Ashtead Art Lovers Monthly Talks

11 a.m. and 7.30 p.m.

£10 inc refreshments. The same price since 2007.

Tel: 01372 272235 to book, or email.

22nd March 2019: Hidden in Plain Sight.

One of my pet themes is that paintings are also documents and should be treated with equal rigour as the written word when it comes to evidence and for the past three years I have been researching a particular mid-16th century document that has led me down some very interesting paths.  This research has caused me to question where the contents of some of these images came from, and how. Traditionally, the where was not discovered until much later than these images suggest.  Often the item or animal  portrayed has been dismissed as a figment of an artist’s imagination, but perhaps it may have been the result of a traveller’s tale.  Had a merchant regaled his adventures while enjoying a pint of ale in an inn, where he had described the marvels he had seen and the strange creatures he had encountered?  Or had someone returned from a voyage with either skins or even live specimens of exotic birds?

Have you ever looked at a work of art, such as this still life by Willem Kalf and asked yourself where did all this luxurious stuff come from?

Screen Shot 2019-03-06 at 18.57.05
Still life with nautilus shell & other items. mid 17th century.  Willem Kalf.  Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, Madrid.

In his paintings we take it for granted that the opulent items, such as the blue and white porcelain, the soft fruits, the nautilus shell and other items are all symbolic of the transcience of life as well as representing the riches of the Dutch East India company.  But how far have these items travelled, and in the case of the nautilus shell, how did these come into the possession of these Dutch traders?

Was Ming porcelain known about in Europe before the sea route to the Spice Islands was opened up by Vasco da Gama in 1498?

Then there is the 15th century Flemish altarpiece that has a ring necked parakeet portrayed in it – birds indegenous to sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian sub-continent.  How did these birds come to be in the Low Countries during the early 1400s.  Are there other examples in 15th century Italian Renaissance paintings containing examples of exotic fruits, birds and animals from far off places that we were taught were not discovered until Magellan’s fleet circumnaviated the globe in 1522? In some cases, they were not known about until Capt James Cook’s time in the 18th century or until Wallace drew his line defining where the flora and fauna changes, and he did not do this until the 19th century.

Oh yes there are a lot more, but to say more would be to spoil the surprise.

Let me know whether you want to come to the morning or evening session by emailing me on or ring me on 01372 272235.  It is still £10 including refreshments, even after eleven years.


On 26th April, I will be presenting a paper on a small section of this research at an international conference being held at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich between 25th – 27th April.  The conference is titled Maritime Animals, which is a very broad subject.  Click here for the link to the conference website where you will find a link to the programme of speakers.  You can book for a single day if you so wish.  To do so, ring Lizelle de Jager on 020 8312 6716.