The Legatum Institute hosted Philip Mould OBE, leading British art dealer and art historian, for a closed discussion on how wealthy patrons have influenced, shaped and inspired great paintings over the centuries.
The existence of visual arts depends on patrons who are prepared to commission. Their motives have varied widely. For centuries, monarchs and princes, governments and civic authorities have commissioned canvases that memorialise significant public events such as major battles, state funerals and royal weddings, and the paintings commissioned by the Christian Church dominate the history of European art.
In the case of portraiture, the relationship between the painter and the patron, who may very often be the sitter, is particularly personal. Wealth and power instruct the painter to do his work. But the artists who are most sought after, and whose fees are therefore the highest, have an individual vision.
Portraiture is the art that documents this often delicate relationship between two kinds of power—that of the influential patron who draws up the contract and that of the painter whose brushes can capture a personality for posterity.
Philip Mould’s expertise as an art dealer and historian of portraiture means he brings a unique insight to this topic. This closed lunchtime discussion on ‘Portraiture and the Patron’, organised as part of the Culture of Prosperity programme, was laced with the ready wit familiar to viewers of his BBC TV series Fake or Fortune.
In dialogue with Legatum Institute Senior Adviser, Hywel Williams, who also moderated the ensuing discussion, he discussed three paintings that cast light on a central question: is portraiture bound to be an exercise in egoism?
Samuel Cooper’s miniature oil of Oliver Cromwell (1653) offers an unvarnished view of England’s Lord Protector but, although not beautiful, it is also self-consciously honest. Cooper elevates Cromwell’s moral purpose as a national and republican leader and distances him from courtly flattery.
John Singer Sargent is the assiduous painter of late Victorian and Edwardian opulence and his 1899 portrayal of the Wyndham Sisters, though a miracle of shimmering brushwork is meant to flatter the sitters.
Winston Churchill’s wife disliked Graham Sutherland’s portrait (1954) of the war-time leader so much that she, in all probability, destroyed it. But surviving copies of this revealing portrait demonstrate Sutherland’s artistic greatness. His brush captured the decaying flesh and physical decomposition of the 80 year old premier whose series of strokes were a closely guarded secret. Churchill loathed the portrait because it revealed his incapacity for high office. Sutherland’s study of Churchill shows that portraiture, when it attains greatness, does so because it dismantles the ego and reveals the truth about character - however great the inconvenience.