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Brian Sewell – Still Stinging in Death

The death on September 19th of the famously acerbic art critic Brian Sewell was generally marked by fair, balanced and sometimes touching obituary notices. For one of his critical victims, Susan Loppert, a signatory to the infamous 1994 “Gang of 35” letter calling for Sewell’s dismissal as the Evening Standard art critic, this seems to have been taken as a personal affront.

The now legendary Evening Standard letter of 5 January 1994 from thirty-five self-appointed contemporary art establishment worthies began pompously – “As members of the art world – writers, critics, artists, art historians, curators, dealers – we take the greatest exception to Brian Sewell’s writing in your newspaper…”, proceeded viciously – “His virulent homophobia and misogyny are deeply offensive, particularly the remarks made in the review of the exhibition Writing on the Wall”, and ended with pomposity, viciousness and self-pity: “We believe that the capital deserves better than Sewell’s dire mix of sexual and class hypocrisy, intellectual posturing and artistic prejudice”. This public attempt to silence a maverick critical voice was entirely self-defeating. As demonstrated below, it generated an explosion of support, catapulting the then 63 year-old art critic into a national prominence that would run for two decades.

This happy unintended outcome was, however, the exception to other manoeuvres in a bid to rig press coverage of deeply unpopular experimental art practices. A post hoc rationale for advancing against the press was given by the Tate’s director, Nicholas Serota in the 2000 Dimbleby Lecture with this plaint: “For in spite of much greater public interest in all aspects of visual culture, including design and architecture, the challenge posed by contemporary art has not evaporated. We have only to recall the headlines for last year’s Turner Prize. ‘Eminence without merit’ (The Sunday Telegraph). ‘Tate trendies blow a raspberry’ (Eastern Daily Press), and my favourite, ‘For 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilising forces. Today, pickled sheep and soiled bed threaten to make barbarians of us all’ (The Daily Mail). Are these papers speaking the minds of their readers?” Well, yes, of course they were, that is one of the things that sensible newspapers do. And that was why the articulation of such dissent posed a political threat to the contemporary art establishment’s ambitions.


The bid to unseat Sewell occurred when the Tate Gallery had become the greatest promoter of experimental art and was working closely with contemporary art dealers. In 1991 one such dealer, Jay Jopling, served on a secret Tate committee. When the editor of the art magazine Jackdaw, David Lee, later asked the Tate for the members of this shadowy committee, that gallery replied curtly that it could not say because no minutes had been taken. But why a secret committee in a publicly-funded registered charity? All businesses and institutions angle for favourable press coverage – that is why they employ large press departments. What additional purpose or purposes were best served secretly? Were there other secret committees at the Tate? Only two press accounts of this shadowy committee exist, and from these we learn that its express purpose was to plant stories to generate press coverage of, and foster interest in, what was widely reviled avant-garde art. Both insights stem from interviews with Jay Jopling when he was about to open the new White Cube gallery in Hoxton Square. The first, on 20 September 2002, was by Rose Aidin in The Guardian:

“Following a brief flirtation with film-production, Jopling started working with artists such as Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn, putting on warehouse-style shows from his Brixton home. When Nicholas Serota formed a think-tank upon his appointment to the Tate in 1991 [NB Serota had been appointed in 1988 – now some twenty-seven years ago!], Jopling was asked to join it. ‘I was very flattered to be included in this meeting to discuss how we got the newspapers to take contemporary art more seriously,’ he recalls. ‘Yet it seemed to me that if the tabloid press was only interested in ridiculing contemporary art, then get them to ridicule it properly, so that people actually take notice.
‘So we got the Daily Star to take a bag of chips to one of Damien’s fish in formaldehyde pieces which was then on show at the Serpentine and photograph it as the most expensive fish and chips in the world. Stunts like that forced people to know about the art and if they know about it, then that encouraged them to go and see it, and then they were forced to take a view. It certainly was a way of getting art into the public arena.'”

In another interview, “Thinking outside the square”, in the Financial Times on 21-22 September 2002, Lynn MacRitchie reported:

“Jopling recalls a ‘dark period’ when he was among a group summoned by Nick Serota to what was then simply the Tate to discuss how to get press coverage for contemporary art. At that time Jopling and his soon-to-be-star Damien Hirst, who proved a tabloid natural, were happy to go along with whatever the papers wanted – posing with a bag of chips next to the shark for the headline ‘The World’s Most Expensive Fish Supper’ was just one stunt. While Jopling concedes that the tabloids’ insistence on making ‘characters’ out of the artists went further than he had expected, the tactics, however dubious, worked – the British public, notoriously indifferent to contemporary art, was hooked…”

At the other end of the press, Tate-friendly art critics set about persuading their broadsheet newspaper editors that publishing comment articles and news page reports mocking avant garde art made their papers look down-market and “tabloid”. Both ploys worked: serious commentary articles questioning Tate policies were killed in the quality press, while in the tabloid press earlier “You call this art?” stories morphed into colourful tales of endearingly whacky new art world celebs “having a larf” at The Establishment. In no time at all, the one-time rebels were the establishment and they, like their dealers, made killings. Sometimes, the Tate’s secret manipulations of the press involved suppressing stories rather than planting them.


Above, Tate players, Sandy Nairne, left, Nicholas Serota, centre, and Stephen Deuchar, right, announcing the recovery of two stolen Tate Turners at a press conference in December 2002.

When the Tate lost two Turner paintings to thieves after loaning them to an insecure German museum in 1994, it later obtained permission from the High Court to buy them back from Serbian gangsters for a ransom of more than £3 million. Secrecy at the Tate went into overdrive when in 1998 Serota set up a so-called “Operation Cobalt”. The gangsters feared a police recovery action might be in operation. Although this was not the case (on the gangsters’ insistence the police had been “stood down” and the banknotes were unmarked), as a precaution, they released the paintings one at a time. When the first Turner was brought back secretly to London, the man who had negotiated the dangerous transfer of cash, Sandy Nairne, a signatory to the 1994 Sewell-Must-Go letter and the then director of the National Portrait Gallery, wanted to release the news. The Tate’s director, Nicholas Serota, refused on the grounds that by holding back until both pictures were recovered it would be possible to achieve a spectacular publicity coup. Hitherto, Serota said, most of the Tate’s “positive” press coverage had not been real news but, in his words, “merely promotional material”. Nairne recalled (in Art Theft, his 2012 book on the affair) that when stories began appearing in the British press “Nick [Serota] questioned me as to whether I was doing enough to ‘control’ those working for us and preventing anyone from speaking to the press…It then emerged that someone had talked to the senior crime writer on the Mail on Sunday [a sister paper to the Evening Standard]. He had heard that one painting was back in London, and he was keen to find some corroboration for this notion – something I wanted no one to know…” A high-powered press consultant, Erica Bolton, was hired on Serota’s advice and she prepared a dissimulating press statement in Serota’s name:

November 2000 Turner Paintings
There has been much speculation over the years about the whereabouts of two paintings by J. M. W. Turner stolen in Frankfurt in 1994. And like the authorities in Germany, Tate has always been interested in any serious information which might lead to their recovery. But currently there is no new information, nor are any current discussions being conducted. Of course I remain hopeful that one day the paintings might return to the Tate.
Nicholas Serota, Tate Director“.

Nairne did not say whether or not the Tate had denied outright to the Mail on Sunday that one of the paintings had already been returned but, in any event, the dreaded article did not appear. As Nairne put it, the paper “did not publish and my fears about further investigative pieces, with imputations about ‘Serbian criminals’ receded.” The identity of the criminals had been disclosed in a 2001 book, The Unconventional Minister, by the former Treasury minister (the Paymaster-General) Geoffrey Robinson, who had bullied Lloyds’ insurance underwriters into allowing the Tate to buy back the rights for the paintings, should they be recovered, for only a small fraction of the £22 million insurance payout the gallery had earlier collected. After the final part of the ransom was paid and the second Turner painting was returned, no arrests were made. (For more on this saga, see Michael Daley, “Ransom or Reward? Part III”, the Jackdaw, January/February 2012, and our posts Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners, and Dicing with Art and Earning Approval.)


The mask penetrated a little: Brian Sewell in a photo-portrait by Graham Turner for an interview (“The mouse that roared”) in the Guardian, 19 November 1994.

On 7 January 1994 the blow-back against the Gang of Thirty-five’s letter began on the Evening Standard letters page.

The Education Secretary, John Patten, wrote:

“I have read with dismay the letter signed by a number of the great and the good in the art world (5 January) attacking Brian Sewell. He shouldn’t be dismayed, but rather cheered…It’s not the whiff of censorship, nor the heavy scent of political correctness which pervades their letter, which concerns me, but its extraordinarily inward-looking nature. In other words, the attitude that cultural life is only for the self-styled cultured, a narrow group alternately puffing and then gently ‘criticising in context’ each other’s work…Their letter marks the barrenness and imploding nature of so much contemporary British intellectual and artistic life, with a few notable exceptions.”

Michael Daley wrote:

“Bravo, Brian. There have been signs for some time that members of our illiberal, modernist, visual arts establishment are becoming unnerved by their own self-constructed isolation. But for one critic, with one review, to derange and bag no fewer than 35 mewling, whining, Arts Council apparatchiks and awards recipients is a splendid achievement.
Long may Mr Sewell (and his Spectator comrade-at-arms Giles Auty) speak for the thinking public and the majority of practising artists. Please give him all the space he needs – the job is urgent. And overdue.”

Vaughan Allen wrote:

“What a laughable reflection on contemporary metropolitan culture was the whingeing letter by its self-appointed spokespeople (Letters, 5 January). And how arrogant to open with ‘As members of the art world’ as though this entitled them to some kind of privileged treatment. Since the sad death of Peter Fuller, Brian Sewell has emerged as one of the few critics consistently to resist the hijacking of the arts by politically correct trendies and mindless charlatans. His denunciation of the pretentious rubbish regularly paraded as art by London’s curators, dealers and critics is a welcome breath of fresh air. Without it Londoners risk suffocation by endless phoney art propaganda and pseudo-intellectual pyscho-babble beloved by a media desperate to foster any artistic fad no matter how imbecilic. Reading down the list [see below] one cannot but help notice the number of indignant signatories who constitute the capital’s incestuous and self-perpetuating art-scene maffia. No wonder they resent Mr Sewell for exposing their specious, life-diminshing but fashionable cultural values. For it is the public’s very acceptance of these warped criteria that they depend on to guarantee their inflated incomes and even more inflated reputations.”

On 14 November 1994, James Beck wrote:

“I read with relish Brian Sewell’s extraordinary ‘Down with bilge, gush and greed’ piece (10 November), nodding my head in agreement after every paragraph. There is no doubt that such views, effectively and brilliantly articulated, are annoying to the art world’s establishment, which has been running a marathon of naked emperors for decades.
Art criticism, and, I would add, official art history, is at the same low ebb, and they feed on and support each other with the aid of colossal sponsorship from international business and foundations, many of them America-based, with limitless funds.
Only with the constant and intelligent criticism by people like Brian Sewell can we hope to open honest debate on the issues that count.”


Looking back, two decades on, what effect did that affair have? And, more personally, how is Sewell now regarded on his departure? The television campaigner Mary Whitehouse suffered decades of vilification until the feminist writer Germaine Greer conceded that she had had a point all along when campaigning against gratuitous televised depictions of (male) violence against women. So Sewell was lucky to have his vindication arrive so fast. But on his death it would seem that, for the signatories of the Sewell-Must-Go letter, time brings no reprieve. Even in his grave, the still-righteous letter-writing collective casts him as wrong, vile and repellent, and themselves as both morally vindicated and art-politically triumphant. The generally balanced and charitable tone of the obituary notices pushed one of the original letter’s signatories (- in fact, we now learn, its author), Susan Loppert, into public rebuttal mode. Protesting against Jonathan Jones’ 21 September article “Brian Sewell was Mr Punch to modern art’s Judy”, Ms Loppert took affronted sisterly umbrage on behalf of Judy in a letter to the Guardian:

“As the author of the ‘naive’ letter by ‘art world types’ published by the Evening Standard in 1994 objecting to Brian Sewell’s attitude to contemporary art, I’d like to clarify why the letter was written. Sewell was an art historian whose main area of expertise was old master paintings. He was hostile to and ignorant about contemporary art, yet at the Standard he wrote lengthy reviews giving vent to his splenetic old fogeyism, virulent homophobia (surprising given his own homosexuality) and misogyny. The review that prompted our protest was a 3,000-word diatribe inveighing against a small exhibition at what is Tate Britain of work by female artists, selected by female curators, the catalogue with contributions from female writers. Sewell dismissed it all as ‘a show defiled by feminist claptrap’, in particular a ‘frightful’ female nude by Vanessa Bell that was so ‘ugly and incompetent, it could hardly be the favourite of even a purblind lesbian’.
The letter did not demand that Sewell be fired, as was erroneously claimed at the time. Stewart Steven, editor of the Standard, had told me that Sewell had been hired to be offensive without being libellous, that his work was deliberately targeted at the lowest common denominator: ‘Essex Man – the strap-hanger on the Ongar Line’. Since we recognised that ‘very occasionally, [Sewell] says something perceptive on subjects where he has some expertise’, we felt that the paper should have two art critics: one for art dating from the early 1900s with its dreaded abstraction, and Sewell for what he called ‘traditional’ art.
The 35 signatories included Bridget Riley, Rachel Whiteread, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, Michael Craig-Martin, Marina Warner, Richard Shone, Christopher Frayling, George Melly, Angela Flowers and John Golding. Perhaps Jonathan Jones was right to say we were naive, but he’s wrong if he thinks ‘Sewell really scared [us]’. What we objected to was his deliberate cruelty and viciousness, and that he was, in the words of your obituary (21 September), ‘puffed up’; like his invented Edwardian voice – and like so many works of art – he was a fake. In the end though, as Jones notes, none of Sewell’s flailing at windmills stopped the inevitable triumph of modern art. Is Sewell turning in his bile-filled grave?”

Note the unreconstructed presumption: “We felt that the paper should have…” We, another respondent, and Ms Loppert herself, replied in letters to the Guardian (3 October) – see “Brian Sewell spoke timely truth to power”. Our letter reads:

“Susan Loppert’s defence of the notorious gang of 35’s attempt to unseat Brian Sewell at the Evening Standard is as disingenuous as her present attack on him is tasteless. Tasteless, too, for her to crow ‘none of Sewell’s flailing at windmills stopped the inevitable triumph of contemporary art. Is Sewell turning in his bile-filled grave?’.
Inevitable triumph? The triumph of all contemporary art – or of just the Tate/Arts Council-sanctioned varieties? In truth, much of the strongest support for Sewell came from contemporary artists of non-state-approved persuasions. I recall this well, having been one of the first to defend Sewell in the Standard: ‘There have been signs for some time that members of our illiberal, modernist, visual art establishment are becoming unnerved by their own self-constructed isolation. But for one critic, with one review, to derange and bag no fewer than 35 mewling, whining, Arts Council apparatchiks and awards recipients is a splendid achievement.
Long may Mr Sewell (and his Spectator comrade-at-arms Giles Auty) speak for the thinking public and for the majority of practising artists. Please give him all the space he needs – the job is urgent. And overdue.’
And so there were but, as it happened, the illiberal gangs did win out, modernism has triumphed and Serota has been anointed (Mugabe-like) Tate director-for-life. But goodness, how close it was then and how deliciously rattled they were – and still are, if Ms Loppert is any indication.”

I should not, perhaps, have mentioned Auty in 1994. He too was attacked at the Spectator by partisans of the Tate and a trendy gallery (see below). Some months later, and again in the Spectator, another of the thirty-five signatories, Richard Shone, then a deputy editor of the Burlington Magazine, attacked every single non-trendy writer on art, including Auty in his own paper – he was branded “didactic”. John McEwen of the Sunday Telegraph was dubbed “world-weary” and so forth. Shone, just like Loppert, demanded a different kind of press and called for a “shake-up of the way fine arts are treated in the press” – even as he admitted that there were “wider individual sympathies for [Sewell] among 20th-century artists than he is given credit for”.



Kathy Adler, Don Anderson, Paul Bailey, Michael Craig-Martin,
Graham Crowely, Joanna Drew, Angela Flowers, Matthew Flowers,
Pofessor Christopher Frayling, Rene Gimpel, John Golding, Francis Graham-Dixon,
Susan Hiller, John Hoole, John Hoyland, Sarah Kent,
Nicholas Logsdail, Susan Loppert, Professor Norbert Lynton, George Melly,
Sandy Nairne, Janet Nathan, Prue O’Day, Maureen Paley,
Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, Deanna Petherbridge, Bridget Riley, Michele Roberts,
Bryan Robertson, Karsten Schubert, Richard Shone, Nikos Stangos,
Marina Warner, Natalie Wheen, Rachel Whiteread.


Richard Shone’s assault on politically unacceptable writers prompted a further brace of letters to the Spectator (28 May 1994):

“Out Shone”

“It is heartening to see how jumpy and ratty members of our illiberal, modernist visual arts establishment (for example, Richard Shone, Arts, 21 May, Anthony Everitt, Guardian 16 May, Richard Dorment, Daily Telegraph 14 May) are becoming. Having seized all outlets from the Tate Gallery to the Royal Academy, the Arts Council to the art schools, the Late Show to Time Out and the Burlington Magazine, today’s mandarins seem to be recognising that their grip is precarious. The outside world will not be bullied into believing that commonplace materials (like brick, chocolate and dead animals) can, by fiat or alchemy, be converted into bona fide works of art. Rare, professionally dissenting voices (such as your art critic Giles Auty and the Evening Standard’s Brian Sewell) are increasingly seen, therefore, as menaces who must be removed. Fortunately, the present establishment campaign to this end is proving spectacularly counter-productive. The Gang of Thirty-five’s notorious call for Sewell’s sacking led to an embarrassing avalanche of support for his writing. Mr Shone’s linked attacks on your art critic and on ‘visually illiterate’ art editors is similarly inept: Auty’s authority and influence as a critic is underwritten precisely by his long and first-hand familiarity as a painter with the mechanics and the grammar of the art. There are visual illiterates at large but, mercifully, they rarely find space in The Spectator.
What really sinks Shone’s case, of course, is its self-contradictoriness and hypocrisy. After pious calls for disinterested criticism in general and for a plurality of voices, he ends with the prescriptive demand that critics present exclusively ‘enthusiastic account[s] written with warmth for the subject’ – no cut, no thrust, no scepticism, just remorseless sycophantic, promotional gush.
That such should come from a deputy editor of the Burlington Magazine says much of the health of our arts establishment and of the arrogance of its members. But it also betrays a fatal weakness: if, nearly a century on, modernism truly remained a vigorous, healthy and life-enhancing force, it would hardly require the present ugly, repressive machinations being made on its behalf, would it?”

Michael Daley

“Possibly the long article written by Richard Shone about the current state of art criticism needs placing in a wider context. Mr Shone was one of the signatories to a recent letter to the editor of the Evening Standard calling for the sacking of their art critic Brian Sewell. My own editor has recently received letters from two employees of another of the signatories, Karsten Schubert [the dealer], calling for my removal from this paper. The grounds are that I am not sympathetic to the sort of art that Mr Shone and his kind find quite wonderful, as exemplified by the current exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery ‘Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away’, for which Mr Shone has written a eulogistic catalogue essay. The fact that I think this last is composed largely of hot air, however elegantly written, will not be causing me to write to the editor of the Burlington Magazine, of which Mr Shone is deputy editor, calling for the latter’s instant dismissal. The fact that I do not do so may reflect differences in my character as well as writing from those of Mr Shone. I do not feel any need to defend myself against any of Mr Shone’s charges except one, being content to let 428 articles I have written for this journal on a wide variety of artistic topics, including the old Masters, make my case.
Mr Shone hints that critics grow increasingly unsympathetic to the sillier excesses of the avant-garde as they grow older. This is not my case at all; if anything I have mellowed. The logical conclusion to this argument is that only an unintelligent teenager could write rewardingly about unintelligent teenage art. In spite of Mr Shone’s boyish appearance, I would be alarmed to believe he thinks anything so silly.”

Giles Auty

Richard Shone and I have never met, and I know as little of him as he of me. Had his biographical notes in ‘The Art of Criticism’ suggested that I have reached the sad end of a once-promising career, none could disagree, but he preferred mischievous distortion for the sake of irony, omitted much of substance from my early years, and betrayed a museum’s privacy – fine and fair behaviour for the deputy editor of a scholarly magazine. He mocks my contribution to televised advertisement, but it seemed to me a more honest means of putting jam on my gingerbread than the ekphrastic bilge written for dealers’ catalogues by most other critics (and is far less well paid). He praises Richard Dorment as an exemplar to the errant – Dorment, who in praising Damien Hirst, described himself as a ‘thrill junkie’. This is, alas, a level of critical insight and language quite beyond me.”

Brian Sewell


At the end of the Second World War, patricians like Maynard Keynes and Kenneth Clark, recognising that the future in Britain would be socialist, turned a modest highly cost-effective little organisation CEMA (- the 1940 Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts) that had taken art and performances around the country during the war to improve morale, into what became today’s sinister instrument of state control for the arts – The Arts Council. With tax on earnings peaking at over 90%, the logic then was impeccable: future art patronage could come only from the state, no longer from rich individuals. This being so, as Clark put it, “people like us had better be sure to get in there to run it”. At first, the Council busied itself with good and useful works – Clark himself had generously supported fine artists like Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, and John Piper out of his own pocket. But a fateful step was taken in the 1970s when a worthy Northern adult education academic, Roy Shaw, was appointed Secretary General of the Arts Council. Shaw took the disastrous “managerial” view that the Council’s chief function was to create a secure and proper “career structure” for professional arts administrators. This resulted in an explosion of professionally pro-active but artistically-impoverished middlemen – see below. Because the Council was entirely state funded and precisely because its managers lacked the cultural confidence or judgement of a Clark or Keynes, the Council set its face against appraising art and artists in terms of quality. Instead, it took its role, simplistically and perversely, to consist of aiding that which was unlikely ever to find commercial or private funding. Thus, those who made wilfully unintelligible works, or transparently political and provocative ones or, above all, disembodied, “conceptual” and inherently un-saleable works, were ipso facto favoured over those working in any traditional medium and genre. In a blink, the Council switched from assisting and disseminating quality, to being an ideologically coercive enforcer of its own no longer-artistic socio/cultural purposes.

For all of its new professional clout and financial muscle, the Council’s widely mocked and disparaged bias in favour of pretentious novelty and socio-cultural provocations carried clear political dangers. The Council could not afford to become a public laughing stock for the art it was propagating if its own future was to remain politically secure. In addition to warping and constricting the varieties of “acceptable” art, the Council thus itself acquired a vested partisan interest in restricting the range of art-critical discourse. To impart a spurious respectability on its favoured recipients, the Council established a nation-wide chain of galleries in which the right sort of artists could be exhibited and written about by the right sort of art critics. It became possible for someone like Nicholas Serota to leave university and pass swiftly up the food chain of Arts Council funded venture and galleries – namely, becoming chairman of the new Young Friends of the Tate in 1969, a regional Arts Council officer in 1970 and then, respectively, director of MoMA (“Modern Art Oxford is extremely grateful to Arts Council England”) in 1973, the Whitechapel Gallery in 1976, and, since 1988, the Tate Gallery as was, Tate and Tate Modern today, picking up a Knighthood in 1999 and being made a Companion of Honour in 2013.


If Serota has led a charmed professional life within the Arts Council family, it has also been one dogged by controversy – as over the notorious buy-back of the two ransomed Turners described above. He obtained funding from the National Art Collection Fund for purchasing the work of a serving trustee by submitting false information. In 2006 he was ruled to have broken Charity Law with many other such purchases of trustees’ work. In 1999 opposition to his rule at the Tate led to the founding of a dedicated group of opponents, The Stuckists. Many figurative artists have called for him to be sacked. He has generated a school of satirical novels. See Ruth Dudley Edwards’ Killing the Emperors – which author has held Serota to have “used his power as head of the Tate galleries to promote talentless self-publicists and to encourage the proliferation of the ugly and the pointless”. Alex Pankhurst’s Art and the Revolutionary Human Fruit Machine chronicles the collisions between modern art’s titans and small town sceptics.

The 1994 letter seeking to remove Sewell was produced at a time when the art critical running was being made by a small group of critics who were entirely immune to the appeals of state-sponsored avant-gardism. In addition to Sewell in the Evening Standard, the painter/critic Giles Auty was writing in the politically influential Spectator. The then recently deceased Peter Fuller, having migrated from both the far left and avant-garde art had been made art critic of the Daily Telegraph in 1989 and from 1987 had been the founder/editor of the heavy-weight, pro-figuration glossy magazine Modern Painters. The Art Review had been transformed since 1992 by David Lee, a vigorous champion of figurative art and artists and a relentless critic of Serota and the Arts Council. Between 1992 and 2001, when the Art Review was acquired by a new owner who wished “to get on board with Saatchi”, Lee had more than tripled the circulation and rallied many supporters. Not wishing to join the then ascendant Charles Saatchi band waggon, Lee left to found his own modestly-produced, proprietor-free, success d’estime – the still-thriving magazine Jackdaw. (He will be writing on Sewell, his great personal generosity, and other matters in its next issue.) At that time, Nicholas Serota was only six years into his reign and had yet to perfect his chillingly autocratic rule at the Tate and its proliferating satellites. However, in the event, the combined and interlocking institutional forces against the small dissident band did prove insuperable. In addition to Fuller’s death at a tragically young age in a car accident in 1990, Auty was to emigrate to Australia. It is remarkable today that notwithstanding the immense institutional power of the modernist establishment and contrary to its barrages of propagandistic hype, public disdain for “cutting edge” art forms remains firm and resolute. That this is so is demonstrated on the rare occasions when its strength is put to some objective test.

In 2003 Sir Roy Strong, a former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and ArtWatch UK’s director Michael Daley, took part in a live BBC Radio 4 “Straw Poll” programme debate against a minor Arts Council regional apparatchik and the Saatchi-friendly (but short-lived) editor who succeeded David Lee at the Art Review. The motion under debate was “Is contemporary British Art more about money than art?” and it was supported by Strong and Daley. Each speaker was invited to make a short opening statement. Daley’s was:

Contemporary British Art is more about money than art because much of it is not about art, as such, at all. Its leading figures prosper by playing anti-art games, by flouting artistic norms, intellectual standards and even common notions of human decency.
In Britain today, an arts administrative caste, through the Arts Council and its interlocking client organisations, has rigged the contemporary art market and subverted art practices by displacing aesthetic criteria with social or political ones. Officially-approved artists now swim in a sea of subsidies, free of any need to demonstrate individual artistic skills, original thought, or sensitivity. Ideas can be begged, borrowed, stolen or supplied directly by dealers. The execution of these appropriated “ideas” is frequently farmed out to unsung technicians.
There is, of course, a glaring logical problem with the present system: if such things as an unmade bed, an enlarged toy, or a collection of navel-fluff can now count as art, then anything and everything can be art – and if everything is art, nothing is.
Two years ago, a single sheet of stained lavatory paper was presented by a Young British Artist as a self-portrait and sold at auction for £1,500. That is a lot of money for not very much art.

The debate – which was lively – was held before an invited audience at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. It was drawn from “Friends” of both the Ashmolean and the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. When a vote was taken among the invited studio audience, the motion was narrowly defeated. The next day, the sequel programme on Radio 4 consisting of listeners’ comments on the live debate was broadcast. At the end of it a poll of the programme’s listeners was announced. Radio 4 listeners are acknowledged to be comprised of the most educated and culturally/politically sophisticated variety in the UK. With that much larger and geographically dispersed audience, the motion was carried by 86% to 14%. The slur that opponents of the contemporary art establishment were benighted “strap-hangers” on the London underground had fallen at the first objective hurdle.


Private Eye carried the cartoon above over the exposé below:

On 24 June 2014 Sir Christopher Frayling (right) and Sir James Dyson (left) at the opening of Frayling Building – aka a renamed old block – at the Royal College or Art. (See: “The RCA Renames Kensington Common Room Block Honouring Former Rector Frayling”.)

On 22 December 1994 Professor Christopher Frayling, a signatory of the Stop Sewell Campaign, rose in the Evening Standard to defend the competence and the probity of the Arts Council’s visual arts panel (which he had chaired) against an attack from Brian Sewell. To the charge that the Arts Council was rewarding its own administrators, Frayling played a bureaucratic hand familiar to us – brushing off charges while confirming the evidence on which they rested:

“The Visual Arts Panel is criticised for being populated with ‘nobodies’. In fact it consists of an excellent committed group of well-respected artists, curators, historians and arts administrators and is chaired by Sir Richard Rogers. He [Sewell] implies that members of the Visual Arts panel have sometimes been direct beneficiaries of grants awarded by the Arts Council.
There are two basic misunderstandings here: first, the Arts Council, in general gives grants to institutions not to individuals (and it is up to the institutions to decide how they then distribute the funds); where it does give grants to individuals there are several formal mechanisms to ensure that those who have a direct or indirect interest take no part whatsoever in any decisions that might affect them. To take one of Sewell’s examples, the award to the Prudential for the Prudential Awards for the Arts. Anyone who has visited that gallery and seen its stunning transformation will not cavil at this acknowledgement. It is invevitable, if the Council seeks advice from the very best sources within a fairly small world, that some of those sources will sometimes also be recipients of public money.”

Yes, indeed, they sometimes are – and it came as no surprise to us for this particular overlap within the exceedingly small world of publicly-funded arts merry-go-rounds to be confirmed. In 1981-82 we had encountered precisely the same pattern of explanation/justification/apologia from another of the Sewell letter signatories, Joana Drew, the head of visual arts at the Arts Council. Where Frayling accused Sewell in 1994 of having produced “an article full of factual errors”, in 1982 Joanna Drew had claimed that my accounts of Arts Council subsidies (published on the letters page of the magazine Art Monthly) contained “inaccuracies of detail”. This routine bureaucratic ploy had been parodied in the advice given to a Government minister by a mandarin civil servant in the television programme “Yes, Minister” (- “Accuse them of inaccuracies of detail, Minister. We’ll find them – there are bound to be some”). My researches in art funding had come about by accident.

In the late 1970s Joanna Drew asked the painter R. B. Kitaj to commend artists to receive Arts Council grants. He had been taken by my work and wrote a generous letter of commendation to the Arts Council and so, in some hope, I applied for the first (and last) time for an Arts Council grant. Despite submitting the invited letter of commendation from Kitaj, my application was unsuccessful. The letter of rejection identified the recipients and I noticed that the awards in what was a national scheme had been swamped with abstractionists, performance artists, conceptualists and such. The Arts Council threw a press lunch so that journalists (and unsuccessful applicants) might meet the winning artists. At this lunch, with a few like-minded artist friends, I staged a small protest. After Ms Drew’s speech to the press, we handed out (silently) a sheet of paper with a list of questions concerning the manifest artistic biases of the awards scheme. We were attacked the next day in a newspaper by an art critic who defended the Council against the disruptive “nobodies”. Had he spoken to any of us at the time he would have appreciated that he had written a glowing piece appreciation of one of the protesting artists for a catalogue to his recent one-man show at the Marlborough gallery. Having made our point and registered our protest that had seemed the end of the matter. I carried on teaching part time in two London art schools and continued to read Art Monthly.

A few years later a regional Arts Council officer on the Greater London Arts Association complained in Art Monthly of “underfunding”. Having noticed that all subsequent awards winners were of the same limited artistic persuasions as those encountered earlier, I sent this short letter to the magazine:

“Given that the GLAA has now noticed that there are indeed 18,000 practising artists in London (AM 43), would it not be helpful if they stopped giving their grants to the same twenty?”

It took the Council four months to reply. In the July/August 1981 issue of Art Monthly, the (unrepentant) officer claimed that my chide of repeated funding was “inaccurate” and that “A more justifiable criticism of GLAA’s grant aid might well be that we spread our butter too thinly. We certainly do not spread jam on one corner of the slice”. Reeling with incredulity I went off and bought copies of past annual reports, and began collating the accounts of the various awards schemes, the findings of which I reported in a letter in the next Art Monthly.


Far from it being the case that only two artists had ever received more than one GLAA award, as had been claimed, I had identified no fewer than 13 artists who had received two or more awards in the previous three years alone. Four had received two awards in the same year and one had received two awards in each of the previous two years. Taking the longer period from 1973-4 to the (then) present, I found that eighty-three artists had received two or more awards, thirty-five had received three or more awards, twenty-four had received four or more, eight had received five or more, four had received six or more, one had received seven, and one – who had been successful in 1978-79, the year in which I applied – had received nine awards. Many of this lucky band had received awards when they themselves, their spouses, their partners or their colleagues were judging the schemes: “Michael Kenny is also a member of a rather more select group of artists, namely those who have, while serving as judges on awards schemes, themselves received awards – a feat achieved by Kenny [then six awards in total] in 1976-77 and by Michael Craig-Martin [a signatory to the Stop Sewell letter] and Tess Jaray in 1975-76.” It was common for artist x to make an award to artist y who, on becoming a judge, made an award to artist x. The correspondence of discovery ran for months (when the bemused editor, Peter Townsend, removed the bails, he noted that the exchanges had run to 582 column inches). To every denial from Council officers I presented fresh and further corroborating evidence. I was able to show, for example, that in the previous year, of twenty recipients, three-quarters were receiving their second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth awards. This game of “pass-the-parcel” was not an easy system for outsiders to enter. When wrongly charging me with inaccuracies, Joanna Drew made errors of her own. On scandals connected with the composition of the judging panels, she said that only five people had served as judges twice and one three times. I showed that nine had served twice, seven three times, four four times, two six times. One had served seven times and one had – at that moment – already served eight consecutive times.

Establishing the prevailing patterns of patronage within awards schemes from the Council’s own records was tedious but easy. I was taken to task in Art Monthly by a correspondent who claimed that I’d missed all “the fat cats” but who declined to identify them and proposed to carry out no research of his own. There were other dimensions to the culturally deadening and warping ideological biases of the Council (see below). One was the extent to which even private galleries and public commissions were being brought into ideological line by the wheeze of “matching funding” schemes. Shortly after finishing the researches I was offered an exhibition by a private gallery in London but it came with strings: I should apply to the Arts Council for support for a travelling exhibition (around Arts Council-sponsored regional galleries) at the end of which the show would be brought to a concluding exhibition at the London gallery, all framing and promotion costs having been met by the Council.

Having stumbled into the grossly mismanaged system of awards for artists it would have been temptingly easy to take the MacGuffin for the plot but in the March 1982 Art Monthly we put the grubby dispensations in their proper institutional and ideological contexts. First, we explained, a sense of proportion was needed: “The awards schemes have engendered hostility out of all proportion to their actual cash values. Council spends, for example, more on the pension scheme for its own central staff (£205,138 in 79-80) than it gives as awards to all visual artists combined.” It spent over twice as much on central staff travel and subsistence allowances as on all painters, sculptors and print-makers combined. The sum spent on all public art throughout the land was barely half that spent by the Council on its own “publicity and entertainment”. A massive switch of resources from artists to administrators had taken place. In the previous four years grants to artists had been halved while those to administrators had tripled. Self-interest was manifest as in all bureaucracies but even this trait did not constitute the root of the Council’s cultural perniciousness.


This root, we explained, lay in a fatal ambiguity in the Council’s role as the most powerful artistic patron in the country:

“In its least contentious (and earliest) guise the Council was simply a purveyor of subsidy to the arts: the means by which a culturally responsible society augments the inadequacies or stringencies of private means to support its artistic life. But increasingly, and more and more explicitly, the Council has taken on the role not simply of almoner but of cultural commissariat […so as] to seize outright the possibility of actual intervention in cultural life. It has come to portray itself as a force for initiation and perpetration of artistic trends, for bestowing artistic accreditation, for explicitly political and and sociological direction of artistic activity.”

Bad as the situation seemed back then, worse was to come. The model I examined proved to be but a maquette for what would follow as state and Lottery monies poured in. What was started as an aid to art and artists at a time of national penury morphed into an instrument of control, direction, manipulation and subjugation during times of unimagined plenty. For two decades or more Brian Sewell wrestled with the consequences and legacies this cultural leviathan (as he did also with the Tate and others). It is not really difficult to see why so many felt that he had to be stopped at any price, is it?

Michael Daley, 6 October 2015


1) On the above-mentioned anxiety felt by the trendy establishment at the scale of opposition to its beliefs and actions, we note that in 2005 the critic Richard Cork confessed: “Even so, we would be foolish to imagine that the battle has been completely won. I still meet people who say they love Tate Modern’s spectacular building, along with the views it provides. But then they declare that the art inside is rubbish…and they think I am mad to find anything of interest on display in there. Deep-seated suspicions continue to fester. I remember the Tate director’s striking lack of elation a few months after the gallery opened. ‘Many young people are interested in the visual arts’, said Sir Nicholas Serota, ‘but I’m conscious that a huge part of the public remains sceptical about modern art. Whether it’s people in positions of power, or the many letters I receive that complain about < lack of standards > in the art displayed at Bankside, a lot of people clearly find it difficult to live in the present.'” (- “People ask: ‘But is it art?’ Yes, actually, it is ~ Richard Cork springs to the defence of modern works”, The Times, 2 March 2005.)

What an extraordinary conceit/delusion it is to maintain that unless one likes and admires the kind of works that people like Serota and Cork promote, one is not living in the present. Has this man been in charge of a national institution for twenty-seven years, while harbouring the belief that most people in the country are living, zombie-like, outside of their own time?

THE FATE OF SCULPTURES AT: 1) The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2) The British Museum; 3) The National Museum of Kolkata; 4) The Academy of Art in Perugia; And, the Burrell Collection next?

20 January 2014

STOP PRESS: On Tuesday January 21st the Burrell Collection (Lending and Borrowing) (Scotland) was passed in the Scottish Parliament without a vote. Barely half a dozen MSPs attended. They unanimously supported the Bill (although one called for some published account of the proposed £45m development plan). There is no minimum number of votes necessary for a bill to gain approval.

Neil MacGregor and Thomas Campbell, the directors respectively of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will now be able to make arrangements for the first two stops in the planned international tour of plum Burrell works to help raise £45m to repair and refurbish the Burrell Collection building, the roof of which has been left leaking for decades. The desultory non-debate took place during an international spate of damaged sculptures.

Accident at Perugia

As we reported on 14 October 2013, when Canova’s sculpture The Killing of Priam was being detached from the wall of the Academy of Art in Perugia to be shipped to an exhibition at Assisi, just 24 kilometres away, it was dropped and smashed beyond repair (as Tomaso Montanari had recently disclosed). The removal operation was headed by the shipping company Alessandro Maggi di Pietrasanta.

Accident at Kolkata

On 14 January this year, the Art Newspaper reported another catastrophic accident, this time at the National Museum of Kolkata where a rare 2,000 years old carved lion was dropped and smashed when being moved within the museum during renovation (see Figs. 1 and 2). The Art Newspaper was quick to claim that the accident “highlighted a shocking lack of professional procedures for handling antiquities at Indian museums” but many major well-resourced and staffed western museums have proved accident-prone in their treatment of sculptures in recent years – and in one respect, as discussed below, the Kolkata museum procedures would seem superior.

Accidents at the British Museum

Consider first the record of the British Museum. In the 2007 book “The Museum: Behind the scenes at the British Museum” (written to accompany a fawning ten-part BBC television series), it is said that:

“Sending precious ancient objects around the world is all very well in theory, but in reality it’s a massive operation fraught with practical and official difficulties. Before any loan is considered, the British Museum has to be certain that the destination museum can provide the right conditions and security. ‘We can only lend responsibly’, says Neil MacGregor. ‘The museums we’re sending to have to be able to ensure their safety. Beijing now has a museum that can accept international loans: it’s new, and it reaches international standards, and it’s very pleasing that they chose to open it with an exhibition of British Museum treasures. Shanghai, being a more cosmopolitan city, has had a good museum for a long time – and there are places opening up in the Chinese provinces that we’ll be happy to work with. It’s easier and safer to transport these big, valuable objects now but it’s just as important to be certain that they’ll be safe at the other end.’”

With regard to safety, as we reported on 6-8 September, when, in 2006, the British Museum packed the peerless and desperately fragile Nimrud Palace alabaster relief carvings (see Figs. 8 and 9) and sent them all by lorry to Luxembourg from where they were flown to Shanghai in two cargo Jets (which broke their 11 hours flights with a stopover in Azerbaijan), it was discovered on arrival that the recipient museum’s doorways were too low. No one, it seems, had thought to measure either the doors or the packing cases.

It was further discovered that the host museum’s lifts were inadequate. In consequence, the crated carvings had to be “rolled in through the front door”. This meant “that we had to get a mobile crane to get them up the stairs. Even then we had to unpack three of the modules to get a bit more clearance”, said the British Museum’s senior heavy-objects handler, Darrel Day, in one of the museum’s self-promotional television programmes (see “The Museum”, BBC2, 2007).

When the collection was finally unpacked it was found that “a few little conservation things had to be done.” The injuries have not been identified and no photographs of them have been published. When crated Chinese terra cotta warriors arrived on loan at the British Museum, they in turn would not pass through the door of the reading room – even when the door’s frame was removed.

Accidents at the Metropolitan Museum

As for the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the Burrell Trustees will have further grounds for qualms when considering authorisation of loan requests to that venue. In 2008 an Andrea della Robbia terra cotta, St. Michael the Archangel, fell from the walls and smashed (see Fig. 4). So far as we know, it has not yet been repaired and returned to view.

Six years earlier, in 2002, a much larger and art historically more important sculpture, Tullio Lombardo’s life-sized carved marble Adam (Fig. 6) – the first monumental, classically inspired nude of the Renaissance – also fell to the ground and smashed into many pieces (see Fig. 7). It did so when its stand collapsed. We must assume that like the Andrea della Robbia, this work, too, has still not been repaired and returned to the gallery. On 28 January 2010, Randy Kennedy reported in the New York Times that neither of the Met’s smashed Renaissance sculptures were back on view (“Despite Assurances, Met Finds Artworks Aren’t restored Overnight”). The Museum’s press office has not responded to either of our inquiries last week on the present condition and whereabouts of the two Renaissance sculptures. At the time of its collapse in 2002, the Met said that the Lombardo would be back on display in two years time. Fortunately, both of these accidents occurred after hours and when no visitors were present. In both cases no museum staff witnessed the accidents.

Unlike the Kolkata Museum (and the National Gallery in London, which supplied ArtWatch with photographs of the painted panel by Beccafumi which was dropped and smashed when being dismounted from a temporary exhibition within the gallery), the Met permitted no photographs to be taken of the Tullio Lombardo sculpture, which witnesses reported to have been smashed into hundreds of pieces.

The Met defends both that original suppression of evidence and the continuing secrecy surrounding the two restorations. In January 2010, Randy Kennedy reported that the unusual seclusion in which the Lombardo restoration was being carried out had generated suspicions that the sculpture is beyond repair. This lack of institutional transparency was defended by the chairman of the museum’s department of European sculpture and decorative arts, Ian Wardropper, on the grounds that seeing images of broken sculptures would be “detrimental to museumgoers’ ability to appreciate such pieces once repaired”. Mr Wardropper suggested on that occasion that the work was probably three years from re-emerging and he attributed the increasing length of time to an original decision to restore the statue “in the most meticulous and durable way possible.”

The Met believes itself to have been hampered in its goal, Mr Kennedy reported, because “few pristine life-size museum marbles like the Adam have ever shattered, so reliable technical information about restoring one is limited.” Nonetheless, Mr Wardropper was bullish about the significance of the protracted restoration. A large insurance pay-out had been made (the size of which the Met also declines to disclose), and it was decided to use this money for a monumental restoration research project on the best means of repairing smashed carvings.

It has been promised that at the restoration’s end, the repaired and cleaned work will be unveiled as the centrepiece of a special exhibition to be housed in a new gallery dedicated to the Venetian Renaissance. That the work itself is of great art historical and artistic significance is not in dispute (see comments at Fig. 6). At the same time, consideration might be given to the artful propagandistic means by which museums can contrive to present the eventual recovery of needlessly or carelessly lost or damaged works as Public Relations Triumphs – see “Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners”.

In January 2010 the Met’s then new director, Thomas P. Campbell, said that after initial doubts he fully supported the lengthy restoration: “The sculpture is 500 years old. Whether it’s off display for eight years rather than five is insignificant.” The sculpture is now at least 521 years old and has been off display for twelve years. We are told that research carried out on the safest means of pinning fragments of marble together has established that the most commonly used material – stainless steel – has the great disadvantage of having greatly more tensile strength than the marble itself. It is not clear why this “discovery” required such lengthy and expensive research: it has long been recognised that the iron pins used to re-assemble the Parthenon during its 1930s restoration had resulted in fractures of the marble, either as a result of earth tremors or the expansion of the iron through rusting (the restorers had not followed the ancient Greek practice of encasing the iron in lead to prevent corrosion). The consequence of using steel (or titanium, as is now being used on the Parthenon) for pinning today, is that when sculptures are next dropped or severely shaken, the pins can shatter the marble from within, introducing many more and greatly more serious injuries. It should, therefore, go without saying that moving stone works that have been repaired with metal pins inescapably compounds the risks.

Even if the vote in the Scottish Parliament should go in favour of Glasgow Life’s attempt to overturn Burrell’s wishes and binding instructions against foreign travels, the trustees of his collection might nonetheless, when considering authorising a loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reflect on the fact that the Lombardo sculpture was smashed only because (as we had reported in the ArtWatch UK Journal 17 in 2002) it had been removed in 2000 from the cherry-wood pedestal on which it had (presumably) stood since its 1936 acquisition by the Met, and placed on a modern conservation-standard base and shallow plinth constructed with MDO (Medium Density Overlay Plywood). At that time, the then director, Philippe de Montebello, promised that, after an anticipated two years restoration, “The figure will stand again on a solid pedestal and, frankly, only the cognoscenti will know.” A dozen years on, that claim has yet to be tested. What can be said, is that the sculptures at the Burrell Collection presently stand securely on wonderfully stable stone bases (see Figs. 11 and 12) and, as ArtWatch pointed out to the Scottish Parliamentary hearing on September 19th, they would remain safely so if “as we most strongly urge, the Parliament rejects the request to overturn Burrell’s still perfectly well-founded prohibition on foreign travels for works in collection.”

Michael Daley

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Smashed at the National Museum of Kolkata
Above, Figs. 1 and 2: A 2,000 years old carved Rampurva Lion Capital that was smashed when being moved during renovations at the Kolkata (“Calcutta”) museum. Photos by courtesy of
Smashed at the Academy of Art in Perugia
Above, Fig. 3: a detail of Canova’s plaster maquette of The Killing of Priam, a Homeric episode which together with other famous scenes of classic literature inspired Canova in one of his most famous series of bas-reliefs.
Smashed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Above, Fig. 4: Andrea della Robbia’s glazed terra-cotta relief, Saint Michael the Archangel, which fell from the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and smashed (fortunately, overnight when the museum was free of visitors). As Randy Kennedy reported in the New York Times of 2 July 2008, the work appeared to have flipped and landed on its back sparing absolutely catastrophic damage and leaving what a museum spokesman described as “eminently restorable” fragments. The museum issued a statement claiming that: “while the Metropolitan routinely and thoroughly inspects its pedestals and wall mounts to reconfirm their structural integrity, it will initiate a reinvigorated museumwide examination as expeditiously as possible in the days that follow this unfortunate accident.” (The Met has not answered our inquiry as to the present condition and whereabouts of the sculpture.)
Above, Fig. 5: A detail of the dust-wrapper on Patricia Fortini Brown’s 1996 and 1999 book Venice & Antiquity – which work, the author writes, was a response to a challenge posed by “the issues raised in David Lowenthal’s stimulating and unabashedly eclectic book The Past is a Foreign Country (1985)…”
Smashed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Above, Fig. 6: Tullio Lombardo’s carved Adam from the tomb of Doge Andrea Vendramin which was built in 1488-93. Professor Brown says of this figure:
“Tullio’s work represents a new level of engagement with the Latin past. Not only is he the most classical of any Venetian artist to date, but he directs his archaeological tendencies towards highly original solutions…”
Still in “restoration” after twelve years
Above, Figs. 7 and 8: From left, Tullio Lombardo’s “Adam” before it was damaged in the Metropolitan Museum, and virtual images (Ron Street/Metropolitan Museum of Art) of restoration and of degrees of stress.
Requiring that “a few little conservation things” be done at the British Museum
Above, Figs. 9 and 10: Top, the Assyrian Nimrud Palace wall reliefs gallery at the British Museum which was stripped down and sent to Shanghai; above, a Nimrud Palace carving of a winged genius.
It is hard to see the removal of those reliefs from that gallery as constituting any other than a trauma. As the museum’s senior heavy-objects handler, Darrel Day describes it:
“The Nimrud Palace wall reliefs are mounted on brackets that are fixed to the wall, then the brackets are covered over with plaster for display purposes. So first of all we have to cut away the plaster, then extract the reliefs from the wall, remove the brackets and get the objects on to a forklift truck. They go straight on to what we call a module – an L-shape stand made of MDF and pine – that holds and supports them , so you can forklift them without actually touching them. The reliefs are made of alabaster which scratches very easily, so you need to minimize the amount of handling…”
Above: Figs. 11 and 12, classical antiquities (presently) safe and secure at the Burrell Collection Museum.
A “Genuine” Tate Good News Story
Above, Figs. 13 and 14: Top, Nicholas Serota (centre) and his two (now departed) lieutenants, Sandy Nairne (left) and Stephen Deuchar (right) at a press conference in December 2002 celebrating the recovery of two stolen Tate Turners after the payment of a ransom of over £3m; above, a report in the Daily Telegraph of the role played by the Tate’s chairman of trustees, Lord Myners, in the recovery of the two Turners that had been stolen when loaned in 1994.
Click on the images above for larger versions. NOTE: zooming requires the Adobe Flash Plug-in.

Dicing with Art and Earning Approval

11 August 2011

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.

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: The National Gallery’s “The Duke of Wellington”, by Goya. This painting was stolen on 21 August 1961. Following immediately improved security measures, there has been no other theft from the gallery.
Above, Fig. 2: “The Adoration of the Golden Calf”, one of two Poussin paintings that were attacked with spray-paint at the National Gallery on July 16th, following reductions of surveillance-by-warders.
Above, Fig. 3: One of two Turners, his “Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the book of Genesis”, that were stolen when loaned by the Tate Gallery in 1994 to the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt.
Above, Fig. 4: The Czartoryski Museum’s Leonardo da Vinci, “The Lady with an Ermine”.
Above, Fig. 5: Domenico Beccafumi’s panels “Tanaquil” and “Marcia”, as reproduced in the National Gallery’s Annual Report of January 1965 – December 1966. The two paintings had been acquired in 1965.
Above, Fig. 6: Domenico Beccafumi’s “Marcia”, as reproduced in the National Gallery’s 1965-1966 Annual Report.
Above, Fig. 7: Domenico Beccafumi’s “Marcia”, after being dropped at the National Gallery on 21 January 2008 during the “de-installation” of the temporary exhibition “Siena: Art for a City”.
Above, Fig. 8: Domenico Beccafumi’s “Marcia” when repaired but not yet repainted after being dropped at the National Gallery on 21 January 2008.
Above, Fig. 9: Leonardo da Vinci, “Cartoon: The Virgin and Child with SS. Anne and John the Baptist”, as reproduced in the National Gallery’s June 1962 – December 1964 Annual Report, after the drawing’s acquisition by the gallery in 1962.
Above, Fig. 10: The National Gallery’s Leonardo “Cartoon”, as reproduced in the gallery’s 1989 Technical Bulletin, and showing the drawing after its recent repair and restoration following an attack with a shotgun.
Above, Fig. 11: Leonardo’s “Cartoon”, detail, showing shotgun damage inflicted in an attack on 17 July 1987, as recorded in a photograph taken under ordinary illumination and reproduced in the National Gallery’s 1989 Technical Bulletin.
Above, Fig. 12: Leonardo’s “Cartoon”, a detail, as in Fig. 11 but showing the drawing before the 1987 shotgun injury, as reproduced in the the National Gallery’s 1962-64 Annual Report
Above, Fig. 13: Leonardo’s “Cartoon”, a detail, as in Figs. 11 & 12 but showing the drawing after the repair and restoration that followed the shotgun attack of 1987. The variations of value seen here in the details of Figs. 11, 12 & 13, are those found in the National Gallery’s publications.

Such variations make more difficult any comparative “before” and “after” restoration evaluations of the area of the Virgin’s breast that was most damaged in the shotgun attack. It is also a matter of regret that the gallery so rarely publishes side-by-side directly comparable records of pre- and post-restoration treatments.

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Leonardo, Poussin, Turner: Three Developments in London and Krakow

17th July 2011

There have been extremely dramatic developments this week in connection with two of our campaigns. On 13 December 2010 we supported an appeal (see Fig. 2) from scholars and conservators in Poland who opposed the lending of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” to a forthcoming blockbuster exhibition at the National Gallery in November 2010 to February 2012. (We published a photograph of a National Galley painting that was recently dropped and smashed when being taken down from a special exhibition at the National Gallery – see Fig. 3. Today, the Observer reports the vandalism of a Poussin painting yesterday at the National Gallery – see Fig. 4. The Poussin was attacked at the gallery in 1978. The National Gallery, we understand, is presently considering reducing the number of its warders.) That appeal from Poland and our support for it, was reported in the Observer of 12 December 2010. We were subsequently attacked in personal and organisational terms by Count Adam Zamoyski, the board chairman of the Czartoryski Museum, which owns the Leonardo. To those attacks (and almost identical ones made by the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones) we responded in a post of 29 December 2010.

On Thursday this week (14 July 2011) it was reported that, “in order to improve the functioning of the Foundation of the Czartoryski Princes and to assure the correct collaboration with the National Museum in Krakow,” Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski, heir to the collections of the world-renowned Czartoryski Museum, has approved the dismissal of the enterprise’s entire management board, including its chairman, Count Adam Zamoyski.

Last Monday (11 July 2011) we reported the electrifying disclosures contained in Sandy Nairne’s forthcoming book on the recovery of two stolen Turners (“Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners”). Today, the Independent on Sunday examines the deal by the Tate and the insurers of its stolen Turners that was brokered by the then Labour Government’s Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson (“The stolen Turners, the Serbian underworld, and a £24m insurance job”). As the paper’s Matthew Bell writes, the deal was one “in which the Tate received a £24m payout but then kept most of the money” when the paintings were recovered, in order to help the funding of Tate Modern.

It is further reported that the insurer, Robert Hiscox, describes that payout (a “£22 million bonanza” according to Geoffrey Robinson) as having been a “good deal for the country, but a terrible deal for us”. Admitting that he had acted out of his love of art and a wish to help the Tate, Mr Hiscox (quite sensationally) claims that at the time the help was given, “We knew who had the paintings”. Can that be the case?

Mr Hiscox has explained that although this knowledge had been gained, the insurers had believed that the paintings “would be in a rotten condition by now” when, in fact, as a Tate press release of 20 December 2002 (“Tate’s stolen Turners are recovered”) put it, both paintings were “in good condition” when recovered.

In his forthcoming book Sandy Nairne claims or implies that Geoffrey Robinson had been in error to contend that the two Turners were known to been stolen by “a group of particularly nasty Serbs”, and to have “misleadingly (indeed mistakenly)” stated that the insurance money had been needed for building Tate Modern. This would seem to be another very finely nuanced grey zone because, on Nairne’s own forthcoming account, the Tate (on the initiative of its Director of Finance and Adminstration, Alex Beard) had sought to unlock the “dormant” stolen Turners’ insurance £24m payout, precisely so as to “enable building projects to proceed in connection with Tate Modern and the galleries at Tate Millbank.”

As the Independent on Sunday reports, Mr Nairne publishes a press statement drafted in November 2000 when one of the paintings had already been recovered. It read:

There has been much speculation over the years about the whereabouts of the two paintings by J. M. W. Turner stolen in Frankfurt in 1994. And like the authorities in Germany, the Tate has always been interested in serious information which might lead to their recovery. But currently there is no new information, nor are there any current discussions being conducted. Of course I remain hopeful that one day the paintings might return to the Tate. – Nicholas Serota, Tate Director.

Matthew Bell writes “Sir Nicholas’s office denies that he had misled journalists, adding that the draft statement was never released to the press.” The Tate director’s office explained that:“At the time this statement was drafted the recovery was at a critical stage, which is why the wording in this draft was deliberately obscure”; and added, “As with all press statements it would have been reviewed and revised in response to specific questions received from a Journalist.”

A spokesman for Mr Nairne is reported to have said yesterday:

After eight years of not being able to talk about the operation to recover the Turners, Sandy just really wanted to get it off his chest.”

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: Leonardo da Vinci’s late 15th century “Lady with an Ermine” which has been loaned abroad many times (for fees) by the Czartoryski Museum, Krakow.
Above, Fig. 2: the Appeal to ArtWatch UK from the President of the Krakow Division of the Association of Art Historians. A leading conservator in Krakow warned that “If you transport a picture panel such as ‘The Lady with an Ermine’, even the most ideal methods in the form of modern environmental chambers or special anti-shock frames are not able sufficiently protect the work against a variety of vibrations, shocks or changes of pressure.” Furthermore, “By allowing the painting to travel we create yet another serious threat, greatly extending the area of possible human error, while increasing the likelihood of the impact of the so-called independent factors.
Above, Fig. 3: The National Gallery’s 16th century wood panel, Beccafumi’s “Marcia”, which was dropped and smashed on January 21st 2008 during “the de-installation of the exhibition ‘Renaissance Siena: Art for a City'”. After the accident it was said by the gallery (Report, 13 March 2008) that the panel is “fragile” and will “never be allowed to go out on loan.”
Above, Fig. 4: a photograph by Steven Dear which is published in today’s Observer, accompanying the report by Cherry Wilson of an attack made yesterday on Poussin’s “The Adoration of the Golden Calf” at the National Gallery, allegedly by a 57-year-old man.
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Questions and Grey Answers on the Tate Gallery’s recovered Turners

July 11th 2011

In a doomed attempt to persuade us that, if properly looked at, black can be white at the Tate Gallery, Sandy Nairne has performed a considerable public service. His forthcoming book “Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners” (which we review in the September/October Jackdaw magazine) will prove an important, landmark work. Ironically, had the Tate’s long-serving director, Nicholas Serota, not passed over his loyal deputy, Nairne, when appointing the first head of Tate Modern, the book would not have been written and we would not have gained so electrifying a glimpse into the workings of the Tate’s controversial management culture. In Nairne’s remarkably frank and informative account of his own central, eight years-long role in the recovery of the Tate Turner paintings which had been stolen in 1994 from a German museum (on the day when they had been dispatched without a Tate courier – see Figs. 2 & 5), we learn, for example, of “Nick” [Serota’s] confession that most of the Tate’s “positive” press stories are not real news but what he himself admits to be “merely promotional material”. On their recovery, the theft of the Turners was seen as an ill wind that might serve some institutional good – and not just because Tate had managed to possess both the works themselves and most of their insurance money.

We see how, in hope of achieving for once a Genuinely-Real-Good-News-Story on the recovered Turners, attempt was made to thwart journalists who might spoil the party by pressing questions about the “recovery operation” which had already generated open scepticism and suspicion. It was felt that the museum’s press/public relations offices might need reinforcement to cope with a forthcoming barrage of criticisms and, “On Nick’s advice”, a formidable press consultant, Erica Bolton, was hired. She and the Tate’s press team groomed the gallery’s executive top brass (see Fig. 5) on how to answer or deflect journalistic probing by providing specimen questions and optimal, easily remembered answers.

We learn that the requisite answer to the first of eight dangerous questions (“How much has this operation cost Tate?”) was thought to be:

The combined costs over eight and a half years including insurance, travel, legal fees and investigative expensive expenses [sic] accounts amounts to just over three and a half million pounds. Tate took on the additional costs for the investigation when it acquired the title of the two works in 1998.

This cost breakdown has already met with fresh expressions of journalistic incredulity in recent interviews Mr Nairne has given in connection with his pending book. On June 26th in the Sunday Times’ Magazine (“Curator of the Lost Art”), the paper’s art critic, Waldermar Januszczak, published the following exchange with Nairne on the large sums of Tate insurance monies that had been demanded by the criminals holding the stolen Turners and which had been given to their German lawyer by the Tate, expressly, to hand over to them in full (- the lawyer being remunerated separately by the Tate for his go-between services):

This money was not a ransom, insists Sandy. It was ‘a fee for information leading to the recovery of the picture’. Sandy is extra careful to spell this out to me. Did you get that Waldemar? ‘A fee for information.’ Not a ransom. Well yes, I get it. But I don’t buy it. It’s legal. But it’s a grey area, right? ‘No. It’s grey as you go into it, but you have to find a way out of it that becomes clear’.

Januszczak’s account failed to convince Dr Selby Whittingham of The Independent Turner Society. In a letter to the Sunday Times (“Recovery of stolen Turners was mishandled”, July 3rd) he wrote:

In his account of the theft and recovery of two Turners, Waldemar Januszczak misses the key issues, dodged no doubt by Sandy Nairne, the author of a book about them. The pictures should never have been lent to Frankfurt in the first place in contravention of Turner’s wish for them to be part of a permanent display in London. When lent, more consideration should have been given by the Tate to the security issues, and the insurance money paid out for them to the Tate should have been used for Turneresque purposes, as the Charity Commission originally opined, subsequently changing its mind after confidential exchanges between itself and the Tate. These remain secret in disregard of the requirement that justice should be seen to be done, and the fact that the Turner bequest is the property of the public and not the Tate or the National Gallery.

In an interview Nairne gave to Martin Bailey (“My life as an undercover negotiator”, The Art Newspaper, July/August, 2011), the reporter proved more outspoken than the Sunday Times’ art critic, saying, of a Tate press release carrying the Tate director’s outright denial that one of the two pictures had been recovered (when it had been recovered and was being concealed not only from the public and the press but even from most of the Tate’s trustees – see Fig. 2), that “This was simply untrue”. The untruth was, as it was intended to be, highly effective and it killed off a threatened Sunday newspaper article – which the Tate thought likely to have been informed by a senior Scotland Yard officer. With this throttling of a story, Nairne’s “fears about further investigative pieces, with imputations about ‘Serbian criminals’, receded”.

To the anticipated question 2 (“Did you pay a ransom or a reward?”) a flat one-word denial – “No” – was advised. This, too, was untrue. Nairne (fairly) acknowledges that:

Following the recovery of the Turner paintings, Michael Daley of ArtWatch, and some members of the Turner Society, felt that questions went unanswered when the two paintings were put back on display on 7 January 2003. In the background was a potential lack of trust in the governance and management of the Tate, although the specific question was whether it had pursued the paintings in the right way. Was active pursuit even the right course of action? This writer and the Tate, contends that there was an institutional as well as a moral duty to use all means available to get the paintings back – but questions about methods and means were inevitable.

Well, questions do indeed become inevitable in museum cultures where officers feel morally licenced to use “all means available”. Nairne, again fairly, acknowledges the anxieties of others such as Vernon Rapley, the Head of the Art and Antiques Squad until 2010, who explained:

As a police officer I have a very clear view – if you offer a reward for the return with no questions asked, effectively you are available for a buy-back of the commodity, and you will fuel further crime.

Nairne cites our own letter to the Daily Telegraph on 12 November 2005, which read:

“You reported (November 5th) that, in the BBC programme Underworld Art Deal, the man who supervised the Tate’s recovery of its two stolen Turners, Sandy Nairne (now director of the National Portrait Gallery), admits: ‘We knew in all the different stages of the investigation that a reward would be necessary, that a reward would be involved, that a reward initially offered by the insurers might need to be enhanced. I think that was clear from very early on.’ Not clear to the Tate’s Board of trustees, it would seem. In January we asked the present chairman, Paul Myners, to say ‘by what means, if any,’ Tate trustees had been assured that ‘no part of the £3.5 million payments might fall into the pockets of the thieves’. In reply, he wrote: ‘You will appreciate that details around the recovery operation have to remain confidential. However I can confirm that the Tate did not pay a ransom or a reward.’ The leap from the £180,000 for ‘intelligence’ originally offered by the insurers to the now reported £3.3 million reward to underworld figures is indeed a worthy subject for investigation. How shaming it is to the arts that such an investigation is carried out by a television company.

When we had put directly to the Tate’s chairman Paul (now Lord) Myners (see Figs. 3 & 4) the discrepancy between his own and Nairne’s comments on the very large reward paid to criminals holding the Turners, he responded through the Tate’s “Head of Legal”, Jacqueline Hill, in a letter of 10 May 2006 which comprised yet another set of questions and answers, the questions being repetitions of mine to Myners. Thus, in answer to my question to the Tate’s chairman:

You have continued to insist – even after Sandy Nairne’s disclosure that a reward had been paid – that no reward had been paid. You say that you do so on your own ‘reading of the [Tate’s Court] file.’ Perhaps you and I have been reading different files. I cannot, on the material I have read, imagine what might have caused you to draw such a conclusion. On what grounds do you discount the testimony of Mr Nairne, who headed Tate’s recovery operations from start to finish?

there came dissembling pedantry, evasion and repetitious assertion from the Tate’s Head of Legal:

Mr Nairne gave an interview for a television programme, he did not give a ‘testimony’. We consider that his words have been taken out of context. As stated above, the DM10m payment was neither a ransom nor a reward.

To my question to the chairman:

Are you not aware that the Court File makes clear that all parties privy to the payments, understood that a special dedicated account was set up into which DM10m was to be deposited by the Tate, precisely in advance payment for the (hoped for) ‘hand over’ of the paintings?

the Tate’s Head of Legal countered:

The Court File makes clear that Tate’s actions were sanction [sic] by the relevant British and German authorities and the Tate acted as it was entitled to do.”

To our question:

Are you not aware that Mr Liebrucks [the lawyer acting for the criminals holding the paintings] was expressly given to understand that he was to be playing no part in a law enforcement operation – that, to the contrary: 1) he had been given immunity from prosecution by the German police authorities; 2) that he need make and did make no disclosure of the thieves’ identity, and, 3) that as Mr Nairne disclosed in his April 2000 affidavit to the High Court, the police authorities themselves were endeavouring along with the Tate’s officers to ‘establish a degree of trust’ with Liebrucks and his (claimed) clients?

the Tate’s Head of Legal replied:

Mr Myners is aware of this. The information is in the Court files.

The criminals were never caught despite their eminently traceable links to the lawyer who received their money. If this might seem like negligence of the part of the Frankfurt police, it should be said that Nairne reveals that the Frankfurt police had been kept in the dark about the money/paintings transfers by the German prosecutors with the knowledge and support of the British police authorities:

Keeping the final stage confidential remained paramount. The Prosecutor’s Office was prepared to keep the Frankfurt police away from the detailed arrangements, while Scotland Yard officers remained involved as advisers.”

Michael Daley

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Above, Fig. 1: Sandy Nairne, now director of the National Portrait Gallery, surveys the Tate’s recovered Turners in the Sunday Times magazine’s photo-portrait (detail) by Manuel Vazquez.
Above, Fig. 2: An examination of Nicholas Serota’s regime at the Tate. In November 2000, the Tate’s director (pictured above, right) issued the following statement:
Turner Paintings
There has been much speculation over the years about the whereabouts of the two paintings by J. M. W. Turner, stolen in Frankfurt in 1994. And like the authorities in Germany, Tate has always been interested in any serious information which might lead to their recovery. But currently there is no new information, nor are there any current discussions being conducted. Of course I remain hopeful that one day the paintings might return to the the Tate.
Nicholas Serota, Tate Director.”
As described, left, this statement served to kill off an imminent newspaper story that would have disclosed the recovery of the first stolen Turner.
When asked by the director of the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt for the loan of the two Turner paintings, “Shade and Darkness – the Evening of the Deluge” and “Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis” for an exhibition “Goethe and the Visual Arts”, Nicholas Serota replied in a letter of 13 December 1993:
…I am delighted to confirm that we will be able to lend both works…We will not send a courier, but as the works have high values we would like a member of your staff to supervise the arrival/de-palletisation of the cases at the airport in Frankfurt and their transit to the Schirn Kunsthalle. We will arrange for the delivery of the cases to the airport in London to be supervised. All overland transport must be in vehicles with air-ride suspension and temperature control…”
On 26 April 1994, a registrar at the Tate arranging “all risks” and “nail to nail” insurance cover, at £12 million for each of the two paintings being loaned to Franfurt, wrote “Courier: works will be escorted to the airport, and thence by a British Museum courier. Agents will provide personal supervision throughout.” When we asked the British Museum’s courier of works (on paper) to the Frankfurt exhibition, if he had accompanied the Tate paintings from the airport in Frankfurt, he replied that he could not recall having done so but, he added, that did not mean that he “might not have done”.
Above, Fig. 3: The Evening Standard Magazine of 23 March 2009 reported that: “Lady Myners threw a Gothic extravaganza for the Contemporary Art Society, of which she is chairman. Lord Myners’ inamorata led her victims, sorry, guests down to the Shunt Vaults by London Bridge for a banquet of lamb and a goblet of Perrier-Jouët…and Lord Myners, himself smooth in plum velvet and black satin, enjoyed the auction, raising £180,000 despite the no-show of Fred the Shred who clearly has other things to spend his pension on…
Above, Fig. 4: a report in the Daily Telegraph of 27 February 2009. In ArtWatch UK Journal 26 we reported that the former Tate chairman, Lord Myners, who had given close to £10,000 to Gordon Brown’s campaign to become Prime Minister, was one of two businessman ennobled by the late Labour Government and dropped into office – in Myner’s case as City Minister. (See also “Lord Myners Watch”, ArtWatch UK Journal 25.) When the much-mocked Myners was chairman at the Tate, 23% of the gallery’s total investment fund of £27m was placed in hedge funds. As the Evening Standard reported (“Tate invites trouble by putting all its nest-eggs in one hedge”, 14 January 2010), experts in charity fund management advise clients to hold no more 8% in hedge funds and most charities have no holdings in such risky ventures. The outcome of the Tate’s hedge fund dabbling was a £1m loss – plus a £1.5m loss in the charity’s share portfolio.
Above, Fig. 5: Tate players, Sandy Nairne, left, Nicholas Serota, centre, and Stephen Deuchar, right, announcing the recovery of the stolen Turners at a press conference in December 2002.
David Verey, Lord Myners’ predecessor (until March 26 2004) as Tate Chairman, also had a bumpy transition into a post-Tate afterlife. On immediately becoming the Chairman of the Art Fund, Verey authorised a large payment (£75,000) that breached the Fund’s own rules, to the Tate. It served to reduce the Tate’s own proportion of its embarrassing purchase cost of a (discounted £600,000) work by a sitting Tate Trustee, Chris Ofili – which very action Verey had commended to Serota while he was still the chairman of trustees at the Tate. The £75,000 payment, which should not have been made because the Ofili work had already been bought under Verey’s Tate chairmanship, was imprecisely described in Art Fund accounts as a “Discounted Museum Purchase”. The Tate connections with the Art Fund have continued to grow: David Barrie, the Fund’s highly regarded director of 17 years, resigned over differences with his new chairman Verey in 2009. He was replaced by Tate Britain’s departing director Stephen Deuchar (above right) who promptly declared “I have ideas for taking the Art Fund [previously known as the National Art Collections Fund] in new directions” – one being “investing in people [e.g. museum curators], alongside objects”. This last, depressingly recalls the performance of the Arts Council which discovered some years ago that it could give its grants to salaried and superannuated arts administrators as easily as to freelance artists and performers. At Deuchar’s leaving party at the Tate, Nicholas Serota (whose offer to return the improperly obtained £75,000 to the Art Fund had been declined by the Art Fund under Verey’s chairmanship but at a meeting which he had not attended) said to Deuchar: “We feel that our friendship to you will be amply repaid.” In January 2010, the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins noted: “ the gallery has just announced that it has been able to buy eight beautiful (if disturbing) William Blake works on paper… with the help of a £141,000 grant from the Art Fund, now run by Stephen Deuchar [who] stepped down as director of Tate Britain in December, with Nicholas Serota, overall director of Tate, quipping that they expected to be the happy recipients of the charity’s largesse. And so, reader it has come to pass – just a little bit quicker than expected.”
Above, Fig. 6: Tate staff shown hanging the recovered Turners (Guardian photograph) in December 2002. A Tate press release announced: “Tate’s stolen Turners are recovered. Tate is pleased to announce that two paintings by J. M. W. Turner, stolen from an exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany, on 28 July 1994, have both been recovered and will go on show at Tate britain from 8 January…’Shade and Darkness’ was recovered on 19 July but no announcement was made for fear it might jeopardise the recovery of the second painting . ‘Light and Colour’ was recovered on 16 december 2002 and returned to this country on 18 December 2002…”
Above, Fig. 7: Sandy Nairne explains to The Art Newspaper’s Martin Bailey, how, when asked by Tate director Nicholas Serota to head the gallery’s attempt to recover two stolen Turners, he had been “thrown into a situation I knew nothing about. But it was an extreme example of what we do as curators. We need to be incredibly discreet about those who offer us loans. The mix of working with artists, dealers and collectors can sometimes be pretty complex…
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Why is the European Commission instructing museums to incur more risks by lending more art?

2nd February 2011

Given the notorious risks of loaning works of art (see: An Appeal from Poland) and the high costs of insuring against those risks, why should the European Commission now be doing everything in its power to increase the practice throughout all of Europe’s museums?

In 2009 the Commission, through its “Culture Programme of the European Union” (which is funded to the tune of €400m), set up “Collections Mobility 2.0 Lending for Europe – 21st century”. This latter organisation, has itself funded international junkets – already – in Shanghai, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Budapest, Paris, Amsterdam (again) and, for this coming November, Athens. (Why Shanghai? – Is China seeking entry into the European Union?)

The ostensible prospectus for this pan-European project to “set culture in motion”, under the aegis of the 2007 “European Agenda for Culture in a globalising world”, rests on an evident conviction that an ever-greater shuffling around of the stock of art that is housed in Europe’s historical and nationally distinctive museums is a self-evident Good Communautaire Thing. While lip service is paid to “retaining the cultural diversity of the member states” it is hard to see how this might be achieved through a project which by design “contributes to European integration” and aims to bestow “a context” upon the art which is moved. When reading the promotional literature, it is hard not to see an overarching desire to homogenise European cultural life precisely by subverting the richly individual historically-forged identities of national institutions. It is hard to see how, in the real Euro-world of collapsing economies and soaring unemployment, a massive bureaucratized drive to increase inter-museum loans and their attendant risks might be considered other than whimsical and irresponsible.

As if in denial of the inherent risks, Collections Mobility 2.0 has constructed top-down national training programmes to be run in all European member states with the express purpose of encouraging more loans by the imposition of tiers of pre-cooked administrative procedure. All participants on these crash courses are required to:

…cascade the training programme to other professionals in their own country using the training package that is being developed.

The targets of this training package are to be:

…professionals dealing directly with the administration of international loan of artworks as collection keepers, registrars, etc.

The enterprise itself is dressed in pure dissembling management-speak:

The Collections Mobility 2.0, Lending for Europe – 21st Century project organises training courses and provides a training package in order to introduce the most recent developments, best practices, concepts, standards and procedures on lending and borrowing of museum collections. ‘Getting practical’ is the aim of the project.

Getting practical is not the same as “Getting real”. The risks to loaned works are real and the cost of insuring against them is correspondingly and appropriately high. As if to bypass this latter reality, Collections Mobility 2.0 charged a group of experts to examine over 5,000 loans made in five years under state indemnity schemes. This group duly reports that only seven claims for minor damage were made under those schemes. Taking these findings at face value and making no allowance for the under-reporting of travel injuries in the art world, Collections Mobility 2.0 seeks to increase loan traffic volumes by advising museums to insure less, to insure their works only for the specific short periods of travel at the beginning and end of a loan period, and not for the full duration of the loan.

This would greatly compound the hazards. TheArt Newspaper reports (February) that Sandy Nairne, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, has pointed out that loaned paintings get stolen from within museums and not just while on the road. He should know, having been charged when at the Tate with making the arrangements for the recovery of two of its Turners that were stolen when on loan to a museum in Germany.

Mr Nairne’s warning that “Without insurance the Tate would have had no money, nor the paintings”, cannot be gainsaid. What might be said is that by paying a ransom of over £3m to what Geoffrey Robinson, the former Paymaster General, described as “a group of particularly nasty Serbs”, the Tate established a going-rate “reward” of fifteen per cent of a work’s insurance value to obtain a recovery and avoid a full insurance pay-out. Whether such ransoms masquerade as “payments for intelligence” or not, they make art theft an increasingly tempting prospect.

For example, were the Krakow, Czartoryski Foundation’s, Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine, to be stolen during its proposed trips to and from the National Gallery in London, it would, with its current insurance rating of €300m, afford a juicy potential haul of €30-45m to thieves. Were that Leonardo to be insured only during its times of travel, as Collections Mobility 2.0 now urges, the insurance cost might fall “considerably” – but the painting would remain a plump €30-45m target. Were it to be stolen from within the National Gallery, the owners, having acted on Collections Mobility 2.0’s advice, would receive nothing from the insurers. Similarly, if the painting were to be dropped and smashed at the National Gallery during the periods of installation or de-installation (as happened recently to a panel by Beccafumi), the Polish owners would receive nothing from the insurers. Were private insurance arrangements to be replaced by state-guarantees of indemnity, in the event of thefts, states would find themselves in “recovery” negotiations with nasty criminal groups and without the political cover afforded by commercial insurers.

There are no limits to the problems associated with Collections Mobility 2.0. Were the Lady with an Ermine to be loaned by her owners to France instead of, or in addition to Britain (and any or all venues would seem to be on the cards with this painting under its present aristocratic stewardship – in recent years she has been loaned to: Washington, 1991; Malmo, 1994; Kyoto, 2001; Nagoya, 2001; Yokohama, 2002; Milwaukee, 2002; Houston, 2003; San Francisco, 2003; Budapest, 2009) the risks of theft or injury would likely be higher still. The Daily Telegraph recently reported growing concerns that French museums are easy targets for thieves (“Lending works of art to France is a risky business”, 29 August 2010). For the past fifteen years thefts from French museums have run at three a month. In May 2010 thieves broke into the Museum of Modern Art in Paris and stole five paintings valued at £86m.

Two works loaned to France from the Victoria and Albert museum have been damaged in the past two years. An official at Apsley House, London, has said of the museum’s art “We wouldn’t lend that to the Louvre. We don’t know what state we’d get it back in.”

Whether or not one supports the European “Grand Project” to forge a United States of Europe, we should all be clearer about the implicit cultural price of ironing-out nationally distinctive institutions. It is barely over half a century since Hans Tietze, writing in the aftermath of the devastation of the Second World War, said of The Great National Galleries of Europe and the United States:

The least part of their value lies in the millions they would fetch on the market; their real worth lies in the intellectual labour which they embody and in the spiritual pleasure stored up in them. To create these possessions the nations contended one with the other, and each land has built its own memorial in the Gallery which enshrines its history and its way of life.

If Eurocrats are offended by these nationally expressive institutions, they should say so openly. Better yet, they might resolve to leave them in peace to speak for themselves. Since we already have the free movement of all European citizens, there is no impediment to their visiting any art – in its own already culturally rich context – anywhere on the continent. Let us cherish Europe’s unequalled and diverse cultural achievements for what they are and avoid putting them to unnecessary risks.

Michael Daley

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Above: the National Gallery’s 16th C. oil on wood panel painting Marcia by Beccafumi. This panel painting was said by the gallery (Report, 13 March 2008) to be “fragile” and “never to be allowed to go out on loan”. Here, the picture is seen as when dropped and smashed at the National Gallery on 21 January 2008 during “the de-installation of the exhibition Renaissance Siena: Art for a City”. After the Marcia panel was restored, it and its companion Tanaquil did not return to their place in the main galleries but were relegated to the ill-lit basement of the reserve collection which is open to the public for only a few hours a week.

Below: Leonardo da Vinci’s late 15th C. Lady with an Ermine, oil on wood panel, 54 cm x 39 cm. This painting, normally housed at the Czartoryski Museum, Kraków, is presently on show at the National Museum in Warsaw. It has recently been loaned to the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts. It is planned to move the picture again to London for the National Gallery’s exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” exhibition from November 2011 to February 2012.

In an appeal to ArtWatch UK on November 30th November 2010, Prof. Grazyna Korpal, the expert of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage in the field of painting restoration, at ASP Krakow, commented:

“The work of Leonardo da Vinci called Lady with an Ermine, from the collection of the Czartoryski Museum is one of the most valuable paintings not only in the context of the Polish collections, but also of the world heritage. Such masterpieces require exceptional protection. Prevention is the main priority. Its fundamental principle is the unconditional restriction of movement and transfer to the absolutely necessary. If you transport a picture panel such as the Lady with an Ermine, even the most ideal methods in the form of modern environmental chambers or special anti-shock frames are not able to sufficiently protect the work against a variety of vibrations, shocks or changes in pressure. By allowing the painting to travel we create yet another serious threat, largely extending the area of possible human error, while increasing the likelihood of the impact of the so-called independent factors.

“Given the technology of the picture, it is necessary to keep it under constant microclimatic conditions, in one place, in a tight microclimatic frame of the new generation, made on the basis of the already proven solutions used for panel masterpieces in renowned museums. Only by storing the picture in a fixed location will eliminate to the maximum such basic threats as unavoidable external pollution, changes in the microclimate, all kinds of shock, vibration, drastic changes in pressure, and reduce the risks resulting from independent factors.

“To sum up the basic arguments put forward for the protection of the painting Lady with an Ermine, I firmly declare that each loan and the associated with it transport are a serious, even reprehensible, threat to the state of preservation and safety of this priceless work of art. I also believe that based on the special immunities provided for outstanding works of art already developed and operating in Austria, Germany or the United States, it is necessary to grant such immunity to the painting from Krakow.“Like every masterpiece the painting Lady with an Ermine has a historical value, and in this value is also included – the Czartoryski Museum, Cracow’s atmosphere and the tumultuous history of the picture during the last century. Each loan ‘strips’ the work of this unique ‘setting’, which while not indifferent to the viewer, should be especially nurtured and protected in the Polish reality.

Below: (Top and Centre) Members of a “Collections Mobility 2.0 Lending for Europe – 21st Century” training programme. (Bottom) Staff at Glasgow Museum’s Resource Centre unpacking Christ of St John of the Cross by Salvador Dali, voted Scotland’s favourite painting in 2007, on its return from a loan to a museum in Atlanta, as published in the Daily Telegraph on January 26 2011. (Photograph by Andrew Milligan/PA.)
Below: An advertisement for a “Collections Mobility 2.0 Lending for Europe – 21st Century” conference in Brussels.

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