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Episode 18

The National Gallery Podcast

Go beneath the sheets to a world of colour in associate artist Alison Watt's 'Phantom'; plus a very rich lady in red, and a Dutch landscape in the wrong shade of yellow... 

15 min 1 sec | April 2008

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast, in glorious Technicolor…

Eileen Sheikh: Catherine’s pear, carnation, incarnate, sanguine, stammel, flame (an obvious one), gingerleen, murray and peach.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We see shades of Renaissance red with costumier Eileen Sheikh and artist Al Johnson. Plus…

Marika Spring: In fact, the rather nice soft grey colour is actually the result of a pigment change in the paint.

Miranda Hinkley: So that’s yellow lakes at work…

Marika Spring: That’s yellow lakes again, yes, that have faded.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): The Scientific team tell us about a pigment that’s notoriously difficult to conserve.

‘Alison Watt: Phantom’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We start though with white. Phantom is an exhibition of works by the Gallery’s youngest ever associate artist, Alison Watt. Her paintings are deceptively simple – large-scale images of folded white fabric, which hide as much as they reveal. And as Colin Wiggins found out, even their colour is not as straightforward as it seems...

Colin Wiggins: Alison, we’re standing in the Sunley Room now, the day before your exhibition opens and it’s all hanging on the walls and the pictures are glowing off their grey background. They look very, very white and I know from seeing you at work in your studio you use a lot of colours in your pictures. Can you talk us through a little bit about why these pictures look white but they aren’t really white?

Alison Watt: Well, it’s actually quite interesting to see them in these surroundings because they look very different from the way they looked in the studio. And I think the colour… because I’m showing the work almost purely in natural light, I think the colour really comes out. And I had the chance to control the lighting in this space, but I liked the idea of allowing the natural light to go up and down because it means that the paintings are constantly changing, so you never have a fixed view of any painting and if you were to look at my palette in the studio there are actually about eight or nine colours. I mean, I use cadmium red, I use sap green, I use Prussian blue, burnt sienna, so there are actually a lot of colours beneath the use of white paint, so it’s actually quite a complicated mix to come to the colour that you’re presented with.

Colin Wiggins: In fact when you look at the paintings in these conditions of light with the daylight constantly changing, you do begin to pick up on these blues and reds and greens that are in there.

Alison Watt: I think you do. I think it’s the combination of the grey walls… the grey is a very neutral colour. Chris Oberon, the designer, came to me before the exhibition and I knew I wanted the walls not to be white, because I thought that would be completely wrong for the paintings, and he gave me about 50 different greys to choose from. And the grey that I finally chose without realising it was Sainsbury Wing grey, so it’s obviously a great colour, because it’s a very soft grey, and it allows paintings to sing out which I think is really important. It’s not at all overbearing – you just become aware of the colour that’s going on in the paintings, rather than the colour of the wall.

Colin Wiggins: But predominantly, even though we know that these colours… I can see from where I am now, I can see a lot of blue in that picture and even as you point out, that burnt sienna, that beautiful kind of dark yellowy tone… but the colours, the pictures, are predominantly white, and what is it about white, do you think, that so attracts you?

Alison Watt: I mean, I think your eye picks up white as the main colour as a way of simplifying it. I think it’s a shorthand. I think you tend to pick up the shapes first and the colours second. I think we have very little memory of colour when we move away from a painting. But I think white paintings… if that’s what we choose to call them… I think they allow you to project onto them. I think depending on how you’re feeling will depend on how you feel about the painting.

Colin Wiggins: Do you think there’s a kind of symbolism in there? I mean, white is traditionally associated with purity and innocence in Old Master paintings.

Alison Watt: I think white is associated with so many things. I mean, it’s associated with innocence… it also has religious connotations of the shroud. But there are so many different meanings to white, I think depending on who you are you will attach a different meaning to that colour… and depending on your background.

Colin Wiggins: People have come into this room and although of course it’s unashamedly a secular exhibition, many people have remarked on the fact they get a sense of the sacred looking at your pictures. Does that surprise you?

Alison Watt: Well, there’s something about… there’s something I like about this space, because it feels quite separate from what’s going on outside. You know, you’re not aware of… it’s a space to be quiet in, and it’s a space I think to contemplate, so I think that’s possibly where the non-secular connotations are coming in. You know, it’s a place you actually want to just sit down and be and think. And I think that’s a good thing for the paintings. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Alison Watt talking to Colin Wiggins. If you’d like to see the paintings for yourself, come along to the Gallery. ‘Phantom’ is free and open until June. And you might also like to know that a special season of films chosen by Alison runs throughout April and May. Highlights include the 1950s classic ‘Night of the Hunter’ and full details can be found on our website:

Moroni’s 'Portrait of a Lady ("Dama in Rosso")'

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next up: 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’.

Conservation of Cuyp’s ‘The Large Dort’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Our final visit this month takes us to the conservation studios in the Gallery’s attic. Housed beneath a glass ceiling that provides optimal light for their detailed work, the Science and Conservation teams rescue damaged and deteriorating paintings. As part of that role, they study how colours change over time, including a pigment that, as I found out, is notorious for aging badly: yellow lakes.

Miranda Hinkley: I’ve come up to the conservation studios to have a look at a painting that’s being worked on at the moment by Aelbert Cuyp, The Large Dort – a distant view of Dordrecht. It has a view across some fields and in the foreground are some cows and some milkmaids and it’s quite a lovely rural scene. How long has it been with you now?

Larry Keith: I’m not really sure – probably about getting on to a year I think, because we work on a variety of different pictures at once, so it’s not only that picture. But there was quite an extensive amount of work to do, thinking about what was going on and doing a lot of analytical work together with the Scientific department, which helped us proceed; so it was slow progress, I think, for the cleaning.

Miranda Hinkley: And it seems that one of the problems with this painting was in fact his use of yellow?

Marika Spring: That’s correct, yes. All the greens are painted in so-called ‘mixed greens’ which means they’ve used a yellow pigment mixed with a blue pigment to make the green and, particularly in the darker greens, the artist has used a pigment called yellow lake. And yellow lake is made using a plant dye stuff. The most common one in the 17th century was a plant called weld, but the trouble with plant dye stuffs is that they’re very vulnerable to fading and that’s what’s happened in this painting. And when we took a sample from the foreground landscape and looked at it in cross-section, perpendicular to the surface of the paint layers, we could see that the top portion of the paint had faded and turned white and that has the effect of creating a sort of misty veil over the foreground landscape.

Miranda Hinkley: Is this issue with yellow lakes a particular feature of Cuyp’s work?

Marika Spring: It was a very common way of achieving green in the 17th century and he’s not the only artist whose paintings suffer this type of deterioration. But a lot of artists mixed other pigments in as well, which has meant that their paintings haven’t suffered quite so badly. But it is a very characteristic paint defect for paintings by Cuyp, that’s for sure.

Miranda Hinkley: But the overall effect is of this really beautiful mustardy yellow and a very, kind of crackly paint surface. What is this actually an image of?

Marika Spring: This is a very high-magnification detail of the lower right foreground of the painting, and here we can see patches of yellow-brown varnish that are left on the surface of the paint. In fact, the rather nice soft grey colour is actually the result of a pigment change in the paint.

Miranda Hinkley: So that’s yellow lakes at work…

Marika Spring: Yes, that’s yellow lakes again, yes, that are faded.

Miranda Hinkley: So what will be your next step in terms of returning the picture to its former glory?

Larry Keith: Well, after the structural treatment has been done – repairs to the canvas itself – the picture will be revarnished and then we’ll start to fill in any losses with the filler to bring it up to the same surface level. And then we’ll do a retouching using not necessarily identical pigments, but certainly the same kind of layer structures if there’s a grey, and then a brown, and then a translucent yellow in the original, for example, we would repeat the same kind of structure to get the same optical effects, with the intention of making our retouching as difficult to see as possible. That being said, with the understanding that you can always see it very readily with ultraviolet light, and the fact that we also document everything in every stage of the treatment so there’s no intention to deceive in a fundamental way, but simply to make the picture read as harmoniously as possible when it goes back on the wall.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Larry Keith and Marika Spring. That’s it for this episode – don’t forget the Gallery is free and open from 10am till 6pm daily, and 10am till 9pm on Wednesdays. Join us again next month for all the latest news. Until then, goodbye!