Book review: In Search Of A Masterpiece

In any anthology, authority should be leavened by surprise. Christopher Lloyd’s journey round the paintings in the public collections of the UK and Ireland has both, and more.

Here are the acknowledged masterpieces that you would expect to be chosen by a scholar of the Italian Renaissance who has been Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures: the Wilton Diptych, Mantegna’s The Triumphs of Caesar, The Queen’s Raphael cartoons in the V&A. But here, too, is a selection of English 19th- and 20th-century painters that continually surprises: John Bratby, Sir James Gunn, John Byam Shaw, Derek Jarman.

Dr Lloyd has excluded watercolours, drawings, paintings in private, National Trust or English Heritage houses, or any paintings in the collections of the Government, the Arts Council of England or the British Council. Within these self-imposed limits, he relishes the prospect of ordering from the table d’hôte of our national and regional collections-both glutton and gourmet.

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His selection is arranged geographically, by collection. So he sweeps from Tintoretto in Gateshead (‘one of the greats of Venetian painting’) to Poussin in the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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Those chosen are almost entirely from the canon of Western European painting after 1300: nothing from Islam, nor from the Far East; nothing from Russia; only a tiny handful from Scandinavia or North America. But the surprises are never more than a page or two away: Andy Warhol’s Portrait of Maurice (his pet dachshund), Nevinson’s War Profiteers (‘a modernist view of an ageold practice’) or Winterhalter’s Florinda (‘a highly sensuous rendering… once hung in Queen Victoria’s sitting room’).

His comments are invariably dry and pithy. Choosing Jan van de Capelle’s A Calm, he tells us that the artist invested in real estate, owned a pleasure yacht and had a collection that included more than 500 drawings by Rembrandt. ‘Van de Capelle was clearly worth knowing.’ Munnings’s My Wife, My Horse and Myself is ‘as much an advertisement as a display of Munnings’s technical skills’ by an artist who ‘was always susceptible to women who rode sidesaddle’. His one-liners are sharp. Carel Weight is ‘careful about God’; in Bridget Riley, ‘Isaac Newton meets Henri Matisse’.

As with all anthologies, there is fun to be had questioning what has been omitted. Why no Raeburn, or Gwen John? No Bonington, Canaletto or Bellotto?

Why few sporting pictures (one Stubbs, no Ferneley, Alken or Herring)? Why such a predeliction for Victorian artists of modest ability-Marcus Stone, Alfred Elmore? But he bravely defies current fashion to re-establish Dod Procter, Meredith Frampton and Gerald Brockhurst.

Overall, this is an achievement that few could match, apart, perhaps, from Richard Verdi or Timothy Clifford. Dr Lloyd’s selections will delight, and will send the reader back, refreshed, to our great national and regional collections.

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