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. 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)? 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 …

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