Wednesday, 18 December 2013

New Raphael!

Picture: MS
Very excited to see this new Raphael drawing Ajax and Cassandra at the British Museum recently, just accepted by the government in lieu of tax. The drawing shows Ajax abducting Cassandra from the Temple of Athena, where she grasps at the statue of Athena.

If you're called a Cassandra today it's usually because someone thinks you're making a false prophecy of doom, which is ironic because Cassandra's prophecies were true, but doomed to be disbelieved. In this drawing she is being abducted by Ajax (Ajax the lesser - not the famous one!) after the Athenians have taken Troy. No one had believed Cassandra's warning about the big wooden horse. Ajax swore that he didn't rape her, though no one believes him. Anyway, abducting Cassandra from Athena's temple was itself a heinous crime and he was later drowned after Athena hit his ship with a thunderbolt and Poseidon then sank it with his trident. 

It was probably made soon after his arrival in Rome in 1508, and he's responding to a classical source, perhaps an ancient cameo.* Raphael shows his skill in drawing the male nude, and shows the tense moment when Cassandra, looking to the statue of Athena for protection, is torn away by Ajax. There's a great contrast between the figures of Athena and Ajax, each with outstretched arms. Cassandra is just being peeled away from her tight embrace of Athena, a space opening up between her head and Athena's bosom. But still she is turned away from Ajax, with a huge literal and symbolic space between them.

It's a metalpoint drawing, which is made by using a metal stylus (often, though not always, silver) to mark paper that's prepared with a ground layer. The groundlayer gives the pinkish tinge to the eponymous 'Pink Sketchbook', although it was probably never bound as a sketchbook. Metalpoint was rather archaic by the early sixteenth century, but Raphael - that most versatile draughtsman - continued to use it to great effect. The new sheet is rather worn and battered, with large repaired losses at the margins. The British Museum owns two better preserved sheets from the same sketchbook. Facial Studies of the Virgin and Child in particular still shows the fine texture of the ground layer, and demonstrates a remarkably varied use of metalpoint, which is a medium noted for its limited expressive range.

The drawing has been on loan to the BM for many years, although it's not in their catalogue. It's now been accepted in lieu of tax, and is on loan to the BM pending formal allocation (which should be a formality). The acceptance in lieu scheme is economically irrational but politically savvy. There is no economic difference between taking £750k in tax and giving it to the BM to buy a Raphael or forgiving £750k in tax in return for a Raphael for the BM. But one of those options is politically more acceptable; acceptance in lieu looks like a free gift, even if it's no such thing. The net effect is to save some transaction costs, but it distorts museum acquisitions towards the random selection of objects offered up by people with big tax bills rather than the kinds of objects museums would choose for themselves. Still, I'm glad we've got this Raphael.  

Other objects accepted in lieu of tax can be seen here.

* Ruth Rubinstein 'Ajax and Cassandra: An Antique Cameo and a Drawing by Raphael' Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes Vol 50 (1987) pp. 204-205


  1. Who provides the valuation in these arrangements?

  2. There's a review committee that includes dealers, and a lot of dealers are acknowledged for their advice. Inevitably it's a bit opaque, but the valuations don't seem systematically to favour either side. I think there's a degree of bargaining. In the early 1980s a group of old master drawings from Chatsworth was rejected over a small disagreement over valuation. They ended up selling at auction for multiples of the higher estimate, which the government was disputing.