Sir Charles Eastlake
Sir Charles Eastlake; drawing by David Levine

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 masked of course by great flamboyance and it was caused not only by the simultaneous rise of formidable new competitors such as Germany and the United States, but also by an awed obsession with the immense achievements of the previous generation—an obsession which paralyzed enterprise and initiative. I cannot judge the truth of this theory in general: it does, however, seem uncannily appropriate to any discussion of the course of English taste in the arts.

The standards which Eastlake bequeathed to the National Gallery—and (as I shall argue) through the Gallery to educated England as a whole—became so much the norm by which art was judged that it is sometimes difficult to understand how restrictive they were, for the very word “restrictive” will seem ludicrous when applied to the great masters he particularly championed: those of the Italian and Northern Renaissance and (to a lesser extent) those of the Dutch and Flemish schools of the seventeenth century. Indeed, wonderful pictures by these masters continued to be bought long after Eastlake’s death. The absence of these pictures would immeasurably impoverish the National Gallery, and yet (like Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations or some colonial victory in Asia or Africa) they have perhaps helped to conceal a process of stagnation that is only now becoming fully apparent.

For there were other great schools of painting—in France, in Germany, in Spain, and even in Italy—which to an astonishing extent were to be neglected by English private collectors and museum officials until it was too late to remedy the situation at all adequately: the National Gallery owns no Brouwer, no Fragonard,* no David; and its holdings of Chardin, El Greco, and Goya, let alone of Géricault or Courbet, are painfully weak. All these are indisputably artists of the very first rank, but I mention them not to judge a great museum by the standards that should be applied to a stamp collection, but because I believe that, paradoxically, their very absence throws significant light on the true nature of Eastlake’s achievement.


That achievement was followed by a failure of nerve—of nerve, rather than of cash, as is so often defensively claimed. Governments were certainly mean enough, but there were, in late Victorian and Edwardian England, plenty of rich men, of newly rich men, and even of newly rich art collectors—and if we compare the taste of virtually any one of them to the taste of, let us say, Mrs. Havemeyer in New York, or to that of Eastlake’s own predecessors of a generation or two earlier in London, it will indeed appear cautious and overawed by what I have called the “norms” he established. For it was not only the taste of English institutions which stagnated—or, should I say, reached perfection?—but that of private collectors as well.

Before Eastlake was made director of the National Gallery, private collectors in England had already acquired Goya’s The Forge (now in the Frick collection), Boucher’s panels of The Arts and Sciences painted for Madame de Pompadour (Frick collection), David’s Belisarius (Lille Museum), and Napoleon in His Study (National Gallery of Art, Washington). And during Eastlake’s years of authority two English collectors, Lord Hertford and John Bowes, concentrated on those French and Spanish painters in whom he showed little interest, but though their pictures later came to England (the Wallace collection and Barnard Castle), both men lived in France. I am not aware that for more than half a century after 1865 any subsequent private collector in England (let alone national institution) bought many pictures of outstanding beauty and importance by artists belonging to schools which were then (as now) poorly represented in Trafalgar Square. That is perhaps one indication of the impact Eastlake made on the national taste. I believe that Mr. Robertson’s excellent book allows us to observe the process whereby this happened.

Unlike the inherited royal collections of St. Petersburg, Vienna, Madrid, Paris, Dresden, and elsewhere, the newly created public museums of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had to be built up through a close cooperation between capable (and tactful) directors and their often suspicious and overbearing paymasters, whether governments or individuals: these paymasters have usually been represented by trustees. At different times and in different places the authority over purchases obviously varied greatly between director and trustees and—whatever the actual legal situation—it is very difficult indeed to be sure exactly how pressures were applied in any single case, but it is obvious that open clashes were felt to be highly undesirable and were avoided where possible.

It is often said that collaborative collecting and patronage is necessarily timid and mediocre. I can see no evidence of this in the purchases of the great European and American art museums of the last hundred years. What does seem to have happened is that, in England at any rate, it became responsible rather than arbitrary—“responsible” in the sense that the term was applied to the civil service or promotions in the army. The notion arose out of a central issue facing all public museums. Were they to be like libraries or newspapers and contain examples of anything that had been painted and that anyone might want to see (“all the news that’s fit to print”) or were they to be carefully selective so as to inculcate good taste—and hence good morals? Whatever he may have said of the merits of eclecticism and however wide his own sympathies, Eastlake’s actions and example show him to have been an advocate of the second proposition.

Eastlake was prepared to bid against Lord Hertford to try to acquire a Dutch picture but he would not have thought of wanting to compete with him for a Watteau—even if the press would have stood for the taxpayer’s money being spent on examples of French degeneracy. On the other hand, his two principal trustees both owned Watteaus, and one of them (the banker Thomas Baring) was, during Eastlake’s directorship, probably the leading collector of the artist’s pictures in England. This helps to make clear that one of Eastlake’s most significant achievements was—for better or for worse—to guide the Gallery, gently but firmly, in a somewhat different direction from that of the private collectors of his generation.

It had not always been so. When Eastlake first became involved in its affairs, as Keeper in 1843, the pictures in the National Gallery were very similar to those that could be found in the town and country houses of many of its trustees (the same could be said of many American museums today); when he died in 1865, not only could it rival (if not yet surpass) most such aristocratic collections in quality and quantity—it also differed from them in scope and emphasis: the fifteenth-century Italian pictures were already the finest to be seen outside Italy.


Eastlake was the ideal director. He was totally without genius. His own paintings are bland and respectable—and so was his character—qualities which enabled him to acquire without much difficulty Bronzino’s lascivious Allegory of Venus, Cupid and Time, whereas later trustees balked, for moral reasons, at the idea of purchasing Signorelli’s great Pan (destroyed in Berlin in 1945) and Titian’s Rape of Europa (Gardner Museum, Boston). His writing is always sensible, but it is to the perverse and prejudiced Ruskin (so vindictively hounded by Lady Eastlake) that one turns for the memorable expression of imagination and insight. Eastlake’s taste was almost impeccable, but was not truly original by the standards of those mentors whom he was cosmopolitan and cultivated enough to choose to follow. With all these qualities he was able to displace from their role as arbiters of taste the proud ducal collections (for which he had painted in his youth and which were so indebted to the standards of a hundred years earlier) and substitute for their authority his conception of a National Gallery built around the masters of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy.

Of course it would be absurd to claim that Eastlake effected such a change single-handed: nonetheless, I feel sure that the actual and magnificent museum which he largely created had a far more potent impact on the world than the musées imaginaires of Ruskin and other writers. His conception of what a great national collection should contain dominated the imagination of his English successors (not always happily), and intoxicated the American millionaires of Duveen’s generation until, as so often happens, the sheer impossibility of matching the examplar led to those new explorations which make the museums of Boston and Chicago, New York and Washington, so different—and so exhilarating to the visitor from London. It is worth remembering that whereas El Greco’s Portrait of Fra Felix Hortensio Paravicino and Assumption (both masterpieces by any standards) were acquired respectively by Boston and Chicago in 1904 and 1906, it was not until the 1950s that the National Gallery owned more than one small (if fine) picture by the artist, and this was in the gallery only because it had been presented as a gift. It is as futile to reproach great directors as it is to reproach great artists for the debilitating effects they may have had on their immediate successors—but it is relevant to any assessment of the achievements of both.

Though I believe that the general drift of these speculations is correct I am aware that they have been presented much too schematically. Collections can rarely be built up according to rigorous principles, and much will always depend on accidental factors of finance or availability. One of the great merits of Robertson’s book is the skill with which he constantly shows us the problems and dilemmas facing Eastlake. We learn as much about the pictures that he wanted but was unable to buy as about those which he actually did acquire, and we are thus given a fuller and truer account of this side of the workings of a great museum than we have ever had before. The documentation is unusually complete and the author has not only made very full use of it but has also presented us with details of purchases, lists of trustees, etc., which are not at all easily consulted elsewhere.

If, as I have suggested, Eastlake would not have warranted such a biography had he not bought great pictures (for himself as well as for the National Gallery), it is also true that he was far more than an extremely successful museum director—a career that he enjoyed only for the last ten of his seventy-two years. He touched on the world of high Victorian art at every point, and Robertson’s account of how he did it and his very detailed appendices and bibliography will be of the greatest importance to anyone interested in this somewhat depressing (though fascinating) subject. Robertson deals with Eastlake’s own rather dull and derivative pictures (but his views of Italy and Greece are genuinely attractive); the fiasco of the Fine Arts Commission which demonstrated that there was not a single painter capable of producing monumental decoration; and the onset of lasting mediocrity at the exhibitions of the Royal Academy.

Robertson is admirably lucid about all this and one only wishes that he could have been rewarded by having a more exciting figure on which to center his book. But Eastlake was dull as well as decent. Fortunately his wife was neither dull nor altogether decent. Lively and very intelligent, formidably bossy and a great intriguer, devoted to her husband though sometimes impatient with his virtues, she dominates the pages whenever she appears. It is a pity that the account of her ostentatiously bringing. Ruskin’s divorced wife Effie to hear him lecture specially in order to distress him (which it duly did) has been published too late to be recorded here.

But in the final analysis Robertson’s very good and very full biography of Eastlake is important because it makes one think seriously about the formation and direction of a great museum—and that is just as relevant in New York today as it once was in London.

This Issue

June 15, 1978