Nicholas Penny

Nicholas Penny is a former director of the National Gallery.

At the Courtauld: Hanging Paintings

Nicholas Penny, 27 January 2022

When​ the Courtauld Institute of Art moved in 1989 from a house designed by Robert Adam in Portman Square to a wing of Somerset House, William Chambers’s masterpiece, it seemed a very satisfactory solution, especially because it provided an opportunity for the Courtauld Gallery to join the institute in its new premises. But whether the paintings could be happily accommodated in the...

Leave me my illusions: Antiquarianism

Nicholas Penny, 29 July 2021

In​ her new book, Rosemary Hill characterises the achievements of more than thirty antiquaries of the late 18th and early 19th century whose records of mysterious inscriptions, stone circles, monastic chronicles and ruined abbeys, and whose collections of rusty weaponry, stained glass and old ballads, provided new ways by which the past could be recovered – and also, of course,...

FabioBarry’s book about stones alters our understanding of the sacred, or at least symbolic, nature of much of the great architecture of the past. In addition to his command of specialist modern scholarship in several languages, he has studied many old and often obscure texts, and supplies translations of these. But his ideas have developed on site as well as in libraries. In the...

From The Blog
18 September 2020

The National Trust, unsurprisingly, has had a bad year. An honest statement of how the fulfilment of its duty to preserve places of historical interest and beauty has come under great pressure might have persuaded many of its members to double their subscriptions – especially if the Trust were to abandon some of its more extravagant and sillier initiatives. But the PowerPoint presentation entitled ‘Towards a Ten-Year Vision for Places and Experiences’, written by the director of visitor experience and leaked last month, must have left many people feeling that further support for the organisation should be conditional on the removal from office of those in the executive who endorsed such a document.

At Saint-Germain-des-Prés: Flandrin’s Murals

Nicholas Penny, 10 September 2020

Hippolyte Flandrin was the most interesting, and perhaps the most uncompromising, of Ingres’s students. Like Ingres, he worked as a portrait painter, but he devoted most of his career to the painting of murals. There will never be a satisfactory exhibition of his work, but to appreciate his achievements is not difficult since the greatest of these murals are in Parisian...

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny, 23 January 2020

It’snot hard to think of painters who took up sculpture: Raphael (probably), Guido Reni (at least once), Frederic Leighton, Degas, Renoir (unfortunately), Picasso. But sculptors have less frequently turned to painting, which may explain why many art historians have found it so difficult to believe that the Florentine sculptor and goldsmith Andrea Verrocchio (1435-88) took up painting...

The​ European art academies were first formed in Florence and Rome in the 16th century as professional associations devoted to raising the status of the artist above that of a craftsman, replacing the long-established guilds with institutions that would enjoy the patronage of a prince, and provide access to experts on anatomy and the complexities of linear perspective. Members would be able...

Down the Telescope: The Art of Imitation

Nicholas Penny, 24 January 2019

Elizabeth Prettejohn’s​ book opens with a discussion of The Last of England by Ford Madox Brown, made in 1852-55 and now in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The painting shows a couple leaving England for Australia on a crowded boat. It is insistent in its sharp focus, and brilliant, even strident, in its modern palette: the purple and green of cabbages hanging from the ship’s...

Top Brands Today: The Art World

Nicholas Penny, 14 December 2017

Simon​ de Pury, assisted by ‘a regular contributor to Vanity Fair’, has written a book about his ascent to the top of the art world: the auctions he conducted, the deals he struck, the parties he attended. It resembles a board game, with smaller parts assigned to the ‘hedge fund overlord’, the ‘polo-playing playboy millionaire’, the ‘James Bond of...

Roger Fry​, when comparing the Pre-Raphaelites with the Impressionists, described the artistic innovations of the former as an insurrection in a convent, whereas the latter were real revolutionaries. The simile may have been unconsciously prompted by an elaborate and highly finished drawing of hysterical nuns entangled with fanatical Huguenots who are disentombing the body of Queen...

Blame it on his social life: Kenneth Clark

Nicholas Penny, 5 January 2017

Each and every​ place in the life of Kenneth Clark has been investigated by James Stourton, from the country house in Suffolk where, as a boy, Clark judged the dresses of female dinner guests, to the château in Normandy belonging to his second wife, Nolwen, where, in his later years, he tried to find ways to communicate with the lovers who had once hoped he would marry them. Stourton...

In​ 1811, at the age of 26, Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau inherited the estate of Muskau (nearly 200 square miles in size, annexed to Saxony in 1806 but allotted to Prussia by the Congress of Vienna and partly absorbed by Poland in the 20th century), together with the smaller estate of Branitz. He was determined not only to carry out improvements but to create a landscape park on...

Not very good at drawing: Titian

Nicholas Penny, 6 June 2013

Titian: His Life is – not surprisingly, considering its great length – really about Titian’s ‘life and times’, and often seems to be more about the latter than the former. Even when we meet with a fact about the artist (and there are a good many new ones here) – it may be about the family timber business, about the artist’s investments in land, about...

Wall Furniture: Dickens and Anti-Art

Nicholas Penny, 24 May 2012

The earliest published image of the Greek Revival building by William Wilkins which stretches across the north side of Trafalgar Square is an engraving that shows it under construction in 1836, with the dignity of its architecture masked (as it so often is today) by hoardings covered with noisy advertising. In front of them some violent encounters of the sort familiar to Mr Jingle and Oliver...

Hot Air: Robert Hughes

Nicholas Penny, 7 June 2007

Robert Hughes begins his autobiography, as he began his recent book on Goya, by describing the road accident in Western Australia that nearly killed him in 1999, and his subsequent ordeals in hospital and in court. In this new book he expands on the treatment he received from Australian journalists and in particular on the allegation made by a local reporter that he had referred to a...

Like many other plutocrats who are now remembered as great collectors, J. Paul Getty began acquiring works of art in a serious way when he began to die – that is to say, in his forties (he was born in 1892), which is when most of us start thinking up ways of not thinking about mortality. He bought glamorous pieces of French furniture and decorative art, a field in which it is relatively...

Cradles in the Portego: Renaissance Venice

Nicholas Penny, 5 January 2006

The inexhaustible appeal of the palaces that line the Grand Canal in Venice owes much to their variety, of materials, textures, colour and relief, as well as period and style. But we cannot miss the common denominators: the ornamental richness that is conditional on freedom from defensive needs, the quantity of windows (with locally made glass) and their concentration in the centre of the...

The National Gallery of Scotland is now linked with the Royal Scottish Academy building. You can enter by the restaurant which lies between the two buildings at a lower level, or through the portico of either neoclassical structure. The RSA provides a large space for major loan exhibitions, and since these have surpassed in appeal the quieter pleasures provided by the permanent collections,...

Robert Hughes has a great enthusiasm for Goya’s art, which he communicates in this biography, together with much useful information, forcefully expressed, about the rival factions at the Bourbon court, the Napoleonic invasion, the evolution of bull-fighting, what a maja was, what guerrillas were. This is mixed with some less useful observations – there were in those days priests...

At the National Gallery: El Greco

Nicholas Penny, 4 March 2004

John Charles Robinson, perhaps the greatest connoisseur Britain has ever known, was turned down on four occasions for the post of director of the National Gallery. He was thought to be too closely associated with the trade (‘little better than a dealer’), and was known to have operated with scant respect for officialdom when employed by the South Kensington museum. In addition,...

At the Musée du Luxembourg: Botticelli

Nicholas Penny, 20 November 2003

The large number of visitors permitted in the tight exhibition space at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris means that it’s hard, without pushing or being pushed, to view many of the Botticellis on show until 22 February. The artist’s most famous works (the Birth of Venus, the Primavera and the Madonna of the Magnificat) are not included and there isn’t a single...

In Toledo, Ohio: Goltzius

Nicholas Penny, 23 October 2003

Before Picasso, it is impossible to think of a major European artist of more protean character than Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617). By 1580 he had established a high reputation in Haarlem for miniature portraits in which sensitive faces, soft beards and crisp ruffs are drawn in metalpoint or engraved – in one case engraved in gold – with delicate precision. It is hard to believe...

A revealing text for understanding the hold that Spanish painting of the 17th century had over the imagination of art-lovers in Britain and France during the first half of the 19th century is the description of the ancient Scottish seat of the Roman Catholic earls of Glenallan in Walter Scott’s The Antiquary. The late Countess, ‘partly from a haughty contempt of the times in which...

“Longhi’s metaphors are sometimes arcane, but they can also be familiar. When he considers the way Piero alternated colours, reversed shapes and repeated froms, he invokes not only chess and heraldry but also the shirts of opposing football teams. The threads of light on the Virgin’s veil are likened to harp strings, but also to cheese in the making.”

Diary: at the races

Nicholas Penny, 6 February 2003

Sometimes, walking in the woods on a Saturday afternoon, my mother and I came across the local racecourse. She would put the dog on its lead and I would approach the white rails where the horses – with their mad eyes, soft telescopic nostrils, bulging veins and bony legs – were being restrained in front of the nooses stretched across the track by tense, hunched dwarfs in brilliant...

Almost every North American museum of art today includes a gallery of modern and contemporary work, and little separates the colonial furniture, the Romantic waterfall and the careworn Rodin nude from the huge splashy hieroglyph, the bold candy-striped canvas, the colossal obese sunbather and the flashing neon message. Things are different in Europe, but contemporary artists are nonetheless...

Joining the Gang: Anthony Blunt

Nicholas Penny, 29 November 2001

On the afternoon of 15 November 1979 the Prime Minister announced in the House of Commons that Anthony Blunt, retired Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, fellow of the British Academy, former director of the Courtauld Institute, and the most influential figure in the establishment of art history as an academic subject in this country had indeed, as Private Eye had intimated a week before,...

Surrealism à la Courbet: Balthus

Nicholas Penny, 24 May 2001

Balthus first attracted notice early in 1934 with a small exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in Paris. Several of the works he showed – The Street, The Window and Alice – seem as startling now as they must have done then. This Catalogue raisonné, published not long before the artist’s death earlier this year, enables us to determine the unremarkable ingredients that so...

Models and Props: Caravaggio in the Studio

Nicholas Penny, 10 August 2000

Even before Caravaggio’s premature death in violent and mysterious circumstances in 1610, pictures influenced by his work were to be found in many different parts of Europe. There were paintings of card parties inspired by his youthful canvases, typically featuring a gay pink plume against a buff wall. Even more of them imitated the grimmer scenes he adopted in the second half of his career, in which a scrawny arm and corrugated brow are sharply lit against deep shadow. His art was subjected to stern strictures by some of the most eloquent critics and theorists in Italy, yet it continued to be prized by collectors and valued by connoisseurs. By the end of the 17th century, however, Caravaggio’s work was increasingly being confused with that of inferior imitators, and he became the victim of his own influence. It is ironic that Catherine Puglisi’s monograph, which provides an admirable, up-to-date and very well illustrated account of Caravaggio’s work should be encumbered with plates of dubious works in which she doesn’t believe.

Nymph of the Grot

Nicholas Penny, 13 April 2000

In the early years of the 16th century a Vatican official called Angelo Colocci, who had graduated from curial abbreviator (responsible for internal memoranda) to apostolic secretary (poised below the coveted position of domestic secretary, or Papal p.a.), took to prowling around the small shops and market stalls of Rome in pursuit of the heavy, polished lumps of basalt that were used by tailors and weavers to press cloth. He had noticed that some were inscribed and that they seemed to be of a regular size. Traders in antiquities got to know of his peculiar interests and a dealer hailed him one day with the offer of a brass ball. He bought it, saw that there were silver letters set into it, and soon realised that he had in his hands a standard Roman pound weight, and that the other lumps were related to this one. This was a great moment for Colocci, who was planning a treatise on ancient weights and measures. He never wrote it, however, leaving only copious, but very confused, notes – he may have devoted too much time to pursuing his career in the Vatican or to parties with his cronies – but achieved a great reputation in the scholarly world despite this, chiefly for his expertise on the length of the Roman foot.

John Richardson is one of those gossips who knows – or at least knows about – everyone. For example (on page 118, to be precise), Marie-Laure (1), Maurice Bischoffsheim (2), the Comtesse de Chevigné (3), the Duchesse de Guermantes (4), the Marquis de Sade (5), Jean Cocteau (6), the Vicomte de Noailles (7), an anonymous gym instructor (8), Igor Markevitch (9), Diaghilev (10), Nijinsky (11), Maurice Gendron (12): I was the daughter of 2, an immensely rich Belgian banker, and the granddaughter of 3, who was said to be the model for 4, and was also – would you believe it? – the great-great-granddaughter of 5. She contemplated marriage with 6, opted for 7, but discovered him in the arms of 8 – whose sex is unspecified in the haste to explain that she was herself soon in the arms of 9, the ‘somewhat feral-looking composer’ who had been the ‘last great love’ of 10 and later married the daughter of 11. The ‘feral-looking’ composer (9) was expensive but gave her a taste for musicians, which explains her imprudent elopement in the middle of the war with the ‘faun-like’ cellist (12).

Put it in your suitcase: Sotheby’s

Nicholas Penny, 18 March 1999

Most great Old Master paintings have been sold several times at public auction over the last three centuries, many have been sold more frequently and only a few have escaped auction altogether, usually by passing through some other form of public sale or by changing hands privately. I thought this was common knowledge but in Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class Robert Lacey assures us that there had never been a ‘tradition of selling … classic, museum-quality masterpieces at auction – at Christie’s or anywhere else’ before the end of the First World War, when Sotheby’s and Christie’s became rivals in auctioning Old Masters. His book is intended for those who watched the sale of the Windsors’ possessions on Channel 4 last year and much emphasis is placed on the novelty of selling the sherry glasses and cuff-links of celebrities – bits of the ‘brilliantly flawed lifetimes’, as he puts it, of the dreadful Duke and Duchess.

Feigning a Relish: One Tate or Two

Nicholas Penny, 15 October 1998

This useful, well-balanced and at times enthralling history of the Tate Gallery was commissioned for its centenary. It more or less coincides with the obsequies for the Gallery as we have known it and with the baptism – by marketing experts, one supposes – of TGBA and TGMA, twin offspring of the deceased, dedicated to British art and modern art respectively, and already known as Millbank and Bankside. The institution has in fact often changed identity. It began by being British but took on a North American look. The dust-jacket shows the austere lonic Portland stone sculpture hall. Spalding observes, justly, that by insisting on the intervention of the American architect John Russell Pope in 1929 the sponsor, Lord Duveen of Millbank, was promoting, against the inclinations of British curators and civil servants, the ‘latest American style’, the style of the new sculpture gallery in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Pope was subsequently chosen as the architect of the National Gallery of Art in Washington and was also responsible for the design of the Duveen Gallery for the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum (not, as Spalding claims, destroyed in the Second World War but damaged and re-opened in 1962). The hushed temple in the heart of the Tate was for sculpture which had to be lent by the V&A.’‘

In the centre of the most beautiful painting by Correggio in the Louvre there is a knot of flesh as intricate and lively as a swimming octopus. It consists of the left hand of the Virgin Mary delicately supporting the slightly smaller right hand of Saint Catharine, while the much smaller hand of the infant Christ tenderly picks out the Saint’s ring finger. This is a miniature example of an effect at which Correggio excelled: actions inspired by a sentiment of breathless intensity are somehow endowed both with angelic grace and with a formal complexity which is delightfully difficult to disentangle.

Lost in the Woods: Victorian fairy painting

Nicholas Penny, 1 January 1998

The exhibition of Victorian Fairy Painting, which can be seen in the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy until 8 February (after which it will travel, first to Iowa, then to Toronto), may sound like safe family entertainment designed to appease the Friends and Academicians dismayed by Sensation in the rooms below. It is in fact an original and valuable exhibition devoted to a curious and often daring development in British painting in the 1840s and to a taste which survived well into this century in Arthur Rackham’s book illustrations, with their tangled roots and wrinkled goblins, and in the misty lakes and moonlit forests which were the essential settings for so many pantomimes and ballets.


Nicholas Penny, 12 December 1996

The rococo style transformed the character of the domestic interior. First in France, where the style originated in the late 17th century, and then in the rest of Europe, rooms were created which were lighter and more elegant and charming than those of any previous period. They were also audacious, often astonishingly so, in their treatment of space and their denial of solidity or stability. It is easy to forget this because these rooms are more easily reconciled with modern ideas of luxury and comfort than those decorated in any other historical style. De Troy’s famous painting, The Reading from Molière illustrated on the dust-jacket of Katie Scott’s study of the rococo interior, seems to epitomise an ideal of polite but informal and mixed society which is still current. However, those who feel at ease with rococo furniture today do so because it is old and familiar. Originally it seemed novel and fantastic.

Hollow-Headed Angels

Nicholas Penny, 4 January 1996

The Romantic Spirit in German Art, an exhibition shown at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh in the summer of 1994 and at the Hayward Gallery last winter, included a small group of paintings by artists popular during the Third Reich – the type of painting which was excluded in 1985 from the Royal Academy’s survey of German art in the 20th century. The labels that accompanied these pictures at the Hayward warned that they could have no claim to the true lineage traced from Friedrich to Beuys, while the catalogue briskly dismissed them as distasteful banalities. However, Adolf Wissels’s puzzled and frightened farming family from Kalenberg, which was shown at the exhibition, are self-reliant, plain-living, God-fearing folk of a kind especially popular in North American art and literature. Looking at pictures such as this, we should ask ourselves whether, or rather to what extent, the character of the painting was determined by the regime which approved of it.’

Giorgio Mio

Nicholas Penny, 16 November 1995

We would know very much less about Italian Renaissance Art, and indeed very much less would have been made of the very concept of the Italian Renaissance, had Vasari not published his Lives of the Artists in 1550 (and again, revised and enlarged, in 1567), providing us with biographies of more than two hundred Italian artists. A good place to reflect on the nature of Vasari’s achievement is the Uffizi in Florence. Many of the Renaissance pictures in the gallery there were first described by him. The niches outside are occupied by statues of great Tuscan artists, placed there in the 19th century – Vasari would have approved of such a commemorative initiative, and indeed he may have inspired it. Vasari was also the architect of the building itself. The lucid elevations, the combination of solemn grandeur and ceremony with rational order which they suggest, masked the stealthy despotism and expressed the new bureaucratic regularity imposed on the city by Cosimo de’ Medici, Duke of Florence and then first Grand-Duke of Tuscany, whom Vasari served, and to whom the Lives was dedicated.’

Back to the Wall

Nicholas Penny, 21 September 1995

It is often assumed that easel pictures have always hung on walls, but in fact the backs of many small Renaissance panel paintings, both sacred and secular, were decorated, suggesting that they were designed to be handled as well as hung, and many portraits had lids so that their frames formed the sides of boxes in which the pictures could be safely stored, as well as making handy and attractive borders for the image. The picture-frame began to be an important part of interior decoration in Italy in the second half of the 16th century by which time easel pictures had become increasingly important as wall furniture.

Fit for a Saint

Nicholas Penny, 6 April 1995

The most significant event to have taken place in Italy in recent years, as far as the art and architecture of that country is concerned, is the institution of an annual opening of numerous normally inaccessible historic buildings in Naples, organised by the private charity Napoli Novantanove. The two open days in May last year attracted a million visitors. Few of them, I suspect, came from the UK, where the episode was little noticed, and where Naples, sadly, is now little loved, but the success of this initiative has been well publicised in Italy. It coincides with a determination to reverse the trend towards the closure of more and more old buildings, and a recognition that surveillance provides better security against theft than locks and alarms. Visitors to Venice are beginning to benefit from this new policy. San Sebastiano, which contains the world’s greatest collection of paintings by Veronese, and the Madonna dell’Orto, which contains the most moving and sublime of Tintoretto’s canvases, have been reopened, as have many other churches in the quieter (often eerily silent) quarters of the city, well off the main tourist routes.

It Didn’t Dry in Winter

Nicholas Penny, 10 November 1994

During the 18th century it was considered an edifying entertainment to trace the stuff of which the finery in the smartest London shops was composed to its distant origins: whalebone from the Arctic Sea, for example, or muslin from India. This exercise encouraged wonder at the abundance and variety of nature as well as at the enterprise of traders and the ingenuity of manufacturers, but little awareness of labour exploited, or lives destroyed. It also led to a blithe complacency about the global tribute paid to Britain. In the opening stanzas of Isabella, Keats contrived to adapt this to subversive ends. Isabella lived long ago, but in one of the first great modern cities, the Manchester of the late Middle Ages, Florence. Her brothers are merchants, ‘self-retired/In hungry pride and gainful cowardice’, ‘ledgermen’ who stay at home. Yet slaves sweated for them ‘In torched mines and noisy factories’ and

As if standing before Julius

Nicholas Penny, 7 April 1994

What is Venus, or rather the nude woman, doing in Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery? Looking at her face in a mirror held for her by Cupid. Or so it seems to me; also to every visitor to the Gallery whose opinion I have sought, and to the mid-17th-century compiler of the inventory of paintings belonging to the picture’s first owner, Don Gaspar Méndez de Haro y Guzmán. But in recent decades art historians have considered another possibility: the woman is contemplating her own genitals in the mirror; her face is merely what we see reflected in it.

Best of British

Nicholas Penny, 2 December 1993

Henry Moore was attracted by the idea of monumentality. He tried hard, but with limited success, to find ways of incorporating his sculpture into modern buildings. He also had the attractive idea of locating some of his statues in remote settings, following the example of his friend the late Sir William Keswick, who placed four of Moore’s sculptures, as well as one by Rodin and one by Epstein, in the wild landscape of the estate he owned in south-west Scotland. The setting is commemorated by John Haddington’s fine photographs, and the initiative richly documented by John McEwen (Keswick’s nephew), in Glenkiln. The sculpture by Moore which is most eloquent in this context is the bronze seated King and Queen of 1952-3. McEwen quotes Moore saying that the subject owed something to the bedtime stories he read to his daughter. Their majesties look like survivors of a distant age, an effect enhanced by the fact that they recall the lean, tense warriors of archaic Greek and Etruscan sculpture which was cast in bronze directly from small wax models, as well as the ‘pair statues’ of ancient Egypt who seem resolved to face an unknown future together and alone.

The Big Show

Nicholas Penny, 25 March 1993

The visual arts today have two publics. One consists of people who visit, and revisit, churches, cathedrals, museums and galleries – as well as temporary loan exhibitions. The second consists of those whose experience of art is almost entirely of these exhibitions. Temporary loan exhibitions are not a new thing: they were mounted by the British Institution in London before the National Gallery was founded. But the big show – the international loan exhibition with its complex logistics, massive budget and, frequently, a good measure of political prestige – is still a comparatively new phenomenon, although its demise has been repeatedly predicted, chiefly because of rising insurance costs and the anxieties of conservators. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that what is really threatened is not the big show but the welfare of the museum or gallery which is its host.

White Coats v. Bow Ties

Nicholas Penny, 11 February 1993

Jacopo della Quercia was one of the great sculptors of the early 15th century, comparable in stature with his contemporaries Donatello and Ghiberti, but his work is less consistent, and more difficult to discuss in the stylistic terms usually associated with Renaissance art. There are three famous works by Jacopo: the tomb of Ilaria del Caretto in Lucca, the doorway of San Petronio in Bologna and the reliefs and statues of the Fonte Gaia, the municipal fountain that originally stood opposite the town hall in Siena.

Making it

Nicholas Penny, 5 November 1992

Each day, hundreds of people visit the world’s finest collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum, but thousands come to see the superb, though less comprehensive and extraordinary, collection of Italian Renaissance painting in the National Gallery nearly two miles away. When they were made, the paintings were no more highly esteemed than the sculptures – nor were the two separated from each other. In Florence especially, they were very close. Reliefs of stucco, terracotta and papier mâché were often coloured by painters. Donatello and Ghiberti, the leading Florentine sculptors of the early 15th century, began to pursue pictorial effects – effects of linear and aerial perspective which were also novel in painting. Yet these were not imitated from paintings. It was the sculptors who led the way.’’

Who framed Madame Moitessier?

Nicholas Penny, 9 April 1992

The pale blue, wide-open eyes of Madame Jacques-Louis Leblanc, under their large geometrically-perfect lids, are placed high on the canvas, to the left of its centre, and it seems a great distance down her long neck and the gently undulating slopes of her black satin dress – over which a gold watch-chain drops, and beside which a languid arm, veiled in tulle, is arranged – to her hand in the lower right corner of the painting, which reposes upon a diamond rivière, as upon a tiny pet, half-concealed in the folds of what must be her lap. This cunning emphasis on marginal detail, so characteristic of Ingres, may prompt the visitor to the Metropolitan Museum in New York to wonder whether it was modesty which made Madame Leblanc decline to exhibit so very valuable a possession more ostentatiously in her portrait, or the painter’s reluctance to let sparkle distract from form in the centre of his painting. Readers of Metropolitan Jewellery will learn of another possibility. Two years before the painting was completed, in 1823, a French fashion journal had suggested that diamond rivières should only be worn by dowagers. There is much else to be learned from Metropolitan Jewellery, a picture book with stimulating illustrations, juxtaposing real jewellery in the Metropolitan Museum with paintings there in which jewellery appears.’

Bidding for favours

Nicholas Penny, 19 December 1991

Today the Roman Catholic priest celebrating Mass stands on the far side of the altar, facing the congregation, in accordance with the prescription of the Second Vatican Council of 1963. In doing so he is adopting the position which was normal before the 13th century. On the modern altar an altarpiece is an impossibility: it would get in the way. It was the same in 1200. Much else has, however, changed since then. The altar is now, emphatically, a table, the mensa of the primitive Church, whereas in 1200 it was, and had long been, a solid structure more like a tomb chest. Its frontal or antependium was often as lavish in materials and in workmanship as a shrine or reliquary. Indeed, altars were a type of shrine or reliquary, for relics had to be kept in them and were often exhibited above them or in crypts beneath them – relics which might be merely a toe or a tooth but which were, not unusually, the mortal remains of a martyr.

Myths of the Artist’s Youth

Nicholas Penny, 7 November 1991

Picasso was no lover of truth: his own accounts of his childhood in Andalusia and his youth in Barcelona, as recorded by pious biographers in his own lifetime, notably Sabartes and Penrose, are riddled with hyperbole which Richardson, in the first volume of his biography, is careful to question and is sometimes able to correct – thanks to the scrupulous record-keeping of the Spanish state schools. He is also able to reveal some things which Picasso either forgot or concealed. The census of 1885 records a younger brother, Jose, then aged one, never, it seems, mentioned by the painter. Jose may be a clerical error, but more probably he lived only for a short time. In any case, no male sibling survived as a rival for the love of Picasso’s mother, on whose support he could always count. Little is known about her, and Richardson, while acknowledging the importance of Picasso’s relationship with her, cannot expand on it with authority.

Measuring up

Nicholas Penny, 4 April 1991

Opposite the first page of Lorne Campbell’s Renaissance Portraits is a large colour plate of a pair of young female hands emerging from crisp and translucent white cuffs with black borders. The hands, which clasp soft buff kid gloves against a black satin gown, belong to Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan – or rather to the arresting full-length portrait of her by Holbein reproduced nearby. We learn from one of the unusually informative captions that King Henry VIII was taken with the idea of making Christina, a teenage widow, his fourth wife. He dispatched Holbein, his court painter, to Brussels to record her likeness. She sat to Holbein between 1 and 4 p.m. on 12 March 1538. The artist left Brussels that night and within a few days the King was able to study her picture. It put him into a ‘much better humour’. Musicians were ordered to ‘play on their instruments all day long’. Luckily for Christina, the scheme came to nothing; Holbein, however, was able to use he drawings he had made in Brussels to paint he great full-length portrait.

Diary: Columns and Pilasters

Nicholas Penny, 8 November 1990

Last year I travelled frequently on the early-morning coach from London to Oxford which passes Sir Edwin Cooper’s pair of Classical municipal buildings in Marylebone. The first of these is the Town Hall of 1914: proudly alert like the lions which guard its portal; perhaps ostentatious like the swollen waistcoats paraded by its original occupants; ‘massive and effusive,’ Pevsner puts it. I couldn’t decide how much to like it. But the library beside it is a different matter. Its elevations are tighter, its detail sharper and less showy. I began to look forward to its disciplined and exalted harmonies as keenly as I did to the great Classical architecture awaiting me in Oxford. It was built in 1939.

Preaching to a lion

Nicholas Penny, 22 March 1990

When, in 1553, Andrea Mantegna married Nicolosia, daughter of Jacopo Bellini, one of the foremost artists in Venice, he was himself the leading painter in Padua. A marriage of this sort is unlikely to have been a love match, or at least merely a love match. One of Jacopo’s sons, Giovanni, may have been Mantegna’s pupil or protégé: he was five or so years younger than Mantegna, seems not to have achieved by this date any great reputation, and his early work was remarkably similar in manner to that of his brother-in-law, as is clear to visitors to the National Gallery in London, who have the chance to compare paintings by each, of more or less the same size, with the same subject (the Agony in the Garden) and in the same remarkable state of preservation.


Nicholas Penny, 8 March 1990

In 1787 the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade obtained, from an unrecorded artist, a design for its seal ‘expressive of an African in chains in a supplicating posture’, with the superscription ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?’ Small cameo reliefs after the seal were soon made by Josiah Wedgwood in his jasper ware, which, set into the lid of a snuff-box or dangling from the wrist, enabled the participants in this, the first great non-denominational philanthropic crusade, to exhibit their sensitivity and enlightenment. It was a smart and artistic antecedent of the lapel badges and car stickers which have been adopted by the champions of unborn babies and endangered species. This logo, as it would now be called, of the kneeling, shackled black was clear, compact, memorable, touching, and yet entirely decorous – with the added attraction, as Hugh Honour astutely points out in The Image of the Black, of hinting at conversion as well as emancipation. Indeed, Honour concludes that, for all the Society’s admirable intentions and great achievements – which he concedes with some reluctance – the very image of their endeavour to help the blacks came to ‘enshrine the idea of pathetic, docile subservience and black inferiority’. The motto, or slogan, ‘echoed both Christian beliefs in the equality of mankind before God and enlightened theories of natural law’, as Honour observes, but it cannot be considered so congenial to white philanthropists’ conviction of their superiority. Brotherhood – fraternité, – soon became an explosive word.’

On holiday with Leonardo

Nicholas Penny, 21 December 1989

To attract support today, a great museum, whether of art, archaeology, ethnography or natural history, would be ill advised to draw attention to its extensive collection of specimens, even if it can reasonably be claimed that these specimens enable the visitor to confirm, extend and perhaps challenge the work of a Winckelmann, a Darwin or a Burckhardt. There would be little point in defending them as places where the rare or obscure can be rediscovered in private and where anyone, however poor, can speculate and meditate in peace. They have to present themselves as exciting places to shop, with didactic but fun videos, and glamorous displays of popular masterpieces (preferably on temporary loan). They are being forced to regard themselves as a part of the entertainment industry. The institution most conspicuously under pressure is the Victoria and Albert Museum, about which I have already written in this paper. One of the greatest collections and educational resources in Europe, it has been damaged by the expulsion, on government advice, of some of its most eminent curators, and by the appointment, in irregular circumstances, of a new level of management bent on replacing the ideal of public service by slick public relations and marketing. A seat on the museum’s Board of Trustees was vacated long ago by the resignation of Martin Kemp. No art historian of equivalent seniority can, it seems, be persuaded to fill it. A collection of essays entitled The New Museology suggests where suitable candidates may be found. Paul Greenhalgh is one. He cheerfully announces that ‘in these times of desperate financial pressure’ – can he be referring to Mrs Thatcher’s ‘economic renaissance’? – museums ‘cannot exist simply as a receptacle guarding our heritage, or as a haven for scholars’. As if they ever ‘simply’ did anything of the sort. He denigrates the high-minded aims of Victorian museums and commends the international exhibitions around the turn of the century which were ‘loud, aggressive and tempestuous’ thanks to their provision of popular diversions.’

Diary: Getting Rid of the Curators

Nicholas Penny, 4 May 1989

‘An ace caff with quite a good museum attached’. Some of the stuff there is quite sexy too, the advertisements for the V & A suggested. ‘We have to learn to be more popular without trivialising,’ says the Director. With whom? Certainly not foreign visitors, who found the advertisements very bizarre. Some may suppose that they were designed to captivate the man who enjoys the pin-up in his tabloid paper over a cuppa or a pint in a smoky café or pub, but he might have found the glib parody of Surrealism bewildering – the Indian fertility goddess blended with the model’s busty profile, the varnished nails on the ivory nude. The advertisements were addressing younger and more sophisticated males for whom a caff is as quaint as a cloth cap, reassuring them that it is smart to be philistine if you make smug jokes about it.’

Seeing through Fuller

Nicholas Penny, 30 March 1989

It has been respectable for some while now to admit to being bored by the huge, flat, ‘pure’ abstracts on the white walls of the museums of modern art. And yet non-representational paintings on a fairly large scale seem still to be what art students are most encouraged to make. Critics now incline to applaud in them evidence of a strenously physical relationship with paint. Thus Mali Morris, Lucy Ellmann tells us, works ‘with acrylic on unstretched canvas on the floor … pulling gobs of paint a little way or densely caking colour on, with rough or gentle strokes. The paint sometimes seems to have flitted across, barely swooping low enough to make contact, where at other times it has been rubbed on in quick gestural jerks.’ The voyeuristic excitement here is reminiscent of the awestruck white man watching tribal ritual: magically, the paint itself becomes an agent. Associating art with primitive magic remains, intentionally or not, a common form of approbation with critics – as popular perhaps as what has become the routine detection of the manner in which art makes a statement about art.’

Gestures of Embrace

Nicholas Penny, 27 October 1988

In the first chapter of Rembrandt’s Enterprise. Professor Alpers devotes much attention to a small etching of 1655. This, she says,

The Hooks of her Gipsy Dresses

Nicholas Penny, 1 September 1988

Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, author of After Reason and The Female Woman, took up the task of writing about Picasso because she had been ‘seduced by his magnetism, his intensity, that mysterious quality of inexhaustibility bursting forth from the transfixing stare of his black marble eyes as much as from his work’, but had come to be ‘chilled’ by him. Huffington, who is also the author of The Gods of Greece, felt that in order to explain Picasso’s demonic attraction, she had to go ‘back to the original Spanish tales of Don Juan and the Indian myths of Krishna’. But she had to think about the modern world as well, for she ‘suddenly saw that Picasso’s life was not just the life of one of the most gifted artists who ever lived … it was in a very real sense, the 20th century’s own autobiography.’

Lucian Freud

Nicholas Penny, 31 March 1988

The exhibition of Lucian Freud’s paintings which has already been shown in Washington and Paris, and which moves on to Berlin in the spring, has been amplified at its current London showing with some works on paper – a foretaste of an exhibition devoted to Freud prints and drawings which will open in May at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and will then travel to four other British venues and on to three museums in the United States of America. Much of this article arises from conversations which I have had with the artist whilst writing on the early drawings and since seeing the Hay ward exhibition.’


Nicholas Penny, 18 February 1988

In the Preface to his new book Richard Wollheim tells how he ‘evolved a way of looking at paintings which was massively time-consuming and deeply rewarding’. He looked at them for a very long time – longer than us – and then they told him what they were all about.’

Bonking with Berenson

Nicholas Penny, 17 September 1987

Bernard – originally Bernhard – Berenson was a Lithuanian Jewish refugee rescued from poverty by the charity of Bostonian plutocrats who sent him to Harvard and then to Europe. During the 1890s he established himself as an expert on Italian Renaissance art and simultaneously made his knowledge indispensable to the booming international art trade, which made him a very rich man by the time the second volume of his biography by Ernest Samuels opens in 1903. These relations with dealers, which were either discreet or secret, deepened in subsequent decades, and it should have come as no surprise to Berenson when he returned from holiday in October 1922, to his luxurious Florentine villa, I Tatti, to discover that the Internal Revenue Service had questioned his tax return.

Mantegna’s Revenge

Nicholas Penny, 3 September 1987

There never has been a great painter more inclined than Mantegna to lavish skill and thought on minute particulars, and even if this is less clear than it might be from the plates in Ronald Lightbown’s massive monograph, Lightbown himself has a very keen eye for the subordinate, often tiny things which the artist painted so well, and has industriously inquired into what exactly they were, and also into what they meant. There is, for instance, the glass oil-lamp, painted as if it was hanging above, and in front of, the throne of the Virgin in Mantegna’s great altarpiece in the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona, which is of a type invented in Venice, with a gold mount decorated with ‘sunk rosettes and sex-foils’, set with sapphires, rubies and pearls. It also has an ostrich egg hanging above it – an arrangement to be observed in other paintings of the period.’

Warhol’s Respectability

Nicholas Penny, 19 March 1987

In February 1976 Hilton Kramer gave his approval to Philip Pearlstein’s ‘remorseless articulation of the authentic’. In November of the following year he alerted his readers to the absence, in the art of David Hockney, of ‘the spiritual quest at the heart of modernism’. Several years later, in June 1981, he gave warning that the stained canvases of Morris Louis, the leading member of the ‘Washington Colour School’, did not represent the breakthrough that other critics had announced. In May 1983 he declared that Fairfield Porter ‘is going to have to be recognised as one of the classics of our art’. As for ‘neo-expressionism’ and ‘maximalism’, the latest, or almost the latest, thing, he notes that, unlike Pop Art, which made an equivalent noise in the world, it ‘looked to be in dead earnest’. And Kramer seems to believe that Julian Schnabel, the leading exponent of this sort of painting, is also going to have to be recognised as one of the classics of our art. In a piece first published in the third volume of Art of Our Time (as the catalogue of the Doris and Charles Saatchi collection is so portentously entitled) he welcomes the way that, with Schnabel, painting has become ‘grave, mysterious and messy again’.

Late Picasso

Nicholas Penny, 20 November 1986

In three of the Royal Academy’s exhibition rooms, the Pace Gallery of New York (presumably a commercial organisation but revealing nothing about itself) has displayed in perspex boxes some of the 175 sketchbooks which Picasso had hoarded, and which were unstudied, and in many cases entirely unknown, when he died. We admire brisk notes made of Paris night-life at the turn of the century, and then our attention is arrested by six drawings which include no topical reference at all. They represent a female nude kneeling, facing a larger, shadowy, seated figure of indeterminate sex between whose legs her head is placed. A seventh drawing shows the kneeling girl alone. The thick, rugged, but fluent black crayon outline is reminiscent of the most powerful and mysterious prints by Munch. There are eloquent back views, kneeling or crouching women, sad sexual embraces, also groups suggestive of shame and penitence, in Picasso’s early paintings. How do these sketches relate to them?


Nicholas Penny, 9 October 1986

In 1909 there appeared a small book by Montgomery Carmichael modestly entitled Francia’s Masterpiece and dedicated to reconstructing the content, purpose and original setting of a single Renaissance altarpiece. It provided what is still the best account of the treatment of the Immaculate Conception in old Italian art. Carmichael deplored the limited outlook of the scholars of his day who were uninterested in the religious nature of the art they catalogued, and expressed his outrage at their complicity in the removal of ‘church pictures’ from ‘living use over altars and shrines to the chill fastnesses of meaningless museums and art galleries’ on the pretext of danger from the candles lit before them.


Nicholas Penny, 4 September 1986

The first of these books, Faith in Fakes, is a collection of essays – many of them newspaper pieces – by a ‘distinguished professor at the University of Bologna, with an international reputation as philosopher, historian and literary critic’. His subjects are novelties, many of which are now nearly forgotten. I cannot recommend anyone to reread McLuhan in order to appreciate Eco’s reservations about his theories, eminently judicious though these reservations are when compared with the enthusiasm of George Steiner or Raymond Williams. The Red Brigades, however, have not been forgotten. And people still wear blue jeans.’

Geraniums and the River

Nicholas Penny, 20 March 1986

‘Impressionism became very quickly the house style of the haute-bourgeoisie,’ T.J. Clark observes at the close of The Painting of Modern Life. Few seem to have resisted the invitations of Madame Verdurin or to have hesitated to adopt the pseudo-Rococo frame with whitened gilding. Renoir, in particular, who had begun his career decorating porcelain, ended it providing upper-class wall-ornaments. Clark perhaps has him chiefly in mind when he sternly (but cryptically) declares that there are ‘ways’ in which the ‘dissolution’ of Impressionism ‘into the decor of Palm Springs and Park Avenue is well deserved’. The paintings upon which he prefers to concentrate his attention and which seem to win his approval are by Monet, Degas, Seurat and Manet – especially those works by Manet which puzzled or offended.’

Momentary Substances

Nicholas Penny, 21 November 1985

In the middle of his new book Michael Baxandall wonders whether the ‘complex Newtonian-Lockean sense of how we see’, which he has just expertly expounded, provides any ‘purchase’ on Chardin’s painting, A Lady Taking Tea, to which ‘our primary explanatory duty is due.’ It is bracing to discover that we have this duty but I am puzzled by what exactly needs explanation.

To the Cleaners

Nicholas Penny, 4 July 1985

Do you remember when children’s tonsils were removed at the slightest pretext? Extraordinary reversals in official treatment have done little to shake faith in modern medicine. Forty years ago the approved, the ‘scientific’ solution for warping and splitting painted panels was to construct elaborate ‘cradles’ of wooden crossbars behind them to hold them tightly in place. This, it is now agreed, created far more problems than it solved and, at considerable cost, ‘cradles’ are being removed. Other processes cannot be reversed. In the second half of the 18th century (when picture restoration first obtained official status with the creation of the first national museums), specialist skills for transferring the skin of paint from a panel to a canvas support were developed in France, and some of the greatest paintings in the royal collection were destroyed. Most tragic of all has been the fate of stone sculpture and architecture submitted to chemical cures far more damaging than the diseases afflicting them.

The Great Business

Nicholas Penny, 21 March 1985

In the National Gallery you can look into a dark and very ancient stone chamber where there is a teenage girl of exquisite beauty, wearing white satin and kneeling upon a velvet cushion, blindfold. She is supported, tenderly, by a gentleman in a black cloak and looked on by a large man in red tights who holds an axe. In front of her, between her and us, there is a wooden block surrounded by fresh straw: behind, in the shadows, ladies-in-waiting, who have divested her of robes and jewels, sob and swoon. ‘The great business of painting,’ declared Jonathon Richardson the elder, echoing almost all earlier European writers on art from Alberti onwards, ‘is to relate a history or fable’ – to compete with the poet or dramatist, and best of all with epic and tragedy. The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Delaroche reminds us that the ‘great business’ was not neglected in the 19th century, although by then there were those who argued that painting what could be seen, whether landscape or ‘modern life’, should be a higher priority. It was only in this century that theorists decided that for a painter to be concerned with narrative was improper and ‘literary’ (although writers were still permitted to be pictorial). By then the ‘great business’ had been lost to the ‘pictures’, as the cinematograph was popularly known.’

Hink Tank

Nicholas Penny, 19 July 1984

Roger Hinks portrays himself as picking his way fastidiously through a sadly Philistine and foolish world, musing upon his aesthetic disappointments and, less often, consolations. Even during what his friend K (the late Lord Clark) describes in the foreword as ‘the abominable intrigue which forced him to leave his beloved British Museum’, he scrupulously avoids self-pity. But self-satisfaction and self-righteousness were certainly not purged by keeping the journal. His intelligence and sensitivity often distanced him from the art of the past which was the ostensible object of his desire, but in recompense elevated him comfortably above all but a handful of his fellow men. It is hard to suppose that he was suited to working in a public museum, however wrongly he was uprooted from it.

Boys wearing wings

Nicholas Penny, 15 March 1984

There is also one Michael Agnolo from Caravaggio who is doing marvellous things in Rome … He thinks little of the works of other masters … All works of art he believes to be ‘Bagatelli’, child’s play, whoever by, and whatever of, unless they are made from life, and that there is no better course than to follow Nature. And so he will not make a single brushstroke without taking it straight from life.


Nicholas Penny, 3 November 1983

When vegetable gardens were more commonly cultivated and poison was less frequently employed, and rabbits and mice were more of a menace to middle-class households than they are today, the classic picture books were published that encouraged children to love these creatures which their parents endeavoured to exterminate (or today, breed to kill). Sympathy repressed in the daily business of managing pantry, garden and farm was safely released in the bedtime fiction: but there must always have been awkward moments, such as the one I vividly remember when my mother endeavoured to allay my distress at discovering a crate of rabbits on its way to a laboratory by distinguishing between ordinary rabbits and ‘bunny rabbits’. Anyone who encourages in children a fondness for real as well as fictional farm animals must expect to have to make some painful explanations, although the English language, thanks to our Norman conquerors, provides some protection: we now eat lamb, it is true, but formerly we ate mutton (not sheep) and we still eat pork (not pig), veal (not calf) and beef (not cow). There are few more interesting problems for the student of pastoral art than that of identifying the shifts in convention determined by the need to avoid painful collisions between life and art.

Paintings about Painting

Nicholas Penny, 4 August 1983

‘The world of art is an enchanting deception,’ Hazlitt confided as he conducted his readers into the new picture gallery at Dulwich and straight to the ‘Cuyp next the door’. ‘You may lay your finger on the canvas; but miles of dewy vapour and sunshine are between you and the objects you survey.’ To think of doing this is to realise that more than ‘deception’ is involved. We know it is a flat canvas and yet are happy to half-forget, indeed find it hard not to half-forget, that it is not a real view.

Everybody wants a Rembrandt

Nicholas Penny, 17 March 1983

‘Schnabel is the latest American wunderkind, half-Courbet, half-apeman,’ announced Waldemar Januszczak in the Guardian of 29 December 1982.

Goddesses and Girls

Nicholas Penny, 2 December 1982

‘It’s a speaking likeness.’ For centuries these words carried nothing but praise, but today, if used by the sophisticated, would suggest that some artistic quality was lacking. It is ‘so true and so alive’, wrote Aretino in 1527, in commendation of a nude Venus by Sansovino, ‘that it will fill the thoughts of all who look at it with lust.’ This would now be considered crude and philistine, not only as a reaction to a modern painting or sculpture, but to a Venus by Sansovino. Has high art, in our time, cut itself off from one of its immemorial attractions, leaving to publicity, to the glossy portraits of stars and to centrefold nudes, the task of encouraging the suspension of disbelief and stimulating the fiction that the image responds to us, and hears our proposals and prayers? Or is it that our art-loving ancestors could only convey their enthusiasm for art by making this sort of claim for it?


Nicholas Penny, 15 July 1982

The paths which wander so bewilderingly through the densely-planted hills of the old section of the Père Lachaise cemetery eventually give way to the monotony of straight and level streets tightly packed with the ornate stone homes of the dead bourgeoisie of the Belle Epoque. It is there that you will eventually come, with a shock, across Victor Noir. He is flat on his back on a slab and we look down at him, as at someone who has fallen dead on the pavement. His top hat has rolled beside him. His shirt has been opened. There is a bullet hole in his chest.


Nicholas Penny, 18 March 1982

When, in the early hours, Michelangelo completed carving his name on the band which passes between the breasts of the Virgin in his first Pieta (the one now behind bullet-proof perspex in St Peter’s), he was surprised by a nun who took him for an intruder. Reassured, she begged for some marble chips, which the sculptor, touched, gave her. In return, she made him a frittata, which he ate on the spot. The prominence of this signature provides, as has long been recognised, startling evidence for the new status of the artist in this period – the sculpture declares itself ‘a Michelangelo’. But the nun wanted the chips not because they were associated with a genius but because they were associated with the Holy Family: she had, in fact, suggested that he give her some marble from Christ’s wound. Michelangelo’s sculpture certainly could appeal to unsophisticated worshippers. They have, for centuries, kissed the extended foot of his Risen Christ – the part Michelangelo was least happy with and which connoisseurs least admire.


Nicholas Penny, 19 November 1981

Something, as Clark himself has acknowledged, is wrong with Civilisation: with the television series and the book which made him a household name. It is not that it contains a number of gross oversimplifications, of which the most astonishing is the observation that Leonardo thought of women ‘solely as reproductive mechanisms’. Nor is it that there is also an occasional failure of the historical imagination: the women on the Romanesque font of Winchester Cathedral certainly do look ugly and nasty to us, but this is not evidence that ‘women were thought of as squat, bad-tempered viragos’. That, however, is a parenthetical lapse and far less grave than the anachronistic and sentimental idea, entertained by the supposedly tough-minded John Berger in his television series, that Frans Hals intended his late group portraits to expose the true horror of bourgeois society.

The Ashtray

Nicholas Penny, 4 June 1981

‘Late one evening, leaving a dinner party at the American Embassy, I ran into David Carritt, who told me he had come across a circular bronze relief of the Virgin and Child in use as an ashtray.’ The narrator is Sir John Pope-Hennessy and his nocturnal encounter was with one of the most hawk-eyed art-dealers in Europe. ‘ “Was it double-sided?” I asked him. “Yes,” he replied, he thought it was. Next day it was brought to my office …’ And there Pope-Hennessy turned in his hands a bronze relief of the Virgin, her head bent tenderly towards that of the diminutive Saviour, surrounded by four still smaller, highly excited angels. From the crimped and crinkled surfaces, the nervous linearity, the extraordinary variety of the finish, it must have been immediately clear to him that he was holding an original masterpiece by one of the greatest of all European sculptors, Donatello. Furthermore, he was already familiar with the design.


Nicholas Penny, 2 April 1981

Bernini’s sculpture of Daphne turning into a laurel tree at the touch of Apollo – completed for Cardinal Borghese’s villa on the Pincio in 1625 – has always excited wonder for the way such lightly-balanced and elaborate figures, such thin leaves, such fine, fluttering drapery and light, flying hair, were ever extracted from the marble block. The sculptor’s taste was as remarkable as his technique. Roots extend from the nymph’s toes and leaves from her fingers, and bark creeps up her legs, but because her limbs are not yet branches she is human enough to be beautiful and for us to share her terror and surprise. Apollo does not grab but touches his intended victim with reverence. In another group of the same period Bernini ensures that Pluto, although behaving in a beastly way, somehow retains the majesty of a god. In an earlier work he even convinces us that Aeneas would have carried his father from Troy in what is (if you try it out) an absurdly precarious position because in that way the old man does not look ridiculous – which he would have done if carried piggy-back, or slung over his son’s shoulder.


Salvator Mundi

22 December 2019

Charles Hope, in his account of the Salvator Mundi, claims that Robert Simon ‘persuaded the National Gallery’ to display the picture in its Leonardo exhibition. In fact, Simon never even proposed that it be included. I was shown the painting in New York before I became director of the National Gallery. After I did so and learned that a Leonardo exhibition was being planned, I mentioned...
When assessing the reliability of Prince Pückler-Muskau I neglected to check my own recollection of The Pickwick Papers (LRB, 16 June). Jingle describes a ‘mother – tall lady, eating sandwiches’, not a man, as the victim of a low arch. Her five children ‘look round – mother’s head off – sandwich in her hand – no mouth to put it in’. He does...

About the Getty

4 January 2007

Nicholas Penny writes: I have no objection to the Getty scholars’ having the use of a swimming-pool, and my account of the life around it and in the library on the hill is not ‘second-hand’. I was, for a while, privileged to be one of those scholars – invited by the founder of the Provenance Index before that institution was ‘firmly’ subordinated to the director...

White Coats v. Bow Ties

11 February 1993

Susan Wilsmore concludes oddly that I would advocate the removal of an 18th-century nose from an antique bust because this would bring the sculpture closer to its original condition and to the artist’s original intentions (Letters, 11 March). I have, in fact, complained in print about the rash removal of old restorations to sculpture. If the nose is well done, I would recommend that it be kept...

Off the point

21 November 1991

Henry James in The Tragic Muse described an English family at an exhibition as ‘finished productions … ranged there motionless … almost as much on exhibition as if they had been hung on the line’. Philip Horne (LRB, 21 November 1991) finds this deflationary, leaving the family ‘high and dry’ as on a washing-line. But James’s public, on the rare occasions...

Aristocratic Collectors

19 February 1987

SIR: I read with some amazement F.M.L. Thompson’s claim (LRB, 19 February) that the assembly of great aristocratic collections in this country was ‘generally unimportant and undeserving of comment at the time at which it occurred’. Comment by whom? The voracious acquisition of works of art on the European market by English aristocrats did not pass unnoticed by King George III and...

To the cleaners

4 July 1985

Nicholas Penny writes: I do like it now. I cannot remember exactly what it looked like before it was cleaned but I remember liking it then as well. I hesitate to assume that my taste coincides with Titian’s now – or did so then. Probably Titian would be somewhat surprised by its present appearance – as also by its appearance before cleaning. Mr Collins is too cross to appreciate my...

Saatchi and Sartchi

21 March 1985

SIR: Waldemar Januszczak (LRB, 21 March) is indignant about a ‘disgraceful union of art and commerce’ – a ‘sudden’ development he has detected – and he wonders what manner of ‘moral breakdown’ has made it possible. Perhaps he is so disturbed by the discrete association of United Technologies with Stubbs and the Tate Gallery in a temporary exhibition that...
SIR: The claim made by Lawrence Gowing in his compelling review (LRB, 2 February) of the magnificent exhibition of Venetian art at the Royal Academy that Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas is ‘as consistently and in detail as finely wrought’ as those other late pictures which we know that the artist ‘valued and sold’ must surely surprise anyone who realises that the most obvious...

Goddesses and Girls

2 December 1982

Nicholas Penny writes: I cannot see why ‘indifference’ in these circumstances should be considered more appropriate for Venus than for a mortal woman. The goddess did not consort with men in order to be bored by them. But Titian’s women are not indifferent: they are captivated by the music. The power of music to unlock hearts is a common theme in the sonnets and songs of Titian’s...

School of Hard Knocks

Peter Campbell, 2 December 1993

There are two forces at work in sculpture. One pushes it towards the waxwork, where materials suggest something quite contrary to their native qualities – marble flesh, wooden flowers,...

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The Raphael Question

Lawrence Gowing, 15 March 1984

When I used to give a survey course for first-year students, I dreaded December. That was when I reached the High Renaissance and my audience fell away. It was not only the alternative seasonable...

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Priapus Knight

Marilyn Butler, 18 March 1982

Richard Payne Knight was an important English intellectual of the era of the French Revolution. He flourished from the 1770s until his death, perhaps by suicide, in 1824. Most of that time he...

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Perfection’s Progress

E.H. Gombrich, 5 November 1981

Here, at last, is a book of which we can sincerely say in the old phrase that it meets a long-felt want. It offers, in the modest words of the Preface, ‘a series of illustrations (which are...

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