Cleaning and Attribution Controversies
One of the most persistent criticisms of the National Gallery, apart from the perceived inadequacies of the building, has been of its conservation policy. The Gallery's detractors accuse it of having an over-zealous approach to restoration. The first cleaning operation at the National Gallery began in 1844 after Eastlake's appointment as Keeper, and was the subject of attacks in the press after the first three paintings to receive the treatment – a Rubens, a Cuyp and a Velázquez – were unveiled to the public in 1846. The Gallery's most virulent critic was J. Morris Moore, who wrote a series of letters to The Times under the pseudonym "Verax" savaging the institution's recent cleanings. While an 1853 Parliamentary Select Committee set up to investigate the matter cleared the Gallery of any wrongdoing, criticism of its methods has been erupting sporadically ever since from some in the art establishment.
The last major outcry against the use of radical conservation techniques at the National Gallery was sixty-six years ago in the immediate post-war years, following a restoration campaign by Chief Restorer Helmut Ruhemann while the paintings were in Manod Quarry. When the cleaned pictures were exhibited to the public in 1946 there followed a furore with parallels to that of a century earlier. The principal criticism was that the extensive removal of varnish, which was used in the 19th century to protect the surface of paintings but which darkened and discoloured them with time, may have resulted in the loss of "harmonising" glazes added to the paintings by the artists themselves. The opposition to Ruhemann's techniques was led by Ernst Gombrich, a professor at the Warburg Institute who in later correspondence with a restorer described being treated with "offensive superciliousness" by the National Gallery. A 1947 commission concluded that no damage had been done in the recent cleanings.
The National Gallery has also been criticised for misattributing paintings. Kenneth Clark's decision in 1939 to relabel a group of paintings by anonymous artists of the Venetian school as works by Giorgione (a crowd-pulling artist due to the rarity of his paintings) made him unpopular with his staff. More recently, the attribution of a 17th-century painting of Samson and Delilah (bought in 1980) to Rubens has been contested by a group of art historians, who believe that the National Gallery has not admitted the mistake to avoid embarrassing those who were involved in the purchase, many of whom still work for the Gallery.
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