The politics of masterpieces: the failed attempt to purchase Rembrandt’s The Mill for the National Gallery
The owner of The Mill in 1911, Henry PettyFitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne (fig. 3), was
an important politician, a National Gallery trustee,
as well as a major landowner and art collector.7 The
majority of his paintings was displayed in his principal
country residence, Bowood in Wiltshire, but notable
works of art adorned his other properties, including
his London mansion, Lansdowne House. Indeed,
Lansdowne’s works of art were many: he came from
a family of collectors and possessed an exceptional,
although somewhat uneven, art collection. When
the Lansdowne pictures were catalogued in 1897,
the collection included 363 eclectic works. These
were principally by Old Masters, such as Murillo,
Sebastiano del Piombo (fig. 4), and works by
Carracci (fig. 5), Mola, Luini (fig. 6; then attributed
to Leonardo), but also by major Victorian artists,
including John Everett Millais, John Linnell, Frederic
Leighton, and Edwin Landseer. Two friezes by George
Fig. 2 / J. M. W. Turner,
Windmill and Lock, ca. 1811,
etching and watercolour
on paper, 17.7 x 25.8 cm,
London, Tate Britain.
The politics of masterpieces: the failed attempt to purchase Rembrandt’s The Mill for the National Gallery
The Lansdowne family’s important position in
society translated into political leadership, and the
Lansdowne heirs held a seat in the House of Lords as
life peers. Originally Whigs, the Lansdowne family
joined the Liberals when the Party was founded in
1859. Lansdowne had been supportive of William
Gladstone’s Liberal ministries until 1886, when the
latter attempted to introduce the First Home Rule
Bill, which would have resulted in a considerable loss
of estates for British landowners in Ireland. A major
Irish landowner, Lansdowne opposed Gladstone and
took part in a splinter group from the Liberals that
founded the Liberal Unionist Party, which soon joined
the Conservatives in a Unionist coalition (the Liberal
Unionists would finally merge with the Conservatives
in 1912).10 The Unionists and the Liberals’ policies
differed in many ways, but perhaps their strongest
point of dissent – and this is a point that became very
important for the sale of The Mill – was on trade,
with the Liberals arguing for free trade, whereas the
Unionists campaigned for a protectionist policy on
commerce, imposing tariffs on imports.
Frederick Watts (fig. 7; now Compton Varney, Watts
Gallery) had been commissioned for the marquess
himself. The Lansdowne collection was not a static
ensemble, gathered by earlier generations and
remaining unchanged: the Agnew’s stock books bear
witness to the marquess’s additions to the collection as
well as the frequent sales.
Lansdowne’s wealth, as was the case with much of the
British aristocracy, came from land. The family owned
vast estates in Scotland and was the second largest
landholder in Ireland, claiming over 120,000 acres
there.8 The 5th Marquess, however, had inherited with
these estates an equally large debt and, despite his
many properties, his income remained inadequate for
the lavish standard of living to which the family was
accustomed. For example, his mother had transformed,
at great expense, one of their properties in Scotland,
Meikleour, into a French chateau.9
Fig. 3 / E. H. Mills, Henry PettyFitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of
Lansdowne (1845-1927), early
1900s, bromide postcard
print, 13.7 x 8.6 cm, London,
National Portrait Gallery.
Lansdowne enjoyed a successful political career as a
Unionist. In 1911, when the sale of the Rembrandt
occurred, he held the office of Leader of the
House of Lords. The Unionists, allied with the
Conservatives, were then the official Opposition
of Herbert Henry Asquith’s minority Liberal
government.11 Furthermore, Lansdowne was not
only a collector and a politician, but also (like his
grandfather the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne) a
senior trustee of the National Gallery, a diligent
and assertive official who often disagreed with the
National Gallery directors, especially regarding
acquisitions. Lansdowne could be fiercely
authoritative, even aggressive: in 1902 he had
attempted to curb the National Gallery director’s
executive powers with a memorandum known as
the Lansdowne Resolutions, which prescribed that
at least four trustees had to agree with the director
before an acquisition could proceed.12 Even though
the document was rejected, Lansdowne retained his
belligerent attitude, and the National Gallery Board
Minutes record his continued opposition to the
directors and other gallery officials.13


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