Skip to main content

Episode 50

The National Gallery Podcast

In the December 2010 podcast, take a change of scene: Canaletto and the theatre (with special effects). Plus window dressing as art, and paintings with stories to tell.

17 min 21 sec | December 2010

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. Coming up: A trip to the theatre in 18th-century Venice... Plus all the gossip from Paris courtesy of two paintings by French artist, Edouard Vuillard.


Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start in festive mood. Artworks are regularly imagined as windows onto other worlds – a metaphor that will be brought to life throughout December by six National Gallery paintings. They’ve been re-created in 3D glory in the Christmas windows of Fortnum and Mason. The store’s just a short walk from the Gallery, so I went along to meet Mark Connelly, an expert on the history of Christmas, and Paul Symes, the man behind the windows’ design...

Paul Symes: Well normally of course Fortnum and Mason’s is renowned for doing story windows, but this year we decided that we’d try and go a little bit high-brow and choose something that, rather than encourage a child or somebody to pick up a book and read it, that it might encourage them to visit an art gallery. And I wanted to choose those particular paintings because I felt that... you know... I wanted people to be able to recognise them. Might not be able to recognise all of them, but somewhere, even if it’s a picture that their granny might have had hanging above the fireplace that she got from Boots the chemist, a repro, that they could actually say, I’ve seen that somewhere before.

The problem we have with our windows is they’re quite small and they’re not very deep, so to try and construct the 3D effect in those windows, to give you the impression that really if it were real life you’d be somewhere round the ground floor by the time you got to the back of it. So what we decided to do was to put them in a gallery setting so that therefore it was as if people were actually walking past the windows and was actually transformed into a gallery, which made it a lot easier because then we could make the frames smaller and as far as the 3D effect, actually take it back so it looked real.

Miranda Hinkley: And you have also reconstructed that sense of being in a gallery fantastically well, because not only do the windows feel like frames but you’ve also got, behind and beyond the paintings, little glimpses of other galleries or other rooms.

Paul Symes: Well, this is where the National Gallery were brilliant because they even gave us details of the frames and also on their wallpaper, which we bought from B&Q for £8 a roll... not the same, but similar... within my budget anyway.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, we’ve also got with us Mark Connelly who’s an expert on the whole business of Christmas and Christmas window-dressing and it actually goes back quite a bit longer than you might think, doesn’t it? To the 19th century...

Mark Connelly: Absolutely. Window-dressing really starts to mature in the mid-19th century but it explodes from about 1879 onwards with the growth of department-store culture in Britain, which it imports from France and more particularly from Chicago.

Miranda Hinkley: And what was the idea behind providing these window displays? I mean obviously they’re very attractive and they draw people in...

Mark Connelly: Absolutely, it’s all about getting shoppers to come in and open their wallets and their purses, and in Britain one of the great inspirations was of course the great Gordon Selfridge, who had worked in Chicago with Marshall Field, and he’d worked with their brilliant window-dresser, L. Frank Baum, the author of 'The Wizard of Oz' and if you think about that novel – its visuality which MGM captures so brilliantly – he was clearly a master of window-designs.

Miranda Hinkley: What would the impact have been on people at the time? You know, you go from having sort of more modest shops to suddenly having these glorious, lavish, architectural pieces...

Mark Connelly: Well, it’s absolutely stunning. The press start to pick up on this by the 1880s and it’s clear that competition is indulged in by the London stores for whoever can have the best window. So I can give you some sort of wonderful examples. In 1921, Harrods has a full Swiss chalet that it puts into its main window that backs into the shop and it has all its staff in ski outfits – they must have sweated out pounds in the run up to Christmas. A year later, DH Evans goes for something completely and utterly exotic and oriental... it has a full on Ottoman harem complete with servants and bowls of goldfish and mannequins as Turkish princesses and it’s noted in the press that people cluster round the shop windows and indeed extra policemen are put onto the streets at times to ensure that the traffic can pass easily and to ensure public safety because there are so many people wedged against shop windows.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, the lovely thing about these windows is that not only will they tempt people into Fortnum and Mason but they’ll also throw people back to the Gallery.

Paul Symes: Well, yes, that again was behind the thought-processes. I’ve always thought if one person that’s never visited a gallery before looks at our windows and can go down to the National and see it and stand there as opposed to sitting in front of television then we’ve done our job. And also we’re all part of the same thing... Window-dressing is a bit like creating a painting from word-go. You start with an empty canvas and every time you do it, you have to produce something different. So to be quite honest, you know, art, galleries, windows – there’s a stronger link than people might think.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Paul Symes and Mark Connelly.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now to our major exhibition, Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals. It’s a much-repeated fact that Canaletto began his career as a set painter for the theatre. But what’s less well known is that several of his rivals in the art of eighteenth century view-painting also had strong links with the world of theatrical design. Leah Kharibian met up in the exhibition with the Italian theatre historian, Julie Dashwood, to find out more.

Leah Kharibian: Julie, we’re standing in front of a view of the massive courtyard of the doge’s palace in Venice, painted by an artist called Michele Marieschi. It’s thought he spent some time in Germany as a set designer for opera before he painted this work but looking at it, apart from the dramatic fall of sunshine that hits the palace buildings on the right, I have to admit that I’m struggling to see any real connection between it and theatrical design. I mean how does it look to you?

Julie Dashwood: If we go back to the beginning of the 18th century the perspective, the viewpoint will be that of the nobility sitting in the front centre of the auditorium with everyone else more or less distanced from what was happening on the stage and not getting the same perspective. Now, what is said to be one of the great discoveries of the early 18th century is the use of multiple, diagonal perspectives on stage. Not just from the point of view of a single perspective going to a vanishing point in the centre, but giving different angles from the stage and different exits and entrances. And one effect of this, of course, was to create a greater sense of wonder without the need for great architectural buildings on stage.

Leah Kharibian: So this sort of plunging perspective that comes in at a diagonal that we have in this picture is actually something that is quite closely related to set design. I’m just wondering about this lighting that’s really very particular here and the very bright sunshine on the right and the deep, deep shadow on the left. Did set designers in fact actually have to paint in light effects like this?

Julie Dashwood: No, they designed them but they had different ways of lighting the stage, which were really for the time quite flexible, considering they were using candles and oil lamps and reflectors and balls full of coloured water with candles behind them to create different effects and using transparent materials which they could put lighting behind. But one of the things that they did do with lighting was to begin to dim the auditorium so that the stage was highlighted and the action on the stage became much more focused for the spectators. That’s possibly something that’s happening here. There are spectators of course on both sides, in the palaces on both sides of the painting and it’s as though one set of spectators is looking at another set of spectators across this really very strange division in the painting itself.

Leah Kharibian: So he’s created a sort of stage and auditorium within the same work?

Julie Dashwood: Yes, I think he has. And lots of different entrances and exits. There’s a canopy there and that wonderful monumental staircase which was beloved of painters and scenic designers of the time.

Leah Kharibian: In the light of all this and the fact that there is actually quite a close correspondence to the theatre, I’m wondering what you’ll make of another artist in the exhibition, painted by an artist that’s rather nicely named, Antonio Joli... So if we could go and have a look at it... Jolie’s interesting because unlike Marieschi and Canaletto in fact, he continued to paint and design sets for opera throughout his career. But having said that, this painting shows one of the most common views of Venice... It’s one we’re still familiar with today showing the Doge’s Palace, the Campanile, the San Marco in St Mark’s Square, seen from the waters of the Bacino di San Marco. And the foreground is full of ships and a procession of splendid guilded gondolas bringing the apostolic nuncio, monsignor Stoppani, to Venice. But really this surely can’t have anything to do with set designs? I mean ships and boats and the rest of it, can it?

Julie Dashwood: It can. The Renaissance stage... and in this the baroque stage is not a break, it’s a continuity of what happened in the Renaissance... they loved special effects. And they loved being able to create the effect of water and rain on stage and bringing in all kinds of machines. They had cloud machines – you can see the clouds here. They could bring the Gods down from the clouds. In one spectacle at Versaille apparently the whole royal family with Louis XIV was brought down from the clouds onto the stage. So this kind of creation of spectacle was possible.

Here of course Joli is able to bring it all into one painting and he creates a sort of stage, a sort of dark audience side if you like of the people on the dogana and then the boats at the front and then on the right hand side he’s got the action wall, with the boats coming in there, with what looks like a merchant ship coming in there, and the lighted, guilded barges bringing in the papal nuncio. So again it’s as though the darkened auditorium if you like is on one side and the real action, the big-wigs, the grandees are coming into play up their parts on the water, which is their stage, and then going into the city, which is their stage.

Leah Kharibian: Thank you very much indeed.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Leah Kharibian was speaking to Julie Dashwood. If you’re in London during December, Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals is open throughout the month. You can buy tickets at the Gallery or online with a booking fee at

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Sometimes the stories that surround the making of art-works can be as interesting as the scenes they depict. Take 'The Lunch' and 'The Garden at Vasouey', two paintings by the French artist Edouard Vuillard. They were commissioned by Jean Schopfer, a writer who published under the pen-name Claude Anet. Schopfer was a dandy, whose wide-ranging accomplishments included being the first tennis-player to win the French Open and the first man to drive a motorcar in Persia. In Vuillard’s paintings, he relaxes in a summer-home in Normandy with a group of Parisian friends... and as curator Anne Robbins explained there’s plenty of gossip to unearth, both inside and outside the frame. She began by pointing out a key figure in 'The Lunch'.

Anne Robbins: Yes, the one standing in the white dress was Jean Schopfer’s wife, Alice. She was American, born Alice Weatherbee, and we know that they had married in 1895 and that the wedding was described in the New York press of the time as one of the prettiest ceremonies that had ever happened. So this is Alice, whom he’s going to divorce in 1903.

Miranda Hinkley: So all of this very happy scene fell apart – they got divorced..

Anne Robbins: Yes, they gave a huge party to celebrate the installation of the decorative panels in their flat and as early as two years later, the couple fell apart and they divorced. Alice went to California with their daughter, who was the baby depicted in the panels there. And Jean Schopfer managed to salvage these panels from the divorce settlement and then at last they are re-installed in the new Paris apartment that he shared with his new wife in 1910.

Miranda Hinkley: Which must have been a bit strange, because there he is re-married, in a lovely new Paris apartment, and there’s his ex-wife, staring down, looking really pleased about the whole thing.

Anne Robbins: Yes, well, but you know apparently his new wife, Clarisse Langlois Schopfer, coped with this for twenty years, for no less than twenty years, because it’s not until 1935 that she will ask Vuillard to re-work on the composition. So I see your point... it’s not something I could have coped with personally.

Miranda Hinkley: And then what changes did she ask Vuillard to make?

Anne Robbins: Yes, we know that Vuillard was a regular visitor to the Schopfer marriage and so he would come and see his panels in the dining room and was growingly discounted about them. You know we read in his diary – he says ‘I went to lunch with Jean and Clarisse and I saw my gloomy old panels’ – so we know that by then he had got a bit fed up with them. And then Jean Schopfer finally dies in 1931 and it’s Clarisse, his widow, who asks Vuillard to re-work on the panel. We should say – it’s quite important that – they were originally one large single panel and Clarisse asked Vuillard to divide them into two and also to re-work some of the figures and the foliage. He has re-worked Alice’s face. She looked very happy and jolly in the initial painting and here he has given her this air of slight melancholy.

Miranda Hinkley: But there’s a lot of Jean Schopfer in this, but there’s also a lot of Vuillard, because his mistress is in these panels.

Anne Robbins: Yes, so Lucy Hessel was the wife of Jos Hessel, who was from 1900 onwards Vuillard’s main patron, friend and patron, and she was the host of this gathering in 1901. La Terrasse was the villa the Hessel couple rented in Normandy, but in the first version of the panel, Vuillard chooses not to depict the Hessels themselves, even though they were hosting the party, which is odd in itself.

But then when he comes back to, when returns to the composition and re-works it in 1935, by then, more than 30 years have elapsed and by then le tout Paris knows that he has developed this relationship with her and he’s not so circumspect about showing her in the painting and he does so very prominently actually, because you argue that she appears – from not appearing at all in the initial composition – she’s now there three times. So she’s here with her hand on her chin – you can just make out her in semi-profile. She’s also there in 'The Garden' as a lady in a floaty white, holding the flowers, and with a hat, this very graceful, elegant figure. And he’s also added a dog, who wasn’t in the initial composition and was actually Lucy’s dog, so it’s another way of alluding to her.

Miranda Hinkley: This is definitely a case of art imitating life and the paintings going through similar upheavals, and you know... reflecting the changing private lives of both the patron and the artist.

Anne Robbins: There’s a lot to be read in a painting like this. If you... I mean you need to know the background story and who these people were and what kind of changes the painting has gone through, but it’s a novel in itself... I think Vuillard is very open about it.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Anne Robbins, talking about 'The Lunch' and 'The Garden' by Vuillard. In keeping with the paintings’ origin as a single panel, you’ll find them hung together in Room 46.

That’s it for this month. If you’re visiting, do make time for our display of Bridget Riley’s recent paintings. One of the most significant and original artists of our time, Riley has long been inspired by the National Gallery’s collection. This is your chance to see her work alongside that of the Old Masters who have influenced her use of colour and line. You’ll find the display in the Sunley Room; admission is free.

Season’s greetings from all at the National Gallery. Goodbye.