Vol. 42 No. 2 · 23 January 2020

Search by issue:

Salvator Mundi

Charles Hope, writing ostensibly about the great Leonardo exhibition at the Louvre as well as several books, in fact focuses on the Salvator Mundi – it accounts for roughly two-thirds of his piece – and, more specifically, on the circumstances of its initial presentation to the public, with which I was intimately involved (LRB, 2 January). In so doing Hope relies on Ben Lewis’s The Last Leonardo, and repeats some of that book’s inaccuracies, even discounting my refutation of them. An example: Lewis states that only two of the five scholars who saw the painting at the National Gallery in 2008 approved the attribution to Leonardo. In fact I contacted each of them in July 2011 and all confirmed their positive opinion of the attribution for a press release announcing the painting’s discovery. As Hope notes, I stated this in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement of 4 October 2019, but the ever doubting professor wonders whether the draft text I submitted to the scholars for their approval was the same as the one eventually issued. It was, verbatim.

Hope questions why I, and not the National Gallery, prepared that release, ‘given that the picture was supposedly not for sale’ – it was not – and that the release gave the name of a PR contact, a person who he has discovered with relish now represents Harry and Meghan, as if that were somehow relevant. The answers are disappointingly simple. A formal presentation of the then unknown painting had been anticipated, and a rash of error-filled articles appeared in the press in July 2011. The press release was issued at the request of the National Gallery, since that was proper protocol: I represented the owners, not they. And its purpose was purely corrective, not promotional. Having no press contacts, the owners engaged a communications firm, whose task was simply to issue the release, respond to requests for photographs (hence the PR contact), no more than that.

‘It is hard not to be impressed by the skill with which Simon promoted his picture,’ Hope writes, ‘or not to be dismayed by the way the National Gallery found itself involved and even exploited.’ This is a compliment I vigorously reject. I have no skill in promotion. I have worked as an art dealer and consultant for many years, but have never allowed commerce to interfere with my judgment. Nor in this case did I do anything other than present the results of my research and the painting’s conservation history to others. Hope writes that I ‘persuaded the National Gallery to display [my] picture’. I did not, and could not have. The loan of the Salvator Mundi was requested by the gallery after the painting had been extensively studied by art historians and curators, and following the approval of senior staff and trustees. I fail to see how the gallery was exploited.

Hope states that ‘it is not necessarily possible to establish who painted a now very damaged picture half a millennium ago simply by looking at it on an easel, especially if it has been extensively restored.’ This is of course true, but Hope should be aware that a wealth of criteria beyond the ‘easel’ inform any decent scholar’s judgments today. In the case of the Salvator Mundi, these included documentation of the painting’s conservation history, material analyses, technical imaging, research into provenance (both confirmed and not); studies of iconographic, theological and optical issues; and a review of the picture’s relationship to preparatory drawings, variant copies and later derivations. All this information was shared openly and transparently, and without advocacy, with any scholar who examined the painting.

What’s more, Hope writes, ‘it is not so clear that art historians are uniquely qualified to make judgments’ about Leonardo’s paintings, ‘let alone about one that does not in the least resemble his generally accepted works’. Clearly this caution against connoisseurship does not apply to Hope himself, whose inability to recognise the many connections between the Salvator Mundi and other works by the master is itself of concern. His opinion about the painting’s authorship is of course his freely to make, but his criticism of the manner in which the painting was introduced to the world is both inaccurate and irrelevant.

Other statements in the review are arguable or require correction. The face in the Salvator Mundi is, Hope writes, ‘much restored to make it reminiscent of the Mona Lisa’, which seems a perverse expansion of conservator Dianne Modestini’s statement that she had studied detailed photographs of the Mona Lisa ‘trying to understand how to fix the little damage to the mouth of the painting’. More comical is Hope’s patronising claim that the current owner ‘and his advisers evidently did not carry out due diligence before making their purchase’ – an unbelievable assertion that I doubt he would ever make were the purchaser from a part of the world closer to his own.

A last correction concerns the genesis of our book, which is not the same as the Yale University Press publication announced in 2011. That book was to feature essays by several scholars in addition to Martin Kemp and Margaret Dalivalle, as well as an extensive discussion of the known variations of the composition by me, and a full conservation and technical dossier by Modestini and a team of conservation scientists. It was cancelled by Yale in what I politely called ‘a change in editorial policy’. In fact we were informed that Yale now had a rule that they did not publish studies of individual works of art, and that the picture was no longer in the news. Both reasons seemed specious; perhaps a conflict with other books published by Yale informed the decision. In any case Oxford accepted our proposal only in its reduced form. I have continued to work on an expanded study of the copies and variants, while Modestini has since shared all the conservation documentation and technical images on the website salvatormundirevisited.com.

Robert Simon
New York

Charles Hope, in his account of the Salvator Mundi, claims that Robert Simon ‘persuaded the National Gallery’ to display the picture in its Leonardo exhibition. In fact, Simon never even proposed that it be included. I was shown the painting in New York before I became director of the National Gallery. After I did so and learned that a Leonardo exhibition was being planned, I mentioned the painting to the curator of the exhibition and he went to New York to see it. He then, on his own initiative and in compliance with the unwritten protocol expected by the trustees of a national institution in such circumstances, convened a group of external scholars to discuss it. None of these scholars expressed dissent from the proposal that the painting was by Leonardo. Nor did they do so more than two years later, when the press release announcing the inclusion of the painting in the exhibition was prepared.

Speculation about the provenance of the painting was then peripheral to its attribution, and the claim that it was by Leonardo was indeed made by looking closely at the few parts that were relatively undamaged.

There is no doubt that by including a painting in a loan exhibition its commercial value may increase, but it is not infrequently the case that the opposite occurs, and I think it was rather courageous of Simon to agree to lend his painting.

Nicholas Penny
London SW4

Thatcher Undone

David Runciman follows Charles Moore into very deep waters when, in his review of the latter’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, he cites approvingly the argument that if Section 28 ‘was vindictive in spirit, it was against councils, not against gay people’ (LRB, 2 January). Runciman’s own gloss on this, that Thatcher’s concern was not ‘primarily about sexuality’, but rather ‘with left-wing councils spending public money for ideological ends’, betrays a flawed logic. It can only stand if we accept that the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality and of the ‘acceptability’ of gay couples as a ‘pretended family relationship’ (to use the terminology of the legislation) was indeed an ‘ideological end’, something which was contentious in 1988 and is not accepted today, now that, thanks to a later Conservative government, LGBT rights are a mandatory part of the curriculum. That Thatcher supposed this to be ‘ideology’ is one proof (there are many others) of her homophobia. The point, surely, is that children being taught about gay people was, along with left-wing councils raising taxes, something she didn’t like. To explain away legislation that singled out a minority group precisely on ideological and prejudicial grounds (at a high point of the Aids crisis, and of popular anti-gay sentiment) as an incidental consequence of a larger ‘obsession’ with the autonomy of local government is offensive, and not only to common sense. Section 28, which wasn’t repealed until 2003, marred lives. It inhibited the fight against Aids, and so cost lives too. One wonders what else it would have to have done, to justify being called ‘vindictive’.

James Haslam
London SE15

In his thoughtful review of the final volume of my biography of Margaret Thatcher, David Runciman refers to a quotation in the book from a letter from Thatcher to Teddy Taylor, saying

I would personally think it is terribly important that those who have been very doubtful about the European enterprise should have some kind of alternative strategy clearly set out … I have always felt that the best answer for us was to be a kind of free-trade and non-interventionist ‘Singapore’ off Europe but I have a feeling that such a scheme is perhaps too revolutionary even for my fellow Eurosceptics here in the Commons.

Runciman was repeating my mistake: I had confused a letter from Sir Teddy with a letter from Lady Thatcher. The words were his, not hers. I have corrected this error in subsequent editions of the book.

Charles Moore
Etchingham, East Sussex

‘The Pillow Book’

Rivka Galchen’s review of Gergana Ivanova’s reception history of The Pillow Book is itself an interesting document in that history (LRB, 2 January). Galchen’s vision of the book and its author is in thrall to Shonagon’s English translator. I say this because one of the most disconcerting things that happens when you turn from the English to the Japanese original is that the author disappears almost without trace. With no insistent ‘I’ in the original to rely on, the text floats free, a series of lists, comments, jibes and captivating stories that comes together to form a vision of a court and a society that has no voice of its own other than the one that can be inferred from the text. I am not saying that Sei Shonagon did not exist – for Murasaki Shikibu has some cutting remarks about her in her diary, but the link between her and the work (and which manuscript tradition do you choose?) is tenuous at best. The strong sense of personality that Galchen sees is almost entirely the result of reading the work in translation, rendered into an unfortunate language that cannot bear to be without a subject. The Pillow Book has indeed had many lives, most of them inconceivable to whoever put this remarkable work together.

Richard Bowring

They weren’t looking

Adam Tooze reviews the edited volume Emil Nolde: The Artist during the Third Reich, which adds a great deal to what we know about Nolde’s commitment to National Socialism and to the discussion of the relationship between his politics and his art (LRB, 5 December 2019). But I don’t think it is quite right to say that the basic facts of the case awaited ‘exposure’ in 2003 when archival research for the book began or that Nolde’s party membership and antisemitism had been ‘hidden in plain sight’ for many years. More accurate would be that all those whom Tooze cites as not knowing weren’t looking.

Had they wanted to know they might for a start have looked up the entry for Nolde, written by Jill Lloyd, in the 1996 Grove Dictionary of Art. He joined the Nazi Party in 1933, it says. ‘The belief in racial purity and the emphasis on forging a strong “Germanic” identity blinded him to the political realities of the movement,’ but did not diminish his efforts to get on the good side of the regime long after that might have seemed hopeless. (Hitler, although not other top Nazis, hated his work.) The autobiographical account Nolde gave in 1934 of being kicked out of the Berlin Secession group in 1910, Lloyd goes on to say, included ‘antisemitic statements probably intended to gain favour with the Nazis’. This was when Nolde’s enmity with Max Pechstein, whom he denounced to the Nazis as a Jew in 1933, began. (Pechstein was not a Jew.)

In 1998, and then more expansively in his book German Encounters with Modernism 1840-1945 (2001), Peter Paret, then professor of history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, took up the story of Nolde’s battle with his Secession colleagues. Discussing Nolde’s unsuccessful appeal against the vote to expel him, Paret notes that ‘the disproportionate violence of his accusations and their antisemitic overtones foretold Nolde’s future course – his appraisal of aesthetic styles according to concepts of racial purity, his membership of the National Socialist Party of Schleswig-Holstein after the First World War and his efforts after 1933 to win the approval and patronage of the Third Reich.’ In an account of reactionary modernism earlier in the book Paret includes Nolde among other ‘radically innovative artists whose cultural and social ideals led them to National Socialism’, even if they did not in the end find everything they longed for in ‘the new Volksgemeinschaft Hitler created’.

In short, nothing was hidden. The question is why those in Germany who in the last half-century embraced Nolde as an anti-Nazi figure hadn’t been looking and why the book under review and the exhibition to which it was connected were taken to be so revelatory.

Thomas Laqueur
University of California, Berkeley

Glasgow, 1915

Jean McNicol mentions David Lloyd George’s ill-fated mission to the rebellious Clydeside socialists in December 1915 ‘to make the case for dilution and the introduction of conscription’ (LRB, 2 January). As a junior civil servant, my grandfather, Sir Ronald Davison, was also in the party. At the end of the Second World War, in a short ‘Reminiscence of Lloyd George’, Sir Ronald recalled the visit, wryly observing that ‘we have managed our labour problems better in 1939-45.’

Lloyd George, minister of munitions since May 1915, was joined on the trip to Newcastle and Glasgow by Arthur Henderson, the Labour Party leader and president of the Board of Education in Asquith’s wartime coalition government. He was to chair the planned meeting in Glasgow. In my grandfather’s opinion, neither minister was very well prepared, Lloyd George displaying an ignorance of the workers’ problems and relying solely on his famous eloquence and a naive appeal to patriotism. Nor was there much respect between the two men; Henderson did not support Lloyd George’s increasingly urgent call for conscription.

McNicol points out that Christmas Day, the day of the meeting, was at that time a normal working day in Glasgow. According to Sir Ronald, the meeting had originally been arranged for the day before but Lloyd George made a cynical decision to take advantage of the workers’ availability on the 25th to impress the English public by working on Christmas Day himself.

As recalled by Sir Ronald, Lloyd George’s typical confidence in his ability to win people over was replaced by knee-knocking impotence as soon as Henderson opened the meeting. ‘He advanced to the railing of the platform and was greeted by yells and catcalls from four hundred throats.’ The great orator could not make himself heard. The audience sensed that he was appealing to their patriotism with talk of the boys in the trenches and their need for guns but they simply howled at him in response. Lloyd George faced down this deafening hostility for 45 minutes but the Christmas Day speech was never delivered. McNicol says that the newspapers were given a press release stating that Lloyd George had been given a sympathetic hearing; Sir Ronald’s recollection was that Lloyd George dictated an appropriate speech for the reporters on the train afterwards.

What happened in the meeting was that David Kirkwood, the Clyde Workers’ Committee representative from the engineering firm Beardmore’s, came to the platform and offered to calm the meeting down if the ministers would answer his own questions there and then and also accept others sent up in writing. Sir Ronald reports that he collected hundreds of such questions and took them back to London but that none was ever answered. Whether Kirkwood managed to pose his own questions is unclear but a further hour of uproar consisted mostly of four or five furious young men asking questions simultaneously. The London party struggled with the men’s ‘broad Glasgow’, but there was no denying that, far from showing any enthusiasm for labour dilution or support for the boys in the trenches, the CWC simply wanted wage increases, a restored right to strike and the limiting of employers’ profits.

Sir Ronald acknowledges that the Glasgow meeting was ‘a dreadful fiasco’ and that matters were not improved by the subsequent draconian action taken against Kirkwood and others under the Defence of the Realm Act. But, interestingly, he reports that when, some months later, dilution was imposed on Clydeside employers and trade unions, it received unexpected support from the CWC.

One consolation of the trip for the young civil servant, and doubtless for the other members of the party, was the sumptuous Christmas dinner served up to them by the Midland Railway, as their express train rescued them from the Glaswegian revolutionaries. Before the parties retired to their sleeping compartments, Lloyd George assigned a song for each member of the party to sing after the feast. Uncle Arthur, as Henderson was always known, was never exactly a fire-breathing socialist, so was required to sing ‘The Red Flag’. Less ironically perhaps, the future prime minister and ruthless prosecutor of the war against Germany performed ‘We don’t want to fight but by Jingo if we do.’

Martin Davison

Washington’s Slaves

Eric Foner, in his discussion of slavery on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, describes a conversation between Washington and Guy Carleton, the British commander, as they reviewed the implementation of the withdrawal plan for British forces in 1783 (LRB, 19 December 2019). Foner perhaps inadvertently makes it appear that in asking Carleton to keep a ‘lookout for “some of my own slaves” who had run off’, Washington was merely asking a personal favour, and was surprised, even affronted, when Carleton replied that it would be dishonourable to renege on the Crown’s promise of freedom to runaways. As I understand the exchange, it had to do with competing interpretations of the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which required the British to return all property, slaves included. Carleton was making the assertion that the slaves, having been given their freedom by the Crown, no longer counted as property and were not therefore covered by the treaty, much to Washington’s chagrin. Carleton agreed, however, that the former owners should be compensated. The slaves who had been granted freedom, in a measure which served as a precedent to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, followed the British troops into Canada after they departed New York.

Washington keenly followed the compensation process, which occurred very slowly, and did so throughout his presidency, which marks how thoroughly he believed in the legitimacy of slavery as a property right. Former slave owners remained dissatisfied with the terms, claiming that they were getting only half the true value of their chattels.

Albion Urdank
Los Angeles

Eric Foner writes that the Washingtons frequently referred to their slaves as part of their family; he goes on to object that ‘one does not typically give away a family member as a gift.’ That all depends on what the Washingtons meant by the word ‘family’. They surely understood the word in the same way the Romans used familia: ‘the whole of the slaves in a household, a household establishment, family servants, domestics’; the related Latin word famulus means ‘a servant’, and in Rome servants were slaves. In fact the primary meaning of our English word ‘family’ used to be ‘the servants of a particular household or establishment, considered collectively’. As for making gifts of such ‘family members’, in a verse-epistle Horace warned young Lollius Maximus not to fall for the charms of a wealthy friend’s ancilla (‘maidservant’) or puer (‘slave boy’), lest at small expense to himself he give him the servant as a gift, or disobligingly withhold it. In the case of the Washingtons they were indeed acting typically, whether of Romans or 18th-century Americans, in giving away a ‘family member’.

Roland Mayer
King’s College London

Conditions for Change

Guido Franzinetti’s warning about David Runciman’s argument for a constitutional convention – that changes in the electoral system can only happen after war or a severe constitutional crisis – overlooks the Reform Act of 1832 (Letters, 19 December 2019). In his recent biography of Walter Bagehot, James Grant cites his account of how ‘the House of Commons voted to reform itself, even to the point of some members voting to extinguish their own constituencies.’ An unintended consequence was to eliminate a protected class of statesmen who never had to face the voters. ‘The reformers of 1832 destroyed intellectual constituencies in great numbers without saying, indeed without thinking, that it was desirable to create any,’ Bagehot wrote.

In the US, the late Mancur Olson would no doubt agree with Franzinetti. Olson described the way powerful interest groups become entrenched in the absence of war or other severe crises. In government, the persistence of America’s Electoral College, which has in recent times twice awarded the presidency to candidates who lost the popular vote (Bush with assistance from the Supreme Court), is unlikely to face constitutional change. Nor are small states, or Republicans, likely to approve any change in a system that gives two Senate votes to each state, from Wyoming with 600,000 residents to California with nearly forty million. The New York Times says that a Wyoming resident has sixty times the Senate clout of someone who lives in California.

Tom Groenfeldt
Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

Sillier than Alan Bennett

As a cinema buff who is considerably sillier than Alan Bennett, I am able to inform him that the Burt Lancaster film he often thinks about isn’t The Crimson Pirate but the similarly swashbuckling The Flame and the Arrow (LRB, 2 January). The apothecary character is named Mazzoni, not Manzoni, and the movie is notable because Warner Brothers offered $1 million to anyone who could prove in court that Lancaster did not do all his own stunts. One man claimed he could, but his case was thrown out by the judge.

Scott Jordan Harris
Rugby, Warwickshire

March of the Bookcase

Emily Witt’s review of Mescaline might have credited the part played by J.R. Smythies, who died last year aged 96 (LRB, 2 January). Smythies was an originator of the biochemical theory of schizophrenia, and hence a co-founder of biochemical psychiatry, based on his researches into the structure of mescaline. He persuaded Aldous Huxley to try it (as Huxley describes in The Doors of Perception), and also C.D. Broad, the 65-year-old Knightsbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge. Broad, who occupied Newton’s rooms at Christ’s College, where Smythies had been an undergraduate, experienced a historic bookcase marching towards him on carved animal feet.

Chris Bratcher

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences