The painting is a portrait of a family that acquired a fortune from West Indies' sugar plantations. Had there been a Sunday Times list of Britain's thousand wealthiest people in 1764, the date of the picture, perhaps we would have found that Mr Byam had just got into the list, the sugar millionaires being the 18th century equivalent of the Internet tycoons of today.
The picture passed down to a Mr Hony, who lent it to the college in 1942 for safekeeping and then made it a gift. Ah, says, Mr Hony's nephew, Christopher Gandy: "My uncle did not leave it to the school to provide them with funds. He left it to them to safeguard it. He had no idea they would regard it as cash in hand." If this is an accurate account of the donor's intentions, then Mr Hony made an unintelligent decision.
Safeguarding a precious painting does not mean just remembering to lock the door at night. It means attending to temperature, to humidity, to light. Which is why people like Mr Hony normally deposit such works of art with museums, institutions which know more about looking after these things than a boarding school.
More obviously, many more people would have been likely to see the picture in, say, the Tate Gallery than at the school. A former pupil wrote to The Daily Telegraph to say: "As boys, we rarely set eyes on the painting, but even so, thinking about our Gainsborough felt good... It may have helped keep at bay the sense that we were not as grand as certain other public schools." Perhaps here we have a better clue to Mr Hony's real intentions than his nephew's memory.
At all events, the school has instructed Christie's to sell the picture. As the auction house hopes to earn a handsome commission from the transaction, its statements must be regarded as self-interested.
Christie's has approached galleries and museums in Britain and says it has failed to find a buyer. From this we are supposed to deduce the poverty of our collections and to some extent this is so. However, the Tate thinks that the asking price of pounds 3m to pounds 5m is too high. If the Tate is right, then going round the British institutions was a bit of a charade, done for form's sake. What Christie's is really looking for, quite rightly from the point of view of the vendor, is a collector with more money than sense.
Next, it is feared, that the eventual buyer will turn out to be foreign - probably an American institution - and at this point in the argument, the art heritage lobby thinks we should be angry. This Gainsborough, we are told, could be the latest in a long line of British works of art to go overseas.
Personally I don't mind one jot. If it could be estimated, I would expect to find that Britain possesses a greater treasure of art works than any country in the world, with the possible exception of the United States - even then, in relation to the size of their population, we in Britain probably come out well ahead. What about France? Again this is a subjective judgement, but I have seen inside enough French museums and chateaux to think that our riches probably exceed our neighbour's. Our collections, too, like those in America, but unlike those on the European continent, are well-balanced.
Nor is the traffic one way. British enthusiasts continue to purchase works from overseas. Charles Saatchi is one of the greatest collectors of contemporary art in the world. Jeffrey Archer told me a few months ago that his collection of the American painter, Andy Warhol, had no rivals. And the reason for this is that we are a rich country, with old fortunes being regularly supplemented with new money. You cannot get a mention in the Sunday Times list unless your assets amount to pounds 21m or more. The first 14 have wealth of more than pounds 1,000m. These people can afford Gainsboroughs.
As it happens, my favourite Gainsborough, three ladies strolling in St James Park, hangs in the Frick Museum in New York. I always look forward to seeing it when I cross the Atlantic, and as I note the exalted company Gainsborough keeps in this sumptuous house - Rembrandt's Polish Rider is there and more Vermeers than you will see anywhere outside Holland - I feel very proud of this English painter. And I am glad New Yorkers can see a fine example of his work. Does the art heritage lobby think this is wrong?
The same arguments about the dangers of artworks leaving the country have been put forward recently in opposition to the Government's plans to compel owners of art works, who have avoided inheritance tax in return for allowing public access to their collections, to live up to their side of the bargain.
On this subject The Times published a crass letter last month from a group of gentlemen calling themselves The Heritage Group. They said they were concerned about the new requirement for "extended public access" - oh dear, what an unwelcome prospect! Many owners, the letter explained, would find such a duty impracticable or unaffordable; they preferred the old system of viewing by prior appointment which, the letter does admit, some owners abused. They did this, incidentally, by making obtaining permission as difficult as could be devised. So what, according to The Heritage Group, would be the awful consequences of the Government's proposals?
Instead of arranging more convenient access, the owners, the letter tells us, would either meet the tax bill, if they could afford it, or they would have to sell. I say this is good news either way. I should be glad if they do pay the full amount of tax they should have paid on inherited (that is unearned) wealth.
Equally I should be pleased if the works of art were sold. Art should change hands. New fortunes should be able to buy what old money has hoarded. Paradoxically, old wealth is revered in this country and new money is despised; while in any rational society the sentiments would be reversed.
But the greatest scandal of all is that the Government continues to make available this tax relief for people who inherit works of art deemed to be of national, scientific, historic or artistic interest. In 1996-97 this bonus was shared between just 41 wealthy individuals and amounted to pounds 30m, or pounds 732,000 each. One can hardly envisage a less effective measure. The relief should be scrapped as soon as possible, and the money thereby saved should be distributed to the national collections so that they can make more acquisitions.
This would be a test for the art heritage lobby. It should welcome such a reform of the tax system, even campaign for it. But I suspect it would not. For the lobby's primary aim, disguised as it is, is to preserve and protect inherited wealth. And its usual tactic is to conjure up a picture of art draining out of this country into foreign hands - leaving us with nothing. This is truly a lot of nonsense.
Marlborough College should sell its masterpiece as it is entitled to do: it is not letting down the side.Reuse content