Mary Wakefield

The man who rescued Caravaggio

Mary Wakefield meets Sir Denis Mahon, the historian and collector who rediscovered a lost century of Italian art

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Sir Denis Mahon arrived at The Spectator 40 minutes before he was due to be interviewed. While I scuffed around in search of tape recorders and sensible questions, Britain’s most distinguished collector and historian of Italian art sat in the editor’s office, waiting. Every now and then I looked at him through the door jamb. He stared peacefully into the middle distance with his hands folded in his lap: nearly 100 years and £20 million worth of old man, upholstered in impeccable three-piece pinstripe.

Eventually I introduced myself. I want to ask you lots of things, I said, about this government, about how badly they treat art collectors. I gather you’re going to see the Prime Minister. ... ‘Well,’ said Sir Denis, ‘perhaps I should explain a little about my history first?’ Oh. Sorry. Of course.

‘Yes, yes,’ he said, leaning back. ‘I’m aged 94 now and I’ve been an art historian all my life and by extension a collector. I’ve played an important part, I can say, in rehabilitating the seicento,’ he searched my face for a sign of intelligence. ‘That’s 17th-century painting in Italy which starts with Caravaggio and goes on ...well anyway, the point is that when I started in the early 1930s, these painters were absolutely despised by everyone. With the interest in the primitives in the 1840s had come the idea that later painters were “insincere” and no one wanted them.’ Sir Denis peered at me again through enormous black-rimmed spectacles: did I get it? After a few minutes, blank with panic, I did. Although Renaissance art has never gone out of fashion, until relatively recently you could pick up a Caravaggio, a Carracci, a Guido Reni or a Guercino for practically nothing. ‘I had the field to myself for 30 years,’ said Sir Denis, ‘because no one realised that sincerity is a different thing in different periods.’

The rediscovery of the sincerity of the seicento began when the young Denis, heir to the Guinness Mahon banking fortune, crossed paths with Nikolaus Pevsner at the newly founded Courtauld Institute. Pevsner was only 30 years old, but he was already an authority on baroque painting. While working as a voluntary assistant at the Dresden Art Gallery he had written a survey of art from the Renaissance to the rococo which argued the case for Guercino and co. Being a Jew, however, Pevsner wasn’t safe in Germany and so he accepted an invitation to teach at the Courtauld.

‘Nikolaus’s lectures were extremely good and clear,’ said Sir Denis, ‘so I asked him, “Would you give me tutorials one to one?” and he said yes. At the end of these, I said to him, “Look I want to take these artists very seriously indeed. Who shall I concentrate on?” Nikolaus suggested Guercino and since I admired Guercino very much, I agreed.’

Later, at home, I looked in the 1910 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Neither Guercino nor Caravaggio are mentioned at all. The current edition, however, says Guercino had ‘a profound effect’ and calls Caravaggio, ‘the most revolutionary artist of his time ...a man who abandoned the rules that had guided a century of artists before him.’ The difference between the two editions — the revival of a lost century of art — owes a lot to the friendship between between Pevsner and Sir Denis Mahon. As do exhibitions like Caravaggio: The Final Years, which opens at the National Gallery in February.

‘The first painting I bought? Oh! I remember that very well,’ Sir Denis patted his right hand with his left hand as he spoke. ‘I was walking past the window of a dealer in Paris near St Germain des Prés and I saw a picture that interested me. I knew what it was — a Guercino painted as a culmination of his first period, drawn for his patron Cardinal Sera, governor of Ferrara. So I went in and asked, “How much is this?” And they said, “£120,” so I said, “Done!”’

So what’s it worth now, I said, feeling dollar signs appearing before my eyes. ‘Well, when it was lent to the National Gallery a few years ago, it was insured for £2 million,’ said Sir Denis. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘and I must tell you about Guido Reni’s “Europa and the Bull” which is now at the National Gallery. The picture came up at auction in Lord Longford’s collection. It had a very fine French Regency frame and the only other bidder for it was a frame man. He bid up to £80 for it, and I outbid him at £100.’ Sir Denis wheezes with laughter at the memory. I wait for the punchline: ‘Anyway, the current indemnity is about £4 million.’

There’s a photograph of the 23-year-old Sir Denis on the Courtauld Institute website. He seems handsome and focused, with determined eyebrows and hair parted perfectly on the left. You can almost smell how clean his shirt is. He looks like what he obviously was, a man with the courage of his convictions.

‘Eventually, in about the 1960s, the Americans started buying and, as my house was rather full at that time, I stopped collecting,’ said Sir Denis. And what’s it like waking up with all these paintings around you? ‘Well,’ Sir Denis raised his eyebrows, ‘the answer is that it’s not like anything, because I have given them all away.’ Five years ago, Sir Denis lent his vast collection to various British museums (26 to the National Gallery, five to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, six to the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, eight to the National Galleries of Scotland, one to Temple Newsam in Leeds, 12 to the Ashmolean in Oxford) but it seems remarkably selfless of him not to have kept a few. ‘Ownership will be passed on to the museums at my death. All my own walls are blank now,’ said Sir Denis.

And now we returned to the point at which I had tried to start, his beef with Mr Blair. Sir Denis may have given us millions of pounds worth of art, but under this government there is little incentive for anyone else to do the same. ‘You have to die before you give, otherwise you receive no tax break,’ said Sir Denis, ‘which is outrageous. It means that wonderful art is going to leave the country. You see,’ he emphasised his points by patting the sofa arm, ‘there’s an enormous market for these things. The Getty museums will all offer huge sums which you can’t match in this country. So what we should do is allow people to offer paintings in lieu of tax. It’s an urgent matter. This government doesn’t seem particularly keen on things that happened before 1997. They don’t show much interest in culture or museums or galleries, so I am going to tell them where they’re going wrong.’

Have you set a date to see the Prime Minister? ‘It’s going to happen soon.’ And what if he doesn’t listen? Would you threaten to withdraw your paintings? After all they’re still technically on loan. ‘Oh,’ Sir Denis looked, as ever, brimful of conviction. ‘I don’t think he can afford to ignore me.’