19 June 2016
Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery since last summer, would like to have a collection of Renaissance and 17th-century drawings. Ideally some medieval ones, too, but they are very rare. “I’m fascinated by the intimate process of creation that goes on between the artist’s eye and the artist’s hand,” he explains. “You see a fresh outcome of that in drawing.”
Which is why, out of all the exhibitions he could have put on at the National, he chose Painters’ Paintings, a show about the works artists have bought for themselves. In the collection, they found 80 paintings that had belonged to artists from Lucian Freud back to Anthony van Dyck. Freud had Corot’s Italian Woman, van Dyck owned Titian’s The Vendramin Family, Degas was an early collector of El Greco, Matisse had a Degas, Joshua Reynolds owned Bellini’s glorious Agony in the Garden —though he thought it was by Mantegna. “Their motivation is partly to do with friendship, rivalry plays a role, and they are surrounding themselves with the things they are interested in artistically.”
Finaldi’s predecessor, Nick Penny, spoke of art in a brilliant, scholarly and anecdotal way. Finaldi speaks as if he’s still as wonder-struck as he was when, aged 16 and a pupil at Dulwich College, he saw Girl at a Window, by Rembrandt. From then on, he was lost in art. Penny saw pictures in the world; Finaldi sees the world from within pictures.
He is a child of the suburbs, born in Barnet (in 1965) and raised in Catford — where he still lives — to an Italian father and a half-Polish mother. He has six children, aged between 10 and 28, and comes from a family of eight. He is an observant Catholic, as are all his children.
This is not something you often hear said these days — people are usually embarrassed by religion, either because they are shyly religious or because they’re emphatically not. “It’s interesting because, in Britain, religion is something personal. In a way, it’s very much the way you think of things and the way you relate to the important things in life. That’s often not the case abroad — it’s often more natural and easier to say you’re churchgoing. The other thing I’ve found is that in Spain, for example, religion is quite divisive, whereas in Britain there’s a huge level of tolerance.”
This is, you will gather, not a man who is an obvious fit in the secular, bien-pensant art world of central London. But here he is, presiding over Trafalgar Square; 6ft 2in (or so he claims — to my invariably paranoid gaze, he looks a lot taller); English, though incredibly Italian-looking; and all confidently suited, booted and focused, as opposed to the brilliant confection of digressive whimsy and scholarly intensity of his predecessor.
Actually, “confidently” is a bit strong. He certainly looks confident, but in conversation he is tentative and discreet, maybe a touch anxious. No wonder. He spent 13 years at the Prado, in Madrid, then, at the second attempt, got the NG job, only to arrive in the midst of a horribly damaging strike and a widespread conviction, shared by Penny, that government funding — accounting for 70% of the gallery’s revenues — was due for a sickening drop.
In the event, the strike was settled and government money is to be sustained at current levels for the next four years. Yet the National is still in a tricky position. That 70% state funding compares with 40% at the British Museum. Its exposure to political risk is, therefore, unacceptably high.
Annual visitor numbers, meanwhile, have swollen to 6.5m, way too high for this comparatively small building, with its — by world standards — tiny entrance hall. Look, I say, at the cathedral-sized entrance to the Met, in New York.
“Yes,” he admits, “that’s what the modern museum in a sense requires — a large vestibule, because people mill around and decide what they are going to do there. This gallery is not designed to do that. In a way, what’s wonderful about it is that no sooner are you through the door than, almost in seconds, you are standing in front of a masterpiece.”
There’s a space problem inside, too. It is tiny by international standards; Finaldi reckons the Louvre is five times the size. The 19th-century galleries — Van Gogh, the impressionists — are regularly clogged. “The Poussin galleries are much less visited…” he murmurs pensively. He intends to improve the signage to encourage people to wander more, thereby thinning out the crowds. The long-range solution is to extend the National into St Vincent House, on Orange Street, just behind it.
“That is something we are looking at long-term, because, in the late 1990s, the gallery acquired that building with a view to it being used as part of the gallery. It would sort of complete the block.”
One big issue, for Penny and me at least, is the plaza — the north terrace — created in front of the gallery by closing the road. This is currently home to street artists and a lot of apparently levitating living statues. (Yoda seems a popular choice.) Finaldi appears more relaxed, not least because he often shares his train into work with a Yoda or two.
“I was very much in favour of the pedestrianisation. It’s a prime world site, in a way, and we could do better. We’re talking to Westminster and are hoping to have some involvement. The interesting thing is, it’s still characterised as a highway — the regulations that obtain are actually highway regulations, so that does mean anyone can perform there.”
As we walk round the galleries, one thing is clear: Finaldi genuinely loves this place. He doesn’t so much tell stories, as Penny did, about the works he picks out; rather, he rhapsodises. Peering at the great 14th-century Wilton Diptych, he is plainly entranced. “That theme of the beautifully tooled goldwork carried into the robes of the kings, these beautiful open-winged and then white harts, surrounded by emblems of the Plantagenets in the gold robe of the young Richard II… It’s the whole universe, bringing it all together into this tiny, concentrated image of extraordinary power and beauty.”
He spent a decade here before he went to the Prado, and exudes an air of coming home. He loves it not least because the Prado collection was the gift of a king; the National belongs to the people.
“It’s a significant difference. The Prado is a treasure house of the Spanish monarchy. This is a collection intended from the start to be for the nation. It’s also always been run by directors who have a real interest in art history, and in acquiring choice examples of European art.”
This, curiously, is why it is also “a collection of not very large pictures”. Royal collections tend to consist of paintings made for big palaces; not so a people’s collection. His sense that the NG is unique extends to his enthusiasm — a legacy of the days he spent here when Neil MacGregor was boss — for free entry.
“I think that’s the distinguishing characteristic of the gallery, and it’s what makes it so bound up in national life — the sense of ownership that people feel. I don’t think you find that often, but it’s a tradition here.”
Money looms, however. They would need a large capital programme to get into St Vincent House, and there’s the always tricky problem of chasing the art market for acquisitions.
“It’s become difficult for galleries to acquire important works, because of the rise of the astoundingly rich private collector. We certainly mustn’t lose our hope or ambition. Traditionally, we’ve acquired things that have come up for sale in this country. This country is not only extraordinarily rich in terms of private collections, it’s the centre of the art market, so we are in a strong position. The gallery also nurtures its relationship with individual owners, and we have quite a good number of pictures on loan. We have a tax system that is reasonably generous, but it could be more so.
“Any reduction in grant-in-aid makes you vulnerable, so that’s a ratio we need to look at. We got some good news from the autumn spending review — our grant would remain flat for the next four years. When I arrived, there was a threat of pretty massive cuts.”
The NG has been showing signs of ramping up its fundraising. It has, for example, finally started a “friends” scheme. “The scheme went from zero to about 16,000 in a short space of time. Over 30 years, the Prado succeeded in getting a friends scheme with 30,000 members.”
There’s also a looming turf war with Tate. A deal that expires in 2019 stipulates a cutoff date of 1900 for the NG’s collection; after that, everything is regarded as modern, and therefore Tate territory.
“It’s a kind of fluid divide — we have things that stretch into the 20th century. My concern is that we are able to show a story that has a certain completeness to it. When you look at late Degas and Van Gogh, you are conscious that this is a moment pregnant with possibilities in the 20th century.”
So, is he going to play hardball? After all, it is perfectly logical that the cutoff date should advance with the passage of time. “There will be,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “a certain amount of overlap, and we will be talking to each other.”
Finaldi will necessarily be judged not by visitor numbers — more at this point would make matters worse — but partly aesthetically and mainly by money. The National has to expand and to reduce its dependence on capricious, usually philistine politicians. He neither sparkles like MacGregor nor dazzles like Penny; rather, he exudes quiet passion and respectability.
With luck, this could make him the right man at the right time.