I spent the last two days attending, and speaking at, a conference at the National Gallery and Warburg Institute on the status of Leonardo as an artist and art theorist in Britain. What turned out is that he was better known than I had realised in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with works by him listed in seventeenth century inventories and in the collection of John Guise bequeathed to Christ Church, Oxford, as well as a Codex in the collection of the Earl of Leicester. But there was an inadequate appreciation of his style because his works were so widely scattered. It was in the early nineteenth century that collectors became much more interested, helped by the exhibition of the early copy of The Last Supper in the British Institution in 1817 and the later version of the Virgin of the Rocks, then in the collection of Lord Lansdowne, the following year. It turned out that during these years the Raphael Cartoons were also lent by the Prince Regent to the British Institution, where they were copied by Benjamin Robert Haydon (the Royal Academy already owned and displayed a set of copies by James Thornhill in the Great Room). So the question arises as to why there was so much interest in Leonardo during these years, which were not long after the establishment of Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum. Was it because of the renewed opportunities for foreign travel after the Battle of Waterloo ? Or the dispersal of works of art during the Napoleonic Wars ? Or the establishment of the Royal Academy’s painting school ? Whatever the answers, the acquisition of the early copy of The Last Supper by the RA on 14 June 1821 for 600 guineas looks more significant than I or others had previously realised, particularly given that it was hung immediately behind the speaker’s podium in the Great Room so visible for every student to see and study.
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A typically thoughtful, informative and judicious post, Charles. Thank you.