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Posts tagged “Waldemar Januszczak

The Demise of the National Gallery’s “made just like Rubens” Samson and Delilah with inexplicably cropped toes

Michael Daley writes: In a bombshell article (Observer, 26 September 2021), Dalya Alberge reported on a series of Artificial Intelligence comparisons of the Samson and Delilah’s brushwork with that on 148 uncontested Rubens paintings. The exercise had produced a negative result of such magnitude that the Swiss company, Art Recognition, disbelieved its own findings and ran the tests a second time. The results were identical: an unprecedentedly crushing 91% probability that the picture was not painted by Rubens:

“…Critics have long suggested that the painting is not by Rubens. And now a series of scientific tests employing groundbreaking AI technology have concluded that the 17th-century Flemish master could never have painted it. ‘The results are quite astonishing’, Dr Carina Popavici, the scientist who carried out the study, told the Observer… ‘I was so shocked…Every patch, every single square came out as fake, with more than 90% probability.’”

ArtWatch UK was cited as observing that “coming so soon after its ill-advised espousal of the now-rejected and disappeared $450m Salvator Mundi, these results are a calamity for the National Gallery” [see POSTSCRIPT, below]. A spokesman said: “The gallery always takes note of new research. We await its publication in full so that any evidence can be properly assessed. Until such time it will not be possible to comment further.” That was a far cry from its response in the 21 May 2000 Independent on Sunday: “We have absolutely no doubts about the authenticity of the picture and nor do most experts on Rubens”.

Doubts or not, the Samson and Delilah, which is promoted by the gallery as one its top thirty stars – and therefore as the best of its twenty odd Rubens’ paintings – is now a three-times disabled attribution: it had no provenance as a Rubens before a notoriously unreliable scholar’s 1929 upgrade; stylistically, it has long been shown to be untenable as a Rubens and to be compositionally incompatible with the copies made of the lost original Rubens Samson and Delilah ; and now, on multiple close technical comparisons, its brushwork finds no match with that in secure Rubens’ pictures. How the gallery comes to terms with this latest source of disqualification will test the mettle of its director and trustees, none of whom was party to the picture’s 1980 acquisition.

AN ATTACK ON THE MESSAGE

Alberge’s disclosure has been greeted by a thunderous silence of the Rubens experts – but the art history blogger, auctioneer and film-maker, Bendor Grosvenor, tweeted an immediate blanket dismissal of the findings:

“The only thing this tale should tell us is that computers still don’t understand how artists worked. And probably never will.” And “If you like a bit of science with your art history, it’s still hard to beat the National Gallery’s 1983 technical bulletin for showing the picture is indeed by Rubens.”

Grosvenor’s unsupported assertion bolstered by an appeal to the authority of an old and profoundly unsatisfactory National Gallery report gained tweeted support from the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak. In crucial respects the erratic art critical volatility of this pair of commentators (who conduct joint “Waldy and Bendy” podcasts on Januszczak’s ZCZFilms website), exacerbates the National Gallery’s now perilously exposed position. Holding Plesters’ report aloft as a standard may have been thought unhelpful by the gallery – the link Grosvenor provided to it now produces this message: “Page not found – Sorry, the page you requested has been removed or the link was incorrect.”

Above, Fig. 1: Left, the National Gallery’s attributed Rubens Samson and Delilah; second left, the Grosvenor-attributed fragmentary “Raphael” of a Madonna at Haddo House, Scotland; third left, the disappeared and demoted “Leonardo” Salvator Mundi; right, a Colin Wheeler cartoon.

Grosvenor’s appeal to the authority of National Gallery expertise was rich: when, after long examinations, that gallery’s experts recently judged his would-be “Raphael” painted fragment of a Madonna in an all’antica cross-over dress (Figs. 1 and 3) to be no more than a “possible 18th century work” he crossly rejected their findings and called for yet further tests. Where Januszczak now supports the Samson and Delilah’s Rubens attribution he does so in flat repudiation of his 1997 younger self’s rumbustious denouncement of it (Fig. 2). With their joint appeal to the authority of the National Gallery conservation staff’s record, Grosvenor and Januszczak have opened the door to the gallery’s skeleton cupboard.

Above, Fig. 2: The cover of the 5 October 1997 Sunday Times Culture Magazine which trailed Waldemar Januszczak’s article “A Rubens or a costly copy”

Above, Fig. 3: Top, BBC4 Factual Report, 03. 10, 2016: “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces discovers hidden painting believed to be by Raphael. ‘Finding a potential Raphael is about as exciting as it gets. At first I couldn’t quite believe it might be possible, but gradually the evidence began to all point in the right direction.’ Dr Bendor Grosvenor”. So reported the art-credulous BBC with a photograph (top) of the programme’s co-presenters, art historian Jacky Klein and Bendor Grosvenor, with the putative Haddo House Raphael; above, the presenters consider the “Raphael” on the Lost Masterpieces programme with the former director of the National Gallery, Sir Nicholas Penny.

Invited to pass judgement on the attempted upgrade, Sir Nicholas (whose proselytising on behalf of the $450m Salvator Mundi had been defended by Grosvenor in the 9 October 2011 Sunday Times – “They are taking a risk and I can’t applaud them enough for it”) said that he would place the painting somewhere between “probably by Raphael” and “by Raphael” and that with a “little more time and courage” he might well go the whole hog. That stylishly diplomatic locution was of limited utility – rather like informing a woman that she is somewhere between probably pregnant and pregnant. The pity is that aside from his defences of National Gallery restorations and championing of a not-Raphael and a not-Leonardo, Penny proved the gallery’s most unapologetically serious scholar/director in recent times – as instanced in an excellent Financial Times interview.

ROLL UP

In another Financial Times interview, Simon Gillespie, the restorer who works with Grosvenor on the BBC’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces programme, disclosed that he, too, believes that he might own yet another Raphael. Gillespie is believed to be the owner of a claimed Lely copy of the £10m “Last Van Dyck Self-portrait” that was sold by the Mould Gallery to the National Portrait Gallery for £10m on 1 May 2014.

DEFENDING INSTITUTIONS AND ATTACKING JOURNALISTIC MESSENGERS

Grosvenor frequently tilts at journalists whose stories embarrass art institutions. In a February 2019 Art History News blog post (“Salvator Mundi & the Louvre”) he berated Sunday Telegraph and Mailonline reports that the Louvre would not be showing the $450m supposed-Leonardo Salvator Mundi in a forthcoming Leonardo exhibition. That story, he sniffed, “is based on the opinion of one Jacques Franck.” It was. Franck’s judgements as the world authority on Leonardo’s painting technique have institutional clout (- and often the ear of French presidents). Franck’s prediction proved precisely correct: the Salvator Mundi was not included in the Louvre exhibition, and it was described in the exhibition catalogue as what it is and what it has remained despite successive restoration makeovers and intense global marketing razzamatazz (- which marketing Grosvenor lauded as the best ever seen) namely, the Leonardo studio work that entered the Cook Collection in 1900, viz: “Salvator Mundi, version Cook, vers 1505-1515″. (See “The Louvre Museum’s bizarre charge of “fake information” on the $450 million Salvator Mundi”.) The Art Newspaper has reported (November 2021, “Prado downgrades $450m Leonardo Salvator Mundi”) that the Prado, too, has demoted the Salvator Mundi to its original standing as the Cook version: “The Prado curator Ana Gonzáles Mozo comments in her catalogue essay that ‘some specialists consider that there was a lost prototype [of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi] while others think that the much debated Cook version is the original’ However, she suggests ‘there is no painted prototype by Leonardo’.”

(For the latest observations on the $450m Salvator Mundi, see Jacques Franck’s “Further thoughts about the ex-Cook Collection” and ArtWatch UK’s “The Disappeared Salvator Mundi’s endgame: Part I – Altered States and a Disappeared Book”. For ArtWatch UK’s first objections to the Salvator Mundi upgrade, ahead of Christie’s November 2017 $450m sale, see: Dalya Alberge, 19 October 2017: “Mystery over Christ’s orb in $100m Leonardo da Vinci painting” and, “Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation”.)

THE RAMIFICATIONS

The Rubens and the Leonardo attributions are items of considerable public policy interest. Both works achieved world record prices. Both received major and controversial modifications at the hands of restorers. Both upgrades have now collapsed. Both had been championed by National Gallery directors – Michael Levey with the Samson and Delilah and Nicholas Penny with the Salvator Mundi. While Waldy and Bendy both now support the Samson and Delilah, Waldy rejected the Salvator Mundi (which Bendy supports) because: “It resembles nothing else Leonardo painted”; and, because Christie’s claimed resemblance of it to the Mona Lisa “had me laughing out loud”.

THE NATIONAL GALLEY’S WOBBLY DEFENCES

The Art Recognition findings are not, as Grosvenor would imply, off-the-wall. In June 1997 the National Gallery issued a notice claiming that the reason why the Samson and Delilah looked like no other Rubens in the gallery was because it had been painted at a special and very brief moment when Rubens had just returned from Italy and was keen to show off newly acquired Caravaggist traits. That apologia was not credible.

In a pioneering 1992 report, the scholar/painter Euphrosyne Doxiadis and the painters Stephen Harvey and Siân Hopkinson, conducted a focussed survey of six Rubens paintings of 1609 and 1610 and demonstrated that “All these display a consistency and quality of style which is not shared by the Samson and Delilah”. That report – “Delilah cut off Samson’s hair, but who cut off his toes? The case against the National Gallery’s ‘Rubens’ Samson and Delilah – was placed in the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah dossiers and is published on the dedicated In Rubens Name website.

THE ART RECOGNITION REPORT

We are very pleased to publish here the full Art Recognition report on the Samson and Delilah, as below, and would urge all to study it along with the pioneering, methodologically exemplary Doxiadis/Harvey/Hopkinson report.

REPORT_Samson_Delilah_Rubens_encr

With no match to be found for the picture among a score of National Gallery Rubens paintings or among six bona fide Rubens’ works of the precise (claimed) historical moment, why should it come as an affronting surprise that none was found by Art Recognition among 148 secure paintings? Just as Grosvenor demanded more tests on his wannabe Raphael, so he would seem to want the Samson and Delilah compared with every single picture in the oeuvre. On September 30th he complained: “To claim a judgement on the Samson & Delilah based only on scans of 400 [sic] works (and at what resolution? We are not told) out of an oeuvre of over 1000 works seems to me optimistic.” Rather than pressing for every work in the oeuvre to be tested, he might prefer to cite and photographically demonstrate a single other painting with brushstrokes that, to his eye, match those of the Samson and Delilah.

The National Gallery has long been unable to cite a single report or record that shows the Samson and Delilah to have been planed-down and mounted on blockboard before it was bought for a world record Rubens price in 1980. In place of evidence, the gallery, too, falls back on appeals to authority, claiming, for example, in a 23 May 2000 press statement, that “…a large number of distinguished scholars who have devoted their careers to the study of Rubens unanimously agreed that the painting was one of the artist’s masterpieces”.

Such appeals cut little ice: every restoration or attribution ArtWatch has challenged in the last thirty years had been supported by a bevy of art historical bigwigs – from the Sistine Chapel ceiling to the recent so-called Leonardo “Male Mona Lisa” (Fig. 1 above). Moreover, of all scholarship, that on Rubens remains the most problematic and herd-like, its key players being uniquely obligated by a family bequest to defer to the scholarship and judgements of the long deceased (and now discredited) scholar Ludwig Burchard.

ARTISTS KNOW

The challenge to that art historical authority has come principally from artist/scholars who are freer agents and arrive armed with hands-on knowledge of art’s practices – knowing, for example, how to put brush to paint and paint to surface. A quarter of a century ago Euphrosyne Doxiadis neatly encapsulated the now technically confirmed deficiencies of the picture’s brushwork in an interview:

“This picture is betrayed by brush strokes which are almost staccato and broken up, rather than having been done with one stroke of the wrist, which you see in all Rubenses. There is an absence of Rubens’ vibrant, pulsating-with-life strokes. In actual Rubenses, each stroke is a tour-de-force. This is clumsy and awkward.” (Dalya Alberge, “Expert denounces National Gallery’s Rubens”, The Times, 25 November 1996.)

Above, Fig. 4: Top, details of the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah; above, Rubens’ The Raising of the Cross, Antwerp Cathedral. Where the former is claimed to be a lost picture Rubens painted in 1609-10, the latter was indisputably made by Rubens between 1610-11. Such pronounced differences in brushwork are inconceivable as that of two autograph paintings made at the same moment in Rubens’ oeuvre. Who, looking at this photo-comparison, could believe that Rubens had flitted between the ugly angular Cubist faceted feet in the Samson and Delilah statue (– try counting the toes and note the Art Deco zigzagging hem), and the superb fluency, grace and anatomical fidelity seen in the Raising of the Cross?

THE TESTIMONY OF NATIONAL GALLERY TECHNICAL BULLETINS

When Tweeting support for Grosvenor, Waldemar Januszczak, had seemingly forgotten his own 5 October 1997 Sunday Times article headed: “One of the World’s most valuable paintings hangs in the National Gallery. But Samson and Delilah, widely assumed to be by Rubens, is not by him but is a copy, argues Waldemar Januszczak. Who then did paint it?” Januszczak had ended with this ringing declaration: “The one thing we doubters all agree on is that the painting bought by the gallery for a staggering sum in 1980 is not by Rubens.” What has changed to un-doubt Januszczak? Under challenge on Twitter, Grosvenor admitted that he too had once entertained doubts about the Rubens ascription.

Joyce Plesters’ 1983 Technical Bulletin account was tendentious and error prone. She had counted six planks in the Samson and Delilah panel when the picture’s restorer, David Bomford, made it five and the gallery’s panel specialist, Anthony Reeve, counted seven – as would a dendrochronologist in 1996. Plesters thought the National Gallery’s attributed Michelangelo Entombment of Christ had been painted on a single giant plank when the panel is comprised of three butterfly-keyed planks. The senior curator, Christopher Brown, accepted Plesters’ six planks in the catalogue to the National Gallery’s 1983 “Acquisition in Focus” celebratory exhibition of the restored Samson and Delilah. In 1997 Januszczak poked fun at the conservation department’s shambolic technical reporting:

“I am shown these authoritative-looking documents and, on the first page, the information that the Samson is painted on five planks has been crossed out and changed to seven planks. In the published technical report we are told there are six planks. A conservation report that cannot count the number of bits of wood the gallery’s most expensive painting was done on hardly inspires confidence.”

One of the painting dossiers that I later I examined at the National Gallery (under the directorships of Charles Saumarez Smith and Nicholas Penny) disclosed that a large and important picture had been mounted on “Sundeala” boards with a honeycomb paper core. The disclosure had not been made in the report itself but had been written on an attached yellow post-it note. Plesters’ haplessness was more than arithmetical. The year before Januszczak’s tease she had suffered a mortifying professional reverse. In the 1960s, when scholars like Ernst Gombrich and Otto Kurz warned Gallery restorers against removing all-over tinted varnishes from Renaissance paintings, she insisted that the entire documented technical history of art showed “no convincing case” for any artist having emulated Apelles’ legendary dark varnishes and that the famous passage from Pliny was of “academic rather than practical importance”. She even offered to “sift” and “throw light upon” on any future historical material that Professor Gombrich might uncover.

A BURIED INCONVENIENT TRUTH

In 1977, in the National Gallery’s first Technical Bulletin, Joyce Plesters had mused complacently “one or two readers may recall the furore when the cleaning of discoloured varnishes from paintings…began to find critics.” In that year the scarcely less complacent former National Gallery director Kenneth (Lord) Clark pronounced picture cleaning “a battle won”. A third of a century after the original controversy, the practical import of Pliny’s testimony emerged in a 1996 Technical Bulletin disclosure that a Leonardo assistant, Giampietrino, had toned down his colours with a final dark “varnish” layer of oil with black and warm earth pigments.

Had those pigments been bound in a resin it would have been deemed an earlier restorer’s attempt to impart a spurious “old masters’ glow” and removed. However, Giampietrino’s dark overall toning was identical to the oil medium of the painting itself and any solvent that would dissolve the one would dissolve the other. The gallery had to leave the coating in place. Shamefully, it stifled any acknowledgement of its momentous art historical significance – and it even neglected to inform Gombrich of the corroboration of his earlier claims, despite the fact that the gallery’s then director, Neil MacGregor, held the 1960s dispute to have been “one of the most celebrated jousts” in modern art history.

When ArtWatch UK informed Gombrich of his vindication he was approaching his 87th birthday and responded: “I could hardly have a nicer present than the information you sent me. I don’t see the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin and would have missed their final conversion to an obvious truth. There is more joy in heaven (or Briardale Gardens…)” Two years later he observed: “I believe it was Francis Bacon who said that ‘knowledge is power’. I had to learn the hard way that power can also masquerade as knowledge, and since there are very few people able to judge these issues, they very easily get away with it.” (See “How the National Gallery belatedly vindicated the restoration criticisms of Sir Ernst Gombrich”.)

THE MISSING BACK, A LEGAL CHALLENGE, AND OTHER SAMSON AND DELILAH PROBLEMS

Above, Fig. 5: Two special issues of the ArtWatch UK Journal that examined the Samson and Deliah’s credentials as a Rubens.

In Journal No. 21, Kasia Pisarek wrote:

“I am in possession of a privately printed pamphlet entitled The Biggest Scandal since the Fake Vermeer written in 1960 by a well-known French art dealer Jean Neger. In it, he openly denounced Dr. Ludwig Burchard as being a dishonest man writing a certificate of authenticity for a painting that he knew was a copy. The picture in question was Diana departing for the Hunt, a large oil on canvas, sold in 1960 as a Rubens for a huge amount of money to the Cleveland Museum in America. It first appeared in an Amsterdam sale (Valkenier family) in 1796, in fact as late as 180 years after its supposed creation c.1615. Neger accused Burchard of ‘defrauding the American state of 550.000 dollars’.

“In his highly dramatic pamphlet he declared that Dr. Burchard wrote the certificate of authenticity in 1958, even though he knew that another, nearly identical version (his own) of the painting existed, and had a considerably better provenance, going back to 1655 and the prestigious Spanish collection of the marquis de Leganes, a friend of Rubens. This was the most important collection in Spain, aside from that of the King Philip IV. Leganes probably owned more paintings attributed to Rubens than any other aristocratic collector in Spain, with the possible exception of Gaspar de Haro. After researching his painting, Neger discovered that the number 214 in white paint present on his canvas was the corresponding Leganes inventory number. Moreover, his version of Diana had a lot of pentimenti visible even to the naked eye, which would indicate that it was an original, not a copy.

“According to Neger, Burchard has tried to avoid him on many occasions and has refused to see or to certify his version because he had already certified the other one as the original. When approached, he tried to ‘compromise’ by saying that he would state that Neger’s version was the first one, which Rubens had sketched and abandoned, and that he had then painted a second version, the one from Cleveland. Later, he took up Neger’s picture again, corrected it and completed it. That solution was satisfactory to Neger and yet, Dr. Burchard changed his mind again, and refused to certify Neger’s painting at all. Subsequently, he chose not to reply to Neger’s allegations which appeared to be his usual attitude in such situations.”

Dr. Pisarek concluded:

“I verified most of Neger’s statements, which on the whole appear to be true. I traced both pictures: one is in the Cleveland Museum, effectively considered to be the original by Rubens; the other is in The Getty Museum in Malibu, as ‘a workshop copy’. And yet, the Getty picture (ex-Neger’s) has better chances of being the original: it is the larger of the two versions; it has a superior and older provenance (1655 as compared to 1796); it agrees in most details (presence of sandals, lack of birds in the sky, missing tiger’s skin, background landscape) with an old copy in Cassel which provenance (1756) predates that of the alleged Cleveland’s ‘original’.”

Pisarek discussed the merits of these two pictures in the third chapter – “The two versions of Rubens’s Diana Departing for the Hunt: an American cause célèbre” – of her doctoral thesis, Rubens and Connoisseurship. On the problems of attribution and rediscovery in British and American collections, University of Warsaw, 2009, and there concluded that both the Cleveland and Getty pictures are mostly products of Rubens’s workshop.

DEFENDING MUSEUM FAKES I

On 4 March 1929, the year that Ludwig Burchard found and upgraded the Honthorst painting then owned by van Diemen and Benedict (who had bought it, Doxiadis disclosed, from a painter/restorer) and that is today the National Gallery Samson and Delilah, Rene Gimpel, author of the 1996 Diary of an art dealer, wrote:

“The Italians have sold Americans $2m worth of marbles done by Dossena (a faker). A laughable sum compared with the amounts obtained by means of certificates given daily by German experts to German dealers. Just as there were paper marks, so there are paper canvases, an easy way of bringing dollars into Germany. I went this morning to the Van Diemen gallery, which has an exhibition of sixteen Venetians. Three pictures are good, apart from the Guardis and perhaps the Longhi. Last Sunday’s Times devoted an entire page reproducing this scandalous exhibition, which gives only a faint idea of what is brought in. Bode, the director of the Berlin Museum died two or three days ago. The king is dead long live the king! The Mayers, the Gronau will replace him. The German title of Doktor impresses the Americans. The museums are even more intent than the collectors on defending their fakes or their mistaken attributions.”

WHAT LIES BEHIND

Above, Fig. 6: A spread of pages from ArtWatch UK Journal No. 11 contrasting the Samson and Delilah’s present back with the labelled and cradled backs of comparable period panel paintings.

Above, Fig. 7: Illustrations of the back of the Samson Delilah picture as supplied by the National Gallery and as published in the June 2000 Art Review (“The Back is Where It’s At”) where we showed the back of the Samson and Delilah and its attachments, as recorded in 1997. Our detailed technical and art historical case against the Rubens attribution in the Art Review ran, in full, as follows:

“Last month I referred to a National Gallery picture which lacks a back or a record of a back but on the back of which an incomplete provenance depends. This bizarre, paradoxical case arose as follows.

“On 11 July 1980, the National Gallery paid £2.53m (through Agnew’s at a Christie’s auction) for a large picture, Samson and Delilah, that was said to be an ‘entirely autograph’ Rubens, probably in its original frame. The price was a world record for the artist and, at the time, the second highest for any painting bought at auction. The acquisition was presented to the world with great fanfare, orchestrated as much by the gallery as by the auctioneers. In 1982 the picture was cleaned, restored and reframed in preparation for a special ‘Acquisition in Focus’ exhibition to be held the following year. So far, so straightforward.

“In 1983, two accounts of the restoration were published in the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin by David Bomford, restorer, and Joyce Plesters, head of science. At this point the painting, which hitherto had always been described as a panel, begins to be described in different terms. Namely, as a planed-down sliver of a panel mounted on a modern laminate sheet of blockboard. As Bomford put it, ‘the large panel on which Samson and Delilah is painted must originally have been substantially thicker than it is now. At some point, probably during the present century, the panel was planed down to a thickness of less than 3 mm and subsequently glued on to a sheet of blockboard.’ This seems in strict, factual terms to be correct, but the word ‘probably’ later came to be questionable.

“Plesters’ account was seriously misleading. She claimed that the planed-down panel had been set not onto but ‘into’ (which it had not) the sheet of blockboard, which supposed placement prevented its edges from being examined for tree-ring dating purposes – which it did not. She insisted that this phantom relationship was of no consequence because ‘the date and provenance of the painting are not in doubt.’ Which claim, as will be shown, was not the case. Plesters admitted that the planing, on an unidentified occasion ‘before the picture was acquired by the Gallery’, might well have destroyed, among other evidence, a branded or carved panel-maker’s mark – a far from trivial matter because such a mark might have sunk the attribution to Rubens. The original Samson and Delilah is dated 1609, sometimes 1610; its engraved and painted copies to c. 1613 and 1615 [sic – 1625-35] respectively. Very few panel-makers marks were made before 1617 when they first became a guild requirement; after this date they can help with datings. Michiel Vrient, whose mark is most commonly found on the back of Rubens’ later panels, only qualified in 1615. His mark on the Samson and Delilah would have been fatal.

“Clearly, establishing when, by whom, and for what purpose a planing was carried out – and what records were kept of the original back – would under any circumstance be a matter of urgency and a test of propriety. In this instance it became greatly more so when, in 1997, a number of eye witnesses reported to ArtWatch UK that the picture had retained its original, label-bearing and ‘cradled’ back immediately prior to and during its auction at Christie’s in 1980. When informed of this, Neil MacGregor, the gallery’s director, dismissed the testimony as ‘mistaken’ (letter 7 April 1997). He later said (9 April) ‘the National Gallery does not have any record, photographic or written, of the back of this picture before it was planed down.’

“This year [2000], in compliance with its ‘Code of Openness’, adopted in anticipation of Government legislation on freedom of information, the gallery reversed an eight-year-old decision and allowed me to examine the dossiers held on the picture and its treatments. I have been assured that the dossiers were complete and that no material was withheld. I am forced to report that the records are therefore lamentably incomplete. This is the more disturbing because, contrary to assurances, the picture’s provenance is extremely insecure. It is not to the gallery’s credit that it took six years of assiduous research by three painters – Euphrosyne Doxiadis, Stephen Harvey and Siân Hopkinson – between 1986 and 1992 – for this embarrassing reality to be brought to light. They demonstrated that the picture is not compositionally consistent with contemporaneous engraved and painted copies of the original picture. Their examination drew from Christopher Brown, the curator responsible for the acquisition, the admission that ‘there are gaps at the beginning and the end of the Liechtenstein provenance which makes it impossible to be 100 per cent certain that this is the picture painted for Rockox.’

“The provenance as presented by Christie’s in their sale catalogue was a daisy-chain of speculations pegged on disconnected and not always accurate citations. It was claimed in the first instance that the picture was ‘probably’ the one known to have been painted in 1609-10 for Nicolaas Rockox’s house. It was said to have ‘perhaps’ been in the possession of the painter Jeremias Wildens (albeit only as a ‘Samson’ and not as Samson and Delilah) before 1653. It was further said to have ‘perhaps’ been in the possession of a ‘Guill Potteau’ before 1692. It was then said to have passed into the hands of the Prince of Liechtenstein on 30 May 1700. The second, third and fourth suggestions are all dependent on an event having taken place for which there is no evidence whatsoever: that the original painting left Rockox’s house at his death in 1640.

“As Euphrosyne Doxiadis established (and as Dalya Alberge reported in The Times of 25 November 1996), the records show that Rockox’s collection remained in his house until its sale in 1714 after the death of Rockox’s last descendant in 1712. The house in Antwerp survives and was restored in 1977 as a museum to Rockox. A booklet produced that year by the museum acknowledged with regret that it had been impossible to reassemble the whole of the original collection which had been dispersed by a public auction in 1715. Knowledge of this sequence of events seems rapidly to have slipped from official art historical consciousness

“By coincidence, the National Gallery’s picture (then in a private German collection) was exhibited in Antwerp in 1977 in a large exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of Rubens’ birth. In the catalogue Frans Baudoin described it as a ‘panel’. In the same year, in his book Nicolaas Rockox: ‘Friend and Patron’ of Peter Paul Rubens, Baudoin said the panel was ‘excellently preserved’. He also reported that the picture had been ‘rediscovered’ (when owned by a dealer as a Gerit van Honthorst) in 1929 by Ludwig Burchard, on whose advice, the German magnate August Neuerburg bought it in 1930 (along with another Burchard ‘Rubens’, since de-attributed).

“Burchard’s ‘rediscovery’ closed the second gap in the provenance to which Christopher Brown referred. Samson and Delilah is said to have disappeared after being sold by the Liechtenstein collection in 1880. In addition to the ‘gaps’ of 60 and 50 years at either end of the Liechtenstein provenance there are two further problems. First, the Samson and Delilah was described in every Liechtenstein inventory as a copy. Even the dealers who sold it to the collection thought it not to be by Rubens and to be greatly inferior to a work by Van Dyck. Second, every painting in the Liechtenstein collection was marked with a seal on its front or back. The National Gallery’s picture has no seal on the front. If it had one on its back, what happened to it? What possible reason could there be for removing and destroying such an important feature of a picture’s pedigree?

“When pressed on such specifics, the National Gallery summons the fogs of time. Bomford thought the planing might have taken place in the 19th century. His director, MacGregor, suggested that it was ‘possibly done this century, perhaps when the painting was in the hands of the art trade in the 1920s’ (Letter 9 April 1997.) This really will not do. The dossiers contain, I discovered, an undated sheet of typescript by Burchard (which the gallery’s archivist tells me is part of a letter dated 8 April 1930, but which contains a handwritten postscript referring to an article of 1942) which not only describes the picture as being ‘in a remarkably good state of preservation’ but, crucially, testifies that ‘even the back of the panel is still in its original condition.’ Given Burchard’s testimony, and bearing in mind that Christopher Brown made a special study of Burchard’s manuscript notes on the painting (which we have not been allowed to see) prior to the 1983 ‘Acquisition in Focus’ exhibition, how could the gallery have believed that the planing might have taken place before the last [the 20th] century or when the picture was in French hands?

“These questions are the more perplexing because, after Burchard’s testimony, every single reference to the picture describes it as a ‘panel’ in good – or better – condition. A further document in the [National Gallery] dossier that throws light on the picture’s condition also seems to have been overlooked. Christopher Norris, a benefactor of the gallery, sent a letter of congratulations to Michael Levey, the director, the day after the sale at Christie’s. Norris attributed the picture’s still ‘amazing condition’ to the fact that the German owners [between 1930 and 1980] had not touched it. It still retained, he noted, the varnish applied during its stay in France in 1929. The only change that had occurred during Norris’s forty-seven years’ acquaintance with the picture was that the varnish had toned down. (In 1983 Bomford cited the picture’s ‘thick, considerably yellowed varnish’ as the ‘principal reason’ for cleaning.)

“In 1977, Gregory Martin, the author of Christie’s catalogue entry, reviewed the Antwerp Rubens exhibition. He observed with relief that the Samson and Delilah was one of two ‘great works…on panel’ that were ‘none the worse for their journeys’ to Antwerp. (In 1982, the picture was described in the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin as one of only three well-made and untroublesome panels in the collection.) Three years later the picture again left Germany when it was sent, on offer of sale, to a Belgian museum. On its arrival, a condition report (dated 4 March 1980) was prepared by a leading Rubens expert. He described the picture as a ‘panel…in good shape’ with painting in a condition ‘which can be called excellent’. The panel remained for several months at the museum before being dispatched directly to Christie’s. During its stay at the museum, the picture was seen to be an old, thick, somewhat bowed, label-bearing and cross-battened panel. Brian Sewell (who had discovered the Samson and Delilah modello some years earlier at Christie’s) recalls that the picture, when at Christie’s, was an intact, cross-battened panel with a blackish painted back on which the Christie’s number [as given to every work on arrival] was stencilled in white paint.

“On 27 May 1997, Neil MacGregor sent me photographs of the picture’s back ‘as it is now’. He drew attention to the Christie’s number (chalked and stencilled in black paint) and to ‘two labels attached to the back of the blockboard’ (see illustrations). One, he said, is from the Antwerp exhibition of 1977, the other ‘rather older, from the Neuerburg Collection’. It was, he said, ‘hard to imagine any of these being put on after the picture left Christie’s.’ It is not. Neither document – only one of which appears to be a label – would seem to be glued or pasted to the blockboard. Both appear to be held in place, identically, with cellophane fixed by clean masking tape. Both documents are clearly proud of the surface and are seen to cast shadows on it. The 1977 Antwerp label shows clear signs of having been attacked with a scraper. Why? When? And by whom? After receiving these photographs, I asked to see the back on an occasion when the picture had been removed from its frame. So far, I have not been permitted to do so, and two requests to government ministers for an inquiry have been turned down.”

THE DIFFERENCE A MISPLACED HISTORICAL WORD CAN MAKE IN AN AUCTION CATALOGUE

Today, given the Samson and Delilah’s recent further disqualification on a technical analysis of its brushwork, the National Gallery’s continuing claim of a Rubens authorship runs increased risks.

First: That espousal continues to fly in the face of historical documentary evidence that the picture cannot safely be ascribed to Rubens – evidence that had emerged and was published twenty-five years ago by Dalya Alberge (“Artists raise fresh doubts on gallery’s Rubens masterpiece” 26 September 1996, the Times”):

“ARTISTS challenging the attribution of Rubens’s Samson and Delilah in the National Gallery believe that evidence presented in an auction house’s catalogue was mistaken. The artists also allege that the gallery refuses to acknowledge historical facts that cast doubt on the picture being by the 17th-century master. The National Gallery acquired the painting from Christie’s in 1980 for £2.5 million, equivalent to £6 million today. The auction catalogue referred to a 1653 inventory which described the painting as ‘Eenen Samson van Rubens’, which would mean ‘by Mr Rubens’. But a Flemish genealogist who has studied the inventory said that it read ‘Eenen Samson naer Rubens’: ‘naer’ is translated as ‘made just like Rubens’ or ‘after Mr Rubens’. Another inventory, dated 1692, lists it as ‘copye’ – a copy.

“Euphrosyne Doxiadis, an artist and scholar, and the painters Steven Harvey and Siân Hopkinson believe that the genealogist’s finding backs the stylistic evidence against the picture being by Rubens… It was only as recently as 1929 that the painting was hailed as a long-lost Rubens. For 180 years it was in the collection of the Princes of Liechtenstein and inventories in 1767, 1780 and 1873 attributed it to a minor hand, Jan Van Den Hoecke…”

THE SHIFTING TESTIMONY OF LUDWIG BURCHARD

Second: With this picture never having been thought an autograph Rubens before Burchard’s 1929 upgrade, everything rests on that scholar’s tarnished standing. Aside from the Neger scandal, Pisarek noted in the Spring 2006 ArtWatch UK Journal (No. 21, “The ‘Samson and Delilah’ – a question of attribution”) that over 60 pictures, albeit mainly small works, attributed by Burchard to Rubens had been down-graded in Corpus Rubenianum to studio works, copies or imitations. In a 1950 letter to a fellow art historian, Burchard had said of a painting now in the North Carolina Museum of Art: “The Rubens-like painting was once shown to me. I missed the transparency of the shadows, which one would expect at least in places. The picture seemed to me like a compilation by a contemporary of Rubens.” However, in 1954 he had said of the same painting in a certificate of 28 May addressed to the D. M. Koetser Gallery, London: “the vigour of the design, the brilliance of the vivid colours, the concentration of movement are comparable in several details to the painter’s Defeat of Sennacherib c. 1612…”

THE FIXED TESTIMONY OF PAINTWORK

Third: As mentioned, the 1992 Doxiadis/Harvey/Hopkinson Report had anticipated and thereby now effectively corroborates the Art Recognition findings in its section on Rubens’ painterly technique:

“We have now studied the technical deficiencies in the execution of the National Gallery Painting; we have collected a very comprehensive catalogue of faults which are demonstrated by comparison with works of that period. This can be done when visual material is included…

“It is totally out of character for Rubens to use what the National Gallery calls ‘bold’ handling over the entire surface of a painting. In all his other works, areas of beautiful and infinitely detailed work appear, in addition to areas which have been handled boldly – a woman’s jewellery, for instance, the lace on a ruff, or a flower in the foreground. On the whole, the great downfall of the National Gallery’s picture is the crudeness with which it has been painted. Quite apart from the unsubtle transitions from tone to tone and from colour to colour (look for example on the Venus statue in the background [here, Fig. 4, above], or at Samson’s ear [Fig. 24, below], compared with his own ear in the self portrait of Rubens and Isabella Brant in the Honeysuckle Bower painted in the same year) there are two enormous drips of paint on the surface of the work, which no painter with even the most basic training would have allowed himself to do at that period….

“Looking closely at Samson and Delilah one misses the vibrant, twisting nature of the brushstrokes themselves. The shapeless, unanimated strokes in this painting seem flat and unexciting when compared with Rubens’ usual virtuosity.”

SO, ONCE AGAIN, WHO PLANED THE BACK OFF THE SAMSON AND DELILAH PANEL?

Fourth: The Samson and Delilah picture retains an abiding technical mystery: at what date and by whom was the panel planed down and attached to a modern laminate sheet of blockboard?

It should always be appreciated that no reference had ever been made to a planing and a blockboard backing before the Plesters/Bomford accounts of 1983, and that the National Gallery’s accounts are inconsistent, shifting and full of holes. As seen, some have said the planing may have occurred in the 19th century or early 20th century, others that it took place between 1930 and 1980. The gallery claims to have kept no records of the picture’s state in 1980 when purchased and, even, to have prepared no reports for its trustees when seeking authorisation to make a then massive purchase that would consume most of the gallery’s annual purchases grant. A director, Neil MacGregor, expressly admitted (in a 1997 letter to ArtWatch UK) that “The National Gallery does not have any record, photographic or written, of the back of this picture before it was planed down” – which, as indicated above and as is further shown below, was not the case.

When the senior curator at the time of the 1980 acquisition, Christopher Brown, and his successor, David Jaffé, both held that it was planed down when in the collection of the German magnate, August Neuerberg, between 1930 and 1980, they did so against the testimony of the National Gallery benefactor (who had gifted a Poussin), Christopher Norris. As first mentioned in the 2000 Art Review, Norris testified in a letter to the director in 1980, Michael Levey, that between 1929 and 1980, no change of condition had occurred in the painting, other than a toning down in its 1929 varnish, because the owners had not touched it. Thus, because we know, on Burchard’s (written) testimony held by the National Gallery, that the panel was intact in 1929 when sold to Neuerburg and, on Norris’s (written) testimony, held by the National Gallery, that the owner had never touched the picture, the only parties who might have planed-off the back are Christie’s and the National Gallery. Christie’s, who described and sold the picture as a panel – not as a reduced or marouflaged panel – are hardly likely to have so-transformed someone else’s property – or even to have had the time and means of doing so. On currently available records, the National Gallery, becomes, willy-nilly, the sole candidate, having itself never once described the picture as a planed-down panel before 1983 – and because its own published records testify that the work was an intact panel up to 1982.

REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM: THE CASE OF A TOTALLY DISAPPEARED NATIONAL GALLERY ALTARPIECE PANEL

Above, Fig. 8: Top, the National Gallery’s 1504 altarpiece The Incredulity of S. Thomas by Cima da Conegliano, as seen before and after an utterly transforming campaign of restoration in which a modern synthetic composite support was substituted for the original giant poplar panel and a new frame was built to replace the gallery’s own 19th century frame; above, a 1978 pen and ink drawing, “The Ages of Woman”, by the author.

As can be seen above, top, the cleaning and subsequent retouching of the picture surface left a tonally and perspectivally altered appearance: what had been dark and tonally relieving (the back wall) became lighter; what had been contrasted became equalised (the wall and ceiling); what had been dramatically central and axially assertive (the “spotlighted” figure of Christ) became quietened and subsumed within a group. The reduced ornamentation on the new frame left two architecturally assertive raised circles that now vie for attention with the picture’s own depicted half-round windows – which features, the lightening of the wall has brought closer to the picture plane and, therefore, closer also to the new more abstractly assertive frame. The net effect of the physical and pictorial transformations this altarpiece underwent was to leave a painted image surface that is now as flat, de-natured and ahistorical as a giclée print. Above, to a draughtsman (who necessarily commences work on a sheet of – initially – “no-values” to a gradually built-up and considered disposition of “values”, the alterations that are routinely made by restorers during “cleanings” and “restorations” to other artists’ works are as un-missable as they are perplexing and artistically impoverishing.

Above, Fig. 9: Left, the back of the altarpiece panel which was totally removed (i. e. destroyed) and replaced by a multi-layered fibreglass and aluminium board – the long-term stability of which is unknown – during restoration. Right, the diagram of the new, entirely synthetic glass fibre and aluminium support in cross-section, as published in the gallery’s 1985 Technical Bulletin.

Above, Fig. 10: The Cima altarpiece, as published in the 1986 Technical Bulletin with the caption: “The picture after cleaning and transfer, before restoration.”

A MASTERFUL JOB

When Waldemar Januszczak was in art critically doubting mode on the Samson and Delilah’s attribution in October 1997, he addressed the persisting Whodunnit Mystery of the Disappeared Back:

“I put this to the gallery’s chief conservator, Martin Wyld, who quips cheerfully that he was rather proud of having been accused; planing a 17th-century oak panel to wafer thinness and attaching it perfectly to blockboard while leaving its surface in pristine condition, is an exceptional feat of restoration. Nobody would or should do it today. Whoever did it earlier did a masterful job. Why did they do it at all? If a painting is in exceptionally good condition, why was there any need to hazard the transfer to blockboard? A question neither the chief conservator nor MacGregor can answer. All I got them from both is the National Gallery version of: it wasn’t us, guv.”

If stunned by Januszczak’s question, Wyld and MacGregor can hardly have been caught unawares. In a then recent letter in the Daily Telegraph (“Doubts about gallery’s Rubens”, 16 August 1997) we had written on that very question:

“…More disturbingly, crucial technical and documentary evidence concerning the picture’s weak provenance was destroyed when the back of its oak panel was planed away in a mysterious intervention for which no one accepts responsibility and during which no records were kept. The National Gallery claims the planing took place before the picture was bought at Christie’s for a record £2.5 million in 1980. If this was so, two questions arise. Why did the gallery’s trustees authorise the acquisition of a picture with no back (the planed-down remains having been glued on to a sheet of blockboard) and with no documented history of a back? And why did the gallery not ask the vendors, who had owned the painting for 50 years, for an account of the planing and a record of the pre-planed back?… Answers to all these questions lie in the reports that were prepared by the gallery staff for the trustees prior to the 1980 purchase and prior to the gallery’s 1982 cleaning and restoration of the picture. The gallery has not responded to requests that these reports be made available for inspection. Nor is it prepared to produce photographs of the picture’s back, as taken by Christie’s staff before the sale, or by gallery staff before the restoration.”

Unable to answer those questions, the head restorer had clearly been ‘avin a larf when he suggested to the Sunday Times’ art critic that planing a panel down to 3 mm and gluing it onto a sheet of block board was an exceptional feat far beyond anyone’s capacities at the National Gallery. Back then in 1997, a reading of recent National Gallery Technical Bulletins would soon have disclosed the gallery’s great pride in its radical substitutions of modern synthetic composite backings for old pictures’ historic (wood or canvas) supports. We had complained in the 1993 and 1996 James Beck and Michael Daley book Art Restoration: The Culture; the Business and the Scandal of the gallery’s use of the compressed paper “Sundeala” boards on to which Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, Seurat’s The Bathers and Sebastiano’s The Raising of Lazarus had been affixed.

The spectacularly gung-ho treatment of the latter picture – the largest in the Gallery’s collection – epitomised the artistic presumption and techno-adventurism of the gallery’s restorers. The deleterious consequences of that intervention began to be conceded by the gallery’s restorers in its 2009 Technical Bulletin:

“…eventually it was decided to brush on multiple thin layers of warm wax-resin dissolved in white spirit, embedding a layer of inert terylene net fabric [-“Terylene is a specific form of polyester, more specifically polyethylene terephthalate. It is created via the extraction and mixing of ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. When turned into a fiber with dyes and other treatments, it becomes a great synthetic with a lot of potential in different sectors” ] within the layers as they solidified. Although the discoloured varnishes had yet to be removed from the paint surface, the appearance of the picture was considered to be darker than intended as a result of lack of reflectance from the ground and so titanium white (titanium dioxide) was added to the wax cement…Once the wax and titanium white layers had been built up to a sufficient thickness the painting could then be mounted on a solid new support. This had previously been coated with wax-resin allowing a bond to be achieved by ironing with a thermostatically controlled iron to soften the wax-resin layers which then fused as they cooled. Although it is unlikely that these methods and materials would be used nowadays, the treatment can be judged a success in that there has been no further flaking of the paint layers. Unfortunately, the work took place before the introduction of lightweight and stable panels made from glass fibre with aluminium honeycomb cores. The painting is mounted, therefore, on a support constructed with a sundeala’ composite board outer faces and a core of paper honeycomb. In spite of its wooden edges and an internal wooden framework this panel is now showing signs of instability, with a tendency to flex and twist when the painting is moved, an operation which is therefore avoided as far as possible.” Emphasis added.

Above, Fig. 11: Staff in the National Gallery’s restoration studio at work on the remains of Cima da Conegliano’s altarpiece, The Incredulity of S. Thomas, after the complete removal of its giant poplar panel and before its transfer onto a multi-layered synthetic support – as shown in the NG’s 1985 Technical Bulletin.

A reading of the 1985 and 1986 Technical Bulletins would have disclosed how gallery restorers had chiselled away the entire wood panel of seven giant planks just under two metres long of Cima’s altarpiece The Incredulity of St Thomas (Figs. 8-10). In the first stage, the panel was reduced “from c. 5 cm to 1 cm.” In the second, the remaining 1 cm of wood was chiselled away entirely until the back of the original gesso coatings was exposed. In the 1985 Technical Bulletin, Martin Wyld described the means and the tools of that perilous operation:

“The removal of the wood then commenced. The techniques used were entirely manual. Though mechanical routers and planes are often used with success in transfer, there is a danger of a power tool, however carefully handled, snagging on knots in the wood or on the bent nails which are mysteriously but commonly found in old panels, and ripping up far more wood than is intended. Semi-circular 15 mm gouges were pushed along the grain, cutting channels 6-7 mm deep, and the ridges left between the channels were then cut down. Each plank was reduced by a similar amount, and the process repeated until the panel had been reduced from c 5 cm to 1 cm in thickness. Many nails were found embedded in the panel and several knots were also cut out.

“The removal of the first layers of wood is usually the easiest part of a transfer [of a paint film to a new support]. The removal of the final layer of wood was complicated by several factors. Many different blister-laying adhesives had been used on the Cima, often in very large quantities. Fig. 6 shows a detail of the Apostles’ heads on the right; the lines of white dots are holes of a syringe in order to inject animal glue under the gesso. Much of this glue, which must have been considerably diluted with water in order to be used in a syringe, had run into the worm channels and soaked into the wood, making the panel surface more brittle…Areas where wax had been used for blister-laying presented less difficulty.

“Experience during earlier transfers had shown that the safest method of removing the last layer of wood was to cut a very shallow slope at a slight angle to the direction of the grain and to shave away the tapered edge of the wood with a small fish-tail chisel. The method proved to be impractical on the Cima. The parts of the panel affected by thick animal glue (of the consistency of carpenter’s glue) or putty filling the worm channels, by knots and by later or original inserts of wood obviously needed individual treatment. However, the remainder of the wood was so insecurely attached to the gesso that it was impossible to cut a shallow slope because strips broke away along the grain no matter how carefully the chisel was used. Strips of wood 10-12 cm long and 3-4 cm wide would become completely detached, but usually with a few small fragments of paint and gesso stuck to them. These fragments were laboriously cut off the wood and replaced… It was found that the safest method of removing the last layer of wood in the very loose areas was to cut it away at an angle of 30 ? to the gesso, instead of across at the very shallow angle normally used, and to cut across rather than along the grain…”

Above, Fig. 12: Top, the director, Michael Levey, and the head restorer, Martin Wyld (top left), watching four restorers in the National Gallery’s basement restoration studios attaching the pictorial remains of Cima da Conegliano’s altarpiece, The Incredulity of S. Thomas, to a linen interleaf on the hot-table after the complete removal of its giant poplar panel and before its transfer onto a multi-layered synthetic support – as shown in the NG’s 1985 Technical Bulletin. Above, the exposed and buckled gesso months after the Cima panel had been chiselled away entirely and the air-conditioning system had malfunctioned.

AN OVERNIGHT MALFUNCTION

Note Wyld’s own account of the “conservation treatment” of the Cima altarpiece:

“Fig. 13 [here, “Fig. 12, above”] shows the arched top of the picture, where the removal of the final layer of wood had started. The panel and gesso had been carefully covered with Melinex and heavy rubber mats all through the transfer, but the gesso had absorbed some moisture from the atmosphere and swollen slightly. An air-conditioning malfunction, which produced RH of 100% for several hours one night, led to pronounced swelling and buckling of the gesso [and the paint layers attached to it] which can be seen in this photograph taken months later.”

Wyld further reported:

“Fig. 13 shows the severe buckling of the top of the picture due to the gesso having absorbed moisture from the atmosphere. Less pronounced buckling had affected some of the lower half of the picture as well. The facing layers had moved with the gesso, and were still secure. The picture was detached from the temporary support and slid face-down onto the Melinex covered hot-table, sealed with a membrane and heated to 40 ? C at a pressure of 15 mbar (1.5 kPa) for an hour. The buckling slowly reduced until the picture was almost flat and relaxed, and the same low pressure, which prevented any alteration of the surface texture, was maintained while the hot-table cooled.”

ALAS, POOR HOLBEIN

The apogee of the white heat of technically transforming restorations was eventually reached in Wyld’s luxuriously long, Esso-sponsored, BBC-televised 1993-96 swank-restoration of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. There, the gallery’s head of restoration produced the world’s first painted insinuation of “virtual reality” into an old master painting by reconstructing the picture’s famous (but damaged) anamorphic skull not according to the laws of perspective by which it had been constructed but from a gallery-generated computer manipulation of a photograph of a medical model of a skull. That operation was defended by the then director, Neil MacGregor on the grounds that “We believe it is our duty to try to present to the public, as much as we can, what the artist intended them to see.” Wyld went further, re-painting a section of the rug to a new design on the authority of a rug expert and painting false and camouflaging “age cracks” onto his own new painting.

And yet, notwithstanding Wyld’s publicly paraded technical expertise, he would have had Waldemar Januszczak believe that the National Gallery’s restorers lacked the wherewithal to reduce a panel to a thickness of c 3 mm and glue it onto a sheet of blockboard.

In the absence of any prior record of a planing, the National Gallery’s last resort defence against suspicions of having carried out the operation has rested on what might seem to be a confession of exceptional negligence – rather as if saying: “With this picture, which we considered a pre-eminent masterpiece within Rubens’ oeuvre and for which we had paid a fortune, we failed to follow our customary procedures and safeguards. We made no records; we took no photographs, neither when we bought it for a world record Rubens price nor earlier, ahead of the sale at Christie’s, when we had borrowed it and were seeking our trustees’ permission to buy it”.

AN OPEN GOAL?

Januszczak might have pressed his point harder. On the absence of records, we had recently reported (“Is this really a Rubens?” The Art Review, July/August 1997) that:

“In the 1980/81 Annual Report the then director, Michael Levey, thanked Christie’s for ‘allowing the trustees to see this painting in the gallery before the sale.’ A trustee at the time has disclosed that in all such purchases curators present a case for the purchase to the trustees who then examine the work ‘in the flesh’. A former Keeper and Deputy Director, Allan Braham, has disclosed that reports on the desirability and condition are prepared by curatorial and conservation staffs for the director before any major purchase…”

A TALE OF TWO OLD PANELS BOUGHT BY THE NATIONAL GALLERY IN 1980

The Gallery’s seeming failure to record and investigate this single work is the more perplexing because the director, Michael Levey, had truly nailed his professional and managerial colours to the painting. He had announced in 1979 that, having reassessed the National Gallery’s holdings of Rubens, he had concluded that it lacked a monumental figurative composition and that he intended to pass this information on to the Trustees at their next Meeting with a recommendation that they should look to acquiring one at the first opportunity. He did not have long to wait for the emergence at Christie’s of the Burchard Samson and Delilah – which might have seemed like a prayer answered. Notwithstanding the eventual very high cost, Levey’s enthusiasm for the picture seemed unbounded. In his foreword to the 1983 “Acquisition in Focus” exhibition, he wrote:

“When on Friday 11th July 1980 the National Gallery acquired at auction in London a Rubens painting of Samson and Delilah – at a cost of over two million pounds – some people might have asked why the nation needed another Rubens. In the Collection at Trafalgar Square there were already twenty paintings by the artist.

“This exhibition, the second in our ‘Acquisition in Focus’ series, will serve as a striking demonstration, I believe, that the painting was indeed needed and will confirm that a crude numbers game in matters of great painters and great paintings is no less obtuse than asking how a piece of canvas [?] can ‘be worth’ so many million pounds. An odd aspect of such questions is that they are rarely directed to areas of national expenditure outside the arts.

“Rubens’ Samson and Delilah is a large scale, early and entirely autograph painting of a kind the National Gallery previously lacked. Its splendid colour and vigorous handling of paint can all the better be appreciated now that it appears cleaned in this exhibition…”

ATTRIBUTIONAL TURBULENCE

If a whiff of defensiveness about the cost of the acquisition might be sensed, it would be understandable: a ferocious dispute was running in the early 1980s between Rubens scholars over the famous paper cartoons-for-tapestries that had been bought for the National Museum Cardiff as by Rubens – and Levey was in the thick of it, having sided with Julius Held who had dissed his arch rival Michael Jaffé’s attribution of the cartoons to Rubens. This would have been the very worst of times for another museum to have been thought to have acquired a dud “Rubens” – and, indeed, for Levey to have been its principal begetter.

In that context, it must be said that the self-declared failure to keep customary (if not statutory) records on the Samson and Delilah stands in bewilderingly sharp contrast with the abundance of prior investigations and records kept and published on another old panel picture bought by the gallery in 1980, (for an undisclosed sum made with contributions from The Art Fund, The Pilgrim Trust and the National Heritage Memorial Fund) – namely, Altdorfer’s Christ taking Leave of His Mother. That purchase was also discussed in the 1983 Technical Bulletin. In Wyld’s report on the treatment of that picture, the first note is headed “The condition on acquisition”. It begins:

“Altdorfer’s Christ taking Leave of his Mother (No. 6463) was examined by the National Gallery Conservation Department before its acquisition in October 1980. As is customary, X-radiographs and infra-red photographs were taken and the picture was studied with infra-red vidicon system and under ultra-violet light…” By those and other examinations it was established ahead of the purchase that the panel was composed of six planks joined vertically and that these had been planed-down to about 6 – 8 mm and cradled. In a section on the subsequent treatment of the panel, Wyld notes of one photograph, “Fig. 5 shows the back of the panel as it was on acquisition…” (Emphasis added.) No such photograph has ever been produced of the Samson and Delilah.

LOOP OF SILENCE

When, on 6 April 2002 (letter), we asked the National Gallery’s then director, Neil MacGregor, whether Dr. Brown had been aware in 1982 of Burchard’s 1930 testimony on the condition of the Samson and Delilah, he replied (letter, 9 April 2002): “As I am sure you know, Christopher Brown left the National Gallery some years ago…I suggest you pursue the matter with him.” When Brown was asked (December 2005) by the US magazine, Salon to comment on his past involvement in the controversy surrounding Samson and Delilah, he replied: “I am sorry but I don’t want to do this. Please address your questions to the National Gallery.” And so, a great silence fell.

On re-visiting the Technical Bulletins today, the mystery of the disappeared picture back deepens. Not only had no one ever spoken of a planing and mounting on blockboard before the picture was acquired in 1980 but no one at the gallery had done so in the two years before the 1983 Plesters/Bomford report. Quite to the contrary, in the 1982 Technical Bulletin, Christopher Brown, Martin Wyld and the gallery’s (now deceased) timber specialist, Anthony Reeve (who was described by Mr MacGregor as the “supreme practitioner of his generation”), wrote on the cleaning and restoration of Rubens’ The Watering Place. In discussing the highly problematic construction of many Rubens’ panels, Reeve wrote:

“Of all the pictures in the National Gallery, Rubens’ panels have been of greater concern, because of their condition, than any other part of the collection. The reason for this is well-known. Rubens frequently found it necessary to enlarge his pictures after he had started painting…Rubens’ oak panels, often enlarged in several different stages, are amongst the most inherently unstable supports used by any artist.”

However, Reeve drew a distinction between “the oak supports which, although made up of many planks joined together, were not enlarged during the painting process, and those which were added to.” On that former, unproblematic, type, Reeve cited just three examples:

The Rape of the Sabine Women (No. 38) (1.699 x 2.362 m), The Judgement of Paris (No. 6379) (1.339 x 1.1.74 m); Samson and Delilah (No 6461) (1.85 x 2.05 m), the panels of which are made up of six, five and seven oak planks respectively. The grain of every plank, and hence the joins, are horizontal and all the planks are roughly the same width.”

In consequence, Reeve continued, although “these large panels are sensitive to changes in relative humidity (RH), they provide a sound and permanent support if kept in a controlled environment and not exposed to sudden changes in RH.” Conspicuously, he made no mention of the Samson and Delilah as being then a radically reduced panel that had been glued onto a larger blockboard support (Doxiadis reported seeing something like a four inches wide surround of pinkish blockboard when the picture was out of its frame and flat on its back). Of those three fortunate panels Reeve wrote:

Wood expands and contracts across rather than along its grain. The effect of wood shrinkage of the exposed back [emphasis added] when all the planks are parallel is for the front to become convex, and perhaps slightly corrugated. This shrinkage may cause the joins between the planks to open, or splits to form at the end grain, but treatment and stabilisation are usually straightforward.”

In other words, although all three pictures had been well and favourably constructed, all three were at potential risk of injury through their exposed backs in the event of atmospheric fluctuations – not to mention air-conditioning malfunctions. That was said in 1982. Had the Samson and Delilah already been planed-down to 3 mm and glued or cemented to a larger blockboard panel at that date, a timber craftsman so expert and informed as Reeve could not have bracketed the three panels as being at equal risk of atmospheric changes through their exposed backs.

The planed-down and mounted-on-panel Samson and Delilah artefact described by Plesters and Bomford in 1983 was no longer exposed to fluctuations of humidity: its front was protected by priming, painting and varnish; its back was sealed by its fixture to the blockboard; even its slender 3 mm edges were sealed and protected by putty. Indeed, as Bomford put it in 1983: “Although the nature of this treatment would not find favour today, Samson and Delilah, fortunately, had been treated skilfully. The joins and splits are still secure, the panel is firmly attached to blockboard in all areas and the overall warp (which one might expect to be considerable in a picture of this size) is minimal”. Bomford noted, “no further support treatment is necessary.”

How to account for the two restorers’ discrepancies of accounts between 1982 and 1983? Mr MacGregor once suggested that Burchard might have mistaken a planed-down panel laid on blockboard for an original and intact early 17th century oak panel, but after three decades of removing cradles and reducing panels, Reeve was even less likely to have mistaken a modern blockboard for a 17th century oak panel. He knew the differences well and had noted in the 1981 Technical Bulletin that:

A very large number of the fifteenth and early sixteenth century Italian panels made of poplar have been planed-down and cradled before they came to the National Gallery collection. This form of panel treatment seems to have been very common in England in the 19th century. The problems caused by the planing-down and cradling vary from panel to panel, but it leaves almost all the panels vulnerable in that they are liable to splitting. Thirty years of experience removing cradles, rejoining splits in the panels and securing them by the method described above has shown that, providing the pictures are then kept in a reasonably well-controlled environment, the panels will remain stable.”

If Burchard truly had mistaken a planed-down panel on blockboard for an original early 17th century, it was a mistake made by everyone else who ever encountered the panel up until the moment it was restored at the National Gallery. Proceeding on the testimony of all the available records, the question might now sensibly be narrowed: who, between 1982 and 1983, planed down the panel and mounted it on blockboard – and who authorised the action?

THE MUTE, ELOQUENT TESTIMONY OF PHOTOGRAPHED BRUSHWORK

While past and present National Gallery players have yet to comment on the Art Recognition findings, eloquent witnesses remain in the Samson and Delilah’s own brushstrokes. Grosvenor’s snap dismissal that computers do not and cannot understand art mis-states the issue: computer programmes do not have to possess all human capacities and levels of understanding to perform otherwise immensely laborious but valuable visual tasks with unerring reliability. To give a commonplace example: for graphic artists who work on A3 or larger sheets, it is prohibitively expensive and space consuming to acquire scanners of corresponding size and capacity; in practice, it not necessary to have such equipment because there are now many computer programmes capable of seamlessly “stitching” overlapping part-scans of large images – as was done with this author’s drawing below at Fig. 13.

Above, Fig. 13: The author’s drawing of Donald Trump’s Relationship with the Republican Party, as published in The Conservative, September 2017.

The earlier revolution of photographic reproduction facilitated all manner of handmade graphic inventions by collage and montage but absolutely seamless conjoining was not possible – the sharpest scalpel cutting through paper cannot do other than leave a trace of its actions. It has taken digitalised computer power to accomplish seamless and effortless manipulations of images and, even, with the advent of AI, of videos. Just as it is not necessary to understand the programming means by which part-images can be invisibly joined, so it is not necessary to envisage the mechanisms whereby a programme might successfully identify distinguishing traits within individual artists’ brushstrokes. Pace Grosvenor, such a programme cannot be deemed theoretically inconceivable for the simple reason that we can already see for ourselves precisely such autographically distinguishing characteristics in paintings – were they not already present and discernible, how would any connoisseur identify any work’s author by eye?

THE NEGLECT OF PHOTOGRAPHIC AIDS TO CONNOISSEURSHIP

Far from being an incredible prospect, the study and evaluation of distinctive brushwork through magnified photographic examination has been around as a diagnostic aid for nearly a century. Despite their proven and demonstrable usefulness, the studies in question and their potential applications have been greatly and perhaps wilfully neglected in subsequent art world practices which have favoured the technical analysis of art’s material components rather than the patterns of artistry which are realised through them.

Above, Fig. 14: An image reproduced in our Journal No. 21 with the following caption:

This illustration is a photomicrograph of the highlight on the shoulder of [Rembrandt’s] Woman Bathing, National Gallery, No. 54. The patch is pasted on from a photomicrograph of a picture whose attribution had to be tested. It will be seen that the brushwork is identical in both cases. It is possible for a skilful forger to imitate a signature, but it is quite impossible to combine the quality of the paint, the nature of the brush, and the handling of the paint by the painter, so as to reproduce this complete identity.”

So said A. P. Laurie, Professor of Chemistry to the Royal Academy of Arts, in his 1949 book The Techniques of the Great Painters. Would anyone, looking at the above photographic splicing of two brushstrokes from two paintings doubt that both brushstrokes were products of the same author? Professor Laurie was also the author of the invaluable pioneering The Brushwork of Rembrandt and his School (1932), New Light on Old Masters (1935), and, The Painter’s Methods and Materials (1960). Fascinated by scientific means of examining art, Laurie was firm in his conviction that we cannot separate the history of style from the history of artistic technique. Unfortunately, the lesson of Laurie’s penetrating and helpfully clarifying studies were displaced by more clamorous and institutionally self-serving appliances of science – and photography – and in Britain the principal villain had been an earlier director of the National Gallery.

THE PURPORTED SCIENCE OF THE NATIONAL GALLERY

As a very young (and Lord Duveen-engineered) director of the National Gallery, Kenneth Clark, whose picture cleanings produced fury among artists, set up a scientific department so as, as he put it in his 1977 autobiography, to “have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to ‘prove’ that every precaution had been taken [by the gallery’s restorers and curators].” In pronounced contrast, Laurie’s impeccably disinterested and transparent method was conducted in good faith.

First, he explained, by magnifying details of paintings: “…we isolate the drawing with the brush: we magnify the individual strokes, and, owing to the dark varnish lying in the hollows of the paint, reveal every stroke of the brush with the utmost definiteness.” Second, “If we now proceed to take silver prints of the magnified photographs of two pictures, one known and the other unknown, and cutting up the one, put a portion of the other print so adjusted that the strokes of the brush follow on, we have an infallible method of identification.”

Thus, Laurie appreciated, the marks of brushes left in paint can be as “forensically” helpful as the rifling marks on a bullet. Unlike Plesters, Laurie combined technical ingenuity with artistic perspicacity. On his schema, great precision of identifications of authorship might indeed be attained by almost anyone – and therein may lie the rub and an explanation of institutional resistance and exclusion: his method demystified the mumbo-jumbo of pseudo-scientific museum world “conservation”.

On the certainly pertinent and potential tripwire question “Can we be sure that artists brushstrokes do not evolve to the point of transformation?” Laurie answered in the affirmative: “As in writing, once a painter has formed his style of brushwork, it is curiously persistent. His pictures may alter with the years: they may develop a greater depth of meaning and a richer quality, as we find with Rembrandt, but the brushwork remains the same.” Laurie, who claimed nothing that he was unable to demonstrate for all to see, continued: “Now take a jump from 1633 to about 1660 and examine through a lens the impasto of the portrait of himself (No. 221 in the National Gallery). You will recognise the same impasto, though with a more stiffly ground paint. Or again, the lens will reveal same impasto as in the portrait of Titus in the Wallace Collection. [See Fig. 15 below] A study of these three painters, Velazquez, Rembrandt and Frans Hals will soon convince the reader of the truth of what has been said above. If then we can emphasise this characteristic, we have a powerful weapon to assist in the attribution of painters.”

Above, Fig. 15: Top, in this juxtaposition of the eye in the Wallace Collection portrait of Titus, (the condition of which Laurie described as above in his ground-breaking 1932 study of Rembrandt’s brushwork) and, above, the eye in the National Gallery self-portrait (of which picture’s condition Laurie noted “This, except for the coarse repairs in the corner of the eye and on the upper lip, is in excellent condition and is the best example of his latest manner I have seen which has not been injured by the restorer”), it can be seen that Rembrandt’s brushwork could swish without change through time.

The test of Laurie was truly in the looking: he published comparative details of artists brushwork in which authorial differences were manifest and indisputable – see Figs. 16-19 below. He squarely addressed all potential practical/theoretical/methodological difficulties: “In order to apply this method in a thorough way it is necessary to study a painter through his whole career, and also to study the work of his pupils and imitators, so as to prepare a complete dossier for reference. I have been able to make some approach to doing this for Rembrandt and his school, for which thanks are due to the Duke of Westminster, and the results of the inquiry have been published as The Brushwork of Rembrandt and his School.” As is perfectly demonstrated at the photo-comparison at Fig. 15 above, the signature brushwork patterns of Rembrandt do indeed straddle his early and late works with complete consistency and a seeming interchangeability.

Above, Fig. 16: Laurie’s photomicrograph of the moustache in the Frans Hals portrait of Verdonck (National Gallery of Scotland).

Above, Fig. 17: Laurie’s photomicrograph of the eye in the Frans Hals portrait of Verdonck (National Gallery of Scotland).

Above, Fig. 18: Left, a photomicrograph of a bow in the Frans Hals Portrait of a Lady (National Gallery of Scotland); right, a detail of the tassel on the shoulder of Rembrandt’s Saskia Laughing, Dresden Gallery. On such a photo-comparison, a child of six would be unlikely to confound the one author with the other.

If perceived in some quarters to constitute a professional threat to vested interests, Laurie acknowledged a personal indebtedness to the London art trade, reporting that his own interests had been aroused by the late Mr Vicars of Bond Street:

“We were all engaged in the famous Romney trial and he took me to see a perfect gallery of the English portrait school belonging to a well-known London banker. ‘We dealers’, he told me, ‘go by brushwork, that is the artist’s true signature which nobody can forge.’ Going up to a Reynolds he said, ‘Do you see how Reynolds has put in that touch there?’ ‘Now come here and see how Romney does it; this is Gainsborough’s touch.’ After we had studied the English portrait school from this point of view, I said to him, ‘I have learnt more from you than from all the art connoisseurs’. He turned to me and said, ‘My boy, we’ve got to know, we risk our money on it!’”

DEFENDING MUSEUM FAKES II

Above, Fig. 19: Top, Laurie’s detail of the Hals moustache; above, a section of a half-page detail of the National Gallery’s du Jardin Portrait of a Young Man, as published in the Technical Bulletin of 1982.

The caption to the Technical Bulletin photograph reads:

“Detail after cleaning, before restoration. The unusually large pigment particles, including those from the lower layer of the ground, can be seen. The paint film is slightly worn so that small areas of grey priming have been exposed, especially to the right of the mouth.”

Thus, as can be seen with this detail of du Jardin’s Portrait of a Young Man, the National Gallery certainly had the means in 1982 to provide Laurie-style detailed photo-comparisons that might have shown, for example, the consequences of its cleaning methods (see Fig. 8 above), or the stylistic correspondences or otherwise between works attributed to a given author. The Gallery had accepted Laurie’s comparative photo-demonstration (as at Fig. 14) that a challenged work was an autograph Rembrandt, but it has commissioned no detailed photo-comparisons of the Samson and Delilah brushwork with that of its own uncontested Rubens pictures (see Fig. 22). Instead of better studying the creative handiwork of artists, the gallery has photographed a million microscopically minute samples of paint ground down so as to reveal paint in stratigraphic cross-sections. In the 1993, 1996 Art Restoration, we complained that the National Gallery’s restorers and scientists were more interested to learn of the chemical constituents of paint than to understand the artistic uses to which artists put their paint, viz:

“…the green earth pigment consisted of ‘glauconite and celadonite [which] have closely similar constitutions, although their primary origins differ: the former is present in certain marine sedimentary deposits, while the latter occurs as inclusions in igneous rocks such as basalt. They are difficult to distinguish by XRD. Both types are layered silicate materials containing FE(II) and FE(III); also characteristic is a content of aluminium, silicon, potassium and sometimes magnesium…” Does this have a point, we asked, or is it swank? Was Rubens handicapped when painting in ignorance of such chemical constituencies?

Laurie encountered hostility from institutions wishing to defend their attributions. He warned: “I suggest a voyage of discovery to some young student with a magnifying camera through the galleries of Europe, but he must be careful to conceal his real object or he will never return alive. I have never forgotten the rage of the Director of a famous continental gallery when he thought I was suggesting that one of his pictures was not by Rembrandt. ‘Nonsense, nonsense’ he shouted, ‘one of the finest Rembrandts in the world’. I hurried to explain that I was referring to a Rembrandt in another Gallery, he smiled sweetly and said, ‘You are probably quite right’.”

TIMES CHANGE

In conclusion, and in Laurie’s inquiring spirit, we consider some close photographic comparisons of the National Gallery’s version of the 1609-10 Samson and Delilah with a bona fide Rubens painting which has retained its back – Rubens’ The Raising of the Cross of 1609-11, Antwerp Cathedral. As with that comparison at Fig. 4, above, the successive comparative details from Fig. 20 to Fig. 25 below are of two works of the same supposed historical moment and stage of development within the oeuvre. Great differences of brushwork might hardly, therefore, be expected. Matches are not to be found.

“SMOOTHLY BRUSHED, THINLY APPLIED”

Above, Fig. 20: Top, a section of Delilah’s flesh; above; a detail from Rubens’ The Raising of the Cross.

The astonishing contrast above, is of an apparently phenomenally well-preserved smoothness and absence of age cracks in the Delilah, and the entirely characteristic four centuries old painting of flesh on The Raising of the Cross. Plesters, convinced of the picture’s authenticity, perceived no stylistic discrepancies and remarked on the Samson and Delilah’s seemingly youthful paint: “The flesh of Delilah was in such perfect condition that no small damage could be found from which to take a [microscopically tiny] sample, but viewed under the stereoscopic binocular microscope at low magnification the pale parts of the flesh appear to consist of lead white tinted with a little vermilion, a mixture which results in a clear rosy pink. The transition between the white, pinkish and more creamy tones (probably lead white with a little yellow earth colour) are smoothly brushed apparently in a single paint layer.” Moreover, “Apart from the strongest highlights the flesh paint is quite thin, so much so that in parts the striped pattern of the yellowish imprimatura below is visible lending a pearly translucent effect which Rubens may have calculated…”

As if inoculated against all visual anomalies, Plesters deemed it interesting to find that “in the full-scale version of Samson and Delilah the striped imprimatura, so characteristic of his preparatory and exploratory oil sketches on panel, has been used.” Without her conviction that what she was examining what was unquestionably Rubens’ handiwork, Plesters might have found the exposed imprimatura in a major painting, commissioned by a friend and patron, surprising and incongruous. Perhaps she did sense danger: “…it could of course, in this case, be the accidental result of [unusual] speed and boldness in painting.”

Above, Fig. 21: Two faces of the Rubens “beautiful young blond woman” type. Again, the same striking differences of paint film properties are apparent (thick v. thin; smooth v. textured) but note also how in the secure Rubens picture the “drawing” of the subject’s profile has been realised by modelling the features (brow, nose, lips and chin) over a darker background. In the National Gallery picture the drawing of the profile is weaker, sharper, anatomically inferior and has been realised principally by the encroachment of a superimposed dark background which, at the nose, results in flat, angular edges like cut-out paper that bear no relation to the form of the nose (which, anyway, is itself plastically and anatomically ill-conceived) and with no illusion of aerial recession beyond the figure.

Above, Fig. 22: Top, in the Samson and Delilah the forms of the lips are chaotically and messily unresolved. The upper lip is drawn as if from a three-quarters and above viewpoint, but the lower lip is drawn as if seen sideways on and with no hint of interconnecting flesh. By comparison, in the proper-Rubens head all the surfaces turn, move, and cohere convincingly, as if placed on a piece of sculpture.

Above, Fig. 23: In these portrayals of hands, the superbly realised expressive resolutions within the one, disqualify the crass and clumsy shorthand treatments seen in the other.

Above, Fig. 24: In these two details on the Burchard/National Gallery painting, the scant, near-void-like treatment of the background is accompanied by a flabby musculature in Samson’s back. The enlarged detail of the ear discloses an angular, almost Cubist treatment of the forms laid hastily over the stripy sketch-like imprimatura.

A TRIPLE COMPARISON AND A SECOND, “TWINNED” RUBENS UPGRADE

Above, Fig. 25: In this comparison we show three very different treatments of female hands which pose the question: Did Rubens paint female hands so variously in 1609-11?

On the left, we see that encountered in the secure Raising of the Cross in Antwerp cathedral. In the centre we see the Delilah hand from the National Gallery. On the right, we see a hand from the (presently) most-expensive “Rubens” painting, The Massacre of the Innocents which realised £49.5m at Sotheby’s on 10 July 2002. The latter, like the Samson and Delilah, had been regarded as a follower’s copy for centuries. Where our eyes can only tell us that these three hands were executed by different artists, the official Rubens Art Scholarship World insists that all three had been painted almost simultaneously by Rubens. The hand in the centre is an anaemic semblance of a Rubens hand. That on the right is a stridently caricatured – almost comic book-like – derivative.

GROWING OEUVRES DESPITE THE EVIDENCE OF TREE RINGS

When misattributed works are accepted within oeuvres, they immediately exert a toxic influence – if “X Mark I”, then why not also a matching “X Mark II”? And so on, ad infinitum…until an inevitable eventual crisis of confidence arises.

Up to December 2001 the Massacre (Fig. 30, below), like the Samson and Delilah, had for centuries been regarded as a follower’s copy. The upgrading was said to have been made by five experts, only three of whom were named – Paul Huvenne, Arnout Balis and Elizabeth McGrath (the other two were believed to be National Gallery staffers). In the 2006 AWUK Journal No. 21 we reported that Dr. McGrath had corresponded with the National Gallery about Jan van den Hoecke, whom she believed had worked with Rubens in his studio and had possibly collaborated with him on a Rubens temporarily loaned to the National Gallery. She had expressed a fear to the Gallery that if her material were to be passed to the press, she might be thought to be propounding her own theories.

Some of the five experts thought the Massacre had been painted before the Samson and Delilah, some, after it. Of all Rubens paintings of the period under consideration – 1609-11, the National Gallery picture – and not, for example, the absolutely secure Raising of the Cross – was taken by Sotheby’s and the experts to be the “benchmark” picture in making this new Rubens ascription even though both the Samson and Delilah and the Massacre had spent many years together in the Liechtenstein Collection not as Rubens’s but as Jan van den Hoecke copies of Rubens pictures. The Massacre had Liechtenstein seals on the back and front of its panel which, just like the Samson and Delilah in 1929, was said to be original and in excellent condition.

BURYING REPORTS

Sotheby’s had commissioned detailed technical reports which were not carried in the sale catalogue but which were there said to be available on request in a separate volume. The reports carried much material that was injurious to the Rubens ascription, as we reported in the October 2002 Jackdaw (“Is this £49.5 million painting by Rubens?”). The Independent’s financial correspondent William Kay, had advised on 20 July 2002 (“A little detective work can pay off”): “Don’t look at a company’s profits-and-loss account – start at the back of the accounts, where the notes are, not at the front where the chairman puts a gloss on the numbers.”

Turning quickly from the first page of Sotheby’s commissioned reports on the Massacre (- which page carried the disclaimer “The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders’ information only and without warranty by Sotheby’s or the seller”) to the very last page, I discovered that the two last lines of a dendrochronological report by Peter Klein on the picture’s oak panel (dated 2 April 2002) read:

“Under an assumption of a median of 15 sapwood rings and 2 years for seasoning a creation is plausible from 1615 upwards.”

That meant the Massacre’s proposed Rubens upgrade as “a just-returned-from-Italy” work of 1609-11 was toast. On the tree ring evidence, this panel could only be considered to have been painted at least four years afters after its claimed date of execution. When Dr Klein examined the wood of the Samson and Delilah in 1996 his technical findings were said by the National Gallery to have corroborated the claimed 1609-10 date of execution. That claim, however, had rested not on the data but on the authority of a Klein covering letter which stated: “The felling date [of the tree] corresponds very well with the art historian attribution” and that a date of execution for the painting “is plausible from 1605 upwards”.

Two British dendrochronologists held that Klein’s summary characterisation of tree ring data was misleading. One said: “it is unsafe to say 1609 is any more likely than a later date of 1620.” Another observed “All Klein should be saying is that the range is 1597 to 1630”. The forces that were desirous of the Massacre being taken as a bona fide Rubens were unmoved by the earlier Samson and Delilah controversy and warnings – and the marketing enterprise rolled on despite the presence of much other disqualifying evidence in the volume of reports. As we reported in the Jackdaw:

Preliminaries studies failed to link the Massacre’s wood with that found in any of Rubens’ panel. As well as being too late, the Massacre contains the wrong materials. A pigment, orpiment, that is found in no Rubens painting is present here. A second pigment, smalt, said to have been in use ‘mainly in the mid-seventeenth century’ and which seems only to be found in Rubens’ later works is also present. The orpiment yellow is anomalous not only in its presence but in its manner of application – it is mixed with lead tin yellow. Such a combination is said to be “unusual since it was considered unstable” and, even, to be a practice ‘not encountered in 17th century works’…Speaking of Rubens’ debt to classical sources, the anonymous author of the catalogue entry correctly concedes, ‘one of the background figures appears to derive from the Borghese Gladiator…[which] was not excavated until late in 1611’…”

The absence of under-drawing and pentimenti has been remarked in both works. No less anomalous is that both also betrayed an uncharacteristically stinting use of lead white pigment. Plesters, convinced at every turn that a Rubens ascription was beyond question, noted: “The striking feature of the composite X-radiograph is how comparatively sparingly and how subtly Rubens has used lead white, reserving the strongest touches for the brightest highlights and tapering the thickness of the white highlight to almost nothing. This system of painting which uses the light-coloured ground showing through thin translucent paint layers for the middle tones, particularly of flesh, is similar to that used by early Netherlandish painters who also used a chalk ground on oak panel.”

Where Plesters had attempted to explain the absence of underdrawing on the Samson and Delilah by claiming there had been no need to make any because the (anomalously complete) oil sketch for the painting had resolved all matters, in Sotheby’s reports it was more frankly acknowledged that such absences of under-drawing and pentimenti in the Massacre are consistent with pictures originating in Rubens’ workshop:

“…we can identify the use of minor but significant applications of paint to modify the outline and define the shape of the elements in the composition. These can be seen as strongly contrasting additions, frequently following the line of a limb or suchlike. Wadum [J] has effectively argued that these features represent Rubens’ studio control, and that he was in the habit of inspecting works before they left the workshop and making corrections.”

Clearly, had Rubens painted the Massacre with his customary perpetual revisions (as are to be seen on the Raising of the Cross), he would not have needed to make last-minute corrections with ‘brushstrokes of paint containing carbon black’ to his own work.

SCHOLARLY ACCOUNTABILITY

We asked in the 2002 Jackdaw: “Can it be right that we are all asked to take this leap of faith when the [five] experts, displaying a seeming ignorance of – or disregard for – so much germane material evidence, have yet to publish accounts of their verbal endorsements.”

Above, Fig. 26: The two copies made respectively of the original (and subsequently lost) Rubens Samson and Delilah in 1625-35 by Frans Francken (left), and in 1613 by Jacob Mathan (right) in both of which Rubens can be seen to have painted the whole of Samson’s right foot and space beyond.

Above, Fig. 27: Left, detail of the Frans Francken painting showing the original Rubens’ Samson and Delilah; right, the National Gallery Samson and Delilah, as exhibited in 1983 in its then new, post-restoration, frame and above a mock-up of the grand fireplace in Nicolaas Rockox’s house. The recorded positioning of Samson’s right foot in the Franken copy testifies to a compositionally taught bisecting of the picture on a descending diagonal. In contrast, the foot is not only cropped in the National Gallery picture, but it first wanders up the edge of the painting leaving a broken-looking leg.

Above, Fig. 28: The whole of Frans Francken’s copy of the original Rubens Samson Delilah enjoying pride of place in Nicolaas Rockox’s house.

Above, Fig. 29: Top left, detail of feet on Rubens’ The Raising of the Cross; top right, the cropped foot in the National Gallery Samson and Delilah; above, a Rubens chalk figure study for The Raising of the Cross showing how Rubens drew separately on the sheet a cropped leg.

The most visibly disturbing disqualification in the National Gallery picture – as Doxiadis, Harvey and Hopkinson immediately flagged in their 1992 Report – was the fact that the toes of Samson had been cut off at the edge of the painted area on the panel when both copyists of the original painting in Rockox’s house had recorded an intact foot set well away from the edge of the painting in a more reassuringly “Rubensesque” treatment.

The cropping in the National Gallery version is itself disqualifying on two counts. First, few painters have been more attentive to their depicted subjects’ digits than Rubens. When a foot was not included in a large swiftly drawn figure study, as above at Fig. 29, Rubens drew it separately on the sheet so as to have a record of the entire figure. Second, as we have examined previously, copyists frequently produce truncated versions of master works and the £49.5 million Massacre of the Innocents which is now in the Ontaria Museum is – just like the Samson and Delilah – a compositionally cut-down version of a larger composition that is found in a School of Rubens Massacre in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Belgium as seen below in Figs. 30 and 31.

Above, Fig. 30: Left, a detail of a Rubens School work in the Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium; centre, the former Jan van den Hoecke copy that became the £49.5 million Massacre of the Innocents and now lives in the Ontario Museum; right, the Francken copy of the (lost) original Rubens Samson and Delilah.

Above, Fig. 31: The left-hand sections showing the pair of murdered babies in the bottom left corner of two versions of Rubens’ Massacre – that in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Belgium version, left, and, right, that in the cropped £49.5m Ontario Museum, former Jan van den Hoeke version.

On the fact of the 1980 and 2002 upgrades, must we now believe that Rubens had cropped the compositions and subjects in both his Samson and Delilah and his Massacre of the Innocents pictures so disturbingly as to prompt copyists of both works to expand the pictures to more comfortably and characteristically Rubens-like compositions?

How many allowances may be made, how many disqualifications disregarded, to uphold a single troubled attribution? In our experience, it is very often the case that when one thing is wrong with an attribution, everything else is.

Michael Daley, Director, 5 November 2021

POSTSCRIPT: On 12 November 2021, Eric Biétry-Rivierre reported in LE FIGARO (“A Salvator Mundi still record but less and less credible”):

For the Prado Museum, the most expensive painting in the world is not by Leonardo da Vinci. Rather, it is the work of an assistant or follower.
In the catalogue of this exhibition running until 23 January 2022 and relating to an old copy of The Mona Lisa which it preserves, the Prado does not attribute to Leonardo da Vinci the Salvator Mundi of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. According to the Madrid Museum, this version called “Cook” (named after a former owner because there are no fewer than 22 paintings in the world in the Leonardesque style and representing Christ in the manner of a God the Father) belongs to a close assistant or follower. This further darkens the episode of the highly marketed and hypermediatized sale, organized by Christie’s New York in 2017. And it justifies less the $ 450.3 million disbursed by Mohammed Bin Salman.
The curator Ana Gonzalez Mozo even suggests that a prototype made by the master may never have existed. As for which would be the oldest version, she leans towards another Salvator Mundi: the so-called “Ganay” version, also in private hands. Its pedigree, admittedly incomplete, being much less incomplete. It was already this oil painting that, although less beautiful and less well restored, had the preference of the specialists of the Louvre during the retrospective organized at the end of 2019 on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the death of the master.
After much debate, hesitation, and even the publication of a scientific brochure validating the “Cook” was finally discarded, the “Ganay” completed its exceptional journey. And this not only because the Gulf panel painting was missing (MBS would have conditioned his loan to a hanging near Mona Lisa, which would, de facto, have “consecrated” the work as an authentic Leonardo).
The “Cook” version was also weakened by a recent documentary by Antoine Vitkine. In his Salvator Mundi: the astonishing case of the last Vinci, the main supporter among international “Leonardologists”, the Englishman Martin Kemp, appears less affirmative. As for Luke Syson, the present director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, who in 2011 was the unconditionally supportive curator/architect of the first public presentation of the work at the London National Gallery, he is more and more among peers who denounce his recklessness.
Bernd Lindemann is one of them. In another documentary on the Salvator Mundi, by Andreas Koefoed, Lindemann, director of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, says: “It’s not the role of serious museums to present such a controversial painting.” Thus is the reputation of the great British museum damaged. This is bad at a time when its Samson and Delilah, bought at a golden price for a Rubens forty years ago is seriously questioned.

On 14 November 2021 The Times of Israel reported that the $450m Salvator Mundi has been deemed not a Leonardo:

“Sold for $450m to Saudi prince, ‘Salvator Mundi’”

“The Prado catalogue also contains an opening essay by Vincent Delieuvin curator of Paris’s Musée du Louvre’s 2019 retrospective of works by the artist. He discusses the Saudi-owned painting, referring to ‘details of surprisingly poor quality’. Delieuvin concluded, ‘It is to be hoped that a future permanent display of the work will allow it to be reanalyzed with greater objectivity’…”

The initial near-universal hyperbolic analysis has indeed been found wanting but Waldy and Bendy are not the only fleet of foot art critics. As Jacques Franck notes:

“This is interesting news indeed, but it is not how the real story ran when it started in 2016. Delieuvin, no less than Penny and Syson at the National Gallery, had been convinced all along that the Cook Salvator Mundi was by Leonardo, there can be no possible doubt about that. Aside from the strong support Delieuvin gave the painting on the occasion of the Leonardo exhibition he curated at the Italian Embassy in Paris in September 2016, he had long planned to include the work as the guest star in the blockbuster Leonardo show which he co-organised with curator Louis Frank at the Louvre in October 2019. This is testified by the first version of the catalogue which reproduced the Cook Salvator Mundi on the front cover, wherein one could read that it was attributed to Leonardo himself and had been listed as such at no. 157 in the show. That first version was junked for undisclosed reasons and the whole catalogue was reprinted. What is known is that the loan of the Saudi picture was not granted by the owner; that the picture was not exhibited; and, that the non-appearing picture was simply reproduced in the new catalogue as “Salvator Mundi version Cook”, fig. 103 bis, p. 303 thus meaning “studio work”. (See Fig. 32 below.) In December 2019, six weeks after the late October opening of the above-mentioned Leonardo exhibition, a book titled Léonard de Vinci. Le Salvator Mundi by Vincent Delieuvin (Louvre curator), Myriam Eveno and Elisabeth Ravaud (both Louvre laboratory scientists) was put on sale in the Louvre’s bookshop and swiftly withdrawn. However, some copies or photocopies of the latter book have nevertheless circulated around the world and are now in the hands of many Leonardo scholars, like me. In that notoriously disappeared book, the authors concluded enthusiastically (p. 14) that the work had been shown by “decisive scientific tests” in 2018 to be by Leonardo. That is the true story and there exists no other”.

In the December 2021 Art Newspaper, Bendor Grosvenor, over-looking the annual Apollo magazine awards, complained of an absence of art world annual awards and launched a self-styled “Diary of an Art Historian awards”. Two especially rich items caught the eye. His book of the year award was given not to a book but to an online catalogue raisonné, which he contends “might not yet have the kudos of a book published by Yale priced at £150, but it will have a thousand times more readers, and just as impressive a legacy. (Readers might recall Grosvenor’s own recent unsuccessful joint bid with the dealer Philip Mould (who has a degree in art history) to replace the four specialist scholars-authored, Yale-published, 2004 catalogue raisonné Van Dyck A Complete catalogue of the Paintings – see Art-Trading, Connoisseurship and the Van Dyck Bonanza.) Richer still, perhaps, was Grosvenor’s award for “Auction Consignment of the Year to whoever had the imagination to capitalise on Leonardo-mania by buying a humdrum 20th-century copy of the Mona Lisa on eBay for £2,750 and swiftly consigning it to Sotheby’s Old Master Sale in London, where it made £378,000″ – a small beer hike compared with the conversion of a recent, repeatedly restored, one thousand-dollar wreck into the $450m pretendy and now-disappeared Leonardo Salvator Mundi. On the night of that notorious Christie’s, New York, sale Grosvenor swooned: “Christie’s just did something that re-writes the history of auctioneering. They took a big gamble with their brand, their strategy to sell the picture, and not to mention the reputations of their leadership team, and they pulled it off – the best piece of marketing I’ve ever seen. Above all, they had absolute faith in the picture. AHN [Art History News] congratulates them all.”


IN THEIR OWN WORDS: No. 3 [11 March 2018] – The Reception of the First Version of the Leonardo Salvator Mundi

Mounting concerns over transparency in art world deals are throwing back-dated light on the Salvator Mundi’s reception in its first-restored incarnation when included in the 2011 National Gallery exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.

THE SALVATOR MUNDI’S FIRST PUBLIC OUTING IN 2011

Above, top, the Sunday Times magazine cover of 9 October 2011. Above, the face of Christ in the Salvator Mundi as seen after repainting in 2011, left; above, right, the face of Christ in the Salvator Mundi as seen in November 2017 after further repainting between 2012 and 2017.

In the 9 October 2011 Sunday Times (“LEONARDO? CONVINCE ME”), Kathy Brewis wrote:

“For a few weeks in London you will be able to see the Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World) up close. It might be your only chance. Much of the painting’s history remains obscure. Its ownership is a closely guarded secret. Robert Simon, a New York art dealer, is representing the owner or owners – the official line is it is a ‘consortium’. Why all the secrecy? ‘It’s just privacy and security’, says Simon, ‘One doesn’t want people knocking on the door.’

“…He showed it to Mina Gregori, a retired professor at Florence University, who was stunned: ‘I believe it’s by Leonardo.’ Then he showed it to Nick Penny, who had just been appointed director of the National Gallery. ‘He understood it in a nanosecond. He said that one of his ambitions was for the gallery to be a venue for scholarly inquiry and research and that he’d like the painting to be brought to London so it could be compared with the Virgin of the Rocks.’ It was Penny who told him [Simon]: ‘You need a consensus…’

“Since Robert Simon went public with the discovery, he has received many emails from Leonardo fanatics. ‘There’s the serious obsession and there’s the lunatic one – people for whom Leonardo is a source of fantasy. The paintings are not knowable,’ he muses. ‘Every one of them presents a problem and a challenge.’ Even at this stage? ‘Art historians are a prickly, competitive lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone stuck their hand up and said “I don’t believe it”’. Could the experts be wrong? ‘They could be wrong about anything. But as much as I believe anything in this world, I believe this is by Leonardo.’”

Above, and top left, the Salvator Mundi as exhibited in 2011 at the National Gallery’s big Leonardo exhibition.

Kathy Brewis continued:

“…Frank Zöllner of Leipzig University [- and author of the Leonardo catalogue raisonné] is a rare dissenter: he thinks the proportions of the nose (‘too long’ for such a perfectionist as Leonardo) make it more likely to have been painted by a talented follower. The rest are convinced, if a little jealous that they didn’t unearth it themselves. ‘People in the art world get sniffy about dealers,’ says Bendor Grosvenor, director of the London fine-art dealership Philip Mould. ‘But if it wasn’t for the trade, discoveries like this wouldn’t be made. Specialist dealers are the ones who are prepared to buy a dirty picture, roll their sleeves up and get stuck in to seeing what it is.’

“Is it wise for the National Gallery to put it on show so soon after its authentication? ‘They are taking a risk,’ says Grosvenor, ‘and I can’t applaud them enough for it. Connoisseurship is a nebulous discipline. There can never be absolute 100% proof. You have to accept there’s an element of doubt and go with it.’”

Note – On 5 March 2018 Grosvenor declared himself an ex-dealer on his blog Art History News: “Now, portraiture can be a hard sell – I know this from having spent over a decade actually selling portraits, in my former life as a dealer.” This did not come as an absolute bolt out of the blue: although he remains a director of the Scottish auctioneers Lyon and Turnbull Limited, last year Grosvenor briefly closed down his website following certain professional criticisms, commenting as he did so: “at the same time AHN also makes me a significant number of, well, ‘enemies’ is not too strong a term. Every walk of life has its Salieris, but in the art market there are an awful lot of them.”

Kathy Brewis continued with a discussion on the Salvator Mundi’s owners:

“Luke Syson, the show’s curator is one of the few people who know who owns the picture. ‘We couldn’t exhibit it otherwise. It’s not being wafted to us in a brown envelope.’”

Ben Hoyle reported the Salvator Mundi’s owners’ plans in the Times of 12 November 2011 (“It’s kind of scary – I wrapped it in a bin liner and jumped into a taxi with it”):

“‘Everyone involved recognises the importance of it as a work of art. Doing the right thing has been very important and will continue to be,’ Mr Simon says. If that means selling it for half the price they could attract, to ensure that it stays on public view, then they would prefer to do that.”

In the event the picture was sold privately by Sotheby’s in 2013 to a Swiss businessman, Yves Bouvier, who is known as the “Freeport King” (and who, among many commercial interests, owns an art conservation and authentication service), for appreciably less than the sums of $150-200m being talked about in 2011 (when the owners reportedly had turned down a $100m offer). The original consortium and Robert Simon received $80m for the Salvator Mundi from Bouvier who resold it for $127.5m to the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.

To this day we do not know who owned the Salvator Mundi before 2005 or between 2005 and 2013. From whomever and by whomever it was bought in 2005, the painting’s reception as an attributed Leonardo in 2011 was very far from uniformly rapturous. In addition to the dissenting scholars we cited on 14 November 2017 (see THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF THE NEW YORK SALVATOR MUNDI), a number of newspaper art critics were un-persuaded.

In the 13 November 2011 Sunday Telegraph (“The genius of Leonardo”), Andrew Graham-Dixon wrote:

“…The picture is certainly Leonardesque. But is it by Leonardo? That is the considerably-more-than-million-dollar question for the consortium of art dealers who acquired the work a few years ago for an undisclosed sum. If the attribution holds up they can expect to reap £125m as a reward for their good judgement.

“Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan is a breathtaking and truly remarkable exhibition which brings together around half of the surviving 15 or so surviving paintings by the famously dilatory artist of the Italian Renaissance…Two works in particular appear destined to come under scholarly fire.

“Although it gets the thumbs up from the National Gallery’s curator, [Luke] Syson, there will certainly be those who question the new Christ. The picture undeniably displays a number of the painter’s characteristic devices and mannerisms, but there are other aspects of it that seem foreign to Leonardo himself.

“He was prized by his contemporaries as one of the most innovative and forceful painters of emotion, yet the face of this Christ seems peculiarly inert. Taken individually, its elements are convincing enough, but viewed as a whole its expression seems to lack a certain subtle Leonardo magic: the spark of inner life and feeling…”

Even after the picture had been re-done-over by the restorer, Diane Modestini, ahead of the 15 November 2017 sale, the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, responded with less tact than Graham-Dixon (“The Miracle of da Vinci: Turning a £45 Oddity into a £341m Old Master”, 19 November 2017):

“…To call the Salvator Mundi untypical is massively to understate the case. It resembles nothing else Leonardo painted

“The claim by Loic Gouzer, chairman of contemporary art at Christie’s in New York, that the record-breaking Jesus bears ‘a patent compositional likeness’ to the Mona Lisa had me laughing out loud. Yes, it shows the upper half of a figure in a frame. But that is the only compositional likeness the Salvator Mundi shares with the Mona Lisa

“The next time I saw the painting was in 2011 when the big Leonardo exhibition was opened in London. Full of magnificent loans – the Lady With an Ermine, from Poland; the Virgin of the Rocks from the Louvre – it really was a once-in-a-lifetime event. And there on the wall was the recently rediscovered Salvator Mundi looking just as strange and sci-fi as I remembered it.

“At the time it was owned by a consortium of art dealers who had bought it in an American estate sale for $10,000 as a work by a follower of Leonardo. The dealers had it comprehensively cleaned and repainted. The National Gallery, eager to give its show a boost, announced it as the first new Leonardo discovered in 100 years. Wow…

“Soon after its London unveiling it was sold on to the Russian Billionaire, Dmitry Rybolovlev, for a reputed £98m. It was Rybolovlev who sold it again in New York last week.

“How did Leonardo’s sci-fi Christ, who looks as if he belongs on the cover on one of L Ron Hubbard’s scientology textbooks, end up costing all those shekels? It was mostly due to the wicked brilliance of Christie’s.

“Not only did the auction house tour the picture noisily to Hong Kong, and London before the New York sale, drumming up interest among the newly rich, but its hype department was also in full swing on this one. Finding a new Leonardo, boomed Gouzer, ‘is rarer than finding a new planet’. It’s ‘the greatest discovery of the century’ repeated the Christie’s chorus.

Above, Patrick Chappatte’s take on the Salvator Mundi sale/attribution for the New York Times. Below, Patrick Blower’s incorporation of the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for the Daily Telegraph:

Waldemar Januszczak continued:

“In recent years modern art has been where the money goes. A new generation of mega-rich collectors who know a lot about luxury brands but not much about art, have piled into the market and sent prices soaring.

“Earlier this year a quickly splattered Jean-Michel Basquiat of a face shaped like a skull sold in New York for an astonishing £85m. By putting the Leonardo in such a context, Christie’s circumnavigated the knowledgeable world of the Old Master collector and headed straight for the dumb f**** with the money.

“There are various ways to understand events in New York on Wednesday night [of 15 November 2017].

“You can see them as evidence of Leonardo’s treasured and mythic status in art. You can see them as testimony to the power of attribution. Or you can see them as proof that we live in a mad world that has lost sense of true value and in which obscenely rich people waste obscene amounts of money on the obscene acquisition of trophy art. Going, going, gone.”

SUPPORT AND DISSENT

It so happens that the scholar who first attributed the Salvator Mundi to Leonardo, Professor Mina Gregori, was also the first scholar to attribute the proposed Leonardo drawing that was dubbed “La Bella Principessa” by Professor Martin Kemp. However, “La Bella Principessa” was not included in the National Gallery’s Leonardo exhibition and, seven years later, it remains unsold. Although we know precisely why the dissenting scholars rejected the Salvator Mundi attribution (- they published their views in the scholarly press), we have virtually no information of who said what and in what order among the consensus of scholars listed by Christie’s (see Problems with the New York Leonardo Salvator Mundi Part I: Provenance and Presentation).

SECRET DEALS – AND THE ARTS CLUB

Since we began warning on this site in 2014 of the threat to market confidence posed by the art world’s toxic attributions and specifically called for increased transparency through a statutory requirement that vendors should disclose all that is known and recorded about the provenance and the restoration treatments of works of art (“As things stand, it can be safer to buy a second-hand car than an old master painting” – “Art crime”, ArtWatch UK letter, the Times, 13 August 2014), secret deals have come under increasingly intense investigation. In her 2017 book Dark Side of the Art Boom, Georgina Adam wrote:

“At its base, the Bouvier/Rybolovlev dispute was about the nature of their business conducted within a market that has always thrived on secret backroom deals. By keeping vendors and buyers apart – they may never know who the other is – and insisting on discretion, agents, dealers, advisors can use this anonymity to their advantage. Various reasons can be put forward, from the need for security to the desire to avoid family quarrels or the taxman, to the risk of someone else bagging the work for sale. In the Bouvier/Rybolovlev case, one of Bouvier’s emails about a Magritte, said: ‘I must carry out this [negotiation] with the greatest discretion to avoid drawing attention to the painting and its owner; the risk is that we could lose it at auction.”

In this weekend’s Financial Times (10/11 March 2018 – “Laundering Picasso: British dealer among accused in $50m case”), Melanie Gerlis cites the emergence of another highly embarrassing series of documents:

“Potential shenanigans involving art are in the spotlight once again. London art dealer Matthew Green is among defendants in the case against Beaufort Securities, three other corporations and five other individuals, accused by the US Department of Justice of a multiyear $50m-plus securities fraud and scheme to launder money, partly through the sale of a £6.7m painting by Picasso.

“The indictment alleges that Green, described as the owner of Mayfair Fine Art Limited, met last month with an investment manager from Beaufort Securities (now declared insolvent), as well as a property developer and an undercover federal agent masquerading as a client of the brokerage firm. At this meeting held around February 5, the court papers say that the agent-client was told he could ‘purchase a painting from Green using the proceeds of the stock manipulation deals and later sell the painting to “clean the money”’…The papers describe the art business as ‘the only market that is unregulated’”.

“The papers also say that Green – who had allegedly asked for a 5 per cent profit on the transaction, ‘so that he would not be asked why he was in the money laundering business’”. [Green] sent a message via What’sApp to the Beaufort Securities manager that read: ‘[O]bviously because of the nature of this transaction we need to preserve a certain amount of anonymity which [the undercover agent] and I discussed and clarified at the Arts Club!’”

UNDERCHARGING FOR CURRENT MARKET PRACTICES

The Art Market Monitor blogger, Marion Manneker, made this observation in his (5 March) comments on the trial:

“Green doesn’t seem to know that the price for laundering money is much higher than 5% which definitely isn’t worth the risk if it gets you indicted after being in business all of three months. Worse still, Green and his partners don’t seem to be the swiftest criminals. They boasted that the art market is unregulated but then created a scheme that seems to have had little to do with the art market itself.

“The art sale is only one of several money-laundering venues that the person was offered. Offshore banks and real estate deals figure prominently in the indictment. What’s more, Green’s scheme could have been conducted in just about any commercial transaction. And, since the payment for the Picasso was due March 6, 2018, we’ll never know if Green was actually capable of pulling off the sale at the price he claims or would have survived any kind of audit.”

OLD HABITS DIE HARD?

Manneker’s comments on the cut-price scale of Matthew Green’s alleged laundering service charges recalls certain comments of Kenneth Clark who recognized that his appointment as director of the National Gallery at a very tender age owed much to the fact, as he wrote in his 1977 memoir Another Part of the Wood, that:

“[T]he ideal candidate for the post was disqualified. This was a Finnish art-historian named Tancred Borenius. He was a good scholar, a pleasant companion and a passionate upholder of the concept of the monarchy. He would have made an ideal courtier. Unfortunately, he was known to have followed the continental practice, described above, of taking payments for certificates of authenticity; and what was worse, quite small payments (known as ‘smackers under the table’); if he had taken large payments like a few scholars on the continent, no one would have objected.”

Michael Daley, 11 March 2018

UPDATE, 12 March 2018. On 11 March, a Sunday Telegraph supplement (“Arts, Antiques and Collectibles”) carried a “Promotional feature” – “Managing Risk When Buying and Selling Art” – for the law firm Constantine / Cannon. In offering the firm’s services, the article began:

“TRADING IN ART has traditionally been done on a handshake, but this is changing. You would not buy or sell a house without relying on a lawyer to prepare the contract, would you? The same goes with art, and now buyers and sellers are increasingly turning to lawyers to help them manage the risks associated with expensive works. The art market used to function like a club of like-minded people, but that’s no longer the case. The market now is truly global, and it has become less transparent in the process…”


ArtWatch and the Death of the Independent

On 26 March 2016 the printed Independent newspapers died. As Michael Daley reports, it was a poignant moment for those like himself who were in at the Great Project’s beginning in 1986 and had experienced the rush of excitement as the new newspaper’s pioneering innovations rapidly achieved commercial success and professional acclaim.

The paths of the Independent and ArtWatch were cross-linked for over two decades. The Independent was launched in 1986 as a newspaper in which much had been rethought and with firm editorial convictions that there should be no “freebies” (copy produced in exchange for free holidays or such) and no sacred cows – least of all with the royal family. At that date, twenty years after the heroic rescue operations that followed the flooding of Florence, one of the most sacrosanct received wisdoms was that art restoration was a safe and miraculous means of rejuvenating old works of art. I had left the Financial Times to work as the Independent’s principal illustrator shortly before the launch.

Above, the first issue of the Independent which was published on 7 October 1986.

A CRITICAL REVERSAL

Today, criticisms of even the grandest restorations are commonplace and no longer prompt ridicule and abuse. To the contrary, it is now restorations that attract ridicule. (See “And the World’s Worst Restoration is…”) In the brain-stretching BBC2 television quiz show Only Connect, a recent winning answer was: “They are all paintings that have been ruined by restorers”. Strictly speaking as the host, Victoria Coren, advised (on legal advice no doubt ), the correct answer was: “They are all paintings that have been controversially restored”. Controversially for sure – all had been condemned on this site: the Monkey-faced Christ; the Louvre’s botched Veronese nose jobs; the reconfigured-little that survived the last restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper (see below); and the “Disney-fied” repainting of an ancient Chinese mural. The Guardian now asks readers to submit photographs of the worst restorations they have witnessed: “Restoration disasters around the world: share your pictures and stories”. Auctioneers and dealers place premiums on little- or never-restored works, not vice versa. No one would dream of producing a television or radio series called “Your Hundred Best Restorations”. No one (“sleeper” hunters aside) would celebrate a many-times restored painting. How we got to this stage is a long story. The Independent’s contribution to it was crucial, honourable and is worthy of greater recognition.

NINE MEN, ONE WOMAN, AN EXECUTIVE CHAIR AND NO PROPRIETOR

On 7 October 1988, Campaign magazine observed and reported on the Independent’s workings and progress at the time of its second anniversary, by which date it had exceeded its initial target of 375,000 sales.

Above, from left to right: Jonathan Fenby, Home Editor; Chris McKane, Picture Editor; Charles Burgess, Sports Editor; Sarah Hogg, Business and City Editor; Peter Jenkins, Political Columnist; Andreas Whittam Smith, Editor; Stephen Glover, Foreign Editor; Alexander Chancellor, Magazine Editor; John Torode, Leader Writer; Tom Sutcliffe, Arts Editor. (Not present, Michael Crozier, Art Editor.)

Below, Campaign’s photographer followed Andreas Whittam Smith’s day, showing here (top) a meeting with the leader writers, Roger Berthoud and John Torode; (centre), the principal illustrator, Michael Daley, at work; and, (bottom) with the home desk editor, Jonathan Fenby.

THE LOOK OF THE PAPER

The smart and distinctive look of the Independent contributed greatly to its initial success. Much as everyone in the city and business had felt impelled to sport the pink Financial Times, so everyone in advertising, design, architecture, photography and the visual arts seemed to have taken to the Independent. The newspaper – the first to exploit digital typesetting – was printed on good white paper that had little “show-through” from adjoining pages. By editorial requirement, its photography and graphics were distinctive and of high professional quality.

INNOVATIVE CONTENT

A journalistically novel and distinctive development on the paper had been a decision to expand and elevate the non-news, “features” sections, giving each a dedicated, professionally expert editor. In consequence I worked for sections as diverse as Law, Health, Food, Books, Gardening, Music, Wine, Architecture and so forth. For a fine art-trained illustrator, working with top calibre journalists (and an art editor who gave drawings due space and air) was a privileging and highly stimulating situation. The paper’s famous high-mindedness and unashamedly high-brow arts coverage, left one free to reference anything (including past art) that might best help illustrate pieces that ranged from, say, written evocations of the tastes and smells of food; cultural anxieties over decadence felt as the end of the century approached; and, acrimonious disputes of custody that sometimes arose when lesbian couples broke up after having had children by complicated paternity arrangements. Thus, by way of example, seven images:

Above, seven drawings for the Independent, by Michael Daley.

THE GRAPHIC TECHNIQUE

If the conceptual challenges on the Independent were exhilarating, deadline pressures meant that there was rarely more than 24 hours from inception to delivery of a drawing. The ink drawing technique (which I had developed during the previous four years on the Financial Times and the Times’ educational supplements), aimed to exploit as much as possible the easy extremes of graphic art with solid blacks (quickly brushed) and pure whites (paper left bare). Between those polar graphic opposites, slow-to-realise shading was judiciously deployed with cross-hatched lines and stippled dots. To speed output, all preliminary drawing was made in pencil on the finished sheet and then directly inked over so that the sketching stage could be completely erased. I had come to recognise that a drawing for reproduction in a newspaper is not a thing-in-its-own-right but a piece of page furniture that must live variously with the “grey” of closely set print texts, the assertive blacks of headlines, and, the graphically strident clamour of advertisements.

RECOGNITION

The novelty of the Independent’s employment of an illustrator who had trained principally in sculpture and etching swiftly resulted in a press award and commissions from book publishers and advertising agencies. The sweetest and most surprising outcome was earning the respect as an illustrator of established practising fine artists. One of the most generous was Peter Blake, who sent a kind note of thanks and respect with a book of illustrations he had made for Michael Horovitz’s poem of celebration, love and homage to Frances Horovitz. Blake had surmised (correctly) that I, like he, was an admirer of Maxfield Parrish. Such recognition almost immediately took on an art political significance in an entirely unanticipated way.

THE SISTINE CHAPEL RESTORATION DISPUTE

Within a month of receiving Peter Blake’s gift, the Sunday Times Magazine published an article on the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes. It told of condemnation from artists and an art historian, Professor James Beck of Columbia University, New York. Against them, the art historical establishment claimed momentous restoration “discoveries” and “revelations” that were said to require nothing less than a rewriting of five centuries of art history. The profound changes that all parties conceded had been achieved by repeatedly brushed-on and washed-off applications of a ferocious solvent gel that had left Michelangelo’s painting a pale and deformed reflection of its former self (see below). Beck was being likened to the man who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope for his refusal to acknowledge as a miraculous “recovery” a hitherto unsuspected and nowhere-recorded “New Michelangelo”. “We didn’t need one”, Beck had retorted, “There was nothing wrong with the old”.

To this working artist, the photographic evidence of the pre- and post-cleaned sections made it clear that the proposed art historical edifice being offered in post hoc defence of a demonstrably bungled restoration threatened a compounding falsification of history itself. Suspicion arose that because so many art historians had authorised or endorsed the restoration on which so much institutional capital and foreign sponsorship monies had been invested, none could break ranks. Further, it seemed to have been especially galling to art historians that their endorsements had been rejected on visual evidence cited by artists. (One scholar/supporter of the restoration, Professor Martin Kemp, would later complain in the Times Higher Educational Supplement: “I am unclear about the identity of this archetypal beast. Is ‘an artist’ to be identified with Andy Warhol or one of his fellow practitioners who protested during the cleaning of the Sistine ceiling?”)

COPYING OTHER ARTISTS’ WORK

It so happened that having switched to illustration from art school teaching and fine art practice in 1982, working long hours, six or seven days a week left little time for travel or even museum attendance. Partly in substitution, I had kept touch with art through books and, as an illustrator, took every opportunity to incorporate work by artists I admired. These ranged from classical Greek sculpture, through Michelangelo, to certain favourite modern artists like Gustav Klimt, the painter/sculptor Max Klinger and Picasso (on our homage to Klimt and Klinger, see “At the end of another century” above).

Above: (top) a detail of a copy of a Klimt portrait of Judith made by Michael Daley for the Independent in illustration of a Health article. Below it is a comparison of a section of the Klimt painting, as seen before (left) and after restoration(s). (For sight of the wholesale destruction of this modern artist’s work at the hand of restorers, see “The Elephant in Klimt’s Room” and “Now let’s murder Klimt”.)

APPRECIATING OTHER ARTISTS’ WORKS AND THE RELEVANCE OF COPYING TO APPRAISING RESTORATIONS

To copy the work of another artist it is necessary to look closely and attentively at it. You cannot draw what you have not analysed and understood. Indeed, drawings produced after the works of others are tests of understanding even more than of skill. Spending a working life both copying the various uses of shading made by other artists, and applying one’s own marks to paper so as to create plastically coherent and expressive tonal relationships, sharpens the eye and confers an ability to detect injuries to original tonal relationships in the works of others. This should not be considered surprising or remarkable: those who organise and dispose marks on surfaces, are perfectly placed to recognise the obverse – which is to say, the adulteration or deconstruction of artistically purposive values during so-called restorations.

Pace sneering art historians, to artists’ art practice trained eyes, spotting such injuries is as easy as it is for accountants to spot errors of arithmetic. That many art historians fail to recognise injuries to the works of the artists they study, might indeed suggest (as others have recently claimed) that something very wrong has been going on in art history education. And yet, at the end of the 1980s, when artists and rare visually discerning scholars challenged officially-sanctioned and endorsed restorations, it was they, not the visually-limited, who met with abuse. When I introduced myself to James Beck, prior to writing the 1990 Independent on Sunday article discussed below, he had been reviled in scholarly print by his peers – not least by a sister professor who served the Vatican as its art historical adviser/spokesman on the Sistine Chapel restoration. When I asked him if it might be helpful for an artist to make visual demonstrations of the injuries to Michelangelo’s work, he replied that it would be the most important thing to do, because “only artists understand these matters”. (Beck’s sister was a painter and he had studied fine art before switching to art history.)

Above, A detail shown in greyscale and in colour of a section of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, as seen before (left) and after cleaning in the 1980s.

THE VALUE OF DIRECT PHOTO-COMPARISONS

To identify restoration injuries it is helpful to place photographs of small sections of a restored work directly side-by-side (as in the Klimt Judith above, where the relative weakening of the spirals at the bottom, for example, should be apparent to the most untutored eye). The above detail of the Sistine Chapel ceiling was reproduced in the December 1988 Sunday Times article. It was immediately clear to me that the cleaning had weakened and in some places altogether erased bona fide features of shading and specific details like veins on the giant symbolic oak leaves. I asked the Independent’s arts editor if I might write a short article explaining why Prof. James Beck was right and the art historical establishment was wrong. On the face of it, this was a perfect Independent “questioning-of-authority” story. Unfortunately, the request could not be granted because the paper’s then art critic had recently visited the restorers’ scaffold in the chapel and had judged the restoration… a success. His art critical authority could not be challenged by a working artist with clear “standing” within the paper. Fortunately, when the Independent on Sunday was launched in 1990, its arts editor, Michael Church, commissioned a piece showing the damaging consequences of the restoration. Many criticisms of the restoration had previously been reported in the press but no one before had been given space in a national newspaper to set out evidence of injury. That article proved to be a game-changer.

Above, top, the Independent on Sunday magazine of 25 March 1990 which carried (above) photographs showing restoration injuries in Michael Daley’s “Michelangelo: found or lost”

ESTABLISHMENT INTIMIDATION OF THE PRESS

Newspapers are complex entities comprised of many distinct departments that speak to particular constituencies. Dedicated arts journalists must swim in the art world and negotiate with its players and institutions. For them, breaking the “rules of engagement” can incur ostracism and worse. Those who play by the rules can be rewarded with exclusive stories and material. They might receive invitations to accompany globe-trotting museum directors on blockbuster shows. They might be invited to become embedded within a conservation department so as to counter anticipated criticisms. News journalists are less constrained. They are licensed to get and follow stories; to look for bodies; to follow money; to report mishaps and so forth.

When the Independent on Sunday article on the Sistine Chapel restoration was published the news editor on the daily Independent was intrigued by the magnitude of the controversy and he commissioned the above pair of articles. Despite such strong editorial support the articles nearly failed to see the light of day. Even though I had professional “standing”, the paper’s arts correspondent, David Lister, was taken aback by the high-level hostility and abuse levelled at me and Professor Beck. He became fearful of challenging key and venerable sections of the art establishment. How could the two of us be right and all of them wrong, he asked? It was a fair and sensible question: newspapers can never afford to back losers and must always invite responses from those under attack.

By way of reassurance, I showed the catalogues to the 1969 Olivetti-sponsored Frescoes from Florence travelling exhibition to London and New York. This exhibition consisted of murals that had been detached (on grounds of conservation) from buildings in Italy and then mounted on panels as stand-alone works of art that might be flown around the world – much as restored medieval glass from cathedrals is being despatched today. Both catalogues groaned under the weight of luminaries included in the exhibition’s “Committees of Honour”. At the time the show had been a sensation on two continents but I was able to show a recent Burlington Magazine editorial which condemned the detachment of frescoes from buildings as a barbarous and now discredited practice that had injured the paintings and buildings alike, and left many frescoes mouldering like rolled-up like rugs in church and chapel basements.

The procedural obstacle was cleared and both articles were published. The sky did not fall in and although squeals were heard, thereafter, the paper had confidence and trust in my judgements and accounts, enabling me to write further on the Sistine Chapel debacle and restorations at the National Gallery – including a review (below) of a book extolling the Sistine Chapel restoration that was written by the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak.

PROFESSOR BECK GETS SUED

In 1991, after surviving years of abuse over the Sistine Chapel controversy, Beck was hit with a criminal action in the Italian courts over reported criticisms he had made in Lucca Cathedral on the restoration of a marble tomb by the early Renaissance sculptor Jacopo della Quercia. The restorer (in fact, the head of a restoration company) had not sued the Italian newspapers that had reported Beck’s (oral) criticisms. Instead, he sued the scholar alone for aggravated criminal slander – a charge that carried a possible three years jail sentence – and for damages of 60 million Lire. By not suing those who had transmitted the criticisms (and therefore had, allegedly, harmed his reputation), the restorer ensured that Beck could receive no support from the newspapers and their lawyers and would have to bear all the risks alone. As the world authority on this early Renaissance sculptor, he felt compelled to do so. Although the trial’s ramifications might have been horrendous for scholarship generally, he received no public expressions of support from his peers. When I asked the editor of the Burlington Magazine why this was the case, she replied “Because he is going to lose”. The public needed to be alerted to the case. Once again, the Independent came through. On 8 November 1991, David Lister reported the imminent trial:

Below, part of David Lister’s 8 November 1991 article.

Below, a book Beck had produced on the Lucca Cathedral monument

THE TRIAL AND THE PROFESSIONAL SILENCE

Like the editor of the Burlington Magazine, the judge at Beck’s trial in Florence knew that he was going to lose. Indeed, he declared an intention to find him guilty to the prosecuting lawyer, as they left the court together discussing the case at lunchtime after the trial’s first morning session. “Eh, but I shall find him guilty” he said. Fortunately, he was overheard by an off-duty policeman who was working as an intern for Beck’s lawyer. When challenged, the judge refused to recuse himself but eventually he disappeared and Beck, under a new judge, was soon acquitted.

REPORTING THE TRIAL OUTCOME

At the time we were able by courtesy once more of the Independent (22 November 1991) to raise a cheer for Beck and for the blow he had struck for the free expression of scholarly judgements on matters of artistic welfare and integrity. But this had been an extremely close call and, while contemplating a possible jail sentence, Beck decided that a dedicated international organisation was needed to speak for the interests of the world’s great and insufficiently protected works of art. A year later ArtWatch International was founded in New York.

On the day of publication of the Independent’s 22 November article, Grant McIntyre, an editor at the venerable and (then) still independent publishing house John Murray, telephoned to ask if there might be a book on the trial and on matters of restoration. There was and, following its initial publication in 1993, it ran to many subsequent editions (see below).

THE BOOK’S RECEPTION

The book soon faced a formidable hurdle: it was to be reviewed in the New York Review of Books by a formidable Renaissance scholar, Professor Charles Hope, a supporter of the Sistine Chapel restoration. In the event, Prof. Hope was persuaded by the art historical and technical proofs of injury we had amassed. Moreover, he held that Beck had performed an admirable and brave service to scholars and scholarship alike. He also pointed that while many scholars of his acquaintance had initially supported the restoration enthusiastically, many had recently fallen silent on the subject.

After the trial turmoil and the creation of ArtWatch International, I continued to draw the art I loved and to criticise restorations in the Independent.

DENIAL AT THE VATICAN

After the horrors on the ceiling, we later witnessed the injuries to Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. There are still institutionally ensconced scholars and administrators who are in denial on the injuries at the Sistine Chapel and insist against all evidence – such as is found in the contemporary painted copy of the “Last Judgement” by Marcelo Venusti shown above – that Michelangelo had painted in today’s vapid tones and hues. In part this New Pallor is not only the product of the last restoration but also of the quarter of a century since in which the interactions of tourism-induced airborne pollution and chemical residues of the cleaning have been devouring the fresco surfaces. So great has been the debilitation that, in addition to a new air-conditioning system, thousands of colour-enhancing LED lights have been installed on the ceiling.

THE INDEPENDENT AND A CHANGED CRITICAL CLIMATE

The Independent gave fair and generous voice to previously unheard criticisms. By doing so it made an invaluable contribution to artistic health – not only directly but indirectly by opening up the rich, hitherto unexamined field to the rest of the press. The Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and the Observer and others all saw the importance of the subject and recognised that “news” is that which somebody, somewhere, would prefer not to see published. The importance of newspapers in this regard cannot be exaggerated – our colleagues in the United States and France cannot believe that newspapers can be so challenging to entrenched authorities in the arts. The vigour of the British press can also be seen by comparison with our broadcast media which remains perpetually asleep on the job, treating the visual arts as little more than a gifted succession of diverting, institution-promoting “Good News” stories.

ARTS BROADCASTING PAP

When the Beck/Daley art restoration book was published in 1993 a number of independent television companies rightly saw the potential for a televisual “public affairs” type of treatment. All of these proceded well until they reached the top of their commissioning chains. Once, the head of music and arts at the BBC went so far as to offer a whole arts programme, reassuring us that although the BBC and the National Gallery were commercial partners “that shouldn’t create a problem”. But it did: the almost-commissioned independent meticulously even-handed examination of the pros and cons of picture restoration was swiftly killed off. In its place the BBC permitted the National Gallery to make its own effective tele-promotional “selfie” (with gallery staff using left-in-place BBC cameras) of its mangled, falsifying restoration of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. On 29 January 2000 the Independent carried a letter from ArtWatch UK entitled “‘Virtual reality’ art”:

“…When the National Gallery recently restored Holbein’s The Ambassadors, the famous anamorphic skull in the foreground was repainted to a new design not according to the laws of perspective by which it had been produced but after a computer generated distortion of a photograph of a real skull. This Bizarre imposition of ‘virtual reality’ into an old master painting is defended by the gallery on the grounds that ‘modern imaging techniques’ offer more ‘scope for exploring possible reconstructions’ than do the 16th century perspectival conventions by which the artist’s original image had been generated. The difference between the original and the new parts has been concealed from the general public by the restorer’s attempt to integrate the handiwork of his own ‘tentative reconstruction’ with surrounding old paint by painting fake lines of cracking to match the old, actual, cracks.”

It is a tragedy that the lights should have gone out on a newspaper that had caused justifable discomfort in so many art world recesses. As described above, it is a measure of the success of the campaigning that first gained exposure in the Independent that we now enjoy a quite different and healthily expanded art critical universe. We thank the Independent for good times past and wish it all good fortune in its new streamlined format with global outreach at The Independent.

Below (top): The last Independent coverage of ArtWatch UK by Dalya Alberge on 14 March 2012. (On the restoration of Leonardo’s Last Supper, see: A different Leonardo and, The Law of Diminishing Returns ); below (bottom) the last editions of the Independent on Sunday and the Independent.

Michael Daley, 30 March 2016


The Sistine Chapel Restorations, Part III: Cutting Michelangelo Down to Size

27 May 2013

“Judging by Past Experience, it is Perilous to Suggest Restoration…”

~ Charles Heath Wilson, 1881, “The Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarroti”. Publisher: John Murray, London.

“I once barged into a correspondence in The Times when the National Gallery was under fire from the ‘anti-cleaners’. I was ticked off very severely by Lord Crawford, the Chairman of the Trustees. I had, mildly I thought, criticised the authorities for ignoring the sincerely held views of the opposition…I was later restored to favour in high places when I made it clear in an article in The Studio that I was convinced that our National Treasures were in the keeping of qualified responsible people.”

T. J. Honeyman, 1971, “Art and Audacity”. Publisher: Collins, London.

It is not widely appreciated how inherently dangerous art restoration practices remain, or how culturally deranging restoration changes can be. At the bottom end of the trade, restorers often advertise their services on a promise to leave pictures “as good as new – or better”. The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was – on the accounts of its own restorers and initiators – the biggest, the best, the most scientifically advanced and “radically transforming” top-end restoration ever undertaken. This “Restoration of the Century” left one of the world’s greatest artistic accomplishments so profoundly unlike its former self that enthusiasts could announce the discovery of a “New Michelangelo” who was “very different from the one art experts thought they knew”. At the same time, the chief restorer thrilled in 1982 that the frescoes looked as good as new: “as though they were executed yesterday”. In the midst of this commonplace restorers’ confusion between “recoveries” and “discoveries” (or sometimes, “revelations”), some surprising expressions of support materialised. In 1987, a top-end art historian writing in the magazine Apollo [Endnote 1] announced the demolition of the “Darkness Fallacy and the Sculptural Fallacy” within Michelangelo scholarship, and predicted that the then concurrent restorations of the Sistine and Brancacci chapels would leave both Michelangelo and Masaccio as “less isolated geniuses” who would be “returned to their respective periods” (i.e. confined within designated art historical boxes). In 1991, a newspaper art critic exulted in the displacement of “doomy outpourings of religious angst” by colours as “bright as Opal Fruits” – which colours reflected the workings of a “much more rational mind” [2]. Unsurprisingly, such professional pleasure-taking in chemical transformations that could cut artistic Titans down to size alarmed those who had been happy with the surviving Michelangelo, and an enormous controversy arose. Unsurprisingly, the criticised characterised the criticisers as instances of “the magnitude of the shock to entrenched opinion” that had been unleashed by a triumphant restoration. (As will be seen, the expression of sincerely held citicisms can be harshly punished when substantial vested conservation interests are challenged.)

Behind this interpretive culture war, the effects of the restoration on Michelangelo’s art were material and aesthetic. Those changes are forever. Although bad scholarship can be remedied by good scholarship, the latter cannot undo damage to unique, historic works. What remains to be done, a third of a century after the restoration’s 1980 launch, is a proper, disinterested aesthetically informed analysis of the restoration-induced changes, item by item, figure by figure, photograph by photograph; and, a frank evaluation and acknowledgement of their cultural and art historical consequences. Had this restoration’s profound transformation been accepted without challenge, we would be in a world today where technicians enjoyed unfettered licence to rewrite (or as they sometimes prefer, “to re-present”) history itself. Even tacit endorsements of injurious restorations can damage scholarship and falsify history.

The restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was well and publicly defended from 1980 until the mid 1990s. At that period, a seismic shift occurred. What follows is an examination from a British perspective of the restoration’s defences up to 1995 (in which year implicit art historical support for the restoration resulted in a seriously misleading exhibition at the National Gallery); and, a further presentation of visual proofs of the restoration’s injurious consequences. We note here how many supporters have admitted entertaining doubts about the restoration’s probity.

A new cleaning method, and the selling of a “New Michelangelo”

In the 1980s, at the height of an international restoration mania, a supposedly “advanced” “scientific” cleaning material was used on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was ferocious in its effects and mechanistic in its application which was expressly designed to thwart personal and allegedly “subjective” and “unscientific”, aesthetic appraisals. The most sophisticated imagery on an immensely important historic work of art was thus subjected to a “treatment” that derived not from the complexities of picture restoration and its necessary acts of discrimination and constant evaluation but, rather, from architectural stone cleaning techniques. This cleaning method altered the ceiling’s centuries old artistic/historic continuity to such a degree that the restorers and their supporters ventured that history would need to be rewritten. The changes, for sure, were dramatic: depictions of figures that had been archetypally and transcendentally alive were brightened, flattened, rendered more abstract, more “on the picture surface” and left with an altogether more modernist and imaginatively impoverished aspect. Contrary to official claims this (demonstrably) was not a liberation or recovery of the ceiling’s original condition and appearance – see, particularly, Figs. 1 and 60.

When Michelangelo’s ceiling was unveiled in 1512 the world was stunned by the grandeur, pictorial audacity and, above all, by figural inventions that had rendered the divine corporeal and vividly alive within our own space and time. Michelangelo had not so much made depictions-on-surfaces as conjured perceived spaces adjacent to the ceiling’s imperfect forms. His optically “sculpted” spaces – which opened vistas beyond the ceiling’s surfaces while simultaneously projecting figures in front of them – had been realised through powers of draughtsmanship and modelling with utter disregard for the “integrity” of the architectural surfaces. Seemingly palpable space was necessary to situate Michelangelo’s monumental programme of over three hundred figures – figures that ran from depicted carved stone sculptures (his architecture-adorning putti), through living, space-occupying young sculptural Adonis’s (his contorted, anxious ignudi) and, more prosaically, through the historical ancestors of Christ, to the divinely gifted Prophets and Sibyls, and finally to God Himself and his celestial supporters. This was immediately acclaimed as a dazzling artistic and illusionistic advance. Its eventual influence was to carry mural painting into the Baroque and beyond. Although artistic fashions and modes of description change constantly, for nearly five centuries this “stupendous” work’s vital relationships endured, as the many copies made throughout its existence testify (see Fig. 1b).

How Doubts became Denials

With the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, while some art world players were galvanized into opposition, many others were excited and swept along by the presumptuous magnitude of the transformation. As mentioned, many of the supporters of the restoration have disclosed moments of doubt. We cited in our post of March 4th that the co-director and chief restorer of the ceiling, Gianluigi Colalucci, had said in 1990: “I must confess I harbour a lingering almost subconscious fear that someday someone will come, unexpectedly, with a really intelligent observation that will show all of us to have been blind.” The following year the Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, produced a celebratory book (“Sayonara Michelangelo”) in which he asked in the face of the transition:

Who among us looking up for the first time at this new, bright, clear Sistine ceiling, perfectly rational, a light-filled work, was not tempted by the doubt: it can’t be so.”

This temptation was throttled by the sheer spectacle of the restoration as an art-changing performance:

The thin and neat scaffolding bridge moved elegantly along the ceiling like a very slow windscreen wiper. In front of it lay the old Michelangelo, the great tragedian, all basso profundo and crescendo. Behind it the colourful new one, a lighter touch, a more inventive mind, a higher pitch, alto and diminuendo. It was being able to see both of them at once – Beethoven turning into Mozart before your eyes – that made this restoration such a memorable piece of theatre.”

Even the National Gallery’s thoughtful and scholarly (then) curator of Renaissance painting, Nicholas Penny, who recognised (“White Coats v. Bow Ties”, London Review of Books, 11 February 1993) that “The most terrifying thing about the restoration of old paintings and sculpture, as distinct from the editing of texts, is that something might be lost altogether”, swallowed his own moment of anxiety:

But perhaps one should admit that something is lost however much is gained by any intervention – some possibility of interpretation if not some actual pigment or glaze or polish.” [Emphasis added.] With a seeming acceptance of such material and interpretive losses, the greater gains in the Sistine Chapel were said by Penny to have emerged as follows:

Study of the ceiling now that it has been cleaned tends to distance Michelangelo from the art of recent centuries – and from the work of artists who were inspired by the ceiling – and reveals a far closer connection with the dazzling colours favoured by artists in his immediate following and also evident in some of the better-preserved 15-century Florentine panel paintings.”

Note the cultural role being served by “restoration” changes: even when their legitimacy is vehemently challenged, restorations facilitate through “study”, new interpretations and a certain re-shuffling of scholarly furniture. Scholars and restorers invariably say that they have duly considered and rejected the criticisms as ill-informed, but the fact remains that eventually all restorations themselves come to be rejected and undone by later restorers. Indeed the alleged need to undo previous restorations is one of the commonest justifications for a restoration. The net consequence of repeated restorations is not a return to an original condition each time, but a daisy chain of altered alterations, with each successive restoration leaving the given work looking unlike its previously “restored” state. With accumulating alterations, works get thinner and thinner. Insofar as such abraded appearances are acknowledged, they are attributed to previous “rubbing”, or other euphemisms. Losses of original material during restorations (as Penny conceded) are to some degree inevitable. This is because while painters work from supporting canvases or panels upwards, restorers work downwards with their solvents and abrasives towards or beyond pictures’ finished surfaces. Collisions are inevitable.

The “New Michelangelo”

The art historical revisionism that advanced with this restoration might have been plausible had changes of colouring been the only changes, and had any of Michelangelo’s contemporaries noted dazzling colours. By any properly visually alert appraisal, however, the changes were less ones of enhanced chromatic power than of debilitating losses to the ceiling’s initially celebrated dramatic modelling and lighting (see Fig. 60). Although Nicholas Penny acknowledged such objections to the received critical consensus, he nonetheless caricatured them:

Polemics against the restoration appeal repeatedly to the ideas of chiaroscuro and harmony as artistic absolutes.” The implication that critics were in the grip of a fetishized false artistic consciousness was underscored: “It is painful but important to acknowledge that the inspiration one artist draws from another, earlier one is often inseparable from misunderstanding.” It is a common defence against critics to allege some “misunderstanding” of the “facts” because of ingrained or entrenched prejudices but with this restoration the objections stemmed not from misapprehensions or misplaced adherence to ahistorical idée fixes, but from the fact of the concrete, demonstrable and historically verifiable injuries to the painting.

Further Material Evidence of Injury

Having shown many directly comparative pairs of “before” and “after” restoration photographs as proofs of injury – we further present seven single photographs (Figs. 1 to 6 and 48b), each of which alone testifies to the destruction of the final stages of Michelangelo’s painting. To pinpoint the unsoundness of the restoration’s theoretical underpinning, we also show two other works, one drawn (Fig. 41), one painted (Fig. 47) that seem emblematic of serious critical neglect. It will be argued that insufficient respect for the artistic and documentary records (particularly in the form of graphic copies and related paintings) facilitated an initial misdiagnosis of Michelangelo’s painting methods. In addition, we examine the “macro” consequences in terms of changes to the previous relationships between the broad and differentiated zones of the Sistine Chapel’s consecutively decorated surfaces.

Selling the Restoration and Blocking the Critics

In December 1987 two articles that acknowledged the intensity of the controversy were published in Britain. One was a work of journalism by a leading cultural writer with strong interests in science, Brian Appleyard. The other was a full-blown and frankly declared Public Relations Apologia by Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a professor of art history at New York University, a consultant member of the Vatican’s Scientific Advisory Committee on the restoration, and the Vatican’s spokesman on “scholarly and general information” for the public relations firm Arts and Communications Counsellors, which had been retained to handle the crisis.

To take the former first: on 20 December 1987 the Sunday Times magazine carried an article on the restoration – “Lost or Found?”. Its author, Brian Appleyard, acknowledged that he had been “carefully and elaborately briefed” by the co-directors of the restoration, Fabrizio Mancinelli, the curator of the Vatican Museums’ modern paintings, and Gianluigi Colalucci, the head restorer, and by Professor Carlo Pietrangeli, the director of the Vatican Museums, and that the next day he had been “scientifically persuaded” by the Vatican’s chemist, Nazzareno Gabrielli. Nonetheless, Appleyard gave a fair and balanced account, citing the arguments of James Beck, a professor of art history at Columbia University, New York. Even while recognising that “the vast majority of art historians are on the side of the Vatican”, Appleyard concluded “So far the Vatican have been troubled by Beck but have been secure behind the battery of art historians prepared to stand up and oppose him. But his fury and energy are beginning to pay off. More and more awkward questions are beginning to be asked and he warns of more home-grown opposition in Italy.”

An Artist Thwarted

The article itself prompted controversy in Britain by including directly comparative before and after restoration photographs of sections of the frescoes. To this artist’s eyes, those photo-comparisons showed instantly that the “cleaning” was damaging and that the protests were well founded (see Figs. 9 to 11b). Working then as the principal illustrator of the Independent, a new and fashionable newspaper with excellent arts coverage, I asked the arts editor if I might write a short article demonstrating the ways in which the ceiling was being damaged. He declined on grounds that the newspaper’s art critic, Andrew Graham Dixon, had (like Beck) visited the scaffolding, and had been persuaded (like many art historians and critics) that all was fine.

Thus, the first lesson in this controversy was that an artist who had trained for four years in a junior art school, for five years in a fine art college and for three post-graduate years at the Royal Academy Schools – and who afterwards had taught and practised drawing and sculpture for fifteen years – could be unvoiced in a debate about the treatment of a work of art in deference to the views of someone sixteen years younger who had read English at university and art history at the Courtauld Institute (- on which institution’s restorations see “Taking Renoir, Sterling and Francine Clark to the Cleaners”).

An Artist Heeded

When the Independent launched a Sunday edition in 1990, its arts editor invited an article on the Sistine Chapel restoration. In preparation, I contacted James Beck who put me in touch with many key critics. These included, in Italy, Professor Alessandro Conti, Venanzo Crocetti, the sculptor who had worked on the previous restoration of the Sistine ceiling in the 1930s, the restorer Mirella Simonetti; and, in the US, the critic and writer Alexander Eliot and the painter Frank Mason. From the Independent on Sunday I spoke directly to Professor Brandt, Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli, Professor John Shearman, (an advisor to the restoration who viciously attacked Beck on the record and then threatened to sue if I published his grossly defamatory comments), and wrote to Gianluigi Colalucci. The second lesson had thus been that critics of restorations, however prestigious, could find themselves victims of scurrilous attacks from professional peers.

Shooting the Messengers

When surveying the restoration’s then decade long literature, Brandt’s 1987 Apollo article emerged as a seminal document. Its declared purpose had precisely been to defend the “transformation of Michelangelo’s mysterious dark frescoes…into [the] blazing colouristic pyrotechnics that is attracting the most public attention and controversy” (this was despite the fact that Michelangelo had been praised at his own funeral for “the fleeting and sombre colours with which he had formed such rare and lofty shapes”). Most striking of all was Brandt’s assaults on the restoration’s critics, whether they were scholars, restorers, traditionalist artists or fashionably modish artists:

“But, a tiny, heterogeneous and vociferous cadre emerged with the dramatic charge that Vatican conservators are ruining one of the great icons of western civilisation. “Convinced of the urgency of their mission, the critics conducted their campaign in the international press and television and achieved a remarkable degree of public visibility. A letter by a well-meaning group of American master painters of the Pop generation, calling for a halt to the cleaning of the Sistina (as well as the Last Supper) was one index of their success. An interview with one of the American Sistina critics in People Magazine was, however, another… “To the ears of most art historians and conservation experts, however, the critics claims sounded more and more like the wild cries of some ferocious mutant of Chicken Little. Many believe that the critics, like that benighted bird, were misunderstanding insufficient evidence to draw mistaken conclusions to the alarm of the neighbours. Still the issue is a serious one. Are the critics merely opportunists, body-surfing on a wave of publicity they would never otherwise have enjoyed? Or should we be hearing in their polemics a warning that the cleaning of major works of art is another of those matters too important to be left to the experts?” “If the critics’ questions have such detailed answers, what is the continuing public fuss about? Why has the criticism been so remarkably vague, shifting and misinformed? Why have the critics been so reluctant to make the frequent visits to the Sistine Chapel scaffolding…Why does criticism remain invulnerable to the abundant available information. How could such a small group of people, none of whom is – in a professional sense – an expert on Michelangelo and conservation, attract so much publicity and even some well-intentioned adherents? (The original nucleus of nay-sayers consists of only five persons: two painters, one former art critic and two art historians, distributed in Italy and the USA; connexions between them exist but are hard to define.)”

In addition to an insinuation of some underlying conspiracy, Brandt appended an imputation of political motivations that served as platforms for personal opportunism:

“It is easy to see how any hint that the Vatican might be hurting Michelangelo could fuel political fires while providing a chance for professional power play among factions of the intellectual establishment.”

If political motivations combined with personal power play might exist among critics in Italy, Brandt maintained, the situation was different in the United States where:

“The continuing publicity has, of course, also become a phenomenon in itself with a life and fascination of its own. All the more significant that only one American scholar has been tempted to join the public furore. “None of this grandstanding matters much – although one doesn’t like to see an important issue distorted and people misled. I do not believe that a tenacious campaign of ill-informed criticism and personal attacks on the conservators will stop the careful cleaning of the Ceiling.”

Traditional Slurs

At this historical point Brandt’s past abuse of the critics might best be taken to have been self-answering. Her assurance that “the cleaning chemicals do not actually come into contact with the fresco surface” has not worn well and, besides, was at odds with the chief restorer’s earlier admission that if left on a minute too long the chemicals began devouring the fresco surface and Michelangelo’s shading with it. Similarly, her claim that the restoration had been “spurred by the alarming discovery that the glue layers were contracting as they aged , and were pulling flakes of plaster and pigment away from the surface of Michelangelo’s frescoes” proved an impermanent position. As was later reported in “Art Restoration, The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” (James Beck and Michael Daley, 1993), it had been claimed in 1986 (six years into the restoration) that “various checks [had] ascertained that in several places minute flecks of colour were lifting” and that this had “necessitated an immediate restoration.” In 1987 it was said that extensive areas of flaking were progressively worsening and threatening an imminently “uncontrollable situation”. By 1988 Vatican spokesmen were claiming that the weight of encrustations upon the paint surface was causing it to break away from its ground. By 1989 it was said that the glues had “shrunk and puckered” causing “scabs” to fall away “pulling pigment with them”. It was said that this “slow destruction by glue-pox” was “the Vatican’s principle motivation for cleaning the ceiling”. When we asked Brandt in 1990 how big the puckerings were, she replied “Oh! Some are as big as your hand.” Soon after, in 1991, the problem de-escalated: initial investigations were acknowledged, once more, to have encountered “minute desquamations and loss of pigment.”

Brandt’s patronising claim that “the so-called ‘controversy’ is not actually about facts and issues but is a reflection of culture shock” lamely echoed charges made in earlier restoration controversies. During the National Gallery cleaning controversy in London in the late 1940s the critics were said by the art critic, Eric Newton of the Daily Telegraph, to be suffering from the “shocked eye”, a condition which afflicted “the connoisseur and the artist – the visually sensitive man with a quick eye and profound reverence for what he had seen”. Just as at the Sistine Chapel, Newton’s dismissal of the expertise of creative players was made on the claimed authority of restoration “science”. Such generalised appeals to the authority of science often prove to be empty incantation and Newton volunteered no more than “The purely scientific and technical aspects of the process, however are too complex to describe here.”

In 1857 picture cleanings at the Louvre were defended on the grounds that “It is understandable that the romantic amateur loves the rust and the haze of the varnish, for it has become a veil behind which he can see whatever he desires” (Horsin Déon). One critic of the Louvre’s restorations, Edgar Degas, threatened to produce a pamphlet that would be “a bomb”. When Brandt dismissed the Sistine Chapel critics on the grounds that the controversy was “rather unreal since the arguments against cleaning are mainly nostalgically emotional [while] those on the other side are chemical and scientific” she presented her role as being to “dissolve some of the murky argument and preserve a few facts”. As will be seen, artists and art historians can have distinctly differing views as to what constitutes a “fact” and what a blind prejudice.

The Evidence of Restoration Injuries – and the Surprising Reactions To It

When the Independent on Sunday’s picture desk obtained high-quality colour transparencies from the Vatican in 1990 we examined the image of the Erythraean Sybil, part of which had been shown in Appleyard’s Sunday Times article, and encountered among many losses the restoration-mangled foot seen at Figs. 2 and 3. Those losses and losses to a figure on one of the lunettes were first published in the Independent on Sunday of 25 March 1990 (see Figs. 12, 13 and 14) and then later in the Independent of 20 March 1991, where the arguments against the restoration were put by Daley, Beck, Conti, Eliot and the art historian Bruce Boucher, and balanced by three counter arguments.

Of the latter, Ernst Gombrich was harshest on the critics: “No one is infallible, but I have not the slightest doubt that the overall impression and operation is right, and the critics talk absolute nonsense.” The Courtauld Institute-trained editor of The Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks, condescended that some people liked things to look “romantic and old, and can’t cope with the clarity and brilliance of what the Sistine Chapel looks like now it has been cleaned”. The Courtauld Institute-trained Nicholas Penny said “It’s one of the great revelations of our time but the transformation is so absolutely amazing that it is bound to give some people a shock and I am sympathetic to them being shocked”.

Brandt’s 1987 Apollo account had fallen on well-worked ground in Britain where even art world players with strong track records of being critical of restorations had become supportive of this restoration. The Courtauld Institute-trained restorer Sarah Walden, who had implicitly criticised many of her peers and predecessors in her 1985 book “The Ravished Image ~ Or How to Ruin Masterpieces by Restoration”, was one such and she offered this (simplistic) technical distinction in defence of the restoration’s results:

Unlike easel paintings, frescos are not a film of paint on a surface but impregnate their own support and need no varnish. Given an intact, dry wall, they are spared many of the rigours of restoration, except for the removal of dust and dirt. As the recent cleaning of Raphael’s Galatea in the Farnesina in Rome has shown, and as the present work on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel seems to confirm, this is one area where impressive results can be had with far less risk.”

As shown on 28 April 2012, the restorer Leonetto Tintori had discovered on examining the ceiling that it had been covered by what he termed “Michelangelo’s auxilliary techniques” which included not just glue or size painting but also oils. Walden, whose principle critical complaints had been against the “Anglo-Saxon” schools of restoration in Germany, Britain and the US, as opposed to the “Latin” restorations of France and Italy [3], had evidently accepted the restorers’ claims that Michelangelo had simply coloured successive patches of wet and drying plaster at great speed and thereafter accepted whatever disparities and inequalities of value emerged on drying without making any unifying or enriching interventions with glue-based painting a secco on his fresco surfaces when dry, as was customary and as had been noted by his contemporaries. She had further accepted the restorers’ (revisionist and unsupported) claims that the large amounts of glue-based material on Michelangelo’s frescoes had been applied by restorers as a “varnish” to a work which, on her own account, would have required no varnish, and despite the fact that previous Vatican restorers had attributed that very material to Michelangelo. Gombrich, who had played a prominent role in the post-war cleaning controversies at the National Gallery in London – and who had written the Foreword to Walden’s book – was similarly persuaded by the present Vatican restorers’ well disseminated technical account.

Gombrich’s Startling Lapse of Scholarship and Visual Acuity

In 1995 Gombrich presented an exhibition, “Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art”, at the National Gallery (London) on the thesis that an avoidance of cast shadows had been “widespread among painters of the High Renaissance”. He did so without reference to the paintings of Michelangelo or Raphael. (When pressed on these omissions he replied “I never meant [the catalogue] to be an encyclopaedia of all cast shadows, though some of my readers seem to assume so.” – Letter to Michael Daley, 10 June 1995.) As will be shown, in a curious fashion, Gombrich’s pictorial amnesia constituted the logical terminus of a more general denial by art historians of the distinctive artistic relationships that had survived on the pre-restoration ceiling, and of the connections between those relationships and the art forms of the period and immediately afterwards. Defending this restoration became an exercise in not-seeing what was and what had been. Gombrich’s position on this restoration was a great disappointment to us given his outstanding earlier contributions.

Gombrich on the Sanctity of Scholarship

In 1978 as the Vatican Museums’ curators, restorers and scientists were moving towards restoring the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Gombrich had discussed one of Michelangelo’s prophets – his Ezekiel – in the context of problems of art connoisseurship and medical practices (and with no reference to colour) [4]. He pointed out that just as with placebos “suggestibility plays a part in our response to works of art”. Demonstrating by a comparison between Jeremiah and Ezekiel that the latter was uncharacteristic of Michelangelo but characteristic of Raphael, he firmly attributed its execution to Raphael (see Fig. 25). Of all the prophets on the ceiling, he contended, this one alone lacked Michelangelo’s profound stylistic traits: “he always negates the picture plane. Jonah being the most famous example of this space-creating and surface-denying imagination, which so aroused the admiration of Renaissance writers.” How could it have been overlooked, Gombrich continued, that the Ezekiel, far from denying the picture plane, asserted it: “Instead of being self-enclosed it impetuously moves to the right, addressing an unseen partner in what looks like a violent argument. It is this implied movement which tears the cohesion to pieces and introduces a shrill note of drama entirely absent from the other creations. The composition is only superficially Michelangelesque…” Further, what the Ezekiel betrayed in its agitated gestures was Raphael’s own great indebtedness to Leonardo: “Indeed it is hardly too much to say that Ezekiel would fit comfortably into the groups of the apostles in the Last Supper of S. Maria delle Grazie.”

This was vintage Gombrich, learned, conceptually adroit, visually acute and boldly re-attributing a Michelangleo to Raphael through Leonardo. Except that here his elegant arguments and persuasive stylistic “evidence” amounted to no more than a plausible contrivance – a conceit that was, he confessed, an art connoisseur’s equivalent of the medical practitioner’s placebo. He hoped that connoisseurs “will not take offence and that the spirits of Michelangelo and Raphael will forgive me this harmless fabrication.” (Was that jest to become a maquette for a far greater and undisclosed prank on those two great artists seventeen years later?)

Gombrich and the Guardians of Memory

Two decades earlier, in a moving 1957 essay “Art and Scholarship”, Gombrich had championed the scholar as “the guardian of memories”. It seemed that he had been stung to do so by the painter Wyndham Lewis who had recently written:

When I see a writer, a word man, among a number of painters, I shake my head. For I know he would not be there unless he was up to something. And I know that he will do them no good…”

Gombrich’s retort was: “Why should the artist bother about that spoilsport the scholar and his past? The brief answer to this question, I fear, may sound moralistic. Because truth is better than lies.”

Indeed it is – but this leaves his own later omissions in the National Gallery exhibition the more perplexing: How could so great a scholar make so seriously misleading and unfounded a claim in (seeming) defence of such an unsupportable restoration? Spicing this mystery is the fact, as shown below, that Gombrich’s faith in the Sistine ceiling restoration was not absolute and that he, too, like Colalucci, Januszczak and Penny, had once acknowledged a moment of doubt.

Gombrich’s Moment of Doubt

As mentioned, Gombrich was as one with the views of the restorer Sarah Walden on this restoration. Walden was to persist with her endorsement of the restoration until at least 2004 when, in a revised edition of her book (now titled “The Ravished Image ~ An Introduction to the Art of Picture Restoration & Its Risks”), she pressed Gombrich into a swipe at critics of the Sistine ceiling restoration:

The subject of restoration tends to attract cranks and fanatics, but to suggest that the world’s foremost art historian was one of those would be absurd. He approved for example of the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, and wrote to me about an Italian who opposed it and was seeking his support: ‘Of course he wants to use [my writings] as ammunition against the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel, but I do think the problems of cleaning are different…I have been up the scaffold…I have no doubt that the team are aware of the many problems…I am even fairly happy about the work on the Sistine ceiling.’” [Walden’s ellipses.]

While Walden tactfully refrained from identifying the Italian critic, by publishing a letter she received from Gombrich in 1987 in the revised book, she revealed an intriguingly confessional remark:

Last week I was sent a book from Italy violently attacking the ‘cleaning’ of the Sistine ceiling. It may contain some exaggerations but it is still disquieting. Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco, by Alessandro Conti (La Casa Usher, Florence 1986). If you read Italian and have a little time during the next few weeks I’ll gladly lend it to you to look at.”

That unsettling book was later described by Penny in the LRB as “the most sustained polemic against the restoration”. Charles Hope, an authority on Titian and then the Senior Lecturer in Renaissance Studies at the Warburg Institute, London, wrote (in a letter of 1994 to the restorer Helen Glanville – see below) that “The scholar who has done most to draw attention to the relevant texts is of course Conti; and whatever you think of his book (he is not a restorer, by the way), I am sure we can agree that it is obligatory reading for anyone interested in the controversy surrounding the ceiling. Yet […] and so on not only pass over his arguments in silence instead of addressing them, they seem never to cite his book at all…” Gombrich, too, would seem to have suppressed his own disquiet and passed over Conti’s arguments even though he must have appreciated that Conti was a very considerable authority on restoration having taught the History and Techniques of Restoration at the University of Bologna; the History of Modern Art at the state university in Milan; and, the History of Art Criticism at the University of Siena. In his 1988 “History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art” (republished by Butterworth in a 2007 English translation by Helen Glanville) Conti spoke of the alien “material and chromatic robe” with which the Sistine ceiling paintings had been invested “during the present restoration” and identified “the various media” Michelangelo had used on the ceiling as “fresco, lime and secco”. (For Conti’s further comments in that book on Domenico Carnevale’s repairs to Michelangelo’s ceiling, see the caption at Figs. 48a and 48b. That his now very scarce Michelangelo e la Pittoria a Fresco has yet to be published in English might itself be thought something of a scandal.)

The Context of Gombrich’s National Gallery Exhibition

Gombrich’s 1995 exhibition came not just towards the end of his long and distinguished career but at the end of a brief period of intense discussions in Britain on the restorations at the Sistine Chapel and the National Gallery. We had been at pains to show that extreme as the Sistine Chapel restoration was, it was part of a wider radically transforming international assault by restorers acting on historic works of art in the name of their “conservation”. (Between 1990 and 1995, this author alone had published twenty-three times on those subjects – see Fig. 12.) Such discussions greatly accelerated with the publication of the 1993 Beck/Daley book “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal” which, in addition to two chapters on the Sistine Chapel carried a chapter on the National Gallery’s restorations. Responses to the book were various and sometimes startling. They prompted an additional chapter, “The Establishment Counterattacks”, in the revised 1996 American paperback edition. We should acknowledge here that the National Gallery, under its present director, Nicholas Penny, as initially under its previous director, Charles Saumarez Smith, has given ArtWatch UK full and most generously helpful access to all conservation and archival records, and that we have drawn heavily on the compendious material on the Gallery’s conservation practices that is provided in the annual Technical Bulletins. Moreover, since 2012 the Gallery has placed much archival material online.

Responses to “Art Restoration, the Culture, the Business and the Scandal”

After his initially even-handed coverage, Brian Appleyard now characterised Beck in the Independent as being “litigious” – even though he had brought no legal actions but had been sued (unsuccessfully) for criminal slander by an Italian sculpture restorer and had faced a possible prison sentence of three years. Appleyard compared the Beck/Daley book unfavourably before its publication – and before he had read it – with Walden’s book of 1985, specifically dismissing its unseen chapters on the Sistine ceiling on a Waldenesque insistence that “The fact that it was largely pure fresco made the cleaning process straightforward.”

On 18 November 1993 the New York Review of Books carried an essay by Charles Hope, on “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, the Business and the Scandal”. Hope (who was later to become, as Gombrich had been, the director of the Warburg Institute), recalled that “like many other art historians” his initial response to the cleaning had been “entirely favourable”, but which confidence, he now confessed, had been “entirely misplaced”. Viewed in their entirety, the cleaned frescoes create “a decidedly disagreeable impression: the colours are gaudy…the figures look crude and often flat and the architecture seems insubstantial and pedantic.” In short, “Restrained grandeur has been replaced by garish confusion” and it was “difficult to believe that the right procedure was adopted.” Worse followed for the restoration establishment. “Restorers are not always particularly well-informed about the history of art nor especially interested in it”, while, for their part, art historians “seldom have the scientific training to judge the full implication of the courses of action proposed to them.”

Perhaps most disturbing to the Sistine Chapel restoration supporters was Hope’s acknowledgement that when “Talking to friends I find that my unease is widely shared; and it is certainly noticeable that the completion of the restoration has not attracted the kind of acclaim that greeted the unveiling of the lunettes.” After the publication of his review, Hope told Beck in a letter (20 November 1993) “You’ll be cheered to know that several art historians have told me, by letter or in person, how glad they were that I had said what I did.” This greatly amplified a note of caution that had already been present in Nicholas Penny’s observations in the LRB nine months earlier:

I have met few art historians, even among those who are nervous about the cleaning of paintings, who believe that a mistake was made in cleaning the ceiling. Nevertheless, many art lovers were shaken by what has been published on the subject and some have been no less alarmed by what they have seen in the chapel itself.”

A Restorer’s Response

Temperatures rose after Hope’s review. The Art Newspaper allotted four pages in its May 1994 issue for the counter arguments of Helen Glanville, a Courtauld Institute-trained picture restorer who had read Modern Languages at Oxford. Like Brandt seven years earlier in Apollo, Glanville struck a combative tone and a tendentious note by producing accounts of our “Accusations” against which she provided lawyerish “Defences” written in consultation with the authorities. In 1963 Gombrich had complained “Nobody who criticizes the policy of a great institution expects such criticism to be accepted without further argument. What one has the right to expect, however, is that the answer should concern itself with the substance of the criticism.” In language eerily reminiscent of that used against Beck by Shearman, Glanville challenged not only our character but the judgement of those who had supported us: “The most disturbing aspect is that reviews of the book (including that by Charles Hope in the New York Review of Books of 18 November 1993) appear to indicate that even respected members of the art world accept Daley’s presentation of ‘facts’ at face value”.

Hope’s Riposte

Hope sent a letter to Glanville explaining that he had been “particularly careful not to take Daley at his word”, that he had checked what I had written on Sebastiano was in accordance with the monograph on the artist by Professor Michael Hirst (of the Courtauld Institute, and a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling), and also with “the account of the [Sebastiano] restoration in the National Gallery’s Annual Report”. In further reproach, he added “I would have thought it was fairly obvious to anyone familiar with the recent literature that I had done my homework, not least because there are various arguments and texts used in the review which do not figure in the Beck-Daley book at all. [5] In my review I have tried very hard to be fair to both sides…Having read your article I see nothing that ought to be changed; indeed it would be difficult to see what you actually found objectionable in it…Before I began working on the review my scholarly sympathies were entirely on side of the defenders of the recent restoration, and I was hoping indeed expecting, to be persuaded that my unease at the present appearance of the ceiling was unjustified. But the reverse has happened, and not just because Beck and Daley produced such compelling arguments…” Hope then set out with great clarity the scholarly import of the material evidence we had supplied and which he had found persuasive:

I was disappointed that you did not discuss directly what seemed to me the most important single type of evidence in the whole controversy, the drawing by Clovio of Jonah [see Fig. 1] and the one at Windsor showing the whole ceiling. Both of these, as you will remember, can be securely dated to no later than 1534, and they both show very specific, well-defined areas of shadow also recorded in the engravings of the sixteenth century and later, which have now disappeared. The important thing is that the drawings predate the engravings, that they were manifestly produced independently of one another, yet they are consistent. If they are misleading in the same way, we need to have some explanation of why this is so, because if Michelangelo did paint shadows of the kind they show, and in the places they show, then Beck and Daley would seem to be vindicated.”

Gombrich’s Denial of Historical Realities

Coming so soon after Hope’s generous and substantial support, Gombrich’s claim, as a scholar with an impeccable record as a critic of restorations, that cast shadows had popped out of existence for the duration of the High Renaissance might have seemed like manna to the National Gallery and the Vatican. Did his historical account not implicitly constitute a most authoritative rebuttal of the Beck-Daley, Hope-supported, central claim that the destruction of Michelangelo’s cast shadows had given historically corroborated proof of injury to the Sistine Chapel ceiling? In so doing, did he not also provide express relief to the restorers themselves? If the shadows had never existed during the High Renaissance, as he was claiming, how could they possibly have been harmed in restoration?

In May 1994 The Art Newspaper published my letter of reply to Glanville’s article. It concluded: “this concern [over restorations] is shared by others. The current director of the Prado, Calvo Serrraller, has condemned the Sistine Chapel restoration as a misguided ‘face-lift’. A restorer in St Petersburg complains of the ‘perniciousness of radical British restoration techniques’. A curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum condemns the ‘strident tones’ produced by ‘the exuberant cleaning of paint surfaces, for which the National Gallery has unfortunately become famous’. It is a pity that the National Gallery staff are not prepared to debate these matters directly. It is a pity that discussion should be necessary at all when, to educated eyes, the evidence of injury contained in before and after cleaning photographs is so unmissable.” It would seem, (on Gombrich’s recollection – “In the shadow of the masters”, interview, The Art Newspaper, May 1995) that that very month, the National Gallery’s director, Neil MacGregor, approached Gombrich to ask whether he would do an exhibition in the “The Artist’s Eye” series (in which artists assembled and discussed selections of paintings made from within the Gallery’s collection).

Mr MacGregor’s Choice

Gombrich submitted five or six proposals from which, he said, MacGregor “selected shadows”. Thus the National Gallery had obtained an exhibition that purported to explain why the masters of the High Renaissance had opted to “show us a shadowless world”. If the content was helpful to the Gallery, the fact of Gombrich’s participation might have been a greater boon still. As a critic of the Gallery’s restorations during the 1950s and 1960s he had been a dangerous foe. Before becoming the National Gallery’s director, MacGregor, as editor of the Burlington Magazine, had himself been a partisan of restorations and was well aware of Gombrich’s standing in these disputes. In a Burlington editorial in January 1985, MacGregor had written:

Cleaning controversies are probably the liveliest, and they are certainly the hardiest, of the art world’s perennial topics of discussion. Of course, thefts and exports make bigger headlines, but they lack conversational staying power, just as new record prices slip faster and faster from the memory. But debates on cleaning run and run, this Magazine having been the forum for one of the most celebrated jousts in the early 1960s.”

MacGregor then drew a distinction that marked a crucial advance that picture restorers had made by the 1980s: “Then the key question was how, or even whether, to clean. Now it is more likely to focus on what can be learnt through cleaning about the picture itself.” This rebranding of art restoration, despite all of its inherent risks, as an aid to scholarship had seemed a spectacular professional coup. By the late 1980s museum restorers had forged a common professional alliance with curators in which “discoveries” made in the course of a restoration could be presented to the world through professional journals, museum press releases, and newspaper/television interviews. The National Gallery laid claim for having pioneered the new hybrid discipline known as Technical Art History, in which curators, restorers and scientists pool efforts so as to fly in tight professional formations. In reality, museums and galleries had set themselves a trap – and Gombrich had chosen the worst possible moment to flip sides in the Great Restoration Battles: to talk about what has been learned/discovered requires the production of material, visual evidence and such evidence becomes fair game for examination.

Gombrich’s Case Against the National Gallery’s Restoration Methods

In 1950 Gombrich had drawn attention in a letter to the Burlington Magazine, to a passage in Pliny which described wondrous effects achieved by the legendary painter Apelles when he finished off his pictures with a thinly spread dark coating or “varnish”. How could we be sure, Gombrich asked, that no Renaissance masters had ever emulated the great painter of antiquity by applying similarly toned varnishes to their own works? He received no reply from the National Gallery. Ten years later, he put the question again in his book “Art and Illusion”, this time provoking Helmut Ruhemann, the Gallery’s pioneering exponent of “Total Cleaning”, into a categorical insistence that “there is no evidence for anything so inherently improbable as that a great old master should cover his whole picture with a ‘toning down layer.'”

Gombrich returned to the fray in 1962 in a Burlington Magazine article (“Dark varnishes – Variations on a Theme from Pliny”) contending that even a single instance of tinted overall varnish would undermine the philosophy of the Gallery’s intrusive restorers who presumed to discern and recover originally “intended” effects among the complex, variously degraded, many times altered material layers of old paintings. Gombrich had cited Pliny’s remarkable technically eloquent account of Apelles’ method: “He used to give his pictures when finished a dark coating so thinly spread that, by reflecting, it enhanced the brilliance of the colour while, at the same time, it afforded protection from dust and dirt and was not itself visible except at close quarters. One main purpose was to prevent the brilliance of the colours from offending the eye, since it gave the impression as if the beholder were seeing them through a window of talc, so that he gave from a distance an imperceptible touch of severity to excessively rich colours.” To the National Gallery the suggestion that colour might be suppressed in any degree by an artist was an affronting heresy, and the idea that a dark toning layer might simultaneously render colours individually more brilliant while collectively more unified was an oxymoron.

The Gallery’s then head of conservation science, Joyce Plesters, responded with a long, witheringly dismissive rebuttal in the Burlington (“Dark Varnishes – Some Further Comments”). Professor Gombrich, she insisted, lacked “technical knowledge” and his scholarship was incomplete and misinterpreted. The entire documented history technical history of art – much of which she appeared to quote – showed that “no convincing case” could be made for a single artist ever having emulated Apelles’ tinted varnish. The passage from Pliny, she sniffed, was but a matter of “academic rather than practical importance” – a charge that was echoed by the director, Philip Hendy, in the Gallery’s Annual Report where he disparaged technically ignorant “university art historians”. Plesters grandly offered to “sift” and “throw light” upon any further historical material that Gombrich or others might care to present in future directly to the National Gallery. Once again, a moment of high political danger for the Gallery’s restorers and curators passed: if no evidence existed of artists having used glazes and varnishes in the manner alleged by critics, how could restorers possibly be damaging them?

The controversy slowly subsided into isolated protests such as that of the painter Pietro Annigoni who painted “MURDERERS” onto the doors of the National Gallery, one night in 1970, in protest against what he had described in a 1956 letter to the Times as “atrocious results [that] reveal an incredible absence of sensibility”. But by 1977 it was “game-over”, so to speak. That year the National Gallery felt confident enough to launch its Technical Bulletin in which restoration methods would be described and illustrated. In it, Plesters mused complacently that “one or two readers may recall the furore when the cleaning of discoloured varnishes from paintings…began to find critics”. (On Plesters’ own technical incompetence, see our post of 27 January 2011.) In the same year a former director of the Gallery, Kenneth Clark, pronounced picture cleaning “a battle won” and claimed responsibility for the victory by having installed a “scientific department with all the latest apparatus” at the National Gallery. He had done so, he said, not because he believed in the “application of science to picture cleaning”, but rather because “until quite recently the cleaning of pictures used to arouse extraordinary public indignation, and it was therefore advisable to have in the background what purported to be scientific evidence to ‘prove’ that every precaution had been taken.”

Gombrich’s Vindication

Joyce Plesters died in October 1996. Earlier that year the National Gallery’s Technical Bulletin carried reports of the cleaning of two paintings by Leonardo’s follower Giampietrino. One, his Salome, had suffered the usual weakening of modelling and shading. The other, his Christ carrying his Cross (Fig. 45) had not. Intriguingly, the latter was said to enjoy both “intensity of colour” and a “restrained overall effect” – the very paradoxical effect the Gallery had dismissed as inherently improbable. Even more remarkably, Giampietrino had first built up an “illusion of relief” with “dark translucent glazes”, and then – just like Apelles – had deliberately “restricted his own range of values” with “a final extremely thin overall toning layer consisting of warm dark pigments and black [!] in a medium essentially of walnut oil with a little resin”. The “varnish” was thus virtually identical as a material to the painting itself – which may explain why it had survived for so long. Many, more soluble, resin varnishes with warm dark pigments had been judged to be earlier restorers’ attempt to impart a deceiving “old masters’ glow” after a harsh cleaning…and removed as alien disfigurements.

Conspicuously, the Technical Bulletin reports made no reference to the Burlington Magazine’s celebrated joust of the early 1960s. Had the Gallery privately informed its recently honoured guest exhibitor of his belated vindication, we wondered? It had not. When we informed Gombrich of this technical corroboration, he replied:

Many thanks for your letter. I happen to have a birthday these days (87, alas!) and I could hardly have a nicer present than the information you sent me. I don’t ever see the N. G. Technical Bulletin and would have missed their final conversion to an obvious truth! Better late, than never. There is more joy in heaven (or Briardale gardens)…”

We published an account of the National Gallery’s remarkable discovery, and of Gombrich’s response to it, in the November 1998 Art Review (“The Unvarnished Truth”). Three years later in a prefatory remark for the revised 2004 edition of Walden’s book “The Ravished Image”, Gombrich announced: “It is now clear that the position I took forty nine years ago in this matter has been vindicated”. As, indeed, it had been, but curiously, Gombrich declined to mention the fact that an exact analogue of Apelles’ reported practice had been discovered on the work of an associate of Leonardo’s within the conservation studios of the Gallery which had originally dismissed his claims but recently honoured him with an “autograph” exhibition. Instead, he attributed his vindication to research reported five years later in a Burlington Magazine article of January 2001 on work conducted in the conservation studios of the Getty Museum. The article, “‘Amber Varnish’ and Orazio Gentileschi’s ‘Lot and His Daughters'”, by Mark Leonard, Narayan Khandekar and Dawson W. Carr, was certainly an important document. It reported that underneath a thick recent, disfiguring but easily soluble varnish, an older thinner much tougher (but still soluble) varnish “remained directly on the paint surface in many areas.” Examinations of paint samples established that “in some areas at least”, this varnish layer had been applied “very early in the life of the painting”, if not originally.

It had been found that in areas where sections of this early, possibly original varnish had been removed in earlier cleanings, the artistic consequences had been devastating: “One particularly prominent loss was in the neck of the daughter at the left. The older varnish remained intact throughout the face, yet at the line of the chin it had been broken through, and removed throughout the rest of the neck. To the naked eye, it looked as if the final layer of modelling in the neck had been ripped from the surface. Although the preparatory flesh tones were still intact, the carefully nuanced sculptural solidity found throughout the rest of the face was missing.” Although no one noticed it, this last remark echoed and corroborated Annigoni’s Times complaint of 1956 that restorers at the National Gallery pronounce “miracles” when “brilliant colours begin to appear“. Unfortunately, he continued, “what they have found are nothing but the preparative tones, sometimes even of the first sketch, on which the artist has worked carefully, giving the best that is in him, in preparation for the execution of the finished work.”

Welcome as such recent confirmations of longstanding claims by artist and art historian critics of restorations are, it should be noted to how great an extent they are arising after the horse had bolted. The National Gallery has yet to disown any of its post-war restorations – in which period it has restored and often re-restored almost its entire collection and often to seriously deleterious effects (see Figs. 55 to 59b by way of example). As the unwisdom of stripping off old varnishes finally begins to gain acceptance in restoration and curatorial circles, the fact remains that had artists’ testimony been heeded, not only would the ponderous and hugely expensive particle accelerators and other “diagnostic” apparatuses of modern museum conservation departments not have been needed, but that much of our visual cultural patrimony could far sooner have been spared mistreatment. Even before Gombrich’s first 1950 letter to the Burlington, in 1946, a painter, Laura Knight, had explained the intrinsic dangers of picture cleaning with perfectly calm “hands-on” knowledge and clarity in a letter to the Times (27 November):

With the exception of direct painting, a comparatively modern method, a painter builds his pigment onto canvas or panel – always with the final effect in view. The actual surface of a picture is the picture as it leaves the artist’s hand. The varnish which finally covers the work for protection to a varying extent amalgamates with the paint underneath. Therefore drastic cleaning – the removal of the covering varnish – is bound to remove also this surface painting and should never be undertaken.”

Although Gombrich might well once again have been feeling that “There is more joy in heaven…” this early or original Getty Museum Varnish had not corroborated his Apelles’ thesis to the same degree as the National Gallery’s research on the Giampietrino. There, the surviving original “varnish” layer was not simply naturally discoloured but had been deliberately loaded with “warm dark pigments and black”.

Had Gombrich learned of his own vindication on this point a decade sooner, he might perhaps have been less censorious of those who claimed that Michelangelo, too, had toned down his own colours with black pigment on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He might even have been less easily persuaded that Michelangelo had confined himself to painting into wet plaster with waterbound pigments. For that matter, even as late as 1993, had Gombrich heeded (as had done his successor at the Warburg Institute, Charles Hope), the hard evidence we presented in “Art Restoration” that the most massively extensive applications of original dark toning layers had occurred on the greatest masterpiece of the High Renaissance – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling – he might have enjoyed his sense of vindication sooner [6]. He might also then have appreciated that the very technical proof of the antiquity of the discoloured layer on the Orazio Gentileschi painting (the fact that this layer had not run into pre-existing age cracks) had been observed more than a century earlier on the surface of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling; that the ceiling’s controversially removed a secco passages had, in fact, precisely passed the Getty Cracks Test. As Charles Heath Wilson had discovered and reported when examining the ceiling within touching distance: “There can be no doubt that nearly all of this work is contemporary, and in one part only was there evidence of a later and incapable hand. The size colour has cracked as the plaster has cracked, but apart from this appearance of age, the retouchings have all the characteristics of original work.” Where Brandt had reported in her influential Apollo article that while the restorers had been on the lookout for “the famous secchi”… “they were surprised not find a secco passages”, Wilson had found it without any difficulty (and without any hi-tech apparatus) because: “Retouches in size-colour are easily recognised. Pure fresco has a metallic lustre, but the retouches are opaque. They are also necessarily painted differently from the fresco, have a sketchy appearance, with hard edges, or are hatched [see Fig. 34] where an attempt is made to graduate them.”

Perhaps, even after twenty further years of campaigning, we might need to re-emphasize that earlier testimony of Wilson’s: the size colour had cracked as the plaster had cracked. The glue/size had not run into any pre-existing cracks. That is to say, the size colour had been applied before the plaster had cracked. The plaster is known to have cracked before any restorers went near the ceiling. Ergo, the size colour could only have been applied when the ceiling was new – and therefore Michelangelo alone could have been the author of the secco painting that lay so clearly to view on the dry surface of his frescoes. This hard technical proof cross-links with the even earlier artistic corroboration of Michelangelo’s authorship of the shading and the cast shadows that was found in Clovio’s beautiful hand-drawn sketch of the Jonah shown at Fig. 1. Moreover, had Gombrich heeded our 1993 account, he would also have appreciated that Wilson had, a century earlier, precisely confirmed his Apelles’ dark toning thesis, insofar as Michelangelo’s extensive secco paintwork had been observed to have “consisted of a finely ground black, mixed with a size”.

By accepting Wilson’s firsthand testimony, Gombrich would further have appreciated, pace Mrs Walden, that Michelangelo had put this secco work to the following extensive artistic ends:

The shadows of the draperies have been boldly and solidly retouched with this size colour, as well as the shadows on the backgrounds. This is the case not only in the groups of the Prophets and Sibyls, but also in the ancestors of Christ in the lunettes and the ornamental portions are retouched in the same way. The hair of the heads and the beards of many of the figures are finished in size colour, whilst the shadows are also thus strengthened, other parts are glazed with the same material, and even portions of the fresco are passed over with the size, without any admixture of colour, precisely as the force of watercolour drawings is increased with washes of gum…These retouchings, as usual with all the masters of the art at the time, constituted the finishing process or as Condivi expresses it, alluding to it in the history of these frescoes, ‘l’ultima mano’. They were evidently all done at the same time and therefore when the scaffold was in place.” And not only! He would have seen an anticipation of the Getty Museum Optical Identification of Aesthetic Injuries Method. That is, Wilson had testified precisely that the faces of the Prophets Daniel and Jeremiah had “undoubtedly been injured by rude hands, suggesting that glazing has been partially or entirely swept away”. Specifically: “The face of Jeremiah seems colourless and painted in black and white only: that the face of Daniel is blotched with brown marks.”

Gombrich had thus been magnificently vindicated twice over on his Apelles Thesis: once on the testimony of a close follower of Leonardo, and once on the testimony of the mighty Michelangelo. He had very graciously accepted news from us of the (lesser) confirmation from within the National Gallery. How sad it is that he had left himself unable to lay rightful claim to the vastly more substantial example of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings. How sad, too, that in defending his error of judgement on Michelangelo, he should have obliged himself to unperson the artistic legacy of the twin giants Michelangelo and Raphael in order to mount an incoherent untenable shabby little exhibition at the National Gallery.

CODA:

Sad as this all is, even now, it is not yet the end of the tragedy. Art historians and their (reversible) tribulations aside, how terrifying it remains that the consequence of the destruction of the precious historic/artistic material that comprised the finishing stages of Michelangelo’s own paintings (and which had protected the fresco surfaces for hundreds of years) is that the remaining now stripped-bare surfaces have been left prey to a persisting polluted atmospheric stew for which no solution has been found by the Vatican’s technical and scientific wizards after two decades of assurances – and twenty-six years after Prof. Brandt disclosed in Apollo that “I have urged repeatedly that problems of climate and pollution control in the Sistine Chapel be given higher priority.” In our post of 21 January, “Setting the Scene, Packing Them In” we cited reports that as many as 20,000 visitors a day were being run through the Chapel. Already, we are outdated. More recent reports put the daily total as high as 30,000 – and report a new pestilence: pickpockets operating within the Pope’s private chapel.

Michael Daley

ENDNOTES:

1. “The Sistine ceiling and the Critics”, David Ekserdjian, December 1987. 2. Wldemar Januszczak, “Sayonara Michelangelo”, 1991. Publisher: Bloomsbury, London. 3. The force of this distinction masked certain inconsistencies. For example, even in Britain during the early post-war period when national schools or tendencies were most pronounced, two highly successful German restorers represented polar opposites in picture restoration’s “ideological” wars. While Helmut Ruhemann lead the controversial school of “Total Cleaning” from within the National Gallery, Johannes Hell championed the philosophy of gradualist and minimalist restorations in which an overall appraisal of the aesthetic consequences of cleaning was maintained at all times. Hell, whose work was admired by members of the Royal Academy, including its painter-president, Gerald Kelly, did so from a successful career within the private sector but his disciples were to gain influential positions in the US museum world. Today, the linkage of competing restoration philosophies to national practices has lost almost all force. All museums – like the Louvre, like the Getty – now sport increasingly powerful science departments and engage nationally and internationally in the kind of professional collaborations between restorers, scientists and curators that operate under the new umbrella discipline know as Technical Art History – and there is scarcely a Technical Art Historian today who would subscribe to a “Total Cleaning” philosophy. Virtually to a person, restorers nowadays declare themselves to be minimalists. 4. Originally published under the title “Rhétorique de l’attribution (Reductio ad absurdum)” in Revue de l’Art, 42, October 1978. Republished as “The rhetoric of attribution – a cautionary tale” in Reflections on the history of art, 1987. (We are indebted to Charles Hope for locating the sources of this vividly recalled but utterly misplaced text.) 5. Charles Hope wrote to Helen Glanville: “The Fichard passage, for example, was not mentioned by them, but by Mancinelli, and I had to consult to Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft for 1891 to discover the full context; and it was Conti who drew attention to Michelangelo’s purchase of lake in 1508…” In the third James Beck Memorial Lecture, in London, June 2011, Hope discussed the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration in the context of the National Gallery’s post-war restoration policies. He warned how misunderstandings of key art historical terms such as sfumato and colorito had carried grave and irreversible consequences for much art “as it did in the case of the Sistine ceiling”. Hope’s lecture has been published in full in the ArtWatch UK members’ Journal No. 28. (For membership subscription details, contact Helen Hulson, Membership and Events Secretary, ArtWatch UK, at: hahulson@googlemail.com) 6. …or, even sooner still, had he read Alexander Eliot’s essay “The Sistine Cleanup: Agony or Ecstasy” in the March 1987 Harvard Magazine. In an interview with Einav Zamir on the Artwatch International website (“Evidence of the Eyes”), Eliot recalls: “Frank Mason said ‘We’ve got to protest and stop the cleaning’ to which I responded ‘You can’t buck city hall, let alone the Vatican.’ Then Frank said, ‘Yes, but think of how awful you’ll feel if you don’t try,’ and so he recruited me. I then wrote a piece for Harvard Magazine on the subject, which Jim Beck told me helped persuade him to join us. At that point, the Vatican became noticeably upset.” For more of Eliot and Mason’s views on the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration, see A Light in the Dark: The Art & Life of Frank Mason and “Divine Light”.

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Above, Fig. 1a: A copy of Michelangelo’s Prophet Jonah. This wash drawing by Giulio Clovio and owned by Rugby School of Art, England, is the single most compelling and illuminating indication of the nature of the restoration injuries to Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling.
It records in its bottom corners parts of two lunettes that Michelangelo had painted before 1512 but then destroyed by 1534 when preparing the altar wall for his Last Judgement. It is therefore a record of how Michelangelo’s painting appeared before the frescoes had become dirty and before any restorer had approached the ceiling. Crucially, and like so many subsequent copies, it shows that Michelangelo had painted with dramatic lighting effects which modelled his figures strongly in relief and caused them to cast shadows onto surrounding surfaces. Moreover, this pronounced Light/Dark pictorial system is seen to have been applied consistently to all figures, including the decorative sculpted children who adorned the architecture or performed subsidiary tasks such as supporting name plates. The cast shadow here seen attached to Jonah’s left foot was thus present from the very beginning. It could not have been an accumulation of soot from candles or braziers, or a later restorer’s addition, or an optical illusion created by darkening restorers’ “varnishes”, as have variously and collectively been suggested. (In truth, there is no record of any restorer applying any varnishes across the ceiling.) This was Michelangelo’s own entirely autograph cast shadow and it was included in every copy of the Jonah (see Fig. 1b below). It had survived for over four and a half centuries but was removed during the last restoration – as seen in Fig. 1c below.
There can be no grounds for disregarding Clovio’s testimony – and as Charles Hope noted (below left), none had been offered by supporters of the restoration. If Michelangelo had not constructed his figures and spaces in the manner recorded, how or why would Clovio have imposed those values? Vasari described Clovio as “the Michelangelo of small works” who had “far surpassed all others in this exercise.” This drawing’s recorded values are entirely consistent with all contemporary accounts of the ceiling when it was unveiled and there are no grounds for rejecting this testimony. Because the restored ceiling was no longer consistent with this (and other copies) or with the contemporary records, the restorers called for – were indeed obliged to call for – a new history to be written to accomodate the (spurious) “New Michelangelo” for whom they wished to claim credit.
Above, Fig. 1b: copies of Jonah, left, by Rados, engraving, 1805-10; right, drawing by Conca, 1823-29. Below, Fig. 1c: Michelangelo’s Jonah, before cleaning (left), and after cleaning (right).
Above, Figs. 2 and 3: The right foot of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as found after cleaning and retouching. We assume that no one would claim that Michelangelo intended the foot to be seen in its present condition, or dispute that these two photographs record a grossly injured passage of painting. The present double image is the bodged outcome of the wrongful removal (by accident or following a misdiagnosis of the surface painting) of a revised foot that Michelangelo had superimposed over an originally positioned foot. That now-destroyed later foot was copied in countless graphic works.
Above, Fig. 4: The Libyan Sibyl’s left foot, sans cast shadow, after “cleaning”. As with Figs. 2 and 3, we had thought when publishing this image in the 1993 book “Art Restoration, the Culture, the Business and the Scandal”, that support for this outcome would not be forthcoming. We were wrong. The restorer Helen Glanville, writing in The Art Newspaper (see below), offered the following defence: “after cleaning, Michelangelo’s alteration in the outline of the Libyan Sibyl’s foot can be seen more clearly”. This was written, presumably, in the belief that Michelangelo had intended to depict a heel not rounded but that came to a point? For an indication of the horrendous injuries and tonal losses inflicted on this foot – and the rest of the figure – see Fig. 60.
Above, Fig. 5: A detail of the mother in Michelangelo’s Ezechias/Manasses/Amon lunette. When this photograph was published in 1986, the co-director of the restoration, (the late) Dr Fabrizio Mancinelli said of the painting method on the lunettes:
Technically speaking, the lunettes are all executed in buon fresco…with nothing done a secco and without even those retouchings which were normal to harmonize the painting when the intonaco had dried too quickly or when one giornata differed excessively from those of the previous day. Michelangelo made sure to use only those colours that he knew were suitable to fresco: …the greens are ferrous silicates…Further, where there are corrections, the colours of the colouring-over are water-soluble and have mixed into the plaster.”
When we drew attention to the incompatibility of that account with the injury seen in the photograph above, where both greens and yellows that had been painted over underlying flesh and costume perished (letter, Michael Daley to Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, 27 May 1990), the account was changed and it was acknowledged that “a green colour applied a secco, not always well conserved, was found”.
Above, Fig. 6: A detail from Michelangelo’s The Punishment of Haman containing, in its centre wedge-shaped section, a repair made made by the painter Domenico Carnevale in 1566 or shortly after.
No technical proof of a restoration-injury could be clearer than Carnevale’s repair here to the lost section of Michelangelo’s painting that ran through the centre of the figure above. Carnevale had replaced the plaster and while it was still wet, painted it to match Michelangelo’s adjoining colours and tones. Carnevale’s paintwork ceased to match Michelangelo’s painting when his finishing glue/size additions were removed (with AB 57 and copious washing) during the restoration. It is artistically inconceivable that Michelangelo had painted flatly and without sculptural/tonal modulations, as today seen today in the outer flanking sections of painting. Even if he had he done so, it would then be no less inconceivable that Carnevale would have repainted the lost central section with lashings of black shading that did not match Michelangelo’s then surviving painting.
On Carnevale’s highly skilfully matched repairs to Michelangelo’s painting elsewhere on the ceiling, see Alessandro Conti’s comments at Fig. 48a and 48b.
How Michelangelo’s Ceiling was Undone:
Above, Fig. 7: National Geographic’s beautifully balanced record of December 1989 (here flipped) by Victor R. Boswell, Jr., showing (in the bottom section, below the restorers’ scaffold) the last moments of the Sistine Chapel ceiling as it had been finished by Michelangelo and as it met the top of the Last Judgement. Note how closely linked were the the generally dark tonalities of the ceiling and the Last Judgement and how in both, the figures advanced towards the viewer from within the prevailing darknesses – the very effects which had been reported by Michelangelo’s contemporaries and recorded in copies made from the earliest days of the ceiling. Note, too, how in the central figure of Jonah, the shadow cast by his left foot could still be seen clearly, even at this considerable optical distance – after four and a half centuries and through whatever degree of dirt was then present. As recalled left, the Sunday Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, likened the cleaning changes to seeing Beethoven turning into Mozart during “a memorable piece of theatre.” Januszczak was even more (debunkingly) delighted with the final result:
The windshield wiper has finished its journey across the greatest painting in Western art. In my opinion it has made that painting substantially greater by celebrating it as the work of of a rational, hardworking, colourful human rather than some sweaty impulsive, God-driven genius.”
Above, Fig. 8: The chapel, as seen when all parts had been cleaned. A comparison of this photograph with that at Fig. 7, shows that the former unity of tones between the Last Judgement and the adjacent ceiling has been ruptured. The darks that had been common to both were vital to the creation of spatial depth and atmosphere. In the not-yet-cleaned section of the ceiling in Fig. 7, it is striking how the architectural elements had seemed brighter, even when their surfaces had not been cleaned. This is because, in art, all values are relative and a given, actual tone can be made lighter or darker simply by altering the values of its neighbouring tones. In the ceiling before cleaning, we see how Michelangelo created pools of darkness in the corners of the intersecting architectural borders so as to evoke recesses from which his figures emerged. After “cleaning”, the previously strong drapery colours are no longer subsumed within overall tonal schemes but float about, catching the eye arbitrarily. This new configuration of effects was deftly described by Charles Hope (see left) as as one in which:
Restrained grandeur has been replaced by garish confusion.”
That grandeur and restraint had been hard earned over four years of punishing painting. The uncleaned section of ceiling shown above at Fig.7 was the last part to be painted. It contained Michelangelo’s greatest figural inventions and his most considered and successful orchestrations. It constituted a stupendous finale that for a generation awaited his Last Judgement. Separating the one from the other with chemically-induced tonal and chromatic variations was a dreadful lapse of judgement.
How the Injured Ceiling Came to Britain:
Above, Fig. 9: The cover of the Sunday Times colour magazine of 20 December 1987 carrying a composite juxtaposition of photographs showing the head seen below at Fig. 10, when partly cleaned, partly uncleaned. (There has been some fading on the right-hand edge of this copy of the magazine, but the indication of the relative values of the two states is a fair one.)
Above, Fig. 10: The head of Michelangelo’s ignudo situated above the top left-hand corner of the ceiling panel depicting the Sacrifice of Noah, details of which are shown below at Figs. 48a and 48b, as discussed by Alessandro Conti. Note how in this large plate of 1965, the colours are strong and the modelling is stronger. Note the then survival of the pupil in the man’s left eye. Note the then strength of the locks of hair behind the brow, and the sharpness of the drawing at the nostrils.
Above, Figs. 11a and 11b: The comparison here of a detail of Michelangelo’s ceiling before and after cleaning was published in the Sunday Times magazine on 20 December 1987. It instantly convinced this author that the “cleaning” was damaging on the following grounds: if the after-cleaning state (as shown above right) had truly recovered the original appearance as left by Michelangelo in 1512, there could be no plausible explanation of how the painting might then have progressed towards the greater degrees of finish, modelling and sharpness that were seen (left) to have existed underneath the dirt immediately before the “cleaning”. The official suggestions that the superior passages of modelling seen before cleaning were fortuitous by-products of accumulations of soot from braziers and candles and from discoloured restorers’ “varnishes” were technically preposterous. The reinforcement of drapery folds with dark shadows (as seen left) is too closely related to the designs to have been accidental. Similarly, no accidental and arbitrary proccesses could have sharpened the drawing of the oak leaves and, even, added veins to the leaves. To any artistically-trained eye, it is self-evident that the post-cleaning state shown here records an abraded version of the original values that had survived underneath all grime until the time of the last restoration. Moreover, had a disfiguring film been safely removed from an underlying image, the values and relationships that were previously visible in that image underneath the film would have emerged with greatly increased, not diminished, force. The lights would have appeared lighter and the darks darker. Here, more was visible underneath the dirty surface than remained after the cleaning. The difference between the two enables the viewer to callibrate the extent of injury that occurred during the cleaning.
The First British Challenge to the Restoration
Above, Fig. 12: The cover of the Independent on Sunday’s review magazine of 25 March 1990 which contained Michael Daley’s first article on the Sistine ceiling restoration. Over the next five years, the author published the following material on restorations (and attributions) in Italy and at the National Gallery:
“Quella sporca Sistina”, Europeo, September 1990; “As Good as New?” The Times Educational Supplement, 18 January 1991; “Modern conservation techniques always involve element of risk”, The Independent, 20 March 1991; “Dark Genius Brushed Off by Opal Fruits”, The Independent, 27 April 1991 (a review of Waldemar Januszczak’s book “Sayonara Michelangelo”); “Daylight Forgery”, The Independent, 17 August 1991; “Sistine Restoration Remains Veiled in Mystery”, The Journal of Art, September 1991; “A Crime Against the Artist”, The Independent, 22 November 1991; “Restoration Drama”, The Times Educational Supplement, 17 April 1992; “Sistine Restoration”, The Times, letter, 5 June 1992; “Solvent Abuse”, The Spectator, 30 January 1993; “White Ties v. White Coats”, The London Review of Books, letter, 11 March 1993; “Double glazing”, The Spectator, letter, 20 March 1993; “A Restoration Tragedy”, The Times Higher Educational Supplement, 4 June 1993; “Artful Bodgers”, The Sunday Times, 6 June 1993; “The Varnished Truth”, Art Review, November 1993; “Clarity on questions of classic restoration”, The Times Higher Educational Supplement, letter, 6 May 1994; “I’m right and you’re wrong on restoration”, Letter, The Art Newspaper, May 1994; “No anatomical logic in Michelangelo’s defence”, The Independent, 29 September 1994; “How to Make a Michelangelo”, Art Review, October 1994; “Michelangelo’s other David”, The Spectator, letter, 15 October 1994; “Open Letter” [on the National Gallery’s restoration of Holbein’s “the Ambassadors”] Art Review, May 1995; “Solvent Misuse”, New Scientist, 12 August 1995.
Above, Fig. 13: A photo-comparison of the before and after cleaning appearances of a detail of the mother in Michelangelo’s Ezechias/Manasses/Amon lunette, as published in “Michelangelo: Lost or Found?” by Michael Daley in the Independent on Sunday’s review magazine of 25 March 1990.
Above, Fig. 14: The mother in Michelangelo’s Ezechias/Manasses/Amon lunette, as seen before restoration (left) and after (right). If the detail examined in Figs. 11a and 11b posed problems for supporters of the restoration, this comparison of one of the giant figure groups is crushingly impossible to explain away. Once again, it must be asked: if the cleaned state on the right had constituted a recovery of original painting, by what means had so many tonal values and relations been altered or, even, inverted so that light-on-dark became dark-on-light? By the same token, why did relationships that were previously evident underneath the grime change character and emerge with diminished, not enhanced, pictorial vivacity?
Conflicted Accounts: Shadows V. Non-Shadows
Above, Figs. 15 and 16: Left, the 1993 first edition (publisher: John Murray, London) of “Art Restoration”, showing the Prophet Jonah before cleaning – and, therefore, when still retaining the left foot’s cast shadow, as first recorded before 1534 by Giulio Clovio and as seen here at Fig. 1. Right, the book/catalogue (publisher, National Gallery Publications) for Sir Ernst Gombrich’s 1995 National Gallery exhibition on the depiction of cast shadows in Western art, showing a detail of a painting by a follower of Rembrandt. Gombrich warned his reader/viewers that the book/exhibition would not “offer a coherent history of cast shadows in art”. He was as good as his word: claiming that cast shadows had not been employed by Renaissance artists, he failed to discuss the work of either Michelangelo or Raphael, suggesting by implication that neither had employed cast shadows – when, as will be seen, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Above, Fig. 17: A preview of “Art Restoration” by Martin Gayford in the Daily Telegraph that carried (left) a reproduction of Masaccio’s Saint Peter’s shadow healing a cripple in the fresco cycle at the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. One of the most striking features of Masaccio’s short life is that his Brancacci Chapel paintings came to be, as James Beck put it in “Art Restoration”, “copied and studied by the finest masters of the time, headed by Michelangelo, and were thought of as an unofficial school for artists”.
Sir Ernst Gombrich’s Bizarre Historical Disjunction
Above, Fig. 18: The St. Peter incident was a landmark in Gombrich’s Story of Shadows but only insofar as the event “could hardly have been rendered in the idiom of Masaccio’s predecessors”. For Gombrich, this was a great pictorial advance that began and ended immediately with Masaccio, after whom painting became a cast shadows-free zone until the “taboo was lifted in the seventeenth century” by the “pivotal” intervention of Caravaggio. This thesis was perverse and demonstrably untrue. The reason offered for this alleged shadows-free interegnum – specifically for “why so many artists of the Cinquecento withheld their attention from cast shadows” – is said in mystifyingly circular fashion somehow to have been explained by the fact that “There is hardly a function of cast shadows that is not illustrated by Caravaggio’s dramatic painting [ The Supper at Emmaus, here shown at Fig. 27].
Above, Fig. 19: Raphael’s The healing of the lame man. A detail of the St Peter and St John from the Raphael Cartoons in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It must be considered inconceivable that Gombrich was unaware of this image or likely to have been surprised by its echo of Masaccio’s treatment. So why did he neglect Raphael, whose cartoons for the fabled tapestries of the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel constitute one the greatest cycles of the Renaissance? We know that these cartoons were made in full consciousness of Michelangelo’s recently unveiled cast shadows-full Sistine Chapel ceiling, the force of which had so swamped and excited the younger artist that he was said instantly to have put aside all things Perugino. Why, then, drop both of these great masters from an account of cast shadows?
This particular image is potent in many artistic and art historical respects. Where Fabrizio Mancinelli claimed that colour had had for Michelangelo “a primary structural role”; that it had enabled him to “abandon almost altogether traditional chiaroscuro modelling”, we see that Raphael had clearly drawn a very different conclusion. Already, from his Ansidei Madonna of 1505, shown below at Figs. 22 and 23, we know that Raphael enjoyed a perfect grasp of the principles of tonal manipulation to sculptural and spatial ends. We can see here above that he took from Michelangelo the realisation that chiaroscuro was susceptible to immensely monumental and dramatically expressive pictorial purposes; that chiaroscuro itself can be used for a primary structural purpose within picture-making; that its lights and shades could be used not just to describe forms within a figure but to leap about figural groups, accentuating and/or uniting potentially disparate elements within a work’s overarching design; becoming, in short, a pictorially enriching compositional tool as well as a plastically descriptive one.
Leonardo’s Literary Testimony:
Above, Fig. 20: In his depiction of Christ’s charge to St. Peter, Raphael shows the saint’s shadow falling across Christ’s feet and neatly eclipsing the light on the toes of his left foot. This could hardly have been a little-considered feature of so monumental a work.
Against such artistic realities, Gombrich held that Leonardo’s writings provided “impeccable literary testimony” for his contention that Cinquecento artists had eschewed cast shadows. He asserted: “We soon realise that some of the greatest observers of nature appear to have deliberately avoided the cast shadow…they show us a shadowless world” (emphasis added). He then elaborated (without examples): “It looks indeed as if many of these masters had studiously avoided inserting such shadows, as if they regarded them as a disturbing and distracting element in an otherwise coherent and harmonious composition.” (Emphasis added.)
As if? But where is the beef? Gombrich took it to lie in this short passage in Leonardo’s Notes (Trattato della Pittura):
Light too conspicuously cut off by shadows is exceedingly disapproved of by painters. Hence, to avoid such awkwardness when you depict bodies in open country, do not make your figures appear illuminated by the sun, but contrive a certain amount of mist or of transparent cloud to be placed between the object and the sun and thus – since the object is not harshly illuminated by the sun – the outlines of the shadows will not clash with the outlines of the lights.”
And yet we see above that Raphael designed and composed with harsh lights and shadows in open country to be transposed (as below) into fabulously expensive tapestries to be shown on special occasions underneath Michelangelo’s frescoes.
Above, Fig. 21: Above, a detail from the Vatican’s tapestry The conversion of Saul as designed by Raphael and woven by astonishingly talented Flemish weavers. Saul is brilliantly lit by the Light of God and stumbles at its revelatory power. He, the fleeing Christians, and their persecuting soldiers, all have stark shadows cast by God’s radiant light.
Above, Figs. 22 and 23: Details of the National Gallery’s Raphael Ansidei Madonna. Had Gombrich not banished Renaissance cast shadows, he might well have included this picture from the Gallery’s collection in his own exhibition. It comprises a veritable showcase of cast shadow types (- and it did so nearly a hundred years before Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, shown at Fig. 27). As seen in this pre-1938 photograph, there are simple shadows cast by rectilinear blocks; shadows cast by bare feet (which are always tricky things to depict); and, a tour de force demonstration of a cast shadow projected onto the shaded concave surface on the Virgin’s throne that might be taken to constitute a textbook demonstration of Alberti’s instruction that planes should “take their variations from the changing of place and of light”.
Above, Fig. 24: This detail is intriguing. Having to draw lots of fluted barley twist columns is a nightmare in any draughtsman’s book, but Raphael went further, insinuating panels of complex sculptural decoration. Where Michelangelo had confined his putti to flat surfaces (as behind the two Prophets below) Raphael affixes his to doubly curving surfaces. Moreover, many of the carved details of relief are (improbably) shown as if carved in the round, so as to cast their own tiny shadows – as with the vine stems, for example. Might this little self-inflicted labour have been thought by Raphael to constitute a “Protogenes’ Riposte” to the Apelles of his time?
Gombrich’s Great Raphael Joke
Above, Fig 25: Gombrich ran this photo-comparison of Michelangelo’s Prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah in his 1987 (republished) essay “The Rhetoric of Attribution ~ a cautionary tale”, where, as discussed opposite, he attributed the Ezekiel – cast shadows and all – to Raphael, while under the influence of Leonardo.
Giampietrino’s Neglected Testimony, Part I
Above, Fig. 26: A detail of Giampietrino’s full-size copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper. As we will see, Giampietrino is an artist who appears to have been cast into some outer art historical darkness. Where Gombrich adduced evidence from the National Gallery’s Caravaggio The Supper at Emmaus of 1601 (as shown below) – and in Leonardo’s “impeccable literary testimony” – for why Cinquecento artists had eschewed cast shadows, we find contrary material testimony in this Giampietrino copy, that Leonardo himself, in his Last Supper of 1492-7/8, had been casting solid shadows from his bread, and translucent ones from his glass vessels, when he should have been doing no such thing having outlawed it in his own words while being trapped historically inside Gombrich’s shadowless interregnum.
Gombrich’s Game-Changer
Above, Fig. 27: The National Gallery’s Caravaggio The Supper at Emmaus may be in better condition than Leonardo’s too-often, too-radically restored Last Supper, and than Michelangelo’s recently restored Sistine ceiling, but there can be no grounds for accrediting him with a single-handled revival of strongly cast shadows, for the first time since Masaccio and Robert Campin, for the good reason that cast shadows had never gone away. Gombrich sees Caravaggio’s cast shadows on the tablecloth as “harsh” and therefore likely to have offended the traditionalists who had preceded him on the grounds that had they known of them they would have judged them to “interfere with the clarity of the composition”. Caravaggio, in Gombrich’s hands thus becomes a kind of “Doctor Who” time traveller, capable of inhibiting those who preceded him by means of his pending example. At the same time, just as soon as he came into artistic existence and influence, “many artists of the seventeenth century were rapidly converted to Caravaggio’s idiom, and the tenebroso (dark) style conquered not only parts of Italy but also whole regions of the north where it culminated in the art of Rembrandt.”
Gombrich seems (on many grounds) not have been familiar with Charles Heath Wilson’s 1881 “Life and Works of Michelanglo Buonarroti”. In that book, when discussing Michelangelo’s use of cast shadows on the ceiling, Wilson wrote: “the shadows cast by the figures which sit in front of the white marble arch, with its piers cornice and moulding, are painted with Rembrandt-like vigour, and must at one time have given those figures complete relief against the bright and fair resemblance of marble, now so dingy and so unlike what it has been.” For these figure/architecture relationships see Figs. 1, 25 and 60.
Graphic Recollections of a Shadowy World
Above, Fig. 28: A detail of Giorgio Ghisi’s early 1570s copy of Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl. This engraving establishes that the configuration of tonal relationships around and behind the Sibyl’s head were present within sixty years of the ceiling being unveiled. As seen in the not-recently-restored state of the fresco below, that essential set of relationships had survived for approaching five centuries, and therefore could not have been, as the restorers’ have claimed, a product of arbitrary accretions and disfigurations.
Above, Fig. 29: Consider the content of this pre-cleaned scene of Michelangelo’s. The Sibyl is engrossed in reading a Great Book. Behind the book are two putti. One is lighting a lamp, an activity which may have disturbed the second, who rubs his eyes as if awaking from slumber. The sleepy child is set in deep shadow/darkness. That surrounding gloom throws into relief the Sibyl’s brightly lit head, from which a dramatic shadow is cast on the wall behind. Why then, are these The Shadows That May Not Speak Their Name in Gombrich’s book? Why can art historians and critics no longer see and celebrate the brilliantly inventive and expressive purpose to which they had been put by Michelangelo? Would it really be fanciful heresy to suggest that Michelangelo might have been using lighting effects to expressive ends ahead of Rembrandt? Or, that he was using using light and darkness metaphorically for a portrayal of Spiritual Enlightenment? What purpose is served by truncating Michelangelo’s achievements?
Above, Fig. 30: The contrast between the state above, before the last restoration, and that found here, is astounding. The removal of the shaded zone behind the Sibyl has left the sleepy putto dark-skinned against a light, scrubbed-down wall – yet another inversion of artistic values, and not an enhancement of the previously existing values. Reading the three images above in sequence, we see a progressive diminuition of tonal strengths and variations. This phenomenon of the “stone-washed jeans syndrome” is virtually a given in pictures that fall too frequently under the swabs of restorers. It should be acknowledged that there is evidence of injuries before the last cleaning: in the 19th century, the painter Charles Heath Wilson complained of secco work on the ceiling having been destroyed in places after being “washed by labouring men with water in which a caustic has been mixed”. But the downwards optical jump of values is greater between the pre and post-cleaning photographs of the last restoration, when the scientists-backed “labouring men” of our times decided that none of the secco was Michelangelo’s and removed it all with watery gels containing two “caustics”, one of which brightened the colours, while the other dulled them.
A Restorer in Denial
Above, Figs. 31 and 32: The Erythraean Sibyl’s head before cleaning (top) and after cleaning (above). When we published the above comparison in 1993 (in “Art Restoration”), we came under fire in an Art Newspaper review of April 1994: “Vandals or saviours. Are scientists helping to destroy the world’s art? Helen Glanville, a restorer with an historical perspective, challenges the latest accusation made against her profession”.
Above, Fig. 33: As seen above, Glanville, complained of a caption that had read “…before cleaning, and afterwards with shading lost” and suggested an alternative reading: “the discoloured glue layers masked the high finish and subtlety of Michelangelo’s modelling, emphasising deepest shadow and highlighting and obliterating the delicate transition tones.” The suggestion was without merit: discoloured layers do not simultaneously brighten lights and darken darks in a fashion that enhances sculptural legibility. To the contrary, we repeat, they compress ranges of values and they reduce tonal vivacity.
If we look more closely into the two states of the head, as seen in the three pairs of comparative details below, we find specific differences that cannot possibly be explained away on a discoloured varnish hypothesis.
Above, Figs 34 (top) and 35: Discoloured varnish (superimposed on the after cleaning state) could not have shaded the corner of the mouth with dark hatched lines so as to cause it tuck into the forms of the face. Nor could it have redrawn the apperture of the nostril so as to enlarge it. Nor could it have arranged itself into hatched vertical lines so as to shade the slumbering putto to the right and throw the lit profile of the Sibyl’s face into relief.
Above, Figs. 36 (left) and 37: Discoloured varnish could not have improved the internal modelling encountered in the ear. It could not have drawn a sharp line around the ear lobe. One could go on because there is scarcely a detail that had not been embellished and clarified by Michelangelo. There is below yet another category of changes that Glanville overlooked.
Above, Figs. 38 (left) and 39: Michelangelo had changed the design of the head with his secco revisions. The plaited “pony tail” had been greatly enlarged and strengthened; the back of the neck had been extended and shaded so as to throw it into relief against the lighter architectural zone. Such changes are only ever products of artistic intent and purpose. They should never be mistaken for dirt and removed.
The Testimony of Brilliant Lighting Effects within the Graphic Tradition:
Above, Fig. 40: In his account of cast shadows, Gombrich joins the stream of graphic depictions in 1604 with a British Museum image (by Saenredam after Cornelis Cornelisz) that illustrates the fable of The Cave of Plato. (It is a philosophically interesting example, for sure, but it leapfrogs by half a century the brilliantly lit compendium of cast shadows set within Plato’s “academy” as shown below.) Had Gombrich begun with Georgio Ghisi’s suite of six engravings made in the early 1570s after Michelangelo’s Prophets and Sibyls (including that of the Erythraean Sibyl shown above in detail at Fig. 28) the thesis of his National Gallery “Shadows” exhibition would have collapsed under the weight of its own implausibility. Every one of Ghisi’s engravings (made when the ceiling was only sixty years old) records strongly cast shadows that had survived well – if not intact – on the ceiling until the last restoration, as can be seen in Fig. 29.
Gombrich’s Neglected Graphic Testimony:
Above, Fig. 41: Enea Vico’s engraving of 1550 showing the studio or “academy” of Michelanglo’s rival Baccio Bandinelli. The testimony of such engraved records, like that of Giampietrino’s paintings, has been too little heeded in general terms, and was quite disastrously disregarded in the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting.
This copy is owned by the Metropolitan Museum, New York, which comments that Bandinelli had commissioned the engraving specifically to:
celebrate his achievements and pretensions as a teacher and man of learning. Vico conceived the artist’s workshop not as it must have looked but rather as a gentlemanly room peopled with industrious assistants in fashionable dress. Bandinelli himself appears at the extreme right in a garment adorned with a badge of knighthood, a sign of the rank he had recently received from Charles V. By equipping the studio with books and antiquities, Vico presents the making of art as an intellectual enterprise, and by naming the studio an “academy,” he associates it with Plato’s famous school. The foreground is strewn with classical statuary and human bones appropriate for anatomical study. Brilliant lamplight and flickering firelight cast evocative shadows and illuminate the figures bent over their work. Some of their poses and groupings are reminiscent of Raphael’s famous fresco The School of Athens, an analogy that further exalts the character of Bandinelli’s enterprise.”
A Second Stream of Testimony
The comments are fair and the reference to the depicted uses of brilliant light, highlights a widespread failure to recognise the remarkably dramatic lighting effects made by Michelangelo for all to see on the Sistine ceiling – and their great influence on his contemporaries. On the testimony of Vico’s engraved output alone, as seen above and below, the lie is given to the “shadowless world” advanced by Gombrich in his 1995 National Gallery exhibition. It is particularly to be regretted that such streams of artistic testimony are disregarded when they can have such direct bearing on the “conservation” of works of art. For one thing, their testimony is peculiarly reliable, owing to the fact that their unvarnished existences do not invite the adulterations of restorers.
Above, Fig. 42: If art historians can see connections between Michelangelo’s colours and those of the later Mannerists, why do they miss the connections between his systems of light and shadow and the brilliant working of that legacy in Mannerist print-makers? In Vico’s Mars and Venus a light every bit as brilliant as that seen in Gombrich’s choice above, at Fig. 40, is present. And, as for shadows, almost every last detail in the foreground (slippers, doves, cat, dog) sports its own cast shadow.
Above, Fig. 43: Gombrich’s second graphic example is a marvellously lucid and elegant image, but, again, it is one that helps moves his narration even further away from the Renaissance to 1684, when it appeared as an illustration within Roger de Piles’ “Elémens de la Peinture Pratique.” That particular graphic example had the virtue of linking to some nice definitions from Filippo Baldinucci’s “Vocabulario Toscano dell’Arte Designo” of 1681: “Shadow: The Darkness created by opaque bodies on the opposite side of the illuminated part”…”Shadow: In the language of painters it is generally understood to refer to more or less dark colour which serves in painting to give relief by gradually becoming lighter”…”Cast Shadow (sbattimento) is the shadow that is caused on the ground or elsewhere by the depicted object…” Again, this further throws the reader off the scent of the High Renaissance and its actual practices of depiction and its associated uses of cast shadows.
Michelangelo, of course, could not have known de Piles but he could hardly not have known Alberti’s “Della pittura” of 1435-6 – and what great pertinence that treatise might have had to Gombrich’s own ostensible, object of inquiry: over and above the great virtues of colours in painting, Alberti maintained, the uses of black and white were sovereign:
It is worth all your study and diligence to know these two [black and white paints] well, because light and shade make things appear in relief. Thus white and black make painted things appear in relief and win that praise which was given to Nicias the Athenian painter. They say that Zeuxis, a most famous antique painter, was almost the leader of the others in knowing the force of light and shade; little much praise was given to the others. I almost always consider mediocre the painter who does not understand well the strength of every light and shade in each plane. I say the learned and the unlearned praise those faces which, as though carved, appear to issue out of the panel…”
Could any head have better exemplified the wisdom of Alberti’s observations than Michelangelo’s Erythraean Sibyl? And had Paolo Giovio not celebrated the fact that Michelangelo had given “such great emphasis to the light in contrast to the shade that even knowledgeable artists were induced to believe in the truth of the figures he painted and to see what was flat as solid”? Had not Vasari marvelled at Michelangelo’s precise ability to portray even “the divine majesty” in “the firm and tangible terms that human beings understand”? Had not Vasari further disclosed that Michelangelo “first made models in clay or wax, and from these, because they remain stationary, he took the outlines, the lights and the shadows, rather than from the living model”? In 1525 Giovio had testified that Michelangelo “used a gradually diminishing light to suggest some figures in the distance, almost hidden”. Condivi (in reality a mouthpiece for Michelangelo himself, it has been suggested) held the Prophet Jonah, who sprang from the centre top of the Last Judgement, the “most admirable of all…because contrary to the curve of the vault and owing to the play of the light and the shadow the torso which is foreshortened backward is in the part nearest the eyes and the legs which project forward are in the part which is farthest.” Vasari was no less impressed: “Then who is not filled with admiration and amazement at the awesome sight of Jonah…The vaulting springs forward, following the line of the masonry; but through the force of art it is apparently straightened out by the figure of Jonah, which ends in the opposite direction; and thus vanquished by the art of design with its lights and shades, the ceiling even appears to recede.”
Above, top, Fig. 44 (detail) and 45: Cornelis Bos’ copy of 1530-50 of Michelangelo’s (now lost) Leda and the Swan.
One of the miracles of drawn copies in black on white is the virtuosity and precision with which tones can be calibrated, orchestrated and fixed. Not only does this copy convince us that Michelangelo had used cast shadows on his (late) panel painting, but that he had indeed employed tones as a means of establishing aerial perspective: note how the two putti (as so often on the Sistine ceiling) are set in deep shadow and themselves toned down markedly vis-a-vis the limbs of Leda. Does the artfully thrown (and shaded) drape behind the action not itself testify to a vast indebtedness to this picture, by Bronzino in his great allegory of c. 1540-5 Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time?
Above, Fig. 46: the National Gallery’s painted copy of Michelangelo’s Leda and the Swan, as seen in 1964.
Giampietrino’s Neglected Testimony, Part II
Above, Fig. 47: The National Gallery’s Christ carrying his Cross by Giampietrino, c.1510-30, oil on panel.
The significance of this painting by a close follower of Leonardo has been underplayed at the National Gallery and more generally overlooked by art historians. (For a fuller discussion, see “The National Gallery’s £1.5 billion Leonardo Restoration”.) It has an especial significance with regard to Gombrich’s 1995 National Gallery exhibition on cast shadows in Western painting.
The Leonardo Connection
Giampietrino was a close and trusted associate of Leonardo. He painted the full sized copy of the Last Supper that the Royal Academy loaned to Milan so that it might inform the massive amounts of repainting that took place during the last restoration. Note that this picture consists of generally dark values against which the figure is (relatively) brilliantly illuminated. The light does not fall on Christ as if through some hypothesized cloud or mist. It does so dramatically and selectively. A trio of brightest lights pick out Christ’s right brow and cheek, his shoulder, and his forearm – across which, at the wrist, the dramatically cast shadow from his shoulder falls in defiance of Leonardo’s injunction to avoid clashing outlines of shadows and lights – much as it was ignored by Raphael on the Christ’s left arm as seen in Fig. 20. There was a peculiarly poignant irony in Gombrich’s failure to attend to the testimony of this painting.
While Gombrich’s show was running, this painting was one of two Giampietrinos undergoing restoration and technical investigation. This painting confirmed (for reasons given opposite) that Gombrich’s objections to the National Gallery’s cleaning policy during the 1950s and 1960s had been perfectly well founded. Those findings were published the following year in the National Gallery’s annual Technical Bulletin but the Gallery neglected to draw Gombrich’s attention to this vindicating research (see below, left).
The Contorted Testimony
Having contended, against so much contrary graphic and pictorial evidence, that cast shadows in painting had popped out of existence during the High Renaissance, Gombrich then claimed, that they re-emerged every bit as swiftly in the painting of Caravaggio as they had disappeared after Masaccio. That Gombrich’s method here should have been so profoundly “un-Gombrichian” was sad to behold, but such was his esteem and aura that he appeared to sweep all along with him.
Credulous Critics
It seemed as if the merest incantation of the art term that has become such a fetish in recent scholarship – Tenebrism – could dissolve all critical faculties. Richard Cork of the Times, a strong supporter of the Sistine ceiling restoration (and that of Leonardo’s Last Supper), swallowed and regurgitated the specious bait whole:
A superb small show at the National Gallery, where the eminent art historian E. H. Gombrich opens our eyes to the shadows cast in Western art. Surprisingly few painters included shadows in the Renaissance for fear of spoiling the harmony of their compositions. But then Caravaggio arrived, acting like a dramatic lighting director who revels in extremes of brightness and gloom…The show is a quiet revelation, which makes us look at the rest of the National Gallery’s collection in a new light.”
Alessandro Conti on Domenico Carnevale’s Match with Michelangelo:
Above, Fig. 48a: Michelangelo’s Noah’s Sacrifice before the last restoration, and as published in Alessandro Conti’s “History of the Restoration and Conservation of Works of Art”, London, 2007. Large sections of this passage had fallen away when the ceiling was only 53 years old. The losses here were repaired (as with that shown in Fig. 6) by the painter Domenico Carnevale. Conti described Carnevale’s repairs in the following terms:
As a result of the subsidence of 1565, an actual reintegration of the intonaco [and hence paint layer] had been necessary in the vault painted by Michelangelo. Between 1566 and 1572, the vast loss in the intonaco in Noah’s Sacrifice was made good by a little known painter: Domenico Carnevale da Modena. If one examines the restoration without insisting on a comparison with Michelangelo’s original, it is difficult not to be impressed by the qualities of this 16th century master. For the reconstruction of the figures, it is possible that he was able to make use of drawings and other graphic documentation, whilst in the handling of the paint he showed the ability – particular to restorers – not to imitate the original technique, but to make allowances in his integration for his work to be seen from below. To do this, Carnevale used large strokes, as featureless as possible, with which he reconstructed an image which is somewhat anonymous in as much as it did not have any distinctive handling characteristics of its own, but which succeeded admirably in fitting in with the original paint.”
Given the close and effective matching of values in this large section of painting, we can all the more confidently take the presently seen mismatch between Carnevale and Michelangelo’s work at Fig. 6, to be a confirmation of lost original secco painting in that zone. A similar mismatch emerged in this zone (as seen below in the leg at Fig. 48b). Although the mismatches are not as pronounced in flesh sections as in draperies, we can see that Carnevale’s repair in buon fresco to the upper leg no longer matches the surviving general tonality of the lower leg. The restorers have claimed that this mismatch is indicative of the general levels of dirt on the ceiling at the time. Even if that were true, it would not account for the shaded modelling on the sides of the upper leg with which Carnevale had effected the seamless match with Michelangelo’s then surviving passages of painting, as seen above at Fig. 48a.
Damage to the Sistine Chapel’s Cycles of Painting:
Above, Figs. 49 (top) and 50: It is easiest to demonstrate injuries with details, but the greatest injury done the Chapel was in terms of the relationships that had been established through time between the larger component parts – the decorated surfaces of it walls and ceiling, to which, too little attention has been paid. The promotional hype that accompanied the restoration as it ran into opposition, sold a single narrow, partial, pictorial narrative: that of the Glorious Recovery of Unanticipated Original Colouring. If we pan out from the single technical proof of injury to Michelanglo’s paintings, the repair made by Carnevale (above, top Fig. 49) – we see above at Fig. 50 how this group of figures, before cleaning, had played a secondary role in an outer (relative) darkness. Moving down to Fig. 51 below, we see how the centrepiece of the (curving triangular) section in which they were set, consisted of the astonishingly inventive and brightly lit figure of the crucified Haman.
Above, Fig. 51: This view of a corner of the chapel before the last wave of restorations gives some indication of the disruption of the living, accreted history of the interior. On the right of the photograph is the wall of the Last Judgement. It will be noticed that this wall is not architecturally linked to the chapel’s side wall. This is because in preparing the wall for his great painting, Michelangelo obliterated all architectural continuities (blocking in windows and even obliterating some of his own earlier painting – the two lunettes around the original windows), so as to prepare a single flat “canvas”, as it were, for himself. To the left of the altar wall we see the survival of chapel’s architectural features. It is striking how, before restorations, this wall had broken down into horizontally discrete architectural zones or bands with distinct pictorial/decorative characters. The bottom zone (not visible in the photograph but included in Figs. 53 and 54, below) consists of a simple trompe l’oeil depiction of hanging drapery. On this section, the Raphael tapestries, the cartoons for which are housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, are occasionally displayed. On the section above them (as seen here at the bottom), are individual scenes painted in their own perspectives which “puncture” the surface integrity of the wall with their aerial depths. They are however, bound together by emphatic framing sections of illusionistic architectural decoration that partially re-assert the architectural integrity of the wall. Above that band there is a sequence depicting pairs of former popes that flank each window. In this passage the integrity of the wall is asserted generally but periodically punctured by the illusionistic niches which house the figures of the popes like sentries in their boxes. Immediately above that tonally light and rather decorously treated band, Michelangelo and pictorial fireworks commence. Michelangelo ruptures the (variously) maintained architectural integrity of the wall in two key respects. He peoples this lower band of his painting (the lunettes – the sections of wall that surround the windows) with seated figures of a greatly increased scale and vastly more monumental treatment. Crucially, he situates these giant figures (the ancestors of Christ) in optical recesses that push the walls backwards. Against these perceptually re-situated walls, Michelangelo cast giant shadows so as further to assert both the monumentally substantial physical presence of the figures and their “commanding” occupation of their own space and their own lighting systems. The zone above constitutes the beginning of the vault of the ceiling, and on this section, resting above the junctions between the lunettes, Michelangelo placed his most monumental figures of all, his twelve Seers comprised of seven Prophets and five Sibyls. The consequence of all this, was that before restoration there existed a kind of archaeological stratification of historically and artistically separate layers with distinct conceptual/architectural/pictorial characters – a living history. What uncomprehending violence was to be done to those accreted variations in just a couple of decades.
Above, Fig. 52: Here we see a wall/ceiling conjunction after cleaning and its then relationship with the not-yet cleaned Last Judgement. The most striking feature here is the extent to which the wall/ceiling paintings have been “de-materialised”; the extent to which the surfaces of the building are exerting their own presences more strongly than before.
As in so many instances and regards, Charles Wilson provides an invaluably informed and visually acute firsthand witness:
Before entering upon the subjects of Michelangelo’s method of painting or principles of colour, the disposition of the chiaroscuro, which he has maintained throughout the whole of the frescos, must be noticed.
The light proceeds from the painted apertures in the ceiling and falls with equal diffusion downwards on all sides.
The horizontal shadows of the architecture are very precisely and decidedly marked, but the angular cast shadows are are modified and softened because otherwise they would have confused with their sharp angles, the general decorative divisions of the design.
On the other hand the shadows cast by the figures which sit in front of the white marble arch, with its piers cornice and moulding, are painted with a Rembrandt-like vigour, and must at one time have given those figures complete relief against the bright and fair semblance of marble, now so dingy and so unlike what it has been.
The backgrounds of the lunettes are darker than those of the figures of the vault, as are the grounds of the merely ornamental figures in the angles above, and those below the Prophets and Sibyls form a basement to the brilliant chiaroscuro of the arcade.
The effect of the chiaroscuro in the scenes in the open panels has been very aerial, increased by the powerful light and shade of the figures close to those openings.
When first painted, the arrangement of the chiaroscuro must have produced a brilliant effect, now centirely obscured, but which no doubt might still be in a great measure restored…”
Note, however, that Wilson had complained of dirt, dust and cobwebs upon the paintings but not of “glue-varnishes” slathered on by persons un-named, unknown and of whom no records exist (as was admitted to us in 1990). The glue/size painting was easy to identify and was almost entirely by Michelangelo’s own hand. Note also that, having described the injuries to the secco work made by an earlier restorer, Wilson was especially concerned that any attempted cleaning might inflict further injury on the highly water-sensitive size-painting.
The Persisting Atmospheric Pollution
Above, Fig. 53: Visitors thronging the Sistine Chapel as shown in the 21 December 2012 Guardian (Photograph: Oote Boe Ph/Alamy). It may well be the case that the apparently bleached-out condition of the wall and ceiling paintings is something of a “trick of the light”, but to our knowledge, no photograph of the chapel taken before the last restoration ever showed anything approaching this general tonality. And that is for a good reason: everything that had been found on the surface of the frescoes was removed, including Michelangelo’s own size painting with finely ground black pigments. This photograph also testifies without any ambiguity to the densely packed throngs of visitors (up to 20,000 each day, it was then said) whose presence is converting the chapel’s micro-climate into a toxic environmental stew that threatens to consume what has been left of the frescoes.
Below, Fig. 54, Visitors thronging the Sistine Chapel as shown on the 21 May 2013 Mailonline where it is reported that visitor numbers can now reach as many as 30,000 a day.
The National Gallery’s Stripped-Down Paintings:
Above, Fig. 55: Gombrich included the National Gallery’s Pontormo of c. 1518, Joseph with Jacob in Egypt, in his “Shadows” exhibion. It was a curious “own-goal” choice, given that it abounds with cast shadows. Had Gombrich wished to make another point, he might have drawn attention to the debilitating changes inflicted on this work in the name of its “restoration”.
Above, Fig. 56 (top) and 57: The detail of the Pontormo immediately above and as included in Gombrich’s 1995 exhibition, looks very different from its earlier pre-restoration self (as seen top). The details shown above and below left were photographed for a book of details from pictures in the National Gallery in 1938 by its then director, Kenneth Clark. Clark’s details were re-photographed for new, 1990 edition of his book. The then National Gallery director, Neil MacGregor, noted that many of the pictures had since been cleaned and that Clark himself had been “fearful of what might be found if the golden veils of dirt and varnish were ever to be removed.” Many of the paintings were now, MacGregor noted, “different in critical respects from the paintings Clark discussed”. MacGregor further noted that the reader able to compare the plates in the two editions “will decide how much is gain, how much loss” but he gave no clues as to losses or gains. A crucial difference between the before and after cleaning states is the grievous loss of the former brilliant orchestration of lights and shades which had constituted such a proof of Pontormo’s indebtedness to Michelangelo.
Above left, Figs. 58a and 59a, details before cleaning; above right, Figs. 58b and 59b details after cleaning: It is evident in these further details, that this painting endured much restoration treatment after 1938. It was cleaned (in secret) during the Second World War in 1940, and again in 1981-82. In the latter cleaning “discoloured varnish and retouchings” were removed with “propan-2-ol and white spirit”. This was reported to have left in place “a thick greyish layer of surface dirt and varnish remnants”…It was removed with “a potassium oleate soap”, and the whole was finished off with “pigments in Paraloid B-72″ and a “Ketone-N” synthetic varnish. In the details of the boy’s head we see how the picture has been left more transparent, more like its own Infra-red photographs, as underdrawing now floats into view.
The Mutilation of Michelangelo’s Finest Sibyl:
Below, Fig. 60: The Libyan Sibyl, before cleaning (large) and after cleaning (inset). With reference to Fig. 4, above, note the catastrophic removal of dark toning and shading around the Sibyl’s right foot, from which formerly sprang such a vivid cast shadow. The final stages of Michelangelo’s painting on this great figure (and all others on the ceiling) were taken for varnish and removed in their entirety on this (official) prescription:
…Removal of retouchings and repaintings with a mixed gelatinous solvent, consisting of ammonium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, Desogen (a surf-actant and anti-fungal agent), carboxymethylcellulose (a thixotropic agent), dissolved in distilled water. Mixture acts on contact. The times of application, rigorously measured, were: First application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing with water. Left to dry for 24 hours. Second application: 3 minutes, followed by removal, washing and leaving to dry as before. If necessary, and locally only, small applications, followed by plentiful final washing. In the case of salt efflorescences consisting of calcium carbonate, there was added to the solvent mixture a saturated solution of dimethylformamide…”
For a full account of the ceiling’s injuries, see “Art Restoration ~ The Culture, The Business and The Scandal”, London 1993 and 1996, New York 1994 and 1996, by James Beck and Michael Daley. For a celebration of the “restored” ceiling, see “Michelangelo ~ the Vatican Frescoes” by Pierluigi de Vecchi, Professor of art history at the university of Macerata, and Gianluigi Colalucci, Chief Restorer, Vatican Laboratory for the restoration of paintings, Papal monuments, Museums and Galleries, New York, London and Paris 1996.
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L. O. L. It’s Peeping Tom Time at the National Gallery!

18th July 2012

A little over a decade ago we were requested to move away from Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne” by a member of the National Gallery’s education department who was about to give a talk. Her narrative thrust on this great canvas (which had been glued by restorers on to a sheet of “Sundeala” board) proved more sociological than artistic or art historical. It had a villain – the original patron – who, the audience learned, had been a rich dirty old man who supplied extravagantly expensive pigments for an ostentatiously sexy depiction of a victim – an abused mythical woman – who would provide literary cover for his private delectation within his own apartment.

If the Gallery had then hit a low with such travestying philistine cant, we now find that in its drive to increase visitor numbers and extend social constituencies, it has jettisoned the very distinction between Art and Life. Pictures acquired at immense expense in the name of the Public Good are no longer treated as self-sufficient imaginatively crafted works that merit reciprocally reflective attention from the viewer but as pretexts for real-life events of a titillating, humanly exploitative and degrading nature.

Thus, in the bureaucratised stew that is the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival, the National Gallery has permitted Titian’s great poesies to serve as springboards to three “edgy” artists. In 2001, in a drawing for Jackdaw (see Fig. 4), we had already marked one of this triumverate, Mark Wallinger, as a clown ripe for elevation to the National Gallery Pantheon, and today, with few honourable exceptions, the newspaper art critics have duly fawned over his efforts:

Inspired by the voyeurism that Ovid loved to describe, Wallinger has created a live peep show featuring a naked woman taking a shower. Locked away in a black wooden box, the showering woman can be spied upon, in the round, through four openings…”, said Waldemar Januszczak, in The Sunday Times.
Where Januszczak (who recently attacked the restoration of Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”) aptly dismissed Wallenger’s degrading stunt as “exhibition bait to draw the crowds” and likened it to “those ads you see in lads’ mags that use naked girls to sell a car”, in the Times, Rachel Campbell-Johnston saw Wallinger’s wheeze as “atmospheric”.
Ben Luke, in the Evening Standard, takes Wallinger as a spell-casting magician:
Wallinger casts us as Actaeon, the voyeur.”
In the Financial Times, Jackie Wullschlager had “laughed out loud”, noting that “In a typical piece of Wallinger democratic wit”, the artist had “advertised for performers called Diana to pose naked, reclining in a bath, washing, looking in a mirror; each does so in turn for two hours.” Like Luke, Wullschlager thrills at the artist’s magically manipulative powers: “We, like Actaeon, are peeping Toms arrived at an unfamiliar place…We queue to gawp, not knowing what to expect, and are ridiculed as voyeurs”.

We are so cast only if we choose to play the chump-role that is offered as a legitimately “performative” (to use Sir Nicholas Serota’s term-of-the-moment) contribution to art. We do not have to do so. We do not have to be complicit with museum educators’ perverse cultural de-constructions. Rather, we might ask them why they do not consider this particular use of real people – women hired-in for the duration – to be a form of “sexploitation”. We might also ask them, as public educators, to explain the connection that they believe Wallinger’s stunt has with Ovid’s stories and Titian’s depictions of them. Even if Wallinger cannot see that Acteon was the very opposite of a voyeur – a man who had had the great misfortune accidentally to intrude upon a bathing goddess – might we not ask why no one at the National Gallery felt able to disabuse him.

Michael Daley

Ruined Renoirs

Our examination of the fate of more than twenty Clark Art Institute Renoirs now showing at the Royal Academy will follow in the next post.

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Above, Fig. 1: Left, Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon”, as currently on display at the National Gallery (Detail, photograph by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images); right, the same painting in 1993 before its second restoration at the National Galleries of Scotland.
Above, Fig. 2: Press coverage in the Daily Mail (July 16th 2012) of the responses to the National Gallery’s offer to gawp for free at naked women bathing.
Above, Fig. 3: A National Gallery invitation to the Credit Suisse-sponsored naked women bathing event which reads:
“Start your weekend with an evening experience at the National Gallery. With live music, a pop-up bar, Lates guided tours and special Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 events, the National Gallery is the perfect place to meet and make friends or lose yourself in the collection.”
Above, Fig. 4: The author’s depiction of Mark Wallinger.
Below, Fig. 5: Quentin Lett’s coverage (Daily Mail, 14th July 2012) of our 11 July post “Stone-washed Renoirs and the Shock of the Undone”.
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Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners

July 11th 2011

In a doomed attempt to persuade us that, if properly looked at, black can be white at the Tate Gallery, Sandy Nairne has performed a considerable public service. His forthcoming book “Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners” (which we review in the September/October Jackdaw magazine) will prove an important, landmark work. Ironically, had the Tate’s long-serving director, Nicholas Serota, not passed over his loyal deputy, Nairne, when appointing the first head of Tate Modern, the book would not have been written and we would not have gained so electrifying a glimpse into the workings of the Tate’s controversial management culture. In Nairne’s remarkably frank and informative account of his own central, eight years-long role in the recovery of the Tate Turner paintings which had been stolen in 1994 from a German museum (on the day when they had been dispatched without a Tate courier – see Figs. 2 & 5), we learn, for example, of “Nick” [Serota’s] confession that most of the Tate’s “positive” press stories are not real news but what he himself admits to be “merely promotional material”. On their recovery, the theft of the Turners was seen as an ill wind that might serve some institutional good – and not just because Tate had managed to possess both the works themselves and most of their insurance money.

We see how, in hope of achieving for once a Genuinely-Real-Good-News-Story on the recovered Turners, attempt was made to thwart journalists who might spoil the party by pressing questions about the “recovery operation” which had already generated open scepticism and suspicion. It was felt that the museum’s press/public relations offices might need reinforcement to cope with a forthcoming barrage of criticisms and, “On Nick’s advice”, a formidable press consultant, Erica Bolton, was hired. She and the Tate’s press team groomed the gallery’s executive top brass (see Fig. 5) on how to answer or deflect journalistic probing by providing specimen questions and optimal, easily remembered answers.

We learn that the requisite answer to the first of eight dangerous questions (“How much has this operation cost Tate?”) was thought to be:

The combined costs over eight and a half years including insurance, travel, legal fees and investigative expensive expenses [sic] accounts amounts to just over three and a half million pounds. Tate took on the additional costs for the investigation when it acquired the title of the two works in 1998.

This cost breakdown has already met with fresh expressions of journalistic incredulity in recent interviews Mr Nairne has given in connection with his pending book. On June 26th in the Sunday Times’ Magazine (“Curator of the Lost Art”), the paper’s art critic, Waldermar Januszczak, published the following exchange with Nairne on the large sums of Tate insurance monies that had been demanded by the criminals holding the stolen Turners and which had been given to their German lawyer by the Tate, expressly, to hand over to them in full (- the lawyer being remunerated separately by the Tate for his go-between services):

This money was not a ransom, insists Sandy. It was ‘a fee for information leading to the recovery of the picture’. Sandy is extra careful to spell this out to me. Did you get that Waldemar? ‘A fee for information.’ Not a ransom. Well yes, I get it. But I don’t buy it. It’s legal. But it’s a grey area, right? ‘No. It’s grey as you go into it, but you have to find a way out of it that becomes clear’.

Januszczak’s account failed to convince Dr Selby Whittingham of The Independent Turner Society. In a letter to the Sunday Times (“Recovery of stolen Turners was mishandled”, July 3rd) he wrote:

In his account of the theft and recovery of two Turners, Waldemar Januszczak misses the key issues, dodged no doubt by Sandy Nairne, the author of a book about them. The pictures should never have been lent to Frankfurt in the first place in contravention of Turner’s wish for them to be part of a permanent display in London. When lent, more consideration should have been given by the Tate to the security issues, and the insurance money paid out for them to the Tate should have been used for Turneresque purposes, as the Charity Commission originally opined, subsequently changing its mind after confidential exchanges between itself and the Tate. These remain secret in disregard of the requirement that justice should be seen to be done, and the fact that the Turner bequest is the property of the public and not the Tate or the National Gallery.

In an interview Nairne gave to Martin Bailey (“My life as an undercover negotiator”, The Art Newspaper, July/August, 2011), the reporter proved more outspoken than the Sunday Times’ art critic, saying, of a Tate press release carrying the Tate director’s outright denial that one of the two pictures had been recovered (when it had been recovered and was being concealed not only from the public and the press but even from most of the Tate’s trustees – see Fig. 2), that “This was simply untrue”. The untruth was, as it was intended to be, highly effective and it killed off a threatened Sunday newspaper article – which the Tate thought likely to have been informed by a senior Scotland Yard officer. With this throttling of a story, Nairne’s “fears about further investigative pieces, with imputations about ‘Serbian criminals’, receded”.

To the anticipated question 2 (“Did you pay a ransom or a reward?”) a flat one-word denial – “No” – was advised. This, too, was untrue. Nairne (fairly) acknowledges that:

Following the recovery of the Turner paintings, Michael Daley of ArtWatch, and some members of the Turner Society, felt that questions went unanswered when the two paintings were put back on display on 7 January 2003. In the background was a potential lack of trust in the governance and management of the Tate, although the specific question was whether it had pursued the paintings in the right way. Was active pursuit even the right course of action? This writer and the Tate, contends that there was an institutional as well as a moral duty to use all means available to get the paintings back – but questions about methods and means were inevitable.

Well, questions do indeed become inevitable in museum cultures where officers feel morally licenced to use “all means available”. Nairne, again fairly, acknowledges the anxieties of others such as Vernon Rapley, the Head of the Art and Antiques Squad until 2010, who explained:

As a police officer I have a very clear view – if you offer a reward for the return with no questions asked, effectively you are available for a buy-back of the commodity, and you will fuel further crime.

Nairne cites our own letter to the Daily Telegraph on 12 November 2005, which read:

“You reported (November 5th) that, in the BBC programme Underworld Art Deal, the man who supervised the Tate’s recovery of its two stolen Turners, Sandy Nairne (now director of the National Portrait Gallery), admits: ‘We knew in all the different stages of the investigation that a reward would be necessary, that a reward would be involved, that a reward initially offered by the insurers might need to be enhanced. I think that was clear from very early on.’ Not clear to the Tate’s Board of trustees, it would seem. In January we asked the present chairman, Paul Myners, to say ‘by what means, if any,’ Tate trustees had been assured that ‘no part of the £3.5 million payments might fall into the pockets of the thieves’. In reply, he wrote: ‘You will appreciate that details around the recovery operation have to remain confidential. However I can confirm that the Tate did not pay a ransom or a reward.’ The leap from the £180,000 for ‘intelligence’ originally offered by the insurers to the now reported £3.3 million reward to underworld figures is indeed a worthy subject for investigation. How shaming it is to the arts that such an investigation is carried out by a television company.

When we had put directly to the Tate’s chairman Paul (now Lord) Myners (see Figs. 3 & 4) the discrepancy between his own and Nairne’s comments on the very large reward paid to criminals holding the Turners, he responded through the Tate’s “Head of Legal”, Jacqueline Hill, in a letter of 10 May 2006 which comprised yet another set of questions and answers, the questions being repetitions of mine to Myners. Thus, in answer to my question to the Tate’s chairman:

You have continued to insist – even after Sandy Nairne’s disclosure that a reward had been paid – that no reward had been paid. You say that you do so on your own ‘reading of the [Tate’s Court] file.’ Perhaps you and I have been reading different files. I cannot, on the material I have read, imagine what might have caused you to draw such a conclusion. On what grounds do you discount the testimony of Mr Nairne, who headed Tate’s recovery operations from start to finish?

there came dissembling pedantry, evasion and repetitious assertion from the Tate’s Head of Legal:

Mr Nairne gave an interview for a television programme, he did not give a ‘testimony’. We consider that his words have been taken out of context. As stated above, the DM10m payment was neither a ransom nor a reward.

To my question to the chairman:

Are you not aware that the Court File makes clear that all parties privy to the payments, understood that a special dedicated account was set up into which DM10m was to be deposited by the Tate, precisely in advance payment for the (hoped for) ‘hand over’ of the paintings?

the Tate’s Head of Legal countered:

The Court File makes clear that Tate’s actions were sanction [sic] by the relevant British and German authorities and the Tate acted as it was entitled to do.”

To our question:

Are you not aware that Mr Liebrucks [the lawyer acting for the criminals holding the paintings] was expressly given to understand that he was to be playing no part in a law enforcement operation – that, to the contrary: 1) he had been given immunity from prosecution by the German police authorities; 2) that he need make and did make no disclosure of the thieves’ identity, and, 3) that as Mr Nairne disclosed in his April 2000 affidavit to the High Court, the police authorities themselves were endeavouring along with the Tate’s officers to ‘establish a degree of trust’ with Liebrucks and his (claimed) clients?

the Tate’s Head of Legal replied:

Mr Myners is aware of this. The information is in the Court files.

The criminals were never caught despite their eminently traceable links to the lawyer who received their money. If this might seem like negligence of the part of the Frankfurt police, it should be said that Nairne reveals that the Frankfurt police had been kept in the dark about the money/paintings transfers by the German prosecutors with the knowledge and support of the British police authorities:

Keeping the final stage confidential remained paramount. The Prosecutor’s Office was prepared to keep the Frankfurt police away from the detailed arrangements, while Scotland Yard officers remained involved as advisers.”

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: Sandy Nairne, now director of the National Portrait Gallery, surveys the Tate’s recovered Turners in the Sunday Times magazine’s photo-portrait (detail) by Manuel Vazquez.
Above, Fig. 2: An examination of Nicholas Serota’s regime at the Tate. In November 2000, the Tate’s director (pictured above, right) issued the following statement:
Turner Paintings
There has been much speculation over the years about the whereabouts of the two paintings by J. M. W. Turner, stolen in Frankfurt in 1994. And like the authorities in Germany, Tate has always been interested in any serious information which might lead to their recovery. But currently there is no new information, nor are there any current discussions being conducted. Of course I remain hopeful that one day the paintings might return to the the Tate.
Nicholas Serota, Tate Director.”
As described, left, this statement served to kill off an imminent newspaper story that would have disclosed the recovery of the first stolen Turner.
When asked by the director of the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt for the loan of the two Turner paintings, “Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge” and “Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis” for an exhibition “Goethe and the Visual Arts”, Nicholas Serota replied in a letter of 13 December 1993:
…I am delighted to confirm that we will be able to lend both works…We will not send a courier, but as the works have high values we would like a member of your staff to supervise the arrival/de-palletisation of the cases at the airport in Frankfurt and their transit to the Schirn Kunsthalle. We will arrange for the delivery of the cases to the airport in London to be supervised. All overland transport must be in vehicles with air-ride suspension and temperature control…”
On 26 April 1994, a registrar at the Tate arranging “all risks” and “nail to nail” insurance cover, at £12 million for each of the two paintings being loaned to Franfurt, wrote “Courier: works will be escorted to the airport, and thence by a British Museum courier. Agents will provide personal supervision throughout.” When we asked the British Museum’s courier of works (on paper) to the Frankfurt exhibition, if he had accompanied the Tate paintings from the airport in Frankfurt, he replied that he could not recall having done so but, he added, that did not mean that he “might not have done”.
Above, Fig. 3: The Evening Standard Magazine of 23 March 2009 reported that: “Lady Myners threw a Gothic extravaganza for the Contemporary Art Society, of which she is chairman. Lord Myners’ inamorata led her victims, sorry, guests down to the Shunt Vaults by London Bridge for a banquet of lamb and a goblet of Perrier-Jouët…and Lord Myners, himself smooth in plum velvet and black satin, enjoyed the auction, raising £180,000 despite the no-show of Fred the Shred who clearly has other things to spend his pension on…
Above, Fig. 4: a report in the Daily Telegraph of 27 February 2009. In ArtWatch UK Journal 26 we reported that the former Tate chairman, Lord Myners, who had given close to £10,000 to Gordon Brown’s campaign to become Prime Minister, was one of two businessman ennobled by the late Labour Government and dropped into office – in Myner’s case as City Minister. (See also “Lord Myners Watch”, ArtWatch UK Journal 25.) When the much-mocked Myners was chairman at the Tate, 23% of the gallery’s total investment fund of £27m was placed in hedge funds. As the Evening Standard reported (“Tate invites trouble by putting all its nest-eggs in one hedge”, 14 January 2010), experts in charity fund management advise clients to hold no more 8% in hedge funds and most charities have no holdings in such risky ventures. The outcome of the Tate’s hedge fund dabbling was a £1m loss – plus a £1.5m loss in the charity’s share portfolio.
Above, Fig. 5: Tate players, Sandy Nairne, left, Nicholas Serota, centre, and Stephen Deuchar, right, announcing the recovery of the stolen Turners at a press conference in December 2002.
David Verey, Lord Myners’ predecessor (until March 26 2004) as Tate Chairman, also had a bumpy transition into a post-Tate afterlife. On immediately becoming the Chairman of the Art Fund, Verey authorised a large payment (£75,000) that breached the Fund’s own rules, to the Tate. It served to reduce the Tate’s own proportion of its embarrassing purchase cost of a (discounted £600,000) work by a sitting Tate Trustee, Chris Ofili – which very action Verey had commended to Serota while he was still the chairman of trustees at the Tate. The £75,000 payment, which should not have been made because the Ofili work had already been bought under Verey’s Tate chairmanship, was imprecisely described in Art Fund accounts as a “Discounted Museum Purchase”. The Tate connections with the Art Fund have continued to grow: David Barrie, the Fund’s highly regarded director of 17 years, resigned over differences with his new chairman Verey in 2009. He was replaced by Tate Britain’s departing director Stephen Deuchar (above right) who promptly declared “I have ideas for taking the Art Fund [previously known as the National Art Collections Fund] in new directions” – one being “investing in people [e.g. museum curators], alongside objects”. This last, depressingly recalls the performance of the Arts Council which discovered some years ago that it could give its grants to salaried and superannuated arts administrators as easily as to freelance artists and performers. At Deuchar’s leaving party at the Tate, Nicholas Serota (whose offer to return the improperly obtained £75,000 to the Art Fund had been declined by the Art Fund under Verey’s chairmanship but at a meeting which he had not attended) said to Deuchar: “We feel that our friendship to you will be amply repaid.” In January 2010, the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins noted: “ the gallery has just announced that it has been able to buy eight beautiful (if disturbing) William Blake works on paper… with the help of a £141,000 grant from the Art Fund, now run by Stephen Deuchar [who] stepped down as director of Tate Britain in December, with Nicholas Serota, overall director of Tate, quipping that they expected to be the happy recipients of the charity’s largesse. And so, reader it has come to pass – just a little bit quicker than expected.”
Above, Fig. 6: Tate staff shown hanging the recovered Turners (Guardian photograph) in December 2002. A Tate press release announced: “Tate’s stolen Turners are recovered. Tate is pleased to announce that two paintings by J. M. W. Turner, stolen from an exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany, on 28 July 1994, have both been recovered and will go on show at Tate britain from 8 January…’Shade and Darkness’ was recovered on 19 July but no announcement was made for fear it might jeopardise the recovery of the second painting . ‘Light and Colour’ was recovered on 16 december 2002 and returned to this country on 18 December 2002…”
Above, Fig. 7: Sandy Nairne explains to The Art Newspaper’s Martin Bailey, how, when asked by Tate director Nicholas Serota to head the gallery’s attempt to recover two stolen Turners, he had been “thrown into a situation I knew nothing about. But it was an extreme example of what we do as curators. We need to be incredibly discreet about those who offer us loans. The mix of working with artists, dealers and collectors can sometimes be pretty complex…
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wibble!