Leonardo’s ‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder’, stolen the other day from the Duke of Buccleuch, is the painting that changed my view of civilisation. I know it quite well, because one of my sisters-in-law used to live just up the road from Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfriesshire, where it hung until it was pinched. Whenever I stayed with her and wanted to escape from the children, I would slope off to the castle to take the guided tour. There was no danger that my sons or nephews would want to come with me, because at that age they would almost rather have had an extra maths lesson than traipse around a stately home, looking at pictures.
My life-changing moment came on about my third visit to the castle, when I was standing in a little group of tourists in the Staircase Hall. We had reached the Leonardo and the guide was saying, for what must have been the 50th time that week, ‘His Grace has given instructions that, in the event of a fire, the Madonna should be rescued first, and he himself should be left to burn.’
As we looked at the picture, everyone in our group, including me, put on a suitably sensitive smile. The middle-aged Scottish woman standing next to me uttered a little gasp and said, ‘Isn’t it fabulous?’ I nodded assent. We were art-lovers, after all, and here we were, standing before a masterpiece attributed to one of the greatest painters of all time.
Then it suddenly struck me. Hang on, I thought. I’m only pretending to like this picture. I don’t really like it at all. If I had seen it in the alfresco art market in the Bayswater Road on a Sunday afternoon, I would not have given it a second glance. It was only because it was hanging on a castle wall, and because I knew that it was attributed to Leonardo, that I was putting on this show of soulful rapture.
The more I looked at it, the more I thought that it was actually quite an ugly thing. The infant Jesus was a very peculiar shape, unlike any child born of woman. His torso was far too long for his limbs, and his bloated cheeks and bulging eyes suggested nothing more divine than a thyroid disorder. The Madonna herself was an odd-looking creature, with an improbably long nose, eyes too far apart and a bored expression. Her right hand was quite nicely painted, I supposed, although it did not seem to belong to her. Otherwise, the whole thing seemed to me to be very clumsily done. One for the spare bedroom or even the attic, I thought, rather than pride of place in a public room. Come to think of it, the ‘Mona Lisa’ isn’t much cop either.
The idea that anyone might be prepared to pay £25 million (the Daily Telegraph), £30 million (the Guardian), £40 million (the Star), £50 million (the Daily Express and the Daily Mail) or £80 million (A.N. Wilson in the Evening Standard) for the ‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder’ struck me as utterly preposterous. (It also occurred to me, not for the first time, that the picture would be very easy to pinch: just bop the poor old biddy of a guide on the head and scarper with it into the vast, forested wastes of Dumfriesshire. But it wasn’t me, guv, honest.)
Then I thought of all the tens of thousands of other tourists who had gawped at the painting over the years, muttering their appreciative noises. Could it be that the great majority of them, like me, were just pretending to admire it, simply because they knew that cultivated people were supposed to like Leonardo? Well, yes, I rather think it could.
This was an uncomfortable line of thought. It reminded me of all the hundreds of hours that I had spent in other stately homes, churches and galleries, cooing admiringly at paintings universally recognised as masterpieces. How much did I really like them, and how much was I just pretending, because I knew that it was the Done Thing? Then there were all those other hours that I had spent in the course of my lifetime, cultivating my image as a culture vulture. The shameful truth swept over me that hardly ever had I sat through a play or a concert – let alone a ballet or an opera – without secretly longing for it to end. Oh, I would tell my friends afterwards that it had been wonderful, and that they really must go and see it – particularly if the reviews were good, and the byline was something highbrow like Chekhov or Verdi. I would not add that I had spent the last 40 minutes of the show shifting my weight from one buttock to the other, sweating in the heat and dying for a pee, glancing furtively at my watch, yearning for the final curtain and the dash to the pub.
I had read reams of poetry, too – some of it over and over again – but I don’t know how honestly I can claim to have enjoyed it, or even to have understood much of it. I had sipped some of the finest wines that the vineyards of France had to offer, nodding, sighing, half-closing my eyes in feigned bliss – but only after seeing the label. Give me a blind tasting, and I am not at all sure that I could tell the Latour ’61 from the Sainsbury’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2002.
Now, I cannot believe that I am uniquely insensitive or philistine – except perhaps among readers of this magazine. In that moment of revelation before the ‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder’ it occurred to me that there must be tens or even hundreds of thousands of people like me, going through life pretending to like the sort of things that the sort of people we would like to be are supposed to like. If my theory is right, the entire economy of the culture industry depends upon people like me, trying to be thought cultivated. It would be interesting to put it to a scientific test: wire up the average self-declared art-lover, stick him in front of a Leonardo and measure his endorphin levels. Then give him a flash of Kylie’s bum and measure them again....
It is by no means a bad thing that so many of us (if I am right) go around pretending to enjoy the finer things in life, when they don’t really do all that much for us. We do far less harm than the unashamedly philistine, beating each other up on the terraces at Millwall. But one can push a pretence too far. If Buccleuch gets his ‘Madonna of the Yarnwinder’ back, as I earnestly hope he will, the Dumfriesshire and Galloway fire brigade should be given new instructions: in the event of a fire at Drumlanrig, save the Duke, who seems a nice old buffer, and let the Leonardo burn.