Sisterly duty: The Painter’s Daughters, by Emily Howes, reviewed

The painter in the title of Emily Howes’s first novel is Thomas Gainsborough, famous, of course, as a great portraitist – ‘the curs’d face business’, as he once called it – and landscape artist. His daughters by his wife Margaret were Molly and Peggy, immortalised in half a dozen double canvases by their father. These family pictures allow us to intrude upon the sisters’ special intimacy as we follow their development from carefree girls playing in their native Suffolk to their emergence as fashionable young women in Bath and London society. Ultimately, it’s the secret of Molly’s mental instability that keeps the two sisters inseparable One of these paintings of

Why did this brilliant Irish artist fall off the radar? 

Sir John Lavery has always had a place in Irish affections. His depiction of his wife, Hazel, as the mythical figure of Cathleen ni Houlihan, which appeared on the old ten shilling and subsequently on the watermark of the Irish pound notes, meant, as the joke went, that every Irishman kept her close to his heart. He was indeed Irish – born in Belfast – but was at home in Scotland, and was the best known of the spirited group of painters called the Glasgow Boys. Yet he lived most of his life in London, was friends with Winston Churchill (they took a painting trip together) and also with Michael

Proof that Rubens really was a champion of the female sex: Rubens & Women, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery reviewed

‘She is a princess endowed with all the virtues of sex; long experience has taught her how to govern these people… I think that if Her Highness could govern in her own way, everything would turn out very happily.’ The ‘princess’ in question was Isabel Clara Eugenia, Infanta of Spain and regent of the Spanish Netherlands; ‘these people’ were the pesky, ungovernable Flemings and the author of the glowing testimonial was Peter Paul Rubens who, since the death of Isabel’s husband the Archduke Albert in 1621, had become her trusted diplomatic adviser. It was quite a step up for a mere court painter, especially one with a skeleton in the

Why is Frans Hals still not considered the equal of Rembrandt?

Who was Frans Hals? We know very little about him. He was baptised in either 1582 or 1583 in Antwerp. He died in 1666 at the age of 83 or 84. Approximately 220 works survive. One discredited narrative claimed Hals was a drunk – an inference probably based on his subject matter. There are several depictions of drinkers. On the other hand, there is his evident industry. Two streets in Haarlem, where he lived his entire life, have been identified, but not the actual houses. He was buried in St Bavo’s church in the Grote Markt, which was originally Catholic but became Protestant. There are two commemorative slabs next to

Joshua Reynolds’s revival

In front of the banner advertising the RA Summer Exhibition, the swagger statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) by Alfred Drury stands garlanded with flowers. But the Academy he founded won’t be marking his tercentenary with a retrospective, just a small display and a series of artists’ lectures. For an anniversary show, you have to travel to his native Devon. Ever since the Pre-Raphaelites dubbed him ‘Sir Sloshua’, Reynolds has been out of fashion Ever since the Pre-Raphaelites dubbed him ‘Sir Sloshua’, Joshua Reynolds has been out of fashion: blame the outmoded ideals of beauty he promoted in his Discourses and his role as portraitist to the Georgian establishment. But

The women’s lips are pursed; the men’s are kissable: Glyn Philpot at Pallant House reviewed

Of all the photos of artists in the studio, the one of Glyn Philpot being served a martini by his white-jacketed Jamaican model Henry Thomas must be the strangest. Taken to publicise his 1934 exhibition, it would be unthinkable now but in the circles Philpot moved in at the time it might, I suppose, have been viewed as cool. For 20 years Philpot had been London’s leading portraitist, a position he inherited from Sargent. His sitters included admirals – four during the first world war – and King Fuad of Egypt, who commissioned a ‘dignified, decent, usual and rather sumptuous’ portrait from the 38-year-old artist for £3,000 in 1923, the

The magic of champagne

The four portraits of four siblings that Catriona had painted from their photographs over four months were framed, hung and lit and ready for a viewing by the loving parents. That so much creative endeavour should succeed or fail at a glance made me terribly glad I wasn’t a painter. At the appointed hour of six o’clock, I was still in bed upstairs, but listening out, as anxious as she was. Then I heard the parents’ optimistic tattoo on the front door. We needn’t have worried. I heard them spot their children hanging on the rock face, then their overjoyed exclamations at the interpretations and likenesses. She’d captured their two

The genius of Frans Hals

Since art auctions were invented, they have served to hype artists’ prices. It can happen during an artist’s lifetime — Jeff Koons’s ‘Balloon Dog’ — or half a millennium after their death — Leonardo’s ‘Salvator Mundi’. And it can sometimes restore a lost reputation, as happened with Frans Hals. When the picture now famous as ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ came up for auction in Paris in 1865, Hals was all but forgotten. A successful portraitist in his lifetime, he never made much money — with a wife and at least ten children, he remained a renter throughout his career — and after his death his reputation, overshadowed by Rembrandt’s, was tarnished

Was I the picture of evil incarnate?

Not long after Catriona and I first met, her husband painted my head and shoulders portrait in oils as I sat next to an open window in Provence with my shirt off. The result was an astonishing and rather brilliant study of spiritual depravity. But I was too amazed and humbled to have my portrait painted in oils by a professional artist of international repute to much care about the result. Nor had I expected a photographic likeness. And at the same time I was genuinely delighted that at least I didn’t look like a bourgeois. Later the painting arrived in Devon in the post, beautifully and expensively framed, and

From light into darkness: the genius of Goya

The great Spanish artist Francisco Goya was born in Zaragoza in 1746, the son of a gilder whose livelihood was doomed by the new fashion for marble. The young Goya first studied in his home town before graduating to Madrid, rising through academy and court circles and navigating his way through the reigns of three Bourbon kings and the intervening rule of Joseph Bonaparte before retiring to Bordeaux in his late seventies. From early commissions for religious frescoes, altarpieces and tapestry cartoons for royal palaces, he went on to paint celebrations of everyday Spain en fête and to establish a portrait practice encompassing all the leading figures of the wildly