THE ROYAL ACADEMY'S "Art Treasures of England" opens on Thursday and is bound to provoke much discussion. Not that it's a controversial show: in many respects it is staid, familiar and reassuring. But it does have a special national importance. Every now and then - perhaps once in a decade - we see an exhibition which tells us about the kind of country we live in. This is one of them. It's about England as well as being about art.
The work on the RA's walls has the curious effect of sending one's curiosity far beyond the confines of Burlington House. How is it, we want to know, that there's this Boudin in Berwick-on-Tweed, a Giovanni di Paolo in Rochdale, a Van Gogh drawing in Walsall and a Georges de la Tour in Stockton-on- Tees?
The idea behind the show was quite simple: to celebrate the things we own and often don't see. Loans were sought from 100 regional museums, and in all some 400 works, mainly paintings, have been borrowed. Visiting more than 200 museums, the selectors were the Royal Academy's Jane Martineau (who must have been busy last year, for she curated the "Victorian Fairy Painting" exhibition), Richard Verdi, who looks after Birmingham University's Barber Institute and is a Poussin expert; and Giles Waterfield, former Director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery and an authority on museum history. While Waterfield was at Dulwich he curated "Palaces of Art", which was about art galleries and education in the 19th century.
It was never likely that this group would have shared tastes, and no attempt has been made to impose an aesthetic on the exhibition. It has to be an anthology, simply because regional museums have such heterogeneous collections. I observe, however, that neither Verdi nor Waterfield are known for their interest in contemporary art. Their expertise lies elsewhere. Modern paintings and sculpture certainly have a place in this exhibition, but not a major one. And it has to be said - as we approach the millennium! - that our museums have still not come to terms with the vital art of the 20th century. The RA presentation does not dwell on this problem. We hear the usual excuses for not buying contemporary art - lack of funds, etc. The fact that regional museum directors have so often been idle and hidebound is nowhere mentioned.
Contrary to some assumptions, good new art is still cheap to buy. The Swindon Museum shows what can be done on a limited budget in a small town. Swindon has lent pictures by Howard Hodgkin and Richard Hamilton, but the gallery also owns work by Ayres, Bellany, Hoyland, Moore, Nicholson, Sutherland and so on. The collection was assembled on a shoestring. Other galleries could have done the same, especially in the 1960s and early 1970s. Alas, their curators didn't like talking to artists, so they never bought directly from studios; and they thought it was rightly independent to distrust London dealers, so they never took advice and were ignorant of the art market. Curators of this sort were - in the worst sense of the word - provincial.
Regional museums with a better record of interest in modern art include those at Southampton, Eastbourne, Liverpool and Leeds. From Southampton come works by the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux and Gilbert and George. Liverpool's modern collection has for many years been augmented by the winning paintings in its John Moores exhibition. The Leeds museum has lent its Canova Venus, a Courbet and a recent work by Tony Cragg. Leeds and other museums have benefited recently from the generosity of the Henry Moore Foundation, but the general situation is that modern sculpture is scandalously under-represented in our galleries. Take the case of Sir Anthony Caro, the most distinguished and also the most prolific of living sculptors. He has made around 3,000 works in his career. Worldwide, Caro is represented in 98 public museums. In England outside the Tate, just three galleries have a Caro. They are Leeds, Wakefield and the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester (and have not lent their sculptures to the present exhibition).
"Art Treasures of England" confirms what everyone has suspected: that there was indeed a time when museums around the country bought contemporary art, and did so with confidence, even panache. Unfortunately, that was a century and more ago. Lovers of Victorian art will feel happy at the RA. Here are, for instance, Richard Redgrave's The Poor Teacher (from Shipley), Holman Hunt's Isabella and the Pot of Basil (Newcastle), Leighton's Mother and Child (Blackburn), Lady Butler's Listed for the Connaught Rangers (Bury), Millais's The Black Brunswicker (Port Sunlight), Augustus Leopold Egg's The Travelling Companions (Birmingham), Frederick Sandy's Autumn (Norwich) and, perhaps most famous of all, William Yeames's And When Did You Last See Your Father? (Liverpool.)
Just the names of these towns and cities are eloquent of regional life. Thriving museums were in places where you also found industry, railways, civic pride and philanthropy, football clubs, a sturdy local brew, art schools and good libraries. This Victorian and Edwardian pattern is well on the way to breaking down. The voluminous exhibition catalogue provides useful short histories of the museums and some illuminating essays. But this book lacks a voice from the provinces. Waterhouse and his colleagues are, if I may say so, representatives of the art world's ruling class, and they did not grow up in industrial towns. They do not know what it was like to be an artistic teenager, to find that your city gallery was an intriguing, even exciting place, but always to feel that it was withholding something from you.
This was the experience of many hundreds of artists who began their careers between the 1940s and the 1970s. They found out about the things that mattered to them in their local art schools, not in their local museums. The contrast - even hostility - between an avant-garde art college and a sedentary museum was a fact of life in my home town (Birmingham). When I got to London and first met artists from other parts of the country they told me the same story. The regional galleries weren't doing their job properly. They are better today, but still lack energy. It's noticeable, incidentally, that artists love their home towns, while writers on the whole do not.
And surely every artist carries a memory of some particular picture that they always went to see when they got off the tram in the city centre. Here are some memorable and/or loveable treasures at the RA: Adrianus Everson's Dutch Street Scene (Cheltenham), Rodin's Sleeping Woman Visited by a Phantom (Reading), Hubert von Herkomer's portrait of his wife (Watford), Jan van Huysum's Rest on the Flight to Egypt (Peterborough), Dod Proctor's Clara (Stoke-on-Trent), Sassetta's A Miracle of the Eucharist (Barnard Castle) ... and dozens and dozens more. How rich we are! !
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