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Episode 25

The National Gallery Podcast

In the November 2008 podcast, learn the ugly truth about a National Gallery painting. Plus the campaign to buy a Titian masterpiece, and Impressionism in Britain.

19 min 8 sec | November 2008

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. Coming up in this month’s episode:

Susan Foister: It’s very disconcerting. I’ve always thought that that sort of distortion of her face made her look more like a monkey than a human woman.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We pay a visit to the Gallery’s big autumn exhibition to hear the ugly truth about Renaissance art. And:

Leah Kharibian: Well, we’ve just left Hampton Court station and taken only a few steps and here we are at the River Thames and we’re standing in almost the exact spot where Alfred Sisley put down his easel to paint ‘Regatta at Hampton Court’ in 1874.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): A walk along the Thames in the footsteps of Impressionist Alfred Sisley.

Campaign to save 'Diana and Actaeon'

Miranda Hinkley: But we start with your chance to see, and to save, a masterpiece by Titian. In these credit-crunch days, the press is full of stories about the investment potential of great art, though the record-breaking prices achieved at auctions lately are beyond all but a few. Well, this month we’re offering everyone the opportunity to make a good investment – with a return guaranteed not just for themselves, but for millions of others too. Diana and Actaeon, a stunning work by the Italian master, Titian, is up for sale, and in conjunction with the National Galleries of Scotland, we hope to raise £50 million to buy it for the nation. Leah Kharibian went to talk to Carol Plazzotta to find out how everyone can help.

Leah Kharibian: Well, Carol, this is a real treat, isn’t it. It’s really lovely to see so many people here, but being in front of ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and seeing it in the flesh, one’s really immediately impressed by the sheer scale of the ambition that Titian has here.

Carol Plazzotta: It truly is an extraordinary work and it was so moving when the picture first arrived to bring it in and see how it changes when you see it in a different context.

Leah Kharibian: Normally you’d have to go up to Edinburgh, wouldn’t you, to see it in the National Gallery of Scotland? But it’s down here for a very particular reason – can you fill us in?

Carol Plazzotta: We’ve got the painting here just for a month in order to raise consciousness in London. It hasn’t been seen in London since 1945 when it was evacuated from the Bridgewater House during the war, and ever since then it’s been on show in Edinburgh.

Leah Kharibian: And can you tell us the story, because people might not be familiar with ‘Diana and Actaeon’ – what’s going on here?

Carol Plazzotta: The story is taken from the Roman poet Ovid and it is a moment of intense drama and pathos. It shows a beautiful young man, Actaeon, a hunter, who’s become separated from his friends at the end of a day’s hunting and he happens upon Diana, the chaste goddess of the hunt, bathing with her voluptuous nymphs.

Leah Kharibian: Now which one is Diana?

Carol Plazzotta: Diana is the one seated on the right. The beautiful, quite plump, goddess, and she’s staring across at Actaeon with this extraordinary haughty, proud glare, because he has caught her in a very awkward condition, because she’s in a state of complete undress.

Leah Kharibian: Now the campaign for raising money is called ‘Two Masterpieces, One Chance’. Now what does that mean? Why two masterpieces?

Carol Plazzotta: ‘Diana and Actaeon’ comes in a package which has been offered to us with its pendant. Titian designed and painted it with another very beautiful painting, another mythology, which is also a tragic and epic work called ‘Diana and Callisto’. These two paintings have never been separated. They were painted both for Philip II, and all through their history they’ve remained together. Their compositions are joined by the beautiful stream that runs through the foreground of both of them. It would be an absolute tragedy if they were ever to be separated.

Leah Kharibian: So, as I understand it, we’ve got to raise £50 million by December in order to have a chance to buy the second masterpiece as well – if we don’t, we lose the chance to buy both. But there are lots of people who are going to say, particularly in this current climate’ ‘£50 million! I mean, that’s just too much for a picture’. What do you say to that?

Carol Plazzotta: These works are of such supreme beauty and power. In many ways, they’re akin to the late works of Beethoven or Shakespeare – they truly are in that league. It also will help to illuminate the other 11 Titians in the collection, but I have to say that it would be the absolute star of our collection and would make London one of the great places in all the world to study Titian. So what we are talking about here is an investment, a huge investment, in the future of the whole nation because by making these purchases we will allow people to see these pictures, free of charge, for all time and it can become part of our public heritage.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Leah Kharibian talking to Carol Plazzotta. Just to recap those details, you can make a donation online at, or by calling 020 7747 5875. And if you’d like to see Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ for yourself, pop in – the painting will be on display throughout the month.

Massys’s ‘An Old Woman (“The Ugly Duchess”)’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next up: Renaissance artists are known for their fascination with images of idealised beauty, but – as visitors to our big autumn exhibition are discovering – ugliness interested them too. The wrinkled subject of one of the best loved paintings in the show, A Grotesque Old Woman by Massys, has horrified and delighted generations of viewers, and famously inspired Tenniel’s depiction of the Duchess in ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Curators Susan Foister and Luke Syson paid her a visit to mull over the meaning of ugliness in the Renaissance world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke Syson: We do have this portrait of an old man who again is no beauty in the exhibition. This is Domenico Ghirlandaio’s portrait of ‘An Old Man with his Grandson’ and as you can see he’s looking down very benignly at this beautiful little golden-haired boy, but most prominently of all is this frankly rather hideous nose and what we understand now is that this is a disease called rhinophymia – it’s a kind of elderly acne, a ghastly thing to look forward to. But I think that the message here is very different.

Susan Foister: Yes, this is a really sympathetic portrayal of an old man with his grandchild which seems quite different from the rather ferocious criticism of the ugly old woman. It’s a very, very sympathetic portrait and he’s somehow overcome his deformity – he’s not defined by that, he’s really defined by his sympathy towards his young grandson.

Luke Syson: It’s interesting though, I suppose, the point we take from these two pictures is that you can’t make absolute generalisations about if somebody’s ugly then their character is ugly and if somebody is beautiful then they’re necessarily beautiful on the inside.

Susan Foister: Even though the Renaissance tendency was very much to judge the internal from the external.

Luke Syson: Absolutely, no absolutely. And I think perhaps we can see the Ghirlandaio as an exception to a broad rule.

Susan Foister: And perhaps there was more latitude for portrayals of men than there was for portrayals of particularly older women.

Luke Syson: Well, women were clearly more judged.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Susan Foister and Luke Syson. The ‘Renaissance Faces’ exhibition is open throughout the month; tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee. And if you’d like to hear more from Susan and Luke, you might like to know they both feature on the audio guide to the show.

'Sisley in England and Wales'

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): If you tend to think of Impressionism as a French movement, our next exhibition may come as something of a surprise. Its star – Alfred Sisley – was born in Paris in the mid-19th century, and was inspired by the spirit of innovation that characterised French art in the era of Renoir, Monet and Cézanne. But – the child of English parents – he was also drawn by the lure of the British landscape, which was to be the subject of some of his most extraordinary works.

Our new exhibition brings together pictures from his trips to Britain, including a group of views of the Thames painted from sites that can still be visited today. Sisley worked in East Molesey, just across the river from Hampton Court – and that’s where we sent Leah Kharibian. She spoke to Tony Osborne of the Molesey Local History Society, while back in the studio, curator Chris Riopelle gave us his thoughts.

Chris Riopelle: In his depiction of the ‘Regatta at Hampton Court’, Sisley is showing us one of those two annual events that brought people, brought rowers, and a crowd of tourists out to Hampton Court to spend a day on the water. It was exactly the kind of subject matter that had attracted him in France – busyness along the water – and here in England he found something very similar – this day of festivity at Hampton Court.

Leah Kharibian: Well, we’ve just left Hampton Court station and taken only a few steps and here we are at the River Thames and we’re standing in almost the exact spot where Alfred Sisley put down his easel to paint ‘Regatta at Hampton Court’ in 1874.

Tony Osborne: He’s supposed to have stayed at the Castle Hotel, which was removed when they built this present bridge in about 1933.

Leah Kharibian: And where was the Castle Hotel?

Tony Osborne: The Castle was on the little roundabout, quite near us here.

Leah Kharibian: So really just near us.

Tony Osborne: Just between us and the station.

Leah Kharibian: And so he was able to just take his paints and come really just a few steps.

Tony Osborne: Just a few steps… he might in fact have painted from the windows for all we know.

Chris Riopelle: The bridge you see at Hampton Court today is not the one that Sisley painted in the summer of 1874. However, the one there in 1874 was a feat of engineering that had attracted much attention at the time. ‘Under the Bridge at Hampton Court’ is one of Sisley’s most audacious compositional inventions. He does the extraordinary thing of setting up his easel directly under the span of the bridge. It crosses across his head and it divides the picture almost like an old altarpiece in very distinct areas across the canvas. I can’t think of any other image by a painter in the second half of the 19th century that takes this absolutely unexpected view.

Leah Kharibian: We seem to have taken our life in our hands somewhat by crossing the Hampton Court Way.

Tony Osborne: Yes, it’s a very dangerous crossing.

Leah Kharibian: It is a dangerous crossing, isn’t it? And we’ve come now down onto the riverbank, you can take some steps down, and we’re looking across the river, not far really from where we were before, only a few yards, and we’re looking towards the footing of the old bridge. So Sisley has again chosen to be very close to his hotel. I suppose that’s practical, isn’t it?

Tony Osborne: Well some of these paintings are, I believe, fairly large and they would have taken him possibly more than one day to work on, so you need to be, with oils particularly, you need to be conveniently close to your base. You have to get everything out and lay it out and it’s quite a complicated operation.

Chris Riopelle: The picture of ‘Molesey Weir at Hampton Court’ shows exactly the kind of engineering infrastructure, like bridges, that attracted Sisley’s attention. In France as well he’d been attracted to those places along the Seine where modern engineering works were altering the course of the river, and here along the Thames he found a similar structure and clearly took delight in the contrast between the placid river above and then the river breaking into rapid moving waters, white foam, as it breaks through the weir.

[the sound of water]

Leah Kharibian: Well, after a few minutes walk along the towpath here we come to the lock at Molesey and then if you’re very lucky and the lock keeper’s in and he lets you, you can walk across onto a small little island and then if you walk to the end of the island you can see the weir. They’ve changed it slightly, I believe, haven’t they since Sisley’s day, Tony?

Tony Osborne: Yeah, looks as if these steps are newer than what was in his picture, because he shows a flow of water straight across, running from left to right, where those steps are now. Or it could in fact have been in flood. Of course, one must remember that all the upper-work part – the bridge, the footbridge, and the roof over there – that’s all after Sisley’s time.

Leah Kharibian: But essentially this is exactly the right spot and he was painting on an overcast day – it’s actually started raining now, very helpfully – but plucky British are not to be put off and in the picture there are two boys that are ready to swim, and another one who’s taking his socks off to have a dip. It’s not a very safe place to swim, I don’t suppose, but the leisure and pleasure, was very much what Molesey was about, is that right, in the 19th century?

Tony Osborne: It seems to have been so because not so very far up here we’ve got Hurst Park, where there was prize fighting and ballooning and all sorts of other activities and thousands of people did come down from London on a good day and go up and watch everything that was going on up there.

Chris Riopelle: What is so interesting I think about the pictures that Sisley painted in the summer of 1874 and along this stretch of the river is that it is the moment at which an Impressionist developed and trained in France, saw in the English countryside the same kind of subject matter that he had come to appreciate along the Seine in France. And so it’s a very important moment of English landscape and French landscape painting coming together in a very direct way.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Chris Riopelle and Tony Osborne. If you’d like to see the works they discussed, ‘Sisley in England and Wales’ opens at the National Gallery on 12 November. Admission is free.  

That’s it for this episode. If you’re in London this month, why not pop in – the Gallery’s open from 10 till 6 daily, and from 10 till 9 on Wednesdays. And if you can’t make it here in person, don’t forget you can still enjoy the paintings online at We’ll be back in December with all the latest news and exhibition updates. Until then, goodbye!