In this post we present a one-minute film made by Joe Briffa during the Unwrapping an Icon Dress and Jewellery Workshop at the V&A in February this year. In it Hilary Davidson, a fashion historian and curator from the University of Sydney, gives her interpretation of the veil depicted in the portrait of the Lady in a Fur Wrap. This she does by making her own version of the veil and then personally embodying it. A longer version of the film will be available at a later date.
This month has seen further technical examination of two of the Stirling Maxwell Collection portraits in the ‘Unwrapping an Icon’ project. This is to help us to deepen our understanding of the techniques and materials being used in the studio of Alonso Sánchez Coello in sixteenth-century Spain and to compare our findings with those for other portraits in the project and for other artists’ workshops at the time. Over the summer, Master’s student Natalie Lawler will be helping Mark Richter with this additional examination and the processing and interpretation of the results. Natalie is currently studying for an MLitt in Technical Art History at the University of Glasgow, and has opted to focus on the topic of ‘Philip II and Anne of Austria, An Arranged Pair: Technical Study of Two portraits by Alonso Sánchez Coello in the Stirling Maxwell Collection’ for her dissertation, supervised by Dr Richter and myself. There are many examples of portraits of men and women, husbands and wives, and especially kings and queens that have been collected and presented together as a pair. Natalie’s dissertation will examine the extent to which these particular two portraits can really be said to be a matching pair. Are the materials and paint techniques, including the buildup of layers, directly comparable? Are there signs of more than one painter’s hand at work? And even if they were conceived or commissioned together, are there differences in how they have been treated over time?
We wish Natalie every success in her studies and hope to check in with her again once her dissertation is completed.
In this post, we continue to unwrap the ways in which we’re documenting our project by looking at how it’s being photographed. Nowadays, and especially in our digital age when we all have cameras we take photography for granted. But photography of art, and in this case paintings, is a highly specialised skill – as many of us have probably discovered when we’ve tried and failed to take decent shots of paintings on visits to museums and exhibitions. We’re therefore very fortunate indeed in being able to count on Glasgow Museums photographer Maureen Kinnear as one of the Stirling Maxwell Research Network team working with us on the project. Maureen is an extremely modest person who is happier hiding behind her camera but for this blog post we’re not only able to provide a photographic glimpse of her at work (courtesy of her colleague Jim Dunn) but Rosie Thorp also persuaded her to give us a short interview about her work on our project, which we share below. We’ll continue exploring the photographic documentation of our project and its special significance within research on Stirling Maxwell and Spanish art in another post.
Interview with Maureen Kinnear, Glasgow Museums Photographer
R: How long have you worked as a photographer for Glasgow Museums?
I’ve worked in the photography department of Glasgow Museums for over 30 years. I initially worked at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum before moving to the Burrell Collection, and I’m now based at Glasgow Museum Resource Centre. I spent five years working as a black and white printer before becoming a photographer.
R: How did you get involved in the Unwrapping an Icon project?
I got involved in this project because I work closely with the painting conservator. My role is to record the paintings before, during and after treatment.
R: What did recording these paintings involve?
My brief is to provide a full record, including photographing the painting in normal and raking light, as well as under ultraviolet light and infrared.
The raking light image can give information on the paint application technique and also the method. It can show any damage, lifting paint or paint layer deformation.
Ultraviolet light shows the surface coating, the consistency of the varnish layer and the presence of retouching – so revealing information on the past treatment and nature of the varnish layer.
The infrared photography I do reveals light under-drawing and areas of damage but does not reveal as much as infrared reflectography would show (see also Mark’s interview to see how infrared reflectography was used in this project).
R: What other involvement have you had in the project?
For this project I’ve also recorded the subjects of the paintings to show close-up detail of the costumes. I’ve recorded the reverse of all the paintings too, with details of labels and inscriptions and have documented the technical and scientific examination that was carried out on all of them. I’ve also recorded events throughout the project, including the trip to the Vet School to use the x-ray machine.
R: What camera did you use?
The majority of the photography is done on a Hasselblad H3D II-39MS – H Series camera, which a lot of museums use, as it produces large file sizes allowing greater detail to be seen and suitable for reproduction in high-quality publications.
R: Do you always use a tripod for paintings or are there times when handheld is better?
When we’re photographing paintings in the studio, a tripod is always used. When I’m photographing people I use a Nikon D800 with and without a tripod, depending on the situation.
R: Are there special lenses you tend to use, for example, for the details in paintings?
For the Hasselblad the lens I use is the HC Macro4/120mm. This has exceptionally high performance making it a very versatile lens not only for close-up work but general applications too. For the Nikon, the lens is Nikon 24-120mm f4 G AF-S ED VR – so, for example, this is the equipment I used to photograph Damiana and Ailsa from Historic Environment Scotland carrying out the infrared reflectography and the photographs at the Vet School.
Documentation is an important part of any research project. On our Unwrapping an Icon project, we’re privileged – and very grateful – to have filmmaker Joe Briffa to help us to capture some of the highlight events and record the methods we’re using to collect information. Not many projects of our relatively small scale and budget have this luxury but the fame of the Lady in a Fur Wrap and the debates surrounding the artistic attribution and identity of sitter make this a special case. But of course using film to document our research has its challenges too. Doing any film shoot, but especially ones outside of our – and Joe’s – base in Glasgow, like the research trip to Madrid or the research workshop in London in February, mean dealing with a number of factors that usually can’t be fully assessed till the day itself, such as what the space to work in is like, including its lighting and acoustic conditions.
Usually Joe travels relatively light, as the idea is that the filming is as unintrusive as possible. That way, we can get on with the research itself, or the meeting or workshop, and the people concerned can relax and act naturally, though occasionally we decide to do short pieces to camera. We’re very aware that we’re asking rather a lot of our filmmaker, as obviously it can difficult to know if something happening or being said is really important if you’re not a specialist in the field and at the same time you need to keep an eye on all the technical issues. Added to that, the filming Joe does for us needs to be multipurpose – firstly, as a record of the whole event which we can refer back to; secondly, as short, edited footage for our blog posts, webpage or for the press; and thirdly, for some slightly longer films on particular aspects, which we’ll edit towards the end of the project.
As promised, our blog post this time features video footage from the Dress & Jewellery Workshop we held at the V&A in February this year. It shows a number of the participants who generously contributed their specialist knowledge on the day, as summarised in our last post, and gives a flavour of the lively exchange of ideas.