The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty Three
In the May 2010 podcast, the Gallery's latest associate artist, Delaroche on revolution, and the collection that changed British tastes in art
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. Coming up in this month’s show: Oliver Cromwell gets mixed up in the French Revolution and we visit the archives to hear how a heavy-smoking, hard-drinking, penny-pinching duke changed the history of art-collecting in Britain.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start this episode with an introduction to the National Gallery’s new Associate Artist. Every few years a contemporary artist is invited to make the Gallery their home. They work in a studio and have full access to the collection and everything that goes on behind the scenes. Previous incumbents have included Peter Blake, Paula Rego, and more recently, Alison Watt. The latest appointee is Michael Landy, famous for ‘Break Down’, the 2001 project that saw him painstakingly catalogue and destroy every one of his possessions on London’s Oxford Street. Colin Wiggins went along to say hello.
Colin Wiggins: Michael, welcome, this is your first day in the empty studio. What do you think of it?
Michael Landy: It’s very nice. They’ve painted it very nicely and it’s empty. It’s a bit like my head at the moment, and we haven’t got any furniture. I brought my sketchbook and I’m going to have a look at the collection today.
Colin Wiggins: What was your first reaction when we invited you to come here and do this project?
Michael Landy: Well, my first reaction was I thought you were pulling my leg. So I had to come here to find out whether there was a real Colin Wiggins, whether he really did exist. So I’m here... it’s a bit like beginning college again without any more students – it’s just me. But I feel slightly excited about it and apprehensive. Ultimately you know there’s an exhibition at the end of it and I get judged in the context of the collection and the great artists, so lucky I’m a bit stupid, so it doesn’t really scare me too much.
Colin Wiggins: Did you have any doubts about undertaking the project? I mean when you realised it was a genuine offer did you think ‘oh yeah, I have to do that’, or did you think ‘maybe I best think about this’?
Michael Landy: I don’t think it really took me too long because I’m kind of intrigued about the whole thing, so I... obviously responding to art as well, which it’s not normally what I respond to, I mean... you know, daily rituals of life, or whatever, the outside world, that’s more my thing. So I think responding to art is not something... I think I’m kind of intrigued about drawing. I’ll probably start by drawing and then see where it takes me.
Colin Wiggins: And do you have any parts of the collection that you think you might head towards to start making these drawings?
Michael Landy: No, I’m just going to look. And I think that’s probably what you want me to do at first. I think there would be a problem if I just assumed that I knew exactly what I was going to do from the start. I think that... I mean, I’m an artist in residence. I’m here in a sense to look and see what I think is appropriate. I kind of feel a bit like when I did my project ‘Semi-Detached' at Tate Britain, where I was basically like artist in residence at my parent’s house. You know, I’d left home when I was 18 and I was back there aged 40 and it was like a project about my father, but suddenly I became artist in residence at my house with a sketch-book and a pad and I, you know, I drew my dad and I imagine it’s going to be a similar thing here. After a while I’ll just become part of the fixtures and fittings and people will get used to me being around.
Colin Wiggins: It’s nice that you say that. You’re certainly not the first Associate Artist who’s said that. I think it’s something that almost becomes the first thing that artists understand. That this amazing collection here that they’re dropped in the middle of, it’s going to affect them in some way and I think that the kinds of artists that we’re looking for – this is exactly why we asked you actually Michael – is an artist who doesn’t know what’s going to happen, an artist who recognises that the collection is going to have a surprising impact on their work. I think the kinds of artists that we would not be interested in inviting to do this are artists who think they already know what they’re going to do before they move in. And you spoke to Peter Blake who was one of your predecessors – did he give you any hints?
Michael Landy: I spoke to Peter and Alison. Um... he may have done, but I’ve forgotten them. That’s a problem with me. [Laughs.]
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Colin Wiggins – and good luck to Michael Landy.
Delaroche, 'Cromwell and Charles I'
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Now to our major exhibition of work by the French artist, Delaroche. One of the star pictures of the show is ‘Cromwell and Charles I’. When this work went on public display in 1831 it appeared to have plenty to say to the French about the revolutionary events of their recent past, despite its historic English subject matter. Leah Kharibian visited the exhibition with one of the show’s curators, Stephen Bann, and began by asking him to describe this intriguing work.
Stephen Bann: Well, we see a coffin. We see Oliver Cromwell opening that coffin and inside is the dead body of King Charles the First, who has just been executed by order of the parliament. Cromwell has a sword, he has a plumed hat. He is... one wouldn’t say triumphant at all. It’s certainly a much more introspective look and in fact quite what he was thinking has always been a matter for speculation, right from the initial stage at which this picture was exhibited.
Leah Kharibian: So people were looking at this within the context of recent political French events, but how does that work? I mean, this is an image from Stewart history?
Stephen Bann: Yes, it’s an image from Stewart history but in the few years before historians and men of letters, Guizo and Chateaubriand, had written very extensively to suggest that there was a close parallelism between the events of the English Civil War, the middle of the 17th century, and what had happened in their own country from the period of the French Revolution, that is to say 1789, onwards. And this therefore was a way of looking at French history but through the medium of the events of English history. And this juncture in which the king has been executed was clearly a real turning point in the English Civil War and something which revived memories of the fact that their king, Louis XVI, had himself been guillotined not so many years before.
Leah Kharibian: And I know that one critic, perhaps even the same critic, said that this picture strikes us all with its high morality. Now what did he mean by that?
Stephen Bann: He meant really that it had a moral lesson for us (‘us’ being the French people) that the great move to replace the king with a republic in the English case – that had taken place in France as well – had its sad side, its unfortunate side, and its disastrous side, as well, of course, as having its progressive side. So it was a matter of weighing up in front of a picture like this, of weighing up, really through the introspective glance of Cromwell, the future that would spring from this act of regicide.
Leah Kharibian: I mean, looking at this picture, which is very large and very striking, and it is very obvious that Charles had just been decapitated – that’s a really nasty wound that we see all around his neck – it does make you pause for thought. By 1831 I suppose the French had really had their fill of triumphalist political pictures – people scaling barricades or looking triumphant in battle (say, for example, Napoleon) – and this seemed to strike a completely different note. I mean, is it the case that for the French it was really only possible to look at the painful recent events via the lens of not only distant history, but also foreign history?
Stephen Bann: Yes, I think that’s true. And it’s true that also Cromwell had become, you could say, a ‘hot topic’ in the 1820s because Victor Hugo had written a play on Cromwell which could not be performed. It couldn’t be performed because the people who might have put it on were afraid of the sort of reaction in terms of censorship that this would seem to be celebrating a regicide. And what is striking is that it takes the next revolution in 1848 before Delaroche can take the subject of Marie Antoinette and many other painters too. In other words, the events of the revolution do come into the history of picture-making, or historical painting, but it’s at a much later stage and at this stage this oblique way of gesturing towards the events of the revolution and the empire has to be the only way.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Stephen Bann. It’s your last chance to see the Delaroche exhibition – it closes in just a few weeks time on May 23. A combined exhibition and audio guide ticket costs £11 and is available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at www.nationalgallery.org.uk. Do check the website for details of our special guided tours of the show, led by curator Anne Robins, or Gallery director, Dr Nicholas Penny.
The Bridgewater syndicate
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Our next piece continues the theme of revolution. Violent political upheavals don’t just affect people and institutions. In Europe, at least, they’ve also heralded movements in art, as the once powerful and wealthy are forced to sell or abandon their private collections. These relocations sometimes cause significant artistic revolutions in turn. Leah Kharibian reports.
Leah Kharibian: I’m here in the National Gallery library with one of the Gallery’s research curators, Susanna Avery-Quash, to discuss how the French Revolution of 1789 caused a revolution in taste when a particular collection of pictures arrived on this side of the Channel. Susanna, I wonder if you could set the scene for us.
Susanna Avery-Quash: Yes, certainly. Well, the Duc d’Orléans had inherited a wonderful collection of world-class masterpieces basically from every major European school and in every medium. In fact, 25 pictures now in the National Gallery, including Sebastiano del Piombo’s 'Raising of Lazarus', were among those pictures, so you can see what a wonderful collection it was. Well, during the revolutionary era, when things were getting pretty hot for the aristocrats, he needed money pretty quickly and he had to think fast how to get the money and also maintain his political standing. So what he came up with was the idea to sell off his collection of paintings. It didn’t actually serve him very well in the end because he actually lost his head.
Leah Kharibian: But he sold his collection and it had to leave the country. There was a huge scramble on this side of the Channel, wasn’t there, to see if there could be funds raised to get this fantastic collection of pictures.
Susanna Avery-Quash: There were certainly many groups in England that thought it would be a real shame or a lost opportunity, not to buy up the marvellous French and Italian pictures. So first of all there was an art-collecting collector of the Bank of England, a man called Jeremiah Harmon and he secured the French and Italian pictures from the Orléans collection. For whatever reason, he chose to sell the pictures almost immediately and so in the summer of 1798 they were bought by a gentleman art dealer called Michael Bryan for some £43,000. Now Bryan was in touch with three noblemen and the main contender of that group was Francis Egerton, the third and last Duke of Bridgewater. And he bought the paintings with two of his relatives.
Leah Kharibian: And this group became known as the Bridgewater syndicate, didn’t it? And tell me a little bit about Bridgewater because he seems to be an unlikely character for an art dealer.
Susanna Avery-Quash: In fact, he does not seem to be a very savoury character at all. He was known in his day as a misogynist, a heavy smoker, and a hard drinker, and in some contemporary reports he’s recounted as a penny-pinching misanthrope, so it doesn’t really seem that he was a likely admirer of Old Master paintings. But where the painting episode comes in is that he was a wily businessman and he appears to have bought the paintings as a speculation.
Leah Kharibian: And so this Bridgewater syndicate buys the pictures and what happens next?
Susanna Avery-Quash: Well, then the syndicate decide that they are going to retain 94 of the pictures that they consider the real masterpieces. And then they decide that they are going to sell off the rest of the Italian and French pictures. They do this over a seven-month period in 1798, where they hold the collection in two different venues. One collection is held in the commercial collection of Bryan, the dealer, and the other is in the Lyceum in the Strand.
Now, several eye witnesses go and record their reactions to this wonderful spectacle of paintings. For example, the famous critic William Hazlitt, he recalled that ‘a new heaven and a new earth stood before me’. The point was that nobody in England really had had the chance for 150 years to see so many Old Masters in the flesh in one place. The last time had been when Charles I had been executed and his collection had been dispersed.
Leah Kharibian: Do you think it made a difference? Did it really create a revolution in taste?
Susanna Avery-Quash: I think that’s not too much to say so because the point was before the Orléans collection was put on display many English people didn’t have the chance to see Old Master paintings on their doorstep and especially not in London. Certain English people in the country got in to see painting collections in the private houses in Houghton, Holkham, Blenheim, or Chatsworth, but the average English viewer didn’t have that sort of access, and so they would have been restricted possibly to seeing paintings in the London auction houses, just when they came up for sale, or just by looking at engravings, and that’s the only way they would have seen pictures. So by seeing these wonderful things in the flesh gave them a sense of the type of art they could be collecting and what they should be expecting to buy in the future.
Leah Kharibian: But does gallery-going become a new social activity?
Susanna Avery-Quash: Yes, I think it certainly does. The important thing about the Bridgewater dynasty is the fact that through their efforts the British public had a chance to enjoy great masterpieces really for the first time. Bridgewater himself was not a kindly man and he kept very many of his paintings to himself and did not display them in public. However, his descendents – his nephew and that nephew’s second son – were instrumental in opening up their private home in London to the general public. And it was those temporary exhibitions that finally led on to the establishment of permanent exhibitions, for example, the National Gallery.
Leah Kharibian: So from a rather crabby old man we actually have a great deal to thank him for – thank you very much.
Susanna Avery-Quash: Thank you.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Susanna Avery-Quash. To find out more, visit our website and search for Bridgewater. Susanna’s posted lots of information about the family and its impact on collecting and display in Britain. You can also find details and images of all our paintings there – at www.nationalgallery.org.uk. If you’re visiting, we’re open 10 till 6 daily, and 10 till 9 on Fridays.
That’s it for now. Until next month, goodbye!