Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
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An Interview with the Director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny. All photographs by Sabine Tilly.

Date: 22-11-2009
Owning Institution: National Gallery
Publication:   Sunday Telegraph Reviews 2004-2013  
Subject: Now    

A ray of weak winter sunlight breaks through the cloud and shines into the office of the Director of the National Gallery. The figure of Nelson, looming on his column outside in Trafalgar Square, is thrown suddenly into silhouette. So too is the gangly, saturnine figure of Nicholas Penny, who has been galvanised into action by this apparently slight meteorological development. He gets up to draw a curtain. “We should be grateful for all the sunshine we get at this time of year,” he says, “but I am just worried about these prints hanging on the wall. Direct sunlight’s not very good for them.”

Having cast the engravings in question into a sufficient pool of shadow, he settles down to discuss his broader responsibilities of care to one of the world’s greatest museums of painting. What is his vision of the National Gallery’s future? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Where should the balance lie, between improving the display of the permanent collections and focussing on temporary exhibitions? And last but not least, the £50 million question: Given  the immense rise in the value of Old Master paintings, can institutions like the National Gallery and National Galleries of Scotland possibly hope to repeat the extraordinary fund-raising drive that led to the purchase of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon at the start of the year?

Despite having played a pivotal role in securing the acquisition of that painting – “one of the greatest paintings in the whole world, full stop” – Penny insists that his first priority is making the most of what the National Gallery already has:

“I would attach as much importance to how things are displayed, and thought about, as to acquisitions. I want to re-establish that great paintings are things you revisit in the same sense that a great symphony is something you want to rehear and a great poem is something you want to re-read. When you think of that basic principle, that a masterpiece is something you go back to, that gives the permanent collection of the National Gallery an incredible importance. And that’s diminished by an excessive emphasis on temporary exhibitions. I love the idea of temporary exhibitions supporting the permanent collection, rather than just occupying the same building and distracting from them. So reasserting the idea of the National Gallery as a place of incredible spiritual refreshment, where you go again and again, that’s paramount to me. That’s what was achieved, paradoxically, by the Second World War, when the collection famously had to be hidden away in the Welsh mines, with just bits of it being brought back occasionally to lift national morale. It’s incredibly difficult, because it’s human nature to take things for granted, but more than anything else, I’d like to do something that made people cease to take for granted the presence in London of some of the greatest masterpieces in the world.”

On the question of where the museum’s greatest strengths lie, Penny is drawn immediately to his own field of greatest expertise, its Italian Renaissance holdings (his catalogue of the Venetian paintings, many years in preparation, has now been published):

“Pretty quickly you come up against the fact that it is a much greater collection of Italian art than it is of the art of any other European country. And even for Italian art, it’s remarkable for being very comprehensive. When the collection was formed, there was this determination to get things from everywhere, from Naples, from Savoy, from all over Italy, from Venice. As a result, there’s nowhere in Italy itself, even, where you get the whole range of Italian painting at the highest level of quality, as you do in the National Gallery. Which isn’t to say that there’s nothing missing, but it’s remarkable.


“It’s often said that the National Gallery is the defining collection, in that if you want the entire Italian Renaissance, and you want it in one collection, rather than one book or whatever, then the National Gallery is really outstanding. And that’s partly because it was formed at a moment in the mid- to late nineteenth century, when people were really asking themselves what is the Italian Renaissance, who were its greatest artists? It was formed when they were forming their idea of the Italian Renaissance, and not when it had already formed, so in a strange way it actually participated in the process of deciding what was really going on then.

“A perfect example would be Piero della Francesca. People are always saying that he was only really discovered in the twentieth century – even Kenneth Clark began his monograph on Piero by repeating that cliche. But it’s not really true, because the National Gallery has three truly great Pieros, including that stunning Baptism, and they were all acquired in the nineteenth century. Piero was a connoisseur’s artist, rather than a popular artist, in the nineteenth century, but the National Gallery had its antennae out for him.”

Kenneth Clark remains probably the most famous of Penny’s predecessors as Director. But Penny places a great deal of stress on the importance of the institution’s nineteenth-century roots, and the vital role played by the then director, Charles Eastlake.

“Eastlake was in touch, really in touch with these large shifts in art historical knowledge that were going on. Vermeer is another example, we have our great Vermeers, like the Pieros, in great measure thanks to him. Eastlake was trying to get hold of Vermeers very early on. The painter was rediscovered by the art historian Thore-Burger in the 1850s, and Eastlake was immediately on the case. If you look at his notebooks, you find that every time he comes across anything that might be a Vermeer, he inspects it from top to bottom. And interestingly, he always finds something wrong with it. Eastlake had a very ruthless critical mind, and if he really wanted something and thought the artist was really great, he’d always identify everything that could be said against it, in his notebooks. People will then look at those notebooks and say ‘oh, he didn’t like Vermeer’. Completely untrue. He just never raved about anything. If he got really close and critical, it was because he wanted to make sure the National Gallery got the best one.”

Penny is clearly a man who has spent much time rooting about in his own museum’s archive. His view of the National Gallery’s future is deeply informed by his strong sense of its past. The extent to which its intellectual roots lie in nineteenth-century Germany as much as Victorian Britain is a fact which is, perhaps, insufficiently appreciated:

“The first phase of the museum benefited enormously from the influx into Great Britain, and England, of so many great paintings from France and Italy as a result of the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution. The consciousness of being a great world power and not having a great museum of the world’s paintings seemed humiliating. And the paintings were available, and there was enough patriotic support for the whole enterprise to have those pictures. But when they decided to have a Director, then the idea of extending the collection and including less well known areas such as the earlier Renaissance, that became crucial. At the time, the vital figures in shaping a broader view of the Italian Renaissance were nearly all German – Jacob Burckhardt, who wrote The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, is one famous example – and it was very fortunate thing for the National Gallery that Eastlake was a germanophile. He had German friends, knew great German art historians, and in fact Eastlake’s first great essay in the Quarterly Magazine was on German art history.”

From the outset, the National Gallery collected in strength and depth in the areas of well established taste as well as at the vanguard of art history. So it acquired great collections of Dutch and Flemish art as well. Pressed on which painters he feels are particularly well represented in the collections as a whole, he singles out Rubens, Canaletto and, inevitably,  Titian: “Ah yes, Titian, well, er ... I think we’re getting there. We’re building up to the right level.” His saturnine features are lit up, at this point, as he smiles at his own understatement. “Oh and Rembrandt, too, of course. And Veronese’s incredibly well represented. I happen to know a lot about that because I catalogued the paintings. We have an example of every major type of painting he made, except frescoes.”

While the weaknesses in the collection are easy to identify, they are rather harder to remedy. German art history may have shaped the building of the collection, but German art itself remains under-represented. Despite the efforts of Kenneth Clark and, more recently, Neil MacGregor – who was the driving force behind the acquisition of the gallery’s one small jewel of a Caspar David Friedrich – Penny is doubtful whether the National Gallery can ever really become a great museum of German painting:

“When the National Gallery had an opportunity in the 1840s, early 1850s, to acquire quite a large collection of early German paintings, they were mostly not accepted. Throughout the twentieth century there’s been this terrible feeling that we really ought to have more German pictures. Kenneth Clark had this feeling. In fact in his case it was intensified by the politics of the moment. Immediately after the Second World War, he thought gosh, people are going to start disliking German culture. He thought it would be a really great gesture to show people once more how truly great German art could be. So it was priority to buy the large Durer Rosegarden picture, which was then available in the Cook Collection. When you think of all the other pictures he could have bought, it was an extraordinary thing to do. It was a pro-German gesture at the end of the Second World War. Rather a noble gesture, actually.”

“And then Neil MacGregor was very keen to build up the German collection, but I think in a way it’s almost too late. It’s too late to get a collection of early German painting that in any way would match our early Italian paintings. An artist like Altdorfer, for example – well, the pictures are just all taken. Even when it comes to German Romantic painting, it’s too late. The trouble there is that during most of the twentieth century the National Gallery was a bit stick-in-the mud – not ahead of fashion, or even in the vanguard, in the way American museums were.”

He singles out other areas of weakness, notably the later nineteenth century:

“What I feel I suppose most strongly about the character of the National Gallery’s collection is that its nineteenth-century holdings are highly distorted. That’s partly because it is itself essentially a collection formed in the nineteenth century. So when the great treasures of the collection were being assembled – Raphaels and Veroneses, not to mention Piero della Francescas – they weren’t buying anything contemporary at all. So they weren’t buying French Impressionism, at all. Totally missed, also, was great French Neoclassical painting, the work of Jacques-Louis David and so on. By the time everybody realised just how great that really was it really wasn’t obtainable at all. To be honest, there was never much available anyway, because, well, the French do keep hold of things.”

One of the issues every Director of the National Gallery has to confront anew is the question of where “modern” art begins and where “Old Master” painting might be said to end. At what point, for example, does a group of artists such as the Cubists become sufficiently enshrined in the past to merit inclusion in the National Gallery?

“Well it is a really interesting question and it’s the question that has informed the agreement we have made with Tate about where and what we acquire. My starting point in thinking about all that is that Tate Modern is the national gallery of modern art. But it will become partly a histoprical museum, simply as time passes. Neither Nick Serota nor I adhere to any particular dogma about this. Whatever the case, in my opinion it’s still the case that people really feel that something really did change in the early years of this century. I can’t see it in any other way, but I can readily believe that it will eventually be seen in another way. In other words, I consider Cubism, Futurism, Expressionism, really all the “isms” that occurred in that amazing first fifteen years of the twentieth century – so much of what we think of as the founding modernist works of art occur then. I really do believe that that is a natural place to start a national museum of modern art. However, there’s an amazing amount of stuff done in the twentieth century which is done by artists whose traditions of painting remain completely rooted in the nineteenth century. And there is clearly a case for including their work in the National Gallery”

At this point in the conversation, Picasso would seem to be the elephant in the room. Is he part of the story of modern art alone, or part of the larger history of painting? Was the National Gallery’s recent exhibition, “Picasso and the Past”, a way of beginning to open the door to his inclusion in the permanent collections?

“Well actually I don’t feel that, although I know there are a lot of people who do. The exhibition was designed really to open up that debate. Picasso obviously did have a great fascination for the art of the past, but to my mind the differences are greater than the affinities. That makes the affinities all the more interesting. But if he were really a part of the same tradition, I don’t think he’d be able to dodge around in the way that he did.”

One of Penny’s main ambitions for the contemporary exhibition programme is that it should address artists and subjects in a way that helps them to speak to the present with particular urgency. At a more mundane level, he also needs to make sure that the books remain balanced:

“Put at its most simple, we don’t want to lose money putting on exhibitions. That is not an option. What that means is that if I discovered a completely unknown artist, and I really believed in putting on an exhibition about that artist, that really must not be a very expensive exhibition to put on! Or else we might get into difficulties. So we try to balance exhibitions which will have more popular appeal with others where we don’t know. I think the most impoirtant thing is that we continue to put on exhibitions where we really don’t know, because otherwise, if you don’t take any risks, you’ll never develop any new ideas, any new taste, anything at all...”

He sees the museum’s main current exhibition, “The Sacred Made Real”, as a particularly successful example of a risk-taking show, which juxtaposes paintings by famous artists such as Velazquez and Zurbaran with a mass of highly realistic painted sculptures by anonymous or little known master-carvers. The risk was that audiences might be alienated by the extraordinary, polychrome Spanish statuary in the exhibition – sculptures of the dying, bleeding Christ, created with gruesome naturalism and part of a rather overlooked and unfamiliar tradition. In fact, the opposite has been the case:

“When the exhibition was first conceived, the idea was that the Velazquez and the Zurbaran paintings would carry the less familiar polychrome sculpture. You know, people would come in order to see the Velazquez and the Zurbaran, the known painters of the Spanish Golden Age, and perhaps find the sculpture quite interesting. And that’s not been the case at all. People have written entire reviews about the sculpture on its own, which we really couldn’t have expected, but are delighted by. I think it even would have been a successful exhibition without the paintings! But it’s absolutely the case of an exhibition where there was an element of risk. And when you calculate the cost of an exhibition like this, it’s not at all a cheap thing to do. All the works come from different places, packing and conservation and all that has got to be very expensive to make sure all the things get here safely. Persuading people to allow things that are still venerated in churches to come here, it’s a very big task, it’s taken the curator Xavier Bray a long time, so if you factor that in too, it’s really cost a lot of money. So I’m glad it has come off.”

The biggest finacial challenge facing the gallery is that of making significant new additions to its collections, in an age when the number of available great Old Master paintings is dwindling and their cost correspondingly soaring.

“It’s been traditional at the National Gallery, for something like 120-130 years, for its directors always to say they’re underfunded. The area over which my predecessors have usually felt the institution could use more money is that of new acquisitions. The fact is that the National Gallery receives a lot of government support, and we do now live in a world where private donations are becoming more and more important. The Titian we’ve just acquired is a good example. In relation to other paintings of similar greatness over the last 150 years, say Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, Holbein’s Ambassadors, The Wilton Diptych – they have all been acquired with a far higher ratio of government support. That’s not to say that government and certain institutions like the Monument Trust and Art Fund weren’t very generous. But the balance has shifted.”

Does he ever see a moment when prices rise so high for Old Master paintings that the National Gallery will simply have to throw up its hands and give up attempting to make major acquisitions?

“I don’t think of it like that. I’m more optimistic, I think there’s always a chance and usually a way. Where I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea for people to start throwing up their hands is over the price of contemporary art. A lot of institutions are absolutely dedicated to the acquisition of contemporary art at the moment, but it’s a little depressing that they are all dedicated to the acquisition of the same contemporary art. It’s an incredibly conformist world, the world of contemporary musuem art collecting. It’s a little like art students being far more conformist in their dress, given the codes they have, than city bankers. And if you want to see real conformism it’s the contemporary art galleries of great American museums. Because they don’t only all look alike, all have the same very pale walls and minimal features, but they all have the same contemporary and near-contemporary artists. It’s really orthodox, and at the level of taste it’s just homogenous.”

Ater this brief, caustic excursus, he returns to the subject of his own, distinctly non-homogenous museum. His biggest ambition remains that of deepening the way in which its incomparable permanent collection can speak to the broadest possible audience. The National Gallery is unusual, among the major museums of the world, in having such a large constituency of home visitors. Roughly half of the National Gallery’s audience lives in the United Kingdom. By comparison, a much smaller percentage of visitors to the Louvre or the Prado come from France and Spain respectively. It is a tradition that Penny is concerned to maintain. But he is also concerned by the erosion of an important part of the museum’s core audience:   

“The people I worry about is actually people who live in the regions, for whom it costs often far more to get to London than it costs people who come here from Madrid or Berlin. Travel in this country is so ludicrously expensive that it has really had a damaging effect on people’s horizons. There was this idea that used to be fundamental to the National Gallery, which is that you would come down, bring your family to London. And say your daughter was interested in pictures and your son was interested in moths, or whatever, you’d visit the Natural History Museum in the morning and the National Gallery in the afternoon. Now that’s just been killed. I mean, the cost of a rail ticket from say Bolton to London is truly amazing, even if you’ve booked ahead. It’s a very serious problem.”

"There are little teeny facts you can extract from the history of the National Gallery that are astounding, and some of them really are an index of the way society has changed, and not necessarily always for the better... I think the most astounding is the fact that the National Gallery, between the wars, used to open early on Cup Final day. It used to open early,I am saying, not close early because people were celebrating a victory or whatever in Trafalgar Square. No, the whole point was that the gallery would open early because the thousands of families who had come to London would want a little culture before they went to the match. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine how early they would have had to arrive to do that? So the National Gallery would open at 9 instead of 10, to accommodate all those people who had got up at 5 in the morning to catch a train which no doubt no longer exists... Now that’s what I call outreach.”

He smiles his understated smile again, as if spurred on by the challenge implicit in yet another of his tales from the National Gallery archive. It is a smile that seems to say that if he can get the football fans thinking Titian versus Botticelli in the morning, and Chelsea versus Man United in the afternoon – if he can manage that, then he really will have achieved what he set out to do.

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