Wellington & The National Portrait Gallery

Recently the National Portrait Gallery in London acquired a portrait of Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington- An unfinished one by Thomas Lawrence. Wellington is one of the greats of British History, a figure that everybody should know on sight- The victor at Waterloo, one of the most successful generals ever to lead British Army, he even had the cheek to sleep with half of Napoleon’s family at one stage. After all that he went into politics, serving  as Prime Minister- One of only two to be born in Ireland and another of only two to have been a general (in both cases he shares the distinction with Lord Shelburne.) He’s the only person in history to have held every rank of the British peerage, beginning as a commoner and dying a Duke. As an octogenarian in the House Of Lords he famously kept shouting ‘Who? Who?’ during a readout of people in the cabinet- I imagine that whilst this was funny the first time most people probably wanted to seriously shut him up by the end. A man who did so much as Wellington, and was at the helm for the most important event of the nineteenth century of course deserves pride of place in the National Portrait Gallery.

According to gallery director Nicholas Cullinan they’ve been trying to get hold of a portrait of Wellington since the gallery was founded in 1856, implying that until now they didn’t have one. THIS IS NOT TRUE. According to their catalogue they have several of them, varying in quality and not so good as the one they have acquired, yes, but still several.  They even held an exhibition on Wellington to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of Waterloo in 2015, which included most of the portraits in the catalogue as well as the one they have just acquired. They also have one on permanent display in room 17 of the gallery.

The words of Cullinan were thus: ‘We have been looking for a suitable depiction of the Duke of Wellington since our founding in 1856…’ This, as even a quick look at the gallery collections show, is absolute nonsense. They’ve had more than one Wellington in the collection and they’ve had one of those on display, in full public view. This quote, to me, comes across as ‘We have absolutely no Wellington… Now we do.’ It has been interpreted as such by major news outlets such as The Guardian, who opened their article with the words: ‘It has taken an extremely long time – 161 years – but the National Portrait Gallery finally has the Duke of Wellington in its collection after a fundraising campaign reached its £1.3m target.’

The Portrait (NPG/PA, through The Guardian)

This isn’t the first time it has been implied that the National Portrait Gallery have had no Wellington. Back in November when a fundraising campaign to buy the Lawrence painting was launched Cullinan again said a similar thing, being quoted as saying ‘this has long been identified as a crucial omission in our collection.’ This, in even stronger terms than the more recent quote, suggests that the National Portrait Gallery has had no Wellington, not even one they’ve actually had hanging on the wall.

One quote of such a nature can be overlooked as a bad choice of wording. With two we enter more serious territory. It begins to look either like a conspiracy (suggesting there is no painting so as to raise funds for this new painting by appealing to people’s sense of travesty. IE: ‘The NPG has no Wellington? Well this is an outrage that must be remedied.’) or it looks like absolute stupidity on behalf of Cullinan- That he doesn’t even know what he’s got hanging on his gallery walls or in his basement. It could still be bad choice of wording- What he might have meant was that they don’t have a painting of this calibre, and certainly I would agree that until now they haven’t- But then why would Cullinan add that the lack was ‘a crucial omission?’ That doesn’t, to me, make a whole lot of sense if this were merely bad wording. Crucial omission implies that something is totally missing, not that there is an inferior version hanging around.

Here’s something else though. An art gallery usually displays ‘the best’ art, art of a supposed high quality. It is about showing off the painting, not the sitter or the subject. This is not the case with the NPG. The NPG is all about the sitter, the person at the heart, regardless of quality. It is about displaying pictures of the great, the good and the significant of British history and society. So the fact that this Wellington is a better calibre than any they have should not matter. For the NPG quality should be a moot point. Wellington is who is important, not the painting. So if this painting has been acquired because it is better than the other Wellington’s in the collection, does that not go against the remit of the NPG in some way?

It is a good thing that this painting has been saved for the nation- It is, although unfinished, a decent portrait and was one of the last two Wellington portraits in private ownership (which should have been the thrust of the news articles about this, not, as was the case, that it was filling a non-existent gap.) The fact of the matter is that the NPG already has several Wellington portraits, already fulfilling its remit as a place for portraits of significant figures, regardless of artistic merit. Would it not, therefore, have been a better use of public money if it were to be purchased by the National Gallery instead of the National Portrait Gallery, or even the Tate? I think, maybe, yes. It would have been.

All of the answers to these questions, alas, are not in my hands and in the grand machinations of the world a portrait of the Duke Of Wellington and whether some gallery director did or did not say what he meant hardly matters. But it is interesting to ponder what those answers might be.

(GUARDIAN ARTICLE on the acquisition)


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