History of Collecting on telly tonight

July 17 2013

Video: BBC

This looks like fun - the history (or rather, as everything must be these days, the Secret History) of British art collecting, presented by Helen Rosslyn. Programme one, of three, is on BBC4 tonight at 9pm.

Update - I originally had a clip of the programme embedded into the site, but being a BBC clip, with a tedious code, it didn't work (just put it on You Tube please). You can watch the programme here.

It was an enjoyable programme, well made, and often beautifully shot. There were, however, a few moments where breath was sharply inhaled on the Grosvenor sofa. The programme made the mistake of many art histories of 16th Century English art - it judged the era on what has survived, which is almost entirely easel portraiture, and not all the religious and decorative art which has not (the former done for by the Reformation, and the latter because it perished with the buildings it decorated).

The programme's starting premise was that in England we were, artistically, only interested in stiff and dull portraits of ourselves. While it is largely true that collectors such as the 21st Earl of Arundel revolutionised English taste in art with the religious and historical pictures they brought back from the continent, there was nonetheless a non-portrait tradition in England. We can never know much about it, alas, because it hasn't survived.

For me, therefore, a better distinction to make is one of artistic quality. We may well have liked all sorts of art in England in the 16th Century, but almost of all of it was made by artists who paled in comparison to the greats of Europe brought to England by collectors like Charles I and Arundel. Their contribution to the history of art in England was to make us realise what great painters could do,and to raise the bar for our native English talent.

Update II - sharp-eyed viewer John Matthews spotted a possible error on one of the sitters featured in the programme:

The BBC programme on 17th century art collectors was fascinating. It included a sequence in which the Duchess of Norfolk and Helen Rosslyn discussed Aletheia, Countess of Arundel whilst looking at a 1619 portrait by Cornelius Johnson. Unfortunately this was portrait was not of Aletheia and was probably not a Countess of Arundel. I have posted a longer discussion of this portrait on Academia.edu.

Update III - a reader writes:

History of Collecting – one of the most interesting and informative programmes I’ve seen for ages you’ll be pleased to hear!  Aside from your comments, and those of readers to your site already posted, a couple more inaccuracies: Charles I too commissioned work from contemporary Italian artists – the Exeters were not the first, from Reni and from Orazio Gentileschi among others – the latter coming over to England.  And I understand the “Rembrandt” at Wilton is now considered a Lievens.

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