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At Tate Britain

Nicholas Penny: Pre-Raphaelite works on paper

3 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: 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 ...

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 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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

Lost in the Woods

Nicholas Penny: Victorian fairy painting

1 January 1998
Victorian Fairy Painting 
edited by Jane Martineau.
Merrell, 200 pp., £25, November 1997, 1 85894 043 5
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... The exhibition of Victorian Fairy Painting, which can be seen in the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy until 8 February (after which it will travel, first to Iowa, then to Toronto), may sound like safe family entertainment designed to appease the Friends and Academicians dismayed by Sensation in the rooms below. It is in fact an original and valuable exhibition devoted to a curious and often daring development in British painting in the 1840s and to a taste which survived well into this century in Arthur Rackham’s book illustrations, with their tangled roots and wrinkled goblins, and in the misty lakes and moonlit forests which were the essential settings for so many pantomimes and ballets ...


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 ...


Nicholas Penny

9 October 1986
Pictures and Punishment: Art and Criminal Prosecution during the Florentine Renaissance 
by Samuel Edgerton.
Cornell, 243 pp., $39.50, March 1985, 0 8014 1705 8
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Images of Man and Death 
by Philippe Ariès, translated by Janet Lloyd.
Harvard, 271 pp., £19.95, October 1985, 0 674 44410 8
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Fingerprints of the Artists: European Terra-Cotta Sculpture from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections 
by Charles Avery and Alastair Laing.
Harvard, 298 pp., £127.50, September 1981, 0 674 30203 6
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... In 1909 there appeared a small book by Montgomery Carmichael modestly entitled Francia’s Masterpiece and dedicated to reconstructing the content, purpose and original setting of a single Renaissance altarpiece. It provided what is still the best account of the treatment of the Immaculate Conception in old Italian art. Carmichael deplored the limited outlook of the scholars of his day who were uninterested in the religious nature of the art they catalogued, and expressed his outrage at their complicity in the removal of ‘church pictures’ from ‘living use over altars and shrines to the chill fastnesses of meaningless museums and art galleries’ on the pretext of danger from the candles lit before them ...

To the Cleaners

Nicholas Penny

4 July 1985
The Ravished Image: Or, How to Ruin Masterpieces by Restoration 
by Sarah Walden.
Weidenfeld, 174 pp., £12.95, April 1985, 0 297 78407 2
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... Do you remember when children’s tonsils were removed at the slightest pretext? Extraordinary reversals in official treatment have done little to shake faith in modern medicine. Forty years ago the approved, the ‘scientific’ solution for warping and splitting painted panels was to construct elaborate ‘cradles’ of wooden crossbars behind them to hold them tightly in place ...


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 ...

Best of British

Nicholas Penny

2 December 1993
by John McEwen and John Haddington.
Canongate, 96 pp., £20, November 1993, 0 08 624324 1
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Henry Moore: An Interpretation 
by Peter Fuller, edited by Anthony O’Hear.
Methuen, 98 pp., £16, September 1993, 9780413676207
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... Henry Moore was attracted by the idea of monumentality. He tried hard, but with limited success, to find ways of incorporating his sculpture into modern buildings. He also had the attractive idea of locating some of his statues in remote settings, following the example of his friend the late Sir William Keswick, who placed four of Moore’s sculptures, as well as one by Rodin and one by Epstein, in the wild landscape of the estate he owned in south-west Scotland ...

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 ...

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