100 years ago: The Duke and his Holbein

by
13 May 2009

May 14th, 1909.

THE DUKE of Norfolk, we should have thought, is the last person who deserves to be blamed for a want of public spirit. He volunteered for the War in South Africa, and as Postmaster-General he proved himself an admirable servant of the State. But, for all this, he is now being assailed in the Press with the utmost violence. His Grace’s offence is this. He is the possessor of a famous picture by Holbein, which he has allowed the nation to enjoy for thirty years as a loan to the National Gallery. For reasons which appear sufficient to himself, he has now sold it to a dealer, and there is a chance of its finally going out of the country, unless it can be purchased for the nation at the price demanded by the dealer. We should regret the loss of a picture of such charm and interest as the Holbein Duchess of Milan, but decency compels us to protest against the preposterous argument that, having lent us the picture for so long, his Grace has ceased to be the owner, and is now nothing more than the trustee for a piece of property that belongs to us. After this, we should think that the owners of great works of art will be shy of lending them to our museums, lest they should one day discover that their ownership was repudiated by the recipients of their kindness. Quaedam, si credis consultis, mancipat usus, the Roman poet said; but we doubt if the lawyers, whose dictum he quoted, ever contemplated such an ap­plication of it as this.

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