Must London always win? National Gallery of Scotland cancels Titian show for all the wrong reasons

Titian's Perseus and Andromeda (around 1554-56) © The Wallace Collection, London / Photo: The National Gallery, London

Of all the art exhibitions forced to close by the pandemic, only a few provoked any significant outpouring of anguish from art lovers.Titian: Love, Desire, Death—closed after only three days at the National Gallery (NG) in London—was one of them. News that the exhibition was to be re-opened and extended was therefore greeted with acclaim. The dates have not been confirmed yet, but the general commitment that the show would one day re-open was a welcome sign that things just might one day return to normal.

But the National Gallery of Scotlands (NGS) decision to cancel its own involvement in the show came as a blow to Scottish art lovers. The exhibition, due to come to Edinburgh after London (and before going on to the Prado in Madrid and then the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston) promised to hold a special significance for Scotland.

The two most important paintings in the show, Diana and Actaeon (1556–59) and Diana and Callisto (1556-59), have an especially close association with Scotland. Today, they are owned jointly by the NGS and the NG. But they used to form part of the Duke of Sutherlands collection, and first went on public display in Edinburgh in 1945. When the first painting was acquired for the nation in 2008 for £50m, the Scottish Government contributed £12.5m directly, an extraordinary gesture in the midst of a global financial crisis, and one which revealed their determination to continue to display the paintings in Scotland. It was the single largest government grant to acquire a painting in British history, and was essential in unlocking further funding from other sources, and ultimately led to the acquisition of both works. The UK government did not contribute directly at all.

Titian's Diana and Actaeon (1556-59) © The National Gallery London / The National Galleries of Scotland

In other words, the exhibition could not have happened without the support of the Scottish public. But now, Scots wanting to see the paintings as they were originally intended to be seen will have to travel to London.

Must London always win? Could the NGS have made a different choice? In any negotiations to continue the show, the NGS director, John Leighton, held a strong hand—but seems not to have wanted to play it. While it does make sense to first extend the exhibition in London, the failure to bring it to Scotland might be said to reflect a gallery with a lack of ambition. Furthermore, the NGSs reasoning behind the cancellation is revealing, and goes to the heart of what the gallery does, and who it serves.

The Edinburgh exhibition was originally due to coincide with the Edinburgh Festival, which brings in a surge of visitors to the capital every year. About half of all visitors come from outside Scotland. The NGS was relying on what it describes as this "key audience" of international tourists to make the exhibition "viable".

Titian's Diana and Callisto (1556-59) © The National Gallery London / The NationRead More – Source