Today, museums and galleries invest enormous sums of money to preserve and secure artworks which are deemed valuable enough to be held in their collections. Ageing, light, humidity, accidental damage, grime, pests, pollutants, and many other factors can affect the material form of a work of art. Enormous amounts of technology are put to use to control the climate in which artworks are held. However, art always remains vulnerable to the vagaries of their ever-changing environments, particularly outside of these professional settings.
This display has dramatised the loss of the “original” state of these artworks, and emphasised the fact that, once damaged or altered, we are never able to view an art object’s earlier form without being conscious of what is not visible.
In the case of George Chinnery, we do not have a record of the works prior to their damage, and to consider these earlier states, we must fill in the erased spaces with our imagination. However, while we may use our imagination to create a possible idea of the artwork in a state prior to the damage, they cannot in truth be read without countenancing the impact made by the objects’ mutilation. Conversely, by displaying archival images of paintings prior to severe damage or complete destruction, as in the cases of Hugh Robinson’s Head of a Beggar and the Rothes Portraits, we are made profoundly conscious of the opportunity that has been lost to see these works in their prior state. Nevertheless, the records that we have, though not a complete substitute for the art-object itself, are able to reveal glimpses into the paintings’ object-lives. We are afforded the opportunity to view a likeness of the work prior to its damage or the changes which altered it. By collating the evidence held in the archival images, we are able to create a fuller historical picture of the artworks’ object-lives than would otherwise be possible.
As technology changes and improves, we are able to view images that depict the work of art with ever-increasing fidelity. For example, in May 2020, the Rijksmuseum published a photograph of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in “hyper-resolution”. It is a staggeringly detailed image which allows viewers to zoom in to the work and see the traces of individual brushstrokes. This technology is likely to become the norm and later to be exceeded. It provides an unprecedented opportunity for art historians throughout the world to view the artwork in close-up.
However, despite such advances, it is worth remembering that artworks are, for the most part, distinct objects in their own right. As such, they must be viewed in person for the fullest understanding of their materiality, feel, and meaning. Archival photography is a phenomenal tool at the disposal of historians but it is always one which must be handled judiciously.
List of sources
For more information on the history of the Paul Mellon Centre’s photographic archives and a history of the centre, see Brian Allen, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art: A History 1970–2010 (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2010), 25–26; and Mark Hallett, “Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art: A Brief History 1970–2020”, PMC Notes, No. 14 (London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2020), at: https://issuu.com/paulmelloncentre/docs/36137_cultureshock_media_paul_mellon_centre_no-cro.
Hugh Robinson’s Head of a Beggar
Martin Postle, “Robinson, Hugh (1756–1796), Portrait and History Painter”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 September 2004, at: doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/68298.
The location and time of the damage to Robinson’s portrait was not recorded in the PMC’s archives. The author is indebted to Rosalind Teesdale-Ives, who provided the relevant information on this matter.
The Rothes Portraits
Dalya Alberge and Alex Renton, “Art Worth £60m Pounds Destroyed in Warehouse Fire”, The Independent, Wednesday, 9 October 1991, 1.
Hugh Chisholm (ed.), “Rothes, Earls of”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 23, 11th edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 757–758.
See also, “1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Rothes, Earls of”, WikiSource of 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Vol. 23, at: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica/Rothes,_Earls_of (accessed 3 June 2020).
Thomas Finlayson Henderson, “Leslie, John (1630–1681)”, in Sidney Lee (ed.), Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 33 (London: Smith Elder & Co., 1893), 102–103.
James Anderson, The Ladies of the Covenant Memoirs of Scottish Distinguished Female Characters, Embracing the Period of the covenant and the Persecution (London: Redfield, 1853), 199–212.
London, The Daily Graphic, 20 April 19, 9.
The Chinnery Sketchbook
Tate’s catalogue entry for the sketchbook gives it the title: “Album of Sketches, Including Views in India, Hong Kong and Macao”, at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/chinnery-album-of-sketches-including-views-in-india-hong-kong-and-macao-66028/16 (accessed 3 June 2020).
Brian Sewell, “The Flamboyant Mr Chinnery: An English Artist in India and China, Asia House—Review”, Evening Standard, 1 December 2011. BS/5/1/243, Brian Sewell Archive, The Paul Mellon Centre, London
Patrick Conner, “Chinnery, George (1774–1852), Painter”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2007, at: doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/5311 (accessed 3 June 2020).
For an essay on the colonial image-making found in Chinnery’s portraits from India, see Viccy Coltman, “The Aesthetics of Colonialism: George Chinnery’s Portrait of Gilbert Elliot, 1st Earl of Minto, 1812”, in Visual Culture in Britain 12, no. 2 (July 2016): 137–162. doi:10.1080/14714787.2016.1211488.
See George Chinnery (1774–1852), “The Reeves Macao Album, 1836–1837”, in “Exploration and Travel: Asia Including China Trade Paintings”, Christie’s, London 13 July 2006, at: https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/george-chinnery-1774-1852-the-reeves-macao-4750726-details.aspx.
Content researched, prepared and written by Freddie Pegram and co-ordinated by Bryony Botwright-Rance and Mark Hallett.
Special thanks are owed to the Teesdale family for their generosity and enthusiasm regarding this project, and to Martin Postle, whose research guidance proved invaluable.