Last Sunday, I went to see two of the greatest paintings in Britain — at least in the estimation of our Georgian ancestors. When they first arrived here, in 1790, they were accompanied by a special naval escort. After Turner saw one of them, he said the experience made him both ‘pleased and unhappy’, because it seemed beyond his powers to imitate.
These are the so-called ‘Altieri’ Claudes, by any reckoning among the most spectacular pictures produced in late 17th-century Rome. Today they hang at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire, where — at least on the afternoon I was there — few others had found their way to see them. Not that the place lacked visitors. The car park was packed; the park and gardens full of family parties sitting in deck chairs enjoying the unusual experience of hot weather in an English summer.
There were plenty of people in the rest of the house, diligently examining the bedrooms, bathrooms and possessions of the late Lord Fairhaven, who left it all to the National Trust. But not many penetrated to the room where the Claudes hang, down a staircase near the end of the circuit, although a mother came in while I was there together with a toddler who took an intense interest in both ‘The Father of Psyche sacrificing at the Temple of Apollo’ (1662–63) and ‘The Landing of Aeneas at Latium’ (1675). We could both examine the fabulously delicate treatment of woodland shade, distant hills and light-filled air in tranquillity, far from the madding and maddening tourists and tour groups you would be surrounded by in, say, the Louvre. It was a good example of an old-fashioned experience: going to the country to look at art.
In the days before the world was filled with museums — as it is nowadays — this was routine.