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Episode 74

The National Gallery Podcast

Christmas at the Gallery: seasonal gifts and a Nativity makeover courtesy of Bruegel. Plus the dark arts of photographer Richard Learoyd.

16 min 29 sec | December 2012

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

As parents around the country watch their little ones dress up in fake beards, tea towels and angel wings, we start this month with our own Nativity scene.

Christ’s birth has inspired many great artists, but one of the most unusual depictions is by the 16th-century artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Adoration of the Kings shows the holy family in the stable being visited by the three wise men whose usual splendour has been replaced by bad skin and grotesque expressions. Art historian Karly Allen described the scene for Cathy FitzGerald.

Karly Allen: Jesus seems to be completely unnerved by this vision that’s lurching towards him, particularly the oldest king, Caspar, who’s on his knees and thrusts his gift rather menacingly towards the baby and almost grimaces. He’s got this lank, greasy hair that hangs in rats tails, his skin is very saggy, he’s got '5 o'clock' shadow, looks a little bit unwashed, so you definitely wouldn’t want this person entering your personal space and the baby feels the same way – he’s recoiling, he’s rejecting this visitor.

Further back to the left there’s the second king, Melchior, who although he looks rather regal in his red, his face just does not fit his robes. He again has got this rather sickly looking, sweaty face – he’s struggling to keep his eyes open, his mouth is down-turned and he looks a little bit like a turtle appearing from a shell and the figure of Joseph as well, Mary’s husband, who we might expect to be standing in a protective way, perhaps looking lovingly towards this little family – he’s being distracted, he’s physically moving away, distancing himself from Mary and Jesus and he’s listening to somebody whispering in his ear quite conspiratorially so we immediately start thinking – what else is going on in this picture?

Cathy FitzGerald: And there’s a real sense of menace to it, isn’t there, which is very unusual for a nativity – weapons in the background…

Karly Allen: This does seem to be a very hostile place that Jesus is being born into. We see this almost fence of sharp weaponry that really adds to the claustrophobic space. There’s no air to breathe in this painting and we are completely enclosed by the bodies, the crowd, the throng and these tall weapons.

Cathy FitzGerald: So what’s Bruegel up to?

Karly Allen: Well, one suggestion which would make a lot of sense is that he is asking us to look at this scene of the birth of Christ through considering later episodes in his life, so looking towards the end of his life – the violence of the Passion and Crucifixion.

Down the central vertical line of the painting we have a large halberd being held by a soldier – it sits directly above the figure of Mary and Jesus – and this cruciform shape created by the halberd does seem to suggest the shape of the cross on which Christ will be crucified. And even the detail of the spiked crown on Balthazar, the black king, is reminiscent of the crown of thorns perhaps from scenes of the Passion, and perhaps we might feel it is a very difficult picture to look at because it doesn’t give us the details of the standard rendition that we expect: the heavenly angels, the bright star, the fabulous retinue of the kings, and their horses.

Perhaps this painting does just offer us something deeper – an opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of the Christmas story. And what we’re given is this very vulnerable, naked baby who is born into a violent and hostile world. And Bruegel really seduces us – he draws us in, principally with the quality of his paint. There are passages all over this picture where we just want to delight in the way that he has manipulated oil paint and he catches our attention that way and holds it so that we are then open to these deeper layers of meaning and moral messages.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Karly Allen. Bruegel’s 'Adoration of the Kings' is on display in Room 14. And if you’re visiting the Gallery this month, you might like to take a look at the website for details of all our seasonal activities. There’s Christmas afternoon tea in the National Dining Rooms featuring mince pies and brandy cream, and music concerts every Friday evening. And on the 14th of December there’s a Christmas workshop: get tips from artists and designers on card and gift-making in a snowy setting inspired by the Dutch artist, Hendrick Avercamp. For more information, see our website:

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now to Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present – the Gallery’s very first major exhibition devoted to photography. The exhibition traces the fascinating relationship between photography and fine art, and puts paintings, early photography and works by contemporary photographers side by side. 

One of these contemporary photographers is Richard Learoyd. His highly detailed portrait of a young woman in a floral shirt – called 'Jasmijn in Mary Quant' – has been stopping visitors in their tracks. This large-scale photograph clearly owes a visual debt to the fine art tradition. But what’s less obvious is that the process used to make it employs a piece of technology artists have experimented with since ancient times – a walk-in 'camera obscura'. In his studio off London’s Brick Lane, Richard Learoyd told Leah Kharibian how it works.

Richard Learoyd: I prefer to think of it as just a big camera, that’s the easiest way to describe it, that is essentially two rooms – there’s a light side and a dark side with a lens in between and you walk into the dark side of the room and there’s a light projected onto the person who is in the light side of the room and you can see their image upside down and the wrong way round and you compose the picture in the dark looking at their projection and then you shut the lens down so you can’t see anymore, you put up a photographic material – in this case, ilfochrome or cibachrome as it used to be called – you expose the picture with a large amount of flash, and then you put it into a large processing machine and 18 minutes later, there’s your picture.

Leah Kharibian: And am I right in thinking that these are unique objects – you get the one object from it?

Richard Learoyd: Yes, by the nature of the process the thing that you’re looking at – the surface, the material that you’re looking at in the Gallery – is the film material that the photograph’s made of in the studio. There’s no negative, there’s no transparency, there’s no interposing material between the two things. It’s a direct positive material that is the film that’s in the camera.

Leah Kharibian: The fact of seeing the subject upside down, how does that affect the working process – does that make it harder?

Richard Learoyd: I think I’ve been doing it for so long my brain flips it – I don’t actually see it upside down. I do see it upside down but I don’t read it that way – I don’t know how that works. I think if you’ve spent 10 years in the dark looking at things you get fed up of craning your neck and eventually your brain does something – it’s a trick – and you don’t realize you’re doing it. Sometimes I can’t – I get a stiff neck – but most of the time it’s about looking for very small things. You know, you peering at a very brilliant, but very dark image on a piece of white material, and I’m looking for a focus point in the picture, which is usually with a person, the meniscus of liquid on the bottom of somebody’s eyelid and the depth of field of the camera is probably five or six millimeters.

Leah Kharibian: So it’s that narrow?

Richard Learoyd: Yes, it’s very narrow. So things move in and out of focus very quickly and that’s why – you know, the process of sitting for a photograph like this is probably more akin to the process of sitting for a drawing or a painting than especially a modern photographic session, where you know a photographer will click-click-click-click-click. It’s not like that – it’s subtlety of movement and finding a plane of focus across somebody’s face and across their body and creating a travel in the composition of the image. In the case of Jasmijn, the focus moves down her eye to the edge of her nose and down her cheek, along the fabric of the collar and down to her hand. And those rivers, compositional rivers, are what make the pictures intriguing, I suppose.

Leah Kharibian: Do you get quite a ghostly image upside down on the back wall?

Richard Learoyd: I can show you – do you want to see?

Leah Kharibian: Oh yes please.

Richard Learoyd: I’ll go first and make sure the light is on. [Door] Do you want to come in?

Leah Kharibian: Ok. [Door] Ah…

Richard Learoyd: So you can see that the focus comes in very sharply and you need tiny movements on the person. But your eyes adjust to the darkness.

Leah Kharibian: And so when you put the paper up – that obviously happens… you’re in complete darkness then?

Richard Learoyd: Yup, the paper is in that machine there. You close the lens down so it’s completely dark in here and you clip the paper onto this backboard like that and you go out and press the button and that’s it.

Leah Kharibian: And you have got to hope that there’s no movement of your model in the meantime.

Richard Learoyd: Well, we do things to ensure that that doesn’t happen. We’ve got clamps and markers and various other ways. You offer a resistance for people so they stay in the same place.

Leah Kharibian: So is there quite a correspondence with early photography? Do you have head clamps and things?

Richard Learoyd: Yeah, we’ve got all sorts of clamps. It’s got all the problem of large-format photography has times by 50. It’s the ultimate in analogue expression. It’s how you would have imagined photography to be if you were Fox Talbot in 1850. If you projected photography forward you’d say ‘well, it will be like this' – you’ll shine a light onto this material, and the lenses will be incredibly sharp and the colour will be very beautiful and there’ll be mirror-like surfaces. That’s how people would have imagined photography – not as a load of ones and zeroes on a screen. But you know, everything comes to an end. This is the end. They’ve stopped making this material. I’ve bought enough for the rest of my career, however long that is, and then that’s the end. Who knows?

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Richard Learoyd. If you’d like to see 'Jasmjin in Mary Quant', you’ll find her in Room 41. And there are more of Richard’s photographs on display in our current exhibition. 'Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present' runs until the 20th of January. Tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now… if you’ve ever wished you could take home one of the National Gallery’s masterpieces, we’ve got the next best thing. The Gallery has teamed up with the specialist print company, Surface View, to create not just same-size prints - but large-scale murals of the collection. Cathy FitzGerald got a tour of the factory from Surface View’s Business Development Manager, Tom Pickford.

Tom Pickford: Just walked down into our factory and this is where we produce all of our graphics. We’ve got five large format printing machines – they’re all roll to roll – and just behind us is our photographic press which is actually one of the largest in Europe.

Cathy FitzGerald: What can people get the National Gallery’s paintings printed onto?

Tom Pickford: Well, here we’re making canvas prints, murals, roller blinds, but we also create lampshades, ceramic tiles… across the three factory sites that we have, we’re producing a lot of different print technologies and creating different products for the National Gallery customers with that technology.

Cathy FitzGerald: Which National Gallery paintings tend to go down well?

Tom Pickford: Certainly the portraits are very popular – I think there’s something about a face that people engage with. Having that as a large mural is really striking in a room. There’s a great range of landscapes from Impressionist painters – Monets and Van Goghs even that we have are very popular. George Stubbs’s Whistlejacket is another popular one. We’re just running a 'Whistlejacket' canvas print at the moment, so that will be coming off the press shortly, so you can see how it looks.

Cathy FitzGerald: So it’s 'Whistlejacket' which is Stubbs's incredible painting of a horse, but the size of your living room wall.

Tom Pickford: Yes, that’s right. We start from about a metre-square as a canvas print, but yes, you can have them stretched at three-metres by three-metres. The only thing we ask is that people check that they can actually get them through the door before they’re ordered.

Cathy FitzGerald: Have you had that happen?

Tom Pickford: We haven’t had any returns because of it, no, but we’ve had people lift them in through windows at street level to get them in. Of course for the murals which can be much bigger – they could be 10 metres wide, 20 metres wide – they’re not shipped in one section, they’re in sections, and then they’re applied onto a wall, so transportation’s not such a problem. But the side of things that we’re working on with the National Gallery tend to be interiors for either residential projects for customers’ own houses or on a commercial scale working in offices, schools, in hospitals. And everything’s bespoke, so people can tell us what size they’d like – and we’ll do it.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Tom Pickford – and you can find all the information about Surface View’s prints and other products at

And finally… if you’re racking your brains for Christmas present ideas, don’t forget the National Gallery’s shop. Cathy spoke to buyer Nathaniel Mobbs and began by asking what our smallest visitors are coveting this season.

Nathaniel Mobbs: I think I’d definitely have my eye on the Noah’s ark in wood that we have. It comes with 11 different sets of animals. It’s beautifully crafted so a really special present. A real heirloom piece. We also have a range of presents based around Rousseau’s Surprised! tiger painting, which always really captures the children’s imaginations. We’ve got everything from roaring tiger umbrellas to various puzzles and games.

Cathy FitzGerald: There’s a bright orange tiger purse down here as well.

Nathaniel Mobbs: Yes, that’s a really great product, which was developed exclusively for us. It’s a really cute little item.

Cathy FitzGerald: And this is something for them to come and have a look at obviously after they’ve admired Rousseau’s exquisite brushwork?

Nathaniel Mobbs: Yes, absolutely – it is a painting that really seems to appeal to them and capture their imagination and we do find quite often groups of children sat around looking at it, admiring the work.

Cathy FitzGerald: And how about for adults? What have you got for older visitors?

Nathaniel Mobbs: We have a delicious art range of products which really captures the connection between the enjoyment of art and food.

Cathy FitzGerald: How does that work? That sounds like an excuse for eating chocolate?

Nathaniel Mobbs: Eating chocolate, and drinking wine, yes I think so. We have a red and white wine and also a champagne which are all produced by Rothschild’s Wines. They feature images from the Gallery on the labels and it’s a really nice collaboration. We also have bars of chocolate and a fancy fudge and marzipan selection box.

Cathy FitzGerald: And when do you normally do your Christmas shopping?

Nathaniel Mobbs: I have to say I am a last minute person, so it is quite handy having the shop as a resource.

Cathy FitzGerald: So does that mean everybody in your family is going to get National Gallery Christmas presents?

Nathaniel Mobbs: Yes, I think they’re used to it.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Nathaniel Mobbs. If you’re visiting this month, we’re open every day except the 24th to the 26th December, 10 to 6 daily and till 9 on Fridays.

And you can find out all about Christmas at the Gallery, plus shop for gifts online, at

That’s it for this episode. Until the new year, goodbye!