Collection Archive

Illuminating Objects: Observation, Connoisseurship and a bit of Detective Work

Illuminating Objects intern Natasha Gertler tells us about how her research is going. 

As previously touched upon in my last blog post (and frankly, contrary to my natural instinct to apply analysis to any given problem) identifying decorative stones, such as those in the Courtauld’s ornate frame, is actually more an art than a science.

Whereas geologists can use destructive techniques to analyse and accurately identify rocks and minerals from the field – smashing and slicing them to view under a microscope – this of course is not an option when considering valuable objects from a museum collection. Even most non-invasive analytical techniques are inappropriate as the majority of these aim to establish information about the chemical composition and arrangement of a sample but many materials, both natural and manmade, have essentially the same chemical make-up. For example, both quartz and glass are composed of silica (SiO₂) and so cannot be distinguished by such analysis.

Therefore, identifying decorative stones is normally achieved through a mixture of observation, connoisseurship and comparison to stones of known identity. Awareness of such stones, their appearance, uses and provenance, is hence essential for identification. However, this is rather a niche discipline as it lies somewhere between geology and art history but is never fully taught in either field, but instead gained through experience and exposure. There are only a handful of such experts in the UK.

Dr. Ruth Siddall, Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences at UCL, along with her student, Nadine Gabriel, kindly came to the Courtauld to lay eyes on the frame and carry out a bit of detective work. Armed with a microscope and a wealth of decorative stone knowledge, Ruth corrected our prior suspicions of the inclusion of man-made imitations in the frame, reassuring us that all the segments of the frame were indeed rocks and minerals sourced from around the 17th century.

Ruth Siddall and Nadine Gabriel observing the frame

Microscopic camera taking images of the frame

Natasha Gertler and Nadine Gabriel looking at the microscopic images of the frame

Ruth’s certainty arose by comparing the stones in the frame to the extensive Corsi collection. Housed in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, it is composed of 1000 polished stone slabs of uniform shape and size (145 x 73 x 40 mm). By referring to the online catalogue, she identified the presence of various Sicilian jaspers in the frame.

In particular, Ruth identified what we initially thought was an imitation of tiger’s eye to in fact be a distinct variety of Sicilian jasper characterised by its yellow and black banded appearance. Shown below are images of the Sicilian jaspers in the frame (left) alongside the corresponding samples from the Corsi collection (right).

Corsi 764 © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Corsi 745 © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Corsi 776 © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Ruth Siddall using the Corsi collection online catalogue for comparisonWith such an excellent resource on our doorstep, naturally our next step on the quest for identity was to contact Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and author of The Corsi Collection website.

Read all about my collaboration with Monica Price and trip to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in my next blog post.

P.s. As the major contributor of information to the London Pavement Geology website, Ruth also pointed out to us the decorative stones used just on the doorstep of the Courtauld. These are Grey Oland Limestone and Red Oland Limestone arranged in a checkered pattern. Admittedly, I have never noticed these details, so next time you come and visit us make sure to spot the ancient fossils under your feet!

Reading Inscriptions in the Collection

Our Reading Drawings Display, in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery until 4 June, looks at a selection of works from The Courtauld Gallery’s collection which demonstrate the varying reasons both artists and collectors wrote on drawings. These range from straightforward signatures to lengthy captions, invented languages and marks of ownership. However, it’s not just this temporary display that features inscriptions revealing essential information about a work of art’s authorship, dating, subject matter, purpose and history. The Courtauld’s full collection has its own plethora of written word on a variety of materials, detailing an array of interesting snippets of information.

Monumental Inscriptions

Roman funerary altar (1st century AD)

Roman funerary altar (1st century AD)

The inscription here mentions the stone was made by Lucceia Hebene for her husband, Marcus Lucceius Optatus, and daughter, who died at five years and three months. What it does not tell us, but can be deduced from the name itself, is that Hebbene (or Hebene) was a freed slave, possibly a black freed slave. (There is an associated altar, dedicated to Lucceia Hebene herself, in a castle in Scotland.)

The art and craft of lettering

Inscription, 1918, Eric Gill (1882-1940)

This carved limestone inscription reads ‘OPTIMA ET PULCHERRIMA VITAE SVPELLEX AMICTIA’. This is adapted from Cicero’s De Amicitia and means ‘The best and most beautiful support of life is friendship’. Inscribed on the right side is the name of the sculptor and date of the work, ‘EGill 1918’.

Monograms and signatures

Portrait of Mette Gauguin, 1877, Paul Gauguin

The inscription on this bust is signed and carved below the collar: P. Gauguin. Only two marble sculptures by Gauguin are known, this portrait head of his Danish wife Mette and one of his son, Emile, carved in the same year. At the time the Gauguin family was living in an apartment in the Rue des Fourneaux, in Paris, which belonged to a sculptor named Bouillot. Considering Gauguin’s inexperience as a sculptor in marble, and the highly accomplished naturalism of this work, it seems likely that Bouillot assisted Gauguin in the carving, but to what extent is not known.

Virgin and Child, Circa 1365-70, Barnaba da Modena

This small work was made for private devotion. For this purpose, Christ’s scroll is inscribed with one of the beatitudes: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. The text along the bottom, ‘Barnaba da Modena painted (this)’, is a rare early example of a painter’s signature. Born in Modena in central Italy, Barnaba spent most of his career in Genoa. The heavy shading of the Virgin’s face and the gold striations on her mantle are derived from Byzantine art. This slightly archaic style may account for Barnaba’s success in Genoa, where Byzantine painting had long been dominant.

Enamel plaque painted in grisaille with David and Goliath, probably French 19th Century in the style of the 16th century

This enamel plaque shows David and Goliath, with ‘P.R.’ on the bottom of the triumphal arch. Signed enamels with the monogram ‘P.R.’ usually means they were either made in the ‘workshop of Pierre Reymond’, or by Pierre Reymond himself. However, it is thought that this work is a highly skilled 19th century forgery done in the style of Pierre Reymond.

These are just a few examples of the types of inscriptions that can be found within The Courtauld Gallery’s collection, both online and in the Gallery itself. Next time you’re visiting us, why not take a closer look at the works and delve into the world of writing and markings on works of art, and for all art that is not currently on display, you can find out more on them on our Art and Architecture website.

Visit Reading Drawings, on display until 4 June 2017

Inscribing Prints

The Prints and Drawings Study Room is hosting a new displays that responds our Reading Drawings in The Courtauld Gallery. Print Room Assistants Imogen Tedbury and Sean Ketteringham talk us through the latest display.

Timed to coincide with the exhibition Reading Drawings, which showcases inscriptions on drawings in the Courtauld collection, this display in the Prints and Drawings Study Room looks at the function of inscriptions in prints. The Courtauld Gallery has 7,000 drawings, but it also has over 26,000 prints – so we had plenty of works to choose from!

Printed text in printed images can function very differently to handwritten text in drawings. So, we decided to leave aside the themes thoroughly examined in the drawings exhibition – attribution, the history of collecting and working practices – instead exploring why and how prints include text, and what functions word and image can serve together, across a broad range of dates and places. Playing around with the word and concept of ‘Authority’, we thought about the relative ‘authorities’ of text in an image: what happens when text moves from the frame or border to take up an active role in the image itself?

Some Early Modern printmakers represented God by representing the Word of God – his textual ‘authority’, if you like. In these prints, the physical representation of God’s Word as visual sign plays a central role within the image. In the Fall of the Tower of Babel, for example, the illegible rotation of the Latin text signifies the fragmentation of earthly language.

We were also interested in how an authority – whether political, religious or artistic – can be undermined by the use of inscription. Two eighteenth-century satirical prints chosen for the display use fragments of text to make fun of their subjects, subverting them by parodying religious language. An attack by an anonymous artist on Robert Walpole, the first prime minister of Britain, even seems a forerunner for 2017 Turner Prize nominee Anthea Hamilton’s installation of a giant bottom, Project for Door (After Gaetano Pesce), or Pauline Boty’s 1966 painting, Bum!

Printmaking’s close relationship with book-printing inspires the last group of prints – a selection of title pages and cover images from Canaletto to Wyndham Lewis considering how frontispieces reveal and conceal their textual and pictorial content. In these prints no clear boundary can be drawn between word and image, as together they combine to communicate the author’s identity.

Come and see these printed treasures, some of which have not been on display before. The Prints and Drawings Study Room is open by appointment Monday-Thursday 10am-5pm, or drop in on Wednesday afternoons during term time, 1.30-4pm, no appointment needed

Idol-Worship or The Way to Preferment, a portrait of Robert Walpole., 1740, © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Bloomsbury Art & Design

Our special display Bloomsbury Art & Design opened last month. It brings together a wide-ranging selection of work by the remarkable Bloomsbury Group. We asked exhibition curator Dr Rosamund Garrett to tell us about curating the display. 

Bloomsbury Art & Design installation.

In November I was appointed the new Bridget Riley Art Foundation Curatorial Assistant at The Courtauld Gallery, a unique role that allows me to work across the entire collection. With Dr Barnaby Wright, the Daniel Katz Curator of Twentieth-Century Art, I was charged with curating our current Special Display: Bloomsbury Art & Design.

This display brings together the highlights of the Courtauld’s collection of paintings, design drawings, ceramics and furniture by the artists from the Bloomsbury Group to look at the movement that shaped early twentieth-century modernism in Britain. It was my first project after having been completely immersed in my doctoral research in a rather different field – Renaissance tapestry – so I was eager to take up the challenge.

Given my specialisation in tapestry, I was keen to display the large rug designed by Duncan Grant, with its bold colours and eye-catching geometric design. Rugs are usually displayed on the floor, but with several large pieces of furniture featuring in the display, floor space was at a premium.  To ensure the rug could be shown I asked our Head Conservator, Graeme Barraclough, if we could do things a bit differently.

Tapestries are often displayed on slant boards: a board at a slight angle that allows the tapestry to be viewed vertically whilst its weight is gently supported across the entire surface. I thought that Grant’s rug would look striking displayed vertically on one of the short walls, and would complement the series of abstract rug designs that we intended to display beside it.

We started drawing up the plans for the slant board, but, after a thorough examination by conservation, the rug was found to be too fragile to be displayed in this way. Graeme, however, is never deterred. He and our technician, Matthew Thompson, devised a new method of display that combined a slant board with a roller, allowing us to display a section of the rug vertically whilst the roller holds most of the weight. Exhibitions always rely on the expertise, creativity and skills of many individuals, not to mention their physical presence – lifting the roller with the heavy rug onto our adapted slant board was no mean feat!

We are fortunate at The Courtauld to have such an extensive collection of Bloomsbury objects, many of which were given to us directly by one of the leaders of the Group, the artist and art critic Roger Fry. Why not pop in to Bloomsbury Art & Design to see the rug on our new display method as well as other works by the group of artists whose radical and experimental art introduced bold colours and dynamic abstract designs to the domestic interiors of Edwardian Britain.

Book Now: Bloomsbury Art & Design
Until 21 September 2017

Kenneth Clark Travel Award Winner

On Tuesday we were thrilled to welcome Rosie Shackleton to The Courtauld Institute of Art’s galleries. Rosie, a sixth form student from Dixons Academy in Leeds, chose to visit The Courtauld after she was awarded the Kenneth Clark Travel Award during her participation in the ARTiculation Prize, a competition encouraging young people to speak publicly about art. Courtauld undergraduate student Annabelle Birchenough tells us about Rosie’s visit:

693a3064As a current Courtauld Student Ambassador who took part in ARTiculation in 2013, I was delighted to accompany Rosie during her visit. The day comprised of a number of fascinating behind the scenes insights into the workings of The Institute, including a visit to the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery, and Prints and Drawings Study Room.

First, we were fortunate to have Assistant Curator of Works on Paper, Dr Rachel Sloan talk us through the curation processes involved in her current drawings gallery display Regarding Trees, before taking us to the treasure trove that is The Courtauld Prints and Drawings Study Room. On learning that Rosie has a particular interest in Impressionism, Rachel pulled out a wonderful box of early Impressionist drawings and prints that Rosie really enjoyed getting up close to. The Programming Manager, Learning, Stephanie Christodoulou then talked Rosie through the general workings of the main gallery before we finished the day with a detailed walk around The Courtauld Gallery’s permanent collection, as well as the temporary display of Georgina Houghton’s work. By the end of the visit, Rosie told me she couldn’t have asked for more and summed the success of the day up as follows:

“I really enjoyed the visit. There were great insights into how a gallery is run, particularly on the paper and prints side of the institute, and I really loved the Van Gogh drawing we saw! The Impressionist gallery was just luscious and brilliant. I really loved the Georgia Houghton too – it was really interesting.”

Congratulations again Rosie, we hope to see you soon!