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Episode 58

The National Gallery Podcast

What Eastlake did for us: the legacy of the National Gallery's first Director. Plus Whistlejacket's racing form, and altarpieces re-examined.

17 min 46 sec | August 2011

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. In this month’s episode...

A trip to Goodwood Race Course to find out how Whistlejacket – the equine star of one of the Gallery’s most popular paintings – would have fared at the races today. And a visit to our big summer show – 'Devotion by Design'.

But we begin with some history. You may not have heard of the National Gallery’s first Director, Sir Charles Eastlake but as our latest exhibition sets out to prove, this formidable Victorian had a permanent effect not only on how we look at paintings at the Gallery, but also on what we look at. Eastlake took up the post of Director in 1855 at the age of 62 after a career as painter, critic and President of the Royal Academy. But his energy was far from spent. Leah Kharibian met the exhibition’s curator and author of a new book, Susanna Avery-Quash, to find out more.

Leah Kharibian: Susanna, we’re here in the exhibition and we’re standing in front of a really fascinating document, which is Sir Charles Eastlake’s passport and I wanted to know why it’s in the exhibition and what it says about the first director?

Susanna Avery-Quash: Yes, the passport is a very interesting document – it was issued as we can see on the 15th of August 1859 and it tells us he travelled abroad every year. We can see that through all the consular stamps that are stamped on all the pages and on the outside of this document.

We also know that he was accompanied abroad by his wife, Lady Eastlake, because her name is on his passport too, as is his man servant, Nicholas Tucker, so you can imagine the trio leaving London and then going abroad and over the ten years that he was Director, he travelled to many different parts of Europe, and why he was doing this was because he was hunting down masterpieces for the nation.

Leah Kharibian: So how would you typify the sort of buying policy prior to his arrival?

Susanna Avery-Quash: Well, in fact Leah there was absolutely no buying policy whatsoever. The National Gallery when it was founded in 1824 was a completely different kettle of fish than when Eastlake became its first director. Not the founder, but the first director, when the whole Gallery was re-constituted in 1855.

Previously it had been hung in a completely sporadic hang, with no sense... not hung by country, not hung by date... just a connoisseur’s hang if you like, that looked pretty but for the public coming in it didn’t mean very much. The government had a couple of select committees where they decided on the re-formulation of the Gallery if you like, and they thought very hard and long about what the Gallery should be offering to the general public.

So Eastlake as first director had in mind the initiatives of the government and that’s to say he started thinking about showing the whole story of western European painting from its origin, right up to the apogee as they then perceived it, in the work of Raphael and his contemporaries and then through the great later works too.

Eastlake was quite a quiet, unassuming man but he knew what he wanted and he was quite wily, so when he was offered to become first Director, he said he would only become Director if he was given a good staff – and that meant he was given a travelling agent to go with him to scour Europe for great masterpieces – he also said ‘if we need to buy paintings, we need a budget’ and for that reason he was given £10,000 a year to do so and he also said we need a proper policy about what we buy and as I said that was now to tell the whole story of Western European painting.

Leah Kharibian: And you’ve got some of the masterpieces displayed here – some of the works that Eastlake acquired – and I wondered if we could take a look at one particular one? ... Well, we’re here in front of one of the most famous pictures in the Gallery these days in fact actually... Giovani Bellini’s 'Madonna of the Meadow' – a really beautiful work. This is the sort of exceptional quality of painting that he was buying then, was it?

Susanna Avery-Quash: Yes, it certainly was and the interesting thing about this painting was that he knew – with his connoisseur’s eye – exactly who it was by, that’s to say Giovanni Bellini. However, the owner in Faenza where he bought the work thought it was by a lesser well known artist, Marco Basaiti. Well, the wily Eastlake kept this to himself. The other thing about this picture which is quite interesting is that it shows the persistence with which Eastlake went about his picture hunting. When he originally arrived in the town to try and take a look at the picture, the owner was absent, but he didn’t give up, he kept on trying, and also through his dogged determination was finally able to acquire the work for the nation.

Leah Kharibian: And what happened when these works got back to the Gallery? What did he do with them when they were here?

Susanna Avery-Quash: Well, that’s a very good point because he didn’t stop all his efforts when he had acquired about a 150 masterpieces for the nation – oh no... he thought very, very hard and long about how they should best be displayed to good advantage.

He thought very carefully first of all about how they should be conserved and looked after... he thought about the frames in which they should be hung... he thought about the colour of the walls against which the pictures should be hung and also the lighting.

He also displayed them very carefully for the first time in the National Gallery’s history according to their country of origin and the date when they were painted. And furthermore he put labels on the pictures and he also started to produce from 1856 scholarly catalogues, and all these interesting innovations are crucial because these things are very much still in the Gallery’s interest today: the way we hang pictures, the way we conserve them, the way frame them... we light them... and the colour of the Gallery’s walls.

Leah Kharibian: So he really is father of the Gallery, would you say?

Susanna Avery-Quash: I would. Although we can’t claim him to be the first founder because he wasn’t around at the Gallery in 1824, he certainly was the second founder and the true father behind the Gallery as we see it today.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): 'Art for the Nation: Sir Charles Eastlake at the National Gallery runs in Room 1 until the 30th of October. Admission is free.  To find out more visit the Gallery’s website -  - where you’ll find a short film on Eastlake and more details about Susanna’s book. 
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next. The National Gallery’s home to many famous portraits – but only one features a horse as its star. Foaled in 1749, Whistlejacket was the Red Rum of his age – and artist George Stubbs painted him in his prime, in a huge picture that draws all eyes.

An expert in equine anatomy, Stubbs captured his subject in intense detail, rearing up against an empty background, muscles taut. It’s delighted art historians and visitors to the Gallery for years... but what about race-goers? How would Whistlejacket do at the track today? Cathy FitzGerald visited Goodwood to ask Clerk of the Course, Seamus Buckley, and racing historian Sean Magee, what they made of his form...

Cathy Fitzgerald: I’m here at Goodwood Stables and it’s the day before Glorious Goodwood, the famous five-day festival of horse racing. The horses are just beginning to arrive in their boxes and I’m here to find out whether the National Gallery’s Whistlejacket could have been a contender. Sean, George Stubbs painted Whistlejacket in the early 1760s, what can you tell us about the horse?

Sean Magee: Well, the first thing to say is his name – very interesting name – Whistlejacket was a contemporary cold cure: a mixture of gin and treacle. I’ve had a few already and very nice they are too. He was foaled in 1749; he was bred by a man called Sir William Middleton, who later on sold him to Lord Rockingham, for whom Stubbs painted this wonderful picture. In those days, they didn’t begin racing until they were four or five. He started racing when he was four; he raced until he was ten – which is a very old age for a flat race-horse these days – and he won 13 of his 17 races.

Cathy Fitzgerald: And we’ve got the print of the picture here and also Seamus Buckley, the Clerk of the Course... Seamus – I just wondered what you can tell about Whistlejacket just from looking at the picture?

Seamus Buckley: Well, he looks an outstanding animal, but I think today’s trainers would sort of be a little bit reluctant to buy if they saw that horse as a yearling... a little bit reluctant to see the flashiness of him. I don’t know why they do it but they don’t like flashy horses – but it doesn’t stop them from being great gallopers and I think this horse was an outstanding galloper with the races he won – and as Sean said, I think he won 13 races and ran 17 times and he was a long-distance horse compared to today’s thoroughbred, which a mile and a half now for the outstanding thoroughbreds is their limit. But I think our horse in that painting would be a different type of horse to today’s horses. Some trainers might look at him twice – if they saw a bright chestnut horse with a white tail and a flashy mane, they might think... maybe not for us.

Cathy Fitzgerald: And Sean, what was horse-racing like in the 18th century when Whistlejacket would have been racing?

Sean Magee: Well, it’s worth saying that he raced quite a lot at Newmarket and York, which even now are two of the top race courses in the country and he mainly would have run in heats... the races had heats.

And the big, big difference, apart from the heats, by which you would end up with a winner as you do in various other sports nowadays, the big difference is that most of the races he ran in would have been over four miles – no flat race at all is over 2 and ¾ miles now – so it is a big... that is a very big difference. And because of the heat system the horse would run four miles... cool down a bit... and then have to go and run another four miles if he was still trying to win a heat in order to get through to the final as it were. So they were very, very tough horses and he was a horse that would have been bred for stamina, stamina, stamina.

Cathy Fitzgerald: What would the audience have been like in those days?

Sean Magee: Generally it depended which sort of race meeting you were at. Here at Goodwood, which was founded by the local militia – it was very much a case of one aristocrat pitting his horse against other aristocrats. Somewhere like Chester which... the races there grew out of local feast days and high days and holidays, you had a much more rambunctious sort of crowd. So they were very different. Some race courses were very aristocratic; some were a sort of equine Glastonbury including the mud.

Cathy Fitzgerald: So how do we fancy his chances if he were racing this week?

Sean Magee: I wouldn’t have too much money on him this week at Goodwood. A horse that is used to running over four miles would be hard-pressed to stay up with them even in the longer races here, but he is such a wonderful looking horse.

I’m one of these sentimental people who often backs a horse just because I like the look of him or her in the parade ring and never mind the form. Often a racing fan will really get attached to a horse and I think Whistlejacket is the sort of horse you could very easily get attached to.

I think it’s worth adding of course that though there’ll be some famous horses racing here at Goodwood this week, including these two phenomenally good horses, Frankel and Canford Cliffs, not even those two will have names that will live on in memory in quite the same way that Whistlejacket’s does through this astounding painting.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Sean Magee and Seamus Buckley, talking about the star of George Stubbs’s painting, Whistlejacket.  
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now to our current exhibition 'Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500'. This show explores the National Gallery's rich collection of these devotional works of art and considers their changing appearance, their construction and importantly, how they were displayed.  Key evidence for this comes from a wonderfully rich altarpiece called the 'Mass of Saint Giles' which depicts the saint officiating at a richly decorated altar, at which an angel comes down from heaven to pardon the sins of the king who kneels alongside. The exhibition’s co-curator Jennifer Sliwka met the theologian Ben Quash to give the work a closer look.

Jennifer Sliwka: Ben, I wanted to show you this picture because I have a few questions for you – what it is depicting is a miracle actually – it’s the mass of St Giles – and the reason it’s in Room 1 of the exhibition, even though it’s not Italian, is that it depicts not only a mass but also an altarpiece in situ...

This beautiful bejewelled golden altarpiece in this case, in the church of Saint-Denis circa 1500 and it demonstrates the way that altarpieces were part of a larger programme of liturgical decoration, so not only do we have altarpieces but we have candles and books and textiles – all sorts of things so that they’re part of this grander scheme as it were.

Ben Quash: Yes, it’s a wonderful painting because it’s an altarpiece of an altarpiece and it gives us I suppose lots of documentary evidence about what would have gone on in this public act of worship. Liturgy is the name for the church’s public acts of worship and it includes this central one for the church which is this celebration of mass, or the eucharist or holy communion, in which bread and wine are consecrated and become a vehicle for communicating Christ’s body and blood to the faithful.

And this is a point where – just after the bread and wine have been consecrated and the bread has been elevated by the priest above his head because he has his back to most of the congregation. And that I think is one of the really important things to notice here that’s something’s happened in terms of the way that the choreography if you like of this drama of the liturgy has changed.

For most of the early centuries of the church’s life the priest would have faced the congregation, rather like someone presiding at the family table so to speak, but at a certain point – and it appears to have become widespread by the 11th century, we don’t know actually entirely why this happened – but at a certain point mass began to be celebrated with the priest facing the other way, in other words with the congregation behind him and he facing with them eastwards as if they’re all a pilgrim people moving in one direction.

And that meant of course they couldn’t see what he was doing on the altar and so you had to raise bread and wine, partly so they could participate that bit more and also we know that at this time very many ordinary lay people would not have received bread and wine regularly – in some cases only once a year – so seeing them, as it were, became the most important thing about the liturgy.

It’s a visual event, a visual drama, and that is part of I think decorative schemes begin to become more elaborate around the Eucharist, because the visual elements of this event are so important.

Jennifer Sliwka: And this picture in particular gives us ample space to discuss everything that once surrounded altarpieces and you can see as your eye moves around the painting all of these sumptuous fabrics and textiles... the rich carpet on which the priest stands, and then there’s actually a textile altar frontal as well – all in these very vivid, quite bright colours – red and green and white – colours generally associated with the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity.

And also there’s a rich textile again – a curtain that’s strung up across that’s actually meant to sort of veil and unveil the altarpiece at key moments in the liturgy. And on top of you’ve got a missal book that’s resting on the altar itself, surrounded by candles and bronzed and guilded angels who also support candles and a reliquary, so there’s a very sumptuous kind of layering effect here that all work together – function together – I should say, as part of the liturgy.

Ben Quash: I guess it’s even more sumptuous than many churches because it has a king worshipping in it. But at the same time it says that given the significance of the event, whatever you place near to this event is also going to be very significant and probably has to be of the very best quality.

And in the end a piece of bread is quite a dull thing to look at, isn’t it? So arraying all these fantastic and beautiful objects and textiles around it helps to bring the miracle of transubstantiation alive, the miracle that’s going on in the liturgy. And the fact that a miracle is also being shown in the painting apart from the consecration of bread and wine kind of illustrates the point that every celebration of the mass is a miracle... Christ becomes present in bread and wine on the altar, and if that can happen then almost any other miracle can also attach itself to this event, as in this case it does.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Ben Quash and Jennifer Sliwka talking about the 'Mass of Saint Giles'. If you’d like to see it – and the many other sumptuous altarpieces in the exhibition – for yourself, 'Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500' is open until the 2nd of October. Admission is free.  And you might also like to know that the Gallery is running a number of events relating to the Devotion by Design exhibition, including a study morning featuring Jennifer Sliwka and Ben Quash. That takes place of the 10th of September. See the website for information and tickets.

That’s it for this episode. If you’re coming along to the National Gallery this month, we’re open 10 till 6 daily, or 10 till 9 on Fridays. Until next time, goodbye.