Philip Hensher: Why keep Turner all to ourselves?

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On the whole, we're generally very pleased when parts of our national culture go abroad to advertise its energy and interest. The great success of Alan Bennett's The History Boys on Broadway was much celebrated, and, yesterday, the remarkable achievement of one young English dancer, Henry Perkins, in gaining a place at the Bolshoi ballet school was the cause of great excitement. When an English actor goes to Hollywood, an English band scores a triumph across the world, or an English writer is translated into dozens of languages, we're extremely proud.

The whole thing rather stops when it is a question of the export of a great English work of art. Two of Turner's greatest watercolours, both views of the Rigi in Switzerland, have recently been sold to, it is thought, foreign buyers. The Government has imposed a temporary export ban on one of these, and probably will on the other as well. In the meantime, Tate Britain is launching an appeal to match the price of the Dark Rigi, sold for £2.7m. Whether they can realistically launch another one so soon to buy in the Blue Rigi, which sold subsequently for the enormous price of £5.8, seems very doubtful.

They are spectacular and important watercolours. But in what sense are they being "lost"? They were in private collections here; the first of them seems to have been bought by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and will be much more widely seen. The third in the series, the Red Rigi, similarly went from a private British collection to the national gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.

Now, I hate to say this, but Tate Britain has a hell of a lot of Turners. These are exceptional ones, but might it not be quite a good idea to give people outside Britain more of a sense of his quality? Because British patrons were rich, comparatively little British art ever went overseas, with the result that it is still very undervalued world-wide. When a first-rate example did, as when Constable's The Hay-Wain triumphed at the Paris Salon in 1824, or, more recently, Turner's Juliet and her Nurse ended up in Brazil, no one can doubt that it significantly raised the international reputation of British art.

That is really rather more important than talking about these things being "lost" which, if they are going to a public collection overseas, is not a rational description. Of course, if we are talking about an artist whose work is not very extensive, the question may look rather different. Paradoxically, too, it may sensibly be argued that we ought to hang on to the work of a foreign artist. In the case of, say, the Raphael Madonna of the Pinks, the painting would have gone abroad, and no cultural capital accrue to this country in return.

But that isn't true about a very prolific artist like Turner, whose masterpieces remain here, and are easily accessible. If the great Rigi watercolours go abroad to a foreign collection, they may well inspire visitors to plan a trip to London, specifically to see the great collection in Tate Britain. How many visitors to the National Gallery have admired the Piero della Francescas, and subsequently planned a Tuscan holiday around his other works? A sale like this needn't be a disaster; a judicious and small- scale leak of British paintings to public collections overseas would do the reputation of our national school all the good in the world.

Let's not put out more flags

One of the recurrent news stories in the run-up to the football World Cup has been "Kill-joy Bosses Ban England Flags". Local councils, Tesco, schools and housing authorities have told workers, drivers or pupils that it isn't really appropriate to bring in flags. A little got-up outrage follows, and the kill-joy bosses back down.

Well, people can do as they like in their spare time, but I don't think they have a right to festoon their employers' vans, bring flags into schools or bunk off sick whenever England play a match. The awful aspect of this is the bullying tone, as if there's something wrong with you if you don't share the interest.

I remember when the World Cup was something you either took an interest in, or didn't. I don't think I've had a single conversation with anyone alive at the time about the 1966 World Cup, for one single reason: most people weren't that interested. In truth, they still aren't. The idea of universal and obligatory fascination is a completely new one, and not very pleasant. Let's not fly those flags with pride.

* A restaurant critic called Giles Coren has proposed that fat people be taxed, as presenting a burden on the economy. Brilliant idea! Next, let's tax people who have children, or ones who propose to grow old, Afro- Caribbeans who might have a higher susceptibility to schizophrenia, homosexuals who might get Aids, foreigners who slow everything down by not speaking English well enough, women, who might get breast cancer, men, who might get prostate cancer, and, of course, smokers. Oh, someone's already suggested that last one.

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