Sunday, 25 October 2015

Dear museums: buy this!

Image of Does museum exposure increase the value of Old Masters?
Picture: Sotheby's
This Orazio Gentileschi is a supreme masterpiece. It's coming up for auction with an estimate of $25m - $35m. It's beautiful, art historically 'important' and a simply magnificent picture. I've known it from reproductions and I'd longed to see it, so I was delighted to see it on loan at the Met last time I visited. It surpassed most of the masterpieces in the permanent collection, a truly memorable and stupendous picture. So why aren't we buying it for the National Gallery?

Museums always talk about wanting to buy masterpieces rather than 'filling gaps', but they usually do exactly the opposite. The Met, the National Gallery in Washington and the Getty should be going all-out for this, but the Met seems more enthused for contemporary and the National Gallery in Washington has an absurdly myopic focus on buying only Dutch pictures. But what about Europe? 

It would be a great complement to the National Gallery's strong collection of baroque art, but it could equally transform a regional museum's collection - Birmingham would be a fine home, alongside another large Gentileschi and some other fine baroque pictures. It's a measure of the picture's importance and originality that it would complement even the Louvre's magnificent holdings, or the Prado's. German museums bought aggressively and well in the 1970s and 1980s, but little since; it would make up for some of the large baroque pictures that Berlin lost in a fire in 1945. But because it's not already in one of those countries, they're highly unlikely to pursue it. Why not sell the right to export another national treasure and use the funds to buy this instead?

I'll be amazed if any of them are even considering it. Europe's cultural conservatism is so ingrained that even in collecting historic art it seeks to hold onto the stuff that hasn't already been exported rather than seek out the best, wherever it lies. But the UK's cultural class deserves special contempt in this unedifying contest, because they are still obsessing about an over-priced Rembrandt that they should let go, instead of pursuing a great masterpiece that they should buy. The Rembrandt is £35m; the (better) Gentileschi is $35m. But The Art Fund is desperately trying to 'save' the Rembrandt (which seems likely to remain here anyway), and seems not even to have noticed the Gentileschi. 

One possibility, not to be dismissed lightly, is that the Art Fund is run by idiots. They seem more interested in marketing than in art, demanding that museums include prominent lurid acknowledgement of their support and following fashion in headlong pursuit of trendy contemporary art. Describing the Rembrandt as 'perilously unsafe' is absurd hyperbole that reveals their real focus: keeping stuff in the UK rather than developing our public art collections. 

The other possibility is that they have just given up on the idea of developing collections and buying great works of art in favour of simply keeping in  the UK whatever is already in the UK. The trope of 'saving our art' plays to the bias of loss-aversion, which as specialists in advertising rather than art they will understand well. But it's a sign of the stultifying monoculture of arts discussion here that it goes unchallenged. No one questions the absurdly distorted funding model, or makes the case for going out to buy art that is great rather than art that is here. 

The Treasury is willing to subsidise the purchase of pictures arbitrarily, simply because the owners happen to have some tax to pay. That's an irrational and expensive subsidy that should be abolished. And the fact that it also involves an added subsidy to the owners is despicable. Whatever your views on the UK government's welfare cuts, it's hard to adduce any plausible case for taxpayers making transfers to especially wealthy people just because they own good art. The real cost of the Rembrandt is £35m, not the reduced amount based on tax discount. The tax discount is just a payment from the Treasury. Better to use the money to buy the Danae instead, and have enough change left over to buy some other good pictures. 

Should museums borrow from dealers?

The great Gentileschi coming up for sale has prompted a debate about the ethics of museums displaying loaned pictures that are 'for sale'. Lee Rosenbaum chose a poor example to criticise in the Gentileschi because it is such an exceptional picture, of unquestioned quality and significance. It's been owned by the dealer for decades and hung in his own dining room for most of that time, so describing it as from his 'private collection' rather than stock seems fair. That said, I think she describes a real problem. 

Bendor Grosvenor goes too far the other way, in my view. I'm sure he's right that museums are no pushover for loans, and he agrees that it's unseemly to sell straight after exhibition. But I'm not sure that the quality of old masters is always so self-evident. The fact that dealers go to such lengths to establish the quality of what they're selling speaks to that - the experts consulted, and the often impressively scholarly and luxurious catalogues that they produce are all part of marketing their wares, explaining and justifying their assertion of its worth. The term 'museum quality' is used by dealers to convey value, but they would say that, wouldn't they? You can't argue with the claim if it's actually been shown at a museum.

I'm glad Feigen lent the Danae, and the Met was right to take it. But I've seen other loans that are less worthy, including things claimed as being from the 'private collection of [so-and-so-who-just-happens-to-be-a-dealer]. And I've heard from the author of a monograph on a certain artist that a work loaned by a dealer was exhibited as being by said artist, although the curator who borrowed it agreed with the author that it was no such thing. That provenance (on loan to major museum with dealer's preferred attribution) adds kudos, and even if it's not reflected directly in price it may make it easier to sell.

I think it comes down to a question of balance, and the debate between Lee Rosenbaum's and Bendor Grosvenor's positions is healthy. Museums should be worried about what people will say about the loans they accept from dealers, but they shouldn't automatically turn them down or impose onerous conditions either.

Carlo Crivelli

Picture: Amazon
Stephen J. Campbell (ed) Ornament and Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice Paul Hoberton 2015 £35

Carlo Crivelli's sparkling pictures abound with spectacular, opulent detail. His beautiful pictures are immediately appealing, but his idiosyncrasy puts him outside the mainstream, hard to fit into the heroic teleology of the Renaissance. Vasari excluded him, and formalistic art historians thought him a bit retardaire. His appeal has come and gone; the National Gallery in London bought oodles of them in the nineteenth century, but came close to selling them in the twentieth. U.S. collectors bought them avidly in the early twentieth century, but his reputation waned as professional curators struggled to include him in the forward thrust of art history. An exquisite show at the Isabella Stuart Gardner has selected some of his very best pictures. I'm sorry that I can't visit, but there is some compensation in the excellent catalogue. 

Crivelli worked in towns along the Adriatic coast that make up the Marches, across the mountains from Florence and Rome and south of Venice. The map in the catalogue doesn't do justice to the mountainous geography, which meant that these places were connected more to the maritime trading routes from Venice to the Balkans, down to the Ottoman Empire rather than to Florence and Rome. Even today it's easier to travel north-south than east-west. There were still abundant cultural transfers; Piero della Francesca worked here, importing the most sophisticated understand of perspective. An interesting observation from Stephen Campbell is that whereas Florentine patrons backed their own and supported the development of a local school, Marchigean patrons appreciated different styles. It was not that they were necessarily backward and traditional, but rather that their more ecumenical taste gave scope for Crivelli's individuality, which he may have developed in conscious opposition to those fashionable Florentines. 

The catalogue successfully (& rightly) rescues Crivelli from the rather staid strictures of certain art historical traditions. I loved the opening of Jean Campbell's chapter, which criticises the wall text on the Rijksmuseum's Crivelli for treating him as an illustration of the International Gothic style, as if artists are producing slides to illustrate art history lectures. Go get 'em! The editor's introductory chapter seeks to rescue Crivelli from both the "need to see art as a kind of geographic or ethnic expression, like a local dialect, and on the other to see style in terms of questions of artistic problem-solving, synthesis, and an internalized impetus toward modernization" (p. 23), and also from 'material historians' for whom "style can be understood less as an internal morphology of form than as an index of social and political affiliations and exchanges" (p.23). I appreciated the gently implied critique of Lisa Jardine and others for building a new reductionism from their criticism of the old.

It's become standard to include a chapter on the history of collecting in monographic catalogues, but they're too often just cobbled together comments on provenance. Francesco de Carolis's chapter is exemplary, going much further into the detail of his differential reception, including a flurry of interest in the eighteenth century. He adduces good evidence for his particular favour in the U.S. early in the  twentieth century, but I always think that contingencies of availability are insufficiently appreciated. Collectors buy what they like and what is valued, but also what is available on the market.

The short essays are well-written and dense with information, and there are full entries for all exhibits. The production is superb, with fabulous reproductions that capture the three-dimensionality of Crivelli's pictures, which incorporated moulded elements in plaster and wood. Above all Crivelli's pictures are a joy to look at, and it is a tribute to the catalogue's scholarship that it recognises Crivelli's value in his own terms rather than as illustrating an academic thesis. 

The book has one flaw: its referencing. Endnotes appear after each chapter, so you have to keep skipping around each time you start a new chapter. Then the endnotes use Chicago referencing, sending you to the consolidated bibliography at the back to find the sources. The system proved to complicated for the proof readers, because some references can't be found (Di Stefano 2009, Feldman 2014, for example). It reflects well on the authors that I wanted to consult their sources, but it reflects badly on the publisher that I couldn't. 

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Cultural Value

Picture: Telegraph
Our cultural apparatchiks have turned away from the narrow instrumentalism of measuring performance against targets, which probably just reflects that they could never meet the targets. But art for its own sake is still passé. So how can they justify themselves? The Arts and Humanities Research Council has spent £2m to find out. Private Eye reports that the project's advisors have given over a tenth of the funding to themselves. Cultural elites have never been shy about rewarding themselves with commissions, but in the old days the commissions were for actual artworks, and at least we might have got a good picture out of it. The new elites spend cash to produce reports on things like "the contribution of participatory user-generated machine-cinema to cultural values".

A grant of £38,427 was made to “evaluate the relationship between arts and cultural engagement and long-term health outcomes in the UK”. It's an odd topic for the humanities, given the need for high-level statistical knowledge and engagement with the techniques of medical research. But those problems were bypassed; all they got for £38k was some superficial summaries of fifteen existing studies. It wasn't research at all. It was just advocacy, squandering money to highlight a supposed link between arts funding and public health.

They spent £26,872 for a project “using Facebook to investigate local history: experience, value and policy implications in one town”. It “works with” one Facebook page: ‘Forgotten Abergavenny’, hoping to contribute to the nation’s health by “assisting the understanding of the experiences and value attached by users to the most popular and accessed social media platform in the UK, thus facilitating the usefulness of such a platform as a means for the delivery of news, information and other content relevant to governments and local authorities”.

There is a cynical element to this, where self-selected elites reward themselves with public money. Explaining it as corruption makes easier sense of the absurdity of some of the funded projects. But I think they're actually sincere in wanted to define cultural value better. Trouble is, their stilted efforts to define the problem reveal it as a fool's errand. They want to avoid the accountability that comes from instrumentalist measures, but also avoid the political and philosophical challenge of making the case for art's intrinsic value.

Mocking academic research is a staple of populist philistinism. But my aim is different. I criticise them because I love the arts and humanities, and these ridiculous projects reflect badly on the entire enterprise. The debate needs to be animated with some strong ideas, not using oodles of public cash to manufacture bullshit advocacy research to bolster the case for yet more public cash. 

Bendor Grosvenor reports on another manifestation of this debate with the Arts Council getting Alain de Botton to make a moronic instrumental case for the arts. Arts Council and Alain de Botton is a deadly combination!

Monday, 19 October 2015


Frieze Masters tries to make old pictures fashionable by mixing them with the moderns. I like my old masters unfashionable and splendidly isolated, so I approached my first visit with low expectations. How wrong I was! There was a good deal not to my taste, it's true. But there were so many good and unusual things. My highlights were concentrated at a handful of stands, which shows the value of a good dealer. Some make money by having a good feel for popular taste (or maybe popular among the 0.1%). But some dealers just have exquisite taste (or maybe taste that coincides with mine). 

Richard Nagy created a mini Neue Galerie with great twentieth century German and Austrian fine and decorative art, including a roomful of Schieles (above). Stephen Ongpin had a wonderful selection of drawings, but I especially liked this tempera still life by Eliot Hodgkin (below). His stand focused on nineteenth and twentieth century drawings, but my taste is more towards the Italians in the corner, including two drawings of  elephants by Stefano della Bella.

Picture: Stephen Ongpin
Stephen Ongpin has a wonderful gallery in Mason's Yard, next to Jean-Luc Baroni. Baroni's stand was the other great highlight of Frieze Masters, where I became one of those annoying tourists taking photos of every single picture. Everything he had was good and interesting. 

Picture: MS
Highlight is this astonishing Degas, which doesn't reproduce well. There's a better image on the dealer's website, but I'm using mine because I wanted to show the frame. Baroni's and Ongpin's pictures were perfectly framed, which makes such a difference. 
Picture: ArtDaily
I know nothing about Antonio Mancini, to my shame, but his Portrait of Luigino Gianchetti as a Violin Player is magnificent, also with Baroni. 
Picture: MS
Doyen of Dutch dealers Johnny van Haeften had some superb Jan van Kessels and a floral still life by the underrated Simon Verelst. Didier Aaron & Cie was stuffed with unusual treasures, including a still life of leeks by Joakim Frederik Skovgaard (nope, me neither - but fine picture), a Museum Corridor by Christien Dalsgaard and several fine Alfred Stevens. Weiss had a great Pourbus portrait, a rare first rate picture by a normally fairly ordinary artist. And Sam Fogg had A monumental drawing for the crossing tower of Rouen Cathedral, presented to the Cathedral Chapter on 8th March 1516 by the master mason himself. It is indeed monumental, an enormous scroll confronting us at the entrance to the fair. A photo can't do it justice; the detail below gives a sense of the intricate details. It would be a perfect acquisition for the Victoria and Albert Museum, should any of you wish to buy them something?
Picture: MS
The powerful impression of works like the cathedral drawing drown out the memory of things I didn't care for and displays I didn't like. I went to the main Frieze fair too, but I have nothing original or insightful to say about it. By way of a sample, here is a self portrait by Tracy Emin, in case any of you care for such things:
Picture: MS

Recent reading: 'Body of Art' and others

Picture: Amazon
Diane Fortunberry et al Body of Art Phaidon 2015 £39.95

The term is meant as a put-down, but I love coffee table art books—big, sumptuously produced, designed for browsing. I appreciate the scholarly and serious as much as anyone, but coffee table books are an indulgence I'm not ashamed of. This new one from Phaidon is organised thematically, juxtaposing contemporary art and old masters with brief but incisive captions. They follow current fashion by imposing themes rather than following historical schools, which helps mix things up in interesting ways. It works for this kind of book, where narrative is less important, but the division is a bit hackneyed ('Beauty', 'Power', 'Identity'...). Chapters on 'The Abject Body' and 'The Body's Limits' work better.

My hesitation about the thematic approach is that it elevates art history above art, imposing categories that make sense to academics rather than ones that would have been recognised by artists. Old masters' peers were other artists. Some were certainly intellectuals, but I don't think their primary concern was making clever points about power or identity. Today that's probably less true, and artists and art historians do inhabit the same intellectual universe. But an approach that works for contemporary art becomes strained when it tries to incorporate the whole of art history.  

The captions are interesting, and I found the discussion of (to me) unfamiliar contemporary works informative. Like a good guided tour, they pique my interest and tell me something new without trying to teach me everything. But I found the longer chapter headings and introductions weaker. For example, Jennifer Blessing's overall introduction celebrates contemporary "feminist and queer artists [who] refuse to accept ... facile dualistic conceptions of identity. Instead, gender and sexuality are understood as a continuous spectrum of possibilities, not as fixed binaries" (p.9). But the facile dualism is Blessing's; her contrast of ignorant past versus enlightened present isn't sustainable. Artists have played with identity, including gender identity, for aeons. Mannerists like Spranger and Bronzino were obsessed with shifting gender identity, and ancient sculptures of Aphrodite speak to the same concern. Cartesian dualism was an idea that arose quite late, and burned quite briefly.

A final concern—and this one is damning—is that the production is terrible. Some of the reproductions looks like they've been taken from old postcards. The most sumptuous masterpieces like Giorgione's Tempest and Sleeping Venus, and Titian's Venus of Urbino look like grainy 1970s reproductions. An expensive book like this should do much better. Phaidon used to be a market leader in art history, producing high-quality books with good illustrations at low prices. Now they seem to have conceded the high-ground to Yale University Press, which is utterly and unfortunately hegemonic. C'mon Phaidon, they need a proper competitor.
Picture: Amazon
John Campbell Roy Jenkins: A well-rounded life Vintage 2015 £14.99

A fine and meaty biography of one of the major figures in British political history. Campbell is a fan, and it's an authorised biography, but he's good enough to present a balanced picture. I am unsympathetic to Jenkins. He was born to Labour Party aristocracy and was a professional politician, but he had a taste for the high life. I like that. Champagne Socialism is surely the best kind of socialism. But his connoisseurship of politics didn't match his connoisseurship of wine. As I read the book I perceived a gap in the discussion of ideas, but actually I'm not sure Jenkins had many ideas, beyond a wishy-washy middle way consensualism.

Jenkins's great achievements were as Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, but his tenure in both is over-rated. As Home Secretary he was the right man at the right time. His predecessors had been reactionary even by the undemanding standards of their time, and Jenkins was swimming with the current. His social liberalism was on the side of history; no great intellectual battle had to be won. And as Campbell sets out, in other respects he took a firm law-and-order line. Campbell's biography is weaker on economics, which is little matter as Jenkins's reputation as an economist was undeserved. He was less narrowly party-political than some of our more disastrous Chancellors, and avoided obvious disasters. But he largely gained credibility from a cyclical upswing. 

The biography is well-written and engaging, but could do with tighter editing. We're told several times of his liking for Anthony Powell and Auberon Waugh, and of his preference for his Glasgow constituency over his Birmingham constituency, and details of the SDP split now seem rather arcane. But his treatment of Jenkins's private life is measured and well handled, and Campbell is a particularly astute reader of Jenkins's many books. I would be a little more generous; his biographies of Asquith and Gladstone are magnificent. I appreciate Jenkins as a writer more than as a politician.

Emmanuel Todd Who is Charlie? Xenophobia and the New Middle Class Translated by Andrew Brown Polity 2015 £16.99

I learned a lot from this enormously impressive book. If I call it a sociological study I know I'll lose most of you, but it's acute, well-written and compelling, full of quotable aphorisms: "What you accept in practice is more significant than what you reject in theory. The main sector of the left wing of the left rejects, in theory and in no particularly order: austerity, the capitalist system, American leadership and the oppression suffered by the Palestinians. It accepts, in practice, the single currency and ree trade. However, it would be an understatement to say that this pseudo-opposition felt no great compunction about marching behind pro-European leaders" (p. 82). He describes anti-racist slogans as "part of a multiculturalist logic that insists on the 'right to difference', which is a clinical symptom ... of a deep-rooted inegalitarian unconscious" (p. 141). But there's also data to back up his claims. It's an impressive, humane and nuanced account of a topic too often left to hysterical pundits. 

Not a book that will appeal to everyone, so let me finish with something I can recommend without qualification:

Gillen D'Arcy Wood Tambora: The eruption that changed the world Princeton University Press 2014 £19.95

The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 caused global temperatures to fall, weather patterns to change, harvests to fail. Art historians will know it as the cause of the dramatic sunsets that Turner and Friedrich painted. 

I'm normally allergic to books that claim to identify something that 'changed the world', but this one is great. Wood explains the science wonderfully clearly: climatology, volcanology, and epidemiology. But he's equally strong on history and literature. I knew the story, in broad terms, but the detailed global explanation is fascinating. Well worth reading.

Friday, 16 October 2015

How not to buy a Rembrandt

Picture: Wales Online
Two big Rembrandt deals have been announced recently. Both reveal wastefulness and foolishness in public art acquisitions.

The UK government has placed a temporary export block on Catrina Hooghsaet (above), which is being sold from Penrhyn Castle. The Telegraph reports that a private buyer has agreed to pay £35m plus sales tax of £660k. The painting is exempt from sales tax, so presumably £660k is due on agent's fees of £3.3m. UK buyers have until 15 February to register interest in buying the picture. 

I hope no one does. The picture has been openly marketed for years; the Rijksmuseum came close to buying it. There was ample opportunity to negotiate a friendly deal without the need to pay millions to Sotheby's. I don't begrudge dealers' mark-ups or agents' fees, which are fairly earned in a competitive market. But British institutions have a woeful history of waiting until the last minute and then declaring a national emergency, when a bit of foresight would save millions. If anyone wanted it, the should have said so earlier. They will seem incompetent if they only raise their hands now. 

The other element I find objectionable is the smoke-and-mirrors approach to funding acquisitions. An element of tax that's been deferred could potentially be removed from the sale price, making it cheaper for a British public collection to buy the picture. But the real cost to the UK taxpayer doesn't actually change. It makes no financial difference if the tax is collected and then spent on a painting, or if the tax isn't collected in the first place. But it does give an artificial incentive to buy pictures subject to tax deferral, which is an arbitrary way of choosing acquisitions. I've written more about it here, and discussed on the BBC's One Show here.

Finally I don't think it's the best way to spend £35m. It's a fine picture, and I'm a great Rembrandt fan. But it's not one of his best, and we've got quite a lot in the UK already. Spend the money on other things, and please try to buy wholesale not retail. Lots of great pictures are sold for surprisingly modest prices, and £35m could fill some serious gaps in British public collections.
Picture: Dutch News
The French and Dutch governments have jointly bought this pair of full-length portraits by Rembrandt from the Rothschilds for €160m. The Dutch came up with €80m shortly after buying a Adriaen de Vries bronze for almost $28m, yet they are so short of funds for operating costs that they have to close at 5pm each day to cater for private events. When you consider the value of the Rijksmuseum's entire collection, there is no way that they money they're getting from plutocrats and celebrities can cover the cost of capital for the public asset they are exclusively enjoying. But every day the oiks are kicked out in the late afternoon so the privileged few can party away in evening. 

It's a chronic problem in the art world that money can be raised from public funds and private donors for big acquisitions and flashy extensions, but no one wants to pay for more modest acquisitions or for the running costs of all the new wings. The Dutch government should have spent the €80m on opening later so the public can enjoy what's already there. 

My other concern with this dumb deal is that the pictures will be shared in perpetuity, meaning that these large and fragile pictures will be moved between Paris and Amsterdam every few years. There will always be minor damage when big pictures like this are shipped hundreds of miles. But what happens if they become too fragile to move? And what happens if the museums disagree on restoration? Or if one museum wants to lend them elsewhere, to the Louvre Lens for example? What will happen if the Louvre wants to rent them out to a foreign museum? Or if the two countries fall out. It is inconceivable in the medium term, but forever is a long time and who knows what will happen in 300 or 500 years. Shared ownership of art is an absolutely terrible idea. When a crisis happens, it will seem obvious in retrospect. But right now the deal is being naively praised as 'saving' the Rembrandts, as if any other buyer would destroy them. I'd certainly be sorry to see them disappear to a private collection, but I'd be much happier if they'd both been bought by the Getty or the Kimbell. 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Privatisation at the National Gallery: a reflection, and a modest proposal

The National Gallery has outsourced its security; the guards' strike was an abject failure, as AHN explains. The Union had a weak hand, and played it badly. The National Gallery always held all the cards, but they mismanaged the situation spectacularly. They unfairly dismissed an employee, but not just any employee. They sacked a union rep during one of the most contentious negotiations, which was a fantastically stupid move that caused the situation to escalate. 

The NG brought the strike on itself. Outsourcing is still a bad idea, but its implementation was handled incompetently. There is a serious lack of basic managerial competence and basic savvy. It is not simply that a senior individual made the decision to sack the union rep, but also that the management structure allowed the decision to be taken—it's a collective failure. And then it was compounded by upholding the decision on appeal. Morons. And where was the expertise from the Trustees, who are meant to provide outside guidance? The board seems stuffed with dilettantes who relish the social cachet but don't bring much to the table. I'm always appalled when the board minutes record their delight with the progress of restoration, which few of them are even qualified to judge. 

I'm not ideologically opposed to privatisation. My objections to outsourcing one of the key functions of the gallery are practical. But I do understand the need to save money and operate more efficiently, so in the interests of constructive engagement let me suggest a better candidate for outsourcing: conservation. The NG's conservation department has, in its history, done incalculable damage. Most of the collection has been drastically over-cleaned, given the collection a different appearance from museums in Europe that have been more cautious. 

The conservation department is expensive, powerful and dangerous. It holds great institutional power at the NG (the Head of Conservation was interim director before Nicholas Penny). It should be subservient to the curators. And it is dangerous, because its institutional authority means that it is immodest and subject to groupthink, promoting its bad ideas elsewhere—like the appalling overcleaning of the Leonardo's Virgin & Child with St Anne in the Louvre, promoted by NG conservator Larry Keith.

An internal conservation department has a natural incentive to create work for itself; who is going to say that nothing currently needs to be done, so they should take a holiday? On the other hand, it may on occasion have too much work to do, such as preparing pictures for a big exhibition, which incentivises haste. Given the lumpiness of the work schedule, it is a natural candidate for outsourcing. The day-to-day work of inspecting pictures annually ought more properly to fall to the curatorial department, which ought to have the skills to inspect pictures physically for damage and identify conservation work required. Outside consultants can be brought in to assist as required. 

The internal cost of cleaning a small picture is £34,500, which is far above commercial rates. And the NG is less competent than many independent conservators. They are now having to crowdsource to raise the funds to keep the conservation department going. Enough! Close it down. Save the money, and hire contractors. If they don't have the money, restoration will have to wait - which is not necessarily a bad thing, given the disastrous consequences of their historic haste. 

Two great books

Reading bad books is miserable, but it's fun to review them. Good books are the opposite. I read more of them, but review fewer. I feel compelled to set out the flaws of bad books, to warn others. But a review of a good book succeeds simply by winning it some new readers. So here are some brief notes on books I've loved.
Noel Malcolm's Agents of Empire: Knights, corsairs, Jesuits and spies in the sixteenth century Mediterranean world (Allen Lane 2015 £30) is one of the most astonishing books I've ever read, and I think it will become a classic. It is a kind of microhistory that traces the family history of the Brunis and Brutis who hailed from present-day Albanian territory. But unlike most microhistory, it isn't telling the story of everyday folk. These people were involved at the edges of grand affairs of state, engaged in the Battle of Lepanto and the Council of Trent. There's also fascinating material about the mediation between empires at the frontier between Christendom and Islam, and between the great powers in the Mediterranean and beyond. I suspect this kind of history will be imitated, but I doubt others will rise to Malcolm's level. The breadth of knowledge and depth of research is awesome, but it is organised by a powerful intellect. He moves easily between the minutiae of diplomatic language schools and shrewd judgments on the Mediterranean balance of power.

I expected to dip into this book, but I was  utterly enraptured and read every page avidly. 

R. Taggart Murphy Japan and the Shackles of the Past (Oxford University Press 2015 £20)
Japan brings out the worst kind of punditry. There are so many colourful anecdotes about its history, culture and economy that journalists can spin a good story without much analysis at all. The first half of Murphy's book is an excellent concise history of Japan. But it really comes alive in the second half. He writes confidently and knowledgeably about all facets of Japan, and is particularly sophisticated in his understanding of economics and finance. But his ability to explain cultural phenomena like gender relations and stay-at-home youth that impressed me most, because it stood out from anything else I've read on the subject. He is also excellent—and scathing—about the 'Japan hands', the coeterie of U.S. 'experts' who advise on all matters Japanese, who promote each others' work and reinforce each others' prejudices. 

I'm a bit of a Japanophile, but this is one of the few books I'd recommend unreservedly. Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons is another, particularly on culture. And Richard Koo is strong on the Japanese economy. I'm also a great fan of Japanese literature; Natsuo Kirino is my current passion. Other recommendations would be appreciated. 

My great fiction discovery is Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels. They sounded a bit too 'misery memoir' for my taste, but I'm glad I gave them a go, for they are fabulous. Wonderfully well written and wickedly cutting, their style is oddly detached from the sadness they describe. I've only read the first two so far. In the second volume our hero is off his head on drugs for most of the book, yet still evinces our sympathy and manages a good deal of dry humour. Wonderful, and one of the few really excellent recent novels I've found. I have enjoyed few of other the recently-hyped novels I've tried.