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Episode 42

The National Gallery Podcast

In the April 2010 podcast, Dutch paintings decoded. Plus Delaroche on the stage, and what kids can teach us about art.

15 min 35 sec | April 2010

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. Coming up: a trip to the theatre with French painter, Paul Delaroche, and how kids can help their grown-ups get the most out of art.

'Flowers in a Terracotta Vase' 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): With spring in the offing, we start with a masterpiece of Dutch flower painting, Jan van Huysum’s Flowers in a Terracotta Vase. 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. Come along to the Gallery if you’d like to judge van Huysum’s decorating skills for yourself – 'Flowers in a Terracotta Vase' is on display throughout the month.

Delaroche and theatre

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Now to our exhibition of masterpieces by the 19th-century French artist Paul Delaroche. Entry to the show is via a pair of massive stage curtains – the first hint that a trip to Delaroche’s world is also, in some ways, a trip to the theatre. One picture with an intriguing relationship to the stage is 'The Princes in the Tower’, which shows the ill-fated sons of King Edward IV of England listening to the approach of their assassins. Leah Kharibian investigates.

Leah Kharibian: We’re here in the Delaroche exhibition and I’m with one of the show’s curators, Linda Whitely, to explore Delaroche’s fascinating relationship with the theatre. And to do that we’re standing in front of Delaroche’s spine-chilling thriller of a picture that’s come all the way from the Louvre. It’s called ‘The Princes in the Tower’ and it absolutely wowed the public when it went on show in 1831. Linda, I wonder if you could begin by describing it for us. 

Linda Whiteley: Well, it’s a sombre room dominated entirely by a four-poster bed of venerable appearance at a slight angle to us, which means we look along the bed, almost acting itself as a pointer to the door. And it’s the door that suggests what’s about to happen and why this is a particularly spine-chilling scene. But to return for a moment to the bed itself, there appear to be cobwebs, there’s dust lying on it, there are signs of it being worm-eaten, its curtains are in tatters and one almost has the feeling that the two little princes who are seen huddled into one corner here are not the first to be the victims of some horrid act enacted in this gloomy chamber.

Leah Kharibian: And how does this picture then relate to theatre in Paris in the 1820s and 30s?

Linda Whiteley: Well, there are a number of ways. There was an English troupe playing Shakespeare in Paris in this period. ‘Richard III’ was part of the repertoire and the great actor, Edmund Keene, played Richard; it’s almost certain that if Delaroche didn’t meet Keene he would have heard of him and most probably seen him on the Paris stage in his role of Richard III. 

Leah Kharibian: And, just to be clear, ‘Richard III’ is the Shakespeare play in which we hear the story of the two Princes having been done away with by their evil uncle, the future Richard III, that’s right, isn’t it? And Delaroche himself, when he was planning this picture, did he use the stage as a way of thinking about the space, do you think?

Linda Whiteley: Yes, I think certainly, I think this idea of something erupting from the left is very like the capacity of the stage with its entrances and exits. And here we see what would have been a dark corner suddenly illumined by a light, which suggests that someone is approaching – the darkness, the shadow that falls across the light, suggests that whoever it is, is very close indeed... but if we look closer, too, we see that the bed, perhaps not surprisingly for the period, is raised up on a kind of stage itself which actually gives the picture a stagey look.    

Leah Kharibian: Now, what’s really interesting is that this picture didn’t only take its influence perhaps from the stage but that also, in its turn, it influenced stage productions. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

Linda Whiteley: Yes, the performances in Paris – the version of Shakespeare that would have been known at the time – was one that gave great prominence to the story of the princes, so it’s perhaps not surprising that a friend of Delaroche, and extremely popular and well established dramatist of the day, Casimir Delavigne, called his play ‘Les enfants d’Edouard’ as it was in French (literally, of course, ‘Edward’s children’, so no more mention of Richard III), so that was the whole theme of the play. There are not altogether substantiated accounts of Delaroche having had something to do with the costumes for the play, and a very well substantiated fact which is that there was an enactment towards the end of the play of a scene that resembles very closely indeed the grouping in this picture.

Leah Kharibian: And finally, what of this claim that the exhibition makes that pictures like this one actually had a significant impact on the language of early cinema – I’m really intrigued about this, but how does it work?  I mean, this is a picture that was first shown in 1831 and cinema doesn’t really appear until the Lumière brothers in the 1890s. Can you explain?

Linda Whiteley: Well, one of the very first films to be made, in fact, was ‘The Murder of the Duc de Guise’, based, certainly in part, on the well-known painting by Delaroche now at Chantilly, so that’s a sort of concrete element. I think the very fact that although the pictures are in one sense theatrical in another they’re not because we have this close-up feeling which of course, later on, the cinema is so well able to exploit. And perhaps also very importantly, I think this ‘off-the-screen’, which anticipates, as it were, the next frame...

Leah Kharibian: And so when we’re looking at a classic bit of Hitchcock, or indeed any horror movie, and there’s something unspeakable going on off-frame, it’s that sort of device we can think ‘Ah! Delaroche!’

Linda Whiteley: Yes, yes it is. It is. And sometimes the use of empty space as a camera might do, which involves the spectator. And I was thinking ‘The Secret Beyond the Door’ is the title of an old film but it’s also the archetype of something that cinema can do and that this picture does very well.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Linda Whiteley. If you’d like to see Delaroche’s theatrical pictures for yourself, the exhibition runs until 23 May. A combined exhibition and audio guide ticket costs £11 and is available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at  

'Teach your Grown-Ups'

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): It’s nearly Easter and our final segment is for anyone looking for a way to amuse the kids during the holiday. Caroline Marcus from the Education team introduces ‘Teach your Grown-Ups’ – an audio tour with a difference – with a little help from a few of its stars.

'Teach your Grown-Ups' Narrator: This is the bit where you teach your grown-ups about art that was made between the years 1500 and 1600. Men with little beards are sailing all over the world in leaky wooden boats. Girls want to be Elizabeth I but without the rotten teeth and ginger wig. Boys want to be Sir Walter Raleigh, who goes to America and brings back a potato as a souvenir. Are you ready to begin?

Caroline Marcus: Children will always find the story in a painting when they come to the Gallery and they draw on their personal experiences and their initial perceptions when they’re looking at a painting to imagine and to interpret the meaning of the painting; in a way, they understand spontaneously that every picture tells a story. 

'Teach your Grown-Ups' Narrator: Grown-ups? What do they know about art? It’s all brush strokes and dusty old painters to them. Well, on this tour it’s the kids who’ll be teaching them a thing or two.

Caroline Marcus: But with adults it’s slightly different because they sometimes come and look at a painting and they think that they should apply an art-historical approach to looking and they feel that they should know the facts and they should know the name of the artist and so on. So they’re often less spontaneous and more concerned about their response than children are, and that’s the thing that sometimes children think: ‘oh no, it’s going to be a bit boring’.

'Teach Your Grown-Ups' Narrator: Grown-ups like to think they know everything about art, but they don’t. You can teach them things about each painting that will boggle their minds.

Caroline Marcus: But actually it’s finding the balance between these two approaches – the imaginative storytelling approach that children so beautifully bring to looking, but also balancing it with that contextual art-historical approach – just a few key facts, not everything – just to create an engaging way of looking at paintings.

'Teach your Grown-Ups' Narrator: Whenever you hear this noise … [sound of a school bell] … you’ll be asked to press the green button. When you do, you’ll be told a secret fact. It’s just for you. Before you move on to the next painting, tell your grown-ups the fact that you’ve learned and watch them be amazed.

Man Playing a Lute: My one true love she smells of cheese, sing hey hey, nonny nonny no, hey ho.

Caroline Marcus: My favourite clip on the tour is actually a Dutch painting of a man playing a lute. And I think the reason that I really like this is that he’s wearing this really over-the-top, extravagant feather in his hat and he reminded me of Lady Gaga, a really famous pop star from today.

'Teach Your Grown-Ups' Narrator: Is this young man a pop star with his fancy cloak and huge feathered hat? I wonder if he was in the charts when your grown-ups were young? He certainly looks cool. But is he any good?

Man Playing a Lute: Her eyes were red and her hair was blue… Scooby, scooby dooby dooby do.

Caroline Marcus: And I started to really have a close look at him and noticed that unusually he’s got a really red nose.

Man Playing a Lute: Dooby dooby dooby dooby do.

'Teach Your Grown-Ups' Narrator: He’s either suffering from a terrible cold or he’s been drinking too much wine. I wonder what your grown-ups think?

[sound of wine being poured into a glass]

Man Playing a Lute: Put your hands in the air like you just don’t care. La la la la. Oh Yeahhhh!

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Caroline Marcus. ‘Teach your Grown-Ups’ is available from audio guide desks, along with several other tours for kids. If you’re visiting, the National Gallery is open 10 till 6 daily and 10 till 9 on Fridays. And you can find more about everything in this month’s episode on our website:

That’s it for now. Until next time, goodbye!