All around the houses

EXHIBITIONS; Ancestral portraits may be the norm, but there is first-rate art to be found in Britain's stately homes
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THOSE OF us who feel irritated and rebellious when visiting stately homes will appreciate the National Gallery's "In Trust for the Nation". Displayed in Trafalgar Square are some 70 paintings borrowed from National Trust houses. All are in good condition; they are sensibly hung and properly lit, which is seldom the case in their normal homes; and the show is scrupulously catalogued by Alastair Laing, who is the Advisor on Painting to the National Trust.

This is not so relaxing a position as one might imagine. Laing has overall responsibility for some 8,500 paintings, scattered throughout the land under the more direct curatorship of whoever runs any particular house - often aristocrats who retain an interest in their family home. Perhaps we do not know exactly what these paintings are. Laing hints that cataloguing is far from complete. He reveals that his predecessor, St John Gore, had catalogued the major collections at Petworth, Stourhead and Knole, but did not see his work published because of the "narrowly commercial view" taken by the Trust of any such publication. This is a scandal. Laing adds the somewhat grisly statistic that four-fifths of the paintings belonging to NT houses are ancestral portraits. He explains how houses have to be closed in the winter because if they were warmed for visitors the humidity would affect the paintings.

What Laing obviously needs is his own museum, and for the short period of this exhibition he has one. For once, he has money, the support of a top-class curatorial and conservation staff, and an efficient press office. His work in cataloguing the paintings is splendidly delivered to the world at large by National Gallery Publications Ltd (pounds 19.99). He has an eager and interested audience, people who care about art more than furniture or rose gardens, and of course he has the challenge of hanging a significant exhibition in the NG's new Sainsbury Wing. He's king for the day.

Right, Laing must have said, this is how we'll do it. No family portraits, unless they are full-length and of high quality. No early Italian or Netherlandish paintings: they're too much fuss and my scholarship doesn't reach that far. No attempt to represent the regions equally, so nothing from Ulster, Cornwall, the North West or South Wales. No pictures so big that they would dominate other things in the show. The exhibition has to have dignity, but it isn't boring and contains a number of surprises.

At the end of the large first room, for instance, in a place of honour, is a big picture by a little-known artist whose subject eludes identification. Yet William Owen's Mrs Robinson is a first-rate work, right in the tradition of the country house portrait as practised by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Romney et al, but with a sparkle of its own. Owen practised, not with great success, around the turn of the century and died in 1825. So he's of the Romantic generation. This elegant Mrs Robinson must have made many men think romantically. Laing speculates that she could have been an actress, or perhaps a mistress of the Earl of Egremont (the picture is from Petworth). Yet the painting is too official for this interpretation. Let's just think of the special gifts this lady must have brought to Mr Robinson, whoever he was.

It happens that the other attractive woman in this exhibition is also unidentified. James Tissot's The Crack Shot, painted around 1870, comes from the artist's second London period, the time when he suddenly made it in society that was high, or pretty high, yet had its dodgy aspects. He's always associated with St John's Wood. What kind of woman tests different kinds of rifles and shotguns in a back garden while wearing the most fanciful of fashionable outfits? One suspects that Tissot invented the subject of his picture to please some personal quirk, then used a model for the woman. Her features are in any case far less important than her clothes. The provenance of the painting is a bit complicated. It came to the NT more or less by accident. A happy accident, and visitors to Wimpole Hall in Cam- bridgeshire must surely be pleased when they come across this sharpshooter.

Especially since we do in general know the kind of painting to expect in a National Trust house. Laing is quite clear about the categories of art that the Trust preserves, and he has organised the six rooms of his show in accordance with the traditional genres. They are titled "The Portrait Gallery", "Conversation Pieces, Narrative Painting and Sporting Art", "Topographical Landscape", "Ideal Landscape", "The Picture Gallery" and "The Cabinet". All pretty neat and self-explanatory. So Laing's personal task has been to choose paintings of the standard one expects to find in the National Gallery, and then to see how they respond to each other.

No problems under "Portraiture", for here are sumptuous canvases from Van Dyck. The "Conversation Pieces" are trickier. No one will ever persuade me that Hogarth was a painter of more than second rank, but for people who are inclined toward him, Morning, Night (from the series "The Four Times of Day") and The Hervey Conversation Piece have their fascination. I prefer Zoffany. Cuyp and Turner lead the topographers; there's a very large Bonnington and a decent picture by Benjamin Williams Leader of the Manchester Ship Canal. Under "Ideal Landscape" I commend the paintings by Claude, quite daringly elongated, and Paul Bril's Landscape with Troglodyte Goatherds. The Hobbema is also good.

It's in the "Picture Gallery" section that we hope to find the most testing works of art. For, whatever their qualities, painters like Claude and Reynolds don't challenge taste. Apart from the Murillo and a terrifically malevolent Guercino, the most difficult and rewarding painting in this room is by Andrea del Sarto, known as the Fries Madonna after an early owner of this mysterious panel. Of course some things about it aren't mysterious at all. The Virgin is clearly derived from Michelangelo. But del Sarto's odd palette has never been satisfactorily explained. He has such strange russets, transparent partridge-greys, and puts yellow onto pink with quite modern effect. And consider del Sarto's application. He must have stroked his brush on the wood with the thought of mural painting in his mind, and thus his wrist, but none the less ... actually I can't come to terms with this manner of painting.

I'd never seen the Fries Madonna before. Now I have reason to go to its home in Ascott, Bucks. Probably I'll grumble while the room-stewards do their proprietorial acts, but such is life in the contemporary heritage state. I wonder whether Alastair Laing, now revealed as a bit of a national treasure himself, is interested in the modern world. He gives us excellent, questionable bits of antique information, claiming for instance that one previous owner of that troglodyte picture died from eating too many turtle dinners. But you bet he's not going to address the major historical question raised by the show. Just when, and why, did the landed classes lose their taste? For obviously they did, and the loss cannot simply be due to fear of social progress.

! 'In Trust for the Nation': National Gallery, WC2 (0171 839 3321), to 10 Mar.

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