The Neglected Importance of J.M.W. Turner’s Bequest for British Culture
by The Editor
Eminent art historian and J.M.W. Turner expert Selby Whittingham discusses the importance of Turner's achievements within British art history.
The Neglected Importance of J.M.W. Turner’s Bequest for British Culture
By Selby Whittingham, Ph.D.
It is a great honour to be invited to address this conference, which has had so many much more distinguished speakers. Being unknown to most of you, I think it would be best in a minute to say something about myself and so explain how I have arrived at my views.
But first, as I have been asked to defend traditional art as against what often passes for art today, I would like to point to the exhibition of the work of one of the supporters of our Independent Turner Society, Leonard McComb RA, a former Keeper of the Royal Academy, as an example of the first. It opened on Monday at the Devonshire Club, Devonshire Square, EC2 and continues until the end of December. At our society’s commemoration of the 160th anniversary of Turner’s death besides his grave at St Paul’s Cathedral Leonard described how he had a revelation at the Ashmolean Museum. He was studying a watercolour by Turner of fish using the artist’s own magnifying spectacles and was amazed to see how the image was built up of tiny strokes of complementary colours. This discovery has informed the way in which he has painted since. Such building by one artist on the practice of earlier artists is what in part constitutes artistic tradition. Indeed the division of tones was not an invention by Turner, but something which he had learnt from the paintings of Watteau and was to inform the practice of the French Impressionists.
Historically art has been both traditional and experimental, the experiments creating new traditions. At times there have been ruptures in tradition, and we experience that today, when Conceptual Art seems to have no connection with what went before – or at any rate since the rupture was initiated a century ago. It is exemplified by what can be seen at Tate Modern and in particular its recently opened extension. In the latest issue of The Jackdaw (copies of which are here for you take), a magazine whose editor, David Lee, is devoted to encouraging traditional art and satirising the new (or in reality the not-so-new), I have suggested a comparison of this with the raree shows of two centuries ago – The Vanishing Woman, the Panopticons and other then modern inventions, and so on. These were described in The Shows of London by Richard Altick. Then, however, fine art exhibitions, at the Royal Academy and elsewhere, were shown separately and as a higher genre. What seems objectionable to me is that the two are now mixed up, when what goes on at Tate Modern has often more in common with acts at Covent Garden than with art as we knew it. Salvador Dali admitted this when he called his museum at Figueres not a museum or art gallery, but a Theatre-Museum. I have suggested that Tate Modern or at any rate its extension should be reclassified not as an art gallery but as popular theatre.
Two years ago we invited Julian Spalding, who can hardly be called a reactionary, and has been an imaginative director of the museums & galleries at Sheffield, Manchester and Glasgow, to address us. He talked of how he did not get conceptual art, which some have suggested is a bit of a con. He went on to argue for a shake-up of our national museums and the creation of a proper Turner Gallery, to which I shall come later.
Many have denounced the pretensions of our most notorious artists, their gift for self-advertisement inevitably exploited by the media. The most effective answer to them would be silence, which of course will not happen. Many have denounced them, merely thereby adding to their celebrity. An amusingly vigorous example is a review by Jonathan Meades in The Spectator’s Culture House newsletter recently (22 September). I don’t think my voice will add anything, and I prefer to concentrate on art which I like, in the belief that in the end good art will drive out bad or non-art.
So, to return to myself, I had what is generally called a good education. But art hardly featured in it. Certainly not ‘A’ level art history, the loss of which has now raised a storm among those who took it. At school I briefly dabbled unproductively in creating art. We however had two lectures which made an impression on me. One was on the paintings of Oskar Kokoschka, who has since suffered something of an eclipse, an expressionist who owed a debt to Rubens. The other was by the architect of the Barbican, a work then in progress. He described how it was based on ideas of leaves and of enclosed Italian piazzas, which sounded good, though the realised construction, when I saw it years later, seemed less so. Though some modern architecture has been more vital than much contemporary painting, the possibilities offered by new materials are almost too great, and cut the architect off from learning from the practices of his or her predecessors.
But the major influence on me was not at school or university (where I heard Sir Kenneth Clark in discussion with Henry Moore, followed by a series of lectures - to a much smaller audience - by Sir Anthony Blunt on the meanings of Poussin’s paintings), but my mother. She had won an art prize as a young girl at school, and on a holiday in Italy, when I was barely 7, we made colourful drawings of the Italian seaside, made all the more enticing by the preceding grim winter in London and continued food rashioning, constituting a revelation such as British artists visiting Italy down to Turner and later experienced.
Like our PM my mother was the daughter of a vicar, but of a more high church one From him she inherited her political attitudes. He was an old-fashioned Tory, but liberally inclined, who had a love of traditional customs such as Washington Irving described in essays about English squires and Christmases in the early C19. At Cambridge she read history, which she regretted as of little practical use for a career in politics, which then were very lively in Liverpool. But her love of history was deeply ingrained, and she drew on some of her heroes such as Canning and Disraeli for her attitudes. By the time I was born she had abandoned politics and returned to history, a fascination with which she communicated to me.
At the same time like some politicians she was an actor or actress manqué. So about the time of our Italian holiday I was taken to the Open Air Theatre - not very open, as it was in a tent due to a dowpour. But I fell off my chair with laughter at Sir Toby Belch & co. In view of this success for a decade we regularly went to Stratford-upon-Avon, the Festival of Britain year being devoted to the Histories Richard II to Henry V.
It seems fitting to introduce the Bard in this quatercentenary of his death - marked unhappily by the vagaries of the new director of the Globe Theatre, which was built to reconstruct how the plays were originally performed, but which she in her wisdom sees as a forum for the sort of shallow experimentation which characterises the arts generally today here and everywhere.
My mother was drawn on to research both the history of the times Shakespeare depicted and also of the Southwark of his own time. I was conscripted into looking for portraits of our mediaeval kings, and this led eventually to my PhD thesis on Realism in Mediaeval Portraiture.
The conventional view is that portraiture - likenesses - were unknown after the end of Antiquity until the Renaissance, Mediaeval Christian Man being devoted exclusively to the innner spirit and part of a collective hostile to individuality. This is wrong on several counts, though like many errors has grains of truth. Bernard Berenson in The Arch of Constantine or The Decline of Form showed how the decline in naturalism in art and so realism in portraiture was at least partly due to the decline in skill following the break-up of the Roman Empire. Secondly Christians were concerned with individuals, and one can find historians at least by the 12th c recording individual appearances. Thirdly the Renaissance in painting had been preceded by one in sculpture in France and Germany at least as much as in Italy. That in turn was influenced by classical sculpture from Rome. The C12 Renaissance was the subject of Melvyn Bragg’s Radio 4 discussion on Thursday.
My late friend Jean Gimpel - of the Gimpel Fils Gallery family and author of “Against Art and Artists” (2nd ed 1991) - argued that the Renaissance claimed too much and that in matters of science and technology much had been anticipated in the Middle Ages, not least in England, whereas the scientific prowess of Leonardo has been exaggerated. He believed that we should return to the idea of the artisan of the Middle Ages and that the pretensions of the likes of Michelangelo have led to Romanticism and to the state of modern art. There is a grain of truth in this, as Father Cyril Barrett conceded in his foreword. Gimpel’s best known book is called “The Cathedral Builders” (1958). Sir Simon Jenkins’ latest book avers that the English cathedrals are our greatest artistic achievement, surely a very plausible claim.
Art traditionalists have become fixated on easel painting - by portraits they invariably mean painted portraits, for example. But English art encompasses much more and goes back much further. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner wrote a book, The Englishness of English Art, tracing continuities in English art - at any rate down to the period in which he wrote it - which has now gone out of fashion. But as a foreigner coming to Britain he perhaps saw idiosyncracies which we natives miss. Historians have traced a continuity in English political development not just back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 or to the Reformation or the Norman invasion but to earlier periods.
Like others I have been influenced by our immigrant Jewish art historians, such as Pevsner, Gombrich and Gimpel, whose learning, culture and sympathetic approach have sometimes made native contributions seem inadequate. However in the conflict between Betjeman and Pevsner, the former (who initiated our campaign to put Turner in Somerset House) provided a beguiling alternative approach. Likewise John Harvey helped inspire my interest in mediaeval portraiture by his book “The Plantagenets” published by Batsford. In a passage of arms with Pevsner he won his point - amply demonstrated by his Dictionary of British Mediaeval Architects - that the mediaeval architect was not an anonymous figure or simple artisan, but a creative genius, who sometimes introduced his self-portrait in his buildings. The mistaken idea that the patron was the real architect was embodied in placing a statue of William of Wykeham among the architects on the exterior of the V&A, whereas Harvey reconstructed in another book the career of a real architect of the C14, Henry Yevele.
As part of my study of mediaeval portraiture I made a particular study of the Wilton Diptych (also the subject of an article by Harvey), the depiction of Richard II supported by pre-Conquest royal saints and John the Baptist before the Virgin Mary. It is now rather unhappily placed in the National Gallery. It has generated a large literature seeking to explain its subject and place it, its date (the youthful portrait of the king in contradiction to the late date generally favoured) and its artistic context. Applying Pevsner’s criteria - in particular about the tendency to flatness and two-dimensionality found in English art and in particular to the Perpendicular style, one of our greatest creations, of the time - I see undoubted English traits. This is not to deny European influences which have always had an effect on British art. These have made scholars suggest various countries of origin for the artist. The National Gallery has plumped for France and its curator in her latest thoughts has compared it to a lost French painting of a superficially similar scene. But she ignores the vital differences recorded in the copy of it and in particular its more three-dimensional treatment.
The first Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sir George Scharf, wrote about the portrait of Richard II in Westminster Abbey. But in the 20th century the gallery’s concern with the Middle Ages evaporated, though Kingsley Adams, its director when I was a student, gave me friendly encouragement. The present director and his predecessor have had their interests focused on contemporary art, not on British history or portraiture, the subjects for which the gallery was founded. Instead it has become a sort of poor man’s Tate. Yet no one protests about this.
My PhD in mediaeval portraiture at Manchester overlapped with my first spell as a curator at Manchester City Art Gallery, where the Deputy Director, Dr Fritz Grossmann, was one of the important influx of refugees from Hitler. He in his youth had an enthusiasm for contemporary Austrian art, but when I knew him his main study was on Holbein and Bruegel. Like many other Germans he had no appreciation of Turner, though one of his teachers at Vienna, Professor Josef Strzygowski had claimed in an article in The Burlington Magazine a century ago that Turner was essentially Germanic.
However the gallery was rich in watercolours by Turner - a reflection of the fact that in the latter part of his life his chief patrons were, as his first biographer pointed out, the Northern industrialists. Besides these it then had just one oil painting by Turner - ‘Now for the Painter’, (Rope). The title was a punning joke. Clarkson Stanfield, another RA, the year before painted a seapiece which he called Throwing the Painter, but was not able to finish it in time for the RA exhibition. On hearing this Augustus Callcott painted one called Dutch Fishing Boats running foul in the endeavour to board, and missing the Painter Rope. To cap this Turner exhibited his seascape the following year as a continuation of the joke. But many a remark made in jest is meant seriously, as Turner’s detractors, who long felt he had grown too big for his boots, noted.
I might remark, however, in parenthesis, that humour has always been a characteristic of English art. Turner’s age was a glorious one for cartoonists, and their tradition has been carried on ably by our political and other cartoonists today. Their achievement merits greater recognition than does that of most of our “proper” artists seen annually at the RA or at the Tate.
To return to Turner, one of his characteristics that contributed to his success was ambition. He wrote, “Why say the poet and prophet are not often united? For if they are not they ought to be.” As a youth he had looked at the landscapes of Claude with tears in his eyes wondering how he could match them. In his 50s he left two of his pictures to hang beside two by Claude to stake his claim to have succeeded. Ambition is an important ingredient in great art. Henry Moore was motivated by a teacher saying that Michelangelo was a great person. He incidentally as a youth made a drawing after Turner’s Fighting Temeraire.
The Romantic age put a premium on greatness. When Napoleon, asking how long one of his monuments might last, was told 1,000 years, he replied that that was not much. By contrast the Tate Director has said that he thinks that Tate Modern and its art might last 60-100 years. A characteristic of much contemporary art is its confessed lack of ambition and admission that it is ephemeral. When critics such as Brian Sewell have complained about that, they have been told to lighten up.
However ambition by itself is not sufficient, as one can see if one visits the museum at Brussels devoted to the painter Wiertz. Those who saw Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner will have seen how the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon was no shrinking violet. His diaries, which are his true memorial, are full of ambitious sentiments. He wrote, “I have loved Art always better than myself.” And again, “The basis of my character was earnestness of feeling. I took up everything as if my life depended on it.” He complained that British patrons wanted only portraits of themselves, their dogs and houses instead of the ambitious history pictures he painted.
This was largely the consequence of the Reformation, which in England led to the destruction of so much religious art and the Protestant opposition to sacred art which lasted down to Turner’s day. Thereafter most of the principal painters and sculptors came from Europe until the golden age of our painting initiated by Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough and Wilson. These drew heavily on European art, but were also distinctively English. They had an aesthetic sensibility and technical skill (a bit imperfect in the case of Reynolds) which are the necessary means to an artist expressing his ideas and to great art. These Turner had too, but Haydon fatally lacked. Turner wrote, “He that has that ruling enthusiasm which accompanies abilities cannot look superficially. Every glance is a glance for study ... Every look at nature is a refinement upon art ... Admiring nature by the power and practicability of his art, and judging of his art by the perceptions drawn from nature.” Haydon’s lack is shared by, to take an example from our own day, Sir Anton Gormley. Though his Angel of the North has popular appeal, as large monuments often do, it has little artistic merit.
Large scale can be a hazard. Hazlitt (himself a painter and an admirer of Titian) asked of Haydon’s The Judgement of Solomon “Why did you paint it so large? A small canvas might have concealed your faults.” The same complaint might to some extent be made about Turner’s Battle of Trafalgar which he painted for St James Palace and which that connoisseur George IV shunted off to the National Maritime Museum. (His sailor brother William IV criticised it on nautical grounds). In defence of Turner, large size, 8.5 x 12 ft in this case, was a requirement of the commission. As for Now for the Painter, only 5.5 x7.33ft, it had to be large for the sake of the joke. Its handling has considerable virtuosity, but it ranks rather low in the magnificent series of Turner’s marines. This highlights another requirement for artistic greatness - that the artist plays to his strengths. Turner was notoriously criticised for his figures, while Delacroix’s greatest achievement are his great murals in St Sulpice, just as that of Giambattista Tiepolo are his frescoes at Wurzburg.
Nor is simply following tradition enough, as many of Turner’s contemporaries have been damned for doing with a few exceptions such as Constable and Cox (whose reputation has unjustly declined because he produced too many pot-boilers). Many artists today paint in the French Impressionist tradition, which is often delightful, but comes to seem hackneyed and tempts others to rebel not only against it but against tradition in general.
Conceptual art today has its origins in Marcel Duchamp and his famous urinal. His was an anti-art, born out of cynicism, French intellectualism and probably his own painterly incapacity. The last has been a factor in the turn to which Tracey Emin has taken. Her attraction lies in a feminine personality which resonates with some, not in what she has created except insofar as that is an expression of her and their feminist and other concerns.
In Turner’s day the great event was the French Revolution, which was an unholy mixture of hate and idealism. Though some of his fellows welcomed that initially - one thinks of Girtin and Wordsworth - I doubt if Turner ever did entirely and a painter colleague and executor late in life supposed he was then a Tory. But the 1789 revolution in any case did not revolutionise art in the way that our Reformation had. It was very short-lived and was succeeded by the patronage of the Napoleons, Bourbons and Orleanists. The true artistic revolutionaries such as Delacroix, Courbet, Monet came under them. In England there were democratic expressions around 1800, but the great god of artists was Titian and not David. Of course Delacroix was something of a conservative and did not call himself a Romantic. A recent issue of The Jackdaw has devoted its front page to something he wrote in 1855. QUOTE. Of course the answer to that is that people always complain about innovative art and then deify it later. But actually the judgement of history can be more selectively critical than that.
There has been a running controversy among Turner scholars as to whether Turner was a traditionalist - influenced by Claude and Reynolds to the last - or an innovatory mould-breaker, an example to such as the Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists. This is a false dichotomy as he was surely both, proceeding from the example of forerunners to go far beyond them in the light of the revolutions in science and economy of his day to which he applied a particularly fertile mind. Would Turner approve of the Abstract Expressionists, the subject of the current exhibition at the RA? We cannot know, but Rothko could see something in Turner which he did not see in other British artists of Turner’s day and that led to his gift of paintings to the Tate. Meanwhile at Turner Contemporary (an appropriation of Turner’s name almost as illegitimate as is the Turner Prize) at Margate there is until January J.M.W.Turner - Adventures in Colour, an exhibition first shown at Aix-en-Provence, in token of which it features prominently a late Turner gouache sketch of Marseilles which anticipates the Fauves.
Tradition is surely not merely to repeat the past, but a question of a succession of traditions, each one never wholly supplanting earlier ones or, if so, only temporarily. Few would advocate complete stasis. In the matter of the conservation of our towns and buildings, a selective approach has to be adopted, choosing where to preserve untouched, where to allow some alteration and where to allow demolition. People like continuity and history, but also novelty and imagination - not to mention the concomitant economic progress.
These factors are what make Turner such an ideal model for British artists in particular today - not in the matter of style, the virtuosity of which artists have found it impossible to emulate, but, like Henry Moore with regard to Michelangelo, to be inspired by his ambition, practice, seriousness and success. We are told that Britain is a great inventive nation which can go out and conquer the world as the Greeks with their genius transformed the Romans. Will Turner or Hirst best exemplify that?
With regard to today’s claims on Wednesday Alice Thomson wrote in The Times. ... QUOTE
A lot of this is bogus. The statistics compare free entry to our museums (visitor numbers probably inaccurate) with expensive entry to foreign ones and football matches. Our cutting-edge artists I have already spoken about. Our museum directors are by no means perfect - and in fact in part harmful, as I shall come to. Art history departments have abandoned mediaeval art. Sothebys and Christies are foreign-owned.
Meanwhile Turner - contrary again to the popular view purveyed by the museums swollen publicity departments and swallowed by the media - is shamefully treated with the connivance of the directors Alice Thompson lauds. His plan for a posthumous public gallery showing his paintings together constantly and apart from others has been largely sabotaged since his death for various reasons, though in 1861 a weighty committee of the House of Lords asserted that his wishes should and could be carried out. I won’t rehearse now the long sad history of how that has been ignored despite objections made in every generation since - how the National Gallery scattered many paintings among the provinces, hid others in its cellars, then split the bequest with the Tate, the watercolours and drawings sent off to the British Museum for the next 50 years; how some of the latter had been allowed to fade, while others were ruined in the 1928 Thames flood at the Tate; and how all this was supposed to be rectified by the opening on April Fool’s Day 1987 of what is generally agreed to be the completely unsuitable Clore Gallery by the Queen, who was made to say - completely deceitfully - that with it Turner’s wish for his work to be kept together was at long last fulfilled. Since then the situation has gone from bad to worse, as all pretence to fulfil that pledge has been abandoned, the Clore Gallery is no longer exclusively for Turner and the risky vogue for constant travelling loan exhibitions (partly to further European unity, certainly a very worthy objective, but not to be pursued to the exclusion of all other considerations) torpedoes Turner’s intention.
What I would rather do is consider what a proper Turner Gallery, such as I have advocated since 1975 and as John Ruskin had adumbrated a century and a quarter before, might do - act as a patriotic inspiration and show the range of what a dedicated artist might possibly accomplish, beginning with his early masterly watercolours of our great cathedrals, abbeys and castles, reflecting the antiquarian and picturesque interests of that time. (Lady Eastlake remarked that Turner was very knowledgeable about all the castles he depicted and today’s research has confirmed his interest in history, national and local). Next there were his great sea pictures, always popular in a maritime nation such as Britain, followed by his heartfelt depictions of the English countryside from the Thames to the Yorkshire moors, while also painting “histories” in the tradition of the great classical C17 painters such as Poussin. He then explored the scientific discoveries of his age, with particular regard to the science of colour, which led on to his late style, part atmospheric impressionist, part symbolist, part fauve.
A well-known example is his Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway. Much has been written about that and four pages are devoted to it in the current issue of he London Review of Books, much of it about its symbolism, drawing on earlier art. However its status as a forerunner of Impressionism is also maintained - I have written a letter for publication pointing out that the glowing front of the railway engine was an observable fact in locomotives, as a distinguished railwayman pointed out to me 30 years ago. No doubt Turner exaggerated this phenomenon for artistic and symbolic effect.
However that painting has been separated from most of the rest by being kept at the National Gallery. It was the mixing up of a few select Turners with the Constables in the 1960s which first alerted me to the unsatisfactory situation, the juxtaposition of two such temperamentally different artists doing neither a favour. Moreover the National Gallery had kept back just a few of the late plums in Turner’s oeuvre (apart from one early stormy marine) reflecting the fashionable concentration on late Turner and ignoring the attempt before World War II to keep at least a basically representative showing at the National. What had happened to such key paintings as Frosty Morning, by which Constable was bowled over and which brilliantly encapsulated an aspect of English countryside? Where the views of the Thames valley? And so on. A false idea of Turner as either a turbulent Romantic or a late semi-abstract painter is given, whereas he aimed to encompass the whole gamut of painting. A masterpiece showing a perfect calm, The Dort, which Turner’s patron and friend Walter Fawkes bought, was allowed to go to America for what now seems a bargain price. Constable wrote of it, “I remember most of Turner’s early works; amongst them was one of singular intricacy and beauty; it was a canal with numerous boats making thousands of beautiful shapes, and I think the most complete work of genius I ever saw.” Likewise his perfect depiction of Pope’s Villa at Twickenham - part a tribute to the poet and his villa, part a protest against its demolition - was sold to a private (American?) buyer a few years ago for a modest price. I wrote a letter to The Times calling for it to be saved for the nation and assembled a host of worthies to sign it from the Bishop of London to Lucinda Lambton (who agrees incidentally that the treatment of Turner’s bequest is scandalous), but all in vain.
The concentration on the poetic but unnatural late pictures and watercolours is just in the sense that these represent the summit of his achievement. But they have not helped Turner’s reputation among some Britons, who have preferred the greater naturalism of Constable, though he too became Expressionist. Some have considered Turner un-English - Pevsner had difficulty placing him in an English context - but that reveals the speaker often to have a limited idea of Turner’s oeuvre as a whole and of British society and achievement.
Harold Macmillan was once quoted as saying that there is no Middle East problem as there is no solution. Art people have said the same about the problem of the Turner Bequest - the history is too complicated to unravel. That is absurd. It would be a piece of cake to create a proper Turner Gallery and to reunite the Turner Bequest permanently, if the will was there.
Disraeli reminisced about his joint leadership of the Tory party with the 14th Earl of Derby, not a great aesthete. “The Stanleys had no imagination - but Lord Derby, if he had a passion, had one for Shakespeare & when he was quite alone with his family, especially at Knowsley, used to read Shakespeare aloud every night. When we were discussing any grave point - especially on affairs, & Stanley saw nothing but difficulties, & I evinced any impatience he used to say ‘I know what you are going to say, I know what you are going to say.’ He meant, that he had no imagination - and sometimes when I said so, he would reply, ‘I knew you would say that’.”
Derby was thrice Prime Minister and on the first time appointed the great champion of Turner’s wishes, Lord St Leonards, Lord Chancellor. But, when confronted by the Royal Academy with his broken promises to it, he airily remarked, “Those were my salad days, when I was green in judgement” - a Shakesperean quote other politicians could fall back on. And indeed other, such as the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne and Lord Palmerston, tried to shrug off the Turner question with a joke.
Yet today it is in a way much easier to fulfil Turner’s wish for a Turner Gallery than it was 160 years ago, now the the bequest is decoupled, as it has been for a century, from the problems of site and space of the National Gallery, and were the funds derived from the National Lottery were spent as they were intended to be and not on the Olympics or indeed on dud museums which have since closed.
The trouble is that we have ministers and a parliament which is uninterested. They seem to care neither for our greatest artist, nor for the scacredness of testators’ testamentary conditions, nor indeed for the possibility offered by a great Turner Gallery of attracting large numbers of tourists and so giving our economy a boost as well as raising the country’s status in the eyes of foreigners.
The so-called Department of Culture is something of a joke, as most of the time it is concerned with the media and their impact on politics, a matter for the Home Office, or the extension of broadband, which in the past would have been the province of the Postmaster-General. Few Secretaries of State in recent times have any real commitment to culture. If no candidates can be found in the Commons, there is the option of finding a candidate among the public and making him or her a peer, though not everyone approved of Viscount Eccles or Lord Donaldson.
This is reflected by the Select Committee which shadows the Department. The members are chosen to represent different parties, different parts of the country, those with an interest in the media, tourism and sport, which leaves little room for Culture, let alone an interest in the fine arts. A new chairman has been elected this week, Damian Collins, MP for Folkestone (the subject of one of Turner’s greatest paintings, once owned by Lord Clark). I quote from his account of himself: QUOTE
There are of course exceptions, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose aunt was an enthusiast for Turner, or Patrick Cormack, now Lord Cormack, who joined the old Turner Society committee soon after I founded it in 1975. But, if one compares recent cabinets with those of the past, one cannot but note a decline. In Churchill’s there were besides himself Sir Anthony Eden, Rab Butler, Sir David Eccles and Patrick Buchan-Hepburn, later Lord Hailes. Unfortunately no one at that date was campaigning for justice for Turner, though Lord Beaverbrook started to shortly before he died. His call at the end of his life for the Evening Standard to publish a series of articles on the scandalous mistreatment of the Turner Bequest was ignored by its editor, whose secretary at the time was later a friend of my wife and said that the editor was chiefly concerned to get invitations from the galleries. This illustrates the too close connection between the museums and media, who are often billed as media partners in exhibitions, a not wholly innocent or beneficial alliance.
It is true that there are a few politicians interested in art. Iain Duncan Smith has privately expressed a liking for Turner. Boris Johnson has written an enthusiastic chapter about him, and would make an interesting Culture minister. But, if that post was offered to him, he would no doubt regard that as an insult and beneath him, as others have done. When I was at Manchester City Art Gallery the councillors voted on to its committee thought that they had drawn the short straw, left out of the committees that really matter. This is an indication that Culture is not treated as seriously in Britain as it is in, say, France. Yet we are TOLD that the arts are flourishing here as nowhere else and is now one of our (few) great industries.
What we have called for is a new committee of enquiry to consider the conclusions of the one of 1861 (instigated and guided by a great lawyer and Tory Lord Chancellor, Lord St Leonards) and how the neglect of those might best be remedied. One of our members has painted a picture satirising (in the treadition of Hogarth) the Commons’ neglect of the question, and an important collector of old masters has suggested that this might be shown in the Palace of Westminster. What we would appreciate is your support of this proposal.
There is not only a political deficit, but one in the museum and art worlds. Our museum directors are naturally in favour of the status quo, of holding on to what they have got, and such is the power of patronage of the big London national museums and galleries most art professionals are terrified of upsetting them. One who has taken a more independent line I have already mentioned. He is Julian Spalding, who in his talk to us advocated a re-ordering of the national museum collections on a more rational basis, including a separate Turner Gallery. Some of his proposed changes could hit various obstacles, but there is no reason why the Turner one should. Disraeli was not deterred by any little difficulties from buying a half share in the Suez Canal, which was much more adventurous.
Change in attiudes to art must ultimately come from artists. Turner wanted his example to influence future ones. Some seem to think that getting rid of Sir Nicholas Serota as Dirtector of the Tates would achieve what they want. But he is merely a very skilful executive putting into effect worldwide trends that go back to Duchamp. What is needed is new artists with vision and orginality. Good art in the end drives out bad.
But what also is needed is a change in society, as John Ruskin recognised. Earlier this month Dame Fiona Reynolds addressed the Ruskin Foundation on the subject of Beauty, a concept which she said had gone out of fashion. Why has it? Partly surely because there has been so much ugliness - moral and physical - in the 20th century following world wars and the blights of industrialisation, and because we have lacked the example of religion to reconcile evil and good by the power of beauty as achieved by artists such as Rembrandt - as indeed also by Turner in his magnificent paintings of disasters at sea or in the mountains or in war, as in his nocturnal depiction of the slain on the Field of Waterloo.
I have just finished reading Rendez-Vous with Art, conversations between our art critic, Martin Gayford, and Philippe de Montebello, the longest serving director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but conscious also of his French heritage. The latter favours art which is restrained, and so has little appreciation of Rembrandt or Turner - though perhaps a fuller acquaintance with Turner’s work might make him more appreciative with that. And even those who are not partial to Turner concede that he was a remarkable phenomenon.
I recommend the book, however, as it gets to the heart of why we should appreciate real art. It also emphasises the part played by context in our appreciation of art - the place, the building, the circumstances of viewing. Part of my contention is that all that is wrong in the case of the Clore Gallery and was not even considered in its planning, as I have mentioned in my contribution to the blog of the Watts Gallery this week. G.F.Watts is an example of the rehabilitation of a giant of the past (in part) and even more so of the acknowledgement that museums devoted to individual artists can be vital and popular, something denied by the Tate and bien-pensants in 1975 but refuted by the phenomenal successes of those devoted to such as Van Gogh and Picasso. Last year the Watts Gallery set up the Artist’s Studio-Museums Forum. a topic on which we held an international conference in 1990.
If you look up Rendez-Vous with Art on Amazon you will find several comments by readers, most awarding it 5 stars, but one only 1 star, an angry protest that it is elitist, does not deal with topics such as feminism etc, which I take to be a fundamental misunderstaning of what art is BASICALLY about - of course it is about many things. I conclude with words spoken by de Montebello in the Great Court of the British Museum:
“Isn’t this what we all seek in museums? To be raised up, to have our world enhanced by the contemplation of surpassing works of art? To those who would seek a low common denominator in what their museums do in order to ‘relate’ to their public, I would simply say that confronting greatness does not diminish us, on the contrary. Goethe pointed this out when he marvelled at the Rondanini Helenistic head of Medusa in Munich’s Glyptothek and said ‘The mere knowledge that such a work could be created makes me twice the person I was.’”
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