Let’s not waste more millions ‘saving’ Old Masters
Last week the National Gallery and National Gallery of Scotland proudly announced that they had jointly raised £45 million to buy Titian’s ‘Diana and Callisto’ from the Duke of Sutherland, thereby ‘saving it for the nation’. A few days before, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that it would be blocking export licences for various exhibits due to be displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. The Turks said they would not release the artifacts until items in UK and US museums excavated in Anatolia during the 19th century were returned to the Turkish state.
What links these two apparently unrelated events is a single, highly questionable principle: cultural nationalism. Nations and institutions will go to enormous lengths to prevent the ‘loss’ of art and artifacts overseas — and to recover those that have been exported in the past. But why should tens of millions be spent in order that a Titian should hang in a gallery in London or Edinburgh as opposed to, say, the Escorial in Madrid (for which it was originally painted), or a museum in the United States, which would be the most likely buyer on the open market? Or why should the British Museum’s exhibition Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam be derailed in order that a classical stele should stand in Istanbul rather than London?
The usual answer is that the artifacts so dearly bought — or so obstreperously demanded back — represent an inalienable, unique part of the nation’s cultural heritage. In the case of the Titian and its pair, ‘Diana and Actaeon’ (together bought for a total of £95 million, an estimated third of their market value) the argument is that the paintings have inspired generations of British artists ever since they went on public display. Lucian Freud described the pair as ‘simply the most beautiful pictures in the world’; William Hazlitt, when he saw the paintings, wrote that ‘a new sense came upon me, a new heaven and a new Earth stood before me’.
So British artists and writers liked the Titians. But does that make them a part of British culture — a hundred million pounds’ worth of culture? For the sake of comparison, the conversion of Bankside power station into Tate Modern cost £134 million (at 2000 prices). Even in strictly historical terms, the Titians’ concrete link to British history is not particularly close — or for that matter, very edifying. The hard-up remains of the French royal family sold the collection that included the two Titians to a dealer in Brussels in 1791. The Third Earl of Bridgewater, of canal fame, bought them on the proceeds of his coalmines (there was much more muck behind the brass of the British aristocracy than they necessarily let on). The time has come to sell again, the fifth time the paintings will have changed hands in as many centuries.
The flap over the possibility of the Titians leaving Britain has a historical precedent. When the Russian empress Catherine the Great bought Robert Walpole’s magnificent art collection from his spendthrift grandson in 1778, English society was outraged that nearly 200 works by Hals, Rembrandt and Gainsborough should be spirited away to St Petersburg where they would, presumably, never again be seen by civilised eyes. And indeed it is odd to see such important English geniuses as John Locke and Grindling Gibbons, as painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller, in the startlingly bright winter sunlight reflected off the frozen Neva. But I wouldn’t say that Britain is significantly poorer for the fact that these paintings are in Russia. It would be ridiculous to demand their recovery — as the Turks are currently doing with bits of their ‘lost’ heritage. The important thing is that they are accessible and, presumably, lendable too.
It’s important to note that those who have worked to gather the money to buy the Titians meant well, as did the Duke, who has generously forfeited £200 million in profit by keeping the pictures off the open market. So in that sense it’s a little unfair to compare the Titian deal to the actions of the Turkish government, which over recent years has made the cause of recovering lost treasures from foreign museums — by blackmail if necessary — a nationalist hobbyhorse.
But both the Turks and the British saviours of the Titians are in the wrong, and for the same reasons. A museum by definition removes artifacts from their original context — a country house, a Hellenistic ruin — and makes them accessible for systematic study and public display. Because art has always followed money, some masterpieces have ended up in odd locations — for instance the great Caravaggio in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, or Leonardo’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’ in the Princes Czartoryski Museum, Krakow, Poland. But I see no compelling reason that these masterpieces’ wanderings should stop in the 21st century — as long as, wherever they are, they remain publicly accessible. And since any sale of the Titians would be by private treaty in any case, the Duke would have been able to pick and choose an art institution over a private buyer, although in practice there are very few private collectors buying Old Masters at that level.
So: £12.5 million from the Scottish government, £7.4 million from public donations, £12.5 million from the National Galleries, £10 million from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, £2 million from the Monument Trust, £4.6 million from the National Galleries of Scotland and £1 million from the Art Fund (a charity) has been spent to enable the public to enjoy the Titians on the walls of the National Gallery of Scotland, rather than in some other museum. Is it really worth it?
One hesitates to advocate spending the money instead on encouraging young artists — thanks to a surprisingly still-buoyant contemporary art market, they seem to do all right for themselves without state subsidy. But there are plenty of worthy causes that would do far more to preserve British culture. English Heritage is still struggling to find a deep-pocketed buyer to restore the magnificent 16th- and 17th-century Apethorpe Hall, one of the most important Jacobean houses in England, after three years of searching. Five million pounds would do the job. Every Spectator reader doubtless has his or her own suggestion for worthy causes.
Next time, let the Titians go. They no more ‘belong’ in London or Edinburgh than the Elgin marbles ‘belong’ on the Parthenon or the Pergamon Altar belongs back in Turkey. Spend the money on conserving Britain’s truly vulnerable heritage instead.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 10, 2012