Andrew Lambirth

Buried treasure | 26 November 2011

Some 80 per cent of publicly owned art is hidden from view. Andrew Lambirth on a new gallery that aims to change this

In recent years there has been a surge of interest in the treasures hidden in our public art collections, many of them rarely if ever on view. The Tate Gallery is perhaps the principal offender here, showing only a tiny percentage of its glorious and wide-ranging holdings of British art, but attention is now being directed towards our provincial galleries and museums. Since 2003 the Public Catalogue Foundation has been recording and publishing the oil paintings held in galleries and civic buildings, county by county, and issuing invaluable volumes of colour illustrations to show us what usually remains invisible. By its calculations, a shameful 80 per cent of these paintings are not on view. This unknown resource is finally emerging into the light, and in London will have a venue for its public exposure: the grand building just off the Embankment known rather anonymously as Two Temple Place.

Built in the 1890s as an estate office and London pied-à-terre, it was commissioned by William Waldorf Astor (later 1st Viscount Astor) to be a house which would ‘personify literature’. It thus contains such details as sculptures of characters from The Three Musketeers carved by Thomas Nicholls to decorate the newel posts on the great staircase, a frieze of figures from Shakespeare, and silver gilt panels by George Frampton on the door of the Great Hall upstairs depicting Arthurian heroines. After its sale by the Astor family, the building was for many years the head office of the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors, before being acquired in 1999 by The Bulldog Trust, a charitable foundation that specialises in educational grants. The trust has spent the past decade or so deciding what to do with this magnificent pile and has finally decided to turn it into an art gallery.

The interior space, despite its grand, battlemented Portland stone façade and gilded weather vane of beaten copper depicting Columbus’s ship the Santa Maria, is actually not extensive, though it is extraordinarily ornate.

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