The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Sixty

October 2011

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Turner vs Claude: exhibition preview. Plus broadcaster Gus Casely-Hayford on ‘Your Paintings’ and the view from Rubens’s window.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I'm Miranda Hinkley. In this month's episode...

Writer and broadcaster Gus Casely-Hayford takes us on a tour of a new website that puts the nation's art online.

And we take a timely look at one of the Gallery's most autumnal scenes, Rubens' 'A View of Het Steen'...

But we start with news of an upcoming exhibition. No, not Leonardo... although with opening day just around the corner on the 9th of November, you might want to buy your tickets if you’re hoping to visit in the first few weeks. ...

We’re going to look further ahead now, with a sneak preview of next year’s first big show. It’s called Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude and to tell me about it, Colin Wiggins took me to one the smallest galleries in the building, Room 15. Just four paintings hang there: two by Turner – and two by Claude.

Colin Wiggins: Claude in the 18th and 19th centuries was fashionable beyond belief, which is why the National Gallery has got such a world-beating collection of these paintings, and most of them were here from the very early days of the Gallery’s foundation. He was known as the Raphael of landscape painting – a kind of sacred cow, if you like, from the history of art, and that’s what makes one of our forthcoming exhibitions very exciting because we’re putting Turner and Claude alongside one another, exactly as is in this room. We’ve got the two 17th century paintings by Claude and then we’ve got these two paintings that in contrast to Claude’s beautiful, serene, classical, balanced, harmonious, restful compositions, are kind of violent, off-key, aggressive, in your face... But the most interesting thing about this room is that the two Turners hang here as a result of one of the terms of Turner’s will. When he died in 1851, one of the key terms of the will was that these two pictures should be left to the National Gallery and be hung alongside these two paintings by Claude Lorraine. Now, let’s just put that in a little bit of contemporary context. Lucien Freud died the other week, and let’s just imagine the opening of his will and he leaves two big paintings to the National Gallery on condition that they are hung alongside, let’s say, Titian and Rubens. I mean can you imagine the outcry? Can you just imagine what people would say about Lucien Freud for doing that? And Turner doing this in 1851, it’s arrogance beyond belief. But what I think he’s doing, what he’s trying to say – is ‘alright Claude, I love you, or I loved you... I learnt from you, but actually I’m better. It’s a kind of collision. Turner is actually taking Claude Lorraine on. It’s Turner being, I think, extremely provocative. Superficially, there’s a lot in common but the more you start to think about what Turner’s doing the more you find it to be an aggressive attack on the values of traditional landscape painting.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, it certainly sounds like that’s going to be challenging to viewers as well, kind of confronted with these two great artists who are so very different.

Colin Wiggins: Well, I hope that’s what the viewers do – that the viewers see it as not a spot-the-difference, or a comparison... that they see it as Turner going in there with all guns blazing and trying to stake a claim for his own greatness alongside the greatness of Claude, which I think Turner is trying to tell us that he’s superceding...

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Colin Wiggins. If you want to see Turner’s take on Claude, you haven’t got long to wait – Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude opens next March... we’ll have more news early in the New Year. And Colin will be back next month to tell us about 2012’s other big shows at the Gallery – including the latest on a unique, multi-disciplinary collaboration inspired by masterpieces by Titian that will culminate not only in an exhibition, but also a series of new ballets to be performed at the Royal Opera House.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): The UK holds one of the world’s greatest public art collections in its galleries and civic buildings... nearly 200,000 paintings in all. For many years, the Public Catalogue Foundation has worked to make these pictures accessible in a series of printed books. But now – thanks to the BBC – the project’s come right up to date, with the launch of a new website. Your Paintings already holds digital images of 77,000 publically owned works... and the aim is to capture all 200,000 in time. Cathy FitzGerald went to meet writer and broadcaster, Gus Casely-Hayford, to find out more.

Gus Casely-Hayford: I think the wonderful thing about this collection is that it’s scattered between such a variety of buildings, from fire stations to town halls, but also in some of our great galleries. The unfortunate side of that is that 200,000 is such a big number that they can’t all be on display at the same time and so only a fifth of those paintings are available for us to see. There just isn’t the resource to put all of these works on display. I mean, 200,000 – you can imagine the wall space; you can imagine the conservation issues as well in keeping that many works available to be seen. But what this project allows is for us to have greater access to what is a public collection of paintings – and one of the great public collections of paintings in the world.

Cathy Fitzgerald: And originally it was the brainchild of the Public Catalogue Foundation – that’s right isn’t it?

Gus Casely-Hayford: That’s right, the Public Catalogue Foundation – they’ve been the pioneers in this, in that they have, over the years, really held the flame up for public access to these works and wonderfully the BBC have now come on board to help broaden the access to this work, and they’ve done so digitally. For most of us who run around with mobile phones that have access to the internet – we have all sorts of ways that we can get online. And now we have a way – just to bring a little sparkle of magic to our days because we can just dip into this incredible collection of work. Which is yours – it’s yours – that’s the thing, and you can now have the kind of privileged access that only a limited number of curators and people who work in museums – conservationists – would usually have.

Cathy Fitzgerald: And what would people find if they go to the website?

Gus Casely-Hayford: What I love about this website is that it isn’t just a huge archive of these images, which would be fantastic in itself, but there are lots of ways into... lots of different avenues into this work. There are a number of people – figures in the arts and culture – who have created their own choices, so you can wander with them through this public collection and get through them a sense of what these works mean to these figures, which is glorious. It’s like having a friend take them round your private gallery.

Cathy Fitzgerald: And the BBC website is called Your Paintings isn’t it?

Gus Casely-Hayford: Yes, the BBC website is Your Paintings. And I really do feel that this is a project that comes to life when you wander round and you get the sense that this public collection really is yours. We are so lucky to have this work available to us and what this digital project actually does is it underlines the fact that we have the freedom to curate it, to enjoy it in whatever way we please. It’s just how a public collection should be used. So if you get the chance, please do have a look because it really is very worthwhile – and very uplifting as well.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Gus Casely-Hayford. If you want to take up his invitation, visit www.bbc.co.uk/yourpaintings. You can browse the nation’s collection, or take an online tour with a celeb – among the guides, you’ll find Monty Don on the art of gardening; Frank Skinner on religious paintings; and Mary Beard on myth... not to mention Gus himself, talking about outsider art.  And if you’d like to get involved, the site’s also looking for people to help tag the collection.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And finally ... The leaves are changing colour, the nights are drawing in and there's a sharp chill in the air. It's autumn. But rather than mourn the loss of summer, we're celebrating the season as we visit one of the Gallery's best-loved landscapes.  It's an autumnal view painted some three hundred and seventy years ago by the great Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens. Leah Kharibian met Jacqui Ansell from the Gallery’s Education team to find out more.

Leah Kharibian: Jacqui, we’re standing in front of Rubens's 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning' and it’s a big picture, some seven and a half feet across and with it Rubens places us on high ground, over-looking this wonderfully expansive landscape below. What is it that we can see inside it?

Jacqui Ansell: Well from the golden glow of the sunrise your eye sweeps round to the town of Meline in the distance that rises up and in the foreground you can see the hustle and bustle of people setting off to market. We’ve got a woman on the cart, probably with some milk and a tethered calf, and then we’ve got in the foreground, a hunter, and his prey, the partridge, and then on the right hand side, you’ve got a field full of cows and you’ve got two women milking the cows, just giving us an idea of the energy that goes into making this a productive landscape. And there are some tiny details – there’s a lady picking mushrooms in the shadow of a tree and there’s a man fishing as well.

Leah Kharibian: And what about the 'Het Steen' of the title – what’s that?

Jacqui Ansell: That’s the stone house that you can see glistening there, with its windows lit up by the early morning sun and of course just even having glass in your windows was a great mark of having wealth and prestige at this time. It’s got a tall tower and its gables show us the characteristic style that gives this stone house its real grandeur.

Leah Kharibian: So this was the house that Rubens had bought – is that right?

Jacqui Ansell: It is. And I suppose just as important, or even more importantly, he bought the title that went with it – he was Lord of the Manor of Het Steen.

Leah Kharibian: And in buying this country estate is he retiring? This is quite late on in his career, isn’t it? He’s in his late ‘50s...

Jacqui Ansell: And it is to some extent an active retirement... he does still work, so this was a house that complemented his town house and as befits his status he would want somewhere where he could retire and be reflective and engage in what he said was the sweetest of professions – the painting that he loved. But he is looking forward to I think a very happy time with his new young, lovely wife. His first wife died ten years before but he’s married now to Helena Fourment, a 16-year-old, who’s producing children for him of course.

Leah Kharibian: And is it the case that we can actually see them in the picture?

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, just to the left in the middle ground you can see a rather fine-looking gentleman in a plumed hat and red britches and we think that’s actually Rubens himself. Next to him, his wife, and next to them, the baby on the lap of a wet-nurse, which of course would be usual for rich people at that time.

Leah Kharibian: There’s something so lovely about this landscape, as if he really feels fond of the whole thing... that he wants to embrace the whole thing. Does that ring true for you?

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, I think so. Your eye really wants to linger over every detail and the enjoyment, I think, is expressed not only on the surface of the panel, but also in the idea that if you turn the panel around you’ll see that it’s made up of many panels, because as he started to paint the central section, he found he really wanted to continue, and he expanded it and expanded it as he went on.

Leah Kharibian: So how many panels are there in all, do you think?

Jacqui Ansell: I think there are about 17 panels, and it wasn’t unusual for him to increase a work once he’d already started on it, but there is this suggestion that he enjoyed it so much he almost got carried away and you can see it as a reflection of the love invested in not only the building but also the landscape, and the idea of being an artist creating that landscape.

Leah Kharibian: This is an autumnal landscape very clearly, but should we be looking at an autumnal landscape as something equivalent to him thinking about his old age? He’s 59 now, and he’s also not well, as well, isn’t he?

Jacqui Ansell: There’s no evidence to suggest that this is specifically a landscape in that vein, but I think you can’t help but see this almost as an elegiac piece – it’s very peaceful, it’s very calm and panoramic. You’ve got this wonderful aerial perspective and it makes me think of the seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness to come. And of course it was painted retrospectively as we know, so close to the end of his life, when he’s suffering from gout. He’s finding it difficult to paint. It’s not surprising to see it in those terms then, is it? As something that is fertile and shows really a delight... not only in painting but in painting scenes that meant something to him. It’s a very personal landscape, I think.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Jacqui Ansell.

If you’d like to see Rubens’s painting for yourself, come along to the National Gallery. 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning' is on display in Room 29, and we’re open 10 till 6 every day, and 10 till 9 on Fridays. Next month, we’ll hear from curator Luke Syson as Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan finally opens its doors. You can buy tickets in advance at the Gallery or online with a booking fee at www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

That’s it for this episode. Until next time, goodbye.

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