|Missing the Royal Seal of Approval
copyright © 2006
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
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
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
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."
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