Magazine article The Spectator

Set Art Free

Magazine article The Spectator

Set Art Free

Article excerpt

Lets not waste more millions 'saving' old masters

Last week the National Gallery and National Gallery of Scotland proudly announced that they had jointly raised £45 million to buy Titian's 'Diana and Callisto' from the Duke of Sutherland, thereby 'saving it for the nation'. A few days before, Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that it would be blocking export licences for various exhibits due to be displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum. The Turks said they would not release the artifacts until items in UK and US museums excavated in Anatolia during the 19th century were returned to the Turkish state.

What links these two apparently unrelated events is a single, highly questionable principle: cultural nationalism. Nations and institutions will go to enormous lengths to prevent the 'loss' of art and artifacts overseas - and to recover those that have been exported in the past. But why should tens of millions be spent in order that a Titian should hang in a gallery in London or Edinburgh as opposed to, say, the Escorial in Madrid (for which it was originally painted), or a museum in the United States, which would be the most likely buyer on the open market?

Or why should the British Museum's exhibition Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam be derailed in order that a classical stele should stand in Istanbul rather than London?

The usual answer is that the artifacts so dearly bought - or so obstreperously demanded back - represent an inalienable, unique part of the nation's cultural heritage. In the case of the Titian and its pair, 'Diana and Actaeon' (together bought for a total of £95 million, an estimated third of their market value) the argument is that the paintings have inspired gene ra t ion s o f B r i t i sh a r t i s t s eve r s ince they went on public display. Lucian Freud described the pair as 'simply the most beautiful pictures in the world'; William Hazlitt, when he saw the paintings, wrote that 'a new sense came upon me, a new heaven and a new Earth stood before me'.

So British artists and writers liked the Titians. But does that make them a part of British culture - a hundred million pounds' worth of culture? For the sake of comparison, the conversion of Bankside power station into Tate Modern cost £134 million (at 2000 prices). Even in strictly historical terms, the Titians' concrete link to British history is not particularly close - or for that matter, very edifying. The hard-up remains of the French royal family sold the collection that included the two Titians to a dealer in Brussels in 1791.

The Third Earl of Bridgewater, of canal fame, bought them on the proceeds of his coalmines (there was much more muck behind the brass of the British aristocracy than they necessarily let on). The time has come to sell again, the fifth time the paintings will have changed hands in as many centuries.

The flap over the possibility of the Titians leaving Britain has a historical precedent.

When the Russian empress Catherine the Great bought Robert Walpole's magnificent art collection from his spendthrift grandson in 1778, English society was outraged that nearly 200 works by Hals, Rembrandt and Gainsborough should be spirited away to St Petersburg where they would, presumably, never again be seen by civilised eyes. …

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