Thursday, February 15, 2007


History rewritten

I was struck in this (see previous post) history of the National Gallery by how the author tended to see the time of director Michael Levey as one of oatmeal hessian and carpets, which then his successor Neil MacGregor replaced with more "traditional" wooden floors and silk-covered walls. Of course it wasn't so clear-cut as that at all between the two regimes. I was there in Michael Levey's time, and spent a considerable portion of my job commissioning silk wall-coverings to replace oatmeal hessian. I remember spending hours - very enjoyably - at the studio of Bridget Riley, who was a Trustee of the gallery, trying to determine the exact shade of dark red for fabric to replace the natural biscuit colour walls of the modern Northern extension. So there was already a movement back towards an older aesthetic in how gallery spaces should look, long before MacGregor arrived. Michael Levey's directorship also saw some really excellent initiatives. The Artist's Eye series, for example, where a major artist - Kitaj, Hockney, for example - selected works from the collection and built them into a thesis that illuminated their own ways of looking and creating, was superb.

I remember the private view of the Hockney show vividly, but mainly for the wrong reasons. One of his guests was a famous British author, also from Yorkshire, who had had his moment of enfance terrible in the sixties. During the course of the evening he got steadily more and more drunk, very benignly and quite loudly, and wandered from guest to guest introducing himself and saying "I'm a writer, y'know". The curator organising the exhibition, Alistair Smith, at length felt that it would be best if the writer (y'know) was put into a cab, and they linked arms and prepared to descend the stairs to the main entrance. There was something of a crowd watching them go, and the writer very carefully put one foot on the top step, and then equally carefully put the other foot on the next. By step four, however, it was apparent that the pace of descent was steadily increasing, and by step eight, the writer and Alistair were hurtling, arms still linked, legs working faster and faster, down the stairs. With an appalled fascination we all watched as, still gathering pace, still embracing, they reached the bottom and slid into a collapsed heap on the marble floor. These things were not normally seen at National Gallery private views, more's the pity.

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