Since the lecture I gave last week at the Paul Mellon Centre on the way British art has been interpreted and displayed in museums has now been posted on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QPzU63Axcg), I am simultaneously posting the text, only mildly edited, for those who might prefer to read it, rather than have to listen to it, although you will miss out on the impromptu asides and, more importantly, on the subsequent discussion:-
I’m very grateful to Mark Hallett for asking me to give one of the lectures in this series which has been organised to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the Paul Mellon Centre for British Studies, which emerged in 1970 out of the demise of the previous Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, which, as some people here may remember, but not me, existed solely for the purpose of supporting publications on British art, beginning in 1967 with the publication of Robert Raines’s book on Marcellus Laroon, Roy Strong’s on Hans Holbein at the Court of Henry VIII and Oliver Millar’s on Zoffany and his Tribuna and which was responsible for an excessively ambitious plan to commission a multi-volume Dictionary of British Art, whose cost and over-ambition led to Basil Taylor’s resignation as its Director in 1968 and the closure of the Foundation the following year.
I have been asked by Mark to review how museums and galleries have treated the subject of British art in the last fifty years, with the implication that I might, at the same time, consider the question as to how far the Paul Mellon Centre has itself influenced the way that British art has been studied and presented in museums, particularly those in London which I know best, but, as far as possible, in other parts of the country as well.
I should begin by saying that I regard myself as belonging to a generation which was encouraged and influenced in a decision to study British art by those early publications, nearly all of which I still own as they were printed in such absurdly large numbers that they were quickly remaindered (I have the strongest impression that Basil Taylor was not at all business-like in the way that he organised the print-run of the Foundation’s publications, which is presumably one of the reasons that the Foundation was shut down). So, I was able to buy, for example, Roy Strong’s monumental book on The English Icon, published in 1969, for £5, reduced from its already heavily subsidised price of ten guineas. I think it is hard now to reconstruct the scholarly shift in the 1960s from treating the study of British art as a side show, not really worthy of the highest level of scholarly research and study, as compared to the study of the Italian Renaissance which was the central focus of most art historical study, to treating it as mainstream, worthy of the same level of historical research and analysis as Giotto or Piero della Francesca.
There were, I think, two people who were most responsible for effecting this shift. The first was Roy Strong. Roy is remembered now as a colourful populist, as a controversial Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, not as the earnest young student of Frances Yates, fresh from the Warburg Institute, who was looking at the iconography of Elizabethan portraits, and making their study seem much more interesting than the sometimes slightly fusty and antiquarian scholarship surrounding the study of eighteenth-century art, which I associate with people like Kenneth Garlick, the Lawrence scholar, then Keeper of Western Art at the Ashmolean. I certainly was aware of Roy in my late teens when I lived in London for the first time in the early 1970s; in those days, I viewed him at least as much as a pioneering scholar of early English art, not just a flamboyant Director of the National Portrait Gallery.
The second key figure was Ellis Waterhouse, who, after training in art history at Princeton and working in the National Gallery and the British School at Rome, had devoted most of his career to the scholarly study of British painting, beginning with his pioneering monograph on Reynolds, published in 1941, and who, in 1970, accepted Jules Prown’s invitation to become the Centre’s first Director, following his retirement from the Barber.
Now, in terms of thinking about how the Mellon Centre has influenced the way that British art is studied and presented in museums, I thought that I would begin by trying to reconstruct how British art has been presented in each of the major London museums, which I know best, starting with the National Gallery, which is the easiest, since it has changed least.
If I think of how the National Gallery presented British art in 1970, then it is essentially how it is presented now: through the hang in a single, grand, nineteenth-century gallery — Room 34 — at the east end of the building which shows the collection of British paintings which it retained at the time of the formal split between the National Gallery and the Tate in 1954: Hogarth’s Marriage-à-la-Mode; some wonderful works by Gainsborough, including The Morning Walk; some impressive, but perhaps slightly less obviously representative works by Reynolds, including Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons; and great works by Constable and Turner, including The Hay Wain, The Fighting Temeraire and Rain, Steam and Speed. This was, and is, essentially the narrative of British art as it was in the 1950s before the days of the Paul Mellon Centre, before the time when Paul Mellon collected smaller and less well-known artists, including Stubbs and Joseph Wright of Derby, and effectively broadened the canon as to what was worth studying and collecting.
The National Gallery’s view of British Art is broadly unchanged since then — still dominated by a small number of major artists, treated as heroic figures, by those pictures which were described as amongst its ‘masterpieces’ in the original 1897 Memorandum which distinguished the collection of the National Gallery from the new National Gallery of British Art or ‘the supreme glories of British painting’ in the subsequent 1915 Report — in effect, by grand portraits and swagger pictures, which had been so much admired by collectors in the 1920s on both sides of the Atlantic. As I understand it, Nick Penny, at the time that he was interviewed for the post of Director in 2002, presented a proposal that the representation of British paintings might be adjusted to include more major nineteenth-century British paintings, including perhaps some pre-Raphaelites, but it hasn’t happened, and to borrow back major pictures from the Tate would now almost certainly be irredeemably controversial, although I’m afraid I think it would certainly be worth attempting if the National Gallery were ever to adjust its end date from the year 1900, which is itself a legacy of what is now a surely indefensible view of the history of art, as if old art came to an end with the turn of the century and new art changed in kind and character irrevocably with the advent of modernism.
So, the only way in which one might say that the collection of the National Gallery has been influenced by what I would see as the tastes of Paul Mellon — a taste for smaller pictures, for subject painting, and for a broader representation of artists in the canon of British painting — was, first, in a small number of acquisitions of British paintings since 1970: George Stubbs’s portrait of the Milbanke and Melbourne Families from Marlborough Fine Art in 1975; Joseph Wright of Derby’s portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Coltman, said to befrom Agnew’s in 1984, although Brian Allen thinks the sale was brokered by Robert Holden; Stubbs’s Whistlejacket in 1997, which dominates, as it was planned to at the time of its acquisition, the long vista along the east-west axis through the centre of the building; and, more recently, the acquisition in 2014 of David Wilkie’s A Young Woman kneeling at a Prayer Desk, bought when Nick Penny was Director. And, secondly, changing attitudes to the display of British art and how it was represented must presumably have lain behind Dillian Gordon’s decision to ask for the return of three key pictures from the Tate in 1986 in exchange for Turner’s watercolours, which were to be displayed in the Clore Wing, a move which caused an immense deal of ill feeling at the Tate, led by Simon Wilson, who investigated whether or not it was legally permissible under the terms of the 1954 Act. The three pictures concerned were Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump which had originally been donated to the National Gallery in 1863, but had been transferred to the Tate in 1929; Hogarth’s The Graham Children, originally presented to the National Gallery by Joseph Duveen in 1934 when he was a trustee, but exhibited at the Tate from 1952 to 1986; and Sargent’s portrait of Lord Ribblesdale, which does in some way make more sense at the National Gallery as he was a long-serving Trustee.
If I come now to the Tate, the story is very different. It happens that I got to know the Tate quite well in late 1971 and the first half of 1972, when I was living and working in Dean’s Yard nearby and would escape from my duties as a maths master in Westminster Abbey Choir School to attend lunch-time lectures at the Tate, mostly given by Simon Wilson, who was then, as he has remained, a 1960s beatnik, forever dressed in a black polo neck sweater. I retain an affection for the Tate, as it then was, and its wide-ranging view of British art, with, in those days, a small run of galleries in the basement of the north-east corner, where it was possible to immerse oneself in work by Blake and Samuel Palmer. The Tate, as the former National Gallery of British Art, is the place which, not surprisingly has seen the most change as a result of the changing ways of looking at, and interpreting British art, beginning with David Solkin’s exhibition on Richard Wilson, which I remember causing a spectacular rumpus, when it opened in November 1982, the art historical equivalent of Carl Andre’s bricks and which caused a revolution in attitudes towards the study of art, dividing the art world between the old-fashioned connoisseurs, including, apparently, all the curators at the Tate, who were shocked by David’s then dogmatically Marxist approach, and a younger generation of scholars, who travelled in his wake and benefitted from a more liberal, and more academic, view of how British art can, and should, be studied.
The scholarly approach of the Tate in the 1980s was liberal, plural and anti-dogmatic. Alan Bowness was, after all, a former Professor of the Courtauld Institute. But I sense that his priorities were in getting the Clore Wing built, establishing the two out-stations of the Tate — the Tate in Liverpool (or the Tate in the North as it was originally called) and, to a lesser extent, the original plans for Tate in St. Ives, the building of which was overseen by Nick Serota. More influential in the Tate’s academic direction then were presumably the curators: Martin Butlin, the great scholar of Turner and Blake, who had spent his entire career at the Tate, since joining it from the Courtauld in 1955; Andrew Wilton, who had worked in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, with its intensive object-based tradition of study, spent four years at the Yale Center for British Art from 1976 when the galleries were being hung and then returned to be curator of the Turner Collection, first at the British Museum and then, from 1985, at the Tate; Richard Morphet, the Deputy Keeper, then Keeper of the Modern Collection, who had been a pure modernist, but developed an interest in some of the byways of twentieth-century British art, with exhibitions on Meredith Frampton in 1982 and Cedric Morris in 1984; and Leslie Parris, the great Constable scholar.
Much the biggest change to the way British art has been studied at the Tate was the split of the two galleries in 2000 into Tate Britain and Tate Modern. In theory, this was intended to be liberating for the study of British art, that it was now to have its own dedicated institution, staffed by specialists. But, I cannot be entirely alone in thinking that it has been, as it turned out, oddly and unintentionally disabling for the sense of the autonomy and authority of Tate Britain as the premier place in Great Britain and, indeed, the world for the study of British art. I think it’s fairly obvious why this has happened. In the 1970s and 1980s, my sense of the Tate as a public institution was that it was centrally, as it had been historically, ‘The National Gallery of British Art’, with Modern Foreign Art uncomfortably and unsatisfactorily attached to it, like Siamese twins; and by splitting the two, this relationship has been subtly, but obviously reversed, so that Tate Modern is now viewed as the senior partner — much bigger, four or five times the number of visitors, much more international, grander, more contemporary, more press coverage, more swagger; whereas Tate Britain has often struggled to keep up, dropping visitor numbers owing to the inconvenience of the location of Millbank, trying hard to be as contemporary as Tate Modern, but never able to succeed, and often adopting the strategy of showing the work of foreign artists in Britain, like Picasso and Modern British Art held in 2012 or the recent exhibition on Van Gogh and Britain, altogether feeling a bit insecure about its national identity. Or am I exaggerating ? Certainly, its visitor numbers have remained uncomfortably and obstinately not much more than 1 million, whereas the number of visitors to the National Portrait Gallery, helped by its much better location, has risen in the last twenty years from around 500,000 to nearer two million.
But, having said this, there can be no doubt that Tate Britain has paid close attention to new trends in the study of British art under, first, Stephen Deuchar, who had published a book on Sporting Art in 1988 and was Director of Tate Britain from 1998 to 2010, and then Penelope Curtis, Director, who was Director from 2010 to 2015 and was given a hard time by the critics precisely because she did such intellectually adventurous exhibitions as Art under Attack in 2013 on the subject of iconoclasm and Sculpture Victorious the following year on less familiar traditions of Victorian sculpture, which the critics so hated. In terms of the way that the collections have been presented in her re-hang, I would say that they have definitely been presented in a way that has been influenced by recent scholarship: more rigorously chronological; much broader based in its selection of artists whose work is shown; accepting the nineteenth-century on its own terms without any sense of apology; having a long view of the development of British art, stretching all the way from the sixteenth century through to the twenty first, rather than a short view, as at the National Gallery, which is so dominated by the half century between the heyday of Reynolds and Gainsborough in the 1770s and that of Constable and Turner in the 1820s.
Having now dealt, if only summarily, with some of the overall trends in the ways that the Tate and the National Gallery have treated their responsibilities for the collection and display of British painting, I want now to look at the third of the public institutions with responsibilities for the interpretation of British art: that is, the National Portrait Gallery, where I was Director from 1994 to 2002. The National Portrait Gallery displayed its collection in the late 1960s in a way that treated it as a history museum, trying to create a broad-based, general, historical narrative out of the medium of portraiture. As described in the invitation from Lord Kenyon to Jennie Lee, the then Minister for the Arts, to the first set of newly displayed galleries, Roy Stong’s plan, after he became Director in 1967, was that the galleries should aim ‘at evocative educational story-telling by mingling portraits with caricatures, furniture, captions, sculpture, weapons, photographs, etc.’ This approach was evident, for example, in the room devoted to the civil war, which had a large map showing the location of the various battles and a wall of breastplates to contextualise the portraits which were hung high, as illustrations of the overall narrative.
John Hayes, Roy Strong’s successor as Director, was a more orthodox, Courtauld-style scholar, who had done his Ph.D. on Gainsborough’s landscape paintings and then worked at the London Museum when it was in Kensington Palace, before its move to the new building designed by Powell and Moya, now itself about to be demolished to make way for a new concert hall. Hayes liked relatively traditional, monographic exhibitions, like those organised by Sir Oliver Millar on the work of Van Dyck and Peter Lely, and Michael Levey’s brilliant and memorable exhibition on Thomas Lawrence, held in rooms in Carlton House Terrace; he supported the establishment of so-called out-stations at Montacute House in Somerset, Beningbrough Hall in Yorkshire and, in the 1980s, Bodelwyddan Castle in North Wales; and he was responsible for the establishment of the BP Portrait Award. In other words, he re-established the Portrait Gallery as centrally about the art and medium of portraiture, less about British history, with acquisitions being made as much on the grounds of the quality of a portrait as a work of art as its status as a likeness.
When I took over in 1994, the gallery had just opened its ground floor galleries as contemporary galleries, which led to a huge increase in the number of visitors and I inherited a programme whereby we did one photographic exhibition every year, beginning with Annie Leibovitz in 1994, and one historical exhibition in the autumn, including exhibitions on Holbein, the Sitwells, David Livingstone, the Art of the Picture Frame, Raeburn, and Millais: Portraits. There was a move, not exactly planned, but a response to the need to attract younger visitors and boost overall visitor numbers, to treat portraiture more as an aspect of popular culture, with a wider range of sitters, including, for example, a portrait of Derek Jarman, acquired in 1994, a portrait of Salman Rushdie by Bhupen Khakar, acquired in 1995, a commissioned portrait of Paul Smith and portraits of Blur by Julian Opie. These may not now seem very revolutionary, but they represent a much more liberal policy on the part of the Trustees as to who was eligible for the collection.
Not surprisingly, I have watched with interest how my successors have treated the task of managing the National Portrait Gallery and particularly the current plans for its redevelopment and comprehensive re-hang, which, to judge from its recent exhibitions, will presumably focus particularly on the ways in which contemporary artists, including Howard Hodgkin, Tacita Dean and Nan Goldin have treated the medium of portraiture, and on broadening the historical narrative: as Nick Cullinan says in a recent interview, ‘it is very rare you get a chance to rethink an institution from top to bottom’, which he plans to do by going back to a version of what Roy Strong did in the 1960s, supplementing the portraits with contextual material, ‘that animates [the narrative], complicates it, provides counter-narratives and arguments’.
At this point in my account of the way that British art is shown in the major London collections, I need to refer to the oddity and, in some ways, incongruity of the ways that it has been sub-divided, owing to the way that the different collections have evolved, and their different remits: pre-twentieth, but not twentieth-century, sculpture in the V&A, together with an important collection of nineteenth-century genre paintings, most of the works of Constable, prints and drawings, including caricatures and the national collection of watercolours, and photography; prints and drawings in the British Museum; paintings in the Tate on Millbank; the best British paintings in the National Gallery; and portraits next door in the National Portrait Gallery. I’m pretty convinced that one would not have designed it in this way, which privileges painting over other media, and does not really encourage an integrated understanding of British art, as is possible on the other side of the Atlantic, at the Yale Center for British Art and, to a lesser extent, at the Huntington.
Now, if one is looking at the last fifty years of how British art has been studied and interpreted in museums and galleries, the next thing is to look at, and think about, how British art has been displayed outside London; and here, I think, it is necessary to acknowledge the loss of status, because of the drop in funding, of the major British regional collections, which I wrote about recently in a short piece in Apollo. When I started out studying British art and culture of the eighteenth century, there was a well-established view that one could not, and should not, study British art from the metropolitan collections only. There was Birmingham City Art Gallery, where Stephen Wildman went as Keeper of Fine Art in 1980 after being a Research Fellow in Cambridge, and the Barber Institute, where Ellis Waterhouse had been Director, followed by Hamish Miles and then Richard Verdi; Bristol City Art Gallery, which I remember having a major Rysbrack exhibition in 1982; Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, which did a run of major exhibitions on Norfolk collections under Andrew Moore; Manchester City Art Gallery, where Tim Clifford presided flamboyantly from 1978 to 1984, having previously been an Assistant Keeper there in the late 1960s. There was still a sense of a strong regional network when I arrive at the National Portrait Gallery in 1994, of the inter-relationship of the national and regional collections. Does that survive ? Maybe it does, and my anxieties about the regional collections and their funding are just a symptom of not getting out of London enough. But the creation of the arts lottery in 1994 seems to me to have pumped resources into newly established museums and galleries outside London, like Walsall, Hepworth Wakefield, MIMA in Middlesbrough and Turner Contemporary in Margate, and not to the support and development, let alone providing core funding, to the major regional museums and galleries, to the detriment of the development of a broad-based programme of major exhibitions outside London. This is not to neglect, I hope, the work which is done by some of the smaller-scale regional venues, like Pallant House in Chichester, which has done such amazing work in studying the work of less well known twentieth-century artists, currently Jessica Dismorr and Prunella Clough, and, previously, Christopher Wood, John Piper, David Jones, John Minton, Julian Trevelyan, and, also, the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, which did a pioneering exhibition on Eric Gill in 2017, and Charleston which has until last week had an exhibition on the Omega Workshops, and Hastings Contemporary, which recently closed its exhibition of the work of Victor Willing, not to forget equivalent institutions in the north, like Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Hepworth Wakefield, both of which do pioneering exhibitions on the work of contemporary artists.
Last, in this tour d’horizon, I should say something about the role of museums and galleries in Scotland, where the museums and galleries in Edinburgh have certainly maintained levels of scholarship and interpretation, which are at least the equivalent of those in London, although, not surprisingly, their focus, for example, in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, has been on Scottish art and Scottish portraiture, rather than on British art as a whole; but they have also done plenty of major exhibitions on British artists, like Bridget Riley last summer, and its exhibition, True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s, in 2017.
I want now to stand back from this brief survey of trends in individual museums and galleries across the country to try to summarise what I think the key developments have been in the ways that museums and galleries in this country have shown and interpreted British art in the last fifty years, as I was asked to do.
The first and most obvious thing that has happened is that the focus of interest has shifted from historic exhibitions to those concerned with contemporary artists and the recent past. This is in line with a shift in the way that art history is taught in universities, where, when I was a student, there was one twentieth-century topic, possibly two nineteenth-century ones, a paper on Titian, a paper on the Italian trecento. One was expected to know and understand the art of the Renaissance; twentieth-century art was not regarded as core to the discipline. Now, it sometimes seems to me that the opposite is the case. If, for example, I look at the faculty of the Courtauld, there is Jo Applin, who works on modern and contemporary art, Klara Kemp-Welch who works on modernism, Gavin Parkinson, who is a Lecturer in Twentieth-Century Art, Robin Schuldenfrei, who is a Lecturer in Modernism, Julian Stallybrass who is a Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art, as is Sara Wilson. In terms of the teaching of historic British art, I think I am right in saying that there is only Esther Chadwick, recently recruited from the British Museum. I am not being judgmental about this, merely stating it as a change in the way that the subject is studied. Parallel to this much greater interest in the recent, rather than the remote past is that there have been, and will be, a host more exhibitions on the work of Lucian Freud and David Hockney, as in the forthcoming exhibition of David Hockney’s portrait drawings at the National Portrait Gallery, whereas we may have to wait a while before there is another exhibition on the work of Reynolds or Gainsborough, let alone, an exhibition, which we did when I was at the National Portrait Gallery, on the work of Richard Cosway.
The second, and related, change, which is obvious, is a move away from the traditional canon. The idea that there are, or were, a small number of major artists worth studying from Hogarth through to Turner has gone. The nineteenth century is as interesting as the eighteenth, the Pre-Raphaelites at least as much admired, displayed and studied as the work of Reynolds and Gainsborough. There has been a change in taste; but much more than a simple change in taste — a radical move away from the idea that looking at art should involve and encourage an act of judgment, let alone any idea or belief in hierarchy.
The third characteristic which I think is evident in this survey, and particularly in the way that both Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery present themselves, is a sense of anxiety and unease about using national identity as a way of constituting a collection. When the Tate Gallery was established by Henry Tate as ‘The National Gallery of British Art’ I assume that there was a sense of pride is showing off and supporting a national tradition in the practice of art, at a time when the National Gallery was itself constituted as a set of national schools. At the time that I was Director of the National Portrait Gallery, I don’t recollect any sense of distaste for the fact that we had been founded as a way of looking at, thinking about, and interpreting national history through the lens of portraiture, although we were already conscious of the need to broaden the range of those who were represented, as I have already described. But over the last two decades, since it was established, there has tended to be a feeling of very slight apology, for perfectly understandable reasons, that Tate Britain is constructed round a national tradition. I, of course, may be asked to supply evidence of this and I find it hard to do so, other than the almost invariable tendency to include European works of art alongside British, as in the exhibition Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One, as if it was not enough merely to record art as practised in this country on its own, without always making reference to parallel traditions. This sense of perhaps necessary apology may influence the new displays currently being planned at the National Portrait Gallery, where they are described as being planned ‘to present missing or hidden stories from British history’.
Overall, there has been, and is, an immense amount to celebrate in the ways that British art has been exhibited and displayed over the last fifty years. I should end by mentioning two institutions which I have missed out from my survey, both of which, as it happens, have particularly benefitted from funding from the Paul Mellon Centre.
The first of these is the Royal Academy, where, during my time there, we had a great deal of support from the Paul Mellon Centre, beginning with the exhibition An American’s Passion for British Art: Paul Mellon’s Legacy, held in autumn 2007, nearly the first exhibition held after I arrived there, and including the monumental publication on the Royal Academy’s history and collection, edited by Robin Simon and MaryAnne Stevens and, more recently, the wonderful online resource of the Chronicle of its Summer Exhibitions, which was partly a result of the exhibition on the Academy’s history curated by Sarah Turner and Mark Hallett. The second is the Courtauld Institute, where the Paul Mellon Centre supported David Solkin’s exhibition Art on the Line.
So, overall, there is a great deal to celebrate. Attitudes to British art and its place in the scholarly firmament have changed radically and for the better. And I should end by reminding us how much of this intellectual activity and shift in public and scholarly taste has been encouraged, supported and made possible by the involvement of the Paul Mellon Centre in providing such an effective and generous system of funding and research support to scholars not just in universities, but in museums as well.
 For the history of the Paul Mellon Centre and its origins in the previous Foundation, see The Paul Mellon Centre for British Studies in British Art: A History 1970-2010 (London: Paul Mellon Centre, 2010)
 Judy Egerton, The British Paintings, London: National Gallery, 1998, p.13.
 Egerton, p.14.
 I am grateful to Simon Wilson for his advice on this episode.
 The catalogue particularly was subject to vehement condemnation by editorials in Apollo and the Burlington Magazine. For this episode, see Duncan Robinson, ‘Richard Wilson’, exhibition review, Burlington Magazine, August 2014 and John Barrell, ‘In Cardiff’, London Review of Books, 25 September 2014.
 My figures come from ALVA ‘Visits made in 2018 to Visitor Attractions’
 For the National Portrait Gallery’s methods of display in the 1960s, see Peter Funnell, ‘Display at the National Portrait Gallery, 1968-1975’, Art History, vol. 30, no.4, pp.590-610
 Lord Kenyon to Jennie Lee, NPG Archive cit. Funnell, p.590.
 Jane Morris, ‘How Nicholas Cullinan is Transforming London’s National Portrait Gallery’, Sotheby’s online, 23 January 2019
 Charles Saumarez Smith, ‘Could national museums in the UK do more to be truly national ?’, Apollo, 25 November 2019.