February 23, 2003
Sir Denis Mahon
Interesting article in today's Times Magazine:
Mahon is an art historian and collector. Single-handedly and single-mindedly, he saved an entire century of Italian art from critical oblivion. In the process, he bought pictures - 79 of them. Mostly he bought them for £100 or £200, sometimes he went as high as £2,000. His whole collection cost him a mere £50,000. Today it is worth anything up to £40m, possibly much more. Now, in preparation for a death he faces with organised equanimity, he is giving it all away - a third of it to the National Gallery in London, some to the National Gallery of Ireland, some will be returned to Bologna, where they were painted, and the rest will be dotted around the country and the world.It may seem hard to believe today, but for much of the 20th century Italian paintings of the 17th century were so despised as to be nearly worthless.
But there are strings attached to these gifts. If these galleries ever decide to charge for admission, they will at once lose all their Mahon pictures. The same thing will happen if they attempt to sell any of their permanent collection. He has also used the power of his collection to bludgeon the government into allowing national museums that do not charge an admission fee to recover Vat - a move that has transformed the museum business in London. Years ago, he successfully fought to get works of art accepted by the Treasury in lieu of death duties. So I say to him over lunch at the Cadogan, are you quite happy to use your collection to blackmail people?
'Oh yes,' he chuckles, 'blackmail, of course. What's the point of having a club if you can't wield it? And it's in a good cause. Pro bono publico, damn it. Not democratic? That's tripe. As we all know, a lot happens for good which is not produced by democratically elected people. Do you see?'
[Mahon] was able to study by collecting, picking up what are now regarded as masterpieces for as little as £100. Indeed, so flat was the market in baroque paintings that he was able to buy one Guido Reni for £100, bidding £10 more than a man who only wanted it for the frame - the picture would have been chucked away.
He never spent more than about £2,000 a year. He bought his first Guercino - Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph - in 1934 for £120. It is now worth possibly £2m. Once, he offered Guercino's Elijah Fed by Ravens to Clark, by then director of the National. He would only ask what he paid for it - £200. Clark examined it on the floor of Mahon's house. He agreed it was a masterpiece but added it was pointless offering it to the National board. Their prejudice against Italian baroque was so strong that they wouldn't consider buying it. Today it does hang in the National - loaned by Mahon. 'The valuation of £4m,' he says, with extravagant urbanity, 'is somewhat different from £200.'
Picking up the seicento on the cheap was giving Mahon huge reserves of power, though it would be 40 years before this became clear. The post-Ruskin critical consensus that these works were duds had infected galleries all over the world. Almost every collection had a huge gap where the 17th century ought to have been. But then, in the 1970s, the critical climate began to change, mainly because of Mahon's dogged scholarship.
'He opened our eyes,' says Neil MacGregor, the former director of the National Gallery and now director of the British Museum, 'to find meaning in works of art we had written off, works we had thought were empty.' Suddenly, painters like Reni, Guercino and Domenichino were re-evaluated and prices began to rise. Mahon, having bought 79 paintings and countless drawings, stopped collecting - he felt the prices were now beyond his reach. Galleries contemplated the yawning gaps in their collections with horror. The only man with the power to fill them was Denis Mahon. His authority was uncontested. He had served two seven-year terms as a trustee of the National. At one point during his tenure he bought the gallery a huge Guido Reni altarpiece from Liechtenstein for £15,000. It's now worth £5m. Nevertheless, the gallery's acquisitions board only agreed to its purchase by one vote.
Meanwhile, his book of 1947, Studies in Seicento Art and Theory, had been the most influential text behind the revaluation of the baroque. It had also championed a very English form of artistic analysis. Previously, art historians, especially the Germans, had been obsessed with broad theories into which they fitted paintings and painters. But Mahon hates theory; he is a typical English empiricist - he looks, above all, at the facts of the painting. The point about art history based on theory is that you can do it without having an 'eye'. Mahon says Anthony Blunt, one of the leading figures in post-war British art history and a Soviet spy, had no eye. He plainly loathed Blunt and links his treachery in politics with dishonesty in art history. In 1960 there was a big Louvre exhibition of paintings by Poussin. Blunt was regarded as the world authority on Poussin and had written the catalogue. Mahon was convinced he'd got the chronology of the paintings badly wrong and he went for Blunt's throat. Of course, he won.
Posted by David on February 23, 2003 1:28 PM