|Exquisite tenderness: Gainsborough's portrait of his daughters|
Two weeks ago I went to the Gainsborough’s Family Album exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and if you have nothing to do in the next 2 days I urge you to catch it before it closes. (A fat lot of use giving you so little notice, I know. Sorry.) If your only image of this marvellous 18th century painter is as a highly-skilled, flattering portraitist of wealthy aristocrats, you’ll be bowled over – as I was – by the exquisite tenderness, emotional depth and freshness he achieved in portrait after portrait of his two daughters, captured together at various stages of their lives. His love and fatherly protectiveness burst out of these paintings, making them some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking portraits ever painted.
|Gainsborough's cousin, the Reverend Henry Burroughs:|
This portrait may have been done 'to advertise the artist's skills
to potential patrons in his cousin's circle.'
Or maybe the artist just painted it because the sitter asked him to.
Not that you’d know that from the exhibition’s curators. Reading perceptive review in the Sunday Times, I felt, with him, a familiar weariness at the snide, superficial tone that has spread like a canker throughout the museum and gallery world in the last few years. Art is no longer to be judged on its own merits; all that counts is the money the paintings represent. According to the curators, writes , ‘
At this point I feel my forehead hit the palm of my hand.
Because I recognise this mean perspective. Visiting the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall a couple of years ago, I found the same narrative hammered home in every room. Bess of Hardwick had the lavish staircase built ‘to impress visitors with her power and wealth.’ Each piece of furniture had this function, as did all the paintings in the long gallery. It’s now a family joke with us that ‘Going to See Some Power and Wealth’ has become shorthand for visiting stately homes. Yes, rich people have always liked to show off; but no one buys an armchair just to Show Their Power and Wealth. Needing somewhere to sit might have something to do with it. Equally, many wealthy aristocrats were genuinely interested in art, fostering young painters and building up important collections for which we are all the richer. The founding collections of The National Galleries of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland came from rich art enthusiasts who bought these paintings, not because they were expensive, but because they considered them beautiful.
We don’t have to read this tosh, I know. But I find it sad that visitors, including generations of schoolchildren, are being shortchanged and patronised in this way. The opportunity is there to spark interest – even a little – in the art around them; instead, they are encouraged to sneer at the art’s being there at all.
No worries at all? I think the Bute family had a few.
Do yourself a favour: go to exhibitions, galleries and beautiful houses, just don’t bother reading what the curators or guides have to say anymore. It’s sad that we’ve come to this.