Magazine article The Spectator

The Best of British

Magazine article The Spectator

The Best of British

Article excerpt

There is `little hope of Poetical Painting finding encouragement in England', ruminated the Swiss painter Fuseli in 1805. `Portrait with them is everything. Their taste and feeling all go to realities - the ideal does not operate on their minds.' The 61 pictures by British artists at the National Gallery confirm this view.

Portraits there are in abundance, of horses (the English were the first to do horse portraits) as well as men, and much is added by learning about the subjects portrayed: about Gainsborough's pretty daughters, depicted holding hands, who did indeed end their days together, the spinster Margaret 'odd', the maritally separated Mary `quite deranged'; or his masterpiece `Mr and Mrs Hallett', `an incomparable picture of love' in Ellis Waterhouse's scholarly opinion, a couple as beautiful as they were rich, destined to remain married for 48 years but to see him squander one of the greatest fortunes of the day on horses and property deals. As Horace Walpole said, `half the nobility and half the money of England' went to Newmarket.

The many who have benefited from Judy Egerton's impeccably curated and catalogued exhibitions of Stubbs, Wright of Derby, Turner (`The Fighting Temeraire') and Hogarth (`Marriage a la Mode') will be prepared for a tour de force, and they have got it. Its publication coincides with her winning the 1998 Hawthornden Prize for Art Criticism, awarded for her analysis of the 'Marriage', much the best contribution to last year's Hogarth tricentenary celebrations. This weightier but not less entertaining volume must surely win her further prizes. It is an exemplarly work of scholarship, adding passion and wit to erudition, and can be read for all kinds of information other than its always comprehensive analyses of pictures. As Judy Egerton says, with characteristic forthrightness, it is 'chattier' than the 1959 catalogue, and all the better for it. It culminates the author's work at the National Gallery - her next project is a catalogue raisonne of the works of Stubbs -- following 15 years as Assistant Keeper of the British School at the Tate. In other words, no one is better qualified to write it. Every painting was examined with Martin Wyld, the National's chief restorer, and his admirable technical commentary includes the latest research of the Conservation and Scientific Departments.

The book divides into two sections. The first and largest is devoted to the pictures, an arbitrary assortment thanks to the substantial transfers over the years to the Tate or `National Gallery of British Art', founded in 1898 - just how arbitrary can be gauged from the following list: Constable (6), Gainsborough (11), Hogarth (8), Thomas Jones (1), Lawrence (1), Reynolds (5), Sargent (2), Stubbs (3), Turner (9), Richard Wilson (3), Wright of Derby (2) and Zoffany (1).

A century ago British pictures (which included Raeburns, a large number of Wilkies and such Victorian favourites as Frith's `Derby Day' and Landseer's `Dignity and Impudence') filled seven of the National's 23 rooms. By 1954, when the National and Tate collections were separated by Act of Parliament, this had shrunk to its present number of two rooms. Meanwhile the foreign collection has grown in proportion, so that today the British School represents a measly 30th of the picture total.

The National, as the senior gallery, used to boss the Tate around. As recently as 1983 it took back four pictures, having had second thoughts about Sargent and Wright of Derby. But despite the Tate's irritation and the National's admission that it lacked `an entirely consistent attitude to representation of the School', such transfers in favour of the senior gallery remain possible. …

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