Arguing About Art

My friend has gone off to get her train.  I still have over an hour before mine back to Liverpool.  I don’t know Manchester very well, having only been to the city a couple of times, and decide to follow the tram tracks to see where they take me.  I come upon a majestic building, which I recognise from a previous visit as the Manchester Art Gallery.  In I go.  Start at the bottom and work up is the plan.  A children’s art activity is causing a hubbub in the first gallery, where there’s an unusual mix of artworks on the walls – contemporary and old, hung close enough to become acquainted.

Bartolozzi 1966.686-21 copyA small image of a mother breastfeeding her child pulls me in for a closer look.  About A4 size, it’s a scene of heart-breakingly tender intimacy, created with just a few delicate lines and light brown ink.  The naked baby is lying on what looks like a folded up blanket, nuzzled up to the mother’s breast, one of its feet just touching her thigh.  She is lying on one side, propped up by her left arm, not looking at the baby but with a gentle smile, reaching down as if to bring up the sheet to cover herself and the child.  The wall note tells me it’s an engraving, c.1790, title unknown, by Francesco Bartolozzi.  I’ve never heard of him so take a picture to look him up later.

On the train home I share the image with an artist friend.  He’s equally taken by the beauty of the lines; so few of them to have conjured such an affecting scene.  But then a WhatsApp argument begins.  He insists it’s a pen and ink wash.  No, I say, the gallery definitely describes it as an engraving.  Nope, he replies.  Absolutely not.

Next morning I’m still a bit irritated that the artist friend thinks he’s right, as always.  I decide to email the gallery asking if they could settle this minor disagreement.  Convinced they would have better things to do, I’m not really expecting a reply.  But later that evening – way beyond call of duty working hours – a reply does come.  A charming response and best of all one that proves my artist mate is wrong and I am right.

With her email, the curator, Hannah Williamson, attaches a much better photo of the engraving than the one taken with my phone … “Have a look at the attached image”, she writes, “is this the one? If so, then have a really close look and you’ll find that you’re right, it is a print, and all the ‘wash’ is engraved lines. Also, in this image you can see the plate mark, which perhaps isn’t visible when the work is mounted. That settles your argument, I hope?! Best wishes, Hannah”.

The next time I see my artist friend, I show him the email, making a huge effort not to be too triumphant.  He’s magnanimous in defeat, which is deflating, but at least means we focus more on the artwork itself and the artist.

Later, when looking into Bartolozzi’s life, I’m astounded to learn all that he achieved and yet, like so many artists, he died poor, selling his archive and possessions to pay off debts, buried in a “common” grave in Lisbon, a long way from his natal Florence. Is there some kind of universal law that says – well, at least in the past – that even successful artists must end up poverty stricken?  Mind you, for the 18th/19th century he lived to quite an age – nearly 88, and 40 of those years were in London as engraver to King George III.

His speciality was reproductive engraving, making prints of Old Masters in the royal collection and also of works by his contemporaries – among them Angelica Kauffman and Benjamin West, along with whom he was a founder member of the Royal Academy.  The RA was originally a bit snooty about admitting printmakers and engravers but with Bartolozzi they made an exception, allowing him to be elected as an RA in 1768, but as a “painter”.  Clearly they did not want to sully themselves by associating with an inky.

I haven’t been able to find out on whose work this engraving is based – or maybe it’s an original work by Bartolozzi?  If anyone knows the answer please let me know via the Contact page.