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Episode 66

The National Gallery Podcast

Titian’s first masterpiece – not seen outside Russia for nearly 250 years. Plus Turner in Italy and Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

17 min 49 sec | April 2012

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley.

We start this episode with the great sixteenth century Venetian master, Titian. You may have heard in the news about the National Gallery’s recent joint acquisition with the National Galleries of Scotland of Titian’s masterpiece ‘Diana and Callisto.’ Well, opening this month, the Gallery is also playing host to the painter’s very first large-scale masterpiece – his ‘Flight into Egypt.’ Its arrival is much anticipated – not least because the picture hasn’t been seen outside of Russia since 1768 – the year it was bought by Catherine the Great. Before the exhibition opened, Leah Kharibian met up with the Gallery’s Senior Curator of sixteenth-century Italian painting, Carol Plazzotta, to find out more about the picture and the young Titian.

Leah Kharibian: Carol – Titian’s Flight into Egypt was painted around 1506–7 when the artist was still a teenager, which is remarkable enough in itself, but I think what’s first going to strike people when they come to see the painting is its size... I mean it’s well over three metres across. Could you take us through it?

Carol Plazzotta: Well, the size is impressive, certainly. It is the first large scale painting that Titian actually painted and it was probably for the porch of a Venetian palace. The subject of the picture is the flight of the holy family from Egypt – of course, King Herod had decreed that all the baby children – male children – should be killed in order to avoid a rival being born. The painting shows Mary with the infant Jesus on a donkey – they’re processing through the countryside – and Joseph follows along behind. One of the touching things that Titian has achieved is to create a very human scene in which Mary cradles the infant Jesus – she is supporting him in a sling... very much like a mother would... carrying her baby around today – and you can see that she is holding the child in a very gentle, maternal fashion.

Leah Kharibian: Now tell us about this extraordinary, very luscious landscape... I mean it really doesn’t look much like the Holy Land to me – there’s an awful lot of greenery here.

Carol Plazzotta: Titian absolutely loved the countryside in which he himself was born and you can get a little glimpse of that in the background where those mountain peaks are evident in silhouette on the horizon. Those are the mountains of Cadore and indeed, it’s been established that that was actually a view that he could have seen from his own window when he was a boy.

Leah Kharibian: That’s absolutely beautiful. And in front of that view – in front of those mountains – I suppose almost half of that picture is taken up with all these wonderful animals in the foreground.

Carol Plazzotta: Yes, it really is almost tapestry like, but in a very natural sort of way. So Titian has included this wonderful bullock, a little deer with his snout in the air as though he’s sniffing the breeze, a hawk and a fox, who’s come to look at the goings-on. I think that Titian wanted to show that all of nature was sort of benign around this holy family in exodus.

Leah Kharibian: Now this exhibition not only shows us this fantastic picture but also puts Titian’s early works in context. There are several early Titian’s but there are also some other works as well – could you tell us a bit about that?

Carol Plazzotta: The aim of the exhibition is to put this painting – Titian’s earliest masterpiece – in the context of the very fertile atmosphere that prevailed in Venice around 1500. We have Bellini, who by then was quite an old man, but he himself had been a great lover and painter of landscapes and especially light – and Titian was a young boy in his workshop and therefore learnt an enormous amount about how to introduce landscape into subject pictures and especially for Bellini, devotional paintings. Then another important character in the show is Giorgione (sp?) who was also a pupil in Bellini’s shop – and Giorgione was really the original painter of mystical landscapes, and the young Titian certainly learnt a lot from him as well. The third strand of the exhibition is Durer, who visited Venice twice during this crucial first decade of the sixteenth century. And what he contributed to the story was an amazing eye for actual botanical details. There’s a beautiful watercolour in the exhibition of two spring woodland flowers – the lily of the valley and the bugle, and they’re just so beautifully depicted, very much as one would see in an English woodland today.

Leah Kharibian: There’s going to be a lot of Titian this year at the Gallery, isn’t there – there’s going to be another big exhibition of his later works in the summer and there’s also the wonderful new acquisition of Diana and Callisto, already on show and that’s going to be on show and that’s going to be there till July and I was just wondering what insights this wonderful early work gives us into the artist that Titian was going to become?

Carol Plazzotta: What’s marvellous is that it contains the seeds of so much that Titian was to become famous for, for example these wonderful panoramic skies, the landscape and above all the humanity of the figures. One element that I really love in the picture is that the donkey is being led by this enigmatic young boy – not much older or younger than Titian was at the time he painted this. Many people have interpreted this figure as an angel, but he has no wings – so really, he could just be a young shepherd boy or even just a symbol of Titian himself leading us into this magical realm that he has created.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Carol Plazzotta. We’ll have lots more news about Titian in future episodes – he’s also the star of our big summer exhibition – but until then... if you’d like to see Titian’s First Masterpiece for yourself, the Flight into Egypt will be on display at the Gallery from the 4th of April – admission is free. And if you’re visiting, don’t forget to pop into Room 1, where Titian’s Diana and Callisto - the recently purchased masterpiece - will be on show until the end of June.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Well, as we’ve heard, the exhibition examines Claude’s influence on Turner... but, of course, there’s also the question of Turner’s influence on British painters down the years. We asked Colin Wiggins from the education team which modern artist he felt had been particularly inspired by Turner’s legacy... and he nominated Richard Cook, an artist based in Cornwall who creates light-filled paintings and watercolours of the British countryside. We invited Richard to the Gallery, and he and Colin took a closer look at Turner’s painting 'Dido Building Carthage'. When Richard confessed he’d copied the picture as a young artist, Colin asked what he’d been hoping to learn. 

Now to our other current exhibition – Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude. This show explores the life-long fascination of the nineteenth-century British painter, JMW Turner for the work of the seventeenth-century master of Italianate landscapes, Claude Lorrain. Mari Griffiths caught up with exhibition curator, Ian Warrell, to find out how Turner’s relationship with Claude’s work developed over time... with particular reference to Tivoli: Tobias and the Angel – an imposing work by Turner which sets a Biblical encounter in a luminous Italian landscape. Mari began by asking Ian how the young Turner would have initially encountered Claude’s work.

Ian Warrell: Turner came from a relatively humble background – his father was a barber in Covent Garden and from that background, Turner was able to find connections with aristocratic patrons: first of all by showing his drawings in his father’s shop and in the exhibitions at the Royal Academy. And it was that access to these private homes either in London or at the country houses where these great paintings that were brought back from the Grand Tour were displayed... and Turner would have seen paintings by Poussin, Claude, as well as Titian, and these things were all the kind of benchmarks that he tested himself against. But it was above all Claude as this great landscape painter that he really admired and hoped to equal. And it wasn’t just Turner who felt like that – I think there was still a very conservative mindset about what contemporary art should be. I think patrons like Sir George Beaumont whose collection is part of the founding collection here at the National Gallery, encouraged young artists to paint imitations of Claude or other seventeenth-century artists because they felt that that was the most appropriate thing and they wanted new art to be able to sit easily alongside traditional things. But Turner kind of questions that in his own painting – he felt that he and his generation were able to do something new and he didn’t like the idea of being limited in a way... he wanted to show that he could equal historic art, but to go beyond it as well.

Mari Griffiths: How did Turner go about trying to surpass the achievements of Claude? In particular in a painting like this one, Tivoli: Tobias and the Angel?

Ian Warrell: I think when Turner was looking at Claude, the thing he most admired was Claude’s ability to give a sense of the special character of a lighting effect. And when you walk round this exhibition again and again you find that Turner is introducing amazing bursts of light – the light is radiant and transcendent again and again as you walk round. But in this picture of Tivoli... it’s an unfinished picture and Turner’s evolving the picture here very much along the same lines as Claude’s typical compositions and he’s even got as far as introducing a narrative from the Bible – Tobias and the Angel – but he hasn’t taken it to the full development, but the key thing that he has already created is this wonderful sense of saturated sunlight... the canvas is just drenched in this warm Italian yellow light.

Mari Griffiths: This is an Italian scene and Turner didn’t make it to Italy until his forties, but this was a long-cherished dream of his... what was it that inspired him, that drove him to want to go to Italy?

Ian Warrell: I think so many artists of Turner’s generation had longed to go to Italy, but for Turner it was Claude that was very much the driving force. In the end his journey to Italy took him to Venice first of all – and you’d think most artists would have wanted to linger there – but not Turner, he probably stayed a maximum of four or five days because he was overwhelmed by the desire to get to the countryside that had inspired Claude. And as he’s approaching Rome he’s adding in his notebooks comments like ‘the first bit of Claude’ or ‘another bit of Claude’, so he was constantly on the look-out for these reminders or little fragments that gave him a way into seeing how Claude had made his studies of the landscape.

Mari Griffiths: And what’s new about this painting? How does Turner make the Claudean model his own?

Ian Warrell: I think in looking at the picture Turner structures it in a way that follows Claude’s precedent where you have a tree dividing the composition about a third of the way across the composition and there’s a great recession to a distant hillside and as the forms move into the distance they become softer and softer so this is all very typical from Claude, but the way Turner’s painted it, even though it’s an unfinished canvas it is much more broken down than you would get in Claude – there’s not quite the same attention to detail... Turner’s suggesting things in a more abstract way and the way his colour moves from the kind of brown-ish foreground that is typical in Claude... Turner mixes it up in a way so that there’s softening of greens and blues as it moves into the distance and then this amazing yellow in the sky, which is a use of a pigment that was probably only newly introduced in the 1820s. So it is an amazing re-thinking of the Claudean model.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Ian Warrell. Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude runs until early June; you can buy tickets at the Gallery, or online with a booking fee at

And now to an anniversary.  It was forty years ago, in 1972, that John Berger’s groundbreaking TV series - Ways of Seeing - hit the nation’s screens. Berger’s radical approach to art history made his four-part series quite unlike any art programme seen before – or since. Berger used the National Gallery as a key location and focussed on several celebrated pictures in the Collection, including Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews.’ Leah Kharibian met up with the cultural historian Jonathan Conlin of the University of Southampton to find out what made Berger’s approach so different.

Leah Kharibian: Jonathan we’re here in front of Thomas Gainsborough’s double portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews of about 1750. It’s a work Gainsborough painted when he was about 23 years old and it’s a much-loved work in the collection. I was wondering if you could start us off by describing it and then tell us how Berger used it in his programme?

Jonathan Conlin:  It’s a portrait, but it’s mainly a landscape. It shows the young married couple at the left and then extending far to the horizon on the right, a pleasantly bucolic scene of cornfield, a herd of sheep, several trees... one can glimpse two church towers in the distance and there’s a very changeable English sky up above. Berger began by quoting former National Gallery director, Kenneth Clark, writing about this painting and describing it in terms of its rural charm, it’s typically English landscape, emphasising it as something that we could all share in and commune in as a celebration of our nation’s soil.

Berger, by contrast, saw it as not a celebration of a landscape commonly held, but as private ownership and hence his director, Mike Dibb, when filming a transparency of the painting added a small note, which appears as a sign above Mrs Andrews’s head, saying ‘Trespassers keep out’. He also notes that at the time – the mid-eighteenth century – the penalty for poaching was transportation and that if you stole simply a potato you were liable to a public whipping. And for him then this is a painting not about a collectively owned English landscape, but about private possession.

Leah Kharibian: And the ways in which he intervenes into images, or tries to disrupt the usual context in which we maybe more complacently view them – he does this quite a lot, doesn’t he? Could you take us through some of the things he does?

Jonathan Conlin: Berger in a sense teases us in playing on our expectations of how an image like this will be presented on a BBC arts documentary. He plays around with our hunger to zoom in on particular details... the tendency of other documentary-makers to make their own stories by moving from one detail rapidly to another, by exploiting the emotional effects of laying different kinds of music over it. He also notices the extent to which these ploys have been used already, not in documentaries, but out in the globalised world of advertising, by for example, showing images of this painting being used to sell cars and cigarettes.

Leah Kharibian: And forty years on, has Berger’s programme, with all its ideas – and it seems to be really full, buzzing, full of ideas – has it affected our ways of seeing, do you think?

Jonathan Conlin: It’s had a massive effect, certainly within what were then new disciplines in media and cultural studies which are still very popular today. Within art history it was crucial in kick-starting what became known as the new art history, which really took off in the late 1970s, which emphasised the role of gender hierarchies, perhaps free-market hierarchies, and also imperialist hierarchies which had governed the way in which say the Far East had been depicted, the way in which ownership and land had been depicted, and the way in which women had been depicted in the past. New art history looked at a painting like this and did not speak of Gainsborough’s development as an artist, did not speak of his use of that tone or the genre of landscape painting. It spoke about the role of... the subjugation of women, the subjugation of the peasants who are invisible... so that was what the new history was trying to do and it was very much doing it in a Bergerian spirit.

One of the things that I think Berger got wrong is that he argued that thanks to television and other broadcast media which meant that the pictures came to us – he rather sternly said that the age of pilgrimage is over. And yet if anything, television’s effect has been to increase the number of pilgrims travelling.... No longer maybe to look in a religious spirit at an original work of art, but certainly to come to say the Leonardo show at the National Gallery. They’re willing to stand in line for hours in a kind of collective spirit of veneration.

Leah Kharibian: Thank you so much.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Our thanks to Jonathan Conlin who will be back at the National Gallery on the 12th of May to chair a special event devoted to Berger’s Ways of Seeing. For more information and to book, go to That’s it for this episode. If you’re planning a visit to the National Gallery, don’t forget we’re open ten ‘till six daily – with late night opening on Fridays until nine pm. Until next time, goodbye.

That’s it for this episode - until next time, goodbye.