Sutherland resigned from Tate over Picasso

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Indy Politics

The Tate Gallery's celebrated collection of works by Picasso and Degas was almost lost because of a furious row between the gallery's management and the distinguished artist Graham Sutherland.

Sutherland accused the gallery's director, Sir John Rothenstein, of misusing funds bequeathed to the Tate and paying above market price for works by continental masters. He wanted the money invested in British art.

The accusations were set out in a private memo to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rab Butler, in 1954.

At the time, it was thought that Sutherland had resigned from the Tate's board of trustees because of a dispute over Sir John's autocratic management style. But in a previously unpublished memo, dated 5 March 1954, Sutherland complained about an "over-hasty deal" under which the Tate paid £18,480 for its collection of Degas bronzes. He claimed that their market value was at most £14,200. Their present value can be inferred from the sale at Sotheby's in March 2004 of a version of The Little Dancer, which fetched £5m.

Sutherland also complained that the Tate had paid £5,250 for Picasso's Femme Assise dans un Fauteuil. He alleged that this involved misdirecting money from a bequest intended for the purchase of British paintings. "It seemed evident to me that the trustees had been placed in a totally false position owing to the lack of information and advice from the director which they unquestionably had the right to expect whenever contemplating the application of such funds," he told Butler.

But it now appears that the Tate got a bargain, because a Picasso from the same period recently fetched more than $5m (£2.7m) at Sotheby's.

Sutherland instigated five investigations into the gallery's affairs after becoming a trustee. He told Butler: "You must by now have received full particulars of the misuse of trust funds and of the serious financial difficulties with which the trustees must inevitably have been confronted in attempting to ensure that the wishes of the benefactors, hitherto largely forgotten, should now be respected."