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Editor's notebook: The story in the painting

Editor's notebook: The story in the painting

[staff with painting]
At the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Diana Gore, the centre's administrative coordinator (left) with Alumni Review editor Andrea Gunn discussing what they see in Self Portrait with Square Palette, a painting by an unknown artist (c 1600). (Photo by Bernard Clark)

One of my favourite books is Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. In this 1951 novel, a police detective and a history student delve into the story of Richard III’s alleged nepoticides (the murder of his nephews). Their impetus: a 16th-century portrait of the king from the British National Gallery. Detective Grant is intrigued by the portrait’s sad face, and the reactions it gets from others:

"Nurse Ingham thinks he’s dreary. Nurse Darroll thinks he’s a horror. My surgeon thinks he’s a polio victim. Sergeant Williams thinks he’s a born judge. Matron thinks he’s a soul in torment."

Marta said nothing for a little. Then she said: "It’s odd, you know. When you first look at it you think it a mean, suspicious face. Even cantankerous. But when you look at it a little longer you find that it isn’t like that at all. It is quite calm. It is really quite a gentle face."

In the novel, the portrait’s haunting façade leads the detective and researcher on a quest that, in the end, proves that Henry VII, and not Richard III, was the real villain who killed the young princes of York. Even if you are not, like Tey, a Richardian convinced of that king’s innocence, it is a wonderful read. You can view the real painting of Richard III online at the National Gallery site and make up your own mind about his character.

Not just useful as plot devices, paintings are the impetus for discovery in real life, too. In this issue, we explore some of the many ways in which people communicate with works of art, specifically the portraits in the current Singular Figures exhibition at Queen’s own Agnes Etherington Art Centre. These paintings are used as teaching tools in drama, occupational therapy, history and more. And the portraits are much in demand as informal learning tools as well. Visitors to the Agnes, a gallery open to the community, can be drawn to a painting by the artist’s technique or by the imagined story reflected in the eyes of the sitter.

In late April, the exhibition, and The Bader Collection at the Agnes, grew by one: Rembrandt van Rijn’s 1658 masterpiece Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo. This painting joins two more of the Dutch master’s works, also donated by Alfred and Isabel Bader: Head of an Old Man in a Cap (c.1630) and Head of a Man in a Turban (c.1661).

In our cover story, Jacquelyn Coutré, Bader Curator and Researcher of European Art, delves into the story behind the painting. Created in one of the most difficult periods of Rembrandt’s life, this portrait is a magnificent testament to the passion and talent that drove him to create art even when he had lost almost everything else.

Andrea Gunn


thumbnail: Alumni Review coverOther feature stories of the Alumni Review's Rembrandt issue:

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 2-2016]