Marc O’Sullivan

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Securing a national treasure

Raymond Keaveney’s stewardship of the National Gallery of Ireland has guaranteed its future, says Arts Editor, Marc O’Sullivan

RAYMOND Keaveney steps down this week as director of the National Gallery of Ireland. Keaveney joined the gallery as curator in 1979. He was appointed assistant director in 1981 and director in 1988. Conditions at the gallery were, he says, “third world” until he began refurbishing the Beit wing. Later, he oversaw the construction of the Millennium wing, which opens onto Clare St, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. The development faced planning difficulties, and its budget ran into tens of millions of euro, but it was completed by 2002. Keaveney has since been engaged in the gallery’s master development programme, which will involve the restoration of the Dargan and Milltown wings and the construction of a new extension. The development, which has a budget of €30m, will be taken up by his successor, Sean Rainbird.

Preserving and extending the National Gallery has been one aspect of Keaveney’s directorship. Conserving the works in its collection has been another. He has also extended the collection by over 2,000 works, and he is particularly proud of the gallery’s international touring exhibitions, the most recent of which was Gabriel Metsu: Rediscovered Master of the Dutch Golden Age, which went to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the National Gallery of Art, in Washington in 2011.

Being director has had its frustrations, however, not least of which is the salary. This was generous enough when the gallery was founded — it opened in 1864 — and would be still, he says, were it not for Hugh Lane, whose career as director was cut short by his death on the Lusitania. “Lane was the one who broke the protocol,” says Keaveney. “He wanted to go on running his business as an art dealer in London. The board of the National Gallery agreed to let him if he would accept a reduced salary. The cut was great for the institution, but not for every director who came after him; we’ve never got the salary back up again.”

The irony was that Lane was one of the gallery’s greatest benefactors. The story of the Lane Bequest is well-known. Following his death in 1915, there was a lengthy dispute between the National Gallery in Britain and the Municipal Gallery in Dublin over the ownership of 17 of his modern paintings. These now alternate between Dublin City Gallery: The Hugh Lane and the National Gallery in London.

But Lane also left 60 old masters to the National Gallery. These were also the subject of a dispute, this time between the gallery board and Lane’s successor as director, Robert Langton Douglas. “The big problem was that these pictures were given with the intention that they be sold, and the money used to buy superior work,” says Keaveney. “Langton Douglas supported this. For him, it was like the Shaw bequest [George Bernard Shaw left one third of his royalties to the gallery], it was money to work with. But the board was of the view, ‘no, we think these paintings are good enough for the collection.’ It went to court, and the court found that the board did have the right to manage the bequest as it saw fit. They could sell the work but were not required to do so.”

The one piece they should perhaps have sold was A Woman in a White Fichu, a work Lane believed to be by Francisco Goya, but which is now widely believed to have been painted by a follower.

In 2010, the National Gallery mounted an exhibition of over 100 works it had acquired over the previous decade. It included its first painting by Vincent Van Gogh, Rooftops in Paris. Impressive as these works were, they were outshone by The Taking of Christ, a lost masterpiece by the Italian Michelangelo Marisi Caravaggio, which the gallery’s chief conservator, Sergio Benedetti, discovered in the Jesuits’ house of studies on Leeson St in the early 1990s.

“What was wonderful about that is how professionally it was handled,” says Keaveney. “When Sergio first said, ‘I think this is a Caravaggio’, I suggested we shouldn’t announce it until we were sure. We kept its discovery a secret for three years to establish the credentials. The challenge was to authenticate it. Sergio did it on borrowed time, a few days here, a week there, over those three years.

“The story broke in Rome; a journalist there picked up on it. Once it was established that the work was a Caravaggio, people wanted to know where we had found it, of course. But we had agreed confidentiality. The media kept throwing names at us, and as long as they were wrong we could deny it. But then someone said, ‘we understand it may be the Jesuit house of studies’. We don’t like to tell lies, so I contacted Fr Barrett there and he agreed that we could announce they owned the work.”

The Taking of Christ was commissioned by the Italian nobleman Ciriaco Mattei and completed in 1692. It remained in the Mattei family until 1802, when they sold it to the Scotsman William Hamilton Nesbit; both parties believed the work to be a copy by the Dutch artist, Gerard van Honthurst. An Irish paediatrician, Marie Lea-Wilson, acquired the work in the late 1920s and donated it to the Jesuit Fathers in Dublin a few years later. It hung in their dining-room for years, until Benedetti began to suspect its technical brilliance might make it an original Caravaggio. The Taking of Christ is now on indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland.

Keaveney cites the donation of 17 old masters by Alfred and Clementine Beit in the 1980s as an example of how the gallery fosters relationships with its patrons. Three of his predecessors were involved. “It was Thomas McGreevy who established that relationship, James White who nurtured it, and Homan Potterton who signed the documents. But the key works didn’t come in till I was here. It doesn’t happen overnight, it takes generations to establish that kind of trust.”

Funding the gallery is always difficult, but Keaveney says governments have been supportive, when they can. “There was a wonderful sense of excitement in the Noughties, that we could now realise our ambitions. Culture was seen as important. In 2007, €45m was earmarked for the next round of development, but with the change in the economy that money evaporated. We’ve been working since to raise it privately.”

One proposal Keaveney has little time for is that the gallery be amalgamated with Dublin City Gallery: The Hugh Lane and the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. “That’s been round the block a few times. But I’m sceptical. Let me put it this way. There are many businesses out there that have been amalgamated with the same intention. It seems like a very simple method of management — they’ll be streamlined, there’ll be new synergies — but they’ve turned out to be disastrous. The National Gallery has an identity, a personality. It attracts 800,000 visitors a year. When the master development programme is completed, that should rise to a million. This is not just a national gallery, but an international one. We’ve been talking here about the past, but what’s exciting about this place is the future.”

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