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The National Gallery Podcast

Episode 93

A first look at the ‘Making Colour’ exhibition, how Renaissance buildings can tell a story, and new Associate Artist George Shaw on naughty nymphs.

12 min 30 sec | July 2014

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

We start this month with ‘Making Colour.’ This new exhibition takes visitors on a voyage of discovery into the fascinating history and science behind the pigments artists have used to make dazzling works of art, from the Renaissance to Impressionism. Among the many different sources for pigments are minerals - including those that provided the most important and elusive of colours, a rich dark blue. Ahead of the exhibition opening co-curator Caroline Campbell took Leah Kharibian behind the scenes to look at two sources for blue pigments, and to find out why the National Gallery’s Scientific Department is a great place to start thinking about this ground-breaking show.

CAROLINE CAMPBELL: Well, we’re here because our summer exhibition ‘Making Colour’ is really about the work of the Scientific Department. The exhibition is the brainchild of Ashok Roy, who, for many years was head of the laboratory here and the exhibition is intended to showcase the wonderful research which this department does into identifying pigments, the materials by which artists make paint in our collection.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: On the bench here before us we’ve got a lump of azurite, which is a wonderful stone with blue crystalline structure and then next to it, an extremely expensive item. Can you tell us about it?

CAROLINE CAMPBELL: Well, lapis lazuli, which we call in its pigment form, ultramarine, is this extraordinary, semi-precious stone. Comes from Afghanistan from one particular mineral source in Badakhshan and that produces the most extraordinarily vibrant blue, but it’s also – because of the distance and of the complication in extracting the pigment from the stone, lapis lazuli – it’s a very expensive pigment for artists to use.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Now, in the exhibition people can see how these pigments actually ended up on the canvas or on a panel, and the exhibition includes this wonderful panel by Ugolino di Nerio, ‘The Betrayal of Christ’, which has both azurite in it and ultramarine. Is that right?

CAROLINE CAMPBELL: The painting represents the betrayal of Christ, the moment when Judas comes and kisses Christ and he’s taken by the soldiers off to his crucifixion. And Christ, who’s at the centre of the painting, is wearing a robe which is ultramarine. But the figure of St Peter, who’s the other very important person in this painting, because it’s Peter, who really promotes Christianity and gets Christianity going after Christ’s death - the artist had the challenge of trying to show a separation between Peter and Christ. And Peter, who’s wearing his great beard, which is usually how one identifies him and looking very venerable, his robe, which is all blue, is azurite, and it looks very greenish in tinge and it’s very different. Now colour is sometimes used as a visual tool to enable us how to look and how to see, and so the robe of Christ is using ultramarine and the robe of Peter is using this different blue, also important, but subtly different and possibly also subtly inferior.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: But of course this exhibition isn’t just about blue, is it?

CAROLINE CAMPBELL: No, this exhibition is about much more than blue. We’ll go through all the colours of the spectrum. We’ll also look at gold and silver, which play such an important role on the palette and we’ll show objects with our paintings and new and very exciting connections. Not just minerals, of course, we’ve also got ancient figurines made of precious stones, ceramics, textiles... The whole history of Western painting is about interaction with other art forms and I think this exhibition will express that very beautifully.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): With thanks to Caroline Campbell and the Scientific Department. The ‘Making Colour’ exhibition is now open and will run through to 7 September. You can learn more and book tickets by visiting

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): And now, every few years the National Gallery invites a leading contemporary artist to spend time with the Collection. The Rootstein Hopkins Associate Artist is given a studio in the building in which to make new work inspired by the Old Master tradition. Previous incumbents have included Paula Rego, Peter Blake, and most recently, Michael Landy, but now former Turner Prize nominee, George Shaw has taken up residence.

Council estates and lock-ups; graffitied shop-fronts and swings – Shaw is best known for deserted landscapes of suburban Britain that are both beautiful and menacing. It’s this duality, perhaps, that the artist was referring to when he said "Politeness is how I let myself in. My paintings are Trojan horses. Once they’re in the house they can do quite nasty things to you".

Special Project Curator Colin Wiggins met up with Shaw to hear which parts of the Collection have piqued his interest since arriving.

COLIN WIGGINS: The first pictures you seem to have been interested in here are the green ones. The pictures that are the kind of fantasy landscapes with trees and rivers and more importantly, nymphs.

GEORGE SHAW: Well, yeah, the thing which I was quite drawn to - although I would consider it to be the high culture of the National Gallery - I was actually drawn to the fact that quite a lot of the pictures consisted of scenes which were quite low culture and it all seems to be happening on the outskirts of a town. That reminds me quite a lot of the subject matter of some of the paintings which I was working on before I came here, which was of an area of woodland just beyond the estate in which I was brought up, where things happened in the woods that didn’t normally happen in the streets. That’s where you would drink, smoke, it’s where kids would have their first attempts at sex. It would be where you would find and distribute pornographic magazines.

I’m beginning to suspect that I’m the naughty nymph in the woods of the National Gallery, exposing certain things which perhaps my art teachers would have liked to have left hidden.

COLIN WIGGINS: Now George, the National Gallery was already quite familiar to you, wasn’t it? It’s not as if we’ve transplanted you from your council estate to this temple of high art unprepared, because you have been a frequent, if not regular, visitor in the past.

GEORGE SHAW: Yeah, visiting the National Gallery was something we’d have done as a family. We’d have come down to London with mum and dad on the coach and then as I got older, it would have been the kind of place that I would have come to as a teenager, I suppose. Most people my age were wasting their life revving cars and drinking cider and I wasted my youth hanging around the National Gallery.

COLIN WIGGINS: And George, your favoured medium is enamel paints, which always surprises people that you’re using a form of paint that isn’t usually thought of as an artistic medium. When did you start using enamel paints, because these are the things that kids use to paint their model spitfires with, aren’t they?

GEORGE SHAW: Again, I think it’s like we were saying earlier about that sort of naughtiness. It seemed when I was at the Royal College of Art doing a painting – you know, MA. It seemed very serious and you’re supposed to have fancy oil paints and have them ground and everything, and it just seemed to me fairly ridiculous and pompous. So to choose something that’s the medium of men in sheds - then to try and make paintings using the genre subject of landscape and the nude and these kind of things using this kind of paint - it’s slightly naughty, slightly mischievous, and slightly perverse as well, because it’s quite an annoying thing to use. It’s quite an annoying paint. It doesn’t want to be a tree, that paint. It doesn’t want to be – as I’m finding out – it doesn’t want to be a leg. So yeah, it started off as a little bit of a joke, really.

It has been interpreted as being a conceptual move, which like a lot of conceptualising in art it happens – well, certainly within my art – it happens after the event. 

COLIN WIGGINS: So do you think you ever would go back to using pompous oil paint?

GEORGE SHAW: Only to paint Airfix figures. [Laughs]

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Colin Wiggins and George Shaw.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): The Gallery’s exhibition ‘Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting’ features one of the greatest pictures from Renaissance Venice now in Britain. Sebastiano del Piombo’s ‘The Judgement of Solomon’ is a treasure from the National Trust’s collection. It’s an intriguing unfinished work in which Sebastiano sets the Old Testament king, Solomon, high on a marble throne within an ancient basilica, or judgement hall surrounded by figures seeking justice in a tragic dispute. Leah Kharibian met exhibition co-curator, Amanda Lillie, to find out more.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Wow, Amanda, this is such a wonderfully huge, brightly coloured picture and it’s almost like a fresco in feel. Take us through the story.

AMANDA LILLIE: The story is about two prostitutes or harlots who had two babies at roughly the same time. One of the babies died and the mother of the dead baby tried to appropriate the baby of the other mother. They took this quarrel to Solomon, and Solomon suggested cutting in half the live baby so that they could have half each. Well, the good mother immediately protested and said she would give up her own baby to the other mother rather than have the baby cut in half. And at this moment, of course, the true mother was revealed to Solomon. The bad mother’s on the left and the good mother is on the right.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And yet there are no babies visible in this picture, are there?

AMANDA LILLIE: The babies were never actually painted in. However, in the under-drawing, technical analysis and x-rays do show the dead baby was, in fact, probably going to be positioned on the steps of Solomon’s throne, whereas the live baby is about to be executed or cut in half by the executioner on the right.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: So that’s the extraordinary figure with his arm raised – that’s the executioner. Now, the whole argument of your exhibition, really, as well as the argument for this picture is that the architecture is actually key to the meaning of the work. How does that work out here in this Sebastiano?

AMANDA LILLIE: Because it’s a tri-partite composition designed around a basilica with a central nave and an aisle either side. So it really structures this choice. Solomon, the judge in the centre, and one of the mothers on either side. And the side representing the bad mother and the architecture behind the bad mother is in fact very compressed and squashed and almost anxious, really. You can see the figures here are all crushing in on each other, whereas the side representing the good mother opens out in an airy, spacious way. And the architecture also opens right out into a full representation of a beautiful aisle on the right.

That’s what’s exciting about this picture – it’s the horizontal spread of the architecture creating these wonderful aisles that diminish into space but also spread out horizontally to literally embrace the viewer.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Amanda Lillie, talking about Sebastiano del Piombo’s ‘Judgement of Solomon’. You can find out more about this and other works in the exhibition in the online publication. Visit and follow the links for ‘Building the Picture’. The exhibition itself is free of charge and runs in the Sunley Room until the 21 September. And don’t forget we also have a lively programme of family events this summer.

If you’re visiting we’re open 10 'til 6 daily and 'til 9 on Fridays. That’s it for this episode. Until next time, goodbye!