Archive for the ‘Museums’ Category

Mantegna works reunited after centuries apart

Sunday, December 9th, 2018

A rediscovered painting by Andrea Mantegna has been rejoined with its companion piece for the first time in centuries. The Resurrection of Christ is now on the wall above The Descent of Christ into Limbo at London’s National Gallery in its Mantegna and Bellini exhibition. The two works were originally the top and bottom parts of a single painting but were separated at an unknown time in the distant past.

The Resurrection of Christ panel painting has been in the collection of the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo for more than a hundred years. It had been in storage since the 1930s after art historian Bernard Berenson assessed it to be a late 15th or early 16th century copy of the lost original. In March of this year, Accademia Carrara curator Giovanni Valagussa was cataloging works in the collection created before 1500 when he noticed the painting seemed to be of very high quality for a copy. He was also intrigued by the unusual placement of a horizontal strut. These wooden supports were common in panel paintings to keep the wood planks from separating and warping, but they’re typically placed at the top and bottom of a painting, not in the middle. That oddly applied strut gave Valagussa the idea that the The Resurrection may have been part of a larger piece. Even for famous painters like Mantegna, artist in residence at the Gonzaga court in Mantua, Renaissance collectors were far more cavalier about cutting up artworks to fit their spaces and decorative motifs better.

When he examined the painting more closely, Valagussa found a key clue. In the bottom center of the piece, disguised by the inky darkness of the cave, there was a thin gold cross. It was just there; not connected to anything, almost a reflection of the cross at the top of the staff Jesus holds as he emerges from his tomb undeceased. He also spotted tiny cut marks at the bottom which had never been noted before.

The clues of the gold cross, the cuts and the wooden strut inspired Valagussa to seek out other known works of Mantegna dealing with the subject matter. He also had the panel’s surface infrared scanned. The CT scanner found that the soldiers’ full technicolor armor was painted over nude figures, a method Mantegna employed all the time.

With the evidence of a Mantegna authorship piling up, Dr. Valagussa sought out a possible work that would have been part of a large original. Jesus’ long weekend in Limbo between his death and resurrection was a popular subject often paired with depictions of the resurrection. Mantegna had made several paintings of Jesus visiting Limbo. One of them, now in a private collection after having been sold at Sotheby’s in New York for almost $30 million in 2003, also included a long staff in Jesus’ hand. When The Resurrection of Christ and The Descent of Christ Into Limbo were lined up to together, the gold cross of the former was perfectly perched on the staff of the latter, and the arches stones of the cave entrance matched up exactly.

Dr. Valagussa contacted Dr. Keith Christiansen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings and the world’s foremost expert on Mantegna. Christiansen studied the work assiduously and conclusively attributed it to the master himself, not his workshop, not a copyist. It would be impossible for a copy to match the undoubted Mantegna work so precisely. It had to have been cut in half.

Since the painting’s true authorship was rediscovered, The Resurrection of Christ has been restored in preparation for display. The owner of The Descent of Christ Into Limbo, an anonymous private collector who is not keen to let his $30 million masterpiece out of his hands, was prevailed upon to loan it to the National Gallery so the two works could be reunited at long last.

Mantegna and Bellini runs through January 27th, 2019. Next March it will move to the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.

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Staffordshire Hoard helmet reconstructed

Friday, November 23rd, 2018

With more than 4,000 pieces, the hoard of 7th century gold and silver fragments discovered in 2009 near the village of Hammerwich in Staffordshire, England, is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon precious metals ever found. About 1,500 of those pieces were found to come from a single artifact: an extremely rare helmet of highest quality. Like the famous helmet discovered in the 7th century ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1939, the Staffordshire helmet must have belonged to an individual of high status.The Sutton Hoo helmet’s owner is believed to have been King Rædwald of East Anglia; the helmet is made of iron, tinned bronze sheeting, bronze and a few prominent gilded elements like the upper lip. The Staffordshire helmet was covered in reliefs of silver gilt foil, so has even more precious metal surfacing than the Sutton Hoo helmet.

The main structure of the helmet is lost and the hundreds of surviving relief fragments are so thin and delicate that they cannot all be puzzled back together. Small sections to be carefully jigsawed together during an extensive study project dedicated to identifying the helmet fragments amidst the 4,000-plus pieces in the hoard. The project ran from 2014 through 2017.

In order to get a full picture of what the helmet looked like when it was intact, researchers dedicated another 18 months to creating a painstakingly detailed reconstruction using a combination of the latest technology and traditional crafts. Two copies were made.

It will never be possible to reassemble the original physically. Instead, the project explored how the original may have been made and what it looked like, enabling archaeologists to understand its construction better and test theories about its structure and assembly.

The reconstructions were created by a team of specialist makers. The School of Jewellery at Birmingham City University (BCU) led on the fabrication of the precious metal elements of the helmet. Laser scanning of the original objects was used to ensure the replica pieces are as close to the surviving original parts as possible.

Other specialists, including Royal Oak Armoury, Gallybagger Leather, Drakon Heritage and Conservation and metalsmith Samantha Chilton, worked collaboratively to bring the helmet to life, advised by the archaeologists.

Steel, leather and horsehair elements were created, as well as the wood and paste, that scientific analysis of the original has revealed were used in its construction.

The reconstructions went on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery Friday, November 23rd.

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Enthroned Zeus returns home to Baiae

Saturday, November 17th, 2018

A statue of Zeus that was part of the ill-gotten antiquities in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum has returned to its place of origin, the Archaeological Park of Campi Flegrei at the Castle of Baiae on the Gulf of Naples. The museum acquired the statue in 1992 under the tenure of Marion True who would later be tried for her long history of buying looting antiquities from shady dealers. The Getty bought it from Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman, wealthy private collectors who had a $60 million collection of antiquities. They got this statue and many, many others like it from infamous loot dealer, perjurer and cheater Robin Symes.

The lack of export paperwork or ownership history was no deterrent to these acquisitions, and the Getty only agreed to return the statue in 2017, five years after a missing piece of it was found by local archaeologists in the ancient resort town of Baiae, modern-day Bacoli. The statue was repatriated in June 2017 and put on display at the National Archeological Museum in Naples. In late October it was loaned to Archaeological Park of Campi Flegrei so it could take part in a new exhibition of artworks that once adorned the villas of the rich and powerful at Baiae and environs.

Fresco of Zeus enthroned inspired by Pheidias sculpture, Casa dei Dioscuri, Pompeii. National Archeological Museum of Naples.Zeus Enthroned is a 29-inch-high marble statue dating to the 1st century B.C. and is likely of Greek manufacture. It was inspired by the colossal gold and ivory statue of the god at the temple of Zeus at Olympia made by sculptor Pheidias in 430 B.C. It was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. First century orator and philosopher Dio Chrysostom wrote about it in glowing terms in his Olympic Discourse:

For verily even the irrational brute creation would be so struck with awe if they could catch merely a glimpse of yonder statue, not only the bulls which are being continually led to the altar, so that they would willingly submit themselves to the priests who perform the rites of sacrifice, if so they would be giving some pleasure to the god, but eagles too, and horses and lions, so that they would subdue their untamed and savage spirits and preserve perfect quiet, delighted by the vision; and of men, whoever is sore distressed in soul, having in the course of his life drained the cup of many misfortunes and griefs, nor ever winning sweet sleep — even this man, methinks, if he stood before this image, would forget all the terrors and hardships that fall to our human lot.

The temple of Zeus was abandoned in the 4th century when emperor Theodosius I banned the Olympic games and all the religious rituals attendant to them in 393 A.D. It’s known when the statue was destroyed.

By then, Pheidias’ masterpiece had been considered the pinnacle of Classical Greek sculpture for 700 years and it was widely copied in the Greco-Roman world. A fresco of Zeus enthroned holding a statue of Nike (Victory), a scepter with an eagle by his side a fresco was found in the Casa dei Dioscuri in Pompeii and is now in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. A statue 11 feet high created in the 1st century A.D. and discovered at the villa of Emperor Domitian (now at the Hermitage Museum) meticulously copied the original, using marble, gilded wood and stucco to capture the beauty of the chryselephantine technique.

The Zeus Enthroned sits on a throne, a high-backed one, and rests his feet on a stool. His right arm is raised high, his left by his side. His raised hand likely held a high scepter and his left a thunderbolt. If it precisely matched the Pheidias statue, however, the left hand would have held a statuette of the goddess of Victory. The attributes are long missing as is the right hand so it’s hard to know what he carried.

Evidence of marine life is rife on the right side of the statue and its condition is far more deteriorated there than on the left side. The statue was likely resting on its left side in the sand of the seabed. The sand protected it from the elements. Before then, it was probably part of a home shrine in one of the elegant country villas that were so popular among the wealthy of the late Roman Republic.

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Three stolen Moundville artifacts recovered

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

It’s been almost 40 years since thieves broke into the Erskine Ramsey Archaeological Repository at the Moundville Archaeological Site near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and made off with 264 Native American artifacts, a fifth of the total number of artifacts excavated at the site and an agonizing 70% of the museum-quality pieces. Clay vessels exemplifying eight centuries of Mississippian artistry and craftsmanship were gone without a trace.

Thirty-eight years passed. Not a single one of hundreds of stolen objects was found in all that time. An FBI investigation turned up nothing and ended in the late 1980s. This May, a private organization of archaeologists and other donors decided to heat up this long-cold case by offering a reward for information leading to the recovery of any of the stolen artifacts. The Associates for the Return of Moundville Artifacts ultimately raised enough money for a $25,000 reward and established a confidential tip line (still active at 205-348-2800) for would-be informants to call. Nobody expected it to work.

It worked. Less than three months after the reward was announced, three clay pottery vessels stolen from the Erskine Ramsey Archaeological Repository in 1980 were returned to the Moundville Archaeological Park.

“We were all thinking we’d go to our graves without anything turning up from this burglary,” said Jim Knight, curator emeritus of American Archaeology for the Alabama Museum of Natural History at UA, at a press conference held to announce the find Monday. “This is one of the most exciting things that has happened during my archaeological career.” […]

“I didn’t have a whole lot of hope for actual recovery,” said John Abbott, director of Museum Research and Collections for the Alabama Museum of Natural History. “In fact, I was stunned when there were some that turned up.”

As the investigation is ongoing, authorities are not commenting on the how and why of the vessels’ recovery. All they’ll say is that nobody has claimed the $25,000 reward.

The pots were made for ceremonial use and are in impeccable condition. Whatever adventures they’ve experienced over the past four decades have not damaged them in any way. There are no chips, fractures or scratches. The original museum marks are still on them.

All three vessels depict religiously significant iconography. One features a skull, skeletal forearms and hands with crosses inside. Two are incised with images of a winged serpent, a combination creature like a sphinx or chimera with the tail of a rattlesnake, the antlers of a deer and bird wings. In the Mississippian culture at Moundville, the snake god was the lord of the underworld.

Bill Bomar, executive director for University of Alabama Museums, noted the advances in research into iconography, symbols and art that have taken place since the theft nearly four decades ago. UA faculty and students will also be able to study whether the vessels originated or were traded here.

“All of this has advanced in the last 40 years, and we haven’t had these artifacts to do those kinds of studies on,” he said. “Hopefully with these, and any additional ones that are recovered, our information about Moundville is going to increase greatly.”

The pieces will go on display at Moundville Archaeological Park shortly.

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If these gilded Chippendale torchères could talk…

Saturday, November 10th, 2018

A pair of five-foot torchères made by iconic cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale that witnessed some of the juiciest scandals of the Georgian era have entered the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art and are now on display there. The museum acquired the candle-holders for $640,000 in a July sale of Thomas Chippendale works at Christie’s London. The seller was Washington D.C. collector S. Jon Gerstenfeld who had owned them since 1995. In the 220 years before then, the giltwood torchères illuminated the sexy goings-on at Brocket Hall in Hertforshire.

Of columnar form with finely carved acanthus leaves, swags, fluting, and oval masks depicting the Roman goddess Diana, these remarkable works exhibit Chippendale’s masterful understanding of neoclassical proportion, scale, and ornament. Monumental in size, they were designed in 1773 for the grand drawing room of Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, England, the county seat of Sir Peniston Lamb.

Thomas Chippendale is perhaps best known for his landmark book of furniture designs, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (first published in 1754), which was highly admired and widely used as a source of inspiration by cabinetmakers and architects in both Europe and America. As such, Chippendale is most often associated with the many works in mahogany or walnut that follow his designs. These torchères are among the very few pieces made by the master himself and are therefore considered exceedingly rare.

Originally part of a set of four (the other pair were sold separately in 1994), the candle holders adorned a room that was already replete with Chippendale furnishings. The estate of Brocket Hall was purchased in 1746 by Matthew Lamb, a wealthy barrister and Member of Parliament who would be enobled nine years later and created 1st Baronet of Brocket Hall. In 1760 he built the stately neoclassical mansion that stands today. The Grand Saloon, a banquet hall built sparing no expense to make it fine enough to receive royalty, was filled with furniture custom-made by Thomas Chippendale. This room alone cost £1,500, the price to construct an entire mansion at that time.

When his father died in 1768, Peniston Lamb acceded to the baronetcy and became the master of Brocket Hall. He married Elizabeth Milbanke in April of 1769 and significantly boosted by her beauty, charm and facility for making friends and lovers at the highest levels of English society, Lord and Lady Melbourne quickly advanced socially and politically. The fact that less than a year after their marriage Lord Melbourne was already cavorting with an actress better known for her private performances posed no obstacle.

The actress in question, Sophia Baddeley, wrote in her memoirs (published under the pseudonym Elizabeth Steele in the voice of a faux roommate following “as told to” convention) about Lord Melbourne’s pursuit of her.

This gentleman was about twenty-one years of age, and had been married about ten months to a very amiable woman. For a length of time, he used every means to engage her [Sophia’s] attention at Ranelagh, but finding that an improper place for an interview, at least such a one as he wished, he applied to a friend, in confidence, to make her, in his name, an offer of share in his fortune, in exchange for the possession of her heart. This friend brought her a letter, including a bill for 300£. which he very politely pressed her acceptance of, as a bagatelle, and to consider it only as a proof of his esteem, and that liberality which his affection for her would study to convince her of.

Sophia of course nobly declined this offer on the grounds that Lamb should pay all this attention and consideration to his lovely wife, not her. He redoubled his efforts and next thing you know, they were found together “drinking tea,” her memoirs would have it. Melbourne “threw up the parlour window, and precipitately leaped out.” My, such a guilty reaction for someone caught in the innocuous act of sipping tea. Oh and, just out sheer politeness, I’m sure, “as an atonement for his intrusion,” Melbourne “left bank notes on the parlous table, to the amount of two hundred pounds.”

Lady Melbourne was no slouch in the extramarital activities department. She caught the eye of the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV, when she was in her early 30s, had been married for a decade and was in an active relationship with George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, widely believed to be the father of her second son William, the future Lord Melbourne, who would find himself notoriously cuckholded when his wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, had a scandalous affair with Lord Byron. She famously had (Lady Melbourne hated her daughter-in-law but was a friend and confidant to Byron even during the intensely public affair that so humiliated her son. Byron would later marry her niece.)

MP and historian Sir Nathaniel Wraxall wrote about her in his posthumous memoirs:

“A commanding figure, exceeding the middle height, full of grace and dignity, an animated countenance, intelligent features, captivating manners and conversation; all these, and many other attractions, enlived by coquetry, met in Lady Melbourne. Her husband had been principally known by the distinguished place that he occupies in the annals of meretricious pleasure, the memoirs of Mrs. Bellamy or Mrs. Baddeley, the syrens and courtesans of a former age.

The annals of meretricious pleasure were surely illuminated by the Chippendale torchères. The Prince of Wales was a frequent vision to Brocket Hall where he enjoyed the liberal hospitality of the lady of the house without complaint from its lord. And what did have to complain about when there was so much benefit to be had from his wife’s liaisons with the highest aristocracy in the land? Melbourne’s irrelevance in Parliament and penchant for ladies of ill-repute were no barrier to advancement. In 1770, he was made an Irish Baron. In 1781 he got bumped up to Viscount (also Irish) and in 1784 he was appointed Gentleman of the Bedchamber to his Royal Highness, who was (not coincidentally) entertaining Lady Melbourne in that bedchamber at the time. In 1815, during the Regency of the Prince, Melbourne got the boost all the way up the Peerage ladder when he was created Baron of the United Kingdom.

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Greek vase looted from Warsaw museum during WWII returned

Sunday, November 4th, 2018

A 4th century B.C. Greek vase that was stolen from the National Museum in Warsaw by German occupiers has been returned to Poland. The red figure lekythos with a rare sphinx design, one of very few in Poland, is a small piece at just 3.7 inches high and 2.4 inches wide, but it is of immense historical importance because it is the first archaeological object plundered during the war that has been recovered by the nation.

The vessel, made to store oils and perfumes, was discovered during excavations in the east Crimean town of Kerch, one of the most ancient cities in Crimea which was founded as the Greek colony of Panticapaeum 2,600 years ago. By the early 20th century, it belonged to Józef Choynowski, a Polish collector who was born in the Kiev area. An avid archaeologist, he participated in digs in Ukraine and elsewhere in Russia and amassed a large, ecclectic collection of prehistoric crafts, prints, paintings, osteological remains and archaeological material.

In 1901, Choynowski decided he would exhibit his entire collection in Warsaw and then donate it to the museum. The exhibition opened in the autumn of 1902. A few months later, on March 19th, 1903, Józef Choynowski officially donated his collection to the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in Warsaw, stipulating that it must be permanently on display and that no part of it would ever be loaned or moved out of Warsaw. In December of 1923, Choynowski’s collection of 4380 objects was transferred to the National Museum in Warsaw.

It would know less than 20 years of peace. Art historian, archaeologist and SS Untersturmführer Peter Paulsen was in Poland within days of Warsaw’s surrender on September 27th, 1939. As leader of the Sonderkommando Paulsen, his brief was to “secure” objects of archaeological and historic significance from the conquered territory. Nazi officials from Hitler on down had no high opinion of Poland’s cultural patrimony, so the artworks and antiquities deemed to be “Germanic” cultural assets were the explicit focus of the SS special command. The Veit Stoss altarpiece in Krakow, for example, the largest Gothic alterpiece in the world made in the late 15th century specifically for the High altar of Krakow’s St. Mary’s Basilica, counted as German because the sculptor Veit Stoss was originally from Nuremburg, even though he lived and worked in Krakow for 20 years and the altarpiece had been commissioned by the regent of Poland.

In the end, the Sonderkommando Paulsen just stole everything it could and shipped it to Germany to stash in museums, castles, salt mines wherever they had a nook or cranny to accommodate the ever-expanding collection of patrimony plundered from occupied countries. Warsaw’s library and the national museum were stripped of far more than the few items listed as desirable in lead-up to the invasion. The Choynowski collection was plundered and many of its most prized pieces exported to Germany.

Without any clear records of what was taken by the SS, dispersed or destroyed by the ravages of war, Poland’s Ministry of Culture has struggled since the war to figure out which of Choynowski’s pieces are missing. Its database of war losses currently lists about 60 objects from the collection, but that is in no way definitive.

Thankfully, it was enough to get this one little lekythos back. The vase was slated to be sold in 2017 at the Gerhard Hirsch Nachfolger auction house in Munich. The auctioneers checked the database, saw that it was looted from Poland during war and alerted the ministry. The seller was Ingrid Haack. It had been in her family for decades and she had no idea of its ugly ownership history. She promptly agreed to withdraw it from the sale and return it to Poland.

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Rembrandt’s Night Watch to be restored in public view

Thursday, October 18th, 2018

Like it’s not enough that to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death in 2019 the Rijksmuseum will be putting on an epic exhibition displaying every one of his paintings, drawings and prints in its permanent collection, the museum will also undertake its most ambitious conservation project ever: the full restoration of The Night Watch in public view.

The Night Watch last received extensive treatment in 1975 after a deranged former teacher slashed it with a bread knife he’d stolen from the restaurant where he had lunch that day. He explained to the security guards and bystanders who pried him off the masterpiece and restrained him that he had been ordered by God to slash the painting. That was an emergency salvage operation to repair the severe cuts in the canvas, some more than two feet long and one whole chunk cut out that was a foot wide and 2.5 inches wide.

The new restoration is occasioned by the regular monitoring of its condition. Conservators have begun to see alarming changes taking place gradually but surely. The little dog in the lower right of the canvas, for example, is getting whiter and whiter. He’s basically a ghost dog at this point. The first step is a complete examination and assessment of the entirety of the painting. Several imaging techniques, high-resolution photography, microscopic analysis and computer tools will be used to create a detailed map of the artwork at every level, from stretcher to canvas through paint layers to varnish.

The timing of the project is ideal from the standpoint of conservatorial expertise as well. Rijksmuseum experts complete the thorough restoration of the portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit last year, so they have fresh experience in conserving large-scale Rembrandts. The team that will work on The Night Watch will include experts from other museums and institutions of higher education around the world.

But wait, there’s more!

The Night Watch will be encased in a state-of-the-art clear glass chamber designed by the French architect Jean Michel Wilmotte. This will ensure that the painting can remain on display for museum visitors. A digital platform will allow viewers from all over the world to follow the entire process online continuing the Rijksmuseum innovation in the digital field.

Taco Dibbits, General Director Rijksmuseum: “The Night Watch is one of the most famous paintings in the world. It belongs to us all, and that is why we have decided to conduct the restoration within the museum itself – and everyone, wherever they are, will be able to follow the process online.”

I would like to take a moment to thank The Netherlands for being awesome. Their museums’ websites consistently provide the highest resolution images possible and have been doing so since cribbing off your office T1 lines was the only hope a regular person had of downloading such pictures in less than five hours. They do world-class renovations of the historic buildings the museums inhabit, generously loan out incredibly rare masterpieces to museums around the world while the spaces are being refurbished and then make the greatest of all promotional videos to celebrate the grand reopening.

The exhibition, All the Rembrandts of the Rijksmuseum, runs from February 15th to 10 June 10th, 2019. This will be the first time in history that the more than 400 artworks by Rembrandt in the Rijskmuseum’s collection will be on display at once.

Because I never need a pretext to repost it and this time I actually have one, here’s the greatest of all promotional videos:

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Titian’s Crucifixion torn in a fall

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

A painting of the Crucifixion by Old Master Titian was seriously damaged in a fall at the 16th century royal complex of El Escorial near Madrid in central Spain. The 8 x 4.5-foot oil-on-canvas Christ Crucified was discovered by security personnel around 10:00 AM on Wednesday, October 3rd, in the sacristy of the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. It had become detached from the wall and struck the 16th/17th century furniture underneath it before bouncing onto the marble floor. The accident caused a considerable horizontal 7-shaped tear in the canvas across the lower portion of the painting.

Experts from Spain’s National Patrimony, the public institution responsible for the management of property of the State that was formerly property of the Crown, were immediately dispatched to examine the masterpiece, assess its condition, come up with a repair plan and determine if possible the cause of the fall. They found that detachment was likely caused by the degradation of the plaster layer on the wall to which the painting had been anchored. Over the years the plaster that held the nails of the mount had gradually crumbled without anybody realizing what was happening. The tipping point came the night of October 2/3 and down came the painting.

Officials are quick to reassure that the figure of Christ himself was not torn. The entire pictorial layer appears to have been spare from any paint loss. The work has been protectively wrapped and packaged for transport to the central National Patrimony workshop in Madrid. There it will be analyzed thoroughly, treated and repaired to ensure its stability. When the restoration is done, the painting will be returned to the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo, presumably, one hopes, in a new location.

Crucified Christ entered the Escorial collection in 1574, added by King Philip II who was an unabashed Titian fan and commissioned almost all of Titian’s outlay in the last 25 years of his life (from 1550 until his death in 1576). It’s not known exactly when Titian painted it. Stylistically it dates to the beginning of his late period characterized by experimentation with daring chiaroscuro night scenes and flesh tones, probably around 1555. It was already on its way to Philip II in 1556.

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Public conservation of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy begins

Monday, October 8th, 2018

The carefully planned conservation of Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy has begun at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. On Sept. 22, 2018, a temporary conservation studio opened under the spot in the grand portrait gallery where the iconic painting usually hangs.

The Blue Boy requires conservation to address both structural and visual concerns. “Earlier conservation treatments mainly have involved adding new layers of varnish as temporary solutions to keep it on view as much as possible,” said Christina O’Connell, The Huntington’s senior paintings conservator working on the painting and co-curator of the exhibition. “The original colors now appear hazy and dull, and many of the details are obscured.” According to O’Connell, there are also several areas where the paint is beginning to lift and flake, making the work vulnerable to paint loss and permanent damage; and the adhesion between the painting and its lining is separating, meaning it does not have adequate support for long-term display.

During three months of preliminary analysis—which was carried out by conservators in 2017, with results reviewed by curators—the painting was examined and documented using a range of imaging techniques that allow O’Connell and Melinda McCurdy, The Huntington’s associate curator for British art and co-curator of the exhibition, to see beyond the surface with wavelengths the human eye can’t see. Infrared reflectography rendered some paints transparent, making it possible to see preparatory lines or changes the artist made. Ultraviolet illumination made it possible to examine and document the previous layers of varnish and old overpaints. New images of the back of the painting were taken to document what appears to be an original stretcher (the wooden support to which the canvas is fastened) as well as old labels and inscriptions that tell more of the painting’s story. And, minute samples from the 2017 technical study and from previous analysis by experts were studied at high magnification (200-400x) with techniques including scanning electron microscopy with which conservators could scrutinize specific layers and pigments within the paint. Armed with information gathered from the 2017 analysis, the co-curators mapped out a course of action for treating the painting and developed a series of questions for which they are eager to find answers. Funding for the restoration and conservation work was made possible through a grant from Bank of America’s Art Conservation Program.

Visitors to The Huntington will see Blue Boy in various stages of treatment. The painting will be laid out on the table when conservators stabilize areas of flaking paint. They will use a surgical microscope to view the paint in high magnification. The microscope will be connected to a display screen so visitors can see the surface of the painting in microscopic detail along with the conservators. It was also be placed on an easel when the many layers of discolored varnishes, which alter not just the original colors but also the spatial relationships of the composition, are removed.

During the imaging research done in preparation for this year-long treatment project, Blue Boy X-rays and infrared reflectography. They revealed the head of a gentleman (at the Boy’s right elbow) and a fluffy white dog (at the boy’s right side) Gainsborough painted over and an 11-inch-long L-shaped tear in the canvas (at the boy’s left shin). The figures had been seen in earlier radiographs. (The portrait wasn’t a commission so Gainsborough simply took a used canvas he had lying around, cut it down, restretched it and painted the young man who would make his reputation.) The tear, however, was a new discovery.

Conservators hope that once they get under the layers of overpaint and varnish to Gainsborough’s original brushstrokes, they’ll find out more about his approach, about when the portrait was painted, when the tear appeared in the canvas, and maybe, just maybe, establish definitely the identity of the sitter.

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Rape confession found in 17th c. sailor’s journal

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

The restoration of a 17th century sailor’s journal in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has revealed a baldly-stated confession of rape that was obscured for centuries in a literal cover-up. The journal was written by one Edward Barlow documenting his four-decade career from 1659 and 1703. He started as an 18-year-old apprentice aboard The Naseby, the flagship of Edward Montagu which brought King Charles II back to England at the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Over the forty-plus years of his career, he sailed on navy and merchant ships, participated in several naval battles and was taken prisoner. He detailed all these experiences in his journal. A gifted artist, Barlow illustrated his diary with images of the ships he served on, battles he fought and maps of his journeys.

Very little is known about Edward Barlow beyond the contents of his journal. Not even the National Maritime Museum has been able to trace the full history of the document. The museum received it from Basil Lubbock, a naval historian, sailor and failed prospector in not one but two gold rushes (Klondike, 1896, California, 1898). He had bought it from Charles Alexander Yorke, Earl of Hardwicke, descendant of Sir Joseph Sydney Yorke, Vice-Admiral of the White. There were no records of how the journal had wound up in the Yorke library. Lubbock thought it likely that some descendant of Edward’s sold the manuscript to Sir Joseph as there were people named Barlow in Hampshire at that time.

Botched repairs over the years had left the journal in dire need of conservation. Its condition issues have been a long-standing concern — senior paper conservator Paul Cook was told when he was hired at the museum in 1985 that the diary was “a problem” — and the painstaking process of restoration has been ongoing for nine years. It was Cook who saw that a page had been very carefully pasted over the original. The cover-up was so expertly performed that nobody had noticed for more than 300 years.

He originally wrote an excruciatingly frank account of his rape of Mary Symons, a young female servant in a house where he was lodging, an encounter he admitted was “much against her will, for indeed she was asleep but being gotten into the bed I could not easily be persuaded out again, and I confess that I did more than what was lawful or civil, but not in that manner that I could ever judge or, in the least, think that she should prove with child, for I take God to witness I did not enter her body, all though I did attempt something in that nature”.

Barlow inserted a line of warning: “I found by her that women’s wombs are of an attractive quality and dangerous for a young man to meddle with.”

He continued that though he wrote “a loving letter”, he wanted to “forget her and blot her out of my remembrance … as I had done with some before”. However, when his ship returned to England from Jamaica, he agreed to meet Symons and found her “weeping most pitifully and saying she was undone”.

Against the advice of friends urging him that he had a good chance of finding a rich wife, Barlow married her in Deal, “a very decent marriage where we had several people of good repute”. The union celebrated with a two-day party that cost him £10.

Their child was stillborn while Barlow was at sea, but they went on to have several more children and, despite initial doubts, he heaped praise on his wife: “Had I searched England over for a mate I could not have met with one more obliging and ready to do any thing that should give me content.”[…]

Cook became the first person in more than 300 years to read Barlow’s original words, hidden under the rewritten version, which included the weeping woman on the shore but omitted the account of the rape. Instead, Barlow wrote: “I had in part promised her at London that I would marry her … having had a little more than ordinary familiarity with her”.

Scholars think that he probably returned from a sea voyage and thought better of his honesty about the brutal origin of what appeared to have developed into a relatively happy marriage.

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