Dutch Flowers: In conversation | Betsy Wieseman and Brian Capstick | The National Gallery, London

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Good afternoon and welcome.

My name is Betsy Wieseman.

I'm the curator of Dutch and Flemishpaintings here at the National Gallery.

And I've had the wonderful privilege and very great pleasure of curatingthis exhibition on 'Dutch flowers'.

And one of the greatest pleasuresin organising this exhibition was the opportunity to workwith the gentleman standing here, Brian Capstick.

Brian and his wife Janice have collected,over a number of years, a wonderful collection of Dutchflower paintings of the 17th century.

He has very graciously put a number of these paintingson long-term loan to the gallery and they are featured in this exhibition.

And also very graciously, Brian has agreed to engagein conversation with me today, so that I can grill him a bitabout his collection, about the paintings in his collection and share that information with you.

Thank you, Betsy, for such a generousand charming introduction, yes.

I await the third degree at your hands.

I'll be kind.

I'll be kind.

Brian and I, we don'tlike each other at all, by the way.

Let me just set that out.

OK, my first questionis pretty straight-forward and that is, when did you start collectingDutch flower paintings, and why? Well, I began collecting Dutchflower paintings about 25 years ago.

"Why?" is a slightlymore complicated question.

I guess I wanted to make a collectionof things that told a story, that had a narrative.

And it could have been a narrativethat began in 1880 with impressionist paintingsgoing through into the modern period, or it could have been a narrativeas this is, beginning in about 1605and ending 120 years later.

And as it turned out,I chose Dutch flower paintings.

So you wanted to create a narrative, but had you been attracted to flowers or botany or horticulture prior to that? Was that a guiding reason? I'm sorry to say it wasn't, no.

This was entirely a matter of chance.

I picked up a book by a guycalled Laurence Bol called the Bosschaert Dynasty.

And this was long before I hadany interest in collecting paintings or indeed ever expectedthat I might one day be able to do so.

So I read through this, and it told the story of howDutch flower paintings in the 17th century began with this Bosschaert and carried on through to the van Huysumsthat we see here today.

So there we are.

That's what kindled the interest.

And we have, I think,from our own collection, not from yours, two paintings by Bosschaertin the exhibition, one of which is the large paintingin the centre on that wall and then the one immediatelyto the left of it.

What was the first paintingthat you bought? Do you remember? I do, yes.

My first paintingwasn't one painting.

It was two.

And that was the pair of paintingsby Beert, which sit next to.

– Fabulous.

-.

My Bosschaert, which is on the right.

– So I am going to take that away one day.

– OK.

You may.

And if you can just look at those, they are actuallyvery unusual paintings for their time because most of the artiststhat were painting around that time did very meticulous rendering,so exactly what you were looking at.

Their aim was to beas true to life as possible.

Beert didn't really attempt that.

He thought, "Let's have a go.

" And you can sort of seethe bit of impressionist appearance – it's those two paintings over there.

And, for me, that struck a note,it struck a chord.

So that's why I began.

And, maybe having two in one purchase, that sort of already gave youa little bit of a collection.

It did, yes.

One of the things I particularly loveabout those Beert paintings is the fact that they still have survivedas a pair, as a set, which is very unusual.

And also the fact that with Beert, you see him starting to try and get a sense of 3-dimensionalityin the paintings by highlighting the paintings in the frontand shadowing the ones to either side.

So there's a nice sense already in thosepaintings of how the genre is developing.

With those, what appealed to you about the Beertpaintings was the impressionistic quality, but what are the other qualities that youmight look for in a particular painting? Well, of course the reason whythis collection exists at all is to illustrate the developmentof the art as it went along through the 17th century.

And I'm interested in the way thingsstart, develop and then finish, mainly for biographical reasons.

And in the beginning, the very early paintingsare mainly like illustrations, almost, of the various blooms, arranged in such a wayto look like they populate a vase.

And they don't really havea 3-dimensional component to a great degree, whereas as the century went on,they got much better at it.

If you look at the Rachel Ruysch paintingson our left here.

Which are these two.

She was very adeptat rendering these 3-dimensions and that's one of the thingsthat they achieved as they went along.

So as your flower paintings developover a century or so, it's almost like a science -they just get better at what they do.

That's interesting to me.

That, I have to say,was one of the great joys when I first visited you in your home to stand in a roomand literally be in the middle of the history of17th century Dutch flower painting.

It was just an absolute delight, which I've triedto recreate here a little bit thanks to paintings from your collection.

And one of the things that I've reallyenjoyed about having the opportunity to integrate worksfrom your collection with ours is how they speak to each other and how the works that you've lent to us amplify our own collectionin really wonderful and dynamic ways.

For example, this painting,immediately to my side.

– Left.

– I've a problem with left and right.

Is by Rachel Ruysch,as is the one next to it.

This is fromthe National Gallery's collection and that one is fromthe Capstick collection.

Just to be able to see how the artistdevelops over the course of her career between those two markers that we now haveis really, really amazing.

And I'm forever grateful.

She was a very productive lady.

She continued to paintuntil she was into her 80s, I believe.

And she was also remarkable as a womanof the 17th century and early 18th century because she was an independent artist.

Although she was married, she went travelling throughout Europeand worked as a court painter.

– Yes, in Germany.

– In Germany, yes.

Which is unbelievablefor the late 17th to early 18th century.

Ladies were painted into a corner because they weren't allowedto paint the human figure.

They weren't allowedto go to a life class because that might upsettheir sensibilities.

So still-life painting was OK.

So that's why she would have chosen that.

There's no danger with flowers.

Now, back to the list of questions here.

Do you have a particular favouritepainting in your collection? I suppose the onethat we're standing in front of is probably everybody's favourite.

And this is a most unusual painting.

It was painted somewherearound the middle of the century, and you can see it is totally differentboth in its conception and execution to pretty much all the others here.

And, if somebody said,"This is a 19th century painting that was painted in 1860," you wouldn't suddenly turn around and say,"That's impossible.

" So it's an idiom and a stylewhich is quite out of character with what led up to itand what followed afterwards, so it's an unusual painting.

It is.

It's by Dirck de Bray, a Haarlem painterfrom a family of painters.

I think his father and brothersand his uncle were also painters.

He himself painted primarily still lives and as a comparatively young man.

Entered a monastery, I believe,as a lay brother.

A number of his paintings havea spiritual, Catholic dimension to them.

But I think all of them have this wonderfulalmost spookiness to them because they are so immediate,so striking in their depiction.

In addition to 19th centuryimpressionist works, they also make me thinkof Spanish still lives in the starkness of it.

And the monumentality, as well.

The Spanish still-life painters – many of them took the samerather low point of view, and what you end up withis a much more massive appearance than you do if you take it higher up.

Also, I think one thing that appeals toviewers particularly about this painting is the informality of it.

It's not a careful arrangement like Bosschaert or de Heem do.

This is a bunch of flowers stuck in a vaseas you or I might do.

We go out into the garden and we pickwhatever looks beautiful and in bloom.

We come backand just put them in the vase and a few blossoms fall off, and a ladybird and bumblebeehave come in along with it.

And we see that same wonderful immediacyin this painting.

Yes.

I don't think he set outto paint in the tradition of anybody.

I think he just wantedto paint a flower picture and here it is.

And I think the de Bray familypainted all sorts, didn't they? – They did.

– They did portraits and what have you.

Yes, it's really a wonderfuldiverse artistic dynasty.

And I came by this picture by accident.

I never have accidents like this.

Well, it wasn't that much of an accident, but the then director, some years ago,of the Rijksmuseum was having dinner with a friend of mine, who told him that she had this friendwho collected flower paintings.

"Oh," he said.

"He should goand have a look at this de Bray.

" The word got back to methat this was the case, and then I did, and so here it is.

That could very easily have been partof somebody else's collection.

You could have begged offthat dinner party and somebody elsewould have had the painting.

Well, I'm glad you didn't.

Yes, it's much sought after.

Now, we've talked abouta particular favourite in your collection.

Do you havea particular favourite painting in the National Gallery's collection? Oh, gosh.

That I would nick off with? Perhaps we can do a swap.

Well, I think possibly this Walscappellehere on my right.

This is a wonderful painting by him.

It's, I think, the most.

Complicated paintingthat I've seen of his.

And you can seethese wonderful arabesques, these fabulous colours.

And I think I'm right in saying that hewas a tutor to Rachel Ruysch, wasn't he? – I think so, yes.

– I believe so.

He was her tutor, in fact.

Well, it's interestingthat you picked that painting as the one which, I'm sorry I can't allowyou to take away with you, because it's actually thanks to you and the loan of the paintingsoccasioning this exhibition that we took a second lookat that painting.

And prior to the planningfor this exhibition, the painting had been obscured, really,by a very discoloured varnish.

The painting itselfis in an absolutely superb state.

But we were looking at the painting, and also our framer came up with this amazing17th century tortoiseshell frame.

He said, "Look, I've got this great frame.

Do you have a painting it might fit?" And I said,"Well, we have this flowers still life," and we tried it.

And I said, "That framemakes the painting look kind of dingy.

" So.

Morwenna Blewett,who is one of our restorers, did a beautiful cleaning of this painting, and she said it was so easy,that there was absolutely nothing to do, there was just dirty varnish.

So, Brian, thanks to you, the National Galleryhas a whole new painting, I think.

Thank you very much.

– And that one.

– It's a great one.

Yes, it's one of my favourites, too,to look at because of all the little insectscrawling in and out, which is just amazing.

Particularly, in the lowerleft-hand corner of the arrangement, you can see a caterpillardangling from its bit of silk, which is just extraordinary.

The fineness of that artistic detail.

– Yes, I like these paintings.

– Yes.

And I think you'd agreethat they do show to advantage by being exhibited alongside othersof the same genre.

You get more out of them individuallybecause they're in a crowd than you doif it were just one amongst.

Just like the bouquet of flowers itself.

Exactly.

Yes.

Yes, exactly.

As you've formed a collectionover 25 years or so, has your understanding of the fieldof Dutch flower painting changed, evolved? Do you think differently about it nowthan you did a couple of decades ago? It has certainly evolved because of course as you collect,you study, and as you study, you learn more,at least if you can remember it.

Yes, I know a lot more about itthan when I began, that's fair to say.

What I do think about is many peoplenow collect modern paintings.

Contemporary seems to rule the world.

So you have to ask yourself, what is the roleof Dutch flower painting – what's its relevance to the modern viewer? That's an interesting question.

I don't know if you feel disposed to answer it.

Well, it's been interesting to me because when I proposeddoing this exhibition here, I thought, "Well,it will appeal to some people," but what's really surprised me is howamazingly popular the show has been.

And if any of youhave been here more than once, you'll know almost any time you come in,it's massively crowded in here, which is fantastic – we love that.

But what has also interested me is the range of people who visit the showand are interested in it – people who are primarily interestedin gardening or from a scientific point of view, or younger people who come inand sometimes despite themselves find themselves intriguedby these paintings and just pinpoint the bumblebee,the ladybird, anything.

But they realise that there is somethingof interest in the paintings.

And one projectthat we did recently.

They did an amazing reproductionin flowers of the large Bosschaert painting outside on Trafalgar Square.

And I don't know if any of youhad the opportunity to see that, but that was, from my perspective, a really wonderful way of expressingthe beauty of these paintings in a very visceral sense.

And I think that inspired a lot of peoplewho might not ordinarily have done so to come in and have a lookat the paintings themselves.

So I think these paintings continueto be very relevant to viewers today and in some respects,perhaps more so than subject pictures.

You don't have to know biblical historyor mythology or obscure allegories to be able to fall in love with these.

No, that's true.

And also I think thatthey do technically meet modern painting to a greater degreethan you might at first think because of course.

Even the most abstractand modern painting – let's take a Bridget Riley, for example – is just an arrangement of coloursand shapes to create a particular effect.

And all the colours and shapesin these flower paintings are of course not accidental.

The artist has thought about them.

And the shapes, too, are somethingthat have been carefully arranged to create an effect.

Yes, I'm glad you brought that up, because that's something that I thinkpeople are only aware of subliminally – how the artists manipulate colourand shape and form to really pull the arrangement together, and one painting that I always think of isyour painting by Rachel Ruysch, which has these markers, if you will,of a beautiful salmon pink, and you see touches of it throughout.

Even down here in the honeysuckle, she has brought in touches of that pink to unite thatwith the rest of the composition.

It's subtle but it's absolutely beautiful.

So I think those formal lessons are something that peoplecan take away, as well.

Yes.

And that very paintingused to hang in a room which was next to a room, which hada big Bridget Riley painting in it.

And it was actually quite instructiveto look at these two together and turn over in your mindhow much things have changed and yet alsohow little things have changed.

That's interesting to me.

So we should add a Bridget Rileyto our collection.

– I think you should, yes.

– OK.

Thank you all very much for coming.

I hope you've enjoyed it.

And thank you, Brian.

May I say a big thank you to Betsy and her colleagues hereat the National Gallery for mounting this exhibition.

I think it's a perfect size and it does as good a jobas anybody could do of telling the story of flower paintingover this period, so congratulations and thank youto you and your team.

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