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Visual arts: ‘Titian: Love, Desire and Death’ at the National Gallery

17 July 2020

Nicholas Cranfield sees the Titian exhibition at the National Gallery

© Photographic Archive Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Venus and Adonis (c.1553-540) by Titian, on loan from the Prado, Madrid

Venus and Adonis (c.1553-540) by Titian, on loan from the Prado, Madrid

THE 3rd Earl Brownlow (1844-1921) was a Trustee of the National Gallery from 1897. In November 1914, he offered to sell to the gallery a Van Dyck, Portrait of a Woman and Child (NG 3011) for £10,000, and Titian’s Death of Actaeon (NG 6420) at half the price.

Members of the board worried that it might send out the wrong message at a time of National Emergency. One of them, Alfred de Rothschild, spoke to the Prime Minister, Asquith, who said, with chilling understatement, that it was not quite the “right moment”; the chairman of the Trustees, however, spoke to the Leader of the Opposition in the Lords, the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, a former Governor General of Canada and Viceroy of India, who said that he would raise no objection.

Rothschild, a difficult man by all accounts, but the owner of a large collection of paintings on which the gallery had its eye, claimed that the Van Dyck was “indifferent” and that on a good day the Titian “would not fetch £5 at Christie’s”. No prizes, then, for guessing the board’s decision. After the war, the Titian sold to the King’s brother-in-law, Viscount Lascelles, for £60,000 (July 1919).

The painting was loaned from Harewood House to the National Gallery in the 1960s and was sold from the estate at auction in June 1971. It was bought for 1.6 million guineas by a New York dealer, Julius Weitzner (d.1986), who sold it on a couple of days later to the J. Paul Getty Museum, in California, for £1,763,000.

The British Government blocked the export, and the National Gallery announced that it would seek to put one million pounds towards it and would draw down on future annual government grants to cover the cost. This persuaded the Heath administration to offer to match, pound for pound, donations made to a public fund; and, in December 1971, the gallery announced the first of what now has become routine, an appeal to fund half of the remaining £463,000.

Gallery visitors numbering 355,689 came to see the picture during the public appeal, and schoolboys lined up with their postal orders for ten shillings. I know. One would hope that the Trustees might have learned from this earlier error of judgement.

Loaned works still hang on the walls, but only the small print records the status of each painting. From time to time, they are taken down and sold off; in December 2019, the National Gallery had to find £22 million for Orazio Gentileschi’s The Finding of Moses.

The gallery had failed to purchase it in 1995 when it was bought by Graham Kirkham, who has now added to the fortune that he made from his sofa chain DFS, selling it to the gallery where it had been seen for nearly 20 years, so long that even the Director, Dr Gabriele Finaldi, admitted that many assumed that it was part of the permanent collection.© the national gallery, londonThe Death of Actaeon (c.1559-75) by Titian

More unhappily, the Trustees could not afford to buy the 1901 Picasso Child with a Dove that the family of Lady Aberconway had loaned to the gallery from 1974 to 2012. It was sold off through Christie’s allegedly for £50 million to the Qatar Museums Authority.

The Death of Actaeon here is shown as the coda to this present exhibition alongside the ambitious series of six large-scale mythological paintings that Titian painted for the Habsburg prince Philip of Spain which were inspired predominantly by the Roman poet Ovid’s epic poem Metamorphoses. Each has been newly framed identically.

Titian called these works “Poesie”, as he considered them visual equivalents of poetry. To have all the Poesie displayed around one room is an exciting opportunity to see what artists have always revered in the emotionally charged and at times erotic paintings. The hang would have been greatly improved if the two Diana paintings could have been viewed at an angle to one another as the scale of the foreground figures clearly shows was the intention.

Although the paintings were conceived in pairs, the correspondence between artist and patron suggests that there was no overall plan for them to be hung together as a suite of pictures. Throughout the 16th century, courts remained peripatetic, and Titian (and even his patron) could not have known where each painting would hang.

The Danaë (seen here in the Duke of Wellington’s version from Apsley House, regarded as the prime version since 2014; the old maidservant is an unconvincing part of the painting, whose provenance is particularly vexed) was the first in the series delivered to Philip in the summer of 1553. Its pair, Venus and Adonis (The Prado), was sent to London in September 1554, where Philip had, by his marriage to Mary Tudor, become the new King of England and Ireland earlier in July, a joint title recognised by Paul IV’s papal bull.

By September 1556, when Titian had finished the Perseus and Andromeda (seen outside the walls of Hertford House in Manchester Square for the first time since 1852, after the startling decision of the Wallace Collection to allow loans), the new King of Spain was in Ghent when it reached him. The Rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts) was painted between 1559 and 1562, and was shipped from Genoa to Madrid at Easter that year.

© Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, BostonThe Rape of Europa (1559-62) by Titian, on loan from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MassachusettsThe remaining pair, Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto (1556-59) were both purchased by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland in 2012 after a long-term loan from 1945 to the Edinburgh gallery from the Earl of Ellesmere and Duke of Sutherland. I worry about the trade-off in any future declaration of Scottish independence.

In Diana and Actaeon, Actaeon disturbs Diana and her nymphs at their secret bathing-place. Ovid relates how the goddess splashes water on Actaeon’s face and dares him to tell the world what he has seen. The Death of Actaeon provided the sequel: Actaeon flees and, stopping to drink at a stream, discovers from his reflection that Diana has turned him into a stag.

Titian shows Actaeon in the process of transformation, or metamorphosis: his body is still human, but he has a stag’s head. Actaeon finds that he cannot speak and, at Diana’s order, is torn to death by his own hounds. The subject is rare in Italian art, and Titian may never have seen another painting of it.

This is probably the picture that Titian referred to in a letter of June 1559 to the recently widowed Philip I (Queen Mary had died on 17 November 1558), in which he says that he hopes to finish two paintings, one of which is described as “Actaeon mauled by his hounds”. The artist had started it when he was in his seventies, was still working on it in his mid-eighties, and it is possible that it was in his studio at the time of his death in 1576. It was never sent to Spain.

What amazed contemporaries and continues to beguile is how Titian could paint in such a way that, seen up close, details disappear in a shock of colour, but transformation comes when the viewer stands back from the work. The explosion of yellow paint in the foreground, to describe the bush next to the dying Actaeon, is typical. Similarly, Dr Matthias Wivel, the curator, points to the Monet-like treatment of the ocean behind the luckless Europa and the azure skies. His is an exemplary catalogue.


“Titian: Love, Desire and Death” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 17 January 2021. Entry to the gallery since reopening is by advance booking only. Phone 020 7747 2885. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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