Skip to main content

Episode 72

The National Gallery Podcast

‘Richard Hamilton: The Late Works’ opens this month. Plus Edmund de Waal on Monet, and the perils of painting royals.

16 min 59 sec | October 2012

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

We start this month with our new exhibition: Richard Hamilton: The Late Works. Famous for being the founder of Pop Art, the designer of the Beatles' 'White Album', and Brian Ferry’s art teacher, contemporary British artist Richard Hamilton was also – perhaps more surprisingly – a life-long devotee of the National Gallery.

He was fascinated by Old Master painting, and in 1978 – in a bid to make visitors feel at home with such works - created an installation at the Gallery that placed many of the collection’s best-loved masterpieces in a room alongside easy chairs, a TV and an ironing board. When he died in September 2011 at the age of 89, he was working on a new exhibition for the National Gallery with curator Chris Riopelle. Chris spoke to Leah Kharibian in advance of this month’s opening – and began by describing Hamilton’s early experiences of the Gallery.

Chris Riopelle: Hamilton was coming here frequently, really from childhood but he himself recalls that as a student as the Royal Academy Schools he was sent here to copy things and in some ways that copying, that having to pay very, very intense attention to specific works of art was his real initiation into the National Gallery.

And in his final decades he was even much more explicitly returning to Old Master themes, so you’ll see one painting that very much references the Christian iconography, the Christian tradition, of the Annunciation to the Virgin. Other works evoke Dutch painting of the 17th century – he was really aware of the entire European painting tradition. 

Leah Kharibian: And can you tell me a little bit about how these were made because these were again a sort of a sign of a way in which he was always pushing boundaries. 

Chris Riopelle: Among British artists, Hamilton was among the first to really intuit the implications of the computer and how computer technology as it improved was going to offer artists possibilities for doing things. In the last decades of his life almost all of his paintings began on the computer and then they would be printed out from the computer and over-painted, so that they were many of them true paintings, but underneath them were these computer generated images so it was a very interesting first take on what you could do with computers. 

Leah Kharibian: And the whole exhibition sort of culminates or leads towards three works which were sort of still in progress when Hamilton died. Can you tell me a little bit about those?

Chris Riopelle: For the last two years of his life, Hamilton became obsessed as many artists had done before him by a short-story of the 1830s by Honoré de Balzac called ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ and as Picasso had done before him, he began to make a painting based on this.

That painting originally generated on computer remained unfinished at the time of his death. And what we are showing are not three paintings, not three works, but three versions of that unfinished painting. None of them complete in themselves, but showing various stages, various possibilities for this final unrealised work.

One is almost a drawing and shows an initial stage in the process. Another he’s blocked in large areas of colour, so you see where he was going in that direction and the third shows the actual canvas he was working on, showing how far he’d gotten on it when he died.

Leah Kharibian: And so there’s so much to come and see here – there’s something very new, still very vibrant. This was an artist still really firing on all cylinders. 

Chris Riopelle: Hamilton remained incredibly inventive, up to the end of his life and incredibly fascinated with how his works were seen and so when we invited him to show here he immediately jumped in, not only deciding what pictures to show but absolutely how they would be seen – what the room would look like, how he could create a total work of art out of the paintings, but out of the space as well. 

Leah Kharibian: Wonderful, thank you very much. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Chris Riopelle. And that exhibition - Richard Hamilton: The Late Works – opens on the 10th of October. Admission is free. 

Visitors to galleries often day-dream about what it might be like to have their favourite painting by Rembrandt or Turner on their wall back home.

For artist and author Edmund de Waal it’s a fantasy born of more than idle curiosity – since one of the works in the National Gallery once belonged to his ancestor, the celebrated collector, Charles Ephrussi. Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère hung in Charles’s study in Paris in the late nineteenth century, alongside many other beautiful objects, including the collection of miniature Japanese sculptures that Edmund himself would inherit five generations later – and write about in his award-winning family memoir, 'The Hare with the Amber Eyes'. I met up with Edmund beside Monet’s painting – a summery scene of a popular spot for boating and bathing on the Seine. 

Edmund de Waal: Each time I come and stand in front of this picture I get goose-pimples. It revives me. I mean not only do you look at these wonderful people in the river and feel this wonderful chill and excitement of plunging into the river, but it actually is an incredibly alive painting and it makes me feel alive every time I see it. 

Miranda Hinkley: This painting was in the collection of one of your ancestors, an art collector called Charles Ephrussi who lived in Paris in the nineteenth century. Tell us a bit more about Charles. 

Edmund de Waal: Well, he was a wonderful man – I rather fell in love with him. He was part of this extraordinary Jewish dynastic family that I’m part of, the Ephrussi, and he’d ended up in Paris with his banker brothers and he had nothing to do. He had lots and lots of money and nothing to do and a great artistic temperament so he started to put together this incredible collection.

Part of the collection that he put together was this amazing collection of Japanese objects that I inherited – these little netsuke that I spent these years trying to trace, but the majority of his collection was renaissance embroideries and bronzes, and – and this is such a big and – Impressionist paintings.

This was the new art – the sort of dangerous, fissile, exciting art of the day, and I think he was drawn towards it because it was so energetic and so exciting and so you can trace this excitement through – I have to say – rather heated prose as he starts to discover Berte Morisot and then Renoir and Manet and Degas and of course Monet, so he writes about these people and falls in love with these artists. 

Miranda Hinkley: And you researched Charles quite extensively for your book, 'The Hare with the Amber Eyes', and in it you imagined what Charles study, what his rooms in Paris might have looked like. 

Edmund de Waal: Lots and lots of paintings hung from floor to ceiling, jostling with embroideries… great kind of lavish maroon Renaissance embroideries with golden thread… a Donatello sculpture somewhere – over the fireplace… a cabinet of Japanese curios, these netsuke, and also – I just love this – a yellow arm-chair – and then – and this is the kind of killer thing – you’ve got people. You’ve got an incredible quantity of people coming to talk in this room. That’s why I kind of fell in love with him really. Because I got the feeling that this was someone who invited different kinds of people into his life and was very, very open to the kinds of things that were talked about.

For instance, he was the first, Charles was really the first writer and collector of Berhe Morisot, who still is ridiculously neglected amongst the Impressionists. And he had a huge talent for different kinds of friendships. Lots and lots of friendships with women and lots of friendships with very peculiar and slightly impoverished writers as well as these great artists. You have to remember of course that these artists weren’t famous then – they were complicated people who were very much on the forefront of art.

And Charles is not only a rich collector who is going to go and buy their work, but is a great patron and fighter on the barricades for these artists, so you imagine all that excitement in this room. 

Miranda Hinkley: I think what I really love about this work are these boats in the foreground, that look so carelessly arranged, but we know from detailed analysis of the painting that he took a lot of time over the positioning and I just really love the way that you can imagine yourself using them as stepping stones to cross the river and get onto that bridge and go right into the scene. I wonder what Charles loved about this picture. Why did he buy this and not something else by Monet? 

Edmund de Waal: Do you know what? He did buy lots of other things by Monet too – but if you look at all the paintings of this period that he’s buying there’s a completely common thread and it’s here in this amazing painting. And he talks about it in a beautiful essay about the Impressionists. He talks about the ‘fugitive moment’ – the moment which is there and then it’s gone.

So the pictures he buys are pictures where you just see the wind in the poplar trees in a Sisley or a Pissarro painting, or a moment in another beautiful, beautiful Monet which he bought ten years later where the ice is just cracking on a river – you can feel it’s just about jostling away – and here in this painting, you can feel that those wonderful figures are trying to work out whether to jump in or not… whether to get into this river, so there’s this fugitive feeling – this feeling of the moment, just held there, crystalline… and then gone. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Edmund de Waal talking about Monet’s Bathers at La Grenouillère, which is on display in Room 43. 

And now imagine getting your first break – and blowing it.  That’s what happened to 20-year-old Thomas Lawrence – back in 1789. Talked about as the next big thing in British portraiture, Lawrence was invited to Windsor Castle to paint the portrait of Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III.  It should have been a moment of triumph for the young artist.  But thanks to a first-hand account by a certain Mrs. Papendiek, we know the encounter between Lawrence and Charlotte didn’t go well. Leah Kharibian met the portrait historian, Kate Retford, in front of Lawrence’s portrait of the Queen and asked her to explain who Mrs Papendiek was.

Kate Retford: Mrs Papendiek is a rather wonderful character. She’s the daughter of Charlotte’s hairdresser and she is a member of Charlotte’s household retinue, she’s an intimate at court, and she leaves us these wonderful chatty journals. And Mrs Papendiek is a wonderful source… you always have to be slightly careful with her because they are written towards the end of her life, so she is looking at things with the considerable benefit of hindsight and the other thing we have to remember is that Mrs Papendiek appears to have had quite a crush on Lawrence. She says he’s elegant and handsome and very attentive. 

Mrs Papendiek: The great prodigy of the day had now arrived at Windsor and everyone was anxious to see the self-taught wonder. The Queen was to sit to him for her portrait and he was to have an apartment in the castle for his work and accommodation. Her Majesty was rather averse to sitting for him, saying that she had not recovered sufficiently from all the trouble and anxiety she had gone through to give so young an artist a fair chance. It was however settled that it should be tried. 

Leah Kharibian: Now Mrs Papendiek says that Queen Charlotte is not very happy - that she’s been under stress of some sort. What’s been going on for Charlotte?

Kate Retford: Charlotte has had I think what can only be called her annus horiblis – I mean, she’s had an absolutely appalling year. Lawrence paints Charlotte in the September of 1789. The previous year George has had his first major illness; his first serious mental and physical collapse, probably from poryhria.

And it’s the period wonderfully described in Alan Bennett’s 'Madness of King George' of course. And it’s terrible for Charlotte. Her previously devoted husband is being very hostile to her… he’s declaring himself in love with one of the ladies of the bedchamber, the Countess of Pembrook, and it prompts the Regency crisis, which is awful for the Queen because her eldest son is basically trying to get as much power as he can while his father’s ill.

She’s had a terrible time – people are talking about the toll it’s taken on her appearance. And people say that her hair goes completely grey over that period, and the grey hair we see in this portrait is really the result of this awful year she’s had. 

Leah Kharibian: Well, poor Queen Charlotte. And obviously here comes Lawrence – twenty year old – and she really isn’t in the mood for this. And things seem to go from bad to worse. Lawrence tries to jolly the precedings along and this is a mistake, isn’t it? 

Kate Retford: Yes, I mean various things go wrong – they disagree about the dress… they disagree about how she’s going to have her hair, but there’s this awful moment in the account – and I think you can almost hear the tumbleweed going through the room as you read this…

Mrs Papendiek: Lawrence requested the Queen to converse now and then with the princesses to give animation to the countenance but her Majesty thought that rather presuming and continued to listen to one of them reading. The poor young fellow was naturally inexperienced in the ways of a court. And the manner in which Her Majesty treated him was not with her usual kind commiseration. 

Kate Retford: The really sad thing is that Lawrence is at Windsor Castle for some months to do this portrait and he gets one sitting. That’s it. She doesn’t sit to him again. 

Leah Kharibian: And yet he creates this absolutely fabulous portrait. I was just wondering if you could briefly take us through what he does because he seems to be able to mix two different types of portrait together. 

Kate Retford: Yes, because in some ways we have a very formal portrait – it’s very large, it’s very imposing… you’ve got the drape, you’ve got the view through to Eton College Chapel to tell us we’re at Windsor… we’ve got the fact the Queen is raised on a step. I mean these are all stock aspects of royal portraiture that come from Van Dyck. 

But it’s still remarkable… She’s in this very informal dress. The dress was the source of some argument, but actually the way he’s painted it in the end – it’s this wonderful shimmering blue, silver, lilac affair. But there’s no crown, there’s no ermine, there’s no sceptre – there’s really nothing to tell you that she’s the Queen of England.

But I think the most extraordinary thing about the portrait is the face. She looks like a woman in her mid-forties… she looks like a woman who’s tired. She’s got puffy eyes… they’re shadowed… and it’s an incredibly sensitive portrait. And we know actually from some x-rays that the Gallery did that he had a bad-time painting her face and kept changing her mouth particularly, but in the end he captured this wonderful wistful expression that does seem to convey something of what she’s been through. 

Leah Kharibian: And so what was the royal reception of this portrait when it was finished? 

Kate Retford: They didn’t like it one bit. George is reported as saying it was disgusting. The biggest problem seems to have been the fact that she’s not wearing anything on her head. They didn’t buy it; they didn’t pay for it; and it stays in Lawrence’s studio. For Lawrence it’s actually not a bad thing. He shows it in the Royal Academy exhibition of 1790, where it goes down very well. He gets some very good reviews. Gainsborough’s just died… Reynolds is going to die two years later… and this is very much the start of Lawrence, the grand manner portraitist, the great portraitist of the early nineteenth century which is how we know him today. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Kate Retford. And if you’d like your own audience with Queen Charlotte, she’s on display in Room 36 . 

That’s it for this month. Next episode we’ll have news of our big autumn exhibition, which opens on the 31st of October. Called Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present, it’s the National Gallery’s first major exhibition of photography.

Tickets are already available from the Gallery or online at

That’s it for this month - if you’re visiting, don’t forget the National Gallery is open from ten till six daily, and till nine on Fridays. 

Until next time, goodbye!