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December 15, 2011updated 08 Jan 2016 5:40pm

Should the Public Spend £50m on a Titian Painting?

By Spear's

Yes, By Jupiter!
Is it really worth £50 million of public money for a masterpiece by one of the greatest artists ever, just so it can stay in Britain and be a source of joy and inspiration to heaven knows how many, asks Ivan Lindsay
, the National Gallery of Scotland (NGS) reconfirmed its intention to raise the £50 million needed to buy the Duke of Sutherland’s second painting by Titian, Diana and Callisto. The painting forms half of a pair, and the NGS, working in tandem with the National Gallery in London, previously secured the first painting, Diana and Actaeon, for a similar sum in February 2009.

Whether such amounts should be spent on art ignites passionate opinions, and the NGS’s announcement that it intends to follow through with its desire to secure the second Titian seems certain to resurrect the left–right divide over issues of art, class, privilege, nationalism and the spending of public money on culture.

Those against are led by the Glasgow MP Ian Davidson, who said on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland: ‘It is difficult to argue that this is part of Britain’s cultural heritage when it’s a painting by a long-dead Venetian — it’s not as if it’s Jock McTitian… [it’s an] obscene amount of money, particularly when the National Gallery has around twenty Titians.’ He was also quoted by the BBC as saying: ‘Very few people will have heard of Titian; many will have thought he was an Italian football player.’

Sir John Tusa, chairman of the University of the Arts in London, wrote a letter to The Guardian saying: ‘We would, however, [despite broadly supporting the campaign] like to issue a warning and a plea to those who are rallying support for the Titian campaign. Please do not forget today’s young artists… [whose funding] is often forgotten in the rush to celebrate the established and praise the gilded.’

Art-world grandees are united in talking of the painting’s importance, rarity and beauty. Nicholas Penny, director of London’s National Gallery, has said that many who contributed to saving Diana and Actaeon for the nation did so ‘on the understanding’ that Diana and Callisto would also be bought, but the second £50 million ‘is not going to be easily raised. We do believe we can do it, and we have given it a great deal of thought. It’s not just reckless gambling.’ Many of Britain’s artists have lent support to the campaign, such as Tracey Emin, who delivered a petition to Downing Street signed by Lucian Freud, Damien Hirst and David Hockney.
THE TWO TITIANS formed part of the Sutherland Loan to the NGS that was made in 1945 and consists of 33 artworks, including masterpieces by Poussin, Raphael, Rembrandt and Rubens. The loan transformed the NGS into a major European art destination. The current duke, Francis Egerton, 7th Duke of Sutherland, inherited the title and collection in 2000. In 2003, he sold a famous painting from the collection to the NGS, Titian’s Venus Anadyomene, for £11 million, around half its open-market valuation, although he did receive tax benefits, as allowable under British law on a sale to an institution. This was followed by the sale of Diana and Actaeon in 2009.

A spokesman for the duke said: ‘The Bridgewater Collection has grown in value to the point where it is prudent to review the holding in terms of the balance of the family’s overall assets. It does now seem sensible to consider the sale of some part of this collection.’ Since the art collection is now estimated to be worth over £1 billion without the Titians, one can understand how the duke might feel overweight in art. Again, the deal would have tax benefits as it would be a sale to an institution, but it is still a generous offer as the paintings could be worth £150 million each on the open market. If the second Titian is acquired, the duke will also leave the remaining pictures on loan to the gallery for a further 21 years.

The two large canvases depict scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In one, the hunter Actaeon stumbles into a glade where Diana is bathing naked with her nymphs; in the other, Callisto is being stripped naked on Diana’s instructions to reveal her secret pregnancy by Jupiter. These glorious, dramatic paintings are among Titian’s finest achievements. He referred to them as his ‘poésies’, or his poetry, and painted a set of six of them, which are today split between the Wallace Collection in London, the Museo del Prado in Madrid and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of these two paintings. Whereas an artist such as Picasso produced around 10,000 paintings in his life, Titian left only a few hundred, and most of these are already in museums. The only other paintings to have been bought by a national institution that could be considered as important would be the National Gallery London’s acquisition of the Wilton Diptych in 1929 and Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus in 1906.
PHILLIP II OF Spain originally commissioned the paintings. Despite Charles I trying to buy the paintings 50 years later, they remained in the Spanish royal collection until Philip V gave them to the French ambassador, who sold them to Philippe II, Duke of Orléans. After the French Revolution the duke sold his collection shortly before he was guillotined. The largest share of it was bought in 1798 by the coal magnate Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater, who paid vast prices for the best paintings.

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On Bridgewater’s death, the paintings passed to the dukes of Sutherland and were made available to the public at Bridgewater House in London from 1806. In 1939 they were taken to Edinburgh for safekeeping (a wise decision, as Bridgewater House was bombed) and placed on loan in the NGS in 1945. The duke has said that if the NGS cannot find the money he’ll sell part of the collection on the international market, possibly including the remaining Titian.

The first campaign received funds from the Art Fund, the Scottish Executive, the British parliament, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the general public. The fundraising for the second painting has received a blow from the Scottish government, which has stated that public funds will not be made available this time. A spokesman made the dour comment that the government has ‘made its contribution’. Jonathan Jones in The Guardian commented: ‘It is a mark of philistinism and small-mindedness for Scotland’s government to declare at this early stage it will not be giving any public money to keep this painting… It was a mark of civilisation that Britain bought the first Titian. It will be a lapse into barbarism to let the second one go.’

For the doubters, it’s worth recalling that tourism is a major earner for the country. And it’s not just foreigners who enjoy its 4,500 open houses and museums — a visit to any gallery on a Saturday afternoon reveals that they are full of British people from all walks of life. To let this painting escape national patrimony would be nothing less than a tragedy. The deadline for the fundraising is the end of 2012, and no doubt this issue will continue to raise temperatures over the forthcoming year. Perhaps the last word should go to the 19th-century critic William Hazlitt, who, on seeing the paintings for the first time, wrote: ‘A new sense came upon me, a new heaven and a new earth stood before me.’
To donate to the fund, call 0131 624 6459 or visit

Ivan Lindsay is a contributing editor at Spear’s

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