An extraordinary woman: The Art of Lucy Kemp-Welch, at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, reviewed

In March 1913 two horse painters met at the Lyceum Club to discuss the establishment of a Society of Animal Painters to raise the profile of their genre. Of the two, it was Alfred Munnings whose profile needed raising. Lucy Kemp-Welch had been a celebrity since her twenties when her 5x10ft canvas ‘Colt Hunting in the New Forest’ caused a sensation at the 1897 RA Summer Exhibition and was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest for the new National Gallery of British Art on Millbank. She threw herself into every activity she depicted, whether rounding up colts or hauling timber The daughter of a Bournemouth solicitor, Kemp-Welch had been riding and

Are surgical museums such as the Hunterian doomed?

I have a soft spot for specimen jars and skeletal remains. Museums of natural history, surgical pioneering or anthropological oddities have always struck me as equally suitable for lunch breaks and first dates as for serious study and research. As far as public and casually accessible encounters with mortality go, these kinds of museums are the most straightforward way of confronting the realities of human nature. But whether we should have this kind of casual access is now increasingly being questioned. Telling history through displays of human remains presents a challenge for curators. They are responsible for contextualising exhibitions to ensure that the remains don’t become a dehumanised spectacle, while

Why war museums matter

On Christmas Day 1942, the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst, along with five destroyers, left its Norwegian base and headed for a series of Arctic convoys, the British fleets transporting material and support to the Soviets. The townclass cruiser HMS Belfast, used to escort the convoys through some of the most dangerous seas in the world, played a vital role in the Royal Navy’s clever game of bait-and-blast that resulted in the destruction of the Scharnhorst, a monster that had already sunk a British carrier and two destroyers. Belfast, the most powerful cruiser in the Navy at her relaunch in 1942 (she hit a mine in 1939 and needed three years of repairs),

Will The Parthenon Project seize the Elgin Marbles?

Thirty-five years ago, the late Christopher Hitchens published a book about the Elgin Marbles. Unsurprisingly, it was a polemical work; he was passionately campaigning for the return of the sculptures to Athens. But that was not the reason why I wrote a scathing review of it for The Spectator. Parts of it were plagiarised, as I showed, from the classic book by William St Clair; and in some places Hitchens dealt with the awkward fact that the evidence did not fit his claims by abbreviating the quotations, filtering out the unwanted bits. Hitchens replied with a thunderously disdainful attack on me in the letters page. I said to the then

Paris’s glittering new museums

How do you manage a dictatorship? By producing ‘a succession of miracles’, according to Louis-Napoléon, that ‘dazzle and astonish’. In 1852 he inaugurated his Second Empire regime with a strategy of soft power predicated on the assumption that the loyalty of politically volatile Paris was to be won not by violent repression but by visible magnificence and grand designs. This wasn’t an original idea: it followed the policies of le Roi Soleil and Bonaparte, not to mention the Roman emperors. It worked again for Louis-Napoléon because, as well as such jaw-dropping follies as Charles Garnier’s extravagant opera house, it extended to Haussmann’s lavish investment in socially useful boulevards, sewers, housing

Why I’ve spent £68,500 on a tank

Buying a tank is not as easy as you might think. When we started looking for one, people delighted in telling us: ‘Oh, you should have bought one in the 1990s. There were hundreds available for practically nothing!’ Well, not anymore. Especially not if you are picky about what sort of tank you want. I’m collecting artefacts for a new museum of totalitarianism and wanted a T-54 or T-55, two models which are pretty much the same as each other with just a few alterations and which are the most-produced tanks in history. They were used by the Soviet army to crush the Hungarian Revolution of 1956; they were deployed

The supreme pictures of the Courtauld finally have a home of equal magnificence

When the Courtauld Gallery’s impressionist pictures were shown at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris in 2019, the Parisian public was so bowled over by the exhibition that some were inclined to claim Samuel Courtauld as an honorary Frenchman. This was not completely unreasonable; after all Courtauld (1876–1947) was a Francophile from an old Huguenot family. But it was even more of a compliment to the magnificent array of French art he had put together. In this city of impressionism, home to the Musée d’Orsay and the Orangerie, half a million visitors came to see it. I went round that show with an eminent art dealer, and as we did

Small but perfectly formed: the Royal College of Music Museum reopening reviewed

Haydn is looking well — in fact, he’s positively glowing. The dignified pose; the modest, intelligent smile: it’s only when you squint closely at the portrait that Thomas Hardy painted in London in 1791 that you clock the full peachy-pink smoothness of his complexion. It’s curious, because Haydn suffered disfiguring smallpox as a child, and a contemporary waxwork bust in Vienna is cratered like a moon in a periwig. Hardy’s portrait is a promotional image, commissioned by the music publisher John Bland. This is the Georgian equivalent of a celebrity headshot: a photoshopped, endlessly-reproduceable selling tool, so potent that it’s still being used to shift recordings 230 years later. Well,

At last, a dose of up-close culture in London

In London for the first time in 18 months, I was as excited as a child on a birthday outing. We were desperate for a dose of up-close culture after months of Zoom, so we crammed in three exhibitions, two plays and a couple of first-class meals that I didn’t have to cook. Glorious. It helped that we had two of the few blue-sky days of this otherwise wretched summer and that I’d deliberately fallen off the wagon. My husband John says that I’m much nicer when I’m drinking. Apparently, when giving my kidneys a holiday, I’m altogether less joyful. We stayed at the Chelsea Arts Club in Old Church

The West’s moralising over climate change will cost India

On Tuesday, I chaired a session at Policy Exchange addressed by Tony Abbott, the eloquent former prime minister of Australia, now an adviser to the British Board of Trade. Although he acknowledged severe recent difficulties, he declared himself optimistic that free-trading democracies, such as his country and ours, can combine to strengthen rules-based, transparent trade (i.e. the sort of trade China dislikes) across the world. I truly hope he is right. One problem, though, which we barely touched on, is climate change. In the West, this is considered the great global challenge of our time. In developing countries, however, it is often seen as the West’s way of denying them

The misguided plan to ‘retain and explain’ statues

When Mao’s Red Guards first got to work in China, they defaced statues before they tore them down. It was common to find a statue of Buddha, for example, with new signs saying: ‘Destroy the old world! Establish a new world!’ Boris Johnson’s government isn’t keen on statue removal, but it is offering a compromise. Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, has adopted a policy of ‘retain and explain’, whereby the statue remains but with a plaque giving more historical context. Explanation, it is assumed, can only be good. Yet you only have to look at the single case where ‘retain and explain’ has been deployed to see what we could

Our love affair with the Anglo-Saxons

On 5 July 2009, an unemployed 54-year-old metal detectorist called Terry Herbert was walking through a Staffordshire field when his detector started to beep and didn’t stop. Herbert guessed almost immediately that he’d found gold. What he didn’t realise was that he had made Britain’s greatest archaeological discovery since the second world war. Three hundred sword-hilt fittings, many of them spectacular examples of Anglo-Saxon metalwork; a mysterious gold-and-garnet headdress, apparently for a priest; miniature sculptures of horses, fish, snakes, eagles and boars. The Staffordshire Hoard, as it became known, led to a sold-out exhibition, an Early Day Motion in parliament saluting ‘the UK’s largest haul of gold Anglo-Saxon treasure’, and,

After three centuries, we need a museum of British premiership

Thursday 3 April 1721 was an unremarkable day in political London. No fanfare or ceremony surrounded King George I’s appointment of Robert Walpole as First Lord of the Treasury (Prime Minister), merely a paragraph buried in the press: ‘We are informed that a Commiffion is preparing appointing Mr Walpole Firft Lord…’ Yet here was the start of what has become the longest-lasting head of government job in the democratic world — and its 300th anniversary falls on 3 April this year. Expect no fanfare or drone pyrotechnics in political London to mark the occasion. Our leaders will, inevitably, be attending to the pandemic and other pressing concerns. But that does

Ignore the activists – Humboldt’s Enlightenment project deserves celebrating

‘What a loss is the excellent Humboldt. You and Berlin will both miss him greatly,’ Prince Albert wrote to his much-beloved daughter Vicky, Crown Princess of Prussia, on news of the death of the author, explorer and celebrity Alexander von Humboldt in 1859. ‘People of this kind do not grow upon every bush [‘an den Blumen’] and they are the grace and glory of a country and a century.’ After some delays and bad luck, the grace and glory of the Humboldt name flourishes once again with the opening of the Humboldt Forum. Annoyingly digital to begin with, the launch last month of the Forum signalled the culmination of Berlin’s

Are our churches safe from Justin Welby?

‘Frost & Lewis’. It sounds like a programme amalgamating two of the most famous TV detectives. The former diplomat, Lord (David) Frost, is our chief Brexit negotiator and Oliver Lewis, an expert on the Irish aspects, is his right-hand man. Until recently, they were simply considered the two best men for the job. Since the departure of Dominic Cummings, they have acquired a political role too. Close colleagues of Cummings who did not walk out with him, they stayed to Get Brexit Done, so they act as reassurance to anxious Brexiteers that the government will not throw in the sponge. Their staying also implies a threat. Dom has said he

Museums need wonder, not wokery

The British Museum’s aim is to use its collection ‘for the benefit and education of humanity’. If that manifests itself in jerking the knee to Black Lives Matter’s anti-colonial agenda, the Museum might do well to learn from the ancients. Near Eastern conquerors used to dedicate their loot in temples, and so exhibit it. It was Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (6th C bc) who gathered reliefs, weapons, inscriptions (one going back to 2,400 bc) etc. and placed them in a ‘Wonder Cabinet of Mankind’ for the public to enjoy. Greeks and Romans took up the idea, filling their temples with collections of relics, statuary and art. The temple of Lindos

The joy of short stories in these taxing times

From time to time, usually when things are quiet, the government brings on the dancing girls. David Cameron made Carol Vorderman the celebrity Head of Maths, Prue Leith was wheeled out to revolutionise hospital catering (again), and Mary Portas was to breathe life, excitement and renewed prosperity into our dying high streets. Nothing ever happens, of course, but perhaps Covid-19 does present a real opportunity. In the past 20 years I have watched several small towns change radically. Shops selling things people actually needed — meat, fish, fruit and veg, bread and butter, ironmongery, postal and banking services — have closed. In their place have come coffee shops, delis, estate

The online museums you’ll never want to leave

‘We don’t talk about the war.’ Yet those of my generation and older reference it daily. The coronavirus is an unseen enemy but for every-one not in military service, so were our past enemies — Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia — invisible mainly because the mainland was never physically invaded by any of them, so the only sightings were on the newsreels. All we can see of the virus is that horrible furry ball with round-ended spikes sticking out of it, which is what it looks like under a microscope, but this is still a war, the same as any other. We were not actually quarantined then but travel was both

Letters: How to make a cup of tea

No defence Sir: Jon Stone (Letters, 15 February) recalls the horrors and miseries of being subjected to bombing from the air. How right he is to do so. The deliberate burning and crushing of civilians in their homes is a revolting and indefensible form of warfare. It is no surprise that Hitler used it. What is surprising is that people in this country continue to make excuses for our own use of this method, which was actually far more extensive and deadly than the German bombing of the United Kingdom. There are no such excuses. Those who fall back on utilitarian justifications will also find that these do not work.

What’s in a name? | 8 August 2019

Perhaps we should blame Vasari. Ever since the publication of his Lives of the Artists, and to an ever-increasing extent, the world of art has been governed by the star system. In other words, the first question likely to be asked about a painting or sculpture is whodunit? And if the answer turns out to be, not Leonardo da Vinci — as has been suggested in the case of the controversial ‘Salvator Mundi’ — then the price tag becomes enormously smaller. Does this matter? Artist Unknown, a little exhibition at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, investigates the case of the anonymous work. This draws on the rich resources of the museums of