National Gallery buys Devil's defeat

Marianne Macdonald Arts Reporter
Wednesday 30 August 1995 23:02
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MARIANNE MACDONALD

Arts Reporter

The executors of Luton Hoo, one of England's greatest historic houses, yesterday announced the sale of a 15th-century Spanish masterpiece in the latest attempt to cover the Bedfordshire estate's crippling debts.

The painting by Bartolome Bermejo, called Saint Michael Triumphant over the Devil with the Donor, Don Antonio Juan, is probably the greatest Spanish Renaissance work outside Spain.

It has been bought by the National Gallery, and was yesterday being hung amid the other Renaissance treasures in the Sainsbury Wing off Trafalgar Square.

Its purchase took a year to negotiate, with the National Gallery beating off rivals from abroad. The agreed price is thought to be around pounds 10m, to be paid over three years by the American Friends of the National Gallery from a fund endowed by John Paul Getty Jr.

The spectacular work will add significantly to the Renaissance collection by demonstrating the Netherlandish influence on Spanish painting. It shows St Michael fighting with the devil which, in accordance with medieval tradition, is a chimera, part snake, part bird, part dragon. The kneeling donor, Antonio Juan, Lord of Tous near Valencia, paid for the masterpiece in 1468.

The 6ft work, which has exquisite detail on Don Juan's cloak, shows the Cordoba-born artist experimenting with reflections: the spires of the Holy City are mirrored in St Michael's breastplate.

The painting is the latest in a stream of treasures from Luton Hoo to have been sold following the suicide in 1991 of the estate's owner, Nicky Phillips, 43. The Old Etonian racehorse owner and Jockey Club member was said to be depressed at the cost of running the estate.

Yesterday his cousin, Charles Butter, whose family owned the Bermejo painting jointly with the executors, said it had been sold "to alleviate the problems surrounding the estate". He added: "It was felt that if the painting had to be sold, it was preferable that it went to a national institution as opposed to overseas."

Neil MacGregor, the director of the National Gallery, was overjoyed by the acquisition. He said: "It is a picture of astonishing quality and the one bit of the story which was missing from our collection. We've had no really great 15th-century Spanish painting."

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