Podcast - Nicholas Penny

May 18 2015


Here's AHN's first podcast. It's with the Director of the National Gallery in London, Dr. Nicholas Penny. Amongst other things, we discuss: why and how he became Director; what the role of Director is; how he discovered Raphael's 'Madonna of the Pinks'; connoisseurship; and photography in art galleries. We also cover Dr Penny's academic background, and how he has researched and immersed himself not only in Italian Renaissance paintings, but also sculpture. Is he therefore the ultimate 'Renaissance man'?

Needless to say, we didn't have time to cover as much as I'd hoped. But I hope you enjoy it.

I was struck afterwards by how sensible, and valuable, Dr Penny's overall philosophy for running a leading gallery was. I hadn't appreciated before how essential this is for someone directing a museum, as opposed (for example) to curating within it. Above all, Penny believes, the emphasis must be on quality and excellence - it is no good chasing marketing ideas or visitor numbers just for the sake of it. People come to the National Gallery, he said, primarily because they know instinctively that it is a place which stands for something 'better'.

A key part of Penny's role as Director, it seems to me, has been to guard militantly against the many pressures to dumb down. And it can be no accident, I believe, that today the Gallery is arguably in better shape than it has ever been in; visitor numbers are at record levels, and finances likewise.

For an institution, such an approach requires above all confidence not just to do what you think is right, but in what you are. In the National Gallery's case, it is to believe absolutely in the value and purpose of high art. Accordingly, that belief will eventually, as if by magic, translate through to your audience, who will in turn come to share that belief. There is no way to 'strategise' this way of running an institution; it just happens, if you go about everything you do in the right way. Sadly, so many institutions, like the National Trust, have lost confidence in what they have to offer, and thus their way. Whereas the National Gallery positively celebrates the fact that it is, to use that dreaded phrase, 'elitist', the National Trust endlessly worries about it. And as a result, we end up with beanbags in historic houses, rather than 18th Century furniture.

Update - when Dr Penny discussed how he identified the Madonna of the Pinks as a genuine Raphael, he mentioned the fact that a local art historian had in fact suggested to the Northumberlands some decades before that the picture might be 'right'. Inquiries were made by the family to, er, the National Gallery, who said 'no, not at all'. In the podcast, Dr Penny wondered who this local art historian was, and (generously) said that he should be accorded all due credit.

Well, marvellously, a reader (and listener) writes:

On a point of detail re Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks, I think the 'art teacher or perhaps an art history teacher', mentioned by Nicholas Penny as having organised an exhibition of Northumberland paintings in Newcastle and who first proposed to the Duke that the Madonna might indeed be by Raphael was Ralph Holland (1917-2012) -- alas no longer living to receive the credit. Ralph taught art history in the Department of Fine Art at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne (until 1963 King's College, University of Durham), eventually becoming Reader.

In 1963, to mark the establishment of the University of Newcastle, with the Duke of Northumberland as its first Chancellor, he organised the exhibition Nobel Patronage, celebrating the artistic patronage of the Percy family. This borrowed heavily from the Northumberland collection and included the Madonna of the Pinks (no.66), albeit as after Raphael.Ralph Holland had an outstanding 'eye', which enabled him to assemble a remarkable collection of Old Master drawings, sold posthumously at auction by Sotheby's. London, on 5 July 2013, making  £1,664,441.

Before studying at the Courtauld Institute, Ralph had trained as an architect. Although he never practised, this stood him in good stead as a pioneer exhibition designer: among his projects in this field was the Corot exhibition of 1965 shown in Edinburgh and at the National Gallery, London.

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