The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Gallery: Episode 1

Beaverbrook Art GalleryNovember 22, 20170 Comments

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Gallery: Episode 1


We’re always trying to find new ways to bring people and art together here at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. With the recent opening of our new pavilion, there’s now even more space and even more artworks for you to explore during a visit to the Gallery.

Whether you’re a first-time visitor, an avid art enthusiast, or possibly someone who “keeps meaning to get around to it”, we want everyone to get the most out of their visit. To help with that, in this new blog series we are going to share with you some of the top tips from our education team for things to look at when visiting the Gallery. Each one of our posts will cover a different strategy for looking at art, as well as applying this strategy to a different work.

Strategy #0: Don’t panic! Galleries and museums are places to enjoy yourself. Don’t feel that there is only one right way to experience art; wandering through and stopping for things that catch your eye is a perfectly good way to start!

Strategy #1: looking at the technical approach.

When you first look at an artwork, you may not know what exactly to look at when you stand in front it. If that’s the case “you can start by looking at the technical approach of the work,” says Adda Mihailescu, manager of public programs. “For example: what materials were used to create the object or the background? What was used for making pigments, and how has that reacted to time and to people? And, how does that connect to the world the artist lived in?”

Many of the artworks in the International Wing were created in the early 20th century or earlier (with the oldest object dating back to the 14th century!). Historically, it was not as simple as it is now for artists to access the materials they may have needed to make such masterworks (no online mega-stores full of every paint colour you could want!). And once the raw materials were found, they needed to be used properly for the works’ longevity to be maintained.

The Gallery’s largest tapestry, the Gobelins tapestry The Hunts of Maximilian, July (The Report), 1693, is a fascinating example of just how very complex and technically elaborate works of art are. In the 17th century, the making of a tapestry would have taken much longer than it does today. Many people worked together to coordinate the proper pattern and colours of each section of the tapestry, taking hours of work to create the desired scene. According to Mihailescu, “Our tapestry is part of a reproduction series, created in the 17th century in the workshop of Jean-Baptiste Mozin at the Gobelins Tapestry Factory. This magnificent series of 12 large tapestries would have taken two years of focused work by over 60 people, including the fiber dyers. In the case of our tapestry, we see how the artist responded very well to the aesthetic tastes of his time by layering lavish landscapes, realistic figures in action during the hunt, and hunting dogs of various breeds, all in minute and colorful detail.”  

When looking at technical details, we can also look at the use of certain colours. There is often a wider range of colours and materials used in more modern works, as a result of increased access to each. But in the 19th century and earlier, many organic materials had to be used, such as egg yolks, animal fats, charcoal, bone, and nuts. Anything that was not readily available then had to be acquired from farther away.

Ultramarine, used for blue pigmentation, was very expensive and had to be imported from Afghanistan. Lapis lazuli was ground up in order to make an ultramarine pigment useable for artworks, but even when well-preserved it will fade. This so-called “ultramarine sickness” shows up when the material comes into contact with an acid, resulting in a greyish-green colour in the artwork, rather than a clear blue. Because of this, in addition to the cost of acquiring the pigment, a cheaper substitute was often used. Azurite, a mineral pigment that could be obtained in Europe, was difficult to distinguish from true ultramarine, and became a more commonly used pigment in the Middle Ages.

Next time you visit the Gallery, and aren’t quite sure what to make of a work, take some time to look at it from a materials and technical perspective. How did the artist create and use the materials? Where were the materials found, how were they processed, and how have they been maintained for the artwork’s longevity?

Often when we look at centuries-old artworks it is difficult to connect to the practical side of the creation of the works. By considering some of these elements, it may bring you closer to finding your new favourite masterwork.

Stay tuned for the next installment in this blog, where we look at artworks from an influence and inspiration framework.

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