Save Van Dyck! (ctd.)

December 9 2013

Image of Save Van Dyck! (ctd.)

Picture: Philip Mould & Co.

There were two Van Dyck self-portrait stories in the papers over the weekend: first, the Daily Mail reported that businessman and collector James Stunt is the overseas buyer of the picture; and secondly, the Sunday Times claimed that the National Portrait Gallery had made a '£3m bungle' by not buying the picture years earlier.

The Mail article included some quotes from Brian Sewell, which were probably among the silliest things he's ever said. That is, of course, saying something. Regular readers will know that AHN has been a Sewell fan, not for what he says but how he says it (at least on paper), for there's no denying he's a gifted writer on art. But in insulting the NPG director Sandy Nairne, the former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion, and Mr Stunt, Sewell revealed himself as needlessly bitter. His remarks are a good example of that unattractive British habit of demeaning anyone who happens to be successful. Sewell sniffed at something Mr Stunt may or may not have said about his collection (which is already one of the best for 17th C English portraits), when as a lover of art he should applaud the fact that a successful British businessman under the age of 30 not only cares about 'old' British art, but also supports, very strongly, exhibitions, publications, loans and research. Mr Stunt has a particular interest in Sir Peter Lely, and it's probably no exageration to say that he has done more to advance our understanding of Lely than any other collector ever has. (Lely, by the way, owned the Van Dyck self-portrait, and made a copy of it.)

Sewell's other complaint was that the NPG should have bought the picture at auction in 2009, and thus somehow have 'saved' the nation £4m. But as I mentioned earlier, this is an implausible claim, not least because no UK museum can raise that sort of money to buy at auction, and in any case I know the buyer (for whom we act) would have bid far more than £8.4m - we all believed that the picture was worth more.*

The Times story also questioned why the NPG had not bought the picture years earlier. I can tell you that they tried, and nearly succeeded, but the economic climate in 2009/10 was very different to what it is now. The grant-giving bodies also then operated in a different way - acquisitions were much more difficult than they are now. It simply wasn't possible for them to raise all the money then. But the fact that they tried demonstrates their determination to try to buy the picture, and invalidates the Sunday Times' allegation. It wasn't the fault of the NPG that the picture wasn't bought earlier, but the system for acquiring pictures. Happily, the system is now working better, tho' personally I'm not entirely sure that the Van Dyck will remain in the UK.

Today is the 372nd anniversary of Van Dyck's death.

*The picture is still, incidentally, cheaper than the Fragonard portrait sold last week, and the Rembrandt self-portrait sold to the Getty earlier this year.

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