Letters: Painting's not the only art, Sir Denis

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Painting's not the only art, Sir Denis

Sir: There was much to be thankful for when Sir Denis Mahon's generous bequest was announced ("A pounds 25m art gift to the nation ...with strings attached", 3 December). Not only will it transform the representation of Italian Baroque painting in our public collections, it will also embarrass the Government due to his stipulation that paintings must be withdrawn if museums are underfunded or sell works from their permanent collections.

But now that more details have emerged, the bequest gives cause for concern. Sir Denis's terms seem unacceptable - or at least, they ought not be acceptable to the National Art Collections Fund, which will own the paintings and ensure that his wishes are respected.

According to this month's Art Newspaper, the NACF will have to withdraw pictures from any institution which sold any painting from its permanent collection: "Sir Denis's condition refers only to the sale of paintings." Indeed, the donor proudly announced on the Radio 4 Today programme that he was a "paintings man" - as though this were a mark of distinction.

As it stands, if the National Gallery of Scotland or the Ashmolean were to deaccession their Bernini sculptures or Poussin drawings, the NACF would not automatically be obliged to withdraw the Mahon pictures they are receiving, whereas if they deaccessioned their Poussin paintings, it would.

As a charitable trust that acquires art in all media (recent acquisitions range from the Becket casket and a Chippendale writing desk to Canova's Three Graces and a video installation by Bill Viola) the NACF should not endorse a bequest that sanctions a hierarchy of art forms, with painting pre-eminent.

Its chairman, Sir Nicholas Goodison (a distinguished scholar of English furniture in general and barometers in particular), should ask Sir Denis to think again. It would be wrong if a bequest intended to draw attention to the philistinism of the British government should be marred by a philistinism of its own.

JAMES HALL

London SW11

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