John Baret, redeem me? By AHA alum Maddie Brown


My last essay of term was on material culture and late medieval lay religion in England. Exhausted, and with my brain saturated with all the information I had stuffed into it during the previous seven weeks of term, it sadly was not a good essay. I feel this is an opportunity to redeem myself. Here goes…


The study of material culture can be split into three categories: the independent study of artefacts, the study of material artefacts in conjunction with written documents (such as wills) and finally the study of written documents that shed light on pre-existing material culture of which a written record is all that remains.


For the purpose of this blog and to compensate for my withered essay, considering the surviving tomb of John Baret of Bury St. Edmunds is interesting. This case study underlines the fickle nature of late medieval religion but more broadly highlights the pit-falls involved in the study of material culture, something that we all (as art history enthusiasts) should be aware of.


The cadaver tomb with the haunting skeletal effigy is still there today in St. Mary’s Church. It appears to be a mark of John Baret’s humble acknowledgment that he was an unworthy individual with a penitential debt that at death, remained to be paid. It could act as a spiritual reminder to the viewer, that their death was not all that far away and thus they should convert with urgency and express their Christian devotion with greater fervour. It seems likely that Baret believed himself to be fulfilling his Christian role in encouraging conversion in this way. More immediately, it is probable that it was designed to evoke sympathy and pity on the part of the spectator in a bid to secure the help of their prayers in pushing Baret’s soul through the fires of purgatory and into the afterlife.



From this purely aesthetic exploration, the reduction of the man’s penitential debt is the central spiritual concern here; the tomb is a spiritual reminder to the Christian viewer and a reflection of the man’s humility, is it not? Considering the physical features of this tomb in conjunction with Baret’s will, a more nuanced view of the man’s thought-process can be built up.

In his will, it is evident that Baret intended for the church to be redesigned for the construction of his tomb – hardly an act of subtlety by a humble man. Furthermore, when it is known that he was a rich and powerful cloth merchant, it is easy to understand that such an individual may have also been concerned with projecting his wealth and worldly status in order to secure his legacy as a successful, prosperous and preeminent trader. Indeed, on closer inspection of the tomb, on the fascia below the reclining effigy, a smaller carving shows Baret in life, dressed in fine clothes and wearing the silver “Collar of Esses” which the Lancastrian kings had bestowed on him. A royal connection could not be a more emphatic projection of worldly status.

Two things can be gleaned from this. Firstly, that late medieval lay piety was a fickle thing. Men were concerned with their spiritual well-being; fear of what the afterlife may bring and the desire to secure a place in heaven was central to Christian belief and practise. Yet at the same time, the projection and conservation of one’s worldly position was ever-present; a fascinating medieval contradiction.

Secondly and more broadly, this case study underlines the limits of studying material culture when focusing solely on the material artefacts that remain. Collaboration with documentary evidence is crucial as it allows the gaps in the historical jigsaw to be filled in with some confidence. Without scrutiny of this kind, the gaps would remain empty, and our knowledge of the past would be left similarly unfulfilled.

‘Collaboration’ seems to be the word to be stressed here. Collaboration between the art historian (for the deconstruction of the aesthetic qualities of artefacts) and historian, for this deconstruction to be given wider historical context and significance. Finally, collaboration here and now, between you, the reader and I, the struggling writer… have I redeemed myself?


Information source:

E.Duffy; The Stripping of the Altars, Traditional religion in England 1400-1580; 1992

Interview with an Art Dealer: Lucy Speelman talks to Johnny Van Haeften, an Old Master Paintings dealer in London

The name Johnny Van Haeften is synonymous with Old Masters, and he is known as one of the giants of the dealing world alongside Richard Green, Rafael Valls and others, but it wasn’t always that way.  In fact, he dreamed of opening a gallery in contemporary art, then opened the stamp department in Christie’s and was rejected year after year when he asked to move to Old Master paintings.  So I sat down with the man himself and asked him how he got to where he is today…

What made you want to go into the art world?

At school, I always dreamt that I would have a gallery dealing in contemporary art; I don’t know why, but the idea really appealed to me.  During most of my youth I was a fanatical stamp-collector, and at Eton I became President of the school Philatelic Society.


So where did you start?

I discovered that Christie’s were trying to take over a firm called Robson Lowe who were stamp auctioneers.  This was 1969 – when you left school, you either joined the army, went to university, or worked for Christie’s… and they desperately wanted someone to work in Robson Lowe and bring them into Christie’s.  I was 17 and very keen to get a job – I was far too stupid to go to university so I joined Christie’s and opened the stamp department.  But what happened (as it often does) is that you end up doing something completely different: as soon as I got there, I discovered Old Masters.  Stamps were a great hobby and still are, but it’s not a great career.


What did you enjoy about working for an auction house, and why did you set up on your own?

Working in an auction house is incredibly useful because you can actually handle the pictures; understand the panels and the backs of the pictures, which are often as important as the front.  I learnt about framing, lighting, condition and quality through handling them, and I became self-taught.  But they quite rightly realised that I had no knowledge, no background, no clients, no nothing!  So I failed for 6 years to get into the picture department.  After 8 years (1977) my wife and I decided we should start our own gallery.  We started off in New Bond Street.  Nobody knew where we were, or who we were, and the market was crashing anyway; it was a very tough time.

Auction houses are doing so many private treaty sales now; what sort of impact do you think that has on dealers?

I think it’s one of the greatest threats to the dealing world.  Christie’s and Sotheby’s have both announced that 20% of their turnover comes from private sales, which is quite scary.


Do you think it’s affected the quality of their auctions?

Certainly the quality of the sales has reduced considerably, as has the quantity.  The availability of pictures is diminishing, and it’s difficult for us to compete with them.  There is an attraction that Christie’s and Sotheby’s offer – they say, ‘if you sell with us, it will be totally discreet and private and it won’t go to auction’, but if you go through a gallery, that would happen anyway.  I suppose their main argument is that they have access to more clients.


What about the future of Old Master dealers?

I think it’s fairly bleak.  As the availability declines, the cost price gets higher.  But I think there will always be Old Master dealers and there will always be people who prefer to buy from dealers – as soon as they realise that at auction the price can only go up and at galleries it can only go down.  We’ve noticed already this year, that buyers are starting to come back to galleries, because the intensity of the pressure to make up your mind by a certain time is not present in a gallery – you have a little bit longer, you can try it out in your home and you don’t have to take a risk, like a dealer buying a very dirty picture that doesn’t clean well and then being stuck with it.  There always has been huge competition between the dealers and the auction houses, and there always will be.


Best thing about being a dealer?

The excitement of the chase – it’s more fun to buy something than to sell it.  It’s the discovery, watching the cleaning and all the detective work.  Some of the experiences I’ve had are almost fictional – Henry Wyndham and I flying to New York and finding ourselves sat next to each other, along with Damien Hirst and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

So we’ve talked about auction houses impacting private sales, what about art fairs – how significant are they?

Fairs are very, very important – the Maastricht fair (TEFAF) for me is absolutely essential.  I would say about a quarter of our annual turnover is done either at the fair or as a result of it.  The fairs are good because there are people I see at Maastricht that I don’t often see.  A lot of clients have become friends and it’s nice to see them on an annual basis.  But by not doing so many other fairs in London (Grosvenor House, Masterpiece etc) anymore, we’ve found that people are starting to come back to the gallery, so I would say that fairs are vitally important, but selectively.


What about sales to museums and galleries?

Relatively small, because they take so long to make up their minds – they have to go through various processes.  A private collector can walk in and make up his mind on the spot.  Only about 3 or 4 pictures go to museums per year.


If you could own any work of art in the world, what would it be? Money and location no object…

It would be a Vermeer – not quite sure which one, but he is my favourite painter of all time.  Possibly the Kenwood picture [The Guitar Player], possibly The Art of Painting in Vienna.  The light is just incredible.  Possibly the Dresden picture [A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window], or The View of Delft in the Mauritshuis.

'The Art of Painting', Johannes Vermeer, 17th C (Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna)

Lots of Art History Abroad students want to go into the art world – what advice would you give them?

Start off in the auction houses – a grounding in Christie’s, Sotheby’s or Bonham’s is essential because you need to establish what discipline you really want to get into.  You need to play the field and see what really grabs you, and you often find it’s something completely unexpected.  If it’s pictures that you want to do, then you need to spend a lot of time in museums and see what moves you – for me it was the Dutch pictures.  Get to know your subject, and if you can do a course then great, if not beg for a job.  Everyone starts at the bottom and it’s the best place to start.

For more information, visit – with great thanks to Johnny van Haeften and his gallery.

MoMA: Up Close. By AHA tutor Lavinia Harrington

The question of whether or not mechanical and digital images affect our perception of the original artwork takes us to the heart of art history, a discipline that since its inception has predicated the importance of authenticity.

In 1934 Walter Benjamin stated in his influential essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that the concept of reproducing works of art is not a new phenomenon and can be traced back to antiquity. Furthermore, he argued that mass production of images not only challenges the notion of authenticity but it unquestionably impacts the way we perceive art.

79 years on, in light of gargantuan leaps in technological advancements, questioning the issues Benjamin raised appears as topical as ever.

This February, after almost a decade of looking at reproductions – I was finally able to study with my own eyes some of the world’s most iconic art works, exhibited in MoMA’s permanent and temporary collections in New York.

The Starry Night - Vincent Van Gogh
Les Demoiselles D'Avignon - Picasso
The Scream - Munch

Experiencing these works first hand entirely eclipsed any previous opinions I had formed or reactions I had anticipated; though this may not be a great surprise, and I want to describe my experience more fully, in the hope of reiterating the importance of actively thinking about the way in which the proliferation of images continues to affect our understanding of art today.

Benjamin claimed:That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art”.  But, I was thrilled and reassured to find that the original works in MoMA retained their “aura”.

The raw, fleshy- fluorescent oranges and pinks used by Picasso for his figures in Les Demoiselles D’Avignon – were much cruder and more vulgar than I had thought. I felt that these colours exposed the women in new and challenging ways. I was also completely entranced by Van Gogh’s sculptural acrylic sky that appeared almost three-dimensional when standing close up to it. It wasn’t just the feeling that each brush stroke had been made by the legendary Van Gogh that kept me there for almost an hour, but rather I felt privileged to have the chance to engage with the materiality of the work and its tactile qualities in a way I hadn’t previously been able to do.

Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (detail)

Until April 29th MoMA will be exhibiting one of the four versions of The Scream made by Munch between 1893 and 1910.  As one of the most reproduced and recognised works of the 20th century, the organiser of the installation (Ann Temkin) noted “The startling power of Munch’s original work endures almost despite of the image’s present-day ubiquity”.  This is the only version that remains in a private collection, so the chance to see the bright pastel colours in real life was a privilege.  The Scream did not disappoint: its expressiveness was fresh and exciting.  However, I was also prompted to reconsider how mass reproduction of certain images affects our value judgement.   For example, because of its blockbuster “aura” I had lazily expected The Scream to be Munch’s most powerful work, but in fact – I developed a newfound admiration for the artist by encountering The Madonna (1895), which I thought to be without a doubt more harrowingly beautiful. I was not the only one to be surprised by this work; as I stood there I overheard a couple discussing that they didn’t understand why everyone queued up to catch a glimpse (and take a photo) of The Scream when The Madonna was hung right by it – surely for no other reason than that The Scream rather than The Madonna is Munch’s most reproduced work?  The point I am trying to illustrate here is that, while reproductions are indeed wonderful as for one thing they raise awareness of great art, it is nonetheless imperative for us to continually challenge the “blockbuster” status we give certain works at the expense of others through reproductions.

The Madonna - Munch

The mass reproduction of images and the availability of collections online has had a huge impact on museums worldwide; increasingly curators have had to find ways to use easily accessible high definition copies to their advantage in order to fuel rather than extinguish people’s desire to engage with art works first hand. As the facility with which we can access images with a tap of our finger increases, it is incredibly important that we don’t lose touch with the physicality of an art work and the impact it has as a material entity







Why is it that Italian food is so good? Will Martin discusses…

When the vast majority of people think of Italian food, they think of two obvious things. I won’t patronise and say what they are, but they do both start with the letter ‘P’ and end in the letter ‘A’! Whilst these two carb based delights are indeed Italian and can be absolutely delicious, they’re just the tip of the Italian culinary iceberg.

The thing about eating in Italy is that in all the big, touristy cities, you can eat very well, but also very badly. It tends actually to be rather easier to eat badly for one simple reason: Tourists. A wise man (probably my AHA tutor Steve Nelson, as he is the source of most of my accumulated wisdom) once told me that one should never eat within 200 yards of a major tourist attraction or piazza in Italy.

The reason being that in these kind of areas, the restaurants, osterias and trattorias are so flooded with tourists that they do not need to make any real effort to turn a substantial profit, and even if they were committed to serving great food, the sheer number of people pouring through the doors would make it impractical to do so. As a result, sit down for lunch outside The Colosseum, or anywhere near Brunelleschi’s Duomo, and you’ll be hard pushed to get anything other than Spaghetti Pomodoro, or a Margherita pizza smothered in so much oregano that it’s like eating a very fragrant slice of cardboard.

Look a bit further however and you’ll find the best, and most diverse food you’ll ever eat! One of the wonderful things about Italian food for me is the diversity of styles and ingredients available. The reason for this diversity is pretty simple; Italy has only existed as a single entity since 1861, when Victor Emmanuel unified it. Prior to this point all the major cities were states in themselves, only loosely bound together. Travelling from Rome to Naples, as Baroque painter Caravaggio famously did to escape arrest, was like going to an entirely different country – although in fairness, it still is today! Consequently, so many different styles of cooking arose that it is hard to define exactly what Italian cuisine is. As I previously mentioned, everybody seems to think that all Italian people are constantly digging into a bowl of pasta, but this really isn’t the case. In fact, in the north-western regions of Lombardy and Piedmont, pasta is eaten very rarely, with the favoured source of carbohydrate tending to be either polenta, or rice in the form of risotto. Likewise, whilst you can get pizza everywhere in Italy, go to an authentic trattoria in Florence and ask for one, and you’ll probably get kicked out, or slapped!

Italian people are incredibly proud and protective of their regional cuisine. For example, I was having dinner in Siena once (as you do!) and someone I was with asked for a certain pasta dish, but with a different type of pasta. In most restaurants in the world, they’d probably say yes, whilst privately cursing you in the kitchen, but in this particular place, the waiter and owner took particular umbrage to this request, and launched into a near five minute long rant about how such and such pasta should be served with the sauce, and that to put any other pasta with it would be an abomination. We all found the sight of an angry Italian ranting and raving about pasta quite amusing, but to be fair, you had to admire his passion. I can’t imagine a restaurateur in Britain reproaching someone for asking for chips with their bangers rather than mash. The passion and drive for quality held by Italian food producers is really inspiring, and that is why I love it. Put it this way, if I was forced to eat only one type of food for the rest of my life, it would be Italian, and I think that says a lot!

If you’d like to read a more detailed of this blog, please visit my personal blog at

Your Paintings Need You! By AHA alum Katie Campbell

The revelation that all those with access to the internet can now browse the nation’s collection of paintings, has gone relatively unnoticed, unless of course you managed to catch the Culture Show programme last Saturday (students by any chance?).  So here goes! The Public Catalogue Foundation (No, I hadn’t heard of them either) and the BBC (that rings a bell) have teamed up to make some 210,000 paintings of the national collection available online for all to see, study and generally have a good old nose about.  The venture has been called the catchy and rather Kitcheneresque ‘Your Paintings’. “What”, I hear you say, “my paintings?”, “do they need me?” Well, the answer to that is yes, and if you want to get a look at these paintings in the national collection, head over to the slightly less catchy and more lengthy website titled

The website primarily works as a grandiose and pimped-up version of a picture library. Forget the filing cabinets of slides at university and welcome to the wonders of high resolution and search engines. You can search the collection by the paintings themselves, the artist or by the collection they belong to.  However, the team behind the website are hoping that it will evolve on from this library function in time thanks to their ‘Your Paintings Tagger’ initiative.  They’re encouraging us (yep, that’s you and me) to sign up as a ‘tagger’. Very simply, and just as the title suggests, they want us to ‘tag’, or ‘name’ if you will, the content of the paintings.  You can decide to just state the subject of each painting, for example ‘Diana and Actaeon’, or go one step further and tag certain themes evident within the painting, such as ‘Greek mythology’, ‘family life’ or ‘society and leisure’. It thus takes the form of the initial analysis of any painting, as one might complete in an Art History class. It is simple, fun, accessible to all and nurtures that all important understanding of art.

Whilst this may seem basic for those studying Art History, try and think back to the first time you were asked what a piece of art in front of you was trying to say. You’d have started with the obvious, and then as your interest and understanding of concepts and themes grew, you’d have zoomed in on the more detailed and complex matters encapsulated within that artwork.


Diana and Actaeon, National Gallery.
Just one of the many works available to see on the Your Paintings website.

In my mind, what ‘Your Paintings’ should be able to achieve is multi-faceted. With the help of the ‘tagger’ system, it should show young students entering the foray of art and art history where to start when looking at a painting.  It should also help them to realise that visual analysis is not daunting, and one just needs the encouragement and building blocks to start from.  Before I went on my Art History Abroad course a few years ago, I loved looking at paintings but I knew that this was purely on an aesthetic level. Having never studied Art History before the course, and also sorely lacking in artistic skills, I had no idea how to approach a painting analytically in order to discover the stories that were being told by the artists. My six wonderful weeks in ‘La Bella Italia’ with AHA gave me the building blocks I needed and a whole lot more. Saying this, I also envy those who are facing the same dilemma I faced during my school years, but who are now lucky enough to have the help of ‘Your Paintings’ with its vast collection at their fingertips.


Before and After Restoration. Olivia Boteler Porter, by Anthony Van Dyck

The YourPaintings website is not just a useful source for school children, it markets itself well to absolutely everyone. For any member of the public interested in art, any budding art historian as well as any art historian proper, it is a useful and fun way to see a myriad of paintings.  Furthermore, thanks to YourPaintings, a miraculous and wonderful discovery has been made. A work of art once thought to be just in the style of Anthony Van Dyck has now been confirmed to have been executed by the hand of the master himself. The subject of this portrait has also been re-identified as Olivia Boteler Porter, lady-in-waiting to queen consort Henrietta Maria and wife of Endymion Porter, a close friend of the great painter. Dr. Grovesnor (the man who discovered the painting’s true provenance) remarked, “To find a portrait by Van Dyck is rare enough, but to find one of his ‘friendship’ portraits like this, of the wife of his best friend in England, is extraordinarily lucky.”

‘Your Paintings’ has only just begun, but who knows what forgotten masterpieces we might find along the way? Quite a thought!


William De Morgan (1839-1917), an insight into his life and work: by AHA tutor Andy MacKay

Growing-up in a 1903 Arts & Crafts house I was lucky enough to know the glazed tiles of William de Morgan at first hand. Imprinted into my child’s eye, his charming azure blue and emerald green Peacocks were some of the very first images I can remember, adorning chimney breasts and open firesides throughout the house.

Peacock tile


Born on London’s Gower Street, son of a distinguished mathematician at University College, De Morgan was encouraged to attend – as it happened only briefly – the Royal Academy Schools. His parents were Victorian progressives; his mother Sofia an early prison reformer, suffragette and ‘spiritualist’. The young De Morgan’s early introduction to William Morris began a deep and lifelong friendship, no doubt encouraging De Morgan to begin designing stained-glass and ceramics.

Bedford Park Daisy tile

For De Morgan, like most Arts & Crafts designers, natural forms and motifs always provided artistic inspiration and through his pottery works in London he provided beautiful tiles for private clients as well as Morris & Co. As a ceramicist faithful to the vernacular technique, De Morgan also sought to better the old ways – inventing a new biscuit tile and investigating new ways to glaze. Deeply English and echoing the Medieval past, his ceramic designs also found inspiration in the vibrant colours and intricate detailing of traditional Italian, Spanish and “Persian” design too. It therefore becomes difficult to neatly classify De Morgan. His mission was, ultimately, to re-enchant the world and reveal the exotic and the mystical in the seemingly prosaic. Less well known as a ‘suburban’ novelist, De Morgan took to writing when he wrongly felt demand for his designs had waned. Yet examples of his glorious ceramic work can be found in museum collections around Britain as well as in situ at, for example, Leighton House in London and Standen in East Sussex. To really explore De Morgan’s life, work and legacy though one must visit the rather wonderfully little-known De Morgan Foundation on Wandsworth’s West Hill.

Fantastic ducks on 6-inch tile


‘Bad Artists Copy, Good Artists Steal’ With Thanks To Monet. By Caz St Quinton

Stealing from an Impressionist painter was never going to be easy. Monet’s paintings are characterised by their brushstrokes rather than their content, which presented me with a dilemma; how could I steal their ‘Impression’ quality with just my camera?


Monet, Study of a Figure Outdoors: Woman with a Parasol, facing left, 1886


What makes this painting of Monet’s second wife Hoschédé Suzanne so beautiful is primarily the bold colourful brushstrokes that the artist has pieced together like a jigsaw, rather than the subject and composition. Therefore I had to think of another aspect of this painting that gave it a fleeting, impression-like quality, and one that I would be able to capture on camera. After investigating this piece it soon became apparent: the weather.

The Impressionists loved plein air painting. The invention of paint in a tube and easier travel with the new railways allowed artists like Monet to escape Paris and head for the countryside to capture rural beauty. This resulted in such artists recording all aspects of nature, including the weather. In this painting, for example, Monet has concentrated on the structure of the clouds, the parasol shading the subject from the sun’s rays and most importantly the wind.

One can almost feel and hear the rustle of wind when looking at this painting. The blades of grass are bending, the bottom of the woman’s dress sways gently and her light scarf looks as though it could blow away at any second.

I realised that to capture the essence of this painting, I would have to catch the wind first. I waited for the customary strong winds to march through Edinburgh, and eventually they came. I dressed in rather strange clothes and took my tripod to Carlton Hill, the windiest and wildest place I could think of in the city.


‘With Thanks To Monet’


If I couldn’t steal the formal qualities of the painting, I was going to steal as much of the weather as I could. I wrapped my bed sheet around my waist hoping that the wind would twist it into interesting shapes, and held a flimsy umbrella that would bend under the force of it. I then waited for a patch of blue to peek through the clouds in order to try and capture a similar sky to Monet’s.

Wind Impression


After I got the shot I wanted, I began to play with images of the weather. I thought of how composed Monet’s wife was in the painting, and that if she was experiencing wind anything like mine then she too must have had difficulty holding on to her parasol!

Wind Impression II

AHA tutor Steve Nelson’s wonderful exhibition at The Contemporary Art Society: A review by Annie Gregoire

I was lucky enough to have Steve Nelson as a tutor on my AHA gap year course last summer, and being lead by a working artist offered a fresh perspective on the art we saw in both Rome and Naples. Steve’s love of Italy was infectious, and he taught with such great enthusiasm and knowledge, ensuring that we had the best experience in every city. I remember him showing us the wonders of The Pantheon and its architecture, Caravaggio’s chapel paintings in Rome, and of course will not forget eating and drinking like a local at the cities’ best restaurants and bars!

Steve works in London as a sculptor in mixed media, assembling eclectic objects and materials to create enchanting compositions. He is currently exhibiting a public display of his artwork at the Contemporary Art Society in London which I visited this week.

The Contemporary Art Society exists to promote and encourage appreciation of contemporary art in the UK. It uses mainly donated funds to buy work by current artists and donate it to galleries nationwide, whilst also organising artists’ talks and educational events. In its building on Central Street the society hosts changing exhibitions, and it is here that a number of works by Steve are on display and brightening the walls of the upper floor space.

All the fish in Naples (detail), photograph by Joe Plommer
All the fish in Naples (detail), photograph by Joe Plommer


After meeting Steve I had enjoyed browsing images of his work online, but it was such a treat to suddenly be able to see it up close. Much of his work seemed to be the creation of an indescribable curious object; it is captivating and ambiguous, offering many platforms for interpretation. I find his pieces lively, fun, and sometimes humorous, all created by his use of weird and wonderful materials.

Garlik Darlic, photograph by Joe Plommer


Reminders of Italy pop up in his works, such as ‘All the Fish in Naples’, and ‘Garlik Darlic’, made from wood covered in Florentine gold leaf. ‘The Holy Family’ is not as we know it from Renaissance Rome but exists here as three different sized pieces of brightly painted wood. His titles offer more opportunities for appreciation and interesting interpretation!

Visit yourself (for free) and have a look! Steve’s project is exhibited at The Contemporary Art Society, 59 Central Street, London until 28th March.