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Episode 19

The National Gallery Podcast

In the May 2008 podcast, Nicholas Penny on returning to the Gallery as Director, Rachel Ruysch’s celebrated blooms, and a house where art meets science.

17 min 47 sec | May 2008

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. Coming up: author and historian Jenny Uglow on Joseph Wright 'of Derby’s passion for science. And:

Betsy Wieseman: And on her death in 1750 there was an entire volume of verses written by various poets throughout the Netherlands, lauding her and praising her paintings, which I think was really unique.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Curator Betsy Wieseman joins the chorus of praise for the extraordinary, and little-known Dutch artist, Rachel Ruysch.

Nicholas Penny

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): When the subject of our first interview visited the National Gallery as a boy, he had no idea he’d one day be responsible for the pictures hanging on its walls. He joined the Gallery’s staff in 1990 as Clore Curator of Renaissance painting and, after a stint in Washington, returned in December of last year. Leah Kharibian went to meet Dr Nicholas Penny – the new Director of the National Gallery.

Nicholas Penny: I was taken to the Gallery by my parents. I remember my father, who was a barrister, and so of course therefore worked in London… I used to come up to London and he took me to the Gallery. I don’t think he specially liked pictures, but like a lot of parents he liked the idea that his children might like them more than he did. I remember he also used to send me postcards – this is a bit embarrassing actually – at my preparatory school of the pictures that I particularly liked. But since they were almost always of nude figures it caused merriment among the other boys. And I remember especially I was very, very attracted then by Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’. It is a rather fascinating picture but I was…

Leah Kharibian: What was it though… what was it that grabbed you?

Nicholas Penny: I don’t know, but I used to draw it again and again and again. I liked the sort of, the mixing of the limbs, which actually is a slight weakness of the picture in a way, but rhythmically it is a rather wonderful aspect of the painting. But anyway, I loved that but I remember that the teachers at the school were very worried by this fascination I had with Botticelli’s line – I think they probably thought there was something a bit kinky about that – but anyway, he sent me postcards and so I used to come to the National Gallery quite a lot.

And I also remember when I was a teenager, I used to come and I bought the National Gallery catalogues which, if I remember rightly, cost two and six, or less in fact. These great scholarly catalogues… I was fascinated by the amount of information they contain, much of which meant nothing to me… I didn’t really understand much of the discussion of provenance and all these learned footnotes. But I was fascinated that you could learn things about the pictures that you could tell your school friends and they’d be absolutely amazed.

Leah Kharibian: And when you joined the staff in 1990 – that’s nearly 18 years ago now – how was the Gallery different then, do you think?

Nicholas Penny: Well, the Gallery was in a state of transition to put it very mildly. I mean you could actually feel as well as see some of the older and stiffer parts of the Gallery falling away as it entered into a completely new life, and in particular of course the Sainsbury Wing was actually sprouting up next door, so it was a very exciting time.

Leah Kharibian: And I suppose the Sainsbury Wing also started off a tradition of temporary exhibitions here at the National Gallery, which hadn’t really quite been there in the same way before, had they?

Nicholas Penny: This was the time when the exhibition programme in the National Gallery was expanding greatly. This was the first time that we’d had an exhibition space for larger loan exhibitions. The best type of exhibitions as far as I’m concerned, for the National Gallery, are ones where people… which have some impact on the permanent collection. I mean for example the ‘Batoni’ exhibition at the moment, it includes our own Batonis, but it also includes 18th-century portraits of a kind that we have by all sorts of other artists and it affects the way that you see those elsewhere in the Gallery. So that by putting on exhibitions in the National Gallery, the curators aren’t just providing a sort of extra treat, they’re actually changing the way that you think of the permanent collection here.

Leah Kharibian: But what I’m finding really fascinating is that you’re talking about the Gallery as a home, and a home that you’ve had since a child. And I feel exactly the same way, and I think nearly everybody who visits the Gallery regularly, even people who are maybe at a great distance, feel very particular about the National Gallery – that it does have this feeling of being a home, either a spiritual or a physical refuge, but a home… it does have that, I don’t know, that personality, that particularity about it that perhaps other institutions don’t share.
Nicholas Penny: I think that’s completely right and that’s why the National Gallery has often got into trouble in the past as well because people don’t like changes in their home. People like me who are curators or even more when they’re directors of the National Gallery have this responsibility – they’re actually looking after something that belongs to everyone else.

And, you know, this extends to almost everything. I mean, the feeling about the fig trees growing up on the outside of the National Gallery... I mean, they’re not even in the National Gallery, but if you try to cut down the fig trees… I sometimes wonder also whether people would be disturbed if there were fewer pigeons, which I personally wouldn’t think would be a very good thing, and they cause a tremendous amount of nuisance… even the pigeons are much beloved. So you have to be very, very careful in the National Gallery. If people are so worried about the pigeons and the figs outside just imagine how strongly they feel about the Botticellis and the Titians.

Leah Kharibian: In a few years time… I mean, you’ve only relatively recently become Director, but in a few years time, what are you hoping that people will have in mind when they think of the National Gallery? I mean, I’m hoping it won’t just be fig trees and pigeons, but what do you hope they’ll be thinking of?

Nicholas Penny: Well, I hope that they’ll feel – this seems ridiculous, but it relates to what I’ve been saying – I hope that they’ll feel that it’s both a place where they can always go and see something new and a place where they can always go and refresh themselves at some source that they are familiar with, that they’ve known already. And that seems to me… if people can have those two feelings about the Gallery, I also want people to feel that it’s their own and that’s why I think it’s also really important that they feel it’s something which is growing. I just feel that it means more to people if they know that it is actually changing because not only new things are arriving there, but great new things are arriving there.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Leah Kharibian talking to our new Director, Nick Penny. If you’d like to visit the exhibition he mentioned there are just a few more weeks until ‘Pompeo Batoni’ closes on 18 May. Tickets are available at the Gallery, or online with a booking fee at

Jenny Uglow on ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Cloning, GM crops, nuclear power – it seems as if science has never been so contentious. It’s easy to blame this ambivalence on the pace of progress and imagine it’s a modern phenomenon. But in fact it’s nothing new as a look at one of the Gallery’s most famous paintings – An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump – reveals. Author and historian Jenny Uglow told me more.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): I’m standing in front of an 18th-century painting which is a moment frozen in time. There’s a group of figures all gathered around a kitchen table, all the members of the family and in the centre is a rather enigmatic looking character with lots of white long bushy hair, who appears to be conducting some kind of experiment on a cockatoo that’s trapped in a bell jar. Jenny, what’s going on here? Who is this character in the middle?

Jenny Uglow: The man in the middle is a travelling lecturer or demonstrator. He’s demonstrating one of the exciting aspects of the demonstrator’s art, which is the air pump. And he’s got a very large glass vessel poised on a column and in the glass vessel is a bird and the bird is fluttering and near to death because from the pump down below – you can see the handle, glistening handle, next to those pistons – he’s extracted all the air from the glass, but his hand is poised just above it to let us know that if he pulled the stopcock at any moment, he could flood the glass vessel with air again and the bird would revive.

Miranda Hinkley: So this was painted by Joseph Wright 'of Derby' who… there are a number of works by him dealing with the advance of science and the industrial revolution…

Jenny Uglow: Yes, Joseph Wright grew up in Derby which was one of the main centres of the industrial Midlands. It had instrument makers, it had silk mills, and he was fascinated as a child by mechanics and he went off as a child to be apprenticed as a painter but many of his friends when he came back to Derby were experimental scientists or were industrialists so they were making very important and exciting discoveries.

Miranda Hinkley: So Wright would have understood quite well what was happening in this painting in this process.

Jenny Uglow: Yes, Wright would understand absolutely the process that he’s showing. He’d have seen demonstrators do it, but also he asked his friends for help when he didn’t understand things. So he’s not just making evocative pictures, he’s showing something that he really understands.

It’s quite technical – there are a lot of other things in the painting which are to do with pneumatics. It’s a lecture on pneumatics, how the world changes if you do remove the air – they’ve got these Magdeburg spheres here, which you put together and if you suck the air out of them they just cling to each other and you can’t separate them, and this mysterious object in the jar, which people used to think was a skull, a sort of memento mori, a reminder of death, and then people said no it’s a sheep’s bladder, and somebody very persuasively said actually it’s human lungs. And again that goes with the feeling that the painting is actually about air and the power of air because Wright was an asthmatic. It was desperately important to him the whole act of breathing and one that was very painful and mysterious and precious.

Miranda Hinkley: This sort of a scene is quite alien to us today in the sense that you don’t have wandering scientists who come and reveal the wonders of nature to you in your own home anymore. But I think there’s something here about people’s attitudes to science and kind of different feelings towards it.

Jenny Uglow: Yes, of course there is. It’s actually ever since this period that scientists have been thought of as rather dangerous, partly because the scientific endeavour, the rationalist endeavour, was associated with the philosophes in France who were behind the French Revolution. So that when the French Revolution came they actually turned on the scientists, the natural philosophers, in their midst and said – ‘well, look what that comes to’. And scientists were then, as it were, set apart – mysterious experimenters.

People always think that you’re dabbling with the secrets of nature. It’s very like the things that frighten us today, like cloning, you know, like creating alien forms of life. This is very dangerous and yet if you’re going to cure something like Wright’s own asthma, you’ve got to know about the mechanics of breathing and of air, so it’s a good thing. We want the advantages of science but we’re always a bit frightened that we’re tapping into a power that could actually hurt us.

Miranda Hinkley: There’s something really striking about this painting. It’s not just the arrangement of the figures and the way he’s captured everyone’s thoughts so perfectly in their faces, it’s also the contrast of light and dark and the sort of light of knowledge kind of penetrating the surrounding darkness…

Jenny Uglow: It is. And if you think of it as a kind of demonstration it’s also like a bit of theatre, isn’t it. It’s like something glowing on a stage and it pulls you in. There’s… it makes you think of earlier paintings, which are actually not scientific paintings, but religious paintings, which have this glowing mystery at their heart. And in the National Gallery, there’s a little early painting where the Christ Child in the manger is actually glowing almost, exactly like this, and the faces are lit up watching him, so this is like a new miracle, this is a new way of understanding the meaning of life.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jenny Uglow talking about ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ by Joseph Wright 'of Derby'.

Ruysch’s ‘Flowers in a Vase’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer… if asked to name an artist from the Dutch Golden Age, few people would mention Rachel Ruysch, yet she’s responsible for one of the Gallery’s best loved and most beautiful still lifes. Leah Kharibian asked curator Betsy Wieseman what makes the picture, Flowers in a Vase, and its little-known painter, so special.

Betsy Wieseman: Ruysch was a unique figure in part because of her innate talent, but also because of her training and her background, which is quite interesting. Her father, Frederick Ruysch, was a professor of anatomy and botany; he was a pharmacist, a surgeon; he was the head of the Amsterdam botanical garden, and in addition to that, he owned a personal collection of anatomical specimens and natural curiosities and he called it the ‘Museaum Ruyschianum’ – his own personal museum.

Leah Kharibian: And how does that affect the picture here, do you think? I mean, we’ve… I can see that we have, standing on a ledge, a glass vase in which we have a very beautiful collection of what look like fairly common or garden flowers – I mean, flowers that you might see anywhere, but nestling in amongst them are these insects, so we’ve… what can we see here?

Betsy Wieseman: Well, there are two caterpillars that I can see. I particularly like the one right in the foreground that’s just dangling from his thread and looking to land somewhere. It’s this wonderful little suggestion of movement. There’s a grasshopper on the table that looks about ready to spring to the other side and then nestled up between the rose and the peony is a wonderful spider and an ant on the petals of the rose.

Leah Kharibian: Oh, tiny, tiny ant… oh, I can just see that. Now the flowers that she’s picked here, they do seem to be the sort of flowers that you might grow in a cottage garden. There’s honeysuckle and columbine at the top and roses and there’s a big bud of a peony on the right-hand side, and apple blossom, that’s right isn’t it? And what are these orange flowers in the middle do we think?

Betsy Wieseman: Those are lilies and then to the left of that a marigold. And then I love the viburnum that comes up between them and it’s turned away from us so that the focus is on the underside of the leaf and those wonderful crinkles of the leaf. One of Ruysch’s most beautiful characteristics is her ability to render all these different textures and her use of light and shadow to bring the flowers towards us. To really create an illusion of three dimensions within the bouquet.

Leah Kharibian: I’m right in thinking that this is quite an early piece of hers, isn’t it?

Betsy Wieseman: It is. She was probably about 20 maybe 25 when it was painted, so just after she’d completed her training. What’s fascinating about Ruysch is that she goes on to become one of the most important and successful painters of the early 18th century. She was the court painter to Johann Wilhelm, the Elector Palatine, based in Düsseldorf. She didn’t actually live in Düsseldorf, but she would send her paintings there and she was also patronised by princes and rulers throughout Europe – so really a unique position in the early 18th century. And on her death in 1750, there was an entire volume of verses written by various poets throughout the Netherlands, lauding her and praising her paintings, which I think was really unique. The other fascinating thing was that she had quite a family life as well. She was married in her 20s to another artist – not quite so successful as she herself – and between them they had 10 children.

Leah Kharibian: 10? 10 children?

Betsy Wieseman: 10 children.

Leah Kharibian: So there’s all this extraordinary talent, and she manages 10 children as well and she lives to a ripe old age. She doesn’t sound like the picture that we have in our mind’s eye perhaps of the downtrodden female artist, I mean she seems to go against type, or is it the case that it was possible to have a career?

Betsy Wieseman: I think she was unique and I often wonder whether it was because, or in spite of the fact that she had 10 children that she became such a successful artist. Maybe her studio was her refuge!

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Betsy Wieseman. You can see Ruysch’s ‘Flowers in a Vase’ for yourself at the Gallery, and if you’re planning a visit during May, you might like to know that a range of flower-themed talks and events will take place throughout the month. Many are free and you can find details at

That’s it for this episode, but we’ll back in June with news of the National Gallery’s next big exhibition. Until then – goodbye!