History of Art Quiz. Name the Italian Renassaince artist, who…

A bit of innocent fun, for the art lovers among my readers.   I’m teaching Italian Renaissance to my A-Level class at present and dragged these images off various sites to make a slide talk presentation.   Thought i\d post them here too, for your pleasure and interest.   It’s not a Dublin Decoded competition, there are no Dublin tours or prizes to give away.  (sorry!)   So you don’t have to write me the answers, honestly, it’s just for your own enjoyment.   Although if you enjoy, it’s always lovely tyto hear from people,  so of course readers are very welcome to say hello, thanks or to share the link.   But no need for answers here, I simply thought you might enjoy these.

Just try to identify the artists, and/or their works, using the questions and hints below…

First section.  Proto-Renaissance.

#1.  Amazingly, astoningly in fact, this artist below, was a contemporary of Giotto.  Not hard to see below why he is generally acknowledged as being the first to use linear perspective.  But what is his name?  and where did he hail from?

Ambrogio Lorenzetti Annunciation _1344 ! .

#2  This work below, (by the same artist as above)  what does it depict?  Who is kneeling before the Pope.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti The Oath_of_St_Louis_of_Toulouse_-_WGA13468

#3- A work by Giotto.  Where would you find it?

Giotto Scrovegni Chapel Lamentation_(The_Mourning_of_Christ)_adj

Next section, Quattrocento

#4-  This astonishing achievement was the first large dome constructed since antiquity.  What is the building?  and who was the architect?


#5- A work below, by a friend and contemporary of the architect mentioned above.   Who is the legendary sculptor?  and who is the subject of, the saint depicted in,  this work below?

St George_Donatello_Orsanmichele_n1

#6-  Another, even more extraordinary work by the same sculptor…  Who is the subject?   And in what city would you find this monumental masterpiece?

Donatello Gattamelata

#7-  And which early Italian Renaissance painter is responsible for this work, below?

Fra Angelico San Marco Altarpiece

#8-what early, short-lived but highly influential Florentine quattrocento genius painted this marvel of perspective below, still in situ at the church of Santa Maria Novella?


#9-  okay, moving on,  A little bit later now.  There are even more famous work than this one, (work below)  by this so-called “third generation” Florentine painter.       He painted some of the most instantly recognizable, most iconic images of the Renaissance.  By the way that’s his self-portrait on the right, looking straight at you.   What’s his name?

Botticelli_-Adoration_of the Magi (Zanobi_Altar)_-Uffizi

 #10- Here below is a detail, from another work,  by the same artist pictured above.  But what iconic book of poetry was it designed to illustrate?

Botticelli Drawings for Dantes Devine Comedy c1490

11-  This work (below) was started by one famous Florentine artist, famous both in his own right, but also for leading a studio that contained and trained some of the greatest names of the Renaissance.   So two questions here:  11a- Who started this work?  and 11b- Who finished it?


12-  we mentioned above the artist whose busy studio trained a whole stable of great artists.    This work below was also a collaboration, between the same master, but a different apprentice.   Who was this second apprentice, who reputedly painted the angels here below?


Section 3-  High Renaissance.

#13-  (the aptly numbered 13)  Okay,  pretty confident you either guessed the last question or, more likely, already knew it.  So I’m not worried about giving too much away with this one!   Below is a mature work, an iconic work, by the “apprentice” involved above.   As you know its in a refectory, a dining room, in an old monastery or priory.  But in what city?

Last Supper Leo da Vinci_5

#14- and this work, below, in Rome, is by his slightly younger, equally legendary contemporary?   Part of a huge, and immensely complex scheme,  that took around seven years to complete.    There’s a ahem,  clue on the image but I decided not to cut it out.  If you’re still here, this will be a breeze anyway.   Artist and location?


#15- And two works below, by the third member of the traditional High Renaissance apex trio.  Firstly, what is his name?

156px-Madonna of the Meadow Raphael

16-  and far more difficult,  who was the female subject of this portrait, scion of a powerful dynasty who ruled Milan in Lombardy?

Caterina_SforzaLorenzo de Credi

Section 4-  Venice.

17-  We’ve glanced at the sons of Sienna, Florence and Rome.  Let’s not forget the Venetians.  This man who painted this beautiful, enigmatic Allegory below came from an entire family of famous Venetian painters, and his brother in law was even Andrea Mantegna.   But what’s the name of the artist of this Allegory?

Giovanni Bellini Saccred Allogory

18- We all know the patron saint of Venice is St Mark, (whose body they basically stole from Constantinople! )  Here below is a moment from that famous theft, dignified by this dramatic work “Finding the body of Saint Mark”   But who is the artist?

Finding of Body St Mark-Jacopo Tintoretto

19-  Penultimate question and artwork,  here by the most famous Venetian painter of them all.  He was famous for his use of colour.  A certain type of red in womens’ hair is even named after him.  He exerted a huge influence on later artists, notably Peter Paul Rubens.  Here he paints a woman with a mirror, perhaps echoing Jan Van Eyck’s Arnofini Wedding portrait, and also pre-figuring later painters, like Velazquez and indeed Ireland’s own genius Sir William Orpen.   But who was this legendary Venetian artist?


Last work: Baroque.

20-   One final work.  Last, but very definitely not least, this superb female artist of the 17th century, painting very powerfully in the style of Caravaggio.  Preconceptions and social conventions made it almost impossible for women to be painters in the Renaissance or Baroque era, but this woman’s father owned a studio and so she worked alongside him, becoming an accomplished artist in her own right.  A thug working for the family studio raped her, but, although clearly marked by the experience, she recovered and prevailed, to become one of the greatest Italian painters of the 17th century.  She often painted powerful women, sometimes taking terrible revenge on abusive men.  Here she depicts the Israelite, the beautiful widow Judith, who saved her people by seducing, then decapitating, the enemy, besieging general, Holofernes.

So, last question- who is the brilliant artist, responsible for this work?


Hope you enjoyed the pictures, questions,  and bits of hints and extra information.  No need to leave your answers, but by all means leave a comment, it’s always great to hear from readers.

Arran Henderson Dublin Decoded at National Gallery of Iteland How to Read a Painting

For people in Dublin, or passing through Dublin, if you’d like to become a real Robert Langton, and do our Dublin Decoded famous “How to Read a Painting” symbol tour at the National Gallery of Ireland, (pictured above) then 2 things are advised..  1-see the tour spec here.  but more crucially 2- sign up for the newsletter, which will alert and advise you each time we run the tour, (usually once a month).

“How to Read a Painting” also bookable as a private event.   See you there sometime.

Until the next post, all the best!

Dedicated to Emmeline. who always matched, then surpassed her brother in art history.  xx

Heavens’ embroidered cloth: Medieval buried Treasure.

Heavens’ embroidered cloth: – Medieval buried Treasure.

Look at these…   They are the last complete set of mass vestments left intact in Northern Europe.  And they are  extraordinary in their history, their conception, and in quality.


They sit now, in their light-controlled, temperature and humidity controlled, bullet-proof glass cases, in Waterford’s wonderful medieval museum. This is a purpose-built exhibition centre dedicated to the city’s wonderful history. It was opened only in May 2013.


These garments are the standout exhibits. Which is saying something, in a museum full of wonderful things, like the wonderful Great Charter with its hand-painted portraits on velum of the Plantagenet kings of England, (detail below)


Or look at this hat for another example. It once belonged to Henry VIII. It was called his Cap of Maintenance.

HenryVIII's Cap of Maintanaince

I can’t quite convey how remarkable these garments are. Not just aesthetically, obviously they are ethereally beautiful. But also for what they teach us, and what they signify too, politically, religiously, and economically.

When we modern-types think of the medieval to Renaissance period we now think first and foremost of exquisite, beautiful paintings. But in one sense that’s ahistorical, since during that era embroidery and tapestries were highly prized and in fact were vastly more expensive.

Henry VIII’s court painter, the German master Hans Holbien was paid perhaps £50 per year for his position, plus what he made on private portrait commissions.   By contrast Henry paid around £1000 for each one of his best series of tapestries, displayed at Hampton Court.

That figure in modern values: £1000 would have built Henry a state of the art battleship, with enough left over to fit it out with sails, rigging and cannons. In other words, no mere barons, nor even very wealthy merchants could not afford the best tapestry. It was the exclusive preserve of mighty magnates and rulers, of Dukes, powerful princes, of Popes and Kings. One final example: of the two best tapestries in Farmleigh House today (previously home to the Guinness family) the Duke of Parma formerly owned one, the other was owned by the Queen of Spain.

The reason for the enormous values placed on them was of course the sheer amount of labour needed. Entire teams of highly skilled workers were required. To this one must add the cost of very expensive materials and dyes used. The fantastic wealth of the city of Albi in Languedoc for example, was almost entirely founded on the wode trade, the primary blue dye of the era.


Let’s look at the materials in these vestments in the Waterford Medieval museum. The silk came from China originally. In ancient times it would have traveled across Asia and the Middle East on the Silk Road. Or later, after Marco Polo and the great Portuguese and Genoese explorers, sometimes shipped by merchant adventurers, across the Indian Ocean and around Africa.

The silk was then spun, typically in Florence. Again, silk spinning was one of the main sources of that city’s extraordinary wealth. Like Albi and like Bruges (see below) the trade accounted for much of its great wealth, indeed as well as its preeminence in the late Medieval-early Renaissance period.

Once spun, the silk then went from Florence to Bruges. This Flemish city was the centre of weaving in Europe, and where all the best work was done. This time-consuming practice was then carried out with great skill and experience, and, as you’ve guessed, commensurately astronomical expense.


These particular vestments in Waterford have something else, which would have pushed up the price even higher.   They each contain a large amount of gold thread. Our guide told us he’d once had the opportunity to briefly wear one before it was encased in glass. He said the weight was such he could barely stand.


The set is comprised of three copes (large cloaks) two dalmatics (a T-shaped garment) and a chasuble, which is the full length, outermost gown, used for celebrating the Eucharist.

They are all embroidered with panels, depicting scenes from the Old or New Testament, depending on the individual cloak, or from the life of the Virgin Mary.  This one below, as you see, depicts the Nativity.


They were made in the 1400s, commissioned by the Dean of Waterford’s Cathedral for a special new chapel, commenced in 1468. It was a chantry chapel, in other words dedicated to masses and daily prayers for the dead.   As the excellent museum website explains.

“In Waterford in 1468, John Collyn, the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral decided to build a chantry chapel adjoining the cathedral and in this special place of worship Masses would be said for the souls of the dead. Those who supported the building of the chapel with gifts of money or property would have their names or the names of their loved ones included on the daily round of Masses celebrated by the chaplains of the chantry chapel.

It seems certain the man who paid the lion’s share was a very rich merchant called James Rice.

Rice may have been 11 times mayor of Waterford. But the vestments are so fabulous in quality, so extraordinary; I was still scratching my head. I’ve rarely seen anything like internationally, and never before or elsewhere in Ireland.

True, there are superb vestments at the very old Diocese of Clonfert, traditionally associated with St Brendan. These are now in the small, excellent museum attached to the wonderful 19th century St Brendans’ Cathedral at Loughrea, the gift of the wonderful Edward Martyn.

That eclectic collection of religious garments includes a mass vestment sent over by Napoleon III in memory of the Marquis de St Ruth, (a French field Marshall who perished at the Battle of Aughrim, 1691). That is also full of gold embroidery, knotted in the shape of bees (symbol of the Bonaparte family).  But even that splendid item is much later, and not anything like these ones in Waterford. The quality of these puts me in mind of things one sees in the Vatican, or the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry cycle in the Museé d Moyen Age in Paris. They are extraordinary. I’ve never seen portable medieval items of this quality anywhere else in Ireland.



However successful Rice was, it doesn’t appear to make sense. I was still scratching my head.   Until perhaps you realize that of hundreds of years, Waterford had a royal charter granting it a monopoly; on the import and distribution of wine in Ireland. This provides some part of the answer. So does the massive sale of indulgences, rampant at this time across Europe, and of course one of the practices that triggered the Reformation.

The vestments were worn for perhaps a hundred years, until era of the Reformation, when iconoclasm became a genuine threat. They survived the initial incursions of Cranmer’s men in the 1500s Ireland but a hundred years later, with the Catholic side loosing the Confederate wars in Ireland and Oliver Cromwell about to take Waterford, the decision was made to hide them.

They were hidden in lined boxes, in a specially-created cavity dug into the floor of the chapel then covered over with flagstones. The caution turned out to be prescient. Their survival is something of a miracle. The Vatican, naturally, and some other major Catholic centres have equivalents. However no other full medieval set has survived in Northern Europe. They’ve all been destroyed, stolen, broken up and or have perished away.


This Waterford set remained hidden as war and rebellion and then more brutal wars bruised and battered Ireland though the 17th century. They were in fact forgotten in their hiding place, ultimately left there for over a hundred and twenty years.

Until in 1773, the old cathedral, now Anglican, was being demolished for the process of rebuilding. At that point they were finally rediscovered. The Anglican bishop to his credit did the right thing and returned them to the catholic diocese of Waterford. They are now on perpetual loan to the city’s medieval museum.

The choice of lines by the museum to title the exhibitions perfect.  You’ll recognise them.  They come from one of the most famous poems by W.B. Yeats.    I’ll leave you with that. Thank you for reading.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

The museums website is here. 

If anyone would like to learn more about the Anglo-Normans coming to Ireland, there’s a blow by blow,  but hopefully readable account here.

Iveagh Market Buildings


wonderful article on the Iveagh Markets, by the consistently excellent “Wide and Convenient Streets” blog. Superb stuff, and a wonderful resource.

Originally posted on Wide and Convenient Streets:

Nearly one hundred and nine years ago, Colonel George W. Addison R. E. represented the Iveagh Trust at a ceremony to formally hand over the new Iveagh Markets to Dublin Corporation. Giving his thanks on receiving the deeds of conveyance and keys, the Lord Mayor expressed the hope that the city would continue to benefit from Viscount Iveagh’s munificence, and that he would be spared to continue his noble works.

This exchange is captured in an Irish Times article in June 1906 which thankfully recorded the ceremony and some detail about the markets; for there is surprisingly little source material elsewhere. The markets themselves came about after clearances around St Patrick’s Cathedral to remove some of the slums there as part of the Iveagh Trust building development. There was a need for a new space for market traders, a need apparently noticed by Iveagh himself:

The state of affairs did not pass…

View original 554 more words

What is satire for?

The novelist Will Self, and cartoonist Martin Rossen debate, or rather seem to generally agree on, the limits and responsibilities of satire, who the easy targets might be, and critically, where the real scrutiny and ire should be aimed, but usually isn’t.

It made me wonder why not?  The Charlie Hebdo editors, artists and staff were victims of a brutal murder by lunatics. They were fully entitled to print and draw what they like,  in a free society, which includes the right to offend.  But why bother offending, for its own sake?  Rossen makes the excellent point that Charlie operate in the “Situationist” tradition, of Guy Debord etc, ie. they provoke for its own sake, then wait to see what happens.   But why bother (?) when Muslims living in the west are an easy, 99% innocent, yet tabloid-popular target?   Who in the west does the tough work and picks on the powerful?  Who targets the media barons,  on industrialists exploiting Chinese workers (and often poisoning the earth, rivers and soil), the financial billionaires who write their own laws, the moguls and the oligarchs?  Nobody, it appears.

That made me wonder in turn why this Paris story is so, not over-reported, the murders were disgusting and naturally created outrage and revulsion.  But who decides the news?  So is torture repulsive, (as well as useless, apparently) So is rendition, so is imprisonment without the possibility of trial.  Where’s the satire, outrage and comment there?   Interesting to see the right-wing press suddenly falling over themselves to emphasize with Paris.  Their empathy is conditional, convenient and suits their own agenda.  Where was the empathy for the local innocent Iraqi taxi drivers who was the victim of local tribal score-settling and who ended up being water-boarded to death?   Where are the satirists and novelists and cartoonists then?  Who picks on the powerful anymore?

Landscape, modernity and nostalgia in the Dutch Golden Age.

The castle at Bentheim: an essay of random thoughts on landscape, history and money, modernity and nostalgia in the Dutch Golden Age.

Look at this.  Don’t by the way try reading this piece on a phone. Wait until you have access to a proper screen.  Then look at this.

van Ruisdael full

It’s a detail of a work titled Castle at Bentheim, by Jacob van Ruisdael.

This painting is often thought to be his masterpiece, we’re lucky to have it in Dublin at the National Gallery of Ireland. I’m there 4 or 5 times a month and I find myself drawn to it, again and again.


Van Ruisdael was of course a landscape painter from Holland’s Golden Age, of the 17th century, when most painters were “genre artists”. That is to say, specialists in one type of painting and the skills each of these genre subjects required. The particular skill in the depiction of clouds say, the sea, or a bunch of grapes, amid a table-ful of silver and dead game.


These days we remember van Hals, van Steen, Rembrandt of course, and Vermeer and, I hope, Gabriele Metsu. Rembrandt in particular, an individualist if ever there was one, was a history painter who took on big biblical subjects. But most Dutch artists- hundreds of them- were genre specialists. That includes van Rusidael. You can see the results for yourself.

van Ruisdael Windmill dt1

Virtuosity like this, engendered to a great extent by specialization, was highly prized by the large, sophisticated, middle classes of the time.  Dutch art was a product and consequence of its society and culture, (although not necessarily in the way we might expect.)  But the first, key thing to understand about this society was its sheer money.

It is hard to overstate the wealth or technological sophistication 17th century Holland possessed, also their long-term influence on the rest of the world, and even on global history. Put baldly then, this is what art from the most successful, highly developed nation on earth looked like.

Yet this image may not be what we could reasonably expect from such a culture at that point in its history. More of which anon.

But how did the Dutch become so rich in the first place?  Many of Holland’s merchant-adventurers amassed extreme, extraordinary wealth, easily rivaling the greatest landed magnates of Europe. But they did it through commerce, notably the spice trade with the Indies.

Advances in shipbuilding, accurate navigation and cartography greatly facilitated that endevour. So also, crucially, did new forms of banking, share-owning, insurance and finance. In basic terms the import export trade encouraged the innovation and development of stocks, shares, joint capital ventures, of modern banking and of insurance and reinsurance. Modern capitalism in other words, was invented by the Dutch.

It gave them an extraordinary edge over rival trading powers. Its material advantages over  were graphically (and fatefully) spelt out when the Dutch navy trounced the English one, burning many of their their ships at anchor, and towing away the two best ones.  In the humiliating aftermath and soul searching that followed, the English administration concluded their enemies had been able to mobilize, man, equip and supply their fleet in a fraction of the time primarily because they possessed more fluid capital, because in turn of more supple and sophisticated financial systems.

The English drew the appropriate lessons.  And the rest, quite literally, is history.

I don’t exaggerate. Let me give you just one, telling example. Many of us are brought up to believe that the 1685 coup d’etat just twenty-ofdd years later, known as “the Glorious Revolution” which saw James II of England toppled by his nephew –the Dutch prince and protestant icon William of Orange- was a religious affair, triggered primarily by prejudice and anxiety (about a Catholic succession on the throne of England).  So it was. Some modern scholars however, make the important, overlooked footnote that when William took the crown of England he brought over to London the Dutch financial systems and know-how: something prized and sought out by the English Whig oligarchy who’d invited him in the first place.

It was fateful. It’s no coincidence that in the following 18th and early 19th centuries Britain became the world’s wealthiest, most highly developed nation in turn.

Yes, the British had the Industrial Revolution, raw materials like coal and iron ore and some excellent engineers and inventors.  But they also had the capital systems to mobilise, exploit and employ them. (You need more than one ingredient to become the preeminent power on earth) This combination of material and capital – each prompting and enabling the other of course- created the largest empire of the age and even now, after nearly a century of first relative, then absolute, imperial and industrial decline for the UK, the City of London as a financial capital obstinately remains in obnoxiously robust health. Repulsed by fractal lending and banker bonuses? You can blame the Dutch.

I’m fascinated by what paintings can tell us or imply about history and societies, but also of course by paintings themselves.  So much for the 17th century Dutch, their money and historic influence. What about their art?

We might, initially, imagine the most developed society in 17th century Europe would celebrate that status with an Art extolling technical prowess, or at least with notions and symbols of progress. We would be wrong. On the contrary, Dutch artists instead celebrate the traditional, the familiar, the comfortable and established. They ruminate on virtue, on order and tradition. On the earth and the sky.

van Ruisdael Windmill dt1

Do these Dutch painters make art about the glories of wealth and technology? No they do not. Yes, there’s an amazing tradition of still live painting, that celebrates material luxury. (Who after all, ever painted silver plate, glass crystal, or the weave of fine tapestry better than the Dutch? ) But that is just one genre from many. And in any case, on closer inspection even these still lives turn out to be metaphorical ruminations, on mortality, morality, vanity, death and decay. This is an anxious art then, keenly aware of risk, fate and defeat, of temporality and impermanence.

Let’s look again at van Ruisdael’s castle view.  He actually made several paintings of the castle. Here’s another, painted from a different angle.


In the National Gallery of Ireland version, I love the drama of the fortress, solidly perched on its rocky buff…

van Ruisdael castle dt

You have to admire also the structure and mass (and great virtuosity) of the trees and vegetation, and the way those funny, saggy little houses, the way they seem to blend and bleed and disappear into the woods and trees.


Many Dutch painters had traveled to Italy, to draw, paint and study. They were greatly influenced by Italian art and, once back home, influenced their own compatriots in turn. Clues here include the un-Dutch, warm golden light. Dutch painters were also influenced by the dramatic rolling Italian landscape, and by the treatment of that landscape by their Italian artistic contempories, by that Italian genius for combining drama and harmony in successful compositions.

Given how the Dutch lived with a constant awareness of flood and their battle with nature, you can understand the appetite for paintings like this one above.

The critic and art historian Simon Schama has gone further. He notes that during this period the landscape of the Low Countries was itself undergoing huge change. It was constantly, endlessly, being dammed, drained, reclaimed and reshaped. This, Schama argues, prompted a consciousness, an anxiety and nostalgia about the earth itself.

Hence a hunger for images of landscape, perhaps even for images of solidity, of certainty and tradition.

van Ruisdael Figs 3 detail

It’s surely significant that this picture depicts a castle, the symbol of an older, feudal order. It seems counter intuitive, this surely was the antithesis (one might think) of the values of the outward, forward-looking bourgeois Dutch Republic.

There are no landscapes like this in Holland. That is part of its exoticism and appeal of course. Yet van Ruisdael did not have to travel far to this castle. Just over the boarder, to neighboring Lower Saxony.

The castle is still there. It is impressive but in real life, in truth, nothing as dramatic as his image. He has artfully exaggerated and romanticized the shape and form of the landscape, the lines and profile of the castle, for narrative power and dramatic effect.   It’s almost as though he has used a wide-angle fish eye lens.

van Ruisdael castle dt

Indeed, he may just have used his knowledge and skill to distort, but it’s not inconceivable van Ruisdael used some form of optical device, to observe or even to slightly distort the forms he recorded.


The accuracy, and life-like quality, the sheers verisimilitude, of images like this from the Dutch Golden Age and indeed from contemporary Italians, are staggering. Think of Canaletto and his extraordinary canal views or vedute  as such works were known, packed with vast quantities of highly precise, immensely detailed visual information, perfectly rendered.   How the hell did they all do it?

Only people who’ve tried to record large amounts of complex shapes and to locate them convincingly in space know how difficult, how time-consuming it is.  I spent weeks once looking at a view of Piazza Navrona in Rome by the contemporary (17th century) artist Gian Paulo Pannini, (one of the 2 pictures he painted of the Piazza is in the National Gallery of Ireland). The piazza is a space I know well, having lived close by in Rome years ago.  Very long and very thin, it’s not wide enough to stand back to take in the view all at once.   I concluded that not only was it impossible to for Pannini to have painted the image unassisted; it was impossible even for him to have seen it in one coherent view.  You can’t stand back far enough to see the piazza all at once.  This view (below) is impossible, you would be have to be looking through other buildings, about where the first line of people are standing.


And was about the sheer mass of complex detail?   Up close with this work, you see thousands of angles and doors and tiles and window frames, often with people inside.

Again and again with some 17th century works, and some earlier ones, the more you look, the more you’re tempted to ask, how on earth was it done?

In the last 10 years an amazing book written by the British artist David Hockney provided at least part of the answer to that question. His interest piqued, by the near-impossibility of the challenges many historical artists took on, he investigated the visual and optical aids available to them from the 16th century on, such as camera lucida, camera obscura, and mirror lens projections.

He then conducted his own experiments, mostly in the form of drawings using, and assisted by those technologies available at the time.

There’s plenty of evidence in Hockney’s book. Certain patterns occur. Once you know how these devices worked and how they were used, including both their advantages and their limitations, it’s often possible to discern their use by informed observation of the paintings themselves. His conclusions are more than convincing. They seem irrefutable.


Hockney’s wonderful book is in my opinion, the most original input to our understanding of old master paintings of the last 50 years. Yet remarkably, when it should be on the reading list of every student of art history, it’s out of print.  This seems bizarre. The book provoked quite a lot of criticism, even hostility. It has has fallen victim, one suspects, to a misunderstanding of its message, namely that his findings somehow diminish the skill or achievement of the artists he discusses. That is a misunderstanding. They do nothing of the sort.

Such techniques and devices only assist the artists in observing scenery, city-scapes or still lives. They do nothing to help make the marks, brushwork, handling of fluid material or other virtuosity that record that information, the fluid stunning touches of paint and brilliantly balanced light and dark and colour that make these paintings so beautiful. Only the artist can do that.

Only people who wish to see art as luxury items of status, and some sort of mysterious magic trick, could be so entirely uninterested in their making.

I’m sure I’ll write about Hockney’s book again more fully in some future post but lets’ return briefly, finally, to van Ruisdael’s painting.

The light and the brushwork is extraordinary. Look at the sky here. Those cream greys.

van Ruisdael Windmill dt1

And the way he has treated the mass and volume of the woods, feathery yet solid all at once.

There are even tiny figures, almost hidden in the landscape.

When I bring tour groups and workshops to the National Gallery, I often invite them to find and count these figures. We never fail to get a delighted kick out of this game, a sort of Where’s Wally, in old master form…

van Ruisdael Figs 1

van Ruisdael Figs 2 dt

van Ruisdael Figs 3 detail

Sometimes when i go to the national gallery, if i have the chance, I try drawing the paintings, to try and understand them better.


Here’s a picture of a dead hare, from a Dutch still life or game piece work.

Arran's hare

Recently I’ve tried drawing the Bentheim picture a few times too, to try and understand that better.  Here’s an unfinished version.  As you can see I didn’t have time to get in the old square stone tower this time.

Arran Castle at Bentheim

here’s a detail from the same drawing.   I was reasonably happy with these houses, with net saggy organic nature of them  But in fact they are all out of place.

Arran Castle at Bentheim 1 Detail

I tried again a few weeks later.  This drawing below feels a bit dead.,,

Arran Castle at Bentheim V2

It’s all bloody difficult, which is of course a reflection of my abilities and  says nothing (of course) at all about the use or otherwise of optical aids in the orginal work.  But drawing it still brings  insights.

And not only through observation. Sometimes they come in unexpected ways.  Recently, during one of my drawing sessions, one of the gallery staff approached me. He made some kind remark about my efforts and we started discussing the painting. He’d spent a great deal of time with the picture in the course of his work and he loved it.

He asked me how many figures had I spotted.   I answered 5 to date. He pointed out 4 more!

Look, very carefully, at the skyline, the prow of the hill around the windmill.  (Or better still visit the National Gallery)  Either way, you’ll have to squint.   There’s a figure on the ladder, and at least two other figures standing nearby

van Ruisdael Windmill dt1

Each is minute, each done with the single hair of a sable brush, so tiny as to be almost imperceptible.   It was another insight into the genius of van Ruisdael, and the genius of Dutch art.

It was a lesson in looking.

Thank you for reading, and feel free to leave a comment.  Its always great to hear from readers.

Arran Henderson leads workshops at the National Gallery, by request for pre-booked groups, afternoons or on Thursday evenings.  Details on the “tours” page.

Works referenced and/or used as sources primarily: “The Embarrassment of Riches, Dutch Culture in the Golden Age” – Simon Schama,     and “Secret Knowledge, Rediscovering the lost techniques of the old masters” David Hockney.  Further background, and basic date/fact/spell- checking: Wikipedia, and EH Gombrich the Story of Art. 

The Crazy Inventions of Dominic Wilcox


One of my favourite bloggers on Art, e-Morfes, here profiling in pictures the thought-provoking ideas and exquisitely made fabrications of UK artist Dominick Wilcox. I know you’ll enjoy these. :)

Originally posted on e MORFES:


Dominic Wilcox is a British artist who is well known for his unusual innovations. Wilcox works between the worlds of art, design, craft and technology to create innovative and thought provoking objects with a humorist approach .

View original 51 more words

First Editions: a treasure trove of books hidden in Ballsbridge.

First Editions is a lovely little bookstore tucked into the quiet Pembroke Lane, the mews lane that connects Waterloo to Wellington Road,  although sitting nearer the corner with Waterloo.


Many years ago, this premises was “the Wee Stores” a grocer selling milk and newspapers, tea, tobacco and coal.

As recounted by historian and writer Hugh Oram, two local residents, literary greats Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh used to meet here. That was until a bitter falling out saw both men change their shopping times to avoid each other!

The Wee Stores lasted right up to the 1980s. Since its demise the premises has variously been empty, then a Sheridan’s cheese monger (with fantastic soup, and coffee I still miss) and even a small handmade jewelry business that unfortunately didn’t last long. First Editions then opened a couple of years ago.



The proprietor is Allan Gregory. Despite a lifelong love affair with great writing, Allan was a chartered engineer, until he followed his real passion in middle age and undertook a Masters in Literature, complete with his thesis on the late Irish poet Michael Hartnett.   These days Allan also serves as president of the Irish Byron Society. His store is almost entirely stocked with his own library, scrumptious hardback copies of literary classics collected over a lifetime.


As you’d expect therefore it’s especially strong on poetry and literature (both Irish and international) and on Irish interest books, including biography, essay and short stories, history and local history.



To the uninitiated, some titles may seem pricy until you recall that, as the name suggests, most are first editions, hardbacks, and some even signed by the authors into the bargain. In reality Allan often sells at 20% under the guidelines for collectible volumes.   Some are valuable, many are lovely.


The shop lies on my route between home and work. I have to be careful when passing, a ceaseless battle trying to resist the magnetic pull of beautiful books. Once I enter and start looking and handling, I’m basically lost. Each one seems to whisper out, “Buy me!”      Accordingly I don’t go in nearly as much as I’d like, and have to avert my gaze!  It doesn’t always work.   Even a cursory glance looking around me here at home reveals an illustrated Irish History edited by Seamus Mac Annaidh; The Wild Geese: Irish soldiers in Exile by Maurice Hennessy; Ireland, by Conor Cruise O’Brien; Irish Voices -1916-1966, a superb account of those fifty years by Peter Somerville- Large; and a History of Dun Laoghaire Harbor, by the great maritime expert John De Courcy Ireland.  All are from First Editions.  And there are more.

I think my best purchase in Allan shop to date however was a copy of William Beckford’s Vathek, bought as a Valentine’s gift.



This book is an amusing little pseudo-Orientalist fantasy, written in early 19th century, when such works were popular and highly fashionable.  It concerns a spoilt, bad-tempered little Prince of unnaccountable power and unimaginable wealth.  Amusingly, and ironically, the author was William Beckford, a scholar and collector also possessed of quite extraordinary personal wealth.  He was privately schooled in Switzerland and later lived in a castle tower surrounded by high walled gardens, amidst his Raphael paintings and rare oriental book collection.   Indeed he himself sounds like the subject of literary fiction.  Some effortlessly erudite satire, possibly by himself, or the likes of Max Beerbohm.


The book is very funny, but perhaps the best thing about it is these magical little woodcuts, by Charles W Stewart.



The point is, you never know what delight or treasure you will stumble across at First Editions.  If this Christmas, or some future birthday, you’re looking for the perfect gift for the book lover in your life, you could do worse than make for this, one of Dublin’s most discreet and charming shops.  Incidentally, Hugh Oram’s Little Book of Ballsbridge is also available here, in hardback, a fascinating book, full of local detail, characters and history, at an extremely reasonable €10.


The shop, at 7, Pembroke Lane, very near the corner with Waterloo Road, opens Wednesday to Saturday each week.


Thank you for reading.  Feel free to share, (if you use a picture please acknowledge /credit and provide link back to this site).   Thank you.  If you’ve enjoyed the article, please leave a comment too, I always love hearing from readers.



Urban traveller. Night owl.


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