Christopher Ondaatje

Courting The Madonna

Raphael: From Urbino To Rome


The National Gallery 320pp £40 order from our bookshop

IT IS WELL known that the acquisition of Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks by the National Gallery in March was a coup for the nation, the National Gallery itself, and, indeed, for the Gallery’s charismatic director, Charles Saumarez Smith. In order to buy the painting, several of the art world’s unwritten rules had to be broken and several adjustments made to accommodate the purchase, after the untimely primary sale of the small but extraordinarily beautiful piece by the Duke of Northumberland to the Getty Museum in California. The first I rule to be ignored dictated that, at the top end of the international market, where paintings sell for over £20 million (the sale to the Getty was for L34.8 million), British institutions don’t and can’t compete. After all, for more than better a century Britain has consistently allowed great works of art to be exported and has only very occasionally exerted itself to prevent their departure. The second rule broken was that the Heritage Lottery Fund would only award grants to small-scale local community projects, rather than ‘Madonna big, national institutions. After a starred export stop had been placed on the Madonna of the Pinks, the Fund offered the National Gallery the unprecedentedly high grant of £1.5 million to support its acquisition. The third rule to be defied stated that incoming Directors should be seen but not heard when they first arrive in the post: Saumarez Smith was placed in the uncomfortable position of having to fight a high-profile campaign, in which matters as far-reaching as the public’s attitude to its heritage were at issue, very soon after taking up his position.

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