Art bypass? Kenwood House misses out on ‘£2.5m’ companion painting
18th-century masterpiece on its way to the US after English Heritage turned down purchase
17 February, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
A RECENTLY discovered masterpiece by the 18th-century painter Joseph Wright of Derby is heading to California – after Kenwood House managers, English Heritage, turned down the chance to buy it.
The painting, which for decades was in a private collection, is called Two Boys With A Bladder. Experts say it is the companion to a painting by Wright called Two Girls With A Kitten which already hangs in the historic home overlooking Hampstead Heath.
The pig’s bladder painting and its ‘companion piece’: Two Girls With A Kitten
After the painting was put up for sale last year, an export ban was placed on it to give British institutions the chance to raise around £2.5million to buy it.
A three-month period for Kenwood to consider whether they should raise funds for the painting has now elapsed. It did not, and so it will now be on display at the Getty Museum in the US.
Peter Barber, who is a member of the Arts Council-led reviewing committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, said: “English Heritage told the Department of Culture they would not go ahead because of the condition of the painting.” A claim he says is incorrect.
He added: “There were no questions over its artistic quality and it is in brilliant condition. The figures are beautiful. In the bladder area of the painting, Wright had done what many painters would do – experiment with different materials. “The experiment meant it did not work as well as the rest of the painting. But the Getty Museum say it is more than good enough and, if so, then why isn’t it good enough for English Heritage?”
He added: “There were discussions as to whether this was the companion piece to their other Wright of Derby work. They are like strawberries and cream. It would be good to have them next to each other. Here was an opportunity to bring them together.”
Mr Barber said there was a sense that English Heritage was too concerned with balancing books rather than looking at ways to add to Kenwood’s art collection.
He said: “I am sceptical about claims it would cost too much to repair. It is the third time in three years paintings have been offered to Kenwood and they have refused them.”
One was of James Adam by the artist Antonio Zucchi, which is now at the V&A. Another offered last year was by the artist Francesco Guardi, which came from Lord Iveagh’s collection – much of which is already housed at Kenwood.
Mr Barber said: “To refuse one or two might be ignored, but three?” He said the idea the full cost would have been borne by the heritage body was incorrect and numerous grants were available to help offset the price. It seems to the outsider their obsession at the moment is restoring the House’s first floor and there is a suspicion that they want to use it for functions to bring in funds,”
Mr Barber added. English Heritage has in recent years spent nearly £6million on restoration work and repairs continue.
English Heritage confirmed in the case of the Wright painting that its condition meant it did not feel justified buying it, while the Guardi painting was sold for £26.2m – a figure they say meant it was “out of our reach”.
Anna Eavis, English Heritage’s curatorial director, said: “English Heritage has invested and will continue to invest heavily in Kenwood – in the house, the landscape and the collection. English Heritage is a charity and every penny spent at Kenwood goes back into looking after this remarkable site. Kenwood was, is, and will always be free to visit, but it is not free to maintain.”