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Van Meegeren's early Vermeers: Jonathan Lopez reveals that three 1920s fake Vermeers are by the notorious art forger Han van Meegeren, who, far from being an independent operator, was part of a slick operation of organised art fraud.

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Best remembered today for having fabricated a fictitious 'biblical' period in the oeuvre of Johannes Vermeer, the notorious art forger Han van Meegeren (Fig. 2) never admitted to creating any fakes dating from before 1937, but there have always been rumours suggesting that his career had, in fact, begun much earlier than that. As is fairly well known, the government of the Netherlands arrested Van Meegeren as a Nazi collaborator at the end of World War II, charging that he had sold a Vermeer to Hermann Goering during the German occupation. When Van Meegeren revealed that he himself had painted Goering's prized masterpiece, he became extremely popular with the general public, and his case was thereafter handled with kid gloves. Van Meegeren acknowledged forging only the six biblically-themed Vermeers that the government already knew to be connected to him through the front men who had brought the works to market, two 'Pieter de Hoochs' sold in the same manner, and a few unfinished items that remained in his atelier. (1) Although confidential sources informed the investigative team working on the case that Van Meegeren had sold forgeries to 'Englishmen and Americans' decades before the outbreak of hostilities, the matter seems not to have received any official attention. (2)

The rumours, however, appear to have had a strong foundation in reality. In a notable 1995 essay, Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., curator of northern baroque painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, linked three 1920s-vintage Vermeer forgeries to the workshop of a Dutch art-world intriguer named Theo van Wijngaarden, long known as a mentor and associate of Van Meegeren. (3) New investigations, extending the line of enquiry first proposed by Wheelock, have now added a further twist to this revelation. Interviews with members of Van Wijngaarden's family, archival research in the Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain and the us, and comparisons of the fakes with Van Meegeren's contemporaneous work in his own name, combine to suggest that Van Meegeren himself was the creator of the forgeries in question. Likewise, the evidence indicates that, during this early phase of his career, Van Meegeren worked not as an independent operator, as he is known to have done later, but as a forger to the trade, a cog in the international machinery of organised art fraud.

Wheelock's essay centres upon a young Englishman named Harold R. Wright, who arrived in Berlin in June 1927 bearing a hitherto unknown Dutch genre painting called The Lace Maker (Fig. 1). Wright presented this picture for the expert consideration of Wilhelm von Bode, director-general of the Prussian state museums, who, in due course, declared it to be a 'genuine, perfect, and very characteristic work of Jan Vermeer of Delft'. (4) Yet The Lace Maker was a fake, one of a group of three related Vermeer forgeries that surfaced on the market during this period. Two of them, The Lace Maker and The Smiling Girl (Fig. 9), were purchased at great expense by the art dealer Joseph Duveen on the basis of Bode's mistaken attributions; they were then sold by Duveen to the American banker Andrew Mellon. (5)

The third fake in this series, The Girl with a Blue Bow (Fig. 5), took a more circuitous path to acclaim, as it was deemed not to be by the master when Wright had shown it to Bode in 1924. (6) Given that he raised no known objections when Wright later returned to propose another Vermeer, Bode seems to have treated Wright's unsuccessful first sortie as an ordinary case of wishful thinking. With so many picture hunters during the 1920s trying to induce Bode to attribute minor 17th-century paintings to Vermeer--hoping to cash in on the lofty prices for the master's work and the still relatively ill-defined limits of his oeuvre--there would have been little reason for him to suspect Wright of passing fakes. Ultimately, The Girl with a Blue Bow was reintroduced, after Bode's death, through a series of auction and dealer sales in London. Authenticated by Wilhelm Valentiner, it ended up in an American private collection. (7)

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Drawing upon extensive laboratory evidence, Wheelock documented that all three of these Vermeer forgeries were made by a single hand using the same distinctive type of paint, a gelatine-glue preparation designed to evade some of the rudimentary solvent tests commonly deployed in the unmasking of fakes during the interwar period. Intrigued to discover that a gelatine-glue Frans Hals, called The Laughing Cavalier (Fig. 3), had originated in the 'art-restoration' studio of a certain Theo van Wijngaarden in 1923, Wheelock set out to discover if the shadowy Van Wijngaarden might have been connected to the even more shadowy Harold Wright. After an impressive programme of detective work yielded documentary proof that Wright had indeed been a hanger-on in Van Wijngaarden's circle in The Hague, Wheelock quite reasonably ascribed the three fake Vermeers, as well as the spurious Frans Hals, to 'the workshop of Theo van Wijngaarden', with the tentative assumption being that Van Wijngaarden himself was their author.

Interviewed for this article, members of Van Wijngaarden's family in the Netherlands said they were unaware that any scholarly research had been conducted into the life of their colourful ancestor--in whom they all take a measure of light-hearted pride--but they were quickly able to confirm much of Wheelock's sleuthing. (8) They said that it was quite true that Van Wijngaarden had been an art forger, as well as a legitimate restorer of old pictures, and that he had been associated, for a time, with an Englishman named Wright. However, when shown photographs of The Lace Maker, The Smiling Girl, and The Girl with the Blue Bow, Van Wijngaarden's granddaughter, a professional portraitist herself, said that she doubted very much that her grandfather had painted these pictures.

Although Van Wijngaarden was well known for executing copies of paintings that passed through his shop and adding signatures to works previously unsigned, his limitations as a painter and draughtsman would have precluded the production of completely improvisatory forgeries such as these fake Vermeers. A self-taught artist, he possessed a natural gift for colour harmony and a wonderful feeling for the texture and physicality of paint, but he never truly mastered the depiction of the human figure at close quarters. Indeed, to judge from a 1906 self-portrait, Van Wijngaarden was not very clear on the location of the various bones that form the structure of the human face (Fig. 4).

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Han van Meegeren, however, was very adept at painting faces, and he was apparently employed to do precisely that in Van Wijngaarden's atelier, turning out forgeries in the style of Frans Hals and other Dutch masters, from approximately 1920 onwards. As far as Van Wijngaarden's granddaughter understood the arrangement, Van Meegeren furnished the raw image-making talent while her grandfather provided the technical knowledge of faking methods. Interestingly, this description of the partnership between Van Meegeren and Van Wijngaarden accords well with various facts uncovered, independently, through archival research into the once scandalous case of The Laughing Cavalier.

This fake Frans Hals was brought to market by an old school chum of Van Meegeren, (9) an engineer by the name of H.A. de Haas, who was also an avid collector of Van Meegeren's legitimate work. (10) When questions were raised in a very public way about the painting's authenticity, De Haas indicated that he had 'purchased' The Laughing Cavalier from Van Wijngaarden, who, in turn, claimed to have acquired it from an unnamed private collection in London. (11) Considering the identities and associations of the people involved, it is hardly surprising that contemporary gossip alleged that The Laughing Cavalier had been painted by Van Meegeren. In time, even Hofstede de Groot, the expert who had unwittingly authenticated the 'Hals', heard about these rumours: he dismissed them vehemently in a newspaper interview at the time. (12)

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Although Van Wijngaarden's granddaughter could not say with any certainty whether Van Meegeren had painted the three Vermeer forgeries under discussion, examination of Van Meegeren's work in his own name argues strongly in favour of his authorship. The Girl with a Blue Bow, for instance, bears an uncanny resemblance to the children's portraits that he painted for Dutch patrician families in and around The Hague during this period. The fake attempts to mimic Vermeer's idiosyncratic way with faces but actually has far more in common with Van Meegeren's 1924 oil portrait of young Cornelia Francoise Delhez (Fig. 7)--with her endearing saucer eyes and button nose--than it does with any genuine painting by Vermeer. Likewise, although the handling of Van Meegeren's portraits is pleasingly free and buttery, there is an underlying sense of calculated, almost formulaic image-making that carries over virtually unchanged to the fakes. The broad, oblique brushstrokes forming the headdress of The Smiling Girl, for example, are executed with a mechanical deliberateness highly reminiscent of the treatment Van Meegeren gives to the velvet hair ribbon in his portrait of Marie Vriesendorp (Fig. 11).

Van Meegeren's deep involvement with portraiture could also help to account for the overall stylistic evolution of the three fake Vermeers. The Girl with a Blue Bow, the first of the series, makes a valiant attempt at imitating Vermeer's style, with liquid, pointille highlights and rich, ultramarine-blue shadows, but it failed to gain Bode's approval, perhaps, in part, because it gives the impression of being a commissioned portrait, a type of picture that Vermeer did Dot paint. Vermeer's most iconic image of a female model, The Girl with the Pearl Earring (Fig. 6), for instance, is a tronie, or expressive head, not a portrait, and if one were to categorise Vermeer's known close-up images of faces, all of them would lie somewhere in the terrain between the tronie and the full-fledged genre scene.

The conceptual shortcomings of The Girl with a Blue Bow were, to some extent, rectified in the second of the fake Vermeers, The Smiling Girl. The features of the model in this picture--which was brought to Bode in March of 1926 by an intermediary rather than by Harold Wright directly--unmistakably echo those of the inebriated female figure in Vermeer's Girl with a Wineglass (Fig. 10), a genre scene depicting an awkward courtship rushed along by drink, thus giving the forgery not only a sense of character study, but also a built-in narrative backstory. As it happens, The Girl with a Wineglass had been familiar to Bode (Fig. 8) since his earliest youth: it was the pride of his native Braunschweig, the very first Vermeer that he had ever seen. (13) The resemblance between these two images was among the facts Bode noted in attributing the The Smiling Girl; the notion that this 'Vermeer' might have been manufactured expressly for him to rediscover, seems, however, not to have crossed his mind.

In consequence, when Wright returned in person to Berlin with The Lace Maker, in 1927, Bode had tittle trouble accepting that this was a work of the master too: not only was The Lace Maker a proper genre scene answering to the description of a lost picture by Vermeer, sold at auction in 1816 and never seen again, but it was clearly painted by the same hand as the recently attributed Smiling Girl. (14) Today, of course, one wonders how Bode could have failed to notice that the putatively 17th-century young woman depicted in The Lace Maker possesses the attitude, hairstyle and gamine physique of a modern flapper. But fakes often reflect the styles of the period in which they are made far more than the one that they attempt to imitate, as forgers unconsciously incorporate their own artistic tendencies into the image regardless of its derivative intentions. (15) Immersed in the visual culture of the day, Bode was unable to perceive any anachronism in The Lace Maker. On a subliminal level, he may have found something seductive about the fake's reinterpretation of Vermeer's delicate aesthetic through the lens of 1920s high-society glamour.

Complementing the visual case for Van Meegeren's role in the three early Vermeer forgeries, archival evidence helps to illuminate the mechanics of how these picture swindles actually worked. It would appear that, after the difficulties occasioned by the sale of the Frans-Hals-style Laughing Cavalier, in 1923, Theo van Wijngaarden reached out to another figure in the art world to take over the marketing side of the forgery business, switching the venue of the fraud from The Hague to Berlin and adding much needed layers of distance and anonymity to the whole operation. Yet, while it might seem logical to assume that this mystery figure was Wright, even the most elementary research into his background indicates that this was not the case. Scarcely fitting the role of a criminal mastermind, Wright, the son of a Nottinghamshire iron worker, was just 27 years old when he first showed up in Berlin with a fake Vermeer. (16) Someone else had to have been behind him, and there can be very little doubt about who that person was.

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Throughout the period that he sold fake pictures, Wright was a managerial employee in a British paint manufacturing firm called Titanine Ltd, a privately held enterprise whose president was an industrial chemist and art collector named Theodore W.H. Ward. (17) As far as the records of Christie's auction house indicate, Wright made his first appearance on the London art scene in February 1924, buying and selling paintings in direct partnership with Ward, a collaboration from which the much younger Wright could presumably have learned a great deal. (18) Ward possessed a famously keen eye for pictures: most notably, he had assembled an outstanding collection of Dutch still-life paintings, at very low cost, during the early years of the 20th century, when such works were badly under-appreciated. (19) Ward later donated his still lifes to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in memory of his wife, Daisy. The Ward collection is now generally recognised as one of the most comprehensive of its type in the world.

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Despite the generous impulse that lay behind this gift, Ward is said to have had a number of deeply unsatisfactory character traits, perhaps the most distressing of which was a marked tendency towards arrogant and disputatious behaviour. In an elegantly written biographical essay included in the catalogue of the Ward collection, the noted Dutch art historian Fred Meijer relates that, once, while eating lunch at the Ritz in London, Ward chose to express his displeasure with the quality of the soup on offer by ostentatiously carrying his bowl across the dining room and emptying it in the street outside. (20) Meijer also states that, on another occasion, during a trip to New York, Ward took time out to send a letter to the Ashmolean's curators roundly condemning the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After characterising the Met's pictures as 'a great disappointment', Ward opined that 'several of the Rembrandts are of no great age and should, to use an American expression, be 'debunked'. It serves them right for wanting only big names.' (21)

Indeed, to judge from the cool expression of superiority on view in a 1928 oil portrait (Fig. 12), Ward was not the sort of man who suffered fools gladly. Wearing a red velvet smoking jacket, cigar duly in hand, he looks, moreover, as though he tended to perceive fools wherever he went. Interestingly, the artist who painted this telling image of Ward shared very much the same outlook on life. He was none other than Han van Meegeren.

Van Meegeren's portrait of Ward was given to the Ashmolean Museum in 1997 by Ward's son, who sent, in addition to the picture, a brief note in which he recalled Van Meegeren's frequent visits to the Ward family's London residence during the 1920s. Not surprisingly, the younger Ward retained an especially fond memory of Van Meegeren's pretty stepdaughter, Jola, who had accompanied the forger on at least one of these trips. Yet Van Meegeren himself also made a lasting impression. Wan Meegeren was very amusing', Ward's son wrote, 'because my father was aware of his tendency to paint under another name--and quite successfully! It was then an open joke between him and my father and mother.' (22)

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Eye-opening on several levels, this reminiscence not only tends to confirm that Van Meegeren painted the three Vermeer forgeries associated with Harold Wright, but it also suggests that Ward had a bit more going on in his life than one might otherwise have imagined. Although, in all fairness, it must be stated that Ward was never publicly implicated in any crime of any kind, the circumstantial evidence certainly suggests that Wright's involvement in the promotion of the fakes was orchestrated directly by Ward. For instance, Wright's frequent movements within Ward's paint company--from London, to Germany, to The Hague--dovetailed conveniently with the needs of the forgery business, if not necessarily the demands of the paint trade. When Wright was handling paperwork related to the attribution of pictures that he and Ward bought at Christie's, he operated out of Ward's London office in Piccadilly; (23) when he was negotiating to sell pictures in Berlin, he was ostensibly the manager of a small paint factory Ward owned in Bremen; (24) and when, in 1928, after his triumph with The Lace Maker, Wright approached Duveen Brothers with a Frans Hals so dodgy that Duveen's people began to suspect him of being 'a clever, dangerous, and tricky man', (25) he hastily relocated to The Hague (26) to run Ward's distribution office there, later expanding it to a full-fledged production facility. (27) The notion that Wright, a junior employee, did all of this on his own--that he had such latitude to decide his postings and could change jobs at the drop of a hat--seems highly improbable.

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These decisions, however, would certainly have fallen under the purview of Ward himself. In contrast to the novice Wright, Theodore Ward had years of experience buying and selling pictures throughout Europe. Aside from assembling his own collection, he was also a private dealer; his brothers Albert and Rudolf operated a London gallery for about 12 years; and these activities seem to have put Ward in contact with some of the less savoury elements of the art world. Once, when one of his own pictures mysteriously disappeared, Ward wrote to the curators at the Ashmolean that, 'At a very wild guess, I would say that it was stolen by two men who do odd jobs for one of the dealers in the St. James's district.' (28)

Then, of course, there was the Berlin connection. Unlike Wright, Ward had longstanding contacts in Germany. Although British by birth, he was of German extraction, spoke German fluently, and had studied for a time at Heidelberg. (29) In his adventures as a marchand-amateur, he often sent works of art to Berlin for sale through local dealers and galleries. (30) And looking at the various transactions involved in the promotion of the fake Vermeers, it is apparent that they were orchestrated by someone--like Ward--who was keenly aware of how the Weimar-era art world worked. Indeed, several fairly notorious Berliners were called upon to help carry out the scheme. For instance, The Smiling Girl was presented to Wilhelm von Bode for attribution not by Harold Wright, but by a German army officer turned art dealer named Walter Kurt Rohde, (31) who was later implicated in a plot to forge Bode's certificates of expertise. (32) Likewise, after Wright got Bode to approve The Lace Maker, the initial contacts to sell the picture to Duveen were set up through a chain of German dealers that began with Hans Wendland, (33) an extremely disreputable person whom Bode had fired from the staff of the Kaiser Friedrichs in 1906 for theft, and who later became involved with the Nazis' art-looting apparatus, laundering stolen Holocaust assets through the Swiss market. (34) As it happens, Ward's brother Rudolf, although technically a British subject, was also suspected of trading in art of questionable origins in occupied Paris, where he came under the direct protection of the ss and was said, by Allied military intelligence, to have 'worked consistently throughout the war in the German interest'. (35)

Still, one has to wonder why, in the 1920s, a prosperous businessman like Theodore Ward would have taken an interest in art forgery. He certainly didn't appear to need the money, but although Ward was well-off, he was not a truly wealthy man--at least not initially--and his family had, over the years, known its economic ups and downs. Ward's father had gone bankrupt in the shipping business at the turn of the century and was, at one time, wanted by the police in connection with an incident of petty theft. (36) What is more, the paint business, although successful, was a property Ward owned with many partners, including brothers, uncles, cousins and a sizeable group of outside investors. In 1936, the company was valued at just over 53,000 [pounds sterling]. (37) By comparison, Duveen paid a total of 56,000 [pounds sterling]--about 2m [pounds sterling] today--for The Lace Maker and The Smiling Girl, all in cash. The potential profits from promoting fakes were big enough to tempt a great many people. And it would appear that Ward, over time, grew curiously richer than the other members of his family: he drove a Rolls-Royce doctor's coupe, filled his closets with what his nephew derisively described as 'a hundred pairs of shoes', and developed a marked fondness for the Riviera. (38) He retired to Cannes, where he lived his final years in the Mediterranean sunshine, far from the house on the Finchley Road where he had so often entertained Han van Meegeren, the master forger of Vermeer.

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The author would like to thank Dr. Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., curator of northern baroque painting, and Anne Halpern, of the Department of Curatorial Records, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, PC; Dr Walter Liedtke, curator of European painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Dr Jon Whiteley, keeper in die Department of Western Art at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Dr Erin Coe, director of the Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York; Dr Jorn Grabowski, director of the Zentralarchiv der Staadichen Museen zu Berlin; Fred Meijer of the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, The Hague; Marijke Booth of Christie's archive, London; Sjoukje Atema and Paul Kempff of the Haags Gemeentearchief; and the members of the Van Wijngaarden and Vriesendorp families who assisted in the research for this article.

(1) Initially, he denied that the De Hoochs were fake. Deposition of Capt. Joseph Piller, 21 July 1945. Haarlem, Noord Hollands Archief, arch. 466/261.

(2) Interrogation of P.J. Rienstra van Stuyvesande, 22 June 1945. The Hague, Algemeen Rijksarchief, arch. 2.09.09/ 24716 n.

(3) Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., 'The Story of Two Vermeer Forgeries', in Shop Talk: Studies in Honor of Seymour Slive, Cambridge, Mass., 1995, pp. 271-75.

(4) Bode's certificate of expertise, 27 June 1927. Los Angeles, Getty Research Library, Duveen Brothers Records [DBR], box 300, f. 3.

(5) In 1937, Mellon included both pictures in his founding gift for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, IX: where they hung until the 1950s as genuine Vermeers. In storage, they are now items 1937.1.54 and 1937.1.55 in the Special Collection, also cross catalogued under the donor's name as part of the Andrew Mellon Collection.

(6) Berlin, Zentralarchiv der Statlichen Museen [ZSMB], Nachlass Bode, no. 6000.

(7) That of Mrs Charlotte Hyde of Glens Falls, New York, whose home is now a museum; the picture is no. 1971.56 in the Hyde Collection. Valentiner's certificate is in the curatorial dossier.

(8) Interviews with A. van Wijngaaxden, N. van Wijngaarden, W. van Wijngaarden, D. Coenradi and W. Coenradi, various dates, April 2004 to March 2007.

(9) Handwritten notes of Marijke van den Brandhof from her conversation with De Haas, c. 1976: The Hague, RKD, Archief van den Brandhof [VDB], box 2.

(10) De Haas lent eight items to a Van Meegeren exhibition held at the Kortrijk Stadsmuseum in 1961: exhib. pamphlet RKD/VDB, box 3.

(11) Criminal complaint, RKD, Archief Hofstede de Groot [HGD], inv. 78.

(12) Het Vaderland (The Hague), 10 June 1926.

(13) Wilhelm yon Bode, Mein Leben, Berlin, 1930, vol. 1, p. 27.

(14) Mentioned in E. Plietzsch's certificate of expertise, DBR: box 300, f. 3.

(15) Similarly, Wheelock observes, 'What may have seemed a possible image of Vermeer's work in 1920 appeared less appropriate in 1940 and inconceivable in the 1990s', op. cit., p. 273.

(16) 1901 United Kingdom Census, RG 13/3198, folio 114/20; also, registration cited at note 26 and birth date in Wheelock, op. cit., p. 275.

(17) Sec notes 23-27.

(18) Annotated catalogues and daybooks for sale, 25 February 1924, lots 89,106, 139 and 140. London, Christie's Archive.

(19) Fred Meijer, Dutch and Flemish Still-life Paintings: the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, Oxford and Zwolle, 2003, p. 15.

(20) Ibid., 13.

(21) Idem.

(22) Letter on file, Oxford, The Ashmolean Museum, Records of the Ward Collection [RWC], box 1.

(23) Letter, Wright to Hofstede de Groot, 24 June 1925, RKD/HGD: inv. 70; ZSMB, NI. Bode, nr.6000.

(24) Letter to Duveen Brothers, Paris, from Frau Alma Buchheister, Bremen, DBR, box 300, f. 3.

(25) Cable, Paris to London, 11 April 1928, DBR, box 249, f. 14.

(26) Wright's foreign resident registration, 20 July 1928, The Hague, Haags Gemcentearchief, Vreemdelingsdienst.

(27) Van Nierop & Baaks Nederlandsche Naamlooze Vennootschappen, Amsterdam, 1932. p. 479; Het Vaderland, 9 July 1938.

(28) Meijer, op. cit., p. 18.

(29) That Ward studied at Heidelberg: undated letter from nephew of Ward's first wife, a 2003, RWC, bx. 1. Ward was also a student at 'King's College': Meijer, op. cit., p. 19.

(30) Letter, Ward to Hofstede de Groot, 8 March 1928, RKD/HGD, inv. 73.

(31) Receipt of sale, 22 April 1926, DBR. box 299, f. 14.

(32) Documents relating to the trial of Messrs Metzenmacher and Hollander, ZSMB, I/GG, no 317.

(33) Duveen paid Wendland 1200 [pounds sterling] for directing the picture to the firm. The paperwork is misfiled in the dossier for The Smiling Girl: DBR, box 299, f. 14. See also Buchheister letter, cited in note 24.

(34) Allied Art Invesfgafion Unit [ALIU], 'Detailed Interrogation Report: Hans Wendland', College Park, Maryland, National Archives and Record Administration [NARA], M 1782.

(35) ALIU, 'Final Report': NARA, M 1782.

(36) The Times, 2 May 1892.

(37) The Times, 19 June 1936.

(38) Meijer, op. cit., p. 13.

Jonathan Lopez has written a biography of Han van Meegeren, The Man Who Made Vermeers, to be published by Harcourt in August.
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Title Annotation:Johannes Vermeer
Author:Lopez, Jonathan
Publication:Apollo
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Date:Jul 1, 2008
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