When Britain divides, custody of its art must be shared fairly

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Hogarth would have had a field day with our Brexit chaos © The Trustees of Sir John Soanes Museum

Art historians have the best adjective to describe the latest Brexit chaos: Hogarthian. What fun Hogarth would have had portraying our new blustering, blundering, Cummings-operated jester of a prime minister. After all, great art requires great subjects, and Boris Johnson will go down in history as one the greatest disasters of all time. But while Brexit may one day provide rich material for British artists, it also (at least, in the manner in which it is currently being handled) presents a threat to British art, and of course to Britain itself. Coverage elsewhere in The Art Newspaper has examined how a chaotic Brexit might impact areas like arts funding and the British art market. For me, living in Scotland, the question is more existential: will there any longer be a Britain at all?

This is not the place to discuss the case for Scottish independence. But Im in little doubt it is now inevitable. What, then, happens to Britains national art collection? Who gets what? In 2014, during the last independence referendum, the Scottish government claimed a share of £1.3trn of UK public assets in line with Scotlands population; 8.4%. But no art was included in the calculation. Does this assume an independent Scotland must be happy with the art that happens to be physically in Scotland at the time of independence? Should a claim be made to a greater share of the UKs national collection? Or should the rest of the UK even ask for various pictures back?

Scotland may not have many Turners, but it has a surfeit of Raeburns

The first question is, does Scotland already have a fair share of the UKs public art collection? In overall numbers, Scotland does well; of the 213,850 oil paintings listed on the ArtUK website, 27,124 are in Scotland, a share of 12.6%. But when we begin to assess the quality of that art—subjective, I know—things look different. Take a range of well-known Old Master artists from the National Gallery in London and the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh respectively. The National Gallery in London owns 20 Rembrandts, but Edinburgh only one; for Raphael the score is 11-0; Poussin 13-1; Claude 13-1; Canaletto 18-1; Rubens 29-5; Botticelli 10-1; Bellini 10-0. In a very few cases, Edinburgh does better (three El Grecos to Londons two). But the evident disparity reflects a decades-long bias towards London in all areas of central government policy (the view of our national collection is even bleaker from Belfast, Cardiff and the English regions).

When significant works have been acquired “for the nation”—with public funds—the assumption has always been that they should hang in London. Two Diana paintings by Titian secured from the Sutherland collection in 2012 for £95m, and now jointly owned by both the National Gallery and National Galleries Scotland, are rare exceptions. Only the Arts Councils Acceptance in Lieu scheme has a track record of fairly distributing art across theRead More – Source