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Things That Have Interested Me

Missing the Royal Seal of Approval

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
9 December 2006

It is noticeable that the evidence of royal patronage is much stronger in the performing than in the visual arts: the Royal Opera, the Royal Ballet, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre - yes. But the Royal British Museum, the Royal National Gallery, the Royal Tate Modern (or, more properly, "Royal Tate Modern")? No - such phrases do not roll off the tongue.

There are good historical reasons for this. Apart from the Victoria and Albert Museum (part of a complex of institutions associated with the initiative and memory of Prince Albert) and the Royal Academy (really the outcome of royal patronage), the museum and the galleries mentioned are founded by the state, not by royalty. There is a Royal Collection of paintings, sculpture, drawings and other works of art, and it is something quite distinct from the national collections.

But it could perhaps have been otherwise. In 1822, the year before moves were made to buy the Angerstein collection of paintings, which was to form the nucleus of the National Gallery, a story appeared in the Times: "The King [George IV], it is said, has expressed a wish that a national museum should be erected for works of art to which the public should have free access. His Majesty has promised to contribute the private collection at Carlton Palace, besides a selection from the Palaces of Kensington, Hampton Court and Windsor; these together will make a noble collection."

The story says that while the King's taste runs to Flemish and Dutch painting (the Carlton Palace pictures), his late father had been "fonder of the more poetical and higher departments of art" and that "the Windsor collection accordingly abounds in the works of Raphael, Titian, Parmigiano, the two Poussins, Lorraine etc." So the hint being dropped by someone at court was really very detailed. No doubt the appearance of the story alerted some powerful opponent, and the whole idea was squashed. The consequence was, and remains, that while other European capitals have royal collections at the core of their great museums, we do not. When Queen Victoria was asked to loan paintings to the National Gallery to help fill the gaps, she refused.

The whole idea of the common man being able to look at great works of art was relatively new and (by implication) somewhat dangerously republican. Art exhibitions were themselves a novelty. In The Nation's Mantelpiece, Jonathan Conlin's attractive history of the National Gallery, there is an account of a spoof art exhibition in 1762, which sent up the whole notion of putting paintings on display. A journalist called Bonnell Thornton announced a "Grand Exhibition of the Society of Sign-Painters" at which, on payment of a shilling fee, you came into a gallery full of pub-and shop-signs: a bird in the hand, a nag's head, a buttock of beef and so forth.

The hoax was admirably thought out. Conlin tells us that "Two signs were hung with blue curtains, which, as any connoisseur would know, were hung over paintings of female nudes intended only for the male gaze. Except in this case when the visitor nervously pulled them aside, he or she was confronted with one sign bearing the words 'Ha! Ha!' and another 'He! He!'"

Many things about early exhibitions run contrary to what the modern mind expects. The entrance fee, for instance, was quite consciously a means of keeping out the rabble, not a device to enable the exhibition in the first place. Conlin points out that the artists of the Royal Academy, when a national gallery was proposed, tended to argue that for it to be truly a national gallery it should only exhibit British painters, no foreigners allowed. (This attitude survives. The only paintings that should be saved for the nation, you sometimes hear, are British paintings.)

Today it would be very odd to find artists upset at the announcement that, say, there was about to be an exhibition devoted to Rembrandt. I should have thought that most contemporary artists would find such an Old Master either an inspiration or quite irrelevant to their concerns. But in the early days of Old Master exhibitions (essentially, the first decades of the 19th century) living artists tended to detest the attention lavished upon the dead. They feared that excessive attention to Old Masters would kill off the national school. This is what Constable was afraid of.

It is true that some great artists made great collections. Reynolds collected paintings and owned a great Bernini. Lawrence assembled the most amazing collection of drawings. In both cases, had contemporary artists wanted to make an effort to save these collections and to use the Academy as the springboard for a campaign for a national collection, they could have done so. But it tended to be rebels in the system who wanted a National Gallery. At the Academy, it was the doomed figures of James Barry and Benjamin Robert Haydon. In parliament it was Wilkes.

Lord Liverpool's Minute, dated March 23 1824, announcing the purchase of the Angerstein collection and the arrangements for its display at No 100 Pall Mall (in Angerstein's former residence), tells us just how modest the beginnings of the National Gallery were. There was to be a Keeper and his assistant or secretary. There was to be a "respectable person to attend in the two principle rooms during the time of public view to prevent persons touching or injuring the pictures". There was to be a resident porter "to take charge of stick and umbrellas" and a housemaid, also resident, "to attend the fires and clean the apartments." Finally, "it will be necessary to have coals, candles and a small amount of stationary."

The house opened its doors on May 10 1824. A week later Haydon paid it a visit, and his diary gives us the first record of the benefits of free admission: "It was delightful at last to walk in to the Gallery just as you felt inclined without trouble or inconvenience. I argue great & rapid advance to the Art of the Country from the facility of comparison this will afford the people."

Useful links: National Gallery

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