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Looking Back on Leonardo | Exhibitions | The National Gallery, London

Looking Back on Leonardo | Exhibitions | The National Gallery, London

Experience the excitement of what was dubbed 'one of the exhibitions of the century' in this brand new retrospective of the 2011 show 'Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan'. Take a look back at this unprecedented exhibition -- the first of its kind anywhere in the world -- which brought together sensational international loans never before seen in the UK. Hear exhibition curator Luke Syson reflecting on the significance of the historical show, as Larry Keith, Head of Conservation, Ashok Roy, Director of Science, and Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery describe what they learnt from this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. 'Looking Back on Leonardo' was made by Oxford Film and Television and directed by Peter Sweasey. Find out more about the exhibition 'Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan' on the National Gallery website: Watch this film and more on our new National Gallery Channel:

More from Gallery insight (19 videos)

Looking Back on Leonardo | Exhibitions | The National Gallery, London

Experience the excitement of what was dubbed 'one of the exhibitions of the century' in this brand new retrospective of the 2011 show 'Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan'. Take a look back at this unprecedented exhibition -- the first of its kind anywhere in the world -- which brought together sensational international loans never before seen in the UK. Hear exhibition curator Luke Syson reflecting on the significance of the historical show, as Larry Keith, Head of Conservation, Ashok Roy, Director of Science, and Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery describe what they learnt from this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. 'Looking Back on Leonardo' was made by Oxford Film and Television and directed by Peter Sweasey. Find out more about the exhibition 'Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan' on the National Gallery website: Watch this film and more on our new National Gallery Channel:

Paintings decoded
Discover the background of Titian's 'Bacchus and Ariadne'

About the video:


Feel the drama as love-struck Bacchus approaches the abandoned Ariadne. Revel in Titian's contrasting colours and find out about his frustrated patron, Alfonso d'Este. With James Heard, National Gallery Education.


From The National Gallery Visitor's Guide DVD


Find out more about Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-3


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

James Heard: He was born in Cadore, in the mountains above Venice, and his name is Titian. In many ways, he is the first great modern painter, because he was using oil paint on canvas. To painting, he brought new vibrancy. Vibrancy of colour, in particular, which we can see in this painting of 'Bacchus and Ariadne', painted between 1520 and 1523.

James Heard (in the studio): The subject is taken from the Latin poetry of Ovid and Catullus. They both give slightly differing versions of Prince Theseus, slaying the Minotaur, and then, abandoning his lover, the Cretan princess, Ariadne. Titian chooses the moment when Theseus sails away, leaving Ariadne to very different fate, with the handsome young Bacchus, just returning from a tour of India. Bacchus, with his crown of ivy, and train of inebriated companions, makes an extraordinary impact, leaping from his chariot, to declare his love for Ariadne.

[Classical music playing in background]

His companions are neither polite, nor civilised, having just torn apart the limbs of a young calf, in their drunken frenzy.

[Classical music playing]

Bacchus though, makes the romantic gesture, of taking Ariadne's crown, and throwing it into the sky, where it becomes a constellation of stars.


Titian painted this for a special gallery, in the castle at Ferrara. The owner, Duke Alfonso d'Este, became impatient at the length of time Titian took to complete his masterpiece. What makes it so impressive, is the relationships between the individual characters, the repeated rhythms and, above all, the colour. Titian has used highly saturated hues, in the shadows, to create a powerful combination of colours, such as the juxtaposition of Bacchus' red lake cloak, against the lapis lazuli of the sky.

Titian: 'Diana and Actaeon' | Carol Plazzotta - Curator | The National Gallery, London

Learn more about this painting with National Gallery curator, Carol Plazzotta. Read about the painting, learn the key facts and zoom in to discover more on the National Gallery website:

Exhibition Insight | Vermeer: Painter of Music

What can we learn from the depictions of music in Vermeer's paintings? Watch 'Vermeer and Music: the Art of Love and Leisure curator Betsy Wieseman and members of the Academy of Ancient Music discuss the symbolism present in some of Vermeer's best-known works, with musical accompaniment from members of the Academy. Vermeer was not a prolific artist with only 36 paintings agreed to have been produced during his lifetime. Although it is unknown whether Vermeer himself was a musician in any way, three of his paintings in particular; 'Woman Standing at a Virginal', 'Woman Seated at a Virginal' and 'The Guitar Player', see him consciously addressing variations around the same theme; in the same way that a musician might. Join Betsy Wieseman as she examines the relationship between Vermeer's paintings of women with musical instruments from 1670 -- 1672 and the music of the period in this film produced to accompany the exhibition at the National Gallery which runs from 26 June -- 8 September 2013. Learn more about the exhibition 'Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure on the National Gallery website: Watch this film and more on our channel:

Early Titian and Landscapes
Antonio Mazzotta

About the video:

Join curator Antonio Mazzotta as he introduces Titian's influential early-career landscape painting 'Noli me Tangere'.


More about the exhibition Titian's First Masterpiece: The Flight into Egypt, 4 April – 19 August 2012.


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

Antonio Mazzotta: At this stage we’re talking about Titian being 22–23 years old. This is the Magdalen meeting Christ after the Resurrection. What is unique is the very ambitious attempt to fuse human figures and landscape, and to create a landscape that looks natural and real. For example, the line of the back of the Magdalen is almost continued in this wonderfully shaped tree, and the line of the body of Christ is continued on the hill. So we have a sort of large X – the arms of this X are natural elements, and the legs of this X are human elements.

But also he’s able to infuse his taste for the life that exists in things. All the early descriptions until the late 18th century emphasise the fact that one could almost step into Titian’s landscapes. They felt real like never before. We can feel that the sun is rising, even though we cannot see it, through the first ray of sunlight that is catching the building on the top of the hill. It’s a dynamic nature that goes far beyond what we see, for example, the breeze that one can feel in the foreground, the grass that is almost moving, and also the white drapery of the Magdalen.

The extraordinary thing about Titian is that even if he had died at the age of 24 he would have been a highly influential artist for the following generations. The fact is that he went on painting for about 65 more years after this work. So it was an incredibly long career – and every stage of his career was influential for a different artist.

Titians Early Portraits
Antonio Mazzotta

About the video:

Curator Antonio Mazzotta explains how a young Titian formulated a completely new approach to portraiture.


Featuring Portrait of Gerolamo (?) Barbarigo, about 1509 and Portrait of a Lady ('La Schiavona'), about 1510-12.


More about the exhibition Titian's First Masterpiece: The Flight into Egypt, 4 April – 19 August 2012.

Antonio Mazzotta: Titian depicted this striking portrait when he was about 20, and the young Titian was able to formulate a completely new idea of portraiture. The pose is not static, it’s highly dynamic, so the sitter is turning. As soon as you turn, your gaze is more immediate.

He wanted to give a sense that the eyes just cross yours, and that the position is going to change very soon. So it’s a moment in time, which gives a sense of immediacy and which is a technique still employed today by fashion photographers. It was really something so new and so revolutionary in this portrait. This particular pose, which is called ‘di spalla’ – looking over the shoulder – became a standard type of portrait for centuries.

We should think about Van Dyck’s portraits and remember that Van Dyck owned this portrait. We should also think about Rembrandt’s portraits, such as the National Gallery 'Self-Portrait', executed in 1640. To be represented without any doubt, without any fear, was probably what was liked about Titian’s portraits, as well as the sense of physical presence, of reality.

This portrait was probably executed in around 1511, when Titian was about 22 years old. What is really new about this portrait is that the parapet is starting to drop, so we see more of the figure. This was incredibly new. She’s really dominating. She’s this incredible iconic female figure that can be compared to the great mothers of the history of art, from Mesopotamia to the Roman matrons. Really, she’s an allegory of woman.

There are several elements that make this picture uniquely Titian, starting from how it is painted. The handling of paint, the rendering of transparencies – like this wonderful veil – and the setting of the light, is also so clever. The light is coming from the upper left and washes this very pale skin with reddish cheeks. Also, this gives a presence of a pulsating animal. In a way this is a final point of his youth, but also a starting point for his mature style.

Poetry on canvas
Carol Plazzotta and Lavinia Greenlaw

About the video:

Curator Carol Plazzotta and poet Lavinia Greenlaw talk about Titian, the poetic painter and Ovid, the painterly poet.

Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto and The Death of Actaeon are the central paintings in the spectacular multi-arts project ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012’, on display until 23 September 2012.

Find out more about Metamorphosis: Titian 2012

Carol Plazzotta: I think of Ovid as one of the most painterly of all poets. Ovid always loves to set the scene. Even if you’d never seen Titian’s paintings, I think in reading the Ovid you immediately have an idea of place. He is so visual, and he makes you think visually with his descriptiveness and the adjectives he uses in the idea of touch, and the coolness, for example, the coolness of the grotto and the nakedness of the flesh, it’s all so evocative.

Titian is almost the reverse of that. He is the most poetic of painters and so in many, many ways it is an ideal meeting of minds between these two very gifted men. Ovid has a way of making poetry enjoyable, and I think Titian was a master of that as well.
He certainly knew how to spin an extraordinary tale in a painting and he did that through the gaze, through touch. For example, the nymph’s foot in the icy stream, he makes us feel its cool freshness, and so on. He employs everything in his armoury, if you like. Many of those tools or weapons, shall we say, are borrowed from poetry.

So for example, I think there’s a lot about rhyme, rhythm, contrast, antithesis and surprise, all the tactics that Ovid employed. Titian kind of recreates them in his own special style, which is particularly humane.

Lavinia Greenlaw: I think if people call Titian’s work poetic, they’re talking about poetic in the right way, which is that he uses enormous precision and depth to bring about something very, very human, rather than to create something romantic or epic. And I think Titian’s ability to draw out essential human qualities in every figure he depicted is what moved me most, this character moved me most, Callisto, because of this incredible focus on her belly. He doesn’t objectify her belly, he actually invests everything in it; he invests the acts of the Gods in it. The whole story is there, in this very, very human, swelling body.

Carol Plazzotta: These pictures are completely unprecedented in terms of their scope, the cast of characters and the psychological interplay between them, and Titian was self-conscious about this. He was the first one to call these paintings ‘poesie’, poems. And he realised he had achieved something very special.

'The Ugly Duchess' (Curator's insight)
Luke Syson and Susan Foister discuss 'An Old Woman'

About the podcast clip:


Is this grotesque woman merely a product of the artist's imagination? Curators Luke Syson and Susan Foister explain what lies behind this woman's ugliness.


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Five (November 2008)


Find out more about Quinten Massys, An Old Woman ('The Ugly Duchess'), about 1513

Luke Syson: I must say, I’ve always absolutely loved this picture and I’ve never been quite sure why because she’s so ugly. And I think when I was a child I thought she was terribly funny. Do you think she’s meant to be funny? I mean…

Susan Foister: She obviously thinks she’s very beautiful. She’s wearing a very, very elaborate headdress with its long white frilly veil, pinned up on this extraordinary horned headdress. I think what a lot of people won’t realise is that she’s not wearing an up-to-date fashion for an early 16th-century portrait. She’s wearing something very old fashioned. She’s wearing a dress that might be 100 years old, which might mean that she’s nearly 100 years old. She’s certainly wearing the fashions of her youth and the wrinkles on her face and on her breast indicate that she might be a very old person. She’s certainly very, very wrinkly.

Luke Syson: And she’s got this kind of sort of pug nosed face. I mean, with this sort of blob at the end of it and then this enormously long upper lip. I mean, she is grotesque really. I mean, it’s rather sort of horrifying.

Susan Foister: It’s very disconcerting. I’ve always thought that that sort of distortion of her face made her look more like a monkey than a human woman. It’s not just the wrinkles and the jowliness, there are very strange things happening to her face and her nose and it seems that those sort of distortions may be ones that Massys himself actually observed from a woman who had something extremely unpleasant called Paget’s Disease in which the bones of the face became distorted in exactly this way, and this may have given him the idea for this grotesque head of a woman.

Luke Syson: But do you think he was being… he can’t possibly have been thinking of her sympathetically because, I mean, there she is with her, how can you put it, withered dugs and this little rosebud that she’s pressing ardently between her cleavage and she’s a figure of fun, so presumably this isn’t a lovely Renaissance piece of sympathy.

Susan Foister: No, I think he’s being very critical of her. She’s an old woman looking for love and she’s made herself into a figure of fun, so he’s probably done two things… he’s taken somebody who in real life with that kind of illness and distortion probably was a figure of fun, because we know that people were not very sympathetic towards ugliness and deformity in the Renaissance, and then he’s used that to make her into this personification of… perhaps it’s lust. But certainly old women were not supposed to be in love and offering little rosebuds to potential lovers as this woman is.

Luke Syson: But it’s quite interesting isn’t it, because after all, monkeys to some – later on at least – do symbolise lust and she has got that slightly simian quality. And this idea that both your merits and your demerits, your vices, showed on the face is something that perhaps he’s kind of thinking about here to some degree. I mean she’s actually not just a figure of fun, but something worse than that; she’s somebody who has allowed her passions to control the way she actually looks.

Susan Foister: Yes, I’m sure that for the Renaissance, exactly, she would have been somebody whose base passions had run away with her and therefore she’s more like an animal than a human being. There are none of the higher feelings that she ought to be showing here. And in the Renaissance I’m afraid it was women who tended to be criticised for these lustful thoughts more than men.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Susan Foister and Luke Syson.

Quick insight
Colin Wiggins explores 'Saint Luke Painting the Virgin and Child'

About the video:


The patron saint of artists: find out how this painting of Saint Luke reveals the artistic practices of the 16th century – with Colin Wiggins, National Gallery Education.


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Themes and Variations: Saints'


Find out more about Follower of Quinten Massys, Saint Luke painting the Virgin and Child, about 1520?

Colin Wiggins: The Virgin and Child appear again here, on an easel, in another 16th century painting from the studio of the Flemish painter, Quentin Massys.

Saint Luke, according to legend, painted the portrait of the Virgin Mary, which explains why he was the patron saint of so many of the painters’ guilds. This painting was probably part of an altarpiece, and would have originally been attached to a painting of the Virgin herself, which is now, unfortunately, lost. The Saint is shown sitting at an easel, holding a palette, maulstick and brushes, very much like modern ones, looking very intensely towards where the Virgin would have been sitting.

It provides us with a fascinating glimpse into a 16th century artist’s workshop, as the painter of this picture has imagined Saint Luke as working in an environment exactly similar to his own except, of course for the ox, which is Saint Luke’s personal emblem.

Leonardo da Vinci - The Man behind the Myth?

The National Gallery's Luke Syson, curator of the groundbreaking 2011 exhibition 'Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan', spent years preparing for the show. In this extract from the National Gallery podcast he tells Leah Kharibian whether this brought him any closer to understanding the elusive artist - who is believed to have done all he could to conceal himself from the public. To learn more about the man behind the myth, visit

Paintings decoded
Portraying 'Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons'

About the podcast clip:


Personification or portrait? Jacqui Ansell, National Gallery Education, examines Reynolds's impressive Lady Cockburn


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty One (May 2009)


Find out more about Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons, 1773

Miranda Hinkley: So, here we are in Room 34 and this is Reynolds’s portrait of 'Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons'.

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, she’s a rather hardworking lady because she married aged 20 and became the second wife of a chap who already had three daughters. So here she is, stepmother, new mother to three little boys – she subsequently goes on to produce even more children – so she’s got her heir and a spare and one left over as well. And she’s looking far from harassed by the three children that swarm around her…

Miranda Hinkley: She’s looking very sort of calm indeed, and in fact looking away from the viewer, out towards the corner of the canvas.

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, in fact she almost looks as though she’s looking very contemplative and there is rather a stark contrast in her gaze compared to the gaze of the painting that inspired this. Reynolds was an artist who was very, very interested in the Old Masters – it’s not just Picasso who goes around challenging the past – and what he did was he went on an extended Grand Tour and he filled his sketch books with information and well as Italian Old Masters, he also saw Flemish Old Masters like Van Dyck. And we’ve got a painting in our collection which is 'Charity' – a personification of charity by Van Dyck, where the woman is absolutely surrounded by these three little chubby children. She looks up to heaven and to me she looks as if she’s saying ‘God ‘elp me’, but she really is saying ‘God help me’, and she’s a personification of the Christian virtue of charity. So of course as soon as you know that and as soon as you look at this painting you see not just a portrait of Lady Cockburn and three little children, you see her almost as a personification of charity.

Miranda Hinkley: I mean, he’s basing his composition on a Van Dyck and the interesting thing there is of course that Van Dyck was an artist, originally a history painter, who became a portraitist when he arrived in Britain, who also had very great aspirations, and he wanted to be seen as an equal and did manage to gain quite significant status for an artist of his day. So perhaps Reynolds is choosing to hark back to Van Dyck for that reason. But of course at the same time this is a portrait of a society lady, isn’t it?

Jacqui Ansell: Reynolds strongly believed that you had to give a female sitter something of the modern for the sake of likeness and the general air of the antique for the sake of dignity. Now when this was on display at the Royal Academy – and it was actually greeted by a round of applause when it appeared – the erudite public would recognise this not just as Lady Cockburn, but they’d also see in it charity, this Christian virtue, but they’d also see in it something we don’t see today, and that is her as Cornelia. Cornelia was the Roman matron who was the mother of the Gracchi, these three fine soldiers, and when a companion of hers was showing off her jewellery, Cornelia allegedly brought forth her three sons and said ‘these are my jewels – my children are my jewels’. And this for me is one of the jewels of the collection if you like…

Miranda Hinkley: Well, they certainly look like lovely children in this painting at least. Jacqui, thank you very much.

Jacqui Ansell: Thank you.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jacqui Ansell on Joshua Reynolds.

Close examination
Curator Dillian Gordon and Conservation's Martin Wyld: 'Umbrian Diptych'

About the podcast clip:

Panels reunited: Curator Dillian Gordon and Martin Wyld, Head of Conservation, explain how the two pieces of the Umbrian Diptych – The Virgin and Child and The Man of Sorrows – were brought together at the Gallery

From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Three (September 2008)

View and zoom in on an image of the two panels reunited in Italian, Umbrian, Umbrian Diptych, about 1260

Dillian Gordon: This was a very exciting occasion for the National Gallery. A photograph of ‘The Virgin and Child’ had been sent to Joanna Cannon at the Courtauld Institute and she recognised that it belonged with ‘The Man of Sorrows’, which at some stage of its life has been thought to be Venetian. She’s a friend of mine and when I heard about this I thought it would be an exciting opportunity for the Gallery to acquire these panels because we have very few paintings of the 13th century.

It was always going to be a complicated process because the two panels were obviously in different collections and they hadn’t been together for probably over 100 years. So we were hoping that the owners of each panel would agree to sell to the National Gallery and we could bring the two panels together. And there was a very exciting period over Christmas 1998 to January 1999 when we were negotiating and finally we were successful and the two panels came together.

And of course there’s absolutely no question that they belong together. The backs are painted with imitation porphyry with hooks which definitely fit together and on the front you can see that the punching on both is identical. And the virgin is gesturing towards her child and looking sorrowfully out at the spectator, knowing that the child will be crucified and that he will end up as ‘The Man of Sorrows’ on the Cross.

Miranda Hinkley: So you’ve sort of got life and death on one side and the other.

Dillian Gordon: Yes, very much so. The child, infant Christ as a baby in his mother’s arms, and then the adult Christ with his arms folded in suffering outlined against the Cross, and the angels above are covering their faces in mourning.

Miranda Hinkley: Dillian, you mentioned that originally it had been thought that figure of Christ was thought to be of Venetian origin; has the process of reuniting these panels shed new light on their origin?

Dillian Gordon: Yes, that’s another very exciting aspect. ‘The Virgin and Child’ is unquestionably Umbrian and by putting the two together and realising that in fact ‘The Man of Sorrows’ is Umbrian as well, there are several comparative examples of Umbrian painting, particularly of course with crucifixes, where we can show it’s an Umbrian painter. It’s, of course, an anonymous painter and we don’t know who it was painted for. It’s an object for private devotion. It would have been something that you could perhaps slip into a leather case and travel around with and then open and use for your private prayer. One of the most unusual aspects of this painting is the very elaborate punching that you have all up the borders and around the Virgin’s halo. It’s extremely delicate and, as I say, unusual, for a 13th-century painting at this stage. It becomes much more common in later paintings.

Miranda Hinkley: Very, very delicate isn’t it? You’ve got floral motifs and intertwining plant forms and stems curling round, but each one is very, very delicately done. How would that have been rendered?

Dillian Gordon: The artist would have had an iron tool which he would strike into the gold leaf and depending on the pressure the result would be very slightly different, so sometimes the punches look slightly different but they’ve been made with the same tool.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, when this piece arrived here at the National Gallery, it was in quite a different state to the condition it’s in now. Martin Wyld, you’ve been working on it here in Conservation. Tell us about the condition it was in when it arrived.  

Martin Wyld: Well, we could see that it was in very good condition, but it was quite obscured by probably several hundred years worth of varnish and wax polish and dirt settling on it, and at some point when the panels were still together, we think that someone had tried to clean up the figures of Christ and the Virgin and Child and they seem to have pushed all the dirt into the punch marks and incised lines, so instead of having a sort of sparkly punch-marked and incised background, they were like a series of sort of black full stops all over it, and that was the main difference.

Miranda Hinkley: And how have you worked to clean that off?

Martin Wyld: Well, I had to do most of the work under a microscope because as you can see some of the punch marks are about a millimetre across. I’ve been able to use some sort of white spirit and solvent mixed together to soften the black deposits in the punch marks, and then scrape them out with a sharpened stick, working under a microscope at about 15 times magnification. It has taken quite a long time, but I think it’s been well worth it.

Miranda Hinkley: Originally these would have been hinged together so that you could actually close the whole thing up like a book. When you’ve finished the cleaning process how is it going to be presented to people?

Martin Wyld: As they were before, which is they’ll be clamped to a padded backboard right next to each other, which is how they would have originally been seen.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, it’s very exciting to have such exquisite workmanship reunited so visitors can see it as it would have originally been.

Dillian Gordon: You’re quite right. There’s nothing like it in the collection and, indeed, really there’s nothing like it surviving in the world. There are comparatively few 13th-century paintings still surviving in private hands, so we were extremely lucky to be able to buy this. These are objects which in their own right as independent panels are very beautiful and of course reuniting them has made them an object which is absolutely unique.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Dillian Gordon and Martin Wyld.

Curator's insight
Dawson Carr on 'Christ driving the Traders from the Temple'

About the podcast clip:


A walk around the Gallery reveals an abundance of scenes from the life of Christ – curator Dawson Carr looks at one of the most exceptional


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Seventeen (March 2008)


More about El Greco, Christ driving the Traders from the Temple, about 1600


Find out more about The Life of Christ audio tour

Miranda Hinkley : Take a walk around the Gallery and it soon becomes clear that the history of art is inextricably bound up with the history of religion – and with one story in particular. Masterpiece after masterpiece in the collection is devoted to the life of Christ and this Easter time we’ve brought some of those works together in an audio trail specifically devoted to the subject. Leah Kharibian talked to curator Dawson Carr to find out more.

Leah Kharibian: The Life of Christ trail includes some of the National Gallery’s greatest masterpieces and listening to it made me wonder why is it that this particular sacred story inspired such a huge array of wonderful art?

Dawson Carr: Well, of course, Christianity is the greatest single force in European history. The belief in Christ generated the most awesome art that has been produced and exists in the National Gallery for this reason.

Leah Kharibian: The story itself is an extraordinary story that takes us from this humble birth through all the events of his life and his teachings, each of which are stories within stories, often he’s talking in parables, and then the events of his death, and the Resurrection. I mean, the story itself seems to provide artists with such an array of subject matter…

Dawson Carr: There’s not a greater story in existence, not even the tales of mythology are greater than this story, and of course the artists as well were believers, and this was very much an expression of their faith.

Leah Kharibian: And would you say that it was a spur to creativity, even experimentation among artists, and I’m thinking here about one of the works that appears on the trail, El Greco’s 'Christ driving the Traders from the Temple', which by any account is an extraordinary picture. I mean to me it looks so modern…

Dawson Carr: Well, and of course, this story is truly exceptional in the life of Christ. This is a very non-typical moment. This was the man of non-violence and here we see him being violent on arriving at the temple and seeing it being desecrated by commerce. And he takes his belt and he makes it into a flail and he drives them out of the temple. And in this work, El Greco has thought about this subject over the course of his career. He returned to the subject again and again and again. And by the time he gets to this late phase in his career, he really understands it, and he understands its meaning, its bigger meaning than just the event. It was often interpreted as the cleansing of the soul of sin and so here you see the composition divided in half spinning around the figure of Christ. On the left-hand side, the traders are all in a jumble and on the right-hand side, much more calm are the righteous, who simply sit and comment on the event.


Leah Kharibian: And this is painted around 1600, so that’s the beginning of the 17th century, I mean what sort of function would this picture originally have served – what would it have been made for? Do we know?


Dawson Carr: We don’t know in this case, but because he returned to this composition again and again, we doubt that it was created for any sort of liturgical purpose. This was really the creation of a gallery picture, a picture meant to be viewed much as pictures are viewed in the National Gallery today, hung in a picture gallery, hung in a house, as a work of art. But a work of art that compels those who look at it to think about the subject, think about the deeper meaning, and how the artist has brought that to be.

Leah Kharibian: And do you see people in the National Gallery, I mean visitors today, still looking at the works in that sort of way?

Dawson Carr: Absolutely, you do definitely see people wrapped in front of pictures like this, trying to figure it out. This isn’t something that’s easy, something that is gained with an initial impression. The language of art speaks to those who are willing to stand and look and really analyse what an artist has done and why.

Leah Kharibian: But from a devotional point of view, there are some pictures in the National Gallery that are still operating as devotional pictures – there’s one in particular that you’ve seen people in front of?

Dawson Carr: Yes, there is one painting in my part of the collection that I’ve seen people standing in front of and saying prayers before any number of times. And that’s Sassoferrato’s 'Madonna' and she’s isolated against a dark background. She is prayerful herself and she leads people to prayer still.

Leah Kharibian: Still, so are they kneeling?

Dawson Carr: No, not kneeling, but just standing in front of the work with their heads bowed clearly saying a little prayer.

Leah Kharibian: And a picture like that, would you ever take it down or move it?

Dawson Carr: I’ve only done it once in my time at the Gallery and I started getting telephone calls immediately asking where it is. In the Italian 17th century we have a number of very great works and I tend to keep them rotated, but I don’t take that one down now.

Leah Kharibian: So Sasserferrato’s ‘Virgin’ is staying in place…

Dawson Carr: Absolutely.

Leah Kharibian: Thank you so much Dawson. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Dawson Carr talking to Leah Kharibian. If you’re visiting the National Gallery this month, and would like to take 'The Life of Christ' trail, it’s available from audio guide desks, and features former Gallery director, Neil McGregor.

Curator's insight
Luke Syson on the two versions of 'The Virgin of the Rocks'

About the podcast clip:


Discover the historical and 'almost miraculous' significance of displaying both versions of Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin of the Rocks in the 2011 exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan. With curator Luke Syson and Leah Kharibian.

From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Sixty One (November 2011)


More about Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Right now, exhibition curator, Luke Syson, is probably the busiest man in the Gallery... but we caught up with him... briefly... to hear about one of the highlights of the show.

The exhibition will bring together two pictures that bookend Leonardo’s 18-year stay in the city of Milan. These are the artist’s two versions of his great altarpiece 'The Virgin of the Rocks' – one of which is among the National Gallery’s most treasured pictures, the other, an extraordinary loan from the Louvre.

With just a week to go before we can see these works together for ourselves, Leah Kharibian asked Luke how significant it will be to have them both in the gallery.

Luke Syson: More than historic, it feels almost miraculous. The Louvre’s extraordinary generosity in lending their version of 'The Virgin of the Rocks' means that we can see these two pictures, theirs and ours at the National Gallery, together for the very first time and this may be something that even Leonardo never saw.

Leah Kharibian: You don’t think he may have had them in the studio at the same time?

Luke Syson: It seems a bit unlikely. Obviously we can’t tell precisely, but certainly in modern times nobody’s ever seen these two pictures together in the same room. And I think what’s exciting about it is that although I already have my ideas about what the differences between the two pictures mean, this is really a moment for everybody to look at the two of them and to make up their minds about the relationship between the two pictures.

Leah Kharibian: Now the Louvre version of 'The Virgin of the Rocks' is the earlier of the two pictures, and it’s also – am I right? – the first picture that Leonardo paints after coming to Milan in about 1482 and I was wondering if you could describe it and what you feel it actually tells us about Leonardo’s ideas and ambitions for art at this date.

Luke Syson: You’re seeing Leonardo here still very much a Florentine painter and he’s done certain things which mark him out in that way. It’s a picture that shows the four different characters, the Virgin, an angel and then the two babies, to the left, St John the Baptist, and then in the middle, the sweetly charming Christ Child blessing his cousin on the other side of the picture. And they’re all set in a very careful stage in a way... this is a rocky grotto, but it’s also a space that’s really quite clearly defined.

And what you see here is really Leonardo, the ultimate naturalistic painter. You’re seeing flowers, for example, in the foreground, irises, which are exquisitely observed... or lilies... ivy growing up the rocks in the background. And all of these show Leonardo at a moment when he’s been studying the world around him with a concentration that perhaps nobody... that was perhaps unprecedented.

Leah Kharibian: So coming to the second version of the picture, can you tell us what you think might have changed?

Luke Syson: Well, there are certain quite formal things which have changed, so whereas in the first, the angel looks out at us and points at the Baptist, he’s really there as a kind of guide to the painting. But in the National Gallery painting, that pointing hand has been eliminated and the angel’s gaze is now looking inwards... it’s averted from the viewer and if it’s as if the whole of the rest of the scene becomes dream-like; it’s as if it’s occurring in the head of that angel.

The figures have become more monumental; the draperies in particular are much less complicated and busy and perhaps most importantly the sense of relief and colour has changed very profoundly. So where the red robe for example worn by the angel in the Louvre picture has become a kind of muted dusty version of the Virgin’s blue robe... and whereas, as I say, the Louvre picture is carefully set on a defined stage, the National Gallery painting is much more complicated in terms of the space that’s being described.

Leah Kharibian: And what about Leonardo’s personal circumstances? What had changed between the two pictures?

Luke Syson: Leonardo arrived in Milan as a painter of extraordinary talent but no substantial record and without any real guarantee that he was going to make a success of it in this new city. What he was aiming to do was to catch the eye of Lodivico Il Moro the ruler of Milan, although as regent rather than the Duke at that particular point, and I think over the course of the next few years, that’s exactly what he did. He persuaded the Duke that what he needed was a court artist of his calibre... somebody who could do much more than glamorous, interior decoration, and who could stand for his own talent. And this was a mutual benefit society if you like because at the same time Lodivico could demonstrate his own particular ability by the recognition of great talent.

And in a way that’s what Leonardo’s stylistic decisions very subtly mirror and echo. Leonardo’s view of a perfect world was one that could express Ludivoco’s. So whereas he begins by thinking that painting should be the mirror of nature; that it should accurately reflect everything that you could see around you, by the time he’s painting this picture he’s settled at court; he’s got a salary, and the time and space to think more about what a painting can be... what a painting can do. And I think now he’s thinking about the painter’s ability really to see more than nature; to arrive at an ideal which is perhaps closer to the perfect idea of everything that it was believed God held in his head, that we’re seeing here painted, for our delight, God’s perfect plan for the universe.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): You've been listening to an extract from the National Gallery Podcast. You can subscribe to the monthly show by visiting

Close examination
Conservator Britta New: 'The Virgin and Child in a Mandorla with Cherubim'

About the podcast clip:


'Panels breathing' – conservator Britta New demonstrates the painstaking effort that goes into repairing wood panels beneath paint surfaces


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty Four (August 2009)


Find out more about Italian, Umbrian or Roman, The Virgin and Child in a Mandorla with Cherubim, about 1480-1500

Miranda Hinkey: When a painting returns to the Gallery after time away in Conservation, its newly cleaned and restored colours are often a revelation. Members of the Conservation team spend a lot of time carefully restoring pictures to their former glory – and it shows. Far less visible, however, is the painstaking effort that goes into repairing what’s underneath the paint surface, which – before canvas became all the rage in the 16th century – was usually a panel made of wood. With this month’s theme in mind, I visited conservator Britta New to find out more, and began by asking her why the team have made caring for panels a speciality.

Britta New: Well, it’s a very important part of our collection. We’ve got about… a third of the works here are actually on panel and the Gallery’s developed a number of different tools and techniques that we can use in their care.

Miranda Hinkley: So why might a panel end up down here for repair then?

Britta New: Well, most of our panels are made from oak or poplar, and each of them have got their own characteristics, but they’ve all got a cellular structure that moves in response to changes in temperature or the moisture content of the air, and we often talk about panels breathing – they contract and expand over periods of time and they can warp in and out as well. At the moment, we’re quite happy with a curved appearance and we tend to allow panels as much freedom of movement as possible.

Miranda Hinkley: So this is where the panel looks as though… I mean, it’s literally curved, it’s slightly sort of buckled, almost…

Britta New: Yes, it tends to bow out in the centre and push out so that it’s got a three-dimensional appearance, rather than a very flat plane like a canvas painting. And as I say, we’re quite happy with that nowadays, but particularly the Victorians didn’t really like that – they wanted to get their paintings to behave themselves and stay flat, and they went to really quite some lengths to get the panels to behave.

They’d often plane down the reverse of a painting, which would make it thinner and more flexible, and then they would stick a wooden lattice structure, what we call a cradle, to the back of the panel and that was designed to keep it flat. The problem was another development in the 19th century was the advent of domestic heating systems and these can make the environmental conditions, like the moisture in the air, fluctuate wildly and this is the sort of thing the panel would be very reactive to. A thinned panel painting would be even more reactive and so the idea of thinning and cradling the painting actually caused an awful lot more problems than having just left the painting by itself.

Miranda Hinkley: And there’s a piece that you’re actually working on at the moment, aren’t you, this 'Virgin and Child in a Mandorla', which is by a follower of Perugino, and that was in a similar condition, wasn’t it? I mean, it almost looks like a kind of corset, strapped to the back of the panel.

Britta New: Yes, it’s as if the panel has been put into a straightjacket. This is exactly what happened to the painting in 1890 when it was last treated and over time the panel had begun to move but it was held firm by the cradle. It began to take on a corrugated appearance relating to the position of where the cradle batons were on the reverse and where the panel had then tried to shrink against the painting, it literally pulled itself to pieces, and it formed these splits that over time became wider and wider. The last photographs we’ve got of this painting were taken in the 1950s and they show some hairline fractures that when I began work had actually developed into open splits.

Miranda Hinkley: So we’ve got these fixed points at the back where the painting is actually attached to the cradle, and those bits are held firm and it’s the bits in between that suffer, and that’s where the splits occur.

Britta New: Yes, precisely.

Miranda Hinkley: So you’re about in the middle of the conservation process now. Can you explain what’s happened so far? It looks like you’ve got a scrapbook here of what’s happened with this panel.

Britta New: Yes, it’s useful to keep documentation of all the work that we carry out. The old varnish was very thick and dark and this was first removed with solvents, and then we glued a tissue paper to the front of the panel, which just protects the paint film while the structural work is being carried out. The cradle was then very gradually pared away from the back using gouges and a metal strap and any remaining glue that was holding the cradle to the panel originally was swollen with a poultice and could then be removed. After we’d removed the cradle, we took off the tissue so that we could see the paint film and then we could make sure that when we did the repair everything would be correctly aligned.

If we don’t do the repairs very well and make sure the surface levels are in alignment and the levels of the painting don’t match up either side of the split, then it’s very hard to disguise that during retouching. Getting the right surface is incredibly important. We had to work on each split, one by one, so we applied the glue and then clamped the splits in position until the adhesive has cured and just worked along the panel until everything was repaired.

Miranda Hinkley: And you’ve actually got a quite hefty piece of machinery to help with this clamping bit of the job.

Britta New: Yeah, we’ve got a special clamping table that was actually designed by my predecessor and it looks a bit like a medieval torture implement, but actually it can do some very delicate work. It can hold the panel in position while we’re working on it and apply varying levels of pressure while we’re working on it at different areas of the panel and just make sure that we can make sure those levels are correct.

Miranda Hinkley: And that’s the stage you’re at now; what happens next, Britta, how do you get this piece back into the collection?

Britta New: Well, we’re in the process of making an auxiliary support for the painting, basically just to support it during framing and handling. It’s basically just a backboard that’s made from the same material as the body of an aircraft because it’s light and it’s inert, and the painting is placed on that with a series of foam blocks behind it. The foam blocks can compress to take up any movement that the painting has and that will provide adequate support for this painting.

Miranda Hinkley: And so presumably that makes it much safer when people come to pick it up and move it around?

Britta New: Yes, absolutely, it’s very important because it’s not just us that will be handling it.

Miranda Hinkley: So once you finish the tray, then presumably the painting goes to restoration and any touching up is done?

Britta New: Yes, I’ll take it back upstairs and then begin the filling and retouching and then it will be able to go back on display, which is quite exciting. Every time you work on something, you spend so long, you actually get to know it really really well, and mentally it becomes your painting, so I suppose when it goes back on display it’s a particular thrill to see something that you’ve worked on up in the Gallery.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, we’ll look forward to seeing it again upstairs. Britta, thank you very much.

Britta New: Thank you.

Close examination
Scientific's Marika Spring and Conservation's Larry Keith: 'Adoration'

About the podcast clip:


Take a trip behind-the-scenes, where conservation's Larry Keith and scientific's Marika Spring explain the cleaning and restoration of Reni's 'Adoration'. How has a set of mysterious marks on the painting's surface presented an additional puzzle?


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Eleven (September 2007)


Find out more about Guido Reni, The Adoration of the Shepherds, about 1640

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now – a trip behind-the-scenes. Upstairs in the Gallery’s attic, away from the noise of Trafalgar Square, the conservation and scientific teams clean and restore paintings. One of the biggest challenges of recent years – in all senses of the word – has been a picture by Guido Reni. Just moving ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ around the building requires careful planning – it’s almost 5 metres high and over 3 metres wide. And a set of mysterious marks on its surface have presented an added puzzle. I visited the team to find out more.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): So I’m here in the Conservation Studio with Larry Keith from Conservation and Marika Spring from Scientific, and we’re looking at ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’. Tell us a bit about what’s happening in this painting – it’s a nativity scene, isn’t it? And we’ve got Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus in the centre surrounded by the shepherds.

Larry Keith: Well, as you said, it’s a nativity scene and it’s figures are perhaps slightly bigger than life size. And it’s the holy family surrounded by shepherds and in the middle distance we have another group of shepherds, And in the middle tier there’s a whole assortment of putti hovering above. And it’s quite a big picture – it’s perhaps the largest one we have in the Gallery.

Miranda Hinkley: And what has that meant in terms of moving it around?

Larry Keith: Well, that’s been extremely complicated because it’s actually too big to go through an awful lot of the doors and passageways we need to move the painting into the studio for the restoration work. So we’ve involved a lot of art handling. It’s a rather complicated group effort, because we had to roll this picture, put it into a large roller to actually transport it.

Miranda Hinkley: So when you finally got it up here into the space, what happens next?

Larry Keith: Well the first thing we did was to remove or reduce the old discoloured varnishes and a lot of the old restorations, which again had discoloured and were really getting in the way of viewing the picture. So we would clean it, as we would call that, and after that, we took the picture down to the lower Conservation Studio to do the structural work. After having relined it, we then took it back up to the studio where we are now to varnish the painting. And we’ve started to reintegrate the losses, retouch them, to bring the picture back to the final presentation when it goes down to the galleries again.

Miranda Hinkley: Marika, what’s your involvement from Scientific been?

Marika Spring: Well, I was involved near the beginning of the conservation treatment, so just after Larry and Paul had removed some of the varnish and when they did this they realised that there were small drips all over the painting - if something corrosive had been splashed across the surface. And they wanted to know what this was, and by knowing what it was, they could then decide how to treat these particular defects. So I took a tiny sample from one of the drips and looked at it under the microscope and then analysed it in a piece of equipment called a scanning electron microscope. And from that we could work out that this wasn’t something that was simply sitting on the surface of the paint; the top part of the paint had actually changed and had been eaten into by this corrosive material. And we could also work out that this corrosive material, from the analysis, we could work out that it contained a lot of phosphorous, and one of the common causes of this type of damage with this particular pattern in drips in churches and historic buildings is from bat urine. As the bats fly past, the urine is deposited on the surface of the painting and bat urine contains a lot of phosphorous, so we think this is probably what happened to the painting, perhaps when it was in its original location.

Miranda Hinkley: And if we look closely at the canvas, particularly in this corner where you’ve got this scene of cherubs or putti, you can actually see little dashes in the paint where that’s happened and it’s like they’ve almost made the pigment darker there.

Marika Spring: Yes, they have. They’ve eaten through the upper layer of paint and we can see the dark ground underneath. But in the sky which is a lighter blue colour it’s had the opposite effect. It’s made little white stripes where it’s damaged and broken up the surface of the paint, so it’s sort of scattering light.

Miranda Hinkley: So Larry, you’ve been touching some of this up – how does that work?

Larry Keith: Well, it’s part of the damage that the paintings had that we try to remove in retouching, which is what we normally do, and Paul Ackroyd and I – who’s working with me on the project – have started the retouching and you can see some areas where we’ve simply just glazed out or toned down the effect of these losses. Each one is very small and not particularly disturbing, but it’s the cumulative effect of literally hundreds of them. It’s a bit like a snowy picture on a TV and if you slowly get rid of them, suddenly you can start to see the painting working properly, and the space moving back and the figures standing properly in front of one another. And it’s very satisfying to see that, at the end of doing quite a bit of it.

Miranda Hinkley: Larry, having the painting here in the conservation studio is also a fantastic opportunity to really have a look at it up close.

Larry Keith: Yeah, it’s one of the great pleasures about working on paintings at The National Gallery as a restorer is that you really get to see them in very good light and in a kind of more intimate way for a brief time while you have them. And then they go and another one comes afterwards. But it’s certainly a wonderful chance to really look closely.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Larry Keith and Marika Spring.

Director's insight
Dr Nicholas Penny on the importance of frames

About the podcast clip:


By any other frame? National Gallery Director Nicholas Penny explains the importance in choosing the right frame for paintings in the collection


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty Six (October 2009)


Find out more about Jacopo Bassano, The Good Samaritan, about 1562-3


More about frames at the National Gallery

Miranda Hinkley: Frames are a ubiquitous presence in galleries, but few of us know that they’ve often got an intriguing history in their own right. One man who does is Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery (and the author of a pocket guide on the subject). Leah Kharibian went to find out more.

Leah Kharibian: Nick Penny and I are standing in Room 9, one of the most palatial rooms in the National Gallery, surrounded by some of the collection’s most grandiose works from 16th-century Italy. Now, Nick, few people here, it has to be said, are looking at the frames surrounding the pictures, and I know that you think they’re fascinating objects and you’d like us to take a closer look, but as beginners where should we start? 

Nicholas Penny: Well, I think people are looking at them even though they don’t know they’re looking at them, because frames affect the way you see a picture; they isolate the picture; they separate it from things around it, and so that even if you don’t know that you’re affected by a frame, you probably are. And one question that one should always ask is, what colour really is this frame? Most people will say – well, it’s gold, isn’t it – and you can actually then point out that there are different colours to the gold. I don’t just mean that the gold is often dirty, or often tarnished, or deliberately toned. I actually also mean the gold itself can be a different colour. And when one becomes alert to that, one also tends to become more alert to what gold does to the actual colours in the paintings themselves. It certainly and most obviously always makes blue more brilliant…

Leah Kharibian: Blue?

Nicholas Penny: Blue is a very important colour because it’s the sky – you know, you like to know when you’re in the sky – and blue is a very important colour because the Virgin Mary wears it and so on, but blues are always affected by gold and so of course in a different way – not by contrast, but by affinity – so are all the oranges and reds in a picture. They can seem more radiant, more jubilant as a result of the gold frame. 

Leah Kharibian: Now we’re actually standing in front of a really very beautiful frame that surrounds a portrait by Jacopo Bassano of 'The Good Samaritan’ (helping the wayfarer who’s been beset by thieves), and this is actually quite interestingly a very pale gold, isn’t it?

Nicholas Penny: Yes it is, it’s a very beautiful gold – it’s the original gilding and it’s a beautifully carved 17th-century frame. Now it’s not the type of frame that Bassano would have had around his pictures, but it is an old Italian frame of the kind a picture by an artist like Bassano would have acquired in the 17th century. So what we’ve got here is a great old painting and a great old frame and they look well together. It’s the type of frame which is fairly expensive now and we don’t have a special government grant for buying old frames, so we are dependent on private individuals who contribute to helping us buy frames. This was bought by Dr and Mrs Horren for us and they’ve bought other frames for us and we’re very grateful to them – it’s a very imaginative thing for a supporter of the Gallery to do.

It’s a very ornamental frame, every surface is carved, as you can see. Only after a while do you realise that it contradicts one of the really basic things about frames, which is a very important elementary structural purpose of enabling you to carry a picture around and protecting a picture, especially if the picture has glass in it or something like that. Now this frame is very very vulnerable because it’s got all these little points, like the ends of tongues or shields, and then the little ends of leaves…

Leah Kharibian: All round the edge…

Nicholas Penny: All round the edge and of course when we acquired the frame it was in very good condition, but many of these were broken; they had to be restored in our framing workshop – it took ages – but it just reminds you that this designer was much much more interested in the aesthetics of the frame, than in the practical uses of frame making.

Leah Kharibian: And are you hoping that in the future there will be more information available about frames in the Gallery?

Nicholas Penny: Well, both in the galleries, and of course on the website, where it’s perhaps easier to provide more information. I think it would be very good if we always told the public whether or not they’re looking at the original frame, and in exceptional cases it would be good if we’re telling them that we’re looking at a really important and beautiful frame.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Special thanks to Nicholas Penny. The National Gallery ‘Pocket Guide to Frames’ is available from Gallery shops and online at

Curator's insight
Luke Syson on setting up an historic exhibition

About the podcast clip:


Countdown to Leonardo: Luke Syson, curator of the 2011 exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, tells Leah Kharibian what exactly went through his mind in the run-up to the big show.


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Fifty Five (May 2011)


More about Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519

Leah Kharibian: Luke, we’re here in your office, surrounded by books and paperwork and there’s six months left to go – what’s still left for you to do?

Luke Syson: Sometimes it feels like practically everything. On other, saner days, I realise that we’ve already got quite far. So lots of decisions really about where things go, how they’re labelled, how they’re explained. Then I suppose some very keen loans just to pin down at this last stage – discussions that have been going on for quite a long time... people don’t lend pictures by Leonardo lightly – I mean there are so few of them and they’re so important for each institution as an emblem of the particular galleries that contain them as much as anything else. So yeah... discussions that have been going on literally for years in some cases.

Leah Kharibian: And is there anything in particular that’s keeping you awake at night?

Luke Syson: Funnily enough it’s probably the cumulative stuff as much as anything else. Little things and big things and little things that can become magnified into big things in the middle of the night especially. I suppose the thing that’s keeping me awake most at night is the idea that we have, I think, pulled off a show that will be amazing and I need to finish a catalogue which is up to par, which is as good as it should be, and Leonardo is a very, very difficult artist. This is a real challenge – it would be a challenge for anybody, I think, but what we’re trying to do is explain an artist who wasn’t just a painter, he was a painter-philosopher, and therefore I’ve had to get my head around an extraordinary range of things that Leonardo was interested in, and you know it’s like being a tiny little person trying to understand a giant, and that’s part of the thing that’s making me... giving me the heebie-jeebies now and then.

Leah Kharibian: I’m not surprised... I’m not surprised at all. Now, the show I know has got some absolutely amazing loans, and once you’ve got this exhibition list together how do you go about deciding what’s going to be hung where?

Luke Syson: Well, I think it’s probably easiest to explain that in front of the 3D model that we use and some layouts and I’ll take you to where we keep that now. ... So here we are with the cardboard model of the temporary exhibition galleries of the Sainsbury Wing and what I’m provided with by our design department is tiny, tiny little postage stamp reproductions of each of the pictures and drawings that are going in the show, or that we hope will... so sometimes it’s a bit speculative this. But on the whole what we’re doing with this is using the shapes of the rooms to work out where absolutely everything will go. If we fail to achieve a loan, then it comes off the wall and the little bit of blue tack is stuck somewhere else. So that’s what we’ve got there.

And what I’m thinking about is the logical order in terms of the story we want to tell, but also the visual impact and how those two things relate to each other. So for example, we’ve got our own ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ on the vista in the big room, but equally we want to take people through the sequence of rooms at the beginning and those climax with the St Jerome coming from the Vatican. And of course the other thing we’re doing here is thinking well these spaces are going to be crowded and so do we have to tell a story in a completely linear way or can it be one where the story builds up even if you see things in a slightly different order.

Leah Kharibian: Now there are six months to go but can you actually at the moment picture yourself at the opening, you know, proud curator at the opening, or is a case that there’s just still too much to worry about?

Luke Syson: I think it would be fair to describe my state of mind at the moment as a bit of a roller coaster in that at my most optimistic I think this is going to be the most extraordinary assemblage of works by Leonardo that has ever been seen in one place and then the enormity of the task of pulling that off suddenly will make me sit up in bed at 3.30 in the morning.

And so I’m just really waiting to see those last loans fall into place and then at the same time I’m finishing off the catalogue and I need that to be worthy of a really great show.

Leah Kharibian: I’m sure it will be – thank you so much Luke.

Luke Syson: Pleasure.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): You've been listening to an extract from the National Gallery Podcast. You can subscribe to the monthly show by visiting

Gallery insight
Jacqui Ansell on the life and work of Joshua Reynolds

About the podcast clip:


Jacqui Ansell, National Gallery Education, explores the life of Joshua Reynolds, and examines some of his key works at the Gallery


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty One (May 2009)


See more paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1723–1792

Voiceover: The National Gallery Podcast.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): The son of a Devon schoolmaster, Joshua Reynolds rose to become one of the foremost portrait painters of his age, and the very first president of the Royal Academy of Arts. Art historian, Jacqui Ansell, told me more.

Miranda Hinkley: It’s a gorgeous sunny day and I’m standing in Leicester Square listening to the sound of the birds and the huge building site right behind me to discover one of Britain’s best known and loved artists, and I’m joined by Jacqui Ansell. Jacqui, tell us a bit more about Joshua Reynolds. He wasn’t originally from London, was he, he was a Devon lad?
Jacqui Ansell: Yes, he was from Plympton in Devon, and he came to London to study under fellow Devonian, Hudson, and he soon decided to make a mark for himself, because, he started out living on St Martin’s Lane, and that’s where the more ordinary members of society might have lived. And certainly then, by 1760, he moved west to Leicester Fields, and that may be a small move geographically, but it was quite a significant move in terms of the circles in which he was moving. So the significance of that is he moved away from where the colour men were, and the working men in the East End were, to the West End, where the great and the good lived, people like the Prince of Wales who lived in Leicester Fields at one time.

Miranda Hinkley: Which of course brings us to where we’re standing now in Leicester Square, which is pretty much in front of the site of where we think his house would have been?

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, we think so. His house was to the west of the square. So he had it specially built to house a picture gallery so he could show off his paintings. And most importantly then he could have open house to the great and the good.

Miranda Hinkley: I mean, we’re standing right underneath his bust now, which is looking a bit weather beaten and as though a few layers of stonework have dissolved off of the front. Tell me a bit more about Reynolds as a person, what kind of a man was he?

Jacqui Ansell: Well, if you look at the bust, he looks very much like the image of an Old Master. He bears a superficial resemblance to Rembrandt, because the hat that he’s wearing, this old beret, is part of the doctoral robes. He was given a doctorate from Oxford, and so he’s wearing his academic robes. Of course, any sitter can project an image through their clothing, and the image he wants to project is one of a scholar, as well as a gentleman, as somebody who practises the liberal arts.

Miranda Hinkley: And in fact Reynolds’s aspirations to be an intellectual and a scholar, and to distance himself from the common limners and colourists is something that really had an impact on the status of all the artists that went after?

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, I think so. I mean, he was very, very keen to place painting on a rank with poetry. “Its sister art of poetry” he says, because poetry as part of rhetoric had already been accepted as a gentlemanly profession. So as a mere face painter you were looked down on in society, because face painting is imitation, and he was very keen that rather than merely imitate, that the great artists should seek to enlarge the conceptions of the spectator. So in raising his own social status and exploring that through this grand house of his, he was able then to raise the professional status of all artists and presumably also the economic status as well.

Miranda Hinkley: There is of course a slight problem here, Reynolds was mainly a portraitist, so how does this come across in his art, this aspiration for gesturing towards greater things than just painting people’s portraits, which is what he did?

Jacqui Ansell: Well of course, Reynolds really wanted to be a history painter, that was the most intellectual way of painting, and he couldn’t do that because his sitters, of course, demanded likeness. So what he had to do was somehow transform the raw material of the sitters in front of him into great Gods and Goddesses. He did this through fancy dress and props and gesture, body language for example, and thereby he was flattering not only his sitters, but also his public, who would recognise those classical allusions, and of course he was giving himself a pat on the back as well as an intellectual.

Miranda Hinkley: Well at this point I’d like to move our talk into the Gallery to go and have a look at one of Reynolds portraits of Lady Cockburn. So let’s wander across there now.

So here we are in Room 34, and this is Reynolds portrait of 'Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons'.

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, she’s a rather hardworking lady because she married aged 20 and became the second wife of a chap who already had three daughters. So here she is, a stepmother, new mother to three little boys, she subsequently goes on to produce even more children. So she’s got her heir and spare, and one left over as well, and she’s looking far from harassed by the three children that swarm around her.

Miranda Hinkley: She’s looking very, sort of, calm indeed, and in fact, looking away from the viewer out towards the corner of the canvas.

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, in fact she almost looks as though she’s looking very contemplative, and there is rather a stark contrast in her gaze compared to the gaze of the painting that inspired this. Reynolds was an artist who was very, very interested in the Old Masters, it’s not just Picasso who goes round challenging the past, and what he did was, was he went on an extended grand tour and he filled his sketch books with information, and as well as Italian Old Masters, he also saw Flemish Masters like Van Dyck. And we’ve got a painting in our collection, which is Charity, a personification of charity by Van Dyck, where the woman is absolutely surrounded by these three little chubby children. She looks up to heaven, and to me she looks as if she’s saying God help me, but she really is saying God help me, and she’s a personification of the Christian virtue of Charity. So of course as soon as you know that, and as soon as you look at this painting, you see not just a portrait of Lady Cockburn and three little children, you see her almost as a personification of charity.

Miranda Hinkley: I mean, he’s basing his composition on a Van Dyck, and the interesting thing there is that of course Van Duck was an artist who, originally a history painter, who became a portraitist when he arrived in Britain, who also had very great aspirations. And he wanted to be seen as an equal, and did manage to gain quite significant status for an artist of his day. So perhaps Reynolds is choosing to hark back to Van Dyck for that reason. But of course at the same time, this is a portrait of a society lady, isn’t it?

Jacqui Ansell: Reynolds strongly believed that you had to give a female sitter something of the modern for the sake of likeness, and the general air of the antique for the sake of dignity. Now of course, when this was on display at the Royal Academy, and it was actually greeted by a round of applause when it appeared, the erudite public would recognise this not just as Lady Cockburn, but they’d also see in it charity, this Christian virtue. But they’d also see in it something we don’t see today, and that is her as Cornelia. Cornelia was the Roman matron who was the mother of the Gracchi, these three fine soldiers, and when a companion of hers was showing off her jewellery, Cornelia allegedly brought forth her three sons and said, these are my jewels, my children are my jewels. And this for me is one of the jewels of the collection if you like.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, they certainly look like lovely children in this painting at least, Jacqui, that you very much.

Jacqui Ansell: Thank you.

Miranda Hinkley: Jacqui Ansell on Joshua Reynolds.

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