True beasts – paintings that give the big picture
In an occasional column, Dorothy Blundell takes a personal sideways look at what goes on behind the scenes at The Bowes Museum where she is a volunteer
SIZE most definitely matters when it comes to moving paintings around. Taking them off display or returning them to their familiar place on the wall is proportionately more difficult the bigger they are.
And, generally, the bigger they are, the heavier they are – some weighing a quarter of a ton.
This month, 11 of The Bowes Museum’s most famous Spanish paintings, including Tears of St Peter by El Greco and Goya’s Interior of a Prison, began their return journey home after starring in an exhibition in Dallas, USA. Also Among them is Belshazzar's Feast by Juan Carreño de Miranda (1614-1685). It’s big at 172.7cm by 327.6cm and consequently presents a big challenge for exhibition manager George Harris whose job includes overseeing the painting’s journey from A to B and back again. Getting it off the wall last August and into its custom-made padded crate involved ten people and various pulleys, ratchet straps, tools and gloves (and probably a silent prayer or two for good measure).
It was then carried down stairs (too big for the lift) and out of the door (the revolving door having been removed to allow easier access).
Other eye-catching (demanding, more like) paintings on display in The Bowes Museum are A Fruit Stall (220cm by 357cm) by Frans Snyders (1579-1657) and the two Canalettos (1697-1768). But the honour of being the biggest painting in the museum falls to the Shorthorn Cattle – colloquially known as The Bull – painted by John Glover (1767-1849) and which measures 255.5cm by 365.5cm. Charles Hardy, in his book John Bowes and The Bowes Museum, commented that many people who visited the museum carried away with them “memories not of works by more famous artists but of Glover’s life-size prize bull looking solemnly down on them from his commanding position high on the wall”.
This painting was acquired cheaply by John Bowes and it used to hang in the hall at Streatlam Castle. It is not actually life-size, but it is wonderfully evocative of England’s bucolic past and reminds visitors that Teesdale was the birthplace of the shorthorn breed. The artist was born in Leicestershire and was a fashionable drawing-master in London until 1831 when he settled in Tasmania. He went on to be one of the most important influences on Australian landscape art. Owen Scott, who was appointed by John Bowes as curator, aimed to exhibit as much of the huge collection amassed by John and Josephine Bowes as he conveniently could arrange.
When doors opened in 1892, he had managed to hang 958 paintings – almost 500 of them in picture galleries and the rest displayed throughout other rooms. Successive curators followed the example of Thomas Wake who was curator from 1946-58. He thought it better to simplify the display, otherwise ‘the average visitor must inevitably suffer from museum fatigue before he had gone halfway round”.
And the walls do contain much to see. Paintings of so many different sizes and subjects hang at various heights all competing for the viewer’s attention, from a passing glance to absorbing study. Again, size matters. The bigger the picture, the more detail it will contain. So, yes, you can see the Bull or Belshazzar’s Feast as a large and beautiful painting but know that others might see it as a quarter of a ton headache.