The National Gallery’s Veronese spectacle, opening this month, will include a host of borrowed works from abroad. But what did it take to get them to London?
It is hard enough arranging shipment to the UK of the marble statuette which, while you were on holiday, looked so wonderful in its Italian showroom. But as the storerooms in the National Gallery’s basement fill with crates containing Paolo Veronese’s 450 year old canvases, arriving from Spain, France, Italy, Austria and the USA, you could be forgiven for wondering how on earth they got to Trafalgar Square. Except that one rarely does spend much time thinking about the logistics behind a major exhibition. And rightly so, for curators have not gone to all that trouble (and it is a lot of trouble) for us to spend our time inside the show focusing on negotiations, shipping, security and insurance. The eve of the National Gallery’s Veronese extravaganza, however, when one hopes that the scene inside the gallery is one of cool efficiency and careful stage-management, seems like a good time to consider what goes on backstage.
Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice (19 March – 15 June 2014) will include the artist’s altarpiece The Martyrdom of Saint George (about 1565), which has been taken down from the church of San Giorgio in Braida in the artist’s hometown of Verona, and has, we hope, now arrived safely in the West End. Negotiations for the exhibition went on for five years, a not unreasonable period when one considers the number of major loans involved, with paintings being borrowed from the Louvre, the Prado, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Met, Venice’s Accademia, the Palazzo Pitti in Florence and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Virginia. You can sympathise with any reluctance the Italians may have had when relinquishing The Martyrdom of Saint George, which last left Italy in the hands of one Napoleon Bonaparte. Today, under the guardianship of the National Gallery’s Director Nicolas Penny, it seems unlikely that the painting will come to much harm, and big-name loans for temporary exhibitions are commonplace, with, for example, Henri Matisse’s Large Composition with Masks (1953), which usually resides in The National Gallery of Art in Washington, scheduled to land next month in time for Tate Modern’s Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, and Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride (c.1665 – 1669) coming to the National Gallery from the Rikjksmuseum in Amsteram later this year.
That said, bringing about these temporary loans is hardly risk-free. The works concerned are frequently old (Veronese has been gone for a while) or fragile (April’s Matisse show was nearly vetoed because of the dangers involved in transporting the paper pieces), and transporting such pictures involves exposing them, according to some experts, to unnecessary hazards. There was strong opposition from within Poland before Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine made it to Trafalgar Square for 2011’s Leonardo blockbuster, with conservators arguing that transporting the delicate picture posed a “serious, even reprehensible threat” to its safety. And accidents do happen, even when the distance to be travelled is considerably less than the 1033 miles between Kraków and London. In 2008, while dismantling an exhibition on Renaissance Siena, handlers at the National Gallery dropped a sixteenth century wood panel by Domenico Beccafumi, breaking it in half. The piece has now been repaired and restored, which is more than can be said for the Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822) plaster maquette, which crashed to the ground while being detached from a wall in Perugia’s Museo Dell’Accademia before a temporary exhibition in Assisi – although fortunately this was one of 12 reproductions made by the artist. And who can forget the unfortunate incident of the staircase, the tourist and the Quing vase at the Fitzwilliam museum in 2002?
But for the most part, artworks return from their sojourns unscathed, and while in transit, conditions are luxurious: Cecilia Gallerani (Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine), after all, would not be seen dead on Ryanair. Paintings are packaged, wrapped in silk or Japanese paper, in specially crafted crates which maintain a constant micro-climate, while protecting the contents from shock, vibrations and pressure change. Under escort and in secret, pictures are then transported across the world, by air or by train. And although this secrecy is primarily to foil potential art-thieves, when a beautiful gilt frame was taken out of the city of Seville last year in order to make a guest appearance at Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Murillo & Justino de Neve: The Art of Friendship, it was done so at two in the morning so as to avoid the risk of “resistencia” from those Sevillian citizens who objected to its departure. At the other end, pictures forming part of a major exhibition such as this month’s Veronese, will arrive at the gallery in staggered slots to ensure unpacking can take place in controlled and carefully monitored conditions. And as should be the case for any first class traveller, having been unpacked, the pictures are given a period to settle in to their new surroundings.
It is likely that somewhere inside the National Gallery there is a big door and a heavy-duty lift. Not so for every institution welcoming foreign guests into its exhibitions and, on occasion, structural alterations are made to a gallery in order to accommodate visiting pieces. So, just as Claridges reportedly installed a Jacuzzi into a bathroom in time for one demanding tourist’s arrival, Dulwich Picture Gallery remodelled its entrance to fit a five metre Murillo lunette into the building for last year’s show. This kind of planning, however, does not always happen: when the British Museum lent its Nimrod Palace alabaster reliefs to Shanghai for an exhibition in 2006, it was only after the pieces arrived that museum staff realised the crates would not fit through the doors and were too heavy for the lifts. Neil MacGregor is doubtless still haunted by the image of the 3000 year old panels being rolled through a front entrance and hoisted to their destination by means of a mobile crane.
The Lady with an Ermine was undamaged following her trip to London; but had she or any of the other eight paintings brought in for the show met with some kind of accident, the figures involved are staggering. In the run up to the exhibition, newspapers picked up on the National Gallery’s elevated indemnity figure, which was reported to have risen from £1.7 billion to £3.3 billion in order to accommodate its illustrious guests. Arranging travel insurance for artworks – so-called “nail to nail” cover which includes transit, storage, setting up, display and dismantling – would be big business for the insurance companies. Except that the museums and galleries could not hope to pay the necessary premiums: for 2010’s Royal Academy exhibition, The Real Van Gogh, which included paintings with a value of around £2 billion, a commercial insurance premium would have been £6 million. Spread across the 411,000 visitors to the exhibition, this works out at £15 a head, pushing the entrance fee up to £27. And so to ensure that institutions can borrow works for their temporary shows, the government has a scheme, the Government Indemnity Scheme (GIS), which exists to allow “the public access to objects within the UK which might not otherwise be available, by providing borrowers with an alternative to the considerable cost of commercial insurance”. In the financial year 2010/11 (which admittedly included the Leonardo blockbuster), under the scheme, museums and galleries borrowed art worth £8.6 billion, a figure which would have incurred commercial premiums of around £20 million.
GIS, however, has its critics, and it is worth remembering that there is no special contingency fund attached to the scheme, and if a hefty claim were made, it is likely that the amounts payable would be deducted from overall allocations to the arts sector. And as one opponent points out, the scheme is dependent not just on the impeccable behaviour of the galleries involved, but also on reasonable valuations for the works themselves.
The Veronese spectacle opens later this month, and will be the first exhibition in the UK devoted to the artist. It is also among the first exhibitions this year to include a collection of major loans from abroad. If you manage to visit the show (and there will be a review on this site), enjoy what is set to be a dazzling experience, but don’t spend too much time thinking about what went on behind the scenes – it’s not what the curators would have wanted.