The battle for Venus

Art 1 - In 1906, the king intervened to save a Velazquez masterpiece for the nation. If only Bucking

As a result of all the publicity and events surrounding the exhibition "Saved!: 100 years of the National Art Collections Fund", currently at the Hayward Gallery in London, there has been considerable discussion in the press about Diego Velazquez's The Toilet of Venus (known as The Rokeby Venus) - which provoked the first big public appeal to save a painting and was the first test for the National Art Collections Fund.

On the evening of 7 July 1903, a group of well-connected art lovers met at the house of Christiana Herringham in Wimpole Street, London, to consider forming a society or league to help save works of art for the nation. They included Charles Holroyd, then keeper of the newly established National Gallery of British Art on Millbank and, in 1906, appointed director of the National Gallery; Lord Balcarres, a Conservative MP and author of a book on Donatello; and Robert Witt, a solicitor who had been a war correspondent in the Matebele war and, in 1902, had published a book called How to Look at Pictures. Four months later, on 10 November 1903, they held the first meeting of the National Art Collections Fund, with Lord Balcarres as chairman and Robert Witt as treasurer.

The Rokeby Venus came on to the market two years later, in autumn 1905, at a time when the National Gallery was without a director. Sir Edward Poynter, who retired at the end of 1904, had not yet been replaced. As a result, the newly established Art Fund decided that it would lead the public campaign to secure the picture's acquisition. The issues raised at the meeting of the committee in November 1905 were similar to those raised in recent months over the acquisition of Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks for the National Gallery. Was it sensible to concentrate to such an extent on the acquisition of a single, great masterpiece when it might be possible to acquire a number of works for much less? Was it possible to justify an appeal to the public at a time of high unemployment? And to what extent, if at all, would the Treasury be able to help? In 1905, the Art Fund was in no doubt as to the correct answer to these questions. There was an unequivocal sense that great art should be kept to be enjoyed by the nation. It immediately launched a public appeal with a letter to the editor of the Times:

Sir, Is it too late to raise a protest against the continued apathy of our National Gallery authorities, who, now for decade after decade, watch with folded hands the steady drain of the finest works of art from this country? The famous Rokeby Velazquez, unique in subject and supreme in quality, the possession of which was one of the glories of England, is now exhibited for sale at Messrs Agnew. It is useless to lament the insensibility and lack of enterprise of the trustees of the National Gallery in allowing such a picture, if for sale at all, to come on the public market, without an effort to secure it before publicity had raised its price to the level it must by now have reached. Incompetence in high places has to be paid for by the public, whether it be the army or the National Gallery that is in question. The present case is one of such urgency and importance that the needful payment should be made - the lesson of it may afterwards be taken to heart. That lesson, written large for all to read in the splendid Berlin Museum, is that expert management and expert freedom, coupled with responsibility, are alone efficient, and that our haphazard boards of amateur trustees are inept by comparison.

Following a further appeal for funds in the Times, Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower, the sculptor and author of a recently published book on Gainsborough, objected to the effort that was being made to save the painting. He wrote that "the nation will not be hoodwinked by a small artistic clique into the folly of subscribing such a stupendous sum . . . in order to buy a painting suited for the sanctum of some multimillionaire, but not for an English public art gallery". But in fact the nation was then, as now, susceptible to an appeal for funds to save a great work of art from export. By early December 1905, the Art Fund had raised £15,000 towards the £40,000 required, including a gift of £10,000 from an anonymous donor who described himself as "an Englishman". The Treasury, then as now, refused to help. And by the end of December, it looked as if the picture might be lost. But then, amazingly, the king apparently intervened. According to a letter pasted to the minutes book of the Art Fund's executive committee on 24 January 1906, he came to see the picture and pledged £8,000, including a loan of a further £5,000, which in effect secured the painting. The purchase was announced on 24 January 1906 and, on 14 March, the Rokeby Venus was presented to the National Gallery.

There are many similarities between the campaigns to save the Rokeby Venus and the Madonna of the Pinks. Since the 1880s, following the Duke of Marlborough's sale of the contents of Blenheim Palace - which signalled the end of major paintings being imported from the Continent and the beginning of a period when declining aristocratic fortunes led to their export, mostly to America - Britain has generally sat back in a supine way, allowing great works of art to be lost to this country with only occasional efforts to secure them by legislation. It has not often been possible to raise this as a public issue through short-lived appeals, as happened with the Rokeby Venus in 1905 and, more recently, with the appeals to save Leonardo da Vinci's cartoon of the virgin and child with St Anne and St John the Baptist in 1962, Titian's Death of Actaeon in 1972 and Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks this year. The Art Fund has always been a force for the public good in raising awareness of the need to save works of art for the nation, and its public appeals have depended not just on a few large donors, but also on a general atmosphere of public goodwill and many small contributions.

But there are also differences between the campaigns of 1905 and 2003. The most obvious lies in the sums of money involved. I don't know what £40,000 at the beginning of the 20th century would be worth now, but I imagine it is not in the same league as the £49m that was recently paid for Rubens's Massacre of the Innocents or the £35m for Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks. In 1905, there was no National Heritage Memorial Fund, which was established in 1980 specifically to help save great works of art, nor was there the Heritage Lottery Fund, established under the same remit in 1993. And the role of the press has obviously been different.

Perhaps the biggest single difference in the narrative of the efforts to save the Rokeby Venus lies in the role of the trustees of the National Gallery. In the early part of the 20th century, they were regarded as negligent and were inclined to place their own self-interest as landowners and owners of works of art above their more important role in serving the public good. In my experience, the trustees of the National Gallery today have been extraordinarily and consistently firm in their support for the campaign to save the Madonna of the Pinks. There is one more significant difference. In 1906, the king himself was apparently able to intervene in order to save a great work of art for the nation. If only Buckingham Palace or, indeed, Downing Street would do the same for the Madonna of the Pinks. I cannot, I fear, imagine it.

"Saved!: 100 years of the National Art Collections Fund" is at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (020 7960 5226) until 18 January

This is an edited version of a paper to be given at the conference "Saving Art for the Nation: a valid approach to 21st-century collecting?" at Savoy Place, London WC2 on 11-12 November. For booking information, call 020 7936 1294