“I remember going and looking at things...and just thinking, ‘I want to know more.’” Chantal Brotherton-Ratcliffe, subject leader in Old Masters paintings studies for Sotheby’s Institute of Art-London, talks about finding her path to the art world.
Chantal fell in love with her first painting at her local art gallery. She admits to being a directionless 15-year-old, lazing around, uninspired. So her father took her down to a lecture at Leeds City Art Gallery. They saw an exhibition of 18th and early 19th century watercolors of British landscapes—specifically the Yorkshire Dales, a picturesque region of northern England. “Watercolors are very fragile to look at,” Chantal explains. “They've got very thin amounts of paint. The whole point is that the paper is usually white (or was originally) and it shows through a very thin layer of paint. So you get this very delicate luminous effect. In reproduction, they often look rather gray, but when you see the real thing, it's absolutely mind-blowing. I remember going and looking at things like Varley, Cotman, DeWint, Cox, Cozens, Constable, Ruskin, Sandby, Turner...beautiful things and just thinking, ‘I want to know more.’”
If you really think back hard enough, there was probably a time when you—as a bored teenager—were being dragged around. That's when it usually happens. Suddenly, something clicks. Maybe you don't remember it, but you can see it is apparent. Chantal’s children are now in their twenties, but she remembers introducing them to the wider world of culture. “I actually didn't have much luck...with painting. But music...I remember taking one of my sons to a Tchaikovsky opera, and he came out saying, ‘I didn't know that music could be so moving,’ with tears streaming as the hero died.”
Chantal followed her heart and studied art history at Edinburgh University. She studied Islamic Art and learned Arabic. For her PhD, she wanted to return to Western Art, so she chose late medieval book illumination at London University’s Warburg Institute. During her studies, she also found herself constantly gravitating toward paintings. She began an apprenticeship with a paintings restorer, learning how to do conservation of paintings on canvas and panels, oil paintings mostly, which she absolutely loved. One of her favorite experiences was when she worked to reconstruct a small section that had flaked off a piece by Jacob Jordaens, one of Rubens’ collaborators. The process felt oddly personal. Chantal explains, “It’s as if you have to get inside the artist’s brain to reconstruct their brush strokes. You're right inside their color choices and their handling of paint.”
In 1989 when she was offered the job at Sotheby’s Institute, she gave up conservation and came to the Institute to teach “Old Masters paintings with the eye of someone who actually worked inside the painting.” It is little surprise that her teaching techniques are deeply informed by her practice in conservation. With her students, Chantal emphasizes the importance of patient gazing and spending time with the art. She assigns unique activities to them in galleries and museums such as, drawing and comparing details from different styles of painting, as well as wearing sunglasses when looking at Italian baroque chiaroscuro. The activities are designed to draw the students into artwork, recognize craftsmanship, and provide them the tools to become the next generation of connoisseurs.
Featured image: Jacob Jordaens, The King Drinks (1638)