The politics of masterpieces: the failed attempt to purchase Rembrandt’s The Mill for the National Gallery
Perhaps matters of connoisseurship were merely a
red herring; it seems very possible that the decisive
factor in the National Art-Collections Fund’s refusal to
support the acquisition was in fact Lansdowne himself
and his attitude towards this sale. Indeed, an assertive
editorial in the Burlington Magazine – a publication that
was from its inception closely linked to the National
Art-Collections Fund and whose editors and principal
contributors were Fund committee members – openly
condemned Lansdowne’s behaviour. The Burlington
Magazine recognized the clear conflict of interest raised
by Lansdowne’s role as both a private seller and a
National Gallery trustee; it was judged that he should
have first offered the Gallery the option to purchase,
without waiting for an external offer.29 Lansdowne had
abdicated his duty of stewardship to the nation’s art,
and the sale could be supported neither morally by the
Burlington, nor practically by the Fund.
Fig. 8 / Frederick De Haenen,
Right Be'ind for ‘The Mill’, in
Illustrated London News, 25
March 1911, p. 3.
Fig. 9 / Lost to this Country
Unless £95,000 Can Be Raised,
in Illustrated London News, 11
March 1911, p. 17.
Fig. 10 / Portraits and World’s
News, in Illustrated London
News, 18 March 1911, p.7.
In the meantime, others were looking for alternative
ways to purchase the picture for the nation. The
National Gallery and Agnew’s archives contain hitherto
unpublished letters that show the proactive manner in
which two principal art dealers, Henry Wallis and Lockett
Agnew, reacted to the news of the sale. Henry Wallis,
whose grandfather had succeeded Ernest Gambart in
running the French Gallery, wrote to Lansdowne on 3
March suggesting a possible solution.30 Wallis proposed
that Lansdowne should sell The Mill directly to “a
syndicate of connoisseurs”, which he volunteered to
form with the objective “to gain time [for the National
Gallery] to collect the required sum”.31 Wallis placed this
acquisition within the contemporary political context
and made a revealing plea to Lansdowne: “as fellow
Unionist”, he stressed the importance of avoiding a
controversial sale to America, lest it should supply their
common adversaries with political ammunition.
Lansdowne, however, did not oblige and proceeded
to deny this request in an oblique manner: even
though Wallis had written specifically to him as the
The politics of masterpieces: the failed attempt to purchase Rembrandt’s The Mill for the National Gallery
private owner of the painting, he refused to engage
personally with the dealer. Rather, perhaps not entirely
in good faith, Lansdowne interpreted the letter as
addressed to him in his capacity of National Gallery
trustee, and brought forward Wallis’s proposal at the
following National Gallery Board meeting, hence
the letter’s presence in the National Gallery archive.
Wallis’s request would have put the trustees in the
unprecedented position of having to establish an
official collaboration with a syndicate of art dealers for
an acquisition: the trustees, perhaps understandably,
refused this association.32
Another letter from the Agnew’s archive demonstrates
more clearly that Lansdowne in fact did not want to
facilitate the National Gallery’s purchase of The Mill.
Two days before Wallis wrote his letter, Lansdowne
had already given a negative response in private to
a similar proposal put to him by Lockett Agnew,
another art dealer and fellow Liberal Unionist, who
had suggested purchasing the picture himself, while
waiting for the National Gallery to gather the necessary
funds.33 Agnew had already proven himself trustworthy
in such a capacity, as his firm had similarly facilitated
the National Gallery’s acquisition of the Rokeby Venus,
negotiating the price with the original owner, giving
donations and loans to the museum, and actively
discouraging other buyers to purchase the painting.
Lansdowne, however, refused to collaborate with
Lockett Agnew, declaring that he had already agreed
a sale with Sulley, even though their agreement was
still only provisional. Lansdowne had evidently already
decided on the conditions of the sale of The Mill to the
National Gallery and left no room for compromise.
Even if Lockett Agnew could not convince Lansdowne
to sell to the National Gallery, he continued to support
the attempt to raise the funds for The Mill in other ways.
When, on 7 March, the trustees decided to exhibit the
painting at Trafalgar Square to solicit donations, it was
Agnew’s who provided transport and insurance for the
picture at “greatly reduced prices”.34
The Mill’s exhibition at the National Gallery created
a stir: the picture was reportedly seen by over 10,000
people each day, and the crowds were later depicted in
the Illustrated London News (fig. 8).35 The principal interest
was undoubtedly created by the painting’s price: The
Mill had been dubbed by the press “the £100,000
Old Master” (fig. 9).36 The Illustrated London News, the
periodical that followed this sale most closely, not only
published several spreads on the picture, but even took
the unprecedented step to promote an art dealer’s stock
by publishing a drawing in the possession of Frank
Sabin, which was believed to be a preparatory study for
The Mill (fig. 10).37


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