view counter

Sandy Nairne, the Stolen Turners and the Art of Self-Portraits by Zoe Catherine Kendall


I caught up with Sandy in the Orange Street offices to talk about everything from his new book Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners which he'll be discussing at Richmond Lit Fest later this month to his work at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), his thoughts on Turner's work to his ideas on Contemporary Portraiture and Self Portrait Artists like Tony Bevan, as well as some of the finer joys in life like making marmalade. Sandy first captured my interest because of the his work at the NPG and his progressive career which has meandered from the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford to the ICA and the TATE via the TV series State of the Art as well as very many publications and a regular participation in the jovial and highly competitive sport of racing punting.

This year Sandy published a book which goes into some detail about his involvement with the operation which ultimately led to the return of the two Tate owned Turner Paintings Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge and Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory) - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis which were taken whilst on load to a gallery in Frankfurt in 1994. Amongst all the detective work, stuff of exciting crime dramas except more compelling for all its realness, I got a sense when reading Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners of Sandy's passion for the arts and in particular for the widely celebrated British artist J.M.W.Turner. Sandy was crucially involved in what dragged out into eight and half long years of pursuit of the paintings which were part of the Turner Bequest and to some represent part of his most significant legacy, future reaching work set to influence a new generation of artists like Monet, moving toward abstract expressionism and the territory of Pollock or Rothko. I asked him what it was that compelled him to dedicate so much of his time and energy into the search and he talked of a sense of duty as a museum director and compared the loss of the Bequest paintings in terms of national heritage to the demolition of one of England's great cathedrals.

S.N: Duty of care is exactly what anybody running a museum knows they have and Turner is a particular part of the Tate Collections and a very very special part of national heritage. Whatever you [think] about cathedrals, if you were told one of the great cathedrals of England was about to have a great section taken off of it, I think you'd think that was outrageous - so there wasn't any question of saying – am I being involved? I was involved.


I went on to ask what it is about Turner's paintings and in particular Shade and Darkness and Light and Colour that make them so special to a nation of art lovers.

S.N: They were very radical, they were very extraordinary, even though these two also had this other whole business of being about the bible and at the same time his argument with Goethe, they were philosophical – they were all these different things at once.

We agreed that these works with their distinctive swirling application of paint were very typical of Turner's emotive style and how the discreet reference to a witness through the ocular technique used gives the idea of an observer to these dramatic painted scenes, making it all the more poignant.

S.N: They use this ocular effect which is very dramatic. They originally had these octagonal frames designed by Turner which came in across the corners so that this was even more emphasized in the way that they were framed.

What we know of Turner's life is shrouded in mystery. We know his mother died in bedlam when he was a young man and that he never married, that his personal life became increasingly more eccentric and that he died in the house of his Mistress Sophia Caroline Booth, reportedly uttering his last words 'The Sun is God' before passing away. I asked if Sandy thought the two stolen paintings could be read as a sort of portrait of the artist himself – did they give away something more personal? Sandy thought that line of enquiry may be going a bit too far but acknowledged that they portray and reveal the artist's intentions and thoughts in the same way that all paintings would reveal something of their creators.

S.N: Any great painting by a great artist is something of them, sure but I don't think they have a particular relationship to his character other than the fact that his character is part of the personality, part of the artistic genius that he was. In a sense I think they are part of this more public outward thing about the Chromatic argument that Goethe wrote on the nature of colour.

He doesn't stay within the bounds of the niceties of English landscapes. He took paintings to other levels and [he] was doing these very extraordinary things. It's probably emphasized in one's mind historically because he chose to be a rather mysterious figure, he kept his private life very much to himself and kept to a slightly strange place in terms of his social relations. One senses the class and professional difficulties and things that he'd crossed had been considerable.

One might wonder when taking in such sublime imagery, with paint application and a technique that was so bold, dramatic and daring for it's time, what could have been going through Turner's mind when he painted these and other similar works. Needless to say, I am positive many people are thankful for the dedicated work Sandy put in to their recovery.


J.M.W.Turner Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge, first exhibited 1843

Sandy has been Director of The National Portrait Gallery since 2002. I was equally as interested in some of the work he had done there in the last decade, helping to define for a wider audience the nature and intent of contemporary portraiture as it hangs alongside it's traditional ancestors which are a much more outward facing bunch, concerned with surface and impression. He helped to curate The Portrait Now, an exhibition and book which celebrated 150 years of The National Portrait Gallery back in 2006. We spoke about how contemporary portraits by artists such as Lucian Freud, Dryden Goodwin and Tony Bevan reveal a lot more of the personal aspects of their subject, and can be suggestive of states of mind, the later sometimes more so than appearance.

S.N: Yes. There are two or three levels to that debate. One level is probably about what happens with Sigmund Freud, at the point at which we enter arguably the modern age with Marx and with Freud, in other words with thinkers who changed the game of how the western world is seen. The sense that we look at somebody with an idea of how they think - what they might think is a very different sense than the Victorian's had, not least because the Victorians were obsessed with phrenology, classifying people by the way they look. But of course Freud takes that apart to something more interior. Secondly the actuality of it changes with the play between photography and painting. What does it mean of the instant to capture someone there and then and what does it mean in the construction which a painting or sculpture is as an image. Which leads to the third level of different kinds of constructed portraits and the questions one has had in lots of different ways over the last thirty years or more of there being plenty of other kinds of portraits that could be said to be a way of understanding someone than necessarily what they look like. Everything from is Van Gogh's chair a portrait: discuss - through to anything more intimate like diaries and letters and writings and scraps of information and things that may be fragmentary which either exist or are left or are constructed to be somebody. What we we do in our exhibitions at NPG sits in counterpoint to our collections of public portraits which are by and large portraits of honour. I've been very keen in my directorship to broaden the way in which we do that. In the book The Portrait Now, Sarah Howgate and I were very aware of wanting to use the most expansive form of portraiture that you can think of.

He mentioned that although portraiture doesn't have a place in the conventional contemporary art world, themes like identity and the body are very relevant. There has been an ongoing exhibition by self-portrait artist Tony Bevan at NPG this year. Bevan explores a lot more than mere appearance, exhibiting a preoccupation with the nature of the self.

S.N: Bevan has had more of a showing in Europe, partly because he does come out of a more expressionist tradition. His self-portraits do lead you into an emotional space, he is a very measured quiet person, you would not think these paintings come from this very very quiet, ordered figure.


Tony Bevan Head, 1999

I wondered, with contemporary artists like Emin exposing the most intimate details of their lives in thoughts and artworks, whether this kind of enquiry into the nature of the self was becoming more and more culturally significant.

S.N: I don't think it's ever gone away, and there's always been this run of artists' self-portraits at NPG. We did this fantastic show in 2005 called Self-Portrait in which we just took fifty self-portraits across five hundred years, and we managed to persuade The National Gallery to lend us Van Eyck's Man in a Red Turban, probably the first self-portrait in oil paint. What was striking about that exhibition was what a special place self-portraits have. We happen to have in the collection probably the earliest British self-portrait ever painted. Of course self-portraits are interesting because the engagement of an artist with themselves isn't the same as with somebody else. The interior notion and the self representation and even the fact that a mirroring means that someone turns around and is not the same way around as they are to everybody else, any of these factors make it particularly intriguing to think about self-portraits.

Self referential artworks from recent years by artists such as Bobby Baker and Josephine King bring the mind and mental states into the foreground too. I noticed that on the same evening as the day Sandy and I met, there was a talk on at the NPG called Arts and Mind, which was looking at the reciprocal learning opportunities and the symbiotic relationship shared between artists and psychotherapy. I asked him if it was representative of a growing interest from NPG in the significance of the mind and mental states in art practice.

S.N: We have lots of collaborations with different groups. There is a particular charity called WPF Therapy who have set up this evening's talk with Susie Orbach and Andrew Motion, to talk about creativity and the mind. We like a lot testing the discussions around portraiture, in the past we had this whole series about architecture and portraiture, we like these different kinds of testing.

At that point I decided to be bold and ask the question – what kind of impact would he say work like Bevan's has in comparison to Turner's on wider society? One is telling of a very inwardly turbulent narrative and one is telling of a very outwardly turbulent narrative. In terms of the the subject matter he said:

S.N: Maybe arguably they are not so far apart -  maybe the underlying question is how much do artists know what they are doing? How much do they construct what they are doing and how much do they discover in the process?

I went on to ask whether he thought one was considered more relevant than the other?

S.N: Think about someone like Tracy Emin and her self-portraiture and her incredibly vivid idea of a narrative and both a physical and a narrative idea of identity and of herself. It's very immediate and in some cases it's very searing. I think there are some continuities here, if I look at Turner's self-portrait in the Tate, it is a wonderful painting, if you then go and look at the Stanley Spencer early self-portrait which the Tate also have from 1914 and then if I think about something like that very very beautiful Samuel Palmer self-portrait, I can think of specific self-portraits that I think are very revelatory and it's true I can look at the best of Tracey Emin and I think yeah it's equal in terms of what it tells me movingly about her and in a different way I find the same with Tony Bevan so it's not really about reputation or position but it about both intent and affect and the power of that effect. Otherwise self-portraits would stay in that person's home, if they only spoke to that person. But many of them if not all were perhaps made knowing that they would be shared, knowing that someone else would see them, even if they seem obsessively to be to do with the self or self representation, there's still a sense that somebody else is going to be looking.

I asked Sandy what had led him to this point in his career, what of the journey and how it had began.

S.N: Meander is probably the right word, I’ve had a very zigzag career and I encourage others as much as possible to think very openly because you have to, nobody has set careers in the arts, nobody ever goes into the arts with the idea of a career anyway, certainly I didn't.

He studied history and economics at University College, Oxford.

S.N: I rather forgot about all the maths, it rather disappeared and I had also been involved in high level serious rowing for a bit, but one of the changes was that at the end of my first year I got involved with going to help out in Edinburgh at a rather remarkable gallery called  The Richard Demarco Gallery. Demarco was bringing to Scotland before anybody else did in England artists like Joseph Buoys. So I went up in '72 and found myself helping Ricky in this gallery, and quickly I was being thrown into organising bits of exhibitions. I spent my whole second year at Oxford running a student art centre and I had to do a little bit of work but not as much as I’m sure I should have done!

Sandy also showed me some incredible drawings of his own.

S.N: I've always been drawing, I don't really talk about it much but I’ve always used a pen and drawn, so drawing's always been somewhere in the background.

I asked what might be on the horizon?

S.N: The latest bit of zig or zag is that I’ve just been appointed as Chairman of the Fabric Advisory Committee at St Paul's Cathedral which does feel like a really great responsibility. But at the moment I have a wonderful time working here [NPG], but I’m always thinking about racing punting and making marmalade, I’ve just taken up in the last two years competitive croquet, there's always other things. Each spring in February there is the National Marmalade Festival in Cumbria so I send off my marmalade. I'm always developing recipes at home and I got a silver medal for my dark and chunky marmalade. This year I made a lime and pomegranate marmalade. I thought it was good, no one else did actually.

At which point we both bellowed with laughter and he added:

S.N: It just hasn't caught on yet!

So Sandy proved to be as interesting and as insightful in his views on art as he was on his role as a museum director. A great man and a great read – Art Theft and The Case of the Stolen Turners - I couldn't recommend them both highly enough!


Visit Artist and Writer Zoe Catherine Kendall's Blog here

Buy Tickets for Sandy's Talk at Richmond Literature Festival on 17th November 2011


view counter