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.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
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.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor