A new painting and a new director for the Fitzwilliam
We went to see the Fitzwilliam's great new acquisition on Thursday -- Poussin's Extreme Unction (one of his series of Seven Sacraments). There was a little party to celebrate its arrival.
The painting has been owned by the Duke of Rutland but has now been "saved for the nation" in a tax deal (to set against the profits said Duke made by selling another of the same Poussin series to the Kimbell Museum in the US), and thanks to a hefty contribution (c £3million) from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and another million from other donors. The Fitz has great plans for it (including borrowing some of the rest of the series to display side by side, and giving it a little tour round the country, so it's not only us Cambridge types that get to enjoy it).
It is, as art historians say, pretty damn good. But I found myself uncharacteristically doubtful about whether the traditional title was doing it any favours. It refers (of course... as every reader of this blog I am sure knows) to the anointing of the dying immediately before death, as part of the last rites. But in a world where "extreme" is an adjective that more often goes with "sports", I fear it is close to meaningless for most people. And I don't think that the alternative "final anointing" is much better.
It's not that many of the seven sacraments of the church have a particularly sexy ring to them. But at least it's still common knowledge what "baptism", "marriage" etc are.
Anyway, it's a nice present for the new director, who -- as chance would have it -- was announced on the same day as the welcome party for the Poussin.
It is to be Tim Knox, who is currently Director of the Soane Museum -- to whom I offer the very best wishes for his time here at the Fitz. (He replaces Tim Potts who has left for the Getty.) If by any chance he gets to read this, what I am going to go on t say will seem a bit tactless. But never mind.
The job of Museum Director is one that seems ever so glam from the outside, but is honestly my idea of a job from hell. It's a bit like being head of an Oxbridge College, you just have to be be good at more things than any one person could be good at. And there are too many things that can trip you up. I mean, all is swimming along great, your visitor numbers are up and your latest temporary exhibition is a sellout -- and then some bugger comes and nicks your Leonardo.
I've watched quite a few of these valiant souls in my time, and pondered on what amateurish advice I would give them. For the most part I'm stumped . . . but it does seem that all those who do really well have one thing in common (beyond all their manifold different talents): they are really, really nice to the staff (who in almost all cases are paid less than their talents and qualifications deserve), and they know what it is like on the Gallery Floor.
I dont honestly know if all those stories about Neil MacGregor getting dressed up from time to time in a warder's uniform and doing a stint on guard are literally true -- but true or not, it's a good fable.