A few days ago I made a visit to Petworth House to have a look at their new winter art exhibition “Remastered – Bosch to Bellotto” which is an opportunity to see some of the important artworks in the Petworth art collection, some from the personal collection of Lord and Lady Egremont and some which has recently been cleaned or reframed for the show. So, a show which is long on promise then.
I think that it may well come as a surprise to many that know me to discover that I have a bit of a weak spot for Renaissance art. This dates back some 30-odd years to when I was studying A-Level art and the last lesson on a Monday afternoon was Art History. The teacher for this class was a Mr Wilson and he was reasonably young. He also had suffered from alopecia and wore a wig which was obviously a source of amusement to the youth of the mid-late 1970’s. Mr Wilson was a nice man and very enthusiastic about his subject. It is this enthusiasm which has stayed with me all these years. He would talk to us using his own slides of some of the greatest artworks in Italy and Northern Europe created by the ‘Greats’ of the Renaissance period including Bellini, Botticelli, Filippo Lippi, Piero della Francesca, as well as Michelangelo, Tintoretto and Bronzino from Italy. Northern Europe was represented by the likes of Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Holbein, Albrecht Durer and one of my absolute favourites, Hieronymous Bosch. thinking back, Mr Wilson was a great scholar, enthusiastic and knowledgeable and inspirational, well he must have been, I still remember his lessons after all these years and I wasn’t the best of students!
The curators at Petworth have taken a few liberties with the title of their show, as the Bellotto is not the latest picture in the show, while the Bosch is also not the earliest work and it is also quite possible not actually by Bosch himself, although it is attributed to him which is not quite the same thing. The original work is a triptych oil painting on wood panel and is in the custody of the Museo del Prado in Madrid and is somewhat larger than the work at Petworth which is also an oil on panel (c1515) and is a squared off section of the central panel.
The Adoration of the Magi by Heironymous Bosch (c1485-1500) (image from Wikipaedia)
I really like this work and seeing a version of it ‘up close and personal’ at Petworth was a real joy. The colours are vibrant and intense, brushwork is invisible and detail is minute. The actual image is straightfoward being a depiction of the three kings (or Magi) visiting the new born baby Jesus, but there are various interpretations of whom the central figures actually are. Petworth suggest that it is Jaspar kneeling at Mary’s feet in the centre with his gift of gold in the form of a sculpture representing the sacrifice of the prophet Isaac and suggesting the death of Christ himself. Standing behind him is Melchior clad in a cloak featuring King Solomon receiving gifts from the Queen of Sheba, foreshadowing the adoration taking place in the painting; while Balthazar stands to to the left holding a casket of myrrh which is decorated with another scene from the Old Testament in which 3 warriors gave water to David on his becoming king of Israel. Bosch is famous for his religious pictures full of strange beasts and monsters and human suffering and this one os no exception with the hem of the robe worn by Balthazar decorated with images of fish being consumed by strange monsters – an allusion to the Original Sin. The partly naked figure emerging from the hut has been variously identified as Joseph, a priest or the AntiChrist. Bosch’s work is the stuff of dreams tempered by nightmares although his work does reflect orthodox religious beliefs of his time and it often represents visual translations of verbal metaphors and puns drawn from both biblical and folkloric sources to teach specific moral and spiritual truths.
The exhibition itself is shown in two sites, first there is a small and intimate showing of key works in the exhibition gallery where portraits by Bronzino and Titian can be seen alongside a stunning full length portrait of Henry VIII (c1543-7)from the studio of Hans Holbein. It is, I think, remarkably contemporary and has some of the qualities of a collage. The King himself appears to float in the picture plane, his feet on the ground and yet also appearing to hover slightly above it. It is the work of a highly skilled artist. Another quite striking and contemporary looking portrait is Bronzino’s ‘Portrait of a Young Man'(c1550-1555). An unidentified sitter, it replicates another painting of the same name which is currently on loan to the National Gallery and which includes a statue of the God Bacchus. The Petworth version is only head and shoulders and is cropped very tightly against its background. It is the absence of other indentifying features that gives this painting such a contemporary feel.
From the catalogue of Remastered: Bosch to Bellotto
Other notable pieces in the main gallery are the 8 miniatures by Adam Elsheimer which have been temporarily reframed in the set of Rococco frames which were specially commissioned by the 2nd Earl from French frame maker Joseph Duffour. Painted on sheets of silvered copper they were probably originally to decorate a piece of furniture. There are only 50 known pieces by Elsheimer in the world today.
In the main house there are 3 rooms which have been rehung to show works by major artists from the period 1420-1610. Several have been cleaned and now benefit from a new lighting system. Others are awaiting these delights. The new lighting system is fabulous and affords a much better view of the work, in many cases the paint seems to almost glow.
It is not a huge exhibition and there are some interesting, not to mention important works on display. However it is also an exhibition which I think does require some level of academic understanding of how to read an artwork as well as understand the significance of religion in everyday life at the time and the importance of the Earl Collectors of Petworth.
Remastered – Bosch to Bellotto is at Petworth House, West Sussex until 6 March 2016.