Dicing with Art and Earning Approval
Since Monday the Goyas and the Canalettos of the National Gallery’s rooms 38 and 39 have received half of their previous levels of surveillance. Warders are being made responsible for two rooms instead of one. The gallery contends that its rolling programme of reductions will improve surveillance, on a belief that perambulatory warders will be more alert and effective as “policing” presences than ones who combine sedentary supervision with opportunities to congregate and chat at the ends of their respective galleries.
The fact remains that halving staff coverage halves the quantity of surveillance in galleries whether or not its quality improves marginally or even significantly. The most alert and attentive persons cannot be in two places at once. They have only a single pair of eyes. They cannot see through walls or screens. Despite such intractable realities and inevitable “incidents” (on the expectation of which conservation staff are on permanent stand-by), the Gallery has claimed an endorsement of its arrangements from the National Security Adviser who works for the MLA (Museums, Libraries and Archives). Soon after the National Security Adviser had approved the National Gallery’s reductions, a double act of vandalism occurred. On July 16th (as we reported on July 20th, and the Guardian today discusses), two Poussin paintings were attacked and defaced in a room where the warder was also responsible for the adjacent gallery. Apart from a terse National Gallery statement, near silence has been maintained.
We also cited an artist visitor to the Tate who, on complaining to a warder about people standing in front of paintings while having their photographs taken, was told that this is now allowed because staff cut-backs make it impossible to enforce gallery rules. If that is the case – and a second source now reports the same disturbances at the Tate – does this new arrangement also have the approval of the National Security Adviser? When in July 1994 the Tate lost two Turner paintings loaned to a gallery in Frankfurt that shared its premises with a music college and had no perimeter defences, it issued a self-exculpatory press release:
“The Tate and other British national collections have previously lent works to the Schirn Kunsthalle without incident… Built in 1984 the Schirn Kunsthalle is fitted with modern alarm systems to detect both intruders and fire. It is approved by the National Security Adviser for loans from British galleries…”
On the day of that apologia (29 July 1994) the Tate’s Director of Programmes, Sandy Nairne, visited the gallery and was promptly told by the Frankfurt police “Your pictures have been taken hostage”. He soon learned that Serbian gangsters had employed thieves to take the paintings and that Frankfurt has a Serbian mafia which runs the city’s red light district and associated crimes. He learned that the theft was an inside job with masked men overpowering the night guard just after he had shut the front door as fourteen security staff (employed by a Frankfurt security firm) had departed and just before he was due to turn on the alarm systems. Nairne ruefully retraced the guard’s steps from the door:
“I saw the onward route taken by the guard, surrounded, so it appeared to me, with places where thieves might hide after closing time – the back stairs? Behind partitions on the mezzanine? An entry point from the sister institution, the music school? Any of these seemed workable as places from which to launch an internal attack. It was already clear that this theft was of a kind known as a ‘stay-behind’. ”
Whether or not the National Security Adviser evaluates buildings’ interiors in such an attentive manner or does so on paper submissions alone, the possibility of “stay-behinds” will likely be present in National Gallery minds: one of the paintings which this week became subject to NSA-approved semi-surveillance – Goya’s portrait bust of the Duke of Wellington (see Fig. 1) – was a victim of a “stay-behind” theft at the gallery on August 3rd 1961 while left hanging on a screen facing the main entrance.
The Goya was held for four years, the Tate Turners for six and eight years respectively. The recovery of the first Turner was kept secret and the painting was hidden to be produced at a Good News press conference on the (expected) recovery of the second painting. Learning of an imminent newspaper story on the recovery of the painting from Serbian criminals, the Tate produced a press statement, in the name of the director, which misleadingly implied that no knowledge existed of the paintings’ whereabouts and that no negotiations were taking place. Because the Tate was in fact engaged in protracted negotiations about the mechanisms of buying back the paintings for the full £3.1m ransom demanded by the Serbians, the gallery and the Metropolitan Police pursued a joint policy of secrecy and disinformation. It has been revealed that in the Tate’s “recovery operation” no serious attempt was made to catch the criminals holding the paintings – the aim being to get the ransomed pictures back at all costs. Has the National Security Adviser taken a view on the advisability and security ramifications of a national museum that is a registered charity using charitable monies to pay a £3.1m ransom to criminals? If criminals appreciate that museums are now prepared to pay ransoms at 13.4% of insurance payouts might we not expect an increase in thefts?
Shortly after the National Gallery displayed the recovered Goya at a crowded and joyous press conference on 24 May 1965 it received from the police what its director, Philip Hendy, termed “the very embarrassing news” that the thief had turned himself in and would “probably have to be charged”. The news was indeed embarrassing: how to explain the fact that a single portly northern unemployed man of almost pensionable age was able (on his account) to leave through an open lavatory window adjacent to a builder’s ladder in the back yard, while carrying a framed painting that had just been purchased for the gallery and the Nation at great expense and with enormous publicity and fanfare? The thief was charged and, after a highly newsworthy trial, acquitted of stealing the painting but convicted of stealing and destroying the picture’s frame. (On the theft’s legal ramifications – British theft laws were changed as a result of it – see the current History Today.)
The National Gallery disputed the thief’s claimed time of theft on the grounds that the alarm system was said by its security staff to have been on at the time. It could only have been taken, staff insisted, during a very brief period before the alarm had been activated. If so, that too would likely have been an “inside job” as well as a “stay-behind”. Nonetheless, the gallery learned its lesson and increased the numbers of warders. It has not (so far as we know) had another theft since. Odd corners that had carried pictures were no longer allowed to do so and screens used to carry additional pictures were removed. Moreover, the director admitted that even if some subsequent misdemeanours appeared to have been “incited by irresponsible press men, the Press as a whole is doing no less than carrying out its responsibilities in reporting crimes and anti-social acts”.
The theft was reported in the gallery’s 1962-64 and 1965-66 Annual Reports which, by coincidence, contained news of two then recent purchases that were both to suffer catastrophic damage at the gallery: Beccafumi’s panel painting “Marcia” (see right), and Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Cartoon – his working study for the Louvre’s painting “The Virgin and Child with S. Anne and S. John the Baptist”.
In the 1962-64 Report the director spoke of pressures to lend the gallery’s Leonardo drawing – “the costliest and at the same time the most delicate of it acquisitions”. That now more than five centuries old drawing is to be subjected to needless risks in an act of inter-museum horse-trading. In exchange for the Louvre’s newly announced preparedness to lend its version of Leonardo’s “Virgin of the Rocks” to join the National Gallery’s version in the forthcoming Leonardo blockbuster exhibition, the Cartoon will then go to the Louvre to be shown next to the painting for which it was a preparatory study. This swap is celebrated in a National Gallery press release as an historic and “extraordinary collaboration between the National Gallery and the painting department of the Louvre”. No celebratory release was issued by the gallery last September when a Denis Mahon painting, Guercino’s “The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple”, was damaged by a visitor and had to be removed for three days for conservation treatment. No press release was issued three years ago when the Gallery dropped and smashed its Beccafumi panel.
We cannot suppress the thought that this last-minute swap – which adds another Leonardo to the already fate-tempting concentration of his works to be assembled for the forthcoming blockbuster exhibition – might be being hoped to be seen as an endorsement of the National Gallery’s safety record at a time when the new Board of the Princes Czartoryski Museum in Krakow is reconsidering its earlier decision (made against the advice of leading Polish scholars and conservators) to lend Leonardo’s “The Lady with an Ermine” to that exhibition.
In any event, there is a great asymmetry in the relative vulnerabilities of the two loans. The Louvre painting was transferred from its original panel to canvas in 1806. That transfer was performed badly but with the consequence that the surviving paint remains locked into an embrace with the canvas by a permanently too-hard glue. The Cartoon is a work of the utmost delicacy consisting largely of flimsy traces of charcoal and chalk that adhere to the surface of the paper.
No National Security Adviser, no museum curator, no conservator and no art insurance underwriter – can guarantee to works of art either complete safety in transit, or stable environments throughout their multi-vehicle, international travels. Nor can it be assumed that today’s ever-increasing velocity of art trafficking between museums will never produce a catastrophe. Underwriters are already fearful. Robert Hiscox, chairman of Hiscox Ltd has admitted that:
“In insurance underwriting you have to balance your books and there is no way we are getting in enough overall premium income to cover what will one day be an enormous loss when an aeroplane full of valuable art crashes, let alone if it lands on MOMA.”
In 1991 Hiscox put the risks for loaned works as being ten times higher than for works left at home. More recently the insurers AXA put the risk at six times greater. With the irreplaceable and peerless Leonardo Cartoon, the risks of travel should have been judged too horrendous to contemplate by any responsible National Gallery curator. In 1963 an international investigative committee composed of leading conservators, drawings curators, and five National Gallery officials, concluded that this drawing, which is composed of eight sheets of ancient paper glued along their overlapping edges, was “weakened by a highly acidic condition making it brittle and fragile”. Those experts could not “envisage the possibility of strengthening the support to such an extent that the Cartoon will ever be fit to travel.” They highlighted a particular vulnerability:
“Humidity variation is the chief cause of movement within the structure of the Cartoon. Every time the humidity changes, such a moisture-sensitive object expands, contracts or warps; and eventually such movement causes cracking, breaking, detachments of small pieces etc.”
During 1962 the Leonardo Cartoon had been displayed on a screen at the National Gallery while an appeal was made for purchase funds. On June 27th 1962 a man threw a bottle of ink at the drawing. He had a second bottle of ink in a pocket but “before he extracted it he had been seized by an Attendant.” On the 26th of July he was found unfit to plead at the central criminal Court and detained indefinitely. The ink was not spilt but the drawing’s Perspex shield cracked and caused “a chain of scratches about 12 inches in total length and the cutting away of the paper in one very small area.” The Perspex was replaced with a double plastic screen, the first being 1 inch thick.
Since then the work has undergone a major restoration following an attack by an unemployed ex-soldier who entered the National Gallery with a concealed sawn-off shotgun on July 17th 1987. Five minutes before closing time he stood directly in front of the drawing and blasted it with his shotgun, shattering its (by that date) strengthened-glass protection. He, like the man who spray-painted the two Poussins on July 16th, made no attempt to move off or to resist arrest. He was later judged unfit to plead in a court of law, sparing the gallery the embarrassment of a trial. The subsequent restoration of the Cartoon was quietly celebrated in the gallery’s 1989 Technical Bulletin as a miracle of patient technical ingenuity and resourcefulness – which it certainly was – but (characteristically) no attempt was made compare the most damaged area of the drawing after the “restoration” with its appearance before the shooting, and thereby evaluate its artistic as well as its conservation consequences (see right). The most remarkable and eloquent feature of this series of technical studies was the account of the utterly nightmarish fragility of the drawing’s condition given by the then head of Conservation, Martin Wyld. No one who has read his detailed explanation of why it is not safe to undertake even the most otherwise urgent conservation measures, can be in any doubt that this must be the least suitable work in the Gallery to go on a jaunt to Paris – see opposite. We would urge the gallery to reconsider its decision. We expected better of the present director – who has, himself, written eloquently in the recent past of the perils of movement for works of art.
Art and the maintenance of its integrity should be the driver of museum policies. It is wickedly irresponsible of EU bureaucrats to be encouraging inter-museum loans as a means of job-creation, and then to claim of travel-injured works that:
“…in many cases, after the exhibits have been restored, only experts can assess the alteration resulting from the damage. The restored artworks can therefore be exhibited as they are.”
We deceive ourselves if we believe that modern, scientifically assisted restorers can make good any injury that might arise. They cannot, as the best of them will admit. The fifteenth century is not ours to remake – and we should not put what little survives of it at needless risk. This should be appreciated at the National Gallery where Beccafumi’s panel, “Marcia”, was recently dropped and smashed during “de-installation” from a temporary exhibition that had – like the forthcoming Leonardo show – attracted more loans than expected. That panel is now considered too fragile to be loaned outside the gallery – but compared with Leonardo’s Cartoon it is in rude good health. After its recent hasty restoration, it has been relegated to the reserve collection which is open to the public for only a few hours each week. Sad though this, it is a better fate than being on the road – or than being on the floor.
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