The politics of masterpieces: the failed attempt to purchase Rembrandt’s The Mill for the National Gallery
Lansdowne provisionally accepted Sulley’s offer. He
then informed the National Gallery of the offer for The
Mill, but claimed that he was willing to sell the picture
to the nation for the same amount, contributing himself
£5,000 of the purchase price as a goodwill gesture – in
other words he would have accepted a reduced sum
of £95,000 from the National Gallery; he extended
his offer until 31 March.18 On 21 February 1911, a
National Gallery Board meeting, understandably held
without Lansdowne present, discussed this proposal.19
As a trustee, Lansdowne must have known that the
chances of the museum purchasing the picture were
very slim: the National Gallery had only £2,283
available to spend on purchases at that moment.
Fig. 6 / Bernardino Luini
(formerly attributed to
Leonardo da Vinci), The
Magdalene, ca. 1525, oil
on panel, 58.8 x 47.8 cm,
Washington, DC, National
Gallery of Art.
Fig. 7 / George Frederick
Watts, Achilles and Briseis,
ca. 1858-1860, fresco, mixed
media and oil on plaster,
122 x 518.5 cm, Compton,
Watts Gallery Trust.
Because of this lack of funds, the trustees agreed that the
remaining amount could only be obtained either from the
government or by public subscription. They also decided
that, if the government was not prepared to assist, support
would be sought from the National Art-Collections Fund,
a relatively new organization which had helped raise
money for the acquisitions of both the Rokeby Venus and
Christina of Denmark. Thus, on 24 February, the National
Gallery first appealed to the government, sending a
deputation of trustees headed by George Howard, the
Earl of Carlisle, to make a plea to the Liberal Prime
Minister, Henry Herbert Asquith, and the Secretary to
the Treasury, George Murray. Carlisle, who had himself
been a Liberal MP in the previous decades, did not mince
his words and stated, perhaps not very diplomatically,
that because of the recent taxation of works of art, the
government had a moral claim upon “a more lavish
expenditure on national pictures”.20 Carlisle’s point was
that, because the government had started to receive more
money through the recently increased fiscal pressures
on art ownership, at least some of these funds should
be devolved to support public art purchases. Asquith,
however, deflected the responsibility of securing works
for the national collection to private initiative, stating that
“the liberality of private persons” was better equipped to
provide “nearly all the sum required”. The Government,
at most, might have covered a small deficit, although, as
Asquith said, this was “by no means a promise”.21 The
meeting clearly communicated that no significant financial
help would be forthcoming from the government.
The politics of masterpieces: the failed attempt to purchase Rembrandt’s The Mill for the National Gallery
Among the reasons behind this categorical refusal is
that the National Gallery’s request coincided with
a period of intensified and divisive political conflict
focused on public spending. The conflict heightened
after the House of Lords’ rejection of the budget
proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David
Lloyd George, to the House of Commons on 29 April
1909. This financial plan – famously nicknamed “the
People’s Budget” because it funded a programme of
social welfare by introducing higher taxes on land,
property, and income – had been passed by the House
of Commons. The House of Lords, on the other hand,
had at first rejected it and, only after a lengthy and
confrontational negotiation process, finally approved it a
year later. The sequence of events was closely followed
by the press and was also represented in political
cartoons, often with caricatures parodying Lansdowne’s
regal but uncompromising persona.22
Following this delay, the elected House of Commons,
where the Budget had originated and was passed, set out
to limit the legislative power of the hereditary aristocratic
peers in the House of Lords.23 The conflict between the
two Houses, which lasted three years, had intensified
at the beginning of 1911, when the sale of The Mill
took place. Articles in the press reported the heated
debate and tone of discontent towards the Lords, and
Lansdowne in particular, in the House of Commons.24
The House of Lords was finally defeated in May 1911,
with the passing of the Parliament Act, in which the
Lords’ power to veto a Finance Bill was removed.
However, in February 1911, when the other trustees
and Lansdowne were discussing the possible purchase
of The Mill for the National Gallery, this defeat was still
to come, and Asquith’s cabinet, as well as the national
press, was still in the heated process of crossing swords
with Lansdowne as Leader of the House of Lords.
A clear, underlying political ressentiment could be
perceived in both Lansdowne’s nominal discount to the
National Gallery and his subsequent refusal to negotiate,
as well as Asquith’s categorical denial of state support
for this purchase.25 At the end of February 1911, when
the proposed sale of the Rembrandt was disclosed
to the public, the reciprocal acrimony between the
trustees and the government was reported in articles and
letters in the press, especially the Daily Telegraph and the
Manchester Guardian, which harshly criticized Lansdowne,
questioned his public spirit, his lack of stewardship, and
even doubted his right to leadership altogether.26
This harsh appraisal was not confined to the press:
on 27 February, the National Art-Collections Fund’s
executive committee, which had been asked by the
National Gallery to support a public appeal for the
purchase, took the unprecedented decision not to
support the acquisition and voted against holding
a public appeal for The Mill.27 The reasons for the
rejection were not stated by the committee, but the
National Art-Collections Fund’s records, noting the
existence of other versions of the work, reported
growing suspicions about the painting’s authorship. For
instance, the minutes cited an article in the Morning Post
from 7 March 1911, which quoted the renowned Dutch
art connoisseur Hofstede de Groot stating that “he could
not help thinking that £100,000 was too high a price for
a canvas possessing no pedigree prior to its entrance into
the Orlèans Collection, lacking the master’s signature
and covered with a thick coating of yellow varnish”.28


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