Towards the end of 2018, my attention was caught by the title of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: Gainsborough’s Family Album. His family, eh? Here was this skillful 18th century painter, famous for his ability to paint flattering likenesses of wealthy aristocrats; how would this translate to his own nearest and dearest?
Intrigued, I went last month… and was bowled over. Portrait after portrait of Mary and Margaret, Gainsborough’s daughters, captured together at various stages of their lives, exude a tenderness, emotional depth and freshness you won’t find in any of his more traditional commissions. The artist’s love and fatherly protectiveness burst out of these paintings, making them some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking portraits ever created.
Not that you’d know that from the exhibition’s curators. Reading Waldemar Januszczak’s perceptive review in the Sunday Times, I felt, with him, a familiar weariness at the snide, superficial tone that has spread like a canker throughout the museum and gallery world in the last few years. Art is no longer to be judged on its own merits; all that counts is the money the paintings represent. According to the curators, writes Januszczak, ‘at every step of his progress, Gainsborough used his family as cheap models to advertise his talents and try out different approaches …The pictures hung opposite each other in his grand new house, where their job was to impress visitors with first-hand examples.’
At this point my forehead hits the palm of my hand.
Because I recognise this mean perspective. Visiting the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall, I found the same narrative hammered home in every room. Bess of Hardwick had the lavish staircase built ‘to impress visitors with her power and wealth.’ Each piece of furniture had this function, as did all the paintings in the long gallery. It’s now a family joke with us that ‘Going to See Some Power and Wealth’ has become shorthand for visiting stately homes. Yes, rich people have always liked to show off; but no one buys an armchair just to Show Their Power and Wealth. Needing somewhere to sit might have something to do with it. Equally, many wealthy aristocrats were genuinely interested in art, fostering young painters and building up important collections for which we are all the richer. The founding collections of The National Galleries of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland came from rich art enthusiasts who bought these paintings not because they were expensive, but because they considered them beautiful.
We don’t have to read this tosh, I know. But I find it sad that visitors, including schoolchildren, are being shortchanged and patronised in this way. The opportunity is there to spark interest – even a little – in the art around them; instead, they are encouraged to sneer at the art’s being there at all. On a recent visit to Cardiff Castle – one of the most glorious examples of Gothic Revival architecture – the young guide told us next to nothing about the designers, painters, gilders, sculptors, wood carvers and others responsible for its exquisite craftsmanship, preferring instead to stress – repeatedly – the fabulous wealth of the 3rd Earl of Bute, how he and his family ‘had a pretty nice life, no worries at all.
Now that kind of statement should ring alarm bells. It is in tune with the general Money = All That Matters narrative in current museum curation and cannot be the whole story. Sure enough, talking to some of the older – and clearly more personally committed – guides gave a poignant picture of a loving husband and father creating a haven of beauty and warmth to ensure his family had the opposite of his own loveless childhood. Suffering from Bright’s disease all his life, in 1900 the earl died, aged only 58, of kidney failure. Fifteen years later, his son Ninian, 32, was killed at the Battle of Loos.
No worries at all? I think the Bute family had a few.
The solution? Keep visiting these beautiful places. Just take what the guides and curators tell you with a hefty pinch of salt, or ignore it all together. A shame, but there it is.
And if you missed Gainsborough’s Family Album at the National Portrait Gallery, don’t despair; you’ll find the cream of the exhibition – those lovely portraits of his daughters – at the National Gallery nearby.