Magazine article The Spectator

The Man Who Rescued Caravaggio

Magazine article The Spectator

The Man Who Rescued Caravaggio

Article excerpt

Sir Denis Mahon arrived at The Spectator 40 minutes before he was due to be interviewed. While I scuffed around in search of tape recorders and sensible questions, Britain's most distinguished collector and historian of Italian art sat in the editor's office, waiting. Every now and then I looked at him through the door jamb. He stared peacefully into the middle distance with his hands folded in his lap: nearly 100 years and £20 million worth of old man, upholstered in impeccable three-piece pinstripe.

Eventually I introduced myself. I want to ask you lots of things, I said, about this government, about how badly they treat art collectors. I gather you're going to see the Prime Minister. . . . 'Well,' said Sir Denis, 'perhaps I should explain a little about my history first?' Oh. Sorry. Of course.

'Yes, yes,' he said, leaning back. 'I'm aged 94 now and I've been an art historian all my life and by extension a collector. I've played an important part, I can say, in rehabilitating the seicento,' he searched my face for a sign of intelligence. 'That's 17th-century painting in Italy which starts with Caravaggio and goes on . . . well anyway, the point is that when I started in the early 1930s, these painters were absolutely despised by everyone. With the interest in the primitives in the 1840s had come the idea that later painters were "insincere" and no one wanted them.' Sir Denis peered at me again through enormous black-rimmed spectacles: did I get it? After a few minutes, blank with panic, I did. Although Renaissance art has never gone out of fashion, until relatively recently you could pick up a Caravaggio, a Carracci, a Guido Reni or a Guercino for practically nothing. 'I had the field to myself for 30 years,' said Sir Denis, 'because no one realised that sincerity is a different thing in different periods.'

The rediscovery of the sincerity of the seicento began when the young Denis, heir to the Guinness Mahon banking fortune, crossed paths with Nikolaus Pevsner at the newly founded Courtauld Institute. Pevsner was only 30 years old, but he was already an authority on baroque painting. While working as a voluntary assistant at the Dresden Art Gallery he had written a survey of art from the Renaissance to the rococo which argued the case for Guercino and co. Being a Jew, however, Pevsner wasn't safe in Germany and so he accepted an invitation to teach at the Courtauld.

'Nikolaus's lectures were extremely good and clear,' said Sir Denis, 'so I asked him, "Would you give me tutorials one to one?" and he said yes. At the end of these, I said to him, "Look I want to take these artists very seriously indeed. Who shall I concentrate on?" Nikolaus suggested Guercino and since I admired Guercino very much, I agreed.'

Later, at home, I looked in the 1910 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Neither Guercino nor Caravaggio are mentioned at all. The current edition, however, says Guercino had 'a profound effect' and calls Caravaggio, 'the most revolutionary artist of his time . . . a man who abandoned the rules that had guided a century of artists before him.' The difference between the two editions - the revival of a lost century of art - owes a lot to the friendship between between Pevsner and Sir Denis Mahon. As do exhibitions like Caravaggio: The Final Years, which opens at the National Gallery in February.

'The first painting I bought? …

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