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What it means to be an Old Masters drawing expert


Temperamental differences and a damaged Delacroix
Brian Sewell Writer
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Then there are personalities, and German personalities in an exhibition tend to be rather dour and earnest and academic. Italians tend to get very excitable. The French are absolutely insufferable. Posses of French experts and critics and God knows what arrive, all dressed for the part, you know. They have immaculate clothing. They wave their [unclear] about and they’re gesticulating. They demand to be given lunch and all the rest of it. And they are insulting in a way that Englishmen never are, and so on. And all these things have to be endured.

I was working on the… for Michel Laclotte. He said, 'We are sending various things over to the Tate for an exhibition of romantic art'. And one of the things was the great Delacroix of The Massacre at Chios. And I had to go to the Tate and watch it being unpacked, this huge picture. And when I got to the Tate, there was a case which was about nine feet long, but only about 18 inches square.

And they had taken it off the stretcher and rolled it and then it was to be put back on the stretcher. The stretcher and the frame had also come, had been dismantled. So all these three constituent parts had to be… just put together again. But as they opened the box containing the painting, which is the most important part of this, it became clear that, instead of screwing the lid of the box down, they had nailed it. They had used long wire nails, which had gone through the lid and then curved. Instead of going down through the wall of the box, it had curved into the picture. And when we flattened the picture, it was not quite like lavatory paper, with perforations running down, but there were lines of punctures where these nails had gone through the canvas. So there were urgent telephone calls. You know, shall we arrange to restore it? Anyway, the Louvre restorer came over. And that was an education in itself, because their… he wasn’t in the least abashed by this damage that had been caused by his own technicians, but was sort of plugging each of these holes with wax and then putting a little dab of paint on top and camouflaged them, quite invisible. But you can imagine the horror of realising what had happened, of the nail going through several layers of canvas before it finally came to rest.

So those are the sort of experiences you get. And of course, if you are dealing with a picture like the Brazil picture, which turned out to be irrelevant rubbish, you may find that having worked from only photographs, that the picture isn’t the original picture at all, it’s a replica. It may not even be from the studio. And that upsets all your catalogue entries and everything you’ve said about it, and you have to do a considerable amount of adjustment. You have to dance to that particular disaster, because if you don’t, you’ve got a picture which you aren’t putting on view. Then you have to explain that to the people who lent it. 'Why aren’t you showing our picture?' 'We decided it was a copy'. Ahhh. You know.

You still see these things happen, because in the Leonardo exhibition last… not this winter past, but the one before, the Leonardo of the Virgin with the Christ child at the breast, the Madonna Litta, is not by Leonardo. But the entry had been written by the… the catalogue entry… had been written by the curator of the Hermitage. And nothing could be done. Putting that picture with all the others made it perfectly clear that it is not by Leonardo, but you could not… if you were to retain the picture in the exhibition… the curator demanded that the entry stand as she had written it. In other words, this is a genuine… so you have a terrible error of connoisseurship perpetuated in the very catalogue that should undo that error. How do you deal with it? It was important that everybody should see the picture. In the end, it was decided that it was more important to see the picture than to have the argument out in public about its genuineness or otherwise.

Born in England, Brian Sewell (1931-2015) was considered to be one of Britain’s most prominent and outspoken art critics. He was educated at the Courtauld Institute of Art and subsequently became an art critic for the London Evening Standard; he received numerous awards for his work in journalism. Sewell also presented several television documentaries, including an arts travelogue called The Naked Pilgrim in 2003. He talked candidly about the prejudice he endured because of his sexuality.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: The Massacre at Chios, Tate Gallery, Madonna Litta, Madonna Litta, Eugène Delacroix, Leonardo da Vinci, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, Michel Laclotte

Duration: 5 minutes, 55 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2013

Date story went live: 04 July 2013