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Episode 48

The National Gallery Podcast

In the October 2010 podcast, David Starkey on the genius of British art. Plus Canaletto's views, and social climbing at the court of Louis XVI.

17 min 55 sec | October 2010

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. Coming up: Social climbing at the court of Louis the Fourteenth... and historian David Starkey kicks off a new series on the Genius of British Art.


Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start with our major new exhibition: ‘Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals.’ It’s probably fair to say that Canaletto’s views of Venice have become so well known that he’s permanently shaped how Western audiences see and imagine the city today. But as this fascinating exhibition reveals, Canaletto was by no means the only artist painting views of the city. The exhibition has several spectacular paintings by an early 18th century painter few of us will have heard of – Luca Carlevarijs.  One picture shows a gondola race where the spectators entirely steal the scene. Leah Kharibian met up with curator Dawson Carr to find out more.

Miranda Hinkley: Carlevarijs might not be as well known as Canaletto today, but he’s an artist of immense importance in the history of view-painting in Venice. This scene, this scene of a regatta that most typical of Venetian, purely Venetian festivals, really established the compositional type for the depiction of regattas and virtually every view-painter thereafter adopts this composition. It shows the finish line of the race at the Palazza Folscarie and in this case the regatta was being held in honour of a visiting dignitary – it was King Frederick the Fourth of Denmark – and just before he was to depart, the Venetian patrician class put on this very grand regatta. One can see that there is this amassing of highly decorated barges being rowed by gondoliers in costume. One can spot the king in foreground just to the right of centre and his boat is being rowed by gondoliers who are dressed in his red and gold livery. The King sits at the apex of the boat facing back towards us.

Leah Kharibian: I just love all the foreground detail. I mean he really creates such a lively scene and where we really see the patrician class of Venice just showing off in the most elaborate fashion. We know that artists actually designed their gondolas and some of these are immensely complicated with great big figures on them and what looks like, almost like a huge peacock tail in the centre – absolutely fabulous.

Now Canaletto begins to make view-painting sometime after this – this painting is 1711, isn’t it – and he starts painting in about 1720, but Carlevarijs is still dominating the scene, isn’t he?  And I know the National Gallery has the most wonderful early view of Canaletto’s called The StoneMason’s Yard that seems to be a completely different sort of picture. What is it that Canaletto’s beginning to add to the genre?

Dawson Carr: Canaletto depicts not a great ceremonial centre of Venetian life, but rather this humble stonemason’s yard that has appeared in the Campo St Vidal and it’s really about pictorial qualities. Canaletto using these elements to create this marvellous composition that gives one a sense that one’s looking at the real Venice, the Venice behind the scenes of all the great public shows. And Carlevarijs never did anything like this. Carlevarijs’ were all paintings of very recognisable, very famous sites.

So Canaletto is really heading off in another direction. Of course, his work too would come to be dominated by those scenes of the great ceremonial sites very shortly after he painted this picture as the grand tour phenomenon increases, and of course he’s painting essentially rather wonderful postcards for people to take home.

Leah Kharibian: And with this new style of painting, what were people making of Canaletto’s contribution?

Dawson Carr: Well, in the case of Canaletto and Carlevarijs we do have a contemporary recommending Canaletto over Carlevarijs because as the person states, “in Canaletto’s paintings, the sun seems to shine”.

Leah Kharibian: And so basically Canaletto bests his first rival, but there are many other rivals on display in the exhibition, aren’t there?

Dawson Carr: Yes indeed – going through to Francesco Guardi with whom the tradition really ends of this very much an 18th century phenomenon.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Dawson Carr, talking about our big autumn exhibition. ‘Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals’ opens on the 13th of October – tickets are already on sale at the Gallery or online with a booking fee at And if you’re coming along, don’t forget the audio guide – it features curator Dawson Carr.

Fire & Water

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next.. Although now little known, Pierre Mignard was one of the most successful artists at the court of the French king, Louis the Fourteenth. He painted portraits of the great, the good – and the plain old socially ambitious - as I discovered when I met up with Jacqui Ansell...

Miranda Hinkley: Jacqui who is this rather formidable lady, displaying her wares, as it were?

Jacqui Ansell: Well, this is the Marquise de Seignelay – I’m sure she’d love it if we used her full title because it was quite hard fought for – and she married the Marquis as his second wife, when she was aged only 17. As you can see, she’s looking a bit sad because this was painted after her husband had actually died.

Miranda Hinkley: She’s looking rather pensive as you say, but there’s also quite a lot of display going on here – I mean they’re in the most gorgeous costume – the child on her left is dressed up as a soldier and we’ve got little cupid there on the right – what’s going on?

Jacqui Ansell: Well, I always think when I look at this painting, ‘What does she think she looks like?’ I mean clearly as you see the artist has given us all sorts of clues that this is a boy on the left, not a girl dressed up as a miniature soldier, and a little cupid looks up fondly there at a woman who’s clearly her mother, and then you notice there’s an awful lot of water around. There’s sea in the background and there’s sea in the foreground and you wonder what’s going to happen next really.

Miranda Hinkley: And also we see that there’s coral and seaweed in her hair...

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, so there’s clearly a very strong link with the sea. And she’s dressed up as a princess perhaps. She’s got the things that you recognise in her hair; she’s also holding up a pearl, a very elaborate pearl, that might explain her pensive expression, because that probably contains a portrait of her dead husband, who was not just a sailor but he was in control of the whole of the French navy, so he was a rather important character. So she’s clearly dressing up in homage to her dead husband, but what as? For many years people wondered – people wondered if she was Venus? If so, there’s something a bit dodgy about being shown with those two sons or two children because although Venus did have two sons they were by two different fathers. Other people have wondered if she was perhaps dressed up as Poseidon, the god of the sea, but that also doesn’t quite sound right in the politics at the time, because the king was usually shown as Poseidon, so it would look as if she was rather over-reaching herself.

Miranda Hinkley: So who in fact is she trying to show herself as?

Jacqui Ansell: Well, the clue lies in the little boy who’s dressed up as a soldier, because he’s not just dressed up as any soldier, he’s dressed up as Achilles, and in that case she’s dressed up as his mother, the sea-nymph, Thetis, and according to Homer, she wanted to protect her little boy so much that she had special armour made for him, and she had that made from Vulcan’s forge, which of course was in the volcano in the background. You can see him there in his armour, but there was another thing that specially protected Achilles. She wanted him to live forever, so she had special connections that told her if she dipped him in the river of the Styx then every part of his body that the water touched would be invulnerable. So she did this – she dipped the little baby in, but she had to hold onto him, and she held onto him by this heel, so of course that’s why we all know the story of Achilles, or at least we know the story of the Achilles heel, the idea that we’ve all got that one fatal weakness.

Now Thetis was very proud of her little boy and it was prophesied that he was going to grow up and do even greater deeds than his father. And that I think is very important in the context of the whole painting because we want to think about not just what she’s dressed up as, but why? And you might think that a painting like this, built for the heart of 17th century court culture would not be able to speak to people today, but I had a group of Hackney school children come and look at this and one seven year old piped up and said ‘well, she’s putting it out miss, isn’t she?’ Now I don’t know if you understand that slang, but what the child picked up on is that what she’s doing is that she’s touting for a new husband. She’s got used to a certain lifestyle, she’s lost her husband and the father of her children, but she’s also lost her wealth and status and she wants to get a new husband.

Miranda Hinkley: So perhaps showing herself as Venus would have been laying it on a bit thick, but there clearly are overtones of that in the image...

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, that’s a very good point because there’s under-drawing here, under-painting, there’s painting over that tells that originally she had one breast bare that certainly would have been laying it on a bit thick, so the idea that she’s Thetis...

Miranda Hinkley: Would have been a rather clearer message, wouldn’t it...

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, I think so. I mean at the moment she’s showing us that she’s fertile and she’s very pretty, and she’s more than a pretty face, she’s very intellectual as well.

Miranda Hinkley: So I have to ask, what happened? Did she in fact find herself a new husband and did the little boy go on to be even greater than his father?

Jacqui Ansell: Well, clearly she’s got ample charms and her charms had effect. She managed to attract some very memorable suitors, one of them being the Duke of Luxembourg, who unfortunately jilted her at the altar, but she went on to make a very good match, thank you very much, and unfortunately she died, just a couple of years after her wedding. But what about the little boy? Did he grow up to do greater deeds than his father? Well, he did have a military career but it wasn’t all that sparkling and glittering, I’m afraid.

The only comment we have after his death from apoplexy was that he was extremely fat but he did excel in dancing, so that’s quite a sad little note to end on perhaps, although you can perhaps see the seeds of his elegant deportment in this painting.

Miranda Hinkley: And indeed of his chubbiness in those beautiful round cheeks.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jacqui Ansell talking about Mignard’s Marquise de Seignelay and Two of her Sons. If you’d like to see the painting for yourself, come along to the Gallery. Or if you can’t make it in person, you can find the portrait – along with all the other works in the Collection – on our website, at

Genius of British Art

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This autumn brings a major new art series to Channel 4. ‘Genius of British Art’ will offer six personal – often passionate – views of how art has shaped Britain and made us who we are today. To celebrate, the National Gallery in association with specialist insurer Hiscox has invited each of the presenters to introduce their episode on Friday evenings throughout the month. Historian David Starkey kicks off the events with a talk about how royal portraits – from images of Henry the Eighth to Princess Diana – have had an enduring influence on the iconic power of personality. By way of a warm-up, he spoke to me about two famous portraits: Holbein’s Erasmus, and Anthony van Dyck’s Charles the First.

David Starkey: I brought you here because arguably this is the most important portrait in England. It’s where portraiture actually begins. This is a portrait by the great German painter, Hans Holbein, of the great Dutch classicist scholar, Erasmus. And he is the man here who connects England to the ancient world. At the beginning of the 16th century we nowadays tend to draw our inspiration from our ideas of the future; then they drew them from the past. He connected England to the world of Greece and Rome and he found this extraordinary young man, this painter who  can do two things. The first is, he can produce this amazingly realistic rendering. Look at that and you’ve got the sense – if you look very finely up there, you can see Latin inscription up there on the shelf, which is ‘it is easier to mock than to imitate’. This is perfect. There’s never been a more realistic painting... it’s better than photography.

Down here, there is another inscription. It is ‘the labours of Hercules’. This is Erasmus’ translation into Latin, a new translation of the new testament of the bible, and what Erasmus is doing here is presenting himself to us through the eyes of a great painter, and he’s doing it in a new kind of way.

Realism is new. We think realism is boring. It’s photographic. Nobody had ever been represented like this before. But at the same time, he’s using words to tell us about himself, about his ideas, about his work, about his actual very soul. And what we’ve forgotten... we’re used now to painting very simply as a kind of – how can I say without being too rude – as a railway siding medium. As something that’s been shunted off outside the main culture. Then it was central. It was as central as television, it was as central as computing, it was as central as apps, everything that we’re familiar with. In order words, you didn’t just get images by themselves, you got them with words. This is the power of the 16th century – it’s painting image with words. And this is where it’s invented. This is I would argue – it’s even more extraordinary – it’s not just inventing the portrait, the realistic portrait, it’s inventing the very idea of personality itself.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, what better perhaps display of personality than van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I on horseback?

David Starkey: It’s not, it’s rubbish. Charles, as we’ll see when we go and look at it, is all bluster. He is bandy-legged, he couldn’t walk until he was 8, he couldn’t talk until he was 6, and he is represented as a great knight, a hero on horseback. This is Tony Blair, it’s Gordon Brown, it’s Alistair Campbell, it’s pure, pure spin. It’s a great painting – as a representation of an individual, rubbish. When we left the Holbein, I was a little bit abusive of van Dyck. Now clearly it’s unfair. You look at this picture – the image of the horse, the image of this wonderful, romantic English landscape. It anticipates Constable. It’s painterly, it’s beautiful. As a portrait of Charles... well... Charles is a little man. If you want to get a sense of the contrast of Charles with say, Henry VIII, go to the Tower of London and look at their suits of armour. You see pictures can lie. Suits of armour can’t. Because a suit of armour is like a suit. It’s made to measure. And Charles is this little bandy legged man. And here he is put romantically on horseback. Charles had never jousted; he’s shown in jousting armour. He was a hopeless military commander; he’d only got to look at a battle to lose it. And yet here he’s presented as a knight, as a St George, as a romantic hero and it’s false, false, false. And this is I think the thing we’ve got to understand with van Dyck. Van Dyck is brilliant at covering up people’s deficiencies. Holbein is brilliant at revealing their qualities. And there are two fundamentally different traditions of portraiture in England.

One descends with Holbein and it finishes up with Lucien Freud. Another descends from Van Dyck and its best it’s Singer Sergeant; at its worst, it’s a Lazlo (sp?). It’s painting as decorative, and the individual is buried, is inundated with – look round the room – silk, satin, velvet, columns, thrones, crowns, images, everything that conveys status, not personality.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to David Starkey. The Genius of British Art starts on Sunday the third of October on Channel 4. We’ll be holding events at the Gallery on Friday nights throughout the series, from the first of October until the fifth of November. Howard Jacobsen, Janet Street Porter, and Jon Snow are among those speaking, in addition to David Starkey, and you can buy tickets or find out more at

That’s it for this episode – until next month, goodbye.