Illustration of Nicholas Penny by James Ferguson

It is early Monday morning in one of the loveliest art deco brasseries in central London. Jazz is playing, pale winter light streams through big windows, the rush of people outside on Trafalgar Square is reflected in mirrors slanting above the bar. Yet I am the only visitor to the National Gallery café since it opened an hour ago.

At 9am, precise to the minute, the gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, strides in, greets each waiter and waitress, and joins me at a corner table. He is 64 but looks at least a decade younger: tall and gangly, with grey-black hair flopping over a broad forehead, eagle-sharp eyes, a decisive manner and an expression that combines donnish gravitas with boyish enthusiasm. His reputation, though, is for being ascetic and a workaholic – he has declined lunch – and I find myself apologising for his gallery’s lengthy, lavish breakfast menu.

“Oh I’ve been here for ages, I’d like something to eat,” Penny answers and he immediately orders poached eggs, bacon, cappuccino. I opt for smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and orange juice and, with a glance around the empty café, ask whether he is concerned about reaching a large public. “I never attend much to the importance of numbers,” he answers airily. “You only have to spend time in a gallery to realise how little most people look.”

In contrast to the forensic vigilance for painterly detail that has helped make Penny the leading art historian of his generation, this is undoubtedly true. His books range from vast, definitive catalogues of the gallery’s Italian paintings to a “Pocket Guide” to its frames, an inventory that he researched picture-by-picture over two years in the hours before the gallery opened each day. “I try to keep up my cataloguing,” he laments, “but only at weekends and in the evenings now. I’m working on the Ferrara and Bolognese schools, people like Lorenzo Costa and Francesco Francia – really unfashionable artists, not even noticed enough to be disliked.”

For the record, these painters are displayed in the National Gallery’s little-visited Room Six, and were influenced by the Umbrian Pietro Perugino, who taught Raphael. “There was a Perugino moment in Italian art which is terribly important in the 19th century,” Penny continues wistfully. “And you have lingering respect for it: it’s too obviously important to put these artists in the basement. But we are, I often think, looking after them for the time when they’ll make more impression. People underestimate the degree to which someone in my position should be thinking about posterity, ensuring that the pictures get there – which means not just their conservation but keeping alive some of the scholarly and critical interest which will be more significant in the future.”

Every director of a public museum must balance the long view with short-term demands; each takes a different approach. From an academic background, Penny joined the National Gallery as Clore curator of Renaissance painting in 1990, then missed out on the director’s job in 2002 and went, instead, to become senior curator of sculpture at Washington’s National Gallery before returning to take the helm in London in 2008. He follows Charles Saumarez Smith (2002-2007), who was primarily a builder, completing the East Wing project, and Neil MacGregor (1987-2002), the acclaimed populariser who raised the museum’s profile with BBC television series such as Making Masterpieces. Penny, by contrast, is foremost a scholar, and one who acknowledges – celebrates even – the inability of Old Master pictures to woo current taste.

“The National Gallery’s great advantage is that we are obliged to give prominence to works of art that are important in the collection but don’t mean much to people today,” he says cheerfully. Conceptual works by trendy names – notably installations by Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger alongside Titian in 2012 – have entered the National Gallery during Penny’s reign but more than any of the world’s leading museum directors, Penny’s vision of art history remains rooted in the Renaissance. “I don’t believe art up to the present should be taught at university,” he says. “Because of consumer demand, the explosion of teaching of contemporary art now is colossal – and it is achieved at the expense of older art. We at the National Gallery should do more to become a magnet for scholarship.”

He says that, returning from America to London in 2008, he noted the “tremendous changes” in the 21st-century British cultural landscape by which “the Renaissance – although Masaccio, Michelangelo, Van Eyck, Titian, Raphael, remain very famous – is no longer at the centre of the study of the history of art. The most accurate parallel is with the teaching of classics. Seventy years ago, the idea that anyone could consider themselves a judge of literature who hadn’t read Horace in the original would have been a joke. Then, suddenly, English literature became central.”

As a waitress brings a generous cup of coffee and glasses of frothy juice, Penny explains: “The massive popularity of contemporary art is much more a problem for Tate Modern than it is for the National Gallery, because it distorts the meaning of the modern art that preceded it. Self-consciously modern art of the first two-thirds of the 20th century was never meant to be popular, the whole notion of the avant-garde was that it wouldn’t be for the people. Great painting historically has always been for the minority but the idea of the avant-garde was that only a minority of the minority would like it.

“The curious phenomenon is that contemporary art is descended from the avant-garde but has taken something that was a radical, complex gesture and made it popular and simple, so it misrepresents [modernism’s] tradition. Have you noticed the symbolic way in museums that contemporary art is always interpolated in collections of Old Masters but no one dares to put it with modern art? It would never look cutting edge because it’s not doing anything very different.”

A traditionalist who is so defiant he is radical, Penny has, since his appointment, argued against crazes for expensive blockbusters (“it’s not a beauty competition”), contemporary art wings in museums (“deadly . . . the same white walls with the same loud, large, obvious, instantly recognisable products lined up on them”) and the trend for collections being sent on global tours – a hazardous “short-term fix”, he noted at the end of last year when advising against the possibility of Glasgow’s Burrell Collection travelling, in contravention of William Burrell’s will. “What is very often forgotten in discussions of this kind is the moral advantage and tangible [if not always immediate] benefit of a declared preference for honouring the wishes of the donor,” he commented. “Real concern for the future is always more persuasive in those who have a genuine feeling for the past.”

On the other hand, Penny is concerned about widening access: he has repeatedly warned that Britain risks becoming a divided nation on art. His response is to inaugurate this month a 2014-2016 “National Gallery Masterpiece Tour”, in which a single much-loved “indisputably great work” from Trafalgar Square’s collection visits regional galleries. Manet’s “The Execution of Maximilian” (c1867-68) – selected because “the whole story of the execution of Maximilian is such a good one, people can become gripped by something not purely artistic” – launches at Canterbury Museums and Galleries, then proceeds to Barnard Castle and Warwick during 2014; Canaletto’s “A Regatta on the Grand Canal” (1740) travels through 2015; a Rembrandt late “Self-portrait” in 2016. Penny hopes these will be “trailers, or tasters”, encouraging interest in the gallery’s broader offerings.

“What would upset me is if people with a real feeling for art felt it was difficult to get to the National Gallery,” he explains as our breakfast arrives. Penny ignores the food, hurrying on: “For people living outside London, a very worrying development is the relative cost of public transport. Without being an expert on economics, it’s become far more expensive to travel by rail from the great regional cities. And the ideal of taking the family to the capital to see the great museums and sights – that’s become a bit of an old-fashioned thing.”

As a child, Penny was taken to the National Gallery by his father, a barrister who “was interested in being interested in art, which I think is a very important thing. He was always keen to buy a postcard of whatever it was I liked.” In the prep school years, this was Botticelli; later, as a teenager at Shrewsbury School, “I explored the National Gallery by myself. I remember buying the unillustrated catalogues on the Italian paintings, which provided a fabulous amount of information for five bob.”

Penny read English at Cambridge, then studied at the Courtauld. At 30 he became Slade professor of fine art at Oxford. In 1984 he joined the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – “I hadn’t intended a museum career but other people thought of it for me” – and “found that the type of scholarship that most attracted me was museum cataloguing, because you are obliged to study a work of art for which you have no feeling. So you have to understand the work, why it was interesting to someone else, why regarded as important. If you are all alone with a piece of ormolu, you are forced to extend your horizons [beyond] fashionable directions”.

“I’m very interested in the history of taste,” he says. “Taste has a momentum which we can’t really understand, partly because we don’t know what our own taste is. If you merely think of what people wear: even people who make an effort not to wear the most fashionable thing, if you look at photographs 20 years later, they are wearing the fashions of the time. We are not fully aware of this. Taste is wonderfully unpredictable.”

Penny himself is a smart, rather timeless dresser: sharply cut tweed jacket, fawn tie, blue shirt. What does date him is his vintage Nokia phone – the first model the company made – bleeping plaintively as its battery runs down. Penny turns to his plate of eggs, bacon and toast. In a few forkfuls, he finishes the lot.

Around us, the café slowly fills up, mostly with a middle-aged crowd. “I used to say we provided excitement for the young and solace for the old but then an elderly visitor wrote indignantly to say he got excited too,” Penny remarks. “There is an underlying fear in museums that if enough young people don’t go, it will be dead in the future. But it’s not true. Young people go to see contemporary art, then they have children, take them to see old paintings and develop a taste for it themselves.”

“There’s been a pretty steady decline in knowledge of the subjects.” he adds, “even educated Roman Catholics are ignorant of the lives of saints and won’t be able to tell you what the immaculate conception was, which is quite an important mystery. But ignorance can be an advantage: when works of art have the fascination of the alien, they can thereby achieve a new power.”

The National Gallery’s annual visitor figures – at 5.4m for 2012-13 – hold up well with Tate Modern’s (5.5m). When it comes to paying temporary exhibitions, though, even the greatest Old Master names cannot compete with contemporary art: set against 463,000 visitors for Tate’s Damien Hirst and nearly 700,000 for the Royal Academy’s David Hockney (both 2012), the National Gallery’s landmark Raphael show (2004-5) had 231,000 visitors, Canaletto (2010-11) had 123,000, while the lesser-known Renaissance artist Barocci (2013) achieved just 39,000.

This is not a game Penny will play. “If you said to someone 20 years ago that you were going to the National Gallery this weekend, they would have assumed you meant you were going to see the permanent collection,” he says. “Today, it will elicit the question, ‘What’s on?’ How to keep the balance between the permanent collection and temporary exhibitions is one of the two most worrying things for the future of museums.”

The other is the involvement of museums in showing and buying contemporary art. In the past, Penny says, “contemporary art was never assessed in museums. It’s not part of the job of a museum. But today museums are essential to that process. One question is how well they’ll ever do it. There are too many interests not easily acknowledged. And there’s an absence of critical discrimination and debate about contemporary art in museums, and very few places where you can read well-informed criticism of contemporary products – much less than there was a hundred years ago.”

At this point, an announcement shrieks over the museum’s loudspeaker preparing us for a fire drill, but Penny is not to be drowned out. He makes an analogy between contemporary poetry and painting. “It’s absolutely natural that young people respond to contemporary painting and poetry, but when you pick up an anthology of contemporary poetry it is completely unreadable. No one actually seriously believes that there are a thousand great poets working today – there could be no historical justification for such a belief.”

Similarly, of course, we all know that there can be no historical justification either to accept that there are thousands of great contemporary artists working today; despite market hype and museum endorsements, most contemporary art will ultimately be as forgettable as the majority of contemporary poets. Yet, Penny says, “investment in it in every sense, including museum purchases, is bound by the assumption that contemporary art is in a completely different category [from contemporary poetry]. This for me is astounding.”

The fire bell becomes an insistent screech, heralding the opening to the public of the National Gallery in a few minutes. The Renaissance calls, and as Penny rises to return to his desk, I pay the bill. “It seems to me that I galloped over a great many topics at great speed,” he apologises. It seems to me that his voice, sounding loud above the sirens of contemporary fashion, is clear, original and important.

The National Gallery Masterpiece Tour begins at Canterbury Museums on January 17


The National Café at the National Gallery

Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN

Cappuccino £3.00

Freshly squeezed orange juice x2 £7.00

Eggs and bacon £5.50

Salmon and eggs £6.50

Total (incl service) £24.75

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