The Adventures of a Time-Traveller: Researching the Historical Collection

Dr Laura-Maria Popoviciu in conversation with Dr Claire FitzGerald.

CF: If you had to describe your role as curator at the GAC in 5 words – what would these be?

LP: Stimulating, enriching, surprising, enjoyable, meticulous

CF: What, in your opinion, is distinctive about the GAC’s collection of historical artworks?

LP: What fascinates me about the historical works in the Collection is that they inspire me to look beyond the first layer of paint, to cut through blurred lines, in order to find a reflection that is deeper and truthful to the original intention of the artist. Once untangled, the stories behind these works that sometimes go back 400 years – and these are not free of complications –  act like compasses that help us to position ourselves and understand our relationship with the world.

The words of the French novelist Mathias Enard come to mind

‘in a postcolonial and decolonised world, we struggle to untangle complicated cultural connections and globalisation; we do not know whether the image we project is one that others conform to, or instead, that of two mirrors facing each other; the alterity or an amalgam of all the images, stories and visions of others.’ (interview in Dilema Veche, no. 823, November-December 2019).

Philip Alexius de László, Madame Tibor de Scitovszky, née Hanna Hódosi

Philip Alexius de László, Madame Tibor de Scitovszky, 1927 © Crown Copyright, UK

Philip Alexius de László, Tibor de Scitovszky, oil painting

Philip Alexius de László, Tibor de Scitovszky, 1927 © Crown Copyright, UK

Finding the perfect place to display GAC works also invites a multifaceted approach: a curious mind, research and serious reflection. Embassies are spaces of intersection, of different influences that facilitate both unexpected and staged encounters. Once installed, the historical works equally enliven these spaces and continue to develop themselves. The most recent example of such a spectacular occurrence was an installation in the British Residence in Budapest of two newly acquired paintings by Philip de Laszlo. They show the owners of an elegant villa in neo-baroque style in the hills of Buda in Hungary in the early 1930s.

Today, this elegant building is the British Ambassador’s Residence in Budapest and the two paintings, reinstated after an absence of 73 years, echo the original display. Their presence in the Residence prolongs our contact with an atmosphere and the characters of a world that is no longer tangible.

  • Philip Alexius de László's Madame Tibor de Scitovszky in Budapest

    Philip Alexius de László's portrait of Madame Tibor de Scitovszky in Budapest 2019 © Crown Copyright, UK

  • Philip Alexius de László's Tibor de Scitovszky in Budapest

    Philip Alexius de László's portrait of Tibor de Scitovszky in Budapest 2019 © Crown Copyright, UK

    CF: Working as a curator at the GAC involves a lot of communication, both within our organisation as well as outside. We get to exchange with professionals from the arts sector as well as general members of the public, and high-level politicians as well. Would you like to share an encounter that has stuck with you?

    LP: In October 2018, I had the pleasure of meeting HMA to Ankara, Sir Dominick Chilcott. Serving as the British Ambassador to Tehran during the dramatic attack on the British Embassy in 2011, I asked him if he was willing to recount his experience for ‘A Meeting of Cultures’, to which he immediately responded with generosity.

    We then parted, though not before sharing a few thoughts about my home country, Romania, which he visited on a cold winter’s day in the ‘90s. A few months later, as I sat in the recording studio with my radio producer, eagerly waiting for Sir Dominick to join us on Skype from Ankara, I was part of one of the most magical hours of conversation.

    I asked him:

    As a diplomat, you represent Her Majesty the Queen and the UK Government in the country to which you are appointed. Travel is part of your career. In his 2016 book ‘How Travel can Change the World’, Andrew Solomon wrote: ‘You never see yourself more clearly than when immersed in an entirely foreign place.’ To what extent do you resonate with these words?

    As I tentatively addressed my first question to him, the dialogue opened up a range of captivating subjects touching on theology, philosophy and British diplomacy. It then drifted gently towards aspects of the history of the interwar period, American cinematography and Iranian culture. It ended on a contemplative note with memories of travel and lost opportunities. This encounter has stuck with me precisely because of its naturalness, and has reminded me of how precious it is to exchange ideas about our humanity, and to explore them with grace, profoundness, elegance and genuine curiosity.

    CF: Do you have a favourite historic work, and if so, why this one?

    LP: With every work of art that I research, my universe of images becomes richer. I continuously add to this receptacle of knowledge, cementing it with depictions that intrigue me through their puzzling iconography, complex provenance, authorship and compelling stories. Each of them becomes ‘my favourite’ as I begin to unravel their mystery.

    In 1959, the Government Art Collection acquired a painting showing King William III as Solomon. A rather faint signature placed at the bottom left of the painting identified the artist: Jan van Orley, a 17th century painter and prolific tapestry designer from Brussels. A stencil on the stretcher suggested that this work featured in a Christie’s sale on 10 April 1953, with a different attribution.

    I first had the opportunity to examine this three metre-high painting in November 2015, when it returned to the Collection from Hampton Court Palace, where it had been on loan for 25 years. Its viewing prompted me to address a number of questions in an attempt to shed more light on this painting and the context of its making: where did the idea of depicting William III in the guise of the biblical king Solomon come from? Could the king’s attendants be identified? When was this work painted and where was it originally displayed? How frequent were visual and textual references relating to Solomon during the reign of William III?

    Jan van Orley, King William III (1650-1702) Reigned 1688-1702, as Solomon

    Jan van Orley, King William III (1650-1702) Reigned 1688-1702, as Solomon, 17th century © Crown Copyright, UK