Thursday, December 02, 2010

Sorry, Brian Sewell: we're not selling Lady Celia

Challenging news this week as Brian Sewell, top art critic and purveyor of cut-glass accents to the gentry, pronounces from his cosy London clubroom that Bath should sell off some of its undisplayed works of art  from the Victoria Gallery in order to shore up its finances.

One is reminded (as soon as you think of Mr Sewell you start to write a bit like he talks) of the oft-misquoted phrase of Sir Harold MacMillan (that’s Lord Stockton to you, madam) about selling off assets in times of trouble: “First of all the Georgian silver goes. And then all that nice furniture that used to be in the salon. Then the Canalettos go.”

Lord Stockton was talking about the sell-offs of the big public utilities in the ’80s, and he later said he had no objection to taking them out of public ownership, but what he questioned was using the money raised as if it were income.

Because once those artworks have gone, there’s no way you can get them back.

Now Mr Sewell hasn’t heretofore (told you) been noted as a commentator on matters of public finance, and he may not have considered that windfalls don’t work when it comes to budgeting.

Let’s do some sums. The B&NES art collection of more than 11,000 items is valued at £10.3 million.

(To put that into some sort of context: this May, a single 1932 Picasso called Nude, Green Leaves , and Bust sold at Christie’s New York for £70 million.)

And some 77 per cent of the Victoria Gallery collection is on display at any one time.

There’s a nasty smell of burning plastic, and wisps of smoke rise from the calculator ... Even if the council sold off all its undisplayed works of art, it probably wouldn’t raise more than about £2.4 million.

Which is about two per cent of its budget for 2010/11.

To use a deeply plebeian analogy, it would be a little bit like winning a non-life-changing prize on the National Lottery. You might be able to have a bit of a splurge, but you wouldn’t be able to retire on it.

Mr Sewell singled out one particular painting which he said should be sold: a 1905 portrait by the English impressionist Walter Sickert of Lady Celia Noble, the grand-daughter of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

It has strong Bath connections. Brunel of course built the railways around here. Lady Celia lived at 22 Royal Crescent, where she held salons and concerts before the Second World War. She donated the portrait to the gallery in 1948. Sickert himself lived in Bathampton from 1938 until his death in 1942.

Even though Lady Celia’s portrait isn’t currently on public display, it is available to view by appointment. (I'm hoping B&NES will let me publish it here. If they do I'll update this blog.)

It’s a delightful and informal study of a “strange beauty”. Lady Celia’s eyes avoid the painter’s, a hint of gold glistens in her hair. Sickert captures a mystery and elegance that doesn’t sit well with talk of council budgets.

It would be wonderful to see the painting on display.

Meanwhile, let’s be grateful that whatever Brian Sewell may suggest, Lady Celia is very much Not For Sale.

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