The bigger picture

21/11/07, The Guardian

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) has launched an appeal for funds to buy a portrait of the 17th century dramatist John Fletcher, to hang alongside portraits of other luminaries of the English Renaissance such as Shakespeare, John Donne, Ben Jonson and others. Like most things in the sublunary world, literary reputation is subject to mutability and Fletcher’s name has passed almost wholly into oblivion, except to those in academe working on the long, golden age of English theatre, so it’s worthwhile to say a few words about him first.

While immortality was reserved for one of his co-authors, William Shakespeare, with whom he collaborated on three plays – Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio – Fletcher (1579-1625) was as famous as Shakespeare during his lifetime and the Restoration period. His first solo play, The Faithful Shepherdess, probably the first example of the English pastoral tragicomedy, was a total flop when it was first performed in 1608. Like most playwrights of the time, he worked in collaboration with other dramatists. His collaboration with Francis Beaumont was the most fruitful, and their Philaster of 1609 (a big hit) started a sort of vogue for tragicomedy. He was extremely prolific: 16 solo plays, about nine with Beaumont and 11 with Massinger, but I’m guessing a random sampler of the titles of these works will draw blank looks from nearly everyone. Women Pleased, Rule a Wife and Have a Wife, Cupid’s Revenge, Sir John van Olden Barnavelt: any takers?

Is it worth acquiring a portrait of someone so completely lost to time? Absolutely. This archaeological salvaging of reputations is vital, otherwise how are we to learn more about the exact lineaments of the past? It’s the truest kind of the practice of history and at a time when the past is a bewilderingly foreign country to most, it is a valuable project.

The next bit is more problematic: the NPG is buying the portrait from the Earl of Clarendon, George Villiers, to whom the work belongs. (Painted around 1620, it was "apparently purchased" by the first Earl of Clarendon in the 1680s and has belonged to the family since). The price tag is £218,000 – not a lot of money at a time one regularly sees artworks fetching vertiginous seven- and eight-figure sums – of which the gallery needs to raise £50,000 by appeal. Several questions come to mind: why does Villiers not give it to the NPG on permanent loan? Or, even more generously, donate it to the gallery, following the example of the US, which has such a wonderful tradition of private philanthropy? Does Villiers need the money? Should money from the people go to the coffers of an earl?

Is it right or desirable to ask or even force Villiers to give away a painting that is part of his private collection? If the answer is in the affirmative, then pause to think that the logical extension of this kind of thinking is the abolition of private property. In Fletcher’s own time, the Anabaptists were persecuted by the state for harbouring such radical thoughts. In the last century, think what happened to the Communist Soviet Union.

What about a permanent loan? This is a less controversial line of thinking. Villiers’ art collection is not open to the public. A free national museum, funded by public money, is trying to fill a gap in its collection and since the painting is not on public display in its home, isn’t there a moral argument to be made for moving the portrait away from the private domain to the public?

Against all this, it could be argued that Villiers is doing the NPG and the nation a great favour by having a third party, Sotheby’s, brought in to value his painting and sell it at a sum agreeable to vendor, buyer and the taxman, when he could theoretically sell it to a private collector, either in the UK or abroad, for a far larger figure. In that respect, he is acting against his own interests, in the strictest sense of the term. But if he were to sell it privately or on the open market, it could leave the country and we’d be having the Madonna of the Pinks debate, and its concomitant scrabbling around for money, all over again.

For smaller sums involved, as in the case of this Fletcher portrait, wouldn’t it be better to have the painting given on permanent loan? It would have the added benefit of immortalising the Villiers’ name in the way Renaissance patrons were immortalised by having their names mentioned, or their likenesses drawn, or their attributes sonnetised in a client’s art. In the end, the argument for donation is not one of economics but perhaps one of utilitarian principles and, therefore, morality.