Hi Clémence! Firstly, can you introduced yourself to our readers?
Hi! My name is Clémence Aycard, and I’m a French volunteer working with Pippa Stephenson at Glasgow Museums. After three years in Bordeaux (south of France) for a bachelor in art history and archaeology, I went to Paris to study for a Masters at the Sorbonne University. Both my theses were focused on museums, architecture, heritage, exhibitions, and the link between the four – studying on the one hand how ancient architecture can become a museum, and on the other how museums can exhibit architecture. My goal was to question the very purpose of a museum and an exhibition, and understand how both are imagined and created. Now that I have graduated, I would eventually like to become a curator in my country.
How did you get involved in the project?
To become a curator in France, you have to pass a very difficult and competitive national competition. Before entering the required (or at least strongly advised) preparation year, I chose to take a year off studies and acquire some professional experience. Having a chance to improve my English as well was a very attractive bonus, and after several months of looking for opportunities across the U.K., I finally got in contact with Pippa Stephenson, who accepted me as a volunteer. She consulted her colleagues on the Unwrapping an Icon team and offered me the opportunity to work on the Spanish project, and as it sounded fascinating and far from my own comfort zone (I am more at ease with 19th-century French paintings than 16th-century Spanish ones), it seemed like a perfect opportunity – and at least I had already studied Spanish! I arrived at Glasgow Museums in September 2018, and should be here until midsummer 2019.
How did you approach the task of creating the database?
With some difficulties! The project team had been excited by seeing colleagues using comparative databases of images on their visits to the Prado Museum and were keen to find a way of creating something similar here, so they asked me to help set one up. I didn’t know where to start at first, and I wasn’t aware of exactly how many paintings I would have to deal with. First, I took my time to really observe the pictures from Pollok House and related Prado paintings that are being studied for the project, and I tried to create some kind of relationship with them. I joined the project two years after it had started, so I had to understand what I was looking at quite quickly. After that, inspired by what the project team had seen at the Prado, they encouraged me to start spotting the obvious parts, like the eyes, the hands, the hair, before going into more and more detail. I am currently in the process of looking specifically at brushstrokes, which involves going back to every painting and, using the high-resolution digital images of them that have been created or purchased for the project (sometimes 100 MB or more – see the interview with Maureen Kinnear in a previous post) looking at each one very closely and carefully to spot where the marks are thicker, lighter, broader, finer, etc. and other differences in the way each painting has been worked on. And after three months, I’m now working on over 30 paintings!
What programme are you using to create it?
I am using Excel, which is both very useful to get everything in rows and columns and see what you’re doing, but might not be the best for images. Anyway, I’m getting better and the whole thing looks like a giant puzzle, which is quite fun!
What type of comparisons are being made?
I am looking closely at details. The point is to observe the distinctive ways that painters work, to see if we can identify with more certainty the hand of a particular artist of some of the paintings, or even some of the sitters. We begin by comparing and contrasting their styles more generally. I am then comparing every part of their body, clothes, textiles, accessories, background, to spot similarities and differences, zooming in as much as I can and taking screenshots in order to have the best close-up pictures possible. For example, we have a whole series of portraits of Anne of Austria, fourth Queen of King Philip II of Spain. Most of them are attributed to Alonso Sánchez Coello, so it’s really interesting to see how she was painted in each portrait. I’m also looking closely at the dresses she’s wearing, which in each case are very similar, but not quite exactly the same, except in three of the paintings (two attributed to Sánchez Coello and one thought to be a later copy). We look at the hair or clothes because they might give clues about the date the painting was made. Many of the sitters are shown with a hand placed on a chair which seems to emphasise the erect way they’re standing, so I’ve been curious to know if it’s the same chair or if there are differences. The database is a work in progress, and just one aspect of the Unwrapping an Icon project, but you know… ‘the devil is in the details’.
What uses will the database have, now and in the future? Why is it so important to the project?
Now, it’s a tool to help the team look closely at details, but also to have a visual report of all the research that has been carried out so far. It’s also a nice and easy way to have a look at all of the paintings at the same time. In the future, we’re hoping to make it available to whoever might be interested, and at least, hopefully, to scholars as well as students if we have permission to use the images. I think it might be very interesting, because people could be able to really understand the research on those paintings by actually looking at what has been done, and, who knows? Maybe someone will discover some unseen things by looking at this database with a new pair of eyes. Also, now that I’ve spent so much time comparing those pictures and actually looking at them, I understand how much the looking part is ‘under-taught’ at University, at least in my own experience. But how can you be an art historian if you don’t know how to look, or what to look at? So I truly believe a tool like this one would be a wonderful way of teaching students, helping them to understand an important part of their potential future jobs.
Finally, I would say that the database represents a sort of achievement for the project (at least, that’s how I understand it): it comes at the end of the process, but helps in summarising everything. Hopefully, it will live on after it’s finished, and maybe be enlarged with time. My part in it is really small, I am just the tool that creates the tool, but I’m really glad to be part of it, and I’ve learned a lot!