Applause for a full house
VISUAL ARTS New Loans at Kenwood Kenwood House, London
Friday 01 August 1997
The magic of the place wasn't lost on one recent visitor, a professional photographer who arrived on a job and liked it so much that he offered to lend them his family's collection of old masters. A rather unusual proposition, from which the curator expected the worst but, to his happy astonishment, gained seven early Renaissance paintings from the collection of Sir Thomas Barlow. They were last seen in public in 1957 and last week were unveiled at Kenwood, where they will remain for at least the next five years.
All seven have been hung together in a small dimly lit room, the surface of the pictures glinting like jewels in the dark. Some, like Jan Mostaert's fantastic Portrait of a Moor and Hans Memling's Portrait of a Man in Black Cap have firm attributions, others are a little less secure. One of the most striking of the new arrivals is a little picture attributed to the 15th-century Dutchman Dirk Bouts: a Madonna and Child sitting in a hedged garden in front of an amazing hanging, the gold and creases in the cloth painted with equal brilliance. Behind that the landscape stretches away, painted in layers of thin glaze, a subtle and sophisticated evocation of distance.
I'm not quite so enthusiastic about the Botticelli Madonna and Child, bought by Barlow in 1954 and supposedly the centre-piece of his collection. It has its supporters in the rarefied world of Renaissance scholarship, and its detractors, and others who have suggested that only parts of it are by the hand of the master. I'm not sure one way or the other, but it seems a bit odd, hard-edged and not entirely pleasing.
I'm also not completely sure about another of the new loans that were unveiled at Kenwood last week: a portrait by Alan Ramsay, from another private collection (one of four to have lent new pictures to the house). It's a handsome painting with a nice link to Kenwood (in that Ramsay eloped with the niece of the first Earl of Mansfield, for whom the house was built), but there are a few things about it that don't add up. Ramsay was an extraordinarily gifted painter who could breathe paint on to canvas in thin veils but here and there it doesn't feel quite right: the right hand is clumsy and the lace cuffs don't seem to have his delicate touch. It might just have been an off-day, but the subject is also a bit of a mystery. It was once thought to depict the political economist Adam Smith, but is now generally agreed to look nothing like him. The painting has all the hallmarks of a commissioned work, yet there are odd details, such as an unbuttoned waistcoat, the subject's considerable bulk escaping his clothes - not the sort of thing that a man of substance would tolerate in his portrait.
There are 15 new loans in all, including a good group of 17th-century Dutch pictures to complement the existing strengths of the collection. Nothing among them quite matches the standard set by Vermeer's Guitar Player or Rembrandt's late great Self Portrait, most nominated of all the pictures in the Independent on Sunday's survey, but the house feels fuller than it has for years. Go see.
Kenwood House, Hampstead Lane, London NW3 (0181-348 1286)
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 18th century sex toy found in 'toilet of sword fighting school' in Poland
- 3 US? China? India? The 10 biggest economies in 2030 will be...
- 4 'I wish my teacher knew...': Young students share their 'heartbreaking' worries in notes
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Doctor Who film will definitely happen, leaked Sony emails reveal
Glastonbury 2015 tickets: How to make sure you’re successful in Sunday's re-sale
The Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer has leaked – watch
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling