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Writing

a few examples of my writing styles

1. Advice from a busy man.

If you have a big task ahead of you and you don't know where to begin, I have some advice that will make everything go much quicker - always begin in the middle. Starting in the middle means that the end of the task is nearer than if you had started at the beginning; then, when you've done the middle bit, you can go back to the beginning knowing that the end is still nearer than it would have been had you started at the beginning because there's no middle to worry about. Having then done the beginning of the task, you don't have to worry about the middle any more because you've already done that as well, so you can go straight to last part of the task and the end, and the whole task seems so much quicker. Simple.

 [caution: this advice is not suitable for surgeons, parachutists or people digging holes]

2. A genuine copy?

Big name artists are now like fashionable brand names. Only the genuine article will do; anything less, for example a copy, let alone an outright fake, is deemed to be inferior. But are the distinctions between originals and copies as clear as we are led to believe? For a long time the issue of attribution has been at the centre of art scholarship. Many paintings are well documented, but often attributions are based purely on their quality; a judgement that’s usually based only on opinion, not on documented facts. Despite the large sums of money that rest on the acceptance or rejection of the authorship of a work of art, such decisions are frequently based on the opinion of an alarmingly small number of people, sometimes only one person. Art history is the only branch of history where opinion carries the same weight as fact. Sadly, too many value judgements are based purely on quality, and particularly on the fluency and competence of the artist’s technique, but this criterion has a flaw in it.

If the quality of a painting is poor, it’s easy to dismiss it. If it doesn’t quite have the quality expected of a great master, it’s hedged around with weasel words; ‘ascribed to’, ‘circle of’, ‘school of’ and ‘after’. These words are designed, of course, to legally protect art dealers as well as describe the origin of the work in question. Of these terms, ‘after’ is the most loaded. Traditionally, ‘after’ means that if a painting has the familiar style or subject matter of a great master, but it’s not quite up to scratch of in terms of technique, it’s demoted to being a copy (though this doesn’t always allow for poor condition or the old master doing a ‘Monday morning job’, but I digress).

However, there is another way of looking at this issue. Is it really logical to say that just because the quality of a painting is high, it has to be by the master himself? It is a fact that there were many professional copyists active right up to the invention of photography. The 17th century in particular was a boom time for copyists. Many painters, such as Rubens and Lely, had large numbers of assistants, some of whom are known to have discreetly fulfilled repeat orders that their employers didn’t have time to do for themselves. Some of these copyists would have been technically extremely accomplished, but the current art market has consistently ignored this. Art dealers have a vested interest in promoting paintings of quality as being by the master himself. As a result, art history is being skewed by financially biased scholarship.

Many of the Dutch and Flemish masters in particular produced - if we’re daft enough to believe it - several versions of the same painting. If the quality is consistently high, they’re all attributed to the master. This doesn’t always make sense. Take the case of van Dyck; huge numbers of paintings now bear his name, despite the fact that he died relatively young (42). His paintings have been so high in value and status for such a long time that almost every country mansion in England boasts one of ‘his’ paintings. This is just silly.

Professional copyists had the same training as the masters. Many of them didn’t go on to practice in their own right as independent painters because they didn’t have the money or the connections that their masters had, or because of guild restrictions, but neither of these things meant that they were without talent. It’s illogical to say that copyists were always technically inferior to their masters. Furthermore, the most talented of these may well have executed whole paintings in the manner of their master, but not necessarily copying any particular works by them. Rembrandt, for example, is documented as signing works that he didn’t paint. Such works would have been a lucrative but discreet way of generating income for all concerned. Artists were businessmen; they sold a commodity. Sometimes demand exceeded supply, and the copyist filled the gap. All this is an open secret amongst art dealers today.

The search for authenticity is a valid aim when trying to sniff out fakes, but the whole subject of copies is still one that needs to be thoroughly investigated if we’re to really understand how the ‘old masters’ lived and worked. Until then, the quest for authentic brand-name old masters is fraught with uncertainty, and could even be futile. The plain truth is that the degree of involvement that a master may have had with a painting that now bears his name may, in many cases, never be known.

Too many works of art have been hyped up. It’s now time for some honesty.

3. In praise of silence

(Written for the opening of the Vermeer exhibition in the Hague in 1996 )

It takes a special kind of talent to create silence on canvas. It takes a particularly special kind of mind to create canvases that command a reverential hush in the room they’re hung in, calming all those who stand before them. Nowadays, oil paintings are often made by those who shout, people who have to be heard above the crowd and who bawl into our faces with big issues and thick paint. Quietude is old-fashioned. With the much-anticipated opening of the Vermeer exhibition next week it’s easy to forget just how rare this kind of talent was; and still is today.

More of Vermeer’s works have been gathered together in one place than ever before, probably including his lifetime. For Vermeer buffs like me, it’s like a dream come true, but to all those seeing the exhibition I would urge caution. Anyone in search of a spiritual experience is going to be disappointed. Vermeer’s paintings are mostly small in size and they demand intimate inspection. The silent world of stillness he created can’t be fully appreciated amidst the fuss and bustle of the expectant throng pushing to see it. Alas, all that can be done is to catch fleeting glimpses of the physical reality of the paintings as objects, sigh with joy and frustration at the circumstances, and move on. Like seeing a famous face in a crowd, no sooner does the sudden recognition happen than the transient experience becomes a memory. So what can be done?

We could steal one. Most of them would tuck neatly under one arm if we discreetly removed the frame; in fact there is a Vermeer still missing since its theft in 1990 (it looks great above my mantelpiece). Or you could try to make specific individual pilgrimages to wherever your favourite Vermeer is hung. However, neither of these options are wonderful: one is criminal, though tempting, the other expensive and time consuming.

I would recommend buying the best possible reproduction of your chosen Vermeer, pinning it up in the quietest room in your home and sitting in front of it for as long as you can, absorbing the work of a sublime genius. His works depicted domestic interiors, they were created for domestic interiors, they only really work in domestic interiors. Only in a home can they can work their magic, only here they can gently ooze the tranquillity Vermeer intended. Silent moments in music can only be properly heard when the audience is silent.

Snobs beware. If you can only get your pleasure from the real thing, make sure that the security guard isn’t looking.

4. The missing Vermeers

The question of how many paintings Vermeer did has irritated me for as long as I can remember. Most specialists agree that there are only between 34 and 36 paintings by him that survive to this day. Contrary to common belief, it is my contention that he painted at least twice as many paintings than have been credited to him, possibly far more than that, but that these paintings are missing; probably lost. The fact that there is no direct evidence for the existence of the bulk of his missing oeuvre doesn’t mean that that these paintings didn’t exist.

Is it is justified and relevant to discuss missing work from a great artist’s oeuvre? I believe it is. Yet scholars persistently ignore this very important question because it raises issues that cannot be definitively researched let alone answered by any historian. It is as if they argue that what does not survive could not have existed, and so they take refuge in the facts of what does survive, concocting the illogical and demonstrably flawed theory that Vermeer’s output throughout his career was small and, by and large, perfect from the start. This is nonsense.

My irritation stems from the fact that with Vermeer’s paintings, their scarcity seems at odds with their quality. Apart from five or six early works, which are, compared to his contemporaries, of average quality, most of his paintings are sublime masterpieces. Even supposing that some of his early works have been lost or destroyed, the ones that survive are still too few in number to elucidate the giant intellectual and aesthetic leaps that Vermeer took in his career to arrive at the transcendent quality we associate with the bulk of his surviving paintings. Furthermore, having achieved this quality, we are asked to believe that having been capable of producing such beautiful and saleable paintings, his output remained slow and restricted, even in hard times. All these facts are incongruous.

Many experts are far too conservative when they estimate how many paintings he was likely to have painted. Their reasoning is often strange. Michael Montias1 lays great emphasis on an association between the surviving paintings and a few 17th century documents in which they’re mentioned, despite the fact that the survival of such documentary correlations are even more arbitrary (and arguably even rarer) than the paintings described in them. Arthur Wheelock2 says that, “Vermeer must have painted slowly, since only about thirty five of his works are known. It seems unlikely that many more ever existed.” This seems to be the consensus amongst many scholars. However, it’s illogical to assume that because few paintings survive he must have painted slowly. As the saying goes, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’.

Did he paint slowly? No. Vermeer is not like van Eyck or Cézanne. His techniques were often scrupulous and painstaking, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that each picture took an age to finish. Technical competence comes with practice; fluency comes with experience. The paintings themselves hold the clues to the time it took to paint them. It can be shown that it didn’t take Vermeer a very long time for to paint his paintings. On a technical level, by looking closely at them, it can be seen that significant amounts of each painting have large areas that have been painted ‘wet-in-wet’ (or ‘Alla-prima’3). With so much of each painting having being deliberately blended, softened and blurred, to achieve the desired effect, most of them must have been worked on – and completed – within a relatively small period4. This is because on average, and under normal conditions, oil paint will only remain active and useable for a few days at most, especially if it is applied thinly5. There is a limit on how much such paintings could have been worked on intermittently6.

So if, for the sake of argument, we assume he worked more quickly than he has been given credit for, his supposedly small output would only account for a tiny fraction of his career, but this doesn’t seem credible. The vacuum in Vermeer’s career has to be filled and explained by another activity from which he earned money. It has been assumed that because he is documented as working as an art expert and dealer that this activity must have dominated most of his working life. This could be a mistake. This assumption is mainly based on one document (23rd May 1672)7, a document that doesn’t prove that this is how he occupied himself most of his time. Perhaps this career vacuum must have been filled some other way? If so, where is the evidence? The answer to this conundrum seems obvious; he spent the bulk of his time painting, but the bulk of his paintings have been lost.

Even if his work as an art dealer did occupy the majority of his career, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it would have hindered his output as a painter. There are several contemporaries of Vermeer who were able to produce many more paintings than Vermeer despite holding down other jobs at the same time, for example, Jan van de Capelle8, Hendrick Dubbels9, Aert van de Neer10, Samuel van Hoogstraten11 and Jan Steen12.

Even so, experts still struggle to excuse his ‘small output’, and look for other explanations. Another reason given is his large family, although a large family didn’t hinder the output of other painters of the time, for example Jan Steen and Gerard Terborch. Furthermore, given the fact that men of this period didn’t contribute to the practical running of households as much as women, especially if they had servants as Vermeer had, it is arguable just how much of a drain on his time his large family would have been.

If we assume that he had more time on his hands than has been commonly accepted, this would have allowed him more time to produce paintings. But would what he earned from the paintings have been enough to support his family? The drain on his income from his large family must still have been considerable, notwithstanding any occasional financial help from his mother-in-law or loans from wealthy burghers13. This brings us back to the central question; how do we account for how he made a living?

Vermeer died aged only 43. Even though his life as a painter must have been interspersed with many other matters and distractions, the fact remains that he must have had an active career as a painter for at least about 20 years. For this reason it is my firm belief that during this time he must have painted far more paintings than most people believe.

To use a scientific analogy, it has been estimated by astronomers that we can only see or detect a very small fraction of all the known matter that they have calculated is in the universe. They call the matter that they can’t see ‘Dark Matter’. Are we perhaps being blind to some of Vermeer’s ‘dark matter’? We are, by definition, unaware of any paintings of his that are unrecorded, but this doesn’t mean that they never existed.

One of the oddest things about Vermeer’s entire oeuvre is the extremely high average quality of the paintings given the small number that survive. Though we have a handful of paintings from early in his career, including a few ‘missing link’ paintings that led up to the great masterpieces with which we’re familiar, there has to be a significant number of paintings that have been lost (or perhaps that remain to be identified14) from all periods of his career. We are aware of the titles of at least some lost works, for example those mentioned in the 1696 Houet sale, but could there have been many more that we’re unaware of?

It is significant that as far as I know, of all the well-known experts on Vermeer who have made assessments on the number of paintings he did in his lifetime, none are practising painters. This is a pity. As a professional painter I have studied Vermeer’s techniques in detail and have managed to mimic and reproduce many of Vermeer’s famous technical tricks. I have painted works of a similar nature to Vermeer’s, both exact and faithful copies and - though I hate the word - ‘pastiches’. For this reason I feel that I have a practical perspective that gives my view of his likely output some extra credibility.

With my ‘hands-on’ experience and the knowledge gained from it, I have worked out some figures for the likely output of Vermeer. In these figures, I’m only accounting for a part of his professional time being spent on painting (from a partial deference to existing scholarly pessimism), but I am also accounting for Vermeer’s greater fluency and speed, given the fact that he was, after all, a genius!

I estimate that the total number of hours that one of his single-figure interiors would have taken to paint to be about 50 – 100 hours of work. If he worked continuously on such a painting, it would therefore have taken about 1 - 3 weeks to complete it. A more complicated and larger painting, for example The View of Delft or the Allegory of Painting would have taken longer, probably about 150 – 250 hours, or 3 – 6 weeks. Supposing we therefore average out the number of weeks it took him to paint a picture to 4 weeks.

Then, if we err on the side of caution, we can conservatively assume that with all his other family and work commitments he only painted for a cumulative total of about four months per year, which is roughly 17 weeks. If he had an active professional life as a painter of, say, 20 years, then 20 X 17 = 340 weeks of painting during his career. If we divide 340 by our assumed average of 4 weeks per painting, this would therefore make his total output amount to about 85 paintings. This is more than double the number of paintings we know of today.

Having said that, if we were to pluck up courage and dare to suppose that he painted for more than only four month of the year, for example six months, then his entire output could have amounted to as many as 130 paintings. If any of these figures are true, this would mean that an unusually high number of his paintings have been lost, compared to nearly all other 17th century Dutch painters. Why?

I wish I had a definitive answer to that. Perhaps some may still turn up; some of his paintings could be ‘sleeping’ in obscure private collections and could re-surface in future years. Serendipitous fortune might yet smile on an individual one day, and he or she will unsuspectingly take that dusty dark old picture into The Antiques Roadshow. Seriously though, I have another theory, a sad one. Now that we know that Vermeer had at least one major patron, could it be that several of his works were in one place at one time – the wrong time – and were all destroyed in a fire? Statistically, over the course of time, fire is the greatest risk to oil paintings15. We’ll never know for sure, but it’s an interesting idea that should be researched, perhaps by starting with the documents relating to Pieter Claesz van Ruijven (1624-1674); almost certainly Vermeer’s principal patron.

Whatever sad fate befell the missing paintings, I am convinced that they existed and that we should take them into account when assessing the life and work of one of Europe’s greatest artists in order to understand him and his times better.

1 Michael Montias, Vermeer and his Milieu: a web of social History. Princeton University Press; 1989. Page 265-267. In this text he extrapolates various curious statistics from the known paintings and documents, concluding with a hypothesised grand total of “53.7 paintings painted” (!)
2 Arthur K. Wheelock Jr, Vermeer: The Complete Works. Harry N Abrams; 1997. Page 6.
3 This is the main way he achieved his famous soft-focus effects, including his famous blurred specular highlights and softened edges. Some of these effects were achieved by smearing wet paint over dry, but doing this would not have allowed as smooth a transition of tones as could be achieved by painting ‘wet-in-wet’. Furthermore, because of an optical phenomenon called ‘the turbid medium effect’, whereby the application of a thin light coloured paint over a dry darker layer of paint makes it appear cooler (and often chalkier) in hue, there are technical limitations to the range of effects he could have attained by smearing wet paint over dry.
4 I have closely examined several Vermeers and calculated that some of his small and simple paintings, for example The Girl with the Pearl Earring, The Lace Maker, and The Guitar Player, were probably painted within a week. They were probably painted in no more than two or three (not necessarily consecutive) alla-prima painting sessions, probably of no more than one or two days each (this time doesn’t include the drawing of the image or peripheral activities such as priming the canvases, or varnishing and framing the paintings). This could be partially proved by scientific analysis, particularly by a complete macro-photographic survey of paint samples from the paintings and/or by selective cross-sectional analysis of the paint layers.
5 Technically, artist’s oil paint doesn’t ‘dry’ like household paint, which largely relies on the evaporation of solvents, but it hardens as the oil that binds it polymerises in reaction to being exposed to the oxygen in air. The drying time of oil paint varies according to the pigments used, some of which will accelerate or retard the time it takes to harden, according to how they react with the oil that is used as a binder (usually linseed or poppy oil).
6 It is slightly possible that Vermeer used a retarding agent in his paint, for example clove oil, which would have enabled him to work more slowly, though this is something that could only be proved by scientific analysis.
7 Furthermore, by this time the French had invaded the country and the economy was in a state of collapse, so he may have been forced to supplement his income in this way. It tells us nothing about this side of his life before this date.
8 Who worked in the prosperous family business as a dyer and merchant.
9 Who was a shopkeeper.
10 Who ran an inn and wineshop.
11 Who was Director of the mint at Dordrecht.
12 Who ran taverns and breweries.
13 For example, Vermeer borrowed two hundred guilders from Pieter Claesz van Ruijven on the 30th November 1657.
14 Though the chances of a major masterpiece emerging from the proverbial dusty attic are slim, unrecognised Vermeers may still be with us. Even if no more originals surface, we should perhaps look harder at other paintings and documents that may record lost works. There is a painting called “The Rustic Cottage”, currently attributed to Jan van der Laan, now in the reserves of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Gemäldegalerie, which shows a large cottage (a house really) and other buildings, with some trees in the foreground. This painting used to be ascribed to Vermeer; but we can see now that the technique used to paint it is too poor for the painting to have been by him. However, it does have something very Vermeer-like in the light and the general composition that makes me think it is very likely to be a copy of a lost work by him. We know of two lost works that are mentioned in the 1696 Houet sale as being by Vermeer that might correspond to this painting. One was called “A View of a House in Delft”, which may not necessarily be The Little Street, as many have assumed, and there was another called “A View of some Houses”. Either title could refer to the original of this work. Since it was first attributed to Vermeer, scholarship seems to have moved on and left this intriguing picture behind it. Nevertheless, no less an authority than Thoré-Bürger thought it was by Vermeer, and flawed as his judgement often was we still owe him too much of a hefty debt to let this slip by without further investigation.
15 I am grateful for the artist and paint maker Michael Harding for reminding me of this.