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At Tate Britain

Nicholas Penny: Pre-Raphaelite works on paper , 4 May 2017

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


Nicholas Penny, 4 September 1986

Faith in Fakes 
by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver.
Secker, 307 pp., £15, August 1986, 0 436 14088 8
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Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages 
by Umberto Eco, translated by Hugh Bredin.
Yale, 131 pp., £6.95, September 1986, 0 300 03676 0
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... The first of these books, Faith in Fakes, is a collection of essays – many of them newspaper pieces – by a ‘distinguished professor at the University of Bologna, with an international reputation as philosopher, historian and literary critic’. His subjects are novelties, many of which are now nearly forgotten. I cannot recommend anyone to reread McLuhan in order to appreciate Eco’s reservations about his theories, eminently judicious though these reservations are when compared with the enthusiasm of George Steiner or Raymond Williams ...


Nicholas Penny: Columns and Pilasters, 8 November 1990

... Last year I travelled frequently on the early-morning coach from London to Oxford which passes Sir Edwin Cooper’s pair of Classical municipal buildings in Marylebone. The first of these is the Town Hall of 1914: proudly alert like the lions which guard its portal; perhaps ostentatious like the swollen waistcoats paraded by its original occupants; ‘massive and effusive,’ Pevsner puts it ...

Hink Tank

Nicholas Penny, 19 July 1984

The Gymnasium of the Mind: The Journals of Roger Hinks 1933-1963 
edited by John Goldsmith.
Michael Russell, 287 pp., £10.95, May 1984, 0 85955 096 6
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... Roger Hinks portrays himself as picking his way fastidiously through a sadly Philistine and foolish world, musing upon his aesthetic disappointments and, less often, consolations. Even during what his friend K (the late Lord Clark) describes in the foreword as ‘the abominable intrigue which forced him to leave his beloved British Museum’, he scrupulously avoids self-pity ...

At the Musée du Luxembourg

Nicholas Penny: Botticelli, 20 November 2003

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

In Toledo, Ohio

Nicholas Penny: Goltzius, 23 October 2003

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

At the National Gallery

Nicholas Penny: El Greco, 4 March 2004

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

Hot Air

Nicholas Penny: Robert Hughes, 7 June 2007

Things I Didn’t Know: A Memoir 
by Robert Hughes.
Harvill, 395 pp., £25, September 2006, 1 84655 014 9
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... Robert Hughes begins his autobiography, as he began his recent book on Goya, by describing the road accident in Western Australia that nearly killed him in 1999, and his subsequent ordeals in hospital and in court. In this new book he expands on the treatment he received from Australian journalists and in particular on the allegation made by a local reporter that he had referred to a prosecution lawyer descended from Indian migrants as a ‘curry muncher’, which was then repeated by a succession of other journalists ...

At the Royal Scottish Academy

Nicholas Penny: The Age of Titian, 21 October 2004

... The National Gallery of Scotland is now linked with the Royal Scottish Academy building. You can enter by the restaurant which lies between the two buildings at a lower level, or through the portico of either neoclassical structure. The RSA provides a large space for major loan exhibitions, and since these have surpassed in appeal the quieter pleasures provided by the permanent collections, it is appropriate that its rather gross architecture stands in front of the more reticent and elegant home of the parent institution ...

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny, 23 January 2020

... It’s​ not hard to think of painters who took up sculpture: Raphael (probably), Guido Reni (at least once), Frederic Leighton, Degas, Renoir (unfortunately), Picasso. But sculptors have less frequently turned to painting, which may explain why many art historians have found it so difficult to believe that the Florentine sculptor and goldsmith Andrea Verrocchio (1435-88) took up painting relatively late in his career and then abandoned it on recognising the extraordinary ability of his pupil Leonardo ...

At Saint-Germain-des-Prés

Nicholas Penny: Flandrin’s Murals, 10 September 2020

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

At the Courtauld

Nicholas Penny: Hanging Paintings, 27 January 2022

... When​ the Courtauld Institute of Art moved in 1989 from a house designed by Robert Adam in Portman Square to a wing of Somerset House, William Chambers’s masterpiece, it seemed a very satisfactory solution, especially because it provided an opportunity for the Courtauld Gallery to join the institute in its new premises. But whether the paintings could be happily accommodated in the ‘fine rooms’ Chambers had designed for the Learned Societies, and whether good use could be made of the Great Room, the large top-lit space devised by him for the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy, was by no means certain and the ensuing compromises were often lamented ...

Surrealism à la Courbet

Nicholas Penny: Balthus, 24 May 2001

Balthus: Catalogue raisonné of the Complete Works 
by Jean Clair and Virginie Monnier.
Abrams, 576 pp., £140, January 2000, 0 8109 6394 9
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by Nicholas Fox Weber.
Weidenfeld, 650 pp., £30, May 2000, 0 297 64323 1
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... Catalogue raisonné shows the original and final appearances of both this painting and The Street. Nicholas Fox Weber, who does much to reconstruct the intellectual circles in which Balthus moved at this date, offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of The Window. Balthus here ‘empowered himself to push his mother through the very sort of opening’ that had ...


Nicholas Penny, 3 November 1983

Constable: The Painter and his Landscape 
by Michael Rosenthal.
Yale, 255 pp., £15.95, April 1983, 0 300 03014 2
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Constable’s England 
by Graham Reynolds.
Weidenfeld, 184 pp., £12.95, September 1983, 0 297 78359 9
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... When vegetable gardens were more commonly cultivated and poison was less frequently employed, and rabbits and mice were more of a menace to middle-class households than they are today, the classic picture books were published that encouraged children to love these creatures which their parents endeavoured to exterminate (or today, breed to kill). Sympathy repressed in the daily business of managing pantry, garden and farm was safely released in the bedtime fiction: but there must always have been awkward moments, such as the one I vividly remember when my mother endeavoured to allay my distress at discovering a crate of rabbits on its way to a laboratory by distinguishing between ordinary rabbits and ‘bunny rabbits ...


Nicholas Penny, 19 November 1981

Moments of Vision 
by Kenneth Clark.
Murray, 191 pp., £9.50, October 1981, 0 7195 3860 2
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... Something, as Clark himself has acknowledged, is wrong with Civilisation: with the television series and the book which made him a household name. It is not that it contains a number of gross oversimplifications, of which the most astonishing is the observation that Leonardo thought of women ‘solely as reproductive mechanisms’. Nor is it that there is also an occasional failure of the historical imagination: the women on the Romanesque font of Winchester Cathedral certainly do look ugly and nasty to us, but this is not evidence that ‘women were thought of as squat, bad-tempered viragos ...

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