'I also love its frivolous details'

Bacchus and Ariadne 1520–23 by Titian (about 1490–1576), National Gallery, London. Bridgeman Images.

Lynn Barber says:
‘I love Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne first and foremost for its sumptuous colour, especially the dazzling blue of the sky. But I also love its frivolous details–the little dog and infant satyr in the foreground, the leopards (or are they cheetahs?) pulling the chariot, the man waving a pig’s leg, presumably his lunch. Bacchus is such an ardent wooer, how can Ariadne possibly resist?’

Lynn Barber is a journalist. The film of An Education, based on her memoir, is an Oscar hopeful.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘A National Gallery showstopper and also the most controversial, following its last cleaning in 1968. Martin Wyld, who retired at New Year as director of conservation, is the ultimate authority: ‘Virtually all the pictures in the collection have been worked on several times since they were painted, so the rows about cleaning are, in reality, usually about the extent to which old varnish and restorations are taken off pictures, and what style of restoration is done afterwards.’

The Bacchus restoration was undertaken by Mr Wyld’s predecessor, Arthur Lucas, who for some unspecified reason was forced to tidy up this already much damaged painting (Titian unwisely laid gesso, a brittle ground, on canvas) to an unreasonably tight deadline. The sky, the worst-damaged area, which—had time allowed—would have been built up in exactly the same number of layers as Titian used, accordingly looks like a blue backdrop rather than infinite space. But translucency is the problem, not the hue that attracts most criticism. ‘There is a kneejerk reaction that, if anything appears blue, a picture has been over cleaned,’ says Mr Wyld.

In fact, the original was a very intense lapis lazuli, so three cheers for Lynn Barber bucking the anti-blue norm. The subject is the moment when Bacchus, god of wine, claims Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete, abandoned on the island of Naxos by her husband, Theseus. Bacchus made her his wife and placed the crown, which pledged his troth, as a starry corona in the heavens.’

This article was first published in Country Life, February 24, 2010