The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Sixty Seven

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May 2012


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Flirting, fighting and gambling with Reynolds’s ‘Bloody’ Colonel Tarleton. Plus Turner Inspired and the dazzling Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley.

We start today with a visit to one of the most imposing portraits in the Gallery. Hung with a wall to himself between two marble columns, the subject is a soldier in the middle of battle, foot planted on a cannon, smoke billowing behind. This is Colonel Tarleton, a key figure in the American War of Independence, captured in the late eighteenth century by Sir Joshua Reynolds. He 'looks' every inch the hero – but was he? Cathy FitzGerald met art-historian James Heard to find out.

James Heard: He’s standing in such a way that nobody’s going to get past him – in other words one of his legs is sort of driven into the ground almost. And he’s posed in an interesting way, looking at the enemy. You can smell the smoke; you can smell the gunfire – it’s absolutely fantastic and there’s a wonderful sense of movement because behind the figure there’s another figure –a groom holding tight on these horses who are backing away from the action.

Cathy Fitzgerald: So we know this chap is Colonel Tarleton, in his bright white breeches. What do we know about him and why has Reynolds made him such a heroic type?

James Heard: He comes from Liverpool. His father is the mayor and the family into local politics. But the family are traders so there’s wealth there. And when he’s nineteen he’s left £5000 by his father – and what happens to it? Gambling. He loses it instantly. And that’s why he goes into the army. His mother sort of bails him out and gets him a commission in the green dragoons and that’s the uniform that you can see him wearing there – so £800 she spends.

Cathy Fitzgerald: And so he ends up in America during the War of Independence... and how does he do, this gambling cad of ours?

James Heard: He actually organises his squad of soldiers very, very effectively. So he went on numerous skirmishes; he took the town of Charleston – he was hugely successful. And he was an extraordinarily brave man. But he was the sort of soldier who sometimes his superiors didn’t like because he had great initiative – he did things by himself, often without telling people. And if you’re American, you don’t think too highly of him. Let me tell you about the story of General Pearson. Now he was on the American side - he was a distinguished soldier – and by the time that Tarleton actually reached the place that he lived, the plantation, the General was dead. He had him dug up; sat down at his table and got his widow to serve him a meal. And then the whole place was burnt down; all the crops were burnt; I mean – what savagery. The locals of course were absolutely stunned because this was beyond the tactics of warfare – and this was not the only time he did something like this and he was known as Bloody Tarleton.

Cathy Fitzgerald: And he’s particularly notorious for the Battle of Waxsaw isn’t he – what happened there?

James Heard: Well, the General on the other side was a man called Burford. He was basically surrounded by a smaller troop commanded by Tarleton. They eventually surrendered; the white flags came out – Tarleton wasn’t having any of it; he massacred pretty well everyone, so this was a terrible thing... and of course it actually backfired, because it sent more people onto the American side – it was a real disaster.

Cathy Fitzgerald: So he comes back to England and given this slightly ambiguous, slightly confusing record – how’s he received?

James Heard: He’s actually received as a hero, because – think about it – we’ve lost America, so we need a hero and when he arrives back in Liverpool, his home city, there is cheering... the church bells toll the whole night. So for some people he was a great hero. And he becomes the MP for Liverpool and becomes a kind of political figure, but he doesn’t want slavery to be abolished – why? Because his family are actually in the slave trade in cotton and sugar and owning plantations over on the other side of the Atlantic.

Cathy Fitzgerald: And what would I have thought of him – if I’d have come upon Colonel Tarleton in London?

James Heard: I think you would have been absolutely charmed. Charmed by his Lancashire accent, his eyes, his red hair... above all, his bearing. There was no question about it – he charmed every lady who came across him, so he was a charming villain if you like.

Cathy Fitzgerald: He doesn’t sound all that charming, after that...

James Heard: He’s Flashman, isn’t he? You know, public schools, caddishness, sport – you know, he lost all his money, and I don’t think he was ever going to be a lawyer – you know, he was a man of action, everybody says this, a man of action, whether it was in the bed or the battlefield.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio):

James Heard talking about Reynold’s portrait of 'Colonel Tarleton' – on display in Room 36.

And now to our current exhibition, 'Turner Inspired: In the light of Claude'. Turner had a lifelong passion for the art of the 17th century landscapist, Claude Lorraine, whose poetic depictions of the ancient world often featured the sun rising or setting over water.  For Turner, this focus on light became something of an obsession.  But as Leah Kharibian found out when she met up with Tate Conservator Becca Hellen, Turner’s engagement with the 17th century master saw him explore some unusual subjects using modern materials.  This is particularly true of one of the star exhibits of the show – Turner’s ‘Regulus.’

Leah Kharibian: Becca, in many respects this picture is a perfect example of Turner inspired by Claude. It has the sun in the centre of the composition, over an imagined port and it even has an ancient Roman subject. Could you take us through it?

Becca Hellen: It’s a very dramatic subject, actually. And Regulus was a Roman General – he was captured by the Carthaginians. They sent him back to Rome to negotiate the release of Carthaginian prisoners. When he returned, having failed his mission, the punishment, legend has it, was very dramatic – so they cut off his eye-lids and exposed him to the sunshine, therefore blinding him.

Leah Kharibian: And so really... this picture... we become Regulus – is that the idea, do you think?

Becca Hellen: Well, different art-historians have different positions on this idea. Some identify figures within the painting as possibly being Regulus, and others feel that the colour and the overall suffusion of very bright yellows and strong sunshine indicate that we the viewer are Regulus – and I think it’s an interesting but contentious point.

Leah Kharibian: Right, now, obviously this picture does have all these Claudean elements – there are a sort of huge bank of wonderful classical buildings on the right-hand side, ships on the left-hand side... all this sunshine coming across the water, but really apart from these similarities, I mean this is a really, actually almost a wild picture.

You began... before we started you were holding up a light to show it in raking light – and there are some really rough and crusty areas of the picture. What’s Turner up to?

Becca Hellen: He’s painting, I think, in a way that he often did by this stage in his career with more texture, more passion and a free-er application of paint. He was experimental – he often mixed media, we know that he used oil mixed with mastic, sometimes mixed with beeswax or spermaceti wax in his medium, and he’s a very vigorous painter. You know he’s recorded to have had a terribly long thumbnail on one hand which he used to mark into paint surfaces so you can see that there are areas of impasto which create the fantastic ripples across the water, quite low down as the sun streams across the centre of the sea – and you can see that it’s choppy from all the boats and paddles and activity around it. And that’s portrayed by Turner as physically being whipped up paint.

Leah Kharibian: And I was going to ask you the colours that Turner uses, because obviously he’s being quite experimental in the way he’s pushing colours around, but what about the actual colours themselves?

Becca Hellen: Turner is well-known for using the newest and latest colours as soon as they arrived on the market and in particular, what we know from technical analysis of just one tiny paint flake that dislodged in the 80s, possibly the 90s, is that there is a lot of chrome yellow in this painting. Now chrome yellow came into use and was available from about 1813, 1814 and Turner uses it immediately. Not only that but he then will go on and use the next incarnation of chrome yellow and these have definitely been identified within this work.

Leah Kharibian: It’s fascinating, so Turner’s a bit sort of like an electronics geek who has to get the latest bit of kit – you know, he can’t leave it alone. So he’s constantly adding these new colours. Is this something you feel typifies his way of working – this constant striving, this innovation? Because although this in many respects a typical look back to Claude, it seems to be so innovative.

Becca Hellen: Well, I think in Turner’s pigments you find both his deference to classicism and the great palates of old because he maintained his use of real ultra-marine – and even though synthetic ultra-marine blue was available, he rather eschewed it and it’s not found in any of his oil paintings, possibly right until the very, very latest ones.

So here we have an artist who loves original, real ultra-marine made from lapis lazuli, a very prized and very expensive pigment. But at the same time in many of his works he’s using the latest chromes and viridians and other synthetic pigments, so you’ve got this beautiful combination of real deference for classical techniques and the love of the ultra-marine and then the obsession with the modern pigments as well.

Leah Kharibian: Wonderful – could sum up the whole exhibition. Thank you very much.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio):  Becca Hellen. If you’d like to see 'Regulus' and the many other masterpieces by Turner in the show, you’ve only got a few more weeks – the exhibition closes on the 5th of June. Tickets are available from the Gallery, or online with a booking fee at

Most portraits of women in the Gallery’s collection have been painted by men. But there’s a rather wonderful exception in Room 33 – 'Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat'. Painted in the late 18th century, it depicts a woman in a pink dress, grey shawl and feathered hat standing against a blue sky. In one hand, she holds a palette and brushes – because this is the artist herself: Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun. Now little known, she was one of the most successful artists of her time – as art-historian Jacqui Ansell explained.

Jacqui Ansell: Well, if you judge success on pecuniary payments, she was paid twice what any other artist, male or female, was paid when she painted a portrait of Marie Antoinette and her children to replace another less popular painting by a male artist. If you think of her success in professional terms, the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds said apparently according to his pupil that he thought she was the best artist ever... the pupil replying ‘what better even than Van Dyck?’ and to his incredulity, yes was the answer. So I think by those standards, by anybody’s standards, she was an extremely famous artist – a celebrated artist in her day.

Miranda Hinkley: It must have been hard for her to operate in an all male environment. Were there criticisms of the way she presented herself in this work?

Jacqui Ansell: Oh yes, many and some of the criticisms were sort of barbed compliments in a way. She was called the Modern Minerva... she was called an ‘exceptional woman’... but some people went a bit further and said – as she was so young and pretty, that surely she couldn’t have painted these pictures herself... she must have had her male pupils paint them for her. There was even one story that when she painted the French Finance Minister, Collon, she painted him three-quarter length without his feet so that he couldn’t resist her advances... so that he couldn’t run away.

So there’s this image of her as this sexually voracious, predatory character and scandal really dogged her every move because she was so closely bound up with court life – come the revolution, of course, she has to flee the mob and eventually she goes and travels throughout Europe and indeed Russia and that might be a reason why some of her paintings are not so well known because they’re spread throughout Europe and Russia.

And she even spent some time in Britain. And then at the very end of her life, when she’s in her 70s in the 1830s, she dictates three-volumes of memoirs to her niece and these to me seem to be an answer to her many critics.

Miranda Hinkley: And what do those memoirs reveal about her life?

Jacqui Ansell: Well, they reveal all sorts of salacious details I’m sure, but one of the things that amuses me is that she’s very keen to refute this idea that she ever had an affair with Collon. And her defence is that Collon as the Finance Minister wore this very formal wig. And she says ‘everybody knows how much I detest wigs!’.

And if you look at our painting she’s got the most gorgeous sort of puffed out, roughed up hair and she was famous for getting her sitters – who’d presumably spent hours and hours having their coiffeur elevated to the appropriate height and stiffened and powdered – and she’d just get them into the studio and muss up their hair to make them look natural a la Jean Jacques Rousseau. She’s very much of that era really... going into Romanticism.

Miranda Hinkley: So we’ve got the painter as stylist as well as artist...

Jacqui Ansell: Yes and she’s very stylish in this painting, isn’t she – the most fashionable dress possible. But some very cruel critics looked at this painting – this ultimate evocation of youthful artist and said of French, so it rhymed, which I can’t do – there’s only one problem with this painting – the painting is beautiful, but Lizette is ugly. It does seem you couldn’t really win – you know, there she is, she’s got to emphasise her youth and beauty to get success in some quarters, but if she gilds the lily too much, then of course she’s giving in to that terrible female vice of vanity.

But it’s fascinating that the feminist art-historians, having first posed the question in the 1970s – why were there no great women artists? – they don’t just then come and say ‘well, here’s a great artist, by anyone’s concerns, a great artist’... they then come along criticising her for pandering to male expectations of femininity because she has these red lips parted. To which I’d probably reply – well, lips aren’t just for kissing. And to my mind her parted lips and her extended hand are an invitation to talk and to tell us that she’s more than a pretty face. And of course she was always accused of not painting her pictures herself... if you look at the colours of the flowers on the hat... then look at her paint palette... then look at the colours on her brushes – and it’s as though she’s saying to her critics: ‘who did this painting? I did this painting. And I’ve just finished it.’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Jacqui Ansell. If you’d like your own audience with Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun, her 'Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat' is on display in Room 33. Or you can also take a closer look at the painting – along with all the other works in the permanent collection – online at

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