‘These two Titians are the greatest old masters left in private hands anywhere’

The news that the Duke of Sutherland has offered his two late Titians, Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, to the National Galleries of Scotland and their counterpart south of the border (of which I am a trustee), has been greeted with the usual mixture of good and bad sense. The fact that the cost, £100m, is clearly a bargain has not deflected the howls of protest, not least at the idea of all that lovely lolly going to a duke, of all people. Why dukes – unlike other squillionaires, or indeed the rest of us – should not be allowed to sell their possessions remains a mystery.

At least there seems to be universal agreement that if you are going to add to the national collections, then this is as good as it gets. These two canvases are quite simply the greatest old masters left in private hands anywhere in the world. They are the works of art that, even discounting the tax advantages and the Duke of Sutherland’s generosity which, with luck, put them within the reach of our museums, anyone would most want to acquire. Better still, they are among the greatest paintings ever made: crucially, their pre-eminence is not merely a consequence of the fact that so many of their rivals are already in public collections.

One of the most striking aspects of the coverage of the story has been its confirmation of the timeless appeal of Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, above all to artists. In 2001, Lucian Freud stated: “To me, these are simply the most beautiful pictures in the world”, and in the wake of the announcement of their sale the press has quoted such luminaries as John Bellany, Tracey Emin and Alison Watt on their merits. The reason is that Titian’s living force, unrivalled among Renaissance artists, is a consequence of both the form and the content of his late works. On one hand, it derives from his gestural handling of oil paint, and on the other from the blazing intensity with which he brings his actors to life.

In 1518, very possibly before he was 30, with the completion of his magisterial Assumption of the Virgin for the Church of the Frari in Venice, where it remains to this day, Titian had assured his artistic immortality, but he was not yet the painter he ultimately became. Exactly half a century later, in 1568, when Giorgio Vasari published the second and definitive edition of his Lives of the Artists, he recognised Titian’s genius and discussed what he referred to as his “last manner”. This involved the triumphantly free brushwork which inspired all the great painters of the 17th century – Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez – and has continued to inspire artists in endlessly various ways ever since. However, it is arguably even more Titian’s capacity to combine tragic subject-matter – neither of these stories from Ovid ends well – with a sense of affirmation, of joie de vivre, that makes him stand alone.

On 15 and 16 September, Sotheby’s auctioned 287 works by Damien Hirst, and once again the number of zeros has been the main talking point, together with much debate about the craziness of the prices paid for contemporary art. (Hirst’s jewel-encrusted skull, whose alleged asking price is £50m, does also make the Titians look positively reasonable.) As it happens, however, one of the most striking things about the visual arts canon is its changelessness. It is true that there have inevitably been ups and downs, perhaps the most notable being the fall from grace and only relatively recent rise again of Caravaggio, just as there have been real rediscoveries – Vermeer and Georges de la Tour being the most arresting among major figures. But by and large the old masters who are most revered today were always at or near the top of the tree. The misunderstood genius working in a garret and unappreciated by his contemporaries – step forward Vincent van Gogh – is a purely 19th– and 20th-century phenomenon.

All of this strongly suggests that today’s collectors, especially if they are willing to be patient and not cash in their artworks too soon, could do a lot worse than invest in Damien Hirst. Hirst himself, meanwhile, is reported to have become part of the illustrious tradition of artists who collect art (in his case, inter alia, Francis Bacon). Intriguingly, one of Titian’s late masterworks – the sulphurous Crowning with Thorns in Munich – was owned by Titian’s younger contemporary and would-be rival, Tintoretto.

Nearer to home, by 1641 the Titian group portrait of the Vendramin Family, now safely in Trafalgar Square, belonged to another imported element of our national heritage, Sir Anthony van Dyck. A few years later, around 1644, it passed into the possession of the wonderfully named Sir John Wittewronge as part repayment of a debt owed by Sir Richard Price, who had married Van Dyck’s widow. Wittewronge sold it the next year to the 10th Earl of Northumberland, and his descendant, the seventh Duke of Northumberland, sold it to the National Gallery in 1929. Naturally there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the price, which seemed so immense at the time, but perhaps less chippy anti-ducal sentiment. It cost the then princely – or should that be ducal? – sum of £122,000.

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