What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Bosch’s Masterpiece: The Garden of Earthly Delights (Triptych c. 1510)

A work of art is not always created exclusively for the purpose of being enjoyed, or, to use a more scholarly expression, of being experienced aesthetically. …But a work of art always has aesthetic significance (not to be confused with aesthetic value): whether or not it serves some practical purpose, and whether it is good or bad, it demands to be experienced aesthetically. ~ Erwin Panofsky (art historian)

I can’t say I find Hieronymus Bosch’s enigmatic triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights particularly beautiful, because it’s really quite disturbing in places. When you feast your eyes on many of the smaller images that make up the whole work, the words that spring to mind are freakish, Bacchanalian and nightmarish.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (triptych ca. 1510) by Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights (triptych ca. 1510) by Hieronymus Bosch

Unlike his Renaissance contemporary, Michelangelo, Hieronymus Bosch was unaffected by Italian influences and was not concerned with painting works that hailed the glory of man in all his strength and beauty; but instead portrayed man’s vices and weaknesses in settings of fantastical worlds.

The general consensus among art historians and scholars is that the triptych was not created to be aesthetically pleasing in the traditional sense, as more of a social commentary about the extent of human folly that Bosch perceived around him.

The Garden of Earthly Delights – Overview

From left to right, the triptych depicts humanity’s journey and experience of life in three stages: Paradise, The Garden of Earthly Delights and Hell. It is painted in oil on oak, with the central panel measuring 220 x 195 cm and each wing is 220 x 97 cm. If you want to see it in real life you’ll have to travel to the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

To me it comes across as a bold, imaginative, surrealist dreamscape; rooted in reality yet completely off the wall!

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a visual smorgasbord of polymorphous nude figures, beasts and human-bestial hybrids, illustrated in various poses and pursuits of pleasure; the most obvious being carnal satisfaction. Other iniquities on display include vanity, pride, decadence and greed, as well as their inevitable consequences.

Detail of a man and a woman inside an amniotic bubble of a seed.

Detail of a man and a woman inside an amniotic bubble of a seed.

It’s so bizarre, it’s like a Renaissance parody of unbridled fornication, except its meaning or warning is deadly serious.

Bosch’s unusual creatures had their origins in the Physiologus, a folk book from Alexandria, and Herold’s illustrations of Herodotus, featuring images of monsters and strange hieroglyphs.

Details of The Garden of Earthly Delights to ‘De Profundis Clamavi’ composed by Josquin performed by The Hilliard Ensemble:

When I gaze upon these mostly grotesque creatures and monsters intertwined in activities and positions that are still shocking today, I wonder at his bravery for committing them to panels, as well as for stepping outside the established norms of the era.

Had he been living in any of the major artistic centers his peculiar type of art may not have been acceptable on the grounds of perspective or traditional expectations. Fortunately he was under the radar of the religious authorities, living in the provinces of the Low Countries which were under the control of the Burgundian aristocracy.

The Draper's Market in 's-Hertogenbosch ca. 1530

The Draper’s Market in ‘s-Hertogenbosch ca. 1530

The Garden of Earthly Delights is something of a time bomb, being way ahead of its time during the Renaissance, containing nothing in its imagery that dates it. The triptych is just as relevant and enigmatic today as it was 500 years ago. Mind you, one has to wonder if Bosch was on some kind of hallucinogenic substance when he painted it!

Hieronymus Bosch has defined sin as a consequence of temptation and lack of judgment in startling, 16th century high definition.


The three panels that comprise the triptych of The Garden of Earthly Delights are full of symbolism and mystery, and Wilhelm Fraenger, a leading Bosch scholar, considered him to be under the influence of esoteric mysticism and occultism.

Provenance, journey to Spain and the tapestry

When the tripych’s owner, Count Hendrik III of Nassau died, The Garden of Earthly Delights was passed on to William of Orange. However, Bosch’s altarpiece was coveted by Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba, who took it (after torturing William as to its whereabouts), at the start of the Eighty Years War.  He transported it back to Spain, where a copy was made in tapestry form in 1556, exquisitely woven in silver, gold and silk, which now hangs in San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

Tapestry after Jheronimus Bosch

Tapestry after Jheronimus Bosch

After the Duke of Alba’s death the painting was passed on to his illegitimate son and then became the property of Felipe II of Spain.

Left Panel – The Garden of Eden (Paradise)

In the far left panel of the triptych, Bosch shows us the Garden of Eden at the exact moment Eve is created to be Adam’s earthly companion, with their creator making the introduction. It is a pristine paradise where animals, both European and exotic, as well as mythical creatures roam freely in God’s garden.

The Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden

…”As though enjoying the pulsation of the living blood and as though too he were setting a seal on the eternal and immutable communion between this human blood and his own. This physical contact between the Creator and Eve is repeated even more noticeably in the way Adam’s toes touch the Lord’s foot. Here is the stressing of a rapport: Adam seems indeed to be stretching to his full length in order to make contact with the Creator. And the billowing out of the cloak around the Creator’s heart, from where the garment falls in marked folds and contours to Adam’s feet, also seems to indicate that here a current of divine power flows down, so that this group of three actually forms a closed circuit, a complex of magical energy”… ~ Wilhelm Fraenger (German art historian 1840 – 1964).

It has been noted that Eve’s body is leaning seductively towards Adam, whose intense gaze has been attributed to three things by Fraenger: firstly, surprise at the presence of his creator, secondly an awareness of Eve and that she has, essentially, the same nature as him and has been created from his body, and thirdly the intense sensation of sexual desire and the primal urge to go forth and copulate…ahem, multiply!

Centre panel – The Garden of Earthly Delights

Some scholars read the triptych panels as a narrative from left to right, so you have the perfect start, moving into the middle panel, which depicts man and woman gone wild with lust; cavorting around the landscape with the animals and each other.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The desire for earthly delights has run rampant and is now in full swing! The amount of naked flesh on display, the frolicking, debauchery and carefree attitude towards the pleasures of earthly life are evident in all the land areas of the Garden of Eden.

In the upper half of the main panel we see maidens bathing and they are encircled by hordes of men riding horses, donkeys, unicorns and beasts in various poses of bravado and acrobatics in order to gain the attention and favour of the females.


It seems evident from Bosch’s depictions and the dogma of Original Sin that the blame for man’s fall from grace lies squarely with Eve! The biblical story portrays Eve as the one who succumbed to the serpent’s temptation of eating an apple from the tree of knowledge, promptly leading Adam astray…

Therein lies the struggle of women over the centuries (perhaps subconsciously), with guilt issues!!!

It is a powerful allegory for the loss of innocence and the responsibility that comes with free will and knowledge, since we all can do both good and evil deeds, depending on our nature.

There is an interesting enclave to the right and centre of this panel that shows a group of men and women beneath apple trees. One male is reaching up for an apple while another couple eat an apple and a man approaches a resplendent woman with a giant strawberry, a symbol of the fleeting nature of hedonistic pleasures. One of the few clothed men in the triptych is the man tucked away behind them, watching their activities intently. He stands out with his very dark hair and a stern countenance.


At the very bottom right of the panel there are two men, one of which is more obvious for he is clothed, has dark hair in the shape of an M and is crouching at the entrance to a small cave, pointing to a woman lying down. His possible identity has caused some debate among scholars and art historians. Some think it could be the painting’s benefactor, or an advocate of Adam denouncing Eve, or St John the Baptist or even a self-portrait.

Birds live in pools, fish fly or lay on the ground, it’s as if the world order is in chaos. Interestingly there are no children or elders in the painting, perhaps denoting the garden as it would have been before the fall of man, in a utopia without consequences. The images coalesce into an erotic vortex.

Fraenger believed that Bosch was indicating a route to paradise through sexual freedom that ultimately returned humans to a state of innocence.  Basically redemption through sex, putting his hypothesis directly at odds with the accepted idea that its central theme is one of morality.

Right Panel – Hell

The aversion these brutal images of miscreants suffering to eternity provoke in me, makes it all the more important to appreciate the timeless genius of Hieronymus Bosch.


The flames, furnace and fires raging in the night of the upper part of the right panel would have been painted from real fires that Bosch had witnessed. Given the religious situation of the time it’s highly likely that he would have seen the burning of villages and executions of those branded as heretics and witches.

The atmosphere reeks of acrid smoke and the stench of wickedness, choking the air out of the viewer’s lungs.

It seems Bosch is expressing his curiosity about Hell, highlighting the fact that it is a firmly established empire here on Earth. The consequences of humanity’s sins (such as gambling), are shown in graphic detail. There is no longer any hint of eroticism, only ugliness.

Contorted, tortured, and broken bodies are subject to physical and psychological punishment and many are being devoured by animals, demons and beasts. It is a gathering of bleak scenes, devoid of hope and God forsaken; in stark contrast to the divine image of the first panel. The darkness is pervasive and heavy. Who wouldn’t amend their ways to avoid such a reality?


I can’t work out why the lute and harp are featured in Hell, with music emblazoned on some poor, half-squashed soul’s derriere! You can hear what the music of Hell sounds like if you take this detailed interactive audio-visual tour: Jheronimus Bosch – the Garden of Earthly Delights

Interestingly, if you draw a straight line from Adam’s eye line in the far left panel of paradise, and follow it diagonally all the way across the Garden of Earthly Delight to Hell in the far right panel, it aligns with Bosch’s self-portrait as the grotesque tree-man afflicted by his sins.

The Exterior panels

On the reverse side of the left and right panel, (which fold over the central panel), Bosch has painted an image of the Earth on day 3 of its creation by God, when the land is separated from the sea.


Thus, when the doors are closed it denotes the oneness and unity of creation that is to become fragmented and corrupted once the panels are opened to reveal the carnage within.

Earliest description

The earliest known writing about The Garden of Earthly Delights was recorded in Brussels in 1517, just a year after Bosch’s death, by Antonio de Beatis, secretary/chaplain to Cardinal Luigi of Aragon.  Whilst travelling with the cardinal and his entourage, de Beatis kept a journal of their grand tour through Germany, Switzerland, the Low Countries, France and Italy in 1517-18.

In the palace of the Counts of Nassau, Antonio de Beatis noted for posterity the unusual art he beheld:

“Some panels of bizarre themes. They represent seas, skies, woods, meadows, and many other things, such as people crawling out of a shell, others that bring forth birds, men and women, white and blacks doing all sorts of different activities and poses. They feature things so pleasing and fantastic that they could not be properly described in any way to those who do not know them.”

In the same diary he also wrote about meeting Leonardo da Vinci in France in October 1517 and being shown three of his paintings by the ageing artist.

Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 9th August 1516)

There was no other artist quite like this early Netherlandish master, who was a genre defining anomaly of his era. He was truly an independent, creative free spirit.

Image of Hieronymus Bosch thought to be based on a self-portrait.

Sketch of Hieronymus Bosch thought to be based on a self-portrait.

His birth name was Hieronymus van Aken and he was born in the Dutch town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, after which he is named. His first name is also linked to a mysterious religious sect in the town, the ‘Hierononymites’, also known as the ‘Brethren of the Common Life’ whose aims were withdrawal from the world and cultivation of the interior life.

Although he never travelled, he was well known outside of his home town and made a very good living from his art. Felipe II of Spain acquired a total of 33 of his paintings.

Trailer to a new 2016 documentary – Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil

Some of his other famous works are the Haywain Triptych ca. 1490 (also in the Prado), The Ship of Fools (Louvre), Christ Carrying the Cross and the Last Judgement Triptych, Ascent of the Blessed, c. 1504, which resides in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.

“This too high for my wit,

I prefer to omit.”

~ Erwin Panofsky on deciding the secret to the interpretation of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights has not been found.

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Baroque Painter Artemisia Gentileschi (Part 2)

“My illustrious lordship, I’ll show you what a woman can do.” ~ Artemisia Gentileschi

Not long after her wedding to Pietro Antonio di Vicenzo Stiattesi in Rome on 29th November 1612, Artemisia and her husband moved to Florence; where, armed with a letter of introduction from her father, she began her career as a professional painter.  It proved to be a successful and fruitful time in her life, (she certainly deserved some good fortune after the traumatic events in Rome as a young woman).

Self-portrait as a Lute Player c. 1615 - 17 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Self-portrait as a Lute Player c. 1615 – 17 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Florence and the Medici Court

Soon after arriving in Florence the ambitious Artemisia landed a commission from Michelango the Younger, great nephew of the Renaissance icon. She painted a panel, the Allegory of Inclination, for the Galleria of his Casa Buonarroti.

Artemisia Gentileschi - Allegory of Inclination

Artemisia set about educating herself in the spheres of music and literature, employing her beauty and charm to impress the wealthy merchants and nobles of Florence, with the aim of ingratiating herself with the powerful, dynastic Medici Court.

She understood that the appropriate appearance would elevate her position, so she wore expensive silk gowns which she managed to purchase on credit. She gave it some good, old fashioned hustle!

Saint Cecilia Playing a Lute by Artemisia Gentileschi

Saint Cecilia Playing a Lute by Artemisia Gentileschi

After all the struggle of her painful last year in Rome she had earned some success.

Her living was made mostly by painting commissions from wealthy patrons and for Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici and Grand Duchess Christina. She was friends with Galileo Galilei – excerpts from her letters to the astronomer, physicist and philosopher still exist.

Tragedy, however, would strike again in her life. The first three of her babies with her husband Pietro did not survive infancy, and her fourth, a daughter, was named Prudentia after her deceased mother. Like her father had done with her, Artemisia taught her to paint.

She eventually left her husband in 1620 after financial problems arose, returning to Rome in 1621. She spent a decade travelling Europe, painting in Genoa, Venice and England (where she was reunited with her father at the court of Charles I), before settling permanently in Naples.

A View of the Bay of Naples by Giovanni Battista Lusieri

A View of the Bay of Naples by Giovanni Battista Lusieri

Before the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century, Naples came under Spanish rule when it was the largest commercial, cultural city on the Mediterranean. In Artemisia’s day it was three times the size of Rome. She spent the last years of her life in Naples and continued painting into her sixties. She taught male students and collaborated with other painters during this time.

Judith and Holofernes

The biblical story from the Book of Judith tells of how the beautiful Israelite widow Judith bravely slays the Assyrian General, Holofernes, in order to save the people of her homeland, (the city of Bethulia). It proved a popular subject in Renaissance and Baroque art.

In return for sparing her life and that of her family, Judith had promised Holofernes a secret route into the city in an act of apparent betrayal. Due to his desire for her he admitted her to his tent and gave her free access to the Assyrian camp. Being Jewish, Judith would have taken her own food with her and perhaps a maidservant.

Thinking that his personal conquest of Judith is assured, Holofernes lets down his guard and drinks himself into a stupor. As he sleeps, Judith summons up her courage to decapitate him using his sword. The two women put his head in a sack and sneak out of the camp. The next morning, as the head of Holofernes is displayed on the battlements and the rest of his body is discovered, his men flee, having lost their leader and, quite literally, head of the army.

The chaste Judith ( a female version of David and Goliath), is victorious and has been depicted many times as the triumph of virtue overcoming vice, chastity overcoming lust and humility overcoming pride.

With her penchant for painting  powerful women: heroines of immense strength and courage, imbued with a healthy dose of vulnerability, it’s no surprise that she painted four canvases of Judith and Holofernes.

Of all the paintings and sculptures that were created by artists of the era, (including Caravaggio), to me, hers are the most violent, visceral and real.  The graphic violence of Artemisia’s depictions is staggering when compared to the more sanitised versions (except maybe Caravaggio), considering the other artists were all men.

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1614-18. Pitti Palace Florence

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1620 -21. Uffizi Gallery Florence

When I look at the Florence painting it shows me rage. Pure, unadulterated rage and it’s horrible to look at. It’s as if she has transferred all her anger towards Agostino Tassi and the suffering she endured from inquisition style torture at the hands of the ‘establishment’, and laid it bare for people to witness hundreds of years after her brush covered the canvas.

It is similar in composition to Caravaggio’s version painted earlier in 1599, but in Caravaggio’s Judith is somewhat detached from her grisly deed, whereas in Artemisia’s paintings she’s putting all her physical effort and force into her unpleasant task. The look on Holofernes’s face (or is it Agostino’s face?) is chilling.  Certainly Judith is a self-portrait of Artemisia.

The injustice she felt and the cruelty she experienced is expressed through her art. Artemisia put herself into her work, and her art speaks to me as a woman.  Art historians might disagree with me, but that’s my humble opinion.

Her earlier painting of Judith Beheading Holofernes (where she is wearing a blue dress) shows the pure horror of her act: there is blood seeping into the mattress and spurting everywhere, but she is determined to kill Holofernes and thus eradicate tyranny.

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1611-12. Commissioned by the King of Naples now haning in the Capodimonte Museum, Naples.

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1611-12. Commissioned by the King of Naples now hanging in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.

The other two pictures of the aftermath, where the head of Holofernes is being placed in a basket/bag are equally arresting. Again, there are many versions by different artists, and even compared to one by her father, Orazio, Artemisia’s 1625 version (now in the Detroit Institute of Art) has a sense of realism that makes your hairs stand on end.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes c. 1625

Judith with the Head of Holofernes c. 1625

The golden silk sheen of Judith’s dress is almost luminescent under the flame, and her skin glows in the candlelight in comparison to the pervading darkness inside the tent. This shade of yellow has been labelled as ‘Artemisia Gold’.

It’s as though, having done her deed, Judith and her maidservant pause as they hear a sound outside the tent. Discovery would have meant certain death, so the two women are momentarily still, not yet able to make their escape. It’s claustrophobic, dramatic and totally brilliant!

Judith and her Maidservant by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1612-13. Housed in the Pitti Palace, Florence

Judith and her Maidservant by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1612-13. Housed in the Pitti Palace, Florence

Other paintings

Here is a selection of her heroines and biblical characters, proving that she didn’t just do gore and slaughter!

Clio the Muse of History c. 1632 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Clio the Muse of History c. 1632 by Artemisia Gentileschi

The Birth of St. John the Baptist by Artemisia Gentileschi. Commissioned by Philip IV of Spain

The Birth of St. John the Baptist by Artemisia Gentileschi. Commissioned by Philip IV of Spain

Danaë by Artemisia Gentileschi

Danaë by Artemisia Gentileschi

Esther_before_Ahasuerus c. 1628 - 35 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Esther before Ahasuerus c. 1628 – 35 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Lot and his Daughters by Artemisia Gentileschi

Lot and his Daughters by Artemisia Gentileschi

Sleeping Venus by Artemisia Gentileschi

Sleeping Venus by Artemisia Gentileschi

Lucretia c. 1620 -21 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Lucretia c. 1620 -21 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Cleopatra by Artemisia Gentileschi

Cleopatra by Artemisia Gentileschi

Jael and Sisera c. 1620 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Jael and Sisera c. 1620 by Artemisia Gentileschi

The Penitent Mary Magdalen c. 1615 - 16 by Artemisia Gentileschi

The Penitent Mary Magdalen c. 1615 – 16 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Although there were other notable baroque women painters, I feel it is Artemisia who suffered and struggled the most for her art, who laid down the gauntlet to the male art establishment that said, “I’m as good as any of you.” Art was very much a gentleman’s club in the baroque era, and Artemisia soon discovered that they weren’t all gentlemen either!

She was an artist with an edge, certainly living on it most of the time. Her work has such a robust and natural quality, and perhaps her infamous status after the rape trial set her apart as a bit of a curiosity, freeing her up to create such incredible works without the usual constraints that women of the time lived within.

Her early trauma seems to have been the catalyst for her career. I don’t think she would have made such an impact as an artist without the emotional intensity behind her painting.

Portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1623 - 26 by Simon Vouet

Portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1623 – 26 by Simon Vouet

She and I would have had quite a bit in common, (centuries, circumstances and talents notwithstanding). Being as I can’t have a conversation with her, the next best thing is to admire her art and study her life. She deserves to be remembered.

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Baroque Painter Artemisia Gentileschi (Part 1)

“I have made a solemn vow never to send my drawings because people have cheated me. In particular, just today I found…that, having done a drawing of souls in Purgatory for the Bishop of St. Gata, he, in order to spend less, commissioned another painter to do the painting using my work. If I were a man, I can’t imagine it would have turned out this way.” ~ Artemisia Gentileschi (from a letter to patron Don Antonio Ruffo, November 13, 1649.)

From what I have gleaned in my research and seen with my own eyes of her paintings; Artemisia Gentileschi was a strong, spirited, determined, talented, fearless and voluptuous artist; who possessed bright, fierce eyes that communicate her emotions from her canvases. In pigment she exudes a powerful energy that is completely captivating. In real life she must have been a force of nature!

Artemisia Gentileschi (8th July 1583 – 1656)

Much of her work has been lost, sidelined and misattributed through the centuries, but has recently been restored, revered and rightly honoured.

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi. Thought to have been in the collection of Charles I.

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) by Artemisia Gentileschi, circa 1638-9, commissioned by Charles I in London. It is now housed in Hampton Court Palace.

If ever there was a body of work that deserved the mantle of ‘art imitating life’ it was hers.

She painted mostly biblical scenes and heroines – strong female protagonists from history and mythology, in a way that was natural and worthy of a Caravaggista.

She truly mastered the Baroque painting technique developed by Caravaggio, known as chiaroscuro, in which light and shadow are sharply contrasted. Only a heroine could have done that…

What she achieved as an artist of the post Renaissance era in a heavily male dominated field (only seven percent of the self-portraits by western art’s most revered masters hanging on the walls of the Vasari Corridor are by women), is just astounding. There were so many obstacles to her success and although she is one of history’s most accomplished female artists of the baroque period, she was never recognised as much as she deserved to be in her lifetime.

The Vasari Corridor running from the Uffizi Gallery on the right, turning into the Ponte Vecchio Bridge to join the Palazzo Pitti.

The Vasari Corridor running from the Uffizi Gallery on the right, turning into the Ponte Vecchio Bridge to join the Palazzo Pitti.

Alas, the stories of many great painters, writers, poets, sculptors and composers share this unfair narrative arc of neglect, both male and female.

“Artemisia has suffered a scholarly neglect that is unthinkable for an artist of her calibre.” ~ Art Historian Mary D Garrard

Artemisia Gentileschi’s childhood and teenage years

Born on 8th July 1593 in Rome to a well-known, established painter, Orazio Gentileschi and his wife, Prudentia Montone, Artemisia grew up being greatly influenced by her father’s trade. At that time in history it would have been impossible for a young girl to receive training in the arts, unless from a parent. She would have learnt to draw, mix paints and watch her father painting in his studio from a very early age.

Young woman playing a violin by Orazio Gentileschi - obviously a very good likeness of his beloved daughter - Artemisia Gentileschi!

Young woman playing a violin by Orazio Gentileschi – obviously a remarkable resemblance of his beloved daughter – Artemisia Gentileschi!

Her mother died in childbirth when Artemisia was just twelve years old, leaving her with her father and in the role of surrogate mother to her three younger brothers. No easy task at the same time as dealing with her own grief.

I love the fact that her father (who was a friend and follower of Caravaggio and Tenebrism), admired her talent regardless of her gender, with no regard for his ego, stating that he could teach her no longer when she turned 15. He then turned to another painter to continue her tutelage.

Rome, although home to the Pope and The Vatican was far from being pure and sin free. After the sun’s pink and orange hues faded from the sky above its historic spires, statues and domed rooftops, its illustrious streets witnessed many deeds of depravity, when parts of the city transformed into a cesspool of vice and crime.

Criminals were swiftly dealt with, (usually on the Piazza di Ponte), where public executions and beheadings were common.  The bodies of these unfortunate souls were left exposed to passers by on the Ponte Sant’ Angelo. It was noted that on such occasions the waters of the Tiber ran red…

Ponte Sant' Angelo, Rome

Ponte Sant’ Angelo, Rome

Orazio Gentileschi was understandably keen to protect his only daughter from such goings on; she was vulnerable until she could marry.  Seventeenth Century Italy was very much a patriarchal society where women were often either classed as virtuous or sinful. If a woman lost her virginity outside of marriage (and therefore her reputation), it frequently led to a life of prostitution.

It seems that despite his best intentions for his daughter, Artemisia’s father unwittingly played a hand in one of the most traumatic experiences of her life when she was eighteen years old.

Rape of Artemisia Gentileschi by Agostino Tassi (1578 – 1644)

Agostino Tassi, self-portrait

Agostino Tassi, self-portrait

As Orazio had worked with a painter of frescoes, Agostino Tassi, at the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome, he trusted him to further Artemisia’s training. At the time of the rape (in spring of 1611), with his wife missing, assumed dead, Tassi struck.

One afternoon during one of Artemisia’s lessons, Tassi’s lechery turned into a sexual assault when he accosted Artemisia in her father’s studio. She fled upstairs in an attempt to escape but he followed her, forced her into the bedroom and raped her.

Sadly, the only other woman in her life, a family friend Tuzia, who rented an apartment at the premises did not come to her aid.

Not only was this a traumatic physical and emotional experience (one that she initially kept from her father), but it spelled disaster for her reputation and marriage prospects. It is thought that Tassi promised he would marry her and she had no choice but to accept. Under that expectation and agreement they had sexual relations for a further year, until it emerged that Tassi’s wife was actually still alive (it was rumoured he had hired men to kill her).

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Orazio Gentileschi, who was outraged that his daughter’s purity (and therefore prospects) had been violated by a trusted friend without the promised restoration to his family’s honour. He duly launched court proceedings against the scoundrel Tassi in 1612.

Portrait of Orazio Gentileschi by Giovanni Battista Cecchi, after Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Line engraving, possibly late 18th century

Portrait of Orazio Gentileschi by Giovanni Battista Cecchi, after Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Line engraving, possibly late 18th century currently held by the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The case was unprecedented, and with his daughter’s character in tatters through no fault of her own, Orazio wrote to Pope Paul V (who unfortunately was a patron of Tassi’s), to claim reparation for such a wrongdoing to their family name.

He may have been a talented artist, but Agostino Tassi was no gentleman. He was a serial liar, a serial rapist (having also defiled his own sister-in-law) stolen a painting from Orazio’s studio, as well as planning the murder of his wife. The kind of person we might label today as a low-life scumbag!

There would have been no counselling and support for the victim of this sordid affair, Artemisia herself. It must have been a very confusing, frightening and terrible time for her under such an intense spotlight in court and as a subject of notoriety in the gossip circles of Rome.

What follows is a graphic extract recorded by a court notary during the trial in Rome, where Artemisia describes the moment of the rape. The ancient transcriptions of the case are held at the Rome State Archive:

“I felt a strong burning and it hurt very much, but because he held my mouth, I couldn’t cry out. However, I tried to scream as best I could, calling Tuzia. I scratched his face and pulled his hair, and before he penetrated me again I grasped his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh. All this didn’t bother him at all, and he continued to do his business.” ~ Artemisia Gentileschi.

Throughout the trial Artemisia was subjected to horrific examinations and torture with instruments such as the thumbscrew, which strongly shaped her psychological development and her future artwork.

Susanna and the Elders

Artemisia_Gentileschi - Susanna_and_the_Elders_(1610)

Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi circa 1610

Only a year earlier at the age of seventeen she had completed her version of Susanna and The Elders, circa 1610, one of the few paintings of this biblical subject that portrays Susanna with her head turned away from the advances of the men, with body language and an expression indicating their approach is unwelcome.  The female form (possibly based on her own), is more natural rather than idealised. Somehow, it seems to have been an inauspicious omen of the event that would take place on the Gentileschi premises in the spring of 1611.

Paintings of Susanna and the Elders (Book of Daniel) by Bernadino Luini, Jacob van Loo, Ottavio Leoni, Hendrick Goltzius, Antonio Bellucci, Bonaventura Lamberti, Guido Reni, Tintoretto, Alessandro Allori, Rembrandt van Rijn, Gerrit van Honthorst, Pieter Pietersz, Bartolomeo Chiari, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Massimo Stanzione, Claude Vignon, von Hagelstein, Sebastiano Ricci, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, Anthony van Dyck, Sisto Badalocchio, Jean-Francois de Troy, Salomon Koninck, Frances Trevisiani, Lambert Sustris, Andrea Vaccaro, Hendrick de Clerk, Paolo Veronese, Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri and Orazio Gentileschi have Susanna facing the men (fully or partially) and do not depict the same level of distress and unwillingness.

Susanna and the Elders by Orazio Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders by Orazio Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders by Peter Paul Rubens, also painted in 1610

Susanna and the Elders by Peter Paul Rubens, also painted in 1610

Susanna and the Elders by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari

Susanna and the Elders by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari

Eventually Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to prison and exile, neither of which he fully served. Artemisia on the other hand, was viewed as damaged goods, but her father (with the help of a substantial dowry), found her a husband, a Florentine artist, the younger brother of the lawyer that had helped him during the lengthy court case against Agostino Tassi.

Despite these considerable challenges, Artemisia managed to pick herself up, ditch her victim mantle and find solace and cathartic expression in her work.

Artemisia Gentilschi quote

In part 2 we’ll look in more detail at her paintings – you’ll notice that many of them are shockingly violent for a female artist – even to our more exposed, desensitized eyes of the twenty first century!

What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Albrecht Dürer’s Masterpiece: Self-Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe (c. 1500)

“If a man devotes himself to art, much evil is avoided that happens otherwise if one is idle.” ~ Albrecht Dürer

I tarried for a long while deciding which painting to cover next in the ‘What’s in a Painting?’ series. There’s just so much amazing art and many deserving artists to choose from! But for now, I have settled with Dürer’s beguiling and enigmatic Self-Portrait circa 1500, a mixed media composition on limewood, measuring 67.1 by 48.7 centimetres.

Dürer was the first ‘artist’ in the modern sense… This is for several reasons, which I’ll share as I go along.

First and foremost, the 1500 Self-Portrait is a mesmerising piece of art which I’m always drawn to, and was fortunate enough to see hanging in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich a few years ago. Looking at it I felt like I might have known him, it’s so…human. His image still speaks to us from the grave.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he painted it in the year 1500; the expected year of the Apocalypse that was foretold and dreaded in the late Middle Ages. But 1500 was also the first centennial year in Europe that was celebrated. It brought hope, change and new ideas.

You may also be thinking, ‘What’s there to talk about in a self-portrait?’ I almost fell into that trap until I started my research about the cosmopolitan Herr Dürer…

Da Vinci had drawn the iconic Vitruvian Man only ten years earlier, moving away from church art towards images of human beings, when human proportions became the standard for artistic creation.

What’s really incredible to me is the actual skill with which he depicts himself. It must be hard enough to paint a life-like portrait of another person, let alone oneself. What’s even more striking about this portrait is the fact that he is facing us full on.

You might think that is perfectly normal, and it is today, but back in 1500 only paintings of Christ were afforded that honour. Portraits by Dürer’s predecessor, Jan van Eyk, were always painted of a person slightly side on with their face at an angle. Had he painted this self-portrait just a few decades earlier, Dürer could have been burnt at the stake for what the medievalists would have considered unforgivable blasphemy.

Self-Portrait c. 1500 by Albrecht Durer, Alte Pinakothek

Self-Portrait c. 1500 by Albrecht Durer, Alte Pinakothek

Indeed, he even has the audacity to show himself in a Christ-like pose, with his hand in front of his lapel, his gaze so utterly penetrating. It’s as if his kind, hazel eyes are looking right through me. I can’t be completely sure what his expression portrays.

If I were to put my finger on it I’d say self-assurance and serenity. His eyes radiate compassion and understanding; the windows to the soul of a deep thinker. Albrecht Dürer was twenty eight and at the height of his career when he painted it.

I’m also riveted by the detail and accuracy with which he has depicted his life-like hair. His long, flowing, spiralled curls are defined beautifully by the light glinting on the silky strands. Again, this natural, almost romantic look is not dissimilar to many images of Jesus, and he has also grown a short beard with tints of red. His powers of observation are amazing. It’s just so realistic. I even love the little tuft of fringe that tops his barely furrowed forehead.

Self-Portrait c. 1500 by Albrecht Durer, Alte Pinakothek

Self-Portrait c. 1500 by Albrecht Durer, Alte Pinakothek

His skin is both luminescent and slightly ruddy. The shadows shape his face perfectly. There’s a symmetry about his proportions that is divine in nature, representative of an omnipresent being. To me, he is saying, ‘I am every man,’ but he is also a humanist finding Christ within himself. He is comparing his own features with miraculous self-portraits of Christ.

So he’s looking out at us, but, rather mysteriously, he also appears to be absorbed in his body and inner world. The small piece of fur at the base of his coat overlaps his fingers, indicating he is rooted in a physical experience. Paradoxically his gaze then, is also one of introspection.

I am totally obsessed with this work of art! Not only is it incredible as a painting, it’s the ultimate Self-Portrait in the history of art. One could argue it’s also ground breaking as the first ever selfie…

“I hold that the perfection of form and beauty is contained in the sum of all men.” ~ Albrecht Dürer

Medieval media mogul

The modern cult of artist as personality was ushered in by Dürer. Art reveals the person who created it (regardless of subject matter), by showing the skill and character of its maker.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - woodcut print by Albrecht Durer c. 1497-98

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – woodcut print by Albrecht Durer c. 1497-98

Not only was Dürer supremely confident and talented in drawing, etching and painting (both watercolour and oil) he also harnessed the power of the invention of the age: Gutenberg’s printing press. He was the first major artist to embrace the revolutionary way images were made and used with his iconic woodcut prints. Instead of making just one print he was able to make and distribute thousands. It was a total transformation in communication.

Branding expert

Dürer’s ubiquitous monogram of a large capital A above the smaller D that he placed in a prominent position on all his works could be considered the very first trademark and brand. How clever of him to make sure everyone knew he was behind such works of genius…

Albrecht Durer - Monogram

I doubt that the likes of Coca-Cola, Apple, Disney and other famous brands realise how the concept of branding began with this visionary artist.

He wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries of what was acceptable, exploring his talent and his art regardless of the religious turmoil of the age. Living during the Renaissance and the Reformation enabled his vast creative expression to flourish.

Further south on the other side of the Alps in Italy, Dürer’s contemporaries; Michelangelo, Raphael and Da Vinci were also making art history, but this did not seem to deter Dürer from forging his own path in Nuremberg.

Albrecht Dürer was the undoubted star of the Northern Renaissance; a polymath who mastered painting, printmaking, and theory. His fame and fortune was way ahead of its time for an artist of the early, modern era to experience in his lifetime. His popularity even reached as far as India.

Albrecht Dürer: Masterpieces at the Albertina

Earlier Self-Portraits

The very first self-portrait ever painted was also by the same artist, when he was just thirteen years old, and can be seen in The Albertina Museum in Vienna.

His 1498 Self-Portrait hints at an elegant, confident young man, with his shirt softly billowing in the breeze. However, each detail has been carefully considered and executed with the utmost technical precision.

Self Portrait c. 1498 by Albrecht Dürer in the Prado, Madrid

Self Portrait c. 1498 by Albrecht Dürer in the Prado, Madrid

He is portrayed as a slightly ostentatious dandy compared to his previous more boyish portraits.

Other Self-Portrait sketches by Dürer depict him in the act of sketching himself as well as in a vexed state. He was also the first artist to draw a nude Self-Portrait. He was certainly preoccupied with his own appearance, for no other artist before him had left such probing accounts of their person. Maybe for him, art was his way of exploring who he was at his core.

Albrecht Dürer: 21 May 1471 – 6 April 1528

Albrecht Dürer was born during the Northern European Renaissance as a native of Nuremberg, the third child to a Hungarian born goldsmith, Albrecht Ajtósi and his wife Barabra Holper, who supposedly had eighteen babies. Albrecht was the eldest son (and only one of three children) to make it to adulthood.

The German version of their Hungarian name was Türer, which Albrecht the Younger changed to Dürer to better suit the German language and dialect.

Albrecht Dürer statue in Nuremberg

He grew up in the mythical German city of Nuremberg during its golden age as a trading centre and home to the treasures of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1828 a bronze statue of Dürer was revealed to mark the third centenary of his death, (the first public statue of its kind of an artist in the world), and miraculously, it survived the heavy bombing of the city during the Second World War. To Nuremberg’s credit the historic city centre was rebuilt in its original medieval style that was so reminiscent of Dürer’s Halycon days.

For those that wish to learn more about his life and work:

He was a remarkable man; a humanist, scholar, philosopher and intellectual, with an interest in literature and nature as well as many forms of art. He left an incredible cultural legacy for humanity.

“As I grew older, I realized that it was much better to insist on the genuine forms of nature, for simplicity is the greatest adornment of art.” ~ Albrecht Dürer

What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Hans Holbein the Younger’s Masterpiece: The French Ambassadors (c. 1533)

Following on from my first installment about Velazquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas, I’m now turning to a work of art that was created in the Tudor period of English history; Holbein’s enigmatic and resplendent, The French Ambassadors. I’ve always been fascinated by this painting. It’s currently on display at the National Gallery in London.

The French Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1533. Oil on wood, 207 x 210 cm. The National Gallery, London

The French Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1533. Oil on wood, 207 x 210 cm. The National Gallery, London

This full-length double portrait with still-life objects depicts the French Amabssadors: Jean de Dinteville, the ambassador to England on the left (who commissioned the painting) and on the right is Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur, ambassador to the Papal court. Both men served King Francis I of France.

You can tell by their posture, expressions and equal presence in the painting that they are good friends. Holbein seems to have captured beautifully the subtle nuance of their relationship and shared interests.

What also stands out for me looking at their stance, is how self-assured they appear, both personally and in regards to their faith, which would have been dangerously at odds with the religious turmoil in England at that time.

The painting has long been the focus of analysis and discussion, due to the many encoded clues contained within its colourful pigments. These hidden meanings spring from the Italian tradition, and because the work is full of symbolism it can be interpreted in a number of ways…

As I’ve said before, I’m no expert on art and art history, but it is a subject that interests me and I’m learning as I go!


As a lay person I can appreciate the incredible detail and vibrancy of the green jacquard curtain behind the men, the way the light catches on the satin and the fullness of the folds. On the far left upper corner of the picture you can see a dark shadow where you can just about make out a silver crucifix hanging, partially hidden behind the sumptuous material.

It highlights that both the painting’s subjects are staunchly Roman Catholic. You could also surmise that they believed Christ is always there even if you can’t see him.

Research has recently indicated that a chapel was located directly behind the wall on which the painting was once hung.

The anamorphic skull between them would have served as a reminder of the transient nature of human life to courtiers and holy men as they passed by the painting on their way to the chapel. Art scholars have deduced that the painting was originally hung in a narrow corridor due to the acute slant of the skull.

It was a measure of Holbein’s skill that he could distort the image so cleverly that it appears to be corrected when viewed from a steep angle to the side of the image. It serves as a memento mori that death eventually comes to all, no matter their station in life.

The portrait is very telling of the political and religious upheaval that was underway in England in 1533. Henry VIII was deeply involved in his ‘great matter’, namely how he could annul his lengthy marriage to Catherine of Aragon, marry Ann Boleyn and break away from the Pope in Rome.

The beautiful floor tiles are even significant, being the same as the ones in Westminster Abbey choir, where Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn. Thus Holbein was doffing his painterly cap in a political and personal gesture to his future patron and monarch.

The French Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1533. Oil on wood, 207 x 210 cm. The National Gallery, London

The French Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1533. Oil on wood, 207 x 210 cm. The National Gallery, London

The ambassadors are standing either side of an étagère, a double level storage unit that has an oriental carpet draped over the top. Both are resting an arm on the upper level which contains items concordant with the ‘celestial’ sphere. The objects imply erudition in science, showing perfectly detailed instruments that measure time and the heavens.

We immediately feel that they are educated, learned men, concerned with the larger questions of existence and the universe. Their expressions convey a sort of intellectual intimacy.

The lower shelf portrays the ‘terrestrial’ sphere, with a hymnal open to Luther’s hymn ‘Come Holy Spirit our Souls Inspire’ and the lute, which has a broken string, could indicate that harmony has been broken by religious discord.

A brilliant analysis of The French Ambassadors by the National Gallery in London:

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 – 1543)

Born in Augsburg to a painter father (Hans Holbein the Elder) and younger brother to Ambrose Holbein, he is considered one of the greatest German painters of his time, alongside fellow Northern Renaissance masters, Albrecht Dürer and Matthias Grünewald.

Self portait

Self portait

While his father produced mainly religious paintings, Hans Holbein the Younger was able to branch out into woodcuts and portraiture. He was obviously filled with wanderlust, and lived and worked in Basel from 1515 to 1526, when he took a two year trip to England.

Holbein returned to Basel a fashionably dressed, wealthy man and bought a house. Basel was a flourishing intellectual city at the time, where the influential humanist scholar, Erasmus of Rotterdam, lived and worked. Such was his legacy that he reconciled classical antiquity with Christianity and was named ‘the first conscious European’ by Stefan Zweig.

Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1523

Desiderius Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger c. 1523

Holbein painted Desiderius Erasmus a number of times, who furnished him with a letter of recommendation to the lawyer and author of Utopia, Sir Thomas More in London.

The iconoclasm of 1529 meant that religious paintings were banned in many parts so portraits became the main source of income for artists.

Holbein travelled to London again in 1532 where he was bestowed with many private commissions, one of which was by the now immortalised Jean de Dinteville. He also received commissions from Thomas Cromwell and the powerful Boleyn family.

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein c. 1527. The Frick Collection New York

Sir Thomas More by Hans Holbein c. 1527. The Frick Collection New York

He was appointed as a court painter and portrait artist to Henry VIII in 1536. His annual income was around thirty pounds; less than the miniaturist painters at court received. However, it’s Holbein’s work that has endured from this period!

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger

In recent years I enjoyed watching the hit TV series The Tudors, and here is a great scene where Thomas Cromwell commissions Master Holbein to paint a portrait of Anne of Cleves (with the agenda of arranging a politically advantageous union between her and Henry), and tells him to make sure that he portrays her with a “pleasing countenance”.

Holbein’s supposedly complimentary 1539 portrait of Anne of Cleaves persuaded Henry to marry her, but unfortunately, when Henry decided that his bride’s actual appearance did not live up to that of her painting, Master Holbein fell from favour and did not receive any further royal commissions.

Hans Holbein the Younger died at the age of forty five, falling victim to the dreaded plague which was rampant in London in 1543.

Holbein is probably one of the best portrait artists of all-time, leaving a large number of eloquent and life like portraits of his contemporaries to posterity.


With regards to The French Ambassadors it’s not just the skill with which he has incorporated the hidden meanings, but also the sheer brilliance and appearance of the realistic figures, the fine details of the still life component and the texture of their clothes. I want to run my hand over their furs and silks…

However you interpret the painting, one thing’s for sure: it’s an amazing piece of art that is clever, beautiful, contemporary and full of technical mastery which is still relevant today.

The Story of the World’s Most Accomplished and Successful Art Forger

In an unassuming garden shed that sat in the back garden of a council house on the edge of Bolton, art history was made.

There, over a period of several decades, all kinds of art; paintings, ceramics, bronzes, reliefs and sculptures were produced by the supremely talented (if somewhat deceitful and misguided) Shaun Greenhalgh.

Shaun Greenhalgh's fake carving of Gauguin's Faun

Shaun Greenhalgh’s fake carving of Gauguin’s Faun

Unsurpassed in their variety, quality and sheer inventiveness, these forgeries fooled many art critics and dealers all over the world, being sold to museums, auction houses, private buyers and collectors, all hailed as long-lost masterpieces.

His career as an ‘official forger’ began in 1989 and during the following seventeen years Shaun created and (with the help of his parents), sold a prolific amount of art worth almost a million pounds.

It’s a tale almost too fantastical to be true, but the shunned and frustrated shy young man whose art was scoffed at and who felt discriminated against because of his humble origins (let’s face it, growing up in Bolton in the sixties and seventies wasn’t exactly glamorous or exciting), decided he would prove the experts wrong.

That’s exactly what he did and he achieved it in spectacular style! The fact that his gifted hands were able to produce so many different forgeries for so long shows just how good he was. And he had the nouse to know that he had to create a ‘past’ for each piece.

The Risley Park Lanx made by Shaun Greenhalgh from melted Roman coins

The Risley Park Lanx made by Shaun Greenhalgh from melted Roman coins

The lad from Lancashire took the art world by storm, knocking up masterpiece after masterpiece until one day in 2006, when he got an ominous knock at the door. Goodbye shed, hello Scotland Yard…

The law had finally caught up with Shaun and his elderly parents; the most unlikely ring of master forgers you could ever imagine. Truth really is stranger than fiction!

It turns out a mistake in his Assyrian Relief, which was in the process of being authenticated by Bonhams for The British Museum alerted the authorities to their brazen activities.

Where it all began

Shaun’s penchant for making things began to surface at primary school, where he exhibited early talent in pottery. After a while he gave up art at his Bolton Comprehensive and started to learn on his own terms. The Bolton Museum had also imbued the fledgling forger with a love of all things Egyptian. He taught himself hieroglyphics and stone carving. He studied woodwork and attended pottery classes. As it turned out, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t turn his hand to.

Provenance is everything

Much like musical instruments, the provenance of a piece of art can massively add to its value and desirability. It’s a shame that a certain amount of snobbery comes into play.

Shaun Greenhalgh believes that people should only buy a thing because they like it, rather than for the signature on it, or for an item’s detailed history. Forgeries thrive because of the stories behind the art’s creation. I wonder if, in a few hundred years, collectors will flock to purchase the art of probably the most prolific art forger of all time?

Gauguin’s Faun

Art critic, Gauguin fan and documentary maker Waldemar Januszczak was one of the people that Greenhalgh fooled, and can be seen here waxing lyrical about the discovery of Gaugin’s first sculpture during an exhibition celebrating the centenary of Gaugin’s death at the prestigious van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2003:

To be fair, the faun was displayed underneath bright lights and sheltered behind thick perspex, so it’s unlikely he would have noticed the composite pieces had been made separately and glued together with Araldite Rapid! The naughty “PGo” signature was a touch of genius that added authenticity to Shaun’s fake faun. The half man, half goat ceramic was acquired by the Chicago Art Institue for $125,000 back in 1997.

The Amarna Princess

Another stunning creation by Greenhalgh was his alabaster model of an Egyptian princess, carved in his shed in just three weeks from calcite, with tools he purchased from B&Q. He aged it with tea and clay. The statuette depicts the daughter of the Pharoah Akhenanten and Queen Nefertiti, mother of Tutankhamun, said to date to the Amarna period of 1350 B.C.

The Amarna Princess

The idea for the provenance of the piece came after they had purchased an 1892 catalogue that listed valuable antiques that had been auctioned off in Silverton Park, Devon, home of the 4th Earl of Egremont. Among the items sold were eight Egyptian figures, which he drew on as inspiration for the carving.

Unbelievably, Shaun dropped the piece of stone and it cracked in two, but his trusty Araldite Rapid came to the rescue once again! The glued together work was authenticated by both the British Museum and Sotheby’s, and was deemed so important that it was even shown to the Queen. It was sold to the Bolton Museum in 2003 for £439, 676.00!!

La Bella Principessa, aka Alison from the Co-Op

Greenhalgh claims that in 1978 he did a drawing in the style of Leonardo da Vinci, using a check-out girl as his model. Shaun used the lid from a discarded desk that came from Bolton Tech. His dad had worked there and when he realised there were unwanted desks he bought one home for his son. The wood was used as the backing to the vellum of an old land deed that Shaun drew the image onto.  It was never meant to be a da Vinci and wouldn’t have fooled any Renaissance specialists, it was more an experiment to see if he could emulate the left-handed genius.

Amazing artefacts

It’s thought that Shaun produced over 120 forgeries, and it’s highly likely that some are still in circulation, yet to be discovered or else kept on the QT by embarrassed owners. Over the years many experts were duped, as were private buyers. One such buyer, William Jefferson Clinton purchased a so called bust of Thomas Jefferson in an auction. Luckily for Shaun, the Tower of London is now only open to tourists, as he sold a medieval crucifix to the royal family on the pretence that it came from the tomb of King John. It actually came from the shed on the outskirts of Bolton.

Shaun Greenhalgh's forgery of LS Lowrys - The Meeting House

Shaun Greenhalgh’s forgery of LS Lowrys – The Meeting House

His copy of LS Lowry’s painting, The Meeting House sold for £70,000 and his Risley Park Lanx made £100,000 and was displayed in the British Museum for a time. He passed off watercolours claiming they were painted by Archibald Thorburn, as well as beautiful items of lalique glass, Chinese pots, Venetian bronzes and Visigoth eagle brooches.

Known list of forgeries.

The ugliness of prejudice

I think what I found so fascinating about this story is the fact that we tend to underestimate seemingly ordinary people. We judge by appearances and circumstances. Unless you’re already an established name or celebrity it seems that it’s almost impossible to make it in the world of literature, art, music and culture.

But by anyone’s standards, the range and depth of skill of this self-taught artist is staggering, and he should have been able to produce his own art and make a living with the same prestige and recognition as say Rothko, Warhol, Banksy, Gormley or Emin – to my mind he has more talent.

But his talent wasn’t recognised in its own right because the ‘experts’ were blinded by prejudice. It was this prejudice that drove him underground, where, by taking on the personas and works of masters of the past, he could prove he was every bit as good (within a whisker) as Lowry, Gaugin, Da Vinci and ancient Egyptian, Roman and Anglo-Saxon artists.

How the Greenhalgh’s were caught:

According to Shaun’s prison memoir – A Forger’s Tale – many of his creations were sold to unscrupulous dealers who made up the provenance and stories attached to them.

Facts tell but stories sell…

It’s obvious he was no angel, and I liken his father, George, to a British TV character Arthur Daley, a benevolent wheeler dealer, but he certainly became embroiled in the underworld of the art world. Waldemar Januszczak points out that Greenhalgh’s book (written during his four and half years in prison), exposes the massive murky side of an industry that is meant to celebrate enlightened and brilliant individuals at the pinnacle of human expression.

Shaun Greenhalgh features after the Sutton Hoo hoard is shown, about 23 minutes in (demonstrating how Anglo Saxon disc brooches were made) in episode 4 of Januszczak’s documentary, The Dark Ages – An Age of Light (2012):

It’s not as if he lived a flamboyant and expensive lifestyle with his considerable earnings from his forgeries; Shaun never left home. It seems he was content to live in meagre circumstances doing what he did best – making things.

Discussing J.M.W. Turner: A Chat over Char with Artist Claire Podesta

“To select, combine and concentrate that which is beautiful in nature and admirable in art is as much the business of the landscape painter in his line as in the other departments of art.”  ~ Joseph Mallord William Turner.

I recently had the good fortune to get to know artist and designer Claire Podesta, through my membership of the Athena Network. I plan to have one of my photos immortalised in watercolour by her soon…

The Two Claires - After Frida (mixed media)

The Two Claires – After Frida (mixed media)

We met up earlier this summer at Rumsey’s in Thame to drink tea and talk about her love of Turner and art.  As I love Turner and I admire anyone who can create a work of fine art, (my skills in that arena are confined to badly proportioned stick men), I was in awe of her skills…

She is an incredibly talented lady, and I wanted to share her love of Turner and art with you in this mostly visual blog post.

“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an artist.”

You could say that Claire started young. Drawing and painting has always been at the forefront of Claire’s life, she was fortunate to have been encouraged by her parents in exploring her passion. She took an art foundation course at Cambridge followed by a degree in Graphic Design and Illustration at Leicester Polytechnic, now De Monfort University.

Claire worked in graphic design on ‘High Life’ the British Airways in-flight magazine for about a year and then spent a few years with various design consultancies in London for clients such as Microsoft, BP, Hewlett Packard, Johnson & Johnson and other blue chip companies and organisations.

In 2002 Claire helped her husband, Matt, start up Podesta, a bespoke furniture business, and was responsible for the branding and marketing of the company, a role which she has recently taken on again part time.

Recently, Claire and Matt were inspired to start The English Tuck Box Company after their eldest daughter started at boarding school – they realised there was a gap in the market for fine quality tuck boxes. Claire also spent three and a half years in the challenging position of Marketing Director at Godstowe School in High Wycombe.

Throughout her career, Claire has always continued to paint, especially during the time when her three children were small, and it led her to the realisation that making art was what she really wanted to do with her life.

In 2014 the family moved to a small village near Thame in Oxfordshire and Claire took the plunge and set up in business for herself as an artist.  Her many years in graphic design have given her a creative edge in the type of art that she produces. Claire paints in her home studio.

When I asked her who her main influence in art had been, she smiled and replied immediately: “Turner.  He is timeless; he was ahead of his time. His art still looks modern.”

Claire confessed that seascapes are what really floats her boat! She loves to add her own unique flair and touches by making them abstract.

“I find inspiration in the landscape of the Chilterns, the drama of the sea, handmade objects, old family photographs and the vibrancy of the southern Mediterranean.”

I saw some of Claire’s work in the art shop/gallery ‘From’ in Thame. I particularly love her Turner-esque seascape that has been used in the header of this post.

To be able to draw and paint like Turner is an unbelievable gift!  With Claire’s permission I have included a gallery containing a selection of her work. If you would like to commission a Turner style landscape (acrylic on canvas), or if you have a favourite photograph of a beloved family pet or other memories you’d like to see on canvas Claire can accommodate you.

Claire specialises in paint, ink and mixed media pictures, as well as more ‘hands-on’ creations such as ceramics.

You can contact her via her website and on Facebook.

All images in this gallery are the copyright of Claire Podesta:

What’s in a painting? Taking a Look at Velázquez’s Masterpiece: Las Meninas (c. 1656)

“I would rather be the first painter of common things than second in higher art.” ~ Diego Velazquez

As someone who enjoys looking at art, but with no education in art history, or any practical skill in sketching or painting, I thought it would be great to educate myself a little more and share my findings with you on my blog.

Detail of Infanta Margarita Teresa from Las Meninas. Her left cheek had to be repainted after the painting suffered fire damage in 1734.

Detail of Infanta Margarita Teresa from Las Meninas. Her left cheek had to be repainted after the painting suffered fire damage in 1734.

Great art was painted for many different reasons by the masters of history, but these days it serves chiefly as a window into the past. Great art has immortalised its creators and their methods and become sought after by wealthy collectors, as well as for the aesthetic enjoyment of all those who clap eyes on it in a museum.  It’s there to be appreciated.

You don’t have to know the specific techniques that the artist employed to achieve a certain effect, although maybe that knowledge would deepen understanding and thereby recognition of what makes a ‘masterpiece’.

Art, like music and literature is subjective; with each era bringing to the fore its masters of the craft, replete with their varied and individual styles, techniques and subject matters.

There have been many glorious paintings that have captivated, yet also eluded humanity over the centuries; their mysterious meanings being debated and interpreted by art scholars and critics through the ages, so I thought this would make a good subject for a series of posts.

I’m starting with the Spanish baroque painter Diego Velázquez, (June 1599 – August 1660), born in Seville to Spanish parents and Portuguese grandparents, he became principal court painter to King Philip IV of Spain and one of the leading figures of the Spanish Golden Age. His oeuvre consisted mainly of royal portraiture, plus important cultural scenes of the epoch, but he also captured portraits of ‘ordinary’ people.

Diego Velazquez - The Rokeby Venus - The National Gallery London

Some of my favourites of his are the Rokeby Venus, The Spinners, Mars, God of War and the Three Musicians. He was admired greatly by Impressionist French painter Édouard Manet, who called him the “painter of painters”.

In addition to his royal portrait commissions, Velázquez was the king’s curator of the royal art collection in the 1640-50’s. He became known as a great connoisseur of European art and was responsible for the curation of works by Titian, Rubens and Raphael, which can still be seen in the Prado today.

Velázquez met Rubens during the Flemish master’s six month diplomatic trip to Madrid in 1628 and escorted him to El Escorial to view a collection of Titians. I can only surmise that they felt a mutual respect for each others talents!

Pablo Picasso, 58 recreations of Las Meninas.

Pablo Picasso, 58 recreations of Las Meninas.

Strangely his work only became known outside of Spain in the 19th century, but his influence on Western Art was considerable. Picasso recreated Las Meninas in 58 variations in 1957.  Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon both created works based on notable paintings by Velázquez. John Singer Sargent and Goya both referenced Las Meninas.

From Wikipedia:

Las Meninas has long been recognised as one of the most important paintings in Western art history. The Baroque painter Luca Giordano said that it represents the “theology of painting” and in 1827 president of the R.A. Sir Thomas Lawrence described the work in a letter to his successor David Wilkie as “the true philosophy of the art”. More recently, it has been described as “Velázquez’s supreme achievement, a highly self-conscious, calculated demonstration of what painting could achieve, and perhaps the most searching comment ever made on the possibilities of the easel painting”.

There is much information about the life and work of Velázquez, but for now I want to focus on the multi-layered visual information embedded in the astoundingly innovative Las Meninas, (The Maids of Honour).

This sizeable oil on canvas work measures 318 cm × 276 cm, and was painted only four years before Velázquez died at the age of 61 in 1660. If not quite his valediction, it is considered to be the apotheosis of his artistic achievement.

Las Meninas was painted in the ‘Pieza Principale’ of the apartments of the late Balthasar Charles’s in the palace of Alcázar, Madrid. After the death of Philip’s first child (by the deceased Queen Elisabeth), it was used as Velázquez’s studio.

Diego_Velázquez - Las_Meninas

Who or what, is the real subject?

Upon first glance it could be thought that the subject matter is the only surviving child of Philip IV of Spain, a precocious looking Infanta Margarita Teresa. Either side of her are her two attentive ladies-in-waiting, one of whom appears to be offering her a small cup of cocoa. Incidentally, four hundred years ago the hot chocolate they drank contained mind-altering qualities!!

In her vicinity you can also see two dwarf court jesters, and behind them two courtiers (one of which is a nun), with the royal pooch obediently resting at their feet. The painter standing at the easel is Velázquez himself, (there could be no doubt about the origin of this masterpiece).

Then your eyes are drawn to the reflection of King Philip and Queen Mariana in the mirror at the back of the room. You wonder, are they visiting their daughter having her portrait painted, or is she visiting her parents having their picture painted, which is being reflected back to us from the tall canvas into the mirror? The imagery on the canvas he is painting can only be imagined.

Las Meninas - Mirror detail of King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana

Las Meninas – Mirror detail of King Philip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana

It could be interpreted that the royal couple are standing precisely where we, as the viewers, are witnessing the scene from, which is endowed with natural light from the front right window. We are standing in the king and queen’s shoes…

The air in the large, but to my sense, oppressive space between the figures and the high ceiling above them is almost tangible.

The painting is considered to have many vanishing points, apparently coinciding on the shadowy figure visible through the open door, posing somewhat menacingly on the staircase…

The presence of the man in the doorway, (Don José Nieto Velázquez), seems to signal that the king and queen (having posed for their portrait), will soon be leaving the room, but perhaps there is a darker theme being introduced to the viewer here? He could be a visual representation of a deeper meaning: mortality and death.

The heavily muted, dark background (perhaps one of the huge paintings hanging on the back wall is by Rubens?) is contrasted sharply by the bright light emanating from behind the figure on the stairs revealed by the open doorway, which draws your gaze away from the people in the foreground, giving the perspective of distance, of perhaps a journey into the unknown.

It seems to me a complex portrayal of the painter (and his elevated status among the royal household), a kind of snapshot of their life journey witnessed from the canvas and on the canvas!

No wonder it has been so celebrated over the years by artists, historians and art lovers alike. If you want to see it in real life you’ll need to travel to the painting’s permanent home in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Velazquez was admitted into the Order of Santiago by royal decree in 1659, hence the red cross was added to his breast on the painting after the artist’s death.

For those in the UK with an interest there is also a smaller version of the painting (minus the royal reflection), preserved in the country house of Kingston Lacy in Dorset. Radiographs have shown it to be painted after the Madrid masterpiece. Some believe it could have been a copy by Velázquez’s student and son-in-law, Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo (1612-1667).

The opening chapter of French philosopher Michael Foucault’s book, The Order of Things was devoted to an in-depth analysis of Las Meninas.

It seems somewhat sad to think that the most prominent figure in the painting, the young Infanta Margarita, was married off to her uncle Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna aged only 15, and by the time of her death in her early twenties she had endured 19 pregnancies, resulting in just four births, with only one of her babies surviving into adulthood.

Velázquez - Infanta_Margarita aged 8 in a blue dress 1659

Growing up she was painted several times by Velázquez, probably the other most famous portrait is of her wearing a blue dress c. 1659 (now on display at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Unlike its long gone painter and sitters, Las Meninas survived the Peninsula War, the Spanish Civil War, a precarious train journey back to Madrid and a fire that destroyed the palace in 1734. Luckily for us, monks rescued the scorched painting by throwing it out of the window! Sadly hundreds of paintings in the royal collection were lost in the disaster.

I’ll leave you with an interesting documentary about Diego Velázquez, his art and Las Meninas by the National Gallery:

A Celebration of the Radical Art of the Pre-Raphaelites

“Sometimes thou seem’st not as thyself alone, But as the meaning of all things that are.” ~ Dante Gabriel Rossetti

One of the most iconic paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite era is John Everett Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, ‘Ophelia’ (c. 1851-52), chosen as my header image. When I saw his beautiful but mournful likeness of Shakespeare’s ill-fated heroine from Hamlet up close and in the flesh, during the Tate’s 2012 exhibition – Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde – it was a special moment.

A taster of the exhibition from art historian Lucinda Hawksley:

Ophelia took many months to complete, in exacting conditions in a watery corner of leafy Surrey, and tested the painter and his muse, model and later artist herself, (Elizabeth Siddal) to the limit. Poor Lizzie’s health suffered as a result of lying in cold baths for hours on end as John became engrossed in his art. The story behind Ophelia.

“Thus Millais denied technical convention, drew from nature, reconstructed the past and embraced technological progress in materials.” ~ John Ruskin in a letter to The Times.

The trailblazers of Victorian art were undoubtedly the three founding members of a group of artists, known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB): Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 82), Sir John Everett Millais (1829 – 96) and William Holman Hunt (1827 – 1910). The later four members of the PRB were James Collinson, a little known genre painter, Thomas Woolner, sculptor and artist, plus William Micahel Rossetti (younger brother of Dante), and Frederic George Stephens.

The Early Years

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed in September 1848. It helps to understand the historical and political context from which their art developed: the age of the Industrial Revolution and the Gothic revival, marking the end of a turbulent decade in British History. Perhaps with a degree of sympathy for Chartism and the People’s Charter of 1838, the early works of the Pre-Raphaelites shared the rebellious, anti-establishment energy of these years, and earned notoriety for its creators in Victorian society.

William_Holman_Hunt_The Hireling Shepherd

The Hireling Shepherd by William Holman Hunt (1851)

Woolner’s emigration to Australia marked the break-up of the PRB in 1853, after which the members of the brotherhood followed independent careers. Hunt travelled to the Holy Land to pursue his authentic brand of religious history painting, while Rossetti explored and developed an iconic style of female beauty in art, a forerunner to the aesthetic movement. Millais remained at the forefront of European artistic culture, and Morris and Burne-Jones became known for their romantic depictions of medieval poetry and literature.

Edward Burne-Jones_Love_Among_the_Ruins

Love Among the Ruins ~ Watercolour by Edward Burne-Jones (c. 1870-73) titled after the poem by Robert Browning.

I adore their art, (hence the image of Veronica Veronese on my About page), and also that of other artists associated with the wider Pre-Raphaelite circle, such as Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes, William Morris, Frederick Sandys, Ford Madox Brown, Frank Cadogan Cowper, John William Waterhouse, John  Roddam Spencer Stanhope, John Brett, Henry Wallis, Walter Howell Deverell, Poet Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, an artist in her own right, (lover and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti).


Veronica Veronese by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1872)

There’s nothing outrageous about Pre-Raphaelite art to the modern eye, but in the early to mid 19th Century it caused an outrage! Ten years before Impressionism became popular this group of innovative painters and sculptors wanted to portray their imagery and subjects with a more realistic feel, departing from the existing and popular Renaissance style of Raphael.

John_Everett_Millais - Mariana

Mariana by John Everett Millais (1851)

The PRB eschewed the influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, (founder of the Royal Academy of Arts), and derided him with the sobriquet ‘Sir Sloshua’ because of his broad style of academic mannerism. Quite simply, their ground-breaking art took the Victorian art world by storm.

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse  (1894)

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse (1894)

They had a champion for their new type of vivid and colourful portrayals; depicting religious, landscape, literary, mythological and historical scenes, under the patronage of the prominent Victorian art critic, John Ruskin.

BBC Documentary – Victorian Revolutionaries:

I think this rather prophetical excerpt from The Guardian in 1851 perfectly sums up their aim and legacy:

The true distinction of these men is, that they are poets on canvass, and paint mind, character, and feeling, while the most of our figure painters – at least those who attempt anything beyond the delineation of humorous scenes – do little else than give a prosaic and literal representation of the action or person they profess to depict. In how many cases is the title of a picture a mere after-thought? How often is an historical piece nothing more than a collection of costumes? The rich colours, the minute and careful finish which mark the works of Millais and Hunt, give one the impression of being the natural result and accompaniment of the intense vividness of their conceptions, and not mere efforts of executive art; and these qualities are here but subordinate to the higher interest of expression which pervades the whole. In a word, these painters have touched a deeper chord than English art has hitherto known; and in no short space of time their merits will be clearly recognised as are now those of a Keats or a Beethoven, whose works, when first promulgated to the world, were pronounced strange, unintelligible, and contrary to all rule.

Their private lives were as colourful as their art, hence author Franny Moyle wrote a book that explored their relationships with each other and their muses. The book was later adapted by the BBC as a drama series by the same name: Desperate Romantics, with Aiden Turner (of recent Poldark fame), Rafe Spall, Samuel Barnett and and Tom Hollander in the main roles. It was the first fictionalised programme that drew me in to their world and made me a fan!

Desperate Romantics Featurette:

I love Rossetti’s poem, Sudden Light, which also featured in a scene of Desperate Romantics between Gabriel and Lizzie:

From Faust ~ Goethe

She excels

All women in the magic of her locks;

And when she winds them round a young man’s neck

She will not ever set him free again.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Lady-Lilith

Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (c. 1866-68)

Prose that inspired Rossetti’s lustrous painting of Lady Lilith, modelled by Alexa Wilding, (c. 1866-8 altered 1872-3), as the archetypal ‘femme fatale’, a figure of both danger and allure. To me it’s erotic and aesthetic appeal is arresting. Swinburne commented, “For this serene and sublime sorceress there is no life but of the body.”

‘Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil’ ~ John Keats (1st verse) based on a story from Boccaccio

Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel!

Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love’s eye!

They could not in the self-same mansion dwell

Without some stir of heart, some malady;

They could not sit at meals but feel how well                 5

It soothed each to be the other by;

They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep

But to each other dream, and nightly weep.

Isabella was Millais’s first completed painting after the formation of the PRB, and exhibited at the RA in 1849.  Curator Jason Rosenfeld reveals the story behind John Everett Millais’s painting Isabella:

Some Pre-Raphaelite trivia/tidbits:

  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70) was a hommage to Dante Aligheri and also to his muse and deceased wife Elizabeth Siddal, who died at the tender age of 32 from a laudanum overdose.
  • William Morris, known principally as a poet and collector of rare books and manuscripts, and later for his textile designs painted only one known easel painting – a portrait of his future wife (Jane Burden) posing as La Belle Iseult (c. 1857-8).
  • Edward Burne-Jones painted his lover Maria Zambaco (c. 1870), as a commission from her mother and his patron, Euphrosyne Cassavetti, and is confessional in content.
  • Dante-Gabriel-Rossetti - Astarte-SyriacaThe largest sum of money Dante Gabriel Rossetti received for a work of art was £2,000 from the photographer Clarence Fry, for his 6ft high sensual oil on canvas of the ancient Syrian Goddess of love, Astarte Syriaca (c. 1877), modelled by Jane Morris (who he became obsessed with).
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti had Lizze Siddal’s remains exhumed so that he could retrieve his poems which had been buried with her.
  • John Everett Millais fell in love with his patron and mentor’s unhappy wife Effie Ruskin. She eventually left Ruskin (and had their unconsummated marriage annuled), married Millais and had 13 children with him.

A Passion for the Pre-Raphaelites by PRB enthusiast and collector Andrew-Lloyd Webber:

It would not be right to neglect to mention those artists who had influenced the Pre-Raphaelite movement, such as the arrival of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait at the National Gallery in 1842, and after his death, the visionary printmaker and poet William Blake (1757 – 1827), with his disregard for academic conventions. Then there were the German artists Overbeck and Pforr known as the ‘The Nazarenes’ based in Rome, who drew elements from both Northern and Italian Renaissance styles, and the British painter William Dyce.

I have included a small gallery of some of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Film Review: Mr Turner

“Why, Mrs Somerville, you have the arm of a blacksmith.”

Mr Turner, Mike Leigh’s 2014 multiple Oscar and BAFTA nominated biopic about one of Britian’s most revered artists, the romantic landscape painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner, spans the last twenty six years of his life.

Mr-TurnerI love Turner’s paintings, but I didn’t know much about the man or his life, and I think the film went a good way to furnishing me with the facts. Actually, it did more than that. It instilled an admiration for the man beyond his artistic genius, such as his work ethic, honesty, passion and down to earth personality, despite his elevated position in society due to his prodigious talent.

Turner’s art was so popular that it was responsible for raising the prominence of landscape painting to the same level as that of history painting in his lifetime.

Being a ‘period drama queen’, it was probably a foregone conclusion that I would enjoy this film!

Although it’s a dramatised biopic, so much about this film felt authentic. It was visceral and gritty, absolutely realistic, but those elements of the story were also beautifully interspersed with some amazing cinematography of the British countryside, atmospheric art studios and galleries.

Mr-Turner-sceneryViews of rugged mountains, the sea and the light on the coastline all evoked scenes that you can imagine he painted. There is even a moment where he is tied to the mast of a steam boat in a snow storm, so that he could later accurately paint the event. He did suffer for his art…

“Once, Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for several hours, during a furious storm, so that he could later paint the storm. Obviously, it was not the storm itself that Turner intended to paint. What he intended to paint was a representation of the storm. One’s language is frequently imprecise in that manner, I have discovered.” ~ David Markson, (Wittgenstein’s Mistress).

JMW - Snow_Storm_-_Steam-Boat_off_a_Harbour's_Mouth

It’s wonderful that Mike Leigh made sure that the use of light, (which Turner was famous for), was a visual delight throughout the film. I loved the way the light streams through the window of his studio, and his encounter with the use of a prism courtesy of the witty and intelligent Scottish science writer and polymath, Mrs Somerville.

I would say that Timothy Spall’s portrayal of this prolific and eccentric painter is his finest performance bar none. To help prepare for the role of Turner, Spall had painting tuition from Tim Wright for two and a half years prior to filming, so that he would appear authentic in the painting scenes. It clearly paid off.

The viewer is treated to scenes of Turner travelling everywhere with his large kit bag, spitting on his canvases, blowing dried paint on them, and applying his forceful brush strokes.

Probably one of the best scenes in the film is when he enters the Royal Academy (which is like another home to him), and has upbeat interactions with his fellow Academicians, such as John Constable, George Jones, C.R. Leslie, David Roberts, and Clarkson Frederick Stanfield, and is shown putting the finishing touches to a seascape by the rather dramatic addition of a red buoy, much to Constable’s annoyance:

Spall gives a very lusty portrayal of the rather portly, rugged and enigmatic artist, a man who at heart liked the simple pleasures of life; his work, travelling, being at one with nature, his food and drink, sex and female companionship. When we are first introduced to Mr Turner, he has just returned to his home in London from a trip to the Netherlands.

On the one hand Billy Turner comes across as gruff, (he does a lot of grunting), curmudgeonly and secretive, (for instance he later leads a double life as ‘Mr Booth’ with his lover in Chelsea), and yet on the other hand he is also incredibly kind, lending £50 to troubled artist Benjamin Robert Haydon, later relinquishing the debt when Haydon falls victim to financial and personal misfortune. It becomes obvious that even though he is a very private man, he has integrity, and that he prefers simplicity and comfort, even though he is accustomed to grandeur.  

His close relationship with his father, who works with him in his studio, purchasing and mixing paints and gathering materials for his work, is totally heart-warming. My sympathy went out to his melancholy housekeeper, Hannah Danby, who comes across as a rather pitiful creature that Turner uses to satisfy his sexual needs and who worships him, but her affection and devotion is not returned.

Strangely, Hannah is the niece of the even more hapless Sarah Danby, an earlier lover of Turner’s and mother of his two daughters. One feels Turner would rather forget the whole affair, but her random visits put pay to that!

mr-turner-timothy-spallMuch is made of Turner’s trips to Margate to paint the seascapes; and the development of his relationship with Sophia Caroline Booth, the welcoming landlady of the guest house he stays in during his time there. They eventually become lovers and she moves to London so that they can live together. They make each other happy in their dotage.

We also see how over the years his journey to the coast by boat is replaced with the invention of the steam train and the Great Western Railway, which Turner also committed to canvas.

JMW Turner - Rain_Steam_and_Speed_the_Great_Western_Railway

“It was a masterpiece. Nobody bought it. (Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844)” ~ Anthony Bailey, (Standing in the Sun: A Biography of J.M.W.Turner).

There are quite a few touching moments, such as when he is a guest of one of his wealthy patrons, the 3rd Earl of Egremont at his hereditary home, the magnificent Petworth House in West Sussex, (which incidentally is also featured in my novel, The Virtuoso).

JMW Turner - Petworth House

The camera floats along Turner’s paintings which are hung low to meet the eye line of dining guests, as he chats with Miss Coggins, who is playing Beethoven’s ‘Pathetique’ piano sonata. He asks her to play Purcell, and she obliges with Dido’s Lament, to which Turner sings along.

There is another scene where he enters a brothel, and meets a young girl for the first time. He asks her to reveal herself and arranges her seductively on the bed, and then proceeds to sit down and take out his sketch book.

Another is of Turner on a boat with friends and fellow artists on the Thames, when they witness ‘The Fighting Temereire’ Steam Boat being led to her berth to be dismantled, and it is suggested that Turner should paint her for posterity.

JMW Turner - The_Fighting_Téméraire_tugged_to_her_last_Berth_to_be_broken

We are also introduced to the young Victorian writer, art critic and patron John Ruskin, who adores and reveres Turner, (he is beguiled by his painting The Slave Ship), but the viewer is made painfully aware that he hails from a different class. It is a rather satirical portrayal of his character, lisping away, full of hubris, and quick to criticize Turner’s landscape predecessor, Claude Lorrain.

We see that despite his relative fame while still alive, Turner is also victim to changing public tastes as his style of art grows more ethereal and intensely light focused. He winces in the shadows when the young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are inspecting the Royal Academy exhibition, and the monarch is definitely not impressed by Turner’s “yellow mess”. Similarly, he is mocked in the theatre for his later style of painting. He realises that the new kids on the block, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, are now in vogue.

One of the last scenes in the film takes place in Turner’s home gallery, when he is made an offer by a wealthy industrialist to purchase all of his paintings for the sum of one hundred thousand pounds. Still a significant sum of money by today’s standards; an absolute fortune in Turner’s era. But Turner just snorts and replies, ‘With somewhat of a heavy heart, it’s out of the question.’ He declines the generous offer, as he has bequeathed his completed artworks to the British nation.

If there is one small criticism of the film, it is of the modern, eerie soundtrack and music. I never thought that would be the case, but to me it felt incongruous to the subject matter it was meant to convey, and would have been more suited to a thriller. I would rather have heard music from the romantic period, which in my opinion would have suited the film better. Perhaps they were going for an atmospheric feel to align with the complex character of J.M.W. Turner.

Here is a fascinating short film about the artistic aspects of bringing Mr Turner to the big screen:

In summary, Mr Turner is a must watch film that draws you into J.M.W. Turner’s world and has a superb cast, screenplay and locations that brings his story vividly to life. I’m sure I will revisit the movie repeatedly now that I have the DVD in my possession!

What surprised me from the film was Turner’s constant sketching. He would sketch everyday events often, which is probably why his output was so prolific. He was said to have completed around 19,000 sketches during his lifetime, as well as hundreds of watercolours and oil paintings. He was accepted into the Royal Academy of Art at the tender age of 15, when it was under the leadership of Sir Joshua Reynolds.

For art lovers who want to know more about Turner’s life and work here is a fabulous documentary:

He was not just an inspiration and source of pride for the British, his paintings influenced the Impressionist movement in France, and were carefully studied by Claude Monet.

“Unfortunately I met Mr. Turner at the Academy a night or two after I received this letter; and he asked me if I had heard from Mr. Lennox. I was obliged to say ‘yes.’

‘Well, and how does he like the picture?’

‘He thinks it indistinct.’

‘You should tell him,’ he replied, ‘that indistinctness is my forte.’” ~ George Walter Thornbury (The Life of J.M.W. Turner).