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  1. Wealth
February 19, 2013

Art Fund: Sir Denis Mahon paintings bequest enriches UK galleries

By Spear's

The works, which include masterpieces by Guercino, Guido Reni, Domenichino and Ludovico Carracci, have entered the permanent collections of six UK museums and galleries

The Art Fund today announced that it has completed the transfer of the late Sir Denis Mahon’s private collection of 57 Italian Baroque paintings into the collections of museums and galleries across the UK, in fulfilment of Sir Denis’s wishes (pictured left).

The works, which include masterpieces by Guercino, Guido Reni, Domenichino, Ludovico Carracci, Luca Giordano, Pietro de Cortona, Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini and Giuseppe Maria Crespi, have entered the permanent collections of six UK museums and galleries: twenty five works have gone to the National Gallery, London; twelve to the Ashmolean, Oxford; eight to the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh; six to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; five to Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, and one to [i] Temple Newsam House, Leeds.

Sir Denis formed his collection over several decades, progressively demonstrating the range, significance and quality of the Italian baroque despite its comparative neglect by previous scholars. His passion and erudition – and the sheer quality of the works he brought together – changed hearts and minds and had a discernible impact on its very status in the history of European art. The national collections are very greatly enriched by this extraordinary bequest.

Pictured above: Guido Reni, The Rape of Europa (c.1637-9), donated to the National Gallery by the trustees of Sir Denis Mahon’s Charitable Trust through the Art Fund

Sir Denis, who died in 2011, was one of Britain’s most distinguished art historians, collectors and campaigners. He left his collection to the Art Fund with instructions that the collection should be placed on display in specific locations across the country, in perpetuity.

The collection has been on long-term loan from Sir Denis to the respective museums for many years, on the condition that they did not charge admission or sell works from their collections. Sir Denis saw the Art Fund, independent of government funding and influence, as the ideal long-term guardian of his collection and his wishes. A member of the charity since a schoolboy, he joined the Art Fund in 1926 and remained a close supporter and advocate until his death in 2011.

Read more on the Art Fund

Sir Denis Mahon’s life’s work focussed on the formation of one of the most important private collections of 17th Century Italian Baroque paintings anywhere, but also entailed passionate and vociferous campaigning on behalf of museums. He was outspoken in his criticism of any government which sought to starve museums of funding or interfere in their independence.

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Sir Denis campaigned on two fronts above all: in support of free admission to national museums, and against the selling of works of art from museums’ permanent collections. Under the terms of the transfer of his collection into public ownership, announced today, the Art Fund’s trustees, together with trustees of the Sir Denis Mahon Charitable Trust, reserve the right to withdraw works from museums which breach these principles at any point in the future.

In addition to the 57 bequeathed works, Sir Denis has also left a £1 million legacy to the Art Fund. He also gave the Ashmolean a set of 50 works associated with Guercino. Throughout his life, Sir Denis Mahon gave several major donations to the Art Fund to support major museum acquisitions, and often used his collection and donations for works of art to pressurise the present-day government to support the UK’s museums and galleries.

In 1977, Bellini’s Madonna and Child Enthroned – the last major Bellini still in private hands and valued at over £1 million, was offered to Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery on condition it raised the £400,000 needed for its purchase before the three months deadline. Sir Denis offered £50,000 on condition the government matched his donation. Government grants amounted to £72,000 for that picture, which was secured by the museum.

Stephen Deuchar, Art Fund Director says: “Sir Denis Mahon was a life-long supporter of the Art Fund and shared our fundamental commitment to widening free public access to art. His vision as an art collector was extraordinary, as was his determination that his collection should ultimately be on public display. It is an enormous honour for the Art Fund to have been entrusted with his private collection and to oversee its transfer into the permanent collections of these museums and galleries across the UK.”

Pictured above: Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino, Head of an Old Man (1591-1666), donated by the trustees of Sir Denis Mahon’s Charitable Trust through the Art Fund to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Dr Nicholas Penny, Director, National Gallery says: “Sir Denis was associated with the National Gallery for nearly eighty years, beginning with his appointment as an attaché to the curatorial department under Kenneth Clark and culminating in the great celebratory exhibition of his collection here in the 1990s – Discovering the Italian Baroque. As a hyperactive trustee of the gallery and exacting friend of many curators he did much to urge us to acquire great Baroque paintings. We also acquired some from him at the end of his life and he bequeathed a masterpiece by Guercino to us. Now in addition we have received many more. He is one of our greatest benefactors and we will always honour his memory.”

Sir John Leighton, Director-General, National Galleries of Scotland says: “We are delighted to have received eight paintings from the late Sir Denis Mahon’s private collection through the stewardship of the Art Fund. He was an inspirational and passionate collector who supported the National Galleries of Scotland over many years. His generous and careful choice of paintings was made in order to complement other works within the Scottish national collection and we are extremely grateful that we are now able to keep these key works of art on permanent display to the Scottish public.”

Christopher Brown, Director, Ashmolean Museum says: “Sir Denis Mahon was a tireless champion of museums. During his lifetime, the Ashmolean was hugely enriched by Denis’s friendship and support. We are profoundly grateful to him and to the Art Fund for the allocation of these twelve important paintings from the Mahon collection. They are on display in the Ashmolean’s permanent galleries where, as Denis wished, they are seen by millions of visitors free of charge.”

Simon Cane, Director of Birmingham Museums Trust says: “Sir Denis Mahon’s generous bequest to Birmingham Museums Trust consists of five paintings by Salvator Rosa, Francesco Albani, Giovanni Battista Gaulli, Pier Francesco Mola and Pieter van Laer which have been on long-term loan and displayed at BMAG since 1999. The Mahon pictures add significantly to the visitors’ experience as they sit particularly appropriately with the Museums’ collection of Italian Baroque paintings. I am delighted that we are now able to welcome them into the permanent collection thanks to the vision of Sir Denis Mahon and the support of the Art Fund.”

David Scrase, Acting Director, Fitzwilliam Museum says: “We are delighted that this choice group of paintings have become a permanent part of our collection. Sir Denis Mahon chose with great care the long-term home for his paintings. Each of these examples makes a significant point within our current holdings, extending and improving the Fitzwilliam’s Collections. We are very pleased that Denis’ memory will be preserved in permanence at the Fitzwilliam.”

John Roles, Head of Museums and Galleries, Leeds City Council says: “This is another significant step in restoring the original contents of Temple Newsam House. In 1922 the contents of the house were dispersed or sold before the estate was purchased by the city of Leeds. Over the following decades as the house has gradually been restored to its former glory, many of the original contents have been repatriated to the house which now contains one of the most important collections of decorative and fine arts in the country.

“There are now over 400 paintings on show in the house half of which originated there. The Pier Francesco Mola work is an important addition as it was listed as hanging in the Picture Gallery in the 1808 house inventory so we are particularly pleased that Sir Denis was willing to allow the painting to return to its original home, initially on loan and now as a permanent bequest.”

Read more: Art Fund membership increases by 15 per cent

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