It's a hanging offence

In the V&A, great art is muffled by Queen Victoria's knickers; in the British Museum, it is buried by a shale of Assyrian shards. And as for the Tate... It is time to reshuffle our collections, says Brian Sewell, launching a series on the National Gallery
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The first masterpiece by Edgar Degas to enter public possession in London was bequeathed in 1900, not to the fledgling Tate Gallery, then three years old and housing Henry Tate's ghastly Victorian pictures, nor to the National Gallery (for Degas was still very much alive and by no means an old master), but to the V&A, a museum dedicated to the history of design and manufacture. There it languishes. Late on a Friday afternoon last year, I asked its guardian the number of visitors that day. "Today?" he answered, "You are the sixth this week."

In inaccessible attics and dark enfilades, this beautiful Degas keeps company with seven paintings by Fantin-Latour, four by Millet, and two each by Courbet, Delacroix and Ingres; their companions in neglect are by Batoni, Crivelli and Tiepolo, Rubens, Boucher and Le Nain, 415 works by Constable, and a futile blob by an American Abstract Expressionist. Why, you should ask, does the V&A trespass on the Tate's territory with a painting by Adolph Gottlieb, Rothko's sometime sidekick? Whatever else the public perception of the V&A may be, I doubt if it is as a major art gallery, and I wonder why, among its many activities as the nation's museum of design and the applied arts, it keeps its paintings, prints and drawings with its rubber fetish jewellery and King's Road costumes.

Why, for that matter, is the nation's prime collection of prints, drawings and watercolours kept in the British Museum with the last pressed periwinkle from the hanging gardens of Babylon? Why is the Tate Gallery responsible for historic British art, modern British art, historic continental art from Impressionism on, and the hotchpotch of detritus and technology that has passed for art world-wide in the last 40 years? Why do all these institutions compete in such fields as contemporary prints and drawings, and traditional English watercolours, so that duplicates of Hockney's sultry boys embracing, for example, may be found in Bloomsbury, Millbank and South Kensington, while the watercolours of William Mller are senselessly divided among the three?

The major museums and galleries of London have for too long been left the victims of their history and patronage; it is time to reconsider their scope and function, not singly, but as a group, serving the public rather than themselves. The National Portrait Gallery should be an exception; its role is clear, though it now cares less for portraiture than for contemporary frivolities.

The National Gallery, too, should hold a clear position, but it has usurped the Tate's declared concerns by acquiring the worst of Renoirs, the ugliest Czannes, and an undistinguished exercise in arid Cubism by the ubiquitous Picasso. The Tate Gallery's many and conflicting responsibilities have made of it a monument to schizophrenia, a merry-go-round of lunatic whim and idiosyncrasy, and it now presents itself as a freak show, incapable of competing with the provincial museums of most German cities.

All this emphasises London's greatest lack - a Museum of Modern Art. It is pointless to argue that the Tate fulfils this function, for its holdings of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Expressionist, Futurist, Fauve, Cubist, and even Surrealist paintings are wretchedly meagre - and these are the fields that should be covered by a Museum of Modern Art.

Consider the sense of drawing a line across art history at the birth of Impressionism, and using it as a terminus post quem for a National Gallery of the major art historical movements embraced between, say, 1870 and 1950; we have the bones of a distinguished collection scattered between Trafalgar Square and Millbank, to which all relevant works in the British Museum (this worthy institution has its toe in modern waters too) and the V&A's Degas ought to be transferred, and a bargain should be struck with the impoverished, desperately overcrowded and badly hung Courtauld Institute so that Sam Courtauld's pictures there could be permanently reunited with his gifts in the Tate and National Galleries. Such a new museum would be a focus for bequests and the purchase of fine paintings that now escape the heritage; it would provide new exhibition space and entertain more tourists, it would release space in old galleries. Had the Sainsbury wing been devoted to such a museum, it could have been entirely independent of the Wilkins building, not breaching its integrity, and with the removal of so many modern pictures, the old masters could have breathed more easily, with ample space to spare for acquisitions.

I do not, however, want to leave this much reduced collection in peace. I want to transport to Trafalgar Square all the old master prints and drawings from the British Museum and the V&A, to keep the company of paintings for which they have some relevance. In my ideal world, the artificial distinctions imposed by museology between painting and sculpture should be erased, and all the sculpture in the V&A should join the paintings in the National Gallery - imagine Bernini's Neptune in the company of Rubens, Preti, Liss, even Tiepolo, and Donatello's reliefs matched with Botticelli and Mantegna.

There are precedents for such violent disruptions, but in the distant past. The British Museum early lost its paintings and its declared function as the National Gallery, and later transferred its natural history collections (the very root and branch of its beginnings) to South Kensington. Now, its great library is moving to London's Somers Town. The Science Museum would not exist, had the V&A not been stripped of what had been deemed inappropriate departments. If we must feel some foolish compulsion to celebrate the millennium, then let us follow these precedents and reorganise the great collections of the capital, reinforcing like with like. And if you ask me where in Willy Wilkins' building all those Rembrandt prints from Bloomsbury, and all those cold Canovas from South Kensington will fit, then the answer is obvious - into the National Portrait Gallery next door.

It might be thought that the National Gallery's real problem is the excess of work which it already holds. The Auditor General once objected that the need to maintain and enhance collections was in "potential conflict" with the need to meet costs - one might as well argue that the need to assuage hunger is in "potential conflict" with the household budget. The British Museum may lie half-buried by a shale of Assyrian shards, and the V&A be muffled by the number of Queen Victoria's knickers in its cure, but the National Gallery is not overwhelmed by its contents, does not have basements stuffed with unknown treasures - and even if it did, it would not matter, for it is the business of galleries and museums to function in much the same way as reference libraries.

We have played amateur for far too long, wasting our resources. Too many of our museums and galleries are governed by those who think themselves Prince-Bishops, never ready to repair the accidents of history; and we have had too many ministers as impotent as the Harem Eunuch, neutered by ignorance as well as paucity of funds. With the National Lottery, the funds are suddenly available; all we need is a minister with the will of Constantine the Great, a man of foresight who will bang bishops' heads together.

The reality, though, is that no minister has ever concerned himself with the visual arts - though Grey Gowrie took to them as though to nectar and ambrosia once he left the ministry for Sotheby's, and there thought to sell the Mappa Mundi, a medieval treasure that, as former minister, we had every right to think he'd do his damnedest to protect. The present minister, poor soul, has the monstrous irrelevancies of television and the press to divert him - it is, of course, far more important that the reputations of political black sheep should be defended from enquiry, and that the Princess of Wales may go stark naked on the pistes without the snip-snap of the paparazzi, than that the cultural heritage of the nation should be properly protected.

n This is an extract from the first of three Wednesday lectures at the National Gallery entitled 'My National Gallery' (0171-747 2871)