Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Stamp collecting connects a Hoare with a Durer

The working title for this blog post was ‘A Hoare with a Durer’, but on reflection I thought it best to edit it …

I heard an interview with Sir John Sulston on Radio4 and he mentioned the pleasure he got in stamp collecting.  I had already introduced philately into the draft of the Durer painting but I realised that I had collected stamps from Senegal, Gambia, Togo and Dahomey (Benin) and in fact had visited these countries in the 1980s and 1990s.   

I went to my first National Portrait Gallery talk for the visually impaired. (They are normally at 2pm on the last Thursday of the month.)  On account of a mix up on times I was there too early and on discussion with the staff decided to wander around the Tudor and Elizabethan section of the galleries.  Many of the pictures of Henry VIII and Elizabeth were familiar as was Archbishop Cranmer.  I had to ask who someone was and it happened to be Sir Francis Drake.  I then had a fascinating discussion with two other visitors who were passing the time waiting for their timed ticket entry to the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition next door at the National Gallery.  

The group of around 8 people gathered in Room 11 with chairs clustered in front of a portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo painted by William Hoare of Bath in 1733.  ( We were given an A3 reproduction of the painting which is the centre piece of a group of portraits of Methodist movers and shakers of the time such as Whitefield and Selina, Countess of Hastings.  The painting has been purchased by a museum in Qatar and will be on show in the NPG until 2015. 

The painting is a ‘challenging’ one in several ways.  Diallo was a slave trader from the modern day Senegal and Gambia area, and had wandered across the Gambia River into a different tribal area where he was captured. Face and beard shaved, he was shipped to Maryland in the American Colonies.  While a slave he was noted for his appearance and demeanour and with some bad luck was shipped to England where he was bonded until released for £59. 

Diallo is said to be the first African ‘Moslem’ to be painted in England and the NPG wanted to keep the picture.  There is a lot of context to this painting and much of the records of Diallo exist in contemporary notes.  He is described as an Islamic priest and he did not drink alcohol or eat pork.  He is said to have been reluctant to have his portrait done for fear of it being idolatrous.  On the other hand he wanted to be painted wearing clothes appropriate to his status in Africa.  He is portrayed wearing a white turban with a red cap on top.  I could make out the turban though the cap eluded me.  I queried the robes said to be of silk as the Quran forbids men to wear silk - or gold for that matter.  Much was made of Diallo’s scholarship in Arabic and he is shown wearing a Quran suspended round his neck. 

Marion, our guide for the painting, was armed with the record of the time and we were able to discuss aspects of slavery, enlightenment, abolition and the portrayal of the “African” of the times.  With a small group and the real painting in view, it is possible to do repeated iterations between the reproduction and the portrait.  Marion was able to indicate triangles of the body and the rectangles of the neck and other features of portraiture. 

Was Diallo idealised as a noble foreigner?  It is delightful that one can have discussions such as these in a gallery space. Dallio was a slave trader who was captured and crossed the Atlantic before returning home.  A lot of moral relativism and an interesting subject matter.  Get there before it goes to Qatar. 

Thanks to the National Portrait Gallery, Marion and Lucy for the William Hoare painting description.  A list of upcoming talks can be found on:

The monthly Art through Words at the National Gallery was Vigin and Child painted by Albrecht Durer in 1500.  (

Durer first came across my radar as a schoolchild interested in stamps. Two of my cousins and my uncles were interested in stamp collecting, and at the time a lot of geography and history could be assimilated through philately.  Ordinary stamps can reveal more about a country than many think.  I remember German (Deutsche Bundespost) definitives portraying Durer and Goethe.  As an 8 year old I hadn’t a clue who they were and my father got me an encyclopaedia and I was told to “look it up”!

As a student in Munich I had access to the Alte Pinakothek and on a trip to the Zwinger in Dresden was told that Durer was unrepresented in London’s National Gallery.  So it was a treat to have the Durer painting ‘Virgin and Child’ in the description series.  There is only one other Albrecht Durer painting in the National Gallery.  It is displayed in a show case near the Virgin and Child and is of St Jerome.

Not much is known about the Durer ‘Virgin and Child’ and the painting could be said to have “form” in many senses of the word.  What struck me was not the red rose robed Virgin, but the shape described by an arch.  While many of those attending the talk were versed in Marian iconography, I could not help being attracted to what looked like a large scallop shell (shades of St James and Santiago).  Eventually the red/orange robed figure and the green background could be discerned.  There was much discussion about the Madonna being clothed in anything other than blue.  Someone said that perhaps the Durer studio had run out of blue (lapis lazuli).

Our guide for the talk was Steven assisted by Jos.  The geometry of the painting was described and we had two enlargements of some details.  The details show trellis work and irises and these lines provide a frame for the figure.  There is also an enlargement of the hair and veil of Mary and a signature showing AD mysteriously on top of the varnish. 

The painting had been authenticated by Lord Clark (father of Alan Clark and Civilisation) It was sold to the National Gallery in 1945 and some doubts as to its provenance arose and whether it was a Durer workshop production.  (  One of the group commented that it was a beautiful painting workshop or not.  Modern science came to the rescue with the use of X-Ray and Infra Red techniques. 

The handwriting of Durer as far as the drawing of the painting is concerned could be discerned by looking under the surface.  A lot of the detail of the painting, including the butterfly, moth, vines, lily of the valley and peonies, was noted and some were able to identify the likely symbology of the period.  The painting could be part of an altar piece and Durer was possibly influenced by an artist based in Colmar on the French border. 

The high point of the visit is the actual viewing of the painting itself.  With such clear detail in our minds it is possible to stand in front of a work of art and appreciate it for what one can see.  The image of the large scallop shell did not leave me, even when in front of the painting.  It seemed that Shell Oil had stuck their logo in the top left hand corner!  The next time you partake of Coquille St Jacques think of me staring at the Albrecht Durer painting.

Many thanks to the National Gallery, Steven and Jos.