How Harold Macmillan and I saved a Leonardo for the nation

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

At 14, Richard Cork wrote to a newspaper deploring the sale of a Da Vinci drawing. With a blockbuster exhibition about to open, he tells what happened next

If the National Gallery's most ambitious hopes are fulfilled, its imminent exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci will prove the mightiest blockbuster ever staged there. For several months, the gallery has been urging visitors to buy advance tickets, "to ensure that they can view the exhibition and avoid disappointment". Public demand, quickened by the global success of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, is already intense.

Leonardo has the ability to ignite enormous fascination, even among people who know nothing about art. And London itself has become one of the world's most successful cities at attracting viewers to museums and galleries. The Leonardo show, giving us a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see so many of his paintings and drawings in one place, will be the talk of the town. Running for nearly four months and staying open until 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays, it is bound to outstrip the most heady expectations of its organisers.

London's current reputation as a blockbuster capital compares dramatically with the city I discovered as a youth. Avid for art from an early age, I drew incessantly and hitch-hiked from Kingswood, my boarding school in Bath, to roam around London's rich collections. But in the early 1960s, Leonardo was difficult to track down. The outstanding array of his drawings in the Royal Collection was tucked away at Windsor Castle. As for the National Gallery, it owned only one picture securely attached to his name: the second version of The Virgin of the Rocks, painted in Milan around 1508. Now, in the new exhibition, the Louvre is lending to London its first version of The Virgin of the Rocks. So these two major images will be united for the first time, something that is bound to encourage enormous debate.

When I encountered Leonardo's painting as an awed schoolboy, the National Gallery was a hushed and under-populated location where young people did not feel at home. But I fell in love with The Virgin of the Rocks. In 1961, I spent six shillings on a Pelican paperback of Kenneth Clark's pioneering book on Leonardo. Looking at its yellowing pages now, I realise that Clark must have alerted me to the existence of what he called the "Burlington House cartoon". Praising it unreservedly as "one of Leonardo's most beautiful works", Clark made me want to see this large and irresistible drawing, executed around 1507-08 and preserved since the 18th century in the collection of the Royal Academy.

Poring over photographs of the cartoon, which shows the Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist, I understood at once why Leonardo's draughtsmanship had, according to his first biographer Vasari, "filled all artists with wonder".

Suddenly, before I had a chance to track down the cartoon, the Royal Academy announced on 10 March 1962 that the drawing would be sold at auction. Sir Charles Wheeler, the Royal Academy's president, had very reluctantly decided that a rapidly increasing bank overdraft would be halted only by this drastic act of sacrifice. Horrified by the news, I sat down and wrote an indignant letter to The Daily Telegraph, which had been delivered to our family home throughout my childhood. I was only 14, and could not imagine that my missive would be taken at all seriously by the newspaper. Yet I still felt that it must be written.

To my amazement and delight, the Telegraph lost no time in publishing my letter, under the headline "High Price to Pay for Independence", on 14 March. "I would like to point out what seems to me a flaw in the Royal Academy's reasons for the sale of Leonardo's magnificent cartoon," I wrote. "If the picture goes to the highest bidder at some astronomical price, the buyer will almost certainly be an American. Thus, if an export licence is, as I hope, refused, the Government will no doubt have to bear the main burden of financing the National Gallery to purchase the picture. Surely it would be much easier for the Government merely to finance directly the Academy. The argument for the Academy is, I gather, that they want to remain an independent body, but surely to risk the export of one of the greatest pictures in England seems a heavy risk to run for the sake of the tradition, however great, of the Royal Academy."

It was the first time anything I had written about art had been published. The frisson on opening a newspaper and finding my own words printed inside cannot be exaggerated. And very soon afterwards, I felt even more gratified to learn that a formal meeting had been held on 16 March at the Treasury, which agreed to support and assist a public appeal to buy the imperilled cartoon.

This crucial meeting was brought into being by the directors of the British Museum and the National Gallery, both anxious to save Leonardo's sublime drawing for the nation. Several American galleries were determined to acquire it, and one of them had £2.5m available for the purchase. It was an unbelievable amount, at a time when no work of art had ever fetched £1m at auction.

Day by day, the sense of urgency grew stronger. A second meeting decided that the appeal was more likely to succeed if it announced that the National Gallery would be the cartoon's permanent home. The National Art Collections Fund, under the energetic leadership of its chairman Lord Crawford, took on the task of organising the campaign. And on 30 March, just over a fortnight after my letter had been published, the appeal was launched with a price fixed at £800,000 – still widely regarded as a colossal sum for any artwork, let alone a fragile drawing executed on eight sheets of paper glued together.

I was among the 380,000 people who thronged to see the cartoon during the first month of its public display. It was a landmark moment in the history of the blockbuster exhibition in Britain. The response was so positive that public donations began pouring in from individuals and more than 1,000 schools all over the country. One deranged visitor defied the National Gallery's elaborate security precautions and hurled a bottle of ink at the cartoon, penetrating its perspex shield. But no major damage was caused, and by the end of July more than half the price had been raised.

Looking at the cartoon, I warmed to Leonardo's free, immediate handling of charcoal heightened with white chalk. While giving the group of four figures a sculptural power, he emphasised at the same time the spontaneous human affection between them – above all where the Christ Child leans across to bless the infant Baptist and touch him playfully under the chin. St Anne, the Virgin's mother, smiles at her daughter with an intense devotion, and points up to heaven. But Leonardo reduces the whole of her hand to a minimal outline. Its emptiness makes us aware of just how ghostly the other figures are as well.

Even as Leonardo celebrates life and love, he stresses the vulnerability of adults and children alike. This sense of transience and mortality meant a great deal to me, since my own father had been wounded by a Nazi machine-gunner and captured soon after D-Day. So I was overjoyed when Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, finally announced on 31 July that a special government grant of £350,000 would rescue Leonard's work for the nation.

Seeing it on display in the National Gallery's new exhibition, I will undoubtedly feel delighted that my teenage letter was able to play a modest part in ensuring that Leonardo's redemptive vision can now be savoured by us all.

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, National Gallery, WC2N, from Wednesday

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea