One of Rembrandt’s greatest paintings is to be lent by a stately home in north London to a UK commercial gallery in a partnership first for the charity English Heritage, which will see the borrower fund the restoration of the portrait’s 18th-century frame.
“Self-Portrait with Two Circles”, painted by the Dutch master towards the end of his life in around 1665, is the prize exhibit at Kenwood House run by English Heritage, which looks after historic sites such as Stonehenge and parts of Hadrian’s Wall.
The painting will be the highlight of a show of self-portraits at Gagosian’s Grosvenor Hill gallery in London’s Mayfair district. The gallery has assembled a line-up of pictures, including works by Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Georg Baselitz, Pablo Picasso, Howard Hodgkin and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Jenny Saville, who last year became the most expensive living female artist at auction when an early self-portrait sold for £9.5m at Sotheby’s, will produce a work directly in response to the Rembrandt. It will be one of three new self-portraits for sale in the show, alongside commissions from American artist Richard Prince and German painter Albert Oehlen.
For English Heritage, the partnership offers a new model to promote its historic sites and exhibitions, with Gagosian helping to boost public awareness of Kenwood’s treasures as well as promoting a Kenwood show in the autumn to mark the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death. The repair of the picture’s frame is expected to cost about £30,000.
Anna Eavis, curatorial director at English Heritage, said: “This sort of partnership, the first of the kind we’ve done, shines a light on the collection. It’s a way of reminding people of this great asset we have and I hope will lead to other things which will enable us to take care of Kenwood in the long term.”
English Heritage was converted from a government agency into a charity in 2015, when the newly created Historic England took over its statutory responsibilities. Its taxpayer subsidy, which in 2018-19 is £13.5m, will taper away entirely by 2023, and it said it was “on target” to replace this funding through higher visitor numbers and subscriptions to its membership scheme.
The show, “Visions of the Self: Rembrandt and Now”, will run at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill from April 12 to May 18 and entry will be free. Richard Calvocoressi, director and senior curator at Gagosian London, said: “We’re in central London and we get a large number of visitors. When the Rembrandt goes back to Kenwood after the exhibition for its celebratory show it will be higher in the public consciousness, one hopes, because of it having been here.”
Yet the presence of works for sale raises questions about the blurring of boundaries between the public and commercial worlds. Bendor Grosvenor, an art historian and former dealer, said non-selling exhibitions previously organised by major commercial galleries were a good way of encouraging public interest in art. But he was concerned that the inclusion of a small number of works for sale was “the thin end of the wedge”.
“It’s always been extremely important to have the distinction that it’s not a selling event and that it’s about getting people to look at a certain area of art. I think if institutions are lending works to exhibitions where things are for sale, that’s different.”
Asked about the motives of commercial galleries in putting on public exhibitions of works, Mr Calvocoressi said: “Of course there’s a strong commercial imperative but there’s a wider philanthropic and a scholarly side to it all.”
Get alerts on UK arts when a new story is published