Skip to main content

Episode 11

The National Gallery Podcast

In the September 2007 podcast, investigate marks on a painting with the conservation department and hear about how you can bring your children along to Family Sundays. 

16 min 54 sec | September 2007

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is a podcast from the National Gallery, London. Coming up: moving pictures – a group of London animation students bring the Gallery’s paintings to life, Guido Reni and the case of the mysterious markings – unidentified stains on a work by the 17th-century painter present a puzzle for the conservation and scientific teams – and your last chance to catch a Golden Age of art as the ‘Dutch Portraits’ exhibition closes its doors.

Family Sundays at the National Gallery

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start with an invite for our very smallest visitors. If you’re kicking your heels at the weekend, why not bring your grown-up along to the National Gallery? This month sees the launch of Family Sundays, a weekly day of events designed to help kids and adults get the most out of the Gallery together. Colin Wiggins and Aliki Braine told us what they’ve got planned.

Viyki Turnbull: Hello. My name is Viyki as she said and welcome to the National Gallery, because that’s where you are today and we are going to go on a magic carpet tour through a painting…

Colin Wiggins: I’m Colin Wiggins and I’m the Deputy Head of Education here at the National Gallery.

Viyki Turnbull: Now what I know about this magic carpet is that it’s so soft – can you feel that?

Colin Wiggins: Family Sundays have been running here at the National Gallery for a little while now but what we hope to do – what we are going to do – is running the Sundays every single week of the year. We want to provide a place where families can come, where mums and dads and children, and their children’s friends can come. And to enable the families to work together, to learn together, to look at this collection together, to talk about it, discuss it and for the collection and the values that our collection represents to become a regular and a vital part of family life.

Viyki Turnbull: Can anyone see what’s inside this painting?

Kids: A castle!

Viyki Turnbull: A castle!

Aliki Braine: My name is Aliki Braine and I work as a lecturer for the National Gallery running family workshops. It’s a good idea to have an idea of what you might come to look at – it’s a good idea perhaps to look online and find a few images that you and your children think would be of interest and then come and see it in the flesh. Children are always amazed by how different a painting in the flesh looks to what they’ve seen reproduced in a book or on a website. They’ve got frames around them – are they bigger than you expected? Are they smaller than you thought they’d be?

Colin Wiggins: Well, children are a very very important part of our core audience. We prioritise children – we’re very very keen to provide stimulus and activity and enjoyment for children. The ways that we do this are by providing lecturers, teachers, artists, who will work with the children – not talking or teaching in a formal sense, but really just trying to open minds, open eyes, open up ideas to this wonderful collection that we have here.

Viyki Turnbull: Can we imagine what this painting might be called?

Aliki Braine: One of the ways to access the pictures is to ask yourself questions, and that’s a skill that everyone should really get into the habit of doing when they come to a picture – perhaps they’ve not seen this picture before. Trust the pictures – the artists are absolutely able to tell you and guide you with what it is you’re supposed to be looking at, and the first question I always ask myself and ask groups of children is – what do we look at first? What stands out? Is something right at the front?

Colin Wiggins: A top tip for parents from my point of view is to come here with open eyes and open minds. You’ll find yourself surprised because what we’ve got here is a most wonderful and exciting collection of wonderful and exciting stories for example – we have the bible stories, the ancient Greek and Roman myths, stories from history – full of excitement, full of drama, full of passion, full of colour. And look at them together, learn about them together, enter into them together. Learn from other people’s responses, and it’s a matter of I think forming a kind of dialogue with your family and friends. It brings you closer together – learning about yourself through looking at great pictures.

Viyki Turnbull: What did you think? Are you scared to go into this castle? I would agree. I would be a little scared.

Aliki Braine: One way to look at these pictures is not just to use our eyes to look. Of course, we look at paintings above everything else, but our eyes are also capable of awakening our other senses. So it’s worth using your eyes as ears and thinking – what can I hear when I look at this picture? Is it a noisy painting? What can I smell? What can I taste? What can I touch? Now, of course, it’s absolutely essential that we all remember that we’re not allowed to touch the paintings, but if you use your eyes as fingers – is there anything that’s cold? Is there anything that’s wet?

Colin Wiggins: Looking at pictures is a vital part of life. It’s a hugely enjoyable and stimulating part of existence and if we can enable children to learn, how to look at pictures at an early age, it’s something that will be with them always.

Aliki Braine: What’s fantastic about coming to the National Gallery to go on a workshop as a child is that you get to look at a picture, talk about it, but also draw it and make your own work of art, and it’s wonderful to think that lots of children leave the building with their own masterpieces to put on their bedroom walls.

Viyki Turnbull: So I say thank you very much for coming along to this wonderful magic carpet. I very much enjoyed talking to you and seeing all the wonderful things that you’ve said.  A very smart group!

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Colin Wiggins and Aliki Braine with some tips on how to help the kids feel at home in the Gallery. If you’d like to join in the fun, Family Sundays start from 2 September. Hear a story on the magic carpet, draw your own masterpiece, or go exploring with a family audio tour. You can find details on our website –

Creating animation from art

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Education events aren’t just for children – there’s also a wide range of activities and lectures for adults too. Groups of university students regularly work with the Gallery to produce creative pieces inspired by the paintings. Sometimes the aim is to make a short film; sometimes to sketch a fashion design – and this year – for the first time – a group from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design have been making animations.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): I’m standing in room number 10 with Lee Riley, from National Gallery Education, and with Birgitta Hosea who is the course director at Central Saint Martins. Lee, tell me a bit about the transcription project.

Lee Riley: It’s working with Birgitta and the Central Saint Martins postgrad character animation course and what we wanted to do was work with them and work with our collection. Because one of the things that our collection has is a lot of stories, the main basis for a lot of the paintings is narrative, and taking all that on board, I thought it would be wonderful to work with a course taking on animation and looking at the stories that the paintings have to tell within a single frame.

Miranda Hinkley: Birgitta, what did this process reveal? What do you think the students got out of looking at the paintings?

Birgitta Hosea: So I think the animation students really gained a lot of inspiration from looking at this amazing collection of paintings here. There’s so many ideas here and so many stories and so many characters from all different periods of history, and we found as a project brief that students came up with very creative films at the end of the whole process, whereas in the past, we’ve set very open briefs and the results haven’t always been so creative. But actually using the painting as a starting point is really stimulating for them I think.

Lee Riley: The work is brilliant. It was really nice because I got to see it at different stages when they were doing the animatics and some of the creative ideas that were flowing. Actually for me, and for my colleagues, we can look at the paintings in a different way, and that is very exciting for us, and sort of to see where the inspiration actually comes from, what they’re being inspired by, and how they’re using that inspiration to create these amazing works, because they are fabulous.

Kim Alexander: Hi, I’m Kim Alexander. I just graduated from Central Saint Martins. I produced a TV animation based on a painting, ‘Saint Jerome in his Study’ by Vincenzo Catena.

Miranda Hinkley: Your piece is called ‘Hungry for Love’ and at some point there’s a pancake bride. Tell us a bit about what actually happens in the story.

Kim Alexander: When I looked at the painting, I took his posture, and the atmosphere and the mood of the painting, more than taking the actual story behind the painting and trying to make a modern-day interpretation. Basically, there’s a man who’s based on Saint Jerome and his dog, Leo. In the painting, it’s actually a lion, but because I wanted it to be believable as a modern-day setting it had to be a dog, and they’re living in squalor, happily getting on with life, drinking beer, eating junk food, and then one day, Jerome sees on the TV this advert for a pancake bride and then immediately orders it and it’s delivered home delivery, and the story’s about what happens after that. I don’t know if I should give it away….

Miranda Hinkley: No, you don’t have to tell us what happens in the end! How did you have the idea for the pancake bride? Where did that come from?

Kim Alexander: I was thinking of someone who is a lonely, anti-social person and in place of the cross, having a TV as his source of inspiration. And then I came up with – it’s quite a strange link – but I came up with this idea of him being inspired by an advert on the shopping channel for this thing that was going to radically change his life, which is kind of the interpretation of people looking to religion and visions as radically changing their lives.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Kimberley Alexander with a unique take on Catena’s ‘Saint Jerome in his Study’. You can download her three-minute animated film as a bonus track with this episode. Or – later this month – watch all of the student animations online at

Reni’s ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’

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. Reni’s painting is so large that restoration is likely to continue into next year – we’ll bring you news of its return to the Gallery as soon as the work’s complete.

And finally, don’t forget it’s your last chance to see an unprecedented array of paintings by the Dutch masters, including Rembrandt and Hals. The ‘Dutch Portraits’ exhibition – sponsored by Shell – closes on 16 September. You can still buy tickets online, and an audio guide is available featuring interviews with the curators.

Next month we’ll have news of the Gallery’s big autumn show. Called ‘Renaissance Siena’, it gives UK art lovers a rare chance to see some extraordinary paintings that are little known outside Italy.

Until then, goodbye