Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Record crowds [of up to 14 at a time] gathered at the Dorset County Portrait Gallery in Chetnole yesterday to view the special exhibition of Hals-Bals portraits mounted to coincide with the re-hanging of restored "all-time favourite" The Deeply Sceptical Professor. The Exhibition has been carefully curated by Hals-Bals expert and linear descendent Hans Oniz-Bals and features portraits from the Gallery's own collection together with several items never before seen in Chetnole - loaned from prestigious institutions as well as private collections across the West Country. Its uniqueness is reflected in the admission prices [£50 for adults, concessions for the under 3s up to 2% discount if accompanied by 4 adults] which some have described as "steep" and others "outrageous". Gallery Chair and CEO of Viking Threadbone, the Exhibition's sponsors, Mrs Amanda J Threadbone, has defended the pricing policy, arguing that "those who can afford it will probably appreciate the value of the Exhibition, whilst those who can't will probably be better off seeking more intelligence-appropriate entertainment elsewhere".
Amongst the "new to Chetnole portraits", particular interest lies in the 1648 Our Lady of the Large Maracas - one of the artist's most celebrated images - which normally hangs sequestered in the refectory of Puncknowle Priory, seen - but one suspects not much appreciated - only by the resident Sisters of Mercy. It has been allowed to leave the Priory only once before on the occasion of the University of Afpuddle's 500th Anniversary in 2008 at the climax of which it formed the centrepiece of the Afpuddle University Scottish Country Dancing Team's tableau vivant: Strip the Willow: Madonna's, Maracas and the Art of the Push-up Bra.
Noting the striking similarity between the facial features of almost all of Hals-Bals's portraits - Our Lady, The Professor and the artist's self-portrait, in particular, seem to be strongly related - several visitors have been moved to ask whether this is coincidence or not. Was, for example, the artist [a] limited in his access to life models, [b] limited in his ability and/or imagination or [c] self-obsessed to the point where he could paint no other visage but his own? Biographer Davis Sammy Jnr ["Hals-Bals: Me, Myself, My Id and My Ego", Threadbone Press ] says it comes down to a mixture of factors but is not unrelated to the fact that in 1588 the then 5-year-old painter's mother had dropped a large wheel of cheese which had rolled across the floor and pushed the young boy face-first into a vanity mirror since which time and after 2 quarts of ale he had always seen a mixture of stars and his own face. "This explains both his pretty much constant inebriation when drawing and the fact that he became quite good at doing himself", he adds.
The Exhibition continues.