Departmental Research Seminar: 26 October

‘Thomas Cole’s Journeys: Towards a Transregional History of American Art’

Professor Tim Barringer (Yale University)

Wednesday 26 October
4:10 pm
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre


Thomas Cole is celebrated as the “father of American landscape painting”, yet his biography (born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1801) and his work suggest a more complex identity. This lecture re-examines Cole’s formation in the industrial revolution, his emigration to America and return to England, where, in 1829, he met both Turner and Constable.  Cole’s work allows us to work against nationalist paradigms of art history.

Biographical Statement:
Tim Barringer is Paul Mellon Professor and Chair of the History of Art at Yale University, where he had worked since leaving the University of Birmingham in 1998. His books include Reading the Pre-Raphaelites (based on a course taught at Birmingham) and Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain (2005). Exhibitions include: American Sublime; Art and Emancipation in Jamaica; Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde and Pastures Green and Dark, Satanic Mills. He is co-curator, with Elizabeth Kornhauser, of Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and National Gallery, London, 2018). He has contributed to a wide range of publications including David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, Rubens and his Influence, and David Hockney: 81 portraits and one still life, all recent exhibition catalogues produced by the Royal Academy of Arts. In 2009 he was Slade Professor of the History of Art at the University of Cambridge.

All welcome; refreshments served
Enquiries to Sara Tarter:


Ghent Altarpiece: “restored and ravishing,” and other discoveries



Restorers at work (image credit:

Regular readers, and especially those with an interest in early Netherlandish painting, might recall that since 2012 the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck has been under restoration. The work has been carried out by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA), which is based in Brussels.

The project, which has a wonderful associated website, began with the intention of removing the old varnish from the altarpiece, which over the years has browned (as varnish does) and, in the process, subdued the original brilliance of the van Eycks’ colours and the frankly stunning effects that their careful, virtuoso, manipulation of oil paint created. The picture at the top of the post shows some of the restores at work.

Initial examination and cleaning tests showed promise, yielding impressive results, which are plain to see even through the eyes of the amateur. (Often with restoration campaigns, the initial results, and some of the images these generate, can seem hard to understand unless you happen to possess the technical knowledge that a restorer does, but in this case the results are obvious.) The images below are just a few available on the project website showing the initial cleaning tests, done to establish just how discoloured the varnish on the altarpiece actually was. Answer? Very (!):



Detail: Adoration of the Mystic Lamb cleaning test in sky; image credit:



Detail: John the Evangelist panel in grisaille; image credit:



Detail: Virgin Enthroned; image credit:

Spurred on by the initial tests, and their realisation that much of the altarpiece was mired by various overpaints made during several, separate restoration campaigns (some quite old, in fairness, from the sixteenth century in some cases, but overpaints nonetheless … ), the restores got on with the cleaning job proper, now with a view to removing the overpainting as well as the varnishes:

Vijd's hands

Comparison of Vijd’s hands: the hand on the far right has had overpaints removed, revealing subtler modelling (image credit:

Vijd's robe

Patches of overpaint removed from Vijd’s robe (image credit:

And now, after years and years of painstaking and loving expert work, we finally have images of the restored work on the whole; it is no overstatement, I think, to say that the results are absolutely spectacular:



Above: Ghent Altarpiece exterior in 2012; Below: post-restoration. Image credit: the excellent Facebook page Lukas — Art in Flanders, the Flemish art imagebank



Above: Annunciation in 2012; Below: Annunciation following restoration. Image credit: as above, Lukas — Art in Flanders



Above: Prophet Micah 2012; Below: Prophet Micah restored. Image credit: as above, Lukas — Art in Flanders

I mean … can we just take a moment to appreciate those. Everything just sings so much louder and more beautifully now.

Including these (the donor portraits showing Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut):



Image credit: KIK-IRPA and Lukas — Art in Flanders

It truly is amazing work and so wonderful to see the altarpiece in its full resplendent, radiant and frankly gorgeous brightness. I remember when I saw the Ghent Altarpiece for the first time in St. Bavo’s; I thought it was good, very bloody good. I can’t wait to go and see it again now, now that it has been restored to its full brilliance.

The restoration has also made a number of other discoveries. Perhaps the most significant of these concerns the famous inscription contained on the altarpiece. The inscription was discovered during an 1823 restoration campaign. It gives the names of the donors, Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut (seen above), date of completion (in the form of a chronogram, deciphered as 1432), and, sensationally at the time of its discovery, revealed that the altarpiece was started by Hubert van Eyck (‘maior quo nemo repertus,‘ that is, “greater than anyone”) and was finished by his brother Jan (who is described as ‘arte secundus,‘ or “second in art”). At the time, in 1823, nobody knew anything about this Hubert van Eyck and only knew of Jan; it follows that it was quickly suggested that the inscription wasn’t genuine, some kind of fake. Some postulated that jealously and parochial patriotism was the motivating factor behind someone’s decision to append a fake inscription to the work: Jan lived and worked in Bruges, not Ghent, so the inscription, it has been thought, was added as a way to proudly return the altarpiece’s origins to Ghent, done supposedly at the whim of an especially ardent admirer and citizen of that city.

The restorations just completed, however, have put the matter to bed. The restorations have shown definitively that the inscription is genuine, made by the hand of Jan van Eyck. This, of course, does nothing to help answer “which brother painted which bits?” (a subject of fierce, and frankly, it seems, unanswerable, debate since the discovery of the inscription); but it does confirm that the Ghent Altarpiece was produced as a collaboration. Given that Hubert is still just as much of an enigma as he was in 1823, it is gratifying to know that as a result of this work, posterity will at least know that Hubert was, for certain, at least partly responsible for the execution of what is undoubtedly one of the best works of art ever produced. In the meantime, we get to enjoy revelling in this ravishing work and bask in the marvels of modern restoration.


‘Francis Newton Souza, Suffering and Masculinity’

Dr Gregory Salter (University of Birmingham)

Wednesday 12 October
Barber Institute Lecture Theatre

Crucifixion 1959 by F.N. Souza 1924-2002

Crucifixion 1959 F.N. Souza 1924-2002 Purchased 1993


Francis Newton Souza’s paintings of the late 1950s include warped, disturbing translations of religious imagery – a crucifixion, bodies pierced by St Sebastian’s arrows, and gloomy ecclesiastical still life paintings – as well as tense self-portraits and distorted, pained representations of non-white bodies. This paper focuses on the male body within these works – a recurring subject for Souza – and traces a theme that appears to be folded into his representations of masculinity: suffering. Souza was born into an English-speaking Catholic family in the Portuguese colony of Goa, raised and educated in India, and left for Britain just after the partition. This paper places Souza’s works – and their focus on suffering and masculinity – in this historical moment of decolonisation and migration.

Biographical Statement:
Greg Salter is a lecturer in history of art at the University of Birmingham. He is currently researching British art, exhibitions, and migration since 1945 and is completing a book on reconstruction, home, and male identity in postwar Britain. He completed a postdoctoral role at the Geffrye Museum of the Home in London in 2015.

All welcome; refreshments served
Enquiries to Sara Tarter:

Cappuccinos, flaky pastry, cute bridges and the Guggenheim. In Venice. Emily Martin’s year abroad…

What was interning at the Guggenheim in Venice like? To be honest, everything you might imagine and a thousand times more amazing. This write-up proved to be a little tricky to do, because every time I started to write it I wasn’t satisfied with how it sounded. The grand canal didn’t seem impressive enough, the bridges weren’t appearing cute enough, the markets came across cheesily rose-tinted, the architecture of the city was too disneyfied, and my experience of the Guggenheim itself was overly nostalgic as though I were reflecting on another lifetime. I felt as though I was writing a sickly-sweet travel brochure and none of my descriptions were doing justice to the four months I spent there. This is the problem with perfection; it sounds rather impossible and naïve when you attempt to explain it. However, I’ll try again… Eighth time lucky maybe!


The view from work down the Grand Canal

On my fourth day in Venice, I was doing some shopping and getting a few things for my little flat, which had a great big lion head knocker on an enormous front door that opened onto one of those little side streets off the Grand Canal in Dorsoduro, (the bit of Venice that sticks out and finishes in a point), when a lady asked me (in Italian) where such-and-such a street was. It was at this moment that I realised I blended in. I had been feeling rather British, and acting rather britishly too, smiling politely, nodding a lot and standing at the back of queues. Impatient by nature, this had rather been getting on my nerves as clearly the Italians are not known for their waiting in line abilities (for example, but please also insert here pretty much all stereotypical differences between our two nations that you know of). However the very instant I realised I wasn’t a tourist on an extended holiday I threw myself in, with a sort of ‘if you can’t beat them (and I didn’t want to), them join them’ attitude. The firmly ordering a coffee from behind a group of Venetians who wouldn’t budge from the counter in a bar, like the scene in Eat Pray Love, took a bit of courage and a lot of practice, but after a month I had it down. Eating a sugared, flaky brioche with my morning cappuccino, one handed standing at the bar, trying not to look like a three year old with crumbs everywhere and holding onto a scratch of elegance took a lot more work. I set that as my personal goal…really that should have been written into the Learning Agreement contract for the year abroad under ‘cultural integration’.

Over the four months I’m not sure I could pick a day that wasn’t brilliant, but a few moments stick out in my memory, and are my go-to stories… Acqua Alta was amazing to see and have to live with. Everything flooded, this year was particularly bad and splashing through a deserted St Marks square with a few friends at midnight, on the night of my birthday, with the water pouring into my wellies, and wading up to the doors of the basilica looking at the mosaics in the portico was magical.


Splashing in a flooded St Mark’s Square…


Venice at Christmas

Christmas was also wonderful. Instead of going home my family came out and we enjoyed a very different Christmas; shopping in Rialto Market and going to listen to carols in my favourite church because of the stunning altar piece by Titian (Basilica dei Frari, and Assumption of The Virgin). The whole city was covered in twinkling lights and Christmas decorations, hot wine flowed in place of spritz and the lack of teaming tourists turned the streets and squares silent, as the mists swept through the canals and shrouded visibility to a few inches.


Misty Venice in the winter

Then there was the Guggenheim, the internship, and the whole reason I was in Venice to begin with. As interns we did all the behind the scenes opening, cleaning sculptures, guarding rooms, learning everything we could about the art works on display and Peggy Guggenheim herself, whose house the gallery used to be and who, despite anything you might have heard, was really an incredible woman ( probably because of anything you might have heard). We gave talks on the art, the gallery, Peggy, and eventually full guided tours of the whole collection which is comprised of some of the most remarkable works of art. If you aren’t aware of the Guggenheim Collection in Venice (everyone seems to have heard of the one in New York) have a look… It is beautiful, select and full of high quality works.


Emily giving a talk in the galleries

In my fourth month I was made assistant capo, which meant I was awarded a clipboard and a walkie- talkie and helped run the internship program, this was a fantastic little promotion because it meant I was able to really understand how a museum is run, the importance of certain aspects and the value of integral components; such as art works, reputation and ethics. There is an awful lot more than meets the eye! In a truly hands-on way I was able to help curators and registrars  with installing and organising the temporary exhibitions, do condition reports, help with restoration projects and facilitate press conferences and publications.


Doing practical gallery things…

Of course, as with any placement like this, the people around me were just as important as anything else and I have made wonderful friends from among the other interns but also from the long standing staff and I went back to shadow  Dr Phillip Rylands while I was studying in Verona (the second part of my year), who has been the Peggy Guggenheims director since the gallery opened in 1979, to properly understand what his role fully compromises. From my experience of the visitors I have become truly appreciative of lovely people! It is astonishing how many personal issues people can air in an art gallery at the ticket desk. I could write a book of anecdotes I witnessed when visitors thought no one was watching… Arguments sparked by Dali were continuous, amorous affections in front of Magritte were surprisingly common and Pollock did his infamous job to divide an audience the second you mentioned his name. In the midst of the general public we also had a few more well known visitors. Jude Law stopped by (wasn’t the friendliest), Novak  Djokovic and his stunning wife came (as lovely as his TV interviews), Jenny Agutter (Call the Midwife) chatted to me with her husband about Pollocks’ early portraits. She looked far too familiar but I only realised once she smiled at me on the way out, I kept my cool…it wasn’t easy. It turns out I’m really not great at celebrity spotting. One day I was walking through the galleries checking everything was alright when a really lovely American family greeted me, all smiles. The man made polite chit chat but he was very interested in the museum so  told him all about it, we chatted for about twenty minutes. I noticed a few visitors taking photos in his general direction but I didn’t think much of it, after all it’s an art gallery. I realised it was time to organise the other interns to close the museum so he thanked me for the conversation and I  left. It was only once a few fellow interns, members of staff and other visitors asked me what the man I had been chatting to for so long was like that I twigged he might be someone famous… Turns out I had been asking Laurence Fishburne and his wife Gina Torres, among other things, if they travelled much and if they liked modern art (they do). My bad,  I’ve never seen the Matrix.



Carnival in preparation

So, what was interning at the Guggenheim in Venice like? It was the best experience and it has made me more enthused than ever about following a career in museum and cultural management. Especially after the wobbly year we’ve had (Brexit) that boost of motivation hit at just the right moment, so all in all, it couldn’t have been better.

Emily is studying for a BA in History of Art with Italian. For more details about her course, click here.

JH Graduate Sophy Thomas on her new job at the V&A

Sophy Thomas graduated in 2014 with a First Class Honours degree in English and History of Art. She is now Coordination and Liaison Assistant to the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Performance 

I have to say that each of the last (c.) 500 days I’ve spent working at the Victoria and Albert Museum have been different. There have been many times when I have wondered at the unusual nature of my job there and the strange things I have had to do. Babysitting 30 giant fibreglass Olivier Award statues for example. Or manhandling three mannequins into a cupboard. Or hoovering the Joey Warhorse puppet. Working in the V&A’s Theatre and Performance Department for the last year and a half has been a busy, exciting, eye opening experience and I have learnt a lot.

After graduating I wanted to take a year to try different things and get some experience to get more of an idea of what I wanted to do. I started in the Theatre and Performance Department at the V&A as a volunteer, working for 6 months unpaid which was wearing but worth it. And it’s what you have to do if you want to work in museums, I knew that already. I hadn’t considered working with theatre collections before (hadn’t even really known about it) as all my previous experience was in exhibiting art, but it has turned out to be a really great combination of my interests and, roughly speaking, my degree: English Literature and History of Art. I got involved with lots of different projects within the department and, at the end of the 6 months, was asked to stay on as full time (and finally paid!) staff.


Installation shot of the Curtain Up Exhibition (c) V&A Images

I have worked predominantly on the department’s smaller independent projects, exhibitions and events, where I have had more responsibility and been involved with more stages of the process. This has also meant more variety. One of the first major projects I worked on in the department was a three week series of live performances by entertainment PR Alan Edwards, talking through 60 years of Public Relations with a different high-profile guest each evening – the likes of Jeremy Deller, Bob Geldof and Alistair Campbell. I have also had the opportunity to go to Vienna and install a video display called Five Truths at the Theater Museum, which explores different types of theatre direction using a scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and organise a three-hour dance performance involving 50 students showcasing weird and wonderful costumes designed by Sandy Powell. More recently, I oversaw the installation of the Curtain Up exhibition about award winning theatre in London and New York which is currently on display at the V&A. I’m hoping I might even get to take go to New York when the exhibition tours there in the autumn…!

Though my job has its aches and pains, as every job does, the V&A is an incredible place to work, not just because of the beautiful building and vast collections, but because it’s a busy and forward-thinking museum.

All the World’s a Stage: Charlotte Bagwell on curating this year’s MA exhibition at the Barber

‘All the World’s a Stage: Court Patrons and Writers in Shakespeare’s Circle’, the department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies’s annual MA exhibition, is open at the Barber Institute of Fine Art. As part of the country-wide commemmorations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, this exhibition brings together paintings, prints and miniatures from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery and the Cadbury Research Library.

Inspired by an extract from Shakespeare’s play As You Like It– ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts’- the exhibition explores how Shakespeare’s circle constructed character through their use of portraiture. It features iconic images of Shakespeare, including the one from his first folio, alongside those of other writers, patrons and members of the court, such as Ben Jonson, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, and Anne of Denmark, queen for the latter period of Shakespeare’s life.

 'William Shakespeare', Plaster cast after Gerard Johnson, (c.1620) © National Portrait Gallery

‘William Shakespeare’, Plaster cast after Gerard Johnson, (c.1620) © National Portrait Gallery

The exhibition was co-curated by the nine students studying the department’s Art History and Curating MA course. The course gives practical, real life experience in planning exhibitions, as students work alongside Barber staff in planning a display for the Lady Barber Gallery over the summer period. In addition, the opportunity to work with the National Portrait Gallery and to be credited as co-curating an exhibition at such a prestigious gallery as the Barber certainly looks good on the CV! The topic for the course and exhibition changes each year, and while not everyone in the group had an existing interest in Elizabethan and Jacobean portraiture, the possibilities of the exhibition meant that, for a while at least, everyone enjoyed researching this era.

Some of the highlights of the course included visits to the National Portrait Gallery, both to view works in the store, as some of the portraits were not currently on display, but also to meet, discuss and have the occasional talk with people in various roles from the NPG. Being able to discuss the exhibition with Tarnya Cooper, the NPG’s Curatorial Director, who not only specializes in sixteenth-century art, but who had also curated a previous Shakespeare exhibition, was a particular highlight. In addition, we attended social media talks and had a visit to the conservation studio.

The course is unique in that the curatorial students are given a topic,  but are then a free to decide on whichever theme and narrative they deem best. This is an excellent way to conduct the course, as I think us nine students would have struggled to come up with and agree on an exhibition entirely from scratch! The freedom to make our decision knowing that the Barber staff were on hand if we needed them meant that it really felt as if we were in control of the exhibition and were therefore learning real life and negotiating skills.

A particular highlight for everyone was to be involved with the installation of the exhibition, especially learning what goes on when high value loans arrive at institutions.

It also taught us the flexibility needed as a curator, as the floor plan had to be redesignedduring installation to allow room for the audience to full appreciate the striking, full-length portrait of the Earl of Southampton. This shows that even the best laid plans still need a backup and made us fully aware of the amount of planning that goes into an exhibition.

'Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton' by unknown artist, (circa 1600), © Private Collection, on long-term loan to The National Portrait Gallery

‘Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton’ by unknown artist, (circa 1600), © Private Collection, on long-term loan to The National Portrait Gallery

Overall the entire group really enjoyed the course, even people whose specialties and aesthetic loyalties lay elsewhere. We were lucky to have a topic such as Shakespeare to around which to curate an exhibition and we had some great leadership from Claire Jones our tutor and the Barber staff. Everyone felt that they had learned a huge amount from the course in terms of planning a loan exhibition and negotiating the difficulties that exhibitions can entail.

The exhibition is open till the 25th September. More information can be found on the exhibition’s webpage

Writing Workshop- Saturday 17th September.

The workshop explores Shakespeare’s language and form in contemporary writing





Dr Greg Salter joins the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies!

We are delighted to announce that Dr Greg Salter, a specialist in British Art after 1945, will be joining the department on 1 September 2016.

Greg completed his PhD at UEA in 2013, with a thesis entitled ‘Domesticity and Masculinity in 1950s British Painting’. Following this, he was post-doctoral researcher at the Geffrye Museum of the Home in East London where he worked on the Documenting Homes Archive, which is a collection of material on homes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including oral histories, family photographs, diaries, and questionnaires. He ran collecting projects with the local community, designed to expand the collecting methodologies and material in the archive.

Greg has taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Queen Mary (London), and on study abroad programmes for US students at Birkbeck and CAPA. His most recent publication is an essay entitled ‘Memories of Kinship in Keith Vaughan’s Post-War Paintings’ which came out in Art History, 38 (2015). He also has an essay, ‘Francis Bacon and Queer Intimacy in Post-War London’ in a forthcoming special issue of Visual Culture In Britain (ed. Reina Lewis and Andrew Stephenson) which will coincide with the opening of the Tate’s Queer British Art show in April next year.


Greg is also completing a book project entitled Reconstructing Home: Painting and Male Identity in Post-War Britain, which examines representations of home in the post-war period of reconstruction. In addition, he has two new projects on the go: one on migration and exhibitions in Britain after 1945, and another on global encounters in queer art and visual culture in Britain after 1945.

As Lecturer in History of Art, Greg will be contributing to a number of modules across the art history curriculum, including those based on his own particular interests and specialisms. His appointment strengthens our existing teaching provision from the middle ages to the modern period, and complements staff research and teaching interests in British Art, feminism and gender studies, the interwar period, and art and domesticity.


Congratulations Emily Robins!

Melbourne 2

Since 2010, The University of Birmingham and The University of Melbourne have been offering the International Museum and Collections Award, a unique exchange program where successful students are offered the opportunity to engage with and work in the museums and cultural collections of the partner institution. Our Undergraduate Emily Robins applied this year, and following a successful interview, has won a place on the scheme and will be off to spend the Summer working in Melbourne!

Huge congratulations to Emily from all of your peers and staff in the Department. We’re not jealous at all…:


Emily has agreed to write reports for us about her experiences whilst in Australia–so watch this space.







I’m just back from a scorching (and I mean scorching!) hot Madrid, where I went to see the Prado’s new exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch: Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition. It’s on until 11.9.2016, so you have plenty of time to see it. And all told, I think that you should–I am glad I came and the exhibition was good. It brings together a diverse collection of works by Bosch and others, active in his milieu and workshop, from collections all over the world, from Lisbon to London, Valencia to Venice via Vienna, which complement the permanent holding of the Prado that houses the largest collection of Boschs anywhere in the world.

Bosco, entrance
I’ll get the moaning out of the way first, though. And the first major gripe concerns the crowds. As always with a “blockbuster” such as this one, there were simply far too many people crammed into the exhibition rooms (which aren’t exactly huge) and there was, as a result, lots of elbowing people out of the way to actually see anything. The exhibition promised to be remarkable, and in some ways it was. But my enjoyment of it–even as a committed Boschiophile–was certainly mired by the number of people crammed in. Entrance to this show is by timed slot (a fairly common strategy now) but I think they should also have capped the visitors for each slot at a much lower limit. Seriously, Prado: this was not enjoyable.

The kind of behaviour on display amongst people in the crowds was also baffling, as well as irritating. There were so many people planted firmly right in front of each of Bosch’s large triptychs, wielding odd little magnifying glasses, zooming in on individual bits of the picture. The irony, of course, is that nobody in Bosch’s day looked at his pictures in this way, which is to say with the aid of magnification instruments. I couldn’t help wonder: what do people actually gain from doing this? Or, perhaps better, what do they think they gain from it? For those with impaired vision, I do of course see the value of such aids… but it can’t be the case that every single person using these things in that room yesterday morning had severely depleted vision. So what was going on? An equally large amount of people usually spent about 5 or so minutes hogging precious space in front of the pictures reading the free little brochure that was picked up at the entrance to the show. Now, I get that people want to know “stuff”, including “facts”, about what they’re looking it (especially when they’ve paid to look at it). But this was frustrating because often these people took only a cursory glance at the picture in question after reading the brochure, before moving on to the next. Why, then, spend 10 mins hogging the space and obscuring the view of someone else, who perhaps wants to look first and read later. The same goes for those damn audio guides!

A particular low point of visiting the exhibition was being told off by a cantankerous fellow visitor (coincidentally, one holding a brochure, headset and magnifying glass…) for standing too close to the pictures: “If you stand back”, she said, “more of us can see the picture”. Well, sorry, but this misses the point entirely. I went to the Prado to look at these pictures closely. And, as I said to my partner (who courageously braved the crowds with me!), by getting up close, pondering over the individual parts of the picture, and discussing them, we were responding to Bosch’s paintings exactly as he would’ve intended, and as viewers in the late 15th and earlier 16th centuries would’ve done. Point is, I guess, that if more people put down the brochure, the headset and magnifying glass (sigh) and pondered the pictures up close for a few minutes and then moved on, the whole experience would’ve been less irritating.


Image: Prado

Garden 1

Image: Prado

Garden 2

Image: Prado

Also baffling to us was the cavalier disinterest that many of the visitors had in some of the more interesting aspects of the exhibition. One of the nicest design features in this exhibition are the little “islands” they have created for displaying Bosch’s large triptychs such as the Epiphany, Haywain and, of course, the Garden of Earthly Delights (which you can make out in the above pictures). This is so that you can see what’s painted on the exteriors of the wings: either beautiful, and carefully executed grisailles, or a wayfarer etc. Yet nobody else except for us seemed to be taking advantage of this display. I, in fact, spent longer looking at the frankly stunning grisaille on the back of Bosch’s Epiphany triptych depicting the Mass of S Gregory–shown below–than I spent looking at the interior, because to catch a glimpse of the latter meant negotiating a semi-frenzied mob, whereas we enjoyed an unobstructed view of the back (and, let’s be honest, these paintings are immensely interesting and exceptionally beautiful!) Similarly, nobody else really bothered to look at Bosch’s exceptional–not to mention rare–drawings that are dotted about the place, including the famous Tree Man; ditto the virtuoso carvings by Adriaen can Wesel, which formed part of a carved altarpiece commissioned in 1475 by the Brotherhood of Our Lady, to which Bosch belonged, for their chapel inside S John’s church (this is to say that these are carvings that Bosch definitely will have known well); ditto a c.1600 manuscript copy of Felipe de Guevara’s Comentario de la pintura y pintores antiguos, which, written about 1560, contains one of the earliest ever critical appraisals of Bosch and his art, in which de Guevara raises some very interesting observations about Bosch’s decorum, naturalism and (most pertinently, given recent controversies ignited by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project) the number of imitations and pastiches of Bosch’s works doing the rounds already by 1560, not to mentioned outright knock-offs; and ditto the so-called Master of Princely Portraits’ Portrait of Engelbrecht II Nassau, of about 1475, which depicts the person who, in all likelihood, commissioned the Garden from Bosch… I could go on, but won’t. Point is, there was lots to see in this show–and I enjoyed seeing all these things–but lots of other people crammed in weren’t looking.

Bosch, Epiphany triptych (closed); Prado, Madrid

Bosch, Epiphany triptych (closed); Prado, Madrid

That was a fairly big moan and I am sorry to go on at length, but I hope it conveys some of the more frustrating aspects of visiting this exhibition. But, putting all that to one side and reflecting on it a bit more in retrospect, the exhibition was a little basic but good (by monographic exhibition standards anyway, and overlooking, for now (!), some of the unanswered questions and reservations I have). They’ve clearly spent a bit of money on it, it flows well, looks attractive and they’ve considered the likes of me, who want to see, say, the backs of the wings properly. Overall,  it’s good.

The show is organised thematically rather than chronologically. As the little leaflet conceded, we can hardly ever agree amongst ourselves on the chronology of Bosch’s oeuvre–though, for my money, good attempts have been made to do just that–so to even attempt a chronological hang would’ve been sort of futile. A chronological hang will also have disrupted the suspense-building that comes from having (predictably but not wrongly) the Garden of Earthly Delights as its crescendo. Had the curators adopted a chronological hang, this couldn’t have happened, since the Garden would have featured nearer the start, given that even the Prado now admits that the Garden is an early work, not a late one (they now think the Garden was made in the mid-1490s; myself and others think 1480s). It addresses seven main themes: “Bosch and ’s-Hertogenbosch”; “The Childhood and Ministry of Christ”; “The Saints”; “From Paradise to Hell”; “The Garden of Earthly Delights”; “The World and Men: Mortal Sins and non-religious works”; and “The Passion of Christ”.

“Bosch and ’s-Hertogenbosch” locates visitors in the city where Bosch lived and worked throughout his life, from which Bosch took his chosen name that he used to sign his works (his actual name was Jheronimus van Acken; “Hieronymus Bosch” was thus a bit of an advert, his signature functioning to say: “this is by Jerome from ‘s-Hertogenbosch, if you want a painting such as this, come visit me there”). This section includes van Wesel’s carvings; a c.1530 view of the mark’t at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where Bosch lived from 1462 (we know which house was Bosch’s and can see it in the painting); the portrait of Bosch from Lampsonius’s Pictorum aliquot Germaniae Inferioris Effigies, published in 1572 in Antwerp by Volcxken Diericx, the widow of Hieronymus Cock (it was a shame that Diericx’s role in bringing this publication to fruition was not made more explicit, with only Cock himself being explicitly named as publisher in the exhibition’s bumf… recognition of successful women in art history still clearly has a way to go); and three engravings by Bosch’s direct contemporary in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the architect and engraver Alart du Hameel. This section also boasted the triptych showing the Ecce Homo, produced in Bosch’s studio in around 1500. This work is exceptional. For one its predella has survived, which is quite unusual for Bosch and shows the instruments of the Passion. And secondly, the donors depicted on the wings have actually been convincingly identified as Peter van Os (municipal secretary of s’-Hertogenbosch and fellow sworn brother of Bosch’s in the Brotherhood of Our Lady) and his wife Henricxken van Langel, who died early in 1501 (possibly from complications arising during childbirth; note the swaddled baby at the feet of Henricxken on the right wing). The Ecce Homo is thus a rare instance in Bosch’s oeuvre for which we can identify a patron. A rather odd inclusion in this section, given its localised remit, is the manuscript copy of du Guevara’s Comentario… , which, though I was happy to see it, didn’t really fit in with the aim of locating Bosch and his art in the artistic and social ferment of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Workshop of Bosch, Ecce Homo triptych with donors; c.1500, Boston.

Workshop of Bosch, Ecce Homo triptych with donors; c.1500, Boston.

“The Childhood and Ministry of Christ” takes as its focus the Prado’s Epiphany triptych. This work–genuinely one of Bosch’s most complex, not to mention most beautiful–is set in some kind of artistic context alongside the: c.1475 Adoration from New York (a work that was once believed to be autograph, then fell from favour, but has risen again recently and is proclaimed here as being genuine on the basis of new technical examination); another Adoration from Philadelphia (traditionally associated with Bosch and his workshop); a drawing showing the Wedding Feast at Cana by a follower of Bosch (which relates to a bunch of paintings of the Ecce Homo, none of which were exhibited, that are believed to be copies after a lost prototype by Bosch); and du Hameel’s engraving of Thistle Leaves from about 1490, which relates to the African Magi in the Epiphany, whose fabulous costume features a similar thistle design on the shoulder and collar. It was great to be able to see these works collected together and to compare them, which really drives home the immense quality of the Epiphany triptych.

But, having seen them all alongside one another, I do struggle to see how the Philadelphia Adoration can seriously be counted among Bosch’s autograph works. The former, which is here dated to 1495-1516, is supposed to be contemporary with or painted after the Epiphany triptych but I just don’t see how somebody responsible for the Epiphany can have turned out at the same time the Philadelphia Adoration, which is altogether much cruder and less impressive. Admittedly some workshop involvement is here acknowledged. And sure, the painted surface of the Philadelphia picture has suffered extensive wear from cleaning, which has perhaps eradicated some of its original subtlety and its maker’s skill. But it is nevertheless perhaps telling that the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) has revised the date of the Philadelphia painting to 1495-1520, which possibly takes us beyond Bosch’s death, thus admitting the possibility that it is a solely workshop production (or even the work of a follower, imitator or pasticheur). The catalogue rejects the BRCP’s finding: “no explanation for the latter end of the range [i.e. 1520] is given”; yet the catalogue is similarly guilty, in which the BRCP’s suggestion is offhandedly dismissed without further qualification.

“The Saints” section–very large in scope–includes what must figure as being amongst Bosch’s most fantastical pictures: no fewer than three renditions of the Temptation of S Anthony (Lisbon and two from the Prado), as well as the fragment of Anthony’s Temptation from Kansas, only this year authenticated as an autograph fragment. Also here are: the Saint Wilgefortis (?) Triptych from Venice; the Job Triptych from Bruges (the latter by a follower), the Saint John the Baptist from the Museo Lázaro Galdiano in Madrid and Saint John the Evangelist from Berlin, the Ghent Saint Jerome, Rotterdam Saint Christopher, and drawings by a follower of Beggars and Cripples. 

Bosch (?), Temptation of S Anthony; Prado Museum

Bosch (?), Temptation of S Anthony; 1495-1520 (?) Prado Museum

This section and the exhibition’s pronouncements on attributions again betray the fraught relationship between the Prado and the BRCP. Let’s take  just one example: the Prado’s Temptation of St Anthony (above)Regular readers will remember that the Antony is one of two loans that the Prado withdrew at the eleventh hour from the Bosch exhibition held earlier this year at the Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Problem is, the BRCP has rejected the attribution of this picture to Bosch. It believes it was done by a follower, in the 1530s or 40s. Others have previously chimed in to this effect: Fischer in 2013 called it a workshop production, executed in Bosch’s lifetime; the 2001 Rotterdam exhibition ascribed it to Bosch or follower (and, as Vermet told me, the Prado threatened withdrawal of the loan then, too, if its status was undermined); and as far back as 1987, Marijnissen put a big ? over the Anthony. The catalogue and show maintain the attribution to Bosch, and previously the Prado has dismissed objections to Bosch’s authorship on the grounds of unfair connoisseurial subjectivity; the catalogue upholds this view, stating that no “technical or stylistic evidence [supports] these conclusions”, and it also places emphasis on the fact that dendrochronological analysis has shown that the panel on which it is painted could have been used from 1464, within Bosch’s lifetime. The catalogue then launches into an extensive formal and technical analysis of the painting which, for them, all points to Bosch’s authorship (including panel prep. and the execution of underdrawings). For me, I’m not sure–on some scores, it’s a bit like splitting hairs. But for what it’s worth, I did think that the picture looked a bit “flat” when I saw it. I am also troubled by the catalogue’s emphasis on the dating of the wood and the way it manipulates this evidence to support its own ends. The catalogue finds it unlikely that a panel would have sat in storage for some 70, even 80, years before it was worked on, which is precisely what the BRCP’s conclusions presuppose as being a routine occurrence. Yet, the Prado’s own dating of the picture, to 1510-15 (the last half-decade of Bosch’s life), similarly assumes that panels did sit in storage for ages, just for a shorter period of time (about 5o years). I can’t get my head around this: I don’t see how you can criticise the BRCP for believing that panels lay around unused for 80 years but at the same time state that this panel did indeed go unused for 50.

Bosch, Crucified female st (image:

Bosch, Crucified female st (image:

Sticking with this section of the exhibition for a moment, I was also struck by the Prado’s decision that the woman being crucified in the Venice triptych is S Wilgefortis. The identification of this figure is by no means certain and has been hotly debated: Julia? Liberata? Eulalia? Wilgefortis? I haven’t yet been able to get to the bottom of why we suddenly apparently know that it is Wilgefortis (the BRCP also plump for this identification; and, to be fair, other arguments have been proffered in favour of is). The catalogue itself is evasive on the issue, if not confused: it mentions the Julia identification, which relates to the question of whether Bosch visited Italy, since Julia’s cult flowered in Brescia; it mentions the troubling fact that the saint in Bosch’s painting doesn’t appear to have a beard, which is one of Wilgefortis’s main attributes; it adds to the mix by raising Silver’s interesting proposal that it is Eulalia, a patron saint of Barcelona, adding that the donors on the wings were ‘notables of that city’ (which confuses me because I’ve always been led to believe that the obscured donor portraits are of Italians?). What appears to have swung it is Zanetti’s testimony of 1771, which describes the triptych, seen in the Doge’s Palace, as a “saint, male or female, on the cross”. The catalogue extrapolates from this that the saint must at one point have donned a beard–why else would Zanetti have been confused about the saint’s sex? But I’m still baffled: when and why did the beard go? No trace of it has been found (as the catalogue admits). One resolution it does tentatively offer, however, is that Bosch himself removed the beard, so as “not to offend” the taste of an Italian audience; but this is hardly satisfactory, since why would Italian clients want a depiction of an obscure saint (Wilgefortis was practically unknown south of the Alps), and, moreover, a representation of an obscure “Northern saint” that has been divested of its main identifying attribute. This still doesn’t quite make sense to me–it didn’t make sense when I last saw the triptych in Venice, and it still doesn’t now.

Bosch, Haywain, after 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

Bosch, Haywain; after 1500, Prado, Madrid

“From Paradise to Hell” really focusses on the Haywain triptych, which is positioned in close proximity to the so-called Visions of Hereafter panels from Venice and the Last Judgment from Bruges. It’s a natural grouping: the Hereafter panels present two opposing spiritual ends, election (the Ascent and Eden) and damnation (Fall of the Damned and Hell), the latter of which plays out in the Last Judgment, both of which complement the essential eschatological message espoused by Bosch in the Haywain, which is that in Eden (left wing) Original Sin was introduced into the world; the central panel shows the outcome of this, a world overrun by gluttony and selfishness in which everybody snatches what they can from the enormous stack of hay (the proverbial basis is: “The world is like a haywain, and each man takes what he can”); while Hell, on the right, shows the inevitable consequence of all this–eternal damnation. The Haywain is both staggeringly beautiful in execution and wickedly, subversively satirical in its message–note that even nuns and a fat monk are complicit in the vast cavalcade of irreverence that trundles across the central panel.

“The Garden of Earthly Delights” is an unabashed celebration of Bosch’s largest and most visually spectacular surviving work. Ample space is provided both in front of and behind the triptych, which is raised on an island in the middle of a large room. Displayed alongside it on the walls are reproductions of infra-red reflectographs and X-radiographs, which reveal to the visitor the changes that Bosch made during the execution of the Garden. Also displayed here is the famous Tree-Man drawing (relating to the enigmatic figure in the Hell wing of the Garden), the Master of Princely Portraits’ Portrait of Engelbrecht II of Nassau, most likely the patron of the Garden, as well as The Book of Hours of Engelbert of Nassau by the Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy and the manuscript of the Vision of Tundale by Simon Marmion. This section speaks for itself; the design of the room bestowing grandeur on the Garden that befits its status as Bosch’s most iconic work. Happily for me, but somewhat inexplicably, fewer people seemed to want to linger in front of this work than they did some of Bosch’s others, so I got to walk straight up to it and enjoy it. It really is a staggeringly inventive work that testifies to Bosch’s abundant imagination. Its message is–like the later Haywain–conventionally eschatological but it is told in daring ways. It’s easy to imagine the kind of joy that this picture brought to an art-lover and bibliophile such as Engelbrecht, and likeminded friends assembled in front of it in his Brussels palace. Surely it functioned there as a visually captivating “conversation piece”, in the literal sense of that term, in which Bosch provides a frankly gluttonous amount of food for thought.

I was also pleased to see that the Prado now not only endorses the suggestion that Engelbrecht was the work’s patron but also concedes that this must have bearing on the triptych’s date, which must have been executed before 1504 (the year of Engelbrechts’s death). On both scores, the Prado unfortunately lagged behind. Experts, namely, Vermet, have been arguing that the Garden is early and most probably commissioned by Engebrecht for some time. (As an aside, but an important one nonetheless, the catalogue rather unfairly, in my view, glosses over the careful scholarship done in this regard. It, for example, summarily dismisses Vermet’s arguments (plural) in this respect, citing instead only the 2001 exhibition catalogue, co-edited by Vermet, and accusing him of having no evidence to support a date in the 1480s, which is patently and misleadingly untrue… as anybody familiar with the literature will know. Once more, this brings into sharp focus the sometimes rather nasty nature of the “politics of art”.)

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado, ,Madrid

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights; 1480s (?) Prado, Madrid

The highlight of “The World and Men: Mortal Sins and non-religious works” is the grouping of Bosch’s Pedlar (Rotterdam), Ship of Fools (Paris), Allegory of Intemperance (more familiarly Gluttony, New Haven) and the Death of Miser (Washington), which originally were all part of a triptych that has since been dismembered. The central panel is lost: we have no idea what its subject was or the fate that befell it (though the drastic, heavy-handed dismemberment might suggest that the central panel was already in ruinous condition–a fire?). The Pedlar, Ship of Fools, Allegory of Intemperance, and the Death of Miser constituted the wings of the triptych. The two wings were detached and sliced down the middle, to separate the interior sides from the exterior. The two halves making up the Pedlar (originally the backs of the wings–that the Pedlar was the closed view is suggested strongly by its semi-grisaille colour) were then fixed together and sawn into an octagonal shape to make the picture now seen in Rotterdam. What was originally the interior left wing was then spliced horizontally to create two separate paintings (the Ship of Fools and Allegory of Intemperance), while the Miser remained pretty much as it was. Given that these fragments are now widely dispersed, I had never seen them alongside one another until now. Thinking about their themes standing in front of them all, I had the chance to think a bit harder about the likely subject of the non-extant central panel which must, in a similar vein to the Haywain, have focussed on unbridled human sin and folly (precisely the themes announced in the wings; while the pedlar, originally seen on the outside, reminded the viewer of their status as a pilgrim, who must negotiate the vicissitudes of human life–thus the interior functioned as exempla contraria).

Also here, in the “World and Men”, is the so-called tabletop showing the Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things, which, especially since the BRCP’s findings came out, is another “controversial” work. The Prado ascribe it without reservation to Bosch’s hand; the BRCP, following other, earlier arguments, reject such an attribution. Either way, it is a very interesting picture and its quite fun here to be able to walk around the tabletop to view each of Bosch’s representations of the Deadly Sins, in ways that Phillip II must have been prone to doing in his private apartment at El Escorial, where it was from 1574 until Phillip’s death.


Bosch or follower (?), Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things; Prado, Madrid

“The Passion of Christ” does what it says on the tin. A range of works are on show here, from the London Christ Mocked (assuredly by Bosch and one of his more austere and restrained works but, for me, one of his most moving) to the Passion Triptych from Valencia, made by a follower of Bosch’s (possibly in his workshop), for the wife of Henry III of Nassau, who inherited the Garden from his uncle, Engelbrecht. Also here was the Entombment of Christ drawing from the BM, which is hesitatingly associated to Bosch’s hand here (though compelling evidence suggests it was not done by Bosch, and years ago, in fact, the then keeper of Netherlandish drawings and prints at the BM, An van Camp, told me in no uncertain terms that the drawing is by a follower).

Overall this exhibition is worth seeing–it is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many works by Bosch and his contemporaries in a single place. It is a visually stunning romp through Bosch’s art and Bosch’s world–the exhibition’s design certainly, for my money, does justice to the quality of the works involved. The partner objected to the lighting, which here and there is a bit severe. (The glare on the reverse of the S John on Patmos picture, for example, did make it very hard indeed to see the beautifully executed and subtle little monsters lurking about in the very dark background surrounding the grisaille Passion tondo.)

The shop has a veritable cornucopia of the usual tat, from pencils to iPhone cases, as well as the now seemingly-customary high-end items including rather pricey silk scarves (does anybody actually buy these?!?). I was obviously only really tempted by the catalogue, available in English or Spanish, edited by the exhibition’s curator Pilar Silva Maroto (400 pages, paperback, €35). This richly-illustrated catalogue boasts a number of essays that shed further light on Bosch and his art, with individual entries on each object included in the show.

The show runs until 11.9.2016. General admission is €16; concessions priced at €8.

Bosch at the Prado continued (if you understand Spanish)


The Prado have just released another video ahead of the opening of their new Bosch exhibition: Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition (31.05.2016 – 11.09.2016).It’s presented by Pilar Silva, who is head of the Prado’s collection of flemish painting before 1600, and who has had the lovely job (gripes over the findings of the BRCP notwithstanding) of curating the Bosch exhibition.

To say that my Spanish is rusty is putting it generously. But unless I’m totally wrong, and if I am, sorry, I think that Silva mentions in the video that the Garden of Earthly Delights was probably commissioned by Engelbrecht II of Nassau. If this is indeed what she says (?!), it heralds an interesting shift in the accepted view.

Most scholars have up to now tended to view the Garden as a mature work by Bosch (usually 1510 or thereabouts; certainly post-1500). The earliest documented reference to the triptych comes from 1517, when it was seen by Antonio de Beatis in Henry III of Nassau’s Brussels Palace. Since this became known, it always been used as evidence to support the view that the Garden is late, since it has often been assumed that Henry commissioned the triptych from Bosch. Underlying all this, of course, has always been the idea that Bosch’s most visually spectacular work must have been the product of his fully-formed genius. Silva’s reference to Engelbrecht in the above video, though, signals serious interest in an alternative point of view.

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado, ,Madrid

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480s, Prado, Madrid

I’ve always believed that the Garden is an early work; Bernard Vermet has convincingly, in my view, championed just this. It is based on style (I, for example, don’t see how the Garden can seriously be thought of as a mature work when you put it next to the Haywain, which certainly is). The surprisingly early dating of the planks of wood from which the triptych is made–surprising, that is, to proponents of a late date for the Garden– fully supports an earlier dating: the tree concerned was felled in the 1460s, meaning that the panels could have been assembled and painted on, say, during the 1480s, which seems to be the most likely date for the picture’s execution. And if you believe this, that the picture could have been made as early as the 1480s (and note at the start of the Prado’s video that the dating has indeed been pushed back as far as 1490), then you have to look elsewhere for possible patrons. And it turns out that you needn’t look far: Engelbrecht II of Nassau was Henry III’s uncle, and when Engelbrecht died his estate fell into the hands of Henry. Engelbrecht could therefore have been the patron of Bosch’s Garden, who, it turns out, had the opportunity to commission the work from Bosch in 1481, when he stayed in Bosch’s hometown of ‘s-Hertogenbosch to attended a meeting of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

It’ll be interesting to read more about this when I get my hands on the literature…

Should also say–I am going to Madrid in a fortnight’s time, and will do a write up of the show. So watch this space.

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