I got an email in my inbox from the National Portrait Gallery the other day asking me to save a painting. It’s ok, I’m on their mailing list. It wasn’t a just an artsy spambot asking me for £12.5 million.
The painting in question is a 1641 self-portrait by Anthony Van Dyck, which has been in the possession of an anonymous collector and will be leaving Britain if the many million pound fundraising effort isn’t a success. Van Dyck is said to be one the most influential artist in terms of portraiture, as the change in style he developed lasted for centuries. This is only one Van Dyck painting that has been kept in the country by appeals to the general public over the last few decades. Previously 15 other Van Dyck works have been acquired this way, from royal portraits to a pencil sketch of a dog. The Director of the National Portrait Gallery has been reported as saying the appeal is “the right thing to do”, but it’s made me think that there are other the implications when a gallery asks the nation for help.
In the broader context of national heritage, £12.5 million seems a lot of money, particularly as we witness parts of British heritage being swept away, buildings of architectural importance demolished, archives lost. How much of a building would £12.5 million save? With on-costs, probably not much of one in the long run. What if we attach a famous or influential name, Van Dyck for instance, to an item? Does that make it more important or significant? Heritage aside, £12.5 million could fund an awful lot of creative projects today. Think about all the art that sort of money could fund, art made by individuals just starting out on their own creative lives.
Some might think that 17th Century portrait isn’t relevant enough to save. The Gallery has tried to link the concept of portraiture with the selfie. Word of the year indeed! It’s a good attempt at engaging the wider public. If everyone posting selfies on Twitter donated to the appeal, there’d be £12.5 million in no time at all.
Personally speaking I feel torn. Whilst there is a knowing, almost pleading something in Van Dyck’s eye as it stares out of his portrait towards us , I am not sure I even like the painting. On my visits to the National Portrait Gallery I tend to stick to the ground floor viewing areas featuring work from the 20th and 21st centuries, and never venture to see the many wan faces in dark frames from earlier times. But there is a nagging doubt in the back of my brain. Part of me would be proud to have contributed to save something that is considered a significant painting. It would be for the for the benefit of the nation at large, so that everyone could see it. And it’s the nearest I’m ever going to get to feeling I part own a multi-million pound painting…