Byline: FIONA MADDOCKS
NEVER in his wildest imaginings could Charles Saumarez Smith have foreseen the choppy waters he would find himself in when he took over as director of the National Gallery in July. Museums and galleries are hot news. In the past two weeks he has announced a pound sterling21 million scheme for the redevelopment of the gallery's public spaces, had a tussle with a testy descendant of a generous benefactor, Ludwig Mond, and watched while one of the collection's treasured loans, Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks, is virtually whisked from under his nose to be sold to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, subject to export licence.
Then, last weekend, he, like other museum directors in London, was exposed to a hoax in which a Sundaynewspaper journalist posed as a potential donor, offering pound sterling1 million in exchange for the display of his own quick daub. A member of the National Gallery staff quickly saw through the sham; others elsewhere were not so quick. All it proved was that museums are so short of cash they will listen to any offer. "A rather repugnant example of a routine event," he says. "One tries to be polite. I had a Russian turn up at the door last week wanting his pictures displayed. I said our collection stops at 1900, and directed him to the Tate."
After eight years as head of the National Portrait Gallery, Saumarez Smith, 48, might have thought he had encountered every variety of shark in the museum world. Now he has become a world player, on a par with directors of the Louvre, the Prado, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, jaws of a new magnitude lurk. The redevelopment scheme, four years in the planning, was initiated by his predecessor, Neil MacGregor, now director of the British Museum, but in part inspired by the universally acclaimed rebuilding work next door at the NPG, which Saumarez Smith supervised.
THE Raphael and the Mond bequest, however, sneaked up and ambushed him. "I feel I would have liked a bit more time in the job," he admits with characteristic understatement. "I do occasionally wonder whether Sotheby's and the Getty chose their moment to raise the matter of the Raphael - perhaps they thought they could slip it in while a neophyte was at the helm, one less experienced at fighting causes."
Were this the case, these grand players in the art game have misjudged Saumarez Smith. He hides his grit beneath an eccentric urbanity.
Mildmannered, affable and bookish, he has a double-first from Cambridge and a scholarly pedigree of Warburg Institute doctorate and Harvard fellowship. Without great tenacity and flair, he would not have forced through the whirlwind of change at the NPG, an institution almost suffocating with dusty endeavour when he arrived. If he reeled momentarily at the unexpected onslaught, he is now primed for battle.
Already he can allow himself a small sigh of relief, with the latest development in the case of the Mond collection, which, it had been threatened, could be withdrawn from the National Gallery. Richard Hornsby - a descendant of Ludwig Mond, who donated 43 Renaissance masterpieces early last century - has been considering legal action because the bequest is no longer displayed together as one collection, but scattered through the gallery.
But now Hornsby's cousin, Lord Melchett, also a descendant of Ludwig Mond, has come out in support of the gallery. He has pointed out that his family agreed after the Second World War to the splitting up of the collection, which "would be shown to best effect chronologically", adding that "the entire Mond bequest should remain in the National Gallery".
Now the Madonna of the Pinks, a more urgent and daunting matter, is Saumarez Smith's chief concern. …