There was a marvellous general of yesteryear called George Burns. He had a good war and a splendid peace. He also held senior posts for longer than would be permitted in these diminished times. Colonel of the Coldstream for 32 years, he was Lord-Lieutenant of Hertfordshire for a quarter of a century.
Many stories are told about him. Connoisseurs of equestrianism say that he was much the worst rider ever to appear at the Queen’s Birthday Parade, always looking like a magnificently attired and bemedalled sack of potatoes. He also had a set diet: a game bird at every meal. Once, he collapsed, was rushed to hospital and opened up. The medics expected to find terminal stomach cancer. Instead, they encountered what looked like the overflowing harvest from an enormous tin of caviar. General George’s innards were almost blocked by lead pellets. They were hoovered out, he was sewn up and normal service was resumed.
The General also knew paintings. He had inherited a collection of Old Masters, one of which he sold for £300,000 in the early 1970s: a Bellotto of Verona. The National Gallery wanted it, but that wretched and despicable philistine Ted Heath had forced the gallery to beggar itself to prevent The Death of Actaeon leaving the country. So no Bellotto for Trafalgar Square; worse, no Velázquez Juan de Pareja. The Bellotto went on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland, whence it was sold the other day for £9 million: less than expected. Its new destination is unclear. It is to be hoped any application for an export licence would be held up while a major gallery was given the funds to acquire it.
It is a great painting: a view of Verona, including the Church of San Zeno. Verona was part of the Quadrilateral and as such in danger of being fought over.