A Point of View: The art of collecting

Baroque paintings from Sir Denis Mahon's collection - including The Rape of Europa by Guido Reni - at London's National Gallery
Image caption The Rape of Europa at the National Gallery, from Sir Denis Mahon's collection

What motivates art collectors - fame, riches or a desire to share? Whatever it is, says historian Lisa Jardine, we owe them.

From beyond the grave, art connoisseur and collector Sir Denis Mahon - who died two years ago at the grand old age of 100 - continues to exert his formidable influence over British art and government arts policy.

It has recently been announced that under the terms of his will, Sir Denis's collection of Italian old masters - described as the finest group of Baroque works in the world - has been given in perpetuity to six museums and galleries across Britain:

  • eight works to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh
  • 25 to the National Gallery in London
  • 12 to the Ashmolean in Oxford
  • six to the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge
  • five to the Birmingham Art Gallery
  • and one to Temple Newsam House in Leeds

But his generosity comes with serious strings attached.

If any of these galleries ever decides to charge for admission, or if they attempt to sell any of their permanent collection, these works will have to be returned to the Art Fund, the independent national fundraising charity for art.

Arts commentator Richard Morrison of the Times alleged recently that for 40 years, this distinguished collector repeatedly used the threat of sending his collection overseas rather than leaving it to the British nation, to "tease and cajole politicians into doing what he wanted".

Since the 1970s, whenever a British government has proposed museum charges, or the end of "acceptance in lieu" (accepting works of art in place of death duties), Sir Denis has threatened to alter his will and take his priceless art collection elsewhere.

In exercising an extraordinary influence on the British art world, he is, however, typical of a long line of wealthy art lovers. Throughout the 20th Century, individual collectors developed a passion for an artist or an artistic school, and by avidly pursuing and purchasing their works, not only pushed up their prices, but also played a significant part in the reappraisal of these artists, and their place in the canon of artistic taste.

Image caption Sir Denis Mahon with Guercino's Cumaean Sibyl with a Putto at the National Gallery in London

Take, for example, the wealthy industrialist Samuel Courtauld, scion of the Courtauld textile empire, whose collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings assembled during the 1920s and 30s helped permanently establish their importance in the post-war period.

His passion for painting began in May 1922, when the Burlington Fine Arts Club in Savile Row, London, mounted a loan exhibition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings entitled The French School of the Last Hundred Years. Carefully assembled from private collections, the exhibition made a firm statement against the conservatism of public gallery culture of the same period.

Professional art historians were not impressed, declaring the works exhibited "completely lacking in pictorial interest", and particularly disparaging the Cezannes as "making one wonder how this painter's reputation has been achieved".

However, the exhibition captured Samuel Courtauld's imagination. That September he bought his first Renoir. The following year he bought a second Renoir, two Gauguins, two Cezannes, two Manets, two Monets, a Daumier, a Seurat and a Van Gogh. The exhibition began his lifelong enthusiasm for the controversial work of Cezanne.

A year later, Courtauld gave £50,000 to the Tate and National Galleries to encourage the purchase of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings for the nation. Together with an equally generous bequest which helped establish the Courtauld Institute in London, he ensured that his name and influence as a collector were permanently and publicly acknowledged.

Courtauld's art adventure followed a recognisable pattern. He had a personal fortune at his disposal. The work he first admired, fell in love with and coveted, which provided the foundation for his taste in art, belonged to other collectors. That work was not the kind appreciated or supported by public art institutions. Once smitten, he purchased extravagantly, for pleasure, increasingly expertly, occasionally selling in order to finance further purchases.

Courtauld's most trusted advisor was the dealer Percy Moore Turner, from whom he had purchased his first two Impressionist paintings in 1922. When evaluating a potential purchase, an entrepreneur like Courtauld was looking for an assessment finely balanced between market value (a good price), quality as a work of art (a question of informed taste and a good eye), and stature of the artist (now and in the future).

Image caption Works by Toulouse-Lautrec at London's Courtauld Institute

Courtauld's contemporary William Burrell, the Scottish shipping magnate and founder of the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, also supported the practice of trusting a commercial rather than an academic expert when purchasing: "A good dealer is more acute as a rule than a professor, because the dealer has to pay if he makes a mistake."

And as a self-made industrialist, Burrell too carried over his business instincts into the art market. The fact that he eventually owned 22 paintings by Degas was in no small part due to the fact that his gallery owner advisor Alex Reid could assure him that they were bargains, sometimes acquiring them for him two or three at a time. Throughout the inter-war period there was little demand for, or critical interest in Degas, and prices remained low. The most expensive work Burrell bought, La Repetition, or The Rehearsal, cost him a mere £6,500 in 1926 (today it is worth many millions).

At the same time, Burrell, like all enthusiastic collectors, bought works by Degas because he fell in love with them, and acquired them compulsively whenever one came on the market.

Art collectors with a fortune to spend inevitably exert an influence on artistic taste and on the art market. The question is, is a collector who wins public praise for having a good eye or flawless taste being celebrated for their critical astuteness in identifying a neglected work's lasting aesthetic value and its importance within the artistic tradition? Or are they simply establishing a high competitive price for that artist or artistic school?

Neil MacGregor, formerly director of the National Gallery, and now director of the British Museum, is full of praise for Sir Denis's astuteness in establishing the intrinsic worth of the school of 16th Century Italian Baroque paintings that had long been neglected, and has commended his ability "to find meaning in works of art we had written off, works we had thought were empty".

On the other hand, there are those who maintain that Sir Denis's influence in revaluating 16th Century Italian Baroque went too far. "I think he has magnified the importance of this kind of work excessively," one historian commented.

I doubt whether this is a question that will ever be settled. But we should remember that the Italian Medici family, whose taste in art and thirst for extravagant collecting played a vital part in the Italian Renaissance, were bankers by trade, and shrewd investors by temperament.

Like Courtauld and Burrell, their love affair with the work of great artists of their day went hand-in-hand with their commercial spirit. Their enthusiastic activities within the contemporary art world - commissioning, buying and selling of expensive works - was a complicated, calculated and functional affair, a combination of pleasure and investment, shrewdly judged so as to maximise the public impact of their resources while retaining the possibility of liquidating a valuable asset whenever that became necessary.

Image caption The National Gallery of Scotland also benefitted from Sir Denis's collection

And it may be that we are overlooking an important feature of these entrepreneurial art collectors' activities which unites them. For all the unimaginable amounts of money they spend on putting together the definitive collection of their chosen artist or artists' work, remarkably often they display an unexpected generosity in seeing to it that their collection ends up in the public domain.

Here, once again, the motives may be unclear, but the outcome is incontrovertible. Perhaps Courtauld and Burrell simply wanted to share their enthusiasm with a wider audience. And perhaps they hoped (like Renaissance patrons) that by allowing others to share their delight, they were also ensuring that their names lived on - as indeed they do.

Whatever the case, as we stand in front of Guido Reni's exquisite painting The Rape of Europa in the National Gallery in London, marvelling at the luminous colours and the studied elegance of the pose and draperies, we should reflect with a sense of gratitude - and a wry smile - on the determination of a single-minded individual like Sir Denis, who has ensured that any member of the public who wishes will always be able to share his pleasure free of charge.

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