How to get an artist wrong

One of the effects of repeats on television and DVDs is that you can re-watch a programme and spot things that were not apparent during the first viewing but do emerge during the second and subsequent viewing a scene or episode. Chief among these would include a missed scene or spot of dialogue, inconsistencies, anachronisms and outright boo-boos.

It was while re-watching series 5 of Downton Abbey and searching for something online that I came across this:

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It is a gif of two scenes from Downton Abbey – first in series 1 where Mary and Pamuk are looking at a painting by Piero della Francesca. This painting and the artist resurfaces again as part of the Simon Bricker story line in series 5 but whoever created this gif has perhaps not noticed was that the paintings that were featured in series 1 and series 5 were different.

The Simon Bricker story line sparked an interest in researching more about Piero della Francesca because to me it seemed like the painting(s) the Crawleys had looked nothing like the della Francescas on display say at the National Gallery. In both scenes Mary and Cora tell Pamuk and Bricker that it was brought back by the second earl from his Grand Tour which I found hard to believe. During the 17th and 18th centuries when the second earl would have been alive, paintings from the Medieval and early Renaissance were out of fashion and out of reach because the vast majority were in churches: what was seen as desirable were paintings from the High Renaissance and Baroque, those that fell under the Old Masters category with later additions of paintings by then contemporary artists such as Canaletto and Guardi.

I have a theory that the Piero della Francesca that the Crawleys have is a fake or a copy made by an assistant, even done much later. Looking at the painting(s) at the Abbey, it has none of the use of pale and bright colours that are characteristic of the artist’s works. In a later episode in series 5, Bricker claims that the painting is a study of one of the figures found in the Nativity which hangs at the National Gallery. This is highly unlikely as studies as we know today did not come into existence until the 17th century. Until then, artist relied on cartoons which were a model for a painting, stained glass or tapestry. Some of them have pinpricks along the outline of the design that could be transferred against the surface to be painted. In addition, cartoons were also widely used for frescoes to link parts of the fresco when painted over damp plaster.

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Delving further, there are more inconsistencies that show up. Piero della Francesca unlike many of his contemporaries was not a prolific artist which wasn’t helped by the fact that it can take him years to complete a commissioned work and made worse by some of his works are now lost. After completing the Nativity around 1481, he abandoned painting to concentrate on mathematics and family affairs. Majority of his works remain in situ in churches in Italy while others have ended up in museums both in Italy and abroad which means that by the late 19th century none of them were in private hands. Not even the Royal Collection or the the Louvre, the Hermitage and the Smithsonian or even the grandest aristocratic families have a Piero della Francesca in their collection, which makes it highly unlikely that an obscure backwoods family like the Crawleys would have one.

The inconsistency with having a Piero della Francesca also ties with another discrepancy this time in series 4 when its revealed that the Crawleys have a Gutenberg Bible in their possession. Again this is highly unlikely, even after the last of the Bibles rolled out of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press these were not meant for private use but rather for churches and monasteries to be read out during Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. As of 2009, only 44 bibles existed with only 23 complete and they are all housed in major libraries. Which leads us to the question – if the Crawleys have these treasures (as well as their London property Grantham House) then why were these not sold when a) the Crawleys were bankrupt the first time round and Robert had to marry Cora or b) after the war when Robert lost the Levinson money?

The whole point of having these treasures was not only to demonstrate a family’s wealth and status but also something to sell off during the hard times when cold, hard cash was needed. This is precisely how for instance the likes of the National Gallery were able to acquire these works of art – Sir Charles Eastlake who served as an adviser and later director of the National Gallery undertook a trip to Italy and acquired paintings owing to sales from aristocratic families and churches. In Britain from the 1870s onwards, the market was flooded with paintings, jewels, silver, books and other objects from aristocratic families having to retrench and pay higher rates of tax and hence this is one of the reasons why major museums and galleries are now home to these treasures. If the Crawleys were really serious about putting their financial house in order then all these alleged treasures and Grantham House should have been sold and other economies made. But instead what we have is the family being “rescued” by some miracle bequest then they promptly fall back into their old ways and what we have from series 4 onwards is the spectacle of a family in denial of their financial situation and that of their peers and the country.

More and more one sees how Fellowes’ writing and plotting has become so bad that he doesn’t seem to even check what he’s writing for plausibility and credibility. If indeed the Crawleys have a Piero della Francesca and a Gutenberg Bible, they could have named their price and even if both were revealed to be fakes, they could still fetch a good sum. As it stands, both of these were bolt on plot devices to pad out a threadbare narrative and show in an unconvincing way that this family is cultured as well as to patronise the audience and assume that they wouldn’t know who Piero della Francesca or what a Gutenberg Bible is when in reality there are those who do and failing that, Google is your friend.

 

Further reading about Piero della Francesca:

Larry Whitham. Piero’s Light (New York, 2014)

James R. Banker. Piero della Francesca: Artist and Man (Oxford, 2014)

Marilyn Aronberg Lavin. Piero della Francesca (London, 2002)

Kenneth Clark. Piero della Francesca (Oxford, 1969)

Marilyn Aronberg Lavin. ‘Monarca della Pitura: Piero and His Legacy’ in Marilyn Aronberg Lavin (ed.) Piero della Francesca and His Legacy (Washington DC, 1995)

Pierluigi de Vecchi and Peter Murray. The Complete Paintings of Piero della Francesca (London, 1970)

E.H. Grombich. The Story of Art (London, 1951)

Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Artists (London, 1987)

Notes:

1 & 2 are part of the fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross at the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo, Italy (photos found on Pinterest.com)

3 The Baptism of Christ can be seen at the National Gallery in London (photo taken by blogger)

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