The Art Fund's Trustee, Christopher Lloyd, adds historical perspective to heritage debate

  • 5 June 2008

As The Art Fund's campaign to save Rubens's Banqueting House sketch for the nation gathers momentum, Christopher Lloyd adds a historical perspective to the heritage debate in the Summer edition of Art Quarterly, looking at three moments when London was a magnet for outstanding Old Master paintings.

Every so often an Old Master painting of outstanding importance with a notably distinguished provenance enters the saleroom in London. A recent example is the portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, by Raphael, which was auctioned last summer (see page 58). During the 19th century it was in the collection of the 2nd Lord Northwick at Thirlestaine House, Cheltenham, and it was subsequently owned by the wealthy merchant and banker Hollingworth Magniac. Such occurrences now amount to a trickle long after the dam has burst, but they serve to remind us of past glories and alert us to the continuing dangers of Old Master paintings leaving the country for good, even though specific procedures have been put in place to prevent or impede such losses – a process in which The Art Fund plays a very prominent role.

There were three particular moments when an unusual concentration of Old Masters could be found in London – the early 17th century, the turn of the 18th and 19thcenturies, and the beginning of the 20th century. The circumstances that created these separate accumulations, the cultural significance of the presence of so many impressive pictures in such close proximity, their impact on artists, and the reasons for their partial (and in some cases total) dispersal are vital issues for a proper appreciation of our cultural heritage.

The first great gathering of Old Masters in London during the early 17th century is associated principally with the court of Charles I. During his reign (1625–49) he acquired some 1500 pictures, many of them by artists of the greatest distinction – Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Correggio and Caravaggio. The combination of sheer numbers and outright quality gave great prestige to the court, thereby enhancing the status of monarchy not only in this country but throughout Europe. As Charles’s collecting instincts sharpened, so he began to acquire in bulk, as he did with the Gonzaga collection from Mantua, whose sale, negotiated in 1629–32, included the magnificent Triumphs of Caesar by Mantegna.

The king’s personal taste was for works by Italian Renaissance artists, especially those of the Venetian School, and his penchant for Titian in particular was shared by several other collectors close to the court. This so-called ‘Whitehall Circle’ included George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland, and the slightly more distant Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel. These collectors gained power and prestige through art, but the king remained first among equals, even though the mechanics of collecting, involving a whole network of middlemen and a complicated system of exchanges and presentations, was shared by all. So many Old Masters reached London at this time that Rubens for one remarked upon the singularity of the situation.

The dispersal of Charles I’s collection follow- ing his execution in 1649 had far-reaching consequences. While his paintings might have formed an embryonic national gallery, they were never transferred to the state like other European royal collections. Although Cromwell retained the Raphael Cartoons (on loan since 1865 to the Victoria and Albert Museum) and the Triumphs of Caesar, and Charles II set about rebuilding the Royal Collection after the Restoration in 1660, many of the finest pictures ended up in Paris, Madrid and Vienna. The moment passed, and when plans were made for a

National Gallery nearly two centuries later it was without the Royal Collection.

The positive benefits of Charles I’s collection, however, were of a more personal nature. The quality of the paintings attracted leading artists such as Rubens and Van Dyck to London. In the absence of a native school of painting, the work undertaken here by these internationally renowned painters, especially Van Dyck, was to prove crucial for the development of British art through several centuries.

The catalyst for the second great influx of Old Masters into London was the political situation in France, caused by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that ravaged mainland Europe, leading to a breakdown of traditional patterns of patronage. This time Britain was the chief beneficiary. Initially this was evident with the arrival of emigrés such as the former Controller-General Charles-Alexandre Calonne, who sold his choice collection in 1795. This included wonderful works by Poussin and Claude, as well as, rather surprisingly, examples by Reynolds and Gainsborough. There then followed the import, also during the 1790s, of the pictures belonging to the deeply unpopular Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, whose extensive collection of several hundred paintings in Paris was, in the words of Francis Haskell, ‘probably the finest collection in private hands anywhere in the world at the time’. The Orléans pictures were bought by a syndicate of British aristocrats with close familial ties and by various leading connoisseurs.

The arrival of the Orléans paintings in London caused a sensation. The critic William Hazlitt, then a budding painter, described how ‘a new sense came upon me, a new heaven and a new earth stood before me ... Old Time had unlocked his treasures and Fame stood portress at the door’. What impressed him most were the superlative works by Raphael, Titian, the Carracci, Reni and Domenichino.

Hazlitt was not alone in his admiration. Many of the Orléans pictures were displayed by their new owners in their grand houses in St James’s. The purpose-built galleries in Bridgewater House (then called Cleveland House) and Stafford House (later called Lancaster House) were opened to the public with admission tickets, printed catalogues, picture labels and advice on behaviour. Never before had connoisseurs or artists been offered such opportunities.

The practical results of all this activity were notable. The absence of a National Gallery became more marked, but the possibility of ‘confiscating’ the Royal Collection at the time of the death of Charles I had been missed, and there was no opportunity to create a gallery like the Musée Napoleon in Paris from the spoils of war. So royalty and aristocracy played little part in the foundation, in 1824, of the National Gallery, which was based on the collection of John Julius Angerstein (1735–1823), a banker and the founder of Lloyds. The most influential collectors now were financiers, politicians,

industrialists and entrepreneurs with deeper pockets and a greater sense of purpose.

At the same time the art market began to develop. The saleroom was in the ascendancy and specialist dealers were making their mark. The proliferation of pictures also encouraged the mounting of exhibitions in which the British Institution (founded in 1805) took the lead. This level of availability was also an advantage for British artists, who not only were inspired by what they saw but also began to measure their own abilities against those of the Old Masters. So Turner pitted himself against the younger Van de Velde and Cuyp, Constable against Titian, and Lawrence against Rubens.

The German art historian Gustav Waagen echoed Rubens when he remarked in 1838 that it was only in Britain that he could see so many Old Masters at once. Indeed, their presence became a defining feature of British life. Although they are not technically ‘British’ paintings in origin, the fact that they were gathered and revered here amounted to a statement of cultural intent. Such pictures entered the British bloodstream and became part of the national heritage. To dismiss such developments as imperialism is to under-estimate, or at worst to misinterpret, the process of history. These pictures form part of our spiritual heritage, which is why relinquishing overseas even a single beautiful work by Raphael, Titian or Poussin that has been in this country for a number of years is tantamount to a betrayal.

Even so, what had been so carefully garnered was beginning to be dramatically squandered. The third occasion when OldMasters dominated the London art scene was during the period extending from the 1890s to the 1930s. London was now a nodal point in a global financial world. The traditional wealth of the landed aristocracy had been eroded and new money from a variety of sources was proving more influential. American ‘squillionaires’ and South African ‘randlords’ now held sway. Earlier collections of Old Masters had been concentrated in Whitehall or St James’s, but now it was the turn of those magnificent palaces extending down Park Lane. ‘Old Masters’ as a term had also changed, referring no longer just to Renaissance or Baroque artists, but to British painters such as Gainsborough, Reynolds, Romney, Raeburn and Lawrence.

The man who best exploited this state of affairs was Sir Joseph (later Lord) Duveen, who moved stealthily and adroitly between London, Paris and New York, and lived in the same style as his spectacularly rich clients. He hit upon a successful formula: Britain had a surfeit of paintings and America had no shortage of money. It was Duveen who in 1921 obtained Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Reynolds’s Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse from the Duke of Westminster’s collection in Grosvenor House for Mr and Mrs Henry E Huntington of San Marino, California. Alarm bells began ringing with the removal of these pictures from Britain, as they had in 1911 when Rembrandt’s Mill was acquired by Peter Widener of Pennsylvania. But in fact the flood gates had opened, and whole collections were being sold, including those from Dudley House in the 1890s and Dorchester House in the 1920s.

Today, by contrast, collections of Old Masters tend to be formed by people with a dedicated or professional interest in art history: Count Antoine Seilern (whose bequest to the Courtauld Institute of Art dates from 1978), Sir Brinsley Ford, Philip Pouncey and Sir Denis Mahon. Highly specialised, such collections are formed for neither prestige nor investment.

Words spoken in the House of Commons on 29 May 1922 by Sir Philip Sassoon, who lived at 25 Park Lane close to Hyde Park Corner and was prominent in the affairs of our national museums and galleries, struck a chord at that time, but they remain just as relevant today. On the export of our heritage he said: ‘It is part of our civilisation that leaves us whenever one of these outstanding triumphs of human art and man’s creative genius is carried away to another country.’

This article is based on the Francis Haskell Memorial lecture, delivered at the National  Gallery, London, on 26 February 2008.

The historian David Starkey has lent his support to The Art Fund's campaign to help Tate Britain acquire the Rubens sketch. For more information, click here.