The National Gallery: A Short History
by Charles Saumarez Smith
Frances Lincoln 2009 £14.99 isbn 978 0711230439
Revenge may be a dish best eaten cold, but the dust had hardly settled on Charles Saumarez Smith’s controversial departure from the directorship of the National Gallery than this elegant Parthian shot appeared. The National Gallery did its best to prevent the book’s appearance, fortunately without success, and readers will delight in the suavity and poise of this beautifully judged account. Dr Smith fingers the often poisonous trustees who have interfered with the running of the institution throughout its history. The snobbery and obstructiveness of Alfred de Rothschild especially (Manet’s paintings were ‘unnecessary rubbish’) prevented Charles Holroyd from a perceptive and inspired attempt at buying modern French paintings as early as 1906. The episode and many others offer a nightmare insight into the ways in which trustees could make a director’s job impossible. This is a situation that Dr Smith understands at first-hand, in his case, through having to put up with his chairman, someone called Peter Scott. Not that you will find Dr Smith saying such things: the reader is left to infer as much from the author’s ingenious prose. Dr Smith does not spare the shortcomings of some of his predecessors, although these, such as they were, were usually failings of timidity or dullness. Given the slightly unpleasant side, inevitably so, to much of the story, the history is perhaps mercifully brief, but it is none the less both authoritative and, best of all, delightful to read.