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Episode 49

The National Gallery Podcast

In the November 2010 podcast, Jon Snow on the art of war. Plus new perspectives with artist Clive Head, and rivalry: Florence vs. Siena.

18 min 20 sec | November 2010

Male Voice: This episode of the National Gallery Podcast is in association with specialist insurer Hiscox.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. Coming up: Florence 1; Siena nil: rivalry between Italian city states in football... and in art. Plus artist Clive Head on what it’s like to see his paintings hung on the Gallery walls...


Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start with Channel 4’s major autumn series, The Genius of British Art. On Sunday nights for the past month, five broadcasters – including David Starkey and Howard Jacobsen – have presented personal views of how Britain’s been shaped by its art. In the final episode, it’s the turn of journalist and former trustee of the Gallery, Jon Snow. He’ll be exploring the links between art and war. By way of a taster, the Gallery, in association with specialist insurer Hiscox, will host a lecture with Jon on Friday the 5th of November, during which he’ll introduce his episode of the show. I caught up with him to find out more.

Miranda Hinkley: So here we are in front of Sir Joshua Reynolds painting of Colonel Tarleton from 1782 and it’s a kind of fantastic, glorifying portrait of a dashing young man, taking a moment, pausing, from the battle, with the kind of horses rearing up behind him and the canon thundering in the background and here he is, kind of, serenely looking dashing in front of the artist.

Jon Snow: Well, this is precisely the kind of image of war which I think really dominated British painting right up to the turn of the 20th century. Joshua Reynolds is really just celebrating I think the heroism of war and this is precisely what changed, I think, when artists began to tackle war in the 20th century.

And, of course, the thing about artists in the 20th century, particularly the war artists who were commissioned actually to record what was going on was that they got caught up in the heat of battle – they were commissioned, they were actually in uniform and several of them had the most appalling nervous breakdowns. I mean two key figures that I look at are Nash and Nevinson. Nevinson was a futurist who really believed that the first world war was the dawning of the great moment when futurists would have their day, that this would be the ultimate medium in which they could really throw their art out into the four corners of the world. And it was only really when he got into the heat of battle that he realised how absolutely hellish the whole thing was. He has a wonderful painting which depicts French soldiers marching along the side of the road and all the individuals have been fused into a kind of war machine, with spikes of the sabres at the end of the rifle, and poor man, he actually did have a nervous breakdown as a result of the pressures of being in the war. Nash, who painted these devastated landscapes, had the good fortune to trip into a trench and damaged his ankle and had to be invalided out, but not before he had witnessed what is the hell of war. It’s interesting actually because I think the first world war was so raw and so awful that the people who commissioned the art actually censored some of it when it came back.

Nevinson has a wonderful picture of two dead tommies lying on the effluent from the trenches and the depicting of dead Brits was too much for the people who commissioned the art and Nevinson took the picture back after he was told it couldn’t be displayed and displayed it himself with brown paper stuck over the dead tommies with the word ‘censored’ on it, so it was a real struggle for these artists to do what they had been sent to do.

Miranda Hinkley: Perhaps our representations of war have become more moralising in a way?

Jon Snow: I think that’s true. And when you get into the Iraq war and John Keen who was the war artist sent by the British government for that war. He depicts, particularly American soldiers, with the strange paraphernalia they took which includes Mickey Mouse. There’s actually a little teddy of Mickey Mouse standing in one of his rather horrific shots of devastation. And then we move right up onto the present day and deal for example with Steve McQueen who has a wonderful piece called Queen and Country which is three dimensional and which immortalises each of those people, those British soldiers, who died in the Iraq war in postage stamps. And his idea was that these men’s faces should appear on the breakfast table. The post office didn’t play ball but the artefact which is a large cabinet in which each of these sheets of paper with these stamps on are kept is a thing of beauty even of itself.

And then there’s Jeremy Deller, who went to Baghdad, got an old bombed out taxi, and towed it round America, and it provided a fantastic spark for discussion between an Iraqi, who he’d take with him, and a GI, who’d come back, and it would stir people to discuss the Iraq war in terms they’d never explored before so there’s art operating in a completely different way. I don’t know what Joshua Reynolds managed to stir in terms of conversation when people first saw this piece in 1782 but I’m sure there will have been a conversation. Mainly about what a good-looking man he was. But what I really want to leave the viewer with is a sense of the artist delivering a holistic account of war. Not necessarily all blood and guts. That there is camaraderie, and there is... there’s something that makes war wage-able and that I think is the life of the brotherhood, sisterhood together in war,and I think that comes across in some of the most recent painters and I have a feeling that’s actually also what Joshua Reynolds is trying to do, that in the midst of the heat of war, there is a human spirit. I think his human spirit is a very heroic one. Mine is more collegiate.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jon Snow, who’ll be speaking at the Gallery on Friday the 5th of November. Tickets are available online at Or you can catch him on Channel 4 - his episode of The Genius of British Art airs on Sunday the 7th of November.

Battle of San Romano

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next to a pair of old Italian rivals. In the early-fifteenth century, the citizens of Florence locked horns with their local rivals, Siena, at the Battle of San Romano.  The Florentine painter, Paolo Uccello, painted a series of three pictures re-imagining the conflict – one of which now hangs in the Sainsbury Wing of the Gallery. Leah Kharibian met up with the Italian Renaissance historian, Serena Ferrente, to discuss the painting – and hear how tensions between Florence and Siena survive to this day.

Leah Kharibian: Serena, the foreground of this large painting is absolutely crammed with battling figures on horseback with a vast crowd of mounted knights all bristling with lances charging in from the left. Can you tell us what’s going on and who’s who?

Serena Ferrente: On the white horse is Nicolo di Tolentino, the conditerie who’s the general of the Florentine army during the battle of san romano on the 1st of June, 1432. They are in the countryside between Florence and Siena and there is a section of the Florentine army that is charging the Sienese army.

Leah Kharibian: And so the Sienese – well, actually very small numbers of the Sienese – are on the right-hand side and one of their shields has fallen to the ground. It’s not looking very hopeful for them, is it?

Serena Ferrente: No, no, this is probably not exactly how the scene would have looked – as far as we know, we have chroniclers reporting the details of this episode.

Tolentino was a very adventurous conditero and he found himself almost isolated in the midst of the opposing enemy army but he fought bravely for almost three hours until help came.

Leah Kharibian: It beggars belief that idea of clunking around in armour on horses for hours on end, but anyway, before we get onto Tolentino, because I want to ask you more about him, could you explain about this phenomena of Italian cities like Florence and Siena fighting each other?

Serena Ferrente: Yes, this goes actually back to the beginning of the history of Italian city states in the late 11th and 12th centuries, but in the 15th century it was still continuing. What is happening in this period is that Florence is expanding. It’s trying to build what historians call a regional state, and Siena is resisting this expansion. But the story is not so simple, because the most powerful ally of the Sienese in this case is the Duke of Milan who is also expanding and would like to expand at the expense of Florence. So Florence is here fighting both an imperialist war and defending itself from the Duke of Milan who is the ally of the Sienese. So this is part of a longer history and an episode, a narrative that could go straight into the mid-16th century when Florence actually managed to conquer Siena for good.

Leah Kharibian: Yes, they finally do see Siena in. And so Tolentino, just to get this right, he’s a conditeri, he’s a mercenary, so he’s hired by the Florentines to lead their army or what?

Serena Ferrente: Yes, yes, all Italian states of the period and a number of European states as well hired mercenary companies. Conditeri were at the same time military leaders and businessmen really. They signed a contract called a condota – hence condoteri – with a state, a republic, or a prince, and usually the terms of the contract were that they would fight for their employer for a year and the following year they were free to be employed by anyone else really, but not against previous employer.

Leah Kharibian: Oh, I see, so they couldn’t use privileged knowledge to their... That sort of makes sense – sounds like modern business practice to me. But finally Serena, as an Italian, when you look at a work like this, that so obviously glories in the triumph of one city – Florence over another – the great rival Siena – is this something that you recognise? Does it still exist today? Or does it seem like a sort of... something of the dim and distant past?

Serena Ferrente: Well, civic pride and rivalries between cities are still very much alive in Italy and Tuscany in particular. What exists today is more a spirit of joking nostalgia for a new era of free republics rather than something as dramatic and politically decisive as 15th century civic pride.

Leah Kharibian: And is it still that the Sienese might potentially get quite cross at the thought of rivalry from a Florentine? Does it translate into football or something?

Serena Ferrente: Yes, when the football teams of two Tuscan towns meet, which doesn’t happen often because they play in different leagues, but when they do, certainly episodes of the medieval history of the two towns are frequently rehearsed, so they’re part of popular culture in this sense. It is something that still has an impact today.

Leah Kharibian: Wonderful, thank you so much.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Serena Ferrente. If you’d like to see Uccello’s Battle of San Romano for yourself, come along to the Gallery. It’s in room 54. Or if you can’t make it in person, you can see it on our website – along with all the other works in the Collection – at

Clive Head

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Last episode we introduced the National Gallery’s major autumn exhibition: Venice - Canaletto and his Rivals. Canaletto – as visitors are discovering – was a master of the cityscape, and to tie in with the show, the Gallery has invited two contemporary artists to display pictures which explore the urban world.

The first of these mini-exhibitions, features the work of Clive Head, an artist who, like Canaletto, doesn’t just mimic the city, but re-invents it instead. Colin Wiggins went to talk to Clive as his paintings were being hung. He began by asking how the artist felt about his upcoming show.

Clive Head: Yes, a degree of nervousness. I think to do this requires  nerve and courage in a way, because what we’ve got on the walls is a really strong definition of what Western art can be and one is trying to add one’s little statement to that.

Colin Wiggins: And Canaletto, of course, has always been important to you. How do you feel about sharing a date-run with Canaletto?

Clive Head: I think it’s interesting. I mean to a certain extent I think Canaletto has suffered over the years of being labelled a cityscape painter. We know in his time he wouldn’t have been considered such an important painter as painters that have been tackling more historic or religious subject-matter.

But the fact remains that Canaletto is quite an extraordinary painter in his own right; the cityscape becomes a vehicle to hang that invention on, and I think that hopefully what I’m trying to do here is that I’m trying to use the cityscape to hang my invention, my vision on as well.

Colin Wiggins: One of the things about Canaletto that aerates art-historians a lot is his use, or maybe not use, of the camera obscura. And you are an artist who uses photography as a tool; you’ve been in exhibitions all over the world that have been labelled as photo-realist, and yet being called a photo-realist is something that you don’t feel particularly happy about, do you?

Clive Head: Well, I think that it’s interesting to talk of Canaletto’s use of the camera obscura or those optical devices that we know he had access to and probably did use to make some of the drawings on which the paintings are based. But I think we have to remember that when Canaletto is in the studio he’s inventing new forms of space. He’s only using those optical devices to gather some information; that these paintings do not replicate what he would have recorded through those optical devices, and very similarly in my own paintings, although they might have the authenticity that we ascribe to a photograph, they’re actually not based on a single photograph, but I use the camera to collect information when I’m on location. But the whole purpose of painting to me is to create alternative realities, not to mimic a photograph, which by its nature is dependent and rooted on our world. So Canaletto demonstrates that and I hope that the viewers to my paintings can see that my paintings, although realistic, are quite different from the world in which they really inhabit.

Colin Wiggins: I think that’s very much the case because the locations that you choose, and here we’ve got three London paintings, the locations that you choose are going to be very familiar to a lot of the viewers of your pictures. And if we look particularly at the Haymarket pictures, it’s what a hundred, two hundred yards away from the National Gallery? And there’s this little arcade and we look into your picture and we can see down the Haymarket in one direction, but then we look to the other side of the picture and we can see up to Piccadilly. And when you’re actually standing there it’s impossible to do that – absolutely impossible to do that. So your pictures – within them – do you think you could define them as having a multiplicity of viewpoints within each one, that you are somehow combining into one pictorial whole?

Clive Head: I think that’s right. It was very telling when we were making the film about this exhibition that the film-maker was very frustrate that he couldn’t photograph the view and even through walking around the space and trying to point the camera at everything that I’d put into the painting, that he couldn’t really record it. So clearly there is a point of departure from the experience of being on location and the experience of looking at the painting. That multiplicity does come from me wandering around the space, walking through the arcade, engaging with the world much in the way that we all engage with the world. The problem with photography is that it exists that we stand in one fixed space and that’s not really the way we interact with the world. But the purpose of the painting isn’t to try and mimic that movement. We could do that through the video and the movie camera. The purpose of the painting is to find a resolution to the movement through the world. So what we’re offered in the painting is a fixed view. The view does exist; it exists as a painting. We can take it all in, by standing or sitting in front of these paintings. We can’t experience the world in the way that it’s presented in the paintings and that’s the point of art anyway – it’s to find some kind of resolution to the flux and chaos of our world.

Colin Wiggins: Clive, thank you very much, and I think we ought to now leave you to get these paintings on the wall.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Clive Head talking to Colin Wiggins. If you’d like to see Clive’s paintings for yourself, three of his works are on display in room one until the 28th of November. Admission is free.

And if you’re visiting, don’t forget the Gallery is open from 10 till 6 daily, and from 10 till 9 on Fridays.

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