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A gift with strings attached: £100m Baroque paintings donated to UK... but they must remain free to see


One of the greatest collections of Italian Baroque paintings in the world has been gifted to museums and galleries across Britain – but the works will be withdrawn if the institutions ever charge the public to see them.

The private collection of Sir Denis Mahon, the philanthropist and passionate campaigner for free entry to public museums, has been given as a permanent bequest to British galleries, in accordance with his wishes.

Sir Denis, an heir to the Guinness Mahon banking fortune, began collecting Italian baroque paintings in the 1930s, purchasing the then unfashionable works for £100-200.

By the time of the art historian’s death in 2011, aged 100, he had amassed a collection of masterpieces worth an estimated £100 million.

The Art Fund charity announced that it has now completed the transfer of 57 Italian Baroque paintings from Sir Denis’s collection, including masterpieces by Guercino, Guido Reni, Domenichino and Ludovico Carracci, to the permanent collections of six UK museums and galleries.

The National Gallery will take control of 25 works; 12 belong to the Ashmolean, Oxford; eight to the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, six to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, five to Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, and one to Temple Newsam House, Leeds.

But the Art Fund said the works had been permanently transferred with the stipulation, reflecting Sir Denis’ principles, that the museums must not charge the public for admission or sell the works from their collections.

Stephen Deuchar, Art Fund Director, said: “Sir Denis shared our fundamental commitment to widening free public access to art. These works are being transferred under specific conditions which include the right to their withdrawal if a museum introduces admission charges.

“We would look at the individual circumstances, it could happen next year or in 600 years but we would make a judgement over whether withdrawal was the correct way of proceeding.”

The commitment is timely since some institutions fear that free admission for national museums and galleries, introduced by the Labour government in 2001, could be threatened by cuts.

Sir Denis, who turned his back on a career in banking to pursue his passion for art, had been an active member of the Art Fund for 84 years.

Nicholas Penny, Director, National Gallery, called the collector a “hyperactive trustee and exacting friend of many curators” who “did much to urge us to acquire great Baroque paintings.”

Mahon would regularly phone arts ministers, urging them not starve museums of their funding or interfere with their independence. It was a sign of the respect in which he was held that his calls were always taken.

Sir Denis began collecting Italian Baroque works when important paintings could be bought for relatively small sums. He never spent more than the £2,000 he invested in Guercino’s Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, purchased in 1953 and which hangs in the National Gallery. By the early 70s, the importance of the artists Sir Denis championed was universally recognised, partly because of his own advocacy of their works.

In addition to the 57 bequeathed works, Sir Denis has also left a £1 million legacy to the Art Fund. He also gave the Ashmolean a set of 50 works associated with Guercino.