Keynes and the Degas Sale

Article excerpt

Paintings by Manet, Corot, Ingres, Delacroix and other artists of international repute were auctioned at a sale in the Galerie Roland Petit in Paris on March 26th and 27th, 1918. These paintings had formed part of the private collection of Edgar Degas who had died the previous year. The sale was a particularly significant event in the life of John Maynard Keynes as it was here that he first entered the public arena on behalf of the arts. From this point onwards, despite heavy commitments as economist, writer and international negotiator, his support and sponsorship of the arts was to be unremitting and would finally culminate in his becoming the first Chairman of the Arts Council.

Keynes' reaction to the Degas sale reflects both his background and education and, more importantly, is a clear indicator of the pattern of things to come. As such, it was a significant event in his life and is deserving of considerably more attention than it has been given to date. Our information about Keynes' involvement in the sale is incomplete, relying as it does on his personal correspondence and on the memories of friends and contemporaries recorded, for the most part, many years after the event. There was also an element of secrecy which kept the British involvement in the sale out of the press. All of these features have led us to underestimate the skill Keynes employed in this his first effort on behalf of the arts. The time has come to look at all aspects of Keynes' involvement in the sale' to examine how and why he set about acquiring paintings for the National Gallery from the sale, and why he was perhaps the only person who could have achieved success.

To appreciate Keynes' position when confronted with the prospect of the sale, it is essential to understand something of the international and domestic situation at the time of this event. Russia's exit from the war three months previously had opened the way for the great German offensive and by March 1918, the time of the sale, Paris was being bombarded by German long-range guns, the `Big Berthas'. Nothing like them had ever been seen before and initially there was panic as ppople fled the city in their thousands. If Paris fell and the enemy were able to place guns on the French coast, parts of London would be within their range. In Britain disillusionment and disaffection were becoming widespread as thousands of families struggled to survive after the loss of their traditional breadwinners and the wounded continued to flood back into the country from the battle-fronts. it did not seem an appropriate time for the National Gallery to ask for public money to purchase paintings on behalf of the nation at a sale in Paris.

Although all the major European galleries would be sending buyers to the sale, the National Gallery, representing British interests, had no money with which to buy paintings as its annual purchasing grant had been withdrawn at the beginning of the war. An appeal to the government for public money was unlikely to be successful. Although the few thousand pounds required to secure a small number of these irreplaceable paintings was negligible compared with the vast amounts being spent daily on the war, there were other factors to consider. Politicians were extremely sensitive to public opinion in the later stages of the Great War. They would have been well aware that a few thousand pounds would be seen as an unobtainable fortune by families struggling to exist on the poverty line. They knew they would not secure public support for the war effort by spending public money on paintings at the sale.

This was the situation that existed when the painters Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell brought the sale to the attention of their close friend Maynard Keynes, who had a temporary position in the Treasury for the duration of the war. Keynes had originally been appointed as assistant to Sir George Paish in 1915 but his progress through the Treasury ranks had been so rapid that by 1918 he was head of the newly constituted `A' Division dealing mainly with matters of internal finance. …