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Gainsborough's House director Hugh Belsey on competing with Tate: Goliath wins

Should Gainsborough’s House have given way to the Tate over a painting in the current Tate exhibition?

The auction house is a battle ground where richest takes all, but back room deals are common, although they rarely appear in newspapers. The circumstances surrounding the acquisition of two paintings in the current Gainsborough exhibition (until 23 February) at Tate Britain have a story to tell.

In 1984 a descendant decided to sell the portrait of her ancestor, the Reverend John Chafy. The Gainsborough scholar, Mary Woodall, the first woman director of a major art gallery in Britain, had negotiated its loan to Birmingham City Art Gallery shortly after World War II where it had languished for over 40 years. No photograph of it had ever been published and so, in the hands of Sotheby’s, to quote Andy Warhol, it became famous for 15 minutes.

The sitter had been rector of Great Bricett, a village near Stowmarket in Suffolk, before he moved to Salisbury in 1752 and the canvas must have been painted shortly beforehand. It was a natural acquisition for any Suffolk museum. A director of Sotheby’s brought it to a party at Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury. Taking advice about the likely price and with the backing of my board, I began to raise funds to buy it.

Provincial museums, such as Gainsborough’s House, which is run by a charitable trust, could generally expect to double a local contribution with grants and this was the case. The Purchase Grant Fund (central government funds administered by the Victoria and Albert Museum), the National Art Collections Fund (NACF), and the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) were contacted and responded generously. With local funding of £6,000, other contributions stacked up to £100,000, which provided a real opportunity to bid for the picture.

However, three days before the sale, a telephone call from a Tate curator announced that this was a painting of national importance, that it was a desirable acquisition for them to make and that the promises of money from the NACF and the NHMF would be transferred to them.

The Tate was fortunate and the price was £100,000, just as predicted. The painting now forms part of their collection.

However, behaviour such as this raises questions of the larger museum crushing the smaller one and of a larger institution wasting the time of a smaller, poorer one.

Conversely, with a larger heart, it could have been seen as both institutions working for the common good.

Nine years later another early Gainsborough painting appeared at auction. This canvas shows a group of three men. The son of one of the Dutch founders of the Bank of England, Peter Darnell Muilman, his soon-to-be brother-in-law, Charles Crokatt, and their tutor William Keable are portrayed together, puffed up with self-confidence beneath a beautifully observed tree. A much more important painting than the Chafy portrait, this canvas was undoubtedly of national interest.

However, the Tate was in a weak position. They had just bought a painting by Wright of Derby which had long been on their “wants” list and the acquisitions fund supplied by central government was depleted.

On the telephone, I asked the Tate: “Will you go for it or should we share it?” No reply. Rather than it being “lost to the nation”, I decided to start raising funds. The NACF gave £100,000 towards the painting (that is, not to Gainsborough’s House, but specifically for the painting). I began negotiations with the NHMF. They advised that the Tate was interested in sharing and that tactics should be discussed and advice taken. The purchase was possible with NHMF help. There was little chance of raising funds elsewhere if they were unable to do so.

An off-the-record telephone call to me revealed that the day before the NHMF made their final decision, they had received a letter from the Tate stating that the Tate would be willing to earmark a sum— more than the total on offer from the two institutions— from the following financial year’s acquisition fund if Gainsborough’s House were out of the running. So the auction had started several days before the painting appeared at Sotheby's.

Gratitude to my informant, fury at the deception, obstination and a reluctance to repeat the disappointment of the Chafy acquisition made me determined to find another way. If the finances of Gainsborough’s House could match the figure offered by the Tate, I reckoned the painting could then be shared on a 50/50 basis. In the event, the painting was bought on the reserve at a little over £1million and the acquisition cost Gainsborough’s House and the Tate less than they had anticipated.

The Tate contributed funds from the following year’s allocation from central government, Gainsborough’s House (with the help of the PGF) provided an equal amount from its private funds and the NACF and NHMF provided the balance. The painting travels between Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury and Tate Britain in London every two years.

Two years ago the Tate announced special relationships with provincial galleries in Kendal, Sheffield and Norwich. I hope the Tate has learned its lesson and that these relationships remain generous in spirit, sympathetic to local needs and lack a paternalistic bias which could be interpreted as artistic big brother.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Gainsborough debate: Goliath wins'