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European Paintings before 1900

  • Laing Art Gallery New Bridge Street Newcastle Upon Tyne United Kingdom (map)

The study day was the first network event to take place outside the National Gallery and was much appreciated by the delegates who came from institutions not only in the North East and Yorkshire but also Scotland, Wales and other parts of the UK.

It provided an opportunity to hear more about activities in the North East and allowed a visit to the ‘John Martin: Heaven & Hell’ exhibition on show at the Laing Art Gallery.

Programme: morning

John Martin, ‘Heaven & Hell’ exhibition, Julie Milne, Curator, The Laing Art Gallery

This talk explored the exhibition, ‘John Martin: Heaven & Hell’, which was first displayed at the Laing Art Gallery as part of the ‘Great British Art Debate’. Julie Milne discussed the life and work of John Martin (1789–1854), who was born in Northumberland into a poor family but moved to London at 17 to pursue a career. She described how Martin’s dramatic paintings of classical and biblical subjects attracted large audiences, despite a mixed reception from critics.

The talk examined the connection between Martin’s dramatic paintings and 19th-century London’s taste for spectacle; the influence of his painting ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ on the early Hollywood film ‘Intolerance’; and the Laing Art Gallery’s attempt to recapture the theatrical atmosphere of Martin’s paintings in their exhibition.

The National Gallery: The Making of an Exhibition – ‘The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600–1700’, Xavier Bray, Chief Curator, Dulwich Picture Gallery; formerly Assistant Curator of 17th-  and 18th- Century Paintings, The National Gallery, London

This talk explored the staging of the National Gallery exhibition, 'The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600–1700'. Curator Xavier Bray explored how the exhibition attracted wide audiences, attracting almost 100,000 in London (four times the original estimate), 80,000 in Washington and 40,000 at a smaller version of the exhibition in Valladolid, Spain.

Xavier explained that the exhibition aimed to show the relationship between painting and sculpture and the influence of each art form on the other. He described the three-year process of planning the exhibition – including a period spent in Spain funded by a Getty research grant – and the challenge of acquiring sculptures when many relevant works were still in use by churches. The importance of installation design and lighting, the latter emphasising the shadows on the wall, was discussed. The talk also explored some of the issues raised by the dramatic exhibition poster. 

Francisco de Zurbáran and the paintings at Bishop Auckland, Elizabeth Conran, art scholar; formerly Curator, The Bowes Museum

This talk explored the life of Francisco de Zurbáran, the leading painter in Seville in the 1630s and '40s. Elizabeth Conran discussed his art and outlined its political and religious background. She placed his career in the context of the Hapsburg empire; Spain’s economic ties to America; and the fervent Catholicism of Zubáran’s time. The talk examined Zubáran’s commissions from the Americas and the role played by his workshop, and speculated on the provenance of a collection of his paintings at Bishop Auckland, suggesting that the poses and elaborate costumes in Zubáran’s 13 paintings of the family of Jacob may allude to a religious procession.

Programme: afternoon

Redevelopment of the Main Picture Galleries at The Bowes Museum, Emma House, Assistant Keeper of Fine Art, The Bowes Museum

The main picture galleries at the Bowes Museum were redeveloped as part of a major redevelopment project which began in 2006. Emma House discussed the plan to uncover original architectural features in the galleries, the installation of a new lighting system, and the debate over the colour of the walls.

She explored concerns over the installation of paintings, which had been previously hung in a single row limiting the number which could be displayed. Displays of paintings hung in multiple rows were tested on the public, influenced by old photographs showing pictures hanging from floor to ceiling. Emma described how the museum settled on a temporary installation in which smaller paintings were hung on a lower row, with larger paintings on top.

Expanding the Canon: Post-1800 Paintings at the National Gallery, Christopher Riopelle, Curator of Post-1800 paintings, The National Gallery, London

In the early 20th century, the Gallery’s post-1800 collection was dominated by a small group of French artists based around Paris (alongside Van Gogh, who worked for many years in France). Christopher Riopelle discussed the expansion of the ‘modern collection’ under the directorship of Michael Levey in the mid-1970s, including the purchase of non-French works such as Klimt’s ’Portrait of Hermine Gallia‘ and Caspar David Friedrich’s ’Winter Landscape’.

The talk discussed the 1996 accord with Tate, under which the National Gallery received Tate’s 19th-century European paintings on long-term loan in exchange for the loan of the National Gallery’s post-1900 European paintings, which helped develop the Tate Modern. The talk concluded by noting the Gallery’s more recent acquisitions and discussing the role of temporary exhibitions in expanding the canon, such as the Gallery’s first purchase of a work by Købke for the 1985 exhibition ‘Danish Paintings of the Golden Age’.

European paintings at the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead, Amy Barker, Curator, Shipley Art Gallery

This talk discussed the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead and examined the life of Joseph Shipley, the solicitor and art collector whose bequest led to the foundation of the Gallery. Curator Amy Barker discussed Shipley’s status as a collector in a period when there was no public art collection in the North East, and explored his taste for religious and narrative paintings. She reflected on the creation of the Gallery in 1917, its current role as a centre for arts and crafts, and plans for the Gallery’s future, including improving access to the collection, and developing resources for the Learning Team. 

Information about the collection is in the Public Catalogue Foundation catalogue and can also be viewed on the NICE website


At the end of the morning and afternoon sessions, there were opportunities to ask questions and engage in debate.


  • ‘The Sacred Made Real’ exhibition at the National Gallery: did it draw on the huge audience who attended the ‘Seeing Salvation’ exhibition at the National Gallery in 2000?
  • How important was the local link for the ‘John Martin: Heaven & Hell’ exhibition at the Laing Gallery?
  • Discussion about the importance of design and lighting for both the ‘Sacred Made Real’ and ‘John Martin: Heaven & Hell’ exhibitions
  • Discussion about the extraordinary costumes worn by the figures in the Zurbáran series


  • There was some discussion about returning picture galleries to their original designs and the complications involved, particularly with the need to introduce modern technology
  • Some questions were asked about the National Gallery’s post-1800 collection. Why was the date 1900 chosen as a cut-off? What is the relationship of British painting to the National Gallery Collection?  And have the new acquisitions in this area affected public taste?
Earlier Event: July 1
Making paintings count
Later Event: November 25
Dutch art in museums