Enshrined in their grandiose art-temples, great national and civic art collections give the impression of permanence. They look as if they have existed, if not for ever, then since time immemorial. There is something reassuring about this impression, especially as regards its confident view towards the future, but it is also in every case misleading. All great public collections owe their existence to acts of concupiscence, of imagination and long-term generosity. They are dedicated, magnificently, to the many, but they would not exist without the shrewdness, love and dedication of the few.

This fact was bought home to me when I went to see one of the year’s least flashy exhibitions, housed in a single, slightly dowdy room near the entrance of the National Gallery in London and featuring the first 12 paintings bought for the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham. Described as “the last great art collection of the 20th century”, the Barber is essentially the creation of three individuals, working in collaboration with the university: the businessman and property developer Henry Barber, his wife, the amateur pianist Hattie Barber, and, most eccentric of the three, the Irish lawyer, curator, broadcaster, author and translator Thomas Bodkin.

The Barber is not the only collection in Britain which you could call the child of a couple who had lost or did not have a child (the same goes for the Wallace and the Bowes). Henry Barber made his fortune developing property on the outskirts of Birmingham; he and his artistic wife, the heiress of a bellowsmaking business, discussed the idea of establishing an institution for the arts at the University of Birmingham before he died in 1927; the Barber Institute was founded in 1932, and when Lady Barber died only four months later, she left her entire fortune to the trustees of the Institute. It was to be used to fund a new building combining museum, concert hall and university lecture halls and offices (which turned out to be the masterpiece of the art deco architect Robert Atkinson), to develop the collection and to endow a programme of public concerts.

The trustees showed genius in appointing as the first director Thomas Bodkin, a maverick who in later life made wayward purchases which his successor described as “acts of Bod” but who showed exemplary shrewdness in his early acquisitions. Bodkin happened to be the nephew and protégé of Hugh Lane, the celebrated Irish collector and founder of the world’s first modern art gallery, the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin. Lane was one of the central figures of the early 20th-century Irish cultural renaissance, the nephew of Augusta, Lady Gregory and the addressee of WB Yeats’s splendidly contemptuous poemTo a Wealthy Man who promised a Second Subscription to the Dublin Municipal Gallery if it were proved the People wanted Pictures.

Yeats counsels his friend Lane to pay no attention to public opinion or public demand, but to model himself on great and arrogant Renaissance princes such as Guidobaldo of Urbino, who went ahead and built his ideal city without sending “runners to and fro/ That he might learn the shepherds’ will”. The point was to give, “not what they would/ But the right twigs for an eagle’s nest.” Lane, however, wanted the Dublin authorities to finance the gallery building in which his generous bequest would be housed; his anger with their prevarications led him to leave his best paintings to the National Gallery in London. For decades the Lane bequest was a subject of dispute, though most of the paintings, partly as a result of a campaign supported by Bodkin, are now permanently housed in Dublin.

Perhaps Bodkin learnt a lesson from Lane. In any case, the Barber bequest was an act of private largesse which did not depend on public funds, but which embedded an art collection within a major academic institution. The marriage has proved a happy and fruitful one.

None of this would mean anything if it were not for the quality of the artworks, in particular the founding acquisitions made by Bodkin. The little exhibition at the National Gallery fits Slow Lane’s anti-blockbuster criteria perfectly: a dozen paintings of arresting quality and variety which can be taken in without risk of indigestion.

Here are Simone Martini, Cima da Conegliano, Tintoretto, Hals, Poussin, Monet, Manet: all strikingly interesting works which you might overlook in larger spaces but which repay quiet, concentrated attention. The early Hals portrait, Young Man Holding a Skull, is unusually sombre for the ebullient Haarlem painter; Hals more in Hamletian than Falstaffian mode. The large but unfinished Manet portrait of his friend Carolus-Duran is big, bold, sketchy, almost modernist. The most beautiful of all the paintings, for me, is Poussin’s second version of Tancred and Erminia; less passionate than the version in the Hermitage, but marvellous in the way it holds so many elements in balance.



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