National Gallery buys newly discovered Wilkie (ctd.)

December 3 2014

Image of National Gallery buys newly discovered Wilkie (ctd.)

Picture: BG

I dashed into the National Gallery on Monday to take a look at their new Wilkie acquisition, which was debated with some passion amongst AHN readers last week

As you can see above, it's a little overwhelmed in its current place. The room it's in is dripping with sizeable masterpieces by Turner, Stubbs, Gainsborough and Hogarth. And then there's the Wilkie, which I can see is a fine picture, and an interesting acquisition in itself. But I must confess to being a little disappointed. 

And yesterday I recieved the below comment from a reader who I shan't name, but whose opinion I respect utterly, and who speaks from a position of great authority in the UK's museum sector:

The concern of many commentators about the quality of the National Gallery's acquisitions in recent years is entirely justified. Many of us vividly remember, just over ten years ago, that Brian Sewell was outraged that they should spend half a million pounds on a remarkably ugly sketch by Polidoro da Caravaggio from the collection of Philip Pouncey, at one time a curator in the Gallery. Since then, a succession of generally small paintings has arrived in Trafalgar Square, by gift, bequest, and purchase, which have served no purpose but to dilute the quality of the Gallery's supremely rich holdings and hardly deserve display space. The Lawrence of Lady Emily Lamb is charming, but not important; nor is the new Wilkie, happy though it may be as a rediscovery. The responsibility must lie with curators, directors, and above all the trustees, who, in contrast to many museums, make decisions over every single acquisition. It comes as no surprise to find that, among current trustees, tha great majority have a financial background, that only one is an artist, and that not there is not a single art historian among them! One Trustee (currently Hannah Rothschild) acts as a Trustee for both the Tate and the National Gallery. Such a position, which some might consider unenviable, suggests that far greater co-operation between these two institutions is not only highly desirable, but possible. If the National Gallery wishes for greater representation of the British School, in particular, it would surely be sensible to arrange a long-term deposit of some of the pictures currently in the Tate's vast store in South London. Of course, there have also been triumphs in recent years, in particular in [...] the acquisition of the Duke of Sutherland's Titians; but far too many mistakes, the most expensive being the ridiculous Bellows, 'de-accessioned' by a U.S. museum (contrary to all N.G. principles) and snapped up at an enormous (some would say unjustifiable) price.

In order to restore faith in the Trustees and staff of the National Gallery, the Government must immediately appoint Trustees who are both distinguished art historians and connoisseurs. Without them, this great institution will continue to blunder into mistake after mistake.

On Monday, I congratulated the dealer who discovered and bought the Wilkie, and commiserated with the dealer who discovered and underbid it. You win some, you lose some...

I also bumped into a strong contender for director of the National Gallery. I wonder if a wee re-hang might be amongst the first things they do...

Update - a US based reader wrties:

I know the Wilkie well and think it is a brilliant acquisition of an artist who is very much unfashionable.  I wish an American museum had been prescient enough to buy it instead of the 19th century Scandinavian & German oil-sketch daubs they are all wild about these days.

The problem with its current hang is that out belongs amongst early 19th century French pictures -Like Bonington and Delacroix’s  ‘historical ‘ genre subjects  it is very much a ‘troubadour’ picture.

While another disagrees about the trustees:

I think the answer is not to appoint art historians and connoisseurs as NG trustees, but to devolve decisions on acquisitions to a separate committee, comprised of them.

Years ago the NACF suffered from the opposite problem. The trustees were retired museum people, experts in their fields but unworldly. Their meetings were dominated by consideration of grant applications - museums that wanted the NACF's help to buy something would bring the object to the trustee meeting, where it would be debated. That was all well and good, for producing robust grant decisions. But they had no interest in the operation of the organisation itself - and why would they? For them, the glory was all in their power over major museum acquisitions, not in dull stuff like strategy, budgets, headcount, marketing, contracts, and so on.

Personally, I would like to see more art historian-like figures as trustees of the National. And that's not just because I want to be one. Honest.

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