Selby Whittingham: Curatorial Incontinence

Selby Whittingham

When Napoleon removed Europe’s art treasures to France on the grounds that their rightful place was not with “slaves” but “in the bosom of a free people”, some might cynically think that this was not just a piece of enlightenment, but that it was very convenient that the new home for them happened to be Paris.  Likewise, when curators advocate the removal of restrictions imposed by donors by an enlightened wish to benefit people living today, the cynic will ask if that is the only motive or if a greater one is to satisfy the curiosity, restlessness and ambition of the curator.

These thoughts are prompted by the decision to allow the Wallace Collection to lend works from its collection, when since 1900 it was held that this was forbidden by the conditions of Lady Wallace’s bequest, a view apparently of  those who had known Sir Richard and Lady Wallace intimately. Other house museums inspired by the Wallace have had similar restrictions, which some, such as the Frick Collection, still honour.

Such observations were made by the lawyer Sir John Lewis, chairman of the trustees 1997-2004, in a letter in The Times on 5 October. He concluded, “Is this not a clear breach of trust …?” However trust had already been breached a decade ago, on which I wrote in this journal (no. 89, Jan/Feb 2010). The exhibition of works by Freud and Hirst in the main first floor galleries, quite apart from seriously disrupting the permanent collection, was clearly in breach of Lady Wallace’s provision for “a special museum to contain the said collection which shall be kept together, unmixed with other objects of art.”  The jesuitical excuse, accepted then by Lewis, was that the loans and Wallace pictures were in separate rooms and so there was no mixing.  There quickly followed a Watteau exhibition on the first floor with Wallace and borrowed pictures in the same room. The latter may have been of interest to Watteau specialists, but are in such wretched condition as to diminish rather than enhance general appreciation of the artist.

The usual justifications are trotted out.

1. The donor (or, in this case, her husband) lent (or sold) works, so she/he would not oppose that now. But one might as well say that, because an artist has altered his paintings, others may do so after his death. To the curator this analogy may seem false, but he is not a collector but a scatterer. To the collector his collection is his work of art, which is why he may wish that it be kept together unchanged in perpetuity.

2. Who wants a fossilised “capsule for eternity”, asks art lawyer Ludovic de Walden in The Times? Many do. Period rooms are preserved at the V&A and Met and whole houses such as Osborne House. Remaining unchanged is key.

3. Great works of art do not belong to individuals but to the world. This communist attitude to property is not shared by all.

4. Art should be circulated round the world so that as many people as possible can see it. But if an object in Museum A is moved to Museum B, it will not be seen by visitors to Museum A. In the case of the Wallace nearly one-third of visitors come from abroad. Many of those and also from the UK will only ever pay one visit, so may never see the lent works, which are likely to be among the most important in the museum (as in the case of the Sheepshanks and Ionides bequests at the V&A as I write).

5. Lady Wallace’s wording was imprecise. But, in the case of J. M. W. Turner’s bequest it was rightly observed that, if ever conditions were worded so as to prevent escape from them impossible, his were.  But they are totally ignored. And so is the case with other gifts of collections which I discussed in an article commissioned by the late Professor Norman Palmer QC in 1995. Bendor Grosvenor, unconcerned about the rights of the donor, argues that an independent Scotland would have a right to part of the Turner Bequest; that only 25% of the pictures are now on display and that Edinburgh suffers from a dearth of Turners which should be remedied.

Since 1995 Sir William Burrell’s prohibition on lending abroad has been overturned by the Scottish Parliament, as Turner’s has been by the UK one.  It was admitted that if the proponents of the change chose instead to apply to the courts, they would probably lose. In fact the English courts have never tried such issues. In the Wallace case the application was made to the Charity Commission, which offers a cheap alternative to the courts, and so provides peanut justice, deliberating in secrecy without the donor’s interests represented.

The Wallace press release refers to the 2017 Mendoza Review of Museums in England, made in response to a Culture White Paper in 2016. Its recommendations highlight “growing and diversifying audiences” and “dynamic collections curation and management”, aims of successive governments which are manna to activist and ambitious curators, some more interested in sociology than in art and their collections (as at Manchester). Populism and penury (caused by reductions in public grants to museums) help prompt acceptance of these aims.

The National Gallery’s quincentenary Raphael exhibition  promises as usual “works never seen in the UK before or never seen outside where they reside now”.  “Unfortunately,”  it is added, these cannot include the huge Vatican frescoes.  However frescoes are sometimes moved, and so is stained glass. This is patently contrary to the intention of their creators and funders. However we are told that the Raphael frescoes “will be presented in other innovative ways” through new imaging technology. Is that not the true modern way forward? In general leave works where they are for those motivated to go to see them on their own initiatives rather than prompted by the loan exhibition publicity blitz and the bogus “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity “ending very soon”.

While the Charity Commission in these matters is something of a joke, the Department of Digital, its ministers and shadowing committee are complete jokes. None of them have an understanding of museums or realise – what is at the heart of the matter – that an essential attraction of museums is that they are all different, and that individuality (which is at the base of fine art) is to be cherished and not legislated away.

What about the museum trustees? Financiers and professional art historians replace the great and good of yesteryear. If one of the current trustees is a lawyer, Jennifer Eady QC, her field has been employment law. In her statement of qualifications to be a trustee she has said that the Wallace is her “local” museum and that she has “a particular interest in the educational and outreach work of the collection”. No doubt other locals will welcome constant changes in the display and exciting masterpieces borrowed from around the world, but to others this may be poor compensation for the absence of works they had come to see.

It is overdue to call time on copycat curators and philistine politicians and to leave each museum to its proper destiny. Is this too much to hope when the tomtits of the art world only ever have one song?

And I said to him, “Dicky-bird, why do you sit
Singing ‘Willow, titwillow, titwillow?’
“Is it weakness of intellect, birdie?” I cried
“Or a rather tough worm in your little inside?”
With a shake of his poor little head he replied,
“Oh, Willow, titwillow, titwillow!”