In store at the National Gallery
It is commonly assumed that major museums and galleries have stores stuffed with works of art that are rarely shown and are deeply inaccessible to the public. The media in particular seems to relish this situation, complaining that works acquired with taxpayers’ money or through gift or bequest are not publicly on view. Of course there is some truth to the first part of this assumption, especially in the case of large national or city collections. But that they are difficult of access is by no means always the case. Appointments to see specific objects in store are relatively easy to make. Identifying what one wants to see has been made easier through online catalogues and, with paintings, the publications of the Public Catalogue Foundation (and the invaluable online resource ‘Your Paintings’). The pervasive culture of ‘accessibility’ has only been of benefit in this regard. But complaints about overstuffed storerooms ignore the obvious practicalities of space and display to which museums that actively acquire are subject. Storage does indeed present problems. In older museums such stores are frequently below ground level and have climatic controls different from the galleries ‘upstairs’. Such spaces are often in need of renovation, costly projects that do not attract the more glamorous funding of a museum’s public areas. Some museums have storage buildings miles from the museum (and from its curators). One major Scottish gallery recommends that visitors to its storerooms take their own refreshments, if need be, as they are remote from any shop or café.
While paintings are relatively easy to store, sculpture presents problems. It can be tall, can protrude, can be extremely fragile and plenty of space is necessary, especially for more recent sculpture. Partly for these reasons, it is not collected by fine arts museums as widely as paintings and works on paper. All these problems are faced by decorative arts and design collections where furniture, for example, is highly sensitive to fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Stores on site tend to be in basements and are subject to flooding, two famous examples being the Tate Gallery flooded by the Thames in 1928 and the Dresden Gemäldegalerie’s storerooms engulfed by the Elbe in 2002.
The National Gallery is lucky in this respect for it looks after and acquires only paintings. Although it is a relatively modest collection in terms of numbers of works owned, it cannot show everything. Since 1963, the public could visit its reserve collection, on site at Trafalgar Square, to see paintings on close partitions. This was a useful rather than a delightful experience. But as from last month, this has changed. A total of 218 paintings have now been hung, closely but not claustrophobically, in a spacious gallery with well-tailored subdivisions allowing for the showing of works by national school (Fig.I).1 It begins with early Italian and ends with late nineteenth-century French and Dutch works. Gallery A, as it is known, is at ground level, artificially lit, reached by stairs down from the main galleries and is adjacent to a storage area where the remainder of the collection hangs on sliding racks. Curators responsible for the different schools of the collection have chosen and grouped the works hung in the gallery, for the most part chronologically. There are about one hundred Italian works, the rest chiefly divided into French and Dutch. There is nothing by Spanish or British artists.
It has to be said that, for obvious reasons, it is not an exhilarating aesthetic experience; while there is certainly a handful of high-quality works, there are also some very poor paintings, many given or left to or even purchased by the Gallery and now in a pretty permanent limbo. There is an air here of a secondary old-master sale, with some very low reserves. But there are some fine Italian works, including Signorelli’s Circumcision altarpiece, a Benozzo Gozzoli, a dramatic portrait by Raffaellino del Garbo and three Botticelli workshop paintings providing connoisseurial nourishment. Six paintings from Sir Denis Mahon’s 2013 bequest are also on view, by Giordano, Creti and Crespi. At the other end of the scale, examples by the Barbizon artists and their Dutch contemporaries present a sorry spectacle; and poor Adolphe Monticelli, so beloved of Van Gogh, seems unrescuable (although he is represented in the main collection).
What slightly compromises the status of this display is that in the adjoining store of sliding racks (only briefly inspected on a recent visit) were found several well-known paintings of considerable quality: Metsu’s couple at a virginal, which is far superior to many small Dutch genre pictures in the main galleries, and the once very popular Perronneau of a girl with a kitten are two examples. Nevertheless, the initiative is admirable and can most fruitfully be visited for lessons in changing scholarship and the vagaries of taste. It should act as an inspired example for other substantial collections to show off their wares.
1 Gallery A is open to the public on Wednesdays, 10 am to 6 pm, and on the first Sunday of each month, during the same hours.