The Art of Collaboration – From Rubens to Liverpool Cathedral

Part 9 of Opinion, Value & Taste series

The Nature of Beauty and the Art of Collaboration from Rubens to Liverpool Cathedral.

Whereas opinion and value may, on occasion, be manufactured, it is very difficult to disguise taste which, whether you have it or not, tends to provoke an instant and unconcealed response. Opinion and value are often shaped as a consequence of that initial emotional connection. The much underrated critic Eric Newton beautifully encapsulated the personal nature of taste in his book The Meaning of Beauty:

“The history of taste is the history of vanished loves and prejudices and whoever undertakes it will be at a disadvantage in that he will himself be at the mercy of his own active loves and prejudices.”

A fundamental problem in establishing the virtue of a particular work, style, period or, indeed, mood is the tendency to take a polarised position. In other words, if I like this, I dislike that. The irony is that, in many instances, both artists and artisans have collaborated or borrowed ideas and inspiration from one another. Portraitists are not necessarily the most proficient landscape artists and vice versa. Equally, silversmiths may lack the technique of gilders and so we often witness a melange of influences in the reconstruction of an image or object. The concept of absolute purity of thought and execution is a little fanciful. It is a continual process of reinvention where we see new status accorded to works that may be construed as copies, indeed forgeries, passed off in imitation of a definitive original. But does that fact alone undermine their quality? Newton puts forward a strong argument in support of this process using Gothic revivalism as an exemplar. This movement, spanning from the creation of Strawberry Hill in the 18th century to Liverpool Cathedral in the 20th, embraced such a multiplicity of medieval forms and interpretations that its status became assured in its own right.

Friedlander, in On Art and Connoisseurship, an erudite and thoughtful collection of essays, is especially enlightening when he addresses a parallel universe, that of workshop production. Here again we become aware of the concept of a team effort. It would be wholly misleading to suggest that paintings by 16th century Dutch masters, such as Jan van Scorel, Frans Floris or Joos van Cleve, were exclusively carried out by their hand. They might retain up to 120 apprentices who were frequently working to a template. Some of these apprentices were very accomplished and could reasonably pass off the finished work as their own. The role of the master was to provide preparatory drawings and supervise production. Occasionally, when a patron insisted upon a strictly autograph version, the master would be wheeled into action but his principal activity was to patrol the floor, dispensing advice or expertise, or to court new clients. Elsewhere and beyond, similar practices applied. The workshop of Giovanni Bellini in Venice operated in this way while the formidably gifted Peter Paul Rubens, an able diplomat, writer and businessman too, found much to occupy himself besides painting. Nonetheless, he devoted enough time to his metier to school two notable masters in the form of Anthony van Dyck and Frans Snyders.


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