chest will do well too.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Wise words on art history from Ernst Gombrich

Picture: Guardian
I happened upon a copy of Gombrich's 1973 Romanes Lecture at a second hand bookshop. It's a short pamphlet called Art History and the Social Sciences, and it's full of marvelous nuggets of wisdom that seem even more relevant to today's debates than to those of the 1970s. Parts seem unconvincing to me - his discussion of Karl Popper is superficial and I think he misses the point, and his brusque dismissal of critical approaches is rather caricatured. But mostly I cheered as I read these fabulous lectures. He is wise, and also kindly. His criticism is sometimes sharp (and rightly so), but he is constructive and admirably pragmatic. He makes the case for the kind of art history that I especially appreciate, but he avoids dogmatism and sees the value in letting a thousand flowers bloom. 

Rather than offer a review, I just want to share some of the juicy bits. So here are some quotations I liked: 
"rivalries between the Arts and wrangles about their pecking order have accompanied the life of learning from time immemorial, and I must disclaim any wish to join in the slanging match that is going on in the academic world about the barbarous jargon of sociology or the irrelevance of the humanities. I am a peace-loving person, and I shall be quite content to lead you gently to the conclusion that all the social sciences from economics to psychology should be ready to serve as handmaidens of Art History. Only, I have no faith in settling such matters in the abstract. Whenever I read disquisitions about the method proper to one of the disciplines my reaction tends to be pragmatic: Go ahead and do it, and we shall be able to judge" (p. 6)
"[the basic skill of art history is] the ability to assign a date, place, ad, if possible, a name on the evidence of style. I know no art historian who is not aware of the fact that this skill could not be practised in splendid isolation. The historian of art must be a historian, for without the ability to assess the historical evidence, inscriptions, documents, chronicles, and other primary sources the geographical and chronological distribution of styles could never have been mapped out in the first place" (p. 7)
"Why cannot the art historian emulate [the archaeologist] and treat all images simply as artefacts of a given culture? I think the answer is simple. Such pretended scientific objectivity would rapidly lead to the suicide of our subject. On a purely practical level the archaeologist is saved from the agony of selection by the relative scarcity of his evidence. We are in a very different position. Once we decided not to make any distinctions between painting ceiling or, for that matter, assembly halls, we would be so swamped with material that Michelangelo's or Wren's creations would be lost in an ever-swelling card index" (p. 35)
"From an anthropological point of view the old masters are something like culture heroes, but heroes whose achievements are not only remembered in legend, but preserved by society as a continuous challenge to those who come after" (p. 38)
"The feeling has grown up that the canon was set up by pedantic critics, but this view vastly overrates the power of professors. There is no developed culture which lacks a canon of achievements handed down in tradition as a touchstone of excellence, though cultures differ in the kind of mastery they value." (p. 43)
"[the canon] offers points of reference, standards of excellence which we cannot level down without losing direction. Which particular peaks, or which individual achievement we select for this role may be a matter of choice, but we could not make such a choice if there really were no peaks but only shifting dunes." (p. 54)  

Monday, 3 March 2014

Some people don't like art (& that's fine)

Mona Lisa at the Louvre with tourist photographers.
Picture: Guardian
Everyone knows the Louvre ritual. Follow signs to the Mona Lisa, raise camera, take picture, leave. Takes about twenty minutes, then you're done. One ticked off the bucket list. In the old days you had to see the Winged Victory of Samothrace and Venus de Milo too, but times change. Who knows where Samothrace is anyway?

Most art lovers find this depressing at some level. But Angelo Tartuferi, director of the Accademia in Florence, thinks it's so brilliant he'd like to see the same thing in front of Michelangelo's David. It's so much better seeing art through a camera, preferably illuminated by half a dozen simultaneous flashes. He justifies it by saying that it's too much hard work restraining visitors. I wonder if he feels the same way about visitors poking paintings or stroking sculptures. Tartuferi is being lazy and cynical, but his reasoning is unusual.

A more common justification is that 'nowadays' people want to take pictures and share on social media. That's not as novel as some believe. My grandmother used to show the neighbours slides from Skegness, and eighteenth century aristocrats returning from the grand tour would show off the Canaletto. But the problem with this reasoning isn't its naive presentism. It's rather the substitution of a boringly familiar activity for the transcendent pleasure of engaging with art. Some people think it's a great cultural victory that people are taking snaps in the museum rather than the forum. I don't think that's any kind of victory if people are taking selfies without looking at the pictures. Others think it might entice people to deeper engagement, though why seeing the scrum in front of the Mona Lisa would entice anyone to want more baffles me.

I'm delighted that so many people share my interest in old pictures, but I think it's fine that lots of other people don't. I also like cycling, and I know a lot of cyclists who believe everyone should ride a bike all the time. I think that's daft and boorish. If you'd prefer to drive or take the bus, go for it. I'm well aware that cycling is utterly boring if you're not interested. But when it comes to art, insistent inclusiveness is expected. Arty types think they're doing something wrong if every last person isn't engaged. People are made to feel guilty if they don't perform ritualised cultural observances like taking a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa. In cycling the equivalent would be to ask people to push a bike alongside them when they go for a walk, or to strap a bike to their roofrack when driving. Carrying a bicycle on your car isn't an introduction to cycling, and taking a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa isn't an introduction to art.

Economic growth and technological innovation have given us unprecedented opportunities to pursue whatever we're interested in, and to reach out to others who share our arcane passions. It's great that the local museum is now just one option among thousands for a Saturday afternoon out. There's certainly no shortage of people who do still want to go to the museum, but we shouldn't be too concerned that many others choose different pursuits. When museums try to be all things to all people they end up being nothing much to anyone, because there are always so many different specialist venues that do things better. Museums can be a place to step outside the frenetic immediacy of the connected world, to engage with unfamiliar and challenging products of the historic human imagination.   

Some people find it inexplicable that anyone could oppose photography in museums, and my criticisms are open to misinterpretation, so let me conclude with some clarifications. There are of course good arguments for allowing photography (to capture framing and display, or obtain images not otherwise available). In this post I am focusing my criticism on the bad arguments that seem to have become more prevalent. I am not trying to exclude anyone either. I've led museum tours myself, and I'm delighted that many museums do such a good job of introducing people to art. All are rightly welcome to visit museums, but I think it reasonable that museums direct people towards engagement with art rather than away from it. And of course I'm not condemning anyone who takes pictures; clearly it's possible to engage with art and take pictures. But anyone who has been to the Louvre recently will have seen that one is often a substitute for the other. You can read my more general thoughts about museum photography here.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Upcoming Auctions

The Seeger Collection at Sotheby's next week is a huge and diverse sale ranging from fossils to Nelson's teapot and Orson Welles' own copy of the Citizen Kane script. My choice would be three splendid sculptures: an extraordinary tenth century English relief (est. £70k - £100k); a sixteenth century Florentine Hercules and Antaeus with a bargain estimate of £30k - £50k, pictured above; and an outstanding and wonderfully rude Paduan bronze oil lamp (below, £80k - £120k). This tiny masterpiece was previously attributed to Riccio (as were all good Paduan bronzes at some time or other), and is now anonymous. It's worth clicking the link and zooming in - you can really appreciate its magnificent quality in the high-resolution online image. The rest is rather mixed, but I also love these propaganda posters.
Sotheby's is selling this wonderful Landscape with a Coach by Philips Koninck in a print sale later this month, printed on vellum and enlivened with wash (estimate £10k - £15k). I went to the British Museum last week to see their Koninck prints and drawings. Landscape with a Coach is by far my favourite. I look forward to seeing the Rembrandt prints at Sotheby's and Christie's, the latter including a good impression of his great landscape The Three Trees.
Virgin swooning rescued by the holy women
Christie's Old Master Drawings sale in Paris includes a highly finished drawing by Polidoro de Caravaggio study for The Road to Calvary (above), related to Raphael's Lo Spassimo, now in the Prado. It's estimated at €150k - €250k. Such a rare, important and imposing drawing could go for much more; there aren't many opportunities to buy important Raphael school drawings this visually stunning. But lots of really good old master drawings sell for (relatively) peanuts. I particularly like this sheet with two drawings by Raphael's collaborator Perino del Vaga, estimated at €4,500 - €6,500. To put that in context, Bonham's is selling a particularly unattractive Lowry drawing with an estimate of £70k - £100k. 

Christie's also has a superb sixteenth century Venetian Head of a Bearded Man is estimated at €20k - €30k, pastels by Jean Valade and Maurice-Quentin de la Tour, and a charming dog by Oudry. But the real treat is later in the year, when they start selling the private collection of former head of the Amsterdam printroom I. Q. von Regteren Altena including a major early Rubens and twenty drawings by Jacques de Gheyn II, a great draughtsman who is poorly represented in British collections.