Van Dyck’s portraits of Charles II as Prince of Wales and Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, part of the Portland collection. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters
by Hannah Ellis-Petersen, The Guardian, March 07, 2016
One of Britain’s largest aristocratic art collections, the Portland collection, is to open to the public for the first time, exhibiting rare masterpieces by Michelangelo, Van Dyck, and even the earring worn by Charles I at his execution in 1649.
Michelangelo’s chalk sketch, Madonna del Silenzio – which has only been on display once before, in 1960 – as well as five rarely seen Van Dyck paintings, will be on permanent public show in a new purpose-built gallery attached to the older Harley Gallery nestled on the 15,000-acre Welbeck estate in Nottinghamshire.
From the 17th century onwards, Britain’s country houses became home to world-class collections of art and priceless artefacts, as well-travelled aristocrats became art connoisseurs as they made grand tours of Europe.
The Portland collection was begun in the early 1600s by William Cavendish – the first Duke of Newcastle, who was tutor to Charles I – and was added to with purchases and commissions by generations of dukes, duchesses and earls from the Cavendish-Bentinck family up until the 1900s.
From 20 March, the extensive art collection, which to date has simply adorned the walls of the family stately home, is to be opened up in its entirety to the public for the first time.
William Parente, grandson of the seventh Duke of Portland, said his family had taken a decision 15 years ago that this priceless art should no longer be locked away.
“We’d been very private for 50 years and we wanted to open things up. We knew there was this fantastic collection, I’d grown up with it, and we all felt a bit uncomfortable that we were the only ones who saw it,” said Parente.
He said it had been “crucial” that the artwork, of the sort rarely seen outside large London galleries, remained in the local area. By making the public gallery – funded by an endowment from the family – a permanent home for priceless works such as the Michelangelo sketch and five Van Dyck paintings, Parente said he hoped this small corner of Nottingham could grow into a cultural hub.
“Keeping the art in Nottinghamshire was the most important part of this project for us,” he said. “This was once a rich mining area that suffered terribly from the closing of the pits, and still hasn’t recovered. We’ve had the thick end of 30 years of misery, so we were desperate to contribute in any way we could to get things moving and we were keen to use the art as part of this.”
The collection totals 5,000 pieces and the exhibit will be rotated every three years so all the splendours of the Portland collection are put on show, although the Van Dycks and Michelangelo will stay put. Entry to the gallery is free. Parente said at a time when many museums and galleries in the north were facing the threat of further cuts and closures, with artworks being shifted from northern institutions to London in moves being described as “cultural pillage”, he said smaller private institutions had an increasingly crucial role to play.
“Great art should be spread out around the country, it should not just be sitting in London galleries, but I think it is a shame that it has to be private money that makes this happen these days. It is an example of how there should be better cooperation between private and public art in the UK,” he added.
Lisa Gee, the director of the Harley Gallery, who curated the Portland collection show, echoed Parente’s optimism that it could benefit the surrounding area.
“Here we are in the ex-coalfields of north Nottinghamshire, which is an area people traditionally leave rather than visit, so to have artworks of this calibre here is incredibly special,” she said. “We hope it will keep draw people who might not be your traditional ‘culture vultures’ but might live locally and don’t want to have to travel to London to see some art and be taken out of their daily lives.”
She added: “Tragically, because arts funding is hitting museums and galleries in the north very hard, many are going to close or charge for entry. It means independent galleries and philanthropic projects like this have a lot to offer.”
Having got used to the great masters as simply the backdrop to domestic life at the manor, Parente said viewing them in a gallery for the first time had given him a new perspective on the works. Pointing to the collection’s 1636 Van Dyck masterpiece, a portrait of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, he laughed.
“Now I see what an untrustworthy bastard he looks in that painting,” he said. “I’d never noticed that shifty glint in his eye before.”
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Hannah Ellis-Petersen from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.