National Gallery head: don't forget the old masters

Nicholas Penny, the newly appointed director of the National Gallery, yesterday expressed concern over the art industry's obsession with contemporary works to the exclusion of older paintings.

Dr Penny said art buyers needed to be encouraged to acquire older, often neglected, works and outlined his aim at the gallery to inspire a renaissance of interest in the old masters.

"There are plenty of young buyers who are collecting contemporary artists who could be encouraged to collect old masters. It's not impossible," he said, adding he hoped this would be reflected in greater sales of older works at auction and in private collections.

Dr Penny, 58, who took up his directorship last month, said the current skew in interest towards contemporary art lay partly in the study of art history, which tended to focus on 20th-century artists.

"The study of art history is increasingly focused on the later 19th century and early 20th century. It seems to me that the National Gallery could do its best to encourage the study of old masters. Certainly, if we encourage the study of the subject, we are going in the right direction," he said.

Dr Penny also suggested the majority of today's collectors tended to amass contemporary works with little regard for works from earlier historical periods.

"It used to be the case when it was really quite rare for anyone interested in contemporary art not to also be interested in old master paintings. To be just interested in contemporary art is quite an unusual thing. Collectors never used to be interested in just contemporary art," he said.

Old master paintings currently sell at a fraction of the price of contemporary art, such as the paintings of Francis Bacon, whose work has fetched more than £26m in recent years. Last October, sales figures in the annual Hiscox art market research report found the value of contemporary art had risen by 55 per cent in a year. Pieces produced from the late 19th century to the 1970s had also jumped in value by 44 per cent.

But while Damien Hirst's trademark medicine cabinets sold at auction for £9.65m, breaking the European record for work by a living artist, other areas of the art market were much less buoyant, with the sales of English watercolours falling by 27 percent and British 17th to 19th century portraits falling by 7 per cent. This was not always the case. Old masters were once prized possession among the nation's finest collectors in the early 19th century, said Mr Penny.

His comments came at the launch of his latest publication, The National Gallery Catalogue of Sixteenth-Century Italian Paintings, Volume 2: Venice 1540-1600, in which he documents some of the great Italian masters, including Titian and Veronese.

Dr Penny reflected on the gallery's position in the 1850s when it could afford to bid "aggressively" for highly coveted paintings such as Titian's The Vendramin Family venerating a Relic of the True Cross, which was bought by the National amid stiff competition from the Russian and French emperors.

While a lack of funds prevents a return to such power, the gallery should buy 19th-century works to augment the collection, he said.

"We really should be going out and buying pieces. The area in which we should be doing this most is the 19th century. It's the most obviously unbalanced part in our survey of European paintings. The gap my colleagues have long recognised is that our 19th century holdings are predominantly French."

Mr Penny, who spent the previous seven years working at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, said he would like to emulate the US tradition of attracting "friends" of galleries who would lend paintings, advise on acquisitions and bequeathed works.