Italians in the cupboard...

October 28, 2005

...and other treasures that have inspired Charles Saumarez Smith

I am a child of the university art gallery. Brought up outside Oxford, my most intense early experiences of art were of the early Italian paintings upstairs at the Ashmolean Museum, including Paulo Uccello's Hunt in the Forest and Piero di Cosimo's The Forest Fire . On Sunday afternoons, we visited the newly opened Christ Church Picture Gallery, where the great collection assembled by General Guise was arranged in well-lit rooms behind the Peckwater Quadrangle. Its highlight is still Annibale Carracci's painting The Butcher's Shop .

Later, as a student at Cambridge University, I frequented the Fitzwilliam Museum with its astonishingly rich collections, then in the process of being rearranged by Michael Jaffe to replicate the style of a country house. I remember attending a class conducted by Duncan Robinson, its current director, when he produced a 14th-century Italian painting out of the cupboard in his office.

Not only the ancient universities have strong art collections. Royal Holloway, University of London, has an amazing collection of British paintings that includes William Powell Frith's The Railway Station . I am very fond of the Whitworth Art Gallery, which has an exceptionally strong collection of watercolours and modern works by Lucian Freud, Peter Blake and Gilbert and George.

And one should not forget the Hunterian Art Gallery, which includes the reconstruction of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's house as well as extraordinarily important collections of work by Whistler.

Among the newer institutions, the best is at the University of East Anglia, which had the good fortune of being given the wonderfully eclectic Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, housed in a landmark building designed by Sir Norman Foster. The Sainsbury Centre has always struck me as a good model of what a university art gallery can be, with an energetic programme of exhibitions, a diverse collection and a commitment to teaching.

I regard university galleries as having special responsibilities towards making works of art available for study and to use them in undergraduate tuition. It worries me that doubts are increasingly being expressed about their future funding.

In the past, the association between universities and their galleries has been regarded as relatively unproblematic. It was expected that universities should be places to study works of art as well as texts. They have probably been regarded as an inherited responsibility, bequeathed by previous generations of scholars and graduates and recognised as part of the fabric of the institution. Of course, there have been rumblings of disaffection with the sale of paintings by Royal Holloway and a proposed sale by Edinburgh University.

It seems that there is now potential for a double squeeze on the way university museums operate. There are anxieties over the proposal to switch funding to the Higher Education Funding Council for England in 2009 without it necessarily being ring-fenced. And there is the sound of knives being sharpened in university finance departments, already contemplating the axing of whole disciplines.

Many university museums are making strenuous efforts to smarten up their acts and to make themselves into public representatives of scholarship within local communities. I recently visited St Andrews University, where the new Gateway Gallery conveys a flavour of the collections throughout the university. It acts as an advertisement for the history of the institution.

Meanwhile, the Fitzwilliam Museum has opened a grand development that transforms its relationship with its public, providing contemporary galleries alongside the original Greek Revival building. And University College London has a proposal to unite its various historic collections, including the Petrie Museum, into an integrated building called the Panopticon.

It would be ironic if just when university galleries are so intent on demonstrating their public value, the axe came down on funding.

Charles Saumarez Smith is director of the National Gallery and president of the Museums Association.

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