Leading Article: A Turner goes west

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The Independent Online
THE pounds 11m raised by the Turner seascape sold by Royal Holloway and Bedford New College to the John Paul Getty Museum in California has increased the dismay in the museum world aroused by this exercise in fund-raising. Other colleges, it is feared, will seek to sell valuable paintings to make up for deficiencies in government funding; the intentions of donors will be ever more loosely interpreted; and new benefactors will think again about making bequests (a valuable antiquarian book collection destined for Holloway will now go elsewhere).

The most surprising aspect of the saga is that the charity commissioners gave permission for the sale of the three finest of the 77 paintings collected for the college by its founder, the Victorian pill merchant Thomas Holloway. The other two works earmarked for sale are by Constable and Gainsborough.

The Charity Commission based its judgement on allegedly expert advice that the three paintings were not 'of a piece' with the rest of the collection. That claim was shot down by specialists, and it became evident that the commissioners had failed to consult the normal museum authorities, accepting instead an opinion submitted to the college. This happened even though the 'inalienability' of the collection had been confirmed as recently as 1985, when the original Royal Holloway College merged with Bedford College.

It is not surprising that the Eighties boom in saleroom prices made the college's council look at its picture collection with new eyes. Thanks to the rise in its value, it could not be left open for the casual enjoyment of students: a rare if not ideal opportunity to inspect the treasures was when they were doing exams. Here was a chance to raise a sum large enough to end the college's financial difficulties and guarantee the upkeep of its Grade I listed building. No doubt, both the council and the charity commissioners probably argued, Thomas Holloway himself would have preferred the lesser evil of a few pictures being sold than the greater one of the college's fabric crumbling. As for the danger of setting a precedent, no two bequests are alike in their terms. Such arguments have their weight. But they also lend substance to the growing belief that the laws governing bequests may need clarifying and strengthening.

One perennial lament that would be otiose in this instance is that major works by the likes of Turner, Constable and Gainsborough should stay in Britain. All three artists are lavishly represented in national collections. Turner even has his own wing at the Tate Gallery. Indeed, the concentration of his output in England has prevented his genius from being fully appreciated abroad, not least on the West Coast of the United States: the Holloway seascape will be the Getty Museum's first acquisition by England's greatest painter. It is likely to be seen there in a single day by more people, perhaps even by more Britons, than in a full year in the college in Egham, Surrey.

Such considerations will seem irrelevant to those who fear that this sale will launch a desperate institutional divestment of works of art that could even infect university museums. Many of these owe almost everything to private benefactions. Those fears are probably exaggerated: the museum world tends to be alarmist. Potential benefactors, rather than taking fright, should ensure that the terms of their bequests are much tighter than those governing Thomas Holloway's.