Imaginatively Public: The English Experience of Art as Heritage Property
Sax, Joseph L., Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law
England was once hugely prosperous and possessed an extraordinary share of the world's great art. In the years following the French Revolution, political turmoil in Europe brought a number of superb works of art on the market, and English collectors avidly bought them. (1) Even earlier, young aristocrats returned to England from their grand tours with a keen appreciation of the aesthetic achievements of the continent and the means to acquire any works that pleased them. (2)
With few exceptions, these treasures entered the collections of individuals as their private property. In its scope, this was a unique experience in privatization, unlike both the past and the future. (3) In an earlier time, Europe's great art was generally publicly displayed in churches, public monuments, or held in royal and aristocratic collections where it was displayed to serve political purposes. (4) A gallery of pictures was an indication of princely worth; nobles acquired such galleries to demonstrate their wealth, power, and dignity. (5) In the Middle Ages, the "site for works of art was ... the church, that is, a public place, freely accessible to all who came and worshiped." (6) On the European continent, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, the museum in its essentially modern form came into being. Much artwork that had resided in noble collections, and some that had been displayed in churches, was moved into a new sort of public setting viewed as national property. This new setting was part of the nation's cultural patrimony and was made increasingly open to a broader public in accordance with Enlightenment values. (7)
Things proceeded quite differently in England. England did not possess the public religious art of Catholic Europe, nor were its artistic riches as concentrated in royal hands (especially after the dispersal of Charles I's collection following his deposition in 1649). (8) Furthermore, England resisted the development of a national gallery of art like the Louvre when such institutions became the continental pattern. (9) Even after the National Gallery was finally authorized in 1824, it remained a minor factor in the art world for a considerable time; no adequate building was designated for the Gallery until the latter 1830s. (10) The British patricians who owned great private collections neither liked the idea of the state as a principal in the acquisition of art for the nation, (11) nor did they want a national gallery with its French revolutionary connotation of a "peoples' museum"; this notion would propagate the idea that the nation's art was being returned to the masses to whom it ultimately and inherently belonged. (12) Such principles were at odds with the profound commitment of the English elite, both then and now (as custodians of stately homes open to the public), to private property and the individualistic view of social life that underlies it.
The classic nineteenth century upper-class British view was expressed by Elizabeth Rigby, Lady Eastlake--respected connoisseur of art, translator of the leading work on English private collections, and wife of Charles Eastlake, a painter and trustee of the Royal Academy who later became the director of the National Gallery. Lady Eastlake responded to the view of Gustave Waagen, director of the Royal Picture Gallery in Berlin, (13) who had criticized the British Museum for being far behind continental museums in its collecting of old master drawings. (14) She replied:
We have something to say as regards this old complaint. A foreigner naturally ... is accustomed to Governments who ostentatiously supply their subjects with such intellectual food ... to a people as little encouraged as able to cater for themselves. But it is different with us ... The question we should rather ask ourselves is, whether it be more advantageous to a people ... that the taste for art and consequent patronage of it should …
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Publication information: Article title: Imaginatively Public: The English Experience of Art as Heritage Property. Contributors: Sax, Joseph L. - Author. Journal title: Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law. Volume: 38. Issue: 4 Publication date: October 2005. Page number: 1097+. © 1999 Vanderbilt University, School of Law. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.