The Ideal Director

Sir Charles Eastlake and the Victorian Art World

by David Robertson
Princeton University Press, 464 pp., $50.00

At the end of his very fully documented biography of Sir Charles Eastlake, “usually considered to have been the most distinguished director of the [London] National Gallery to date,” David Robertson sums up certain aspects of his career with a series of negatives and cautious qualifications:

He would never have consented, I believe, to the breaking of any law; he took pains, being also a private collector, to avoid conflicts of interest. He gave scrupulous attention to provenances…he made no secret of restorations…the decision to sell unwanted…pictures may be held against him, but his insistence on offering them first to provincial galleries and then at public auction should be recognized as another sign of thoughtful conscientiousness. His Reports…made their points clearly and candidly….

Every shaft goes home with painful precision in this rare and oblique allusion to some parts of the museum world of today. Relying on Robertson’s material, I would like to be rasher than he has been in trying to estimate some of the implications of Eastlake’s directorship of the National Gallery between 1855 and 1865 for the development of later taste and standards in England and elsewhere.

The virtues listed above, unusual and estimable though they are, would not alone justify a biography. The memory of Charles Eastlake survives because he bought great pictures for the Gallery which he directed. Successors with fewer scruples in London and elsewhere have cherished the same ambition: and in so far as they have fulfilled it, they too have been, or will be, commemorated in fat, well-illustrated volumes, even though such volumes are unlikely to be as interesting as this one and may have to end on a different (or less sincere) note.

Eastlake’s record is certainly very impressive in its appreciation of quality and diversity. During the ten years that he controlled the purchases of the National Gallery he was able to acquire fine pictures by Rubens and Rembrandt, and supreme masterpieces by Veronese and Bronzino, Uccello and Bellini, van Eyck and Piero della Francesca—to name only a very few. And nearly all the time he had to fight off the Barbarians and the Philistines.

This is perhaps appropriate, for Eastlake himself was surely the incarnation of Sweetness and Light. Wherever the cause of art had to be sustained he was in the forefront of the battle: presiding over meetings of the Royal Academy; painting birthday presents for Prince Albert to give to the Queen; reviewing the latest German book on Raphael; commissioning pictures from the leading artists; supervising the decoration of the Palace of Westminster; directing the sculptors at work on the Albert Memorial. Like so many mid-Victorians he seems to have had inexhaustible energy; and, like so many, he seems (in retrospect) to have drained away too much vitality from his successors.

Eastlake died in 1865. There are many historians who trace to the 1870s the story of England’s decline from political and economic preeminence. It was a decline …

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