Stories of unlikely characters and events, including the Pope handling a stolen painting, Henry Meyric Hughes to explore lesser-known art collections.
It is tempting to begin this review of "great smaller museums" with a brief questionnaire on the whereabouts of some of the world's most famous masterpieces. Where can we see the following?: Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (answer: Musée Condé, Chantilly), Paulo Uccello's St George and the Dragon (Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris), Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine (Princes Czartoryski Museum, Cracow), Vermeer's currently celebrated Girl with a Pearl Earring (Mauritshuis, The Hague), Velasquez's Portrait of Innocent X (Galleria Doria Pamphili, Rome), Monet's Impression: Sunrise (Musée Marmotton, Paris) and Seurat's Le Chahut (Kroller-Muller Museum, Otterlo).
However, the purpose of this publication is more serious and more entertaining than this approach would suggest and comprises a judicious mixture of information, comment, speculation and quotation. This builds up a many-layered picture of the history and the place of collecting in European society, from the Renaissance onwards. As the author, James Stourton, himself admits, it might have been better to have referred to "small museums in large places and large museums in small places". Anyhow, he manages very well to stimulate interest in a broad selection of first-class museums in the second league - all of them of exceptional quality, all of them off the beaten track and all of them of a size that can be encompassed in a single visit.
It is necessary, however, to qualify his success in three important respects: all the museums are art museums, though several also contain important examples of the decorative arts; the focus is clearly on the main narrative of Western European painting and sculpture; and "Europe", in this context, means Western Europe, with the addition of a single museum in Poland. In other words, we are led down well-trodden paths, even when we have the illusion of leaving the beaten track. In this respect - as in his traditional approach - the author acts as a dependable, though cautious, guide, and it would be possible to read this publication from cover to cover, almost as if it were a single narrative.
As Charles Saumarez-Smith points out in his preface from his new vantage point as director of the National Gallery, the author makes no attempt to evaluate the great collections in Paris, Munich or Vienna. Instead, he takes us down the side streets, to the Gustave Moreau Museum - "the best-preserved artist's studio in Paris" - to the Italianate Lenbachhaus in Munich, built for his own use by the famous "painter prince" of the new German Reich, or the Art Academy in Vienna, which houses the "greatest collection of paintings in Austria after the Kunsthistorisches Museum".
Stourton, who is the deputy chairman of Sotheby's Europe, is a connoisseur with an eye for detail and a taste for anecdote. His description usually begins with a pithy sketch to excite the initial curiosity of the reader.
Here is his description of one of our own best-loved galleries: "The Dulwich Picture Gallery in its nucleus was intended to form a Polish national gallery in Warsaw. That it became the first public gallery in England and ended up in a leafy suburb of south London was due to a series of unlikely events and even less likely characters. What they created was one of the finest collections of European Baroque paintings, housed in a building that by general consent is one of the most perfect and influential small museums in existence."
This, in a nutshell, encapsulates the range of the author's interests and intentions, and while the reader may go hungry for detailed art historical analysis, he or she will invariably be drawn into an absorbing narrative relating to a collection and its history, the building in which it is housed, the founder's or patron's personal predilections, a choice of highlights - mostly illustrated, in colour - and the occasional potted biography or literary quotation.
The author himself classifies the 35 museums he has selected into six categories, of which the principal one is reserved for those of royal or aristocratic origin. This includes the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, in Kassel, which took over from the bombed-out Fridericianum (1779) after the last world war and the Schlossmuseum Weimar, which was founded at Goethe's suggestion in the former palace of the Grand Duke.
Other categories include the collections that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries out of links with art schools and universities (including the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which has a rival claim to being the oldest public museum, anywhere); the 19th-century museums, such as the Poldi Pezzoli, in Milan, and the Bowes Museum, in County Durham, which grew out of patrician or bourgeois collections; the artists' museums, ranging from Canova's house in Possagno and the celebrated Musee Fabre in Montpellier to the rather ghastly Dal! Museum, in Figueras; and 20th-century foundations, such as Emil Buhrle's, in Zurich, whose treasures were recently displayed at the Royal Academy and the Beyeler Foundation near Basel, with its paintings by modern masters, in a spectacularly successful setting designed by Renzo Piano.
The category most thinly represented - and, perhaps, unjustly neglected - is that of the numerous museums that owe their existence to the state and civic patronage (though Colmar's Musée d'Unterlinden, housing Mathias Grünewald's Isenheim Altar , is an exception), since the author claims an aversion to "their predictability and frozen grandeur".
History permeates these pages, as it does the fate of great collections such as the Mauritshuis in The Hague, which contains "the greatest concentration of Dutch 17th-century painting outside the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam". Here, Stourton recounts the confiscation of scores of paintings from the royal collections by the French, their recovery by Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo and the eventual rehousing of the collection in the house that Johan Maurits, Count of Nassau-Siegen, built in the 1640s, described here as "for 50 years probably the most influential domestic building in Europe".
Collectors are presented as the single-minded and sometimes fanatical eccentrics that we always imagine. Some of them would stoop to almost any means to achieve their end, as in the case of Scipione Borghese, who arranged for Raphael's Deposition of 1506 (now in the gallery in Rome that bears his family's name) to be stolen from the Baglione Chapel in Perugia, sent to the Pope and delivered safely into his hands by the latter. (As Stourton wryly remarks, the inevitable row nearly caused Perugia to leave the Papal States.) On a gentler note, the ravishingly beautiful Lousiana Museum at Humlebaek, on the shores of the narrow sound separating Denmark from Sweden, is a monument to the tastes of its entrepreneur founder, Knud Jensen, who returned from a visit to Documenta in Kassel (1959), inspired by a vision of the "essential co-existence of art and nature". In similar fashion, Hélène Kröller-Müller chose a woodland setting near Otterlo, in the Netherlands, for her fabulous collection of work by Van Gogh and his contemporaries and commissioned Henry van der Velde to design a suitable container for it. Her postwar successors - professional art historians - extended the initiative to incorporate it into what became the first and still, arguably, the most successful permanent sculpture garden in Europe.
Anyone interested in the convolutions of European history would be advised to delve into the chapter on the Princes Czartoryski Museum, in Cracow, with its great painting by Leonardo, whose survival is a miracle. The collection, which was founded by a woman as a tribute to Polish national aspirations, got caught up with the Polish insurrection of 1830, the Franco-Prussian War, the First World War, when it was sent into custody with the Saxon royal family, and the Second World War, when its masterpieces were commandeered for Hitler's planned museum in Linz, and finally with the Communist regime, until the family won it back, after a court ruling in 1991.
The narrative and pacing of these whirlwind visits to medium-sized European museums can scarcely be faulted, though in one instance I find it strange that the author chooses to omit any mention of the role of Sir Leslie Martin in designing the Gulbenkian Foundation's museum in Lisbon, or of the fact that it houses the most outstanding collection of postwar British art on mainland Europe.
If I were given the chance of one extra inclusion in this catalogue of desirable destinations, I would opt for the outstanding collection of 20th-century art at the Muzeum Sztuki, in Lodz, which was founded by Wladislaw Strzeminski and his international circle of artist friends in the late 1920s/early 1930s and has retained its contemporary flavour ever since, down to Joseph Beuys' seminal action-donation of a large group of his work, The Polish Transport (1981), and beyond. And encouraging us all to explore some of the lesser-known collections of European art is what this handsomely illustrated book is all about.
Henry Meyric Hughes is a curator of international art exhibitions and is president, International Association of Art Critics.
Great Smaller Museums of Europe
Author - James Stourton
Publisher - Scala
Pages - 2
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 1 85759 284 0