Personal response

Authors, historians, and media personalities give their take on inspirational works from the collection.
Quick insight
Historian Anne Hollander on 'Saint George and the Dragon'

Quick insight

Historian Anne Hollander on 'Saint George and the Dragon'

About the video:


Look at the impact of the expressive drapery in Tintoretto's painting of 'Saint George and the Dragon' with art and costume historian Anne Hollander.


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting'


Find out more about Jacopo Tintoretto, Saint George and the Dragon, about 1555

Anne Hollander: The princess is not even watching and she is wearing her princess costume, such as she might wear in a pageant, with a little scarf such as a Venetian princess might wear, all around her neck and behind her, however, she is wearing what seems to be her cloak. 

But this object is not a cloak; it is a piece of expressive drapery rather like an expressive phrase of music wrapped around her in various ways to raise the emotional temperature of the picture. It whips out to sea instead of being whipped by the sea breeze, it wraps her around her hips, it slides over one of her arms and it whips out behind her in a way that no real cloak could do. And it is there simply to raise the temperature, to indicate the kind of turbulence of her feeling and her combination of hope and fear about the dragon.

More from Personal response (12 videos)

Quick insight
Historian Anne Hollander on 'Saint George and the Dragon'

About the video:


Look at the impact of the expressive drapery in Tintoretto's painting of 'Saint George and the Dragon' with art and costume historian Anne Hollander.


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting'


Find out more about Jacopo Tintoretto, Saint George and the Dragon, about 1555

Anne Hollander: The princess is not even watching and she is wearing her princess costume, such as she might wear in a pageant, with a little scarf such as a Venetian princess might wear, all around her neck and behind her, however, she is wearing what seems to be her cloak. 

But this object is not a cloak; it is a piece of expressive drapery rather like an expressive phrase of music wrapped around her in various ways to raise the emotional temperature of the picture. It whips out to sea instead of being whipped by the sea breeze, it wraps her around her hips, it slides over one of her arms and it whips out behind her in a way that no real cloak could do. And it is there simply to raise the temperature, to indicate the kind of turbulence of her feeling and her combination of hope and fear about the dragon.

Artist's insight
Artist Humphrey Ocean looks at 'Christina of Denmark'

About the video:


This girl was smart, beautiful, and to Henry VIII she was maddeningly out of reach. Artist Humphrey Ocean explores how this portrait seduces its viewers.


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Six (December 2008)


Find out more about Hans Holbein the Younger, Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan, 1538

Voiceover: The National Gallery Podcast.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. An audience with a portrait is often an intimate business, an exchange of glances across a crowded room. That’s certainly the case for artist, Humphrey Ocean, a man who’s painted many, an acclaimed portrait in his time. When we asked him to introduce us to his favourite subject in the show, Humphrey chose ‘Christina of Denmark’, a picture made by Holbein to help Henry VIII assess the princess’s suitability as a wife.

Leah Kharibian began by asking what he saw as an artist when he looked at the work.

Humphrey Ocean: Well, I think if you’re going to be, if you’re going to fall in love with somebody, and I don’t know how long that takes, some people say it takes 17 seconds, then you’re taking in a staggering amount of information. But, as one does when one looks at somebody, meets somebody, you look first of all at the eyes. And Christina’s eyes are alluring and probably maddening as well. And, in this case, one of the eyes is looking at you, her right eye, and the left eye seems to be wandering slightly as if it’s possibly interested in something else. And she has this in common with the Mona Lisa, which I think is what makes her very fascinating, and actually also the model, Kate Moss, who has a wall eye. I think it’s something that keeps one questioning, is she, isn’t she, is she, isn’t she? So I think I can imagine Henry being immediately engaged by this 16 year old, who, of course, eventually turned him down and that must have been even more maddening.

Leah Kharibian: And for a portrait that has such a specific job of work to do, I mean Henry’s there, he’s looking for a new bride, he needs to know whether this is a woman he can find attractive but he also knows, he needs to know that she’s got a mind, and somehow Holbein manages to communicate this. We seem to get the poise, the wit of the woman. I mean she was somebody who said, I think, slightly later, that if she had two heads she would gladly put one at the disposal of the King of England. I mean, she was smart.

Humphrey Ocean: Yes, and she looks it. There’s all sorts of movements in the picture. She appears to be walking off to our left, but she is almost full frontal, certainly in her face and in her torso. But then what Holbein has done, I mean you look at the clarity of the drawing of the hat, which shifts over to the right and the way that her dress, like a bell, is shifting and swinging to our right, her left, and yet, if she was going to walk, she’d be walking in the opposite direction. So there’s an immediate strain and conflict here and all the while she’s holding, in her hands the glove, and the glove is one of the things that shows that she’s probably not a washerwoman – it’s an indication of her rank. And then the fur, that, oh dear, it’s a very alluring looking thing.

Leah Kharibian: I mean, there is actually quite a strong erotic charge, almost, I mean, these beautiful hands with the gloves that have been taken off for the portrait. I mean we know that Holbein had only three hours with her, he was there, they ’ve got very precise details about it. He went to see her on the 12th March 1538 and he was with her from one o’clock till four o’clock in the afternoon and then he left Brussels, which is where he had to go make this portrait, that self-same evening, and went straight back to London with what we can presume is a drawing for Henry to see from which this portrait was made. But, just in three hours.

Humphrey Ocean: Well, I, in a funny sort of way, I think there’s a wisdom in that. There’s a kind of impact on the… when one looks at something, you see a thing immediately and it makes an impression, it etches an image on your eye and you don’t want to spend overly long analysing. I mean, he had this way, this economy of line, he was like, I kind of think of him as like Matisse, you know the opposite to Picasso, the Bull. You know, Matisse with his scientist’s coat on when he was sitting three feet away from a nude model, looking at her, drawing.

And I think Holbein was something similar, although, of course, in the northern tradition. It’s like Cormac McCarthy’s writing, there are no superlatives there; he just hands something to you on a plate and you fill in the rest. Certainly, he would have concentrated probably on the hands and the face, that’s where he would have put the hours in.  He then would have got a dress, he would have taken notes, I would imagine, but he would have either designed a dress or certainly got a dress made up. He was a designer as well and did a lot of work for Henry VIII’s court, you know, he was designing jewellery and shoes and dresses and robes and all that sort of thing. So he had this extraordinary range of knowledge that he could apply later. But those three hours, I would imagine, were, you know, sharped out and went bulls eye into his mind and he carried that home, and then he thinks, how can I do something that will get under Henry’s fingernails? And this is what he came up with.

Leah Kharibian: [Laughter] Well, that’s wonderful. Thank you very much indeed. Thank you.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Humphrey Ocean. That’s it for this time; more news throughout the month on our website where you can also download past episodes of the show. Goodbye.

Tura's 'Muse' (Personal response)
Historian Caroline Smith explores 'A Muse'

About the podcast clip:


Finding the right angle: modern galleries tend to display paintings at eye height, although many of these paintings were originally designed to be viewed from above or below. But does the display angle make any difference to the interpretation of the painting? Historian Caroline Smith provides a new perspective


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty Four (June 2010)


Find out more about Cosimo Tura, A Muse (Calliope?), probably 1455-60

Miranda Hinkley: Paintings in modern galleries tend to be displayed at eye height, but many were originally designed to be viewed from above or below. To find out what difference this makes, I spoke to historian Caroline Smith. She gave me a new perspective on an old favourite – Cosimo Tura’s Muse.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): So what do we know about this rather imposing woman? She’s turned provocatively in this sort of three-quarter pose, her hand perched provocatively on her knee. What do we know about her?

Miranda Hinkley: She’s certainly got quite a stern look on her face – almost an ironic expression.

Caroline Smith: Very ironic. I think she’s quite an aspirational or inspirational figure. She’s not somebody that we’re meant to relate to, she’s outside our experience. So I think that does go with her very lofty, almost haughty stare at us.

Miranda Hinkley: It’s certainly very opulent and flashy and kind of ostentatious. I mean, she’s got these dragon-like... what are they? Almost dolphins on her throne.

Caroline Smith: I think they are dolphins.

Miranda Hinkley: Gem stones for eyes... big snapping teeth…

Caroline Smith: They’re quite scary in some ways, aren’t they? Because they’ve all got open mouths and we can see these very sharp teeth and then their eyes – as you say, red gemstones, just catching the light – do look quite sinister.

Miranda Hinkley: And so she was painted by Cosimo Tura in the 15th century. Who was she painted for?

Caroline Smith: She was probably painted for one of the dukes of Ferrara for a family castle, a place called Belfiore, which was outside the city, and she was most likely painted for a study, or ‘studiolo’, which was a private place within the castle. This was the room where a prince or a ruler would surround themselves with beautiful paintings, music and objects. It would be somewhere where they could recuperate and relax. So having the muses as part of your scheme makes a good deal of sense.

It’s thought that she would have been hanging much higher up on the wall than we would see her now. Probably the painting would have been above eye level. Even the bottom of the painting may have been above eye level; so we’d have much more of an impression of looking up at her, which does fit this idea of her being a very lofty, haughty sort of figure, and the way that she is looking down at us, way down on the floor, almost beneath her notice, I think. It does change the way that we view this painting and the sort of details that we notice.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, let’s try that right now. If you can bear to hunker down here... gosh, that really is quite different isn’t it?

Caroline Smith: It’s quite different, isn’t it?

Miranda Hinkley: And actually your gaze is thrown up to what’s behind her head much more.

Caroline Smith: Exactly. Shall we start at the bottom and look up at it? We see her two feet poking over the edge of the stone throne. And then we’d be looking up into that very elaborate drapery which swirls around her feet in those very elaborate folds; I think you might have more of a sense of looking up through some of those folds.

Miranda Hinkley: It becomes very theatrical, doesn’t it? Because it almost looks like the folds of curtains before some fantastic performance.

Caroline Smith: It does, exactly. And we’d also, I think, have the sense of looking up into those dolphins’ mouths that we were talking about earlier.

Miranda Hinkley: Yes, they suddenly become a bit more terrifying.

Caroline Smith: They’re a bit more scary, aren’t they? But from that point we get much cleaner lines. The long line of her body and the lacing that runs up it, and just where it opens up across her body – that flash of white that’s been revealed because she’s unlaced her dress...

Miranda Hinkley: You suddenly notice something that I hadn’t noticed before which is that the thong or bit of fabric that’s lacing up her dress is coming undone and is kind of dangling suggestively across her thigh.

Caroline Smith: It is! Very suggestively across her thigh. The idea that we could reach out and give it a tug maybe... and then we’d look at that long line of her body – her very creamy neck and face and very high forehead, very fashionable of course at the time – and then look up underneath those beads that are hanging across the shell, almost much more underneath them and up into the recess of the shell...

Miranda Hinkley: Which appears much darker... it appears to have much more depth.

Caroline Smith: It does… more than when we were standing up looking at it full on. And I think if you’re looking at it from below, the sky also darkens the further up towards the edge of the painting we go – again like the shell.

Miranda Hinkley: It’s much more dramatic.

Caroline Smith: Much more dramatic.

Miranda Hinkley: She certainly looks as though she’s sitting in a niche. I mean, that throne is very architectural in itself.

Caroline Smith: Very architectural. And its maybe to give that impression in the room – that you’re actually looking up at niches and figures within them.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, lofty lady, we’re not quite sure who you are, but we salute you.

Caroline Smith: We do indeed.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Caroline Smith.

Personal response
National Gallery Podcast: Jon Snow on 'Lake Keitele'
In conversation
Curators Chris Riopelle and Jane Spooner on Lady Jane Grey

About the podcast clip:


Join National Gallery curator Chris Riopelle on his visit to a very chilly Tower Green, the site of Lady Jane Grey's execution and burial. With Historic Royal Palaces curator, Jane Spooner, and the National Gallery's Leah Kharibian.


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty One (March 2010)


Find out more about Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833


More about the 2010 exhibition Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey

Miranda Hinkley: This monumental canvas depicts one of the darker episodes in English history, in which the blindfolded figure of the 16-year-old Lady Jane Grey has to be helped to find the block on which she must place her head. A victim of her power-hungry father-in-law, John Dudley, Lady Jane ruled as queen for just nine days following the death of Henry VIII’s son Edward VI. But her cousin, the Catholic Mary Tudor, seized the throne. Lady Jane was held prisoner in the Tower of London, convicted of treason, and on 12 February 1554 she was beheaded. Almost 456 years to the day, Leah Kharibian and the National Gallery’s Chris Riopelle made a visit to a very chilly Tower to meet Historic Royal Palaces curator, Jane Spooner. There, she took them to a spot rich in associations with the ‘Nine Days Queen’.

Jane Spooner: We’re standing on Tower Green, which is famous for its association with the execution of Lady Jane Grey. To one side is the medieval Beauchamp Tower and is where her husband and her husband’s family were imprisoned after her fall and Mary Tudor’s triumphant return to London. And in front of me is St Peter ad Vincula, the Chapel Royal, and this is where Lady Jane Grey’s body is buried. And over to the right hand side, over to what’s now the parade ground, right next to the White Tower, is actually where we know that the scaffold was erected for the execution of the unfortunate queen, and this is actually recorded in a chronicle written by somebody who was very likely to have been an eye-witness – a tower official.

Leah Kharibian: And Jane, do you find that visitors are still really fascinated in the story? Are they still looking for the precise place where Lady Jane Grey was executed?

Jane Spooner: Yes, visitors do come to the Tower and they’re always expecting an ‘X-marks-the-spot’ moment and of course so much history did happen at the Tower of London, but we don’t always know the exact location. We do know where Lady Jane Grey was executed but it actually isn’t where we have a memorial for people executed within the Tower walls. This spot was created on the orders of Queen Victoria, who was so moved by the story of the execution of Anne Boleyn, but we now use this particular execution site memorial space as a place to commemorate all of those who were executed within the Tower walls and that includes Lady Jane Grey.

Leah Kharibian: And Chris, if I can ask you, I mean, the enduring fascination of Lady Jane Grey, does that go for you too, for the painting at the National Gallery?

Chris Riopelle: Yes, ever since the painting of the execution of Lady Jane Grey was rediscovered in 1973 and then put on view at the National Gallery in 1975, it has been something of a phenomenon. Almost immediately it emerged as one of the favourite paintings in the National Gallery; people were fascinated by the story, by the realism of it, and to this day there is always a crowd in front of it. The picture remains extraordinarily popular. In fact, we notice that such are the crowds that the varnish on the floor is repeatedly worn down and has to be replaced on a regular basis.

Leah Kharibian: And what do you think accounts for this fascination in Lady Jane’s story? If I could ask you first, Jane?

Jane Spooner: Well, I think certainly at the Tower, it’s the contrast between this very young girl pitted against some of the most politically ambitious motives of the day; imprisoned in what is, in the popular imagination, a very harsh stony fortress. The Tower is associated with dungeons, torture, and execution in people’s minds. I think when people come to the Tower and they realise this is the real location, this is the place where Lady Jane Grey actually met her death, I think that’s a very moving and profound thing.

Leah Kharibian: And Chris, we know that Delaroche… although it’s an absolutely fantastic painting, he did play around with some of the elements, didn’t he? For example, the execution appears to take place indoors as opposed to outside as we know it really did.

Chris Riopelle: Yes, but Delaroche was very interested in getting the details right. And we know that he came to London twice in 1822 and 1827 to do research. He came to the Tower of London to see what it was like, to make notes – there are notes and sketches made here – he wanted you to feel that he was acting as a historian. There are a very large number of preparatory drawings as he worked out the details, worked out the placement of the figures, those are all gathered in the exhibition, and also Delaroche was the French painter most obsessed with English history. Throughout his career, he painted these great scenes from English history, three of them set here at the Tower of London, and those are all in the exhibition as well, showing Lady Jane Grey in the widest context.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Chris Riopelle, Jane Spooner and all at the Tower of London.

In conversation
Costumier Eileen Sheikh and Al Johnson on 'Portrait of a Lady'

About the podcast clip:


Moroni's 'Portrait of a Lady' still turns heads over four centuries later. What is it that makes this lady in red so special? Find out more with costumier Eileen Sheikh and Al Johnson, National Gallery Education.


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Eighteen (April 2008)


Find out more about Giovanni Battista Moroni, Portrait of a Lady ('La Dama in Rosso'), about 1556-60

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): A woman poses for her portrait. She has jewels in her hair and an exquisite satin dress, the striking colour of which will ensure she’s still turning heads over four centuries later. We asked costumier Eileen Sheikh and artist Al Johnson to tell us just what’s so special about Moroni’s Lady in Red.

Eileen Sheikh: My name’s Eileen Sheikh and I’m a costumier.

Al Johnson: My name’s Al Johnson and I’m a sculptor and a lecturer at the National Gallery.

Eileen Sheikh: The Moroni portrait of a woman, or ‘A Lady in Red’ as she’s known, is quite extraordinary because it’s an extremely high fashion that she’s wearing. And you can really see that from the actual colour that she’s wearing which is a deep rose-pink with an underlay skirt of yellow-gold and a red colour shot through that gold and it’s probably a woven textile. So it’s highly likely to be real gold thread within the underskirt and also the bodice which is just revealed at her neckline.

The colour of the fabric is a pink-rose with a gold coming through it – it’s the most extraordinary orangy, pinky silk. The colour is probably cochineal because this was a new dye at the time made out of the bodies of cochineal insects and was imported from the New World, so from South America. And that was only discovered in the 1540s, so you would have been a very high-standing person to actually wear these kinds of pinks and reds. 

Al Johnson: The material is extremely sumptuous. It’s intended to be warm as well as beautiful. The sleeves have got tiny tufts of white silk pulled through – this was an effort to show, I think, that this lady had at least three layers of cloth, all different kinds of cloth to show her extreme wealth.

Eileen Sheikh: In the Renaissance period you would have been able to obtain a vast range of fabrics dyed in various shades of red. Different reds produced by the kermes insect – you get anything from a very vivid dark red, a scarlet or a cardinal red, right the way through to something that’s called maiden’s blush, which would have been a very pale pink. In between, different names that appear in literature of the period describing reds: catherine’s pear, carnation, incarnate, sanguine, stammel, flame (an obvious one), gingerleen, murray and peach. But other colours are also described in the same way, so a very vivid one is goose-turd green, which I think we can all imagine what that might look like.

Al Johnson: Red is such a heavily symbolic colour. I think that’s partly why it interests me. References of course to blood and it’s a visceral colour, it’s the colour of the internal form of the body. It has references to war and destruction – it’s a masculine colour and in Christian iconography it’s the colour of the crucifixion, the colour of the martyrs. So there are all these kind of very male, very dominant references to red. But what interests me, I suppose, is its paradoxical nature – that it’s also the colour of sexuality – the colour of lipstick and lingerie – so it’s also a female colour.

Eileen Sheikh: Dying fabric using the kermes insect or the cochineal insect can be done in various different ways, and actually to produce the different hues that you require – so either the very deep blueish, purply pinks, or the really deep reds, or the very pale pinks – you might well have started by crushing the insects themselves and crushing the bodies to actually produce a dye in a little bag that you would then put into a dye bath.

And dyeing thick satin needed great care and attention to make sure that none of the fabric was exposed to light while it’s in the dye bath. The fabric has to be completely submerged all the time to get an even tone. The dye must be perfectly suffused all the way through the liquid to make sure that there are no patches of darkness or almost a sort of tie-die effect that can happen if you’ve got a large amount of fabric in one dye bath. And so these dyers were incredibly experienced, incredibly scientific in the way that they produced their fabrics, and those would have all been in Venice where still the best silks come out of that area.

Al Johnson: I work with paradox in the sculpture I make because I make work that’s very often about ideas that are quite big or quite difficult to encompass. And red I’ve used extensively because it has this paradoxical nature and so I feel it reflects the kind of paradox that I’m trying to uncover or explore in a piece of work. I’ve been working on a series of sculptures about women and the military. The paradox seems to me that we don’t regard women as being aggressive or militaristic, so I wanted to try and explore that so I used red because it has these masculine qualities, but at the same time, these feminine sexual qualities.

The series of works started by making a series of weapons. I made wooden dummies based on First and Second World War guns and contemporary military issue and then they were covered initially in red satin, and I felt that the sumptuousness and the sexiness, the sensuality of the satin, undermined the objects, so that you had something that appeared to be a weapon and yet it was undermined by the material from which it was made.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Eileen Sheikh and Al Johnson talking about a much-loved treasure of the Gallery’s permanent collection, Moroni’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’, or ‘Lady in Red’.

In conversation
Professor Philip Steadman and Louise Govier explore the peepshow

About the podcast clip:


Explore the visual trickery of a Dutch peepshow, with National Gallery Education's Louise Govier and Philip Steadman, Professor of Urban and Built Form Studies at University College London and an expert on perspective.


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty Three (July 2009)


Find out more about Samuel van Hoogstraten, A Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House, about 1655-60

Miranda Hinkley: Well, here we are in the Dutch room, just across the way from Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’, and we’re at Hoogstraten’s Peepshow, which is a box mounted on a stand which has painted scenes round the outside, but there’s a little hole in one of the sides, and if you look through it in fact shows the interior of a house. Louise have a look through there and tell me a bit about what you can see.

Louise Govier: Oh, I love this. It’s absolutely fantastic. What always happens when I look into this is that I end up banging my head, because I’m so busy trying to crane round and see all of the different rooms and spaces. Basically you look in and you’re drawn into this interior world. I can see a dog, I can see a chair, and the thing is it’s done in such a clever way that some of these things really do look three-dimensional and you can see doorways in that open out into other worlds, and little glimpses of people – it’s absolutely fantastic.

Miranda Hinkley: Philip, I mean, if we come round the back of the box – the way it’s exhibited now, there’s in fact a glass plate so that we can see exactly how Hoogstraten’s achieved this effect, and I mean this whole thing works on perspective, doesn’t it?

Philip Steadman: It does, yes. Part of it is quite conventional perspective. What Hoogstraten has done is that… it’s like Doctor Who’s tardis, it’s much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. You’ve got these images of a great many rooms that you can see – there are long perspectives through doorways to other rooms beyond. And those are painted in, as I say, conventional perspective, but there are some details which overlap the surfaces of the box, and in particular there’s a little dog, who springs up when you look through one of the peepholes, but when you come round here, as we’re looking now, you can see that he’s painted half on the wall in ordinary perspective, and then half of him, his legs, are painted on the floor, and they are stretched out, and that part of the dog is an anamorphic perspective.

It’s painted on this very steeply angled surface as you’re looking at it from the peephole. It’s all correct, and when your eye is confined to the peephole it all comes out right. And there’s also some very strange red rectangles on the floor, one with a little white rectangle. Now that looks like a carpet or something. But when you look from one of the peepholes, it pops up as a table – it’s the top of a table, and the rectangle is a letter addressed to van Hoogstraten, so perhaps this was his house.

Miranda Hinkley: How do artists go about creating this technique? Do they have to get right down with their sort of eye close to the surface that they’re drawing on, or do they have to stand at a funny angle to the canvas? I mean, how do they do it?

Philip Steadman: Well, I think that’s an open question. I mean there could be a lot of debate about how it’s done. There are discussions in the literature about different methods. Sometimes done with strings, so you would put a frontal view of the object and then draw, stretch strings from the eye-point, through the picture to an oblique plane, and then you would mark out the respective points on that oblique plane. That’s one way of doing it. The way I think van Hoogstraten might have worked here, which would have been equivalent geometrically, is he might have had a bright light, had little models of the chair, and projected shadows. And the shadows would be the same as the anamorphic views, so he might have had a little chair about here, projected a bright light from the peephole and it would have cast the shadows as they are on the three sides of the box, on which the chair is painted.

Louise Govier: It is meant to be a real artistic tour de force, and van Hoogstraten has written himself into the interior of this perspective box in all sorts of ways. So he’s included his own coat of arms and his wife’s family coat of arms, and this is really a lot about him showing off his superb skill, but also what he thinks that can bring for artists, because it connects with what’s on the outside of the box, which is beautifully decorated too, and there are all sorts of little allegorical scenes about what motivates the artist. A desire for money, certainly, is one of the things, but also for fame and glory, and you know, this really is the most extraordinary surviving example of a perspective box, far more complicated than anything else, specially with the two peepholes, that’s very unusual to have two different views…

Philip Steadman: There are half a dozen boxes, but this is the only one with two peepholes…

Louise Govier: And ultimately, it seems to have been something to get the viewer curious about different effects, but also just to show off van Hoogstraten’s supreme mastery of this art.

Miranda Hinkley [in the studio]: Louise Govier and Philip Steadman

You’ve been listening to an extract from the National Gallery podcast.  You can subscribe to the monthly show by visiting /podcasts.

Personal response
Author Philip Ball discusses the blue pigment ultramarine

About the podcast clip:


Philip Ball, author of 'Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour', looks at the popular pigment ultramarine, the vivid blue hue derived from lapis lazuli, in paintings in the collection.


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Seven (January 2009)

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): One of the most celebrated and sought after pigments through the ages has been ultramarine, a vivid blue colourant originally derived from lapis lazuli. Take a walk through the National Gallery and you can follow the changes in its use from the medieval period to the present day as I discovered earlier, when I met up with chemist and author Philip Ball.

First stop on our tour was 'The Virgin and Child with Saints', an altarpiece by Duccio, which is dominated by the Virgin Mary swathed in an intense blue robe. As we looked at the 14th-century masterpiece, I asked Philip why ultramarine was so prized in the medieval age.

Philip Ball: It was precious because it was extremely costly and the reason for that primarily was that it came from a very long way away… it was very hard to get hold of. At that time there was only one known source and that was some mines in a place called Badakhshan in what is now Afghanistan, so they were very remote. And in these mines, a certain sort of stone could be found which was called lapis lazuli, and that’s the source of the blue pigment. And so to extract the blue pigment was a very laborious process that involved making the powder and then mixing it up with wax and oils and resins to make a kind of dough and then you had to kneed this dough in water repeatedly again and again and gradually the blue stuff within it flushed out into the water and that eventually settled to the bottom and could be dried and extracted.

So in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, you see it being used only for the most precious parts of a painting. So in religious iconography, it’s very very common to see as here, the virgin painted in blue robes and that was, in a sense… that was a reflection of the fact that materials were considered then to almost be imbued with a certain sort of spiritual quality… that if you used precious materials in a painting, then you were creating something that was going to have more power as a devotional offering to God.

Miranda Hinkley: So you wanted to show me this Titian, Philip, which is ‘The Aldobrandini Madonna’, and there’s quite a lot of blue in this painting, but it looks quite different to the blue we were looking at before.

Philip Ball: That’s right. There’s a lot of sky and blue mountain-scape, which is painted in one of the cheaper blues, in this case azurite, but the Madonna here is again in blue robes, and again this is ultramarine, but it looks quite different from the Duccio painting. It’s much, much lighter. And the reason for that is during the Middle Ages and the early part of the Renaissance, to bind your pigment, primarily they used egg yolk, whereas Titian is using oils, and if you mix ultramarine, the pigment, in oil, it looks somewhat different; it looks in particular quite a bit more translucent, so if you’re concerned to get a strongly opaque blue, then you have to mix it with other pigments, you have to mix it with white, and here Titian’s used quite a lot of white with the ultramarine and the blue looks much, much lighter; in fact much more like he’s really, I think, concerned with mimicking the appearance of silk – so mimicking the appearance of an expensive material rather than simply laying down ultramarine in a sort of slab, if you like, and letting that speak for itself.

So, as painters started to use oils, they found that they had to change the way that they used ultramarine and other pigments, and they had to start, if you like, adulterating it with other pigments, and to use a lighter range of blues as a result. And that that had the consequence of changing not only the kind of blues that we see, but also of starting to erode the mystique that ultramarine had as a precious pigment, because if you’re applying it more or less pure, then you’re making a statement about the materials that you’ve used, the expense of those, and the role that that expense has in being a devotional offering, whereas you’re applying it here where it doesn’t look like the ultramarine that you’re so familiar with, then you’re not really making that statement anymore, you’re simply looking for a nice blue. 


Miranda Hinkley: Well, here we are in the Impressionist room and we’re surrounded by Van Goghs and Cézannes… I mean, the blues here are just a world away from the blue that we looked at before.

Philip Ball: Well, that’s right, and there are many reasons for that. In the 19th century, a whole range of new blues became available, most prominently the pigment known as cobalt blue. So it became much easier for artists to achieve the sort of bright blues that ultramarine offered. But all the same, they still wanted something that would give them the real appearance of ultramarine – in fact, they wanted ultramarine itself, they just wanted it at a cheaper price. And so 19th-century chemists set out to make it. It took painters a little while to trust it. To begin with they sort of had the prejudice that natural ultramarine had to be better in some way, but gradually they came round to the idea that synthetic ultramarine was as good as the natural material, and we see here the painting by Van Gogh, 'The Wheatfield with Cypresses', where he’s used it in his sky… you wouldn’t know that it was ultramarine here, the sky looks a fairly sort of pale, washed out blue, and this goes to show how routine it became for painters to use this stuff, and they didn’t really have to make a big deal…
Miranda Hinkley: And so really by this point, blue isn’t something that’s particularly special anymore, it’s just another colour in the palette. I mean, presumably, if you really wanted to you could go out and get synthetic ultramarine and paint your bedroom bright blue.

Philip Ball: You could! I guess we’ve kind of lost the aesthetic that would tend to make us do that… we would see that as incredibly garish. But it’s true that, you know, we take bright colours like that for granted now. But there are some artists who I think still retained a sense that colour and materials have some intrinsic sort of value to them, almost a spiritual value to them, and you can see that in the way that Yves Klein used blue. Ultramarine blue, the famous Klein blue, is simply ultramarine, but what he noticed and what you notice as soon as you see this stuff as a pigment is that as a dry pigment it’s incredibly deep and lustrous and it’s very hard to capture that in a paint. He wanted to try to do that and he worked with a Parisian chemicals manufacturer to find a binder that would bind ultramarine without destroying that lustre. So that’s what he came up with and that’s basically what international Klein blue is that he covered all these objects with. And he had a sense that I think harks back to medieval times that was celebrating the materials, the materiality of the paint, rather than simply thinking of it as a colour that you could put on canvas or whatever. It was a kind of illustration that materials were important.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Philip Ball, whose book 'Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour', is available in Gallery shops.

In conversation
Professor Philip Steadman and Louise Govier discuss 'The Ambassadors'

About the podcast clip:


What is the mysterious white smudge at the bottom of Holbein’s masterpiece, 'The Ambassadors'? Perspective expert and Professor of Urban and Built Form Studies at University College London discusses optical illusions in anamorphic art and with Louise Govier, National Gallery Education.


From the National Gallery Podcast, Episode Thirty Three (July 2009)


Find out more about Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533

Voiceover: The National Gallery Podcast.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Anamorphic art is a term unfamiliar to many, a type of optical illusion, such images tend to be hidden and unique by their very nature. Unless you look at a piece of anamorphic art from exactly the right angle, you won’t see the intended image which is often only visible to one person at a time. I spoke to Professor Philip Steadman, an expert in perspective, and podcast regular, Louise Govier, to find out more, and began by asking Louise to point out the most famous anamorphic illusion in the Gallery, the mysterious white smudge at the bottom of [Hans] Holbein’s masterpiece, 'The Ambassadors'.

Louise Govier: Yes, it’s in the skull in the foreground of the painting. I’ve sat in front of this painting with all sorts of groups of people, school children, and asked them what this weird object is, stretched out, white object in the front. And often they say, oh it’s a feather, it’s a baguette, I’m not sure, and you have to wait for one person to be sitting at the right-hand side of the painting who suddenly says, oh, it’s a skull. It’s a distortion that allows you to work out what it is when you just stand in the right place, it seems to pop into position.

Miranda Hinkley: And in fact there’s a clue as to where you have to stand, because if you look at the floor in front of the painting, there’s a very worn patch over to the right, and if we now go and stand in exactly that spot, then it all begins to make sense.

Louise Govier: Yes, absolutely. Now I’m standing right in the place where you should be, it looks recognisably like a skull, sometimes a bit more three-dimensional than others, but you can really see that it is meant to be a reminder of death. Of course this is an amazing, very lavish portrait, and if you follow the line up from the skull towards the top left-hand corner of the painting, you realise the tiny thing peeking out is a crucifix. It’s a reminder that these two men are aware of their mortality and of the fact that salvation lies through God, Christ and the afterlife.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, we’re also joined by Philip Steadman, who’s an expert on perspective in art and architecture. Philip, is it significant that we’re stood off to the right, would this effect also work if we were on the other side?

Philip Steadman: No, there’s got to be a particular viewpoint from which you look at it, like all perspectives, but with anamorphic perspectives it’s particularly important that you go to the viewpoint. In most pictures in perspective, they’re quite forgiving, you can look at them from many points of view, but anamorphic perspective is a very distorted kind, and it only looks correct when you get round to wherever the viewpoint is.

Miranda Hinkley: You’ve been listening to an extract from the National Gallery podcast. You can subscribe to the monthly show by visiting /podcasts.

Personal response
Barbizon expert Steven Adams explores 'Sunny Days in the Forest'

About the podcast clip:


Barbizon expert Steven Adams discusses the picture that captured the school’s fascination for trees. Named after the French village where they set up home in the mid-19th century, this group of artists painted landscapes inspired by the nearby forest of Fontainebleau.


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


Find out more about the exhibition Corot to Monet: A Fresh Look at Landscape from the Collection


More about Narcisse-Virgilio Diaz de la Peña, Sunny Days in the Forest, probably 1850s

Steven Adams: It’s a painting by a Barbizon artist called Diaz de la Peña and he’s painted here a cluster of trees in the forest of Fontainebleau. It’s an interesting painting, because what’s distinctive about Barbizon art is that the compositions are different. If we step back a generation or two, we find a very different type of landscape painting that’s heavily stage managed. All of the figures would be classical heroes, Greek, Roman shepherds… the paintings are inspired by reading Virgil and classical poets and historians. People would have painted landscapes very much like a theatre, so we’d find trees on the left, a bit like the flats on a stage set. And here we have someone taking the trees and placing them right in the very centre of the landscape, so this is the very thing that you focus on, they’re the dominant part of the painting.

Leah Kharibian: And this is a landscape that’s quite local – it’s a French landscape – is that important?

Steven Adams: It’s enormously important, I think, because the training of landscape painters in the previous generation would have required that they went off to Rome and this was the place in which the best kind of landscape painting, the most intellectually respectable art was made. Now in the middle of the 1820s, the first generation of artists start to look… start to go to Barbizon and start to think about painting the French landscape. The generation before would have seen the French landscape as something that is really quite trivial – it’s not really intellectually respectable – and this generation say, here’s a landscape that’s worth recording.

Leah Kharibian: So is it a case that Parisians are also coming to this place?

Steven Adams: That’s absolutely the case, because between 1845 and 1849 it’s possible to get from the centre of Paris to Barbizon in the best part of half a day, so the journey from the centre of Paris to nearby Melun can be done in not much more than an hour. In the 1860s, there are jokes in magazines and they complain that hoards of Parisians descend on the forest, that people are whistling the latest refrain they’ve heard at operas in Paris, it’s dangerous to walk through the forests because you run the risks of tripping over an easel – there are all kinds of hazards.

Leah Kharibian: But there’s not a sign of any Parisians in this picture. I mean, Diaz has gone out of his way to pick something that looks very rural and he’s got a couple of peasants. You say there were lots of artists at Barbizon; were the local peasants in on the deal?

Steven Adams: They were. Barbizon is essentially a rural community, but in the 1830s and 1840s, I think, when hordes of artists come to Barbizon, when the art schools close for the summer, groups of young artists leave Paris and go for a retreat over the summer months – this is quite an important source of additional income for peasants that would have eked a relatively meagre living from the landscape.

Leah Kharibian: Now this picture was painted in the 1850s, but Barbizon as an artists’ colony lives on, doesn’t it?

Steven Adams: It lives on for some time, yes. In the 1860s and 70s, the younger generation of Impressionists were going to Barbizon and when Monet, I think in the 1864, goes off to the forest of Fontainebleau, this is the natural place for an aspiring young landscape painter to go. And then it continues in the 1870s and 1880s, American artists go to Fontainebleau, and this becomes the place to go, very much, if one wants to become a landscape painter. So in the same way that in the second half of the 20th century, New York was the place for ambitious painting, so in the 19th century, Barbizon remains the place to go for ambitious landscape painters.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Steven Adams, talking to Leah Kharibian.

In conversation
Historian Richard Stemp and florist Gail Smith on van Huysum's flowers

About the podcast clip:


Take a trip to New Covent Garden Flower Market with art historian Richard Stemp and florist Gail Smith. Find out why Jan van Huysum’s masterpiece of Dutch flower painting, 'Flowers in a Terracotta Vase', isn’t as realistic as it seems.


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty Two (April 2010)


Find out more about Jan van Huysum, Flowers in a Terracotta Vase, 1736-7

Miranda Hinkley: The picture includes peonies, poppies, marigolds, tulips and roses – all painted to give the illusion of life. But a closer look reveals the work isn’t as realistic as it seems. To find out more, I visited the New Covent Garden Flower Market with art historian, Richard Stemp. We met Gail Smith there, who creates many of the Gallery’s flower displays. She cast a florist’s eye over the picture and immediately spotted the problem...

Gail Smith: Yeah, I can’t think of any month where we could find all of those at the same time. It’s predominantly May – when I first looked at it, I sort of instantly thought this is kind of May I’m feeling because I think the majority of them are from that kind of season, but certainly no, I wouldn’t see all of those kinds of flowers at the same time.

Miranda Hinkley: So that raises an interesting question about how he actually composed the painting. Richard, how do you think it was done?

Richard Stemp: Well, there are a couple of ways he might have gone about doing it. One is to wait until the flower is in bloom and then paint it as he saw it onto the painting, but that would presuppose that he knew where that flower was going to go in the painting. He must have done a sketch beforehand really, and to leave a space for that flower to be slotted in. What seems more likely is that he gradually builds up a library of different images by doing sketches when the flowers are out and then arranging his sketches in display in the same way that you might arrange a flower display anyway by taking the individual flowers rather than the sketches.

Miranda Hinkley: What do we think about the lighting? I mean, it strikes me that the lighting is almost impossible as well. Lots of the flowers are equally well-lit all the way across and this very kind of luminous section in the middle.

Gail Smith: We quite often, when we do a big display like this, put some light coloured flowers in the middle, recede them into the middle, sort of whites and yellows, so that you get some light in there, but you’d never be able to achieve what this arrangement has achieved of having almost like a ‘light bulb’ inside the painting, glowing out at you. It would normally be very dark in the centre of an arrangement there.

Miranda Hinkley: I mean, lots of the flowers look as though they’re at their very peak or just past their peak – these tulips look really overblown, and the way some of these peonies are kind of hanging down, they look as though they’ve just gone past the point at which they’re at their freshest. Richard, do you think that’s part of the point of the painting?

Richard Stemp: I think it probably is, yes, because what we were saying earlier about the fact you wouldn’t get all of these flowers at the same time implies that we have a process going on, from the narcissi coming out in spring, the peonies in May, but of course we’ve also got fruit here... we’ve got grapes, we’ve got peaches, and so it moves onto the autumn as well. And the fact is there is this cycle of life, of things being born, moving onto things dying, and the fruits then have the seeds – we’ve got a walnut down the bottom there – which also imply this sense of life going on. And this is sort of picked up by the things which aren’t part of the floral arrangement really. There’s a sort of bird’s nest at the bottom of the painting with some eggs in it, and also just above that there’s a fly sitting on the base. Now, there’s a couple of things that could be there for. One is that it is a symbol of mortality – flies are often associated with dying, death, being fly-blown. So that’s one thing, the idea of death there, but also, it’s not entirely clear where the fly is standing – it could be standing on the base underneath the vase, but it could actually be standing on the painting itself and casting a shadow. And it’s almost as if van Huysum is playing a game. If he’s painted it well enough, you might try and brush the fly off because the fly thinks it’s real and it’s actually landed there.

But then above that, there are a few of them around and there are butterflies. Now they are another symbol which actually goes beyond death because they start their life as caterpillars which aren’t entirely attractive. And what happens to them is that they appear to die. They form cocoons and they just act dead and they then come out again as something far more glorious. And in terms of the profounder meaning of this painting, the butterfly becomes a symbol of the soul. Here we are alive on earth in our bodies, which we might be quite proud of, but when we die and go to heaven, our souls will be far more beautiful than this gross body which we’re inhabiting now. So he’s picking out that message about not just life, birth and death, but also the afterlife, through the medium really of these flowers which grow and die, but then their seeds grow again and the whole cycle starts off in the spring again.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Richard Stemp, Gail Smith, and all at the New Covent Garden Market.

Personal response
Author Robert Mighall explores representations of the sun in art

About the podcast clip:


From divine halos to golden landscapes – explore the story of the sun in art, with Robert Mighall, author of 'Sunshine: One Man's Search for Happiness'.


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


Find out more about Girolamo da Treviso, The Adoration of the Kings, about 1524-5


More about Joseph Mallord William Turner, Ulysses deriding Polyphemus- Homer's Odyssey, 1829

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We tend to take the sun for granted in paintings as we never do in life – skipping over it in the background to look at the scene it illuminates. But as Robert Mighall, author of the cultural history 'Sunshine', explains, there’s a fascinating story behind its representation in art.

Robert Mighall: I was writing a book about the sun and thought I’d investigate it in art. So I walked around the Gallery one day and it struck me that really you didn’t see the sun in the skies of art, not until the 17th century. You see things that kind of look like the sun, but they’re not actually the sun. They’re more sort of yellow, golden discs that serve another purpose, which is really there to enhance divinity. The most obvious example of this is the halo, which is really just a solar disc. It was used on pagan gods – the Roman god of the sun had this convention of when he was personified he had this disc around his head to show his golden rays and that was just quite literally… the assets of that were stripped and used in Christian iconography from then onwards. So that’s where we get the halo from.

But there are other examples as well, which is where the sun is quite literally the vehicle for divine presence, for divine manifestation in the terrestrial world. A good example of this is Treviso’s painting 'The Adoration of the Kings' from around 1524. It’s quite a chaotic painting; it’s got the holy family in the centre, but also a whole host… a great chaotic crowd of people that have come to, in a sense, observe what’s going on. The holy family are quite natural; they’ve only just got halos – it’s more like little golden smudges on top of their head – and they’re within this scene of everyday life. It could easily be by Brueghel but in an Italian setting. But then when you look above the horizon, there’s this rather bizarre manifestation which is something that looks like the sun – a great golden disc bursting through the skies – and a whole host, a whole heavenly host, look like they’ve hitched a ride on it, like some vast solar surfboard that they’ve ridden into town on. It could easily be something from Monty Python.

Miranda Hinkley: I mean it seems completely disconnected from what’s going on below. It does have a quite comedic aspect.

Robert Mighall: Well, it’s quite surreal. The world, the naturalistic world, is depicted with reasonable fidelity; I mean, it’s quite naturalistic, there’s the laws of perspective, there’s a lot of showing off of the new kind of tricks of art, if you will, so that’s all well and good – that’s all very natural. And then there’s this other world, the world above, which seems to… which doesn’t obey those rules. It obeys its own rules. I think that’s very typical of the depiction of the skies before the 17th century, before landscape painting, before people started painting landscape as a subject in its own right. The world was the world and the heavens were the heavens – they were the skies, but they were also the heavens, a space where anything could happen. And I think the idea is that the sun is part of the heavens, so it’s distant and remote and still very very god-like and awe-inspiring.

Miranda Hinkley: So what happens, Robert, as we move through the centuries – is that something that changes?

Robert Mighall: When you get… when landscape comes into its own as a subject of art, the skies and also the sun start to become more naturalistically represented, more recognisable as the sun, rather than this kind of vehicle for divine manifestation.

Miranda Hinkley: So we’re now in front of 'Ulysses deriding Polyphemus' and this was painted in 1829. Completely different depiction of the sun…

Robert Mighall: The thing about this painting is that the sun is the most important thing that’s going on there. What’s interesting is he… the title indicates that this is a history painting, which was considered at the time the most important genre and certainly the one you could charge the most money for. So he’s depicting a scene from Homer’s 'Odyssey', which tells how Ulysses has blinded Polyphemus, he’s tricked Polyphemus, and they’re riding away, and he’s now deriding him – he’s kind of taunting him – but really you’d be forgiven for not seeing that immediately and not being able to identify the principle actors in this drama. Polyphemus, the Cyclops, is this kind of lowering shape that’s blending into the mountains over on the left. And Ulysses is very nearly lost in the crowd on the ship – a ship hanging all over with people, crowded with people and you can just about make him out because he’s depicted in red.

But really the real star of the show and the thing that really interested Turner is this spectacular solar sunset over on the right-hand side just above the horizon, and it really dominates the picture. Everything about the composition draws your eye towards this sunset. You’ve got the rocks and the brow of another ship there, that really just frame it and draw your eye towards it. And really you can see that’s the thing that interested him most and that’s very typical of Turner, specially in the later paintings, and this is considered a turning point in that respect, where he went from… he became obsessed with this idea of depicting sunlight, making the intangible, tangible. So really he uses the pretext of a history painting to start exploring that, and we see that in later paintings where he really, in a sense, abandoned the pretext of a different kind of genre, and just started to study light, explore light, and try and make sunlight tangible.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Robert Mighall.