The Artist’s Studio with Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist, No. 2 – “The Syndics” (or “Six men Disturbed Reading a Limerick”) by Rembrandt

Penny Post is glad to present The Artist’s Studio, an occasional series of articles in which an expert is invited to reappraise a well-known painting. Our first contributor is Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist, Curator-at-Large of the Royal Kohnmann Gallery in Stoke Poges. Few will have forgotten Sir Courtney’s iconoclastic 1999 BBC7 series, Titian and Rubens: What a Pair of Bloody Idiots, nor the media storm caused a few years later when he attempted to prove and publicise a long-held theory that the The Entombment of Christ was painted not by Caravaggio but by Andy Warhol. In this piece, Sir Courtney – described by the Daily Mail as ‘the rudest man on television’ – considers The Syndics by Rembrandt. (Many will remember his recent contribution to Penny Post in which he discussed I’ve Just Learned How to Paint Turbans by Frescobalidi di Ponti.)


The Syndics – I mean to say, what does that mean? Nothing. Just a fancy word the so-called experts have conferred on this rather boring depiction of six men being suddenly disturbed while looking at something they shouldn’t be.

Yes, yes, we all all know what that means, what word I’m trying to avoid – pornography. But before you flounce away, let me say that this is a fairly innocent form of it: not dirty pictures like those by Titian and Rubens (and what a pair of bloody idiots they were, as my BBC7 series explained) of fat women who, in the immortal words of the noted critic EL Wisty, ‘used to wobble when they breathe’, but limericks. The men in this picture were reading dirty limericks. Are there any other kind?

A limerick – and it seems worth explaining this to those of you who try to write them – depends absolutely on its adherence to a meter of between 7/7/5/5/7 and 10/10/7/7/10 (the final beat of each line may be tacit) and a rhyme scheme of AABBA. They also must be funny and – Edward Lear please take note here – must have a different word at the end of the the first and the last line. What a total fraud he was. ‘Nonsense’ poems he called them. ‘Rubbish’ poems more like. I don’t know who did his drawings but they were rubbish as well.

Few other metric forms demand such rigidity of structure. Few are also capable of creating such obscenity of meaning.

It is precisely this paradox which confronts us in this painting. In numerous articles in The Cheam Gazette, Art Attack! and The Journals of the Antiquarian Society of Stoke Poges I have attempted to explain how this painting, though indeed by an artist called Rembrandt, was not by that man with the unpronounceable first name who looked like Harvey Keitel; and that nor is it called The Syndics (whatever that means). No: it was painted by Jack Rembrandt, his younger brother, and it’s called Six Men Disturbed Reading a Limerick. Yes, it is.

How, you might ask, do I infer this? Easy, First of all, the men are all dressed the same. This is not, as is is popularly claimed by the so-called ‘experts’, because they are members of some dreary fraternity or guild. It is quite simply symbolising the rigidity of a particular artistic form. What form? we next ask ourselves. Clearly something involving writing as they have a book in front of them. Next we turn to the number of characters: there are six, in case you can’t count. A limerick, as I’ve tried to explain, has five lines. There are six figures in the painting.

That knocks that theory on the head, you might think.

Not a bit of it. In the first place, only five of the men are wearing hats. In this period, hats represented participation and self-importance (as well as on some occasions – but not this occasion – hats). The sixth, hatless, man in the background symbolises the idea of the audience. The presence of an audience proves that something is being read from the book. Now consider the man on the extreme right. He has made a dinosaur out of paper or clay or something and is about to show it to the others, for a laugh. Look at that silly expression on his face. Paper or clay dinosaurs traditionally symbolise humour. Well, they still do, don’t they? What’s so hard to grasp about that? Limericks are, traditionally, funny, or ought to be. Whichever way you cut it, there are five people left over. There are five lines in a limerick. What other poetic form has five lines? Can you think of one? Exactly. Nor can I. There you are, then. Each man also has five fingers (well, okay, four fingers and a thumb) on each hand – five again. It keeps cropping up, doesn’t it?

As for whether the poetry is dirty or not and whether they have been disturbed, I mean to say – just look at their faces. The man second on the left has just jumped to his feet in exactly the way one does when unexpectedly interrupted in a clandestine activity. The man second on the right, with his left hand eagerly about to turn the page, looks pretty bloody furtive as well. Interestingly, the man between them is affecting an air of detachment and represents the apparently innocent nature of the third and fourth lines of the limerick. As for the man on the extreme left, he’s busy pretending he doesn’t know what’s going on at all, that the whole thing is just a bit of a lark by these youngsters which he’s got involved with despite himself although you can tell he’s not too happy about the interruption either. He is, of course, Everyman: we who purse our lips in disapproval when we hear a rude joke and then snigger about to ourselves later on when we think no one’s looking.

The other two people symbolise other things that I think I’ve already explained. Please go back and read what I’ve just written more carefully if you haven’t grasped this. I don’t have time to say it again. I’m a famous art historian, not a tape recorder.

So – there we have it. Six Men Disturbed Reading A Limerick. And who was Jack Rembrandt? As I said, he was Whatshisface Rembrandt’s little brother and a bit of a practical joker. You can tell that by the dinosaur. I’m not going to tell you anything else about him unless you pay me.

I mentioned that ridiculous man Titian earlier. Well here’s a limerick about him which I have translated from Mr Rota’s copy of the rare pamphlet s’Gravenhooefen Dorfscrafen-vrendt uf Rembrandt vor Titian, Artisteen Obseene vraal Huumerist with only a little help from Google Translate.

While Titian was mixing rose madder
His artist posed nude on a ladder
Her position to Titan
Suggested coition
So he climbed up the ladder and had her.

I think this proves matters entirely. And after all, you haven’t hired me. I have said quite enough about this sort of stuff – and your questions are starting to tire me.


Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist
Curator-at Large
The Royal Kohnmann Gallery
Stoke Poges

• For further articles, please click here
• For rants and musings set to music, please click here

The Artist’s Studio with Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist


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