CF STUDIES JOURNAL 06 - Page 146



144
The politics of masterpieces: the failed attempt to purchase Rembrandt’s The Mill for the National Gallery
The politics of masterpieces: the failed attempt to purchase Rembrandt’s The Mill for the National Gallery
to sell it to the National Gallery, nor did the British MPs
wish to buy it from Lansdowne. In the Commons, among
“ironical cheers” (supposedly principally addressed
towards Lansdowne), the Liberal MP Frederick Kellaway
asked the Financial Secretary of the Treasury Charles
Hobhouse about the circumstances of the sale.42 As the
report from the House of Commons reads:
[Kellaway] asked the Secretary to the Treasury
whether his attention has been called to the
statement issued by the director of the National
Gallery that Lord Lansdowne, having been
offered a large price for his picture, The Mill, by
Rembrandt, has offered the refusal of the picture,
which is still in his possession, to the trustees of the
National Gallery, and has promised a donation
of £5,000 towards the purchase of the picture
for the nation, and that the matter is now under
the consideration of the National Gallery Board;
whether the price Lord Lansdowne is asking for
his picture is £95,000; whether the picture was
bought for less than £1,000 by an ancestor of Lord
Lansdowne; and whether, before consenting to
subscribe any money from national funds towards
the purchase of the picture, he will give the House
an opportunity of discussing the proposal?
Hobhouse responded confirming all the figures cited by
Kellaway, and pacified Kellaway’s concerns by stating that
there was, in fact, no intention to purchase this picture:
Fig. 11 / Thomas
Gainsborough, Elizabeth
and Thomas Linley, ca.
1768, oil on canvas, 69.8
x 62.3 cm, Williamstown,
The Clark.
Other newspapers and art journals published many
articles about The Mill, although this sale was given
considerably less column space than that of Rokeby Venus
or the Christina of Denmark. Several voices lamented the
loss for British heritage that the export of The Mill would
bring. It is worth noting, however, some inconsistencies
in the press’s approach. In March 1911, in parallel
with the sale of The Mill, Lord Sackville sold, from his
collection at Knole House, a portrait of two children,
Elizabeth and Thomas Linley by Thomas Gainsborough
(now Williamstown, The Clark) for £40,000, and the
picture soon left for the United States (fig. 11).38 Likewise,
in August 1911, two portraits, Thomas Gainsborough’s
Frances Duncombe and George Romney’s Lady Charlotte
Milnes (both New York, Frick Collection), sold to Henry
Clay Frick via Duveen, reportedly for a total of $500,000
(about £100,000 for both).39 Similarly, in October
1911, another important Gainsborough, Anne Ford, ‘Mrs
Thicknesse’, was imported by dealers Scott & Fowles to
New York (now Cincinnati Art Museum).40 None of
these pictures, despite being executed by British artists,
and thus arguably more significant to British heritage
than The Mill, was ever mourned as “lost” in the press.
The funds at the disposal of the trustees are not
sufficient to enable them to acquire the picture,
and an appeal to the public for subscriptions in aid
of purchase could not, in their opinion, properly be
made by them. I do not think it would be desirable,
in the event of a subscription being raised by other
means for the purchase of the picture, to fetter the
discretion of Government by giving the pledge
requested in the last sentence of the question.
The news of the sale of The Mill reached Parliament, and
on 9 March the question of its purchase was raised in the
House of Commons.41 There was, however, no support
for the purchase of this picture. Lansdowne did not want
Hobhouse’s final comment against the purchase of
the painting was received among cries of “hear hear”,
and the matter was not discussed any further in the
Commons.43
145
Due to the lack of support from the National ArtsCollection Fund, the trustees were unable to announce
a public appeal. Instead, they released an official
communication to the press on 14 March, only two
weeks before Lansdowne’s ultimatum, asking for money
in an oblique way.44 But time was slipping away, and
without the Fund’s assistance, it was difficult to coordinate and promote any fundraising efforts, also
because of the limited support from the press. As art
writer Frank Rinder complained, “several of the most
influential papers have been silently indifferent”.45 A
remarkably silent publication was The Morning Post, which
had greatly supported the Rokeby Venus acquisition. The
harsh social conditions at the time were also contributing
to this decision, as the writer Edward Harold Physick
stated, “while we have slums, disease, dirt, cancer and all
kinds of misery in London the expenditure of £100,000
on a single picture would be disgraceful”.46 Ultimately,
on the final day to collect funds, the National Gallery
had only gathered £17,233, and Sulley acquired The Mill
from Lansdowne for Widener.47
The sale of The Mill was characterized by hostility,
rigidity, and intransigence, and was the result of a
tense, divisive, and contentious period in British politics.
Lansdowne’s steely determination not to facilitate a
sale to the Gallery was based on matters of control
at a moment when both his political and financial
privileges were threatened. It is perhaps not entirely
speculative to argue that Lansdowne’s decision not to
negotiate, with either Agnew or Wallis, was caused by
a desire to impose his own will in the management of
his property, an area where he could still exert absolute
power. Perhaps Lansdowne’s decision was also affected
by the need to make a strong political point against
the consequences of increased taxation combined with
unregulated free trade. As an added difficulty, maybe
Lansdowne simply could not bear to do business with
a syndicate of art dealers, a group of tradesmen who
would be, de facto, purchasing for the nation. Whatever
his motivation, it was Lansdowne who put a stop to the
negotiations aimed at finding an alternative solution
and it was through his doing that The Mill was sold to
Widener. The loss for London’s National Gallery was to
become America’s gain.

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