Sandro Botticelli’s ‘The Annunciation’ (c1490-1495)
Sandro Botticelli’s ‘The Annunciation’ (c1490-1495)

A century ago, Glasgow was not only the British empire’s second city but the fourth-richest in Europe. It had an art collection to match, spanning Botticelli to Whistler, assembled by spectacular gifts from industrialist philanthropists. These shipbuilders, engineers, and manufacturers gave for mixed reasons: status, civic pride, the Victorian belief, as coachbuilder Archibald McLellan said, that art “is conducive to the elevation and refinement of all classes, as well as intimately connected with the mercantile prosperity of this community”.

Wealth has long fled Glasgow but the art is still there: the finest civic collection in the UK, yet obscure outside Scotland. Now, just launched at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, and continuing to New York, California, Oklahoma, highlights of the Italian collection go on tour, freshly cleaned works unseen for generations as well as acclaimed masterpieces.

“Adoration of the Magi”, by an anonymous Neapolitan artist known as the Master of the Glasgow Adoration, emerges from a thick screen of darkened varnish to reveal precisely characterised kings, one weary-elderly, one worldly-middle-aged, one a youthful dreamer, adorned with gleaming raised gesso brocades, crowns, necklaces, gifts.

Bartolomeo Veneto’s ‘St Catherine’ (c1520)
Bartolomeo Veneto’s ‘St Catherine’ (c1520)

With Christ resembling a hero of classical antiquity and frantically gesticulating figures crammed into a long, frieze-like panel, an early Signorelli, “Lamentation over the Dead Christ”, marks the start of the Tuscan artist’s powerfully sculptural style which would influence Michelangelo.

A magnificently bold Titian, “Christ and the Adulteress”, acquired by McLellan as a Giorgione, predates the Titians in London’s National Gallery: painted when the artist was 20, it has an affecting awkwardness and odd positioning of figures in space, but surges with energy and lush surface textures – an arresting drama of terror and compassion.

Bellini, Botticelli, Titian – 500 Years of Italian Art distils two stories. The art-historical one, relating the development of Renaissance and baroque painting from the trecento to the cinquecento, seicento and beyond, is the standard museum one but is lively and assured in its retelling through the few dozen outstanding works here. Less familiar, and riveting, is the socioeconomic undercurrent: how shifting taste, changing attributions, evolving patterns of patronage, determine a successful collection.

When McLellan bequeathed his art to Glasgow in 1854, the city was embarrassed: the coachbuilder had over-reached himself in real estate and left debts and a gallery only half-built. But praise for McLellan’s scope and taste – he aimed at a chronological overview, concentrating on monumental religious and mythological subjects rather than domestic-scaled portraits or genre scenes – came from distinguished visiting experts.

McLellan’s pictures formed the nucleus of Glasgow’s collection, which sometimes turned out to be ahead of the National Gallery: McLellan bought a Botticelli, the elegantly linear “Annunciation”, with its schematised architecture enlivened by golden rays marking the miraculous passage of the Holy Spirit, before London did. “Annunciation” cost £4 12s; around the same time McLellan acquired a “Virgin and Child” whose Venetian intensity of reds and blues, and dynamic poses assured an attribution to Titian – it is now exhibited as the work of his pupil Paris Bordon – for £250. The relative values belong to Victorian England before Ruskin’s moralising transformed appreciation of the quattrocento.

Many highlights among McLellan’s pictures are gloriously pre-Ruskin in taste. McLellan loved the grace and narrative fluency of the late 16th and early 17th centuries: Cavaliere d’Arpino’s elaborate pyramid of avenging deity and tumbling male nudes in “Archangel Michael and the Rebel Angels”; Antiveduto Gramatica’s “Virgin and Child with St Anne”, whose realistic figures against a deeply shadowed background refer to Caravaggio’s innovations – Gramatica was Caravaggio’s teacher before adapting his own style to imitate his pupil.

The Scottish collector profited too from the baroque works flooding the British art market after the French Revolution and Napoleon’s suppression of religious institutions in Italy. From the Duc d’Orléans’ collection he acquired, in the 1830s, his important Domenichino, detested by Ruskin: “Landscape with St Jerome” – a tiny figure, occupied in translating the Bible under the watch of his tame lioness, in the sort of idealised, serene setting that became a model for Poussin and Claude.

By 1877, when Glasgow received its second major bequest, from Mrs John Graham Gilbert, Ruskin was in the ascendancy and the key works were quattrocento – notably Giovanni Bellini’s great sculptural “The Virgin and Child”, light and shade carefully modelled, subtle tonal transitions achieved by the pioneering use of oil as well as tempera. “Giovanni Bellini knows the earth well, paints it to the full, and to the smallest fig leaf and falling flower …glittering robe and golden hair; to each he will give its lustre and loveliness, and then, so far as with poor human lips he may declare it, he proclaims, ‘that heaven is bright,’” Ruskin wrote in Modern Painters in 1857. “Then Raphael, Michelangelo and Titian, together, bring about the deadly change” – a move, in Ruskin’s eyes, towards a decadence that was a metaphor for a Victorian Britain being rapidly industrialising by the very entrepreneurs who built up this collection.

Layer after layer of this show tells how each age re-evaluates tradition in its own image. Initially considered inferior to the crystalline views of Canaletto, for example, Francesco Guardi’s fractured light effects and moist atmosphere, dissolving the solid shapes of buildings to merge them with water and sky as in the superb “View of San Giorgio Maggiore” here, won new appreciation many decades after his death as impressionism developed.

And not by chance, the earliest painting in the exhibition, Niccolò di Buonaccorso’s stunning Siennese tempera panel “St Lawrence” (1370), is also the latest acquisition – donated by Glasgow jeweller Julius Lewis Lyons in 1980. Ornamental and delicate, it is the perfect jeweller’s painting: the martyred saint in red gown glows – almost seeming to burn (by legend, Lawrence was roasted alive) – against a finely wrought surface abundant in gold leaf. McLellan and his contemporaries would have thought it crude, worthless; by contrast 20th-century audiences came to love Siennese primitivism – a dialect of Byzantium – through familiarity with modernism’s flatness and acknowledged artifice.

What a terrific collection – enriched by the prisms of history it reflects, and a vivid sense that responses to art never stand still.

‘Bellini, Botticelli, Titian – 500 Years of Italian Art’, Compton Verney, Warwickshire, to June 23, then on tour in North America from August 2013 to May 2015

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