Selby Whittingham: The Temptations of the Wallace Collection

Selby Whittingham

“I’m just a slave / only a slave to you, temptation”. So sang Bing Crosby in 1933 in a song, Temptation, repeated by many famous singers since and, in 1970, in a German TV act of Sid Millward & The Nitwits. That shows (it was recorded) Sid presiding over players prey to temptations which are low rather than romantic, ones of vanity, exhibitionism and revenge. “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it” (Wilde). So the Wallace Collection has demonstrated and probably will demonstrate further after its successful attempt to remove the prohibition on lending its works which I and others have deplored (November/December issue). “We will start slowly and see how things go,” says Chairman Horta-Osorío ominously.

Temptation and the Wallace go together in the pictures which give it its unique character, those of the French 18th century. By contrast the Director, Xavier Bray, has complained that “working at the Wallace is quite a monastic existence because people know they will never get anything out of you.” The temptation has been for the director to supplant the owner, giving him the latter’s powers and excuses for trips abroad to

400 Bad Request

arrange exchanges, which create further temptations. He confessed to the Daily Telegraph in June 2018 that “as soon as you open it up you will get a barrage of requests and we might not be able to deal with it and we will haemorrhage art. We would have to have very strict conditions, saying a work could only travel once every ten years or something.” But what Bray thinks or whatever self-imposed rules are made, subsequent administrations will regard these as of as little consequence as he does those of Lady Wallace, and they will not even need to go to the Charity Commission.  If a donor’s conditions are to be changed, they should be replaced by new ones set by the courts, and not simply swept away by the secretive proceedings of the Commission, requests by Neil Jeffares and myself  for information on the decision of which have gone unanswered.

Nearly 30 years ago I considered the issue in relation to the Turner Bequest in The Fallacy of Mediocrity. I proposed that a new Act should vest the bequest in a separate trust and that that this should enshrine a clarification and modification of Turner’s prohibition on lending, viz. “The 98 finished oils … should be exhibited constantly together, except that (i) any may be loaned for public exhibition for a period not exceeding 6 months (ii) such loans should be made with regard to the objective of all the finished oils being on view together for most of the time.”  I proposed this clause (which could be improved) hesitantly as any change to a donor’s restrictions is always seized on as a precedent for making further ones. Thus some have said that the disregard of Lady Wallace’s request that the collection should be moved to a new building is a precedent for disregarding the other conditions. Suzanne Higgott in her biography of Sir Richard Wallace, however, has shown that he wished the collection to remain at Hertford House, the only snag, which the government later resolved, being that it was not held freehold. Then people say that Sir Richard, like Turner, lent some of the works, so he could not disapprove of lending. But that presupposes that the museum will lend on grounds that the donor would choose and not for the feeble reasons that are now not uncommon.

True, some grounds for lending are plausible.  It will allow, said the January-February issue, the Wallace Rubens landscape to be hung beside the National Gallery one for comparison, as the National has long wanted.  However it would already have been possible for both to be displayed together in the Wallace’s basement exhibition rooms. The peace in which I enjoyed the Wallace one a year ago will be broken by exhibition hoopla. The change stems partly from the wish to attract more visitors, however uninterested, and so cause overcrowding. I recently attended a large party in the Great Gallery at which hardly any of the guests bestowed a glance on its masterpieces.  There is of course a benefit in bringing together works by an artist from different collections in a temporary exhibition. In the case of Turner, though, there is an existing congregation of his works which the Tate perversely is set on dispersing. Many of the monographic exhibitions devoted to currently popular artists such as Turner and Monet are driven by the desire to maximise revenue and visitor numbers.

Many people are either unconcerned about whether conditions are adhered to or are actively hostile to donors, thinking that they have no moral right to impose their ideas on later generations. Yet maintenance of the donor’s ideas contributes to something now popular, diversity.  By contrast museums everywhere that are free to do as they like come to look more and more similar as curators the world round follow trends like sheep. In November I organised an event contrasting the tastes of two of Turner’s more discerning later patrons, which were distinctly different though they were fishing in the same pool.

One of them, Elhanan Bicknell, was said in the Dictionary of National Biography to have contemplated giving his collection to the National Gallery.  Probably Bicknell decided against that after seeing how ill those of Vernon and Turner fared. Lee Rosenbaum in her Culturegrrl blog has regretted that the bequest of Jayne Wrightsman to the Metropolitan Museum of Art has come with a prohibition on lending.  At least, she says, there is no 400 Bad Request provision that the works have to remain in their own exclusive rooms as in the cases of some earlier bequests. While the curators “probably must honour the rash promises made to donors that were made by previous directors,” in future gifts conditional on such exclusivity, which “cause the flow and logic of its galleries to be disrupted”, should be refused. That seems wise.  However much worse disruptions are instanced by her in the chaotic new extension to MOMA. And the Wallace had no compunction in quite illegitimately disrupting the flow of its galleries by the insertion of rooms devoted to the works of Freud and Hirst.

The Burlington Magazine in its November editorial, “Lifting the dead hand”, predictably supported the Wallace decision with the tired old arguments against the tyranny of donors which I answered at length in The Fallacy but which the art establishment has never answered. The point that time has not changed the validity of the preservation of collections intact, even if it has put in question other provisions and other property questions, is never met. The Burlington sanctimoniously states that “it is reasonable to expect a museum to honour the wishes of a donor”, while in fact it believes that it is always legitimate to override them. It does so on the basis of precedent; very often a donor’s conditions have been overturned. But there is no case law precedent for that, only the

sloppy way in which the issue has been treated in Britain. One reason for that is that the current owners, the museums, are in a much stronger position than those who might challenge them, standing in the courts for the heirs of donors being restricted.

In the 19th century England was known as the “Land without Music”. Equally with regard to its museums it might be called the “Land without Law”. And also without taste, a sense of history or of responsibility. What museums were once about was first and foremost conservation and secondarily about the quiet appreciation of art, and not primarily about outreach, education, theorising, propagandising, these last being left to the avant garde, to where they belong, outside the museums and especially outside ones such as the Wallace whose character depends on preserving their integrity.