Thursday 23 May 2013

The tale behind our new acquisition

Albrecht Dürer, The Virgin and Child with a Monkey, c1498, engraving, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 2013

In my previous post I introduced our recent acquisition, a splendid early impression of Albrecht Dürer’s engraving The Virgin and Child with a Monkey, c1498 (state: Meder a). I now want to explore the remarkable provenance (history) of this object.

After leaving Dürer’s studio, this impression of The Virgin and Child with a Monkey circulated among collectors and the art market for upwards of 300 years before being acquired by the London-based collector the Reverand Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode (1730-99). Cracherode combined private wealth with a discerning eye and established a collection of several parts, notable among which was a large number of fine prints. Our print carries Cracherode’s mark on the verso (back) at lower left:

Only the finest or most significant of Cracherode’s prints were marked with his initials and the print scholar Antony Griffiths has suggested that he reserved his mark ‘as a sign of special approval or attachment.’ As we know that Cracherode only had a small number of northern prints from the period (compared to his extensive holdings of 16th-century Italian prints, for example), we can be confident that our print was highly prized by the famous collector.

Having served as a Trustee of the British Museum since 1784, Cracherode left his several collections to the Museum on his death. But in 1806 it was discovered that over the course of a year or more, the caricaturist and amateur art dealer Robert Dighton (c1752–1814) had stolen a large number of Cracherode’s prints from the Museum. The scandal was soon picked up by the newspapers and the Trustees struck a deal with Dighton to recover as many as possible of the prints in return for not bringing a prosecution against him.

Recent research by An van Camp (Curator of Dutch and Flemish Drawings and Prints at the British Museum) has revealed the lengths Dighton went to in order to obscure the provenance of his stolen prints. The stamps and inscriptions of previous owners were scratched out and bleached as well as being obscured with false marks invented by Dighton. By obliterating the legitimate provenance of these prints (recognisable through the various marks of previous collectors) and falsifying new histories for his ill-gotten wares, Dighton hoped to sell them without raising suspicion.

Our print shows Dighton’s owner’s mark on the recto (front) at lower right:

This stamp is a tell-tale sign of Dighton’s theft. Combined with the trace of Cracherode’s own mark on the verso we can identify our print as one of those stolen from the British Museum by Dighton and not subsequently recovered. (The British Museum no longer pursues the prints that Dighton stole, and the Gallery has acquired good title to this important work.)

Our print no doubt circulated among private collectors in the years after 1806 before appearing in a commercial exhibition in London at P & D Colnaghi & Co Ltd in 1971, marking the 500th anniversary of Dürer’s birth. A private collector purchased the print from that exhibition for £2000.

In July 2012 our print resurfaced during the filming of the popular television programme Antiques Roadshow during its visit to Stowe School in Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom. While the owner realised that her late father had acquired the print at Colnaghi’s in 1971 she was keen to learn more. London-based dealer Philip Mould examined the print and it became one of the highlights of the day’s visit to Stowe. The print features in episode 13 of series 35 of the Antiques Roadshow (Stowe House) which screened in the United Kingdom in January of this year.

In addition to being an important and beautiful work of art, our print has a most extraordinary story to tell. We hope that Aucklanders will enjoy this delightful addition to their collection.

- Mathew Norman, Assistant Curator

Further reading:

  • An Van Camp, ‘Robert Dighton and his spurious collectors’ marks on Rembrandt prints in the British Museum, London’, in The Burlington Magazine, 155, 2013, pp88–94.
  • Antony Griffiths (ed.), Landmarks in Print Collecting: Connoisseurs and Donors at the British Museum since 1753, The British Museum Press, London, the Parnassus Foundation, Ridgewood, NJ, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, 1996, pp43–51.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

New acquisition

Albrecht Dürer, The Virgin and Child with a Monkey, c1498, engraving, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 2013
The Gallery recently acquired a superb early impression of Albrecht Dürer’s engraving The Virgin and Child with a Monkey, c.1498. (An early impression is pulled from the copper plate early in its life before the engraved lines deteriorate through repeated printing. This impression is also in the earliest state: Meder a.)

Albrecht Dürer was the leading artistic personality of the Northern Renaissance and his work was highly prized in the succeeding centuries. Dürer dramatically improved the standard of printmaking through the influential work produced at his studio in Nuremberg and his many prints were in wide circulation, making him famous throughout Europe. Importantly, Dürer acted as a conduit for many of the artistic advances of the Italian Renaissance which he encountered in person during his two trips south of the Alps.

The impact of Dürer’s first visit to Italy in 1494-95 is particularly evident in the classicising of the drapery of the Virgin’s costume seen in this composition. The simpler lines of the falling cloth reveal that Dürer had cast off much of the weight of the earlier Gothic tradition. We need only look to an earlier depiction of the same subject by the artist in which the heavy, stylised folds of the cloth are more reminiscent of carved stone or wood than actual fabric.

The close observation of incidental detail is found throughout Dürer’s work, whether it be in his paintings and prints or in the preparatory works, including his drawings and luminous watercolours. A fine example of the latter is the watercolour depicting the Weierhaus (pond or fisherman’s house) seen in the background of this print, and which is now in the British Museum, London.

It is useful to recall that Dürer created the visual effects of the wide range of textures and surfaces found in this print with only the tip of the engraver’s burin. The burin is a metal instrument with a sharp v-shaped tip which the artist uses to engrave the lines of the design into the copper plate. (A very thick ink is then rubbed into these grooves before the surface is wiped clean prior to printing.) In order to differentiate between the surfaces depicted, the artist needed to vary the depth, number and variety of marks he made in the copper. Compare the short and velvet-like fur of the monkey’s nose with the smooth skin of the fleshy Christ-child; while the rough wood of the low and rustic fence is in marked contrast to the softly waved and loosely worn hair of the Virgin.

The monkey (perhaps a Wolf’s mona monkey – Cercopithecus Wolfi) adds an exotic note to this composition. It seems that monkeys were kept as pets in the period and this poor creature may be seen chained for just that reason. However, the animal is also loaded with meaning and Erwin Panofsky pointed to the monkey as a symbol of base, immoral behaviour linked to Eve and the doctrine of Original Sin. Freighted with the weight of human failings, the monkey stands in contrast to the purity of the Virgin.

The Gallery did not previously hold an example of Dürer’s compositions of the Virgin and Child, so this acquisition fills a gap in our representation of the artist’s work. (Indeed, there does not appear to be another impression of this print in any of the other public collections in New Zealand.) For obvious reasons, this particular print was enormously popular in Dürer’s own time and later and a number of copies were produced by printmakers who were keen to cash-in on Dürer’s success.

- Mathew Norman, Assistant Curator

Further reading:
Erwin Panofsky, Albrecht Dürer, two vols, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1945, p67.

Monday 20 May 2013

Professional Learning and Development

Search no more! Auckland Art Gallery Professional Learning and Development art making courses are now being offered every school holiday.

Learning Through the Creative Process -


APRIL 2013

Eleven teachers participated in our latest PLD art making course on the first Monday of the term 1 holidays. As for the screen printmaking course earlier in the month, we learnt through the creative process. We began by exploring woodcut prints from our collection in the printroom, with Assistant Curator Mathew Norman, then exploring other examples of woodcut prints from our collection in small groups back in the studio.

Some examples of woodcut prints from our collection: 
    Crayfish 1953
    May Smith
    Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
    Kingfishers 1953
    Robert Gibbings
    Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
    Philip Clairmont: Tribute 1984
    Nigel Brown
    Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
    Kowhai 1930s
    John Moore
    Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
We experimented with woodcut tools and techniques to create a variety of styles and effects, explored and experimented with a selection of design ideas (pattern, animals, text, shapes, portraits, etc) and finally created a design and then a woodcut block for printing.

We inked up the printing blocks, experimenting with colour mixing and texture.

We shared our design ideas, use of colour and cutting techniques.

Some of the work produced:

At the conclusion of the course we discussed:
  • how we could implement these new skills and processes in our own classrooms
  • how we would adapt the materials, skills and techniques to suit the age level and needs of the children we teach?
How would you teach this process in your classroom?

Useful links:

Next PLD at Auckland Art Gallery is Learning Through the Creative Process - LINOCUT printmaking on Monday 15th July

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Dr T L Rodney Wilson CNZM

Senior Curator Ron Brownson was a long time friend and colleague of former Director Dr T. L. Rodney Wilson, he recalls the significance that his distinguished mentor had for New Zealand's art and culture:

When I learnt of the passing of Rodney Wilson a few days ago, it was not unexpected news but it was still a shock as he has always seemed to me one of my most vital and vigorous friends. He was an unforgettable man, blessed with an incisive intelligence. Rodney brimmed with ambition for all of the museums that he transformed with his redoubtable energy. I worked closely with him while he was at Auckland Art Gallery (7 March 1981–26 February 1988) and I remember him with warmth and affection.

Rodney was firstly a scholar – he was an erudite art historian. He revivified the reputation of Petrus Van der Velden, writing two exceptional books on the artist. He initiated an unpublished catalogue raisonné on Frances Hodgkins, which he gifted to the E H McCormick Research Library here at the Gallery.

Upon his arrival at Auckland Art Gallery, he initiated a research, acquisition, exhibition and publication programme that revolutionised this institution. He established an education service, enlarged the conservation laboratories, brought more resources to the Research Library and employed more staff.

Opening in stages between August 1982 and June 1984 the redeveloped art gallery building project which he initiated resulted in: a rebuilt wing for artwork storage, workshops and a new services wing; an auditorium; new basement security room; expanded loading; two additional conservation labs; an education suite; two lounge areas; a book shop and café; and the conversion of the reference room of the old City Library into the Wellesley Gallery (now the Grey Gallery). With 12 galleries, Rodney almost doubled the exhibition space.

Some of the significant exhibitions that he enabled at Auckland Art Gallery warrant recall as they introduced blockbusters to Auckland on a regular basis: Still Life in the Age of Rembrandt, Aspects of New Zealand Art, Paul Klee, Leonardo da Vinci: Nature Studies, Chance and Change: A Century of Avant Garde, Claude Monet: Painter of Light, The Buried Army of Qin Shihuang and Te Maori. Te Maori, in particular, became the most influential art exhibition to ever leave New Zealand and its many initiatives have transformed the way that taonga (treasures) are researched, displayed and published on.

When Rodney planned for transformation, it was always comprehensive. He established the New Zealand Maritime Museum in Auckland; I think that this may well be the first time that a director has been responsible for innovating a new museum in New Zealand.

Rodney could speak with a beguiling gravitas. As an advocate for museums he had more than convincing charm – he had palpable charisma. In speaking to civic and government politicians and managers, he convinced them of the merit of museums and gained more support for his institutions than such organisations had previously attracted. He would go into battle for change and this was driven by an ambition for his institutions that would not buckle under resistance. His drive, insight and future building was infectious, and his staff enjoyed the reality that they all had to help produce the results that he very clearly articulated the need for.

A characteristic that I cherished about Rodney is that he could make his projects one’s own. I think that I edited more art catalogues and publications for Rodney than before or since. He never wanted to see two publications a year but four, or even six. He was competitive in the very best way, he wanted more New Zealand art seen at Auckland Art Gallery than ever before and he wanted to tour it as well.

Rodney was also warm-hearted. When he was at Auckland Museum, Rodney assisted my father in gaining access to archive material relating to his military service in North Africa, Italy and Japan during World War Two. To personally help a visitor on a one-to-one basis was characteristic of this very busy, very energetic man. He gave every museum that he renewed his perseverance, loyalty and commitment.

We send to his wife Maureen and his family our aroha at this time.