Mutual relations among Rembrandt specialists are not always as cordial as they might be. It takes understanding and diplomacy to stay on good terms with everyone in the field. In that I have not been universally successful. One colleague with whom I have always got on well, differences not aside but included, is Christopher Brown. This is more to his credit than to mine. But I admire him for much more than that.
Sometimes you hear something you wish you hadn’t. Something that stays with you and comes unwelcome to mind when you need it the least, that gnaws on your self-esteem when it wants a boost. (That’s how it seems at the time; it turns out to be for your own good, and you know it.) That happened to me some thirty years ago at the Netherlands Institute for Art History (the RKD in The Hague). I was doing the usual sort of research there, looking through the photo files and using the unparalleled library when I spotted my old friend and colleague Christopher Brown, hunched over a green box with folders of photos on mounts with typed and written comments. This was not a rare sight. Christopher was curator of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish painting at the National Gallery in London, and he produced a steady stream of collection and exhibition catalogues on the kinds of paintings of which the RKD had about 600,000 mounts, many of them with unpublished details concerning provenance and attribution. You could not compose a complete entry on a Dutch painting without consulting its files.
And that’s when it happened. As I approached him, Christopher mumbled as if to himself, but loud enough for me to hear – deliberately, I’m sure, with a bit of a whine – “Is this any work for a grown man?”
That is a question I had never asked myself. Quite the opposite, when I came to the Netherlands on a study grant in 1965 I considered my work sessions at the RKD a mark of maturity. In the old study room for Dutch painting I was always in the company of museum curators, senior colleagues, art dealers and well-known collectors. I never doubted the worthwhileness of what I was doing, not until the moment I heard Christopher’s lament. But the remark hit home, and since then there has been no getting around answering it to myself, again and again.
Christopher’s own response to his self-doubts has made history. At the National Gallery he rose to the rank of Chief Curator, putting him in charge of the people who then had to go through the green boxes for him. One of his great achievements there was holding up the National Gallery’s end of one of the biggest Rembrandt exhibitions of the past decades, Rembrandt: the master and his workshop, which in 1991-92 traveled from Berlin to Amsterdam to London. His writings on Anthony van Dyck are the standard in the field.
And then, in a career move not achieved by many curators, he became director of a museum – the oldest museum in Britain, the Ashmolean in Oxford. What he achieved there extended the very definition of what was possible not only in museum management but in grand projects in general. He took charge of a vast reconstruction of the museum that turned it from a repository to which specialists paid obligatory visits into one of the goto attractions of the UK. The museum likes to report that in his tenure, from 1998 to 2014, attendance rose from 200,000 visitors a year to more than a million. In a time when major building and reconstruction projects of all kinds were suffering from elephantine mission creep, cost overruns, and delay after delay, Christopher brought the (amazingly economical) £65,000,000 Ashmolean rebuilding in on time and within budget. The reconstruction doubled the exhibition space in the building, added dozens of new galleries and breathed a spirit of fresh air into the place. If that was not work for a grown man!
Here he is on 3 July 2009 after guiding Loekie and me around the site on a hard-hat tour, looking as commanding as he should in the propaganda poster and as pleased in person as he deserved to be.
While performing these managerial duties at the two museums, Christopher never stopped writing and publishing. The RKD library lists 52 titles under his name, mainly exhibition catalogues but also including books on Bruegel, Rubens, van Dyck, Rembrandt and more general subjects. They are well-written, authoritative yet personal texts that have reached a wider audience than most scholarly writings.
My own self-demanding grown-man activities went as far as working as a publisher for twenty years and as founding director/webmaster of a network organization for museum curators, CODART. (See Christopher’s fine talk on connoisseurship at CODART 19 in Madrid, 2016.) But mainly, when his words ring in my ears as I flip through RKD files, now more at rkd.nl than in The Hague, I use them, gratefully, to jack myself up to what I hope is a level of achievement worthy of a grown man, even if it may not look that way to everyone.
In retirement, Christopher has now taken on another grown man’s task, one that he did not ask for, as no one ever would. His wife Sally was struck with Alzheimer’s disease some ten years ago and has gradually lost contact with the world. In a struggle that cannot be won, Christopher has shown fortitude and dedication as impressive and inspiring as all that has come before, and even more admirable.
© 2018 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 31 March 2018.
The opening of the exhibition in Museum MORE about which I wrote in Schwartzlist 361 has had a lovely sequel. One of the four artists in the show is Henk Helmantel. While preparing my opening talk, I discovered that one of his signature motifs is a bread of the kind that I bake once or twice a week at home. To enliven the opening, I showed a slide of his paintings with my bread,
and then presented him with two loaves freshly baked for him. To my delight, when he took them home he painted them, and had a photo of the splendid results mailed to me.
Henk Helmantel, Two loaves of bread baked by Gary Schwartz, garlic bulbs, porcelain vessels and dishtowels on a table. 2018. Collection of the artist
In the week from 6 to 13 March Loekie and I scurried around to London, Maastricht, Amstenrade, Louvain and Bruges for a succession of museum and personal visits, the TEFAF, CODART 21 and the annual meeting of Friends of Aphrodisias. Little time for more details.
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