Close
Close

Letters

Vol. 42 No. 3 · 6 February 2020

Search by issue:

Salvator Mundi

Nicholas Penny refers to an ‘unwritten protocol’ involving the consultation of external scholars before a national institution exhibits works in private hands whose attribution might be controversial (Letters, 23 January). Regardless of the relevance of that protocol, the websites of the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum all indicate that these institutions are unable or unwilling to provide an authentication for objects belonging to members of the public. Yet this is precisely what was done by the National Gallery in the case of the Salvator Mundi, then owned by a consortium of art dealers. The gallery’s press statement announced that ‘it will be presented as the work of Leonardo,’ and in the catalogue it was called ‘an autograph work by Leonardo’. The experts consulted by the gallery in 2008 were not asked to provide an authentication, and this is confirmed both by the fact that their opinions were not reported in the catalogue and by explicit statements from at least two of them, Maria Teresa Fiorio and Pietro Marani.

There is also an unwritten protocol among scholars that when advancing a significant new proposal the evidence should be provided in full and objectively. Yet the gallery chose to exhibit an unknown and very damaged picture with a provenance going back to 1900 as an authentic work of Leonardo, the rarest and most highly prized of all European painters, rather than as a possible work by him, without providing much of the relevant evidence. Readers of the catalogue would not have known who had endorsed the attribution, or on the basis of what evidence, particularly about the restoration. It was easy enough to establish that the claim in the catalogue (repeated in the Christie’s catalogue of 2017) that Henrietta Maria had received proof copies of Hollar’s print was unfounded, but to the best of my knowledge the first reproduction of the painting after the overpaint had been removed was published only in 2017, on a very small scale, on page 66 of Christie’s catalogue. I see no reason to revise my belief that in this instance the trustees were asleep at the wheel.

Charles Hope
London W2

Robert Simon claims that the Salvator Mundi, of which he was a co-owner at the time, was ‘not for sale’ in the summer of 2011 when he issued a press release announcing his discovery of the painting and its forthcoming premiere at the National Gallery. He writes: ‘Hope questions why I, and not the National Gallery, prepared that release, “given that the picture was supposedly not for sale” – it was not.’ This statement appears to be disingenuous. Since the publication of my book The Last Leonardo I have been sent testimony by the renowned international antiques and carpet dealer Michael Franses, in which he states that he attempted to sell the Salvator Mundi on Simon’s behalf in 2009-10. Franses relayed to me via email that the collector-dealers Warren Adelson, one of the co-owners of the painting, and Edward Shein, presumably another co-owner, asked him ‘to find a buyer outside of the USA’, giving him ‘a written exclusive contract for one year’; Simon, he said, ‘was aware of this contract as I was directly in touch with him over the year’. Remarkably this agreement was on a ‘no win no fee basis’.

Franses put together two large dossiers of documents, one for restoration, the other for provenance, and says he also made an expensive ‘30-minute video in five languages based upon the manuscripts by [Martin] Kemp and [Margaret] Dalivalle’. This suggests that the scholars Kemp and Dalivalle also played a part, knowingly or not, in efforts to sell the painting. Franses talked to the Louvre, Hermitage, Vatican, Berlin Gemäldegalerie and Qatar to see if anyone would take the painting, but was rebuffed by the Prado. The plan was to get a museum to agree to accept it as a Leonardo and then find wealthy donors who would pay for it for that museum. Apparently the Qataris were prepared to offer something in the region of $160 million. The director of the Louvre at the time, Henri Loyrette, was ready to declare it a national treasure, if the owners would only send it to the Louvre for examination and find a buyer. The purchase, Franses points out, ‘would have in turn given the donor a 90 per cent tax deduction’. Simon, apparently, baulked at sending the picture to the Louvre for examination in case they didn’t like it. Franses writes: ‘Simon was scared that if the Louvre did not authenticate the painting, then Luke Syson [of the National Gallery] might have changed his mind about exhibiting it.’ Things did not go so well with the Vatican: when Franses went to see the museum’s curator Arnold Nesselrath, he apparently fell asleep during the meeting. Perhaps what Simon means is that he briefly took the Salvator Mundi off the market between July 2011 and February 2012 to avoid any embarrassment to the National Gallery.

Ben Lewis
London N7

Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall’s analysis of the hostility in the ‘mother country’ to the arrival and settlement of ‘coloured colonials’ makes occasional reference to migrants’ experience in port cities in the decades before the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 (LRB, 23 January). Liverpool, with its long-established population of black British seamen from West African and West Indian colonies, is a major case in point. Here was the test bed for the ‘hostile environment’ subsequently experienced by the Windrush generation. ‘We have done what we can to prevent the alien element increasing but there is no power to deal with the British element,’ a Home Office memorandum on Liverpool rued in 1934. ‘It is a penalty of being a mother country with a large mixed empire. The most that we can do is to discourage coloured seamen from obtaining British passports, so that we can treat them as aliens when they get here, and prevent them remaining.’

John Belchem
Liverpool

Labour and Antisemitism

I was disappointed to see that Tariq Ali found a way to dilute the accusations of antisemitism directed at the Labour Party by focusing on recorded incidents as a percentage (0.06 per cent) of the party’s 500,000 members (LRB, 23 January). He surely knows that the issue is primarily about elected Labour officials, as well as Corbyn’s own well-documented reluctance to address the concerns of Jews in the party head-on. His flippancy stings. As a British Jew who moved to New York twenty years ago, I cannot emphasise strongly enough how liberating it was to find that I was no longer questioned or challenged on my commitment to left-wing politics solely on the basis of my being Jewish: an experience I had all too often as a student in Wales confronted by Labour and SWP activists of the same stripe, I have come to believe, as some of the people who would later find a home in Momentum. There was an implicit assumption that Jews were loyal to Israel first and to socialism second. I have to believe that a thinker as brilliant as Ali is sufficiently self-aware to see the irony in his assault on ‘Blairite remnants’ for their framing of Corbyn as the enemy within.

Aaron Hicklin
New York

Glasgow, 1915

Jean McNicol’s piece on ‘Red Clydeside’ put me in mind of the all-women residential shop stewards’ course I did with GMWU – now the General Municipal and Boilermakers’ Union – in Surbiton in 1983 (LRB, 2 January). There were two forthright older women from Glasgow in attendance, Kath and Helen. They were cleaners at a naval shipyard. There were very few women-only courses at the time, which is why they had to travel so far. I was then a teacher in an English language school (we weren’t welcome in any of the teaching unions) and I felt out of place as a white-collar worker. Many of the women were very experienced; Kath and Helen wanted me to do the writing and speaking, which I refused to do as this was their opportunity to demonstrate their considerable abilities. They both had a long history of organising and of what I described in my diary as ‘commonsense militancy’ – they described going on strike as ‘hitting the cawbles’.

The male tutors sometimes addressed us all as ‘brothers’, and the sessions tended to be very male-centric. We had a stimulating discussion on equal pay, later criticised by a male tutor because we had failed to elect a chair and note-taker. There was nothing in the course about the double shift many of the workers, including Kath and Helen, had to do, getting up early every day to make breakfast and sandwiches for their families before going off to work themselves. Some of the women had done a week’s cooking and cleaning in advance before coming on the course. None of us slept well the first night because the beds were covered by thick plastic mattress protectors; the usual male students drank so much beer in the evening they pissed their beds. However, no kettle was available in the sleeping quarters to make tea, even though so many of the women were used to getting up early.

Angela Devas
Hove, East Sussex

Half Priest, Half Satyr

Stefan Collini remarks, quite rightly, that Renan and Nietzsche were both elitists (LRB, 19 December 2019). However, as if anticipating the comparison, Nietzsche sharply distanced himself from Renan in Twilight of the Idols by questioning his elitist credentials:

Witness Renan, who misses the mark with embarrassing regularity whenever he risks generalising his yeses and nos. For instance, he would like to unite la science with la noblesse: but la science belongs with democracy, this is completely obvious. His desire to present an aristocratism of the spirit is no minor ambition: but at the same time, when faced with its counter-principle, the évangile des humbles, he falls down on his knees and does not stop there … What good is all this free-thinking, modernity, cynicism, and turncoat flexibility if at some gut level you are still a Christian, a Catholic, and even a priest!

Nietzsche deeply disagreed with Renan’s idea, shared among others by the Young Hegelians Ludwig Feuerbach and David Strauss, and their English translator George Eliot, that we can reject the metaphysics of Christianity and retain its ethics. He had no time for Renan’s ‘impersonal dedication to the truth’ or for the scholarly vocation in general, ‘complete with its religious connotations’. Nietzsche railed against this conception of scholarship, and championed a rich emotional involvement in one’s intellectual projects. ‘It makes the most telling difference,’ he claimed in The Gay Science, ‘whether a thinker has a personal relationship to his problems and finds in them his destiny, his distress, and his greatest happiness, or an “impersonal” one, meaning he is only able to touch and grasp them with the antennae of cold, curious thought.’

Nietzsche also saved his cruellest, and perhaps crudest, caricature of the impersonal armchair thinker for Renan:

I know of nothing as disgusting as this sort of ‘objective’ armchair, this sort of sweet- smelling hedonist facing history, half priest, half satyr, perfume Renan, who betrays already with the high falsetto of his cheers what he is lacking, where he is lacking, where in this case the Fate has oh! All too surgically wielded her cruel scissors!

Charles Boddicker
University of Southampton

Exhibiting the Dead

Christopher Siwicki comments, in his review of the Ashmolean exhibition Last Supper at Pompeii, that the display of human remains (or representations of them) ‘is always a challenge’ (LRB, 2 January). The exhibition A Day in Pompeii opened at the Te Papa Museum in New Zealand in December 2009. The artefacts on display included body casts of people and animals killed by the volcanic ash. Prior to the public opening, the Māori kaumātua (elder) Piri Sciascia led a commemorative service, including karakia (prayers) and waiata (songs), acknowledging that these casts represented individuals whose spirit still needed to be laid to rest. The Italian staff travelling with the exhibition said they were unaware that such an acknowledgment had ever previously been made.

Simon Garrett
Wellington, New Zealand

Thatcher Undone

David Runciman repeats an anecdote from the third volume of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher according to which Thatcher was appalled, on 9 November 1989, to see ‘pictures of the members of the Bundestag singing “Deutschland über Alles”’ (LRB, 2 January). It would have been greatly surprising had this happened, not least because it would have been illegal. In fact they sang the official version of the German national anthem. It says a lot about British politics then and now that this mistake was made.

Leslie Philibert
Winhöring, Germany

It is instructive to look up the interview with Nicholas Ridley quoted by David Runciman, in which Ridley pronounced on the dangers of a united Europe including a reunified Germany. Shortly after claiming it might be as well to transfer sovereignty to Adolf Hitler as to the European Commission, Ridley also seems to compare the German chancellor Helmut Kohl to the dictator. This contributed to the outcry the interview caused at the time. A closer look reveals that in fact it was the interviewer, Dominic Lawson, who tricked Ridley into not objecting to this comparison; Ridley himself did not mention Hitler and Kohl in the same breath.

Detlev Mares
Darmstadt, Germany

If Margaret Thatcher did tell Helmut Kohl that ‘her country had beaten his at its national game twice in the 20th century,’ she was filching the line from Frank McGhee’s piece in the Daily Mirror in 1966, with its famous lead: ‘If, on the morrow, the Germans beat us at our national game, we’d do well to remember that, twice this century, we have beaten them at theirs.’ English sportswriters dust it off whenever England face Germany in the World Cup.

David Book
Monterey, California

Andrew O’Hagan’s list of the schools attended by the cast of characters in Charles Moore’s biography of Thatcher gives the misleading impression that Friends’ School Saffron Walden was a private school in the same sense as Eton, Winchester etc (LRB, 2 January). Friends’ School (now defunct) was a Quaker foundation, which after the 1944 Education Act was a direct grant school. As such it served as a local grammar school, as well as taking fee-paying students. It was also co-educational, which in the 1950s and 1960s was considered ‘progressive’ for a boarding school.

Sarah Hutton
London N2

The Future of Work

I am sympathetic to Colin Crouch’s efforts to update the welfare state to cope with neoliberalism by severing social insurance from a narrow understanding of work (Letters, 2 January). His proposals would surely make capitalist working life more liveable (something we desperately need). I also agree with his critique of the citizen’s income, which today is in practice very much a right-wing policy. To be part of a left political economy, a Universal Basic Income would require a substantial labour movement and a revolutionary transformation that is nowhere on the horizon. In pointing to a route beyond his (updated) welfare state, I did not mean to defend the UBI or the heady mix of reaction and technological utopianism often associated with it.

But is there not space between the utopian and the merely liveable? We need workplace and social relations that do not entrench an old ethics of work, care and family. I worry that Crouch’s suggestions would entrench them. There are other revolutionary reforms we might support: the demand for a four-day week, free childcare. An overhaul of property relations is vital. Crouch’s proposals may well allow for these, but his book did not argue for them.

Katrina Forrester
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Käthe Kollwitz

Anne Wagner concludes her piece about Käthe Kollwitz with the remark that ‘she died 16 days before the end of the war’ (LRB, 2 January). There is more to say. During research for my novel I Am Always with You (2006) I found that Kollwitz was given shelter by the dissident artists in the Ateliergemeinschaft Klosterstrasse in Berlin Mitte before she left Berlin in 1943. Her Prenzlauer Berg apartment, and much of her work, were partly destroyed by RAF bombing soon afterwards. She then stayed near Meissen and Moritzburg, where, in her final months, she was a guest of Prince Heinrich of Saxony. She would have witnessed, a dozen kilometres away and only two months before her death, the firebombing of Dresden.

Kollwitz’s sculpture Mother with Her Dead Son is the sole object in the memorial to ‘victims of war and dictatorship’ at the Neue Wache on Berlin’s Unter den Linden.

Philip Temple
Dunedin, New Zealand

March of the Bookcase

I’m not sure Newton had rooms at Christ’s College, Cambridge, as Chris Bratcher seems to think (Letters, 23 January). The marching bookcase must instead have been in C.D. Broad’s rooms in Trinity College.

Rachel Beaumont
Cambridge

I took mescaline at Trinity College twenty years after Smythie’s experiment on Broad. The ironwork under the Wren Library vibrated pleasingly against the black night, but the furniture never walked, and neither I nor my room was relegated from Trinity to Christ’s College. That’s a bad trip.

Paul Pritchard
Newport

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.

Read More

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