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Episode 51

The National Gallery Podcast

In the Episode Fifty One (January 2011) podcast, art in the making: artist Ben Johnson at work. Plus looking good in Van Dyck’s day, and Veronese’s Saint Helena.

17 min 19 sec | January 2011

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Happy New Year. This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. Coming up:

Making things happen: we meet Saint Helena, the Byzantine Empress who rolled up her sleeves...
...Plus what it took to look beautiful in the age of Van Dyck. 


Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start with an unusual invitation, inspired by our current show – Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals. Canaletto is celebrated for his cityscapes, and to tie in with the exhibition, the Gallery has asked a modern artist with a similar fascination to display some pictures. Ben Johnson creates detailed city scenes – and in recent months has been getting a better view of the London skyline from the Gallery’s roof. The resulting painting is now on display... along with the artist himself. Johnson’s taken the unusual step of inviting visitors to watch him complete the work. We asked Colin Wiggins to find out how he was settling in.

Colin Wiggins: So already Ben, you’ve been open – what a day and a bit – and every time I come in here there are dozens of people crammed in against the railings that separate you from the rest of the room, staring at you, watching you at work. How do you feel about that?

Ben Johnson: Well, I recognise that partly it’s novelty value because this isn’t what you expect from the National Gallery, but the biggest problem I have with it, is not the numbers, because I find that their energy helps me to concentrate. The biggest problems is you feel rude if you don’t engage with the public. But I would love to get more involved and talk to people. One, they have wonderful questions, and two, it helps again to de-mystify this process of making art.

Colin Wiggins: You’re first part of the process for making this picture was actually using a camera, wasn’t it, and taking photographs.

Ben Johnson: Yes, I started by taking photographs and for me a camera is a sketchbook. I spent a week on the roof of the National Gallery and I found lots of different positions and then I homed in on one particular spot. Every time I came back, I set up my tripod in that spot and I knew that that was the magic place. That had the image I was looking for.

Colin Wiggins: Now the reason Ben, that we’ve asked you here is because of the connection with Canaletto and Venice, with Canaletto the 18th century cityscape artist and Ben Johnson the 21st century cityscape artist. And your composition, your Trafalgar Square composition is not just a random composition is it – it’s very carefully calculated as a response to a particular painting of Canaletto’s.

Ben Johnson: That’s right. My painting is very much based on the same geometric structure as what I think of as Canaletto’s finest painting, which is The Stonemason’s Yard, which happens to be one of the earliest acquisitions for the National Gallery. When I was on the roof and analysing my photographs, I kept on thinking there was something very familiar with it. What I then did was to look at the postcard of the Canaletto – 'The Stonemason’s Yard' – and the more I analysed it and the more I drew over the top, I realised there was the identical structure holding both images together.

Colin Wiggins: And so Nelson’s Column is placed very deliberately as in exactly the same space as where the bell tower is in the Canaletto. And then I look over at this side of your picture and I see the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben and those very familiar towers. Then I look at the Canaletto and I find the little church tower at the background. Is that again a deliberate match up?

Ben Johnson: It is a deliberate match up, but I can’t take credit for doing huge manipulations. I really believe that many of us have an innate sense of geometry and there are certain patterns that repeat themselves through history that are fundamental and important and I believe that when I was up on the roof and I kept on making my changes of position, I was changing my position until intuitively, I found myself with exactly the same pattern that I had known for years in 'The Stonemason’s Yard'.

Colin Wiggins: And Canaletto himself – how important has he been for you over your career?

Ben Johnson: Canaletto’s been very important. The reason he’s been important is I’ve been intrigued by his paintings and intrigued by the trickery of those paintings. I don’t know how Canaletto can so easily make it appear as if every single detail of Venice has been put in, but when you analyse them, there are just a few brush marks. There is one gesture that says this is a window-frame and then there are throw-away hand-marks that repeat, repeat, repeat, and you think every window’s been painted with as much detail.

Colin Wiggins: And yet your approach is very, very different, because you don’t even use brushes, do you?

Ben Johnson: No, my process is much more technical and also you could say that Canaletto was an Impressionist, whereas I am a realist. I am a realist, so that many of my subjects could almost be reconstructed from the basis of the painting and the drawings that I make. Every single building is isolated and every element within a building is reconstructed, often from plan and elevation. After that the drawing is then turned into incredibly elaborate stencils which allow me to spray.

Colin Wiggins: So you’re using these stencils – tiny stencils often – each stencil represents a tiny, tiny piece of the picture which is then coloured with paint from your spray gun.

Ben Johnson: That’s correct, yes. What I do is I will, let’s say, draw a window. I’ll draw the window frame and I’ll draw all the mullions – the bars that hold the window in place – and any mullion will have perhaps four levels of timber on it, and I will draw each one of those, and each part will be in shade, light, and take on a different colour. So even within a window we might have twenty colours and each one is painted and the reason I can paint so accurately is that I use these stencils which cut down to point four of a millimetre.

Colin Wiggins: You’re quite mad, you know that, don’t you?

Ben Johnson: Well, painting keeps me off the street. Without painting I would have nothing else to do – and I am who I am because I paint.

Colin Wiggins: Thank you Ben.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Ben Johnson talking to Colin Wiggins. Ben’s work will be on display in Room 1 until 23 January. Admission is free. If you’d like to visit during one of his painting sessions, don’t forget to check the website for his schedule – that’s
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): January is a month for hopes and dreams, but how many of us will turn them into reality? Full of New Year optimism, we turned to the collection in search of a dreamer who’s also a doer – and found one in a much-loved work by the 16th century artist, Veronese. The painting depicts the Christian Saint, Helena asleep at an open window. In the background, two cherubs fly down with the True Cross on which Christ was crucified. Helena’s dream, it was believed, led her to discover this sacred relic in Jerusalem. A 3rd century Byzantine Empress and the mother of Constantine the Great... who was Helena?  Leah Kharibian joined the Byzantine Historian, Professor Judith Herrin, in the Galleries to find out more.

Leah Kharibian: Judith, here in this very large upright picture, Veronese shows St Helena in a sumptuous silken gown of a shimmering yellow ochre and pink. And he’s also shown her as a young beautiful and rather modest young woman. I’m interested... how does this image of Helena sit with what we actually know about her?He

Judith Herrin: At the time when she is supposed to have discovered the True Cross - which is what the painting depicts her dream of the True Cross – she was a very old lady, and by early Christian standards remarkably old. She must have been even in her 70s at the time when she actually went to Jerusalem and made this remarkable discovery.

Leah Kharibian: So she’s in her 70s, but why is she in Jerusalem? Why is she in the Holy Land?

Judith Herrin: Helena was sent to Jerusalem with a large amount of money. And as a very elderly lady, she couldn’t possibly have ridden all the way on a horse. She would have been carried in a litter by slaves and they would have tramped all the way from Constantinople, across Turkey, down through Syria and Palestine to Jerusalem.

But she was there on a mission which was probably more connected with discontent among the military ranks. And she was there to dispense largesse; to distribute gold; to praise the soldiers for the work that they were doing; to assure them that Constantine was their great leader and would indeed come and visit them, which he did later.

She may well have decided that this was a point when she could make her own pilgrimage to the holiest sites and she looked specifically for the site where Christ was born in Bethlehem and she found indeed the church of the nativity, later called the church of the nativity, and she endowed it with magnificent buildings which still stand, and she also discovered – how we do not know – the place of the Ascension, and she decided to found a church there too, near Jerusalem.

So she was there with her own Christian objectives, and indeed, the finding of the True Cross falls into that category.

Leah Kharibian: So she’s in fact an extremely important figure in the history of Christianity and the establishment of these really very important and venerated sites today. Is that the case?

Judith Herrin: Yes, she is and she’s very often neglected because people assume that it was Constantine her son that made the foundations, but not only did he entrust his mother – his very elderly mother – with this mission, but in addition he supported her foundations with extra funding and when he went to Jerusalem, he commemorated her role in this, so she had a very Christian perspective and she was very anxious to further enhance the role of the religion which had only recently been granted toleration and had only recently been put on the same footing as all the other religions in the Roman empire. Christianity was favoured by the royal family, but of course Constantine was also building temples to the genius of the emperor, which is an entirely pagan concept.

Leah Kharibian: And what was Helena’s impact on the Byzantine empire, if you like?

Judith Herrin: She became a tremendously important model for imperial women, who all wanted to be like Empress Helena, patrons of Christianity... we call them matrons; matronage was the thing they did. They built churches; they fostered the cult of the True Cross, which was an incredibly important relic in the hands of the Byzantines, who sent little bits of it all round the world.

And in the Gallery, opposite the 'Vision of St Helena', there is a portrait by Titian of the 'Vendramin Family', who owned a fragment of the True Cross, and they are seen venerating this tiny fragment, which is seen mounted in a glass cross on the altar, and it’s a wonderful family portrait, but it’s fascinating that it commemorates the arrival in Venice of a piece of the True Cross, which is so intimately associated with Helena.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Judith Herrin, talking about Veronese’s 'Dream of Saint Helena' and Titian’s 'The Vendramin Family'. If you’re visiting the Gallery and would like to see the paintings up close, they’re both in Room 9.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next... Ania Crowther is an expert on beauty through the ages. I met up with her in the Gallery for some tips.

Miranda Hinkley: I’m standing in front of two sisters painted by Van Dyck in 1637. We’ve got Elizabeth Thimbleby on the left and Viscountess Andover on the right, and the sister on the right has been more recently married and there’s a little Cupid offering her a bowl of flowers. One thing that’s always struck me about paintings of this period – and it’s really contrasted here with the Cupid at the bottom with his ruddy complexion – is how absolutely translucent the skin is!

Stefania Crowther: Absolutely. It’s completely luminescent almost and I think aside from one or two details of lace it’s the brightest thing in the picture. It’s like the old-fashioned equivalent of airbrushing; we have no idea what kind of complexions these women actually had, although I suppose we can probably assume that they were fairly pale as that was the fashion.

Miranda Hinkley: So I’m imagining that people would have nurtured a pale complexion then and they would have spent a lot of time keeping out of the sun and they would have made sure that they stayed fair and lovely. What kind of tools did these women have at their disposal?

Stefania Crowther: Well, in this period, it’s just at the time really when there’s a growing mass market for cosmetic recipes and women are very much involved in composing recipes, experimenting with them, and we have all these collections of manuscript receipts that women of this kind of class have put together, where they have noted down receipts that worked for them, or composed other things, and they’re playing around with all sorts of ingredients, some of which are dangerous and known about, like lead and mercury.

And people would be taking ingredients from all over the place. So they’d be buying things, ready-made things from apothecary shops, but more than that there’s this kind of growing market for books that give instructions of how to compose things out of household items: food, lemon juice is quite a common one for getting rid of freckles and blemishes on the skin. Urine is another one that’s commonly used – and still is in some face creams. And then as a base for paint, there are a lot of things that sound gross to us, like hog’s grease and all kinds of animal fats as a base – otherwise it would probably be egg as some kind of base to make a paint or a cream from and then nicer sounding things like rain water or rose water or even almond oil. And again, things that still pop up in cosmetics today.

Miranda Hinkley: So just like today’s celebrity images, it’s a mixture of the kind hand of the artist and good old fashioned slap.

Stefania Crowther: Absolutely and it’s very difficult to distinguish really how much make up these women are wearing. I suspect there’s an amount of rouge on the cheeks and also there may be some kind of preparation going on to the lips, just to give them a kind of consistent colouring – I wouldn’t be surprised – but there certainly isn’t anything that’s an obvious sign of make up. There’s no blacking around the eyes or anything that really changes the features. It’s just any make up that she’s wearing is to do with smoothing and evening out the complexion.

There’s no attempt there really apart from a bit of rouge on the cheeks to try and look like one’s wearing make up and that’s probably because it was frowned upon. There were concerns, particularly among the staunchly religious, that wearing make up was – to use John Donne’s phrase – taking the pencil out of God’s hand. And the idea was that you can quite safely and morally get rid of a blemish or a deformity and enhance the natural beauty that God’s given you, but to try and change the face that God has given you is an insult to God, and there are comments about the fact you may get to the gates of heaven and God won’t recognise you if you’ve changed your appearance, so you won’t be allowed in. So it was taken relatively seriously by some.

Miranda Hinkley: So no eye-liner, then, or eye brow pencil or anything like that.

Stefania Crowther: No, I don’t think mascara had been invented either, but there’s an attempt there I think – even if there is make-up to enhance – they’re trying to look as natural as possible, but make-up is kind of seen as something clandestine and hidden and it’s just a secret little enhancement that one would keep in one’s purse, but not necessarily have it be known by the wider world that you’ve covered yourself in slap.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Stefania Crowther. Lady Elizabeth Thimbelby and her Sister are on display in room thirty-one. If you’re visiting in January, don’t forget there are only a few more weeks to see Venice - Canaletto and his Rivals. The show closes on the 16th. Tickets are available at the Gallery or online with a booking fee at
That’s it for this episode; until next month, goodbye.