Delft Touch

Article excerpt

Vermeer is regarded as the greatest painter of the Dutch Golden Age. But, says Paul Bonaventura, a new exhibition finally restores his lesser-known contemporaries to their place alongside him

Since it opened in 1991, the Sainsbury Wing at London's National Gallery has sustained a programme of the most consistently high-quality exhibitions of any museum or gallery in Britain. The 30-odd shows include the wonderfully comprehensive "Rembrandt by Himself", which featured nearly all of the artist's authenticated self-portraits; the hauntingly beautiful installation of "Portraits by Ingres: image of an epoch"; "Seurat and the Bathers"; "Manet: the execution of Maximilian"; and "Spanish Still Life from Velazquez to Goya". Interspersed among these ground-breaking presentations has been not only the "Making and Meaning" series of displays, which have focused on iconic objects from the National Gallery's collections (such as The Wilton Diptych and Turner's Fighting Temeraire), but also stand-alone projects such as "In Trust for the Nation: paintings from National Trust houses" and "Mirror Image: Jonathan Miller on reflection".

"There are two starting points which determine the programme of exhibitions in the Sainsbury Wing," says the National Gallery's director, Neil MacGregor. "The first is that it's a small set of rooms, which is a huge strength. It took us a little while to realise how to work with the spaces, and our first couple of shows were actually too big because we had to plan them before the rooms were built. The second key element has been the steady thing of always trying to keep close to the collections, now and then punctuating the run with shows on things which are completely absent from the collections, such as the 'Spanish Still Life' and recent German 19th-century shows."

Exhibitions on the intellectual and physical scale of the Rembrandt and Manet shows take years to organise, and rely on the generosity of public collections and private patrons, as well as the committed financial support of the commercial sector. Lenders and sponsors will collaborate on shows of world-class importance only if they respect the vision and achievements of the host and the scholarly acumen of the curatorial team, central to this relationship is the esteem accorded to the organisation's director and, in this respect, MacGregor has few peers.

MacGregor has been the director of the National Gallery since 1987. After taking French and German at New college, Oxford, he read philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, and then law at the University of Edinburgh, before being called to the Scottish Bar. He obtained an MA with distinction in 17th- and 19th-century art from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and was a lecturer in the history of art and architecture at the University of Reading and a part-time lecturer at the courtauld between 1975 and 1981. He was editor of the Burlington Magazine for six years and, in 2002, will celebrate 15 years in his post at the National Gallery.

Together with Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, MacGregor can be largely credited with turning London into a world-class centre for the visual arts 2 Both of them passionate believers in the principle of free admission to museums and galleries, MacGregor and Serota have overseen the genesis of a golden age of exhibition-making in Britain, and with "Vermeer and the Delft School", a major facet of the Golden Age of Dutch painting, the National Gallery could not have celebrated more fittingly the Sainsbury Wing's tenth anniversary.

"Vermeer and the Delft School" includes 74 paintings and seven pieces of applied art spread through the seven rooms of the Sainsbury Wing's temporary exhibition space. Of the paintings, 13 are by Johannes Vermeer, five are by the hugely accomplished Carel Fabritius (Rembrandt's pupil and Vermeer's putative tutor), and ten are by Pieter de Hooch, the other acknowledged master of the Deift School. …