Exhibitions celebrating the nation’s art treasures have a habit of backfiring. Within 50 years of the great Art Treasures of the United Kingdom show held in Manchester in 1857, for instance, around half the works of art exhibited in this inadvertent shop window had been sold by their owners and had left the country. What strapped-for-cash country landowner, hit by the agricultural depression of the 1880s, could resist the newly bulging chequebooks of the German museums and the equally bulging American plutocrats? Not least when a loan to an exhibition had proved to the family that it could, after all, live without its greatest heirloom. As the heritage Jeremiahs warned at the time of the comparably spectacular Treasure Houses of Britain show in Washington in 1985, human nature and financial expediency have not changed a bit.
What has changed over the intervening years is Britain’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to the threat of any masterpiece — major or minor — leaving these shores. For this, thanks are due in no small measure to the heroic campaigning of the National Art Collections Fund. The Fund was founded in 1903 by four individuals intent on stemming the flow of works of art out of Britain and saving them for the nation’s museums and galleries — the artist and art historian Christiana Herringham, the art critics D.S. MacColl and Roger Fry, and Sir Claude Phillips, Keeper of the Wallace Collection. It has remained as much our national conscience as it is public benefactor.
By 1907, George Bernard Shaw was describing American millionaires as ‘stripping Britain more ruthlessly than Napoleon stripped Italy and Spain’. Certainly, even 30 years earlier, the financier J.S. Morgan, father of John Pierpont, could spend 10,000 guineas —more than the National Gallery’s annual purchase grant — to win the likes of Gainsborough’s ravishing ‘Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’. Shaw saw the Fund as ‘making good the neglect of the Treasury when it came to Britain’s art defence’. Crucially, it ensured that even those of limited means could have the satisfaction of playing their part.
From the first, the Fund has adroitly boxed above its weight, not least by masterminding ambitious public appeals to save such outstanding trophies as Vel