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The Best Show in London

The other day I dropped in at the National Gallery in London to see a few new things. There were the ten masterpieces on loan from the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome, including the three portraits of Pope Innocent X by Bernini, Algardi, and Velázquez. There was a small exhibit devoted to Pesellino’s Trinity altarpiece, the result of decades of detective work by the Gallery. Pesellino died in 1457 and the main panel was finished in Filippo Lippi’s workshop three years later. In the eighteenth century, whether because it was already falling to pieces or because this was the way to maximize its resale value, the main panel was sawn in five. This yielded: two handysized pictures of flying angels, two handsome pairs of standing saints, and one imposing crucifixion supported by God the Father. Of these the National Gallery tracked down all except for one pair of saints, which eventually was located in the Royal Collection. So in 1929 the King lent his portion, and the picture was reassembled.

Eight years later four of the five original predella panels were added to the ensemble. These were all painted by Lippi and his school. Very recently, Dillian Gordon, a curator at the Gallery, realized that a painting in the Hermitage was the fifth predella panel, and this was now on loan.1 Finally there was a once-famous Virgin and Child by Gossaert, which had just turned up in the National Gallery’s own basement (for years they had thought it only a copy). So there were plenty of new things to see.

And I recollected that it was only a few weeks before that I had come to view Picasso’s Blue Period portrait of Angel de Soto, on loan from its new owner, Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber, surrounded by similar works on loan from the Heinz Berggruen Collection in Switzerland, and that I had admired on the way the seven Seurat oil sketches that Berggruen had donated to the Gallery at the time it bought from him Seurat’s Channel of Gravelines. Eight new Seurats seemed a hefty addition to the portfolio. But then I thought, Hang on, wasn’t it only a few weeks before that that they were exhibiting those huge, newly restored Carracci cartoons (in which an obviously male model posed as Aurora abducting Cephalus)?2 And what about the astonishingly beautiful St. Michael Triumphant, by the fifteenth-century Spaniard Bartolomé Bermejo? And the National Trust paintings? And when was the Fighting Temeraire show?

All these events took place within about six months, and by the time this article appears there will be two more reasons for dropping in. The Velázquez portrait of the Pope will have, hanging opposite it, the four Francis Bacon pope paintings in British collections (one owned by the Arts Council, one from Aberdeen and two from private collections). Bacon claimed that, although obsessed by Velázquez, he had never seen the portrait of Innocent X. Well, now Innocent X will see Bacon. Also back on display will be Holbein’s The Ambassadors, about which there has been fearful talk.3 Its restoration took three years, but the Gallery anticipated its critics by showing the painting to a wide range of experts and art critics, and by allowing a television documentary to be made about the whole process.

I mustn’t pretend to comment on the restoration. I’ve seen the Holbein, on its easel in the photographic department, and was therefore able to view the anamorphic skull from the correct angle. You have to stand to the right of the picture, somewhat above the level you would normally expect. It is as if the painting had been designed to hang near a staircase, say on a landing. Coming upstairs you would view the ambassadors from beneath. Coming downstairs, just before you reached the landing, you would, with a sudden shock, see the skull from the single correct viewpoint. Unless they hang the painting very low indeed, only basketball players will be able to see the skull from that precise, correct position.

As if all this activity were not enough, there is also Dürer’s St. Jerome, for which the Gallery is negotiating, and which they may already have secured. It is a tiny panel which had place of honor in a Norfolk house, where it was always believed to be Venetian until, in the 1950s, the legendary dealer David Carritt identified it from the resemblance between the lion and a Dürer woodcut. It is the only Dürer oil in Britain known to remain in private hands, and for the last few years it was in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. But the Fitzwilliam gave up the attempt to purchase it, whereupon the National Gallery, which has only one Dürer, and which is particularly keen to improve its holdings in the German School, stepped in.4

But how can they afford to step in, and how can they afford to keep such a level of exhibitions going? The National Gallery has a policy—it is part of the reason for keeping the tradition of free entrance to the Gallery—of encouraging people to drop in regularly for short visits. They discovered from a recent survey that a quarter of their visitors had been to see the Gallery up to ten times in the previous two years. This suggests that a large number of people do what I do, drop in when they hear of something new, or in lunch breaks, or on their way home from work. And it further suggests that a good portion are local people, rather than international tourists. Of course the National Gallery is a big tourist attraction, but that is not what it was founded for (of which more later).

I asked Neil MacGregor, the Gallery’s director since 1986, whether acquiring new paintings was particularly important. After all, one might take the view that the collection was already quite good enough as it was…. We were walking around the darkening galleries late one evening in April, and the question stopped MacGregor in his tracks. Of course, he said, acquisitions were desperately important, the great priority. One of his reasons was that the canon of painting was changing all the time, and that the collection had a duty to reflect the changing canon. So the National Gallery is not like one of those great collections which take a snapshot of taste in the period of its formation (like, say, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). You would have to know it very well in order to know the way it was formed by contemporary taste.

Since World War II, the National Gallery has been acquiring new works, by purchase, gift or bequest, at a steady rate of around half a dozen a year, and that steady rate is itself an extraordinary achievement, considering what has happened to the price of paintings, and the competition that exists when it comes to top-quality works. The economics of acquisition are quite unlike those in the other arts. It is a big event in the life of the National Theatre, when it receives, as it did recently, a Lottery grant of £30 million. But a major painting today might well cost upward of £10 million. Of course not everything the National Gallery acquires is in this range, but works like the Bermejo and the Dürer are.

As is well known, the fortunes of the Gallery were transformed and made the envy of other British institutions by an endowment from J. Paul Getty, Jr., announced in 1985, and totaling £50 million. The Art Newspaper recently published figures for the contributions made by the Getty endowment alone toward the purchase price of pictures.5 These were as follows: Van Dyck’s The Balbi Children, 1985, £400,000, Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1986, $900,000, Cranach’s Female Saints, 1987, $300,000, Van Dyck’s Lord John Stewart and His Brother, 1988, $400,000, Poussin’s The Finding of Moses, 1988, $8,000,000, Dolci’s The Adoration of the Magi, 1990, $2,500,000, Holbein’s Lady with a Squirrel, 1993, $1,800,000, David’s Vicomtesse Vilain XIII, 1994, $1,300,000 plus an additional £2,100,000, and the Bermejo St. Michael, 1995, $6,600,000 plus two unspecified installments. The Getty endowment is administered through the American Friends of the National Gallery, London, Inc., which has donated another $10 million over the last decade. So the great benefactors of the National Gallery, after Getty and the Sainsburys,6 tend to be the same Americans who support the Met and other American institutions—the Sacklers, Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, the Annenbergs, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and so on. 7

But not everything that makes a big splash costs a lot of money. The current Doria Pamphilj exhibition (which, in addition to the works already mentioned, includes a Raphael and a Caravaggio) cost £35,000 to mount. This is what it cost to send a team to pack and move the exhibits. To the horror of various grand Roman families, the Doria Pamphilj heirs did not charge a loan fee. They were having their gallery rewired, and apparently decided that it would be nice for their masterpieces to become a little better known. The British government indemnified the works of art, so that no money changed hands, although the valuations must have been colossal (the top rate indemnification, by National Gallery calculations, is £35 million—that would be the valuation for the Velázquez portrait of Innocent X).

In fact if you take the three exhibits mentioned in my first paragraph, not one of them involved great expense, however great the resultant éclat. The Pesellino was a scholarly presentation that presumably cost no more than a couple of round-trip tickets for a courier to St. Petersburg. The Gossaert discovery is striking because it reminds one that a gallery should never, ever, go in for de-accessioning its pictures.^8 In 1857, for example, the National Gallery sold off some unwanted pictures from the Krüger collection, a group of mainly Westphalian pictures from the town of Minden. The top price received for any painting in this sale was 20 guineas and most fetched less than £5.

Because the results were disappointing, in 1860, when the gallery acquired the collection of Edmond Beaucousin, and found eleven of its forty-six pictures “superfluous,” instead of selling them off they decided to send them to the National Galleries of Scotland and Ireland. The Gossaert was one of six that went to Dublin, where at first it was cataloged as by Gossaert, then by 1898 it was downgraded to “School of” and finally omitted from the catalog altogether. In 1926 the Beaucousin pictures were returned to London. Presumably no one was under any illusions as to the motives that had sent them to Dublin in the first place, and so they were put away in storage, or languished on basement walls. Gossaert’s Virgin and Child, I was told, “never misbehaved.” It had never begun to peel or fall to pieces, and so it was never given attention, until the time came three years ago for Lorne Campbell, a lecturer from the Courtauld Institute, to rewrite the museum’s catalog of the Northern Schools.

What depressed everyone when they did look at it was a horrible, typical nineteenth-century craquelure that had spread over the whole surface, and the fact that the face of the Virgin conformed to an early nineteenth-century canon of Correggesque beauty. What attracted Mr. Campbell’s attention on the other hand was the skill that had gone into the depiction of the lettering around the cornice, lettering that was conceived as if made of gilded bronze, set over a concave surface. The subject was well known both from an engraving of 1589 and also from versions in Munich and Vienna. Clearly it had once been popular.

The next step on these occasions is to call in a dendrochronologist, as familiar a figure around the great galleries as the knife grinders were in the villages of yore. The dendrochronologist, given a panel of Baltic oak and, for instance, a cup of tea, can tell you by the end of an afternoon that there are (as in this case) 180 growth-rings formed between 1313 and 1492, and that the tree from which it was cut could not have been felled before 1501. (Not every kind of wood from every area of Europe can be dated in this way, but Baltic oak is a well-charted subject.)

The subsequent tests could well have led to disappointment, because nobody could predict what the state of the original painting might be under its evident repaint. Jill Dunkerton, who described the cleaning process to me, had, shortly before, been cleaning another of the National Gallery’s Gossaert’s, also from the Beaucousin collection. She told me that Gossaert had been one of the most technically brilliant painters of his time, and explained how the detail in his paintings reflected the wealth of the courtly clientele for whom the painter worked. A lot of time could be spent on one of these minute works. It soon turned out that the repainting which had masked the beauty of the figure (but not the architectural detail, or the lettering) had been motivated by the taste of the early nineteenth century, rather than by the need to cover any defects in the paint. Someone had done a job on the Virgin, for reasons best known to the trade. Once cleaned, the picture could be restored in no more than a couple of days. It is in terrific condition.

The National Gallery is on a lucky roll, but a part of that luck derives from the clarity of its purposes and requirements. There is a notice at the entrance to the Sainsbury Wing which reads “The National Collection of Western European Painting from the late Thirteenth Century to the early Twentieth Century.” One could not, in so few words, describe the scope of either the British Museum or the Victoria and Albert. What the Gallery has is paintings, very few works on paper, and very few sculptures. The number of paintings is not large—about 2200, compared with over 3000, among many other objects, at the National Gallery in Washington. But, however great the complexity of their conservation requirements, the work to be done is all of the same kind. The staff is not large. The building is not nearly as large as it pretends from Trafalgar Square.

Neil MacGregor gave a very interesting lecture recently in which he pointed out that, unlike almost all of the equivalent collections in Europe, the National Gallery is “not a royal, but a parliamentary collection.”9 That is to say, it was founded by Parliament in 1824 and has always been subject to parliamentary scrutiny. “The Gallery was created specifically for the people and from the beginning, Parliament insisted that it should be open free of charge for everybody, the Prime Minister particularly stipulating that children of all ages, even babes in arms, should be freely admitted.” And so when, in the 1980s, a Tory back-bencher of the velociraptor variety which has dominated our public life and undermined nearly all of our institutions over the last decade and a half, asked in some subcommittee whether the National Gallery was not “part of the Something-for-Nothing Society,” MacGregor was able to reply that that was indeed so, and that the decision had been made under the Tory administration of Lord Liverpool.

It was an experiment which succeeded—the “mechanics” did indeed come; on Whit Monday, 1841, “nearly 14,000 had squeezed into the five rooms of the National Gallery.” Schoolboys came in and ate their meals there. One Keeper, in 1850, says:

I saw some people, who seemed to be country people, who had a basket of provisions, and who drew their chairs round and sat down, and seemed to make themselves very comfortable: they had meat and drink; and when I suggested to them the impropriety of such a proceeding in such a place, they were very good-humoured, and a lady offered me a glass of gin.

The moving spirits were unfazed by such behavior. “Are you not aware,” asked a radical chairman of the 1841 committee, “that individuals of the first character and life have had their peculiar genius raised by an accidental view or an accidental occurrence?” In other words, one should not worry why people came, only that they could come and might choose to benefit.

Ruskin, teaching drawing at the Working Men’s College in Great Ormond Street, knew what he was about when he said: “My efforts are directed not to making a carpenter an artist, but to making him happier as a carpenter.” MacGregor tells us that Ruskin thought that, if the Gallery were to succeed, “the carpenter had to be able to see the pictures properly.” For Ruskin, this meant either hanging the pictures at eye level in a single line, a radical proposal given the hanging convention of “the day, or, even more extreme, a picture with a room to itself.”

The terrible London fog of the 1850s forced the Gallery to consider whether it might not be better to move to cleaner air, for the sake of the pictures. But in the discussion which followed, the interest of accessibility to the working public always won over the question of conservation. Here is a High Court judge arguing that the pictures should stay in Trafalgar Square:

…if it were demonstrable that the pictures in their present position must absolutely perish sooner than in Kensington, I conceive this would conclude nothing. The existence of the pictures is not the end of the collection, but a means only to give the people an ennobling enjoyment…If, while so employed, a great picture “perished in the using”…it could not be said that the picture had not fulfilled the best purpose of its purchase, or that it had been lost in its results to the nation.

A version of this same dilemma was fought out again during the Second World War, when Kenneth Clark prepared to have the whole collection shipped to Canada for safety and Churchill replied: “Hide them in caves and cellars, but not one picture shall leave this island.” The paintings were taken to North Wales and stored in a quarry. In 1942, after the announcement had been made that the National Art Collections Fund had presented a Rembrandt, Margaretha de Geer, to the nation, a letter appeared in the Times:

Because London’s face is scarred and bruised these days we need more than ever to see beautiful things. Like many another one hungry for aesthetic refreshment, I would welcome the opportunity of seeing a few of the hundreds of the nation’s masterpieces now stored in a safe place. Would the Trustees of the National Gallery consider whether it were not wise and well to risk one picture for exhibition each week?

Arrangements could be made to transfer it quickly to a strong room in case of an alert.

The case for aesthetic refreshment was unanswerable, and Clark consulted popular opinion about which paintings were to be seen after the new Rembrandt. The two most popular choices, he found, were El Greco’s Agony in the Garden (but Clark knew it to be a studio work) and Titian’s Noli Me Tangere. This was popular taste in 1942. The public went, in large numbers—very large, considering the difficulties of travel—and each month they were able to see one picture, alone, in the whole of the National Gallery. This was the same public, one is reminded, that read V.S. Pritchett’s lead book reviews in the New Statesman. Because little new was being published, Pritchett reviewed one classic at a time—a Turgenev, a Zola, a Hardy.

Imagine what it must have been like to see only Botticelli’s Venus and Mars all month—a painting which was seen by 35,000 visitors. In 1944 things got more dangerous when the rocket-launched bombs began to fall without warning. Kenneth Clark wrote from London to his curator, Martin Davies, in Wales, suggesting a couple of paintings that might possibly be sacrificed in these circumstances. “It might be worth having a van de Capelle [sic] as we have so many paintings by him. Failing that, we might have the recently cleaned Mabuse double portrait.”

That’s how highly Clark rated Gossaert (Mabuse’s real name). Cannonfodder for the whizz-bangs! But Martin Davies did what he never did—he refused to obey orders. “The Mabuse double-portrait is, as you know, in sound state. Although it is quite exceptional for me to mention any consideration other than the material condition, I should say that this Mabuse is irreplaceable, and according to Friedländer his masterpiece. I should be glad therefore to hear what picture beside the Cappelle you would like sent.” Neither Davies nor Clark was aware of that other little Gossaert waiting in the wings, which now takes its place beside the double portrait Davies and Friedländer so admired, and Clark didn’t.

  1. 1

    See Dillian Gordon, “The ‘missing’ predella panel from Pesellino’s Trinity altar-piece,” Burlington Magazine (February 1996).

  2. 2

    See Gabriele Finaldi, Eric Harding, and June Wallis, The Conservation of the Carracci Cartoons in the National Gallery (London: National Gallery Publications, 1995).

  3. 3

    Most recently by Michael Daley, see The Times, London, April 18, 1996, p. 1. Mr. Daley is an oddball whose previous wheeze was to try to convince the world that Michelangelo’s Deposition had been painted by Baccio Bandinelli. In a lecture in New York on April 17 he expressed fear that the Holbein has been damaged in restoration.

  4. 4

    According to the gallery label, Dürer’s portrait of his father is not wholly by the artist’s hand.

  5. 5

    The Art Newspaper, No. 57, March 1996.

  6. 6

    The Sainsbury Wing is said to have cost £40 million. The half-built wing and the already functioning endowment were two great assets that were inherited from the regime of Neil MacGregor’s predecessor, Sir Michael Levey. One hates to carp, but many recent visitors have been puzzled by the stains that have begun to appear on the stone cornices made of pale gray pietra serena. These stains are caused not by the public but by the warders leaning against the doorways. The Gallery’s attitude is that it is a good thing to have the warders standing and therefore vigilant. Pietra serena, beloved of Florentine architects such as Brunelleschi and Michelozzo, is an absorbent stone and will take a grease stain easily. One solution which has been mooted is to wax the whole of the surfaces, in order to give all the pietra serena, an authentic Florentine tone. Another would be to learn to live with these stains.

  7. 7

    The impact of these donations may be gauged from a comparison with the size of the government’s grant-in-aid to the Gallery, which will be £18.7 million in 1996–1997, reducing to £18.4 million in the two subsequent years.

  8. 9

    Neil MacGregor, ‘To the Happier Carpenter,’ (Groningen: The Gerson Lectures Foundation, 1995).

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