Finding new frames of reference

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There are people in the world whose pulses quicken at the words "comprehensive list" but I have to confess I'm not one of them. While the gene for completism does exist in our family (resulting in a parental stamp collection of distinctly unnerving precision) it has skipped at least one generation and possibly two. I've never collected anything, and I even have difficulty archiving the stuff I really need, like old bank statements and utility bills. My principal curatorial technique with these is the haystack method: pile it high and rest assured you will eventually find the relevant needle if you apply enough frantic hysteria to the problem.

There are people in the world whose pulses quicken at the words "comprehensive list" but I have to confess I'm not one of them. While the gene for completism does exist in our family (resulting in a parental stamp collection of distinctly unnerving precision) it has skipped at least one generation and possibly two. I've never collected anything, and I even have difficulty archiving the stuff I really need, like old bank statements and utility bills. My principal curatorial technique with these is the haystack method: pile it high and rest assured you will eventually find the relevant needle if you apply enough frantic hysteria to the problem.

So when I first read about the Public Catalogue Foundation I can't honestly say that I was gripped with excitement. In theory, the enterprise seemed an entirely admirable one: to catalogue every single oil painting in public ownership in the British Isles, including the four-fifths that lie in museum storage stacks. Every single eligible image - no matter what its state of preservation or perceived quality - would be photographed and, eventually, published, in a series of county-by-county guides. Every civic building, including crematoria, fire stations and police stations, would be checked for neglected artworks. It was, as several people immediately pointed out, a Pevsner for paintings - a massive inventory of the national attic.

In practice, though, it was one of those admirable tasks you're very happy someone else is prepared to take on. I couldn't suppress the furtive thought either, that the aesthetic reward for this Herculean labour might not be very great. In the popular imagination rummaging through an attic always turns up lost heirlooms or overlooked masterpieces, but this doesn't very often happen in real life. What you mostly find is junk. And though some of this will have curiosity or car-boot value, most of it will set you thinking about hiring a skip.

That was my theory, anyway. But, a few weeks ago, the foundation published the first volume of the catalogue - West Yorkshire: Leeds, a comprehensive survey of the city's public art holdings - and the result turned out to be full of unexpected enchantments and pleasures. It is not, so far, a question of recovered treasure. At the press conference to launch the first volume pretty much the best they could do in that line was the rediscovery of a Jacob Kramer portrait in the Leeds Teaching Hospitals collection, which was nice, but hardly earth-shaking. That wasn't the point though - because what's wonderful about flicking through the pages of the catalogue (each with nine matchbox-sized colour reproductions) is the sense of panoramic spectacle - of a visual culture in all its topographical variety, from peaks to swamps. I had no idea that Leeds City Art Gallery's collection was so broad and so rich - which perhaps tells you more about my parochialism than that of Leeds. But then neither, by his own confession, did Charles Saumarez Smith, the director of the National Gallery, and he should surely be harder to surprise.

If the catalogue offers a tacit rebuke to metropolitan bias, it also confronts a prejudice which is much more widespread - that in favour of our taste over that of our predecessors. The alphabetical arrangement of the paintings throws up some intriguing juxtapositions - Stanley Spencer bible paintings sit alongside what looks like a rather good 17th-century St Sebastian of the Spanish school, and a CR Nevinson painting of searchlights lies directly underneath a Dutch nocturne. But none of the juxtapositions is quite as interesting as the democratic jostle of good and bad paintings, the latter quite frequently inspired by the former. You can see very clearly the ripples that talent (or success, which is not quite the same thing) will leave behind it. Landseer spawns whole herds of silhouetted stags, and Atkinson Grimshaw (a genuine local hero as co-founder of the Leeds City Gallery) has to be held responsible for the truly atrocious moonlight paintings by W Meegan that belong to the Abbey House and Leeds City museums. I don't know whether the latter are actually on show in either museum - (a curator does express the caveat that the content is usually more significant than the artistic merit) but there's something genuinely instructive in seeing the paragon alongside the epigone - and it wouldn't happen anywhere but between the covers of this volume, which doesn't have to make difficult choices about priorities.

I don't doubt that the foundation will achieve some of its grander aims by the time the project is finished - to stimulate scholarship, to preserve paintings, to alert people to neglected merit - but it's not the least of its achievements that it finds a painless way to display mediocre works alongside good ones, because until they are part of the picture you can't really say it's complete.

Comments