167 – Looking back, moving on

Tom Hunter, Woman Reading a Possession Order, 1997. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I don’t think I’ve written about a photograph before (correct me if I’m wrong), but this one is rather beautiful, and featured in the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition Reframed: The Woman in the Window to which I will be returning this Monday, 29 September to finish my talk from a few weeks back. It turned out that there is just too much there to talk about in one session. The exhibition is a rich and endlessly rewarding investigation of a ubiquitous motif, and this week I will be focussing on the photographic and ‘modern’ works which are on display. The following week I will start my four-part series Almost All of Michelangelo – as ever, each part will be an independent talk, so you don’t have to sign up for all four! You can find details on the diary page, together with information about two in-person talks for Art History Abroad at the National Gallery on 23 September and 20 October. And for anyone who missed my series on sculpture, I am condensing it into two 90-minute online talks for the Watts Gallery at 11am on 5 and 12 September – again, details are in the diary. But today, a photograph from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum which I have seen not only in the current exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery but previously at the National Gallery and the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden: you’ll see why very quickly. I did talk about it briefly in Part 1 of Women Seeing… but I’ve learnt a lot more about it since.

A woman stands in a shabby room looking down at a piece of folded paper held between her hands. In front of her is a dirty sash window, which sheds light on her, and on a baby lying on a blue cloth on a table in the foreground of the photograph. This table would block our access to her if we were physically present. Under the blue cloth is what appears to be a rug, rucked up like the broad folds of the blue cloth. The baby, wearing blue trousers and a red top with matching socks, lies on its back with its arms spread out. The top of its head is brilliantly illuminated, the light also catching its right cheek, which tells us that its gaze is turned, deliberately or by chance, towards the woman, who is, by implication, its mother. The walls of the room are painted off-white at the bottom, and a dull orangey-yellow above. The join is at the level of the cross-bar of the sash window. If the woman were to lift her head from the paper, it would be at her eye-level. Two brackets support a simple shelf, which is attached to the back wall with three undefined objects resting on it, two at the left, and one, almost ‘off screen’, at the right. There appear to be nails in the wall, and something, possible a picture, hanging to the far right.

I find the quality of the light really beautiful – it creates an atmosphere of profound calm. A surprising number of people used to doubt photography’s status as art, and perhaps some still do, their attitude based on the misunderstanding that it is ‘merely reproduction’ and that ‘anyone can do it’. But then anyone can paint with oils on canvas. However, in this case, I think the way in which the model has been posed to catch a very specific fall of light is just one of the aspects of the work which reveal Tom Hunter’s artistry. Notice how the light falls directly onto the model’s face and hands, which, as a result, are the brightest elements here, meaning that we focus on them. It falls tangentially across the paper, ensuring that the paper stsand out, but does not pull focus from the hands and face. The dull green top also catches direct light, though interrupted in places by the window frame, and models the form from a light, olive green on the left to deep shadow, almost black, on the right, where it is crisply defined against the off-white wall. I find the model’s expression indefinable. She is deep in thought, undoubtedly, but whether this is good news or bad does not yet appear to have sunk in. Having said that, we are told by the title of the photograph: Woman Reading a Possession Order. This is how the work is currently exhibited in the Dulwich Picture Gallery:

To the far left is a post card by Oscar Kokoschka entitled Woman at a Window, made for the Wiener Werkstätte in 1908. Like our photograph it is on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum. On the far right is Gerrit Dou’s A Woman Playing a Clavichord, from about 1665, in Dulwich’s own collection. Each has a white label, whereas our piece has three additional elements associated with it: a white label, which also has an image on it; a grey panel (‘Another Perspective’ on the work, written by a perceptive student from a local school); and a mounted and framed piece of paper. This is the last of these:

It would appear to be the very possession order of the title, the paper which the woman is holding in the photograph. However, there are no visible folds. Initially I thought that it must have been ironed, but I went back to Dulwich yesterday to catch the exhibition one last time – and get some better photographs of some of the works for Monday’s talk – which meant I could check the label: this turns out to be a photocopy of the original. Nevertheless, it reveals that what we are looking at in the photograph is not a fiction. The paper is inscribed in (photocopied) pen at the top ‘ORIGINAL SUMMONS’ and bears three official stamps, one of which is dated 17 JAN 1997. The text starts,








There is more, of course, but I’ll leave it there, as we have got to the title of a series of photographs Tom Hunter took in 1997: Persons Unknown. Curiously, as I headed out to Dulwich yesterday there was a man outside my local pub, which, since I arrived here twenty years ago has closed three times and only re-opened twice. For the last three of four years it has been a squat. The man was affixing an equivalent possession order to the door of the pub, similarly addressed to ‘Persons Unknown’.  At the time Tom Hunter took his photograph he was in his last year at the Royal College of Art, and living in a squat in Hackney – 8, London Lane, as specified above – when he, together with the other squatters, were sent a summons for a hearing at which the Mayor and Burgesses would put forward their claim for re-possession of the premises. They were being evicted, and Hunter made this event the subject of his work, using his fellow squatters as his models. I don’t know what your experience of, or feelings about squatting are, but there is a rather lovely video on the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s website with a discussion between Hunter and his model, dancer Filipa Pereira-Stubbs, about their memories of the squat, what they thought they were giving to the community, and of the photo shoot. You can find it via this link on YouTube. She was 27 at the time, and 25 years later she still has the same poise and beauty. And, of course, her daughter Saskia is now more-or-less the age that she was when this photo was taken. From the whole sequence of portraits, both of individuals and groups, this particular image won the John Kobal Photographic Portrait award in 1998, and has been widely exhibited since. But why has it been shown in the galleries I mentioned? If you haven’t recognised it already, the answer is given by the image on the white label next to this work in the exhibition, which you can see (just about) in the photo above.

This is Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1657-9), from the collection of the Dresden Gemäldegalerie. This particular version is the one that Hunter and Pereira would have known in 1997. He gave her a book of Vermeer’s paintings to choose which one they would interpret, and this was the one she went for. He was then incredibly rigorous, insisting that they get the exact pose – the tilt of the head, the precise level of the hands – and so on. In the original, the table which blocks our access has a rumpled carpet, but no baby, although there is a bowl of fruit: a different symbol of fertility. For Vermeer there is a curtain, but no real change in colour on the walls – although there does appear to be a darker patch above and behind the woman’s head, at the level of her eye line. Vermeer’s window is open, Pereira’s closed. Both are assessing the news, with Pereira deciding what to do next. For this reason, perhaps, there is a greater focus on the figure, with less space given over to the blank wall. However, let’s look back to the exhibition in Dulwich.

Even on this small scale, you may notice that the Vermeer as illustrated does not appear to be the same as the reproduction I have shown you. An X-ray of the painting taken in 1979 showed that the dark patch on the wall was covering another image. It was believed back then that Vermeer himself had painted over it. However, when they started to clean the Vermeer just four or five years ago, the conservator involved soon noticed that the paint in this dark patch was responding very differently to that on the rest of the surface. A tiny sample of the paint (which you would only ever take from a part of the painting that was already cracked, in case you were worried) was examined in cross-section. This revealed that the painting had been varnished, and a substantial layer of dirt had built up on top of the varnish, before the image was then painted over. This implies that Vermeer himself had not done it. Indeed, it was probably done after the original painting had got quite dirty: the colour of the wall for the overpainting was matched to the dirty paint of the original section of the wall. When it was subsequently cleaned, the original colour would have been revealed on the original bit of wall, but not on the overpaint, hence the dark patch. An international conference of Vermeer experts and conservators then made the incredibly brave decision to remove the overpaint (the original varnish was acting as a safety net!), and this is what they found:

As they knew from the 1979 X-ray, an entire painting of Cupid had been covered over. It’s not entirely clear when this was done, but probably in the first half of the 18th Century, just before the painting was acquired for the Dresden collection. The presence of the little god of love suggests that the woman is reading a love letter. Her lover is in all probability far away – in the ‘outside world’, hence the open window. It is this restored version that is illustrated on the label, and comes with a suggestion in the catalogue that the baby in the photograph is effectively the result of Cupid’s action. This is not inaccurate, even if it is not what Hunter or Pereira would have known or been influenced by.

The photograph of the Vermeer above shows how the painting is currently exhibited – I am very grateful to Mark Haimann for tracking it down for me. The bottom of the curtain hangs just above the picture frame, suggesting it is not meant to be in the room with the woman, but hanging in front of the painting itself – a trompe l’oeil game implying that Vermeer was good enough to trick us into pulling it back further to see more of the hidden image. I am also interested in what the painting looks like without the frame.

Look at the very bottom right corner of the painting: a rounded shape tells us that there was originally going to be a large Dutch glass, known as a roemer, standing on a shelf in the foreground, out of proportion with everything in the painting. You might just be able to see the ghostly outline of the rest of the glass through the curtain above the base. The implication would have been that the roemer was in our space, on a shelf in front of the painting, which might originally have been set into a perspective box. Vermeer changed his mind, though, and replaced it with the curtain. In the 17th Century paintings in the Netherlands (and elsewhere) were often protected by curtains like this, hanging, it would seem, from rails attached to the frame (just like this one pretends to be). When painted, as well as showing us Vermeer’s skill, it also tells us how learned he was: it is a reference to a story Pliny told about a competition between two artists. Parrhasius, who won the competition, painted a curtain which his rival Zeuxis tried to pull back to reveal a painting – not realising that the curtain was the painting. Having tricked a fellow painter, Parrhasius must surely have been the better artist. All this is coincidental when considering Hunter and Pereira’s beautiful – and, I think, meaningful – collaboration. But it is because Vermeer was such a great artist, who showed an interest in the life of his community, that Hunter chose him – and that Pereira chose this particular image – to be reinterpreted. And, of course, it is precisely because I get easily side-tracked like this that I am giving a second talk, Women Looking 2… on Monday!

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

10 thoughts on “167 – Looking back, moving on

  1. Richard

    Love the piece on Tom Hunter’s photograph below. It is a truly awesome photo.

    I have only seen it in person at Dulwich – interestingly for a 5×4 Large Format negative, the quality of the print is not that great. The reproductions in books look much sharper. As you say, everybody needs to get back before the exhibition closes on Sept 4th – trains permitting!

    Like others before, I would dearly have loved recording of meetings as I cannot always get to the original Zoom meetings – I am abroad for most of September for instance. I understand there are legitimate reasons for not doing it.

    Billy McKee

    P.S. – If you Google “Filipa Pereira-Stubbs” there is a photo of a dance therapist in Cambridge, who looks to be the same person, and still looks as if she would photograph really well nearly 30 years on.



  2. Oops – Apologies – just read full article on a desktop and seen the Youtube link; The curse of the iPhone small screen again!



  3. What a lovely read this is, and how fascinating. Do you think the woman in the Vermeer might be pregnant? Hence the fruit? And the letter (with its distinctive downward fold, as opposed to the bossily upright letter in the Hunter photograph) might be from her lover … perhaps saying he wasn’t coming back?

    Best wishes

    Anne Perkins/Everall



    1. Thank you! One of the great things about Vermeer is that he sets up situations without telling us what is going on -but they are rich in possibilities. This means that they are all open for our own interpretations, and no one can tell us we’re wrong. I think your ideas a both interesting and possible. However, from my own point of view (and I could easily be wrong) I can’t see any suggestion that she might be pregnant – the front of the bodice is very flat, and I suspect that he might have given some sense of a relaxation of the corseting if she were expecting, or if he wanted to show that. The fruit might, as you suggest, have that implication – maybe it is a future possibility, if the lover returns, rather than being the case now. And I personally see the down-turned paper as purely formal – it leads our eye up towards the reader – and related to the nature of paper in the 17th century (a subject about which, let’s be frank, I know absolutely nothing so…). I didn’t go into the potential for optimism in Hunter’s work, but people have seen the light as representing a brighter future for all concerned – so maybe you’re right!


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