When James Dennistoun, an art historian, was offered the post of Director of the National Gallery, he turned it down on the grounds that no one in their right mind would want to accept a post which involves ‘endless squabbling from bigwigs and blackguards for some 600 or 800 pounds a year’. From the acquisition in 1826 of Titian’s magnificent Bacchus and Ariadne (NG 35) as one of the earliest paintings in collection, through the purchase in 1890 of Holbein’s group portrait of The Ambassadors (NG 1314) – one of the first paintings to be funded by private donations – to Stubbs’s great Whistlejacket (NG 6569) bought in 1997, Charles Saumarez Smith’s perceptive book tells the story of arguably the most important and most beloved public art collection in the world, the National Gallery London.
Following the fortunes of the Directors who preceded him, up to and including Neil MacGregor, Director from 1987-2002, Charles Saumarez Smith draws on his own experience to give us important insights into the challenges faced by all the Directors as they managed the collection from its very modest origins through to its position as a world class institution, with some of the most important, beautiful and inspirational works of art in the Western world, that welcomes more than five million visitors per year.
As he says: “As Director, I certainly was conscious of treading in the footsteps of my predecessors…” Amongst other issues they’ve faced, many Directors have had to handle tricky staff and Trustee relations – much as Dennistoun suspected – which was typified by the experiences of Sir Charles Holroyd, Director from 1906-17. Not long after Holroyd was appointed, Alfred de Rothschild, one of the Trustees at the time, graphically described how ‘if he were one’s butler and brought up a corked bottle of wine one would spit it out’.
Dr Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery, said, “Charles’s book offers many valuable insights into the history of the National Gallery and its architecture, personalities and paintings. The book provides the perfect companion for those wanting an accessible overview of the development of the Gallery from 1824 to the present time”.
Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, President of the Royal Academy also commented: “The Royal Academy of Arts very much welcomes the publication of this important historical record of the National Gallery. Our two institutions have a shared history, including the RA being housed alongside the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square for thirty years in the nineteenth century.”
The National Gallery: A Short History is a behind the scenes look at the enduring tensions through the centuries between the management and the board that have always been a feature of the National Gallery and, indeed, many of our best loved, publicly funded cultural institutions.
Dr Charles Saumarez Smith CBE was Director of the National Gallery from 2002 to 2007. He was in charge of the acclaimed campaign to save Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks for the nation and also presided over the successful East Wing development. He is now Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts. He has been Director of the National Portrait Gallery, President of the Museums Association and Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford.