Skip to main content

Episode 9

The National Gallery Podcast

In the July 2007 podcast, from the slave trade to smiling Dutchmen - two new exhibitions: 'Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals' and 'Scratch the Surface'. Plus singing bus drivers hit the Gallery.

16 min 21 sec | July 2007

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, I’m Miranda Hinkley. In this episode of the National Gallery Podcast: a new exhibition opens to mark the bicentenary of the act of parliament which abolished the slave trade. Artist Yinka Shonibare NBE explains why his contribution teams polemic with playfulness. And:

Singers: [sing 'Amazing Grace'] … I can’t remember the words!

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): The halls are alive with music as choirs from across London prepare to serenade Gallery-goers.

'Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals'

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And there are more smiles to begin with, courtesy of the ‘Dutch Portraits’ exhibition, sponsored by Shell, which opened on 27 June. After gaining its independence from Spain in the 16th century, the Dutch Republic experienced a period of unprecedented wealth. This led to an explosion in portrait painting as people from all walks of life had their likeness made. The new exhibition brings together some of the most celebrated results – including many works rarely seen outside the Netherlands. And among them, there’s an intriguing group of pictures where the sitters simply beam out at the viewer. They’re all the work of one artist. Leah Kharibian met up with curator of Dutch pictures, Betsy Weiseman, to find out more.

Leah Kharibian: The pictures for the ‘Dutch Portraits’ exhibition are being hung and it’s rather exciting as there are some stupendous pictures emerging from the packing cases here, among them nine masterpieces by Rembrandt and about a dozen by Frans Hals. Now Betsy, I know that everybody has probably heard of Rembrandt, but people may not know of Frans Hals. They may have heard of ‘The Laughing Cavalier’, perhaps, but do you think his name deserves to be better known?

Betsy Weiseman: Absolutely, I think he’s going to emerge from the exhibition as a real triumph and a real surprise for people. And in fact that’s one of the reasons why we chose a picture by Frans Hals for the posters. And the other thing that I think people will be completely charmed by in Frans Hals’ paintings is that many of them present the sitters smiling and it’s so unusual to have portraits of people smiling or laughing in the 17th century. Well, we know ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ – obviously he’s quite pleased with himself – but in this exhibition, we have two portraits especially that are remarkable in that sense. One in the first gallery is a marriage portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen. That was a completely revolutionary portrait, to have a young married couple, quite wealthy, seated in a garden in very relaxed poses – they’re embracing, their bodies are relaxed into each other and they’re smiling. You know that they’re just filled with that newly wed bliss.

Leah Kharibian: Now what’s that about – is that to do with the fact that the Dutch had a more relaxed attitude to portraiture or is it actually something to do with a sense of confidence?

Betsy Weiseman: I think in part it’s that the Dutch Republic at that time was a new bourgeois society, a self-made nation. It was governed on a more democratic, representational basis. It wasn’t a monarchy so there was a sense of equality and possibility.

Leah Kharibian: And there’s another picture by Frans Hals where a child, a child of a very wealthy family, appears alongside her nurse and it’s a double portrait really. It’s not just a servant/child relationship is it? It’s something more than that.

Betsy Weiseman: Absolutely. This is the infant Catherina Hoft and her nurse and I think people will be surprised that it’s not a child and her mother because the bond is really just as intimate. We need to remember that in the Netherlands in the 17th century, wealthy children were generally raised by a wet nurse until about one year of age, so they had that very, very close bond with their nurse and you can feel that in this portrait – it’s absolutely charming. We weren’t sure until the very last minute that that painting was going to be included in the exhibition, so in a way it’s a surprise to us as well and such a treasure to have it here. The way it’s situated in the gallery, you see it through a succession of doorways, almost as if it’s in one of those fabulous 17th-century Dutch interiors. It’s such a magnetic, compelling painting – you’re drawn to it. You almost feel like the child is going to reach out for you and want to grab your cheek.

Leah Kharibian: So come to the exhibition for Frans Hals if for nothing else…

Betsy Weiseman: Absolutely. And there’s much more.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Betsy Weiseman. If you’d like to see Hals’s portraits for yourself, the ‘Dutch Portraits’ exhibition, sponsored by Shell, runs until September. For tickets and more information, visit

‘Scratch the Surface’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Now: picture the English upper class in the 18th century, and you probably think of pampered aristos with powdered hair, sparkling jewels and opulent frocks. But a new exhibition subverts the familiar image to remind us of the exploitation on which this luxurious lifestyle was based. To mark the bicentenry of the act of parliament which abolished the slave trade, ‘Scratch the Surface’ will see manikins of pheasant-shooting toffs installed in the Gallery – dressed, not in historic finery, but bright African fabrics from a South London market. Curator Jonah Albert and artist Yinka Shonibare told me more.

Miranda Hinkley: Jonah Albert, you’re the curator of ‘Scratch the Surface’. Can you tell me what you wanted to achieve with this exhibition?

Jonah Albert: What this exhibition does is look at the way that there’s links between the National Gallery and the transatlantic slave trade by using two paintings, the painting of ‘Mrs Oswald’ by Zoffany and the painting of Colonel Banastre Tarleton by Reynolds. During the 18th century lots of people made lots of money from the transatlantic slave trade and one of the ways that these people displayed their wealth was to commission portraits of themselves and also to collect art. So these people made money in the slave trade, but when they had their portraits done – you know – the Africans are missing, the people that they captured, the people who worked hard on their plantation in order for them to have those beautiful, beautiful garments that say Mrs Oswald’s wearing, to be able to sit in Reynolds studio and have your portrait painted. Behind them is an African presence. 

Miranda Hinkley: And you’ve invited an artist, Yinka Shonibare, to produce a piece that speaks specifically to these two portraits.

Jonah Albert: Absolutely. ‘Scratch the Surface’ happens in two parts. The first part happens in room one, where these two paintings are going to be put together and then the exhibition looks at the way that these two sitters are linked to the slave trade. That’s what happens in room one and in the Barry Rooms, Yinka Shonibare has been invited to create new work that speaks to the theme of the exhibition and also to the two portraits.

Miranda Hinkley: And part of what Yinka Shonibare’s installation is going to do is make some of that history more visible perhaps?

Jonah Albert: Absolutely. Yinka’s work looks at the kinds of leisure activities – because you made your money, you collected art, you had your portraits done, you had the great house out in the country and you hunted. You went shooting – those kind of things, those kinds of past-times. And what Yinka’s work speaks to is to the kind of lifestyle that these people had.

Miranda Hinkley: I’m sitting in the Barry rooms with Yinka Shonibare. Good morning Yinka can you describe what visitors will see when they come in here – when your work is up?

Yinka Shonibare: Basically, the paintings will be removed and I will install sculptures of the figures. And so what people will see – there will be a pheasant above their head and the feathers of the pheasant are kind of exploding around the pheasant that’s just been shot, so they will be fully – their whole body will be engaged, because they have to look up into the centre of the room. And the two figures will be pointing their guns towards that pheasant. And so they’re wearing this sort of 18th-century aristocratic costumes made out of African textiles and I buy the fabrics from Brixton market, so I like this kind of double play.

Miranda Hinkley: There seems to be running through all your work a kind of tension between a playfulness and a mischievous humour and at the same time the serious subject matter that the work’s addressing – human misery essentially, and degradation – can you talk to us about that tension?

Yinka Shonibare: I think that if I were to just produce a polemic and I said to people you know what slavery is bad, slavery was terrible in the way that it manifested itself – and look at me, you know, my ancestors are the victims of slavery, I think people would be rather bored and they’d just switch off. And also I think that actually with humour and with paradox as well, you’re more likely to actually engage people and get them to think a bit further. But also, we’re of a different generation, we’re 21st-century people. I’m not one for beating people over the heads for what their ancestors did – that was then, this is now and I hope that people can learn from the past, from the mistakes of the past.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Yinka Shonibare with a preview of ‘Scratch the Surface’. The exhibition opens at the Gallery on 20 July and admission is free.

‘Sing London’ at the National Gallery

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next up: with musicals more popular than ever and TV schedules dominated by shows about wannabe crooners, singing is enjoying a renaissance. And the organisers of a new festival – ‘Sing London’ – want us all to join in. Events will be held around the city in the first week of July, and if you visit the National Gallery on Saturday 7 July, you’ll find singers roaming the halls. In preparation, choirs from across the capital attended a workshop to learn how to bring the Gallery’s paintings to life. I went along to find out what a group of singing bus drivers have planned….

Singers: Oh when the saints….

Lee Riley: Hi, I’m Lee Riley and I’m organising the ‘Sing London’ event at the National Gallery. At the National Gallery, we’ve got around about seven choirs and they’re going to be singing in the gallery. And we’ve been working with them and they’ve been inspired by some of the paintings that they’re going to sing about. They’re using songs that range from classic through to contemporary and it’s about getting the public to join in and enjoy singing with them.

Workshop leader: Thank you all for coming on this bleak, bleak rainy Sunday. ‘Sing London’ is a festival to make the city sing and to bring people together in song. And that’s different than singing at someone – the idea is to persuade people to sing with you and by persuading them to sing with you, they have fun, they come out of themselves, they begin to sort of relax about the singing and other people. So the outcome is that they’ve loved singing, but they’ve also loved interacting with other people.

Christian Johnson: My name is Christian Johnson. I work for Arriva London South and I drive the buses. A couple of weeks ago there was a notice up on my noticeboard that the choir – ‘Sing London’, sing a long choir – Arriva wants some people to sing for the company. And I think I’m a good singer – so I signed up!

Nelson Oduwale: Hi. My name is Nelson Oduwale and I work with Arriva London South and I’m a controller. Apparently Arriva don’t have a choir and this actually is the first time we’ve all come together as a choir.

Colin Anderson: Could I just have a quick word folks? Sorry, thanks, sorry. Just to put it into context – not all of us understand why we’re here. Just by looking on some of the faces. We’ll go into that later on this afternoon, but what we’re doing is just being inspired by the paintings. Just go along and take them in – absorb them – and what we’re going to do later is translate some of them into song. That’s what we’re going to do.

[Background noise of the Gallery]

Colin Anderson: Hi, good afternoon, I’m Colin Anderson. We’re doing a workshop this afternoon. We’ve looked round and seen many paintings and this afternoon we’re going to actually work together and see how as a choir, as a group of singers, we take songs that we do, styles that we know, that we’re familiar with and connect them with the pictures. The focus is all about the pictures – how we can turn those pictures from something just visual to a song.

Kevin Hayes: My name is Kevin Hayes. I’m General Manager for Arriva London North which is about a thousand drivers and 300 buses. We came up with lots of songs – things like Waterloo Sunset and Amazing Grace was another one – I’ve forgotten them all now. Lots of moonlight songs, but we were really stumped to find a moonlight painting. So it’s amazing – once your mind gets going you can think of lots of songs and then you start looking for a painting to fit the song.

Christian Johnson: I’ve been singing in groups like a church choir – I’ve sung loads of times. I love singing, whether it’s classical, whether it’s pop, whether it’s jazz, anything to do with music – I love it, anything to do with music, I will be there, trust me, and here I am. It’s been lovely. I’ve been around the Gallery and it’s been lovely and some paintings have inspired us. It’s been great – I think that it will be great.

[Singers sing ‘Amazing Grace’]

Christian Johnson: I can’t remember the words! I can’t remember the words!

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Preparations for ‘Sing London.’ and if you’d like to see and hear the end result the choirs will be performing in the gallery on Saturday 7 July.

And finally, a new audio tour is available. The ‘Be Inspired' trail is sponsored by Expedia and features interviews with artists, sculptors, cartoonists, and photographers who have been inspired by the pictures in the collection. You can hear a short excerpt on the bonus track that accompanies this episode. The full tour is available free from audio desks in the Gallery, or can be downloaded from iTunes or – where you can also find details of all the events and exhibitions taking place in July.

Until next month, goodbye!