Collector's Items

Article excerpt

Byline: Brian Sewell

[bar] IX paintings do not an exhibition make. They might, were they by Masaccio, Caravaggio or Jan van Eyck, but a rag-bag of five earlyish Italian old masters and a very small copy of a very large lost Titian, executed in 1830 by the first director of the National Gallery, must seem a rum conundrum to any visitor not in possession of an explanatory press release. Is it a centenary celebration of that director, Sir Charles Eastlake? No. Born in Plymouth in 1793, appointed in 1855 and dead in Pisa on Christmas Eve a decade later -- only a mathematical genius could discover a notable anniversary in the year 2011. The simple answer is that the National Gallery has just published a new biography of Eastlake (and his smothering wife), and six paintings -- five his purchases and the Titian copy by him -- have been hustled into Room One to draw attention to the book.

He was, in the beginning, a painter -- a student of the appalling Robert Haydon -- long before he became an art historian of sorts, and it was as a painter that he first went to Italy in 1816, settling more or less permanently in Rome until 1830 when, elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, he returned to London. It was from Rome in 1827 that he sent the first of his paintings to attract public attention at the Royal Academy -- The Spartan, Isidas, who, rushing naked from his bath, "performed prodigies of valour against the Theban Host", a very Haydonish subject. If the copy of Titian's St Peter Martyr included in this exhibition is an indication of the quality of Eastlake's formal work, it is not unkind to dub it plodding. William Michael Rossetti, Dante Gabriel's brother, opined that it had no "vigorous originality" and was "eclectic, without being exactly imitative", lacking all fire of invention and execution. Even so, not until Eastlake became President of the Royal Academy in 1850 and was knighted did he abandon his brush.

When, five years later, he also assumed control of the National Gallery, he became the only man ever to be both its Director and the PRA, and concurrently to boot. Willed into existence by Parliament in 1824, the gallery's new building in Trafalgar Square completed only in 1839, by the year of Eastlake's appointment this still fledgling institution housed only 265 paintings -- a fifth of the number in the Louvre. It was his task to devise a didactic or chronological hang, to make lists of painters Italian, Netherlandish, Spanish and German whose work might illustrate it, and then to find them, for which the Treasury gave him [pounds sterling]10,000 a year. Prompted by a "travelling agent", Otto Mundler, whose task it was to hear whispers of paintings that might be for sale from private collections, churches, convents and other ecclesiastical foundations, and supported by his wife and Nicholas Tucker, a manservant almost as "accomplished a traveller" as they, set off on tours of discovery that led to the acquisition of another 171 paintings. During his long absences the gallery was in the safe hands of his deputy, Ralph Wornum, in the post of keeper.

Ten thousand pounds may now seem a wretched sum, but any who have leafed through Christie's records in the 19th century know that, apart from the blips of auction fever, masterpieces might well be bought for the annual wage of a kitchen skivvy. Eastlake himself, not rich by inheritance but paid [pounds sterling]1,000 a year for being director, was a considerable collector on his own account. How good an eye had he? Before he became director he was instrumental in the gallery's purchase, as by Holbein, of a male portrait that engendered a hullaballoo of dissent; in this case we know that the dissenters had the eye, for when, in 1993, the feeble and to this day unidentified panel was submitted to tree-ring analysis, we learned that the tree from which it was cut could not have been felled until some two decades after Holbein's death. Years later Eastlake opined that Grunewald's great altarpiece for Isenheim deserved "no other epithet than disgusting", and worse still, his wife, speaking for them both, damned Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling as "coarse and ungraceful" and his Last Judgement "a daub". …